Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Science is a baseball game. Well, sort of.

Alex Rodriguez a baseball superstar with the New York Yankees, recently admitted that he used steroids, performance enhancing drugs, during his playing days with the Texas Rangers. This news came to my attention just as I was completing a review of a manuscript for a social sciences journal. The authors were making the claim that a particular group of scientists they had interviewed saw their professional activities as a kind of game. This did not strike me as a particularly interesting claim on the face of it; don’t we all at times view our professional and even our private lives as a game? From the viewpoint of conceptual metaphor theory, particularly as advanced by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, it is easy to see how the elements of a game, particularly a sports game, could be mapped onto those of one’s work life.
But as I began to think through some of the implications of this metaphor as it might apply to scientific work, it became more interesting. Let’s begin with a brief analysis of the sort that cognitive scientists would term structure mapping. It reveals some of the ways in which a sports game like baseball is analogous to the pursuit of science.
· Baseball has rules, standards of conduct. Science also is carried out according to certain rules and conventions. Just as in baseball there are rules forbidding intentional beaning of the batter or interference with a base runner, in science there are rules forbidding plagiarism, requiring a sharing of credit, mandating truthful reporting and so on.
· Baseball is competitive. Every baseball game played is a competition. Players strive to be the best at their position: pitcher, second baseman or hitter. Everyone would like to be an MVP. Teams compete to be the best in the league. In science, analogously, individual scientists strive to be considered one of the best in their field of endeavor. They work hard to be chosen for prestigious awards and election to honorific societies or academies. Similarly, universities, departments, laboratories and institutes aim to be ranked among the best in national or global surveys.
· Baseball is played for audiences of fans. Clearly, a professional sport such as baseball could not exist were it not for the interest shown by its fans, their willingness to attend games or watch them on TV, purchase baseball-related paraphernalia and so on. Science has its fan base also; those who use scientific results in their industry, in government regulatory agencies, in education, in environmental agencies both governmental and non-governmental, and among those who appreciate the elegance of scientific studies and what they reveal of the natural world.
· Baseball is dependent on patrons, or owners. Professional sports teams are owned by individuals or companies, some of whom hope to profit from them, and others of whom simply want to be owners out of love of the game, pride of ownership, publicity or from some other motivation. Science similarly relies on its patrons. These may be government funding agencies, private foundations, institutions such as universities or institutes with various sources of funding, including industrial support. Just as unproductive baseball players are dropped from a team, unproductive scientists lose their research support and are forced to discontinue their research or at least reduce its scope, and undistinguished research institutions may lose support and just have to shut down.
· Star baseball players get special treatment. We are all familiar with the fact that superstars such Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez have drawn huge salaries, and are, or were, accorded other special considerations. These superstars have been recognized for their accomplishments on the baseball field, but they also often have compelling personal stories or personality traits that appeal to fans. Science also has its superstars, those who have made important new discoveries, who have made game-changing new inventions, or who have been involved in high profile science such as the genome project or discovery of the AIDS virus. Analogously to baseball, scientific superstars come to prominence both within the science community and outside it through a combination of scientific accomplishment and skillful public relations.
I could go on, but this much serves to convey the idea: Metaphorically, the pursuit of science is playing baseball.
You may already have thought of many respects in which baseball and the pursuit of science are entirely dissimilar. Of course! One of the characteristics of any metaphor is that it has a limited range of applicability. For example, in the present case, baseball and science have different motivations. Baseball is played for entertainment, science is pursued for the purpose of gaining new knowledge of the natural world. How could one hope to convincingly link two such different entities? But we should think of this analogy from the perspective of the baseball player or scientist. Secondly, to consider baseball as merely an entertainment is to ignore much of its appeal. As conveyed in the writings of Jim Bouton, George Will and others, baseball itself is a metaphor for much deeper matters. As to the motivations of scientists, it is fair to say that like baseball players, they keep at what they do because they love the game they are in: The competitions, the day-to-day fun of doing their work, and the hope that burns, perhaps more brightly in some breasts than others, of receiving special reward and recognition.
There is much more than could be said about this interesting metaphorical connection, but I will close with a return to Alex Rodriguez. On February 9, at the first press conference of his presidency, Barack Obama spoke in response to a question about A-Rod’s admission. He took it seriously, and made the point that baseball as an institution was responsible in some measure for allowing drugs to have assumed such a large role. He said that the game of baseball is diminished by such transgressions, and the wrong message is sent to youngsters who look up to baseball players as heroes. In the same way, when ethical violations in science come to public attention they have the unfortunate effect of reducing science’s expert and moral authority in society at large. If scientists can get away with publishing fabricated or falsified data, how can society trust what science has to say on issues of societal importance? Just as those responsible for the governance of baseball must ensure that the game is played in strict accord with reasonable rules, those responsible for monitoring the processes within science that go into forming what society regards as “scientific opinion” must ensure that those processes maintain vigilance in guarding against unethical and fraudulent behavior by scientists. It is not an easy job in either case, but the first and most obvious rule is: don’t take anything for granted.
There are further insights to be had by regarding the pursuit of science as a game with respect to science education; that will be matter for a future blog.

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