Guest Post: Scientific Accuracy in Literature:
The WAS Seal of Approval doesn’t get Mine

by Nancy Fulda

Nancy Fulda

According to newflashes popping up around the web, the Washington Academy of Sciences has created a seal of approval for the scientific accuracy of novels.

I initially greeted this announcement with enthusiasm.  I wholeheartedly approve of the notion behind the award.  Science has become so broad, with advancement in so many fields, that it’s difficult for any one person to stay on top of all the facts.  As a reader, I like getting a good education along with my fiction.  I would love to see a reliable, irreproachable organization step forward to honor books that explore scientifically plausible truths.

I’m just not convinced that the Washington Academy of Sciences is that source.

The Washington Academy of Sciences (WAS) seal of approval sounds appealing on the surface.  Peer-reviewed novel manuscripts, submitted to the same rigorous scrutiny as technical research papers?  Oh yeah, I want that.  But is this what the WAS is really doing?

A quick look at the January 9th article from BBC, which seems to be the root source of the information percolating through the internet, confirms that four books have been awarded the WAS seal of approval, with a fifth under review.  Eager to see which of the world’s authors had received the distinctive honor of being the first peer-reviewed scientific novel, I looked up the titles.

And felt my enthusiasm drain away.

Number one on the list is a book called “Me Tarzan, You Dead”, written by the same Peg Kay who is quoted in the BBC article, and featuring a cartoon-illustration cover image in which a box-headed robot has pushed a human being off a building.  The book’s publisher is listed as … are you ready for this? …  the Washington Academy of Sciences.

Oops.  Well, maybe it was just a fluke.  The Academy had to pick someone as its first guinea pig, and if the – and I’m quoting from the biographical information on the back of the book, here – “recently-retired Executive Director of the Washington Academy of Sciences” happened to have a book ready for publication, maybe that’s as good a place to start as any.

What about the rest of the list?

The second book to receive the WAS seal hasn’t been published yet, so it’s a bit hard to evaluate.

Number three is titled “A Century of Astronomy from the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences”.  According to the book description on Amazon, it’s a compilation of research papers on astronomy topics published during the past 100 years.  Scientifically accurate?  I would hope so, since the papers were originally published in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences.  But not the action-packed space drama or mystery thriller I’d been hoping to see featured.  Maybe my conception of the award isn’t the same as its originators.

The fourth and final book to receive the WAS seal of approval is a distressing echo of the first.  “The Hidden Giants” by Sethanne Howard was also published by the Washington Academy of Sciences.  Like “Me Tarzan, You Dead”, the cover appears to have been built using one of Amazon’s self-publishing templates.  No obvious affiliation between Ms. Howard and the WAS on the book’s info page, but this 2012 Awards Banquet program lists her as the Vice President in charge of Membership.

At this point, I feel ready to scream at the heavens.  The WAS seal of approval sounded so noble when I first read about it.  So enlightened.  I want that gesture of respect toward authors’ diligent efforts to present truth interwoven with their fiction.

Instead I’ve got… I’m not sure what.  At best, a grass-roots effort that may someday grow into the grandeur of the concept.  At worst, a publicity stunt intended to promote the self-published novels of past and current WAS members.

I dunno.  If I were the head of a scientific organization and I wanted to honor scientific accuracy in literature, I’d start with books that had already been published.  Something by Robert J. Sawyer, perhaps, or David Brin.  I’d put out a call to publishing houses to submit their favorites for consideration.  I’d reach out to schools and universities to let them know that, wow and gee whiz, here are some books that are educational and fun to read at the same time.  I’d model my approach off the Caldecott or Newberry Awards, or some other established and successful system.

I wouldn’t give the award to books published by my own organization.  I wouldn’t choose a definition of ‘peer-reviewed’ so narrow that, apparently, only members of the aforementioned organization are considered peers.

Don’t get me wrong.  I desperately want scientific seal of approval for literature.  But I want it for real.  And when I find an organization that’s offering it, you can bet I will be back here, shouting about it from the rooftops.

