Press and Pop Culture

Who Really Needs Scientific Discoveries and Science Heroes?

The scientific hero has attracted considerable attention lately, prompted it seems by Dr. Roger Highfield’s upcoming Heroes of Science lecture at the Royal Society. Dr. Highfield wants to expand the pantheon of heroes of science:

Science still needs their illuminating stories to engage with the public, even if that does distort the depiction of the way real science is done. Not only should we reinstate the heroes of science, we need other kinds too – heroes that are not even made of flesh and blood.

I am not entirely sure what he means by that last bit about “heroes that are not even made of flesh and blood.”

In No More Heroes Anymore Thony takes a slightly diffeerent position. Rather than revere these people as heroes, he wants to put flesh and blood back on their bones, to remind us of their arrogance and petty bickering, to portray them as, well, humans.

Responding to Thony’s post, Heroes for the Laity raises an interesting question about the relationship between the individual and the collective:

…the deepest illusion of the scientists is that science is something that individual scientists do and scientific knowledge is something that individual scientists can possess.

Dr. Athene Donald nicely pursues this question of the individual vs. community of scientific practitioners in How many scientists does it take to make a discovery? and further in Heroic Genius or a Distraction from Reality. Dr. Donald argues that regardless of whether or not science ever was produced by the lone genius, the hero figure, today science is a collective endeavor that is unlikely to produce heroes because of both the distributed way scientific knowledge is produced and, to my mind much more interesting issue, the way scientific knowledge is ratified.

It is precisely this process of ratification that, to my mind, suggests the real problem with the science hero model. Whereas Dr. Donald wants to confine the hero to the past—“The heroic genius of popular imagination needs to be consigned to where it belongs, history.”—I would argue that even in the past the lone genius is a fiction. Not because individuals don’t and didn’t do considerable work but because individuals don’t get to decide when a knowledge claim is valid. Individuals don’t get to ratify scientific knowledge. Validating or invalidating a scientific claim is a process. Only after the fact can the community of practitioners—scientists—declare some claim to be valid or invalid, to identify the claim as trivial, as important, as a discovery, or as an error.

Why does the hero continue to hold such power over our imagination—and here I don’t think practicing scientists are any more or less immune to hero worship? If we take Simon Schaffer’s arguments seriously, the figure of the hero along with the importance of discovery developed hand in hand with the evolving disciplinary nature of science in the early 19th century (see Simon Schaffer, “Discoveries and the End of Natural Philosophy,” Social Studies of Science 16 (1986): 387–420. See Will Thomas’s reflections on this article). Both discoveries and heroes arise from the restrospecive judgement of the discoverer’s community and serves to assert and validate a set of practices and values (see also Simon Schaffer, “Making up Discovery,” in Dimensions of Creativity, ed. Margaret A. Boden (Boston: MIT Press, 1994), 13–51). In other words, heroes and discoveries construct a scientific canon. The canon helps create and maintain identity by selecting a set of shared cultural and intellectual values and establishing markers of inclusion and exclusion. Epistemic consensus—what constitutes a discovery and who is a hero—derives from membership in this community of like-minded practitioners.

Maybe the heroes of science are not for the laity but for the scientists.

In this context it might be interesting to think about two related issues:

  • Just before Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions appeared he published a short article in Science: Thomas Kuhn, “Historical Structure of Scientific Discovery,” Science 136, no. 3518 (1962): 760–64. In that article he remarked that a scientific discovery was the closest thing science had to a property claim.
  • How does Foucault’s “author function” in the construction of literary canons relate to what I will call the “hero function” in the construction of scientific canons.

3 replies on “Who Really Needs Scientific Discoveries and Science Heroes?”

I wrote Heroes for the Laity, but Thony supplied the title. The title is a bit misleading because the laity I spoke about in the body of the piece are not the non scientific public but the mass of working scientists. There are individual scientists who have a reflective understanding of what they’re doing, but they are a distinct minority. My point, which you seem to agree with, is that the folk version of the history of science. including the cult of the hero, is a feature of the sciences themselves, sociologically considered. There are scientific folk.

You cite a Kuhn paper in which he argues that discovery is “the closest thing science has to a property claim.” I very much second this idea, which doesn’t strike me much of a reach. If you look at the concept of property historically, ownership of land and other goods has usually come down to the socially recognized right of the owner to dispose of the property. It’s mine if I can bequeath, sell, or give it away. Scientific property is not so different except that a scientific result is mine not because I can dispose of it but because I do dispose of it away, i.e. publish it. Until I give it away, it isn’t mine. Note that establishing priority is not only motivationally crucial to scientists but has a cash value in the material economy since establishing discovery creates patent rights.

Scientific property is also analogous to other forms of property in that the concept of ownership creates the illusion that individuals rather than societies make things or knowledge. The illusion has its uses—its hard to imagine either the economy or science working without something like property or attribution—but maybe it’s permissible not to be mystified by it, at least in the privacy of lightly travelled websites.