Amoeba’s Lorica: Open Letter to Wannabe Scientists

LPSlogo-bannerIt has come to the attention of Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba that the American Geophysical Union has initiated a campaign to get practicing scientists to write letters to young persons. These letters are to encourage said young persons, through heartwarming personal stories craftily told, Dr. Olson, to drink the Kool-Aid and join them in their quest to acquire jobs in the sciences that are commensurate with their training and stand some small chance of paying off some of their education debts. Five years, maybe, before they hit menopause.

YFNA has not provided a link; he is sure that those who hold some interest in this opportunity will be able to summon up the relevant information via their favorite internet search engine.

YFNA also is certain that the good people at the American Geophysical Union will have no interest whatsoever in the letter that he would write. Especially since, although he has pretended to be a scientist for nearly 40 years now, he actually is not one, and has never been one, and thus is likely to be considered disqualified.

Alas, he is sufficiently addlepated – probably from decades of inhaling glutaraldehyde fumes in pursuit of answers to arcane scientific questions that attract the attention of about as many people, worldwide, as a devotee of the Flat Earth Society, or a sane candidate for President of these Untied States – to believe that his words should be available to young people, to counter all those flatterers desperately seeking bums in their seats.


“Dear Young Person Considering A Career In The Sciences:

“Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba is glad to know that there are some of you out there whose aspirations go beyond emulating artists posing as drug dealers (or vice versa), or athletes with their artificially-inflated pecs and surreptitiously-deflated balls, or Photoshop-sculpted bodies posing in (barely) strategically-placed paint.

“Perhaps you chanced to look up from your cell long enough to wonder where it came from. Or perhaps you saw a last lone leaf dangling from a scrawny city tree, and imagined that, if there’s one such, then somewhere, somehow, there must be a whole forest of them. Or perhaps you’ve imagined that life in a white lab coat has to be better than life in a Jack In The Box uniform. Even if they only get fourth or fifth billing on NCIS.

“Perhaps you’ve even gotten so far as to assemble a clock-like thingy from some kit you bought online and brought it to school, in the hope that you might get a letter from the President, piles of swag from the computer companies, and, best of all, a week or so off from classes.

“However it happened, you are likely to be hearing from a considerable number of people encouraging you to follow your budding interests in the sciences; people keen, if not desperate, to say how precious, how wonderful you are, how much we need you and people like you. Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba agrees – if you have what it takes – and suggests the following questions for you to ask yourself.

1. Can you afford it?

“”Oh sure: I’m tough, I’ll work as hard as I need to …” No. That’s wonderful. And irrelevant. YFNA asks not about your work ethic, but your financial resources. In order for science to work, scientific inquiry must be independent, driven only by what is needed to propose, test, and support or falsify, hypotheses. As Ambrose Bierce wrote, so accurately, more than a century ago:


evolution of intellectual freedom“Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba has pretended to be a scientist, even called himself one, for nearly 40 years now. And he has never been one. Period. Because he has never had the wealth to do so. He has always been at the mercy of the next job posting, the next grant, the next promotion/tenure review. Which means that his ability to do science has always depended, not on his own logic and those working in the same or closely-related fields, but on the whims of somebody else – and most of those somebodies have had no clue about what he’s been trying to accomplish. He has actually been luckier than most, in that he has had at least some say in what he has been pretending to do science on, but that has only gotten harder as competition has increased – to the point that folk are now calling it hypercompetition – and the available wealth, through the declared wishes of your fellow citizens, has, at best, remained static.

“Therefore, YFNA argues, if you are not fortunate enough to possess independent wealth, even at your young age, you are not a good candidate for a scientific career. Indeed, YFNA will go so far as to declare that it is economically and ethically irresponsible for you to select a career as a scientist in the absence of independent wealth.

