There’s no Santa Claus, There’s no Easter Bunny and There’s No Queen of England!

December 19, 2013 6 comments
English: at the University of North Carolina in .

English: at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I went to a planetarium show with my kids. The show was an interesting blend of digital animation and puppet theatre, staged by a local puppet theatre company and animators from Morehead Planetarium and the University of North Carolina. There’s a girl who gets lost in the woods, meets a magical old lady, and she returns the sacred fire to a dragon who brings Spring back. Basically it’s the story of the Winter solstice and the changing of the seasons. I and my kids really enjoyed it. The production was high quality and the storytelling was fun and I think the kids learned something from it.

A Cute Little Bunny With Some Eggs

A Cute Little Bunny With Some Eggs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then after the show and the credits a planetarium staff member addressed the audience and said she was going to show us some basic astronomy, a few constellations and the path of the sun at the solstices and equinoxes. Then she said “Of course, it’s not dragons that change the seasons, it’s the tilt of the earth. Sorry to disappoint you.” What she said was perfectly reasonable, but I would like to question the motives of saying that to a room full of five-year-old kids. A colleague of mine, who is also a father of a five-year-old boy said “Yeah, and there’s no Easter Bunny either!” I don’t think the planetarium staff member was mean-spirited about what she said, but I have some ideas about where she’s coming from making such a remark, and I think it raises some questions about the intellectual climate of science at this time. Incidentally, just guessing by her age, I think this person knew a lot more about astronomy than she knew about kids, so again, this isn’t personally about her, but about the intellectual environment that we create when we insist on militant scientific positivism in all areas of life.

The question I raise is whether everything needs to be science. Are there kinds of knowing, learning and being in the world that are served better by other enterprises? Does science really have to dominate everything we do? Science is great. It’s not just my job; I really love it, and yes I’d probably be a lot worse off without vaccines and blah blah blah. None of that is at issue. The question is whether that disqualifies the rest of human endeavors. Are other kinds of thinking allowed? Without someone sneaking up behind you and saying “Well, actually the temperature differential between points A and B leads to variation in pressure that…”

Cover of "A Child's Introduction to the N...

Cover via Amazon

Here’s another illustration of the problem. I have read, a few times with my kids, the book A Child’s Introduction to the Night Sky by Michael Driscoll. This is an excellent book about astronomy and I recomend it whether you have kids or not. Children’s books are really great to read: they are packed with information, presented in easy-to-remember ways, and they have all the basic background. I always feel like I’m missing something when I read age-appropriate (I won’t say “adult”) books on technical topics. I especially like this book because in addition to telling kids the typical stuff about the solar system, it tells kids what they can see with a telescope or their own eyes. In other words, it teaches kids how to collect their own data. That’s how I aim to teach science, so I really love seeing it in a children’s book. This book might even be where I got the idea.

The topic comes up late in the book about the history of astronomy, the zodiac and astrology. The author makes the claim that priests and fortune tellers were just as interested in the stars as “early astronomers.” He fails to mention that these were the same people. The occupation “scientist” is a fairly recent invention, and so is the distinction between astrologers and astronomers. Even a paragon of empiricism such as Isaac Newton was a far out mystic by today’s standards (and Wikipedia says he’d be considered a heretic by the standards of his day). The author seems to go to a lot of trouble to make sure kids know that there are scientists and non-scientists. In his defense, he tells the Greek myths the constellations are based on, and explains where the zodiac signs come from and how they are associated with astrology without judging astrology harshly. I believe the author’s motives are totally beneficent. But again I ask why do we tell this sort of thing to kids? What goal does it serve? Who does it serve?

Perhaps we can re-examine those motives and see if they really check out. I’ll use myself as an example. What motivated me to tell The Truth to people for a long time, was that I thougth people would be happier if they knew The Truth (i.e. my version of it). I thought that if people could accept science then they would see the wonder of the natural world, have an idea of where they came from, and all the things I was excited about. This sounds weird, but I really wanted to help people. I thought “this is my way of helping people,” this is my role, this is my purpose. Unfortunately the way it came out was cussing out a room full of Christians and telling them that the speaker was lying to the audience (he was, by the way). So, as much as I wanted to help people, it came out simply as rude and inconsiderate. When people wouldn’t listen, I would just shrug and say “Well, if they want to live their lives as morons, I guess I can’t stop them.” Looking back, I see now that this isn’t that different from saying “Well, you’re the one who’s going to Hell.”

