Monday, April 15, 2019

How Heroes Hurt Science

Einstein, Superhero
Tell a story. That’s the number one advice from and to science communicators, throughout centuries and all over the globe.

We can recite the seven archetypes forward and backward, will call at least three people hoping they disagree with each other, ask open-ended questions to hear what went on backstage, and trade around the always same anecdotes: Wilson checking the telescope for pigeon shit (later executing the poor birds), Guth drawing a box around a key equation of inflation, Geim and Novoselov making graphene with sticky tape, Feynman’s bongos, Einstein’s compass, Newton’s apple, Archimedes jumping out of the tub yelling “Eureka”.

Raise your hand if one of those was news for you. You there, the only one who raised a hand, let me guess: You didn’t know the fate of the pigeons. Now you know. And will read about it at least 20 more times from here on. Mea culpa.  

Sure, stories make science news relatable, entertaining, and, most of all, sellable. They also make them longer. Personally I care very little about people-tales. I know I’m a heartless fuck. But really I would rather just get the research briefing without Peter’s wife and Mary’s move and whatever happened that day in the elevator. By paragraph four I’ll confuse the two guys with Asian names and have forgotten why I was reading your piece to begin with. Help!

Then, maybe, that’s just me. Certainly, if it sells, it means someone buys it. Or at least clicks on an ad every now and then.

I used to think the story-telling is all right, just a spoonful of sugar to make the science news go down. Recently though, I worry such hero-tales are not only not communicating how science works, they are actually standing in the way of progress.

Here is how science really works. At any given time, we have a pool of available knowledge and we have a group of researchers tasked with expanding this knowledge. They use the existing knowledge to either build experiments and collect new data, or to draw new conclusions. If the newly created knowledge results in a better understanding of nature, we speak of a breakthrough. This information will from thereon be available to other researchers, who can build on it, and so on.

What does it take to make a breakthrough? It takes people who have access to the relevant knowledge, have the education to comprehend that knowledge, and bring the skill and motivation to make a contribution to science. Intelligence is one of the key factors that allows a scientist to draw conclusions from existing knowledge, but you can’t draw conclusions from information you don’t have. So, besides having the brain, you also need to have access to knowledge and must decide what to pay attention to.

Science tends to be well-populated by intelligent people, which means that there is always some number of people on the research-front banging their head on the same problem. Who among these smart folks is first to make a breakthrough then often depends on timing and luck.

Evidence of this is in the published literature, demonstrated by new insights often put forward almost simultaneously by different people.

Like Newton and Leibnitz developing calculus in parallel. Like Schrödinger and Heisenberg developing two different routes to quantum mechanics at the same time. Like Bardeen, Cooper, and Schrieffer explaining superconductivity just when Bogolubyov also did. Like the Englert-Brout-Higgs-Guralnik-Hagen-Kibble mechanism, invented three times within a matter of years.

These people had access to the same information, and they had the required processing power, so they were able to make the next step. If they hadn’t done it then and there, someone else would have.  

And then there are the rediscoveries. Like Wikipedia just told me that it’s all been said before: “The concept of multiple discovery opposes a traditional view—the `heroic theory’ of invention and discovery.”

Okay, so I am terribly unoriginal, snort. But yeah, I am opposing the traditional view. And I am opposing it for a reason. Focusing on individual achievement, while forgetting about the scientific infrastructure that enabled it, has downsides.

One downside of our hero-stories is that we fail to acknowledge the big role privilege still plays for access to higher education. Too many people on the planet will never contribute to science, not because they don’t have the intellectual ability, but because they do not have the opportunity to acquire the necessary knowledge.

The other downside is that we underestimate the relevance of communication and information-sharing in scientific communities. If you believe that genius alone will do, then you are likely to believe it doesn’t matter how smart people arrange their interaction. If you, on the other hand, take into account that even big-brained scientists must somehow make decisions about what information to have a look at, you understand that it matters a lot how scientists organize their work-life.

I think that currently many scientists, especially in the foundations of physics, fail to pay attention to how they exchange and gather information, processes that can easily be skewed by social biases. What’s a scientist, after all? A scientist is someone who collects information, chews on it, and outputs new information. But, as they say, garbage in, garbage out.

