I, Science

Around the nation tomorrow, there will be marches for science.  Why should that be so?  We might understand marches for women, or marches for a minority group, but why should scientists march?  We make only 5% of the population, it’s clearly a small proportion of the workforce.  I am sure I could build a compelling scholarly argument for the importance of science, but rather than go about it mechanically, I’ve decided to talk more about my relationship with science and why it’s so important to me.

Like many children I enjoyed books with different animals and learning about their characteristics.  I remember watching many an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  I had a book on whales that I love to read a lot, and one on dinosaurs.  I remember learning about the different planets.  I found the colors of the planets, the sun, so stunning.  Different atmospheric compositions led to vastly different looks.  I marveled at the thought of looking up at the red sky of Mars.  I used to capture a variety of insects in jars.  And while I would certainly not encourage such behavior from my child without proper care and the hopes of setting it free, I marveled at the structure and behavior of such creatures.  When I look back on these memories, I have hard time imagining every child not being like this.  Maybe it was a precursor to what I would eventually become, but there seems nothing so natural as wanting to observe the world around us and learn about it and wonder how it works.  How can one not marvel at the array of colors that nature provides?  How can we not wonder at the flight of some creature and the scurrying of others?  How can we not be fascinated by the massive size of the blue whale, to the little aphid that seems but a speck in your hand?  I am certainly not an expert in child behavior, but I have watched enough children to know what observers they are.  And while they may not understand all they see, they are constantly looking.  It seems to me the essence of science lies in the very heart of who we are as humans.

From at least my early elementary age, I remember being fascinated by thunderstorms.  Seeing the lightning streak across the sky was nature’s fireworks and I loved every minute of it.  Often peeking out the window at night, and occasionally sneak out at night so it under the ledge of our house to watch the thunderstorms.  My very first introduction to meteorology was in grade 6 when we learned about different cloud types and how different cloud types could often be predictors to the type of weather that was coming your way.  For some reason I found that fascinating, but I know there was also an aesthetic quality to clouds that I found beautiful.  Their variety of shapes and colors depending on the position of the sun.  To this day I still look up at them and they seem almost beautifully magical floating there.  My first real act as an atmospheric scientist at around adolescent to early teens.  I say this because my observations were recorded mentally over probably a couple of years.  Thunderstorms in the prairie of Alberta are seen a long way off and I noticed that when a line of bubbling cumulonimbus clouds was on the horizon the wind was always blowing towards the clouds, yet the clouds kept getting closer.  After enough observation I saw this as simply a fact, and knew when to tell my family to prepare for thunderstorms.  Often adults would question me, saying “you’re wrong kid, the wind is blowing the other way”.  Of course I wouldn’t learn why this was the case until university, but it gave me some pride to recognize patterns in such a way.

My mother was always good at supporting me asking questions, and even better at showing me how to find those answers.  In those days it was the library.  How easily today I could have looked up the answer as to why wind blows towards the thunderstorms before they come to you. Kids today really have it so much easier, but they also have to deal with a lot more misinformation than I had to deal with in a library.   She taught me a lot about research and to look for answers in multiple places to make sure there was some consensus.  Though she didn’t have an advanced degree, she was always one to have questions herself and research the answers before forming an opinion.  Although she never said so explicitly, I think it was important more to see that our own senses are not enough to really understand how things work, and having information from other sources can help us answer our questions and make better sense about what we see.

When I look back, the ingredients it took for me to become a scientist seem rather organic.  Parents who encouraged questions and were curious themselves, made science feel like it was no extra effort.  School was effort at times, and I didn’t understand everything easily, but it never stopped me from finding it all quite interesting.  My favorite subject in high school was actually biology.  I loved learning especially about organ systems.  The way the body works and maintains itself still amazes me to this day.  So while there may be some combination of genetics that works in my favor, I find it hard to understand how we aren’t all scientists.  Not by profession, but just by nature.  I think, that regardless of my job, science would be a part of my life.  It has already helped me immensely in understanding so much and answering so many questions, and knowing that there is always more to learn is rejuvenating because it means that maybe I will learn something and it will change my whole outlook.  It means that what I do today, because of what I have learned, might be something that I never saw myself doing before.  I used to think that it was sad that I could not learn everything there was to know.  Beyond the impossibility of that task, I think life would go stale quickly if there wasn’t newness.  Science may not bring certainty, but it does bring to the fore previously unknown possibilities and who can say that does not make life more fulfilling?

