Let The Science Speak For Itself

Jan 02 2009 Published by under Conduct of Science

Dr. Isis the Scientist has a wonderful post up discussing an important issue for scientists of all levels of development, but particularly so for those who are still battling for recognition by their peers. The key sentence of her post is this:

Doing brilliant science is not enough to get me a job

YES! Nor is it enough to get your grants funded, your ass invited to deliver seminars at other institutions or conference presentations, your papers accepted at the best possible journals, or your ass promoted and tenured. This is a major raison d'etre of the DrugMonkey blog: we assume that our readers are doing brilliant science, and then help them leverage off of that into career success that permits them to *continue* doing brilliant science for as long as they wish.
And Dr. Isis's post itself was focused on what it takes to give a clear convincing public presentation of one's hot science. Now, of course, you just know that someone was going to chime in with the usual "let the science speak for itself" cockamamie bullshit. And you would be absolutely correct.


Indeed, wonderful enlightening insightful friend of this blog and the entire science blogosphere Solly Rivlington rendered the following deep comment that really penetrates right to the essential heart of the matter:

Although the majority here agree that the quality of your science is the secret to your success as a scientists, I still find it somewhat bothersome that many would consider other factors, intrinsic or extrinsic, as important enough to sell yourself and your science. While there is no question that there are people out there who would be influenced by such factors, advising future scientists to take these factors and those who may be influenced by them into account only foster the very scourge that we all trying to eradicate.

Fortunately, Dr. Isis did not let this nonsense stand:

Alright, Rivlington. I'm going to bite because I think that you may be fundamentally misinterpreting what I am advocating. Saying that I suggest someone "sells their science" seems to imply that I advocate someone attempt to convince others of their conclusions regardless of the facts/data at hand. This is not the case, and I think you know it. However, when you consider the vast piles of articles, abstracts, presentations, etc. that someone must wade through in a week, it is important that a scientist craft their presentation in a way that their methods, results, and conclusions are clear and memorable. This helps me decide what I want to investigate further, what I want to pursue simply for my own intellectual interest, and what is immediately applicable to my research. As Becca described it, "flawless science, perfectly packaged." There is nothing dishonest about this. This is simply clarity.
A well-crafted figure is more useful than a poorly crafted figure, even if they reflect the exact same data. A well-crafted paragraph is more useful than a paragraph full of spelling and grammatical errors, even if they say the exact same thing. A clean slide with bulleted text of sufficient font size is more effective than a paragraph of tiny font. None of this is dishonest. It all about effective communication.
The alternative, as you seem to suggest, would be to simply publish your data and let people work it out to whatever ends they interpret it. This is chaos. This would make a poor domestic and laboratory goddess lose her freakin' junk.
So, that being said, let's drop the pretense of assuming that I (or anyone else) is advocating that anyone dishonestly report their findings. Let's all agree on this blog to stop squinting and finding cheaters everywhere we look. Really, it's tiresome. Instead, let's all understand that Dr. Isis's message is that brilliant science is only seen as brilliant if it is communicated effectively. A career in science, like any other career, is only successful if one can effectively demonstrate their work.

A-fucking-men, Dr. Isis!!! The scientists who are all "let the work speak for itself" are the ones who suck total motherfucking ass at writing, speaking, and presenting, and so they just want to drag everyone else down to their shitty level of communication.
If these dumbfucks wanna be all hairshirt misunderstood genius Van Gogh ear-severing scientific losers whining away their whole fucking lives, let 'em. But for fuck's sake, don't let them poison the minds of innocent young scientists who--because of their natural fear of public speaking--might be susceptible to toxic "let the science speak for itself" claptrap.
Clear effective communication is GOOD!!!!!!!! And in the absence of clear communication, who the fuck do you think suffers more? Privileged white dudes whining about "let the science speak for itself" or the various less-privileged trying to fight their way into the scientific community?

24 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    You can tell a good story without spinning a fairy tale.

  • I am a big believer that one of the places "we" fail in science education is in not teaching junior scientists to communicate effectively.
    I once whined to a pretty senior scientist about the career-related pressure I was feeling to publish and she reminded me that if you're doing brilliant science you should want to communicate your work to other scientists. Yes, publication is often the metric by which we are judged for advancement, but it's also the way we advance our fields. The only way to do that is to communicate our findings effectively.

