Monday, June 24, 2013

Tell Me What to Do With My Life

Sup Internet.  I need your help.  I'm a grad student, which means, in the words of Marge Simpson, that I've "made a terrible life choice".  Ha ha! Ha. Ha....

Anyway, I promise I don't really spend all that much time angsting about The Future because being stressed annoys me.  Still, The Future cometh and I've decided to do one thing every Monday about it.  And what could be more productive than online ranting?

So here's the roster of supposed career options for folks in my boat:

If PhD not completed either for reasons of sucking or quitting,
  1. Leave with a Masters I guess?
  2. Do... something.
If PhD completed,

Postdoc.  Noooooooooo... maybe?  So, academia.  I've found a lot to dislike about going into Research Academia.  Mainly the usual gripe about the horrible odds of getting a job in a reasonable time frame in a place you want to live and having to negotiate moving all around the country during the postdoc years with your SO and potentially making young children move all over as well and yeah.  And grantwriting booo.  The way I see it, you have to really REALLY love doing science to put up with all that.  I like learning science, but I definitely don't love DOING it enough to put myself through all that.  On the other hand, maybe if an opportunity opened up to work on the right project I might consider a postdoc...

Teaching Academia.  I think I could be a decent teaching professor.  No real basis for that other than my own gut feeling, the fact that I have some family history of teachers, and that I prefected a class in undergrad once and more or less enjoyed it and got good reviews.  On my super-confident days, I like the idea.  Most days though it's pretty meh.  Like research, I don't think I particularly care enough about teaching to go through the exact same rigamarole of postdoc-ing and traveling all over the place and the tenure games and whatnot.

Science Writing.  Ha! I once toyed with this idea, then quickly saw that this is not something one pursues as a career.  It pays super-crappy, and has even fewer spots open at the top.  Again, I'd have to be WAY more passionate about writing to go into this.  Also I'd have to learn to write good.

Industry.  Stereotypically, I have very little clue about what "industry" is like.  I'm in neuroscience, for which there are two basic forms: pharma and computational.  I am neither computationally-inclined nor interested in molecular biology so...  Also I hear these jobs are dried up as well?  Can anyone confirm/deny?  And is it as soul-sucking as people say or does everyone in it find a way to reach happiness equilibrium anyway?

Consulting.  I guess you go around fixing people's problems or something?  I don't mind the short project-oriented nature of it, but I'm not really in a mood to have a job that requires traveling away from home all the time.

Government.  I dunno what this is either.  I guess you can write/review grants for a living?  Yay!  No.


Okay folks, that's the list.  As you can see, I'm very good at finding problems with my options and shooting them down (are there careers that reward pessimistic rationalization?).  Unfortunately, this has resulted in the elimination of all the career paths I know about that actually "require" the degree which I'm working towards.  This is where you help:

What can I do that's not on this list?

If you could just figure that out for me, that would be great. Right now, I'm leaning towards Winning the Lottery or Just Sort of Floating Along and Getting Lucky as I Go as the most optimal career paths. 

Also, you should know that I have taken those career aptitude tests and whatnot and found that I'm supposed to either be a farmer or go into forestry.  So I suppose there's always that.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Keep Your Conventional Wisdom Cool

Here's a good example of how journalism can become sloppy where science writing wouldn't:

Across the rotunda, House Republicans have clutched even harder the conservative positions that are popular in largely gerrymandered Congressional districts, if not among the majority of Americans. As such, bipartisanship has been largely limited to things like post office namings and the Permanent Electronic Duck Stamp Act.(NY Times)

I mean, it's probably true.  It sounds true to liberal me.  But what if it isn't?  A citation is necessary for (1) gerrymandering, (2) popularity of their opinions, and (3) conservativeness of the positions.  And the piece should also ask whether Democrats are also motivated by similarly partisan forces.

A citation is like a refrigerator: conventional wisdom spoils over time without one.


