An Important Disclaimer
Right now transgender issues are, if you'll excuse the pun, coming out of the closet. We’re living through an unprecedented cultural shift in the Western world as the T of LGBT is given more coverage in the media since ever. It’s an important discussion. Two things I need to clear up though.
First, as always, I ask you to keep an open mind. By all means disagree, challenge and question what I say. But if you’ve already made your mind up about transgender issues and nothing could alter your view, there’s no reason for you to read this.
Second, I need to clarify why I don’t consider this an “inappropriate” topic to post about. I am well aware that a lot of young people read my blogs and I have a responsibility to make sure my writing is family-friendly. That’s why my blogs are free of things like swearing. The topic of transgender Science however, is Biology and as part of Biology we have to discuss differences between men and women.
Young people today are growing up in a different world to the one their parents grew up in. Transgender issues are not in the shadows anymore; children hear the words, see the coverage and they have questions. It’s not my job to persuade people what to think but it is my job to present people with facts and let them make their minds up about the implications. As I’ve said before, young people are quite capable of disagreeing with something they read on the internet.
Let’s also point out something important: some young people reading this may be transgender. The last thing you want to do is refuse to let anyone talk about it because it’s “not polite”. It's a complicated topic sure, but it's one that does need to be discussed as part of modern Science. Which is why, as a Science writer, I'm doing so.
Transgender isn’t a dirty word and it shouldn’t be something we’re afraid to talk about. It's a Biology word and we can discuss it in that context. However it is still considered a controversial subject by many so I should probably make this clear as well:
What I post here does not necessarily represent OR disagree with the views of any institution I am associated with. I am writing from my own curiosity and a desire to explore Biological complexity.
So, with that in mind...
Walking the Line
I got the idea to write this article several months ago when I came across the website of Michael Brown (stream.org). Some of his blogs have titles like “Why LGBT’s war on gender must be resisted” and “it’s time to stand up to transgender activism”. It’s tempting to switch off when you read his words, but there is a theme to his writing. A theme I happen to agree with: wanting to be something doesn’t make you that thing.
He actually seems fine with people being transgender because he considers it “real”. He talks about “the rare few” who suffer from being born in the wrong body but thinks the trans community is pushing things too far by introducing a lot of complicated sex and gender terms. Things like genderqueer, genderfluid, cisgender, bigender, third gender etc. etc. This, he argues, is “cultural insanity”.
After all, if a five foot person “identifies” as being six feet tall, this doesn’t make them taller. Brown is correct that we need to accept reality and can’t change what’s true by wanting it. Sure, you have a right to believe whatever you want but as a member of the human race you also have a responsibility (just as important) to believe what is true only.
As I’ve said before and will undoubtedly say again: reality isn’t a choice. If it’s sunny you don’t get to believe it’s raining. Reality forces you to a conclusion whether you like it or not. It’s harsh but it’s the Scientific method and it’s the best thing we’ve got.
Opinions and gut feelings should never be the guiding light on deciding what’s true. So, let’s take Michael Brown at his word and decide that yes ok, a line should be drawn and that line ought to be reality. If a person claims to be an aeroplane that doesn’t make them an aeroplane.
This doesn’t make us intolerant by the way. Being tolerant is not the same as agreeing to everything. Ultimately 2 + 2 = 4 and while a person is allowed to say 2 + 2 = 5 there is no reason you have to accept it.
Facts are facts and they can only be challenged with evidence, not opinion.
You could argue that if a person wants to identify as a different sex then this is basically fine and why should it even be important? We have to be honest though, transgender rights are complicated and raise some difficult questions which Science cannot answer. What Science can do, however, is help people make informed decisions by trying to establish what the facts are. The last thing we should do is make snap judgements.
Michael Brown’s “where do we draw the line?” question does need to be discussed. So, let’s do it. How many of these gender and sex identities are “real” phenomena and how many are just people wanting to be something else?
The Wisdom of Children
When I was a child here’s basically what I thought I knew: there are girls and there are boys which is 99.99999% of the population. Then, there was a tiny, microscopic, insanely rare number of people who thought they were born in the wrong body.
These people often wanted to get operations to change their bodies but a lot of them lived to regret it. There was even some debate as to whether it was a real condition or whether they were making it up.
Most of these “transsexuals” (as they were called) were mentally ill and this desire to switch gender was a side-effect of their mental illness. But it didn’t really matter because “transsexuals” were so rare I wasn’t likely to ever meet one.
It’s possibly the school I went to, but transgender issues weren’t talked about and on the occasions they did get mentioned they were treated as a taboo playground joke: “your mum’s a tranny lol”.
This is what I was led to believe so I understand, I really do, that it can be a shock or surprise when you come across the rainbow of genders and sexes the trans community talks about. It’s a normal human reaction to go “nope” when presented with something that challenges a deeply held belief, especially one we learn in childhood.
The idea of “boys and girls” is one of the first, most fundamental things we learn. If someone told me there’s a whole new bunch of colours for instance, I’d balk at the suggestion.
But, to be a Scientist means keeping an open mind to the possibility that our childhood convictions (even things which seem obvious) may have been over-simplified or downright wrong.
For example, when we’re young we assume all stars in the night sky are the same type of thing. They certainly look that way. When we discover there are dozens of different varieties of star throughout the cosmos, we don’t put fingers in our ears and say “well that’s just getting silly”. We accept that things are more subtle and nuanced than we previously thought.
Why should gender identity be any different? After all, the principles governing star formation are relatively simple compared to the complexity of a human brain. 86 billion neurons with trillions of connections between them? It would be surprising if all human brains fitted into simple categories.
All the colours of the Genderbow
I remember once asking a friend of mine who was a member of the LGBT society at University what happened at their group meetings. She said, half-jokingly, “we sit around arguing about what all the different words mean”. To add to her point, the society later changed its name to the LGBTQ society, and then to LGBTQA.
Consider the words of Cory McCloskey of the Fox 10 news channel who, after hearing a report about a transgender woman responded live on air with: “What is a Transgender woman, what does that even mean now? I can’t even keep up any more!” Although it’s easy to mock him, he really does speak on behalf of many people.
This feeling of confusion is not uncommon. And, if I’m honest, the first time I came across all these words I probably raised an eyebrow myself.
However, and this is important, whether you’re a member of the trans community or not, this discussion is important and society needs to be aware of the terminology. Yes, it’s different to what you learned in primary school, but suck it up. Simply saying “well that’s a lot of words to learn” isn’t a very meaningful objection. It’s important to find out what members of the trans community want to be called.
At the moment this can be difficult however because we’re in a period of linguistic turmoil and the words are up for grabs. The LGBT community is still figuring things out, deciding terminology as it goes and, as a result, some words mean different things to different people.
I don’t want to offend or upset anyone from the trans community, so first I’m going to explain what the different words mean as I understand them. This might also be useful for you the reader if you’re new to the topic.
Below are some generally accepted definitions, but let’s be clear - some trans people will disagree with my definitions and find these words unpleasant, even hurtful. But I need to agree on words to use and it’s impossible to please everyone. So I’m going to do my best, please be patient if I say things you don’t like.
Sex: Your anatomy. Man or woman. This is the thing a doctor can identify by looking at you the moment you’re born.
Intersex: When your body is not clearly man or woman, or has features of both. The old-fashioned term was “hermaphrodite” but that word isn’t used anymore, unless you’re in Biology class talking about garden worms.
Gender: What you internally feel you are. Male or female. This is your personal sense of identity, the way you would classify your mind.
Cisgender: Someone who has a male gender in a man’s body or a female gender in a woman's body.
