A sports-analogy for ASBMB President McKnight

Nov 04 2014 Published by under Academics, Diversity in Science

Steven McKnight is simply intoxicated with his first taste of a social media imbroglio.

...inclusion of the volatile word [riff-raff] in the C3 essay prompted widespread attention. For this, I am simply delighted. This was my first brush with social media, and I can clearly see its power.
My next two essays, for the December and January editions of ASBMB Today, will deal with this flaw head-on. Trust me — I will take off the gloves and fight bare-fisted in those two essays.

I'm sympathetic. We all get a little giddy the first time we spark a social media dustup that gets all sorts of people talking about us and our pet opinions. Doesn't make him any more right in his opinions, but whatever.

What really interests me is his choice of a sports-analogy that is more apt than he realizes.

In the state of Texas, tens of thousands of young kids begin competing in organized football during elementary school. The enterprise is highly inclusive and exceedingly diverse. By the time these kids get to high school, they know a lot about the sport and have begun to develop skills. In high school, however, a weeding-out process begins. Not all kids make the junior varsity and varsity teams, and not all kids — even if they make the team — are apportioned equal playing time. As things progress to college, the weeding-out process becomes all the more acute. Playing on Friday nights as a high-school athlete in Texas is lots of fun with broad participation. Playing on Saturdays as a college athlete may be equally fun, but only the most competitive kids are on the field. The final weeding-out step comes when players are drafted by the National Football League — 32 teams sport 53-man rosters, meaning that only 1,696 young men are eligible to suit up for Sunday football. These are the best of the best athletes and are rewarded accordingly....I think of science in this same way.

Emphasis added.

Naturally this is just a re-hash of the baseball player analogy that Comradde PhysioProffe loves to deploy on these pages and it has a lot of truth in it.

I wrote a post once upon a time that is relevant to this issue. HIGHLY relevant.

WarrenMoonEdEskimosHmm. You know, I once watched a Rose Bowl in which an undersized mediocre looking, but nevertheless competent, quarterback did a decent job of not losing too badly to his opposition. Faint praise right? Well, homie went on to a NFL pro career and made tons of cash while being, well, still kinda mediocre. Back in the 1978 Rose Bowl, however, fans were lucky enough to watch one Warren Moon (Wikipedia) of the UW Huskies whup up on the U. Mich Wolverines (boo!). Of course, even for some third rate collegiate bowl game, the fans were lucky to have him.

He was recruited by a number of colleges, but some wanted to convert Moon to another position as was the norm for many major colleges recruiting black high school quarterbacks.[9] Moon decided to attend West Los Angeles College in 1974-75 where he was a record-setting quarterback. After Moon showed his ability at West L.A., only a handful of four-year colleges showed interest in signing him. Offensive Coordinator Dick Scesniak [University of Washington], however, was eager to sign the rifle-armed Moon.

...oh, for chrissakes! People. This was the 1970s!!! Oh yeah, that's right. I remember those days. Black players can't be quarterback, you see. Don't have the right shoulder structure, it's a genetic thing doncha know. Plus, they aren't as good at all that, you know, quarterbacking stuff....
Come to think of it, I seem to recall some weebag Div I hockey player (who never ended up going anywhere professionally) writing some paper about how black people's hip structure precluded them from skating very well. (Or, skating like gangbusters and then fixing, oh, knees and hips for a living as an orthopedic surgeon)

Sorry. Back to the point. Oh yes. Warren Moon. Back to the Wikipedia:

Throughout his CFL career, Moon amassed 1,369 completions on 2,382 attempts (57.4 completion percentage) for 21,228 yards and 144 touchdown passes. He also led his team to victory in 9 of 10 postseason games. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Edmonton Eskimos Wall of Honour. In 2006, he was ranked fifth on a list of the greatest 50 CFL players presented by Canadian sports network TSN.

Not to shabby for a guy thought physically and mentally incapable of playing the quarterback position because of his skin color, right? Pretty decent.

What? What's that you say? There's more? Oh, riiiiigghht. That Warren Moon. The one who next jumped to the NFL and played from 1984-2000 as one of the more exciting quarterbacks to take the field,

Combining his NFL and CFL stats, Moon's numbers are nearly unmatched in professional football annals: 5,357 completions in 9,205 attempts for 70,553 yards and 435 touchdowns. Even if his Canadian League statistics are discounted, Warren Moon's career is still exceptional: 3,988 completions for 49,325 yards, 291 touchdown passes, 1,736 yards rushing, and 22 rushing touchdowns. During his NFL career, Warren Moon was named to nine Pro Bowl games (1988-1995, 1997).

