When people think of scientists in the movies, they may conjure up images of an old man in a lab coat with Einstein hair, bent over bubbling beakers and bunsen burners.
On deeper reflection, most probably think of Dr. Frankenstein — a hysterical, raving madman who used his knowledge to violate the laws of nature.
Recently, however, sci-fi films have seen a subtle but crucial shift in narrative, casting scientists as diverse, virtuous heroes rather than middle-aged lunatics bent on revenge or wielding science like a weapon against their enemies.
Just think of Frankenstein, twisted chemist Walter White of “Breaking Bad,” or any number of comic-book villains who started out as scientists, and you’ll understand the frustration of scientists who hope to insert a new default image of a scientist into the collective consciousness.
At a time when Hollywood has been consumed with controversy over disparities in portrayals of women and minorities in film, two films nominated for Academy Awards this year — “Arrival” and “Hidden Figures” — address the lesser-known issue of stereotypes of scientists in film.
Amy Adams stars in the 2016 sci-fi film "Arrival." | Jan Thijs, Paramount Pictures
As Vox recently reported, science in entertainment has often lacked credibility or fairness — crime shows, particularly “CSI,” and recent films like the disaster epic “2012” take complicated scientific concepts and distill them down to fit a time slot or a convoluted story line. Sloppy portrayals of scientific principles can erode the public's confidence in science or reinforce false perceptions of scientific facts.
That’s changed a lot recently, with films like 2014 space exploration drama “Interstellar,” “Arrival” and some of the Marvel franchise filmmakers consulting working scientists to inform their work.
It’s all thanks to an organized network of scientists called the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a division of the National Academy of Sciences. Since it was founded in 2008, the exchange told Vox, they’ve consulted on about 1,800 films.
The scientists involved in the exchange work with filmmakers to make the ideas in sci-fi films more believable and realistic, but they’re also looking to correct entertainment stereotypes that have dogged scientists for years.
A 2005 British study of thousands of horror films released in that country between 1931 and 1984 found that scientists were portrayed as villains in more than 40 percent of those films — and they were portrayed as heroes in less than 1 percent of the films.
The exchange’s work is also helping with some of the other diversity issues occupying Hollywood currently, such as having the demographics of the nation better reflected in on-screen characters. For example, a 2015 report from the University of Southern California found that of the more than 30,000 characters present in 700 popular films examined between 2007 to 2014, just 30 percent were female. And a study from UCLA found that in 2011, people of color in the U.S. were underrepresented on TV by a ratio of seven to one.
But there’s hope the tide is turning, with The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film reporting this week that the number of female protagonists reached an all-time high in 2016. The work of the science exchange has played a role in that change.
As Vox reported, exchange scientists advising on the 2011 Marvel film “Thor” championed the idea of Natalie Portman’s character becoming a physicist rather than a nurse, as she was in the original comic book series.
Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth star in Marvel's "Thor." | Zade Rosentha, Marvel Studios
“We love nurses,” exchange deputy director Ann Merchant told Vox, “but we also really love the idea of a strong, female character who is an astrophysicist.”
It's difficult to prove the idea that media representation of scientists as the good guys can help change perceptions of them, or that such practices would shore up decades of gender disparity issues in various scientific fields.
But there's some evidence that the public’s view of science and who scientists are is highly influenced by media representations, according to one 2009 study that examined a possible connection between portrayals of scientists and public opinion of them between 1983 and 2001. As portrayals of scientists became more positive from the 1990s forward, so did the public’s faith in scientists. The study found that Americans became less likely to believe negative stereotypes about scientists, more likely to believe scientific findings and more likely to think a career in science was acceptable for their children.
That’s a trend scientists are hoping will continue as recent Oscar nominations for films that deal with science lend credibility to scientific stories and characters. Making sure audiences get a more nuanced and accurate narrative of scientists and their work is a big leap forward for a group often relegated to the role of sinister magician or evil genius.
“People learn from movies and television,” Merchant told Vox, “whether you want them to or not.”