In the interests of transparency…

A couple of weeks back there was a damning piece in The Guardian on the ever-expanding culture of casual contracts in academia. The University of Nottingham unfortunately featured heavily. Here’s a key quote from the article. (Greg is not the real name of the academic in question).

Over time, [Greg] took on more work: one day of teaching at Nottingham and another at a rival university. These were casual contracts: short-term, and paying him only by the hour. As such, they offered more experience than income. So he also did some gardening and, where possible, wrote for a local newspaper.

He was pulling five jobs, working up to 70 hours a week. And he was still only making £22,000 to £23,000 a year before tax – below the national average. 

According to The Guardian article (which cites, and I quote, “official figures”), 45% of all staff at the University of Nottingham involved in teaching, or teaching and research, count as casual labour. This is, The Guardian claims, comparable to the national situation where somewhat over half of all academics are on casual contracts. The University of Nottingham has challenged the statistics in The Guardian article. And the UoN branch of the University and College Union (UCU) has in turn challenged the response from UoN management.

I’ve written previously about the intense competition that exists for lecturing positions. (As I tell the PhD and postdoctoral researchers in the group here, I know that what I had in terms of academic “outputs” to secure a lectureship at Nottingham back in 1997 wouldn’t even get me within sniffing distance of a short-list today). This competitive pressure underpins the growing casualisation of staff in the ways described by The Guardian. As a colleague here at Nottingham put it (in one of many letters responding to that article),

How ironic that you should publish Nicholas Maxwell’s plea (Letters, 17 November) for universities to engage in intelligent public education on the same day that you reveal sector-wide exploitation of academic employees. Our generously remunerated vice-chancellors have already high-tailed it in the opposite direction, content to undermine intellectual standards while easing many young adults towards unrecoverable debt.

Peter Shaw
Professor of biochemistry, University of Nottingham

I meant to write a post about that Guardian exposé long before now but I’ve been up to my ears with teaching, admin, reviewing (and, very occasionally, research) commitments so the blog has had to to take a back seat. In any case, many others, particularly in that lengthy series of letters, have said just about everything I wanted to say. What I instead want to focus on here is the flip-side of the casualisation coin: the extent to which the working patterns of permanent academic staff, and, equally importantly, their non-academic colleagues, are under-estimated, under-reported, and too often under-valued.

Last week was the first “session” for what’s known as the Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC), an annual survey of just how academics spend their time. Various schools are selected each year and their staff asked to complete a record of the number of hours spent on different activities: teaching, research, “other income generating activities”, “support general”, and “sickness”.  This involves filling out a timesheet of activities split into those categories.

So what’s wrong with that, you might ask? Feeding back an accurate record of academic work patterns to the funding bodies must surely be a useful exercise to help inform and assess spending commitments. Isn’t that a laudably transparent approach? The problem is that it’s not the raw data on the hours spent on these activities that are returned. Instead, the percentage of time on research vs teaching vs admin is returned by the university to HEFCE. The TRAC methodology, along with the research councils’ grant application processes, assumes a 37.5 hour working week (and a 44 week working year). That strikes me as an approach that’s not entirely lacking in opacity.

In the interests of full transparency, therefore, I thought I’d keep a diary of just how I spent my time during Week 1 of the TRAC 2016-2017 survey. Here we go…


Monday November 21 2016

05:30 – 06:15 Finish off reviewing paper that has been on my “To Do” list for three weeks. Second reminder from the editor to submit the review arrived yesterday.

06:30 – 07:15 Having logged in to e-mail to find link to submit review of paper, check e-mails. Check over proofs of recent paper to be published in Nanotechnology. Read proofs of new undergraduate prospectus and note suggestions for changes.

08:00 Office. Check e-mail. Send quick response to colleague re. seminar (see below) and answer questions from students re. coursework for Year 4 module.

08:30 Meet up with invited speaker for the F34PPP module at the campus hotel.

09:00 Seminar by invited speaker for F34PPP module.

10:15 Coffee with invited speaker. Discuss organisation of workshop planned for next year.

11:00 More e-mails. Check UCAS statistics for undergraduate applications. Meet (very) briefly with PhD student to discuss research progress.

12:00 Lunch with visiting seminar speaker.

13:00 Undergraduate admissions meeting. (I’m UG admissions tutor).

14:00 Walk visiting seminar speaker back to hotel. Respond to e-mails when I get back to office.

15:00 School Operations Group meeting.

16:00 Meeting with PhD student and postdoctoral researcher. Visit lab. to see what’s happening.

16:30 Meeting with PhD student.

17:00 Notice that speaker’s camera tripod has been left in my office. Bring tripod back to hotel. (Not quite certain as to which TRAC category is most appropriate here…).

19:00 Another hour of e-mails before getting my son ready for bed.


Tuesday November 22 2016

05:00 – 06:00 Write 500 words of popular science book I’ve been working on over the last year. Deadline: January 2017 (gulp). Again, not quite certain as to which TRAC category this falls under (if any). Is it impact or not?

06:00 – 07:00 E-mails. Again. Handle questions related to our 1st year undergraduate scholarships and other admissions-related enquiries. Send e-mail to 1st year lab organiser to apologise that my report marking is most likely going to be late.

08:30 — 11:30 Travel to Bury (beside Manchester) for a visit to Holy Cross School to talk about career opportunities in physics, and how to apply for physics degrees. Spent majority of time on trains marking 1st year lab reports and answering e-mails. (Also take time to check comments on a YouTube video I uploaded recently. Never a good idea…)

11:30 – 14:30 Visit to Holy Cross School. Lunch with Head of Physics.

14:30 – 18:00 Trains back to Nottingham. More 1st year lab report marking. Write “Comma splice. You need a full stop here” more times than I’ll ever care to remember. More e-mails. Lots of correspondence re. tomorrow’s UCAS visit day. E-mail informing me that new sample holder has fallen in the bottom of the ultrahigh vacuum chamber. Sigh.


Wednesday November 23 2016

05:00 – 06:00 A few hundred more words for the pop. sci. book. Best part of the working day. (Still don’t know whether this is TRAC-able, however).

06:00 – 07:00 Draft letter related to admissions.

09:15 – 10:45 Flurry of e-mails and informal meetings related to first UCAS visit day of the season. Mark one more lab report in “gaps”.

11:15 – 12:00 Visit lab to chat with PhD and postdoc researchers. More e-mails.

12:00 – 15:45 UCAS visit day (includes lunch with parents of applicants)

16:00 Brief meeting with PhD student.

16:15 E-mails: budget management on an EU grant and a reference for an alumnus of the group.

17:00 – 17:40 Skype conversation with mature student thinking of applying for physics degree course.

21:00 – 22:00 Spend a little time working on a manuscript that has been in “gestation” for far too long.


Thursday November 24 2016

06:00 – 07:30 Too far behind on lab marking (deadline today). Forgo spending time writing book to mark lab reports.

09:00 – 12:00 Normally this should be my 1st year lab demonstrating session. Due to admissions activity this week (and previous weeks), this session is being covered by a colleague. Spent time marking 1st year lab reports instead (and, of course, the mandatory e-mailing activity in “parallel”).

12:00 – 13:30  Lunch with colleagues (and an alumnus of the group who is visiting UoN today).

13:30 – 14:00 E-mails.

14:00 Meeting with 3rd year project students.

14:30 Meeting with tutee interested in possibility of summer internship in nanoscience group. Brief tour of labs.

15:00 – 18:00 Lab report marking.

21:00 Not feeling too well…


Friday November 25 2016

05:00 E-mail colleagues and tutees to say that I am not going to be in today due to illness — not been a good night. Tutorial scheduled for 15:00 today cancelled.

14:00 Still feeling queasy but rather better than twelve hours earlier. Start marking again.

19:00 Five hours’ marking completed (with periodic tea breaks).  


Saturday November 26 2016

06:30 – 10:00 Lab report marking.

15:00 -17:30 Lab report marking.

19:00 – 20:30 Lab report marking. (Almost infinitely preferable to Strictly…, which rest of family is watching).


Sunday November 27 2016

06:00 – 7:30 Lab report marking.

08:45 – 09:45 Lab report marking during my daughter’s ice skating lesson.

18:00 – 19:0021:30 – 23:30 Lab report marking


 

That’s 57 hrs, give or take the odd tea break. Note the lack of any type of hands-on research save for one hour spent on a paper. I am not griping in any way that the total number of hours is rather larger than the nominal HEFCE/RCUK 37.5 hr working week. Moreover, my hours are entirely in line with those of many of my colleagues (and, indeed, are a distinct improvement on the 80 hr weeks many early career academics work. When they start their lectureship they need to set up their research group, deal with a new world of administration, and often teach in parallel. (Many departments, however, set a minimal or reduced amount of teaching for the first few years of a lectureship.)

I enjoy my job. (Well, OK, let’s be honest, I can’t put hand on heart and say I always enjoy marking lab reports. But even marking has its upsides. I think…). And at least some aspects of the job remain effectively a hobby. The hours totted up above aren’t a problem; there are many people who work much longer hours in much more stressful jobs. (I’m not a junior medical doctor, for example). The thing that grinds my gears, however, is that a process which goes by the name of the Transparent Approach to Costing is anything but transparent.

Universities rely a great deal on the good will of staff (at all levels), lecturers’ love of their subject, and the willingness to do the best we can for our students. Yet as higher education becomes ever more corporate, university management reduces academics and teachers, the lifeblood of the university, to simplistic metrics and numbers on spreadsheets. They no longer connect with those working at the chalk-face and are too often cosseted away from the rank-and-file of academia. This not only demoralises staff but does a disservice to the students who pay a great deal of money to be taught by academics who would like to feel rather more valued by their institution.