  • Beaker says:

    There is yet another reason why "let the work speak for itself" is not enough. You can do excellent work, with clever controls, big statistical differences with tiny error bars, and then draw rock solid conclusions based on the data. Yet the subject of inquiry and the conclusions drawn can still be totally fucking boring and insignificant.
    Some scientists I've met seem to think that merely by doing their science according to the rules of scientific method, entitles them to be recognized and rewarded. If the rest of the scientific community can't see the profound importance of what they are doing, it's obviously the colleague's/reviewer's/study section's fault--not the investigator's.
    If what you cooked up in the lab is important, then you better well be able to lay it out there--in bite-sized, easy-to-digest pieces--to allow others to experience its profound, astounding, and delicious implications. That's clear communication and that's marketing. Both are necessary, not sufficient. In science and in cooking, presentation matters.
    And face it: even if you do explain what you did and why very clearly, another scientist may understand perfectly and then turn around, shrug his/her shoulders, and walk away. They may be correct, or their ability to judge the work may be limited by lack of background information. Or they may be really fucking stupid.
    But the beauty of what we do is that somehow a consensus emerges. The cream does rise. Sometimes it happens quickly (RNAi, for example), sometimes it takes a while (prions). But a whole lot of other shit never gets much recognition because it doesn't fucking deserve it, despite the hours, resources, love, and sincerity that went into doing the work. Call it the "not a fucking Care Bears Tea Party" factor.

  • Dave says:

    I am in total 100% agreement with DM and Isis. In fact, I'm maybe in 200% agreement, in that I think the ability to clearly and concisely justify & explain something is a prerequisite for good science.

  • Alex says:

    I am a big believer that one of the places "we" fail in science education is in not teaching junior scientists to communicate effectively.

    Do you make undergraduates write formal lab reports in lab classes? Do you assign them to write papers for advanced courses? Do you make them do Excel graphs in freshman labs, and nice graphs (i.e. not just Excel default settings) in more advanced classes? Do you provide samples of what a good paper or lab report looks like? Do you grade papers and lab reports on writing skill as well as subject matter?
    Anybody who isn't doing these things has two options:
    1) Start doing these things.
    2) Say that grading these things takes too much time, and then don't ever again complain about the communication skills of scientists.
    Back in the good old days (2006) I was a postdoc moonlighting as an adjunct professor, in order to build the CV (teaching does matter at some schools). Somehow, I got the most unusual adjunct position you can imagine: A course for second year grad students. (In physics, most adjunct professors teach the freshman courses.) They were smart kids with good grades from decent undergraduate institutions. But physicists tend not to give many writing assignments. That's the English Department's job, right? So, at the end of the quarter, in lieu of an in-class test with calculations, I told them to go delve into the literature and write about something that they'd like to work on. Most of them had intelligent things to say, but the writing was just awful. (And you can't blame it on ESL: Even the international students had done undergraduate work in the US.)
    Then and there, I vowed that when I'm a professor I will not let the undergrads come out of my department without being able to write. (Cue dramatic music and image of me standing resolutely as I make my pledge.) (OK, stop the music.)
    Now I'm an assistant professor, and although I'm a theoretician rather than an experimentalist, I focus a lot of my effort on lab reports for the intro classes. Being in an undergraduate department, teaching is actually significant for tenure so I can justify this effort, although there are still days when I wish I could stop marking red ink all over a report and get back to my calculations...
    Good scientific writing is a skill that takes a lot of time to master, and although the skills developed in Freshman Composition 101 can certainly help you get started on that path, there's a hell of a lot more to it that can only be taught by people who write about science. My job is to get them started on it early, so by the time the people who took my Physics for Life Sciences class make it to graduate school and work in your labs, they can write something other than "The measurement was inaccurate because there was measurement error for the device."

  • acmegirl says:

    "But for fuck's sake, don't let them poison the minds of innocent young scientists who--because of their natural fear of public speaking--might be susceptible to toxic "let the science speak for itself" claptrap."
    This really resonated with me. I have been struggling with public speaking all year, and many of my student colleagues don't seem to understand why I am putting myself through hell to improve. Many of them are buying into the whole, "Lecturing and giving talks are for losers. I'm too busy doing my REAL work for that." It seems, however, that every step up in a career trajectory involves giving talks, and so it would be foolish to not take the opportunity to get good at it in grad. school - before you find your ability to get a job impaired.

