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Guerrilla Scholarship: Shop Talk with Jim Coan

PUBLISHED: February 2, 2023


VQR columnist and neuroscientist Jim Coan’s comic-styled column Drawing It Out asks the human questions at the heart of scientific inquiry. His latest installment in our Winter issue wonders “Why Do We Hold Hands?” Read it here. 

Below, you’ll find Coan’s conversation with VQR’s Paul Reyes about defending science while also breaking it out of the priesthood of the academy.


VQR:  You’re a practicing neuroscientist. Why turn to comics in the middle of all that?

Jim Coan:  You know, one of my most recent episodes of the Circle of Willis podcast is with the physicist and writer Alan Lightman. We talk a lot about this kind of professional shift in that episode. On the one hand, Lightman was into writing, he’d always been into writing—fiction, poetry, stuff like that. On the other hand, he was into science, in his case, physics. That’s true for me too: I’ve always enjoyed making stories. One of the ways—probably the primary way—that manifested when I was a kid was in making comics for my friends, for myself. But that never quite materialized. Lightman is much more thoughtful about this than I am. He figured that if he was going to do physics, he had to do that first—basically, that scientists can become writers, but writers cannot become scientists. If he was going to do both of those loves, he would have to do physics first, because all the best work in physics (and in science generally) happens when people are really young—before thirty, often. 

And that’s what he did with his career. He did some really spectacular theoretical-physics work on applying Einstein’s theory of relativity to cosmic plasmas. And by the time he was forty, he was like “Okay, well, I’m toasted. I don’t think I can keep doing this, so it’s time to pivot.” 

There’s something like that going on with me. I’ve had multiple aspirations. One of them was to tell stories with comics. Another was to make a living doing something. Those things were, by and large, mutually exclusive. Long story short is, I wound up doing research and becoming a neuroscientist. That was good and I’ve been successful, but through that process—and also being a kid who was a first-generation college student and grew up poor—I also realized that I find the insularity of academia offensive. I just find it offensive. I think that all the stuff about it being hyperspecialized and that its jargon is there for clarity and the style in which we express ourselves is about clarity—these are all post hoc rationalizations for various methods of maintaining a kind of academic priesthood. 

Molotov cocktails. Here we go. But who couldn’t agree? 

Who couldn’t agree? It’s obvious. You spend any time in academia, this priesthood nonsense is just completely front and center all the time. And so I want to undermine it. And I’ve found that comics can help me do that.

And that’s the most radical refutation of the priesthood-language acquisition. It’s not even a lyrical paragraph. It’s, you know, guerrilla—it’s comics.

I think you were about to say it’s guerrilla scholarship!

That’s even better. 

Can we make that the title of this conversation? Because guerrilla scholarship is exactly what I want to do. My goal in the book that I’m writing is to force the stodgy, purse-lipped scientists of the world to cite a comic book if they want to be taken seriously going forward—that’s my goal.

There also must be something to the fact that you revealed your comics to me when you did, back in the fall of 2019. It appeared to manifest at an incredibly curious time.

Well, I had a heart attack in 2018. That shook me in a way that many people hopefully can get without having a heart attack. It made me question what I was doing with my life. Talk about cliché and precious. But here’s the thing: That’s exactly just what happened. I looked at my life and I saw myself as a functionary, a Soviet-era apparatchik, just getting grants and keeping my head down like I was supposed to. And I didn’t want that. I wanted to be able to look at myself and my life and feel like I was bargaining with it all in good faith. Like, that I was not just getting by or punching the clock another day for a paycheck. I understand that approach to things: Sometimes that’s what you get and that’s what you’ve got to do. But I felt—oh, God, I always wind up communicating these feelings with a story, so I apologize, but I have to tell you a brief story… 

There’s a talk, a classic talk, by Nobel laureate Peter Medawar. It’s titled “Is the Scientific Paper a Fraud?” and his point is that the scientific paper—the standard, boilerplate paper—almost start to finish, is performative science. It’s all a fictionalized account of how science happens and gets done. And one of the important aspects of that fictionalized account is that it gives the reader the appearance of smooth methodology and deliberateness and so on. 

