Science is the Bad Guy Now?

frankensteinIt’s been suggested in a Tor.com article that moviemakers only see science and technology as the bad guy, and won’t greenlight a movie that presents science and technology in a positive light. And if you think about the sci-fi movies of recent years, it’s pretty damned hard to think of any where the science or tech didn’t create or exacerbate a problem.

Same thing for television: How long has it been since we’ve had a new TV show about someone using technology to help people? You could mention Person of Interest; but even that show, wherein a genius siphons the identifying numbers of people who need help from an all-seeing Machine, has become thoroughly overshadowed by the discovery of another Machine that apparently wants to help a secret organization to (ahem) Take Over The World, and an imminent Machine-on-Machine war. Extant was about taking advantage of humans alone on a space station to expose them to aliens. Ascension was about fooling a bunch of “colonists” into thinking they’re on a space ship to another star.

I often find myself outright gobsmacked by the idea that people would consider science and technology as the bad guy in any form, considering all we have to thank science and technology for. I mean, if we didn’t have agriculture… animal husbandry… medicine… metallurgy… standardized weights, measures and time… engineering… electronics… communications… all of which are branches of science… we’d still be living like nomads on the plains, throwing rocks at rabbits and trying to guess which leaves were safe to eat. Or we wouldn’t exist at all, finally wiped out by the apex predators on every continent.

So, if science and technology have made our very lives and societies possible today… how are they the bad guy now?

It’s a popular statement that people tend to fear what they don’t understand, and that they don’t understand science today. But in fact, there’s little about science and technology that’s that incomprehensible to the average person. In fact, if you can understand the rules of American football and remember the names and numbers of your favorite players, you have the mental capacity to understand 90% of the science and technology you’re likely to come across in daily life (and another 5% of the science and tech you don’t usually get exposed to).

Most Americans have apparently decided that they don’t want to apply themselves to learning about science and technology… except, of course, when it’s convenient. Like figuring out how to drive a car. Or use a cellphone. (Further proof of Jordan’s Theorem: “You get used to what you want to get used to.”)

And people aren’t scared of cars or cellphones, even though they have a very good reason to be afraid of cars, one of the deadliest inventions ever devised by Man… or cellphones, one of the most socially disruptive technologies since… I dunno, the car, probably.

Disruption seems to be key here: People have decided they don’t like their lives to be disrupted by change, and few things change people’s lives faster than technology does. What I don’t get is why people dislike change so much; after all, it’s not as if our lives are perfect the way they are. (Excuse me if your life actually is perfect… obviously, I’m not talking to you.) Wouldn’t smarter cars, safer airplanes, better communications options, more helpful appliances and faster computers be things we’d look forward to having?

predator-firing-missile4

And how many of the bad things we attribute to science and technology are actually caused by science and technology? When we worry about more pervasive surveillance… machines run amok… damage to our world… aren’t we, in fact, worrying about ways in which people have misused machines? The atom bomb may be capable of killing millions… but people decided to drop two of them on Japanese cities, not some evil AI. People shoot guns. People cause car accidents. People design malware. People hack into credit databases. People do experiments carelessly and cause problems. People disable park computers and allow dinosaurs to run amok. People program hostility into attack machines and become hunted into extermination. People ransom governments using energy sources that could power the world.

In Person of Interest, it is people in the government and people running defense contracts who use the show’s AIs to do bad things. In Extant, a NASA executive directs the program that exposes astronauts to the aliens he knows are at the orbiting satellite. In Ascension, people set up the experiment that cons colonists into thinking they are on a space ship. People take a new science or technology, an essentially neutral thing… and by their actions, make it bad.

So, when we say we don’t like technology—that we’re afraid of science and technology—we’re really saying we don’t like and are afraid of the people who corrupt the science and technology. We’re blaming the bathwater for being dirty… not the dirty baby put into the bathwater.

You might argue that this is just semantics… but it’s very important, when you have a problem, to recognize the true cause of that problem. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to fix it. And to fix this problem, we all need to understand:

Science and technology don’t hurt people. People do.

  • Alexander G.R

    “science is the key to the gates of heven but it is also the key to the gates of hell”
    don’t know whare that quote cam from but is too true.

