Bee Byte: Can you #WildID a Bee?

On Twitter, nature-lovers will send scientists photos of an animal asking for a #WildID – or species identification. But can you #WildID a bee?

The answer: sometimes yes (but usually no).

Often bees of the same genera will look very similar (for example these two different species of male Agapostemon):

Agapostemon splendens (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of 'Insects Unlocked')
Agapostemon splendens (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of ‘Insects Unlocked’)
Agapostemon angelicus (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of 'Insects Unlocked')
Agapostemon angelicus (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of Insects Unlocked’)








And sometimes, two bees of the same species will look very different (like the abdominal coloration of these two female Augochloropsis metallica):

Augochloropsis metallica (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of 'Insects Unlocked')
Augochloropsis metallica (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of ‘Insects Unlocked’)
Augochloropsis metallica (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of 'Insects Unlocked')
Augochloropsis metallica (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of ‘Insects Unlocked’)








This makes telling a bee’s species from a photo very difficult; sometimes the features an entomologist must look at to ID a species are hidden under hairs, or even involve dissecting the bee.

However, sometimes a photo with location data can tell us everything we need to know to #WildID – some species have very distinctive features (especially when we know where the photo was taken, and thus what species are in that range). For example the triangle of black on the thorax of Bombus franklini (featured here), combined with information about the bee’s range, can be used to ID B. franklini with relative certainty. Sometimes even the time or flower a bee was spotted on can help #IDthatBee – if it is an early dawn forager, or a pollen-specialist that only visits a specific species.

Don’t be afraid to #WildID your next bee photo – even if the experts can’t get the species, often the next best thing (genera) can be ascertained with a glance. Check out Bees in Your Backyard to try your hand at IDing to genera, yourself!

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Bee Byte: Bombus franklini



Endangered. Social. Narrow Range.


Map made via DiscoverLife; modified to most closely resemble Williams, Thorp, Richardson, and Colla (2014)
Map made via DiscoverLife; modified to most closely resemble Williams, Thorp, Richardson, and Colla (2014)Status: Critically Endangered, last recorded by Robbin Thorp in 2006

Status: Critically Endangered, last recorded in 2006 by Dr. Robbin Thorp

Name: Franklin Bumble bee

Family: Apidae (with: honey bees, carpenter bees)

States: Oregon and California

B. franklini has experienced a sharp decline since 1998, and has not been spotted in the wild for over a decade, earning itself a spot on the critically endangered species list and a spot as the Bee Bytes mascot. It also has one of the most narrow distributions for a bumble bee in the world.

The yellow half of the thorax (closer to the head) with an inverse U shape in black can be used to differentiate it from the similar looking B. occidentalis. 

Photo credited to Dr. Robbin Thorp
Photo credited to Dr. Robbin Thorp

Like other bumble bees, B. franklini are social; they live in colonies with a queen, who reproduces, and her daughters, who gather nectar and pollen. The colony does not overwinter. B. franklini are generalists, meaning they can use a variety of flowers for food; like all bumble bees, they are buzz pollinators, vibrating at a high frequency to dislodge pollen from the flowers’ anthers.

A potential cause of B. franklini decline is the fungal pathogen Nosema bombi, which has been found with increasing prevalence on museum specimen from declining populations. It is possible exotic strains were introduced from Europe, due to the American agricultural industry’s use of bumble bees reared in Europe to pollinate crops.

These bees are ground-nesters, thought to live in abandoned rodent burrows in grassy meadows. A paucity of research on B. franklini means little is known about the species, making conservation efforts more difficult.

More resources on the species and its decline:

NPR: The Bumblebee Hunter

ICUN Redlist Entry

Test of the invasive pathogen hypothesis of bumble bee decline in North America

Evidence for decline in eastern North American bumblebees (Hymenoptera: Apidae), with special focus on Bombus affinis Cresson

Bumblebees of North America: An Identification Guide by Paul Williams, Robbin Thorp, Leif Richardson, Sheila Colla (2014; Princeton University Press).


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Introducing “Bee Bytes”!

BeeByteLogoWelcome to Bee Bytes, a #scicomm project to introduce bees to the public!

What is Bee Bytes?

