What is research? Implicit learning during a PhD

Each spring, UCSD requires all MFA and PhD students to undergo an annual evaluation. The department and university’s graduate division make sure we’re making adequate progress to our degree. This includes coursework, but also requires each student and advisor to reflect on progress in the last year, plus strengths and weaknesses. It’s a formality and we can get away with writing very little of substance, but for me it’s a great reminder to stop what I’m doing and reflect on the past year. What have I done well? What would I like to improve? How will I do so in the next year? This is a time to reflect on how I’ve developed as a researcher, teacher, thinker, and person.

From my progress report, May 2014, at the end of my first academic year in grad school:

I have engaged in a lot of implicit learning during my first year of graduate school. Undoubtedly, I’ve also learned a lot explicitly – the theoretical foundations for cognitive science, an overview of systems neuroscience, and how to program an experiment in Matlab are a few examples. Though more difficult to quantify and articulate, the knowledge I’ve learned implicitly may be what best characterizes the progress I’ve made this year.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe many successful cognitive scientists, ranging from grad students who are only one year ahead of me to tenured faculty and distinguished speakers. As a result of this exposure, I’ve not only learned more about the field, but have also gained a better understanding of what constitutes a good research question and solid research methods. I’ve also realized that collaboration and community are essential for conducting good research, and that sharing ideas with others, whether informally over lunch or more formally at a CRL [Center for Research on Language] talk, is beneficial to both sharer and listeners. I’ve learned when to ask for help and whom to approach with different types of questions. By doing this, the phrase “it takes a village” has taken on a new importance for me – the idea of doing research in a vat is nearly as unrealistic as expecting cognition to manifest from brain in one.

My research projects this year may best demonstrate the implicit learning I did. I only ran a few pilot studies, and I certainly have no significant findings to show for my work. However, I learned what it working on a relatively nebulous (and intriguing) question entails. It includes defining a question, thinking creatively about how to investigate it, and doing exploratory work.

I wrote more, but I’ll spare my loyal readers from what I aptly referred to in this progress report as “academic soul searching.” I took a lot in that year, and it didn’t feel like I put out nearly as much. In hindsight, I’m comfortable with that investment of time to deepen my understanding of the world I was joining. Grad school is really different from undergrad.

Here’s how I summed up my first year in that same reflection: During my first year, I have recognized the importance of communities and communication for success in graduate school and academia. I still believe that communities and communication are some of the most important pillars in my grad school and professional career, so maybe all that implicit learning wasn’t quite as implicit as I believed it to be.

Scientists Agree on Climate Change: A Gateway Belief

 

It doesn’t get much clearer. The Earth’s climate is warming. Humans are the reason. But how many people are actually aware of the scientific consensus on this issue?

Research by Sander van der Linden and colleagues shows that when people believe that scientists overwhelmingly agree about climate change, they increase their a) own beliefs in climate change and b) beliefs that humans are responsible. They feel c) more worried about climate change, and as a result of a, b, and c, they support public action to mitigate the effects of climate change.

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At the beginning of the study, participants indicated the percentage of scientists they thought agree on global warming and they answered some questions about their own climate change beliefs. People then received a message about scientific consensus, which took the form either of a) a simple description, b) a pie chart, or c) a metaphorical comparison related to trusting engineers’ consensus about bridges (i.e., if 97% of engineers agreed that a bridge was unsafe, would you use it?) or doctors’ consensus about illness. All the messages included the info that “97 % of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.”

Then participants again indicated what percent of scientists they thought agree on global warming and answered questions about their own beliefs. All messages “worked,” in the sense that people perceived greater scientific agreement after the messages telling them that 97% of scientists agree than if they hadn’t read anything about the consensus at all (though the simple description and pie chart were more effective than the metaphor. People shifted their climate change beliefs more after encountering one of the more straightforward messages than the more complex metaphor. Great food for thought, as many science communicators insert metaphors wherever they can).

Of course, having people believe that there’s strong scientific consensus about climate is only one step toward the larger goal of having them endorse actions that mitigate the effects of climate change. But in follow-up analyses, the researchers identified that perceiving scientific agreement is a gateway belief: believing that scientists agree about global warming led to other beliefs, ones that get us closer to the goal of actions in favor of mitigating climate change. Specifically, it led to greater belief that climate change was real, human-caused, and worrisome. These beliefs, in turn, led to greater support for public action against climate change. It’s often hard to know what leads to what, especially when it comes to beliefs we keep hidden in our own heads, but with some semi-fancy math, these researchers quantified those relationships.

These studies have some clear takeaways for science communicators (especially when communicating about climate change — but maybe these ideas apply to other topics too — need more research!)