Hard-Wired To Sleepwalk

Underwhelmed.

Again.

That’s my reaction to the new Metallica album, released on Friday. It’s not a snap judgement — I’ve listened to Hardwired To Self-Destruct four times over now and tried my utmost to give it a chance. Hardwired… has its moments of spark and originality, where the band fire on at least a couple of cylinders, but those are lost in a sea of pedestrian riffing and uninspired vocals that the Metallica who recorded Master Of Puppets, …And Justice For All, and Metallica (aka The Black Album) would have left on the cutting room floor.

Master Of Puppets is in my top ten albums of all time; I  still listen to it on an almost weekly basis. It’s a classic that set the bar for so many other bands because it represented an innovative coupling of huge riffs, aggressive-yet-melodic vocals, intelligent arrangements, and, yes, memorable, off-kilter drum patterns. (Lars Ulrich gets a lot of flak for his drumming these days — often deservedly so — but his work on MOP, …AJFA, and Metallica is very often inspired. Take a listen to what he does on the opening to Harvester Of Sorrow  (from …AJFA). Or revisit those iconic double bass drum sextuplets in One.)

I realise that the Metallica of today is not the Metallica of 1986. I’m not expecting them to reproduce the output from those halcyon thrash metal days. But instead of evolving, instead of continuing to set the bar when it comes to intelligent metal music, they’ve been trying to recapture past glories for decades now. Dom Lawson, a fine writer with a deep knowledge of the metal genre, kicks off his review of the album for The Guardian as follows: “Metallica have just made their finest record in 25 years”. True. And that’s precisely the problem. Metallica’s output since their eponymous, multi-platinum, stadium-slaying opus in 1991 has been almost continuously sub-par, and that’s even excluding the abominations that were the Lulu album and Some Kind Of Monster (although the latter at least rivaled Spinal Tap in terms of (unintentional) comedy value).

The worst thing about Hardwired…  is that much of it sounds like it could have been recorded by any one of the slew of second division thrash metal bands that trailed in Metallica’s wake back in the eighties and early nineties. Vocals that didn’t quite hit the Hetfield heights (and depths), riffs that lacked the punch to the gut of a Battery, a Sad But Trueor a Creeping Death, lyrics that were hurriedly written on the back of a fag packet during a lengthy liquid lunch down the local — all said and done, a poor facsimile of the masterful Metallica sound.


“Ignorance and prejudice and fear walk hand in hand…”

They say there are strangers who threaten us
In our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness too dangerous
In our theaters and bookstore shelves
That those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves

Quick to judge
Quick to anger
Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice
And fear walk hand in hand…

From Witch Hunt, Rush. Part III of Fear.

Track 6 of Moving Pictures. Lyrics: Neil Elwood Peart.

© Copyright with Lyrics © Ole Media Management.

 

 


“The Natural Order of Things?” Revisited: Nature, Nurture, and Nattering with Noel*

“But as an explanation for natural form, natural selection is not entirely satisfying. Not because it is wrong, but because it says nothing about mechanism. In science, there are several different kinds of answer to many questions. It is like asking how a car gets from London to Edinburgh. One answer might be `Because I got in, switched on the engine, and drove’. That is not so much an explanation as a narrative, and natural selection is a bit like that–a narrative of evolution.

An engineer might offer a different scenario: the car got to Edinburgh because the chemical energy of the petrol was converted to kinetic energy of the vehicle (not to mention a fair amount of heat and acoustic energy). This too is a correct answer, but it will be a bit abstract and vague for some tastes. Why did the car’s wheels go round? Because they were driven by a crankshaft from the engine…and before long you are into a mechanical account of the internal combustion engine.”

Philip Ball, in “The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature

(Oxford University Press (2001))


 

If you haven’t read Philip Ball’s wonderful “The Self-Made Tapestry”, I thoroughly recommend it. It’s a tour de force overview and analysis of the physics and chemistry underpinning pattern formation in nature and a very engaging read (in common with just about everything Ball writes). When our research group here at Nottingham worked on self-assembly/self-organisation in nanoparticle systems [1] — which has fascinating parallels with the physics of coffee stains [2] — it was on the “must read” list for the students and postdocs in the group.

I was reminded of Ball’s book, and, in particular, his musings on D’Arcy Thompson’s work (from which the opening quote above is taken), during a recent exchange of e-mails with a YouTuber known as Noel Plum. The full exchange with Noel, which stemmed in part from this blog post on the theme of the gender balance in physics, is below. Noel and I will also be having a ‘face-to-face’ chat tomorrow via the technological wonder that goes by the name of the Google ‘Hangout’ to clarify our positions on the themes in the e-mail exchange (and possibly some others). [EDIT 03/11/2016: This has been postponed until next Friday, Nov 11].

My discussions with Noel have led me into the murky and muggy waters of the field known as evolutionary psychology. If you’ve not encountered evo psych (to give it its pop sci abbreviation), then this debate between a key proponent and an outspoken critic of the field is a good place to start. This rather more recent review article, which aims to address criticisms of the field, is also well worth a read, although it rather overstates the case at times for the empirical evidence supporting the evo psych stance in many areas. A slightly more balanced overview of evolutionary psychology is given in the Stanford Encyclopaedia Of Philosophy. (That Stanford site is a great resource for very many aspects of science, including the fundamentals of quantum physics).

This blog post bluntly highlights many of the key issues with the less, let’s say, scientific forms of evolutionary psychology. Having spent quite a bit of time trawling the literature on this topic, and notwithstanding the important counter-arguments made by Confer et al. in their review, the penultimate paragraph of the blog post highlights some of the key difficulties:

The common misconception spread by bad Evolutionary Psychology is that we have any significant understanding of evolved behaviors in humans. This belief is pushed out year after year in books by Pinker, Buss, Tooby and others, and it has now become more of an exercise in politics rather than attracting interest in science and rational thinking. Consistently these EP journals print articles discussing how women prefer the colour pink because it reminds them of red berries from the hunter-gatherer times of our ancestors15, ignoring the fact that the preference for pink in women is an extremely recent trend from the last few centuries (traditionally baby boys were dressed in pink and girls in blue), and ignoring the fact that hunter-gatherer roles were not separated by sex; or articles about how men are attracted to red lipstick because they look like vaginas16. Even the more credible claims like cheater detection, or men being attracted to women with low weight-to-hip ratios17, are plagued by poorly thought out methodological designs and an over-eagerness to ignore the relevant literature on possible learning mechanisms that could account for the data – so much so that they earn themselves the reputation of being ‘behavioral creationists’.

Are there aspects of evolutionary psychology that are worth taking on board and considering? Of course.

Would I go as far as to dismiss all researchers in the field as “behavioural creationists”? No. (And, to be fair to the writer of the post quoted above, nor does he.)

Am I an expert in psychology, or evolutionary dynamics, or population dynamics, or evolutionary biology in general? No, far from it. I’m a lowly, but interested, physicist.

But what strikes me time and again in browsing the literature in the evo psych field is the unscientific credulousness of the working methods. Often — but I’ll stress again, not always — there is a rather troublesome element of “wish fulfillment”. As Peters puts it in his critique of evolutionary psychology,

…the results of even the most rigorous studies have been open to alternative, scientifically valid means of interpretation (e.g., Buller, 2005; Richardson, 2007). What constitutes “evidence” would seem to vary in accordance with the theoretical assumptions of those viewing it…

When theoretical paradigms are unable to agree on what it is that they are looking at, it reminds us that the data are anything but objective, and gives good reason to question the theoretical blueprints being used…

This issue of the central importance of data interpretation in science — and how two different scientists, or teams of scientists can reach entirely opposing conclusions given the same set of data — is something I have banged on about at length in the first couple of sessions for the “Politics, Perception and Philosophy of Physics” module. As scientists, we’d love to think that data are objective and that the data do not lie. This is an exceptionally naive position. Yes, in the long run and assuming that there is sufficient reproducibility in the measurements from team to team, and that credible control experiments can be designed to remove noise and confounding variables, and that the scientific publishing system does not entirely remove any incentive to attempt to reproduce previous work, the “truth will out”. But “in the long run” could mean years, decades, or even centuries…

It’s been at least two blog posts since I last quoted Richard Feynman. As I’ve pointed out before, we physicists are contractually obliged to cite Feynman at least twice daily so here’s at least one daily dose of the man’s wisdom:

“…the first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool… I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, [an integrity] that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists…”

I don’t see too much evidence of this willingness to “bend over backwards to show you’re maybe wrong” in the evolutionary psychology literature. Now, perhaps I’ve just been looking in the wrong places, but what I instead too often see, as Philip Ball puts it so well in that quote that opens this post, are narratives dressed up as science.

Anyway, that’s more than enough background. The exchange with Noel is below. Noel has the last word. For now.🙂 The points raised in his most recent missive will be covered in the ‘hangout’ tomorrow…

[1] See, for example, Coerced mechanical coarsening of nanoparticle assemblies
M. O. Blunt et al., Nature Nanotech. 2, 167 (2007); Controlling Pattern Formation in Nanoparticle Assemblies via Directed Solvent Dewetting, C. P. Martin et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. 99, 116103 (2007); and, for a review, Dewetting-mediated pattern formation in nanoparticle assemblies , A. Stannard , Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter 23, 083001 (2011).

[Note that all links above are to the non-paywalled, .pdf version of the paper].

[2] I will always take any opportunity to flag up the deep links that connect coffee and science.


From: ‘Noel Plum’
Sent: 23 October 2016 13:23
To: Moriarty Philip
Subject: RE: Video now online

Fyi this may be of interest. My take on your disagreement with Mason over sexual dimorphism.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=albBcYxMR3U

Short version. Morphological dimorphisms do not indicate nuerological dimorphisms but they do indicate differentials in selection pressures between the sexes and there are fundamental evolutionary reasons why we should expect cognitive changes to reflect thise pressure differentials in just the same way.

