Guest Post: The War on Science

Jennie invited me to write a couple of lines for her blog, I feel flattered and honoured, so here we go. Jennie and I “met” on Twitter over the #actuallivingscientists debate. I am a mineralogist from continental Europe, currently mixing magmas for a living as just another Post Doc.

In case you have been living under a rock for the past 6 months: both science and women (and many others) have been target of a brutal onslaught by the new commander in chief, who shall formerly be addressed here as Lord Dampnut. The #actuallivingscientist hashtag was a thread were scientists presented themselves and their work, showing the world that they are real people with awesome gadgets (animals, minerals…). Many female colleagues made a point in posting pictures of themselves wearing specialised suits for lab- and field work, accompanied by the #dresslikeawomen hashtag, to drive home the point that female scientists are common/awesome/important.

The #actuallivingscientist thread was/is awesome. I spent most of my Saturday night just browsing the cool people, checking out their blogs and sprinkling more likes in an hour than ever before in total. I also, however, left some rather pessimistic comments where people where referencing the current situation on science policies. I apparently was a lone voice of concern in an ocean of happy people getting euphoric about the cool things they do. I am sorry to be the party- pooper here, but while I know you guys do a great job, the times in which you do it are bad.

Let’s be very clear about this: (a) science is under siege from wide parts of the society, (b) most scientists are being exploited in deplorable ways by their government and (c) the publication system is so rigged. Whenever I start talking about that last one I sound like Lord Dampnut ranting on HRC.

All of these three problems could fill books by themselves, but I do not want to overload this blog post, so I will give you a short overview:

(a) I said science is under siege. What I mean is that various interest groups discovered that they can benefit from negating scientific findings in the public debate and fighting the respective scientific community with smear campaigns. The religious hate Darwin’s theory of evolution, for it negates the deeds of their Gods. The industrials negate climate change, for it threatens their profits. There are currently fights being carried out that question vaccination, evidence based medicine in general and, among other things, if you dig in the internet for some time, whether the earth is spherical and whether the sun is hot. For our non scientist readers: all those debates are non-issues. Fake debates. All those theories are backed up by millions of independent evidences, coming from dozens of different branches of science. I will not go further into detail why this is the case, at least not now and here.

The point is that those attacks are not coming from isolated groups of morons (though these play their part) but managed to gain significant foothold in the society. Millions now believe that not vaccinating their child is a good idea, because apparently polio didn’t hurt them in their time (probably because they were vaccinated). People want to believe nonscientific nonsense. They do it passionately. They do not care about the facts, they do not listen to any expert except the ones they declare expert themselves.They are forging a narrative that suits their lifestyle and nothing but.

Reasons for this are complex. In a world where algorithms choose your friends and whether or not you get a bank loan, conscious and subconscious tech-hostility rises. In a world of rampant, international capitalism which leaves the individual defenceless, people are struggling to gain personal control over anything. Easy explanations are en vogue. Incorporating a surprising (or maybe not) amount of old hate and prejudices, conspirators are inferred at every corner. Seriously, I would not have, for example, thought that the amount of open antisemitism you see on the net these days possible just five years ago. Disgusting. Science is in the way of easy explanations. When you feel like gaining control over a situation by claiming ethnic group X has been poisoning the drinking water, you get angry when a scientist claims it to be the results of decades of bad farming policies. Reversing decades of soil mismanagement is much more expensive and time consuming than burning a couple o’ fellas behind the barn. Also one would have to look into what good old John has been doing to all these dead cows and sure nobody could want that. The mob is alive and kicking, and science is among its targets. They don’t give a shit so why should we?

(b) The working conditions of scientists. We have seen all the nice pictures: scientists diving with sharks, collecting rocks on a volcano and, of course, holding a bottle with suspiciously coluorful liquid while wearing a lab coat and goggles. (Seriously, those liquids are just water with some edible-colours. Always.) These scientists have usually had highly specialised training for 5-10 years learning things that make you cry when you try to understand them. And we all cried, night after night. I mean: thermodynamics – u kiddin? What do we get in return? 2 years of contract? Maybe three? Option of another three, when the funding arrives and no politician decides to fuck with your institute.

