30 June 2020

Tuesday Crustie: Servant of Hera and friend of the hydra

Based on your field study what type of mythical beast or folk-creature would you be an expert in?

Mythical crustaceans. Not many of those around. Except for the one that fought Hercules.

You see, Carcinus the crab and the hydra were buds. So when Hercules showed up all like, “I gotta take out the hydra because of penance and a chance of immortality and all,” Carcinus is all like, “Don’t touch my mate, asshole, the only way to him is through me.” So Carcinus takes on Hercules.

This moment of inter-create mateship is immortalized in Greek vases.

The crab imagery on this vase is more realistic. Shame it’s pushed off to the side and cropped in this image.

And by the way, anyone who has dealt with an angry crab knows that being attacked by one of these is no joke.

This explains something I had known for a long time, but the connection never clicked. There is an abundant genus of crabs named Carcinus. No doubt in honor of Hera’s servant.

Shore crab, Carcinus maenas

Pic from here.

29 June 2020

19 June 2020

Why people don’t believe in science and the importance of criticism

Yesterday, Dr. Anthony Fauci said:

One of the problems we face in the United States is that unfortunately, there is a combination of an anti-science bias that people are—for reasons that sometimes are, you know, inconceivable and not understandable—they just don’t believe science.
Fauci is operating in a political environment, so I think he is reluctant to list the many reasons we know why people don’t believe science.

People don’t believe in the science of evolution because of religions.

People don’t believe in global warming / climate change because of a misinformation campaign prompted by fear of communism.

People don’t believe the Earth is spherical because they watch a lot of YouTube videos.

People don’t believe in COVID-19 because of Fox News and the current US president.

But all of these examples boil down to social influence – or, to put it another way, peer pressure. Humans are social animals. We pay a lot of attention to what other people think, say, and do.

In the information / belief / influence ecosystem, professional science is relatively new (maybe a few hundred years compared to thousands of years for some religions), relatively small (Rupert Murdoch’s wealth, ~US$17.3 billion, exceeds the entire annual budget of the National Science Foundation, currently ~US$7.8 billion), and disorganized as shit (“committees top to bottom”).

We’re lucky that science gets things done. Because of that, we are sometimes able to overcome those disadvantages and punch above our weight. Honestly, it’s sometimes surprising that science has as much sway as it does.

Science is not a natural, intuitive way of thinking. There’s a reason the training for scientists goes on for so long. It doesn’t take a long time just because you have to learn a lot of facts, it takes a long time because you have to practice the patterns of thinking so that they become habitual. (“What are the alternative explanations? Does this prediction really flow from that hypothesis? And what do those error bars show, anyway?”)

Beliefs are social. Criticism is antisocial.
All of the above (most of which I tweeted earlier) got me thinking about how one of the keys of science’s success, the reason we punch above our weight, is that science institutionalized and valued behaviour that is kind of anti-social.


Because we are social animals, we do not like criticism. We feel attacked. We get defensive. We try to shut it down all the time. (In my many years of blogging, the only times I got aggressive emails about posts were from professors who didn’t like that I was commenting on student posters. It wasn’t even criticism of them.)

Science normalizes criticism in a way that a lot of other institutions don’t. A lot of institutions place a lot of value on reinforcing their existing beliefs. There may be traditions of criticism and examination within that, but there are usually some lines that you don’t cross if you want to stay part of that community.

Author David Brin like to say, “Criticism is the only known antidote to error.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that. We have to recognize how fundamental its role in science is.

And, as I said above, we have to recognize that learning how to deliver and take criticism without destroying the social glue that allows the scientific community to function is not a natural, normal thing to do. It is something that you need to learn, a habit you need to develop, and a skill you need to practice and improve.

External links

15 June 2020

Failure slays first author while co-authors skate by

Dad saying, "The world isn't fair, Calvin." Calvin replies, "I know, but why isn't it even unfair in my favor?"
I was looking back at a high-profile paper that was published some years ago. The paper ran into trouble and was widely criticized, and the main claim has not been borne out. The paper hasn’t been retracted, but it’s more a cautionary tale than a success.

The paper had twelve co-authors. I did a little digging and looked at the track records of all the co-authors in the years since publication.

The first author, who would broadly be called an “early career” researcher, never published another paper the year after this one dropped. Based purely on the publication record, it looks like the problems in the high-profile paper ended that career. It may have been more complicated than that – there may have been other factors at play that I don’t know about – but it sure looks like cause and effect.

The other eleven co-authors? All of them kept publishing. The mean for the group was 3 papers a year. The most prolific member of the team had 6.8 papers a year (according to Web of Science).

Bar graph: X axis: Author position. Y axis: Mean articles / year since controversy

It sure looks like none of the other co-authors suffered any serious professional consequences from being associated with a deeply flawed paper.

What’s the saying? “Success has many parents, but failure is an orphan”? Here, failure came from a single-parent family. One person out of twelve bore the brunt of all the criticisms.

It’s a clear-cut example that shows that how we assign authorship doesn’t line up at all with who we think is “responsible” for a scientific work. If you asked researchers, “How is responsibility split with twelve authors?”, I suspect they will not say, “100% for first author, 0% for authors 2 through 12.” (I also don’t think they will say, “Responsibility is split twelve ways evenly.” But that’s not what happened here.)

Update, 16 June 2020: I asked people, a“If there are 10 authors on a paper, much much responsibility should the FIRST author bear if the paper is flawed or flat-out wrong?” Almost all (25 out of 27, 93%) said, “Somewhere between 11-99%”. Of the other two, one person said, “All” and the other voted, “One tenth.” 

