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Two months ago, I participated in the Science-Engineering-Technology Congressional Visits Day (SET-CVD) in Washington, DC.  It’s organized by a bunch of scientific organizations, and I learned about it through the American Geophysical Union.

Basically, it’s a day when ~200 scientists are on Capitol Hill, and this year, our goal was to ask Members of Congress not to cut basic science funding.  In the past, our “ask” was to increase spending on basic science, but given the economy and the political situation, it seemed more practical to ask for the level of funding to stay the same than to ask for more.

I ended up talking only with congressional staffers instead of the Members of Congress (which is pretty normal), and it was a great learning experience.  Here’s a quick overview of what I learned:

  • Every single day, there are hundreds of people on Capitol Hill all asking for something from Members of Congress. On the day I went, there were people in military uniforms, people with purple Alzheimer Disease banners, people with large cowboy hats and Southern accents (ranchers?  Texans?), and a lot more people in costumes/outfits I didn’t recognize.  Every day, Members of Congress (or more often, their staffers) have to meet with constituents all day who are asking for one thing or another.   If you want to get the attention of a Member of Congress, it helps to show up and ask in person.
  • There are a fair number of scientists working on Capitol Hill.  A number of scientific organizations (AAAS, AGU, SSSA, GSA, etc.) have science policy fellowships for folks with Ph.D.’s in science so there are some really smart people working on Capitol Hill, trying to solve problems.   The problem, according to some of the more experienced staffers, is a decrease in collegiality between Members of Congress in recent years.  More on that in the next bullet.
  • There’s a lot less socializing going on between members of different political parties.  Historically, members from both political parties would live in DC when congress was in session, usually in the same neighborhood.  Now, being a “Washington insider” is a bad thing so people tend to go back to their home states on the weekends or commute back during the evenings if they live in nearby states.  I suppose it’s easier to treat members of the other party as the enemy when you don’t have to worry about those awkward moments when you run into them at the local coffee shop or the gym.  There’s also the whole issue about compromise = you’re a traitor to the party (although that seems to be the case more in one party that another — I’ve heard of more discussions of RINOs than DINOs).  I’m sure there’s a lot more to the dysfunction going on in U.S. Congress than these two issues, but they seem to be relatively important contributors to the dysfunction.

I also talked to staffers from the Committee of Foreign Relations, and I was so happy to chat with them.  This committee works with other countries on issues like the Kyoto Protocol and other international policies.  We talked about strategies for how to deal with climate change and reframing the situation to be more about resilience: resilience to unpredictable weather, to problems with energy security, to changes in crop yields, to increased air pollution from smog, etc.  Politicians from all parties seem to be a lot more open to conversations about resilience than climate change so I would like to think that there’s hope.

If you’re a scientist, I highly recommend going to a CVD if you ever have the opportunity.

Today, I read something that reminded me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 article, Welcome to Cancerland, which I also highly recommend.  It was an article on Komen for the Cure, and how its issues extend beyond just stepping out of their nonpartisan shoes.  One of the bigger problems is their ignorance concerning the latest science on breast cancer screening (screening tests actually do not decrease the risk of dying from cancer) and their placement of a disproportionate amount of responsibility for fighting cancer on the women themselves (“What’s the key to surviving cancer?” “You”).

It’s a bit unfair to pin all that responsibility on women when there’s a huge list of chemicals that are carcinogenic and endocrine disruptors being released into our environment by industrial and agricultural activity.  And yet, many companies (like ones that produce beauty products) that are releasing chemicals into the environment are the same ones with the pink ribbon, urging you to buy their products so they can donate your money to Komen.  It’s sort of like Paula Deen becoming the spokesperson for a diabetes drug after years of encouraging people to eat excessive amounts of fats and sugars.  It seems that they’re selling both the disease and the cure at the same time.   So why aren’t we pinning more of the responsibility of fighting cancer on companies that are releasing carcinogens or organizations that support companies that release carcinogens?

Most of the time I read something in the news about climate change, I cringe a little (or a lot, see Ventilation: Freeman Dyson), but this article by Michael D. Lemonick is excellent.  It’s about Thailand, where my parents and a lot of my relatives live, and about the recent flooding that caused a LOT of damage so it was really fortunate that my parents and my relatives were okay.

