Girl, Interrupting

November 26, 2010

Brief thoughts about academic honesty

Filed under: Academic dishonesty,science ethics — sylviamclain @ 12:32 pm
Tags: ,

Always tell the truth – they tell you when you are a kid – I think I quickly learned that ALWAYS telling the truth is not always the best idea – lies of omission (especially to my mother) save a lot of pain all around and are sometimes diplomatically the best way forward.

Recently an academic at Duke, Anil Potti, resigned and retracted several science papers because his work couldn’t be reproduced by himself or other scientists in his field. Potti also had apparently lied on his CV saying he was a Rhodes scholar when he wasn’t although he later explained he was a Finalist as a Rhodes scholar.

What I wonder about this story is if this is a combination of overselling your scientific results and spinning your CV too much or actual academic misconduct. I think the results are out still, but this incident is worrying none the less.

When I think about the lovely art of CV writing, and that bit of grant writing in that distressing section where you basically have to convince the reviewers you are the greatest thing since sliced bread, I always have a little shudder. I hate writing those things, largely because sometimes when you write them down they don’t sound quite right. For example, I was a fisheries feild technician when I was 22, which sounds a whole lot better to me than the actual job of hauling around heavy equipment in the woods and counting fish.

OK so you obviously can’t lie as in I have 50 papers in Nature that all have been cited at least 400 times (though some people do this, and actually get away with it (at least in the short term)) but where do you draw the line?

For instance, I held a grant where I was the PI, however the post-doc on the grant was almost entirely supervised by the co-PI. While I had a central role with supervision of our student, do I say I supervised the post-doc? Do I give some lengthy boring explanation about how our management structure works? The opposite also happens, you may not be a *formal* supervisor but turn into one through the course of a collaboration. Do you list this? Keep in mind you only have 2 pages (at most) to list how wonderful you are.

I realize that these are boring examples and this isn’t really dishonesty per se but this is where the hard part lies sometimes. Do you make it sound better or worse? One of the problems I believe is that as an academic your specific roles aren’t always clear – lots of us interact and collaborate with alot of people and writing it down on paper isn’t necessarily always easy. And if you try to be humble and under sale yourself – you probably won’t get funded. Its like getting a house, its hard to make that first step onto the ladder these days, and hard to get funded (its getting harder). And though I have held a few grants, I don’t currently have one and as a result I don’t currently have any of my very own students or post-docs but I desperately need some if I want my research career to continue.

And this is part of the problem – desperation to get funded, while MOST academics (I believe) don’t intentionally lie, someone might disagree with your assessment of something so dull as ‘she didn’t really supervise that post-doc’ – and then if you make a mistake in your scientific research years later would it come out as “Charlatan scientists claims control over other people’s resources” ?

I have a feeling that Potti’s case is probably more complex than this, given that he has made the news in the New York Times and has actually resigned. Scientists do make mistakes and do own up to them and retract papers without loosing their jobs. Most famous example I can think of is Stephen Hawking – so something seems strange about Potti’s story.

But as @DrAustPHD said on twitter: Pressure system enough: people will short cut (& worse).

This is a frightening thought in some respects but I think on the whole most people DON’T fudget their results (though they do make mistakes) and most people are honest about what they say about themselves. And the good news is, if you out and out lie? You often get found out in the end….

November 16, 2010

The dangers of unconscious bias

Filed under: rational thinking,science ethics — sylviamclain @ 12:55 pm
Tags: , ,

Its around us everywhere, unconscious bias, in the media, in the government infrastructure, in academia.

I have read several articles lately about bias and inequalities in academic science – such as a blog post “What women think” by Athene Donald which highlights, amongst other things that academic women might be less likely to be supported by their line managers and have a harder time getting promoted in a male dominated environment. Similarly, Imran Kahn has written an online article in which he expresses concern about higher education cuts leading to a decrease in diversity in scientific fields which are already predominantly ‘Pale, male and stale’.

