I just noticed a post at Michael White’s Adaptive Complexity entitled, “Bad Science Journalism and the Myth of the Oppressed Underdog” (9 March 2008). It’s good. Go read it.
[I]n our culture we love the underdog, who sticks to his or her guns, in spite of heavy opposition. In this narrative, we have heroes, villains, and a famous, brilliant scientist proven wrong.
I’m sure you could pick out instances in science history where this story is true, but more often it is not. You wouldn’t know this from the pages of our major news media though; in fact you’d probably get the impression that the underdog narrative is the way science works. And many journalists may think that too; after all, most of them read (or misread) Thomas Kuhn when they were in college, and Kuhn brought this kind of narrative to a new high.
This is the narrative which I called the “David vs. Goliath of Scientific Establishment” story. White gives a specific example, concerning the public presentation of evolutionary biology; in physics, the problem can be even more fun, since the actual relationship between David’s revolutionary idea and Goliath’s orthodoxy often requires a hefty dose of mathematical reasoning to understand. When a typical statement by a physicist trying to sort the mess out might read, “Any embedding of your gauge group in either noncompact real form of E8 will always give you a nonchiral fermion spectrum,” well. . . the temptation will always be to plump for the “social” angle and emphasize the personalities of the physicists involved. The “oppressed underdog” story emerges quite naturally.
To be fair, or at least spread the misery around, biology can suffer from Popularizer Mathophobia, too. White’s example comes from sexual selection theory and relates to the role game theory might play in understanding the dynamics of a population. Oooh! Math! Scary!