Unconscious gender bias? What do I picture when I think of a scientist?

Recent years have seen a lot of discussion on the blogosphere on gender bias in science. There is no question that awareness is always the first step in heading for a solution.

photo 1-1

Do I have an unconscious bias against women in science?

From my personal perspective, I think I have been doing the right things. Two of my three official mentors (M.Sc., Ph.D.) were female. Two-thirds of the students I have mentored were/are female. My most talented and successful student to graduate thus far was female, and she moved very quickly through the ranks to obtain a faculty position and her own independent laboratory.

As I became more established in my own career, I have been doing my best to promote gender equality. One example is that while serving as chair of a study section for scientific funding agency, in a short time I was able to bring the number of male:female reviewers from 70:30 to 50:50.

For this reason, I stepped up with interest to the computer terminal at Omaha’s Durham Museum’s “Identity” exhibit to take a test and see whether I have “unconscious biases” regarding the relationship between men, women, sciences and arts.

The test was relatively simple: the computer placed the word “Science” on the left and “Arts” on the right, and then had me decide whether to group various words with “Science” or “Arts.” Examples were “History,” “Math,” “Sculpture,” “Physics,” “Astronomy,” “Literature,” etc. etc. The computer then placed “Male” together with “Science” and “Female” together with “Arts” and had me categorize words such as “Father,” “Sister,” “Grandmother,” “Uncle.” I would be timed for how long it would take me to properly categorize the words that cropped up to the left side of the screen (Male and Science) or the right side of the screen (Female and Arts). Then the whole process was reversed with “Male” and “Arts” grouped together on the left and “Female” + “Science” grouped together on the right, and I was again timed.

After going through this process in earnest, my results were finally calculated:
photo 2-1

According to this study, I am the non-proud owner of an unconscious bias in my perception of women (as being more fitting for liberal arts than science).

While this was supposed to be a fun exhibit (which dealt more with identity of individuals than issues of gender bias), I was somewhat distraught at my diagnosis of being gender biased. I pride myself on my lack of bias, at least conscious bias (what I can control). I even see myself as a male feminist, insofar as pushing for equality between the sexes. In fact, my last novel “A Degree of Betrayal” was described on Twitter by someone I don’t even know as “Possibly a book that every male PI should read.” Am I really that bad?

Let’s assume that this test is accurate in its assessment,  although I do have some concerns about whether the time for initial clicking and practicing was properly factored into the timed tallies. But for simplicity, I will accept that I do have an unconscious bias. What does this mean from a practical standpoint?

First, while unconscious biases can teach us about things we were/are unaware of, it’s the conscious biases that are obviously much more damaging. And since, as noted above, I make a conscious attempt to mitigate the situation, perhaps I’m not as bad as this test suggests. But what is the test actually showing?

In thinking about what this test is analyzing, one needs to be cautious in interpretations. It’s no secret that men of my age are much less likely to have a grandmother, mother or aunt who is/was a scientist than a grandfather, father or uncle. This may be a sad truth caused by society’s unfair treatment of women for generations (well, almost forever) – but nonetheless, statistically it is true. So if my responses in placing “Uncle,” “Grandfather,” or “Father” in the category of “Science” were faster than those placing “Aunt,” “Grandmother,” or “Mother” in the “Science” category, does that mean I perceive women as more fitting for the arts than sciences? Or does it merely reflect the overall demographic distribution of men vs. women in these fields, especially when going back a generation or two?

Simplifying things, my concern is whether this elegant computer program is really detecting an unconscious bias that I have toward women in science (or women as scientists), or whether it is merely demonstrating that I know that there are more male scientists than female scientists, especially as the age of the scientists increases.

I am certainly open to criticism and there is always room to improve one’s relationship to under-represented minorities in science (or any field); it’s always good to develop ways to assess conscious and unconscious bias. However, I humbly submit that as scientists, we must carefully interpret the data and ensure that our conclusions are really valid, and that whatever tests are designed to answer a specific question are designed to provide unambiguous conclusions. Unconscious bias against women in science may well be present, but I have serious doubts as to whether this program is capable of differentiating between bias and other factors.

Posted in Education, research, science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“Dogged Science”

Ginger at work

No, this is not posed or photoshopped. But it is apparent that Ginger is somewhat less enthusiastic about calculations in single molecule imaging than I am.