So what message do we send when we say things like “Well, actually it’s not dragons.” My concern is that we are telling kids that it’s not okay to have an imagination. Now put yourself in my shoes, trying to teach science to people with no imagination. What I’m thinking is that insistence on science as the One True Way can dull people’s imaginations just as much as a fundamentalist religion. When we fail to see the value of other ways of thinking, we could be tying kids down to only one set of mental habits, limiting their flexibility. I think the scariest thing about hearing people say stuff like this is that reminds me of myself in middle school and high school, when I refused to see the value of anything other than science.

English: Santa Claus with a little girl Espera...

English: Santa Claus with a little girl (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My ninth-grade English teacher is going to love this: myths have their own value. What is the value of the Santa Claus myth? It teaches kids about giving, but not in a didactic “You better do this” kind of way. It also teaches them that it’s nice to receive gifts. There is someone who will just give you something because that’s his job. That’s just what he does. The Easter Bunny? That teaches kids about the changing seasons, about how life comes from somewhere, and that spring and changing seasons are something to celebrate. Telling these stories also teaches kids the value of story telling. As kids get older, big brothers tell these stories to little brothers (that’s how it works in my family, anyway) and the cycle starts all over again. Gee, maybe there’s a story about the world being full of cycles? Kids get the idea that you can learn from these stories, and that playing and pretending that they’re real is a great way to learn about the world. They’re also just fun, and there’s plenty of value in that. Not only does not everything have to be science, but not everything has to be about money, or values, or even learning. As long as you’re not hurting somebody, fun is a perfectly good reason to do something.

The biggest problem I see with thinking everything needs to be science is that we will fail to see the value of other modes of thinking. Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris and others seem to think that religions and mythology are “failed science.” This seems true as long as everything is trying to be science. Maybe not. Perhaps the goal of telling stories is not to get at what an empiricist thinks is The Truth. I ask if it’s at all conceivable to you, as a scientist reading this, that myths about natural phenomena are actually about the course of human lives, about how people change, and about valuable lessons in how to get along with people (like how if you keep transforming yourself into animals and raping virgins your wife might get a little peeved). Perhaps there’s value in learning how to live with people and there’s something called wisdom that it’s hard to get through studying science. Myths could serve this purpose, but not if we tell the story and then dismiss it by saying “Well, I’m glad we know better now, thanks to modern science! What a bunch of baloney!”

One final question (not bloody likely) is what are we left with if we don’t bother to think in terms of anything other than science? What do we have if we dismiss every story and myth as just plain wrong? Seems to me like we’re left with a bunch of seventh-grade boys. All we have left is “Well, technically…” and “I heard there’s this virus that can eat your brain” and “Nuh-uh” and “Yuh-huh” and…

Don’t we all remember how stupid that was?

Why are Buddhists such assholes?

July 29, 2013 11 comments

I had some particularly troubling experiences surrounding Buddhists growing up in Boulder, Colorado. I had trouble avoiding contact with Buddhists, as many of the most interesting cultural events in town were put on by the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University), and they sometimes got involved in the wildlife community. I remember hearing that Buddhism was about kindness, compassion and suffering, but got confused when I encountered a lot of seemingly rude, cruel and disrespectful behavior on the part of these “Buddhists.” I also (wrongly) thought Buddhism was about giving up material possessions and so was very confused by all the gold, Volvos and nice suits I saw on people from Naropa. I mean really, nobody in Boulder wears a suit outside of city government (and not most people in it, even then).

English: Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

English: Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The question kept coming up: why are Buddhists such assholes? I’m not the only one to ask this question: Stephen T. Asma, author of Why I am a Buddhist writes that a lot of Buddhists he’s met are grumpy “brown rice eaters who wake up and say ‘no’ to life.” This clearly was not the Buddha‘s intention when he taught the Dhamma.

