Research is personal (two quotes)

Quote 1 – preface to reviews accompanying the rejection of my application for a grant

“In reading the reviews, please keep in mind that the reviews are… [not addressed] to you, the investigator… Some reviews may contain irrelevant, non-substantive, erroneous or ad hominem statements.”

I love that last sentence – it’s both horrible and hilarious. I would probably find it less hilarious if there had actually been any ad hominem attacks in the reviews I received, but my reviewers were all professional. I can easily imagine how there might be less professionally objective reviews, however.

"This applicant is, personally, the sole reason why we haven't solved deforestation and climate change! Not only shouldn't we give her money, we should actually steal money from her when she isn't looking! Come on, Review Committee, who's with me?"

“This applicant is, personally, the sole reason why we haven’t solved deforestation and climate change! Not only shouldn’t we give her money, we should actually steal money from her when she isn’t looking! Come on, Review Committee, who’s with me?”

Scientists are real people, with real friendships and rivalries and old grudges. When you submit a paper to a journal, you are often asked to list “reviewers not recommended” – reviewers who you believe to be biased against your work. (That doesn’t mean you’re safe from them, though; I know at least one journal editor has a policy of making sure to send a paper to at least one reviewer-not-recommended, just to see what’s going on there!) When you work in one research group, you may be intentionally joining a decades-old rivalry with another research group. If your research findings contradict someone else’s, you may unintentionally start a new rivalry. Peer review always has to take into account that your peers are real people. I’d never seen the reviews come with a warning before, though!

Quote 2 – from the essay “Getting Animals In View” by Christine M. Korsgaard, in The Point

Okay, I almost never read philosophy essays. They tend to say things like, “Humans are different from all other animals because we can conceive of our own mortality,” which makes me want to demand how, exactly, the author proposes to test ability-to-conceive-of-own-mortality across a broad range of species; and how he knows that I can conceive of my own mortality (I can claim that I can, but self-reporting is notoriously unreliable); and why, exactly, a gazelle fleeing a cheetah can be said to not be able to conceive of its own mortality, since it’s definitely running away for some reason…

But this particular philosophy essay was rather wonderful. I did have some quibbles with it, but I’ll give it a pass on those because of this:

“What is important about the other animals is what we have in common: that they, like us, are the kinds of beings to whom things can be important. Like us, they pursue the things that are important to them as if they were important absolutely, important in deadly earnest—for, like us, what else can they do? When we do this, we claim our own standing as ends in ourselves. But our only reason for doing that is that it is essential to the kinds of beings we are, beings who take their own concerns to be important. The claim of the other animals to the standing of ends in themselves has the same ultimate foundation as our own…”

The essay was part of a series called “What Are Animals For?” and I love this essay’s final conclusion, that animals are for – well, for being animals. For themselves.

Anyone who has spent any time watching animals will agree that they do indeed seem to “pursue the things that are important to them as if they were important absolutely.” In other words, they behave as if they are real. Not “just” a snail or a junco or one of billions of deer mice, but an individual to whom things matter.

Of course you could argue that it isn’t hard to program a computer to prioritize things, that consciousness means this and sentience means that and animals aren’t— and so on. None of my research is concerned with this or will shed any light on it; I won’t ever rule out the possibility that juncos might be mentally empty little drones. And it doesn’t affect my research questions either way.

Your FACE is a mentally empty drone!

“Who are you calling a drone? Your FACE is a mentally empty little drone!”

But research is personal; I’m not a computer, constrained to think only those thoughts proven to be correct. So—while staying scientific and objective in all of my work, of course—I indulge in a little philosophy, and allow myself to suspect that the juncos have things that are important and personal to them, too.

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