Posted in humor, research, science | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

On Columbus’ Origins

Having celebrated this week what is known here in the US as Columbus Day, a federal holiday, I thought it might be interesting to share (rather than review) a novel that I just finished reading — timely enough — about the life of Christopher/Christofer/Christoferro/Christobal Columbus/Colombo/Colon/Colona. The multitude of names signifies the central theme of the fictional novel, Codex 632, by Portugese author and journalist José Rodrigues dos Santo.

While the novel is truly a work of fiction, having piqued my curiosity, I spent time doing some armchair research (i.e., not actually leaving my comfortable chair and finger-driven search for any real source or library), and came to a rather unscientific (but certainly fascinating) conclusion that the author may well be correct in his main premise: that the man we know as Columbus could not have been an autodidactic silk weaver from Genoa, Italy, but was instead a secret Portugese Jew of Italian-Portugese ancestry.

In the guise of a novel, the author lays out his compelling theories with many hard facts. For example, via the letters that Columbus wrote, it’s clear that he did not speak Italian, and corresponded with people from the Italian city-states in Latin. Indeed, his own son journeyed to Genoa in search of his father’s family (after his death) without finding any evidence that his father was from Genoa. The author maintains that there was a Christofero Columbo from Genoa who was an uneducated silk weaver, but that he was not the Admiral who sailed with the Spanish fleet in 1492.

Although I was unable – from my computer and in limited time – to validate the many bits of evidence that the author put forth supporting his contention that the navigator was a secret Portugese Jew, here are a few fascinating points raised:

1) Colon set sail the morning after the edict in Spain expired requiring that all remaining Jews in the country (who had not converted to Christianity) leave. Apparently, he even required his sailors to be on board the ships at 11 pm that night before sailing (an hour prior to the deadline for the Jews) presumably because there were ~40 Jewish shipmen who sailed with him.

2) Columbus apparently converted some of the Christian dates to Hebrew dates in parts of his diary – something practically impossible to fathom had he not been Jewish.

3) Prior to sailing, he was sent certain navigational charts from Lisbon (curious in itself, since the Spanish were competitors if not actually enemies at the time) that were apparently in Hebrew.

4) He left one-tenth of his will to support the dowries of unmarried women (a Jewish tradition at the time).

5) Some of the letters he apparently wrote to his son contained small but visible symbols in the corner of the pages with the Hebrew letters Bet and Hay, that stand for “B’ezrat Hashem” or “With the help of God.”

6) According to the dos Santos (at least in his fictional novel – that at its end suggests that Colon’s true identity has been covered up for centuries), Colon’s signature contains a wealth of Jewish Kabbalistic meanings that only an educated Jew could have understood. As an example, he contends that one of the central meanings of the signature – as purported through a Kabbalistic interpretation – is the phrase “may my name be erased,” as though Colon cannot bear to have a Christian name (such as Christofer).

I found the novel compelling and fascinating – a beautifully written historical mystery that changed my perception of the man who ‘discovered America.’ But that, too (discovery of America), is likely incorrect (even after taking into consideration that America had been ‘discovered’ thousands of years earlier by native Americans).

So why would a Jewish admiral of Portugese extraction sail off to ‘find the new world’ under the Spanish flag in 1492? Well, it wouldn’t be right to spoil the entire story. I hope to have generated enough interest to induce those who are curious to read the novel and find out! In the meantime, Happy Columbus Day…

 

Posted in science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Icons, cell biology and comfort zones

I recently returned from a week in Paris in which I attended a great meeting hosted by the French Society for Cell Biology (SBCF) called “Building the Cell,” at the Pasteur Institute and from another seminar invitation at the Curie Institute.
F3.medium
The Parisian icon made from immunostained HeLa cells plated on fibronectin served as the logo for the meeting.

and from another seminar invitation at the Curie Institute. While I have had the opportunity to visit a number of European cities and towns as part of my work-related travel, this was my first time in Paris – and I enjoyed it immensely.

Will the real Eiffel Tower please stand up?

Will the real Eiffel Tower please stand up?

I could not, however, help noticing the very limited number of non-European attendees at the meeting. On the other hand, Europeans (and Asians) appear to frequent the US for scientific meetings. While it is obvious to me that financial considerations play a key role in whether researchers from the US will attend a meeting abroad, I believe that this is only a minor reason for the low US participation in the meeting. I may be cursed for saying this, but I suspect that many American scientists (despite the fact that a fair percentage are not US-born!) do not like being outside their comfort zones.

Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris

Jardin du Luxembourg on a beautiful day

What do I mean? Not jet-lag, but the homogenous comfort that travel within the US typically provides: hotel rooms are very standard, mostly chains, and one would find the same Hilton/Sheraton/Doubletree/Ramada/Holiday Inn/Add-your-chain-here in any US city, and from the inside, it would be difficult to know where in the US one is located. Hotels in Europe typically sport very small rooms and narrow beds by comparison, perhaps resulting from limited/expensive space, and/or perhaps dictated by the beautiful but old existing buildings.

Food. The food in France is a treat – or it was for me. Perhaps a teetotaler vegetarian might heartily disagree. But the baguettes and breads are terrific, the appetizers are so enticingly prepared, that I couldn’t help thinking that although the actual food couldn’t be more different, it reminded me of the superb Japanese sense of aesthetics in maki rolls and sushi. But I suspect that many Americans are used to their standard fare restaurants.

The language. I broke my teeth trying in vain to recall my high school French. I opened my talk with a weak attempt to thank the organizers for inviting me in French. That probably took up a quarter of the 15 minutes I was given – but I did try. I also tried to engage a cab driver in chit-chat, and asked him how he liked the Prius he was driving, and told him I had one. He answered in English… But here again, I suspect that many Americans – where learning foreign languages is not a high priority – may feel uncomfortable not always being able to say and/or get exactly what they want.

Of course, it’s probably a lot more complicated than that, and time zones, passports, expense and other reasons likely are important factors as well. But given the tremendous concentration of outstanding French researchers in membrane trafficking and cell biology in the Paris area (perhaps even more so than any one location in the US), I am delighted that I had an opportunity to attend. It was great to visit such a great city with so many wonderful historical landmarks.  It was also an honor to present my own research at two such distinguished institutions in Paris. I hope the “Building the Cell will become an annual event and that I will have many additional opportunities to visit Paris and France.

Moi, at the Musee d'Orsay

Moi, at the Musee d’Orsay, Paris

Posted in research, science | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Unacceptable (science) education

For some time now I have been a proponent of including researchers – for example, those with a Ph.D. – in teaching science to high school students. While I have no doubt that the inclusion of a motivated and talented body of researchers in secondary school education will be highly beneficial to all involved: high students students, the Ph.D.-holding teachers, and the entire scientific system, it was only recently that I became aware of how badly such a change is needed.

I was recently asked to take a look at a worksheet on “The Cell” – essentially a two dimensional drawing of the cell and its many wondrous organelles and major structures – and I found the quality of the drawing to be so poor that even as an expert in cell biology with years of microscopy experience and looking at these very organelles, I could not even identify all of the structures.

How embarrassing; the Director, no less, of the Advanced Microscopy Core facility at my institution, and unable to completely place all of the names on all of the structures on the worksheet.

How not to teach biology

The microbody? Give me a break…

In my defense, here is a copy of the weird worksheet. Particularly alarming was the use of the term “microbody” – a relict term from the 50s when researchers first used electron microscopy, and couldn’t accurately place a variety of small organelles. Certainly a useless and unused term in modern science (and by modern, I mean the last 40 years…). Why would it appear as a term to identify on a worksheet of “The Cell” in 2014? Why not use peroxisome? Endosome? How did this sheet even come to be used in an Advanced Placement course for high school biology in the US?

In any case, with or without microbodies, the depiction of the cell as a static, 2-dimensional and stick-like series of structures (something that would be expected of a terrible artist such as myself if forced to draw) is not a particularly flattering picture of our secondary education system. Admittedly, I was impressed with the textbook and the relatively solid foundation in chemistry that I encountered.

In today’s era of wonderful online tools, 3-dimensional movies – and yes, super-resolution microscopy (“trailer” for Structured Illumination Microscopy, coming to a blog near you soon!) – much more can be done. Look at those lovely 3-dimensional Golgi stacks/ribbons! Now that’s a cellular organelle!

So what’s the problem? Let’s get well-qualified Ph.D. teachers into the system.

Posted in Education, education, research, science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

I sense a problem with undergraduate education

A lot has been said about job prospects of biomedical graduate students and the ever-declining percentage of Ph.D. graduates who are ultimately able to find academic faculty positions. Indeed, the importance of exposing graduate students to a variety of scientific career options has become recognized in recent years. Many graduate programs, including my own, now require students to annually complete an Individual Career Development Plan (IDP).

