so far so good

I’ve been at my new job—research fellow at RMIT University—just over a month, and I have to say it’s exceeded my expectations in every possible way.

Research isn’t normally a 9 to 5 job. You’re generally expected to work over 8 hours a day, and if you don’t go to work on the weekends, at the very least you should be working from home. But my boss didn’t tell me what time to come in on my first day. So I arrived at about 8:45, eager to get started, but….no boss. She didn’t even show up until after 10:00. And when she brought me into her office to discuss my project, she also mentioned that I can come and go whenever I please, and the only important thing is that I produce results. In fact, she usually comes in around 10:00, leaves around 5:00, and doesn’t even come in at all on Fridays.

So apparently research is a 9 to 5 job. At least here, anyway. I’ve been coming in at around 9 and leaving at around 6 because I’m still trying to make a good first impression, but even those hours are less than what I did during my PhD or my first postdoc. And what I’m finding is that when I actually take breaks, it’s so much easier to come back with a fresh outlook and enthusiasm. In fact, I look forward to going to work every day.

Of course, it’s only been a month.

Despite the lack of long hours, my boss does produce results. She has multiple collaborations with other research groups in both universities and private companies, and she has multiple papers published every year. Which is the most basic, albeit sometimes inaccurate, way to judge the quality of a research group.

My project is part of a larger plan to develop a material that can be put over reservoirs to minimize evaporation. Another research group is making the materials, and my job is to run computer simulations on them and find out how they work at the molecular level. The best part about this is that there’s no wrong answer. Whatever results I get, those are the ones I share with my collaborators. And publish. And since I’m coming into this project after it’s already been underway for a while, all the hard stuff has already been done. Basically, all I need to do is modify and fine-tune some things, and everything will go forward smoothly.

Which is pretty awesome.

Another thing that I particularly like is that there are two other people working on this project with me—a PhD student and another postdoc. I felt pretty intimidated at first because they’re both thoroughly familiar with the work and I’m coming in as an outsider, so I wondered what I could possibly add. But to my surprise, being an outsider actually helps. I’m looking at the project with fresh eyes and from a different perspective, and while I may not be as familiar with the details as they are, I can suggest alternatives that might not have ever occurred to them.

Plus, it’s nice to be part of a team. My colleagues really love what they’re doing, and their enthusiasm is contagious. The other postdoc and I often spend our days separating problems into chunks, and then working individually to come to a solution. And it’s just so great to have that feeling of accomplishment when something we’ve worked hard on to put together succeeds beyond our expectations.

Honestly? I mostly took this job because I needed the money. After all, I make more now in a week than I did in a month in China. But I never could have predicted that it would end up essentially being my dream job.

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taking my ball and going back to research

I moved to Australia with $13,000 in savings and the delusion that I could become a commercially successful writer within a year.

That didn’t work out.

For starters, Australia is more expensive than I anticipated. Even though I live in the cheapest place I could find and I hardly ever go out and do anything, I’m still spending well over $1,000 a month. Which means my plan to live here for a year and do nothing but write is not a feasible one. Plus, starting in February I have to make payments on the student loans I took out for graduate school.

As far as the writing itself, I admit that I got sucked in by the Indie hype. The advantage of being an Indie writer is that you can put out as many books as you want as fast as you want. I thought, with a little revision on the stuff I’ve already written, I could put out a new novel every 3-4 weeks. And within six months, I’d be making at least a few hundred dollars per month. Maybe even more.

But that only works if your books are good. Fortunately, I met a group of writers, editors, and book reviewers who were willing to take a look at my stuff. Even more fortunately, they were not afraid to tell me that my “masterpieces” are not ready to be published. Self-published or otherwise.

Writers (and their well-intentioned friends and family) are generally not great judges of when a book is ready to be published. I’m extremely grateful to the people who gave me the honest feedback I needed. Yes, it hurt to hear that my books aren’t good enough (yet), but I would never want to put a book up for sale if it’s not ready for general consumption. That just seems like it would be a huge disservice to readers. And to my career as a writer.

