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Portrayal of Scientists in Science Fiction

14 October 2009

The Questions

Dear ICMB people, with apologies to those not interested:

I have been asked to take part in a panel discussion at the ESRC Genomics Forum on Wednesday evening on the portrayal of scientists in science fiction and also perception of how scientists are viewed in 'science studies'. I am the token scientist, expressing scientists' views on these topics. If anyone has any strong opinions on the subject, I would welcome your input. For example, do you think scientists are fairly portrayed in science fiction, or is there an unreasonably large proportion who are deranged and/or evil, or just one-dimensional (no friends, family, etc.)? Would you make a distinction between science fiction novels and the more simplistic portrayals on films and on TV? Do you think science fiction encourages children to want to study science, or become scientists themselves? Was this the case for you? Also, do you think 'science studies' (ie, sociologists studying scientists in their native habitat) is useful, or is it impossible for non-scientists to reach useful conclusions about how science really works?

I would be glad to know your opinions on these subjects.


Chris F.

The Answers

Response 1

Hi Chris

Hmmm leading question. I think the main problem is that scientists are played with far too much mystique, driven in part by the media appetite for hyperbole. This probably does more harm than good as people view the scientific method as something outside the realm of normal life, which of course could not be further from the truth. Sadly, Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and Inspector Morse have probably done more to promote analytical thinking than and science fiction book or movie ever have...

Response 2

Hi Chris,

reading and watching sci-fi as a child and teeager, was definitely one influence on making me want to be a scientist. I?ve also observed that people I know who aren't scientists themselves, but who read or watch sci-fi are much more interested in actual science than those who don?t like sci-fi. I think that sci-fi encourages some people to find out the real story, e.g. reading about 'clones' or 'mutants' in a sci-fi novel might encourage people to find out what the true situation is today regarding human cloning and genetic research. This is in some ways shown by the popularity of 'the science behind' books attached to the likes of Star Trek, etc.

Response 3

How kind of them to invite a 'token scientist'!

My view (if it helps) is based on the kind of thing my 10 year old son is prone to watch.

Overall science on the television looks too easy - and fast! I think that this can raise expectations of research (what do you mean you have been studying this for 3 years and your still not sure how it works?!) and create an impression that scientists race headlong into something without due care (attitudes to GM).

On a more positive note if science is portrayed as dynamic and quick then children are more likely to see it as achievable and fun to pursue.

I'm certainly glad that the number of evil, dysfunctional and batty scientists that reach our television screens do not appear to be present in ICB!

Good Luck on Wednesday.

Response 4

Dear Chris,

that actually is an interesting topic and challenging task, and for me a welcome distraction whilst writing up my evil PhD science.

I think for every bad scientist in novels and films you'll find a good one who eventually contributes in saving the world or whatever. Thus, the balance is there and I personally do not feel unfairly represented. I can also imagine that people who read/watch and thus like science fiction might have a better understanding and more rationale view of the real world, and what is scientifically possible, compared to non-scientists who have no contact to this area of entertainment. Therefore, I think science fiction media make an important contribution to our life as scientists, as they make non-scientists engage with the matter and very often get them interested in specific topics. I believe this is especially true for kids who are usually more open and unbiased towards everything.

To explain our work and motivation to non-scientists, and get them interested in the complicated stuff we do, I believe, is the most difficult thing for us to achieve (after getting good grants, of course). As it is so complicated and a challenge to communicate, science fiction often simplifies and of course talks about things that are currently impossible or very, very difficult to achieve and no way standard procedures (maybe cloning of humans from somatic cells is a drastic example). And here I see a problem: if science fiction is not exagerating enough, so its clear to the reader/viewer that this is purest fiction, than the people might be misled and misunderstand our work.

To the sociologist studies: I wasn't aware that we are the subjects of studies like this, but it's kind of logical. I often thought about distributing a few webcams in our lab and put them live on the internet so people can at least see the physical activity going on in a real-world lab. Of course, other people are doing this for a long time already and there is some really cool stuff on the internet, which I think is great and fun to watch. But in the end, I believe if you really want to understand how science works and what drives scientists you have to try it yourself for a while and experience the frustration along the way, which of course is usually not featured in science fiction as of course everything works out immediately.

