In Praise of ‘Small Astronomy’

My colleague and friend, Mike Merrifield, wrote the following thought-provoking post, recently featured at the University of Nottingham blog. I’m reposting it here at “Symptoms…” because although I’m not an astronomer, Mike’s points regarding big vs small science are also pertinent to my field of research: condensed matter physics/ nanoscience. Small research teams have made huge contributions in these areas over the years; many of the pioneering, ground-breaking advances in single atom/molecule imaging and manipulation have come from teams of no more than three or four researchers. Yet there’s a frustrating and troublesome mindset — especially among those who hold the purse strings at universities and funding bodies — that “small science” is outmoded and so last century. Much better to spend funding on huge multi-investigator teams with associated shiny new research institutes, apparently.

That’s enough from me. Over to Mike…


A number of years back, I had the great privilege of interviewing the Dutch astronomer Adriaan Blaauw for a TV programme.  He must have been well into his eighties at the time, but was still cycling into work every day at the University of Leiden, and had fascinating stories to tell about the very literal perils of trying to undertake astronomical research under Nazi occupation; the early days of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) of which he was one of the founding figures; and his involvement with the Hipparcos satellite, which had just finished gathering data on the exact positions of a million stars to map out the structure of the Milky Way.

When the camera stopped rolling and we were exchanging wind-down pleasantries, I was taken aback when Professor Blaauw suddenly launched into a passionate critique of big science projects like the very one we had been discussing.  He was very concerned that astronomy had lost its way, and rather than thinking in any depth about what new experiments we should be doing, we kept simply pursuing more and more data.  His view was that all we would do with data sets like that produced by Hipparcos would be to skim off the cream and then turn our attention to the next bigger and better mission rather than investing the time and effort needed to exploit these data properly.  With technology advancing at such a rapid pace, this pressure will always be there – why work hard for many months to optimise the exploitation of this year’s high-performance computers, when next year’s will be able to do the same task as a trivial computation?  Indeed, the Hipparcos catalogue of a million stars is even now in the process of being superseded by the Gaia mission making even higher quality measurements of a billion stars.

Of course there are two sides to this argument.  Some science simply requires the biggest and the best.  Particle physicists, for example, need ever-larger machines to explore higher energy regimes to probe new areas of fundamental physics.  And some results can only be obtained through the collection of huge amounts of data to find the rare phenomena that are buried in such an avalanche, and to build up statistics to a point where conclusions become definitive.  This approach has worked very well in astronomy, where collaborations such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) have brought together thousands of researchers to work on projects on a scale that none could undertake individually.  Such projects have also democratized research in that although the data from surveys such as SDSS are initially reserved for the participants who have helped pay for the projects, the proprietary period is usually quite short so the data are available to anyone in the World with internet access to explore and publish their own findings.

Unfortunately, there is a huge price to pay for these data riches. First, there is definitely some truth in Blaauw’s critique, with astronomers behaving increasingly like magpies, drawn to the shiniest bauble in the newest, biggest data set.  This tendency is amplified by the funding of research, where the short proprietary period on such data means that those who are “on the team” have a cast iron case as to why their grant should be funded this round, because by next round anyone in the World could have done the analysis.  And of course by the time the next funding round comes along there is a new array of time-limited projects that will continue to squeeze out any smaller programmes or exploitation of older data.

But there are other problems that are potentially even more damaging to this whole scientific enterprise.  There is a real danger that we simply stop thinking.  If you ask astronomers what they would do with a large allocation of telescope time, most would probably say they would do a survey larger than any other.  It is, after all, a safe option: all those results that were right at the edge of statistical significance will be confirmed (or refuted) by ten times as much data, so we know we will get interesting results.  But is it really the best use of the telescope?  Could we learn more by targeting observations to many much more specific questions, each of which requires a relatively modest investment of time?  This concern also touches on the wider philosophical question of the “right” way to do science.  With a big survey, the temptation is always to correlate umpteen properties of the data with umpteen others until something interesting pops out, then try to explain it.  This a posteriori approach is fraught with difficulty, as making enough plots will always turn up a correlation, and it is then always possible to reverse engineer an explanation for what you have found.  Science progresses in a much more robust (and satisfying) way when the idea comes first, followed by thinking of an experiment that is explicitly targeted to test the hypothesis, and then the thrill of discovering that the Universe behaves as you had predicted (or not!) when you analyse the results of the test.

Finally, and perhaps most damagingly, we are turning out an entire generation of new astronomers who have only ever worked on mining such big data sets.  As PhD students, they will have been small cogs in the massive machines that drive these big surveys forward, so the chances of them having their names associated with any exciting results are rather small – not unreasonably, those who may have invested most of a career in getting the survey off the ground will feel they have first call on any such headlines.  The students will also have never seen a project all the way through from first idea on the back of a beer mat through telescope proposals, observations, analysis, write-up and publication.  Without that overview of the scientific process on the modest scale of a PhD project, they will surely be ill prepared for taking on leadership roles on bigger projects further down the line.

