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Science in the Media

As the influence of the media on the society is now stronger than ever, it is sometimes hard to separate real concepts from those projected into mass consciousness by film, television, popular literature, and other forms of entertainment. The image of scientists and scientific work is greatly affected by the way these concepts are depicted in the mass culture. The popularity of scientific professions is influenced by the media. Harmful superstitions and prejudice towards the methods of scientific research are created. Due to irresponsibility of depiction of scientific work in the media, there is an urge to reinvent these stale stereotypes, and there are a number of recent examples to make this renewal work effectively.

No matter how complex and interesting real scientists are, a great amount of people regard them as stereotypes from fiction. The most common stereotypical depictions of scientists spread by the media are “the evil genius” and “young nerdy scientist.” The evil genius, or the mad scientist character, has its roots in a classic science fiction and a horror novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley. Doctor Victor Frankenstein in the original novel is a tragic figure, whose obsession with the scientific discovery results in his downfall. Many features of this character became iconic in the depictions of a scientist in literature and film. Jane, Fleer, and Gipps (2007) single out the following important aspect of this character, namely his questionable morality:

Victor was a brilliant, yet eccentric and preoccupied scientist, who began with noble, humanitarian ideals, but became so obsessed with his project that he lost sight of the negative consequences. The Frankenstein story challenges past and present scientific theories by highlighting their ethical complexity. Recent experimentation with genetic engineering makes the implicit warnings decidedly modern.

Popular media ignored most of the tragic aspects of this protagonist and focused on his obsession and madness. The main inspiration for the future incarnations of Doctor Frankenstein and his imitations is a famous scene from James Whale’s 1931 film rather than the classic novel. While the “mad scientist” character inhabits sci-fi, horror and action films, the “nerdy scientist” is his replacement in comedic films and TV series. The young nerdy scientist became a common face in teen comedies of the 1980s (Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Weird Science (1985)) and is still present in fiction, as proved by the popularity of The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) (2007-…) TV series. A nerdy scientist is clumsy, weird and obsessed with his research. He is not very sociable and physically capable, and he is often a victim of bullying. The main characters of TBBT TV-show, Leonard (Johnny Galecki), Sheldon (Jim Parsons), Howard (Simon Helberg), and Raj (Kunal Nayyar) are exemplary representatives of this stereotype. While likable and charismatic, they do have a harmful effect on the perception of scientists by the young audience at which the show is targeted.

Recently, there were some deviations from these stereotypes and diverse depiction of scientists in the media. Famous populates of science such as Carl Sagan and more recently Neal deGrasse Tyson assisted in creating a more relatable and likable image of a scientist in the media who is a well-spoken, smart, witty, and charismatic public figure well taught in his field of knowledge. The renowned scientists and their educational TV program, Cosmos, (Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980) and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (2014)) drew the public attention to studying astronomy, physics and space exploration. Sagan was an inspiration for the generation of young scientists, and Tyson’s constant appearances in the news and in new media, such as YouTube and Twitter, appeal to the young audience. Another notable feature of Neal deGrasse Tyson as a public figure is that he often uses controversy to attract attention to his work. While these famous true-life researchers are the real public faces of science, the media, especially film and television, continue to feed of tired and unrealistic stereotypes.

The image of scientist in the media was the subject of a number of studies. In his book Mad, Bad and Dangerous The Scientist and the Cinema, Frayling references the researches of the common conception of a scientist during different periods. Aside from personalized images (Alfred Einstein as the most common name), the typical view of a scientist did not change drastically during the XX century. The image is as follows: a middle aged or elderly white male in a lab coat, wearing glasses, working in a laboratory, surrounded by bulbs with unknown liquids. This character is eccentric, obsessed with his work and not very sociable (Frayling, 2005). This image, while emotionally neutral, has a harmful effect on promoting scientific work among young generations. The studies prove that most people see scientists in the way it is projected by popular fiction, which is sometimes far from reality.

