Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Academia as an abusive system

I am an academic, and I am a grateful survivor of childhood abuse. I know I am not the only one who carries both cards. There are other academics, perhaps thousands, who survived their own childhood abuse. I have to guess, based on the nature of the current academic system, that there are plenty of us out there. Perhaps we feel at home.

Interestingly, it's difficult to find out how many there are. Good luck trying to look it up -- what you get is a lot of academic papers about other people's abuse. Maybe someone has done work on abuse survivors in the academy that I can't find, but it seems to me that on this topic, there is a deafening silence.

Why the silence? Some of us have decided our abusive childhoods weren't abusive. Others of us know we were abused but don't want to acknowledge it -- it's over, it's not the point, and it feels somewhat shameful to admit. Maybe we've learned from the academy itself that mostly lower-class, uneducated families perpetuate abuse. Maybe we fear our colleagues will think we are less capable, since everyone knows that survivors of childhood abuse are damaged goods. Of course jobs are scarce, so maybe we fear we won't get a job offer or tenure or a full professorship if others know we are "broken."

I certainly had all these feelings before I made the decision to speak up about my childhood. But ever since I started to tell my colleagues that I am a survivor, I have come to recognize the incredible power of becoming whole and speaking without shame about my experiences.

Childhood abuse shaped me, without a doubt. My super-functionality, my obsession with keeping all possibilities in mind as I think about a problem, my desire to train young people to think with passion, insight, and bravery -- I came by all of these at least partially as a response to my abuse. These are intimate parts of who I am.

It seems strange, now, to think that I was afraid that moving forward as a more integrated, honest, and whole person would make me somehow less competent. I think of all the effort it took to stay disintegrated and unaware -- how much that was draining my productivity. Now that is truly shameful.

As I have woken up to my own abuse and how it has shaped me, I have also woken up to the abuse that is prevalent in academia. For an expert such as myself, it's not too difficult to unearth the clues to knowing you're living within an abusive system. I'll describe two blindingly obvious ones.

First, people who desire to be respected and treated reasonably well in compensation for their contributions are not tolerated in an abusive system. They are instead shamed for wanting respect and compensation. In a healthy system, in case you didn't know, such a person is given reasonable compensation and is well respected for their contributions.

Which kind of system is academia? Well, exhibit A has to be the recent story that originally carried the title How dare you try to negotiate, tenure-track peon? It describes how a college rescinded an academic job offer in response to straightforward negotiation requests made by the woman whom the college presumably hand-picked for the job. Worse, comments on the article shame this woman for her greediness. Of course Exhibit B is every starting salary and the accompanying work demands for every Assistant Professor job everywhere except -- and this is important -- at the more respected institutions.

Why is it important for some Assistant Professor jobs to have decent salaries? This is the second clue that you're living in an abusive system. It is essential, when attempting to maintain an abusive system, to ensure that some members of that system have compensation, status, and power that others don't have. And there must be the promise that the ones who don't have the compensation, status, and power can eventually get it, as long as they're kind enough to those who abuse them. This is the key to maintaining the system. If no one has what others want, there is no power for the abusers to lord over the abused.

I am not proposing that academia set out to be abusive. Nor that there is a conspiracy of abuse. Nor that my advisers have been abusive -- in fact, it is their support that leads me to recognize abuse elsewhere in the system.

I am pointing out that academia has evolved into an abusive system, and we need to look at it as such. In a healthy system, power, status and compensation are shared by the contributors to the system, and those who contribute less are nurtured and developed to help them find new ways to contribute. This is the way myself and most academics would like academia to be.

The horror to me is that the cycle has stopped in my own family, but in academia, I am still perpetuating it. Professors are more and more often poorly paid, part-time adjuncts or graduate students who are trying to be nice to the right people and do the work that gets us the sacred Assistant Professor job. We do this even as we encourage our students to follow our career paths. I am starting to see that upholding this structure is a way of acting out our own abuse on our students.

I love academia. Academics are my people. I love the awakening of minds and the pursuit of truth. I thrill at the ideal of academia -- a system that celebrates truth and beauty and the discoveries of the mind.

I love academia, but it's not worth perpetuating abuse. So here's what I pledge. I will be an outspoken proponent of transparency, functionality, and self-respect in academia. As a result of this conviction, there will be no power for anyone to lord over me. I will respect myself and I will respect my students. This comes first. And I will gladly leave academia if I am pushed out as a result of any activity related to this pledge.

I am not alone in this movement. More and more parents are ending their family's abuse cycles, which means a larger group of healthier people will pour into every discipline. I may not survive academia, but academia will eventually have to change to survive as healthier, self-respecting people everywhere demand it.

