Sunday, December 24, 2006

Faith and civilized disagreements.

It's strange to wake up and watch Tim Russert talk about religion on Meet the Press. Just weird.

All the talk about atheism got me thinking about my lack of faith.

My lack of faith is based on personal experience. When I think about it, it's something I know deep down, but it's easy to see where it comes from. So we'll start at once upon a time.

Upon arriving at high school, I began an after-school activity that shall remain nameless.

I worked my way up, got a letter jacket and pins and eventually some responsibility (leading practice, that sort of thing) and a little recognition (won some stuff), because I was very good at that after-school activity.

But the seniors got all the glory. So I couldn't wait to be a senior and get my chance to really compete, not just for the fun of it but just to see if I could. To get more recognition, maybe make my parents see that I was good and that all the hours I was at (activity school activity) weren't a complete waste of time.

When I was a senior and it it was finally my turn, I got screwed.

Our faculty sponsor said that since my parents wanted me to go to a certain kind of college and would not let me be a professional (after school activity), her time was better spent promoting my peers, who had a shot at making it big.

So halfway through my senior year, I quit. And in a lot of ways, it was good for me to quit, since it was the only time I really hung out with people my own age instead of going to my after school activity practice. For example, I was surprised to learn how much sex everyone was having. That sort of thing. It was like having a paper bag taken off my head and suddenly I could see what everyone else had been doing after school!

My father yelled at me about quitting. I was surprised by the violence of his reaction, since my father is generally a very quiet dude. In contrast, my mother was relieved. She thought I'd have more time to spend on homework and therefore be more of an Outstanding Student (note to mom who isn't reading this: there was no way studying more would have gotten me straight A's).

Fast forward to college, where I got some responsibility and recognition, not because I was The Most Outstanding Student (I never did have straight A's), but probably because, by sheer dumb luck, I was politically positioned.

By sheer dumb luck, I worked for the Right Person during the summers, and this got me some attention where nothing else would have. (Right Person, it should be mentioned, isn't connected enough outside my college to have been useful to me after that, so any benefit from that one good dumb-luck choice was short-lived.)

In grad school, I made the mistake of following my scientific interests, which meant I worked for the Wrong People. Since I was never an Outstanding Student, and didn't have a named fellowship or any other accolades, I had nothing going for me.

I did the same thing as a postdoc, not for lack of trying to find the right person who might share my scientific interests and help me be outstanding and get a named fellowship.

Despite all this, my work is pretty outstanding. But because of the way the politics get mixed up with the work part of the work, it's hard for anyone to see that. They think they shouldn't have any faith in my work because it isn't backed by enough of the Right People.

Maybe I've said some of this before. I probably have, but I'll say it again:

The problem with politics in science is that it's our equivalent of the Church.

The benefit of organized religion is that it saves you from reinventing the wheel. It's great for lazy people because it's basically a protocol for getting to happiness/heaven (depending on which religion you follow). If everyone had to find their own way... the world would be a very difference place.

It's the same thing in science. Most people are followers, and despite our claims to be pioneers, most scientists don't want to always be inventing new wheels.

There's too many confusing things out there, and it's only getting more confusing day by day. So instead of taking the trouble to decide for ourselves, we want a filter.

We should have a filter to look at the science, but instead we have filters for the people doing it.

So instead of the following:

1. Is it a good question?
2. Is it the right approach?
3. Did they find anything interesting?
4. Did they follow up on what they found?
5. Am I convinced by the evidence?

The criteria applied are:

1. Who is senior author?
2. Have I heard of them?
3. What school are they from?

The guys on Meet the Press this morning also talked about civility and how it's so important to work with people. I loved the way the one guy said that there is not even one person on earth who will agree with you on everything.

And while I violently disagree with much of what that guy believes in, I agree with him on that. Amazing!

So my other bone to pick today is how scientists have of late agreed to agree on everything. The only time it's safe to disagree is when you're the first person to put your flag down on new territory.

Case in point: Finding something new is so highly prized, people rush to have it even if it turns out later to be wrong. This whole business about the retraction of several papers based on a flawed crystal structure is sad, but not for the reason you might think. Okay, so these guys were wrong, sloppy, whatever you want to call it (I'd put a link but my internet proxy isn't working right now). That's bad and we can huff and puff over the flaws in the peer review system (oh my GOD how did they miss that??) but we've done that elsewhere before and I'm sure we'll do it again.

No, this is sad because nobody else was allowed to publish anything that conflicted with the existing crystal structure. Nobody. And if you read the article in Science, there's maybe 1 sentence devoted (better than none?) to all the people whose grants and papers got rejected because they conflicted with the published data. How many young scientists quit over this one example? How many labs shut down? How far does the impact spread? That would make for a very interesting study.

So I have to ask, when did we agree to always agree? I don't remember signing anything where I promised never to get any results that conflict with what's already been found.

What happened to publishing the data, whatever they are, and arguing about the interpretation afterwards?

This is the single most depressing thing to me about where science is going. I can't tell if it's just because of politics or if it would have happened regardless.

Maybe it's the filter again: it's simpler to cross things off the list as 'solved' than to admit that everything is still an open question.

But that is one area where I agree with Tim Russert's religious guests. Working together with civility, and agreeing to disagree some of the time, is far preferable to suppressing new evidence in favor of pretending we already know it all.

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At 8:58 PM, Blogger Fab adventures of Carlysle Tancha said...

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.
Mark Twain

At 9:00 PM, Blogger Fab adventures of Carlysle Tancha said...

All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.
Mark Twain

--Another one-- I am on a kick after viewing An Inconvenient Truth...

At 6:45 AM, Blogger Wannabe Prof said...

Hey, just want to let you know I think your take on that Meet the Press segment is really cool. I wouldn't have thought to apply the discussion to academia.

At 1:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think your comment about publishing the data and then arguing about the interpretation later is the key to scientific honesty. Of course, if you publish data, there should be an attempt at interpretation, BUT, we all know that years down the road, something new may pop up which will become a factor in the debate and clarify the interpretation of your conflicting data. However, the data, conflicting or not with previous reports, should be reproducible, which may be difficult to tell if it is hard to publish the data in the first place (and other reports that back up your claim are also squelched by unconvinced reviewers).


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