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.

 

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Life, the Universe, and Everything

“And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

It is today my 42nd birthday and I decided this would be a good year to reflect.  Why 42, why not 40 like any other normal person with a penchant for round numbers?  According Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series a supercomputer was asked to come up with the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything and 42 was that answer.  So I am at the age which is the answer, but of course if you read the series you know that while the answer was determined a more powerful supercomputer had to be created to determine the question (which turned out to be the planet Earth).  So 42 seems like a great age to think about answers and questions.

This is also the year that I often joked would be when I started my own cult.  This was supposed to be easy as I was going to have a good portion of Twitter followers, find myself a good compound with fertile soil and enjoy the good life.  Extra wives would have been optional.  It’s weird how as I get older there seems to be more of a drive to keep life simple and surround yourself by like minded people.  Anyway, Twitter really doesn’t suit me, for as you can see, I don’t say many things in 140 words or less so my followers are few, and I think life is better that way, and also I’m not a very proficient gardener, so I’m probably better off living close to the farmer’s market.  So here I am, nobody famous and nobody to follow, and a mini essay of reflection is probably more suited to greater personalities, but hey, it’s the age of information and I have a blog, so why not write? 🙂

Life

I think what makes being a teenager so difficult is that this is the time in your life when you start to self-actualize a lot more and really think about the future.  It’s a terrible thing really, because you are also still young enough where you really don’t know shit.  I remember thinking a lot about the type of person I wanted to be.  My dad was (and still is) an alcoholic and as a teenager I knew that I didn’t want to be like my dad.  Kids respond to those who are consistently there for them, and my mom was that person.  Of course I’ve come to realize many positives about my dad as well, but as a kid I knew that whatever way my dad was, wasn’t working.  My mom was loving, supporting, nurturing, and always there.  At the time I never really looked at my mom and dad’s personalities as related gender, but more as what are the behaviors that lead to increased happiness and that bring increased happiness to others.  I am sure it did in many ways shape why I’ve always felt more free to be myself more in front of women than men, and why I look beyond arbitrary categorizations of people and simply try to stick to values that bring happiness.

I also remember thinking that I was not the person I wanted to be.  I felt like I was this amazing person who was trapped inside myself. Inside a shell that I needed to break out of.  I know now that there is a certain element of being a child of an alcoholic that makes us more fearful of self-expression because of how we internalize our parents’ addiction, but I think teenagers can simply be apprehensive about inserting themselves in the world no matter how much they want to.  I know I am a person who leans toward safety over risk, and that was one of the things I wanted to get better at as I got older which was to be bold.  It’s still the quality I struggle with the most, but I’m proud to say that the vision I had for myself at around the age of 16 isn’t far off the mark.  The compliment that I have received several times and means the most to me is when people tell me that they can tell immediately the type of person that I am because I am so open and.  It is the part I like about myself the most especially because I think life is too short to pretend with people.   I am proud that I have reached a point in life where I am comfortable in my own skin, and it is something that has always seemed like a necessary way to be, but I in no way want to imply that I have go there solely on my own.

Another thing I worried about when I was young was that I wasn’t original.  I felt like everything I was, was copied from somebody else.  I didn’t have any original ideas, I wasn’t creative.  As I was thinking about what to write in this post yesterday I was wondering if I should say that the meaning of life is “theft”.  We are born as absolutely blanks and while genetics may texture our canvas to a certain respect we are painted on by the many people we come to know in life, our culture and society also paints broad brushes over us too.  Of course theft isn’t really the right word.  People and society paint things upon us and we have little say in that.  And in most other cases it is people who in my life who have given, and I have taken, and I would like to believe that with time I have been better about showing my gratitude.  It would not be until a certain Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode that I felt better about my lack of originality.  Here Captain Picard comments on the emotionless android Data’s violin playing.

PICARD: The good doctor was kind enough to provide me with a recording of your concert. Your performance shows feeling.
DATA: As I have recently reminded others, sir, I have no feeling.
PICARD: It’s hard to believe. Your playing is quite beautiful.
DATA: Strictly speaking, sir, it is not my playing. It is a precise imitation of the techniques of Jascha Heifetz and Trenka Bronken.
PICARD: Is there nothing of Data in what I’m hearing? You see, you chose the violinists. Heifetz and Bronken have radically different styles, different techniques, yet you combined them successfully.
DATA: I suppose I have learned to be creative, sir, when necessary.
PICARD: Mister Data, I look forward to your next concert.

