08 March 2017

Why people with university degrees still can’t name a scientist

I was thinking about the “Most people can’t name a living scientist” factoid again. Something that often puzzled me was that the fraction of people who can name a living scientist is often reported as being so much lower than the fraction of people with a university degree.

Why, if so many people have university experience, do they not know scientists at those universities? Even non-science majors usually have to take some introductory science classes to meet breadth requirements.

I had an hypothesis about that, so I ran this poll:

The results were consistent with my hypothesis. Maybe one of the reasons people wouldn’t name a professor as a “living scientist” was because they mainly associate the occupation of “professor” with the role of teaching more than research.

But I realize now that I was probably operating under a false premise. My question was premised on the idea that science classes were taught by people with doctorates. That is, tenured and tenure-track faculty.

I saw some data a few years back showing that my university bucked a lot of national trends for a long time. The proportion of tenured and tenure-track instructors had increased in the 2000s. But this is not the case for most institutions. This article forcibly makes the point that most higher education instructors across the United States do not have a doctorate and were not tenured or tenure-track.

Consequently, even people who go through a full university degree may not have very much contact with instructors who have ever had an active research program. That might be another contributing factor to why so few people can name a living scientist.

External links

The decline of faculty tenure

02 March 2017

Traditional lands

Katherine Crocker suggested that scientists should acknowledge when their work was carried was carried out on First Nations / native American territories. Karen James found an excellent (though still in progress) mapping tool that shows what locations in the United States and Canada were the territory of what tribes, nations, and bands.

It’s too late to put any acknowledgement in my existing papers, but hey, this one of the things academic blogs are for.

The collection of sand crab in my doctoral work was carried out in the traditional land of the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Tribe.
One of my next papers, to be published in Journal of Coastal Research, had two locations.

My #SciFund funded field work took place in traditional Seminole land.

The last was the most interesting, and most affecting:

My local field site, which has been where I have collected animals for many of my papers, sits in a region of native Americans that have been collectively referred to as Coahuiltecan. They were not considered so much a unified tribe as bands.

Unlike the tribes listed above, which are still active, the Coahuiltecans were wiped out by European contact. It made me realize why I had never heard about local native groups, unlike other places I’ve lived. I knew about the Blackfoot in Southern Alberta, I heard much discussion about aboriginals in Australia, I saw Seminole buildings when I was collecting in Florida.

Thank you, Katherine Crocker. I learned something.

Update, 20 March 2017: My colleague Frank Dirrigl informs me that much of the lower Rio Grande Valley was Lipan Apache land.

External links

Native land

01 March 2017

The value of editors

There is a line of thought among some scientists – and it is not a short line among a small fraction of scientists – that pre-publication peer review is useless, reviewers are useless, and editors are useless. Thus, journals are useless.

Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde was brave enough to post one of his old rejection letters this on Twitter (text follows images). Albrecht prefaced this saying, “Lessons learned as a young and arrogant graduate student.”

Canadian Journal of Zoology
17 April 1997
File Number: Y1150

Mr. A.I. Schulte-Hostedde

Department of Zoology
Umversity of Guelph
Guelph. Ontario NlG 2W1

Dear Mr. Schulte-Hostedde:

Subject: Patterns of Association in a Temperate Rodent Community

We have sent your paper out for re-review. Neither reviewer has been convinced by your rebuttal and as a consequence we have decided to reject your paper. We are returning the paper to you.

Neither reviewer has provided comments for transmission to the authors. Let me, however, add some comments of my own, since I detect that you may not understand the nature of the review process. We try to select reviewers who are knowledgeable and objective and who understand the role of the Canadian Journal of Zoology as a generalist journal. They are volunteers who support the discipline by committing some of their time to helping authors get their work into an acceptable form. In your case both reviewers had a number of substantive suggestions for improvement. We indicated that the paper was unlikely to be accepted without major revisions.

Your revisions were anything but major. So far as I can determine, they consisted of changing the title and adding a short section on predation. Under such circumstances we sometimes return the manuscript directly to the authors, asking them to try again. But in this case, there was an extensive rebuttal, and we thought that the reviewers should see that. The reviewers have, as I say, not been convinced, and they are both deeply disappointed by the nature and tone of your response. To quote one of them “if the authors do not respect the reviews I do not know why they would want to publish their research in the Canadian Journal of Zoology nor do I understand why the editors would accept it.”

You are just beginning your career. Let me take off my editorial hat and, as a person who has been publishing in the field for more than 40 years, offer some advice. Of the approximately 200 papers which I have published, only two were accepted without change. Of the remainder, I have invariably benefited from the advice of the reviewers. I think that you would be wise to regard the reviewers not so much as gate-keepers, but as persons who volunteer helpful advice.

Yours sincerely,

K.G. Davey/A.S.M. Saleuddin

You know what? This was written by people who care both about the scientific enterprise, and the professional development of the author. This is mentoring. This is humane. You are far less likely to get this sort of interaction from posting draft manuscripts on pre-print servers and hoping people click “Like” bottons afterwards.

I know that this is an unusual, dare I say, exceptional bit of editorial advice. But if more editors worked like this, fewer people who would question the value of journals.