Bee Bytes will be a weekly to biweekly series on my blog, where I write “bite-sized” posts about an invasive or native bee species in the United States, describing its distribution, taxonomic relationship, and a few fun facts in brief! Each post will be 256 words or less – the number of unique characters you can represent with just one ‘byte’ (and exactly as long as this post). The end will have extra resources, in case you want to look for more about your favorite bees.

I don’t get it, why bytes?

A byte is used to encode a single text-character in a computer; my ‘bee bytes’ will be used to encode a single bee in your memory!

Where can I find these bytes?

For now, get your Bee Bytes fix here on my blog; in the future, I’m hoping to make a ‘trading card style’ website where you can search the deck for your favorite bees. That can be an after-quals project.

How long will you be doing Bee Bytes?

With 4000+ species in the United States, I can write for the next 77 years or so before I cover every species we’ve got! By that time, we’ll have so much new information I might even have to start over!

4000 species? Aren’t you byte-ing off more than you can chew?

Listen, bugger – you can buzz right off with that negativity.



Check out this link for the impetus behind ‘Bee Bytes’.

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STEM Pipeline is Gushing Women

Many of you have probably heard of the STEM pipeline dripping – that is, the idea that we’re losing lots and lots of students at each step of the educational process. Perhaps the step that is most relevant to me as someone who wants to go on to be a professor: only about half of those students who enter college in a STEM major will graduate with a STEM degree. This is already a sad pronouncement – we are losing so many of our students to things like poor class and assessment design, a lack of awareness of mental health issues, and a dearth of research opportunity to keep people engaged. These are all problems that, as a student of the PROFESS program at Drexel, I aim to learn about fixing.

Me, a young woman scientist, STEMMING it my senior year in undergrad.

But to actually have an impact, I will need to become a professor – and the STEM pipeline prognosis for women, and for minorities, is sadly far worse than that for overall scientists. According to a UC Berkeley study on chemists, women make up roughly 50% of college graduates in the field – but only 37% of PhDs, 22% of associate professors, and a measly 12% of tenured professors. There are many things that explain this ‘drip’ of women from the field (feels more like a gush than a drip, honestly) – they include everyday sexism from the ‘good old boys club’ of science that goes all the way to the top, wanting to earn higher salaries outside of academia, or needing time to start a family – which might not be compatible with the format of tenure-track jobs.

What I think this study, and others like it, show is that we’ve done a good job with outreach to girls to get them interested in science – despite the fact that female scientists are historically forgotten about in favor of their male counterparts (*cough* Rosalind Franklin *cough*) in our culture and the classroom, and despite the fact that science is more actively marketed to boys, we still see about 50% of our undergrads are women in several (though not all) STEM fields. Certainly, more outreach to young girls would not hurt, particularly in fields like IT, Engineering, and Physics where women are still under-represented even in bachelors programs. But this quote really resonated with me, about what the actual problem is here:

“You can tell a girl she’s smart her whole life, encourage her in school, buy her a chemistry set, send her to math camp, help her apply for college scholarships in STEM fields, and she’s still eventually going to walk into a classroom, a lab, or a job interview and have some man dismiss her existence, deny her funding, pass her over for a promotion, or take credit for her work. How about you work on getting those [people] out of power and quit telling me not to call girls pretty” – kelsium

And this idea, that men in science are actively not supporting women in science, has some pretty significant data behind it. An article in PNAS showed that elite labs run by men (and regular labs run by men) were significantly less likely to hire/train women PhD and postdocs than those run by women. In contrast, elite labs run by women were more likely to hire women than men – but by a less significant margin; and non-elite labs run by women showed no bias, unlike non-elite labs run by men. This problem is multiplied by the fact that there are more Academy/elite male scientists than females (in Chemistry, females make up only 6% of the National Academy of the Sciences chemists) – which means that in 94% of elite labs there’s an anti-woman bias.

The study in PNAS does indicate that they don’t know how many women applied to work in these labs – though they cite high rates of sexual harassment and negative attitudes towards maternity as reasons why many women may steer clear of male-dominated labs. The bottom line is that women in STEM are not being treated fairly or given access to equal opportunities – not really surprising, given how recently women were even allowed to start having careers at all.

