Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Scientific Criticism

Michael Eisen on a recent talk by Felisa Wolfe-Simon:
The acid test of a scientist is how they respond when their work is criticized. The best scientists listen and consider what is being said, defend the things they still believe and, most importantly, recognize where their work fell short and use criticism to make their work better. This is, of course, not always so simple. It’s easy to get defensive instead – to view criticism as an attack, see sinister motives in its sources, and ignore its substance.
But I think the worst response is to view criticism as a kind of virtue. And there were signs in Wolfe-Simon’s talk that she is beginning to relish the role of the iconoclast. She appears to see herself as someone who has unconventional ideas that the scientific community can’t deal with. And that criticism of her work is not an effort to get at the truth but a conspiracy to suppress it. At several points she made reference to other scientists whose ideas were not accepted when they were proposed, but which turned out in the long run to be correct. 

People laughed at Galileo. They also laughed at Groucho Marx, though in a different manner. Worst of all is being laughed at like so many laugh at Sarah Palin, as Galileo turned out to be right, and I always got the impression that Groucho was laughing too.

Link: Felisa Wolfe-Simon (of arsenic infamy) is no more convincing in person than in print

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Where have all the bullies gone?

The Disappointing Taste of Revenge, a blog entry by Ta-Nehisi Coates:
It's sort of the same thing here. This kid--who shouldn't have put his hands on anyone--gets power-slammed on a concrete driveway, is stumbling out of the frame, and for all we know could be concussed, and you read the comments, and everyone's yelling "Damn right." This is a world filled with people who've been bullied--but no people who are, or ever were, actual bullies.

I'm certain that the real bullies are hanging out with Carl Sagan's fire-breathing dragon, or are orbiting the sun near Bertrand Russell's teapot.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Louise Glass on the cheapness of data and the importance of being focused

Louise Glass from Berkeley has just received a fellowship that will allow her to develop new projects relating to bioenergy. In a recent interview with Nature, she talks about the changes that she's experienced during her career in science:

What has been the biggest change in science during your career?

The pace. When I was a graduate student, a postdoc across the hall from me sequenced one kilobyte of DNA. We have just finished sequencing the 40-megabyte genome of 100 wild Neurospora isolates. In this day and age, it is so easy to get data. The advantage is being able to ask very elegant questions because you are not limited by data. But it is also easy to lose sight of the biological problem you are trying to address. That is the danger.