A Lack of Thought

I recently got a smartphone. My first ever smartphone. As a mid-range millennial, that may be a shock to some people. We’re all supposed to be hyper-connected social media addicts. But I was one of the last holdouts. Not for any philosophical reason, but because I just didn’t find it necessary. My phone was mostly working, served me when I needed it. After a while, it became more and more clear to others that I needed a smartphone. So my family got me one for my birthday (presented a bit early), and you know what? I love it. In one month, I’ve really taken to this smartphone and the universe it provides. It really does make my life more efficient, and I’ve found my niche in the social-media universe, taking to some apps over others (Instagram, Twitter vs. SnapChat, Facebook). But like everything in life, there are quite clear downsides. For one, I discovered the problems of downloading games on it yesterday. But I think the biggest problem (for me, at least) is that being connected to social media makes you always feel you’re never doing enough, especially when compared to the dominant personalities.

Twitter, oddly enough, is a big deal in the scientific community. It really is how scientists connect, chat, learn about events, discuss the latest discoveries. It really is amazing. But as usual, certain personalities dominate, seemingly doing it all and making you feel inadequate. This is not just a social media problem in science. It’s a virus that has infected all parts of the system. As there becomes less and less public funding for research, as university jobs dry out, as more people get PhDs, competition for every little scrap becomes fiercer with publish or perish now the mantra. Job committees now look at publication number, h-index, and impact factor to determine whether to hire (Edit: Please read Dr. Jeremy Fox’s comment. He kindly pointed out that such an assertion is quite tenuous). It’s almost like a game show.

You got the highest score! Johnny, tell them what they’ve won!

A career!

Ironically, this has all been facilitated by computers, by the devices you are reading this on at the moment. Computers, and technology in general, is often billed as a way to make life more luxurious. We can do more with less, so we’ll do less, rest more, and enjoy life. Instead, people generally tend to do more in a (mostly subconscious) bid to outdo the other. And scientists have fell into this trap. Even with less resources, scientists can do more and more research with better computers. Publications are churned out at incredible rates, huge projects are done then mined to find relationships, mathematical equations are simulated hundreds of thousands of times on the computer to find any general patterns. Not everything associated with this is bad. More publications are happening partially because more people are doing science research, a positive especially as people from underrepresented groups engage within science. Larger projects means collaborations between disparate fields and a holistic understanding of the system. We can create more realistic models of the world without being stuck by lack of analytical tools. But all of these have serious downsides. More publications does not mean better publications and in fact can lead to the opposite. The chance of finding relationships in big datasets is really high, almost guranteed, even if they don’t make sense (p-hacking is becoming a problem now). Simulations allow us to write any model, not matter how ridiculous or unrealistic, and get results without attempting to obtain analytic solutions. With better technology, we don’t have to think; we can just do more. Write more, build more, gather more, run more, analyse more, write more, build more, gather more, run more, analyse more, write more…

A couple weeks ago, the Friday Links post of the Dynamic Ecology blog linked to an article about how some of the great thinkers like Darwin of our time were “slackers”. Still immensely devoted to their interests and causes, they took adequate time to rest, never pushing themselves to do more than they wished. It stresses the importance of making work deliberate and getting adequate rest and sleep. I think there is also another phenomenon at play. During these resting hours, the high-achievers probably did a lot of thinking. Darwin likely was very careful with his experimentation, making sure that it would test his hypothesis adequately and rigorously. When looking over the specimens, he didn’t just focus on classification but thought about what it meant that so many disparate forms could be of the same grouping. He took more than 20 years to develop a single theory (yes, a revolutionary one but just one all the less) and likely more had the threat of Wallace not crept up on him. And speaking of Wallace, he only came to the idea of natural selection while resting and recuperating from malaria, a time when he could think.

Unfortunately, time is quite literally a zero-sum game. The more we devote to one activity, the less we can devote to another. By the laws of physics, time cannot be slowed or expanded, only sped up. In a culture that asks for more, our time doing expands usually at the expense of our time thinking. We are put amongst the trees, unable to see the entire forest. More creates a greater number of hedgehogs and fewer foxes. I don’t want this to be taken to be dismissive of the work of hedgehogs. Knowing the details of a system is very, very critical to understanding what causes the system to tick. They can often spot the bullshitting foxes who come up with strange ideas and nothing to back them up. Doing allows for the empirical verification of our hypotheses and theories, often expanding and creating new theories in the process. Too much thinking, too many foxes creates a post-modern culture where everything is true as long as you believe it to be so. But we also mustn’t understate the importance of thought, especially as our scientific culture creeps away from it. Thinking deeply and critically is the foundation of the scientific enterprise. It must be cherished and preserved. For me, that likely means less time on the smartphone using social media and more time playing Angry Birds.

By thetweedybiologist

Research of theoretical ecology and evolution


    1. Thanks for the information! I’ll be sure to correct it.
      As I was writing it, I was thinking that I needed to do research on this topic before making definitive statements. A lot of the post was the perspective of a 5th year graduate student feeling the pressure to graduate and succeed in the field.

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