From the Archives: Screams of reason: Mad science and modern culture by David J. Skal

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of Screams of Reason: Mad Science in Modern Culture, is from January 18, 2007.


A little pop-cultural analysis is never a bad thing, taken in small doses. In larger doses, however, it can be a bit problematic. The good news is that it can be breezy and light, fun and frivolous while still making some good points and containing a few nuggets of real wisdom. On the other had, it can be plagued with shallowness, of research and analysis, lacking in both depth and breadth. David J. Skal's Screams of reason is a good example of both the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, although in the final analysis I would have to give it more plusses than minuses.

So, what's Skal trying to achieve here (p.18):

A prototype outsider, shunted to the sidelines of serious discourse, to the no-man's-land of B movies, pulp novels, and comic books, the mad scientist has served as a lightning rod for otherwise unbearable anxieties about the meaning of scientific thinking and the uses and consequences of modern technology. The mad scientist seems anarchic but often serves to support the status quo; instead of pressing us to confront the serious questions of ethics, power, and the social impact of technological advances, he too often allows us to laugh off notions that science might occasionally be the handmaiden of megalomania, greed and sadism. And while he is often written off as the product of knee-jerk anti-intellectualism, upon closer examination, he reveals himself (mad scientists are almost always men) to be a far more complicated symbol of civilization and its split-level discontents.

And I would submit that he does a pretty good job of it, each chapter exploring a different aspect of the image of mad scientists (and science/scientists in general) in modern culture. In chapter 1, Skal presents the history of the prototypical mad scientist, Dr. Frankenstein. He does a good presentation of the history of the novel and the various films based on the novel, relating them to his thesis fairly well. He also touches upon some other creations from the same period, such as Dracula. Chapters 2 and 3 touch on the Frankenstein story some more, this time focusing on artificial life such as robots, electricity and mostly B movies from the 30s and 40s. Chapter 4 doesn't quite see us moving on from Dr. Frankenstein, but we do continue discussing B movies, mostly related to nuclear weapons and fear thereof. Finally, chapter 5 moves on from our favourite mad scientist and discusses the phenomenon of aliens, UFO and abductions. And yes, a lot of B movies and a bit of TV. Chapter 6 is about mad medical doctors and the fears they conjure up. The Nazis get a few mentions, as does, you guessed it, Dr. F. Robin Cook, Hannibal Lecter and AIDS all get name-checked here. Chapter 7 is one of the most interesting, as Skal discusses the whole posthuman movement, with lots of fast and furious commentary on Rock Horror, David Cronenberg and others.

While this is good work, there are some serious weaknesses in Skal's approach. First of all, so much of the ambitious analysis he sets up for himself on page 18 really boils down into a lot of film history. That's understandable, because that's what he's known for with important books on Tod Browning (Dark Carnival), Dracula (Hollywood Gothic) and horror film (The Monster Show) but he really needed to broaden his approach for this project. He barely touches on the science fiction and horror pulps era of the 1930s onwards. Comics, almost nothing, when you consider the importance of several EC titles in horror and sf this is really too bad. Novels also get short shrift, unless a film was made out of it. Even tv didn't get too much coverage. Obvious shows like Star Trek and X Files are touched on only briefly while others like Night Stalker not at all. Even non-US film gets little attention, such as the various Hammer Films getting only brief coverage. Like I said, these are a serious weaknesses. It's like he had a lot of notes left from some of his film projects and thought he could cobble them together into another book.

Some other weaknesses? The tendency to recite film history and plot summary in the place of analysis is amusing and fun, but not really what he's trying to get at. As I allude to above, while Frankenstein may be the most important example I think he relies on the various film versions a bit too much.

Finally, at the end of the book, he gets all post-moderny on us, something that I found kind of surprising. Some quotes (p312-317):

[Carl] Sagan does not seem to appreciate that many people find scientific material threatening and dehumanizing, not because of ignorant apprehensions but because of what science explicitly states. Most people don't want to think of themselves as temporary mechanism destined for the scrap heap of oblivion...Sagan does a commendable debunking pseudoscience...But in rationalizing the abduction stories into absurdity, he completely misses their metaphorical dimensions and significance. They are the ultimate symbolic expressions of twentieth-century fears about being immobilized and dehumanized by "scientific" authority figures.


In her book Science as Salvation the British moral philosopher Mary Midgley notes that "increasing technicality in the sciences...leaves unserved the general need for understanding, and whatever spiritual needs lie behind it." Ironically, "The promise of satisfying those spiritual needs has played a great part in establishing the special glory of the abstraction 'science' in our cultures." But as scientific complexity increases, general understanding wanes. As Midgley elaborates, "Many scienitists will now say flatly that most of us cannot expect to understand what is happening [in science] at all, and had better not even mess around with the popularizations. This gloomy estimate must extend, of course, far beyond the uneducated proles to the scientists themselves, when they deal with anything outside their own increasingly narrow provinces. There cannot, in this view, ever be such a thing as a scientifically-minded public.

And, well, a lot more like that in the last few pages of the book. After such a lively, but limited, journey through pop culture I find it interesting that the last chapter reads like a bad undergrad paper in the philosophy of science by a 19-year-old that has just discovered postmoderism. In a sense, Skal is saying we're stuck with the image of science and scientists in pop culture because scientists are too smart, arrogant and condescending for their own good and that the "little people" are justified in their fear and suspicion because of their own ignorance and lack of intellectual curiosity. Sheesh. Read a book, pay attention in school, watch a documentary, for god's sake.

Anyways, in the final analysis, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it with some reservations. It's got lots of fun B movie history and a few interesting things to say about the place of science in modern culture, even if Skal seems to fall into some of the same traps at the end that he bemoans in the middle. Just skip the conclusion.

Skal, David J. Screams of Reason: Mad Science in Modern Culture. New York: Norton, 1998. 368pp. ISBN-13: 978-0393045826


More like this