Reconsidering the Image of Scientists in Film & Television

Chiwetel Ejiofor as geologist Adrian Helmsley in last year's blockbuster 2012 is one of the many emerging "hero" images of scientists in popular film and television.

In graduate school, I published with several colleagues a paper examining the portrayal of scientists in film and television and the relationship to audience perceptions. At last week's workshop on science and art in Alberta, I had the opportunity to return to this topic, one that remains much debated by commentators and scientists.

Contrary to conventional wisdom that entertainment media portray science and scientists in a negative light, research shows that across time, genre, and medium there is no single prevailing image and that both positive and negative images of scientists and science can be found. More recent research even suggests that in contemporary entertainment media, scientists are portrayed in an almost exclusively positive light and often as heroes.

Critics of the entertainment industry point as hard evidence of negative portrayals to a study from the early 1980s by former University of Pennsylvania communication researcher George Gerbner. The study showed that scientists in comparison to other occupations featured in primetime television suffer a higher ratio of negative stereotypes and are more likely to be victims of violence. Yet more recent research indicates a major shift in the image of scientists on the screen. In a 1998 unpublished report to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Gerbner and colleagues updated their analysis, concluding that based on data collected during the mid-1990s "there is no basis to claim that any kind of systematic negative portrayal of scientists exists. Changes have occurred in Hollywood since the time of our initial study, which found scientists to be typically evil, disturbed, sexually dysfunctional villains....this is no longer the case."

More recent analysis of TV content presented last year at a major communication conference confirms this trend towards an overwhelmingly positive image for scientists in prime-time television. Scientists--similar to their distribution as a profession among the population--still remain a rare character in the TV world, but when they are shown, they are almost exclusively shown in a positive light.

Over the past two decades, not only has the image of scientists in film and television shifted, so have the stereotypes held by audiences. A study published this month analyzing U.S. national survey data finds that in comparison to 1985, American adults in 2002 were far less likely to hold negative stereotypes about scientists and were much more likely to believe that a career in science was a desirable choice for their children or for themselves. (This is yet another study that challenges the "fall from grace" narrative about science in American society and the claims about a hostile public.)

Beyond these statistical indicators of the portrayal of scientists, what kinds of images have appeared over time and across genre? What image might be on the rise today? In the paper I published with colleagues in 2002, we highlighted several different clusters of images.

Scientists as Dr. Frankenstein: This image is one that scientists most frequently single out, portraying their profession as sinister, socially irresponsible, evil and violent, and ultimately headed for failure and demise by the end of the plot. Examples of this image include Gregory Peck as Dr. Mengele in Boys from Brazil, Marlon Brando as Dr. Moreau in The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Jeff Goldblum as the scientist in The Fly.

Scientists as powerless pawns: In this image, scientists are shown as easily manipulated or dominated and as pawns doing dirty work for big business, the military or a master evil figure. Examples include Robert Duvall as Dr. Griffin Weir in the 6th Day and several of the scientists in Jurassic Park who work for Richard Attenborough's character John Hammond, CEO of InGen.

Scientists as eccentric and anti-social geeks: In this image, scientists are so dedicated that they spend most of day at work, they deviate from norm in dress and looks, and have few families, friends, or romantic interests, and are generally socially awkward. Examples of this image include Christopher Loyd as Doc in Back to the Future, the nerdy boys in John Hughes 1985 film Weird Science who use science to create the perfect woman, and Val Kilmer and his fellow grad students in the 1985 film Real Genius who serve as graduate students to a professor who is determined to master a Star Wars-like satellite technology.

Scientists as Hero: In this image, scientists take on the lead role as action hero and protagonist, often also serving as the voice and force for ethical decisions and virtue. Examples include Dr. Alan Grant as the main protagonist in Jurassic Park, Spock in the new version of Star Trek who takes on leading man and action hero qualities to rival Captain Kirk, Jody Foster's character in Contact, Sigourney Weaver's character in Avatar, Denis Quaid as the climate scientist hero in The Day After Tomorrow, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the geologist hero in 2012, Morgan Freeman in the Batman films as inventor Lucious Fox and CEO of Wayne Industries, and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in the Iron Man films.

What do readers think of this typology? Other examples or images to add?

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Abby Sciuto, the forensic scientist on NCIS, is smart and solves crimes, and the girls in the local high school want to be her and the boys in the local high school dream of dating her. There has been a giant jump in the interest of high school students in forensic science!

