No, you won’t sacrifice scientific objectivity if you advocate

29 08 2019

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Despite a lot of rather uninformed people out there who might view scientists as just flesh-covered automatons lacking the customary set of feelings, we are in fact normal human beings embedded in the same society as everyone else. We own houses, drive cars, have sex, have children, eat out in restaurants, drink, dance, vote, pay taxes and utilities, do sport, take vacations, see the doctor, laugh, cry, love, and all the rest of it.

As such, we have just as much stake in society as everyone else, and we are very much at the mercy of government policies, cultural norms, and other limitations that everyday life presents us. If we happen to discover through our research some aspect of our society that can be approved, does it suffice merely to publish the material within the academic literature and nebulously ‘hope’ someone else does some good with it?

It is a short, metaphysical step to entertain the idea of advocating for change more proactively than a random Tweet or a newspaper interview might imply. I appreciate that the ‘a’ word strikes fear and derision in the hearts of many scientists, for I too was once under the impression that it was not my job to advocate for anything beyond good scientific practice. Indeed, I practically insisted that my role was uniquely to develop the tools, collect the data, design the experiments, and elaborate the intricacies and complexities of the results to test hypotheses. No more. No less.

Even the thought of mimicking those placard-holding street protestors (my rather naïve impression of what an advocate looked like) used to revile me, for I had formed the (incorrect) opinion that any scientist who took up the protestor’s mantle had clearly abandoned her claim to be an intellectual.

In my view, once one crossed that intangible line into advocacy, the objectivity of all previous intellectual pursuits was immediately compromised, if not abandoned entirely. For me then, ‘advocacy’ equalled ‘subjectivity’, and that was not consistent with what I understood science to be.

I have since done a 180-degree turn on that innocent and narrow-minded perspective. First, I have since come to realise that true objectivity is beyond the reach of any human being, and that science can only provide the tools to reduce our innate subjectivity. As human beings, even scientists have all of our species’ weaknesses and limitations of perception, but science allows us to get as close to objectivity as is humanly possible. So, science is not the pursuit of objectivity per se; rather, it is the pursuit of subjectivity reduction. Errare humanum est. Read the rest of this entry »





10 things I wish I knew before doing an Honours degree

19 08 2019

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE GE.BLOG

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In 2018 I started my Honours degree in biodiversity and conservation at Flinders University. I had completed my Bachelor of Science in 2017, after being accepted in the Honours stream through my Year 12 Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR).

I will not sugar-coat it — I was a bad Bachelor student. I scarcely attended classes and at times submitted sub-par work. I believed that as long as I didn’t fail anything I would still be able to do my Honours, so I did the bare minimum and just got by. However in the last semester I discovered I needed an average GPA of 5.0 to secure my Honours position, regardless of what stream I was doing. Panic ensued, I was already too deep in my final semester of not achieving to pull my grades around. Thankfully, I was eventually accepted, after having to plead my case with the Honours board.

In the end I managed to score myself a First Class Honours and a PhD candidature (and hopefully soon a publication). Honours was definitely a struggle, but it was also one of the best experiences of my life. I just wish I had known these 10 things before I started …

1. You will fail

Not the brightest note to start on, but don’t fear, everyone fails. Honours is full of ups and downs, and at some point, somewhere along the line, something in your project will go wrong. But it’s okay! It happens to every person that has ever done an Honours or a PhD. Whether the failing is small or catastrophic, remember this happens all the time.

More importantly your supervisor or co-ordinator sees it all the time. The best thing to do is tell your supervisor and your co-ordinator early on. It may be a simple case of steering your research in a slightly new direction, changing the scope of your project, or even taking some extra time. It’s okay to fail, just keep pushing. Read the rest of this entry »





The (not-so) funny question of whether scientists should be political leaders

15 08 2019

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At the risk of precociously setting fire to my powder keg, I thought it would be interesting to discuss the very real question of whether there should be more scientists in politics.

The reason I’m contemplating this particular question is because I’ve been forced to. Perhaps contrary to better judgement, I’ve agreed to take part in a the SciFight Science Comedy Debate in Adelaide on 31 August. Organised by scientist-comedian Alanta Colley, the event will pitch two scientist-comedian teams against each other to argue either in the affirmative or negative regarding this — scientists should rule the world.

Of course, the primary goal of the evening is to make people laugh (which still has me wondering whether I was a worthy choice for the role — thank Cthulu there will be some actual, live comedians there too).

But there’s a serious side to this question that I don’t think has any simple answers. Read the rest of this entry »