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The fuddy-duddies still thrive

Kate Clancy comments on a ‘satire’ published in a serious journal.

Genome Biology published a satirical piece by Neil Hall today, and since I’m American and he’s British I don’t find it funny. No wait, it’s that I’m female and he’s male. Or maybe that I’m junior and he’s senior. I’ve got it, it’s because he has a ton of publications (many times the number I have), and I have a ton of Twitter followers (many times the number he has). Meaning, my K-index knocks his out of the park.

Let me back up. You see, Hall created a joke metric he calls the Kardashian Index, which is one’s Twitter followers divided by one’s scientific citations. He writes:

“Hence a high K-index is a warning to the community that researcher X may have built their public profile on shaky foundations, while a very low K-index suggests that a scientist is being undervalued.”

Ha ha. Hilarious. You know how you could optimize your k-index? Never talk to the public at all. What this guy has done is published a joke that reflects the attitude of many senior people in the scientific community, that not only is communicating science to the world valueless, it reduces the value of the science. If he really wants to piss on his colleagues, he should have added something about how teaching is a debit on your academic credit, too.

I remember when Sagan was denied tenure at Harvard (which isn’t too surprising, Harvard is extraordinarily full of itself) and also refused admission to the National Academy of Sciences — the perception was that he was just too danged good as a popularizer, so he couldn’t possibly be a serious scientist. At the time, I was reassured that all the tightly puckered sphincters who were offended by popularizing science were old, and would be dying off, and it would be getting better. And now I’m getting old and gray myself, and they’re still hanging in there, immortal, apparently. I think they must live forever by sucking the joy of science out of children’s brains.

Maybe we need a different index, one that penalizes scientists who clutter up the scientific literature with fluffy stupid opinion pieces padded with pseudoscientific and contrived formulas marked as humor. It was the kind of thing that, instead of being elevated by Genome Biology, might have been better presented as a tweet. Except that distilling it down to 140 characters would have made its inanity even more obvious, and it would have hurt his k-index.

Comments

  1. jimsnider67 says

    “…they’re still hanging in their…”
    That’s either a typo or I really didn’t get enough sleep last night.

  2. karley jojohnston says

    I had just read an article that was posted on the IFLSilence (an I F*cking Love Science watchdog feed) twitter feed. The feed is good for bringing legitimate grievances to light, but this article was bullshit:

    http://underthewithywindles.com/no-fcking-love-science-destroying-it/

    Basically, IFLScience isn’t bad because it steals art and doesn’t source people. It’s bad because it makes science popular. Throw in some “fake geek” fear mongering to taste.

  3. lpetrich says

    Those fuddy duddies must have had like-minded successors, so one must ask what they were like in their younger years. The sort who likes to suck up to authority figures?

  4. says

    Ugh. Mingle in a little Christian indignance, too.

    It’s the attitude that science is only good when it’s MY exclusive little club.

  5. says

    This is the attitude that leads to people agreeing when politicians making mocking speeches about way out whacky science like fruit-fly research. If the public aren’t informed, the public won’t be able to make informed judgements.

    (Also, don’t complain when you’ve had you’re research budget slashed because that uninformed public voted to slash budgets for all that “useless” science.)

  6. raven says

    the perception was that he was just too danged good as a popularizer, so he couldn’t possibly be a serious scientist.

    1. Long ago, I might have been sympathetic to that idea. It turns out to be wildly wrong.

    2. Lots of people can do science. Run gels, sequence DNA, Western blot, split cells, splice DNA, PCR and so on. You can be good at it without a doctoral degree.

    Very few scientists can be a Sagan, Tyson, or Mister Science!!! This requires two skill sets, science and being a telegenic good explainer.

    3. The secret of science is that it runs on money. The US R&D budget is ca. $350 billion, ca. 1/3 of the world total.

    Society pays it because they benefit hugely, science having taken us from the stone age to the space age. It’s the basis for our modern Hi Tech civilization.

    To keep them paying for it, you have to keep explaining why it is worth paying for. If you don’t, the money drops off and science drops off.

    Neil Hall should be sentenced to a laboratory with a lot of high end equipment and no budget. The machines would soon break down without maintenance, and with no postdocs, graduate students, or techs, I doubt if he could even run a simple gel.