Transgender: A person whose gender does not match the gender/sex identities specified above i.e. male in a woman's body or female in a man's body. The old fashioned word for this was “transsexual” but that word has also fallen from favour, so don’t use it (unless you’re watching The Rocky Horror Show).
Bigender: People who feel they have characteristics of both genders. The gender-equivalent of intersex. These people feel partly male and partly female and not necessarily in a 50:50 ratio. Richard O’Brien himself (the author of Rocky Horror) stated in an interview that he considers himself 70% male and 30% female.
Agender: People who feel they are lacking in a gender and are neither male nor female.
Third Gender: This one is a little difficult for many to imagine but these people feel they have a gender (so they’re not agender) it just isn’t male or female. If you imagine blue = male, red = female, bigender would be purple, agender would be black and third gender might be something like green, not belonging on the same scale.
Gender Fluid: People whose gender identity is not constant i.e. they can be male for one week, female the next, moving back and forth along the spectrum, perhaps even being agendered or bigendered in between.
Sexuality: This refers to who you are attracted to. This is where words like heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual come into play. Although there is still a bit of confusion. After all, does your sexuality refer to the sex you’re attracted to or the gender? Fortunately, this isn’t the issue we’re talking about in the blog, so I’ll leave sexuality there for now.
Queer: While this word used to be a derogatory word for gay it has now been reclaimed as a term for the entire buffet of genders, sexes and sexualities. Anyone who isn’t a cisgendered heterosexual is “queer”.
Genderqueer: A subsection of the queer community concerned with all the non cis-genders: trans, bi, a-, fluid etc. It’s ignoring the issue of sexuality. It is, in fact, the focus of this blog.
Transition: A genderqueer person will often go through a process of making the world aware of their genderqueer identity, and deciding how to express it themselves. This is called the transition and it is different for everyone. For some people it can be a name change, for some it can involve surgery to change sex. Some genderqueer people wish to advertise and celebrate their transition, others do not.
Trans: A casual word for someone who is transgendered. The same way you might use “gay” to refer to “homosexual”, it’s a more relaxed, informal and less clinical term.
Tranny: An insulting term for someone who is trans. Like calling a gay person “fag”. Don’t use it.
Cross-dressers: This term often gets lumped in with the others because the term used to be “transvestite”. It refers to a man who wears clothes typically associated with women i.e. dresses and skirts.
Ally: A non-queer person who supports genderqueer rights i.e. they are cisgendered themselves, but supports the genderqueer movement.
Yes, there’s a lot to take in there (and this is an incomplete list). But it takes a couple of days to start getting your terms right. It only seems like a headache if you decide it’s overwhelming. Occasionally you'll slip up, as with learning any new vocabulary, but it's really worth making the effort. And when it comes to pronouns ("he" or "she") there's a simple rule to find out which you should use: whatever the transgender person asks you to use!
I have, much to my embarassment, occasionally used the wrong pronoun when talking to a transgender student. I've always been grateful when they've shrugged it off and said "don't worry about it", because I know it is actually quite a big deal to them. So thank you to all the transgender people who are patient with us cisgendered people as we do our best to keep up.
Is being genderqueer an illness?
Whether you want to call being genderqueer a medical condition/illness is difficult because some genderqueer people, understandably, do not like the implication there is something “wrong” with them. The suggestion is that only normal, cisgendered people are “right” and anything else needs to be corrected.
I’m not sure where I fall on the issue. Neither is the genderqueer community, incidentally. Some genderqueer people end up suffering from depression and would describe being genderqueer as something which makes them unhappy.
There is, after all, a medical condition called “body dysmorphia” in which a person feels a sense of discomfort/dissatisfaction/disliking of their anatomy. This isn’t referring to the feeling everyone gets when they look in the mirror and think “I look awful”, this is referring to the feeling that your body is not what it’s supposed to be.
Understandably a lot of genderqueer people suffer from body dysmorphia but it’s worth mentioning that some do not and are perfectly at ease with being female in the body of a man etc.
Some would argue that a lot of the depression felt by genderqueer people is a result of social stigma and bullying, while others say it arises from the brain rejecting its body. A female person born in a man’s body can often feel out of place in her own skin, so perhaps this does need to be called an illness because it causes suffering.
On the other hand, perhaps the only reason a female person in a man’s body feels unhappy is because we tell children that men are male and women are female, so a transgender person feels they are conflicting with what they are taught they “should” be. It’s a tough one to call and I’m hesitant to cast my lot one way or the other.
What’s a lot easier to answer is whether these things are real. The answer is very much yes.
As surprising as this may be, and difficult for some to swallow, it does seem to be the case that most of these genderqueer identities are biologically “authentic” and need to be treated as such. In fact, according to many Scientists who study sex and gender, the idea of a simple dichotomy is misleading even though it’s familiar (imagine that, a familiar idea turning out to be wrong).
In 2015, the Scientific journal nature ran a whole issue dedicated to these issues and found that society is woefully behind the times. If you want a neat summary of the issues look up the flagship article by Claire Ainsworth (18th February 2015).
While culture in the West might want to push everyone toward two sexes and two genders, the Biology is saying “not really” and always has done. So let’s take a brief look at some of the main genderqueer identities.
Being intersex means the person has biological features of both sexes and there are five main ways this can happen. 1) X and Y chromosomes being mixed up, 2) hormone levels corresponding to more than one sex, 3) internal organs e.g. uterus and prostate, 4) external genitals, 5) gonads (testes and ovaries). Some people have a mixture of these features and there isn’t really a debate about whether it exists.
I mean, technically speaking, the reason men have nipples is because babies start off with less obvious sex features and the man/woman thing only gets decided later.
The gonads of a baby stay where they are for female but drop down for male. The vagina remains open for a female baby and closes for a male, forming the scrotum (which is why the scrotum has a dividing line in it). So, in a sense, every man has features of the other sex. Is it possible to have a human born with these features not clearly formed one way or the other, or to have both? Of course it is.
Intersex people are easily identified by medical scans and people with more than one external set of genitals have been known about since at least the first Century B.C. Intersex isn’t controversial and it’s absolutely real.
In 1995 Jiang-Ning Zhou showed that a particular region of the brain - the central subdivision of the bed nucleus of the stria terminals (BSTc for short) - is large for men and small for women.
What’s really interesting is that Zhou discovered transgender females (i.e. people who identify as female but have a man's body) have a BSTc which matches that of a cisgender woman. And vice-versa for men. In other words, your gender is determined by the size of your BSTc, and some people’s BSTc size doesn’t match the anatomy more commonly associated with that gender.
In 2002 Wilson Chung found similar results and in 2004 so did Dick Swaab, as did Alicia Garcia-Falgueras in 2006. There is some controversy about these findings and it doesn’t explain everything (for instance, how transgender people often know they are transgender from an early age, before the neurological difference is significant) but that’s a lot of compelling evidence pointing in a similar direction.
The precise cause and effect of being transgender is still not known, but the evidence does seem to be piling up. It is a real thing and transgender people aren’t choosing it. It is who they are and it might even turn out to be something as simple as the size of one particular brain region.
There’s also the fact that transgender people who transition are often a lot happier after the process than before (which is the opposite of what you’d expect if it was made up).
You might have been told that most transgender people live to regret their transition and that most transgender people have a history of mental illness prior to coming out as transgender. Actually, this is completely untrue.
In 2014 Annelou de Vries analysed the psychiatric health of transgender people who had been given puberty blockers at age 13 and surgery at 20, finding that every single one of them was just as mentally healthy as cisgendered people. In other words, being transgender doesn’t seem to be a “side effect of being mentally ill” as some think, it’s possible to be perfectly sane, not suffering from any psychiatric illness, and also be female in a man's body or vice versa.
