Posts Tagged ‘ranting’

(This is what blogs are for, so…)

If you ever, particularly in scientific writing, find yourself saying “the process of …” (e.g. the process of evolution, the process of adaptation, the process of speciation), STOP. You are writing three extra words that add no meaning. Evolution is a process. Speciation is a process. You could just use those single words. Using fewer words is usually the classier choice. It’s certainly the sensible choice when you’re writing something with a word limit. Similarly, there is seldom any need to say (to pick an example) “the evolutionary process”; again, “evolution” suffices. I defy you to find a situation in which the wordier construction adds vital meaning.

I have spoken.

(Ask me sometime about starting papers with “Ever since Darwin”.)


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Let me warn you, readers, that the following is a rant brought on by a meeting with my advisor, and that I’m well aware that I’m probably repeating what other scientists have been saying for years. Still, let me say it.

The scramble for limited resources (both funding and places in prestigious journals, not to mention tenure-track jobs), while encouraging innovation, also discourages thorough comparative studies, cataloguing of natural history, and replication.

In Heliconius butterflies, for example, there’s a glut of work on finding the genes involved in speciation, especially those that control wing colour pattern and mating preferences for said patterns. It’s increasingly hard (according to my advisor) to convince reviewers—whether for grants or for publications—that simply looking at the same genes in yet another Heliconius species is novel enough to warrant money/a place in a prestigious journal.

And yet, these studies are exactly what we need. It would be fantastic to have a suite of speciation genes identified in every Heliconius species; the comparisons we could make would be useful and perhaps more generalizable than just a handful of studies on a small fraction of the genus’ members. Think of how we could test hypotheses about speciation with such a dataset! We could look for a snowball effect with a sample size of more than three! We could figure out how often the same genes are involved in different speciation events, and how often hybridization promotes or prevents speciation! Yet amassing that much data would take up several PhDs’ worth of effort, and once a minimum threshold of species is reached, the research program ceases to be novel, and therefore becomes non-competitive. It’s also work that requires too much effort for a side project (assuming you ever want to graduate) or to hand off to an undergraduate minion. So it doesn’t get done.

Oh, and if you want to try replicating some else’s study, the way the scientific method allegedly works? Definitely not novel. This is also a problem. (Seriously, read this paper if you have access to it. Every scientist should read it.) Or if you want to pursue as a side project some outstanding question on your study organism’s behaviour in the wild? That’s extremely labour-intensive, and not likely to get you a “good” publication. But these sorts of studies can lead to important innovations.* Not always, maybe not even often, but eventually.

If I had my way, I’d try churning out as many of these uninteresting/redundant studies as possible. I don’t particularly want to be a brilliant scientist, just a competent though mediocre** one. But given the current PhD to academic job opening ratio, mediocrity doesn’t cut it.

*In fact, we argue in a similar vein when governments try to divert resources from basic research to applied (I’m looking at you, Harper Government): we can’t predict what basic research program will eventually lead to important innovations.

**Sometimes this word does not have a negative connotation!

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I saw the movie Lincoln last weekend. It was excellent, and tellingly the theatre was nearly full two months after the release date.

Apart from Daniel Day Lewis’s eerie transformation into exactly what you imagine Abraham Lincoln to have looked and acted like, the outstanding performance in this film, to me, was Tommy Lee Jones’s depiction of Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens was an abolitionist congressman who had to retract his statements that he thought all races were created equal in order to make the 13th Amendment more palatable to less radical politicians. (He does so with searing rhetoric, but the emotional cost to him and to the black people listening to him is apparent.)

The rest of this post requires a minor spoiler (probably not a spoiler at all if you know anything about Civil War history or are inclined to look things up on Wikipedia). Stevens’s housekeeper and mistress/common law wife, Lydia Hamilton Smith, was black. (This fact is not apparent until nearly the end of the film and is played as a “big reveal” of sorts.)

After the movie, one of the people I saw it with thought that this fact cheapened Stevens’s work for abolition somehow; several others in the party agreed; I caught myself agreeing for a second.