Also, required citations would prevent pure speculation like this:

But the consequences for the party seem more predictable: while Democrats have been eager in the past to find a way to compromise with House Republicans on such things as keeping the government from shutting down, their tears over failed immigration legislation may be more of the crocodile variety. 

Yearning for Magic

So David Brooks did a thing:

At the highbrow end, there are scholars and theorists that some have called the “nothing buttists.” Human beings are nothing but neurons, they assert. Once we understand the brain well enough, we will be able to understand behavior. We will see the chain of physical causations that determine actions. We will see that many behaviors like addiction are nothing more than brain diseases. We will see that people don’t really possess free will; their actions are caused by material processes emerging directly out of nature. Neuroscience will replace psychology and other fields as the way to understand action.
These two forms of extremism are refuted by the same reality. The brain is not the mind. It is probably impossible to look at a map of brain activity and predict or even understand the emotions, reactions, hopes and desires of the mind.
They want to eliminate the confusing ambiguity of human freedom by reducing everything to material determinism.

And a lot of people have appropriately pooh-poohed him, mainly on account of his anti-materialism (Neurocritic, Bjoern Brembs, the entire comments section after his column).  So I won't really bother with that, except to concur wholeheartedly with Bjoern that materialism (the belief that all mental phenomena are inextricably linked to physical phenomena in the brain) does not necessarily lead to determinism (in this context, the belief that all behaviors are predictable if everything is known at once about the brain's physical state).

Instead I'd like to ask why poor Brooksie felt the need to even write that column.  Why is he so scared of the possibility that we might simply be "nothing but neurons" (and glia)?  I think it's because he yearns for magic.  The physical processes of a human's brain are insufficient to predict that human's mental experience or subsequent behavior (same thing, really) because that would mean that humans don't have a layer of magical soulness tethered to them that truly represents what they are.  Or at least it would imply that such magic isn't necessary.

People love magical reasoning because it quickly transforms the unexplained into the explained and the REALLY hard-to-explain into the simply unexplainable.  Now a phenomenon that you don't understand needn't make you feel ignorant - you don't get it because you can't get it.  So relax, don't worry about it.  We can't really understand the mind because it's partly magical, somehow mysteriously tied to its physical underpinnings.  There's no point to claiming that understanding the brain will enable us to predict what the mind experiences - it simply can't because magic.

Note that Brooksie's belief in the magical inscrutability of the human mind derives largely from his desire to feel special.  At least, that's how it works for me (and if David Brooks is allowed to psychoanalyze all of America based on his gut feelings, then I'm allowed to psychoanalyze him based on mine).  Of course, I don't actually "believe" that my mind is a magically non-determined by my brain, but I can imagine what that's like.  If my brain predicts my mental experience, then I'm not special anymore!  I'm not magical!  I'm just another stupid hunk of meat, herpty-derping around like the rest of them.

So in my thoroughly unresearched and undoubtedly unoriginal opinion, the fear of accepting ignorance and the fear of admitting that you're not special drive belief in magical reasoning.  And on the flipside, a lot of it also has to do with the positive reinforcement that comes when you invoke a magical explanation.  It's a combination of the joy of thinking you've just understood something with the joy of feeling like you took a shortcut to get there. 

After all, who doesn't love feeling accomplished, efficient, special, and unignorant?

Maybe someone should do an fMRI experiment to see if accepting a magical explanation leads to higher nucleus accumbens activity than accepting ignorance...

Monday, June 10, 2013

Citation Needed

To harp on a previously raised point:

Some studies indicate that grouping can damage students’ self-esteem by consigning them to lower-tier groups; others suggest that it produces the opposite effect by ensuring that more advanced students do not make their less advanced peers feel inadequate. Some studies conclude that grouping improves test scores in students of all levels, others that it helps high-achieving students while harming low-achieving ones, and still others say that it has little effect. (NY Times)

Would it really be that hard to add in links to the actual studies here?  Newspapers are digital entities now as much as they are paper ones.  They need to learn how to link their syntheses with the knowledge they've drawn upon.  Satisfy one reader's curiosity and you've made that reader more likely to become a repeat customer.