Since I am a kid I'm enjoying TV series like 'Natural World' (David Attenborough) etc., which in me triggered the wish to learn more about the wonders of life and become a scientist. This of course is not science fiction, but because its real and all around us, it is even more fascinating. And to understand a bit more than the average person why we are a part of this and how it works on a cellular level gets me in the lab almost every day.

Hope that helps.

Response 5

Hi Chris,

Good luck, it's a huge can of worms. Misguided genius, evil and/or mad scientists all make great stock if somewhat one dimensional characters.

In a nutshell up until the 80s scientists were pretty much the bad guys in film and tv sci-fi though there are exceptions (eg. Quatermass). This is not so much in novels though as novels generally have a lot more time to build character and give thought and reasoning behind actions. Film and tv particularly in the US have a tendency to dumb down and play to stereotypes rather risk being original or challenge their viewers.

Having said that Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein is the starting point for a lot of this. Of course in the book there is the build up to his work, the creature is not explicitly made from dead body parts but more a construction made larger to allow copying intricate copies of part of the human anatomy. Frankenstein admits that reversing death is impossible but instead wants to create life, but much of all this is often overlooked in the film and tv adaptations.

There are many reasons behind modern media's take on scientists, after all scientist were behind some of the terror weapons in WWII like the V1 and V2 and of course ultimately responsible for the atom bomb.

Even the "good" scientists seldom fair well in film & tv and are made out to be eccentric at best and plain nuts at worst (see Q from the Bond films compared to say Brent Spiner in Independence Day).

Things have improved lately with the American National Acedemy of Sciences setting up the Science and Entertainment Exchange, which has started to make progress in sci-fi films and tv. See more about it at Possibly because the science part of sci-fi has more recently tried to be plausible or have some reasoning behind it all, which has in turn relied on more scientists being consultants.

There are a lot of good articles on this already around on the web if you take a look around.


Response 6

Dear Chris,

interesting subject! What follows is a stream of thoughts that may or may not be relevant, but hopefully some of it will help!

One key point is that the villainous scientist is often much more obviously a scientist than the hero. Heroes like batman and Doctor Who are extremely capable at science, but it is only one string to their bow, and hence only a part of their image (in Batman's case, one that only really comes out in the comics). However villains tend to be more one-dimensional characters, hence some may be much more recognisable as "scientists". The recent Dr Who revival had a classic example in Doctor Lazarus, whose efforts to become young again literally turned him into a monster. On the other hand, more often than not the Doctor wins the day through his superior knowledge of science, or just pure brainpower, relative to his opponent. But I do wonder what proportion of children would identify him as a scientist.

The portrayal of the scientist "meddling in things they don't understand" of course goes back a long way, with the invisible man and Dr Jekyll, although stories from around this time also may have more positive characters such as the guy from The Time Machine and the two professors in Conan Doyle's "The Lost world"

An example of a very positive recent portrayal is in the Amber Spyglass, which completed Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. This includes Mary Malone, a female scientist dogged by such mundane troubles as funding issues and pressure to close her research group from on high, whose investigations lead her to different worlds where she interacts with non-human, intelligent creatures.

I'll send more if I think of it. Good luck!

Response 7

Hi Chris,

The reason I became interested in Science and ultimately ended up doing my PhD was due to science-fiction/ super hero comics. Specifically I became interested in biology after watching large amounts of the X-men and Spidermen cartoons in the 1990's. So I believe Sci-Fi/ related media can get kids interested in science.

I don't think the portrayal of scientists is that bias towards the evil/mad scientist angle as I can think of quite a few examples where science/ scientists are portrayed positively in the media. of course there are a number of examples of that stereotype that I can also think of so I think there is a disposition towards it rather then a strong bias.

I think one good example of a positively portrayed scientist is the Doctor from Dr Who, as at the core the character is essentially a scientist and is in essence a hero with a strong moral compass, despite numerous character flaws (this opinion is based of both classic and new Dr Who).

I always find Star Trek is good for showing positively portrayed science, as many times it's science that saves the day, along with the heroism of the crew but it's their use of science that saves the day.

Finally Scully from the X files is a scientist whose also portrayed as a emotionally mature and sociable human being as well as being a highly skilled scientist.

