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The evil scientist trope, why it’s doing real world damage to scientists, and why authors need to stop.

I may be a book blogger by night, but by day I spend my time as a scientist, specifically a tumour immunologist. You may assume that due to my vocation, scientific inaccuracies in books would drive me crazy. Mostly, they don’t (Okay, sometimes they do, but within reason), but the one type of inaccuracy that I have thoroughly reached my tolerance level for is the portray of scientists as amoral, ethically bankrupt, animal-torturing jerkfaces.

You may think Why does it matter? It’s only fiction! or even, well yeah, scientists are amoral, ethically bankrupt, animal-torturing jerkfaces, but the problem is that it’s completely untrue, and this fictional view of scientists does shape peoples’ opinions of science and scientists in the real world.

Well, today, gentle book lovers, I’m going to tell you a little bit about what it’s like to actually be a scientist. And I can tell you, it’s very different to how it’s portrayed in books (there’s generally a lot more crying). This will also be pretty specific to medical science, as that’s what I am familiar with, but as a scientist, you’re treated pretty shit, regardless of your field.

Now, while most people probably think that science is a super fun career that involves running around in lab coats, making things glow, and dreaming of one day having your own secret lair inside of a volcano, but that’s only a very tiny part of being a scientist. The majority of time we spend as scientists involves freaking out over funding and whether or not were going to lose out position in the near future.

So I am about to finish my PhD (for real this time, guys! I have my final draft in front of me!) and while I did some awesome stuff in my PhD (I developed a $5 cancer treatment that has none of the nasty side effects of chemotherapy, and which is now in clinical trials), my future is looking pretty bleak.

I have agreed to work 50% of my time voluntarily for the next year after handing in my PhD to continue working on my cancer treatment, while spending the other 50% of the time in a non-research job (that I only got on the provision that I do research for free when I’m not at work). And you know what, I’m actually pretty lucky to have this deal. There is no funding to pay me, because none of the large funding bodies or industry will fund a $5 cancer treatment or sponsor the clinical trial. Any money we do have is going into the research and running the clinical trial. We have not patented our work, because we want it to remain cheap, so there is no incentive for pharmaceutical companies to put money into it. You would think our university would be totally into it, but honestly, they would rather we were making money. So that’s what I’m facing after spending about a decade studying to become a scientist.

And you know what? I am not a unique case. 

Numerous PhD students extend their PhDs by years because their supervisors cant afford to pay them an actual salary. So even though they’ve done the work to be granted a PhD, they usually agree to continue working on a PhD scholarship (which is probably a quarter of what their salary would be otherwise). And most students are willing to do this for the sake of their research because: A) it’s very difficult to walk away from research you have spent years of your life on, and B) they know that actually getting a job in research is going to be incredibly difficult (because who is going to pay a scientists salary when you have limited funding and can get a PhD student for free?).

I was at a talk the other day by a very esteemed scientist, who while discussing his career noted he had had over 60 PhD students, but only ever employed 5 scientists in his lab. And this isn’t really by choice, it’s by necessity. Because science funding is just so limited, and no one cares about the plight of scientists. Scientists would love to employ the people they have spent years teaching. No one wants to have to start from scratch every time a PhD student graduates. It’s completely counter productive.

So what do scientists do when they cant get funding?

1 – Leave science (what a waste right?). Why are we training people to be scientists if we don’t provide jobs for them? It’s not like there aren’t plenty of diseases out there to cure. So sadly, many PhD students don’t ever get jobs in science (and aren’t often informed before doing the PhD – because you don’t want to discourage your free labour force from doing the work!).

2 – Numerous scientists work without pay (living solely on their spouse’s pay) but continue doing research because they want to make a difference.

Science is maybe one of the only jobs out there where when you actually get a position, you don’t necessarily get a salary. You need to find that from grants. And that’s incredibly difficult. In Australia, for example, our grant success rate is around 10%.

So imagine, every year, you only had a 10% chance of keeping your job. How long would you stay in that career? It’s incredibly hard and requires a lot of personal sacrifice. And this is becoming worse every day as now even grants specify that the money cant be used to pay your salary, or will only pay a portion of it (the remainder of which, most scientists just do without).

And if you think, what about all those new scientific institutes popping up everywhere? They must be full of scientists! Think again. Because it happens time and time again that people spend millions on scientific institutes only for them to remain empty, because they just assumed that someone else would pay for the scientists to actually work there.

So I think from just a few of the things I’ve mentioned (which is only a few of the issues scientists face), you would probably agree that it’s not a job that’s suited to people without a serious altruistic streak.

And on top of scientists getting a really shit deal in terms of their career, they also get branded as the token evil villain almost every time they appear in any book/movie/TV show. And that does real-world damage, because people don’t give a shit about scientists, and they don’t trust scientists, and they don’t care whether or not scientists get the funding to do their research. They don’t believe scientists when they try to share their knowledge.