The intro of the article does an excellent job of explaining the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events:

An obese, middle-aged man is running to catch a bus. Suddenly, he clutches his chest, falls to the ground and dies of a massive heart attack. It turns out that he’s a smoker and a diabetic, has high blood pressure, eats a diet high in saturated fat and low in leafy green vegetables, pours salt on everything, drinks too much beer, avoids exercise at all costs and has a father, grandfather and two uncles who also died young of heart attacks.

So what killed him? Most people are savvy enough about health risks to know this is a trick question. You can’t pick out a single cause. His choices and his genes all contributed to the heart attack — but you can say with confidence that the more risk factors that pile up, the more likely it is to end badly.

Somehow, though, people think that it makes sense to ask whether a given extreme weather event — a devastating heat wave or a punishing drought or a deadly torrential rainstorm — is caused by climate change.

That’s a trick question too. Scientists know that the increasing load of greenhouse gases we’re pumping into the atmosphere doesn’t “cause” extreme weather. But it does raise the odds, just as a diet of triple bacon cheeseburgers raises the odds of heart disease.

There was also a wonderful series of public service announcements about the flooding done by a non-profit group in Thailand.  It’s scientifically accurate, accessible, and it even includes cute whales:

There is hope for science journalism/communication!

Why does Indiana have to keep on shooting itself in the foot?  The Indiana Senate just passed a bill that would require the teaching of creationism in public schools, but the Indiana General Assembly killed a public transportation bill.

There are just so many things wrong with this picture that I don’t know where to start.  The legislature is unwilling to raise taxes to support public transportation, but they’re willing to risk getting into a lawsuit when they get sued for violating the U.S. Constitution, which will probably end up using tax dollars.  According to some of the comments, big government getting involved in public transportation is bad, but somehow it’s okay for the government to require teaching one particular religion in public schools.

Boo to that.  Boo to double standards and hypocritical thinking.

I find it really interesting that only 3% of China’s population are science literate compared to 28% of U.S.’s population (according to the same measure).  Perhaps this is because China has just recently started increasing its investment in science and technology while the U.S. has been investing in science and technology for decades so it may take a bit of time to catch up?  Or it is because most of the investment in China has been towards research and development at universities and national research centers and less at the primary and secondary school level?  Is it because science education in China is similar to science education in Thailand and Hong Kong where it’s mostly rote memorization of facts?  It would be very interesting to see how this number changes over time and if the rate of change in China is any different from the U.S.

An article came out a few months ago, and I really like a lot of the points it raises.  It’s a review of Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and research on sex/gender differences in general.  Basically, the article challenges the idea that innate sex differences are linked to real-world accomplishments, which has been raised by many scientists and a certain ex-Harvard University president.  This idea is often used to explain why there are disproportionately fewer women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields than men.

That idea seems to ignore all the literature that’s out there on stereotype threat and other cultural and sociological factors that could contribute to observed differences in cognition between the sexes.  According to a neuroscience major and third year med student (a.k.a. my sister), it’s really hard to tease apart whether differences in cognition are innate or a result of environmental factors.  In fact, it’s probably both.

Through my conversations with Filipino friends who happen to be female and scientists, I also learned that there is no gender gap in the sciences in the Philippines.  There are an equal number of men and women at every level of the pipeline, and my friends didn’t hear about the “leaky pipeline”* until they came to the U.S. for graduate school.  This blew my mind because I moved to the U.S. when I was 18 so I’m only familiar with the scientific community in the U.S.  I’m pretty sure that humans from the Philippines aren’t all that physiologically different from humans in the U.S.  It also makes me wonder if there are other countries with equal numbers of men and women at top positions in the STEM fields.

Also, isn’t there a leaky pipeline in business and finance, in politics, and in showbiz (more women in front of the camera than behind the camera or producing movies)?  My money is on the larger systemic issues in our society.

*“Leaky pipeline is a metaphor that denotes the success of women in getting credentials for a career but not advancing in it. For example, the pipeline may be full of women receiving the Ph.D., yet the pipeline at several junctures seems to be leaking as few of these women get a tenure track position and even fewer get promoted to associate professor; the fewest of all are promoted to full professor.” – Iowa State University’s Women’s/Gender Studies Program

1) Dogs are awesome.

