Hard Science Vs. Harder Science

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

I started university life as a physics major and ended it with a degree in psychology. Along the way, I was a tutor and a teaching assistant in physics and a research assistant in psychology. Graduating with honors in psychology also meant I had to run an independent research project. I chose to replicate an important study in a novel population and was lucky enough to be able to recruit one of the original authors as my adviser.

Photo of a stone, probably quartz, with a feathery vein of gold running over its surface.

“Dendritic crystalline gold” by James St. John, CC BY 2.0

While I ultimately decided I didn’t want to work in either field, the whole experience gave me a–perhaps unhealthy–interest in the fuss over “hard science versus soft science”. I’ve spent an absurd amount of time arguing over whether there’s a real difference between types of science that falls along those lines, including a delightful bit of argument with former science journalist Susan Jacoby, which was unfortunately brief, as it happened in the middle of a workshop I was running on a different topic.

Just this past summer, I sat on and moderated a panel discussion on the topic at CONvergence, with physics, geology, and psychology represented. I was hoping the video would be available by now, but the short version of the panel goes like this: None of us recognize any meaningful distinction in the practice of science between fields that are generally classed as “hard” sciences and those classed as “soft” sciences. None of these fields are more science-y or less than the others, and we’re all kind of tired of saying so.

Yet the idea that only some of these fields are “real” science, and particularly the idea that social sciences are somehow not scientific, persists. [Read more…]

The Reading List, 1/13/2016

I share a lot of links on Twitter and Facebook that I don’t blog about because I don’t have much to add. The reading list is a periodic feature where I share those links with my blog audience too. Of course, you’re still welcome to follow me on Twitter.

After Cologne: Reflections from a Refugee Neighborhood

By now, you probably know about the attacks in Cologne, Germany on New Year’s Eve. An unexpectedly large group of men surrounding and robbing people, groping the women and teenaged girls. At least one woman was raped, although reporting has been unclear on whether this was connected to the other incidents.

There are accounts saying the perpetrators were of North African or Arab descent. There are reports saying they were migrants or refugees. The implication is that they are Muslim. I don’t have the resources to sort out the truth of any these reports, to analyze the biases of the German press and officials and figure out how to weight these claims, particularly in such a politicized atmosphere.

Honestly, I don’t want to spend the time to gain the resources either. Not only is keeping track of the biases of English-language press and politicians exhausting, but knowing who was behind the attacks in Germany isn’t going to change my views on immigration in general or Muslim immigrant specifically. Let me tell you a little story about why. [Read more…]

The Reading List, 1/10/2016

I share a lot of links on Twitter and Facebook that I don’t blog about because I don’t have much to add. The reading list is a periodic feature where I share those links with my blog audience too. Of course, you’re still welcome to follow me on Twitter.