These are my thoughts on the matter,

Hope its useful

Response 8

Hi Chris,

Re: do you think scientists are fairly portrayed in science fiction, or is there an unreasonably large proportion who are deranged and/or evil, or just one-dimensional (no friends, family, etc.)?

As avid science fiction reader, I would say that it is only the New York Times bestsellers that portray scientists as Dr Frankensteins, while the Hugo Award winners are more sympathetic and balanced -- unless of course by science fiction you mean the monthly Newsweek reports that scientists have cured cancer. The problem is not so much the fiction as the main stream media and the media-whore baby boomer scientists/university administrators that do not portray scientists per se, but spin our work either to overstate the public benefits (so that the public feels a subsequent let-down when they realize it is only the first step) or to create conflict (such as going back and forth between portraying us a Dr Frankensteins in one story on stem cell research while in another talking about the many lives it will save and in both ignoring the greater successes from adult stem cell research because they want to attack George Bush for redistributing money from stem cell research to adult stem cell research etc etc). In either case society in general gets a conflicted and confused vision of scientists and this becomes reflected in the fiction of the day.

Re: Would you make a distinction between science fiction novels and the more simplistic portrayals on films and on TV?

Yes there is a clear distinction with a decided bias in favor of portraying scientists unfavorably by Hollywood. But, again, I would argue that this is a reflection of the media portrayal as up until the mid-1960s Hollywood portrayed scientists as noble self-sacrificing individuals devoted to helping society. A particular comment about Hollywood that I feel very strongly about is not so much their negative portrayals of us as arrogant and hungering for notoriety and designing viruses to take over the world etc, but their misrepresentation of what we know. Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov both emphasized at lectures all the time the distinction between science fiction and fantasy. While I might extend the definition of science fiction beyond their limits, I would say that it is one thing for Star Trek to have a bunch of Ketchup bottles with different colored water in them that when applied can cure everything from burns to viral infections and it was quite another thing for Star Trek the Next Generation to talk about a virus activating introns and turning people in some cases into alligators and in other cases into lions based on what they respectively evolutionarily evolved from. There are so many ways that one could still have taken the premise and come up with some reasonable argument in either science fiction or fantasy to explain it and still have had a good story, but by misrepresenting what an intron is and how evolution proceeded they are enhancing ignorance and stupidity. I have friends who have offered to help them correct such gross errors and were very rudely turned down by the arrogant idiots that run Hollywood who simply don't give a damn about truth or the damage that they do.

Re: Do you think science fiction encourages children to want to study science, or become scientists themselves? Was this the case for you?

Yes and Yes and I might add that even many of the ones that portray us negatively like Jurassic Park encourage new scientists.

Re: Also, do you think 'science studies' (ie, sociologists studying scientists in their native habitat) is useful, or is it impossible for non-scientists to reach useful conclusions about how science really works?

Sociology was a real science in the days of Durkheim and Blau and began its end as a science in the 1960s when social reformers invaded the discipline and began directing studies with the intention of achieving a particular outcome. I would say that science historians do a much better job of explaining the evolution of ideas and the dynamics that led to them than science sociologists. At the same time, I would argue that the world has lost out on a whole area of economics by not applying that discipline to science. On the one hand the scientific marketplace is one of the most unregulated ventures into Capitalism that the world has ever known with an extremely dynamic turnover of companies and ideas and marketing and essentially no Better Business Bureau to keep track of or punish companies that sell bad products of which there are plenty. At the same time the scientific marketplace is subject to some of the most controlling and constantly changing regulations relating to shipping and containment and disposal of chemicals that is itself a branch interesting to watch how fast and in what ways the marketplace responds. The change in the dynamic in recent years with the many takeovers also serves as a great model to test how this same trend in the major multinationals and banks will turn out (which is of course bad).

Have fun!


Response 9

Dear Chris,

I got forwarded your email about the portrayal of scientist in SciFi and would like to pass on my thoughts although I am outside ICMB. I read a little science fiction myself and watch a fair few films and TV series that would be classed as science fiction. I would argue that few professions would get an accurate portrayal within the media, therefore why scientists? Scientists are generally poor at communicating to the general public, hence why I think it is easier to cast them as social outsiders and in a negative light. That is our problem and we as a profession need to improve our communication skills but at present there is very few outlets in the media to do this that is available to the general public.

