Against all biases: Do we really need more diversity in research and innovation?

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There are reasons for achieving greater diversity in science. Diversity in the widest sense, including gender, ethnic and social background diversity. This is not simply a matter of justice, which by itself should represent a sufficient argument for defending diversity. Actually, it goes beyond such an “ideal” into the accomplishment of “practical” purposes. Prerequisites that are crucial for advancing knowledge and generating socio-economic advantages.

Scientific progress depends on openness. The openness that allows deeper examination of evidence against, or in favor, of a hypothesis. The openness needed to verify and reproduce results. A condition that is essential to understanding a problem and finding possible solutions without having to revert to notions of faith or ideological loyalties. Openness is strengthened by a diversity of ideas, and at the same time openness encourages new perspectives that are worth investigating.

Scientists, as well as all types of innovators, benefit from context awareness. This refers to understanding the background underlying a specific problem. This is also related to empathy: our capacity to be sensitive to the needs and experiences of others.  Based on such awareness, scientists and innovators can come up with new applications that are both novel and relevant to humanity. These abilities are less likely to be developed in highly homogeneous or uniform organizations.

Scientific research and innovation are cooperative enterprises. Discovering and exploiting new knowledge typically involves interactions among people of diverse socio-economic backgrounds and cultures. Challenges of local and global significance, such as those concerning human health and the environment, demand the combination of resources and expertise that cannot always be linked to a single institution or geographical region. Moreover, intellectual and economic outputs may target varied stakeholders worldwide. Therefore, improving diversity is a necessary step towards properly framing complex questions and identifying what is needed to reach a solution.

Do we understand this problem? Is this the right technique? Should we move in this direction? These are questions that researchers address on a daily basis. To answer them, scientists pursue their own perspectives and methods, while simultaneously considering competing approaches and explanations. Thus, finding “truth” entails a persistent effort to reject partial views influenced by individual assumptions, historical circumstances or particular organizational settings.

To better understand the world and bring greater benefits to people, researchers must fight preconceptions that are imposed by the narrowness of their own knowledge and experiences. The restraints forged from our ignorance. However, to effectively struggle against such biases, we need more diverse research environments and leaderships, not less.

The PhD defense: “disaster” avoidance strategies

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The date for your PhD thesis defense is approaching. In many ways you have already started your preparation: the thesis writing and submission, going through the administrative procedures, verifying conclusions, refreshing your knowledge and rehearsing for the big day.

It is likely that you have already been there through the eyes of another student. First: A stuffy room, the presentation that is seemingly a mere formality, those yawns from the audience, the nervous smiles from your supervisor.

And then, here comes the part you really have been waiting for. The moment when the thesis committee is no longer a list of names: it is question time.

Questions: The ceremonial ones, the easy ones, the “good” ones, the difficult ones. What about those harsh questions? The dry mouth, the perspiration, someone playing drums with a pen and desk, the laser pointer moving like crazy all over the screen. Also you have wondered: What’s with the little tapping on the microphone? Is she about to have a stroke? Give that man a glass of water please!

Until now you have hoped for the best.

But are you adequately prepared for the worst?

Trying to anticipate all possible types of situations during your PhD defense is a wishful, almost hopeless, task. But envisioning “worst” possible scenarios and considering the actions typically leading to such undesirable situations are both feasible and necessary. These are relatively common and preventable mistakes that students can make, time and again, in different doses and combinations. A selection of them and accompanying advice follows.

1. Huh? I don’t know. Here is the question, and you may not know the best possible answer, or you think that it is outside the scope of your research. Nothing wrong with it. Unfortunately, your gestures, words or even tone can tell the committee a more troubling story: you are not sufficiently concerned with the point made by the examiner.  A simple “maybe, I don’t know” or “this is outside the topic of my research” are more than unsatisfactory replies. Although honesty should be at the center of your responses, such simplistic answers are also different ways to say: I do not care enough.  A rephrasing of the question may make things clearer to you, and at least it will buy you some time to think about what to say next.

