Archive for the 'College' Category

Science, Cell Phones and Community

Most of my time in college was spent in humanities and social science classes. I was a History major that had a propensity for wandering into all sorts of disciplines, mostly untrained. Usually it was the topic that drew me into a class (Anthropology of Food, Aesthetics, Bible as Literature to name a few) but, I was also interested in learning how to see things differently. Every discipline has its different lenses for analyzing the world.

I didn’t spend much time in traditional science classes. I took Physics for my gen-ed and ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would (I lucked out with a truly wonderful professor). It was around my sophomore and junior year that my interest in science began to reignite. Most of my interest was in a popular science reading kind of way but, you have to start somewhere. I was drawn to certain characters, like Richard Feynman, who introduced me to the wonder and the joys of science.

During my senior year I started to understand the value of being science literate and I made it a goal (and it is still is a goal) to become as science literate as possible. I started studying biology, astronomy, nutrition science and whatever else piqued my interest. In my quest to become educated I found that the more controversial and political topics are often fraught with bad science. I’ve briefly talked about my interest in food chemistry and the problems I encountered there. Another topic that also interested me was radiation.

Now radiation is kind of a vague statement. Worries and discussion about radiation began again after the earthquakes caused nuclear crises in Japan. With nuclear radiation on the front page it was clear that there was ignorance on radiation in general (I count myself among the ignorant). People started producing helpful infographics to help put things in perspective. Around this same time I was working with someone who was worried about cell phone radiation (and all sorts of electro-magnetic radiation) and it got me interested in what the science had to say about it. Cell phones and cancer is a very popular news item. In fact, not too long ago the IARC classified it as category 2b, which is possibly carcinogenic to humans (you’ll also find things like coffee, picked vegetables, talcum powder there). Spend a little time googling it and you’ll see lots of fear-mongering about the dangers of cell phone and electro-magnetic fields (EMF). So, how does one go about finding good information?

One thing I learned during college was the value of finding scholarly communities. Once you start spending time on a topic you start to see who the scholars are in a community, what general consensus is on a topic, scholarly criticism going back and forth. The more time you spend looking closely at claims you begin to see what is trustworthy and what is not. One of my favorite science-based blogs is Science Based Medicine and they did a wonderful break-down of the IARC classification of cell phones. While this isn’t a journal it is a good place for people to go to have complex ideas explained. The articles are written by people who work in various fields they write about (of course you can’t automatically trust credentials but, it doesn’t hurt). The articles cite their sources and are more than self-referential blog loving. One of the nicest features of it being a blog is that the comments are open and it is there you’ll find good discussions that allow for push-back and also clarification. I won’t explain in detail what science has to say about cell phones right now (go read the post and the comic below). Long story short there is currently no strong evidence that we need to be worried about cell phones. We don’t have any plausible mechanism for cancer (cell phones are non-ionizing radiation) but, science is rarely settled, so in the future we might see long-term effects or effects we didn’t expect (maybe super human powers?! probably not). At this point the most dangerous part of owning a cell phone is driving while using it.

When learning about topics, especially things I am unfamiliar with, I value finding the communities around the topic (those with good and bad reputations) and getting to know them. It makes it a lot easier to see the flawed arguments or it raises the skeptical senses a little sooner when you see certain red flags.

For your viewing and educational pleasure a comic from Sci-ence.org about cell phones and radiation:

The Fig Tree

ثمرة التين , fig fruitsEither my freshman or sophomore year I read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. To a certain degree Esther’s mental illness was something I could identify with and the turmoil of my thoughts at the time often found companionship with her words.

Luckily, that time is behind me now but, there is still one passage that has stuck with me. I think about it often as I now attempt to figure out the next step in my life. It so clearly illustrates my feelings and my fears about that next step. I’m working towards figuring it out but, in the mean time I’ll share the passage with you:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.

From the top of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olypmic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

History Got Me Hooked

As a student I preferred to wander around from department to department. I took classes that covered topics I was interested in or classes taught by professors I wanted to get a chance to learn from. I was a history major on paper but, mostly a student of as many disciplines as possible. Struggling to understand the different frameworks in different disciplines was some of the most intellectual fun I had while at Mary Washington.

Being the type of student who cannot settle down I often had a love-hate relationship with my major. There are certain requirements that need to be met (my inner-rebellious student just freaks out at the work “requirement”) when studying history and sometimes I didn’t particularly care for those requirements. The people who saw me stressed out by my history classes often wondered why I was a history major in the first place? It is a good question and I’m still not completely sure why at times. The best answer I have come up with is history is what happened to grab my attention first.

