Boffins, Beards and B-Movies with Dr Jenny Rohn

Blog Post by Johanna Wilson, Culture Club Officer

Every October, we at Borough Belles celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, the annual celebration of all things women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This year, we invited Dr Jenny Rohn, scientist, novelist, journalist and science communicator, to come talk to us about scientists and stereotypes.

Jenny was passionate about the force of good that science could be for the world. Now, while we’re facing huge problems like climate change, food scarcity and new diseases, science can offer the solution, if we support it. After all, if you think about the 1918 flu epidemic and the number of people who died, and compare it to not 100 years later where anyone can have jab against it, it’s miraculous. However, there are a lot of people out there who are anti science or who don’t listen to scientific consensus. The UK, for example, just lost measles free status. So why does this happen? Dr Rohn thinks that the problem might be how people view the messenger.

What does a scientist look like? For most people, we get the classic mad scientist image in our mind – looks a bit like Albert Einstein, wears a white coat, probably holding a test tube of a beaker. In 1957, Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, wrote a paper having surveyed 35000 students to ask them what they thought of when they thought of scientists. Not one of them mentioned women. In fact, the image that appears sounds familiar – middle aged man in a white coat who’s a bit unkempt and works all the time. Fast forward to 1983 David Wade Chambers asked a group of children to draw a scientist. The results that came back were split by age – at around 5, children were just drawing normal people whereas by 10-11, most kids were now drawing that stereotype from Margret Mead’s work (although the scientist was now looking more evil!). In 2003 Sir Christopher Frayling did the same test again – this time, only a little more than half the drawings were that stereotypical scientist, and half of the girls drew females. 

So where does this stereotype come from? It’s actually aquite an old one and we can trace it back to Socrates, the original “smarty pants”. If you look back at literature at the time, like Artisophanes’ The Clouds, you were already seeing parodies of intellectual thinking and the idea of one of the public’s big issues with science, hubris; the idea of dangerous overconfidence and trying to meddle in things that you shouldn’t. Which is how many people feel about genetic engineering, cloning, stem cell research, vaccines and many other modern scientific streams. Jenny took us through the medieval snake oil salesmens and alchemists who contributed to the physical scientist stereotype, through the ups of the Enlightenment (scientific and rational thought leads to progress), the lows of the Romantic era (where science was man losing touch with his humanity) and the peak of the Victorian era where scientists were celebrities and there used to be traffic jams due to people coming to see talks at the Royal Institute. 

The Death of Socrates – Jacques-Louis David

Which brings us to the 20th Century! When you read 20th Century science fiction, it is largely negative about science. Science is dangerous and scientists were either evil, aloof or lacked judgement. The atom bomb was the ultimate PR disaster for science in terms of how the public viewed science and even how scientists viewed it. It caused a whole generation of physicists to flee the field and move into biology (which interestingly enough led to the field of molecular biology). Following this, radiation became the big sci fi plot point of choice, and a character like the Incredible Hulk perfectly encapsulates the fear of scientists, the fear of radiation and the fear of losing control.

The 1980s was the peak of the image of scientists as nerds, geeks and boffins – hapless, hopeless and likeable like Dr Emmett Brown in Back to the Future. In the 90s, scientists get to be sexy and women! We get great films like Jurassic Park but the message is still the same – science can’t be controlled and is dangerous. Science in films and media evolves with what we as a society are scared of and as we moved to the end of the 20th Century and become more worried about genetic engineering, we start to see films like Gattaca popping up. 21st Century fears of medical technology and gene therapy? We get I Am Legend. The theme remains the same as that of before, science is hubristic and leads to danger.

Why should we care about these stereotypes? Dr Rohn argues that science remains a hidden world to most and scientists are almost completely absent from normal life for people (apart from Brian Cox). If people can’t trust scientists, how can they trust science? Fiction is a great medium for trying to get across ideas and to win hearts and minds. Facts and figures aren’t enough. We need to overcome people’s fears and scientists need to infiltrate popular culture and it is this belief and the scarcity of portrayals of scientists outside science fiction that led Jenny to found LabLit – a website dedicated to real laboratory culture and to the portrayal and perceptions of science, scientists and labs in fiction, the media and across popular culture. She also herself writes fiction, which you can find out more about here.

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