Showmanship in science

by Possible Modernist

Although we sometimes think of it as staid and restrained, there is a long history in science of doing things that are more performative. From dramatic demonstrations, to self-experimentation, a public performance with an emotional arc might be the only thing that convinces some people (or at keeps them paying attention).

In Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution, for example, Lisa Jardine writes about Robert Hooke, the curator of experiments for London’s Royal Society,

Hooke’s bravura as an experimentalist—his pure showmanship—stood the Royal Society in excellent stead over the years. If need be he was prepared to experiment on himself. On one occasion in 1671 he devised a man-sized chamber for the air-pump, and volunteered to occupy it while it was evacuated. Fortunately for Hooke, the pump performed middlingly, emptying only about a quarter of the air from the container. The sensations he reported when he came out of his airless container were giddiness, deafness, and pain in the ears.

Further examples abound (and would be worth collecting). As a more recent example, consider the Rapid Deployment Vaccine Collaborative (or RaDVaC), who early in the pandemic developed their own homemade vaccine (which is nasally administered) and distributed it amongst themselves. On the one hand, this could be seen as straightforward scientific work: is it possible to invent a covid vaccine that can be brewed up in one’s own lab and self-administered? It could even be seen as a noble endeavor, to make something cheaper and more widely available, though it doesn’t seem like this was ever intended for widespread production (in part due to legal barriers).

At the same time, however, it is not just those things. Whether or not the scientists involved actually sought this out, the endeavor is now interlinked with how it was covered in the media (which is also how we know about it in the first place). For example, in the MIT Technology Review, where it was first reported, there is a photo of George Church (“the celebrity geneticist”, as they call him) sticking the delivery device up his nose, a photo which is clearly a staged photograph.1 The New York Times coverage has the equivalent photograph of Preston Estep, Church’s former student, and the chief-scientists of RaDVaC, though the caption claims that this actually is a photograph of him administering an eighth iteration of his vaccine”, and perhaps it is.

This kind of performance is clearly not at the level of doing a grand public demonstration of self-administration of a vaccine, to show that it is safe, but it still requires the willing participation of the scientists, who no doubt perceive some benefit from their posing for photographers. (A public demonstration, of course, would be about as convincing as a magic trick, a connection that deserves further exploration). The number of people who read about this and remember that any of it happened is likely also very small. And yet, this incident becomes part of the narrative, and will be surely woven into the stories that are told of this pandemic many years from now.

  1. According to the New York Times article, Church said he took it alone in his bathroom to maintain social-distancing precautions.”↩︎