Category Archives: skepticality

The scientist as public intellectual

Lately, I’ve been talking with a few early career scientists among my friends, trying to convince them to set up a website, and perhaps have some kind of open social media presence (e.g. Twitter.)

It’s not only about dressing things up, even if you may feel like it is

The primary reason is that since they’re going to have jobs where they will be judged on their past accomplishment, their names will necessarily be googled, and random results will appear; perhaps linkedin, google scholar, researchgate or a github account will show up on the first result page (try googling your name in private mode!) Having a website would allow to take control of the information about you, and highlight what you think is relevant.

The second reason, and perhaps the most important, is that as scientists we are public intellectual. We are paid to produce research and communicate around it. You are entitled to use your expertise on topics in your field and make it clear, through a webpage or a blog, and maybe share tools and resources you found useful. The scientific publication ecosystem is pretty bad, far from open access, and articles themselves are so terse they cannot be understood by anyone outside your field. You can use your website to make your research publicly available (it’s legal, you still own the rights, see here) and also give some context to it, by surrounding it with other relevant pieces or break it down to make it digestible.

Don’t be afraid of the light

However, the typical reaction of my fellow researcher is that “it’s not my style”, “I don’t want to self-promote.” I tend to think it’s oftentimes and extension of the impostor syndrome (great piece by my friend Maria Żurek)

It was about one year ago when I received an email: “Dear Dr. Żurek, We are happy to offer you a postdoctoral position at Berkeley Lab”. And what was my first reaction? “They probably think I’m nice, so they didn’t realize I’m inadequate”. Yes, this was my first thought, even if I had objectively good research experience, even if I was very well prepared for the application, even if I was fully aware that what I had been dealing with was the monster called impostor syndrome.

Since you spend your time doubting about the depth of your knowledge, you can never find the right time to talk about it.

But in truth I believe a big part of it is laziness – or just knowing where to start: it’s not easy to set up a website, though there are helpful guides for those who are interested (e.g. Dan Quintana.)

The visibility of scientists

Another important aspect of the scientist as a public individual is to lead by example. Academia is rapidly evolving, and we need to be visible to make everyone welcome. While historically it’s been pretty white, pretty male and pretty old, with a heavy dose of reproduction among elites, it is important to share your own story, as younger scientists may not know how academia works, because their parents or nobody around them were not academics themselves. (alternatively, writing wikipedia pages for others is a good occasion to document such stories, and for you to learn from other people trajectory and pass it on.)

It also became increasingly important that the scientist engages the public sphere. Not only to counter false messages, but also because influential (read: established) scientist also happen to be out of touch.

Twitter presence is also good in your pursuit — it’s a good hook if you don’t have the time for a full blog/website and you’re looking for interaction. Here’s a piece on how to get started: Threads. It’s also important to understand the Science Twitter ecosystem; here’s a few account I enjoy which to me represent various aspects of the question

Science communication

Let me insist here once again that papers aren’t written to be read, but to be evaluated (eventually, if you land Nature, you’ve scored an A+) and actually very few people will do the promotion of your research (there’s no money to make out of it.) Write a paper is like getting a great, it’s your role to make it accessible. Plus doing this effort at the start will compound — later on you can more easily share research and *its context* with others.

It is good to have some experience with writing non-scientific articles: it pushes you to conduct interviews to substantiate your claims. Asking colleagues is sometimes… anathema in science, for fear of competition. But this is rarely the true excuse: people are often just too lazy to reach out. Teach yourself and your colleagues to do it!

In “Between the World and Me”, Ta-Nehisi Coates characterize journalists as seekers, and scientists should also seek to be seekers, and not only through producing new results but also by synthesizing information which is already there or summarizing opinions on a given topic. And that’s an acquired skill you learn by doing, and may help you create fruitful collaborations: the most interesting results often come from serendipitous interactions, and that’s something to cultivate.