Off the top of my head there are very few positive views of scientists in SciFi apart from Dr Who (could he be classed as a scientist?) and perhaps Spock from Star Trek (although slightly strange as he is half Vulcan), whilst on the negative side we can start at Dr Frankenstein and up to the DVD I watched last week (I and Legend released in 2007) where a scientist creates a viral cure for cancer that is 100% successful in treating the cancer but then causes the individuals to turn into zombies (that would be a bad day in the lab)!

I would make a distinction between 'hard' SciFi and the more generic material as there are some authors who use scientific papers and text books in the reading list at the end of the book (Greg Bear in Darwin's Radio where endogenous retroviral activation cause the next stage of human evolution is actually factually correct in 80% in what he is saying, the remaining 20% is the fiction to sell the book, I have been working in the feild of retroviral of over 11 years now). One of his books had some influence on me whilst writing my Ph.D thesis (Blood music) as it explains how a lymphocyte ( a cell of the immune system) interacts with a foreign cell very well (instead of seeing and hearing, a lymphocyte sniffs and licks the target cell to see if it needs to respond or not, again factually correct). His books were the first where I could see that SciFi could be 'mind expanding'.

I have read in the press the fictional TV series Crime scene investigations (CSI, Channel 5?) has resulted in a huge increase in applications for forensic medicine, although I haven't really watched it too much the basic scientific tests are correct, the time to carry them out is greatly compressed (like getting a DNA sequence from a hair follicle within the space of time it takes to get a coffee).

I am not sure about what use social science investigation of scientists would produce apart from employment for social scientists, but that is also due to the fact I am unsure what a social science does!

And don't get me started about the pseudo-science used in advertising particularly in cosmetics, bloody penta-peptides!!!!!!!

Anyway, I fear I my be ranting now. Best of luck tomorrow, is there any reason there is only one scientist on the panel?

Response 10

Dear Chris,

I'm slightly outside ICMB, but interested by your email.

1. I think its interesting that you are canvassing views from scientists - I wonder to what extent the other (non-scientific) members of the panel will have done this - an interesting commentary on the scientific approach

2. I'm not a great reader of science fiction so can't help much on that, but I do remember an influential book from my youth - "Arrowsmith" by Sinclair Lewis which is the story of a medical student set against the backdrop of discoveries in bacteriophage biology (if I remember right).

3. More generally, I doubt that any profession is fairly portrayed in fiction or other media creations - do vets curse "All creatures great and small" or do policemen get a rounded portrayal in crime fiction. I think it's a bit silly to expect writers to be publicists for any profession. I think that the route into science for most people is an interest in "how things work" - biology, the universe, machines etc not fictional portrayals. Anyway, the media in general present a much higher profile image of scientists in the way they report things - the way they distort statistics, glory in controversies (and mavericks) rather than agreements, stress the complexity of things rather than making it accessible (but accurate). If every paper had a Ben Goldacre then that would solve the problem!

4. And finally - is social scientists studying scientists useful? Useful? Good for getting money to do the Social Science research I'm sure, but does it play any part in what scientists do? No. And are scientists aware of or interested in what the social scientists are doing? Again no. My impression is that the social sciences have an unhealthy preoccupation with scientists going wrong - faking results, doing bad things but this misses what most of science is about.

And a challenge - see if you can get any of the social scientists to disagree with you - having sat in on a few of their discussions while working as a science writer at the Genomics Forum, I was amused at the extent to which they would tip toe around things to avoid confrontation - everyone's opinion was valid and equal, no right and wrong, the discussion itself being their endpoint rather than getting somewhere as a consequence of the discussion. Ah, I sound a bit jaded. Back to the lab .....

Response 11

Sounds like an interesting discussion! I used to have similar discussions during my PhD when there were 6 scientists living in the one house but we had several friends who were "arts" students.