  • The Year of the Imaginary College Student“–“But the alarm about offense-seeking college students may say more about the critics of political correctness than it does about the actual state of affairs.”
  • The Mystery of the Missing Boardgame“–“This made me very sad. I assumed that I must have left it at the convention, even though games very rarely end up missing at that particular con.”
  • Michael Shermer: Murdering the facts about Homo naledi?“–“The schoolkids understood right away that the idea of murder and sacrifice don’t match the evidence that we have so far. Shermer preferred to speculate without evidence and publish an essay without fact-checking.”
  • No, Anti-Feminists Didn’t Cost Star Wars Any Money“–“As ridiculous as that may be—and it is perhaps the stupidest thing yet said about the film—their recent claims about just how much of an impact their, ahem, ‘balanced, critical reporting’ has had on the film’s financial success are even more ludicrous.”
  • Contempt Culture“–“We don’t reinforce our communities with respect or a sense of achievement, but with shame and contempt and awfulness. We exclude people. I’ve excluded people. Directly, me.”
  • No Vaccination, No Camp. Finally.“–“During the flu epidemic of 2008–09, I watched as dozens of kids came down with a new flu strain, one for which a shot had not yet been developed. It was a frightening lesson in what can happen in unvaccinated populations.”
  • California Bans Use Of Grand Juries In Police Shooting Cases“–“‘The use of the criminal grand jury process, and the refusal to indict as occurred in Ferguson and other communities of color, has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise our justice system.'”
  • 4 Common Lies You Should Stop Believing About Black Single Mothers Right Now“–“Tropes declaring Black women can’t properly raise children by themselves springboards from this legacy of deceit. And it’s from these fabrications that we see the responsibility for Black oppression, poverty, and criminalization placed at the feet of our women.”
  • Minneapolis NAACP calls for boycott of Mall of America over restraint of 14-year-old girl“–“As the teen attempted to make change for bus fare in the mall’s transit hub, four security guards restrained her face down on the floor as she screamed for them to get off her back.”
  • Timeline: Land Use and the ‘Patriots’“–“It also explores some of the antecedents to both the Bundy standoff and the Patriot movement, in particular such themes as the ‘county supremacy’ ideology embraced by Bundy and his many armed supporters in the militia groups.”
  • Why the Post Office Makes America Great“–“I bit my tongue and did not tell my already suspicious friends that the country was also dotted with libraries that provided books to all patrons free of charge. They wouldn’t believe me anyway since I hadn’t believed it myself.”
  • Read about the Worldcon supporting membership grant recipients, in their own words.“–“What I love best about this collection of paragraphs is that it really makes it clear that people who love SFF come from every walk of life. Liberals, Libertarians, moms, students, teachers… we all love this geeky stuff.”
  • The problem with science journalism: we’ve forgotten that reality matters most“–“Science journalists may write about science, but it’s also our job to look beyond wonders, hypotheses and data. It is to look at the people doing the science and whether they have conflicts of interest, or trace where their money is coming from. It is to look at power structures, to see who is included in the work and who is excluded or marginalized, whether because of gender or race or any other identity.”
  • Lumosity to Pay $2 Million to Settle FTC Deceptive Advertising Charges for its ‘Brain Training’ Program“–“‘Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease,’ said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.”
  • Cosby Charged in Case of Temple U Employee“–“The resolution also condemned Patrick O’Connor, Temple’s board chair, for representing Cosby 10 years ago when he was sued by a woman. Faculty leaders said it was a conflict of interest for O’Connor to represent Cosby when both were on the board together, potentially making it unlikely that the board would rethink its ties to Cosby.”
  • Today’s gun culture is NOT American tradition.“–“In 1934, [the] NRA testified in support of 1st federal gun law which cracked down on machine guns.”

Saturday Storytime: The Savannah Liars Tour

Some days you’re reading along, thinking, “This is a good story. That one is interesting. Hmm, I like that.” Then you hit one like this from Will McIntosh, and you say, “Oh.”

Jillian was waiting at the curb with the Mercedes running, the heat cranked uncomfortably high for my benefit. My old, familiar friend guilt joined me as I slid into the passenger seat.

“Good visit? How are your Mom and Dad?” The corner of Jillian’s eye crinkled as she smiled, but it was a tense smile.

“Great. Great. No sign of Mom’s cancer recurring, and you’d never know Dad had suffered a massive heart attack.” It was an old joke, and my delivery was wooden.

I turned on the radio, tuned it to NPR, where a journalist was relating a conversation she’d had with John F. Kennedy in the afterlife.

“You want to have lunch at Chur—”

“Did you see Delilah as well?” Jillian asked before I could finish. For the past few months, Jillian hadn’t asked that question. The question—the only truly irreconcilable thorn in our eight years of marriage.

“You know I always do.” I tried to sound matter-of-fact, but defensiveness leaked into my tone.

“What did you talk about?”

“Just . . . nothing much. Music, mostly.”

“You still haven’t told her about me?”

And there it was. “She’s dead, Jillian. It’s not like I’m seeing another woman. I’m visiting the soul of my late wife.” I dragged my hand down my face, feeling exhausted, knowing the route this conversation would take and dreading the ride.

“How much of the hour did you spend with her?”

I folded my arms across my chest, realized what a stereotypically defensive posture that was, and quickly unfolded them. “You know how hard it is to judge time in there. I visit the people I’ve lost. You knew who I’d lost when you met me, and you knew I visited them.”

Things had become so much more complicated since that innocent time when I’d promised Delilah I’d always visit her, no matter what. Everyone in Delilah’s life had broken promises—her sister, her mother, the men she’d loved before me. She deserved to have one person she could believe in, and twenty-two years ago I swore I’d be that person. When I made that promise, Delilah said she wasn’t asking me to never love again, only that I reserve a small corner of my heart for her.

The thing was, my love for Delilah never managed to stay in one small corner of my heart. It took up more like half, try as I might to contain it. Did loving her too much mean I should renege on my promise?

I shouldn’t have allowed myself to love someone else in the first place. When I met Jillian, I’d been alone for ten years. That had seemed like enough time to grieve, even if visiting Delilah tended to keep the wound open.

Jillian pulled into the driveway, turned off the ignition. “It’s dangerous, going under as often as you do. You’re not twenty-five anymore.”