The major hurdle on the way to progress is presently not a shortage of smart people. It’s smart people who don’t want to realize that they are but wheels in the machinery.


  1. Much less interested in personality of Experimenters than in the importance of their work. Nice that one woman devised the algorisms that tied the 1 mm emissions together. What does the observation of a black whole at that wave length tell us that we did not know previously?

  2. I was looking forward to your take on the recent black hole discovery ??!

    1. I saw a statement somewhere (I lost the link) that the black hole image contained just 2 original pixels. This observation was not made to knock the result.

      Can anyone comment on this please?

    2. Don't believe everything you read.

  3. Many of the stories that we tell about advances in science don't mention (or at least minimize) the years of focused study and repeated failures that the big players went through to prepare them to make breakthroughs. The message that these stories give to some new students is that to be productive in science, all one has to do is a) know everything and b) be a brilliant genius. I think that stories like this can be inspiring for someone already working in a field, but can dissuade others from pursuing a career in research, especially those from underrepresented minorities as they basically reinforce impostor syndrome.

    To me, the most inspiring thing thing about someone like Newton is not that he had profound insights into math and science (those are plenty inspiring), but that he worked obsessively, often to the detriment of his physical (and mental?) being.

  4. I think the biggest hurdles to science are

    (1) The sunk cost fallacy (irrationally refusing to accept a theory doesn't work because so much time and money and hope has been invested in it), and

    (2) The proof by authority fallacy, which is how I think heroes hurt science. Somebody becomes a hero through some laudable proof, insight or achievement, and because we are tribal humans at heart, the luminaries we admire become our leaders, and we stop judging their work fairly (as we would an anonymous student's work), and regard their opinions as more momentous, credible and determinative than others.

    I think failing to suppress our instinct to "follow the leader" has been the biggest drag on scientific progress for millennia, in all fields.

    1. Good observation. Were you intending it as a comment on the dismal state of climate science?

    2. "Dismal" is a strong word.
      I would argue that there has been too much of an attempt from the figureheads to say "our models have been right since the 80s!" It is clear that -- while anthropogenic global warming is happening -- there is some unacknowledged global factor creating 30-year amplified and suppressed phases in surface temperature (probably involving the poorly monitored deep ocean, or maybe the balance of albedo and insulation from clouds ... or both).
      From 1940 to 1970, the planet cooled. From 1970 to 2000, it warmed dramatically. Since 2000, the warming has slumped (though still climbing).
      I wish this was more bravely acknowledged by climate researchers, so we're not caught flat-footed in the 2030s when things get REALLY troubling.

    3. @Len As far as I was aware, the cooling trend from 1940 to 1975 is routinely acknowledged by climate researchers. For one account, see

    4. But the REASONS usually given for the cooling make no sense ... mostly, that pollutants in coal smoke created a high-atmosphere albedo layer, dimming surface sunlight.
      Environmental regulations that might affect these pollutant outputs didn't exist until the 1970s, and weren't seriously enforced until the 1990s. Yet the claim is that the moment the EPA was created in the United States, the planet started warming again.
      Global temperatures had peaks in approximately 1880, 1940, and 2000. If you assume that carbon dioxide doubling has a 2-degree Celsius effect, and that some unaccounted-for global mechanism saps about 0.3C from surface temperatures every 60 years, and releases it back to the surface halfway through each cycle, this neatly accounts for temperature minimums in 1910 and 1970.
      Hanson et al predicted much higher temperatures for the present given "business as usual" CO2 output. What we are actually experiencing makes sense if that temperature-suppressing X-factor has continued cycling, and we can expect depressed warming until 2030.
      From 2030 to 2060, the climb in temperatures will be once again dramatic. The calm we are experiencing right now is setting us up for disaster.

    5. Ancient: I find science in a dismal state everywhere, from medicine to computer science to physics. I would not be surprised to find it true in climate science, as well. That can take the form of self-censorship (not publishing results that disagree with the norm), journal editorial censorship (rejecting work on the assumption "it must be wrong"), and just plain hero-worship: A luminary like Ed Witten, or a Nobel prize winner, or somebody that "wrote the textbook" is given the benefit of the doubt just because.

      A step in the right direction (although not foolproof) would be double-blind peer review.

