Cowgirl Science — It’s a ramble

Super-Compliance Mob?

I’m flummoxed at the idea of a science march on Washington, DC. The first ever is slated for April 22, 2017. The theme seems to be equally climate change and the promises of science. Scientists, especially the young, are itching to show their moxy. Forget waiting for make-believe super-heros to save the planet. It’s time for Super-Compliance Mob to do the job.

Scientists achieve a position the hard way — they prove it, and then recruit others to take heed. And generally, there are sufficient reinforcements for said proofs and positions, and science and the policies it informs march forward in a sort of intangible but traceable provisphere.

Like other professional social endeavors for nerds, this is pretty much how excited groups of scientists behave. Maybe you haven’t worked with many, but I have. They’re not rebels.

They also tend to be reluctant to personally promote super-power notions about knowledge and technology. The media, however, is not. Scientists, like other figures thrust into media spotlight, get shocked and awed into whatever hero mantle is offered. So what about the current movement for scientists to march for political purposes? Given the current administration’s rough-shod tactics with facts as well as the media, I imagine they aim to evoke the awesome (to them) power of the scientific Super-Compliance Mob.

The ironies and oxymorons ... well, striking. Rebellious super-compliers gathering to get a rogue executive branch to bend to proven common sense approaches to reducing the negative impacts of human technologies on the Earth.

I hope the Mob has better bearings on this than I do.

Is “Bad Science” Killing Canaries?

At least three dead canaries litter the science-media mine of human existential truths. Two are already publicly attributed to the specter of “bad science” so I'll tackle both at once. These poor birds are Climate Change and Vaccine Policy.

Debates on both topics (more like bombing campaigns at this point) hardly belong only to science or the media that reports on it. Yet, that’s where the focus squarely sits. It’s as if, because of science’s association with objectivity, it can and should be used by the public and/or for the public good to avoid certain inherently mysterious (ahem, unknown) parts of existence. There’s no way to get around the fact that not-knowing is experienced at an emotional level not unlike loss, hurt, or rejection. Plus, no matter how deep one’s faith in God or the natural world may be, put face-to-face with a problem that you believe could have or should have been prevented, there’s an angry panicked person inside you demanding objective help in “fixing it” or "fixing them" because sans fix someone’s got to take the rap for the bad guidance.

Science has played along, to its own detriment I would argue, accepting the misplaced mantle of purely objective predictor and fixer. Media shows up to reinforce the helpless, angry, and panicking by accepting “life is not messy when you do x, y, or z” as sufficient reporting. We the public participate by peppering our belief systems with a hodge-podge of objective measurements and predictions we gleen randomly, then use to relinquish any requirement for responsible communication with those whose experiences are different than ours, or that are mysterious in and of themselves. Within a given debate, we are prone to lean on wholesale defense of or detraction from scientific prediction, proving (wrongly) our own superior objectivity.

Scientific research and prediction is an effective and necessary shield from some of the messiness of being human. Still, to the extent that we take an escapist ride on the science-media gondola ride to the top of the mountain of objectivity, we avoid the truths of human existential matters, which is that they reflect tough choices mixed with actual, unavoidable unknowns in life. From a personal standpoint, a lifetime of avoiding confusion or being wrong or lost hardens our souls to soft knowledge, that is, what really matters in our own brief existences.

To break the pattern of defending alarmist climate change positions, we must find paths to engage personal values sharing about climate change and pollution beyond our own provispheres. In alarmist public health debates, the turn must be towards acknowledging that people have not only negative experiences but outcomes within a overly pressurized modern medical system in the United States. Modes to communicate that are both value-based and two-way are needed if we are to tap the well-spring of wisdom from the diverse and telling stories among us — they are what truly help us bridge the unavoidable and precious public/private divide. Science and the media can help by starting to acknowledge and contextualize the “bad science” specter. What that will look like is hard to say.

Which brings me to a third poor bird: Emotional Intelligence.

Ever since Daniel Goleman brought emotion into debates about intelligence with his 1995 book, science has been scrambling to prove, or disprove, the role of emotion — to no avail. The untold story is this: the only vindication for scientists, such that they might continue to claim to objectively deliver existentially untainted facts and analyses, is that they prove themselves utterly emotionless. See the robot-scientists-are-good-scientists catch?

So far science has been able to avoid the problem by pretending this poor bird does not actually exist. Emotionality is allowed to be a truth that has no proof, a tool-less utilitarian solution. It's framed as a sort of ephemeral additive intelligence without consequence on the other objective kind of intelligence. The question of emotionality leading to “bad science” is avoided, a band-aid on a imaginary dead bird.

As for good science that incorporates emotional intelligence, one doesn’t have to look far. Consider the heart-wrenching work of knowledgeable health providers whose fields include end-of-life decision-making. In 2016 Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter made an extraordinary short documentary film  Extremis. In it she flawlessly probes the nuances of emotional intelligence accessible in life-and-death contexts. The key for her work seems to be physicians and families allowing the full feelings of a looming loss — an unresponsive or laboring-to-live loved one — to surface and receive honest and complete information, which means not shying away from inherently muddled and emotionally fraught responses to the complex process of caring for ourselves and others.

In my Oct 2016 paper “Notes from the Existential Underground: the Universe as a Complex Emergent System,” I offer what I would call an emotionally intelligent window on science at large.

"In the ‘conservative’ scientific belief that logic is what sets humans apart from lower life forms, or the ‘progressive’ belief that it’s our only hope of saving the planet, much of the hard work of logic is nothing less than incoherence among sources of academic hubris. When progress or saving us from ourselves supplants the more fundamental understanding that we are part of a cosmic logic much bigger than ourselves, when the projection of well-meaning onto our incomplete but hard-sought logical ways, we find ourselves in the awkward position of defending the indefensible." [read more]

When we avoid story-laden debates and the emotional intelligence required to digest them, choosing instead number-filled ones that make life seem less messy, we also inadvertently shield ourselves from the satisfaction of experiencing clarity through being really present for the “meaning of it all” kinds of experiences in our life. Letting life be messy and still worth showing up for builds courage to live life beyond the provisphere. We must stop leaving it to science or media (or one’s negative judgments of either) to do the at times dirty, at time illuminating, bidding in life’s deep, dark, existential mine. I suspect many scientists would welcome the notion that God is not dead, but in part buried, below the surface, hard to reach, harder still to directly observe in the context of what exists and what does not, or might or might not as the future unfolds.

Original publish date Mar 2017