Apr | 2020

17th

Friday

Quiet and nerdy laboratory scientists offer us a model of how to behave – but are you listening and learning?

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Under ugly fluorescent artificial lights, right now, working 24/7, there is an infinitesimally small group of white coat nerds focused on beating this novel virus. 

They don’t have time to go online and offer bombastic opinions.  They are busy trying to save the world, together, using the most powerful method ever discovered:  the Scientific Method. 

I say “nerds” jokingly, with admiration for a group I consider myself “branded” into.  As a Ph.D. social scientist, I have 6 years of data-analytic training and measurement-focused experience under my belt.  My inculcation into the scientific society was traumatizing…but in a good way.

Years of days, nights, and weekends, overstuffed with laborious yet laser-focused analyses of data, hypotheses, and theories, forced my brain to work against its more animal, instinctual nature.  I would never again join the rest of the human race.  I would never feel the same, nor do I want to. 

Following my initiation and chronic “hazing” (I say this tongue in cheek) as a Ph.D. student,  I lost the ability to have a sudden passion for ideas or people.  It now became about the nature of the data.  Data, data points, data methodology.  My chief graduate school Mentor, Dr. Charles Spielberger, was one of the most prolific personality researchers in the 21st century.  How obsessive was he about precision?   I made a map for a party he was holding for students, and he made me go through 15 edits. Our journal articles would go through 50-80 edits.  No, my kids do not let me near their writing!  

And yet, I have Charlie’s picture hanging in my office conference room, so that he can continue watching over me, ensuring everything I do meets the painfully high standard of the Scientific Method.  Yes, we scientists have heroes, but our feelings for those heroes are not driven by anything showy or glamorous.  Rather, they are our heroes because they initiated us into a society of thinkers who are among some of the most brilliant minds planet Earth has ever been blessed by.  No, I do not claim brilliance, only the grit of a Midwestern boy whose father made sure he worked road construction every summer.  I know what a real workday feels like, as do the white coats working away as you read this. 

Dr. Spielberger
Dr. Charlie Spielberger, pioneering social scientist

Charlie taught me to leave any ego at the door, to accept that Great Science means being obsessed with leaving your emotional side behind.  If you want to travel inside of any complex phenomena, whether it be social or biological science, to truly understand it from the inside out, and the outside in, you have to stalk it using the most refined analytical techniques.  If you want to win the Nobel Prize, Charlie once told me, you have to be so dedicated that others may view you as strangely logical.  Yes, I love Spock.

Amidst the circus of emotionally driven, narcissistically-laced comments I see among our fellow humans, I’m proud to be a scientist through and through.  Thank you, Charlie!!!

Anyone who has conducted large-scale original research knows exactly what I am talking about.  And those who haven’t often scratch their heads at how cerebral those of us who are trained in science can sound. 

It is not uncommon for scientists to be made fun of, gossiped about, or looked down upon.  After all, especially here in America, we are Red-Blooded!  We bring emotion and charisma to what we do.  Charm and social status can win the day.  And often do these days…what a politician says can be what people follow.   There is a significant amount of deeply scientifically credible Social Psychology experimentation showing that it is very easy to turn humans against each other, by utilizing very superficial methods such as pitting one team versus another.  Give these two groups any name (red vs blue, skins vs shirts, Notre Dame vs USC) and suddenly you have fans willing to brawl it out in the stands!  

In fact, during the dizzyingly complex novel COVID- 19 pandemic, I have noticed a particularly concerning trend toward people rallying around their Ego, a Hero Personality, political party, or Frame of Mind. 

People seem to be busy arguing that we should rally around this or that politician.  Yes, people need to feel led by one of their own humans.  But what I most hope is that people can rally around Science!  Humans are endemically self-referential.  It is much easier to rally around a personality than a data set…and yet to get through this pandemic we must do our best to stick with the science and keep our emotions at bay.  Otherwise, we are sending ourselves back to our Neanderthal roots.   Can I get many high fives for this perspective?  Maybe not.   

People with little or no scientific credentials – or epidemiological credibility  – talk about their “feelings”, and make decisions affecting their community that put others at risk.  We have even seen religious leaders brazenly go against credible community restrictions, putting the larger community at risk, all in the name of God.  Is it really in the name of God, or the name of their Ego?  Is this about protecting humanity, or about their limited coping skills and/or about getting some good press?  One has to wonder… 

Meanwhile, in stark and refreshing contrast, the Seasoned Scientists that will save us, work through the night.  Their only companion is the low hum of their Supercomputers churning models.  It is the grandeur of our Logical Light that will pierce the darkness and go down in History, not what we post on our Facebook page.

The quiet, methodological and precise scientist.

Science is about the long game: delayed gratification.  Testing and re-testing.  Circumscribed statements. Hypothesis testing.  Putting primitive instincts in their proper place.  Meanwhile, passionate non-scientific humans are wired to seek immediate gratification and to be willing to go to a War of Words online…why?  Who knows? The reasons are many. 

But I will tell you one thing that you can take to the bank: if you can try to emulate the discipline of the scientific mindset, you have a much better chance of not descending into the ridiculous reactivity rampant in society.

I truly hope there is a more intelligent species in this universe.  Because if we are it, well, that is a depressing thought.  And given just how much space we are discovering there is – I think – a chance other life forms may teach us a better way.  To use Star Trek language: We need more Spock and less Klingon. 

Scientists argue about data sets and the characteristics of that data set; How representative is that data set, given the methodology used, and what exactly is the Statistical Power of that study?  What more needs to be done to further the investigation? How do we modify the current predominating theory regarding particular phenomena we are investigating, given trends in data?

By the way, Statistical Power refers to the ability to see a finding that is truly there. In contrast, Political Power refers to the ability to influence people. No mention of data necessary! 

Those questions get a scientist’s blood running, and their blood is just as red as everyone else’s.  But you would not know it by the way they behave.  And yet, we all know that it is much easier to get humans to rally around a football game than around a dataset!!!

As people make sure that their “oh so special” opinions are heard online, scientists are focused on whether their data is “in line” with the current hypotheses they have.  They circumscribe their opinions, if they are well-trained, by the data in front of them.  They are so scrupulous by nature that even if they have a solid finding, they don’t accept it as meaningful until it is replicated. 

This is the quiet, methodological way of the scientist, we stalk our prey, day and night, following where our data  – not our Egos – takes us.   Rather than impulsively pouncing, we analyze and map the contours of every facet of the animal we are studying until we know it intimately.  

Our devastatingly powerful scientific method has  – in many ways  – brought our society to where it is now.  

If there is one thing you want to be able to say during this pandemic, it may just be this:  I learned what Real Science is

If you can say that, if you can stretch your mind outside of its current emotional constraints, if you can Listen and Learn, then maybe next time you post something online about a neighbor’s point of view, you can disagree by pointing to data, and elevate the conversation to something eloquent, rather than primitive.  Move it away from your feelings and make it more about discussions of data. You might find this is a way to be more neighborly, more practical.  And, well, more intelligent.    

After all, sorry…but your feelings are not that special.  But a really good dataset is.  In fact, really good datasets are what will lead us to the Holy Grail: THE vaccination.  Even the most religious among us can appreciate that. At least I hope so. 


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