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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 public schools an avenue for commerce?

October 11, 2011 1 comment

My son has been in public school for about six weeks. Every week we get an invitation to buy something from some company, or support corporate advertising through his school. The first week was NFL week, where the school tried to win a “grant” from the NFL by submitting pictures of students wearing NFL apparel. Next it was the “Fall Fundraiser,” where a corporation came in and showed my son a video of a bunch of kids having a party, then gave him an envelope containing the tools for us to provide data and money to a corporation selling candy and magazines. Next it’s the bookfair, and then picture day. These are all things that we had when I was a kid, except for NFL Week. I don’t suppose there’s anything hugely different, but now I’m seeing it as a parent.

NFL Week was thoroughly transparent: it raised a lot of questions. There’s the typical question of why the NFL doesn’t just give money to a randomly or thoughtfully selected school near each of its teams; there’s the question of why people who wouldn’t otherwise be buying NFL apparel (like my wife and I) should go out and get some in the name of providing money for the school; then there’s the question of why there’s chance involved. We felt uncomfortable turning our son into a billboard (something we avoid in all clothing purchases). Other corporations are doing similar things. We have recently seen high school students at our supermarket telling us to go to the Pepsi-Cola website to vote for their school, so that they can “win a grant” from Pepsico. This raises the same questions, and again it’s thoroughly transparent. Why doesn’t the company just use advertising to tell people to go their website, or a phony contest? If they want to tell people to go to their website, why do they have to fool children into doing it for them?

We hear all the time about how public schools just don’t have enough money, teachers don’t get paid enough, and so on and so on. That may all be true, but has anyone stopped to think about who has an interest in propagating that story? It may not be true after all, since when I was in contact with private schools, even in the richest of them I would hear talk of fund-raising and budget shortfalls all the time. They were just like public schools in that respect, except that it was obvious that they actually had huge piles of money. I just didn’t get why they had such a scarcity mentality, although I should point out there were some schools that didn’t. Those tended to be the ones who actually had fat kids and teenagers with funny haircuts (you know, like a normal school).

Whether public schools have enough money or not is really irrelevant when we see schools turned into avenues for advertising and commerce. Basically every week our son comes home with a piece of paper saying that there’s something we can buy through the school. Doesn’t that seem weird? Doesn’t it seem like these companies would be making less money if they didn’t have this avenue?

Now consider that these companies also have enough money to influence law-making.

The Leaking Pipeline: Should I Go to Graduate School?

October 28, 2010 1 comment

A recent USAToday article showed the results of an analysis of 2010 census data, showing that more women are going to college for what are traditionally thought of as male-dominated fields. I think this is good news. I believe our public lives should mirror representation in our households to some degree, and I think that there are plenty of women out there who will make great scientists. My advisor is a woman, and she’s bloody brilliant. Many of the professors I work with are women, and they are all capable people that I certainly would never think less of for their sex. Having always been in a field that’s been receptive to women (i.e. not physics), I’ve never thought that female colleagues would be absent from my scientific career. I’m glad to see people reporting these changes in the news. However, the article, and most that I’ve read over the years, completely misses the point of the real crisis in academia with regard to gender: the leaking pipeline.

As long as I’ve been in academics (most of my life), people have known that the real problem with representation of women in science is the shortage of female professors. Female graduate students are, in many fields, equally represented with male graduate students, and requisition of a Ph.D. does not seem to correlate with gender. However, there are far fewer female professors than male professors in most scientific fields. Where are all these female Ph.D.’s going?

The Leading Hypotheses

Quite a few people have been burned at the stake for discussing this topic, but I still feel compelled to discuss it because I think it gets at another problem that I’ve never heard anyone discuss. There are good reasons why no one’s discussed it, and I’ll cover that a little later. For now let’s consider the leading hypotheses of why women seem to exit academia after receiving their Ph.D.s (remember, that’s not my opinion, it’s a well-established fact).

Women are bad at math

This is the idiotic idea that got Larry Summers ousted from Harvard. We should note, in his defense, that he didn’t actually suggest that women were bad at math, he just mentioned how no one has seriously considered the idea. Nevertheless, this idea is preposterous on quite a few grounds. Just using my own career as an example, the women I’ve known in my field have been, on the whole, much more quantitatively oriented than the men I’ve known. The guys have all known the requisite amount of statistics to get by, but I’ve known far more mathematically-oriented, or statistically-oriented female biologists than I’ve known such men. Besides my own experience there’s the fact that mathematics (pure math, that is) is one of the only fields outside of biology where there have been quite a few notable women: Emmy Noether, Sophie Germain, and Grace Hooper — if I can steal her from engineering — are but a few.