Some people think that science removes mystery from the world and thus makes it less exciting.  It was in the 8th grade that I decided to become a meteorologist.  I can tell you that a thunderstorm today excites me to less than it did when I was a child.  In fact now, when I look at a thunderstorms I see equations and physical laws floating around like code from the Matrix.  I see into the cloud and in my head see interactions between droplets and crystals that I never saw when I was a child.  I understand the magnitude of the forces that meet to produce this wonder of nature, and I feel the weight and power of it, in a way I never could have as a child.  It is like the difference between falling in love with someone, and the deep intimacy and friendship that you develop after you’ve known that someone for many years.  It is love with depth, it brings a lasting feeling of happiness and well being.

Somewhere a child has nowhere to turn for answers to the questions they have.  Somewhere a child is told not to ask questions, or is simply told what their parents say is the truth of things, and that questions are dangerous.  Somewhere parents have decided that their girl shouldn’t be educated, or that science is not for girls.  Somewhere a teacher doesn’t understand science themselves and thus kills the joy of curiosity and learning in their students.  Somewhere a group of politicians have decided that memorization-based exams are the important metrics to determine funding.  Somewhere a television show is making scientists seem irrelevant and worthy of ridicule for finding excitement in discovery. Somewhere a journalist is completely misrepresenting a scientist’s findings.  Somewhere a government is denying the findings of scientists to help rich people make more money.

These things make me sad.  I see no reasons why we can’t be a society that is constantly asking questions.  We have a tool for answering those questions that we know is reliable.  It is so pervasive now that we don’t even recognize all the ways it shapes our lives. If we supported that scientist in all of us, the one who first makes their appearance at the earliest of ages, the power and value of this tool would be immense.  It helps us ethically and morally.  It helps us fight oppression and inequality.  Science is the only thing that has no politics, no religion, no race or culture.  It truly is for everyone, and in everyone.

I see the March for Science as not just a political statement.  It is about showing the value for curiosity, for education, for discovery, and for wonder that we seem to be losing.  Our government has become one which seems to think it has nothing to learn.  One where opinion is as valid as fact.  One where there is no consequence for lying.  I don’t blame Trump for this alone, he may be the penultimate in this dangerous attitude, but it has been bleeding into our society for some time.  The March for Science is a march for progress.  A march that shows we care about our fellow human, and that we value science as a means to reduce suffering in the world.

I say all this, not because I am a scientist and I worry about my job.  I say this because it is my lived experience.  I say this because we all intrinsically know that change is the only truth in this universe, and that time makes a fool of the arrogant who think they have nothing more to learn.  I say this because history is full of the darkness that follows when we rest our futures on superstition and falsehoods.  Finally, I say this because I do think there is significant evidence that human-induced climate change is the scientific issue of our time, and threatens our very existence.  It challenges us like no other issue, because it cannot be solved by one nation.  It cannot be “felt” on a day to day basis.  It is the essence of science because it takes us beyond the narrow field of view that we each individually possess and asks to widen the lens and reach out into space and time, and think big.  If we cannot do that, the story of humanity becomes a tragedy.  I, for one, refuse to let it be, because I know we can do better.


That Which Survives

I was thrust into a conversation recently where I debated a Christian fundamentalist on morality.  Particular why would we care about well-being, that only an existing divine moral authority would give us that imperative.

It seems obvious to me that morality is born out of need to learn how to survive best.   And this of course would be different for different species.  An intelligent life that evolved from frogs might simply have large litters and leave them all to fend for themselves and have completely different morals that made sense for their particular mode of survival.  For us as social primates we have our own set of behaviors that make us most successful.  I was then asked over and over again, “Why survive?”  As if the answer could only be some supernatural force at worked.  And yet it seems to me that survival is just the nature of life.  I would go so far as to say if the nature of life was not to survive, there wouldn’t be life.  It’s sort of the very definition of life.  I would imagine that this is part of the definition of life we can most agree on.

Thus it also seems obvious to me that as a species of primates who have evolved to survive rather well through cooperation, we survive best when we are compassionate and kind to others.  Building bonds of trust and empathy are not only some of the most long lasting relationships, but also the most gratifying to our own well being.  But clearly it can’t be so obvious, because there is a lot of the opposite going around.