      The knife here cuts both ways; some fields lie fallow for decades because the old guard in charge has too much invested in the way things are; while other fields get hyped to the stars and then fizzle out.

      Doing good science comes in fourth when there is money, prestige and careers to protect.

  5. Nice article. I am not sure we can ever (nor should we) remove the traditional (heroic theory) view of science. It is the inevitable struggle between our competitive natures and our need for cooperation. I understand Newton had a thing or two to say about Leibnitz. The hard part is how to find the proper balance?

  6. At any given time, we have a pool of available knowledge and we have a group of researchers tasked with expanding this knowledge.

    I think the group of researchers should not be tasked with expanding this knowledge, rather the group of researchers should be interested in solving certain problems that increase the knowledge base. Today's reality is that the researchers are actually employed. And there is somebody providing the bills which is really interested in the knowledge to be expanded in a certain way, doesn't matter if the knowledge that gets expanded is actually true. This is where the whole pursuit of science is going wrong. Rather than interested researchers, we have paid researchers.

    I do understand they need to make money, but the whole economics behind the making money is making the field of science go crazy. People are more interested in their tenures and their papers, rather than whether what they are researching is true.

    I am thinking more about cosmologists which are ignoring the impacts of MOND, because that would cause the current theories of Gravity to break down. And leave them with nothing to pursue their tenures and papers.

    PS: This applies a lot more strongly to Medical Researchers. And lot less so to hard sciences.

  7. Some cogs are way more worthy than others.

    Wilhelm Röntgen: struggles to intellectual development; experimental technique; contribution to science; contribution to mankind; humility. If not a hero, an invaluable example.

    My personal inspiration; others who strive will have their own.

    1. Appendix …

      I doubt that heroes or story telling, or awards, have primary effect on the motivations or quality of our best. Neither in physics or any profession. That is normally determined by interest, commitment and work ethic, which are individual qualities. Our very best reach excellence because they can't help themselves; they are driven. The few who reach greatness, do so with a lot of luck and, often, help.

      For that matter, many of their supporting cast who never achieve great things, like myself, are also driven. We can't help ourselves, either.

      The happiness of either group seems to depend more on our freedom of action than reward for our effort, or even actual outcomes. Rewards are appreciated, for sure, but I haven't noticed them to be at all dominant.

      jmo. Bert Kortegaard

  8. Another serious harm done by hero narratives is that it suggests that if you have an almost uniquely special kind of brain, then you have no chance of making a significant discovery, which is plain false and probably puts quite a few people off science. Perhaps it also causes some scientists to underestimate themselves and be less ambitious as a result.

  9. Most who write about science in popular journalism were the kinds of students that did not really excel at math and science even if they liked it or found it fascinating; you know the type, people like me who went into the arts instead of taking calculus and hard sciences with lots of dull stuff. The focus on narrative which makes for good storytelling, no doubt, and exploring complexity just gets in the way even when that is the reality.

    1. doug,

      I know a lot of science writers and the vast majority of them have a degree in science, so what you say is just wrong, sorry.

  10. Considering how he treated his first wife Mileva and his sons, Einstein was never a hero to me. And why he left her to marry that pudding of a woman, Elsa, remains a total mystery.

  11. Privilege is a big word. And a very appropriate one.

  12. You may want to look at

    Ian Hesketh, Counterfactuals and history: Contingency and convergence in histories of science and life, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, v. 58, August 2016, Pages 41-48.

    Hier you find alternative histories of science.

  13. Along a similar vein is my dislike of Thomas Kuhn's Scientific Revolutions. In some ways he had a point, but his idea has been taken far beyond what is reasonable. Kuhn first off placed too much emphasis on social behavior with regards to how a new theory becomes accepted. Whether it has been Einstein or somebody else at this time we would all be familiar with a physical theory similar to what we call relativity. Actually Einstein preferred that it be called invariant theory. Also science proceeds with small and big leaps all the time. It really is not as if there are these immense revolutions, but rather there is a matrix of developments.