These are positive developments, and as chair of my departmental (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) graduate and admissions committee, I warmly embrace this change in attitude. As a department, we have even gone further and have begun annual career development meetings with each year’s crop of students, and we are trying to arrange occasional lectures and workshops from invited scientific speakers whose careers lie outside of academia.

However, I believe that it’s important to remember that even by preparing students for a variety of non-academic scientific careers, there is unlikely to be a demand for the increasing number of Ph.D. graduates currently being pumped out by the system. In reality all of the non-academic science jobs being discussed and courted have existed for years. It’s not that science journal editors and staff, science policy makers, teachers at undergraduate colleges, industry, science writers and grant review administration have become highly abundant positions all of the sudden; it’s merely that students are now being encouraged to seek out and obtain qualifications for such positions (if they show interest) in the course of their Ph.D. studies.

These non-academic positions are probably just as competitive as academic ones. Without a major change in policy – such as encouraging Ph.D. graduates to teach high school students (with financial incentives and an understanding that science is crucial for the advancement of the human race) – it is unlikely that there will be a major change in demand for Ph.D. holders.

However, it’s important also to remember that despite the lack of good jobs that properly reward Ph.D. holders for their years of study, unemployment is extremely low for this sector. Indeed, it was estimated that even for those carrying a bachelor’s degree that unemployment was below 4%, and this is likely significantly lower for those with a Ph.D. in the sciences. These data are likely a result of the ingrained motivation, independence and critical thinking that are part and package of a Ph.D.

There are many articles that discuss what should be done to “fix” the problem, including awareness at the national level that there are too many Ph.D.s being granted, and even altering the grant system so that institutions will admit many fewer students. I fundamentally disagree with this idea, and think that a greater number of Ph.D. students and graduates represents a culture that is more literate in science and one that will be better equipped to have the brightest, most talented and determined go on and lead scientific research in the next generation.

In the past, when voicing my ideas of “the more the merrier,” that Ph.D. holders who have become solid critical thinkers can contribute to society in a variety of important ways, both directly in science and in other occupations, my main detractors complained that having people go through all this labor and study only to find that great and well-paying jobs aren’t readily available “isn’t fair.” Is it fair?

I agree that it isn’t fair, but as I frequently point out to students, life isn’t fair. We were not all born wealthy, or with advantages. We were not all born with equal opportunities. Some parents can afford to send their children to outstanding private schools, or spend time teaching them on their own. Other parents work hard just to feed and clothe their kids. Some kids work during high school and on through college. Others can afford to focus exclusively on their studies.

It is also important to note that fewer and fewer career choices lead to “guaranteed high paying jobs” for graduates. In the US, I think that dentists, physicians, pharmacists, and engineers can reasonably assume to find well-paying jobs at the end of their training. This is not necessarily true any more for lawyers (as more and more graduates vie for jobs), business degree holders or any Ph.D. graduates from what is generally known as “the liberal arts.” So whether the system is really so slanted against biomedical Ph.D. graduates is not altogether clear.

There is another very good reason why I think dramatically decreasing the number of graduate students would be harmful to science. As chair of our graduate and admissions committee, it’s clear that we rely heavily on a combination of undergraduate grades, Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores and personal interviews to select our students. Recommendation letters can also make an impression (one way or the other). But it’s obvious that the top grade scorers don’t necessarily make the best researchers. Sure, overall there is an extremely vague correlation, and certainly students have to have a grasp of science to succeed. But I’ve seen many average students (from undergraduate studies) who have truly excelled in the lab and have gone on to do outstanding research – and continue on to academia. By limiting the number of Ph.D. students accepted into graduate programs, we could be losing an outstanding crop of potential researchers. My point is that success in research (or lack of it) should be the factor limiting researchers from continuing on to academia – not something less meaningful such as undergraduate grades.

Finally, I would like to point out that I am not sitting in my academic ivory tower, oblivious to the problems of today’s students. My goal is not to sacrifice 5 or more years of many students’ lives just to seek out the very best fitted ones for academia. Although I noted that life isn’t fair, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to make it as fair as possible. For this reason, I believe that perhaps the most important thing that can be done for potential future graduate students is to provide them with career advice and information early on in their undergraduate years.

