THE PERCEPTION OF SCIENTISTS

By | January 30, 2007 | archive, textbook

Scientists have an image problem. Just ask any fifth-grader. Chances are, they’ll probably tell you that a scientist is Caucasian, male, can be found wearing a lab coat, and leads a lonely laboratory existence [1]. Perhaps he has eccentric character traits or odd-looking hair [2]. That’s some fairly discouraging news, but hey, what do kids know? The perceptions of adults are what really matter, right? Sadly, it seems that this stereotype is also held by many high-school students, college students, adults [3], and even scientists themselves [2].

A bad image hurts scientists on many levels. Administrators allocating research funding may be swayed by a poor image [2]. Children with a poor view of scientists may be dissuaded from pursuing science as a career [1]. Finally, the general public, which interacts with technology every day of their lives, may have little or no idea about who is working to create the science behind that technology.

Science, of course, is not the only profession with image problems. Lawyers are often stereotyped as greedy, manipulative liars, as a quick Google search of “lawyer jokes” will attest to. Engineers are plagued by a complete lack of image; most people in the general public either do not know what Engineers do, or have the narrow view that “engineers build bridges” [4]. Other professions have it better. If you flip on the TV, you’ll be treated to the heroics of doctors on ER, or special agents on 24.

The question, then, is where does this image problem come from, and what can be done about it? Research has shown that there are numerous influences on an individual’s perception of what a scientist is, including gradeschool curriculum, children’s literature, television, movies, and the print media. Each of these influences is discussed below.

An individual’s first contact with science likely comes during grade school. Research in the 70s and 80s showed that students had the “white, male, eccentric” view of scientists [1] that was discussed earlier. More recent research by Barman et al. has shown that this stereotype has not changed significantly, despite efforts in the past few decades to include women, minorities, and examples of science careers in the curriculum [1]. These researchers suggest that the fundamental way of teaching science needs to change, including inquiry-based learning, and activities that connect science with everyday life. They also suggest the use of videotapes, textbook features, and guest speakers to promote the idea that scientists are a diverse group that does a wide variety of interesting research, as opposed to boring old white men in labcoats.

Another piece of research by McAdam [2] links children’s literature with a negative image of scientists. McAdam focused on children’s fiction, and found that the “eccentric, hairy, white coated male” was common in almost all the stories. She proposed that young children find more appeal in the humour of the “mad scientist” than a serious presentation of science and scientists, and also noted that many authors may have absorbed this image when they were children themselves. McAdam suggested that scientists could cooperate more with both librarians and authors, in order to point out inaccuracies, and give advice on how to better portray scientists and science.

Television can have a significant impact on both children and adults. Long and Steinke [5] analyzed four children’s science television shows: Beakman’s World, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Mr Wizard’s World, and Newton’s Apple. They found that these shows presented a mostly positive view of scientists, by showing that a wide variety of people (including women and minorities) take part in science, and that it can be fun. The shows also avoided any reference to “evil or violent” scientists. The researchers found, however, that some stereotypes still persist. They noted that white males were the main characters in three of the four shows, and that some of these characters had “eccentric and antisocial” characteristics.

One extremely recent television study [7] of seventh grade female students showed a surprising shift, with 50% of the participants drawing a female when asked to draw a scientist. This is a sharp contrast to Barman’s 1996 work on children’s images of scientists [1], and the research preceding that. The authors suggest that TV programs like CSI, which show male and female scientists as equals, are responsible. CSI also shows science careers in a positive light. The authors hypothesize that media has a greater effect on students’ images of scientists than teachers do. They also note that an earlier TV program and book series, The Magic School Bus, did not have the same effect on female students as CSI did. The Magic School Bus had a strong lead woman scientist, but portrayed her as “weird” with unusual hair and clothes [8].

Movies are another important cultural influence, and reach both adults and children. In 2005, Frayling wrote a fascinating paper on how scientists are depicted in film. He explained that in the early 1900s, the “Mad Scientist” was the most common image of scientists in film, with such famous ones as Rotwang (Metropolis, 1926), Frankenstein (Frankenstein, 1931), and Dr. Strangelove (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964) [9]. Mad Scientists tend to be working on whatever the public is afraid of at the moment [6], and it is interesting to see how their research shifts with society’s fears. The Mad Scientist generally has an unusual appearance (sometimes disabled), uses unorthodox scientific methods, and often has social difficulties [10]. Frayling then moved on to discuss how more serious movies about actual scientists gained popularity in the 1930s and 40s. A number were made (such as Madame Curie, 1943) but generally received mixed reviews [9].