I started to think that maybe there are two extremes of the type of person you can be.  You can be one who thinks the least of us slow us down and prevent us from living in that wonderful future utopia, or you can one who thinks that it difficult to know who the least of us is.  And that everybody, to a certain extent, has something to teach.  Hopefully, that thing they have to teach isn’t what not to do.  But even those are lessons well learned.  Of course most of us are not those extremes.  But we’re all hoping to be more like one than the other.  I think the former can be measurable shown to be illusion, but if you think the latter is easy to achieve you’d be fooling yourself just as much.    I can personally say that there are moments when the illusion seems simpler, and you find the appeal of the black and white view, even if you know that could never be you.  The latter is the path of humility, a path that asks you to accept uncertainty as property of nature.  Not only must you tolerate it, you must actually welcome it and embrace it.  Such a path can be a painful journey, but the well-being you gain from prostrating yourself under the endless sky of uncertainty, baring your soul to the universe, is immense.  Because it really is the best way to see the stars.   It’s always just seemed apparent to me that humans were naturally kind creatures, because it always seemed to me the reason why we’ve survived until now.  I hope I’m not wrong.

A Ramble About Capitalism and Socialism and Whether it all Really Matters

Discussions about politics always lead to many arguments over capitalism and socialism.  I don’t really have principles with capitalism in theory.  I think a lot of good can come out of it.  Through that spirit of competition, things that companies compete at can lead to many improvements in technology, and the development of things that people want to help them solve problems and make their lives better.  It’s been difficult to really verbalize what I don’t like about capitalism other than a gut feeling that it misses the mark, so I wanted to explore the topic a bit, and also talk about socialism as well.  Both words sort of don’t do us justice as humans.

*Spoiler alert*

If you haven’t seen the movie Gattaca, which everyone should, then you might not want to read this, although the part of the story I am going to tell isn’t really central to the plot.  The main character Vincent had a younger brother, Anton, who was genetically superior in this sci-movie, Vincent had a heart defect.  They would compete with each other as children by swimming out to the ocean to see who could swim the farthest without getting worried and needing to swim back.  Anton would always win, until one day Vincent won and left home never looking back.  In the future, their paths cross again by circumstance.  Anton is a cop.  Vincent is someone who could be turned in by his brother in this future where genetics is everything.  So Anton and Vincent have a moment of truth, and Anton challenges Vincent once again to their swimming competition, never understanding how it was that he lost to his brother who had a defective heart.  Their initial competition was important for Vincent to realize his dreams and have the courage to follow them.  So as they compete once again and swim out to sea, a determined Vincent is going strong, and his brother Anton falters, is exhausted and starts to drown.  Vincent stops and rescues him, and swims him back to shore.

This is humanity, or what humanity should be.  We may compete as a means of helping ourselves improve, but in the end we are brothers and sisters and when another is suffering, we forget about the competition and we help each other.  This is not capitalism, at least it is generally practiced today.  In capitalism today, you compete to get ahead and whatever the damage in your wake, whatever suffering that might be happening outside the realm of your drive for growth is not your problem.  Can capitalism be separated from selfishness?  In theory the answer is yes, but this doesn’t often seem to be the case.  Does capitalism promote greed, promote the corruption of our better nature? Ultimately it seems to me to promote capitalism as a system to live by that is truly beneficial to all, that promotes liberty, and happiness is a mistake.  Capitalism at best much a sub-system under a larger framework that is focused on the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. Capitalism is a system designed by humans, it was never meant to be a system to design humans.   On the surface it seems to maximize freedom, but I would say that it’s very enslaving.  We are slaves to consumerism, slaves to the constant making of money, slaves to the clock, with no real thought to our happiness which supposedly we are so free to make happen.

amp-quot-capitalism-rewards-hard-work-amp-quot-yeah-right_o_2033411So is socialism better? First let me explain how I define socialism, the word has come to mean so many things:

“A political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”

I will start out by saying that any ideology can be corrupted by greed and if there is a governing body the chance is there.  Socialism is something that seems to be an antithesis to freedom, and in some ways this is correct.  But maybe the better question is, how free are we really meant to be?  We evolved in tribes of about several hundred.  We were mobile out of necessity, and not sedentary.  Resources were uncertain as the environment changed, and as we most likely made occasional mistakes with damaging an ecosystem which we depended on.  But it was like a small town.  Everybody knew each other and took care of each other.  Taking care of children was communal, the idea of ownership was non-existent.  You passed down skills, and I am sure there was competition to help improve skills, but in the end success for the tribe was about cooperation.  Some people had lesser skills, some people were likely injured from time to time, some might have been too old or too young to be very effective, but that was life.  Everybody did what they were able, and for those that weren’t able, you took care of them.  You didn’t work for yourself.  As the best hunter you didn’t say, I’m taking all the meat today, good luck suckers!  At our core, our brains are wired for this idea of the collective, and the empowerment of the collective is an important tenet of socialism.  We are after all a social species.

