The value and risks of SF (was Re: STORY: "Non-Player Character")

From: Perry E. Metzger (
Date: Sun Apr 20 2003 - 08:23:23 MDT

"Eliezer S. Yudkowsky" <> writes:
> By selectively considering your responses to situations that, while
> "theoretically" possible, are only likely in fiction, you can end up
> distorting your mentally precomputed reflexes away from the real
> world.
> Try keeping track of how many times people casually reason from
> fictional evidence - "Brave New World" cited in discussions on
> cloning, "The Matrix" in discussions of AI, "the Borg" in discussions
> of human-machine interfaces. Humans don't have strong safeguards to
> prevent reasoning from fictional evidence; we know the particular
> story isn't true, but we easily pick up our concepts, our categories,
> the way we chunk the world, by generalizing concepts from fictional
> experiences. Generalizing your categories from fictional evidence is
> just as much a mistake as treating "Brave New World" as a history book.

I both agree and disagree. Since repeating what has been said would
not be very interesting, let me explain the sense in which I disagree
(and people can take as given that I partially agree with Eliezer).

I think Science Fiction has also had the salutary effect of making
people's minds more flexible. The "imagine the world not as it is
today, but in a variety of potential future scenarios in which it
would look completely different than it does right now" tool is a
powerful one, and Science Fiction exercises that ability in people.

A few centuries ago, no one expected any fundamental change in the
circumstances of life around them even in the far future. Even the
rate of change experienced by people in the early part of the 20th
century was slow enough that people didn't expect change. If you had a
disease in 1940 you didn't expect a new cure to be found. If you had a
kid in 1930 or even 1950 you expected her life would be much like your
own life.

Now, of course, many (though certainly not most) people no longer
expect a future that looks like the present, and I think Science
Fiction has played a role in helping people accept that idea. It
trains you to ask "what if" a lot, and there's substantial benefit in
that. I wonder if most of us with that-outlook-which-we-seem-to-have
would have gotten here without the mental exercise that resulted in
hypertrophy of the "what if the rules change" parts of our minds.

Of course, there really isn't any way to answer this absolutely, as
with most such questions. Unlike, say, trying to determine the
weight of a protein in daltons, there is no methodology or scale to
measure the value or trouble caused by SF.

Perry E. Metzger

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