Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Evil Science Entertainment

By the title, I mean the depiction of science in the movies and on television. Not the news, mind you (although they’re clearly affected), but in popular entertainment.

Science gets a bad rap.

For starters, movies and TV usually portray the scientific establishment as villains. Yes, there’s often a scientist hero, but he (or she) is usually a loner who’s resisting mainstream science. The big villain is probably a scientist with a lot more financial and political clout than the hero.

Scientists are great villains. They’re involved in some of the most dangerous activities known to man, like the development of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. They seek knowledge man wasn’t meant to know; they meddle with forces they don’t understand; they try to play God. Examples:

  • The Fly: A scientist tries to transport objects through wires, messes up the experiment, and merges himself with a fly.

  • Jurassic Park: A group of scientists – hired by a businessman – clone dinosaurs that get out of control and start killing people.

  • Frankenstein: A scientists tries to create life and ends up creating a monster.

  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: A scientists accidentally unleashes an evil version of himself.

  • The Island: A scientist clones people for use as organ donors.
Hallmarks of Hollywood scientists are reckless disregard for prudent safety precautions and indifference to the moral questions of their research. Is there a chance the scientists new power supply could get out of control and destroy a city? Who cares? The mad scientist will forge ahead regardless of the risks. Is it ethical to replace a parent’s dead child with a clone? As long as the mad scientist makes a buck, who cares? This is the mainstream Hollywood scientist; only mavericks operating around the edges and fighting the establishment get to be good guys.

Which is where the quacks of the real world jump in to sell their dubious services. They paint themselves as the maverick scientists operating at the edge, trying to save people from the predatory mad scientist establishment. They’ll sell you anything you want to buy, making outrageous claims for how it works. They’ll tell you that the scientific establishment doesn’t want you to know about their discoveries, so the establishment covers up the evidence.

I’d like to think that if more people got a real education in science, they wouldn’t fall for the claims of the “edgy science” charlatans. Real scientists are usually careful people who demand a lot of evidence to support extraordinary claims. That’s why they come down hard on the “fringe scientists” and charlatans who boast of great discoveries without any evidence to back them up. When some “fringe scientists” claimed to have discovered cold fusion, the media ate up the claim while other scientists expressed skepticism, especially when they couldn’t duplicate the experiment themselves.

The scientific professions certainly have their bad apples, and the media is quick to report on their misdeeds. Unfortunately, the media doesn’t emphasize that it’s the scientific establishment, with its demands for repeatable tests and peer-reviewed publication of results, that inevitably catches the bad apples. Quite frankly, the comfortable lives that most Americans lead are utterly dependent upon the work of scientists over the years, so it would be nice to see the media show them more respect.


Anonymous said...

You know I just said something like this in a response to a question a teacher asked in one of my classes. Though the topic was Environmental Justice rather than science... Humans love to complain, us bloggers are a perfect example however, and Americans like to complain in large groups over stupid crap. I agree, more education for the masses... I was presented an interesting fact the other day by a teacher, now I haven’t researched this fact but... Evidently the average high school student in America is graduating at an 8th grade reading level and is finding it almost impossible to keep up with college reading, assuming that they go to college anyway, what the hell are these kids doing? I was reading 8th grade level in 4th grade...??? WTF??


Thursday said...

If you want to confirm this, ask any university about the remedial classes they teach - anything given a "0" start number (ie. "English 099" or "Physics 098") is a remedial. To be really depressed, ask when these classes started and how many they've had to add in recent years...

Anonymous said...

Runolfr –

I wonder what might have set you off about this topic? If you take a broad look at entertainment I suggest you will see that everybody gets a bad rap as a villain. Bad cops, bad lawyers, bad politicians, bad doctors, bad firefighters, bad used car sales people, bad roommates, bad money managers, bad dogs, bad foreigners, bad fish, bad architect, bad priest, bad accountant, bad general, bad, bad, bad…

The surface details vary to fit the circumstances. The pattern you describe as the burden of scientists (in entertainment) is prevalent across the board for many professions, as bad or worse than for scientists (e.g. politically active Muslim). So, again, I am left wondering what focused your ire around scientists. Just too close to home, or something else?

Also, as per the erosion of student competence, you do all understand that science/technical disciplines are not the only victims? The (poor) level of academic achievement in science is (sadly) matched by levels in history, literature, cultural awareness, art, social development, etc. etc. Thus, again-again, I wonder about the specific upset re. science related issues. Is there something more fundamental here, or is it merely (understandable) personal sensitivities?

