The ‘scientist as lone genius’ is a myth that obscures real stories of scientific discovery


Natália Pasternak
Natalia Pasternak is a microbiologist with a PhD in bacterial genetics and a research fellow at the University of Sao Paulo. She’s founder and current president of Instituto Questão de Ciência (Question of Science Institute).

Carlos Orsi
Carlos Orsi is a journalist and science writer who also writes mystery and science fiction. He’s currently chief editor of Revista Questão de Ciência (Question of Science magazine).

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How is a pseudoscience born? There is, for sure, no single answer. Some, like astrology, are based on ancient traditions and ways of thinking; others, like homeopathy, are the brainchildren of self-proclaimed, charismatic “geniuses”.  There’re also the once-legitimate research programs that were left behind by the facts but still refuse to die, like Neuro-Linguistics Programming (NLP).

There is, however, one source of pseudoscientific ideas and themes that is usually overlooked because it comes wrapped in the best of intentions: the over-eager efforts at science popularisation that, by hyping “sensational” research results, promoting “wacky” hypotheses without putting them in proper context, and simplifying scientific concepts beyond their breaking point, create a public (mis)understanding of science that is fertile ground for pseudoscientific ideation and exploitation.

Perhaps the most visible victim of such a process, nowadays, is quantum physics. Decades of popular writing on the subject have focused on counterintuitive features like the Uncertainty Principle, wave-particle duality, and the so-called “measurement problem”, where some properties of quantum systems only become definite once observed (disingenuous presentations often omit or underplay the fact that, in this context, any inanimate piece of equipment may count as an “observer”). As a result, the public’s broad-but-shallow understanding of quantum physics has given rise to the “quantum consciousness” movement, bringing about a flourishing market for quantum quackery.

For instance, in Brazil you can buy, for 49,90 reals (about £7) a book that will teach you how to use the quantum powers of the mind to rewrite your DNA into a “millionaire’s” DNA (we expect to see hordes of Bill Gates clones wandering the streets any time now).

This isn’t, however, a new phenomenon. In his 1995 essay The Turmoil of the Unknown, French Literature scholar Michel Pierssens notes that in 19th century France, there emerged “a ‘popular’ science (and not a popularised science, even though based on the latter), which would alone be able to continue where official science could only stop. The bold, optimistic science of the unknown would stand out against the fearful, skeptical science of the known” (italics ours).

Pseudosciences tend to build on what the non-specialist knows, or believes to know, about real science. And what non-specialists know is what they remember from school and what science popularisers tell them.

Pierssens was referring to the spiritualist belief in communication with the dead, but such considerations can be easily brought to the present and applied to a great number of subjects, from the search for Atlantis to Ancient Astronauts lore and, of course, all sorts of quantum shenanigans. Pseudosciences tend to build on what the non-specialist knows, or believes to know, about real science. And what non-specialists know is what they remember from school and what science popularisers tell them.

The use of sensationalism and hyperbole in science popularisation efforts has a long tradition, and it is especially dangerous (and prevalent) in issues related to human health.

Another factor that has strongly influenced science popularisation, not always for the best, is the need for storytelling and heroes. Communication and behaviour studies show us that humans respond better to stories than statistics, so it obviously makes sense to put this valuable tool to use in science communication. However, while it is effective, storytelling can be very misleading if we are not careful, and it can pave the way to present progeess in a most unscientific way.

Stories like the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming, for instance, can lead people to believe that many scientific discoveries happen by chance. Not only is this wrong, it also allows for a religious or spiritual interpretation, as if great scientists were inspired by a greater force that guided them on the way to their great breakthrough.

This narrative may well be a result of our need to romanticise the past, and our need for solitary heroes and geniuses, but such figures are often more valued than the plain, honest scientific work done by thousands of scientists across the world – the work that generates knowledge, advances technology, and impacts our daily lives.

Take Fleming, for instance. As science historian John Walker tell us in his book Fabulous Science, there was nothing fortuitous about the discovery of penicillin, and if it was left to Fleming alone, it would surely not have turned into the first commercial antibiotic. This version is widely known among scientists, but lay people are usually only familiar with the romanticised tale.

A petri dish with bacterial colonies growing on it.

Years before his “discovery”, Fleming already knew that lysozyme, an enzyme present in our secretions, such as the mucus in our nostrils, could kill bacteria. And he knew this by experimentation, not by accident. We should give him credit, as a very competent scientist; unfortunately the common need to tell a different, ‘more engaging’ story of a chance discovery may be inadvertently endorsing similar stories that promote bogus science.

Fleming writes that being familiar with lysozyme made it easier for him to spot potential antimicrobial agents, such as the famous mould in the petri dishes that led to the isolation of penicillin. What the story does not tell is that Fleming had trouble reproducing the “chance” experiment. The way it is told, we are under the impression that penicillin kills bacteria, and did so in a petri dish. The actual mechanism of action is the destruction of the bacterial cell wall, stopping the bacteria from growing. When Fleming tried to kill bacterial colonies, he failed. He had to first grow the mould, then sow the bacteria near it. This way, bacteria grown within 3 cm of the mould would die, and the rest, further from the mould, would thrive.

What probably happened (and this likely was by chance) was that when Fleming left his petri dishes in the lab, there was a cold wave which slowed bacterial growth, allowing the mould to grow first – an element he did not include in his publication. For this reason, other bacteriologists were unable to replicate his work.

Then follows the myth that Fleming knew from the start that penicillin was a wonder drug. The truth is that he didn’t know how to produce it in scale, and he didn’t try. He sat on his discovery for 15 years, until Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, from Oxford University, found out about his paper; within just three years, they had achieved purification and mass production of penicillin. Fleming never contributed to this work and contacted the team only after they had published in The Lancet, in 1941.

The habit of twisting history for sexier stories comes with a price: it misleads people into thinking great discoveries are made by lone geniuses. Pseudoscientists take advantage of this to promote quackery and sell themselves as geniuses ahead of their time.

This habit of twisting history for better and sexier stories comes with a price: it misleads people into thinking that great discoveries are always made by lone geniuses, and that it takes time for society to recognise that. Pseudoscientists take advantage of this to promote quackery and sell themselves as Galileo; geniuses far ahead of their time.

Science stories don’t have to be fairy tales to be interesting. Florey and Chain’s work in re-discovering and working out how to mass produce penicillin, answering to a war effort, is fascinating. Their work, with a little help from Fleming’s lab work 15 years earlier, helped to win the war. Without them, the world would be a very different place. How awesome is that?

Being true to science and to history guarantees the advancement of the first and the truth of the latter. Both are essential to fight the popularity of pseudoscience.

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