Science and Society
Society’s image of science and scientists as well as the public’s misunderstanding and often fascination with science clearly demonstrate the influence science and society have on each other. Certain stereotypical images created by the media and instilled in the public’s minds have surrounded scientists for years. These images influence the way people think about science as well as the way scientists think about themselves and others. Science has also separated itself from the general population when it comes to knowledge. The common individual knows very little about science as compared to scientists. This has a tremendous impact on the way the public views and respects science. This “gap” in understanding also influences the way scientists work and act. The film, The Man in the White Suit, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, and the book Making Science out Own: Public Images of Science 1910-1955, by Marcel LaFollette, both demonstrate the relationship between science and society.
In Making Science out Own: Public Images of Science 1910-1955, Marcel LaFollette addresses the image of the scientist. One characteristic in particular was the typical persistency of scientists. LaFollette describe the ideal scientist as “Mr. Persistence a marvel of concentration, energy and endurance” (LaFollette 4). LaFollette goes on to describe scientists who would give up sleeping and eating in an effort to maximize their time in the laboratory. Scientists are “in constant conflict with the slow tempo of the world” (LaFollette 4). Sidney Stratton in The Man in the White Suit fits this description of a persistent scientist. He was dismissed form several jobs, but he did not halt his efforts to make a new and amazing fabric. At every job he had, Sidney found a way to continue his experiment. He did not let anything get in his way. Sidney “stole” money and supplies from companies that he worked for and would work for hours and hours. He did not care whether he was getting paid for his work or whether he had money for food. Sidney had one goal on his mind: to finish the experiment.
I do not agree with the idea of a scientist who dedicates his life and all of his time to science as being ideal. First of all, the term “scientist” is so broad that no scientist in particular can be overall “ideal.” For example, an “ideal” chemist may not be an “ideal” archeologist. And what is it about a scientist, who gets very little rest and thinks only about science, that makes him or her ideal? A more ideal scientist would be one who is well rounded and able to communicate with others. This new “ideal” scientist would be able to collaborate with other scientists to discuss theorems and, do to his well roundedness, be able to maintain focus and happiness. A scientist who thinks only about science is likely to lose focus and enjoyment as well as productivity.
It is very important to discuss and think about the image of the scientist. By analyzing how the public views scientists, one can judge the future of science. The image of a scientist as one with no time for family or sleep, is imprinted into the minds of young children. This causes the children to dislike science and not want to be scientists in the future. As a culture, we must change this image of the scientist in an effort to increase young children’s interest in science. As a result, the future of science will be a promising one.
The idea of a person who can work for days without sleep or food makes them seem “super human.” Scientists themselves often believe they are above the “ordinary” population. They often feel superior to the general public and feel that they can do more and do it better than the average individual. An image of this superiority and “super human” like nature of scientists can be seen in The Man In The White Suit. Sidney’s “white suit” causes him to stand out from the rest of the people in the film. For example, the suit glows in the dark and Sidney is clearly separated from the other characters. The special suit cannot get dirty and is always bright white. The color white is often a representation or purity and holiness. The fact that the suit glows gives the impression that it has magical powers. These characteristics are important because many people’s image of a scientist is one of a white lab coat. The magical powers of the glowing suit could signify the way ordinary people are sometimes mystified by science. People’s reaction and fascination with science is a very important aspect in the relationship between science and society.
The film demonstrates the way society can influence science. Sydney’s new invention would have eliminated the jobs of many people because there would no longer be a need for any fabric cleaner, or dry cleaners, or for that matter, any other fabrics. This resulted in a major disapproval of his new invention by society. The workers wanted to control the progress of science. They wanted to step in front of a new discovery and prevent it from being made. This is relevant to science and society today. One of the new frontiers in science is in genetics. We now have the capabilities to clone animals and most likely humans. This raises many moral issues with society. As a result, many groups have formed against genetic cloning. Groups formed by various churches as well as others are making efforts to pass laws against cloning. These groups are attempting too stand in the way of a scientific breakthrough which could eventually cure diseases such as cancer and AIDS and save millions of lives worldwide. This is a clear demonstration of how society can be narrow-minded and interfere with science.
Many people have very little or no knowledge of science. Dara Horn, author of “The Shoulders of Giants”, is very accurate when she says:
There is a tremendous “gap of knowledge” between the public and the scientists. Scientists are considered to be geniuses by most and the science they study is often considered incomprehensible. However, many people are very interested and fascinated by science. Although they may not fully understand what is going on, people are mystified and captivated by science. In a class discussion, Instructor Josh Greenburg said, “I know nothing about veterinary medicine it’s fascinating.” Another example can be seen in the scene when Sydney explains his experiment to Daphney in the street in The Man In The White Suit. He asks Daphney if she knows basic information about science, such as the definition of a molecule. She has a blank look on her face and only knows a vague definition of an atom. Sydney takes what she knows and attempts to explain his entire experiment from there. She looks at him with a mystified look on her face as he passionately explains his idea. She is so amazed by his knowledge and how he is so involved in his work that she goes home later that evening and does research on what she can remember from Sydney’s explanation. This demonstrates her fascination of science. This scene clearly shows the “gap of knowledge” between the public and scientists as well as the fascination the public often has with science. This “gap of knowledge” influences the way scientists act. Scientists are always being represented as geniuses and therefore act as if they know everything. They often feel that they can solve every problem and that they have the answer to every question, and thus in their effort to solve the world’s problems, they make mistakes. However, scientists rarely admit to their mistakes. Instead they find a way to justify their mistake to make it seem like it wasn’t their fault. Due to the “gap”, the public often does not fully understand what the scientists are talking about and cannot voice its opinion. This is a clear instance of the influence society and science have on each other.
The relationship between science and society can be seen in the images of scientists, the public’s reaction to science, and the way scientists act. The film The Man In The White Suit, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, and Making Science out Own: Public Images of Science 1910-1955, by Marcel LaFollette, both deal with this relationship. We as a culture must be conscious of the influence of science. The preconceived notion of what is “ideal” may not still be true today. We can also take notice of the many images of science around us and think about what they really stand for and mean. By doing so we can truly understand the relationship between science and society.
LaFollette, Marcel. Making Science out Own: Public Images of Science 1910-
Dighton, John. The Man in the White Suit. 1951.
Dara Horn, “The Shoulders of Giants.” Science, May 29, 1998.