But really, how is acting in the interests of someone you love—not just acting in their interests, but fighting for their human rights when they have less opportunity to do so themselves—a less-than-noble motive?

Taking the original statement further, is it ignoble for Lydia Hamilton Smith herself to support the abolition of slavery, because she’s black and therefore serving her own interests? If we frame the story that way, it’s the privileged members of society granting rights to the less privileged who are the greatest heroes; the underprivileged who fight for their rights are less worthy of praise. (I’m writing in general terms now, because the argument could apply to any social justice movement.)

This reasoning, to me, is obviously wrong. In fact it’s a way in which hegemony is maintained after it’s been officially dismantled. The narrative of already-privileged allies acting benevolently supersedes the narrative of activism by the less-privileged group and thus makes their contribution to history seem smaller, keeping them as a group less visible.

It also ignores the power of personal interactions to change people’s opinions. It might not always turn out so well, but sometimes it takes having a gay sibling, or a child in an interracial relationship, or a feminist teacher, or a trans friend, or a Muslim coworker to change a person’s mind about their bigotry. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with reconsidering one’s own bigotry.

Allies are vital to any social justice movement. But let’s not pat them—or ourselves—on the back too much for their detached benevolence. Granting rights to those who have been deprived of them is good; but the struggle by those people for those rights is the heroic tale we should remember.

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Consider this a public service announcement.

Do you know the warning signs of satire? Many don’t—til it’s too late, and they’re left saying, “Well, it’s not very well-written anyways”, or “That’s certainly not as good as A Modest Proposal“.

You may be at risk of satire if you’re reading about a controversial topic. If you notice plentiful stereotypes, a cliche-laden or overly-serious style, and an opinion that just seems too outrageous to be possible, consult your sense of humour immediately*.

Satire can be hard to spot, but remember, early detection saves face. Learn the signs. Together, we can defeat satire.


Okay, serious time now. I only found out about this microcontroversy after the fact, but it got me right in the pontifical cortex (a part of the brain that I just made up).

This sort of story happens relatively often. Someone writes a satirical piece; some people interpret it as serious and FREAK OUT; then they realize they’ve been had and make bumbling statements like “well it was bad writing so OBVIOUSLY no one could tell it was satire” and/or “well it’s not even good satire”.

Actually, it often is.

The best kind of satire is the kind that almost makes you believe it’s real**. Often that’s because it’s on an extremely polarizing topic, so that there may exist people loony enough to hold such “satirical” beliefs. As a result, there will always be a number of people who get taken in by clever satire and react to it publicly. Then they look pretty stupid. And yeah, maybe they should feel stupid for a little while, but you can’t blame them very much. But those standard defenses they mention—bad writing, and bad satire—annoy the frak out of me. For one, given a basic level of writing competence, perfectly polished prose is not required for biting satire—though it always helps. And anyways, the writing in question is not always bad! Take the “perfect husband” editorial at the centre of the most recent controversy as an example. I’d say the writing is about average, maybe a bit ahead of average, compared to what I’ve seen of undergraduate-level writing. It does shed cliches like a cat sheds fur (ahem), but it does so effectively, using them to make the tone flippant and parody the breezy style of women’s magazines.

The other reflex defense is to claim that the satire itself is bad. This is mildly amusing, but mostly annoying, because the fact that they believed it at first demonstrates that it was good satire. This particular claim also always seems to invoke Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. As if it were the Platonic ideal of satires. I suspect that fewer people have read it (or remember it, at least) than refer to it. (Here, you can discreetly visit this link! I won’t tell.) A Modest Proposal is undoubtedly a classic, but saying “It’s not that I can’t recognize satire; it’s just that you can’t write it!” is such an obvious tell. Don’t be embarrassed about it: congratulate the person who duped you!