Even if something about being a woman, something cultural, biological or otherwise, prevented women from excelling due to problems with math, that wouldn’t prevent them from making huge headway in any of the biological sciences, psychology, or even engineering. On a logical basis, this idea doesn’t explain the disparity between females exiting graduate school and entering academic careers. Women wouldn’t be gaining Ph.D.s at the same rate as male counterparts if they were bad at math. We would not see a leaking pipeline, we’d see a closed pipeline.

Women tend to choose different professions

Even this seemingly innocuous suggestion that women are different (even in a good way) from men, makes most American women I’ve known turn bright red and foam at the mouth. What I mean about this being good is that I am probably not nice enough to be a public school teacher, but if a woman feels like she could be good at that, better that she go into that than me. Anecdotally, I know many women who have gone into mental health, teaching, medicine, social justice work, advocacy, and other non-scientific, somewhat humanitarian lines of work. I’d say all the professional women I know who aren’t doing something like one of these fields, is in biology, and that’s because I hang out with biologists all the time.

However, how can this explain the leaking pipeline? Are women going into graduate school in science and engineering, gaining advanced degrees and then becoming social workers? That doesn’t make sense either. Especially because for all those fields, you would need special training that is specific to those fields. All of them are just as valuable or more to society than science. We need mental health professionals, probably more than we need scientists right now. India needs scientists, Americans are sick; we need people to fix that. So “good for you” if you are choosing a different profession, but that doesn’t explain the leaking pipeline.

Who cares: why would they want to be scientists?

This is not so much a hypothesis as advice you should consider. The academy is a huge macho pissing match. A lot of my interactions in science have basically been on the level of “I have more publications than that guy! How dare he reject my paper!” I used the male pronoun on purpose there. Why would you want to be a part of that? I don’t want to be a part of it pretty often! Even if you love science, there are a lot of ways you can make a difference outside of academic science and be respected and paid. If you’re into biology, you could get a master’s degree and work in wildlife biology, either with government or with the Nature Conservancy and you would make a living, and see the fruits of your labor, and you would only have to take part in this pissing match if you wanted to.

Could this explain the leaking pipeline? A (coincidentally female) colleague of mine remarked that many graduate students get into the “Concorde fallacy”: by the third or fourth year of graduate school, if a student has changed his or her mind about being in academic science, then he or she would be in a situation of having already spent a huge amount of time and emotional energy into getting that octagonal hat. By then he or she might feel like “I better get my Ph.D. or all of this will be wasted time.” I knew one person who (luckily) changed her mind after only a year-and-a-half and left with a master’s degree. Lucky her; she wouldn’t have made that decision so easily (and I’m sure it was not easy) if she had been in her fourth year.

This factor might explain a lot of choices that lead to the leaking pipeline. I’ve heard from plenty of people whose sister, daughter or friend made this choice. I even heard from one first hand: I was out birding with a couple of women who had both described themselves to me as housewives. Their kids were already in college, so I tried to learn more about them. The one in the passenger seat had a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Stanford.

The question is then: why have I never heard of the person in question being male? I have met one stay-at-home dad who has a Ph.D. in physics, and he’s the only one ever. Why is the subject of that story almost always a woman? My favorite reasons for this are societal, and you can find plenty of hypotheses from your favorite feminist writer. I feel obliged as a man to mention that it’s pretty rough being the only dad at the playground with the kids — take a day off of work, and take your toddlers to the park just to experience this — it’s weird! How do you think I met that guy with a Ph.D. in physics? Beyond that, as much as women are expected to choose leaving work to take care of kids, men are often discouraged from doing so in very covert, but highly coercive ways. All it takes is a stern look from the HR manager and a societally-conditioned man starts thinking “Oh crap, how am I going to support my wife and kids? Sh*t!” I’d like to see the statistics on paychecks of men who choose to work part time, or take time off to take care of their kids. My gut tells me the comparison would reveal the familiar $0.78 often quoted when comparing women’s paychecks to men’s.

They shouldn’t go in the first place

The last hypothesis, that I will discuss at great length, is that men and women go to graduate school for the wrong reasons. I have never heard anyone discuss this possibility (I’ll discuss why in a minute). But why would women disproportionately go for the wrong reasons? There are two reasons: one is a demographic effect. Women exit the academy as their priorities change. Most people go to graduate school between the ages of 25 and 35, right when the ol’ clock ticks in. Add in the societal conditioning mentioned above and you have more women leaving than men.

