bioephemera

Weekend reading

Here are some essay links I’ve had open as tabs in my browser for over a week, waiting to be posted. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to do the extensive commentary they deserve, so I’m admitting that, and just posting them already. Enjoy.

Graphical Abstracts & Biologists as Designers

Andrew Sun discusses “graphical abstracts” at nature network:

Although they are irrelevant to the quality of the research in my opinion, graphical abstracts (GAs) are in fact increasingly appreciated nowadays. No matter you like them or not, chances are that you have to draw one in order to publish your paper on a growing groups of journals.

In response, Doctor Zen suggests that maybe it’s time for scientists to become graphic designers (at least on a basic level):

Nobody would ever excuse biologists for not running statistical tests for their experiment because “they’re not professional mathematicians.” Nobody would excuse sociologists for giving rambling, incoherent presentations because “they’re not professional actors.” Nobody would excuse geologists for rampant apostrophe ignorance in manuscripts and papers because “they’re not professional writers.” We acknowledge, accept, and expect that being a professional academic requires a wide range of skills beyond just knowledge of a particular set of content. It is time to make graphic literacy part of that expected skill set.

And Grant Jacobs of Code for Life vehemently disagrees:

Graphic illustration is not core to science. There are good reasons that better research departments have an illustrations department. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there is no place to do your own poster or to make use of those that through self-motivation or earlier work want to take on graphics too. I’m just saying insisting it be a required skill seems misplaced.

I think Grant has a good point: scientists should not be evaluated on their ability to use Photoshop to make a figure pretty; they should be evaluated on their ability to design and conduct experiments. On the other hand, insofar as they also have to get grants, it is very useful to have graphic design skills. And I disagree that most research departments have an “illustrations department” – less than a decade ago, when I was in grad school at a very good university, we still made all our own figures. (I even once watercolored a cover concept for Neuron.) I doubt things have changed that much – just because a university has a PR department willing to illustrate press releases and alumni outreach doesn’t mean they are available to do graphic abstracts for you (particularly if you don’t work on charismatic megafauna, cancer, or astrobiology).

Practically speaking, just as few scientists have professional editors to rewrite their grant applications, few scientists have professional illustrators on call to make them figures. So yeah, I do think dataviz should be part of a scientist’s basic skill set – but if a scientist really isn’t apt, it’s okay. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. And certainly crooked, poorly drawn graphs shouldn’t cost someone tenure – unless they don’t have labeled axes, of course.

The Science Wars (again)

Michael Berube reflects on the Science Wars; if you don’t know what those were, read Wikipedia.

What, you ask, was the Sokal Hoax? While I was chatting with my colleagues at the Postmodern Science Forum, New York University physicist Alan Sokal, having read Higher Superstition, decided to try an experiment. He painstakingly composed an essay full of (a) flattering references to science-studies scholars such as Ross and Stanley Aronowitz, (b) howler-quality demonstrations of scientific illiteracy, (c) flattering citations of other science-studies scholars who themselves had demonstrated howler-quality scientific illiteracy, (d) questionable-to-insane propositions about the nature of the physical world, (e) snippets of fashionable theoretical jargon from various humanities disciplines, and (f) a bunch of stuff from Bohr and Heisenberg, drawing object lessons from the uncertainty at the heart of quantum mechanics. He then placed a big red bow on the package, titling the essay “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” The result was a very weird essay, a heady mix-and a shot heard ’round the world. For Sokal decided to submit it to the journal Social Text, where it wound up in a special issue edited by Ross and Aronowitz on . . . the “Science Wars.”

So, basically, a physicist punked a pomo journal. Was it a cheap shot? Maybe. Dave Maier responds to Berube at 3QD with an essay that peels off a few onion-layers of philosophy:

The way to understand the difference between Michael’s and my hermeneuticism, in other words, is that Michael, like Rorty, is concerned with the constructive nature of the first-person plural perspective: things are a certain way for us, such that any one of us could be wrong about them, but only because we have agreed among ourselves that they are that way. Michael’s corrective assures natural scientists that this cannot be a universal fact in the self-undermining postmodern sense. My view, on the other hand, follows Donald Davidson in concentrating on the first-person singular agent in the process of interpretation — that is, of language use. As I see it, Davidson shows that just as the interpretation of meaning includes an ineliminable aspect of doxastic commitment to how things are in reality (or in other words, belief), inquiry into how things are includes an ineliminable aspect of interpretation — that is, of sensitivity to the interpretive aspect of language use. In Davidson-speak, we must affirm the holism of belief and meaning, and thereby reject the Cartesian scheme/content dualism.

