Science and Society (op.ed.)

Not to sound too cynical, but sometimes it feels like people only “fucking love” science if it agrees with their current views of reality, or if it’s something flashy and pretty. Which, you know, contradicts the basic premise of curiosity-driven research. Every scientific venture in a capitalist world must have a financially-motivated outcome. No one’s looking into fun things just for the fun of it. You just can’t get grants that way. You have to write up some grand outcomes scheme to get funded – which is unfortunate because it feels dishonest. You say that looking into this protein folding mechanism might someday help find vaccinations against prion diseases; well that’s a pretty damn far call! That’s years, maybe even more than a decade down the line! Think about the big picture think about the big picture.

As a child I loved science because it allowed me to go down a fantastic rabbit hole, full of endless possibilities and outcomes. It’s never the end-goals that were important but rather the things you learned along the way. The following quote is presented while keeping in mind that Thomas Alva Edison was a fucking asshole and an ideas-theif, but I first heard it as a child so it still holds sentimental meaning to me:

I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that will not work.

That quote keeps me going when things go wrong in the lab in my own work. But in reality, a culture of “publish or perish” permeates scientists’ and grad students’ daily life, shifting the focus into volume of publication rather than quality and utility of publications and research.

Setting aside that issue, the other thing that has been bothering me for a while (exacerbated by a series of horrifying bills put forth by the current US administration, and the fact that I have been reading a lot about climate change research lately while on my short trip to the beautiful mountains of Alberta) is how the general public will claim they “love” science when it comes in the form of flashy experiments  and life-saving bio-technology which will take over social media – probably with someone making some sort of stupid, overly broad conclusion from a mere video. But they dont “love” science when it means accepting certain changes into their lifestyles. They don’t “love” it when it might mean forgoing buying a gosh-darn 4×4 and unnecessarily large trucks which emit a lot more greenhouse gases than a smaller, more fuel-efficient car. Living in the heart of Alberta, I see this all too much. Of course, it is not only up to the individuals to forgo luxury items that really serve no purpose other than to rev their weirdly large ego, and possible compensation for other inferiority complexes. It is also up to the administration of cities and provinces to concentrate more on urban planning and public transit, to avoid the urban sprawl in so many North American cities; individual family homes are less fuel-efficient than apartment buildings and flats. If it was less expensive to live in the city center, and housing was more easily available in areas with good public transport, maybe people wouldn’t feel the need to buy individual vehicles. After all, it’s not fair to ask poor people living on the outskirts of town to save money to give up their vehicle which may be their only way to get to work.

But even those small changes are met with public backlash. Who remembers the obnoxious whining about the carbon tax introduced this year? Any step towards a more environmentally conscious system is seen as a personal threat to people’s lifestyles and their luxuries. If only they knew how far we have already gone with climate change, the damage that has already been done.

There’s the books and science on climate change, and it is non-controversial in scientific realms; then there’s the media, where if you look, climate change is apparently a topic that is still up for debate. Whom will the public believe? The media, who knows how to present a narrative in an entertaining way, or scientists, who’s languages are often too inaccessible for the general public? This is why I began writing this blog. But even this is filtered through my personal lens. And I can understand that my personal lens are a little too snarky for a lot of peoples’ liking.

I have added to my book recommendations based on the stuff I’ve been reading recently. They are a pretty grim, but necessary read. By 2050, we’ll start to see a massive influx of ecological migrants and refugees from the Middle East and coastal settlements because their environment has become too hot and arid to live in, or their homes have drowned. I myself am from a country where my ancestral homes and lands are already partway under the Bay of Bengal, and by 2050 and rising sea-levels, it’s expected about 20% of my homeland will be under water. This is inevitable. But what we can try to do is make sure things don’t go even further than that. What will happen by 2060 is already set in stone but the rest…we can still try. If we have to die as a species, don’t you think we should go down swinging?