“If you’re smart and knowledgeable enough to be contemplating this hard and long career path, you are smart and knowledgeable enough to know about how tough the modern business and professional world is for anyone who has the gall to imagine a life outside of work – especially, a life with children in it. That, in YFNA’s experience, goes at least double for scientific careers – without the income opportunities of other options. Ask the next person who yells at you ‘We need scientists!’ what they’ll pay you to take them up on it. Pay scales, not propaganda, provide accurate information on gluts and shortages. And those pay scales pronounce most scientific fields to be glutted labor markets. If, YFNA argues, you have aspirations for a life outside of the laboratory, and do not already possess independent wealth, you are obligated to use your smarts to find a career option with lower direct and opportunity costs, and higher payouts.

2. Do you aspire to be the best?

“Once upon a time, there was this Italian guy, Leonardo da Vinci, who wrote (obviously not in English) something like this: ‘Woe to the student who does not surpass the master’. This, indeed, once upon a time, was the basis for most science education, especially for anyone aspiring to a doctorate. The person was expected to imagine the topic to be investigated, design the needed experiments, execute those experiments, critique the results, and publish those results that were tested advances in knowledge. And they had better be advances, or no degree, no career.

“That was then. This is now. And now, in most science degree programs, you will be given your topic and told what the needed experiments are – because these are what your mentors, who are not really scientists because they themselves are not independent – have been told, through the awards of grants and contracts, what they shall do. Your independent thoughts will only be valuable, if at all, in the narrow context of ‘the award’. You will gain the Ph.D. on the basis of your service as a technician (career technicians having been lost from nearly all scientific disciplines, because graduate students were cheaper and an easier political ‘sell’), which may win you ten years or more as a postdoctoral researcher on the basis of those technician’s services. All of this, in most places, without job security or benefits. You could wind up at age 50 with a Ph.D., 15 years postdoctoral experience, 50 publications in prestigious scientific journals, out of a job and with exactly nothing in your pension fund. Perhaps you’ve read about those adjunct professors who are living out of their cars? The ‘best’? Try ‘just another carcass on the heap’.

3. Have you considered for whom you’re making the sacrifice?

“Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba will wager a beer – which, of course, you, being underage, have never, never drunk, right? – that many of those urging you to take up the ‘scientist’ mantle will have you do so ‘for the good of humanity’. Indeed, many of those who enter into science programs aspire to, and are trained for, careers in so-called ‘public good’ science: science funded via the government and other charities, with the results released to the public for the good of the public. And heaven help the poor jerk who winds up doing science for (ye gods!) Monsanto.

“Perhaps you will have noticed how ‘the public’ has responded to this do-goodery:

A. Up to 50% of the populace rejecting ‘evolution’ (the theory of natural selection as the mechanism of biological diversification on Earth), one of the most powerfully useful, and powerfully supported, principles of science, and accepting creation by a Divine (which, by definition, cannot be tested and shown to work) in its stead;

B. Up to 50% of the populace rejecting the powerful scientific support for the theory that global warming is the result of human activities over the past 8000, and especially over the past 150, years, and accepting instead the comfortable, but demonstrably false, notion that humans have had nothing to do with climate change;

C. Sizeable majorities of the populace voting in politicians that, at the state level, have slashed or nearly eliminated support for public institutions of higher learning, and, at the federal level, have gutted programs that support public-good science through grants and contracts and subjected the survivors to ridicule;

D. Sizeable minorities of the populace supporting overtly anti-science (and generally anti-intellectual) candidates for President of the United States, with no candidate daring to express support for the sciences – unless, of course, scientists can continue to be produced by the universities in numbers that glut the market and enforce their acceptance of slave wages and working conditions;

E. Sizeable minorities of the populace supporting demonstrably-dangerous anti-science policies and programs, including the anti-vaccination, anti-GMO, and ‘alternative’ medicine campaigners.

“In other words, the ‘public’ for whom you propose to do ‘public good’ has done little over the past 50 years or so except to deny you the money and the space with which to do your work, and any cred for the work you do despite the restrictions, in most fields of science. Why would you work for such an employer?

So … YFNA argues that, unless you have a burning desire to be the best scientist that’s ever been in the field that interests you, and have the independent wealth to support you in your drive to achieve this goal, you do yourself, your family (present and hoped-for), and your loved ones (ditto), a serious disservice by attempting a career in the sciences. Your goal, as a person of promising wisdom and wit, should be an income approaching six figures by the age of 25.

“Try plumbing.”

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