Let’s begin by considering the scientific method. It’s basically a mental tool that has evolved to explain the phenomena of nature. It is supposed to be used in a way that leads to testable predictions that can be used by humans to manipulate their environment in a reproducible way. The steps of the method involve creating an hypothesis – a thought story or explanation of an observed phenomenon. The hypothesis must fit well with other known facts related to the phenomenon. Tools such as Occam’s Razor are often applied to ensure the hypothesis is as simple as possible.
The primary criterion for an hypothesis is that it lead to testable predictions. If it can’t be tested, then its explanatory value is roughly akin to that of magic. Science generally doesn’t operate on the basis of, “It happens because it happens,” or “It happens because of a wizard who wants it that way.” For those who are so minded, one can say, “It happens because the universe is so constituted,” but that still doesn’t fit the criteria for testability.
The hypothesis is used to create predictions and then experiments are designed to (hopefully) test the predictions. I’m not going to delve into the problems with experimenter bias except to state that it exists and can innocently lead to mistaken assumptions about how to test the predictions. Of course, there are those who are biased and who intentionally design experiments to prove their bias, or even falsely report the data. Modern science is vulnerable to such problems due to the selection of experiments with sexy, positive results for publication and the relationship of being published with tenure and grants. But, that’s a structural problem that can and mostly is overcome by careful and conscientious researchers. There can also be bias due to established scientific fables; things that are believed by a consensus of scientists that later turn out to be incorrect.
When a hypothesis generates predictions that turn out to be correct, it can be woven into existing knowledge to create a scientific theory – a logically reasoned and self-consistent model.
The benefits of this approach are well known. In essence, modern society is largely due to our use of science as a tool for manipulating our reality.
Now that we’ve looked at what science is, lets back up for a moment to the point before an hypothesis is generated. This may be during the progression of a course of research by a scientist or scientists, but it might also be the result of curiosity about a novel question asked by nearly anyone. This is where science fiction can come into play as an entertaining, but possibly useful method of asking questions.
The science fiction genre covers all sorts of stories ranging from those that postulate fictional (and often impossible) worlds, those that deal with social issues such as gender identity or political structures, and those which deal with worlds that are more in line with the reality we’re presented with daily. Those latter forms of speculative science fiction can postulate devices, principles, and discoveries. Devices can range from communication devices (who knew that Captain Kirk’s communicator would end up as a personal cell phone with an unlimited number of functions) to weapons such as rail guns, plasma cannon, etc. to space ships of various types.
Speculative science fiction read by the right person can lead that person to ask critical “what if” questions in a form that might eventually lead to scientific discoveries and thus to the creation of new tools that can be used by humans to, “Boldly go where no man has gone before,” and this result is not an insignificant or trivial thing. To the extent that speculative thought leads to creation of novel hypotheses, science fiction likely plays an heuristic role in human development.
In light of this conclusion, I’ve tried to create devices such as FTL engines, matter transporters, and weapons that are loosely related to current research or, at least, speculative theories. My crystal ball broke the day before I started writing, though, so I doubt that my speculative devices will come into existence – at least in the form that I’ve described in my books.