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Mad, Bad and Dangerous?Review - Mad, Bad and Dangerous?
The Scientist and the Cinema
by Christopher Frayling
Reaktion, 2006
Review by Lawrence D. Hultgren, Ph.D.
Nov 4th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 45)

How many reel scientists does it take to make a real scientist?  Although this is not exactly the question raised by Christopher Frayling in Mad, Bad and Dangerous?  The Scientist and the Cinema, it is close.  Frayling's new book is a detailed and dense look at the celluloid images projected onto scientists and their science by feature films made in Western Europe (Britain, France, and Germany) and in the United States since the 1930s.  In this lecture that became a BBC radio series that became the current book, Frayling explores the gaps between the portrayal of science in popular culture, especially in the cinema, and science proper.

The scope of Frayling's study is broad.  Not only does it cover several scientific disciplines in specific historical periods: chemistry in the 1920s, medicine in the 1930s, physics in the 1950s, and biology since the 1960s, but it focuses as well on the changing image of the scientist in film.  Furthermore, it looks beyond horror and fantasy films to discuss bio-pics, historical dramas, epics, comedies, adventures, and drama-documentaries as well as musicals!  However, committed readers to Metapsychology may be disappointed by Frayling's exclusion of psychologists and psychiatrists "in their normal healing roles."  Happily, such reel doctors do return to the discussion when they are involved in research roles.       

To his credit, Frayling does not fall prey to glib criticism about how science fiction and horror films might scare off young people from careers in science.  Instead, he tries to look for some positive depictions of the scientist and scientific research.  Momentarily looking away from 'mad scientist' films, he finds a glint of hope in the parallel saintly treatment of scientists from the bio-ops of the 1930s and '40s to the cinema-scientist-hero-working-for-the-state as represented by 'Q' in more recent James Bond films.  This discussion, especially that of "boffins", "the scientist or back-room boys and girls, who worked with government or the armed forces during wartime" in British films (179), adds a unique facet to Frayling's book.  In addition, although somewhat superficially, he uncovers several possible connections between reel-discoveries and real-life science projects, including the invention of the cardiac pacemaker, the Strategic Defense Initiative ('Star Wars'), medical research, and 'steady state cosmology'.

Throughout his book, Frayling plays with questions of whether mad scientist movies are simply a matter of bad taste or whether they intend a more dangerous philosophy of science that suggests that every scientific fact was once thought mad.  And he shows that even when real-life scientists are presented in reel-life, they are often depicted as the same mad, bad, and dangerous images seen in cinema mythology.  Consequently, argues Frayling, the saintly scientist and the sinner or mad scientist, think of the boffin-figure 'Q' and Dr. No in the James Bond saga, may be two sides of the same coin.

Of particular delight is Chapter Six, "It, Son of Them."  (Remember, in space no one can hear you laugh.)  The title's references are, of course, to all of those 1950s Hollywood threats called "It" [It Came from Outer Space (1953) - in 3D, It Stalked the Ocean Floor (1954), It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), It Conquered the World (1956), and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)] and the huge box-office smash Them! (1954)  which represents all the "giant ants or grasshopper or spiders or flies or scorpions or daddy-long-legs or mantises or reptiles or moles or cats or crabs or tree stumps" (198).  Unlike earlier films about Pasteur, Edison, and Curie, these films placed a mutant face on the work of the scientist and warned us yet again of how dangerous science could be.  

 Looking at films such as Gorillas in the Mist (1988), Awakenings (1990), Medicine Man (1992), Jurassic Park (1993),  Outbreak (1995), Contact (1997), The Matrix (2001), A Beautiful Mind (2003), and the Indiana Jones pictures, Frayling concludes his cinematic journey by asking, Have scientists fared any better in recent years?  To answer this question, he moves outside of the theater and asks a group of 7-9 year-olds (79 boys and 65 girls) to etch-a-sketch-of-a-scientist (actually, he uses the 'Draw-a-Scientist' test developed by D. W. Chambers).  Alas, from Frayling's perspective, the majority of images of the scientist drawn (over 50 per cent) are still of the stereotypical 'mad, bad and dangerous' scientist.  "So where does the imagery come from?", he asks, "The answer is comics, cartoons, computer-games, comedy and adventure films" (221).  Unfortunately, the reference to "comics, cartoons, [and] computer games" as additional sources does weaken slightly his thesis.

 According to Christopher Frayling, almost everything we know about what scientists do we have learned from the movies.  Thus, we are mired in a cinematic mythology that serves up science and the scientist as 'mad. bad and dangerous'.  As he depicts this widening gap between scientists and their specialized knowledge and the lay public's need for understanding, we are reminded of C. P. Snow's famous lecture and later book about the split between the arts or humanities and the sciences.  Almost 50 years ago, Snow, too, warned of a major breakdown of communication between non-scientists and scientists.   And Frayling seems to update and refocus this debate by uncovering an equally worrisome communication rift between the public and senior scientists that the physicist Carl Sagan saw as "a prescription for disaster" (226).

Fraying's work is not some academic or higher brow rant against the cinema for bringing disrepute to science as well as to scientists.  He loves those bad B movies as much as anyone -- he's just the messenger.  However, he does have a message that he hopes will bridge the gulf.  Frayling concludes: "In the end, deeper public understanding of science -- and deeper understanding of the public by scientists - may indeed save humanity" (226).  After all those hours of watching bad movies about reel-life scientists, I guess we can't expect a more real or specific solution from our author. 

© 2008 Lawrence D. Hultgren

Lawrence D. Hultgren, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, Virginia Wesleyan College


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