2. The dog ate my data. Gone are the days when you could blame the dog for eating your homework or announce the death of your grandmother for the third time.  During your PhD, blunders or omissions may rightly be explained by different factors: Lack of funding, “unforeseen” mishaps, supervision problems and family issues. But regardless of whether or not they represented major obstacles to your work, never use them as an easy way out of your individual responsibility or to shift it on to others. It is alright to explain the conditions that influenced a particular outcome, an obstacle that you had to overcome or a difficult turn that you had to make. However, even if you are still recovering from these complications or you feel that you were treated unfairly: focus on the problem and your approach to dealing with it. Even better, tell the audience how you adapted to new circumstances, and outline the lessons you learned.

3. Nah, it is not so bad. An effective way to piss off committee members is to downplay the significance or seriousness of their concerns. If something in your work looks to them “surprising” or “weaker”, then for a moment consider that there must be some truth to their criticism. If you disagree with the reviewer’s position, then respond to it as you are expected to do: through argument based on the most solid evidence available. All of this without forgetting that in research there is always some room for improvement.

4. Duh, obviously.  Even if you think that a reviewer asked you a trivial or obvious question, never express this view (either in words or mannerisms) to the committee. It’s the reviewer’s job to assess your knowledge irrespective of whether you or anyone else believe that you know the answer. If you have the impression that the committee is testing you, well that’s right, get over it.  This is also related to another not less common situation: the candidate displaying hints of exasperation or amusement when asked questions that, at least in the candidate’s opinion, have already been addressed during the defense. These reactions not only may be seen as impolite to the reviewers, but also they offer a negative glimpse at your intellectual maturity.

5. I showed it in the thesis. It is not unusual for students to answer a question by simply indicating that a particular point was already explained in the thesis. Never assume that the reviewers will remember everything from your thesis. Even if they have amazing memory powers, the reviewers are there to ask anything considered relevant for evaluating the quality of your research. In some cases, they just want you to refer to a specific thesis section to obtain further clarification. So, focus on the question and answer it, even if the answer is impeccably clear in the thesis.

During and after your PhD defense you may feel that you did not offer the best answer to one or several questions. That could be especially frustrating if you are confident that you had the necessary knowledge to make it better. This is perhaps unavoidable and will represent a recurrent theme in your research career. Moreover, error and failure are inescapable realities in science. However, what you should not contemplate is ignoring basic recommendations that are known to be conducive to a professional, and hopefully less painful, discussion.

Keep up the hard work on route to your PhD defense. Celebration will be coming next.

Thinks like a poet, works like a bookkeeper.

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“Pattern 9” by F. Azuaje

Someone who “thinks like a poet and only later works like a bookkeeper”1. This is how American biologist Edward O. Wilson defines the ideal scientist.

But what does one thing have to do with the other?

According to Wilson, who is also a novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner, the main point is that innovators in science and literature are “basically dreamers and storytellers”. Both types of innovators begin their creation processes with a story. For the scientist, such a story may initially represent a vague explanation of a particular phenomenon, a set of assumptions to extract meaning out of something.

At an early stage of their work, scientists conceive a beginning and a potential end to their story: its possible paths, twists and complications. As in literature, the early drafts of a scientific story may only reside in the scientist’s mind: an act of imagination that is informed by previous research and fueled by yet-to-be shown possibilities.

Works of literature and science incrementally evolve as different parts of their stories are adapted, enhanced and excluded. And such changes can lead to new competing “plots” or “scenarios” in the form of alternative insights or unexpected findings.

At some point there is an end to the story: a discovery, possibly a breakthrough, or the falsification of a previous idea. And yet, it is not always possible to know for certain that this is truly the end of the story. New opportunities for problem-thinking and exploration, as well as fresh questions, will continue emerging.

Wilson’s view of the ideal scientist, which may also apply to engineers and entrepreneurs, however, becomes problematic when the “bookkeeping” part is not sufficiently emphasized. It is not only problematic for the purpose of communicating the outcomes of science to the general public, but also for that of training new generations of scientists and innovators. This is actually a core issue in the implementation and exploitation of scientific research.

From the get-go, scientific research and technological development demand rigorous analysis and verification. Regardless of their stage, scientific advances not only depend on demonstrations of their novelty or utility, but also of their methodological soundness. The latter also includes established notions of testability and reproducibility. This is particularly critical in an age when science and entrepreneurial activity are increasingly becoming intertwined, and when the “marketability” of ideas appears to occupy the limelight. A time when hearing a “great story” seems as important as judging originality and relevance grounded in factual evidence.