I want to be clear about a couple of things: the problem I’m talking about addresses why I didn’t give Buddhism a fair shake when I was growing up, around those people. Hopefully things are different in Boulder now for people who are interested in Buddhism. I don’t know what your experiences are, but I hope they have been better than mine. I also want to be clear that I’m talking about “convert Buddhists” here. Convert Buddhist is code for “white Buddhist,” but a more proper definition would be someone who didn’t learn Buddhism from his parents, i.e. not an Asian (I know plenty of Black Buddhists). I have a reason to expect your experiences might be different as a “cultural Buddhist” (code for “Asian”) under my primary hypotheses, but please let me know. What I do know is that the reflective process inspired by the Buddha’s teachings is particularly tough for people brought up with Judeo-Christian backgrounds because the first thing we tend to associate with self-reflection is guilt. I’ve been told this is even true for some Westerners whose parents were converts. Last point to clarify: what I mean by “asshole” is someone who is deliberately cruel. I do not mean someone who is unintelligent, forgetful or unfashionable (only assholes use those definitions).

The Symptoms

Let me give you an example of what can happen to people when they try to take up the path of self-reflection. When my next-oldest brother Michael turned eighteen and was a senior in high school, he started dating a girl who lived in downtown Boulder, went to a different high school from he and myself, and came from a family of convert Naropa Buddhists. Unbeknownst to our Christian family my brother was meditating and taking part in some other Buddhistic stuff. Well known to our family at this time was he acted like a complete asshole. He would scream and yell at my dad, who had the annoying habit of getting up and getting things after we’d sat down for dinner; suddenly I was a horrible person for using paper towels; he insisted that the words “Buddha” and “Buddhism” were pronounced with the first syllable rhyming with “wood.” His girlfriend was totally arrogant too, lecturing me on everything from how to conduct conversations to my relationship with my girlfriend. What the hell was going on? Why had hanging out with Buddhists turned my brother into an asshole?

A less personal example of assholiness I encountered was self-identification: (three seconds into conversation): “I’m a Buddhist, so…” Most often I came away feeling like people were saying “You better not piss me off.” It’s presumptuous to think that I know enough about your choices in life that I would know well enough how not to piss you off. I’ve even seen self-identification on cars: recently (not in Boulder, in Durham) I saw a car whose back side was completely covered with self-identifying stickers: “Metta,” “Kindness is my religion,” etc. Every slogan I’ve ever heard was stuck to the back of that car. Mission accomplished: I knew that I had something in common with the driver right away. The problem I have is what if you accidentally cut somebody off? The next time the driver of the car behind sees or hears “Kindness is my religion,” they’re going to have a hard time buying it. I would hope that the driver that got cut off was also “into kindness” and would mindfully recognize that it was just an accident, but I’m going to be realistic about his or her attitude in such a frightening situation. I worry that if you put “I’m kind” on the back of your car, the results could be enabling (encouraging?) cynicism for the people behind you.

Buddhists attack other Buddhists. The most common attack is that whatever form of Buddhism one person practices is The Real Thing, and everyone else’s form is a terrible bastardization. People fond of Theravada Buddhism will often charge Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism of being corrupt, power-structure-inviting perversions of the Buddha’s message. Mahayana Buddhists will say that Theravadins are following the “Hinayana path” and the Pali Canon was deliberately dumbed down by the Buddha out of pity. Vajrayana practitioners, I won’t mention any names, but someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, will claim that their form of meditation is superior to others; I’ve heard other Vajrayana monks and nuns say things like “mindfulness isn’t everything; you need mindfulness to stab somebody.”

Dalai Lama

So what the hell’s going on here? Why would people who supposedly value kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity be so good at turning people off? Why would people who are trying to let go of the defilement of anger seem so angry? Why is it that when people hear “kindness is my religion,” they just don’t buy it? If Buddhism is about compassion and generosity, then why do some Buddhists seem so damn snooty and self-indulgent?

The Problem

If you’ve suffered any assholic behavior from self-identified Buddhists, then allow me to let you in on a few little discoveries I’ve made. My first hypothesis has to do with what Buddhism itself entails, and the devastating personality effects this can have for people who grow up in a guilt-focused culture. The basic instruction of the Buddha is that if you want to find the root of your suffering, look inward. This is tough. When many people look inward, they don’t like what they see. I think we in America are taught to be movers and shakers, and if we’re not, its our own damn fault. So self-reflection to a lot of people just means guilt. Many people report that after they start meditating they get pissed off because they see how angry and self-deceptive they are. Then they’re pissed off because they’ve been told that meditation makes everything “better.”

