Archive for October, 2011

Data-sharing and open-access

October 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Michael Nielsen suggests greater use of data-sharing and open-access as the path forward:

Why don’t scientists share?

If you’re a scientist applying for a job or a grant, the biggest factor determining your success will be your record of scientific publications. If that record is stellar, you’ll do well. If not, you’ll have a problem. So you devote your working hours to tasks that will lead to papers in scientific journals.

Even if you personally think it would be far better for science as a whole if you carefully curated and shared your data online, that is time away from your “real” work of writing papers. Except in a few fields, sharing data is not something your peers will give you credit for doing.

There are other ways in which scientists are still backward in using online tools. Consider, for example, the open scientific wikis launched by a few brave pioneers in fields like quantum computing, string theory and genetics (a wiki allows the sharing and collaborative editing of an interlinked body of information, the best-known example being Wikipedia).

Specialized wikis could serve as up-to-date reference works on the latest research in a field, like rapidly evolving super-textbooks. They could include descriptions of major unsolved scientific problems and serve as a tool to find solutions.

But most such wikis have failed. They have the same problem as data sharing: Even if scientists believe in the value of contributing, they know that writing a single mediocre paper will do far more for their careers. The incentives are all wrong.

If networked science is to reach its potential, scientists will have to embrace and reward the open sharing of all forms of scientific knowledge, not just traditional journal publication. Networked science must be open science. But how to get there?

A good start would be for government grant agencies (like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation) to work with scientists to develop requirements for the open sharing of knowledge that is discovered with public support. Such policies have already helped to create open data sets like the one for the human genome. But they should be extended to require earlier and broader sharing. Grant agencies also should do more to encourage scientists to submit new kinds of evidence of their impact in their fields—not just papers!—as part of their applications for funding.

The scientific community itself needs to have an energetic, ongoing conversation about the value of these new tools. We have to overthrow the idea that it’s a diversion from “real” work when scientists conduct high-quality research in the open. Publicly funded science should be open science.

Improving the way that science is done means speeding us along in curing cancer, solving the problem of climate change and launching humanity permanently into space. It means fundamental insights into the human condition, into how the universe works and what it’s made of. It means discoveries not yet dreamt of.

In the years ahead, we have an astonishing opportunity to reinvent discovery itself. But to do so, we must first choose to create a scientific culture that embraces the open sharing of knowledge.

Apart from the hyperbole and misplaced faith in more science, I generally agree.

Categories: Academia

Scientific exceptionalism part 2

October 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Over at Front Porch Republic, Mark Mitchell cautions us against reckless displays of patriotism. Here’s my whimsical recasting of his introduction:

If you are planning to engage in science outreach, here’s a word of advice: you must assert regularly and with great conviction your belief in Scientific Exceptionalism. This seems especially true if you are vying for leadership in a scientific society. The particular phrasing varies a bit, but the general message is the same: science is the greatest force in history; science has done more good for the world than anything else in history; science is the envy of the humanities and arts because it is unique. The flip side of these assertions is less often stated but present nonetheless: don’t question the goodness of science; being pro-science means supporting anything academic basic researchers want; criticism of anything they say is anti-science.

Who needs nuance when you’ve got exceptionalism? Why show humility if you’re convinced that science is a “means to freedom?” I hope scientists realize some grad students leave precisely because they can’t stand this attitude.

Categories: Public Discourse


October 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Mark Signorelli reviews Raymond Tallis’s Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity:

Considerable portions of Aping Mankind are devoted to explaining the empirical shortcomings of recent neurological “research.” Tallis describes the significant limitations of fMRI scans, the favorite evidentiary talisman of the neuromaniac. He also points out the absurdly reductionist nature of some widely trumpeted experiments, in which a subject is asked to answer a simple yes or no question, or perform some simple gesture, while their brain activity is being measured. Such experiments are interpreted in a way that isolates the results from the remainder of the subject’s life, that takes no account of the subject’s history or beliefs. But as Tallis notes, such actions bear no resemblance to the sorts of actions we routinely carry out in our day to day lives, which are all emerge from a vast context of intentions, experience, and aspirations. Omit that context, and it is quite easy to construe behavior as materially caused: “their crude experimental design…treats individuals as passive respondents to stimuli and then discovers that they are passive respondents to stimuli.” The experiments, devised on materialist presuppositions, are guaranteed to render materialist conclusions.

Reminds me a lot of Barbara Herrnstein-Smith. See here for a more even-handed review.

Categories: Book Reviews

Mixed feelings about science literacy outreach, part 2

October 24, 2011 1 comment

As much as it annoys me, I can’t bring myself to complain too much about Marcelo Gleiser’s short essay:

This shaping of our worldview is not restricted to abstract ideas; quite the contrary. Much of the way we understand reality and live our lives comes from technological applications of scientific discoveries, driven by engineers and designers. The recent passing of Steve Jobs is an illustration of how cutting-edge science and innovative design can literally change the way we live and communicate with each other…

Under this view, science is more than a collection of explanations about the natural world: science is a means to freedom, offering people a way to control their destiny, to choose wisely in what to believe. As Galileo insisted at the dawn of modern science, “Think for yourself! Don’t take what people tell you at face value. To not bow blindly to dogma!” And mind you, Galileo was a religious man. Being pro-science does not necessarily makes you anti-religion. Paraphrasing Galileo, “if God gave us a mind to understand the world, He surely would be most pleased if we did so.”

