The Stupidity of Science

The Stupidity of Science

I always find it interesting how there seems to be a societal expectation that if you get a PhD you will either become a University professor, or live in the world of research for the rest of your life. I’ve been asked why I continue to want to work for the government, all things considered. I don’t want to “work for the government”, at least not intrinsically. I do want to continue to work in the program that currently I work in, doing the things that I do. I care less about the government part and more about the specific work that I am involved in. There are a lot of people who want a government job, some perceive it as cushy, it’s not. There is never ending frustration based on limited budgets that can’t keep up with the needs of projects, but the people involved in those projects have a passion and a dedication to the work they do, and if I can contribute to that in some positive measure, then I am a success at what I do. And if at some point I can’t, then it will be time to look to new horizons.

There are those who think it’s odd that I landed where I did and didn’t pursue academia. There is often a perception that world is a bed of roses, they aren’t really aware of the thorns. Regardless of how fulfilling it is, it is a stressful world filled with constant pressure, with long hours that extend far beyond the office or the lab, work generally can’t be left at work. It is widely populated with extremely competitive personalities, and with those who would use, step on, or belittle others to improve their own standing and appearances. (see Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness) Most who exist there have found ways to compartmentalize, but it’s not a world for everyone.

I’m certainly not saying it’s all like that, and difficult personalities obviously exist in any environment. I was very lucky to have had the fortune to do my graduate work in a lab filled with wonderful people, many of whom I still consider my extended family today. But the rate of depression and anxiety within the academic world is high, although it tends to be hidden away; it is weakness and weakness is often seen as counterproductive to success in science circles.

A friend once asked me for advice, she was thinking about graduate school. I sent her the following:

Graduate Student Barbie

Graduate School Barbie comes in two forms: Delusional Master’s BarbieTM and Ph.D. Masochist BarbieTM.

Every Graduate School Barbie comes with these fun filled features guaranteed to delight and entertain for hours: Grad School Barbie comes out of the box with a big grin on her face that turns into a frown after 2 weeks or her first advisor meeting (whichever comes first). She also has adorable black circles under her delightfully bloodshot eyes.

Comes with two outfits: a grubby pair of blue jeans and 5 year old gap T-shirt, and a floppy pair of gray sweatpants with a matching “I hate my life” T-shirt. Grad School Barbie talks! Just press the button on her left hand and hear her say such upbeat grad school phrases like, “Yes, Professor, It’ll be done by tomorrow”, “I’d love to rewrite” and “Why didn’t I just get a job, I could have been making $40,000 a year by now if I had just started working with a Bachelor’s. But noooooo, I chose to further my education, I wish somebody would drop a bomb on the school so that I’d have an excuse to stop working on my degree that’s sucking every last drop of life force out of my withered and degraded excuse for a soul…” (9V lithium batteries sold separately)

Grad School Barbie is anatomically correct to teach kids about the exciting changes that come with pursuing a higher education. Removable panels on Barbie’s head and torso allow you to watch as her cerebellum fries to a crispy brown, her heart race 150 beats per minute, and her stomach lining gradually dissolves into nothing. Deluxe Barbie comes with specially designed eye ducts. Just add a little water, and watch Grad School Barbie burst into tears at random intervals. Fun for the whole family!

Other accessories include:

Grad School Barbie’s Fun FridgeTM Well stocked with microwave popcorn, Coca-Cola, Healthy Choice Bologna (99% fat free!),and a small bottle of Mattel Brand Rum™.

Grad School Barbie’s Medicine Cabinet comes in Fabulous (pepto-bismal) pink and contains Barbie sized bottles of Advil, St. Johns Wort, Zantac, and your choice of three fun anti-anxiety drugs! (Barbie Medicine Cabinet not available without a prescription).

Grad School Barbie’s Computer Workstation. Comes with miniature obsolete PC (in pink of course), rickety desk, and over a dozen miniature Mountain Dew cans to decorate your workstation with (Mountain Dew deposit not included in price. Tech support sold separately).

And Grad School Barbie is not alone! Order now and you’ll get two of Barbie’s great friends! GRADUATE ADVISOR KEN, Barbie’s mentor and advisor in her quest for knowledge, higher education and decreased self esteem.

Grad Advisor Ken™ comes with a supply of red pens and a permanent frown. Press the button to hear Grad Advisor Ken deliver such wisdom to Barbie as “I need an update on your progress,” “I don’t think you’re ready to defend yet”, and “This is no where near ready for publication.”

