Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Science, well sort of….my dog ate my GMO’s!

OK…Imagine this scenario…there is an issue that is being debated in the public sphere that is heavily informed by science.  But within the scientific community there is little real debate and in fact there is a broad, overwhelming consensus.  All leading scientific organizations, national academies around the world, and international agencies agree.  But there is a small group of folks who question or deny the science….and their influence on the policy debate is disproportionate to their numbers.  They may be at times motivated by economic interest, but almost always by an adherence to ideology over scientific data.  They utilize long debunked but well-worn methods in furthering their cause, such as cherry picking data to skew results, impugning the motivation of the scientists and using fear as a weapon in their fight. They ask science to provide what it cannot, absolute certainty, and cite this failure in their cause. Many are veterans of previous campaigns.

You’d be forgiven if you thought this was a summary of the battle lines in the climate change debate…but that’s not the issue I’m describing here today..... sorry folks…this is about the debate around GMO’s.  I’ve consciously not weighed in on this one to date (ugh, which would have meant reading a whole bunch of sciencey stuff…who has the time these days?), but I can’t sit on the sidelines any longer.  And while there are a host of battle lines in this issue as well, today I’m going to focus on the debate around food labeling as embodied in California’s Proposition 37.

I’ll start by saying I’m honestly not trying to sway the opinions of the firmly decided.  Many have staked out their positions on both sides of this debate, and I can appreciate their perspectives.  Nor am I going re-litigate the whole GMO debate in this limited space. It is, however, my objective to share my thought process on how I have come to the conclusion that I will be voting “no” on Prop 37.

First, it claims to be simply a right to know issue, as in “we have a right to know what is in our food.”  What could possibly be wrong with that…well a few things.  Implicit in the argument for the “right” to know is a “need” to know, that this information will somehow benefit or protect the consumer.  Here comes the pesky science… the simple fact is that after decades of both laboratory (experiments to see if this stuff is bad) and real world (billions of people and animals eating billions of tons of GMO’s) results, there has been no data to show this stuff is bad for us. Now, the use of GMO’s may in fact lead to other consequences we might wish to debate, such as the value of large agri-business over local organic farms, the use of pesticides, etc.  But here, too, when we look at the data, we get a mixed bag of results.  While some GMO crops lead to more pesticides, others lead to less.  Many are drought resistant which, in a rapidly changing climate, is a good thing.  And while I love and eat almost exclusively organic foods, I can afford to, and I’m not yet convinced we can feed the world’s population using only organic methods.  So for me, and the folks at the National Academies of Science, the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, the AMA, and the Royal Society of Medicine to name just a few, there is no scientifically based “need” for this labeling.

But wait, you say, all those scientists have been wrong in the past…shouldn’t we play it safe, just in case?  I appreciate how attractive and benign the use of the precautionary principle feels here.  But my concern is that the real intent of this proposition is to slow or completely stop the use of GMO’s.  As I’ve said, I believe the consequences of that are potentially far more detrimental than some minute and as yet unproven risk, so I’m drawing my line in the sand here.

Other problems with Prop 37 for me include that even if we stipulate that the theoretical risk of GMO’s does constitute a “need” for labeling, how is it that the proposition excludes meat and dairy producers, as well as restaurants from labeling? This just makes no sense to me, and leads me to question the judgments of those behind this initiative (…yup, I do that too).

Finally, I feel it is very important for all of us, if we are to win the larger debates around public policy as impacted by science, that we are consistent in our approach to the science underlying those debates.  If by default we pick and choose our “science” based on our ideology, what our friends say or some blog on the internet, how can we effectively stand up to other science denial around issues such as climate change and evolution.  And perhaps most importantly, our kids are watching us…they have finely tuned BS meters that can ferret out our inconsistencies…how do we arm them for their future, and embolden them to think critically,  if we ourselves don’t follow the course we wish for them.

So, what do you believe?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Reflections: Integration of new technology in both formal and informal educational settings

This past year I had the opportunity to sit on the California State Superintendent of Education’s Education Technology Taskforce.  Comprised of primarily educators and school administrators ( I was an outlier), we had the charge of providing Superintendent Torlakson with a series of strategic recommendations that would help shape his California Education Technology Blueprint; essentially a plan for how to transition, if not transform education in the era of modern technology.  Our report can be found here: California State Superintendent of Education’s Education Technology Taskforce Report.

Some fascinating facts to set the context for our work…currently, it can take up to six years for the State to adopt a new textbook into the approved curriculum.  Technologies are born, mature and then die within that timeframe.   A newly introduced text today would not even mention the IPhone, let alone Twitter or the whole App phenomenon. How can a traditional textbook keep up with this pace?  Second, while most students, and nearly all by the time they reach high school, are digitally savvy and connected, utilizing and indeed developing new ways to integrate technology into their everyday lives, they are required to turn their devices off in school.  So one of the most powerful tools for communication, creativity, information and learning is shut off by policy in the very setting it could and should be most useful.  Finally, instruction continues to be measured and indeed funded by formulas that value hours of time students are sitting in the classroom rather than the quality of the learning.

Clearly some daunting challenges…  Combine these with reduced resources, pockets of resistance to change from every corner (teachers, school boards, administrators, textbook publishers, etc.), and an ever changing playing field, more and more at an accelerating pace, one can appreciate the depth and breadth of the challenge for formal education.

And while I encourage you to read our recommendations, and indeed take the opportunity to engage in the process of transformation, for the purposes of our field I think there are some interesting lessons and parallels from these challenges that we should be paying attention to.

