science, technology & society, travel, reading

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Curiosity killed the cat. Should we be worried?

When asked what human trait would he like to change, Stephen Hawking replied that it is aggression (as in determining war, as far as I understand from this piece). It might have helped us in the dawn of humanity to insure survival but seems set to bury us now. That humanity seems set for self-destruction is not a new idea. The SF literature is full of Apocalyptic scenarios. Most religions take such event as unavoidable. Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schopenhauer wrote extensively about Thanatos (the death drive towards self-destruction) as opposing Eros (survival instincts), both primal human drives. You got the picture: the Force is strong with this one idea.

Far from me to contradict Hawking; even farthest to think that humanity is not inflicted with the disease of self-destruction. I just do not think aggression helped with anything. Except bringing us closer to our own demise. In addition, humanity did not just survive. It thrived, built civilizations. Getting close to destroying  an entire planet on the way, but let´s not get lost in details. It innovated, surpassing its own physical limits driven by curiosity. But when I look back at the history of the human race, the most powerful force I see is not aggressiveness. Sure it might be there, as it is always fueled by those who rule. But I see a more primordial force: curiosity. It is truly helping us survive, learn, grow, evolve. As it is bottomless, so are our prospects. If we do not kill each other on the way, that is. Yes, due to aggressiveness but sometimes also due to curiosity.  That is why experience taught us to exert a degree of caution when pursuing things that intrigue us. Not to be in the way of progress, but just saying. Maybe less bull and more…I do not know, dolphin?

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Science and freedom: the Grand Inquisitor problem

In the famous parable in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov the Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus that by giving people freedom to choose, he condemned them to suffering. Freedom is a burden in his view. Being provided with basic necessities and told what to think is the true liberation.

These ideas are oddly reflected in the current battles around scientific objectivity and uncertainty in decision-making. Traditionally, in the technocratic decision-making model science has the final word. Science and its results are unquestionable. Those who would dare question them are ridiculed and exiled from the spotlight. Politicians promote their agenda by resorting to “scientific evidence” which is final, absolute. Science provides people with everything they need, including with what they need to think.

Frankly at times this approach sounds too much like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to remain unchallenged. Plus, anyone who works in science can tell you that science is far from the straightforward and absolute image presented by the technocrat adepts. This is not to say that it is completely chaotic and unreliable either. It is just…complicated.

Ironically being denied the certainty of an absolute science leaves us vulnerable to vested interests (tobacco industry denied the mounting evidence of tobacco causing cancer for many years as uncertain or incomplete), anti-science movements (movements against evolutionary theory and climate change), or pseudoscience (alternative medical therapies that sell you coloured water as medicine).

Yet, an incomplete or uncertain science is closer to the real world, the place where you do your best but ultimately there are no guarantees. In addition, the gaps left by lack of information can be filled by the freedom of choice between various scenarios with different combinations of potential or proven risks and benefits.

And it needs to be underlined here that epithets like “incomplete”, “uncertain”, “not straightforward”, “not absolute” do not disqualify science from being our flashlight in the dark cave of knowledge (playing on the Black cat analogy). It might sound messy and complicated but then again, everything is messy and complicated. Including love.

The chances are, as with pretty much everything, that there are plenty of things in science that are rock-solid as there are things that are uncertain or incomplete. So, how much of science is infallible evidence and how much is left for choice? And on what should we base our decisions?

The parable of “The Grand Inquisitor” ends with Christ kissing the old inquisitor on the “bloodless, aged lips” and without a word leaving into “the dark alleys of the city”. Yes, maddeningly ambiguous. But to be noted that both characters continue to exist and very probably continue their work each as they see fit. Whom would you side with?