Several other recent portrayals on TV have had a positive effect.... Bones, played by Emily Deshamel is clever, a bit nerdy and hot, as are her colleagues. Gris on CSI, played by William Peterson reminds me of what I thought I was once like! Not so much CSI Miami, where Horatio Caine comes in for some flak, but overall his character is positive.
The Linda Hunt character in NCIS - LA is as quirky as they come and definitely one of the good guys.
So overall the image is more positive than negative.
As a side note, I chair my local Science Fair and the various CSI-type programs had caused the Grade 7-8 crowd to look at forensic science and its associated disciplines in more detail, and we are seeing SF projects related to this theme.... at least it gets their attention and they look into science with a bit more enthusiasm.

I think you'd also like this and the links within and at the bottom - you see, I don't disagree with you 100% of the time, only 99% ;-)

Scientists as Hero

As bad as the movie is, Dr. Keyes (Aaron Eckhart) from The Core counts as a scientist-hero.

Additional examples:

Indiana Jones as a heroic figure

Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde... both as a mad scientist and, in a way, a powerless figure -- a victim to his other self.

Regarding the topic in general, I think it's is mostly a positive thing for scientists to have a spotlight, such as with Indiana Jones or so. However, I think it's potentially too misleading.

By saying this I mean that people of all ages get a false idea of what science is, how it's done, and what they might expect if they were to aim at becoming a scientist, e.g. an archaeologist 99.99999% of the time does not get to carry a nice revolver, whip, and swing through mysterious ruins in a jungle being chased by indigenous people because he/she stole a valuable relic that was guarded by numerous boobie traps.

It can be a bit of a deterrent for some and may take away from the joys that truly do exist in that line of work. I enjoyed archaeology regardless of all the fantastic tales.

I also think that in some cases the fiction portrayed can inspire scientists to strive for those somewhat unrealistic goals, such as space flight... while we may not ever have to send astronauts to an asteroid to blow it up before it becomes a world ending scenario, it may inspire scientists to dream up innovative ideas to push humanity further into space.

Fringe has Dr. Walter Bishop, whom has the qualities of an eccentric Dr. Frankenstein whom is now trying to redeem himself. So he really fits in to multiple categories which makes for a far more interesting character.

I would say that there are quite a few scientists in movies and TV shows and most of the time they are the good guys. The only thing is that they also tend to be a bit abnormal. In Bones, Temperance is almost completely socially inept and can't even figure out simple cliques. This is also true in The Big Bang Theory where the characters range from very nerdy to a guy that makes Temperance from Bones look normal.
I know this makes for a more interesting show and I have to say I watch all of the shows mentioned in all the different posts. Though, it would be nice, if when I told someone that I am a scientist, I didn't get the "but you seemed normal" reaction.

Surely it hinges on your definition of "positive" and "negative"?

You probably think of Dr Strangelove as a negative stereotype, but to me he seems pretty neutral. I, on the other hand, find modern TV and movie "scientists" of the kind you describe, who spout technobabble that the proverbial smart schoolchild would find risible, not merely negative but insulting too. Yet you, inexplicably, hail them as "positive".

Heroes they may be; scientists they will never be. They merely replace magicians as a plot device.

By Ian Kemmish (not verified) on 06 May 2010 #permalink

I'm a big fan of "Fringe", and think one of its main themes is this very subject--the portrayal of scientists as "moral" or "amoral", "good" or "evil". One of the main protagonists, Dr. Walter Bishop, is a scientists of the Nth degree who has a long history of amoral scientific behavior, but, as a previous poster mentioned, is also ashamed of his past behavior and the lack of consideration he had for ethics in the past. That said, the character is clearly conflicted--he recognizes much of his past work was very important and helpful generally while done in an amoral fashion. A main antagonist, Dr. William Bell, is Walter's old partner who we know little about besides that he is also a genius scientist of questionable moral fabric (who may well not be an antagonist--the show keeps a great deal of ambiguity regarding morality, which is a strong point because the honest truth is that few of us are paper-thin two-dimensional "right" or "wrong" archetypes in reality). These characters and conflicts are certainly what keep me coming back to the show, as I find them very interesting. I will say I had a fear that the show was demonizing science at first, but as it has progressed, it has proven to be ironically realistic in its portrayal of the morality of scientists (ironic because the things the scientists do in the name of science are completely unrealistic--time travel, two-pound viruses, mind control, pyrokinesis, et cetera).

Scientists as taxi driver: In this image, scientists do not get a proper position.

I know this makes for a more interesting show and I have to say I watch all of the shows mentioned in all the different posts. Though, it would be nice, if when I told someone that I am a scientist, I didn't get the "but you seemed normal" reaction.

I'm shocked that no-one has mentioned Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day. And the original character of Kirk was surely a scientist as well (as were Picard and Janeway).