From our small sample there was defintiely a difference in our actual styles of thinking! I think it can be difficult for non-scientific thinkers to truly understand the inner workings of science as a discipline and what motivates scientists. However, I dont mean that you have to be a scientist to think like a scientist - I think there are plenty of people out there who do have a scientific way of thinking, they just never went into science for whatever reason.

science fiction is a difficult one - from a quick straw poll of my scientist friends none of us were inspired to become scientists by science fiction, although many of us do enjoy it. We were more inspired by science at school and factual science prgrammes on tv ie anything Attenborough, programmes like How? when we were kids etc

I think the portrayal of fictional scientists has evolved a little in tv programmes with the increase in popularity of forensic shows, where they tend to be depicted as more rounded people - although perhaps with an unreasonable amount of glamour! Physicists and mathematicians still seem to be getting the raw deal though. Almost always depicted as either exceedingly nerdy/geeky or with Asperger like social skills, thinking of the "comedy" show The Big Bang Theory and FBI/maths combo "Numbers" - although at least someone was trying to make maths a bit cooler!

In films and books the several main stereotypes still seem to abound 1) the scatterbrained but lovely old men, who are very clever but cant really cope with the real world eg Doc Brown in back to the future 2) the evil scientists driven by money/power or just the need to know something at the expense of all moral and ethical considerations - in most apocalyptical sci/fi, its usually the fault of scientists 3) the nerdy geeks with no social skills - any school films! 4)the ones driven purely by what is logical/scientific and therefore have no emotions - Spock would be the classical example

i think a lot of this is based on the fact that non-science thinkers can't really process what would attract someone to devote their working life to something, particulalry in fundamental science, that seems so irrelevant to their normal lives.

They dont seem to get that most of the fun is in the understanding of how and why!

Hope some of this was useful!

Response 12

Dear Chris,

one possibly interesting footnote:

"Excellence. Originality. Intelligence. Everyone in academia stresses quality. But what exactly is it, and how do professors identify it? In the academic evaluation system known as 'peer review', highly respected professors pass judgment, usually confidentially, on the work of others. But only those present in the deliberative chambers know exactly what is said. Michele Lamont observed deliberations for fellowships and research grants, and interviewed panel members at length. In "How Professors Think", she reveals what she discovered about this secretive, powerful, peculiar world. Anthropologists, political scientists, literary scholars, economists, historians, and philosophers don't share the same standards. Economists prefer mathematical models, historians favor different kinds of evidence, and philosophers don't care much if only other philosophers understand them. But when they come together for peer assessment, academics are expected to explain their criteria, respect each other's expertise, and guard against admiring only work that resembles their own. They must decide: Is the research original and important? Brave, or glib? Timely, or merely trendy? Pro-diversity or interdisciplinary enough? Judging quality isn't robotically rational; it's emotional, cognitive, and social, too. Yet most academics' self-respect is rooted in their ability to analyze complexity and recognize quality, in order to come to the fairest decisions about that elusive god, 'excellence'. In "How Professors Think", Lamont aims to illuminate the confidential process of evaluation and to push the gatekeepers to both better understand and perform their role."

Best wishes,

Response 13

Dear Chris,

I am not a big fan of Science Fiction, but I am very interested in the subject. Thanks for asking about our views. Last year during a parents' night at my children's school I had the opportunity to read a little essay that my eleven year old had written about the subject "stereotypes". The children had been discussing in the classroom about how they saw scientists and my son was disappointed that all his friends had the image of the evil and/or mad guy (not woman) with bad hair, worse sense of dressing and no care for anything but whatever the objective of his experiments was. Shocking as this was to me, it made me realise that the negative stereotypes from science fiction books, TV series and movies are reaching our young children. Of course you also have other stereotypes, like the nerdy, socially inept guys in the Big Bang Theory or the IT Crowd. Unfortunately, funny as they may try to be they are certainly not an attractive role model for children. Reading my son's essay reassured me in my commitment to contribute to public engagement activities. I believe it is our responsibility as scientists to do our best to improve the image and better understanding of science and scientists. Every little counts: last month my eight year old daughter had some friends round and decided to do her first "biochemistry experiments" (under close paternal supervision). When I arrived home from the lab the kitchen was a disaster zone but the children were very excitedly discussing about what they had done. And they have been awarded a Blue Peter Badge for their effort and creativity, which will encourage them and their friends to keep exploring and doing experiments. Take the real fun and excitement of Science to the children, and they will start seeing the stereotypes as exactly what they are: fiction characters.

I hope you have fun tonight, thanks for doing this.


Response 14

Hi Chris,

Sounds like it will be an interesting conversation. Thought I might add a non-scienctist perspective.

