The Luxury of Introspection

We at ESS have been planning to get the faculty at CES on board the blogging brigade for some time now. We start off with Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar kindly sharing his thoughts with us with the following blog. He looks forward to comments.

One day I was quite randomly switching channels on my television in India (we have over a 100 channels, though few that are worth watching) and I came across a channel on which Mr. Raj Kapoor was being interviewed. Raj Kapoor was an icon of India’s film industry; he was a most famous film producer, director and actor in Indian cinema before it got the vulgar label of Bollywood. The interviewer, a very beautiful actress by the name of Simmi Garewal, asked Raj Kapoor many difficult questions, especially about how he managed to balance his life with his wife and large family on the one hand and his many women on the other. But in the end she asked him the most difficult question: she asked him to name his most favourite among his many films. He hesitated, said it was very difficult but finally named the film ‘Mera Naam Joker’. The interviewer was surprised (as was I) and protested that the film was a total box office flop. Raj Kapoor said with a smile that all his films were wonderful, they were like his children and he loved them all but if he was forced to pick a favourite he would pick the one that did not do so well in the world. How I wish scientists had the courage to say something like that. In today’s world scientists only tell you how many times they have been cited and what their impact factor is and what their h index is, and so on. I sometimes wonder who is in show business – filmmakers or scientists! Since then I always tell my students this story and tell them that by the time they become independent scientists they should have the maturity to have an opinion of their papers, even of their unpublished manuscripts, independent of what the reviewers might think.

Indeed, one of my great frustrations with the scientific community and the scientific enterprise is the extent to which we jump onto bandwagons and succumb to prevailing fashions, the extent to which scientists almost entirely judge themselves by how their peers judge them and don’t seem to have an independent opinion of themselves or their work. This kind of peer judgment has now reached pathological proportions because people no longer seem to read papers and appear to be content at knowing the impact factor of the journal in which a paper is published. This has resulted in a mad rush to publish in so-called high-impact factor journals, which then begin to determine what kind of science is done. Funding, promotion, election to academies, getting prizes, our very social prestige seems to depend on these absurd quantitative measures of quality. It is also a great waste of everybody’s time because people would like to try their luck in the highest-impact factor journals and descend through a series of rejections until they land at the right place. Next to impact factor, the second instrument with which journals boast of their quality is the percentage of papers they reject. Until some years ago, I used to quite enjoy meetings where we evaluated scientists for one reason or another because I learnt a great deal of what each scientist had done. Today I have to listen only to numbers of publications, citations, impact factors of journals, h index and so on, without being told what was actually discovered. Younger people, somewhat legitimately, are afraid of not conforming to the system because their careers may depend on their h indices, although I think a little more protest and defiance is called for. The real burden of reform lies with senior, accomplished scientists who have the power to change the methods of evaluation. But I see no sign of that. This is the single most disturbing aspect of modern science. For my part, I have never ever paid attention to the impact factor of any journal- not when I read, not when I publish and not when I evaluate.

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Some time ago I had the opportunity to speak during a workshop on Science Communication, and this brought home to me the difficulty of practicing and the near impossibility of teaching science communication in today’s world. Concerning science communication, I make two propositions.

Proposition 1: In an ideal world, there should be no need for science communicators as distinct from scientists. The producers of knowledge should be able to successfully communicate their findings to all of the rest of the world. Indeed, they should be able to do so better than anybody else.

Proposition 2: In an ideal world, there should be no difference between communicating science through the medium of a peer-reviewed, technical science journal, on the one hand, and through a newspaper article, on the other.

Of course we don’t live in an ideal world, but is there any harm in trying? At the very least we should not bend over backwards to make the world less ideal than it can possibly be. I suggest that we should try to put ourselves on a trajectory that leads to a world where these propositions are true, even if we will never actually get there. To get onto such a trajectory, three conditions must be met.