Furthermore, Annika Johanson (2009) found that 95% of transgender people are happier after the transition. Murad (2010) and Ainsworth (2011) found the same result. Pfafflin (2003), Kuiper (1998), Junge (1998), Smith (2005), Dhenjne (2014), Krege (2001) and De Cuypere (2006) also found that the number of transgender people who were happier after the transition ranged from 96-100%.
In other words, the idea of the “misguided teen who thinks they’re transgender and regrets the decision later in life” is astonishingly rare. The overwhelming majority of people who identify as transgender are a lot more happy once they’ve transitioned. Being transgeder is very real.
Little research has been done on this topic specifically but it’s well known that the BSTc doesn’t come in two sizes only. It can be somewhere in between. What this means is that a person whose BSTc is halfway between male and female will quite plausibly feel they have features of both genders.
The BSTc can develop along a spectrum of sizes, meaning you would expect humans to come in a full range of genders from super-girly female to mega-masculine male. And, of course, we do!
In fact, just an out-there hypothesis, perhaps subtle distinctions in the size of your BTSc might explain why some men are ultra-male, masculine alpha types while some men have a lot of effeminate features but still consider themselves male. Being transgender or bigender doesn't immediately put you in a simple box. You can be a transgender man (anatomically a woman) and still be quite a feminine man. There's a lot of complex things which determine your gender so it's no surprise there's a lot of scope for variation.
I, for instance, am not a raging ultra-sport-playing hyper man. In fact, some of my personality traits could be described as a bit feminine (I cry at movies for instance). Perhaps my BTSc is 99% toward the male end of the spectrum (which is why I feel I’m definitely male) but I’m not one of the ultra masculine guys like a fireman, a builder, a cop, a biker, a sailor or a cowboy...some of my jokes are less subtle.
This one is particularly interesting and although it’s a new field, the picture emerging seems to be that genderfluidity is a real thing as well.
The medical term used is “alternating gender incongruity”, a term coined by V.S. Ramachandran, who has shown that in some people the hemispheres of the brain can switch their roles back and forth, which leads to changes in personality or thinking patterns, most likely including gender.
The brain’s ability to rewire itself spontaneously and at random is well known. People suffering from bipolar disorder for instance find themselves with two different brains at different times in their life. People with seasonal affective disorder find their serotonin levels dropping in the winter and so on. In fairness, the jury is still out on this but given the fact that everything else about people’s brains has been known to switch back and forth, it would be astonishing if the only thing which never alternated was gender.
There is, at the time of writing, no available research I can find on this topic. So I shall have to stick with Scientific honesty and say I don’t know about this one.
It seems as though a lot of people objecting to all the “new” genders are objecting on exactly that basis. These genders weren’t around 40 years ago so where have they suddenly come from?
Well, actually to say the idea of a third gender is a recent invention is grossly inaccurate. In fact, 20th Century Western culture seems to be rather closed-off in terms of third gender concepts, while much of the rest of the world has known about them for a long time.
In Sumerian stories (ranging back 7,000 years) there are references to a third gender. Same thing can be found in ancient Egypt (4,000 years ago) ancient Greece (2,000 years ago) and so on. In fact, many ancient cultures outside of the Mesopotamian basin don’t seem to make the male/female distinction.
In present day Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan, Nepal, Japan and India, there is fairly common public acceptance that there is a third gender. Less common than the other two, but hardly non-existent.
The rest of the animal kingdom is also quite open to the idea. Joan Roughgarden, although a controversial figure, has argued that because sex comes in two main categories for humans, this makes a lot of people assume there are only two genders, but actually there could be dozens more we simply aren’t aware of.
Granted, there’s not a lot of human Biological research yet on third-genderism but it does seem as though this is quite a common gender-identity and not a new one at all.
How common is it?
Remember earlier I said that everyone assumes these things are rare? Well they are, but nowhere near as much as you might think. It’s hard to get solid numbers because people may not want to identify publicly as genderqueer, but the stats look something like this...
Around 1-2% of people are born intersex (M. Blackless March 2000 American Journal of Human Biology). Think about that. The average person knows around 600 other people. That means potentially twelve of the people you know are intersex. It’s uncommon sure, but it’s not 1 in a million. Chances are you know a dozen intersex people and a lot of them probably aren’t open about it.
Transgender is a bit harder to count as there aren’t clear figures but most sources I’ve checked estimate the number to be somewhere around 0.2% of the population. In other words, 1 in every 500 people. So, again, assuming you know 600 people the chances are you know somebody who is transgender.
Meanwhile, other non-binary genders are (according to practicalandrogyny.com) common to around 0.4% of the population. In other words, 1 in every 250 people. So you probably know two or three people who are genderfluid or third gender.
In a school of 1,700 students for example, statistically there will be approximately three transgender pupils, around seven genderfluid/agender/third gender and somewhere between 17 and 34 intersex pupils (that’s an entire class).
If you’re carrying around the assumption that genderqueer people are extremely rare you might need to think again. The reason you probably haven’t realised the numbers are this high is because a) it’s only very recently that genderqueer people have felt cautiously comfortable expressing it, b) a lot of people are still discriminated against, so they never say anything and c) it’s not really anyone else’s business.
Transgender people aren’t required to wear a sign, so the transgender people you know...there’s a good chance you don’t even know about it. But genderqueer people are not made up, they’re not making their identity up, they are real and you probably know several.
“Oh, it’s just a phase”
Some people go through a period of self-uncertainty and identity crisis in their teen years. Adolescence is a biologically complicated process, during which the brain changes significantly. So is it possible some people who identify as transgender in their teens will grow out of it later on? Well, yes, of course it is.
This is one of the reasons medical organisations don’t just immediately give sex-change surgery to anyone who comes along asking for it, particularly when they’re young. As we said earlier, around 4% of people do get it wrong.
Many would argue however: so what? If a person does think they’re a different gender and then change their mind, is that such a big deal? Besides, even if it does turn out to be a phase this doesn’t mean they were making it up! It’s possible for the brain to switch genders on occasion which means an anatomical boy might temporarily have a female brain which then settles back to male later on. Going through a phase doesn’t mean they’re doing it for attention. It could be a biological phase they can’t help, like going through a phase when their skin is really bad.
As a Scientist you have to keep your mind open and wait until the facts are in and a clear picture emerges. If someone tells you they’re genderqueer, why jump to the conclusion it’s a phase and they’re making a mistake? Why not give them time to find out? After all, if it’s a phase they’ll grow out of it without you telling them they need to. If you want a powerful and tragic example of what can happen when you force someone to be a gender they are not, look up the story of David Reimer.
I went to school with a very unusual boy. He was an attention seeker in ways you can’t even imagine. And not just because he wanted people to listen to his opinion, he wanted to be different. This guy didn’t just want attention sometimes (the way most people do) he couldn’t survive without it. He also liked to be the victim or the outsider. Some people’s sense of identity is just like that.
Several years later I found out he was no longer a "he" and was in the process of transitioning to become a transgender woman. One of two things are possible here: either she had been transgender all along (which perhaps accounted for her sense of being an outsider) or she was faking being transgender as her latest attempt to garner attention from people who were getting bored of her usual antics.
I don’t know the answer. As we’ve discovered, a small percentage of the genderqueer community really are making a mistake. Even some genderqueer people are critical of other people who are, probably “faking it”.
What I do know is that the percentage of fakers is pretty low. If you meet someone who is genderqueer the chances are more likely they are genuine because only a very small percentage of genderqueer people are self-deluded. So if you’ve already met a genderqueer person (one in a few hundred) there is at the lowest estimate a 95% chance they’re the real thing. Perhaps you ought to take them seriously, it’s statistically sensible to do so.