I am not a scientist despite being very interested in science when I was young, as in I liked observing things and trying to understand how they worked, was a bit of a general geek!! But your email made me wonder why science didn't seem appealing to me as I got older, and wonder if perhaps that had to do with the way scientists were portrayed when I was young, all the cliched characters you mentioned (the fact they were almost all men can't have helped either!). In other words maybe portrayals of scientists in popular culture and/or science fiction encourage some kids into science but they might actively discourage other kids who feel it isn't for them. Just a thought ...

And as for science studies, why not?!

Hope it goes well,

Response 15

Dear Dr. French,

I'm a friend of Achim Schnaufer and also a fan of the novels of Ken MacLeod (and frequent contributor to MacLeod's blog [1] under the alias "ilorien"). Achim forwarded me your list of questions, as well as the link to the page of results.

I'm not a scientist a such, but I have had opportunity to observe a number of scientists while working in research labs over the years, and as a physician engaged in residency training in pathology at an academic center, I still have a fair amount of contact with the basic science crowd.

Anyway... on to your questions.

1. Do you think scientists are fairly portrayed in science fiction, or is there an unreasonably large proportion who are deranged and/or evil, or just one-dimensional (no friends, family, etc.)?

I think that overall, scientists are indeed very fairly portrayed in the science fiction that is currently considered worth reading by the science fiction community (a hefty qualification, I admit). Of course there is much variation in the depth to which their characters are explored, and sometimes it happens that when a scientist is needed for a peripheral role, he/she ends up being a rather one-dimensional, boring person. Overall though, I think that the trend is to portray scientists as normal people who are genuinely interested in improving their world through increasing knowledge and understanding of it. They're also frequently portrayed as being passionate about their work, occasionally to the exclusion of other aspects of life, and when the plot demands conflict or discussion regarding an ethically-charged issue, although it may, more often than not, be the scientist who is arguing for stepping forward onto risky ground, I don't see him/her doing so without proper regard for the consequences to others.

Now... as for the "science fiction" that is not currently considered worth reading by the science fiction community... I can't comment, as I am fairly ignorant of this field.

2. Would you make a distinction between science fiction novels and the more simplistic portrayals on films and on TV?

Yes, I think that there is an overall distinction, and that a TV or film scientist tends more often to be portrayed as 1) the evil genius, 2) a passionate, but socially isolated (though ultimately entertaining) geek who is interested only in his/her work and has little time for the concerns of humanity, or 3) a one-dimensional technician whose sole purpose is to convey information to the audience that is essential to the next wild and improbable plot twist.

3. Do you think science fiction encourages children to want to study science, or become scientists themselves?

I can only answer for myself. Although I enjoyed science fiction as a kid, my interest in science predated my interest in science fiction, and I rarely, if ever, considered or even thought to seek a connection between the two. I think that science documentaries did far more to inspire my interest in science as a child and teen than did science fiction. I continue to be impressed with the ability of a scientific documentary film to move and inspire me in ways that fiction of any sort rarely achieves.

4. Also, do you think 'science studies' (ie, sociologists studying scientists in their native habitat) is useful, or is it impossible for non-scientists to reach useful conclusions about how science really works?

I think that such studies are extremely useful. I see an appalling disconnect between the scientifically literate and the rest of the world, and I think that anything that can be done to bridge that gap should be pursued. If studying the behaviors of scientists allows for greater understanding of the motivations, inspirations, labors, and achievements of scientists on the part of the rest of the population, then by all means, set the sociologists to work! I'm currently reading Kim Stanley Robinson's "Red Mars", and was immensely entertained by the segment of the book narrated by the psychiatrist (or perhaps he was a clinical psychologist), as he observed and analyzed a crowd of 99 scientists and engineers living and working in close proximity for an extended period of time. A few of the scientific documentaries I've seen have hinted at similar observations, but with relatively little analysis.

So there's my bit. Much of it just repetition of what has already been said and posted to your site. Feel free to post (or not) as much or as little as you want, and feel free to include my name, email address and blogsite ( if you like.

And should it seem appropriate, give Ken my greetings tonight.

Thanks much.


Micaiah H. Evans, MD, MPH Chief Resident, Pathology University of New Mexico

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