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.

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…)

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.

Brady Haran, Doctor of Letters

A short blog post to say just how delighted I am that Brady Haran was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Nottingham earlier this week. It’s been my great pleasure to work with Brady on Sixty Symbols (and a number of his other channels) over the past seven years. Despite — no, make that because ofour occasional tête-à-tête on just how to put across a piece of physics for a broad audience, I always look forward immensely to Brady (+ camera + bag of accessories) appearing at my door.

Brady’s work, and his remarkable work ethic, have put Nottingham on the map — and then some — when it comes to public engagement and communicating science. As Mike Merrifield describes in the video below, Brady’s ever-expanding portfolio of videos has topped 400 million views./ That’s nearly 2 billion minutes’ worth of viewing worldwide. All of us at the University of Nottingham owe Brady a huge debt of gratitude and it’s wonderful that this has been formally recognised by the award of Doctor of Letters.

Brady is his usual modest self in his acceptance speech (starting at around the 6 minute mark below), but it’s no exaggeration to say that he has fundamentally and radically changed my approach to explaining science and, by extension, my teaching.

I have learnt so much from him over the years.

Thank you, Brady, and congratulations.

 

 

 

 

 

The Faith and Fables of Thunderfoot

faith (feɪθ). Noun

  1. strong or unshakeable belief in something, esp without proof or evidence

Collins English Dictionary

Back in March, I wrote a strongly-worded, some might even say scathing, critique of Philip Mason’s evidence-free opinions on the role of sexual dimorphism in aptitude/preference for physics. (Mason, in the guise of Thunderf00t, now has a considerable track record of posting hyperbolic anti-feminst rants, often on the subject of Anita Sarkeesian, which have won him a dedicated following in certain online communities and made him a pariah in others).

After uploading that post (“When atheists ape creationists…“), I contacted Mason to make him aware of what I’d written, to give him the opportunity to respond, and to ask whether he would like to debate the issues. The e-mail exchange with Mason, in its entirety, is below.

I will leave it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions as to Mason’s oft-stated commitment to reasoned, informed debate.

(The video to which I refer in the final e-mail of the thread below is here.)

Edit 09/08/2016 A comprehensive dissection of the claim that sexual dimorphism underpins aptitude/preference for physics (or other STEM subjects) is here.


To: Philip Mason
Date: Thu, 10 Mar 2016 13:51:13 +0100
Subject: Sexism in science
From: philip.moriarty@nottingham.ac.uk

Dear Phil (if I may),

Apologies for the e-mail out of the blue. I’ve just been reading this month’s Physics World, which contains a number of articles related to diversity, microagressions, sexism, LGBT communities etc… in physics (but, more generally, right across science). See http://blog.physicsworld.com/2016/03/01/physics-for-all-the-march-2016-issue-of-physics-world-is-now-out/ The last time we discussed these types of problem (on the MSS last year), I think we’d possibly both agree that it wasn’t the most productive of exchanges. It’d be good if we could revisit this?

I find it intriguing that despite our similar stances with regard to atheism and the value of science and rational argument in general, we seem to be diametrically opposed when it comes to issues related to sexism, feminism etc.. Over the years I’ve been involved in a number of debates which were in what might be best described as “spat” format: 500 word e-mail exchanges back and forth. (Here’s an example with regard to public vs private funding of science (although the word limit was often breached!) — http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ppzstm/pdfs/papers/2010/kealey_public.pdf )

Is this something you might consider doing? I think that a debate along these lines could be very useful and organisations such as the IOP, RSC, RS etc.. may well be interested. If you’re interested please e-mail me at philip.moriarty@nottingham.ac.uk and we can try to hammer out the details.

Best wishes,

Philip

Philip Moriarty, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham



From: Thunder Foot
Sent: 15 March 2016 14:23
To: philip.moriarty@nottingham.ac.uk
Subject: RE: Sexism in science

Yeah… i’d like to… but honestly Im massively overstretched as it is…. and the next 5 months are a nightmare (3 trips to us… 1 to france.. 1 to uk….1 to germany)

for me….. feminism grew out of noble and laudable goals… but once they were achieved… they are now more and more obsessed with trivial first world issues.  Most of which I dont give a shit about…. but when you get half a million dollars to study feminist glaciology…. it undermines the credibility of science. http://phg.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/01/08/0309132515623368.abstract

I’ve got nothing against the idea of a discussion.  However for me the obvious place to have such a discussion is on my channel.  More eyes will see it.

