This is the journal (400-700 words) for Notation in Science Communication Program in PWR 91 (Self and Science). This page is unrelated to the other posts.
I am taking this class because I have always had an interesting relationship with science.
See, I was raised by two very religious Muslims – think the equivalent of the somewhat infamous evangelical Christians. I have always wondered why science could not reach the people who literally produced me.
I have already ruled out IQ and genetics. If my parents were actually stupid, they would not stop at red lights and file taxes. I have also ruled out genetic determinism; otherwise, there would have been little chance of me getting to Stanford.
I suppose that I have to conclude that the root of the issue would surround how my parents were raised. They were taught a strict religious doctrine in a tiny village in Pakistan during a time without the internet… However, even with the nurture aspect, why are my parents still so resistant to science? Is there a way that I am communicating that is fueling my parents’ denialism? Could this problem simply be a matter of “might is right?” Eugenics would likely be a completely acceptable idea if Adolph Hitler and Hermann Göring had won. Sure, there could be an idealistic system of justice, but reality does work on the raw numbers and power (otherwise, someone would have stopped the CCP from persecuting its own Chinese Uighur citizens). One does not see religious people having to read Locke and Darwin before debating. Yet, religious groups insist that (unreligious) scientists read the Bible or Quran before even attempting to speak.
So, this is how I got into the topic of science communication. Thankfully, communicating to certain anti-science groups is only one aspect of communication game.
There is also the much more enjoyable process of trying to communicate advanced science to curious people. My particular specialty is neuroscience. While the field gets a lot of buzz, the scientists can be notorious for being convoluted and confusing. This is a tragedy considering that neuroscience is fundamental to understanding our behavior as a species. In fact, I recently wrote a short neuroscience book that is in the publishing process. It might not even be fair to call it a book! It is barely twenty pages. But maybe, the definition of a book needs to change in the attention economy. Due to its condensed size, countless friends and colleagues have learned more about neuroscience. I doubt they would have read the book if it were 400 pages of ivory-tower speak.
Research studies cannot be replicated! Oh no!
I am not surprised.
As Haraway and other thinkers have understood, everything has some level of bias. For example, while physics may be objective, the physicists is biased enough to choose a particular field of physics. Some would even argue that physics is biased because we do not have all the formulas. We value physicists even if they are like kids only using half the crayons in the box. Yep, science is biased and not perfect. There is a level of faith in the scientific method. I have even heard the arguments that you cannot trust science because math is a made-up language or that science is useless for understanding the world since humans are like a dog trying to understand art in a museum.
I would not go that far.
I still deeply value science and the resulting research. It is ok, especially for a bipedal primate species. It sure beats the alternatives of entirely absurd philosophies based on no evidence.
Biased evidence is harmful. For example, certain research studies made the idea that willpower is a limited resource a mainstream idea. However, other studies could not verify this. They found that people could have limited willpower. It came down to a placebo style effect where a person changed how the brain structures functioned by changing their thought processes. It Is very problematic that the biased research became a defense for lazy people around the world.
However, science never said the biased research was set in stone. Science will eventually reach a better answer. This is the adventurous price of science.
For example, I’ve long suspected that the idea that humans are naturally lazy is false. Imagine if we lived in an alternative world where Spartan ideals were everywhere. I think you would see an entire species of Homo Sapiens acting with integrity and power. It would be almost inconceivable to imagine that Homo Sapiens could be lazy creatures. Scientist would build all their theories around how Homo Sapiens grew from apes due to the emerging neurological characteristic of finding joy in hard work. Going back to our reality, scientists today propose theories of the Homo Sapien development as resulting from the social pressure of a Machiavellian primate society of lust, gossip, aggression, etc.
It is certainly difficult to imagine alternative realties where we are forced to completely dismantle our own realities. It requires a lot of energy and thought. But, I think the reward is worth it – to be able to breath with a slight amount of fear and excitement at the blank canvas all around us.
3 Perspective Essays:
Hope by Elizabeth Scarboro; The Loudmouths Are Back by Ellen Greenblatt; Pedestal Effect by Larry Jin Lee
Focusing on the Pedestal Effect paper
Good thesis. People think they deserve extra credit for being better than most, but there are people who are doing better than most and more without any extra credit. Certain groups are being held to a low standard to merit praise… The author really is a exceptional father compared to most – based on the rhetorical evidence. He provides realistic examples; plus, he even gets approval from others. But, he concludes on a strong point that fairness is oppression if you are used to a position of privilege and choice with a further actionable trait of not expecting special acknowledgement.