Anyway, always let people know if i mention them so here you go🙂

‘Noel’


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 23 October 2016 16:51
To: ‘Noel Plum’
Subject: RE: Video now online

Hi, Noel.

Thanks for making that video and thanks also for the “heads up”. In terms of the latter, I owe you an apology. You’re mentioned in the blog post linked to below (which went up yesterday evening) but it was uploaded in a rush as I had to dash out of the office to get back before my wife went to start her night shift. (She’s a nursing auxiliary and does a lot of shift work).

https://muircheart.wordpress.com/2016/10/22/welcome-to-the-bear-pit-when-public-engagement-goes-to-pot/

I had of course meant to e-mail you about the post but, I’ll be honest with you, it slipped my mind. When your e-mail arrived this afternoon my first thought was “Oh bollocks, I knew there was something I meant to do”.

I’ll post a comment under your video when I get a chance (possibly this evening) but I look forward to discussing this with you the week after next in any case. (Any update on what day might suit you best?)

Our positions are fairly close but for me it ultimately boils down to one word: evidence. I counted a lot of “might”s and “perhaps”s (and maybe one or two “maybe”s?) in your video. What you have is an hypothesis. But without evidence to support that hypothesis – and you yourself have made this point clearly in the past – that’s exactly what it remains – an hypothesis.

Moreover, it’s nigh on impossible to “deconvolve” the dimorphic effect from the societal pressures. (Note the quotes round “deconvolve”.) In the absence of evidence the only true scientific response is “I don’t know”. That’s my position. It’s always been my position.

When you say that you suspect that the “urge” to do nursing is biological in part, that’s also an hypothesis. Without the appropriate control experiment – which, as you say is rather ethically dubious! – then how do you account for confounding variables? And there are a heck of a lot of them.

It reminds me a little of how economics – that most dismal of sciences [PJM edit 03/11/2016: Before any economists start rattling their keyboards, this is a joke]  – works. We choose three of four variables and three or four coupled equations. Those other 113 variables? Well, they’re just externalities! And they wonder why economics fails to predict the most seismic of crashes…

All the best,

Philip


 

From: ‘Noel Plum’
Sent: 23 October 2016 17:28
To: Moriarty Philip
Subject: RE: Video now online

Thanks philip, still havent checked those dates but will do so the next couple of days and tell you where I am at.

Wrt your point, absolutely it is a hypothesis but then so is whatever would underpin an expectation or target of 50:50. As things stand I haven’t even heard so much as a hypothesis as to why we ought to expect 50:50 (equality of outcome) let alone any reason as to why our cognitive abilities and preferences are unlijely to be differentially to the forces of natural selection and differences in selection pressure over whatever nehaviours have differentiated men and women.

To be clear: I certainly do not believe my hypothesis to be saying other than than any target you set is built on wishful thinking but scientific sand.

If I was to set targets it would be to interview children of different ages as to whether they felt all subjects were valid choices for people of their sex. That would be my goal with a view to removing any orecinceptions but then let the results fall however they do (rather than attempt to artificially engineer outcomes we find statistically sociopolitically appealing).

Btw i have a little addendum uploading just on how the first past the post nature of degree choice exaggerates differences between male and female interests (regardless of natuvism vs empiricism).

Will have a look at the blog later matey,

Take care,

Noel


 

From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 23 October 2016 20:38
To: ‘Noel Plum’
Subject: RE: Video now online

Hi, Noel.

Yes, 50:50 is also an hypothesis. But I’m not even putting forward that hypothesis.

This is the core difference between Mason’s stance and mine and it’s an exceptionally important difference. I am not putting forward a claim that the gender balance in physics is a 50:50 nature:nurture effect. I certainly refer to that particular paper and the 50:50 ‘effect’ in “The natural order of things…” blog but nowhere in that blog did I make the claim that for physics the balance is 50:50. Indeed, I explicitly state that it is exceptionally difficult to determine the balance for any given system.

Scientists (or, for that matter, anyone) should not have “expectations” nor stand behind hypotheses in the absence of evidence. So I don’t know what the balance is. Neither do you. Neither does Mason. I would argue that in the absence of evidence, and adopting a reasonable Bayesian approach, that a non-biased 50:50 would be the most appropriate starting point but that depends on our “priors”…

I’ll ask you the same question I asked Mason. (And I know I’ll get a much better response from you than “meh…head up your ass…I was trolling you”!). Where is the evidence to suggest that the gender balance in *physics* is determined, at any level, by sexual dimorphism? A study has not been done which credibly — or, indeed, in any way — normalises out the environmental/societal component.  If it has, please point me towards that study. I’ve trawled the literature and I’ve not found it.

If that study doesn’t exist, can you point me towards the evidence that supports your argument *in the particular case of physics ability/preference*? Because of the exceptional complexity of the systems we’re discussing, and the degree to which the various variables and dynamics interact, I really don’t find it credible at all to port across reasoning from other “samples”/systems to justify a conclusion in another given system.

Using the Olympics to try to justify that sexual dimorphism is a determinant of the gender balance in physics is an extreme example, but so too, I would argue, is claiming that whether or not male chimps prefer to play with trucks has something (anything) to do with preference/aptitude for physics. (I know you didn’t bring up this example but, believe me, I’ve heard it many times before from others who have attempted to defend Mason!). It’s a bit like arguing (rightly) in physics that all objects fall with the same acceleration due to gravity and then being puzzled why – with the addition of only one new (and very simple) term in the differential equation, let alone a plethora of intercoupled variables and dynamics! – a feather and a hammer don’t hit the ground at the same time…

However, there *is* clear evidence that societal factors play an important role. See, for example, the IOP report to which this blog post refers (not my post this time): http://neilatkin.com/2016/07/08/improving-gender-balance-increasing-number-girls-level-physics/

Girls were almost two and a half times more likely to go on to do A-level physics if they came from a girls’ school rather than a co-ed school (for all types of maintained schools in England)”

You make the point that the societal contributions could very well amplify what “innate” sexual dimorphism “signal” there might be. That’s a reasonable working hypothesis. But I’ll ask again: where is the evidence that there’s an innate “signal” there in the first place? Or what if the signal-to-noise ratio is so low that the signal is dominated by the societal “noise”? We can hypothesise as much as we like but until there is evidence for that signal in the first place, it is unscientific to claim it’s there. (Why else would physicists have a 5 sigma criterion – an exceptionally tough criterion — for claiming the discovery of a new particle?)

I’m sorry to be so tediously repetitive about this but where is the evidence that (a) “neurological” dimorphism, to use your helpful term, plays a role in aptitude or preference for *physics*; and (b) that the dimorphic aptitude/preference in question would be immutable. The latter is key. We know just how plastic the brain is. Why is it that the dimorphic signal, assuming it’s there, must be static? Why can’t it be affected on short time scales due to environmental input?

We learn stuff, right? As I say in this video — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPhgc2IBj1M (a direct response to Mason) – my spatial reasoning skills developed a huge amount with practice. Why assume that those aptitudes or preferences are hard-wired?

You seem to suggest that the dimorphic signal is somehow isolated from the environment and remains in stasis, while the environment affects other aspects of learning/preference/aptitude. Please correct me if I’m wrong on that. You also argue that the environment could amplify that signal.  But if that’s the case, why couldn’t the environment just as easily attenuate that dimorphic ‘signal’? After all, amplifiers can have a gain less than 1…

It’d be helpful if I could upload this exchange to the blog, Noel. I’ll understand entirely, however, if you’d prefer I didn’t do that. I realise that the request is coming after we’ve got a few e-mails into the exchange and I didn’t suggest this at the start.

It’s just that it’d be great to have an exchange on this dimorphism issue at the blog which went a little bit beyond –sorry, make that orders and orders of magnitude beyond — “meh…head up your ass…” in terms of counter-arguments.

All the best,

Philip


 

–At this point Noel gave me permission to make the e-mail exchange available at the blog. Thanks, Noel. I’ve not included the e-mail here because there was nothing in it relevant to our discussion. —


 

From: ‘Noel Plum’
Sent: 28 October 2016 22:42
To: Moriarty Philip
Subject: RE: Video now online

Hi Philip,

So reading through your response to me it is clear this is not going to be the briefest of replies. If I may, I will quote some of what you say to make it obvious what parts I am responding to.

The first part of your reply I find somewhat confused (as if perhaps you misunderstood me) and I think we may be in danger here of conflating 50:50 gender balance with 50:50 nature/nurture.

So you start off saying this:
“Yes, 50:50 is also an hypothesis. But I’m not even putting forward that hypothesis.”

So that is all fine and dandy. However, as I said in the video, this is something many people seem to say when asked directly but then their other statements seem to contradict it. For example, whilst I have heard your good friend Kristi, in conversation with you, say that she fully accepts the possibility of innate predispositions which are distributed dimorphically (I am assuming we all accept that individual humans have innate predispositions; not all born as blank slates and we are discussing whether differences in such predispositions are spread differentially between the sexes) yet she then leaves a comment like this (I quote Kristi directly):

“If population is 51-49, why shouldn’t every part of society reflect that biological distribution? From parenting to leisure activities, what do you see as a reason those shouldn’t mirror the population?” (see footnote 1)

To my mind it smacks of hyperscepticism to see even in things related to parenting a default assumption that males and females would be equally and similarly predisposed (assuming she was not suggesting some slightly ethically dubious process by which we engineer the minds of individuals for no other reason than to fit our statistical ends), in lieu of specific evidence to the contrary.

Do we view chimpanzees and assume that the parenting differences are a result of chimp culture? Gorillas then? Perhaps Orangutan? Old world monkeys? New world monkeys? Gibbons?

