Mavericks and High-Flyers
Darwin, Copernicus, Galileo—such names are often invoked to enhance the credibility of anti-establishment figures in science. These comparisons put a premium on challenge and innovation while equating "normal" science with dogma, superstition, and intellectual stagnation. In fact, the heroic imagery of revolutionary science appealed to many of the protagonists in the causation controversy, constituting an important dimension of what Pierre Bourdieu would call their scientific habitus—the particular set of dispositions and "generative schemes of perception, appreciation and action" that engender "the choice of objects, the solution of problems, and the evaluation of solutions."
Duesberg himself was a good example—a brilliant high-achiever, with a history of swimming against the current, a researcher who disdained the mediocrity that he equated with establishment science. The peer review process that governed the scientific world punished the "Mozarts" while rewarding the "Salieris," Duesberg explained, leaving
little doubt as to how he would classify himself. Peer review was "good for technicians, but not for innovation"; it constituted the "stabilization of mediocrity."
For Root-Bernstein—at twenty-seven the second youngest to receive a MacArthur "genius grant" in the 1981 cohort of winners—the $144,000 award meant that he could abandon a "restricting" and "boring" postdoctoral fellowship and conduct a study of scientific creactivity. One reviewer of Root-Bernstein's book Discovering noted its clear sympathies: "Root-Bernstein's characters venture the heretical notion that the clustered, prize-ridden, hierarchical culture of modern science may actually impede important discovery. … What do today's superstar academic-administrator-researchers really think of seminal investigators like Mendel, a monk who discovered the laws of heredity in a monastery garden without federal grants …? Would establishment science even listen to such outside maverick voices today?"
Kary Mullis, called by Time magazine the "hippie-holdout biochemist" and the "Last of the Great Tinkerers," says he conceived of the breakthrough technique of PCR "while winding through the mountains of Northern California" at midnight in his Honda Civic. Claiming to read widely in cosmology, mysticism, mathematics, virology, chemistry, and artificial intelligence, Mullis published an article in Nature on "The Cosmological Significance of Time Reversal" while a graduate student in biochemistry at the University of California at Berkeley. "If you're too establishment-oriented, you're not likely to come up with something really original," Mullis told the Los Angeles Times . In 1993, when he won the Nobel Prize, Mullis was pictured on the front page of the local San Diego Union-Tribune in a wetsuit, surfboard under one arm; reporters marveled at the collection of giant inflatable penguins that adorned his living room.
Mavericks, innovators, individualists—these were people who were unafraid to cross disciplinary boundaries and venture outside of their areas of expertise. And they shared a critical view—call it a loathing—of contemporary "big science" and the way it squelched imaginative efforts. "When a new theory deviates from that held by the majority, it is labeled 'controversial' rather than 'original,'" Duesberg wrote in a commentary piece in The Scientist, with specific reference to Montagnier, Root-Bernstein, and himself; "and the 'controversial' label is tantamount to a death sentence, manifested by non-invitations to meetings, non-citations in the literature, non-nominations for awards, and non-funding of research grants."