I did not know about the Pedestal Effect, but it is very true. I have always thought of myself as a good son and brother. I take care of things around the house, pay for all my younger siblings rock-climbing memberships, do not take drugs, do not drink alcohol (anymore), tend to the family farm, attend a prestigious university, etc. When people ask me to do more than this, I get annoyed. “Do these people not get it? I am already doing a lot. Why don’t you carry some of my weight?”, I think to myself. However, now that I am thinking about my position of privilege, I might not deserve that much praise. What kinds of burdens did my ancestors carry? Am I really acting like I am amazing for paying for some stuff? However, I can also see the flip side for this. My mother often complains that she does a lot. She puts herself on a pedestal, but she was the one who made the decision to have children. She should not be given extra credit for being a mother – when she decided to take on the task in the first place.
Well, in any case, the oppressed AND the oppressor are to blame. Everyone can do better at all times; this is the magic of the Homo Sapiens’ top-down thinking ability. I could be a better son. My mother could be a better mother. No one deserves extra credit.
Some scientific topics that I have a strong perspective on are genetic determinism, neuroplasticity, free will, epigenetics, evolutionary history of primates, primate behavior studies, zoology, astronomy.
This quarter I am most interested in tackling the question of free will, specifically the idea of top-down brain processing through the recently developed pre-frontal cortex. It is no secret that human babies are like tigers with stripes. We have behavioral tendencies from the start. Babies can be happy, sad, needy, etc. However, new research has opened up new possibilities with ideas from epigenetics and neuroplasticity AKA our genes and brains are subject to change with practice / use; the basic idea is that if you spend energy, then change happens. It is incredible that the mind can exert control over the rest of the human (to a degree). My feelings on these topics emerged from being curious about my own existence.
Once again, my main topic is: how do humans use free will / top-down processing to live better lives?
- Miller, B. T., & D’Esposito, M. (2005). Searching for “the top” in top-down control. Neuron, 48(4), 535-538.
- Baluch, F., & Itti, L. (2011). Mechanisms of top-down attention. Trends in neurosciences, 34(4), 210-224.
- Dalley, J. W., Everitt, B. J., & Robbins, T. W. (2011). Impulsivity, compulsivity, and top-down cognitive control. Neuron, 69(4), 680-694.
Source 1 – Searching for “the top” in top-down control
- Brief summary: It seems that the prefrontal cortex plays a role in top-down control, but more research is needed.
- Research methods: This paper mainly collected and examined a lot of the other research studies on pre-frontal cortex control.
- Evidence: Humans with damage to the PFC often show a number of behavioral failures. In some studies, it was found that the PFC could cool spiking activity in other regions of the brain such as the temporal region neurons. There were also a number of MRI studies, which found similar relations.
- Conclusions: The PFC plays an important role in controlled human behavior (willed behavior). Future studies will have to look at the timing of responses across neural regions and statistical analysis of a number of studies.
- Relevance to main topic: If one can get a better understanding of the PFC in top-down control, then the idea of free will can be tossed out. We can accept ourselves as animals with a level of will / control mechanisms rather than a heavenly creature. Then, the question will become how can one strengthen the control mechanism – which was the topic of my last neuroscience book on neuroplasticity as a way to strengthen brain regions.
Source 2 – Mechanisms of top-down attention
- Brief summary – Humans can filter sensory information to pay attention to behaviorally relevant events. This action is represented by unique neural signatures in the brain. There are two methods. Bottom-up thinking where something involuntarily captures brain resources. In contrast, Top-down thinking requires effort to engage and can voluntarily direct brain resources.
- Research methods – Lesion and electrophysiological studies (such as microsimulation).
- Evidence – There are mapped attention networks in the brain.
- Conclusions – The PFC is capable of biasing sensory areas towards certain stimuli. Feedback is also crucial for reward pathways. The brain can be played from the outside and from the inside.
- Relevance to main topic – Since the brain can be played from the inside from a particular region or overall brain pathway, then it can be trained to increase the amount of willpower or self-control that someone exhibits.
