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From alchemy to artificial intelligence: stereotypes of the scientist in Western literature

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-19, 12:28 authored by Roslynn HaynesRoslynn Haynes
Throughout Western culture, the master narrative of the scientist is of an evil and dangerous man. This simplification underlying contemporary mythology of knowledge arises from fear of the power and change that science entails, leaving many people feeling confused and disempowered. It reemerges in the media, most often under the name of “Frankenstein,” with any new discovery that appears to threaten social equilibrium. This is not a new phenomenon. From medieval stories about alchemists to films about computer hackers, good scientists are in the minority, and the number of recurring stereotypes is small. Seven are identified: the evil alchemist; the noble scientist as hero or savior of society; the foolish scientist, whether the gullible, seventeenthcentury virtuoso or the absent-minded professor; the inhuman researcher of romanticism; the scientist as adventurer, transcending boundaries of space and time; the mad, bad, dangerous scientist, unscrupulous in the exercise of power; and the helpless scientist, unable to control the outcome of his or her work. These archetypes offer writers and filmmakers a convenient shorthand, a matrix in which to slot contemporary scientists and their projects, simplifying the issues. Like all myths, they appear simple but represent complex ideas and suppressed fears, which transcend time, place, and race.


Publication title

Public Understanding of Science








School of Humanities


Sage Publications Ltd.

Place of publication

United Kingdom

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© SAGE Publications

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  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Expanding knowledge in language, communication and culture

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