Galileos are rare. And we don’t need them

There is a common misconception about Science: the idea that we make scientific progress thanks to lone geniuses who fight against the “scientific establishment”. According to this narrative, new theories are often rejected for being too revolutionary and at odds with the consensus, until the overwhelming empirical evidence finally vindicates the lone genius.

The problem with this narrative is that it is exceptionally rare in the history of Science. For example I suspect many people think Einstein had to face mockery and hostility when he first presented his theories. This stereotype is simply wrong: the problems he was trying to solve were daunting the scientific community and everyone was very receptive of new ideas. Sure, there were physicists who didn’t agree with him, but only because they thought they had better theories to solve those problems, not because they didn’t like the fact that Einstein was challenging the “status quo”.

The vast majority of scientific progress is a collaborative effort where new ideas are greatly valued, if they can solve problems. In fact there are few things that excite a scientist more than being at the centre of a breakthrough in their discipline (if nothing else because it’s a major career’s boost).

This is not to say that scientists can’t be conformist, nor that the incentives built around academia don’t have structural flaws: but these issues are bugs, not features of the community. Better ideas eventually prevail without the need for heroes.

Galileos are rare; and Galileo himself, who is often cited as the quintessential lone scientific hero, is not a good example since he was active in a pre-scientific society (he wasn’t fighting alone against the consensus of the scientific community: he was the first scientist, doing science alone against the consensus of a pre-scientific community).

This misconception about Science is not only historically inaccurate but also dangerous because it feeds the rhetoric behind all conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. If the only way to make progress is to wait for a lone genius to challenge the “establishment” then it’s only logical to give credit to anyone who claims to have found the cure for cancer; and it’s only logical to interpret scientists’ scepticism as conformism.

Galileos are rare because the whole scientific community became Galileo centuries ago. Happy the land that doesn’t need heroes.

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