Polis

Politics is a very sensitive topic in science. People like to think science is neutral, because scientists are seeking some kind of grand objective truth, and that politics has nothing to do with it. In truth, they are afraid (and reasonably so) to get their funding cut. Actually, scientists love to talk about politics, but it barely transpires outside the coffee room.

The current period, where the current pandemic of covid-19, and the looming threat of climate change has never made clearer that scientists are under assault and need to speak up. You are entitled to your opinion, and as long as you don’t speak in the name of your institution (and make it clear), things should be fine.

Just look at the most prominent scientist of the current era, Anthony Fauci. He doesn’t hesitate to reach out, and he’s perfectly comfortable with that:

A very public intellectual

If he can do it at age 80, why couldn’t you?

Some thoughts about gender gaps in STEM

Liminary note: I am not a social scientist, but I try to educate myself about some issues facing academia, and this is the result of my inquiries. If you think some elements are incorrect or if you have good resources to share, please let me know!

In this short Life
that only merely lasts an hour
How much – how
little – is
within our
power

Emily Dickinson

Gender gaps in academia are pretty dire, and while it seems to get acknowledged and addressed, it’s not clear whether the root causes – especially social norms – are fully understood and can be solved. The paper Understanding persistent gender gaps in STEM (Science 368, 6497; June 2020, pdf) offers interesting statistics and insights.

Gender gap in physical science majors

The problem does not seem to be a difference in achievement, but social factors rather.

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The Lessons Of The Pandemic, May 1919

It’s like a war
Except the enemy is monumental incompetence

We’ve been there, we know what to do – yet, we don’t.
doi.org/10.1126/science.49.1274.501

Earth Day

Today is Earth Day, a celebration of Earth and the environment started fifty years ago. This year, as the covid-19 pandemic upends the regular unfolding of the world, we can step back and ask how what we learn from the current crisis can help us scientists make science better and more efficient to curb climate change and its consequences.

 

Here’s a set of eight question to ponder about this, and some preliminary thoughts gleaned during a forum@ESA.

1. The interdependence of the supply chain has become very apparent. Can we make the case for renewable energy in terms of resilience of systems?

Solar energy is the only form of energy available everywhere on the planet: all others need to be transported and transferred. Geothermal energy should also be tapped (it is essentially low grade solar energy!)

2. The dramatic reduction of activity in urban centers has brought back clean air in some cities for the first time in decades. Can we envision a world without emission, from energy production to energy use?

Cars on the road have the most impact – we need to switch to switch transportation modes. We could have electrical energy on tracks, some flavor of autonomous driving could quickly provide modular transportation schemes. We also need to change how some cities are built, to make it easier to have common transportation (relative location of schools, business and housing)

3. The current covid-19 crisis is global, and scientists have broken paywalls and started new collaborations with their peers around the globe. What can we learn from this, and promote meaningful collaborations?

Open Access is on the rise (Project DEAL, Plan S,  White House Open Access plan.) Wikipedia is a great resource, completely under-used; it seems that it stems from the issue of ownership (who gets to write on who? and who gets the credit for this work?) We can also rethink research tools, to make them more efficient and more collaborative. The way academia is organized (race to tenure, etc.) may hamper collaboration and therefore innovation.

4. The global economy has been hit severely, and it will be important to promote new economic activity when the outbreak will be over. How can energy technologies inform policies and shape capital projects?

We could build mass transportation system, with initiatives similar to the New Deal (infrastructure is manual labor intensive.) Science can help to find which are the most effective or efficient ways (data science and machine learning.) Scientists could work in tandem with civil engineers, maybe using their school network to reconnect. There should be incentives for scientists to do so.

5. The disruption school year has taken a toll on kids and parents alike. How can scientists engage with students, when the distance is measured in bits per seconds rather than miles?

