Science: a story without subjects

Consider this: scientists are trained, since very early in their careers, to communicate with the passive voice, excluding subjects and emphasizing objects. I propose that this ingrains a strong, subconscious message that scientists aren’t full, emotional, ‘human’ beings.

Besides being dull to read, the standard use of the passive voice gives the impression that science happens all on its own, without motives or feelings or hopes or agendas of the people performing the science. Of course any honest scientist would tell you that this is not at all true. Yet, we cling to the specter of complete objectivity–to the idea that we, as human beings, do not impact the science that we do. We cling to this concept in the language we use to discuss our work, the way we train young scientists, the way in which projects persist longer than the people who work on them.

I perceive two key negative impacts caused by the lack of proper attention to the scientist as subject. First of all, scientists themselves forget to see themselves as biased human beings. This encourages scientists to think that they do not need training in order to avoid racist, sexist, unfair behaviors. There is a strong message that we, as scientists, are above the rules that apply to regular people–such as the need for training in pedagogy or philosophy. In the scientific community, there is a healthy culture of arrogance. Secondly, laypeople do not see how to understand or empathize with the work that scientists do. As a result, the important work that is done by scientists (global warming research, etc) isn’t trusted. Laypeople become uncomfortable with the idea of giving public funds to support efforts by people they view coolly, with distrust.

What would it look like if scientists started being more open about our own role in the research and discovery process?

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

http://phys.org/news/2014-09-scientists-americans.html

I Didn’t Mean to Thank You

I, as a person who wants to be friendly and polite, have made a habit of saying “Thank you!”. I say “Thank you!” A LOT. I say “Thank you!” the normal times: when someone did a favor for me, or helped me out in some way. I also say thank you sometimes when it’s not necessary: when someone responded to my email, or when someone answered a question, or when someone was doing their job. Sometimes, I even say thank you when it makes no sense at all: when I did a favor for someone else, when there was an awkward situation I was trying to avoid, when the conversation naturally ended. 

Ultimately, offering excessive thanks degrades gratitude. It undermines sincerity and recognition of someone else’s humanity, because it fails to acknowledge the special, separate, unique value of what they’ve done that as worthy of gratitude. If all things are thanked, then nothing is thanked; the word loses all meaning, and there is then no word to replace it.Instead of defaulting to “Thank you!” I’m trying to use my vocabulary to say what I really mean. Maybe it’s, “I value your friendship.” or “I’m happy I can help!” or “You do your job very well.” or even “I appreciate your attention to this issue.” 

If indeed it is more blessed to give than receive, why do I always try to paint myself as the receiver, and why am I uncomfortable being the giver?

On being a female pedestrian

Recently, I was walking home from lab. I was by myself, and the sun hadn’t set yet. I was waiting for the signal at an intersection, and I could see a man just standing around on the other side of the street. I could just barely see his outline as the sun was in my eyes, yet seeing a man just standing gave me vague feelings of unease. After all, I am a woman, and I have therefore been carefully taught that I should be afraid when I am alone. As I crossed the street, I could see that he didn’t appear to be homeless; my impression was that he was waiting for someone, and chose a rather unfortunate location in which to wait. He was a younger, trim, black man, and he was looking rather dapper in a light colored suit and matching hat. 

Even though I am no longer residing in the Midwest, that culture lives deep in my blood–and so I make eye contact and smile when I walk by people. I made no exception with this particular gentleman. He smiled back, and said hello, and I responded in kind. Then, he said, “How are you, pretty?” I just giggled. 

Let me pause here to explain what was going on in my mind at this moment. I was very aware that he called me pretty.It was the first time in a very long time that someone had called me that. It’s especially unusual that I am complimented on my appearance by a man in my own age-range. I felt touched to be so complimented. In all honestly, I was quite flattered. I was suddenly very aware of my outfit, my posture, my hair style, and how I thought I would appear. Yet–as this man didn’t know me at all, I also felt as though he was manipulating me, that he WANTED to me to feel complimented, so that he could have some small power over me. And in that sense, the fact that he called me pretty doesn’t mean anything at all about me; instead, it reflects upon him. And in a deeper sense, any manipulation he intended was quite effective, as his comment literally struck me speechless. But then, perhaps I was being hard on this stranger; perhaps he only meant to brighten my day, and I was taking his remark in the worst possible way. Perhaps, in fact, I was being racist! In what sense was this interaction determined by the fact that he was black, and I am white? How would I have responded if he had been a white man? Do I have an implicit bias at play here? And I also wondered, does he REALLY think I’m pretty? I hoped that he did. All of this flashed through my mind as my feet kept moving me forwards of their own accord, as as nervous laughter bubbled up from inside of me.

