Thursday, March 31, 2005

Why all the negativity?

So I haven't written much lately because I've been pretty busy in the lab. Something came up this week that I thought would be worth discussing, though.

A couple of the postdocs in my lab, their ages are something like 30-ish (+/- 2 years). One of them got up recently and gave a lab meeting where he used some new technology, and he doesn't trust it because it relies on statistics and computers to handle large amounts of data. You mostly don't see everything that goes on behind the scenes, and it makes him uncomfortable.

So he thinks it's all crap.

I was astounded that anyone my age, but especially a scientist, would be a) so ignorant of computers and b) so paranoid about them as to say some of the stuff this guy said.

I mean, if you're 30 and you already closed your mind for business...?

The idea that this guy is in academia terrifies me. How many of him are there? He seems nice enough, very thoughtful about a lot of things, but really unenthused about science. I mean, if you have qualms about something, and you can't figure out how to do experiments to allay your fears, what are you doing here? I hope for all our sakes that he leaves if it will make him happier. He just got a fellowship and doesn't seem to care. Can I just say, we should have some kind of enthusiasm test you have to pass before you even apply for a fellowship? I mean, there are plenty of gung-ho people out there, why give one to someone who's just looking for a chance to jump ship?

I'm used to these kinds of paranoid attitudes from the older generations, although I have to admit it's somewhat foreign to me since my family is very pro-computer, and always has been. Even if they don't always understand what the computers are doing, my family thinks they are a good thing, a big technological advance that changed our way of life for the better.

There's another guy who is similar, but worse. He doesn't trust anything unless it's all or nothing. Alive or dead is about his level of comfort. I'm very relieved to hear he'll be going to industry, because the idea of someone like that having students makes my blood crawl. It's one thing to be that paranoid about your own data. But in biology, where most things are gray areas, it means that the vast majority of stuff your students bring you, you won't believe.

What really gets me is people of my generation - what would you call it, W? we weren't quite generation X? not that I want to be associated with the letter W in any way- who go into science and proceed to be so negative, I don't know how they get up in the morning, much less come to lab or do experiments. I mean, I am far from Mary Sunshine myself, but the stuff that makes me negative usually has to do with people, not technology. In general, I like technology. I admire people who can invent things to do stuff more easily, and stuff we couldn't do before. Although it might not be perfect, I think it's worth my time to understand how these programs work, so I can get the most out of my data. And why not? I like data. I like analyzing data (or rather, I like analyzing the results...).

I feel sorry for postdocs who don't.

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2 Comments:

At 8:19 PM, Blogger Mike the Mad Biologist said...

I collaborate a lot of molecular microbiologists (I'm an evolutionary biologist). What I've found is that thinking about quantitative data is just really hard for a subset of biologists. I don't get it either.

 
At 3:37 AM, Blogger Greg Tyrelle said...

I'm also an almost 30 post-doc, bioinformatics in my case. During my PhD I came across this kind of attitude from many of the academics in my department: "I don't trust these newfangled computers gizmos, I do all my calculations by hand!". Actually, they made their students do the calculations by hand :)

So I'm a little surprised (scared maybe) that this kind of attitude exists in my generation. In a way I'm not quite sure what to make of it. Maybe, as Mike suggests, it is just a (very small) subset of biologists.

Everything else in this post I totally agree with, the enthusiasm test is a classic...

 

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