Condition One: Scientists must be interested in and must value effective communication. Unfortunately this condition is not usually met. Scientists seldom seem to be interested in effective communication. This may seem like an outrageous claim but let’s think about it. We never hear of one scientist tell another, “Oh! I read a paper in Nature last night, it was so well written.” If you indeed make such a remark, it will likely be construed as a backhanded compliment, suggesting that there was not much substance in the paper. This is because scientists seem to imagine, implicitly or explicitly, that there is a trade-off between form and content – if the results are very good there is no need to say it very well and if some one works hard to say it well, maybe this is to compensate for the lack of much substance. But of course there cannot be a trade-off between form and con- tent. Form and content can only enhance each other and never diminish each other. Scientists need to accept that there is always a positive feedback between form and content and cultivate a desire for effective communication. And they should stop deriding efforts by their peers to communicate science effectively, especially when it is done for the general public. We must endeavour to refute Stefan Collini’s charge (Collini, Stefan. Introduction. In: C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures, Cambridge University Press, Canto Edition, 1998, p.lix.) that in Science “writing plays no really creative role”, that “arranging one’s findings in intelligible form is regarded by many research scientists as something of a chore” and that “elegance of style tends not to be cultivated or prized as a professional ideal…” I agree with the charge but we must change the world of science so that the charge is no longer true.

Condition Two: Scientists must read widely and indiscriminately. This condition is also seldom met because scientists consider it a waste of their precious time; they prefer to get on with their work. My advice to students to read widely and indiscriminately, especially outside their field, is often seen as bad advice by my colleagues. All this is because we have bound ourselves to unrealistic and counterproductive standards for the quantum of output in the form of scientific papers per capita, per year. There is clearly a trade-off between quantity and quality that we must take note of. Unless we read widely and indiscriminately and-especially in peripheral and “irrelevant” fields, we are not likely to be able to develop an effective style of communication. It is not easy to prove this point by argumentation; one has to practice reading widely and indiscriminately to see its truth!

Condition Three: To move in the direction of collapsing the journal article and the newspaper article, we need to change our attitude both toward the readers of scientific journals and toward the readers of newspapers. ‘When we write for scientific journals, we assume far too much knowledge and intelligence on the part of our readers and when we write for newspapers, if we ever do, we assume too little knowledge and intelligence on the part of our readers. Besides, as Sir Peter Medawar has so convincingly argued (Medawar, Peter. “Is the Scientific Paper a Fraud?” Unscripted broadcast on BBC Third Programme, Listner 70,12 September 1963. Printed in: Peter Medawar, The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice, and Other Classic Essays on Science, Oxford University Press, 1996.), the scientific paper has quite unnecessarily been made into an unrealistic caricature of how we do science. The flow of a typical paper from Introduction to Methods to Results and finally to Discussion almost never reflects the actual way in which the research was done it strips the narrative of the true ups and downs and hides all the false starts and thus fails to convey the process of science. This is not necessarily inevitable and should be changed and, as Medawar says, “the inductive format of the scientific paper should be discarded”. On the other hand we need to take the readers of newspapers far more seriously and not only write more often for them but also write in a more honest way. This will help redress the present imbalance, at least to some extent. It is time we discovered the true value of newspaper articles written by scientists themselves. Here is one incentive: While the readers of our technical papers are likely to be our competitors, often with a conflict of interest, the readers of our newspaper articles are more likely to be our collaborators, with little or no conflict of interest. Let’s address the latter more often.

If communicating science is difficult, communicating about science communication is harder still. This relates to the larger problem of the difficulty (or impossibility) of teaching creative writing. We can teach people how to write but we cannot teach people how to write creatively, almost by definition. Think of why we like our favourite authors. It is because each of them has a distinct and unique style. How do we teach students of science communication to write with distinct and unique styles of their own? I do not formally teach science communication, but if I did I would not produce lists of Do’s and Don’ts and I would not hold up models of creative writing for emulation. Instead, I would make my students read widely and indiscriminately and especially outside their fields of interest and expertise. Then I would ask them to rank, say on a scale of I to 5, what they have read, in terms of whether they found the writing illuminating and interesting. Finally, and this is most important, I would persuade them to publicly articulate the reasons for their rankings. Merely indulging in repeated exercises of this kind can go a long way in getting students to learn the value of good writing and to develop a style of their own.

