Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mass shootings: try not to read about them

You know this interesting term that people use sometimes to describe legal persecution of cannabis: victimless crimes, they call it? From this point of view, mass murders lie on the exactly opposite end of the spectrum: they are, in most cases, criminalless. Because usually the perpetrator dies in the process, either because they are shot by police, or because they commit suicide. But in any case, they usually die by choice, as their own death is a part of the plan.

And my feeling is that this strange feature of mass murders and shooting sprees contributes to the discomfort, almost panic that the public feels about them. Because now a judicial system that is based on concepts of punishment and isolation suddenly finds itself totally helpless in the face of these crimes, as they kind of have an embedded "capital punishment" as their constituent part. When there's nobody to blame, nobody to pay retribution to; nobody to put on trial, nobody to put in prison, what do you even do?

Suddenly the only thing you can possibly do is to try to prevent new, similar tragedies from happening. But working on prevention is uncomfortable. It requires too much effort, and also this effort is totally counter-intuitive (more about it later). We want a quick solution, we want to blame somebody: the schools, the parents, the doctors. Or guns laws, maybe. But the trick is: none of this blame works. None of it.

Availability of mental health care is very important, but no mental health system, even the most involuntary draconian one, will ever be able to prevent mass shootings from happening. A good affordable psychiatric care will surely improve things to some extent, especially for those mass murderers who are not psychopaths (the guy who shot people in the University of Texas in 1966, for example, had a tumor in his brain, and has even sought medical help voluntarily at some point, but never got enough of it). Good mental care will help, but there is no test, either psychological or neurological, that would tell you if somebody is a future murderer, or whether they are just strange. This just doesn't work! And therefore, while psychiatric care is important, it can never guarantee that "future shooters" will be identified preemptively. Don't blame it on the medical system.

A side note here: not only psychiatrists will never be able to tell you if your neighbor will ever turn into a murderer or not, but it's probably not even a good idea to link mental health to mass murders for purely political reasons. I mean, shooting sprees may seem like a good opportunity to improve psychiatric medical system, but actually it's not, and for two different reasons. One: as discussed, on its own medical system can't prevent new shootings from happening, which means that sooner or later you would be asked to answer for your promises, and you won't be able to give a good answer. Another, more important, is that linking asocial behaviors to mental health issues stigmatizes mental disorders in a really weird and dangerous way. You may remember how after the Sandy Hook tragedy the rumor have spread that the criminal might have been autistic. The results of this rumor were that some people with autistic kids found themselves in all sort of subtle trouble, just because in the public subconsciousness autism was suddenly linked to violence (a notion that, of course, has no psychiatric basis whatsoever). You don't want kids with autism being abandoned or stigmatized by the society, and you definitely don't want people with schizophrenia to be harmed just because they have a diagnosis, so we'd better not perpetuate the myth that the problem of mass shootings is solely a mental health problem.

Similarly, it doesn't help if we blame it on parents, or on schools. All these zero tolerance policies, armed security officers, and prison-like bullet-proof doors just make school kids miserable. They won't be able to prevent anything, because there will always be a workaround for a truly dedicated psychopath. They only complicate things for the majority of population, creating a sense of fear, and making everybody's lives harder and sadder. Now not only several people have died, but also millions live in constant fear and distress. It doesn't help anything at all.

Same is actually true for gun laws: while reducing guns availability could help, the only truly effective way to do it would be to ban automatic firearms altogether, and this is not going to happen. All other measures are likely to be either futile (as there will be workarounds), or outright dangerous. For example, it totally would not help if you disqualify people with a history of mental illness from ever owning guns, because in a society where guns are valued it will only cause people with mental problems to hide these problems from doctors. And it is not a good outcome! As soon as having hallucinations would mean a ban on hunting and range shooting, people would stop reporting hallucinations to mental health professionals. Which is really not a situation you want to have on your hands.

What could help? Well, one obvious thing would help immensely, and that is: we should stop reporting details of mass shootings, and we should stop popular investigations of the "hidden motives" of those criminals that committed these crimes. For years by now it is known that public attention, even if posthumous, is exactly what these people seek. They want their blog posts to be read and cited, their youtube channels to be linked to, and their names to be immortalized on Wikipedia. That's their goal! They want their pathetic worthless "manifestos" to make you shiver, and they know that they will never achieve it without cheating, so they go and kill somebody. As, unfortunately, this works. That's the kind of sick social reinforcement they are looking for. And because of that, every news article that mentions a name of a shooter, and then goes deep into their troubled childhood; every news report that shows their face on the screen, all become a part of a "success story" for those violent sociopathic people. Every web link to the online diary of a shooter makes this world a worse place, as it makes it more probable that murders like that would be repeated. Covering this tragedies with attention on the murderer, reposting and linking these news stories, makes us share in the crime: not the one that was just committed, but the one that is now to come.