In a seemingly non-related article – the Home office has announced a new ‘stop and search’ plan allowing the police to stop people based on what really seems to amount to racial profiling.

So could the new Conservative ‘Big Society’ in the UK, which is supposed to mean we all love each other, really signify an increase in gender and racial inequalities across all government departments?

Perhaps, but I also think that the people making these decisions probably don’t think they are doing anything of the kind. They probably think that this is just ‘common sense’ and has nothing to do with racial profiling or any sort of discriminatory bent. What it more likely signifies is unconscious bias. And everybody has unconscious bias, it is part of being human.

I was born during civil rights era in the not so deep South in the US, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated when I was about 6 months old. Growing up in the post-civil rights era, I learned that racism was uniformly bad, and a thing that was apparently perpetrated by many of my ancestors. This is a horrifying realization as a kid and you vow to yourself you will NEVER be a racist and I sincerely hope that in actual fact I am not.

But the other thing I learned is that legalities certainly don’t make racism just magically disappear. Just because the Civil Rights Acts (1965 and 1968) said ALL men (and women, but here I use men as these are the historical words ) are created equal and have certain unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, didn’t necessarily mean that racism evaporated in a puff a smoke, that there were group hugs all around and it was over. It’s much more complex than that.

In many people’s minds, racism is the KKK and sexism is people who just think women are dumber than men. Even though people that think and say things like this obviously do exist (such as Professor Richard Lynn), it is not very often we hear things this overt from day to day. It is worth noting that Prof. Lynn himself thinks he is just ‘observing the facts’ and talking common sense in a sort of ‘some of my best friends are women but…’ kind of way.

It is rare for us to see bias in ourselves, and most people I think would say they are decidedly NOT racist (or any other ist). Because unconscious bias is unconscious.

I think most people that consider themselves rational, evidence-based, scientific, humanitarians believe that they are well free from any sort of unconscious bias. If you are trained as a scientist, you are trained to try and look at the facts as objectively as you can. This is easier said than done. Have you ever had to let go of a pet theory because it was wrong? This ain’t easy.

But what I find myself seeing over and over again in science blogs and rationalist thinking articles is lots of unconscious bias – against the very things that the authors believe are biased and intolerant themselves.

For instance, I saw recently in an article about atheism embedded in a science blog the following statement:

“One thing that always surprises and disgusts me about so-called christians is their willingness to hate those who have different beliefs than they; those with other faiths or (especially) no faith at all.”

In my mind, this is a pretty vitriolic statement about hatred and it is also not a universal truth, even though it is stated as if it is, which is a prime example of unconscious bias. I know plenty of Christians who do not ‘hate’ people with other beliefs but simply think that they are wrong and are rather more tolerant of different beliefs than some ‘rational-thinkers’ I know.

I have deliberately NOT included a link to this article because I don’t believe the author is being consciously overtly biased, and I am sure they don’t believe that they are. I am also certain that they have frustrations with many of the christians they have met.

I have to admit, I have a fear of fundamental foot-washing Baptists, the minute someone tells me they are a Baptist I not only want to run screaming but also have a full-set of preconceptions about what kind of person I think they are (some of it not so nice). But a healthy part of this reaction is my very own bias AGAINST people that have a particular belief I don’t agree with.

Bias is almost never overt, it is almost always covert and I think we should all take the time to stop and see where it comes from in ourselves before we condemn others for the very beliefs we have and often hate in ourselves.

November 10, 2010

It’s not about you, its about the data!

Or why I think the passive voice is actually GOOD for science

There are advocates of ‘plain language for scientists’ for example Harvard Health blogs who suggest Med journals should write more like Micheal Crichton and Evidence Soup who wants medical journals to ‘stop with the passive voice, already’. The summary being that scientists write far too much in the passive vs. the active voice (in English that is) and science would be easier to understand if it were written in the active voice. There are also suggestions that ‘passive-voice science writing’ is elitist.

