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(New page: ==Portrayal of Scientists in Science Fiction== 14 October 2009 ===The Questions=== Dear ICMB people, with apologies to those not interested: I have been asked to take part in a panel d...)
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Portrayal of Scientists in Science Fiction

14 October 2009

The Questions

Dear ICMB people, with apologies to those not interested:

I have been asked to take part in a panel discussion at the ESRC Genomics Forum on Wednesday evening on the portrayal of scientists in science fiction and also perception of how scientists are viewed in 'science studies'. I am the token scientist, expressing scientists' views on these topics. If anyone has any strong opinions on the subject, I would welcome your input. For example, do you think scientists are fairly portrayed in science fiction, or is there an unreasonably large proportion who are deranged and/or evil, or just one-dimensional (no friends, family, etc.)? Would you make a distinction between science fiction novels and the more simplistic portrayals on films and on TV? Do you think science fiction encourages children to want to study science, or become scientists themselves? Was this the case for you? Also, do you think 'science studies' (ie, sociologists studying scientists in their native habitat) is useful, or is it impossible for non-scientists to reach useful conclusions about how science really works?

I would be glad to know your opinions on these subjects.


Chris F.

The Answers

Response 1

Hi Chris

Hmmm leading question. I think the main problem is that scientists are played with far too much mystique, driven in part by the media appetite for hyperbole. This probably does more harm than good as people view the scientific method as something outside the realm of normal life, which of course could not be further from the truth. Sadly, Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and Inspector Morse have probably done more to promote analytical thinking than and science fiction book or movie ever have...

Response 2

Hi Chris,

reading and watching sci-fi as a child and teeager, was definitely one influence on making me want to be a scientist. I?ve also observed that people I know who aren't scientists themselves, but who read or watch sci-fi are much more interested in actual science than those who don?t like sci-fi. I think that sci-fi encourages some people to find out the real story, e.g. reading about 'clones' or 'mutants' in a sci-fi novel might encourage people to find out what the true situation is today regarding human cloning and genetic research. This is in some ways shown by the popularity of 'the science behind' books attached to the likes of Star Trek, etc.

Response 3

How kind of them to invite a 'token scientist'!

My view (if it helps) is based on the kind of thing my 10 year old son is prone to watch.

Overall science on the television looks too easy - and fast! I think that this can raise expectations of research (what do you mean you have been studying this for 3 years and your still not sure how it works?!) and create an impression that scientists race headlong into something without due care (attitudes to GM).

On a more positive note if science is portrayed as dynamic and quick then children are more likely to see it as achievable and fun to pursue.

I'm certainly glad that the number of evil, dysfunctional and batty scientists that reach our television screens do not appear to be present in ICB!

Good Luck on Wednesday.

Response 4

Dear Chris,

that actually is an interesting topic and challenging task, and for me a welcome distraction whilst writing up my evil PhD science.

I think for every bad scientist in novels and films you'll find a good one who eventually contributes in saving the world or whatever. Thus, the balance is there and I personally do not feel unfairly represented. I can also imagine that people who read/watch and thus like science fiction might have a better understanding and more rationale view of the real world, and what is scientifically possible, compared to non-scientists who have no contact to this area of entertainment. Therefore, I think science fiction media make an important contribution to our life as scientists, as they make non-scientists engage with the matter and very often get them interested in specific topics. I believe this is especially true for kids who are usually more open and unbiased towards everything.

To explain our work and motivation to non-scientists, and get them interested in the complicated stuff we do, I believe, is the most difficult thing for us to achieve (after getting good grants, of course). As it is so complicated and a challenge to communicate, science fiction often simplifies and of course talks about things that are currently impossible or very, very difficult to achieve and no way standard procedures (maybe cloning of humans from somatic cells is a drastic example). And here I see a problem: if science fiction is not exagerating enough, so its clear to the reader/viewer that this is purest fiction, than the people might be misled and misunderstand our work.

To the sociologist studies: I wasn't aware that we are the subjects of studies like this, but it's kind of logical. I often thought about distributing a few webcams in our lab and put them live on the internet so people can at least see the physical activity going on in a real-world lab. Of course, other people are doing this for a long time already and there is some really cool stuff on the internet, which I think is great and fun to watch. But in the end, I believe if you really want to understand how science works and what drives scientists you have to try it yourself for a while and experience the frustration along the way, which of course is usually not featured in science fiction as of course everything works out immediately.

