Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Beer + science + your mom = awesome

Okay, not your mom. My mom. But the formula stands, and that means that local geeks and nerds should get their butts to Bar Pilar on October 2nd for Café Scientifique. (I know, it's Yom Kippur. I have to skip yoga, too, so we all make sacrifices.) Come for the science, stay for the themed cocktails -- unless you're Nick, in which case science will have to suffice.

This is organized by Matt, the publicity director at my press, and my mom is one of the speakers, so take note stalkers: I will be there. Even if you're not a stalker, though, there is plenty of fun and edification to be had. From Matt's description:
Science used to be exciting. Or at least some of its characters were. People used to crowd smoky taverns and coffee houses passionately squabbling over the science and politics of the day. Discourse was a main course, while ideas and opinions were the ingredients in these exchanges. In this grand tradition, we cordially invite you to the first program in a semi-monthly series of the Café Scientifique, Washington DC. This inaugural program will feature four science authors in what we're calling "speed reading." The audience will be divided into four smaller groups, and spend ten minutes with each author and rotate, in a round robin fashion, for a two hour period. The object is to promote spirited scientific discourse in a non-scientific environment, and, of course, to have some fun.
I think it's going to be a blast. We'll have string theory critic Peter Woit, whose Not Even Wrong got written up in the New Yorker this week; Mike Stebbins of Sex Drugs & DNA; our own author John Whitfield, who plays Indonesian gamelan and whose In the Beat of a Heart explains why it's so easy for an elephant to overdose on LSD; and of course my mom, with her book on the history of in vitro fertilization and how it relates to current public opinion about cloning.

Click here to see the invite, get more information including time and address, and RSVP.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Be quiet, Louann Brizendine

Apropos of my last post, I was a little disturbed to read a huge article about this new book The Female Brain in Sunday's WaPo. Like any book of slightly distorted science that plays into popular stereotypes, this one is destined for bestsellerdom, and Brizendine's publisher is clearly trying to get its money's worth; I'd like to shake the hand of her publicist, preferably with a joy buzzer, for landing this ad in article's clothing. (In fairness to the Post, the article's author expresses a fair dollop of skepticism, but the piece also includes some factoids that I recognize as being right off a press release.)

The problem? Well, first, it's probably not all factual. The Boston Globe has started the critique by pointing out that Brizendine got one of her statistics from self-help rather than science, and that probably won't be the last objection. I haven't read the book, but I'm skeptical of anything that makes cut-and-dried claims about neural functioning and architecture. It's more or less inevitable, at this point in our understanding of the brain, that most such claims will turn out to be exaggerated or at least controversial.

But more importantly, this just isn't the time. It doesn't matter how accurate it is to say "male and female brains have fundamental differences at the physical level" -- and of course it is to some degree accurate, though probably not to the degree Brizendine claims. No matter how many minor differences one finds, on average, between male and female brains, it is not going to have nearly the explanatory power of socialization. The inability to deconstruct, the inability to see how "just the way things are" breaks down to just the way things have been, is a fundamental characteristic of the kind of narrow-minded, selfish, blindered individuals we have running the country right now. This is not the time to encourage this particular brand of ignorance with essentializing pop-sci. What you end up with is a bunch of right-wingers who not only can't deconstruct, but now think they have convenient scientific evidence that says they don't need to.

Remember "those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it"? Those who don't know how history contributes to present attitudes and beliefs are doomed to rule from a soundproofed box of essentialism and prejudice, and we shouldn't be giving them excuses to stay there. Cautious data on the relationship between hormones, chromosomes, neurotransmitters, and brain structures? Sure. Excitable pop-sci aiming to crack the bestseller list by playing into prejudice? Not right now, thanks.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Girls, science, and Girls Doing Science

I haven't been very assiduous about keeping up with blogs, since I'm sort of doing two jobs right now; when I was just doing writing/research/legwork for the marketing team, I had some free time at work, but now my free time is taken up with managing the bookstore. But I did read Janet's post about women in science (and why there aren't more). (Janet's post was sparked by a heated debate/flamewar between Chad Orzel and Zuska, which I have not read yet, because secondary sources imply that it would exceed my preprandial vituperation tolerance.) Having seen the accusations of privilege and hysteria flow freely, I think this is a good time for a long-gestating post on women, scientists, women scientists, little girls' birthday parties, academic attrition, and how we're going about some bits all wrong.