First, there needs to be the simple recognition of the fact that the world outside is moving at a pace of change and innovation that our institutions are rarely able to adequately adapt to.  I’ll use some recent work here at Chabot Space and Science Center as an example.  In conjunction with our Bill Nye’s Climate Lab, we developed a highly engaging interactive website designed to connect and integrate the visitor experience with the Climate Lab.  We used an award winning design firm and indeed created a rich and wonderful site…in fact we were nominated for a Webby for our work….One problem…at the time we started the development of the site, the only robust option for the integration of video into the content (and we had lots of it) was to use Adobe Flash.   By the time it was launched, the IPhone and IPad were well on their way towards market dominance, and Apple had made the decision to not support Flash…oops. 

So back to the drawing board, we have decided to abandon the site, and migrate the entire online experience to a mobile game format that will be available across all platforms…but here again, even during the time of development, IOS 6 is launched and Amazon comes out with the Kindle Fire.   We’ll be able to deal with this, but the point is, what will happen 6 months after we launch…after one year? Look around your institution…how many cool digital exhibits or interactives look dated or downright ancient, at least by modern tech standards.  The point is, I feel we need to seriously rethink how we go about integrating technology into our exhibit development cycles.   One approach is to figure out how to best use our visitor’s devices, rather than trying to impose our judgment on which platform will best serve the user…unless we do so, my feeling is that we’ll be wrong more often than we’ll be right. 

Another point from the task force is that in formal education we need to ensure that there is a connection with learning and the real world.  A short hand way of thinking about this is moving from theory to practice or applicability.  A simple example might be that rather than having lectures on chemistry, have the student work in a lab or a brewery to see and experience the application of chemistry in the real world…Beer!  For our field, I feel that too often we do a great job of laying out the theory, and even compelling examples of it, yet rarely connect back out to current applicability.  The challenge here is that our examples are often static, fixed in time and place (and yes, even if they are “digital”), while the real world is dynamic.  Again, tough to keep up, yet that’s what is expected of us in today’s world.

Finally, another principle from the taskforce that I think has some applicability for us is that learning should occur “any time, any place and at any pace”.  This speaks to the point that learning can, should and does take place at times other than sitting in the class listening to a lecture.  In fact, many argue that little real learning occurs in such a setting.  Yet like the classroom with its Victorian era constructs, we too often require the museum visitor to take us on our terms rather than meeting them on theirs.  I feel that long term this is not sustainable.  Like every other content provider (look what’s happening in journalism, television, music and yes, text book publishing) if we do not actively participate in our own creative destruction, we will become the victims of its outcomes rather than the master.  

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Science, well sort of...the 6 things I want our kids to know about science

As I write about science, how it’s understood and its impact, I often get caught in the weeds of one issue or another…but the more I look at this, the more I’ve come to believe that we all need to back away a bit, and look at science as a meta issue (not really sure what that means, but it sounds good).  And frankly, this will be lost on most of you reading this because you’ve already solidified your views on both the meaning and implications of science.  So that’s why I’m focusing on our kids…here are Uncle Alex’s 6 rules to know about science…you are not allowed to play science before you commit these to memory.

1. Improperly using words that start with “C” can get you into trouble
I’m speaking of course about causation, correlation and certainty.   Causation is something that happens because of something else, and correlation is something that happens next to something else.  The significance of the distinction is if you know what causes something else, you can change the outcome, like when we understand what causes diseases; But if it only correlates to something, not so much.  Pretty straight forward on the face of it, but the misunderstanding of the distinction between the two, and the nominal desire for certainty leads to endless endlessness.  A great example is the claim, “smoking causes cancer”.  Well, yes it does, but darn, not always.  So is less than 100% causation only a correlation…again, not really.  It’s those pesky variables such as genetics, amount and length of smoking, etc…Further, to figure out when something is causation or correlation does not follow a simple black and white rule.  Therefore, we need to look at the bigger picture…here for instance we have decided that smoking causes cancer and other health effects sufficiently to warrant social and political action to try to limit smoking, which is bad for people, bad for health care costs, etc.  So as individuals and as a society we have an interest in accepting the results of the science, even though it is not absolute and determinative.  My dear old grandmother smoked filter less Pall Malls until she was 86, but that does not justify changing efforts to reduce smoking.
As for certainty, well science simply can’t provide it. In fact, rather than seeking certainty, science seeks to constantly test and question previous assumptions of fact.  And while we think we desire certainty, we really don’t need it in nearly all cases…this tends to really bum people out sometimes.

2. All science is not the same, nor are all scientists
This is a two parter that leads to lots of confusion when trying to figure out what to believe.  Part one is about science itself.  We hear daily about this study or that which seems to conflict with other previous studies.  How could this be? Lots of reasons…the variables or testing conditions were slightly different, inadequate sampling methods, spurious data, miss calibrated instruments, stoned grad students…and the list goes on.  The point is this is tricky stuff and we should never read all results as equal.  And this is even more the case when the word “social” precedes science.  The second part goes to the scientists themselves.  Frankly, just because someone has a PhD in a discipline does not mean they are able or qualified to opine on topics outside their very narrow expertise.  Nor does a graduate degree confer objectivity, lack of bias, or ideological purity.  Heck, they may not even be decent scientists, so be careful kids.

3. It’s impossible to prove that something won’t happen
This one is closely linked to the fact that science can never provide absolute certainty.   In a nutshell, while science is excellent (but not perfect) at predicting what will happen, it is unable to prove something will not happen.  For example, science cannot prove that something cannot harm you, it can only predict that it might…This one is a bit of a mind bender, but always be suspicious when folks demand proof that something is safe…that proof cannot be supplied by science, period.

