Heroes for the laity

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.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

9 responses to “Heroes for the laity

  1. Excellent.

    I was thinking along those lines myself, that the non-scientific public may need those heroes to help them learn about science. Thanks to Jim for expressing this so well.

    • My question is, is it good when people learn about science via a false image?

      • It is better than that they not learn about science at all.

      • The physics I learnt at school was classical: Newton’s Laws of Motion, and all that. I loved it so much, I went on to study physics at university, only to learn that classical physics is bullshit – although I never entirely believed them: classical physics was good enough to get Neil and Buzz to (and back from) the moon. There are degrees of falseness, some of which are acceptable, provided they get the general idea across to the interested lay-person (as opposed to the experts, who should know better).

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  3. “In fact, the Whig theory of scientific history is an integral part of their commonsense, enshrined in the narrative paragraphs of countless textbooks.”

    D’accord. I’d even go as far as saying that its grains can be found in the truncated and abridged citations of the introductions and conclusions of peer reviewed papers.

  4. I disagree with this point of view, along the lines exposed in “Should the History of Science Be Rated X?”, Science, vol 183 pp. 1164-1172 22 March 1974.
    Teaching science with the myths of science history is not a good idea, not only from a pedagogical but also from a societal point of view. From a pedagogical point of view, I think it leads students to a wrong understanding of what science is about and HOW it is done and should be done. I teach physics and, for example, stating that heliocentrism has been rejected merely for religious sake is a terrible mistake. Because it is important to really understand how to prove heliocentrims and that needs a really good understanding of an experimental and theoretical approach to the problem. This understanding is far from being obvious…as history of science demonstrates.
    From a societal point of view, these myths also illustrate the kind of authority that science has or is till enjoying in our society. If we want to question what scientific authority really is and what is hidden in terms of power behind it, we also need good history of science and not mythology. Many of those myths seems to be invented just to use science as authoritative argument.
    Moreover, I don’t see why and how good history of science undermines some of its champions. After all, Newton’s life is even more fascinating when knowing his supposed “dark sides” such as theology and alchemy, the same for Galileo and all the others.
    Finally, as scientists (be them in history or the natural sciences) do we still look for for some truth and facts or does anything goes? As teachers for the students and the public do we still believe in science or, again, anything goes to make it more appealing including sophisticated forms of lies?

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