Part of me kinda likes the idea… if only cos so few are willing to stand forward and openly defend feminism.

Best wishes,

Phil

[Note added to transcript: I address Mason’s comment re. that glaciology paper in the blog post to which I refer below (see e-mail sent 01/04/2016)]


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 15 March 2016 14:34
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Sexism in science

Hi, Phil.

Thanks for responding. While I’d be happy to discuss this on your channel, I much prefer to debate via the written word. We’re both academic researchers – it’s our natural “forum” (!). Although I work with Brady Haran quite a bit on the Sixty Symbols videos, I don’t actually watch too many science(-related) videos online – I prefer to read.

Perhaps there’s a way of combining both? What if I write a blog post that lays out my thoughts/concerns and you respond via your channel? I’d be then happy to either respond in writing via my blog or upload a YouTube video in response.

Would that work? There’s no urgency, of course, but, as you say, I think it’d be good to debate this. (I’ve got a trip to Ethiopia coming up at the end of the month so I’d aim to write the blog post before Easter).

Best wishes,

Philip


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 01 April 2016 16:54
To: Thunder Foot
Subject: Blog post

Dera [sic] Phil,

Here’s the blog post I mentioned in my previous message: https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com/2016/03/27/when-atheists-ape-creationists-the-fallacies-of-the-anti-feminist/

Best wishes,

Philip


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 24 May 2016 16:10
To: Thunder Foot
Subject: Debate?

Phil,

[Please excuse this e-mail out of the blue. I’m exam marking at the moment and any displacement activity I can find is seized upon…]

I don’t know whether you got a chance to read that blog post?

I’ve been astounded at the level of (wilful?) ignorance of the scientific method — and the naïve credulity in the idea that a peer-reviewed paper is always correct! – by those posting comments under a video Kristi Winters made about the post (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwTxXkh9_Hc ). It’s rather dispiriting that those who would claim that they debate rationally and scientifically have such a weak understanding of just how science works.

You mentioned previously that you’d be happy to debate the sexual dimorphism issue at your channel. If you’re still up for it, I’d be keen, particularly if we could broaden the discussion out to cover just how science works (and that cherry-picking a paper on the basis of a two-minute Google search for keywords and crying “Gotcha” is not credible scientifically).

The end of term is nearing and once I get examiners meetings (and external examiners meetings in Ireland) out of the way, I could find some time for a debate in late June/early July if that worked for you?

Best wishes,

Philip

Philip Moriarty

Professor of Physics and Undergraduate Admissions Tutor, School of Physics & Astronomy, University of Nottingham


From: Thunder Foot
Sent: 24 May 2016 18:57
To: Philip Moriarty
Subject: RE: Debate?

meh… maybe you should consider the option you got your head stuck up your ass.

see… at least I extend you the courtesy of talking to your face as I would behind your back.

FYI, the reason I stick with my ‘childish pseudonym’ is cos I like to think that an idea stands on its merit.

Keep up the good fight though, its always good to see a white man infantalizing women in the name of feminism to the extent that he believes they cant do physics unless someone hold their hands and encourages them, and then having the lack of self awareness to think that ‘he just wants women treated as equals’

oh…. n btw… Im at a reactor doing an experiment…. and Ill be doing another at another reactor at the end of june.
enjoy your teachin or markin…. or whatever it is youre doin

🙂

Thunderf00t


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 02 June 2016 09:24
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

Good morning, Phil(ip).

My apologies for the very long delay in responding. It’s been exam- and report-marking season. EPSRC also decided to ‘helpfully’ have the deadline for their latest strategic equipment fund round of applications coincide with the exam period.

From the rather aggrieved – and, it must be said, somewhat less-than-erudite — flavour of your reply, should I take it that you’re not particularly keen to debate the issue of gender balance in physics with me? Should I take your response as a heartfelt “no”?

If so, that’s a great shame, particularly as, for example, there’s this IOP-organised meeting coming up soon: https://www.iopconferences.org/iop/frontend/reg/thome.csp?pageID=488193&eventID=923&eventID=923&CSPCHD=0040032r0000shoPIa5nUEwhzHfdbrhpcMvxnnotaDY1OpOme$

A debate re. your evidence-free claim that the gender balance in physics is dominated by sexual dimorphism would have been especially timely in the context of that IOP event.

