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Mastering Reading

HomenewsCulturePaul Krugman and the Power of Science Fiction

Paul Krugman and the Power of Science Fiction

Stephen Krashen provides evidence of the practical importance of reading fiction

“My mind is so free and unburdened that I am fixing to clean up my desk.”
Flannery O’Conner
Quoted by Susan Ohanian, Books Day by Day, entry for April 16

I cleaned my desk recently (more precisely, I started to…), and I came across Susan Ohanian’s article, “Nobel Prize Winning Economist Paul Krugman Was Inspired by Science Fiction, Not the Common Core” (Substance, December 2011, p. 3). Ohanian was reacting to Common Core architect David Coleman’s view that schools “need to de-emphasize fiction… just the facts.”

In my recent papers, I have reported on findings showing that those who read more know more about a variety of areas, including history and science, and most of what they read is fiction (see especially Stanovich and Cunningham, 1993).

Ohanian points out that fiction can give you even more: it can give you inspiration and a new way of seeing things. She describes how Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman was inspired to be an economist because of fiction, specifically science fiction, more specifically Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.

Ohanian quotes Krugman’s description in her article. Krugman said that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy “is a very unusual set of novels… It’s not about gadgets. Although it’s supposed to be about a galactic civilization, the technology is virtually invisible and it’s not about space battles or anything like that. The story is about… psychohistorians, who are mathematical social scientists and have a theory about how society works. The theory tells them that the galactic empire is failing, and they use that knowledge to save civilization. It’s a great image. I was 16 when I read it and I thought ‘I want to be one of those guys.’” Krugman decided that economics was the closest he could get.

The same thing happened to me. I also read the Foundation novels when I was a teenager, and I was also fascinated with the idea of doing this kind of research. It took a few decades until I found a way of being my version of a mathematical social scientist, an empirical scientist in a field that was not used to that kind of research. (I wasn’t the first; one of my professors, John Oller, showed me that empirical research in language acquisition and literacy development was not only possible but very worthwhile.)

Stanovich, K., and Cunningham, A. (1993). “Where Does Knowledge Come From? Specific associations between print exposure and information acquisition.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(2), 211–229.

Stephen Krashen is professor emeritus at Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California.

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