There are, of course, cases where the converse was actually true. This usually happens when truly tasteless racist/homophobic/sexist etc. things have been said or written, and then fauxpologies claiming that satire was intended were issued. I would argue—though data on this are probably nearly impossible to obtain—that in most of these cases, the vast majority of people reading/hearing these things did not take them as satire. Is satire, then, entirely in the eye of the beholder? To gloss over a myriad of issues, the context, author’s identity, and writing style should at least provide a few clues either way. And, though it hurts me ever to have to identify something explicitly as satirical (e.g. with mock-html <satire></satire> tags), sometimes those are a good idea. I once casually mentioned how *excited* I was about the Sex and the City movie in an email, and the recipient wasted hours of his life watching several episodes and writing me a concerned reply to say “Is this really you?”

Or we could go back to the 90s, and end all our sarcastic statements with an eyeroll and “NOT!”


*Or stop listening to Rush Limbaugh. Sometimes the real thing is indistinguishable from parody. Sometimes you have to pretend the real thing is a parody in order not to lose all faith in humanity.

**You’d think that The Onion can’t get away with this any more, but apparently it can.

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Bill C-279 is “An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (gender identity and gender expression)”. It’s going through first reading in Parliament and there was some debate on it last Friday. You can see speeches in Parliament from this debate here and read the text of the bill here. The bill’s goal is to add gender expression and gender identity to the rights protected by the Canadian Human Rights Act and to make crimes motivated by discrimination based on gender expression and identity (i.e. transphobia) hate crimes—that is, subject to more stringent sentencing.

Let me once again urge everyone in Canada to contact their MP and tell them to vote for this bill. (Here is where you can find out who your MP is and how to contact him or her.) (Oh, and tell your MP to read this.) The bill was passed by the last Parliament but didn’t make it through the Senate before election time, so had to go back to square one—with a Conservative majority this time.

Reading through the speeches for and against this bill, I’m struck by one thing—and it’s not the stupid, ignorant “bathroom bill” claims, which are bogus anyways. It’s the insistence by its opponents that this bill is unnecessary. Because human rights tribunals have ruled in favour of trans people already, citing the clause against sex discrimination. You know what? That’s great that some judges found a way to interpret the law so as actually to protect people. But that still doesn’t mean trans people are actually protected by law. Because hey, sex isn’t gender, and it certainly isn’t gender expression, and saying transgenderism falls under sex for legal purposes is, to me, just like saying “She used to be a man” or “X, who was born a woman but thinks she’s a man”. It’s denying what people are saying about their own experience. It’s insisting someone shouldn’t be offended because you’re not being offensive. It’s mansplaining. Pat on the head, get back to work, I can’t see your problem so it must not be there.

And you know what else? “Oh my god, I don’t know if we should extend human rights to this class of people, what about all the other people who will have to worry about other people’s rights now? It’s so hard and confusing to have to give people who are different from me their fundamental human rights. Oh my goddddd.”

(I suggest trying to be a bit more coherent than this when you contact your MP.)

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Normally, I don’t bother responding to/trying to rebut stupidity that I read online. But Jezebel is a blog that I somewhat like and respect, and this is such a huge pile of bullshit with a dollop of incorrect science statements on top that I must write something angry.

Don’t click this link just yet. “A homeopathic pain reliever that actually works.” Do you see anything wrong with this statement? Without reading the article, if you have any science background and know what homeopathy claims to be, you will know that a homeopathic anything cannot work, at least not any better than a placebo, because homeopathy involves diluting something so much that it’s not even there.

Okay, now go read the article. Let’s look at all the other stupid in it together, shall we?

1. Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) and Advil (ibuprofen) are entirely different substances. If you’re allergic to Aspirin, you have no need to avoid Advil.

2. Ibuprofen, being an anti-inflammatory, probably would’ve helped with your muscle soreness.

3. If you develop all-over muscle pain (“totally crippled with muscle soreness”) after changing your exercise regimen, you’re probably not warming up or cooling down properly. Or you may have increased the intensity of your workout too much and too soon, and that pain is your body’s way of telling you to lay off.

4. As I said above, homeopathic pills do not work, because they do not contain any of the “active” ingredient. The pain relief you experienced can be attributed to the placebo effect, and possibly to your body beginning to acclimate to your recently changed exercise program.