  14. The question whether heroes matter or not is a well-known question in the philosophy of history. The question is whether Napoleon changed history, or if Napoleon hadn't been born the French Republic would have created a replacement. Certainly the battle of Grauholz that saw canton Bern lose to Napoleon to create the nation of Switzerland was pre-determined and not due to his genius.
    Early 20th century historiography was into hero-creation, late 20th century was into hero denial. It is not insignificant that WWII stood in the middle.
    Likewise the question whether Einstein, Fermi, Bethe and Bardeen, Higgs, Gross were geniuses, or whether they were simply educated men who used the opportunity society gave them. It is not insignificant that the Manhattan Project stood between the first group and the latter group of 3.

    When we are claiming an existential threat, then we use history to justify our expenditures, and we need heroes. When we justifying an institution, we need anti-heroes to explain why the bureaucracy is all-important.
    I would venture that neither heroes nor anti-heroes explain the full story. It is true that Napoleon was a genius at the battlefield, but he would not have been needed had there been no Revolution. It is true Einstein was a philosophical anomaly in physics, but he would have not been heeded had there not been a crumbling of the Newtonian metaphysics. Both the time and the person had to exist, for the hero to be recognized. It is just blatantly untrue to say that a dozen men could have become Napoleon, or that a dozen physicists could have filled Einstein's shoes. Society cannot "make" a genius any more than Henry Higgins can "make" anything but a social climber socialite. Otherwise, we would be seeing a lot more String Theorists getting Nobel prizes. But more significantly, look at how much society hindered such geniuses as Heaviside, Einstein, Fermi and the like. It would appear that they succeeded despite great opposition.

    Call it the Fine-Tuning view of history and physics. That the right person at the right time can change the course of both history and physics. Neither the individual nor the education is necessary and sufficient. Both have to be carefully positioned for success.

    1. There is a difference in objective outcomes with the history of political events and with science. How different would recent events be if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election? What if Hitler had not ordered Guderian to break off his drive to Moscow to head south to Kiev? That might have been a big game changer. Suppose the Persians had defeated the Athenians at Marathon.

      By way of contrast physical nature is such that if Einstein had died as a child that by now we would still have a theory of spacetime remarkably similar to relativity. It would only be different in names, terminology and the history-lore behind its formalism.

      The same will be the case with quantum gravity, that is unless Homo sapiens snuffs the candle first. The names associated with it are less relevant, than the fact there is some objective aspect to reality that will be born out independent of these names.

    2. well argued!
      Gregory Benford

  15. And the superhero can just as easily be replaced by the supervillain, allowing for people who oppose certain ideas to launch straw man attacks against scientific results. Take e.g. climate change, where Al Gore is supposedly the one who took the place of where the scientist superhero climate scientists should have been and he then perverted the science on climate to fit his ultra left wing socialist political agenda.

    A stupid story, of course, but somehow half of the US population was made to believe that this is really true. This has set back efforts to curb climate change a lot, it may now be too late to prevent big problems.

  16. A scientist is someone who collects information, chews on it, and outputs new information.

    I like the "mathematician is a machine that turns coffee into theorems" better :)

    1. But coffee wasn't strong enough for Paul Erdős:ős

      "His colleague Alfréd Rényi said, "a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems",[22] and Erdős drank copious quantities (this quotation is often attributed incorrectly to Erdős,[23] but Erdős himself ascribed it to Rényi[24]). After 1971 he also took amphetamines, despite the concern of his friends, one of whom (Ron Graham) bet him $500 that he could not stop taking the drug for a month.[25] Erdős won the bet, but complained that during his abstinence, mathematics had been set back by a month: "Before, when I looked at a piece of blank paper my mind was filled with ideas. Now all I see is a blank piece of paper."[citation needed] After he won the bet, he promptly resumed his amphetamine use."

  17. A few more communication tips:
    "This is a news website article about a scientific paper"
    by Martin Robbins

  18. Science can be hurt because apparently its defense is feeble. Science should set the record straight by cleaning uo its own mess.

  19. A really thought-provoking post Sabine. Do you think prizes like the Nobel Prize & Fields Medal (+ many others) exacerbate the problem?

    1. Jon,

      Well, yes, but not having those prizes and awards might be even worse. I believe they serve as a motivation for some fraction of scientists, at least that's what I took away from Brian Keating's book (review here).

