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Taming Dr Strangelove

Science is held in low esteem because scientists are portrayed as mad boffins, says our top biologist. Tom Wilkie investigates
It was not a scientist, but the actor Alec Guinness who defined the postwar image of British science. In the Ealing comedy The Man in the White Suit, Guinness portrays a chemist in an industrial laboratory of a grim northern mill town, who invents a revolutionary new fibre for making clothes that never wear out and never get dirty.

Guinness's character personified that peculiarly British creation, the "boffin". Although he was working in a corporate laboratory, he made his discovery essentially alone; although he was living in a working-class town, his vocabulary and his ideas were incomprehensible to those among whom he lived; and his discovery, for which his girlfriend says, "The whole world's going to bless you", was the object of unmitigated hate by both workers and capitalists, who saw in this technological innovation a threat to the ordered way in which they lived their lives.

The popular image is dangerously detached from reality, according to Steven Rose, professor of biology at the Open University. Delivering the second annual BBC-Open University lecture at the Museum of the Moving Image on London's South Bank recently, Professor Rose warned that in film and on television, "scientists tend to be presented as either deranged and evil, or absent-minded and creative but vulnerable to manipulation by forces outside themselves. They are nearly always elderly white males with, for sex interest, beautiful daughters or female side-kicks. These images of the mad, bad and incomprehensible reflect a widespread ambivalence concerning the power of science and its role in our lives."

Perversely, these images may stand in our way as we try to make sense of science and the power it has over our lives. If boffins are incomprehensible, they cannot be questioned and we have no option but to accept passively or reject angrily what comes out of the "small back room" (a phrase taken from the title of the novel by Nigel Balchin). The visual media, said Professor Rose, rarely portray the inner workings of science - the conflicts of interpretation, the ambiguity of experimental data and the limitations of technology. "By failing to do so, they permit science to appear authoritarian rather than authoritative, and leave it open to attack," he warned.

During the lecture he pointed out that the Channel 4 documentaries on A Mind to Crime being broadcast this week are a pre-eminent example of these deficiencies. Their thesis - that criminal behaviour is the result of biological damage and should be treated as if it were a medical condition - is not just scientifically controversial but strays beyond the boundaries of "science" (where technical terms and symbols are so precisely defined that there can be no doubt as to their meaning), into questions where it is difficult even to define the terms of the debate. Yet, with their detached voice-overs, the programmes convey a simplistic view that science has discovered "this is the way the world is".

Professor Rose's lecture concentrated on the visual portrayal of science, but his thesis holds good for other media. The image of the scientist in British popular culture is that of the lofty, often lonely, genius working against the odds, who triumphs over an indifferent or hostile society by force of intellect and character. This can be a melodramatic life-and-death scenario as in Neville Shute's novel, No Highway, which depicted the engineer as hero saving an aircraft from crashing. Novels depicting science as it really is are comparatively rare. CP Snow's The New Men and Arthur C Clarke's Glide Path are two examples. Perhaps significantly, both are what would now be called "faction" rather than works of pure imagination: Clarke's book is openly autobiographical and Snow's is based on the creation of the atomic bomb.

In biographical "fact", too, the lives of the scientists are portrayed as those of towering geniuses, detached from or at odds with their social environment. Part of the appeal of Einstein is that he was supposed to have done his work in isolation, while a clerk in the Zurich patent office. The other part of his appeal is the alleged incomprehensibility of his ideas (like The Man in the White Suit) which, none the less, led to technological innovations, such as the atomic bomb, which posed a threat to our ordered lives.

In the UK, this populist process of detaching scientists from their economic and social surroundings received political endorsement when it became known that Michael Faraday was Margaret Thatcher's favourite scientist. He was thought to embody precisely the qualities of enterprise and social mobility driven by hard work that her politics ostensibly promoted: he represented the triumph of the individual.

Yet, in the Seventies and Eighties, the "Edinburgh school" of science studies effectively demolished the pretence that science was anything other than a highly social enterprise. Most people would be willing to concede, on reflection, that polymer chemistry is performed by corporate laboratories and not mavericks in white suits, and that aerospace engineering is a highly collective enterprise. But the "strong programme" of sociology of science would have us believe that even scientific facts are social constructs, rather than objective discoveries. As the French sociologist of science Bruno Latour notes in Science in Action, science is one of the most social of all human activities. It is not the exercise of naive curiosity: it requires laboratory, assistants, money, journals in which to publish and conferences at which to confer.

The popular image has permeated even the way scientists themselves think about their work and its relationship to the rest of society. The Edinburgh school has provoked a backlash among British scientists, most recently in the books The Unnatural Nature of Science by Lewis Wolpert and The Trouble with Science by Robin Dunbar. Both eminent practitioners of science, they attempt to defend it from what they see as external attack and their defence is to try detaching science from its social context. Wolpert, in particular, emphasises its lack of social connection; science has not been responsible, he argues, for most of the medical advances that we believe have bettered our lives, nor can scientists be held responsible for the technology that stems from their discoveries.

Despite the popular image and despite the rearguard actions fought by Wolpert and Dunbar, science is changing. Pure, not-for-profit pursuit of knowledge for its own sake by gifted, creative individuals is becoming a thing of the past. In his book, Of One Mind: The Collectivisation of Science, the British physicist John Ziman illustrates the change in a personal vignette of his predecessor and his successor as professor of physics at Bristol University.

In 1954, Dr Ziman visited Nevill Mott (later to be a Nobel prizewinner): "What struck me was that he seemed so much at ease with himself. In some ways, his position in life was like that of an 18th-century nobleman." Professor Mott enjoyed "material security, social esteem, freedom from mundane tasks, and complete independence of thought, word and deed". But 40 years on, Professor John Enderby "occupies that same old, dark, panelled office and is just as committed to serving the public through the advancement of knowledge. But he is not free to perform this social duty in his own particular way, according to his own lights. He is expected to behave like a middle manager in an industrial firm, reporting regularly to the chief executive officer of the university. He has been collectivised."

The change has been imperceptible, but it is real and irreversible. Something precious is being lost as Wolpert and Dunbar, perhaps subliminally, have realised. By subscribing to the popular image of the boffin, the media have failed to report that change and have missed one of the most important developments in modern Western society.