General

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…

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

A grad student’s perspective on piecing together a stellar research team

This week I wrote for Quartzy’s blog, The Q, which focuses on “Life, Science, and Stories for Labs.” I hope I hit on all three with my post on cultivating a stellar research team. As a PhD student, I’m far from the position of putting together an entire lab research team, but my research does require that I assemble a microcosm of a larger lab group. The Research Assistants I work with are invaluable contributors to my research, so I’ve put a lot of thought into what’s important for a research team and what I can do to ensure we stay stellar.

Interested to hear thoughts on what other people find important for their research teams, and best practices for creating the ideal ethos for your team.

Here’s the post!

Can we really vaccinate against fake news?

The Internet is home to a lot of great information, but it’s also home to a growing amount of fake news. This is especially distressing for science communicators who work to portray the gravity of climate change, a subject of pervasive conspiracy theories.

Recent work by Sander van der Linden, Anthony Leiserowitz, Seth Rosenthal, & Edward Maibach suggests that communicators may be able to “vaccinate” their audiences against climate change misinformation. There are some good summaries of the work available, so mine will be brief.

Finding #1: Some people saw (true) information that 97% of scientists agree on manmade climate change. As a result, their own beliefs in the scientific consensus about climate change increased.
Others saw the fake news (which is really published on the Internet, not made up by the authors) about the Oregon Global Warming Petition Project, which claims that over 30,000 scientists have signed an agreement to reject global warming. Their beliefs in the scientific consensus on climate change decreased.

This first finding is a kind of sanity check: when people read information telling them scientists either do or not agree on global warming, their beliefs shift toward the information they receive.

Finding #2: If people read about scientists’ 97% agreement on global warming followed by the fake news petition project, their views on scientific consensus were unchanged from their pre-study views. The true and false information canceled each other out.

Finding #3: The vaccine condition. Some people received extra information along with the 97% agreement info (considered to be an information “vaccine”). Those people read: “some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists.” When people read the vaccine + the info that 97% of scientists agree on global warming + the petition project, they still tended to agree more with the scientific consensus than when they had started — not as much as those who only read about the 97% scientific consensus, but more than others who received both the real and fake news (without the info vaccine).

 

Finding #4: The super-vaccine condition. A final group of people received the petition project and the 97% message with the vaccine mentioned in the previous paragraph, PLUS an additional message that specifically addressed the petition project, instead of solely stating a general conspiracy theorist tactic. This message picked apart the petition project, pointing out things like fraudulent signatures. When people received this specific message along with the general vaccine and the conflicting news messages, they were even more likely to shift their views in favor of the scientific consensus than if they had just received the general vaccine with the conflicting messages on scientific consensus.

People can be encouraged to recognize fake news for what it is and discount its message appropriately. This is good news for science communicators, since we can’t eradicate fake news. But this work opens up so many important questions about how this information vaccination might work outside a carefully crafted experiment:

  • How can science communicators disseminate their information vaccines? Most of us are only exposed to information we already agree with (whether we seek it out or it’s tailored to us, for example in a Facebook feed). How can communicators even reach a Breitbart reader with an information vaccine?
    Schools seem to be an obvious place for these warning message vaccines, but very few voting-age Americans are still in school. It will be too late if we have to wait a generation until a significant fraction of voters have been inoculated before taking drastic steps to improve global warming.
  • Relatedly, who should deliver the inoculation messages? Message will probably be less effective if coming from someone that people are poised to distrust (for example, a climate scientist).
  • How often do information inoculations need to be administered? In the experiments, people read the warning messages about conspiracy theorist tactics and the petition project’s fraudulent tactics at the same time as reading about the scientific consensus. In real life, it would be nearly impossible for this kind of warning message to accompany fake news. If it’s been days, weeks, months, or years since someone has been reminded of the tactics that conspiracy theorists use, will they still be inoculated?
  • Further, what are the properties of a successful information vaccine? The studies reported here stuck with the same messages, but there are tons of things someone could write to warn others about fake news. What’s the most successful way to approach this issue?

This work is encouraging because I’ve often heard that when trying to debunk conspiracy theories, it can be dangerous to even bring up the specific theory you’re arguing against, since some people’s beliefs will be strengthened just by the mention of the inaccuracy. We’re all prone to confirmation bias, the tendency to seek information that confirms what we already believe and to consider opposing information to be biased or inaccurate. This work shows us that fake news can be debunked — we just have to learn more about how to actually do it.


Featured cartoon by Susan Nasif, Virology Comics.

What happened to Team Science?

Last week I saw Hidden Figures, a movie highlighting 3 African-American women who were instrumental in the math work behind NASA’s earliest space missions. I was captivated, and the movie’s success suggests that I wasn’t the only one. The movie showcases the intense obstacles women and African-Americans faced in American society, and sent a message that is still relevant and important today.

