You're Just Not that into Science

21 Dec 2009 // science

It's sad to say this but most people I work with are just not that into science. It's not that they're not good at it – they clearly are – it's just that they're interested only in their little niche, and are thoroughly satisfied with all that it entails.

Case in point: recently, I was at work looking up a biology textbook on basic paleontology, spurred on by the intriguing hypothesis that the Cambrian explosion was induced by the evolution of eyes. My buddy S wanders by and notices that I am reading a first-year biology textbook. Being a curious guy, he asks me why. That's when, whilst explaining to S the whole theory about eyes and the Cambrian explosion, we were interreputed by a third guy J, who burst out with "Ha ha, that's funny. You never hear words like Cambrian used on the other side of the lab."

This struck me as profoundly weird. First, the word "Cambrian" is not a particularly unusual word, especially in a biology environment. An average 6th grader interested in science would have heard of it. Yet, in a lab that does fundamental biology research, it struck the ears of J as strange. Second, J's reaction was mystifyingly inert. Although the word Cambrian had piqued J's curiosity, he wasn't interested in finding out what we were talking about. Instead, he pointed out how strange it was to hear words of science spoken in a laboratory of science.

I think this is emblemic of a certain attitude in science. Many researchers become masters of their own research field but have minimal interest in areas outside their own. For such scientists, it is the qualification of knowing that counts, not the knowing itself. We do research so that we can publish prestigious research so that we can be recognized as prestigious scientists. Anything other than this is a sign of amateurism. Perhaps it's a way for socially awkward people who played too much dungeons-and-dragons in high-school to claw back some kind of respect in a hostile world. There are many people in science like this, and they are not infrequently assholes (although J is a pretty nice guy).

This attitude induces a type of scientific myopia. To whit, a couple of weeks later, I found J sitting in the lunch room staring blankly at a draft of his article. He was stuck in writing a synopsis that would explain to lay readers why his research was important. J thought this was a pointless exercise dreamed up by PR lackeys at the journal he was going to send it. But it's not. Being able to explain why our research is important reflects an important synthetic ability to see how different bits of science fit together. This requires a vision beyond our own little niche. It seemed to me that J knew everything about his research topic except for why it's important.

In contrast, there are those of us who are in science because we are irresistibly curious about how the world works. This curiousity is a habit of mind and it's not something you can switch off. I had a really busy year this year (worked on 4 articles, wrote a job application, released a piece of software) yet I read a programming textbook (Programming Language Pragmatics), a neuroscience pop-sci book (The Brain that Changes Itself), a particle physics pop-sci (In search of the Ultimate Building Blocks) and a stat-mech textbook (Noise and Fluctuations). I feel stuck if I am not finding about some area of science that is outside my comfort zone. I think you can tell which scientists have this kind of curiosity simply by whether they are reading popular science books. These scientists will find time to read whether they have time or not. They have no choice even though they're running 9 hour experiments on their supercali-fragilistic-fractionator.

The difference to the other type scientist is stark. One of the grad students in my lab told me that once, when she was talking about this great pop-sci book she was reading, another postdoc D interrupted her with a withering look, "so you read populular science books do you?" As if it we were a bad thing. Yet, I have a feeling that non-curious scientists are in the majority. Doing a totally unscientific straw poll, out of about 17 postdocs and grad students in my lab, I can think of about 7 who I've talked to at some point about some kind of awesome science outside our lab's principal interests.

Recently, I've read all sorts of reports that the scientific body is in general, not interested in social media, even amongst younger scientists. All sorts of explanations have been proffered as to why there is such a low adoption rate but the one explanation that hasn't been offered is that perhaps, there are not that many engaged scientists in the scientific community. Perhaps, most people working in science are just not that into science.