Since I am a kid I'm enjoying TV series like 'Natural World' (David Attenborough) etc., which in me triggered the wish to learn more about the wonders of life and become a scientist. This of course is not science fiction, but because its real and all around us, it is even more fascinating. And to understand a bit more than the average person why we are a part of this and how it works on a cellular level gets me in the lab almost every day.

Hope that helps.

Response 5

Hi Chris,

Good luck, it's a huge can of worms. Misguided genius, evil and/or mad scientists all make great stock if somewhat one dimensional characters.

In a nutshell up until the 80s scientists were pretty much the bad guys in film and tv sci-fi though there are exceptions (eg. Quatermass). This is not so much in novels though as novels generally have a lot more time to build character and give thought and reasoning behind actions. Film and tv particularly in the US have a tendency to dumb down and play to stereotypes rather risk being original or challenge their viewers.

Having said that Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein is the starting point for a lot of this. Of course in the book there is the build up to his work, the creature is not explicitly made from dead body parts but more a construction made larger to allow copying intricate copies of part of the human anatomy. Frankenstein admits that reversing death is impossible but instead wants to create life, but much of all this is often overlooked in the film and tv adaptations.

There are many reasons behind modern media's take on scientists, after all scientist were behind some of the terror weapons in WWII like the V1 and V2 and of course ultimately responsible for the atom bomb.

Even the "good" scientists seldom fair well in film & tv and are made out to be eccentric at best and plain nuts at worst (see Q from the Bond films compared to say Brent Spiner in Independence Day).

Things have improved lately with the American National Acedemy of Sciences setting up the Science and Entertainment Exchange, which has started to make progress in sci-fi films and tv. See more about it at Possibly because the science part of sci-fi has more recently tried to be plausible or have some reasoning behind it all, which has in turn relied on more scientists being consultants.

There are a lot of good articles on this already around on the web if you take a look around.


Response 6

Dear Chris,

interesting subject!  What follows is a stream of thoughts that may or may not be relevant, but hopefully some of it will help!
One key point is that the villainous scientist is often much more obviously a scientist than the hero.  Heroes like batman and Doctor Who are extremely capable at science, but it is only one string to their bow, and hence only a part of their image (in Batman's case, one that only really comes out in the comics).  However villains tend to be more one-dimensional characters, hence some may be much more recognisable as "scientists".  The recent Dr Who revival had a classic example in Doctor Lazarus, whose efforts to become young again literally turned him into a monster.  On the other hand, more often than not the Doctor wins the day through his superior knowledge of science, or just pure brainpower, relative to his opponent.  But I do wonder what proportion of children would identify him as a scientist.
The portrayal of the scientist "meddling in things they don't understand" of course goes back a long way, with the invisible man and Dr Jekyll, although stories from around this time also may have more positive characters such as the guy from The Time Machine and the two professors in Conan Doyle's "The Lost world"
An example of a very positive recent portrayal is in the Amber Spyglass, which completed Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy.  This includes Mary Malone, a female scientist dogged by such mundane troubles as funding issues and pressure to close her research group from on high, whose investigations lead her to different worlds where she interacts with non-human, intelligent creatures.
I'll send more if I think of it.  Good luck!

Response 7

Hi Chris,

The reason I became interested in Science and ultimately ended up doing my PhD was due to science-fiction/ super hero comics. Specifically I became interested in biology after watching large amounts of the X-men and Spidermen cartoons in the 1990's. So I believe Sci-Fi/ related media can get kids interested in science.

I don't think the portrayal of scientists is that bias towards the evil/mad scientist angle as I can think of quite a few examples where science/ scientists are portrayed positively in the media. of course there are a number of examples of that stereotype that I can also think of so I think there is a disposition towards it rather then a strong bias.

I think one good example of a positively portrayed scientist is the Doctor from Dr Who, as at the core the character is essentially a scientist and is in essence a hero with a strong moral compass, despite numerous character flaws (this opinion is based of both classic and new Dr Who).

