Reconsidering the Image of Scientists in Film & Television
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Chiwetel Ejiofor as geologist Adrian Helmsley in last year's blockbuster 2012 is one of the many emerging "hero" images of scientists in popular film and television.
In graduate school, I published with several colleagues a paper examining the portrayal of scientists in film and television and the relationship to audience perceptions. At last week's workshop on science and art in Alberta, I had the opportunity to return to this topic, one that remains much debated by commentators and scientists.
Contrary to conventional wisdom that entertainment media portray science and scientists in a negative light, research shows that across time, genre, and medium there is no single prevailing image and that both positive and negative images of scientists and science can be found. More recent research even suggests that in contemporary entertainment media, scientists are portrayed in an almost exclusively positive light and often as heroes.
Critics of the entertainment industry point as hard evidence of negative portrayals to a study from the early 1980s by former University of Pennsylvania communication researcher George Gerbner. The study showed that scientists in comparison to other occupations featured in primetime television suffer a higher ratio of negative stereotypes and are more likely to be victims of violence. Yet more recent research indicates a major shift in the image of scientists on the screen. In a 1998 unpublished report to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Gerbner and colleagues updated their analysis, concluding that based on data collected during the mid-1990s "there is no basis to claim that any kind of systematic negative portrayal of scientists exists. Changes have occurred in Hollywood since the time of our initial study, which found scientists to be typically evil, disturbed, sexually dysfunctional villains....this is no longer the case."
More recent analysis of TV content presented last year at a major communication conference confirms this trend towards an overwhelmingly positive image for scientists in prime-time television. Scientists--similar to their distribution as a profession among the population--still remain a rare character in the TV world, but when they are shown, they are almost exclusively shown in a positive light.
Over the past two decades, not only has the image of scientists in film and television shifted, so have the stereotypes held by audiences. A study published this month analyzing U.S. national survey data finds that in comparison to 1985, American adults in 2002 were far less likely to hold negative stereotypes about scientists and were much more likely to believe that a career in science was a desirable choice for their children or for themselves. (This is yet another study that challenges the "fall from grace" narrative about science in American society and the claims about a hostile public.)
Beyond these statistical indicators of the portrayal of scientists, what kinds of images have appeared over time and across genre? What image might be on the rise today? In the paper I published with colleagues in 2002, we highlighted several different clusters of images.
Scientists as Dr. Frankenstein: This image is one that scientists most frequently single out, portraying their profession as sinister, socially irresponsible, evil and violent, and ultimately headed for failure and demise by the end of the plot. Examples of this image include Gregory Peck as Dr. Mengele in Boys from Brazil, Marlon Brando as Dr. Moreau in The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Jeff Goldblum as the scientist in The Fly.
Scientists as powerless pawns: In this image, scientists are shown as easily manipulated or dominated and as pawns doing dirty work for big business, the military or a master evil figure. Examples include Robert Duvall as Dr. Griffin Weir in the 6th Day and several of the scientists in Jurassic Park who work for Richard Attenborough's character John Hammond, CEO of InGen.
Scientists as eccentric and anti-social geeks: In this image, scientists are so dedicated that they spend most of day at work, they deviate from norm in dress and looks, and have few families, friends, or romantic interests, and are generally socially awkward. Examples of this image include Christopher Loyd as Doc in Back to the Future, the nerdy boys in John Hughes 1985 film Weird Science who use science to create the perfect woman, and Val Kilmer and his fellow grad students in the 1985 film Real Genius who serve as graduate students to a professor who is determined to master a Star Wars-like satellite technology.
Scientists as Hero: In this image, scientists take on the lead role as action hero and protagonist, often also serving as the voice and force for ethical decisions and virtue. Examples include Dr. Alan Grant as the main protagonist in Jurassic Park, Spock in the new version of Star Trek who takes on leading man and action hero qualities to rival Captain Kirk, Jody Foster's character in Contact, Sigourney Weaver's character in Avatar, Denis Quaid as the climate scientist hero in The Day After Tomorrow, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the geologist hero in 2012, Morgan Freeman in the Batman films as inventor Lucious Fox and CEO of Wayne Industries, and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in the Iron Man films.
What do readers think of this typology? Other examples or images to add?
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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