Keeping your mouth shut to advance your social standing

The thing in the title?

Yeah, doing that makes me miserable.

As you know, I initially wrote a post that references things some people in my department had said. I had already waited a couple of days to write the post, figuring I should give myself time to think about it instead of reacting emotionally. I later removed it because a colleague said it could be perceived as burning bridges within my department. Maybe I needed more time to think. After talking with more people within my department, within academia, and outside of academia, I decided it should go back up with some edits. I think the topic of how we view evolution acceptance and education is profoundly important. How shitty my NSF fellowship draft was not the main point of that article (though thanks to those of you who gave constructive criticism).

I know not everyone agrees with me on my decision to restore the post, so I want to try to explain.

When I was younger, I was shy. Cripplingly shy. I never spoke up because it seemed every time I did, someone would make fun of me or judge me for what I said. I was that nerdy awkward kid with no friends on the bottom of the social totem pole. When I was switching schools, I knew I’d be meeting new people and had a chance to start anew. I resolved myself to not caring about what other people thought about me. I would speak my mind and share my thoughts, and screw anyone who had a problem with it. If they thought I was abrasive or weird or offensive, did I really want to be friends with them anyway?

Doing this changed my life immensely. I was finally happy with myself. There were certainly times where my plan hurt. Like many girls, I had been socialized to be soft spoken and modest and to want everyone to like me. I still feel twinges of panic when I know someone thinks negatively of me. But overall, I find myself much happier – and surrounded by much better friends – because I embrace honesty.

And frankly, I don’t think the social dynamics of the real world – be it business or academia – are all that different from a high school cafeteria. I know that by speaking my mind, I will probably accidentally burn some bridges. There will be people out there who see me as a rabble-rouser and a trouble maker that they don’t want to be associated with. Most people expect you to Play the Game, or to at least Play the Game long enough that you can subvert it from the inside forty years later.

I refuse to play that game.

Is this going to totally ruin my potential career as a scientist? Honestly, probably not. Because for every person who sees me as a liability, there are people who respect a willingness to speak up when it’s risky. I’ve had numerous biology professors and biologists in industry across the country – almost all of them strangers – say how impressed they were that I was doing what I was doing. I’ve even had some try to recruit me to work in their lab. Being an outspoken blogger is going to be seen as a positive by some people. Do I really want to be working with the people who think otherwise?

But a fairly well-known skeptic told me recently that he hoped I was looking into alternative careers, because he thought I was screwed. No one was going to hire me. You have to wait until you have tenure to be so outspoken!

What if he’s right? What if after four more years of grad school, I find out I’m totally wrong? If I realize I can’t get a job anywhere in academia, because people have blacklisted me?

Then I’d be happy to leave academia.

I don’t want to be somewhere where I’m miserable. And being forced to play that game – the game I realize the vast majority of people have to play – is not what I want in life. I rather live my life to the fullest instead of constantly being fearful that anything I do may ruin my Grand Plan. To steal sage advice from Greta – I rather be hated for what I am than loved for what I’m not. If that leaves me trying to get by on freelance writing and blog earnings, or doing who knows what, then so be it. For all I know, it could also leave me as the next celebrated popular science writer. Who knows.

But what I do know is that I will be surrounded by people who like and respect the real me, not someone who is too fearful to speak out, or too busy kissing ass. I’m sure some of you will think I’m a naive idealist, and that I should just hunker down and play the game like everyone else. But the virtues of being honest and outspoken are more important to me than climbing the social ladder or making a couple more dollars on my paycheck.

Accepting evidence is not dogmatic

Update: I have decided to restore this post with some minor edits. I will write more about my decision to do so in another post, since I think the topic of self censorship in terms of the social structure of academia is an interesting topic.

Hrmph.

I’m frustrated. As I talked about before, I’m working on my NSF Graduate Fellowship proposal. Part of this process is getting a ton of students and professors to critique your paper. I honestly shouldn’t be too annoyed, because overall the reviews of my proposal have been very good. But a critique that I got from many – but not the majority of – my reviewers happens to be a major pet peeve of mine.