Again and again I see students interviewing for graduate school when they have no idea what it’s all about. Many do not understand even the very basics of the system, and frequently students have a warped view that a Ph.D. degree will entitle them automatically to a great job. Although in my graduate program we try to educate the students in the course of interviewing them, it is really not the time to do so. Students need to have qualified counselors who will answer their questions while they are still in their undergraduate institutions. They need to know the statistics for obtaining jobs in academia and other scientific careers – before they apply to graduate programs. They need to understand the criteria that make for a successful Ph.D. (not merely the minimal requirements stated for obtaining the degree). Then, and only then, can they make a calculated decision as to whether they want to launch themselves into a 5 year program. That, at least, is a fairer way to do things. And I take off my hat to those who choose to do so.

 

 

 

Posted in Education, research, science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

It’s time to take responsibility – why the editor of The Lancet should resign

There are a lot of people, governments, and organizations who need to step up and take responsibility. But in this piece about taking responsibility, I call on Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, the UK’s premier medical journal, to apologize and resign. If publishing the deceitful and fallacious  “Open letter to the people of Gaza” wasn’t enough to merit his stepping aside, then his failure to allow the Israeli Medical Society and/or Israeli doctors and scientists to respond to these lies in a rejoinder article certainly is.

I have responded to the malevolent letter (saying that it is merely ‘biased’ would be giving too much credit to the authors) in the pages of The Guardian. But had I known at the time that several of the authors of this letter knowingly lied and reported that they “had no competing interests,” violating The Lancet’s “Declaration of Interests Policy,” I would have called for his resignation in my rebuttal.

As it turns out, Mads Gilberts, one of the co-signatories on this letter, made the following statement in Dagbladet, Norway’s second largest daily tabloid (I used Google translate to convert the text from the Norwegian) regarding the most horrific terror attack ever carried out on US soil:

The attack on New York was not surprising, after the policy has led the West in recent decades. I am outraged by the attack, but I am equally upset over the suffering that the United States has created. It is in this context 5000 dead people must be seen. If the United States government has a legitimate right to bomb and kill civilians in Iraq, including those suppressed a moral right to attack the United States with the weapons they had to create. Dead civilians are the same whether Americans, Palestinians or Iraqis, says physician and professor Mads Gilbert.

- Do you support a terrorist attack on the USA?

- Terror is a bad weapon, but the answer is yes, within the context I have mentioned, says Gilbert.

The first author of the hateful Lancet rant, Paolo Manduca, is the recipient of funding from various anti-Israel NGOs. For example, this abstract clearly states that the study was funded by Interpal, Gaza, London, UK. As noted in the following bulletin, Interpal (also known by another benign-sounding title as The Palestinian Relief and Development Fund) is designated by the US treasury as a terror organization. And for anyone who wants to know why Hamas is considered a terrorist organization, read the description of what Hamas has done at the bottom section.

Whether a once-respected medical journal is the place for addressing complex geo-political issues is one question. But having chosen to do so by exclusively accepting a blatantly deceitful account from several highly radical and terror-supporting physicians and researchers – while rejecting any opportunity for a rejoinder from Israeli doctors – clearly indicates that Horton can no longer qualify as a fair, unbiased editor for anything published in The Lancet.

Posted in academic boycott, research, science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

That’s the way science works

There have been a lot of articles published in newspapers around the world discussing a recent PLoS ONE paper published on July 23 by Harris and Provoust entitled “Jealousy in Dogs.”

photo
Ginger, in a reflective, non-jealous mode

For those who may not have seen the paper or the flurry of newspaper articles about the paper and its findings, I will briefly summarize: The behavior of 36 small dogs was analyzed when their owners either interacted with a realistic-looking stuffed dog or with a jack-o-lantern (as an object that is not similar to another dog). For a control, the owners read aloud a children’s book that was complete with pop-up functions and music.

Based on videos that were filmed of the dogs’ behavior, and the rating of the behavior by two individuals who were not told of the study’s purpose, the researchers found that the dogs showed jealousy by either aggression to the stuffed dog, or by inserting themselves between the stuffed dog and the owner; in essence, competing for attention. This was markedly greater for the stuffed dog than the non-dog/control objects.