In response to my giggles, he wished me a good day. I yelled back, “You too!” without ever slowing my pace. What unfolded next caused this event to be solidified in my memory even more clearly.

There was another man walking behind me; he was smallish, white, and a bit nerdy looking. As he passed by the complimentary stranger, he said, “Don’t harass girls!” with a quiet firmness in his voice. The black man defended himself, saying that he wasn’t harassing me, and the conversation ended there.

My feet kept walking. My thoughts at this point were now only more complicated. On one level, I felt very respected by this second man. I was glad that he had the bravery to stand up for what he thought was right in respect to the treatment of women. Yet, I wondered if he knew how long it had been since someone called me pretty, and if he did know that, if he would have responded in the same way. I wondered how much of this interaction–both my internal process and the white man’s response–was impacted by feminist ideas. I wondered if he thought me weak for not saying something myself, for being friendly and going along with it. I was a little bit offended at the implication that I wasn’t able to stand up for myself and make my own opinions and desires known, if I did indeed feel harassed. I wondered if he was aware of how he, as a man, is more outside of the situation than I could possibly be. I wondered if I should thank this second man. I didn’t want to, really, as that would imply that the first man was indeed being a tool, and I simply wasn’t sure about that. Or, maybe this white man was also unfairly responding to the black man’s race. I thought about saying instead, “Hey you? You’re alight.” But I didn’t, in part because I decided that he wasn’t actually defending ME, he was defending WOMEN. Inaction won the day as my feet kept walking and he turned off and I lost my opportunity to say anything. I wondered if I had missed a chance to speak for women as he had taken his chance to speak for men.

If I could live it over, I’m still not sure how I would respond to either man. If I were a man, I’m not sure how I would treat women. Is there any context in which it’s appropriate for a man to call a woman he’s not dating pretty? What does it mean for women’s body image issues that compliments on her appearance are seen as harassment? 

How do we, men and women, treat each other with respect?

Perceptual Biases

I, as a human being, am an inherently biased person. I take in information of my surrounding world through organs, and then my brain does a fantastic and fascinating job of translating all of that data into something that I understand and can respond to. But, this does not mean that what I see and what is actually true matches up. Just look at any given compilation of eye-witnesses talking about the same event.

A friend recently asked a small group, when you look over there (pointing to a plant) what is the first thing you see? Guesses included the color green; the size of it; etc. Actually, the first thing you see is–A PLANT. If someone had a chance to quickly glance at something and then was asked details about what they saw, they’ll get the main category right–but the details totally wrong! Our brains just make stuff up to fill in the gaps of what we were able to perceive. This is actually very useful for us, because it allows us to pay attention to the most IMPORTANT aspects of the world and more-or-less tune out some of the unnecessary details. But still, sometimes our filters will lead us astray. 

For example, I have this idea stuck in my head that my friends don’t REALLY want to be my friends, but that they’re just being nice to me. I probably got this idea based upon how my mother modeled friendship, but that itself is not important in this discussion; the main idea is that this idea ISN’T TRUE. Yet, because I BELIEVE it’s true, I perceive things that confirm that assumption. For example, I texted a friend that I hadn’t seen in a while and she never got back with me. Probably, she was busy or just forgot, but in my head, I created a story that: 1) she read the text, 2) groaned inwardly, and 3) felt frustrated that I forced her to address the problem of me wanting to speak to her and catch up, and 4) put off actually dealing with my request indefinitely. This narrative, while potentially true, is not supported by any evidence. Yet, my brain gravitates towards this description because I desire to fill in the details that I don’t know, and this matches with my internal understanding of the world. 

The cool thing about being human, though, is that we can consciously change how we think. So, I can decide that I’m not going to listen to my brain, and I’m going to choose to believe that my friend is simply busy right now–and nothing more. Hopefully, the more I tell myself that, the more my brain will gravitate towards that simpler, more accurate narrative. 

Why I Care About Early Childhood Education

I don’t have children, and don’t expect to have any for a long time. Yet, I am passionate about how my community trains young people. I believe that investing in little kids–and even infants–has the potential to pay big dividends. In particular, I’d like to see smaller classroom sizes, greater opportunities for free play, and increased parental leave options.

First of all, let me expound upon the science of neural development. Although we have few memories before the age of three, these early years are full of mental development. By the age of three–when he had our first memories–we’d learned how to bond with other people, explain ourselves with simple words, organize our thoughts for future reference, and respond to basic social cues. Based on our experiences, our 3-year-old brains already developed lasting neural pathways that still have dramatic effects on our unconscious thought processes. As the grand majority of our thoughts are unconscious, this is of prime importance. Although adults can intentionally develop new neural pathways at any point, the early years compose an opportunity ripe with mental flexibility. All of this means that it’s much easier to have a dramatic impact on the future productivity of a 2-year-old than it is of a 20-year-old.