I suppose it all comes down to a question of balance: there are some scientific results that would simply be forever inaccessible without large-scale surveys, but we have to somehow protect the smaller-scale operations that can produce some of the most innovative results, while also helping to keep the whole endeavour on track.  At the moment, we seem to be very far from that balance point, and are instead playing out Adriaan Blaauw’s nightmare.

No cuts, no confidence at University of Leicester

A couple of weeks ago, Peter Coles, whose In The Dark blog I follow, highlighted worrying news about the “down-sizing” of the Maths department at the University of Leicester. Equally worryingly, the Condensed Matter Physics group at Leicester, which has a strong track record in nanoscience research, has been proposed for closure.

I would encourage you to sign the UCU’s petition against the cuts at the University of Leicester: No cuts, No confidence at University of Leicester

 

 

And so farewell. Leaving Labour.

I was going to write a post on my thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory at the weekend but in the reblogged post below Fr. Blackledge sums up a lot of what I’d wanted to say…and then some. I agree with his sound advice to Corbyn (although, unlike Fr. Blackledge, I’ll remain a member of the Labour Party).

frpip

So here’s my letter of farewell to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.

I was an entryist, really. I hadn’t been a member of the Labour party for years, but I decided to put up the money in order to vote at this leaderhsip election. Like 40% of those who joined for this purpose, I voted to try and vote you out. We lost, as you probably know… I didn’t vote against you because of your policies. I voted against you because you are unelectable.

I think the Labour party is dead and gone for a generation at least, possibly for all time. But Jeremy, I wish the best for you, I really do, so for what it’s worth, here’s my advice as a concerned bystander.

 

Have a vision, not a complaint. The strategy of pointing out how horrible the Tories are, and mumbling about “hope” and hoping people will vote…

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Politics. Perception. Philosophy. And Physics.

Today is the start of the new academic year at the University of Nottingham (UoN) and, as ever, it crept up on me and then leapt out with a fulsome “Gotcha”. Summer flies by so very quickly. I’ll be meeting my new 1st year tutees this afternoon to sort out when we’re going to have tutorials and, of course, to get to know them. One of the great things about the academic life is watching tutees progress over the course of their degree from that first “getting to know each other” meeting to when they graduate.

The UoN has introduced a considerable number of changes to the “student experience” of late via its Project Transform process. I’ve vented my spleen about this previously but it’s a subject to which I’ll be returning in the coming weeks because Transform says an awful lot about the state of modern universities.

For now, I’m preparing for a module entitled “The Politics, Perception and Philosophy of Physics” (F34PPP) that I run in the autumn semester. This is a somewhat untraditional physics module because, for one thing, it’s almost entirely devoid of mathematics. I thoroughly enjoy  F34PPP each year (despite this amathematical heresy) because of the engagement and enthusiasm of the students. The module is very much based on their contributions — I am more of a mediator than a lecturer.

STEM students are sometimes criticised (usually by Simon Jenkins) for having poorly developed communication skills. This is an especially irritating stereotype in the context of the PPP module, where I have been deeply impressed by the quality of the writing the students submit. As I discuss in the video below (an  overview of the module), I’m not alone in recognising this: articles submitted as F34PPP coursework have been published in Physics World, the flagship magazine of the Institute of Physics.

 

In the video I note that my intention is to upload a weekly video for each session of the module. I’m going to do my utmost to keep this promise and, moreover, to accompany each of those videos with a short(ish) blog post. (But, to cover my back, I’ll just note in advance that the best laid schemes gang aft agley…)

How to sociably debate social justice

or Why We Should Feed The Trolls.

The following is a fascinating guest post by Hugh Dingwall. Hugh, aka “Objective Reality”, has posted a number of intelligent, perceptive, and compellingly-argued comments under previous posts at “Symptoms…”. I was very impressed by the quality of his writing, and by the careful manner in which he laid out his arguments, so I invited him to write a guest post. That post is below. I have never been happier to be told I’m wrong.  

[Note that (i) the title (and sub-title) above are due to me, not Hugh, so any criticism about the titling of the piece should be directed to me; (ii) Hugh’s points about safe spaces and no platforming are particularly timely in the context of this recent debate in academia: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/chicago-academics-hit-back-safe-spaces %5D


First off, thanks to Phil for inviting me to do this guest post, which I intend to begin by disagreeing with him about a couple of things.

Phil’s made it clear in a couple of different places, that he doesn’t agree with the idea of no-platforming (or blocking people), or with safe spaces. I get his reasons (and I think they come from a good place) but I think he’s wrong.

