You can’t barrack for scientists
“Why don’t scientists and people who contribute something to the community get the same amount of admiration as sportspeople?”
Mia Freedman asked herself that question last week as she tried to understand the hatred unleashed upon her when she suggested others might be as worthy of the term “hero” as Tour de France winner Cadel Evans.
The answer is strange - it’s precisely because they are heroes, that they aren’t hailed as heroes.
If you were watching Sky last Friday you might have seen Ant Sharwood cheating on The Punch on Freedman’s Sky show.
He made the point that sport’s appeal is in its narrative. Cadel wasn’t just riding a bike up a mountain, or even lots and lots of bloody painful mountains. He was the hero of a story the whole country had started following and invested in.
I don’t care about bike racing at all, but I watched this Tour de France. Why? Because I love stories. A world first for an Australian in one of the toughest sporting contests on earth after coming so close twice before! It was a great story.
And it was one I could participate in.
I can ride a bike, I can understand it. I’ve been in pain, I can understand that. I’ve failed, I’ve triumphed. There was something in the story I could relate to.
Of course I can’t ride a bike like Cadel Evans and there are subtleties and nuances but I don’t need to know them to get involved. And I don’t need them to get invested.
You know that guy crying when his team wins the grand final? He’s got an emotional connection. To what? He doesn’t need to know the team personally, or even have played the game.
Because as Ant pointed out - it’s the narrative he’s connected to. We understand pain, we understand trying REALLY hard for something. We understand failure, and we understand triumph.
And we got to share in a little bit of that triumph when “our” teams or “our” sportsman wins.
Imagine that guy with tears still on his cheeks if you came up to him and says “who cares?”
“Not only does what you’re crying about not matter, but other things matter more and why don’t you care about them? Where are your tears for them? What sort of person are you?”
I think a lot of people would feel foolish, a little ashamed maybe, and a lot angry.
But it’s not about you. Same as it wasn’t ever about Cadel. It’s about the connection, the emotional investment in the story.
But Freedman does make a good point - why don’t we connect with the narrative of someone devoting their time to the homeless? Or a scientist trying to find a cure for cancer?
It’s about the accessibility to their narrative.
Sports teams know this. Think about TV advertisements “it’s YOUR team”, “it’s YOUR game”.
They want you to own it, they want you to interact and buy into it. Because the more you own it the more tickets and merchandise they sell and the more money they make.
Think about doing that with community service - “they’re YOUR homeless”, “they’re YOUR drug addicts”.
Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it does it? An emotional connection to that story is hard, painful and a lot of the time disempowering.
Ever tried to help someone with a mental disease or a drug dependence? I have - it’s messy.
You don’t know what to do. You do everything right and it still breaks down. It’s hard to say where the goalposts are, or if there are any at all. There’s no scoreboard, and if there was I don’t know what it would say. There is no other team, no villain, no heroes. You doubt if you’re doing the right thing. I don’t even know KNOW what the right thing would have been.
It’s messy and it’s not the sort of thing that lends itself easily to participation from the sidelines. It’s not something most people want to think about or deal with, and those that do are heroic.
Science is different. Why can’t we have the same access to the narrative of science?
It has the same elements as sport. Hard work, odds stacked against you, failure, believing in yourself and triumphing against the odds.
That’s a good story, so why aren’t they on t-shirts?
Two things. Firstly, unless you know the scientist the first you hear about their research is when they’ve accomplished something. Secondly, the story becomes pretty quickly about the accomplishment and not them.
Have you heard of Jonas Edward Salk? Probably not.
But he’s one of those people Freedman was talking about, he’s an honest to god hero. Millions of lived saved, saint, champion, struggle against adversity and triumph kind of guy.
Forget James Bond - this is the man I want to be like.
Dr Salk was born into a poor family, but he didn’t let that stop him, he was brilliant, he worked hard. He wasn’t lauded for it, he wasn’t given millions of dollars and nobody on the street patted him on the back, he didn’t have a nation behind him cheering him on but he still persevered.
He saved the world from polio.
Back then polio was terrifying. It killed thousands of people each year, left tens of thousands more crippled for life.
When the news came out he WAS hailed as a hero, people even called for the day to be made a public holiday.
Imagine how much money he must have made!! Millionaire right? No, he gave it away. For free.
“There is no patent,” he said. “Can you patent the sun?”
And right there is the first obstacle to scientists becoming heroes. It’s not about them, it’s about helping people, or figuring out the world we live in.
Salk was hailed as a hero only because he was linked to another narrative, one of fear, suffering and loss.
But he wasn’t there the whole time.
It would be like watching a horror movie where everyone is dying and being crippled. Then at the end some dude you’ve never heard of - who wasn’t even in the movie until now - comes out of nowhere with a cure.
By all accounts Salk was bemused by the attention he got. He didn’t want to be a hero, he just wanted to help people.
And there is the big difference between scientists and sportspeople.
The sportsperson IS the narrative. You can’t have it without them. They are part of the accomplishment. Scientists become a footnote to this amazing breakthrough and thing they did. It sits apart from them.
It’s not that we value scientists any less than sportspeople. We can’t hail them because we can access them. There is no part of their story we can get inside and bring ourselves to and connect with emotionally. Scientists toil away in silence and then bring us something wondrous that most of us don’t completely understand and can’t relate to.
It’s not that we don’t think they’re heroes, we just can’t find a place to connect to them.
Unless they happen to be part of a larger story like Dr Salk they become hidden by their accomplishments, which are huge, and ironically - heroic.
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