And they are not about to get more normal
Previous studies have suggested that scientists are weird. Drawing on the conclusions of a case study realized in Panama in January 2017, we hereby reinforce this statement. Furthermore, our study points towards a possible increase in weirdness in the next few years. However, more studies would be necessary to confirm this preoccupying hypothesis.
For the purpose of this study, 16 observers were brought together in Panama for a period of 3 weeks, during which they were exposed to a vast array of scientists (n>30) coming from various fields related to tropical biology. The group of observers was herded all around the country to study different scientists in various environments (said environments include: island of tropical forest providing strict isolation of scientists from the rest of the world, remote mountainous region, Caribbean resort)
The scientists studied were told to present their study field and research work to the group of observers who were presented as “the next generation of tropical scientists”. Most scientists filled this requirement in the form of a lecture, often complementing it with a visit to the field. Some also accompanied the group of observers in the realisation of group projects. Throughout these activities, the group of observers took notes, asked questions, participated assiduously to the activities prepared by the scientists and produced numerous related blog posts, thus playing convincingly their part as “future tropical scientists”. Observations about signs of weirdness would be denoted throughout these interactions between the scientists and observers. In order to increase reliability of the present study, triangulation was used to verify former observations. In this regard, scientists were also observed in more casual situations, such as sharing diner, cold beers and dance floor with the group of observers. Also, most of the scientists studied having provided some of their own publications, these were meticulously read as a third source of data collection. These different sources of data were then regrouped and analyzed thoroughly in order to attest if our sample attested for scientists’ weirdness or not. Observers bias was effectively neutralized by the diversity of observers in terms of provenance, training and personal characters.
Moreover, an opportunistic individual from the group of observers realized that the group of observers, indeed being composed of future tropical scientists, could in fact serve as an interesting data set in the present study. The generational difference with the scientists formerly studied was thus used to add a cross-sectional dimension to the study. However, due to the significantly shorter amount of experience this group has in the scientific world, the same methods could not be reproduced with the same intensity within this second group. This part of the study relies mostly on observations made in casual contexts, such as sharing meals, cold beers, mojitos, short and long bus/boat/plane rides, basket-volley ball games, etc. More controlled contexts are limited to participation to the scientists lead activities described above. Finally, the only publications emerging from this second group that were consulted are blog posts. We consider that there was no observer bias as the principal observer cited here is a confused French Canadian who doesn’t have a strong sense of what is going on in this world.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
In the case of the first and older group observed, many signs of weirdness were noted during the experiment. Table 1.1 shows a few examples of strange behaviors noted during lectures and fieldwork.
|SIGNS OF WEIRDNESS EXPRESSED||OCCURENCE|
|Setting up love hotels for false crabs so they will mate in front of the camera||1|
|Walking in the forest with socks full of corn starch||2|
|Calling a shovelful of dirt, fungus and angry leaf-cutter ants “gold”||1|
|Swimming in the ocean with bundles of baits in the hope of attracting predators.||3|
|Checking ALL of the leaves in ALL of the trees in a 50 ha plot||1|
|Referring to leaf pathogens as “beautiful”||2|
|Creating mutant butterflies||3|
|Creating supersoldier ants||1|
|Continuing lectures after 10 PM.||10|
The signs of weirdness observed with this method of data collection are strongly supported by publications read, which confirm in many cases the seriousness that the scientists put in their weird ideas (no publications will be cited here, in order to keep participants’ anonymity).
However, our other data collection method (casual context such as sharing dinner and beers with studied subjects) suggests contradictory results; in those casual contexts, observed scientists appeared as very normal human beings. However, we decided to reject these outliers, as data collected through lectures and fieldwork provide such strong evidence of weirdness. We can thus assert, with a confidence interval of 95%, that the scientists sampled are, indeed, weird. We consider that the diversity of observed scientists is sufficient to generalize this conclusion to the whole population of tropical scientists.
As for the second set of scientists studied, a worrisome amount of strange behaviors was noted throughout all of the data collection methods. These behaviors include, but are not limited to: eating peanut butter and relish sandwiches (and liking it); showing a profound distaste for pretty and colorful things; spending several hours debating preferred ways of accidently dying in the jungle; asking lecturers to go on with their lecture even past 10 pm; showing disproportionate hatred for plant genomics; imitating all kinds of different species like ants, vampire bats, butterflies and even Chihuahuas; enthusiastically looking for crocodiles.
On a larger scale, we noted that this group would also do pretty much anything they were told to do without questioning it (for instance, if an individual was told to “get the f*** in the water”, they would immediately jump in the water). Another recurring strange habit was the generalized identity crisis in which this whole group seemed to be: first, very few of them could actually put a name on their type of research. Most of them would mix up random subjects, like anthropology and genomics, when asked about their research subject. Second, even though they have already invested a lot of work in their own field, you would often hear them say random things like “I want to study bats!” when they studied forest management or “I’m going to be a marine biologist!” when they were actually studying soils.
All these observations enable us to confirm with complete certainty that weirdness is spread across all generations of scientists. Moreover, comparing the younger and older generations of scientists of this case study, we perceive a trend to increasing weirdness in the younger generation, as shown in figure 1.1, where group 1 represent the first group here examined and group 2 represents the group that also served as observers for group 1.
Figure 1.1 Increasing weirdness through generations
However, it is impossible for the moment to confirm this trend, as, like exposed earlier, data gathered for the second group is not entirely reliable, given the casual context of its collect and the limited number of participants. Also worthy of noting is the limited amount of time these individuals have spent in the scientific world. Thus, the correlation between their denomination as “scientists” and relative weirdness might not be strong. An interesting question emerging from this realization is: are people becoming scientists because they are weird, or are people becoming weird because of science?
Apart from these frightening results, we end this study with some more surprising insights; although, as the depiction made above suggests, the group of younger scientists can sound like a big mess, it seems that they might in fact be evolving into something completely new. Of this group we have also noted an incredible amount of cooperation; the diverging backgrounds of observed individuals was, in general, not a source of disruption, but rather an opportunity to build knowledge, enhance reflections and provide all sorts of solutions to problems faced. This collaborative spirit showed in all kinds of situations. For example, with this strange group, a mere visit in the forest could become a very extensive analysis; for every question, be it on ants, birds, bees, soils, human uses, plant genomics, monkeys, carbon-cycle, etc., there was a knowledgeable individual eager to share with their counterparts. Also, they totally kicked ass at accomplishing complicated tasks like preparing a group barbecue. Could weirdness actually be the key element to this supra-level of organization? We would certainly need some further testing (perhaps more field courses in the Caribbean?) to fuel this reflection.
Through this study, we have, with different methods, proven that, indeed, scientists are weird. Although the increasing trend we have found is disturbing and should be further explored, we conclude that, through innovative strategies, it seems that the younger generation might be able to make it alright despite their abnormal weirdness. Maybe that is actually how generations and generations of scientists before us have also survived?