I'm just getting going...

Alright. There's really not much point in going on and on to list Owens and Ashe and Gibson and the Williamses and Ribbses and Woods and Jones and all the other great athletes who thrilled (or continue to thrill) us with their class, competence and courage. Little point in detailing for each case where and when the operating rules of their sports (official and/or de facto) would have (or did..or still do) prevent them from excelling because of their skin color. Not much profit in describing how the overt bigotry of "they can't do it" papered over the fear that someone might be better than the rest of us. Silly to talk about the moral repugnance of categorically closing off the open field of play to some people just to benefit ourselves or those more like ourselves.

Because, you know, we're beyond all that sort of thing now. And...this is a blog that is supposed to focus on science. And the conduct of science. Which is objective. The only goal is the discovery.

To spell it out for Dr. McKnight and his fellow travelers....

Science is not a pure meritocracy. In the recent past when current generations were getting their start academic science was even less of a pure meritocracy. People who didn't look the right way, choose parents in the right way, express external dangly bits in the right way....all sorts of people who might have come to the table with the right brain equipment were systematically excluded. Denied from the competition before it even properly got started.

This still goes on. The "weeding-out" process that McKnight refers to (sports and science alike) is affected by bias. Opportunity is afforded to not the purest demonstrable talent. The pool of talent is chosen by the coaches. If they don't think a black kid can play quarterback, they will do their damndest to convert him to some other position so as to keep his "talent". How many Warren Moons did we never get to see on the field taking snaps?

As the man said, I think of science in this same way.

The coaches are the lab heads. The grayer bearded and bluer of hair. The gatekeepers are supported by their peers in review, in conference program committee and on hiring committees. Just as assuredly as coaches are supported by their owners, boosters, loyal alum, etc who have definite opinions on what a quarterback should be.

Somewhat less categorically, the coaches of sports and the coaches of science have individual biases as well. Show early signs of talent or even just effort.... and the coach gives you more playing time, calls the plays to you and lets you take the crunch-time shots. Sometimes the favored player is clearly inferior but the coach likes them for some reason (often enough because it is their own child) and wants to give them the best shot. Sometimes specialist talents are not used effectively simply because the coach can't see it or doesn't know how to work this talent into the mix so as to benefit the team (and that specialist talent's development).

I see this all the damn time in my now considerable hours spent watching my kids and their teammates play various sports.

And you know what? It is JUST like a dynamic that goes down in larger academic labs.

It is JUST like a dynamic that goes on in scientific sub-fields.

And McKnight's vision of who the "riff-raff" are and who the real scientists are cannot help but be similarly biased. We can't speculate on the nature of McKnight's biases...who knows, he may think that women or African-American or Asian scientists are the bomb and that standard old American white-guys like himself are a played out demographic*. I don't know**.

But what I do know is that whatever his concept of who is in the "riff raff" pool, he is biased and wrong. How can he not be? Most any individual person is going to be biased. That is why we use grant-selection and faculty-selection processes that depend on a committee of people. So as to hedge our bets against the bias of the individual attitude.

So I welcome this discussion McKnight would like to have. I look forward to further "bare-fisted" assertions of his position.

Because you know what? I know guys like this. I know what they are.

And I'm here to tell you. This guy is going to reveal further depths of his indefensible, personal-bias based and just-plain-wrong attitudes about who the best scientists are. In doing so, he will undercut support for anyone who might be nodding along with his truthiness at present. And that will be a good thing.

*I do actually know at least one highly accomplished privileged older white guy scientist who has expressed a sentiment like this and appears to believe it. Just for the record.

**HAHAHAHAHA, of course, I do know. This guy is going to get caught saying some horrible racist and/or sexist thing along the lines of Jim Watson's finest statements. There is no possible other way this can go down. It's a rule of nature.

44 responses so far

  • whizbang says:

    Poetry, Brother Drug. Exactly what I thought, although I never got all the way through the essay.

    Too much asshattery to finish.

  • Philapodia says:

    "inclusion of the volatile word [riff-raff] in the C3 essay prompted widespread attention. For this, I am simply delighted. This was my first brush with social media, and I can clearly see its power."

    As Uncle Ben from Spiderman put it: "With great power comes great responsibility." Put another way, don't be a self-righteous douche-bag online. People will call you on it and you will look like a tool.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Everybunny needs a rabbi

  • ilovepigenetics says:

    On point!

