The Changing Political Image of Scientists in the United States
Marcel C. LaFollette
Throughout the history of modern science, scientists have been steadily reinforcing, or attempting to refute, a complex set of images in popular culture.1 Early in the 20th century, the press tended to paint scientists as romantic (if eccentric) heroes of the late-night laboratory. The mythical "average scientist" was male, white, brilliant, energetic, rational, and dispassionate. He chipped away at ignorance and eagerly extended the "boundaries of knowledge."2 By midcentury, scientists had created such powerful and, occasionally, dangerous knowledge that the popular image had begun to resemble that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Although the vision was usually more Jekyll than Hyde more kind and altruistic than terrifying, scientists were clearly now in possession of secrets which could alter human life forever. Moreover, these images conveyed the message that scientists were somehow "different" from ordinary citizens.
Analyses of 20th century popular science show that a rosy glow tends to surround scientists in the media, an image of good intentions and good will, an image worthy of public trust and respect, but an image with continual potential to change. Today, the "mad scientist" image seems cartoonish. When Walter Hirsch studied 25 years of science fiction (192650), he found that by 1950 the image of a "gentleman scientist" who was not very good at human relations had been replaced by one caught in a network of institutional pressures.3 "Modern movie scientists," Richard Schickel writes, "are more likely to be angry, rather than mad, over the government's efforts to rob them of control over their creations."4
Today's popular image of the "average scientist", therefore, is complex, and distinctly different from those of 5075 years ago. He or she (and women are now part of the potential) is at once more human and more remote, a crisp professional who is well-spoken, well-educated, well-established, and obviously well-paid. (Einstein may have been shown in worn sweaters and socks, but the new popular scientists are dressed by Brooks Brothers or the Gap.) They are accessible heroes: still fighting to cure disease or save humanity, but no longer superhuman; instead, they are merely bright people with human failings and a gift for clever analysis.
The image has also shifted from one that is "active" and energetic to one that is more "passive" and cerebral. In the 1920s and 1930s, researchers were said to perform wonders merely by staying up late and "burning the midnight oil." Now the routines of movie and television scientists center on computers and the search for funding.
The positive images of scientists have persisted in part because they harmonize with other attitudes in American culture. We see movement and change as virtues; we perceive ourselves as still building the nation, settling the wilderness, and breaking with old-world traditions. Such metaphors are powerful political motivators, and science and scientists fit in very well. Science, the popular magazines declare, has an "inertia of motion:" "Like a man on a bicycle, science cannot stop; it must progress or collapse."5 Science becomes easily cast as a "powerful motor," an engine of intellect, and scientists as propelling society to prosperity as they continually redefine the edge of ignorance, push forward, and discover useful new things.
Such popular imagesboth the positive and the negativeare naturally of interest to scientists. They are also relevant to understanding how to recruit young people into science, and to their subsequent disappointment when they discover that being a scientist is not all movie glamour and drama but requires hard work, math, and bureaucracy. But what about the political or civic image of the scientist? How do these images relate to the serious business of public policy?
Reliability, Credibility, and Trust
One component of science's political reputation is the ability to make good on its promises. Vannevar Bush's magnificent metaphor of science as the "endless frontier" both conformed to popular beliefs about science and powerfully reinforced them within the political environment. Ever since, that image has reappeared like a touchstone in scientists' testimonies, reports, and speeches. Contained within Bush's report, however, was another idea with even more significance for scientists' contemporary public relations: that scientific research should be publicly supported because scientists themselvesin all their eccentricity and intellectual potentialare always reliable, credible, and trustworthy.
Most Americans do, in fact, perceive scientists as well-intentioned and wanting to "make life better for the average person," as shown in public opinion polls from the 1950s through today.6 What we can see changing, however, is the extent to which citizens believe in scientists, for better and for worse.
Popular images have played significant roles in the political regulation of research, for example. Beginning with the use of human subjects (1960s), and the safety of recombinant DNA research (1970s), and through the concerns about animal care (1980s), and fraud and misconduct (1990s), whenever some type of government regulation has been proposed, scientists' opposition to regulation has invoked the age-old image of "difference," that is, has implied that scientists should be governed by "different" political rules, held to different political standards than other government contractors, and left to control their own activities because they are reliable and trustworthy and the best authorities on scientific conduct, in and out of the laboratory.