No better time, in fact, because on my desk is a prepublication copy of Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, a new Academies report developed with the aid of (among others) our beloved Ruth Simmons. (No Smith alumna from the Ruth era is immune to a deep and feverish admiration for our erstwhile president.) In other words, we have some very solid and authoritative evidence that we are not living in a Larry Summers fantasy world, where only the best thinkers get into science and those just don't happen to be ladies. The people who worked on this report (and it should be mentioned that they are almost all women) have examined socialization, cognition, and evolutionary biology in their search for explanations and recommendations. This is not some kind of hallucination caused by a wandering uterus.

I got into some of my feelings about patriarchy and male privilege in my comment on Janet's post, so I'm not going to recap that here. (The short version is "I agree with Janet"; the slightly longer short version is "male privilege exists, and no matter how personally benign you are, nothing's going to change until you acknowledge that male privilege exists.") It does bear repeating, however, that the crisis of women in the sciences is not one that's constrained to the sciences; rather, more than anything else it is a symptom of a larger problem. I've been thinking a lot lately about why I didn't get into science -- read Philip Larkin's "On Being Twenty-Six" if you wonder why -- and in my own experience, it had nothing to do with discouraging teachers or administrators or advisors or even fellow students. I had a great physics teacher in high school and another in college, for instance, and both thought quite highly of me. But somehow, even with my childhood fascination with dinosaurs and rocks and stars and the brain, even while going to a math/science magnet for high school and part of junior high, even while suddenly realizing during my high school geology exam that I was enjoying taking an exam, it just never occurred to me that I could be a scientist. The thought never crossed my mind. Even if I had been seriously considering it, I certainly took every less-than-success -- poor grades in chemistry, for instance -- as evidence that I wasn't smart enough, while successes went basically unnoticed. I wasn't brilliant in science, especially compared to some of the other magnet kids, but I assumed that not being brilliant meant not being good enough. I got an 89 on my physics final, so why would I ever imagine that I could succeed? But it wasn't a matter of having my dreams shattered; it was a matter of it never dawning on me that I could have the dream in the first place.

We'll still have a "pipeline problem" if we get science careers onto girls' radar. There will still be massive attrition at every level, just like there is all over academia, for the simple reason that women are socialized to give up. You may bounce in your playpen listening to 5000 Sesame Street muppets sing to you about how you can do anything you want, but from kindergarten through menopause, everything else in your life will tell you to back down from competition. That's my theory, anyway, and as with any theory, there are ways in which it's insufficient -- the girliest of girls, for instance, the absolute wet dreams of the patriarchy, are pushed to compete as hard as possible (for spots on a corps de ballet, say). In both cases, though, the sense is that if you can't dominate, you shouldn't play. ("Little Miss Sunshine," among its other merits, gives a great illustration of this phenomenon.) So there's an attrition problem, and there will be an attrition problem until there is absolute gender equality, which probably means "until men can give birth." (Episode 2.6 of "Red Dwarf," among its other merits, gives a great illustration of this phenomenon.) Plus, of course, there are absolutely still teachers who don't take girls seriously as science or math students, and who drive women out of these disciplines before they're even old enough to choose a career path. But the attrition problem doesn't even matter if girls don't think of science as a realistic choice from day one.

I've been heartened recently to hear tales of some girls who love science the way little girls usually love ponies. Dr. Free-Ride's kids never fail to make me optimistic about the new generation -- not only do they love all of science's grossnesses and weirdnesses and explanatory power, but they don't think there's anything particularly remarkable about reading up on cephalopods instead of dressing up Barbie. And yesterday a woman came into the bookstore to exchange some Giant Microbes -- her fifth grader had requested a science-themed birthday party, and she was giving them out as favors, but she had accidentally picked up a "gonorrhea" and a "mononucleosis" and thought they might be inappropriate. I like a little girl who wants a science-themed party. But these kids are remarkable because they are still exceptions.