Nonetheless, I can understand entirely your reticence to debate. Remarkably, in the space of just a few short  (and exceptionally poorly punctuated*) lines, you manage to make a considerable number of entirely unfounded claims and provide no justification or evidence for your assertions. This is hardly the most encouraging response when it comes to the potential for a well-informed and productive debate.

Let’s deal with your responses, such as they are, one at a time, and in order of appearance.

“meh… maybe you should consider the option you got your head stuck up your ass.”

You’re in your forties, Philip, and a reasonably accomplished postdoctoral researcher with a PhD in chemistry. I can’t believe it’s entirely beyond your wit to address my points without sounding like a seven year old child in a playground? (Actually, that’s rather unfair of me. My son is seven and he’s capable of much wittier and pithier ripostes than “Hurr..hurr..head up your ass”.) Moreover, last time I checked you were British. Surely you mean “…head stuck up your arse”?

“see… at least I extend you the courtesy of talking to your face as I would behind your back.”

This is a remarkable assertion and shows a complete absence of any type of thought, critical or otherwise. In what sense am I speaking “behind your back”? I sent you a link to the blog post I wrote, which was critical of you, over two months ago, i.e. directly after I wrote it. You didn’t respond.

I then sent you a link to the discussion – on a public forum – under Kristi’s video. In other words, I brought my comments to your attention. In just what sense is this “speaking behind your back”? I was entirely open and honest with you – I sent you the links. Moreover — and I’ll have more to say on this below — I post everything online under my own name. I do not hide behind a pseudonym.

YouTube and the WordPress blog are public platforms. Everything I have said about you there has been said in the open. If you are keen on making all of our exchanges public, I would be very happy indeed to post this e-mail thread online. Let me know if you’d like me to do that.

It’s good, however, that, on this point at least, I agree entirely with you – openness and transparency online are extremely important. I have no time at all for the intellectual cowardice – or, too often, just basic rank cowardice — that so often underpins online ‘communication’. (See, for example, https://muircheart.wordpress.com/2015/09/04/we-are-anonymous-we-are-legion-we-are-mostly-harmful/ and https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/should-post-publication-peer-review-be-anonymous .)

So, as I say, let me know if you’d like me to post this exchange online just so everything remains above board and all of my comments to you are publicly viewable.

“FYI, the reason I stick with my ‘childish pseudonym’ is cos I like to think that an idea stands on its merit.” 

I’ve heard this type of argument before. Repeatedly. I find it utterly unconvincing for the reasons discussed in the blog post and THE article linked to above, and in this: https://muircheart.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/where-two-tribes-go-to-roar/

Context is key in debate. Anonymity sets up an asymmetry in communication – see the editorial by Mike Blatt that is cited in the THE article — that is too often merely a means for one of the proponents in the debate to “cover their arse” and not have to stand behind the points they’re making. It’s basic intellectual cowardice in so many cases. (There are exceptions, but you’re not one of them).

If you’re of the opinion that ideas should stand on their merit, why are you included as “Mason, PE” (or similar) in the list of authors on the scientific papers to which you’ve contributed? Why not submit the papers pseudonymously?

This lack of coherence and self-consistency in your arguments is disappointing. But, and to reiterate what I said above, it puts your reticence to debate in context.

Keep up the good fight though, its always good to see a white man infantalizing women in the name of feminism to the extent that he believes they cant do physics unless someone hold their hands and encourages them, and then having the lack of self awareness to think that ‘he just wants women treated as equals’

Citation needed here. (And we both know just how flawed the traditional peer review system can be at times — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLlA1w4OZWQ – so I’m not even asking for peer-reviewed citations. Blog posts will suffice. We should get beyond this idea that peer review represents some type of gold standard.).  Please show me where I have infantalized women – specific quotes would be helpful.

More importantly, your evidence-free mini-rant simply evades the issue. The blog post I wrote makes a very basic point. Please address that point without obfuscating about what you perceive as “infantalization”. Your claim is that the gender balance in physics is largely due to sexual dimorphism. Do you continue to stand behind that claim? If not, good – we can call an end to this exchange. If, however, you remain of the opinion that the 80:20 gender balance in physics is due to sexual dimorphism then please provide evidence for your claim. This is the core theme of that blog post.