Source 3 – Impulsivity, Compulsivity, and Top-down Cognitive Control
- Brief summary – Impulsivity is the tendency to act without foresight. While the causal role of addiction is unclear, there are neuronal processes at play.
- Research methods – There are a number of ways to measure impulsivity such as delayed discounting of rewards, response times, and brain scan.
- Evidence – This study concludes that there is a brain pathway involved in stopping impulsivity. It has even been shown that the (lateral) prefrontal cortex plays a important role of behavioral responses in non-human primates.
- Conclusions – addiction exists in brain pathways, and initial impulsive behavior may lead to a cascade of addictive, uncontrolled behavior. With this information, further studies can examine how compulsivity can be broken through neurobehavioral processes (like top-down inhibitory control).
- Relevance to main topic – Once again, there are neuronal pathways involved in self-control and impulsive behavior. It would come back to spending energy. I wonder if you can strengthen the brain regions that are involved in spending energy, which is a bit meta. When I go rock-climbing, I notice that the easiest problems always take the same amount of energy, but I am just so much stronger which allows me to just spend MUCH MORE energy with my muscles – which makes the V1 seem so much easier even though I’m still climbing my body (which weighs the same) up the same wall. It is not that the energy cost gets cheaper, but that we get stronger at spending energy?
I think the hardest thing about this paper will be being able to describe cognitive control in a simple manner. If the paper ends up being good, then it will be like a key for human freedom. My last book tackled the topic well, but some people were skeptical about the idea of just “exerting energy.” While I think there is a cultural bias against new ideas, there is something to be said about the difficulty of “just exerting energy.” It is just a hard thing to define. How would someone answer the question, “just believe in yourself and start running!” I suppose it would be activating the planning region of your brain to imagine running, activate your leg muscles by sending neuronal signals from your brain to walk outside, continue to activate the leg muscles my sending neuronal signals to actually run, and actively inhibiting the desire to give up by firing the PFC. In each of these steps, energy is required. Fun fact: one of the most pivotal theories of the 18th century was cell theory AKA cells cannot arise from spontaneous, magical generation, all cells must come from other cells. In the same way, our energy came from our parents, who got it from their ancestors, who got it from food, which eventually get energy from the sun. It is almost beautiful to imagine the infinite amount of effort that our (down to bacteria) exerted in living on a wet rock called Earth. So, somewhere in the act of deciding to run, there MUST be an initial energy cost to activate the running behavioral cascade and inhibiting the lazy behavioral cascade (assuming that we are hardwired to be energy conservative / lazy from our primate ancestors).
Thoughts on Kimmerer Reading:
This reading reaffirmed the idea that science is not entirely objective. I was fascinated by the idea that science had “cornered the market on truth.” I do not think that science is wrong in this aspect. While I can see the merit in what the author is saying, there is a level of critical-ness needed to examine things. There is often a trait where elders and wise people will claim that science cannot capture their wisdom and insights. I forget who it was but there was a famous computer scientist who said something along the lines of “tell me exactly what it is that you think a computer cannot do compared to a human, and I will make the computer do it.” Science is already learning so much about the brain and the human condition that many sacred, elusive topics are no longer elusive. The elders’ wisdom cannot be so special because it could (theoretically) be measured and replicated – eventually down to the last neuron within the next century with super-computers and other precise equipment. Sure, there is tremendous value to the “relaxation” or “recognizing things are sacred” neurons, but they are still neurons. We would not find an extraterrestrial alien’s neurons to be sacred, so maybe we should not find ourselves in mystical awe of some elder’s neurons (with all due respect to the elder, of course).
The new year’s first month is almost over. Have you kept up with your resolutions? For most people, the answer is no. It is just too hard to learn that new habit or to lose that weight.
But, why is it so hard to exert willpower? And, what can you do to get more willpower?
Contrary to the idea that humans are heavenly, perfect creatures, we Homo Sapiens are flawed, biological creatures made up of nothing more than flesh minerals, electricity, and chemicals. Our willpower levels are subject to fluctuations in our day-light cycles and hormonal release – not to mention the biological imperative from our ancestors to conserve energy by being lazy. This is why willpower is so difficult. The biological machine itself is imperfect!
But, all hope is not lost. If you turn on the prefrontal cortex region of your brain – the same way you manually decide to walk somewhere or exhale deeply – you can force your biological machine to respond to your directions.