So yes, I now feel original, thanks to lines written by somebody else.  Star Trek has actually taught me quite a bit now that I think about it. 🙂 Life is also full of irony and paradoxes enough to make you scratch your head for a lifetime.  In the end though, isn’t this what we really are…a product of others, both biologically and environmentally with a unique level of proportions such that we are originals? What I really mean to say about all this is that I feel really grateful to all those who have given and for what I have taken.  I have taken the best of you to the very heart of me and a result carry you everywhere.  Some I’ve not seen or talked to in some time, some it may have only been a brief time in which we knew each other, or perhaps were not even very close friends, but I saw what was good in you, I smiled at it, and celebrated it and let it course through my arteries.  I am thankful for all the love, the friendship, the inspiration, the memories, the lessons taught, and yes even the criticism and in some cases hurt.  I am unique and original because of all of you and there is no other way I’d rather be.

The Universe

Growing older also means growing more aware as you continue to experience and learn in life.  As someone who is strongly committed to learning as awareness grows so does the burden of that knowledge.  It is only in the most recent years that I have truly understood the expression ignorance is bliss.  However, it is also important to remember that your own bliss is of little value to anybody else but yourself, and we are a social species.  As I’ve learned I continued to have more awe for this amazing universe we live in, uncovering the darkness that shrouds knowledge also means discovering the horrors, the malice, the pain, and the suffering.  It is all the worse when you are one of the lucky ones to have things far better than so many.  It makes you question the very right to feel happy.  And when it comes down to it, it makes me feel bad just complain about how heavy the thoughts are sometimes, because I am so fortunate to just have to think about it and not actually experience the hardships so many bear.  I am fortunate that I can put those thoughts to the side at times. However, I also know there is no denying it either.  And I know that just feeling sad and depressed all the time would be debilitating so there is nothing for it but to do something about it. I am not helpless under this weight although sometimes it can feel that way.  So I try, and I let myself feel happiness for all the beauty that exists as well.  There is much to fight against in this world, but I feel if we forget what we’re fighting for, it’s easy to get lost in the darkness.

The cosmic glow of the Carina Nebula as seen in a stunning 3D reconstruction in Hidden Universe, released in IMAX® theatres and giant-screen cinemas around the globe and produced by the Australian production company December Media in association with Film Victoria, Swinburne University of Technology, MacGillivray Freeman Films and ESO. The Carina Nebula contains two of the most massive and luminous stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. The original image was taken by ESO's Very Large Telescope.

I believe that it is this mixture of awe-inspiring beauty and soul-draining horror that drives us.  I think we can’t help but feel small in the face of it.  Some try to conquer it by building belief systems that explain it all, some try to chip away at the answer slowly through careful investigation, and some just turn to vices to distract themselves and to numb themselves.  However, from what I’ve seen, the true winners in this world are always the ones who accept how small they are in the face of it all.  It’s bigger than any one individual and it’s the one thing we all have in common.  It is enough to make you just sit there and think “Why can’t we just all get along? It really does seem so simple to just be nice to each other.  Nobody has to get nailed to anything.

As I look forward the things on the horizon are amazing.  Just as there are things in my young life I never thought possible but exist now, I know there are many unknown wonders that await me for the rest of my life.  I like being this age and knowing all the things that I know.  Wisdom comes to you without even knowing it, and I like it. I admit that I am not a big fan of leaving this existence.  I see us getting closer to things like unlocking the mysteries of aging, replacing organs, interfacing the computer to the brain and I wonder if in the not too distant future we might have a choice to live far longer than we do to do.  I am jealous quite frankly.  As someone who embraces change and has seen how changes occur over time spans far greater than our human lives I would like to experience it.  I want to choose when I want to leave this existence and have a shot at deepening that well of wisdom beyond this short time on Earth.  When I think of all the change that has occurred over 1000 years, 10,000 years and so on…I wonder what it would be like to see it…what perspective that would give you…how you would look at the universe differently.  I suppose such a chance will not happen, but I keep the dream alive only because it is at times helpful to remember that we are not only small in terms of the vastness of space, but also the vastness of time.  I can’t be expected to figure it all out, and that’s okay.

And Everything

Mommy_DhyanThere isn’t much more to say here.  Of course there is more to life I suppose, but it’s amazing how important some people become so that even the other things seem to tendril out from it.   I know that there are no guarantees in life, but that’s why living in the moment is so important. I am lucky that I have a life where I can take care of them just as much as they take care of me. The fact that our love can put some things at the center of our life, at the center of our universe, is amazing  What more could I want?  I do have everything.

