The following was posted by Jim Harrison, regular commentator, as a comment on my No more heroes anymore post. I found it so good that I have decided to promote it to a guest post for the people who don’t read comment columns.
If the object of your game is to understand the history of the sciences, hero worship is always a distraction and usually an error. On the other hand, if your focus is on how people imagine science, the banal themes of the standard narratives—heroism, crisis, godlike insight, struggle against obscurantism, etc.—become the subject and not the distraction. A case of vases and faces. One of the first philosophers of science I ever encountered was Gaston Bachelard, who began his career understanding the history of science as a struggle against beguiling fantasies but eventually got beguiled into studying the fantasies themselves.
I guess one could dismiss the folk version of scientific history as an affair of the people, but anybody who reads the comment threads over at Pharyngula knows that the historical mythology of science is extremely popular with the scientific laity. In fact, the Whig theory of scientific history is an integral part of their commonsense, enshrined in the narrative paragraphs of countless textbooks. It’s as much a part of the self-understanding of many scientists as the Manichean struggle of science and theology. Whether you think scientific hero worship is absurd as history, it obviously serves a purpose over and beyond selling pop science books.
Bachelard thought that the fantasies that surrounded early thinking about matter were crucial to motivating research, a fact that can be forgotten since, ironically, the results of the research eventually dispelled the fantasies. Things have changed; but scientific work still requires motivation. If you bracket the romance of the thing and just look at the scientist at the lab bench, the hour by hour labors of scientist are, for the most part, taken up with what looks a lot like financial accounting. Absent the dream, science is extremely boring, which is why realistic novels about science or so rare. Of course there are subtler and cruder ways of romanticizing science, and imagining yourself as another Newton is not the only or necessarily the most effective one. Still, the motivational structure of the sciences in the real world institutionalizes the hero idea in a basic way by making priority an absolutely fundamental criterion of accomplishment. The centrality of the individual, or at least the name of the individual, is built in, if not to science, at least to SCIENCE—I mean the journal and its standard operating procedures.
I’ve been thinking about all this for several decades and have come to the conclusion that 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. In this regard, they share an illusion with the philosophers, who also dream that the universe can come to consciousness in their singular mind. Of course, to adopt a rather Buddhist way of talking about things, the illusion in question is not a mere figment. It has citizen’s rights, at least in the world name and form. Individuals do all the work and all the thinking—there isn’t any hive mind at work—but whatever truth emerges from private insight either becomes part of the social structure of the sciences or evaporates into nothingness. The situation is rather like what happens in our biology. In every generation, human life must revert to a unicellular, indeed haploid, form. Fortunately, it is not necessary to convince the ovum or spermatazoon of its heroic dignity. On the other hand, promoting the vanity of the individual scientist may be a good thing.