Category Archives: Science

Hurrying to go to better things.

Over at Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne addresses an article by Andrew Riggio, in which Riggio questions the thought processes of a man named Paul Lord who thanked God for saving him from a tornado that struck in Oklahoma, killing several (including 3 young girls) but sparing him.  Noticing that (unsurprisingly) the comments have exploded into a sprawling mess, Coyne pulls out a few for special attention including this one:

Kleb  •  22 hrs ago
Wooooooow. Bitter much? The author’s argument presupposes that from God’s point of view death is bad. People of “true faith”, as his last sentence mentions, are equally grateful to God for His providence in death as in life. Look at the great heroes in Christianity. When they died they weren’t bawling and begging God to spare them, they were profoundly relieved to be joining Him and, at the same time, deeply grateful for the ride they had been on in this world. From a Christian perspective, then, there is no inconsistency here. The survivor is grateful for the life God has given him here, as he should be, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t also looking forward to meeting the Lord.

Whoa!  Should we be grateful to God for asking 6 million Jews to join Him during the Holocaust?

Seeing this reminded me of something I read a while ago in John Aberth’s great book Plagues in World History.  Faced with the crushing mortality and morbidity of the First Plague (the Justinian plague that ran from roughly 541 to 750 CE), Christian preachers responded the only way that they could, from the pulpit.  In reply to the bubonic scourge, Aberth notes this particular line of thinking:

By the seventh century, sermon cycles were being compiled to be recited on a regular basis whenever plague struck a region as part of the Church’s now standard response to urge its flock to repent in the face of God’s wrathful chastisement;  this at least is the overarching theme of four homilies composed at this time in Toledo, Spain, which, as expected, are replete with quotations from the Old Testament.  Yet, one sermon, the third in the series, adopts a strikingly different tone by employing the carrot rather than the stick […].  In a remarkable passage, one that seems to be inspired by the New Testament, in particular the letters of St. Paul, the preacher now dangles the promise of immortality during the Christian afterlife or resurrection in order to help his listeners conquer their fear of imminent death from the “groin disease”:

But what should we say?  You who take fright at this blow (not because you fear the uncertainty of slavery, but because you fear death, that is, you show yourselves to be terrified), oh that you would be able to change life into something better, and not only that you could not be frightened by approaching death, but rather that you would desire to come to death.  When we die, we are carried by death to immortality.  Eternal life cannot approach unless one passes away from here.  Death is not an end, but a transition from this temporary life to eternal life.  Who would not hurry to go to better things?  Who would not long to be changed more quickly and reformed into the likeness of Christ and the dignity of celestial grace?  Who would not long to cross over to rest, and see the face of his king, whom he had honored in life, in glory?  And if Christ our king now summons us to see him, why do we not embrace death, through which we are carried to the eternal shrine? For unless we have made the passage through death, we cannot see the face of Christ our king.

(emphasis mine)

Kleb the commenter has one thing right:  a belief that death is acceptable and even preferable to this life, whether from God’s point of view or from the worshipper’s, is certainly not a new phenomenon.  I wonder at the power this line of thinking must have held when those who contemplated it were faced with a disease that can kill 60-90% of those it infects and may have wiped out as many as 25 million during the Justinian plague alone.  In the mean time, though, I’ll be thankful for the efforts of modern medicine and science which have brought the plague to its knees. (Even if we are on the verge of squandering that advantage and resurrecting the plague’s power through antibiotic abuse, but that’s an entirely different post).

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Rejection Watch Vol. 1, Supplementary Online Material

Photo by Troy C. Boucher Photography, used under a CC license.

Submissions for Rejection Watch have dropped off, which doesn’t really surprise me;  the traffic on this blog isn’t quite strong enough to sustain a feature like that (yet!), though I don’t regret the attempt.  The submissions I did get were fantastic and if anyone out there still wants to send me material, I’ll be happy to resurrect it whenever they do.  In the mean time, though, a couple of relevant posts from around the web have cropped up in the last day or so, and I feel like they make great supplementary reading for those of you reeling from academic rejection.

Rosie Redfield (she of debunking-#arseniclife-fame) over at RRResearch posts her rage over a crappy review of her postdoc’s paper:

We finally (after two months) got the reviews back for the postdoc’s manuscript about DNA uptake bias.    It’s a rejection –  the reviews were quite negative.  The first reviewer was very unfair; they didn’t find any fault with the methods or data or analysis, but they attacked our brief discussion of the functional evolutionary context of uptake bias.  This is all too common for my papers.  The reviewer is so hostile to the idea that bacteria might take up DNA for food that they don’t focus on the science.  Because the paper was rejected we don’t get to do an official response to the reviews, so I’m relieving my frustration by responding to them here.