Many dog owners commented in the media in response to the articles about the PLoS ONE paper that this was hardly surprising; everyone knows that dogs display jealousy. From my own experiences as a dog owner, I have no doubt that this is true. I have had two dogs in my lifetime; the first was intensely jealous of any affection shown not just to another dog, but to any person or even inanimate object. If I patted the table (and especially said “good dog”), he was capable of going beserk. My current favorite canine companion, Ginger (pictured here), doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, but will show very mild jealousy if provoked.

One commenter even voiced disgust that the US taxpayer was funding such research – when the conclusion was clear from the start. Are such studies a waste of money?

My unequivocal answer is “absolutely not.” First, the issue of dog jealousy is still hotly debated. In this forum I recently discussed UK canine researcher Prof. John Bradshaw’s audiobook “Dog Sense” and even noted that I disagreed with his conclusion that dogs cannot display jealousy because this emotion is too complex for the canine brain and requires a more developed “sense of self.”

However, even if this were not a point of dispute, I contend that this is the way science is done: observations that may seem empirical and intuitive to others must be supported by research, analysis and statistical interpretations. Conclusions cannot be taken for granted based on anecdotal observations.

Documenting is often the first scientific step along the pathway to understanding, and this is true for behavioral science as well as science at the cellular, molecular and atomic levels. According to the scientific method, hypotheses have to be made, and then either disproved or supported by experimentation. This is precisely what the authors of this study have done.

Regarding the impact of the study? As an academic editor at PLoS ONE, this is what the journal is all about: we do not rate the perceived impact of these studies – we simply address if they are solidly based and novel. Laying brick-on-brick; this is the essence of good science.

As I know that dogs rely on their keen sense of smell more frequently than their vision, I expect that the jealousy shown by the dogs in this study to an inanimate object might well be less than that displayed towards other real-life dogs. However, I am not an animal behaviorist by training. Therefore, I put my trust in the journal’s editors who are experts in this field, and have doubtlessly had the paper reviewed by other knowledgeable researchers in the field.

As for me, I look forward to learning more about my dog and her behavior. And now I can officially say that she shows jealousy when asked. Science now supports this contention.

Posted in research, science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Cultural and academic boycotts: why the BDS movement is an embarrassment and a failure

Recently, Pink Floyd founder and (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) BDS supporter Roger Waters publicly called on musician Neil Young not to perform in Tel Aviv, Israel. In his letter to Young, Waters wrote:

That you would lend support to, and encourage and legitimize, with your             presence, a colonial apartheid regime, largely settled from Europe, that seeks to confine the native people of the land, either in exile or in second class status in reservations and ghettos. Please, brother, tell me it ain’t so.”

The same man who floats pig shaped balloons with Stars of David during his performances would be best advised to restrain his own displays of anti-Semitism and check his juvenile and inaccurate rhetoric. Being a rock star doesn’t automatically qualify Mr. Waters as an expert on the complicated backdrop of the middle-east. Although this seems to fit the BDS profile.

While peace must ultimately come from a two-state solution (that I remind Mr. Waters, was initially agreed upon by the U.N. General Assembly as Resolution 181, and this Partition Plan (read the 3rd paragraph) was accepted by Israel, but not the Palestinians), I find it highly ironic that Mr. Waters found it necessary to make the statement “largely settled from Europe.” Despite the inaccuracy of this comment – most Israeli Jews came from North African Arab countries, after being massacred and expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century – I would ask Mr. Waters where he would have preferred the remnants of the European Jewish community who weren’t murdered in Hitler’s ovens to go? Countries like Canada (and apparently the UK) actually had undisclosed policies regarding the number of Jewish immigrants they would accept: Canada’s chief immigration policy maker, Frederic Blair, was quoted as saying “None is too many.”

For the record, I have Israeli roots. Encountering virulent anti-Semitism in Canada, I moved to Israel in the early 1980s. In fact the street that I lived on in Canada was named after a former medical school dean known for his anti-Semitic views and enforcement of “quotas” for the number of Jews allowed into medical school. If not anti-Semitism, why else would a totally non-religious, non-Messianistic, liberal and peace-seeking young Jewish person leave Canada, a country of infinite opportunity?