It would be good to reuse and repurpose older devices. There could be an open OS for discarded devices that would provide minimal functions (video conferencing, calculator, etc.) Scientists should also learn to mentor without physical presence (though one-on-one interaction is important), and therefore allow more frequent interactions, over larger distances.

6. When resources are lacking – masks, ventilators,– engineers and scientists devise creative ways to fill the need using available resources and altering them. How could we repurpose existing facilities to help with climate change?

7. The shelter-in-place is difficult to negotiate, but as anthropogenic emission of CO2 affects the environment, it may become routine. How can we fix the harm done using science and technology?

8. There is a lot of contradictory information being circulated around the epidemic. How can scientists help disseminate information and prevent the spread of alternative facts?

 

In addition, here are some historical and current resources on Climate Change:

I also made a thread about Berkeley Lab Art Rosenfeld on his Art of Energy Efficiency.

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Science and politics – Part 1

On October 30th, 2019 I’ve organized an event at Manny’s (3092 16th St, San Francisco) on Science and Politics, with accomplished scientists Elaine DiMasi and Michael Eisen who chose to run for congress, in the wake of the 2016 US election, the Women’s March and the March for Science.

Dr. Michael Eisen and and Dr. Elaine DiMasi, who respectively ran for US Senate (CA) and US House of Representative (NY-1) , at Manny’s in San Francisco on October 30th, 2019

The setting was well suited for the speakers (Manny’s has held event for 17 out of the 20 Democratic candidates to the US Presidential election), and the two accomplished scientists shared many thoughts on their unsuccessful run. Needless to say, getting into the political arena is not an easy task, and it takes a lot of courage.

A man’s life is interesting primarily when he has failed — I well know.
For it’s a sign that he tried to surpass himself
— George Clemenceau

Of the wave of scientists who ran in 2018, few were elected, but it’s is hard to change a political machine that has been here for many decades on the first attempt.Trial, error, re-calibrate, try again. I hope to shortly provide a summary of lessons learned in a “Part 2” (I have a recordings of the event, but it’s low quality.)

While there is a lot of work done in the realm of science policy (how to inform our representative and make sure they make evidence-based decision)—groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) or closer to me the Berkeley Science Policy Group and interesting programs such as the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships— very few scientists do engage politics frontally, as candidates.

While other countries do have trained scientists at their helm (Angela Merkel from Germany and Xi Jinping from China are both doctors in Chemistry, and their respective term have been relatively successful up to this point), other countries not so much. Currently, Rep Bill Foster (D-Il), Steve Englebright (NY state assembly) and Dan Kalb (Oakland City Council) are scientists in public offices; Vern Ehlers and Rush D. Holt were the first physicists to be elected in congress (party did not matter so much, Ehlers being a Republican and Holt a Democrat; see College Professors Who Have Served in Congress – The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 2014) for a partial list)

Interestingly, a few rising stars (or shining bright already!) of the Congress are professors (but not scientists): Katie Porter, Kirsten Sinema, Elizabeth Warren. Jess Phenix is a geologist who has ran for the House of Representative; she has still been unsuccessful, but her time might come.
https://vis.sciencemag.org/midterm-science-candidates/

(edit 11/8/2019: note that Olivier Ezratty published a post on “Do we need more scientists and engineers in politics“, quite thorough (in French.) And if you speak French there’s this podcast on Les sciences peuvent-elles aider la démocratie?  (“Can sciences help democracy”) featuring Philippe Kourilsky (author of De la science et de la démocratie) – I was a bit disappointed: it’s mostly about scientists helping democratically elected leaders, not participating in it, but at least there’s some conversation.

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Open access – redux

Wow the levy is about to break on Open Access!

I’ve written a few times on Open Access (here, and here), and things have been changing at an incredible pace.