Undeniably, women have made incredible strides in the last sixty to eighty years – at least at the undergraduate level. But the anti-woman bias held by the ‘good old boys club’ that has been the norm for the past 600 years of science needs to change and effort needs to go into enacting policies that work from the top down. Policies that support women in cases of sexual harassment, hiring bias, and family planning. Until these policies are enacted, no matter how many chemistry sets we give our young girls, we will not see a change in the gushing STEM pipeline for women.

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Breaking News: YOU Are the Scientist

Honeybee in Rochester
One of my favorite personal ‘sightings’ in Rochester!

This week I have discovered something so cool I can hardly contain myself, and so I must share it with all the other scientists I know and that includes YOU. You, yes. Every one of you reading this can go out into your backyard and take part in an awesome experiment as part of i See Change.

i See Change is a really cool project (partially in collaboration with NASA) that allows you to participate in investigating the impact of climate change in your area. There’s the online website and also an app version, for those of you more phone-friendly people. Their mission statement reads:

“iSeeChange is empowering communities to observe how weather and climate affect their environment. We strive to connect the public with national media & scientists to understand how climate change is impacting their daily lives.”

You can track climate and weather data using their journaling feature; you can add pictures of ‘extreme weather events’ in your area like tornadoes, hurricanes, and more (my suggestion – get inside!). They’ve just introduced a really cool “Investigations” feature where you can be a part of a more directed project, instead of simply uploading climate data endlessly into the ether.

Investigations seem to be about establishing baseline data across the country that will help the i See Change partners (researchers) to gather more data and faster and then understand larger trends. These ‘sightings’ (the information you upload) can help local communities become more involved in environmental decisions for their area – and more aware of their specific, local needs! Here are some examples of investigations:

  • Agriculture – How’s your crop doing? Share your growing season, and what’s changing.
  • Landlife: Birds, Bugs, and Other Critters – Make sightings of the animals you see each season. What’s different?
  • Smog and Air Pollution – Is it hazy? Hard to breathe? Tell us about air quality (and when you close your windows).
  • Coastal Erosion and Sea Level Rise – Shorelines are changing. Show us what’s different. Is the high water mark higher?
  • Landscapes, Fields, Backyards – Return to a stream, lake, river, forest, field, or backyard to take pictures throughout the year.

Not only does this seem to be an excellent way to help researchers collect data and get people involved in the science of climate change in their local area (as opposed to trying to conceptualize the whole globe!) but it strikes me as a really great educational tool. What better way to further scientific interest in kids than to show them they’re making valuable contributions to an ‘investigation’ by photographing and discussing with you all the changes in your backyard stream? You can help them make hypotheses, even test them, etc. all with an easy-to-use and free app. I’m always a fan of tools that make science and the scientific process accessible to a larger community – i See Change seems to do just that!

What do you think of the i See Change idea? Would you consider using the app – what investigation would you be most interested in following? Let me know in the comments!

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Harnessing Gamer Power: The Citizen Science of EVE

Gamers are great. I’m not just saying that because my fiance and I are gamers, I swear (riiiight). Gamers are great because of their dedication, persistence, and loyalty – and now, scientists are taking advantage of those qualities to get gamers to do science from home. EVE Online is a space-based MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role playing game) that, if you like World of Warcraft, No Man’s Sky, or doing your own taxes, you’ll really enjoy. My fiance tells me that it’s basically ‘multiplayer spreadsheets’ with trading, pirates, industry, and more. And part of that more is SCIENCE.

Swiss company Massively Multiplayer Online Science (MMOS) and students of Reykjavik University worked with CCP (the company behind EVE) to create a minigame where players help classify images for the Human Protein Atlas. The Human Protein Atlas is a project aiming to map out protein distribution throughout the human body; this would give scientists everywhere a greater understanding of how our bodies work normally, and what happens when they don’t function as planned.

Screenshot from EVE
Screenshot from EVE

The minigame is pretty simple in concept, though it shows just how close some scientific calls can be. The game gives you the image on the left with red stains for the cytoskeleton, blue for the nucleus, and green for the protein of interest. You can toggle on or off any of these colors to get a better look at different parts of the image. Then, you select the pattern of protein distribution and where you see it, using the hexagons on the right. There’s a nifty tutorial for everyone to get the hang of it, and you get in game rewards for participating – including The Sisters of Eve Combat Armour and Analysis Coat, and other items that you can then sell for in-game cash.

