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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‘Bee’ Reviewed: An Experiment with an Air Pump

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Nyx, looking up tearfully at the heavens after finishing the play…

An Experiment with an Air Pump is a play written in 2000 by British playwright Shelagh Stephenson, inspired by the painting ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, a 1768 oil-on-canvas by Joseph Wright of Derby (picture below).

Stephenson writes what is, so far, my favorite science play. Grappling with two times frames, one in 1799 and one in 1999, she uses a singular house to draw incredible parallels between the morals, actions, and goals of the two groups of people that lived there. Stephenson manages to craft incredible concise, impactful dialogue as she works with twice the time and cast of characters as a typical show.

Stephenson follows the cast of characters making up Wright’s painting in the 1799 scenes, with young lovers, writers, scientists, and family members all playing a role. In the 1999 scene, we follow scientist Ellen and her husband Tom, owners of the home, as they work on selling off the property and discover a dead body hidden under the stairs (presumably one of the 1799 characters).

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An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, Public Domain

This murder-mystery sort of appeal gives the play a lot of suspense, and the clever dialogue between Phil, the 1999 handyman, Ellen, Tom (a humanities professor), and Kate (a scientist with shaky moral principles) all combine with the slower, more direct 1799 dialogue to paint one complete, no-loose-ends picture by the end of the play. Even better, Stephenson chooses to focus on stem-cell research and gene therapy, both looming as big ethical discussions in the very near future.

Every time I pick up this play, I feel like I’ve discovered something new Stephenson has done to make me question everything I know – about the links between science and art, the morality of the scientist, the dangers and benefits of scientific progress, and the nature of humanity, with our history creating our present. If I could recommend a play to get you hooked on the science-drama fusion, my friends and followers this would be it.

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How Nyx actually feels about the book – a much different review.

The dialogue is excellent, the plot is fast-paced and intriguing, but it’s the way Stephenson weaves parallels between the two environments to teach us about scientific ethics that really turns the play from good to unforgettable. Stephenson writes the suicide note for science, leaving a dire warning about what happens when we continue to pursue science with no ethical considerations. The play is masterful, managing to bleed you emotionally and mentally dry each time you read it and yet leave within you the desire to come back for more. And perhaps it is this exact feeling of wonder, curiosity – rapture – that Stephenson inspires in her writing that is the very essence of her warning about science.

 

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Works in Progress

This month, I’ve been working on several new poems for my Sugar Maple cycle. I was inspired to write again after my father and I took a trip around New York and happened to visit the memorial park where my grandmother, grandfather, great-grandmother, and great-grandfather all have their ashes buried. It was my first time visiting after my grandparents died a few years ago. The trip included tears.

As we approached the plaques set into the ground, my father remarked how it was hard to find the right nameplates because they’re all flat and slowly are covered by grass and leaves. “Mom – your grandma,” he told me, “Always liked this spot because it was easy to find. You find the garden, and they’re just under this large tree here. She always liked the tree.”

It turned out, upon closer inspection by this young ecologist, that the tree was a sugar maple. My recent fascination with this particular, though ubiquitous in the Northeastern US, tree species, felt like it had been given new breath and poetic meaning as we wound our way home through the back roads of rural New York.

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Making charcoal at Jack Daniel’s, Jack Daniel Distillery; Public Domain

I’ve also become fascinated by something my brother told me; Jack Daniels whiskey is actually mellowed over charcoal made from sugar maple timbers as part of production. It’s crazy how, once you’re attuned to something, you see it everywhere.

In addition to those poems, I’m in the midst of beta testing my Narborion Adventures game, The Burning Trees of Ormen Mau. As my first game development experience, I can easily say I’ve learned so much about the hard work game developers put into the process – especially when it comes to beta testing a choose-your-own-adventure game! Whew! I can also say that I can’t wait for another opportunity because working with Liber Primus on this fantasy-adventure, while not easy, has been very fun.

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: The Physicists

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Nyx, looking confusedly up to the future of physics with a saucy turn to her front, left paw…

I first reviewed this play for National Book Review Month, an awesome brainchild of SUNY Geneseo, and have expanded upon that review here. The edition of The Physicists that I read was translated by James Kirkup.

Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Physicists is a delightful and sometimes silly play filled with intrigue, science, and murder, all leading up to an incredible plot twist that will leave your heart hammering and head swimming from the page-turning, gut-wrenching dialogue. Durrenmatt, a Swiss author, was heavily influence by the events of WWII when writing the play in 1961 and, in the play’s more serious moments towards the end, the gravity of the events of WWII stand in the background of the play’s dialogue.

The play takes place in an insane asylum and follows three patients, all nuclear physicists. New arrivals Herbert Beutler and Ernst Ernesti believe they are Newton and Einstein respectively, while long-term resident, Johann Mobius, believes he is visited by King Solomon. After another (yes, you read another) female nurse is murdered, the authorities are at their wits ends with the madhouse; the lead psychiatrist, Dr. Mathilde von Zahnd, is forced to tighten security by bringing in new, male nurses to serve as guards. As the patients begin to get restless one night, they reveal their true selves and have a conversation that could end up changing the world…

The play is fast paced and incredibly humorous. The plot twist at the end is masterfully executed with precise and cutting dialogue that leaves you thinking about the future of physics and the ethics of science. As an example of Durrenmatt’s ability to concisely sum up an entire ethical argument, he writes:

“NEWTON: Is it because I strangled the nurse that you want to arrest me, or because it was I who paved the way for the atomic bomb?”

In one line, we are confronted with the huge ethical question of the role of the scientist in the outcome of their discoveries. Is Newton as complicit in the deaths of those who died via the atomic bomb (which his discoveries helped create) as he is in the death of the nurse he just directly murdered? Towards the end of the play, Durrenmatt engages with this ethical idea and more in a way that is stunning both in brevity and wit, and in the richness of the ideas’ direct societal applications. Despite being over fifty years old, this play retains relevance in how it grapples with our changing scientific reality.

Overall, this is masterful play with well-balanced satire; The Physicists is accessible to every audience regardless of someone’s familiarity with physics.

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Biopoetics: I: Seedling

First published in Mind Murals, page 9, in the Spring of 2016. Listen to it read aloud here.

Biopoetics will be a series of posts in which I explain the science that went into my biology-tinged poetry, in 400 words or less, no matter how heavy or light the poem is on science. I: Seedling arose from looking at a picture of a tree, seriously bent by the force of the wind.

When a seed falls off a sugar maple tree it is blown around by the wind and will often land in ‘leaf litter’ – accumulated leaves on the bottom of a forest floor – or ‘humus’ – an organic substance made up of decaying plant and animal matter. Humus retains water and provides nutrients, so sugar maple trees grow well in humus.

When the seed germinates, it sends roots downward to obtain water and a shoot (generally white, like the roots, at first) up through the soil to seek the sunlight. The shoot turns green and gains leaves only after breaking the surface of the soil and being subjected to environmental forces like sunlight and wind.

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Photo by Steve Evans entitled ‘South England Coast’ (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License), link through photo

Strong winds can ‘reground’ a plant, by making it grow nearly horizontal; young plants are particularly susceptible to this as they don’t have significant girth to help them resist the force of the wind. This can hurt plants by reducing their vertical (primary) growth, and thus their ability to compete with other plants for sunlight. Wind can also hurt a plant’s ability to grow by replacing ‘wet’ air around the leaves with drier air [causing increased rates of transpiration (basically just water lost to air)], by breaking thin branches or ripping off leaves [thus decreasing photosynthetic potential], and by pulling trees so hard their roots stretch. This last problem increases water stress for the plant as the root-soil connection is broken and less water is absorbed from the surrounding soils (it can also break the roots).

As a tree grows, it obtains girth by growing its vascular cambium (the dark rings in a tree stump that are responsible for producing that year’s xylem and phloem tissue, the light part of the rings). Water stress (basically not enough water) caused by the wind can make a tree thinner than average for its years; periods of water stress lead to smaller cells and/or less cells produced during the growing season, creating thinner rings and thus a more lean-looking tree. By growing wider, year after year, the tree can become more resistant to the structural stress of the wind as it ages.

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John Oliver on Science

Just in time for my blog to start up, one of my favorite comedians, John Oliver, has decided to do a segment about science as presented to us in the media. I think the segment really speaks for itself, but I highlighted some key points below in case you’re interested – and then I offer my take.

1:32 “There are now so many studies being thrown around that they can seem to contradict one another.”