      What I mean is that it's hard, sometimes, to keep up the motivation to stick with your research, and if prizes help some people, maybe that's a good thing.

      On the other hand, the big prizes can amplify the winner's impact beyond the reasonable. Scientists like to believe that they are not affected by this, but I think they are just lying to themselves. They pay attention to those who are popular and are considered important, just like everyone else does.

      In summary, I guess I am just saying I don't know.

  20. " I know I’m a heartless fuck."

    Better than a fuckless heart? :-)

  21. "Peer Review or Lottery? A Critical Analysis of Two Different Forms of Decision-Making Mechanisms for Allocation of Research Grants

    By forming a pool of funding applicants who have minimal qualification levels and then selecting randomly within that pool, funding agencies could avoid biases, disagreement and other limitations of peer review."


    A struggle for the soul of theoretical physics

    Sabine Hossenfelder is mentioned again in the news.

  23. Some of these superheros are "self-proclaimed". If you write a climate model that gives a different result (whether the result is pro or against warming is besides the point, let's not debate that), and that person is, say, a PhD with the right qualifications who left academia just because he couldn't handle the low pay and lack of intellectual freedom to pursue his/her own ideas. This PhD goes on a code a new climate model with incredible logical insights that minimize leaps of faith. He/she goes on a present the work. The result is probably that because this person comes from left field few, if any, will put the time to go through her/his work and consider it seriously. This is specially true because climate models could be thousands of lines of code long and the "heroes" are too busy to confirm the added art to the literature. They will assume there are errors in the code, or anything, but they could miss a great contribution. Recently, for example, an old statistician who work in the private sector almost died without anyone recognizing his historic proof of The Gaussian Correlation Inequality:
    Even more relevant to my field, read this:
    I spoke to Limmer once about simulations I have ran, and he did not even take me and my simulations seriously only to be proven wrong soon after.

  24. And nothing is more indicative of garbage in, garbage out than climate change. Just look at a graph of CO2 and temperatures during the Cenozoic era. In that era, mammals evolved from shrews to silverback gorillas while CO2 was 5 times as high as now. I guess that Al Gore is the “ Hero “ in that crap.
    Van Hargraves MD

    1. I don’t really see the relevance of this to climate change. Natural selection means life adapts, however, when all things are equal, they would prefer to keep their ecological niches as they are.

    2. @Van Hargraves
      Climate change on geological timescales does not inform us on the consequences of doubling CO2 loads within a couple of centuries.
      As I made clear elsewhere in this response section, I have concerns about investigative inertia and professional gatekeeping in current climate science, but your "concerns" are emerging from an entirely different realm of philosophical resistance.

    3. The relevance is that the ‘Heroes” are apparently those that “established” the correlation of temperature to CO2. If you look at the graph of CO2 vs Temp over the Cenozoic era when mammals flourished, you will see there is very little correlation.

  25. Yes, a discovery is often "in the air", ready to be made by whoever takes a deep breath in the right place and at the right time. The thing is that relatively few people breathing that air actually take that breath. That's why people, particularly scientists, are interested in those who drew that breath. It's a way of thinking about what one might be missing.

    If you are in the business of discovery, it pays to learn how discoveries are made. Sometimes it is sheer brute force, trying a thousand ideas or a thousand experiments. Sometimes it is taking the time to follow up on something unexpected, even something that appears to be a simple error. Sometimes it involves ignoring the general direction and looking at the problem from an alternate point of view. Sometimes it involves taking a technique from one area and applying it in another.

    It isn't about heroes so much as about learning how the job of discovering things is done. Gilbert recognized an analogy between a handheld magnet and the earth's magnetic field while Harvey performed gruesome experiment after gruesome experiment to figure out how blood flowed. the job is performed. Those stories appeal to scientists and those who would like to be.

    Even if you are not in the business of discovery, one might still be interested in discovery as a human venture. What drives one? How does one proceed? What sparked the interest? Why did one person make the discovery before others? Why did it take so long? It helps too if one is considering a career in science to be able to imagine oneself, as a person, being a scientist.

    I think one problem you have run into is the "new journalism" practice of what journalists call "burying the lede", that is, putting the most salient piece of information in the penultimate paragraph. If this drives you nuts, scroll down. I do. It's supposed to make journalism more personal. It might, but I don't notice because, as I noted, I scroll down past most of it.

