Monday, February 13, 2012

Beware the Hipster Biologist

When you study something as popular as dolphins, sometimes it is very hard to get people to take what you do as a scientist as seriously as you would like. I imagine the same thing happens to people who study rainbows, panda bears, penguins, or any other subject, including just overall marine biology, that is considered cool or cute by the mainstream public (aka people who don't also study that subject). People who study string theory or nuclear physics possibly experience the opposite phenomenon - people hear what they do, and immediately assume that they won't understand anything about it. I experience a little bit of both extremes, being as I study dolphins and whales ("theyareSOCUTE!") and bioacoustics ("Uhhh...I'm going to go back to playing Angry Birds now.") Yes, I was able to find a picture of a cheerleader whale and a hipster dolphin. God bless the internets.

Hipster dolphin via

I have often been guilty of scientific hipsterism. Just read my first blog post - and replace the words "dolphin" and "sea star" with "Lady Gaga" and "Static Portal"(an obscure band name I just made up).
Yeah, I really like Lady Gaga/dolphins now, but only because I liked Static Portal/echinoderms first and couldn't get into the show/class. 
I really like Lady Gaga/dolphins, but only because I understand the deeper meanings behind them. 
 You don't even have to study dolphins to be a science hipster.
I only care about Static Portal/echinoderms, Lady Gaga/dolphin research is SO mainstream.
In my personal experience, hipster attitudes come across as very elitist, and discourage people from learning more about science. Does it really matter what species got you interested in marine conservation? In the end, what really matters is a willingness to learn about issues affecting the health of the oceans, and a realization that it takes a healthy ecosystem to maintain healthy oceans.

Some of the best examples of how my hipster attitudes about science have effected my real life interaction with non-science people have occurred on airplanes.

Conversation 1:

34B: So, what do you do?
Me: Oh, I study whales and dolphins.
34B: OH, I just LOVE dolphins. I swam with one once and it looked deep into my eyes and whispered that it loved me.
Me: Well, you obviously don't understand cetaceans on the deep and meaningful level that I do - I think I might take a nap.
Nice talking to you!

Conversation 2:

34B: So, what do you do?

Me: You see, right now I'm writing this GREAT computer program in MatLab that uses this obscure form of Fast Fourier-Transform to...

34B: Zzzzzzzzzzzz.

When I really look at it, I am the loser in both of these situations. Here I am, with the opportunity to communicate to a member of the public about the wonderful research that I do, and my silly hipster attitudes are getting in the way! (In case you think this is not worth your time to talk to people on airplanes, I know a guy who once sat next to the head of a funding agency and ended up with grant money with the next 10 years). In both cases, I'm failing in two ways: 1) by judging people who are "mainstream" in their exposure to my specialty or 2) by championing my somewhat obscure interests without first taking into account another perspective.

There is a very good, old fashioned book that my dad often refers to. It's called "How to Win Friends and Influence People," and was written in 1936, near the end of the great depression, by Dale Carnagie to help salesmen. Although that might make you think that it is full of slimy tricks to sell vacuums, most of it is common sense. For example, Principle #8 is

"Talk in terms of the other person's interest."

It goes against the whole principle of hipsterism - that we should use the interests of the mainstream to draw them in to deeper aspects of our hipster culture. In the end, though, wouldn't it be better if we started these conversations with an open mind? The person sitting next to me in 34B might be the daughter of the vice-president of a tug boat company and LOVE the idea of doing dolphin research off their vessels. Or they might decide to eat organic after learning that pesticide runoff is poisoning killer whales in Washington State. When we scientists can knock off the posturing, and open up to each other and non-scientists, we'll all win.

But I do want a pair of those cool glasses.

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