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In recent years one of the great pleasures in my life has been the opportunity to listen to audiobooks and podcasts. An added advantage is that I can do so while I walk, exercise, wait for delayed flights or (occasionally) cook. An amazing number of great books, old and new, are now easily available as audiobooks, and sometimes for free. More importantly, the audio recording of a book is often a significant value addition, creating a whole new experience. No wonder I often go back and listen to books that I have already read in the conventional format. I also subscribe to a number of podcasts and have become addicted to them. Among them are the short weekly podcasts that journals such as Nature and Science put out along with their print and e-editions. I always listen to these podcasts and go to the journal only if something interests me. These podcasts not only contain summaries of several articles but also interviews with the authors, comments by independent experts and so on. Some time ago I was listening to the 26 August 2011 Science podcast. The Science podcast is usually hosted by two people (Stewart Wills and Kerry Klein, in recent times) and toward the end of programme, after the contents of the current issue of the journal are covered and various authors and experts are interviewed, their online science news editor David Grimm is interviewed as he brings news about a number of fascinating science stories published in journals other than Science. On that occasion David Grimm had brought a number of science stories, but his very last one was, for me, an icing on the cake. David Grimm had brought a bizarre story about bedbug sex. He told the interviewer Kerry Klein that, “Once they’ve finished feeding, males attack them [female bugs] or ‘attack’ them with bacteria-covered penises. And the reason I say attack is because the male bed bugs are quite likely to not use the proper plumbing, and rather just sort of randomly jab her in various places of her abdomen. So it’s very unpleasant to be a female bedbug. So the question with this study is, first of all, how do females survive this assault? And also, if the males’ penises are covered in bacteria, how do the females protect themselves from getting infected?” As David Grimm went on to give more details about how the female bedbugs step up their immune response and so on, the question that was running through my head was “why”, why should males do anything so bizarre? I could not, of course, ask the question and my only hope was that the host Kerry Klein would ask the question. But, instead of asking why the males do such a bizarre thing, she said, “So a question that is running through my head throughout this is, ‘Why do we care about bedbug sex?'” I was crestfallen. It is such an interesting thing that any child will want to know why, not why we care.

The best of science is driven by childlike curiosity, not by carefully weighing whether or not we should waste our time and money on finding answers to this or that. Kaushik Basu, the current economic advisor to the Government of India, put it well when reflecting on whether to leave academics and join the government. In an essay reprinted in his’:” delightful little book “An Economist’s Miscellany”, (Basu, Kaushik. An Economist’s Miscellany. Oxford University Press, 2011.) Basu says, “As a researcher, I did economics for the love of aesthetics, not for relevance. In defence; I will simply say that that is the only way to do good research. The primary motivation that drives a researcher is a creative urge, the urge to unearth beauty and order, be it in nature, society, or the chaos of the market.” And yet we are asked to justify all research, even before it is done, not only by politicians, but also, as I discovered on this occasion, even by science journalists. And we scientists obediently manufacture false expectations from our research. In his case David Grimm produced a most unconvincing claim that “a lot of people want to ex- terminate bedbugs from their homes, so the more we learn about how they regulate their immune response, the more we can actually take advantage of that and have a much more effective way potentially of getting these bedbugs out of our beds”. Why not say more honestly that the behaviour of the bedbugs is so intriguing that we cannot sleep well until we know why they behave as they do? The best way to choose a scientific problem is not by how important its solution is for our welfare but by how interesting it is, how it is the next gap in our knowledge that needs to be filled before other gaps can be filled and in- deed, before other gaps can even be identified. Science creates a body of knowledge the creators of which do not always care for the current perception of its utility.

