#365papers a day in 2015: my thoughts

I often see hashtags being used by other scientists on twitter that I have no idea what they mean. For example, in December a bunch of people were posting with #op12, which meant ‘operation productivity for December’. Sometimes it takes a little while to track down the source of the hashtag and what exactly it means, but usually they’re cool ways to build a community and keep yourself accountable or be inspired by colleagues around the world. Yesterday I came across #365papers, which I quickly found an explanation for here. Basically, people are setting the goal to read one peer-reviewed paper a day in 2015, and can post the paper they read on twitter with the hashtag #365papers. This goal is actually one I had set for myself last year, which I did an OK job of sticking to. I had actually set three goals for each day: (1) read a paper; (2) write or code for 30 minutes; and (3) measure at least 2 fish pictures. I drew color-coded boxes on every day of my planner to remind myself to do those things:

planner_boxesAnd it worked pretty well! So I had already resolved to draw those boxes in my planner again this year. But I think I will also try to use the #365papers hashtag, because I really like the idea of using an online community like twitter to keep yourself accountable, and I think seeing people’s tweets every day might help remind and inspire me to stick to my goal. I won’t beat myself up if I skip a day (no one is perfect!), but it’s a good goal to have because as scientists we have to keep up with the peer-reviewed literature being published daily in our fields. Using the #365papers hashtag has the added benefit of bringing attention to cool papers I’ve read, and who knows–maybe it will even connect me with people doing cool research. Twitter has been shown to be an important networking tool for scientists, and I think this demonstrates another benefit of it.

What are your thoughts on using twitter in this sort of way? Will you be trying to read #365papers a day?



Responses to a Wall Street Journal op-ed

Last week, the Wall Street journal published an article by religious leader Eric Metaxas titled “Science increasingly makes the case for God”. My dad showed me the article as a jumping off point for a conversation, but it got me all riled up. So riled up that I wrote the following letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal:

Dear Editors of the Wall Street Journal:

I have just read the article “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God” by Eric Metaxas, published in the 26 December 2014 issue of your newspaper. In this article, Mr. Metaxas describes how scientific research has uncovered hundreds of parameters necessary for the origin of life on Earth, and uses that as evidence for God—because how could random chance alone bring all of those parameters together? Mr. Metaxas is, I gather, a religious leader, but he is not a scientist and I found that glaringly obvious from his article. I do not believe he is qualified to make statements on what science is ‘making the case for’, and it is my opinion that by publishing his article you are perpetuating many misconceptions about science and its relationship with religion.

My biggest issue with Mr. Metaxas’ article comes in his statement, “Doesn’t assuming that an intelligence created these perfect conditions require far less faith than believing that a life-sustaining Earth just happened to beat the inconceivable odds to come into being?” This statement succinctly summarizes all of the problems I have with people trying to bring science and religion into the same sphere. Religion is completely about faith; science has nothing to do with faith. Science is about observing the world, making hypotheses about why the world is the way it is observed, and then testing those hypotheses. Once we have drawn conclusions from those tests, we can revise what we first supposed about our observation and come up with new ways to test what we think might explain our observations. This is the scientific method, and it has nothing to do with faith. That is why science could never make the case for God, because God requires blind faith, and science, which at its heart is a process, will never incorporate blind faith.

Additionally, the sentence, “At what point is it fair to admit that science suggests that we cannot be the result of random forces?” aptly demonstrates Mr. Metaxas’ ignorance regarding science. Science can only suggest that we are the result of random forces. Those forces do not act in isolation, so although they may be random, they are not independent. Such interdependence causes complex interactions between forces and events, making every random event more difficult to model and understand. But complexity and difficulty are not reasons to abandon the scientific process—it simply means that scientists and mathematicians have their work cut out for them to build upon the facts that we have already established.

Mr. Metaxas is clearly not an expert in the subject of science or the early conditions of life on Earth (or on any planet, for that matter). It is my opinion that science and religion are completely separate entities and that grouping them together obscures the importance of scientific research. Mr. Metaxas is not qualified to make statements about science and what conclusions can be drawn, and therefore I feel that his opinion article about science and whether it makes the case for God is inappropriate to publish. I hope that you consider more carefully the experts whose opinion articles you publish in the future.

I had decided not to post my letter on my blog immediately to see if the Wall Street Journal would have a response. Today I saw an article highlighting another response to this letter, but this response was written by an astrophysics professor, who is more qualified than I am to rebut the points raised by Mr. Metaxas in the original article (and he does a great job). Dr. Krauss’ letter is well worth a read–he makes four clear, succinct points that refute every argument Mr. Metaxas made in his Wall Street Journal article: 1. We only know some of the factors that led to life on Earth, and do not presume that those factors apply throughout the universe; 2. the odds for finding life in the universe have in fact increased; 3. life is specific to the universe as it was formed with the forces that existed, which is not the same as saying that the universe wouldn’t exist if the forces had been different when it was formed; and 4. the appearance of design is not the same as design occurring (which was sort of Darwin’s point in 1859).

My response was more about the difference and separation of science and religion, while Dr. Krauss’ letter picks apart the data behind Mr. Metaxas’ arguments. I think both are important sides to the issue of the Wall Street Journal publishing the article, although I think that Dr. Krauss’ letter does a better job of actually rebutting the article. 

It was disappointing to see the original article in the Wall Street Journal, and it is more disappointing to find that they seem to have no interest in publishing the actual data and science behind this issue. Hopefully all of my readers can see through hollow arguments and come to your own logical conclusions about actual scientific data–and listen to the real experts on the subject.