So much for my plan to become an awesomely famous writer in less than 12 months. And so much for my savings, which are almost gone now. And yeah, I could get a part-time job to pay the bills so I could keep my focus on writing. But to be honest, I’d rather not. I need to start paying off my student loans before the interest consumes me like a rabid wildebeest.

When I left China I swore that I was done with research for good. I love science, but I get bogged down by the day-to-day monotony of running calculations and trying to figure out why the fuck things aren’t working. On the other hand, I did spend $60,000 to get a PhD in chemistry. And it’s something I’m good at, so at least there’s that.

I knew from the start it was kind of a long shot, but I applied for a research position at RMIT University here in Melbourne. And somehow, I got the job. I start in January, and my boss seems cool. Plus, the pay is like six times more than I’ve ever made in my life. So that’s nice.

And just in the past few months, my outlook has changed. Maybe it was the Vipassana meditation, or maybe I’m just being more realistic, but the thought of going back to research doesn’t bother me as much as it did before. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.

This doesn’t mean I’m giving up on writing completely though. I’ll still write in the evenings and on the weekends as much as I can, but now I’m not looking for the instant gratification. If it takes me ten years to produce a good novel, that’s fine. I’m in no hurry.

Research actually is pretty cool.

priorities

I came to Australia specifically to focus on writing, but I didn’t count on how freaking expensive it is to live here. And while I do have enough money to live, I don’t really have enough to have much fun.

So I applied for a job as a Medical Scientist in Biochemistry at a hospital in a suburb of Melbourne called West Footscray. And as luck would have it, I managed to find a place to live in West Footscray as well, not too far from the hospital. And yeah, the job would definitely take time away from my writing, but it ends in early September and would also give me a little extra money so I could afford to actually go out and do stuff, which would be nice.

Well, I didn’t get the job. Which means I moved out to West Footscray for absolutely no reason. But hey, at least the rent is cheap and my housemates are really, really cool. So it’s not all bad.

Also, I did get offered another job.

Back in China.

Yeah, I ended up mentioning to my old boss that I didn’t get the postdoc I’d originally applied for in Australia, so he talked to our collaborator from my most recent research project and they somehow arranged it in a way I don’t fully understand for me to have a job as a Research Scientist at Beijing Normal University.

Which would mark the first time in quite a while that the word “normal” would be associated with me in any way, but regardless it was pretty flattering. I asked if I could start in November at the earliest, since my parents have already booked their non-refundable tickets to come visit me over here from late September to late October, and they said that shouldn’t be a problem.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and no matter how I look at it I really don’t see what else I can do. If I get a job here in Australia, it defeats the whole purpose of coming here. But if I don’t work at all, I won’t be able to afford to have any fun, and I’ll be flat broke by the time I leave. If I must get a job, I’d rather do it in China, where I’ll be pretty much guaranteed to get more papers, and since they’re doubling my salary I’ll have plenty of money to have fun in Beijing. Plus I’ll be living downtown, which means I wouldn’t have to spend an hour standing on a subway to get anywhere interesting.

So now I have five months to become a commercially successful writer. Is this possible? Theoretically, yes. In his book on how he sold a million ebooks in five months, appropriately entitled How I sold a Million Ebooks in Five Months, John Locke explains how to, well, sell a million ebooks in five months.

Now that’s good advertizing right there.

A large part of his foolproof marketing scheme involves Twitter. I fucking hate Twitter. But I like money, so I signed up. It was just as bad as I expected. I started “following” other writers, which is like stalking but way less interesting, and I was immediately put off by all the blatant and incredibly lame self-promotion a lot of them were doing. (This is not, by the way, what John Locke encourages people to do.)

I quickly found that I could not take any of it seriously. Yes I want to sell my stories and make my living as a writer, but I just can’t bring myself to do a lot of the bullshit things people on Twitter are doing to promote their books.

