Skeptics with a K: Episode #327


Emma returns to talk about the planned changes to the parole system, while Mike ponders what was the first ever science fiction story. Meanwhile, Alice and Marsh talk about their adventures in South Wales and Mike cuts a cake with a sword.

Mixed and edited by Morgan Clarke.

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  1. #1 by lower case t on April 29, 2022 - 13:14

    Hi, this is my first comment here, love your podcast. I really enjoyed your thoughts on science fiction but found you had a very different take on it than me.

    First, I strongly disagree with your distinction between magic and science. Both in Oedipus/the Babylonian Talmud story on the one side and Terminator/Back to the future/Interstellar etc. on the other side we have some mysterious mechanism that does what the writer needs it to do and we just have to accept that it works. Calling it “science” within the story doesn’t make it scientific, it’s just lazy rhetoric to make the magic plausible – the same rhetoric that frauds use to elevate creation science, faith healing science, science of theology, science of homeopathy and so on to the level of real science. Why would you call prophecy “lazy writing” but not this sciency-magic BS?
    Bringing back a dead body to life with electricity or luring yourself into a spacetime journey using relativity or teleporting/timetravelling using fancy devices is not the tiniest bit more within the bounds of physical reality than prophecy or other miracles. It’s just closer to our current superstitions than to those of readers 2000 years ago.
    I like Marsh’s idea to make the attempt to explain how everything works a criterion, but, let’s be honest, that doesn’t leave us with much that we can call science fiction: Certainly the Martian, 2001 (except the psychedelic last part, of course), and… I guess that’s it.
    Personally I tend to accept a few magic premises as long as the story remains consistent in itself. But I get upset by the abundance of blatant plot holes and inconsistencies in modern literature and movies, and I refuse to call something “science” fiction when it becomes obvious that the writers don’t give a shit if their product is at least logically consistent. So I could accept 12 Monkeys as SF, but definitely not Star Wars, Star Trek, Terminator, Dune or Interstellar. These paragons of visually exciting but otherwise insultingly lazy and boring storytelling are somehow futury but that’s it. Spaceships, teleporting- and communication devices, as portrayed in these flicks, are no more than modern golem robots or flying iron chariots. This is of course so far from the common understanding of the term science fiction that it’s not a usable criterion either.
    I’m afraid we just have to accept that science and science fiction have nothing at all to do with each other. It’s just that “science fiction” sounds better than “future fantasy” and that SF writers often borrow fancy words from science, unfortunately most of the times without even looking up what they mean.

    There is one example, though, that is SF by all means, and you did not even mention it: around 1609, Johannes Kepler described a journey to the moon in his amazing narration “Somnium”. While he got there using magic (unfortunately he was careless enough to write he used herbs he got from his mother, which led to her arrest, torture, and early death), his description of the moon is fascinatingly accurate. Of course, he got many things wrong. For example, he simply assumed the moon had an atmosphere, and then predicted there must be heavy storms all the time because the duration of a moon day leads to a huge difference in temperature between the lit and the dark side. But it is a valid conclusion, just with one wrong assumption.

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