It seems odd to me that we would observe an area of dimorphic behaviour (and we are talking a large dimorphism in behaviour, not something that needs tweezing out) across the entirety of the order of primates (and a long way beyond) and accept that innate and instinctively founded traits are the prime mover and yet default to an assumption that there is no obvious reason why differential attitudes to parenting should exist in ourselves (that the dimorphism has disappeared and been replaced by something that looks exactly the same but is cultural in origin), unless somehow we are able to demonstrate a valid reason why homo sapiens should not be exceptionally removed from the same reasoning and understanding of evolutionary mechanisms that we see as obviously applying everywhere else.

It would not be quite so bad were it not for what you yourself recognise as the practical difficulty in isolating such factors in our own species, particularly whilst sticking to ethical requirements. I find it very frustrating, I will be honest.

So anyway, at this point, with the caveat of the point made above, I didn’t suspect any confusion. It is the next two paragraphs where the discussion goes somewhat off the rails. Here was your first line:

“This is the core difference between Mason’s stance and mine and it’s an exceptionally important difference. I am not putting forward a claim that the gender balance in physics is a 50:50 nature:nurture effect.”

The problem is that the discussion was not about whether we are warranted in claiming a 50:50 nature/nurture balance (I hate this particular statistic, in my opinion it is meaningless in many ways see footnote 2) but whether we are warranted in setting a default assumption that departments that are not 50:50 male:female somehow need to act to correct some culturally created imbalance.

“I certainly refer to that particular paper and the 50:50 ‘effect’ in “The natural order of things…” blog but nowhere in that blog did I make the claim that for physics the balance is 50:50. Indeed, I explicitly state that it is exceptionally difficult to determine the balance for any given system.”

You did indeed, though this is still more barking up the wrong tree whereby you are responding to my discussion of 50:50 male to female students as if I was discussing 50:50 nature/nurture.

The next bit I will respond to on nature/nurture even though I hope you see now this wasn’t the 50:50 I was referring to.

“Scientists (or, for that matter, anyone) should not have “expectations” nor stand behind hypotheses in the absence of evidence. So I don’t know what the balance is. Neither do you. Neither does Mason. I would argue that in the absence of evidence, and adopting a reasonable Bayesian approach, that a non-biased 50:50 would be the most appropriate starting point but that depends on our “priors”…”

Firstly, I don’t think adopting a 50:50 nature/nurture for physics uptake is a meaningful thing to do. So your uptake is 80:20 and you are going to work on the principle this is shaped 50:50 by nature/nurture. You employ a number of measures (open days for girls, explicitly targeting your recruitment to make them feel specifically most welcomed etc etc etc) and you get that figure to 60:40 M:F. So obviously now it isn’t still 50:50 nature/nurture……… yet the university down the road was already at 60:40 M:F and they had started off making the same initial assumption as you, that their 60:40 split WAS 50:50!

In any event, what would it even mean in terms of outcomes for the 80:20 split to be 50:50 nature/nurture. I don’t know if you watched my video yet regarding the way such entries function a little bit like first past the post systems but I am sure you would agree, regardless, that even if the 80:20 split could in some meaningful way be seen as resultant of 50:50 nature/nurture that removing the nurture bias would imply what? Simplistic reasoning would say 65:35 perhaps but first past the post systems do not port across so reasonably with small differences in preference porting across to potentially larger differences in outcome.

This was why I didn’t go here and why I wouldn’t, if I am honest.

I also have to comment on your remark concerning scientists and expectations. Evolutionary biology, it appears to me, is in an unusual evidential position when it comes to selection pressures. This is something I have discussed on video before. Of course this is a hoary old chestnut in the field of evo psych with Gould’s “Just so stories” a recurrent complaint against the field. However, the dirty little secret, which never seems to get an airing, is that the same complaint can be levelled against the whole field of evolutionary biology. It seems an almost inescapable issue that selection pressures are nigh impossible to empirically evidence after the event. In fact even DURING the event, outside of strict laboratory conditions where environmental factors are absolutely under control the very best we can do is to abduce the most likely selection pressure to account for an observed trait. When we are lucky only one clear candidate stands out and scant few people even notice the inductive evidential gap, let alone question it. Hominin evolution has proven rather less clear cut than the peacock tail, icefish circulatory system or the cheetah’s exceptional speed yet in all these cases the best we can empirically evidence is how such traits provide evolutionary fitness in the here and now, not the causal factors in the traits evolution.

So as abductive reasoning is deemed scientifically valid here I don’t see why it ought to be so easily waved away in the area we are talking about. We have every single member of our primate brethren showing behavioural dimorphisms on the one hand and on the other we have morphological dimorphisms unequivocally present in our own species demonstrating that behavioural selection pressures differ between the sexes. Isn’t by far the simplest explanation that we are like every other primate and that our behavioural gender differences are impacted by natural selection? How could they not be Philip? How is this less clear cut than the peacock tail or icefish rationalisations?

So your next couple of paragraphs got down to the brass tacks of physics specifically. I don’t have any specific point of disagreement with you here other than perhaps of conclusion. I tried to get across in my video that whilst my expectation would be for dimorphisms I don’t claim to be able to give any indication of extent, or even direction. One thing that the diversity of life on earth demonstrates is that evolutionary pathways are somewhat chaotic (as evidenced by the way in which some species of birds employ crazy levels of sexual selection, massively shaping male birds plumage, and others employ bugger all) and in complex environments such as all primates operate it is close to guesswork, it would seem, to second guess which environmental pressures are primarily altering the genotype and which are not. There is also, of course, a little more at stake with being wrong than there is with the peacocks tail J

So this is why my conclusion is resolutely to think as little as possible in terms of outcomes as we have no warrant whatsoever to presuppose anything in this regard. Nothing I say is to indicate anything other than to ward against holding up outcomes as if we have some yardstick to hold them against; that there is some place we can drop our datum (such as an expectation or goal of equality of outcome) that is anything other than entirely arbitrary (because we have good reasons to believe that both sexes will not be equally predisposed to things, even if we can say no more than that).

You mentioned to me a few months back that (was it in the hangout with Kristi where you mentioned me and said what questions you’d like to ask me?…..I can’t recall) girls now outperform boys in education quite markedly and are we to take it that this implies girls are more academically gifted (by which I mean to cover both intellectually gifted in relevant ways, more capable of concentrating (a definite possibility if you listed to primatologist Frans De Waals re working with female vs male chimps), more predisposed to the work involved or just more generally interested) and I responded to you somewhere that it may well be the case. But of course the point is that until recent history boys outperformed girls in higher education for what was obviously cultural reasons (the suppression of girls, their education and their reasons for being educated). I don’t believe that past history in any way discounts a dimorphic factor here (any more than, to use my favourite analogy here, you being able to steer your car to the right disproves your tracking pulling to the left) but it provides a reason to acknowledge that jumping to conclusions based on what we see at any point in time in any culture is every bit as foolish as focussing in on equality of outcome.

So my view is that if we are to pursue a more equal society we need to think as little as we practicably can about outcomes and a whole lot more focussed on attitudes. I know this is hard because, of course, outcomes are much easier to measure allowing us to feel we have achieved something positive (or at least achieved something). To my mind the way forward is a great deal more surveying of people at different ages in the education system (and beyond) to ascertain how they feel about the choices open to them, not in terms of how predisposed they feel to those options but whether they regard them as valid and acceptable choices for someone of their gender (or other demographic category). If not, why not? Are they viewing those choices as really for someone else……. even IF they were to have an interest in them? I think for me to achieve as much neutrality in this as possible is the gold standard (excepting that in some areas of study and society there may be such unavoidable benefits to diversity we may have sufficient reason to prejudice the process somewhat ie male primary school teachers or female police officers).

I know I have written a lot here Philip and I apologise for that. I am not trying to hide my position behind a sea of rhetoric. I suppose to sum up my position would be that when you tell me that physics in your university is split male:female 80:20 I pretty much shrug my shoulders as if that is supposed to tell me something meaningful but is not. My contention is that it really tells us very little in terms of how well we are serving the boys and girls who pass through your system. No more than if we are told it is 90:10, 60:40, 50:50, 20:80 etc etc. If instead you tell me that girls at age x are reporting that they feel physics is not a subject that is suitable for girls; that they worry they may not feel welcomed on a physics course; or that girls do not possess the right kinds of skills to study physics THEN I feel you have told me something that needs acting upon (and I know that in many cases people young and old do have such preconceptions and perhaps we can discuss how this relates to the fire service also in our hour because there are many fascinating aspects to that)

Last bit:

“but so too, I would argue, is claiming that whether or not male chimps prefer to play with trucks has something (anything) to do with preference/aptitude for physics”

If this refers to what I think it does then I think it is the rhesus monkey experiment (unless it has been done with chimps as well) and all this is really supposed to show is that constructionist claims that the large disparity in boy/girl toy choices, preferences and behaviours is as a result of parental behaviour shaped by society is almost certainly wrong (not totally wrong, as other research shows that parents DO steer children in the same directions, even when they are not consciously doing so).

I can’t really say exactly what Thunderf00t was trying to say. If you want to discuss his claims on Friday then that is fine but as his is usual way he leaves things hanging.

Ok, sorry again for writing so much. Be well,

Noel

Footnotes:

1)      To add a little context, the discussion centred around a large survey that was measuring and ranking societies by ‘equality’. The metric they used was resolutely equality of outcome whereby if 50% of a particular field was occupied by women you got a perfect score in that category (in fact you got a perfect equality score if anywhere between 50-100% of those in a particular field were women but that is another story). The survey was being given as an example that you can objectively define equality and my objection to that was that its dependence on equality of outcome is by no means the only way to consider equality and that equality of opportunity is another example of a reasonable metric. The response quoted was, I think, supposed to amount to “well what grounds would you have to think that equality of opportunity would not automatically lead to equality of outcome, even in parenting and leisure?”

