Fluffy Sciences has moved!

You can find all the new posts at www.fluffysciences.com

(I have however left this blog standing in case anyone has linked directly to a post).

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Sign of the Times

People . . . people who need people . . . are the luckiest people . . .

If you’ve been on the internet lately, you will have heard something about Cambridge Analytica. The private company used profile data from Facebook to better inform the Republican Presidential Campaign. Those of you who have pre-ordered my book (and if you haven’t – here’s how you can) will have the opportunity to read about how these big data sources like social media can be so informative. My final chapter is dedicated to the way personality research is changing, and how it will change in future, and it highlights the importance of the so-called ‘softer’ sciences. Next time someone dismisses the importance of psychology, or thinks the replication crisis refutes all psychological research, point out just how much money Cambridge Analytica made from those ‘fluffy’ old likes.

There are two kinds of responses to this story that I commonly see. The first is “You should all give up the social media like I do” and the second is “Social media is dangerous!”  I don’t think either of these are helpful, and here’s why: people like other people.

Much of social media’s appeal comes from Basic Principles of Psychology. Let’s do a quick recap. Things which make somebody more likely to do a behaviour again are called a ‘reward’. Rewards can be ‘positive’, the addition of something nice, like how I give Athena’s ears a scratch when she comes to see me, making it much more likely she’ll come to see me again. Rewards can also be ‘negative’, or the removal of something unpleasant, like how when I pay attention to Athena she stops screaming at a very loud and high pitch. The quiet is my reward.

Social media’s main way of rewarding you is to give you something the scientist in me would call ‘attention from a conspecific’, or a ‘like’. It can be a like, a comment, a tag in a photo, or a reminder of how much you’ve shared with another person – it’s all a form of attention.

You might ask “but what about that photo Kelly tagged me in at Christmas where I’m stuffing my third helping of Christmas pudding down my tearstained face because I got too in to Call the Midwife – that’s not rewarding attention at all!”

I’ve been there, fam, but the problem is – it does reward you. It might not be the attention you want, but it’s better than nothing at all. See also: ‘naughty’ children. And here’s the interesting part. When your phone buzzes to get your attention, you don’t know if that’s an amazingly juicy piece of gossip on your group chat, someone you fancy liking your latest selfie, or just a notification that Jane was checked in to Nandos.

This brings us to another aspect of social media and psychology: variable reward schedules. These are extremely common in gambling, particularly in slot machines. The essence of this is that the value of the reward you get is random for the same behaviour. For some reason, it drives those biological grey machines in our skulls wild. Is this notification going to be the big one? Will this pull of the lever get us a million pounds? It’s an extremely effective technique, one that has kept casinos going for years, and partly why we regulate gambling. We know this works.

My version of Clinton’s saying is It’s Behaviour, Stupid. These tricks of our psychology are so fundamentally tied to our being, and so unsuited for the world we live in, that we cannot say to people “Stop eating and you’ll not be fat” or “Stop smoking and you’ll reduce your risk of cancer” or “Stop using social media and it’ll improve your mental health and probably also your country’s political stability.” The trouble is that these appeal to the basic human need for pleasure. Social media companies want to keep you engaged, and use your ‘vulnerability’ to reward to do it. But it’s in their best interests not to farm us too aggressively. They don’t want us to stop using their services, they don’t want to lose their product. They need to think, just as the agricultural industry has had to think, about what kind of product they deliver. A happy, healthy product with the financial ability to purchase goods and services? Or a product that is tearing itself apart?

Ultimately, social media will need to think about how it incentivises people to use its service. Not just because regulation is on the horizon, more and more so with the Cambridge Analytica story, but because their product works best in a stable, thriving economy. Social media will be regulated, either by us, or by themselves. Telling people to simply ‘stop gambling on the likes’ ignores the fundamental aspects of human behaviour that makes social media so very profitable.

In the mean time, if you are worried about your addiction to social media – take the time to go through your settings. Revoke permissions for apps you don’t use, and turn off all side notifications (or even all notifications). Discourage push notifications on your phone.

It’s a perfectly normal human state to be in.

