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Scientists are heroes

The author of a new book contravenes the myth that the public views scientists as geeks or villains

By | February 11, 2010

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 linkurl:__Explaining Research__;http://www.amazon.com/Explaining-Research-Reach-Audiences-Advance/dp/0199732051 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 the scientist-hero. In a 2006 linkurl:Harris Poll,;http://harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=688And for example, Americans said they trusted doctors (85%), teachers (83%), scientists (77%) and professors (75%) far more than they did journalists (39%), lawyers (27%), or pollsters (34%). Respondents to a 2009 linkurl:survey;http://people-press.org/report/528/ 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 linkurl:Science and Engineering Indicators 2008;http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind10/pdf/c07.pdf 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 linkurl:__Hollywood Science__;http://cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231-14280-9/hollywood-science and also searching the linkurl:Internet Movie Database.;http://www.imdb.com/ 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. (Click linkurl:here;http://www.explainingresearch.com/index.php?page_id=279 for complete movie lists and discussion). 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 with 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. linkurl:__Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work __,;http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/LifeSciences/?view=usa&ci=9780199732050 by Dennis Meredith, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010. 376 pp. ISBN: 978-0-199-73205-0. $35.00. linkurl:__Dennis Meredith;http://www.explainingresearch.com/index.php?page_id=269 is a research communication consultant and science writer living in the mountains of North Carolina. He has worked as a public information officer at research universities including Caltech, Cornell, Duke, and MIT.__
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Creation: The good, the bad, and the ugly;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/57125/
[29th January 2010]*linkurl:A review of Extraordinary Measures;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57091/
[22nd January 2010]*linkurl:Hollywood in Antarctica;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/55097/
[17th October 2008]*linkurl:Science on the silver screen;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54830/
[10th July 2008]
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Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

February 12, 2010

but isn't it time to debunk the myth that any group of individuals are across-the-board heroes?\n\nScientists are individuals and, as such, come in all shapes and colors and personalities... good, bad and indifferent, like everyone. To think otherwise is to do a great disservice to the evolution of human understanding.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 12, 2010

I see corporate scientists as potential villains, pandering to the goals of corporations (maximize market share and profits) without considering (whether consciously or not) the implications of their work. We don't know what the long term effects of GMOs are on humans or the increasing numbers of nanoparticles in the environment. It's simply not possible. I'm not espousing an hysterical reaction to these things, but the influence of corporations on government policy appears to be increasing, and the scientists working for those corporations are certainly aware of it. \n\nSo from my perspective, if these new technologies are eventually shown to have deleterious effects on humans, then many of the scientists who developed them will be as guilty as the corporate executives and their lobbyists, and will be viewed as such by the public. It is no excuse to say that they are "misguided" or "overly ambitious". Nor is it acceptable to say that they believe in what they are doing and/or don't foresee any problems down the road. Where is the ethics associated their work? It's certainly not coming from executives or government bureaucrats.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 12, 2010

The point was that scientists are portrayed often as geeks or villains. In his analysis of heroes vs villains the authors decides all geeks are heroes. But in the end they still describe scientists in a often sited stereotype - impacting how our youth looks at it as a career. After reviewing his list of movies, I believe that his methodology is flawed. Most TV shows and movies used these stereotypes - although they are getting better.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 19

February 12, 2010

I agree with the previous post on corporate scientists. If anything, they should be more careful of their actions, as corporations are really beholden to their shareholders for profit, and not to doing the best (in the long-term) for humankind. However, corporations may choose to more closely align those two paths and bring balance to the world - that is what I would wish for. In that respect, those who choose corporate science should take their training and channel it into improving corporate goals.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 15

February 12, 2010

The make up of the human behavioral spectrum is Gaussian. The professional choices of individuals to a large degree reflect inherent traits driven by their underlying genetics. The profession of science selects for individuals at one end of that curve that have natural proclivities for behaviors that subserve the profession of science well, but not necessarily the scientists well in all aspects of their lives. These traits are defined as follows:\n \nGeeky: exclusively and obsessively interested in abstract and mechanical details paying little attention to those of social importance as in other professions such as business, politics, medicine, etc. \n\nUnattractive: selectively engaged in intellectual dialogue with peers and little with the public, and hence needing to pay little attention to attire or accoutrements that enhance ones personal or public appearance more important in other professions such as acting, business, law.\n\nMad: Well known that a thin line separates lunacy and genius; so the most scientifically gifted among us may have a tendency to behave in idiosyncratic and erratic ways among our peers and be tolerated, but not in other professions where behavior is just as important as technical competence professionally. \n\nAll this can be a constant source of consternation particularly in medical schools where scientists meander around the hallways, unshaven and and under dressed in ragged jeans and T-shirts much to the chagrin of their well-groomed and conformist physican peers.\n\nNone of these make the accomplishments and contributions of scientists any less heroic, and all of the ?not so attractive? aspects of scientists can, to some degree, be modified as the public image of scientists becomes more important in today?s world of PR, if they threaten the very existence of the profession.\n\nDress a little better in the public, shave and shampoo before you give a talk on TV, and try to learn how to communicate well with the public or else face the extinction of the scientific profession through loss of public support due to neglect! No profession can affort not to continously evolve, and neither can scientists.\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 15

