Arsenic, quasicrystals and the myth of the science martyr

The story is straight out of Hollywood: an ambitious scientist makes a startling discovery that runs counter to everything that is supposed to be true in their field. Their initial announcement is met with near universal skepticism that quickly turned to scorn, earning them outright hostility from several prominent scientists. They are even kicked out of their lab for their heresy and the shame it brought to their advisor.

Am I writing about Daniel Shechtman, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of quasicrystals? I could be, for this is his story, which reached its happy denouement last week. But I am not. I am writing instead about Felisa Wolfe-Simon, whose announcement last year that she had isolated a strain of bacteria that could use arsenic where all other life on earth uses phosphorous followed an almost identical trajectory.

I am not going to retell the story of #arseniclife or why I think FWSs actually IS more or less completely wrong. You can read about it here, and here, and here. What interests me about the parallels between these two stories is not their specifics – but how they highlight the way most tellings of scientific history glorify the ideal of the suffering, unrecognized genius, and how they also reveal the the destructive influence this myth can have on people who fancy themselves this kind of scientific martyr.

Of course we rightly celebrate Schechtman for recognizing the importance of his discovery, for not listening to those who derided him and told him that his claims could not possibly be true, and for stubbornly sticking to his guns even when it threatened his career. We should be disgusted at how often people who have just been awarded a Nobel Prize recount some version of this story.

Scientists – for all the lip-service they pay to the idea of discovery – are remarkably unwilling to accept it when it is amidst them. Perhaps the arsenic story also demonstrates why this is not necessarily always a bad thing. Most would-be world-changing discoveries turn out to be wrong, and a certain reticence in accepting them drives their advocates to seek the kind of compelling evidence that forces people to accept them.

But there’s another, less positive, side to this myth – exemplified by the way FWS responded to criticism of her paper. She almost immediately began portraying herself as the unrecognized genius – a story line she has cemented over time. But rather than taking this as motivation to prove people wrong, she seems to have taken the fact that she is being criticized as sufficient evidence to prove that she is correct. This was certainly the case when I saw her talk in Berkeley last spring, and was the definite impression I got from reading the profile of her in Popular Science.

I won’t try to predict the trajectory of FWS’s career. Maybe she’ll recognize the need to buckle down and do the hard experiments necessary to prove or disprove her ideas (I’m even willing to give her space in my lab to do it if she’s really been sent to the curb by her former advisor as the PopSci article implies). But people also sometimes find the idea of their own iconoclasm so intoxicating that they get stuck this way.

The most obvious example is Lynn Margulis. In the 1960’s she proposed ideas – initially scorned by the community – that mitochondria originated as bacterial symbionts in eukaryotic cells. Like, Schechtman, she stuck to her guns and, nearly two decades later, was vindicated. But Margulis seems to have taken the wrong lesson from her experience, and she now revels in her self-appointed role as scientific contrarian – championing a host of crackpot theories in evolutionary biology.

Another example is my Berkeley colleague Peter Deusberg, a smart and affable virologist who seems to have let the attention he garnered with his insistence that HIV does not cause AIDS (which, unlike Margulis’ more esoteric claims, has caused significant harm in the world) turn him into an all-purpose contrarian.

Schechtman’s response was very different. He stuck to his guns, even after Linus Pauling called him a “quasi-scientist”. He believed that his data was solid and would ultimately win out – which it did. And I’ve never seen anything to suggest he thinks he was right because he was ridiculed, or that his experience in and of itself entitles him to espouse other crazy ideas.

The real lesson we should take from Schechtman is that good ideas backed by compelling data almost always ultimately win – and that there is no lasting glory in being an outcast for outcasts sake. But I think we grossly underestimate just how tempting it is to slot oneself into that role, and how easy it is to succumb to that temptation.

Few of us ever are in Schechtman’s or FWS’s shoes – believing (right or wrong) that we have made an earth-shattering discovery. But many of us probably find ourselves in something akin to the position Deusberg found himself in with HIV and AIDS – as the chief skeptic of an idea that, at the time, wasn’t yet on completely solid ground.

Successful scientists are, for the most part, incredibly good critics of other scientists’ work. We can pick apart our colleagues experiments often better than our own – to see the controls they should have done and the methods they should have used, and we are particularly adept at coming up with alternative ways of explaining data that undermine their conclusions. This is an important, and constructive, part of the scientific process. If we turn out to be right, great. And if additional data erase our concerns, that great too. That’s the way it usually works.

But in the times when I have been that skeptic, I could feel the tug of something else. Of course recognizing the weaknesses in other’s work is nothing like making a new discovery – but it can feel like it. There is a pull – a sense that you are somehow tapping into the exalted realm of the scientific outsider who knows they’re right when everyone else is wrong. And the expectation of the vindication that will come when everyone realizes you were right. It can be hard to give up that taste of glory.

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