4. The “Ant Colony Problem”
Science is by its nature reductionist, taking various elements of complex systems and testing hypotheses about them piece by piece…however, this may or may not tell us meaningful things about the systems as a whole.  My favorite example of this is ant colonies.  The fundamental unit of the colony is the ant.  However, no matter how much we study any individual ant, how much science we throw at it, it will never be able to tell us how the colonies function as a whole.  Therefore, we need to be really careful about taking narrow results and using them to explain complex systems.

5. Science on the way to or from church
Science is not the opposite of faith, religion, spirituality or whatever term your parents are comfortable using.  However, a key conflict between the two does exist.  While science can never proclaim certainty, faith often does.  Therefore, scientific thinking can be perceived as threatening simply because it requires an openness to revise thinking base on new data and experimental outcomes, as opposed to faith, which is often held has certain, absolute and immutable.  So it’s not that science provides alternate answers, but rather that any answer must remain open to further examination and revision.
Science is glorious, and helps us understand the world and our place in it.  But it will never provide all the answers, only more data from which we are challenged to arrive at broader conclusions and which will always require further research.

6.  …and just to mess with your young minds
There are many unknown things… there may be unknowable things…it is unknown whether there are unknowable things.  (Credit to my good friend Leonard Tramiel for this one…not sure if he made it up, or like me, stole it)
Now go out and goof off….you’ll probably learn something important in doing so.

Link for earlier blogs on ...the Science...well sort of:

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Science, well sort of …VinoCaffeChocolata risk/benefits revealed!

In my previous post I called out some norms of journalism that have the effect of diluting and confusing the role of science in shaping our beliefs or informing our views. I labeled these ‘balance’, ‘controversy’ and ‘replication’. Oh so cleverly, I even used a real ‘science’ experiment to prove my point… In a nutshell, the experiment showed us that journalism and the media are inherently limited …that by their very nature, news stories can never really get it ‘right’, particularly when the issues at hand are complex, nuanced and informed by science.

But here’s the rub…this is not a failing of the media.  It simply is what it is.  The real failing, if there is one, is our inability to recognize these inherent limits.  We consume media blindly, agree with it when it conforms to our beliefs and dismiss it when it does not.  We expect accuracy and objectivity only when it suits us, and yet we crave controversy and flagrantly pass along bunk.  We are all complicit in the creation of our myths, our world views.  Railing against the media for its failures to tell the truth, whether it comes from the left or right, rational or emotional, science or faith based perspectives, completely misses the point.  As our buddy Pogo told us long ago (…did I just date myself? Google it kids) “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The essential point is that news, like science, just spits out data.  Its truth or meaning is not derived from the objective finding, but rather by the meaning we give it.  Some examples from recent headlines can help make the point…

Radioactive kelp and fish linked to Fukushima found along Western US coast!

Cards on the table…I am a proponent of nuclear energy as part of a solution to mitigate global warming and feel that fears about anything to do with radiation are generally wildly overblown. So when I read these headlines, I immediately sought to confirm my bias, which in this case was pretty easy to do.  While the ‘data’  does indeed show some minute radioactive traces in the kelp and fish, what does it mean?  Not much it turns out.  Levels were so small they pose zero, none, nada risk.  Further, one could argue that this simply confirms that stuff moves around in the world’s oceans…not shocking.   But if your bias is that nuclear energy is bad, risky etc, then those details didn’t matter to you…The fact that ANY radiation got here was the meaning you gave it, and that probably bothered you…see how this goes?

Studies show X to increase the risk of Y by Z percent! (so many examples of this it’s easier to use algebra, and that’s never easy, at least for me).
Lots of ramifications come from these types of headlines, which we seem to see daily.   To make one up, let’s say that “Aspirin is shown to increase the risk of ulcers by 5%”.  Hmmm, what does this mean?  How do we interpret the data?  In many of these cases, I think the first question to ask is 5% of what?  Did it go from nothing to 5% (which by the way is not a 5% increase, but I don’t want to get too mathy here)?  Or did it got from 95% to 100%…a totally different thing.  And remember, these are only statistical probabilities, never statements of certainty.

Unfortunately, the media can be 100% correct in reporting the data on stories such as these, and yet completely miss the meaning or relevance in a host of ways.  And it gets even worse when they inject the norms of balance, controversy and or replication.  Again, if you really want to know the meaning, you’ll have to do a lot of work on your own…and we have to admit it’s unlikely that we will.  More likely we will simply filter information to align with our preconceived world views or experiences.  Sorry, but we can’t lay that off on the media.

Studies show VinoCaffeChocolata is proven to extend/shorten the pleasure/pain of life/death!
Oh, my very favorite… Again, full disclosure, to varying degrees and at different times of the day, I’m extremely fond (gulp…dependent??) on these substances.  Drugs all, they alter my moods, energize me etc. So when I read reports of studies that seem to indicate their benefits, I embrace them; and any bad news is shuffled away to the waste bin of my brain.  I conveniently forget that the World Health Organization classifies coffee as a possible carcinogen (along with a lot of other stuff, but that too is another column) and celebrate that it’s OK for women to have some alcohol when pregnant, as no doubt my Mom did back in the 50’s with me.

My bottom line on all this is that the media is not entirely to blame for what we perceive to be their failings.  Sure, they’ll make lots of mistakes, but that is not the point.  Even if perfect, they can only give us data and an attempt at meaning.  We give the data the real meaning as it pertains to us, shaped by our biases, experience, world views etc.

