SCIENTISTS RED IN TOOTH AND CLAW...
Ad Lagendijk, writing in Nature, yet again points to the human nature of scientists, and the alpha maleness prevelant even in the austere looking landscapes of scientific research. He also raises a point that should be read by those who are interested in the representation (or the lack thereof) of women in science, and not the pseudofeminists I mean.
Lagendijk rightly points out that the usual portraits of scientists as heroes making significant discoveries, depicted in interviews, short biographies, and biopics, are highly idealised. Closer to reality is a Darwinian struggle for making one's research known, with enough vituperative spitefulness, usually subtly hidden, to provide an admirable plot for Shakespeare. Tongue in cheek, Langdijk says,
"Recently, there has been a call for physicists to focus more on biology. But surely there is no further need for this; physics 'red in tooth and claw' is already dominated by biology, of the kind studied by Charles Darwin."
Landijk notes the clear-cut agressive territorial and self-aggrandizing nature that scientists display in conferences, journal articles, interviews, and referee reports. Many times, these displays are veiled, thinly or subtly, in the form of superior language skills and smooth (and loud) talk; a ploy to silence your 'opponent' ad hominem.
"A modest Japanese presenter does not stand a chance against a loud, American critic speaking in his, and modern science's, mother tongue. An offensive question asked at a conference by a streetwise, senior physicist of an overenthusiastic, junior Spanish scientist can be counted on to have the desired effect: a high-tempered, ultra-fast, absolutely unintelligible reply. 'Target neutralized' as they say in the military"
At the same time, English is the language of science, and always has been. And we should be happy for that. So having a minimum proficiency in the language is not just a need in scientific circles, but an extremely fair one. Of course, there is also a general decline in standards in the scientific community as far as language is concerned, and many journal authors seem remarkably adept at turning the simple into the complicated. But then, the general decline in language standards is a big and lamented topic of discussion in itself, and I believe that many people are just not taking the minimum pains to improve their language skills through simple and studied awareness. But let me keep that rant for another post...
I plead guilty to mulling over Langdijk's quips about PhD. students:
"Young, self-assured, male PhD students quickly learn the rules of the game. When confronted with a new research assignment, their response is not fascination or curiosity; rather their first question is whether they will be first author on resulting publications."
But fortunately for me, I am probably young, but still not self-assured. And if innocent curiosity is really the price one pays for self-assurance, then I wouldn't want to be self-assured anytime soon.
Frankly, I cannot see how the situation can get any better, with more researchers vying for fewer grants, and favouritism and political bias being rampant in most avenues of applied science. Maybe the one way out may simply be to be aware and keep a sane and cool head.
And lastly, it seems that science at least until now, has been undeniably a man's game, with the playing field and it's strictures decidedly established by men:
"Science has always been a man's world. The values and norms that control our disciplines were established by men. In physics there is an alarming lack of female participants; it would be tempting to claim that because of physicists' typically masculine power games the physics community is not an attractive option for female scientists."