  • Lady Scientist says:

    I had similar thoughts about the football analogy when I read his essay last night. It's no surprise that he chose a male-dominated sport to compare with academic science. I wonder if he'll extend the analogy to include cheerleaders (and who those should be) next time.

  • Philapodia says:

    The reason he chose football is that he wants to portray himself as a tough-guy brawler who will fight for what's right (i.e. what he believes). His bare-knuckle analogy goes along with it. Perhaps he just came across Fight Club and envisions himself as Brad Pitt's character. I'm all for having a useful debate, but this is the sort of belligerent macho BS is meant to be intimidating. Not a great example of vertically ascending leadership.

  • rxnm says:

    Clueless old boomer egomaniacs always confuse appalling everyone with their shittiness and bias with "stimulating a discussion."

    I am all for giving this guy as much rope / as many shovels as he feels he's entitled to.

  • Dave says:

    Going to get the popcorn.....

  • Lady Scientist says:

    For all his machismo, I bet underneath that collared shirt are some pasty, saggy man boobs and a bunch of chest hair. All he would need would be a heavy gold chain around his neck.

  • potnia theron says:

    What I loved was the intro ... I support the young 'uns. I give money. I have a small lab. (And I'm sure ALL his trainees get jobs.) ... Therefore, I everything I say is going to be OK because I have Good Guy Credentials.

  • Philapodia says:

    "The McKnight stands on his own judgment. The riffraff follows the opinions of others. The McKnight thinks, the riffraff copies. The McKnight produces, the riffraff loots. The McKnights's concern is the conquest of nature - the riffraff's concern is the conquest of funding. The McKnight requires independence, he neither serves nor rules. He deals with funding by free exchange with and voluntary choice of POs. The riffraff seeks power, he wants to bind all funding together in common action and common slavery. He claims that the NIH is only a tool for the use of other riffraff. That he must think as they think, act as they act, and live is selfless, joyless servitude to any need but his own indirect costs. Look at history. Everything thing we have, every great achievement has come from the independent work of some independent mind. Every horror and destruction came from attempts to force the NIH into a herd of brainless, soulless reviewers."

    Excerpted from McKnight's version of "The Fountainhead" (Ayn Rand)

  • jim says:

    Oh man, tough medicine! Totally different from the DM RX for us "sniveling riffraff" waitsorry Millenials. Totally different. You're not at all like your father, don't worry guyz.

  • GAATTC says:

    I want datahound back as president.

  • mytchondria says:

    McKnutty has totally gone of the deep end plaques and tangles if he thinks:
    1) He came off as anything other than a total fuckken douchetard in his initial essay poking the science bear. He was pissed MONEY WASN'T GOING TO THE RIGHT PLACE (i.e. to him). He fails to mention this at all in his fauxpology.
    2) A simple 'sorry young pups of science on the riff raff thing’ is going to cut it. He's so clearly wrapped up in his greatest generation of Albers he can't pull his profoundly large head out of his arse and see he is part of the problem.
    3) His masturbation on his greatness ("I started a company with Robert Tjian and David Goeddel to employ young scientists!!") is going to fly. You started the company to make fuckken money you fuckketard. Like everyone else.
    4) Having enough money toss 3M at biomedical research and bragging about what a great fuckken mentor you are okay. You know who gets to brag about YOU being an awesome mentor? Your trainees. They. Aren't. Fuckken. Doing. It. Because you're an asshat, my friend. A rich asshat, but still, an asshat.
    Bring your weak sauce, McKnutter. We're excited for it.

  • I am stunned. Really, truly stunned. Not that he feels this way, but that his society has published this.

  • Ola says:

    Yeah sports n' all but really DM you could've just put the last paragraph at the beginning and saved your readers another 5 minutes of irrelevant shite.

    We have a dean who does this - he's a big Yankees fan and uses every possible opportunity to bring it up in his presentations, using stoopid-ass phrases like "bottom of the ninth" which mean jack-shittio to most of his audience (women, ferners, immigrants, doors who don't give a shit about sports). When directly questioned about this habit and how uncomfortable it makes people seem he simply reminds that he's a big fan and has season tickets, at which point any sane person's ass-hat-ometer goes off the scale.

    Science and sport are different things, let's not mix them up because we're lazy and old and white. When did you last hear "man he whacked that ball like it was a new investigator R01!" on Fox sports Sunday? Did you ever hear Eli Manning say "we played good but we coulda used better loading controls"? No. Stop it. Sports analogies make you sound stupid.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    As I always say...for one McKnight/Watson/Kern/Poo that you see in the light there are a couple of dozen more hiding under the cupboards.