  7. ibyea says

    I really don’t like this attitude. I want science to be a discipline with a heart.

  8. raven says

    Shorter raven. Neil Hall is an idiot and would do a lot of damage to science if we/they let him.

    The elitist, arrogant attitude makes him feel better but that is about it.

    Sorry Neil Hall, I don’t give one rat’s ass about your fragile ego and its problem, but I do care a lot about science and keeping it going.

  9. strangerinastrangeland says

    While I also did not find this satirical piece in any way funny, I do see a point in questioning the way science is sometimes communicated. Currently, there is for example some pressure at our institute to “raise our public profile” and, among other things, tweet about our science. In my opinion Twitter is not a good medium for this, given the limited space of the messages but mostly because of the need to regularely come up with something worth communicating. Sure, I could tweet about every gel I run and every genome analysis I do, but the real highlights worth telling the world about would just be drowned in such drivel. Do we scientists really have such a constant flow of interesting things to say about our science that it has to be told the world in real-time (and in 140 characters)?

    I think scientists should, and in most cases want to, tell the public about their work but in my opinion there are better ways to do this, e.g. through blogs, press releases and follow-up media coverage, talking at schools or community events, etc. Twitter itself seems to be more of a fad, and scientists do it because everybody else does and not because it is a good tool for communicating science.

  10. tbtabby says

    Maybe it’s too early in the morning for me to parse this properly, but is Neil Hall seriously arguing that trying to get the public interested in science is a BAD thing?! So scientists should be like hipsters, talking about how they liked the research before it was “mainstream?” How can anyone take this attitude in a society where so many problems are because caused or exacerbated by the scientific ignorance of the public?

  11. David Marjanović says

    a very low K-index suggests that a scientist is being undervalued

    Yaaaaay! Having a K index of 0, I most wholeheartedly agree with this. :-)

    </sarcasm> I have 0 Twitter followers because I’m not on Twitter at all. No matter how much people might want to value* me, they can’t – I don’t let them, mwahah.

    * That’s the <q> tag. It still produces automatic quotation marks, but no Comic Sans anymore. :-(

  12. says

    @tbtabby: You beat me to it. I just can’t understand that attitude, at least in regard to science.

    When it comes to art or entertainment, I can understand hipster fans being worried that a mainstream audience will tempt a producer towards the lowest common denominator or attract executive meddling that ruins the product. But for science, it doesn’t make sense. Science isn’t a niche market tailored to subjective tastes, it’s about getting closer to objective truth about the universe we all live in. Science is relevant to everyone.

  13. says

    I know a bunch of scientists who are in a similar boat. They have been asked to and sometime required to make this difficult long online identification keys or to make on-line taxonomic databases that take years to create and a lot of time to maintain. And these on-line tools have a far greater impact on the public and cooperating agencies than most any paper, but come review time, the on-line material is completely ignored.

  14. Gvlgeologist, FCD says

    Way back when, I remember scientists criticizing Jacques Cousteau (and his TV specials) because he wasn’t a “real” oceanographer. The reality is that I and probably thousands of others wouldn’t have gone into oceanography, the public wouldn’t have cared about the oceans nearly as much, and public funding wouldn’t have been anywhere it has been over the last 50 years without him. Classes at the college level wouldn’t be nearly as popular, and thus “real” scientists wouldn’t have the teaching and eventually research opportunities that have been around, and thus “real” research would be far removed from what it is today.
    I’d say that idiotic snobs like Neil Hall are far more dangerous to “real” science than popularizers are.

  15. anteprepro says

    This is another perplexing element of this. From the end of the article:

    My introduction highlights the fact that women have a history of being ignored by the scientific community. Interestingly, in my analysis, very few women (only one in fact) had a highly inflated Twitter following, while most (11/14) had fewer followers than would be expected. Hence, most Kardashians are men! This ‘study’ does not prove that we, as a community, are continuing to ignore women, or if women are less likely to engage in self-promotion, but it is consistent with either or both of these scenarios.

    If this is the case THEN WHY THE NAME THE INDEX AFTER A WOMAN!!?