However, despite my Israeli background, I do not number amongst those Jews who automatically defend Israel and Israeli policy; or those who believe that criticism of Israel should not be voiced in public to provide support for anti-Israel and anti-Semitic groups, such as the BDS. As an undergraduate and graduate student in Jerusalem in the late 1980s and 1990s, I attended peace rallies and was active in supporting dialog towards a two-state solution – long before such a term was openly uttered in Israel. I wrote letters to the editor that were published in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, blasting Israel’s right wing then prime minister (PM) Shamir for his obstinate stances refusing to advance peace talks in Madrid, and for prolonging the status quo. A negotiated two-state solution, similar to that proposed by President Clinton, accepted by then Israeli PM Barak, and rejected by former Palestinian Authority leader Arafat is the only way forward.

Even my novels depict my views. Welcome Home Sir is about Ethan Meyer, an Israeli principal investigator (PI) with post traumatic stress disorder running a lab in the US. The novel is current, and there is an encounter (highly fictional) between Ethan and a PI colleague from Lebanon. I note fictional because although Ethan’s views are similar to my own, I have excellent relationships with all my colleagues from middle-eastern countries. In this imagined encounter, Ethan bemoans being attacked for being an Israeli, while his own views are diametrically opposed to those of Israel’s PM Netanyahu. Between a rock and a hard place is his (and my) interpretation.

The current acute mini-war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is horrible; the loss of life, including Gazan women and children is sickeningly tragic, and the images hard for anyone who holds life dear difficult to accept. The BDS blame-game that the situation is Israel’s fault because of the siege on Gaza is irrelevant, because (despite the fact that the siege obviously hasn’t prevented the smuggling in of rockets and rocket parts) when a country and its citizens are being indiscriminately fired upon, that country has a responsibility to protect its citizens in any way possible. Even prior to the recent outbreak of fighting, Hamas was still firing occasional rockets into Israeli towns.

Hamas’ charter calls for the destruction of Israel. Not a two-state solution, but a dissolution of Israel. One can argue whether they are “holding hostage” a civilian population in Gaza. To a certain extent they are; building tunnels under peoples’ homes to infiltrate into Israel and commit murder, hiding rockets in UNRWA schools, hospitals and mosques, urging citizens to remain in their homes when the Israeli Defense Forces have given warning that they will attack. These are cruel and cynical means of trying to recruit sympathy from the world. But such is Hamas. It’s horrible, but I think they are torn between: 1) wanting to achieve “victory” by hitting a populated area of Tel Aviv and killing a number of Israelis, and 2) wanting to accrue a huge number of their own casualties to show the world that they are victims of Israeli aggression.

Much has been said about the ‘disproportionate use of force’ by Israel. Needless to say, there would be many more casualties on the Israeli side without the Iron Dome anti-missile systems and secure rooms in place in most major Israeli population centers. Hamas rockets are aimed at population centers. Hamas ‘psychological warfare’ has even included the sending of messages to Israelis to mock them and point out that Hamas is forcing them to run for cover and hide from their rockets. What a point of pride. But it’s necessary to note that despite the horrific results of Israel’s attempts to stop the rocket fire, which include casualties to children and civilians, no one in Israel revels in the suffering of Gazans. At the same time, this is not a sporting event where the game would be more interesting and sporting if the casualties were more balanced on both sides. The fact that most of the casualties are in Gaza does not legitimize Hamas’ terror. It merely reflects their cynicism and complete lack of empathy for their own population.

This desire to be the victim is highlighted by the Hamas refusal to accept a ceasefire that was outlined by the Egyptians with support from Palestinian leader Abu Mazen. The Egyptian foreign minister went so far as to conclude that all of the deaths that occurred since Hamas refused the ceasefire and began shelling Israeli cities and towns again with Iranian-made rockets were Hamas’ responsibility. In an interview, Tony Blair said that the UK would respond in the same manner if its citizens were attacked by rocket fire. This time, Hamas is cut off from support from most of the Arab world, which seems to have lost patience with Hamas’ lack of responsibility to its own people. There is no money to pay 43,000 civil citizens, and poverty reaches 38%, yet the Hamas leaders have made millions (http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4543634,00.html) and wasted huge amounts of money on rockets to fire into Israel. These types of disagreements and anger within the Palestinian and Arab countries are entirely ignored by groups such as the BDS, who constantly look for cheap one-sided clichés to support their ‘cause.’