School didn’t teach me to do my taxes: Sad emoticons

An old high school friend of mine posted this video the other day.  It’s a good laugh, but overall I disagree with it.  It’s like many memes you have seen posted on Facebook about the ineffectiveness of school at teaching everyday life skills that people need.  My friend asks for people’s thoughts and as educator I wanted to echo mine, which is basically that just because school doesn’t teach you how to do your taxes, or how to garden, or even knowledge that is directly applicable to your current life or future life, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable.  Rather than go into a lengthy discussion about how school subjects are applicable I will simply say this.  First, are schools meant to teach you everyday practical skills?  Should there not be a place that teaches you thinks you would likely not learn about anywhere else?  Second, in addition to learning, you are also learning how to learn.  A whole lot of different stuff too.  And in life you have to learn a whole lot of different stuff all the time.  And thirdly, another thought I like was given by a speaker talking to the students in our program when he asked a student “Is there anything that you ever learned that you didn’t use right away, but later on you found came in quite handy?”.  Invariably the student said yes, and I think anybody can answer yes to that question.  It’s quite possible that no knowledge is actually useless.

I think though that it is a valid question to ask.  What about all this other stuff that one has to know that has nothing to do with the things you learn at school  How do we acquire these skills?  I was pondering the question today because those memes that say school doesn’t teach you anything useful sort of annoy me and could never really figure out why, but perhaps have hit on a couple of things.  First, we should perhaps get out of this mindset that school is the only place where you can learn stuff?  Most people who I know learned to be handy, learned to garden, learned sewing, etc, didn’t get it from school but got it from home.  More than that if you aren’t finding school fun, then why aren’t you spending your time out of school exploring the things that interest you.  You have the time.  And while play is important, exploring something that you want to explore might actually feel like play.  And if your parents don’t know how to do a lot of stuff, is it the schools job to fill in all the gaps in knowledge your parents don’t have?  That seems like an unfair burden to place on a school system that is already playing parent in a lot of other ways for working families.  But I am sure if someone is resourceful they could find someone who gardens, or someone who can show somebody how to do their taxes.  Before I left home I volunteered to do the family laundry for a few months because I knew once I was living on my own I’d have to do it so I should probably learn.  Again, school isn’t the only time and place for learning.

The other thing I thought about was that even though I love the “jack-of-all-trades” kind of person, the reality is that civilization trends away from such people.  The birth of civilization from farming gave people who didn’t have to grow the food free time to pursue other activities and people specialized.  Even in hunter-gatherer tribes there had to be some people who were faster, had better eyesight, were wiser, etc.  People had specialties and civilization has allow that to simply grow over the years.  We hate ironing, and a friend of ours loves to iron, and said he’d iron for us if we cooked him several days of Indian food, and we love to cook and our good at it.  So specializing doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it just means that you have to be fairly competent at something.  And that way through what you’re good at, you can then pay someone to do your taxes or just buy vegetables at your farmers market.

In my experience those that are good at school, can pick up other things they need to learn relatively quickly.  The key is to just to learn to love learning and never stop. 🙂

What Makes A Good Human?: Faith

Well, if you know me, you might be surprised at this quality.  And to be honest this is one that I wasn’t sure I was going to include but could not really make it fit as part of any of the other ones and so have put it here. This one is 6th in the series and so if you were keeping count there will still be two more to come for a total of 8 (as opposed to the 7 I thought I was going to blog about in my intro to this series).  Hey I did say that this list was not set in stone, and my final quality justifies this change quite well so stay tuned. 🙂

So let me be clear here that when I say faith, I do not mean religious faith, nor do I mean blind faith.  The first definition of faith is “complete trust or confidence in someone or something”, and this is the faith I am talking about. Perhaps I place too much importance on stress and too much importance on living in the present moment, but one of my reason for including faith is borne out of the fact that we are exceptionally good future thinkers. It might be somewhat natural to think about the past, and of course we live in the present, but what value is thinking about the future, when the future is uncertain. Of course we can see the value in thinking about the future from simple mechanical movements like anticipating the trajectory of a ball as we reach out to catch it, to having grand visions of the future that we work to make a reality. Our imaginations and our ability to envision a path to turn what is in our minds into a reality is a great strength, and it’s safe to say our ability to think about the future is greater than any other creature. There is a double edge to this sword and that is worry. We worry about that uncertain future at times, and we worry that what we want to happen will not come to pass. Much of the grief we often feel when we lose somebody important (whether from death or breaking up our relationships) comes from a loss of a future that will now no longer exist with that person. Our ability to imagine the future is so strong that it can feel as real as any present moment. In a previous post in this series I talked about the value of play for helping us be in the moment, so too does faith. Whereas play helps us become lost in the moment, faith can help us focus on the present by making us feel like “everything will be alright”. Faith can give us hope and keep us steady.

One of the reasons that the future is so uncertain is that we can’t account for all the variables in any particular problem. And even if we could, there would be several that are simply not in our control. Wanting to fix things that are beyond our control is one big source of worry and stress whether it is a personal situation or the larger sadness we might feel over big problems like world hunger, gender inequality, or racism as individuals most of us can only do so much. The weight and burden of the future can drag us down and we need something to ease the mind and focus on the present. It is not surprising that faith is always used in the context of something that we feel is good. Whether it is a supernatural being who we believe is watching out for us, loves us, and protects us, to more tangible things like faith that a good friend will come through for us, a general optimism about the improvement of society, and perhaps most importantly a faith in ourselves that we can overcome challenges in our way. In reality none of these things are sure things despite what past experience might tell you. You may actually fail at what you are attempting, even if you’ve handled similar or even the same situations before. Society may get worse. Your friend may not come through despite how often they might have come through for you before.  The world is dynamic and constantly changing. Your friend is changing, you are changing, and society is changing and so there will always be some unknown variables. We can also be wrong that we understood a past experience properly to ensure similar results in the future. Humans are prone to Type I errors (seeing patterns or connections where none exist) and quite often we don’t understand our experiences fully. However, without some faith we’d always be questioning and doubting and while there may be a time for questions and doubt, to dwell on such things constantly can also be equally wasteful. Doubting your friend all the time may actually strain your relationship. Doubting yourself all the time may make you actually more prone to making mistakes. Being pessimistic about the world may actually make you less happy and less able to make a positive impact, which is the only way the world is going to get better, if we do something about it.

Richard Dawkins and others are often quoted as saying that faith and science are not compatible because science makes conclusions based on evidence, where as faith makes conclusions despite evidence. I tend to disagree with this notion, because I feel that to develop faith it cannot be built on nothing. In my experience what people disagree on is what people consider evidence. I wrote about this previously here and here. A large of the aim of religious institutions in keeping members of their faith is to discredit contrary evidence. If the evidence against what you have faith in seems faulty you are less likely to let it change your mind. But we’ve all had changes of faith as evidence is presented to us. What happens if that friend lets us down a few times? Chances are, our faith in them will be lessened. What happens if we start getting inundated with all the evil that happens in the world? We start to lose our faith and optimism in humanity. What can happen when let ourself down? We start to lose faith in ourself, which is often a scary place emotionally to be at. I think faith is born honestly in most cases, and I think if left unhindered we would adjust the things we have faith in over time as we continue to question, experience and learn. The important part is that faith should be changeable and it should be personal. When we indoctrinate children about what they should have faith in this is from a developmental context abusive, because the stronger our faith becomes in something, the less likely we are able to adjust it over time because of how beliefs work in our brain. The inability to change what we have faith in as we experience and learn new things leads to an unhealthy conflict: the struggle to remain static in a dynamic world. I think some people might wonder, what is the point of having faith if it may change some time in the future? Because the world may seem chaotic, painful and beyond comprehension at times, it makes some sense to have faith in an order, an intention, or a purpose that is forever and unchangeable. However, it’s only a convenient illusion that will become harder and harder to maintain with time without willfully ignoring contrary evidence.

There are no guarantees in life and it’s okay to be wrong about what you put your faith in. Everybody has been wrong about things before. Being wrong is one of the greatest shared human experiences. I do understand, however, that it can be distressing to admit when we are wrong about things, even more so when we invest a lot of time into having faith about someone or something. Faith as a result is perhaps the trickiest of all the qualities I’ve discussed so far because it can cause us to double down even when the odds are against us. In my opinion the thing to keep in mind is to let your faith work for you, and to not let your faith gain mastery over you. And don’t expect others to share your faith. That’s simply not realistic. But if I were to pick some basic things to have faith in, it would be this:

  1. Change is inevitable
  2. You have it in you to deal with that change
  3. Everything will be alright because changing what you have faith in is not a loss, it’s a gain – for you must have learned something new in order to get to where you are now.

