My problem with biologists

It’s on display here.

‘Many scientists don’t like to talk about shark sex,’ Juliet Eilperin writes in her entertaining study of sharks and their world. ‘They worry it will only reinforce the popular perception that these creatures are brutish and unrelenting.’ In as far as we understand the subject – only a few species have been observed mating – the business is ‘very rough’. Larger male sharks have to bite or trap the females to keep them around during courtship; marine biologists can tell when a female has been mating because her skin will be raw or bleeding. The process is so violent that, come the mating season, female nurse sharks will stay in shallow water with their reproductive openings pressed firmly to the sea floor. Otherwise they risk falling prey to roaming bands of males who ‘will take turns inserting their claspers in her’ (the clasper is the shark version of a penis, found in a pair behind the pelvic fins). A litter of fifty pups will have anything from two to seven fathers. But the reproductive story gets rougher still. A number of shark species go in for oophagy, or uterine cannibalism. Sand tiger foetuses ‘eat each other in utero, acting out the harshest form of sibling rivalry imaginable’. Only two babies emerge, one from each of the mother shark’s uteruses: the survivors have eaten everything else. ‘A female sand tiger gives birth to a baby that’s already a metre long and an experienced killer,’ explains Demian Chapman, an expert on the subject.

Yet shark attacks are an exotic rarity. There were 75 verified shark attacks last year, and 12 fatalities. Even in the US, a global hotspot, you are forty times more likely to be hospitalised by a Christmas tree ornament than by a shark. Meanwhile, to supply the shark fin soup trade alone, an estimated 73 million sharks are killed each year.

First of all, I’m always slightly annoyed by their lack of loyalty for Team Humanity.  Some may be shocked to hear this, but I would like the fatalities to be a clean 100% on the shark side.

Mostly, though, the thing that irritates me about biologists and anthropologists is that they’re trying to manipulate me rather than teach me.  They don’t want me to know things about the predators or cannibals they’re studying because their only goal in communicating with me is political advocacy.  All that matters is that I’m supposed to like sharks and support laws to protect them.  Somehow the language of “discrimination” and “prejudice” has leaked into the natural sciences.  It’s the same thing with medical scientists and health agencies, as I’ve said before when discussing leprosy.  They’re not trying to tell me things I want to know–like how to actually avoid catching the disease.  All they’re interested in is curing me of my prejudice, teaching me not to fear or shun lepers, say (no matter how rational such behavior might actually be).  The effect of all of this is not to shame me into advocating for sharks, lepers, or aborigines.  The effect is to make inherently cool subjects boring.

And I’ll admit it–I’m prejudiced against sharks.

10 thoughts on “My problem with biologists

  1. You have displayed a personal prejudice by discriminating against sharks. Now, be a good boy; say ten hail Marx’s and contemplate your sin. When you are ready to repent there is a donation site to PETA available online.

    Seriously though, I have noticed the same thing in modern science. In my town of Jacksonville, FL the health department kept quiet on the TB outbreak among the homeless because… “”What you don’t want is for anyone to have another reason why people should turn their backs on the homeless,” said Charles Griggs, a spokesman for the county Health Department.” Because turning your back on the homeless is worse than contracting TB. Geniuses!

    m.jacksonville.com/news/health-and-fitness/2012-07-09/story/jacksonville-tuberculosis-outbreak-kept-secret-months

  2. I would thought biologists would delight in teaching about how vicious sharks are. Viscerally it is a pretty effective argument against any notion of God’s design.

  3. (Note for those who do not already know, I am a biologist of sorts.)

    I suspect you are onto something here. Biology is in fact intrinsically bound-up with general human concerns. That is how we interpret it, and it seems we cannot help doing so.

    In the USSR biology was state controlled (Lysenko), because it had implications for politics, but not physics nor mathematics.

    In the West biologists are the most atheist people I have encountered, and evolutionary biologists the most of all – it is not a coincidence that so many public atheists have come from biology.

    The very first area that political correctness was imposed in the West was biology – specifically psychology, intelligence research, sociobiology etc. Large areas of biology were wiped out or distorted beyond parody.

    The process is recapitulated in many specific individual biologists as they approach these contentious areas – I have watched myself several times.

    Professional biologists have adapted by internalizing these constraints.