2)      The idea of putting a number on nature/nurture is something I’ve dwelled upon for a few years now. Certainly an area of interest of mine. I have certainly come to the conclusion it is something done more because people ask for a number than because the number has very much meaning. I made a response to Gary Edwards in my recent comments section on this and I think the second of the two points is very relevant here:

“I do have some sympathy with Moriarty with his convolutions, however. One of the possible confounding factors is that the way we steer boys vs girls in their behaviours could, in itself, be part innate rather than simply cultural. In other words, evolution is steering differentials in parenting behaviour (i have linked a couple of times in videos to a recent study showing chimp mothers socialise male and female chimps of around 6 months old differently). Things like that make it hard to pick apart. Another point of difficulty is that, when people ask to put a number on nature/nurture, the answer is as much a function of the level of the behaviour we prioritise as it is anything more concrete. Eating with a knife and fork is cultural; eating by moving the food to your mouth (as opposed to sticking your head in the trough) is almost certainly not. So any answer you give to how much of the way we eat is nature/nurture betrays as much or more of the level on which you are studying the behaviour as anything else.”


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 29 October 2016 07:50
To: ‘Noel Plum’
Subject: RE: Video now online

Hi, Noel.

Thanks for this. Absolutely no need to apologise for the lengthy and considered response – I’d expect nothing less. As you’ve said before, I think we’re reasonably close in our respective positions – although it’ll be good to tease out the question of “innate predisposition” in this particular context — and some of the apparent disagreement may be due to us “talking past” each other.

I’ll write a detailed response to your e-mail below as soon as I can but I have a stack of grant proposals to review this weekend (deadline on Monday) – and I’d also like to spend some time with my family! — so it’ll be next week before I can respond. I’ll do my utmost to get my response to you before our ‘hangout’ on Friday.

In the meantime, there are two points I’d briefly like to raise:

  1. I can’t speak for Kristi Winters. I’m not Kristi! I’d be happy to pass on your comments to Kristi and ask for her response, if you like?
  1. I’m especially interested in your response to this particular statistic, cited in one of my earlier e-mails:

Girls were almost two and a half times more likely to go on to do A-level physics if they came from a girls’ school rather than a co-ed school (for all types of maintained schools in England)”

All the best,

Philip


 

From: ‘Noel Plum’
Sent: 29 October 2016
To: Moriarty Philip <Ppzpjm@exmail.nottingham.ac.uk>
Subject: RE: Video now online

Hi Philip,

So quickly with regard to your two points:

1) Really i should have wrote at the time that I was, of course, not expecting you to answer on Kristi’s behalf, or justify or ‘second guess’ what she was saying. I simply used it as as an example of where i think people can admit to the epistemic issues in this area and them make assumptions or statements that DO amount to declarative and descriptive statements in this regard.

I can give you another example from the “It’s Different For Girls” document from which your ‘two and a half times more likely’ statistic comes from. In their recommendations they make it quite clear with their talk of ‘gender equity’ and setting targets with a view towards gender balance. They also suggest that those targets are set such as to be higher than whatever the present level of female uptake is for that category of school, so for independent single sex schools that would be increasing the number of girls over 27%.
Surely this is again based upon an assumption over nature/nurture, yet nowhere in the document could I find a single shred of evidence justifying it. As if the outcomes are not 50:50 ergo siniter cultural factors are at play.

2) So to move on to that figure i find it somewhat wildly misleading, if i am honest.

The report cites the figure as the second of its key points thus:

“Girls were almost two and a half times more likely to go on to do A-level
physics if they came from a girls’ school rather than a co-ed school
(for all types of maintained schools in England).”
and then this was the fourth of their points:
“For maintained schools in England, the positive effect of single-sex
education on girls’ choice of physics post-16 is not replicated in the
other sciences.”

I found those two statements, taken together (and they are fundamentally linked) misleading to the point of making me somewhat mistrust the neutrality of the document writers.

So reading both of those one would clearly imagine that the “positive effect” of single sex education was almost 2.5x and that this was absent in biology and chemistry. However, if you read the rest of the document they show figures for all three sciences for boys and girls, co-ed and single sex. What they show is that in every other case, switching from co-ed to single sex shows an uptick of 1.5-1.6x. So, in actual fact, the “positive effect” it is talking about is the differential between uptick between girls and boys, which is not 2.5x but the differential between physics for girls at 2.5x and physics for boys at 1.5x. All sciences for both genders saw hugs percentage improvements in uptake in single sex schools and these headline grabbing soundbites rather cynically misportray that.

So you wanted me to comment and what i will comment on is not that girls are almost 2.5x more likely to take physics at single sex schools but rather, why are girls 2.5x more likely and boys only 1.5x more likely. i don’t know , but here are two very different guesses (of the half dozen i can think of):

1) Girls feel somewhat intimidated to take physics in a co-ed school knowing that they will be outnumbered by boys in that classroom (and/or, for a sixth form, they are resolutely sick to the back teeth of the boys they know messing about in class and steer clear) and so pick subjects, like biology, where more girls will be present.

2) Schools like to balance classes and running an A level class with two pupils is generally seen as a non-starter. However, offering economics or law etc and then not running the class because only two people apply is much easier to justify than not running a physics A-level class. In a co-ed school the boys provide the numbers so no issue. however, in a single sex school if only 2% of pupils choose a physics A-level then that probably means a class of 1-3 pupils which is something schools will try to avoid (and I know this because my wife is a secondary school teacher and I see this exact thing happen in terms of trying to get enough numbers to make a course feasible)

Two very different alternatives. Even ignoring any other, i wouldn’t rule out 1 on the grounds that there is every possibility that girls feel the ways described here (I am sure many do) but I’d certainly ask you to take number 2 seriously as well. How many single sex schools could feasibly run a physics A-level course on 1.8% uptake without that flagging as a staffing/class size issue?

Noel

To be continued…


 

* In reference to the title of this post:  “I love alliteration. I love, love, love it. Alliteration just makes everything sound fantastic. I genuinely can’t think of anything with matching initials that I don’t like: Green Goddess, Hemel Hempstead, Bum Bags, Monster Mash, Krispy Kreme, Dirty Dozen, Peter Purves, Est Est Est, the SS1, World Wide Web, Clear Cache. 

1More the font they used, rather than what they did, which was pretty awful.”

Alan Partridge, from “I, Partridge” (HarperCollins 2012)


ECR blues: Am I part of the problem?

A very quick lunchtime post to highlight that this week’s Nature is a special issue on the theme of young scientists’ careers, and, as it says loud and clear on the front cover, their struggle to survive in academia. There are a number of important and timely articles on just how tough it is for early career researchers (the ECRs of the title of this post), including a worrying piece by Kendall Powell: “Young, Talented and Fed-Up“.

One of the things that struck me in the various statistics and stories presented by Nature is the following graph:

agingworkforce

Note how older scientists (and I’m soundly in the 41-55 bracket) now hold the large majority of NIH grants, and how different it was back in 1980. I’d like to know the equivalent distribution for grants in physics. If anyone can point me (in the comments section) towards appropriate statistics, I’d appreciate it.

In any case, I recommend taking a read of those articles in this week’s Nature, regardless of where you happen to be on the academic career ladder. As Powell’s article points out, Nature got a short, sharp response to its tweeted question about the challenges facing ECRs…


Welcome To The Machine

All this machinery. Making modern music. Can still be open-hearted.

From “The Spirit Of Radio”, Rush. Lyrics by Neil Peart.

IMG_2360.JPG

On Tuesday evening I had the immense pleasure of attending The Australian Pink Floyd gig at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham. It was a remarkable concert — stunning musicianship, awesome (literally) visuals, and beyond-impressive interpretations of Pink Floyd classics.

What made the gig extra special for me was that I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time backstage at the invitation of the Aussie Floyd’s guitarist, David Domminney Fowler. Despite his hectic touring schedule, Dave finds time to pursue interests in physics, maths, and the music-maths-physics interface. For example, he’s worked with Sean Riley on the Computerphile YouTube channel, including this fascinating video on translating visual information to music:

I’ve worked with Sean for a recent Sixty Symbols project and have similarly thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with him on a Computerphile video in the not-too-distant past, so was delighted when I got an e-mail asking if I’d be interested in meeting up with Dave when the band played Nottingham. I, of course, jumped at the chance.

Dave talked me through his impressive guitar rig (and variety of guitars) before the gig, and even generously gave me the opportunity to try out a few of his ‘axes’ (including his beloved Telecaster; I’d not played a Telecaster before). What particularly struck me was Dave’s forensic attention to detail in capturing the Floyd sound. Some of this was due to the signal processing — there were a number of classic analog pedals and kit on the way from the guitar to the amp — but the vast majority came from Dave’s exceptionally tasteful and accomplished playing. You can see what I mean in this video:

 If you’ve not yet seen The Australian Pink Floyd, I thoroughly recommend them. I’ve run out of superlatives to describe ’em. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed — Dave’s Comfortably Numb solo is worth the ticket price alone.

Moreover, Mr. Fowler certainly gives Dave Grohl a run for his money in the “nicest man in rock” stakes. Maybe it’s a Dave thing…


Welcome to the Bear Pit: When Public Engagement Goes to Pot

The last time I wrote about the importance of academics engaging with the public, I finished on this upbeat and sweary note: “…you’re an academic, FFS, why aren’t you involved in public engagement?” (It’s perhaps worth reading the blog post in question to put that call to arms in context).