  26. I knew about the fate of those pigeons but not about Guth & the rest of 20th century stories :(
    But I still appreciate you made a falsifiable hypothesis :)

  27. Good point. Related to this is the fact that children are being told they can be the next Einstein or the next Picasso, and they try, and they most often fail, of course. How about being a good plumber and enjoying it?

  28. At first Einstein’s 1905 papers were ignored by the physics community. He was just another crackpot want-a-be without a degree and a job. This began to change after he received the attention of just one physicist, perhaps the most influential physicist of his generation, Max Planck, the founder of the quantum theory.

    It takes a great and truly gifted brave person to see the real value in an idea regardless of where that idea is coming from. What would have happened to Einstein and to today’s science if Einstein was ignored and had taken his ideas and talent to the grave if it weren’t for Planck.

    1. Axil wrote: What would have happened to Einstein and to today’s science if Einstein was ignored and had taken his ideas and talent to the grave if it weren’t for Planck.

      Einstein's various insights and contributions would have emerged sooner or later, even if Einstein never existed. Of course I can't prove this assertion. I'm using history to inform my opinion.

      Humans seem to have a knack for figuring out anything that can be figured out, eventually. Unfortunately, humans also tend to be short-sighted and there's a chance we'll mess things up badly enough that we'll no longer have the means to figure things out. Figuring out how to live sustainably on our planet seems to be a low priority for most of us.

      Maybe I've read too many dystopian novels. :-)

  29. Sabine,

    Thanks for retweeting - This is incredibly powerful!!!
    And it is not that off-topic to How Heroes Hurt …

  30. I suppose I posed the question with the problem of how the general public perceive science and scientists generally. Here in the UK, the Nobel carries a lot of weight and the general public use it as a short-cut signal as to who does worthy science (the scientific illiteracy here is staggering, especially in our government!). So, seeing white-haired, white guys winning the prize promulgates the Scientific Hero narrative. In fact, the odder and more outlandish they are, the better. Until we start seeing more women winning Nobels, I think the problem will persist. Perhaps a Jennifer Doudna & Emmanuelle Charpentier Nobel win (this year?) might start to change peoples minds?

  31. A scientist, I believe, should tenaciously question things which have been accepted by his contemporaries. Experimental evidence by itself is 'correct', but the interpretation is a human endeavour.

    Secondly, a generalist approach combined with specialism is the way to arrive at enhanced problem solving.

    It is no a coincidence that Einstein was very very good at these two things.

  32. Sabine wrote: Too many people on the planet will never contribute to science, not because they don’t have the intellectual ability, but because they do not have the opportunity to acquire the necessary knowledge.

    I see this as the biggest problem, that eclipses everything else. It bothers me so much that there is rarely a day that I don't think about it at least once. Not only are we wasting opportunities in science, but it's a tragic and massive loss of human well-being. Whenever economists talk about better ways than GDP to measure a nation's well-being, I always think about this.

    I'm not a fan of Julian Simon's cockeyed optimism on population growth. He claimed that adding many billions of people, even in poor nations, is necessarily a good thing for people and the planet because it spurs human ingenuity and it creates more scientific "heroes." The logic is simple and ironclad: More people means more Einsteins. If an Einstein is a one-in-a-billion intellect, twenty billion people produces twenty Einsteins.

    While this silly argument contains a grain of truth, I look at it from the perspective of Sabine's point about opportunity. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning for opportunity."

  33. Ripi wrote: Related to this is the fact that children are being told they can be the next Einstein or the next Picasso, and they try, and they most often fail, of course.

    There are certainly parents who push their children to attain conspicuous "success," but I have yet to encounter even a ferocious Tiger Mom who expects her children, as a matter of brute effort, to become an Einstein or Picasso.

    Of course, children often hear the message that "they can do or be anything" if they work hard enough. In the United States, I hear politicians say that anyone, even someone from a poor family, can become president, and therefore the "most powerful person in the world."

    It's amusing to wonder how people like Einstein and Picasso would have turned out if their childhood circumstances were different. For example, imagine if Einstein was the son of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Would that sufficiently distract him from serious scientific interests? :-)



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