And I don’t know why I’m doing this exactly, but more and more I’m finding my efforts turning into a parody of all the advice I’ve gotten so far. I honestly can’t bring myself to take it seriously, but it’s actually kind of fun to not take it seriously. I created a new blog (I now have four in total) to promote my writing and editing efforts, and I’m going to stick with Twitter because I actually have met some cool aspiring authors on there and if nothing else I got to fulfill my lifelong dream of using the phrase “penis goes there” in casual conversation, but I just can’t bring myself to be pushy or insincere.

But I do have a request to make of everyone reading this: if you have the time and inclination, go ahead and post random, funny, inappropriate, relevant, irrelevant, or meaningless comments on my other blog. The funnier or more random the better.

I do have my priorities, and it’s more important to me to have fun and (hopefully) entertain other people as well than to sell books at any cost.

Just in case you missed it, the link to my other blog is here:

 http://vizproductions.blogspot.com/

this is it (sort of)

This is it. My last week of work.

Well, sort of.

My boss told me he’s going to go ahead and pay me through May regardless. He said that’s what his postdoc boss did for him, so he figured he’d do the same for me.

And while that’s a pretty damn awesome thing for him to do, there is no way I could take the money without feeling incredibly guilty, so I guess I’ll be working at least part-time through May.

Dammit.

It’s funny though; a thousand dollars isn’t a whole lot compared to my boss’s total budget so I can see why he didn’t feel like it was a big deal, but that’s still a heckova lot of money to me, and I’m definitely pretty appreciative.

Of course, he is getting something for his money. I told him that even after I’m long gone I’ll still always be happy to edit any papers written by him or any of the other research group members. And if this doesn’t seem like a big deal, I’d just like to point out that papers can fail to get published—even if the science is of high quality—if the quality of the English fails to meet the journal’s standards.

I think that’s one of the most important things I’ve learned in my year and a half as a postdoctoral researcher in China; while I’m not actually that great of a researcher, I am a pretty good writer. Specifically, I’m good at taking complicated concepts and explaining them in a simple and straightforward manner.

And if that sounds like bragging, well, yeah it is. But it’s also true. A few months ago, my boss asked me to write a book chapter with him on “How to Benchmark Methods for Virtual Screening”. And if that phrase means absolutely nothing to you, then you know exactly how I felt when he first asked me to write it. Because while technically it’s in my field, it’s way outside my area of expertise (my primary area of expertise mainly consists of video games and porn, but that’s not the point). Regardless, I was able to read all the relevant background material, understand it, and then condense it into a single book chapter that was accepted for publication without the need of subsequent edits.

Yeah, I’m pretty awesome.

But seriously, as a researcher I kinda suck. I hope to submit a paper based on the actual research I’ve done over the past year and a half to a pretty well-respected journal this week, and I’m seriously worried that it’s going to get rejected. I’m proud of the quality of the writing, but slightly embarrassed by the quality of the research I wrote about.

Hopefully I’m just being paranoid.

Still, if nothing else this merely reinforces my feeling that I’m doing the right thing in leaving the field of research. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be leaving science entirely.

A paper written by a good friend of mine was published recently. He listed me as second author despite the fact that I did none of the actual research. What I actually did was some of the writing, a lot of the editing, and I was the one who actually found an appropriate journal that was willing to publish it, and I was the one who jumped through all the hoops to make it happen.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I don’t really enjoy doing research, I do love science, and I particularly enjoy making science accessible to others. What’s more, I’m actually pretty damn good at it. And while I would love to have a lucrative career writing fiction and narrative nonfiction, I suspect I’m far more likely to have a successful career as a writer of scientific articles.

Take this article for example. I actually cringed when I read it. What’s more, I knew for a fact that I could do a lot better job of writing it myself. Because even a great writer can’t explain a scientific concept if they don’t understand the concept in the first place.

As science becomes increasingly complex, I think there’s an ever-increasing need for people with a solid understanding of science and scientific research to explain the work of scientists to everyone else in a clear and comprehensible manner.

And I’m all about satisfying needs, baby.

