Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson was first published in the Victorian era in 1886. In this classic novella the civilized Dr. Jekyll struggles with an inner demon he has released – Mr. Hyde. Hyde is described in the book as the natural inner beast that resides within us all, always barely kept in check by our civilized morals. While a work of clear fiction, the underlying assumption of the story is that it is humanity’s nature to be a cruel, brutal, selfish beast. Fiction can tell us a great deal about cultural beliefs and values.
As skeptics we are concerned with the promotion of science to the public and so we pay attention to the portrayal of science and scientists in mass media. Television and movies, and now the internet, are our modern forms of storytelling and they reflect and help create the collective consciousness of our culture. Even pure fiction, like Jeyll and Hyde, can tell us a great deal about the assumptions and icons of our society.
The scientist as Hollywood icon has gone through a limited number of permutations, and I believe a new icon has emerged in the last few years. Dr. Jekyll reflects the classic vision of a scientist as a lone mad genius, playing god and uncaring about the consequences (only realizing them when it is too late). Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, a few James Bond villains, and just about every comic book scientist fit that icon.
The latter half of the 20th century saw another scientist icon emerge – the nutty professor. This is the image of a scientist as a hopeless geek – brilliant, good-hearted, but profoundly nerdy, culturally clueless, uncomfortable around women, often naive, and with a humorous tendency to blow things up. In addition to the inventer of flubber, this icon includes the nerdy scientist from The Simpsons, Jimmy Neutron, the cast of The Big Bang Theory, and nearly every scientist portrayed in tv and movies for children. This icon is still dominant today.
Now I believe a new icon has emerged in the last few years – the scientist as an impossibly brilliant but deeply flawed cynical hero. I think the prototype for this new scientist icon is Dr. House, portrayed by Hugh Laurie. Dr. House is smarter than everyone else in the room, and always manages to solve even the most difficult of medical mysteries with a flash of insight that comes at the appropriately dramatic moment. He also flaunts his cynicism, in which he clearly takes great pride. It is as if his cynicism is the other side of the coin of his brilliance – you can’t have one without the other.
House is also a deeply flawed character. He is addicted to narcotics (which I think is an omage Sherlock Holmes, which of course makes Homes a strong influence and perhaps the true progenitor of this new scientist icon), he is unable to form healthy relationships, and there is a lonely sadness about him that derives partly from a past tragedy.
But the character works because Laurie is a great actor and he makes House a compelling and likable character. We want him to succeed, and his flaws are endearing.
We now have a new slew of tv programming seeking to replicate House’s successful formula. The Mentalist is about a former stage magician, Patrick Jane, who suffered a great tragedy – his wife and daughter we killed by a serial killer that he mentioned in one of his public readings. He is a likable but quirky character, but more of a Columbo than a Sherlock Holmes. He is always one step ahead of everyone around him, and uses his special mentalist talents to trick the guilty party into revealing themselves. He is relationship-impaired and has a deep cynical streak.
The Eleventh Hour, a series copied from a recent BBC show staring Patrick Stewart, features a scientist, Dr. Hood, who is a consultant to the FBI and helps them solve science-based crimes and mysteries. Hood is impossibly brilliant and far-reaching in his fund of knowledge, and like House seems to solve each case in a flash of insight. He too has recently lost his wife (to cancer) and this gives him his cynicism. In a recent episode he opined that he knows there are no miracles because of all those who asked for one and did not receive it. He retains some of the geekiness from the “nutty professor” icon, but toned down to give him a bit more sex appeal.
And now we have a brand new series, Lie To Me, featuring a consultant portrayed by Tim Roth who has mastered the science of body language and can infer a great deal about a person (including whether or not they are lieing) just from careful observation. Although only one episode has aired, it is clear that Roth’s character is brilliant and deeply cynical (everyone lies all the time). We know he is divorced, and he has that same rough-around-the-edges persona as House.
The positive aspects of this new scientist as cynical anti-hero is that these scientist characters are all meant to be likable and charismatic in their own way. I like that the scientist in these shows is the hero and not an evil menace. Science is also portrayed as a useful tool that is practical and can solve problems. I also like the fact that these scientist characters all appear to be very skeptical in their world-view, although this positive is offset by the fact that their skepticism is often portrayed as cynicism. I think The Mentalist’s Jane is the most purely skeptical character of the bunch – he’s practically Banachek.
The negatives include the fact that all of these characters are men. Their female “Watsons” all serve the role of being the person that has to have everything carefully explained to them (admittedly a necessary device for the audience). But also the women are their softer non-cynical counterparts. They are there to constantly point out the glaring flaws in their personality. Sometimes this gets to the insipid “you just need to have faith” type of admonition and I find myself thinking that all of these shows need a good skeptical consultant to tell them how their scientist characters would respond in such a situation. I know there are female scientists out there in tv land, but this new scientist icon is definitely male dominated.
Another negative is the cliche that these characters have to be deeply flawed in some way. Why can’t a scientist just be a regular person? I know this is good drama and storytelling, and that is why literary cliche’s emerge, because they work. But let’s show a little imagination. It would be nice to break the mold a bit.
And finally I dislike how every mystery must be solved with a flash of brilliance. I know this is a good dramatic plot device – all of these elements are, that is why they are copied. I am just thinking about their impact on our culture’s view of science. What these shows often portray is that science is inaccessible. Often arcane and impenetrable knowledge is used by the scientists, and they always seems to have the necessary factual tidbits at their finger tips. The unintentional message this may be sending is to forget about a career in science, or even understanding science, unless you are already a brilliant nerd.
There is a lot of good in these shows also. They often portray a scientific process of evaluating various claims and testing them, eliminating variables one by one, and the logic involved is often sound. But I would like to bring these characters down to earth a bit. Don’t try to impress the audience with flashy jargon – make the concepts understandable. Don’t make them an expert in everything, show them consulting other experts or references.
On the whole I think these shows are a net positive for the public image of science. Science is the hero of these shows, and the scientists are the stars. I prefer this new icon to the mad science and the nutty professor – definitely a move in the right direction. But this new scientist as a brilliant, cynical, flawed hero is to real working scientists as the Hollywood image of a cowboy was to real working cowboys.