I was too “dogmatic.”

The offending part was the opening paragraphs of my personal statement. I’ll post it here for full disclosure:

            “College was a bit of a culture shock for me. I grew up in a nurturing environment that embraced science – Bill Nye the Science Guy was the program of choice, and competing in Science Olympiad was cool. But when I moved a tad farther south into the heartland of Indiana for my undergraduate education at Purdue University, I quickly realized this was not a universal truth. The attitude toward evolution was terrible amongst non-scientists on campus. One of the local churches was a major donor to the infamous Creation Museum in Kentucky, activists handed out anti-evolution tracts on the main quad, and anti-evolution letters in the campus newspaper were commonplace. I was shocked to learn that even many of my fellow biology majors did not accept evolution.

The fact that so many people didn’t share my fascination with evolutionary theory troubled me on a personal level. This wasn’t simply someone disagreeing with how I earned a paycheck: Learning about evolution was the key event that led me to adopt a skeptical, naturalistic worldview. I felt like people were rejecting the ideals that shape my humanist ethics. I wanted others to understand my feelings of awe as I contemplate the universe, or how lucky I feel to have evolved the necessary traits to contemplate the universe in the first place. I quickly learned that many of these people still valued science, but never had the opportunity to become educated about evolution.

That realization motivated my passion for science communication and mentoring. [...]“

Now, I’m not claiming that’s perfect. It’s a draft that can obviously still do with some tweaking. And I realize I have to walk on egg shells and be politically correct if I actually want to get funded. It doesn’t matter if I’m being honest or if I’m technically right if I happen to get three Christian biologists who read this as a belligerent attack against their belief. Which is apparently how it came off to my reviewers.

Fine. Whatever. I don’t read it that way, but I guess I can see how you can read it to be negative. I thought I was being as diplomatic as I could possibly be, but apparently it’s still not diplomatic enough – I’ll have to change some of the wording.

If we would have stopped at “This could potentially be interpreted negatively,” I would not have been writing this post. But it didn’t. Some of my reviewers, including a professor, insisted that I was “dogmatic,” and “wanted people to believe in evolution just because that’s what you happen to believe in.” That rejecting evolution isn’t a “terrible” attitude. That I shouldn’t be “shocked” that some biology majors don’t believe in evolution, because not everyone has to be like me. That wanting to help people learn about evolution means I thought they were stupid.

That I came off as, I quote, “Dawkins-esque.”

I think that was supposed to be negative remark, but I took it as a compliment.

I fumed the whole bus ride home, wishing I could have responded then and there – but a meeting for a review of your work is not the place for a philosophical debate. But these are things I hear over and over – not just from professors and classmates I like and respect who accept evolution but think I’m too “dogmatic” about promoting it. Because they’re so common, I feel that it’s important that I address those types of ideas here.

1. Wanting people to adopt an evidence-based view of the universe is not dogmatic. In fact, it’s the very opposite of dogma. I want people to be able to change their minds when confronted with new evidence. Admitting you were wrong is one of the most intellectually honest things you can do. The only “dogmatic” thing about living in reality is that some things are true, and some things are not. You don’t get to flap your arms and start flying through the air just because you wish that was the way the universe works.

2. I don’t want people to “believe in evolution because that’s what I believe in.” I want people to accept evolution because there’s an insurmountable mountain of evidence supporting it. This isn’t a subjective opinion that’s up for debate. I’m not forcing people to think that chocolate ice cream with peanut butter swirls is the best flavor (though it totally is). To deny evolution is either based on ignorance or willful delusion. I know, what mean words. That doesn’t make them less true. People have either not learned about evolution or not had it explained to them well, or they’re people who go and build Creation Museums and think people walked with dinosaurs because of their religious convictions. There may be less hope at getting the latter to accept evolution, but being a science educator is important to me, and I want to tackle the “ignorance” side of that equation.

In my future draft, I plan to explicitly say that I accept evolution because of that mountain of evidence. I thought that would be self-evident to biologist NSF reviewers, but might as well be safe…

3. Rejecting evolution is certainly a “terrible” attitude. Again, why should we pat people on the back for ignoring scientific facts?