This is citizen science at it’s finest – harnessing the power of our collective free time to help complete truly massive scientific undertakings. The science adds yet another layer of game play for dedicated EVE players and in return uses the free labor, disguised as fun, to chip away at dense scientific projects. What’s more, there’s a decent bit of cellular biology involved in taking on this project – I would bet that players are learning a lot about the structures in a cell from playing this minigame and, to me, it seemed like it would make a fun review activity for high school biology classes.

If you can’t get enough of science and just need to do it from home, or if you think this project is visionary and you want to try it out, you can sign up for a free trial here. My fiance tells me that players who are dedicated to EVE (notably, himself) are able to make enough in-game money to not pay real dollars for their gaming experience, and that’s a win for everyone.

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: Pandemic

Nyx: Does this box make me look too small?

Today we’re reviewing something a  bit different on ‘Bee’ Reviewed – a board game! Pandemic is the brainchild of Matt Leacock. The game is a great example of integrating science and culture, and it’s also a super fun game you can play with kids (teaching them that they, too, can be a scientist or researcher!).

Pandemic is a cooperative game, meaning that all the players are on the same team, working together to beat a very difficult game; this style is pretty non-traditional as the average best-selling tabletop games (Monopoly, Life, Stratego, etc) are all competitive. This mirrors the cooperative structure of science – we build on the works of others and must work together to succeed. In the game, you play as a team of medics, pilots, researchers, and scientists (each with your own special ability) working to stop four diseases from taking over the world by finding cures. If you’ve ever played Plague Inc, this game was the precursor to that app and is multi-player (up to four people, the recommended age being 10+). Together you treat disease, research cures, build research stations, and travel the world to stop… a pandemic.

Beyond being a ton of fun and, because of the element of chance, having a very different game each time you play, Pandemic reinforces the importance of science to our modern society and health. The game also builds communication skills and the ability to think several steps ahead and describe that logic. It pushes people to take risks because you can only be so certain that something will work, but be all in on that risk together. It’s a great game for families to play together and bond but it also mirrors so many of the ways the scientific community actually functions (without boring you with real virology). The only way you could dislike this game is if you’re fundamentally opposed to not being competitive or are a super troll in real life (in which case people will hate you for spoiling their attempts at team work and you should politely go back into your cave and leave them alone to yell at people on the internet).

One of my favorite things about Pandemic is that it shows scientists and researchers, logic and strategy and knowledge, saving the world. I know it’s just a game, but it might be nice if knowledge and logic and science were given a little more world-saving appreciation in the modern era (over punching people or superpowers). Pandemic aims to do just that while simultaneously providing you and your team mates with many, many hours of fun for only $25.

The only thing I can fault this game for is that it has a lot of small pieces – you wouldn’t want to play in areas with very small children, who might try eating the pretty disease-cubes and choke. But other than the mess of cubes, that you’re almost certain to lose one or two of over time, the game itself is well designed, easy to learn, and pretty fast to play (for a cooperative game). The game has several levels, ranging from Novice to Legendary, so you can even ‘customize’ game play based on how tired you’re feeling when you sit down to start.

Not convinced? Watch this episode of Tabletop with Wil Wheaton to see all the fun you’re missing.

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More on Communicating Science to Skeptics

Photo by George Wesley and Bonita Dannells entitled ‘Maple seeds – the samara’ (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic), link through photo
Photo by DanaK~WaterPenny entitled ‘Science, it works.’ (Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

In June I made a post about ‘mis-trusting science’ in response to an article/commencement speech published in The New Yorker by Atul Gawande; Gawande is a pretty big name in science-writing, having both been published in and been an editor for The Best American Science Writing series (and his work was even picked to be in THE BEST of the best, too!). Given that he’s a pretty preeminent science-communicator, you’d think that he’d have the dirt on how to communicate science… but his speech has been torn apart by other communicators for a wide variety of reasons.