So why do we see so many flaws in socialism?  The difference between that tribe of several hundred, and cities, or states, or countries, or the entire globe is that we don’t all know each other.  While we may be built for empathy, the fact remains that empathy is much easier to have when you’ve known someone personally (the longer the better), and in a tribe everybody knows everybody and you depend on each other.

In many ways, I feel that capitalism vs socialism boils down to a similar debate between individualism and collectivism.  Two things I’ve blogged about before.  When I frame capitalism as a sub-system in a larger framework I guess I now see individualism sort of similarly.  I am sure individuality played an important role in the tribe.  Someone having creative ideas was surely encouraged, having a diversity of expertise (even if everybody had to have similar skills), would have also been beneficial.  But if someone came up with a better way to catch more fish, it certainly wasn’t profited from.  They wouldn’t have just kept storing fish for themselves and sold them to their hungry tribe members, they would have taught this method to others and shared their haul while others learned.

In the end I just don’t see capitalism as the ideology that saves us all.  It is always going to produce winners and losers, and winners can keep rigging the game to make sure they keep winning.  And even if they intentionally don’t rig the game the privileges they and their offspring gain, compared to those with less makes sure that the deck gets continually stacked in their favor.

But if socialism is a better mirror of our tribal life that our brains are wired for, how do we get around the disconnect between the people we know and those we don’t?  Of course we could look at science and say, hey genetically we are pretty much the same and despite the fact that we are brought up in different environments, fundamentally the same things keep us happy and prosperous.  We could remain curious and continue to learn about other cultures and other problems people face, and see how similar their struggles are to our own, or what we might have gone through in the past.  We could believe in that Greek concept of “agape” a love of mankind, or a higher love that transcends our day to day to lives.  Can these things ever replace truly knowing each other, and develop empathy in the same way?  But they seem like good things to embrace even if in a lot of ways, we have to take them on faith.  We take so many religious myths on faith, so why not something that increases empathy for our fellow human?

I mean the truth is that capitalism can work, but it doesn’t mean you can get away from sharing, helping each other, and working for the rest of your tribe which is quite large in the present day given how much our population has grown and how global the economy has become.  Civilization is such a large departure from how we are wired, but for as many wonders it has created, it has spawned deeply disparate class structures and large populations in which a wealth of resources floats beneath the noses of those who have the most power to help people, and temptation to take over give becomes too great for our fragile minds who evolved in a far more uncertain world than we live in now.  Our fears and uncertainties can also be exploited by others, trapping us into a never ending cycle of divisiveness eroding the empathy which made us the successful species we are.  We are better when we cooperate.  At the end of the day I don’t really care to argue about capitalism vs. socialism, but whatever system we decide as best has to do away with greed.  I hope that one day we can find a path back to that communal culture from whence we came.

Post-Election Soul Searching: No Quarter

Well I promised that I was going to talk more about my Trump concerns, but unfortunately there is a little more scolding left to do of liberals, which includes me.  I want to talk about complacency and to do that I am going to start with a short YouTube video.

I don’t like her tone very much, and there are a few points I would disagree with, but much of it is hard to hear, because she’s right.  At least in my opinion. Because I was somebody who when Barack Obama was elected I thought that a black man being elected president was a giant step forward and he was so full of hope I felt it.  I felt it so strongly, that I fell into complacency.

The words of JFK continue to ring true, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  There have been several studies that demonstrate optimism can lead to complacency and perhaps we are all victims of that.  A country this size has many problems and maybe too many people relied on government to fix them all.  The hope and change that Obama talked about was the responsibility of all us.  And as much I really do like Obama.  He had his flaws as we all do.  Hero worship gets us nowhere.  He still bowed down to the establishment more than he should have.  He still continued foreign policy mistakes of previous administrations, and while the economy recovered there was still growing income inequality and many of the American’s at the bottom saw no improvement in their situation.  This article shows that while there was overall growth in employment, the type of jobs and the quality of jobs matter. Hell we have to pay attention to the fact that even a Muslim…nay a Muslim woman voted for Trump.  I mean holy crap!  If you were to make a list of top 10 types of people to not vote for Trump that would have been near the top of the list.  Now while I believe this woman, given her overall viewpoint, seemed to focus on only a couple of issues compared to all the other ones it certainly tells us that the homogeneity that we apply to Trump supporters isn’t right and isn’t helping.

