Scary Scientists?

We’ve all seen movies and even cartoons featuring half or fully crazed scientists putting the world in danger all for some strangely nonsensical evil plan. What I want to know is: were did this archetype come from? It’s easy to blame America’s sad excuse for science education, but Frankenstein was originally written in 1818. What do parents tell their children that encourages such a fear and distrust of the white lab coat?
This is personally frustrating because people tend to get a “should I run away?” look in their eye when I tell them I am working towards a PhD in genetics. I suppose I can get used to it, but I worry about the greater consequences for the nation and for the planet. It’s a serious problem that people only want to hear science that reinforces what they already know.
Mention anything that has to do with genetic engineering and people cringe – I imagine that they think I’m a monster for even considering it. They forget that scientists are people too, with hopes and dreams, generally wanting to do good and help people. Of course, genetic engineering is only one of too many cases where people have completely ignored scientists, in favor of sensationalist media and fear mongering pseudo science.
Slate (of all sources) has a three part series on skepticism in science called “The Paranoid Style in American Science“. Skepticism is important, but there comes a point where we need to trust the data. People trained in the sciences learn how to choose between tenuous connections and probable fact. Unfortunately, the general public hasn’t been taught this skill, so have to use their best judgment to tell reality from fiction. The results are often very sad, as Daniel Engber writes:

In February, a measles outbreak turned up among California schoolchildren whose parents had rejected the MMR vaccine. Until 2006, the South African government was using beets and lemons to treat AIDS patients. And the United States has yet to ratify the Kyoto Protocol for reducing carbon emissions.

Sadly, this situation of sci-phobia won’t change until we start providing children with an adequate education. n the op ed “We Need a Science White House”, Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore laments that we have no commitments from the presidential candidates that they will ensure science doesn’t slip any further from national priorities. This was in the Wall Street Journal of all places, so you know that this is a big problem (thanks Mike aka Tuibguy for pointing this out).
I’m not even going to bring up the detrimental effects that some religions have had on general understanding of science. I will point out that there are many scientists have absolutely no problem reconciling belief in a higher power with the complexities of our miraculous world. I hope that more people can achieve this reconciliation for their own sake and for the sake of the planet.


  1. I think most folks have it right when it comes to genetic engineering. Like me, I’m all for GE in the laboratory, especially when it comes to things like stem cell research and the like. But letr’s not equate that and AgBiotech whose experiments are released upon the world and cannot be undone.Precautionary principle? Not if it’s gonna mess with Monsanto’s 1Q bottom line, because that’s what it’s all about.

  2. nosmokes, I urge you to pick up a copy of Tomorrow’s Table. This unique book examines the potential of both organic and genetic engineering methods to feed the growing population while keeping our environment as pristine as possible. It also acknowledges the risk, in a clear and scientific manner.

    I can’t help but think that people who are against biotechnology lash out against it because they just don’t understand. I’m not saying that the technology is perfect (when is anything perfect?) but to reject it due to misunderstanding is so sadly shortsighted.

    Tomorrow’s Table has the potential to clear up a lot of those misunderstandings – let’s start fresh, and clear away the rumors.

  3. Why do GM proponents always assume that opponents are scientific illiterates or Luddites? I’ll pick up Tomorrow’s Table if you’ll read Jeff Smith’s Genetic Roulette . eh?

  4. I don’t think that all opponents of genetic engineering are science illiterate. I do think that there is a lot of propaganda out there, and that a lot of people don’t make the effort to glean the wheat from the chaff.

    I have, unfortunately, read Genetic Roulette. Jeffery M. Smith is simply an activist who writes fear-mongering books to make money. When he has some credentials, when he has published some peer reviewed articles on a related subject, when he takes the time to educate himself and learns to stop making inappropriate generalizations and to stop twisting science for his own purposes – then, I may seriously consider what he has to say. Instead of gathering facts to support his ideas, he lies to make genetic engineering seem as frightening as possible. His books are full of inaccuracies that people don’t bother to investigate. To learn about just a few, see Misleading and Inaccurate Claims

    Tomorrow’s Table was written by two people with enormous direct experience in agricultural technology – known experts in their respective fields. They make no broad reaching claims in the book, instead presenting peer-reviewed research and inviting the reader to come to his or her own conclusions.

    If you had to take a step back and look at how the two books were written and who wrote them, which honestly deserves your attention?

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