There’s another aspect of this: after you’ve seen that things actually do feel better when you have performed some self-reflection, you start seeing unmindful behavior not only in yourself but in others. I used to really not be able to sit still. If I was sitting still I was worried about what was happening because I was sitting still. This keeps some people from starting meditation. But after you really sit down and get used to it on a daily basis, you start to notice that it’s really nice to just sit down. Just to sit down and enjoy things, or really focus on what you’re doing, is a joy. At the same time, seeing people not doing this can be maddening! Going back to the story of my brother, I am pretty sure that what had happened was that he just wanted to mindfully sit down and enjoy dinner, and seeing my dad get up to get the salt and pepper, sit down, and then get up to get the parsley, sit down, and then get up to get himself a drink was probably even more annoying than it had been before. One of the benefits of practicing mindfulness is that you will eventually remember to bring the salt and pepper to the table. In the meantime, however, it’s hard to put up with normal “deluded” human behavior. This is, in fact, the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: the way we all do things does drive us mad and to behaving like assholes.

Seated Buddha with flower

Seated Buddha with flower (Photo credit: BaboMike)

My second potential explanation is that perhaps the chain of causation is reversed: maybe people are Buddhists because they are assholes, not assholes because they are Buddhists. My first idea explained that the reflective process of the spiritual path can indeed inspire assholey behavior. Now I’d like to ask why people take up that path in the first place. Simple answer: they’re angry, unkind, selfish, spiteful, cynical, anti-social and self-destructive. “So what?” you’re saying. “So’s everybody else.” The difference is that these people notice. Someone who takes up a spiritual path usually does so because they notice the pain and suffering that they and others are enduring.

When I tell non-meditators I’m anxious or depressed, they say “Yeah, whatever, so’s everybody.” They are not mean about it, but they don’t seem to think it’s a big deal. When I tell my Buddhist friends, it’s the start of a dialogue about why we (not just me) are anxious and depressed and what we can do about it. These people notice their pain and suffering, they study it, they give it real attention. They don’t just say “Everybody suffers, let’s go get a beer,” they say “Everybody suffers: what can we do about it?” Why do we suffer? What would it look like not to suffer? How can we change our lives to create less suffering?

My point is that if these “Buddhists” have gotten to the point of saying “I’m going to change my life because I see my suffering,” then that is a pretty huge change. Enlightenment doesn’t happen overnight, however. What I’m saying is that if any self-identified Buddhist deliberately hurt you, my experience tells me that they know it and are probably guilty about it, as opposed to a regular asshole, who is a lot less likely to even notice, much less care. I’d like to have enough faith in people to think that every person who behaves in a cruel way does at least notice, but my experience tells me that most of the people who notice are working hard to fix it.

A third minor hypothesis states that when someone self-identifies as “Buddhist” or “spiritual” or even simply “kind,” that is an idea. It’s a great idea, but it’s not how you actually manifest in the world. Even though your aspiration may be toward these things (and that’s great!), the problem is that you will forget, and you might just forget while you’re driving, while you’re buying a house, or while you’re interacting with someone at work. You might forget for weeks or years at a time. If you didn’t ever forget, you would be done with your spiritual path; you’d be a Buddha.

A Greco-Buddhist statue, one of the first repr...

A Greco-Buddhist statue, one of the first representations of the Buddha, 1st-2nd century CE, Gandhara. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t know what people are after when they attack forms of Buddhism other than their favorite, but it seems to stem from (surprise!) ignorance. Ignorance about history: Buddhism spread mostly by oral tradition along the Silk Road, before the creation of the internet, much less public libraries; ignorance of culture: wherever Buddhism goes, to Afghanistan, China, Tibet, Japan, or the United States, it will take on aspects of the local culture. That doesn’t mean it isn’t “pure.” The only question the Buddha asked people to consider was “Do you want to be free from greed, hatred and delusion?” He didn’t say “Do you want to be free from greed, hatred and delusion in a particular way that seems like the right kind of ‘Asian’ to you?”