None of this is helped by a biased press. As a science-writer for The Guardian, I have been disappointed several times by the papers’ treatment of issues concerning the middle-east. The first time was when I wrote an opinion post about why an academic boycott of Israel is wrong and hypocritical (http://www.theguardian.com/science/occams-corner/2012/sep/11/academic-boycotts-science-hypocrisy-israeli), and a day later the paper published a “rebuttal” by BDS proponent Ben White, who is well known for anti-Semitic comments and tweets, including Holocaust denial (http://www.adl.org/israel-international/anti-israel-activity/c/profile-ben-white.html) and his tweet that “If you need another reason to support a boycott of Habima (an Israeli acting troup slated to perform in the UK), I present a massive picture of (Jewish UK author) Howard Jacobson’s face.”

Perhaps even more serious is the recent headline I read in the Guardian following Hamas’ failure to accept the Egyptian-Palestinian endorsed ceasefire proposal that Israel accepted: “Gaza conflict resumes after five-hour truce as new ceasefire talks continue.” The New York Times, on the other hand, broke with: “Rockets Fired From Gaza as Humanitarian Pause Ends.” While one might contend that I am nitpicking, the Guardian gives the impression that the truce just magically ends, with equal responsibility from both sides. No wonder the BDS movement tends to pick up more supporters in the UK: unethical and misleading information (and this is probably just the tip of the iceberg) tends to lead people to the wrong conclusions. But the rabid anti-Semitism displayed by BDS leaders marginalizes and seriously undermines the credibility of this organization.

 

 

 

Posted in academic boycott | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

Scientists: the same old villains and nerds

Villains and nerds – that’s what scientists are, if you believe the media. At least the “big screen.” Finding myself in a state of near exhaustion this past month, I’ve taken the opportunity to watch a few films on ‘Netflix.’ Two very different films seem to further cement the public’s perception of what scientists (and their lives) are like. We do not hold a flattering public image.

The first film was called “Rubberneck.” The synopsis, borrowed from imdb, is as follows:

Paul Harris works at a small research facility on the outskirts of Boston. After a weekend tryst with a co-worker leaves him wanting more, his unreciprocated desires gradually mold into an acute infatuation. When Danielle takes interest in a new scientist at the laboratory, Paul’s suppressed resentments and perverse delusions finally become unhinged, triggering a horrific course of events that mercilessly engulf a tortured past and fugitive present.

This, needless to say, represents the geek. The socially inept, awkward scientist, who fails to abide or even understand normal social discourse, is the anti-hero of this rather mediocre film. Sadly, at least from the standpoint of depicting life in the lab, the directors did a decent job. And if you were to ask my spouse, perhaps I do epitomize the dedicated but socially clueless researcher. But regardless of whether I fit the stereotype, I don’t think the protagonist resembles most scientists.

Film #2 was called “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” (based on a bestselling novel by Peter Hoeg) and was a much bigger disappointment (beware of spoiler, in case you are tempted to see the film). Whereas Rubberneck didn’t raise expectations from the start, Smilla initially depicted rather heartwarming interactions between a half-Danish and half-Greenland Inuit woman with a 6 year-old Greenland-Inuit neighbor.

Online synopsis:

Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen is a 37 years old woman of Eskimo origin, who is living in Copenhagen. She is unmarried, unadapted, childless and irascible. One day her friend – 6 years old Esajas – falls down from the roof and is killed in what seems an accident. But Smilla believes he has been killed. Highly ranked people try to ‘convince’ her not to interfere, but she does not listen to them and tries to solve the crime. Her sense of snow leads her into a mystery with roots far back in time…

But from there, everything rolled downhill. I had hoped this would be a compelling drama-mystery, but in the end, a mysterious comet that landed on the Greenland ice a century earlier turned out to have mysterious energy properties that brought a long extinct fatal worm back into existence.

In this film, the ice was certainly thick, but the plot was thin, and the science was thinner yet. The villain was the owner/chief scientist of the mining company, who explained at the end that his goal was power, fame and wealth. He said this as evil oozed from the pores of his one-dimensional character.

Smilla, on the other hand, could survive third degree burns, humungous explosions and submersion in icy waters – not to mention long treks through snowy passages in Greenland. And the young woman, who was apparently unemployed and tossed out of school and university for bad behavior, had her own microscope in her Copenhagen apartment, where one assumes she purchased antibodies from Sigma and fixed samples with paraformaldehyde while cooking dinner.

Cynical? Hell yes. One thing is certain: with one film based out of the US and the other from Europe, neither continent gets any points for accurately depicting the lives of scientists.

Posted in research, science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments