Friday links: scientist baseball cards, top economics blogger retires, and more

Also this week: pulling back the curtain on rejection without review, tenure for non-academics, running for Congress as a scientist, zombie ideas in psychology, PI liability for scientific misconduct by their lab members, scientist dad jokes, and more.

From Jeremy:

Macroeconomist Nick Rowe is retiring. By his own admission, he never became a leading researcher in the field. But as a blogger at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, he became perhaps its finest explainer. In my admittedly-limited experience the only econ blogger in Nick’s league as an explainer is Paul Krugman. Nick excelled at conveying the key intuitions behind difficult math using simple parables and thought experiments. And far from being mere thought experiments, Nick’s thought experiments often had direct connections to macroeconomic policy. Reading Nick’s posts over the years helped inspire me to try my hand at explaining difficult ideas in ecology. It was a pleasure and privilege to meet him once, over dinner. I wish him all the best in his retirement. And I’m glad to hear that he plans to keep blogging.

Well, this is sobering. A US court has now established the principle that PIs can be held solely liable for scientific misconduct committed by those working in their labs or by longstanding collaborators, even if they had no knowledge of the misconduct. That is, the PI has to take reasonable proactive steps to guard against misconduct committed by others. It’s not a defense to say (e.g.) “I’ve known [person who actually committed the misconduct] for years; I had every reason to trust this person and no reason not to.” And it’s not a defense to say “I can’t possibly validate every datum my lab collects.” Though exactly what steps are required to avoid liability remains unclear to me.

Good overview of how scientists running for the US Congress are doing (tl;dr: it’s a mixed bag). Includes good discussion of how running as a scientist tends not to resonate with many voters. I might’ve liked to see some comments from former Congressman and physicist Rush Holt on this point. I vaguely recall that he played up his scientific background when he ran; there were bumper stickers reading “My Congressman is a rocket scientist”. But I might be misremembering the extent to which he ran as a scientist (anybody recall?). And those were different political times, and he ran in a pretty educated district (the NJ district that includes Princeton) that later was redistricted into a pretty safe Democratic seat. So what worked for him might not work for others.

Am Nat EiC Dan Bolnick pulls back the curtain to reveal just how carefully he considers rejection without review.

Terry McGlynn with an update on his experiment with turning off comments by default at Small Pond Science, but turning them on for certain posts. He’s now going to turn comments on by default, but turn them off on some posts (primarily those addressing fairness and equity issues). I’m always interested to read how other bloggers think about their blogging goals and how to achieve them. It helps me reflect on my own blogging goals and how to achieve them.

How come tenure (operationally defined as “a very long term employment contract”) doesn’t exist outside of academia? Maybe it should? I have mixed feelings about this idea, but haven’t thought about it much.

Since the Great Recession, US undergraduate enrollment in the humanities has cratered, because more students are choosing majors that they think will lead directly to employment. I do wonder if some students are overestimating how much difference their choice of major will make to their future employment prospects or salaries. But even if they are, it’s hard for me to imagine humanities enrollment bouncing back in the absence of an economic boom, or failing that an even longer period of uninterrupted decent economic growth than we’ve already had since the Great Recession.

Is loss aversion (a cornerstone of modern psychology) a zombie idea? Or at least an idea in need of critical, ground-up re-evaluation? Judging by the responses here and here, it sure sounds like it.

Speaking completely objectively as a scientist and baseball fan, THIS IS THE GREATEST THING IN THE HISTORY OF THINGS. 🙂 (ht @duffy_ma)

From Meghan

This is an amazing blog post by Rachel Wigginton at Sweet Tea Science on navigating death and grief as a graduate student. I’ve already shared it with a colleague with a student in an unfortunately similar situation, and I’m sure it will help others, too. And this line in particular applies to so many situations (since, as I’ve written about before, so many people have Shit Going On):

Anyone who doesn’t appreciate the way life knocks us all on our asses sometimes doesn’t deserve your time as a colleague

So true!

On a much lighter note, this is an excellent contribution to the scientist dad jokes genre:


11 thoughts on “Friday links: scientist baseball cards, top economics blogger retires, and more

  1. “This is an amazing blog post by Rachel Wigginton at Sweet Tea Science on navigating death and grief as a graduate student.” – She is really brave to be able to write about something like this. It’s been six years since I faced a similar loss; and for the last six months I was thinking of writing about it on my blog – and then I gave up, realizing it would be just too hard. But I think Rachel’s post inspired me to write about it as well; it’s something people need to hear, after all.

    • I’m very sorry that you have a similar post to write, but also glad you’re feeling inspired to write about it now!

  2. The decision about PIs being responsible for misconduct by lab members reminds me of legislation that was passed in Georgia while I lived there. It was in response to major financial misconduct by an employee at Georgia Tech. ( The legislation said that, not only would the person who committed financial misconduct be held responsible, so would their supervisor. The sense was that this probably wouldn’t actually stand up in court, but, of course, no one wanted to be the test case! And the case related to research misconduct that you linked to suggests that maybe it would be upheld.

    • Wow. Now I’m wondering how many jurisdictions have laws like that, and if they’ve ever been tested in court.

      Don’t suppose you recall if the legislation said anything about what steps (if any) the supervisor could take to not be held liable for the misconduct of those working under them?

