Friday, May 15, 2009

Willfully naive.

Lately I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around just how fucked up science is.

Whenever I think I've seen the worst, something else happens and I think:

Holy crap, how is that even possible.

The depths of human folly, that's how.

But I think my problem stems from this idea I had that scientists would be somehow better people, more objective- even to the point of admitting their own biases- than most. That these people were my people.

But most of us are not objective. Not even trying to see our own biases, most of the time.

I'm having trouble finding my people among these people. Yes, blogger-types, I have enjoyed "meeting" many of you online, but I'm not sure how to meet you in real life. Or if we would even get along.

I'm having trouble connecting with my feelings about this because I think one of the things that helped me do science thus far has been learning how to step back, how to not take it personally if something doesn't work, or if I happen to have a wrong hypothesis for a while. I'm really glad whenever I recognize this, that I'm holding onto something too hard. I always feel like when I let go of something, I'm making progress.

So now I'm trying to separate my feelings about science - in principle, a good idea to study the world using evidence-based, hypothesis-driven, observational methods, right?

And my impressions of most successful scientists: deeply insecure human beings with low EQs, who are trying to make up for being socially stigmatized as children by being bullies on the scientist playground as adults.

To some extent, I've known for a long time that truth is relative.

But in another way, I don't think I fully appreciated just how fucked up the process is of deciding what is currently true. Just who gets to decide, and why it's them and not anybody else.

I think I thought that, no matter how insecure the scientist, most people would be forced to admit in the face of evidence, what is objectively real and what is not.

Interpretation is up for debate, okay. But it turns out that even the objective definition of "real" and "fake" depends entirely on people's perceptions and willingness to admit their fear and insecurity.

I guess I've been thinking about this because a friend's paper got rejected recently with reviews that basically accused her of lying. But the evidence is right there in the paper, and this particular kind of result can't be faked.

It's infuriating because it's almost religious, this kind of argument. Which means there is basically no way to win.

And this is kind of how I feel about science in general lately. That there are so many bullies around, we can't get any real science done.

In thinking about this, one of my memories of elementary school came back to me with visceral clarity.

I always hated recess, because as a kid I wasn't very athletic at all. I was always bored at recess. I would probably have been happier to sit outside and read a book, but for some reason I think they wouldn't let us take books outside. I remember watching the other kids chasing each other around, throwing balls, hanging off the monkey bars.

And I was just waiting for it to end, so we could go back inside. Probably backwards from how kids are supposed to be, but I was much happier sitting in class.

I kept watching the other kids, trying to figure out what I could learn from them. I couldn't figure out what I was missing, since I couldn't do what they did. Maybe if I could have run around in circles, I would have gotten the data I was missing.

I guess this is sort of a metaphor for how I feel about the scientist playground. I feel like yeah, maybe it serves some purpose, and maybe most people enjoy all the monkeying around.

I've even come to learn to appreciate some of it that I didn't before- having drinks with friends, shooting the shit. It can even be the fun part when you're at a meeting sharing data all day. Just to do something else for a couple of hours in the evening, use a different part of your brain. That makes sense to me now.

But most days, even in lab I keep feeling like I did in elementary school: like I'm wandering around the playground by myself, looking for someone to talk to, who also wants to go back inside and do the fun part.

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At 11:42 AM, Blogger Matthew said...

I don't know: I'm still in Ph.D school, but it seems like I get less and less sure about things as I learn more and more about my research area and how the rest of the world works. It's starting to be more difficult to make decisions because I don't have enough data.

Is this how I should feel as a scientist? I think most people want to throw that sort of uncertainty away in favor of being able to be sure about something in life, and then it carries over.

Maybe it's something I'll understand when I'm older.

At 2:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They accused her of lying? That is awesome! That means she actually has an important, maybe even revolutionary, discovery in her hands!

Tell her to hang in there, keep re-confirming with more data, start a small community of people that believe in the results (the young revolutionaries) and keep trying.

Nobel prize, here we come!

At 2:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you mean when you say that the truth is relative? The speed of light is not relative. The fact that deoxyribonucleic acid carries the genetic information of humans is not relative. What a group of people think about a particular issue at a particular point in time - like whether prions can replicate without DNA - may be up for debate, but that doesn't mean that the truth of the matter is relative.

At 3:48 PM, Blogger GirlPostdoc said...

I like your analogy of science to childhood because I think that it captures the psychology of interpersonal relationships.