Look at how the world is handling the refugee crisis right now. How much better equipped do you think the world will be to handle the next wave of refugees so soon in our future? It’s expected to be a much bigger wave, from countries whose cultures are very dissimilar from ours. There is a need for scientists to work on new technologies to move towards renewable resources, not build another goddamn pipeline or mine for coal. Newsflash Drumpf, there is no such thing as “clean coal”; coal by its very nature emits a lot more greenhouse gases than any other fossil fuels. Stop promising to “resurrect mining jobs” (I’m sure he said that, in much more incomplete sentences). It’s time to taper away our dependence of fossil fuels and set up the infrastructure necessary to shift to using renewable energy exclusively, and to lower our net energy consumption.

If the rednecks hate refugees now, imagine how much more they’re going to hate it when the number of refugees triple or quadruple, and not through any fault of their own. But because you don’t want to let go of your trucks and 4×4 and lavish single family homes with too many bedrooms. I don’t think knowing about it will change their mind, because I’m much too cynical. They’ll probably go about thinking “why should I deprive myself?” while the future comes at us; too slow to really see, but with the surety of death.

If you “fucking love” science, fucking start listening to it.

Role of Emotion in Skeptic Communities and Science Outreach

Popular science pages and blogs such as SciBabe, and the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe are a great new avenue of making sure scientific discourse can reach a wider audience. It is especially great when they also have Facebook pages, because with more and more people getting their information from social media, it becomes more important to have credible sources also sharing information on an easily accessible and widely-used forum. This would serve two main purposes:

  • stem the flow of misinformation from charlatans eager to take advantage of a gullible public
  • open communication channels between those with a scientific education, and those without.

Initially, I was  encouraged by the existence of these spaces; it even inspired me to revive my comatose science blog last year (oui, I am aware that it has been a good 8.5 months since my last post). However, a disturbing trend soon emerged. I noticed that comment sections on these posts almost invariably turn into a circle-jerk within the scientifically educated, or, when challenged by someone without a scientific background, not fully answering the question, mocking/deriding, or explaining in a way that someone with a high school science education wouldn’t be able to understand it. Today, I want to address a very specific statement I have seen repeated in these conversation, “Science doesn’t care about your feelings/emotions. Science cares about facts.” I bought that, for about 5.8 seconds. And only really, because for many many years I’ve been uncomfortable with my own existence as an emotional creature who cannot always be 100% rational. However, here’s where the argument, and therefore the goal of scientific outreach falls apart. Human beings are inherently emotional creatures. You cannot change people’s minds with mere facts, because people first need to care about why the facts are important. To draw a parallel with scientific papers, facts are like raw data. They don’t mean anything except to a very small fraction of people who know how to analyze and interpret the data. At some point, you need to disseminate the data, interpret it, and explain the importance of why the facts matter. This to me, seems a key failing of amateur science educators, and dare I get a little bit political, also a key failing of those who try to “fact-check” politicians who are peddling an outrageously bigoted narrative. At this point it seems important to make note of two groups that you cannot “fact-check” because they do not care about the facts and will not be affected by emotional appeal either. 

  • You cannot “fact-check” people who already know the facts but are invested in pushing their narrative for personal gain. E.g., politicians with corporate ties, “scientists” paid off by oil companies to deny human-caused climate change, etc.
  • You cannot “fact-check” stubbornly ignorant people who are already closed-minded and believe that anything that challenges their personal world view is lies and propaganda. E.g., religious extremists, tin-foil hat-wearers, people getting their medical information from naturalnews.com instead of medical practitioners who went through the rigors of medical school.

The above two are, in my opinion, lost causes and I wouldn’t necessarily waste my time nor energy with them, unless they are the current administration of a major economic superpower and have the power to influence policies that can affect the well-being of other people. Here’s the third group you cannot simply “fact-check”, but you can appeal to them using emotion. Those who are on the fence, with no clear opinions, but are vulnerable to emotional manipulation by the above two groups (who have a vested interest in increasing their numbers such that they can influence larger change, as such is the nature of democracy).  I’m not saying the facts are not important, but it is also important to present the facts in a way that also demonstrate the importance of standing with the facts. E.g., will their children’s life be in danger? Are they endangering other people’s children; can they live with themselves if their neighbour’s kid who is immunocompromised dies from a preventable disease that was spread from their unvaccinated children. Yes, some people, genuinely don’t care, and will keep misusing the phrase “survival of the fittest” right up until the moment their own children fall deathly ill, and yes, some people will literally not stop peddling the same bullshit even after sacrificing their own children to their strongly held world view (those same people sometimes are also merchants of “miracle cures” that rely on other people also denying science based medicine). But I am optimistic that most people are not this way. As such, I implore the more educated people to stop mocking the less-educated but not bat-crab-looney-tunes/snake-oil-merchants, and provide them with the resources more gently, and with an appeal to emotion.