Or something. Yeah, I should probably go to bed. It’s late and I still have a lot of sciencey stuff I need to do this week…..

salt, bananas, and nuclear power plants in Japan

So what do these three things have in common? Well, they’ll all kill you if you eat enough of them. And regardless of where you are in the world, it’s not terribly likely that any of them are going to give you cancer.

I’d love to explain this in detail, but the fact is, I’m not an expert on radiation. Or bananas. The best I could do at this point is just take stuff off Wikipedia or other random websites and add my own biased viewpoint and pretend like I knew what I was talking about.

Which, apparently, is what most media sources in America are doing.

Seriously, I am extremely disappointed by how the American media has reported events in Japan. At one point CNN had a neurologist discussing the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant as if he were some kind of authority on the matter. And yeah, obviously a neurologist is an expert in neurology, but to be perfectly blunt the guy knew about as much about nuclear power and radiation as, well, me.

And if that doesn’t trouble you at all, I don’t know what will.

Honestly though, it really seems like all the “news” articles coming from American sources have been over-the-top sensationalism. For example, I read an article from the BBC about how they had upgraded the severity level of the incident from 4 to 5, which put it on the same level as the Three Mile Island meltdown. An accident that has been conclusively confirmed to have killed all of zero people. But reading the exact same story from an American source it was more like, “OMFG IT’S AT LEVEL 5!!!!! THAT’S ONLY 2 LESS THAN CHERNOBYL!!!! WE’RE ALL GONNA DIEEEE!!!!!!!! Stay tuned for more at 11.”

Great reporting, assholes.


Oh and by the way, if you leaned a little closer to your monitor to read that last sentence, you just got about as much of a dose of radiation as you’re likely to get from Fukushima.

The media just loves this story. Because I know that for me personally, radiation scares the CRAP out of me, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. And while the media just thrilled because these stories get them more listeners, viewers, page clicks, or whatever, the fact is, people are actually getting sick because they’re freaking out and overdosing on iodine. And here in China everyone is buying up all the salt they can, either because it’s iodized and they mistakenly believe this will somehow protect them, or because they’re afraid that any future salt that comes from the ocean will be radioactive (which is irrelevant because the salt most people buy in the store here doesn’t come from the ocean). And yeah, the salt panic in China has nothing to do with the American media, but it just shows what happens when people get scared and irrational.

For another example, check out the radiation forecast from the New York Times. The best part, of course, is the arbitrary units. As near as I can figure, the amount of radiation that is actually hitting America is at absolute maximum one tenth of what’s coming from Japan, and what’s coming from Japan isn’t enough to kill anyone, so…yeah. But to look at the picture, it’s like an inevitable wave of 16-bit pixilated DEATH is sweeping across the ocean and annihilating most of the west coast.

Ironically, one of the best resources I’ve found on this subject is from the webcomic xkcd. Here he’s posted a radiation dose chart that gives the relative amounts of radiation from different sources in a clear and straightforward manner. It really helps put things into perspective. And yeah, of course things aren’t that simple. For one thing, there’s a big difference between types of radiation, the nature and danger of various radioactive particles, and the severity of the effects, but again if I were to go into any more detail than that, I’d just be repeating what I read off Wikipedia. If you’re really interested you should just read it for yourself there, rather than getting it filtered through my intermittently functional brain.

Speaking of Wikipedia, their article on the current incident seems pretty damn good, and a hellova lot better than most news articles I’ve read on the subject.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eat some salted bananas.

how to fix science

I would love to say that I had all the answers. Because that would be awesome. Seriously, if I could single-handedly usher in a new age of Scientific Enlightenment, that would be pretty much the coolest thing I could ever do. Well, maybe the second coolest, unless it also somehow involved skin-tight black leather outfits, this one girl I know, various pieces of sporting equipment, punk music, the Tianhe-1A supercomputer cluster, a 60-meter rope, and Antarctica.

But I digress.

Random tangents aside, I do think there is one very simple thing scientists could do to promote science in general and to make the process of scientific inquiry more accessible to the public at large. And it’s really as simple as rephrasing the argument.