I disagree on both counts but first a quick grammar review, what is the difference between active and passive?

In the active voice the object receives the action of the verb as in:

“Cats eat fish (active).”

In the passive voice the subject receives the action of the verb:

“Fish are eaten by cats (passive).”

Which is great for cats and fish but what about scientists?

One of the arguments for ‘active English’ in science writing is that if English isn’t your first language, reading in the passive voice is more difficult. A couple of French, Bangladeshi and Dutch friends have confirmed this. On the other hand, an Italian scientist friend of mine told me it is actually easier to read in the formal passive voice, because it is closer to the way science is written in Italian. In her opinion, ‘plain English’ initiatives never help non-native English speakers, she believes it is mostly for those of us that already speak English. So I would say just from my unofficial straw poll that active English being easier for foreigners is still up for debate.

Regardless of which is easier to read, the passive voice is a construct of English, not of science and for better or worse English has become the de facto lingua-Franca of modern science, at least in the West. If we based the ‘language of science’ on the most abundant language in world-wide science, that would be Chinese, which may be preferable as Chinese has no verb tenses.

And English, well, is odd. English is written and indeed spoken in a complex combination of active and passive voices. This doesn’t only happen in science articles; this even happens in the Daily Mail. Take for instance the following excerpt from an article published in the Daily Mail:

EastEnders star Steve McFadden has been arrested and bailed (passive) over claims that he harassed a woman (active) believed to be the mother of his baby girl.

The 51-year-old actor was picked up by police in Haringey, north London, on Wednesday (passive).

After being questioned by officers he was released on bail to return to a police station early next year (passive) .

It is understood that McFadden – who plays EastEnders hard man Phil Mitchell – was arrested following a complaint by former partner Dr Rachel Sidwell (passive).

The pair have a daughter, Amelie Tinkerbell, now 17 months old

Now if you translate that all into the active this is what you get::

Police have arrested Steve McFadden. The court released McFadden on bail. The police and the court acted on claims that McFadden had harassed a woman believed to be the mother of his baby girl.

The police picked up the 51 year old actor in Haringey, north London, on Wednesday.

Police questioned Steve McFadden. The court released McFadden on bail to return to the police station early next year.

It is understood that the police arrested McFadden – who plays EastEnders hard man Phil Mitchell – following a complaint
by former partner Dr Rachel Sidwell.

The pair have a daughter, Amelie Tinkerbell, now 17 months old.

OK so this is ‘plain english’ but in the active version the story becomes all about the police not about Steve McFadden which is what the story is intended to be about – Steve McFadden is the object receiving the action by the police, who are the subject.

And this is the point! As scientists we teach our students to write about the data – which are the object of any experiment. Why? Because the science is about the data and the data are INDEPENDENT of who did the experiment (well except if there is fraud). Science is about the physical world around us which is exhibited by the data and not the person doing the experiment.

Explicitly, in technical science journals you will see things like:

‘The data were collected’
(passive) which is about the data.

Rather than ‘I collected the data’ (active) which is about YOU collecting the data in the first person
or if you prefer the 3rd person ‘The post doctoral researcher collected the data’ (still active) which, again, is about the person collecting the data.

And about the charge of being ‘elitist’ I would say no more than the English language is elitist. Let me repeat, data should be written about as if it is independent of the people doing the experiment. Science is and should be about the data and it is damn nigh impossible to write about data in the active voice because data don’t collect themselves. (N.B. Data is plural, unlike Data the Star Trek dude who is singular) Of course someone collects it and makes the figures for papers, but, again, science isn’t about the researchers, its about the data.

If you are a native English speaker I challenge you to speak only active English for the day. Or even write entirely in the active voice. In reality science papers, like most English writing is a hodge-podge of active and passive English.

Maybe advocates of the active voice in science writing really need to just teach scientists better English writing skills. I would argue that perhaps technical scientific papers are difficult to read because they are simply badly written regardless of voice.