- Stevel, a.k.a. Curious George

Lord Runolfr said...


I agree that most professions get hit with a bad depiction from time to time, but scientists seem to get it much more consistently. For example, you see bad cops, but you don't regularly see the whole police establishment shown to be corrupt.

Maybe I've got filters on, but the entertainment industry seems to think that the great majority of scientists are greedy, self-important hucksters. Presumably that's a reflection of our society, which tells me that our society doesn't really appreciate science.

I will whole-heartedly agree, however, that the state of education in the US (and other nations, as well) is disturbingly poor.

But in response to your psychoanalysis, I will admit my ire is probably largely a result of bullying tactics of scientific charlatans like the ID movement, and the fact that the general population has so little understanding of the scientific methods and evidence that they easily fall prey pseudo-scientific deceptions.


Anonymous said...

Though I appreciate the point your trying to make, I'm a bit confuse by your argument.

You state that "For starters, movies and TV usually portray the scientific establishment as villains." (emphasis mine) but then go on to use The Fly, Jurassic Park, Frankeinstein and Dr. Jekyll as examples (I'm not familiar with The Island, so won't comment on it).

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression the scientists in those movies/books where going against the "scientific establishment" with their unorthodox research.

Anonymous said...

Good point DummyPlug – I hadn’t noticed that.

It got me thinking if there might be a useful synthesis of Runolfr’s topic (science/-tists get a bad rap) and mine (everybody gets one). How about that film rarely portrays an institution in a good light. For example, even when the police (institution) catch the villain, said institution is often represented by established (individual) characters. Sure, we know the officer dragging off the captured badie is part of a team (institution), but stories don’t seem to highlight that reality.

I’m not know as a film buff, but I’ve been racking my sand-filled noggin for a story where an institution is a hero, or even the acknowledged source of said hero. It almost sounds absurd to read that, although the inverse sounds not-so-bad: an institution as a villain.

Of course, most people rampantly generalize from the individual to the institution, so Runolfr’s point still has merit, despite being blunted by DummyPlug’s observation.

Lord Runolfr said...


I think you hit the nail on the head. Institutions may be more the victims of media malignment than any particular profession.

With regard to scientific establishments shown badly, though, let me take you back to Star Trek: The Next Generation for a few moments.

The Enterprise often interacted with scientists. In one episode, "New Ground", they were monitoring the first test of a device that would generate a "wave" to push ships from system to system at faster-than-light speed.

They built a test ship and wave-generator based on their "theories", and they aimed it at a colony in another system.

Yep, they aimed it directly at an inhabited colony on the very first test. Naturally the test didn't go right, the wave got out of control, and the Enterprise had to intervene to keep the colony from being destroyed.

That was par for the course in ST:TNG. Scientists conducts poorly planned experiment, experiment creates a dangerous situation, Enterprise saves the day.

If these scientists were following the sort of prudent testing procedures that real scientists do, the Enterprise would be busy exploring and dealing with aliens instead of correcting the blunders of Federation scientists.

I can get you a LONG list of Star Trek scientist stupidities if you'd really like, and these are definitely scientists supported by the Federation establishment.


Anonymous said...

Runolfr -

Have my eyes deceived me? Are you, dare I even say it, implying that the historical video documents, collectively referred to as ST:TNG, show anything less than absolute perfection in The Federation?

I'm not sure I can continue this conversation anymore...

PS: I'm still looking for a film / tv / novel where an institution is clearly presented as the "good guys / gals." Maybe I need to read up on the glories of the crusades?

PPS: "Hit the nail on the head" - that's very nice to hear. Thanks!

PPPS: Yeah, that episode was mind bogglingly stupid that way. "I mean, space is big... really, really, big, man. You may think it's a long walk down to the chemists, but that's just peanuts compared to space." (D. Adams) WTF, pointing it at a colony. I mean, at least point it at the galactic barrier - geeze, those scientists and all their assistants sure are not so smartly.

Lord Runolfr said...


In regard to...

I'm still looking for a film / tv / novel where an institution is clearly presented as the "good guys / gals."

... I can think of two: Armageddon and Deep Impact.

That's about it.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. Both films are about external threats to the entire world population. I suppose a lone gunslinger could have handled things, but in these cases larger organizations (institutions) rose to the call.

Your brain is better than mine; Mine gets bloody from too much scratching...