I always find Star Trek is good for showing positively portrayed science, as many times it's science that saves the day, along with the heroism of the crew but it's their use of science that saves the day.

Finally Scully from the X files is a scientist whose also portrayed as a emotionally mature and sociable human being as well as being a highly skilled scientist.

These are my thoughts on the matter,

Hope its useful

Response 8

Hi Chris,

Re: do you think scientists are fairly portrayed in science fiction, or is there an unreasonably large proportion who are deranged and/or evil, or just one-dimensional (no friends, family, etc.)?

As avid science fiction reader, I would say that it is only the New York Times bestsellers that portray scientists as Dr Frankensteins, while the Hugo Award winners are more sympathetic and balanced -- unless of course by science fiction you mean the monthly Newsweek reports that scientists have cured cancer. The problem is not so much the fiction as the main stream media and the media-whore baby boomer scientists/university administrators that do not portray scientists per se, but spin our work either to overstate the public benefits (so that the public feels a subsequent let-down when they realize it is only the first step) or to create conflict (such as going back and forth between portraying us a Dr Frankensteins in one story on stem cell research while in another talking about the many lives it will save and in both ignoring the greater successes from adult stem cell research because they want to attack George Bush for redistributing money from stem cell research to adult stem cell research etc etc). In either case society in general gets a conflicted and confused vision of scientists and this becomes reflected in the fiction of the day.

Re: Would you make a distinction between science fiction novels and the more simplistic portrayals on films and on TV?

Yes there is a clear distinction with a decided bias in favor of portraying scientists unfavorably by Hollywood. But, again, I would argue that this is a reflection of the media portrayal as up until the mid-1960s Hollywood portrayed scientists as noble self-sacrificing individuals devoted to helping society. A particular comment about Hollywood that I feel very strongly about is not so much their negative portrayals of us as arrogant and hungering for notoriety and designing viruses to take over the world etc, but their misrepresentation of what we know. Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov both emphasized at lectures all the time the distinction between science fiction and fantasy. While I might extend the definition of science fiction beyond their limits, I would say that it is one thing for Star Trek to have a bunch of Ketchup bottles with different colored water in them that when applied can cure everything from burns to viral infections and it was quite another thing for Star Trek the Next Generation to talk about a virus activating introns and turning people in some cases into alligators and in other cases into lions based on what they respectively evolutionarily evolved from. There are so many ways that one could still have taken the premise and come up with some reasonable argument in either science fiction or fantasy to explain it and still have had a good story, but by misrepresenting what an intron is and how evolution proceeded they are enhancing ignorance and stupidity. I have friends who have offered to help them correct such gross errors and were very rudely turned down by the arrogant idiots that run Hollywood who simply don't give a damn about truth or the damage that they do.

Re: Do you think science fiction encourages children to want to study science, or become scientists themselves? Was this the case for you?

Yes and Yes and I might add that even many of the ones that portray us negatively like Jurassic Park encourage new scientists.

Re: Also, do you think 'science studies' (ie, sociologists studying scientists in their native habitat) is useful, or is it impossible for non-scientists to reach useful conclusions about how science really works?

Sociology was a real science in the days of Durkheim and Blau and began its end as a science in the 1960s when social reformers invaded the discipline and began directing studies with the intention of achieving a particular outcome. I would say that science historians do a much better job of explaining the evolution of ideas and the dynamics that led to them than science sociologists. At the same time, I would argue that the world has lost out on a whole area of economics by not applying that discipline to science. On the one hand the scientific marketplace is one of the most unregulated ventures into Capitalism that the world has ever known with an extremely dynamic turnover of companies and ideas and marketing and essentially no Better Business Bureau to keep track of or punish companies that sell bad products of which there are plenty. At the same time the scientific marketplace is subject to some of the most controlling and constantly changing regulations relating to shipping and containment and disposal of chemicals that is itself a branch interesting to watch how fast and in what ways the marketplace responds. The change in the dynamic in recent years with the many takeovers also serves as a great model to test how this same trend in the major multinationals and banks will turn out (which is of course bad).

Have fun!