To deal with safe spaces first, this concept is usually portrayed by “SJW-slayers” as a way for a person to avoid concepts that challenge them, and this is, I think, what Phil (rightly) disagrees with. The problem is that that’s not what they are, at least in the forms that I’ve encountered them. The “safe spaces” I’ve come across have been areas, particularly on a university campus, where a marginalised group can go and (quite literally) be safe. The best example of this is the Women’s Room at my old university, which was established because there were a number of behaviours that male students engaged in that made female students feel quite (justifiably) unsafe. Since it was one room, with some paper resources if you needed them and a free phone (I know because my girlfriend of the time called me from there on a number of occasions) you could hardly use it to shelter your precious worldview. You could however, use it to call your boyfriend to come and pick you up when you’d had a distressing encounter with an arsehole at the student pub. This kind of safe space is, in my opinion, quite hard to argue against unless you’re the aforementioned pub arsehole – and is more commonly what defenders of safe spaces have in mind.

As regards no-platforming (the practice of preventing people from speaking on campuses because of their views), and relatedly blocking people you can’t be bothered with on social media, I again see Phil’s point. On the other hand, I remember how angry I was when my university played host to an Intelligent Design proponent. The issue wasn’t that my ideas were being challenged, or even that I thought this guy would convince anyone. I was angry that money (MY money – we have to pay for university in New Zealand (which this guy hadn’t when he attended but that’s another angry story)) had been spent paying him to lecture, when it could have been given to someone, even someone just as controversial, whose views weren’t provably false. It was an hour of my life I wasn’t going to get back, and the man had been paid for wasting it. He wasn’t going to convince anyone who wasn’t a closet-Creationist, and most infuriatingly, he didn’t even understand the theory of evolution that he claimed to debunk. (I should mention at this point that I dropped out of university, and while I was attending I was a Classics major – and I still had a clearer understanding of the theory than this guy who purported to be able to prove it wrong.)

To extend this logic to blocking people on social media, I think it’s important to know when a conversation has reached its useful end. I understand the principle that it’s good to be exposed to views you disagree with, but firstly, there’s no amount of David Icke I can read that will convince me that giant reptilians are a real non-metaphorical problem in the world. There’s a point past which a conversation with an Icke-believer stops being useful as a result. (The reader is invited to extend the logic to situations where political or philosophical disagreement devolves into mere fountains of bile). Moreover, I think that people whose goal is to harass or bully their intellectual opponents often use this idea (that you should always be open to defending your ideas from opposing views) as a way to try and argue that you owe them a continued conversation (even once they’ve begun abusing you or bringing in their followers to try for a dogpile) and that refusing them that conversation is a sign of cowardice. Which is bullshit – especially if you’re someone whose fame and/or status as a member of a despised group makes you a target for nastier-than-usual or literally-dangerous attacks, or if your opponent is a well-established internet presence who can call on a literal horde of faceless howling zealots to shout you down.

Finally, I’m not that keen on Rush. Though I acknowledge their technical skill, I’ve always been more of a psychedelia guy, and I have a special place in my heart for the British folk-rock explosion of the 70s (go look up Joe Boyd, and listen to basically everyone he produced, then work sideways from there, also the Grateful Dead, and Tom Waits).

[Editor’s note: Hugh’s criticism of Rush here is clearly an uncharacteristic lapse of judgement. He redeems himself by mentioning Tom Waits (whose, um, unique music I got to know via the fantastic Primus), so, much as it pains me, I’m willing to overlook the lack of enthusiasm for Rush. I’m sure Hugh will come round to their unique charms in the end.]

As you can see from the above, it’s entirely possible to disagree with people while remaining entirely civil. More importantly, it’s possible to disagree with people while acknowledging that they make good points, or have good reasons for the views they hold. (Reasons can be good even if you think they’re incorrect.) In philosophy, this is called “the principle of charity”. The idea is that to avoid strawmanning, you should ensure that you’re engaging with the strongest possible form of your opponent’s argument, given the things they’ve actually said. I find that it also helps to ask what people mean if you’re not sure, so you don’t end up talking at cross purposes.

Which brings me to the various discussions I had in the comments of Phil’s blog post “The Faith And Fables of Thunderfoot”.

The style of discussion I’ve indulged in above (and attempted to explain thereafter) is the way I talk on the internet if I’m interested in getting to the bottom of what people think, or making a genuine point. I’ll talk about the points that got discussed in that comments section in a bit, but first I want to talk about this style of discourse as opposed to trolling. See, I agree with Phil that trolling, while inherently somewhat mean-spirited, can be an art in and of itself (and some examples can be truly transcendent). However, the purpose of trolling is to keep your victim(s) expending energy for your amusement (and that of any onlookers). It’s not a form of argumentation, and if you put more energy into it than your victims do, you are a very ineffective troll. This is why I call bullshit on the likes of Thunderfoot and Sargon of Akkad when they claim to be “just trolling” as a way to avoid defending their arguments and/or actions. If they are trolls, then firstly we have no reason to accept their arguments as anything other than deliberately vexatious nonsense, and secondly (given the average length of their videos) they are very bad trolls indeed.