  • leigh says:

    knowing or doing totally fucking awesome shit doesn't do you much good if you can't effectively communicate it to others. we do this work for society's benefit, advancing our own careers along the way. lighthouses don't do society much good when the light is all covered up, either. you have to let the awesome science shine through, and it's done with effective communication.
    communicating our kickass ideas to the outside world is what makes us effective members of society. we're not all perfect at it, but we learn by trying, failing, and finding where we failed. brutal self-evaluation has its place in every aspect of our lives, we learn from it.
    we become more useful for it.

  • This really resonated with me. I have been struggling with public speaking all year, and many of my student colleagues don't seem to understand why I am putting myself through hell to improve. Many of them are buying into the whole, "Lecturing and giving talks are for losers. I'm too busy doing my REAL work for that." It seems, however, that every step up in a career trajectory involves giving talks, and so it would be foolish to not take the opportunity to get good at it in grad. school - before you find your ability to get a job impaired.

    These are important lessons. I hope you find learning them improves your success.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    And this was my response to Isis long bite on my comment on her blog:
    Isis, sorry that you did not get my drift regarding the intrinsic and extrinsic factors. I absolutely agree with your advice about selling your science by packaging it in the best way. My point was in regard to mousegirl's issues, i.e., how one dresses or how one looks. I even brought up in an earlier comment in this thread my own experiences with such factors. Nowhere in the comment that you bit on did I in any way had disagreed with your advice. However, your misreading of my comment immediately brough out this foulmouth dog, PP, barking and spreading his rabied saliva all over. I think you can handle your own battles pretty well without the need to send the Doberman out everytime I appear around your blog. Of course, I know you did not send him out, but you could ask him to sit or maybe put a leash on him.
    Of course, this Doberman dog, CPP, did not read my other comment on Dr. Isis's post, he only read her response and immdiately began barking.
    BTW, my science is packaged well enough, such that some of my papers are frequently cited 20 years after they were published. And at the end, my science does speak for itself, including in neuroscience and neurochemistry textbooks.

  • jc says:

    Like I said over at Isis, networking/contacting people in your field is critical for success. A colleague I've never met was on tv rocking out with his bad self about some hot science, so i emailed him jokingly that I saw his hollywood appearance, and dammit he was steelin ma tunder! He emailed me back to get my ass up to his digs to give a talk.
    I emailed a friend of a friend asking about jobs. My message got forwarded onto eternity, some other guy got my email, called me, told me he knew who I was, and offered me a job. I could kick myself for not having networked before that.
    As a grad student, ask to give guest lectures or ask to teach a class (not TAing!) for your advisor. You'll learn fast.

  • kiwi says:

    As a postdoc based in Australasia, networking is especially important, given that universities here generally supply funding for overseas conferences for postdocs at a rate of roughly one every three years, and often not at all for PhD students. This has ramifications for building up personal networks, invites for talks etc. We have to be especially proactive to be 'seen', something I have realised rather belatedly. The net plays an important part here in creating international opportunities. Same rules apply though locally, where guest lectures, teaching etc remain important, and great for practising for bigger audiences as suggested on Isis' blog.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Isis is "a big believer that one of the places "we" fail in science education is in not teaching junior scientists to communicate effectively.
    PP Doberman on his own blog posted about journalists and bloggers and stated that "Communicating the substantive content of scientific discoveries to the general public is a red herring. What needs to be communicated to members of the general public is the *importance* of science to their daily lives. Everybody understands that engineering is really, really important for making sure, e.g., that bridges and buildings don't fall down, that planes don't routinely plummet from the sky, etc. But they don't give a flying fuck about the actual content of civil or aeronautical engineering principles.
    Yes, there are enthusiasts who are interested in the details, but trying to explain the details to non-enthusiast members of the public is a fool's errand. What scientists do need to do is convincingly explain what practical outcomes that hugely influence people's daily lives would never have occurred without a robust scientific enterprise.