  • Emphasize scientific consensus, that an overwhelming percentage of scientists agree that climate change is a real problem caused by human activity.
  • Don’t worry so much about immediately pushing for public action against climate change. When people understand that scientists agree, they come to agree themselves that climate change is a problem that should be addressed, and THEN they come to support public action. Be careful about skipping steps.

At the same time, there’s not only one right way to communicate about climate change. There are truly effective ways, ineffective and potentially backfiring ways, and many in between. There aren’t cut-and-dry rules because every audience is unique, and taking the audience into account — their beliefs, values, and past experiences, for example — is crucial. But this work sheds light on communication strategies that are probably pretty far toward the “truly effective” end of the ways-to-communicate-climate-change continuum.

Only one eye on the prize

From my journal, November 2015, my third year in grad school:

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That gray silhouette is my mom. I call her most days, but sometimes we text instead. We probably spend half our time talking about daily life — yoga, work, what we’re cooking for dinner — and the other half of our time talking about our thoughts. My thoughts are often future-oriented. For example, I talk about trips that are scheduled for 6 months out as if they’re tomorrow because the future just always feels so imminent. I also talk a lot about my professional future, even though I’m not even sure what my professional goals are. I’m constantly asking myself (internally and aloud), what I can do to secure that all-fulfilling (and elusive) job that’ll allow me to positively impact the world, stay challenged, and help pay the bills for a comfortable home in a stimulating city.

My mom listens so much (thanks, Mom!). She validates my ideas, suggests other things to consider, and maybe most importantly, reminds me that the present is pretty great too. Goals are crucial, and we attain them by having our “eye on the prize.” But luckily we have two eyes. Our biological eyes may not be able to focus on two different things, but our metaphorical ones can. We can keep one eye on the prize while focusing the other on the present. When I do that, I remember that this current stage of my life — 4th year of my PhD, exploring different ways that metaphor shapes thought, in a mind-blowing Cognitive Science department in America’s Finest City — is pretty darn amazing.

For a while, this was the prize that I kept my eye on. When I was an undergrad at Vassar, as I started to learn more about language and cognitive science and more about research, I set my eye on graduate school, and soon after set my eye on THIS graduate school. I wanted to be accepted so much that I cried. Then I was accepted. I came to UCSD and started grad school. In typical human fashion, as the former prize became the present, I looked forward again to the next prize. Even though that next prize is still foggy in my mind, I know there must be a prize there, and I know I want to position myself as best as possible to attain it. So one eye will stay there. But as for the other…

Metaphors for creativity: using our bodies for problem solving

It can be hard to be creative. Yet so many of our endeavors demand creativity. Creating art or writing a screenplay are obvious examples that demand creativity, but so do less obvious activities like creating a lesson plan for a high school history class, creating ads for a political campaign, or coming up with a bedtime story for your kid. What kinds of advice do we give each other for being creative? And does our advice actually help us come up with clever solutions or novel ideas.

To test whether the “on the one hand… on the other hand” metaphor is embodied, participants were asked to come up with novel uses for a university building complex. In round one, they generated as many ideas as possible while holding out their right hand and keeping their left behind their back. In round two, they were asked to come up with additional novel suggestions for this same question. Some participants kept their right hand out and left behind their backs, while others now put the right behind their back and held their left out. This second group of participants embodied the “on the one hand…on the other hand” metaphor, while the first did not.

Accordingly, those who did use both hands came up with more potential solutions overall, as well as more flexible and original ideas (as rated by independent coders) than those who only used one hand. Enacting this common metaphor for creativity (without actually saying or hearing “on one hand… and on the other hand”) actually fostered more and better solutions.

They also explored the effects of embodying the metaphorical advice to “think outside the box.” For this experiment, the researchers created a box that was 5 feet by 5 feet so that one person could comfortably sit in it (I wish there was an image of this!). They told participants they were studying the effects of different work environments, and while either sitting inside or outside the box, participants did a common creativity task called a Remote Association Task. For that task, participants receive 3 words (like “measure,” “worm,” and “video”), and have to think of a fourth word that can be combined with the previous three to make real words (in the example case, “tape” –> “tape measure,” “tapeworm,” and “video tape”). People who did this task while sitting outside the box came up with more correct answers than those who did it while sitting inside the box.

Literally thinking outside the box helped people figuratively think outside the box.

From this work, you could take away the lessons to hold both your hands out and make sure you’re sitting outside a big box when trying to do creative work. And maybe those strategies would help, but offering them was not the purpose of this paper. Instead, the authors focus on their contribution to the massive undertaking that is understanding the human mind, especially how we engage in such complicated processes as creativity. They point out that our bodies and minds are linked in ways that affect how we generate knowledge. By doing so, they shine light on one of the phenomena that make humans the endlessly fascinating creatures that we are.


