Vanquishing the evil mad scientist image


Scientists aren’t all like this.

There is a palpable mistrust of science in the wider public and we scientists are largely to blame. Almost everyone uses the products of research everyday and yet trust issues against scientists have spawned and nurtured anti-science movements. Great efforts have been made to improve the scientist image, most notably the highly recommended Super Science Friends vimeo clip, but there is still much more we can do.

Mistrust of science is not ill-founded. Epic failures of ethics and the dearth of safety assessments in the past have left lasting legacies on many families as well as the environment. The atom bomb, chemical warfare and the repercussions of thalidomide are but a few events that have shaped public perception of scientists.

Enduring fictional mad scientists like Frankenstein and Moreau are also bad for our image. Although, in fairness, research scientists are a bit mad. I always maintained that is a direct product of having to do a PhD to become a research scientist. My hair was never this grey before the PhD, I’m sure.

The time has come for us scientists to change our image. Regulations for safety and ethics have improved exponentially to prevent the repeat of past disasters, and there have been monumental advancements across all areas of science, including health, ecosystem protection and food production.

Here are a few simple things that we can do to reclaim some trust in science:

  1. Teach scientific processes

Not everyone was taught how to assess data and weigh up evidence. These critical skills are the first port of call for getting a broader audience to engage with science. Improving the level of understanding about how scientists draw conclusions will make them more convincing.

  1. Be bold but accurate

Whenever results are presented to a broader audience, be bold in your statements but also accurate. Remember that common science terms like “this suggests…” and “this may cause…” just make it seem like we don’t know what we’re talking about and the message will be lost. People want answers and when scientists don’t deliver them confidently, they look to other authorities and this includes charlatans.

  1. Tell a story

Nothing engages an audience more than stories. Use stories to show the impacts of your research in a broader sense and include emotional interests like families, the community and the environment as well as enjoyment of lifestyle, of technology, of food and wine. Keep the underlying message straightforward and broad.

  1. Give science a friendly face

Scientists traditionally aren’t good communicators and for many years they were kept away from the public and not allowed to speak to the media. This also hasn’t done much for our image. To build trust, we need to step outside of the scientist caricature and show that we are just people. We work and eat and sleep and care for our families, the environment and the community. And sometimes we do other cool stuff. Recently there has been a trend on science company websites to show their employees as more than just scientists and this is just the sort of thing we need.

With time and communal effort, the evil scientist image will be vanquished. Then all we have to do is take down those evil corporations…

Embracing the scientist stereotype

Being a scientist is cool. It means you know absolutely everything there is to know about anything across all disciplines without having to even glance at the latest literature on the topic. At least that’s according to movies, and movies would never lie.

This ridiculous stereotype is so often regurgitated that non-scientists are starting to think it’s true. But to be able to do their job, a good research scientist needs to be a “T” person. We have a breadth of knowledge sufficient to understand how our research fits into a broader context and the depth of knowledge to advance scientific understanding in our particular field.

Which is exactly why the scientist stereotype doesn’t make sense. Science has been studied in so much detail across so many different topics by some many people for so long that it is rare to find anyone across more than one discipline, let alone a true polymath who knows everything about all disciplines. The last true polymath to make any significant scientific discoveries was maybe Da Vinci.

I understand that a movie audience is supposed to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. It’s just that the story would be a whole lot better if the writers bothered to spend two minutes on Google to discover that measuring the purity of a chemical is not done with a light microscope. (Yes, really. That one still makes me cry a little.)

But if we were to look at a movie as just a story, the scientist character is useful. They enable the writer to explain the goings on at a particular point in the tale or unveil a discovery that leads to a new twist in the story.

Overall it’s the story matters, not the details.

The limitations of budget and script-writing prevent the more accurate depiction of different scientists from different disciplines solving the range of problems required for the movie or TV series.

In terms of the eccentric or socially awkward stereotype, it could be worse. Accountants are always boring personality-vacuums and police must suffer the continual humiliation of having amateur detectives solve their crimes for them.

If a stereotype has to exist for scientists I’m glad it’s one of a knowledge-laden virtual superhero.

But just once I’d really love to see the scientist character roll their eyes at someone and say, “Why are you asking me? I’m an organic chemist. You need to ask a microbiologist. You wouldn’t ask a plumber to rewire your house, why ask a chemist about biological systems?” and then march out of the room. Ah, nerd fantasies.