What does a scientist earn? I am not talking about Professors. All’s fine with professors (hi, guys – thumps up!), I am talking about the army of grad students, Post Docs, maitres de conférence or however they are called. The girls & guys doing the footslogging work of actual research, the experiments, all the digging and killing poor zebrafishes until you need psychological assistance. While there are obviously variations between countries, profession and status, we are talking 20k, 30k, maybe 40k here. Money that would hardly make anyone in the public sector get out of bed in the morning. It has not always been like this. Again the situation depends on the country but scientists with regular contracts and the capability to feed a family of four where quite common in the 70s.

Since then, governments started stripping everything from us that they could: money, safety and dignity too. They realised they could do that because scientists, especially the really good ones, do care most about (their) science. They must pursue their studies at any cost! Like an artist who needs to paint pictures and a musician who keeps playing his piano, many scientists are not in here for the money. Unravelling the very texture of nature is quite addictive, not even a grumpy old rock-tosser like me is entirely immune to that charm. Not after all these years, no, not one bit. As we are also usually individualists and cultivate a sectarian attitude (looking at you, earth sciences!), we have hardly anywhere that our own, potent lobby for anything beyond who gets the next mass spectrometer. We made ourselves easy victims and the governments capitalise on it shamelessly. They don’t give a shit so why should we?

(c) Let me tell you a short story of scientific publication. Public science is usually funded by the public (that’s why it’s called that way, I guess). We, the people, pay for the machines, the consumables (which includes Post Docs ^^) and the sparse salary of the scientists. When a scientist makes a discovery (and she better do so on a regular basis, if she wants to keep her job) she is writing a report (called paper) on it and publishes it, so that everyone in her field can read about the discovery, adapt theories and design new experiments.

But how to publish a report? You ask a journal to “print” it. The journals are ranked; some have higher reputations than others. The higher the reputation of the journal that takes your paper the better for your career (just keep calling it a career to yourself for reasons of psychic hygiene). Did I mention that you pay the journal (with public money) so that you can give them all the rights to your paper and your research so that they can print it? Science is completely generated by public money and you have to sell all of it to a private company.

The journal now asks two or more leading experts of your field to check whether your findings are genuine or if you produced BS. The reviewers are expected to do that for free (on their public-funded work time). If the paper is approved it is published online and you can download a pdf. If, and only if, you have access to the journals online content. You have to buy a subscription for the whole journal (and often all other journals of the publisher(obviously!). Such a subscription starts around 60k per annum for the smaller publishers. To summarize: Scientists payed by the public pay public money to give all the rights of science that belongs to the public to a private company only to pay that company later to be allowed to look at it again. They don’t give a shit so why should we?

As you probably figured out by now I am leading up to something. All the joyful, awesome scientists in the #actuallivingscientists thread were so enthusiastic. Full of hope, that the scientific method will prevail against assaults from the medieval-minded. Eager to fight governments such as the one of Lord Dampnut, that just happened to have appointed a censor to the publication platforms of the mineralogical society of ‘Murica. Eager to create just THE next paper that will totally go nature and boost you right into tenure (just like the one where they made stem cells with citric acid two years ago – what happened to the head
of the institute, again?).

And then there is me, sitting here and I say fuck it. The plebs hate us for killing their prejudice, so fuck them. Let them keep it. We can do science for ourselves. We do not need an audience but that of fellow scientists. If they want to keep religious bigotry and the measles, I say let them dwell in their ignorance. We are the people who could make Ebola airborne again, but choose not to, because that would totally be a dick move. Wrestling with pigs is well above my payroll for sure. Especially in a world where governments are trying to control our right of free speech. Look what the Canadians did under Harper. Look what the poles are doing to that fabulous museum in Gdansk their historians made them. We owe them nothing.

I do not want to deprive you of your optimism but for me, I am just tired. To me it looks now like humanity will end itself in a nuclear winter even before global warming will make the oceans stop producing oxygen and leading us to a slow death of asphyxiation in about 70 years. To be fair – I guess a nuclear winter will solve the warming issue for now. The problems have grown to a pile of shit so vast it is surely beyond the means of the scientific community to sort it out. Time to take a backseat, have a few bottles of Jack and watch the show. After all, it’s gonna be our last.

This post was written by @Obsidiandy

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