Is science a polytheistic religion?

“The experimental method is concerned only with the search for objective truths, not with any search for subjective truths…An anticipative idea or an hypothesis is, then, the necessary starting point for all experimental reasoning. Without it, we could not make any investigation at all nor learn anything; we could only pile up sterile observation.”

–Claude Bernard, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine

Claude Bernard: “Oui, I’m dead…but do I look naive to you?”

The other day, I told Dr. Isis I wanted to do a PubStyleScience on epistemology, and she said, “I don’t get it… what’s so hilarious about that?” Or words to that effect. Imagine my shock and surprise! A bunch of scientists, sitting around, drinking and arguing about the meaning of everything? It’s the *perfect* topic for PSS!! So, let me explain my interest in the topic…

I like to share science and the culture of science with anyone who’s interested, especially to show a relaxed side of science to younger people who may be put off by narrow-minded cultural attitudes. PubStyleScience is a science culture experiment along these lines. Let’s open the doors and windows of the scientific enterprise! I see many sci’s on Twitter motivated to expose and correct sexism and racism in the scientific enterprise, to promote fairness and transparency. We can agree that there is some bullshit cultural baggage with science community, but I’m more interested in the subtle baggage that keeps us from doing the best science. I am often surprised at how scientists embrace groupthink. In the abstract, the NIH (for one) declares a love for radical departures and fresh interdisciplinary ideas. And yet, as a scientists love to run in a herd, and in evaluating others, demand conformity. Professional science should be open to a diversity of participants. This is a moral principle, and a conviction that the progress of science will benefit from the participation of a wider range of voices.

So what I’m interested in is the *positive* side of scientific cultural evolution. My tweeps rail against what they don’t like about the old culture…but what are we *for?* For most of the scientists I interact with, we can easily agree on the extreme ends of “unacceptable,” e.g.sexim and racism. But there are softer cultural values that are not clear-cut, but messy. How should we define the differences between “good culture” and bad? An example of the changing mores of science is the idea of “Kerning,” a word which was coined several years ago after an earnest but tone-deaf opinion piece by cancer biologist Scott Kern.

In it, Kern lamented the erosion of a lab culture that valued working through the weekends. His “where’s the passion?” lamentation was lambasted by Drugmonkey and Dr. Isis. While I agree with some criticisms of Dr. Kern’s piece, e.g. science should not be closed to people with families that need to work 9-to-5, I sincerely believe that intense, clock-ignoring passion is a critical ingredient for good science. Can we revisit the passion and hard work debate?

As the culture of science evolves, I want to understand and communicate to the next generation two pillars: a new, open and diverse culture of science, as well as the essentials of the scientific method. And here’s the question that I would like to discuss: are these two pillars utterly distinct, or does diversity in science require being open to different views of the scientific method? This is where the philosophy comes in:. How do we separate conjecture from reality? How can we know what is true? Science is not set of sciencey facts or topics, it’s a philosophy, a way of thinking, an approach to understanding the universe. I worship the scientific method, I admit. But if science is inherently human process, Is Claude Bernard search for objective truths naive? If the process of science is inherently human activity, one that may not lay claim to objective truth, I start to wonder: is there a clean line between the method and the culture?

Then, my mind was blown when I stumbled on to the existence of a Feminist Theory of Science. Being the interweb, I should have known this has been discussed before. But it’s a radically new idea to me. And the next obvious question: if there is a feminist science, is there an Irish theory of science and a jewish theory of science and a South American theory of science? Does everyone get their own science? Hmm…not sure, but I don’t think so. I think there should be a core set of values. Where do we draw the lines? This is a question of epistemology.

