Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Is science a free country?

It's a spectrum. The anti-scientists, those who don't know or care, and the science worshipers.

We all start out not knowing.

The we split into worshipers or anti-scientists.

The anti-scientists become more spiritual, if they weren't already, when they realize they are against scientific progress. They find support in various groups that praise God's word or the purity of not meddling with Nature.

Science worshipers are students and laypeople who like to read Nobel Laureates' autobiographies. They have a rose-coloured view of science on a pedestal, having only heard the good parts, they are mostly unaware of all the blood, sweat and tears that go into every great advance.

But where are the scientists on the spectrum?

Most non-scientists assume we are all science worshipers.

While most of us have a profound respect for good science, this is often accompanied by a profound disgust for many of our fellow scientists, and much of the scientific system as it now stands.

Does that make us bad scientists? No. It has no correlation with the quality of our work.

Yet I've noticed a disturbing trend, much like the preference of our President to surround himself with yes-men.

It seems that those who criticize the scientific system are assumed to be bad scientists.

Surely, goes the assumption, they are not successful, and that has made them bitter. Their concerns are irrelevant.

I've realized of late that science worshipers can do a lot of damage. When I was a YoungFemaleStudent, I too followed the science worshiper commandments. They went something like this:

1. Thou Shalt have no other gods than Nobel Laureates.
2. Thou Shalt speak no ill of science or scientists.
3. Honor thy teacher.
4. Thou Shalt Love Science Homework.
5. Thou Shalt set as your only goal to be a professor.

While Commandment #2 makes sense in terms of not siding with the anti-scientists, if you can't criticize your own country, it's not a free country.

Even if it's not strictly true for the U.S., scientists should strive for more separation of church and state.

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At 8:44 AM, Blogger etbnc said...

I like to say, "Most models are wrong, but some are useful." (a la George Box) I think you've described a useful model.

It gets to something that I find helpful, which is to separate the information known as science from the culture and the behaviors of the people who participate in that culture.

When we bundle up knowledge with its producers, our culture seems willing to accept dysfunctional behavior as the cost of functional knowledge. But I don't consider that an acceptable trade. Moreover, as you suggest, I don't think it's a necessary transaction.

I prefer to live in a culture in which the people who create knowledge do so with respectful and amicable behaviors.

Thanks for sharing your insight.


At 8:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Off topic, but I have an issue that is weighing down my little (black, right now) heart that I'd like your advice on. There is someone that I have to interact with, another PI who is male and my "superior," who just doesn't seem to *listen* to me at all. At joint meetings for our labs, he will ask me the same, exact question repeatedly, and when I give him the answer, even showing him slides that refute his point, he doesn't give up. Several times I've scheduled meetings with him, and he just seems to forget those meetings. I feel like when I talk with him he must be hearing noises a la "the school teacher from Charlie Brown." You know the character - "wa-wa wah, wah wah," if I may quote her.

One friend of mine said that it could be that he's just hearing a female voice, thinks "wife," and immediately blocks out the words. To combat this type of subtle sexism in the past, I've resorted to wearing incredibly unfashionable glasses, dressing as androgenously as possible, talking in a low voice, and not wearing any make-up (I contemplated not brushing my teeth, as well, but that was just carrying it too far). I don't really show emotion at work, either. In other words, I have made myself as "geeky", "masculine," or "unsexy" as possible so that my male colleagues will see me as a rational individual who is one of them - a true science nerd at heart. It doesn't seem to work. Instead, it seems that I will always be seen as a female who is "different" than them and therefore prone to "female hysteria" when something completely unacceptable occurs at my expense (evidently, I am not capable of expressing the "righteous anger" that these guys think they feel). Or if, with a straight face, I say something in debate with them, I am not merely giving rational counterpoint, but instead questioning their authority (if they hear me at all, that is). Or, they are condescending toward me, and attribute my ideas to others. Then, there are the disgusting remarks one of them throws at me about sex (apparently, he finds androgeny a turn-on).

I don't know what to do. Frankly, I'm tired of it. I have gotten to the point that I really hate all of my male co-workers. I resent them for their behavior, and it's just down-right depressing working for these freaks without any respect. I'll probably have to switch labs or jobs, but just feel completely let down by academia in general. I thought it was this egalitarian place where individuals were respected for their differences as well as their talents. Instead, I feel as if I'm never going to be accepted into "the club" because I'm not a spoiled-rotten male (young or old, because, let's face it, some of those geriatric coots are/were the worst of the lot and probably treat their wives with less respect than they treat their female colleagues).

At 6:36 AM, Anonymous JaneB said...

Hi! Have just recently discovered your blog, and having read all your archives just wanted to say that you're doing a great job in describing the post-doc experience and I wish you all the luck you might need in your job hunt. I'm in my late 30s now, and British so the length of training thing is slightly different... I have held a faculty job (and the equivalent of tenure, a 'continuing contract') for nine years now which I got after four years of post-doccing, one year of that essentially unfunded. And I'm getting back to the same depressing place of 'what now'? The politics is worse than any of my post-docs, partly because I know this isn't just a 1-2 year contract and I'm in for the long haul, partly because it now affects not just me but 'my people', the grad students and undergrads working on honours projects in my field and even the occasional post-doc. I don't 'have a lab' at this point in the biosci sense, partly because I work in a smaller and slower-moving and less funded field (and in the UK where the funding regime is challenging). 'Having a lab' was my goal once I got the faculty job - but the politics of the grant awarding system is very depressing. I have heard representatives of the funding body say 'excellent people WILL BE AT excellent institutions' - e.g. where you work determines how good you are - and I'm in a good but not brilliant university - I'm in the top ranked science department, we're in the top 15 nationally according to the government assessment, we have some superb people (some of whom are idiots), but we aren't 'excellent', apparently. The Faculty job is DIFFERENT to the post-doc - your writing sounds so much like me as a post-doc, I've never been lucky and I've worked my butt off to get anything I have, but the science drew me on, and the teaching and mentoring. I still love both of those parts of the job most days, but the POLITICS.... Science itself is so rewarding, I've put up with all the rubbish (and the low pay) as the price I pat to do the science, but now I'm beginning to question that trade-off. I would love to correspond (though can't find a route to contact you directly and don't have a blog...), especially if I can be of any help as a mentor/sounding board - my greatest support has been a friend who has followed a similar career path in materials science (I'm in palaeoecology), so we know none of the same people and are not in any way in competition, so never run into the same people and can sound off(!), but are experiencing similar problems. Mind you, she has the worst story - she was on an interview panel for a new post at her institution, and the first comment made in the discussion following the interviews was 'we don't need another woman, we've already got one' - and my friend, the token women, was actually there at the time...


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