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The “scientist as hero” narrative

We’ve talked about the problems with the scientist-as-hero paradigm; see “Narrative #1” discussed here.

And, more recently, we’ve considered how this narrative has been clouding people’s thinking regarding the coronavirus; see here and here. That latter example is particularly bad because it involved a reporter with an undisclosed conflict of interest. But the scientist-as-hero narrative is a problem even when no lying or corruption is involved.

Recently Sander Greenland pointed us to a couple of interesting opinion pieces picking at this issue.

Stuart Ritchie, “There should never be heroes in science”:

Science, the cliché goes, is self-correcting. This is true in two senses – one lofty, one more mundane. The high-minded one is about the principle of science: the idea that we’re constantly updating our knowledge, finding out how our previous theories were wrong, and stumbling — sometimes only after a fashion — towards the truth. The second is that, for science to work, individual scientists need to do the grinding, boring work of correcting other scientists’ mistakes. . . . those self-critical, self-correcting principles of science simply don’t allow for hero-worship. Even the strongest critics of science need themselves to be criticised; those who raise the biggest questions about the way we do research need themselves to be questioned. Healthy science needs a whole community of sceptics, all constantly arguing with one another — and it helps if they’re willing to admit their own mistakes.

Hilda Bastian, “Science Heroes and Disillusion”:

“Never have heroes” – I’ve heard some version of that a lot in the last couple of months . . . But I think there can be, and indeed are, [evidence-based medicine] and science heroes. . . . it’s prosocial behavior, that’s altruistic, struggling against odds, and despite serious risks to the individual. It’s not hard to think of scientists, and healthcare providers struggling to ensure care is evidence-based, who fit that bill and are totally worthy of the label, hero. . . .

To me, the moral of these stories isn’t to not have heroes. It’s to learn a few things: to pick your heroes more carefully; to be wary of the champions of causes as well as anyone who is “against” something on the regular; to watch carefully how people respond to their critics; and to be on guard against the effects of charisma. And if you have a hero, don’t give their science a free pass.

Heroism is often in the interaction

Heroism is often in the interaction of the hero and the hero-worshipper. Some acts are flat-out heroic—rescuing someone from a burning building, etc.—and some people live exemplary lives, but, in general, if I say that somebody’s my hero, I’m saying that person is my hero, that his or her actions speak to me or inspire me in some way. Much of the heroism is in the feelings it inspires by others, kind of like induction (in the electrical sense, not the statistical or philosophical sense).

I think it’s fine to celebrate the great contributions of our scientific colleagues and predecessors. But, from my understanding of scientific practice (from my reading and my lived experience), I feel like the scientist-as-hero narrative is a distortion. People do come up with good ideas entirely on their own sometimes, but even then these ideas exist within a fabric of concepts, methods, and examples.

I try to live these principles when promoting my own work. Most of my research is collaborative, and I think it’s important to share credit. When people give me credit for things I did not do, I try to clear up the misunderstanding.

When Psychology Today wanted to write a story about my “roles as a skeptic and voice of scientific reform, as a conveyer of statistical concepts, and as a political scientist,” I replied:

It shouldn’t be about me—it shouldn’t be about personalities more generally, as one of the points of the scientific reform movement is that what is important is the data and scientific ideas are more important than individual careers. So I was thinking maybe instead of just profiling me, you could profile a group of people . . .

And they followed my suggestion! Their article, A Revolution Is Happening in Psychology, Here’s How It’s Playing Out, featured four people, not just one.

P.S. Tonks (pictured above, from Megan Higgs) has no use for heroes, but could use some food right now.

29 Comments

  1. Dave C. says:

    Christopher Columbus may be (falsely) an example of this. Many of us were taught as children that Columbus was the person who believed that the earth was round, and set out to prove it against the ignorance of the “flat earthers.”

  2. Keith O'Rourke says:

    OK, 4 is not the loneliest number since the number 1, but from my scanning, it looks more like the light just being moved from Superman to the Fantastic Four.

  3. RoyT says:

    Oscar Kempthorne wrote the same thoughts about hero worshipping many years ago. He had worked under R.A. Fisher and had been awed by his genius. But he felt it was absolutely necessary to criticize and challenge Fisher on many of his opinions. It was a necessary thing in science. Remains true today.