The other point the video makes is that Hillary is not perfect.  There are valid criticisms to be made.  An article I read today gave probably the most important reason she lost, which is that she didn’t offer anything new.

“But, the desire for change last Tuesday was bigger than any worries Clinton was able to raise about Trump. Four in 10 voters said the most important character trait in deciding their vote was a candidate who “can bring needed change” to Washington. Of that group, Trump won 83 percent to Clinton’s 14 percent — 83 to 14!!!!”
She was going to be the first female president, and I think that will be an amazing day when it happens.  But how would she have been any different than Obama?  Nobody had been able to convince me that she was progressive in any way.  And I’m not saying it’s a bad thing.  She’s worked very hard in her life and has accomplished a lot.  She’s smart.  But I found her to be reactive, not progressive, not a visionary.  There was no change that was the center of platform that was going to be the answer than many struggling Americans are looking for.  This is just my opinion, and I am sure there are those that would disagree.  As the article states, change is what people were looking for.  A change from the establishment, a definitive improvement on Obama’s policies, a voice that speaks to all Americans and not just the ones in swing states who already support her.  In that desperation for change….well…we got Trump.

You can feel the empathy.
You can feel the empathy  with many memes like this.

It’s unclear to me how much change this really represents, and change can certainly be negative.  I was also desperate for change, but I’ll choose slow decline over disaster any day.  But it is a terrible choice to have to make when you know that establishment politics isn’t working and the only choices you are given is the establishment and outsider who runs his campaign on lies, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia.  And what of those last 3 words.  I know many people are upset at being labeled that way in supporting Trump.  Here is the thing.  If all your concerns were legitimate economic ones, were related to health care costs, or just going for change and wanting to vote for an outsider, why did Trump bother with all the racist comments?  Why did he bother fear mongering about existential threats from immigrants and Muslims?  Why did he say that was going to take away women’s rights to determine what happens to their own bodies?  Why was any of that necessary if, as a Trump voter, none of you are these things?  Why weren’t you critique Trump about it while also praising his strengths? This is what we are all struggling with.  So here is what I want to say to the Trump voters.

Dear Trump Supporter,

I will believe you when you say you are not a racist, not a xenophobe, not a misogynist.  I understand you are feeling like your voice has been demeaned and/or ignored, and that your life hasn’t improved or gotten worse.  I understand maybe you just really wanted somebody you felt was going to cause change.  But here’s the thing.  Your candidate said many racist, xenophobic and misogynistic things.  The very words that came out of his mouth was the worst kind of populism that was intended to exploit your fears and spur your anger.  As a result, you demonized a hardworking woman who, regardless of your disagreements with her views or her ethics, she has served this country for many years, introduced a lot of legislation to try and help people and has been an active voice for equality for race, gender, and other minority groups.  I disagree with many of her policy decisions but I have no idea what it’s like being her, trying to be a woman achieving success in a man’s world of politics.  So now you have voted to put a man in power, who, if he does the things he says we will see the violation of numerous constitutional and human rights.  If he enacts the policies he says he will enact we will see the national debt skyrocket, damage relations with foreign countries, and do great damage to the environment.  And the RNC platform is supportive of many of the things Trump said he was going to do during the campaign. This was the cost of your vote.  For many people that are potential victims of the views Trump espoused during the campaign, they are having a hard time understanding how your vote was not in support of those hateful views, but solely rooted in economic change and health care issues.  You want our empathy and understanding, and you will have it, but not at the expense of injustices acted upon other people.  There are plenty of countries where governments work to make all people happy.  We should not be an Us vs. Them scenario.  It is not moral to say “now it’s time to pay attention to you, and screw everybody else.”  So let me know how I can help you, but if you are asking me to hurt somebody else to do so, I simply won’t do it.