She goes on to do a detailed, blow-by-blow response to the objections of the two reviewers.  The whole thing is a great read, even if you’re not in this field;  the feeling of ‘oh, that happened to you too?’ is too good to pass up.

Meanwhile, over at The Bug Geek Crystal has found a new pit of despair:

So you know that I handed my draft manuscript in to my advisor last week.  He sent back a document covered in red ink. Then my labmates pointed out all the dumb things I did, and showed me all the cool things I COULD have done but didn’t.

My advisor, a real funny guy, said, “You should make a new graph about the revision process,” and I was all, “Ha ha ha that’s so funny.”

The graph she makes is pretty awesome, but one of the things that struck me was that even the most well-meaning revisions from people close to you (advisors, labmates, colleagues you respect) can cut deeper than the blunt hammerings of an anonymous reviewer with a grudge.  I think that this is because it inspires different emotions, rage for reviewers and despair for labmates.  When we have a personal relationship with those who have dripped red ink on our work, it’s hard to avoid  the attack on your sense of self:  this person knows me, and didn’t think my work was perfect, so there must be something wrong with me.  I should have done better, screwed up.  These are people that you (usually) like, that you want to look smart in front of.  Contrast Crystal’s feelings of despair with Rosie’s feelings of rage;  when anonymous reviewers trash our material, unless we think that they’re right we can work up a really good mad and use it as fuel to revise. In the academic setting, it feels to me like rage is a more productive emotion, a provocation to defiant action (‘I’ll show you Mr. Anonymous Reviewer who will never read this paper again!’) while despair has a soporific effect that leaves us drained and dragging ourselves through the revisions.

Of course, this is just a sweeping generalisation based on my own experience that is almost certainly wrong in some fashion.  But hey, maybe you can leave an anonymous review?  Then I’ll show you.

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A quick follow-up to DolphinGate: cool science!

One of the things that surprised me about the weekend’s DolphinGate flap was that most of the mainstream articles I read were acting as though the paper that they were wildly misinterpreting was providing the first evidence for dolphins engaging in same-sex behaviours.  The Huffington Post is a great example of this;  here, for example, is the first paragraph of their story:

Dolphins were once humorously alluded to as “gay sharks” on an episode of “Glee,” but a new study suggests that bisexuality and even homosexuality among the marine mammals may be very much a reality.

I’ll admit that this caught me off guard, because I was under the impression that the dolphin same-sex play was a well-established fact.  How was everyone reporting this as a big surprise?  Yet when I spent a few minutes poking around on Google Scholar, I couldn’t immediately find a good reference for when this was first talked about in the literature.

Thankfully, the internet provides all!  Justin Gregg of the Dolphin Communication Project mentioned my piece on Twitter and, seeing an opportunity to get to the bottom (?) of this, I reached out to ask him if he knew when these behaviours were first observed.  Justin came through in a big way:

1948!  I can’t get at the actual paper (#icanhazpdf?), but the abstract is a gem of scientific understatement:

A summary of observations of captive porpoises is given. Vision and hearing are well-developed, and vocalizations are produced in the form of “jaw-snapping,” whistling, and barking. In captivity the porpoise shows a diurnal sleep cycle. There is a stable dominance hierarchy. Both homosexual and heterosexual behavior has been observed, as well as masturbation in the male. An instance of live birth is described. The play of the porpoise is complex and goes on for long periods. They manifest many and definite fears. The homologies of these types of behavior with that of other mammals is discussed. When various characteristics of porpoise behavior are considered and compared, the animal may be located at many different points in a scale of phylogenetic complexity. Although no information is available on problem-solving in this form, other types of behavior place the porpoise at a place in the developmental scale between the dog and the chimpanzee.

I’ll have to own up to my own foibles here, though, because the conversation may have gone a little down hill after that.

[Insert your own jokes here….]

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Science journalism blows it, dolphin rape edition.