So, what do you believe?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Science, well sort of...the media experiment you can do at home

This will be really exciting. …Today we’re going to do a real life SCIENCE experiment! … OK, well sort of.  For those of you nice enough to have read my previous posts, you’ll recall I’ve often woven in the impact of the media on our perceptions of science related issues. Today we’re going to get really sciency and dig way deeper.

So for our experiment we need to set up our “lab”, which will physically reside inside of your mind.  In order to ensure there is no danger of external contamination, turn off the TV and set your digital devices to airplane mode or something (admit it, you never really turn them off when taking off anyway).  Find a quiet place to sit, and close your eyes.

Now I want you to think back to a time when you had the occasion to read or see a news story about a topic or event with which you had personal experience.  You may have been one of the subjects of the story, or your company or family member was, or maybe you were just a firsthand witness to the circumstances that were being reported.  Now, quickly, think about the reporting …were all the facts correct, and perhaps more importantly, were all the facts included?  Was the context and meaning for those facts accurately portrayed?  Again, was anything missing or misrepresented?

According to my precise calculations based on the replication of this experiment many times, I can reliably predict the following…the story that you read or saw got it all wrong.  The journalist left things out, misrepresented the facts, got the context wrong, and just plain blew it.  You questioned the professionalism of that journalist, and perhaps even their intent.  And most importantly, the more you knew about the actual facts, the worse the story was.

So let’s deconstruct this…there are many things going on here at once.  First on the media side (we’ll came back to you later) there are a number of factors at work.  I won’t get into an exhaustive list here, but for me the top three are “balance”, “controversy” and “replication”.

We all recognize the first one – balance.  It’s where in order to appear unbiased and balanced in the reporting, the media seeks disparate or contrary views.  This journalistic norm can indeed play an important role, but not always.  A favorite anecdote to illustrate this is the time an old friend of mine was watching a TV reporter doing an on the street interview about plans for a new park in town.  He saw one person after another say they wanted and supported the new park … unless you are the grumpy old neighbor, who wouldn’t?  So after seeing about a dozen folks say they wanted it, he got an idea.  He walked up to the reporter and said he opposed the park, and that more parking lots were needed.  Of course, that night on the news, they showed one person speaking in favor of the park and my naughty buddy “opposing” it.  So despite actual overwhelming support for the park, the norm of balance in reporting resulted in the nominal impression of a 50-50 split of opinion on the issue, or at minimum, some material opposition to the park.  And perhaps most importantly, those of us who knew the least about the actual details of the story were left with a skewed impression of the facts.

Sadly we see this ”balance” being played out in reporting on a whole host of science based issues.  Time after time we see reports about science or health issues in which doubt is cast on the evidence simply by the media giving voice to an opposing view, no matter how minor, baseless or ridiculous.  And while it may be factually correct to say some folks have a different opinion, when it comes to science, mere opinion does not count; only rigorous evidence does. By employing the journalistic norm of balance the media is inadvertently giving credence and support to everyone from climate deniers to vaccination opponents.  And while these folks may feel they have valid reasons for their beliefs, they are not based on science.

This leads us to our second norm, the need for “controversy”.  “News is something somebody else doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising” said William Randolph Hearst.  Put another way, if there is no tension, dispute or controversy, the media in general has less interest.  It is the very tension of varying opinions or a dispute of facts that can make an issue newsworthy.  Therefore, by instinct, practice, and the desire to maximize revenues, the media often seeks or highlights stories where a nominal conflict is being played out. But as with “balance”, too often these are false controversies, existing only as an artifact of the publishing of opposing views.   Climate denial is exhibit A.

Finally, there is what I call “replication”.  This is the phenomenon that once a story gets reported, it is almost impossible to un-report it, no matter how wrong or false.  In the era of online 24/7 journalism, once published, a story can live forever.  Equally, elements of the story are then replicated in future stories on the same topic, irrespective of whether or not they are correct.  This is the outcome of cut and paste journalism, driven by the ever present need to fill the news hole.  A quick Google search will provide material previously (and often erroneously) reported, which then gets included in the new piece …and so it goes.

However, before we storm the Bastille of journalism, we need to step back and take a look at our own culpability in all this … but that’s for next time.  So …what do you believe?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Science, well sort slime is to fracking, as...

Jon Stewart is a genius … but you knew that.  On a recent show he weighed in on the whole pink slime thing, suggesting that instead of “pink slime” or “lean finely textured beef,” (its brand name) consumers should use the term “ammonia-soaked centrifuge separated byproduct paste.”

Sad life that I lead, I got to thinking more deeply about pink slime the other day.  At a meeting of environmental leaders we got into a conversation of how to better communicate the need for strategies to adapt to Climate Change. We noted that often we use words and terminology that unintentionally evokes the wrong message and that the lexicon of environmental sustainability is rarely a positive or inspiring one. As I’ve said before, “recycle, reuse, reduce” feel way to close to “remorse, regret and regress”…hardly ways to get the troops fired up.  Which brings me back to pink slime.

Lean finely textured beef, or LFTB*, has been around for years.  For the last decade, it’s been in an estimated 70% of the ground beef we consume.  And while the factories that produce it have been questioned over some of their health safety practices, by and of itself it won’t hurt you.  Ironically, although it uses a gross sounding process, so beautifully captured by Stewart, the result of that process is to remove fat from the beef.  So less fat should be good, right? Well, let’s not get sidetracked by scientific data here.  As our pals at Food Safety News note, “In hindsight, the controversy surrounding the product serves as a reminder that food safety, a topic often viewed through the lenses of science and risk assessment, can never entirely escape politics and emotion.”

