It Sounds Like Science Fiction But ... It's A Cliché

Apr 9, 2017
Originally published on April 9, 2017 8:16 pm

In the 1994 film Timecop, Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a police officer who uses a time machine to catch criminals. Time-traveling law enforcement may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but if one researcher has her way, it will soon become science fact.

See what I did there? That paragraph encapsulates the most tired cliché of science writing: "It sounds like science fiction but it's true. "

Sounds like Sci-Fi gets used everywhere, from CNN, to The New York Times, to yes ... here on NPR. And once you see it, you can't unsee it. The best examples usually include a reference to a mid-1990s sci-fi film, just to make crystal-clear what science fiction this particular science fact refers to.

In 15 years of reporting, I've lost track of how many times I've run into "Sounds like Sci-Fi." And last year, I became a science editor here at NPR. NPR's Ethics Handbook carries a warning on cliches:

"Reporters and news writers are under deadline pressure, and these are the phrases that spring to mind. The editor's job is not to let them get away with it."

And yet, like Jean-Claude Van Damme's character in Timecop, I may need to violate the very guidelines I am sworn to enforce.

A big part of our job on NPR's science desk is to tell you about the latest scientific findings. That involves cramming a lot of complicated science into a very small space, and hopefully presenting it in a way that prevents your eyes from glazing over.

Science fiction plays an important role in two ways. First, most people are not familiar with the latest findings on antimatter, but they do know Star Trek. So if I can use Mr. Spock to introduce the concept, then I'm giving our readers and listeners something to grab on to: a little piece of the familiar in a story that is otherwise abstruse. (In fact, new research on antimatter was the one case in recent memory where I indulged in the cliché.)

Second, science fiction often revolves around the moral questions of technology. It can help the public understand potential problems before they become real. Take for example, a gene-editing tool known as CRISPR-Cas9. While it's not yet well-known outside the world of science, this inscrutably-acronymed technology allows researchers to cut and paste genetic code like lines in a word-processing document. Researchers are already looking ahead to how such gene-editing might be used in humans to eliminate disease.

Or, more worryingly, they could use CRISPR to create designer babies. It's the stuff of Brave New World but it's real. Actually, to keep truer to the trope, it's the stuff of the 1997 film Gattaca. And those two dystopic views of genetics are a good way to help people begin to grapple with the problems something like CRISPR might bring.

We live in an era where the pace of change is quick. The lines between science fiction and science fact often blur. Science journalists will continue to pull from science fiction, and they will inevitably write the "sounds like science fiction" cliché.

That doesn't mean I'll let them do it regularly on my watch. And there is one technology that exists purely as science fiction: time travel. That's why you won't see me making reference to Timecop anytime soon, either.

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There's a cliche that gets used when people write about science. You've heard it before, including here on NPR.


AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: These laws come from the world of science fiction, but the real world is catching up...

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: It is hard to even say that sentence without feeling like you're relating some science fiction tale...

IRA FLATOW: Seems hard to believe and maybe more like science fiction, but some theoretical physicists...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It sounds like science fiction, but it's real is the phrase. And it pops up all the time when describing some cool, crazy or horrifying scientific development. Geoff Brumfiel is a science editor here at NPR. And he's turned spotting these cliches into a bit of a hobby, so we asked him on to talk about it. Hey, Geoff.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. So we got this because you have a running list of examples on Twitter and Facebook (laughter) of it-sounds-like-science-fiction-but stories. So walk us through an example.

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, what got me going on this this week was actually a headline in The New York Times, "To Curb Global Warming, Science Fiction May Become Fact," which is pretty much verbatim the cliche. You know, the best examples reference a movie, preferably from the '90s.


BRUMFIEL: So hold on, I'm going to pull up a classic here. One of the all-time greats. The 1996 film "Twister" followed a group of scientists trying to collect data from inside a tornado. This may sound like science fiction, but anyone who's watched the Discovery Channel series "Storm Chasers" knows the idea is not farfetched. You have 1990s film and basic cable all in the same headline.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, that sounds like the perfect storm (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter) Very good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But wait, we have a story that we have uncovered from All Things Considered 2015. And you are talking about a study about antimatter where you use, of course, "Star Trek" to describe the findings. Let's listen.


LEONARD NIMOY: (As Mr. Spock) Two parallel universes - one matter, the other antimatter.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And here you are.


BRUMFIEL: Antimatter is totally sci-fi, but it's also totally real and really mysterious.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why did you resort to this cliche?

BRUMFIEL: Well, part of it is an homage because I do love the cliche. I couldn't help myself. And the other thing is that this is a case where science fiction is science fact. So antimatter - what do you think it is?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's against it. It's like...

BRUMFIEL: The opposite.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The opposite, thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Right. And if antimatter and matter collide, what do you think happens?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: An explosion? Energy?

BRUMFIEL: Totally. It's true - no, energy, an explosion. So antimatter is a case where science fiction and science fact happen to be virtually identical. And that's why I felt I could get away with it. Why not, right? Have a little fun.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So that's your defense. But I'm curious...

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...What other scientific discoveries do you think live up to the cliche? And I'm also curious about this thing because when I go reading through the newspaper, and I see all these discoveries that are living up to, you know, the future that we might have envisioned back in the day, some of them seemed really scary to me. So what seems exciting and what seems frightening?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I chose these very carefully. I actually asked the collective NPR science desk before I came on for their ideas. And these two stood out to me because they are like science fiction, but they're actually happening now, and most people don't even realize it.

So the first one is something called CRISPR CAS9. Don't even ask me what it stands for. I don't have a clue. But what I can tell you is this is a brand new gene editing tool that allows people to cut and paste genes - genetic information, that is - in a way that they've never been able to do before. It's extremely precise. And it has a lot, a lot of potential for doing all sorts of things curing diseases, genetically modifying organisms and so...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Designer babies?

BRUMFIEL: Well, absolutely. You know...


BRUMFIEL: Let's go for the...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Scary (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: Let's get for the sci-fi movie analogy, "Gattaca," right?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And what's the other one? What's the other one?

BRUMFIEL: OK. The other one is something called deep learning. It's actually in computers, and this is a new type of artificial intelligence. Computers can basically educate themselves by looking at millions of games. Or, you know, there's another algorithm that can look at all the pictures of all the dogs on the internet, and it can tell you - it can learn every species of dog out there without anyone ever telling it anything. So, again, really cool. Happening right now. Facebook can use it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But tomorrow, maybe the Terminator.

BRUMFIEL: Maybe the Terminator, absolutely.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, thanks so much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.