4. We don’t give chemistry degrees to people who believe in alchemy. We don’t give aerospace engineering degrees to people who think planes are held up by fairies. We don’t give geology degrees to people who think the Earth is made of chocolate pudding.  But we have no problem giving biology degrees to people who think an invisible supernatural being created life, despite it having as much evidence as Puddingology. I should feel shocked that people who reject the fundamental concepts of their field can still successfully earn a degree.

5. I don’t think that everyone who rejects evolution is stupid. I do, however, think they are wrong. Those things are not equivalent. And when ignorance – the lack of information – is the cause of their rejection, that can be fixed. And should be fixed – but apparently it’s dogmatic to think people should be educated.

Why do I even need to have this discussion? Why, if I had proposed educating people about gravity or plate tectonics, would there have been no debate? Why would any other drive to educate be seen as positive, rather than dogmatic? Why are we expected to roll over and simply accept that some people are going to ignore the fact of evolution?

Because religion is protected in our culture. Telling someone they’re wrong is “dogmatic” if it’s contradicting their religious beliefs even if, you know, they’re wrong. Mincing words and avoiding hurt feelings is more important than education and reality.

Religion does not deserve this special status. We don’t have to tiptoe around, pretending the universe bends to their wishes when all of the evidence says otherwise.

Of course, I have to wonder if this whole “dogmatic” thing came up because later in my personal statement I mention my involvement with some secular organizations. They were relevent – I talk about various pro-science events we’ve done, and the organizational and leadership skills I’ve gained from them. Or if it came up because these people aren’t reading my proposal in a vacuum – they all know I’m a strident, outspoken atheist in my free time. Even if I don’t say that in my proposal and I mince words as much as possible, that knowledge still colors their interpretation. Without the atheism side, would my drive to educate about evolution have been a problem? Did my classmates who mentioned teaching students about evolution in their applications get called dogmatic?

I hate that I even have to wonder about it.

The shackles of academia

You may have noticed that I took down my previous post. Why? Because apparently it was being perceived as burning bridges with people in my department, which was not what I intended. I just thought it was a starting point for an important and relevant discussion about evolution education.

And if I had to name the number one thing that I hate about graduate school, it would have to be this. I feel like I can’t be as intellectually honest as I used to. I can’t talk about certain things. I can’t explain what cool projects I’m working on or I may be scooped by another researcher. I can’t criticize…well, anyone even remotely related to my field, especially not people in my department, because it would basically be the end of my career. Because academia is like pretty much everything else in this world – who you know is the most important thing. If people don’t like you, good luck ever getting a job anywhere.

So, you guys notice how I haven’t been blogging as much? It’s pretty much because of this. I have interesting things running through my mind all the time, but my tongue is tied. I’m not a tenured professor like PZ.

Bah.

EDIT: After much deliberation, I have decided to restore the post with some edits here.

Open Thread

Grad school is totally owning me this week. The second year PhD students all give a big research presentation to the department in the fall that describes what they achieved this summer, and my presentation is this Friday. Our presentations always make us frantic, but it’s extra crazy this week. Today and tomorrow is our 10th annual departmental symposium, so it’s two full days of talks from superstar scientists. Oh, and Svante Paabo (the guy whose group is behind the Neanderthal genome) decided to publish a paper on Thursday related to my work, and that has given me 1988472 new analyses to run. Thanks, Svante. Oh well, at least he didn’t totally scoop me.

Unfortunately this means I’ve been neglecting my blog. You know, for my real job. Sorry guys! Consider this an open thread to talk about whatever or plug your own stuff. The default of the efficacy of machine gun arms on dinosaurs is a good fall back if you run out of things to talk about.

I know what I’m doing in 4.5 years

You and your committee may be the only people who read your PhD dissertation (well, if you’re lucky) – but you can still enjoy is aesthetically:From Street Anatomy:

A long-time Street Anatomy fan and soon-to-be doctor, Stephen, recently sent in this image of an anatomical heart made up entirely of the words from his dissertation. He put tons of effort into studying a particular cardiac arrhythmia, noted below the heart, and instead of hanging fancy diplomas on the wall, he chose to immortalize his time and efforts into a piece of anatomical art.