One theme that really struck me was the widespread fascination for science, particularly the American space program. Everyone was rooting for the space program. Families crowded in front of the TV to watch coverage of early US space missions, and cheered outwardly at its successes. They were rooting for America in a time of great tension with Russia (sounds familiar…), and they were rooting for scientific progress. Science seemed to be a topic that united Americans.

I’ve never witnessed this kind of collective enthusiasm for scientific progress. I don’t think I’ve ever watched live coverage of a science event on TV, and I can’t recall any scientific event that I celebrated with family and non-scientist friends. I think it’s safe to say that science is not uniting Americans right now. My intuition is the reverse: science fuels ideological divides. It gives people more issues to argue about.

To test myself, I googled: “Americans rooting for science.” The only relevant search result I found referred to the “war on science.” Then I searched for that phrase, and there were many relevant and recent results. Americans aren’t united by Team Science; they are at war over it.

How did we get here? Why is science now so inseparable from other political beliefs, and therefore always a topic for debate? Have our national priorities shifted? Have we become a more individualist nation, all burrowing deeply into our own echo chambers? Are we too distracted by cat memes to realize when big scientific stuff is going on?

I don’t know, and I don’t know if it’s a bad thing. But I do wish my earliest memory of gathering in front of a TV had been to watch a rocket taking off and not of the Twin Towers collapsing.


P.S. Feb. 11, 2017: This post by Marcelo Gleiser really hit the nail on the head: “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.”

Are your ideas seeds or lightbulbs?

When someone has a great idea or invention, we commonly talk about that idea metaphorically: a light bulb suddenly turned on and the idea struck him, or she nurtured the idea from a seed that grew to bear fruit. The idea’s merit or the merit of the person who came up with it shouldn’t depend on how we metaphorically talk about its emergence, but new research by Kristen Elmore and Myra Luna-Lucero suggests that the metaphor matters.

Participants in the first experiment read about Alan Turing’s invention of a precursor to the modern computer. For some of them, the passage described that Turing had a bright idea that struck him like a light bulb that had suddenly turned on. For others, the passage said that Turing had the seed of an idea that took root like a growing seed that had finally borne fruit. A third group read about Turing’s invention without either metaphor. All participants then answered questions probing how exceptional they believed Turing’s idea to be. People who read about Turing’s light bulb idea believed his invention to be more exceptional than those who read about his seed idea. People who hadn’t read either metaphor rated the idea’s exceptionality in between the seed- and light bulb-readers (though technically their ratings weren’t significantly higher than ratings following seed metaphors or lower than those following lightbulb metaphors). These results suggest that we seem to believe ideas are more exceptional if they’re described with lightbulb metaphors than seed metaphors.

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In the next experiment, the researchers wanted to know if the metaphors could affect more than our perceptions of ideas and extend to our perceptions of the person who had the idea. Participants again read either about ideas as lightbulbs, as seeds, or without a metaphor, and then had to consider the average man and woman. The researchers asked: Do you think men or women are better at coming up with creative ideas? People who had been exposed to the seed metaphor were more likely to indicate that women were more creative than people who read the lightbulb metaphor, suggesting that when people are thinking of good ideas as things that are cultivated and grown from hard work, women seem more capable of having them.

They further probed this question of whether metaphor affects our perception of innovators in a final experiment. In addition to reading a passage that couched an invention (spread-spectrum technology in radio communication) with either the seed, lightbulb, or no metaphor, people read about either a female (Hedy Lamarr) or a male (George Antheil) inventor. Finally, people judged the exceptionality of the inventor. Here are their results:

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The data show us that when the male was the inventor people were considering, people who thought about his idea as a seed actually felt he was less exceptional than those who thought about his idea as a lightbulb or who weren’t encouraged to think about his invention metaphorically. Considerations of the female inventor took the opposite form: those who had been thinking about her innovation as a seed found her to be more exceptional than those who thought of the innovation as a lightbulb. This experiment suggests that we hold beliefs that men who are geniuses experience sudden insights, while women must work long and hard to achieve the same exceptionality.

Work in educational psychology suggests that it is more beneficial to encourage kids to have growth mindsets than fixed mindsets. In other words, they should be taught that their abilities are not immutable. They can get better at things by hard work and practice. They’re taught to have a seed mindset instead of a lightbulb view – ideas don’t just come, we earn them. It might be tough to teach kids to believe in growth mindsets if we also hold the beliefs these studies show, if we believe that women are more likely to achieve success by nurturing their seed ideas and men are more likely to do so with the flash of a bulb.

But boys are not doomed to fixed mindsets! Perhaps we could stop posting pictures of light bulbs all over elementary school classrooms as a source of inspiration and replace them with images of plants. And when kids are encouraged to buy into growth mindsets, we can share these powerful metaphors with them and remind them that men and women can both grow great things from seeds. It’s a start at least.