Ah yes…emotion…which brings me back to the genius of Jon Stewart.  In one short phrase, he manages to pull some fabulous emotional triggers…let’s deconstruct.  “Ammonia soaked”…personally, I’m somewhere between smelling a nasty old mop, and worrying about the danger of those eye stinging plastic bottles found way under the sink. “Centrifuge separated”…hey, don’t they do that to make NUCLEAR BOMBS!  And finally, “byproduct paste”, which rhymes with waste and of course, stands for dog food…yummy.  So indeed, the troops got fired up, our elected leaders became appalled, the pundits hit the blogosphere, and pink slime is likely slithering away into the annals of history. Well, at least it’s not being served at Mickey D’s any longer.  And I’m not saying that this is a bad thing. There may be many valid reasons to have less pink slime in our lives…heck, I love how even saying the words makes me hate the stuff.  It’s just that the reasons for that fear and loathing are not based on science, that’s all.

In the scientific communication field, there has been a lot of talk recently about the need to pay closer attention to branding and messaging. “Science’s future lies in its power to inspire, and inspiration does not come from desiccated academic jargon. Time to wise up to the power of the brand.”  (New Scientist Oct 12, 2011).  They’re right…sciency sounding stuff is confusing at best, scary at worst.  When I tell you that enzymatic reactions converting nitrate to nitrites, aided by the introduction of micrococcus bacteria are part of making sausage, or that Sodium Ferrocyanide is a safe food additive, you may well blanch.  We might even write our congressional representatives demanding protection from these awful sounding things.  But will it stop us from buying artisan salumi or nduja at the farmers market? Meh…probably not.

As noted, the choice of words and terms can trigger emotional reactions that may have little to do with the objective scientific data that underpins their usefulness, meaning or safety.  My other favorite current examples include fracking, “the god particle”, and clean coal.  I guarantee you that the person who coined the term “fracking” rues the day.  It just sounds ominous…as possible kin to racking, smacking, cracking and sacking, it just couldn’t be OK to frack, could it?  But “the god particle” is surely great, no?  I mean, don’t we all want to find it?  Finally, folks are clearly starting to pay closer attention to the images these words evoke, no doubt resulting in the cynical Orwellian term, clean coal.  The good people at America’s Power (the coal industry) came up with that one, and I think it’s doomed to fail.  But it points to another aspect of all this…simply branding something in the hopes of shaping our opinions won’t always work.  Just ask the LFTB folks about that.

So going forward, as with all things regarding science, we need to be thoughtful, critical and vigilant.  Are our beliefs around an issue based on the underlying scientific data behind it, or something as simple as a name or the choice of terms to describe it?  And from my personal point of view, how can we invoke the “genius” of the Jon Stewarts of the world to create messages that provide positive motivations to tackle some of our most compelling challenges?  So, what do you believe?

*For the truly curious with way too much free time on their hands, you can read a fascinating summary of the whole thing here.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Science, well sort of...giant radioactive ants, fear, and the Bay Bridge

Gulp …  true confession time.  I have not driven a car over the San Francisco Bay Bridge since sometime in 1985.  This may not be a very remarkable statement other than the fact that during these 27 years I have lived in the Bay Area, on and off, for about 17 of them.  You see, I have a debilitating phobia of bridges. More on this below, but I point it out to simply establish my bona fides as an expert on the topic of fear.

I recently heard fear described as that which we seek to avoid/destroy, while its opposite, passion, is that which we seek to get embrace/protect.  The two have a symbiotic, yin/yang, relationship with elements of both existing within the other to varying degrees.  As we look at our beliefs, particularly those nominally informed by science, I’m struck by the remarkable role that fear/passion plays in shaping them.

As humans, we seek safety, security, the health and well being of ourselves, our families and future generations.  Thus we seek to avoid, we fear, risks or uncertainties that threaten those values.  In fact, our brains are wired to instinctively react to such threats in a rapid subconscious manner.  Probably coming from ancient survival mechanisms, the aptly named “fight or flight” response is ingrained into our being, and a key element of how we function.  There is even some chemistry and biology involved … relax, I won’t (OK , can’t) get too sciency here.  But we’ve all experienced the physical reaction to the release of adrenaline into our bodies…the rapid heart rate, sweaty palms etc.  This stuff is tangible and real.  Just as real is how it affects our belief systems.

One of my favorite examples of this is our fear of…dun dun dun…nuclear radiation (did your palms just moisten?).  So, what came to mind the instant you read the last sentence?  Fukishima, Chernobyl, nuclear bombs, Iran, contaminated waste sites, and giant radioactive ants? …. Probably.  Less likely was life saving medical testing and treatments, carbon free energy, safer food, and space engines.  That’s OK, I get it.  But we have to own up to something here.  The scientific data does not support the level of fear that we have. Some factoids on just one aspect of the issue … average decrease in life expectancy for all exposed atomic-bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is estimated to be less than 4 months … fatalities due to the release of radiation of Fukishima, Three Mile Island and Browns Ferry combined, is 0….Chernobyl, around 60.  OK, I know, it’s not that simple, but the point is that the risks posed by nuclear power, and there are indeed risks, need to be viewed in context.  For example, about 500,000 people die annually in the US from diseases triggered by air pollution If we take only 1% of that (low, high? … who knows) and attribute it to coal fired power plants, you are looking at 5000 annual deaths, just in the US.  Now compare that to the nuclear figures … you may get my point, but I’m guessing you will still hold onto any fears you have of the use of nuclear energy, and its use as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Which brings me back to my friend [sic], the Bay Bridge.   As I’ve told folks of my phobia over the years, they often quiz me with questions like, what are you afraid of, what could happen, what is the real risk? These all miss the point, for they assume my fear is based on some rational analysis.  In fact, the exact opposite is at play.  My fear is completely irrational, deeply subconscious and seemingly impervious to all manners of objective analysis or treatment (several shrinks will attest to this).  Now, this is not to suggest that irrational fears are OK, particularly when the consequences of such fears affect more than just the individual. It simply points us to the fact that we need to look much more deeply into the sources of our anxieties.  What are we seeking to flee, what are we seeking to protect, and why?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Science, well sort of....possibilities that create reality

