The Problematic Stereotype of Scientists as Mad Doctors, Evil Geniuses, and Crazy Professors
Pryor and Bright (2006) describe occupational stereotyping as a result of the thought processes of efficient memorization using “induction, deduction, and abduction” (¶ 2). Further oversimplification and ignorant bias can lead to a dogmatic misrepresentation, which can further lead to a prejudiced view of the subject. Pryor and Bright refer to racism as a negative example of stereotyping; however, they continue that “stereotyping represents a summary of our experience of reality, as a form of knowledge, it also has a positive dimension” (¶ 3). As I read this description, I am reminded of the movie Back to the Future (Canton et al., 1985) in which, for me, Christopher Lloyd’s rendition of Dr. Emmett Brown embodies the stereotypical scientist. With his wild, unkempt white hair, absent-mindedness, and pure genius, “Doc Brown” provides a stereotypical characterization of the quirky and crazy professor. I have always held a realistic view of the world and do not readily subscribe to dogma, but I can see how portrayals of scientists such as the Doc Brown character can influence perceptions of the field. Though stereotypes such as these are not completely accurate portrayals of the occupation, they are not without base or merit.
Contributing factors of the occupational stereotype of scientists could possibly be from the public’s perceptions of science from the sensational coverage of the media of the time. When technology advances in light of the contributions of scientists, the technology usually gets the media coverage. Conversely, when the contributions are that of a seemingly quirky or sinister scientist, especially if the relevance of the technology is suspect, the media usually focuses on the scientist. Two particular cases demonstrate this phenomena particularly well. Sergei S. Brukhonenko (Konstantinov & Alexi-Meskishvili, 2000) was a major contributor to the medical advancement of temporal extracorporeal circulation, or heart-lung bypass, though the media chose to concentrate on the sensational image of a living decapitated dog head that was able to respond to stimuli and swallow food though separated from its body. The second example (Oddee, 2008) is the comprehensive effort of Luigi Galvani, Giovanni Aldini, J. Conrad Dippel, and Andrew Ure in exploring the relationship of electricity and nerve fibers, and though the experiments that each have performed were regarded as horrific parlor tricks or attempts at “playing god”, the importance of the resulting technology is not lost on cybernetic researchers responsible for improving the usefulness of prosthetic devices.
Stereotyping is a useful convention of society and a useful developmental tool to aid in learning and memorization, identification and warning, or for purely dramatic effect such as when cynically augmented for comedic relief. Though useful, care must be used when making associations of generalizations and bias. Unfortunately, the convention is frequently misused leading to an association of negative traits to unrealistic markers such as skin color, heritage, age, and gender. Additionally, the public perception of science is important when considering issues such as financial matters. Funding can be extremely difficult to secure if a project is ridiculed or rejected in the public forum. This difficulty can lead to dampening of research and a slowing of technological growth. Further, “these (social) images of occupations have a major impact on the development of occupational aspirations” (Pryor & Bright, 2006, ¶ 18). This identity bias could lead a bright potential scientist away from the occupational field of science. The implications can never be known.
Canton, N. (Producer), Gale, B. (Producer/Writer), Kennedy, K. (Executive Producer), Marshall, F. (Executive Producer), Spielberg, S. (Executive Producer), & Zemeckis, R. (Writer/Director). (1985). Back to the Future [Motion Picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.
Konstantinov, I.E., & Alexi-Meskishvili, V. V. (2000). Sergei S. Brukhonenko: the development of the first heart-lung machine for total body perfusion. Annals of Thoracic Surgery, 69(3), 962-966.
Oddee. (2008, October 13). Top 10 mad scientists in history. Retrieved from http://www.oddee.com/item_96484.aspx
Pryor, R. G. L., & Bright, J. E. H. (2006). Occupational Stereotypes. Encyclopedia of Career Development. Retrieved from http://www.sage-ereference.com/careerdevelopment/Article_n200.html