Recommended reads #84


Are you familiar with the work of the Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group? I applaud their dedication and excellence in chronicling the diversity and natural history of this unappreciated yet widespread taxon. This is where the line between science and art is invisible.

Women are woven deeply into the history of science, stretching back to ancient Egypt, over 4,000 years ago. But because their contributions often go unacknowledged, they fade into obscurity—and the threads of their influence today aren’t as apparent as they ought to be.” I’d like to call this one early: We’ll be looking back at Dr. Emily Temple-Wood as the person who rewrote the history of scientific discovery.

Racism in the research lab. This post, from two scientists from prestigious institutions, is important.

Why Fotini Markopoulou traded quantum gravity for industrial design. 

Against sustainability. Like theoretical physics, biological conservation and ecosystem services rely heavily on philosophy to determine and understand precisely what our objectives are and why we have made these decisions.

The myth of the nontraditional student.

A new report from the Brookings Institution argues – with lots of data – that state support of public universities does not favor the wealthy enrolled students. They argue that funding to wealthy and low-income students is roughly equivalent. I think someone might want to have a chat with them about the difference between equality and equity. It’s funny the arguments that you can make with many words and numbers, that just don’t make sense when you consider actual human beings.

Specious and inadequately substantiated charges of misconduct are being used to railroad a researcher at the National Museum of Natural History. If you read this whole article, which is not short, I imagine you’ll be feeling some outrage. Let’s hope that external scrutiny in this circumstance can help the NMNH do the right thing.

[Hope Jahren’s] Father’s Hackberry Tree. It’s okay if you cry a little, like I did in seat 23A of flight UA 867.

Science communication is not new.

13 lessons I wish someone had taught me before I became an academic administrator. As listicles go, this one’s pretty good.

Testing what you’re teaching without teaching to the test. This is from the perennialy excellent Faculty Focus site, which is mostly targeted at professors who are comfortable with the most common edu-jargon and how education experts talk about education.

We are not all scientists for the same reason. And that’s wonderful:

That’s why you came to grad school?

You bet your ass it is.

Easy change could improve college racial equity.” This headline comes from the pages of the San Diego Union Tribune, which are reliably odious but occasionally will publish reasonable viewpoints (such as this one) to provide a false veil of balance. I do think the title, though, misrepresents the definition of easy.

Hey, you’ve got a little racism in your teeth.” (This comes from the site Nonprofit With Balls — once you see it, you’ll want to share with all of your friends in nonprofits, in the off chance they’re not familiar with it.)

This is a cogent argument for sending more undergraduates to graduate school.

I hope you have a great weekend! I’m putting this together as I’m heading home from 3.5 days at the annual Ecological Society of America meeting, which was a wonderful time to get to meet some Small Pond readers. For those of you who took the time to say nice things about the time, I really appreciate it. (And for those of you who withheld from saying mean things, I appreciate it too!)

11 thoughts on “Recommended reads #84

  1. The piece in the Verge on the NMNH is very troubling. The reporting is extremely one-sided, which may be due to the fact that this is an ongoing investigation and matter and the institution and its workers can’t comment on it to correct, rebut, or otherwise describe the context in which it exists. Challenges of field work aside, abiding by federal and international law is not THAT hard, even in remote places–I can think of no reason why one would think it was OK to edit a MTA and not have approval from the signatories. I know I’d lose my job over that.

    Furthermore, the author names and LINKS to the staff pages the junior staffers who brought charges (yet to be adjudicated) –the support for Helgen online has been at their expense (and as less prominent workers, they’re in a much less secure place).
    I don’t know what the truth of the matter is in the story, and I have no experience or beef with Helgen, but I do know that staff, students, and other subordinates often have a different picture of someone than do scientific peers, and its important to protect, support, and listen to those people, rather than to assume that someone is incapable of unethical behavior because they’re a prominent scientist.

    • There are a few things in your comment, Anonymous, that set off my spidey senses.

      First, You say that the article assumed that high powered people aren’t capable of acting unethically. However, the entire article is specifically about high powered people acting unethically, specifically, the people targeting Helgen. So no, the author doesn’t assume powerful people cannot be unethical.

      Second, contrary to your claim, the article reports it is not an ongoing investigation. The investigation was concluded. Is that factually wrong? It was just a slapdash, incomplete investigation that failed to involve many of the central parties, but the report was submitted.

