Monday, December 5, 2016

Scientific Branding

I'm as much interested in the public perception of science as I am in public understanding of it. The image of science in the collective imagination is important to the spread of scientific knowledge. If general scientific knowledge is limited, and scientists are viewed negatively, it can be hard to make "progress" (as defined by Enlightenment thinkers). So how scientists represent themselves and their discipline generally matters a lot, and it's pretty much always been like that.

Science in the sixteenth century (for astronomers like Tycho Brahe and Galileo Galilei) relied on a patronage model that privileged a few generally well-connected hot shots. A famous and respected astronomer gained as much from his* connection to a prestigious court or wealthy family and they did from him.

Some of the best-known scientists have been very canny about their self-presentation, and the stories they told about themselves still affects how we think of scientific progress. Important ideas almost never result from a eureka moment but from a process of re-imagining how things work when existing descriptions no longer fit. 

In the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin had a lot to say about image and carefully managed his own. In fact, he probably never flew that kite in a storm, but it certainly sounded good at the time. Gregor Mendel faced accusations (posthumously) of having "cooked" his data to get a result that matched his expectations, or being guilty of confirmation bias. Later, he was cleared by statisticians who showed that the accusers were overzealous in their charge of data falsification.

And in the twentieth century Marie Sklodowska Curie had to almost constantly raise funds for her research on radioactivity, writing to wealthy donors and organizations that would periodically underwrite her research. Although she was shy, she had to become savvy about interacting with the press and building up the buzz around her research, even after she won two Nobel prizes. When her husband died, she wrote his biography, detailing their discoveries and presenting their research in the best possible light.

None of this is to say that PR, or "branding" is shameful or disingenuous. It's very different from the day-to-day work that scientists are involved in, but almost every bit as important. James Hutton's ideas about uniformitarianism got a big boost from Charles Lyell, who rewrote and rephrased much of Hutton's work to make it more accessible (even to other scientists). Making our work visible and understandable is perhaps the most important factor in determining our influence on scientific progress.

*There were accomplished astronomers who were women, like Maria Margarethe Kirch and Elisabeth Hevelius, but they generally weren't associated with the patronage system. 

No comments:

Post a Comment