In academia there are definitely schoolyard bullies. For one, the asshole supervisor who takes the sandwich money (publications) away from the younger ones (grad students and postdocs).

Secondly, there are reviewers who seem interested bullying others but hiding behind the anonymity of the review process. HippieHusband's supervisor, Dr.Dick had a paper that was rejected solely because of politics. Although, I felt like it was poetic justice, it just means that the personal becomes the scientific.

I do, however, think there are some of us who are fully aware and are trying not to be those kinds of people. I have encountered them at SmallUniversity. And it's no coincidence in my mind that they are at a small university. My intuition is that the size of university is inversely proportional to the number of assholes at said university.

You're quite right about meeting those types. One suggestion is that you try the ecology and evolution people at your campus. I think a larger proportion of us EEB types are way more laid back than the biomedical scientists.

Though that being said, there are still bullies in every schoolyard.

At 3:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Been a postdoc for a year and somewhat and it has made me realize one thing: there are many things I like much more than science. Talking to non-science friends who ask me how i am doing is fine. Talking to science people who ask me how i am doing makes me feel horrible because i don't know how to say that nothing works and i am not sure whether i am cut out for this.

At 4:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

when we go get our tattoos, we'll write up a paper or dig for that missing data too! YAY!

I hated recess too. Dodgeball was just another activity which involved bullying and boys crap. Practicing cheers was NOT an option. I remember sitting on the curb playing with jacks or making thread bracelets.

At 9:10 PM, Blogger Amanda said...

This is really quite depressing to read. I'm sorry that you're in this situation, where things that should be clear cut aren't, and where adults are acting like children.

I suppose part of it is just human nature-- to be right, to be "best"-- maybe your friend's paper was in opposition to something to review published? Regardless, it sounds like it sucks.

At 6:31 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

No books at recess? How odd. I got chased around by those dirty boys, so I finally ignored them by reading books under the slide. I still remember how lovely and cool the gravel felt....

At 11:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yep there are definitely a lot of bullies in science who are in positions of power and use their bullying tactics to keep things that way. They always come out on top, while the postdocs and students take the fall.

At 9:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have seen many an academic yard bully lately. It seems like no matter what I do, I can't get away from it. Let's find somewhere that we can just get all those kids who wanted to skip recess- we'll do the best science EVER.

I wonder the ratio of recess thrivers: haters in most departments. I still think/hope that I notice the bullies most solely because they tend to be really loud and the rest of us have to find quieter ways to work around them.

At 4:53 PM, Blogger daedalus2u said...

That is much like the reaction I get when I talk about nitric oxide, and that is with nitric oxide researchers. Most of them can't handle the truth.

I agree with anon 2:09, a ticket to Stockholm.

At 5:31 PM, Anonymous Sabine said...

Ms. Ph.D., I just stumbled across your blog this weekend. I'm not from the sciences (well, my Ph.D. was in political science, but who does political science think it's kidding with the whole "science" thing, anyway?). I just wanted to tell you how awesome it is to hear someone writing so honestly about a) being a woman in science, b) being a woman in academia c) trying to exist in academia with a shred of self-worth.

I think the world needs more of what you're doing. Thank you for maintaining this blog.

At 7:48 AM, Anonymous Mike_F said...

Your friend might appreciate the following quote from Howard Aiken-
“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

At 11:01 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Not very stealthily, this post got a lot of discussion over at DrugMonkey.

It's kind of creepy that he doesn't link it here himself, so I thought you might want to read about it if you hadn't already.

At 11:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Walter Kirn was on the Colbert show today talking about how people like Bush (who can't tell the difference between Iraq and Iran but excel at cocktail parties) should not be running the country or anything else but a shitty baseball team. His spankin new book is called "Lost in the Meritocracy" which highlights how higher learning is about asskissing and gamesmanship, not knowledge and innovation. The dumbasses are running higher "education" into the ground. The smartest people are getting away from the dumbasses.

I really hate it when a blogger posts an "open letter" type thing without letting the person involved know about it. Low blow. I'm still stewing over Drugmonkey's useless spew. Kate's comment was right on, but I have a few thoughts of my own to post later.

At 1:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree it is creepy the way Drugmonkey put up a whole post about your post, but behind your back - it's like the whole playground thing you alluded to.

At 1:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

to be fair though Ms PhD, you don't link all the time when answering to others' posts either. ..

At 7:36 PM, Anonymous Successful Researcher: How to Become One said...



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