Thursday, 5 April 2012

Weaving fact and fiction

Our guest blogger, Rebecca Bollard, who is studying the social, political, and cultural aspects of new and emerging reproductive technologies, rides the tightrope between science and fiction this week as she talks about fictional representations of such technologies. Here is her blog:

Reproductive technology has long been the subject of science fiction and speculative fiction writers. Alduous Huxley (Brave New World) Margaret Atwood (Handmaid’s Tale) Ira Levin (The Boys from Brazil) and Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go)are among authors who have imagined dystopic futures involving cloning and artificial reproduction. Similarly, science fiction movies such as Gattaca, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Island explore a dystopic future where cloning is used to exert social control. 

However, since the success of IVF in the 1970s and the subsequent development of surrogacy and other reproductive technologies, increasing numbers of popular novelists and screenplay writers are using issues around reproductive technologies as devices to explore social and emotional issues. Books, TV shows, and movies now commonly use themes around IVF, surrogacy, and egg and sperm donation as plot points and story lines. These include popular TV shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Friends, and Brothers and Sisters, and relatively recent movies like The Switch,starring Jennifer Aniston, and Baby Mama, starring Tina Fey. For many people, these programmes and movies are their first introduction to reproductive technologies and the potential legal, social, and emotional ramifications of these technologies. 

The willingness of people to engage with fictional storylines based on reproductive technologies creates an exciting new avenue for science communication. In an article published in PUS, Grace Reid of the University of Alberta, Canada, has taken an in-depth look at the use of a drama-documentary (a fictional but possible story interspersed with factual portions) on cloning in the UK. The dramadoc If…Cloning Could Cure Us highlights a fictional court case of a scientist involved in cloning which was shown on the BBC and viewers were asked to participate in a telephone poll. Two outcomes were filmed but the viewers' response determined which outcome of the court case was broadcast.

Reid’s research with focus groups showed that the dramadoc was largely successful at entertaining and informing those who viewed it  but that there was potential for an even more successful public engagement. 

In their last blog post, Priya and Debashish asked whether public input around the most controversial areas of science was being heeded. Perhaps one way to engage with the public is to be creative in ways of reaching and communicating with them. The dramadoc is an example of how fact and fiction can be brought together to increase public engagement and understanding of science.

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