November 4, 2010

US politics are not UK politics, don’t believe the hype!

and please PLEASE stop worrying about the stupid Tea Party.

I have spoken to several folks in the UK about the US election results. Varying between fear and bewilderment, its a general perception that US voters are crazy and that, on the whole, America is eroding via backlash against Obama into some neo-conservative nation. Given the recent stain of GW Bush this is somewhat understandable, but in reality the US has never been even close to becoming unilaterally neo-conservative, not even under W.

News about America in Britain is sensational, and appears to be designed to look for the crazies, who you will certainly find; but disregards the other half of the story. In this last election, there was extensive UK coverage of the ‘Tea Party movement’ – a quick Google search on ‘US Tea Party in UK news’ gives 5,000,000 hits, while there was relatively little coverage of the ‘Coffee party – return to rational politics – movement’ – a similar Google search gives only 300,000 hits.

The news organizations in Britain don’t give a fair assessment of the politics in America, largely because they seem to superimpose a UK political model on top of the US political system, which is in reality quite different. And this is really misleading, but probably news worthy as crazy Americans are more exciting than the moderate ones and to be fair the US is good at breeding crazy.

So here, in my opinion, are some of the reasons the mid-term elections in the US are not the end of rational politics in the US or as The Daily Mash put it on Twitter @thedailymash: ‘AMERICA EXERCISES RIGHT TO PUNCH ITSELF IN THE NUTS’ (happily retweeted by thousands)

1. The tea party scares the crap out of me too, but some won and some lost-

And important thing to remember here is that Republican does not equal Tory, and Republican does not often equal,
tea party or neo-conservative. There are many more moderate Republicans than ultra conservative ones – they are just not as exciting and don’t make the news in the UK.

2. A few ‘tea partiers’ won seats in the House of Representatives, seats which are 2 year terms. They may soon vanish. Most of the Republican seats won in the House were not ‘tea party’ candidates. Gaining a seat in the House does not necessarily gain you immediate power as such, the new GOP electees are junior. (N.B. the Republican ‘nickname’ GOP stands for the Grand Ole’ Party)

3. Being junior makes a difference in the US system. Lots of policy is done on the fly, through deals, being junior doesn’t help- especially if your party itself doesn’t like you. Many standard GOP party members are none too happy about the tea party.

4. There is not the same whipping system in the US legislative branch as there is in the UK parliament, much legislation occurs cross party lines, most of the committees in both House and the Senate are bi-partisan. Unlike the UK, the minority party has votes, they still make legislation, they aren’t a ‘shadow’ government. They participate actively in governing.

5. The US system is much, much more fluid than the UK system. In the UK a government is in charge because it won the most seats. In the US there are different branches of government (judicial, executive (presidency), legislative) they work in concert, not independently. Never forget the great balancing power of the courts in the US who actively turned over much of Bush legislation.

This doesn’t happen in Britain, in the UK the active government makes ALL of the decisions, they don’t work much across party lines. Because the US system does work this way many Americans believe different parties in executive and legislative branch is a GOOD thing, a balance leading to a more fair government. It’s not that uncommon in the US for someone to vote for a Democratic president and a Republican Senator. Americans tend to vote for the candidate not for the party. In America you vote for minimally a State Senator, a State Representative, a State Governor, 2 National Senators to, a National Representative and the President. In Britain you vote for one MP from one party who goes to Parliament – one.

Don’t get me wrong, I do love the UK – it’s my adopted country. There are so many things I like from the very simple -Bovril, clotted cream and the abundance of book stores (which actually contain good books); to the more complex and difficult to define – a cup of tea in a crisis, the gentleness when you are in real need – like of NHS nurses and the police, the tolerance of differences in cultures and people. Even if some one doesn’t like you in the UK they generally leave you alone.

