The process of science is very much like a game of roller derby

Posted on February 2, 2015 by

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Author: Skylar Bayer

I am a roller derby player and I am also a scientist in the midst of obtaining her Ph.D. Something occurred to me recently:

The process of getting out a scientific idea, result, theory, or manuscript out in the world is very much like roller derby.

Aside from the crazy names and the colorful outfits (like the leggings, I love leggings), roller derby has a lot of rules. I think it’s actually a lot like football on roller skates — strong personalities, shiny spandex, hard hits, and teamwork.

However, the primary goal of the game is to go around on this track round and round and have your team score the most points.

You have four blockers (circle) and a jammer (star) from each team. The jammer is the only one that can score points. How does she score points? Getting past the other players. So she’s all about getting through the pack (everyone that is not a jammer), ok that’s clear.

 

What do the blockers do? Well, they help their jammer get through the pack (offense!) but they also have to keep the other team’s jammer from passing them and scoring points (defense)! Blockers have to play offense and defense at the same time.

The roller derby track. Pink team and blue team. Not my own drawing, but from another wordpress blog, derbywannabe.wordpress.com

What the heck does this have anything to do with science? Let’s say that the jammer is a scientific idea. It’s a really good theory you have, absolutely solid and that’s why it has a star on it’s head. It’s worthy enough to be an idea produced by your lab and has gone through the scientific process within your lab.

In the science biz, the number of papers we publish tend to be our currency. The more papers you publish the more ‘points’ you earn… very much like in roller derby where the only way you can win is by scoring points.

Now you may be thinking, why do you need all these other blockers on the track? Wouldn’t it just be you (as the author) and your idea? Well, usually when you’re writing a science paper, there are a lot of co-authors and you all need to support your idea to get it through peer-review.

If we’re talking about a really BIG idea (for instance, climate change or vaccination), you need really strong offense because there are some pretty tough players on the other team trying to break you up and crush your jammer (idea).

Example One.

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Our happy scientific idea, Awesome Pants.

Here’s our idea — Awesome Pants. She is all about people wearing Awesome Pants. Let’s say you did a study that showed that people are statistically happier and more productive with their work lives if they just wore awesome pants to work.

Our awesome pants idea being bashed by people who don't like the awesome pants idea

Our Awesome Pants idea being bashed by people who are part of the Anti-Awesome Pants Coalition.

But, there are some people out there that really don’t like our Awesome pants idea. They think Awesome Shirts are better or maybe they are employers that really don’t like the idea of everyone wearing awesome pants to work.  Maybe they want to be the only ones wearing Awesome Pants. Maybe they are the boring pants companies that don’t want to lose lots of money to everyone investing in Awesome Pants. Regardless, they are all part of the Anti-Awesome Pants Coalition.

Awesome pants gets free!

That was a close one, Awesome Pants.

But, because Awesome Pants is such a solid idea, she made it through all those negative anti-Awesome Pants attacks in the pack.

She may have got through this time, but she’ll be evaluated and attacked again, most likely in a new way next time.  It depends on her teammates and what’s happening on the track in that moment in time. But, the point is, like any scientific idea, she’ll be up for review again and again, and again…

Example Two.

Our idea scientific idea, Miss Microburst.

Our idea scientific idea, Miss Microburst.

Here is our scientific idea, Miss Microburst. She is the idea that small-scale scientific investigations have more reliable and accurate results than large-scale scientific studies.

Miss Microburst trying to get through...

Miss Microburst trying to get through…

She is attacked and squeezed by the supporters of the large-scale scientific studies. But she’s got teammates (in black) that try to keep those large-scale study supports at bay, as well as keep the large-scale-scientific-studies-are-the-best idea (the other starred helmet) at the back of the pack.

Miss Microburst is out of the pack!

Miss Microburst is out of the pack!

Even though Miss Microburst passes review and out of the pack, the large-scale-studies-are-the-best idea might be right behind her.

You can also think of this as the process of getting scooped (or nearly scooped). If your idea is equally matched and practically the same as another author’s, the outcome is really based on timing. If your paper was submitted 6 months (0.6 seconds in jammer time) earlier than the other because reviewers were a little more forgiving of mistakes in your manuscript. You may’ve scooped someone just because your pace was just that much quicker.

Oh, no, catch up with her, Miss Microburst!

Oh, no, catch up with her, Miss Microburst!

 

Ok, let’s talk about defense. Sometimes, there are bad ideas that get passed through review. Obviously the term bad can be up for interpretation, but sometimes blockers don’t move fast enough, aren’t strong enough or most importantly don’t work well together and the bad idea gets through.

A critical lesson I’ve learned while skating is that derby and science are team sports. While defending against an idea by yourself can be effective for a little while….

Defending against an idea one on one!

Defending against an idea one on one!

Having at least one other person to support you is more effective:

Defending against an idea with a teammate.

Defending against an idea with a teammate.

…and it helps when you have even more teammates to help you out:

More teammates defending against an idea! (That's me in the gorilla pants, yup).

More teammates defending against an idea! (That’s me in the gorilla pants, yup).

Look at all that constant contact, bracing, communication (that you can’t hear because it’s a picture, but communicative ideas are being shared like “where’s the jammer?” and “I’ve got her”). That’s teamwork.

This reminds me of surveys asking scientists if climate change is real or not (it is real).

When scientists were reported to be split on the matter of if climate climate is real and what caused, it was much harder to get the public behind the idea when the scientists didn’t agree.

When almost all climatologists agree that the problem exists and work together to support the concept of climate change as real and how to mitigate it, then it is easier to convince the general public that it is a real and valid phenomenon.

But, just because scientists have pulled together a few times, doesn’t necessarily guarantee public perception will stay the same or improve over time. It’s a constant battle that requires group effort all the time. This means updating data, communicating among colleagues, and finding methods to not only improve the science, but how it is perceived by the public.

Unlike derby, there aren’t four whistles to end the game in science. I think this is wonderful because I don’t want to live in a world without science. We can’t.

Both derby and science are much more fun with more than one person on the track. We will find strength in not only numbers, but also in supporting one another’s good scientific ideas and listening to each another.

Here ends my analogy.

Photos courtesy of Jim Dugan from the Breakwater Blackhearts vs. RIP Tides game.

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