Facts in Context

It's been an exciting week for me. On Monday I successfully defended my thesis! Now that I have established my scientific credibility to you all, here is a picture of me at my defense party wearing my "Trust me I'm a Dr" Dr. Pepper t-shirt and hitting my SpongeBob SquarePants piñata.


And on Tuesday I went to two really interesting events/talks/discussions about science and scientists. First up was Debbie Chachra's awesome seminar "Unpacking Gender: Men and Women in Science, Technology, and More," sponsored by the Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering. She described her seminar as "Power and Privilege 101," and even though I'd say I'm at least up to junior-year seminar level gender studies, she really challenged me by having us address our own unexamined privileges head-on, having us think and talk about how we benefit from and how we contribute to ways that different groups of people are stereotyped and excluded.

We all have pre-concieved ideas about what different kinds of people are like, schemas that we use to understand and categorize the world. Debbie illustrated this point with a special group of people, used car salesmen. We know what used car salesmen are supposed to be like, and this schema can protect us from getting ripped off when we're trying to buy a car. But if we meet an honest and sincere used car salesman, we don't necessarily adjust the schema we're operating on based on the evidence in front of us. Instead we will more likely assume that this salesman is so sleazy that he's gotten very good at faking sincerity. By examining how our perceptions and confirmation bias can maintain the status quo when dealing with all sorts of schemas, we can begin to make the kinds of fixes that are needed to change the stereotypes and structures that contribute to things like skewed gender ratios in some science and engineering fields.


Later in the evening I went to a lovely and lively dinner and discussion about science blogging and journalism at the Cambridge Science Festival, featuring Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong. It was great to meet writers that I admire so much and to hear their perspectives on all the positive and exciting ways that the internet and blogging are shaping science and science journalism (you can watch the video here). Overall Carl and Ed had great and nuanced perspectives on the changing science and media landscape, but with my heightened awareness of schemas I couldn't help but frame some of the surrounding audience questions and discussion of science journalism and (vs.?) science blogging in terms of our sometimes misguided underlying assumptions.

The schemas and assumptions in this case aren't about groups that are underrepresented in science, although that is obviously a huge part of the discussion when we're talking about sharing and engaging with science, but rather the assumptions we make about science, scientists, and science writers in general. For many of the comments and arguments I heard on Tuesday night, the debate between science blogging and science journalism seemed to center around an image of scientists as asocial fact producers and journalists as translators of these jargon-laced facts to a much stupider group of people known as the "lay public." But science isn't just facts, scientists aren't just robotic fact makers, science journalists aren't just fact megaphones, and non-scientists aren't just ignorant. Science and science journalism is something that real people do, people with opinions and social lives, people with interesting perspectives on the world and sometimes even a sense of humor.

Remembering that scientists are people makes it much less surprising that scientists use twitter and write on the internet, because millions of people use twitter and write on the internet for lots of reasons and for lots of audiences. We can use the internet to find scientific information and connect with collaborators, but we can also use it to connect with old friends and make new ones, to talk and learn about all of our hobbies and all of the things we're interested in. There is room in a scientific career to engage with other people and there is room online for both tweets about your breakfast and tweets about your research, blog posts by scientists and science lovers about cool things going on in the universe, and articles by journalists that share engaging stories about both the facts and the contexts of interesting scientific findings.

The best of these stories can show us new worlds beyond simple facts. I was always a nerd and I always loved science for its own sake, but even after almost a year of working in a lab as an undergrad it was Natalie Angier's book Natural Obsessions that showed me what it feels like to be a scientist, brought me closer to how the facts that I was learning in my textbooks were discovered by real people, and even made me feel more passionate about my western blots. These days I read blogs and articles and tweets by people who are interesting and interested in lots of different things and share some of those interests and a bit of their personality in their writing, whether they are students, journalists, scientists, engineers, artists, government workers, or celebrities. I can engage with and learn about people and projects similar to myself and the work I did my PhD in and areas so far out of my expertise (journalism being one of them) that I'm one of those ignorant but very interested laypeople.

All this reading makes me a better dinner date but I hope also a better scientist and a more critical and thoughtful reader of work both inside and outside of my field. One of the audience questions during "Unpacking Gender" really brought this home, and brings us full circle. "What kind of unbiased, scientific research is out there on the innate differences between men and women?" Debbie's answer was difficult and very important: we live in a society where boys and girls are treated differently from even before they are born, so it is often impossible for scientists and for other people to separate out whether an apparent difference between men and women emerges as a result of "nature" or "nurture." If we look to science as merely a source of facts that can clear up these nasty social problems, we can see statistical differences between different groups of people, but we can sometimes lose the human and social context in which these differences emerge. With the best science blogging and science journalism, we can put together the bigger picture of where the facts come from, what they mean to us, and how the facts in context can help us break out of our assumptions.


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Defended!?! Congrats Christina. What's next in line? Also does this mean that you're not going to be at the SynBio Slam?

Yay, thanks! I'm moving to the greater LA area and still trying to figure out what I'll be doing, but I'll definitely be at SB 5.0 and the slam!


By complex field (not verified) on 06 May 2011 #permalink

Congratulations Doctor!

And now, whenever you meet someone new at a cocktail party, they'll next say, "Oh, a doctor? I have this pain..." ^_^

By lordshipmayhem (not verified) on 06 May 2011 #permalink


I have to admit, I don't much like the car-salesman example - at least as an example of potentially undermining implicit bias. I recently bought a car, and what struck me most was the salespeople trying to "establish a relationship," like I care about that. I had done my research; I was just there to do test drives and, I hoped, find something worth buying. Maybe it's a better example of people's willingness to be receptive to distracting, unhelpful efforts like sales-agent misdirection. This probably says more about me than schemas, though!

Huh, Heather and I were at that dinner too. Were you the one that asked the last question of the night? I thought you looked familiar...

Congratulations !!!

Interesting discussion on journalists v bloggers. I think one of the best parts of blogging is that it encourages discussion. A lot of times I'll learn just as much from the comments section.

And I'm hoping you continue blogging in this new phase. As a member of the lay public I always come away from your site feeling a little less ignorant - and it's not often someone has a laugh while reading about synthbio!