This post is going to be a rather more cautionary tale. That’s not to say that I’m suggesting we academics shouldn’t continue to engage — or at least attempt to engage — with a broader audience than just our students, peers and colleagues. Indeed, although I have been a long-standing critic of the research councils’ impact ‘agenda’, it’s resulted in more thought being paid to how we communicate our research outside our academic circles and that is clearly a very good thing.

But…

Here’s a recent comment posted under a video I uploaded at my YouTube channel:

libel

That particular piece of vicious libelous abuse — spinelessly issued under anonymous cover, of course — is admittedly rather nastier than what’s usually posted. Here’s another, in the discussion section for the channel, which is a rather more common type of juvenile slur:

Abuse.png

I should stress that the levels of bile and vitriol I receive pale into insignificance against the torrents of abuse that many other YouTube video-makers — or, to use the jargon du jour, content creators — have to endure. I’ll get back to that very soon. First, however, I need to explain just why I’ve started to attract the type of comment above. (Regular readers of Symptoms… (both of you) will be well aware of the reasons underpinning the less-than-erudite feedback that has started to appear at my channel and here at the blog. Feel free to skip past the next section.)

There’s no justice. There’s just us.

If you haven’t yet encountered the pejorative “SJW” (social justice warrior) or its corresponding antiparticle, the “anti-SJW”, then count yourself very lucky indeed. There are battles raging across vast swathes of the internet where those who would identify as proponents of social justice (in the sense described by John Rawls, for example) are pitted against those who see progress towards social justice as being a direct infringement of their basic civil liberties — including, and especially, freedom of speech — that will ultimately result in the fall of western civilisation as we know it. Those who would classify themselves in this latter category tend to be incensed by the notion of political correctness.

I generalise, of course. And that type of sweeping generalisation is a major part of the problem. It’s exceptionally tribal out there. Many of those who claim – vociferously — that they’re independent, free thinkers too often gleefully succumb to mob mentality, labelling those who express opinions counter to theirs as The Other. (More on this towards the end of this post). Similarly, those who would claim that it’s the “left” who want to trample on free speech should pay attention to the opprobrium that Gary Lineker has attracted (including calls for him to be sacked) for this important tweet:

How did I get drawn into the “SJW vs anti-SJW” war of attrition?

I’ve been involved with making videos for YouTube since 2009 via Brady Haran’s channels (largely Sixty Symbols, but I’ve also enjoyed contributing to Numberphile and Computerphile. And I’ve even crossed the physics-chemistry trenches for an occasional Periodic Video).  That has led to quite a bit of online discussion in the comments sections for those videos, which, as I discussed in this Physics World article a couple of years ago, was largely intelligent, engaging, fun, and not infrequently made me reconsider just how I was teaching physics. More recently, public engagement via YouTube has even led to an undergraduate research project (with a publication to follow in hopefully the not-too-distant future).

Many of my colleagues (including postdoctoral and PhD researchers in the group here) thought I was mad for engaging in the comments sections of those videos. (They still do. But even more so now). For them, “below the line”, in just about any online forum, too often represents the condensed collective stupidity of humanity. No good can come of wading into those murky, and grammatically challenged, waters they tell me. But I’d in turn point out that I’ve gained quite a bit out of engaging online and have not had to tolerate any type of bile or abuse at all [1].

Until recently. Being involved with Sixty Symbols and Brady’s other channels has meant that I get invitations to different podcasts/events on a reasonably regular basis. One of these was something called the Magic Sandwich Show. A regular contributor to the MSS for a number of years was a certain Dr. Phil Mason (aka ‘thunderf00t’). On an episode of the MSS last year, he and I clashed on the question of the role of sexual dimorphism as a determinant in the gender balance in physics. I’m not about to revisit that lengthy saga here, you’ll be relieved to know. Here’s a summary.

That spat with Mason was my gateway to the Social Justice WarsTM . I’ve already spent too much time writing about the various YouTube channels which underpin a great deal of the bile and vitriol (see this blog, passim), so I’ll defer to Hank Green for a pithy summary of a key aspect of the problem:

Now, before the keyboards start a rattlin’ among a certain online ‘demographic’, am I saying that all who don’t identify with the social justice position are hate-filled teenage boys? No. Of course not. And I was at pains in this recent video to argue that we shouldn’t generalise:

But let’s not be silly here. There’s clearly a pattern of behaviour in certain online “communities” (and I use the term advisedly) that frequently results in certain channels being swamped by torrents of abuse. Let’s take a look at one prime example.

If you go down to the woods today…

There is a culture among subsets of the subscriber bases of certain YouTube content providers video-makers [2] of posting vicious bile and vitriol under particular videos. The videos in question tend, ever so coincidentally, to be those which that particular video-maker has recently targeted for critique. Here’s a particularly apposite case in point:photo

That cartoon is the avatar for a YouTuber called Bearing. I have no idea as to his real name. To the best of my knowledge he has not ever revealed his identity and prefers instead to conceal himself behind the cartoon bear shown above (which he’s borrowed, apparently without attribution, from a show called Total Drama ).  

This ‘Bearing’ person has a tendency to make videos critiquing and criticising (to use terms he would prefer) feminist channels. Here’s a recent example. And here’s another. And another. It turns out that there’s a rather strong correlation between the amount of abuse these feminist channels/videos receive and whether or not they’ve been recently critiqued by the guy behind the cartoon bear. The comment section of a video selected by ‘Bearing’ for critique tends to be flooded with abuse, to the point where the video maker either deletes the video entirely from the channel or makes it private. Like this. Or this.

The most recent target of ‘Bearing”s criticism is Elin Lysell. Elin has not taken down her video, Why I’m A Feminist, but has disabled comments and likes/dislikes. Just to give you an idea of how vicious and pathetically immature the behaviour of this online mob can get, here’s a sample of comments under one of the other videos at Elin’s channel…

moreabuse

Note the response directly above from “032 Mendicant Bias”. They’re laudably trying to point out the despicable behaviour of the mob. One other person attempts to do this elsewhere in the comments under Elin’s video. Note the response.

mobabuse

(…and that’s not the end of ‘Sarah Benton’s diatribe. But what I’ve included of the comments here is already dispiriting enough).

As “Overlord Penmaeda” points out above, the video under which this bile has been posted has got nothing to do with feminism. Yet the mob is so incensed, they target her in any way they can.

As if the viciousness of the comments wasn’t enough, there’s this galling and deeply hypocritical comment (note the number of “likes”):

coward

A person cravenly hiding behind a pseudonym and an avatar, in common with the vast majority of those who post abuse, is whining about the perceived ‘cowardice’ of someone who uploaded a video where she doesn’t attempt to hide her identity in any way and speaks her mind. I think we can all see who the coward is in this case. [3]

It’s worth noting that the comment above wasn’t posted under one of Elin’s videos. It was posted at ‘Bearing”s channel. Along with quite a lot of other vitriol along the lines of that above.

Now, the guy behind the cartoon bear argues that he is not responsible for what his subscribers do. He even laudably includes the following disclaimer in the information under the videos he uploads.

bearingdisclaimer

First, having worked with Brady Haran for quite some time on YT videos, let’s just say that I’m not entirely convinced of the efficacy of including anything in the video information. In this video, for example, I misspoke towards the end. We included a correction in the video information. Yet I receive a steady stream of e-mails asking me about precisely that misspoken point.

But let’s give this ‘Bearing’ character the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that he’s sincere in the intention given in the disclaimer above. Yet, strangely enough, every time he uploads a video criticising a feminist channel or video, shortly afterwards spiteful and vicious abuse is posted by spineless, faceless idiots at that particular channel/video. Most of us would notice this rather strong correlation. This ‘Bearing’ chap is clearly not exceptionally stupid so I find it somewhat difficult to believe that he too has not noticed the correlation, particularly as it doesn’t take very long to find comments like the following posted under those particular videos before they’re taken down:

bearingmob

Now, the guy behind the cartoon bear argues that he’s not responsible for the behaviour of his subscribers. I agree. He can’t dictate what they should or should not do. But I, for one, would be appalled to think that any video critique I made would result in the subject of that criticism being targetted with vicious, spiteful abuse. I might be rather ashamed to have any type of connection between the critique I posted and that type of hateful behaviour. I would be particularly aghast to find that an especially cowardly and vicious subset of those who had subscribed to my channel were responsible for that anonymous abuse and that I was therefore indirectly the origin of the mob’s abusive comments.

But that’s just me.

Oh, and some others…

As for those hiding behind pseudonyms and avatars, lacking the courage and integrity to stand behind their slurs while they complain about others being “delicate flowers”, they shouldn’t think for one minute that “words on a screen” can’t have real world impact. Others might also want to, ahem, bear that in mind.

Freeze Peach

I have long had a policy at my blog and YouTube channel that I wouldn’t moderate, censor, or edit comments in any way. I describe my motivations for this stance in the second half of this post. A recent article by Hank Green (yes, him again), Stop Screaming In My Home,  and discussions with friends and colleagues have made me reconsider that stance.

Just as for the feminist channels described above, I have recently seen a sharp increase in the number of dislikes for videos (posted years ago) that have nothing to do with my criticism of that certain clique of YouTubers and their views. Similarly, comments related to my spats with Philip Mason and others have been posted under entirely unrelated videos focussed on physics, or music, or both. This is juvenile behaviour.

I’d use a slightly different analogy to that Hank Green outlined in his article. To me, it’s like trying to give a lecture to undergraduates while there’s a bunch of particularly immature kids sitting in the corner of the lecture theatre shouting out “Hey Mr Poopy Head” every minute or so. They’re not there to give constructive criticism — they’re there simply to be disruptive. Free speech doesn’t come into it.

