The Me of Science

This is going to sound trite, but have you ever wondered about your role in Science? Really. I mean that of your consciousness in apprehending and interpreting that which is measured: the ‘Me’-ness which separates each of us from whatever we’re doing -or, rather, which joins us to it: joins us to the other?

I don’t mean to sound Cartesian here; I don’t want to get into mind-body stuff, and yet it comes down to whether or not we believe that the Mind is reducible to a bundle of interconnected neurons, or something more, doesn’t it? An emergent phenomenon -a synergism- or merely a synthesis: an entity wholly explainable in terms of its constituents.

Where, in other words, do I come in? And if I don’t, is there any proof -apart from my saying so- that I even exist?

Of course, why should I even care? I mean, cogito ergo sum, eh? I know I exist, and so I can investigate anything I want, acting in my own right as a valid agent. Science and I can look into any box and measure its contents… except, perhaps, reality itself -I can assume no God’s-eye view of that. I cannot absent myself from that box while I measure it -I am immersed in it. The box, really, is all there is.

I have to say, I was re-seduced into this type of thinking by a very perceptive essay in Aeon written as a collaboration between Adam Frank, professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester in New York, Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and Evan Thompson, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. https://aeon.co/essays/the-blind-spot-of-science-is-the-neglect-of-lived-experience

‘In our urge for knowledge and control, we’ve created a vision of science as a series of discoveries about how reality is in itself, a God’s-eye view of nature. Such an approach not only distorts the truth, but creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world. That divide arises from what we call the Blind Spot, which science itself cannot see. In the Blind Spot sits experience: the sheer presence and immediacy of lived perception.’

So, ‘Elementary particles, moments in time, genes, the brain – all these things are assumed to be fundamentally real. By contrast, experience, awareness and consciousness are taken to be secondary.’ And yet, ‘We never encounter physical reality outside of our observations of it… [and] these tests never give us nature as it is in itself, outside our ways of seeing and acting on things. Experience is just as fundamental to scientific knowledge as the physical reality it reveals… The point is that physical science doesn’t include an account of experience; but we know that experience exists, so the claim that the only things that exist are what physical science tells us is false.’ Or maybe misleading.

‘Husserl, the German thinker who founded the philosophical movement of phenomenology, argued that lived experience is the source of science. It’s absurd, in principle, to think that science can step outside it.’ And Alfred North Whitehead, who taught at Harvard University in the 1920ies, ‘argued that science relies on a faith in the order of nature that can’t be justified by logic. That faith rests directly on our immediate experience… he argued that what we call ‘reality’ is made up of evolving processes that are equally physical and experiential.’ You’ve gotta love this stuff.

Anyway, I suppose the importance of all this palaver is to point out that ‘When we look at the objects of scientific knowledge, we don’t tend to see the experiences that underpin them. We do not see how experience makes their presence to us possible.’ However, let’s face it, without an observer -a measurer- the results are unacknowledged. Science is not science, if we are not there to do it and record it.

The whole subject is reminiscent of the discussions I remember from my university days when we would sit around for hours in a pub exploring our growing awareness of the world.
“I don’t know how you could say that,” somebody at the table -Brian, usually- would exclaim, throwing his arms up. “Science is about objects! It’s not at all comparable to religion…”

“And why is that?” someone else -usually Jonathan- would answer. “It just deals with reality a little differently, that’s all.”

“A little differently?” The arms again. “Religion is completely subjective! You can’t prove anything…”

“And does Science prove anything -or is it just the scientist who looks at the instruments who proves it? Somebody has to read the data. Experience them…” This was always Jonathan’s argument, I remember.

Brian was a little more excitable, and he would roll his eyes at the slightest provocation as disdain dripped unchecked from the rest of his face. “Come on, Jonathan! You don’t experience science in the same way as religion. You do science!”

“How do you read an instrument, or interpret a result without experiencing it, Brian? There has to be someone who looks at the measurement.”

Brian would always shake his head in disgust when Jonathan disagreed with him. “But the measurement was not created by the scientist, it was made by the machine, or whatever -and that’s about as objective as you can ever get.”

A little smile would always creep onto Jonathan’s face at this point. “Well, who designed the machine? Who built it for the purpose…?”

“Give me a break, eh? Once it’s built, it’s an object!”

“But the experiment -the question- which the object is built to answer, is subjectively constructed, is it not? And the results have to be formulated into a conclusion, don’t they? Accepted, or rejected, the results have to pass their way through a mind. Through consciousness… They have to be experienced!”

“And what is doing the experiencing? It’s just your brain -a physical, an objective, thing.” Then Brian would smile and sit back in his seat with his beer to deliver the coup de grace. “The brain is not a ‘who’ but a ‘what’ isn’t it?”

But Jonathan would like this part of the argument, I remember -it always took this turn. “If that which interprets data is an objective ‘what’, and if that which it is experiencing is also a ‘what’, then everything is a ‘what’ -Religion included; it’s doing the same thing… sort of like Science, eh?”

The arguments, fuelled no doubt by the effects of alcohol on inquiring minds, would go on in increasing complexity and implausibility until the pub closed, and we would all wake up the next morning with hangovers -but still friends, willing to take each other on again at the next opportunity. In a way, it makes me wonder what those authors of the Aeon essay were going on about with their questions about what role subjectivity and experience has in dealing with the world -its role as the Blind Spot. My friends and I -subjects all- don’t experience it as anything like a problem -not really. We see it simply as friendship. And that is the foundation for everything isn’t it…?

 

 

 

Is Everybody a Petard?

Sociology is certainly interesting; it turns out that none of us are normal -well, perhaps more revealingly, there is no normal ‘us’. We are, at best, data points spread out on a rather amorphous Bell curve, vaguely generalizable depending on the homogeneity of the group chosen, but often unrepresentative of populations further afield.

And yet, why should that be a surprise to anybody who has vacationed in a different hemisphere -or, for that matter, simply walked through a poorer section of their own town? Or mingled with members of another ethnic community? Or even talked to a different age group…?

We seem enamoured with reducing people to numbers -statistics- as if by accumulating and analyzing them appropriately, we have proven something… Undoubtedly we have demonstrated something, but what? And how applicable is it over time and culture?

I have to admit that I have long felt that the generalizations were overdone, and in the current era of rapid dissemination of ideas that seem as stable as clothes in a washing machine, not terribly relevant. But the idea was reintroduced to me in an essay in Aeon.com by Kensy Cooperrider, a cognitive scientist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago: https://aeon.co/ideas/what-happens-to-cognitive-diversity-when-everyone-is-more-weird

His contention was that ‘On all continents, even in the world’s remotest regions, indigenous people are swapping their distinctive ways of parsing the world for Western, globalised ones. As a result, human cognitive diversity is dwindling… This marks a major change of course for our species. For tens of thousands of years, as we fanned out across the globe, we adapted to radically different niches, and created new types of societies; in the process, we developed new practices, frameworks, technologies and conceptual systems. But then, some time in the past few centuries, we reached an inflection point. A peculiar cognitive toolkit that had been consolidated in the industrialising West began to gain global traction. Other tools were abandoned. Diversity started to ebb.’

The toolkit he is referencing is the use of WEIRD -an acronym meaning the use of Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic students as fodder for the studies that were being published in the sociological literature. He references a famous paper published in 2010 led by the psychologist Joe Henrich at the University of British Columbia entitled ‘The Weirdest people in the World?’ https://aeon.co/essays/american-undergrads-are-too-weird-to-stand-for-all-humanity

And in that paper, Henrich claimed, ‘researchers in the behavioural sciences had almost exclusively focused on a small sliver of humanity: people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies. The second was that this sliver is not representative of the larger whole, but that people in London, Buenos Aires and Seattle were, in an acronym, WEIRD.’ They were definitely not representative of the world at large, and yet since this type of group was being referenced constantly, the psychologist Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania, felt it might be how otherwise disparate groups were beginning to see themselves; where he found cross-cultural differences, ‘they were more pronounced in older generations. The world’s young people, in other words, are converging.’

One example, as I have mentioned, is our obsession with numbers to quantify and measure things. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, and yet it does represent a unique weltanschauung that ignores other, no less valid, ways of engaging with everyday reality.

Another might be our fixation on Time -that artificial construct we append to every action, whether actual or impending. Again, for those of us who are tied to schedules it seems not only appropriate, but also necessary. How else could we survive and prosper in the life in which we are enmeshed?

There are other examples of the stamp our culture has had on far flung peoples, but the one that intrigues me the most is language. The currently evolving Lingua Franca (a strikingly ironic oxymoron) could reasonably be argued to be English. And why might that be important? ‘English is an egocentric language whereas most others are allocentric: English-speakers describe objects’ location in relation to themselves or other people, and not to other objects (for example, ‘the bike is five metres to my left’ rather than ‘the bike is next to the fire hydrant’).’