As regards “infantalisation”, however, there’s an interesting point here. One of the key reasons I became a lecturer is that I thoroughly enjoy teaching. (I get just a little peeved when university teaching is seen by some as secondary to research. Even the language we use – “teaching load” – helps preserve this perception.) I’m interested not just in higher education but secondary and primary teaching and learning, and just how children’s perception of their abilities –coupled to positive and negative feedback – can affect their learning.

Go to a primary school and ask the infants/children there to draw a picture of a scientist. You know what they’ll draw, right? (Something like this: http://previews.123rf.com/images/sararoom/sararoom1303/sararoom130300042/18430036-Vector-illustration-of-Cartoon-Scientist-Stock-Vector-science.jpg ) I’ve done this ‘experiment’ quite a few times.

Are you really saying we shouldn’t challenge that stereotype?  (And there’s been very good progress in this regard by the RS, RSC, IOP, and RCUK of late).

If your (tediously clichéd) ‘counter-argument’ is going to be something along the lines of “Well, kids should just toughen up. They should learn to do whatever they like regardless of feedback and societal pressures”, consider just why you like to hide behind a pseudonym. Is it possibly because you’d take feedback rather more personally if you had the intellectual courage to put your given name to your arguments?

”oh…. n btw… Im at a reactor doing an experiment…. and Ill be doing another at another reactor at the end of june. enjoy your teachin or markin…. or whatever it is youre doin 🙂 Thunderf00t

I’ll re-re-reiterate, Phil. You’re in your forties. You’re a research scientist. You’re clearly reasonably bright. It’s disappointing to have to read this type of lazy, unpunctuated, barely literate response* to the detailed arguments I’ve made. If you’d like to reconsider the possibility of a debate, I’m fairly flexible during the summer, although I’d prefer to avoid August due to holidays and the A-level results period (as I’m UG admissions tutor).

Philip

P.S. Do let me know if you’d like me to post this online, just to keep all of our exchanges open and transparent.

*If you’re going to argue that grammar and punctuation are not important in (science) communication, please address the points I make here: https://muircheart.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/moriarty-physicists-punctuation-communication/

In addition to those points about the value of words in physics (and, more generally, in the physical sciences), a lack of connectivity and coherence in writing can often be indicative of poorly organised and incoherent thinking. You might like to bear this in mind, particularly when it comes to writing grant proposals and the like.


From: Thunder Foot
Sent: 02 June 2016 15:24
To: Philip Moriarty
Subject: RE: Debate?

meh… dunno how old you are…. but learn brevity.

tl:dr


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 02 June 2016 21:04
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

Dear Phil,

I’m enjoying this exchange a great deal. It’s remarkably informative, despite – actually, make that because of — the semi-literate brevity and amusingly weak evasiveness of your responses.

You’re a research scientist with a PhD who apparently can’t parse a few paragraphs of text? It’s  beyond your reading comprehension and debating capabilities to respond, in grammatically correct and coherently phrased English, to a detailed rebuttal of your evidence-free ‘arguments’? Really?

Instead we get a thoroughly weak, wholly unconvincing, and astoundingly lazy “TL;DR”.

Now, either your reading level is below that of the average 12 year old or you’re being willfully evasive for reasons that we both know.

All this from someone who is ostensibly a proponent of rational, informed debate and a pioneer (*cough*) of the PEARL methodology?

As I said, wholly unconvincing.

It’s also rather funny to be told of the virtues of brevity by someone who has chewed up a great deal of internet bandwidth on lengthy rants and diatribes.

Just in case you didn’t make it to this point – *Too many words. So many words. How can anyone ever process that many big words? And they’re polysyllabic too. That’s. Just. Not. Cricket.* — I’ll send you a separate e-mail, written in monosyllabic text so it won’t challenge your reading comprehension too much, with the key points.