What Makes A Good Human?: Curiosity

If you’ve been reading so far, you might not be convinced with vigilance or play as being important and that love does not conquer all.  As I said, my goal here is not to make any one quality more important than the other, and I hope with this topic I will convince you that life isn’t all about love.

As natural as our capacity to love, is our inherent curiosity about the world.  If you’ve had children, and hopefully paid attention to them, one of the first things you will notice about them is how curious they are.  From simply being curious about who you are when they start seeing 6 inches beyond their face, to be curious about what this thing called a hand is, to starting to interact and test objects out as they begin to grasp them.  They want to explore, they experiment with sounds, they like to watch things fall, taste different things, and they learn by watching you and then imitating.  Curiosity is learning.  The reason why I call this curiosity over learning is that when you say learning people tend to think of book learning or school learning, but learning is far more than that.  And sadly in my experience our education system today tends to squash a child’s natural curiosity in favor of more directed learning for the purposes of getting funding for the school and for you to supposedly get a good paying job.  I remember one time I gave a talk on tornado safety to a group of 2nd graders, I did not even get to start my presentation before a bunch of little hands went up to ask questions.  A lot of them were nonsensical but I loved it all, because it was clear that they were curious and questions seemed to just burst out of them.  In retrospect I was simply not prepared for that level of curiosity.  At the university level I can go through an entire lecture without 1 in a 100 students raising their hand to ask a question about how things work.  Curiosity is an important natural trait that  forces us to ask questions to ourselves and others.  As a society we need to make sure we foster this trait and not suppress it.

As a professor I have been in school for almost my entire life either as a student or a teacher; 37/41 years to be exact.  Obviously I love it, because I love to learn, but I’m not so institutionalized to believe that this is where I’ve done the entirety of my learning.  Now I know there are all sorts of great texts and books written about learning and how we learn, but I don’t want to expound too much on things you can read elsewhere, but I’d rather focus on why learning is important and the different ways we can feed our curiosity.

One important type of learning is purely experiential.  This is the type of learning that leads to wisdom.  Regardless of how much knowledge you accumulate in your head until you actually apply it, you can only understand it really in a theoretical way.  By actively experiencing something through our senses  And of course we can continue this sort of learning throughout our lives through doing.  Whether through learning different hands on skills, trying new foods and cooking new recipes, learning to play an instrument and listening to new music, and traveling.

Now I’d like to spend a little bit more time on traveling.  Certainly traveling to things like museums or traveling to any sort of wonder of nature can be a learning experience.  It can be very fulfilling in the additional for the additional sensory input you gain,  but in some ways is very similar to book learning.  I speak very personally here, but I believe traveling to places different from your everyday world is a very important learning experience. Traveling to a different country is the best way to understand what different societies, cultures and people are like.  There is learning about people of different faiths, different values, and different perspectives.  Curiosity drives us to explore the world, and the world has more to teach you than you think.

In my blog post about love in this series, I talked about how empathy needs to be fed.  Empathy can be broken up into two categories (as illustrated by this great video) into affective empathy and cognitive empathy.  Affective empathy is the compassion we feel when we observe the suffering from another.  Cognitive empathy however is the empathy we gain through learning about others, putting ourselves in their situation, and trying to see something from their perspective.  Something the world could surely use more of.  It is this type of empathy that we can develop through being curious about others regardless of whether they are close to home or far away.  The important thing is to try and know a diverse group of people.   If we can understand someone else’s troubles, pains, and/or suffering, even without going through it ourselves, we are more likely to want to help raise those people up than to allow a situation to continue that harms them.  Many times we are responsible for that harm without even realizing it.  I find it interesting how many politicians change their stance on homosexuality upon finding out that their son or daughter has come out as gay.  The more we intimately know someone the less likely we are to do any action that causes them harm.  How our actions cause harm is the basis of morality.  Thus, actively learning about others makes for a more moral society.

Curiosity also allows us to build our intellect.  For most of us we have done this formally for many years.  Intellectual pursuits, with the exception of those with a clear goal of what they want to achieve in life, often don’t seem to have much value in our day to day lives.  The oft heard complaint, “when am I ever going to use this” speaks to this disconnect between what we learn and what use every day.  Given the wide variety of interests amongst individuals it is unlikely that any one person will feel that everything they are learning has value.  The learning of knowledge, however, is always teaching you one important lesson.  And that’s how to learn.  The more you learn, the more easily you will be able to learn new things.  Humanity has been around for a long time.  It would be nearly impossible to determine a set of knowledge that was important for everybody.  It may also be true that the purpose of school is also to introduce you to things that you don’t know anything about, but might be important to you, that might inspire you and turn into a passion.  The large accumulation of knowledge through human history also means that most of the first things you will learn our foundational and must be built upon to realize their application and use.  Thus diligence plays an important role in learning.