Pleasingly, there wasn’t much of that kind of conversation in the comments at Phil’s blog. Instead, two major points seemed to come up:

  1. People wanted to know how we could be sure that sexual dimorphism wasn’t to blame for the lack of women in STEM fields (this was the initial disagreement between Phil and Thunderfoot which led to the email exchange reproduced in the blogpost – I recommend going and reading it if you haven’t (otherwise some of this post may be quite confusing).
  2. People seemed nervous of adopting what might be seen as “feminist” positions, for fear that this might somehow be seen as implicating all men in a mass act of malice against all women, or that it might lead to them inadvertently endorsing some position that they deeply disagreed with.

To deal with the first point first (a novel idea, I know), the short answer is that we can’t. We can know very little for sure. On the other hand, it seems very unlikely that sexual dimorphism is to blame for women’s career and study choices. Phil goes into this in detail in this post here, but I’m not an academic (I’m a sound technician) and I want to talk about some other stuff as well, so I’ll just summarise the main points.

First off, I need to acknowledge that it’s not an inherently silly idea that sexual dimorphism might be to blame, as humans are a moderately sexually dimorphic species. Men* tend to be bigger, stronger, and hairier than women, who tend in turn to outlive them. It’s not totally outlandish to suggest that there may be brain differences as well. However, the evidence doesn’t bear this out, and as Phil points out in both the blogposts I’ve linked to, it’s very very difficult to decouple social factors from purely biological ones in humans. The evidence for social factors influencing women’s choices, on the other hand, seems to be pretty strong. It’s easily provable that society used to be much more sexist than it is right now. Most antifeminists would even agree with this proposition. I think it’s quite reasonable to argue that the recent (as in, last 50 years or so) influx of women into traditionally male fields is more likely to stem from an increased acceptance of women doing these kinds of jobs and studying in these fields than it is to be a result of evolution.

Which brings me to another point – there were a good number of appeals in the pro-sexual-dimorphism camp to what we might call “naturalistic” explanations, including a good deal of recourse to evolutionary psychology. Now, my good friend Daniel Copeland is convinced that there’s some merit in evopsych, and he is a very intelligent guy and makes a good case for the bits he supports. However, evopsych is probably one of the most abused theories I’ve ever seen. If you’re not familiar with it, the idea is that you can find explanations for bits of human behaviour in our evolutionary past, and sometimes you can discover those bits of evolutionary past by, for example, observing other primates. There are two problems with this – the first is that people who don’t fully understand it tend to just point to an aspect of human behaviour they wish to claim is immutable, and then invent an “evolutionary-sounding” reason for it. The more fundamental problem is that we’re not other primates, and even if we were, the world of animal sexual dynamics is hugely diverse.

There was a tendency in the early days of biology to assume that most animals would follow the family/relationship structure that those early biologists considered “natural” – dominant males, submissive females, and so on. The actual picture is much more complicated, and as I noted, we’re not other primates – we’re humans. Our whole thing is using technologies (including social technologies) to overcome our natural limits. That’s how come my wife can see, and my mother can hear. That’s how come we developed hugely complex social structures that let us live stacked on top of each other in cities without all killing each other (most of the time). There’s no reason to assume that even if there were a natural predisposition that led women to shun certain fields, we would allow ourselves to be bound by that. It’s not how we work. (Daniel Copeland wrote a nice blog post that goes into this in more detail.) We can also look at evidence (detailed in Phil’s post that I already linked) that shows that the steady decline of sexism globally correlates with a steady increase in women going into traditionally male fields both in science and the arts (there are far more female-fronted rock bands than their used to be, for one thing.) Obviously correlation is not causation, but it’s telling that these changes are far quicker than the sort of effect we’d expect from evolution, giventhe length of human generations.

And now to point number two. Again, I have some sympathy for this position. It’s completely wrong, but I get it. The issue is that while feminism is becoming quite broadly discussed (online at least), it’s not as broadly understood. This means that many people think that they are (or need to be) anti-feminist or non-feminist, when their views actually align with the majority of feminist theory. This is certainly the position I was in to begin with**. Then a very patient feminist lady on Facebook took the time to actually unpack what we were talking about, and I realised precisely how badly I had the wrong end of the stick.

The first issue I want to talk about here is terminology. Feminists use a number of words in ways which differ from a naive dictionary definition. This is (contrary to to what anti-SJWs would have you believe) not actually uncommon. In my own field as a sound engineer for a radio station, I use a number of terms which would be incomprehensible to someone who isn’t versed in sound tech, and a number of common words (for example “wet/dry”, “trim”, “bright/dark” and “dead/alive”) have quite specific meanings within that field. I’m sure Philip talks differently about physics to advanced students than he does to laypeople for the same reason. The advantage Phil and I have over feminists is that no-one misunderstands or willfully misuses our terminology against us. The terms that suffer the most abuse in discussions about feminism are, I think, “patriarchy” and “privilege”.