Beyond Wilson’s analogy, and notwithstanding its potential interpretations, there is at play here a more fundamental commonality. In principle, works of literature and science aim to make sense of our worlds. In their own ways, they represent approximations to how we see within and outside ourselves. With their own limitations, they help us find meaning, and even purpose, in our lives.

And of course let’s not forget, scientific progress will always require sufficient doses of individual creativity and imagination. A capacity to dream and envision what has not yet been seen or explained. All of it joining together with an unremitting focus on testing, contrasting and disproving ourselves. A relentless fight against fallacies, including those sold to us as well-crafted products of our imaginations.

1. O. Wilson. Letters to a Young Scientist, 2014, Liveright.

This post is also available at Medium.

Mentoring young researchers

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Confidence nurturing

Around the time I entered the second half of my undergraduate studies, I joined a research group as a trainee or sort of apprentice. Despite my eagerness to become more involved in research- and teaching-related activities, I was entirely ignorant of the day-to-day dynamics of a research environment. Soon I learned that the links between advisers and advisees, or between mentors and mentees, were more complex than those between conventional teachers and students.

It rapidly became clear to me that our advisers led the group, first and foremost, through their moral authority. I learned that advisers can positively impact their teams without relying on an authority given to them solely by hierarchy. They interact with younger researchers with courtesy and consideration, even when facing stressing or demanding situations. Such advisers do not trash talk about their advisees, or expose their vulnerabilities to others in an attempt to downplay the adviser’s responsibilities.

Even when they express their most critical assessments, inspiring advisers possess the ability to make you feel free and secure. Responsible advisers do not have the need to control through fear. Truly good advisers thrive in large part because they promote accountable freedom, and because they earn the trust and loyalty of their teams.

Long after graduation I came to more deeply appreciate another guiding principle: Effective learning requires an unavoidable interplay between progress and failure.

When a learning opportunity arose my advisers did not give me reasons to doubt the potential value of the new experience. They did not ask me to overthink whether I was worth it or not. They told me to go for it and get it done to the best of my abilities and resources available.  When the challenge became bigger than one could have anticipated, they did not regret it or tried to find excuses in preparation for a possible failure. If failure occurred, we were allowed and guided to try again, harder, better. Repeating mistakes learned from previous failure was the only mistake to be afraid of.

At a relatively early time in my research experience, I was asked to give a presentation for the group. Initially I thought that I did not deserve such an invitation. I felt that I was wrongly appropriating a place that only graduate and more experienced researchers were entitled to. Fortunately, those thoughts gradually became irrelevant. My mentors did not use this presentation as a mere test of my work performance or skills, they did not ask me to do it just to satisfy some internal procedure, and they never questioned the significance of the occasion. They had simply given me an opportunity to advance my learning experience, to strengthen my connections with my work and that of others.

That first presentation provided me with a profounder message though. An explicit reminder of something that had been encoded around me all the time: I belonged and was welcomed to a community. Furthermore, all those student presentations and discussions allowed us to understand that mutual respect and support were the glue that kept such community advancing together, despite material obstacles or other difficulties.

This was confidence building as a patient nurturing of intellectual growth. Mentoring seen as the unselfish gardening and sculpturing of young minds. Those were our advisers. Incessantly, almost imperceptibly, exercising an unpretentious brand of leadership based on ethical conduct and professional integrity. A generous exemplification of respect for the efforts and capabilities of others, in triumph and in adversity.

For that and more, I will always be grateful to the mentors of my early years in academia: Gianfranco, Guillermo and Fernando.

This post is also available at Medium.

Bullshit fighting

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According to American philosopher Harry Frankfurt, a key difference between liars and bullshitters is that the former tend to accept that they are not telling the truth, while the latter simply do not care whether something is true or not.

Bullshitters strive to maximize personal gain through a continuing distortion of reality. If something is true and can be manipulated to achieve their selfish objectives, then good. If something is not true, who cares? All the same. These attributes make bullshitting worse than lying.

Furthermore, according to Frankfurt, it is the bullshitter’s capacity to get away with bullshitting so easily that makes them particularly dangerous. Individuals in prominent positions of authority may be punished for lying, especially if lying has serious damaging consequences. Professional and casual bullshitters at all levels of influence typically operate with freedom. Regardless of their roles in society, their exposure is not necessarily accompanied by negative legal or intellectual consequences, at least for the bullshitter.