February 12, 2010

Much of the public has been outraged by the recently released emails from climate scientists showing that they were clearly manipulating data to support a predetermined position. \n\nThis has cast science in a negative light for much of the public which is enhanced by the failure of the scientific establishment to condemn this aborting of the scientific method. No heroes here.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 12, 2010

Never have I read so much unscientific nonsense in connection with the word "science", either in a book review or responses to it. I'd like to make 3 salient points. 1) Check my title. It's an increasingly popular saying because the word hero has been hijacked by political spin doctors of all persuasions and has virtually no meaning. I don't see any attempt to define the word here. Cloning a gene, no matter what value it might have, doesn't make one a hero, any more than getting blown up by an IED while sauntering down a street carrying a submachine gun and smoking a cigarette does. Anyone who uses the word hero for any reason has suspect political motives! 2) Analyzing the inane product of incestuous Hollywood pseudo-intellectuals as if it has any connection with reality proves the naivety of the author. 3) The public doesn't trust ANY authority figures. The fact that scientists rank high in a list of professionals that are widely regarded as untrustworthy doesn't mean anything. Is this oversight, or spin, on the part of the author? The fact that scientists rank below the military is far more interesting and telling. It says more about jingoistic American society than about how scientists are perceived. Finally I'd like to point out to the shallow individual that thinks all would be well, if only scientists would "shave, shower and dress better", that science is about truth. Politics is about illusion! (The detestable, mindless corporate mantra "dress for success" also comes to mind) And since when does dressing to suit the fashionistas make you a hero?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 12, 2010

Hey guys, I'm a scientist and I'm outgoing, good looking and not (yet) mad, and I'm one of many. So needless to say I don't agree with one of the the earlier posts. But the most important issue here is that of trust. \n\nPeople trust science because it usually undergoes a rigorous internal review process before it is put into the public domain. I work in vaccine R&D, and rigorous review of the data is the only way we can be sure the product works and is safe. \n\nI have read the arguments for and against anthropogenic global warming. I am not convinced that changes in our climate are driven by human CO2 emissions. In contrast, I am convinced time and again that changes in our climate are driven by (largely) cosmic activity, in a way that is complex and still not fully understood. \n\nPeople the world over have paid their tax money and trusted that the science it paid for would help them and/or their fellow man. With climategate, and the rest of the IPCC's 'carefully selected typical results', our credibility as a profession has taken a blow. With many governments poised to implement harsh economic measures to ward off a percieved catastrophe, there has never been a greater need for an independent review of the climate change data. The time for debate is now.
Avatar of: Vinod Nikhra

Vinod Nikhra

Posts: 48

February 12, 2010

I read the article and through the comments. The book seems alright. Reading the comments, I think some scientists suffer with lack of confidence. They find that the society fails to do justice to them. Though, this may not be so. The intelligent minds, mostly working in isolation and devoting more to science than the humane aspect of life, no surprise that it may happen. I really feel sad about some comments.\nIt is good to discuss these issues. It is a nice break from the routine things. \n\nVinod Nikhra, MD\nwww.vinodnikhra.com

