Anthrax and the Myth of the Mad Scientist

Chris Mooney is worried that the latest turns in the anthrax case are reinforcing the notion of the 'mad scientist' (and what, exactly, is wrong with a Mad Scientist? Just asking):

The Bruce Ivins we're hearing about in the media sounds like a mad scientist straight out of Hollywood's most feverish fantasies. He had access to forbidden knowledge (anthrax spores and how to use them), and a sly, horrible plan to apply that knowledge to its worst possible end. For a public that has been repeatedly instructed not to trust the responsibility of scientists--because they don't value life and their quest for understanding is somehow dehumanizing and dangerous--Ivins perfectly reaffirms the dangerous stereotype.

Moreover, in doing so, he plays into a particular political agenda. Recognizing well the potency of the mythological tradition I've just described, the foes of various forms of biomedical research and advancement have long sought to exploit it to further their ends. Leon Kass, the conservative first chair of President Bush's President's Council on Bioethics, opened the council's meetings by assigning members to read a Frankenstein-type story, Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birthmark," whose plot (summarized by someone far more able than myself) involves "a scientist married to a stunningly beautiful woman whose only flaw is a tiny, hand-shaped birthmark on her cheek. The scientist devises a treatment to get rid of the imperfection. The treatment works, but--alas!--kills the wife in the process."

I used to delight in criticizing or even lampooning Kass, and in pointing out the inapplicability of fictional stereotypes to the sober consideration of modern issues in bioethics and science. Today the mad scientist stereotype remains as unhelpful as ever--but the dominant image of the anthrax killer only strengthens its already mythic power.

The problem I have with Mooney's argument is that there was no way to avoid this problem (the other problem is that I doubt the quality of the FBI's scientific evidence). Unlike a lone gunman, which doesn't require much skill, the odds were pretty good that someone with microbiological expertise--a scientist--was going to be involved. Aerosolizing anthrax is not easy to do, as opposed to pulling a trigger at close range.

Granted, many ScienceBloglings (including me) have encountered the anti-science trolls who blame 'scientists', a microbiologist, for nuclear arms, Auschwitz, and dental plague. But I suspect that, if the anthrax attacks had been the result of Saddam Hussein, we wouldn't be looking at mad scientists--as awful a human being as Hussein was, he would have lacked the skill to prepare anthrax himself. Instead of mad scientists, we would blame Saddam Hussein.

To the extent that the evil scientist myth is actually reinforced by this incident, it is that we have met the enemy and it is not the other, but us.

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The problem I have with Chris's argument is that he is framing it as "evil scientist makes all scientists look bad" when in fact the problem is that "journalists are reinforcing the stereotype of the 'mad scientist' by reporting information from the FBI". The real story is not particularly dangerous to scientists in general, I think, but reframing it to blame Ivins for besmirching scientists is not helpful. Given the record of the FBI in cases like this (see the Atlanta Olympic park bombing and the FBI smears of an innocent man), it seems too much like piling on.

What can you expect in a country that has a sweathog mentality and is proud of it?

Our president is a man who was elected because a possible majority (what with all the vote rigging we'll never really know) of people think he'd be fun to have a beer with rather than some untrustworthy intellectual who might actually know something.

I think you mean dental *plaque*, unless you are referring to foot and mouth disease or something.

The Truly Mad One perhaps does blame himself for dental plaque, but the anti-science trolls would easily confuse and conflate that with plague. In short, he probably has been blamed for plague, dental and otherwise.