A few weeks ago I got into a discussion on Twitter with Ananyo Bhattacharya, online editor of Nature News and writer for The Guardian’s science section, after he put out a call asking for ways to improve science journalism. During that conversation, I argued that one way to do this is to create a culture of journalism that values scientific knowledge and expertise as a core value[1]. Ananyo seemed unimpressed with my viewpoint, and suggested that the main point of science journalism was to pry into the dark corners and root out biases, fraud, and the like in science. He views scientific communication and scientific journalism as two distinct things (and thinks that journalists doing ‘PR for science’ is ‘drippy’). Indeed, when asked directly during a Royal Institute forum on science journalism whether journalists should read the original papers behind the stories that they write, he dismissed the idea:

“If the question is ‘must a good science journalist read the paper in order to be able to write a great article about the work’ then the answer is as I said on Tuesday ‘No’. There are too many good science journalists who started off in the humanities (Mark Henderson) – and some who don’t have any degrees at all (Tim Radford). So reading an academic research paper cannot be a prerequisite to writing a good, accurate story … So I stick to the answer I gave to that question on the night – no, it’s not necessary to read the paper to write a great story on it (and I’ll also keep the caveat I added – it’s desirable to have read it if possible).”

He further suggests, in the same comment (original source), that if journalists had to read original papers than no one could report on particle physics[2].

I’m not going to try and hide my bias here: I don’t like Ananyo’s viewpoint on this. I don’t think that it will lead to good writing, either of the communication or journalistic variety, but more importantly I think that forcing journalists to read the papers before they write an article might have stopped stupid @#$@ like what happened today from happening at all.

The story: I received an e-mail this morning from Dr. Bill Sherwin, a member of the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre (E&ERC) here at my current institution, the University of New South Wales. Bill is one of the authors on a new paper coming out in the Proceedings of The Royal Society (B), entitled ‘A novel mammalian social structure in Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.): complex male-male alliances in an open social network’. The paper is a nice little exploration of the characteristics of social networks in dolphins found in Western Australia; in essence, they were testing whether two hypotheses about the nature of these social networks were tenable given the data they’ve observed. In particular, they tested whether dolphins show signs of engaging in ‘community defence’, where higher order alliances of dolphins form to patrol and defend a larger community range, similar to chimpanzees, or if it follows a ‘mating season defence’ model where male groups shift their defence to smaller ranges or sets of females when it’s mating season. The comparison to terrestrial species with complex social cognition (such as primates and elephants) is an interesting one, because it provides yet more insight into the relationship between the development of complex cognitive faculties and social relationships.

So far, so good. Bill gave a simple explanation of the paper in an email that he was sent out to the E&ERC this afternoon:

We put out a paper that said “dolphin male alliances are not as simple as other species”, but it has stirred up quite a lot of interest, because somewhere in it, the paper mentioned “bisexual philopatry”, which when translated out of jargon means  “males stay near where they were born, AND females stay near where they were born” – nothing more or less than that.

‘Quite a lot of interest’ is one way to put it. ‘Idiots crawling out of the woodwork’ is another. Here’s the headlines of four stories that were written about this paper:

Dolphins ‘resort to rape’: Dolphins appear to have a darker side, according to scientists who suggest they can resort to ‘rape’ to assert authority. [The Telegraph]

Male dolphins are bisexual, US scientists claim. [news.com.au]. (Note that this is an Australian website, and Bill is Australian).

Male bottlenose dolphins engage in extensive bisexuality. [zeenews.com]

And by far the best of the lot (guess who it’s from?):

The dark side of Flipper: He’s sexual predator of the seas who resorts to rape to get his way. [That’s right, The Daily Mail].

……..

Are you kidding me? If the ‘writers’ of these articles had read the paper, they would have noticed that it contains nothing about the sexual behaviour of the dolphins they studied, bisexual or otherwise, aside from brief mentions of the possible consequences of social networks on reproductive success. It certainly didn’t mention anything about bisexual behaviour, homosexual behaviour, or rape. Now, it’s well known that dolphins engage in homosexual behaviours, and I’ve seen papers arguing that they use sexual coercion as well (Rob Brooks confirms this). But these topics have nothing to do with this paper at all. Even a cursory glance through the original source would have killed these headlines – and the first few paragraphs of the Mail story – which aren’t just a miscommunication but border on outright fabrication. The articles themselves are weird mixes of sensationalist headline with a regurgitated paraphrasing of the much better Discovery News piece that they are treating as the primary source. Here’s the problem, though: it’s Discovery News that makes the original mistake about ‘bisexual philopatry’, interpreting it as bisexual behaviour (hot male dolphin-on-dolphin action, as it were). A reporter who had read the original source could have corrected that mistake fairly easily, or could even have been driven to ask further questions. Without that, however, the press cycle grinds mercilessly forward to Flipper the bisexual rapist.

