A simple question

One of the...conceits? tropes? myths? facts? benefits? poorly realized aspirations? of the scientist has been perplexing me today whilst skirmishing elsewhere. In theory, science is all about the unknown outcome and empiricism. We start an experiment, test or inquiry as a blank slate. Sure, we advance hypotheses but we are not supposed to attach undue valence to them with respect to the null hypothesis or any other hypothesis.
It should make no difference to our psyche if we are right or if we are wrong about our predictions.
Right?
Are you able to do this? There are many areas in which I interact with people who express absolute certainty that they are right and simply will not exhibit any evidence that they maintain doubt. Any fractional representation for the alternate hypothesis. Politics for sure. Other stupid or minor issues. Economics, LOL!
It is usually my conceit that scientists are better because they are able to think in probabilities. To maintain a slight tendril of thought that they might be WRONG and that would be perfectly OK. In theory this makes us dispassionate evaluators of the evidence, does it not? A necessary Good for the advance of science. Obsessive certainty, and especially the refusal to entertain alternate hypotheses sets off alarm bells for me. Especially when expressed by otherwise rational people.
I suppose it is why I am so unimpressed by authoritah! Even in those areas where I am supposed to be expert, I can be wrong about some prediction or other just about every day of the week in the lab or reading the literature. I'm okay with that. Are you okay with putting the empirical outcome above your hypothesis? Really?
When it comes to opposing interpretations of the data, where is the line to be drawn? When are interpretations to be aired, rebutted or debated and when are they so.....bad....as to require shunning? Prevention of the idea from reaching public view?
Where in the probability space of potential truths do we bring down the jackboot?

89 responses so far

  • Sweet DrugMonkey, it amuses me to find this here, but I'll bite.
    As a scientist I craft hypotheses, collect data, and use these data to test the validity of said hypotheses. In an ideal world, the data would speak for themselves and I would be but a tool (shut up) in the conveying of the message. However, I think it is quite evident that science is not like that. Our careers and successes are based on the quality of the data and whether it tells a compelling story. And, frankly, many of us have a stake in the outcome of the story (I won't tell you who funded my PhD research because it will stir up a whole storm of shit. Needless to say, there is a particular academic society that the domestic and laboratory goddess's PhD group is EXPELLED from for a certain period of time). And so telling the story, and convincing others of its truthiness, becomes less about the data and more about demonstrating our own worth.
    But that's motherfucking science. The denialists play it, the anti-denialists play it. Dr. Isis just stands in the middle and tries to see the data in the midst of all the poo flinging.

  • Russell says:

    In my opinion, it's only bad arguments that should be shunned. The difference between someone advocating an alternative and a denialist lies in how they explore the possibility, how open their eyes are in how they approach the data, and how honest they are in their reasoning.

  • Greg Laden says:

    Honestly, I think it depends on how one is socialized as a scientist to begin with. Life is certainly a whole lot easier if you are perfectly happy with your hypotheses being creamed now and then.

  • drdrA says:

    'And so telling the story, and convincing others of its truthiness, becomes less about the data and more about demonstrating our own worth.'
    Huh?? You can't be serious.
    'Are you able to do this? There are many areas in which I interact with people who express absolute certainty that they are right and simply will not exhibit any evidence that they maintain doubt.'
    Yes, absolutely. I doubt all of my assumptions. Regularly. And until proven otherwise by actual data.

  • Oh, we're actually gonna discuss this shit seriously? OK, then.
    All that science is, is organized systematic doubt. Period.

  • drdrA says:

    See- this is just what I'm talking about- I doubted that C PP could make a comment without using the word 'fuck'- and I was proven otherwise by the actual data.

  • Well, I did say, "shit".
    Speaking of saying "fuck", Comrade PhysioProf and PhysioWife were having a celebratory dinner out with the PhysioInLaws the other night, and Comrade PhysioProf had a few celebratory cocktails, thereby loosening the old PhysioTongue. Comrade PhysioProf received a PhysioScolding after dinner concerning the unleashing of a few too many F-Bombs at dinner! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!

  • drdrA says:

    I didn't say that I thought you could make a comment without using any obscenity. Frankly, if you did that I'd go back to working on my review article in disappointment.
    As for that second part- LOL, and DrMrA keeps telling me that I need to curse less. I know what you are going to say- I'm supposed to tell him to fuck off.

  • Kevin H says:

    On the first part, I think that there still is some tendency to believe that you need to be right to be a sucsessful scientist, get positions, etc. That leads to a clear personal incentive to act in a way that is NOT scientific and suppress legitimate dissenting viewpoints.
    I think actually recently neuroscience has seen some positive shifts in this area. There's the semi-famous case of minature eye movements causing gama-band activity in EEG where authors are now embracing a reversal of their previous opinions and getting more publications as a result (for a comical example of a similar, less well known debate, search "rinne inferior colliculus" in pub med).
    As to the line we draw between differing interpretation and stick in the mud dogma (or ridiculous novelty). It's always going to be hard, and that is exactly the purpose of peer review, and crafting a rigorous, but not overly dogmatic group of reviewers is exactly the business of good journals. For all of their various short comings, traditionally top journals have learned very well (but not perfectly) how to strike the balance between innovation and accepted theory.

  • 'And so telling the story, and convincing others of its truthiness, becomes less about the data and more about demonstrating our own worth.'
    Huh?? You can't be serious.
    'Are you able to do this? There are many areas in which I interact with people who express absolute certainty that they are right and simply will not exhibit any evidence that they maintain doubt.'
    Yes, absolutely. I doubt all of my assumptions. Regularly. And until proven otherwise by actual data.

