I see this narrative trope far too many times: A problem arises in the protagonist’s environment. The protagonist calls in the scientist. The scientist saves the day thanks to their superior intellect, rational thinking, and extensive knowledge of obscure facts. The scientist isn’t a person, they’re a walking encyclopedia who just happens to have the right answer at the right time.
While I enjoy a good save-the-day story as much as the next person, I always leave these narratives, whether they be books, podcasts, movies, or TV shows, feeling strange. I’m a scientist myself (an epidemiologist, to be specific), and I’m not perfect. I don’t have every single answer, especially not continually hanging out on the tip of my tongue. If somebody presented me with a problem, I would need to start solving it by forming hypotheses and testing them through experimentation and extensive research. I’d probably fail several times before I approached a plausible answer. Even then, I could be wrong.
Depicting scientists as infallible heroes is damaging
So often, how scientists are depicted creates an unrealistic expectation of success, and obscures the real scientific method that underlies any true problem-solving. We don’t just snap our fingers, do a little mental math, and come up with the answer that will save the day.
Media that presents science and scientists this way is doing us all a disservice, because it’s teaching us things that are patently false — that breakthroughs always happen immediately, that experiments always run smoothly, that research always moves quickly, that the scientist is always right. When I was a kid, my favorite show was CSI; as I watched, I formed a picture in my head of what a forensic scientist is and what one does, which, of course, is largely inaccurate. I still grew up to become a scientist, but not without many unmet expectations along the way (prime example: lab research is not nearly as exciting as the movies make it out to be).
I’m not alone in my experience, nor in my belief that presenting scientists as infallible heroes is damaging. Researchers at the University of Washington and Columbia University recently examined how portrayals of science and scientists affected grade school students in terms of academic performance in science classes. Students who learned about the struggles and personal stories behind groundbreaking science showed a modest but significant improvement. The researchers suggest this effect is due to the more accurate portrayal of science leading to students’ understanding that scientists achieve success through continued effort and hard work, not through some superhuman intelligence.
Humanizing scientists has many benefits
I really want to see a character who isn’t defined only by their scientific career path. I want to read about scientists who mess up, work hard, pursue other hobbies, correct their mistakes, and arrive at findings in realistic ways.
If you’re a writer or filmmaker, force yourself to make your scientist characters more believable. The end result will be better, and your character will be more interesting and developed, because you won’t be relying on a stereotype.
On top of that, depicting science that is closer to the truth can only make that subject matter more accessible and inspirational to real people, especially children.
So, here’s my plea: Please show scientists who are real people, doing real things. Present their struggles front and center. Show time passing as their experiments incubate in a lab. Explore their mistakes and how they rectify them. Finally, please don’t make the scientist the deus ex machina of your story. It’s a cop-out, and forcing yourself past that trope will only make you a better writer and your story much stronger.
Scientists used to be the root of all evil, and now they’re the saviors. I hope we can all find a happy medium, where scientists are allowed to be who they are instead of caricatures.
If a Scientist Is the Hero of Your Story, Make Them Believable was originally published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
Read more: writingcooperative.com