    I know the answer though: because he wants to bash people involved in social media by conflating it with celebrity worship culture, which are both stereotypically the purview of women. So who cares if the results prove that isn’t true, he is still gonna label it after a female celebrity anyway. Because Science.

  16. moarscienceplz says

    This is the attitude that leads to people agreeing when politicians making mocking speeches about way out whacky science like fruit-fly research. If the public aren’t informed, the public won’t be able to make informed judgements.
    (Also, don’t complain when you’ve had you’re research budget slashed because that uninformed public voted to slash budgets for all that “useless” science.)

    Yes indeed!

    How about all published papers come with “thumbs up/thumbs down” counters? Let the science-curious public have some feedback, and if you get too many negs, or worse, hardly any votes at all, you go to the bottom of the funding queue. Of course, there would have to be allowances made for creo-nut votes on evolution related subjects, but I’d bet all these giant brains could figure out a way to deal with that.

  17. opposablethumbs says

    How about all published papers come with “thumbs up/thumbs down” counters? Let the science-curious public have some feedback, and if you get too many negs, or worse, hardly any votes at all, you go to the bottom of the funding queue. Of course, there would have to be allowances made for creo-nut votes on evolution related subjects, but I’d bet all these giant brains could figure out a way to deal with that.

    moarscienceplz I think you are being just a tad disingenuous.

    Thanks for the comment numbers!

    Seconded! *\o/*

  18. David Marjanović says

    If this is the case THEN WHY THE NAME THE INDEX AFTER A WOMAN!!?

    Good catch!

    Now that you mention it, it looks to me like trying to say if you tweet to much, you’re more like a woman than like a scientist while deploring that very attitude. Fail.

  19. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Good point, Daz!

    Farraday, Einstein, Copernicus, Huxley, Galileo – how many twitter followers did any of them have, huh?

    You never saw Kelvin glory-hounding on twitter!

  20. moarscienceplz says

    #23 Daz
    Sorry. I was agreeing with you. You are totally right that science needs more engagement with the public.

  21. ck says

    Bronze Dog wrote:

    When it comes to art or entertainment, I can understand hipster fans being worried that a mainstream audience will tempt a producer towards the lowest common denominator or attract executive meddling that ruins the product. But for science, it doesn’t make sense.

    I disagree. This science snobbery is exactly the same as culture snobbery that people associate with hipsters (but it predates them and used to go by the name of “selling out”). An artist or entertainer who remains poor and underappreciated is more likely to try to adapt their art to appeal to a larger market, yet the sneering snobs get it backwards and believe that the fame is what corrupts the art.

  22. moarscienceplz says

    I’m sorry my comment came off as snark. I think there should be a mechanism that would reward scientists who published papers that attracted interest from the public. Obviously, many papers are so esoteric that the vast majority of papers would appeal to only a small percentage of people, but that still could amount to thousands of people worldwide.

  23. says

    moarscienceplz #27

    No need to apologise. And thanks for clarifying.

    CD #26

    Can I add the oft-overlooked James Jeans and Fred Hoyle to that list? The former is hardly ever mentioned at all, and the latter is virtually always mentioned only in regard to his opposition to big-bang theory. Both were amazing popularisers of science.

  24. zmidponk says

    I remember when Sagan was denied tenure at Harvard (which isn’t too surprising, Harvard is extraordinarily full of itself) and also refused admission to the National Academy of Sciences — the perception was that he was just too danged good as a popularizer, so he couldn’t possibly be a serious scientist.

    I would have thought that the way to get more and better scientists would be to popularize science, and one thing that would be necessary for popularizing science would be to thoroughly understand it, practice it and love it. However, this is a non-scientist speaking, so maybe I’m just using too much common sense and not enough science to come to that conclusion.

  25. Pan Paniscus says

    You know how you could optimize your k-index? Never talk to the public at all.

    Your comment suggests that you think that the author thought that a very low k-index was “optimal”. But he doesn’t say that. The author says the index is a measure of “the *discrepancy* between a scientist’s social media profile and publication record”. Why is having a big discrepancy (low k-index) good? Why is being “undervalued” a good thing? The author doesn’t say it is. Might the “optimal” value be a middling one, not discrepant either way?