Check out the full study to read about follow-up studies, and how different metaphors affect divergent thinking (coming up with many solutions) vs. convergent thinking (using different pieces of knowledge to settle on the one correct answer).

Feature Image: Creative Workspace by MeeshBomb. CC BY

Cross-Country Love: Our Academic-Army Marriage

I live in San Diego. My husband Steven lives in San Antonio. We’ve been a long-distance couple since I began grad school (and he began working as on officer in the US Army). San Diego-San Antonio is actually the closest we’ve ever been to each other: it took at least two flights plus a few hours in the car to see each other when he lived in Kansas, and visits were not possible when he was deployed in Kuwait. We’re grateful that a non-stop flight can take us from one city to the other, but it’s far from ideal.

We were even more grateful that I was able to arrange my teaching and research so I could spend two months in San Antonio recently.

We’d been married for over a year, and the two months we recently spent together were our first opportunity to live together. It wasn’t a test of whether we’re truly compatible (we are, we always have been), and it wasn’t a vacation. We did real life (albeit a different real life than we’re used to), and we did it while living under the same roof. It was wonderful.

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Here we’re at San Antonio’s Riverwalk, decked out for Christmas.

In the mornings, I made his breakfast while waiting for my own tea to brew. In the evenings, he tucked me in as tightly as possible, a practice we began referring to as Burrito Rose. We went to the gym together and made jigsaw puzzles. I cooked most dinners, he cleaned most dishes. We spied on neighbors, I gave him haircuts, he did our laundry. We settled into a precious rhythm, and the two months were wonderful for the person at my core.

For my academic mind, though, they left something to be desired. As I expected, working remotely and Skyping into the necessary meetings was a little boring. But this was a small price to pay for the freedom of working from a location that strengthened my relationship with Steven. The time in San Antonio helped me realize how much I prioritize freedom to work on what I want, when I want, where I want, but I also really value working with other smart people. Having little imposed structure to my workdays and fewer obligations to fulfill than normal allowed me time and space to reflect on my values and how they’ll factor into priorities for my career, or at least for my next career step. I asked myself, do I really like research that much? But how much does this submersion in relatively isolated research reflect what a research career would be like? How important is geography to me? How much money is important to me? How much free time do I need? Should I just graduate and move on with my life? Or should I shirk the subconscious sense that external signs of “progress” are to be constantly striven for?

I’m so grateful that I could continue to work while spending two months with Steven. We probably benefitted more than we had anticipated, and I proved to myself that I can be productive while working remotely. I’ll be back there soon, and someday home will actually be the same place for both of us.

Reframing the war on science

America’s kind of tense right now. Leading up to and following the November 2016 election, there’s a lot of talk of “the two Americas” and “the Divided States of America.” Americans are divided on a lot of issues, including scientific topics like vaccine safety and global warming. To many, it’s surprising that we disagree about these things because according to scientists who research these topics, there are no debates at all: vaccines do not cause autism and humans are responsible for global warming

At the same time, the current administration in the US has sent numerous messages that they devalue science (for example, by censoring scientists at organizations like the USA and EPA and establishing a Committee on Vaccine Safety). Actions like these seem to be only fueling the divided science beliefs.

In response, many people have declared that we’re in a war on science: This idea is expressed in headlines like Facts are the reason science is losing the current war on reason, How the Anti-Vaxxers are Winning, and documentary titles like The Vaccine War. (There are so many pieces that talk about the war on science).

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Scientific American

I’m a PhD student in Cognitive Science, a firm believer in the scientific method and basing beliefs and actions on evidence. I highly value scientific funding, vaccinations, and measures that reduce the effects of climate change. As Americans, we have freedom of speech, and we should exercise that freedom to speak up when scientific knowledge and interests are being trampled on. I agree with the ideas expressed in blog posts like The War on Facts is a War on Democracy and I’m a Scientist. This is what I’ll Fight for and many of the ideas that continuously populate threads on Twitter like #defendscience and #resist. But I’m much less enthusiastic about the widespread use of a war metaphor to get those ideas across.

Here’s why.

Metaphors shape thought

The metaphors we use to describe complex social problems actually shape the way we think about them. For example, when crime was described as a beast ravaging a town, people tended to suggest harsh law enforcement policies — similar to how they’d likely react to a literal beast ravaging their town. On the other hand, when that same crime was described as a virus, people suggested fewer harsh enforcement policies. Instead, they turned their focus to curing the town of problems that may underlie the crime, like improving education and welfare services.

People make inferences in line with the metaphors used to describe complex issues, so it’s important to reflect on what the war on science implies. It does have some helpful implications. Wars are serious, and often require urgent action. These are probably the messages that those who perpetuate the war on science want us to infer, even if not consciously.

