Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fear + Wonder = Joy

I'm not a biblical scholar, but I have always loved the phrase "...I am fearfully and wonderfully made..." (Psalm 14:8). To me, it gives huge insight into who we are. We are simultaneously scared of our ugliness and amazed at our own beauty, and we are designed to be this way. It seems to me that this balance between fear and wonder -- fearfulness and wonderfulness -- is critical not just to our own survival, but to living a joyful life.

If we only focus on our fearfulness, we will be discouraged from ever leaving our homes and going into the world. We may even not be able to get out of bed. The paralysis of reasonable fears as well as irrational ones will overtake us. Beyond that extreme problem, there is a more subtle one. Even if we manage to leave the house and go about our daily routines, if we are only afraid, we will not feel alive. Being able to see our own wonderfulness is essential to feeling authentically present.

On the other hand, if we are only aware of our wonderfulness, we will be oblivious to the negative effects we can have on other people and ourselves. These effects occur through the course of living, often by mistake but sometimes on purpose. We will damage ourselves by taking adventurous steps on a grandiose journey that does not benefit from the wisdom of appropriate fears.

There's a general thrust in popular culture and especially pop psychology that suggests we should find ways to ignore or remove the fear and to focus only on wonder or beauty. The belief seems to be that this positive focus will bring us joy. But what really brings us joy? What is the central essence of joy?

Joy or happiness is not a product. It's not even a service. It seems to me that joy is the result of being connected to all parts of ourselves. Including our fear, including our wonder. Clinical psychologists know that integrating all that there is inside of us -- balancing fear and wonder and everything else -- is one very important key to joyfulness.

It seems to me that the scientific process can point toward one way to integrate all this. To do proper science, scientists have to become aware of any internal biases -- any fears or blind spots -- we may have about our object of wonder. We need to hold both cards, the wonder card and the fear card. The way we do that is by asking questions of ourselves even as we ask questions of nature. Did I think this up, or is this real? Am I seeing what I think I'm seeing? What are the data telling me?

The questions, regardless of the answers, put us on a path that includes both fear and wonder, because questioning allows everything to come up in answer to the questions. Nothing is sure, so everything can be seen. The questions are the great integrators. Ask questions, I say, and you get joy as an answer.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

When does changing strategy make sense?

One of my areas of study is in how people make decisions about future events. Lately I’ve been thinking about this in the context of baseball and the rest of life.

If you’re pitching in a baseball game and your fastball is working wonders, you aren’t likely to change your strategy. You’ll keep pitching the fastball, because it’s working. But if three batters in a row have turned your fastballs into runs, you’ll consider trying something new for the next batter. This strategy, which I call “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it — but if it is broken, fix it!” seems reasonable enough for baseball pitches.

But what about when the amount of influence you have over a situation isn’t so clear? Like in the rest of our daily life?

For instance, you might do great during a job interview. You ask all the right questions, you give all the right answers. But you don’t get the job. Then it happens again, and again. Is this job interview situation like pitching, in which case you should change something about your interview strategy? Or is this situation more like playing roulette, where you have almost no control over the outcome regardless of what you do?

If it’s like roulette, what would be the smartest next move? Keep betting on “black” when red has come up three times? Or change your behavior to bet on “red”? According to current scientific theory, there is no smartest next move — each spin of a fair roulette table brings a completely new result, not influenced by previous spins. But multiple behavioral studies show that in these kind of low-control situations, people tend to keep betting on “black” after a string of “red” outcomes. This is what I call the “If it’s broken, don’t fix it” strategy. So it looks like people apply different rules to make decisions depending on how much control they think they have over a situation.

Back to the job interview scenario. If you think you have a lot of control over the situation, you’re likely to change your interview strategy (even though you already thought your strategy was good). After all, it seems you are consistently failing, and you have control, so you’d better try something new! On the other hand, if you feel powerless over the situation, then it’s more like the roulette wheel. You’ll keep using the same interview strategy again and again, because you don’t have any control, so there’s no reason that changing your strategy should make a difference.

What this seems to produce is a situation in which people who feel in control are more flexible in their approaches, and people who feel powerless are more rigid. It also means that people who feel more in control also get more experience using multiple strategies to solve problems, whereas people who feel powerless get much less experience and therefore develop less expertise. As you can see, the situation feeds back upon itself — feeling in control leads to more feelings of mastery; feeling helplessness leads to more opportunities to demonstrate one’s lack of control.

So what can you do when you feel like you’re failing? Whether you feel like you have control or not, it makes sense to act like a person who feels control. Change your strategy after a few failures. If you do have even a little bit of influence over the situation (and we usually do), this change could help. And, in the unusual case in which you don’t have any influence at all, changing your strategy at least gives you practice in a new way of doing things.

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.