A quick explanation about the topic: scientists share their research by publishing into very specialized journals. These journals then either charge a fee (>$10) for any reader to read a specific article, or as is more often the case, collect a subscription for an institution so that all of the people who work for this institution get complete access to a journal or a set of journal. The problem here is that the research submitted by the authors is often funded by public entities, which do not have the right to read the publications of other group freely (open access.) And the subscription fees have skyrocketed (e.g. in the order of $10 million for UC Berkeley.)

But now, large entities are rebelling.

The first salvo came from funding agencies, which require the papers to be made freely available, either by sharing the pre-prints (e.g. on arxiv) or by publishing in an Open Access journal (journals where the authors pay (usually $1000!) to get published, and where anyone can read.)

Then came Germany, which reached an impass with the academic publisher Elsevier (one of the leading actors, together with Springer and Wiley) and decided not to pay for the racket (projekt DEAL). The issue has not been resolved yet and German researchers still do not have access to publications such as Cell (they can however directly contact the authors of the papers to get the papers — which actually sound like a good way to start off collaborations!)

Next is the University of California (the whole UC system, with UC Berkeley, Los Angeles, … including Lawrance Berkeley National Lab and Los Alamos), who decided not reneged a deal with Elsevier. That’s a lot of people, for the most important public university system in the world. The impact can be quite dramatic…

And soon will be the turn of Europe as a whole, with Plan S, starting next year…

I can’t wait to see the science literature being unshackled!

Still, don’t expect much changes in the conduct of science… “Authors do not publish to get read, they publish to get reviewed.”

 

How to promote diversity among scientists

This is a compendium of the things I’ve learned discussing the issue with other trained scientists and running an association with many young researchers. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but should help with the discussion. This discussion is primarily based on gender imbalance, but intersectionality applies (sometimes in weird ways), though the case is not as thoroughly documented.

(I wrote this initially for colleagues in my organization, since I couldn’t find a good resource. Here’s a bunch of additional resources – Ideas In Action – that have sprung out since. I’d be very grateful if you could point me to other concise lists)

*   *
*

The lab touts about the number of Nobel Prizes in spurned out, but it is remarkable, if not surprising that none of them are women (Nobel Prize in physics awarded to women (3) are rarer than total solar eclipses in California.) While there are many great women scientists at the lab who will eventually receive the coveted distinction, we must, given the historical significance of the lab and its stature, move forward, lead the way set some guidelines.

 

Personal safety

The first and most important step to promote diversity among scientists is to promote and enforce personal safety, first in terms of fighting against harassment (sexual or other), not only in physical safety terms and how women are depicted (sexist and lewd jokes, prejudiced opinions; see Tim Hunt’s comment on how “Women in labs ‘fall in love with you … you criticize them, they cry’”), but also in terms of financial safety, especially when some populations can experience hardship due to delayed entry into the (paid) workforce without external support (see also “parental leave” below.) It is also generally a good idea not to eschew virtue signaling when it can make a difference (a rainbow flag on a door can go a long way.)

 

Acknowledge your bias

A common objection from researchers is that they are not biased because, you know, they only judge with the data in hands, and that they can tell a good scientist from another using objective information – a resume, a publication list, a curriculum. The trouble here is that biased are ingrained in us (see Daniel Kahneman), which are somehow necessary for us to navigate a complex world (see Gigerenzer), and that even women have biases against women (see Walton). It is therefore important to acknowledge our own biases in order to try to compensate when needed (e.g. in hiring committees.)

In my experience, the mere fact of pointing at an implicit bias does wonder. People are often willing to help, but they don’t even realized there is a problem. It’s often good to point out to organizers of conferences or panels that they are actually manels when you see one.

 

The luster of meritocracy

The most common bias in science is the idea that no matter who you are, your application should be based purely on your academic records, and not on other factors… such as gender. While it seems logical at first glance, we know better and should acknowledge that these seemingly objective metrics must be understood in a more general social context (for example have learned that even artificial intelligence, supposedly fair and objective, is far from immune to bias, see Katie O’Neil.)

