The Problem of Scientific Heroism

Science prides itself on the virtues of objectivity, attempting to detach scientist from conclusion in the pursuit of “truth.” Juxtaposed to this is the cultural and historical virtue of heroism, which attempts to unite the scientist with their discovery in a feat of public enchantment. In her piece on the invisibility of women in science, Oreskes considers these two facets opposed to one another. As scientists pursued “aperspectival objectivity,” she argues, heroism became necessary to “establish the observer as an exceptional man” (Oreskes, 101). That is to say that in an attempt to make their work more objective, scientists necessarily have to make their work reproducible by others. However, in doing so, the importance of the scientist in their discovery becomes lost, and thus they, both scientists and scientific journalists, look to heroism to rekindle it. As Oreskes claims, this emphasis on heroic ideology, as opposed to the conventionally “scientific” ideal of objectivity, might play a crucial role in the invisibility of women in science.

Oreskes centers her work on scientist Eleanor Lamson, a key figure in the first measurement of Earth’s gravity at sea, and her exclusion from the public and historical portrayal of this achievement. According to Oreskes, Lamson’s work required “an understanding of the physics of the phenomena responsible for gravity and how they would be differentially affected by the specifics of the marine environment” (Oreskes, 93). Clearly, Lamson was an important contributor to this scientific feat, but her absence on the actual voyage out to sea suggested a lack of risk and adventure characteristic of heroism. As Oreskes goes on to say, “by the standard of objectivity, Eleanor Lamson was a scientist, but by the standard of heroic conquest, she was not” (Oreskes, 101). At best, this would imply that both objectivity and heroism would be required to have a place in scientific history. At worst, it would imply that heroism is all that matters. As it turns out, an analysis of the history of auto-experimentation suggests the latter rings true the most. To Oreskes, the minimal statistical significance of these infamous self-experiments marks their “epistemological value” as “certainly questionable” (Oreskes, 107). It would appear that heroism, not objectivity, is the most important feature of scientific history.

A comic depicting Barry Marhsall’s auto-experimentation to demonstrate that H. pylori can cause peptic ulcers (Image from SWJPCC)

Why does this matter? Well, as Oreskes concludes, heroism is inherently gendered and emphasizes, “attributes associated with masculinity” (Oreskes, 111). Historically, women, like Lamson, obtained and successfully harnessed opportunities to conduct objective, crucial science, but rarely were they given opportunities to be portrayed as “heroes.” One need not even look to history to see the implications of this heroic image of scientific work. Consider Dexter Thomas’ poignant critique of the recent film, “Hidden Figures.” Despite an attempt to focus on the critical role played by black, female mathematicians in sending the first American astronauts to space, that which was a masterclass in scientific objectivity becomes overshadowed by the superficially benign “heroism” of their white, male supervisor as he fights against a backdrop of Jim Crowism. To Thomas, the purpose of such a character is to “allow white viewers to feel good about themselves,” minimizing the ubiquity of oppression. But if Oreskes analysis is true, such a choice by the filmmakers goes from being diminishing to detrimental to the film’s original goal, now only serving to further suppress the importance of black women to the history of science.

The problem with focusing on the heroic aspect of science is that it will always be a trait more easily attributed to the group with the most power. In the field of history, it is simply easier for white, male historians to empathize and identify with the heroism of their white, male predecessors. Sure, heroism makes for great stories and inspiring tales, but if such legends are predicated on prejudiced beliefs and are exclusive of certain people, then perhaps heroism harms more than it helps the history of science.


  1. Thomas, D. (2017). Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures” was whitewashed — but it didn’t have to be. Vice.



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