Monroe Hall, Sunny Day 2A history class I took my freshman year was one of the first places I had a moment that you long to have as a student of anything. It was one of those revelatory moments where you see something you hadn’t seen before even though it had been in front of your face all along. Grok is still the best word I can find that describes those kinds of moments. Those moments take many shapes and forms but, you know it when it hits you. It is a brain high where your thoughts race. You understand something in a deeper more meaningful way. For me the insight was finally realizing how historians create (yes, create) history. I talked a little bit about it after my freshman year but, the words there don’t really do it justice. Perhaps because I’ve repeatedly come back to the same revelation in different ways that it is now even more meaningful to me. Throughout my K-12 experience the historical accounts written in my textbooks were unchanging facts to me. Why would they represent anything other than what had happened? History classes were about the content not about the process. It was in my first history class in college where we looked at many primary source documents that the very obvious truth of what the discipline of history is suddenly struck me. There is no magical record of all of history that is written by divine hand that we print out as truth. No, history is a struggle to piece together the past through various types of evidence. The struggle to understand what was going on at a certain time without injecting your own biases (a seemingly impossible task). The struggle to combine the evidence and your analysis to say something about the past. My freshman year was the first time I saw this process in a way I had never seen before and I wanted more of that feeling. Throughout the rest of my time at Mary Washington I would run into the feeling several more times. Sometimes in history classes, sometimes in other classes.

Being a history major frustrated me at times because it wasn’t always about the process and sometimes it was a bit too content heavy for me. At the same time there were some history classes where I found the content highly interesting and was less interested in the process outright. I suppose I contradict myself. I still have those moments where the reality of how history is written hits me all over again and I feel a little bit of that brain high. Maybe because writing history begins to get at the question, “what is truth?” and to me that is a compelling question.

To Maintain the State of Doubt

Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgement suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful…To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry — these are the essentials of thinking.

– John Dewey, How We Think

I spent a lot of time reading various blogs on umwblogs during my time at school. I had my finger on the pulse of conversations in various classes. Most often I lurked but sometimes I would comment. It was during my last year at Mary Washington I noticed a marked difference between how I formulated thoughts and how many freshmen on the  first-year seminar blogs formulated opinions. It is not that the incoming freshman class was stupid (although everyone always like to say kids are dumber than they used to be) I just had reached a level of thinking that most freshman had not. I was finally seeing those intangible skills that I had been told college would give me begin to surface.

It was during my last two semesters that I finally began to fall in love with doubt and skepticism. I had discovered the freedom in doubt. I found conversations that excited me and inspired me to go and do the research and learn to identify a poorly constructed argument. One of my favorite blogs to comment and challenge students on was a freshman seminar called Food Chemistry. I’m a historian by training but, that doesn’t stop me from getting in over my head in other disciplines. Most of the time my comments were simply challenging them to look at their sources, second guess their opinions, or even just provide evidence for their claim. This type of skill doesn’t require any special training in chemistry, mostly it is just critical thinking.

I had a professor who likened the ability to hold multiple ideas at once to a golden retriever’s ability to hold multiple tennis balls in its mouth. At first it can only hold one but, it can figure out how to hold two or three or more. Besides giving us all a good laugh the analogy made the point that learning how to hold multiple views and hold them equally without judging is a skill that is learned. We give a lot of lip service to critical thinking. I can’t think of many people who think it is a bad thing but, surprisingly most of us are terrible at it. Now most of us aren’t terrible at in ever aspect of our lives but, from what I’ve seen of this world so far (and its not much) most people go with convenient and shallow over difficult and deep. It is true we don’t have enough time to weigh heavily on all matters in our lives, we’d never get anything done. But I hope I don’t forget that many of the opinions I hold now that I assume true are not necessarily true. And I continually hope I have the humility to admit that just because I believe something doesn’t mean its true. This is why I’ve come to love doubt and skepticism. It puts me in a position where I don’t have to cling to ideologies or defend ideas just because it is the idea I’ve always believed. I go with what evidence and logic points to and hope that it leads me to being a better, more rational person.

Richard Feynman when talking about scientific integrity said this:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

I could go on in detail about all the ways work against our critical thinking abilities. Go ahead and take a look at the wikipedia page on the list of cognitive biases. We have a lot to overcome. I spend a fair amount of my free time working on my critical thinking skills and challenging my thinking (where was this when I needed it in college?) because I enjoy it. I almost get a geeky kind of excited when I catch myself making assumptions I shouldn’t and correcting myself. The freedom to doubt is a beautiful thing.

Misunderstanding My Degree

On my last post Andy commented, asking how my education at UMW has fit in with real life. I’ve learned many things since leaving but, one of the first things that came to mind when Andy asked this question was peoples’ perception of what a college degree means.

