On identity: some people are scientists – deal with it!

Prompted by a workshop on social media that I am helping to run tomorrow, in yesterday’s post, I wanted to think about the role of social media in academia. But I went off on a bit of a tangent, remembering my early experiences with the web in the mid-90s. In those days, there was some resistance and scepticism about a technology that we now take for granted and use every day. Will people feel the same way about social media soon? Are worries about social media more justified? If there is a place for social media in academia, what is it? Can they bring benefits comparable to those we gained from email and the web, and if so, what are they?

I promised myself I’d answer all these questions in my next post, but as I began to write I found I had too much to say about the benefits, so I have decided to break it into installments. The first installment deals with an important use of social media in academia that arises from the way the internet has changed things. In the pre-internet world, ordinary people got to know one another by face to face meetings, by talking, by writing letters. Now more often our first encounter with a new person is on the net, either viewing a professional web page or a social media profile or perhaps through a medium like twitter. It seems important to me that I exert some control over these first impressions.

An important facet of this blog and my twitter account @tom_hartley, is that they allow me to be who I am. I am able to express a wider range of opinions and interests than I can through my scientific output, and to a wider and more diverse readership. (Also, I don’t have to worry about what a peer reviewer might say, which is enormously liberating.) In my view, this is important for me to maintain and project a sense of identity that extends beyond my particular area of research and teaching, even beyond my job into (gasp!) everyday life. Social media help me to establish a permanent presence on the internet where I can be somewhat independent of my job, and yet still engage with my work and the things that interest me at work and outside it:

OK, so exposing myself as a rockstar manqué, and shamelessly plugging this on my blog is a personal choice, and other people might feel more comfortable keeping it strictly professional. Either way I think an independent presence is becoming increasingly important for younger researchers who are likely to be employed on a succession of short-term contracts. By carefully maintaining their own area of the web, and their own profile on social media, they can project a good impression without being excessively dependent on their current employers.

This upside to social media comes hand-in-hand with one of their prominent downsides: it’s equally possible to make a bad impression. Step away from the keyboard when tired, drunk or angry. Consider maintaining pseudonymous accounts for the stuff you don’t want your employer or prospective employer to see. Pay close attention to your Facebook privacy settings. Don’t get drawn into hyperbole and personal attacks on others, however provoked. There is always someone who is being gratuitously wrong on the internet, so you can’t win. Hanlon’s Razor has been recommended to me: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”

As well as giving me more control over the way others see me, and I suppose there is a bit of vanity in this, I think it’s of more general importance that scientists see themselves and are seen as ordinary people with ordinary interests outside the lab. There should not be a disconnect between science and the rest of our culture, because science ought to influence and be influenced by the rest of society. I’ve always been interested in science and I like to see myself first and foremost as a scientist rather than for example, a psychologist or cognitive neuroscientist or a hippocampal or spatial cognition or memory researcher. The more specialist labels seem a bit more comfortable, perhaps because they come with the sense of security that in my little area I can make a reasonable fist of pretending that I know what I’m talking about. But knowing stuff isn’t what attracts me to science and I think the idea that science is just about existing knowledge is very misleading. For me it’s the stuff I don’t yet know that really excites me, and maybe I can convey that a little more clearly if I am prepared to step out of my comfort zone. So, although I felt a little uncomfortable identifying myself as a scientist at first, I started to feel that not identifying as a scientist was creating a barrier. When I took part in the excellent “I’m A Scientist Get Me Out of Here”. Finally I could say what I’d always felt. I’m a scientist. Some people are scientists – deal with it!




Pierian Spring or Fire Hydrant

“A little learning is a dang’rous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again.”

Alexander Pope

It used to be said that a little knowledge was a dangerous thing. Do we now have the reverse problem?

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Not-So-Instant Karma

At school, the Biology lab with its mercury vapour lamp and slightly smelly combination of plants, fruit flies, toads and spiny mice seemed a strangely cozy and welcoming place. Our teachers, Mr Hugall and Mr Allen, made biology seem easy, interesting and important. I feel I owe them so much.

One of my Biology teachers, Mr Allen, seen in 1989.

One of my Biology teachers, Mr Allen, seen in 1989.

The most important thing I learned was that science wasn’t just about facts that someone else had already figured out, it was about finding the answers to new, unsolved mysteries.

We were lucky to get to design and run our own experiments for the first time as part of our A-level. It’s a bit hazy, but I did mine on human hearing and looked at the accuracy with which people could tune one frequency to match another. Nearly 30 years later, I am still fascinated by the biology of human behaviour, still designing and running experiments. And now I am teaching my own students, and they’re going on to devise and run their own experiments and making discoveries of their own.

I know that at least one member of my small A-level class of six or seven went on to a career in cancer research and several others including myself went on to degrees and research careers in the biosciences. That was just one year, so there must have been many, many more.

Today I learned that when Mr Allen was diagnosed with a large lymphoma in his chest, his life was saved by treatment with a new, potent and highly selective drug. I am happy to say he is fit and well. It seems karmic that he was able to benefit from the science that he’d spent so many years working to inspire.

His son, Jeremy, who was in our class, is now doing a sponsored triathlon for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. So it seems like a good opportunity to me say a proper thank you to my teacher, and to inspirational teachers more generally. And I hope that if you’ve been inspired by a great teacher, you’ll consider making a donation, too.

Lecture: Principles of Neural Representation (Part 1)

I am reviewing my lectures on Principles of Neural Representation, so I decided to post a video of the first one from last year.

My 10,000th tweet

Twitter is great but (perhaps because) you only get 140 characters. So this post mentions some of the highlights of my twitter experience so far. If you don’t know twitter at all or you don’t “get” it, don’t start here with my 10,000 tweet. Start with my post on “What is the point of twitter?” instead. Sign up, and you’ll see that it can be great fun, and very useful too.

I created my @tom_hartley account on 14th May 2010 (I’d been tweeting from another account since 2008). It’s rather brought me out of my shell.

In twitter terms, I am an old hand. In real life I am not quite as old, wrinkled or bald yet.

In twitter terms, I am an old hand. In real life I am not quite as old, wrinkled or bald yet.

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The White Dot: A Parable

The image shows a Nigerian Doll from the Californian African American Museum.

Originally posted anonymously at the-white-dot.posterous.com in Sept 2011. It had 563 views in March 2013. Posterous is now closing down, so I am reposting here. Not my normal style! Enjoy this parable of academic publishing and look forward to the time when the white dot comes to Science!

Dear cousin, I feel I must relate the tale of an island we recently visited in the midst of an archipelago kingdom. The inhabitants of the island had established a remarkable economy, based on a trade in dolls. These dolls were beautiful artifacts indeed. Carved from wood, dressed in gaudy clothes and garlanded in extraordinary symbols, each was exquisite and unique. One fashioned in the image of a revered ancestor, another like a gargoyle. Some took the form of gnomes or sprites or other weird and fanciful creatures, and each bore a coloured dot on the tip of its nose.

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Science v Philosophy


Any friendly philosophers or scientists fancy getting together for a discussion on G+ Hangouts in the next few days?

UPDATE: The Hangout is planned for 21/2/2013 1730 GMT. Comment here or tweet @tom_hartley for an invitation. You will need to provide your preferred gmail address (but you should do this privately, e.g., by twitter DM or by adding me on G+).

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