I’ve always wanted to own a dog: play frisbee with it, go hiking in the woods with it, snuggle up next to it while I’m watching David Attenborough documentaries, and all that good stuff.  Now there’s a study that found that dogs can detect early and late-stage lung and breast cancer so I can add “have it sniff my breasts if I develop cancer” to the list.  Yay, dogs!

2) Walking > Crossword puzzles in terms of brain functioning and memory (!)

I know that longevity has a lot to do with genetics, but I wonder if part of the reason why my 88-year-old grandfather is still pretty alert and healthy is because he lives in Hong Kong (which is a very walkable city with a great transportation system) and walks with my grandmother (who’s 77 and also very alert) every day to have dim sum and tea.

Also, I know I should be careful not to extrapolate too far from the original study, but I am going to make sure that I go on a walk every single day of my life so that my mind doesn’t turn into mush and I unthinkingly elect a person who thinks that it is important to use valuable taxpayer resources to declare that climate change is awesome for the economy.  (It’s not about completely ignoring hundred of scientific and economic studies of climate change impacts or anything.  It’s just that I personally think that crisp autumn days are awesome, but do we really need a bill to declare how mindblowingly wonderful they are?)

Two weeks ago, I was hanging out at a bookstore (because I like to live on the wild side) when I noticed that this year’s Best Science and Nature Writing collection was edited by Freeman Dyson.  I really like this particular collection: the essays are often accessible and scientifically accurate even though they’re not very technical.  (My favorite is the one that was edited by Natalie Angier in 2002.)  I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that they had picked Freeman Dyson as the editor this year though so I’m going to have to vent.

I first learned about Freeman Dyson when the New York Times magazine devoted an 8-page article on him last year and that article bothered me in many ways, but I’ll just highlight two.

1) Freeman Dyson might want to retake Intro to Biology or review basic biological concepts. I’m sure he’s an absolutely brilliant physicist, but his biology is a bit rusty.  He’s one of those skeptics who think that planting a bunch of “carbon-eating trees” is going to mitigate climate change.  First, it doesn’t matter if you plant a gadzillion hectares of forests that suck up a gadzillion tons of carbon from the atmosphere.  Forests eventually die and all the carbon that they store ends up back in the atmosphere when they decompose.  And it’s back to square one.  It is called the carbon cycle for a reason.

So, what if we harvested the wood from these forests and found some way to store the carbon so that it doesn’t decompose and end up back in the atmosphere (like turning the forests into biochar)?  Well, plants need more than carbon dioxide to grow.

First, where is the land for planting all these trees?  World forest cover has been declining for decades, and deforestation is still a major environmental problem.  As human population and consumption habits continue to grow, we’re demanding more food (more meat, specifically) and more roads, which requires land that doesn’t include trees.  So how are we going to convince people that trees are just as or more important than food and roads?  This is actually a question that I think is really important to answer.

Second, plants, and trees especially, need a lot of water to grow, which limits them their range to very specific areas of the world.  Sure, we could irrigate and fertilize in unsuitable habitats, but I think Freeman Dyson is seriously underestimating how energy and labor intensive and expensive his idea can be.

(For a more thorough critique of Freeman Dyson’s views on climate change, check out David Archer’s post on RealClimate.)

2) Freeman Dyson got 8 pages.  Jim Hansen got a paragraph. Aside from hearing biologically-uninformed statements from Freeman Dyson, it really bothered me that the New York Times spent so much time covering Freeman Dyson’s views on climate change and only a paragraph on an actual climate scientist’s views on climate change.

I can’t imagine that the New York Times would ever come out with an 8-page article about an eminent physicist who thinks that chocolate will cure cancer and then spend only a paragraph on a world-renowned oncologist who thinks the physicist doesn’t know what s/he’s talking about.   Hundreds of people would be writing in to say that it’s completely irresponsible to report that sort of information in such a skewed manner.  But somehow they can get away with this sort of stuff when it comes to climate change.  Boo to that.

Oh, and even Andrew Revkin said: “On climate, Mr. Dyson may be right or wrong”, as if Dyson has a 50-50 chance of being right or wrong.  That’s like saying if you jump off a tall building, you may or may not live, which may be the case if, say, you’re a character from an action movie, but I definitely wouldn’t chance it in real life.

