A Lack of Thought

I recently got a smartphone. My first ever smartphone. As a mid-range millennial, that may be a shock to some people. We’re all supposed to be hyper-connected social media addicts. But I was one of the last holdouts. Not for any philosophical reason, but because I just didn’t find it necessary. My phone was mostly working, served me when I needed it. After a while, it became more and more clear to others that I needed a smartphone. So my family got me one for my birthday (presented a bit early), and you know what? I love it. In one month, I’ve really taken to this smartphone and the universe it provides. It really does make my life more efficient, and I’ve found my niche in the social-media universe, taking to some apps over others (Instagram, Twitter vs. SnapChat, Facebook). But like everything in life, there are quite clear downsides. For one, I discovered the problems of downloading games on it yesterday. But I think the biggest problem (for me, at least) is that being connected to social media makes you always feel you’re never doing enough, especially when compared to the dominant personalities.

Twitter, oddly enough, is a big deal in the scientific community. It really is how scientists connect, chat, learn about events, discuss the latest discoveries. It really is amazing. But as usual, certain personalities dominate, seemingly doing it all and making you feel inadequate. This is not just a social media problem in science. It’s a virus that has infected all parts of the system. As there becomes less and less public funding for research, as university jobs dry out, as more people get PhDs, competition for every little scrap becomes fiercer with publish or perish now the mantra. Job committees now look at publication number, h-index, and impact factor to determine whether to hire (Edit: Please read Dr. Jeremy Fox’s comment. He kindly pointed out that such an assertion is quite tenuous). It’s almost like a game show.

You got the highest score! Johnny, tell them what they’ve won!

A career!

Ironically, this has all been facilitated by computers, by the devices you are reading this on at the moment. Computers, and technology in general, is often billed as a way to make life more luxurious. We can do more with less, so we’ll do less, rest more, and enjoy life. Instead, people generally tend to do more in a (mostly subconscious) bid to outdo the other. And scientists have fell into this trap. Even with less resources, scientists can do more and more research with better computers. Publications are churned out at incredible rates, huge projects are done then mined to find relationships, mathematical equations are simulated hundreds of thousands of times on the computer to find any general patterns. Not everything associated with this is bad. More publications are happening partially because more people are doing science research, a positive especially as people from underrepresented groups engage within science. Larger projects means collaborations between disparate fields and a holistic understanding of the system. We can create more realistic models of the world without being stuck by lack of analytical tools. But all of these have serious downsides. More publications does not mean better publications and in fact can lead to the opposite. The chance of finding relationships in big datasets is really high, almost guranteed, even if they don’t make sense (p-hacking is becoming a problem now). Simulations allow us to write any model, not matter how ridiculous or unrealistic, and get results without attempting to obtain analytic solutions. With better technology, we don’t have to think; we can just do more. Write more, build more, gather more, run more, analyse more, write more, build more, gather more, run more, analyse more, write more…

A couple weeks ago, the Friday Links post of the Dynamic Ecology blog linked to an article about how some of the great thinkers like Darwin of our time were “slackers”. Still immensely devoted to their interests and causes, they took adequate time to rest, never pushing themselves to do more than they wished. It stresses the importance of making work deliberate and getting adequate rest and sleep. I think there is also another phenomenon at play. During these resting hours, the high-achievers probably did a lot of thinking. Darwin likely was very careful with his experimentation, making sure that it would test his hypothesis adequately and rigorously. When looking over the specimens, he didn’t just focus on classification but thought about what it meant that so many disparate forms could be of the same grouping. He took more than 20 years to develop a single theory (yes, a revolutionary one but just one all the less) and likely more had the threat of Wallace not crept up on him. And speaking of Wallace, he only came to the idea of natural selection while resting and recuperating from malaria, a time when he could think.