Some might argue, “This is what you get tenure for, to be able to take risks and prevent you from the shocks of having a bad paper.” Okay, but tenure and seniority should be a cushion that softens the blow of a mistake. Seniority should not be corbomite that deflects all consequences away from the senior authors and returns then back on the first author, particularly when early career researchers involved. Early career researchers are vulnerable, and power dynamics are not in their favour.

If eleven authors were able jump off the sinking ship, maybe there should have been room for one more in that lifeboat.

If only one author is going to bear all the responsibility for getting it wrong, then only one person’s name should have been on that paper in the first place.

12 June 2020

Picture a Scientist mini-review

Picture a Scientist theatrical poste
It’s late Friday night and I want to go to bed, but before I do, I have a recommendation and I want to get it out there in case I get lazy or distracted after I sleep.

I just finished watching a new documentary, Picture a Scientist.

Anyone who has anything to do with science, or academia, or is interested in matters of equality and justice in the face of discrimination and bias, should watch this film.

It mostly tracks three women: one dealing with institutional unfairness, one coping with bullying, and one navigating academia as a black women. It is both damning and hopeful (at least sometimes hopeful).

I am particularly happy to see a couple of people I know in it, who are of course awesome. And they are not alone. There is no shortage of awesome people in this film.

The film is streaming online. In a very cool promotion, when you rent it, you get to support a movie theatre of your choice with your purchase. There wasn’t a theatre in Texas involved (which sucks, especially given chemist Raychelle Burke was in Austin when they filmed this), so I picked Hawai’i, because that state has been nice to me when I’ve traveled there for conferences and my honeymoon.

Highest recommendation!

External links

09 June 2020

Tuesday Crustie: Looks big

This is a rubble crab. But it has a cool sounding Latin name: Daldorfia horrida.

Rubble crab, Daldorfia horrida

It is apparently the inspiration for one of the lesser known monsters in the Toho universe, Ganimes!

Ganimes, crab monster

From Space Amoeba (1970). No, Ganimes is not the title monster. Even monster movies know the difference between an amoeba and a crustacean.

How did I go this long not knowing there was a crab kaiju?

D. horrida picture from here.

08 June 2020

Career arcs: Stay alive!

Note: There are Black Lives Matter protests. There is a pandemic. Fascism is on the rise. I don’t know how to address this in the blog right now, except to say: I want Black people not live in fear of police. As an academic, I want more Black colleagues in my profession and Black students to get higher education. I want equality and not racist policies and racist actions. I want people to wear masks and stay home so they don’t prolong the pandemic. And I want people to not put up nazis and secret police.

With that preface, please forgive a post about career paths. It isn’t the most important thing out there now. But it’s something I’ve been working on for a while.

Cover to Big Country album, The Journey
A while ago, I stumbled across a Big Country album that had been released a few years ago. I stopped following Big Country because their lead singer, Stuart Adamson, died. I didn’t think there would ever be another album.

I dug in, and found the person singing lead vocals was Mike Peters, who led another band I followed around the same time: The Alarm. Again, I had kind of stopped looking for new music from The Alarm, because Peters had quit the band – live, on stage, with cameras rolling – without telling anyone else in the band he was about to do so.

And that was pretty much that for that version of The Alarm.

It was a big inflection point for Peters’s career. He talked about it for VH1’s Bands Reunited in 2004 (about 22 minutes in on this video):


I was committing commercial and career suicide. I was leaving what I was. I was Mike Peters of The Alarm. I still am. But the only way I could find my sanity and find myself again was to actually walk away from it.


I get the sense the Peters made peace with that decision, but that he still has a lingering sense of, “What it?” Could The Alarm have been one of those big worldwide bands, like their contemporaries, U2? But maybe I’m reading too much into it.

I went looking for how Peters came to be singing for Big Country. I’ve been thinking a lot about it ever since.

Big Country’s music was inspirational for Peters when he was first in The Alarm. The video also talks about the stuff I didn’t know:

The long road back for Peters after quitting on stage, with a new iteration of The Alarm.

An epic hoax to show the ageism of the music industry.

Multiple fights with cancer.

A lot of new Alarm music that I still have to catch up on.

And being asked to front Big Country, and getting to sing the song that had changed his life years ago, “In a Big Country.”

A little after watching that video, I listened to this WorkLife podcast about career decline. The first guest, Arthur Brooks, has advice: “Walk off the stage before you fall off it.” Brooks is not optimistic that people can stay productive in careers, and suggests lots of people should turn to things like teaching instead.

Both of these, of course, made me think about where I go from here in my career.

I had spent most of the past couple of years writing a book. That meant I wasn’t gathering new data, I wasn’t working with students. After I submitted the manuscript last fall, the COVID-19 pandemic scrapped any possibility of getting back in the lab and cranking out new data any time soon.

Is this one of those inflection points that I can’t recover from? Is this that combination of personal decisions (like Peters walking away from the band) and external factors (like pop music’s embrace of hip hop and move away from The Alarm’s rock and roll) that is going to sink me for good this time?

Peters’s career does give me some hope. The Alarm has made more albums in the twenty-first century than they did in the twentieth century (back in the 80s and early 90s). He still clearly loves performing. He gives back through charity work for blood cancer, through Love Hope Strength. Next year, The Alarm will celebrate 40 years, which is an achievement to be proud of and that few artists in music reach.

And the second part of the WorkLife also talked about people who do some of the best work in their later years.

I don’t want to quit being a researcher. I don’t want to stop being a scholar. I reinvent myself as a scientist before. I hope I can do it again. As Big Country sang, “Stay alive!”

External links

The Alarm

Big Country

Career decline isn’t inevitable