Anyway, back to the Best American Science and Nature Writing edited by Freeman Dyson.  Thanks to Amazon.com, I can read Freeman Dyson’s introduction for free, and it’s more of the same stuff he always says.  It’s more about the carbon fertilization effect and how “climate alarmists” are ignoring it.  If he actually talked to some climate scientists, he would realize that carbon fertilization is something that has been extensively studied for decades — just do a quick Google scholar search on “free-air CO2 enrichment (FACE)” and you can see papers dating back to the 1990s.  Or if he bothered to read this PNAS paper, he would learn why scientists are not jumping up and down about carbon fertilization.  This paper even came from a FACE site at Oak Ridge, TN, which is a place that Freeman Dyson visited in his intro.

He also says: “Nothing is said about the large fertilizing effects of carbon in the atmosphere and in topsoil upon food crops.”  If he actually talked to some soil scientists, he would realize that soil carbon sequestration has been studied for decades — there’s even a book by Rattan Lal (a renowned soil biologist) 12 years ago on that exact topic: The potential of US cropland to sequester carbon and mitigate the greenhouse effect.

One of the major reasons why scientists are not jumping up and down about topsoil is because there’s a debate on whether maintaining topsoil is actually going to lead to more or less carbon sequestration (see this and this) so again, it is a vast oversimplification to say that topsoil is going to offset all our carbon emissions.  Not to mention that if maintaining topsoil does end up sequestering a lot of carbon, topsoil erosion is one of the biggest global environmental problems facing us today, right up there with deforestation.

I wish I could be as optimistic as Freeman Dyson, but his solutions seem to exist in this alternate reality where deforestation and soil erosion are not major environmental problems and unfortunately, we need solutions for this reality.

As a scientist who is studying the effects of climate change on ecosystem functioning, I’m often reminded of the enormous gap between the scientific community and the general public.   Hearing people say that climate change is a hoax makes me wonder about the quality of science education at the primary school level, why skeptical/contrarian arguments against climate science are so convincing, and whether there are enough scientists chatting about their research with non-scientists on a regular basis.

This past Monday, my university hosted a Global Warming Forum where they invited Susan Avery (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute), Robert Socolow (Princeton University), Fred Singer (Science and Environmental Policy Project), and Kenneth Haapala (Science and Environmental Policy Project).  Because of Fred Singer’s history of misrepresenting climate science and scientists and Kenneth Haapala’s involvement in the scientifically inaccurate Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, a few graduate students and I thought it would be an excellent opportunity for us to make sure that anyone who was going to this panel would have a bit of climate science info in their hands to refute some of the common misconceptions of climate change.  (Our handout was largely based on information from skepticalscience.com and realclimate.org — both are comprehensive sources of scientific info on climate change.  Many of the arguments that are made by climate skeptics can be easily countered by information from an introduction to biology, ecology, or earth and atmospheric science course too.)

Because a lot of the science is already out there and many scientists who are more qualified than me have already refuted a lot of the specific claims made by climate skeptics, I just want to focus on one question that I’ve thought about a lot since the forum: what makes skeptical/contrarian arguments so convincing?  Here are some ideas that I’ve been bouncing around:

1) They inundate the audience with graphs, charts, and jargon.

Data and jargon (like “AGW”) make climate skeptics appear more knowledgeable than they really are.  When someone is showing you a graph with labels like “wavenumber (cm-1)” and “Delta Tb (K)”, they probably look like they know what they’re talking about even if they say scientifically inaccurate things like “CO2 is not a pollutant” (click here to find out why that’s inaccurate).  Oh, and they’re tricky about the scales on the graph.   For their temperature trend graphs, they use data from the 1970s (or later) to the present day.   What they don’t mention is that most climate scientists use 5- or 10-year averages when they’re talking about climate change because there’s just so much interannual variability.  Also, because climate happens on a large time scale by definition, it makes more sense to show at least a hundred years of data.

They argue that they look at the same data as the experts and just come to different conclusions, but to someone who actually studies climate science, what they’re doing is like skimming through Animal Farm and dismissing it as a silly story about barnyard animals and their adventures.  They just don’t seem to fully understand the information that they’re criticizing.

2) They set up false dichotomies.