When you Google for "Sandy Hook", and the first thing you see is the face of the murderer, do you know how it is called? Freaking shame. Irresponsibility. Free advertisement.

Let us start from ourselves. Let's forget the names of those guys. Stop watching the news, don't google the stories. There are some psychiatrists, criminologists, and other professionals out there, who need to know the details, but you and me, we don't need to know them! It's not gonna help us, or anybody, in any conceivable way. People are weak and weird, and we feel somehow more alive when we read about a mother who killed her baby, or a boy who shoot his teacher. But it's a bad thing to do. By seeking these kind of news we are creating the market, and thus are encouraging news outlets to cover these stories in all the useless senseless detail they can manage. Which perpetuates the cycle.

That's about all that I have to say on this subject.

Monday, April 14, 2014

About STEM Crysis

One of the bests ways for me to get really angry is to read something about how STEM education is bad, and how "STEM crisis is a myth". Something like this thread on Reddit:

The STEM Crisis Is a Myth

People write long passionate posts there, and all of them seem to agree that "STEM is bad", "Liberal arts education is bad", and "There's no STEM crisis". A lot of this rhetoric also eventually boils down to the protectionist sentiment about "closing the borders", because, allegedly, the whole "STEM crisis" theme is just a lobbying plot to bring more skilled immigrants from China and India to the US. And to lower the wages for honest hard-working Americans. Right!

I guess it is so annoying precisely because it happens on Reddit, where traditionally people like to think of themselves as quite liberal and progressive. And yet suddenly once this topic is touched, they are not liberal anymore.

Anyway, I think there are several important points that are totally missing (or downvoted) from this discourse:

  1. When discussing the utility (or uselessness) of STEM education, don't think about your chances of getting a job in biology after getting a masters degree in biology. Think of your chances to get a good job (any kind of job you would consider "good" or "decent") after getting a degree in biology, compared to your chances of getting a similar job without college education, or after some alternative type of education. Don't think narrow. Think as broad as possible; think of your total chances: compare overall unemployment rates and average salaries for BS in math or physics, as compared to those who didn't get this degree.
  2. Don't even start about academia and "oversupply of PhDs" when the initial topic was STEM education. Academia is only a small subset of total job marker for PhDs. And getting a PhD is only a minor track among all those you can pursue after getting a bachelor degree in STEM. These two topics are tangentially related, but only very tangentially.
  3. These days, it is normal to change your occupation in your adult years. It's not the medieval world in which being born in a family of potters meant that you were bound to stay a potter for the rest of your life. It is in fact quite probable that you may decide to start something entirely new in your middle years, and you have no means of predicting today what will interest you later, in some 10-20 years from now. Flexibility is both a blessing and a curse, but I still think it is much more of a blessing. It means that you can change your life later on, even though it also means that getting college education doesn't "guarantee" employment in exactly same field that you happened to study.
  4. Complaining about immigration to the US is just... a bad tone? I don't even know how to put it properly, but it just doesn't sound American at all, does it?. The very glory of this nation always relied on the supply of newcomers, on mixing of different cultures, and on using other people's willingness to work, and their education (one they received abroad) for free. To talk about H visas in a negative context is just unpatriotic! Xenophobic sentiments like this one are OK, I guess, for some nations: there are protectionists and racist countries out there, but it sounds very odd, and very off in this context.
  5. Living in a global world works in both directions as well. If people from Germany can come to the U.S. to work here, it also means that you can go to Germany from the U.S. to work there. Or South Korea. Think of it, it may be an interesting opportunity.
  6. Finally, to get more STEM jobs one needs more entrepreneurs who are both interested, and well versed in STEM. The only way to get them, is to educate people in STEM; almost to push them into STEM. STEM jobs won't appear by magic just because you happened to get a STEM degree. Yet with a STEM degree you have a chance to create some new jobs. And in the broader perspective, it may be the most important point here.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Adjusting the numbers: 5% of those accepted to a graduate school will get a tenure-track position eventually

Previously I claimed that about 20% of neuroscience postdocs eventually get tenure-track positions. (Link to the diagram). I also assumed that only 50% of graduate students make it to the end, and graduate with a PhD, which meant that for a fresh-new graduate student the probability of eventually, some day, getting a tenure-track position was about 10%.