  • Science has always been the Bad Guy
    Ask Galileo, what happened if he put his scientifc facts to the public. Hollywood has always produced films with bad science as a core element.
    How many B – movies have been produced in the 50ties and where billed under the genre “Science Fiction”. Technically the reanimated monster in your picture is part of a Science Fiction story.
    But then there are “good” science examples. How about “Big Bang Theory” ?
    It is certainly depicting science in a positive way.
    Or Star Trek? Not only did Star Trek depict science in a positive way, it inspired real scientists to make the ST stuff real . I actually studied physics just because I wanted to be like Spock (I kid you not)
    And the samples you quote and name are “Technology”. The general public does not see the science behind a cell phone or a car
    Go ask the average American what it is that make their phone work. Or explain one single component.
    How does the “Glass” actually register your finger movements? What materials are used to create the plastic housing?
    How does that car actually work?
    Combustion is around a long time, but go ahead ask your daughter or that girl in heels and painted nails what a spark plug does and where it goes.
    It’s not science that is the bad guy, but the laziness of the average Joe Blow wanting to understand something and thus learn.
    This is due to the inherent sheep mentality of our species and this bane of ignorance has been with us since the first Erectus decided to climb down his trees for good.
    e has always been a Shaman, a medicine man, a wizard, an Alchemist who did the “questioning and explaining”
    Why do you think the average guy can name you the contestants of “X Factor” or “Dancing with the stars” but could not name ten famous scientists, or ten US Presidents or ten Elements of the periodic table.. It’s the age old agade of “Panem exercensis” – Bread and Games.
    If I say to someone “The xyz waves of your cell phone actually damage your brain cells” chances are the person believes it.
    Or how about “Climate Change” ? 90 percent of the general public swallows it hook line and sinker. and don’t complain about “Carbon taxes” that save the planet!
    The truth is our planet has always experience climate change and will continue to do so. With or without humans. (Ice ages ring a bell?) Of course no one even asks what must happen after an ice age…(Global warming of course)
    No it’s not science that is the bad guy but the inherent ignorance of the masses.
    This is why we always needed “Leaders” who tell us what to do what to believe and who we are to hate.

  • John H Reiher Jr

    Well, there are movies that have come out and are coming out that put Science and Technology in a positive light. Big Hero 6 was a positive spin on Science. Disney’s Tomorrowland is another that looks like it’s going to put Science in a good light as well.

    But Tomorrowland shows another reason why folks do dark science movies: The flashes of a future (or present) radically different from the one we live in illustrate the promise of a future in the 1940’s and 50’s that never came to be! (Where’s my jetpacks! My flying cars!)

    A lot of folks are disgruntled at not getting that future, but forget that the present we live in now is unimaginable by the folks of 60 years ago. It’s like we went through a “singularity”. (Another thing that probably won’t come to pass.)

    This international forum is beyond what most futurists of the 40’s would have predicted! Imagine being able to have conversations with people across the world and have your words visible to thousands, if not millions of people instantly!

    Inconceivable!

    We’re going through a jaded period right now, where scientists are being painted in a not so pleasant light. But soon we’ll be back to the bright light of SCIENCE! And you know what?

    We’ll Show Them ALL!

    Bwahahahahahahaha!

  • It’s interesting that Steven chose a picture of Frankenstein to accompany the article. It’s as though he’s admitting that this is not a new trend 😉

    • Steven Lyle Jordan

      I deliberately chose the photo of Frankenstein’s creation because it is emblematic of the article’s theme: Although people remember the hulking insane monster from the old movies… the original story clearly made Dr. Frankenstein himself the bad guy, shunning his incredible creation and thereby fueling its hatred and starting the cycle of death and destruction. (Later movies have tried to make the real villain of the story clearer.)

      And no, it’s not a new trend, but it has come and gone over the years, and we’re clearly at the “science is bad” end of the cycle right now.