Now, in many ways, such ideas are not wrong. The history of science shows that the scientific disciplines have extensive sets of identifiable, crisp norms governing all aspects of scientific practice and research conduct, which some (but not all) professional societies have articulated in formal codes. This is part of what you learn in graduate school: how to be a scientist, or what social scientists call "socialization." Unfortunately, the arguments for political autonomy, self-control, and presumptive trustworthiness have been contradicted in recent years by evidence widely available to the public. When scientists have been found to have fabricated data or plagiarized manuscripts, abused or neglected experimental subjects, or engaged in sloppy or disorganized research, those actions cast doubt on the public image of scientists as incapable of such deeds merely because they are scientists.
Public skepticism of scientific recommendations also seems on the rise-but not, as some have argued, because of antagonism, hatred, or disdain for scientists. In many ways, the enthusiastically positive images of the first half of the 20th century may have contributed to a situation in which disappointment was predictable. A stereotype of scientists as always rational, always logical established science's cultural authority but it also may have falsely encouraged exaggerated expectations of easy answers and miraculous solutions, assumptions that are shattered whenever scientists appear to be "changing their minds" or to be in conflict over their recommendations. The Royal Society, in a wide-ranging study of public understanding of science in Great Britain, concluded that an important factor inhibiting better public communication efforts is the public's "view of science as a simple logical process producing unequivocal answers, and of scientists as correspondingly always logical, unemotional and somehow impersonal individuals removed from the messiness of 'real life'."7 In public debates, the study pointed out, the audience retaining such false ideas of scientists may ignore or dismiss very real differences in scientific opinion, for example, or may choose implausible but quick technical fixes as solutions to what are inherently complex social dilemmas.
Such images matter because they exert powerful influence on the attitudes and opinions of the audiences of popular science. The "resemblance" between a media image and the image which an audience retains is, Doris Graber observes, "especially close in those areas where media audiences normally lack countervailing personal experiences."8 This is particularly true for places one will never visit, people one will never meet, and experiences one is unlikely to have. Cultural stereotypes are also the "most powerful in shaping public understanding of things that are 'out of reach, out of sight, out of mind'" and scientists (and the work that they do) are, for most people, very much out of sight and out of mind.
In addition, as public opinion analyses have long shown, attitudes toward science are "soft," that is, easily reshaped by each new event, image, or piece of information.9 In 1997, for example, the topic of cloning entered popular conversation very quickly with the appearance of "Dolly." The announcement also quickly elicited public skepticism. People appeared to absorb quite a lot of information about cloning, and then edit, revise, and reformulate it to fit into their own conceptual frameworks (religious, philosophical, scientific, pseudoscientific, etc.). For some, the event confirmed their suspicions of science moving too rapidly for thoughtful moral reflection. To others, Dolly represented one more proof of science's importance and productivity. The rise in public questioning of that research also gave tacit support to calls for restraint and possible regulation, however.
Other powerful experiences on the receptivity to public images come from personal experiences. This is one reason that AAAS and other scientific organizations support programs to bring children into science museums or to interact with real scientists, that is, to balance the children's mediated experiences. But few such countervailing experiences exist for adults. How often is science "experienced" by the citizens whose beliefs and actions will have immediate consequences for society and for their own well-being? For those who will be voting in local referenda on environmental issues, or who may flock to health food stores tomorrow to purchase the latest fad remedy for baldness, obesity, sexual impotence, or cancer, merely because it was discussed on a talk show today?
Shapers As Well As Movers
Understanding these images also matter because the media's role in shaping them is not all that passive. Television and the other mass media do more than simply entertain and provide news. They confer status on those individuals, groups, and issues selected for placement in the public eye, indicating who and what are important. Those made visible through the mass media become worthy of public attention and concern; those whom media ignore remain invisible.10
The decisions about content are also increasingly influenced by economic rather than social norms, as investors, owners, managers, and editors maximize profits or, in the case of public broadcasting, investment support. As William S. Paley once said, the media have "an obligation to give most of the people what they want most of the time" and advertisers "need to reach most of the people most of the time" and so there is a natural concurrence of interests.11 When purely economic norms prevail in this process, then the type of science content (and images) widely available in commercial or semi-commercial contexts is likely to be that which is the least expensive to create and most likely to generate the largest possible audience that advertisers or underwriters will pay to reach.12 Now that's a fairly brutal formula. It might crank out "The X-Files" or more talk shows, but not necessarily a carefully constructed news report detailing the latest scientific evidence about tamoxifen or any of the National Geographic programs. The fact that the latter two types do appear is valuable evidence of audience interest, but unlikely to convince network executives to schedule more science.