For my part, I was happy to see that James Randerson’s informal survey of science and health writers showed that many of them do read the original papers. And the kind of people who write things about science that I trust, whether they’re professionally trained in science or not, are not the sort of people who do boneheaded things like this. Ananyo might retort that ‘asking questions’ is enough (he suggested as much in his comment above). Matt Shipman said much the same thing in the piece that Ananyo was commenting on. Yet of all people, Ananyo should be wary of this answer, with his focus on investigative science journalism. A scientist writing an email or doing a phone interview can tell you just about anything that you want to hear; a press officer can write a terrible press release; a wire service will probably distort what comes down the line. But a scientific paper is the One, True Source. It is a public record of what was done, and it is the first and best place to start for answers about a study or a scientific topic[3].

Don’t mistake my criticism of Ananyo’s position of reading scientific papers as a general attack on scientific journalism. I think that there’s a lot of great science journalism out there, and that there are even more great science journalists and communicators. Despite the perennial swirl of internet discussion on the topic, I don’t actually think that the whole field is hopelessly broken like some seem to. I just happen to believe that scientific papers, the products of our time and energy as researchers, form an integral part of the process of talking about science (and it’s part of the reason for my support for Open Access publishing). And I think that disgraceful trainwrecks like the reporting on Bill’s paper are a perfect illustration of the need for these papers to be a part of that process.

[Update: Rob Brooks has also discussed this issue over at TheConversation].

——-

[1] Because of Twitter’s space constraints, this was misconstrued to mean that I was agitating for all science journalists to have a Ph.D. in a scientific discipline. Though I wouldn’t be upset if this happened, that’s not what I meant: it is more than possible to have a deep love and knowledge of science without having a degree in a scientific field. Hell, Carl Zimmer probably knows more about viruses and evolutionary biology than I do, and his only training is an undergraduate degree in English. My argument is only that having scientific training increases the probability of a writer or journalist having a good grasp on how science works, not that it’s the only way for that to happen. I will continue to argue, though, that those having a love of science (professional or amateur) will, on average, produce better science writing and science journalism than those who don’t.

[2] He also claimed that most of the people asking journalists to read papers are biologists and medical people, who write easier-to-understand papers. I would have to turn this back on him: if biology and medical papers are so easy to understand, why shouldn’t journalists read them every time?

[3] Yes, there’s no guarantee that what is written in the paper is true. But the chances of detecting fraud are essentially zero if you don’t read the paper to begin with, and if you’re a journalist looking to catch the next Stapel, chances are that you’ll have to wait for the scientific community to find him and tell you about it anyways.

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It’s true!

As seen on Twitter:

The "what X does" meme for evolutionary biologists...

I really have nothing to add to this...

Also, don’t miss the closely related Scientists version…

Nerd fight!

I got into a bit of a scientific nerd fight today online with @hylopsar, and I thought that I might make a record of our duel for the internets to see.  It’s good for a laugh, so go check it out:

View the story “Nerd fight!” on Storify

(I tried embedding it but that failed miserably, so until I can do that you’ll have to view it on Storify’s website).

Tell Ontario teachers that they should ban pickles, too.

Ontario teachers:

The Ontario English Catholic Teacher’s Association says computers in all new schools should be hardwired instead of setting up wireless networks.

It also says Wi-Fi should not be installed in any more classrooms.

In a position paper released on Monday, the union — which represents 45,000 teachers — cites research by the World Health Organization.

Last year the global health agency warned about a possible link between radiation from wireless devices such as cellphones and cancer.

Some believe wireless access to the Internet could pose similar risks.

What the WHO actually says:

Are there any health effects?

A large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.

What a smart commenter (ve5cma) pointed out:

Headline should read:

“Teachers’ Union Falls for Junk Science”

Sub head:
Standing within sight of a 50,000 watt radio station transmitter, the head of the teachers’ union complained about the 4 watt WiFi router.

