I’m going to tackle some stereotypes present in modern fiction that I think are dangerous when used irresponsibly. Any entries part of this series will be labeled as “Dangerous Stereotypes.” The next entry on this topic is about the Bad Boys stereotype, which can be read here.
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There is a nasty and detrimental stereotype in fiction: the depiction of scientists.
In most instances, scientists are portrayed as too smart for their own good, too naive for their own good, or outright diabolical. The threat in the story often arises from the hubris of scientists messing with something they either don’t fully understand or think they can control. In such cases they are often called “mad” or “obsessed,” driven to complete their work, no matter the cost to themselves or to others.
Or, if the scientists aren’t deliberately malicious, they end up being naive to the extreme, not understanding how their research or experiments could be used to malicious ends. Even if the scientist realizes his mistake (for they are almost always male), he tends to keep going “in the name of science” or is totally ineffectual at stopping the misuse of his work. And if the scientist himself is absent from the story, the technology he created, often a robot with artificial intelligence, remains a danger, such as Superman’s foe Brainiac or HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The examples of the evil/mad scientist stereotype are myriad: Hojo from the video game Final Fantasy VII. Rotwang from the movie Metropolis. Victor Frankenstein, creator of the quintessential monster in Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. Almost any antagonist in superhero comics. Pick a 1940s or 1950s horror or science fiction film and you’ll find that the monster or threat is, more often than not, the result of science gone wrong.
Even real people, including teens and children, who are not certified scientists, but who have an interest in that direction are often stereotyped as strange, anti-social, unattractive, and ultimately dangerous individuals. They are often marginalized or bullied until, in a fit of childish pique (or well-planned retribution), they fight back the only way they know how: with science and technology. And in the end it’s up to the handsome, charming, muscle-bound male hero to save the day by blowing things up. Seems like a bit of a cheap shot to me. But why haven’t we moved beyond this rather lazy piece of character creation?
In the case of the early science fiction and horror films, it makes sense that science would be placed in an antagonistic role. The atomic bomb showed the world the darker side of science. It created a frenzy of story-telling where radiation and science run amok, wrecking havoc in small-town America. However, we haven’t moved very far away from this initial stereotype.
There tend to be fewer outright “mad” scientists present in our modern fiction, but the naive scientist/researcher is still going strong. The fear of technological disaster is now coupled with the greed and unscrupulous tactics of large corporations or shadow organizations. Some good examples of these are Weyland-Yutani from the Alien franchise, Cyberdyne Systems from Terminator, the Umbrella Corporation in the Resident Evil series, and Shinra from Final Fantasy VII. Scientists in modern fiction often make a deal with devil in order to fund their studies. Predictably, they either can’t see that the corporation is manipulating them, they don’t care, or they are completely ineffectual at stopping it.
I can only think that this stereotype persists because of ignorance. We have so many comforts today thanks to science. We live like gods compared to the standard of living for most of humankind’s history. And yet the average person knows less and less about how science works. We don’t know how our computers or cars or cell phones work. Everything is neatly tucked away behind chrome cases and reams of scientific notation. Science just doesn’t look very accessible or friendly, does it?
The ideas and images presented through story-telling have a great deal of power, especially with children. We see heroes and heroines in stories and we aspire to be like them. We want to have the same kind of adventures and lead exciting or meaningful lives. It’s easy to see why kids want to become detectives after watching Sherlock, or police after reading Superman comics, or teachers after watching Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society. But who wants to become a scientist when all they see are crazed, obsessed, evil, weak, ineffectual people who only discover or create things that kill?
This is dangerous. We need intelligent people. We need scientists. Our modern world is built on the back of scientific discovery, and this persistently negative stereotype is bad for society. It’s bad for our future. Science brought us cures for disease, sanitation, cars, cell phones, velcro, satellites, plastic, and the internet, among countless others. Science helps us learn about our past, understand our present, and build our future. That’s why shows like Cosmos fill me with joy because it shows the positive side of science, the wonder and beauty and excitement that comes from discovery. Can science be used unwisely? Absolutely. But that only means we need to be careful and responsible stewards of what we find. Personally, I think that ignorance is far more dangerous than any radioactive terror that science could produce.
So, here’s a challenge for the story-tellers of today and tomorrow: craft some characters who show that positive side of science. Show scientists who are well-adjusted, passionate, intelligent people who know what they are doing, who understand consequences, and have strong morals. Show kids the joy that comes from dedicated learning. Inspire future generations to tell their parents that they want to be scientists to help make the world a better place.
The future of the human race depends on it.
4 thoughts on “Dangerous Stereotypes: Scientists”
This was a very thoughtful analysis of the dangerous scientist stereotype, and on behalf of all the scientists in my lab, I’d like to say thank you 🙂
You are very welcome, Darcie! I’m glad you enjoyed reading the entry and thank you for commenting! Please extend my gratitude to your scientists for the work that they do.
Interesting thoughts. This definitely holds up in the superhero genre, where not only is science bad, it’s utterly confusing and nonsensical. (This is being reversed somewhat in the characters of Iron Man and the Hulk in the movies, though!)
I refer to my sci-fi novel work-in-progress as being about “mad scientists” as a kind of shorthand for the imagery and tone I want to evoke, to keep it from sounding boring and, well, science-y. And my mad scientists are hardly well-adjusted. But I do hope it’s evident that it’s not the science at fault, that science is just a way they’re trying to understand the universe, and that it’s a good thing. It’s something that keeps people sane, rather than the other way around. 🙂
Thank you, I’m glad you found it interesting! Yes, superhero comics are notorious for spotty science…but then again, they are comics, so they get a bit of a “nostalgia pass” from me, or at least the old ones do, since it is primarily for fun.
I can definitely understand using mad scientists as a short-hand for imagery and tone since it’s so deeply seeped into our literary consciousness. The fun comes when we can challenge those ingrained expectations to take the characters and story in new directions. Not every scientist is (or should be) completely well-adjusted since they are people, and I hope that you’ll be able to explore their facets of personality and experience in your work!
Thank you for stopping by, for reading, and for commenting! Good luck in your own writing!