 

The need to fight for diversity

Some scientist would come and say, hey, yes there’s an imbalance, but maybe we should let it be (don’t force women into physics if they don’t like it.) The trouble is that the end result is deeply shaped by the system (Fig. 1) and it is important to act early, ideally at the PhD level by making sure that the contingent is not too skewed towards one gender.)

 

Figure 1. The making of inequality (from Paul Walton)

 

While in a democracy it should be obvious that laws should be made by a legislative body with balanced gender, one might notice that the representative democracy in America is not very representative (only 20% of US representatives are women, while roughly half of US constituents are indeed women), while there is no reason other than history to explain this imbalance.

Though science is not a democratic process (there is no expressed need for equal representation), similar historical factors are at play, and diversity or lack thereof can cancel any competitive advantage in terms of science (see Marie Hicks) and inclusivity of technology (see Caroline Criado Perez.)

 

Alleged differences

Some people will go as far as to say that women are actually undesirable in science, based on alleged differences in mental capacity (see Saini), or more subtly in the “variance” of the population (men supposedly show more variance, therefore more chances of fringe cases; see Strumia, Fig. 2)

 

Figure 2. Excerpt of the infamous Strumia’s talk at the workshop on gender diversity at CERN

 

Similar arguments from the Charles Murray’s racist book Bell Curve are used to promote borderline anti-semitic ideas – see also Jordan Peterson.

Ahh! intersectionality….

 

Role models

It is important in order to bring more balance to have role models to whom young scientist can identify, ideally more recent (and more diverse) than Albert Einstein or Marie Curie. The role models should be invited to give talks on site, but ideally *not in the context diversity* — it is important not to fall in the Bechdel test trap, since (i) you will lose a lot of speaker who are tired of having to repeat again and again the many hurdles they faced (ii) these interventions are usually not very interesting outside the TED talk format (iii) the point of role models is to inspire to do science because of it, not in spite of it (that’s what we have experimented with Series X).

 

Mentors

Similar to role models but closer to the person, it is important to have mentors, that can come naturally or through some kind of pairing. These mentors can provide help and support, through sharing their personal experience, advices, and promoting their mentees through invitations to talks and workshops (that’s what we experimented with forum@MSD and  forum@ESA). Be careful that mentors should promote their mentee, not undermine them – the mentor should acknowledge the accomplishments of the mentee, not their own.

 

Provide a platform

Given the current imbalance in gender and diversity as whole, we must make sure that people from underrepresented groups get invited to the lab and are being able to leverage this position, through announcements and support. Success begets success, and the lab is a good reference when someone wants to get booked in other places. Given that diverse speaker are paradoxically more rare, a budget must be set aside to fly them here and/or for an honorarium (they should not work for free, especially when they are themselves not in a position of power.)

Scientists at the lab usually yield considerable power in their own field, and they should be encouraged to seek and promote diversity when they look for invited speakers (best practices and guidelines can be useful here, e.g. never have an all-male panel or seminar series.)

 

Promote scientists to leadership position

Academia is a very competitive environment, and any differentiating factor is useful when it comes to apply to position, especially when women face external factors that gradually push them outside academia (Fig. 1) Encouraging women to pursue ancillary activities (association, EAA or ERGs), where they can learn leadership skills and strengthen their network, is seen as important, and the lab should further its support to extra-curricular activities.

 

Work-life balance

Work-life balance is a vague concept that still has very real implications: while men do not face the discrimination related to their potential being pregnant, women do. The consequence of childbearing should be shared between the two parents, and initiatives such as (non-gendered) parental leaves are very useful to bridge the gap.

Some policies to make it more convenient to raise children can be implemented, such as policies against emails past 5pm during week-ends, or enforcing one day per week without meeting, to allow for telecommuting (parking at the lab is nearly impossible when an appointment to a doctor pushes your commute later in the day.)

