So-called “showmanship” in science

by Feast of Assumption

In response to Possible Modernist’s Showmanship in Science, I don’t want to oppose his central claim that showmanship can play a role in science (via science popularization, via attracting science funding, &c.). But I do want to invalidate his given example.

In his opening paragraph, PM asserts

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).

Dramatic demonstrations, sure. Public performance with emotional arc, sure.

But self-experimentation is not first-and-foremost showmanship. Self-experimentation is just the main ethical way to do batshit stuff!

The boundaries of science and engineering are tested and expanded by curious people, whose drive to know can outpace the willingness of review boards and funding partners to approve and fund research, respectively.1

When you want to work faster or weirder than the establishment will let you, the only ethical test subject is yourself.

I would agree that you could accuse some instances of self-experimentation of being showmanship, and if you were to, you would probably specifically label the flavor of showmanship stolen valor.” But in PMs chosen example, I would point out that wanting to work quickly to give humans immunity to a novel virus” is actually just plain old valorous. Yes, the experimenter took the real vaccine dose in his closet, and took” a blank dose for the photographer.

But he didn’t stage a vaccination to accept valor he hadn’t earned. He was just letting the photographer illustrate the work as it actually had occurred: feverishly motivated, faster than the review boards, un-or-under-funded, batshit—and tested on himself.

  1. Le Fanu, J. The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine. Revised edition pp. 108-115, on John Gibbon’s invention of the heart lung machine’ through twenty years of trials using himself, his wife, and trapped alleycats as test subjects. A bulk of the 20 years they worked on the project evenings and weekends as they had to contend with skepticism, indeed active discouragement, of their professional colleagues”. But the pump they invented enables cardiac surgery, and benefits tens of thousands of patients each year.↩︎