    DrDrA, I did not say that Dr. Isis does this. I was using the global "we." How often have you seen people have heated debates about "their" data? Or graduate students describe the findings or their first experiment as they would their new child? You cannot deny that career success is tied to experimental success and, I think that at times, people allow themselves to become defined by their data and then feel personally hurt when it is attacked. I think it is great that you are always ready to be proven wrong. This attitude, however, is far from universal.
    If it were, people wouldn't Photoshop bands onto gels.

  • drdrA says:

    'You cannot deny that career success is tied to experimental success'
    I quite agree, sure- obviously you won't go far if you can't do an experiment, can't interpret an experiment etc. However- I don't think experimental success requires always proving your most favorite hypothesis correct. Sometimes the most remarkable experimental successes, and the paradigm shifting results- come from the unexpected result.
    'I think that at times, people allow themselves to become defined by their data and then feel personally hurt when it is attacked'
    Yes. I've used a few choice curse words myself when I get reviews back- but it is not personal.

  • If one makes hypotheses based on good reasoning, then the (somewhat surprising) finding that the hypothesis is invalid should provide a happy quickening of the pulse as it signals an unknown, something waiting to be discovered.
    I also think that those who don't share that excitement, at least in some measure, are not really scientists--practical realities and pressures notwithstanding.
    If an opposing interpretation of data is not disprovable based on what is known, then it remains a possibility.
    People who photoshop bands onto gels merit the same level of inclusion in discussions on hypothesis/data interpretation as embezzlers do in discussions on economic policy.

  • Dave says:

    Science is all about getting things right. Period. But psychologically, we place very high value on consistency. So savvy scientists work hard to appear right, even if the data don't quite match, hoping things will eventually shake out in their favor. Successful scientists are the ones who bluffed well AND guessed correctly.
    Really successful scientists bluff well, guess correctly, and also write lots of review articles espousing every possibility. This way, they can take credit for every related idea that also eventually turns out to be true.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    For all the ideal of dispassionate objectivity, the whispered secret is that we are passionate about our work [1]. Without the passion to pursue a hypothesis until it's driven to ground, we wouldn't get far at all.
    On the other hand, this makes it hard to see problems with our "babies." Asking someone to disprove, to properly test, hir own ideas is akin to asking a parent to smother hir own child in the cradle: possible but the heart just isn't in it.
    Theoretically, this is where peer review comes in. In my field peer review consistently turns up as the most effective quality-improvement investment around. It also almost never gets more than lip service, because "peer review" isn't on anyone's MBOs. I rather suspect that there's not a lot of funding for the kind of adversarial take-no-prisoners testing of others' hypotheses that makes for great science.
    Bummer.
    [1] ObCPP: And a fucking good thing, too!

  • Odyssey says:

    Really successful scientists bluff well, guess correctly, and also write lots of review articles espousing every possibility. This way, they can take credit for every related idea that also eventually turns out to be true.
    I know a couple of those types. One of them has been smothering my field with reviews for about three years now. I think he's almost exhausted every possibility. At least I hope so.

  • Who the fuck from within a field even reads reviews of that field?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    New comers and established investigators who checked if and how many of their papers the author(s) of the review article cited.

  • venk@ says:

    Excellent post.
    Scientist A may be totally impartial in evaluating a hypothesis with his data, and may hence land a paper of 'lesser impact' (for eg., due to the absence of startling claims in the title).
    Scientist B may lean towards his hypothesis more than the data suggests. So may publish with higher impact (as ppl prefer reading abstracts without too may ifs and buts).
    Eventhough scientist A may be the more careful one, B will secure more funds (due to higher reach). So its B who'll secure the resources necessary to do more science. I wonder if there are many Bs eating As' share of the pie.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    excellent post? I don't even know what I'm saying here. I spent the day, on and off, jousting with idiots that can't see two inches beyond their own righteous indignation that they are RIGHT dammit!!!!!! I wonder sometimes if my apparently rare ability to consider alternatives hinders my progress......sigh.

  • DSKS says:

    "It should make no difference to our psyche if we are right or if we are wrong about our predictions.
    Right?"

    It really shouldn't, at least for any investigator with a fleck of imagination nestling between his or her ears. Science might be strapped for funds now and then, but I suspect it isn't going to run low on hypotheses any time soon. Getting sentimental about one line of reasoning and its associated predictions in an ocean of alternative explanations just ripe for the testing seems a little absurd.

  • llewelly says:

    It should make no difference to our psyche if we are right or if we are wrong about our predictions.

    The closer people can get to this ideal, the more able people will be to make better decisions- both individually and collectively.
    However - it's important to keep in mind that gathering the information necessary to make good predictions often requires a great deal of work - and therefor some significant degree of emotional investment. For many people, such an investment always starts out as emotional investment in one position or another (for example, when I began studying religion I wanted to believe). Further - even when one is so fortunate as to begin investigation with a emotional investment in pure discovery, I think it's very difficult to prevent said neutral emotional investment in evolving toward emotional investment in a particular position. Finally, it is sometimes difficult to find the energy to defend position if one has little or no emotional investment in the position.

    So it's a goal that can improve logical reasoning, but in many important ways it is strongly contrary to the way human brains actually work.

  • Lamar says:

    most of us do this as a career (i.e. to put food on the table).
    alternatively, if you want to grant me a guaranteed lifetime pension to do dreamy-eyed science, I'll start to care less about whether my (or my friends') hypotheses are correct.
    the implication is that as times get harder, the quality of science does not get better (via increased competition and focus) but worse. that is, more ethical violations, cronyism, sexism, etc...as more of the impartial, nobel scientists get driven out of the system.