The title of both the climate skeptics’ presentations said it all: “Nature, not human activity, rules climate change”.   First, no climate scientist has ever said that climate change is caused by only one or the other.  (In fact, aren’t humans a part of nature?   It’s like saying “Nature, not photosynthesis, rules climate change”.)  As with a lot of complex processes, there are usually multiple, interrelated causes and drivers.  We know that a combination of geological and ecological processes and human activities are driving climate change.  We also know based on multiple lines of evidence (e.g., ice cores, weather station data, satellite data, our understanding of the greenhouse effect, etc.)  that human activities are the dominant ones.

Another false dichotomy they kept on reciting over and over again was that switching away from fossil fuels is bad for the economy, that a price on carbon is going to drive everyone into poverty.  I’m not sure which century/decade Fred Singer and Kenneth Haapala are living in, but they seem to have missed all the excitement about the growing green building industry that’s still going strong despite the recession, the growing renewable energy industry (especially in China), and the sustainable food movement (even Walmart is getting in on the action).  All of these industries can help us become less dependent on fossil fuels *and* they’re bringing in lots of money so economic prosperity and environmental protection don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  Not to point fingers or anything, but now who’s being all alarmist and doomsayer-y?

3) They say things with absolute certainty.

Isn’t it simpler and more comforting to hear someone say, “Cooling is bad; warming is good!” than it is to hear, “Cooling and warming can be bad or good depending on the situation”?   Scientists are trained never to say that they’re absolutely certain about any scientific fact though, because science is about probabilities.  We can have a hundred experiments that show one result, but we can never be absolutely sure that the 101st experiment will give us the same result even though it’s highly likely.  Science is an ongoing process of discovery, replication, verification, and revision because we can never be 100% sure about a given thing, but that’s not the same as saying we don’t know anything.  We just know the limits of our knowledge.  The climate skeptics at the forum, on the other hand, don’t seem to realize or acknowledge that there are limits to their own knowledge but are quick to point out scientists’ limitations (even if one of the climate skeptics has no scientific credentials).  Doesn’t that seem just a teensy bit hypocritical?  If they’re making assertions like “CO2 is beneficial and always good for plants”, where are their lines of evidence supporting that statement?

4) They appeal to the cultural values of the audience.

I can’t take credit for this idea because it actually comes from an interesting press release from the National Science Foundation.  Basically, people tend to trust scientists (or experts) who already share their cultural and/or political views so maybe Fred Singer and Kenneth Haapala’s anti-regulation, anti-government stance is appealing to some folks (and it’s a fine stance to have, but I worry that it’s informing their views on climate change more than the science itself).   Scientists can harness this tendency too, though.  Maybe one way to bridge the gap between climate scientists and the general public is to focus on the things we can agree on and go from there.  Care about clean air and water?   Let’s work together to reduce our dependence on coal because coal power plants are the largest source of mercury in the U.S. Care about national security?   Let’s work together to reduce dependence on foreign oil.  Care about the economy?  Let’s remain technologically competitive by investing in R&D on carbon-neutral energy because a lot of other countries are already doing that.  And last but not least, you like silly photos of sassy cats?  Me too.

P.S. – I just noticed that all of the “Possibly related posts” link to climate skeptic websites, which is making me wonder more about whether there are enough scientists chatting about their research with non-scientists on a regular basis.  The general public just seems to hear more from climate skeptics than climate scientists, but this post is already long enough so maybe I’ll have to save those thoughts for later.

This was originally on my old blog, and because it’s about Meredith and my other project, I thought it would be fun to share it here too (with slight edits).

Back in February, I presented a paper written by Meredith at a conference on (human) bodies. She and her labmates were all doing field work at their respectively field sites so she and other folks in her lab weren’t available to present her paper. Because she’s a reproductive ecologist and I’m a terrestrial ecologist, among our group of friends, our fields are the most similar so I ended up presenting on her behalf.

I thought the conference was going to be super interdisciplinary, but it ended up being a bunch of people from the humanities (e.g., literature, philosophy, media studies, etc.) and me, the only scientist. Of course, a lot of “interdisciplinary” conferences that I’ve been to end up being mostly people in the sciences so maybe it’s not that surprising that I was the only scientist at a conference organized by a comparative literature department and Asian American studies department. It ended up being extremely educational for me, and here are some of the things I learned.

#1: Egads!  They don’t use PowerPoint!
I’ve heard that traditionally, humanities conferences and symposia involve a speaker getting in front of a podium and literally reading his/her paper. (I’ve heard that this is because how you phrase/say something in the humanities matters just as much as what you’re saying.) Considering how many PowerPoint presentations I’ve gone to that have been really boring, I was a bit worried about my ability to stay awake during the early morning talks or talks right after lunch.