In order to foster healthy minds in growing children, we should value small classroom sizes and play time. A substantial component of early learning is through a relationship with an attachment figure–such as a teacher or a parent or a regular babysitter. In order for this to be effective, the adult needs to be able to “attune” to the child–to be aware of the child’s needs and respond to them in a safe way. This allows the child to learn healthy responses to her sadness, anger, joy, frustration, etc, based upon the model of the adult. While a talented teacher is able to be aware of the experiences of a small group of children, classrooms of 25 (or more!) children are much to large for this attunement to occur. We are defeating our teachers before a day of class instruction begins. Sufficient play time then allows children to actively form their own neural structures, focusing on executive decision and conflict management skills. A well-resourced teacher would model healthy emotional response, and play time would allow the child to solidify her own learning experiences. 

Unfortunately, even “early childhood” education is normally considered to start after these first years. Although neural flexibility is still relatively high in this slightly older age-group, our community is missing out on a critical opportunity for us to invest in the future generation. I’d like to see this amended with much more generous maternity and paternity leaves. The United States is far behind many European countries in regards to parental leave; in Denmark, for example, both parents are entitled to a full year of paid leave for each child–and there is no cultural repercussions for taking said leave. Increasing the amount of time young mothers are able to spend with their babies will help our community’s vulnerable children develop strong, confident, secure neural networks. 

 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

http://www.drdansiegel.com/books/the_developing_mind/

Sex, Abortion, and Birth Control

I am often saddened by the way the church and the world engage. Most recently, I have watched the unfolding of the Hobby Lobby case with distress. Church, why are you choosing this issue as a focal point? World, why do you insist on painting the church in the worst possible light? I would like to see this conversation unfold on a different plane. 

First of all, we don’t know when life begins, when a person becomes themselves, when they are united with a soul. This is a moral, philosophical, and religious question that remains but poorly addressed in the Bible. This being the case, it smacks strongly of arrogance for one religious group to demand the whole nation to enforce as criminal their personal convictions on this issue. If you are convinced that the moment of conception is the moment of acquired personhood, then by all means attempt to persuade others for your cause supporting the unborn! But please, be aware that you have made an assumption concerning when life begins. This is a matter of debate that cannot be decided with traditional scientific studies. But this debate is about what is MORAL, not what is CRIMINAL. Because our country has the separation of church and state, laws are determined by the current social mores–not on a Biblical foundation. In order to accommodate the range of moral, philosophical, and religious opinions on this issue, laws need to be in place that are aligned with what IS generally held in common (such as prohibition for late-term abortions) and that protect the rights of all religious parties (doctors, and insurers, should be able to choose not to perform abortions or sell related medicines, and women need to have access to all health care options).  

Once there is a distinction between creating just laws for the United States and living according to Christian morality, the church will be more free to discuss this issue with nuance. In particular, the significance of sex has recently been overlooked in favor of emphasizing the value of life. The addition of the pill, and other related medical advances, has created a new possibility for how couples may approach their sexuality. Sex and procreation can now be nicely separated. When is this acceptable? When is this approach to sexuality itself undervaluing life? I don’t have answers to these questions, but am eager to engage in a robust debate to address them.

But of this I am confident: silencing, belittling, and judging an opponent’s opinion is not the way to demonstrate Christ’s love. 

Happy Birthday, Charles Townes!

My research depends on lasers. It’s funny to think that no one had even thought of lasers a mere century ago; they are such a fundamental part of scientific discovery now. Charles Townes was one of the researchers that developed laser technology. He, along with Gasov and Prokhorov, won the Nobel prize for their efforts in field. Today Charles Townes turns 99. 

Not only has Charlie had a fundamental impact on science, he’s also left his mark on the religious community. He argues that religion and science very closely mirror each other. The public discourse overlooks the area of faith that are essential to science. We believe that the world will behave rationally, and that we are capable of making repeated observations. Similarly, general perceptions ignore the role of factual experience and historical events in the development of religion. Religious beliefs are largely supported by the empirical impact they have on lives. 

Further, Charlie suggests that the ways in which we deal with paradox in science can help believers address the paradoxes they find in their faith. Perhaps our acceptance that a particle’s location and velocity cannot be simultaneously known says something about our ability to understand both God’s justice and mercy. 

Charles Townes, you have lived 99 years well.

 

FURTHER READING

http://templetonprize.org/pdfs/THINK.pdf