Philip

Philip Moriarty, Professor of Physics and Undergraduate Admissions Tutor, School of Physics & Astronomy, University of Nottingham


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 02 June 2016 21:52
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

<TL;DR mode mail>

<Mono>

O.K. Phil, here we go…

  1. Is it OK to post our mail trail on the web?
  2. Where are the ‘facts’ that back up your claims? See  https://muircheart.wordpress.com/2016/03/27/when-atheists-ape-creationists-the-fallacies-of-the-anti-feminist/
  3. Do you want to de-bate* on the web? If so, when?

</Mono>

</ TL;DR mode mail>

There you go. Couldn’t put it more simply.

[*Yes, I cheated here. Sorry. Was going to go with “rap” as the closest monosyllabic word but just couldn’t bring myself to write that. Too painfully naff. I’ll just have to hope you can parse the polysyllabic word “debate” now that I’ve broken it down for you. If that doesn’t work, we could perhaps try phonetics?]

Note that I have been involved in quite a number of debates in the past. None of those with whom I’ve previously debated have been so lazy and disingenuous as to respond with, in essence, “You write too much. TL;DR”

Here are a few examples of what real debate (based on reasoned logic (RL)) looks like:

http://www.softmachines.org/wordpress/?p=70

http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ppzstm/pdfs/papers/2010/kealey_public.pdf

http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ppzstm/pdfs/papers/2008/doubleday_should.pdf

If you check – though, be warned, there are lots of words (literally thousands) and you may find it challenging – you’ll not find a single “TL;DR” in those debates.

As I said in my previous messages, given that you are very keen on openness and transparency in debate, I’m sure that you’ll be happy for our email exchange to be posted online? [Point 1 above].

I also look forward to hearing from you re. a definitive answer re. a debate. [Point 3 above]. Although I suspect that once again you’ll disingenuously evade the issue (for the third time running). It’d be good if I was wrong on this matter of evasion and you salvaged some semblance of credibility…

[And if it makes you feel more comfortable,  I promise to use your “Thunderfoot” handle during the debate. Can’t say fairer than that now, can I? I know how important your pseudonymous safe space is to you. It’s clearly challenging for you to be open and honest with your identity. It just takes a little bit of courage. If you take it slowly, in stages, I’m sure you’ll eventually be able to out-grow your reliance on silly monikers.]

All the very best,

Your fellow physical chemist/chemical physicist,

Philip


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 02 June 2016 21:58
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

Tsk. Dammit.

Of course “OK” isn’t monosyllabic. My sincerest apologies.

Let me modify that so that it’s easier for you to parse…

“1. Is it fine to post our mail trail on the web?”

Hope that helps.

Philip


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 02 June 2016 22:06
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

P.S. To save you some time, if I don’t receive a response from you before next week I’ll assume you’re happy for our e-mail exchange to be posted online.


From: Thunder Foot
Sent: 05 June 2016 22:42
To: Philip Moriarty
Subject: RE: Debate?

lol… replies to ‘learn brevity’ with FOUR emails.

however, you trolling effort is good.


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 06 June 2016 05:19
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

Dear Philip,

So yet again you avoid answering the very simple questions I asked. That’s a quite remarkable – and, once again, deeply amusing — level of disingenuity, evasion, hypocrisy and spinelessness.

As for “trolling”, you could perhaps consult a dictionary as to the definition of that term. Moreover, and correct me if I’m wrong, but haven’t you spent quite a bit of your time online railing against “professional victims”? That you’d now weakly cry “troll” instead of addressing my points is beyond ironic.

I have asked you to back up your claims with evidence. Simple as that. Your inability to do so, and with such a lack of maturity in communication, speaks volumes.

I’ll write a blog post and make a short accompanying video about your inability to (i) address the points made in the blog post (and elsewhere), and (ii) to communicate like an adult. I won’t quote from your e-mails (because you lack the integrity to respond to my request about posting our exchange online) but it’s not as if I can’t find similar vacuous comments from you online. Indeed, I’m spoilt for choice.

My expectations were low, Philip, but I’ve been genuinely astounded by your behaviour in this exchange. You’re in your forties yet you respond with all the wit and sophistication of a 10 year old who hasn’t got a particularly good grasp of the rudiments of grammar and punctuation, let alone an understanding of how to debate.

Disappointing, but hardly unexpected.

Philip


From: Thunder Foot
Sent: 06 June 2016 08:39
To: Philip Moriarty
Subject: RE: Debate?

Oh noes! the nottingham prof. is gonna to publish the his last half dozen emales where he trys to troll me with childisy insults! Thatll shows he a grown up!