I also love my native country, and I am more than a little miffed that even to say that near as dammit labels me as a neo-conservative, nutso Palinesque Republican, am I not allowed to love a place even though it pisses me off?

What I particularly love is the idea of America, which is ultimately a nation built almost solely on an idea, in that respect it is unlike any other place (no offense to the French). And it was, arguably, built upon a BRITISH idea, you could even consider it the ultimate product of British Enlightenment.

But the folks in the US and the UK are not really the same, not only in the way we speak but in the way we think and importantly VOTE! And you cannot transpose a model of one onto the other. So when reading about US politics in the UK in the words of Public Enemy: Don’t believe the hype!

October 27, 2010

Increased student fees are not the erosion of a welfare state

But rather an opportunity..
fee increases can be beneficial to both students AND universities if done the right way

Student fees are set to increase from around £3,290 to, maybe, as the Browne report recommended, up to £14,000….

So many people find this appalling, especially those who were educated in Britain for no personal expense (or even paid something by the state) back in the day. But that was then and this is now.

There are several arguments as to why the state SHOULD pay for higher education. One of them is that state funded education leads to a more equal social model, where access across all social classes, regardless of familial income, is dependent only on ability, without any bias towards the rich. There is a fear that introducing higher student fees will basically screw the poor, e.g. less well-off students will be able to afford a higher education regardless of their ability.

However, even in the current supposedly more equal higher education model, poorer students are still at a relative disadvantage. Even though there has been a recent increase in the number of poor students who attend university in the UK, there is still disproportionate number of wealthier students at UK Universities. Such as Oxford and Cambridge, who, according to the Guardian only accepts about 1% of the poorest students. This is due in a large part to the fact that those from poorer backgrounds don’t have the same secondary school opportunities as richer public school students. Able students don’t always have the opportunity to be educated in an appropriate manner to allow them to even get into university.

In the 1970’s a much smaller percentage of students even attended university than do today, a much smaller percentage. The increase in student numbers reflects an increase in opportunity across socio-economic classes but also reflects the lack of opportunity in other available employment. But the bottom line is that with increasing student numbers in higher education, someone has to pay for it and there is a limit to what any government can pay, however socially minded.

But I think that rather than being an entirely negative thing, student fees could mean hope for the future, if done correctly, increase the educational opportunities for poorer students

1 – higher student fees University could increase the money available to make secondary schools better leading to a better chance for students from poor backgrounds (who tend to live in poor compulsory school districts) to be competitive to attend university.

2 – a fee increase means that Universities have MORE money, and MORE money means (if managed correctly) more places for students. I recently attended a talk in Parliament by Ben Wildavsky of the Kauffman Foundation and author of the book The Great Brain Race who noted that the increase in student fees at University of California, LA (UCLA) has actually led to an increase in the number of students from poor background not a decrease.

As a side note increased ‘private’ money for Universities leads to a decrease of state control, so that on a whim the state can’t decide, as this current government has, to only fund STEM subjects and not the arts. Giving Universities more control of this decision, might redress the problem.

3 – If universities implement a smart financial model NOW, such as using microfinance model similar to Kiva, like the Vittana foundation or using scholarship programs that help those who can’t afford Universities easily, there could be more money available for those who need it the most.

I think rather than focusing on the negative effect for the money that the government is definitely NOT going to give to the Universities, we may – if we are careful about our financial models, create hope for the future with a better balance for the most able students attending the best Universities, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

October 5, 2010

Supernova – Chaco Canyon style

If you ever happen to find yourself in the USofA and in particular in Northern New Mexico go to Chaco Canyon. Its just cool. You might want to make sure you have a nice 4 wheel drive to get there so you don’t fishtail like crazy (think single track, sand and washboards) but go.

The Chacoans (a mixture of Hopi, Navajo and other tribes over the years) built this huge, well, city which was active between 850 and 1250 and you can still see the ruins from many of the large architectural structures.

