Is science fiction anti-science?

Professor Helen Haste, University of Bath, on 19 November 2001

Since 1985 there has been an explosion of interest in, and national concern about, the relationship between science and culture, and in particular the role and image of scientists. It is easy to find examples of public images of science and scientists that express anxiety and negative stereotypes. A study of children's images of science in the early nineties was reported in the Press under the headline `Science to blame for the world's ills'. I myself conducted two studies, twenty years apart, which reveal that adolescents hold both positive and negative stereotypes of scientists. If we do not take note of both the positive and the negative stereotypes we will not be able to confront the issues effectively.

Film is one important source of our cultural images. When we explore the current myths and narratives that are reflected in film, we find that many of them are so old that they predate `science' as we understand it. We must understand film, not condemn it.

The image of the scientist has suffered from polarisation `hero scientist' or `demon scientist' We treat science as a moral. The positive images divide into `scientist as fixer' who can solve our problems medical, physical and even social and the perspective that science is in some sense the highest form of wisdom and the fulfilment of human potential for understanding. Writers in this vein speak of the goals of knowing `the truth' but also that the methods of scientific enquiry, the pursuit of rationality, are the means to overcome prejudice, superstition and ultimately, inequality and injustice. These are the. saintly figures in white coats with impeccable personal lives who struggle alone in a laboratory (or a garret or a toolshed) to discover penicillin, the telephone, radium, and so forth.

In the film The Day the Earth Stood Still an alien (a Christ-like figure) played by Michael Rennie, tries to persuade earthlings to abandon war. Having failed with politicians, he turns to the `smartest man on earth' a scientist to organise his fellow scientists across international boundaries, to act as a force for peace.

Our cultural anxieties about science are reflected in negative images that broadly, fall into the two categories of `science and scientists are deficient' unable or unwilling to appreciate the consequences of their actions, and deliberately omitting considerations that most people regard as important , and `scientists as arrogant', claiming a unique and superior form of knowing, which devalue other ways of knowing.. . Two writers who have made this point strongly are Brian Appleyard and Mary Midgley.

The concerns about the dangers and problems of science are, I argue, very old indeed. They go back to three ancient myths all of which concern the consequences of humans interfering with the domain of the gods or with `Nature'. They are Pandora's Box if we meddle with things we do not understand we will release demons; the Sorcerer's Apprentice if we take on powers that we cannot control we will cause havoc; and Prometheus if we take divine powers to ourselves we will be punished by the gods or by an irate Nature.

In film, Pandora's Box is represented by a number of genres but one in particular is the danger of unleashing `atomic power' that preoccupied the early nineteen fifties. During this period there were a number of films in which the desire to discover more about atomic processes and forces caused the unleashing of `demons' such as giant dinosaurs who then rampaged through cities. A variation on this was The Thing, made twice, in which a strange but horribly destructive force was released by arctic explorers.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice is found in the genre in which the ambitious scientist or explorer discovers an awesome creature, captures it, and brings it back to `civilisation' for science and the public to wonder at. Of course, the creature escapes…. Both the various versions of Conan Doyle's Lost World, and the two versions of King

Kong reflect this message.

The Promethean story hangs mainly on the creation of life, and the moral consequences of this hubris. Frankenstein is the first, the most powerful and one of the most enduring versions, with over 120 films. Other examples are The Fly and Jurassic Park.. The present evocation of the metaphor in public debate about GM foods also reflects its cultural power.

The Frankenstein films vary between those that present an idealistic figure who wants to save us from Death through his experiments, and who is devastated by the moral implications of what he has done, and a more coldly ambitious figure who wishes to gain fame and fortune through his meddlings. The versions of The Fly are interesting because they tap into current anxieties regarding scientific progress. In the first version, in 1958, the scientist's transformation into a fly took place instantaneously `at the atomic level'. In 1986 it took place slowly, `at the molecular biological level'.

Jurassic Park reflects contemporary concerns about interfering with Nature through manipulation of DNA and genetics. It has some interesting features however. Firstly, the `bad guy' is not a scientist but an entrepreneur; the scientists in fact provide the voices of caution and moral concern. Secondly, in the original book Crichton explored the new metaphor of Chaos, which had begun (in 1991) to permeate cultural concepts. However Spielberg modified this to the more familiar and morally charged metaphor of ecological balance and our responsibilities.

In considering whether such films are `anti-science' we must consider how they represent and reflect common cultural concerns, and the larger goal of bridging the gap between scientists and the public. If we do not grasp the nature of both the hopes and fears, we cannot approach the problem effectively. Such films are not so much `anti-science' as they are the mechanism by which popular concerns are portrayed and reproduced.

Clips from many of the films mentioned illustrated the talk

Helen Haste


The importance of adolescent's disdain of science as opposed to arts, as stated by Prof Haste at the beginning of her lecture was discussed. Has this resulted in a true drop in take up of A-levels and science careers? Although this may appear to be the case at first, it was concluded that, since the number of students as a whole had increased, the actual numbers taking science degrees was not that much less. A member stated that Computer Science was easier than Pure Science, and that only the brighter students take Science. Frankenstein and Jurassic Park were crude and sensational, titillation not to be taken seriously by educated people; Matrix and Blade Runner, were much more authentic. Also The Double Helix, showed the true excitement of science. Matrix was truly surrealistic, said Prof. Haste.

Professor Haste reminded us that films, like advertising, whether sensational or authentic, formed our environment, and therefore influenced us, whether we liked to admit it or not.

Mario Nigi suggested the importance of education, particularly psychological. The study of mans responses and adaptation to rapid changes in the environment brought about by science, were still way behind, and was the main cause of the stress in modern life.

In the case of genetically-modified foods, scientific facts about it had been badly presented to the public, and misunderstood.

Summing up the convenor said the lecture and discussion made him feel optimistic about the scientific advancement of the western world and that one of the main strengths of that progress was that it was always tempered with, questioning, self criticism, an ethical reassessment and even humour. One of the purposes of Art, in particular Science Fiction, was to warn man that the unrestrained advance of Science and Technology could be disastrous, and self limiting without consideration of the physical, psychological effects in the west itself, but also the global effects, including in particular, irreversible polarisation between east and west.

Peter Valentine