The Mad, the Bad and the Media
Take a minute, and imagine what a scientist looks like. That’s the idea behind the Draw A Scientist Test http://tinyurl.com/ojufl7 . It was given to kindergarten through 5th grade students, and you can imagine the results. There were lots of pictures of middle aged, white men with wild hair and glasses. They were almost universally shown wearing long, white lab coats and goggles while holding bubbling beakers or test tubes.
This image wasn’t confined to the U.S. Researchers in the U.K. got similar results: http://tinyurl.com/oqbuk5 . This article, reprinted from the BBC News in 2001, describes the views that children have of scientists being “geeks’ who never have any fun and who seldom leave the lab. It also points out that regardless of the gender and racial or ethnic background of the children; they almost always pictured scientists as white males. The authors also go on to note that most of these images of scientists are set in the children’s minds by the time that they are eleven or twelve years old, and that once set, are difficult to change.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably mention that I’m a middle aged white guy with wild hair and glasses, but I only hold bubbling beakers when it’s required for one of the science classes I’m teaching, and the only time I wear a long, white lab coat and goggles is on Halloween when I’m trying to scare the neighborhood kids.
Back to the main topic, if you think that these misperceptions of science are confined to children then try searching for the word “scientist” on Google Images. A 2007 article in First Science.com entitled Scientist and the Media: Victims or Villains proposes doing just that. http://tinyurl.com/rcgly7 . This image is typical of the results, a crazed middle aged white men in lab coats holding bubbling test tubes. The author, Andrey Kobilnyk, briefly traces the origins of this image all the way back to Deadalus and his son, Icarus, who pushed the limits of man’s knowledge by building wings and flying too high. The younger of the two paid the price for such hubris in the manner of most fictional mad geniuses.
The second half of Kobilnyk’s article presents the views of current scientists, such as Craig Venter, founder of The Institute for Genomic Research, and discusses how scientists interact with the media and vice versa. This provides an excellent examination of the short comings of current mass media reporting on science, in particular, the obsession with the sensational, and the tendency of many reporters to emphasize anything that reinforces the public’s image of scientists. In other words, there is a tendency to play up the mad scientist angle on science stories.
This, of course, begs the question, “What difference does it make if the public has a distorted image of science and scientists?” In the report Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding: http://tinyurl.com/r9ve5u , the authors try to address just that. They look at the image of scientists typified by the Draw a Scientist Test, and discuss at length the importance of scientists in educating the public about scientific issues, and how misperceptions of scientists skew this process.
This all seems to indicate:
- Many in the public confuse the image of the mad scientist with real scientists
- These stereotypes of science are generally set early in the lives of children
- Incorrect ideas about scientists may interfere with the public’s understanding of science
So, what can be done about this? One interesting solution is being conducted by educators in conjunction with Fermilab http://www.fnal.gov/. Fermilab is one of the largest physics laboratories in the country and home to one of the most powerful particle accelerators in the world. It employs over 900 physicist and plays host to another 2,300 researchers and students from around the globe.
Educators conducted an interesting project http://tinyurl.com/pxc8pe in which seventh graders drew what they thought a scientists looked like, and then spent the day working with real scientists at Fermilab. At the end of the day, they were again asked to draw what a scientist looked like. The results were striking http://tinyurl.com/5zh5zv .
Before the visit, they drew typical mad scientist stereotypes. After the visit, their drawings were much more representative of the actual scientists that they met. This suggests that the solution to the problem may simply be to expose students to more real life scientists instead of leaving their impressions of science to the TV and movie screens.
In the words of Eric, one of the students from the Fermilab visit, ”The stereotype gives the impression of a geek with glasses or someone who is bald. Actually, they are just people who ask and answer questions.”