High-level scientific miscommunication

There’s a scandal growing in the field of CRISPR due to a lawsuit and patent war between pioneers of the technology. And then this paper in Cell appeared and made the things worse… I don’t want do discuss in details the story behind, because there are plenty of better information sources all over the internet. What I want to bring up today is the problem of communication in the highest level of science, among respected professors.

As in any human endeavor, when there’s a lot on stakes, scientists behave no better than teenagers. They get offended, act emotionally, praise their friends and seem deaf to rational arguments of their rivals. And as teenagers who want to look cool, scientists often use explicit language when it’s absolutely unnecessary.

Just yesterday I was lucky to witness Eric Betzig to present his high-resolution microscopy technology. It was an interesting talk, very technical and detailed, often beyond my comprehension. The lecture was built around comparison of different techniques, including those developed by Stefan Hell, who shared the Nobel prize in 2014. And there were lots of F-words, and S-words, and A-words, etc. In the beginning the audience was reacting lively on them but eventually the excitement faded away.

I remembered, a couple years earlier, I was attending a lecture of Professor Raymond Stevens, whose group solved a bunch of GPCR structures. Again, it was beautifully polished presentation, with pretty pictures and data. And casual belittling of colleagues who were more fortunate to get the Nobel prize in 2012 (no F-words though).

After reading Nassim Taleb‘s “Black swan” I was so fascinated that I started following him on Twitter. And guess what, in significant share of tweets he’s tirelessly bitching other scientists for improper use of statistics, mathematics and so on.

I’m seeing this kind of behavior everywhere, from corridor conversations to big meetings, from internet (well, it’s what it was made for, right?) to personal chats. More and more often I hear WTF-like exclamations during seminars. Or as a variation, comments like ‘how did this BS end up in Science?’ Don’t get me wrong, I am not a moralist, no more than others. I just can’t understand where does it come from?

Is the pop-culture so deep in our minds now that scientists, who often were viewed as sedate intellectuals, now want to be rock-stars or gangsters? Boosted ego and arrogance became a feature of many respected professors, and dismissive ignoring took place of friendly competition. Or am I plain wrong and all this was always around in the same quantities?


Author: Slava Bernat

I did my PhD in medicinal chemistry/chemical biology of G protein-coupled receptors and then explored some chemical biology of non-coding RNA as a postdoc. Currently I'm working in a small biotech company in San-Francisco Bay area as a research chemist. I'm writing about science, which catches my attention in rss feed reader and some random thoughts or tutorials.

2 thoughts on “High-level scientific miscommunication”

  1. As for you last remark, since the human nature remains the same, I guess that similar relationships were before. Remember Tesla-Edison feud. Now with many more people in science and with the Internet we just know more about such tensions.

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