The Science Break-Up

We are approaching the end of another week. Yet another week where those who are actually quite keen on science could be forgiven for getting a little disillusioned at the unmitigated rubbish being mounted on walls as posters to support unscientific propagandists on a bunch of different subjects. Just this week there’s been rallies against wind turbines, partly on the basis that they are responsible for every medical symptom listed in Harrison’s Internal Medicine, anti-vaxxers likening doctors to terrorists, politicians suggesting a public review process on the evidence for fluoride in water and folks promoting pseudoscientific sexcereal (and no, I’m not putting many links in because there’s a balance to covering stuff and providing too much oxygen to these particular organisms). On top of the now constant hum of people still disputing the consensus on anthropogenic climate change, it’s enough to make a person go a little bit Hulk (although I’d probably only be able to unleash my muscled up rage on a crisp bit of celery, given the state of weakness I start at).

It’s easy to get frustrated with those who pretty much choose to selectively disregard everything science has to contribute on a topic to support a flawed paradigm. Particularly as sometimes that paradigm can impose real risks to others. There’s part of me that just wants to say:

“Look, if you’re planning to break up with science over vaccination/climate change/wind turbines, then it’s only fair to make a clean break. So science would like its stuff back. You know, all that stuff it has given you. Please hand back your mobile phone. Actually, you should really just hand back all means of telecommunication. It would be a little awkward for you to keep using that stuff. You can keep interacting with gravity though. I’ll have to get back to you about fire. The whole thing could be a bit awkward of course. Now that you’ve made the break, science expects you’ll take up with all sorts. Like homeopathy. Anyway, science already knows it’s not them, it’s you.”

I want to just point out all the good stuff out there debunking some myths, like this on vaccination. Or maybe some of these explanations around climate science (that one from @drkarl). Or I could point to the words of that well known tree-hugging unicorn apologist, the head of the World Bank (that one via @bencubby), who has not only said everyone should get on with addressing it, but suggested that disputing the evidence was to deny science itself. The evidence I could point to on all these fronts would be everywhere. To point it all out though would be unhelpful (although my moral superiority would get a good feed).

While some of the people stoking these fears and spreading misinformation aren’t covered by the next statement, the majority of people questioning the science are probably just good people with worries and fears. Most people at some point will look for information on a topic, and if they’ve landed on the side of those denying the science, then isn’t it possible that the real issue is that the window to communicate the science effectively has been missed? Maybe the problem is that the “crazy zealots” are actually being pretty effective at communication.

Maybe there wasn’t enough out there. Maybe people don’t like how those doing the science bit are engaging. What is undeniable is that those promoting the other side of the equation are sometimes effective. As covered most eloquently by Will J Grant here, the “Stop these Things” campaign demonstrates that these campaigns are not to be underestimated. So if the goal is to win hearts then minds, maybe those communicating on the science front need to double their efforts. It’s all too easy to see things from your side if you’re out there banging the drum, but maybe it’s more important to consider what other influences are striving to reach the person you’re trying to persuade (this idea has been much more elegantly explained and visualised by Heather Bray here).

So if I’m going to be someone who supports science and the evidence that’s out there, it’s important to reconsider what I could do better. Maybe in this break-up it’s more about me, than them.

How did this happen?

This is an entirely accidental PhD. That sounds kind of ridiculous but is a pretty fair description of how I arrived here. There are probably other people who have a vision of working towards a PhD, but I can’t point to some long stated ambition to qualify as what I’d call a real doctor. A while back I had an idea, and then I got encouraged to start pursuing them and then one day I thought “I’m working on this quite a bit, I wonder if I should make it all a bit more formal?” So now it’s 16 months later, and I’m a part-time PhD student while working at a couple of different spots utilising my training as an anaesthetist.

I would even have to shamefacedly admit I didn’t really appreciate what a PhD was prior to looking at enrolling. I honestly hadn’t thought much beyond it being something that really clever people did, dismissing it in a lazy fashion as something I wouldn’t do and therefore not bothering to understand what it meant. I know now though that it’s more about the knowledge, and hopefully wisdom, gained through the process of embarking on a big research project, and more particularly of working with a team of people who are not just clever, but impressively committed, persistent and open to ideas and experience. The sort of people who understand that after 18 months of working on a project, the fact that you’re still working on the set-up is actually a mark of progress. Yep, it’s all been about the build so far.

The great thing so far is that the PhD has actually made me reaffirm a passion for science. I’m actually enjoying it in a fashion reminiscent of the sort of high school science that involved exploration, experimentation and the occasional jet of flaming gas across the classroom (don’t think Mr Binet will track me down now). Science as a pursuit doesn’t always get a great rap. In the recent past, it has often seemed that science and research broadly has been a bit under fire. On matters across all sorts of fields, science is brought into question by commentators or media on issues as varied as vaccination (here’s one recent example) and  climate science (where at least some have been made to check some facts). If it’s not commentary, there’s also sudden threats to research funding (otherwise known as the stuff that sustains the work of researchers and whole university programs) as occurred last year (happily unfrozen but still). It wasn’t that long ago that I felt a little sorry for science while everyone beat up on it (but I’m kind of a weed, so I hadn’t particularly stood up for it).

Now though, I’m in the PhD honeymoon phase. It’s the bit before the humdrum bit, or the long hard slog bit, or the periods of swinging depression bit, or the total sleep deprivation bit, or the submission and recovery bit. I’m still at the point where I’ve been reminded that science at its best seeks to follow a good idea because a good idea can make a difference. That rather than being a dry and fusty pursuit of irrelevancies, it is a dynamic and vital engagement with the world we see and a future we can imagine. That it is surprising and varied not staid and predictable. That science is not the rigid, unyielding and arrogant pursuit it is sometimes portrayed as, but rather that it operates on the underlying assumption that understanding is not something defined by a fixed point in time, but rather a constant refinement incorporating new knowledge that may disprove the old paradigm. And that it is peopled by individuals who will encourage some guy with no research credibility to speak of to pursue that idea that involves sending researchers out in helicopters in the hope we’ll learn new things about brain injury.

So, this blog will (probably) reveal some of what this PhD journey is like. So there will be some pretty specific stuff, either for the project or related to PhDs. But if the journey of the PhD is partly about the way it makes you engage, it will also touch more broadly on the ways the new engagement it prompts colours my understanding of science, medicine, research and the way I, and others,  go about these things. And at the end, I suspect I’ll be able to look back at the archive and see all of that chronicled. Or I might just end up sharing hilarious cat videos.