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    Ok time to weigh in.
    We must distinguish between hypothesis driven science and so-called "descriptive" science. "Descriptive" has become a pejorative term which is really too bad. How can you really ever move into a new field without some descriptive science? Your first experiment in a novel area cant be hypothesis driven or a mechanistic tour de force. People like Cajal defined the field of neuroanatomy with such descriptive work. I dont think he hypothesized that Purkinje cells have awesome arborization. He just stained shit and drew it.
    This concept that hypothesis driven science is the ONLY science is probably the most limiting factor in biological research. I personally think they are both extremely valuable. In fact, most of us know that our science, when we wade into a new area, is usually descriptive in nature, then we run some other hypothesis driven experiments that are probably wrong. After that, to have a narrative, we lie and stated that we had this super alternate hypothesis as our null hypothesis all along to explain the whole thing. Then we get invested in our hypothesis and push it as dogma when we know we just stumbled on it like an a-hole in the first place.
    I think we need to spend less time taking credit for alternate hypootheses we never thought of until afterward. When I give talks on the progress of my research program on MDMA, I love telling everyone what my original and awesome hypothesis was, and then show the next slide and explain how I was totally wrong, but found something even more interesting. It keeps people on the edge of their seats, and they laugh and empathize with the process. However, when I write that shit up for publication, I totally change myself into the know-it-all hypothesis oracle. I wish I could give the real story, but people would think I was a Jerry Lewis nutty professor, and I would have to publish in shit like Neuroscience Letters (my favorite publication to wipe my ass on).
    We are all liars.
    Dr. F

  • I am confused to find this here, DM. I thought you had all the answers. 🙂
    Dave says: Science is all about getting things right. Period.
    Ha, not so much! I would be sunk by now if this was the case. Science is about discovering and understanding interesting shit. It hardly matters what you want to be right about. You just have to be humble enough to realize that Mother Nature has better fucking ideas than you do.

  • Dave says:

    "Dave says: Science is all about getting things right. Period."
    Candid Engineer says: "Ha, not so much! I would be sunk by now if this was the case. "
    -------
    If scientists don't get stuff right, they just don't get cited. Or maybe seven million dollars gets wasted in a clinical trial. Whatever. No big deal. Happens all the time. But dude, you are an engineer. If you don't get stuff right, it falls down or starts on fire. That goes on the evening news.
    Unless you are a lame engineer CAD jockey or something. In which I guess you could make a career out of being wrong. Maybe you work for Microsoft.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Objectivity will get you an attaboy. It will also seriously interfere with your marketing, and a marketing failure counts for quite a few ohshits. One ohshit cancels thousands of attaboys.

  • JB says:

    I'm surprised that no one has mentioned Chamberlin. He elegantly addressed some of these issues over a century ago! His paper "The method of multiple working hypotheses: with this method the dangers of parental affections for a favorite theory can be circumvented" is available here: http://arti.vub.ac.be/cursus/2005-2006/mwo/chamberlin1890science.pdf

  • Odyssey says:

    Dave wrote:
    If scientists don't get stuff right, they just don't get cited.
    I just laughed so hard I fell off my chair. Mate, you cannot possibly be serious about that assertion.

  • DSKS says:

    Dr. F said,
    "We must distinguish between hypothesis driven science and so-called "descriptive" science."
    I disagree. "descriptive science" is the initial step in "hypothesis driven science". It's already part of the package. The primary inductive part of the process, based as it is on initial observations/measurements, leads up to the generation of the hypotheses and subsequent predictions, which must be tested before you can draw any conclusion about the described initial observation.
    When people talk about hypothesis-driven science, they are usually talking about the hypothetico-deductive model, and thus already acknowledge the importance of descriptive science in starting the ball rolling. However, relying on descriptive science alone is a no-no, for the obvious reason that one cannot assign statements of probability, and cannot apply statistics, to data after the fact, without being in serious danger of perpetrating the Gamblers Fallacy or its inverse. One finds an over-reliance on descriptive "science" in many places: The Discovery Institute, The Church of Scientology, and Pacific cargo cults to name a few examples.
    Cajal's descriptive work was surely vital and compelling, but it was of absolutely no conclusive value until he and others made and tested predictions generated from these observations. If they had not done this, we would simply have an observation for which a billion different explanations could be put forth, and no recourse to probability to separate one from the other.
    "This concept that hypothesis driven science is the ONLY science is probably the most limiting factor in biological research."

  • S. Rivlin says:

    One of the most cited bullshitter scientist in the neurosciences is B.K. Siesjo, who built his whole career on the wrong hypothesis that lactic acidosis is the mother of delayed neuronal death upon cerebral ischemia. The guy published hundreds of research papers, numerous reveiw, hypothesis and synthesis articles and many books. He single handedly held back the whole field of cerebral ischemia and stroke for years, and when his hypothesis was proven wrong, he simultaneously attacked those who proved him wrong, while writing review articles in which he synthesized the new data of his detractors with his own hypothesis, thus blunting any possibility of blame for his own BS. The work of A.V. Hill in the 1920s and that of B.K. Siesjo for the past 40 years and the hypothesis that Siesjo pushed and defended aggressively have been as damaging to the progress of our understanding of energy metabolism as they were seminal.
    Siesjo is only one example of many in the history of science of scientists, once becoming world renown, their reputation and fame are more important than science.
    Unfortunately, science is a human endeavor and as such cannot be a real objective one. This is especially true when money, fame and power are the main driving forces behind most of the people who are practicing it.

  • bob says:

    DM,
    Ideally, being wrong or right shouldn't matter, but depending on the type of question you're asking, sometimes being right is much more interesting. So, what I want to ask is not whether it is right to admit you're wrong (if you are, of course it is) but rather _when_ to admit you're wrong. Sometimes things are not very clear cut and a bit of persistence can pay off.
    For example, let's say you're about to give a talk on a paper you recently published with some interesting new result and just before the talk a possibly contradictory paper comes out. Do you withdraw your abstract or start your talk with "what I am about to tell you is wrong?" I hope not. More likely, neither paper is completely definitive and it will take years before someone is shown to be wrong (or more likely, only partially right). Isn't it best to then at least tell your story clearly and compellingly until more data become available? You're into pragmatic approaches to science careers, so if you do turn out to be right in a very interesting way, don't you want to make sure you get the credit you deserve?