Instances of bullshitting are found on a daily basis across public and more private domains. It is not only the politician or marketing campaigner who can put a big smile in front of a bigger pile of bullshit. They also include the masters of fear mongering, the attention seekers and the deniers of scientific facts.

Science, the natural ground for combatting non-sense, also hosts and even promotes a good deal of bullshitting. This is done when scientists and entrepreneurs put “great stories” above strong empirical evidence, marketing above demonstrable expertise, and soundbites above critical discourse. Scientists also become bullshitters, or at least facilitate bullshitting, by over-hyping their findings in an attempt to make the news or demonstrate to politicians the “impact” of their research. This in turn can be abused by other bullshitters in their quest to favor particular political or economic agendas.

Researchers may also be guilty of bullshitting by omission. This is the case when they do not openly challenge bullshitting positions, either in the public or academic settings. Scientists frequently wrongly assume that the public always has knowledge of well-established scientific facts. Moreover, scientists sometimes over-estimate the moderating role of the media or their capacity to differentiate facts from falsehood, and solid from weaker evidence.

Bullshitting happens. But very often it is a byproduct of indifference. Indifference frequently masking a fear of appearing confrontational to peers and funders. Depending on where you are or with whom you work, frontal bullshit fighting may not be good for career advancement.

In a world with an imperfect scientific peer review system and increasing market-oriented pressures, there are few options but to continue fighting bullshit. Scientists and informed citizens cannot just simply ignore it. They can also help to identify and expose it for what it is. Bullshit!

Bullshit fighting must be accompanied by a more active involvement in day-to-day discussions of science and technology, in and beyond classrooms and laboratories. Above of all, this means not accepting that bullshit should become the norm in our lives, rather than the exception. As H. Frankfurt put it, bullshit is an insulting substitute for the truth. Thus, we need to reject it wherever we find it. It is both the right and intelligent thing to do if we care about reality.

This article is also available at Medium.

Scientists and inspiration

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Are scientists inspired? Where and how do they get their most pressing concerns? What fuels their innermost motivations? Is it a requirement for them to be inspired?

Inspiration is a foggy and yet fascinating preoccupation among scientists.  Many scientists wish to be inspired, and inspire others: their students, peers and the public. Yet this state of mind may collide with their assumed rationality, their “objective” identities. How can your ideas come from “inspiration” in a frosty world of observation, impartiality and analysis? The problem may be that scientists presuppose that emotions and inspiration are in close proximity, and strangely, feel embarrassed by that. Thus, to search for inspiration may seem like a transgression. And in any case, scientists do not envy artists and poets.

But ultimately, there are specific experiences that drive scientists, sometimes like an obsession, to explore or create something new and valuable. Such experiences, involving people or feelings that may not always be easily described, are central to the process of scientific discovery and innovation.

Scientific inspiration, such an almost inexpressible substance, may be derived from the simple enjoyment of thinking and understanding. The Feynmanian “pleasure of finding things out”.  A fixation on confronting reality, not escaping from it. Or possibly the need for taking a glance at what is going on to make life more bearable, a little more consequential.

Or perhaps it is something brought to you by other people.  Their stories of pain, joy or achievement. A calming fire ignited by a phrase or an image. The sense that it is possible to go beyond what you are today, how you feel now.  The conviction that to feel alive you must transcend a necessity, a period of boredom or a moment of mediocrity. Or is it taking a breath to prevent you from doing the same, again and again, everyday?

Many scientists and inventors may argue that what truly inspires them is what they can bring to other people. A hidden truth, a cure, a new purpose, the soothing of sorrows. At least a little more hope or an expansion of their perceptions of happiness. Maybe their inspiration is the realization that opportunities for discovery choose the scientist, not the other way around. Or is it the willpower that is facilitated by smaller pleasures originating from family, mentors, school friends, nature, history or culture?

If there is a force that sturdily makes these individuals explore and understand, well beyond simple self-interest and vanities, then these people qualify as a cast of outsiders and freaks.  But it is not that simple. It is that, all of the above and even more.