Yes, it is very satisfying to insult the more obstinate ones who are not willing to learn. I encourage mocking them, because it should be unacceptable to spread unscientific garbage. But the way to get people to care about facts is to appeal to their emotions.

I would like to attribute this revelation to my PI, who agreed to do an interview last year when I was first re-jump-starting this blog. I wanted to know how to get people to be more critical-thinking, rational people, who weren’t steared solely by emotion. I was locked into the idea that to be rational, we have to forsake emotions entirely, but it frustrated me that people wouldn’t calmly and rationally think through facts but immediately jump to how it made them personally feel. And most of the time, anything that challenges your current worldview is uncomfortable for most people.

Her answer is that you can’t keep people from being steared by emotion; people have to first care about being critical-thinkers and the only way to do it is by appealing to their emotions. Caring is an emotion and if you can get people to care about the importance of facts, they would be more willing to educate themselves.

Anti-science groups are experts at the tactic of emotional manipulation. They show photos of screaming babies being stabbed with horse needles, they appeal to your emotional sense of having ownership of your child’s body/well-being. They tell you that you, the parent should have the final say and it feels good and powerful. It’s about time we used our basic human characteristic for progress: for better science education for the public, for more critical thinkers and less “alternative fact”-ers. You know what feels good and powerful? Being able to protect yourself and others from preventable diseases, and not having 16 children just so maybe 1 or 2 will survive to adulthood, knowing you tried to make the Earth a better place to live in instead of stripping its resources for your own miserably short-lived life, contributing to the ever-growing body of knowledge… I know it’s not just me.

New Series: Audience questions

You, my beloved readers (well, all five of you) now have the incredible chance to have your scientific curiosities answered! Send in questions regarding science, medicine and health research and I will do my best top answer them. First question is already in from a different blogging platform.

Degizzie: What is the methodology behind DNA genotyping to find out what are the %s of your ancestral DNA?

I have very little idea, but I hope I find out!

Little note as an afterthought: I am a full-time research student who’s looking for graduate school opportunities all over Canada and Europe. The latter is like having a part-time job on top of my current research work. Therefore I am very busy. I run this blog as an unpaid hobby and will only be picking well-formulated questions that are of interest to me, and that are within my capacity for researching online and answering. Thank you for understanding.

New series: Bad Science

In this category, I will be posting about how scientific findings can be twisted or misreported by science reporters and navigate some of the issues that may cause, usually in the form of public misinformation. This often leads to actions in response to findings that may not even really exist and do more harm than good. What can be done about this? Honestly, I don’t know at this point but I sure hope I find out!

The series will also talk about actual scientific studies and where they may have failed to follow proper scientific procedure, whether it be shady funding practices, bad research design, flawed analysis or presentation, misrepresentation of the facts, or downright fraud (I’m not likely to accuse anyone of this last one without proof.) Here I will admit to being less knowledgeable and will have to do extensive research on them, as my last research design and practice class was years ago. As well each field has their own limitations which need to be considered, and I will do my best to be fair. This is also being done primarily so that the general public can be educated on misinformation, as I have often seen these studies go on to have very extreme, and horrible effects on public health and safety – the notorious study by Andrew Wakefield and the ensuing vocal and annoying anti-vaxxers movement comes to mind.

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My favorite animated feline following their scientific passions.

In other news… My readers will notice that I have moved away slightly from the strictly psychology and neuroscience theme. This is because although I have an undergraduate degree in psychology, my overall science education has tended to be multidisciplinary and I tend to struggle how to define it. I have previously worked in a social psychology lab and decided it was not for me. Then I went on to work in basic psychology in emotional processing and worked with eye-trackers. While very interesting, this was a difficult project for me given that I had very little (none, in fact) computer programming training when I began and I kinda had to figure stuff out all on my own. It is a process that I might have benefited from far more had I had more time to play around with it for an extended period of time but I only had my last year of undergraduate degree to dedicate to that. I did however learned magical skills in statistical analysis and no doubt, I will continue to find them very useful! I briefly considered doing a Master’s in Data Science but have shelved the idea for the moment.