  • Dave says:

    Dave wrote: "If scientists don't get stuff right, they just don't get cited."
    Odyssey responded: "I just laughed so hard I fell off my chair. Mate, you cannot possibly be serious about that assertion."
    -------
    Ok, you're right. I take it back.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    S.Rivlin@#31:
    Although I don't know the details of your example it is good to draw a subtle distinction here. I think there is somewhat of a place for vigorous defense of a scientific position, especially if it rests on a whole bunch of data. When people get ticked off about how the position must surely be full of it, lots of good scientific progress can result. I can point to a couple of areas in which what appeared to be fairly emotive and personal-antipathy scientific battles ended up advancing the fields quite a ways. Which is one reason I'm ambivalent about this whole thing.
    What cannot stand, however, is when powerful individuals or perspectives prevent the opposing science from happening via the grant funding or even the hiring/promotion levers. Knocking the opposing science down a few Impact Factors is no problem assuming it is still accessible by Pubzmed. Preventing it from ever being conducted is a problem.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    DM #34
    What cannot stand, however, is when powerful individuals or perspectives prevent the opposing science from happening via the grant funding or even the hiring/promotion levers.
    I agree with your above statement. In the case I have mentioned, where the big name has produced a whole army of desciples who all continue their work on the very foundation of their mentor, even when the foundation is both narrow and rickety, your odds of succeeding being on the other side, especially where funding is concerned, are very slim.
    The real irony of the situation was that years ago, when the first few budding contradicting data appeared, the NIH study section panel was composed mainly of those who were advocates and supporters of the Siesjo's dogma. They rejected any proposal that was based on preliminary data which refute the dogma. In later years, once the pool of the refuting data grew, along with the number of investigators who dared standing against the dogma, proposals that aimed at expanding and establishing the new hypothesis were rejected because they supposedly did not offer anything new.

  • DSKS says:

    "Siesjo is only one example of many in the history of science of scientists, once becoming world renown, their reputation and fame are more important than science."
    I cringe at the use of the word "career" with respect to academia. Even though the definition obviously doesn't preclude its use in this manner, the term has come to represent an end in itself. e.g. research is just another kind of work one can do in order to pursue a "successful career". Whether the legitimacy of the research correlates with the success of said career is somewhat arbitrary if financial reward and renown are the principle metrics for that success.
    Given the eminence of public funds in academic science, it seems more appropriate to think in terms of academic service, where the pursuit of understanding via the scientific endeavour is the clear and only end, and our labour and "career" path merely a means, or even simply a side effect of attaining that goal.
    In relation to this,
    Lamar said,
    "most of us do this as a career (i.e. to put food on the table)."
    That doesn't fit the bill for me, and I doubt it does for many here. Perhaps you're talking from an industry perspective, where the salaries at least compensate this approach (and there's nothing wrong with putting financial reward as a career priority, I know I've considered it), but I can't imagine anything more ridiculous and fundamentally self-defeating than voluntarily entering academia for no other reason than putting food on the table!
    If one doesn't a) enjoy solving puzzles, and/or b) get a sense of service and fulfilling a public duty from working in academia, I fail to see how the salary and benefits alone can serve to get one out of bed in the morning.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    the NIH study section panel was composed mainly of those who were advocates and supporters of the Siesjo's dogma. They rejected any proposal that was based on preliminary data which refute the dogma. In later years, once the pool of the refuting data grew, along with the number of investigators who dared standing against the dogma, proposals that aimed at expanding and establishing the new hypothesis were rejected because they supposedly did not offer anything new.
    Wait, you worked in drug abuse???
    🙂
    I suspect this type of arc is REALLY common. The takeaway advice if you are really convinced you are up against this type of thing is to get out of the study section and even the IC if you have to. Sneak it in somewhere else.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    DSKS,
    We all try to combine love for the job we do with putting food on the table. Like you, I believe that scientists do science because they love this pursuit and enjoy it. Very few, however, can afford to maintain that pursuit without assuring that it will also put food on the table. One such lucky scientist is Briton Chance who did his research on his farm in his own lab. He had both graduate students and postdocs working there and did not have to worry about putting food on the table. As a younger scientist, my dream was to be as lucky as Briton was, have my own farm with my own lab built on it. At the end, I was very lucky to be able to pursue my goals, be successful in building my 'career' in science and put food on the table while doing so.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    I suspect this type of arc is REALLY common. The takeaway advice if you are really convinced you are up against this type of thing is to get out of the study section and even the IC if you have to. Sneak it in somewhere else.
    DM,
    How the hell do you think I managed to survive in my field of interest? At the end, the fact that I managed to, not only survive, but succeed beyond my own imagination without NIH support for my main project is even more satisfactory, especailly when some of my publications are frequently cited in NIH grant proposals today as "seminal."

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    DSKS:
    You appear to be advocating an "avocation" to research similar to a priestly vocation. Complete with vows of poverty and chastity.
    Well, we're getting there. A common topic at several of these blogs is whether women in particular can afford to have any personal lives outside of academia, and from personal knowledge it's extremely obvious that choosing academic research over industry represents a very large financial sacrifice.
    If monasticism is the only option for scientists, that combines with the public rise of theocratic movements to suggest we're headed back to another dark age.