So often, both as individuals and as a society, we look to science for certainty. What does the research tell us, predict, confirm? How can we avoid the possible risks or ensure the potential benefits of any given innovation? In that quest for certainty, we often miss a key point. What science can offer us most is not to give certainty, but rather, create possibility.

In the conversation (I’m consciously rejecting the use of the term “debate”) about human induced climate change, much of the time we hear declarations of certainty from all voices in the “dialog”. Predictions of consequences, whether articulated in temperature increases, sea level rise or socio-political impacts, are questioned. The sheer complexity of the overlapping emergent systems and variables at work make accurate projections impossible.  The daily thrum of Twitter and news feeds alternately alarms and numbs us.  We wring our hands over the feeling that forces aligned against the call for action are slowing needed progress. Governments alternately overreach or refuse to act, and the conversation is being driven by ideological imperatives rather than scientific data.  I often hear the plaintive cries of “If they would just get it!”  However, when I ask folks to describe exactly what it is they want “them” to get and do, I am often met with an uncomfortable silence, or at best half formed demands for unified action, carbon pricing or an imagined post carbon future now.  The point is we are frustrated by where we are, but seem to lack the ability to articulate a cogent vision of where we want to go…..but we’ve been here before.

Not so long ago, another generation faced a future of extreme uncertainty, one also characterized with the possibility, if not likelihood of an impending apocalypse.  It was the cold war.  We rehearsed our first moves after the air raid sirens sounded.  We secretly eyed the civil defense caches of crackers and 50 gallon drums of water hidden under the school auditorium stage, wondering how we were going to open them, and how long they would last.  The media and popular culture were littered with signposts of impending doom…and yet, we also held another parallel vision of the future. One in which we’d be bouncing along on the moon with our dog Astro, wearing cool bubble space helmets, and experiencing the strength of our legs against the low gravity of the lunar surface, bounding ever higher, with the Earth as our backdrop.

On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy gave his now famous speech at Rice University, laying out the case for why we should go to the moon by the end of the decade (You can see it in full length here…a great 17 minute history lesson.) What I find most interesting about it is that at that moment in time we were well behind the Soviet Union in the  “space race”, and we didn’t have the knowledge, materials, systems, technology and resources necessary to accomplish the objective.  However, the creation of the possibility that we might do so, ensured that we did.  There was no data or research predicting the outcome.  We embraced the possible rather than the certain.  And in doing so, we found another vision of the future that allowed us to both cope with and ultimately transcend the apocalypse of the moment.

So, what is the positive vision of the future that we are now offering up to our children?  How are we framing the possibility of the future today with the current apocalyptic challenges before us?  Frankly, I think we are failing miserably.  Too often, even our language seems to portend only negative outcomes…reduce and reuse can lead to or evoke regret, regress, and retreat.  We are asking ourselves to think smaller, safer, simpler…all good outcomes to a point, and certainly attractive if you are already highly educated and secure, but hardly inspirational or aspirational.   The metaphor of a 21st century moon-shot is often invoked to suggest a sense of common purpose and focus that will be needed to overcome the slow creeping horror of climate change.  But this really misses the point.  I don’t think we need to get more organized, I think we need to create a vision, a possibility of wild fun and adventure, full of risk, drama and reward, that our children will embrace.

Jules Verne imagined the possibility of a trip to the moon in 1865, and in less than a century, that possibility came true.  But for the creation of that possibility, one could argue we would never have done it. So, what challenges and dreams can we offer our children today?  What do you believe we should be offering as a compelling possibility for their future?

Note: I must acknowledge Saul Griffith, (who if you don’t know, you should, and can read about herefor posing these questions to me several years ago.  As you can see, I’m still searching for an answer.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Science, well sort of...old signs made new on the web

Growing up in the early sixties, my little German grandmother would take me to San Francisco on most weekends.  We’d catch the N bus at High Street and MacArthur Blvd in Oakland and ride to the old Transbay Terminal.  There we’d usually jump on a 38 Geary streetcar to the great stores of Union Square.  But sometimes we would walk.  On the way up Market Street I have distinct memories of occasionally seeing men who seemed determined to make themselves be seen and heard.  They carried all manner of signs, often one atop the other on high poles, warning us about an array of imminent threats.  Great and ominous conspiracies were proclaimed; often so complex they required many pages of signs written in very tight script.  Imminent apocalypse was declared, corporate/government/ academic  malfeasance revealed and urgent calls to action made.  Often these guys would employ the technology of megaphones to amplify their message to the passing shoppers.

Even as a kid, seeing these guys walking alone up and down the street, swaying under the weight of the sign poles strapped to their waists, ignored by all but the most curious or naive tourists, I could put their message into a context clear even to a young child.  At best they were lone messengers for lost or only imagined causes, at worse, they were just plain nuts.  Even a little kid just learning English could see it.