Someone please remind me of this awesome idea when I’m about to graduate.

End of semester madness!

What am I up to? I’m writing a “fake” research proposal for one of my classes on doing a genome wide association study and exome sequencing to search for genetic components of homosexuality. I say “fake” because it’s a project for a class, not something I’m actually submitting to the NIH or NSF. Well, I mean, I could theoretically submit it as a grant if it ends up being super awesome and a mind-blowing scientific idea, but at this rate I’m just trying to not embarrass myself when turning it in.

On top of that I’m attempting to finish my actual research from this quarter since our presentations are next week. I’m not nervous about the speaking part – heck, I do that for fun now – but talking about science is a bit harder than making jokes about atheism. So, yeah, again – aiming for not embarrassing myself. Frantically trying to learn R to make my graphics, since my professor nearly had an aneurysm when he saw I was using Excel to make my charts.

Aren’t the end of quarters great?!

I know a lot of you are also students – consider this an open thread to complain about all the work you have to do and to procrastinate doing it. Non-students welcome to whine too.

Why my building has key cards


Now I just need to figure out how to make the doors say “Good morning, Ms. McCreight” instead of “Beep.” Then I’ll really be living in a sci-fi movie.

(Alternate reason why my building has key cards: To keep the undergrads out. I like my reason better.)

EDIT: I originally had pi = 0.6 because my project is currently looking at heterozygosity in humans, which is represented by pi, but I realized the inevitable nerd rage I would invoke when people would think I was too stupid to realize pi (approximately) = 3.14. So x it is.

…I have become too nerdy to make nerdy jokes, gah.

Not that this is shocking, but…

“Money for Science May Be Scarce With a Republican-Lead House.” From the NYTimes:

In the Republican platform, Pledge to America, the party vows to cut discretionary nonmilitary spending to 2008 levels. Under that plan, research and development at nonmilitary agencies — including those that sponsor science and health research — would fall 12.3 percent, to $57.8 billion, from the Mr. Obama’s request of $65.9 billion for fiscal year 2011.

An analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science looked at what would happen if all of the agencies were cut to the 2008 amounts. The National Institutes of Health would lose $2.9 billion, or 9 percent, of its research money. The National Science Foundation would lose more than $1 billion, or almost 19 percent, of its budget, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would lose $324 million, or 34 percent.

And guess who gets to apply for NSF and NIH fellowships and grants next fall? Yep, me! As if they weren’t hard enough to get already. I wasn’t planning on applying for fellowships this year, but maybe I should while there’s still money left.

Well, at least I’m in a somewhat more secure situation. My program guarantees a stipend for the full five years, so I’ll still be able to pay rent and feed myself. And my department has one of the most well funded research programs in the university, so my research project will still probably have funding, especially since I’ll be working on humans (humans really like to pour money into studying themselves).

But the vast majority of science graduate students aren’t so lucky. Even right now, it’s common for graduate students to depend on outside fellowships for their stipends. And if you’re not working on some sexy topic like human disease or biological warfare agents, those grants are going to become even more competitive.

I’m not so much concerned on missing out on the prestige and small raise that would come with an NSF fellowship. I’m concerned that the United States is likely going to fall even farther behind in science.

But hey, I can always go abroad for my post-doc…

I'm published! …Wait a second

More evidence that you shouldn’t always trust Google Scholar to deliver the best research papers. I decided to look up my name to see if my paper on genetic bottlenecks was searchable even though it’s in a book. That’s the third link listed. The first and fourth aren’t me, just some other poor J McCreight who has had their Google image search ruined forever by boobquake. But to my surprise, the second link is also mine (click image for larger):
…It’s a pdf of a paper I wrote my senior year of high school for AP Composition titled “Creationists in Scientists’ Clothing: Scientific and Legal Reasons Why Science Classes Must Omit Intelligent Design.” It’s pretty damn good considering I was 18 when I wrote it, but I derive endless amusement at how serious it’s being treated. Apparently my English teacher is second author, and the journal is ImageShack.

