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Engagement with science needs more than heroes

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Narratives about the heroic scientist are not what got me interested in science.

It was (and still is) hard for me to connect with a larger-than-life figure when my own aspirations have always been pretty life-sized.

Also, there’s the fact that the scientific heroes whose stories have been told have mostly been heroes, not heroines, just one more issue making it harder for me to relate to their experiences. And when the stories of pioneering women of science are told, these stories frequently emphasize how these heroines made it against big odds, how exceptional they are. Having to be exceptional even to succeed in scientific work is not a prospect I find inviting.

While tales of great scientific pioneers never did much for me, I am enraptured with science. The hook that drew me in is the process of knowledge-building, the ways in which framing questions and engaging in logical thinking and methodical observation of a piece of the world can help us learn quite unexpected things about that world’s workings. I am intrigued by the power of this process, by the ways that it frequently rewards insight and patience.

What I didn’t really grasp when I was younger but appreciate now is the inescapably collaborative nature of the process of building scientific knowledge. The plan of attack, the observations, the troubleshooting, the evaluation of what the results do and do not show — that all comes down to teamwork of one sort or another, the product of many hands, many eyes, many brains, many voices.

We take our perfectly human capacities as individuals and bring them into concert to create a depth of understanding of our world that no heroic scientist — no Newton, no Darwin, no Einstein — could achieve on his own.

The power of science lies not in individual genius but in a method of coordinating our efforts. This is what makes me interested in what science can do — what makes it possible for me to see myself doing science. And I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one.

The heroes of science are doubtless plenty inspiring to a good segment of the population, and given the popularity of heroic narratives, I doubt they’ll disappear. But in our efforts to get people engaged with science, we shouldn’t forget the people who connect less with great men (and women) and more with the extraordinarily powerful process of science conducted by recognizably ordinary human beings. We should remember to tell the stories about the process, not just the heroes.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. kpapapavlou 4:43 pm 03/20/2014

    Wholly agree!! Thank you

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  2. 2. rkipling 12:38 am 03/22/2014

    I never really thought about it, but I can’t say that I know anyone whose interest in the sciences was inspired by a hero. Well on second thought, in the first episode of the new Cosmos series, Neil Tyson did say he was influenced by spending a day with Carl Sagan when he was a teenager. I don’t know if you would consider Sagan a hero?

    Is your blog post in response to student recruiting methods? Science sells itself. If someone is seeking fame and fortune, STEM professions may not be their most direct route. Seekers of fame are unlikely to to be predisposed to the sciences anyway. My guess is that many more people are inspired by performing artists than heroes of science.

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