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THE CUTTING EDGE | TRENDS | SCIENCE WATCH / LEE DYE

Tell Your Children! Evil, Ineffectual Scientists Are Out to Conquer the World!

June 24, 1996|LEE DYE

OK, so Hollywood isn't perfect.

Nearly every profession or special-interest group or minority feels its role is distorted by television and the movies. God knows if I conducted myself the way most of the reporters I've seen depicted in the movies, I would have been fired years ago, or killed, or both, and I would have had it coming.

Reporters are easy targets because we can cause a lot of trouble, we tend to be a bit arrogant, and yes, we always have the last word. No sympathy there.

But why do scientists get such a bum rap?

George Gerbner, who recently retired after 25 years as dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, has made exhaustive studies of how scientists are depicted in television and the movies, and he has come up with some startling conclusions.

Gerbner found that if prime-time television is to be believed, no other occupation is as sinister as that of the scientist. His studies show that 10% of the fictional scientists in television end up killing one or more people off, sometimes by the thousands. And 5% get killed themselves. That's more deadly than the fate of cops or soldiers.

By contrast, medical doctors as seen in television and the movies are perfect citizens.

"Doctors are the professionals that are the most noble, the most helpful, and they cure you of all your problems, sometimes even the medical ones," Gerbner said in a telephone interview. "They never present a bill, and they always make house calls."

Scientists, on the other hand, are usually presented as foreboding, mad geniuses out to conquer the world. Curious, since most scientists I know would be the first to admit they wouldn't know what to do with the world if they got it.

William Evans, a communications professor at Georgia State University, contends that Western literature and popular entertainment nearly always feature scientists as troublemakers, and he says this is more likely to be the case today than ever before.

"Mad scientists are second only to psychotics as the primary source of trouble in horror films," Evans notes in an article published in the Skeptical Inquirer. "In fact, mad scientists account for a larger percentage of horror movie antagonists than zombies, werewolves and mummies combined."

That's a curious legacy for an introspective group of people who wait for the green light before entering the crosswalk.

Gerbner believes there are two main reasons why scientists get such a mauling in the movies--one fictional and one factual.

The scientist is an essential player in science-fiction stories, and "most science fiction offers a pessimistic future," Gerbner said. The world is reeling toward destruction, and it is usually because some scientist concocted some demon that is out of control or created the tools that make it possible for one species to enslave another.

Not only does the scientist create the problem, but it is usually the warrior who comes to the rescue, saving the rest of us from the ineffectual efforts of the whimpering character in the white lab coat.

The other reason scientists have been singled out for such treatment lies in the nature of science itself, Gerbner contends.

"Scientists have always tried to investigate and to ask questions, and they are skeptical, and they follow hypotheses that are not necessarily conventional," he said. The very nature of science leads toward the unknown, and sometimes, Gerbner says, that can indeed be dangerous. He believes, for example, that the anxieties that came with the Nuclear Age contributed significantly to the way scientists are perceived.

But the depiction of scientists as evil geniuses out to destroy the world is as "totally unrealistic" as portraying medical doctors as though they can cure all of society's ills and never send a bill, Gerbner added.

It may all sound like idle entertainment, but Gerbner--who pioneered the communications field as an academic discipline--believes it is very damaging.

"I think it has a profound effect" in shaping attitudes toward science, he said.

"In the typical home, television is on an average of seven hours and 41 minutes a day," he said, "so it begins in infancy. By the time a child gets to be 6 years old, that child is fully integrated into a view of the world with all its professions, relationships and so on."

Those attitudes are then cultivated the rest of our lives "because people keep watching television," he said. "That, then, becomes very resistant to change."

The omnipresence of television concerns him more than movies, Gerbner said, because it becomes integrated into our family lives, watched in the security of our living rooms. That's one of the things that sets this era apart from the past.

"This has never happened before," Gerbner said. The screenwriters of the future have already been conditioned to portray scientists as evil or, at best, ineffectual.

Maybe one of these days I'll get around to writing a script about real scientists. Tough plot, though. How do you get drama out of measuring the same thing day after day after day, and trying to figure out whether it means anything at all?

Lee Dye can be reached via e-mail at 72040.3515@compuserve.nes

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