Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 8, Issue 1, Article 11 (June, 2007)
Beverley JANE, Marilyn FLEER & John GIPPS

Changing children's views of science and scientists through school-based teaching

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Stereotypical views of scientists portrayed in the media

Science fiction can be defined as “works that take a more or less scientific world-view; narratives in which events are depicted on the assumption that they are explicable within the world of physical nature as investigated by science” (Blackford, Ikin & McMullen, 1999:xii). The 'science fiction' film genre frequently portrays scientists as obsessive and addicted to their work. The classic film Frankenstein is a good example. The film is based on a story written by Mary Shelley (1818) at the age of nineteen, during a house party at Lake Geneva, Switzerland. As part of the entertainment, Lord Byron challenged the guests to write a ghost story. There are several interesting theories on the reasons why Shelley wrote Frankenstein. One theory is that the experiments of Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin's grandfather, 1731-1803) gave Shelley the idea for her book. “Darwin subjected many of his medical patients to electrical shocks in hopes of understanding the universal life force he was so certain existed” (Herrick, 2003: 121). Initially, Mary was slow to come up with the idea for her story, but following a nightmare she began writing the now famous novel about young Dr Victor Frankenstein who tried to create a living being, but instead created a monster.

In the story, Victor became intoxicated with the possibilities of modern science. He was so inflated and consumed with the knowledge of how to animate a human creature and did not consider the morality of his creation, or even the aesthetics. He was so absorbed in the detail of his experiments, taking care as he created each section, that he failed to consider the total effect. The scientist became so desperate to make a human being (from body parts taken from the dead in the morgue) that he did not anticipate how the monster might behave in the real world. Once created the monster threatened the very being of its inventor. The scientist became the hunted and the haunted, because he acted as if there were no boundaries to his scientific work.

The characteristics of a scientist that are portrayed in this story are Victor's obsessive character, overreaching ambition, and 'out of control' behaviour, as he later realised:

my work drew near to a close; and now every day showed me more plainly how well I had succeeded. But my enthusiasm was checked by my anxiety, and I appeared rather like one doomed by slavery to toil in the mines, or any other unwholesome trade, rather than an artist occupied by his favourite employment. Every night I was oppressed by a slow fever, and I became nervous to a most painful degree; the fall of a leaf startled me, and I shunned my fellow-creatures as if I had been guilty of a crime. Sometimes I grew alarmed at the wreck I had become; the energy of my purpose alone sustained me: my labours would soon end, and I believed that exercise and amusement would then drive away incipient disease; and I promised myself both of these when my creation should be complete. (Shelley, 1818:43)

Victor was a brilliant, yet eccentric and preoccupied scientist, who began with noble, humanitarian ideals but became so obsessed with his project that he lost sight of the negative consequences. The Frankenstein story challenges past and present scientific theories by highlighting their ethical complexity. Recent experimentation with genetic engineering makes the implicit warnings decidedly modern.

Another science fiction film, A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), is set in the future in a time where natural resources are limited and nearly everything is engineered or artificial. The film depicts numerous robots helping humans with every need. Scientific knowledge generates the latest invention, a prototype boy “mecha” (David) who has the irreversible ability to love. A couple accepts David as a substitute for their terminally ill son who is cryonically frozen at the time. David has been programmed to love, and is activated when his new mother, Monica, reads a special code to him. Complications arise when Monica may not be able to return his love, and David, knowing he is not human, craves to be a 'real' boy. When the real son suddenly recovers the robot boy is cast aside, to an uncertain fate.

In AI science has not made the world neat and tidy. The opposite is the case. Robots are treated in an inhumane fashion, particularly when they become in need of repair. The film raises many questions concerning the morality of scientists and the ethics associated with robotics. Rosaleen Love (2001) aptly describes the situation the robots found themselves in the futuristic film where Artificial Intelligence has become part of everyday life.

Imagining the future for robots is an activity that directs attention to alternative futures, and questions present assumptions about robots, i.e. that humans control robots, where robots are neither free subjects, nor agents of their own destiny, nor intelligent like humans. (Love, 2001:583)

This film may appear far-fetched at this point in time, but roboticist Hans Moravec (1999) contends that by 2050 robot brains will begin to rival human intelligence.

In a less serious context, the comic adventure film Flubber focuses on a professor who invents a revolutionary, green coloured compound. He calls the new substance Flubber because it can fly and looks similar to rubber. In this film viewers see a scientist who gets so involved with his new invention that he forgets to attend his own wedding! While most viewers enjoy the gravity-defying visual effects, they also see a scientist who is absent-minded and totally obsessed with his own experiments.

Such a naive concept of a scientist is not only encouraged by the film Flubber but it is also perpetuated by many popular science fiction films that portray scientists as being out of touch with reality and living in their own worlds. Scientists are frequently depicted in their basement laboratories, working all through the night, making bubbly, explosive solutions by mixing chemicals in complex scientific equipment. This stereotypical view of scientists is the one that is commonly revealed in children's drawings (Jane & Gipps, 2006).

A literature review of studies of images of science and scientists in popular culture reveals several important features. Firstly the image of the scientist is generally a negative one. Scientists are usually portrayed as mad or so dedicated to their work that they are completely insensitive to their colleagues and families. Secondly, the image of science portrayed in popular culture does not reflect the actual way in which science progresses. The slow and painstaking process in which scientific knowledge is gradually built up is rarely shown. Instead the 'gee whiz' syndrome is present.

In her book, From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the scientist in Western literature, Roslynn Haynes explores the many ways in which scientists have been represented in literature over time, beginning with the late Middle Ages. “The popular image of the scientist changed from that of either a stupid or a sinister character to that of a highly respected man of genius representing the highest attainments of reason” (Haynes,1994:50). She proposes the following recurrent stereotypical representations of scientists in Western literature:

  • Alchemist, who appears at critical times obsessed or maniacal scientist, most recently as the genetic engineering biologist. (e.g. lone wolf scientist Victor Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein)
  • Stupid asocial virtuoso, who is out of touch with the real world, is both comic and sinister, the absent-minded professor. (e.g. astronomer Merrival, in Mary Shelley's The Last Man, and the professor in Flubber)
  • Heroic adventurer, in the physical or intellectual world, emerges at times of scientific optimism, but often a neo-imperialist. (e.g. heroic physician Tom Thurnall, in Charles Kingsley's Two Years Ago, and benevolent scientist in George Meredith's Melampus).
  • Scientist as helpless, lost control over his discovery or over the direction of its implementation. (e.g. Victor Frankenstein's isolation deprived him of a sense of social morality)
  • Scientist as idealist or world saviour, an acceptable scientist who sometimes holds out the possibility of a scientifically sustained utopia, but who often is engaged in conflict with a technology-based system that fails to provide for individual human values. (e.g. as seen in the film AI)


Copyright (C) 2007 HKIEd APFSLT. Volume 8, Issue 1, Article 11 (June, 2007). All Rights Reserved.