    Maybe "his society" has a lot of people like him who are backing his idiocy every step of the way.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    You have to skate with your head up Ola or someone will check your ass into the boards.

  • Anonymoustache says:

    Couldn't agree more, DM.....well said.

  • which mean jack-shittio to most of his audience (women, ferners, immigrants, doors who don't give a shit about sports)

    Watch it, asshole.

  • Philapodia says:

    "I am stunned. Really, truly stunned. Not that he feels this way, but that his society has published this."

    While I agree that this was unwise for a society, think of the web traffic that ASBMB is now getting. I think this is some sick version of marketing ASBMB by McKnight. The visibility of ASBMB has risen quite a bit over this imbroglio (although not in a good way), and with McKnight stating that he'll be talking about it over the next 2 years people will probably be checking in more often than they have been before. Maybe they'll lose some members who are upset about McKnight's "bare-fisted" style, but they were the riffraff anyway and don't have the cahones to be real scientists anyway. This smells similar to what right-wing talk-show hosts like Rush or Anne Coulter do to keep viewers coming back.

  • neuropop says:

    Pity that a very relevant point (the third and second from last paragraphs) in that essay got lost in the "riff-raff" and self-congratulatory remarks. Have the number of top-down NIH RFAs (ENCODE, BRAIN etc.) actually increased in the last few years? How many of these are boondoggles? If not, do they really advance the ability of more folks to do !!11!!, vertically ascending science (BRAIN, I am looking at you)? I wonder if McKnight shouldn't be using his bully pulpit to decry these issues.

  • jmz4 says:

    Another facet of this masterful analogy is that apparently, like in football, rising to the top of the game risks incurring a fair amount brain damage, as McKnight has just demonstrated with these posts.

    It's a horrible metaphor. The purpose of sports is to generate competition. For the enjoyment of the players and the enjoyment of the fans, the best have to be pitted against the best.
    The goal of science is knowledge, and as long as that knowledge is accurate, it doesn't really matter who generates it. Competition is an unfortunate side effect of limited funds, not something to be reveled in.

  • E rook says:

    Top down isn't always boondoggle. Manhattan project, Appollo, Chris Columbus, Congressional set aside for office of AIDS research, probably PubMed/PMC/NCBI/NLM were top-down. I am optimistic about BRAIN, we are still early in its lifespan. I would argue that the goals are top down while the means are meritocratic (or at least, peer reviewed).

    I hate the sports analogy to saying something is a meritocracy because it's so obviously flawed for the point the user is trying to convey. The most popular sport worldwide involves kicking a ball around. The richest country in the world pays no attention to that sport, but instead worships two sports that require expensive equipment and specialized training. With every sport, the people who are good at it had access to the facilities and equipment which allowed them to hone their skills during formative years and there are tons of people out there with the intrinsic talent/motivation/genetics/drive but never had access to the right environment at the right time to get ahead. Maybe it's an apt analogy in some ways to the nature of academic research, but it does not at all make the point that it's purveyors think it is making.

  • DJMH says:

    I think it's smart how he shifted the topic from whether or not science was full of "riff-raff" to the completely unrelated topic of whether science is a healthy or unhealthy pyramid scheme.

    If you want to let the high schoolers play football, you have to accept that some of them will be reading your grants.

  • odyssey says:

    Maybe "his society" has a lot of people like him who are backing his idiocy every step of the way.

    I know of at least a couple with significant sway in the society who fully support his view.

    What great timing. The Rethuglicans control congress and hence science funding, are increasingly scrutinizing us, and McKnight has ignited a - to the external eye at least - civil war. This won't help ASBMB's lobbying efforts...

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Yep, McKnutty is the new posterboy for the "reign in frivolous science funding!" crowd.

  • Davis Sharp says:

    I wonder what McKnight thinks of Title IX.

  • E rook says:

    I love his douche baggery at end end setting up the false dichotomy and straw man. He is either right or the system needs no tweaking whatsoever. As a rhetorical devise, it's effective at pissing people off and not at all engaging with what your debate (or negotiating) partners are saying. He is either ignorant or intentionally inflammatory. In either case, not a good faith actor.

  • Huh? says:

    He almost got it right with the NCAA analogy. McNutty and his ilk are like a bunch of egomaniacal, self- important football coaches profiting greatly off of the efforts of poorly paid twenty somethings with no future in the game. All the while telling themselves what great mentors they are and how fair the system is.

    Another thing sports have is referees and I can't believe ASBMB hasn't called a game misconduct and asked him to sit this one out for a while. (That's a hockey analogy for all you non-Canadians)

  • drugmonkey says:

    He is either right or the system needs no tweaking whatsoever.

