Scientific Misconceptions and Misrepresentations in Writing

Hey there! Sorry it’s been so long, but life has been crazy! Let’s dive right into a topic near and dear to me: science, scientists, and common scientific misrepresentations in fiction.

Many writers want to include an element of science, either by writing a scientist character, focusing on science fiction, or creating a system of rules for how magic in a fantasy story may work (hey, logic! I use science in my fantasy writing all the time!). For ease, I’ll break this into two pieces: myths surrounding the people involved in science and myths around the science itself. For many of these, I will also give you a way to approach these myths to improve your writing.

Myths of the Scientist

Myth #1: All scientists work in labs at universities. This is just plain untrue. While some scientists remain in academic environments, the funding and lack of tenure-track faculty positions, not to mention the simple fact that not everyone wants to stay in academia, means that a large number of scientists go elsewhere. In fact, most scientists are not tenure-track faculty. They may be found in government work, private companies (scientific or otherwise, believe it or not… people like people who proved they can think), scientific writing and publishing, ethics, consulting, or a large number of other positions. WE’RE EVERYWHERE.

Another reason this is untrue is that it focuses on biomedical-type science. Remember there are ecologists, psychologists, sociologists, geologists, archaeologists, etc. Every field in science is different, and many of them include field work. Take some time and talk to one of them, even if it’s by email. HINT: Scientists love talking about what they do.

Myth #2: Scientists are all stuffy old men in lab coats. Also false. While it is true that this is still a largely male-dominated field, and largely dominated by white men at that, there are tons of women, young scientists, non-white individuals, and jobs without lab coats. Would a consultant wear a lab coat? Maybe, but not always. When writing scientists, keep these things in mind. Make them a diverse bunch. And yeah, scientists can be quirky and awkward and arrogant. But remember that a stereotype is nothing but a perceived image and isn’t always true. Choose your representation of these folks carefully and deliberately. They are not cardboard cutouts, so don’t treat them that way. They still have their own personalities and lives and hobbies outside of their profession. But chances are good that if they are in science, it’s because they love it.

Myth #3: I don’t know enough science to worry about good science in my story. This may be true for you, but don’t let it stop you. Consult. Talk to people who know what you don’t. Writing isn’t solitary. You can ask to visit and shadow, ask them to look over your logic or give you the right knowledge. Even a student can give you basic information. If you don’t ask, the answer is no, but you may be surprised. And if you get a no, don’t let it discourage you. If one person doesn’t answer or is too busy, try someone else. Look on university and college websites for email addresses, and give it a polite, enthusiastic try. Even something as simple as “Hi, I’m a writer and I wanted to talk to you about your research” can open so many doors. Believe me, the readers (and scientists) will thank you for taking the time and effort to do your own research.

Myth #4: Scientists are not religious people. Again, take a step back. Scientists are first and foremost people. Within science, you will encounter both religious and non-religious individuals, just like in the general population. For example, I have been studying and working in science (biology, no less) for over 8 years and am a steadfast Christian. There are also a number of scientists with beliefs in any other religion (or non-religious viewpoint) found anywhere in the world. In fact, a 2005 survey observed 48% of scientists had religious affiliations and 75% believed that religion is important for conveying certain truths or ideas (see this page for more questions and answers). Don’t be afraid to make your scientist a person of faith (whatever faith that may be). Be true to the character, not the stereotype.

Myth #5: Scientists are not superstitious. While once again this depends on the person, I can say from personal experience and interactions that many scientists are very superstitious people. But not like you’d expect. What I mean is that because some experiments can be so tricky or finicky, if it works one time a scientist may choose to keep everything the same so it works again. Not just the procedure. Simple, unscientific things like not putting away a solution until a certain point in the procedure or doing a dance while an instrument is collecting readings (I knew someone who did this). And yes, we know it doesn’t make sense and isn’t logical. Yet…

For further reading on the public’s idea of the scientist, check out this page from the National Science Foundation (NSF). And remember, this is how they are perceived, not how they are. To read more about scientist portrayals in Hollywood, read this post from Euroscientist.

Myths of the Science

Myth #1: Humans use only 10% of their brain. False. False false false! I can’t tell you how often I see this in books and movies and it ticks me off every time. We use all of our brain. Maybe not all at the same time. But there’s nothing there we don’t use. End of story. So no excuses just so that you can write a character with special superhuman abilities. Find another way that doesn’t perpetuate a myth.

Myth #2: Antibiotics are good for getting rid of any infection. Nope. Antibiotics will only be good against bacterial infections… for viruses, you need an antiviral, and for parasites or fungi you need antiparasitic or antifungal agents. BUT also remember that use of antibiotics can lead to superbugs… those organisms that are not killed by a certain antibiotic, or are resistant. In fact, prescribing antibiotics for viral infections could also be contributing to antibiotic resistance of bacteria. If you’re interested in the major implications of antibiotic overuse, I recommend looking up information about antibiotic overuse and the post-antibiotic era. Scary stuff.

Myth #3: Hair and fingernails keep growing after death. They don’t. The body dries out after death, causing the skin to pull away from hair and nails so that it merely appears they have grown. They haven’t.

Myth #4: There is a dark side of the moon. Not really. This myth may come from the fact that on Earth we can only ever see one side of the moon. This is because the Earth and moon are what is called “tidally locked”, a case in which the rotation of the moon around its own axis is the same as its orbit around Earth, causing only one side of the moon to ever been seen by Earth. However, there is no dark side of the moon, as the sun hits every part of the moon at one point or another.

Myth #5: Brain cells (neurons) can’t regenerate in an adult. This is a myth that even scientists believed up until the late 1990s. It was thought that a person was born with as many neurons as they would get in their adult life, but in fact there are new neurons born all the time in a process called neurogenesis. There are particular regions of the brain where this process occurs regularly, such as the hippocampus (the region of memory).

Myth #6: People are left-brained or right-brained. This one isn’t true either. Whether an activity is creative or logical, both sides of the brain show activity. There is no such thing as a left-brained or a right-brained person.

I hope this gives you a place to start for your own writing. But I warn you, this barely scratches the surface. I encourage you to look at some other resources, including those listed above as well as other lists of scientific myth and fact such as on Alternet, Dan Koboldt (who discusses genetics myths in fiction), Listverse, IFLScience, and again this page from Berkeley. However, I encourage you to research any scientific idea you want to use in your writing. Doing the extra work now adds to your credibility and the enjoyment of your story by your readers!

My credentials to prove I know what I’m saying: BA in biology, MS in neuroscience, working in science industry since 2015.

This post first appeared on Paper Cranes Writing.