Literature Has Shaped The Public Perception Of Science

In 1957, Margaret Mead and Rhoda Metraux carried out a survey of the attitudes of high school students to scientists and found that although the students agreed that science was a “good thing,” their attitude to becoming a scientist or marrying a scientist was overwhelmingly negative. In 1975 the magazines New Scientist and New Society asked their readers to describe the characteristics they associated with scientists.

By | June 12, 1989

In 1957, Margaret Mead and Rhoda Metraux carried out a survey of the attitudes of high school students to scientists and found that although the students agreed that science was a “good thing,” their attitude to becoming a scientist or marrying a scientist was overwhelmingly negative. In 1975 the magazines New Scientist and New Society asked their readers to describe the characteristics they associated with scientists. This survey revealed that the nonscientist readers also had a fairly negative image of scientists—even when they included a note to the effect that they actually- knew scientists who were not like this!

How do these perceptions arise? One very important way is through the literary tradition—the manner in which scientists have been presented as fictional characters from the medieval alchemists to the computer experts and physicists of contemporary literature.

This view is supported by the results of other researchers who have attempted, by means of a “Draw-A-Scientist” test, to discover the per- ception of scientists held by much younger and less articulate school children. One study showed that kindergarten and first grade children included in their drawings almost none of the “standard indicators”—depictions of physical characteristics associated with negative stereotypes. But by the second grade the stereotype has begun to take root, and the older children included more and more of the negative indicators, It seems likely that children in primary school are influenced far less by knowledge about actual scientists than they are by images presented to them by television, films, and books.

A consideration of the way in which scientists have been represented in literature, and more recently in films, is a critical factor here, for these depictions of the scientist have been influenced not only by scientists or their predecessors in the past, but have, in turn, determined the public perception and evaluation of subsequent figures.

There are seven major stereotypes that recur with varying frequency throughout the history of Western literature: the evil alchemist; the stupid virtuoso; the unfeeling researcher; the heroic adventurer, the utopian or World savior; the reckless or evil destroyer; and the helpless discoverer unable to control his discovery. All of these have influenced society’s image of the scientist.

The traditional fear of too much knowledge and the belief that some things should remain hidden have an ancestry older than the printed word. They can be traced back to the hostile European attitudes toward the alchemists, whose closely guarded learning derived from the Arab world and was therefore regarded by the medieval church as distinctly dangerous and likely to confirm the Genesis story of the serpent and the apple. Indeed, from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, scientists as depicted in literature have, with few exceptions, rated very low on the - moral scale. The Faustian stereotype of the enchanter, versed in the black arts and most probably in league with the devil, has given way to a series of equally . unattractive types—megalomaniacs bent on world destruction; absent-minded professors shuffling in slippers and odd socks while disasters befall their beautiful daughters in the next room; inhuman researchers who think only in facts and numbers and are unable to communiate on any other level.

One of the most enduring and influential images of the scientist in the literature and film has been that of Victor Frankenstein, creation of the 20-year-old Mary Shelley, who, with brilliant perception and foresight, analyzed and described the personality traits associated with scientific research and the dangerous implications of these. Frankenstein’s problems begin with his isolation, which leads directly to suppression of emotional relationships and aesthetic experiences and the delusion that his work is being pursued in the interests of society when the real goals, are power and fame; above all, he fails to foresee and take responsibility for the results of his research.

Of course, not all the scientists portrayed in literature have been evil or misguided. And briefly, in the first decades of this century, scientists emerged as adventurer-heroes, saving planet Earth from evil space invaders or setting up a utopian society based on the principles of science; but this period of hero-worship was brief. After Hiroshima, the scientists’ moral stocks plunged once more; they were shown as ruthlessly sacrificing individuals, even whole nations, to gratify their scientific curiosity.

More recently, this stereotype has been followed by that of the helpless scientist wringing his hands while his computers run amok or poisonous substances from his test tubes destroy the environment. In these cases, writers are reflecting more or less faithfully the attitudes of society to actual science and scientists.

This “gulf of mutual incompre hension” between scientists and others received some publicity in the 1960s with the acrimonious “two cultures” debate between C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, but the stakes today are higher than either of these two antagonists suspected, and the potential consequences for both scien- tists and nonscientists more serious. By failing to discuss with nonscientists what they are doing, scientists not only endanger society, but also limit themselves and their research in a number of ways. They may fail to perceive directions that would be profitable to their work; they may fail to convince funding bodies that what they are doing has any value, either financially or socially; they maybe left with no control over what is done with their research; and, almost certainly, they will be diminished as people.

Today, the image of the scientist as engaged in a wholly rational activity to the exclusion of the emotions and the imagination, has been cited as one of the two major causes for the comparative dearth of women in science: They are simply not interested in such a narrow perception of the world or in the related assumption that science is essentially an intellectual conquest over Nature rather than an organic relationship with Nature. They, therefore, do not identify themselves (and are not identified by society at large) with a scientific career. Again, this can be seen as a direct result of the portrayal of scientists in literature. Not only are they overwhelmingly male, but also they are usually characterized by their lack of emotion and their unfailingly rational approach to everything—not only their science.

Today, the kinds of discoveries in which scientists have lost control may be nuclear power and/or weapons, computer systems, robots, or genetic engineering techniques. But the moral questions posed by writers is fundamentally the same: Is the scientist responsible for consequences he did not foresee or for discoveries that are subsequently taken out of his hands by, for example, governments, multinational companies, the media, or the popular pressure groups? Is there such a thing as “pure” research? Many 20th-century writers call into question one of the most sacred traditions of science, namely, that it should be devoted to the pursuit of Truth, regardless of the consequences. They. ask: Is the quest for abstract truth per se any longer enough? Can society validly ask more of its scientists than a devotion to pure research? Many of our contemporary writers are questioning, as Mary Shelley did, the glib assumption that scientists have a duty to pursue their research to the end, regardless of the consequences; for today’s descendants of Frankenstein’s. Monster, once created, are too powerful to be controlled by their creators—or anyone else.

Rosylnn, D. Haynes, who was once a research biochemist, is now senior lecturer in English at the University of New South Wales.

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