Seven PhDs

So a few days ago I stumbled across Josh Raclaw’s tweet:

And this is the result:
Continue reading “Seven PhDs”

USS Strike

I want to tell you why I have chosen to join my fellow members of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) in industrial action from the 28th February.

I consider myself incredibly lucky in my career.

I am lucky, because I only signed on once after my PhD, for a short period of time. Many sign on for longer.

I am lucky because I knew that signing on would contribute to my National Insurance payments, which had been on hold, or only partially fulfilled, for the eight years of higher education I took part in.

I am lucky, because I finished my PhD at 26, and entered full time employment at 26. Many people do not finish their PhDs until their thirties.

I am lucky, because I was earmarked for a PhD on day one of my undergraduate degree, and I received exceptional support.

I am lucky, because I have been given fixed term contracts. Many academics are given guaranteed hours, or hours to be notified, and don’t even have the luxury of knowing how much they will bring home every month.

I am lucky, because my fixed term contracts ranged from three weeks, to three years, and so I have felt largely safe in my employment, as much as academics ever can . . .

I am lucky, because the bank decided to bend the rules on my mortgage, even though my contract did not qualify me for one.

I am lucky, because I’m coping with the mental health problems that accompany working in academia.

I am lucky because I am not juggling academia with a young family, because I genuinely love both teaching and research, because I am not stuck with one of the bullies as my boss, because my visa is not threatened by Brexit, because I happen to work in a field that is strong in the UK, because I’m publishing papers that happen to REFable, I’m lucky because I don’t want to quit . . . unlike them, them, them and them.

Yes, we have a good pension. An expensive pension. It is what the universities give us to make up for the fact that on average we earn less than we would elsewhere. We think that the creation, dissemination and curation of knowledge is vitally important for our students, and for our society, and so we put up with the challenges. One of our conditions of employment is that our employers take some of our money, and give it to us after our hard working life is done.

I am an experienced researcher, I’m an interdisciplinary researcher, and at the age of 32 I will be one of the youngest people to age out of the ‘six years post PhD’ definition of an early career academic. I am managing to keep my head above water, and my career going, and I just about feel safe now. The proposed cuts will take £12,000+ per year away from my pension.

 

I am what it looks like to be lucky in academia. Take our pensions, and academia will be lucky to have any of us left.

Gie Us a Grant?

I’ve just submitted a little grant proposal! (Everyone go ‘woo!’)

One of the things I talked about in the grant proposal was my outreach activities. I like to think of my science as quite transparent. But I am definitely less good at talking about the grant writing part of science.

Why is this? Well firstly, grant writing involves asking for money, and that’s not a terribly pleasant activity for many of us. In addition, there are often privacy concerns. Funders might not want to disclose how much money they award versus how much they were asked for. Projects of a sensitive nature (which this one might be) also require careful thought before a science blogger starts talking about the 100 grand bid they just put in.

Still, most research funding comes from public money, so all parties have a responsibility to talk about finances, and how we spend that money responsibly.

For my part, this grant is asking for some of my time, some travel costs, and some research costs. Altogether, this amounts to less than £50,000. To me this is a small sum for a research project, and I’m interested to see if there’s any feedback on the costings, either from the grant, or from you guys.

Money in academia is a hot topic right now – so I want to do my part for making this more understandable. If this gets funded, and the funders agree, I’d love to do a full breakdown of how I came to that total. And then you guys would be able to judge for yourselves whether it was money well spent . . .

Opinion Piece

If I have a new year’s resolution for 2018, it’s to be more open to feedback. Feedback terrifies me, because it’s an opportunity to be told I wasn’t very good at something. And if I’m not very good at something, I have clearly failed at life. But I’m working on it!

I have to admit I was surprised to find that I get a lot of positive feedback too. It’s strange how trying to protect yourself from bad feedback also keeps the good feedback from sinking in too. Here’s something students say to me:

“I like hearing about your opinion, it’s nice to have the benefit of your experience.”

I get this when I’m talking about ethics, or how my personal ontology affects my research (which is a whole other post I have drafted, but is also talked about in my book – which you can still pre-order on Amazon, Waterstones , Blackwells and at the Publisher) It used to make me uncomfortable. I worried that students might take my opinion as fact, or think they had to follow my opinion to get good grades. So when I give students my opinion, I preface it with lots of wiggle words “it’s only my opinion”, “now this isn’t fact” . .  . why precisely?