In terms of what knowledge you should learn, in general a breadth of knowledge is best.  Regardless of what your passion might be, it is clear for a democracy to truly be successful it requires people to be knowledgeable about a wide range of issues. But even beyond its value in politics, life is never really about one thing.  One of the ways that you connect with people you meet is by having the knowledge to understand the basics of their interests which would allow you to ask better questions.  When we let our curious nature, then people notice the genuine interest you have for the knowledge base that they have which makes people feel closer and may cause them to become curious about you.  Many academic fields are focusing on interdisciplinary research, because as knowledge has advanced we see how many other areas of study the problems we face include.  For instance take a look at something like climate change.  The scientific basis itself requires knowledge of physics, meteorology, geology, oceanography, geography, biology, and statistics.  Then if we want to act on the issue of climate change we need to understand things like economics, communications, commerce, law, education, emergency management, etc.  Of course one can’t know everything about everything, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try. 🙂

Is there a dark side to curiosity? I honestly don’t see much of a downside to always being curious.  The only thing that comes to mind is the expanded ego that might come from knowing a lot of things in comparison with others.  The battle against such conceit is dealt with in the next post in this series.

The most important thing to remember is that time spent learning is never wasted and you should never stop.  There are a variety ways we can learn, there is a multitude of people and knowledge to learn from, and it is the best way to continue to grow in an ever changing world.  Being curious is a perfectly natural drive from the day we are born and it requires only an effort of maintenance than an effort in development.  Adults I meet who have that same thirst for knowledge as those 7 year olds in the 2nd grade are always some of the most thoughtful, and enjoyable people to be around.  The best part of traveling on that road of knowledge is that single roads branch in many directions and you never know where you might end up.

What Makes A Good Human?: An Introduction

If you read the title you are probably wondering, who am I to write prologues, or preludes, or introductions?  What’s all this about?  Your blogs are only marginally interesting to begin with, why should I read anything doesn’t really tell me anything?  All fair questions, and the best answer I can come up with is that, good things come to those who wait.  Of course it’s also true that sometimes good things come to people in an instant, but this is not one of those occasions.

A fellow blogger I met when I first started my blog asked me what I was my goal in having a blog, because clearly it’s not all for yourself or you wouldn’t be putting your writing on the internet.  I knew the answer at the time, but was modest about saying it aloud, and I guess I still am, but ultimately I do want to inspire people.  Inspiration is an interesting topic in itself, something worth having a blog post about someday, but the truth is I don’t know that anybody could say how to inspire others.  It’s something you can’t really predict.  Sure there are ways you can communicate more effectively, more enthusiastically.  Inspiring someone through written word I think is more difficult than face to face, and I am not sure that my writing is that good yet.  But I believe inspiration comes also through expressing ideas and asking questions and that is the route I have taken.  Given the number of followers I have that read my blog I can tell that my writing is limited in how it has impacted others, and that’s okay.  Ultimately some of the blogs I enjoy following the most are ones that have a nice sense of community, and it would be nice to get to that point and just have a handful of people that regularly comment and read my blogs who have interesting things to say and interesting and well thought out points of view.  I think I’m moving closer to that as I have met some wonderfully intelligent and thoughtful bloggers over the past couple of years.  But that doesn’t mean that the blog  isn’t also for me.  It is also where I can explore, where I can get my thoughts out and help me sort out things in my own mind.  So while I hope the things I write mean something to others, I am also happy in the way that it helps me grow and learn.

My next series of blogs, which this is an introduction for, are what I consider to be the essential qualities of a good human.  These qualities that I am going to write about represent a culmination of years of thought on the matter.  So while it might seem overly bold, and though there may be disagreements, these are not qualities I have arrived at quickly or arbitrarily.  I make no claims that such a list may not change as I continue to learn and grow, and I have also, through careful thought, tried to condense it to as small a list as possible.  Not because that is necessarily important, but because over the course of my life I have come to see connections between certain qualities and realized that perhaps such qualities might exist under a much larger umbrella.  These qualities have been alluded to in my writing before and blogging thus far has helped crystallize ideas in my mind.   I also don’t make the claim either that these are overly original either, but I hope to make people think about these qualities in a slightly different way, specifically to try to broaden one’s views of this quality as very often people have a very narrow definition.