Now it looks like I may have to correct these numbers down a bit. Still about 50% of PhD students graduate  with a PhD (link; the rest either drop out, or get a Masters), but the success in getting a tenure-track job was somewhat lower this year. In 2013-2014 season top universities got about 350+ applications; decent universities got about 300 applications. Total number of positions in neuroscience this season was probably about 40 (maybe 50), liberal arts colleges and small state schools included. It means that about 15% of those postdocs who looked for a position eventually got it. There were probably positions I didn't notice, but also some of those 300 candidates applying for positions were not postdocs, but more senior candidates, trying to move to a different place, or upgrade to a better institution.

Which leaves us with this estimation. 15% of postdocs who seek a tenure-track position now eventually get it. Because some postdocs probably get disillusioned earlier, and don't even bother applying, It should be a safe bet to assume that not more than 10% of mint-new postdocs would end up in a TT position.

Which means that not more than 5% of new graduate student will get a TT position.

Now, as it is a high time for graduate schools interviews, this is some number to discuss with prospective candidates. Are they OK with that? Do they realize what it means for them personally? Do they know their options?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Again on PhD numbers

Two interesting people have written two interesting posts about reducing admissions to grad schools. GMP has described graduate students who are smart, but not motivated, and so obviously have no future in science. Which poses a question: is it morally acceptable to keep them in grad school? And is it ultimately good for science? Maybe it is better to give them some kind of Advanced Masters, and let them transfer to industry (where they were apparently heading all along), instead of forcing them to go through this whole PhD experience. Why would you teach somebody to be an independent scientist if they don't plan to be an independent scientist? And why wouldn't you use the money that is currently spent on training for funding permanent scientists instead?

Another great post by Prof-Like-Substance is about how certain specialists, even within one sub-discipline, may have much better chances of employment outside of academia than other specialists. The question here is pretty similar: is it morally acceptable to let people invest their lives in potential dead-ends? Especially where there is, apparently, a viable alternative? Or should students be discouraged from entering certain fields, and be by force redirected onto more promising (or safe) tracks?

My general attitude towards this whole "surplus of PhDs" problem did not change: I don't quite agree that the situation is dire, and I definitely don't think that admissions to graduate schools should be halted. As I have stated before, while the existing "end-road bottleneck" of low job prospects for senior postdocs makes people anxious, unhappy and desperate, bottlenecks placed at the very beginning (hard admissions to grad schools) would discriminate against vulnerable categories of people; against all those who either start low, or think low of themselves, such as ethnic minorities, lower-income students, career-changers, women, foreigners etc., which is both unfair, and inefficient. People should be given chances to try things out. Late bottlenecks are not particularly bad, but rather all bottlenecks are bad in general. Ideally, scientific job market should allow promising scientists to gradually converge onto permanent positions. Lots of people should be allowed to try; lots of people should be allowed to fail, and while the judgment shouldn't be brought too early (lest it be arbitrary), it also should not be postponed for years (it is cruel).

Below I tried to illustrate some scenarios of this kind as "people sifts", or reversed pyramids. If everybody are admitted to the program and kept in it, but after 22 years of learning 95% of people get sacked (left shape), the remaining 5% will probably be very worthy of the jobs they got. But it would be an extremely inefficient, and, at the same time, a very cruel scheme, as everybody participating in this rat race will be extremely anxious and unhappy all the time. Moreover, many women, for example, would probably opt out of this race altogether, as they will reason at year 3: "Either I have a baby now, or never. But if I have a baby, I'll be at least a year behind all those males around me. I guess it's better to withdraw altogether, and find another job". Which would be double-bad, as it is, again, both unfair, and inefficient.

If, on the other hand, everybody are selected early on, and then the employment is practically guaranteed (right shape), all scientists (those who have made it) will probably be happy and friendly, but they will either all share rich parents and good undergraduate institutions, or will be chosen at random. Because when a person is 20 years old, and they studied engineering for 4 years, it is impossible to tell if they will become a good biologist or not. You will have to either use criteria that are predictive, but intrinsically unfair (such as their GPA and pedegree), or just throw a dice.


The only workable solution, in my mind's eye, is the shape in the middle, in which many are called, and at every step many are chosen, but lots of small decisions gradually make this groud converge onto a successful group of highly efficient scientists (unlike in the right scenario). Some people will, obviously, be disappointed, and some people will still feel betrayed at the very end, but most of them will escape rather early (unlike in the left scenario). I think a sift like that could work.

Now, if we draw modern-day neuroscience world in a similar way, how will it look like? According to my estimations, it will look roughly like that:


As you can see, in essence, it is pretty bad at both edges. It is not that easy to get into grad school, but at the same time the pyramid has a dead-end-style bottleneck at the very end. Postdocs slam at it daily, weeping in sadness and sorrow, and it is this sound that shapes the emotional background of the field. Which is not at all healthy.