Cheers, Eric

Response 9

Dear Chris,

I got forwarded your email about the portrayal of scientist in SciFi and would like to pass on my thoughts although I am outside ICMB. I read a little science fiction myself and watch a fair few films and TV series that would be classed as science fiction. I would argue that few professions would get an accurate portrayal within the media, therefore why scientists? Scientists are generally poor at communicating to the general public, hence why I think it is easier to cast them as social outsiders and in a negative light. That is our problem and we as a profession need to improve our communication skills but at present there is very few outlets in the media to do this that is available to the general public.

Off the top of my head there are very few positive views of scientists in SciFi apart from Dr Who (could he be classed as a scientist?) and perhaps Spock from Star Trek (although slightly strange as he is half Vulcan), whilst on the negative side we can start at Dr Frankenstein and up to the DVD I watched last week (I and Legend released in 2007) where a scientist creates a viral cure for cancer that is 100% successful in treating the cancer but then causes the individuals to turn into zombies (that would be a bad day in the lab)!

I would make a distinction between 'hard' SciFi and the more generic material as there are some authors who use scientific papers and text books in the reading list at the end of the book (Greg Bear in Darwin's Radio where endogenous retroviral activation cause the next stage of human evolution is actually factually correct in 80% in what he is saying, the remaining 20% is the fiction to sell the book, I have been working in the feild of retroviral of over 11 years now). One of his books had some influence on me whilst writing my Ph.D thesis (Blood music) as it explains how a lymphocyte ( a cell of the immune system) interacts with a foreign cell very well (instead of seeing and hearing, a lymphocyte sniffs and licks the target cell to see if it needs to respond or not, again factually correct). His books were the first where I could see that SciFi could be 'mind expanding'.

I have read in the press the fictional TV series Crime scene investigations (CSI, Channel 5?) has resulted in a huge increase in applications for forensic medicine, although I haven't really watched it too much the basic scientific tests are correct, the time to carry them out is greatly compressed (like getting a DNA sequence from a hair follicle within the space of time it takes to get a coffee).

I am not sure about what use social science investigation of scientists would produce apart from employment for social scientists, but that is also due to the fact I am unsure what a social science does!

And don't get me started about the pseudo-science used in advertising particularly in cosmetics, bloody penta-peptides!!!!!!!

Anyway, I fear I my be ranting now. Best of luck tomorrow, is there any reason there is only one scientist on the panel?

Response 10

Dear Chris,

I'm slightly outside ICMB, but interested by your email.

1. I think its interesting that you are canvassing views from scientists - I wonder to what extent the other (non-scientific) members of the panel will have done this - an interesting commentary on the scientific approach

2. I'm not a great reader of science fiction so can't help much on that, but I do remember an influential book from my youth - "Arrowsmith" by Sinclair Lewis which is the story of a medical student set against the backdrop of discoveries in bacteriophage biology (if I remember right).

3. More generally, I doubt that any profession is fairly portrayed in fiction or other media creations - do vets curse "All creatures great and small" or do policemen get a rounded portrayal in crime fiction. I think it's a bit silly to expect writers to be publicists for any profession. I think that the route into science for most people is an interest in "how things work" - biology, the universe, machines etc not fictional portrayals. Anyway, the media in general present a much higher profile image of scientists in the way they report things - the way they distort statistics, glory in controversies (and mavericks) rather than agreements, stress the complexity of things rather than making it accessible (but accurate). If every paper had a Ben Goldacre then that would solve the problem!

4. And finally - is social scientists studying scientists useful? Useful? Good for getting money to do the Social Science research I'm sure, but does it play any part in what scientists do? No. And are scientists aware of or interested in what the social scientists are doing? Again no. My impression is that the social sciences have an unhealthy preoccupation with scientists going wrong - faking results, doing bad things but this misses what most of science is about.

And a challenge - see if you can get any of the social scientists to disagree with you - having sat in on a few of their discussions while working as a science writer at the Genomics Forum, I was amused at the extent to which they would tip toe around things to avoid confrontation - everyone's opinion was valid and equal, no right and wrong, the discussion itself being their endpoint rather than getting somewhere as a consequence of the discussion. Ah, I sound a bit jaded. Back to the lab .....

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