Science Heroes

Feb 26 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

"you make him sound like L. Ron Hubbard"
(paraphrased from here)

If you'll excuse me being a bit pedantic. I'm sure many are familiar with this. Even though scientists often work in large teams, even though breakthroughs are often made after years of foundational work. Even though all of that, individual scientists are at times put up as kind of heroes. Perhaps because they win some spectacular prize, like the recently announced Breakthrough prize. Or perhaps because they name becomes synonymous with some famous theory.

This is to some degree understandable. Who are you going to give awards to if not individual scientists? There are plenty reasons a theory might primarily associated with a specific researcher. There's no reason to pretend there aren't individuals who spearhead important work. Or that there may be some scientist whose work you admire. It's it's most slight form, this occasional tendency to focus on the individual, and less so on the data, hypothesis or theory, isn't a huge deal. For example, I was just having a discussion with a research assistant about the right way to talk about prior work in a paper. Some study finds X and is authored by Dr. Jones. Do we write out something like "Dr. Jones found X" or "research shows X (Jones, 2012)". I'm a strong proponent of the latter style, and I'm certainly not the only one. Though I've seen it both ways.

On the other hand a paper that recently found it's way to my desk is a great example of going way in the other direction. The paper presents some evidence for a certain perspective or theory, closely associated with a particular scientist. The paper is all Dr. Smith thinks this, Dr. Smith says that, isn't Dr. Smith great. The authors essentially describe themselves as "followers of Dr. Smith". That's very much not my style and I think it's a bit counterproductive for scientists to veer too far into this sort of hero worship.

2 responses so far

  • me says:

    well said. I just wanted to remark that I thought it was pretty crazy to follow your initial link to find an attack on a paper/idea in the blogosphere that the authors of said paper then found and attacked in the blogosphere!!.....the future of peer review imo......no anonymity......tough battles!!.....it's going to get crazy!!....

    • bashir says:

      Ha, yes. Though not everyone is as active on the internet. I wonder what it would be like if everyone in my sub-area was on the internet. I thought the linked discussion was pretty tame (and I think fairly constructive). I am familiar with that back and forth, so I've kind of settle on "the data will settle it eventually".

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