why we have to abandon the popular “lone genius” narrative of science

Writers constantly tell us about mavericks whose genius overturned the status quo. Their stories aren’t just wrong, they’re dangerous.
professor farnsworth futurama

If you were to listen to far too many authors and watch too much TV, you’d think that scientists since Newton’s times sat around twiddling their thumbs, satisfied that they solved the mysteries of the universe until Albert Einstein strutted in with his theories of relativity, threw them on the table, and said “Newton didn’t know jack about shit! I’m the new King of Physics, you crusty old assholes!” Of course, the reality that Einstein just managed to unite and refine theories of other brilliant physicists like Henri Poincaré and then make predictions his curious and excited peers confirmed in dozens of experiments over years of careful study and effort, is a lot less dramatic.

But that’s just the problem. Science seldom advances with sudden breakthroughs made by lone geniuses who then fight a calcified, dogmatic establishment. For every Copernicus, Galileo and Semmelweis, there are thousands of researchers, scientists, and engineers who stand on the shoulders of giants and slowly but surely expand human knowledge and understanding, working on separate parts of a puzzle they then try to fit together. Unfortunately, by casting them as lazy, dogmatic sheep, our culture makes it seem as if their entire libraries of work can be overturned by a lone prodigy, and shucks, that prodigy could be you, dear reader.

While this narrative may be flattering, the reality is that a lot of very smart people constantly push the envelope in their disciples, knowing that the majority of their attempts to do so probably won’t pan out, and hope to one day find something that answers a profound question by reconciling all their colleagues’ work. For example, basic knowledge that animals changed over time and that there were relationships between certain creatures had been around long before Darwin. His insight was why and how some creatures changed and survived while others didn’t in the context of these disparate findings. (Also, which ones were the tastiest when slow cooked.)

Hell, he wasn’t even the only person who figured it out. His peer Alfred Russel Wallace almost beat him to the punch in publishing a very similar theoretical framework. If Darwin was never born, we’d likely be talking about Wallace’s theory of natural selection, and very likely evolution, since Wallace actually had some hunches about genetics while Darwin completely overlooked that part of biology. The same can be said about just about every other notable scientist. If they didn’t make unique insights to reconcile puzzling phenomena, there were dozens of peers who would’ve eventually done it, just a little later and requiring more follow up work to hash out all the details.

Again, however, that’s not a narrative that sells. We want heroes, villains, and an establishment to fight against all odds, which is why when popular culture tackles profound discoveries and the people who made them, they have to recast supportive colleagues and peers, happy to let future visionaries bounce ideas off them when they get stuck, into bitter enemies, backstabbing spies, or fanatical saboteurs. Often, they have little choice in the matter because a movie with no conflict and a more or less replaceable protagonist would be incredibly boring, but the message they end up sending is that the scientific establishment is glib, incurious, and will fight anyone who has a different viewpoint, especially if that viewpoint is right.

This popular view is what fuels and superficially legitimizes so many claims by cranks, quacks, and conspiracy theorists that they created or figured out something revolutionary but the evil, stodgy establishment is scared of their brilliance or terrified of being proven wrong. People who don’t know how science works read this story a hundred times and assume it’s plausible, giving the pseudoscientist or scam artist a big enough opening for a platform from which to spew their self-glorifying or self-enriching falsehoods and nonsense. In normal times, this is annoying. In a time of crisis, like the current pandemic, it’s downright dangerous.

Sure, question the establishment, make it produce numbers, proof, and explain its conclusions until you understand why it arrived at the decisions it did. But don’t immediately assume bad faith on their part and good faith on the part of some random contrarian just because he’s very deliberately recreating the plot of so many dramatized tales of scientific breakthroughs you’ve seen and heard before. The odds of him being right and every other scientist being wrong are on par with winning the lottery while successfully escaping two serial killers and a lightning strike. Or, to paraphrase Robert Park, to wear the mantle of Galileo you must not only be persecuted by an establishment; you must also be right.

# science // critical thinking / peer review / scientific inquiry


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