 

Smash the patriarchy

Oftentimes I hear people (old white male) arguing about the current push for equality, dismissed as a PC coup and a threat to the freedom of expression, where they feel that *they* might become victims. This is baloney, and they should learn about the distinction between men (them) and patriarchy (the system), and not feel threatened – this is not about them, it is about all of us. They might have to change their habits coming from a position of power they rarely acknowledge, and learn to speak up when they see something wrong.

This applies to men… but also to women. I seen many times over

 

References

Paul Walton: Gender equal­ity in Aca­demia – what we have learnt

Angela Saini, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, fast and slow

Katie O’Neal, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Marie Hicks, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing

Nearly half of US female scientists leave full-time science after first child, Nature, 19 February 2019

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00611-1?fbclid=IwAR2unznTjBTUUTlkEQJTiFmV6ZOxQUxTmhFQw_5j48r6YFXnHjoDoUEH2wM

Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/feb/23/truth-world-built-for-men-car-crashes

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/03/06/new-study-nih-funding-says-women-get-smaller-grants-men

http://berkeleysciencereview.com/inclusive-mcb

http://antoine.wojdyla.fr/blog/2017/10/20/sexism-in-academia/

OSA and SPIE Professional Conduct Research Assessing And Addressing The Level Of Harassment At Scientific Meetings

(edit March 9th, 2020)

The researcher journey through a gender lens – Elsevier (March 2020)

 

 

Autopilot

Lead by lidar

At the moment (April 2019), the economy is in a weird quantum superposition of doom (yield curve inversion) and exaltation, with Lyft recently joining the public markets (always loved the irony of the term…)

I’ve been talking to a few people involved in driverless cars and AI lately, asking them…. when? They usually tell me soon, the problem they have is that the main drawback with learned neural networks is that they are almost impossible to debug. You can try to get insight on how they work (see the fascinating Activation Atlas), but it’s really difficult to rewire them.

And it’s actually pretty easy to hack them — you can easily do some random addition to find noise that will activates the whole network. In the real world, you can put stickers at just the right location and… make every other car crash. Pretty scary…

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How I unlocked my Verizon Moto G6 and ditched my iPhone 6 because it was too slow

Recently, I bought a phone for my family visiting, because roaming costs are so incredibly high for no good reason, and because it becomes hard to navigate the world without the internet (booking, GPS, etc.) I bought at $99, and paid a $50 data plan from Verizon (good deal given that the phone the MSRP is $249, that it’s a very decent phone, and that you can use it anywhere with any carrier — it has GSM, CDMA and everything you need.)

On the back of the box, it was mentioned that the phone could be unlocked after $50 had been made. I had just bought $50 of credit for 1 month of 4G with Verizon.

When my parents left, I tried to unlock it. It was a bit confusing, but it did work!

You can find solace in successfully going through automated customer service

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Paul Valéry sur le mensonge

Bonne année 2019!

Ces deux dernières années aux Etats-Unis m’ont beaucoup fait reflechir, sur le plan personnel et politique, à la notion de verité, de transparence et d’honnêté, qui plus que jamais est nécessaire au discours civil.

Au centre de cette réflexion, ces quelques lignes de Paul Valéry, toujours juste.

Mensonge

Ce qui nous force à mentir, est fréquemment le sentiment que nous avons de l’impossibilité chez les autres qu’ils comprennent entièrement notre action. Ils n’arriveront jamais à en concevoir la nécessité (qui à nous-même s’impose sans s’éclaircir).

– Je te dirais ce que tu peux comprendre. Tu ne peux comprendre le vrai. Je ne puis même essayer de te l’expliquer. Je te dirais donc le faux.

– C’est là le mensonge de celui qui désespère de l’esprit d’autrui, et qui lui ment, parce que le faux est plus simple que le vrai. Même le mensonge le plus compliqué est plus simple que le Vrai. La parole ne peut prétendre à développer tout le complexe de l’individu.

– Paul Valéry, Tel Quel