But of course we cannot only blame politicians, administrators and journalists for the false and misleading emphasis on the utility of all knowledge. We scientists are as much to blame and have as much power to alter the current state of affairs. We often make our research more expensive than it needs to be, we attach more prestige to expensive research and belittle inexpensive research. As a result, we choose the most expensive research projects and the most expensive ways of solving a given problem. We inflate our budgets and make it hard for people to get small grants. Indeed we are well on our way to exterminating the whole genre of grant-free research by starting so called open-access journals where authors have to pay to publish. The most disconcerting trend that I have come across recently is that we are gradually replacing the category of “scientist” with “PI” (for principal investigator). I am often asked how many PIs there are in my institute. PI is the one who gets the grants and only he or she seems to count; all others who actually do the research, including students, are becoming irrelevant. There is much introspection and soul-searching that we scientists need to do.

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Introspection however has become a luxury that we can increasingly ill afford. Scientists are so busy, producing so much science, never mind its quality. I myself could scarcely escape this trap if I did not have the luxury of coming from time to time to the Wissenschaftskolleg, where one can still afford the luxury of introspection. Indeed, one cannot help introspect, for here we meet not our competitors but scholars of unconnected disciplines who could care less about the quantum of our research output but often ask us naive questions driven by ignorance that often result in childlike curiosity. Joachim Nettelbeck, in whose honour this volume is being written by his friends and admirers, has not only been greatly responsible for making the Wissenschaftskolleg what it is, he him- self is also always available to discuss the kinds of introspections that I have exemplified above. I will always cherish the numerous occasions on which I tried out my ideas and thoughts before his critical and enthusiastic mind. I have even more to be grateful for. Nettelbeck has been a great source of inspiration for me to set up the Centre for Contemporary Studies (CCS) at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. CCS aims to be a kind of mini-Wissenschaftskolleg by bringing to the campus of a purely science and engineering institute scholars from diverse disciplines in the social sciences, humanities, arts and literature. The goal is to open the minds of students so that they can avail themselves of the luxury of introspection whenever an opportunity presents itself.

 

Reproduced from: Beyond the college - Joachim Nettelbeck, the Secretary of the Wissenschaftskollegs from 1981-2012)  (Eds.) Diawara, M.; Günther, K.,and Meyer-Kalkus, R., Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Germany, pp. 152-157 (2012).
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One comment

  1. Henny Romijn (associate prof at Eindhoven Univ, Netherlands)

    This is great stuff, professor Gadagkar! Thank you for the inspiring blogpost. There is at least one other academic on this earth who thinks like you. Let me join in with a little contribution reflecting my own experience.
    Every year I give a guest lecture in a research methodology course for our MSc students, in which the only thing I do is to give an honest account of how one of my “best” (in my own opinion) research papers got written. It is a story full of false starts, twists and turns and rethinking efforts, prompted by a fast-moving reality that was stubbornly refusing to be fitted neatly into my original theoretical frame. The student love it — the story flows like a detective novel and the whole process is much more interesting and insightful than the final outcome from that process: the paper that was eventually published. Apparently, the other lecturers in my department are unable and/or unwilling to do something similar, because every year I get the request from the course coordinator to please repeat my story again for the latest batch of students. This is so strange in my opinion. Every academic worth his/her salt should be able to reflect on the process of doing research, and even to do this with some self-criticism and humor. I started to wonder why we, in our academic profession, are so fixated on keeping up appearances of a neat and tidy process that we always are in full control of, whereas we are often just blundering around in practice? It sets the wrong examples for young people! They should know that research can be quite chaotic and full of surprises – some nasty, some delightful -, and that professors are after all not some kinds of demi-gods but just ordinary people like them. So that the students can aspire to reach where we have reached, and even outperform us. The process of doing research is also precisely what makes our profession so intriguing and why academia is an attractive career option for some of us, despite the long working hours (especially when we want to read widely in all directions and in different media) and the not so decent pay, not to speak of the continuous milling of our thought processes that refuse to stop even during our brief “vacations” in which we are still not getting away from it all.

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