How do you know?
As a cisgender person I often find it difficult to imagine how a genderqueer person knows they’re genderqueer. I suppose the idea is so alien to me, so different to my own experience, that I can’t help but wonder “how did you know?”
Some genderqueer people claim to have known since early childhood while others began to realise during adolescence. It’s different for everyone, the same as sexuality. As someone who’s not genderqueer I have no reference, but that is 100% my point. Because I’m happily male in a man’s body I’ve never had an inkling in my mind that I’m different in some way. The very fact I find it hard to identify with genderqueer people is because I am cisgendered.
I’ve never wondered about my gender identity so maybe that’s a good reason to trust a genderqueer person: I’m so confident of my own gender/sex identity it would take something incredibly powerful to make me question it. I’d have to be pretty convinced something was up. Well, maybe, that’s what it is like to be a genderqueer person.
Maybe these people aren’t just casually coming to the conclusion they are genderqueer. Maybe the only thing which would make a genderqueer person identify as genderqueer is if they actually are.
As a teenager I was far from happy. I’d never repeat my adolescent years if you paid me and, aside from a few wonderful friends who stuck by me, I was utterly miserable for a long time (by the way, don’t worry about me, I’m doing great now!)
Thing is, I would have given anything to change who I was and many other teenagers feel the same today. But I never questioned my gender. I was unhappy and didn’t like who/what I was, but I knew I was an unhappy boy. Transgender people aren’t just unhappy with themselves and want to be different. They are transgender irrespective of their happiness or unhappiness.
Transgender people aren’t “unsure of their gender”. They are the exact opposite. They are absolutely sure of it; that’s the whole point! As a cisgender person I never feel unsure about my gender, why assume genderqueer people are doing it?
Does Science support transgender rights?
Science shows, pretty clearly, that genderqueer phenomena are real. It’s not a side-effect of mental illness either; transgender people are typically as mentally healthy as anyone else. They’re also not faking it or self-deluding. It’s not a choice, it’s not a lifestyle and it’s not something you can be persuaded out of. It’s the way you are. And it’s also not as rare as you might have thought.
Yes it can be daunting to hear about all these things we aren’t usually told in school, but this is just the way nature is. If you don’t like it, find another Universe! Genderqueer people are here, they are queer, and you have to get used to it.
Science doesn’t make moral comments however, it simply shows what the truth is. So Science doesn’t technically support or un-support transgender rights. So that presents us with an ethical question: how should we treat people who are biologically different to the norm? The answer to that should be obvious.
I would especially like to thank Lu Mather for his advice, consulting and editing of the blog. He helped me with terminology and tone of the blog.
Trans symbol: wikimedia
Anti-trans guy: theatlantic
Ben Melzer: stuff
Richard O'Brien: thumbs
Intersex group: Oii
Nail in the coffin: tryredemption
Trans flag: Wikimedia
At the weekend I went to see the new Ghostbusters film directed by Paul Feig. It’s being criticised in a strangely aggressive way by a lot of people online. I have a suspicion why, but I won’t get too caught up in that.
I'll put my cards on the table: I enjoyed it. I’m a big fan of the original, so obviously my expectations were demanding, but I thought the remake stood up very favourably. I found it funny and unpredictable, full of likable characters and a few surprisingly touching moments. A sequel’s pretty unlikely given the fan reaction, but I would pay to see it in an undead heartbeat.
The main characters are Scientists and although there’s a bit of pseudoscientific-crud to make the plot work, I was actually quite happy with how they were depicted. Now let’s also address the elephant in the room.
Yes. The working title was originally going to be Ghostbusters 3: This time they're women! So, yeah, the ghostbusters are girls now. Run for the hills!!
As I’ve said before we need a big push on female Scientists in movies and making sure they aren’t just pretty damsels for the hero to rescue. Ghostbusters hits a home run here because all the main characters are bold, non-sexualised and pretty funny. In fact, one of the film’s running gags is to have Chris Hemsworth as a gorgeous but stupid, gratuitously shirtless slice of man-candy who needs rescuing. Nicely done folks.
Now, before I get slaughtered I know there’s a lot of made up stuff in the film alongside the genuine Science. But the way I see it, a film about people hunting ghosts with laser-hoses obviously isn’t going for hard-nosed accuracy. Besides, it’s rather hard to have a Ghostbusters movie if you don’t allow the existence of ghosts.
Ghostbusters acknowledges this need for skepticism however via Kirsten Wiig’s protagonist. She doesn’t believe in ghosts and thinks discussing them is pointless because they’re non-falsifiable. She gives a good speech about testing claims and refuses to believe in the supernatural even though she desperately and secretly wants to. Ghostbusters distinguishes nicely between “wanting to believe” and “actually believing”.
What’s even better is that as soon as she witnesses a ghost she changes her mind. Scientists aren’t afraid to admit when they get something wrong and Wiig’s character isn’t punished for being skeptical. Nor is Melissa McCarthy’s character obnoxious when her hunch is proven right. She doesn’t shout “I told you so!” in Wiig’s face because Wiig is just as excited to be proven wrong. They both had guesses about the world and only made a decision once the evidence was in. And quite frankly, it's nice to see Scientists depicted as nice, funny people rather than the stereotype we usually get...
The Mad Scientist
I remember once posing for a series of photographs to promote my school Chemistry department. The photographer wanted me to ruffle my hair up, pull a goofy grin, put on a lab-coat and cackle like “a mad Scientist”. I got a bit uncomfortable and sort of refused. I know she wasn’t trying to strike a nerve but the mad Scientist stereotype irks me.
For one thing, it’s a little bit out of date now. Jerry Lewis’ Nutty Professor came out in 1963 and when was the last time a horror movie relied on some lunatic in a castle screaming “it’s alive!” Even the recent Victor Frankenstein film starring James McAvoy puts an emphasis on humanising the character, returning him to the enthusiastic, if hubristic, genius of the novel.
The general public are starting to recognise that Scientists aren’t actually maniacs and a lot of them are surprisingly normal people. The “mad Scientist” image has become a cliché people are getting wise to. It’s not dead yet but with popular-Science shows entering a renaissance on TV, people are seeing Scientists for what they really are: passionate and dedicated, but hardly “mad”.
I wear a white labcoat sometimes because it’s sensible. It protects my body and the white colour makes it easy to see if I’ve spilled something. But I only wear it when I’m doing practical work that involves potential spill-risk. Most of my lab research was done on computers so in my University days I wore normal clothes and sat at a desk...sorry to disappoint you. Although I probably should mention I did a lot of my research at night dressed in a hooded cloak. It was warm, comfortable and the computer lab was cold. I may have just undermined my whole point.
As a teacher I happen to wear bow-ties for the simple reason that I like them. From a purely practical reason they’re also easier to tie and they don’t dangle in your reaction, so they might even be safer than standard ties (perhaps that’s why Chemists used to wear them a lot). I know they’re seen as a little old-fashioned and goofy, but I don’t really care. I wear bow-ties because I like bow-ties, not because it’s “mad Scientist uniform”.
But Scientists are often weirdos
Yes. That's true. Scientists are sometimes socially backward. I myself have been described as eccentric although I’m not 100% sure what I do which makes me odd, but in a way it’s a bit of a compliment. To quote my father: “who’d want to be normal, normal people are boring?”
Yes, Science does attract some slightly quirky people and a lot of the great Scientists of history had bizarre personal tics (looking in your direction Tesla), but I struggle to think of a great Scientist who genuinely belonged in a psychiatric hospital.