Until then, I’m just going to stay right here in the box seats, playing the skeptic.

•••

Nancy Fulda is a Phobos Award Winner, a Vera Hinckley Mayhew Award recipient, and the winner of the 2011 Jim Baen Memorial Award.  She studied artificial intelligence during her graduate work at Brigham Young University.  During the years since, she has grappled with the far more complex process of raising three small children.

Nancy has been a featured writer at Apex Online, a guest at the Writing Excuses podcast, and is a regular attendee of the Villa Diodati Writers’ Workshop.

7 Responses

  1. Morgan Alreth

    I wouldn’t worry about it. During the last two or three generations, science fiction has often been the one defining and validating scienctific advances. Academia has been the one struggling and panting along behind, trying breathlessly to catch up. How many concepts were first introduced in science fiction and are now mainstream? Got a few hours? Moreover, universities are notoriously incestuous when it comes to handing out recognition.

  2. Gratbarst

    “Peer-reviewed novel manuscripts, submitted to the same rigorous scrutiny as technical research papers? Oh yeah, I want that.”
    Do you really? And who are these peers of the novelist? Or are you suggesting that only the scientifically qualified should be allowed to write novels? SF should only be written by engineers?
    Fiction of the imagination is about freedom. The freedom to get stuff wrong is part of that, because sometimes the truth of the piece is a human truth not a scientific one. The actual autoignition point of paper is an irrelevance, there is no spoon, we can’t make the jump to light speed, Icarus can’t fly with feathers and wax, but the idea that some OCD engineering student rejects a story because they can’t get past the solar tolerance of bees’ wax in fourth century BC Greece, is missing the point, and the point is imagination does not have to be scientifically accurate it merely needs to be illuminating or fun

  3. David Brin

    Thanks for the heads-up and fascinating report, Nancy. Good investigation, too. (And thanks especially for the sweet shout-out!)

    I looked further into this and I do think it is important to note the difference between an award or prize, on the one hand, and a “certification” on the other. The latter has no number limit or ranking.

    While I agree that it was ham-handed and absurd for the WAS to give their first certifications to in-house published or pal-written (and likely amateurish) works, one could envision that they meant it simply as pump-priming, to start the works and certs flowing. Still, ham-handed it is. They have lost cred to recover.

    Thanks again Nancy and keep up the great work.

    david brin
    http://www.davidbrin.com

  4. S. Howard

    The Washington Academy of Sciences offers this service to its members only, not to the general public, hence the restriction to books published by members. The BBC article did not make this clear. It would be great to offer such a service to the wide world of books, and the Academy is perhaps a place to start and not to finish. In addition, the review is restricted only to science content, not style of writing.

  5. peg kay

    Nancy has some valid points, but it would have been better if she had read the books before she pooh-poohed the whole thing. The Academy initially intended the Seals to be a service to our members. The BBC covered one of our events and neglected to mention that this was not a service provided to the multitude. But once the article (which I thought was a good one) was published, we found ourselves the recipient of many requests for the Seal. The third book which received the seal was Karl Pribram’s “The Form Within”. This is a major work by a distinguished scientist who spent a lifetime contributing to the field of neuroscience. I’m not sure what the fourth book is supposed to be — we’ve only awarded the 3 seals. We have several more books out for review (none of them published by the Academy), one of them SciFi.

    In response to the criticism that SciFi should have the freedom of imagination, I could not agree more. As we explained to one of our reviewers, if a novel states that time travel has been a reality since 1991, we would not award the Seal. If the novel is set in 2100 and makes the same claim, that would not eliminate it from consideration.

    The remark that the Kay and Howard books are amateurish — it would be better if you read them before you take potshots. I’m no judge of my own work but Dr.Howard’s Hidden Giants received the award for the third edition of that book. Earlier editions have been the basis of many of her talks on the lecture circuit. It’s a good solid piece of research.

    Final point. We review every book sent to us before making a decision. Don’t you think you should do the same?