Does this mean we not friends anymore? Yknow phil if I thought u werent my friend, I just dont think I could bear it.


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 06 June 2016 12:34
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

Good morning once again, Philip.

No “TL;DR” this time? Interesting. It seems that you indeed have quite some difficulty parsing arguments written in anything but the simplest of words. I’m afraid, however, that I’m not going to continue to reduce my writing to <mono> mode simply to make up for the deficiencies in your reading comprehension. You’re just going to have to put the effort in (or resort yet again to the lazy “TL;DR”).

Nonetheless, and as I’ve said before, I’m really enjoying this exchange. You continue to make me laugh a great deal. I particularly like being chastised for “childisy insults” by someone who opens up their message with “Oh noes!” and closes with “Yknow phil if I thought u werent my friend, I just dont think I could bear it.”

Fantastic.

Given your clear and demonstrable lack of ability/unwillingness to parse even the most basic of arguments  — “TL;DR”, remember? – let me clarify the difference between groundless/childish insults and pointing out simple home truths, Philip.

  1. I said that you were evasive. This is demonstrably the case. You’ve yet to address the points in the blog post, despite numerous requests. I asked for some evidence of your claims re. sexual dimorphism underpinning aptitude/preference for physics. You’ve provided nothing but a series of replies, for want of a better word, which have been vacuous in the extreme.
  1. I said that you were disingenuous/dishonest. I stand by this until you provide evidence to the contrary. You have banged on at length about the importance of evidence in a lengthy series of videos. You have even self-importantly proclaimed yourself to be a “PEARL”-ist. (Did I mention that you make me laugh a great deal? For a grumpy old Irish bastard like me that’s a real talent  you have.) Yet when challenged to provide evidence for a major claim you made about gender balance in physics, you repeatedly refuse to respond. Instead you resort to “TL;DR”. This is hardly “reasoned logic” now, is it? Thus, there is an inherent disingenuity and dishonesty in your responses.
  1. I said that you were childish in your responses. You need only read over your e-mail messages to see this. (Admittedly, having to switch to <TL;DR> and <Mono> mode to respond to you is hardly how adults should communicate but given that you lacked the courtesy and integrity to address the points I made in a reasoned and reasonable way, I was left with no choice. In any case, it seems that <Mono> mode is indeed useful as a means of extracting a response from you). I also said that your ability to communicate was, respectively, below that of a 12 year old, a 10 year old, and a 7 year old. I realise it’s a long time since you’ve been at primary/secondary school — and I don’t believe you have kids? (Excuse me if I got that wrong) — so you might have lost track of typical writing abilities in Year 2, Year 5, and Year 7.
  1. I said that your reading comprehension and debating skills were extremely poor. You have singularly failed to address any of my points. You have responded on more than one occasion with “TL;DR”. That not only highlights an exceptional level of immaturity but clearly shows that your claims to value reasoned debate are empty.

I’m assuming from the sledgehammer sarcasm of your most recent response that you’re more than happy for me to post our exchange online?

I look forward to your next response. My hopes aren’t high that it’ll be of any higher quality than your previous replies, but I’m hoping that at some point you’ll muster the integrity and wit to make this ‘debate’ a little more challenging for me. In the meantime, however, I’m very happy to continue chuckling.

Philip

P.S. Note that I include my affiliation below because while one aspect of this exchange is indeed not connected with my role at Nottingham, as an admissions tutor I dislike seeing unjustified, uninformed, and evidence-free claims about aptitude/preference for physics being made.


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 06 June 2016 13:22
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

P.S. Apologies. I forgot to say that, given your inability to communicate in any type of mature manner,  you may not be aware of the appropriate protocols.

When I say “Is it OK to publish our exchange online at my blog?”, there are two possible responses:

  1. Yes, that’s fine.
  2. No, I’d prefer you didn’t.

It’s a shame that we have to reduce it to this, but I’d appreciate either a response of “1” or “2”. Evading the question yet again will simply underpin your lack of honesty and intellectual integrity.

Thank you.

Philip


From: Thunder Foot
Sent: 06 June 2016 14:01
To: Philip Moriarty
Subject: RE: Debate?

youre lack of self-awereness amuzes me,


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 06 June 2016 14:24
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

Dear Philip,

So, yet another evasion. What’s that, seven and counting at this stage?

