Americans have a love/hate relationship with science and scientists and this often spills over into pop culture representations.
The above picture is from Frankenstein (1931) and shows one of the pivotal moments in the film. Henry (mysteriously changed from Victor) Frankenstein has just realized the monster lives. “It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive” he screams hysterically. It’s a scene that has been parodied hundreds of times and has become synonymous with the with definitions of the mad scientist. Unfotunately, it overshadows the otherwise fine performance by Colin Clive. A better scene occurs a lillte later when he is defending his creation to Dr. Waldman (played by Edward Van Sloan – who also played Van Helsing in Dracula and the underated Dracula’s Daughter) and bragging about the creatures brain. “But the brain stolen from my lab was that of a criminal…” says Dr. Waldman and you can see the cognitive dissonance created by this statement vividly written in Henry’s eyes. You can also see the exact moment when Henry’s projections of the monster win out over the implications contained in Dr. Waldman’s – true – statement and Henry proceeds to rationalize things as a way of innoculating himself further from the truth.
An equally interesting portrayal of a scientist – this time an amateur astronomer – occurs in the 1953 film it Came From Outer Space.
The screenplay was written by Ray Bradury and contains all the great Bradbury touches you would expect. The film stars Richard Carlson as John Putnum an amateur astronomer who watches what he thinks is an meteor crash to earth. As he investigates further and just as he discovers that the “meteor” is actually a spaceship a cave in buries it. A large part of the film is devoted to trying to convince the authorities that it was a spaceship and not a meteor. In the meantime he keeps investigating because weird events are happening in the nearby town. About the time he has the authorities convinced he also discovers that the spaceship crash landed and the aliens just need a little time to repair their ship so they can be on their way. Stereotypically, the townspeople want to destroy the aliens (in much the same way the Mitteleuropeans destroy the creature in Frankenstein). Unlike Henry Frankinstein, however, Carlson’s character is not content to let preconceived notions dictate his actions and he faces the truth (and saves the aliens).
I am reminded of all this because I just received Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science:
Which discusses the same issues (albeit not in the context of horror movies). By the same issues I mean the choices presented to both Henry Frankenstein and John Putnum – to act on the truth rather than preconceived notions. The republicans were presented with the same choice and much like Henry Frankenstein they opted for their own idealized vision of the world. Much like Henry Frankenstein they have loosened a monster upon the United States, one that will do just as much damage and will be just as hard to get rid of. I’m currently on chapter Six of Moony’s book and will have more to say on it when I have finished it (although I will try not to make any monster movie analogies).
Added Later: Lest you think there has been a lull or a cease fire consider the following:
The Bush administration has declared itself immune from whistleblower protections for federal workers under the Clean Water Act, according to legal documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result of an opinion issued by a unit within the Office of the Attorney General, federal workers will have little protection from official retaliation for reporting water pollution enforcement breakdowns, manipulations of science or cleanup failures.
Citing an “unpublished opinion of the [Attorney General's] Office of Legal Counsel,” the Secretary of Labor’s Administrative Review Board has ruled federal employees may no longer pursue whistleblower claims under the Clean Water Act. The opinion invoked the ancient doctrine of sovereign immunity which is based on the old English legal maxim that “The King Can Do No Wrong.” It is an absolute defense to any legal action unless the “sovereign” consents to be sued.
The opinion and the ruling reverse nearly two decades of precedent. Approximately 170,000 federal employees working within environmental agencies are affected by the loss of whistleblower rights.
PEER has more:
In a highly unusual move, the Secretary of Labor’s Administrative Review Board on its own motion invited EPA to raise a sovereign immunity defense against Erickson’s attempts to enforce her earlier legal victories over the agency. This invitation comes after many EPA employees over the past decade have successfully used the whistleblower provisions of the eight major federal environmental laws to reverse political interference in pollution cases. In virtually all these cases, the sovereign immunity defense had become a dead issue. Now Labor Secretary Elaine Chao is signaling that this obscure, moribund legal argument will suddenly be looked upon with favor.