Thought of the day

Oct 14 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

The comment of Francis Collins (NIH Director) about Ebola research being hampered by the decade long slide in NIH funding brought out a bit of the usual about science and the public interest. With the usual back and forth about how stupid and uninformed Americans just can't grasp how terribly important your genejockery ChiPSlipNDip EleventoptoArckylit bullshittio is.

I had a thought.

Maybe you all have trouble interesting your friends, family and neighbors because you do actually work on stuff nobody gives a flying fig about? and it IS actually irrelevant to them? just asking. I mean, I have never met a single person that isn't interested in talking about my stuff...

22 responses so far

  • Kevin. says:

    Yes, your work actually is a unique and beautiful snowflake. Just like you. Just because your work is interesting, doesn't mean it's relevant. Ebola right now is both. Once we have a vaccine and/or containment of the pandemic (or some shiny media trinket), it will cease being relevant to 99% of voters.

  • Dave says:

    I'm in the diabetes business. Where I am, everyone wants to talk to me about it because....well...pretty much everyone has it. It's not about whether the public likes the science, it's whether they think it needs more money from the government. Most people I meet are not fans of government welfare of any kind, so they would never approve of more government spending, regardless of the science.

    One thing I have noticed is that the gen pop do not understand career issues scientists face, especially at the institutional level. When I tell people I essentially pay my own salary from federal grants, they are genuinely shocked. I think that is something worth addressing. Everyone assumes we have cushy, secure, well paid jobs.

  • I wear a number of different microbial hats, some biomedical, some environmental, and some evolutionary. While you can always make the somewhat tenuous case that understanding how microbes evolve is relevant to stopping antibiotic resistance, maybe realizing that a certain microbe has been mistaken assigned to the wrong class or phylum may actually not directly effect anyone, but is still worth knowing for the sake of knowing (I suppose that makes me one of those "basic science eleventy" people you sometimes rail against).

  • GM says:

    Do I need to explain all the ways people like you might have a very biased perception of reality?

    Most scientists come from backgrounds of relative material privilege and high intellectual stature - their parents are often scientists or engineers themselves, and, especially the PIs, mostly interact with other people like them.

    It can be very, very different in other parts of society.

  • GM says:

    Dave October 14, 2014 at 10:16 pm
    Most people I meet are not fans of government welfare of any kind, so they would never approve of more government spending, regardless of the science.

    That relates to one the deepest problems with public attitudes to science these days, one that is closely related to what I touched on in my post above, and one that will become more and more prevalent in the future.

    There are several different strains of science-unfriendly attitudes (and they are not necessarily non-overlapping):

    1. There is the neoliberal economic ideology that mandates that if it does not make dollars it does not make sense and it should be shut down. That kind of thinking is common among the Wall Street types (who are formally highly educated), the libertarians, and also among the not so educated right wing types who have swallowed what they have been spoon-fed by politicians. And in the US in particular there seems to be a significant element of national chauvinism woven into this too -- America is the land of the free market, that's what defines us, and that's how we're going to do things. BTW, somewhat paradoxically the same attitudes were developed in former communist countries long before the wall fell.

    2. There are the religious crazies, who would rather have us live in the Middle Ages than have scientific advances threaten their beliefs. Not many of them in Western Europs, quite a few of them in the US, tons of them in less developed parts of the world.

    3. The largest group - the ones that simply don't care. That one, however, is gradually morphing into groups 5 and 6 below.

    4. Various postmodernist types who see modern science as an inseparable part of the perceived evils of modern society. They are not that many and mostly restricted to Western countries, but I mention them because they actually have quite a bit in common with the next group

    5. The large masses of downtrodden people all over the world (mostly in non-Western countries) who make no distinction between the imperial structure that oppresses them, the scientific establishment (with its, from their perspective, cushy positions of high authority in the same prestigious institutions that also generate the economic and political thought that justifies their oppression) and science. For them western science is not an universal culture- and value-free, common-to-all-of-humanity intellectual enterprise but inseparable from the western culture they are fighting (although of course they do not and most cannot phrase their feelings in such terms).

    6. A similar group of people is forming in Western countries too and will become larger and larger, and for similar reasons - the poor and the downwardly mobile who have no hope for a better future simply do not have much time for science, and they also are coming to see scientists as a social class part of the establishment (that this is only true for a small portion of them is irrelevant, that's the visible portion and that's all that matters) and therefore something to be resented.

    These groups combined constitute most of humanity.

    The reason I can't get my parents excited about science (I assume DM was referring to my post in that other thread) is that in particular 6, a lot of 3, plus a little bit of 1 and 6 apply, not that what I work on is not exciting.

    I highly doubt that DM interacts with a lot of people belonging to most of these groups.

  • GM says:

    And to finish - all of these are worldview problems.

    If you understand that science is the only valid way we have of understanding reality and that it is something fundamental and politics- and ideology-free, all of these go away.

    Presenting particular scientific issues in an "interesting" way actually does nothing to address that problem. And pandering to the things that people "care about" only exacerbates it, in particular problem #1 in my list, but indirectly 4,5 and 6 too.

    These are strategies that can win small-scale short-term victories but are doomed to fail in the long run

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    Hahahahahahah. Lame troll, holmes.

