Wednesday, October 3, 2018

In order to be recognized, you have to be read: an impish truth?

Edgar Allan Poe was an American short story writer, a master of macabre horror--the 3 G's, one might say: Grim, Gruesome, and Ghastly.  Eeeeek!! If you don't know Poe, a BBC World Service podcast in the series The Forum (Sept 15, 2018) discusses his life and work.  If you haven't yet, you should read him (but not too late at night or in too dark a room!).  The Tell-tale Heart, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Cask of Amontillado should be enough to scare the wits out of you! Eeeeek!!

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49)
Ah, scare tactics--what a ploy for attention!  At a time when not many people were supporting themselves with writing alone, Poe apparently wrote that this going over the top was justified or even necessary if you wanted to make a living as a writer.  If you have to sell stories, somebody has to know about them, be intrigued by what they promise, go out and buy them.

Is science also a fantasy horror?
Poe was referring to his use of extreme shock value in literature, stories of the unreal.  But a colleague in genetics once boasted that "anything worth saying is worth exaggerating, and worth repeating", and drum-beating essentially the same idea over and over is a common science publishing policy.   This attitude seems schemingly antithetical to the ideals of science which should, at least, be incompatible with showmanship for many reasons.

Explaining science and advocating one's view in responsible ways is part of education, and of course the public whose taxes support science has a right to know what scientists do with the money.  New ideas may need to be stressed against a recalcitrant public, or even scientific, community.  Nonetheless, pandering science to the public as a ploy to get attention or money from them, is unworthy.  At the very least, it temps exaggeration or other misrepresentations of what's actually known.  We regularly see the evidence of this in terms of outright fraud that is discovered, and also yes-no-yes-again results (does coffee help or hurt you?).

This, I think, reflects a gradual, subtle, but for someone paying attention, a substantial dumbing-down of science reporting, by even the mainstream news media--even the covers and news 'n views headlines of the major science journals approach checkout-counter magazines in this, in my view.  Is this only crass but superficial pandering for reader and viewership--for subscription sales, or could it reflect a serious, degeneration in the quality of education itself, on which our society so heavily relies?   Eeeeek!!

In fact, showman scientists aren't new.  In a way, Hippocrates (whoever he was, if any single individual) once wrote a defensive article (On the Sacred Disease) in explicit competition for 'control' of the business of treating epilepsy, an effort to maintain that territory for medicine against competition from religion.  Centuries later, Galen was apparently well-known for public demonstrations of vivisection and so on, to garner attention and presumably wealth.

Robert Boyle gave traveling demonstrations of his famous air-pump, doing cruel things to animals to show that he created a vacuum.  Gall hustled his phrenology theory about skull shape and mental traits.  In the age of sail, people returning from expeditions to the far unknown gave lurid reports (thrills for paying audiences) and brought back exotica (dead and stuffed).  The captain of the Beagle, the ship on which Darwin sailed, brought live, unstuffed Fuegians back to England for display, among other such examples.

Yes, showman science isn't new.  And perhaps because of the various facets of the profit motive (now perhaps especially attending biomedical research) we see what seems to be increasingly common reports of corruption even among prominent senior (not just desperate junior) academic scientists.  This presumably results from the irresistible lure of lucre or pressure for attention and prominence.  Getting funded and attention mean having a career, when promotion, salaries, tenure, and prestige depend on how much rather than on what.  Ah, well, human fallibility!

The daily press feeds on, perpetuates (and profits from) simplistic claims of discovery along with breathless announcements that are often basically and culpably exaggerated promises.  Universities, hungry for grants, overhead, and attention, are fully in the game.  Showboat science isn't new, but I think has palpably ballooned in recent decades.  Among other things, scientists intentionally, with self-interest, routinely sow a sense of urgency.  Eeeeek!!

So should there be pressure on scientists to quiet down and stop relentless lobbying in every conceivable way?  My personal (probably reactionary!) view is a definite 'yes!':  we should discourage, or even somehow penalize showmanship of this sort.  The public has a right to know what they're paying for, but we should fund science without forcing it to be such a competitive and entrepreneurial system that must be manipulated by 'going public', by advertising.  If we want science to be done--and we should--then we should support it properly.

In a more balanced world, if you're hired as a science professor, the university owes you a salary, a lab, and resources to do what they hired you to do.  A professor's job should not depend on being a sales agent for oneself and the university, as it very often is, sometimes rather explicitly today.  Eeeeek!!

The imp of the perverse--in science today
One of Poe's stories was The Imp of the Perverse.  The narrator remarks upon our apparent perverse drive to do just the opposite of what we think--or know--that we should do.

The Imp of the Perverse.  Drawing by Arthur Rackham (source: Wiki entry on the story)
I won't give any spoilers, since you can enjoy it for yourself.  (Eeeeek!!)  But I think it has relevance to today's attitudes in science.  Science should be--our self-mythology is that it is--a dispassionate search for the truth about Nature.  Self-interest, biased perspectives, and other subjective aspects of our nature are to be avoided as much as possible.  But the imp of our perverse is that it has become (quoth the raven) ever-more important that science be personally self-serving.  It is hard to prevent ourselves, our imp, from blurting out that truth (though it is often acknowledged quietly, in private).

On the good side, careers in science have become more accessible to those not from the societal elite.  The down side is that therefore we have to sing for our supper.  Darwin and most others of science lore were basically of independent means.  They didn't do science as a career, but as a calling.

Of course, as science has become more bureaucratic, bourgeois, and routine, Nature yields where mythology--lore, dogma, and religion--had held forth in the past.  So, it is not clear whose interest that imp is serving.  That's more than a bit unnerving!  Eeeeek!!

Science 'ethics': can they be mainly fictional, too?
Each human society does things in some way, and things do get done.  Indeed, having been trained as an anthropologist, perhaps I shouldn't be disturbed or surprised by the crass aspects of science--nor that this predictably includes increasingly frequent actual fraud egged on by the imp of the pressure of self-interest.  Eeeeek!!

Our mythology of 'science' is the dispassionate attempt to understand Nature.  But maybe that's really what it is: a myth.  It is our way of pursuing knowledge, which science, of course, does.  And in the process, as predecessors such as those I named above show, gaming science is not new.  So isn't this just how human societies are, imperfect because we're imperfect beings?  Is there reason to try, at least, to resist the accelerating self-promotion, and to put more resources not just to careers but to the substance of real problems that we ought to try to solve?

Or should we just admire how our scientists have learned to work the system--that we let costly projects become entrenched, train excess research personnel, scare the public about disease, or make glowing false promises to get them to put money in the plate every tax year?  In the process, perhaps real solutions to problems are delayed, and we produce many more scientists than there are jobs, because one criterion for a successful lab is its size.

Were he alive and a witness to this situation, Poe might have fun dramatizing how science has become, though wonderful for some, for many, a horrible nightmare: Eeeeek!!

1 comment:

Manoj Samanta said...

Last time I read Poe was in India some three decades back. I didn't know he was American. Not that I could tell the difference in those days :)

I should go back and read his stories again.