  • Kevin H says:

    Dave, I encourage you to read "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" Not that I can vouch it's perfect, but it's a pretty good overview of what science actually is, and it is most certainly not about being right. It is about interpreting data and structuring experiments. Being right (in the long run) may be the reason science has gained so much power over the past centuries, but it should be tangential to the actual day to day practice of science. Think, were any of the revolutionaries in Science 'bad' scientists because they were wrong about things? They worked with the data they had available, and that is the important thing.
    Dr F. Cajal most certainly did have hypothesis, the Neuron doctrine being most relevant to his drawings. Description is just fine as a starting ground, but it should very rapidly be turned into hypothesis testing. I don't think anyone should make an entire carer out of descriptive science.
    DM, my advice would be the same as Roosevelt's. Whenever you are dealing with stubborn personalities and entrenched interests, speak softly and carry a big stick. Retool your grant a bit if you have to, lie to them, take their money, and the use it to prove why you were right all along. And if your grand experiment that should prove them wrong doesn't turn up they way you thought, reexamine all of your assumptions, and reconsider why you think those others were wrong, was it scientific or personality issues.

  • DSKS says:

    D.C. Sess,
    You're exaggerating my position somewhat (or I'm misrepresenting myself, which isn't unusual). I might be at a Jesuit college, but I'm by no means advocating for a return to the monastic pursuit of knowledge. As you say, choosing academia requires financial sacrifices relative to industry, but that's to be expected from a sector for which compensation is not governed by the market, but by government. Is it that you feel financial compensation in academia should match that in industry?
    "If monasticism is the only option for scientists, that combines with the public rise of theocratic movements to suggest we're headed back to another dark age."
    I'm not sure how we've arrived at a theocracy from a notion as straightforwardly democratic as voluntary public service.
    My point was simply that choosing academia (or any position drawing from public funds) when financial reward is foremost on the mind is simply rather bizarre. Further, choosing academia simply to elevate one's social stature, regardless of the veracity of the research being conducted, is clearly an invitation to a potentially serious conflict of interests (as illustrated by S. Rivlin's anecdote above).

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    DSKS:

    I'm not sure how we've arrived at a theocracy from a notion as straightforwardly democratic as voluntary public service.

    The "theocratic movements" mentioned are political ones outside of the current discussion. Sorry for the confusion.

    My point was simply that choosing academia (or any position drawing from public funds) when financial reward is foremost on the mind is simply rather bizarre.

    "Foremost in the mind" isn't in the thread history. We got here from the comments about "career." It's quite possible to be motivated by a passion for science and a desire to serve (and I have at least two of my children, maybe three, on that track) without completely discarding prudent self-interest.
    And that's what a concern for "career" is, at minimum. Neither of my children who are currently pursuing academic careers are expecting to get wealthy doing so, but at the same time neither wants to sacrifice hopes of a family or to condemn their prospective families to a life of poverty and insecurity as the price of that service.
    Condemning those who concern themselves with their careers amounts to that, after all. Or do we expect that those who dedicate their lives to academia abandon the hope that they can afford an education for their children?

  • Categorizing science as a "calling" rather than a career is extremely pernicious from the standpoint of ameliorating its rampant unearned white male privilege.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Categorizing science as a "calling" rather than a career is extremely pernicious from the standpoint of ameliorating its rampant unearned white male privilege.

    I suspect you're overly generalizing. Very few academics, white male or otherwise, come from old-money aristocracy comparable to yours. For the rest, actually making a living while doing research has been a necessity for generations.

  • DSKS says:

    DC Sess,
    I think we may be talking past each other. Actually, comment #38 clarified my position, and suggest that the fault of miscommunication is mine.
    "Condemning those who concern themselves with their careers amounts to that, after all."
    As Rivlin pointed out, a balance is important. My objection was to the idea, apparently not that rare, that one's career is of such importance that it may be legitimate to compromise one's ethical responsibilities to elevate/preserve it. The current potent emphasis on 'career' when academia is discussed seems to play into that, at least, to my mind. We've already seen a few posts condoning the odd little white lies here and there. I'm not pedantic, and I know that sometimes exploiting the wiggle room can be necessary and justified, within reason, but where does the line get drawn? Judging by some of the high profile scandals recently (and that's just the guys who got caught), it's not drawn with a high degree of clarity. Indeed, career pressures have been sited as an excusing causative factor in some of these cases.
    Re economics, I agree that if academia wishes to attract the best and the brightest (of both genders) it needs to provide a sufficient quality of life. I personally disagree that it necessarily need compete with industry compensation-wise, but of course people should be able to afford medical care and college after spending 20 yrs in formal education to, as I see it, provide a public service. But surely you agree that, particularly when one has a responsibility to the paying public, it is important that one does not sacrifice that trust for personal gain, whether it be to win that Nobel prize, or put food on the table?

  • DSKS says:

    edit: make that ~30 yrs formal education.

  • old-money aristocracy comparable to yours

    Huh?

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    But surely you agree that, particularly when one has a responsibility to the paying public, it is important that one does not sacrifice that trust for personal gain, whether it be to win that Nobel prize, or put food on the table?

    I'm not at all sure that you can justify the "particularly ... public" clause. Or at least that's the standard I try to live up to and have taught to my kids and junior staff. I even have some reason to suspect that the lessons stuck.
    --
    "Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest." -- Mark Twain
    D. C. Sessions

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Huh?

    The only white males I know of who can afford to pursue a "calling" instead of a "career" are those with inherited money and a title attached to their genitalia. It's a fine tradition in the footsteps of Lord Kelvin, the Duke of Devonshire, and so on but there just aren't very many of them to go around.
    Well, them and Steve Wozniak; but he got his by a route that has a lot less sex and color bias than old-money aristocracy.

  • I doubt I give a shit enough to unpack this, but what the fuck did you mean by "comparable to yours"? Do you think I am an old-money aristocrat?