Unfortunately, time is quite literally a zero-sum game. The more we devote to one activity, the less we can devote to another. By the laws of physics, time cannot be slowed or expanded, only sped up. In a culture that asks for more, our time doing expands usually at the expense of our time thinking. We are put amongst the trees, unable to see the entire forest. More creates a greater number of hedgehogs and fewer foxes. I don’t want this to be taken to be dismissive of the work of hedgehogs. Knowing the details of a system is very, very critical to understanding what causes the system to tick. They can often spot the bullshitting foxes who come up with strange ideas and nothing to back them up. Doing allows for the empirical verification of our hypotheses and theories, often expanding and creating new theories in the process. Too much thinking, too many foxes creates a post-modern culture where everything is true as long as you believe it to be so. But we also mustn’t understate the importance of thought, especially as our scientific culture creeps away from it. Thinking deeply and critically is the foundation of the scientific enterprise. It must be cherished and preserved. For me, that likely means less time on the smartphone using social media and more time playing Angry Birds.

Why I Won’t Be Marching for Science

Currently, the big hubub in the scientific community, the one everyone is talking about, is the March for Science. Essentially, scientists, and people who value scientific inquiry, around the world will gather to protest the degradation of science in the current political climate. It maintains special resonance as the march will be tomorrow, Earth Day, and we are seeing the politicization of climate change. I know a lot of people who are going and are moved to go especially since the election. I also know some people who will not be going; one of them is me. I cannot speak to why other people aren’t going. Their reasons are varied. I can though say why I’m not going. Basically, I feel uncomfortable protesting as an academic.

There is a lot of back and forth on whether scientists should protest or not. We don’t want science to be politicized. Science is already politicized. The function of a scientist is to remain neutral. Science does not exist in a vacuum. etc. The thing is I agree with a lot of the arguments of the “pro-protest” people. Science is already politicized (in some areas), it does not exist in a social vacuum; even if they were true, scientists are still human, not amoral automatons diligently doing work regardless of societal context. At a basic moral level, we do have to speak out when injustice happens. I also quite agree with the message of the participants and organizers. Science does occupy a lower rung within our society. We value science when it tells us what we want to hear or brings us tangible benefits. All other times, it is discarded and demonized. (By the way, I don’t think our treatment of science has gotten worse in recent years. In some ways, the problem is that it has become less politicized [and I mean politicized in the general sense of used to gain power] and less serving to specific industries.) So if I agree with all that, why am I not going?

There are many reasons I am choosing to not to protest. Some of them are personal, others are logistical (ability to get there, time,…). The main reason I’m not going though is that while I feel the reasons for the protest are valid, I do not feel that the protest is valid. The problems facing the scientific community are real and potentially severe, but scientists themselves are people with power and privilege (yes, I that word). Protesting arose because people without a voice understood that coalescing and disrupting gave them a voice. I’m sorry to all my academic friends, but scientists have a voice. Though it may not seem like it, we have many advantages that make protesting, to me, seem shortsighted and being self-unaware.

This main reason can be further subdivided into two more reasons why I won’t be going. One, as people with privilege and power, I don’t want to seen to be complaining about what is, compared to many people, a pretty good life. Think about it. Many scientists and academics (which should not be confused with just being PhD recipients) are doing what they love to do for, frankly, a nice salary. Sure, it’s not perfect. Long hours, decreasing opportunities for new academics, less funding, increasing pressure to publish and pad the CV, all these things can make for a miserable life full of stress. But few would sincerely trade their degree for having no skills, their career in academia for a career at Walmart. We get to be professionals, not workers. Even I who have thought deeply about ending my PhD early (and almost did!) am thankful that it never came to that. I’m glad that I will be pushing for a PhD. And despite where my career ends up, I will be better off in skills than the vast majority of the American population. In some way, we’re like men trying to bring awareness to the fact that the majority of suicides and suicide attempts are by men and that this is a crisis. The reasons are very, very valid. I have no problem with advocacy for such a problem. But I am very wary when it begins to veer into the territory of clashing, or even simply contrasting, with the problems. Slogans like “Not All Men” or “Men Matter, Too” or god forbid “Men Rights” are expressions of privilege. I worry about scientists expressing their privilege, especially if it’s in the context of “The dumb public won’t listen to us educated ones.” Which brings me to my second point.

