Science Stereotypes


“Scientific discoveries are made by people; they don’t just happen,” wrote Ruth Levy Guyer in our textbook. Who are these people?

madscientistThe scientist is often portrayed as an isolated man in a laboratory driven by insanity, greed, or selfishness. He’s the awkward nerd spewing physics jargon in the face of a pretty girl. He’s the scatterbrained teacher who accidentally creates a monster or invents a miracle. She’s the hysterical woman whose message will not be heard. How can writers make scientist characters more accurate, diverse, interesting, and effective? Why should writers care about the truthfulness of their real or imagined scientists? One of ways to improve the coverage of science in the news media is to focus stories on how science works. And one of the best ways to illustrate how science works is to show scientists doing science. This approach also appeals to the human desire for narrative structure, for a protagonist, for action in stories.

The Harris Poll consistently finds scientists near the top of the “most prestigious occupations,” after firefighters and above doctors, nurses, teachers, and military officers. The percentage of Americans who say scientists are ‘odd and peculiar’ has dropped, although one-quarter still agree (Losh 2010).

So why do scientists have such a bad image?

According to Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum in their book Unscientific America, there’s something about scientists that triggers a particular kind of stereotyping, and that this reflects our society’s uneasiness with the power they can sometimes wield.

As Stephen Shapin recently noted, “the modern American scientist is held in some esteem, valued as a useful sort of person, but there is little understanding of what it might be to engage in scientific inquiry for its own sake and little evident approval of such a thing.”

alchemistRoslynn Haynes, a professor of English in Australia, identified seven primary stereotypes of scientists. According to Haynes, “the master narrative of the scientist is of an evil maniac and a dangerous man.” These stereotypes provide a useful framework for thinking about humanizing science writing.

The evil alchemist. Alchemy began with metalworkers in Egypt. When it was translated from Arabic writings to medieval Europe, it was associated with heresy and the black arts: the sinister magician, the devil’s worker, illegal, proud, arrogant, secretive, power-hungry. Dr. Faustus and Victor Frankenstein continue to provide metaphors for modern, cutting-edge research. The alchemist appears in plots that depend on the supernatural and the paranormal—stories in which the credulous believer is always right and the scientist-skeptic is always wrong.

spockThe noble scientist. The first literary work to depict scientists in a positive light was Sir Francis Bacon’s utopian vision, New Atlantis (1627), which depicted the scientist as an altruistic idealist. Star Trek’s rational Mr. Spock brings order that often saves the Enterprise. Dennis Quaid’s character in The Day After Tomorrow advocates on behalf of all the ignorant people, risks his own life to save those caught in an unprecedented, climate change-driven storm. Bad Science author Ben Goldacre is critical of such portraits of scientists: “The media work around their inability to deliver scientific evidence by using authority figures, the very antithesis of what science is about, as if they were priests, or politicians, or parent figures. ‘Scientists today said…scientists revealed…scientists warned.’ And if they want balance, you’ll get two scientists disagreeing, although with no explanation of why (scientists are ‘divided’). One scientist will ‘reveal’ something, and then another will ‘challenge’ it. A bit like Jedi knights. The danger of authority figure coverage, in the absence of real evidence, is that it leaves the field wide open for questionable authority figures to waltz in.”

profThe foolish scientist (a.k.a. absent minded professor). Satires depict scientists as foolish, cultish, comic. The laughable, lovable absent minded professor clumsily creates flubber and wins hearts with his eccentricity. “Scientists are unusually insightful and intuitive people who have a strong need for organization and application of concepts. They might have difficulty expressing their ideas, because they don’t think linearly, and their life of the mind could lead others to regard them as aloof” wrote Steve Bunk. Gary Larsen loved the foolish scientist. I like to think his mocking comes from a place of affection and respect.