  • BikeMonkey says:

    The only white males I know of who can afford to pursue a "calling" instead of a "career" are those with inherited money and a title attached to their genitalia.
    Wrong because you are thinking about this in absolutes rather than in shades of color.
    -entering undergraduate, I was able to choose my college entirely on personal interest instead of $$ thanks to the confluence of grants (mostly), parental support (a lot) and loans (not inconsequential). This choice and additional choices vis a vis employment during college were informed by the understanding that if things ever really went in the tanker my parents were there for me. Others' choices are informed by the fact that they were/are the backstop for themselves..or even for their parents or other dependents, not vice versa. privilege, but far from Little Lord Fauntleroi status. My family was fairly firmly middle class and going by the current phrasing, on the lower end at that.
    -entering grad school, I knew it was going to be several years of very low wages for a modest eventual salary could I get it. Again, choices informed by a level of family support, should I need to tap it. The comfort factor probably far outweighed any direct financial assistance in directing my choices.
    I have very little doubt that had I been from less comfortable circumstances I would have, at best, been pursuing a career with more certainty of income at an earlier stage.

  • cashmoney says:

    Do you think I am an old-money aristocrat?
    Yes. You seem like a character best played by Peter O'Toole in his younger days. You mean you aren't ?????

  • Dave says:

    Kevin H:
    Kuhn intelligently argues for Darwinian selection of prevailing models, which he calls 'paradigms', talks about some of the forces for selection, and then says that despite all this reasonable sociology, things go all topsy-turvy once in a while for reasons he can't quite explain. He calls that a 'revolution'.
    There are no real insights there. Since the book was published, historians and (especially) scientists have clung to the hope that scientific revolutions could be engineered or foreseen, under the fallacy that each revolution brings us closer to the 'real' truth. But there is no logical or societal reason why a Kuhnian revolution would get us closer to the truth. It could very well do the opposite.
    In any case, I think all that has very little to do with the stuff DM is talking about. Or anything practical at all. Which is why we are scientists; we recognize that stuff like sociology is all B.S.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Which is why we are scientists; we recognize that stuff like sociology is all B.S.

    My, that's a rather strong statement. I trust that you've actually studied the subject and aren't just doing the equivalent of declaring that quantum mechanics is BS from the safety of an English Literature background?

  • SC says:

    Which is why we are scientists; we recognize that stuff like sociology is all B.S.

    Ignorant fucking twit.

  • NM says:

    Getting back on topic is unfashionable today but I'll give it a go...
    Best piece of advice I received:
    Don't marry your hypothesis. It doesn't love you.

  • Dave says:

    D.C. Sessions: "My, that's a rather strong statement. I trust that you've actually studied the subject"
    -----------
    You trust wrong. I've actually never read Kuhn's book. But my post sounded good, didn't it? So far this thread I've posted 5 times, and have gotten two direct responses to my posts. If you count those posts as publications, and the responses as citation, then I am one of the most productive participants in this thread, and one of the more highly cited. In science, that's success. Yet I've contributed little actual real information, posted one retraction, and posted one completely deliberate pile of made-up crap.
    We all know scientists who do basically the same thing, in journals rather than on blogs. Are they good scientists? It depends on what you mean by 'science'. Is science a job or is it a philosophical endeavor?

  • Dave says:

    Awesome. In the time I was writing my last reply, I got another citation from SC! And this makes another 'publication'.

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    Descriptive Science:
    I am not sure if those of you maligning the pursuit of "descriptive" science understand how many things are lumped into that category. Give a drug and examine what it does to a particular system in the brain? Thats descriptive science. Hypothesize that the changes in the brain from that drug are a result of a change in trophic factors? Descriptive science. While these are all somewhat "hypothesis driven", these all fit under the rubric of descriptive science as it is currently termed. Over the past few years, if you go to high profile journal, they consider anything that does not provide the exact mechanism of a phenomenon as "descriptive". The term has become confused with "non-mechanistic". I had a paper that demonstrated how a particular abused compound affected neuronal branching in vivo (a descriptive paper). The next paper modelled this finding in vitro, demonstrated how the finding was mediated by the dopamine transporter and that we could reverse the branching effect with an antagonist. This was labelled at the first high profile journal it went to as interesting but "descriptive" by both reviewers even though it wasnt. Its now a pejorative term for "non mechanistic".
    Anyone else have this experience?
    Dr F

  • SC says:

    You trust wrong. I've actually never read Kuhn's book. But my post sounded good, didn't it?

    No, it sounded idiotic.

    We all know scientists who do basically the same thing, in journals rather than on blogs.

    Yes, that's exactly the same! How insightful you are! Consider my consciousness raised!
    Wait...What was your point?

  • juniorprof says:

    Yes, Dr. Feelgood, I've also had that experience, for a paper that has now been cited almost 20 times in the year since it was published. It got dumped from the high impact journal of my speciality and labelled descriptive. It ended up an IF ~ 3 journal and even though it may go on to pile up an astonishing high number of citations, I don't expect to get any credit for the work from anyone outside of my direct field. It was descriptive, I suppose, but largely in the non mechanistic perforative sense. The "mechanistic" study that I got published at the same time in a journal we all know and love has been cited an astonishing 2 times over the same period. However, that paper (the "mechanistic" one) has gotten me numerous invitations to give talks at other Universities and important meetings. It also got me a job, which is the point, after all.

  • For the grown-ups: do you think your tendency to mistakenly "marry" your hypothesis has diminished over time? I think that I'm rather devoted to my grad work conclusion, mostly because it's my first contribution to science and so it defines me as a scientist, right now.
    However, I can already see that I am more willing to be objective about my postdoc research--I just don't self-identify with it as much, perhaps because I already feel less dependent on it to define me.
    Also, BikeMonkey is on the money about privilege.

  • The "mechanistic" study that I got published at the same time in a journal we all know and love has been cited an astonishing 2 times over the same period. However, that paper (the "mechanistic" one) has gotten me numerous invitations to give talks at other Universities and important meetings. It also got me a job, which is the point, after all.