I was pleasantly surprised though. A lot of the grad student presenters used handouts, PowerPoint or other visuals probably because they were a lot younger and less encumbered by tradition, and a lot of presenters wrote really compelling and interesting papers. I admit I did end up nodding off during some of the less interesting talks, but I think that’s inevitable for me at any conference – even very interesting ones. (According to my partner, my superpower is my ability to fall asleep in almost any setting.)

#2: (Over)analyzing popular media can be a very analytical and meaningful academic exercise
One of my favorite panel discussions was called “The Tyranny of the Normal”. In this panel, the speakers analyzed The Family Stone, Brokeback Mountain, and America’s Next Top Model. Not exactly traditional subjects/topics of academic inquiry. What the speakers brought up was the idea that minorities or people who are different are often “normalized” in the media in an attempt to make them more likeable/sympathetic.

In The Family Stone, for example, there was a typical “liberal” family complete with a deaf, gay brother in an interracial relationship. He was portrayed as “just another member of the family” even though there is an important difference and what was left out is just as interesting. First, he could still respond to people even when he wasn’t looking at them when they were speaking/signing. (Oops. That was some bad directing there.) Second, while there were love scenes and casual hand holding between his straight siblings and their respective partners, there was almost no physical contact or any display of affection between the deaf brother and his boyfriend other than a single signed exchange (I couldn’t remember if it was “I love you” or “You’re beautiful”) that wasn’t subtitled.

In the case of Brokeback Mountain, the movie was advertised as a love story first and a story about homosexuality second. The speaker mentioned that “homosexuality was used more as a tragic plot device.” I’m not quite as cynical as the speaker, but I do think that the marketers of the movie did that intentionally — they were probably expecting greater box office success by promoting a “love story that happens to be about two gay guys” rather than a “gay love story”.

I do agree with the core argument, though: for both movies, in their attempt to make the outsider characters more likeable, they glossed over or omitted ways in which the characters are different. I also think that both movies included those characters with good intentions. They’re a good start to get people to see homosexuality and/or disability as just a part of the whole human experience, but it would be nice if there were more stories about outsiders who are openly and consistently different (e.g., not part-time deaf) and are still accepted.

In terms of America’s Next Top Model, though, the speaker made some observations that made me dislike that show even more than I already do. I think I’m just going to be blunt here: although the show purports to make the modeling community more ethnically and culturally diverse and more empowering to women, that’s all just B.S.

The speaker’s paper was centered around one particular contestant, Danielle, who is black and from Little Rock, Arkansas. Right from the beginning, Tyra Banks was already making fun of Danielle’s southern accent and the gap between Danielle’s front teeth. Even though Danielle had no problem with either of those things and considered her accent and her teeth to be just a part of who she was, she eventually gave in and toned down her accent and agreed to have some work done on her teeth. In the end, she won the contest and was rewarded for her ability and willingness to place others’ expectations of her above her own sense of self, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising because it’s a show about an industry that treats women and men as walking mannequins.

What is problematic for the speaker and me as well is this disingenuous attempt to paint an industry that: 1) enforces a very narrow (pun intended) definition of beauty/desirability/likability and 2) requires women (and an increasing number of men) to be flexible and accept modifications to their appearance in order to keep their jobs as “diverse” and “empowering”. I think the modeling industry has changed a lot over the years, but let’s call a spade a spade. Modeling still requires successful models to conform to a constricted definition of beauty and to obey others when making decisions about their appearance, and this show doesn’t do anything to change that. 

#3: Even very smart academics can have a hard time explaining the fundamental goals of science
One of the keynote speakers gave an excellent talk comparing the history of images of the human body. I really liked the part where he compared images in Western medicine vs. traditional Chinese medicine. He illustrated the way Western medicine tends to focus on the details with elaborate and extremely precise anatomical diagrams while traditional Chinese medicine has focused more on the function and morphology of the human body and the body as a whole with images of a man fishing or a little girl playing and you have to “hunt” for the medical condition of each patient. (The man had a subtle but irregular bump on his leg and the little girl had some other subtle sign that she needed medical attention.)