      Third, if you truly were dispassionate and had no beef, then I imagine you would also be expressing consernation at the selective manner in which the study was conducted, excluding the actual people in the field where the alleged infractions incurred. I don’t know Helgen, I’ve never met him, and I’m not in his field. I don’t even any any friends that are his friends. But the facts in this article (which you haven’t seen to have contradicted in any way) clearly indicate that he’s being targeted. If you look at the history of journalism by Balter, as well, he has a great level of credibility in his reporting, and he has reported on plenty of on academic misconduct in the past. He reported facts, and the article is clearly sympathetic to Helgen, but only because the facts themselves give him sympathy. Are there things in this article which are untrue? Because if they are true (and with Balter’s record, that’s what I expect), then it’s pretty to me that he’s the victim of a speciously motivated and inadequately investigated claim.

      Anonymous, I’ve noticed that your IP address places not that far from the museum. Actually, it comes from the same city where one of his accusers in the article lives. (Yes, I admit to spending about five minutes googling on this matter.) Is it possible that you’re not a dispassionate reader, and perhaps know some of the players? That seems to be the most parsimonious explanation for your convictions.

  2. Um, NOT an NMNH employee, research affiliate, or alum. (nice checking on anonymity!)

    As I read it, there were/are multiple investigations: some are ongoing (which is why the outcome vis a vis Helgen’s job is unclear). The reporter considered an earlier one (lead by an internal team) botched.

    The reporter is clearly reporting from Helgen’s perspective. Maybe that’s right, maybe its necessary given who was willing to talk–I truly don’t know. But the social media response I have seen has been very one-sided and nasty towards the staff and very uncritical about the fact that the whole story isn’t out (the reporter acknowledges this).

    Helgen isn’t the only one with skin in the game, in terms of bad possible outcomes. But he has a cadre of powerful, vocal backers. Those backers are also colleagues of the staffers who brought charges. These staffers will have to continue to work with the people who have called them petty liars and impugned them for speaking out. The blame for that isn’t on Helgen, or the reporter (although the tone and naming names he did didn’t help), but on the community.

  3. The Brookings study, like many arguments on that question, seems to totally ignore the revenue side. That is, even if high-income and low-income students received the same effective subsidy, it would be progressive in the sense that this subsidy was funded by an income tax system that is progressive.

  4. Terry, I’m wondering if you could expand on your position (hopefully I haven’t misinterpreted some of your posts or comments) that we are not sending too many people to grad school. I applied for several jobs before my current one and among them was a TT job on a primarily undergrad campus in an undeserved community. I wanted the job badly because of the unique population and an impressive startup package considering the size of the school, and I’m happy to report that I used your site as a guide when writing my teaching and undergrad research statements and I did get an interview (though the position ultimately went to the spouse of an already-tenured prof there – good for them for solving their two-body problem, but I felt pretty used when I realized that they probably intended to hire that person all along – c’est la vie). I was excited when I learned that the school was going to expand their graduate program and try to get more PhD students (they had a small grad program already) but when I told my PI at the time his response was “oh, so you want to contribute to the problem.” That may seem harsh to some, but I couldn’t deny the reality of the hyper-competition that I was facing for the few available jobs out there. I have also read Paula Stephen’s work on the current economics of science and it’s quite gloomy but seems to be well-supported with data. Anyway, I’m interested in learning more about how primarily undergrad schools justify encouraging the PhD as an option since I didn’t get a chance to find out through that job and I’d like a chance to shed the gloom.

  5. It seems like jumping the gun somewhat to assume that the charges against Helgen are specious. It’s an interesting article on a difficult situation for NMNH and the mammals division, but it did seem pretty one-sided in terms of coverage. Given that you reserved judgement in the case of the KSU professor who was denied whistleblower status in a pervious recommended reads (a decision I agree with) I was somewhat surprised at your take on this case.

    • I didn’t take my read on this lightly. On one hand, some have said, “Well, all you know about this is from this article and from the blog of the author of the article, so how can I judge with incomplete information?”

      Clearly, that wasn’t my read on this situation. I read the article, supporting information on the journalist’s blog, and the supporting documentation. I’ve reached what I think is not only the most parsimonious conclusion, but the only one that you can get to given the evidence at hand.

      We made decisions about what is true or not based on limited information all of the time. I haven’t listened to people who disagree with NASA that they landed on the moon, but having seen the evidence provided by NASA, I believe them. In this case, given the evidence provided by Balter, I think Helgen is being railroaded. There’s no other explanation that just makes any sense, in my view. But I don’t have to write about this in great detail, because Balter already is.

    • Here’s an additional thought which I had after pouring myself a glass of iced tea.

      It could be argued that I’m being unethical — or unwise — by taking a stand on this case. It’s not journalistic to take sides. (Then again, see where false equivalency has taken the news industry in the US. Recognizing a set of information as facts is what journalism amounts to.)

      Regardless, this is my blog and while the style is journalistic, I’m not writing for the Times here. And I’ve decided that it’s far, far far more unethical to pretend that what is happening to Helgen might be fair.

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