Buy 3 or more dolls, and you can have Barbie’s Thesis Committee! (Palm Pilot and tenure sold separately.)

REAL JOB SKIPPER, When Barbie needs to talk, she knows that she can always count on her good friend Real Job Skipper™, who got a job after getting her bachelor degree. Press the button to hear Real Job Skipper say, “Sometimes I wish I went for my masters degree” and “Work is so hard! I had to work a half an hour of overtime!” Real Job Skipper’s Work Wardrobe and Savings account sold separately.

WARNING: Do not place Grad Student Barbie and Real Job Skipper too close to each other, as there have been several cases of children leaving the room and coming back to find Barbie’s hands mysteriously fused to Skipper’s throat.

A book was recently published that contained advice for graduate students. The title is 57 Ways to Screw up in Grad School: Perverse Professional Lessons for Graduate Students. While I can’t claim to have read it, I have read some excerpts and a few reviews, and it’s an interesting look down the rabbit hole. The work assumes that all PhD students have a choice in everything about their degree, it lays the blame for failures on the student.

Students aren’t trained in navigating the world of academia and, as a result, many simply fall out of the system. These aren’t idiots who should not have been granted entry, they are intelligent people who were failed by a cruel system. The system rarely seeks to empower students and raise them to their full potential, because there are fragile egos at higher levels, egos that have a need to retain their position of power and put those struggling up the ranks through hell.

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In one of my most disheartening failures I received an email from the individual who had been at the heart of what sent me into a six-month black hole of depression I didn’t ever think I’d manage to crawl out of. The email said “I’m sorry that you weren’t successful. When I was applying for _____ I was treated the same way by someone else…..”

So that made it acceptable to pass on the same behaviour I suppose, in his mind anyway.

That was probably the final of the moments that coalesced into the decision that academia was not a world I wanted to pursue. Regardless of the potential rewards, I didn’t need to be surrounded by that, and I closed that door permanently and solidly.

I am happy to keep a peripheral association, but one in which I am not faced with that hamster wheel.

Clearly I am generalizing. It’s not all like this. There are bright spots and wonderful research groups filled with well adjusted people, full of good energy, and not (yet) jaded by a somewhat dysfunctional system. Like I mentioned, I was fortunate to have spent most of my years inside a wonderful lab, surrounded by wonderful people, many of whom I count as extended family still today. Even with the politics and stress that I was exposed to, I was lucky as, I think, were most of my labmates.

I’ve been told by managers in my current program that “I seem like

[their] biggest flight risk.” One manager has even forwarded me job postings outside the Department that he felt would provide better future prospects “more worthy of my skills”. How’s that for a demoralized work environment? I had to go ask him if he was sending me another message, but no, there was no hidden agenda, it was that he didn’t understand why I was there when I could be somewhere else. Given the previous government, I suppose I understand the confusion. In recent years there was, what seemed like, a conscious effort to reduce knowledge, to stifle the furthering of scientific investigation. But the pendulum tends to swing far one direction and then eventually shifts and finds its way back. Too bad it never comes to rest in the middle for long.

I gave a couple of guest lectures at my alma mater recently, I always feel like I come home when I get to speak there. But I say that with some irony. Home-comings aren’t always perfect, the past isn’t always shiny. We tend to gloss over the dark parts, the difficult times, and we hang our hats on the happy memories.

I had a class of interested students, fresh young minds, just one term away from graduation and future prospects. They were full of really good questions. One of them had scheduled time with me to talk about ideas for a Masters proposal to NSERC, another caught me before I left and we had the same discussion.

When I walked around my old faculty building and then headed off campus I couldn’t help but shudder a bit. Yes, there are wonderful memories of questions asked, puzzles puzzled over, experiments designed, challenges overcome, and friendships built.

But there are also darker memories. Fear of failure, sleepless nights, experiments gone horribly awry, horrible self doubts…“What am I doing here, I’m stupid, they’ll find that out eventually…” It didn’t matter that I’d graduated with Honour’s from my BSc. They had to have made a mistake somewhere along the way, I’d cheated the system somehow in getting through successfully. At least that’s what I’d thought.

I wasn’t alone in these self doubts, but it always felt that way.

I often joke that I survived Grad School. It’s not really a joke though.

There’s an awful cost to getting a PhD that no one talks about….

“….PhD students often suffer from imposter syndrome. I felt as if I’d gotten this far in my academic career by fluke, and that the top grades I’d received during my undergraduate and master’s studies had been an administrative mistake.”

I was no different. When I finished all three of my degrees, I looked at the framed papers with loathing, and threw them into a box and lost them in the depths of our storage locker for almost ten years. A year or two ago I dragged them out and started thinking about all of this again. I dusted them off, and spent some time considering all that they represented, gains and losses. I didn’t know what else to do with them, we’d moved to a new home and I really didn’t have a wall for them, so I took them to work and stuck them up on my wall there. I’m forced to see them every day now, and they are growing on me, slowly. There are others who have waved at them and called me smart (oh if they only knew how wrong they are), and I think they hold more gloss for others than they really do for me.

To me they represent something different now.

They represent effort, fortitude, and the drive to conquer obstacles. They represent the ability ask questions, even when they might be stupid questions. They show that I have (or had, anyway) the willingness to pursue ideas, even when they may lead down dead ends, and that I was able to turn around, go back, and find a new path to follow.

I guess they represent persistence.

Resilience.

If you can muster the endurance to survive three degrees and finish the final one with a supervisor in absentia, you definitely have resilience to manage pretty much anything life throws at you down the road, and deal with it straight on. Below, that was me, and a couple of labmates. That was a pretty big pothole in the road to our degrees. But we managed.

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I have a doctorate. Big deal. Anyone can do one if they really want to. They just have to be prepared for all the failures that are going to accompany it.

Failure is a huge part of science. Failure, rejection, humiliation. It sounds awful, but it takes courage to face failure and learn from it; failure is inevitable in academic life but wasting it is not. Failure, if approached from the right angle, will improve us. From our earliest days we are taught to view our performance as the end product of our characteristics and that affords self-esteem to many high-achieving future academics during their school years. But when we reach adulthood, failure can make us doubt if we are good enough and wonder why others seem to better. Successful people fail, but because failure seems to equate to shame, we often choose to spin it. A review in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that up to 40% of research studies with negative results are spun into positive findings. (A negative result is still a result and usually worth reporting for the benefit of other researchers working on similar projects elsewhere in the world.)

Academics naturally want to appear to be experts, but being seen to be successful is often considered more important than being seen to learn from failure.

I recently came across a paper in the Journal of Cell Science, and it’s the possibly the best thing I’ve ever read in that particular journal. In 2008, the journal published an essay by a Martin Schwartz; Dr. Schwartz is a Professor of Medicine (Cardiology) and Professor of Biomedical Engineering and of Cell Biology at the Yale Cardiovascular Research Center in the Yale School of Medicine. His essay was titled The importance of stupidity in scientific research.”

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Given that most of his research papers carry titles like “Integrin agonists as adjuvants in chemotherapy for melanoma”, you might be forgiven for thinking I got my authors mixed up.

But I didn’t.

Many people outside of academia assume that those inside it are brilliant. In reality, they are just more willing to accept their stupidity, and investigate it, and follow what often seem like inane or ridiculous lines of questioning. Without that willful stupidity, many great things would never have been discovered.

Humans are so prone to wanting to appear intelligent that we are terrified to not know something. So many are unwilling to utter the phrase “I don’t know”.

And that’s much of what sets a scientist apart. There is an inherent curiosity borne of a lack of knowing something.

The essay that Dr. Schwartz wrote follows this line of thinking.

“I recently saw an old friend for the first time in many years. We had been Ph.D. students at the same time, both studying science, although in different areas. She later dropped out of graduate school,  went to Harvard Law School and is now a senior lawyer for a major environmental organization. At some point, the conversation turned to why she had left graduate school. To my utter astonishment, she said it was because it made her feel stupid. After a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.”

That isn’t an isolated case. I recently met a woman who has both a BSc and an MSc is biology…and she left science because she felt it was too hard…and she went….into law also. She’s way up there now, and she still says science was too difficult for her. I can’t even fathom going into law, that seems way harder to me. But I completely understood where she was coming from, and we all see the world a little differently, and we all think differently.

There are people who I know and who I do honestly wonder why (and how) they hold the job they do. Clearly they are ill equipped, clearly they don’t have the background knowledge to do what they need to do, but more importantly, they aren’t aware of their shortcomings and are blindly bungling along unaware of their ignorance. They think they are smart, they can’t see their own stupidity, and they are terrified of appearing ignorant of what they are working on. In their ignorance, they reject evidence based knowledge when it doesn’t dovetail with their own opinion. They won’t reassess their position based on new information. They aren’t “productively stupid”.

“Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. …. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help…. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.”

