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How We Really See Scientists

Americans view them as amoral and thus potentially dangerous.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: julochka/Flickr)

We all grew up with Hollywood images of the Mad Scientist: A man who is brilliant and driven, but terrifyingly reckless. We’ve read cautionary tales about scientific breakthroughs that may have a dark side, such as genetic engineering. But we’ve also given thanks to the researchers who helped produce everything from high-tech toys to life-saving medicines.

Given these conflicting narratives, how do Americans regard scientists? Newly published research finds “a complex mixture of positive and negative stereotypes and associations.”

We think of scientists as trustworthy on the whole, but also robotic and emotionless in nature. In addition, some of us — especially social conservatives — view them as prone to ignoring important ethical norms.

“Scientists are seen as existing within more of an amoral, as opposed to an immoral, landscape,” write psychologists Bastiaan Rutjens of the University of Amsterdam and Steven Heine of the University of British Columbia. They found we don’t view scientists as “evil per se,” but rather as people who are “potentially dangerous” due to their inclination to “pursue knowledge obsessively.”

Sounds sinister. You in the white coat: Slowly back away from that beaker.

In the online journal PLoS One, Rutjens and Heine describe 10 studies that led them to this conclusion. Seven of them, which featured 1,917 American adults, were structurally similar: Participants, who were recruited online, began by reading “a description of a moral transgression committed by a man.”

Americans “tend to view scientists as goal-oriented, emotionless robots.”

These transgressions varied widely, from cheating at a card game to killing homeless people and hiding the bodies in his basement.Others were actions that didn’t produce any obvious harm but are nonetheless frowned upon, such as engaging in consensual sex with his sister.

Next, participants were asked whether it was more probable that the man in question (either “Robert” or “Jack”) was either a sports fan, or a sports fan and a second descriptive phrase. That’s a logical fallacy — it’s always more likely that he would belong to the first, all-inclusive category — but it’s a time-honored tool for discovering how the public views members of specific groups.

Three of the second descriptors were of scientists (“a scientist,” “a cell biologist,” and “an experimental psychologist”). The others included “a Christian,” “a Hispanic,” “a teacher,” “a lawyer,” and “gay.”

The results revealed that scientists are perceived as more likely than members of other groups to commit certain, but not all, moral transgressions. Specifically, they were viewed as more likely to engage in serial murder, incest, and necrobestiality, but not more likely to cheat or abuse others.

This is best understood in the context of the Moral Foundations Theory, which asserts ethical norms can be categorized into two broad classifications: “individualizing” ones, which prohibit harming others and encourage fairness for all; and “binding” ones, which are based on notions of purity, loyalty, and deference to authority. Broadly speaking, the first set guides liberals’ moral thinking, while the second resonates with social conservatives.

The transgressions the scientists were seen as being more likely to commit generally fit into the “purity” realm. This provides one answer to the question of why conservatives are more likely to distrust scientists: Many see them as treading into forbidden territory.

Additional studies found Americans “tend to view scientists as goal-oriented, emotionless robots.” On the plus side, they are seen as more trustworthy than members of many other groups. Participants also agreed that scientists can believe in God, although they are “somewhat less likely than a regular person to do so.”

So it seems suspicion of scientists is closely related to people’s views about knowledge-seeking in general. While most of us see that as an unabashedly good thing, social conservatives view it as potentially threatening, as it may lead to questioning or disrupting the norms and values that keep society from falling apart.

In other words, many Americans feel there are places where we should not go, and inquiries that are too dangerous to make. Doctors Jekyll and Frankenstein have clearly left long shadows.