I could nit-pick Gleiser’s flawed take on the relationship between science and technology or criticize the mindless hagiography. (What does “science is a means to freedom” even mean?)

But as I’ve said before, there’s much to respect here. Most physicists can’t be bothered with outreach, and so it’s unfair to complain just because Gleiser doesn’t meet my standards. I’m sure he has more interesting concerns than the economics of innovation and better things to do than engage in deep introspection. Gleiser has some vague notion that basic research leads to technology, viscerally feels more science will solve all, and is admirably taking the time to write about it. Yes it’s poorly researched, relies on emotion, and employs unclear language. But we all do that from time to time.

Those of who want a different narrative can get caught doing nothing but refuting Gleiser’s efforts. I actually hope we imitate him. We need STS writers as passionate and deeply felt as he is. We need writers who recognize there’s more to science than academia and more to academia than basic research. We need writers who know “the intersection of science and culture” involves much more than physicists, biologists and philosophers. For every Marcelo Gleiser, we need at least two Jonah Lehrers.

Expanding the conversation doesn’t happen by shutting down voices you disagree with. But it can happen by shouting over them.

The rationality of ignorance

October 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Jonathan Bernstein’s analysis on the rationality of ignorance should be heeded by those who rail on poor science literacy:

Anyway, it’s worth noting that in all of these cases, I don’t mean to draw any negative conclusions about American voters. I don’t think they’re stupid. I just think that people have a lot of other interests besides the minutia of politics and public policy. There’s nothing wrong with that; indeed, it’s in most cases very smart to use shortcuts such as political party and other opinion leaders to substitute for detailed study of public policy…

Think of it this way: when you need to buy a home appliance, you probably wind up spending a bit of time and effort researching it  — although that might come down to “ask a friend who has proved reliable on these things in the past” rather than a careful start-from-scratch approach. But if you get a marketing survey about washer/dryers today and you’ve never thought about them before or haven’t for a decade, you might well give some awfully foolish answers if you do decide to answer their questions. That doesn’t make you stupid, and doesn’t make you ignorant in that pejorative sense. It’s just that you don’t travel around the world with ready-made, carefully-researched, intelligent things to say about home appliances. [Emphasis added–PK]

Hopefully someday we’ll see that people ignore science not because they are anti-science or ignorant, but because they have more interesting things to care about.

Categories: Literacy

The academy as a political entity

October 22, 2011 2 comments

I almost titled this post “Wherein I admit to being a hypocrite” because of this passage in my last post:

Going forward, I hope we can finally follow through on the National Academies’ 16-year old call for more versatile scientists and engineers. Someone has to has to figure out how to hammer into budding scientists that politics doesn’t work how they want it to…If you want to change something, you have to fight for it like everyone else.

For all my whining about the miseducation of scientists and the lack of career options for grad students, I’ve do nothing more than promote ideas and explanations on this blog. Now if I can only realize that the academy is a political entity like anything else, and won’t change unless I fight (as opposed to just write!), then maybe I can finally make some progress.

Categories: Academia

Political action and the miseducation of scientists

October 19, 2011 1 comment

From David Roberts:

You’ll be shocked to hear that Socolow, who spends his life in a world of ideas and explanations, concludes that the answer is better ideas and explanations…I don’t think [David Victor] has ever said anything more on the money than this:

The community of policy advocates—especially folks drawn from academic science and engineering—is shockingly naïve about politics and the strategy of political action.

Looking at how climate advocacy has played out, I wonder if we should partly blame this naivety on the miseducation of scientists. Grad students are consumed with technical coursework, research, and more research. The rock-stars who continue the lifestyle have it even worse before they get tenure. It’s not too surprising some of them lose perspective. Telling these people that their science and worldview may not help move policy–especially since that’s what made us to care about the issue in the first place–is not an easy sell.

Now I shouldn’t generalize too much because many scientists do recognize their limits. But Socolow’s faith in the power of knowledge does seem pervasive in the academy. Those of us who end up realizing that that ideas and explanations rarely matter, and that there is more to life than research are often the ones that end up leaving. The remaining stay in academia and become academics.

There’s no way to tell what would have happened if Socolow et al knew more political science, or what would have changed if political agitation rather than communication had been the chosen approach. But at the very least they would have better understood the challenge in front of them. Going forward, I hope we can finally follow through on the National Academies’ 16-year old call for more versatile scientists and engineers. Someone has to has to figure out how to hammer into budding scientists that politics doesn’t work how they want it to.

For starters, we can stop telling them their research is the most important thing in the world. Scientists don’t need more praise because, trust me, they praise themselves enough. They need to hear the exact opposite: Neither you nor your research are that are that special, it’s mostly useless outside the ivory towers, and human progress depends on a hell of a lot more than knowledge. If you want to change something, you have to fight for it like everyone else.

Categories: Academia, Politicization