How science fiction shows us the limits of science

Summary: Overconfident scientists propel America’s progress. But their confidence does not mean we can safely use their conclusions when making public policy. Stories about future histories of our time show the problem. They can help us more effectively use the insights provided by science.

The march of archaeology can help us understands the limits of science.

Pictures of the Past

One constant in the history of science is scientists’ over-confidence in their theories. That is right and proper for people devoting years or decades to studying and developing a theory. It becomes problematic when their over-confidence — if insufficiently tested and validated — becomes the basis for public policy. That happens when scientists’ work meets the need of a powerful ideological group or special interest.

The Mismeasure of Man
Available at Amazon.

This is difficult to see in the present, as our vision becomes clouded by political bias, personalities, appeals to exaggerated authorities, and other extraneous factors. Accounts of the history of science tend to focus on its  amazing successes, and ignore equally important (from a policy perspective) dead ends pursued along the way.

Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man (1996) illustrates the use and misuse of science — and our inability to distinguish them. Gould tells stories of psychometrics, the ongoing efforts beginning in the early 19th century to measure human intelligence and correlate it with physical factors. It is a politically charged book about a too-often politicized subject. In the end Gould shows only the difficulty of evaluating many kinds of politicized science, and people’s perennial efforts to use science (or abuse science) to support their personal beliefs.

See the links at Wikipedia for examples of the fire-fights Gould provoked.

Turn to science fiction for insights.

For Immanuel Kant the sublime nature of Reason is revealed by our inability to represent it. That is also true, in a different sense, of the distant future and distant past of humanity. Logic can only take us so far when there are few facts to build on.  But the incentives are strong to go beyond those limits. Turning our gaze further ahead and back in time, scientists sometimes achieve clarity of vision by substituting imagination for fact.

We can turn to a sub-genre of science fiction for a different and lighter way to understand this.

How will historians and archeologists of the distant future see our time? We can compare these stories with the often absurdly detailed stories told about pre-literate societies based on fragments of their remaining structures and bones. For example, see the “histories” about the decline of Easter Island’s people — told to whitewash the role of western diseases and slavers. In effect, they are modern “scientific” versions of Kipling’s Just So Stories, like “how the elephant got his trunk.”

These sci-fi stories are powerful illustrations about our yearning to go beyond the evidence to tell a more interesting tale. This is often the path to professional success, even in science. We need to be skeptical about scientists’ work, just as they need to be skeptical in their work.

"History Lesson" by Arthur C. Clarke

My favorite story of this type is “History Lesson” by Arthur C. Clarke (1949). It describes how alien historians living 5,000 years after the extinction of humanity (in the next ice age) — might describe our 21st century civilization — using only one surviving film. The penultimate paragraphs are one of the great endings in science fiction. I omit the ending. No spoiler!

“Once more the final picture flashed on the screen, motionless this time, for the projector had been stopped. With something like awe, the scientists gazed at the stiff figure from the past, while in turn the little biped stared back at them with its characteristic expression of arrogant bad temper. For the rest of time it would symbolize the human race. The psychologists of Venus would analyze its actions and watch its every movement until they could reconstruct its mind. Thousands of books would be written about it. Intricate philosophies would be contrived to account for its behavior. But all.this labor, all this research, would be utterly in vain. Perhaps the proud and lonely figure on the screen was smiling sardonically at the scientists who were starting on their age-long fruitless quest.

“Its secret would be safe as long as the universe endured, for no one now would ever read the lost language of Earth. Millions of times in the ages to come those last few words would flash across the screen, and none could ever guess their meaning: …”

Some of these stories are themselves undistinguished, but eerily remind us of how our horror stories of future doom repeat over the generations. As we see in The last American: a fragment from the journal of Khan-Li by John Ames Mitchell (1889). He describes what destroyed the United States.

“Climatic changes, the like of which no other land ever experienced, began at that period, and finished in less than ten years a work made easy by nervous temperaments and rapid lives. The temperature would skip in a single day from burning heat to winter’s cold. No constitution could withstand it, and this vast continent became once more an empty wilderness.”

The best of this breed: Motel of the Mysteries.

Motel of the Mysteries
Available at Amazon.

The most well-developed, powerful, and fun story about future historians looking at our age is Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay (1979). How might people of the distant future look at a structure from our time, especially if their technology has moved far beyond our own?