A madman is one who doesn’t have a grip on reality or doesn’t understand the implications of his actions. Scientists are the polar opposite of this. Scientists dedicate their lives to distinguishing reality from fantasy. We spend our days analysing, discussing and thinking about what the world is really like and how everything ticks. Scientists are concerned with rational thought, clear arguments and logic. We are anything but mad. Even when it looks like we are.
Consider Sergei Brukhonenko, a Russian Biologist often described as a “mad scientist”. The experiment he’s most famous for was decapitating dogs and trying to keep the heads and bodies alive separately. This does sound like typical mad Scientist territory, but what’s rarely mentioned is why he was doing it. He was basically inventing the world’s first heart-and-lung machines in order to help victims of violent accidents. He was trying to see if he could keep living tissue alive in order to give surgeons a better chance at carrying out transplants.
Scientists inevitably have to do unusual things because they’re in the business of discovery and by definition discovery = new = unfamiliar = strange. So, yes, Scientists and their experiments can come across as weird, but there’s always a purpose to them. Scientists don’t spend their lives trying to get things to explode, fizz and bubble (most of the time this is a sign something has gone wrong anyway) and we aren’t wildly trying to discover things without caring about the consequences, the consequences of our research are the very reason we do it in the first place!
The major highlight of Ghostbusters for me was the comedy-relief character played by Kate McKinnon. Dr. Jillian Holtzmann, the group’s engineer and nuclear physicist, is a larger-than-life, intellectually brilliant and utterly bizarre woman. She dances with blow-torches, sings during moments of heightened tension and seems more interested in making silly jokes than engaging in the debates everyone else is having. She was awesome.
Not only was she the funniest thing in the film, she was confident and full of enthusiasm for what she did. But, and this is the key point, all that was beside the point because she was a clear thinker when it came to understanding the principles of Science, she just didn’t particularly care for rules of “the social norm”.
She also gets a genuinely heartfelt speech toward the end about the place Science has in the world and what it means to be a human being studying it. It’s a wonderful reminder that Scientists are doing Science because they believe in the human race and that we usually tend to care about the people we love. I know right, Imagine that?
Scientists feel compassion, Scientists feel empathy and Scientists often deal with being social outcasts, perhaps that's why we don't care whether people find us normal or not? We were the nerds in school, the people who never fit in, so once we grew up we were used to people finding us strange. What else is new?
But Scientists aren’t mad. We are, if anything, committed to sanity above all else. We just like to sing at inappropriate moments and wear bow-ties or hooded cloaks.
If you’ve seen the Michael Bay movie Armageddon you know what bad Science in cinema looks like. Asteroid headed for Earth? Send oil-drillers to nuke it. It might therefore come as a shock to learn that NASA uses the film as part of their training and interview procedures. No, seriously.
But don’t panic. The reason NASA owns a copy of Armageddon is because it's a test. Armageddon contains 168 scientific impossibilities and NASA employees are challenged to spot as many as they can.
That’s actually impressive when you think about it. Armageddon is 151 minutes long, which means every 54 seconds someone says or does something which utterly disregards reality. Armageddon may in fact be the least Scientifically accurate movie of all time, and I absolutely love it.
A lot of people might be surprised to learn I have a huge tolerance for Sci-fi movies that get their Science wrong, given how much I advocate Scientific accuracy in real life. The reason is quite simple: Science fiction is just that…fiction.
The job of a movie is to tell a story, entertain, make us think etc. etc. I’d have a problem with a politician manipulating scientific facts or a doctor doing so because that’s the real world, but a sci-fi movie? It’s a movie. It doesn’t have to be accurate. If people are trying to learn their Science from watching movies then that says more about the quality of Science education than it does about Hollywood.
We still have lots of misconceptions to battle, but as Scientific literacy increases (and I think it is) movies are beginning to reflect that. And, just to fight Armageddon’s corner, after its release public awareness of NEOs was heightened because although the film gets the details wrong, the message is correct: a NEO could wipe out life on Earth and we need to be ready for it.
In fact, there was such public outcry in America that the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics (May 21 1998) finally began addressing the issue of space-research and funding as a response. There is a slim chance Armageddon may genuinely have contributed to saving the world. Makes you wonder about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
Let’s also not forget how many of today’s Scientists started out as Sci-fi fans. I myself was hooked on Star Wars long before I got hooked on Science. And Return of the Jedi (one of my favourite movies) claims that a group of space teddy-bears can overthrow a military empire who own a plasma-cannon the size of a planet. I know Star Wars and Armageddon get stuff painfully wrong. I don’t care.
These movies don’t pretend to be scientifically accurate. Their purpose is to thrill and entertain. It’s just an added bonus that they encourage speculative thinking…which is often the first step many people take to becoming a Scientist.
So this isn’t going to be a sneering article about how movies get Science badly wrong. I mean seriously, are there actually people out there who think that after watching Back to the Future they can time travel by driving at 88mph? Come on. People aren’t stupid. I don’t see anything wrong with “shutting your brain off” when watching a Michael Bay film. The problem comes if you continue to shut your brain off during real life. That's when it does matter.
I’m genuinely not one of those people who scoffs and criticises a movie for bad Science (ok, not usually). But I do get really excited when a movie portrays Science accurately. So I want to take a moment to celebrate and champion some of the Sci-fi books/movies/TV series which help promote Science or get the facts right.
10. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
Although it's a brilliant movie I’m not sure if Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity counts as Science fiction.
Science fiction usually implies fictional Science i.e. a scientific principle/technology which doesn’t yet exist but could theoretically do so. Gravity doesn’t have anything like that because the whole thing is set in the real world. All of the technology in the film exists and everything that happens is more-or-less plausible. But it’s set in space so let’s go with it. Whatever category it falls into, it’s 9.81 meters per squared second of awesome.
There are a few artistic licenses used (the Hubble space telescope is not at the same altitude as the ISS for instance) but for the most part the only problems with the film are niggles. Niel DeGrasse Tyson did an interesting video with Cinema Sins counting the Physics problems he notices and really, they’re pretty minor.
It’s the little touches which make the film’s accuracy speak volumes though, things like fireballs being perfectly spherical in space, book pages not falling into place, having to spin yourself clockwise to counteract an anticlockwise rotation etc. etc. In this respect Gravity was a powerful educational tool (I use it to demonstrate Newton’s 1st Law of motion and illustrate the importance of centripetal/fugal interactions). It's also, in this writer's opinion, a really well-plotted thriller in which the story is established almost instantly and the tension doesn't stop until the final minute of the film.
9. Star Trek (Movies & several TV series)
There are two kinds of people in the world. People who think Star Trek was campy sci-fi nonsense, and people who have actually watched it. It's colourful, sure. The special effects are dated, yes. And some of the storylines for some of the episodes are really cringy, ok. But as a Sci-fi franchise it was committed to grounded ideas. Doctor Who tends to "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow" to get out of plot problems, but Star Trek is rarely guilty of techno-babble. Most of the stuff they mention in the show is at least tethered to real Science. Not to mention the show's depiction of Science itself.
The Enterprise’s mission is not to conquer or make money. The opening of every episode goes “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” If that isn’t a good description of Scientific motivation I don’t know what is.
In the world of Star Trek money has been abolished. People no longer work for profit or power, but to explore the Universe as one species among many. Star Trek is about people who want to seek out new worlds, to go where nobody else has gone. Star Trek shows what humanity could achieve if it took Science seriously. It shows a world united by the desire to learn.
