Thursday, June 26, 2008

I won't surrender my idealism

There's a thought provoking discussion going on among some of the heavier weight science bloggers which has so many subthreads running through it that it's hard to summarize. So it's prolly best to go check out the posts over at DrugMonkey (here) and YoungFemaleScientist (here)

It's a back and forth that goes back a number of posts, with a lot of commenting. Essentially I think it boils down to this: YFS is a postdoc who thinks the system of science is in many ways fundamentally unfair, and as such needs changing. Physioprof and DrugMonkey are faculty members who aim to describe the system as it is, to help postdocs succeed in that system (which they readily grant it flawed, yet over which they feel they have limited ability to change).

Overall both make good points, but I take issue with some of the things that PhysioProf says in his latest post.

The money quote:

"In a winner-take-all system like this, there will always be people who do not succeed through no fault of their own. People who are smart, talented, dedicated, hard-working, articulate, persuasive, and who do all the right things sometimes still fail. This is the nature of a winner-take-all system: there is an intrinsic randomness that influences to some extent who succeeds and who fails. It is the same in professional sports, law, medicine, performing arts, entertainment, comedy, business, entrepreneurialism, journalism, engineering, and most other professional career enterprises.

Many of us may not like this situation, but this is how things currently work. Academic science is not a fucking Care Bears tea party, and wishing that it were is not going to make it so."

I have two big issues with this. First, there's no consideration for how well the current system of science might work to improve, or hinder, the quality of the end product: knowledge. Might it be that the system as is exists produces worse science than a different system? The fact that the essential randomness of the system might lead people to lose faith in the justice of the entire process. And when they do that, they start behaving badly. Dr. Free-Ride has it right, so check out her post.

If it is the case that the system is worse than it was (or might be), don't you have some obligation to change it? DrugMonkey does say in the comments that his blogging is one way of changing things, and that he also does his best to nudge things towards a better course in his real life working as a scientist. That's good, but it leaves me to wonder why the vitriol towards YFS, who is doing the SAME thing, in her way.

Secondly, I hate the way that PhysioProf impugns people who might want to change the system with the dismissive reference to a "CareBear tea party." I read it as saying to anyone who is an idealist about science qua science, or who feels that some current practices pervert what we see as a noble a pursuit worth dedicating one's life to, is hopeless naive. To that I say, fine, and can I get another helping of naivete?

Because I won't surrender my idealism for the project of Science. If that means I "fail" in the end, well, I will have my head held high when that time comes. I would rather live with the failure than to abandon my principles.

5 comments:

Mr. Gunn said...

Physioprof has a fair degree of bluster, which I gather is a survival advantage in some situations, particularly advantageous the further north and east you go in the US.

Nat Blair said...

Hmm, maybe like where I am?

Begins with H, ends in D?

;)

Arlenna said...

Yes, I have heard you eat your young there. I stay away.

Nat Blair said...

Well, it has its good and bad aspects. Overall though, at least in Neurobiology where I have spent my time, there are very nice and "good" peeps. So don't tar everyone :)

Still, the whole place does have a certain attitude which is pretty tiresome.

Arlenna said...

Heh, yeah. I have a good friend who is in a great lab there and the only issue she has with it is some of the insider dealings (against colleagues as well as outsiders) she sees her PI doing in order to protect their turf.

I've been at a place with an overall tiresome attitude for my postdoc, too, and in the end I just find it funny from what I can see up close that these people think they are so much better than anyone else when viewed from afar.