The Race for Better Science

For better or worse, I collect science blogs. I bookmark them, add them to my feedly list and occasionally I even read them. Of course, that’s hardly ever because I want to follow what the author thinks s/he wants to say. I’m more interested in how they present themselves and how assumptions (and especially unconscious assumptions) about science are implied or revealed there.

One blog I recently collected is “For Better Science” by Leonid Schneider which focuses on “research integrity, academic publishing and life sciences in general”. Leonid is also a cartoonist and I was taken by the example he had on display at the head of his blog’s front page. The wordpress blog site crops the image, but it’s easy enough to find the source file:

A bespectacled gentleman (representing an academic departmental head or someone of that sort) sits in a chariot (styled as a child’s toy cart with floral decoration). The “horse” (or more likely “donkey”) pulling the chariot is actually two human figures: a younger bespectacled man (presumably a “principal investigator”) wielding a whip, is carried on the shoulders of a scraggy-haired still younger man in a white coat (apparently a “post-doc”). The departmental head urges the principal investigator on with demands for funding, fame and glory and by holding out before him on the end of a pole, a promise of tenure – a promise that, of course, recedes just as the “donkey” moves forward. The principal investigator uses the same technique on the post-doc: the carrot on the stick in this case being the prospect of “publications”. Apparently unnoticed by any of these participants, another white-coated post-doc lying on the floor is crushed under the chariot’s wheels. The tool of his trade, a Gilson pipette, lies forlornly by his outstretched hand.

The design of this cartoon reminded me of much older things I’d seen before:

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Evidently, the image of human figures being crushed by the chariots of progress pushing forward to glory has been with us a long time. Now, I’m not suggesting that there must be a parallel between the cartoon and these ancient images, even less that the cartoonist intended anyone to see one. If we allow the parallel, however, it’s obvious that this visual trope vastly pre-dates anything like modern science or academia. It’s therefore appropriate that although the cartoon portrays the “world of science”, no actual science is shown. The participants, even as they suffer, are all driven by their desire for a place in the chariot. Or, perhaps (mixing metaphors) at the tip of the pyramid. But even if attained, the meaning of that position depends on all the other participants who do not occupy it. In particular, the crushed man, the “enemy”, represents those who must be sacrificed that those who survive and prosper may feel “chosen”.
Leonid’s cartoon hints that what we call science with its accompanying assurances of progress, liberalism and modernity, could actually be just another context in which age-old human instincts are played out as they have been for millennia. While it is no doubt a good thing that For Better Science reports on scientific fraud, academic plagiarism and medical malpractice in the name of research, we would do well to remember that these are just sophisticated names for the eternal crimes of theft and assault. They are no worse and no better for being “scientific”, “academic” or “medical”. Can we really hope for better science if we can’t hope for better people?

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