A Short Treatise on the Psychological Impact of Science upon the Layman
By Professor Harvey Wangenstein, Electrodyne Engineer
August 31, 1884
In my Travels across this nation and abroad, it has been my custom to offer access to the fruits of my Research to the residents of the towns I visit. Though oftentimes I sell these creations to the townspeople, occasionally I find both the town and myself short of funds and resort to bartering them for room and board or needed supplies. In these situations, I have often noticed an overwhelmingly positive reaction to my offerings of laborsaving machines and concoctions. People, particularly those in agrarian towns, seem more than willing to accept my claims about the Wonders of Science and their potential benefits for the Common Man.
While this did facilitate my journeys, especially through the States and Territories of the West, it also piqued my curiosity about the reason for this phenomenon. What I found was both personally and professionally fascinating, as well as being more than a little disturbing. It seems that, while the layman is quite willing to take up and use helpful inventions in their everyday lives, they remain unable to discern the difference between true Science and the Humbuggery imposed upon them by so-called ‘snake-oil salesmen’. Along with lightening their pocketbook and possibly endangering their health, such deceptions serve to poison the minds of their victims against legitimate Scientific Advances. The fear and anger brought about by these flimflam men slows the development and spread of genuine discoveries and makes life more hazardous for those Scientists willing to go into the field to share their work with the masses. I myself have been threatened numerous times by townspeople angry at having been cheated out of their hard-earned money by a recently visiting snake-oil salesman. Such is one of the risks of delivering Science to the Common Man.
Most interesting was the fact that while the townspeople were angry (ostensibly at Science, itself), their anger did not prevent them from believing in the function of my own devices altogether. In fact, once I began noticing this consistent pattern in their behavior, I was able to use it for my own personal defense. Just two months ago, I drove my wagon into a small Western town that I will be good enough not to name. Upon stopping in front of a livery to arrange for the care of my horses, I was accosted by a dozen of the local residents. I was then promised grievous bodily harm for the simple mistake of riding into a town that recently was visited by a snake-oil salesman, one who took the townspeople for several thousands of dollars. I quickly explained my purpose and credentials to the mob, to no effect. They were unable to discern any difference between the “good Doctor Benson”, who had so recently cheated them out of their money, and myself. When I could see several more men approaching with a rope, I decided the time had come to act. Keeping my new findings firmly in mind, I reached down to my side and drew an odd device on them. It was designed to look similar to a pistol, with a large acoustic cone at the front. I warned the growing crowd that what I held was my newly invented ‘Liquefying Ray’, which could melt a man down into a mere puddle in seconds. I am not normally a man prone to violence, but at this point I was in fear for my life. The crowd stopped as one, and I could hear the sound of nervous whispers moving through them. I hoped that this would defuse the situation long enough for me to escape with my wagon. A night of camping several miles out of town beats a lynching any day.
Unfortunately, a few of the toughs in the mob decided I was bluffing and began advancing again. And so, I was forced to fire upon the crowd. Upon feeling the beginning of the ray’s effects, the mob quickly became a jumble of screams as its members ran (or in some cases, staggered) away. While everyone was otherwise occupied, I snapped the reins and rode off into the approaching night. As I rode, I made a mental note to return, incognito, and assess the damage done to this town’s opinion of those in the Scientific Community and of Science, itself. The ‘liquefying ray’ was, in fact, nothing more than an electric charge applied to a piezoelectric crystal cut to produce particular, sub-audible vibrations. These vibrations quickly produced instances of disorientation, stomach upset, loss of bowel control and vomiting in the crowd. The mob participants could only associate these effects with those of my threatened ‘liquefying ray’ and assume I was intent upon melting them all. While I regret having deceived these people further than had already been done, the incident cemented in my mind the utility of using an opponent’s lack of Scientific Knowledge against them in a case of emergency. This is not to say that such a liquefying ray would not be possible or useful. I am simply stating that, in the example above, I could have taken an eggbeater, added a few extra gears or other parts and called it a ‘death ray’, and they would have had little place to dispute me.
Of course, inspiring fear in the local populace is no goal for a respectable Scientist. By playing upon this same near-superstitious belief in Science, a well-intentioned Scientist can help people in need, as well. By reinforcing the idea that Science exists to help Mankind, hope can be restored to a drought-stricken farm community with the thought of moisture-condensing machines. With talk of how Science can be used to create fantastic (and hopefully non-lethal) weapons, members of a peasant uprising can be inspired to continue fighting the Good Fight, and so on.
Several weeks after my first, disastrous visit to the town, I did return, in the guise of a miner heading West to California. Upon my arrival, I began to take note of the state of Scientific Acceptance in the town. Several of the town’s senior residents remained skeptical about the veracity of anyone selling “newfangled contraptions”. On the whole, however, I found that after a cooling-off period, these townspeople were just as willing to allow Scientific Progress to improve their lives as before “Doctor Benson’s” visit. I soon left to return home, confident that even though charlatans may abound, they can no more impede the flow of Science to the Common Man than a thrown rock can hold back the ocean’s crashing tide.
Though relating an obvious victory for Science, this anecdote is intended to serve as a warning for Scientists everywhere to take care where, when and why they display their Works. While the townspeople above welcome Science, they are now also wary of it. Perhaps we as a Group should look over our Methods of Dissemination to see if they cannot be improved upon. The enthusiastic acceptance of Science is an admirable goal, but at what price, if Man is as quick to fear Science as embrace it?
(Second Edition.) Using Mind 2 and a speech or threat with a scientific basis, the acting Scientist can affect the emotional state of people who listen to him by playing upon their trust of and/or dependence upon technology. Because people believe that science can do anything, they’re more likely to believe you if your pitch, threat, speech, etc. incorporates scientific elements into it. Though largely situation-dependant, an array of Effects are possible: inspiring the rebellious peasants or restoring hope to the drought-stricken farmers, as in the paper’s examples, or even threatening a group of bullies that if they ever want to sire children, they’ll keep their hands off the Scientist and his Cryophoric Gun.
The Scientist doesn’t have to have the Device he speaks about. His audience just has to think that he does and that it’s as potent as he says it is. This Effect will decrease the difficulty of Intimidation or Leadership rolls by one per Success, with an added Success if the Scientist produces something reminiscent of the Science he mentions in his speech.
2001 Derek D. Bass
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