Frayling contrasted the scientist’s image from the first half of the century with that of more recent movies. He argued that recently, scientists in the movies have become “mavericks,” fighting against the government, orthodox scientists, or some faceless institution, and gives Ellie Arroway (Contact, 1997), Ian Malcolm (Jurassic Park, 1993) and John Nash (A Beautiful Mind, 2001) as some examples [9]. Frayling stated that this “maverick” image is no better than the mad scientist one, and although he never explicitly said why, it’s fairly clear that the reason is these stereotypes are still inaccurate. The scientist is still generally being portrayed as unorthodox, socially awkward, and a slave to his or her work, which is not much different from the “Mad Scientist” image, or the fifth graders’ image.

Finally, an excellent analysis of the scientific content of Canadian newspapers was performed by Einsiedel. She found that science stories tended to be short, positive, and focused on the consequences of the discovery or invention. She also noticed that the stories tended to lack information on the scientific methods used, the scientists who performed the work, or any dissenting views [11]. Einsiedel suggested that this treatment of science stories might be due to the fact that science stories are not particularly interesting or financially lucrative to newspaper editors, and because some journalists may have a weak scientific background.

All these different pieces of research, taken together, show that although some progress has been made, scientists do indeed have an image problem, and it’s not just confined to fifth graders. Despite efforts to modernize the curriculum, grade school children still see scientists as white, male and eccentric, and children’s literature generally reinforces this image. Movies have moved from the cartoonish mad scientist to the “maverick” scientist, and although some of the negative stereotypes have disappeared (unusual appearance, disability, white male), many others have persisted (socially awkward, unorthodox, loner). The print media generally gives very little coverage to scientists or the scientific method, making scientists seem further removed from the general public.

Interestingly, researchers gave television the greatest credit. Both children’s science programs, and CSI, were identified as (for the most part) portraying scientists accurately and positively. It should be noted, however, that these are only a small portion of the shows on television that depict scientists, and there are certainly still shows where negative images of scientists appear.

What does this mean? Should parents sit their kids in front of the TV and refuse to let them go to school, watch movies, or read, in order to keep their notions of science pure and uncorrupted? That’s probably not the solution. Scientists do need to take more responsibility for their image, and try to make changes in the way that the media portrays them.

More cooperation is certainly needed between scientists and educators, authors, journalists, and television and movie writers. This is suggested by several of the researchers discussed above. Of course, there will always be stereotypes in the media, but ideally the positive images of scientists should outweigh the negative. The majority of scientists are intelligent, passionate, dedicated, amusing people, and if the portrayal of scientists continues to become more and more accurate, then the general public’s perception of who scientists are and what they do will only become better.

References

[1] Barman, C.R., Ostlund, K. L., Gatto, C. C., Halferty, M. 1997. Fifth Grade Students’ Perceptions About Scientists and How They Study and Use Science. AETS Conference Proceedings, p. 688 – 699. Available online

[2] McAdam, J. E. 1990. The Persistent Stereotype: Children’s Images of Scientists. Physics Education 25 (2): 102. Available online

[3] Pion, G. M., Lipsey, M. W. 1981. Public Attitudes Toward Science and Technology: What Have the Surveys Told Us? The Public Opinion Quarterly 45 (3): 303-316.

[4] Dunbar, S. W. 2006. Lecture notes, Applied Science 450, University of British Columbia.

[5] Long, M., Steinke, J. 1996. The Thrill of Everyday Science: Images of Science and Scientists on Children’s Educational Science Programmes in the United States. Public Understanding of Science 5 (2): 101. Available online

[6] “The Scientist on Camera.” Slate.com. Slate Magazine. 11 Nov 2006. Available online

[7] Jones, R., Bangert, A. 2006. The CSI Effect. Science Scope 30 (3): 38. Available online

[8] “Ms. Frizzle.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 11 Nov 2006. Available online.

[9] Frayling, C. 2005. Hollywood’s Changing Take on the Scientist. New Scientist 2518 (24).

[10] “Mad scientist.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 11 Nov 2006. Available online

[11] Einsiedel, E. F. 1992. Framing Science and Technology in the Canadian Press. Public Understanding of Science 1 (1): 89-101.

About petereugster

Peter is just about to finish his undergraduate Engineering Physics degree at the University of British Columbia, and plans to pursue a career in technology development for the life sciences. He enjoys writing, and always makes sure that his stories have a beginning, middle, and end.