In contemporary times, the media shapes popular culture, which then influences people’s views on different issues. The proliferation of different media outlets occasioned by the technological revolution of the 21st Century means that individuals learn through diverse mediums including televisions, radios, and online platforms like social media among others. The term “science” evokes pictures of geniuses working independently or in groups to come up with novel theories, explanations, or inventions that disrupt the conventional way of thinking.
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The perceived complexity associated with science deters people from endeavoring to understand the true contents of this terminology. Therefore, most individuals end up believing what they learn from the media concerning science. In light of this understanding, it suffices to argue that the perception of science among most people is media-based, and it may be twisted. The media focuses on popularity and viewership, and thus, it will promote what it thinks the public ‘needs’ to hear.
Therefore, the media may not necessarily promote what the public ‘should’ hear concerning science as such would create a conflict of interest. Media reporters scan the scientific world for any interesting topic for the public, and this selective reporting is biased and misleading. The pop culture’s portrayal of science and scientists shapes the average person’s view of what science is and how research is conducted. This aspect determines the general populace’s views on a particular research field, which ultimately leads to misinformed, under-informed, or uninformed society concerning scientific matters.
Personal definition of “scientist”
The word “scientist” evokes a mixture of images informed by my idea of such an individual as a child, which has evolved with time. On one side, I think of bespectacled, bald, and bearded old men trying to crank numbers and mathematical formulas to deconstruct a concept – Albert Einstein sort of image. On the other side, I get images of young and ambitious individuals trying to mix fun and scientific pursuits in a quickly changing world like Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory comedy series.
However, my classical thinking of science and scientists is fading quickly in the wake of pop culture, which gives a different perspective. Today, if I hear the word “scientist”, I think of Ellie Arroway from the movie Contact, Dr. Leonara Orantes, and the entire group of scientists from the chef-d’oeuvre 2011 thriller, Contagion among others. One of the common characteristics of these individuals is intelligence.
For instance, Dr. Leonara Orantes’ intelligence stands out in the way she handles the outbreak of a virulent pandemic by identifying the source, cause, and coming up with mitigation steps. Secondly, these characters are social misfits. They are lost in the world of innovation fueled by the passion for results that they do not have time for normal relationships. For example, Ellie Arroway sacrifices her relationships to pursue the possibility of aliens’ existence in this world. Finally, all the characters are industrious. Scientists, as I envision them, are untiring, and they even sleep at work. I think most of them have sleeping areas in their places of work.
Change of personal vision concerning scientists
As mentioned earlier, my image of a scientist has evolved with time. As I grew up, I would hear stories about renowned scientists including Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Galileo Galilei, and Charles Darwin among others. I envisioned these individuals to be old, bearded, and geniuses. According to my thinking, scientists were supposed to be stellar beings probably from another world. In other words, they were extraordinary people. They were invincible.
However, this image has changed with time due to two distinct aspects. First, I started reading about scientists and I realized that they are just normal human beings with fears and ambitions just like anyone else. For instance, from the available literature, I realized that Isaac Newton was an astute businessperson, and he lost a fortune in the 1720s in the stock market crash involving The South Sea Company. Second, I started watching movies in pop culture, which present a different perspective concerning scientists.
Pop culture movies portray scientists in varied ways; however, one thing stands out. All the movies that I have watched highlight the scientists’ weaknesses. This aspect changed my image of scientists because, in my earlier version, these beings were not supposed to be weak in any way. My invincibility image started fading especially after watching Ellie Arroway in the film Contact. Therefore, research and popular culture changed my image of scientists.
Heroes or villains
Fictional scientists are usually a combination of both heroes and villains depending on the theme or audience of the storyline. In most cases, the storyline is defined by cultural attitudes and the prevailing pop culture. For instance, in the film Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein becomes a villain after his creation turns against him to destroy his life. The movie has been adapted from a novel written by Mary Shelley with the same title.
In this case, perhaps the director of the 1931 version of the film, James Whale, wanted to warn people of the consequences of interfering with nature. By the start of the 20th Century, the cloning of tissues of living organisms was gaining momentum and the entire process was surrounded with uncertainty. Therefore, maybe James Whale decided to direct this cast on Frankenstein to remind people of what would happen should the cloning project involve human beings.
On the other side, fictional scientists are presented as heroes. For instance, in the movie Contact, Dr. Leonara Orantes and her fellow scientists come out as heroes. They are faced with a seemingly insurmountable task of containing a virulent pandemic.