Also, consider the two main characters. The second-most senior person on the ship is Spock…the Science officer. They have a freaking Science officer! There’s a reason so many geeks idolise Spock. He represents something important to us: a Scientist being given respect, being consulted, being given a chance to get involved in decision making. He was a person who tried to appeal to reason and logic. He wasn’t emotionless (Scientists do feel emotions I promise) but he could bypass his gut-instincts to think problems through with clarity.
And then let's not forget that the star of the show, James T. Kirk was a former Science geek who graduated in the top 5% of his class at Starfleet Academy. The new Chris Pine version, if I’m honest, does a bit of a disservice to the character by making him a sleazy school tearaway. Kirk was always proud of his education and was not a "shoot first, think later" kind of guy. He was well read, well-cultured and understood engineering. He just also happened to be a cocky rogue which is what made him cool, but he respected logic and he respected Science.
It’s silly, it’s camp, it’s crazy and, yes, sadly it’s sometimes unforgivably misogynistic but Star Trek shows what the world would look like if it were run by Scientists and it’s a very optimistic world.
8. Avatar (dir. James Cameron)
While Avatar is probably the most fantastical thing on this list, I think people are too quick to dismiss it. James Cameron (who minored in Physics at University) is a passionate Science enthusiast and dedicated a decade of his life to astro- and marine biology. It’s no surprise the fictional world of Pandora was made with remarkable attention to biological and geological detail.
After writing the story, Cameron enlisted a small army of Scientists to add clarification to the movie’s backdrop. A lot of it is never mentioned on screen but the world-building of Avatar is unparalleled. There’s not much in the film which doesn’t have a good explanation. The creatures on the planet are based on the insect and marine ecosystems of Earth, the spaceships are designed with genuine features needed to engage in interstellar travel and even the idea of growing an avatar isn’t as far-fetched as you might think.
As the script was fleshed out, a companion book was written alongside it (I own a copy, obviously) which goes into detail about how everything in the Avatar universe works. Everything from the chemical composition of Na'avi saliva to the alloy structure of Unobtanium (a genuine term used to describe room-temperature superconductors, so laugh all you want, it’s actually the correct lingo) is carefully thought out. If you wonder why the Na'vi are blue with red blood, there's an answer. How do the avatar mental-link ups work? They've thought of that too.
In fact, the only Scientific problem is why the female Na’vi have breasts seeing as they aren’t mammals. In response to this question, Cameron answered “because this is a movie for humans.”
7. Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Lawrence Krauss has publicly described the Physics in this movie as “lousy” and fair enough it does have some ridiculous bits, but I think there’s a lot of good to say about Interstellar. Aside from the fact it’s written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the film’s main Science advisor was Kip Thorne (one of the world’s three leading experts on Black Hole physics, the other two being Stephen Hawking and Leonard Susskind).
In fact, the Black Hole in Interstellar (pictured above) was so well designed and graphically realised that Thorne actually published a research article on how he was able to create the most accurate Black Hole depiction in history.
The film’s real strength, for me however, is the way it makes physics an integral part of the story because the premise of the film actually requires an understanding of General Relativity. Several scenes are dedicated to discussing (teaching the audience) about time dilation. Some literary critics have said things like “there are only six stories”. Even if that were true (it’s not) Interstellar would make a good case for a seventh. The story doesn’t exist if you take out relativity and that, to me, is an incredible achievement.
There are some bits which are schmaltzy, like the bit about love transcending dimensions, but otherwise the film still says something powerful. Set in a world where lunar conspiracy is taught as fact and the space program has died, it reminds us that exploring the Universe is important because, one way or another, Earth is not eternal. If the human race wants to survive it’s not an exaggeration to say we need to eventually leave our planet to do so.
6. Anathem (Neal Stephenson)
Sci-fi guru and God, Neal Stephenson studied Geography with a minor in physics at University and, as the son of a biochemist and an engineer, Science runs pretty deep in his family. One of his earlier books Cryptonomicon spends a good 50% of the text teaching the reader about how computers were invented and how equations can solve daily puzzles – the story is almost incidental.
For this reason some people find his work a bit difficult (which I fully accept), but if you can stomach it, I recommend you give Anathem a go. It’s a novel set in a parallel Universe where society has undergone a cultural schism. The scientifically literate spend their lives inside locked cities while the uneducated roam the world outside. The main characters are Scientist-philosophers and it shows how Scientifically literate people view the world, as well as being a cracking adventure story.
The reason it made my top ten list was because the storyline itself is about quantum mechanics. And I don’t just mean the main characters discuss it or mention it, I mean the storyline itself becomes a meditation on the different interpretations of QM and grasping the basics of the theory is essential to understanding the finale.
It's a dense book, written in a semi-fictional language with technical appendices to explain the math and it stands at over 800 pages long, but if you've got a steely resolve and you aren't afraid of a difficult read it won't let you down.
5. Europa Report (dir. Sebastian Cordero)
I won’t say much about this one because it’s genuinely better if you go in not knowing what to expect. I will say, however, that it’s a criminally unheard-of film. Space.com described it as “one of the most thrilling and realistic depictions of space direction since 2001” and it is well-deserved praise.
It’s a found-footage story about a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa to find evidence of primitive alien life. Europa is indeed our best shot at discovering alien life so this is a reasonable premise. Mixing special effects with genuine footage of space exploration, the film’s real strength is not just in how accurately the physics is depicted but in how the Scientists are portrayed as real people commited to discovery.
To give away any more would be spoiling the fun and I suggest you don’t look up a synopsis or even google-image search it. The excitement of the film is in not knowing what's going to happen and the film’s ending is a powerful depiction of what it is to be a Scientist, asking every one of us the same question: how far would you go for knowledge?
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick/author Arthur C. Clarke)
Arthur C. Clarke's short story The Sentinel was adapted into a film and full-length novel at the same time by both Stanley Kubrick and Clarke himself. 2001: A Space Odyssey the film has become one of the most revered Science fiction films of all time. The novel is largely forgotten.
A bit of a shame I suppose, but when you compare the two it’s hardly surprising. The novel is a standard hard-sci-fi read, but the film is a majestic, visually assaulting meditation on humanity, technology and God.
Arthur C. Clarke studied Physics and Mathematics at UCL, so it’s no surprise the Science in 2001 holds up well. It was one of the first major Hollywood films to address the fact that space is silent, that there is a time delay between Earth and spaceships, and it rather famously creates artificial gravity in ships by spinning them, throwing the passengers toward the walls as if toward the floor. It’s also quite prophetic, predicting the existence of space stations, the internet, video conferencing, voice-recognition and the whisperings of A.I.
I know people who can't stand the film and I do understand why. The pace is very slow and there's little dialogue but, to me, this reflects the grandeur of astronomy and the sheer emptiness of space.
It’s an ambitious film, fusing philosophy with Science and easily one of the largest-scale films in history (I can only think of a handful of other films which rival it for scope). It’s a film about humanity and our place in the cosmos. It’s inscrutable, eminently re-watchable and filled with clever Science.
3. The Martian (Andy Weir)
After a powerful dust storm hits a research base on Mars, Mark Watney is left stranded and has to use scientific wits to survive. There is some debate as to whether such a dust storm could really happen (I’ve heard arguments on both sides) but even if we decide it couldn’t, it’s not hard to imagine some other reason for Watney to be stranded. Besides, it's just the McGuffin. The story really gets going when Watney realises he’s alone and has to rely on ingenuity to stay alive.
The story is very simple: bad things happen to Watney and he must use Science to overcome them. And therein lies the brilliance. In the film adapataion by Ridley Scott, there's a rather famous bit where Watney explains “I’m going to Science the s**t out of this”, a quotation so popular even Obama himself repeated it (without the swear word).