    Most of the comments here are criticizing the author for an attitude that isn’t there in the article. Where does he say that scientists should aim for a very low k-index? Nor, by the way, does it seem to be intended to be “satirical” or “funny”. Flippant, yes, but that’s not the same.

  26. Rich Woods says

    @Gvlgeologist #16:

    Way back when, I remember scientists criticizing Jacques Cousteau (and his TV specials) because he wasn’t a “real” oceanographer. The reality is that I and probably thousands of others wouldn’t have gone into oceanography

    Too true. I remember the burst of recruitment to archaeology courses in the 80s and early 90s. It was dubbed ‘the Indiana Jones Effect’ (perhaps also extended in the UK by ‘the Time Team Effect’). Sometimes, the initial inspiration has to be more than the purely academic.

    The UK government has been desperately trying to boost STEM recruitment amongst educators for years. Apart from stopping the underfunding of most secondary schools and ceasing to shaft teachers’ opportunities for creativity, it might help if they made a serious effort to promote science communication. It’s one thing that comparatively big names like Brian Cox, Marcus du Sautoy and Jim Al-Khalili get regular airtime, but there are also people like Timandra Harkness, Matt Parker and Annela Seddon who have much to offer.

  27. Pan Paniscus says

    You see, Hall created a joke metric he calls the Kardashian Index, which is one’s Twitter followers divided by one’s scientific citations.

    This is wrong, the k-index is the number of followers divided by the number of followers *expected*, given the scientific standing (citations) of the scientist.

    Thus, the author *expects* scientists to be active on twitter, and to acquire more followers as they gain scientific standing. At no point does he say this is a bad thing; at no point does he deprecate being active on social media.

  28. gijoel says

    Maybe we could have a Neil Hall prize. The award could be a statue of a man swallowing his own foot.

  29. anteprepro says

    At no point does he say this is a bad thing; at no point does he deprecate being active on social media.

    For Pan Paniscus, who apparently can’t read the article:

    While social media is a valuable tool for outreach and the sharing of ideas, there is a danger that this form of communication is gaining too high a value and that we are losing sight of key metrics of scientific value, such as citation indices…..

    Now consider Kim Kardashian; she comes from a privileged background and, despite having not achieved anything consequential in science, politics or the arts (although apparently she does have a scientific mind [[1]]), she is one of the most followed people on twitter and among the most searched-for person on Google……

    I am concerned that phenomena similar to that of Kim Kardashian may also exist in the scientific community. I think it is possible that there are individuals who are famous for being famous (or, to put it in science jargon, renowned for being renowned). …..

    In the age of social media there are people who have high-profile scientific blogs or twitter feeds but have not actually published many peer-reviewed papers of significance; in essence, scientists who are seen as leaders in their field simply because of their notoriety. I was recently involved in a discussion where it was suggested that someone should be invited to speak at a meeting ‘because they will tweet about it and more people will come’…….

    I think it’s time that we develop a metric that will clearly indicate if a scientist has an overblown public profile so that we can adjust our expectations of them accordingly….

    In an age dominated by the cult of celebrity we, as scientists, need to protect ourselves from mindlessly lauding shallow popularity and take an informed and critical view of the value we place on the opinion of our peers. Social media makes it very easy for people to build a seemingly impressive persona by essentially ‘shouting louder’ than others. Having an opinion on something does not make one an expert. But on Twitter, for example, the ‘top tweet’ on any given subject will not necessarily come from an expert, it will come from the most followed person. …..

    if your K-index gets above 5, then it’s time to get off Twitter and write those papers.

    It is blatantly obvious that, yes, he is insulting social media and those who use it.

  30. anteprepro says

    Nor, by the way, does it seem to be intended to be “satirical” or “funny”.

    Which is why, of course, he has a section of the article after the Discussion section called “Finally on a serious note”.

    You sure like to be confidently wrong. You might want to fix that, it’s a bad habit.

  31. mikee says

    It’s not clever, it’s not funny and he actually states it is not scientifically valid. What a waste of time writing it and a waste of time for everyone reading it.
    Just another ruddy diddly who doesn’t understand media, and we all know anything you don’t understand must there fore be bad.

  32. Pan Paniscus says

    #37

    For Pan Paniscus, who apparently can’t read the article: … It is blatantly obvious that, yes, he is insulting social media and those who use it.