What I’m doing right now:

Found at guyism.com

I knew that when the WHO classed cell phones as “possibly carcinogenic” (a classification so soft that it includes pickles as possible carcinogens) people would crawl out of the wood work using that as an excuse to ban anything electronic that scares them,  and wi-fi seems like an obvious target.  And let’s face it, Ontario has had problems with this before.  So I guess I can’t say that I’m too surprised something like this happened, but I sure am disappointed.  No one, including the WHO, has been able to find a link between cancer and cell phones.  So how does the Ontario English Catholic Teacher’s Association think that a radiation emitter being held against your head and failing to cause cancer is a good reason to ban wi-fi  throughout schools?   There’s no reason to believe that this kind of radiation has any effect on biological tissue  (even if it’s not physically impossible), and the available evidence is strongly against the idea.

It’s just sad that a group of people responsible for teaching science to children can fail so badly at basic scientific literacy.  For shame, Ontario English Catholic Teacher’s Association, for shame.

Update: Orac at Respectful Insolence hits the same notes with a lot more depth.

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Opening up to open access…

If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you’ll know that I’m not overly political here.  That’s not to say that I’m not opinionated (I’ve got plenty of opinions), but I don’t tend to post specifically in order to weigh in on timely political topics.  However, having recently wandered into a battleground only to discover that I’ve chosen a side, it feels right to jot down a few thoughts on the topic while my blood is still simmering.

What am I talking about?  Well, I’m talking about Open Access (OA) science publishing.  If you’re reading this blog you’re probably familiar with at least the basics of the debate, but whether you are or not I highly recommend reading this parable by Mike Taylor that puts the issue in clear language, and this recent press release on Tim Gower’s blog explaining the reasoning behind the Elsevier boycott (5398 and going strong!).

I recently ended up tangling with Robert Kurzban and others over this subject over the Evolutionary Psychology blog, and in the process of joining the discussion (I’ll refer you to that post to read more;  it’s too long to reproduce here) I discovered that I do, in fact, support the ideals of OA with a strength of feeling that surprised me.  What do I believe?  My belief, upon looking at the ethics and data (what exists, anyways) behind the current journal publishing system is that there are two parts to the argument:

  1. Publishers like Elsevier employ a business model that is exploitative and verges on (is?) corrupt.  Their product is the free labor of scientists, repackaged and copyrighted with little to no added value in the internet era, and sold back to the public that paid for it and the scholars the created it at a massive profit.
  2. The second part of the argument is whether a better alternative exists, in the form of Open Access (OA) publishing.  I believe that OA is a better alternative ethically, financially, and for the betterment of science as a whole.  OA has an obvious effect on the reach of a scientific paper (as the audience is now potentially anyone with an internet connection and the interested to read it), can have a positive effect on citation, and is more accountable and transparent.  On the other hand, the models for OA are still being worked out, and although the issue of publishing fees has been overblown it is still a valid concern, as are concerns such as a lack of OA journals in one’s sub-field, issues about career advancement (maybe), and the effort to move journals to OA publishing or start new journals.

Where do I stand now?  Well, for one thing, I haven’t yet signed the Elsevier boycott.  Why not?  Because I haven’t thought it all the way through yet.  I’ve just recently sat down to get my head straight about open access and found that I have strong feelings on it, and so I’m still coming up with a way to work that into my professional life.  I don’t know yet what form that will take;  I would like to publish exclusively in OA journals, but I don’t know if that’s yet an achievable goal for me, especially as I have collaborators to consider who may or may not the same way.  I do know that I will be searching for good OA alternatives to the journals I publish (ha!) in now, and that I will be looking for ways to increase my support of the OA movement as much as I can.

And if all else fails, I’ll write some more blog posts.  That helps, right? 🙂

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Sight-reading my science

Sight Reading, by skelly98; used under a CC license.

Parents often say things like “when you’re older, you’ll be glad we made you do this”.  They’re also often wrong about that, but occasionally they get it right.  In my case, one of the few things that I agree with unreservedly is that I did indeed come to appreciate the time I spent learning to play the piano.  At least, I agree in hindsight;  as a child, in the future tense, I most certainly did not experience wild joy from sitting in front of our old, battered upright piano, stuck down in the basement and banging away for hours.  In younger times, I much preferred reading to the endless repetition of scales and pieces, but this was a preference that did not endear me to my mother.  