Good stuff, but I don’t understand it all. (Huh-huh, huh-huh, he said “doxastic!”) Does linking it on my blog even though I don’t understand it make me as gullible as Social Text? Discuss! Be sure to include a section on why blogs are not peer-reviewed, and whether they should be. You have 5000 words.

“Wildness” in American Parkland

From n + 1, Charles Petersen “American Pastoral” reflects on popular portrayals of the national park system, and the cultural values they reflect:

“Science, of course, doesn’t have an aesthetic–it can only be made to serve an aesthetic that comes from outside. In the national parks, as Schullery makes clear, science serves the aesthetic of “wildness.” More specifically, according to the 1963 Leopold Report, which ushered in the age of scientific management, the parks were to produce “a vignette of primitive America.” Scientists would help by returning the landscape and ecosystem to that which “prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man.” Together with the establishment of designated “primitive” areas on other public lands in 1964, this marked the beginning of wilderness science. Meanwhile, the National Forest Service developed forest science, the study of how to increase timber production; the Bureau of Reclamation pushed forward with its interest in hydrology; and the Bureau of Land Management focused on grazing management. Each agency produced different results, some more sustainable than others–the BLM allowed ranchers to overgraze its land, the National Forest Service lost money on logging permits, some national parks attracted too many visitors to look wild–but none was more “scientific” than the others.

A national park with a scientific aesthetic, if such a thing were possible, would likely resemble a laboratory, an extension of the experimental forests managed by many universities. Instead, science serves “wildness” and “primitivism,” concepts that remain romantic (shading into picturesque) no matter how we refine their particulars. This is the deeper paradox inherent in the “paradox of preservation versus use”: the difficulty of defining “preservation.””

This is another complex and literate essay that I puzzled over for quite a while, mainly because the author seems so outraged. I had trouble discerning what outraged him most – the fetishization of “wildness,” the elitism of “wildness,” Americans’ failure to see “wildness” as what it really is, excessive pseudo-romanticism, sappy propaganda, Ken Burns, or Muir. Petersen says of Muir,

The sublime, for Muir, had lost its essential terror and become merely beautiful, a version of the pre-romantic pastoral elegy, as seen in this sketch from My First Summer in the Sierras: “No pain here, no dull empty hours, no fear of the past, no fear of the future. These blessed mountains are so compactly filled with God’s beauty, no petty personal hope or experience has room to be. Drinking this champagne water is pure pleasure, so is breathing the living air, and every movement of limbs is pleasure, while the body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire or sunshine.”

Personally, I find nothing objectionable in that quote, aside from the dated prose. I find the idea of “feeling” beauty as a physical sensation akin to heat quite sensual. And while I’m sure my lack of familiarity with Muir’s oeuvre makes my naive impression of his writing inferior by far to Mr. Petersen’s, I simply don’t think that the quote does the work Petersen wants it to in this essay. Basically, I reached the end of Petersen’s article in sympathy with his concerns about sanitized, “picturesque” versions of nature, but also unsure what exactly he would have us strip from our collective experience of parkland. Perhaps you’ll find it clearer than I do.

Museum curation as wonder cabinet

Daniel Grant’s “Keeper of Curiosities” (WSJ) is an essay about the increasing prevalance of cross-disciplinary approaches to museum curation:

The ROM [Royal Ontario Museum], the Australian Museum and a few other institutions like them are an updating of the earliest type of museum. Instead of being shown as curiosities, objects are treated as signifiers of how life is led. “We’re a hybrid,” said Mary Sue Sweeney Price, director of the Newark Museum in New Jersey. “Our curators mount cross- cultural exhibitions informed by science and art in order to generate new understanding of science and art.” The Oakland Museum creates exhibits that focus on the history of California through its separate collections of fine art, history and natural history.

Like a lifesize Wonder Cabinet, the ROM features “a life-size, walk-through diorama of the St. Clair Cave in Jamaica, with its plaster-cast hanging bats, insects and stalagmites.” Sounds almost like an educational Disneyland!

Blind love

Finally, a striking quote from a reader of Andrew Sullivan:

When I was a child, my mom would take me to The Hug Chair when life disappointed me and read The Velveteen Rabbit. I recognize now that it is not the most uplifting book. But it was a gift to acknowledge life’s cruelties, and to learn that the only thing that would get us through it all is blind love.

Enjoy your weekends.