Then partway through his talk, he mentioned that science is a field that seeks “permanence”. During the Q & A, I asked if he could clarify what he meant by science studying “permanence” because from my understanding, scientists study things like stars, animals, landscapes and things that are changing all the time. He responded by saying when scientists are studying a plant, they’re not just studying that one plant, they’re trying to find something underlying that they can apply to other plants or other organisms or life in general.

I definitely agree with him that scientists try to generalize different phenomenon and look for patterns in one system that can be applied in different systems, but I think that’s very different from saying that scientists seek permanence. If there’s one important thing that I can think all good scientists know, it is that science is dynamic because our world is dynamic and our understanding of the world is constantly changing. Scientists are constantly improving upon previous hypotheses, constantly overturning past “truths”, and any undue attachment to a permanent theory is something that good scientists try to avoid.

Also, science is about disproving hypotheses. We can’t prove anything because there’s no way we can show with 100% certainty that what happens in one experiment and in one situation will always happen in all other experiments and other situations. I don’t think of scientists as bounty hunters looking for the elusive “permanent truth”. We’re more like people who are trying to clean a perpetually cluttered room; we throw out things that are garbage and try to leave behind stuff that will be useful.  We’re like housekeepers with fancy gadgets like thermocyclers and gas chromatographs and access to statistical software.

#4: Professors who contribute to the “chilly climate” don’t only exist in STEM fields in academia
Many of the women in STEM (science, technology, mathematics, engineering) talks that I’ve been to have cited the “chilly climate” (overt and subtle ways that men and women are viewed and treated differently) as a reason for why there are very few women in STEM fields in academia. During the Q&A portion of a talk on the increasing sexualization and objectification of men in fashion ads, two older, male professors asked very telling questions. They were puzzled by who actually pays attention to these ads and why on earth would advertisers think that feminizing men as being superficially fashion conscious and materialistic clothes shoppers be appealing?

I have to admit that the questions got me a little worked up because they seemed to be conflating femininity with clothes shopping, superficiality, materialism, and fashion consciousness. To give the professors the benefit of the doubt, I asked this in hopes of determining whether that part about “feminizing men” was just an unintentional gaffe: it’s interesting that we value some forms of consumption as being more worthwhile while others are dismissed as superficial and materialistic. What about buying a fishing rod or a fancy electronic gadget? Are those not also equally superficial and materialistic?

Unfortunately, one of the professors who posed the original question responded by saying that fishing rods and electronic gadgets are useful and practical, which suggests that the “feminizing” part wasn’t just an accident. Thankfully, another older male professor (not the two initial ones) commented rather jovially that we can’t deny that a fancy new fishing rod is also an excuse to brag to a friend so there are non-utilitarian reasons for why people purchase fishing rods, for example. Much later, I thought that it would have been nice too if I or someone else in the audience had also pointed out that considering the obvious fact that everyone in the audience was fully clothed, clothing can also be very practical and useful to all genders.

#5: Like academic scientists, academics in humanities can also be distracted by abstract/theoretical aspects and details of their research and overlook some of the more concrete and practical implications and/or the larger context
Disclaimer: This section might not be suitable for kids (if they can wade through it, haha).

One of the talks that I went to made me feel uncomfortable because it hit a sensitive spot. It was about maid cafes in Japan, specifically cat maid cafes. Most of the people in the audience and the speaker himself appeared to be fascinated by the phenomenon on an anthropological/sociological/cultural level. Because Japanese culture has a huge influence on all of Asia, it wasn’t the first time I had seen or heard of cat maids or hostess bars. After seeing the speaker’s PowerPoint slides with images of cat maids as they are portrayed in anime/manga though, it removed any doubt I had that there is an underlying sexual dominance/submission component to cat maids (where cat maids are consistently subs.) It troubled me when he said that most of the maids at the maid cafes greeted their (predominantly male) guests with a, “Welcome home, master.” What really troubled me was that the images were of predominantly naked women and many of them were bound and gagged, and there was no disclaimer or forewarning at the beginning of the presentation.