Several folks have mentioned to me that they understand the spirit of this post, but that, in fact, academia might be a lot better than some other alternatives. They may be right -- I've worked in corporate America, and depending on the company, corporate abuse is rampant as well. However, a problem being all over the place does not mean it's not a problem in our own backyards. So I'm starting here, in my backyard.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Teaching the process of science: What gets in the way?

Ask scientists what's wrong with the way we teach science, and high up on the list is that we teach facts derived from science, but we often fail to teach the process of science itself.

Why do we fail in this way? At higher levels, we blame the lower levels -- elementary, middle school and high school teachers who only understand facts but not the methodology. At lower levels, the higher levels are blamed -- college and university professors who write textbooks and lab guides that don't convey the excitement of scientific discovery.

So what's the real story? I don't know for sure, but I have a hunch, and I think it has to do with a fear of the softer, less analytical side of the scientific method.

Most introductory science courses will discuss the scientific method including the elements described in this figure (above) -- which is similar to thousands of other "scientific method" figures. We start with a hypothesis, test it with experiments, get some results, and report the conclusions.

What's missing here is obvious to anyone engaged in scientific work...there is no mention of where the hypotheses come from. Some courses and texts may mention observation, but how does observation produce a hypothesis? Where do we see the importance of WONDER?

When searching for alternative diagrams of the scientific method, I found a well-developed blog post that discusses the wonder and failure inherent in the scientific method. Here's a link to that author's blog and the author's wonderful diagram is below.

What's wrong with putting this diagram in every textbook? Well, nothing. It would be an exciting change. Why don't we?

Observation is allowed, of course. But inspiration, confusion, fiddling -- these smack of uncertainty and failure. As noticed by many great thinkers including Kuhn, when a domain of intellectual achievement finds itself at the top of the pile in terms of status and power, people involved in that domain naturally do not want to lose their status and power.

My sense is that discussion of the uncertainty and failure so clearly inherent in the scientific process feels like it could lead to losing status and power, so it is not done. But this feeling is false, as demonstrated by demagogues and cults that repress questioning and eventually are overthrown by the reality of human wholeness. How strong is a God or a Structure that can't be questioned?

The strength that comes from transparently revealing the soft underbelly of any group of people or field of work is far more solidifying, enlivening, and powerful than any method of repression. What if our textbooks featured the failure and confusion in science? What if elementary science students made up their own, new questions? What if awards were given in science fairs for the most inspiring representations of the scientific process, regardless of the results? What if every chapter of every science textbook ended with the phrase "...at least that's how we think it works, but we're probably wrong?"

It seems to me that in this kind of world, science would have real staying power. And, perhaps more importantly, a shot at reaching everyone.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A carefully planned sneeze

I'm working on job talks for tenure-track Assistant Professor positions at schools around the country. Crafting these talks has provided me with the insight that doing experimental science in academia is a lot like having the urge to sneeze, sneezing, then discussing the sneeze in detail as if that particular sneeze were the logical and only thing to do at the exact time you did it.

Each talk I'm writing combines a discussion of the motivations for each of 2-3 experiments together with a discussion of the results and their implications. It seems like it would be easy to write the talks in the proper order -- my motivation always occurred before the experiments and results in real time, right?

It depends, I think, on whether we're talking about the real motivation or the stated motivation.

The real motivation that I have for doing an experiment is essentially always the same. It's something like, "Wouldn't it be cool if blah blah blah influenced blah blah blah and the mechanism was blah blah blah? Yummy!" The thought comes out of thin air, seemingly, and it's not attached to anything rational or even a memory of the reading that might have influenced it. It's exactly like having to sneeze. It comes over me without effort and sometimes at awkward times.

What I am starting to believe is that this is true for most scientists, but apparently because we want to be perceived as rational beings (good luck, us!) we have agreed that it's best not to talk about the shameful secret of our irrational experimental intuition. Instead we sort of retrofit rational explanations to our motivations. "Goldberger and Schnitz showed in 1989 that blah blah blah, so I thought blah blah blah -- which was clearly a reasonable single step from this previous idea."

I'm not saying that Goldberger and Schnitz' seminal work (ovular work? does it depend on their gender?) is not important, nor that scientists shouldn't cite related work, nor that Goldberger and Schnitz couldn't have influenced my thinking subconsciously.

However, if what happens to me is similar to what happens to other scientists, then the conscious order of events in the world of experimental science is more like this:

1) Get an idea for an experiment, probably while showering.
2) Look up some references and read/re-read the ones related to the idea.
3) If the idea is still feeling like a strong urge, ignore any references that go against the idea.
3.5) ...even if there many many references that go against your idea, and very very few (or none) that support it.
4) Design and perform the experiment.
5) Look at the data and try to understand what they are telling you.
6) Go back to re-reading references in order to understand why you should have predicted the result that you got.
7) Write a story that makes you appear rational throughout this process.