I am currently doing a summer research project on p

IMG_20160524_143801

Whee. I made a tornado! 😀

rion proteins, and I am just having the most fun. In fact, I wish I had asked to work in this lab four years ago… My undergraduate education might have taken a very different turn. It still might. Which is why I decided to change my blog’s url. This blog is no longer going to be restricted to psychology and neuroscience though that is certainly going to be the larger part of the content. However, my current lab work is very biochemistry centered, as I am working with proteins. It’s a very different lab environment, and I really like it. I have also noticed the massive overlaps it has with microbiology, immunology, cell biology and organic chemistry. 1st year undergrad me would shudder to think it, but this has renewed my interest in these topics.

So I am branching out! It so happens that I have some time in the lab to read and research other things while I incubate this and centrifuge that, and surprise! maybe even write new posts more often than once a year.

I look forward to seeing more activity here on sciencetome.wordpress.com. Everything is exactly where it was, and if this works out well, I will be moving here permanently.

Now Listening To: The Cure for Everything (Science for the People)

This is one of my all time favorite podcasts. Here’s what the abstract says:

This week, we’re looking at what the evidence has to say about common claims about diet, exercise, weight loss and other hot health topics. We’re joined by health law professorTimothy Caulfield, to talk about his book The Cure for Everything! Untangling the Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness and Happiness. And researcher and sciencebloggerScicurious looks at a new study of coffee consumption, and the effect it may – or may not – have on life expectancy.

Guests:

  • Timothy Caulfield
  • Bethany Brookshire (Scicurious)

First, a recent study regarding coffee consumption and possible implications regarding longevity is discussed (spoiler alert: there probably isn’t any – sadly for me). This I found was fascinating, considering the degree to which science reporters often misinterpret – intentionally or not – what the research they are reporting on actually says. For a paper this semester, we are required to address this very issue and disseminate an article in mainstream media that reports on a recent scientific article about a topic in psychopharmacology (the focus of the seminar for which I am writing this paper). I have elected to do this paper on one of the circulating news reports on the possible anxiolytic effects of cannabis. I have seen numerous friends repost and comment on this topic with nary the semblance of critical analysis, and it was beginning to grate on my nerves. Oh, to live in a world where we get to talk about our passions and obtain course credits for them! So, keep an eye out for that article. I will very likely be posting it in late March/early April with permission from my professor.

The latter half of the podcast discusses some popular health myths with Timothy Caufield, author of “The Cure for Everything” which is now on my never-ending reading list that is currently about 45 books long. If you have ever been frustrated by the “wealth” of knowledge & truisms out there about what will allow you to become more healthy and fit (and even what being fit means) this is a good section to be listening to. Based off of just that I’d say I look forward to reading and enjoying the book as well, since it promises to go into a lot more detail about these very topics. Personally, I have made some modifications to my own exercise routines even, after it was noted in this podcast that one exercise that really does do your health a lot of good is interval training (short bursts of intense activity followed by slower rest periods). This was not welcome news to someone as inherently lazy as myself who lacks the drive to push herself very far even for short periods of time & prefers moderate effort longer duration activities instead. But the image of better cardiovascular health keeps me going for those last few intensely difficult seconds before rest.

Hey, if you’re not willing to use the knowledge you’ve gained…

New series: Now Listening To

Hello everyone!

It has been a long time since I posted, and many new exciting things have been happening in my life! You will remember that at last check in, I had written the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) whose results were a pleasant surprise to both me and all of my nay-sayers/discouragers/haters, etc.

Recently however, I decided to reconsider my options and reevaluated my interests and decided to postpone applying to medical school by a few years, and continue in a research stream. As at the very base, I find the science and research more interesting – and this has in large part been fostered by my undergraduate research experience in which I have been immersed for the past 6 months. Therefore, I have decided to pursue graduate studies instead. Hurrah! I have spoken to a few interesting labs about some viable projects already and am currently waiting to hear back from my first choice of supervisors.