The inhuman researcher. As science and society evolved, so did science stereotypes. Dr. Frankenstein fits here, too, as do the atomic scientists working on the bomb during World War II. Then the Cold War gave added weight to this stereotype with their documented declarations of unconcern about the human cost of their inventions. What does it mean when we apply this metaphor to others, as in the “Frankenstein economy” of the 2008 financial meltdown on Wall Street?

The scientist as adventurer (e.g., Indiana Jones), as brave, optimistic explorer, traveler of space and time. Jon Palfreman (Nieman Reports 2002) sees television science documentaries as being drawn from a small handful of approved genres, one of which is “archaeology and legends: expeditions, lost treasures, mummies, dinosaur bones, mammoths, the use of forensic methods to uncover the past.” The other genres he identified are “forces of nature,” “modern history,” and “boys and their toys.”

farmersThe mad, bad, dangerous scientist. As science increased in power, so did the stereotypes, evolving from the alchemist tradition to the cataclysmic. In Unscientific America, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum wrote, “The uncaring scientist, unconcerned about consequences, pursuing knowledge at all costs—this is the ugliest scientist stereotype, and also the most deeply rooted. It hails from a long literary tradition, before Frankenstein to Greek stories that depict the search for knowledge as forbidden and dangerous, and leading to disastrous consequences. In this narrative, knowledge leads the scientist to play God, interfere with nature, and attempt to thwart fate by determining who lives and who dies.” The mad scientist can be easily exposed as a wannabe, a fraud, a rogue.

The helpless scientist. The seventh and last stereotype identified by Haynes is the scientist who becomes a victim of his or her own discovery. This is science out of control.

How pervasive are these stereotypes?

bigbangIn the Big Bang Theory, scientists are unattractive, socially inept, indifferent, uncool, but smart. Scientists are distant, long-winded, incomprehensible. The lead scientist in Bones, while female and attractive, adheres to the stereotypes of rationality (to a fault), atheism, and a cold lack of emotion. In fact, the cracks that emerge in this façade are a major plot that runs through the series.

Movies and television portray scientists that are absorbed in the details of their work, ‘wedded to the job.’ A a recent analysis of scientist portrayals on TV (Dudo 2010) found that of 2,868 characters, one percent were portrayed as scientists, mostly white males. Scientists are more likely to be characterized as good, although science as an activity is portrayed as dangerous and violent.

As David Kirby described in the 2011 book Lab Coats in Hollywood, filmmakers are not unaware of these stereotypes.  Science consultants are frequently brought in to comment on scientific matters involving the script, the actors, the sets, the props, and any other relevant factor during production. Concerns about science in the movies has led several scientific advocacy organizations to develop programs to facilitate more scientific involvement in the production of television programs and films, including the National Academy of Science’s Science & Entertainment Exchange, the Creative Science Studio, and the Sloan Foundation’s Film Development program.

Why should any of this matter? As Kirby wrote, “Popular films impact scientific culture by effecting public controversies, enhancing funding opportunities, promoting research agendas, and stimulating the public into political action…Moreover, entertainment texts can influence scientific thought by foregrounding specific scientific ideas and providing narrative reasons to accept them as representing them as reality.”

As science writers, we have an obligation to write truthfully about science, and to portray scientists not as stereotypes, but as real people, just like you and me.

REFERENCES

Steve Bunk, “The Natural History of Science Personalities” in Science Writers Spring 2003.

Anthony Dudo, 2010. Science on television in the 21st century: recent trends in portrayals and their contributions to public attitudes toward science. Comm. Res.

Ben Goldacre, www.badscience.net

Roslynn Haynes, From alchemy to artifical intelligence: stereotypes of the scientist in Western literature. Public Understanding of Science 12 (2003):243-253.

Kirby, David A., 2011. Lab Coats in Hollywood. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Losh, Susan Carol. 2010. Stereotypes about scientists over time among US adults: 1983 and 2001. PuoS 19:372-382.

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, Unscientific America (see Chapter 7).

Jon Palfreman, “Bringing science to a television audience” Nieman Reports 2002.

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