And so the question is, how do you make girls think of science as something they can do? And even more difficult, how do you do it so it sticks, so that it's stronger than all of the negative socialization they'll get from other sources? Feminist Press, with help from the NSF, is hoping that all it takes is the right kid of book; they are offering grant money for writing books that will bring girls to science, books that kids will read voluntarily but that will teach them something and get them interested in the field. In theory, this is a nice idea (we tried it too, for all the good it did), but look closely at the description of one of the types of proposals they're requesting:
We envision a book or a collection of short stories, each one about a real girl who has the potential to become a superstar in her field – a field that usually is not associated with science and mathematics. Each already will have been identified by teachers and coaches as having such potential – think of Shannon Miller in gymnastics at 12 years old or the Williams sisters in tennis at fourteen. Each girl we write about will have a dream to excel in her chosen field, and each will require years of commitment and hard work, as well as knowledge of certain aspects of science and math, to achieve her dream.

For example, a young gymnast of great potential benefits from knowing the physics of motion, of bodies moving in a circle, and the concept of moment of inertia. A future champion skater understands about leaping against the force of gravity, the motion of her center of mass, and the properties of ice. A young ballerina has knowledge about forces, balance and the physics of jumping; a young jazz dancer knows about skeletal structure, metabolism and quick twitch muscles. Consider a highly promising young actor who knows about lighting, cosmetology, nutrition and voice; or, a talented young filmmaker who understands acoustics, optics and lighting. Another example might be a girl who excels in video game design and knows a great deal about computers and mathematics.
Gymnastics. Tennis. Dance. Skating. Acting. What do they have in common? They encourage poor body image, they trade on looks even more than ability, and they require you to wear extremely short skirts (except for gymnastics, where you don't get a skirt, and acting, where if you're good enough you can eventually put on a longer one). Frequently they involve sequins. They are, in short, Girl Things -- the things little girls are supposed to want to do, supposed to excel at. If you don't, you're a failure, and if you do... well, just ask a recovering ballerina what happens then. These are the most vicious, ruthless chop shops for girls' senses of self-esteem and self-reliance... and Feminist Press is suggesting we use them as hooks to get girls into science? Even The Science of Makeup or The Science of Perfume or The Science of Shoes would be less offensive. (Might be cool, too, especially perfume.) My boss and I looked at this CFP and decided to start a girl's magazine, with photos of hunky scientists and pieces on the chemistry of acne cream (I suggested we call it TIGR Beat). A joke... but not as much of a joke as "How I Used Science To Get Into The Kirov."

Where, in Feminist Press' list, are the girls who want to be scientists? Far from calling for a solution to the problem, this CFP just throws the problem into sharper relief. The problem isn't that girls aren't exposed to science; the problem is that they are prevailed upon to be Girls Doing Science. It's the same problem I used to have with English scholarship -- women scholars won't be treated equally until we can stop being Women Scholars and just be scholars. We don't have to write about feminist theory just because of our chromosomes and reproductive organs. And girls don't have to be coaxed into science via skating costumes and lipstick. That turns science into just another way to fulfill a patriarchal fantasy. But science is, on its own merits, cool. Don't tell me there's no way to sell kids on its sheer coolness.

What is that way? Well shit, I don't know, guys. I have some ideas, but I grew up in the American patriarchy same as y'all, and I don't have the market cornered on unclouded perspective. I do think that's the goal, though, and that it's a reachable goal, and that the compromise goal -- to sneak science into the Approved Girl Activities -- is more harmful than helpful. Got an idea of how? Apply for Femist Press' NSF grant... and send them a big, world-weary raspberry from me.

Friday, September 08, 2006

A discovery ripe for misinterpretation

Stop the presses, fire the judges, dig up Terri Schiavo, and burn your living will: They've found brain activity in a vegetative patient. It's a great day for real Americans, which means people who like to send youngsters to war and deny children medical care with one hand, whilst championing the full rich lives of cell clusters and the brain-dead with the other.

