What lab reports can learn from literary analysis

The lab report is a staple of introductory science classes, so anyone who’s taken such a class knows how it goes. There’s a hypothesis, then an experimental procedure, then some data, then a discussion of whether the data agrees with the hypothesis. While the spirit of the assignment is good — emphasizing the importance of empirical verification through an experiment — it perpetuates some key misunderstandings about how real science is done.

As many commentators have previously complained, standard labs teach students that doing science means following a recipe (e.g., the instructions from your lab book), and there is a “right” way to do it and a “wrong” way to do it. (Of course, the “right” way results in data that agrees with the hypothesis.) Practicing scientists know that actual science looks nothing like this. You rarely start with a clearly-defined hypothesis and straightforward experiment to test it. Instead you usually just have some vague idea you want to investigate, and then you do some calculations, perform some experiments, whatever you can think of, but with no guarantee they will work or solve your problem. And often you end up addressing a problem different from the original one you were trying to solve (see my post about this here).

But I contend the lab report fails to teach another important aspect of science: how to craft a persuasive, evidence-based narrative. Real scientists almost never write anything that looks like a lab report. A lab report is, well, just a report: rigid, sterile, lacking any point of view. Reports are what police officers write after they investigate a crime. Scientists write papers for scholarly journals. And scientific papers, in my opinion, are much more like the literary analyses I used to write for humanities classes. They’re persuasive. They have a point of view. You start off with a thesis, which can be pretty specific and quantitative (“My model in equation 1 describes the data well”) or broad and qualitative (“Protein folding stability is the main determinant of protein evolution”). But just like in literary analysis, you’re advancing a point of view, and your job is to convince the reader that it’s valid. To support the thesis you build a narrative based on evidence — in literary analysis, this may be quotations from the work being analyzed or historical facts about the author, while in science the evidence is experimental data and calculations. One professor I had in college described scientists as “lawyers for the natural world.” Your paper describes your case. You are trying to make a persuasive case about some phenomenon in nature, convincing the readers (the jury) that your thesis is correct.

The cold, rigid nature of the lab report pretty much kills this aspect of doing science. To students the lab report mainly serves as proof that they did the experiment “correctly,” and any discussion of the data is perfunctory and merely reiterates what they think is obvious, that the data agrees with the hypothesis. We need to break free from the rigid structure of the lab report and allow students to see their write-ups as opportunities to craft convincing narratives in support of a (scientific) point of view, supported by evidence. We should select topics that allow students to form a non-obvious point of view that must be carefully justified with data and argument, rather than giving them experiments where the outcome is obvious and the data is self-evident. Not only would this teach a much richer and more accurate version of science, but it reveals a major place of harmony for the sciences and humanities: how to use evidence and logical argument to support an idea through writing.

Teaching physics with social media

It shouldn’t be surprising to see social media seeping its way into classrooms these days, given its growing diversity and ubiquity.  I had the chance to try social media for a class I team-taught last spring, Physics 106 (Concepts of Physics for Humanities and Social Science Students, also known as “Physics for Poets”).  Previous incarnations of the course have essentially been watered-down versions of the introductory physics courses for pre-med and engineering students.  Along with three other graduate students, this year we completely redesigned the course to focus less on blocks sliding on mysteriously frictionless surfaces, and more on modern, relevant topics like cosmology, energy sustainability, and superconductivity.

We experimented with making social media a major part of the course.  Although this runs the risk of being a mere gimmick, we were committed to social media applications that were really in the best interests of the class.  Since the course is intended for students not pursuing scientific careers, one of our main goals was to stoke the students’ interest and develop their familiarity with popular science media, which is how the students will likely access science for the rest of their lives.  Popular science, like so much media these days, has a major presence on social media, especially Twitter and blogs.  To that end, we incorporated Twitter and blogging into the course.  We created a Twitter feed for the class (@RUPhys106), and several times a week we tweeted links to articles, videos, and websites with cool science content, most of which was directly related to the current course material.  For example, we were able to share this interactive NY Times feature on the hunt for the Higgs boson when we discussed particle physics.  When we talked about protein folding, we tweeted this beautiful blog with art inspired by protein structures.  Out of the approximately 100 students in the class, we accumulated a few dozen followers; we also embedded the feed into our Sakai homepage, which meant students who didn’t use Twitter or didn’t follow us still would see our tweets.

We also had the students write two blogs.  The topics were related to material we covered in class, but that required them to pursue further reading and develop their own take.  The students first posted drafts of these blogs to Sakai through the built-in blogging tool, and then each student had to review two of their peers’ blogs and leave comments.  Using this feedback and additional feedback from the instructors, the students revised their blogs into final drafts.  We were very impressed with the quality of many final blogs; several had the potential to be posted publicly.