What can be done? Let's smooth out the corners!


Accept more people into graduate programs, but, indeed, make Masters a requirement. Make PhD more competitive by design, not by personal failure of individuals, but at the same time, don't kill candidates early: let them try things out. Then shorten the postdoc, and compensate this loss in manpower by creating permanent (secure) research positions. Make the salary in these positions somewhat higher than that of a 3d year postdoc (because a person with 10 years of experience is usually more productive than a newcomer), but more importantly: make them secure in some way or another. Maybe let them be employed by universities, and then be distributed between groups in a grant-dependent manner. Maybe make them employed by NIH directly, and let PIs compete for specialists, and not for money. There should be ways. But overall, I think, these 2 changes: widening the base (aka "Masters", or "Research Assistant"), and the pinnacle (aka "permanent positions") would totally do the trick, and make people on average happier, while at the same time making the system more efficient.

Interestingly, recent changes in K99 rules not only don't push towards this scheme, but in a way push away from it, by creating an "alternative track" with early decisions and higher competition. Early-career decisions are inevitably biased by irrelevant factors, such as the parent's income (manifested by the choice of undergraduate institution), country of origin, or just pure luck (noise). Essentially, it is the "Right scenario" from my first figure, superimposed onto the "Left scenario". Not "combined", but exactly "superimposed", so that you have bad effects from both early and late bottlenecks, and good consequences from neither of them. Decisions are noisy, people are unhappy, efficiency is low, and fairness is really hard to achieve.

Fight for the changes! Join the Pyramid-Smoothing Party!






Monday, December 9, 2013

You talk with an accent, where are you from?

GMP (aka "Academic Jungle") started a great discussion about people with accents, and about how everybody asks them "Where are you from?", and about how it can be extremely annoying.

I totally agree that it may be very annoying. As a Russian, I rather dislike talking about vodka, Putin and differences between Moscow and the rest of the country. At the same time, I realize that people on average don't know that much about Russia and Russian culture, and they are trying their best to relate. And I appreciate that.

And that's why, after reading all replies to that GMP's post, I have to disagree with most commenters, and explicitly state that it's OK, and moreover necessary to ask people where they are from. Even if it is annoying =)

Why? Because it's better to try to find some common ground with people, rather than stay cold, indifferent, sterile and perfectly un-annoying. It's better to be boringly curious than boringly uncaring and apathetic. It's better to fail in communication than not to communicate at all. It's better to be mistaken about people's background (as long as you try to fix your mistakes and learn more about them) rather than ignore this background, and assume that everybody are essentially same and identical, and do not even deserve to be asked about where they are from.

When people ask me if I like vodka I cringe. But at the same time I am grateful to them for this small pathetic effort to find something common between their life and mine. It's important for me to know that they did not treat me as "just another compatriot of whatever origin I don't care about", but tried to see me as somebody with a potentially unique attitude towards life. And if they are mistaken for the actual content of this attitude... Well, there are complex socioeconomic reasons for that, and it is fine. It is not the worst starting point for a discussion, after all.

My compliments go to those who ask "where are you from". My sympathies to those who are tired of providing stereotypical answers. But saying that it is bad to be interested in people's origins is just plain wrong =)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Google as a bibliography software

It looks like Google have introduced some bibliography software functionality to their Google Scholar. Now you can add Google Scholar results to your personal "library" of papers. And you can also assign labels (essentially - tags) to articles.

http://www.google.com/intl/en/scholar/help.html#library

The interface for adding labels is slightly awkward (a bit too Gmail-style for my taste), but usable: to add a label to a paper you should first create a label (it will be empty just after you created it), then click on the paper title, get to the "paper page" (where the abstract is whoen), and there use a drop-down menu. A bit too many clicks to enjoy the process, but it's usable.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Linkedin endoresments

I like how on Linkedin I have 7 endorsements for "confocal microscopy" (which I in fact only tried for about a week), but just 1 endorsement for "patch clamp" (which I did for 3 years). Naturally, all from people who knew me ~7 years ago (before I tried either). Is not it nice?

Also one endorsement for "Communication audits" (I don't even know what this thing is. How did it even get there?)

Conclusion: endorsements totally don't work if most of your connections are from your previous career. People just choose words that sound nice, and then via positive feedback (most endorsed skills being shown at the top) these flukes perpetuate, and get written in stone.

I am now tempted to delete "confocal microscopy" from my list of skills altogether =)