The Solution

My own story is that despite the assholification of Buddhism that I’d seen in Boulder, I managed to discover that Buddhism was much more diverse than I thought. I was only exposed to (splattered with?) a particular offshoot of Tibetan Buddhism in Boulder. I’m going to be contentious here and say that the form of Buddhism I encountered in Boulder was deliberately contrived to be palatable to the people who I encountered as particularly asshole-rific. However, there’s really a form of Buddhism for anybody, from hardcore anti-religious people (so-called “atheists”) to hardcore Christians (some believe that Amitabha Buddha was either Jesus or Zoroaster; others believe Jesus was a Buddhist monk). There are forms of Buddhism that emphasize meditation (Zen and Theravada), there are forms that emphasize ritual and ceremony, there are forms that de-emphasize meditation (e.g. Nichiren), and there are forms that only emphasize generosity and ethics. Even within something that most Americans consider monolithic, like “Tibetan Buddhism,” or “Zen,” there is a huge diversity of practices, teachings and ceremonies. Evolutionary biologist perspective: the current diversity of Buddhism is the result of over 2500 years of development, with many forms in complete isolation with one another. I doubt the Zen masters of thirteenth century Japan were having Webinars with Theravada monks in Sri Lanka.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Jon Kabat-Zinn (Photo credit: Mari Smith)

I rediscovered Buddhism by way of mindfulness in modern psychotherapy. After meditating for a while I decided to find others, although I still didn’t want to call myself a Buddhist, and wasn’t looking forward to trying to find a meditation group. I thought I would find a bunch of ego-driven jerks! What I found instead were some of the nicest, most welcoming people I’d ever met. That group itself is diverse, with some people who primarily meditate for its psychological benefits, and others who call themselves Buddhists because of their interest in the Dhamma. They don’t shove it in anybody’s face, however. If you saw my friend Eddy, you wouldn’t think “There’s one of those Buddhists who’s going to tell me how to feed my dog.” Instead you would just see a smile.

This leaves me disappointed and guilty (okay, not really) about some of the interactions I had in Boulder. The father of my brother’s girlfriend was actually a nice guy, and he and I were both big fans of Philip Glass. Many times he tried to engage me in conversation about music (my favorite topic) and I just didn’t give him a chance. However, the point of my own spiritual path is that I can learn to let go of all that. And hopefully the next time I visit Boulder, I can greet people with a smile, even if they look really disturbed and grumpy. If any of you have experienced the dukkha of interacting with a self-righteous Buddhist, you can still keep an open mind.

Metaphors, Assumptions and Dogma in Science (Response to The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake)

March 29, 2013 4 comments

I’ve just finished reading portions of Rupert Sheldrake‘s The Science Delusion. The title is an obvious allusion to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion so you can guess that Sheldrake’s thesis is that scientists have great faith in their craft, elevating it to the level of producing what I call Truth. The problem, Sheldrake points out, is that modern science is based on adhering to a dogmatic assumption that the universe is a machine. He points out that this is a fairly new idea, and worst of all for supposedly empirical science, there is absolutely no evidence for it. It’s a belief. It’s a myth. I’d like to leave aside the readability and scholarship for a proper review (perhaps elsewhere), but here I’ll deal with the real philosophical problem this presents.

Sheldrake points out that the mechanistic worldview, that is seeing the universe and everything in it as a machine, was a fairly radical idea in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries when it was proposed by a minority of scientists and natural philosophers. David Hume dismissed it completely. The universe and its inhabitants were seen as something organic, i.e. something that grows, by most ordinary and learned people. However, the material success of Newton’s Laws and (Sheldrake doesn’t mention!) the Industrial Revolution, and continuing into the computer age, has helped convince most people that they are robots inhabiting a giant clock. This is bad for science, as dogmatism stifles creativity and ideas that could be either helpful for science (like Sheldrake’s own theories of morphic resonance) or helpful to the general population (like “alternative medicine”) are dismissed since they don’t fit in to the mechanistic, materialistic worldview of science.

Rupert Sheldrake is an English biochemist and ...

Rupert Sheldrake is an English biochemist and plant physiologist. He is known for his research into parapsychology. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an example, many scientists dismiss acupuncture as incapable of anything but a placebo effect, since its “mechanism of action” is not known; therefore it’s a money-making tool for charlatans and shouldn’t be used to try to heal people. Sheldrake points out that’s not a valid criticism since the effect on the health of the patient is the same regardless of the mechanism of action, even if it’s just a placebo. Scientists and materialist physicians, on the other hand, will support many drugs whose mechanisms are poorly understood, simply because they are produced by chemistry. As someone who’s seen the inside of pharmaceutical research, Sheldrake is dead on: we don’t know much more about methylphenidate than we know about acupuncture. The mechanism of action of many psychiatric drugs is completely unknown and that doesn’t stop doctors and scientists from having total faith in them.