When I graduated from high school, I was rather confident that I knew everything.

When I finished my BSc, I wavered a little, but still thought I was pretty smart, I’d received that degree with Honours you know. <felt pretty smug back then>

When I finished my MSc, the shell was cracking. How the heck did they get it so wrong, how did someone mistakenly give me that degree with honours? Somehow I had fooled them again!?! They didn’t see how stupid I really was! I went for a beer with my Industrial Research Supervisor and we talked about the process and he gave me the best compliment I received after I successfully defended my MSc thesis: He sid that although my work was solid, my defence was well done, and my thesis was very well written, that, in his mind, my strongest trait during the process was that I “…did well at admitting when [I] didn’t know the answer, and equally well at following through with reasonable and logical guesses based on what [I] do know.” This was a revelation.

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By the time I completed my PhD, I’d come to terms with my lack of knowledge, though I still felt like a fraud, as so many others do. Just Google Imposter Syndrome! I excelled at blowing off any successes I ever had, anything I achieved, no matter how difficult, I couldn’t internalize it or appreciate it.

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Regardless, when I completed that degree, I finally realized that I was the world expert on my teeny tiny little thimble of research, regardless of where that sat in comparison to the wide world of experimental investigation past, present, and future. I realized that the gift I had been given, the thing I’d learned, was that I had the capacity to learn, the capacity to think critically, the ability to know what I did not know, to appreciate that lack of knowledge, and to be able to use those skills, and others, to be a skeptic and to be productively stupid.

Science isn’t stupid, and even the stupidest seeming science isn’t really stupid. It’s forward motion adding to the knowledge base. And sometimes it may take decades, but what seems like a stupid line of investigation may provide that nugget of information that can break open a discovery many years later.

I’m long out of graduate school, my degrees are far behind me. I love that I had an opportunity to be a scientist for awhile. I survived graduate school, and for all the bumps in the road, don’t regret it for a moment. I never look back at it and think my time could have been better spent, it couldn’t. I’m glad I pursued my degrees and they hold value to me. It was a luxury to be able to take that time out of my life to follow some lines of curiosity and immerse myself in a narrow field for those years. I’m still making use of the things I learned, the skills I gained, and the contacts I made.

Science, sure it’s often stupid, just like everyone doing it, but that’s what makes it so friggin’ awesome!

Without those with the fortitude to follow lines of stupidity and ignore those who try to dissuade us from that path,  we’d still be stumbling around in the Dark Ages.

For every answer that science provides, it creates ten more questions.

That’s why I love science so much.

But geez, grad school could be a little kinder. I survived, but I feel for those entering into that world. It’s a rough ride.


References:

SAS Confidential (http://sasconfidential.com) – SAS Confidential is a blog on faculty issues, graduate education, and social media by the creator of @AcademicsSay.

 

Schwartz, M.A. 2008.  The Importance of Stupidity in Science. Journal of Cell Science. 121: 1771 (http://jcs.biologists.org/content/121/11/1771)

Walker, J.  2015. There’s an awful cost to getting a PhD that no one talks about. Quartz, November 12, 2015. (http://qz.com/547641/theres-an-awful-cost-to-getting-a-phd-that-no-one-talks-about/)

PhD – Piled Higher and Deeper (http://phdcomics.com/about.php) –  Piled Higher and Deeper is a comic strip about life (or the lack thereof) in academia. Jorge Cham got his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, and was a full-time Instructor and researcher at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) from 2003-2005.

Shit Academics Say (https://www.facebook.com/academicssay/) – A Facebook page maintained by the author of SAS (above)

Shit My Reviewers Say (https://twitter.com/YourPaperSucks) – A Twitter feed collecting and presenting the finest real specimens of reviewer comments since 1456.

January 22nd, 2016|Just Thinking|4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Maureen Ritter January 22, 2016 at 8:50 pm - Reply

    whoa! time to go play with some fish?! and relax?! picking alevins will do it 🙂 nothing cuter than those little babies!!! and always trust you are on the path you are meant to be on!

  2. Lanza Romanza January 24, 2016 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    Well written. My daughter gets her Bachelors in May and is thinking of a Masters. I’ll forward your essay. I’m sure she’ll enjoy.

    • The Philosophical Fish January 24, 2016 at 4:35 pm - Reply

      It’s a tough slog, but one that everyone really should go into with eyes wide open. One of my labmates used to joke (not really) that one could do a PhD on doing a PhD. I’m sure someone has already done it though 😉

  3. Awssome post.

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