In my post I argued that Gawande was thinking too small, discussing how to change the mindset of a single individual when really it was a radical shift in how we all share information that needs to occur (i.e. checking we have the facts, etc, before making that FB post). Until our culture could learn to respect facts over sensationalism, community consensus over our personal ego, we were wasting our time trying to change one person’s outlook on science; your facts could never persuade in the face of a constant barrage of sensationalist coverage and rampant individualism (read: narcissism).

Each time I would try to convince one particular acquaintance to give evolution or vaccines a serious look (“I was never vaccinated, and I’m fine!”), I would get back “I don’t care enough about these issues to look into them more. But maybe someday I’ll sit down and start to sort through the evidence. Until then, though, I don’t need to know more about these things.” This response has always frustrated me because there’s nothing to debate here, other than the merits of laziness, and also implies that this individual is a better decision maker on vaccinations/evolution than people who have obtained their PhDs and published papers on the matter. We both know this individual is not going to spend the time on evolution to become a real, scientific, expert – he’s not going to put in the time of a PhD candidate or a researcher. He’s going to learn enough to justify one opinion or the other and move on, if he looks into it at all, never taking the words of real experts into account but just satisfying his personal ego.

The internet has created an echo-chamber for ignorance, allowing people to justify their lack of knowledge by pointing to the sensationalist ‘controversy’ surrounding an issue instead of realizing that scientists have reached a pretty definite consensus on certain issues. Amazingly, my own experience working in biology – the fact that I have sorted through more of the evidence and read real, peer-reviewed scientific papers – matters not at all to this individual; to Gawande’s point that we all feel like we’re the only expert on every subject in the world, I heartily agree.

Photo by The Kingsway School entitled ‘open evening (17 of 57)’ (Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Another critic, Richard Grant, has come up against Gawande’s article saying “People don’t like being told what to do… I don’t think people who object to vaccines or GMOs are at heart anti-science. Some are, for sure, and these are the dangerous ones. But most people simply want to know that someone is listening, that someone is taking their worries seriously; that someone cares for them.” He argues that scientists aren’t successful because they bring facts, graphs, and figures to the debate which feels arrogant and cold. Science-communicators must take the time to listen to our anti-science audience, Grant asserts, if we are to change both the minds and hearts of our anti-science compatriots.

Grant says that charlatans have already recognized the need for belonging and listening, creating these self-affirming anti-science communities that can be difficult to penetrate, and writes, “Tellingly, Gawande refers to the ‘scientific community’; and he’s absolutely right, there. Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside.” This is something I can, on the whole, agree with (in ever more concentric circles of exclusivity as scientists generally write for others in their discipline) – but I also question the value of Grant’s strategy of appealing to the hearts/emotions of the anti-science crowd.

My acquaintance is not afraid of vaccines and he isn’t troubled or upset by them (though I know some are, and I think those fears are listened to by the medical community); he just feels he shouldn’t have to bother spending the time to learn about something he isn’t interested in, something he never needed and thus can’t see the importance of, something that he won’t trust the medical community on because he is the only expert and he hasn’t checked it out for himself yet. Being anti-science isn’t always about emotion; it’s generally about arrogance. It’s the assumption that you must be able to figure out this puzzle better than a whole community of other people working hard at their jobs; the assertion that you would need to ‘sort through the evidence’ on vaccines implies you would make a better decision than those whose job and lives are to research, test, and create them.

I struggle to believe that every pediatrician is scoffing mightily at every anti-vaxxer mother and presenting her with graphs and tables, but rather that anti-vaxxer mothers don’t trust the pediatricians more than their gut even when the pediatrician understands that they are worried about the health of their child. What’s more, we can’t waste our very precious time and money trying to validate the feelings of each anti-science person in the world just so they might be more susceptible to facts. People who are anti-fact just are – consider this exchange between a news anchor and Newt Gingrich about crime in America, where FBI statistics show that crime is (on the whole) decreasing:

“CAMEROTA: But what you’re saying is, but hold on Mr. Speaker because you’re saying liberals use these numbers, they use this sort of magic math. These are the FBI statistics. They’re not a liberal organization. They’re a crime-fighting organization.

GINGRICH: No, but what I said is equally true. People feel more threatened.

CAMEROTA: Feel it, yes. They feel it, but the facts don’t support it.

GINGRICH: As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoriticians.”