Today, you don’t often see these guys anymore, but they’re still with us…they’re on the internet.

God bless Wikipedia…it saves me so much time…it beautifully summarizes, “The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.”  Huh?? Stick with me…When the “medium” is a lone disheveled guy with a bunch of signs on poles, the message is perceived in a certain way, even by an uneducated  little kid.  Take that very same message, verbatim, and put it in a blog or on a website, and blammo, it transforms.

So the not too subtle point I’m getting to here is that the content of messages which in past times would have been more easily rejected hasn’t gone away or even changed much…what has changed is the medium.  And as the medium changed, so too, therefore, have our perceptions and reactions to these messages.  We have a much harder time discerning the difference between wacky claims and scientific evidence in a world where one website looks much like another. Blogger A can appear much like blogger B. This is manifested in so many subtle and yet potentially insidious ways.  Folks who would never have gotten the time of day from the media are now quoted as “balancing” news sources simply because they are found easily on the web.  Ideas that have no basis in science, that have been repeatedly debunked and that confound reasonable analysis get traction and take on a life.  Sometimes, this “life” takes the form of only amused curiosity or incessant repetition….other times, it actually impacts public policy or the health of individuals.

So while the words of the messages are the same, the simple act of placing them in the medium of the internet transforms their perceived meaning.  What to do?  A few suggestions….

First, frankly, you might like to start with yourself.  How are you represented on the medium of the internet and how does that impact your perceived message?  Personally, when I see blogs or posts under anonymous monikers such as “AngryGuyForTruth” or “YogaDreamSeeker” I usually give them the credence of the guy with the signs.  What if we all used our real names and put our pictures next to our comments?  I can tell you for me it certainly has the effect of making me choose my words and sources more carefully.  Give it a try, you might be pleasantly surprised, and I’m guessing we would all benefit.

Second, try this…the next time you read a controversial claim made by a legitimate sounding source, satellite Google map their address.  I did this recently for an “Institute” that publishes voluminous and very sciency sounding expert reports on the web.  The “Institute’s” authors and experts have titles and resumes that seem legitimate, and have been cited as authoritative sources.  Turns out the “Institute” in question is housed in a small building on a dirt road in rural Oregon.  Again, seeing this, like seeing the guy on the street, changes one’s perception of the message.
Finally, try changing up your sources to get new perspectives.  Frankly, the longer I stare at my self- selected twitter feed, the more all the tweets start to read like they were written by the Onion.   Not sure what this means, but it can’t be good. Challenge yourself to seek new sources to confirm or reject the blast of incoming messages, and then look behind them. See any sign-toting guys shouting through megaphones?

The medium of the internet, amplified and accelerated by social media, has materially changed the message of our friends with the stack of handwritten signs on poles.  It can also create the perception that there are more of them, and it enables them to find each other and form communities, which can have the effect of further amplifying their message.  As a result, their message, in past times better understood and therefore dismissed, has new sway.

So I think we all can challenge ourselves to pay closer attention to the messengers and discern the role of the “medium” of the internet in how we accept or reject their viewpoints. I know we can do better than we are now.  So, what do you believe?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Science, well sort of....the motivation of the mob

I keep coming back to beliefs…how they are formed, held on to, rationalized and then put into action…and in that exploration, I keep coming back to myself…what do I believe, and why?  Most importantly, what will allow me to change my beliefs, and can I change those of others?

Last week I had a jarring experience that forced me to look into the maw of beliefs forged by fear, loathing and anger.  I went to a public planning meeting.  You may know the type… the community is invited to provide feedback to governmental agencies about some project or another.  These are, at their best, wonderful exercises in free speech and the manifestation of a pluralistic democracy at work.  All our voices are nominally equal and everyone gets heard.  But a funny thing happened on the way to this idyllic exercise of civic engagement…we got jumped by the mob.In this case it was a mob of folks who used the public meeting as a venue to express their belief that the planning process we were trying to engage in was somehow linked to an international conspiracy aimed at creating a new world order under the aegis of the United Nations, and something ominously called “Agenda 21”.  Funny, I thought I was there to talk about future transportation options in Marin County…who knew.  From the start of the meeting, attended by about 200 folks, of which I would estimate 25 were “Agenda 21ers” (hereafter, the mob), the mob disrupted any attempt at dialog by shouting down the speakers.  Typical of their approach was to repeatedly yell, “Why won’t you answer our questions?”  When anyone actually tried to answer a question, they started shouting “Lies!”, clearly uninterested in any answers. Wow….

But it gets better. After a particularly unsettling few minutes of shrill non communication, I had the opportunity to approach one of the most vocal mob members.  He had been throwing out a series of questions about climate change and I thought I’d try a different tack. I calmly approached, smile on my face, gave him my card, and offered to talk to him at any time to try to answer his questions.  Looking down at it he said, “What are you, a SCIENTIST??!” literally spitting out the word in a spray  of spittle, his eyes bulging.  “No”, I replied in feigned breathless curiosity, “are you?”  In rapid fire he said we wasn’t , but that he had taken a number of science classes in college, and he proceeded to recite a number of scientific formulas (I didn’t really follow what he was saying) in an attempt to establish his non scientific, scientific bona fides.  Soon we were surrounded by 5 or 6 other members of the mob, several of them with video cameras recording our conversation, which I took to be a pathetic attempt at intimidation, making the whole scene at once more laughable and at the same time distressing.  I couldn’t resist…I pulled out my iPhone and took pictures of them taking pictures of me…it actually seemed to bug them…hey, you gotta find the fun in these things. As I continued the exchange with my climate change denier friend, the other mob members left us once it became clear that I wasn’t taking their bait.  I answered all his questions calmly and politely, even asking him once if he was angry or upset at me, as his face was visibly reddening.  Not what he was looking for.  He also wasn’t looking for any answers or real debate on climate science.  He was only there to confirm the strength of his own convictions, to confirm his deeply held beliefs.

