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The Double Edged Sword of Science

Well, it is that time of year when we send off freshly minted graduates off into the real world.  They have sat through speeches imploring them to go out and make the world a better place from their elders and others reminiscing on their times in college before marching to a podium, getting a piece of paper, and discovering that the alumni association is really interested in them.

While the speeches heard quickly fade from memory, GG would like to take a stab at some advice for science graduates….without the need to sit under a hot sun wearing a giant trash bag and the most ill-fitting and unflattering hat on earth.

Congratulations New Scientists! You have completed a degree program viewed as Important by Important People like politicians (very few of whom have completed such a degree) and placement officers (ditto) and your professors (who generally do have such degrees). So you must have done something significant.

Why might this be so significant?  It is because you are now armed with a powerful weapon, a sword of science, if you will.  With this, you can cut through bias to find truth, you can drop superstition in its tracks, drive rumor into retreat and determine how the world really works.  You have encountered and hopefully mastered a mode of thinking that helps you to penetrate thickets of ignorance.

Others will defer to your better judgement because you wield this weapon. Some of you will even command comfortable salaries. Having passed through the travails of an academic program in science, you may find the way forward easier for having suffered to this point.

But don’t pat yourself on the back just yet–remember you are holding that sword of science. It might hurt.

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A different view of science

Today is Earth Day, and many folks will be out marching for science. There are lots of reasons one might do this–provides the grist for technological advance, allows for finding ways of living longer and better, etc–but GG would like to explore a different tack.

GG was recently in Ireland, and at geologic sites like Giant’s Causeway and the Cliffs of Moher he looked for books on geology in the visitor center stores.  There was one rather generic book on deep time at Giant’s Causeway (with a cover shot of the Grand Canyon) and nothing at the Cliffs of Moher.  There were, on the other hand, fistfuls of books on Irish history, most of which dealt with events nowhere near the places where the books were being sold.  This is hardly unique to these places, but it is sobering.  Here are landscapes–geological landscapes–that people have travelled some distance to see, and there isn’t enough interest for there to be even one book specific to the place?

The point? People seem to gravitate to history books but avoid science books.  Science books, it would seem, are too heavy for casual reading. Many of the marchers today may feel science is important, but you wonder if they would pick up a science book while on vacation. Now perhaps this reflects a certain inability of those writing science to author accessible books (but there are some really excellent science writers out there), but it might also mean that folks feel that science is best left to scientists.  Just give me my smartphone, thanks, and make sure the plane gives me a smooth ride home and all is good.

Science can be more though than just the mechanism by which we find our way to new and better gadgets. It can also provide the same kind of insights into the human experience that we seek in art and literature. But by limiting science to an academic pursuit, the public misses out on this facet of the scientific enterprise.

This is why GG wrote The Mountains that Remade America. The book fuses human history with geological history, so in some ways it is a bit deceptive–here is some nice tasty history, and oh by the ways, there is some geology here too–try it, just a smidgen, and you’ll get a bit more yummy history. Who we are, why we do things some ways, how we live in others is rooted in the geology of a region, but this aspect of history is buried in most of those history books cluttering visitor center shelves.  Hundreds of books address the California Gold Rush.  Few if any consider how the gold got to be there–or that the presence of different kinds of gold deposits dictated how the rush would affect later history. Or consider how John Muir’s idolization of empty landscapes might have been different had he been tramping in the Rockies with Indian settlements all around instead of the High Sierra where occupation was purely seasonal.

So today, as many trumpet how important science is as a practical matter, don’t forget that science is a human endeavor, and there is real gratification in learning the origin stories that make us what we are.

Mountains that Remade America

For those who come hoping to see material related to the Grumpy Geophysicist’s upcoming trade book on the Sierra Nevada, The Mountains that Remade America, here are a few quick pointers. Read More…

I am biased…but so are you!

All of us who do science walk around with a lot of baggage.  So when we encounter a new piece of scientific work, we are biased about it when we pick it up. The key is what we do about this.

“Now wait” GG hears you cry “I always keep an open mind when I read a new paper.”

Really?  So you pick up a piece of young earth creation science and say “yep, as likely to be right as wrong.” Either you are a saint of some kind or lying to yourself.

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Don’t silence science

David Frum has a piece in the Atlantic arguing that effective popular action has to have a focused message. Otherwise all you accomplish is a massive cathartic moment (hey look! Lots of other people are pissed off too!).  That might feel good, but it doesn’t necessarily change the political calculus.

This brings us back to the March for Science. What is it, precisely?  More to the point, what is the demand being made by people marching in it? Is it to say “Science is great”? An anodyne theme like that could have all kinds of folks agreeing, including many the marchers would likely view as opponents.  Make lots of folks happy to see science isn’t viewed negatively. Is it “More money for science?” Er, wow, that sounds pretty self-interested.  Might want to see how the veterans’ march on Washington in 1932 (the Bonus Army) worked out-and those were military veterans who were driven out of town with tanks. Is it “do what the scientists say?” Ooooh, yeah, let’s propose a ruling elite after having an election that arguably showed widespread discontent with an elite.  Frankly, the March’s website is kind of vague on all this: “What unites us is a love of science, and an insatiable curiosity. We all recognize that science is everywhere and affects everyone.” Kumbaya, anyone?