While most people take the scientist as a neutral power, his role in the media usually depends on the genre of fiction. In addition to more obvious villain roles, the scientist often performs the expository function to provide the audience with the information required in order to understand the plot. The heroic character of a scientist also changed in recent films. In the 1996 sci-fi action film, Independence Day, the scientist named David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) was the heroic figure. Therewith, his characterization was close to the eccentric nerdy scientist, and he became a comedic sidekick for the real hero of the film, a fighter pilot Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith). Other famous scientist protagonists of the 1990s are the heroes of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1995) based on the Crichton’s novel. Paleontologists, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neil) and Dr. Ellie Settler (Lora Dern), were forced to become action heroes with their scientific knowledge casually coming in handy. More drastic change of the scientist character can be seen in The Martian (2015) based on Weir’s novel. Both in the novel and in the film, the protagonist named Mark Watney (Matt Damon) uses his scientific knowledge to survive. As a great part of the film is focused on this character, it was a must for the authors to make him interesting and his actions believable. The science in the film seems more credible as the author of the book spent time researching the subject matter.

The usage of harmful stereotypes and simplification are not the only problem concerning the depiction of scientists in the media. The gender issues should also be mentioned, as science in fiction remains mostly male-centric. There were, however, recent attempts to depict female scientists in sci-fi films in a realistic manner. Films by writer-director, Christopher Nolan, Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014) have female scientists who break the traditional stereotype. Dr. Murphy Cooper (Jessica Chastain) from Interstellar is not only a realistic depiction of a scientist but also a deep and layered character. The aforementioned TV series, The Big Bang Theory, while never hesitating to use the tired trope of a “nerdy scientist,” has some more progressive sides according to researchers. Stone in her article, “Brains, Beauty, and Feminist Television: The Women of The Big Bang Theory,” indicates that the show is “fighting against popular assumptions that science, and by extension knowledge as a whole, is a masculine endeavor, and that intellect and sexuality are mutually exclusive” (p. 201). It is difficult to argue the importance of depicting female scientists who act as peers to their male counterparts. However, effectiveness of one fighting stereotype when another is promoted at the same time is for the audience to estimate. Another issue concerning The Big Bang Theory, is that the series still treats the scientific community as a closed subculture, deriding the social skills of its characters. While the ratio of harm and benefit this show has in the popularizing of science is questionable, one cannot ignore the importance of the popularity of such a TV show.

Modern media influences not only the way the scientists are perceived as characters but also the perception of the scientific work and not always in a positive way. When science is not demonized and shown in a grotesque and horrible manner, it is romanticized being more engaging and exiting when it really is. Media focuses on the processes and results of the experiment rather than on its calculations and analysis. From the artistic perspective, this choice is justified though such an approach can create a misconception. The role of science in fiction experienced changes from caution caused by the use of the atomic bomb to the awe of the first space exploration and casual convenience brought by modern technologies. The science in film is defined by the social mood.

In most sci-fi films science is presented in schematic or cartoonish way. In Human Cloning in the Media, Haran, Kitzinger, McNeil, and O’Riordan (2007) claim that depiction of science in the media suffers from oversimplification. To prove their point, the researchers cite Jose van Dijck who claims that “popular representations of science are commonly generated by non-scientists, journalists, fiction writers and others” (as cited in Haran et al., 2007, p. 124). However, while the science depiction in film and TV can be flawed, the positive effect is that it helps to generate a discourse in the media. Haran et al. (2007) cite the Godsend (2004) as an example which tackled the issue of cloning. While this film was regarded as a failure by both film critics and scientists, it raised a certain informational buzz, thus increasing the awareness of the audience in this controversial topic (p. 138). However, with such a questionable research sphere, the influence of its depiction in the media has been mostly harmful. Cloning is used as a plot device in horror films and focuses on the negative results and morally controversial aspects of this field of research. Computer technologies and space exploration received warmer treatment in film and television. The informational campaign around The Martian is an example of successful co-promotion of science and fiction. The campaign was initiated by film’s most prominent supporters, namely NASA. Coincidentally, the release of the film was followed by sensational information about water discovery on Mars. It is hard to imagine that this was not a part of a major PR stunt as the film itself is basically a two-hour NASA commercial (Stableford, 2015). While any media coverage is a good aspect, it is more effective when the information provided to the public is supported by facts and commented by real scientists. The Martian is an effective example of such an approach.

Depiction of scientists went a long way from one-dimensional stereotypes which successfully scared away generations of young people from science to more believable and relatable characters. Scientist characters in modern science fiction films can actually serve to promote the profession. Despite the efforts of some fiction creators and real science promoters, some enduring stereotypes are still present in fiction and other, such as the greedy corporate scientist, take their place. Active promotion of actual science should be as important as the research itself for the scientific institutes. However, it should not stand as propaganda since making people think, analyze and draw conclusions is one of the most important features of scientific approach.

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