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.
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.