What a remarkable lack of integrity. As you’re never slow to point out, you’re a scientist. You’re meant to base your arguments on an honest analysis of data and evidence. I’ve not experienced anywhere near this level of dishonesty, evasion, and non-existent argumentation in any debate in which I’ve been involved previously. That includes a number of lengthy debates about religion (stemming, for example, from this: https://muircheart.wordpress.com/2015/06/02/sure-youre-not-meant-to-take-it-seriously/ )

So, well done on setting that particular precedent — those of faith have soundly thrashed you when it comes to the ability to debate. That’s just what those of us who are atheists really need: a nu-atheist (and, lest we forget, self-proclaimed PEARL-ist) with a demonstrated inability to address rational arguments in anything approaching a mature, considered and logical fashion.

Why is it that I also get the strong impression that you’re patting yourself on the back for your “ironic” use of deliberate misspelling? That really would take the childishness to another level. It simultaneously ups the comedy factor by quite a large amount, however, so, please, keep it coming. You’re brightening up my afternoon immensely.

Philip


From: Thunder Foot
Sent: 06 June 2016 15:08
To: Philip Moriarty
Subject: RE: Debate?

meh…. okay… you’re just to dumb to realize when youre being trolled.

However honestly, while trolling you is kinda fun…. oh who am i kidding… ive not laughed so hard for ages.. (OH PLEASE, for the love of god publish the emails)…… the reality im just way too busy for this sort of petty crap.

thanks for playing….oh n next time trying being honest, and you might find it reciprocated.

-end-of-line-


From: Philip Moriarty
Sent: 06 June 2016 15:25
To: Thunder Foot
Subject: RE: Debate?

Thank you, Philip. On the seventh/eighth/nth attempt, you finally respond to a request to publish the e-mail trail. I appreciate this.

Note, however, that you still have evaded responding to the points made in the original post. It’s lazy, immature and disingenuous in the extreme to now state “Oh, I’m just trolling you”.

You made a particular, and specific claim: sexual dimorphism underpins aptitude/preference for physics. And now, despite all your assertions about your PEARL credentials, you behave just like those you’ve criticised in the past. You fail to provide evidence and resort to a petty, lazy, and entirely unconvincing, “Oh, I’m just too busy for this”.

What you mean is that when faced with a comprehensive rebuttal of your evidence-free claims, you fold.

To say that “You’re just too busy for this” is entirely transparent nonsense. You spend a great deal of your life online slagging off all and sundry. Shooting down creationist arguments is simple; it’s like taking out fish in a barrel. Any scientist with even a modicum of debating aptitude can do this. When, instead, you’re asked to justify your evidence-free claims in the context of a slightly more challenging argument, I’ll say it again — you fold. Entirely. And resort to breathtakingly immature retorts.

But, once again, thanks for finally having the decency to stop evading my question about publishing the email trail. If you’d had the courtesy to do this right from the start I’d not have had to be so irritatingly persistent. Sometimes, however, and particularly with those who are being disingenuous from the off, that level of persistence is necessary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uwlsd8RAoqI

I’ll send you a link to the post and video when they go online.

Philip


 

Addicted to the brand: The hypocrisy of a publishing academic

Back in December I gave a talk at the Power, Acceleration and Metrics in Academic Life conference in Prague, which was organised by Filip Vostal and Mark Carrigan. The LSE Impact blog is publishing a series of posts from those of us who spoke at the conference. They uploaded my post this morning. Here it is…


 

I’m going to put this as bluntly as I can; it’s been niggling and nagging at me for quite a while and it’s about time I got it off my chest. When it comes to publishing research, I have to come clean: I’m a hypocrite. I spend quite some time railing about the deficiencies in the traditional publishing system, and all the while I’m bolstering that self-same system by my selection of the “appropriate” journals to target.

Despite bemoaning the statistical illiteracy of academia’s reliance on nonsensical metrics like impact factors, and despite regularly venting my spleen during talks at conferences about the too-slow evolution of academic publishing towards a more open and honest system, I nonetheless continue to contribute to the problem. (And I take little comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in this.)