    If you are willing, JP, it would be interesting for our readers to hear what the IF of the "journal we all know and love" is. This is because it is important for trainees to have a clear idea of what role the IF of their best pub will play in their job search. Comrade PhysioProf operates in an environment where job candidates are not viable without at least one pub in a >12 IF journal.

  • I don't give a flying fuck whether my hypotheses are right or wrong. Hypotheses are good or bad to the extent that they do or don't, respectively, lead to interesting experiments.

  • juniorprof says:

    CPP,
    The paper was in J Neurosci. That one, a JBC paper and a PNAS paper are largely responsible for getting me a job. That and the fact that I am an excellent speaker and I excel at the "chalk talk" type scenario. Basically I am a good salesman, and I know it.
    Now, I am at a high ranking Uni, in a basic science dept but IF > 12 is not expected where I am (well sometimes, but not all the time). I interviewed at places where basic science depts would require those types of pubs but I was interviewing at clinical departments within those Unis for their research areas (think anesthesia depts). I chose to go to a basic science dept because I didn't want to be limited as I have interests in much more basic mechanisms that can eventually be applied to my area (pain research). I had multiple options and did what I thought was best for my career development.
    Now, there are pain researchers at basic science depts at IF >12 Unis but they are rare. Most are in clinical depts at those Unis or in basic depts (like pharmacology) at next rung down Unis. As CPP always says, this stuff is highly field specific. I would also add that it is model system specific as well.
    I don't give a flying fuck whether my hypotheses are right or wrong. Hypotheses are good or bad to the extent that they do or don't, respectively, lead to interesting experiments.
    This is the best advice that any young investigator can get. Care deeply about insightful and interesting experiments and build systems that allow you to get data from these types of experiments on a consistent basis. If you care too much about your hypotheses you are likely out of ideas!

  • pinus says:

    CPP
    Just out of curiousity, would a High (say over 20) IF pub as a grad student be enough for a faculty candidate in your department if they published in IF 8-10 journals as a postdoc? This is purely hypothetical, I am trying to understand how things operate.

  • Odyssey says:

    I don't give a flying fuck whether my hypotheses are right or wrong. Hypotheses are good or bad to the extent that they do or don't, respectively, lead to interesting experiments.
    Would it be wrong to have this tattooed on my trainees' foreheads?

  • juniorprof says:

    Why, to see if they could read backwards?

  • Just out of curiousity, would a High (say over 20) IF pub as a grad student be enough for a faculty candidate in your department if they published in IF 8-10 journals as a postdoc?

    Nope. Grad student productivity is given very little weight in our job searches, for good or bad.

  • SC says:

    This is because it is important for trainees to have a clear idea of what role the IF of their best pub will play in their job search. Comrade PhysioProf operates in an environment where job candidates are not viable without at least one pub in a >12 IF journal.

    Yes, I'm sure Einstein would agree about the vast importance of this in advancing knowledge. (Sorry - feeling very antiacademic at the moment. I'm sure I'll get over it tom...well, someday.)

  • Academia's not a motherfucking care bears tea party.

  • Comrade PhysioProf operates in an environment where job candidates are not viable without at least one pub in a >12 IF journal.
    Fuck me - a >12 IF publication would have pushed me straight to full professor in my field where the highest IF is 4.4. My postdoc was in a more well-respected field where the IFs are higher (the highest IF is 13). My grad and postdoc work were all published in the journals of the latter field and I have several IFs ~5 which was a major factor in landing me the TT job ... well, that and my amazing personality, truly outstanding presentation skills, excellent personal hygiene and incredible modesty.

  • SC says:

    Academia's not a motherfucking care bears tea party.

    Was that a response to my comment? I was questioning the criteria upon which academic success is based, not suggesting that success could be had in that environment without meeting them. In any event, I'm open to discussion on this point. If this and your other blog are solely careerist in orientation, I'm probably wasting my time on this subject...which doesn't mean I won't enjoy your posts and comments in the future as I have in the past.

  • pinus says:

    I know plenty of places that have the same standard that CPP's department has. They get the same crowd of people from big name labs with big name papers....my current institute has them come by...a surprising number of them were awful...even with the nature, cell, neuron papers. But, some of them were really good as well. So it goes.

  • They get the same crowd of people from big name labs with big name papers.

    Just for the record, Comrade PhysioProf did his post-doc in a no-name lab of a punk-ass junior PI, but he did publish a paper in Cell, which got him his job. But yeah, the vast majority of my colleagues in the basic science departments at my institution came from big-name labs.

  • Oh, and I just spoke a little loosely. My Cell paper didn't get me my job; it got me an interview and the opportunity to go head to head with a handful of other candidates, whom I then beat out on the merits of my job talk, chalk talk, and one-on-ones.

  • pinus says:

    It got you a foot in the door...that is all the right person needs. Different departments will have different standards. It is important to understand this and not take it personally. I know I don't.

  • SC says:

    http://juniorprof.wordpress.com/2008/12/02/dont-forget-this-is-a-business/

    Jennifer Washburn, University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education (2005), for starters.

  • windy says:

    And this makes another 'publication'.
    Did your comments pass peer review?

  • leigh says:

    i was far too devoted to my incredibly difficult and overly complex hypothesis my second year of grad school. i got pissed off and divorced it after several months of throwing time and money at it to no avail, developed another sweet set of ideas... now i am kicking ass.
    [shrug] i learned my lesson. i came in too headstrong, i got smacked in the face and learned i am not always right. more likely, i am more often wrong. it was a good dose of humility and hopefully that will stick with me.

  • juniorprof says:

    In response to dismissing economic opportunity in academia as corporate corruption:
    http://juniorprof.wordpress.com/2008/12/02/a-bit-more-science-purity-business-and-legacies/

  • SC says:

    juniorprof,
    My deepest condolences. That is terrible news.