I’ve discovered most people don’t understand that having a liberal arts degree (specifically a B.A. in History) means that I can do more than teach history or work at a museum. I’m really *this* close to making a shirt that says, “Yes, I have a degree in history. No, I’m not going to be a teacher”. It has become clear to me that most people don’t understand how my degree has prepared me for than doing “history stuff”. One of the most important skills I gained while at school is the ability to think critically and apply those basic skills to fields outside of history. So while I may not have deeper knowledge of fields outside of the one I studied, I know how to get information I need and I am reasonably good at evaluating that information.

One of the things I was told all the time by people at school was that my degree would prepare me for a wide variety of jobs, careers and prepare me for life in general. While I still believe that these people are fundamentally right I’ve realized that this idea is not so widely understood (or maybe it is rejected, I’m not sure) and it is a bit frustrating to have to try to repeatedly explain to people that I am more than a history major, much more.

On a related note I have a post on critical thinking and skepticism in general in the works.

Procrastination: The War Inside Your Brain

“The future is always ideal: The fridge is stocked, the weather clear, the train runs on schedule and meetings end on time. Today, well, stuff happens.”

– Hara Estroff Marano in Psychology Today

Like nearly every other human being on the earth I suffer from procrastination. My procrastination is also coupled with perfectionist tendencies but, that topic is for another post.

I was reading a blog post on procrastination and it must be the first time I ever heard procrastination framed in such way that wasn’t related to organization and didn’t make me feel like a failure for not being able to fix it. This quote really drove home the point for me:

Procrastination is all about choosing want over should because you don’t have a plan for those times when you can expect to be tempted.

You are really bad at predicting your future mental states. In addition, you are terrible at choosing between now or later. Later is murky place where anything could go wrong.

Now on some level I knew procrastination was related to the inability to delay-gratification but, the article didn’t make me feel like a child for being unable to do it, it just made me feel human. As a human I hate to admit that I am incapable of choosing to delay gratification but, lets be honest that is something we all struggle with and it goes way back in human evolution to impulsively not delay things like sugar or using resources while they are available. So I admit it, I’m an instant-gratification junky. I have tendency to believe that in the future that somehow the conditions will be more suitable to get to work done but, as any procrastinator knows this is simply not true.

I now have a new mantra when I’m trying to get work done and I feel the urge to just check Facebook quickly or watch that one episode. I used to view my future self as someone better at work but my mantra goes something like, “future you is evil, do something while you can!!”. Now this seems a little ridiculous I know but, I’m amazed how it has worked. Especially when it comes to school work, as any professor I have ever had can tell you, I’m a notorious last minute worker. There are many reasons that complicate this but procrastination as a failure to predict my future mental states is one of the major contributors. Now it hasn’t fixed my procrastination completely but, I don’t want to fall into the fallacy of thinking that just because there isn’t an instant and easy change that it doesn’t work.

In addition, I try to no longer frame things I have to do as “I will” but rather as “will I?”. I wish I had the reference handy but, this article discussed how people are more likely to complete a task if they don’t make it something they have to do (I will) but rather frame it as a choice (Will I?).

Combining my new mantra (“future you sucks at work”) and framing my work as “will I?” has been helping me create a new model of approaching work in my head. Sometimes it feels a little ridiculous to go through these phrases and repeat them to myself but, as I have discovered sometimes you are just going to feel a little ridiculous in order to fix things.

From There to Here

I was eighteen when I arrived at Mary Washington and I was ready for a new adventure on my own.

But leaving one place for another does not mean you leave who you are behind, a lesson quickly learned. I spent many lonely nights walking the streets of downtown Fredericksburg wishing I was somewhere else.

Sometimes during those late night wanderings I would stop at the top of one hill near the school. From the location I could stare up and see the lights of dorms and eventually the light of the new bell tower. It was from that spot I could see how the school sat high upon Marye’s Heights. I would stand there, in that spot that gave me the view of campus that was so vastly different than what the up close view impressed upon, and stare at it imagining I was somewhere else.

Night Lights: Campus View

Much time has passed since those late nights and now when I do walk it is rarely in the same painful stupor that pushed my soul to roam the streets.

I have not moved that far from my first new home in Russell Hall. I’ve been in other dorms, other off campus housing and now in an apartment on the slopes of Marye’s Heights. It didn’t occur to until a week or two after I had moved in but, I now live in apartments that sit near the spot where I spent so many nights staring up at the school. This realization held a weird narrative beauty. How strange it is that I now live on the hill that so many nights had seen me wish I was not living at all. If my life were a novel this would be the moment in the story where the main character realizes that the pain of the past had healed over, things have come full circle. Life isn’t perfect (is it ever?) but, I am thankful for those odd moments when the narrator in my brain makes me take note of how I find myself in the same location. It is in those moments that I realize what great distances I have traveled.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


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