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Sherlock to CSI: Mystery writers seek science accuracy

12 January 2013

From the BBC:

When Sherlock Holmes told Watson it was elementary, it really was – by modern sleuthing standards.

Today’s crime fiction and thriller writers, on the other hand, face a minefield of science and technology that is often essential to the plot – but hard to describe accurately.

Now, the Washington Academy of Sciences (WAS), established in 1898 by Alexander Graham Bell, has introduced a seal of approval for books with the scientific facts straight. Unlike most peer-review processes, this one is open to mystery writers.

. . . .

WAS President Jim Cole says many people encounter science through fiction and TV shows such as CSI, which can give the impression that technology can solve any crime.

“Science as it’s generally perceived by the public is not necessarily correct science,” he says.

“With self-publishing on the internet, I think this is going to be a huge issue in the future – about what’s real and what’s not real.”

Most successful authors realise the importance of thorough research. They also write about what they know – or quickly make contact with people who can offer expertise.

“I worry constantly about getting it wrong,” says New York Times bestselling author John Gilstrap.

. . . .

Scientists often disagree over real science. What happens when they cannot agree about the science and technology they read in fiction?

Ms Kay of WAS says the academy has been asked to approve a memoir by a well-known and highly respected neuroscientist.

“He practically invented neuroscience,” she says. “We’re not quite sure what to do about this, because if a reviewer comes back and says that on page 356 there’s a mistake in the science, and he says no there isn’t… what do we do?”

Four seals of approval have been conferred since the the group began offering the award in June. A fifth manuscript is currently under review.

Link to the rest at BBC and thanks to Randall for the tip.

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5 Comments to “Sherlock to CSI: Mystery writers seek science accuracy”

  1. “With self-publishing on the internet, I think this is going to be a huge issue in the future – about what’s real and what’s not real.”

    Really? Is the implication here that traditionally-published books are so thoroughly vetted that it’s NOT an issue? Then why offer a seal of approval for those books? I think everyone here knows that trad-pubbed books are rife with real-world errors that neither the author nor the editors knew enough to correct.

    Scientists often disagree over real science. What happens when they cannot agree about the science and technology they read in fiction?

    And here’s the real issue. Science is NOT another word for “facts” or “truth.” Scientific observation leads to hypotheses which are most often eventually disproved. Disproving hypotheses and forming new ones is how the field of science moves forward. When “science” as a kind of group-think agrees that something is a fact, their method trades science for dogma. So what the WAS is looking for is whether a fictional book fits current scientific thinking of…who? Someone who agrees with the majority on a certain topic? The whole enterprise seems more than a bit silly. Other’s mileage may, of course, vary.

    • Excellent points!

    • And it sounds like an opportunity actually. We need more books that show how actual scientists figure stuff out, by being wrong and getting told so by their peers, by arguing back with a refined explanation. From TV the House series had a huge component of that and it clearly went down well because they realised the similarity with that and detective work.
      I doubt if such books would pass the WAS test though.

  2. Any writer worth his or her salt should want to get their present day scientific facts straight.

    But it’s perhaps a blessing that this seal can’t be applied to futuristic scientific observations.

    Which brings me to one of my favourites about women, made by Professor Hans Friedenthal of Berlin University on July 12, 1914:

    “Brain work will cause her to become bald, while increasing masculinity and contempt for beauty will induce the growth of hair on the face. In the future, therefore, women will be bald and will wear long moustaches and patriarchal beards.”

    Could still happen, I suppose…

  3. I suppose that fiction now must somehow be seen as “factual”? In some distant part of the me the ability to lie, steal, and cheat while I write has been stolen by some idiot’s seal of approval, however I reserve the right to kill at will, father children, steal hearts and covet the sun – all things which drive writers to write. Accuracy be damned I say, let the words flow and the readers decide!

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