So, I developed a compromise system that appeased the attentive ear sitting upstars and awaiting the next masterpiece in A-flat.  Lessons were held at the home of Mrs. Birch, my Jekyll / Hyde piano  teacher who was a perfect candidate for Kindly Grandmother Jekyll of the Year until a student unwittingly sat themselves down at her Yamaha baby grand and unleashed Generalissimo Hyde;  these lessons inevitably involved carting several books to and from her house, which required a dedicated book bag that sat beside the piano.  This was a perfect place to stash whatever book I was reading  while I whipped off a quick left-handed play-through of whatever Bach fugue or Mozart piano concerto I was mostly ignoring, after which I would haul out my book and greedily mow through as many pages as I felt I could get away with before the warden would get restless upstairs.  

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If you don’t play an instrument, you might not be familiar with the concept of sight-reading.  Learning to “read” music, to turn the notes on the page into a series of motor commands that lead to music coming from the instrument you are playing, is an important skill for any musician to develop and sight-reading is just the logical endpoint of that skill.  Sight-reading involves playing music placed in front of you for the first time as though you’ve been playing it for years;   at least, that’s what it’s supposed to be like, but it often involves a fair bit more squinting, scrambling, and muttered cursing than you might reasonably expect, especially when some bastard just handed you Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca and you’ve never played it before.  Experienced sight-readers will also probably agree that it requires the ability to see things coming, because if your eyes aren’t a few notes out in front of the notes that you’re playing right at this moment, the next thing that you’re going to be doing is trying to extricate your fingers from whatever hellish gang-sign-slash-car-wreck they’ve managed to tangle themselves into when you stopped paying attention.

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Mrs. Birch wasn’t just a stern piano instructor, she was also a tattle-tale.  If she felt that you weren’t up to snuff, she would take the accompanying parental figure aside when they came back to pick you up and tell them that you clearly hadn’t been practicing enough.  Since the result of this was a crackdown that I wished to avoid, I was left with an extremely strong incentive to be good enough at the lessons to avoid such an outcome. Unfortunately, my equally strong disincentive to practice in favor of my much-preferred reading left me in a bit of a pickle, since it was hard to look like I’d practiced when I really hadn’t.  Thus, I became really good at sight-reading.

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When it comes to science, my problem isn’t that I don’t like to practice.  In fact, I read and think about science all the time.  But the trouble is, I have a terrible memory.  I know that this admission blows a hole in the scientific mystique, because if you watch television, every scientist on TV (besides being an intellectual giant) has what seems like unbelievably perfect recall.  Arguably, it’s their defining characteristic, since they’re rarely shown performing other skills like critical thinking or deep analysis of a problem – with notable exceptions, of course.  On the other hand, like any good story there’s a fairly large grain of truth to it;  those prodigious memories do (mostly) exist, and I’m sure that you even know someone like that.  Many of the best scientific minds I know do, in fact, have fantastic recall of the things in their field, good enough that it makes me inadequate to be in the same room with them.  Even the ones who can barely remember to tie their own shoes without a Post-it note on their laces can rattle off details of papers they read as an undergrad 25 years ago without pausing for breath.

Of course, some perspective is important here, both in assessing others and in assessing oneself.  When looking at the way other scientists recall information and data, it’s important to remember that they’ve spent their entire adult lives on these topics. Sometimes, this is really obvious.  Academia is a training program in narrowing your focus until you’re the world’s foremost expert in an area of knowledge so tiny that sometimes you’re also the only person in the world who cares;  anyone who has gone through the Ph.D. process and received a degree at the end is going to be able to spout reams of facts about their chosen topic, even if only from sheer self-defence.  And, when you feel insecure, it’s also easy to suffer from a perverse confirmation bias, where you only remember the times that other people sound smart and make you feel stupid by comparison.  In academia, there’s always plenty of smart people to make you feel inadequate, much like I imagine women feel when reading fashion magazines, flipping through page after page of ads that make them feel like they have to measure up to the impossible standards depicted therein. And, finally, it’s easy to exhibit sampling bias that borders on a half-baked solipsism:  since you can peer inside your own thoughts and see all of the failures of your own memory and cognition in real-time but the thought processes of others are opaque, it’s possible to forget (or disbelieve) that others can feel like that too.

