Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Live Blogging the Conference on World Affairs: There's No Such Thing as Agenda-free Science

4:39 pm

Ok, now that the panel is over, I've migrated to an outlet. A few interesting things came up after my battery died, most importantly:
  • Sanjoy Mahajan is the man. (And yes, I recognize the irony of using this phrase in light of the feminist discussion that was part of this panel...)

He told an anecdote about how he'll give his students something that looks like a multiple choice problem, only all the potential answers are wrong. After much hand-wringing and head-banging, they eventually reach this conclusion, at which point he gives them another multiple choice questions:

Did I set you up because
A) I'm careless
B) I'm a bastard

Most students choose B. The moral of the story? (Yes, there's a life lesson here!) When his students get out into the world and pursue their careers, people will try to manipulate them by presenting them a falsely-exhaustive set of solutions. As he said, "They'll ask you, do we cut A) education spending or B) science spending, when there's another answer, C) cut military spending."

When an audience member asked the panel about the recent push to legally force Texas schools to teach creationism alongside evolution, Mahajan had the most articulate and nuanced response:
  • Courts don't bring about social change, grass roots activism does.
  • If science-minded people want to keep creationism out of schools, they need to go door to door to rally the cause like the religious right did.
  • Bringing the 'creationism v. evolution' debate into schools would actually be the best thing for evolution. Too often, when the debate occurs, those who favor evolution don't come prepared because they think they hold the "scepter of truth" on their side. What happens? Creationists wipe the floor with them. Teaching students how to think and debate is more important than making them memorize the tenants of evolution, which has, as Mahajan says, become its own kind of religion.

I reeallly want to see some more of his panels, but unfortunately I have class for Friday morning's "Science Literacy and the Un-dumbing of America." If I can, I'll try to make it to "Who Owns the Creative Commons" tomorrow...

3:50 pm

Ok, my battery is just about dead. At least I made it through the panelists' statements. The Q and A has been a mixed bag, so far, so not a huge tragedy!

More live-blogging to come tomorrow.

3:48 pm

The people behind be are growing at the audience questions. "Do you want to step out?" one guy asks to the person sitting next to him.

I think it isn't the panelists' fault!

3:47 pm

Jairala asks Nordstrom whether that physicist felt embarrassed and felt like a woman because of what he said, or because of the reactions of the other physicists.

Nordstrom says from his statements it looks like a combination of both.

3:46 pm

Mahajan responds to a question on why the U.S. dropped the bomb on Japan if they were close to surrendering. He says it was an "early version of Nixon's mad-man theory," to show the world what we could do.

Perkowitz points out that the decision was made in the context of the time. We have to remember their social situation.

3:42 pm

Next, Nordstrom mentions the unknown social consequences of science.

Now, she's talking about observation and objectivity. Observation cannot be pure, because "observation is about a relationship between the observer and the observed." She points out that quantum mechanics accounts for this, as does anthropology.

Observations often say a lot more about the observer than the observed.

Nordstrom says that we need to be aware the agenda and the social context of science.

She openly acknowledges that her organization has an agenda. It's a clear one that they put out in the open when they do studies. It's a different kind of agenda than profit, says Nordstrom, but we, the public, are the ones that get to evaluate those agendas.

3:38 pm

Jennifer Nordstrom agrees that science/scientists almost always have an agenda due to the nature of being human. Sometimes this is consciously recognized, and sometimes it isn't. "Scientists operate within a social context that they may or may not realize," she says.

She uses the example of cartographers drawing maps during age of imperialism. Their maps helped empires rise to power, although they weren't directly involved with conquest.

Nordstrom has a background studying gender and nuclear disarmament. (My note: Interesting!) Estimates made my physicists on the casualties of bombs were made by "a bunch of male physicists sitting around a table." They were talking about the difference between 36 million and 30 million deaths -- one of them just freaked out at the conversation. Nordstrom tells the anecdote: "'Oh my god! We're talking about 30 million deaths! What are we doing?' one physicist said," then later, he reflected, "'I'm so embarrassed, I feel like a woman.'"

There's a "divorce of head and heart" that has had negative consequences in science. Things that may not seem immediately immoral are still part of the separation of our brains and souls, Nordstrom said.

The fact that emotion has a negative connotation because it means feminine, hysterical, non-rational, is disturbing. She's gotten some flack from other male panelists in the conference for bringing this up. She says that divorcing the emotional and the rational is doing ourselves a disservice.

3:32 pm

Mahajan's examples:
  • The atomic bomb project: suppose we start with the assumption it was a reasonable idea to start the project. We had motives of our own defense. But after Germany surrendered in 1945, why continue developing the bomb? The stimulus behind it was the fear that Germany could also develop a bomb. One scientist wanted to quit, and his supervisors tried to stop him. The purpose was finished, he wanted out. They eventually let him leave, but he couldn't tell anyone why. Moral: it's easy for scientists to get sucked in to problem solving without thinking about why solve them in the first place.
  • A microwave crowd-dispersal project that heats up water just under the skin. What are the reasons for doing this? One spokesman claimed it was because we needed a non-violent method for crowd-control in Iraq. Another described it as, "a torture device that would leave no marks," -- but we would never use it that way, of course. Now people are talking about other applications, use in the U.S. and abroad.
  • Superconducting supercollider: not just for studying theoretical physics, but also has defense applications

Mahajan uses a quote from Adam Smith about how the division of labor makes it impossible for man to see the ethical implications of his actions. Everyone is just solving one small problem, they don't see the big picture. "They are all so separate, that it is very hard to have a moral view of what is going on," says Mahajan.