Transforming the economic values of the commercial mass media would be an impossible taskeven for scientists. And there is considerable data showing that we may not really need more popular science joining the abundance of scientific information already available, especially in new electronic formats.13 What is needed instead is better context, more information and images about science not of it. If public scientific literacy is defined as only an awareness of facts, then a surfeit of television nature programs will suffice. But as biologist Michael Zimmerman and others have observed, what people really need is information about what the particular science means (that is, the implications of the data), how to judge that data according to their needs, and how to differentiate science from pseudoscience when they don't have a scientist nearby to advise them.14 In the late 20th century, when the sheer volume of messages, facts, words, and images can seem overwhelming, public audiences which are poorly equipped to deal with the extent and diversity of science-related communications that come their way in the "Information Age," may simply choose only those messages that fit their stereotype. The scientific community needs to work much more energetically to provide a better context for all public images, both accurate and inaccurate, through programs to explain clearly what it is that scientists do all day. Telling society about the latest discoveries helps demonstrate scientists' productivity, of course; but such information is ultimately meaningless without accompanying information about how those results are achieved and why they should be believed. To use effectively the knowledge produced by scienceto evaluate information and images in order to decide which to believeone needs information about the people, processes, and institutions that create knowledge. How else can audiences thoroughly interpret and accept it? Unless we insist it be taken "on faith"? And how else can people assess its legitimacy and its relevance to their own lives or accept its credibility?
From the beginning of the American Republic, an informed and engaged citizenry was regarded as a crucial element of a viable democracy. It is also crucial for the health of science overall. Citizens whose opinions about scientists are based upon distorted or exaggerated media images, but who do not really understand why they should find scientists credible, are far less likely to a supportive constituency for science, with consequent (negative) implications for science's political fortunes.
1. Unless otherwise noted, the conclusions about popular images of scientists presented in this chapter are based on data in: (a) Marcel C. LaFollette, Making Science Our Own: Public Images of Science, 19101955 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990); (b) Marcel C. LaFollette, "Eyes on the Stars: Images of Women Scientists in Popular Culture," Science, Technology, & Human Values 13, Fall 1988, pp. 26275; (c) Marcel C. LaFollette, "Science on Television: Influences and Strategies," Daedalus 111, Fall 1982, pp. 183-98; and (d) analyses of television news and entertainment, movies, magazines, museums, and other media to be reported in my forthcoming book on public communication of science, 1940s to the present.
2. Metaphors used in, for example: George Ellery Hale, "How Men of Science Will Help in Our War," Scribner's Magazine, Volume 61, June 1917.
3. Walter Hirsch, "The Image of the Scientist in Science Fiction: A Content Analysis," American Journal of Sociology, Volume 63 (1958): 506512.
4. Richard Schickel, "The Mutating of the Mad Scientist," Discover, August 1985, pp. 7072.
5. E. E. Free, "The Electrical Brains in the Telephone," The World's Work, February 1927, pp. 436 and 429.
6. See, for example, Stephen Withey and Robert C. Davis, Satellites, Science, and the Public (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Survey Research Center, 1959), and National Science Foundation, Science and Engineering Indicators 1996, Chapter 7.
7. P. M. D. Collins and W. F. Bodmer, "The Public Understanding of Science," Studies in Science Education, Volume 13, 1986, p. 98.
8. Doris A. Graber, "Media Impact on the Political Status Quo: What Is the Evidence?" in Media and Public Policy, edited by Robert J. Spritzer (Westport, [state]: Praeger Publications, 1993), pp. 2021.
9. Georgine M. Pion and Mark Lipsey, "Public Attitudes toward Science and Technology: What Have the Surveys Told Us?" Public Opinion Quarterly, Volume 145, 1981, p. 306.
10. Few reports have described this result so dramatically as Window Dressing on the Set: Women and Minorities in Television (Washington, DC: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1977).
11. Quoted from p. 39 of Anthony Smith, Television: An International History (Oxford, [press], 1995).
12. John H. McManus, Market-driven Journalism: Let the Citizen Beware (Thousand Oaks, [state]: Sage Publications, Inc., 1994), p. 35.
13. Marcel C. LaFollette, "Why 'More' Is Not Necessarily Better: Strategies for Communication of Science to the Public," Accountability in Research, Volume 5, 1997, pp. 115.
14. Michael Zimmerman, Science, Non-science, and Nonsense (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).
Marcel C. LaFollette is a private consultant and writer in Washington, DC. This article is based on remarks delivered at the 23rd Annual AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy, held April 29May 1, 1998, in Washington, DC.