Take Global Warming for example. In the 20th century, the global temperature increased 0.74 degrees Celsius, according to the 2007 IPCC report. So that means Global Warming is an indisputable fact, right?

Well, no. What it means is that the theory that the earth is getting warmer is the scientific theory that best describes the available evidence. Science doesn’t deal with “facts”. Science isn’t an ideology. Science is simply a process of coming up with theories to explain available evidence, and performing experiments or studies to support or disprove existing theories.

And we look damn sexy in our white labcoats.

The only other criteria for a scientific theory is that it has to be falsifiable. Therefore Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory because we cannot prove that God is not somehow involved in the process of evolution. Evolution on the other hand is falsifiable because we could, theoretically, discover a 65-million-year-old fossil of a human riding a dinosaur.

Which would be pretty damn awesome.

And that’s the thing about science; if we’re confronted with credible evidence that contradicts an existing theory, we modify or replace the theory to accommodate the new evidence. As the creator of the delightful webcomic xkcd put it: SCIENCE. IT WORKS, BITCHES.

Getting back to Global Warming, a 2009 poll found that around 50% of Americans don’t believe that the earth is getting warmer because of human activity. At this point I feel compelled to point out that 50% of Americans also have an IQ of 100 or less, but that’s probably just a coincidence.

So is Global Warming caused by humans? What does science say? Well, that’s just it. Science doesn’t have a “yes” or “no” answer, because that isn’t how science works. What we have is this: The theory that Global Climate Change is due to human action is the theory that best describes the available evidence.

That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s not “real” “a fact” “true” or anything like that. Not in a scientific sense, anyway. It’s just the theory that best describes the available evidence. That’s it.

And that’s how scientists should present their arguments. Because this is what we’re up against:

“[Pawlenty is] a strong candidate. I worry, however, about the energy policies he has implemented in Minnesota, which involve a lot of government intervention, and mandate the use of renewables – in my view climate change is a complete joke with no scientific backing.”

This was from a commentator at the Conservative Political Action Conference held recently in Washington, D.C. Now my first instinct is to suggest that this woman suffers from profound mental retardation, but that really isn’t fair. Because if nothing else, she seems quite blissful in her willful ignorance. But the fact is, a lot of people who deny climate change are perfectly intelligent people, but they’ve decided on an emotional level that Global Warming is false.

There’s a lot of talk about scientific consensus and scientific opinion, like it should matter. For example, the consensus among scientists is that Global Warming is real, and it’s caused by people. But so what? That’s just, like, their opinion. Or something. And who cares about some asshole’s opinion? Or even the opinion of a bunch of really smart assholes?

Look at me. I’m a scientist. I’m quite brilliant. Handsome too. I have a PhD in Computational Biochemistry, which is without a doubt one of the most complicated and difficult subjects known to mankind. Probably to some alien species too. But that does not mean that you should trust my opinion. About anything. Because I’m just as capable of being irrational as anyone else. Probably more so, in my case. In fact, I have a well-documented history of doing extremely stupid things. So unless I have credible evidence to back up my arguments, don’t just take my word for it.

Trust me.

Oh, wait….

If you’re smart, you’ve probably realized that all this is just my opinion on how scientists should present themselves and their work, but here’s a “fact”: a scientist cannot prove to the satisfaction of everyone that Global Warming is “real” or “true” or whatever, but they can prove quite easily that the theory that the climate is changing due to human action is the theory that best describes the available evidence. Then the argument becomes about what other evidence might be out there, or what experiments or studies we could perform to disprove or modify the theory. And that’s where the argument should be.

At least in my opinion.

Heh.

the problem with science

The problem with science is that it’s conducted by scientists. And scientists are human.

At least as far as we know.

The reason this is a problem is that human beings are simply not rational creatures. We are far too often guided by emotion—what feels right—as opposed to what’s actually backed up by empirical evidence. And even when it comes to empirical evidence, often that evidence is incorrectly interpreted, improperly gathered, or just plain flat out wrong. Intentionally or unintentionally.

