Friday, March 13, 2009

Whatever happened to scientific discourse

I've been biting my tongue a lot lately, and it's really taking the fun out of science.

When I started doing research, I remember being really impressed at the intellectual arguments going on all around me, and how impersonal it all was.

I really liked that. Intellectual arguments fit with my picture of academia- bookish types arguing excitedly about bookish things! And wearing tweed jackets!

And I was coming from a very fucked-up household, where everything was personal and fighting was always the nastiest hyperbole ("you'll never amount to anything" type of stuff).

So I liked that science was vocal yet unemotional, or relatively anyway.

Lately it seems like science has become synonymous with censorship, at least in public. It's what one of my friends calls the "Midwestern sensibility", which is to say, you keep your mouth shut in public, and then gossip and/or backstab all you want when you're back with your allies.

To me, this totally defeats the purpose of doing science. If we're not going to have open discussions about the data, why bother?

For instance, I've worked in some labs where no one wants to say anything during lab meeting, for fear that the PI will latch onto any suggestion like a bulldog, no matter how stupid the experiment or how uninformative the potential outcomes.

This makes for incredibly dull lab meetings, with everyone awkwardly shifting in their seats and making sidelong glances... and saying nothing.

Those same labs are inevitably the ones that trash every paper they read for journal club- because apparently once something is published, it is

a) permanent, and therefore okay to talk shit about it;
b) probably wrong;
c) nowhere near as good as anything we're doing ourselves, obviously.

Wait, what?

I'm not sure which drives me crazier. Listening to the totally unbalanced critiques of papers, knowing that these same postdocs may someday (or may already) be reviewing my papers and being totally unfair about it... or watching everyone smile and nod like it's all okay when it's being presented, and then turn around and trash it once it's in print.

Admittedly, I know there are often good or at least strongly political reasons for not saying anything in public. I myself have run into this before, where I've raised concerns about certain data to my PI in private, only to have it made loud and clear that no one in the group (much less anywhere else) is to know about it.

So if I'm suspiciously quiet, that is sometimes the reason. Much as it kills me to play along, for the moment I am still trying to play the game.

I keep wondering if those cards will turn out to be useful in the end?

But I hate to think that is why everyone is so quiet these days? Rampant falsification and buried knowledge of artifactitude?

That's a horrifying thought.

I always assumed everyone was just shy, except that lately even the most revered loudmouths of years past are keeping quiet.

I always admired the loudmouths, especially since I didn't work for them. From a distance, even when they were jerks, they were at least really entertaining about it. At least they had gumption, and apparently tenure.

But now it's like all the life has gotten sucked out of science.

So what's going on? Did the masses close in and weed out all the loudmouth jerks? Have they all just gone underground?

I suspect self-censorship, probably brought on by the burgeoning wealth of political nonsense going on behind the scenes. Somewhere along the line I started paying more attention to what people don't say, to the obvious silence when there shouldn't be one.

For example, we've all seen the talks where no one asks any questions afterwards, and it's clear it's only for bad reasons, e.g.

a) the talk was incomprehensible
b) the data were so bad no one knows where to begin.

Is that why it seems like science is going downhill? A lot of it is crap, everybody knows it, but nobody wants to say anything?

I can't help feeling like politics are poisoning everything.

Meanwhile, I feel totally cut off from any kind of feedback on my work. My PIs are useless, and my fellow labmates never say anything about anyone's data. They seem to think discussing our ongoing science is somehow impolite.

It fits with the trend I've noticed of thesis committees not wanting to actually read anyone's thesis- they only allow chapters that have already been published, since it means they've already been peer-reviewed by someone else. Which also fits with search committees not wanting to look at unpublished manuscripts.

So then we have to conclude that it's only permissible to discuss science in postmortem.

Which means that all the real decision making always happens anonymously, behind closed doors.

Why is that okay? And how do we form a movement of people who agree that it's not?

I learned a new word the other day that I really like to describe what is happening in science: we have too many sheeple.

The real problem with the herd mentality is the herd behavior. If no one says anything, no one else will either. Everyone just goes along, and nothing will change.

Or maybe I'm just pessimistic since the whole Obama hope thing wore off.

That didn't take very long.

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At 4:49 PM, Blogger Mats Halldin said...

Keep rocking baby,
but keep in mind that meaningfulness is not created at meetings, it's something you create on your own. At meetings people are normally silent because they got other things on their minds, not because they object or agree to what is being said. Having something to say at every meeting is like this comment of mine: Sometimes you open your mouth, but most of the time the internet is simply to big. Now and then giving feedback to others is all we can hope to do, we can't start a new agenda every time we confront someone else. We all got our own projects cooking.

At 8:54 PM, Blogger tnk0001 said...

I know this feeling. I've seen it in some, but fortunately still seem to be surrounded by enough loud mouths to keep it fun. I keep quiet a lot myself because of the feeling of impostor syndrome.... if I open my mouth someone will figure out I don't belong in 'the club'. Sadly though I can see some of this creeping into the PI I work under. He's slid into this dire pessimism about everything and won't rock any boats either for fear of not getting funding or of looking like a crazy old man. When the science revolution gets going though count me in, I might even try starting it if I ever feel confident or insane enough.