People go to graduate school for the wrong reasons

Make no mistake: I’m not saying that women shouldn’t go to graduate school. I’m saying that most people who go to graduate school — men and women — shouldn’t go in the first place. There are plenty of reasons not to go, but chief among them would be that you know going in that you don’t want a career in academic science. “Who would go to graduate school that doesn’t want a career in academic science?” you’re saying. Someone who doesn’t understand what a Ph.D. is for. Someone, for instance, who thinks that a Ph.D. is just a level of education that someone can attain because they want to be very well educated. I have met these people.

I spoke to one woman who said that she just wanted to be really smart, and the best way she knew to accomplish that was to get a Ph.D. She chose a topic and pursued a Ph.D. and now works part-time as an environmental activist. This is intellectually on par with a friend-of-a-friend who decided he should be an expert in Gilligan’s Island because he was surrounded by intellectuals and felt outclassed. Have you thought of reading a book?

A woman I knew when I was in medical research wanted to get a Ph.D. in psychology because she wanted to be a “very-well educated stay-at-home mom.” Consider that she said this in an office where she was surrounded by other women who were fighting tooth-and-nail to get into graduate school because they wanted to be successful clinical psychology researchers. These other women needed Ph.D.s to get started doing what they wanted with their lives, and this woman thought it would look nice on her wall.

The only conclusion I can draw is how insensitive and irresponsible that is. If you know going in that you’re only going to be competing with people who actually need something a heck of a lot more than you do, kindly step aside. Otherwise you’re providing unneeded competition. Especially if you have really good grades, and you know that getting in will be easy for you. Don’t unnecessarily out-compete people who deserve to go to graduate school. As well as figuring out what your career goals are, you have a responsibility to consider whether you should go to graduate school.

Another reason that you shouldn’t go to graduate school is that you will be exploited. Some of us (theoreticians like me) are totally useless for anything but teaching; if you do benchwork, however, you are cheap labor. Consider that and then consider if it’s worth it. Unless you’re at the Nobel Prize level, and this is true of many people who still are, it makes the most sense to have graduate students and paid techs in the lab while you deal with administrative and service obligations. Professors have to do a lot: I’m not denigrating “publish or perish” but I’m saying you shouldn’t expect to see professors actively gathering a lot of their data. Their level of success is built on interacting with their departments, colleagues, scientific societies, or getting into industry. If you think grad school is supposed to be “the time of your life” (and I’ve met more than one such deranged person) think again.

As a parent I definitely know that another reason you might not want to go to graduate school is that your priorities may radically changed when you start a family. Marriage is enough to change a lot of people’s minds about how they spend their time. Kids are an unstoppable force. Having your own kids goes way beyond “Look at the baby!” When you have kids — and this is a good thing — you realize that you don’t need a Ph.D. to be respected, successful and have a fulfilling life. If your paper gets rejected, your kids will still love you. If you leave with a Master’s degree, your kids will still think you’re a really cool scientist. If you go to work at a software company, or take up a customer support job in the pharmaceutical industry, your kids will still be proud of you. Kids can convince the most stalwart, dedicated scientists that the academy is a waste of time without saying anything out loud.

Good for families, bad for the academy. Again, not having enough women in faculty positions is wrong. However, if you are searching for causes, you need to look beyond the “power structure” of white males constantly coercing females into leaving, and paying them less when they stay. There are plenty of reasons for the leaking pipeline that are not amenable to Marxist analysis.

If you’re a man or a woman you need to think about all the factors that go into scientific training. You also need to enter graduate school with the right priorities. Don’t go if you just want to be really smart. That’s not fair to people who need a Ph.D. to make a living. Don’t think it’s going to be fun, and don’t make “fun” your primary motivation: graduate school is not an extension of college. Don’t go right after college: being older and more mature (in particular over 26) is a huge asset that most people underestimate. When you’re older you’ve not only spent more time learning your field, but you’ve spent more time learning how to be a successful person. You will know how to handle conflict, how not to let people push you around. And you will know when science should not be your highest priority. Just on the basis of data, by that age you will probably have the right mate to help you survive graduate school. Plenty of people I know have entered grad school under 26, but I’m sure as hell glad I waited.

Most of all don’t go if your parents have bullied you into it. You have to consider your whole life, and how it will affect your other plans. Talk to as many current and former students as you can; make sure you get a variety of perspectives. If you are only hearing that grad school is going to be fun, you’re not talking to enough people. You need to hear some horror stories; I’ve left quite a few out from this essay.

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