An extremely interesting article recently published in the Atlantic (which I highly recommend) highlights this. The article is about Dr. John Ioannidis, a Greek medical researcher who, in 2005, published two papers on the amount of errors in medical science.

The first, in PLoS Medicine, describes how 80% of non-randomized medical studies are wrong, 25% of randomized studies are wrong, and 10% of the strictest large-scale randomized studies are wrong. The second paper, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reveals that out of the 49 most highly regarded research findings in the past 13 years, when 34 of them were retested, 14 were shown to be wrong or exaggerated.

This is not good. One specific example is the 1998 study which linked the MMR vaccine to autism. It was found that the researchers deliberately distorted their results, and now we’re seeing a rise in cases of the measles in Europe and the U.S.

Wonderful.

And of course the reason that someone would intentionally publish incorrect results is that science is highly competitive, and often in order to secure funding—or often even keep their job—a researcher has to publish exciting, new, and controversial papers. And if the actual results aren’t any of those things, there’s a lot of pressure on researchers to fiddle with the results until they become something that would seem worthy of being published in a top journal.

But the mistakes are not always intentional. Sometimes they’re due to the way we handle statistics. For example, a 95% confidence interval—which is a standard benchmark—means that there is only a 5% chance that the observed effect was due to random chance, and not to the drug or whatever else the scientist was testing. But if hundreds of studies come out every single year, many of them are bound to be wrong even if the researchers are honest and the experiments were conducted well. This ScienceNews article gives a more thorough description of the problem.

Of course, there’s another very important problem with science: the public. If scientists want access to government money, they have to be able to convince the public that the work they’re doing is worthwhile. Not always an easy task, considering the fact that the public, just like the scientific community, is comprised of irrational humans.

Just look at global warming. The consensus among the scientific community is that global warming is real, happening right now, and is primarily caused by humans. Unfortunately, a lot of people out there don’t want to believe this because it makes them uncomfortable on an emotional level. They don’t want to admit that they’re a part of what’s harming the global ecosystem, and they don’t want to have to change their behavior.

Unfortunately, in response to this many scientists have taken the sensationalist approach, insisting on using words like “catastrophic” and “irreversible” to try and gain public support. This approach can backfire horribly though, as seen with the IPCC 2007 report which stated, among other things, that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. Climate change deniers latched onto this, and used it to come to the rather dubious conclusion that because that one number was wrong, all climate science must be a lie, and all climate scientists themselves are godless commies, or something.

So yeah, basically the problem with science is the fact that people—both scientists and “normies”, as we like to call the rest of you—are irrational creatures who often use emotion rather than evidence to reach conclusions. And this is a problem that needs to be addressed, because regardless of the severity of global warming, our population is increasing and our resources are dwindling, and we’re going to need scientific solutions to these problems. And in order to achieve those solutions, we’re going to need a public who is supportive of scientific endeavors.

At least in the short term. As I’ve mentioned before, once my doomsday device is ready none of you will have to worry about any of this anymore.

science in China

Not too long ago, China was 14th in the world for the number of scientific studies published. Now, according to the National Academy of Sciences, they’re second only to the United States.

In your face, Germany! And everywhere else.

I have the extraordinary and unbelievable privilege of working at the top biological institute in China. Extraordinary, because I’m the first—and up until recently the only—non-Chinese postdoc the Institute has ever had. Unbelievable, because, well, I’m really not that great of a scientist. The only reason I got the job is because I’m a Westerner, and right now they really want more Westerners to come and do science in China.

There’s a huge push in China right now to make science a national priority, and the Institute is an example of this. Because while most researchers have to spend a good chunk of their time and energy writing grants and looking for funding, the heads of the research groups at the Institute are basically just handed money from the government and told to go do science.

Of course, the heads of the research groups at the Institute are no ordinary scientists. They’re basically the top people—or nearly so—in their respective fields. And while none of them has ever won a Nobel Prize (yet), I’m pretty confident that within the next 5-10 years at least one of them is going to.

The funny thing is, every single one of them was educated in America.

