Dracula could have saved the Titanic

I finally finished something I was reading on the Kobo I posted about a couple of weeks ago (just because you're carrying around 100 books on a device the size of a greeting card doesn't make you read any faster, and I tend to read two or three books at once). I had to give up on Canterbury Tales because the formatting of the verses and the footnotes left a lot to be desired, so instead I worked my way through Dracula.

The only version of Dracula I'd ever read before was a magazine-size comic version when I was about eight. Since then I've seen two film versions (by Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola — the Herzog one is my favourite). Since I was a 17-year-old in North America in 1987 I also saw The Lost Boys, but I try to forget that as much as possible.

None of these three get across something that is glaringly obvious when you read the original: the reason why the story is novel-length is that the main characters keep screwing up all the time.

At first you can forgive them. With the exception of Van Helsing (I'll get to him in a moment), all of the "good guys" are Modern People of Modern Places: four proud citizens of the Glorious British Empire and an American. They're as any gadget freaks of our own times — Mina has separation anxiety if a typewriter isn't at hand for her to use, and Seward prefers to voice-record his diary on a newfangled phonograph than write or type it out. Jonathan takes Kodaks of the house he has selected for the Count as a matter of course. These people are logical, scientific, and love to document their lives. They share their journals with each other quite freely — a good reminder to anyone who thinks that social media is a new thing.

Where they fall down is when they are faced with something that does not fit neatly into their modern lives. That, of course, is vampirism in general and Count Dracula in particular. As horrified as they are of all the blood-drinking and wolf-controlling, it seems to me they are more horrified still that those superstitious peasants they love to pity may actually be onto something.

Science, or so I have been taught in science class, is a balance between two states: confidence that one has figured out how something works, and scepticism when something has not been absolutely proven. When someone using the scientific method is presented with a phenomenon that does not fit their theory, they're supposed to be willing to alter the theory. Even when no contradicting phenomenon exists, any scientific fact is always supposed to be footnoted, "until we learn better." Sometimes the "learn better" is that we learn more subtleties of how whatever it is actually works. Sometimes we have to be willing to throw everything we thought we knew out and start over again.

In Stoker's novel, Dracula gets as far as he does and causes as much damage as he does because the characters are slow to leave their old assumptions about what is safe and good and workable behind. Only Van Helsing, who is both a learned scholar and someone who is willing to get at the kernel of truth under the superstitions, is able to figure out what the Count is and what must be done to stop him. Still even he believes, again and again with all the other "good guys," that modern convention will make them safe just because it is modern convention.

I would love to make Dracula mandatory reading in a first-year engineering or physics class, with a single assignment attached to it: list all of the places where the heroes had evidence before them they should have taken seriously, but discounted out-of-hand because it didn't fit into the tidy world they normally inhabited. That is, when faced with evidence that the theory was wrong, they assumed that their observations must needs be incorrect, not the theory.

So the Titanic sails off with not enough lifeboats because someone with the power to decide these things concludes that "virtually unsinkable" is the same as "unsinkable," rather than doing some simple math to figure out how many lifeboats they do need should the worst happen and something shows up which all their safety design precautions don't take into account. Or a patient has an appointment at a doctor's office and gets told that there's nothing to worry about, just because the patient's symptoms don't fit into the neat little diagnostic box the doctor learned in medical school. This last example has happened to me personally — it took me over a year to get a CAT scan that proved something I had described to several doctors was a fact, and not just my imagination.

A lack of scepticism and a tendency to throw out contrary evidence can kill people. Much better to learn that from a fictional tale of blood and mayhem than the real thing.