Young Frankenstein – cautionary tale or valuable lesson
A Sci-Screen event provided a light-hearted backdrop for Centre members to engage the audience of Edinburgh Skeptics in a more serious dialogue about science, its representation and its communication. And what could have been more appropriate than the hilarious ‘Young Frankenstein’ (starring Gene Wilder) in what is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.
Before the screening, Marie-Anne Robertson, Science Communications Manager for the School of Biological Sciences and Dr Jane Calvert of SynthSys and Science, Technology and Innovation Studies, provided an introduction to media monsters and the necessity for human connectivity respectively.
Throughout the media, literature and film, scientists fall into wearingly familiar stereotypes. Whether it is the hapless scientist losing control of their discovery or the mad scientist hell-bent on global domination – they all tell a familiar tale, and reveal a very important lesson.
In Young Frankenstein an angry mob of villagers circle Dr Frankenstein’s castle; they are not only furious about the creation of the monster but also deeply suspicious of the doctor’s motives.
But look closely and you see this is not a fear of science itself. What really troubles the villagers is power. When ordinary people feel they have little control over new breakthroughs, or the people who may exploit them, alarm bells start ringing. If history has taught us anything, then it is that shrinking away from the debate does us no good.
The fallout from major media scandals and contentious issues, such as GM foods and the MMR vaccine, had profound and far-reaching consequences on policy and public attitudes. It was a wakeup call that shook all those responsible for communicating science. Many lessons have been learnt on the importance of two-way communication.
New approaches like synthetic biology require not only skill in explaining the science but willingness to openly tackle concerns about power. Who gets to decide how to use the technology, who regulates it, who gets to exploit it? This is not only the job of journalists, press officers and scientists but also everyone who is involved in funding, regulating, buying and using the products of science. Discussion about the regulation and use of new technologies, including the practical, ethical and moral issues, is as important as communicating the basic science itself.
As Dr Frankenstein learnt, his creation wasn’t the problem, it was his neglect and failure to take responsibility for his creation and the unintended damage that it caused.
The Frankenstein story has perhaps become a slightly lazy stand-in to refer to the human manipulation of living things. It is interesting to think about the differences between what synthetic biologists do and Frankenstein’s creation. While synthetic biologists tend to work at the level of the DNA within a cell, Frankenstein not only created a multi-cellular organism, he created a human.
This draws our attention to the difference between an isolated cell in laboratory and a human being. Importantly, a human being is born into a community, and needs to be protected and nurtured and loved in order to flourish. Frankenstein’s monster, in contrast, was neglected and reviled.
What Mary Shelley’s novel and its cinematic interpretations show is that to be human is to be connected, to be part of a society. This makes the famous story much more than just a cautionary tale about the limits of science.
About Sci Screen
Sci Screen is organised by the Edinburgh branch of the British Science Association in collaboration with Edinburgh Skeptics. Movies are introduced with a short talk highlighting the links to a scientific topic followed after the screening by an open debate.