And this is where I think America is making a huge mistake. Because while China (and India, and South Korea) are substantially increasing their investments in science and engineering, America is actually talking about cutting back on funding for science. And if that’s not bad enough, the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology is currently being filled by people who, to say the least, are not exactly friends of the scientific community.

But there’s another far more subtle mistake I think America is making. A few months ago I met a very talented researcher from a University in Hong Kong. Like so many Chinese scientists he was educated in America, but was unable to find a permanent position in the States because he was Chinese, and had worked for a Chinese boss. Apparently there’s still a mindset in America that Chinese are very intelligent and hard-working, but narrow-minded, uncreative, and unable to think critically. As a result, many highly qualified and skilled Chinese scientists can’t find employment in the States.

Of course, China is more than happy to welcome them back.

Ironically, if you want to get a good research position in China, you have to do your PhD—or at least a postdoc or two—in America. Despite the growing prestige of places like Peking University and Tsinghua University (essentially the Harvard and MIT of China), it’s still believed that the best place you can get an education to prepare yourself for a career in science is in the United States.

At least for now.

Education in China is still primarily based on rote memorization, but I think that’s starting to change. As more and more Chinese people get exposed to Western education, they’re going to increasingly demand that their own children are taught critical thinking and problem-solving skills, in addition to the memorization of facts.

Regardless, I can honestly say without any feeling of shame that I am the single dumbest, most ignorant person in my research group. Because despite having gone through the Chinese education system, everyone I work with is freaking brilliant, dedicated, and in no way lacking critical thinking skills. In fact, the only advantage I have over my colleagues is that I’m a native English speaker. Which means I can read a scientific paper in a fraction of the time, and I can write a scientific paper better than anyone else in my group—including my boss.

But this advantage is fleeting. Every day the Chinese are improving their English skills, and every day they’re putting out more scientific papers. America may be number one at the moment, but if we’re not careful, China (and India, and South Korea) are going to fly right by us, maybe giving a condescending, “Thanks for all the help,” as they pass.

And maybe that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. America needs something to inspire us to value science and education, and if it takes China becoming the world leader in science, so be it. Because the thing is, when countries compete for scientific prestige, everybody wins.

But I’m glad I’m here learning Chinese and making connections in the scientific community of China, just in case.

fighting the Big Guys

I’ve decided that I want my legacy as a scientist to be that I wasn’t afraid to stand up to the Big Guys. I want to be able to proudly say that I fought for my ideals—and for scientific integrity—even when I knew that doing so would quite possibly destroy any chance of my continuing in research as a profession. Which is kind of funny, if you consider the fact that I’m planning on leaving the field anyway to pursue a career in stupid humor.

A few months ago some friends of one of my colleagues sent him a couple of papers that had been published in a well-respected scientific journal. Apparently they thought these papers would be useful and applicable to the work that my colleague is doing. So my colleague read the papers, and initially he was impressed. The authors were addressing a serious and fundamental problem in our field, and they used lots of fancy equations and high-level theories. But after he’d finished with both, my colleague was left with a vague but persistent feeling of intellectual discomfort. Something wasn’t quite right. Somewhere, there was a critical flaw in the argument the authors were making.

I won’t bore you with the technical details (you’re welcome) but basically, a fundamental error was made. For example, imagine someone came up with an extremely intricate and detailed set of instructions for the best way to drive from New York City to another specific city in the United States. And I mean like everything from which roads to take to how many hours per day you should drive, to where you should stop for gas, food, and lodging to minimize your expenses.

Sounds pretty good, right?

Now suppose the city you’re meant to drive to using these instructions is Honolulu.

That’s the kind of mistake the authors made. The biggest problem with this is that if someone has no knowledge of United States geography and doesn’t realize that Honolulu is in Hawaii, and that Hawaii is an island and kind of impossible to drive to, they might waste a lot of time and effort following the instructions given in the papers, and basically end up at the bottom of the ocean.