Again, since I’m not an academic, and I have already used a significant amount of virtual ink in this post, I’m going to summarise here. If you want really detailed discussions of exactly how these terms function, I suggest you go and check out people like Garrett, Chrisiousity, or Kristi Winters on Youtube. Patriarchy, as I understand it, refers to a social order which assumes that a specific sort of masculinity is the “default” gender identity, and judges all other in comparison (usually negatively). Privilege refers to the advantages (often small, at least when taken individually) that individuals accrue by being close to that default. In the Anglosphere*** the patriarchal ideal is rich, white, physically and emotionally dominant, heterosexual, and male – the more like that you are, the more privilege you have. The tendency is for one’s own privilege to be invisible (ie it just feels “normal”) so you tend to assume everyone can freely do what you can, unless you stop and think about it.

For example, I live in New Zealand. It is a small and fairly egalitarian country (we were among the first to give votes to women, and signed a treaty with our indigenous people rather than just murdering them all and taking their stuff, for example****) and seems reasonably enlightened on the surface. However, when I got married to a Samoan woman, I found that I was now conducting a field test into latent community racism. My wife and I can go into the same store within minutes of each other and get hugely different reactions from staff, because she is brown. When I am out alone with our daughters, I get approving noises from mums about how good it is that I as a Dad spend time with my girls, my wife gets asked if those little blonde girls are really hers. This was entirely invisible to me until that relationship opened a window for me into her world – in other words, a portion of my own privilege became visible to me in a way it hadn’t been. Here’s another example, in New Zealand, the majority of voters want decriminalisation or outright legalisation of cannabis. Our (Tory) prime minister has ruled this out, relying instead on “police discretion” to institute a sort of “de-facto decriminalisation”. The problem is that because people tend to use their discretion in slightly racist ways, this has led to disproportionately terrible outcomes for our Pacific Island and Maori minorities.

This is the result of an organic accretion of values over time – not a conspiracy. (White, straight) men have not conspired to create this system, though some men do work to preserve it because (presumably) they’re afraid of losing what power they have. This system also negatively affects some men – we are expected to be physically dominant and prepared to fight for family or country, and failure to do so can lead to terrible personal consequences. We are not generally assumed to have as deep an emotional life as women (because this is not patriarchally desirable) and this leads to terrible outcomes in mental health. We are expected to be hale and hearty and this leads to horrible outcomes in physical health. This is not a state of affairs that benefits us overall.

I use a pseudonym in lots of places on the internet because when I started out online (in the total wild west of pre-internet dial-up bulletin boards) that was just what people did, and I never thought deeply enough about the habit to change it. I don’t do it because I am afraid that people may harm me or my family because of my opinions. Anecdotally, my female friends are. Moreover, because I exist in a fairly privileged position (I am after all, a straight white dude from the wider Anglosphere) I don’t have to constantly justify my presence online, and my right to an opinion. Anecdotally, my female friends do. This means that I can get into arguments about feminism or other social justice causes on the internet without bringing the fatigue that results from a life of fighting sealions along with me, and I can be polite if the situation seems to merit it. (Also I am a pedantic and argumentative bugger.) While I think that it can be counterproductive to snap at people, I can totally understand why many women, POC, transpeople and so on do not have my level of patience with dudes***** who barge into conversations and restate very basic arguments very incoherently. This is because I have a privilege in terms of online discussion, which they do not.

Since you’re granted privilege by society on the basis of factors you can’t control, you can’t really get rid of it. All you can do is attempt to use it responsibly. One of the ways I try to do this, is by patiently and politely asking questions of antifeminists on the internet until they either make themselves look silly, or become more reasonable. That is, after all, what worked for me.

_____

*I’m going to stick with the terms “men” and “women” here because a) I don’t think trans people are a big enough population to seriously throw out the averages as far as size and weight distributions, and b) the exact configurations of people’s genitals are largely none of my business. I’ll worry about my own genitals, and my wife’s, and that’ll do me.

**I had a deeply tiresome “pendulum” theory about how power moved from group to group in society, and it tied into the death of prog and the rise of punk and it was awful. I had a bit of an embarrassment-shudder just typing that.

***It strikes me as a better shorthand for “mostly-white, mostly-English-speaking countries” than “The West”.

****If any of my readers are Maori and about to get cross with me for oversimplifying and making it seem like NZ’s racial history is just peachy-keen – stop. I know it’s more complicated than that and that the government did plenty of murdering and nicking of stuff (sometimes by stealthy law-making) and that the situation is far from resolved. It’s also a better deal than many colonised indigenous peoples got (which is totally shameful, I know).

