Scientist stereotypes: Life vs art

31 07 2010

Is the mad or maladjusted scientist the dominant TV stereotype? Or are we more likely to see scientists portrayed as heroes? Is Grigory Perelman’s refusal to accept a million dollars for his achievements in mathematics the kind of reaction we normally expect from scientists?

Of course not.

Despite many scientists believing that they are portrayed in a negative fashion, recent research seems to suggest that is not the case. Why do I say “seems”? Because the issue is strongly tied to emotion and perception.

How many of us remember that in ET the scientist “Keys” is trying to save the cuddly alien protagonist? Instead, Spielberg’s brilliant direction paints us a picture of a scary people in suits that appear to be causing more harm than good. We see these people through 10 year old Elliott’s eyes. It takes a conversation with Keys, who exposes emotion and concern, for us to understand what is truly going on.

Randy Olson has written at length about the emotional disconnect in the scientific method. Many of the stereotypes promote this to a character trait as a lack of empathy. Notice I don’t say lack of passion. Because it is very noticeable that TV has picked up on the fact that scientists are really driven individuals.

If there isn’t a problem, then why do scientists think there is? Many point to a study written in 1998 by George Gerbner of Temple University. Surveying scientist portrayals in media, it came to some rather startling conclusions: only 2 percent of lead characters in primetime TV were scientists. Scientists were also very likely to be villains in movies.

Fast forward to 2010 and things actually seem quite different. Thanks to the CSI franchise, forensic science has become seriously hip. Universities are jump starting programs to take up the influx of interested students. Bones, Fringe and Numb3rs all have scientist characters that are visible and important to the show dynamic. No surprise they all revolve around the law either. You still need drama.

But what about people’s opinions? A study by Susan Carol Losh of National Science Foundation opinion polls between 1983-2001 has good news and bad. The good news is that overall attitudes towards scientists improved from 1983 to 2001. The bad news:  a number of demographics still hold on to negative (male, socially inept) stereotypes.

Let’s get closer to home. What about my own field, astrophysics? My colleagues are a pretty diverse group of individuals. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some who fit scientist stereotypes, but the majority of individuals come across as regular folks. However, the trait of not caring too much about appearance does seem to be common, or is that just a guy thing?

And to give an example of social interactions, I’ll tell one quick story. I remember being a grad student and heading to a local bar with four physicist friends. We ending up talking with a similar size group of women. After chatting for a while, they asked us about our careers we answered we were all studying for PhDs. Our reply was met with teasing and laughter! We were told that it couldn’t be true and we were likely from the army base! Not the stereotype we anticipated…

In the 12 years since I was a PhD student, the “nerd” stereotype has grown wings.  Call it “geek chic” or whatever the flavour of the month is, but there is little denying that “nerd” has become a somewhat playful term, and almost hints at respect. The TV series “Chuck” even has a nerd as a hero (and he gets the girl!).

If the clock is wound back 50 years, who were the equivalent individuals? Ecogirl argues it’s the mechanics who were devoted to their cars. Fixing, rebuilding and customizing cars require ingenuity, smarts and talent. Without them you can wind up with a pretty dangerous rust bucket. I’ve always felt the “good with their hands” statement was really a bit of an insult. You can’t assemble a car engine without knowing some pretty sophisticated engineering principles.

So do we need to do anything about these stereotypes? Is there anything to be really worried about?

Well whether there is anything to be concerned about or not, it can’t hurt for more scientists to visit schools. Meeting students and talking (not lecturing!) to them is the fastest way of breaking down stereotypes. Prof. Vicky Kaspi of McGill University (an award winning astrophysicist, recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences) thinks these visits are “profoundly important to breaking down stereotypes, especially those about women in science”.

So is there really a problem after all? Perhaps not. But if I can be the scientist for a second: we still need the truly definitive study!

–There are lots of other great blog posts on this subject, see here, here, here, and here to give just a few–

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