The Misunderstood Scientist

The modern myth must be debunked

BOSTON, Mass.—His determinism is unnerving, his passions abstract, and his ability to relate to the world outside his cloistered laboratories is limited, at best. The scientist is a decidedly strange creature, or so our society seems to believe.

But scientists would not agree with the public’s estimation, and they would be right not to: Our society’s conception of the scientist is warped beyond any resemblance to reality. Sitting at a lab bench in Boston, on the gray cusp between layperson and scientist, I’ve had a rare opportunity to see scientists from within as well as without.

This past January, ran a story headlined “Science ‘not for normal people,’” which cited research that aimed to discover the root of declining interest in science among Western students. The study showed that British teenagers “value the role of science in society but feel scientists are ‘brainy people not like them.’” A full 70 percent of 11-15 year old students did not picture scientists as “normal and attractive men and women.” Asked to draw a picture of a scientist, most children draw Einstein-types, with shocks of white hair, lab coats, and thick glasses.

These views haven’t changed much since the mid 20th century. A 1981 study in Public Opinion Quarterly by Georgine Pion and Mark Lipsey echoed the BBC’s article: “In early studies of perception of scientists by high school and college students [dating back to the early 1960s] they were seen as intellectual dedicated human beings, but difficult to comprehend and erratic in their interpersonal relationships… 41 percent agreed that they were ‘apt to be odd and peculiar people.’ Such unflattering, stereotypic images of scientists apparently remain prevalent, even among knowledgeable people.”

The modern myth of the scientist these studies allude to is visible in popular culture, in movies from the 1964’s classic “Dr. Strangelove” to 2003’s “Hulk.” But science isn’t performed by crusty, withdrawn septuagenarians wearing pocket protectors. Nor is it done by mad scientist types muttering arcane formulae under their breath. But why does much of society have that impression?

Perhaps because buried deep in the collective Western psyche, there is an ingrained nervousness, an anxiety toward science. We stand in awe of science, its discoveries, its modern-day miracles that we use every day, that we couldn’t imagine living without. How many of us truly know the physics behind the computers we type at daily, or the biology of Tylenol, which we trust to rid us of the slightest headache? We do not understand the fruits of science, but we have no choice but to rely on the objects of our naïveté.

The public fears what it cannot control, for it cannot control what it cannot comprehend: science. And it worries that scientists, taking advantage of its ignorance, will spiral out of control, that technology will subsume humanity. Such fears have been poignantly crystallized in movies such as “Gattaca,” where the quest for genetic perfection leads to a new, scientific apartheid, or “Blade Runner,” in which cloning has blurred the line between human and non-human beyond recognition. The way that society has chosen to deal with that fear is to hold scientists at arms length, to label them “the other,” to borrow a phrase, and pigeonhole them into crude caricatures—the necromantic Victor Frankenstein who yells “Eureka!” and laughs madly, or the crotchety old hunchback laboring over fuming beakers—that are strange and abnormal.

The dehumanization of scientists is not simply a Western phenomenon. But in contrast to the West, where the scientist is politely told to take a seat in the backroom where no one will notice his odd mannerisms and strangeness, Eastern societies have dehumanized the scientist in a completely opposite way: They have deified him.

In many Asian countries, scientists are national heroes. Take Chen Jin, a top physicist, who was feted by top Chinese leaders for developing the Hanxin computer chip. Or Hwang Woo-Suk, the South Korean biologist whose pioneering stem cell research was a point of national pride. When the research of each scientist was uncovered as fraudulent, it was a blow not just to the field in which his work was conducted, not just to the institution he was affiliated, but to the collective national egos of China and South Korea.

Many scholars have blamed the East’s Confucian philosophical grounding, with proverbs such as “Scholars are respected above all,” for its societies’ distorted perception of scientists. Such a maxim is alien to the Western tradition, but the cartoonish quality that our society imposes on scientists is much the same, just in a different direction.

No scientist is any more worthy of worship than he is of reviling. Scientists are humans, above all—humans with an abiding faith that truth can be discovered through empirical investigation perhaps, but humans still. There is reason neither for veneration nor trepidation.

But why stop there? We should not be afraid to question their conclusions, especially on issues that affect all of us, such as climate change or embryonic stem cells, yet we should be able to do so in an informed way—we should not dismiss these same conclusions just because of an instinctive fear of not understanding where they came from.

The best-case scenario, of course, would be a scientifically informed public. Scientists are misunderstood partly because of the manner in which science is presented to the masses, especially those topics still controversial among experts in the field. Science journalism often leaves an impression that is paradoxical, because of the reporter’s instinct to present controversies as arguments that do not necessarily have a single provably correct answer. It becomes quite easy for the reader to mistake a scientist’s assertion that the evidence shows that he is absolutely correct as nothing more than hubristic posturing. After reading a few quotes of this type, he may be quick to conclude that scientists are quacks, or at least that they are unwarrantably patronizing.

But though not exactly an extraordinary deduction, it would surely be a sad one. For scientists on the whole are not patronizing or strange, just misunderstood—the scientist is first and foremost a human being. And too often, we forget that.

Brian J. Rosenberg ’08, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a biology concentrator in Lowell House. Brian crosses the street to eat corn flakes.