The problem these days is not so much “mad scientists” as people who are mad at science.
Where did the Mad Scientist come from? Arguably it was Mary Shelley’s horror novel Frankenstein, published in 1818. Science fiction classics like Jules Verne’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) kept up the theme and the “Golden Age” of science fiction provided many more examples.
In these novels, scientists either tampered with things better left alone or succumbed to a lust for power. Death rays and the precursors of gene splicing abounded. The outcome was mostly dreadful, except for those few gallant hero scientists who managed to save Earth from a deadly plague/alien/monster/giant something/tomato.
While the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s were the heyday of mad scientists in fiction, they also constituted a time when real scientists were heroes. The atomic bond ended WWII in the Pacific. Polio was conquered. The U.S. space program began. (So did the “Space Race,” what with the Soviets and their Sputnik.)
Back then, scientists were revered.
Later on, not so much.
There was the conflict between science and religion, way back before Mary Shelley warned us about “playing God.” Galileo and Kepler removed us from our God-given place in the center of the universe, and Darwin implied that we were just another animal. The Earth suddenly became billions of years old, circling a mediocre star.
Then there was fallout, both literal and figurative, from the atomic bomb. Medical science gave us thalidomide. NASA spent billions of dollars, with no guaranteed payoff. Science didn’t seem like such a good deal after all.
And that led to changes in the general public’s attitude toward science.
By the ’60s. medicine was under fire from those who found Eastern philosophy and natural healing just as good, or better. Physicists were condemned for the same atomic bomb for which they had been lauded. (Even Einstein took a hit over that.)
And there’s some truth to the complaints. Many scientists believed that math, physics, and chemistry were all. If it didn’t have numbers attached to it, forget it. Psychology, sociology, anthropology, and most other -ologies were “soft sciences,” barely sciences at all. Hard sciences ruled. Special relativity and moral relativity butted heads.
Slowly, the ground under science had shifted. Now science was the enemy, the domain of elitists and narcissists and people who felt they were entitled by their intellect to run the world.
Of course, the stereotypes from early science fiction had nothing to do with that.
But the Average Man (and Woman) had a bone, or at least a fossil, to pick with science and scientists. Again, science was denying what people believed.
People believed in the efficacy of non-Western medicine, or at least the non-efficacy of Western medicine. Science believed in genetics and stem cells and cloning.
People believed in souls and the spiritual realm. Scientists believed in the measurable.
People believed in religion. Science believed in science.
You can see where this is heading — right back to the days when science meant slime monsters and scary aliens and death rays. Because what, after all, is the distance between growing human organs and creating life in the lab, between a cloned sheep and a half-man-half-fly, between a laser-guided missile and a death ray?
And many scientists are arrogant, dismissive of popular opinion, and unwilling to engage in dialogue with opposing viewpoints. “Because I said so,” seems to be enough for them.
Unfortunately, “because I said so” seems to be enough for the general populace as well. (Or “because the Bible, or David Avocado Wolfe, or Jenny McCarthy said so.”)
Unfortunately, everyone is shouting and no one is listening.
Personally, I am a sometimes science geek as well as a word nerd, thanks to high school chemistry and physics, college astronomy, and lots of reading. I don’t think science knows it all, and it’s a long way from figuring it all out. I also think that psychology and spirituality and art have a lot to teach us about the human condition and our place in the universe.
If only we didn’t have all these mad scientists and people mad at scientists mucking things up.