One of those spleen-venting conferences was a fascinating and important event held in Prague back in December, organized by Filip Vostal and Mark Carrigan: “Power, Acceleration, and Metrics in Academic Life”. My presentation, The Power, Perils and Pitfalls of Peer Review in Public – please excuse thePartridgian overkill on the alliteration – largely focused on the question of post-publication peer review (PPPR) via online channels such as PubPeer. I’ve written at length, however, on PPPR previously (here,here, and here) so I’m not going to rehearse and rehash those arguments. I instead want to explain just why I levelled the accusation of hypocrisy and why I am far from confident that we’ll see a meaningful revolution in academic publishing any time soon.

Let’s start with a few ‘axioms’/principles that, while perhaps not being entirely self-evident in each case, could at least be said to represent some sort of consensus among academics:

  • A journal’s impact factor (JIF) is clearly not a good indicator of the quality of a paper published in that journal. The JIF has been skewered many, many times with some of the more memorable and important critiques coming from Stephen Curry, Dorothy Bishop, David Colquhoun, Jenny Rohn, and, most recently, this illuminating post from Stuart Cantrill. Yet its very strong influence tenaciously persists and pervades academia. I regularly receive CVs from potential postdocs where they ‘helpfully’ highlight the JIF for each of the papers in their list of publications. Indeed, some go so far as to rank their publications on the basis of the JIF.
  • Given that the majority of research is publicly funded, it is important to ensure that open access publication becomes the norm. This one is arguably rather more contentious and there are clear differences in the appreciation of open access (OA) publishing between disciplines, with the arts and humanities arguably being rather less welcoming of OA than the sciences. Nonetheless, the key importance of OA has laudably been recognized by Research Councils UK (RCUK) and all researchers funded by any of the seven UK research councils are mandated to make their papers available via either a green or gold OA route (with the gold OA route, seen by many as a sop to the publishing industry, often being prohibitively expensive).

With these three “axioms” in place, it now seems rather straight-forward to make a decision as to the journal(s) our research group should choose as the appropriate forum for our work. We should put aside any consideration of impact factor and aim to select those journals which eschew the traditional for-(large)-profit publishing model and provide cost-effective open access publication, right?

Indeed, we’re particularly fortunate because there’s an exemplar of open access publishing in our research area: The Beilstein Journal of Nanotechnology. Not only are papers in the Beilstein J. Nanotech free to the reader (and easy to locate and download online), but publishing there is free: no exorbitant gold OA costs nor, indeed, any type of charge to the author(s) for publication. (The Beilstein Foundation has very deep pockets and laudably shoulders all of the costs).

But take a look at our list of publications — although we indeed publish in the Beilstein J. Nanotech., the number of our papers appearing there can be counted on the fingers of (less than) one hand. So, while I espouse the three principles listed above, I hypocritically don’t practice what I preach. What’s my excuse?

In academia, journal brand is everything. I have sat in many committees, read many CVs, and participated in many discussions where candidates for a postdoctoral position, a fellowship, or other roles at various rungs of the academic career ladder have been compared. And very often, the committee members will say something along the lines of “Well, Candidate X has got much better publications than Candidate Y”…without ever having read the papers of either candidate. The judgment of quality is lazily “outsourced” to the brand-name of the journal. If it’s in a Nature journal, it’s obviously of higher quality than something published in one of those, ahem, “lesser” journals.

If, as principal investigator, I were to advise the PhD students and postdocs in the group here at Nottingham that, in line with the three principles above, they should publish all of their work in the Beilstein J. Nanotech., it would be career suicide for them. To hammer this point home, here’s the advice from one referee of a paper we recently submitted:

“I recommend re-submission of the manuscript to the Beilstein Journal of Nanotechnology, where works of similar quality can be found. The work is definitively well below the standards of [Journal Name].”

There is very clearly a well-established hierarchy here. Journal ‘branding’, and, worse, journal impact factor, remain exceptionally important in (falsely) establishing the perceived quality of a piece of research, despite many efforts to counter this perception, including, most notably, DORA. My hypocritical approach to publishing research stems directly from this perception. I know that if I want the researchers in my group to stand a chance of competing with their peers, we have to target “those” journals. The same is true for all the other PIs out there. While we all complain bitterly about the impact factor monkey on our back, we’re locked into the addiction to journal brand.

And it’s very difficult to see how to break the cycle…