And this empathy that you want, this desire to be seen as a human, and complex, and knowledgeable and aware.  It runs both ways.  While I have seen many of my liberal friends condemning the violence at anti-Trump protests, I have yet to see one Trump supporter that I know is on my Facebook News Feed speak out against any of the bullying and violence from Trump supporters.  The most common responses are “These are Hillary plants”, “What about the violence and anti-Trump rallies”, “Give Trump a chance”, or links to fake stories or pictures about anti-Trump protestors.  Remember we also sat through 8 years of “birther” conspiracy theories, denigrating names towards the president, constant lies about how Obama wanted to take your guns, blaming Obama for pretty much everything, and so when you now say we should respect the new president-elect, please understand how hard that hypocrisy is for us to swallow.  The person you have elected has run a campaign based on division, has espoused hate and vowed to infringe on the rights of many people that we care deeply about.  We will not trade their safety for your prosperity.  So you must also work to find a way where we can all get along or nothing will really get better for anybody. 

Finally, we don’t have to like a person who, in his very own words, has promoted ideas that bring harm to people.  We don’t have to show tolerance to the hate, the authoritarianism, and the lies he told.  The cabinet he is building currently leans towards the idea that he really doesn’t care about the working class and that you’ve all been taken in by a snake oil salesman.  I hope this isn’t the case.  I hope that you can show the same amount of understanding and empathy that you expect from us right now, because quite honestly, looking over the rhetoric from the past 8 years, hearing the hateful chants at the Trump rallies, and the bullying and intimidation that’s been going on post-election, it’s difficult to see why I should be doing all the work in this relationship.  So I’ll refrain from calling you those divisive names and labels, if you work to prove that you are unworthy of them.

With Love,
Libtard, socialist, communist, bleeding heart, elitist, femiNazi, clueless liberal

P.S. And if Trump does become the disaster to American ideals of freedom and equality that he espoused during his campaign, anybody who didn’t actively try to stop him from becoming president in this election is responsible regardless of whether you feel the labels hurled against you are fair.

And finally, because every once in awhile we just need some inspirational words here is the response of Buddhist teachers to Trump’s win.



I know that darkness won’t endure,
But sometimes it’s hard to see in the dark,
But I will not lose my reason,
My desire to understand the seasons,
Turning leaves reveal the truth,
Known to every pimpled youth,
There is no escaping that things change,
And so you can hold on
And squeeze the moment,
But it will eventually slip like sand,
And with time abrading your open fingers,
To make sure you learn lessons well,
To remind you, you’re avoiding the inevitable.

You can wallow in the quagmire of your beliefs,
You can even inspire with a clever tongue,
You can wipe clean all that science has found,
And it will come back and haunt you,
But humanity is no ghost,
It is curious and is happiest when it discovers,
Even though it risks its happiness,
Because somewhere in the maze of consciousness,
We know that without the risk there is no joy,
No success, no growth
We are not content to look through a pinhole,
While one eye looks at the dark, and the rest
Of our senses atrophy into putrid decay.

Each time that you hate and dehumanize,
You become less than you think you are,
Your victims more than you think they are.
And I will oppose you with heart, with teeth,
And you will fight on the battleground of reason,
Or risk endless cycles violence,
Ripping parents from children,
Casting yourself into an oblivion,
That you believe to be paradise,
All because you never knew,
How great a human you could become,
How so many pieces of existence,
Were waiting for you to know them.

And you will pay dearly for unwise choices,
And you will be forgiven,
Because the world has loss and pain,
But nobody really wants to destroy you but time,
And none of us have any say over that,
Make your meaning out of the indifferent universe,
And treat existence like a gift.
Because it is.

Double Binds

As always the NPR podcast The Hidden Brain had my mind churning today (Episode 48*).  This one was talking about the double bind women find themselves in when they strive for leadership positions.  I am sure any woman reading this doesn’t need much explaining.  The basic idea is that if you’re nice (as you are stereotypically supposed to be) you’re weak, and if you’re a competent strong leader you’re unlikable. The lack of representation of women in government and as CEO’s of fortune 500 companies is pretty good evidence of this.  And I know professional women experience shades of this regardless of whether or not they are vying for top leadership positions.  Just asserting yourself can have you seen as bossy, bitchy, abrasive.  Attributes that rarely get prescribed to men when they are assertive.  And there are other double binds beyond the scope of the podcast such as additional judgments that go along with their appearance that men often don’t have to face.  The expectation to maintain the home, and take a lead role in parenting in addition to their own personal ambitions.  For many women it seems like there are consequences no matter what they choose.