“The Surgeon General says cryogenic sleep is safe up to fifty.” What Jillian was really saying was the visits were expensive. Outrageously expensive. We could afford it, though. I wasn’t driving us into bankruptcy or anything.

Jillian sighed. She took my hand. “I know you’re in an impossible position. I know that. But you have to see how hard this is for me, especially with us talking about having a child.”

I squeezed her hand. “I do. I’m sorry this is so complicated.”

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On Minnesota Nice

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

Minnesota Nice is a thing. It’s a real social phenomenon that happens here in Minnesota and in other places with similar climates. Exactly what it is, however, is up for debate.

On the one side, you have the people who celebrate Minnesota Nice. Look at all those lovely Minnesotans! You’ll never hear a bad word said about a soul. Minnesotans are polite and ready to smile at anyone. There’s no better place in the world to need the help of a stranger, whether it’s directions or a jump start for your car in sub-zero weather.

On the other side, there are the people who insist Minnesota Nice isn’t nice at all. It’s just a euphemism for passive-aggression. Minnesotans look friendly, but they’re as cold as their winters. They already have all the friends they want, thank you very much, and they have since high school. If you don’t, well, you’re on your own. Newbies beware.

Oh, the arguments that happen over which of these is the “real” Minnesota Nice. Are we Minnesotans underrated angels or overhyped demons?

We’re neither, of course, or both, depending on how much you like your hyperbole. But the simple truth of the matter is that Minnesota Nice is all of those things, and they’re not particularly separable from each other. How could they be? They all come from the same place. [Read more…]

What I’m There to Do

I’ve been escorting for the past few weeks at the local reproductive health clinic. That is to say, I’ve been making sure people who want and need abortions are able to get past the local holy rollers to get the health care they need.

Things got a little ugly on the sidewalk this past weekend. Not unusually ugly, I suspect, but ugly in a noteworthy way, in a way that could make some people very uncomfortable with clinic escorting.

It started with a protester almost being run over. That wasn’t the ugly part, but it was a clue something was up. The driver of the car was doing a particularly aggressive parking job. Ann (if I had to guess) smelled strong emotions and was on the car before it was parallel to the curb, much less stopped. She had to duck out of the way more than once. I was annoyed, mostly at the thought of having to supply emergency aid if she were injured.

It looked like a parent-child situation, though I don’t know. I didn’t ask. It’s not my business. By child, I mean a girl probably in her mid-teens. By parent, I mean a woman much closer to my age. She was angry and bossy. The girl was crying and reluctant to get out of the car.

She did get out, eventually, into the space the other escort had made. (There were only two of us that morning, to about 10 protesters.) By this time, Ann was yelling to the other protesters that the girl was being coerced, that she didn’t want to have an abortion but was being forced to. They converged on the pair. [Read more…]

Mock the Movie: Not How Any of This Works Edition

There’s something heartwarming about having people think of you every time they watch a truly terrible movie. Also something a little scary. Still, every once in a while, we find a movie this way we need to inflict on ourselves and others (mostly others).

Icetastrophe is one of these movies. Want to know what this movie is like? Picture a production crew asking themselves just how wrong they could get the science without adding any entertainment value by it, then saying, “But we need more explosions.”

This one is available on Netflix. [Read more…]

The Reading List, 1/4/2015

I share a lot of links on Twitter and Facebook that I don’t blog about because I don’t have much to add. The reading list is a periodic feature where I share those links with my blog audience too. Of course, you’re still welcome to follow me on Twitter.