    No he is not. He is addressing the possibility of those whose twitter profile regarding science might greatly exceed their standing in science. To quote him:

    In the age of social media there are people who have high-profile scientific blogs or twitter feeds but have not actually published many peer-reviewed papers of significance; in essence, scientists who are seen as leaders in their field simply because of their notoriety.

    That is what the k-index is about. At no point does he deprecate people with a solid reputation in science being active on social media. He is simple distinguishing between those that do have a solid background in science and those that do not.

    #35

    Right. Because naming those with high index values “Kardashians” isn’t intended as an insult at all.

    Sure, the name insults those with a high-profile twitter activity about science who do not have a solid background in science. It is not insulting those with a high twitter activity AND a solid background in science.

    #38

    Which is why, of course, he has a section of the article after the Discussion section called “Finally on a serious note”.

    As I said, he was being flippant. That is different from being “satirical” or “funny” = comedic. It is entirely possible to be flippant with no attempt to be satirical or comedic.

  33. Alex says

    Sure, the name insults those with a high-profile twitter activity about science who do not have a solid background in science. It is not insulting those with a high twitter activity AND a solid background in science.

    Isn’t that insult enough. I mean, seriously.

  34. Pan Paniscus says

    #44

    Isn’t that insult enough. I mean, seriously.

    Insult enough for what?

    My point here is that the author does not say that the “optimal” k-index is zero, or that promoting science on social media is a bad thing.

  35. Alex says

    @Pan Panicsus
    Come on, don’t be such a troglodytes! He is saying that if you are a successful science popularizer, but not at the same time a leading expert in your field, you basically become comparable to Kardashian, which, let’s be honest, is a shorthand for being undeservedly made famous by a superficial pop culture in absence of talent.

  36. Pan Paniscus says

    #46 Alex,

    Come on, don’t be such a troglodytes!

    Like it!

    He is saying that if you are a successful science popularizer, but not at the same time a leading expert in your field, you basically become comparable to Kardashian, …

    Yes, agreed, and that is the sensible critique of his piece, that his index can be unfair to science popularisers who are actually very good at it while not being scientists (e.g. Carl Zimmer). Of course I think the author was fully aware of the limitations of the k-index, which is why he was being flippant.

    But there is a serious point to it, and that’s about debate on science topics can be dominated by people with little or no scientific credentials, and it does get to be a problem if the debate as a whole has a high k-index.

    For example the BBC was recently told off for giving too much prominence to climate-change denialist Nigel Lawson, who has no scientific standing. (I presume things are as bad in the US?)

    Anyway, that is the sensible criticism of the k-index, that it doesn’t distinguish between a Carl Zimmer (good) and a Nigel Lawson (bad).

    But that’s a very different criticism from the misinterpretation of it that it was saying not to talk to the media and that the “optimum” k-index is zero (nor was it a satire or intended to be comedic).

  37. foolish wolf says

    @Pan Panicsus

    I guess technically, his graph argues that every scientist should endeavour to be as close to the best fit line he draws through his graph, so every scientist has a proportional amount of followers to citations. The only problem with this is that he does not argue that scientists with low values are spending too little time/energy on twitter, he just states they’re being undervalued.

    For your argument to make sense he would have to state that having a low “k index” is bad as well and those scientists are spending too much time on science papers and not enough time explaining thing to the unwashed masses.

    While its never definitively stated that “Kardashian scientists” spend too much time on twitter and not enough on science it is heavily implied throughout and it brings us to another big problem with the article, naming it after the Kardashians. The line that annoys me the most is “Hence, most Kardashians are men!”

    Well! Isn’t that incredible! Because normally its only women who are famous for being famous! Men are normally famous for achieving things! /sarcasm off

    It’s almost as if it’s because people keep perpetuating the idea with stupid “flippant” articles so that we’re constantly saturated with this myth /sarcasm really off

    I also have a problem with your odd distinction between flippant and funny. It seems flippant means tried to be funny but failed. The author also states this was “just a bit of fun” which leads me to think he thought the rest of us would find it funny.

  38. Pan Paniscus says

    #48

    … his graph argues that every scientist should …

    It was primarily descriptive, not prescriptive.