February 12, 2010

I read with interest your article.\n\nHere are a Some Scientists whose contribution to Science was monumental.\n\nSCIENTIST HEROES\n\nScientists have enormous contribution in the advancement of human civilization. Throughout the history of the world, many scientists have dedicated their lives for research and innovation. Some of them even faced a lot of torture for their theories but they continued their mission and thus we are now in a modern world.\n\nAlbert Einstein believed in the power of imagination and one of the greatest Scientists ever lived..\n\nAlexander Graham Bell was the inventor of the telephone.\n\nAristotle is the Great philosopher who had a vast knowledge in different disciplines. Studying different subject he contributed a lot in each of those subjects. He contributed in physics, poetry, zoology, logic, rhetoric, politics, government, ethics, and biology.\n\nBarbara McClintock was one of the first women geneticists, and a Nobel laureate.\n\nBenjamin Franklin was an inventor, civic leader and founding father of the U.S.\n\nCharles Darwin is the father of modern biology.\n\nC.V. Raman\nC.V. Raman is one of the most renowned scientists produced by India. His full name was Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman. For his pioneering work on scattering of light, C.V. Raman won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1930.\n\nEnrico Fermi was one of the 20th century's greatest physicists.\n\nGalileo Galilei\nGalileo is considered as one of the greatest contributor to the development of Science. It is undoubtedly true that Galileo could first helped science to come out of the trend of Aristotle. He was physicist, astronomer, and philosopher and his best known contributions lie in the development of Telescope, first two laws of motion and also in Astronomy. He is also considered as the father of astronomy, father of physics and father of science.\n\nGeorge Washington Carver is famous for experimenting with plants.\n\nIrene Curie was the second woman in history to win the Nobel Prize in science; the first woman was her mother, Marie.\n\nSir Jagadish Chandra Bose\nHe was the first renowned Bengali scientist who had an important contribution in the invention of Radio and microwave optics.\n\nGuglielmo Marchese Marconi\nMarconi is a Nobel laureate physicist from Italy. He is best known for his invention of Radio and he first introduced wireless telegraph system.\n\nNewton was also a man of versatile quality. He was physicist, mathematician, astronomer, alchemist, and natural philosopher in a row. His contribution in the development of science is a special one. He is best known for his explanation of Universal Gravitation and three laws of motion, and he was able to prove that the reason of both the motion of objects on Earth and of celestial bodies are controlled by the same Neutral laws.\n\nLeonardo da Vinci was an artist, scientist and inventor.\nLouis Pasteur\nHe is one of the most famous contributors in the medical science. He first introduced the germ theory of diseases. This is regarded as the base of today?s microbiology.\n\n\nNorman Borlaug saved billions of lives with his agricultural discoveries.\n\nNikola Tesla was the father of many modern inventions.\n\nSrinivasa Ramanujan made groundbreaking contributions to mathematics.\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\nStephen Hawking\nThis famous scientist is considered as the greatest scientist of the twentieth century after Einstein. Haw king?s big bang theory and black hole theory has turned the attention of the world.\n\n\nThomas Alva Edison holds the record for number of patents filed.\n\nAlessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta\nVolta was Italian physicist and he is best known for his contribution to the development of electric battery.\n\nDr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore,Andhra Pradesh,India
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 15

February 12, 2010

Seems like the author of Heros are Zeros is a big Zero. Typified in this response is one science stereotype ? smart, but self-centered, cynical, and uninspiring. To demean the sacrifice of a soldier who puts his life at risk, but inadvertently succumbs to a deadly hidden IED, is beyond belief. Soldiers are heroes in my books, but not always the civilian bosses who send them off on poorly thought out missions. They do their job with dignity and honor, and make the ultimate sacrifice, so that we can go about our own life in freedom. We scientists come nowhere near having to make that kind of sacrifice to get our jobs done. \n\nSomehow, dressing decently (not as portrayed as some kind of corporate executive following some silly mantra) and maintaining a minimum level of personal hygiene is somehow uncool when representing the profession of science to the public. In fact, much like the hippies of the 60?s ?dressed to offend? ended up becoming conformists, some scientists seem to think that if corporate America wears pin striped suits, we ought to go grunge just to show were are different. Very juvenile. Lurking below the grungy look is just another form of shallowness: One that is trying to portray a persona - I am so busy solving the worlds problems that I don?t have time to clean up and just enough time to pull my pants out of the dryer and put?em on before I head off to work or show up in public ? that is also not cool. The taxpayer pays our bills. They deserve better. We have many heroes (and alas an occasional villain), a great profession, and should represent it better, without changing one iota our long-standing tradition of the quest for the truth.\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 107

February 12, 2010

Silly me, I always thought John Hammond was the hero of Jurassic Park. (Wasn't the computer guy the villain?)\n\nAlso, am I the only one who finds it odd that Dr. Octavius is cited as a positive image of a scientist?\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 15

February 13, 2010

So, here we go again. A mad scientist snaps and kills fellow scientists at U.Alabama, Hunstsville, over denial of tenure, reinforcing a terrible stereotype once again.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 13, 2010

Soldiers are heroes definitely by killing others but soldiers can die due to influenza, only Louis Pasteur's vaccine can save those millions of heroes even in the battle fields!!! Soldiers are there to kill millions of fellow humankind, but the vaccine produced by hardworking scientists in a shabby or clean apron can save mankind from H1N1!!! Otherwise mankind will perish. Think....