I don’t want to create a horde of mini-mes when I teach. I’ve never been able to get that project past the ethics committee. But why do I shy away from my opinion? There might well be a gender bias there, and I try to soften my opinion to protect peoples’ feelings. But I think a lot of it is about the hard science bias. Try as I might, I can’t shake the idea that opinions (and those other icky subjective feelingy things) don’t have a place in real science.

But here’s the thing – students like it. They want to know what I think about these topics that they’ve chosen to study. Their studies are important to them. The people who teach them are also important to students. My research group is writing up a paper at the moment which explores aspects of the student-teacher relationship. Students want to feel respected by their teachers, and I think that (occasional) usage of opinion can be one of the ways to do that. When you share something like that with your students, you’re building trust with them. And it’s important to value their opinion too.

I absolutely love having ethics discussions with my students. I love exploring these concepts and sharing ideas. It shouldn’t be so surprising to me that my students enjoy that too.

Perspective

It’s 1998

In a large, sloping theatre in the west of Scotland (that no longer exists), a teacher brings in their VHS tape of ‘Friends’.

There was always a vote – after half a dozen classes were assembled in theatre: “Should we watch ‘Friends’ or should we do our assigned class?” I wasn’t a fan, so I always voted for the assigned class, and inevitably, our teachers showed our year group episodes Season 3 Episode 10 (The One Where Rachel Quits) to Season 3 Episode 14 (The One With Phoebe’s Ex Partner) to distract us from . . . staff shortages? I’m not sure why we all had to watch Friends . . .

It’s 2007

In between shifts at an RSPCA wildlife hospital, I catch the first episode of Friends on E4. Over the next eight months I watch all 236 episodes of Friends. I had been vaguely aware of ‘Ross and Rachel’  as a concept, but watching from the start, knowing vague outcomes like “Monica proposes”, “it all ends”, “Rachel gets Ross at the airport”, my first honest experience of the legendary show ‘Friends’ was uniquely insular. My internet access was a weekly sojourn to the pub with my laptop, and I never thought to mention that I was watching a show that had finished three years ago.

In this virgin state I think that Ross is a manipulative arse, that Joey and Phoebe are feeble, that Rachel is spoiled, that Chandler is cute, and that Monica’s ethos echoes my own entirely.

It’s 2018 . . . just.

‘Friends’ is on Netflix. Since moving to Edinburgh and fulling assuming the mantle of ‘scientist’, a lot has changed. ‘Friends’ left UK television in 2011. For one, I now understand why my teachers thought a single hours of ‘Friends’ was preferable to teaching on a Friday at the end of term.

Ross seems sweet. Phoebe is an independent spirit. Monica is representative of my darkest impulses. Chandler, a manifestation of my fears. Joey needs protected and Rachel is just beautiful. Millenials find ‘Friends’ problematic says the Independent. Generation Z, I think, primly.

My time with the RSPCA is over ten years ago, my time in that auditorium in the early naughties is over fifteen years ago. It’s almost half my lifetime. I have a couple of GAP shirts that I wear over t-shirts when I can’t be arsed, but ‘Friends’ makes me think that I might be able to rock that as a ‘look’. Maybe when I’m publishing my book, I can hustle my friends out the door in black tie garb. I want a ‘Rachel’ haircut but I’m afraid of what my stylist will say.

Perspective is an interesting thing. ‘Friends’ has followed me throughout a career where I have conducted research and educated. But more crucially, while explaining to my cat why the ‘Marcel‘ storyline is no longer appropriate, I realised that Athena has been with me for 39 months. My PhD lasted a total of 39 months. Come the end of this month, I will have lived with Athena longer than I lived with my PhD.

Right now, Athena is telling me it is ‘bed time’. Her whole life is the same amount of time as one of the most stressful periods of my life. She is barely aware of the blog post that’s  been brewing in my mind about the importance of a teacher’s opinion to their student’s. She knows, vaguely, that I have been ‘busy’ recently. She dislikes my work laptop.

