Stereotypes of Scientists in the Media

A mad scientist. Dr Alexander Thorkel (Albert ...

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I can’t help but notice several stereotypes of scientists in popular media fiction, which I’ll refer to as the Arrogant Scientist, the Mad Scientist, and the Super-Scientist or “Mystical Scientist.”

Sometimes, these blend into each other…

Of these, the Arrogant Scientist is the only one with any basis in reality, but only because scientists are no more or no less capable of arrogance than those of us in any other profession, in my experience…

Yeah, yeah, I know: the Proof by Anecdote logical fallacy…

The Mad Scientist appears to both convey a negative view of scientists as evil, crazy, or both, or at least misguided and seems a more appropriate description of some real-world extreme pseudoscientific cranks in terms of psychology, rather than coming even close to matching the personalities and character of any mainstream researchers acting within their own field of expertise, and I’ve seen quite a few colorful characters within the ranks of legitimate scientists, even the angry ones.

Both the Arrogant Scientist and the Mad Scientist are often portrayed as ‘playing God’ or some other sort of hubris or intellectual sin to that effect.

The last, the Super-Scientist has as some examples the characters Jimmy Neutron, the lead character of Dexter’s Laboratory, and some of the old Popeye cartoons in which the infantile Swee’pea is shown creating subatomic particles in test-tube experiments…

…If only it were that easy in the real world, we wouldn’t need Fermilab or CERN to do it with their massive, high-energy machines…

The Super-Scientist is typically shown performing impossibly advanced technological and scientific miracles, far beyond the reach of mere mortals.

My issue with the Super-Scientist is not that it conveys a mistaken impression of scientists, like the Mad Scientist does, but because it’s use promotes the idea that science is only suited to geniuses, that no ordinary folk can ever do science, and this presents science as being the exclusive work of an intellectual elite, which can discourage people from seeking to learn or understand it.

It conveys a fatalism that can indeed be fatal to scientific literacy, and both disenfranchises people and also leads to a distrust of science, both in its findings and especially its process.

Most commonly, accusations of scientific arrogance, pomposity, and elitism are leveled by those folks whose toes science has stepped on by calling into question, even falsifying, their pet beliefs, and occasionally by the actions, words, and attitudes of scientists themselves.

One thought on “Stereotypes of Scientists in the Media

  1. …If only it were that easy in the real world, we wouldn’t need Fermilab or CERN to do it with their massive, high-energy machines…

    I just got done reading in Science News that secretaries have been attempting to make X-rays for years. They just didn’t have a vacuum. Apparently, when you pull celephane tape off a roll, the adhesive excites atoms at the point of separation enough to emit X-rays. They also are directional, 90 degrees to the direction of pull, +/- 5 degrees.




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