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.

Reflections on the Past Week: 1/22/17

With regards to what has happened over the past two days (and what will likely continue as an ongoing saga), I cannot add anymore to the outrage. The wrongness of this executive order has been said many times and more eloquently by many more people than anything I could say. If I do have to add my voice to this issue though, it would be one thing: we cannot cede the fundamental morality in this fight. I don’t mean tactically (how we protest, free speech, etc.), but I do mean why we support immigrants and refugees.

An all too common tactic by those who support immigration is the stereotype of the acceptable immigrant. This may be the immigrant who “pays back” to their host country far more than what is received, often depicted as the post-graduate student/employee working in some STEM sector. Or the refugee fleeing from terror, hoping and struggling to make a better life for themselves, seeking shelter in their host country. We who support immigration must resist these images. In my mind, each person — no matter where the come from and no matter where they go — has the right to travel freely across borders. To me, this is a fundamental right of every human being and must be held sacred. Chicago cannot ban people from Rockford or Joliet entering the city limits, Illinois cannot bar people from Missouri crossing the Eads and river, why should America or any other nation on Earth be allowed to restrict the rights of Iranians, El Salvadorians, Somalians, Mexicans, Syrians, or Hondurans?

There are people I know with whom I disagree regarding the best way to build a society. We disagree over government intervention in the economy; we disagree on the appropriate balance of positive and negative freedoms. But I know that what we really want is that all people are able to live a happy and healthy life with the most freedom. We are for people. Donald Trump is not. Donald Trump is for himself and “his people”. We who are against Trump must remember that we are for everyone regardless of how good of an example one is.