How to talk to professors in their offices

I see an amazing number of questions on social media and Quora and the like from students of all sorts where my answer is, “You have to talk to faculty.”

“How do I approach a professor about my class?”

“Should I include this information on my application?”

“Should I get authorship on this journal article?”

“How can I get more time with my professor?”

Dear students, program applicants, and the like: There’s no way to talk to faculty that guarantees you get what you want. There is no risk free, fool proof conversation outline. Professors are people, and at some point, you have to learn how to talk to people. You’re an adult. The professor is an adult. Have adult conversations.

You may be shy; I get that. I was, too. But trust me, your life will get so much better and less complicated when you ask questions to the person you want an answer from, not random people on social media. Embarrassment is momentary, knowledge you gain lasts.

And a good way to ensure you don’t get what you want is not to ask, or to ask the wrong person.

Talk to professors, not about them.

28 February 2017

Tuesday Crustie: Space crabs

Man, I love vintage science fiction covers. The cover may be the best thing about the book, since the author’s work is described thus:

(T)wo sf novels remarkable for their clumsiness and their apparent ignorance of the basic laws of Physics.

Hat tip to Pulp Librarian and Miriam Goldstein.

18 February 2017

“Explain it like you would to...”

People like to tell scientists what sort of explanation counts as “clear.”

So you get clichéd advice like, “You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to a six year old child.” (Maybe this is why doing a Google Image search for “explainer” gives me the results above: the top results are all simplistic, almost child-like, cartoon images.)

Well, I’m sorry, but there are some things that a young kid is just not ready to understand. Differential equations? Quantum mechanics? Tesseracts? There are tons of perfectly fine scientific concepts that are no less legitimate because kids won’t get them.

Meanwhile, at the AAAS meeting in Boston, Mike Taylor tweeted another “explainer” cliché:

Claudia Dreifus: “If you can’t explain it to your grandmother, don’t bring it to a reporter.”

The “Explain it to your grandmother” cliché makes me even grumpier than “Explain it to a child.” Why is “grandmother” become a synonym for “uninformed person”? And it’s always, and I mean always, a “grandmother.” Never a “grandfather” or a “grandparent.” So there’s an assumption that women are the uninformed ones that need to have things explained.

Then there’s the age issue. Plenty of older people are perfectly clever. Indeed, some of them are called, “professors.” Other examples:

All three of my children’s grandmothers have college degrees, including graduate degrees and a law degree. - Keith Bertelsen

My kids’ grandmother was one of first women to enter IT in the 1980s, and she does not appreciate condescension. - Miriam Goldstein

My grandmother is one of the sharpest and most well-informed people I know, so def seems like an odd use of “grandmother” to me - Rachel Fritts

Friend of the blog Al Dove raised one good point in defense of the “grandmother” advice:

I’m 99.9% certain grandma was picked to mean “be RESPECTFUL,” not because she’s old and dumb.

Being respectful is a good goal in communication, but given the baggage that “Explain it to your grandmother” has, I think it’s best to look for a new metaphor. The desiderata might be someone who is:

  • An adult with some education, although not an expert.
  • Someone you should treat with respect.
  • Someone whose time is limited and valuable.

My suggestion for an imaginary target audience is:

“Explain is like you would to a world leader.”

A prime minister, president, and the like are all people that any scientist should aspire to be able to coherently and concisely explain what they do and why. Justin Kiggins arrived at similar advice to me independently. But while he was being facetious, I am being sincere.

But even that will have it’s limitations. Politicians are people who often think very short-term (new cycles and next elections), which can be tough for a scientist. This reinforces a lesson I have seen many writers: “There is no ‘general public.’”

14 February 2017

More March for Science thoughts

A while back, I noted that the planned March for Science had gotten a lot of flak, much of which seemed... unhelpful.

I want to be clear, though: this is not to say that March for Science should be immune from criticism.

I reckon it’s fair to say they are not making everyone feel welcome to the march. They’ve also made other communication missteps, like tweeting outdated news articles and misleading science facts. That said, I have not been following everything the March organizers have been doing or saying super closely (though I’ve collected a lot of links in this post).

I think the March for Science is important. It has excited a lot of people, but soured some. I hope that the organizers do better. Sometimes, even reviewer two has a fair point.

Update and correction, 16 February 2017: The claim that Science March had tweeted out an out of date news article was incorrect (strikethrough above). It may have come from supporter of the March, but not March organizers themselves.

Related posts

March for Science and Reviewer Two
An outsider’s perspective on protest

External links

March for Science

12 February 2017

Bilingual university plans; more program woes

The Texas observer has a profile on UTRGV focusing on plans to make the university a bilingual institution.

When this has been brought up on campus within faculty, I had heard that there was a law somewhere that said the language of instruction for public universities had to be English. I could not find it, so maybe this was just a rumour. It used to be that the state’s K-12 schools were English only... but that was over 40 years ago.

While I’m here, on top of our institution’s issues with accreditation, the nursing program is under warning.

External links

Inside the Nation’s First Bilingual University
Bilingual education
UTRGV nursing program under warning