Moreover, I have long been a critic of reducing any type of activity down to simplistic numerical metrics. Usually I’m bemoaning the use of h-indices, impact factors and the like in academia, or the pseudostatistics of primary school assessment, but much the same arguments hold for likes vs dislikes for a video. Moreover, when a 37-minute-long video can receive a number of dislikes within a couple of minutes of being uploaded, one has got to start to question the validity of the “data”. And, sure, the number of likes far outweighed the dislikes in that case. But so what? Those figures reveal nothing about the quality — as opposed to the popularity — of the video. And if the data are being contaminated by noise, I’d be a pretty poor scientist to not attempt to remove that noise.

So from now on, I am shutting down the likes and dislikes for all videos which are not related to the themes discussed above, for the reasons discussed above. Similarly, if comments are posted under a physics-only video related to the themes discussed above, then I will screenshot that comment, remove it, and instead include the screenshot in a (continually updated) post here at the blog [Edit 09/11/2016 I decided instead to simply append the comments in question to this post. See below.] . That way I can sift out irrelevant comments and also have a rather helpful record of the, let’s say, less erudite feedback posted at the YouTube channel.

The Mob Rules

In the “Reacting to Reactions to Reasonable Questions…” video embedded above, I spend quite a bit of time responding to comments from Noel Plum. While Noel and I quibble about certain topics, on the subject of online bullying and posting bile/vitriol/abusive comments I think we’re broadly in agreement. Noel’s recent comments regarding psychological damage (in this recent video) would appear to chime rather closely with my thoughts on the issue. I look forward to having a discussion with Noel on this, and other, themes when he and I can both carve out some time for an online chat.

There’s another reason I wanted to bring up Noel’s recent video, however, and it relates to something I alluded to above: the mob mentality. In the comments section under Noel’s video there’s an hilarious thread which runs to, when I last looked, 75 comments debating whether or not I should be called a “social justice warrior”. The pathological need to label me and put me in either the “SJW” or the “anti-SJW” camp is farcical in the extreme (and Noel interjects at one point in the thread to point this out.)

“He’s definitely an SJW. Burn the heretic. Stone him. Run him out of town. He’s one of them, I tell you. One of them.”

And with that, I’ll leave you with a classic, and rather pertinent, Rush track…

[1] Actually, that’s a little bit of a fib. We did a video on the physics of a game called Portal 2 a while back where I pointed out that the momentum of the main character isn’t conserved. The morning after that video was uploaded I opened up my e-mail box to find a number of missives from rather irate Portal 2 players who castigated me in no uncertain terms for deigning to critique the game in the mildest possible way. And this was despite the fact that I had actually praised the game. The extreme sensitivity took me aback.

[2] My back is now hurting badly from having to bend over backwards to the extent I do here so as not to generalise.

[3] I find that even exceptionally mild criticism of anonymity tends to lead to a significant number of comments about “doxing“. For the record (and for the n^nth time), I am not suggesting for one second that anyone be “doxed”, nor that the apparently sacrosanct right to anonymity be in any way compromised. I am simply pointing out just how spinelessly hypocritical it is to hide behind cover of anonymity to slag off another person, while all the while whining about how much that person is a “delicate flower” because they decide they’d prefer not to read hateful anonymous abuse.


The Whining Wall

I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

As noted in the post above, in the following section I’m going to append screenshots of the less ‘insightful’ and/or relevant and/or spam comments I receive.

My erudite pseudonymous friend Enkidu has the honour of the inaugural whine. They seem to have a rather weak understanding of just what is meant by censorship. Here are their words of wisdom for all the world – well, that infinitesimally small subset of the world that visits this blog – to see…

enkidu1

Nonsense.png

 


STEMming the tide

This is a guest post from Michea Bonilla on a particularly timely subject: the value of non-STEM subjects and disciplines. There’s been a great deal of furore over the last few days regarding the “culling” of A-level subjects such as art history and archaeology. As a physicist (which is about as STEM as it gets), I find the continual elevation of STEM subjects over the arts and humanities to be dispiriting and immensely worrying from a number of perspectives, some of which I described in a post last year.

What’s particularly irksome is that fundamental scientific research — i.e. work which is done without an eye on the bottom line or the potential for the next new widget — is rather closer in ethos to the arts and humanities than it is to, for example, engineering or near-market R&D. Michea’s post provides an engaging, personal and important insight into their experience of the STEM vs non-STEM divide…

(P.S. I’m responsible for the title above so if you feel it misrepresents the post it’s me that’s to blame, not Michea).


 

So I wanted to start this off by giving you all a bit of my background, especially since I will be dicussing STEM and non-STEM degrees and the disservice we are doing to our children (and ourselves!) with the constant push for STEM while sometimes outright shunning anything else.

I am a 34 year old who holds two degrees, a Masters of Divinity (a religion degree commonly posessed by clergy) and an Associate of the Arts Oregon Transfer Degree with a focus in Sociology. Why an AA instead of an AS? Long story short, I was out of financial aid money and I had already racked up $30k in student loans due to having to change majors because of health issues. It was the only degree available that I had “completed” all of the requirements to get.

I grew up in a house that praised both STEM and non-STEM fields. My mother is a microbiologist and veterinary technician and my father holds two degrees, one in fish and wildlife (a STEM degree) and the other in economics. I grew up spending many of my weekends with my mother in the lab at the VMTH at UC Davis and developed an outright love for the biological sciences. To this day the smell of the gram stain chemicals will almost instantly bring a smile to my face because of my memories in the lab.

I excelled in school in science and in music, but struggled in math and English. I even received awards of Honors in Biology and Recognition in Chemistry from the Golden State Exam. I completed the course work required for the basic computers course in under two months my senior year and transferred into the advanced class at the beginning of the second semester.

So why is all of this important?

Because growing up, even though I knew that both STEM and non-STEM fields were necessary for a well rounded society I still had to deal with the constant comments about “throw away degrees”. The Liberal Arts degree jokes were a dime a dozen, and if you considered going into a field that was considered a liberal art or humanities, you were teased to no end. I even bought into the hype about how if I wanted to earn a decent wage and not be a burger flipper or working a minimum wage job my whole life I would have to get a STEM degree.

I was already pretty burnt out on school by the time I graduated in 2000 due to the introduction of the senior project and the fact that I was actually taking extra classes on top of my already full class load. While most students had at least one open period, I had -1 open periods. I actually had two classes at the same time (senior project and computers). I took two English classes that year because the school wasn’t willing to let me count my British Literature course as my senior English credit and my World Literature course as my junior English credit. I took math applications that year and learned how to apply math to real world situations, which meant I had a lot of extra work outside of school.

While I had wanted to take a break and get my head on straight, my family pushed for me to enter college through Solano Community College since my grades and test scores (ACT, SAT II, ASVAB) weren’t “good enough” for the colleges I wanted to go to. Never mind that I scored in the top 90th percentile for my ACT and the top 99th percentile in almost everything on the ASVAB…my grades were what shot me in the foot.

I enrolled in the fall of 2000 with my major listed as undecided and did my best to make my parents proud. I wanted to get a degree in either micro or molecular biology, but I was also really wanting to get a degree in literature or history. I was too ashamed to tell anyone that I wanted a degree in a field that was the source of “Would you like fries with that?” jokes and ridicule.

I dropped out of college due to fatigue in 2001 and spent the next four years working various jobs, including cooking jobs for Xanterra National Parks and Resorts. I constantly looked back at my failures in college and friends and family kept urging me to go back to school so I could get a degree and make decent money. Every time I brought up a degree that wasn’t in one of the STEM fields I was met with reminders about how those sorts of degrees weren’t worth anything and I would just be wasting my time. I was told that all the “good jobs” were in STEM and I needed to focus on one of those fields.

Another big push was to work in a medical field, which I decided to go for in 2005 when I entered training to become a phlebotomist and lab assistant. I got to intern at Kaiser Regional Microbiology in Berkeley, California and on Travis Air Force Base. I was happiest when I was able to work in the lab, but I learned early on that unless I had a masters or higher I would be nothing more than a grunt wherever I worked.

I began work as a phlebotomist in 2006 and found myself getting paid only a dollar or so more than when I worked as a cook (with no certifications, training, or well…anything). Sure, I had a job, but it wasn’t anything like everyone had been promising me.

Fast forward to 2013 and I have just completed my M:Div and am also enrolled in college at Rogue Community College. I find myself joking about my “throw away degree” and how I’m trying to get a degree in a field where I can actually make money and have a steady job.

I feel shame whenever my M:Div is brought up.

My parents remind me from time to time that my father was able to complete his masters in 4-5 years, and that I really should apply myself better.

I wound up spending four years at RCC due to mental health issues and having to go from full time to half time. I racked up $30k in student loans just to survive and appealed multiple times to have my financial aid extended after having to change my major not once, but twice (Early Childhood Education → Criminology → AAOT). When I graduated in 2015 I didn’t feel pride, I felt disappointed and like I had let people down. Sure, I had my degree, but it was pretty much useless outside of transferring to a university.

So…what does all of this have to do with STEM v non-STEM degrees?

A couple of months ago I found an article that discusses how we are doing a disservice to our children by shunning non-STEM subjects, especially literature and the arts. After reading it I looked at what was going on with my own daughters and I felt my heart sink.

My eldest had gone off to Job Corps to learn a trade, but she had been told by her counselor before she left school that anything outside of a STEM degree would be a worthless degree and she should either learn a trade or get a STEM degree.  She told me a few years later that at the time she’d wanted to tell that person they were full of sh*t, but she’d kept her mouth shut.

Currently she’s unemployed with certifications in culinary arts. People want experience, not certifications, where we live, so she is stuck either getting a minimum wage job to gain experience, or find a job in a different field than the one she’s trained in.