While I believe that the women who work as maids or cat maids do so by choice and not by force/coercion and there are strict rules against physical contact with the maids at the cafes, as a woman who grew up in Asia with very conservative relatives, I am troubled that the speaker showed those images but made no mention of the status of women in Asian culture in general. While things have gotten a lot better in Asia over the years, I just can’t help but see those images of cat maids and to an extent, the maid cafes, as an extension of the still pervasive treatment of Asian women as subservient objects. It perpetuates (maid cafes are extremely popular, and they’re starting to appear in other parts of Asia) and trivializes (“It’s fun!” “It’s just a form of entertainment.”) this image of a woman as a servant or something one has ownership over, like a pet. Even if women also go to maid cafes, they go there for aesthetic purposes, to admire the maid’s outfits like they would a painting or a vase. In other words, an object. Even if there are butler cafes appearing, they’re not as popular and mainstream.

Perhaps the speaker wanted to avoid the minefield of female subjugation, but I felt really uncomfortable that he could cavalierly show those images and make no mention of the broader cultural context in which those cat maids and cafes exist. (If a novelty racially segregated café appeared in the Southern part of the United States, I wonder if the American academics in the audience would still use the word “fascinating” as a way to describe them.) I’m hoping that one day, there will be more female CEOs and managers, female heads of households, and females in positions of power in Japan and all of Asia so that I won’t cringe at images of Asian women portrayed as fetishized servants or pet-servant hybrids.

#6: The pregnant body is fascinating from a scientific and philosophical point of view

To end on a positive note, I presented at a panel called “The Pregnant Body”, which I really enjoyed.  Meredith’s paper was a crash course in biological anthropology and reproductive ecology, with a focus on the female body. Because much of what we know about the human body is based on the male body, there is a lot of important, often medically relevant information that we’re missing. For example, heart disease presents itself in different ways in men compared to women, which has led to the under-diagnosis of heart disease in women.  Because human physiological responses are incredibly plastic – in other words, how the human body responds is greatly influenced by the environment – and most humans are living in very different conditions from when the human body evolved, it’s important to conduct these studies on populations that living in conditions similar to the way our ancestors did ~10,000 years ago to learn more about baseline responses.

Our ancestors had a tough life ~10,000 years ago though, as do many of the participants of the studies. Some of them are consuming barely enough calories to get by, which puts tremendous amounts of stress on a woman when she is pregnant. Other populations that are receiving sufficient calories are living on reservations where they’re struggling to restructure their once hunting-gathering society to fit with the wage labor economy. And they have to do this while dealing with a much higher birth rate than before due to access to calories.

So one ethics question that Meredith thinks is important to address is: what responsibilities do scientists who are studying female reproductive function have towards the people whose bodies they’re studying? These women provide scientists with baseline data to answer many important questions about the variability in female reproductive function, and in return, the women may get a small amount of money or perhaps vitamin supplements, but are there other ways to give back to a community that is struggling in many different ways without overstepping boundaries or compromising one’s scientific integrity? She doesn’t have the answers and neither do I, but it’s definitely something I hope that other scientists are thinking about.

The other panelist was a philosophy doctoral student who looked at Nietzsche’s view on the pregnant woman (who knew?). Maybe I’m being a bit unsophisticated, but Nietzsche’s theories on pregnant women sounds like some angst-ridden teen’s rantings. He had very black and white notions of what is strong and what is weak, and the weak are bad. And the strong helping the weak? That’s even worse. And pregnant women? They’re the ultimate embodiment of how awful it is when a strong human is helping out this weak, parasite-like fetus. (I’m paraphrasing here and obviously *not* an expert on Nietzsche.)

I’m not quite sure what Nietzsche had against pregnant women or fetuses since he wouldn’t be around in the first place if he weren’t first a fetus and if his mom weren’t pregnant. He wasn’t the first person to think of the parasite analogy though, which I think is pretty clever, and doesn’t have to be seen as a negative thing if you think of how amazingly cool parasites are. (Don’t believe me? Check out the life cycle of the parasitic flatworm.) Nietzsche also linked femininity to weakness, which bothers me, but I suppose that was typical of his time. (I think it’s also ironic that he was the one who was ill, and his mother and sister were the ones who took care of him.)

The philosophy doctoral student also mentioned this quotation from Adrienne Rich: “people in power are permitted to have a blindside to the full complexity of those not in power”. There’s so much in that statement that I still haven’t finished deconstructing. It reminds me of frustrating conversations I, or friends and family members, have had with people in positions of power who just don’t seem to get it.   It also reminds me to take stock of all that I have and to not take anything for granted. I’m luckier than most in many ways, and I’m glad I attended this conference. Woot!