In addition to this development in my professional life, I have also become an avid fan of listening to podcasts on a wide variety of topics – science, politics, economics, history, but mostly science.

This blog has lagged so far on updates because it’s not practical for a full time undergraduate student with a part-time job and numerous volunteer and research related obligations to update a blog containing primarily well researched science articles. Therefore, in an attempt to rejuvenate this otherwise lifeless expanse in the internet space, I will be taking this blog to a new(-ish) direction. A new category of posts called “Now Listening To” will be added soon, where I will be posting the latest podcasts I have listened to (and find interesting), and occasionally I may add my own commentary to them.

I’m hoping this will lead to more lively discussion on this space which I currently occupy by my lonesome!

Effectively Studying for Exams

This has been in the works for little over 8 months, and for that I apologize. I was busy, doing the things I am about to suggest you too, do in order to do better on your exams. I am always reminded that this would be a good post to write just before finals, since that is the thought most prominent in my mind. However, I do not suggest you ever try studying last minute, or “cramming”, since it rarely works for anyone past high school. As such, nothing I say here will be useful to you if you are preparing for exams that are coming up in less than 2 weeks. Good luck to you, and good bye (it is a contraction of “God be with ye” and by God, you will need it now.) So I think in the end, this post is perfectly timed after all, since this is directed at university students and most of you are starting soon this fall.

What are my qualifications to be giving you this advice? Experience. Ah yes… I was one of those high school students who never studied for anything, attended classes, barely took notes, reviewed said notes the night before/day of the exam and did great on everything. While at the time I thought I was lucky, to be so smart, it turned out to be my downfall first year of university. Suddenly, I was no longer easily one of the smartest kid around (because, well, everyone is smart at university, at something or another); also, and more importantly, I had zero study skills. I floundered for most of first year and a bit of second trying to find the adequate skills and resources to become a good student, and my GPA reflects this change. And I am fond of saying now, that I no longer consider myself an “intelligent” person, but rather, a hardworking one.

So let’s just dive right into it.

Before classes start:

  1. Do your research on each of the professors. Read their ratemyprofessors reviews, take suggestions from former students (with a grain of salt, of course, it is the internet), check the course they are making those comments in regards to. Professors, like all of us, are humans and inevitably enjoy teaching certain classes more than others and it shows. So it may be worthwhile to take into heart comments about, say PHYS 301, more than PHYS 123, if the former is what you’re taking.
  2. Be reasonable about what supplies you will or won’t need during the semester. As a student, you will forever be strapped for cash and you do not need to buy a box of pens. Go to orientation/ first week of classes events and gather a few free pens and sticky-notes booklets. My most used stationary in the past 3 years are freebie stationary. Although I have bought stationary in the interim, it’s not because I need them, it’s because I have impulse control issues and as a child held a fixation for stationary that most children hold for candy and toys. But you do not need to buy any stationary. Staplers, hole punchers, sharpeners are everywhere.
  3. Wait till first week for classes to see if you’ll even need the books “recommended” or “required” for class. My school has a textbook listing system where it tells you if it’s required or just recommended, but occasionally I’ve found that even if it’s “required”, you may still get away with borrowing it periodically from the library.
  4. Depending on whether you work with notebooks or binders best, label them, and find and insert anything you feel might be useful for that course (eg., a print out of the periodic table for chemistry, or IR spectra chart for organic chemistry labs, etc.) I like to decorate mine with relevant hand-drawn dividers too (I like binders, always easy to retrospectively add stuff). I like drawing and it gets me pumped for the class.
  5. Have a pin board to post reminders for yourself. Putting up a calendar for your schedule may also be a good idea. This need not cost money. I got a white foam board from the dollar store and painted on a black border and put a clear wrap on top so I could write on it with erasable markers. (This is a good time to mention that if you are going completely paperless, which I’m trying to do this year, all of this is doable with various apps, which will be listed in a separate post).

