Wednesday, November 23, 2005

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."

4 Comments:

Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

HI Ashu,

I would be interested in reading the article. Can you send it at vkg378@gmail.com.

Thanks.

8:31 PM  
Blogger Hirak said...

Nice link! I read the article and Ad Lagendjik has touched on a topic that most scientists wouldn't want to hear being discussed in the open. Not that science has any dearth of problems already with communicating 'scientific ideas' with the public at large.
The infighting and the aggressiveness of scientists is prominently on display at conferences and grant hearings. To re-use the same phrase not so much 'red in tooth and claw' but there is some atmosphere of combat. This might not quite be the 'noble' atmosphere that I wished to find myself in, however the fact remains that grants, funding and opportunities are hard to come by and you have to be adept at grantsmanship, networking, publishing enough and 'being seen' at conferences. As the halls of science get more and more crowded there seems there some sort of 'survival of the fittest' policy at work.
Personally, I do believe the 'good' science does triumph and I have noticed that there is genuine respect for the 'sages of science' who seem to be above the common crowd. I think you should give it to scientists that they can easily distinguish the difference between the ones with genuine ability and the oness with more bombast than real talent.

2:08 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Yes, there is genuine respect for the sages of science. But unfortunately, even the sages are known to many times use their sagacity as an excuse for arrogance and elitism. That is one reason I believe why Einstein gained respect beyond the usual norms; not just for his brilliance but more so for the accompanying remarkably unassuming and kind nature.

3:10 PM  
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4:41 AM  

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