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From here, there and everywhere

Conferences are part of researchers´ lives. You have the chance to present your work, get feedback from peers and meet new people or catch up with others you have not seen in a while. When introducing yourself, after your name, it is expected to state “Where are you from”. Apparently a simple one: the country of one´s passport. Yet the majority of the answers I see the last past years reveal more and more mixed identities: double identities (“I work in…but originally I come from…”); proto-European identities (“I am an European Union citizen”); even global identities (“I am a citizen of the world”). This make a lot of sense as the movement of people is at unprecedented levels in known history, the majority of people aged 18-40 can speak English, plus, the internet brings instant information at the tip of your fingers. These characteristics also increase exposure to different cultures to the point of cultural internalization. My generation of Eastern Europeans is part American because we grew up with American books, movies and television, just like karate practitioners are part Japanese, or my friend who moved to France in her 20s is part French although she never applied for a change in citizenship. Identities become much more fragmented and mixed. And we are not only talking about double identities here: we all enjoy Thai food, Korean pop music, read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, know the teachings of Gandhi or admire the model of Nelson Mandela. So we are all global citizens.

Thus to me it does not make much sense to ask someone where are they coming from. Unless I need some tips on my next vacation. It makes much more sense to ask for someone´s occupation, favorite books or movies, and given the choice, where would they choose to live. But that can mean 20 extra minutes. And we are in such a hurry. We do not have time to know someone. Why should you? When the country of provenience can tell you everything you need to know about a person. (This is a funny list of national stereotypes, by the way) Sure, it also fuels narrow-mindedness, nationalism, even xenophobia. But hey! we save time!

Sciences remain a particular field. It matters more what you know and what kind of personality you have than what country is listed on your passport. So I still enjoy going to conferences and talking with people, whose nationalities sometimes never even come up. But we talk about our work, American elections, Japanese technology or Sub-Saharan agriculture. And for a few days, I am home.

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Burn the witch!

From time to time I get into fiery exchanges on Facebook. I know I should not. Especially with people I do not know very well. Writing is seldom expressing the true emotional mindset accompanying the articulation of an opinion. Especially one that has a heavy emotional baggage. Plus it gives a one-dimensional sneak-peak of a person. Yet, since many times we tend to think the worst of someone who blatantly disagrees with us, in online forum discussions with people we know very little or not at all, we fill in the blanks. Never with puppies and flowers. The result? Words that draw blood.

Still, I cannot stay on the sidelines. Because I believe talking only with people who agree with you is boring. And impedes knowledge. And cutting loose once in a while both verbally and physically (I also like boxing, as a sport) is healthy. Within limits, of course.

So I do get into spirited forum discussions. And sometimes I get out with my feathers ruffled in frustration. Not because someone does not agree with me (although I do like being right as much as the next person) but because very early in the discussion it stops being about a particular topic and starts being about broad strokes: democracy, globalization, capitalism, environmental degradation, you name it! As long as it is about very powerful groups ruining it for everyone else in a thirsty bloody battle for economic supremacy. Someone(else) is to blame. And we know who. We are not specialists in the field, but we read the newspapers and the first 10 hits Google provides for our search. And if we could get “off with their heads” the order of the universe would be restored.

I am not pointing fingers, I am guilty of this behavior as well sometimes. It´s just when the discussion evolves around topics I have professional experience with, I realize that more often than not things are complicated. Anyone who has studied a particular subject for several years would tell you that. You have various bad guys with various degrees of evilness and various heroes with various degrees of goodness. You have mostly bad people who sometimes do good things and mostly good people who sometimes do mistakes. This view is not devised to give sociologists jobs or let the bad guys get away, but to find solutions that do not backfire (see Operation Cat Drop, which funnily may be a hoax itself but it is perfect as a didactic example).

This multi-dimensional view of issues is not only useful in finding better solutions, but also in stopping toxic fads from proliferating: pro Brexit, anti-vaccination, detox diets, ultra-nationalism, etc. But possibly because it can bring doubt, attempts to describe the situation as complicated and diversified often bring accusations that you are supporting the opposing view. The best example that comes to mind to show that this is not the case is the movie “12 Angry Men” (adapted after a teleplay by Reginald Rose). In it, Henry Fonda´s character tries, and succeeds, in convincing his fellow jury members of reasonable doubt: from the evidence presented it is not possible to convict the accused of murder. It does not mean that he did not do it, it does not mean that he did it. Just that the evidence at that point is not sufficient to come with a decision.