With those caveats firmly in place, it is still pretty clear to me that I’m not that scientist.  You know the one: the diamond-tipped bit on the drill of science, driving a hole into our uncertainty and powering through to the truth in their field.  These are the sorts of scientists whose praises are rightfully sung for their life-long dedication to a field;  to pluck a name out of the air at random, I’m thinking of people like Frans de Waal, who has spent decades expanding our knowledge of primate social and evolution.  This dedication to primate behaviour has rewarded him handsomely with world-wide recognition as one of the foremost names in this field, which is as it should be [1]. But I’m just not that guy.  I can’t face the idea of an entire career spent drilling down into one topic;  there’s too much out there, and I want to play in more than just one sandbox.  You can see this in my academic history, where I’ve wandered from computer science (undergrad), detoured briefly into classics, back to psychology (undergrad and M.Sc), to behavioural ecology (Ph.D.), and now I’ve dropped into the depths of evolutionary biology to work on the dynamics of viruses and bacteria.  Unfortunately, this sort of academic field-hopping is viewed with suspicion, at best (“Narrow and deep is good.  Shallow and broad is usually not appropriate”).  And, it doesn’t really maximize my production of papers, which means that if I want to maintain an academic career I will probably need to settle down soon.  In truth, I think I’m getting there, because I keep coming back to questions relevant to behavioural ecology even when studying pathogens [2].

In sum, the path my career has taken me and my cognitive limitations have left me with this basic truth:  I’m a scientific sight-reader.  What does that mean?  Lacking prodigious recall and Renaissance-man tendencies, it means that I’m always in the soup.  For one thing, I’m always having to look things up, even surprisingly basic things.  Usually, it’s to confirm to myself that my memory hasn’t played tricks on me (a problem that arises because I don’t tend to use the same techniques and knowledge repeatedly), but sometimes its simply because my background is shallow, not deep.  Sometimes, I’ve missed things.  In meetings or conversations, I have to think hard, because I need to be a step ahead of the conversation if I’m going to be of any use to it.  I need to find hooks to the knowledge that I do have, ways that I can draw analogies to and from things I know, applications to a problem that come from my background.  I’m always squinting, mumbling, and cursing my way through the fog of uncertainty, scrambling to stay one step ahead before I lose the plot. Like many things, this is both a blessing and a curse.  To the positive, though I’m not a world-expert in most of what I do, I can usually contribute something just by virtue of having that broad toolkit.  My years of experience with programming has led me to carving out a nice niche as a simulation guy in behavioural ecology – “computer jockey”, as my Ph.D. advisor put it.  That, my study of behaviour, and my background in statistics did get me the postdoc I’m holding now; I may be master of none, but I’m still a jack of all trades.  On the other side of the coin is the problem of depth.  I often need to rely on other, smarter people to make sure that I’m not making basic mistakes.  This isn’t all bad, as I love spending time picking the brains of those smart people and working with them.  But it certainly does not promote self-confidence, and I always feel like I’m one step away from being exposed as a fraud (though it’s probably sub-clinical).

Am I a poorer scientist for it?  In these days of increasing specialisation and balkanisation of scientific fields, there are many who would say yes.  And perhaps they’re right.  My interests tend toward the interdisciplinary, an idea to which much lip service is paid and little support seems to be given.  It’s certainly caused me no end of troubles, and it will probably keep causing more.  But I remain stubbornly convinced that there are benefits, too. Perhaps being forced to constantly leap about to stay in front has made me pay attention, if nothing else.  I don’t know where this will lead, but I do know one thing:  even if I’m not destined to change the world with my science, there’s nothing else on this earth that I would rather be doing with my life.

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Recitals and exams, those were the parts of playing piano that I always hated the most.  They drew most strongly on the skills I had avoided, including long hours of careful repetition and memorisation down to the last note.  Not to say that good piano players are robots;  quite the contrary, that laser-like focus provides the raw material for some of the greatest musicianship known.  That sort of depth frees you to be creative by moving your cognition about what you’re doing to a more sophisticated level, somewhat like having a large vocabulary frees you to be able to read almost anything without needing to parse the text every time.  

I was never going to be a musician.  This doesn’t mean that my time was wasted, though, or that all was lost.  Years later, when I was hopelessly in love with the woman who would later become my wife (and she was as yet completely uninterested in me), I sat down with her at the piano and played an arrangement of a song I loved that I had never seen before.  I had played other arrangements of this piece and loved them, but this particular set of squiggles on the musical page was new to me.  Yet when I sat down at the piano and she snuggled in beside me, I was inspired to play that song as though I had been practicing it all my life.  And through the years, we’ve  talked about the history of the piece, and I’ve told her about some of the science – the mathematics, physics,  psychology, and biology – that informs music and musical experience.   My knowledge may not be deep, but its breadth can lead to unforeseen recombination;  that piece of music and my playing it for her became part of a tapestry of woven skill and knowledge that helped form my relationship with the person I love.  And, at the risk of post-hoc justification, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  

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1. To be clear, I’m referring to his work only; I don’t know Dr. de Waal personally, though I have absolutely no reason to believe that he’s anything other than a perfectly nice person.
2. This is something I’ll be blogging more about as I develop the line of research and hopefully present it at ISBE in August.