What my mind started to think about, in addition to the challenges women face, is why would we consider a “nice” woman a “weak” woman?  In terms of leadership attributes studies are showing the importance of empathy in a leader.  Another episode from the same podcast (Episode 43) reported that people who were empathetic inspired more people to follow them than those that were authoritarian.

research-women-frenemies-friends-390x285One thing that has always bothered me about the oppression of women and I feel doesn’t get talked about as much is the devaluing of those qualities that we typically associate with women.  Why is kind, nurturing, or emotional a bad thing?  In a fascinating story (also in podcast form, but written about here) a new method for improving safety on oil rigs was employed where employees (all male) were trained to become more openly emotional.  To be vulnerable.  The results were astounding with an 84% drop in the accident rate.  Many of the workers also forged more meaningful relationships with their spouses and children as a result of being more emotionally open.  Today we see how many of the stereotypes that men face, as a consequence of those feminine characteristics that we devalue, are equally harmful and dehumanizing to them as well.  The key difference between these gender stereotypes is that one is valued and one is not.   Maleness is the standard.  I wrote about this in one of my earliest blog posts concerning a biologist who talked about how the male of every species is the one usually depicted in textbooks and used as the star in major animated features.  Feminism is a fight for gender equality and important one.  But I worry sometimes that too often the fight is women trying to achieve that standard of maleness, as opposed to celebrating those feminine qualities and seeing them as having value, seeing those a strengths, and not weaknesses.  I’ve always gotten along with women better than men, because I have always been drawn to that dialogue that is open emotionally.  It has helped me grow, become wiser, become stronger, and in my opinion is a superior way to be human.

And that’s what it really boils down to:  defining what qualities make for a healthy human.  I don’t mean to be binary here in my discussion because there are so many qualities that are beneficial to us as human beings. Distributing those qualities among men and women and automatically assigning value to one because it belongs to a certain gender isn’t really what we should be after.  To put it another way, is gender equality about having more female Donald Trumps, or is it about having more female Bernie Sanders?  Maybe it’s both, but I’d certainly like a world with less Donald Trumps.

I don’t mean to criticize feminism here, because in the end I believe in the value of a woman’s right for self-determination.  If she wants to be a power-hungry authoritarian leader then so be it.  I simply have never found much to like in such an individual.  Man or woman.  My friend Victoria over at Victoria Neuronotes has told me that I am a man who is in touch with my feminine side.  I take that as a compliment, but I’d rather think that I have gained a better understanding of how to be human.  Women, at least the ones I have known, have always represented the best in humanity to me.  As a man I have often felt that I would be better off to try and reach their standard as opposed to what the patriarchy has decided as the standard.

Women have and still do bear so much in this world at the hands of men.  Maybe it’s because they’ve been given the freedom to be more human that has helped them survive through so much unspeakable dehumanization by men.  Those emotional, empathetic creatures who are great at listening and nurturing.  Maybe true gender equality is only reached when we recognize what qualities put humanity at their best and that these qualities are ones we all should strive for.  This is why feminism, to me, is not just a plight for women, but something that we all should see as important.

*Note:  The Hidden Brain Podcast on Women and Leadership challenged each listener to share it with one man and one woman.  I thought it was worth it for more to hear it.  I’d love to hear what you have to say about it.

It All Hangs in the Balance

One of the problems I revisit regularly in my mind is the one of individualism versus collectivism.  It has been brought back to my mind as I finally concluded reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. His final two books in the series look at the idea of having individual consciousness or a more global consciousness which is inspired by the Gaia hypothesis, in which humans participate in self-regulating consciousness cooperatively with each other and all other life to create a state of perfect balance.  Asimov too struggles with the loss of individuality in favor of the common good.  Asimov seemed to be in favor of the latter, although I believe he tried to argue that a global consciousness doesn’t mean there is no individuality only that at times we must put that aside for the greater good.

The United States is a highly individualistic nation and it’s no surprise why so many nations with throngs of people forced to conform into a faceless, impoverished mass would envy the American way of life and freedom.  It occurred to me that many of the debates I seem to have about politics and ways of life are often have, at the heart, the issue of the greater good (collectivism) vs. individual freedom.  I guess it seems that I also side with the collectivist philosophy, but I also recognize the value of individuality to make that collective dynamic and adaptive to a changing understanding of our universe.  Whether it’s capitalism versus socialism, gun rights, globalism vs nationalism, justice and law, these debates often rest on arguments on what benefits the greater good and how much freedom we should have as individuals.  There is a balance to be had, and most critically thinking people I know agree on this, even if we disagree where that balance should be.

