The facts about fictions and vice versa: public understanding of human genetics

Michael, Mike and Carter, S.. 2001. The facts about fictions and vice versa: public understanding of human genetics. Science as Culture, 10(1), pp. 5-32. [Article]

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Abstract or Description

How does one draw the boundary between scientific fact and science fiction? As is well-known, this seemingly innocent question belies the complex inter-weavings—and the co-constitution—of the ‘factual’ and the ‘fictional’. For example, over recent years there has been a growth in popular dramas that use developments in the biomedical
sciences as central features of their narratives. In many of these dramas the actual content of biomedical knowledge is often little more than a theatrical prop to the psychology of the main protagonist—who has the potential to use knowledge in the furtherance of either good (e.g. The Citadel, 1938, Dr. Finlays Case Book, 1962) or harm (e.g. Frankenstein, 1931). More recently, fictional products, while still using the personality
of the medical scientist as a narrative device, have attempted to depict some of the content of the biomedical sciences and associated technologies. For example, the film Gattaca (1997) portrayed a future world obsessed with genetic screening and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis—technologies that have been available for the last 10 years. Indeed, the producers of the film made use of genetics consultants to ‘make sure the science wasn’t absurd’. Originally the film contained a final segment, cut from most versions on general release, that returned the viewer from a ‘fictional’ future to a ‘factual’ past. Stills of modern heroes such as John F. Kennedy and Albert
Einstein were shown to emphasis that these individuals might never have been born into a world keen to eliminate all inherited ills. The final on-screen message was to be ‘of course, the other birth that may never have taken place is your own’. After test screenings and focus
groups with lay people, this segment of the film was cut because audiences were left feeling ‘personally attacked’ as genetic defectives (Science, 1997).

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science fiction, public understanding of science, critical, genre, biomedical research, media, student, school

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March 2001Published


Funding bodyFunder IDGrant Number
United Kingdom Medical Research CouncilUNSPECIFIED

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Date Deposited:

15 Jan 2010 16:14

Last Modified:

07 Jul 2017 11:12

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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