Six Scientist Myths That Books and Movies Love To Perpetuate

There tends to be some mystique attached to the image of the scientist in fiction. The scientist is mostly a tool, an antagonist, a source of information or a vehicle through which we learn things. Having worked as scientist, I find the portrayal of scientists in fiction amusing, because even many of the more realistic works perpetuate scientist myths that are just that, myths. Let’s mention a few:

The mad scientist myth

We all know the type. Often evil, poorly-dressed with popping eyes and Einstein-like hair, walking around gibbering formulae.

Reality: If you’re mad, you probably won’t make a very good scientist. Just like other people, a percentage of scientists suffer mental or other issues. They’re neither mandatory nor conducive to good science.

electrophoresisThe lab scientist myth

Complete with thick glasses, this creature spends most of his time in the lab behind bubbling equipment. Lab coats are mandatory.

In reality: the scientist who leads a science team spends little time doing the hands-on research work. He or she has a team of junior workers, research staff and students, who do on-the-ground work. This could happen in a lab, but more often than not, it happens elsewhere. When I worked in science, we used lab coats only when going into the seminar room. I worked in the tropics and while the temperature in the rest of the building justified the wearing of shirts and shorts, the seminar room was always freezing cold. Hence: lab coats! Seeing as the seminars were open to anyone, we may have helped perpetuate the idea that scientists wear lab coats by being the only people prepared for the arctic conditions in the seminar room. At least we were still conscious as the visitors collapsed with hypothermia.

The lone scientist myth

Often a little bit odd, this scientist works alone in a lab or office. He rarely goes home, or if he is home (having been dismissed from a previous research position), doesn’t leave the office/library. He doesn’t have much of a social life.

In reality: working in science is about teams, so no scientist works alone. The smallest unit in science is the project, and even the smallest project usually involves one research scientist, one or two assistants, a part-time admin person and one or two students. Large projects can involve a lot more people.

The rich scientist myth

This sportscar-driving species can do whatever he likes, because he’s got all the money in the world and can decide his own research, ethics be damned. This personality is often evil, because fiction tends to dislike people with money.

Reality: Yeah–right. If anyone is this rich, they don’t study science. If you want to be rich, you don’t study science. Have you looked at the salaries lately? Job security anyone?

The glamorous scientist myth

Often of the female persuasion, this scientist gets by purely by looks and by giving stunning presentations. She is the eye-candy for the otherwise dull and grey-suited crew.

Reality: scientists are often middle-aged, because of the time it takes to get through university, a PhD followed by work experience. The wearing of pretty clothing and make-up is not usually very handy when doing field or lab work, and in general, the people for whom looks are important are not much attracted to science. Also, high heels are extremely impractical.

The all-knowing scientist myth

This personality turns up in the plot, gives the protagonists all information they need, neatly packaged. This type of scientist is the science fiction equivalent of the Wise Old Woman in fantasy. If you’d listened to her, you’d have gotten things right the first time.

Reality: yeah, right. Most science projects are too narrow and focused to offer ready-made, clear-cut answers to any questions.

Laboratory in a health clynicSo, what is a real scientist?

So, having worked in science (read about what I used to do here), can I give an example of a fictional scientist I thought well-portrayed in a realistic way?

An example that most people will be familiar with is Sigourney Weaver’s character in Avatar. She’s got a team and a project which she viciously defends. She’s fairly narrow-minded in defending it against budget cuts and other skullduggery, almost to a fault. She smokes, which is not typical for scientists at all, but it is what makes the character real.

Mostly, scientists are people. They can be nice, smart, sociable, helpful, arrogant, amazingly dumb or socially inept. The same characteristics that make people in general successful also apply to scientists. They don’t work in isolation, they’re not mad, they don’t have Asperger’s (whoever came up with that cliché?) and they don’t wear lab coats.

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  1. Somehow Dexter, my favourite mad scientist, manages to be a) part of a team and b) have some home time, c) smart, sometimes helpful d) socially inept . He’s a complex scientist, not a stereotype, except he must truly be a stereotypical genuis, simply because he never gets caught.

  2. We’re talking about fiction here, and that needs an antagonist. What I’m saying is that a scientist makes as good a villain as anyone else, in fact better, owing to the mysterious nature of their work to most members of the public.
    I don’t think I was encouraging stereotypes in my comment, quite the opposite. Take the scientists on the Manhatten Project, which I reference. They were applying their learning and intelligence to create a weapon of mass destruction. It seems an abhorrent use of their talent and yet they were working in the midst of the second world war where there was a very real threat that the enemy powers might develop the bomb first. There’s a fascinating clash of motivations there.
    There are anyway plenty of scientist heroes out there: Dr Zarkov, Quatermass, etc.

  3. A lot of truth in this post.
    There are more stereotypes out there, and while scientists do differ from the average person in a number of ways, it’s on average. In reality, a scientist can be look and behave like just about anyone.

  4. This article was fun, but I still think it’s fair play to have a pop at scientists. They’re just the modern equivalent of an evil wizard, aren’t they?
    There are also some good grounds for using them as the villain of the piece. It was teams of dull scientists who created nuclear weapons, poison gas and who are now busy building war robots that disgrace Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. These people may not be mad, but their work has terrifying implications for us all.

    1. Why evil, mad, or dull?

      Why not good, generous, passionate?

      The work of scientists has saved lives and improved the standard of life in innumerable ways.

      Sure, let scientists be villains sometimes. And heroes. And normal people. And great people.

      Just having stereotypes — even ones with a nugget of reality — is lazy and dull.

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