Science: Serious and Pseudo
By Hal Clement

(Reproduced with permission from
Adapt Volume One/Number1)


I have not yet quite reached the Biblical three score and ten years, but I have fairly good memories going back over three score. I can reasonably be regarded by most of the readers of this article as what I prefer to think of as mature (not a good way to start off something intended to deal, at least partly, with objectivity, I suppose). I am well past the age at which verbal taunts about my physical prowess would bother me, and can by now force myself to consider the source when hearing snide remarks about my intelligence or even my imagination. I am still a little bothered, however, when charged with narrow mindedness.

This is neither a complaint nor a confession, simply a report, you understand. I am not trying to psychoanalyze myself. I am bothered by that charge because of the obvious, objective fact that I may sometimes actually be narrow minded without realizing it, like practically anyone else; and I don't like that condition. It irritates me when I encounter it in others, and I assume that it would irritate those others at least as much to observe it in me; and quite aside from the fact that I enjoy being liked by people, I really hate the thought that my own state of mind might be keeping me from learning something which could be interesting, useful, fun, or a source for a science fiction story.

On the other hand, some ideas and statements are beyond much doubt arrant nonsense. Failing to recognize them as such could be serious for me, and my failure to express my opinion on the matter could be equally serious for other people, if only because a rather large number of folks have developed the unfortunate tendency to accept my word with a less than fully adult critical attitude. I try to forestall this with my science students by making a reasonable number of mistakes in class (though I endeavor not to look like a real idiot), but it's sometimes harder with science-fiction fans. Clearly, the central problem is to decide when a new idea should and when it should not be taken seriously.

In 1950, a colleague in chemistry teaching told me about Immanuel Velikovsy's recently published "Worlds in Collision." His description was not very complete, but it made I. V.'s thesis sound pretty silly (even though the colleague himself, lacking astronomical grounding, was rather impressed by it). This was obviously a premature conclusion, since I hadn't read the book itself (I don't think he had either, or he would have spotted the chemistry faults); if I had gone around denouncing it unequivocally at that point I would have been unfair at best. The fact that a later reading of the work did nothing to alter that original opinion--it still seems very silly--is irrelevant; at the time, I couldn't be sure.

The implication would seem to be that one should check out the new idea before pronouncing on it. Obviously; but a more realistic question is, how detailed a checkout should one give? And should one always do it one's self? We all have our own work to do, and there is an appalling amount of damn nonsense being published.

For the professional scientist, doing real research, there is plenty of excuse for following the judgement of someone else he or she has reason to trust. One may be wrong, but of course that may happen even after doing one's own checking.

In my case, things are a bit different- I am a teacher, and am expected--reasonably or not--to be right about things. My pointing out as I often do the places and times where I have been wrong does not get me off this hook- it seems to me that I am ethically bound to check things like the Velikovsky thesis by myself as far as my personal knowledge and competence permit. I have done so; it is my considered opinion that this gentleman was talking through the back of his neck; and I am willing to debate this point with anyone who feels otherwise, by mail or face to face (I have done this, too, off and on, for quite a number of years), at any time I have nothing more important to do.

But I don't know everything, by an enormous margin, What do I do with a question about something not accepted by "establishment" science but which I have not considered before? or better, what shouId I do?

Let's be concrete. At a convention a few years ago, a young woman in a panel audience claimed explicitly, unequivocally, and apparently that she was in telepathic communication with beings in a nearby planetary system. As I recall, the panel was being moderated by Jerry Pournelle, who disposed of her rather brusquely in my opinion. I, too, was inthe audience, and had no chance to talk to her directly.

Now, in my opinion, telepathy is extremely unlikely--I dodge the word "impossible" wherever I can, but it comes close to being the right one here (this is not the place to give my reasons for the opinion; another article, if you like). I therefore strongly doubted the young lady's statement. I was not, however, about to call her either a fool or a liar. I would have liked to ask her for the criteria she used to distinguish between thoughts which originated in her own mind and those which had been inserted in it from elsewhere, and if possible secure her help in devising one or more experiments which might tell whether or not those criteria were valid ones. Even her willingness or unwillingness to answer or cooperate would have been informative, to some decree. I very much regret not having had the chance.