It's somewhat embarrassing to write this process down, even though I am sure that I and many of my colleagues do exactly this. We're trained not to report our intuitive urges, but we all have them. Once we do have them, and if we find them valuable, we have to come up with a story about how smart we were to have had them.

Sure, it's the same rationalization process everyone uses, including non-scientists. It's just that we scientists are supposed to be empirically observing and recording what is actually happening.

It just seems a bit dishonest to carry on as if we didn't simply have to sneeze.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Playing for truth

I have been reading and thinking about mathematical philosophy lately. There are many schools of thought that try to address the question of whether mathematics is a more accurate reflection of truth than the reflections arrived at through other sciences.

For historical reasons, in the West we are raised in the Rationalist tradition that tells us that math is King (masculine oligarchical noun selected on purpose here). If an observed or empirical piece of data defies a piece of information that has been proven mathematically, there is supposed to be a problem with the empirical data, not math. Interestingly, this is what is taught and is the water in which we swim, but it is not representative of how science/math actually works. 

What actually happens is that whenever possible, mathematicians are guided by intuition. Like most of us, they use their learned experiences (their sense perceptions) to inform their intuitions. In a world in which any three points (instead of two) defined a straight line but straight lines also had every other characteristic that they have in our world, the intuitions of mathematicians would be very different than they are here. 

To add insult to injury for those hoping that mathematics could help find truth, physicists compare their mathematical results with physical data whenever they can. If there is not a match between the math and the data, they start over on their equations. Chemists, biologists, and neuroscientists follow this same rule. When in doubt, the empirical data win.

What fascinates me is that the agreed-upon story, at least culturally, is that math wins. Yet in reality, experience wins. This situation is so human, it's touching. We realize that our senses are flawed, so we strive for truth elsewhere, and we think that math offers a place beyond our senses. But we have such faith in our senses and/or we are so trapped by them that we have difficulty believing any truth unless our senses support and defend it. I think this paradoxical position is nonetheless the correct one.

One way to leave this paradox in the dust is to admit that our work cannot really find truth. Instead, we can only play with truth using every game we can dream up. It seems to me that if there is any truth to be found by mathematicians and scientists, it is in play

We follow our curiosity and see where it goes. Sometimes it goes somewhere beautiful and elegant, and we are inspired. Sometimes it goes somewhere dark, clunky and awkward, and we are driven away. Sometimes the beautiful and the ugly conspire to produce elegant and damaging results, sometimes they conspire to produce awkward and healing results.

Regardless of the results, what drives most of us is that we delight in playing these games with the universe. The act of this play is where we find the closest thing to truth. Not in our results or our methods, but in the act of this relationship with the universe; the simultaneous and mutual, loving and awe-struck interaction with what is within and beyond us.

The feeling of communion and delight we get from this relationship is what keeps us playing. I wonder if that same feeling is what keeps the rest of the universe playing as well.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Peer Pressure from Scientific Fundamentalists?

I was impressed to read this morning that Peter Higgs, the theoretical physicist who predicted the existence of the Higgs boson, had publicly criticized Richard Dawkins for his anti-religious "fundamentalism" ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/dec/26/peter-higgs-richard-dawkins-fundamentalism ).

One of his points is that fundamentalism -- belief in anything that cannot be changed by data -- is an anti-scientific position, even if the belief held so strongly is belief in the superiority of science and the inferiority of faith.

Dr. Higgs is on the "short list" at Stockholm, given the recent discovery that his predicted particle exists, so right now he has a lot of power in the world of science. I am impressed that he chose to spend some of that power defending scientists who have spiritual beliefs, even though he himself is not among them.

At least in the U.S., there is astounding peer pressure among scientists to keep secret any spiritual beliefs or experiences we have. The underlying concern, I think, is that we fear that our colleagues (and maybe we ourselves) believe that rational/rigorous scientific thought cannot exist in the same brain as irrational/unfiltered spiritual belief. Either you're a rational scientist or an irrational spiritualist, but you can't be both. Choose one, and that position invalidates the other.

I have a suspicion that this false dichotomy is related to a similar one that is prevalent throughout professions beyond science -- the care-taking/productivity dichotomy. One can either be a care-taker who kindly and compassionately helps people with their problems regardless of whether the solution is productive (aka, mom), or one can be a problem solver who incisively and resolutely solves problems productively regardless of whether the solution is kind (aka, dad). However, it's apparent to anyone who knows someone simultaneously incisive, productive, and compassionate that this is a false dichotomy as well. The soft can co-exist in the same mind with the hard, and the outcome is best when it does.

Our minds have so many modes, and while sometimes a single mode is clearly the one that is controlling the show at the present moment, at other times it is apparent that multiple modes are sharing the load. Our fears about multiple mind-sets co-existing are based on a false assumption that a single mode must win each day or else chaos will ensue. Of course, such an arrangement would be exhausting for whatever mode wins the day. Not only would it be exhausting, it wouldn't match with the empirical evidence that multiple neural modules co-exist and co-lead our sense of self and our behaviors (see, for instance, Richard Thaler's economics theories, or Paul Bloom's review in The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/11/first-person-plural/307055/ ).

