As one of the best known science narratives about the consequences of creating life, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) is an enduring tale that people know and understand with an almost instinctive familiarity. It has become a myth reflecting people’s ambivalent feelings about emerging science: they are curious about science, but they are also afraid of what science can do to them. In this essay, we argue that the Frankenstein myth has evolved into a stigma attached to scientists that focalizes the public’s as well as the scientific community’s negative reactions towards certain sciences and scientific practices. This stigma produces ambivalent reactions towards scientific artifacts and it leads to negative connotations because it implies that some sciences are dangerous and harmful. We argue that understanding the Frankenstein stigma can empower scientists by helping them revisit their own biases as well as responding effectively to people’s expectations for, and attitudes towards, scientists and scientific artifacts. Debunking the Frankenstein stigma could also allow scientists to reshape their professional identities so they can better show the public what ethical and moral values guide their research enterprises.
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The authors wish to make clear that we do not, in fact, subscribe to this reading of the narrative. We see Shelley’s novel as a much more nuanced exploration of scientific creativity and responsibility. Nevertheless, the popular conception of Frankenstein, and many of its adaptations, interpret it as a cautionary tale.
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We would like to thank Phil Weaver-Stoesz, the editors and the anonymous reviewers at Science and Engineering Ethics for their guidance and thoughtful comments regarding our work. We also would like to gratefully acknowledge the support of the Center for Science and the Imagination; and King Coffee in Tempe, Arizona.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1516684.
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Nagy, P., Wylie, R., Eschrich, J. et al. Why Frankenstein is a Stigma Among Scientists. Sci Eng Ethics 24, 1143–1159 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-017-9936-9
- Science communication
- Science narratives