Over half my life ago, I did not know I’d be here, but I would watch ‘Friends’ and think these people were so cool. Today, I have no idea what the next fifteen years will bring, but I am quietly amused, wondering how ‘Friends’ will be shown to us then, and how I will remember those 40 short months of my PhD. Perspective is a fleeting thing, but right now, perspective is a memory of what was, and still laughing when Ross tried to explain the theory evolution to his friends.

Stop asking me ‘what about men?’ 

This is a must-read for all of us

Everyone who follows my blog knows that my best work is written in rage, or port. But Christmas has gone now so no more port.
Well, at least I still have rage. So back to that.

Recently I have been getting increasingly frustrated with ‘whataboutery’ every single time I write or speak about women or girls.
For those of you who don’t know what that word means, ‘whataboutery’ is when someone responds to a difficult issue or question with a counter issue or question that completely derails the conversation.

Example:
Mai: My research focussed on the murder of women in Yemen
Randomer: uh, this is a bit sexist. What about the murder of men in Yemen? Don’t you care about men?


Example 2:
Pam: I’m really upset with you for stealing from my purse
Mel: What about that time you stole from the local shop? You’re not innocent…

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And May All Your Dreams Come True

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer.

As a child, I filled endless notebooks with my stories. They were mostly stories about animals, or thinly veiled replicas of Lord of the Rings. I may even have tried my hand at the odd love story. At school, I kept a private tally of how often my essays were read aloud, or made a teacher cry. I love the written word.

When I was 29 years old, an editor approached me and asked me to write a book. That book, Animal Personalities, is currently available for pre-order.

Of course, when you achieve your childhood dreams, a weight lifts from your heart, a divine confidence settles in your soul, and you never again doubt yourself or your abilities. You become as happy as you always believed you would be . . .

I recently wrote a short case study about being a postdoc for Edinburgh’s “Thriving in Your Research Position” document from the Institute of Academic Development. In the case study, I talk about a spectral figure who has haunted me throughout my whole career: the Perfect Postdoc. She is always better than me. When I wrote my book, she somehow wrote a better one. She’s like a funhouse mirror version of me, and when I change, so does she. I’ll never be able to outdo her.

If you’re a long-term reader of this blog, you’ll know I’ve been thinking about failure lately. I explored my failures as an animal trainer, and meditated on how academia breeds an anti-failure culture. I’m also critical of the idea that all scientists have to be specialists – I’m not a specialist. I’m interdisciplinary and I love it. This leads me to another area of my academic life where the Perfect Postdoc is always one step ahead of me.

The Perfect Postdoc understands R much better than I do. I’ve spoken before on this blog about my frustrations while trying to learn R. While I have taught research methods and statistics for several years now, I’ve always hesitated to teach R. I’ve hesitated because, well . . . because I’m not brilliant at it. My code is ugly and often cobbled together, and I often find the community around R, places like stack exchange and stack overflow, are hideously unfriendly.

I’ve been lucky enough enrol on the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s woman-only Aurora programme this year. The first session was called Identity, Impact and Voice, where we explored how we can make a difference in our workplaces and communities. There were two-hundred plus women at the Aurora event in Edinburgh this month, and so many of us spoke about being afraid of ‘not being the best’.

The curious thing is, when I was listing my strengths, I never said I was “the best at [thing]”. My strengths are my communication skills, the fact I’m approachable, and my willingness to try new things. I firmly believe that in five years time anyone who doesn’t have R skills is going to find it very difficult to get a job in academia. Hiding my bad code means I’m not contributing to the R conversation happening right now. I have a voice. And I can have an impact too.

Hadley Wickham, who wrote some fabulous R packages, says:

So with that in mind, I’m going to start sharing my own R teaching materials more widely.  You can find my resources on Github (scroll down to find direct links to the exercises). The worst that can happen is that someone tells me my code is ugly. The Perfect Postdoc’s code is of course much prettier, but do you know what? Just like writing my book, writing that exercise was pretty fun.

Glory in your bad code. Glory in saying “I don’t know how to do that” in your local programming club meetings. Glory in your voice. There is nothing else like it.