And there is something for every kind of science geek out there

Geologists – its a big Cliff House Sandstone site, where you can observe geological time

Menefee formation

Fossil hunters – there are really cool sea creatures on top of the mesas some from the late Cretaceous period.

Chacoan sea fossils

Archeologists (it has 4000 registered sites)


And my favourite, these peoples were aware about astrophysics or astronomy or some version thereof – which is easy to see because there is NO light pollution – besides from other campers – and a big sky and you can clearly see the Milky Way even on a cloudy night!

Milky Way Chaco Poster

they even have a cool Supernova Petrograph which is thought to depict the 1054 Supernova

Supernova Petrograph

Such a great place and thankfully it is preserved for all of us to go to (provided we can get there) thanks to the US National Park Service (Department of the Interior) which like the analogous UK National Trust, is an institution that the US government does right!

September 19, 2010

Why is science important?

Filed under: random,science — sylviamclain @ 8:15 pm

Alom Shaha runs a webpage called
“Why is science important?”

where amongst other things, people, some scientists some not, give their veiws on why science is important.

I wrote something for this if you care to look

“Discoveries come in the most unexpected places”

Its a cool website, with good views, have a browse around

September 15, 2010

On being a ‘foot soldier’

Or cannon fodder speaking out.

In case you haven’t heard, science funding in the UK is under threat.
From Paul Nurse, who said we need to fund only ‘excellent’ science to Vince Cable who thinks 45% of research in the UK is not-excellent and we should be only funding either ‘excellent’ theoretical work or things that will make money (eg technological advances) its not looking good for science research in the UK.

Of course scientists and science aficionados are dismayed, angry and trying to fight for what they know science to be, and why it needs funding, all kinds of funding.

One of the arguments for funding says science needs ‘foot soldiers’ – where the argument goes a la Newton – that excellent science needs other science which is ‘boring’ to stand on. eg foot soldier scientists.

BUT I think this term should be used with caution, or maybe even not at all.

Foot soldier implies to me ‘cannon fodder’ and this is a bad image for several reasons:

1 – This implies that science is a pyramidal process with those on the bottom being weed-like and just doing the background work for those on the top. Science is not linear, nor that predictable. It grows and recedes in fits and starts and it not just simply marching forward toward a common goal or puzzle to solve. Technology works like this, but not science! Science looks for answers to questions, one paper, research project at at time. You often don’t know what the answer will be and the answers often open up a whole load of other questions and importantly – you NEVER KNOW where a breakthrough will come from over the long term. Lots of important discoveries were actually by accident – when someone was working on something completely different.

2- this term implies that the ‘excellent’ science is at the top and the ‘dull’ science is at the bottom. which calls into question what do you mean by ‘dull’ and ‘excellent’ ? Do you base it on citations? Do you base it on the quality of the Journal it is in? Most scientists have observed that some of the best papers aren’t in Nature, and are actually in more low-impact journals. And if you base this on citations, sometimes bad or wrong science is more highly-cited – because everyone is saying it is wrong. And different scientific fields have different citation levels, just due to the sheer number of people working in a given subject area. Simply put – quantity does not always equal quality.

An important test of scientific research is its longevity – something might be highly cited and highly ‘important’ in one generation of scientists – but then just a blip in the overall body of scientific research over time. What about the Luminiferous aether? And no one has a crystal ball that tells us the most important research in the future. Moreover, sometimes old ‘boring’ research gets revived when new discoveries are made in different areas – Lie Algebra is a good example of this.

As a side note, Cable said we should support theoretically excellent ideas, which I would agree with, but ONLY along with everything else. Theory is an important part of science, but its hard to say what is excellent until the theories are proved or disproved – and this again takes time.

This pyramidal model is exactly the idea that advocates of science are trying to argue against – that science is marching towards some big common goal, with the great people on top – it is but only in the sense that science answers questions and that is a pretty broad goal.

Maybe a better statement is ‘it takes all kinds’, though not as evocative, it actually is perhaps closer to the reality.