I mean, come on Google Scholar, how unprofessional. You forgot to mention it was 3rd period! What will happen to my academic reputation if someone thinks I was in 2nd period?!

Scientific illiteracy

Reading scientific papers helps me understand why so many people hate or distrust scientists.

Let me clarify briefly. This is not meant to be me bitching about my graduate school workload. This is not me thinking my PhD was going to be a cake walk. I was prepared to finish undergrad feeling like a genius and walk into grad school feeling average. I was prepared to learn, and learning requires feeling stupid first.

This is me trying to think what science looks like to an outsider.

The last couple of weeks I’ve been doing pretty much nothing but reading scientific papers – that is, peer reviewed research papers published in academic journals. Some of these have been historical, the oldest being from the 1940s, and some have been from the last couple of years. Some have been good, some have been excellent, but the majority have made me want to stab my eyes out with the nearest pipetman. I’ve been reading primary literature for the last three years, but dealing with so much recently has made me realize one thing:

Most scientists are terrible writers.

And when I say terrible writers, I’m not just talking about English skills – though that certainly is a problem. When I had to read some of my classmates’ papers in undergrad, I was often thankful to find a sentence that wasn’t a fragment or a run-on. I don’t have perfect grammar, especially when informally blogging, but I can usually get general concepts across. And don’t even get me started on the organization of some papers. Your methods are where?

But most science writing is simply impenetrable. Everything seems to be lingo and jargon, to the point where they might as well be speaking another language. This problem gets worse with time, since fields are becoming more specialized, not less.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, so many scientific papers are drier than Indiana on a Sunday. You would never guess most papers were authored by the same person who will perk up with excitement when you ask them about their research. Obviously papers are meant to be impartial, but that doesn’t mean they have to be devoid of all liveliness. When a paper does include a rare joke, or even a clever ribbing of another study, readers get excited. We like being reminded that humans wrote these papers, not some computer program (unless simulating papers is what your research is about, then…). I nearly pooped myself when I saw a paper use an exclamation mark once. Needless to say, exclamation marks should not provoke this amount of surprise.

So why is this an issue outside of my own graduate school woes? I hate tooting my own horn, but allow me to prove a point. I have a BS in Genetics and Evolution from a respected university. I have three years of research experience in a laboratory. I have one published paper and at least one more on the way. I won the award for Outstanding Biology Student every year I was at Purdue. It’s safe to say that I am more trained in biology than your average person, yet I still have to spend hours reading a biology paper to grasp even the most basic concepts.

I look back on all the times I asked people if they read the original research before passing judgment on a study. Or all the times I sighed at another bad piece of science reporting. Now I just sympathize. If I’m having such a hard time, how do we expect laypeople to understand science?

I’m but a lowly first year graduate student, so I obviously don’t have all the answers… But I’m also a blogger, so here’s my opinion on two things we can do to improve science communication:

Relax pointless publishing rules. Journals are so focused on word count, formatting, figure size, supplemental material… Are you really communicating in the best way possible when you’re worrying about having to spend hundreds of extra dollars for every page you go over? Or when you sacrifice clarity in a graph because it’s cheaper to get it printed in black in white?

One of my papers recently was rejected, and I cringed at some of the questions reviewers had. We clarified all of those points in the initial draft, but they were eventually cut due to word limit restrictions. This is made all the more ridiculous when you consider that most people access journals electronically now. Is the internet not big enough for that extra pdf page? We obviously want some limits so people don’t get excessively verbose, but this is just silly.

Encourage more scientists to be journalists. And I don’t just mean recruiting science majors after they’ve been taught how to write (though for the love of FSM, someone please do that too). I mean encouraging scientists to blog about what they know, and then utilizing those bloggers who have proved their communication skills. It’s hard enough to understand the primary literature, let alone translate it into something people can understand. We need to exploit that talent we have.

The thing that worries me the most? That this is probably just the first of many disillusionments I’ll have about science over the next couple years.