February 15, 2010

"Hero" is a word fast losing significance. And calling an entire genre 'heroic' is silly.\n\nMany parts of society are starting to recognize the endemic corruption in academia and research as these areas are increasingly controlled for corporate profit.\n\nAny scientist who stands up to this corporate sleaze is a hero. And likely unemployed.
Avatar of: Rachel Carol

Rachel Carol

Posts: 3

February 16, 2010

If you, like Lilian Thuram, France's world champion footballer, need a black hero, you could read his book 'Mes Etoiles Noires - de Lucy a Barack Obama'. Thuram and Bernard Fillaire devote a chapter to a list (there are so many they don't even bother with any linking prose) of black scientists and engineers who pioneered different technologies that have changed the way we live. Also on a scientific thread, the first chapter is about Lucy, 'our African grandmother'. And more up-to-date there is a touching chapter on the life of Cheick Modibo Diarra, 'interplanetary voyager' (NASA researcher, now head of Microsoft for Africa and the Middle East), who explained to Thuram's own son that science and maths 'heroes' come from all walks of life, and not all of them are celebrated or even known. The book is in French, but Hollywood could delve in for some ideas. How about a film on George Washington Carver?
Avatar of: MARK GRIEP

MARK GRIEP

Posts: 1

February 17, 2010

I was very interested to read this article because Marjorie Mikasen and I just published ?ReAction! Chemistry in the Movies? with Oxford University Press. Even though I agree with quite a few responders that you should have defined hero (and villain) more precisely, I was curious to apply your dark/bright duality of hero/villain to the chemists from our book. Very few of our movies are on your list, which you can find at tinyurl.com/chemmoviesblog. \n\nIf I limit myself to the chemists portrayed in the movies described in our book and I place all my Dr. Jekylls in both the hero and villain categories, I find there are about 2.6 times as many hero chemists as there are villain chemists. This is far from the ratio of 6 times you found in your list. I would like to note that you?ve only counted Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Frankenstein once even though they?ve appeared in many different films. I disagree strongly that all Jekylls should be considered heroes from the start and want to note it is his addiction to the drug that makes him a villain (not that he should be excused for it). We have used the Jekyll and Hyde metaphor to describe the overall representation of chemistry in the movies but we also devoted a whole chapter to it because it is such an enduring theme. In its earliest adaptations, Jekyll has benevolent motives. In the later adaptations, he is either highly compromised or indeterminate. In the 1941 Spencer Tracy version, Jekyll performs tests on animals that prove to him it will turn a docile bunny into a fierce biting rabbit. When he takes some himself, he knows it will turn him into someone evil. A similar scenario plays out in the 1976 Dr Black and Mr Hyde, except human experimentation proves that it works.\n\nJack Griffin in The Invisible Man from 1933 is also not really a scientist-hero from the start. He is an assistant food preservation chemist who in his spare time isolated a compound that makes him invisible. His work to preserve food is benevolent but his activities during his spare time are not. His motivation was fame and fortune. After he became invisible, his ?brain lit up? and he realized he could now rule the world. He kills a policeman and a trainload of people. Was Griffin a hero chemist when he was developing his compound? \n\nThere is also the issue that chemical companies and their presidents are nearly always portrayed as malevolent while chemist researchers are goofy or benevolent. Some of these presidents suppress the discoveries or objections of their own scientists. Should these presidents be counted in the villain scientist column even though they aren?t necessarily scientists? \n\nOur book?s premise is that people don?t realize how much chemistry and chemical discussion there is in the movies. When we consider the way that chemistry is portrayed in addition to chemists, you find half dark and half bright images. However, the final tally for chemists in the movies based on some broad definitions of heroes and villains that you put forward: 22 villain chemists when I include chemistry company presidents and 39 hero chemists for a ratio of 1.8 Heroes/Villains. The bigger point is that you are correct there are more heroes than villains, contrary to many people?s expectation.\n
Avatar of: null null

null null

Posts: 4

February 17, 2010

In the middle of the heroscientist euphoria:\nremember:\n1) French Anderson\n2) "Honest Jim" Watson\nThis one was at least honest about some scientists' driving force; read his book "Double Helix"\nAnd some scientists (especially young ones) I know only think about their inflated EGO!\nJosé Ferreira da Silva
Avatar of: Yaa Simpson

Yaa Simpson

Posts: 2

February 17, 2010

To glorify scientist, researchers or other medical professions is to not take into account the malevolent behaviors enacted on Blacks, other people of color, Women, Prisoners and Children by these medical practitioners. There are many titles for scientists, so don?t get caught up with specific nomenclature. What should be rewarded are the contributions made by individuals, regardless of their title, creed, color, gender or age. The book Medical Apartheid written by Harriet Washington illustrates a chronological account of many experiments conducted by so called medical professionals, that were exploitive and unethical toward Blacks. Real heroes/sheroes are not the purveyors of discrimination, death or destruction. They are the ?Righteous Contributors?, like Henrietta Lacks (HeLa) cells supplier, whose cells were used to create the polio vaccine. She was not a scientist, researcher or medical professional, but her cells have saved many lives throughout the world. To be exalted as a ?hero? you have to have done something heroic, bold and life saving, something righteous, which benefits the human kind. \n As a Community Epidemiologist for TACTS(The Association of Clinical Trials Research) I am interested in becoming the change I want to see. I want my research to be known for its righteous contributions, not for vanity or Hollywood acknowledgement. This book only contributes to the falsity of real contributors to science, thusly irrelevant for scientific gratitude. \n

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