06 November 2018

Pick one conference to go to every year

Because I have science attention deficit disorder (science ADD) and am not independently wealthy,
there is no conference I go to each and every year. The only one which I have made a point to go regularly for the last few years has been the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, because I’m a committee chair. (Which reminds me I have some bookings to make.)

Over the years, I’ve been to the meetings about evolution, ecology, crayfish, crustaceans, natural history, coastal research, neuroethology, animal behaviour, neuroscience, parasites, and more. Because I have been living in Texas, a reasonably popular conference venue, my strategy has been to wait for meetings to come to me so I don’t have to travel and increase my conference carbon footprint.

This is a bad thing for me.

In the last few years, I’m coming to the realization that my capricious conference selection might be not the best strategy for professional opportunities.

I got to thinking about this after reading Terry McGlynn’s post about the shock and awe of going to the Neuroscience meeting.

As soon as I walked into the poster hall, I was like ZOMG. HOLY MOLY. WHAT THE WHAT.

Ginormous cannnot do justice to explain the scale of this endeavor. Here’s an attempt: Imagine that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but instead of wooden crates, it’s an endless morass of posters upon posters, in which one of those slots is where you have the honor to have your work visible for a few hours.

Terry worries about the size of the conference being alienating. I have felt alienated at conferences, but it’s never been conference size made me feel that way.

Now, I started going to Neuroscience meeting when it was about 60% of what it is now, so I’m used to the scale of the bigger than big conference. And I’ve never used conference size as a factor for deciding what meeting to go to. Both large and small meetings can be great.


In the last few years, I’ve gone to new meetings I’ve never been to before. What put me off and made me feel excluded, particularly as an established mid-career scientist, were constant reminders that there you are not one of the people who come to this meeting every year. There are in jokes made during symposia, keynotes, and talks to things that happened in previous years. It’s very clear who are “conference buddies” that see each other every year.

(Part of this is probably my own damn fault, since I can be quiet, grumpy, or both. I’m working on this.)

But the point is that those conference regulars have clearly built a lot of social capital and created important professional networks that I haven’t.

And the moral of the story is:

Pick one conference that you like. Large or small, doesn’t matter. Go to that conference every year as religiously as you possibly can. Something to present or not, doesn’t matter. You will start building that group of conference buddies that will improve your conference experience (no more lunches alone!) and will become better known in your field.

External links


Huge conferences and the potential for alienation and isolation of junior scientists

01 November 2018

“How can you trust it when it changes all the time?”

“How can you trust science when it changes all the time? One day you hear you should eat margarine and not butter, then the next week you hear the reverse!”

I see variations of this claim fairly regularly when I’m reading about the neverending discussions about evolution and religious creationism. I sympathize. People want certainty, and science is not always great at providing it in the short term. Give a lot of scientists 50 years or more, and we can often provide pretty good confidence, approaching certainty.

While “science changes, but the Bible doesn’t” is mainly appealing to emotion, I’ve actually always appreciated the “Things mean what they say” aspect of Biblical literalism as an intellectual position. It’s honest. Give me an outspoken young Earth creationist over a hand-waving, insincere “intelligent design” proponent any day. I obviously disagree with the the whole “inerrant” part of Biblical literalism, not to mention the absolute refusal of Biblical literalists to update positions in light of new evidence. Still. Sticking to your guns on interpretation of text? I respect that.

But the next times someone pulls out “You can’t trust that ever-changing science,” I have a new riposte.

May I please direct your attention to American Evangelical Christianity of the early twenty-first century.

Because this particular branch of Christianity is now providing an object lesson in the fact that while the text of the Bible may not change, its interpretation sure does. And this is exactly what’s going on in some Protestant churches in the US now.

Diana Butler Bass, an American church historian and scholar who focuses on the history of the American church... said, white evangelicals are motivated by a willingness to read the Bible non-literally when it comes to passages about, say, caring for the poor.

Over the past few years, she’s noticed what she called “a very slow theological turn within the evangelical community to redefine what seemed like very basic ... verses about the care of the poor and caring for the outcast. On one hand, they might say, ‘Oh, you know, Jesus was born of a literal virgin’ ... but when it comes to these verses about the poor and about refugees, in particular, all of a sudden, literalism disappears.”

Suddenly, she said, she noticed a “new sort of interpretation that’s floating around in evangelical circles about [verses in the Bible where Jesus exhorts care for the poor]. And the interpretation is Jesus does not mean everybody. That Jesus only means that you’re supposed to take care of the ‘least of these’ who are in the Christian community.”

The context of this article is about political policy, not science, but nevertheless... if your position is that the Bible literally means what it says, you have to apply that to the whole text. You can’t say the story of Genesis takes place in seven days of 24 hours length and then say the whole prohibition against tattoos (say) is just a big misunderstanding.

Tattoo of Leviticus verse against homosexuality next to Leviticus verse forbidding tattoos. Quote: "If you're going to read the Bible, read the whole thing."

While I can respect the intellectual honesty of Biblical literalism, it’s hard to respect people who extol it without practicing it.

External links

The Bible says to welcome immigrants. So why don’t white evangelicals?
The Year of Living Biblically