    With the subtext that nobody else is talking about needed tweaking and / or modifications of the way the NIH does business and thank the gods that McKnight has opened this conversation de novo.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    Great. I woke up this morning to learn that we now have more Republicans in Congress. They will of course rely on individuals like McKnight and Andy Harris to illuminate the "truth" that NIH budget cuts just mean that we'll only be funding the "best and brightest" and "most important research," since all of the "riff-raff" will just fall away and conveniently disappear.

    Maybe you're right about the sinking ship, DM, after all. Hard not to get depressed about the election results and what they mean for science.

  • Jo says:

    The Rooney Rule is also a pretty nice example of how the NFL isn't a meritocracy and what you can do to fix those kinds of biases.

    Also, you know you're in trouble when you're less progressive than the NFL.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Also see: NFL referees

  • @jmz4
    Richard Lewontin famously wrote (back in 1968, thus explaining the un-pc "man" terminology):

    "Science is a form of competitive and aggressive activity, a contest of man against man that provides knowledge as a side product. That side product is its only advantage over football."

    That being said, this was in a somewhat negative review of Watson's "The Double Helix" and it wasn't clear if Lewontin agreed with it or was just claiming that's how Watson saw it.

  • Grumble says:

    @Lady Scientist: "For all his machismo, I bet underneath that collared shirt are some pasty, saggy man boobs and a bunch of chest hair. All he would need would be a heavy gold chain around his neck."

    I'm confused. Are speculative derogatory comments about how people might look only acceptable when the target is a "he"?

  • Lady Scientist says:

    The idea is that he's like a gangsta, but an white old privileged male. Make of it what you want.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    Previous comment was for Grumble, btw.

    I suppose I should give credit where credit is due: this scene was my inspiration for that comment http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vInmy1-i-w .

  • Lady Scientist says:

    And, before anyone tries to insinuate that I'm stating that OG is a problem exclusive to a particular race or men within a particular race: it is most definitely NOT. I've seen way too many male (and female) specimens of the human species who have definitely OG'd in my time, of many different races and ages, and this scene always comes back to me when I encounter OG.

  • Philapodia says:

    An interesting primate, the McKnight species (known in the Rust Belt as the Hairy-Chested Shitte-Disturber) causes unnecessary drama to bring undeserved attention toward themselves in a strange ritual designed to lure POs into their nest. The local scientists and other woodland creatures consider the McKnight species obnoxious attention-whores, but are non-the-less mesmerized by the McKnight's chest-thumping ways and chatter on about the McKnight like it was a Snooki (another interesting species of attention-whore with better hair and clothes).

  • Lady Scientist says:

    You pretty much nailed it, Philapodia. McKnight is like an older, whiter, male-r Snooki with worse hair and clothing.

  • Philapodia says:

    JMZ had a nice post in the ASBMB comments section of McKnight's essay that I think did a good job rebutting McKnight's argument that science is like sport:


    You're forgetting that the purpose of sports is competition. People want to see the best against the best because that provides the most entertainment for the fans and the best challenge for the teams. In this case, competition is the reason sports exist.
    In science, however, competition is a regrettable consequence of finite funds. It does not exist for its own merits. The biomedical enterprise would be better served if everyone with the inclination to do biology were given funds to do so in a hypo-competitive environment, since scientific knowledge advances by consensus and replication, not solely by "veritically ascending" science. Even if you believe these to be the most important types of experiments, someone has to do the grunt work of filling in the blanks left in the wake of every Nature and Science letter. Therefore, glorifying the competitive aspects of grant funding mechanisms is counter-productive.

    Everyone in the upper echelons of science seems so confident that they'll be able to "pick winners", by whatever metric they prefer. This is assumes that there is a "right kind" of scientist that we just need to identify in early training periods. I would dispute this approach, as history has shown us that great advances can come from unexpected sources (e.g. PCR).

    Putting these two points together, I think a modest restructuring of the academic system is in order. We need to provide a more steady and branched advancement process starting with PhD recipient and moving to full professor.

    Given that we do and probably always will have competition, ameliorating the debilitating effects of the competition is best achieved by creating a series of positions with varying degrees of pay and autonomy that suit an individuals strengths. Things like paper/grant-writer, advanced technician, and lab manager need to become standard, recognized career paths, that, while short of lab-head, are still granted some stability (both career and pecuniary). This will allow trained individuals to persist in academia, utilizing the talents they have productively, as opposed to the all or nothing Thunderdome of the current job market.

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