But the war also suggests that there are enemies and casualties. There are two sides locked in combat, and neither will back down until they win (or they’re decimated). I like this quote from A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel I just happened to be reading while working on this post: After all, in the midst of armed conflicts, facts are bound to be just as susceptible to injury as ships and men, if not more so. In other words, we sometimes do stupid things in wars. We shirk thoughtfulness and conscientiousness, and instead we just fight. As I see it, our current political situation (for lack of a better word) needs all the thoughtfulness and conscientiousness we can give it.  

I recently expressed my concern in a conversation on Twitter:

The war metaphor challenges those who are not already on the “side” of science. It tells them they’re the enemy. When people feel that they’re being attacked, even idealistically, they’re likely to strengthen their stance and gear up to fight back. No matter how many scientists tweet about science or participate in the March for Science on Earth Day, people who have found themselves on the “anti-science” side of this war are not going to decide all of a sudden that climate change must be real after all or that they should rush their kids to the pediatrician for overdue vaccines (especially if we tell them we’re marching to fight the war on science!). People who have already been labeled as the enemy of science may as well go out and buy a new gas guzzler and decide that their kids are just fine without vaccines.

Others have already pointed out that actions like the science march are already in jeopardy of isolating anti-science proponents as opponents (for example see  Daniel Engber’s piece for Slate and Robert Young’s in the New York Times). Using war metaphors has the potential to only hammer that point home.

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This just doesn’t seem productive. Image: Battle by Thomas Hawk. CC BY-NC 2.0

Alternative frames?

If we want to stop thinking about ourselves as engaged in a war on science, we need an alternative. Proponents of and believers in science are experiencing a sort of struggle, but it doesn’t have to be a fight between the left and right, Democrats and Republicans, Coastal Elite and Middle America. Maybe we can reframe the situation as a challenge that unites all humans. Science communicators want to share how important it is to address climate change and to have children vaccinated for the good of all people. We can all be on the same side, working to better the world we live in, and it’s important that we convey that message in our communications.

Referring to the movie Hidden Figures, NPR blogger Marcelo Gleiser points out that if there is a central lesson in the movie, it is that united we win; that what makes America great is not segregation and intolerance, but openness and inclusiveness.

I considered the possibility that guiding people to trust empirical evidence and the scientific process might be better framed as a puzzle — a challenge, no doubt, but at least everyone’s working toward a common goal.

Marisa makes a really important point. The peacekeeper in me would love a frame that emphasizes hey, guys! We’re all in this together!, but that ship may have already sailed. At this point, it’s important not to downplay the gravity of discrediting and distrusting science. This is not a game.

 

I’ve had quite a few conversations on the war on science, but I still don’t have a one-size-fits-all framing suggestion for talking about America’s disconnect in belief in science. But when we’re considering talking about this issue as a war, it’ll be helpful to step back and assess our goals and the potential consequences of the words we use.

Right now, there are deep social and political divides in American society — and though it’s crucial to stand up for what we believe in (especially science and facts!), we should be careful about taking up arms in a war on science that might deepen those divides. 

I welcome other comments on the framing of the war on science. Do you find the war helpful? Why? Are there other frames we could use to avoid deepening ideological divides?


Featured image: United States USA Flag by Mike Mozart. CC BY 2.0

Just start

From my journal, halfway through my third year, April, 2016. On beginning my dissertation proposal.

For many people, a dissertation only encompasses a piece of your grad school work. Knowing that, how do I know what the right scope is for a dissertation proposal?

Feelings of paralysis, which I’m not very familiar with.

My advisor says, just start. Write an outline. Write a second one, trying something different. Keep trying things.

Less than a year later, I’ve been starting to talk and think about breaking ground on my actual dissertation. Quickly, I start to feel similar feelings: but where do I start? 

I really enjoy Alain de Botton‘s website The Book of Life. While wondering what projects to write about for my dissertation proposal, I came across a helpful post: How to dare to begin. He points out: “In general, we can only start working when the fear of not doing anything finally exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

He advises people to visit the studio, not the gallery. The gallery houses polished works, while the studio houses those in progress. This is hard to do for academic writing because people keep their unpolished work hidden, but it’s important to remember that when you’re reading the published work, you’re seeing the gallery products. But they all began in a studio.

de Botton also reminds readers that “the imperfect can still be very good, noble and admirable. For something to be loved and valued, it really isn’t necessary for it to be perfect.” This especially resonates with me right now because I often hear that “the best dissertation is a done dissertation.” 

Next, remember that in the grand scheme of things, like all human life on this planet, the thing you’re afraid to start is pretty darn small in scope. Actually, it basically doesn’t matter at all. And finally, scrutinize your fears. If you’ve taken his advice up to here, you’ll probably realize that your fears don’t have a leg to stand on.

Once you start, you just have to make sure you Keep Going.