Similarly, whenever possible 1 ask Bible Fundamentalists, whose supernatural-based construct strikes me as unwise at best, what basis they use for deciding whether a given idea represents Divine inspiration, Satanic delusion, chemical hallucination, or ordinary human imagination. I have received only one or two answers at all, so far, and neither of these was helpful; one admitted he didn't know, and the other was essentially an evasion leading to circular argument. (I get rather an impression that if it agrees with what they already believe, it's Divine inspiration, and they don't care which of the other three it may be if they don't like it. This is not, however, a solid conclusion.

In all these questions, I undoubtedly show a preference for already established ideas. This leaves me, obviously, wide open to charges of being old (already admitted); conservative (sure, why be in a hurry to change ideas which have worked for over sixty years? For those who argue that the world is changing, please remember that I have been a science fiction fan for over fifty of those years. Plenty of the ideas I have picked up and adopted in that time include and allow for the concept of change--better than those of some youngsters I have met); Establishment-minded (you bet I am. With five billion people on one planet, we need some kind of establishment. I'll discuss better ones with you if you have any suggestions, but don't try to sell me anarchy--not for human beings); and narrow minded. That one, as I admitted at the beginning, hurts, and is another reason I feel bound to do as much investigating of new ideas as my time allows.

Since I am a "hard" s-f writer, I am at times asked how I justify using or implying faster-than-light travel in my stories; do I really believe it is possible?

The answer requires the reminder that for a scientist "belief" has not the same meaning as for a Fundamentalist; all scientific ideas, including the belief that the earth is approximately spherical in shape, are tentative and subject to revision if more and better data come in. (This is why the remark "Evolution is only an unproved theory" so often uttered by its opponents is so irritating. It's a truth with false implications, like "Jerry Falwell was sober last Sunday. ")

I do not, at the moment, believe faster than light travel to be possible; the relativity theories say it is not, and they have been resisting assault by experiment and theory for three quarters of a century now, much of it by people who are far better physicists than I and who are at least as eager to believe the theory wrong. However, history has shown plenty of examples of well established and widely accepted scientific beliefs which were eventually proven wrong, and I am entitled to assume in a work of fiction that this has happened to relativity. In real life, I can only hope for, not expect, this; and I have to face the likelihood that even if relativity is replaced by something else, the new theory will still support the speed of light limit (the reasoning behind this limit is very, very solid, I am sorry to say).

All this rambling does have a focus. In trying to decide on the validity of any idea, what one must do is (a) try to ascertain the observed facts which inspired it, and if possible check their reality; then (b) follow in as much detail as possible for you the trail of reasoning leading from those facts to the conclusion you are checking. Using the opinions of others is legitimate also, but you must carefully consider the appropriateness of those others. Even if you cannot verify every observation or reasoning step yourself, you can often establish a weakness or error without going all the way; and calling the attention of the theory's proponents or supporters to this weakness will often produce an informative reaction itself. If they avoid discussion, or base argument solely on weight of authority, you are entitled to be suspicious; if they are willing and able to debate the matter in quantitative detail, at least you have reason to believe in their sincerity and competence.

There is, of course, no certain way to find out.

Science fiction inhabits an interesting post along this roadway. Demonstrating that something could have happened is not the same as demonstrating that it did. Writing a story about the Velikovsky scienario would set an author a nearly impossible task as far as is providing realism is concerned (I like to point out to my English teaching friends that the main difference between science fiction and the rest of literature is the former's higher standards of realism). Writing about the von Daniken "Chariots of the Gods" situation isnot only easy but common; there is nothing to say that extra-Terrestrial beings couId not have visited Earth and helped with the pyramids and Nazca lines. The objection to von D. is there is nothing to say that they did; it just makes nice fiction--if handled by a competent author. There is simply no reason whatever to believe that any of the structures attributed by the sensationalists to E-T's werenot made by ordinary human beings--more patient than most of our present generation, perhaps motivated in ways we can no longer appreciate or sympathize with, but our own species and our own ancestors.

By all means try to decide whether IT .ould have happened; but for your science fiction story, it doesn't really matter whether It really did. Some of us like to think that science fiction has a close connection with science, but even I admit they're not the same thing.


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