5. Even if you’re all “well, the placebo effect works for me, and it’s not making things worse, so don’t tell me what to do”, why would you spend money on a placebo effect for a “strained or stiff muscle” when icing it is both cheaper and probably more beneficial?

And, since I’m a pedant: while I appreciate that you italicized the scientific name (Arnica montana), please remember that the genus name must be capitalized but the species name must not.

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Today’s adventure in pedantry is brought to you by a certain biological journal that shall remain nameless to which I’m preparing to submit a manuscript. The author guidelines for this journal are detailed, and clearly have been given much thought. Yet there are multiple aspects of the bibliography formatting requirements that are simply idiotic. In some cases they waste space; in others they are simply visually unappealing or distracting. Bibliographies are hugely important parts of a scientific publication because they link claims made by the present paper to previous findings or hypotheses in the literature. They should be designed to make information retrieval, i.e. finding the item you’re looking for in the list and getting the details you need from it to retrieve the cited paper, easy. Furthermore, there are ease-of-reading considerations when formatting in-line citations, as well as ease-of-typesetting and printing. Bibliographies should be useful and they might as well look decent too. Here are my thoughts (supported only by my own brain and not the result of any sort of controlled research) on how this should be accomplished. (I do not address the issue of numbered versus alphabetical (author-year) citations, as I think there are good uses for both. I’ll be talking only about author-year formats throughout.)

Perhaps you think this matter is unimportant, because software exists that formats your bibliographies for you—you don’t have to spend time changing font styles or indenting meticulously. Perhaps use BiBTeX to generate your bibliographies. Good for you! So do I! But alas, there are yet some prehistoric publications that refuse to accept LaTeX submissions. And sometimes your advisor wants you to submit your manuscript to them.

Aha, you say, but I also have EndNote/Mendeley/whatever the kids are using these days to put bibliographic information into their Word documents. To you I say, at least have some consideration for your readers! Do you want them to read a paper that looks ugly? Don’t you ever wince when you read a paper from that one journal with the painful typesetting where it takes you forever to find that thing you’re looking for in the works cited list?

Consider: There is absolutely no reason to put a comma between the author’s last name and the publication year in your in-line citations (e.g. “Lennon & McCartney, 1966”). It is a waste of space that does nothing to ease the reader’s understanding. If anything, this makes lists of in-line citations more difficult to read: compare “Lennon & McCartney, 1966; Jagger & Richards, 1966; Wilson et al., 1966” to “Lennon & McCartney 1966; Jagger & Richards 1966; Wilson et al. 1966”.

Nor is there a reason to insist that citations of papers with three authors list all the authors the first time you cite them but “Firstauthor et al.” subsequently. Mind you, I’ve only ever seen one journal insist on this policy. (Bonus points if you know which journal.)

As for the actual bibliography, simplicity should be paramount. There is really no need to put the author’s names and/or the year in bold, or the journal’s name in italics. Really the only italicization should be of scientific names. All this extra formatting is distracting. A simple indent to draw the eye to where different entries start is enough.

The list of authors’ names should also be as easy to read as possible. My preferred format is sans periods and with commas only to separate authors, thus: Lennon J, McCartney P, Harrison G, Starr R. Adding periods after the authors’ initials is mildly visually distracting. Worse still is putting commas between the last name and initial as well as between authors—e.g. Lennon, J, McCartney, P, Harrison, G, Starr, R. Worst of all is listing the first author in Lastname, Initial format but subsequent authors as Initial Lastname—e.g. Lennon, J, P McCartney, G Harrison, R Starr. As to whether to separate the last two authors in a list with “and” (or &), I have no preference, but (and this is the case in the journal to which I’m planning to submit) it seems logically inconsistent to insist on listing all three authors (with an “&”) in in-line citations but not putting “&” in the list of references.

Finally, can we please stop italicizing “et al.”? Everyone uses this phrase. It’s not really foreign. I can see italicizing more obscure Latin terms like sensu latissimo, but et al. shows up in literally every scientific publication.

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