I like to have pictures in my blog posts, but really couldn’t think of any. I’m Canadian though and there will be 7 qualities. Boom.

One of my first posts when I started my blog discussed the dangers of categorization.  We are species who constantly makes poor correlations as a result of our tendency to make Type I errors, which is to find patterns and connections where none exist.  As I have also written before I grew up in two cultures being biracial and this helped me see from an early age that the innate goodness of a human being had little to do with religion or culture and yet these are characteristics that we seem to tie to goodness or badness most often.  And of course as I grew older I have seen even more judgments of character based on gender, class, job, education, etc.  It might be natural that we make these poor assumptions simply because we are bound to make determinations about a person’s quality based on the people we know throughout our lifetimes.  I have often observed that most prejudice of any kind comes from a lack of exposure to diversity, not because of it.   If I were to say something positive about myself, it’s that I do always try to look for the goodness in all people. As a result I have never shied away from getting to know somebody from a different walk of life because it seems the more people I get to know, the more I am convinced that they way we separate ourselves from others is false and ultimately harmful.  In that vein I have thought a lot about what are the qualities that good people have in all those different walks of life I have encountered.  This, in addition to what I’ve learned through my education has led to me to conclude that there are 7 things that we must all have.  The fact that 7 became the number has me already a little worried that I’m not right, because the number 7 is full of romance, but try as I might I couldn’t think of any more or any less, so I’m just going to go with it.

Finally I just want to emphasize that all these qualities I will blog about over the coming months are equally important.  So much so that missing even one of these qualities can be problematic.  While the degree to which each of us has these qualities may depend on the individual I believe that all are qualities we must demonstrate and develop every day.  There were times that I thought there was a ranking to these qualities, but now I am not so sure.   Anyway, enough of this introductory business.  I shall end this by thanking you for reading this and my blog and hope to hear your thoughts in the coming months as I complete this series of posts.

The Moral of the Story

I was ‘talking’ with a fellow blogger who is a nurse, and as I am a meteorologist we were trying to figure out who had it worse.  Was it more annoying to deal with the “climate change deniers” or the “anti-vaxxers”.   I agreed his was more annoying, because while human induced climate changed is well-evidenced it is always going to receive a lot of political blowback in a fossil fuel dependent world and it is both a complex and new problem facing us.  Vaccinations on the other hand have worked so well and have eradicated disease so completely that people don’t remember why they even get them and instead have invented dangers to receiving them because they can no longer see the purpose.    It’s as routine as opening your mouth and saying “Ahhh”.  People don’t really question that, but it doesn’t inject anything into you and is sort of hard to get upset about, but I think when some medical advancement has been around so long and so successful we forget the reason and just see it as possibly something that isn’t necessary.

This led me to wonder if the same thing wasn’t true for how we understand morals.  One of the common things you hear from atheists is that many theists are under the impression that we do not have a moral and ethical code.  That such thing is not possible if we don’t have God and some supernatural system of punishment and reward.  I remember my mom, who is Christian, telling me at some point that our sense of right and wrong must come from God or else where would we get it from?  The general answer is easy of course, we are taught them by our parents and others.  We have authority figures that tell us what is right and what is wrong (even though you can convince a child that things that are wrong are actually write, like prejudice and intolerance).  The point is if as children we seem to get our morality from the authority figures in our life, perhaps it’s not surprising that many people, especially those who have no qualms about relying on the “rightness” of authority, that morality comes from what many consider the ultimate authority, God.  But it seems obvious to me that morality can easily be derived through scientific investigation.  Morality though has been around well before the scientific method, but humans have been around for a long enough time that we’ve been living a social experiment of morality and have simply been learning.  At one time the things we take as obvious might not have been overtly obvious, even though I think some of the big ones we could figure out rather quickly as they would not be a beneficial for survival.  Just like we stopped questioning why vaccines are important, perhaps we stopped questioning why certain immoral acts are wrong, such that people assume that it all must have come from some other plane of existence.