Obviously, our use of both Twitter and blogging had direct benefits within the course — the articles and videos linked in our tweets provided content enrichment beyond the lectures, and the blogs required the students to learn to express scientific ideas in their own words.  But beyond these immediate benefits, our hope is that many students have come away with more familiarity and excitement about the outstanding popular science media out there: all the great Twitter feeds, blogs, websites, YouTube channels, etc.  Regardless of whether any of our students remember what wave-particle duality is 10 years from now, if they keep clicking on links about quantum mechanics as much as they do for links on the Kardashians or the world’s 12 cutest animals, our course will have been a success.

Fight for your right — no, your privilege — to do science

At the American Physical Society March Meeting a few weeks ago — the biggest confluence of physicists in the world, with over 9000 in attendance — there was a session titled “American Science and America’s Future.”  Now, who could miss a session with a grandiose name like that?  Well, it seems that a lot of people could, since the cavernous ballroom they reserved for it was less than 10% full.  To be fair, I attended a similar session last year, which featured much better attendance.  Having a Nobel Prize-winner on the panel probably helped.  But this year’s disinterest disturbed me, as did the small number of people who signed the periodic form letters APS prepares for members to send to Congress.

The fact of the matter is that most of us do science at the pleasure of the public.  We as a society have decided that scientific research is something we value — ostensibly because of its future economic dividends but also because, frankly, it’s one of the things that makes a civilization great — and since it’s something the market won’t carry out on its own, we pay for it with taxes.  So our ability to continue the scientific research enterprise that has made the United States the most powerful economic, cultural, and intellectual force in the world rests squarely on taxpayers, and more importantly, their political representatives, continuing to value what we do.  If they don’t, our privilege could be taken away.

My fear is that many scientists view this support as an entitlement, a right to follow their scientific curiosity wherever it takes them on taxpayer expense.  This hubris is not only selfish, but dangerous.  Without proper advocacy and education, the public and the political leadership are at serious risk of losing sight of science’s value to society.  There is already frequent grumbling about cuts to federal funding agencies, widespread ignorance of scientific issues affecting society like climate change and healthcare, and the growing weaknesses in science education in the U.S.  While the NSF and NIH aren’t going to shut down anytime soon, it’s very possible that science funding could face gradual cutbacks or at least radically slowed growth, especially in the face of competing funding priorities.  If and when this happens, scientists shouldn’t blame the ignorant public or politicians — they will have to blame themselves, because that ignorance is our fault.

So the time is now for scientists to take action.  Get in touch with your political representatives, both local and federal.  Write letters to the newspaper.  Be active in your community, so your neighbors can be in that small minority of folks who know a real, live scientist.  Get involved in public outreach.  But whatever you do, don’t take your research support for granted.  Let’s get the science that we all pay for with our taxes into the public consciousness.

The Nurturing Paradigm of Scientific Training

Uri Alon, a biophysicist at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, likes to tell a story about when he first became a faculty member.  Already an accomplished researcher, he stepped into his empty new lab and immediately felt overwhelmed.  Despite all the training he’d received about how to do science, there was so much more to being a scientist that he was completely unprepared for: setting up a laboratory, recruiting students and postdocs, developing good projects for students and postdocs, managing a large team, mentoring young people for the next stages of their careers, and so on.  As critical as these skills are to being successful, there is very little emphasis on developing these skills early in one’s career.

Indeed, there seems to be little respect in the scientific community for the importance of these “soft skills,” at least in comparison to the technical skills required to do the research itself.  As a result of his personal experiences, Uri Alon has led a small crusade toward greater emphasis of the human aspect of doing science.  On his website he’s compiled a growing set of resources called “Materials for Nurturing Scientists,” including articles, videos, and songs, authored by both himself and others.  Topics include how to choose a scientific problem, how to give a good talk, how to build a motivated research group, how to achieve work-life balance, and more.  He also has developed support groups for young scientists at his institution and has advised other institutions how to do the same.  His title evokes a compelling vision: one in which one’s goal as an advisor to students and postdocs goes far beyond merely supervising their research.  The “nurturing paradigm” entails holistically developing young people in every aspect of becoming a professional scientist.  Having heard Uri Alon speak (and sing songs) about these issues multiple times in person, his vision is certainly an inspiration to me.

The Hidden Virtues of Wasting Time

For the benefit of the incoming graduate students, my department in college used to take surveys of everyone about what they would do if they were starting graduate school over again.  (They called this “Starting Over,” and it was such a fantastic idea that I shamelessly ripped off the idea when I came here.  Here are our results.)  As interesting as all the comments were, I was always most fascinated by the clear difference between the current student responses and the faculty responses.  The current students tended to dispense wisdom about academics, research, and the minutiae of navigating a Ph.D.  A lot of “study hard for your quals” and “start writing your dissertation early.”  The faculty, though, rarely mentioned such details.  Rather, they focused on…..well, how to stay human.  They tended to submit entreaties to go outside and exercise, to make time for family and friends, to stay healthy, and so on.  Not exactly what we’d expect from a profession that is notorious for its workaholism (which also seems to have led to a serious case of caffeine addiction).

