The Missing Element in Science: Encouragement

Photo by Hubble ESA - http://flic.kr/p/epwvs6

Carl Sagan’s masterpiece, Cosmos, made science simultaneously accessable and transcendent. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of the venerable series is most remarkable not for galaxies or geniuses, but for a simple gesture of kindness between these two men, decades ago.

Falling in love with science was perhaps the highlight of my childhood. I had the good fortune to be born to parents who valued education and science and made sure I had my fill of museums, planetariums and weekend enrichment classes. Around the age of eight, I saw Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as it aired for the first time on television. For my eight-year-old self, the pacing might have been slow and the words a bit too long, but I clearly understood that the universe was bigger than I had previously imagined and there were people dedicated to finding out exactly how it all worked: scientists.

Now in 2014, Cosmos returns, this time with Neil deGrasse Tyson at the helm of the “ship of the imagination,” carrying viewers across time and space to translate science’s hard-won data into a poetry that shows us our true place in the universe. The new show differs in some ways from its predecessor, but I’m now thirty-four years older and a very different person. Much of what Carl Sagan talked about was new to me, but despite the gorgeous presentation, nearly everything Neil deGrasse Tyson has to say is old news.

Near the end of the first episode of the new Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson throws a curveball as well as a reference to the preceding series. He produces a calendar that belonged to Carl Sagan and finds his own name among the pages. He explains that Carl Sagan invited a high school aged Tyson for a tour of his laboratory. Tyson marks this as a pivotal moment in his science career.

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I may not have had quite the introduction to science that Tyson enjoyed, but I had my share of encouragement at a young age. However as I progressed through my career in the sciences, the initial cheerleading gives way to something else entirely. While adolescent science classes are full of field trips and dramatic classroom demonstrations, undergraduate science education has been described as a “math-science death march.” Many enthusiastic freshmen wash out in the face of unrelenting book work that contains little of the wonder and excitement of earlier science education.

For those who endure their undergraduate years, graduate school has its own trials and tribulations. To be taken seriously in the sciences requires a Ph.D. — nominally four more years after a baccalaureate. In practice this can easily extend past seven years.

And a lot can go wrong in seven years. Just in my small group of immediate friends, two failed to graduate because their department dwindled to the point where there were not enough professors in their area to form a thesis committee. They were unable to finish not for any personal failing, but because the department disintegrated around them. Rest assured they did not hear that such a thing was possible when they decided to enroll.

Ph.D. study is unlike anything earlier in the academic career ladder. To graduate with a doctorate requires that the student produce a thesis (essentially a book) that contains substantial and novel research. What constitutes sufficient substance and novelty is left entirely up to the student’s thesis committee. This is a very subjective decision. It is not only possible but likely that personality clashes or political schisms will enter the equation. Such seeming irrelevancies have the power to delay a student’s progress or halt it entirely.

Cosmos presents science as a pure intellectual pursuit, but for working students and professionals, science is also big business. The process of applying for grants is deadly serious business. In my own career as a computer scientist, I spent at least as much time in front of a word processor trying to “sell” my ideas as I did developing and refining them. Some of the most effective faculty I knew were known as much for their marketing prowess as their brilliance.

Whether the prize is a Ph.D. or a big grant, negative results are not acceptable. While “real” science says follow the data wherever it leads, science as practiced says don’t propose a hypothesis unless you know you’ll be able to prove it, and if you’re surprised and the hypothesis is disconfirmed, the project is over. Since Ph.D.s are only awarded for novel research and grant money is almost never given to scientists to double-check other scientists’ work, reproducibility — the self-correcting mechanism of science — is rarely seen. Recent attempts to reproduce fundamental experiments have generated successful reproduction rates of as low as 11 percent. So either 91% of the experiments reviewed made honest mistakes or someone cooked the books.

Science, as I experienced it, was a far cry from the science that Sagan and Tyson expound upon. If we want to be honest with the next generation of scientists, we have two options. On one hand we tell them up front that science is a risky career choice, full of hidden pitfalls and split loyalties. To be a successful scientist requires outright luck, deft political wrangling and shrewd marketing as much as it does grand imagination and canny problem-solving. This picture isn’t pretty, but it’s true to what I and many of my classmates know to be true. Perhaps fewer students will sign up for such an arduous journey through the scientific/academic jungle, but the ones that remain may be more dedicated and prepared for the very real challenges that face them.

The other option, the high road, involves making the rosy picture of science we sell to our children into a reality. Perhaps this goal is too unrealistic, but let’s at least consider it for a moment. What if we reworked the undergraduate math and science death-march to include at least a smattering of inspirational and engaging content? Could the thesis committee model could be augmented to include more objectivity and oversight, reducing the effects of personal differences and political infighting? What if the value of negative results and reproducibility was reaffirmed and given economic value in the business of science? If we did these things, then we could hold up our heads when we profess that science isn’t just a philosophical method for reducing our ignorance, but a supportive community of inquirers that will attract and nurture our best and brightest.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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