How to make science moral? Maybe we can get beyond the division of labor in our own minds.

3:25 pm

Mahajan gets up and stands at the podium. He takes a poll of the audience and determines that most of us think the phrase, "he/she has an agenda" has a negative connotation.

So he wants to rephrase the debate: Can we have a science that is free from ethics and morality?

No way -- "scientists are human, and science is a human institution."

But what is the mix of good and bad traits within science? How can we evaluate it?

3:23 pm

In her daily job, Jairala works on development of a new spacesuit for the future lunar missions.

(Ouch, she just got the one minute warning from the moderator.)

But the point behind this is that all the different scientists who work on the space suit all have their own research agendas, but they also have to come together for a common goal.

3:20 pm

Juniper Jairala wants to start by explaining why she's dressed the way she is. "I don't have an agenda," she says -- but she was scheduled to do a dance today, as well as talk about science. "I don't dress like this for work," she says.

She had taken a hiatus from working for NASA to work for some other companies, and one of the main reasons was she was bogged down by the agenda. But...she went back. She found that in the private space industry, they have their agendas just as much as government organizations do.

For example, founder of SpaceX originally wanted to put greenhouses on Mars. That morphed into a goal of proving that things could be sent into space faster, cheaper, better than NASA.

Why are we going back to the moon? Jairala says, "Do we need a reason? It's there!" Space exploration is, in that respect, agenda-less, or rather, an agenda in and of itself.

In the 60s, there was a political agenda -- the Cold War -- for pursuing space exploration. It was a competition with our political enemies, and everyone in the U.S. was on board. "But that crumbed, and what did we have left," says Jairala. We are left with a void -- action without reason. She says a lot of what we accomplished wasn't because of the budget (4% in the 1960s, now less than 1% goes to NASA), but also because of the energy

She points out how many civilian applications came out of the space program as another answer to the question, "why even have a space program?"

3:12 pm

Perkowitz cites two places where science "as a whole" came together with an agenda:
  • In support of stem cell research
  • Emphasizing the importance of addressing global warming

3:10 pm

Perkowitz presents 2 examples:
  • Korean scientist Woosook Wong. He found a way to get stem cells from an adult that can be used for therapeutic cloning. This can be used to grow a new kidney for someone who needs a transplant. The Korean government treated him as a hero and gave him more money than most scientists see in their lifetimes. He was also a hit with the public. But...turns out he made up all of his research. Oops. Who called him out? People within his own lab. That's an example of the system "correcting itself" even if there's one bad apple in the barrel.
  • James Hansen, NASA climate scientist (with an open agenda to educate the world about global warming). "And yet the agenda may have pushed him over the edge," says Perkowitz. He said that oil and coal companies should be charged with crimes against humanity, and Perkowitz thinks this was going too far.

3:05 pm

Perkowitz: Is fascinated by the angles in this lecture hall, too.

He says the question isn't whether agenda-free science exists, but whether agenda-free scientists exist.

Science can't be separated from the people who do it. Scientists are human beings. They like rewards -- in addition to answers and knowledge.

"Humanity shows up in everything that scientists do."

But he says that even if an individual isn't objective, the system can correct it.

3:03 pm


Sidney Perkowitz: Teaches physics at Emory University, also writes books about human cloning (and a screen play!). Being a writer has helped him understand the true goals of the scientific agenda.

Juniper Jairala: EVA engineer for NASA's Johnson Spaceflight Center. She also dances with fire -- not with NASA.

Sanjoy Mahajan: Theoretical physicist at MIT. He's interested improving how science is taught.

Jennifer Nordstrom: Coordinates carbon-free, nuclear-free campaign. She's an organizer and activist.

2:59 pm
Juniper Jairala is wearing a red sparkly hat, red arm warmers, and a salmon colored tank top. Sanjoy Mahajan is wearing a suit. It's great to see them sitting next to each other.

2:58 pm
Before this thing officially gets underway -- and in between bites of a veggie/avacado/cream cheese sandwich -- I have a few things to say about the room. This talk is being held in the physics building, in one of the strangest lecture halls I've ever seen. The floor plan is an isocoles triangle with a top angle of, oh, I'd say 30 degrees. The result is two steeply angled banks of chairs. The chairs themselves are, like the rows they are in, angled very steeply (and not really towards the center/front), so they swivel. That's right. Spinny chairs! Spinny chairs with desks that you can't flip up or down.

The results is that everyone sitting in the audience is closer to each other than we would normally be, but has the ability to turn away and stare at the wall if we get scared.

Also, there's a balcony level -- also steeply angled -- that is only about 10 feet above the middle rows of chairs. It's kind of disconcerting...

2:54 pm

3711 There's No Such Thing as Agenda-free Science

3:00-4:20 on Wednesday April 8, 2009
Duane Physics G1B30
o Juniper Jairala
o Sanjoy Mahajan
o Jennifer Nordstrom
o Sidney Perkowitz

o Moderator: Radu Popescu

Earlier: Live-blogging "Reading Fiction Helps Me Survive in the Real World"

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