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Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Comment Section

Some of the most interesting things I read online are not the articles but the comments people make. A few of my favorites:

I'm a productive postdoctoral researcher in the biomedical field; my work has brought about $5 million in grant money into the lab.  My career path is to transition from doing the thing that I wrote my thesis on, that I am the world expert on, to being a lab manager and writing grants.  It baffles me that the normal career progression in academic research is to take good researchers and turn them into bad managers.

That's a comment from this article written by Derek Lowe. I came across another comment from Dereks blog, "In the Pipeline" that lead me to another blog by the commenter. He discusses why we have so many layoffs in pharma R&D:
The longer answer is that we don’t understand what’s going on inside cells and organisms well enough to even know what we want a drug to target.
If you put the two comments together to try and solve the problems of drug discovery you have got something that no one wants to admit. We take the people we train to understand what's going on inside cells and organisms and we put them to work doing something their education can't help them do. The companies use the credentials of their scientific employees for purposes other than conducting science.

I enjoy reading Xconomy every day. Mostly I'm looking for stories of the Cargo Cults of Seattle not getting their cargo. When I conjure the image of the natives of a cargo cult gazing to the skies during their ceremonies, looking for the big metal birds carrying cargo inside, I think of Xconomy as the sky. Sadly they don't illicit many comments.  The lack of an active conversation indicates that people are not engaged.

One of the criticisms of the commenters is that they are often anonymous. Comments are little blurbs from self appointed "wise old sages" who have to get their words out. Why don't they tell us who they are? Some are picking a fight. Some are expressing their concern. Some are just trying to be witty. Not everyone accomplishes their goal but the anonymity makes the possibility of failure a risk they are willing to take. The anonymity can lead to troll behavior but it can also lead to insights we wouldn't not have had on our own with the article. Anonymity is what we see from many scientists. They are absent from the lab and the many failed experiments based on their ideas. If you were to look into the laboratory notebooks of the young people who conduct research inside the lab you will find no mention of who told them to do the work. There will be no introduction outlining the thinking of the actual thinkers. Anonymity is a tool we all use.

Some comments are interesting in their defense of Cargo Cult thinking. In a recent retraction from Gerold Schuler, one commenter came to his defense:
Unless I am mistaken, Dieckmann is the corresponding author on this paper, so some caution should be exercised when going after Schuler. 
The commenter is "going after" another commenter. Going after people is common in the comment section. Going after a big time scientist is not common. They are exalted leaders. We here on the CCS recognize the amount of bullshit being put forth by our exalted leaders and we see no reason to mitigate ones speech when commenting online about their bullshit. Another commenter adds to the conversation about Gerold:

As early as 1997 the investigations started on some of the german investigators. Here is an example:Nature 387, 750 (19 June 1997) | and in 2000Abbott A: German fraud inquiry casts a wider net of suspicion…Nature 405, 871-872 (22 June 2000) | doi:10.1038/35016207Few names included in this report are currently directors of institutes…

Machiavellian Leaders? Is this how they reach that level were "going after them" requires commenters to exercise some caution?

There is power in the comment sections that is beyond the power of prayer. In prayer you throw something out there and you hope change will come. In the new world of online conversations we speak to actual people which gives us the ability to heighten awareness. Here on the CCS we try to "go after" bullshit in the world of science. We don't like that the bullshit and the master bullshitters make a career steeped in honesty nearly impossible. Real science is "bend over backwards to prove yourself wrong" honest, as Feynman instructed. The Machiavellian competition makes life hard on those who have a heightened sense of fairness. The comment section is an outlet. It's a place to exchange ideas and challenge each other.

The real challenge for a website is to get visitors. Facebook has demonstrated the power of online traffic. Huffington Post also made a fortune by getting people talking. The comments online are different than the comments you make at a cocktail party. They are different than the comments made at a cancer conference. They are more honest. Less intelligent in general but more honest. Perhaps the science community needs to purposely "go after" the illusion of intelligence and open the doors to the "back and forth" one sees in the comment sections. We might get a little more honesty, thus wealth, into our system.





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