I got almost everything wrong in my last post: I’m sorry.

September 7, 2015

My last post (Unhappy thoughts on student projects at SVPCA 2015) was stupid and ill-judged. As a result of very helpful conversations with a senior palaeontologist (who was much more courteous about it that he or she needed to be), I have decided to retract that article rather than editing it further to clarify. I deeply wish I’d never posted it, and I offer my apologies to everyone I insulted.

First, and most importantly, to people presenting projects under the influence of nerves, which I misinterpreted as a lack of interest in their own projects. Nervousness particularly affects people giving their first talks — an effect I should have allowed for. It’s awful to think that what I wrote may have been discouraging to people taking first steps into palaeo.

Second, to supervisors who felt that the “roll four dice” section in the middle of the post was aimed at them. All I can say is that it wasn’t. I had no-one in mind when I wrote that: I was just so seduced by the comical imagery of generating a project by rolling dice that I wrote it down without thinking through how it would be interpreted.

Did I have good intentions? I honestly did. Did I have legitimate concerns about the ubiquitous application of techniques that are not always appropriate, and whose results are not always interpreted with a suitable degree of scepticism? I think so. But clearly I should have discussed those concerns privately with more involved people, rather than spilling my brains all over the blog. I welcome the increasing availability of techniques that allow us to bring numerical rigour to our palaeobiological speculations. (I could discuss in more detail when and how I think those techniques should be used, but that’s for another day. My purpose here is to apologise, not to justify myself.)

In short, I had a very bad day at the office on Friday, and I hate the idea that in my carelessness I could have hurt anyone other than myself. To those in that category, I can only ask your forgiveness; and promise to think more before blogging in future.

8 Responses to “I got almost everything wrong in my last post: I’m sorry.”

  1. […] POST IS RETRACTED. The reasons are explained in the next post. I wish I had never posted this, but you can’t undo what is done, especially on the Internet, […]

  2. Kenneth Carpenter Says:

    Been there, done that. I try to wash my feet daily since I insert them in my mouth all to frequently. I never stop beating myself up over some criticisms I have dished out.

  3. Andrew Pearson Says:

    I suspect that you impressed more people by your apology than you offended by your original post.
    To err is human, to man up and admit it is adult.
    Well done.

  4. ncmncm Says:

    It’s tragic when the research topic you are assigned turns out to be just barely equivocal. There’s no way to know beforehand, but it’s just as much work as a dramatic result, without the satisfaction of steering future research that even a firmly negative result could offer. You can’t even bow out of presenting, embarrassed as you may be.
    That said, the experience gained is the same as for work that has a dramatic result, and the limited attention attracted to your first presentation and its mistakes might be a mercy. The experience of having presented is valuable, and even the feeling of being a (still) minor participant is much better than of a spectator. Maybe a positive gradient on interest in your work, vs. time, is not such a bad thing; there is nowhere to go but up, and the sky’s (still) the limit.
    What would be tragic would be if the equivocal result meant one of the very few posts went to someone else, and you get no chance to spearhead a breakthrough. You might need to spend days doing IT, and research on your own time, and never get to (say) name a new species or soundly trounce a silly but fashionable research trend, or develop deep relationships with admirable fellow researchers. Anyway, how much of progress really has anything to do with breakthroughs? The tragedy is that there are so many fewer posts than bright and promising graduates, but it might just be miraculous that there are any.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    This is something that troubles me. How much of what we reward is “success” rather than diligence? If two researchers do exactly the same experimental work on the efficacy of two similar and equally promising drugs, but one turns out to be effective and the other not, does it make any sense to reward the researcher who happened to get assigned the drug that eventually proved to be effective?

    Success is overrated; and it’s certainly not the same thing as quality. In the case I outlined here, one success is certainly no predictor of future performance. If done naively, it can be no different from awarding jobs or promotions based on which researcher draws the higher card.

  6. Matt Wedel Says:

    Oh, man, what you are talking about happens all the time, to the point of being almost omnipresent. It happens not only because some projects pay off in bigger ways than others, but also – certainly in paleo – because some taxa are more charismatic than others.

    I first started worrying about this back in 1999 when we put out the press release on Sauroposeidon. I thought it would probably attract only state or regional attention at best, but it very quickly went global. But it didn’t take off because of the quality of my work – the paper wasn’t even published at that point (it was a different time) – but because people care about big dinosaurs. But Rich had other grad students who had many more papers under their belts, doing careful, important, and innovative work on Mesozoic mammals and herps. Almost all of them have gone on to successful careers in paleo (all of them that chose to stay in the field, so far as I know), but Sauroposeidon opened a LOT of doors for me that might not have opened had I been working on a less charismatic group.

  7. Chase Says:

    Hey, we all have bad days sometime or another. I have chronic anxiety which runs in my family, so not only do I remember everything that I feel I’ve done wrong in some way, but it is also extremely hard for me to acknowledge the mistakes I have made. You did, however, acknowledge that last post in a well-thought-out way, and I commend you for doing so.

  8. ncmncm Says:

    Of all the perks that come from splashy results or recognition for long and diligent work, it’s the deep relationships with admirable other researchers that seems like the most valuable. I envy you both.

    Today I attended the memorial for S. Marvin Friedman at Hunter College in NYC, where he created a microbiology lab and program in the ’60s, and participated in groundbreaking research until his sudden death in May. (If you find your heart racing for no reason you recognize, do not wait for morning to see a doctor.) I knew him only through his postings to Small Things Considered. Testimonials from his colleagues reminded me why biologists makethe best scientists.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: