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.

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

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…

View original post 873 more words

Categories: Uncategorized

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.

A parallel story to that in my household.

Categories: Uncategorized

The New Research Blog

Hello there.  I’ve started a new blog that will focus on scientific outreach.  I’m taking the suggestion of Jai Ranganathan and Scifund: scientists should make their work clear and available to people who are interested.  Scientists should have fans, so in true scientific spirit, I am doing the experiment. Even if I don’t get fans of my own research, I might help create fans of evolutionary biology.  I was a fan when I was a kid and now look where I am.

The audience for the new blog will be what the NSF calls “technically literate” people, i.e. people who are smart enough to understand science, but who perhaps haven’t spend their entire lives on it like I have.  I want to point out that my audience will not strictly be scientists, although I will be directly commenting on primary research.  Scientists should feel welcome to comment, but you may have to wade through some jargon-free, and some purely didactic, passages.  My two main goals with respect to content are to inform people (interested readers, my friends and family) of what I’m doing in my dissertation research, and to comment on current research that’s directly relevant to mine.  I hope this will give non-scientists an idea of how science happens.

I will save my opinions and technical discussions for this blog.  My most-read topics are purely informational, so I will be toning down the opinions anyway.  If you want to read something about Emacs, expect to find it here.  If you want to read about science, go there.

Categories: Uncategorized

Am I the only one who sees politics as a series of stunts by people who want to divide us and blunt our compassion?

rhymeswithcamera

Look up! There’s a video of me reading my letter. Below, you’ll see the transcript if you’d prefer to read instead. What are your hopes and expectations for this next generation? What’s next for you?

A letter to my daughter after the passage of Amendment One

My darling daughter,

You gave me a sweet memory the other night. You were all snuggled in your bed. We’d just wrapped up our ritual of ‘a lotta kisses and a lotta hugs’.

“Wait, Mom,” you said, “Say, no matter.”

“Oh, I love you no matter what.”

“No, Mom. Say it with your eyebrows up.”

“Like this?” I said, with my eyebrows raised. “I love you no matter what.”

“Yes!” You said.

And I thought you are so funny and I love you so much. And then I went downstairs and watched as Amendment One was passed. And I was shocked and distressed…

View original post 430 more words

Categories: Uncategorized
%d bloggers like this: