For any scientist on Twitter in recent days, the funny-not-funny meme of “I’m a scientist in a movie…” is familiar. In these hypothetical scenarios, people have been tweeting how scientists and MDs are erroneously portrayed in the media. Many scenarios have been highly entertaining while at the same time serve to highlight how disconnected many screenwriters are from actual physicians and scientists.
Hello. I’m a female scientist in a movie. I look like a swimsuit model, i have a PhD from Cal Tech in the exact subject that is plaguing the world in this movie, and i will watch as a former athlete saves the world.— michael levine (@michaellevine2) January 4, 2019
Hello, I'm a scientist in a movie I know everything about theoretical physics, geology, astronomy, cosmology, history, biology, linguistics, oh yeah, also I'm a hacker.— Kad (@kadtheboi) January 5, 2019
Hello, I’m a scientist in a movie. You need the cure to a strange disease in 24 hours. I just so happen to be the best in my field. Everything works the first time I do it, and my knowledge spans through three different fields. Without extensive testing first, here’s your cure. https://t.co/hxxFhuW9p0— ǫᴜᴇᴇɴ ᴏғ ᴛʜᴇ ʟᴀʙ (@Queen_ofthe_Lab) January 4, 2019
Hello, I’m a surgeon in movie. I rush in to treat a gunshot victim. I remove a bullet and drop it into a basin which is always metal so that it makes the requisite clinking sound. Then I scrub out, without fixing a single one of the holes which are the real problem. https://t.co/TxZnQqnQFx— Michael Yeh (@michaelyehmd) January 3, 2019
Hi, I'm a scientist in a movie. I got my PhD at the age of 20 & can sequence DNA in 10 minutes.— Gon with the wind....like Ging (@Satirony) January 3, 2019
It doesn't matter what my area of expertise is, because I am superb at all types of science. My background in microbiology is absolutely enough for me to explain alien space travel. https://t.co/hs0lgkdqR2
In pretty much every television show or cinema-worthy movie with a scientific element or involving a doctor of some description, the characters and scenarios presented are a farce of some stereotype:
- The scientist is a polymath capable of solving varied challenges from geology to biohazards to space travel and alien anatomy.
- The first experiment performed always works and is completed in matter of minutes and gives definitive results. Experiments usually involve beakers of blue or red liquids.
- E = mc2 is the only equation that is used in science.
- If the doctor or scientist isn’t white with gleamingly perfect teeth and designer clothing (underneath a white coat), this person inevitably is brown and has an accent. Furthermore, every support person in a hospital—nurses, intake staff, etc. is a sassy black woman who has seen it all.
- The doctors could either pass for fitness models or are stuck in 70s-era fashion, dressing only in yellows, browns, bell bottoms and pocket protectors.
- Eureka and aha moments are plentiful, imaging and lab-medicine results are conclusive, and surgical procedures have a 100 percent success rate.
Why are our noble professions thus portrayed when reality is more nuanced and varied? Is it so convenient to rely on old fashioned narratives and tropes that rarely coincide with the actual work done in labs and clinics—or is it just laziness? Perhaps because portraying scientists and physicians as they actually are—methodical, careful, measured, questioning—is boring? An inconvenient plot dynamic?
Because attributing depth to scientists and giving full freight to the scientific process is not as handy, the way the public sees science is skewed. When reality is not congruent with what is shown on film, audiences reinforce these hurtful stereotypes. Even in 2019, a large percentage of Americans question the safety of vaccines and genetically modified organisms. According to the National Science Foundation, about 45 percent of Americans are not seriously concerned about climate change. How can scientists make inroads in changing these views if we and are work are portrayed as outdated caricatures?
One recurring theme in the recent meme had to do with diversity in science.
Hi, I’m an Indian doctor in a movie. I will give you bad news. I won’t have a back story or more than 60 seconds on screen. You won’t see me again. I will be Dr. Patel. I will have an accent. https://t.co/o3rMIftver— Joyce Sekharan (@jsekharan) January 4, 2019
Hello, I'm a Chinese female scientist in a movie. I don't exist. https://t.co/b665HE7b7f— Feier Hou ����⚗️�� (@happykitten62) January 4, 2019
Hollywood rarely portrays non-white scientists, and only rarely do we see Asian physicians—and when we do, they almost always carry an accent. A quick stroll around any academic institution focused on science and medicine would quickly disabuse anyone of this notion. Given that the U.S. is commonly called a melting pot, why would our graduate and medical schools be any different in their enrollment from various diasporas? As an Indian-American, I was hardly alone in my graduate school; my roommate during that time was a Korean-American in medical school.
It is not just diversity of ethnicities that makes teams strong, and that facet is oft neglected in Hollywood productions. It takes diversity of thought to analyze problems thoughtfully, and to test, retest and question a hypothesis from all angles. Some of the most successful faculty gather engineers, cell biologists, chemists and medical doctors on their teams or in their collaborations. It was therefore particularly apt and cringeworthy when these tweets showed up about the lack of thought put toward who is often most critical on successful scientific and medical teams.
Hello, I’m a medical lab scientist in a movie. Wait, no I’m not, because no one actually understands we exist and are highly-trained medical professionals. Instead, they show doctors or nurses doing our work while holding pipettes upside down. https://t.co/Xv0JjKxzVf— Mari Brighe (@MariBrighe) January 3, 2019
Hello, I’m a statistician in a movie.— Andrew Althouse (@ADAlthousePhD) January 4, 2019
Just kidding. Statisticians are NEVER in movies. https://t.co/2PYTkhCkEr
I’d like to invite screenwriters and casting directors to spend more time with actual lab teams or to shadow clinical groups to get a better sense of who we are as professionals. Most of us are rather normal, with contemporary (but practical) tastes in clothing. We are capable of making interesting, intelligent conversation about topics beyond science and medicine. Please start portraying us that way.