Yet presenting people with this view has been my Everest so far. I not only get accused that I am supporting the opposing view, but I am also called arrogant. I am really trying not to be but perhaps I am not succeeding very well (I will take suggestions on how to improve my stance at any time). In addition, I cannot help seeing the pattern of specialists, often researchers in any field from law to molecular biology, being berated because they bring more information that contradicts a particular view. They must be siding with the bad guys. While any researcher who agrees is a saint. Actual evidence gets lost somewhere on the way of trying to prove someone right. Yet the nature of knowledge generating must admit the possibility of being wrong. No matter how much evidence we have supporting some position, we must always have an open mind and know that it could be wrong. The evidence must be of good quality and proven many times over, but the possibility must exist in the back of our mind. Otherwise, supporting any position is just a witch hunt.

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Ghosts, nerds and gender equality

As much as I tried, I found it difficult to escape the debates around the new Ghostbusters movie: that the trailer is bad, that it is another cash-cow, that it will trash a beloved cult classic, and that…hold on to your seats…it has an all-female cast. Yes, I went there!! I brought up the gender card. And continue to bring it I shall. (I have not seen the movie, so do not worry about spoilers.)

I will start with what I did not like about all the madness: that it was an either/or affair. Either you like the movie, or you hate women. Either you dislike the movie, or you are a crazy feminazi. And all this before anyone actually SEEING the bloody movie. Sure, it started more nuanced, but towards the premiere date the nuances were gone. Replaced by the game of who can throw more insults alongside the gender lines. Men felt like they were supposed to like the movie just because it had women in the star roles, and women felt that the movie was disliked because it had women in the star roles. Simplistic? No kidding.

I do not like oversimplifications. They are lazy and dangerous. As I spoke about nuances before, I feel the need to peel some layers of this phenomenon. Well, first there is the issue of the movie´s quality, regardless of the gender of its stars. However to judge the quality, I feel that you need to see a movie, or at least wait for others to see it and comment on it, before proclaiming that a movie is bad. The trailer is just a trailer. Is like judging a book based solely on its covers. One might trust the association and be proven right, or loose a great literary experience because the art editor was half-witted, to pinpoint the two extremes of the spectrum. Moving further, the funky thing is that part of the discussion on the movie´s quality, alongside special effects and witty dialogue, should be its introduction of a new perspective: gender in the nerd culture. How did the movie do that? Did it bring any valuable perspective? No one had time to answer because oh, boy, did that backfire! Background: the nerd culture is THE shit right now. It is cool, hip, happening, trendy or whatever hipster epithet you might want to throw in. It might also have a gender problem according to some gender studies scholars. (Stephens, M. GeoJournal (2013); Massanari, Adrienne. “# Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures.” New Media & Society (2015)). But, I will not open this black box. I will not talk about gender in the nerd culture.

I am kidding. I will totally talk about it! Because this is point two on the list of nuances here. The nerd culture is the science people culture (Big Bang Theory anyone?). And although it is doing much better now, the science world still has its share of woman-hating Neanderthals. And honestly, even one guy who believes women are dumber than men is one too many. So even when just one guy would come and say that the movie is ruined because the cast is all-female deserves some shaming from the other bros, right?

Well, point three: should other men come forward and criticize the moron(s) with women-hating speeches? Should they go so far as to accept a potentially low-quality movie just to make a display of solidarity? Hm…tough ones. For the first question, the implication of not speaking out against misogyny should not be that it is tacitly accepted. Although it is if you think about it. Anything bad happening under your nose without you doing anything to stop it has your approval. However, if it is well understood in society that misogyny is not condoned I do not think you need to condemn it over and over. It would be like I would expect apologies from my boyfriend any time I read about women being mistreated anywhere in the world. Although I would expect him to react if another guy tells me that all I need to do in life is look pretty. Nuances, nuances. As for rooting for a movie you might not like (in the worst case, because remember, you still did not see it) just to shove it to the women-haters, I would not consider it such a great sacrifice. You know what? You do not need to root for it. Just ignore it. After all: thousands of years of treating women like crap, women still subjected to emotional and physical violence in many parts of the world, etc. Still difficult? Movie means too much for you?

