Are scientists “regular” people?

OK, “what the hell kind of question is that?” would be a legitimate response.  I mean what exactly is a “regular” person anyway?  What I’m wondering here is whether scientists on the whole tend to have the same sorts of concerns, attitudes, aptitudes, maturities, groundings, backgrounds, predilections, and similar descriptors of human nature, as do non-scientists.  It seems to me that people in different occupations often have certain distinguishing personality traits, but these kinds of questions are typically trickier than might first appear.  As baseball manager Tony LaRussa once astutely said “There’s a lot of stuff goes on”. Gotta be careful when assessing human beings.

I’m thinking of a discussion I had with a friend a few years ago, a faculty member at the University of Toledo.  I told him that I wondered whether there was an over-abundance of poorly grounded (read: immature) people in science, and asked him what he thought.  Without hesitation he agreed that there was, and he is not one to say things he doesn’t mean.  I thought he might hem and haw on it, or say it was too hard to generalize or something like that, but instead he was unequivocal about it.  I respect him, and his direct answer was important to me.  I realized also that he’s figured out how to deal with it somehow, or he wouldn’t have the tenured position he does.  As for me, I’ve had some negative experiences with certain academics, and maybe it’s affected my objectivity, I don’t know.  There are boatloads of scientists in the world, so sampling bias is always a definite possibility.

When I was studying molecular biology a professor once told me that he had to become an academic, it was the only thing he knew how to do, which struck me as really strange.  I wonder how true that is generally, and my feeling now is, it is.  It strikes me that a lot of these people would not know what to do outside of academia, or at least wouldn’t fit in very well.  I suppose that’s not a huge deal in and of itself, because in all occupations you could arguably find the same thing to be the case.  Most people do what suits them, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.  Not good to jam square pegs into round holes.  On the other hand, how can it be that somebody feels there’s only one kind of thing they can do with their lives?

One issue, which probably bothers me more than any other, is the problem of arrogance.  Frankly, a lot of academics are just flat out arrogant, and not particularly aware of it either.  Arrogance is not good.  It is essentially a superiority complex, a separation from those considered inferior.  There is no need for it, and indeed its expression is in fact often symptomatic of an underlying inferiority complex.  It often presents as self-righteousness, and there is a constant need to keep up a front on various levels, so that it’s clear who’s really in the right.

At an occupation-wide level, one way that arrogance is expressed is through the scientific literature.  Let’s be honest OK?  A big part of the scientific literature is about presenting an image of technical superiority and “offical-ness” beyond what is actually needed to get the job done.  Please don’t get me wrong on this.  I’m well aware that much of science has to be technical, and it is often also abstract in direct proportion to how sophisticated the quantitative methods are.  I am after all, a scientist myself.  There are parts of many papers that are going to be at such a high level that only those with highly specialized knowledge are going to be able to understand them.  Not a problem. However…

That fact does not by itself excuse a general literature tendency to use unnecessarily complex or unclear terminology under the supposed need for a highly technical lexicon and discussion.  That doesn’t wash fully. All sciences have a technical lexicon.  The point is that, no matter how technical your work, you need to be able to explain the gist of it in very simple, common and unambiguous terms, as in, to your mother.  There are very few concepts that are so difficult to conceptualize that they can’t be explained in such terms, and indeed one main point of education is finding ways to present unfamiliar information in ways that the human mind can relate to, based on concepts and terms it already does understand.  If you can’t do that, then you aren’t trying or don’t know how, and are likely playing the scientific jargon game, consciously or not.  Perhaps you just never paid attention in composition class, which may in fact explain a lot of this.

The peer reviewed literature is extremely formalized and this formalization serves more than one purpose.  One must follow pretty strict rules if one wants one’s work published.  Papers have to be organized and presented in very specific ways, and a big part of that presentation is a kind of stilted over-technicality: it has to sound sufficiently “sciencey”.  Don’t use colloquial phrases or figures of speech for God’s sake, whatever you do, that’ll bring out the howitzers fast.  And if you have something scientifically controversial to say, well that could upset somebody, so make damn sure that you take at least three times as much word space as you actually need to say it, so that you can couch it in plenty of caveats and conditionals, to lessen the chance that somebody might think you’re saying directly what you actually mean.  Think of those extra words as shock absorbers.  We cannot have people getting upset because we’ve challenged a sacred cow.  Good God brother, for the sake of the academy and all that is reasonable and decent, weasel around that somehow.

Also, always make sure that your discussion is sufficiently technical, such that the time and effort involved in understanding that stuff will keep those who do not in fact really understand the issue(s), distracted from the critical fact that you have failed to address much more fundamental issues that make or break your entire thesis, regardless of the supposed sophistication and novelty of your methods.  Do not spend a lot of time on old “issues”, we’ve moved way past such issues long ago, we’re in the 21st century now.  Just say “we used well-established analytical methods” and throw in a few sufficiently technical sentences, to allay the suspicious and satisfy the reviewers, peppered with say three to twelve references to validate that everything you did was entirely kosher.  On the slight chance that maybe it wasn’t, well there are at least three to twelve others who weren’t perhaps fully kosher either, so why you lookin’ at us?  You should focus on tracking down why those people are wrong.  Can we all just please move on here, there are new and exciting things to discover; flawed works (which again, ours is not) promote “productive discussion and theorizing”, which is more important than actually getting things “right” or whatever is it you’re all hung up about.  Right-ness is a very over-rated concept (although again, we are very likely right in our analyses), there is a lot of uncertainty in the data, and science is never 100% perfect, so get over it already.

Also, we are only representing the scientific consensus (which YOU are challenging: onus therefore on you, not us).  And as we all know, consensus results from the filtering effect of the scientific method over time, which always leads to “broadly correct conclusions” in very much the same way that a drunk veers a bit and occasionally goes off the road, but usually makes it home just fine if he doesn’t kill himself or somebody else.  In former times there was no real consensus, because well, everything was all still being worked out back then, and there were lots of drunks frankly, but the consensus view now is that those problems were resolved long ago and it’s time to move on.

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One thought on “Are scientists “regular” people?

  1. Pingback: Picks, it’s friday! | Seeds Aside

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