So what’s going on?  These faculty members are presumably the successful ones, so an interpretation of their advice is that they’re (1) expressing regret they didn’t live better when they were younger, or (2) telling us the secret of their success.  The aforementioned study on the working habits of scientists might make us doubt the latter interpretation.  So if you’re looking for yet another reason to feel guilty for not working all the time, well, here you go.  But I think this oversimplifies the situation.  First, one’s optimal work-life balance is not static over time — one’s needs as a graduate student are different from those as a young professional which are different from a mid-career person.  So what might seem workaholic now maybe will be more comfortable in 15 years, or vice versa.  Second, work-life balance has a great deal of person-to-person heterogeneity.  A lifestyle that is balanced for one person may be too overwhelming for another, and too freewheeling for a third.  The effects of this balance on one’s actual productivity are also not as simple as we might think.  I know some folks who seem to work almost all the time, and yet they don’t seem to accomplish a whole lot.  On the other hand, I know someone who has more fun than almost everyone I know, and yet he’s reached a level of professional success most of us can only dream of.  (I’m still talking about scientists, by the way!)

Perhaps the takeaway, then, is not only to take seriously the need for balance, but to consider seriously one’s very individualized needs for it, rather than letting it be determined by cultural or social norms.  The work-life balance you strike should be the result of your deliberate choice, and not the inevitable consequence of external pressures or other choices you make.  If faculty wisdom is to be believed, then it sounds like you won’t regret it.

Breaking through the Jargon Barrier

While recently reading an article in an education journal [1], the word “frame” kept jumping out at me.  The author, a sociologist, kept using this normally unremarkable word in a way that I found unusual and confusing.  Soon, though, I realized that “frame” was probably a piece of jargon with a specific meaning within sociology, distinct from its everyday use in English.

The author likely failed to clearly explain this usage (he parenthetically defines it later in the article, unfortunately not immediately after the first instance) because he was so accustomed to speaking sociology’s language of jargon that he forgot the double meaning of this word: its standard English usage, and its sociology usage.  Certainly this is an easy mistake to make for any scholar, but it poses a barrier to effective communication of ideas to a larger audience.

I think there are generally two classes of jargon which (in the spirit of creating even more jargon) I will define as class I and class II.  Class I consists of words that are unique to a particular field of knowledge, with no meaning in standard English.  We have lots of excellent examples of these in physics: “fermion,” “quasar,” or more infamously, “boojum” [2].  While these terms tend to be the scariest for a non-technical audience, in some sense they are also safer from a communication standpoint: “fermion” has no meaning outside of physics, so while lots of folks won’t know what you’re talking about if you say it, they will never confuse it with something else.

Class II is sneakier.  It consists of words that DO have a common, everyday meaning, but also have a very specific technical meaning within a field, like the aforementioned example of “frame.”  Ref. [3], which discusses the challenge of communicating climate science to the public, provides several fascinating examples of such words.  The most notorious of these words is probably “theory.”  To a scientist, theories are the most established and complete scientific ideas, typically referring to whole frameworks for understanding a wide range of phenomena that have been rigorously validated by experiments and observations over decades.  Good examples include Newton’s law of gravity, quantum mechanics, and evolution.  To the layperson, however, a theory is what a scientist would call a “hypothesis” or “claim”: an educated guess that hasn’t been verified or fully understood yet (e.g., “conspiracy theory”).  Obviously, you can see why biologists cringe every time someone derides Darwinian evolution as a mere “theory”!

So while we tend to focus most of our attention on class I jargon words when communicating to a wider audience, we should pay greater attention to class II words.  They have much more potential to mislead.  This was demonstrated especially in the recent “Climategate” ordeal, in which e-mails of climate science researchers were made public.  One point of contention for climate science deniers was the scientists’ use of the term “trick” in analyzing data.  Most scientists recognize this usage as referring to a legitimate but clever method for solving a technical problem (e.g., “I solved the equation using Fourier’s trick”).  But in ordinary English, “trick” usually refers to an intentional act of deception, which is obviously what climate science deniers were hoping to find in the e-mails.  Awareness of these class II terms in our respective disciplines, and an alert eye for them while reading about other disciplines, would serve us all well.

[1]  Wilson WJ.  (2011)  “Being Poor, Black, and American: The Impact of Political, Economic, and Cultural Forces.”  American Educator, Spring: 10.
[2]  Mermin ND.  (1981)  “E Pluribus Boojum: the physicist as neologist.”  Phys. Today 34: 46.
[3]  Somerville RCJ, Hassol SJ.  (2011)  “Communicating the science of climate change.”  Phys. Today 64: 48.