Although Sheldrake makes his point somewhat clearly, I’m not sure it’s the biggest problem with the mechanistic worldview and dogmatism in science. The problem I see is not within science, but in how the general public is persuaded to see science as Truth. Just witness how scientific graphics are used in TV commercials to sell running shoes: it’s very convincing even when there’s no actual science behind it. This means that scientists do a very good job of convincing people that science is the only route to Truth, or merely that science is the most pragmatic method of achieving their goals. People either see science as infallible, and they swallow the idea that the current mechanistic worldview of science is It. The big problem, as I see it, is that people are encouraged to deny their own experiences in favor of the findings of science, which are inextricably linked to the dogmatic assumptions of the mechanistic worldview.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s pretend, just for the sake of discussion, that I suffer from terrible migraines up to three times a month that keep me from going to work or enjoying and taking care of my family. Totally hypothetical (not). Let’s also pretend that I’ve been to lots of doctors, been prescribed all kinds of drugs, vitamins, diets and exercise based on “evidence.” I’m still getting headaches. None of this stuff has helped to my satisfaction. I’ve had improvements, and I’m slowly learning to live with it, but the best most doctors have to offer me is “try this, there was a study done…” Science is slow. It’s way too slow to help me with this problem. I’ve been having these headaches for thirteen years and the science has not improved much in that time. The best a headache specialist could offer me was to take large doses of vitamins that were identified to help people with mitochondrial disorders, in a study done over forty years ago. The mechanistic worldview, encouraging me to see my body as a set of pumps and electronic circuits mounted on an armature of primitive calcite crystals tells me to see more doctors until I find the one who’s read the right peer-reviewed study. Why should I deny my own experience in favor of peer-review? No thanks. You bet your ass I’m going to try Chinese medicine before I’m going to wait for science to catch up to what I need in my life. I do science, I know how slow it is, even for the fast people.

My biggest problem with the book is this: scientists play the game of “Who’s right?” I used to believe that being factually correct was the most important thing in life. Most of the scientists I know also believe this and they don’t just apply it to their work. They apply it in all realms of their being, particularly because our language and culture is set up for it. People like to be right. Many see life as a competition. Unfortunately, Sheldrake is also playing this game. He spends most of the book promoting his own scientific theories of morphic resonance and other ideas about psychic phenomena. I see this as more of the problem. We don’t need more science or better science. We need to see science for what it is: a way of learning. When we ask for more science, we are reinforcing the attitudes that lead to the problem in the first place. This is particularly evident in how we teach science.

When we teach science, we play the same game by teaching not methods, but findings. Most often those findings are actually models and metaphors, not experiences. For example, right now I’m helping to teach genetics and molecular biology. Most of the course material is not experimental procedures as it could be, but models of the function of biological molecules. The biggest one is the model of protein synthesis, where DNA is transcribed into RNA, which is translated into polypeptides. This is not anyone’s direct experience. This is a story (you could even call it a myth, due to the dogmatism it attracts) that is supported by clever experiments. Nicholas Maxwell points out that we could come up with a huge number of alternative myths that would also be supported by the same experiments, but that’s not how science works. Science seizes upon the first kinda-plausible idea and runs with it until it runs out of steam. The “findings” or “facts” that are found to support this story are wrapped up in it: we never would have done those experiments and found them to support the story if we didn’t have the story in the first place. When we teach science, we don’t teach method, we teach the mechanistic worldview, which is a myth. I often remind my colleagues that most of science is made up. Surprisingly a lot of them take no issue with that assertion, just as I don’t. The problem comes when we present it as something that’s Right, and don’t present people with the alternative of trusting their own experience. If we were honest about the nature of science, then people would see science as one fun way of learning, rather than The Way of Learning.

Unfortunately we encourage intellectual terrorism (“Who’s right?”) by refusing to be honest with people about the nature of our ideas. Sheldrake points this out, but quickly gets caught up in the same game by proposing alternatives. We don’t need more science, we just need to be honest about what science is. This is Sheldrake’s main point, but he primarily focuses on the danger of it to science, proving that he is, after all, a scientist. I am a lot less skeptical about my overall experience than I used to be. However, I’m still just as skeptical about scientific matters because science is a particular way of doing things and it’s intensely limited. I happen to think the prevailing theories of science are just fine. Swallowing them whole as the key to understanding your own direct experience is not just fine.

