From Madman to Crime Fighter – the scientist in western culture. Book Review

Review by Peter Broks

This is a wonderful book, both in the sense of being a pleasure to read and being full of wonders. Its overall aim is to examine the myths about science and its practitioners that have been deeply embedded in western culture over the past seven centuries. It does so by “tracing the representation of the scientists as a character in Western literature and film from the thirteenth century and contextualizing it in the social, cultural, and intellectual climate of the successive periods” (p.3).

R.D. Haynes
From Madman to Crime Fighter the scientist in western culture,
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017
The usual suspects are there – Faust, Frankenstein, Jekyll, Moreau – but the strength of the book is the array of lesser-known characters and wealth of other material. It is to Haynes’s credit that she not only has complete command over this material but also presents it in a way which makes the reader (this one at least) want to read the original sources. With such a broad range and extended period there is plenty of scope for historians to quibble over points of detail – for example, early Mechanics Institutes were probably more a product of middle-class social fears than of working-class educational desires – but this is to miss the wood for the trees.

In her survey of scientists in literature and film she identifies a handful of recurring stereotypes. They are all male (mostly old white men) and the vast majority have negative portrayals: if not mad and evil then at least uncaring and morally compromised. She lists seven such stereotypes but the list could, in fact, be even shorter since some of them have close affinities with each other. For example, the “mad, bad, and dangerous” scientist is to a large extent a megalomaniac version of the earlier “morally suspect alchemist”. Similarly, there would seem to be a good deal of crossover between the ”stupid virtuoso”, “the unemotional scientist” and the “helpless scientist” with a fictional character potentially being a combination of all three. Nevertheless, no matter how we slice the cake, this “cavalcade of immoral fictional characters” has been immensely influential and “very few actual scientists have contributed to the popular image of ‘the scientist’” (p.3) – Newton, Marie Curie and Einstein are the most common and notable exceptions

The book is a revised and updated version of Haynes’s equally enjoyable From Faust to Strangelove published in 1994. The new book develops earlier themes and extends the story into the 2000s (the last referenced works are from 2016). This new version also includes two new chapters, Robots, Androids, Cyborgs, and Clones: who is in control?, and The Scientist as Woman. These extra chapters are to be welcomed, especially the investigation of women scientists in fiction and film. The new book is also topped and tailed with a fresh introduction and concluding section (though the editor should have noticed that the title for that final section is not the same as mentioned in the preface).

However, there is more to this new version than additional updated material. We seem to be at a significant turning point: “…the last two decades have marked a cultural watershed, a distinct attitudinal change toward scientists, in the media, in fiction, and (though somewhat less marked) in film” (p. 337). The dangers that we face are now more commonly blamed on big business than on scientists who, by contrast, are now cast in the role of those who warn us of the dangers or even help us to avert them.

Those last two decades also coincide with the burgeoning activities of the science communication community. Fear of science, says Haynes, comes from those who do not “own” it, those who have been excluded, marginalised, disempowered. Could it be that all those efforts in public understanding of science and public engagement have made a long-term cultural difference? It will be interesting to see if she addresses this in a forthcoming book where she will look at this new positive image of scientists “asking why and how they have overturned the comfortable, well-worn stereotypes and cliché responses of centuries to engage our compassion as fellow human beings” (p.339). We can only wait impatiently.

Peter Broks teaches science communication at Rhine-Waal University, Germany. He is a research associate on the European Union-funded NUCLEUS project and author of Understanding Popular Science (2006).