Scientists and Heroism

While some of the public is already cynical, often questioning the true motives of scientists, some argue that students would find science more interesting if we revealed both the good and dark side of the people engaged in the field. As is the case with many educational strategies, there is never a perfect solution. A good deal of the public is more comfortable with the notion that scientists are a nerdy bunch preoccupied with expanding knowledge and that among them are some heroes who take giant steps.

I was reminded of the dilemma by an episode of Murdoch Mysteries in which a geologist-turned-paleontologist seems to value notoriety over scientific integrity. Meanwhile another paleontologist engaged in less sparkling work, resents the other’s accolades and makes him the victim of a hoax. All this results in a homicide and after solving the case, Murdoch laments how the drama has tarnished his boyhood vision of dinosaur bone-hunting.

In  an old interview between PBS journalist Bill Moyers and historian Barbara Tuchman, they discuss how we live in a world that “confuses celebrity and notoriety with the word hero.” Unlike a celebrity, a hero has a nobility of purpose.  In principle, successful science strives towards heroism, not fame for the following reasons:

(1)It has nobility of purpose in revealing how the world works and in hoping to improve the lot of humanity.

(2) Its mechanism relies on self-effacement and integrity as it seeks to evaluate data honestly. This can dismiss the hypotheses of others as well as one’s own.

A publish-or-perish atmosphere, one with competitive metrics or one that makes science subservient to profits is more akin to achieving notoriety and undermines research and analyses. Sociologically, it’s virtually impossible for science to operate completely outside of the forces that shape the rest of society. Such a revelation would be even more disappointing to Murdoch than the individual foibles of paleontologists.

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