It's one of my greatest daily pleasures to wake up, consciously connect myself to God/the Universe/Spirit/Whatever you want to call it, and then try to figure out the most rigorous way to analyze my data and the most accurate way to interpret it. Sometimes I even ask the Universe for help in this process. So I guess I just want to say I'm grateful to Peter Higgs for bringing the idea of a spiritualist scientist into the mainstream.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What works and what doesn't, and why?

There's been a bit of a media frenzy about our recent meta-analysis (see a summary article on the paper that I wrote for the International Human Press: http://ithp.org/articles/canwepredictthefuture.html ). After all the excitement died down, however, I found myself wanting more. Like a drug that I'd unwittingly learned to love, I wanted more of the satisfaction that is admittedly very rare in a scientific career -- for one's ideas to be seen by many other scientists and to be considered seriously.

Fortunately, I was weaned relatively quickly. I received two harsh reviews on two different papers, and one of my favorite results about a gender difference in perception looks like it is not replicating.

There have been some things that worked over the past few weeks: another gender difference looks like it is replicating, I had a blast giving two talks up at King's College University in London, Ontario, and a call with an intellectual property expert made me realize one of my ideas may be marketable.

This "best of times, worst of times" mix has made me start thinking about what tends to work, what tends to not work, and why. Here are my musings.

What works: It seems to me that whatever ends up working is a "sleeper" project. Projects that I've had in the back of my mind for a long time, that I've consciously ignored for awhile and then finally did the work -- these are the ones that end up working. It's like my subconscious chews on them for long enough to spit out a useful approach that makes the project work.

What doesn't work: Projects that I concentrate a lot of conscious mental energy on tend to fall through eventually. Really, it seems that the harder I concentrate on something, the more likely it is to fall through. The meta-analysis, for example, took a few years of hard work, but it was a background project that barely grazed the surface of my work life. Meanwhile, my gender difference that isn't replicating was the star of my conscious repertoire of cool things I've done.

Why? Of course, asking my conscious mind to answer this one will give some answers, none of which should be taken seriously, because they won't be correct (see observations above). My best guess is that the subconscious mind is more efficient when it gets more material to chew on, and is left alone and not nagged for answers so that it can provide answers when it is ready. When my conscious mind gets over-invested and over-involved, it makes decisions that are not based on all the data that is being processed by my subconscious. In general, it appears my subconscious knows best.

Does yours?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Questions Themselves

I published a paper last week with two co-authors, Patrizio Tressoldi at University of Padova in Italy and Jessica Utts at University of California at Irvine. It's gained a lot of media attention because the results suggest that our bodies can anticipate upcoming emotional events without any external clues. Of course there must be an explanation for this phenomenon, but my co-authors and I don't know what it is; it's possible that there is a rather un-interesting explanation, but we rule out those explanations in the analysis, at least as far as we can tell. I go into details about the possible un-interesting explanations in my paper (visit this page to download it), so I don't want to discuss them here. The remaining explanations are all fairly interesting -- such as quantum biological processes and retrocausal effects. However, the upshot is that we found a highly significant effect that is very mysterious, given the everyday assumption that causes precede their effects.

As a scientist, it's pretty rare to get media attention. It feels good that ABC 20/20 and the Wall Street Journal seem to care about my work, or at least the results of my work. But this morning, as I watched the paper climb to the top of the heap in terms of media mentions for the particular journal in which it is published (Frontiers in Perception Science), I realized that I feel a completeness I've never felt before in my work, and it is only partly the short-term high of media attention.

I feel like if I die now, I know I have changed the world for the better. It's not that my research is so amazing that it changes the world for the better in itself. It is that in this paper we present a mysterious finding that seems very robust, yet it is still mysterious. We don't have a good handle on how to explain it. It's remarkable to see such acclaim and publicity around a question, not an answer. That momentary celebration of not knowing is a big gift to myself and others, and a good reminder of all we don't know.

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves," Rilke wrote. Loving the questions is the secret beauty in the scientific process. It's secret because the way science is taught suggests that scientists love answers, not questions. But anyone who actually becomes a scientist does so because that person is driven by a question that they love. The feeling is mutual; it seems that the question clings tenaciously as well, throughout your life. For me, the question is, "what is the nature of time?"

I want to freeze this moment, before answers are given to address this particular mystery. I want to appreciate this public celebration of wonder and strangeness, without answers. My completeness comes from knowing I made the point that I most enjoy making -- mystery is real, it is awesome, and when questions are loved well, they will eventually, if they like, yield answers.