Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It could be...it might be...it IS! A HOME run! Harry Caray science

This post is triggered by things are said at genetics meetings we have attend, things said both in casual conversation and even in formal presentations.  The attitudes are in no way particular to the participants of a given meeting, but instead have become everyday kinds of comments in the sciences we are involved in.  So we thought we would comment in turn.

Sports Lead-in
Harry Caray was one of baseball's best-ever announcers (his son Skip is still a prominent sportscaster).  Caray was with the St Louis Cards when I was studying meteorology in St Louis and the Cards won a fantastic world series (against the hated Yankees). Then, after a bit of hanky-panky with a daughter-in-law of the Anheuser Busch family (the Cards' owners) he had to get out of town, and he ended his career working magic with the Chicago Cubs.

A wonderful broadcaster in the good old days of sultry summer radio listening (before designated hitters and pampered players).  It was true excitement and, yes, totally partisan.  But MT is about science, which is not supposed to be partisan, so what's the connection, besides something to write about on a slow news day?

Is anything worth saying, worth exaggerating?
We often write critically about what we believe are excess claims made by scientists, to the media, in papers, and in grant applications.  While we try to have responsible and legitimate reasons for this criticism, we are sometimes accused of just being negative, jealous of others' big grants, or being just plain dour.  There is no getting away from personal feelings about life, but we have been sufficiently, and consistently successful even if we have not run a big science factory or large operation, so that we don't believe our views can be chalked up to jealousy.  Rather our views on this subject are, at least as much as possible, based on what we think are appropriate rather than venal reasons.  Big science can ignore such criticisms, and does so, but many in science are going to be squeezed out of the game, and put on the bench, by what is going on.

The science of today is to a great extent a competitive rat-race in which we rats (and our students) are trained to claim more than is justified, and almost-openly admit that exaggeration, and indeed, even outright dishonesty is part of the 'game'.  This is often called grantsmanship, or sometimes even marketing.   "It's the new business model",  "I say this to funders with my fingers crossed behind my back", "....it'll be good for technology development even if we know it won't do what we say",  "Yes, it' won't work but it's a holding action til the right technology comes along",  "I'll say that here in this meeting, but I wouldn't say it when I testify before Congress.....",  "We needed to find another high-throughput sequencing project to keep our lab running...".  Because of their obviously dicey ethics, these things are often said with knowing smiles.

In these and many other similar ways, science is seen as a game, about pouring out papers and scrambling for the media (or profits, or patents, etc), and claiming major discoveries because......because everybody else is doing it.  We have to process many graduate students and post-docs, whether or not there will be jobs for them, because we need them as workers to keep our labs running.  We'll get ours, and leave the exponential growth problem for the future to deal with.

There's scant sense of shame in these aspects of modern industrialized, institutionalized science.  Maybe we're lucky that our society is so used to this kind of self-promotion that few people feel they actually have to cheat or out-right lie, so that hopefully the wrongness component in science is dissembling rather than data fabrication.  That does seem to be the case.  Even science's Liar's Club does not tolerate pure invention!  We're lucky for that.

And, in any culture, the way of doing business is what it is, and never lives up to its self-proclaimed ideals.  So, science has its share of the resource pie, based on promises and practices that are not wholly honored, self-perpetuating rather than fully accountable, and only imperfectly adjusted to the societal needs it purports to satisfy.   We guard that share carefully, of course.  Perhaps one should just accept human imperfection and not worry about it.  In that sense, honesty is an ideal we compromise to the extent society and our guild's success let us get away with it.

"Holy cow!" every time!
One of Harry Caray's famous phrases, screamed with true enthusiasm after every play favorable to the home team, was "Holy cow!".  His enthusiasm was unrelenting, not dampened by whether success was as real as his expressions about it.  Indeed, he went untempered from the perennial winners the St Louis Cards, to the perennial losers the Chicago Cubs (sob, sob!).  But he kept on hoping, kept on striving, kept on exclaiming.  Caray died in 1998, but of course the Cubbies, like scientists, are still looking for the right answers.

Scientists need jobs like anybody else who's not in the upper class, but science should also be about seeking the right answers.  We should always be questioning and groping, because trying to understand Nature's puzzles is tough and most findings, sadly, are minor and have little influence.  Those are  demonstrable facts about the research bubble we're living through.

Science should not be like Harry Caray, describing what he knew was going to be a home run with uncertainties: it might be....it could be....   as became his very appealing formula.  That was great for baseball.  But there is too much equating of might be to what must be in science these days.  Too much pretending that we are just testing Nature, when what we really do too often is design studies to prove some preonceived point or guaranteed incremental result to be used to justify the next, bigger incremental project.  This, for example, is what a lot of the GWAS and similar advocacy is about, at its root.  It's a costly way to do things.

But as is now almost-openly acknowledged, today's science-as-business worldview is a substantial change from the more academic conditions in the past, and while it was never perfect and science always has to consider how to get its costs covered, it has come to be about over-heated 'productivity' in the name of ever-more grant funding.  It's about the science establishment promoting he science establishment.  A lot of the pressure is due to the low funding probabilities, the addiction of universities for overhead funds, and weed-like growth of administrative bureaucracy--in the funding as well as recipient organizations.  But is this all just fine, or is this Hara Kiri rather than harmless Harry Caray enthusiasm?  There seems to be little pressure to alter the system.

All of this may be the consequence of the democratization of universities, where more than a tiny elite can take part, a system of institutionalized careers that may be no worse than any other, and probably better than most.  We need to earn our living, and we're in a culture fervently devoted to the ethos of competition.  That may or may not be good for science itself, or for what science does to improve the lives of the citizenry that pays for it.  When it came to baseball, nobody every got tired of Harry Caray.  But until or unless we decide to alter this environment in science, that society may eventually tire of, perhaps one can't blame us scientists for the way, with Harry Caray's enthusiasm, we excitedly proclaim "Holy Cow!! A Home Run!" every time we get a bunt single.


Holly Dunsworth said...

As you mentioned early in this nice post... many scientists neither have the will nor the ability to cry homer about their bunt so they're benched or kept down in single-A....while the genuinely great but also many genuinely fullofit scientists stay in the show.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, without being so categorical about it, I would agree that the professional pressures and structures, and human vanities etc. make the system game-able, and reward those who are good at the game. They may or may not be the best scientists, so I wouldn't over-generalize.

But the time consumed in gaming does probably generally make science safer, less innovative, and distracts from the investigators' time spent just thinking hard about the problem.

The latter, a rather superficial continual-flow-through model of research life, is rife these days. Measured contemplation, pauses between projects, and the like are just not in the cards for those seeking success.