And in science, sometimes studies do contradict one another! Depending on the environmental conditions, experimenter bias, technology that exists at the time, events like speciation that were previously unknown, and other scientific advances,  two studies can get vastly different results. That’s why replicating experiments over and over is so important; it decreases the likelihood that the results achieved are erroneous or biased. This relates to what Oliver says about science being a work in progress – our understanding, our experiments, our techniques are always getting better, collectively, as we continue to make progress!

4:19 “Even the best designed studies can get flukish results and the best safeguard science has against that is the replication study…replication studies are so under-appreciated…so you just have all of these exploratory studies out there that are taken as fact.” and 5:10 “Scientists themselves know not to attach too much significance to particular studies until they’re placed in the much larger context of all the work taking place in that field but too often a small study with nuanced, tentative findings gets blown out of all proportion when it’s presented to us, the lay public.”

If you ever look at the back of a published, credible scientific study, you’ll see a huge list of resources. Scientists know we can’t just accept one study’s word on the matter; there needs to be a considerable amount of work done in an area for us to accept it as ‘a working fact’. I use the term ‘a working fact’ because there are hardly any things in science we accept as 100% definitely true – most things we accept as highly statistically likely.

Even so, science is not glamorous like the news media (and often our books, TV shows, and movies) represent. Science is slow and frustrating; we take baby step after baby step, and all of these steps can take years of small, almost ‘insignificant’ advances before it finally all builds into something bigger. Some of the most glamorous recent advances in biology – for example the CRISPR system –  were discovered the first time completely by accident. It was a baby step that led to a whole new field of really exciting work, still in its infancy almost thirty years later. Can we start presenting this process – the slow, steady, frustrating process of research – to a lay audience so that the time, effort, materials, dedication, philosophy, and background research that goes into each study can be more fully understood?

7:45 “And there’s no doubt some of this is on us, the viewing audience. We like fun, pop-y science that we can share like gossip.”

We need to be demanding accurate science from our media! Who is funding the science? Where is the bias? Sourcing and context or nada! More than that, we need to change how we chose to see and portray science. We need to give funding to replication studies to make sure the exploratory studies are accurate. We need to portray the whole process of science – from the background research to the Eureka! to the replication studies that back up our first ‘Eureka’ claims. We need to try to dig a little deeper into understanding those long, complex titles scientists submit to journals even though it’s not fun or pop-y and often the results seem minuscule.

Not only does science deserve more respect, but we need to respect ourselves, out intelligence, and our society more by putting in this work. We hurt ourselves when we choose not to vaccinate our children (or go around smelling farts all day) because of faulty science; we hurt ourselves when we don’t hold big oil, pharma, fishery, tobacco, etc. companies accountable for their actions because we feel we can’t trust the contradictory nature of science. We hurt ourselves when we are brainwashed into believing we, a lay audience, are not capable of understanding what science brings to the table.

A lot of this boils down to an essential point: look for consensus among several studies and scientists in order to determine the most likely truth in science. We’ll all be better off for it.

 

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: Blind Huber

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Nyx is an avid reader of poetry when she allows herself a day off from her quest to capture the laser pointer.

Every week a science book, play, article, etc. will ‘bee’ reviewed (I admit, as an entomologist, that I may use a few too many insect puns). This week’s selection is appropriately themed for the first ‘Bee Reviewed’ post ever – a book of poetry entitled Blind Huber by Nick Flynn.

I originally reviewed this book as part of NaRMo – National Reviewing Month, which occurs in February and is run by my undergraduate institution.

Blind Huber is a poetic masterpiece that brings to life the distinct harmony of Huber, a blind, elderly French beekeeper from a different century, and swarms of honeybees. There is an absolute obsession written into this collection of poems, as Huber observes and speaks with the bees; through him, Flynn comments on the fierceness that underpins all of life. Flynn gives us bees that meditate on love, devotion, knowledge, individuality v. uniformity and more; bees that drink deep of the natural world and show us both the pleasure and the pain of life’s commanding beauty. Huber, while the title character, often takes a backseat to the bees in this collection and yet his story is so inextricably tied to that of the hive that even when he is not in the poem, he is present. The collection is thought-provoking and, at times, depressing as it ruminates on the distorted pallor of death as seen through the eyes of various hive-mates; this book is, in a very visceral way, also about how we see what we see. Huber was a deliberate choice for the beekeeper; while being a pioneer in hive observations, his blindness has a significant impact on his relationship with and trust of the bees and lends itself to seeing all of the collection’s various meditations through a different lens than the societal norm.