Some morals are certainly cross-cultural, like physical and sexual harm to other people’s children.  This one would be a pretty obvious natural (perhaps genetic) trait because our survival does depend on the survival of the next generation.  Anything that threatens that would be considered immoral.  Unfortunately in many places physically or psychologically hurting your own child is not seen as wrong.  It wasn’t so long ago here that, unless something got really severe, you were hardly considered in the wrong for disciplining your child with a belt or the back of your hand.  Some people still adopt that attitude unfortunately in North America, and it can be worse in other countries.  Regardless though we generally do go to ridiculous (and perhaps psychologically detrimental) lengths to protect children.  In general though killing is not quite viewed the same way.  Many think it’s okay to kill criminals (apparently it sometimes doesn’t even matter the crime…resisting arrest is enough), and killing in war is not only tolerated, but often cheered about.   For some time killing your wife in a crime of passion was often considered justifiable.  And many civilizations have committed genocide in our past and that has gone unpunished.   So even of the most basic commandments “thou shall not kill” isn’t clear cut, so this obvious sense of right and wrong we are supposed to get from God looks pretty muddy.  And if we are worried about some sort of eternal punishment system it’s amazing the ways we can justify killing when we need to dodge that one.

But let’s look at it from the perspective of “unlawful killing” which is why modern translations say “murder” instead of kill in the 10 commandments.  Thus we already have human law deciding what killing is lawful and unlawful.  This is not an overly divine commandment already.  We know that before civilization we roamed in smallish hunter gatherer bands.  Maybe a few hundred people at most.  This was a time before Christianity, before the 10 commandments, so let’s assume this group doesn’t know right from wrong.  Like a small town, in these small groups, you knew everyone.  Surviving in the wild is not easy and everybody had a role to play, and everybody shared and worked together.  Studies of hunter-gatherer tribes today show them to be rather egalitarian in compared with much of civilized society so let’s look at this as a group that gets along.  So we have a group of a few 100 people, and because they have no God to tell them between right and wrong they think murder might be just something that’s okay to do.  What would be the results of a few people that decided to commit a murder every once in awhile:

  1. Population decline and lack of genetic diversity – We could at the very least learn that there is a murder rate that is not healthy for the survival of the group. Through cooperation, life was made easier, but the group gets smaller, things get harder. Population can only increase so fast. So at the very least, if murder is okay, we can’t do it too often.
  2. Loss of those with specialized or exceptional skill. While daily tasks required teamwork there would have been certain people with more extraordinary skill. A tribe may also only have one person who does a particular job. Murder could reduce the chance for survival if such people are killed.
  3. Growing fear and distrust. If people are being murdered, people are less likely to cooperative. Some people will simply be scared they will be next and be more cautious and protective. Some people will be angry at the loss of their child, brother, sister, etc. This will cause others to fight back. There may be false accusations, which builds more anger and distrust.
  4. They are diminishing their own chance for survival. Once a murderer is discovered, those that committed the murders may find themselves a victim.

Now there are probably even more things that could be listed as to why murdering would not be a good idea, the least of which that we are by definition a social species for whom survival depends on our being in a group, and being able to work well in that group.  It simply isn’t in our nature to murder our own, and there is a lot of good reasons why murder would not be a good idea.  However when it comes to other groups, all bets are off.  We may be xenophobic due to bad experiences with other groups before, or simply be xenophobic because someone who we don’t know simply isn’t somebody we can implicitly trust, and thus we can justify killing others that are not part of our society.  This is why war is not against the law, but murder is.  We can do similar thought experiments with many other basic things that cause harm, like stealing, or any action that causes harm both physically and emotionally.   But even if it was not in our nature, this social experiment has been going on for some time and it seems quite reasonable to assume that even if there was not a morality inherent in us through birth, if at the very least we have a driving force to survive then many of the morals we have today would result through experience and observation and concluding how to survive better.

As a population we continue to adjust.  Different groups share moral truths just as they would share any other type of knowledge.  And so perhaps much of what we consider right and wrong is handed to us without that rediscovering process, but you can still see the impact of people doing the right thing and wrong thing today.  Because even though I think that on average humans are more moral in civilized society today than in the earlier days of civilization, we still have a ways to go.  People who are doing good and bad things are not of one particular faith or philosophy.  If you have compassion and care about how you make others feel, you will discover yourself how to behave in a way that’s more positive everyday as you grow and learn also.  It is the scientist in us that helps us become more moral.  If anything, the Bible demonstrates this more completely as the old testament has very much an eye-for-an-eye mentality, but the new testament is very much about forgiveness, redemption, and compassion.  Even God seemed to find a more moral way of dealing with enemies. Thus I don’t think it’s surprising that morality should progress in the same way that science does.