This control over the biological machine is known as top-down processing, and it happens in the most recently developed region of the human brain: the prefrontal cortex. With the right amount of energy, the PFC can override any instinctual signal of lust, discomfort, sloth, etc.
However, the caveat of the PFC is that it requires energy. So, you may never have full control of your biological machine, but you can exert a good deal of control momentary with the power of top-down processing. It’s not a perfect process – in fact, it’s a very tiresome process – but it sure is nice to achieve your new year’s resolutions.
I was able to listen to a video recording of Professor Tressie Cottom’s book Thick and Other Essays. Right from the start, you could sense a rich rhetorical strategy (some people seem to have this ability more than others). It did not take long to hear the pathos and conviction when she said how she could not control a lot, but she could control something – dammit.
There is often this idea that scholars must be very professional and careful about their rhetoric. This makes a lot of sense when you happen to be one of the few privileged rich white men, who do not have to balance very many conflicting identities. Obviously, your rhetoric will be clean and dry when your life has been spent clean and dry. I am not saying that the clean and dry is bad, but Professor Cottom shows that sometimes, we need to use a more direct style to convey topics that aren’t protected by privilege. Can you imagine if this topic was presented by a white man or woman? How would they convey the lived experience of a black woman who has experienced discrimination at every level? How would they convey the feeling of pain and rebellion of knowing that they would die sooner due to systematic conditions? I am sure the statistics and appeal to emotion would be nice from a more privileged position, but the rhetoric of Cottom brings something new to the table. This is the first strategy that stood out to me – Cottom’s identity.
The next strategy that stands out to me is the use of real experience as evidence. Once again, the statistics will be useful, but it is something else to her talk about desirability in a larger social game. Heck, I personally related to this experience. People in my Tennessee High School were not rushing to be seen with me, a Pakistani kid from a rough home. Ironically, my first girlfriend only came the summer after high school after I got into Stanford on a full-ride scholarship. The relationship was nice, but in hindsight I wonder if there was something about my human capital in the equation. Could I only be loved if I were a rich Stanford graduate? While I cannot relate to Cottom’s experience of being desired in college, I think part of it has to do with the idea that men (outside of certain men who meet conditions of height, frame, wealth, etc.) do not have nearly as much male privilege as some groups would like to think. My college experience at Stanford was nice, but it certainly was not getting the girl at the frat party – though I was invited to the parties. Good, but not good enough, I suppose by the artificial metric. In any case, it is incredible that her personal rhetoric was able to evoke so many emotions in my own experiences. It was nice to hear what I had known for a long time, especially after having the chance to compare my US experience with my experience in foreign countries; “There aren’t any ‘good’ preferences. There are only preferences that are validated by others, differently, based on social contexts” (p. 58).
I also like Cottom’s ability to provide actual solutions. I know too many scholars who shy away from being definitive in their solutions. There are many young people, who are suffering because they do not know what to do. Scholars have an important role of showing the way – otherwise, you get some religious fanatic trying to sell you some feel-good product. Solutions are important, especially when “internalizing [inferiority] is violent” (p. 59).
I’m sure more could be said on the rhetorical strategies, but I do not want my journal to be too long. I do plan on reading this book as well. It seems that this quarter has given me some good book options after I thought I had exhausted my options.
How do these writers use the personal essay to communicate science? What strategies might you like to try on in your own science communication? What are the limits of this approach?
All of these authors talk about scientific topics with emotion, which comes from a personal story. I would like to try out more of this super mixed personal and science. If the science is perfectly mixed into a normal story, I imagine that the reader would learn a lot (without it feeling like learning). I feel like I learned more about environmentalism and robots – though I already knew the neuroscience stuff. There are not too many limits to the actual writing style. I suppose you could say that two limits are: too little personal or too little science. But this would be a technicality.
I would like to take this prompt in another direction as “what are the limits of science communication in an attention economy?”
Though before I get into my thoughts, I will say that I see deep value of these kind of articles as being the training ground for real-world work. It was mentioned in class, and I had not heard this reason before. It makes a lot of sense, so hopefully it does not seem like I am bashing scientific writing.