Here is GG’s slogan: “Don’t silence science.” Short and simple. What are the demands? That scientists within the government and funded by the government be free to speak out about their scientific findings–these folks are being paid by taxpayers across the country and those taxpayers should be allowed to hear what the scientists have to say, not merely the parts some political appointee finds convenient.  That their data is available for others to examine–it too was bought with taxpayers’ moneys; hiding results because they are politically inconvenient should be unacceptable. A corollary is that research dollars cannot be directed to politically favored projects.  Imagine deciding not to fund research into the cancer-causing characteristics of tobacco while funding projects investigating the weight-control benefits of smoking. If you think health is important, fund health; if climate, fund climate, but don’t try to steer dollars more closely than that.

Scientists love to add caveats, specify details, allow for wiggle room, etc. We enjoy being long-winded and revel in gray areas of knowledge. Don’t do that here. Short, sweet, and simple: “Don’t silence science.”

P.S. 23 April. Noticed that the March for Science almost adopted GG’s theme, going for “Science, not Silence”. Not quite the same, but pretty close….

Boys Clubhouse, 2017 edition

Update 2/11/17 (International Women in Science Day). The Atlantic has a dispiriting piece on how scientists of color are not gaining ground in academia.  The causes sound a lot like like the story below. Apparently we white male scientists like what we see in the mirror far too much.

Years ago (um, 1980s), there was a conversation between a young female geoscientist and a prestigious professor from a Major Research School.  Prestigious Prof said that they really wanted to hire a woman but there weren’t any who measured up scientifically.  The female geoscientist immediately ticked off the names of five or six women scientists who would have been fine hires. Several are now American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fellows. Who was right?

It would be easy to write off Prestigious Prof as a sexist pig, but he really wasn’t; it was more being blinded by his own landmarks for excellence in his field.  The effect, though, was to engage in de facto sexual discrimination. It was many more years before the Major Research School hired a female faculty member, all the more surprising because all through this time their graduate students were nearly 1:1 female to male.

The lesson is that thinking you are open minded doesn’t mean you are.  And while female participation in the sciences continues to grow, there are still corners of possible discrimination. One of the more surprising showed up in an Ars Technica report today: For AGU journals, women are asked to review papers less often than would be expected from their representation in the field. The conclusion of the study cited was that this was mainly because women were asked less often to review papers, although they were turning requests down at a slightly higher rate than men.

Now this is talking relatively small percentage differences, not the giant goose egg of female faculty back at ol’ MRS in the 80s. And the assumption that this is an important part of developing as a scientist that the Ars piece accepts is debatable (for most of us, reviewing is a chore, especially if it is a poor paper and really especially if it is a poor paper outside our immediate sphere of interest, but it does force you to look at some literature closely).  But let’s accept the premise and ask, why are women asked less often? Could be bias from the editors (or, more typically for the AGU journals, the associate editors) but it can also be bias from authors, who will usually suggest reviewers and editors will often take one of those suggestions. All of which amounts to a subtler discrimination than what women endured in years past.  There can be a feedback amplifying the slightly higher percentage of review requests turned down by women: many journals will show the reviewing history of a reviewer to an editor, and if you see somebody has been turning down review requests, you think twice before asking them to review your paper. But there might be something more in play, and so it would be interesting to know if female editors engage in this too.  Why? Because as the most prominent underrepresented group in earth science, women are far more frequently asked to serve on a dizzying array of committees in order to be sure the committees are representative of diversity (GG has observed this up close). Now this can be a good thing if a high-profile committee, but an awful lot are busywork. So it is also possible that editors are sometimes choosing to protect female faculty from even more demands on their time (recall, most of us view reviewing a service burden and not the highlight of our days); if female editors do this as much or more than male editors, maybe this is the real reason. Even so, such paternalism is explicit discrimination, even if well-intentioned–even if done by women editors with the thought of helping other women scientists.

Frankly, GG would be happy to share the load. And so he’ll be trying to suggest female scientists as reviewers of papers he declines.

Is science underfunded or overstaffed?

The bane of most academic research scientists is the decreasing chance of getting funding from agencies like the National Science Foundation. Certainly one way to look at this is to argue that basic research funding is inadequate (which is nearly entirely from the government; very little private R&D money goes to basic research). The current situation encourages grantsmanship over scholarship, probably not the best means of improving science.

We can approach this from a different direction: maybe there are too many people at the trough. Derek John de Solla Price suggested in 1965 that good scientific literature doubles in about 15 years, but the literature as a whole doubles in 5 years. If correct, we risk drowning in mediocrity. Price warned of a problem like this, attributing this to the creation of big science (science supported by substantial financial support, in a sense).  If you could make a career doing science, but not really be all that dedicated to the field, you could clutter up the literature with your brain droppings. All we need to do, it would seem, is drop the mediocre people out of the field.

Well, where are all these scientists?  There are scientists in industry, scientists in academia, scientists in government institutes, and scientists in research labs. Pure basic research in industry is fading and not growing (and, in any event, is usually not looking for handouts from government), so let’s not worry about that. Of the remaining three, arguably the one that had grown most rapidly is academia. Over the past half century universities and colleges have perceived that there is money and prestige in scientific research. Meantime, Congress has encouraged the government to spread the wealth around, most obviously through programs like EPSCoR. Schools that used to focus entirely on teaching came to first allow and then encourage funded research. So maybe we have our culprit; all we need to do is ban university academics from research money and all will be well, right?

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