The second point that scientists helped create their problems and scientists can still solve them. Part of the discrepancy concerning male suicide is that men don’t feel comfortable expressing emotions due to gender roles that define men as logical and tough and women as emotional and soft. As callous as it sounds, men by creating these gender roles help to foster the disparity of suicides. In the same way, scientists helped create some of their problems. While part of the CV padding and the publish or perish mentality is created by a hyper-competitive environment due to a lack of funding and jobs, we must admit that a huge part of this is created by our own obsession with h-index, number of citations, and journal impact factor. This is something we could solve if we really wanted to. As for say public awareness and investment in science, I would ask those marching what they plan to do after the march. Are they trying to speak about their research to the public? And not just the public who want to listen but those who don’t? Scientists have often taken a didactic approach to knowledge dissemination. We know, we speak, you listen. And that’s at best. Other times, scientists are unwilling to even engage, expecting to just be given money to do research and left alone. It’s what I was hoping for when I first started doing research. Refusing to talk about your work and isolating yourself is no way to “charm” the public. Even when we do such things, we are unwilling to almost engage in the fundamentals that will truly bring science to a greater prominence in our society.

The role of science cannot be solved if the deep wounds injuring our society aren’t fixed. The problems of racism, sexism, classism all combine to create a toxic stew that drags the entire society, including the scientific elements, down. And scientists and scientific inquiry are not immune from them. All these evils plague the field and are often perpetuated by scientists themselves both within and outside the confines of academia. Many scientists who want to work in academia dream of working at a well-paid Ivy League institution. They choose to live in upper-middle class neighborhoods, which are often predominantly white. They separate themselves culturally from the wider public, thumbing their nose at those who may dare watch sports or reality TV. Once again, I have been guilty of all these things (except for wanting to live in a majority white neighborhood). Few want to work at a public institution unless it is prestigious like Berkeley or Michigan (*vomit*). Even fewer are willing to leave their cushy middle-class neighborhoods and live in rural areas, working-class areas, places that aren’t majority white. The best way to counteract growing scientific illiteracy is a robust public education system in which all members get a roughly equal base-level of education. The poorest areas often receive the worst funding of public education and said poverty is often tied to race. How many scientists are willing to give up their nice middle-class neighborhood and move to a mixed-income one? How many are willing if they stay to accept public housing or have low-income families move in so their children can receive a decent education? How many are willing to send their kids to the local public school which provides an adequate education instead of the private school? How many scientists are willing to intermingle with the “lesser” culture and make connections with people not like them? How many are willing to deeply engage with the wider community?

This is where scientists can really make a difference. Am I against the protest? No. In fact, I salute many of the people there. They, unlike me, are willing to do something about the problems they seek, not matter how imperfect I see their actions. At least they aren’t just sitting at a computer critiquing while doing nothing. I recognize my deep hypocrisy as I write this spiel. But I do hope that this just doesn’t begin and end with the protest. That as scientists we complain for a day and do nothing about it. That we, with the ability to change the world, are content with changing only our fortunes. Oddly enough, I feel the solution is to get more politicized. To stand up against racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia. To stand up for the redistribution of wealth and the integration of our neighborhoods and schools and against the banning of immigrants. To stand up for healthcare for all and against discrimination in health whether due to poverty, disability, or sex. To stand up against nuclear proliferation and weapons in general and against starting wars and regime change. To stand up for renewable energy to combat climate change, TRAID, and doing what is necessary so that every society is developed with citizens whose welfare is high. We need to get political and really make sure our voice matters for all people and everyone, not just ourselves.