It is no secret that the science communication for the NSC is not the real-world science communication. Spending all this time on science communication without testing it in the real world is the equivalent of learning about swordplay in an academy only to find out that guns are being used outside. While the NSC gives us a lot of fancy techniques, it lacks the seriousness of being in a dynamic real-world attention battlefield. What happens when I write the most incredible scientific book about neuroplasticity? It is straight-forward, simple, and relatable. Does the book suddenly land on the best-seller list? Do hundreds of people share it? In reality, the book is read by about 50-100 people, and ends up collecting dust somewhere.
Maybe, I should have been given lessons on reaching out to podcasts, entertainment channels, news sites, etc. Maybe, I should have been given lessons on mass-emailing publishers and investors. Maybe, I should have been taught how to be a professional when dealing with my own fear of coming across as stupid / too young. It is time to let go of the idealistic dream of the noble writer who just happens to get successful. Life was never magical, and it sure as heck is not magical now. I had even read somewhere that the Nobel Prize winners are often highly social individuals – it is not the genius scientist in the lab, but the one who can do decent science and make the most noise.
It sounds gross to talk about making noise, but there is no other way to get across in a cause-and-effect world. Noise must be made. Otherwise, the incredible article on the Carolina Parakeet will be limited to a small online audience, a self-selecting group of people interested in environmental justice, and the small amount of people that the author meets in his daily life. Of course, I am not saying that the author failed in any way. Impact is impact – big or small. But, it sure would be nice to see scientist take the cool hero mantle in the real world.
I had finally mastered it after years of grueling research. I had full control of my brain. I could now do whatever I wanted. The energy surged inside of me as I imagined all the goals I would achieve. I was nearly limitless. My new life was starting tomorrow.
But then, the next morning came. I was once again nothing. I kept on firing the neurons in my brain to get out of bed on time. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. Nope. My brain refused my persistent requests for energy and control. It wanted to press snooze. Even if I had managed to get out of bed for a minute, my brain would have turned up the temperature receptors on my skin to warn me about the unbearable cold (in a home of all places). As I laid in bed on a slightly chilly day, I stared up at the drywall ceiling.
I imagined my ape ancestors laughing at me. They were holding my feet down into a dark abyss called biological constraint as I attempted to maintain hold on the pull-up bar of human ideals.
“Who are you to do anything? Your father was a pathetic alcoholic. It is in your blood to have no self-control.”
“We have had millions of years to cultivate a pleasure instinct. You cannot just destroy all we built. You play by our rules.”
They mocked me, and all I could do was stare at a ceiling while being enveloped in a warm blanket. I just didn’t get it. I had everything from the physics down to the evolutionary history of worms. Maybe, my old mentor was right; the brain simply was not something that could be conquered.
Once I braved the cold, I stood on the cold bathroom floor. Looking into the mirror at the ape before me, I examined my hair. Every morning, I checked for gray hairs. I did not have that many, maybe one or two a week. But, these gray hairs served as a example of my lack of control. My brain produced fearful thoughts and let cortisol – the stress hormone – course through my veins. No gray hairs today. Not too bad. But, the fact that I had any gray hairs at 22 was still a bad sign. If I could not control stress now, I was destined for a lifetime of mental problems. Whatever. I tried to reassure myself as I went to make breakfast. A good ape is strong. I prepared my daily breakfast of eight eggs, 3 pieces of toast, and a large glass of milk. At least, I could eat right (compared to my skinnier, weak days).
As I begrudgingly ate the mushy eggs (note: I really have a strong dislike for eating), I sat wondering to myself. If there is no way to conquer the brain, what is the next best thing?
Would controlling the brain be something like running? I would always feel strain in my lungs, but I could increase the strain limit for longer and longer limits? Maybe, this was it. I always imagined my big breakthrough being incredible, maybe in some library or some prestigious conference. But, instead, my mediocre revelation came as I was forcing myself to eat eggs in a kitchen. If there is no magic, and there is no way to make the brain easy. I was essentially signing up for a lifetime of struggle. If I ever managed to momentarily beat the struggle, my brain would find a new way to impose its propaganda.
Ha, this sounded a bit like one of those devil pacts. You will be given control of your brain and your life, but you will be in a constant state of discomfort. I imagined a devilish ape holding the contract and waiting for me to manually sign the document for every desirable, but difficult task.
“Are you sure you want to do this? It sure is hard.”