When classes start:

  1. Make any necessary modifications to your individual study folders/binders/etc., according to that particular class. Most of my professors post their notes in pdf format online, so I always make folders on Adobe Reader on my tablet, and organize them by assignment, HW, midterm 1, midterm 2, material, and so on. An organized work space (real or virtual) is worth investing the time into because later on it will save you time you have to spend looking for it. One of my professors were very keen on hand-drawing a lot of additions into his notes and I never had enough space on the pdf documents, so I added a unlined notebook to my collection of things I use for that class.
  2. Review the main ideas for each class immediately after that class and highlight/bookmark concepts you have trouble with. Put it on your calendar right away as something you need to either ask for help during office hours, or spend more time on later. If possible, make sure this is done before the next class. I know time doesn’t always permit this, but to really solidify the foundation of learning, you should review previous class’s information just before the class and preview that class’s notes.
  3. For subjects that require not rote memorization, but practice of concepts (eg., calculus, applying physics or chemistry concepts and equations), schedule 1-4 hours a week to use available practice problems. The amount of hours depends on how weak your grasp on the concepts/the subject is. This can be in addition to HW you are already assigned or just time to do the assigned HW. The hours should also be broken up into smaller time periods over the week. Four 1-hour sessions a week is much more effective than one 4-hour session. It also protects you from fatigue.
  4. The above also applies to other subjects where you may just be trying to understand concepts and memorizing them without needing to necessarily practice their application (as is the case with most neuroscience, physiology or psychology courses I take). It is far more effective to review your lecture notes for each class for 15 minutes per day, than it is to spend the two weeks before exams cramming. You will have learnt nothing of value, and it will feel a lot more stressful. For me, “finals season” no longer feels as exhausting or stressful as it had my first year at university. In fact, it barely seems any different from any regular day during the semester.
  5. If you keep up with your reading, get help on weaker concepts and subjects right away, all you really need to do before exams is review all the material once, just to make sure the information is salient in your brain when you are writing the test. You won’t be wasting valuable pre-exam hours relearning concepts. It’s unlikely to do you much good anyway. When you cram a lot of new information within a short period of time, you are putting too much pressure on your short term memory, which by it’s very nature has a short capacity. By rehearsing material over several sessions over longer periods of time, you encode it into long term memory. This way, you will have actually learnt something from the class instead of just cramming and regurgitating for an exam.

Week before exam(s):

  1. Casually review all the material you need to know for the exam, spending a little bit extra time on concepts that were hard to get at the first time around.
  2. For things that require practice, (eg., calculus, mathematical application of chemistry or physics), don’t worry about reviewing the concepts so much if you already get it. Just do a lot of practice questions and timed practice tests. At this point, doing well on the exam will be more about getting into the flow of doing those calculations and deductions over and over again.
  3. Try to do said practice questions or review in an environment similar to that you will write the exam in. In most cases the best you can do is a library. Occasionally I can find empty classrooms or lecture halls to study in but this is rare.
  4. You can also condition yourself to certain things to aid memory (eg., chewing a certain flavor of gun while writing the exam that you chewed while studying for the exam). I did this with coffee, since I always drank it during study session, but caffeine plus pre-exam adrenaline make for unhelpful jitters so I just carry a cup of coffee into the exam without drinking it (much). Occasionally sniffing the coffee is enough to re-focus me.
  5. Pre-exam stress doesn’t always have to be bad. If you have prepared adequately, a certain level of stress is beneficial, even necessary, to keep yourself working at an optimal pace during the exam.

    The Flow

    I recently ran out of time on a particular section of a heinous 7.5 hour exam because I felt so comfortable with the material I began to zone out in between(sometimes even while) reading passages. A little bit of stress is good!

  6. Take some time to relax and recuperate between study sessions. Never schedule back-to-back study sessions. At the very least, alternate between subject materials so at least you have fresh eyes regarding the subjects every few hours. If you have something you like to do just for fun (exercise, dance, read for fun) it is also worthwhile to schedule some time to do that. That way, you don’t feel guilty for “indulging” since it is on the schedule, and you definitely should do that. If you enjoy something, it is not a waste of time. I personally prefer very physical activities such as exercise or dance since it allows my brain to disengage from exam matters  for a bit, and the endorphin helps too.

I hope this will be helpful to everyone returning to school this fall. And I hope you have fun.