Being serious for a second: These are very interesting results, seeming to indicate a more profound version of locked-in syndrome that is possible even with extensive damage to higher brain functions. And it gives us a new way to evaluate whether patients are really "brain-dead" (honestly I'm kind of surprised that fMRI isn't a standard test... is it? Shouldn't it be?), and a reminder that we need to. But interpreting this finding to mean that vegetative patients are aware of their surroundings would be a dangerous overstatement. For one thing, we have data from one case here, and the researchers -- in typical science-minded, non-mouth-frothing fashion -- advocate caution in interpreting such scant information:
Both Naccache and Owen emphasize that it is important not to generalize from this single patient to most other vegetative-state patients. "This is unlikely the case for all vegetative patients," Owen said. "It’s such a heterogeneous group; they all have brain injuries of different types."
For another, the results indicate brain response, which is not necessarily equivalent to awareness or consciousness. Unlike, say, Terri Schiavo, it appears that this particular patient (who, incidentally, was in her vegetative state for only five months, a fraction of the time Schiavo was out) had some detectable brain activity. We don't know that this activity was conscious and voluntary. We don't know that it wasn't, either, but again the researchers urge caution:
Using fMRI technology, the researchers noticed activity in the language-processing regions of her brain when words were spoken to her, specifically with sentences containing ambiguous words such as "creek/creak".

These responses are thought to be relatively automatic and have been elicited from other unconscious subjects.
Unsurprisingly, however, if you look at the blogs linking to the Washington Post article, you'll see that people are already hard at work misinterpreting these new findings. Somehow, "one woman's brain responded to stimuli" becomes "people in vegetative states are alive in a very complete sense," or "Terri Schiavo judges should step down," or "never let the pull the plug on you." A few things strike me as bitter, ironic, and slightly repulsive about these misguided responses, at least a few of which seem wilfully ignorant. First, it should be funny (if it weren't so sad) that the people latching on to this brain response as a symbol of total awareness are probably the same ones who believe that there's a "hard problem" of consciousness, that consciousness cannot be explained through brain function alone. They would probably think me a heretic for believing that consciousness can arise from neural activity -- and yet they take any neural activity as a sufficient, not just a necessary, sign of consciousness.

Second, and this is an old and non-specific one, I'm getting so weary of people misunderstanding science and then claiming that their misunderstood version proves that science doesn't know everything. I don't have much else to say about this particularly off-putting move. I just don't live in the same world as these people; they live in worlds of their own creation. I wish we therefore didn't have to share resources and physical space, but there you go.

And third, the most sanctimonious religious folks just seem so terrified of death. Am I really to believe that these people would rather have themselves or their loved ones live with no physical agency, being breathed for and eaten for and evacuated for, so that they could cling to their meagre ability to imagine playing tennis when told to? Rather than go to their heavenly reward? Really? I mean, I guess I can believe that the real caricature Republicans, the rich white guys who should be ashamed of themselves but don't know enough to be so, might want their wives to live that way. As long as the baby equipment still worked, and they got another wife for cleaning. But would they want it for themselves, when the alternative is presumably to get their harp and wings?

Now, that said, if that brain activity implies consciousness and ego identity, then yes, I'd rather be alive than dead. But I don't believe in heaven; I believe in consciousness or not consciousness, and I am in no rush to get to the latter. It just shows that the attempted palliative of Life After Death doesn't work as well as it is supposed to against perhaps the most driving force of human nature: fear of not-being. It reminds me of a line from my favorite play, which I'm going to see tonight:
Ask yourself, if I asked you straight off -- I'm going to stuff you in this box now, would you rather be alive or dead? Naturally, you'd prefer to be alive. Life in a box is better than no life at all. I expect. You'd have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking -- well, at least I'm not dead!
Get used to it, folks, because if the wrong people latch on to this new data, they could fix it so that you get to do nothing but think "at least I'm not dead" for a good long time.