Science is nothing like that. Science is a giant mess. Science is a plate of spaghetti noodles that got dropped and is now all over the floor, and you’re trying to figure out what to do with it, what it means. Scientists, God bless and love them, they take that spilled plate of spaghetti noodles and through desperate, hard labor—mental labor—transform it into the COVID vaccine.  So, I love what I do. But I hate the sort of aesthetic culture of science that we have inherited over generations.

It’s funny, that plate of spaghetti was something I came to value through an experience with my son. For his middle-school science fair, he posed a basic question: Is a boat with a big propeller faster than a boat with a small propeller? And he wanted to solve it using Legos. The problem is, we don’t have any Legos that are motorized. We have all the parts, but he had to engineer two engines, two transmissions, with a rubber band. One would propel the boat with a small prop, the other with a big prop. And then we had to fill the bathtub with water and test it. And there was this sublime moment of appreciating the process in real time through experience. We would remove the prop, and then realize, Oh, well, this has to be fully submerged underwater. Well, how far underwater can it be? Will the prop’s distance from the hull affect its ability to move? How many times do we rotate it? And so on.

Now you’re doing science.

It was amazing, because every answer resulted in two problems.

Yep. That is it. I told my undergrads that the joy and pain of being a scientist is that you always compulsively walk into the space where you feel like a dumbass.

And that’s what writing is. 

Dude, that’s what creativity is.

But when you introduced the comic to me, it was during a very funky zeitgeist, a hostile zeitgeist. And what I picked up on at the time, and what has shown up in the series for VQR, is that it’s a kind of rallying cry. There’s a throughline of curiosity, but also a defense of the sciences through this superhero genre. You talk about guerrilla scholarship: It’s also pushback against the fascistic hostilities that were trying to shut down the sciences when you started doing it. That energy seemed to dovetail with your other motives for diving back in.

You’re exactly right. There were two things happening that were complementary to each other. One was the guerrilla scholarship, and the other was the defense of science. It occupied—politically, you might say—a middle ground where it was chastising everyone a little bit. Chastising the producers of knowledge, implicitly, by choosing to present itself as a ’70s-era superhero comic book. And it was chastising readers for, perhaps, participating in a culture that was dismissive of scientific questions on things that they might implicitly believe that they were experts on by default.

I guess that way of putting it makes me look like I’m kind of angry at everybody. But maybe I am a little angry at everybody. On the other hand, maybe I’m defensive on behalf of everybody too. I love science, and I love scientists—I mean, my podcast is devoted, in part, to making science more accessible, but also to making scientists more human, and to celebrate them as people and individuals. I’m very defensive of science and scientists, and I want people to give it the respect that it’s due. And I’m also very defensive of the nonspecialist, and I want them to be treated with dignity and compassion and respect. One of the ways in which you show compassion and respect is by being really clear and accessible in your communication.

I am curious to know if there’s anything about your methodology, about your literal practice in one field as a scientist, that has any relationship to your approach to drawing a comic or writing. 

For sure, absolutely. I have a bit of a reputation among the graduate students that I’ve written with for being obsessive about the clarity of scientific figures, for being hostile to the conventions of scientific writing, even in academic, peer-reviewed journal articles. 

Just to give one example, one of those conventions is to write in the third person. That is 100 percent an aesthetic consideration—I say that, and I emphasize that, because many would deny that aesthetics come into it anywhere. In fact, they would say that the way that the peer-reviewed scientific article is written and presented is an attempt to scrape it of all aesthetic considerations in order to get right down to the objective truth. That is a howler, man. It is 100 percent an aesthetic decision, and the aesthetic is formulated to emphasize a kind of performed objectivity. And,one of the ways in which that manifests is a rule only to write in the third person. This rule just makes me want to eat glass and shake trees like a baboon, because it’s just a lie. It’s a subtle but important deception. I’m not standing outside of myself, with all of my biases and my background, doing the work that I do. I am all those biases and that background and those political convictions and those beliefs about the universe, in a package, in a bundle, doing the scientific work. Here’s my work, and here’s me. My community is who I’m going to depend on to see what I can’t see because of who I am. That is the miraculous community value of science. It is a communal activity. I believe that in the public mindset, and in academic science, we’ve lost sight of that quite a bit. 

 Read Coan’s latest column in our Winter issue, “Why Do We Hold Hands?”


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