Researchers Embark On Effort To Improve Image Of Scientists

Stereotyped images of scientists in popular culture can have a profound effect on the way the public perceives science. Such images, familiar to virtually all moviegoers, range from the arrogant, amoral researcher who wants to rule the world to the benign genius who is out of touch with reality. The implications can be far-reaching. Young people, who are heavily swayed by what they see on TV and in the movies, for example, may choose not to pursue careers in science because of these recurring

By | June 22, 1992

Stereotyped images of scientists in popular culture can have a profound effect on the way the public perceives science. Such images, familiar to virtually all moviegoers, range from the arrogant, amoral researcher who wants to rule the world to the benign genius who is out of touch with reality.

The implications can be far-reaching. Young people, who are heavily swayed by what they see on TV and in the movies, for example, may choose not to pursue careers in science because of these recurring portrayals of scientists as either nerds or mad geniuses who work all the time.

Moreover, the public at large may be reluctant to support increased budgetary allocations for scientific research grants or education, because they don't really understand what scientists do and are not altogether sure that today's scientific research will benefit humankind.

Researchers who are working to improve scientists' image offer these suggestions to those who are interested in joining in the effort.

1. Be a communicator. Accept offers to speak to students at your local schools or to other groups of people.

2. Be an activist. Write letters of support for programs or studies in need of funding to your representatives in Congress.

3. Encourage the professional associations to which you belong to conduct sessions on education, lobby for science education, and give testimony before committees in Washington.

4. Participate in the politics of local education by joining school boards or committees to review curricula, or help write or design ideas for programs for teachers.

5. If you work at a major research university, come up with ideas on how to improve undergraduate education for non-science majors.

6. Realize that schools cannot do everything. If you have children or school-age relatives, share your expertise with them regularly.

7. Contact your local newspaper or appropriate national magazines and offer to write an article on your work or a synthesis of what's going on in your field.


Robert M. Hazen, a research scientist at the Geophysical Laboratory in the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., and a professor of earth sciences at George Mason University, says that it is "fully understandable" why these stereotypes persist. They remain in the public consciousness because "people simply do not understand science or the scientific process," he says.

"There is a lot of confusion in the public sector, because they see scientists as not being able to agree on the most important issues facing our society and culture--like global warming," Hazen says. While debate is accepted among lawyers, politicians, and others, Hazen says, when scientists debate, the public perceives that none of them can be trusted. "They need to understand that just because there is theoretical opinion about facts, it doesn't mean the facts are wrong," he says.

Stereotypical images of scientists are nothing new; indeed, they have been around almost since the origin of modern science. An 18th-century painting by British artist Joseph Wright of Derby, titled Experiment with the Air Pump, for example, depicts a wide-eyed scientist with unruly hair holding a pigeon encased in a glass vessel that is having the oxygen removed from it. The seven people surrounding the scientist look on in fascination, horror, and perplexity. In the early 19th century, Dr. Frankenstein's creation rose up from the realm of literature, bestowing a monster-maker image up-on scientists.

These days, movies and television influence our culture and mold public opinion more than anything else. From the absent-minded professor to the amoral Dr. Strangelove to the goofy, bespectacled scientist who shrunk his kids, pop culture continues to enforce these age-old stereotypes.

Unflattering images notwithstanding, with diseases such as AIDS and planetary problems like the holes in the ozone threatening future generations, science has become critical to the survival of our species. Therefore, the need to dispel these images and educate the public on the ever-increasing importance of scientific endeavors is, as Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, chairman of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, puts it, "urgent."

So how can the scientific community go about changing these misperceptions? Communication and education are the keys, say scientists who are trying to dispel the myths. And, for starters, Lederman believes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. "We can change these negative images with the same awesomely powerful mechanism that proffers the current stereotypes we're living with--television and movies. Give me one hour a week on a national commercial network for three years, and I'll change the culture," says Lederman, a professor of physics at the University of Chicago and director emeritus of Fermilab, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize in physics.

