Friday, December 23, 2016

Let's Talk About How We Talk About Science

A while ago, Brian Burg commented on Twitter that he would like to see more discussion of marketing in academia. I decided I'd rather write a meta-post about how we need to talk about how marketing is affecting our evaluation of science.

Image result for beyonce magazine cover
Image result for kim kardashian magazine cover
If you want to be on the cover of Glamour magazine, you know what to do. Put your hair in glamorous waves, wear something small, and stare directly at the camera with slightly open lips. It helps if you have the Look. (Has anyone else noticed that Beyonce and Kim are being airbrushed to look more and more like each other all the time?)

If you want to be on the cover of a glamour journal, things are not much different. Open with a deep-sounding but incontestable vision of where you think the world is going. Hone in on a specific problem. Make the problem sound hard. Make your solution easy for a casual reader to understand. Write with the voice of a winner. It helps to have picked a topic that a science journalist might drool over. Oh, and if you are going for the cover: make sure to have good images.

But, you might say, fashion magazines are frivolous, and science is Serious*. I'll be the first to agree that the investigation of the fundamental truths of reality is a worthy endeavor requiring brilliance, hard work, persistence, and all kinds of other positive qualities. (Side note: beauty is also hard work, and used to oppress women.) But people determine what science is higher-profile than other science. People live in society, and it is widely acknowledged that society is superficial. Many a fairy tale involves a causal relationship between the changing of clothes and the changing of fortune. In Thomas Carlyle's satirical novel Sartor Resartus, religion itself is a matter of clothing.

In fact, a major part of my metamorphosis into a Real Researcher has involved accepting that appearance matters. When my advisor and I used to get papers rejected in the beginning of my PhD, we would spend a long time thinking about how to make the work so good that the paper was not rejectable. I have come to realize that this is the equivalent of failing to impress on a first date and hoping that soul-searching will address the issue for the future. Looking deeply into one's soul, while usually good in the long term, often does not address the problem of first impressions.

Sure, part of preparing one's research for wider dissemination involves doing what everyone would expect of good communication: having a clear description of the goals, clear explanations of the solutions, and a clear explanation of the context with respect to previous work. Good logical reasoning goes a long way. Good evaluation of results does as well. But if we look at the papers that do--and don't--make it into the "glamour" conferences and journals, we begin to suspect that there are other factors at play.

If we look more closely, we can see that American** science replicates patterns of elitism and gatekeeping that we see in the rest of American society. In Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite, Columbia sociology professor Shamus Khan reports on behavioral traits that characterize the new elite. Khan describes how, rather than stemming from family prestige, the social status of the boarding school students he observes comes from an ease of moving through social situations and a cultural omnivorousness (embracing both the high-brow and the low-brow). Especially since these behaviors are learned at elite institutions, they serve a gate-keeping function similar to explicit markers of socioeconomic status. People look for this ease and this omnivorous, for instance when interviewing candidates, justifying their choice with some idea that such traits somehow make people more deserving. There is also a mythology about hard work that serves more as a justification than an explanation for elite status: students feel that they are receiving the benefits they do from society not because they were born into it, but because they "worked so hard to get there."

As it turns out, the training of elite scientists also involves learning gatekeeping behaviors. In science there is, a similar mythology about hard work being responsible for differential success. In Computer Science, the privileged behaviors I've observed include having research vision (as opposed to making solid technical contributions), being aggressive about imposing that research vision upon others, and having a "genius quality," which involves pattern-matching on similarities to previous successful scientists (often white men). Like ease of interaction and cultural omnivorousness, these traits are often associated with people deserving of recognition, but their presence does not mean the work will be good. I would not be surprised if having research vision and exhibiting genius quality were more correlated with being educated in an elite American institution than with potential for long-term scientific impact. With this premise, the recipe for academic fame involves not only marketing one's work as making positive contributions to science, but also demonstrating a combination of privilege and flash. The privilege here is more subtle than that of having cover-girl looks, but it is a very real kind of privilege nonetheless.

But how, you may wonder, do people not see through the shiny exterior? Those who have been following American politics in the last year may be familiar with the answer: insufficient attention. Publications are reviewed by researchers under increasingly high demands to pass quick judgments. Between December 2015 and February 2016, for instance, I had accidentally agreed to be on two concurrent major conference Program Committees, and had a reviewing load of over 60 full-length (12-page, 9-10 pt font) papers. (And I am not the only person who had such reviewing volume!) Had I only been on one Program Committee, the reviewing load would have still required me to evaluate, on average, a paper every two days over the course of two months. Under such reviewing pressure, it is easy to succumb to flash judgments, emotional first responses to a paper's Introduction section. It is easy to accept the paper with the good story over a paper with a deeper but more subtle result.

Despite all this, I believe in the future of science, and that we can shift back to a situation where we are making space for "real" science, what science looks like before the makeup and airbrushing. To do so, we need to wage a similar campaign to the one people waged on unreasonable beauty standards. We need to teach people to recognize--and be skeptical--of "Photoshopped" results: all that is too slick, too inspiring, and too good to be true, in both individual papers and in the story of a scientist's career. We need to raise more awareness about what "real" science looks like: the incremental results required on the way to big discoveries, the science that is foundational, necessary, and often with subtleties difficult to communicate to non-experts. Making structural changes that reduce reviewing loads and allow for deeper evaluation also reduces the incentives that have led to the proliferation of these current practices.

Elite institutions are much more than a finishing school for scientists, but we have been moving to a model where the marketing is coming to dominate the science. To protect the pursuit of truth, we need to admit that people can be shallow when it comes to evaluating science. We need to talk about how we talk about science so we can make space for science that is slow, science that is subtle, and science that is outside the mainstream.

With thanks to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who told me my first draft lacked a cohesive point, and Adeeti Ullal, who very patiently helped me with the last paragraph.

* I don't believe fashion magazines are blanket frivolous, but you might.
** I don't have the depth of experience to comment on how this generalizes to other cultures.


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