Photo by BRICK 101 entitled ‘Minifig comparison’ (Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic ), link through photo

I feel Grant’s article is, in some ways, valid; the scientific community can get very tribal at times and we do write for each other – but that’s because we’re also the only ones even interested in listening (because Grant, the anti-science crowd doesn’t want to listen to us, either). My acquaintance does not seek out science writing, I (and other science-minded people) do. And trying to reach him by listening to his ego, the underlying issue with many (though not all) people in the anti-science community, will not force him to look up some science-communication and become educated. When it is one individual’s life and health on the line, it matters less to me if they’re ignorant, but anti-vaxxers put all our children at risk and climate change deniers put the future of our species at risk as we are continuously rejecting global solutions to stop this ticking time bomb.

Grant’s article doesn’t actually provide a solution; listening to the ‘feelings’ of most anti-scientists will not move the conversation forward unless science-writers, too, want to start appealing to their ego over the facts. And, in my opinion, that’s a slippery slope down the lane to becoming a science-charlatan because the ego will do whatever is convenient/profitable, not what is right or true. After all, just look at our political landscape where, as Gingrich so delightfully put it, we listen to feelings over facts. Has listening to people’s feelings caused people to see the truth that America is less violent today than before? No, it just strokes their ego and forces them deeper down the anti-truth rabbit hole. I’m going with Gawande that the only real way to win against anti-scientists is to stick to the facts.

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Science v. Poetry in History

Photo by Axlwaii entitled ‘Poetry in Python’ (Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Recently I wrote a post about Ada Lovelace, a new idol of mine because she:

  1. Was the first computer programmer
  2. Was a sassy woman who hung out with Charles Darwin
  3. Coined the term ‘Poetical Science’

Ada Lovelace’s poetical science was a revolutionary way of thinking – and it may still be too revolutionary for most modern intellectuals. Dr. Betty Toole is a Lovelace scholar and, in reading her paper ‘ADA LOVELACE’S POETICAL SCIENCE‘, I came across some fascinating information about the contentious history of poetry and science that I thought I would share with you.

Beginning in Greece:

According to Toole, the first evidence of a conflict surrounding poetry and science begins with Plato’s Republic where poetry is banned from the utopia because it “gives no truth of its own, stirs up the emotions, and thereby blinds mankind to the real truth.” Plato views poetry as the anti-thesis of truth (which is an objective fact found through scientific inquiry) not as a different way of uncovering or viewing the truth.

Aristotle, however, did not agree with his teacher; he saw poetry and particularly metaphor as having significant societal value, saying in his Rhetoric that “ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh.” Given that Aristotle wrote Poetics, an entire book dedicated to literary theory and craft, it’s safe to say that he finds poetry to be worthy discipline.

Through the Industrial Revolution:

While philosophy saw the rise of subjectivism in the writings of Descartes (cogito ergo sum, anyone?), objectivity wasn’t officially solidified until the early nineteenth century with the Industrial Revolution.

With objectivity being loosely defined on Wikipedia as “the state or quality of being true even outside of a subject’s individual biases, interpretations, feelings, and imaginings”, it actually harkens back to some of Plato’s original philosophy on the state of truth. By contrast, subjectivism is defined as “the philosophical tenet that “our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience””.

According to Toole, “The allies of objectivism were scientific truth, digital skills and reason. These empirical skills were in contrast to subjectivism, which came to be associated with analog skills, emotions, imagination, intuitive insight and “higher truth.” With the development of technology and its dehumanizing influence… the Romantic poets left reason, science and technology to the empiricists.”

Both objectivity and subjectivism appear to be diametrically opposed despite utilizing similar fundamental principles in a quest to find truth – doubt, questioning, and repeatedly testing a theory to see where the truth lies. With the defining and popularization of these theories, the gap between poetry and science only grew.

Photo by Steve Johnson entitled ‘magnetic fridge poetry’ (Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

To Modern Times:

C. P. Snow famously argued in his 1950s ‘Two Cultures‘ essay that there was a cultural divide separating the sciences and the arts, the two greatest areas of human intellectual achievement. According to an excellent article run in 2009 in the Scientific American, “Snow argued that practitioners in both areas should build bridges, to further the progress of human knowledge and to benefit society. Alas, Snow’s vision has gone unrealized. Instead literary agent John Brockman has posited a “third culture,” of scientists who communicate directly with the public about their work in media such as books without the intervening assistance of literary types. At the same time, many of those in the humanities, arts and politics remain content living within the walls of scientific illiteracy.”