While there is a considerable amount of quality science programming on the Public Broadcasting System and on cable television networks, it is, as Lederman puts it, "a rare day" that these shows get many viewers. "That's the problem. But, just imagine a lively, prime-time network show with hosts Bill Cosby and Sally Ride called `This Week In Science.' Or how about `L.A. Science'? Or maybe `Science Nightline'?"

It may sound like a pipe dream, but Lederman and a group of scientists have already begun meeting with television executives, producers, and writers in Hollywood to discuss potential story ideas for science-oriented situation comedies, dramas, and news programs. Such shows, says Lederman, not only would engage millions of people but also could be spun off into educational resources. Furthermore, if science could hit prime time, it would have, says Lederman, a "dramatic impact" on attitudes and priorities of policymakers in terms of funding.

Despite the power of television and movies, the effort must not stop there, Lederman says, but must extend to all aspects of pop culture. "We have to--and are--looking into everything"--including cereal boxes. In fact, he's already scheduled an appointment with the Kellogg Co. of Battle Creek, Mich., to discuss creating science-oriented cartoons as reading fare on the backs of boxes. AAAS is also in the process, Lederman says, of organizing a "kind of united front" by bringing together the presidents of all the major science organizations to come up with plans and ideas for revitalizing scientists' image.

Meanwhile, many science organizations and societies have instituted programs that send their members out into the community on speaking engagements. The National Science Foundation, for example, last year launched a community program called Outreach, in which NSF program managers and staff scientists go out into local communities around Washington D.C., to talk with students and teachers, as well as to groups of retired people. While a number of NSFers have been speaking to students and teachers throughout the years, this is, says Outreach coordinator Patrick Olmert, the first "real coordinated, managed" effort.

"We have a wealth of scientists and engineers here, and basically we match the requests with the appropriate scientists who then go out into the community or to the schools to talk about recent findings and, for students, the career opportunities in science," says Olmert, who has taken photographs of biologists and paleontologists at work and developed slide-show presentations on sharks and dinosaurs for fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders. "By doing this we're trying to project a different, more accurate image of what scientists and engineers really do."

Marine biologist Edward Murdy, NSF program manager in the division of international programs, has been working with a couple of minority high school classes. "Typically, I start out with a classroom presentation, and then we take a field trip, because it's very hard to learn about ecology or marine habitats in the classroom," he says. Recently, Murdy took one class out to the Chesapeake Bay area to learn about wetlands.

Murdy advises scientists that if you're going to make an impression on young people, "then you have to meet with them. If they're exposed, they will become interested." Murdy tries to show students things they're not likely to see in a typical high school classroom. "In the process, I also try to show them that it's a very big world out there and, especially, a very interesting world under the surface of the water."

So far, Olmert says, Outreach has been proving mutually beneficial to the students and teachers and to the scientists: "It helps our scientists get out of their proposal jackets and see what's going on in the real world, while the kids get to see what a real scientist is all about."

Other researchers are making an effort at improving the image of scientists on their own by making themselves available as speakers. Christopher McKay, a research scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., who is currently working on the Mars mission, for example, gives presentations and talks to people of all ages, from grade-school students to retirees.

"When I give my talks, I really try to tell people exactly what I do all day, and I try to get across the notion that I'm a normal guy," says McKay. He adds that he made a commitment early in his career to spend 10 percent of his time speaking to nonscientific groups as a way of "giving back," since he had benefited from hearing scientists speak in his childhood classrooms. "I try to avoid the standard pitfalls or images that people often have of scientists--that they are weird, or that they know everything. I really try to convey that science is a human endeavor."

McKay says that he tries to develop his presentation much the way a writer develops a character. In one of his talks, called "The Tale of Two Planets," he discusses how Earth and Mars might have been similar early on and the theories of why there's no longer life on Mars. McKay says he steers away from simple, dry recitations of facts, because those can be "tedious and boring."

Interestingly, McKay has found that many youngsters want to become astronauts and so hasn't had to fight against stereotypes with them, but he has found that the image of the amoral scientist is prevalent in older people. "They seem flabbergasted to learn that we actually consider things like whether or not we may contaminate the atmosphere when we land on Mars," he says.