*****Let’s face it dudes, it’s usually us. Like, 95% of the time, at least.

For who’s a jolly good fellow?

It’s that time of the year again. The deadline for submission of applications for Royal Society University Research Fellowships (URFs) is today. I know four postdoctoral researchers who have submitted their proposal and now will wait anxiously for the next few months until they find out if they’ve been called for an interview. And then they’ll sweat a little more before discovering if they’re one of the lucky ~ 8% of those who’ve applied that have landed a fellowship.

A fellowship is increasingly seen as a rite of passage to an academic career (at least in many areas of physics). The bar for securing a lectureship has been raised dramatically since I was fortunate enough to be employed by the School of Physics and Astronomy back in 1997 (although it was still just the Department of Physics back in those dim, distant days). As I’ve said before — once or twice — I know for a fact that what I had in terms of “output” back in 1997 wouldn’t even get me on a shortlist these days; competition has increased dramatically.

I’ve not been a URF (or sat on a URF panel) but I’ve been an EPSRC fellow and have also been a member of EPSRC fellowship panels, so I’ve been on either side of the ‘divide’. I’ve been planning for a while to put together a list of tips/suggestions for fellowship applicants (based on my experience as a panel member), and given the day that’s in it, there’s no time like the present…

Have a mock interview.  I cannot overstate the importance of this. I’ve been rather surprised at the number of fellowship candidates I’ve met who had not sat down with colleagues prior to the day of the formal interview and had a dress-rehearsal. There is no better way to prepare than to have your colleagues, preferably those who have sat on fellowship panels previously (though this isn’t essential), give you a thorough grilling in advance. Quite a few universities now organise mock interviews as a matter of course but if yours doesn’t, don’t feel at all shy about approaching peers/colleagues/URFs/EPSRC fellows in your department and asking whether they’d be willing to do a mock interview with you.   (The same advice holds true for any PhD students who might be reading this and have a viva coming up soon…)

Assert your independence. Fellowship schemes targeted at early career researchers almost invariably are designed to select candidates who demonstrate original ideas, creativity, and the potential to develop an independent programme of research. There’s no better way to demonstrate your potential for independent research than being able to point to examples in your application (and in the interview) of where you — yes, you guessed it — acted as an independent researcher.

Although this may sound somewhat ‘disloyal’ , anything that can set you apart from your research supervisor’s/principal investigator’s ideas and goals is useful. Make yourself known in your research community by organising workshops or conferences; accept any (and all) opportunities for invited talks that come your way (regardless of how daunted you may feel); apply for grants where you can. Although I appreciate that opportunities for independent postdoc funding are thin on the ground (and this needs to change), keep your ear close to that ground and be alert to the possibilities of securing even small amounts of funding. The goal here is not to establish a £30M Centre-For-Universe-Leading-Cross-Disciplinary-Inter-Sectoral-Super-Duper-Science but to demonstrate that you can write a successful bid for funding).

Avoid boilerplate. There’s little point stating that your research has the potential to have a major impact on industry and that you’re going to work closely with your university’s Business Development and Innovation department — or whatever it’s called this month — to make this a reality unless you provide specific examples of just how you’re going to do it. Anyone can write non-specific boilerplate; it just irritates referees.

I’ve had my differences of opinion over the years with Athene Donald on the subject of impact but I fully agree with the points she made in an important blog post back in 2011 — Kidding Yourself (The Impact Saga Continues). Be specific. As someone who criticised the research councils’ impact agenda for many years, I’m obliged to say that, to their credit, public engagement alone is enough for a Pathways To Impact statement. This is particularly important if your research is on the fundamental end of the spectrum and far from application/exploitation/market. But, again, warm words and purple prose are not enough. Be specific about what you’ll do in terms of public engagement. (I should note that the Royal Society Fellowship scheme (like those of the European Research Council) is rather less focused on non-academic impact than are the UK research councils).

Papers in “those” journals matter. I very much wish that I didn’t have to include this point but, unfortunately, it’d be naive and rather disingenuous of me to avoid it. It’s not infrequently the case that members of panels tasked with reviewing fellowship applications outsource the judgement of research quality to the brand-names of the journals in which the applicants have published. I wrote about this problem at length previously for the LSE blog so I’m not going to revisit it here. I’ll just say this: In a perfect world candidates would be judged directly on their research achievements, rather than where they’re published. But let’s be realistic — this isn’t going to happen in academia any time soon. And yes, I’m indeed a hypocrite for pointing this out.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. The referees are looking for vision, originality, and novelty. They want to be excited by the scope of your project, not swamped by minutiae that mean little to anyone who isn’t one of the world-experts in your (sub-)(sub-)(sub-) field. You’re writing a proposal, not a comprehensive scientific paper. Aim to put across the bigger picture. This is particularly the case when your proposal is likely to be judged by a non-expert panel.