Point four: why? Why is a movie about ghost catching more important than gender equality? Maybe because it is not just about ghost catching and gender equality is not the point here. Or so I have been told. It is a movie where the nerds are the heroes, which does not happen very often. It is a classic movie with great dialogue rebooted to substandard quality but given a gender twist so Big Hollywood could buy themselves some new jets. Everything clear so far. But why women cannot be nerd-heroes? If I am going to see another woman nuclear physicist with perfect make-up on high heels in movies I am going to throw up. Oh, wait. Women can be nerd-heroes: Rey in Star Wars. So, they can be nerd-heroes as long as they are pretty? Any why so many reboots and remakes that destroy classic movies and are obviously made just to squeeze money do not gather half of the negative reaction this movie made? As for gender equality not being the point: it is totally the point. The movie was created around this point, hence the all-female star cast. Yes, this movie had a feminist agenda from the start.

Point five: did the feminist agenda go too far? Well, political correctness can get a bit much (Fox taking down X-men Apocalypse billboards because Mystique was being strangled). Every great cause has its lunatics. But for the Ghostbusters, the feminist lunatics did not even have a chance to blink. A feminist reboot of a nerd culture classic was judged bad before anyone even seeing it. Women haters were not so important because a movie was supposedly badly written. The funny thing is that the movie might be truly, objectively bad, but when a critique starts with “I am not a misogynist, but” it looses the force to convince.



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Policy and science? Relationships, relationships, relationships…

I have always loathed that in policy it always seems to be about who you now and not what you know. But after reading this blog post from World Bank (seriously, what is happening to me?), I think the author, David Evans has a point. Relationships are important in bringing evidence to policy and that is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, in research you collaborate with people you trust the most, sometimes even regardless of whom they work for (industry, academics, governments).

So this got me thinking: What if the human factor is not something to be eliminated in the connection between evidence and policy, but to be put to better use? Evans is citing a systematic review of “barriers to and facilitators of the use of evidence by policymakers” across a range of fields. The “availability of and access to research combined with better dissemination” is the most important category both in facilitating evidence use and barriers to using that evidence.

“Availability of evidence and better dissemination” can mean a lot of things but in all of them you are more likely to have access to evidence and even provide inputs and make inquiries on that evidence if the authors are people you personally know.

Of course, that needs to be combined with lots of transparency. The personal touch is merely to facilitate the circulation of information. The key words in policy still need to be “objective” and “accountable”.

Obviously these are not great news if you are a researcher who thought networking for your career was a drag 🙂 But these are good opportunities to make policy better informed, which is a purpose I think we all agree on.

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To the Zoo

I am quite conflicted about zoos. I mean I loved them as a child but growing up and realizing that I am paying to see animals that are clearly unhappy made me feel like I am in complicity with Cruella Deville. Then again, the conservation work many of the zoos around the world are doing would make my visit a contribution to that effort. Although if we take a look at these 10 facts about Zoos published by the Captive Animals Protection Society, the zoos might do more harm than good: http://www.captiveanimals.org/news/2010/03/10-facts-about-zoos.

Yet, once in a while, if I have the chance to go see a big zoo I am taking it, while keeping a close eye at the conditions of the animals, the educational impact and conservation efforts. So, while in Berlin a few weeks back I went to visit the “world famous” (as their webpage says) Berlin Zoo. The website goes further to state: “Enjoy the taste of wildlife by spotting exotic animals like the long-necked giraffes, majestic lions, strong hippos, curious polar bears and adorable apes”. Well the giraffes looked fine, the lions were sleeping, the baby hippo was at the door of this enclosure looking like he really wanted to see his mommy, the apes looked bored but the polar bear was painful to look at. It was pacing in a small space having that look that horses have when they swing from one side to the other if kept in the barn for too long. The same look I could see in other animals. The spaces for big cats looked a bit small for them. I saw some pretty happy small birds and goats though.

I would have hoped to see more informative materials on the species hosted by the zoo. Perhaps things about how threatened some species are in the wild and how this particular zoo was trying to do something about it. It would have somehow made up for the uneasy feeling some of those empty looks I saw in cages gave me.  

I realize the people working daily with the animals are genuine and caring, but the very idea of the zoo needs a bit more consideration I think.