I had someone recently tell me that I didn’t have the capacity to make ethical decisions because I’m a scientist. Seriously. That is a thing that happened. And it’s total bullshit. But this is a wide-held view. And the amount of ethics applications we have to write because of it is staggering. And many of the ethical barriers we face, are not faced by people in other industries (even though other industries have comparably worse and less ethical practices), because people only to think that scientists above everyone else, need to be ethically babysat. And entire university departments are established based on the idea that scientists cant be trusted to act appropriately. And the mere fact that these exist, based on this idea, is pretty damn offensive. But the reason these departments exist is not because scientists actually lack ethical values, but because people think that they do based on the false but frequent portrayals of scientists as evil villains constantly doing despicable things.

Another issue is the all-doctors-are-scientists trope. This is definitely not true. A medical doctor could no sooner do the kind of research I do, than I could perform open-heart surgery. One might think that being a medical doctor, one would have an in depth knowledge of science, right? Wrong. There is a saying in science: “Never trust the research of an MD without a PhD”. Now this may seem elitist and snarky, but it’s really not overly different from saying that someone has the knowledge required to build a house because they sell home insurance. They both revolve around housing, but they aren’t exactly transferable skills. Well guess what! Science and medicine are TOTALLY different things that require totally different skill sets and totally different training. And while some MDs do have PhDs, this is not the norm.

And you might be thinking, how does this idea relate to how scientists/doctors are portrayed in the media?  Well, because a disproportional amount of science funding goes to medical doctors (especially philanthropic funding) who aren’t actually trained to do science (often with terrible results). And this is because people just have the perception that all doctors have all the skills of a scientist, without all the evil. People trust doctors, but they don’t trust scientists. And this also leads to people thinking that while we have doctors, we don’t need scientists. But scientists are the ones who make all those medicines that doctors distribute. And usually get none of the credit.

So in light of all this, can we just cut scientists some slack? We really have enough shit to deal with, and we get basically no credit for what we do, no empathy or understanding for just how difficult our jobs are, and what we personally sacrifice to try to cure horrible diseases and make the world a better place. We are out there just trying to make a difference, while dodging all the shit that’s constantly flying at us from every direction.

And I know that there is no easy solution to the problems scientists face every day, but all I ask, dear readers, is that next time you come across the evil scientist character in a book, maybe you could try to not let it influence your opinions on us.

And now to all the authors out there who seem to think that using scientists as literary fodder is totally cool, maybe you might want to think a little harder about the consequences next time you decide to pull out the evil scientist trope.

After all, being a scientist is a lot like being an author. We both have to ‘publish or perish’, we both seem to be the most important people in our industry, and despite basically providing the product that is the actual purpose of that industry existing, people seem to think that if money is short, we’re the ones who should go without. Publishing houses, like universities, seem to have no issues paying for all the buildings and administration staff to support our industry, but seem to think we’re somehow not important, and should just feel privileged to be included, even though we’re the actual ones with the talent. They think that if we don’t like it, there are plenty of others out there willing to take our place. But while we never know who will write the next bestseller, we never know whether that PhD graduate who had to go get a job in admin despite a decade of training, just because replacing them with another PhD student is cheaper, would have gone on to cure cancer. We also both seem to have very limited rights over our own work. For authors, their work generally belongs to the publishers, like ours belongs to the universities and/or the biotech companies that take it to market. We both suffer having the quality of our work diminished for ‘marketing purposes’.   And even the consumers of our products often don’t give a crap about whether we are paid for the work we do, but at least when people steal your ebooks, it’s because they’re selfish. When people don’t care that we work for free, it’s because they don’t think we deserve any better.

So while I imagine that authors would be particularly shitty if scientists tried to release a bunch of studies saying “studies show authors have no hearts (although you do really seem to like crushing our hearts, don’t you?)” or “research demonstrates that authors lack basic ethical values”, you’d probably be pretty upset. You would run through the streets protesting about how unfair and false those claims were, and how dare scientists spread such filth about authors. But those claims aren’t very different to those you frequently make about us. And even though you might claim your work is fictional, the consequences are real. Those fictional characters get translated into real stigma. Real scientists suffer because you’re fictional characters have shaped people’s actual opinions.

So, I ask, I beg you, authors, before you next write that evil scientist character, perhaps just think about how that is affecting actual scientists. Think of all those climate scientists who nobody trusts, think about those immunologists and virologists making vaccines against deadly diseases that parents wont give their children because they don’t trust the scientists who made them. Think of all the damage being done because people don’t value the advice of scientists. Just think of how much greater the world would be if when scientists spoke about devastating issues like climate change, people actually trusted them and listened. So next time you’re trying to find a character to blame for the apocalypse, try not to just take the path of least resistance and blame the scientist. Do what you authors do best, and be creative. Come up with something original that wont further entrench the lack of trust in scientists.