And, finally, keep an eye on the world outside those stereotypically gleaming ivory towers and dreaming spires. Don’t put your eggs all in one basket. Success rates for fellowships are exceptionally low, and the chances of securing a permanent lectureship (in physics at least) are anything but encouraging. If an academic career is your life-long ambition then go for it. But go for it with your eyes wide open and take the time to occasionally look outside the lab.

…and if you’re applying for a fellowship today, or any other day, I wish you the very best of luck.

Beware The Troll

I very much enjoy reading Kyle Baldwin‘s “Apples and Bongo Drums” blog and thought I’d reblog one of his posts here. I was a little spoiled for choice, however. (I recommend you visit Kyle’s blog and read his other posts). After some umming and ahhing, I decided to go with his “Beware The Troll” post from July. Let’s just say it resonated.

Over to Kyle…


Beware the Troll

Kyle Baldwin, July 25 2016

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Once, Trolls were purely mythical creatures that lived under bridges and ate unsuspecting would-be bridge crossers. Or, if you prefer Tolkien mythos, Trolls were great big dim-witted creatures that can only be defeated by a combination of Hobbit stall tactics and sunlight petrification. Either way, it’s safe to assume that when these myths were being written, the total sum of actual death certificates that read “Cause of death: Troll” was nil.

That’s not quite true anymore.

If you’ve ever wasted a few hours scrolling through the YouTube comments section, and been left wondering where it all went wrong for the human race, there’s a good chance you encountered an internet troll or two. If you haven’t, then here’s a brief outline of what an internet troll is: an awful human being. More specifically though, it is someone who constantly posts in online forums with no purpose other than to disrupt conversations, provoke arguments, or just plain bully. They may hardly sound like the world’s biggest problem right now, and may even sound mostly harmless, but sometimes they’re a more insidious pest than my description does justice.

For example, Jessica Laney, a 16 year old Floridian girl, took her own life after being on the receiving end of online bullying, which included messages telling her to go kill herself. There’s also Charlotte Dawson, 47 year old New Zealander and TV presenter who committed suicide after years of online harassment – harassment carried out under the Twitter banner #diecharlotte. These are just a couple of highly publicised examples, but cyberbullying related deaths are becoming increasingly common, to the point where they no longer make headlines. One study shows that suicide ideation is strongly linked with cyberbullying, and we’ve not even touched on how many cases of clinical anxiety or depression can be linked back to online abuse. The exact numbers for cyberbullying related long-term mental health issues is unclear (unsurprisingly), but it is very well documented that bullying leaves permanent scars, and according to one study, as many as 43% of students will get to enjoy being cyberbullied during their lifetime.

If you thought lone trolls were a nuisance, you clearly don’t know much about 4chan. This is a little dark corner of the internet where trolls like to meet up, hang out, pick a target, and make casual rape threats (amongst other things). It’s a misogynist’s paradise, it’s a mob, and it has a way of achieving its goals through “hacktivism”. Wonderful.

LutherTo be fair, for the most part trolls are just people who get a kick out of causing a bit of mischief by derailing a conversation, or by mildly irritating people with political bait. But there are also those who take it many steps further, and the internet is the perfect platform for all their trolling desires. Further, comments sections seem to bring out the utter worst in people in ways that would never happen in the non-virtual world. Why does this happen, and is there any way to prevent it? … Other than the brand of anti-troll vigilante justice Luther endorsed, of course.

What feeds the Trolls?

In 2004, John Suler coined the term the “online disinhibition effect”, which, in a nutshell, states that people are willing to behave differently online than they would in reality. This isn’t really a single effect, but rather a collection of different factors and psychological effects that add up to make trolling inevitable. List time!

  1. I am no one. Probably the most obvious factor is that commenting is often completely anonymous, and anonymity gives a sense of security against any reprisals. You might be able to find a mister B. Kaldwin and give him a piece of your mind, but Prince_RobotIV? Who even is that guy?
  2. I am invisible. This is similar to the above, but also adds the fact that the form of communication – text – does not deliver tone, facial expressions or emotion. They are just words on a screen that could be interpreted a hundred ways, and concern over appearance is lost entirely. Further, a troll can pretend to be any age, sex, race or species he/she/it wants if it serves their purpose better. Not only do you not know who or where I am, but you don’t know what I am. And that gives me power.
  3. LOL BYE. The fact that conversations online are asynchronous – one can leave and come back to a conversation at any time – lowers inhibitions by allowing a person to go away and take all the time they need to think of the perfect cutting words. It also gives the troll the opportunity to blurt out something and not worry about a reply until they’re ready to log back in. Very unlike real life. This also means you can throw in an inflammatory remark on a popular YouTube video, grab a box of popcorn, and watch the ensuing mayhem.
  4. You’re who I say you are! This is a slightly abstract aspect, and is the most subconsciously active of the list yet. When you read a comment, although you don’t see, hear or smell the person on the other end, your brain automatically assigns characteristics to them. Usually, for some reason, people imagine that the commenter is male, white, and less intelligent than you. This is particularly the case in political arguments, where as soon as a disagreement begins, you imagine the other person as the pure stereotype of your political nemesis, and slowly, but surely, you begin to feel vindicated in displaying your ire.
  5. Want to play a game? Suler observed (alongside criminal lawyer Emily Finch studying online identity theft) that many people see the online realm as a form of escapism, and interacting with other commenters is nothing more than a game. Games have no real consequences, so what’s the worst that could happen? That girl won’t really think I want her to kill herself! That would be mental!
  6. You’re in my world now. This is kind of obvious when you think about it, but surprising to the uninitiated – the hierarchy of the online world follows its own rules. Even if you know the status of a person in the real world, it has little bearing on their perceived status in online communities. Instead, in the online realm, their online following is what gives them authority in chat rooms. To put it simply, a vocal twitter user who has many online followers but no power in reality, has more “cyber power”, and is feared as an authority figure in cyberspace over a prominent politician who only occasionally tweets (and especially if the tweets are of his own name – I’m looking at you Ed Balls).

