Philosophy of Science (Fiction)

As previously noted, I will be on programming at the upcoming Worldcon in Montreal, including moderating a panel at 10am Saturday with the following title and description:

The Philosophy of Science

To what extent does SF explore the meaning of science for scientists and create the ideas that our culture has of science?

Panelists: Greer Gilman, James Morrow, Jeff Warner, Richard Crownover, and DD Barant

This is a little outside my normal range, so this post is a combination of thinking-out-loud and asking-for help as I try to figure out what sort of discussion ought to go with that panel description.

This is really two issues bound together, namely “To what extent does SF explore the meaning of science for scientists?” and “To what extent does SF create the ideas that our culture has of scientists?” The latter is relatively easy, I think– there’s an obvious tension between the “science is awesome!” stories of Asimov and Hal Clement, and the “there are some things Man was not meant to know” stories that start with Mary Shelley and continue on through Michael Crichton, and that ought to be good for some discussion.

One obvious way to go would be to talk about whether SF accurately depicts the practice of science, but that seems like a waste of James Morrow and Greer Gilman, neither of whom are professional scientists. (I have no idea who the other panelists are– two of the three have names that give inconclusive Google results (Jeff Warner might be the folk musician, but I’m guessing probably not the pro wrestler…), and DD Barant is the author of an urban fantasy.) And the question really seems to be more about the motivation of scientists than about the day-to-day business of science.

I like to try to keep panels grounded in fairly specific books as much as possible– I’m much happier leaving a panel with a couple of new books or authors to check out than when the whole thing deals in airy generalities. I’m not thinking of too many books that deal with what makes scientists tick, though– Kirstein’s Steerswoman books, maybe Contact, a bit of As She Climbed Across the Table. There’s the whole Lab Lit thing, but weirdly, that seems like more of a mainstream fiction thing than a SF thing. (Which, I suppose, might be an interesting direction to go– do mainstream writers do a better job of getting at what scientists are like than SF writers?)

There’s also the whole “what is the meaning of science for scientists” definitional game, which can get really thick with citations of Kuhn and Feyeraband and whatever. I’m not wild about that tack, though, as I’ve always been more of a Damon Knight/ Potter Stewart kind of guy (science is what scientists do when they say they’re doing science). Also, it would probably require me to read Feyeraband, in my copious spare time.

I don’t know. This is a tricky one. Happily, given the make-up of the panel, I could probably fall back to the “You are smart people. Say something interesting.” moderator punt. But I’d like to have a better idea of possible discussion topics than that.