      I’m not a lawyer (obviously!), but I can think of vaguely-analogous scenarios in other contexts. I’m thinking for instance of Wells Fargo bank getting fined a bunch of money because its tellers created lots of fake accounts for customers who hadn’t asked for them, in order to meet sales targets. As I recall from the news stories I read, it wasn’t a defense for Wells Fargo to say “We had an employee handbook that instructs tellers not to create fake accounts”, because Wells Fargo had also put into place strong incentives for tellers to create fake accounts and didn’t have adequate controls to catch anyone creating fake accounts.

      Which gets back to the question I asked in the post: what proactive steps do you have to take as a PI to be able to protect yourself against being held liable for misconduct committed by someone working under you?

      Also, the linked article isn’t clear on whether you as a PI could be held liable for misconduct committed by a collaborator at another institution.

      Meghan, all this puts a rather different spin on that old discussion you and Stephen Heard had about whether scientific papers should have “guarantors” who “take responsibility” (in some sense) for everything in the paper. Apparently, in the eyes of a US court, scientific papers *already* have guarantors: the PIs.

      • The analog that jumps to my mind is in college sports. It is no longer a defense for a coach to have had nothing to do with breaking the rules (e.g. paying a student). They are held to a higher standard of “creating an atmosphere of compliance”.

        It has held up and several coaches have been fired even though there was no proof they had done anything wrong.

        Even so an atmosphere of compliance seems to me a weaker and more reasonable standard than having to active probe every piece of data one uses. I suspect you could argue that many labs already create an atmosphere of compliance (i.e. not fraud).

      • Yeah, that seems like a good analogue.

        Still leaves open the question of exactly what a PI has to do to create a legally-acceptable atmosphere of compliance.

        For instance, my lab runs microcosm experiments. If I’m in the lab most days, seeing my trainees looking through microscopes and writing down numbers, and if the resulting graphs of the data look reasonable to me, then have I done enough? Or do I have to, say, occasionally count the same samples myself? (I don’t currently count any samples myself) Or do something else? I really wish someone had some concrete guidance on this.

  3. What’s a zombie idea again? I don’t have know the primary literature on loss aversion, but I’ve read a few secondary accounts and am intrigued (e.g., by how it might apply to ecologists). I read the editorial overview of these papers and skimmed the three you linked to. Collectively the thrust seems to be that there has been over-generalization (things are context dependent not universal) and insufficient attention to alternative explanations in some cases. Does that make an idea a zombie?

    • There’s certainly a grey area between clear-cut zombie idea and clear-cut non-zombie idea.

      I’d say that failure to consider alternative ideas doesn’t make for a zombie idea, because once those alternatives are considered the original idea might turn out to be correct after all. Overgeneralization is more of a grey area or gradient. Consider the IDH for instance; the large majority of empirical studies fail to find a humped diversity-disturbance relationship, especially when you use an unbiased test ( At some point, “overgeneralizing from a few examples and failing to acknowledge context-dependence” just turns into “cherry picking support for an idea that is wrong in pretty much all contexts.” I don’t know the psychology literature well enough to say exactly where loss aversion falls on the gradient from “maybe we’ve overgeneralized this a bit” to “zombie idea”.

      • Agreed there’s a grey area. Calling something a zombie (dead) just doesn’t leave any room for discussion about shades of grey.

      • Sure. That’s why the post poses it as a question, and notes the alternative possibility that it’s merely an idea in need of critical re-evaluation.

  4. Scientists in office: I think there are many different ways that being a scientist could slice in an election, not all of them flattering. As a general rule, I think, in a highly educated district, “scientist” would certainly be beneficial. But in an *average* district (ie, average demographics) to be painted as an “academic” wouldn’t be helpful.

    A serious problem that any academic faces, scientist or otherwise, is that their experience – and ESPECIALLY their experience of the economy – is **way** outside that of the average American. The average American changes jobs every five years and many experience frequent layoffs. Virtually no one experiences anything close to the kind of security afforded a tenured professor. And, surprisingly, Americans don’t necessarily think this is a bad system, because everyone works with someone that they wish would get fired.

    Scientists may have a beneficial of aura of trust, but they also have a tough row to hoe on some issues, since most are environmentally inclined and that environmental inclination tends to run counter to wage and job growth (which is why climate issues have never had much traction in the US). Here in Seattle environmentalism plays well because the economy is tech dependent. But outside the major tech centers (Seattle, Austin, SF, Boston, Toronto, Vancouver), where wages ain’t so rosy, an environmental leaning would probably be more difficult across the entire electorate. Note that in Canada the general population seems more than happy to develop the tar sands, right? The national economy – including all the major financial centers – are *heavily* resource dependent.

    Also IMO scientists and all academics **strongly** overestimate the public’s desire for unions. Academics frequently wax poetic about the good old union days when wages were high, but most people don’t remember it that way because most people were on the outside looking in, and what they saw was corruption. And they still see that teacher’s unions (especially) and other public employees unions have many strong incentives that are counter to the public interest.

    Even the “highly educated” aren’t necessarily inclined to vote for scientists. Several of my friends have graduate degrees in science (Phd’s and MS) and lean strongly right, although very few would identify closely with the modern republican party.

    All in all it’s not hard to imagine why being a scientist would be a mixed bag as a politician. Once you become a politician, what you do has real-world consequences for every day people.

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