My overall point is that I don’t think the abuse of mechanistic metaphors is as big a problem for science as it is for regular people (scientists included). I’m surprised how often I see people who have a problem with science, e.g. adherents to “alternative” medicine, are doggedly scientific. In other words, I often encounter people raising gripes against “science,” and their first response is to propound an alternative scientific theory, i.e. to do more science. I’m also surprised how often I hear people explain their personal experiences (mostly bizarre, inexplicable ones) in terms of science: people usually invoke quantum mechanics because it’s the weirdest scientific thing they’ve heard of. It’s almost like they feel they need to defend their own experiences. That’s sad. Personal experience is not a competition, nor is it subject to peer-review. This just shows how deeply science-as-truth is ingrained in our culture. This probably has to do with the Puritan origins of our country; to understand that I’m reading Paul Feyerabend.

Tony the Mechanic

February 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Tony the Mechanic is a character that I really loved on Seinfeld.  Tony believes that Jerry’s Real Problem is how he takes care of his car.  This of course puts Tony in a position of power:

Public institutions act a lot like Tony:  “Come here and you will get what you need.”  I see universities especially telling people “as long as you come here, pay your money and give it a real effort, you will be okay.”  Unfortunately universities go quite a bit further than that: even as young as Kindergarten, children are being told that to be “good” they have to go to college and try to get into medical school.  Only then will they be able to get all the things they really need in life, like a house, three cars and a big huge TV with an Xbox attached.  And when people tell their friends and relatives they want to do things differently they get “I don’t understand you.”

I’ve written a bit more about Tony in my teaching philosophy.

Jerry Coyne’s anti-religious promotion of evolution

August 17, 2012 9 comments

I just finished reading a piece by Jerry Coyne published in this month’s issue of Evolution. Coyne lays out the problem of belief in evolution, belief in God, and questions whether there can be compatibility. He’s basically asking how we, as scientists, can get more people to accept evolution. Relying mostly on poll data and sociological assays of religiosity in the United States and elsewhere, he concludes that the problem is that the United States is a more strongly religious nation than most others. He then argues that science and religion are incompatible unless we redefine religion, and hence cautions that acceptance of evolution will have to wait until widespread social change makes religion less important to Americans.

Coyne’s primary argument that science and religion are incompatible is an argument also used by Richard Dawkins, based on the idea that scientists discover Truth (with a capital “T”) . Coyne distinguishes between “scientific truth” and “religious truth” and then conveniently shows that religious truths are not supported by science. There are some logical problems there, but I would rather ask the question: is that really what scientists do? Do we discover the Truth? What is the Truth? I don’t know any way to communicate Truth to anybody: what I experience as Truth is based on my subjective experience, and is inconvenient to communicate in any reliable way. What I think is going on here is that Coyne, Dawkins and many others take science too seriously: science is a way of communicating. Science is a way of using objective criteria to describe nature so that we can talk about the common aspects of our experience.

However, is that Truth? Or is it just what we can learn using science? Science is very effective in doing what it does, but it is also intentionally very limited. Science cannot do a lot of things that people might find very interesting: certain experiments would not be science because there would be no further experimenting with them. For example, there were widespread experiments with telepathy, prayer and other forms of supernatural communication around 1900, but the experiments were hard to conduct and the results were hard to interpret. So what did the scientists do? They did what scientists always do and they backtracked to something that they could work with. That’s the point: science is about experimenting with things in small steps that are fun to play with. Science is incredibly limited, very slow, and usually very crude in its means of experimentation (“Hmm, this week let’s cut out this part of the brain!”) . Such a method could hardly come close to finding “The Truth.” Nevertheless, it is still fun, enlightening, and people learn a lot doing it. There’s no greater hell for scientists than feeling that they are not learning. Let’s see science for what it is — a good way of learning and communicating — instead of relying on it for The Truth.

My real question is why this is so important to Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. The title of the essay is telling: “Science, religion and society: the problem of evolution in America” (my emphasis). Non-acceptance of evolution is a problem to be solved. Really? What is exactly the problem to solve? What do we accomplish by having more people accept evolution? What does anybody gain, except learning more science? This is kind of like complaining about not getting a third cookie: we scientists do accept and study evolution and get our own benefits from doing that. Do we really need more scientists? I think what is motivating these authors is that they believe that they are reporting The Truth, and it’s always in the best interests of people to know The Truth. Then I ask how evolution is different from Christianity or Islam: how are atheists any different from the religions they oppose in saying that they themselves have the truth and everyone would be better off to agree with them? Has evolution become ideology?