Beyond storming pop culture with positive images and having scientists venture out into local communities, the negative images of scientists can be dispelled by tackling the problem head-on in the schools and by revamping the approach to science education. George Mason University's Hazen will be teaching a humanities course next semester to non-science majors that will examine the many different stereotypes that exist.

"It is absolutely crucial that we demystify science in our educational system across the board," says Hazen, a coauthor, with George Mason physics professor James Trefil, of Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy (New York, Doubleday & Co., 1991), which investigates how to go about restructuring science education. "We have been teaching science as if it's some foreign language. The most basic ideas of how matter and energy work, the rules that underlie everything, are really not that complicated, and people not only use them every day but understand intuitively how they work," he says.

"We need to teach science in a much less threatening way, so that everyone receives a better education in this area and therefore will be prepared to understand the importance and support scientific endeavors. But we really need a top-to-bottom reorganization to do that."

AAAS has launched a 25-year undertaking called Project 2061, an attempt to achieve such a reorganization. "This project will help improve the image of scientists by humanizing it," says director Jim Rutherford. The first phase of the three-phase project, which has been completed, set knowledge achievement goals for science and math, grade by grade, from kindergarten through high school. Currently, Project 2061 is in its second phase, which is developing a curriculum model that teachers and administrators can use to create their own curricula. The third phase, to take place in 1993-94, will entail field tests of the curricula.

"We're not in the business of trying to preach about the special virtues of scientists, but rather of giving an honest picture of what goes on, and out of that will come more respect for the people who can, working together, ferret out the meaning of a complicated world," Rutherford says.

Currently, there is a controversy over the possibility of a shortage of scientists in the future. "What isn't controversial," says Rutherford, "is that we don't have a general population that really understands the nature of scientific enterprise, what's going on or how to think scientifically.

"If we can fix that--so everybody gets a decent education in science, math, and technology--then you would automatically see an alleviation of negative stereotypes, an increase in the pool of people. And it would also help in terms of funding and public policy, because the legislators and people in general would have a better idea of priorities in terms of where the money should go."

"We don't have a society which places a premium on thinking, but by changing our approach to science education, we may be able to impact that," Hazen says. Lederman agrees. "Look at who we admire--and who we pay well--in our society: athletes, movie stars," he says. "We don't recognize scholars as being important in our society, and that's just the thing we have to change. The truth is, scientists are different, and anyone who is different is immediately suspect. That's just not true of a great ballplayer or an actress, and if we can get these positive images out in a big way, then this unevenness in our appreciation could change."

Yet there can be drawbacks to taking science to the public. Carl Sagan, David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University, went out of his way to bring an increased understanding of science to the public, and while most agree he did quite an admirable job of it, the fame that it brought him has at times worked against him.

"Jealousy is a part of it, sure," says McKay, who has reviewed Sagan's papers. "He garnered an international reputation, and I think fame on that level made him automatically be held up to a higher standard. Everyone seemed to expect that because Sagan was in the public spotlight, he somehow should be perfect. If I make a mistake in a paper, it's noted and life goes on. But if Sagan does--wow, it's front-page news."

The researchers interviewed for this article say that thus far their attempts to improve the image of scientists have not adversely affected their credibility. Moreover, they agree that the need to improve the image of scientists and to stimulate a larger audience--especially young people, because science holds careers for them--is critical.

"Problems like the holes in the ozone layer and the pollution of our air and water are problems that are going to have to be taken care of in the future," says Olmert. "If we don't have an educated work force that understands and/or can work on these problems down the road, we're all going to be up the creek without a paddle."

Improving, and then maintaining, positive images of scientists will be an ongoing effort. "Scientists always tend to look for the magic bullet, a technological fix that will make a problem go away, but education is a never-ending process," says McKay. "And whether your audience is composed of students or the public, if you don't connect and continue to connect to society, you lose power."

A.J.S. Rayl is a freelance writer based in Malibu, Calif.

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