Thursday, March 8, 2012

Exciting new developments in science: People are human

All week since I wrote my first blog post, I've felt afraid. I wasn't even sure what I was afraid about, but I felt a quiet and pervasive fear. I wrote a second post a few days ago, posted it for about a day, then took it down. The post was about realizing that I was afraid to come out of the closet as a scientist who is open to spirituality.

In a way, I'm glad I deleted that blog post, because I realized a deeper truth and now I get to write about that. It's not coming out of the closet as a scientist who is open to spirituality that scares me, what scares me is coming out of the closet as a scientist who is human.

Strangely, it seems there's this belief that it's dangerous for scientists to admit their humanity -- when in fact, the only safety is if we do. When I give a talk, if it is culturally safe for me to say that I wished the data turned out differently, or I'm grateful the data turned out the way they did, or that I intuitively thought of an experimental design rather than parametrically examining all possible options -- then not only can I be more objective, but my audience can know the actual truth behind the science I describe. However, if there's no room for that kind of humanity, if there's no room for describing at least our known biases, the science will be warped. Ironically, it will be reported unobjectively.

The place where this paradox blows my mind the most is in my home field, psychology. It seems like every week a paper comes out in which the researchers objectively try to describe data showing that people can't be objective. A great example is the Implicit Associations Test -- take it if you think you have a handle on your own biases: .

As an example of this attempt at objectivity, in some journals the first person voice of the scientist is still taboo. It's only in my short scientific career (the last 2 decades) that most scientific journals have started becoming comfortable with authors using the active voice ("We used electroencephalograhic recordings..." versus "Electroencephalographic recordings were used...") It's that the presence of the scientists themselves in the description of the experiment used to seem to be a bit, well, unobjective -- despite the objective truth that scientists were clearly the ones doing the experiment, not some invisible hand.

I feel like I want to help create a scientific culture in which the first-person voice of the scientist is welcomed and appreciated. Though this may feel scary, the other choice is just to feel scared and miserable. At least if I open my mouth and pursue this other path, I can feel scared and happy.

Besides, I was talking to my boyfriend tonight and he reminded me that the world doesn't need another scientist who is afraid of what the rest of the world thinks of his or her inner life. The world doesn't need another person who is trying to make other people think s/he is perfect, pure, or objective. It's a failing task, anyway.

A piece of my work here must be to raise a voice representing at least one scientist who is also a human. Another piece is to ask you this: if you knew you'd fail at making other people think you're some way that you're not, what would you do with that freedom?

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