    In response to dismissing economic opportunity in academia as corporate corruption:

    I'm not sure how to respond to this (mis)characterization or post. My argument has nothing to do with believing in a supposedly "pure" science. Indeed, the idea of pursuing pure science reminds me of Kropotkin's great piece:
    http://flag.blackened.net/daver/anarchism/kropotkin/atty.html
    I take more of a critical, historical-sociological approach to scientific or academic work than an individual, career-oriented one. I understand the immediate value for many people of this blog's career orientation (my own rejection of which is no doubt a major contributor to my current poverty), but, as I suggested above, those aren't discussions in which I wish to participate.
    I think I take issue with your suggestion that you're assisting in the creation of a "new economy," but that term is so broad that I'm really not sure what it means.

  • TreeFish says:

    I don't marry my hypotheses, but I love them for long enough to see if they are worth marrying. For example, in graduate school, I had a hypothesis that still holds water. It got me 10+ pubs, including a CNS paper.
    As a post doc in a different domain from my graduate work, I am still describing things, and little-by-little I am forming a hypothesis (5+ pubs so far, including a CNS). I like to describe things with detail that others have failed to provide. It's lead to a lot of new information for why things go wrong in the brain of individuals with conditions that I study. I am lucky enough to be a former stoner, who can make a figure and stare at it until it illustrates my mental working model. Then, I can take the working model apart piece by piece and start generating some motherfucking hypotheses.
    I, too, have been dancing around the descriptive vs. mechanistic criticisms, but I am lucky enough to have circumvented many of the criticisms because I have found/elucidated things that others' work has failed to address. Importantly, however, I didn't get my K99, nor my tenure-track position, until I concatenated all of my descriptive work into a firm working model. The stoner-figure allows the reader to look at the picture, and walk with me as I explain what I think is going on.
    I guess my view is that descriptive work is sometimes a necessary prelude to a really cool set of hypotheses...like JP said. However, if my hypothesis likes to drink beer, smoke Camel wides, and listen to Uncle Tupelo, it's hard for me not to want to marry it. Still, I have proven myself wrong on several occassions, so I consider my hypotheses with great skepticism (after all, they came from a beer-drinking, Camel-wide-smoking, Alt country-listening meathead).
    A quick aside: a friend of mine found a really cool pattern of activity in the hippocampus, which he found was dependent on behavioral state (e.g., sleep vs. wake). As time went on, it was realized that one of the patterns might have been an artifact of using non-laminar electrodes. A very big Hungarian dog in the field reviewed the paper and accepted it in a damn good society journal. The following fall, the big Hungarian dog pulled my friend aside, congratulated him on the nice study, and told him that one of the big findings was probably an artifact from his use of single electrodes. To paraphrase, "After reviewing your paper, I had some post docs try to replicate you. You are too young for me to prove you wrong, and it might destroy your career. Plus, the post docs want to concentrate on other things. It is best for you to prove yourself wrong." He then explained to my friend how to address this, including some secrets to using laminar electrodes. My friend subsequently proved himself wrong, got a really nice IF>8 paper out of it, and now has a cushy job in his home country. How cool/unusual is that?!?!?!
    Certainly, Eccles wouldn't have done that. Hell, he tried to destroy Llinas's career when Rodolfo was correctly showing that dendrites were active...and used calcium to generate dendritic action potentials. Eccles, that cantankerous son-of-a-bitch, would have proved my friend wrong, destroyed his career, and been very up front about it. Kudos to the Hungarian big dog. Woof.

  • whimple says:

    TF: How cool/unusual is that?!?!?!
    It isn't cool at all; it's a dreadful failure of peer review.

  • juniorprof says:

    SC, You know, comments can be made on my blog as well 🙂
    I don't disagree with you, nor am I trying to pick a fight with you... I'm just trying to point out that we can think about this differently. That there are economic opportunities in our ideas and that those economic opportunities can be a part of rebuilding our economy. The economy that is currently collapsing was built on "innovation". "Innovation" made up of shifting debt around and betting on it. We create real innovation in our labs. Innovation that has value over the long-term.

  • TreeFish says:

    I don't see how it's a "dreadful failure of peer review". The study was multi-experiment and did a nice job of describing the state-dependence of various patterns. The discovery of its laminar-dependence occurred during the groups' attempts to replicate it (the original group and the Hungarian group). That said, the original finding stood up to rigorous peer review. I think it's a slippery slope to blame it on a failure of peer review; for example, should all experimental data be replicated by the reviewers before they can be accepted for publication?
    So, it wasn't a failure at all. In fact, it is a great success story for peer review: the reviewer was both critical and constructive (and abnormally gracious), and moved the field forward as a result. Because implementing the difficult laminar-electrode technique takes a long time (and $$) to master, any Editor worth his/her salt would realize that requiring the author to master it simply to address a reviewer's criticism of (only) one of the findings/patterns is irrational. Isn't that what the discussion section and future experiments are for?

  • SC says:

    SC, You know, comments can be made on my blog as well 🙂

    Comment outside of Sb? Whenever I do, the blogger emails me with follow-up questions. Creeps me out. I may in the future.

    I don't disagree with you, nor am I trying to pick a fight with you... I'm just trying to point out that we can think about this differently. That there are economic opportunities in our ideas and that those economic opportunities can be a part of rebuilding our economy. The economy that is currently collapsing was built on "innovation". "Innovation" made up of shifting debt around and betting on it. We create real innovation in our labs. Innovation that has value over the long-term.

    Hmmm... My political views (see my link above) put me so far outside the standard range of discussion of these issues that it's usually wisest to avoid stepping in altogether (maybe I should've stayed "home" at Pharyngula...:)). I oppose capitalist rebuilding and want to see the sciences evolve away from capitalism, so we certainly do disagree on fundamental questions. But I definitely don't want to argue. I went through something similar not long ago with my oldest friend - except it was a suicide - and really just feel for you right now. Sucks the argumentativeness right out of me.

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