  • Grumble says:

    Very perceptive, GM. Especially the bit about science being the only way we have of understanding reality in an objective way. I'd add this: the problem is that this understanding comes about in an extremely painstaking way: hypotheses need to be tested in multiple ways, and experiments repeated many times, before theory advances to "knowledge." That is what is missing from Collins' comments, and from any attempt to justify spending on science by pointing to all the great technological advances (including those in healthcare) that come from it. The true objective of science is not those advances, but the formation of new knowledge, and getting to the point where we actually have new knowledge is very, very difficult and expensive.

    It doesn't help that the media breathlessly hypes every new finding that has any human interest value - for instance, diet-related studies that lead to some exhortation: "Don't eat eggs!" "No, wait, eggs are great!" "Eat more omega-3's!" "Wait, no, don't bother with those!" -- ad nauseam. This media hype is only inflated by the collusion of scientists who like the limelight. What the public takes from this is that the scientific process and its results constitute just another point of view that is as valid as any other (e.g., that of Christian clerics). That is a fundamental misunderstanding of science, but we scientists do little to explain to the public why that is.

  • Philapodia says:

    @GM

    "Most scientists come from backgrounds of relative material privilege and high intellectual stature - their parents are often scientists or engineers themselves, and, especially the PIs, mostly interact with other people like them.

    It can be very, very different in other parts of society."

    I agree with this. I came from a pretty humble background in a rural area where no one had gone to college before me, and I am viewed as a weird brainiac by most of my family. Whether or not I'm all that smart is debatable. However, where I grew up represents a lot of this country, especially those who bully up to the Faux News trough and thought that Bush was a swell guy. While the stuff I work on is very relevant to public health and tottes awesome, most in my family don't get it merely because they don't have the education to get past the most superficial level. I do try to explain in simple terms what I do and avoid talking about the cool technical stuff . I still get "such a smart one, that Philapodia, pass the coleslaw". Different folks, different strokes I guess.

  • dsks says:

    No problems here. My entire Facebookosphere is totally always, like, "Woa, ligand gated ion channel permeability! Tell me more!" I posted a review once and got, seriously, almost 50 likes.

  • halcyon says:

    I can understand having to explain, and sometimes defend my basic science to parents, friends and the person next to me on the plane. I find it a little surprising that I might have to defend it to other scientists who think that lack of public interest in my work might imply its irrelevance.

    I suppose conversations like this that lead to polarization within the community are what happen when times are tough as they are.

  • jojo says:

    I admit I facepalm a bit when I describe something about my work (evolutionary-ecology-genomics stuff) and then I get a question something like: "so that's relevant to cancer, right?"

    But most people seem to be interested.

  • neuromusic says:

    this is why all science should be crowdfunded

  • Philapodia says:

    which would result in a lot of research about why pictures of cats in funny costumes and playing piano are so awesome

  • Evelyn says:

    I used to work in reproductive tox. Best conversation starter ever. But the only people who want to talk to me now are PI's who want me to help with their grant (for free, what the hell people?) - and post-docs who want me to help them find a job.

  • becca says:

    Alternatively, addiction really IS a sign of utter lack of moral fortitude and character, and people seeking a "cure" for it will simply undermine God's will in weeding out the utterly selfish hedonists who deserve to burn in hell.

    DM, you ARE somebody's fat lesbian. The fact you haven't realized is a sign you need to get out more, not a sign you are actually meritorious. You are just as deluded as the libertarians who think that the fact they are pampered at a tech company means that the market works.

    I mean really. Bringing toilets to the world is a task that will probably save more people from misery and disease than all the science we all do put together.

  • Bah says:

    Fruitfly research in Paris, France.

  • Dave says:

    It doesn't help that the media breathlessly hypes every new finding that has any human interest value - for instance, diet-related studies that lead to some exhortation: "Don't eat eggs!" "No, wait, eggs are great!" "Eat more omega-3's!" "Wait, no, don't bother with those!" -- ad nauseam.

    But scientists are often the source of this hype. I mean you see it in every paper these days, some kind of outlandish statement about the translational/transformative nature of the work. If you don't include these statements, reviewers will often ding you for not highlighting the novel aspects of your work!!! Catch 22.

    And don't get me started on university press releases.

  • Beaker says:

    And of course, in response to the Collins Ebola comment, we find another cheap takedown!, framing the NIH as being just one big Golden Fleece of our taxpayers. Mockery of this sort is the expertise of propagandists and bullies.

    They mock research on poop-flinging chimps. Can drug-monkeys be far behind?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Addictive disorder research is a frequent target although I bet the complaints on drug studies are slowing down in favor of complaints about "obviously silly" eating and gambling and sex disorder work.

  • drugmonkey says:

    And make no mistake- just as soon as the right wingers get one iota of traction the left wingers will be coming after their versions of "obvious waste" grants next.

  • jmz4 says:

    I'm of the opinion that if you can't explain your research in a way that interests people, you fall in to one of two categories. One is: your research really is boring, and serves no larger public interest. The second, and much more densely populated category is full of people who are doing interesting work, but are TERRIBLE at abstracting it to the point they can even get their fellow scientists to get excited about it, much less a lay person.
    Virtually every project is useful or at least, headed towards usefulness, but many people either don't know, or can't articulate the path their research is leading towards. The former is especially a danger as it leads right down the runway to cargo cult science.

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