The author of a new book contravenes the myth that the public views scientists as geeks or villains.
by Dennis Meredith
For me, the last straw came several years ago when the director of a major national laboratory declared to an audience of reporters at a large scientific meeting that the public sees scientists as geeky, unattractive, or "mad." He wasn't the first scientist to spout this corrosive myth about his own profession. But I hope that the clear evidence to the contrary in my new book Explaining Research will make him the last.
In fact, I think that the public overwhelmingly sees scientists as heroes. This is demonstrated most convincingly in the positive portrayal of scientists in movies and TV shows, which are prime barometers of public perception.
Opinion polls also bear out the public's perception of scientist-hero. In a 2006 Harris Poll, for example, Americans said they trusted doctors (85 percent), teachers (83 percent), scientists (77 percent) and professors (75 percent) far more than they did journalists (39 percent), lawyers (27 percent), or pollsters (34 percent). And respondents to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press said that people who contributed the most to society's well-being were members of the military, teachers, scientists, medical doctors, and engineers. The major survey Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, by the National Science Board concluded that "more Americans expressed a 'great deal' of confidence in leaders of the scientific community than in the leaders of any other institution except the military."
However, the most dramatic insight into public perceptions of scientists comes from their depiction in movies and TV shows. After all, Hollywood tends to follow popular opinion when casting its heroes and villains. It seems to me that criminals, terrorists and greedy businessmen are the most frequent villains, and scientists among the most prevalent heroes. For example, in Jurassic Park, the heroes were paleontologist Alan Grant, paleobotanist Ellie Sattler, and mathematician Ian Malcolm. The villain was foolish entrepreneur John Hammond.
In Explaining Research, I decided to confirm this notion by presenting statistics on Hollywood's portrayal of scientists. I compiled a list of some 140 films depicting scientists and engineers—drawing on the filmography in Sidney Perkowitz's book Hollywood Science and also searching the Internet Movie Database. I then judged whether the scientists in those movies were heroes or villains. The analysis revealed about six times more scientist-heroes than scientist-villains. (For complete movie lists and discussion see "Scientists heroes."
Actually, the list of truly villainous scientists is even smaller because of a key caveat: most of the putative scientist-villains were not really evil, but merely flawed—either misguided or overly ambitious—or suffered when their research escaped their control. For example, in Spider-Man 2, the virtuous Dr. Otto Octavius transformed into the villainous "Doc Ock" when he was taken over by the mechanical tentacles he had developed as artificially intelligent tools. And in the end, it was Octavius, and not Spider-Man who saved the day by sinking the uncontrolled fusion ball into the sea.
Movie biologists have saved the earth—or at least a significant chunk of it—numerous times. For example, the scientists in the Andromeda Strain and Outbreak, rescued humanity from catastrophic infectious disease outbreaks through cutting edge science and a healthy dose of luck. They've even fought to save alien planets, as did Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) for the verdant Pandora in James Cameron's latest blockbuster Avatar.
Some of Hollywood's biggest stars have portrayed scientist-heroes, including Ben Affleck, Jessica Alba, Nicolas Cage, Russell Crowe, Laura Dern, Robert Downey Jr., Harrison Ford, Cary Grant, Anthony Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Liam Neeson, Edward Norton, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill Paxton, and Will Smith. Would those A-list actors sign on to play scientists if researchers were really considered geeks, devoid of personality?
Scientists are also equally heroic on TV these days. The bane of countless fictional criminals are the scientist-heroes of Bones, CSI (Las Vegas, New York, and Miami), Criminal Minds, NCIS, Numb3rs, and other popular crime dramas.
My aim in demonstrating that the public sees scientists as heroes is not just to boost scientists' self-esteem, although that's certainly important. I also hope that the next time a scientist stands before an audience to advocate for adequate research funding, argue for policies to alleviate global warming, or debate creationists, he or she will do so confident in having the considerable advantage of being seen as a trusted, credible, hero.