Friday, September 21, 2012

Who Really Needs Scientific Discoveries and Science Heroes?

Posted by Darin Hayton on 09/21 at 11:45 PM

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 “author function” in the construction of literary canons relate to what I will call the “hero function” in the construction of scientific canons.

[Cross-posted here.]

Tags: athene donald, discovery, heroes of science, michel foucault, roger highfield, royal society, scientific canon, simon schaffer, thomas kuhn