While a love of bees is certainly a positive thing to bring to this collection, a reader does not need any biological understanding of eusocial insects to enjoy the sweetness of this collection which is remarkably accurate while still remaining powerful and emotive. I enjoyed the poems “Paper Wasp” and “Worker (lost)” in particular. “Paper Wasp” was first published in the New England Review in 2002, and contains the lines:

“All this time/we’ve been building beside you…fragments of your barn, paint/chewed to pulp. Everything/passes through us, transformed.”

“Worker (lost)” was first published by Tin House and contains the following lines:

“the hive full of strangers,/none remained precisely me, none/ I would die for.”

Flynn covers reproduction, haplodiploidy, royal jelly, and more but in such a magnificent way I am sure that both entomologists and literary citizens with no ‘bug background’ to speak of could enjoy this delightful collection.

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Geek and Sundry – Hard Science Book Contest

For those of you who don’t know, Geek and Sundry is a commercial YouTube channel and multimedia production company – on their channel, they nerd out over comics, LARPs, RPGs, weaponry in fantasy games, romance novels, comedy, and much, much more. Felicia Day (you probably know her from her role in Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog) and Wil Wheaton (you probably know him from Star Trek: The Next Generation) are prominent players so you should definitely check it out if you haven’t already.

As an amazing science-writing collaboration, Inkshares and Geek and Sundry have teamed up to do a publishing contest for books in the genre of hard science fiction. You can check out the video below for more information or to vote on your favorite contestants. The contest is open until May 16th, 2016 – plenty of time for you to submit your amazing ideas and get backers!

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This blog and me

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Photo credit: Keith Trammel Photography

About the Blog:

It seems that our society is growing more dependent on science even as we grow increasingly distrustful of the news media that are generally reporting the latest scientific advances. I can’t blame us – often the headlines we are fed make it seem like cancer is cured, all bees are going extinct, and the zombie virus is knocking on our doors. How do we communicate the small steps that make up real scientific progress accurately, but still engage our readers?

That’s my goal here; to communicate the beauty of science through poetry, plays, articles, and more. I want to make the boundary between the fields of STEM and creative writing more porous. I want to discuss the important ethical questions of science and writing, too. What is literary citizenship? Does the end justify the means? What is the line between fiction and nonfiction, and when is it appropriate to use one or the other? Are our scientific discoveries neutral? What is the moral responsibility of the scientist, and the writer, to society?

There’s a lot to unpack here. On this blog I’ll be writing about scientific advancements, literary citizenship, the writing process, other written works, and perhaps a few odds and ends like gaming and gin and cats. Who doesn’t love cats?

About the Writer:12573946_1212730845408300_2641606434461195680_n

I am currently earning my PhD in Biology at Drexel University in Philadelphia – I’ll be at that for a long while. I earned my B.S. in Biology and English/Creative Writing from the State University of New York at Geneseo, where I was a member of the Honors College. At Geneseo, I was a founding member of NeuWrite/Edu, the first undergraduate chapter of the international science-writing collaboration group. I was also inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 2015, my junior year, and served as a writing intern for their online news site, The Key Reporter in the spring of 2016. I wrote for my school newspaper, The Lamron, serving as an assistant editor from 2012-2013.

I’ve completed three ecology studies so far while in undergrad. The first is my honors capstone in Biology: Effects of the Emerald Ash Borer on Nations Road Research Reserve; the other two are directed study research projects: Native Bee Diversity and 12990940_1281985721816145_1685345968374993656_nAbundance at SUNY Geneseo and Determination of Colony Structure in Formica pergandei using Microsatellite Markers to Estimate Worker Relatedness. I have presented my research at regional and local conferences. I look forward to getting to do more research as I earn my PhD! I’ve also had the opportunity to teach undergraduate biology majors lab for three semesters, serve as the assistant instructor for a semester, and as a supplemental instructor for the freshman biology majors lecture for a semester. I can’t wait to keep teaching in my PhD program!

Lastly, I am an alumni member of Alpha Delta Epsilon regional sorority. I served as President, Vice President, Treasurer, New Member Educator, and Service Chair while an active member from Spring 2013 – Spring 2016. I owe so much to this group of my peers, who pushed me to be my best (and weirdest) self and consistently supported me in my writing and my research.

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