My middle daughter is the one suffering the most from this push for STEM degrees. She is very skilled in art and loves music, but she has been told that if she gets a degree in either of those fields, she might as well just throw her money away. Before she’d been told that she had planned on going into the music field and possibly teaching music.

Now, she doesn’t know any more and is just sort of drifting about as she finishes her final year in high school.

Because of the push for STEM classes, the board of education in Oregon decided that students had to take three years of math, but only classes listed at Algebra 1 or higher would count. Both of my step daughters (the two oldest) were moved around constantly when they were younger so they were still in basic math when they entered high school. This gave them a year to go from having trouble with basic addition and subtraction, to learning the quadratic equation.

Needless to say, they failed horribly, even with extra math classes and assistance.

One would expect that if a child failed a class, that the next year they would repeat it so as to get a passing grade. In the case of my daughters, they were just pushed into the next level of math. So they went from basic math to Algebra 1. My eldest decided to change her diploma to one of the “alternative” diplomas due to this very issue, and wound up wasting an entire school year. She was receiving grades on things like watching movies! That was how little these people thought of the children who opted to go for one of the alternative diplomas (either due to special needs or due to just giving up). Anything to keep those graduation numbers up!

Oregon offers the standard diploma, a modified diploma (which has “lowered” requirements in the core classes and double the amount of electives), an extended diploma (which only requires half the credits of a regular degree AND has lowered requirements), and an alternative certificate (basically you’re just a warm body that gets counted to help bring in money and you get to walk across the stage at graduation). The reason for this is that with the push towards higher levels of STEM classes and the push for students to go into STEM fields, students began failing to meet requirements to graduate.  Instead of reevaluating the situation and possibly changing the graduation requirements to meet those of another state (each state has its own requirements for graduation! There is no “federal standard”!), they decided to create new diploma options, many of which are little more than a piece of paper.

With a modified diploma you cannot get into a four year university. You have a chance at getting into a community college, but you’re most likely going to be making up for lost time with remedial classes and thus wasting your financial aid and being forced to take out student loans. Trade school acceptance is a crap shoot. You cannot enlist in the military for the most part, and you will find yourself having difficulty finding work since it is a “lesser” diploma.

With an extended diploma or an alternative certificate….yeah. You might as well just go for your GED.

We are cutting music, literature, art, and humanities classes at a frightening rate in our high schools while continuing to push for our students to excel in math, science, and English. We are forgetting that while it is good to have a focus on STEM subjects, and that STEM fields are important, so are the non-STEM fields.

In Oregon, we lump foreign language, the arts, and career and technical education (CTE) into one category. Children need three credits (years) to graduate with a standard diploma, but the school pushes for students to either learn a foreign language or focus on the CTE classes. Math, social sciences, and science require three credits each, English requires four credits, health (another science class) requires one credit, and physical education requires one credit. Children also have to earn six credits of “electives”.

We need literature, music, art, and all of the other fields. We are beginning to suffer as a society due to our children not learning anything more than a cursory once over of these subjects. Many children don’t read outside of what is required for school since reading for pleasure is seen as a waste of time in many cases. If a child starts showing interest in music or art teachers begin to try to steer them towards a field with a “better future”.

We have the science to prove that we need these fields, and that children need to learn about and immerse themselves in these fields; yet we are continuing to cut them from our curriculum at an alarming rate, replacing them with “elective” classes. When a child sees that their favorite subject is an “elective” versus a “core” class, they begin to look down on it. It happened to me, it happened to my husband, and it has happened to my kids.

To this very day I still have to fight that the social sciences are valid options for a field of study. I get told that if it’s not a “natural science” then it’s worthless. I get told that my preferred fields of study (psychology and sociology) are bullsh*t. Heck, people even grade the social sciences as some being more “science” than others, just to justify their attacks on certain fields.

If people are doing this with the social sciences, you can just imagine what they are doing with the arts and humanities fields.

We need to stop treating STEM fields as the high lord and master and remember that we need ALL fields of study to be able to be a well rounded society. We need to stop shaming people who wish to go into the non-STEM fields, and we need to stop telling our children that they won’t be able to be successful unless they go into either a STEM field or into the medical field.


In Praise of ‘Small Astronomy’

My colleague and friend, Mike Merrifield, wrote the following thought-provoking post, recently featured at the University of Nottingham blog. I’m reposting it here at “Symptoms…” because although I’m not an astronomer, Mike’s points regarding big vs small science are also pertinent to my field of research: condensed matter physics/ nanoscience. Small research teams have made huge contributions in these areas over the years; many of the pioneering, ground-breaking advances in single atom/molecule imaging and manipulation have come from teams of no more than three or four researchers. Yet there’s a frustrating and troublesome mindset — especially among those who hold the purse strings at universities and funding bodies — that “small science” is outmoded and so last century. Much better to spend funding on huge multi-investigator teams with associated shiny new research institutes, apparently.

That’s enough from me. Over to Mike…


A number of years back, I had the great privilege of interviewing the Dutch astronomer Adriaan Blaauw for a TV programme.  He must have been well into his eighties at the time, but was still cycling into work every day at the University of Leiden, and had fascinating stories to tell about the very literal perils of trying to undertake astronomical research under Nazi occupation; the early days of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) of which he was one of the founding figures; and his involvement with the Hipparcos satellite, which had just finished gathering data on the exact positions of a million stars to map out the structure of the Milky Way.

When the camera stopped rolling and we were exchanging wind-down pleasantries, I was taken aback when Professor Blaauw suddenly launched into a passionate critique of big science projects like the very one we had been discussing.  He was very concerned that astronomy had lost its way, and rather than thinking in any depth about what new experiments we should be doing, we kept simply pursuing more and more data.  His view was that all we would do with data sets like that produced by Hipparcos would be to skim off the cream and then turn our attention to the next bigger and better mission rather than investing the time and effort needed to exploit these data properly.  With technology advancing at such a rapid pace, this pressure will always be there – why work hard for many months to optimise the exploitation of this year’s high-performance computers, when next year’s will be able to do the same task as a trivial computation?  Indeed, the Hipparcos catalogue of a million stars is even now in the process of being superseded by the Gaia mission making even higher quality measurements of a billion stars.

Of course there are two sides to this argument.  Some science simply requires the biggest and the best.  Particle physicists, for example, need ever-larger machines to explore higher energy regimes to probe new areas of fundamental physics.  And some results can only be obtained through the collection of huge amounts of data to find the rare phenomena that are buried in such an avalanche, and to build up statistics to a point where conclusions become definitive.  This approach has worked very well in astronomy, where collaborations such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) have brought together thousands of researchers to work on projects on a scale that none could undertake individually.  Such projects have also democratized research in that although the data from surveys such as SDSS are initially reserved for the participants who have helped pay for the projects, the proprietary period is usually quite short so the data are available to anyone in the World with internet access to explore and publish their own findings.

Unfortunately, there is a huge price to pay for these data riches. First, there is definitely some truth in Blaauw’s critique, with astronomers behaving increasingly like magpies, drawn to the shiniest bauble in the newest, biggest data set.  This tendency is amplified by the funding of research, where the short proprietary period on such data means that those who are “on the team” have a cast iron case as to why their grant should be funded this round, because by next round anyone in the World could have done the analysis.  And of course by the time the next funding round comes along there is a new array of time-limited projects that will continue to squeeze out any smaller programmes or exploitation of older data.

But there are other problems that are potentially even more damaging to this whole scientific enterprise.  There is a real danger that we simply stop thinking.  If you ask astronomers what they would do with a large allocation of telescope time, most would probably say they would do a survey larger than any other.  It is, after all, a safe option: all those results that were right at the edge of statistical significance will be confirmed (or refuted) by ten times as much data, so we know we will get interesting results.  But is it really the best use of the telescope?  Could we learn more by targeting observations to many much more specific questions, each of which requires a relatively modest investment of time?  This concern also touches on the wider philosophical question of the “right” way to do science.  With a big survey, the temptation is always to correlate umpteen properties of the data with umpteen others until something interesting pops out, then try to explain it.  This a posteriori approach is fraught with difficulty, as making enough plots will always turn up a correlation, and it is then always possible to reverse engineer an explanation for what you have found.  Science progresses in a much more robust (and satisfying) way when the idea comes first, followed by thinking of an experiment that is explicitly targeted to test the hypothesis, and then the thrill of discovering that the Universe behaves as you had predicted (or not!) when you analyse the results of the test.

Finally, and perhaps most damagingly, we are turning out an entire generation of new astronomers who have only ever worked on mining such big data sets.  As PhD students, they will have been small cogs in the massive machines that drive these big surveys forward, so the chances of them having their names associated with any exciting results are rather small – not unreasonably, those who may have invested most of a career in getting the survey off the ground will feel they have first call on any such headlines.  The students will also have never seen a project all the way through from first idea on the back of a beer mat through telescope proposals, observations, analysis, write-up and publication.  Without that overview of the scientific process on the modest scale of a PhD project, they will surely be ill prepared for taking on leadership roles on bigger projects further down the line.

I suppose it all comes down to a question of balance: there are some scientific results that would simply be forever inaccessible without large-scale surveys, but we have to somehow protect the smaller-scale operations that can produce some of the most innovative results, while also helping to keep the whole endeavour on track.  At the moment, we seem to be very far from that balance point, and are instead playing out Adriaan Blaauw’s nightmare.


No cuts, no confidence at University of Leicester

A couple of weeks ago, Peter Coles, whose In The Dark blog I follow, highlighted worrying news about the “down-sizing” of the Maths department at the University of Leicester. Equally worryingly, the Condensed Matter Physics group at Leicester, which has a strong track record in nanoscience research, has been proposed for closure.

I would encourage you to sign the UCU’s petition against the cuts at the University of Leicester: No cuts, No confidence at University of Leicester