Sunday, March 27, 2011

Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History

The title of this post is a widely-repeated statement made by a feminist historian, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. This saying is from an obscure scholarly article Ulrich published years ago and has appeared on T-shirts and bumper stickers over the years. It caught my eye the title of a book in which Ulrich tries to explore the topic in greater depth (Vintage Press, 2008). I've not read the book, but apparently it focuses on three prominent women in history plus shorter anecdotes about other women who've made contributions to society, but remain relatively unknown.

Anyway, seeing Ulrich's statement made me think about the pressures on girls and women to be "well-behaved".  What do I mean by this?

Men are expected to misbehave (at least occasionally) and are quickly forgiven; we even have phrases that acknowledge this expectation: "boys will be boys".  Boys and men can be rowdy, aggressive, impolite, arrogant, sloppy, etc., and no one holds it against them. They may be shameless self-promoters, bragging about their accomplishments, no matter how minor.  It's in their nature. We forgive them...and even find their misadventures endearing.

Women, on the other hand, are pressured to "behave well" under all circumstances. I'm not talking here about misbehavior of the type depicted in spring-break videos, e.g., "Girls Behaving Badly", but about women who speak up when faced with sexism or other unfair treatment, who don't remain quiet when their contributions are overlooked in favor of a male colleague's, who don't politely wait for someone to acknowledge them or their accomplishments, or who even fight back when treated inappropriately.

As I've described in previous posts, women of my generation (growing up in the 50's and 60's) were held to a certain standard of behavior (and career choices). We were expected to be modest, quiet, polite, submissive, and well-groomed at all times. A single indiscretion could have long-lasting repercussions.

I don't think things have changed that much.  Yes, women can now participate in activities and have rights that were not ours in the past, but we are still bombarded with advertisements and images of what is expected of girls and women...both physically and behaviorally.  Much of this information is internalized early in our development, and we willingly police ourselves to conform to what is apparently expected of us as females.

Those of us working in a traditionally male profession find ourselves in a Catch-22 situation. If we behave modestly and politely, our work is overlooked, and recognition goes to those who are not similarly burdened. If instead, we are assertive, strong-willed, independent, tenacious, out-spoken, and proud (positive attributes of our male colleagues), we risk being branded as being "difficult", "uncooperative", "stubborn", "overbearing", "angry", or (horrors) not a "team-player".

Our experiences in this regard vary dramatically among workplaces.  This, I suspect, is often the reason for the very divergent experiences of women in science fields. Some laboratories are populated by supportive superiors, colleagues, and staff who view women as being equally capable as men.  Other workplaces have one or more individuals who believe otherwise and can make life miserable for female scientists, especially if they happen to be successful and productive.

Sometimes I wonder if such misogynists see women (who succeed in a male-dominated field) as ill-behaved (and thus need to be reprimanded)? Girls were once taught that they should not outshine their brothers, boyfriends, or husbands. A woman should do her job... but not so well that she outperforms her male colleagues?  If she succeeds by adopting behaviors acceptable in male colleagues, is she viewed as somehow violating social standards?  I'm only speculating here, as it's difficult to put myself into the minds of such men (and some women) who hold a double standard.

Anyway, since this is Women's History Month, it seems appropriate to resurrect Ulrich's prediction about good behavior and its well as a reminder of those women (Susan B. Anthony) who did "misbehave" and in so doing, garnered the rights we enjoy today.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why Scientists Are Never Certain

Scientifically-proven is an oxymoron. In most scientific fields, it is impossible to prove something, e.g., that all birds fly.  We might survey a thousand species throughout the temperate zone and conclude that, yes, all birds fly.  Unless we’ve examined every bird that exists in the world, we cannot say that we’ve proven anything.  Instead, we proceed by trying to falsify a scientific hypothesis. This approach encourages scientists to design rigorous experiments. We search for environments in which birds might not fly and soon discover penguins, ostriches, and other flightless birds. So we amend our hypothesis that “all birds fly” to “most birds fly”.  The discovery of flightless birds raises further questions about bird evolution and adaptation to certain habitats.  Other hypotheses are less easily falsified.  Complex systems, such as ecosystems, and their workings are more challenging. We chip away, a few data points at a time. Sometimes a pattern emerges, which may become the basis of a generalization.

We never stop trying to disprove even widely-accepted concepts. Scientists attempt to replicate previous findings, and in the process sometimes overturn the original result or uncover new information, which adds to the overall picture.  In the process, we continually gain new knowledge, which allows us to modify our initial conceptual model. If instead, we announce that something is finally proven and that we are certain, knowledge stops accumulating. Scientists know that their knowledge about a certain topic is limited and that there are many unknowns yet to be revealed.

The average person rarely understands these concepts and is frustrated when scientists don't express certainty about a subject and equivocate in their answers to questions.  They assume that the scientist, who does not convey certainty about a topic, simply does not know or is confused, is not competent, and/or lacks confidence in their knowledge.  However, the good scientist is prepared to shift her viewpoint when new evidence is unveiled.  This flexibility does not necessarily mean that what scientists thought before was incorrect.  It means that what was previously correct, given the state of knowledge at the time, may be modified in the future with new data.

Scientists state their level of certainty based on statistical probabilities.  We are 95% certain that an observed phenomenon is caused by human activity.  There's a 5% chance that our observation is due to some other process. The average person interprets the lack of absolute, 100% certainty as a evidence that scientists don't really know the cause of a particular phenomenon.  However, what if an average person was told that without surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor, there is a 95% chance they would be dead in 6 weeks.  Would a person gamble on the probability that there is a 5% chance that they won’t die and refuse surgery?  I doubt it. 