Honestly, I have no idea how these papers made it past peer review. The only logical explanation I can think of is that the main author is a Big Guy in our field, and he’s also friends with the editor of the journal.

Personally, I find it kind of upsetting and discouraging that this sort of thing can happen in science. I mean, research is supposed to stand or fail based on its scientific merits, not on how much of a Big Guy the author is, or how good of friends he is with the editor of a particular journal. When I brought this up with my boss, he gave me a pretty fatalistic response. According to him, “30% of papers are useless, 30% are useful, and 10-20% are just completely wrong.”

This raises two very unsettling questions: 1) How can the scientific community as a whole be comfortable with the fact that 10-20% of papers that pass peer review are completely wrong?, and 2) Um, what about the other 20-30%?

Fortunately, there is at least a potential option to remedy the situation: write a comment paper. Basically, write a paper that explains the mistakes made in the original paper, and have it published in the same journal so at the very least there’s a greater chance that more people will be made aware of the mistake before they get in their cars and try to drive to Hawaii.

I say that this is a potential option because in reality, if the original author is a Big Guy, it’s very rare that a comment paper will be published criticizing something they’ve done—even if it’s wrong. Part of the reason for this is that the journal itself will be reluctant to publish the comment paper because that’s basically an admission that they published something that was factually incorrect, but often the comment paper is never written in the first place. Because if you criticize a Big Guy openly, the next time you try to publish a paper on your own work you’d better hope that none of the editors or reviewers are friends with that Big Guy, or they might just make your life difficult out of spite.

The reason I’m involved in all of this is that my colleague—who is also a fellow postdoc and good friend of mine—asked me to be coauthor of the comment paper he wrote on the original two papers.

And yeah, he didn’t ask me to be coauthor because he wanted my scientific expertise. The guy is a freaking genius and doesn’t need any help from me as far as the science is concerned, and I’m kind of a dumbass, but his English isn’t that great. And he never said so, but I think he feels the paper would carry more weight if it had a Western name on it.

I’ll be honest, aside from editing and correcting the English, I really didn’t really have a solid understanding of what the critical flaws in the original papers were, and what exactly we were saying with the comment paper. But I appreciated that my colleague was fighting the good fight, and I was happy to be a part of it—even if my part was mostly symbolic.

But here’s the thing. We submitted the paper to the journal along with suggestions for possible reviewers (common procedure), but two months later we got a response from the main author of the original papers (the Big Guy). Apparently, the editor never even gave the comment paper to the reviewers, but instead simply sent it to the big guy so he could develop a rebuttal. This is not common procedure. Generally, the original author will have a chance to respond to the comments, but only after they’ve been published. The fact that the editor never even sent our comment paper to the reviewers is a little suspicious. What’s even more suspicious is that the original author said he was hoping to resolve the issue “off-line”. In other words, he doesn’t want our comment paper published. Which is understandable. After all, if my colleague is right, it’s going to make the Big Guy look pretty stupid.

So yeah, I understand it, but at the same time I’m kind of pissed. There is a procedure for these things, and the fact that the editor sent our comment paper to the Big Guy but not the reviewers is, to be frank, bullshit. And the response we got from the Big Guy was not exactly friendly or straightforward. He basically tried to dismiss my colleague’s arguments as trivial or unimportant, without actually addressing them directly. And in his response, he made it even more clear that his original argument is fundamentally and fatally wrong.

Now I’m determined to fight him. I’ll admit that when we submitted our original comment paper I didn’t really, um, understand what it was about, but now I’ve gone back and studied all the relevant theory and background material, and I’m confident that we can make a solid an irrefutable argument. Because yeah, the first draft of our comment paper wasn’t very good. Partly because of my colleague’s lack of English skills, but mostly because my lack of knowing what the hell we were supposed to be talking about.

And yeah, going forward with this would be kind of a stupid move for me if I was serious about a career in science. If I were smart and pragmatic, I would just let it go. But since I’m planning on leaving the field anyway, I’d rather go out on in a figurative blaze of literal glory. Or a literal blaze of figurative glory.

But definitely one of those two.