      • Much older than Frankenstein is the legend of the Golem, albeit created by “magic” in its time magic, alchemy was synonymous with science. Medicine and doctors had a different reputation in Paracelcus times. Surgeons really did employ grave robbers to get corpses to dissect. ( The basis of Frankenstein’s story) Doctors were considered “evil” or at least had not a very good reputation in the eyes of the general public. If you look at the way a pestilence doctor dressed, you could not find a better “Bad Guy” costume for a chainsaw wielding psychopath. Astronomers were (and even today) compared to Astrologers and Diviners . Clearly a black magic connection there. No I don’t think we are at the end of “Science is bad” cycle. I think it is perpetual as long as dimwits rule the public opinion. And I firmly believe the cycle you speak of is influenced in direct co relation to the quality of public education.

        • So in previous centuries the bad guy was not science, but scientists and wizards.

          • As you may now I work in the motion picture industry and for quite a spell. I have seen trends come and go. Some linger, and some fade only to be resurrected in a “Reboot”
            And the trope of the “Evil scientist” is around for a long time. Characters immortalized by Boris Karlof, Lon Chaney Jr and of course Vincent Price have cemented the image of the driven, insane scientist. The characters can be found in almost every James Bond movie of course are also core characters in Superhero comics since there are costumed crime fighters.Superman’s early enemies are often scientists including of course Lex Luthor who was not a business man at first, Captain America battled a whole army of Evil German scientists (they all have a German accent and say “Nein”) On the other hand, Iron Man is most certainly a well received user of science and technology, Spider Man or more exactly Peter Parker is a science geek, the Fantastic Four and Mr. Fantastic aka Reed Richards is very much into science.
            People fear what they can’t understand. Add the word “Nuclear” or “Atomic” to anything and it becomes evil and powerful and s removed from the comprehension of most people: Atomic Man, Nuclear Boy, Atomic Submarine, Atomic Cheese sandwich.
            In early history there was no “science” and the very concept of scientific reasoning is a very recent concept.
            The first “scientists” were priests, monks and people who didn’t have to work for a living. Often sponsored by nobles or nobles themselves who could afford buying books, dissect frogs, and try to turn lead into gold. These alchemists weren’t peasants who toiled from sunrise to sunset. This set the stage and divided “us” – average Joe and Jane from “them”.
            Add all the archaic symbols and habits of “Academia”. Still reflected in gowns and mortar board hats. Doctor’s and scientists in their lab coats and the way they talk are not comprehensible to the average person, and what is not understood is feared and vilified.
            The term “Ivory tower” is a very real condition based on a real place and invokes scientists and scholars aloft and separate from the rest.
            If a director of a movie or TV show wants me to decorate a science lab, he wants lots of glass with colorful and bubbling liquids, no matter if it makes no sense. And lots of strange things. It does not matter if it is the chamber of a wizard at Hogwards or the office of a CSI investigator in Las Vegas., look at it and you will see a common theme.
            To your grand father, a desk top printer might work like magic, but you be hard pressed to find anyone in your group of peer to explain how an ink jet or a laser printer really works.
            So i’s not science that is bad, or technology. It is the lack of understanding what it is that allows all forms of entertainment, be it books, films, TV shows or comics to use it to raise fear. Nothing but sex entertains the average person more than being scared.

            VR

          • Captain Grumpy Pants

            • John H Reiher Jr

              Scourge of all that is soft SF and that which is not REAL SCIENCE FICTION! (by his own definition.)

            • In brightest day and darkest night no Fantasy sneaking in shall escape my right, Soft Sci Fi beware my might, Captain Grumpy-Pants has you in his sight.

              (The Grumpy Pants version of the GL oath)

            • He uses these science based tools to fight his never ending battle.

            • John H Reiher Jr

              You forgot the Hal Clement Meter of SF Hardness and the Vernor Vinges’ Vengeful Vaporizer!

            • Shhhhh don’t give these secret gadgets away.You and I know that …as previous wearers of the “Mantle of the Bat….uh I mean the Pants of Grumpiness”… What if Eddings or Piers Anthony know about the Hal Clement meter,the element of surprise is gone. You know the chief weapons are nice red uniforms, and a maniacally devotion to the pope…oh wrong outfit…sorry

  • Paulo R. Mendes

    That was a good article. I liked > 🙂