The Problem With Praising Famous Scientists

Role models portrayed as superhuman don’t always motivate students—instead, they risk discouraging kids who feel they can't live up to the lofty standards.

Brad Montgomery/Flickr

In 1911, Albert Einstein penned a letter to Marie Curie in which he told her to stay strong in the face of extreme personal criticism: “If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.”

By that time Curie had already proved herself a brilliant scientist—she had won the Nobel Prize for her work with radioactivity in 1903 and in 1911 became the first woman to run the physics laboratory at the Sorbonne—but was coming under fire for her personal life. She had been widowed five years before and had since been living with the (married but separated) physicist Paul Langevin. The French media painted her as a “seductive Jew,” even though she wasn’t Jewish or doing anything inappropriate for someone at her stage of life. Einstein, who was later known to have at least six mistresses throughout his career, never received the same sort of media criticism for his extracurricular activities.

A century later, Curie and Einstein have been inducted to the metaphorical pantheon of scientific greats. Their biographies have been written and rewritten; elementary school children learn about their lives and the impact of their science, still unable to understand the science itself. As the reputations of these groundbreaking scientists have been elevated to the stuff of legend, many of these less-flattering personal details have fallen away. Men especially are considered brilliant scientists first, fallible humans second.

Scientific heroes can be positive role models for aspiring scientists, helping them understand different paths to success and precedents for overcoming obstacles.

In recent years, educators and policy makers have thought a lot about what makes a field uninviting or intimidating to newcomers. Part of this was the realization that science, technology, engineering and math—or STEM fields—are less diverse than many other subject areas. There are lots of reasons for this, including limited access to solid education and a lack of mentorship, but one of the most effective ways to make STEM more welcoming is to reduce stereotype threat, or the feeling that one person has to be representative of his minority demographic.

Exposing students to the stories of scientists with backgrounds like their own can help reduce stereotype threat. But when someone is held up as a role model, nuances are often lost. Dozens of people who paved the way to discovery dissolve into the background, failed experiments are forgotten, select personal details provide only relevant context. As a result, the picture that students get is incomplete, giving them an unrealistic, sometimes intimidating picture of what doing science is really like.

But Julie Des Jardins, author of several books about gender including The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science, points out that the public didn’t start separating scientists’ professional and personal lives until science became a profession, not just a hobby— a trend that happened over the course of the 1800s. “Serious science requires somebody’s undivided attention, and that single focus attention is only achievable by people who are able to completely block out what’s around them,” she said. “That’s how professional scientists were able to differentiate themselves from amateur scientists.” Women, it was believed, were incapable of throwing themselves completely into scientific pursuits because of their domestic obligations.

Role models are known to be a positive force for engaging young people because of what Roger Highfield, a museum executive, science writer, and Einstein biographer based in England, calls indirect reciprocity. Cooperation in humans started with the idea that “if I scratch your back, you will scratch mine”—or direct reciprocity. “The indirect version says that if ‘I scratch your back, someone else will scratch mine,’” Highfield said. In science, this is the equivalent of a young black student saying, “I can be an astrophysicist because I know Neil Degrasse-Tyson did it.”

Indirect reciprocity only works if the recipient trusts that the other person has a good reputation—a similar mindset to how scientists put credence in or discredit previous studies conducted by colleagues. In science and in life, people are more likely to follow the example of someone they know to be successful. And sometimes this means that imperfect details may fall away as stories are retold.

When role models become too romanticized, their fame can have the opposite effect of intimidating those who wish to enter the field. This is what Des Jardins calls the Marie Curie complex. “If we create these myths of people being uber-people and thus good scientists, many of us earthlings are not equipped,” she said. “You will disqualify the majority of people in science when they feel like they won’t measure up.” These pressures are especially strong on groups that are minorities in science, like women; when Curie came to the U.S. in 1921 year, her reputation had preceded her. She was known as a brilliant scientist, a flawless wife and mother who achieved an impossible balance between her personal and professional life. Instead of Curie’s visit inspiring more women to get into science, Des Jardins said, “women in U.S. thought, ‘Oh god we could never pull off that perfection.’”

In a perfect world, Highfield mused, we wouldn’t need famous people to become emblematic of their fields. Stereotype threat would be a non-issue. Our understanding of scientists’ personal lives wouldn’t affect how we see them as scientists. But we’re so compelled by narratives that, without them, science can become, “trite, boring and hard to comprehend,” Highfield said, especially for technically complex subjects. “When it comes to inspiring the public, it can be a choice between telling a heroic scientific tale or saying something that will fail to ignite much interest.”

In the 20th century, Des Jardins said, biographers didn’t intend to make their subjects identifiable for the reader. “Now subjects of biographies are more relatable but [authors] made the shift when it comes to science biographies,” she said. And in biographies intended for young aspiring scientists, especially girls, “you would rather depict women scientists as identifiable rather than larger-than-life demagogues.”

Highfield agreed: “Heroic narratives work well as viral transmitters of science in today’s crowded realm of ideas. The trick is to find heroic narratives with a reasonable correspondence with reality.” A more realistic narrative, he mentioned, would be that of Peter Higgs. Higgs is a “winningly reluctant hero,” Highfield said, and deflects attention from himself to the thousands of scientists that collaborated in the discovery discovery of the Higgs-Boson.

By painting a more realistic picture of what science entails (like collaboration, frustration and struggle) and the people who conduct it (with personalities and complete lives), Des Jardins and Highfield are confident that students can go into science with a more realistic view of it that will help them overcome the difficulties in achieving their goals.