  • Bookstore puts Trump, Carson in ‘Humor’ section“–“‘There are a lot of people, particularly on the other side, who really have a very different philosophy of America,’ Carson said during the interview.”
  • ‘Shut Up, I’m Talking’: Why I Refuse To Educate Bigoted People“–“Here’s my experience: when someone I’ve called ignorant demands I educate them, they don’t want me to be patient—they want me to have infinite patience, to listen to them affably, without anger, however they behave, and to treat anything they say as valuable.”
  • What No One Said about Rey (Star Wars Spoilers!)“–“In the originals, Leia was competent and capable and became a role model for generations of girls, but all three films were filled with hot princess comments.”
  • A Sensitive Subject: On Family and Sincere Insensitivity“–“And there it is, her gift to me on my birthday. The candles are blown out, and the wish is made. Her wish, not mine.”
  • New Chrome App Helps Women Stop Saying ‘Just’ and ‘Sorry’ in Emails“–“Still, part of me always cringes when people tell women that the way they speak or write is wrong. One reason why women have adopted these kinds of speech and writing patterns is because, historically, they’ve gotten pushback for appearing too decisive and demanding (read: just as decisive and demanding as men).”
  • Lost Soles“–“Most were shocked to hear that it had even happened, even though they—like my husband, who didn’t realize I’d disappeared to the bathroom because I’d been horribly hurt, because I didn’t tell anyone, because no one was looking for it—were standing right next to me when it happened.”
  • The Developer Formerly Known as FreeBSDGirl“–“I had talked to someone from the FreeBSD Foundation earlier on the phone about what was happening. During this same conversation, they actually said ‘maybe you should be nicer.'”
  • The Sudden But Well-Deserved Fall of Rahm Emanuel“–“For twenty years now, there have been those who say that this emperor never had any clothes on in the first place. Given the speed and intensity of his fall, perhaps it’s time to reconsider their case.”
  • A New Year’s Resolution For Science Advocates: Don’t Cry Wolfe“–“Wolfe draws in followers with cute, inspirational, and share-worthy graphics and posts, and then hits them with far less innocuous content.”
  • 3 Keys to Progress the Secular Community Needs in 2016“–“We live in a white-oriented, male-centered, heteronormative culture. Make it a habit to remove yourself from the typical whitewashed, insular narratives you’ve grown accustomed to and immerse yourself in the plight and outlook of others foreign to your background and worldview.”
  • The En-Gendering Of Genius“–“And that is why, in responding to this year’s Edge Question, I first began to write about the icecaps. But perhaps the insignificant measure we assign to the under-estimation of the creative potential of more than half our population is itself a manifestation of the problem.”

Saturday Storytime: Andromache and the Dragon

Oh, this story. This is a first fiction publication for Brittany Pladek.

“Why are you still here, human?” she asked, looking sideways at Andromache. “We have made our pact.”“I’m interested,” said Andromache.

“Hrm,” the dragon replied. Her long tongue flickered higher. With a crackle, her splintery jaws widened and her throat undulated with swallowing. The dragon finished her first mouthful, and the sour brown of her scale-leaves seemed to soften. A sated sigh rippled the branches cradling her belly.

Andromache stepped forward so she was in the dragon’s line of sight. “What do desires taste like?” she asked.

The dragon’s eye, a single gleaming berry, turned towards her. “You see,” she continued, “we — I — only feel wants. I can only know what I desire and desire it. I have no sense for its flavors, its complexities. But you will taste all of ours.” The eye did not turn. “I am curious about the difference.”

Dragons do not smile, but the thicket of that massive body flared its twigs for a moment. The dragon lowered her head to reveal a second berry of deep sea green.

“What do you want, human?”

“I — ”

With a dart like a sparrow, the dragon’s tongue flicked out and danced over the crown of Andromache’s head.

“Your need tastes like emptiness,” she rumbled, “like the crumbled soil in the hole where a tree has been uprooted, or the ache of a missing limb.” Her eyes glowed. “Do you know this need, human?”

Andromache stared back. The old loss rose through her limbs like blood, and her shoulders straightened as they always did, with almost the same vigor as she had felt when her husband had held them, a long time ago. “I know it,” she said quietly.

Raising her head, the dragon rustled her body in approval, each slim twig quaking with what Andromache guessed was laughter.

“You do!” she said. “How unusual. You are a step ahead of your fellows. They do not know what they want, and so they do not know when I have taken it.”

“That can’t be true.”

“It is.”

“I spoke with one yesterday,” Andromache continued, “and the child she will bear has made her happier than anything ever could.”

The dragon laughed again, rustling. “Not all desires are so simple,” she said. “Even if your friend’s child had been that day’s tribute.”

“Then what — ”

But the dragon’s tongue had flicked up again, and her jaw’s branches were unlacing. As she lifted her nose, the lattice of her chest bellied outwards, and her pliant throat undulated. She seemed to drink — not one sip this time, but long full draughts. A tender green blushed the dry leaves of her scales. Andromache watched in silence as the drab, parched fingers of the scrub brush plumped with a satiety they had never known. The bare branches of the dragon’s ribs clouded with leaves; her tail and muzzle flashed in flowers that curled immediately into berries. On the grey beach washed with grey waves she stood on the sand, a hymn of light and color, a singing forest, complete unto herself.

After the final draught, the dragon turned again to Andromache. Her head hung with eyes. “I am full,” she said in a voice of leaves and water. “Will you come again, human?”

For a long moment, Andromache stared at her many shining eyes. Then she said, “I will.”

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