I recently finished reading Intuition, by Allegra Goodman. It’s a great novel, and anyone who’s done time as a postdoc will appreciate it, especially if you’ve done time as postdoc in biomedical research. You may find yourself reading it and thinking that surely Goodman must have been spying upon your research lab at some point.
She really captures the flavor of research, the tools and materials that are simultaneously so fun and so tedious to work with. She captures the emotions, too. In the first chapter, the postdoc Cliff is berated by his supervisors for continuing to work on a deadend project after they had told him to stop. With a horrified and amused sense of recognition, I read these lines:
What did it matter if he’d wasted years? What did he care if he’d ruined his chances in research? Realistically, what had been the odds that he’d succeed?…the balm of apathy began to soothe Cliff’s wounds. His despair began to melt and pool inside him, until he could almost congratulate himself that he was no longer desperate, but simply demoralized and depressed – emotions entirely accepted, even expected, in the lab.
Ouch. I spent time in a lab like that.
But Cliff’s fortunes soon reverse, and suddenly he is the toast of the lab. His results are the basis of a new grant proposal and the focus of the lab’s new direction. However, Robin, another postdoc, begins to suspect Cliff of fraud. It doesn’t help her case that she is Cliff’s ex-girlfriend. Eventually she has to leave the lab and is reduced to working as a technician. I won’t spoil the rest of the book for you; you really should read it. I couldn’t put it down. But I want to share with you one other part of the book that really captured my interest; it relates to the discussions we had earlier about “Life as a Leak” (Parts One, Two, and Three).
Robin goes to visit another postdoc, Akira, who had worked in the lab earlier and who had been fired and who had supposedly become unbalanced. One of the institute’s technicians sends her to see him to talk about coverups of fraud at the institute. Robin expresses uncertainty to Akira, who tells her that the lab heads, Mendelssohn and Glass, are “very good at instilling self-doubt because they have none. They transfer it to their postdocs.” He goes on:
Unfortunately, people get sacrificed quite often in science…You can’t see it so clearly when you’re inside. You always think it’s you, but it’s not. The system favors them. It’s feudal, actually. There are the lords and ladies like Glass and Mendelssohn, and then the postdocs are the vassals paying tribute every year in the form of publications, blood, sweat, tears, et cetera. If there’s a conflict, they call the shots, and there’s really nothing you can do about it. Lord Glass and Lady Mendelssohn know the truth. If you cry foul, they break you.
Though Akira and Robin are talking about the situation of potential fraud in the lab, I think the dialogue applies equally well to the situation of trying to raise gender issues in science. Women are made to feel like whatever the problem is, it’s always individual and personal, it’s never an example of a systemic bias that needs to be addressed. The problem is them, not the system. “You always think it’s you, but it’s not.”
When the topic at hand is men not taking an issue seriously, suggesting that the issue might not really be all that serious is not being dispassionate. It is, in fact, taking a side. And the people on the side you’re taking, incidentally, include the gropers, the rapists, the sexual-favor-demanding bosses.
Back to the novel: Robin is somewhat put-off by Akira’s evangelism for attacking fraud at the institute where she so recently worked.
How quickly, Robin thought, she’d moved from dedicated researcher to the muddy land of malcontents. Just weeks before, she’d been a scholar, and now she was listening to a vindictive gardener. If science was cruel and feudal, still she had enjoyed the privileges of the court, the instruments and time there, the great storerooms of materials, the labyrinthine passageways of discovery leading mostly to dead ends, but always promising more, a glimpse of greatness from far off, the glow of success just around the corner. She was still new enough to the outside world to see those who had cast science off as the impoverished ones, and to hope that she would not remain among them. She felt for Akira, but he also frightened her. She did not want to be used by him or become like him. She did not want to curse the kingdom from afar, but to vindicate herself and find her way back.
This, I think, captures the way in which women who “leak” from the pipeline are looked upon by some women who stay behind. The leakers have some sort of disease or taint that might be passed on by too close association with them. If one is on the cusp, if one is in a precarious situation, one does not want to associate with those who are calling for vigorous examination of the conditions of oppression – one wants to align one’s self ever more closely with the icons of success. Those of us who “curse the kingdom from afar” are often looked upon as raving like madwomen, or as just expressing the disgruntled opinions of those who “couldn’t make it”. This is surely how a vast majority of men look at women who criticize academia from outside of academia.
In the end, I think what I liked most about Intuition is that it showed so expressively and clearly how emotions, desire, and human interactions get all tangled up in the process of doing science and affect its flow. They can even influence what we bring ourselves to believe is true in the data. They cannot, however, make other people delude themselves in the same way that we delude our ownselves, and that is why science, as a social process, does work, even if it is at times an extremely messy, even somewhat ugly, process.