The Lawnmower Man (1992)

Last modified: November 8, 2018

In the movie The Lawnmower man a scientist performs experiments involving intelligence enhancing drugs and virtual reality on monkeys. When the head of the research lab starts putting pressure on the scientist to deliver research results and start the next phase of the research, that is the implementation on human beings, even though more research is needed to safely take such radical steps, the scientist moves along. An important factor heir in for the scientist is the desire for scientific recognition. The scientist starts conducting a research with simple-minded gardener, with the goal to improve his intelligence. As the gardener turn brilliant and in extension turn creasy, the scientist start losing control over his lifework experiment.

Relevance

This movie shows the moral dilemma of pursuing one’s dream of a scientific breakthrough and on the other hand the constriction of moral boundaries on have to be respected in scientific research. Apart from this dilemma the movie also illustrates how a scientist can become intertwined in power structures between a funder, the head of a department. A situation is created in which the scientist is pushed to search for a middle ground between what the external parties expects from the research, and what the scientist himself tries to discover. Furthermore, the movie also covers the big issue of where the moral boundaries concerning scientific research should be drawn, especially regarding research with human subjects.

This movie is included in the Fiction movies for RCR education.

Key words: Publication bias / Reproducibility
Medium: This film is available on DVD
Fragments: 5

Horror/Science Fiction / playing time: 103 min.
Internet Movie Database (IMDb) about this movie: IMDb

Content and context

In the movie ‘The Lawnmower Man’, a scientist performs experiments involving intelligence enhancing drugs and virtual reality on monkeys. When the director of the research lab starts pressuring the scientist to deliver research results they prematurely start the next phase of the research. The next phase includes the implementation of intelligence enhancing drugs and virtual reality on human beings. This is a quite radical step to take prematurely. An important factor for the scientist to follow through is the desire for scientific recognition. The scientist starts conducting a research with simple-minded gardener, with the goal to improve his intelligence. He puts the gardener on an extensive brain-training schedule that consists of a combination of deep brain stimulation, a virtual reality-learning environment and the injection of a serum. Quickly the gardener becomes more and more intelligent. But at a certain point the gardener exceeds the intelligence of the scientist and starts having his own ideas on how and for what reason the research should be conducted. As the gardener turns brilliant and in extension turns creasy, the scientist start losing control over his experiment.
Fragments
5 fragments were chosen to accompany educational session on this film or with this film. They each have their own ethics section with the underlying ethical backgrounds.

Fragment 1: [07:20 – 08:00]

The fragment shows the moment where the chimpanzee that the experiments were performed on dies. This chimp congenital evolvements where key in the scientific success of the professor. Now that the chimpanzee is dead, the professor is put under a lot of pressure and gets stressed out. The fragment is about the pressure on the scientist by his financial supporters that want to see results. It is also the point where the scientist thinks of changing the experiment to a more dangerous but also scientifically more interesting protocol.
Ethics of fragment 1

It is especially this recital that is interesting, for it is clearly a morally wrong step to experiment with human subject in this manner. But because the scientist knowingly chooses to do it anyway, mostly because of external pressure, this can be source for interesting discussion on research integrity. For in less fictional or extreme examples, one could for example, ask oneself to what extend a researcher should be influenced by his funder while conducting research.

Fragment 2: [20:40 – 25:00]

This fragment gives a situation in which a scientist knowingly takes advantage of a person’s inability in order to succeed or achieve a certain research goal. The gardener in this fragment does not understand what is happening to him; it is clear from the fragment that he just wants to play a game. Gaining intelligence while doing so sounds good to him.
Ethics of fragment 2

The situation in this fragment can be found in today’s scientific practices. A good example of this is phase-1 oncology experiments. Subjects participating in the experiment willingly participate while the true nature of the experiments is not clear to them. For this reason, the fragment can be used for educational purposes to clarify the importance of full information disclosure to subjects, and also for how to not misuse the lack of intellectual competence for the sake of an experiment.

Fragment 3: [41:50 – 42:20]

This fragment is about publishing just obtained test results. The researcher doesn’t want to publish out of fear that his ‘intellectual property’ will be misunderstood, misinterpreted or simply will be used by others. To do more research on the effects en results he has discovered, the researcher wants to keep the results for himself for a little longer.
Ethics of fragment 3

This is a hot topic currently, for there is a lot of discussion about creating legislation for open access to all research results. In this way, everyone can use all knowledge acquired in research. This in turn will stimulate scientific progress. Off course there is also an opposing force from people saying that funders and research labs are the ones that should decide to share their data, for they are the ones who did the work or put their money into the research projects. This fragment can be used as an example of a situation where a scientist chooses not to share his data and it illustrates the possible consequences of this lack of transparency. If the data was shared and made public, an external party would have been able to call a halt to this research on moral grounds.

Fragment 4: [53:40 – 54:00]

This fragment complements the previous one. The scientist wants to keep the information for himself a little longer, as he believes that is the best thing to do at that moment. At this point, because of scientific ambition, the researcher miscalculates himself. For this was his chance to admit that the experiment was getting out of hand and that external supervision was needed.

Ethics of fragment 4

This development (not disclosing the experiment results) shows the loss or lack of reflection on his research practices. In this phase the researcher is only thinking of his scientific goal. It is for this reason that this fragment can be used to show the importance of research transparency, communication between different parties and the sharing of research results.

Fragment 5: [45:30 – 46:08]

This fragment shows the top-down organisation of the scientific community. It again illustrates the possible pressure from the financial investors on a researcher that has to ‘produce’ certain results that they want to see.
Ethics of fragemnt 5

The scientists are forced to cross moral boundaries to realise the goals set forth by the investors. This fragment shows the corrupting force that funders can have on research groups that are dependent on investors for their financial support. Also, it illustrates how a scientist can become intertwined in power structures between a funder, the head of a department and himself. Often this support is not only given for the sake of scientific progress, but because of potential economical profit that can be derived from it. The movie shows a situation in which the scientist is pushed to search for a middle ground between what the external party expects from the research and what the scientist tries to discover.

Realism

When it was recorded, this movie was already seen as science fiction, but I have to conclude, unfortunately, that even today most of the technological possibilities displayed in the movie seem impossible; therefore, the movie is very unrealistic. Despite the latter, the movie is suitable as source of moral thought experiments. The fragments show a variety of situates that, even though they are not realistic, can be very useful in sessions on research integrity in general and the specific research integrity topics mentioned in the fragments discussed above.

Suggested use for education

The deduced fragments in this analysis of the movie (not the storyline in general) can be interesting for education on research integrity. The fragments would require a comprehensive introduction though if one wants to implement them into a lecture, for they are quite unrealistic most of the time. Despite the latter, the movie can be quite suitable to explain, the simpler dilemmas a scientist can face during their research in a playful way. You could pose the following questions after showing the fragments: ‘what extend is research in improving the health of a human being legitimated?’ and ‘can the improvement of intelligence, if one is clearly lacking it, ever be morally acceptable? And if so, to what level?’ Such questions can be stimulating for BA or MA students to challenge them to critically reflect upon their possible future as scientist.

Ending

The lawnmower man logs himself on to the worldwide data network and by doing so, uploads or connects his mind to this digital system. In theory that could give him complete control over all digital communication, and all electronic devices. Luckily the scientist is just in time to blow-up the entire lab to prevent him from doing so.

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