Title: Fictional scenarios, real concerns: science fiction and
perceptions of human genome editing
Author(s) and Year: April A. Eichmeier, Luye Bao, Michael A. Xenos, Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele (2023)
Journal: Journal of Science Communication
TL;DR: While science fiction may be purely imaginary, it can still be a useful tool for shaping public attitudes toward science as well as a barometer of existing public attitudes. Seeking to measure its impact, the authors found exposure to science fiction shapes peoples’ opinion of gene editing in strange and surprising ways.
Why I chose this paper: Empirical science communication research began by studying how news media influence public attitudes toward science and only later began to examine the influence of other kinds of media. I found this paper interesting for its recognition that people form their attitudes about science from everything, with news media just one element in the mix. It’s important to understand how the total constellation of influences, including science fiction, shape people’s opinion about science.
Imagine opening the science section of your newspaper or going online and reading a story about an experimental procedure for growing multiple identical people in the lab. The researcher describes the new technique this way:
The receptable is immersed in a warm bouillon containing free-swimming spermatozoa—at a minimum concentration of one hundred thousand per cubic centimetre. After ten minutes, it’s lifted out. If any eggs remain unfertilized, it’s again immersed, and, if necessary, yet again. The fertilized ova go back to the incubators where the Alphas and Betas remain until bottled; while the Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons are brought out again, after only thirty-six hours, to undergo Bokanovsky’s Process. One egg, one embryo, one adult is normal. But a bokanovskified egg will bud, proliferate and divide. From eight to ninety-six buds and every bud will grow into a perfectly formed embryo and every embryo into a full-sized adult. Making ninety-six human beings grow where only one grew before.
You might find this a fascinating glimpse into the next generation of biotech if you’re not a biologist. If you are, you’d probably call it nonsense. If you’re a science fiction fan, you just might recognize this sinister, clinically precise procedure, adapted from Aldous Huxley’s classic novel of human cloning, Brave New World.
People who study science communication once wouldn’t have considered this relevant to the questions that interest them. Yet decisions about scientific research—including controversial new genetic technologies--are ultimately decided through political processes shaped by public opinion about science. And investigators have long believed public opinion about science is itself influenced by many things besides professional, peer-reviewed laboratory science, including science fiction. Through its power to create an involving, realistic-seeming story, science fiction can engage people who might not otherwise consider themselves science buffs, shaping their attitudes toward science. Stories about scientists obsessively pursuing research without regard for the consequences go back two hundred years to Frankenstein, whose tale of an inanimate monster, brought to life by bolts of lightning, played on fears about the still-young science of electricity. More recently, science fiction began to address fears about genetic engineering, including The Boys From Brazil in the 70s, which took an implausible tale about an ex-Nazi doctor who engineers exact clones of Hitler and made it seem real and gripping. A decade ago, BBC America’s TV series Orphan Black portrayed a group of people who gradually discovered they were identical clones. This spurred online discussions about whether characters who are genetically identical clones can have vastly different personalities.
April Eichmeier and colleagues wondered whether science fiction, either in the movies or on TV, might offer nonexperts ideas to help them think about the real possibilities of a nonfictional new technology like human genome editing. They sought to measure whether watching more science fiction on television shapes peoples’ perceptions of the new and controversial technology of human genome editing.
It wasn’t an easy question to answer. Communication researchers have long known that watching television tends to shape peoples’ views of the world, a process called cultivation, but the actual ways this happens are complex. It's also been found that cultivation tends to have different effects, depending on the kinds of programming people watch. Scientists on TV have been portrayed in many ways: the good scientist, the bad scientist, the mad scientist, the scientist who plays God. Good scientist portrayals have been found to predominate in TV news, negative portrayals in science fiction. What’s more, some researchers have found heavy TV viewing associated with less confidence in science, but heavy viewing of entertainment programs was associated with support for agricultural biotechnology. In addition, peoples’ personal values can have independent effects that combine with TV watching to shape their views of science.
This was the background against which Eichmeier and her associates inquired whether heavier consumers of science fiction fans would have different views of the benefits of gene editing—or the risks. They also looked for evidence of what researchers call mainstreaming. This is the tendency of TV watching to bring people with positive or negative views of science closer together.
Seeking a pattern in this complex of influences, the researchers asked a sample of 1600 U.S. adults whether they thought human gene editing would
Help fix human health problems
Remove stigmas around birth defects and genetic diseases
Improve the economy
Or alternatively, whether gene editing might lead to unintended health problems. They also asked questions about general respect for the authority of science and about political beliefs, from liberal to conservative. Finally they asked how much attention their subjects paid to any kind of science fiction, whether about gene editing or not, on TV or in the movies.
The results were as complex as the myriad of influences. As expected, people with more deference to scientific authority also saw gene editing as beneficial rather than risky. When science fiction was factored into the equation they found people who paid more attention to science fiction were more likely to see gene editing as a benefit, less as a risk. People who paid more attention to science news also saw gene editing as beneficial, but only slightly so. Science fiction, in other words, had a more powerful effect on peoples’ beliefs about gene editing than science news.
The mainstreaming effect emerged when the researchers looked at political ideology. Earlier research had shown that liberals are more optimistic about emerging technologies than conservatives. Watching more science fiction tended to make the liberals less optimistic and more concerned about the risks of gene editing, while it made the conservatives less concerned. In other words, science fiction tended to bring the two groups closer together, the first time mainstreaming has been associated with science fiction. Although science fiction brought conservatives and liberals closer together, it didn’t have the same effect on those with different religions or different amounts of respect for scientific authority, suggesting some values are more open to influence by fiction than others.
Fig. 1: Watching science fiction brought liberals and conservatives closer together. Science fiction made liberals more concerned about the risks of gene editing. It made conservatives less concerned.
New scientific developments like gene editing frequently raise new and troubling questions about their use, proliferation and possible misuse, and giving rise to a range of public hopes and fears that frequently surface in many forums at the same time. Because pop culture is one of these, this study is part of a long-overdue trend to examine the whole range of influences, not only the ones that originate with science itself. When people form their opinions about science they may not care that some of the things shaping those views are fiction rather than fact. The authors note that scientists and ethicists are calling for active public involvement with the controversial technology of gene editing. They believe storytelling could be a way of reaching and perhaps persuading those who can’t be reached by other means, but their results show the path to influence won’t be easy to sort out.
Edited by: Scout Barker, Niveen Abi-Ghannam
Cover image credit: Jim Linwood, Creative Commons