In contemporary times, if someone loses life in the line of duty and especially as a sacrifice for the wellbeing of humanity, then s/he stands out as a hero. In the movie Contagion, most scientists involved in the search for a vaccine to contain the virus end up losing their lives, and thus, they become heroes. Besides, the scientists finally establish the cause of the pandemic and come up with a vaccine to contain the spread of the virus, which has already claimed 26 million lives worldwide. Therefore, based on the theme of the story, fictional scientists can be villains, heroes, or both.
The portrayal of science in fictional media
The portrayal of science in fictional media varies depending on the theme or audience of the story. Science is seen as a positive, negative, or neutral force in the world. However, in most cases, science has been portrayed as a negative force in the world. According to Dudo et al. (2011), “Ten percent of scientists featured in prime-time entertainment programming get killed, and five percent kill someone, and no other occupational group is more likely to kill or be killed” (p. 760).
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In most cases, fictional scientists are seen to disrupt the social and natural order. For instance, in the example of Frankenstein, Victor, the scientist, disrupts the social order by creating a monster that leaves a trail of destruction and death. However, at times science is seen as a positive force where scientists save the world and humanity from destruction. For instance, in the movie 2012, Adrian Helmsley saves the world by predicting the occurrence of apocalyptic earthquakes and tsunamis, which gives people time to prepare.
The influence of the portrayal of scientists
I think that the portrayal of scientists in the various forms of media influences how society views people in the profession. As stated in the introduction of this paper, most people find science cumbersome and complex to understand. Therefore, instead of conducting independent research to understand it from an informed perspective, most people rely on what they read and see in the popular media. Therefore, such individuals develop a twisted image of scientists. Unfortunately, the media carries popular stories to increase viewership, which translates into soaring revenues. For instance, there have been claims that HIV was created in the laboratory.
The Soviet Union propagated these claims to undermine the US. Even though these allegations were sheer propaganda, most individuals were convinced that the virus was created in a laboratory. In a study carried out in 2005 by the RAND Corporation, “Nearly 50 percent of African-Americans thought AIDS was man-made, with over a quarter considering AIDS the product of a government lab” (Boghardt, 2009, p. 19). This realization underscores the claim that most people believe what they hear from the media, which shapes their views concerning scientists.
The public’s view on research and technology based on media influence
The portrayal of science in media can influence how the public views and accepts certain research and technology. By now, it is clear that the portrayal of science in media influences people’s perspectives. People make decisions and form perspectives and biases based on the information that they consume. Different studies have been conducted to show the influence of media on people’s brains and decision-making capabilities.
For instance, in a study by Takeuchi et al. (2013), it was found that the viewing of a TV affects “the frontopolar area of the brain, which has been associated with intellectual abilities” (p. 1188). Therefore, individuals mostly believe what they see in the media. In light of this understanding, it suffices to conclude that the portrayal of science in media will shape the audience’s view concerning some research areas like cloning.
For instance, movies like The Island, Jurassic Park, Judge Dred, and Clone portray cloning negatively, which is likely to influence the viewers’ perspectives concerning this scientific development. It is important to note that most people do not have the time or the drive to research on cloning from scientific journals and other scholarly materials, and thus, they rely on what they see on the media. The long-term effect of such depictions is the misinformed public, which widens the knowledge gap between scientists and society.
The available research as shown in this paper indicates that the majority of people gather scientific information from the media. However, the media focuses on promoting the popular culture, and thus, the information presented might be inaccurate. Therefore, society ends up forming twisted perceptions concerning scientists, science, and research in general. Perhaps scientists should be involved more in shaping the popular culture as a way of informing the public on scientific processes and the challenges involved to avoid misconceptions concerning this profession.
Boghardt, T. (2009). Soviet Bloc intelligence and its AIDS disinformation campaign. Studies in Intelligence, 53(4), 1-24.
Dudo, A., Brossard, D., Shanahan, J., Scheufele, D., Morgan, M., Signorielli, N. (2011). Science on television in the 21st century recent trends in portrayals and their contributions to public attitudes toward science. Communication Research, 38(6), 754-777.
Takeuchi, H., Taki, Y., Hashizume, H., Asano, K., Asano, A.,…Kawashima, R. (2015). The impact of television viewing on brain structures: cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses. Cerebral Cortex, 25(5),1188-97.