Why sci-fi references can be unhelpful in science writing

So this week I was typing away on my laptop, writing a story about how chemistry is becoming more automated, and what this might mean for the future. This is something, that as a (kind of fledgling) science writer I quite like to do. I look at some current trend in science, think about it, and try to discuss what it might mean; whether it’s a good thing and if there’s any way we might steer it on to an interesting or helpful path.

But in doing this. I’ve noticed a strong temptation to make references to science fiction. What I want to write is something like:

There will always be those who think that automation will lead to [insert reference to dystopian sci-fi film/book here], but of course, we have no reason to think it will.

I want set up a straw man, then smash it down, as a literary device for moving on to a new point. In my mind, it’s also a way of trying to get the reader to identify with what I’m trying to say – everyone knows something about popular sci-fi, but they might not know loads about academic chemistry! But this week, I was trying very hard to avoid using sci-fi references.

People know that robots are not about to take over the world. Journalists don’t need to explain it to them.

Why you might ask, what’s wrong with the odd Star Wars reference? I have even been quite irritated with myself when I have missed the opportunity to use them in the past. I wrote this piece earlier in the year about a visor which can help blind people see (in very poor resolution), and another guy (a journalist I quite admire, Leigh Phillipswrote it up for Nature News and used a reference to Geordi La Forge (the blind dude in Star Trek) to help explain the discovery. I completely missed that reference! And it seems cool, and helpful, right?

Phillip’s example is a bad one for my argument because (I think) his analogy is a good one. But references to science fiction can also be a problem in science writing, according to my new favourite-ever academic paper from Jenny Kitzinger at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. I should admit that this is not a new paper, and I didn’t even dig it out myself. Instead it’s something  we’ve been looking at in my MSc course.

Kitzinger’s main point is that science fiction should not be blamed for people’s fears about what scientific developments might lead to. When she carried out an analysis of how the media treats science fiction she found a media that ‘berates itself (or other less ‘quality’ media) for misleading the public through fiction and fictional references’. She says that it is more often than not the proponents of scientific progress who mobilise references to  ‘Frankenfoods’ leading to a ‘Brave New World’ (or whatever) in order to knock these ideas down, and show that they’re silly fears.

Referring to one of the specialists she interviewed during her research, Kitzinger says:

One specialist in nanotechnology, for example, remarked that images of ‘self replicating robots taking over the world’ could be ‘disastrous for what we’re trying to do’.

But in point of fact, most people are sensible enough to realise that science fiction is just that. And according to Kitzinger’s research people’s fears about science – if they have them – are more likely to be motivated by very tangible things, like nuclear disasters and atomic bombs.

So science fiction references can be useful in journalism. But there is also scope for a lazy recourse to these themes, and this should be avoided. We shouldn’t assume that people need to be informed that a Brave new World dystopia isn’t around the corner – they are smart enough to realise that for themselves.


Kitzinger, K, (2010) Questioning the sci-fi alibi: a critique of how ‘science fiction fears’ are used to explain away public concerns about risk, Journal of Risk Research, 13, (1) 73-86.

IMAGE: Dead Air, Flickr.

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