“It is the year 4022; all of the ancient country of Usa has been buried under many feet of detritus from a catastrophe that occurred back in 1985. Imagine, then, the excitement that Howard Carson, an amateur archeologist at best, experienced when in crossing the perimeter of an abandoned excavation site he felt the ground give way beneath him and found himself at the bottom of a shaft, which, judging from the DO NOT DISTURB sign hanging from an archaic doorknob, was clearly the entrance to a still-sealed burial chamber.

“Carson’s incredible discoveries, including the remains of two bodies, one of them on a ceremonial bed facing an altar that appeared to be a means of communicating with the Gods and the other lying in a porcelain sarcophagus in the Inner Chamber, permitted him to piece together the whole fabric of that extraordinary civilization.”

This presentation shows a few illustrations from the book…


Excerpts from the archaeologist’s analysis of this building from a lost civilization.

Motel of the Mysteries-the great altarMotel of the Mysteries: the Sacred Urn

See an excerpt of the book here. it is well-worth reading!

For a review of this genre — improbable histories of the future — see Gary Westfahl’s “The Addled Archaeology of the Future” at Locus Online, August 2009. While the author appears devoid of any senses of humor or humility, he adequately summarizes some of the major works in this field.

<a href=""><img class="aligncenter size-full wp-image-108489" src="" alt="Peabody's Improbable History" width="275" height="183" /></a>
Availble at Amazon.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about history, especially these…

  1. Looking at our past helps us understand the industrial revolution now beginning.
  2. Looking at technological singularities in our past & future.
  3. The history of immigration and America, lost amidst the more useful myths.
  4. Look at past turning points in history to see if we are at another.
  5. We have trouble coping with our present because we’ve lost our past.

8 thoughts on “How science fiction shows us the limits of science”

  1. Pingback: How science fiction shows us the limits of science – Fabius Maximus website – AboNewsCast

  2. Pingback: How science fiction shows us the limits of science – Fabius Maximus website

  3. “Motel of the Mysteries” is a fantastic work. I wish I could ask David Macaulay how he conceived of it. Was he annoyed at archaeologists’ overconfidence? Was he worried that the public didn’t understand how uncertain science often was? Was it something he thought of while high? I may never know.

  4. Pingback: How science fiction shows us the limits of science – Fabius Maximus website – SelfHelpEA

  5. Hi FM,

    In the long run, bet on Malthus. Ceteris paribus doesn’t need to run very fast to keep up, the industrial revolution notwithstanding. My libertarian friends don’t seem to recall periods of mass starvation and extinction (sorry, Joe Neanderthal!) that have plagued mankind from time to time. I am not being all gloom and doom, just skeptical that we can just get lucky and pull rabbits out of the hat for 10 billion, 20 billion, 100 billion people. The rabbit thing doesn’t seem to be working for Venezuela very well. Things will work themselves out, but we may not just be choosing between yellow, red, or blue shirts to wear on our starships. Your literary references are spectacular. Thank you.

    With best regards,


    1. Bill,

      “In the long run, bet on Malthus.”

      That’s a sure loser. Malthus’ logic applied when ferility was difficult to control. It’s not, now.

      “pull rabbits out of the hat for 10 billion, 20 billion, 100 billion people.”

      You are still reading Leftist doomster lit from the 1970s. Move on to their current doomster obsessions! Population probably will peak in mid-20th century at 10-12 billion. Fertility declines — which show no sign of stopping, let alone reversing — probably will bring a population crash in the 22nd century. This is driven by contraceptive tech (still improving) plus economic, social, and political rights for women (still spreading).

  6. Science is a systematic process of making inquiries about living and nonliving organisms. For a scientists to believe what you are saying he or she needs evidence either by experiment or hypothesis. for scientists to be over-confidence, maybe there is something they don’t understand so they become curious of everything they come across. my conclusion is that, we should not judge our scientists because they are the people that take risks just to save our lives.

    thanks for your patronage. Am chinedu isaac odoh popularly known as Brainboy

    1. BrainBoy,

      “for scientists to be over-confidence, maybe there is something they don’t understand so they become curious of everything they come across.”

      No. Scientists are over-confident because they are people. People are often over-confident.

      That reflects a commonplace misunderstanding of how science works. As many studies have shown — obvious to anyone who works with scientists — scientists don’t work much like the textbook description of science. What we consider science is a group-level response, something like an emergent group property from groups of people working in often non-scientific ways in the institution of science.

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