    For your argument to make sense he would have to state that having a low “k index” is bad as well

    But nor does he say it is good! He says almost nothing about those with a low k-index (it’s not really the topic of the article). PZ and some commenters are acting as though he said a low k-index was desirable and laudable. He didn’t.

    I also have a problem with your odd distinction between flippant and funny. It seems flippant means tried to be funny but failed.

    No it doesn’t. From dictionary.com:

    Flippant: frivolously disrespectful, shallow, or lacking in seriousness; characterized by levity: “The audience was shocked by his flippant remarks about patriotism.”

    The author also states this was “just a bit of fun” which leads me to think he thought the rest of us would find it funny.

    In that context “a bit of fun” means something mildly enjoyable, and again does not imply an attempt at comedy. “enjoyment or playfulness: `She’s full of fun’.”

  39. okanogen cascades says

    I came here for the incisive take downs on another thread, but I’m staying because, gosh, I’m a science person in real life!

    There are a lot of very good science social media sites, US Geological Survey and NASA are awesome, interesting, and often “shared”. I agree that for individuals, it is hard to be constantly doing enough tweetable stuff to keep a feed interesting.

    Oh, and I wish IFLScience was a little better at, you know, science, because a lot of the time they are doin’ it r0ng.

  40. foolish wolf says

    #49

    Levity: the treatment of a serious matter with humour or lack of due respect.

    Sooooo…….yeah, he was trying to be funny or he lacked respect for the issue, I’m thinking both. I don’t know about you but if I make a comment that people describe as flippant then I was trying to be funny.

    If we’re talking about things he doesn’t say because we can’t handle context then he also doesn’t say what you’re arguing. He just implies high k values are bad. He doesn’t say you should stay on the best fit line. he says that you should keep your k index lower than 5. low = good, high = bad.

    Throughout the whole article he implies an inverse relationship between celebrity and science. Once he’s created that relationship and then says people with high “k indexes” are Kardashians who shouldn’t be payed attention to then its also implied that those concentrating on science are good. As I said in the previous comment, the only thing in the article that implies having a low k index is bad is the graph so I wonder why you’re trying to diminish its importance. I guess he does spend a line or to talking about the graph but then he states that people above the line should be labelled “Kadashians” and then has no comment about those below the line. If he was being in any way fair he should have called them science hermits or science hoarders but he doesn’t because he only cares about people who do “too much” communicating and doesn’t care about the ones who do zero. That is the slant of the whole article.

    An article which was really talking about the importance of communicating science it would have given equal time to those under the line as those above and then it would have spent 90% talking about how bad science journalism is.

  41. Pan Paniscus says

    #52

    If we’re talking about things he doesn’t say because we can’t handle context then he also doesn’t say what you’re arguing. … He doesn’t say you should stay on the best fit line.

    Agreed, he doesn’t. My suggestion of “stay on the line” is just a way of pointing out that the article does not say that lowest k-values are “optimal”. As you say, the only prescriptive comment is about keeping the k-value below 5.

    Throughout the whole article he implies an inverse relationship between celebrity and science.

    No he doesn’t. He says: “While aware that the analysis is flawed and lacks statistical rigor, it is a relief to see that there is some kind of positive trend in scientific value when compared with celebrity.” He then gives a formula for that non-inverse relationship.

    the only thing in the article that implies having a low k index is bad is the graph so I wonder why you’re trying to diminish its importance.

    Eh? What about the graph implies that a low k index is good? Yes, it suggests that a value above 5 is bad, but nowhere does it suggest that being below the line is in any way good, let alone that being as low as possible is “optimal”.

    because he only cares about people who do “too much” communicating and doesn’t care about the ones who do zero. That is the slant of the whole article.

    Yes, that is indeed the topic and theme of the article.

    An article which was really talking about the importance of communicating science …

    Which this article is not, and does not pretend to be.

  42. Ichthyic says

    Neil sez:

    If you would like to discuss this further please follow me on Twitter

    and therein lies the rub.

    poor Neil is just under-appreciated.

  43. anteprepro says

    Pan Paniscus’s entire argument style seems to be just saying “Nope” and refusing to read. If it were a more important subject matter, it would be infuriating. But since it is just a bad joke article, meh.

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