  4. oncodoc says:

    In fact, a lot of important stuff in medicine is done by methodical, painstaking work that makes a poor dramatic narrative. Imagine a movie about someone who is inattentive to fashion and not particularly attractive who goes to work everyday and rechecks all data three times. Boring. The Dallas Buyers’ Club movie focused on a rebel outsider who in actual fact produced no treatments while distancing itself from the white coated guy who insisted on clinical trials. I was angered by that but recognized that drama has different needs than reality. We should all beware of the heroic myth and not let it motivate us. Telemachus kept the family together while Odysseus was gallivanting about, but Odysseus gets all the headlines.

  5. To do justice to this topic would require an even more frank discussion and an exploration of the sociology of expertise itself. As some academics do admit, jealousies and rivalries do play out in universities. These more typically have been hidden from undergraduate students. Some graduate students are more privy to these departmental and administration dynamics. The stories they tell are worthy of a screenplay. On social media, these dynamics are perhaps more transparent.

    I think it is rare for a thinker to admit he or she harbors jealousies or engages in competitive behaviors.

    Having said all that, I think my friends at least found the social media dynamics hilarious. So there is some redeeming in the exchanges. I am not so hep on cliquish behaviors tho. As Pierre Bourdieu noted these behaviors do disrupt the quality of insights. Of course he was referring to journalism.

    • Steve says:

      Andrew:

      I am surprised that as a statistician you don’t give heroes a statistical explanation. It’s all selection bias. Everyone is working to solve some problem. Someone solves it. He or she is the hero, but it is just random luck. She got to the solution first. Someone had to be first. It so happens that many “break throughs” in science were discovered almost simultaneously by another researcher: the Calculus, Evolution etc. Then, a bunch of scientists continue to do incremental work that isn’t viewed as ground breaking because no one views the research as likely to produce surprising results. Why again, selection bias? The results haven’t produced surprising results. Then, suddenly researchers find results that can’t be explained easily and the problems get the attention of more people in science and are thought of as very difficult. People rush to find the answer, and someone is the first to find it because someone has to be the first, and again we have another genius. But, all along the progress was just incremental.

      Another way to put it, is that I can’t tell the story of every soldier conduct in every battle. So, selection bias, and all of a sudden there are heroes. Heroes are a way of summarizing history, but we lose information when we do.

  6. Uh oh, my comment did not show up, Andrew.

  7. The more interesting topic is one that Frank Von Hippel addresses in his excellent book on the role of the Citizen-Scientist. The efforts made to marginalize scientists who stray from the mainstream analysis.

  8. To add: I don’t see so much downside in admiring some scientists for their contributions to truth and the public good.

    My friends saw that on social media, it’s experts knocking each other was far more evident than hero worship. Would any of you esteemed scientists get bent out of shape if we complimented you profusely? Hell no.

  9. I was surprised to read that Feynman treated some poorly. Personality does play into it b/c Feynman was very charismatic in addition to being smart. What I mean to suggest that some scientists have charisma; therefore, they garner more followers. Inevitably if the followers graduate to being worshippers, then that can be a problem.

    I’ve known exceedingly gifted thinkers who were humble or egotistical in varying degrees. They were not charismatic as such. So there was more of a balance in students’ attitude toward the gifted thinker.

  10. paul alper says:

    Andrew wrote:

    “And they followed my suggestion! Their article, A Revolution Is Happening in Psychology, Here’s How It’s Playing Out, featured four people, not just one.”

    Three of the four revolutionary people were pictured but Andrew was not. Should we attribute this to modesty, powerful enemies or poor copy editing?

    • Andrew says:

      Paul:

      I told them I prefer no picture because I don’t like the scientist-as-hero paradigm.

      • paul alper says:

        Following the lead in the Spanish language where maledom should not be the default, Andrew should have said,

        “I told them I prefer no picture because I don’t like the scientist-as-heroX paradigm.”

        • It took me a while to even figure out what you were talking about… I think I’ve used the word Heroine approximately zero times in my whole life.The fact is Hero is a gender neutral term to me. If a lady friend fixed a difficult problem for me I would say “You’re my hero” and would never think twice about it. I would never ever say “You’re my heroine” because almost everyone I know would think immediately I was making a hard core drug reference and would be ultra confused… not to mention that I would just never think to say it. Language has changed IMHO.