At 9:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to think science was exciting. All I see around me now are mediocre males. If there were females, it would be nice, but there aren't any. Instead, I am surrounded by dickswingers and pissing matches.

My background is similar to yours - I would never "amount to anything" either. Seems we are both up for a challenge. maybe that's why we drank the academic koolaid.

It's not about the science anymore. I used to love my work. But the shit is too much. Silence = acceptance. And I'm so tired of being told to shut up, be polite, and don't make waves. My obama hope is wearing off too. My new goal is to not care. It's too exhausting to care, and there's no payoff. Sheeple +1.

At 8:21 AM, Blogger madscientist said...

You seem very depressed. That is sad.

I personally think that things go in cycles. Here are a few:

1. When you are younger and have a lot of energy, you think that the things that you say are sort of profound and that it will change the way people think. You speak up at group meetings and conferences, having some discourse with people. The problem, you find out many years later, is that very few people actually listen. If they don't like what you said, then they ignore it. Then you think, what is the point? And you basically stop. Except when you want to really make a point. Really. At some point, the pendulum swings back the other way, and you start speaking up at meetings again. Some people actually pay attention to the things that are said, you realize. You just have to know which are the important things to say....

2. In group meetings, you definitely go through phases where you just don't give a shit. Those phases can last a long time. I personally get so busy, that I don't want to think about other people's crap and I just want to be left alone. Sometimes that last for many months (think - semester). Then, the fog clears and you start to care again.

3. Then there is the political thing at conferences and reviewing papers and proposals and such. There are huge issues with this...

At 9:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was just thinking about this while reading The Double Helix. All this excited jibber jabber over lunches about the possibilities that the data showed! Even if they were shot down by some other data or further thinking a few days later. But still they were talking about this stuff all the time! I sometimes think that had I had an experience like this, I might still be a researcher today. And maybe no one reading theses is a symptom that the structuring of how science is taught and advised should be changed. I still think that it would be helpful to have profs who are more focused on teaching and others more focused on research as part of their job description. Or that their should be some sort of peer-review buddy system within labs from other grad students. I know that I reviewed a friend's thesis because his advisor didn't read it. And even though I didn't know the nitty gritty of his project, I could still figure out if stuff didn't make written sense and clarify things.

At 6:02 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

Thesis committees not wanting to read a thesis? Although a lot of my chapters WERE already published, many other chapters were not. My committee members only read the ones that hadn't been published. If committee members don't actually want to read a thesis (published or not) why bother?

At 6:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Double Helix....hmmm. Well Jim had a lot of time on his hands since he was not producing any data himself.It can be hard to maintain that level of excitement when you're actually doing the exhausting work of science.

At 10:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Consider that the scientific community is much easier to understand if you think of it in terms of the dominant priesthood of society. We have the scientific rituals, we have the arcane symbols, both of which takes many years to master, and we have the rites and the union card (the phd). The rest of the public have faith that we can fix all their problems technologically. In the same vein the younger scientists are the acolytes and the grunts that still believe in the official story ideology (it's all about the science), whereas the higher ups (the grantmaking organizations and professors) concentrate on the actual purpose of science, that is, serving as the effective religion for the masses. The postdoc period is a transition from one to the other. The ones that "survive" are either those with full on blinders (who are in for much bitter resentment/burnout eventually) or those that are willing to play the game.

At 1:11 PM, Anonymous James Dean said...

I feel the same way. The few people I can actually have enlightened debates with are not even in my field (and I'm still quite young).

At 8:24 PM, Blogger GirlPostdoc said...

Can't agree more about the self-censorship. I've blogged about this one:

It sounds like the people in your lab have learned early in their careers what self-censorship means.

At 9:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know what you are talking about? You are scientist and the people around you are scientists, talk about science and people will talk back about science. My life is completely science. We make science jokes, we talk about science at the pub, and we get grilled about our science knowledge by everyone in a more senior position. I am constantly pushed to be a better scientist and to be able to defend any position I have. I am sure there are exceptions... How much do you care about the scientific method though? Enough to call out someone when you know they are wrong? I hate people talking trash about science, it is everything I have ever dreamed. Let me tell you, being a graduate student whoops my ass and it is the hardest thing I have ever done. I started seeing a counselour because of the workload and stress are killing me but I couldn't love science more. I tell my counselour that every time I see him.

At 2:24 PM, Blogger joe said...

I see what you are saying. You could chalk it up to the fact that people are more aggressivly posting in blogs and such that they are getting less and less comfortable with face to face contact. I have noticed a drastic change, in the last 20 years, In communication. There are also as you said the political issue of keeping face so you can shine when you get you chance.That's my 2cents.

At 5:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After 20 years in engineering and growing up the son of a phd with dinner table science discussions, I am working as a PRA surprised at how political and commpetitive the environmment is.


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