When the SyFy channel recently premiered Helix, its newest original series, we were once again confronted with the specter of what happens when science -- and scientists -- go bad. The series depicts a set of CDC scientists who venture to the Arctic Circle to investigate the potential global pandemic that could be released by a dangerous new virus that is being researched at a private facility in Greenland. This new series is representative of many of the stories we see told in the popular media, in which science and technology are viewed with fear and suspicion, more often illustrating their misuse for evil rather than their use for good.
Hollywood frequently portrays scientists in a negative light, a characterization that is not only unfounded, but also a disservice to young Americans who might consider a career in science. Scientists often seem to be 'mad' with power and trying to play God, or haplessly unable to control the results of their research, or corrupt in the service of a supervillain or the almighty dollar. While Breaking Bad, which chronicled the descent of Walter White from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher to a murderous meth drug lord, is unusual in many respects, it is not unusual for movies and TV to portray scientists as falling from grace. According to Discover magazine, a survey of more than 1,000 horror films shown between 1931 and 1984 found that scientists or their creations were the villains in 41 percent of the films, while scientists were heroes in only one percent of them. More recently, there have been an increasing number of more positive portrayals of scientists in films such as Contact, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The Big Bang Theory, and CSI. These are laudable examples of scientists as heroes, but even in these cases, the scientists are generally portrayed as fumbling and quirky, or arrogant and egotistical. Rarely are scientists portrayed as selfless heroes working tirelessly to make the world a better place. Some of the rare examples of this are in movies such as Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman and Extraordinary Measures with Harrison Ford. While not all scientists may be completely altruistic since they are, after all, human beings, they tend to be better characterized as altruists than megalomaniacs. It remains to be seen whether any of the characters in Helix will be truly heroic.
But it is really less important that scientists be portrayed as heroes than it is that science itself be portrayed as a force for good rather than something to be feared. From Frankenstein to The Terminator to The Matrix to Jurassic Park to Spider Man, the antagonists of the films are the result of scientific and technological innovations that have run amok and out of control. This recurring theme is symptomatic of an overall unease or fear of topics that are poorly understood by the general public. People fear and distrust what they don't understand. And quite often Hollywood inflames and reinforces these fears rather than dispelling them. The negative effects of a public mistrust, misperception, and misunderstanding of science can be very real, as exemplified by the irrational and unfounded refusal of many parents to immunize their children. Recent outbreaks of measles and whooping cough are a direct result of reduced vaccination rates in the US. Another example of public misunderstanding of science is in climate change. A recent Pew Research poll indicated that only 69 percent of Americans believe there is solid evidence that climate change is real, only 44 percent believe that it is due to human activity, and only 40 percent believe that it is a major threat.
Science and technology are advancing at a breathtaking pace, and the general public is facing an array of increasingly complex scientific issues such as genetically modified foods, genetic testing and climate change. Moreover, the high-paying high-tech jobs in our future knowledge-based economy will require an increasingly well-educated and scientifically literate workforce. Negative portrayals of science and technology by Hollywood work at cross-purposes with attempts to encourage improved understanding and education in science and mathematics. Stereotypes of scientists as socially inept or morally questionable make it less likely that students will pursue majors and careers in the science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields in which future job demand is growing. Of course many other factors affect student interest in STEM fields, including qualified teachers and natural aptitude with the subject matter, but the lack of positive role models in the media could certainly be a factor. A 2011 study of the effects of stereotypical characteristics of role models on perceived future success in computer science showed that women in particular were negatively impacted in their self-assessment after interacting with a stereotypical (i.e. nerdy) mentor, but not with a non-stereotypical mentor.
Furthermore, television shows that support belief in unscientific paranormal phenomena such as SyFy's Ghost Hunters make it harder for the public to discriminate science from pseudoscience and facilitate continued magical thinking in the public mind. Most problematically, a continually recurring theme of scientific progress and research as a potential cause of disaster rather than a mechanism to improve our lives and well-being undermines public understanding and support for scientific and rational approaches to tackle the challenges that we and our children will continue to face.