          • pa says:

            Daniel Lakeland writes:

            “It took me a while to even figure out what you were talking about…”

            Gender neutrality is an in-topic to some people and in some languages. Spanish and French in particular. Native English speakers used to have to painfully learn endings in those languages and so this movement to neutrality is a blessing to them.

          • paul alper says:

            Daniel Lakeland says:

            “It took me a while to even figure out what you were talking about…”

            Gender neutrality is a movement in Spanish and French. For example, in order to avoid male as the default, the proponents of gender neutrality would replace the word “Latino,” “Latina” with the supposedly neutral “Latinx.” Such modifications would be a great help to English speakers attempting to learn a foreign language which has different rules regarding gender.

  11. jim says:

    The ‘hero’ narrative is promoted in almost every science text book, where scientist X is promoted as the BRILLIANT GENIUS! who “discovered” (thing). But most such discoveries are virtually inevitable by the time they’re made. That’s why they’re made: enough evidence has accumulated through the efforts of the community as a whole to allow a formal theory to take shape.

    • John Williams says:

      It seems to me that the hero concept is embodied in patent law. Other workers lay the groundwork, and society pays for their education, but the person who pushes the idea over the line and files (or the corporation they work for) gets the reward. Seems like a bad idea in that context, too.

  12. Anoneuoid says:

    I’d like to point out that Memes (ideas) evolve just like genes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punctuated_equilibrium

    I’m not a huge Richard Dawkins fan but he was spot on with this concept. That is why it always seems a few people discover the new great advance at around the same time. Once a new type of info is available/allowed people will figure it out, but getting there first is still an achievement. I think it is fine if that is incentivized by this “hero narrative”.

  13. A.G.McDowell says:

    One of the many areas in which people have managed to find power law distribution is the productivity of scientists, and it is by no means unprecedented to find that some professionals in intellectually demanding work are far more productive than others. I think there are at least a small number of greats who provide argument against “got lucky” theories by producing multiple achievements – Einstein and Erdos come to mind immediately.

    I do not think a world in which we proclaim “you didn’t build that” and focus attention on wider social movements and institutions will have more scientists, more productive scientists, or happier scientists.

  14. Jonathan says:

    My problem with the hero concept is it gathers together attributes which I see as sign changing depending on circumstance. Example: a hero overcomes opposition can be the hero presents evidence that allows people to see truth beyond what they see, but it can also be Andrew Wakefield fabricating evidence to construct a narrative in which he is the hero protecting innocent children. Positive to negative sign. Steadfastness is heroic, except when it’s stupid adherence to models or, as very often happens, continuing to rely on your expertise though that is contextual as though it were absolute. A favorite non-science-ish example is I heard experts talk about Michelangelo’s effects on the Sistene Ceiling, and they were heroes of interpretation that placed him at the top of the pantheon of artists. They drew these wonderful lessons about the depth of the ideas, especially contrasted to his other, much more luminous work. All great, except it turned out the ceiling was filthy and looked nothing like the ideas they presented. The ideas were true, but only true in context of ‘dirty ceiling’. If not cleaned, they’d still be true! That is a negative heroic effect: the resistance to looking for ‘truer’ because you are heroes of the context that is.

    I suppose math is one of the few areas where heroism is constrained by the need for formal proof. Since you love Smullyan, he can write about Tarski without much concern about how he was, it seems, so careerist he changed his name and religion. (Something about logicians?) It’s the symbolic forms that matter when the model is the identifiction and operation of symbolic forms. Math attaches a reward tag to ideas by affixing a name to the symbolic representation, so the heroism tends to be constrained toward generating those proofs, arguments, identities, etc.

    So, to me, hero has attributes that take on sign. This says to me that any definition of hero exists in tension across the visible (and some invisible) attributes. As that tension alters, those attributes shift and that generates new real points.

  15. Mark Samuel Tuttle says:

    Apropos your observation about giving credit where it is due …

    Decades ago, when Powerpoint made it easy – for the first time – to include photos in a presentation, I was giving a talk at an International meeting.

    At each point in the talk where I covered someone else’s contribution or idea, I included his or her photo – and not just a thumbnail. Since I always tried to give credit to others, especially when speaking, including the modestly sized photos was just mainly just showing off (with PowerPoint). When I finished folks lined up to speak with me. Everyone congratulated and thanked me for including the pictures, and none of these folks were pictured! I sensed they were from contexts where they received little or no credit.

    While I didn’t think I needed it, this was nevertheless a powerful lesson …

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