Rejection Watch Vol. 1(3): Dave Walter

Dr. David Walter is a current member of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta (where I did my undergrad and M.Sc.;  unfortunately, I was in the Psychology department then, and never met Dave) and he’s also an advisor to the Royal Alberta Museum on mite behaviour, ecology, and identification.  You can also find him blogging at Macromite’s Blog where he has some quite amazing pictures.  Dave sent me this great story of the perils of naming new species for Rejection Watch:

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This only counts as a near rejection, so you may decide to reject it yourself, but your tale of meeting your nemesis at a poster at a conference reminded me of a similar encounter. I’m an acarologist and long ago got used to having my papers sent back with the ‘not of interest to our readership’ theme and soon found the journals that would find mites of interest or learned to hammer through the few papers that more general journals would accept and, other than a few bent nails that couldn’t be straightened, have had a reasonably successful career.

My graduate training was in both ecology and systematics, but at heart I was an ecologist and considered the taxonomy part just plain hard work with no reward. Still, when you need a name to hang some behaviour on, you may have to describe new species. Very early in my first postdoc I found that I was up to my 13th new species description. That seemed a bad sign and having just read an article in Smithsonian magazine about fear of the number 13, I was inspired to name my new species ‘triskadecaphobiae’. Well, first thing that went wrong was the word was too long to fit on a slide label, but by the time that I figured that out the paper was already off to the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.

Eventually the reviews came back on official forms (this was a long time ago) and the second problem appeared – whoever typed the form had misspelled triscadecaphobiae. Still, one review was okay, but the other is etched in my mind and went more or less like this: ‘Normally I would suggest accepting such a paper with minor revision, but because of the author’s obvious scientific immaturity as evidenced by his choice of a scientific name, I recommend rejection. A scientific name should march down the ages as a testimony to the good taste of the author …’ and so on for several stinging sentences.

Later, it turned out that a friend of mine was visiting the lab of the referee at the time my paper had arrived and the ref had come storming out of his office red-faced, waving my paper, and shouting ‘who is this arsehole Walter and who does he think he is?’ and possibly other less kind things that I have forgotten. It also turned out that another friend – we had been graduate students together – was a postdoc in this lab. I had previously named another species in honour of this student by appending the Latin for ‘belonging to’ (-ianus) to his name. This is perfectly correct (and went to a French journal, so they noticed nothing amiss), but of course, sounds rather asinine. ‘X-ianus’ was, basically, puerile and I suppose every time my friend saw the name he was annoyed and let people know it. So, I was reaping what I had sowed.

The editor of the journal, a famous entomologist who I suppose should remain nameless, was very nice and asked me for my opinion. I thought about the name for a while, considered the problem with the labels and a future of misspellings (not to mention my reputation), and suggested that I name the species after the editor – by appending an ‘i’ to his name. That worked perfectly and I was able to get past #13 and add another line to my CV. It was 20 years before I found the mite again, but it turns out to be common in the northern Great Plains, so the name has turned out to be both useful and honours a great entomologist.

I still manage to sneak a pun into a paper every now and then, and at least one species name has made a list of such irreverences (Funkotriplogynium iagobadius – species named after the King of Funk, James Brown, – but the genus was someone else’s and the species from one of my postgraduate students following in my mould and I just went along). So, I guess I’ve never really learned to grow-up completely, but I have become more circumspect (and insidious).

Even better, I ran into the referee in front of a poster at an Ent Soc meeting a couple of years later and stopped to introduce myself and admit to triskadecaphobiae. He turned out to be delightful and we subsequently enjoyed a productive correspondence. Turns out his comments to the editor were much less vitriolic than his comments to the author and he was simply taking the opportunity take me down a peg. Still, I wonder what will happen when I get to my 13th new genus …

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I want to thank Dave for sending me that and remind you that Rejection Watch is driven entirely by reader submissions, so if you’ve been holding on to yours until now, get them into me!  That email address again is rejectionwatch@gmail.com, so send me your best academic rejection story now, and I’ll throw in this free juicer*!

 

*Limit of 0 juicers per person