Such confusion by the public is often exploited by certain interest groups. 

The book, “The Merchants of Doubt” describes how special-interest groups raise doubts in the public’s mind about climate change by highlighting disagreements among scientists about specific points, the lack of complete data on a specific topic, or changes over time in what scientists accept as a valid explanation for some phenomenon. Interestingly, the authors document that the people (some are former scientists) who are behind the climate denial machine are the same people who worked for the tobacco industry (smoking is not harmful) and who were behind the denial of the existence of the ozone hole as well as acid rain. Their basic approach is to plant the idea that there are data on both sides of the issue (neglecting to mention that one side has failed to publish their research in refereed journals and/or was funded by the very industry being investigated).  This strategy creates confusion over issues by a public that is scientifically illiterate. 

When scientists remain silent in response to unscientific claims by doubt-mongers, the public may conclude that the non-scientific viewpoint is correct.  Or worse, that the scientific community is perpetrating a hoax on the public. It’s difficult to convince scientists to speak out—for various reasons, not the least of which is the possibility of becoming a target.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Symposium for Early-Career Women

Still in the jungle feeding the bugs, but here's another link to an announcement for a workshop for early-career women in science:

"WEBS (Women Evolving Biological Sciences), an annual three-day symposium aimed at addressing the retention of female scientists and issues related to the transition of women from early career stages to tenure track positions and leadership roles in academic and research settings. Past WEBS symposium in 2007, 2008 and  2010 were huge successes. Early career participants as well as our senior scientist panelists reported feeling inspired and equipped with new connections and tools that they expect will help them in their career in the years to come."

Monday, March 14, 2011

Movers and Shakers

I'm in the jungle doing field research and have intermittent internet access, which is why my posting has fallen off of late.

However, you might be interested in this link at the website of the International Society of Ecological Economics, Solutions, which is running a special issue on Women Shaping Our World.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Constraint Satisfaction

The concept of constraint satisfaction concerns the constraints that must be taken into consideration when solving a problem or making a decision...the satisfaction occurs when these constraints are met, which leads to a satisfying solution.  Stephen M. Kosslyn, the author of Image and Mind, discusses this concept and provides examples.

The insight that this concept holds is that there are usually just a few ways that a problem may be solved--due to the constraints.  It turns out that by imposing constraints, you can increase creativity in reaching a solution. The reason is that your options become so limited by the constraints that you are forced to seek creative solutions to the problem.  An example might be seen in a TV show on the Food Network...shows in which chefs compete with each other to create the best dish.  The contestants often are given challenges in which they are restricted to certain ingredients (sometimes quite strange ingredients such as mango, octopus, and cornmeal). Similarly, TV shows feature fashion designers who are given challenges to, for example, create a cocktail dress out of plants (leaves, flowers, etc.).

The audience is intrigued because they think, "How can anyone possibly make something that tastes good or is fashionable out of that?" In fact, some of the most delicious or spectacularly beautiful creations come from these challenges in which the contestants are restricted to a few ingredients or materials. I sometimes watch these shows because the process the chefs or fashion designers go through to realize their creations is fascinating. You don't have to be particularly interested in cooking or fashion to learn something about creativity.

There is a lesson here for those of us in science. When our options are greatly restricted, we are forced to get creative, which may lead to an elegant solution. Perhaps we even may discover a new method to address a particular problem.  Those of us who conduct fieldwork in remote locations are often faced with constraints.  We plan ahead, of course, and bring whatever instruments, supplies, and so forth that we anticipate will be required to accomplish our research.  But then, an instrument breaks down, your assistant falls ill, your original experimental design does not address the actual situation, or any other number of constraints. If you are in a remote rain forest, you cannot run to the local Home Depot or Radio Shack to purchase replacement parts. You are forced to improvise, to rethink your research plan, to seek out local be creative in arriving at a solution to the problem. You think to yourself, "My original plan is unworkable.  What can I do given the constraints of the situation?"

It's quite amazing to be in this situation and to think of a creative solution, which eventually leads to a result that far exceeds what you had originally anticipated. I can think of several studies that I conducted under such constraints...situations in which the original plan had to be completely scrapped.  The end result was an insight that would have otherwise never been realized.  The journal articles that resulted from these situations are some of my most popular (based on citations) and with which I am most satisfied.

I can imagine a new TV show in which scientists are dropped into a remote setting and given a bag of miscellaneous, everyday items and a scientific question to answer.  I realize there have been other shows of this nature, but the participants were typically given unlimited resources to solve the problem.  The difference with my example is that the challenges would occur under very constrained conditions so that contestants would have to be creative.  An interesting twist might be to have a team of Ph.D. scientists competing with a team of non-scientists.  You might think that the scientists would have an unfair advantage, but not necessarily.  Studies show that a diverse group of people (with different educational backgrounds) often out compete a group of Ph.D.s.  The losing team would be forced to vote off one of its members (would it be the weakest link or the strongest?).  It would be interesting to see if the teams evolve to produce groups that are more or less creative, more or less cooperative, and more or less successful in the long-run.  An added benefit would be that the audience would realize that science is not just about high-tech instruments or can only be conducted by highly-trained scientists, but is accessible to anyone who grasps the scientific method and is creative.

Video credit: Moseguaards Cloth Simulation (Alexandra Institute), which involves something called iterative constraint satisfaction (about which I know nothing, but the video was neat).