Which bits of science and academia are just fine?

Lots of attention, here and elsewhere, focuses on problems. Stuff that’s “broken” or otherwise Bad, that needs fixing or replacing. That’s for various obvious reasons.

We also pay attention to things that are New or Changing. And we pay attention to things that Great–outstanding in some positive way. Again, for obvious reasons.

Without wanting to downplay the importance of any of that stuff, I think it’s worth occasionally taking time to appreciate things that are Fine (no, not that way). They’re not perfect (what is?). They’re not great. But they’re not bad either. They’re fine. And they’ve been fine for a while, so we tend to just take them for granted and not even think about them. Which of course is a big reason why we have attention to spare for bemoaning and fixing Bad stuff, and celebrating Great stuff, and noticing New stuff. One measure of the health of an institution, organization, or society is the amount and importance of stuff that’s just Fine. It is good to be able to be able to take some perfectly adequate things for granted!

So: which bits of science and academia are Fine? The more broadly-applicable the better. (After all, something that’s Fine for a select few and Bad for most everybody else often isn’t really Fine…) Let’s take a few moments to appreciate the stuff that we needn’t either worry about or celebrate, because it merely needs to be–and is–good enough.

Here’s the first one that occurred to me off the top of my head: the quality of talks at ecology conferences. It’s fine. Are some talks better than others? Sure. Could the average quality be raised? I dunno, maybe. But the overall quality of ecology conference talks is fine. And it’s been fine at long as I’ve been attending conferences, which is…[counts fingers]…[removes shoes and socks, counts toes]…[runs out of appendages]…many years. Which means that whatever we’re doing to prepare our own talks, and teach others how to give talks, is also basically fine.*

But I’m sure y’all can come up with many more examples. Looking forward to a Great comment thread about things that are Fine. ๐Ÿ™‚

p.s. If you’re feeling brave, you can also suggest things about science and academia that are in your view basically Fine even though they’re widely believed not to be. My opening bid in that category is “peer reviewers and editors performing the gatekeeping function at selective journals“.

*Note that in other fields the quality of conference talks may not be Fine.

11 thoughts on “Which bits of science and academia are just fine?

  1. I definitely agree with your final comment about gatekeepers. Perhaps more broadly I think that a lot of what we complain about are the worst parts of systems that function in a way that is on average Fine. Despite aspects of peer review which are definitely not OK, the endeavour as a whole seems to be working somewhat. Despite complaints about scientific funding, excessive collaboration/big science (things I don’t particularly care for to the degree they occur), it does seem to be the case that science is being done, and we are learning more.

    I think some of what we complain about is egregious beyond any redeeming qualities (cases of rampant or subtle oppression, for instance), but a larger class of things just simply is suboptimal in obvious ways. Of course the current publishing system is inefficient and hugely wasteful, and since we are all optimizers we cry out to fix it. I think these things do need fixed, but perhaps some of the reason we don’t consider publishing in general Fine is because we all see inefficiencies and inadequacies which really shouldn’t exist. In some sense, I think much more of the academic enterprise really is more Fine than we like to say, but often in ways which are suboptimal, and so we perceive it as far worse than it actually is. Really a lot of our work is about being critical and focusing on small details that had been overlooked by others, so it kind of makes sense that we would be unhappy about the state of our own ecosystem in some sense. Perhaps this is an overly-optimistic take of course.

  2. A quote from Herb Childress which I found from the below linked piece is also along similar lines of thinking:
    “Scholars have made their entire careers out of finding problems within what is perceived to be settled knowledge. They carve out that tiny bubble at the edge of what we know, and they focus all of their ample energies and intelligence on precisely defining, or redefining that small issue. Gather a hundred of these people together, and give them a policy to review. You think thatโ€™s going to go well?”

    https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/the-professor-and-the-adjunct

  3. Can we just say that whatever the things that may not always be perfectly fine, doing science/research is still the most awesome job one could have?

    Seriously: learning new things constantly, contributing to the advancement of humankind’s knowledge, saving the world (well, at least we try…), training the next generation of scientists, all with a (more or less) great flexibility in the topic and in our work schedule. I don’t know of any job that could offer such things!

  4. The fact that the no one in science really cares about dress code. Not that we aren’t presentable at conferences, say, just that there’s no expectation for collared shirt and tie or similar.

    • Yeah, I think I buy that one. With the caveat that I have no idea about norms of dress in other scientific fields. Is there a scholarly field in which formal business attire is expected at conferences?

      I recognize that the lack of a specific, well-known, universally-agreed conference dress code in ecology can itself be a source of (hopefully minor and temporary) anxiety for some students and others who worry that they won’t dress the “right” way. But I don’t think there’s any alternative that would result in less total anxiety or other undesirable side effects (such as making lots of people buy clothes they wouldn’t otherwise buy and don’t like wearing). So yeah, I think “scientists just dressing however they personally feel like dressing at conferences” is a good example of something that’s just fine.

      • Dress code depends on your discipline, doesn’t it? ๐Ÿ™‚ I wrote up a pretty funny one about field geologists vs experimental petrologists vs geophysicists, but *sigh* I guess I better not go twisting people’s shoe laces. :c

        Here are a few examples from geology: Field Geologist (as I once was): field gear is perfectly appropriate. Often worn with wilderness mop and accessory outdoorsy au natural olfactory stimulant; experimental petrologist or crystal chemist: casual – but crisp – suit or perhaps a bow tie with loafers and immaculately parted coif; geophysical modeler: polyester slacks, tossled doo, and Chantel’s I Slept In The Computer Lab Last Weekend sharable essence.

        No doubt fashion conscious scientists should always stay tightly in sync with their nearest colleagues, all the while experimenting just enough with farther-flung styles and disciplines to appear slightly original.

        ha ha, you’ll probably delete that but hopefully you’ll laugh first.

  5. Disappointed that this post isn’t getting as much attention as the ones focused on flaws in the field! I’ll add that I think the rate and quality of publications from grad students seem high in comparison to other fields (though I don’t have data to back that up). It’s not unusual, for example, for a student to be the first author on a Science/Nature/PNAS paper in ecology or environmental science.

    • Always hard to predict which posts will draw comments. Honestly, I’m pleasantly surprised this post drew any comments at all!

      “Rate and quality of grad student publications” is an interesting suggestion. I have no idea what it’s like in other fields. But yes, I think in ecology as a whole we’re pretty good at letting grad students (particularly PhD students) develop, pursue, and write up their own ideas. Which I think is related to what you’re saying. So yes, I’d agree that that’s something that’s Just Fine about ecology.

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