Novel ideas and approaches emerge, aspirations refreshed and enthusiasms reborn also from a familiarity with a specific field of enquiry, including a solid appreciation of existing problems and needs. But this comes with different shades and depths: scientists freely moving on a continuous spectrum of knowledge and ignorance. This commonly requires a deeper comprehension of challenges and their viable solutions, reflections rooted in meticulous physical or abstract observations. Or sometimes all you need is to dive into a consensus of views, and figure out better ways to conform and belong to it.  Thus, for the scientist the temptation of blindly following fashions and trends is also hard to resist. A jump into the bandwagon of current advances and expectations: Sometimes scientists land on their feet, sometimes on their asses.

It is likely that many of the most respected and successful scientists are stirred simply by the outcomes of their own labor, the “stuff” that they perceive, calculate or generate. Or there is actually more to it: A sense of being chased by a lasting anxiety or pushed by an urgency. The impulse to tackle a public or private apprehension. Such states of mind fire scientists up, stimulate their work, and might even become reliable sources of pleasure.

Others are merely energized, or even spellbound, by the trajectories of their lives. The conditions and vicissitudes of their personal experiences: the need to fight an injustice, a passion for healing, the wish to measure up, the necessity to rise above imposed circumstances.

It is difficult to imagine that all this would be possible without persistent, even exhausting, levels of introspection. This must merit no less than a basic concern with the search for meaning and with sharing their implications and consequences with other people. This incessant rumination and thoughtfulness are the vehicles of the scientist’s inspiration. Something that, at least for a moment, raises their desire to understand what others miss, ignore or reject.

An edited version of this article was published in Euroscientist.

Equations on an airplane

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Pattern 12 by F. Azuaje

Don’t be afraid, it’s just Math

A professor was recently escorted off a USA domestic flight and questioned by security staff because, according to another passenger, he was writing terrorizing symbols. The terrifying cyphers that led to this unfortunate incident turned out to be a set of differential equations.

For a few minutes after reading the news, I seriously tried to find a rational justification for such a “misunderstanding”, but I failed. That event was just another plain instance of stupidity.

The professor was racially profiled and treated as a suspected terrorist just because another passenger did not approve of his “strangeness”. Analyzing the socio-historical roots of such contemporary fears and bigotry are beyond the scope of this article. On the other hand, we may also argue that confusing Math with frightening messages is not necessarily surprising in a country where the public understanding of science is “so-so”, at best.

Anyway, there is not much passengers and crew can do in situations like this. Or is there?

Non-sense prevention measures

If you need to solve equations on a plane, here are some practical recommendations to prevent unpleasant circumstances:

  1. Introduce yourself to your seating neighbors and just admit that you are a nerd (or a geek, if you feel trendier).
  2. If you think that the passenger seated next to you did not believe you or if you do not have “geeky looks”, then explain that you are back to school and need to do homework involving puzzles.
  3. Carry a soft-cover book, not too big and without gold lettering, with a cover reading: “Science stuff”.
  4. If you work with differential equations, try to stick to the ordinary differential variety, and please, for Newton’s sake, use passenger-friendly notation, such as prime mark notation (a.k.a. Lagrange’s notation).
  5. If you must deal with partial differential equations, by all means ensure that the derivative symbols are not too curvy or exotic looking.

How to deal with math-unfriendly passengers?

If a passenger disrupts a flight simply because of an unbearable fear of math or science, then the airline and law enforcement staff could help as follows:

  1. Compassionately remove the disruptive passenger from the plane and rebook flights.
  2. While waiting, the math-unfriendly passenger should be encouraged (with a large cookie) to watch Sesame Street’s “Counting Bats with the Count”.
  3. Direct the passenger to a video store, but keep him/her away from sections offering “Homeland”, “American Sniper” or related classics.
  4. Instead, keep the passenger close to titles such as “The Big Bang Theory”, “Silicon Valley” and “Back to the Future”, to remind him/her that science people can be funny too. If the passenger looks calmer, offer a gentle high-five.
  5. To communicate with the passenger, never use words longer than five characters or sentences longer than three words. It may create more agitation.

The thought that people’s rights can be violated so easily, by virtue of other people’s foolishness, is scary. What is next? Reading and writing more than 140 characters will not be tolerated after boarding?

In the face of prejudice-driven insanity, it is either crying or laughing. As long as we are allowed to, let’s try to go with the latter, while expecting that human decency prevails. Let’s also laugh in the hope that, as Dostoevsky put it in The Idiot, “beauty will save the world”. Certainly, Math will continue revealing such beauty.

This article was originally published in the United Academics Magazine.