Freedom in itself is a strange concept because it doesn’t seem possible in the absolute as a social species.  How free am I to make any of my decisions? I should be free to buy my own clothes, but what if those clothes are made in a sweatshop?  But what if, even that meager wage allows people to live instead of starve, or at least a few more are able to break from that impoverished life.  When I simply provide for my family I make a thousand decisions that can impact positively and negatively others in the world, and though it may seem like I am living a quiet life causing no harm this may not be necessarily true, even if that harm is indirect.  How much does my lack of struggle in life come at the expense of someone who must struggle more?  It’s easy to ignore that which is not in front of your face and that which does not feel like part of your community.

Our species is a social one, and there is no getting around it.  Regardless of whether we are shaped as a hunter-gatherer society or “civilization” everybody has a role and can play a part.  And even if age or some accident in life, or a random birth defect we even have the ability to carry that small fragment of population along with us, and even find a way to find a use for them, even if that use is only to increase our capacity to have compassion.  As a result whatever values we hold will shape who we are as a species.  Too strong of a value on individualism over the greater good could leave us with vast degrees of inequality, decreased value on cooperation, and dysfunction in the ecosystem.  Too much emphasis on the collective can lead to greater conformity, loss of diversity of thought and ideas, and thus stagnation from individual growth and growth as a society.  The question becomes how can we promote individuality while at the same time convince people to work together and be in harmony with their environment?

If we remove humans from the Earth we would find a very self-sustaining organism.  Barring some large collision with an asteroid, life would persist until the sun went nova.  However it would be a mistake to think that there was a global consciousness such as described by the Gaia hypothesis.  I think it’s always a bit of a myth that other organisms live in balance with nature, whereas humans do not.  If you studied population dynamics in school you perhaps learned about cycles of rabbit and wolf populations.  The wolf is not conscious of the fact that it must conserve how many rabbits it eats or that it should hold off on having babies this year because if all the wolves in an area increase in population there will suddenly be a rabbit population in starve.  It thrives according to the food it can gets, and if can no longer get food, it starves, and there are less wolves, allowing the rabbit population to rebound.  Rabbits that evolve better evasion skills pass on their genes, and wolves with better hunting skills pass on theirs. And the population of both rabbits and wolves oscillates about an equilibrium, an average value that both populations of rabbits and wolves do not know they are maintaining.  One of the values of our intelligence should be that we can discover these equilibriums and we are best adapted at maintaining it.  We always haven’t been conscious of our place in the ecosystem, but we are now, and understanding more all the time.  It’s not surprising we could be so destructive, but as we learn more we also have the ability to extremely great stewards.

Annotation of the PREDATORS-PREY Relationship

Of course Asimov’s Gaia world, just as proposed by Lovelock, is likely a pipe dream in reality, because in his idea there was a collective consciousness that made decisions only in proportion to maintaining balance.  Such a reality for humans would mean that we would have all make sensible decisions about how many children to have, what to eat, and how to live peaceably in our environment.  But what’s interesting to me is that we also see examples of this in our human histories.  Many groups that ended up on islands learned how to conserve rather well.  Spacing out how often and how many children we had, techniques at preserving and storing food, techniques for domesticating plants and animals were all attempts to have ample food supplies for harsh seasons and changes in the environment.  But like any form of life, when abundance is presence, there is no thought to be conservative in terms of population.  We became masters of farming and population exploded as we began to be able to seemingly provide ourselves with food at will.  As it turns out we were only fooling ourselves, because our powers were still not limitless, although it made sense how it might seem so in the short term.

What I do see when I look at humanity is a potential for a march towards that ideal of global consciousness.  We may never truly have a global consciousness with each other and all life on the planet, but what we do have is empathy.  We have the ability to be conscious of the damage we do to our environment and other life, and what the long term impacts of that damage will be.   We have the ability to recognize that we might all be different pieces in a puzzle, but that we have equal value to the whole.  Just like each piece has uniqueness and is still integral to the puzzle, we can maintain our individuality while also recognizing what we are all a part of.  In this sense there would be no difference to an actual global consciousness and all acting in a way as if there was one.  We have a long way to go, but I believe it all begins with humility and compassion, and acceptance of the idea that all humans are part of the same tribe, the same community, the same species, and that we all have value.