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.

Science is Science

Tonight, Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman enter its 7th season. According the advertisements, it plans to take a different tack from previous seasons; this season promises to focus on social issues such as gun violence, the gender spectrum, and terrorism. I can’t review the season at this time since the episodes have not aired, so I cannot make a statement on the goodness or badness of them. What I am heartened by though is the treatment of social science and other social issues as…well, science. Too often, many people including and especially other scientists deride social science as not really being science. They claim its soft, lacks rigour, is more about feelings and emotions than rationality. Gender and Women’s Studies is mocked and derided as lacking intellectually capacity. And that really gets to me.

Firstly, there’s an element of privilege going on here. Women, people of color, and other minorities tend to gravitate towards these sciences instead of the natural sciences as their lives are significantly much more affected by the social order than people with privilege. Somehow, only true science is done by straight white men in tenured professorships and those that don’t fit the persona are not really doing science. Because social scientists often (but not always) expose the flaws of the current social order, challenge our assumptions of fairness, they are often on the forefront of attacking and breaking down the unfair privileges which some people enjoy and would like to keep. So they attack social science as a way to maintain and reinforce their position.

Secondly, there’s also a culture of science. Even if one doesn’t expect a scientist to be a straight white male in tenured professorship, one could still assume how scientists think. Science must be math-based and founded in abstraction. It must have a strong theoretical foundation which is predictive. There need to be highly controlled experiments to test hypotheses develop theories. Science is hard, non-science is soft. The problem with that is you are expecting science to be physics and not all science is physics. Physics, admittedly, is probably the most ‘far along’ science. But that’s because it is so easy, not because it is hard. When Galileo was watching cannonballs roll down slopes, he could get an degree of precision that cannot be gotten with humans. He could let cannonballs of specific weights from down a slope of the same height and angle with the same gravitational force a hundred times over to get the same precise results. If gravity were constantly in flux or heights and angles changed as the balls rolled down, learning about free fall motion would have been nigh impossible and we may as of yet still not have discovered the laws of gravity. Furthermore, the mathematics of physics is the easy math; mathematics of biology and sociology is much harder (look up the unreasonable ineffectiveness of mathematics). Yes, often times it is much better to work with highly controlled experiments which can either claim truth or lay waste to your hypotheses. Predictions and experiments are very nice but observations and descriptions, even simple ones, are what really drive science. Before formulating a hypothesis on how the world works, you first need a picture of the world, a description generated from a set of observations.  To know the process, you first must obtain the pattern. Simply because a field of science doesn’t look like yours due to different needs doesn’t mean its not science.

Two events made me realize the social science was science. I took economics as a minor in college. When I sat in my macroeconomics class and the professor got to IS-LM and Aggregate Demand-Aggregate Supply, I was amazed. The simplicity that such a model yielded to explain the economies of countries and how well it worked especially during this past global recession reminded me of my evolution class. In that class, I marveled at the simplicity of how four postulates — variation, heritability, fitness, gradient — could explain the diversity of life on Earth. And here, a model simple like Darwin’s could explain the complexity of the economics of a country. It was like economics was a science. The second event happened when I first started graduate school. We had to take a mandatory course where we learned about ecology and all the stuff being done in the lab. Before that though, we learned a bit about ecological science and science in general. And one thing I remember was what a grad student (filling in for his professor who was teaching the course) said to us. He said we should look to sociology for learning and gathering useful statistical tools due to how sophisticated they were. There, I realized that sociology and ecology overlap. Both are highly descriptive sciences without a strong degree of theoretical background or predictive capability. And if I were to say ecology was science, then sociology had to be one as well. At that point, I realized sociology was a science and I should treat their findings like the findings of people in the natural sciences.

And this is why I’m glad TWH is tackling sociological issues. Sociology is a science and needs to be treated a such. In fact, it may be the most critical science to human welfare since it can tell us give us the direct tools to make a society that works for all people. Are their failures of sociology as currently practiced?  Yeah, of course. Politics and ideology can hugely bias studies and results. But bias creeps up in all sciences, even physics. Can sociologists be too stuck on description, not enough on prediction or theoretical foundations? Yeah but that exists in ecology as well. Is there an aversion to non-statistical mathematics? Sure but once again see ecology. Even with these problems though, sociology should not be discarded as a science. Instead, it should be whole-heartedly claimed as a science so that it can be made better. After all, how can we make a field into a better science if we don’t claim it as science at all.

Third Restart

Hello one and all. Well, I have finally come back. The title is new, the appearance is new, and now I am ready to return. Let’s see how long this part of the experiment lasts. You see, the troubles I had with the previous stage of this blog was two-fold.One, this was really supposed to be a science blog. This blog was about me as a graduate student in ecology and evolution. I wanted to explain my field of study, helping to refine my skills in education and writing, and describe my life as a graduate student with all its ups and downs, including a documentation of the learning and research process. Unfortunately, all that got swept aside by politics and other stuff. I don’t mind writing about politics and society at large; in fact, I think it is necessary that I and all scientists and all humans engage the process of trying to better society. The problem came when it overwhelmed my blog which consequently lost its focus. The second problem I had was I just realized that I had nothing to say. It was as simple as that. Oh, I had ideas. I had ideas by the barrelful. By something to say? Well, I had not been as well read or well versed to the standard that I hold myself in a large majority of my ideas. Therefore, I could not legitimately put those ideas out there in good conscience as they were so understudied. For these two reasons, I had decided to shut down this blog.

But now it is back. This time, I am committing myself to this blog; and I have a plan. Every Monday, I must write a blog post. That blog post will be on one topic only — the previous week of graduate studies. This will serve a dual purpose. One, I will be writing about science. Once a week, you can guarantee that I will write about a topic in science. Therefore, this blog will not descend into just my mad rantings. Two, it will force me to tell you about an interesting topic in science, which means intensive reading on my part. Reading is an absolutely essential part to graduate school, and having this system will force me into this essential activity. Besides the weekly Monday post, I hope to have more posts along the way. These posts can be about anything — science, society, anything that interests me — though they will be heavily skewed towards my research and graduate studies, once again to prevent further degeneration of this blog. I really hope I can make this blog work. There is a feeling deep inside me which commits me to campaigning on behalf of science, which includes science education. Afterall, had there not been a Jacques Cousteau, a Jane Goodall, or a Carl Sagan, I may have not ended up in this profession. I just hope I can make this work.