The book spends much of its time explaining to the reader how knowledge of botany and chemistry can be used in a survival situation as well as making Science look badass. The sheer creativity of Andy Weir (a computer engineer) in coming up with ways for Watney’s life to constantly fall into danger are matched only by the clever ways he survives. Every time you think he’s painted himself into a corner, he reveals a trap-hatch you never thought of.
A lot of engineering and Science is about puzzle solving. It’s about coming up with clever ways to change the world and discover what’s going on. Reading this book is the closest thing you can get to reading a botany/chemistry/astrophysics textbook without it being an actual textbook.
2. Sunshine (dir. Danny Boyle)
I saw Sunshine on release with a friend because we were both Danny Boyle fans and it was immediately the kind of film you wanted to discuss. It manages to be everything a good sci-fi story should be: it’s philosophical, it’s speculative, it shows you an unseen world and makes you ask questions about “what if this happened…” I loved the movie from the first frame, finding it an edge-of-the-seat thriller as well as a deeply moving character study. Sunshine, like 2001, is best described as artful, rather than just "a good movie”.
The reason I’ve included Sunshine isn’t its beauty, it’s tight-as-a-drum script by Alex Garland, its surreal visuals, or beautiful score. It’s because the way it portrays Science is everything I believe in and try to achieve as a teacher.
Brian Cox (yes, him) was the film’s Scientific advisor and seems to have been listened to for the most part. The premise is that our Sun is deteriorating much sooner than expected (Cox has given a talk on what the reason could be, although it’s never stated in the film) and a group of Scientists must re-ignite it. A lot of theoretical physics goes on in the background but it’s never rammed down your throat. There are subtle references to equations and technologies but they don’t bog the story down. They're more like easter-eggs for nerds.
The best thing about the movie though is what Cox and Garland wanted to achieve. To depict the spirit of Science as a human endeavour, rather than something cold and clinical.
There are quite a few inaccuracies in Sunshine it has to be said. Brian Cox expressed minor annoyance at scenes which reinforce misconceptions about space e.g. bodies freezing instantly or (at one point) a tiny bit of sound. These moments are done for dramatic effect, but Cox has said he was willing to let these things slide because the point of the film wasn’t to get the minute details of astrophysics right, it was to show the glory of Science as a worthy, necessary and rewarding human undertaking. And it does that perfectly.
Alex Garland has described Sunshine as a love-letter to Science which is the best way to think of it. The most exciting scenes, the most emotionally charged ones, are the ones where the main characters debate using evidence and reason to make their point. They talk and think like real Scientists. The whole premise is that without Science the human race will be completely screwed (obviously something I agree with) and it does something more.
As a Scientist I often hear people say Science is lacking in “spirituality”. That Science is a heartless enterprise. Sunshine is one of the few works of fiction I know which shows how untrue this is. Sunshine is a film about the spirituality of Science and the profound experiences humans can get through understanding and playing a part in the Universe's drama. For that reason alone, Sunshine deserves a place near the top spot. As a Scientist I feel priviledged to see the beauty of reality and I spend my life trying to show other people what I see. Sunshine is doing the same thing, only much better.
1. Contact (Carl Sagan)
Every other entry on this list falls into the category of “gets the Science mostly right, with one or two minor concessions”. Even the really technical ones like The Martian and Gravity which are set firmly in the real world make the occasional fudge.
You might think it would be impossible to tell a gripping story while getting the Science perfect, since the result would just be non-fiction. There is, however, one book which achieves it . Carl Sagan’s Contact (adapted for the screen by Robert Zemeckis) is, scientifically speaking, flawless.
Carl Sagan was a genuinely brilliant Scientist whose work on astrophysics, evolutionary psychology and planetary Science changed the way we view ourselves and our Earthly home. He also played a role in pretty much every major space exploration program of the last 50 years. So when he decided to write a novel it’s no surprise the result was Scientifically bang on. Nothing goes astray.
The novel tells the story of mankind’s first contact with alien life, told through the eyes of Ellie Arroway, the astronomer who detects the signal. The book and film are both plausible explorations of how such a contact would be achieved and how earth-politics and human short-sightedness could interfere.
Once again, the story is the Science. It’s not about “the aliens are going to attack us, we need to find their weakness and fight back”, the story’s dramatic tension comes from: will we be technologically able to answer the aliens, what are they like, what do they want from us and what will happen when we meet?
While the film is superb (Jodie Foster is perfectly cast as Arroway) it does occasionally veer a little toward sentimentality and cliche while the book remains sober from start to finish. The characters are well drawn, the story is thrilling, the Science is sound and Sagan’s prose is as majestic as his non-fiction.
It is a heart-breaking, mind-expanding and spirit-soaring exploration of what it feels like to be a Scientist in a world that wants the products of Science (technology, medicine and knowledge) but isn’t prepared to engage with the methods of skepticism and critical thinking.
Star Trek: Wired
Europa Report: Space
The Martian: Amazon
Life of Pi by Yann Martell is a superb book. It’s well written (far better than anything I could do), never boring and full of interesting characters. It’s a thoughtful book; at times funny, at times heart-breaking. It manages to be a profound and moving piece of literature while also being easy to read. Everything a good novel should be in other words.
It’s also worth mentioning that the film adaptation by Ang Lee is equally well crafted. Considering most of the story takes place on a single boat, the film manages to remain visually interesting immersing you in a half-real, half-fantasy world. I would recommend both book and film to anyone who asks.
But Life of Pi is dangerous. I believe Yann Martell’s wonderful book perpetuates a dangerous myth. One of the most popular and persistent in the world.
Now, I’m aware that many people, when they find a book’s ideology threatening will ban or burn it. I think that's a terrible idea. When I eventually run the world I will not burn Life of Pi or indeed any other book I find offensive (looking in your direction The Slap). Instead, I'll make my case for why I think it should be treated with the utmost caution. People can still read the book, but I will obviously force everyone in the world to read this blog beforehand, on pain of death.
The following contains *major spoilers* so if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, I recommend you do so now. You will most likely enjoy it. Curse you Yann Martel.
The story is as follows: a ship is sunk in the Pacific ocean and after several months the only survivor, a teenage boy named Pi, washes ashore in South America. Two insurance men and a writer come to talk to him about what happened and he tells them two different stories.
One story is a heart-breaking tale in which he and a few other people (including his mother) try to survive in a life-boat but hunger, aggression and greed lead to fighting and eventually murder of the other passengers.
In the alternative story, Pi is trapped on the life-boat with a Bengal tiger. The two castaways discover a mysterious island complete with acid-lakes and they battle storms, drought and learn mutual respect for each other as they survive.
The book concludes with Pi explaining that both stories are possibly true and there is no way of distinguishing them. One of the stories is more fantastical, more entertaining and more gripping, whle the other is bleak, flat and depressing. With no way of deciding between them, Pi asks the people interviewing him (and we the reader) which is the better story. The answer is obviously the one with the tiger.
And this becomes the story everyone in the book decides to go with. The message is clear: if you have no way of deciding something one way or the other, go with whatever you like best.
The Great Unknown
The current accelerated expansion of the Universe is not understood. We’ve nicknamed whatever’s causing it dark energy as a place-holder until we get a better understanding, but don't let the name fool you. Dark energy is a mystery.
In order to make sense of dark energy we need to modify Einstein’s theory of general relativity, but we have no clue how to do that. So when someone asks us what is happening to the Universe we really ought to say “I don’t know the answer” because that is honest.
Now, suppose someone were to put forward the hypothesis that the Universe is inside a giant balloon and there’s an enormous fish-wizard called Greta exhaling into it. This is an explanation. It’s also a pretty awesome explanation. It’s definitely a better story than "we need to check the equations"....so do we accept the cosmic fish wizard? Obviously not. Ignorance is not a bad answer.