This is not entirely true – as groups such as Neuwrite try to pair literary types with scientists to communicate more effectively with the public – but on the whole, Brockman is likely correct and it’s hurting us all. Despite science and art having a contentious history, modern intellectual problems are too complex to solve with one area alone; to find the truth will require the kind of searching Ada Lovelace employed – one that mixes the arts and sciences. Until then, media misrepresentation and public misinformation will run rampant and both art and science, the foundations of human health and progress, will suffer.

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Mis-trusting Science

The New Yorker recently published a commencement address given by Atul Gawande here, which speaks to the larger impact of scientific thinking on our culture. It’s a really excellent speech and I recommend reading it in full.

Science is a collective endeavor – beyond the scientists who are actually doing the research, the rest of us in the lay community have a responsibility to science as well. Seeking out correct information, employing the scientific mindset, seeking to think up educated questions about everything, etc. is critical to healthy academic, economic, social, and political environments. We’ve seen how far a healthy, scientific culture can take us all, as Gawande says, allowing us “…to nearly double our lifespan during the past century, to increase our global abundance, and to deepen our understanding of the nature of the universe”. Gawande speaks to a decreased level of trust in the scientific community and prepares the graduates to go out and defend science and the scientific mindset. But I want to speak to what may be causing this decreased level of trust in the scientific community and I’m not sure it will be a surprise to anyone.

The internet, and the increased general abundance of “information”, has allowed us to build echo chambers for ourselves, the complete antithesis of what would be considered a scientific mindset. To paraphrase Gawande, a scientific mindset is an open mind, gathering information repetitively and testing expectations against that information, with the understanding that no knowledge is ever concrete. But our self-made echo chambers provide us with only one kind of information, leading us to believe that the knowledge we gained is actually completely true – after all, it’s so well supported! No longer are we asked to test our expectations in this new age; instead we are assured we are all experts in the matter at hand. When we can be self-assured experts, what need have we for the scientific community? Why place our trust in studies we didn’t conduct, studies that we, the experts, don’t agree with?

There’s an important distinction I need to make here between safe spaces and echo chambers. I’m not against safe spaces, areas (virtual or physical) that allow an individual to explore at their own pace some kind of trauma, injustice, or aspect of their being through personal expression without fear of harassment, persecution, violence, discrimination, or hate speech. Typically, safe spaces are created for individuals of a minority/oppressed group or those who have suffered unusual trauma such as rape, war, etc. Safe spaces are often used to help individuals come to terms with who they are or experiences they’ve faced; they provide support to people who are marginalized and in need often because the rest of the world is not supportive. This last point is key because it tells us that the people in the safe space are already receiving the alternate view to the safe space in their everyday lives and are thus not isolated from it.

Can a safe space become an echo chamber? Certainly, just as any community can. But they are not designed to be that way – just like a session with a counselor or support group would not automatically be considered an echo chamber (how angry would the public be if a counselor told a patient to ‘go kill themself’ because of a trauma they experienced? Intuitively, we understand people need whole-hearted support at times, with no opportunity for harassment!). All these avenues – safe spaces, counseling sessions, support groups – are simply places for people to work on being their best self without fear of being harmed, harassed, or discriminated against. People talking with others like them about experiences only relevant to them (for example,a group of plant biologists meeting to talk about sugar maple trees) is not the issue here; it’s when those communities decide to begin passing judgments on the world while ignoring factual evidence that we get in trouble.

Unlike what Gawande seems to suggest, this is a larger issue than just combating each individual non-believer in the scientific community. The internet is a new tool that we still haven’t learned how to use effectively, and it’s being used as a weapon of war against the scientific mindset through echo chambers and by perpetuating a culture where we don’t examine our sources carefully. Our culture surrounding internet usage needs to shift from mindless sharing, clicking, and liking to really thorough and informed questioning of what is put in front of us and who is creating and sharing content. Only when we all rededicate ourselves to employing the scientific mindset on the internet will we see the cultural shift necessary to bring back a much-needed communal trust in science.

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