On Choosing a Format

So I’m in a bit of a pickle here. I am currently working on a study with another graduate student, and we are writing up our results right now. The study is a mathematical analysis with large-scale biological implications. As we are writing it up, I am torn with a decision that happens at least once to every academic trying to publish. Letter or Article?

To those who don’t know, there are two formats for publishing scientific research: the monograph, the article, and the letter (sometimes called note or report). The article is the standard format. Intro, Methods, Results, Discussion. Moderate length and plain speaking, it is the default for any person willing to publish their research. Monographs are larger, more detailed, and more comprehensive than articles. They are articles on steroids. Letters are short, quick to read, and pithy but assumed to have broad consequences. For any person doing any research, it is quite tricky to determine the category of write-up where their research belongs. Length obviously gives an upper-bound. If there is not enough for a monograph, it must be an article or letter. If not enough for an article, then definitely a letter. But when deciding between multiple formats it can be tough to decide. Which results are important, which are extra? Who is my target audience? Are my results significant enough? Especially in an era where any extra information can be tossed into an online appendix, the question of formats becomes really difficult.

Currently, I’m struggling with whether our study should be in a note format or an article format. There are reasons for it being a note, some valid, some not. Some invalid reasons are that I’m lazy, and I’d rather not do the work required (I can admit to my faults). A valid reason is that I am appropriately lazy though. This work is in a field that is not mine. Though I am interested in it and would like to continue exploring it, I don’t think I should do the necessary work to understand it especially when I am working on finishing up my studies, a far more important task. Another (potentially) valid reason is that this is (I think) a significant study with wide implications. I want academics to read this, and human nature states the longer an article, the less people read it. Furthermore, I want biologists of all kinds to read this, and this is a mathematical study. While there are mathematical biologists, I don’t want non-mathematicians reading equations and getting lost especially considering the implications affect them the most. Online appendices allow us to still offer those necessary equations if people want to see it. Lastly, I don’t want to have to beat around the bush. I want to get to the point quickly and simply. Why do I need to say something in 40,000 characters if I can say it in 20,000 or less?

On the flipside, one can come with a series of reasons why to keep it as an article. If I am interested in this field, I should do the necessary research, if just for the fact that I can continue and find interesting studies. As well, who’s to say biologists won’t be able to understand or even enjoy the math? I may be underestimating a broad swath of people. And if the math is so necessary, why chuck it into an appendix? It’s the meat of the study; it should be prominent. As well, one of the mathematical analyses uses a specific function. I think the results may be generalizable, but I have not proved it. The equations certainly matter in that part of the analysis. And can I be so cocky to think my work is so important it must reach the widest audience possible?

I’m not sure what to do at this point. My emotions drag me towards a letter yet I still remain with the article. I don’t know what to do at this point. I don’t think I can come to an easy answer…


If you were expecting a nice resolution, I think you’re at the wrong blog.

Reflections on the Past Week: 03/26/2017

I hate being sick.

I’ve been sick for the past week and half and it hasn’t been a pleasant experience. Lots of coughing, midly itchy throat, tiredness, and stuffiness. At they all sort of staggered (expect for the tiredness which was always on). So as soon as I thought I was over one symptom, another one came. Since last Thursday, 3/23, I have had these symptoms. And they suck. Enough to make you non-functional but not enough to actually make you realize you are non-functional. So as I was sick, I would try to do work only to have my body rebuff me.

Considering two weeks ago was spring break, I was hoping to do a lot of work. Maybe make a package that I could send to a committee to show them that “Hey! I’ve been actually doing work!” Nope. First half, I was busy socializing. Latter half, well… So for two or so weeks, I did nothing. (Well, nothing really. I did get a little accomplished.) In my mind, by now I would have been sending the package to the committee along with getting ready to submit a manuscript for publication. Best laid plans, huh?

