Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Science Status

One way of breaking out of the Great Stagnation: raise the social status of scientists such that more folks pick science over, say, law. Here's the Forbes piece on Cowen from last year:

Raising the social status of scientists

Cowen’s only concrete recommendation to improve the great stagnation is to “raise the social status of scientists”.  He says: “I don’t want a bunch of extra science prizes given out by the White House; what I want is that most people really care about science and view scientific achievement as a pinnacle of our best qualities as leaders of Western civilization.”
Such a raise in status is devoutly to be wished, particularly the rise in the status of scientists relative to overpaid executives in the financial sector. However such a rise in status is unlikely to have any immediate impact on innovation or growth.
Innovation depends not on how many scientific ideas are out there. It depends on how quickly the already abundant ideas are implemented in the marketplace.
New Zealand columnist Rosemary McLeod also points to the problem, although without any concrete solution:
By contrast to Deen, I doubt very much that any women pant after Stephen Wolfram, the balding and totally average-looking maths genius, now middle-aged, who wrote his first book on particle physics at the age of 14 and had a PhD at 20.

I mention this because somewhere in the great system of evolution there is a definite glitch that needs to be explained in a hurry if our species is to work out how to survive in this world we currently make such a mess of.

It is the likes of Wolfram we should be aiming our simpering selves at, surely, rather than an average Joe with a single, rather common ability that requires almost no IQ.

We should be wanting to breed - if sex still has any relation to reproduction - with blokes who are not only clever, but also rich.

We should thrill to words like "cosmology" and "quantum field theory", then, for the very good reason that we haven't a clue what they mean, but guess that they may come in handy one day.
A lot of should, but no way of getting there from here. Science, alas, isn't generally seen as all that alpha in the only metric that matters in the long run.

Rugby, on the other hand, does not lack for social approbation.
On Saturday, New Zealand learned that we had lost one of our greatest minds.  Sir Paul Callaghan, the 2011 New Zealander of the Year, held many accolades including being a Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.  His list of credentials are as long as they are impressive.  However, despite this, his death and ultimate loss to New Zealand was relegated to the fourth most important news item on both One News and 3 News, something I thought was worth lamenting.
Only 11 days earlier, another Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit member passed away.  His death lead both bulletins.  This of course was Jock Hobbs: former All Black and the man who has been bestowed the honor of saving New Zealand rugby and of securing the 2011 Rugby World Cup hosting rights.
On the day the Jock Hobbs died, both networks deemed the story as being more ‘important’ (i.e. higher up in the bulletin) than news of a major breach of privacy at ACC, the conflict in Syria, the Urewera 4 trial, Asia Air X ending its service to Christchurch, the Ports of Auckland strike and the Chris Cairns libel case.
Compare this to when Sir Paul Callaghan passed away, One News thought the return of a sporting event to Christchurch, the refit of a sports stadium and an incident involving a hot air balloon in which everyone was safe were more important. 3 News had the jailing of a Kiwi duped into smuggling cocaine in Argentina, the cost to rent a house in Auckland and President Obama’s statement about a killed teenager in Florida.
Re-read that list of stories again.  Is it not appalling?  Is it not disrespectful?  Could you go as far as asking if it’s fair, balanced or even reasonable?
It's lamentable, but perfectly understandable. Media plays to what the public wants in a competitive marketplace. And here they want rugby and mostly reckon scientists a bunch of tosser eggheads who should be forced to find real jobs. Not that it's particularly better anywhere else.

We'll know things have changed when scientists have groupies. I'm not betting on its ever happening. I remember stories about one socially obtuse grad student (a few years ahead of me in school, and who will remain nameless) who went around introducing himself to ladies saying "Hi! I just had this paper published! I wrote this!" He was, unsurprisingly, unsuccessful. But I'd expect an athlete of similarly poor social skills would have found more success by saying "Hi! Look at my MVP ring!"


  1. Another good reason for my move from science to the infinitely sexier IT world ;)

  2. On a more serious note I'm less concerned about the popularity and/or notoriety of individual scientists and more concerned about the trend to disregard science by the general public. I think those actively involved in scientific research would generally agree with me, they care about the respect gained for their work amongst their peers, but generally couldn't care less about their reputation with "great unwashed".

    There seems to be a general decline in the public respect for scientific findings, it isn't sufficient now for experts in their field to collect & analyse data and devise theories & models to best explain the observed data. That isn't sexy enough to the public, and the immediate reaction is to distrust and disbelieve science, especially if the findings are somewhat unpalatable. To some degree the media are driving this, but more so I get the feeling that some folk would be quite happy slipping back into the dark ages where superstition and preconceived notions rule over rational thought and investigation.

    1. Agreed, Lats, on approbation and those who go into science currently, but think about selection effects: what you say will have to be true under rational expectations as those will be the only folks who decide to go into science. Anybody who cares about broader approbation avoids the field.

      Some folks purporting to do science make the rest of the field look bad. That's why I get really annoyed about people dressing up political pushes for paternalism as science rather than values: it denigrates science (both economic science and health science) and leads to erosion of public support for the real stuff. When U Otago idiots claim cigarettes are of the same category as landmines, who could be blamed for utterly dismissing anything that that university might produce?

    2. Yep, I agree, some "scientists" do their field no good whatsoever. Sadly the general public is in no position to make the distinction between good and bad science, or to rate individual findings on their academic/scientific merits. This is why pseudo-science along the lines of Ken Ring or Barcaroller gain traction - they are able to dress up their superstitions in the guise of science.