Is there any real-world relevance to this philosophizing? I just got back from a new investigator meeting at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) where we were deluged with data and information about the byzantine workings of the NIH. The NIH recognizes that URMs (under-represented minorities) are under-represented among NIH grant awardees, and that this problem is getting worse given the changing demographics of the USA. The NCI is working to try and fix this problem , but as I was being intensely immersed in the bizarre culture of US science funding at the NIH, I couldn’t help but wonder if our narrow view of “proper” science culture is part of the problem. The NIH also seems to have mixed feelings about “big science.” Big versus small science deserves it’s own post, but briefly, the NIH pays lip service to the importance of individual investigator grants, and yet, they sacrifice many R01s for big science projects. Let’s have a whiskey and discuss.

“This ad­ven­ture is made possible by generations of searchers strictly adhering to a simple set of rules. Test ideas by experiment and observation; build on those ideas that pass the test, reject the ones that fail; follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything. Accept these terms and the cosmos is yours.” –Neil deGrasse Tyson, on Cosmos

A Brand New #PubScience!! Tonight at 8pm CT!!

Tonight we’ll be talking about the culture and philosophy of how we do science. In outlining the topic, Michael Tomasson had this to say on his blog:

I like to share science and the culture of science with anyone who’s interested, especially to show a relaxed side of science to younger people who may be put off by narrow-minded cultural attitudes. PubStyleScience is a science culture experiment along these lines. Let’s open the doors and windows of the scientific enterprise! I see many sci’s on Twitter motivated to expose and correct sexism and racism in the scientific enterprise, to promote fairness and transparency. We can agree that there is some bullshit cultural baggage with science community, but I’m more interested in the subtle baggage that keeps us from doing the best science. I am often surprised at how scientists embrace groupthink. In the abstract, the NIH (for one) declares a love for radical departures and fresh interdisciplinary ideas. And yet, as a scientists love to run in a herd, and in evaluating others, demand conformity. Professional science should be open to a diversity of participants. This is a moral principle, and a conviction that the progress of science will benefit from the participation of a wider range of voices.

So what I’m interested in is the *positive* side of scientific cultural evolution. My tweeps rail against what they don’t like about the old culture…but what are we *for?* For most of the scientists I interact with, we can easily agree on the extreme ends of “unacceptable,” e.g.sexim and racism. But there are softer cultural values that are not clear-cut, but messy. How should we define the differences between “good culture” and bad?
Joining us will be the esteemed Dr. Free-Ride, Dr. Rubidium, and Andrew Brandel. Dr.Free-Ride has already, as is typical, been prolific on the topic. Go read “Is a scientist without philosophy like a fish without a bicycle?“

Here’s a link to the YouTube page where you can watch our hangout as it’s happening, or catch it later in the archive. We look forward to hearing from everyone!

Fuck “Passion”

Your bestmonktress was reading Michael Tomasson’s recent post setting the stage for the next pubscience (Are you listening to that shit? Because if you aren’t, you should be). And one part, which I sure was meant innocuously, set me the fuck off. So let’s embrace this opportunity for an attention whoring blog post, shall we?

“While I agree with some criticisms of Dr. Kern’s piece, e.g. science should not be closed to people with families that need to work 9-to-5, I sincerely believe that intense, clock-ignoring passion is a critical ingredient for good science. Can we revisit the passion and hard work debate?”

I immediately bristle at the notion of “passion” being brought up as a critical skillset to be emphasized, because it somehow implies there’s some cache of scientists who Don’t Give a Shit. Especially as Kern’s piece is the definition of a ‘kids these days just don’t have…

The Philosophy of How We Do Science and Being the Cool Professor

Prof-like Substance has a post over at Scientopia about being the “cool professor”. He writes:

When I started my lab I had a very distinct idea of the type of PI I wanted to be. I had experienced some different styles and observed many others. I knew what my needs were as a graduate student and a postdoc and recognized gaps in what my mentors had provided for me. Above all I thought I could navigate that line between friend and boss where all my trainees would both respect me and want to hang out with me.

Oh, and I wanted to ride a unicorn to work every day.