    In short, according to Doberman, there is no need for comunicating science to the dumb public. The only reason for packaging your science is to advance your own career. The hell with the rest of the world. But scientists understand the science and if the science is crap, no matter how pretty the wrapping is, it is still crap. If the science is hot, the need for wrapping, at least for the benefit of other scientists, is less important. If it is hot, it will burn off the wrapping anyhow.
    Clearly the Doberman is barking from both sides of his foulmouth.

  • Dave says:

    I'm not trying to suck up to CPP here, because it's much more fun to have him hate me. But I think, Sol, that you misrepresent CPP's point.
    Everyone is saying that communication skills are paramount. In the quote above, it seems to me that CPP is just saying that the public needs to understand the implications of the scientific conclusions more than they need to understand evidence.
    Different audiences, different emphasis. Seems quite reasonable to me.
    Perhaps it was just hard for CPP's message to come through without the colorful adjectives. Maybe he should have written: "The dumbfuck public doesn't know what the fuck your shit is about. Don't waste your fucking time throwing brilliant pearls before swine. Just tell the shithead morons why they ought to fucking believe you so you can get their money but leave the real explanation for people who have a clue." Now does it make sense?

  • The Saturday morning coffee is finished and I am about to saddle up with my study section assignments. Roughly half are going to contain superb science. How I pray that at least two can communicate to me effectively and compellingly the importance and context of the proposed work.

  • Dave says:

    Abel: I assume you will give your best scores to the clear writers. If so, I cheer you on. Sol might be dismayed by that, saying you would be rewarding style over substance. I disagree.
    Poor writing is a bane. Obtuse writing is too often rewarded, as reviewers hate to admit they don't understand stuff. And having no understanding, they cannot find anything to criticize. In today's funding climate, lack of criticism isn't enough to get something funded, but it's often enough to get something published. Which means the literature is filled with poorly written crap of little scientific value. We all suffer for that.
    In contrast, clear writing is not just a delight that facilitates easy reading. Clear reading promotes clear thinking. If you really really really know exactly what you want to say, it is easy to say it. If you have no clue what you are talking about, you will never be able to organize words that suggest otherwise.
    Read that last sentence again, Sol. There is no such thing as brilliant but difficult-to-communicate science.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Dave, I appreciate your doing the talk for me as you discuss the topic with Abel. Nevertheless, I never said that communicating your science clearly and succinctly is not necessary. I believe that both Isis and CPP completely misrepresented my comments, a much ado about nothing.
    First, I think the best packaged science for scientists is found in the highest IF journals such as Nature and Science. That is because to publish your science in journals like these two you must be able to tell your story in a clear and succinct way. All the conference presentations, the seminars or the invited lectures will not do as much for communicating your science as publishing it in S/N. Now again, I do not discount the importance of all the other packaging methods and, since not everyone can or do publish in S/N, surely, style and clarity are of utmost importance.
    Second, your attempt at improving on CPP's style of presenting his opinions does not do it. No one can do it better than he does. More importantly, I disagree with both of you when you assert that the public is shithead morons that should just believe in what you tell them without understanding it. This is the real disconnect between the public and science today and it is due to scientists like you two who dismiss the need for strong bonds and understanding between the scientific community and the public. Both for recruitment of young students into science and for continuous increase in science funding by the public we must sell our science to the public in such a way that it is perfectly understood and makes sense.

  • Dave says:

    I was trying to rephrase what I though CPP's point was, Sol. I do not think the public is a bunch of shithead morons. When I counsel trainees regarding speaking and presentation, I tell them they should be able to justify and summarize their data in 30 seconds to anyone. If anything, I regard the ability to explain things to non-scientists as the pinnacle of scientific communication skill. The most brilliant scientists in history more often than not are also famous for their ability to explain topics to lay people in an engaging and informative manner.
    As for your other point: I have re-read the comments in Isis' blog a couple times, trying to find issue with anything either of you says in hopes of fanning the sort of petty internet squabble we all know and love to read. Alas, you both seem quite reasonable lately. At most, I could maybe take a jab at the tendency for both of you to talk about individual thread participants and yourselves rather than the topic at hand.
    But that would detract from the fact that I already won the troll contest here. It's not about you, Sol, or Isis. Or even about that petty profane amateur CPP. It's about me. Me me me me me me. You have no hope of usurping my troll crown, Sol. You will die of old age before my disruptive powers even get fully warmed up. Don't you get it? No one is here to be convinced of anything. We're all just here screwing around while there are more important things to be done, and occasionally amusing ourselves with a point that only we understand and agree with but which nonetheless fills us with personal satisfaction. Blogs and message boards are basically electronic circle jerks.