The research I do I am not doing so that someone more excellent than me can show up in the future and stand on it and thereby make it excellent. I would bet many other scientists feel this way as well. My research is striving towards its own excellence, whatever that means and maybe only in my mind, because I have some specific scientific questions I want to answer, and you never know, this may be a big breakthrough or it may be a blip in the aether.

September 9, 2010

On Cable, Dawkins and the Papal Visit

Filed under: papal visit,richard dawkins,Vince Cable — sylviamclain @ 5:36 pm
Tags: , ,

The uproar(s) seems to be largely a matter of tone…

Vince Cable, his remarks are condescending in general, speaking as if scientists are just a bunch of naughty school children who want more cake off the tax-payers dime. The tone is annoying, yes, but the results of that attitude will be even worse, more cuts (in case you forgot funding was also cut last year). Scientists are angry, nobody likes being talked to by their government as if they were just a bunch of lazy slackers sitting around drinking tea all day. If you really are trying to get scientists to do more with less, it might be better to be a little more understanding and re-invoke that Blitz spirit or even the Obama spirit of Yes We Can. You catch more flies with honey.

William CullerneBown has written a nice post on Exquisite Life about Cable and science reaction here.

And the arguments against Cable are largely a matter of TONE. His tone, and his attitude towards academic scientists.

There is another tone problem this week, Richard Dawkins, or rather another tone problem which is being discussed, I don’t think Prof. Dawkins tone has changed in the last 10 years. There have been several posts in the blog-o-sphere starting with Jonathon Jones, followed by a post today Alom Shaha about tone (both of Dicky D and of Jonathon Jones). And several other posts for instance by a member of the Cambridge Skeptics Andrew Holding. There are various arguments about Dawkins, but the theme of these, in part, is his tone.

But the other thing that comes to mind to me, speaking of Dawkins, is the hoopla about that papal visit.

Ok, so now there is a whole protest about the Pope, presumably because he knew all about abuse of children and didn’t do the right things. There are other human rights issues in there too, according to the protestors see the petition to Number 10.

What I am definitely NOT saying is that we shouln’t be appalled by rape, or any human rights abuses. And another thing I am NOT saying here, is I am not making any judgements on whether or not the Holy See is guilty, that is not the point of this post, and in all honesty I don’t know enough about human rights records in one country vs. another to really give a fair comment.

But there a couple of things about this protest that are just weird.

1 – Running a State means you have State visits, and the Papal visit isn’t any more expensive than any other State visit, and not that I know this but I bet a visit by Obama is even more expensive.

2- State visits don’t always entail representatives of States which have practices that you entirely agree with. For instance Prince Andrew is in China right now. China is a communist country, and uh democracies or even in this case a constitutional monarchy, and they don’t exactly see eye to eye about all sorts of issues, including human rights. Guantanamo Bay is a human rights violation, but George Bush still got to visit the UK, while he was president – without a petition to number 10.

Anyone, in the UK, does have the right to protest, and I can see why you would protest against human rights abuses BUT if its really about human rights – there are lots of state visits you could protest, where do you start? Do you stop State visits altogether?

3- I don’t think human rights abuses is solely the issue with this visit. And why do I think this? Because of the TONE. What its about is the fact that the Pope is religious leader and a State leader – and we know Dawkin’s position on Religion being the harbinger of immorality. So really this protest appears to be about about RELIGIOUS people doing bad things and not people just doing bad things.

And this is the part that really bothers me, why is it any WORSE because its the Pope? Human rights violations are human rights violations no matter who the perpertrator, full stop. Why pick the Pope? If you believe there is a leader who doesn’t protect against human rights violations, shouldn’t you be appalled equally, independent of that leader’s metaphysical belief system?