I’m soon to finish up my sixth year as a PI and have mentored two cohorts of students at this stage. I’m hardly a grizzled vet of the mentoring game, but I’ve had enough experience to change my views on my role. There’s been a discussion on twitter recently about whether someone is a Mentor or a Boss. It’s a false dichotomy. An effective mentor is both. Sometimes you can spend your time leading your people in the general vicinity of water and sometimes you have to hand them a cup and tell them to drink.

In our most recent Pub-Style Science, Michael Tomasson and I had a conversation with some fine folks about the philosophy of science. I find Prof-Like’s post and our recent Pub-Style Science interesting vis–à–vis each other because they contrast how we *do* science with how *we* do science. The difference may seem subtle, but I think it’s important and is part of the reason I have been inspired to work with Michael to develop Pub-Style Science.

To me, the choice to use the scientific method to perform our science seems so simple. It is the elegantly simple framework of all our endeavors, seemingly based in objectivity. But, as one of our guests commented, “science is also a human endeavor and, unfortunately, humans are assholes.”

That’s the reason I think that what we’re doing could have some value. There is the methodology of how we *do* science, which I will grant is also rooted in historical constructs with largely European roots. Yet, there are also the cultural constructs of how *we* do science, and that is the part that I would like to challenge. Each time we start a Pub-Style Science, Michael seems to sweat a little under his collar before he offers the disclaimer of what our show is about: the tone is non-typical for academic scientific discussions. We don’t ask anyone to codeswitch from the cultural norms that feel genuine to them, and that might result in a conversation that feels uncomfortable to some. Unfortunately, academia is still an uncomfortable place for many people, especially people from underrepresented groups.

I originally agreed to participate if we could build a conversation that felt like the types of conversations I find myself having at scientific meetings, after the day’s activities have ended and everyone is sitting in the bar afterwards. That’s where I have gotten some of the best, most honest, and most useful advice of my career. The problem is that it can very very difficult for young women and minorities to find and enter those conversations. When I was looking for a new job recently, I looked very carefully at the departments I sent my CV to. Were there women in the department? Were there scientists of color in the department? There were some departments that I did not apply to because I didn’t want to be the magical rainbow unicorn and I didn’t want to worry about whether a department severely lacked diversity because that was what the faculty members were comfortable with. So, I want to take the same approach with Pub-Style Science that I hope people in science will take. I want to look around the table to seriously ask the question, “Did we really consider a diversity of participants here, or did we pick among our friends and people who look like the norm because that is who we know?” Then, I want to be able to talk about the objective methodology of how we *do* science.

We’ve talked a lot recently about who Pub-Style Science is for, and that seems to leave us at the crossroads of where to go. It started, frankly, as a discussion of topics we happened to be interested in at the time. It could certainly continue that way. We could maintain our focus on topics with a bit of an esoteric bent to them. We seem to have agreed that the topics of Pub-Style Science should be aimed at more junior scientists and scientists in training. That makes me wonder whether we should also consider more pragmatic topics. Choosing a lab. Starting your own lab. Finding mentors. Finding funding.

I also care that people look at our endeavor and see that people who look like them get a seat at the table and that they are valued for who they are. I know for sure that I don’t want to talk about the tone of what we’re doing anymore. I am convinced by the positive feedback we get from trainee scientists that, because of how we are having these conversations, we have the potential to do something that will positively impact them. To return to Prof-like’s post, which inspired me to think more about this, I don’t really care about being the “cool” professor. I care about being the honest one – one that is, at least in some way, doing the process in a transparent way. That means, sometimes, throwing your hands up in the air and just saying “fuck!” I was amazed when Michael Tomasson, Joshua Drew, and I were at at LeMoyne College by the number of of undergraduates that told us that they didn’t realize that faculty worry about and struggle with the same things they do and that their preconceived notions of how faculty should be were keeping them from thinking they could apply to graduate or professional school. I see that as a problem.

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