Changing the Public Perception of “Mad” Science

October 9, 2015 § 4 Comments

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Scientists aren’t always depicted in the most flattering of lights. The stereotype that those who commit much of their time to experiments and scientific investigation are “mad scientists” is a trope that has been overused in literature, comics, and film, and it paints quite an unsettling picture of experimenters as extremely eccentric or insane hermits devoid of emotions or social skills who live their lives in laboratories tucked away from civilization. While the nature of scientific research no doubt requires one to spend hours performing experiments, analyzing data, and writing papers, this is far from a projection of a scientist’s personality and is simply the nature of any extended learning process.

This “process,” however, seems to be what keeps the general public away from the science scene. While scientific journals and documentaries about laboratory work may try to engage the common person in the discoveries being made daily in laboratories around the world, the public is not having it. The jargon is intimidating and the theories are complex. So what can be done to create a mutual understanding between those who do science and those who do not?Capture 5Capture

There are dozens of STEM programs—including everything from NASA Robotics Internships to Destination Science summer camps—seeking to involve kids and young adults in scientific activities. So why do kids participating in the “Draw-A-Scientist” Test (DAST) still create the same image of an unkempt, unsmiling, lab coat-clad man when asked to draw a picture of a typical “scientist?”  Some disconnect between actual experiments being conducted and information relayed to the general public prevents children from illustrating a scientist as a happy, tidy, female inventor or explorer. This clearly demonstrates the need to emphasize that there are not two different groups at odds here. Scientists are not “them.” They are “us.” We are all, in a way, engaging in this systematic methodology in our everyday lives. For some reason, people seem to have an inherent suspicion of scientists, believing that they will use the knowledge they acquire against us when in reality, most research is done for the greater benefit. Although we might not be fully knowledgeable on the research being done in nearby labs and universities, the unknown always creates opportunities to learn.

And this is where science fiction can come into play. Science fiction can be the bridge that spans the gap in appreciation between the public and the scientific. Sci-fi is not written to educate. It is created and imagined to explore, redefine, and inspire. Scientific journals might not be the most alluring magazines to read while unwinding on a Friday night. But novels, on the other hand, can present the same ideas and similar material in a more attractive and accessible fashion, generating a greater interest for scientific discovery. As more and more science fiction films and novels have been released in the past decade, public interest in this genre has increased as well. Hopefully, these forms of media will prompt more people to regard scientific work, and those who perform it, as valuable to them and society.

References and Further Reading:

  1. The Draw-A-Scientist Test;jsessionid=D380FD12DDF9ED2CDB0F4B4EE07CA6F1.f02t03
  1. Images

-Bushra Rahman


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§ 4 Responses to Changing the Public Perception of “Mad” Science

  • sarahmjamison says:

    You have touched on something that I, myself, am guilty of contributing to. When I think of “scientist,” the first word that comes to mind is “mad.” Why? I have never had a negative experience with science or scientists, and I am not really a fan of any media that portrays scientists as crazy or mad. What I mean to say is that I was never the child that read novels or watched television shows where there was a mad scientist conducting crazy experiments. So why do I associate scientist with mad?

    While I agree that science fiction may be a way in which we as a society can move past the mad scientist trope, but my concern is that people will not be open minded enough to read science fiction. As a creature of habit, I usually read the same types of books, meaning I will stick to either a specific genre or even a specific type of plot. I am not close-minded by any means, but I do abstain typically from science fiction due to sheer habit. So how do we move past that? How do we make both science fiction more mainstream and science less alienating?

    – S. Jamison

    Liked by 1 person

  • crmitchie says:

    The perception of scientists today is clearly an evolving definition, but I also find it disconcerting that many people still conjure up images of “mad” scientists as their visualization of a typical “scientist.” While I do agree that modern science fiction effectively highlights innovative research and strives to portray scientists in a more positive light, I’m unsure that science fiction will be the catalyst to shift public opinion on the matter.

    As we’ve discussed in class, there is definitely a target readership with traditional science fiction. While the genre’s audience is certainly expanding, the fan base for most science fiction writing is still at its core comprised of nerds. The average science fiction reader likely does not have a negative perception of scientists, at least in comparison to the rest of the population. Therefore, I’m unsure if the genre as a whole will be able to reach enough readers in demographics that don’t have favorable ideas of what a scientist is to cause a significant shift in public perception of scientists.


    Liked by 1 person

  • bryantp1 says:

    It is interesting hearing some of your thoughts on the idea of the “mad” scientist” stereotype, since your dad is a scientist! Getting to work in a lab with your dad and other scientists gave great examples of the kind of compassionate, meaningful research that scientists participate in to help people.

    I think one of the things that allows people to have this perception of scientists is that there are certain things that set scientists apart, and can make them seem like “others.” Science pretty much always involves a specialized vocabulary and concepts that people are quick to dismiss as incomprehensible by them. A lab is a pretty unique environment to work in too.

    Liked by 1 person

  • bryantp1 says:

    ^^^^ Peter Bryant


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