But maybe the real point – as Dawkins is a champion of atheism as an opposing force to religion, and given his tone about that subject – is that really he is appalled because there is a State visit by a religious leader, who hasn’t always done something he agrees with. The Pope does happen to be one of the few, relatively, State leaders who are also the head of a Religion.

But then again, so is the Queen.

September 1, 2010

On women in science

Filed under: science ethics,women,women in science — sylviamclain @ 10:44 am
Tags: ,

I am always in 2 minds about Women in Science. There is something about that title that reminds me of the Muppet Show and I can hear the announcement line sounding like ‘Pigs in Space’ – and it just sounds silly..

I am, after all, a woman in science though I haven’t really ever thought of myself as that. I don’t mean I think I am not a scientist (I am) and I am pretty clear that I am a woman, but those things don’t seem like they should be mutually exclusive to me. The term Woman in Science actually points out that that subject (women) in Science is something somehow different.

I have always thought, in my job why does (should) it matter that I am a woman? Other than I obviously use different washroom facilities. My position on this as a graduate student was a follows: I am training to be a scientist, and I am just as good (or bad) as the next guy or gal, I should be judged on my merits not on my reproductive equipment. So I was adamantly against participating in any society which highlights the fact I am different – I didn’t want to be a part of women in science groups, full stop, which to me seemed divisive and separates women even further from a male dominated profession.

It is true that women are under-represented in many sciences, especially the physical sciences, and they did not participate in professional science (except on the sly) until fairly recently. There are some pretty amazing stories about women who worked in science against all of the odds. There are amazing individual stories about Rosalind Franklin, Caroline Hershel and so many others that worked in science before they were really ‘allowed’ and yes it really was ‘allowed’.

And we love these stories! I do, they are great, and impressive. In the UK they love an underdog, and in the US they love the pioneer American dream spirit – against all odds! These amazing forerunners fought the system and won. Individually this is powerful stuff. But should you really have to fight against the odds just to have a job in science? And what about all of the women who probably fought the good fight and still failed, or had to give it up, or quit to have children (as a lot of people did, as it was “normal”) who knows about them? My mother (who is a social worker) always told me that if she had it to do all over again she would be a wildlife biologist, or a park ranger. But my mother was born in the 30’s in Southern US and as she said – that’s just the way it was, women were either nurse’s, teachers or social workers – so she didn’t even KNOW she had a choice, really.

And some of the women, I am sad to say, who have succeeded against all odds are the worst about repressing other women, just like some of the most conservative people about social equality are the very ones that could have used a leg up, simply because they themselves fought ‘against the odds’ and therefore think ‘why can’t everyone else?’

I really don’t want to be and hope I am not like that, not that I have a startling Nobel prize winning career, but I don’t want to be intolerant of people with different backgrounds (be they women or whatever under-represented portion of the population) who didn’t do what I did. No one’s life is the same. I also think by excluding people you cut your base, you necessarily limit what can be done, just like only funding the elite. And while —– (insert whatever under-represented group you like) aren’t ‘excluded’ in any formal sense these days, they may well be excluded in an unconscious manner, unconscious bias – and this can sting, and in some instances be so discouraging, people just think – forget it, I can’t (or don’t want to) deal with this.

I think about some of the things that have been said to me in my scientific career, for instance:

When I got my first independent fellowship from NSF, I was ultra-excited, and a senior (male) professor told me –
“You only got it because you are a woman” ?!?!

When I was on an interview panel with a male colleague who said (in response to a question I asked the candidate)
” She just thinks that because she is a woman”

Thankfully, these instances, at least in my career, have been rare. Most people don’t think or at least don’t say things like this.

So here is the two minds bit – bias still exists, and I truely believe that all people, regardless of race, gender, etc. should be encouraged not discouraged, so maybe a women in science group is the way to do this? But I still don’t want to be a member, because I don’t want to classify myself as different, but I think, as I didn’t used to think, there is a place for this, whether or not I want to participate myself.

So if you want to join a women in science (or whatever group) I have one thing to say –

you go girl!

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