And if you do that for us, as scientists, we wont get so snarky when you misuse scientific terms.


here are some articles on the plight of scientists if you are interested in reading more:

[x] [x] [x] [x]


This post, and the content within, is based on my personal experience with research over the past decade, and with people’s reactions to finding out I’m a scientist. Other people may have had different experiences, but I think these will probably be fairly familiar to most early-career scientists out there.


 

12 Comments

  1. aentee @ read at midnight says

    This was extremely insightful, and I’m sorry to hear that portrayals in fiction have contributed negatively to real world jobs in such a way. Have you read Lab Girl by Hope Jahren? It’s a non fiction but it deals with the realities of a woman working as a modern day scientist.

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  2. Omg, Tina! Thank YOU for this post! I’m currently a PhD student, and let me tell you, every damn time I come across the evil scientist trope, I roll my eyes so hard it can’t be scientifically possible. Jokes aside, I love how you brought out the real world scenario and how put it in such great words. Honestly, this issue has been bugging me, too, for such a long time, but I am not great at words, so I reblogged yours in the hope that this idea spreads.

    If I may add, I feel that along with the evil scientist trope, the apathetic scientist trope should also be abolished – the idea that because we scientists are supposed to be unbiased in our studies, we don’t have any empathy, and even have the potential to be cruel in future if not at present. It is one step away from labeling us as sociopaths and it is really hurtful when I see this in shows and movies. We may kill small animals for our experiments, but it is never with malice or even out of carelessness – which is much more than I can say for the ‘general’ populace. Each of those lives mean something to us, even if it is a tiny mouse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The general populace’s opinions on animal research are some of the most hypocritical views I’ve ever encountered. They don’t seem to understand that when people kill mice in their homes, they die a much more horrible death than they would EVER experience in a lab, but people are totally okay with that because mice are yucky and they don’t want them in their house, but not okay with trying to save lives? How does that even make sense? Nothing done in a lab even comes close to what agricultural animals experience. And that’s only because they are tasty. But there are actually people out there who care more about feeling morally superior than they do about the truth, so they spread misinformation and vilify it, regardless of the consequences.

      People seem to not realise that scientists tend to be super left wing, really socially conscious, progressive people. I’ve never met an amoral scientist, and a right-wing scientist is like a unicorn. The reality just doesn’t match up to the overwhelming majority of portrayals in the media.

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      • Exactly! Every thing we do is held accountable and yet we are considered a bunch of jerks who do what they want because they can. Like, buddy we getting money for regular experimentation is tough, forget illegal experimentation!

        And let’s not even begin with that viral epidemic trope! The other day I took a mouse cage from one room to another in the animal facility without covering it (I was doing it for the first time and forgot the protocol) and within an hour, my supervisor got a notice, and I got a warning. We stress about the littlest stuff, not begrudgingly, but because we know how important it is. We enter a new institution and one of the first things included is an ethics training. So much research goes into making things easier and more ethical for other research. It is like ingrained in us to be morally sound – and yet people only see with distrust. They would rather trust the media than actually sit and talk to a scientist. Speaking of media, they are so ready to jump to conclusions. They can spin a small conclusion from an article into a conspiracy.

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  3. Pingback: The evil scientist trope, why it’s doing real world damage to scientists, and why authors need to stop. – Things & Chiz

  4. Loved this. Portrayal of scientists is something I have probably never considered, but the evil trope definitely did cross my mind while reading The Girl with All The Gifts – there’s a lot of Dr. Caldwell’s out there in fiction!

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    • It just seems like it’s always the path of least resistence to blame the scientists. There’s just thing of smart people being evil that’s going around and I just hate it.

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  5. Great read! It never occurred to me that fiction could cause people to think that scientists are evil! While I am by no means a PHD (I’d love to go back to school and get my PHD in psychology) or have had your exact experiences, I have many friends who are psychologists. In the psychology field, we always deal with people thinking that we are crazy, and are studying psychology to try and figure out what’s wrong with us. Psychology was one of my majors because I am an outlier, an unusual (eccentric) personality, and wanted to learn more about myself. I paid my school hundreds of dollars so I could work for free in the cognitive psychology lab. In my own work as an author, I hope to lessen the stigma of mental illness.

    Unfortunately in my background, there are Psychologists who can’t hold down jobs because their bipolar disorder is controlling their lives (I’ve met them face to face). Regrettably, scientists can publish false findings knowing they are fraudulent, such as Andrew Wakefield, who published information stating that the MMR vaccine causes autism, information that some research consumers still regard is true (I did my undergraduate research on our ability to correct information that we first learned under false circumstances).

    My response as your article’s chosen demographic (an author who might pull out an unoriginal idea or misuse a scientific term) is a question. If we wrote a humanitarian scientist trope or a savior scientist trope, would that be favorable, even if there were still intelligent, science-smart bad guys in our books? May I ask you what characteristics a protagonist scientist should have, and how they should be portrayed?

    As an eccentric and altruist (we tend to be as outliers) I’d love to create a scientist character that is out to save the world. Thanks for sharing your story!

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