Add all these effects together, and you get a worrying reduction in social inhibitions online. Politicians are still debating how to grapple with this surprising consequence of giving everyone a cyber-voice, and we’re left with the question:

Do we just accept them?

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The good news is that research suggests that trolls are in the vast minority. The bad news is that YouTube comment algorithms create the perfect troll feeding grounds. When you leave a comment, there are two ways in which it will find its way to the top of the pile – lots of thumbs up, and lots of replies. It is far more heavily weighted in favour of number of replies, though, and this is the crucial factor that makes trolls so visible – people can’t help but to reply to a comment they strongly disagree with.

The simplest solution would be to just learn when people are trying to get a rise out of you, and ignore … but that’s really difficult. Replying is reactive (as opposed to the far more passive ‘thumbs up’ option), and trolls, almost by definition, exist purely to illicit reactions in others. They’ve found their craft, honed their skills, and have become very adept at it. No matter how many times I hear the phrase “don’t feed the trolls”, when I read something outrageous, I just can’t help but want to send a snarky “Oh YEAH? Well let me tell you, sir/madam, that I think your specific politics are WRONG!”.

Trolls get the most replies, their comments find their way to the top, and suddenly they seem like they are the majority – we’ll call this troll-bias. Recently, a few YouTubers have begun requesting that their viewers leave a “+” reply to all comments that they agree with, to offset this troll-bias. It’s a clever response, and it does indeed seem to already be making comment sections far more pleasant places.

With regards to other forms of cyber-bullying, there aren’t easy answers, sadly. Forum moderators can take comments down, but usually they act after the harm has been done, and as Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed highlights, no number of moderators could hold back the tide of hateful comments that come with the Twitter mob.

Stricter laws should be implemented, I think. It’s not okay to tell someone to “go kill yourself” – no amount of free speech rights should leave the door open for that kind of behaviour. The online world though is multi-national, so how do we ensure safe spaces when laws aren’t always universal? It’s also, as I pointed out above, almost entirely anonymous! The ever-watchful, and infinitely creepy NSA might be able to automatically respond to a person openly asking Facebook how to build a dirty bomb (not that they ever do!), but a local police force is not going to be able to do much about a string of hateful comments coming from 4chan/b/.

School bullies have existed for as long as there have been schools, and, so far, no one has figured out how to stop them from growing like weeds. Now, our school bullies have the internet at their fingertips, and the online disinhibition effect in their heads, and it’s a bit scary. So what do we do when a troll doesn’t even recognise his victim is a person? Teach them.

Lindy West, an online activist and vocal feminist, was accustomed to online abuse – anyone who writes about feminism is an easy target for the more misogynistic trolls out there. But then one day, a specific troll took a different tactic than the usual rape/death threats, and decided to impersonate her dead father. Sickening, right? Usually, she would follow her peers’ advice and ignore the trolls, but this time and she decided to write a piece about it. The troll read the piece, realised there was real person on the other end of his abuse, apologised to her directly, and changed his ways. The troll decided he’d had enough and came out from under the bridge.

The answer, then, has to be in education. First educate police forces to take online abuse seriously (because they are often woefully inadequate at this so far), and educate youths to understand that not only is bullying a crime, but the people on the other end of comments are just that – people. They’re not tropes of your political nemeses, this isn’t a game, and you are not absolved of all responsibility by your anonymity.

And if that doesn’t work … Well, there’s always the Luther approach.

Note: the author of this blog in no way endorses vigilante justice.

Trollface image attribution: By Azzy10 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Trollface.png.

Luther (Idris Elba) image attribution: By DFID – UK Department for International Development – https://www.flickr.com/photos/dfid/15418120205/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35853981