There isn’t a hypothesis-vacuum which must be filled with whatever explanation we can find. When we accept a fact we should do so based on convincing evidence. The more remarkable the claim, the more convincing that evidence has to be.
But where’s the harm I hear you say? Why can’t people just be allowed to believe whatever they want to? I agree, much of the time it makes no real difference. If a person wants to believe their flowers grow better if they put mustard on them where's the problem? It harms nobody. But let’s say that same person decides you can use mustard in place of a headache cure, or antibiotics, or cancer-treatment. Or what if they applied this approach to their pet or even their children? People have believed stranger things.
I agree that believing whatever you want doesn’t always lead to harm but it does have the potential to do so. Yes, people are entitled to believe what they want but don’t people want to believe what’s true? Wouldn't the world be a better place if we tried to do that? In fact, sometimes ignorance is even good.
Three Times Ignorance is good
1) I’ve written before about Conspiracy theories. We aren’t privy to what goes on inside a government meeting for example so there are two stories about what’s going on behind the closed doors of London and Washington: (1) they’re plotting to mind-control us…(2) they’re not.
The first story is more dramatic, more exciting, more edgy and makes us feel courageous for exposing the truth. But it could lead us to be mistrustful of a government, affecting the way we vote. It could make us paranoid, draw us to fringe groups, even violence in the name of what we think is truth.
Some conspiracy hypotheses might be correct (just like the tiger story) but why assume they’re true when there’s just as much evidence for as against i.e. none whatsoever? Wouldn’t it be better to say “I don’t know if we can trust the current government, let’s try to find evidence?”
2) Suppose a court has to decide a murder trial. There will be a defendant and an accompanying story in which they are guilty, as well as one in which they are innocent. If we decide to go with the innocence story we are saying we don’t know who the killer is. Clearly we should be prepared to do that, rather than go with the convenient or dramatic story that the person is guilty. They might be of course, but if the evidence isn’t strong enough we shouldn’t convict on the grounds of not wanting to admit ignorance.
3) Imagine a person believed a unicorn spirit monster was telling them to commit an act of mass murder. There is no way to confirm or disconfirm this hypothesis. They really might be getting secret messages telling them to kill but they might also be deluding themselves.
If it’s fine to “believe what you want” then obviously there’s a reasonable chance the person will believe the unicorn story. It makes them feel special (the chosen one) it makes them feel there are forces at work we have no control over (removes responsibility and blame) tells us there is hope for an afterlife (spirits exist, therefore afterlives might also) etc. etc. Holding off on the killing is to admit ignorance but the unicorn story is more appealing than "we just don't know." Do we really want this person going with the story they like best?
The Coin Debate
Imagine you were in a debate with a friend about something harmless, say you were deciding what movie to go and see. You flip a coin but it brexits your hand and ends up beneath the sofa. If your friend said “well, we don’t know which way it landed, so let’s assume it landed heads”, you’d obviously say it wasn’t fair.
The answer to which way the coin landed is unknown. You don’t just go with whatever version you or the other person likes best. You replay the point. You flip the coin again or you move the sofa etc. You admit you can’t decide what the original answer was ans do you flip again.
The really weird thing is, we can all imagine arguing with the friend. How dare they just pick the version of reality they like? Utter nonsense. And yet, how often do we see people doing this with far more important issues? People choose to believe all sorts of un-provable things including potentially harmful ones by appealing to “well it's my opinion”.
If we wouldn’t accept it in the coin-toss example, why should we accept it when it comes to far more important things like beliefs about politics, beliefs about God, beliefs about medicine, beliefs about love, beliefs about parenting etc. etc.
Defending a position because “you can choose what you want to believe” is a very dangerous thing to say because it allows people to defend whatever horrifying thing they like - or excuse potentially harmful actions - by saying “that’s my opinion”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: yes you’re entitled to your opinion, but you can’t have opinions about reality.
Scientists – destroyers of fun
There’s another problem with “picking the story you like best”. If you pick an answer to a question, you stop saying “I don’t know” which means you stop looking for an answer. The enquiry ceases and no progress is made. If we’re honest and admit we don’t know the truth, we are reminded to keep investigating. Picking an explanation before the facts are known is intellectually lazy and stunts discovery.
Imagine if Fleming or Pasteur had looked at diseases in the world and said “I don’t know what the cause is, so I’m going to go with the story I like best: demons cause disease!” they’d stop looking and we’d have no modern medicine.
The Scientific position is to say we don’t know what the truth is until there’s evidence. The story of the tiger might be more fun, more magical but that isn’t a good reason to believe it. And, in fact, if we apply Occam’s razor it’s often more reliable to go with the less extravagant claim. The more down-to-Earth one. But people don’t like doing this and I know why. People resent Science for "taking away the magic".
Get lost Potter
When we’re young we believe all sorts of fun stories about the world. We believe myths, urban legends and rumours of the playground. A scientific education nails these things to the wall and flames them without mercy. We replace superstition with theory. We replace hearsay with research and we replace un-checkable claims with an admission of ignorance. Yes. Scientists do take away the magic. But we replace it with magic that's real.
I’ve genuinely had people criticise me on this point because, in their own words, “why can’t we just believe in things like Santa Claus?” Well, you can believe in Santa if you want, I can’t stop you. But in doing so you’re missing out on something even better: a fully-fledged, complex, intricate and reliable view of the Universe. Why is Science doing something bad by encouraging people to see reality rather than made-up stuff?
Anyone who thinks nature is boring hasn't studied it. You think reality is boring? There's a planet in our solar system which rains diamonds. Some of the particles in your body can teleport. Chimpanzees have invented machine technology. You can hypnotise people into not feeling the pain of surgery. You have a neuron in your brain which responds specifically to the face of Jennifer Aniston. Your legs are experiencing time at a different rate to your head. We have conducted rudimentary thought transplants. You can set fire to water. Bumble bees vote by performing dance-battles. Don't tell me nature isn't interesting.
Nature is not boring and neither are people. Both are worth learning about.
And while we're at it, let's take the Santa Claus example. Technically, when we are asleep we don’t know what happened. The grounded explanation is that our parents gave us presents, the magical one is that Santa did it. But really, is the grounded explanation disappointing?
Isn’t it nice to learn that our parents love us and go to the trouble of surprising us at Christmas? OK, we have to let go of Santa Claus but don’t we gain something profound about the real world by exchanging the magical belief for the more likely one? Isn’t there a beauty in reality that we miss if we believe fairy tales?
Likewise, in Life of Pi, the more plausible story (murder and desperation at sea) tells us something about human nature. It doesn’t have the fantastical tiger or the magic-island but isn’t human nature worth learning about?
I’m not saying Life of Pi is going to turn people into crazed conspiracists who believe in fish-wizards and murder-unicorns. But I do think it’s a novel which perpetuates a potentially harmful ideology which can, in the long run, lead to unhealthy thinking. The idea that ignorance is to be avoided and that we can pick which version of truth we like.
So, that’s my case. Life of Pi is a wonderful book but it’s indicative of a certain way of thinking which says our personal preferences and opinions have baring over reality. They don’t. But the real world has magic in it. You don’t have to give it up when you become a Scientist. And guess what, we're not trying to ruin anybody's cherished beliefs. We're trying to give the world something even better. The truth.
Life of Pi cover: Canongate books
The Slap: Ben Veal
Fish wizard: Gameteep
The Euro: Wordpress
Easter Bunny: Funchap
I love science, let me tell you why.