How Portal portrays science
Portal presents a world that indulges in the idea of science. The facility of Aperture is a place of endless testing and research, where every placement and movement is calculated and pre-determined. It’s walls are endlessly white, it’s environments are sterile and void of any character or sense of human touch. This is how Portal, though Aperture, presents science to us. Science is shown as something straight, efficient and consistent.
Portal 2 is different. It presents a world whose walls are scratched and dirty, overgrown with vegetation. It shows cracked tiles falling into the underground ocean, rooms filled with broken machine parts, turret bots assembled and disassembled. Aperture turns from the straight and sterile into mess and malfunction. And through Aperture, Portal 2 presents science as confused, uncertain, and perhaps even purposeless.
It’s a trickle down effect. Aperture carries a warped view of science, a mindset imposed on by its founder, Cave Johnson, and his successor GlAdos. Cave’s tapes, played throughout the old test chambers, permeate the facility with science rhetoric, but are void of substance or context.
At Aperture we do all our science from scratch; no hand holding.
I’ll be honest, we’re throwing science at the walls here to see what sticks.
Worst case scenario, you miss out on a few rounds of canasta, plus you forwarded the cause of science by three centuries
Science isn’t about why, it’s about why not. You ask: why is so much of our science dangerous? I say: why not marry safe science if you love it so much.
Cave’s use of science is vague. It demonstrates no understanding of what science is or how it works. Instead, science becomes a rhetoric, an umbrella term for all things grand, precise, and trustworthy. The idea that the science itself could be a “cause” to be “forwarded,” implies a kind of science that acts purely for its own sake, in an endless circle, a void. And that’s what Aperture becomes long after Cave’s death: a facility that acts purely for itself, performing endless tests conducted by robots in isolation and irrelevance.
Cave’s humourous, outlandish one-liners turn his ignorance into something conspicuous and caricaturish; it criticizes and makes fun of his nature through humour. His diction also paints him as an everyday man. His level of understanding is closer to the typical layman or the occasional science consumer, rather than one who should be running a research facility. Cave, then, seems to reflect more on us as the public that absorbs science media and culture throughout our lives. His ignorance and sensationalization of science becomes a reflection of the publics.
It’s a known phenomenon among scientists that the general public doesn’t understand science very well. Many people surveyed by the Pew Research Center don’t understand basic science–for example, only 46% were aware that electrons are smaller than atoms, 47% understood that lasers work by focusing sound, about 60% knew that Pluto is, in fact, not a planet anymore, and 61% were aware they’ve recently found water on Mars. When the Charlton research company performed a health survey in the U.S, they found that 66% couldn’t name a working scientist; most of those who could chose Stephen Hawking. 84% couldn’t name their government agency that funds science. 62% couldn’t name the government agency whose job it is to prevent diseases, and promote health. And 50% couldn’t name the agency that funds medical research, an agency paid by the public through taxes. Those aren’t textbook questions; they’re basic knowledge of how science functions in one’s society.
Despite this, the public, like Cave Johnson, has high regard for science (at least in the U.S.) Most of those surveyed believe that science has a positive effect on society, and that scientists contribute to the well-being of society. Most believe that scientific research is necessary and should be government supported. Our culture is engaged with the idea of science, since it is a part of popular media such as speculative fiction, high-grossing films, AAA games and popular literature.
In 1994, Alan G. Gross discussed two ways in which science is communicated to people. The first was a deficit model, a one-way flow that “implies a passive public;” practitioners don’t try to persuade people of the value of science, but act as though the public is already persuaded; they refrain from convincing or building trust. The second was the contextual model, a “two-way flow” that stresses the “interaction between science and its publics;” public trust is built, not assumed; the needs of science and the needs of those who aren’t fully engaged into science are better integrated.
Aperture Testers are intimidated, deceived, and taken advantage of. There is no communication or building of trust, only condescension and the belief that their experiments are worth the pain caused to others. This is the “one-way flow” that Alan discusses. It’s a mindset that’s assuming of its own importance, and lacking the need to justify itself. But Aperture acts in isolation. What’s different here, is that science is an interaction between two forces: those who communicate science, and those who consume it, though scientists, science media, general media, and pop culture. The way we interpret science is influenced by those who communicate science to us.
In the end, it’s not necessarily how much science we as a public know, but rather how it’s interpreted. If science is a tug between two forces, then wouldn’t that mean science is best interpreted as a two way flow as a conversation between those forces. When we see rovers land on neighboring planets, or mathematicians teach cardioids through notepad doodles, or documentaries where physicists describe their excitement towards finding new particles, science isn’t planting its feet in the sand and waiting for us to learn how to appreciate it; it’s adapting its language towards the way people engage themselves: through ambition, imagination, dedication, and passion. Here, science doesn’t assume it’s own righteousness, but acts to justify itself and convince others of its value.
Perhaps then, there’s a way a society can be in constant conversation with science. Portal 2 conversely, presents a world where science only speaks to itself. It’s quite lonely, really.
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