  • Dave, I appreciate your doing the talk for me as you discuss the topic with Abel. Nevertheless, I never said that communicating your science clearly and succinctly is not necessary. I believe that both Isis and CPP completely misrepresented my comments, a much ado about nothing.

    Perhaps I did not "misrepresent them", but misrepresented them as I understood them. If you believe I have done you an injustice, then perhaps, Sol, you should work on the clarity of your writing. See my blog for details.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Dave, you won!!! I have to agree with you 100%.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    One of the basic principles that we have to hammer into junior engineers is that it is not an engineer's job to produce way-freaking-awesome stuff. It is an engineer's job to document the means whereby way-freaking-awesome stuff can be reliably produced.
    Which means that the primary output of engineering is documentation -- if it ain't documented, and documented well, you're wasting a cubicle.
    Same goes for science. It is the fundamental role of a scientist to communicate way-freaking-awesome science, whether by publication or by instruction. If you can't make your readers or your students [1] drool over the utter awesomeness of your work, then you're a waste of funding and should so some thing more socially beneficial, such as pushing around a grocery cart containing all of your worldly possessions.
    The only difference that counts between science in ancient times and science in the modern era is that in the modern era we-as-a-society have learned to communicate it rather than keep it as a trade secret.
    Which means that if you can't communicate clearly, either team up with someone who can (and get used to the idea that they'll get the lion's share of the credit and job benefits) or find another line of work, see above.
    [1] I'd rather a thousand times over have an instructor who was a mediocre researcher but glows with passion for the subject than someone who might be the next Nobel laureate whose main power of inspiration is to make you want to cut your throat rather than ever encounter the subject again.

  • anon says:

    Dave's comment: Poor writing is a bane. Obtuse writing is too often rewarded, as reviewers hate to admit they don't understand stuff. And having no understanding, they cannot find anything to criticize.
    I have seen this one on a number of occasions, especially where evaluation of fellowship applications from a number of different disciplines is being undertaken for example. I notice, OTOH, that in ecology (where everyone from rocket scientists to the next door neighbour thinks they know something), that if something is clearly written, there can also be the perception that it must therefore be simple and straightforward, and thus too basic and not worth funding. This misconception also seems to lead to the view that ecology is populated by rather dull researchers who certainly can't be brilliant unless they use four syllable words. Perhaps we should cultivate more obtuse jargon . .

  • S. Rivlin says:

    "Perhaps I did not "misrepresent them", but misrepresented them as I understood them. If you believe I have done you an injustice, then perhaps, Sol, you should work on the clarity of your writing."
    Isis, I thought I have already apologized for my lack of clarity.

  • CC says:

    I have been struggling with public speaking all year, and many of my student colleagues don't seem to understand why I am putting myself through hell to improve. Many of them are buying into the whole, "Lecturing and giving talks are for losers. I'm too busy doing my REAL work for that."
    Yeah, I got plenty of that stuff in grad school. (Plus abuse from those clowns, when my first few talks were predictably horrific.) By my third year, they were whining about how I was a spoiled pretty-boy who just got ahead by giving smooth presentations and making solid figures.
    Running one more gel is usually the least productive thing you could be doing ... and if it's not, just run it after your talk.

  • Gregor Cuppan says:

    DM, a really good post and nice string of comments added. To help expand the argument here I want to suggest that the two biggest problems with writing in the sciences are:
    1.) the elitist "rankism" that comes with the statement "let the science speak for itself." This comes from authors and their peers who hold little respect for the reader--or only respect for readers who have skills that enable them to see the world (or pretend to see the world)as the author sees the world as a result of "earned expertise." I am glad to see DM you call a spade a spade, err I mean bullshit.
    2.) the second problem not mentioned in any of the comments is that many, many authors fail to distinguish the difference between creating CONTENT in a document versus creating KNOWLEDGE. These authors focus on the text with little regard for how people read and more importantly what a reader may want to do with the information resident in the report. Often new authors look to emulate what has been written by others. Thus creating the only perpetual motion machine I know--an endless stream of unremarkable to downright lousy research papers.

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