    So – plenty of meat on this bone!

  4. This is a big issue here in Australia. Five surfers have been killed by sharks in the past year in the state of Western Australia. In the past, that would have led to a cull, but there are too many here who believe that humans are trespassing on shark territory by or that we shouldn’t blame the shark or even in some cases whose first sympathy is with the shark.

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  6. Your problem with biologists isn’t the fault of biologists. First of all, you now know sharks are ‘cool’ because a biologist told you, so the system isn’t completely broken. I am a biologist. My job is to learn things. When I learn something I think no one else knows, through experimentation and data analysis, my responsibility is to communicate that information in a public forum that my peers, and the public, can access. Publication in peer reviewed journals is the current most common method. You have a problem with the information that is being dispersed to you through mass media and pop culture. Biologists don’t operate in that sphere typically, so they can’t reasonably be held responsible for how this information interacts with society. Mass media, particularly in America, is interested in hype and making money. Mass media isn’t interested in rationally and even-handedly describing what scientists are doing in plain language you can understand. That is the root of the problem. I already have a job that involves going into a lab and doing experiments. I don’t have time to go track down reporters and demand they be responsible in how they go about their job. So I’m not trying to “manipulate” you because it’s not my job to “teach you” as you propose. If you want to sit down and talk about biology I’m more than happy to, but that’s not some responsibility I’m under because of my job. I’d talk to you about it (and maybe educate) because science is fucking awesome.

    I find it odd that you see biologists as having a “…lack of loyalty for Team Humanity.” Modern medicine exists because of biology. Things like antibiotics, surgery, MRI’s and chemotherapy exist because of biologists. Doctors know what they know because biologists figured it out and taught them. Your lifespan is expected to be over 70 years because of things biologists learned. We’re going to be able to control aging and overcome natural death in the next couple decades because of things we’ve learned looking at turtles and nearly microscopic worms, among other things out there that aren’t us. We learn more about ourselves when we look at the rest of the world. It’s all about self interest baby.

    I encourage you to join team shark because it is actually part of Team World, which btw is also the bigger team that Team Humanity is on too. There are about 7 billion people on earth and we are chewing up the rest of the planet. That article you referenced points out that some shark populations are in steep decline. One of the things we’ve learned is that we’re all connected, the sharks and us, in the bigger picture. If we eat all the sharks, that will have a ripple effect through the entire ocean ecosystem and it will certainly wind up biting humanity in the ass. So when we save the sharks, and whales and spotted owls, etc, we are doing ourselves a service in the bigger picture.

    Let’s me give you some thoughts on this: “… their only goal in communicating with me is political advocacy.” You’re mostly right but we’re forced into it. Biologists are not a monolithic entity so take it easy on the sweeping generalizations if you please. As I mentioned, it’s about self interest, but keep in mind that self being the big picture version of all of us. Why do you see biologists forced into political advocacy mode? How am I able to be a biologist? It’s a job I’m paid to do. Now we’re back to money. Science doesn’t generate cash. Scientists learn something then move on to learn the next unknown thing. Other people come in afterwards to apply the discoveries to make innovations that then impact and change our lives through shiny things we all end up buying. So where does the money come from so biologists can do biology? For the most part it comes from tax dollars and government grants. Public opinion impacts that, so biologists are put into a position to ‘push the pretty’ so to speak. I don’t want to deal with money but I don’t have any control over that. Mass media is again the enemy here because they cater to the lowest common denominator and they’re always in a rush for no reason. They expect flash and gore. Most of the easy stuff has been figured out already and you’re too busy looking at your phone to give me the time I need to explain things so you’ll fully understand it. I’m referring to the collective ‘you’ not making a personal slight. Do you see foxnews and cnn giving the shark researcher a 30 minute cut of airtime to give you the real deal about what’s going on? Of course not. Is that the shark biologist’s fault?

    This response is over long and I’ve barely scratched the surface. But these were some highlights off the top of my head.

    To wrap up, I am a biologist because I want to learn more and because I want to help people so maybe give me the benefit of the doubt once in a while. Lastly, I concur: read more =)

    Go get your mind blown:

    http://www.technologyreview.com/contributor/the-physics-arxiv-blog/
    http://singularityhub.com/category/stem-cells/

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