But here’s the thing…his beliefs about climate change had nothing to do with the scientific evidence for it one way or another. Rather, they were based on his underlying belief that there is a worldwide socialist inspired conspiracy at work trying to take away his personal liberty and property rights, and the “myth” of climate change was merely a tactic towards that end.  More often than not, when we are confronted with so-called science denial, it has much more to do with underlying ideologies or beliefs rather than any real debate about the science or its validity itself.  This is the case for everything from denial of evolution to fear of vaccines causing autism.

So what does this have to do with my beliefs?  For a long time, I thought our challenge in science education was to simply do a better job of laying out the facts, being clear about the evidence and methods of science.  Not so.  Based on this recent and other experience, I now believe that we need to consider a different approach.  We need to better understand the underlying beliefs and motivations of folks who deny science if we are to meaningfully engage them. And frankly, we need to find congenial ways in which to do so.  I’m not saying we need to accept their beliefs, but rather have a better appreciation for their motivations.

We’re obviously never going to change some minds. There will always be a mob around one topic or another.  But they are small in number, and our challenge is not with them, but with those who may be swayed by them.  My perhaps na├»ve and idealistic hope is that by engaging these folks with a better appreciation for their motivation, we might reach understanding, and open the possibility of actually changing some folks minds, at least if they are open to it.  The alternative clearly isn’t working.  So, what do you believe?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Science, well sort of....Smart Meters linked to alien abduction

Did I get your attention?  Clearly a cheap tabloid trick on my part, well sort of.    OK, so the SmartMeter thing – the claim that SmartMeters have negative health effects – has been around for a while now, and you’ve likely already  formed your own opinion on the validity of that claim. I can direct you to voluminous evidence that they do not (have negative health effects), but frankly, most people will likely be unable to completely understand it. I sure can’t as much of it is highly technical and, well, “sciency” (but send me an e-mail if you‘d like to see the original reports.)  However, because this evidence is based on “science”, it will never be able to provide what some folks are looking for, which is absolute proof that SmartMeters are harmless.  Sorry, science cannot “prove” that something cannot happen…it just doesn’t work that way.  What it can, and does say is that we can’t figure out how SmartMeters could cause any health effects, and that there is no evidence that they do, or ever have, but science cannot “prove” they never will.  This aspect of science, by the way, is poorly understood generally…. but that’s a topic for another day.

No, the reason for this post and its tabloid-esque headline is to examine the role of the media in all this science stuff.  Ah yes, the media, everyone’s favorite whipping boy.  “If only they could get it right!” we say, “They are clearly biased” or “Mouthpiece of the  left/right wing (your pick) establishment”  etc, etc.  But it’s too easy to blame them really, because frankly, they are just us. As individuals we are all bombarded with a deluge of information that is often conflicting and difficult to understand, and yet we are naturally wired to make a quick decision about it, right or wrong.  But the media DOES have an obligation to “get it right” and this is where it gets really tricky.  The following is from a December 16 piece in the SF Chronicle about SmartMeters.

… “People convinced that wireless signals can cause debilitating headaches, insomnia, ringing in the ears and other symptoms have repeatedly asked state regulators to halt the SmartMeter program.

The notion that wireless technology can have such effects remains in deep dispute among researchers….” (Read more: here.)

My problem is with the statement that there is a “deep dispute” among researchers because that’s simply not true – at least not among the scientific community as opposed to the blogosphere, which for complex reasons seeks to perpetuate the myth of wireless technology health effects.  Over the years we have heard about the “deep dispute” over climate change, vaccines and even various paranormal phenomena, such as the existence of alien abduction.  The challenge for the media is to know when to stop saying there are scientific disputes on these types of issues, when in fact there are not. While it is always possible to trot out some individual who “disputes” any scientific finding, and specific details will always be subject to some dispute, characterizing these as significant does a disservice to us all. As a result, climate change deniers have slowed the pace of needed reforms while vaccine scare mongers have increased the rates of unneeded illnesses in our children.

There is no simple solution to all this.  These are all complex and emergent issues.  But one small tactic would be for us to reconsider what it means when we read that there is a “dispute”. If we can agree that some nominal dispute does not mean something is not true, and that we need to look a bit farther before we decide what to believe, it may be a good starting point.

Also, these things can take time to get clarified.  I would argue the Chronicle would not say today there is a “dispute” about alien abduction although some folks still truly believe it exists, and in fact state that they have experienced it.  However, there is no evidence for such, no real dispute about it and in today’s world no legitimate media outlet would give credence to claims to the contrary (tabloids not withstanding!)  Also, thankfully, you read less and less about ‘disputes’ involving climate change (or am I just reading stuff I can agree with…hmmmm)

Finally, we can’t really lay the blame on the media completely – we have some accountability too.  The media merely plays to our interest in stories that have some perceived conflict or dispute.  That’s what we want to read about … maybe that’s why my goofy headline grabbed your attention.

Anyway, there you have it…a proven link between SmartMeters and alien abduction…no dispute about it!  So…what do you believe?