      In addition scientists probably ought not be making moral/value judgements without making it abundantly clear that these judgements are divorced from any actual findings and should carry no more weight than the opinions of any other individual. But then the media wouldn't bother talking to them :)

    3. @Lats, sounds similar to the proposition put forward by Robert Winston in 'Bad Ideas', that scientists as a whole are poor at communicating with the 'great unwashed' and they need to engage more with the public to address misunderstandings and concerns. Of course as you mention that requires the media and public to engage as well.

      Somedays articles like this (,1778/) seem less satirical and more prescient of where society is going. Sigh.

  3. I suspect that better pay would give science all the 'status' that it needs. My brother worked in a lab here for about a decade before he scarpered to Hong Kong, of the view that any job he could find there could only be better than what he was doing here. I think the final straw was when he discovered that the reps who sell lab equipment are paid more than the scientists who use it.

    1. Hear hear Sr Sanchez.

    2. Pay can be a substitute for prestige and it can help to produce prestige....

  4. Right on topic, via Slashdot "Has Modern Science Become Dysfunctional?"
    A summary of pieces by two journal editors.

  5. Prof. Brian Cox has groupies I do believe.

    Perhaps if you up the #pornograph tagged economics posts, and grew a seedy mustache, combined with new hairdo, you could bump economics reports up the news agenda.

    1. And shag carpeting and track lighting?

    2. I suspect that is partly because Prof Cox is doing exactly what Robert Winston (see the comment from Duncan above) is espousing - he is engaging with the wider community to explain science in a really accessible way and make it interesting. It also helps that he is young and (I assume) relatively good looking, and comes across as a top bloke.

    3. >And shag carpeting and track lighting?
      Only if you insist.

      You missed this piece from MR to add your collection on the subject.

  6. This may get me shot:

    First, some of the complaints by scientists seem to be, 'we want to sit at the cool table.' Well, sorry, life doesn't work that way. And if we are scientists, shouldn't we want to know _why_ procreation favours the

    Secondly, other complaints seem to be, 'we want money to do whatever we think is cool.' Well, I have some really cool research ideas. Where's my money? Why should they have it and not me?

    Thirdly, if scientists want respect for what they know, they need to show a little respect when it comes to economics. Some of the economics of science' talk in this country is light on the economics.

    1. In my happy little bubble, Science IS the cool table. And especially Econ.

      Can make a case for that base science has higher long term expected positive external effects than base econ.

      But agreed entirely with the last point. I've slapped Science Media Centre around a bit for having nutritionists and public health people as their go-to people on things like fat taxes rather than economists. Apparently public health people know more about taxes than we do. And don't get me started on how SciBlogs treats Econ.

    2. You include Econ in Science? Interesting.

    3. Econ is in Arts, Science and Commerce. It's heart is Arts though.

    4. @Bill

      Which tables are the 'cool' tables? Can you define them.
      On closer inspection its probably a case of everyone looking at another pasture and thinking it is greener.

    5. Naturally the cool table is the one with the devastatingly awesome people sitting around it rolling dice ;)

  7. To my thinking (as an ex-DSIR white-coat wearer), the biggest thing to impact science as a relevant and respected profession is the rise of "climate science".

    The public have seen politics masquerading as science, computer modelling purporting to be science, manipulation of data by scientists to support a particular hypothesis, and laws (eg ETS) hitting their own pockets that are based on fear-inspired rhetoric and ambition by certain groups for greater wealth redistribution, rather than irrefutable evidence.

    How can I believe scientists when the publication process appears corrupted?

    1. I think the jury is still out on climate change, although I suspect human activity has reached a stage where it is plausible that it may be having an influence on global climate. I'm not sure I agree with you on computer models though, they are a useful tool to science as long as the data used to create them is sound. And when looking to the future they are probably the most accurate predictive tool we have. The problem as I see it with global climate is that it is quite a complex matrix of contributing factors and localised patterns so I think to definitively state that human-caused climate change is real and happening is demonstrating a great deal more confidence in the models than is probably justified. In short, I'm sympathetic to the notion, but still not 100% sold on it.

    2. I've no more confidence in long run climate forecasts than I have in long run economic forecasts. But the basic model of carbon forcing seems pretty obvious, we're outside of historic levels; it would be surprising if it didn't yield warming outcomes. Kinda like how as screwed up as macro models are, we know a few things that will really mess up long term growth. I note the bias towards alarmism in the press and in some of the science; I'd still favour a low carbon tax implemented internationally, fiscally neutrally, and set to track up predictably over time but with potential for larger increases if climate outcomes start looking worse.

    3. My comment was not intended to stir an argument about climate change, per se -- although it would be interesting to discuss the economic implications at some stage.

      Please excuse a couple of quick comments, though. I used to do computer simulations, professionally, though not of anything nearly as complex as global climate. From experience, there is plenty of scope for "tweaking", to get the result that you'd like -- especially if you're the one writing the algorithms. The fact that actual climate measurements fall outside the range of earlier climate model predictions shows the inadequacy of the climate models. Secondly, I don't agree that we're outside of historical levels. Eg CO2 concentrations have been far higher in the geological history.

      But my main contention is that the whole climate science fiasco has damaged, perhaps beyond some irrepairable tipping point(!), the credibility of scientists as a profession.