So for the past week and half, I essentially did nothing. I lay in bed, watched daytime TV, and took gobs of medication. Essentially, I lived the life of an old-person after retirement. Which in some ways wasn’t bad. We all need to take some time to rest and recuperate. Apparently, I needed a week. And sometimes we can’t know when to rest. Perhaps this sickness forced me to do what I needed to do: rest. Perhaps, getting some time away from academia, stress, and life in general was what I needed at that time. What I wouldn’t have been able to recognize for myself.

I still hate being sick.

In Honor of Darwin Day

We are all Keynesians now.

This quote, usually attributed to Richard Nixon, is really believed to have been said by Milton Friedman. What Nixon actually said was “I am a Keynesian in economics now.” Both statements are powerful in the fact that they come from people who are ideologically on the right. They are in  a sense saying the tenets of and evidence for Keynesian economics are so powerful that they are able to sway people who may be ideologically resistant to accepting the theory. I remember my declaration of my Keynesian identity. That came in the fall of 2011. I was taking a macroeconomics course at the time, and the country just had the “natural experiment” of the Great Recession. I remember how much Keynesian theory made sense, fit the evidence, but was also so simple.

It may seem strange to talk about economics and Keynes on Darwin day, a celebration of the life and studies of Charles Darwin. But if it weren’t for Darwin and his (and Wallace’s) theory of natural selection, I would have never become a Keynesian. I would have never pursued academia. Hell, I wouldn’t have ever understood science. That’s because Darwin’s theory of natural selection made me understand what is and isn’t a good scientific theory.

I first truly understood the theory of natural selection when I took a course in ecology and evolution in spring 2009. Before then, I never really understood science. I treated it like a series of facts to be learnt and spit out instead of understand the process. Sure, I had learned the scientific method, but even then, it was more a series of steps understood by my conscious brain. I could write them down, but beyond that, nothing. It was only after learning the theory of natural selection that I could understand its power and the power of a good scientific theory.

Evolution by natural selection is often taught to people in terms of examples. The fastest antelope is able to evade the cheetah, the tallest giraffe gets the leaves, the most extravagant bird gets the mate. Taught this way, it is hard to synthesize what is actually going on. And that’s how  I learned natural selection until spring 2009. It was then that my college professor laid it out in four specific bullet points:

  • Individuals differ in traits from one another
  • Some of these traits are at least partially, if not fully, heritable
  • The traits an individual has can affect the number of offspring it has (its fitness)
  • An individual’s environment determines its fitness

These four points are simple, so simple that a child could grasp and understand how this happens and what is going on. In fact, we can reduce them to just five words: “heritable variation and differential fitness”. 5 words, 4 points and yet more than enough to explain a significant portion of the diversity of life on Earth. I felt like Thomas Huxley – “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that.” When I learned about natural selection like this, I had to declare “I am a Darwinist in biology now”.

From then on in the course, we built up from Darwin’s theory, learning in detail the peculiarities of how evolution worked about the strange and interesting dynamics that could come from it. Natural selection (along with some genetics) formed the backbone of what we know about the diversity of life today. It was the steel structure in our tower of knowledge. Everything flowed easily and seamlessly from it, nary a hic-cup or bump slowing it down. So much power from so simple a beginning idea. It was then I realized how to determine the validity, the “truth” of a scientific theory. Was it simple, blindingly intuitive, and yet able to explain an enormous amount of evidence? Then it must be — on some level — true. That’s what made me a Keynesian, that’s what made me a Darwinist, and that’s what made me understand science.

Darwin shaped me in many ways. Learning about him and other scientists like him solidified my love ecology, evolution, and natural history. They made me want to pursue a career in academia. Because of them, I work at the intersection of ecology and evolution, trying to answer the fundamental questions about the natural world. More than that though, Darwin specifically gave me a way of thinking. It gave me a way of understanding the best tools to answering questions and the best answers to a question. It freed me from the magic tricks that people often do to convince you of bogus theories. It freed me from the mounds of bullshit that plagues us. Darwin gave me a way of understanding the world around me.