The other possible answer is that scientists believe that they are right in another sense. Not that they are ideologically correct, but that they have the right information, the right data, the right facts. This is a syndrome of people believing that being right is the most important thing. I would venture to ask if compassion is not more important than factual correctness. Have you ever been in a conversation with a person who absolutely didn’t care about your feelings in any way, but just wanted to show you how wrong you were about some arbitrarily tiny little matter of fact? If it was me, then I’m sorry.

Religion, Coyne concludes, is a symptom of a sick society, and America is completely sick. Might that mean that Americans need religion more than they need evolution? Is being factually correct really important when people are just hurting, feeling misunderstood, feeling abandoned by a rigid, competitive society? Again, perhaps compassion is more important — and the means of conveying that compassion is inconsequential. If you don’t think Americans are ill, then why are they killing themselves with terrible food? Why are they watching their neighbors kill themselves on TV? Why are so many Americans addicted to pain medication? I agree with Jerry Coyne here: if we live in a society where people are so bad off that they need religion, is making them accept evolution really important? What bothers me is that his only seeming concern for the problems of his fellow human beings is clearing it all up so that they’ll finally accept his version of Truth.

Joel J. Adamson:

What are the values that lead people to careers in science? Do those values have anything to do with the leaking pipeline?

Originally posted on zinemin's random thoughts:

There are many programs going on trying to lure more girls into studying engineering and physics (some good, some bad), which seems, at first sight, great; but sometimes I wonder. Shouldn’t we first make sure that the women who are already in the system get some support so that they actually want to continue their career? Shouldn’t we first fix the infamous ‘leaky pipeline‘ before just putting more women into it and exposing them to the problems that makes women leave science at a far greater rate than men?

Annoyingly, often the character and preferences of women are blamed for the leak in the pipeline: the infamous imposter syndrome, that women are more prone to be insecure about their qualifications, longing for stability in life, and simply more aware that there are other more important things in life than the career, like having children, and…

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Stereotype Threat and the Gender Disparity in Science

There should be no doubt to anyone in the sciences that there is a “gender gap” in the sciences: there are fewer female professors than male professors in most scientific disciplines.  The degree varies across scientific disciplines, I’ve found it strongest in physics, and weakest in math, psychology and biology, but it’s always there and in the same direction.  A recent study shows that the problem is related to women’s perceptions of operating stereotypes in their colleagues: when women perceive that they will be judged as inferior, they often behave in such a way that reinforces the stereotype.  This reminds me of a now-classic study that had young Asian women read articles about their identity, either as female, or as Asian, and then take a math quiz.  When they read about Asian identity, they scored super-high, when they read about female identity, they scored low.

This is a common topic of discussion around my lab, since there are many female graduate students and professors in biology, and we hear all the time of measures to get girls interested in science, increase career advancement and other efforts to make working better for female scientists.  The overall goal is to increase the number of women in science.  However, I’m a little concerned that people don’t pause and ask what’s really going on, or ask why it’s happening.  For example, the lead of the NPR Article on the recent psychological study poses this problem:

Over the years, educators, recruiters and government authorities have bemoaned the gender gap and warned that it can have dire consequences for American competitiveness and continued technological dominance.

Really?  That’s the problem?  We’re not keeping up with Finland?  The reason we need to keep more women in scientific professorships is so that the Japanese won’t be smarter than us?  Not only does that sound kinda hostile to everyone who isn’t American (which is quite a few people), but it paints a nice, simplistic picture over the real problem.

Perhaps the real problem is exactly what the quotation points out: our ridiculously competitive society.  Maybe more women than men figure out earlier on that the goal of their lives shouldn’t be helping America crush Iceland.  A big problem in science is that most scientists believe that the number one goal in life is to be factually correct about everything.  Perhaps more women than men figure out that there are other things that are more important: things like compassion, kindness and generosity.  Is anyone doing research on that gender disparity?  Is anyone running a program to recruit men into kindness rather than insane competitiveness?  No one has tried to recruit me.


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