I had never thought of my language like that, I must admit, but if the contention is valid, the ramifications are interesting and it affects the kinds of studies that are carried out. ‘Our cultural bias means that not only do we ignore concepts that might be important in other countries – such as face, caste or honour – but that you often end up testing for an English-language concept (‘shame’, for example) which might have no direct equivalent in another society, or have different connotations.’

Henrich argued that ‘what we think of as science is all too often ‘WEIRD’ science… Between 2003 and 2007, 96 per cent of experimental volunteers in the leading psychology journals were WEIRD; 68 per cent of papers relied exclusively on US subjects; and in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67 per cent of total subjects were US psychology students. ‘Many fields have a model organism that they study… A lot of medicine is done with mice, a lot of genetics is done with fruit flies. And in psychology, the model organism is the American undergraduate.’ Perhaps things have changed since those statistics were collated, and yet, I’m sure fiscal constraints still limit both the amount of diversity attainable and the ability to replicate and validate whatever conclusions were obtained.

But, apart from paring off a few charming idiosyncrasies, and allowing -forcing?- strangers to adapt to how we in the WEIRD west view the world, is there any harm done? It’s still valuable information, right?

All information is no doubt valuable, but is it useful? Cooperrider summarizes his concern at the end: ‘For much of human history, one of our most distinctive traits as a species has been our sheer diversity.’ So, is that something we can afford to lose?

Not that I have any realistic say in the matter, but now that I understand the trend, I have to ask myself if I really want to live in a vanilla ice-cream world -one with no lumps in it. No mysterious colours, no fireside tales of how each of us came to be.

Are we not such stuff as dreams are made on?

This Thing of Darkness

We all walk the earth in egg-shell armour at the whim of Nature. There is little of any of us that will not break if chaos strikes, or heal without a scar. You’d think that, given our fragility, we would opt for conciliation or compromise, and yet more often we challenge those who are not us, and seek to conquer those we cannot otherwise convince to join. It has become a point of honour not to yield, and so we glorify those who suffer grievous injury for causes dear to us, and our stories magnify their deeds, and exploit their hardships. We call them heroes…

But not all who suffer are our heroes, even though they may also have demonstrated equal courage for their positions, or found themselves inadvertently damaged in the crossfire of our wrath. We call them victims -if we notice them at all -and often deny guilt, even if we do.

Despite Steven Pinker’s contention in his The Better Angels of Our Nature that violence has been diminishing ‘over long stretches of time’ and that ‘today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence’, I am still troubled by the violence that continues around us. Of course he may be correct in pointing out a lack of current, or at least, local internecine wars that would affect our daily lives, and suggesting that our improved communication systems highlight and magnify our knowledge of more distant conflicts without our having to experience the trauma ourselves. So, is it our arguably decreasing experience of violence that makes something like domestic cruelty stand out? At any rate, when this form of abuse seems all too apparent around us, it is impossible to ignore. Immoral to accept.

And often hidden beneath the more obvious traumatic injuries are the long-term effects. Of course we have all read about the ramifications of continuing abuse, and about how difficult it is to know whether the injuries are purposefully inflicted or the accidents they are often claimed to be, but what about the often more subtle and cumulative effects of traumatic brain injury?

Two articles caught my eye when I was trying to learn more about the subject. The first was an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times of a few years ago: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-1012-garayserratos-tbi-domestic-abuse-20151012-story.html ‘In recent years, medical science has uncovered the high risk and devastating effects of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, among U.S. combat soldiers and athletes, especially football and hockey players. What if a vastly greater population were also suffering these effects: women and children living with the consequences of domestic violence?’

At that time, ‘There [were] few empirical studies on the prevalence of TBI among women and children affected by domestic violence. But evidence so far strongly indicates a silent epidemic, with major public health ramifications. A 2001 study found that 67% of women seeking emergency medical support for injuries stemming from domestic violence had symptoms related to TBI, and 30% reported loss of consciousness.’

A more recent article, with links to this op-ed was in the online Conversation: https://theconversation.com/traumatic-brain-injury-the-unseen-impact-of-domestic-violence-92730 ‘The statistics are terrifying: In Canada, one woman is killed every week by her partner, globally, one third of women will suffer violence at the hands of someone they love in their lifetime.’

The article was written by Paul van Donkelaar, a professor in the Faculty of Health and Social Development and a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia. He goes on to ask, ‘But what if survivors […] are also dealing with the effects of a traumatic brain injury along with the fear and trauma of finally having escaped a long-term abusive relationship? […] the impacts of this injury can be devastating — ranging from headaches, double vision and nausea to difficulty concentrating, remembering things and completing simple tasks. It’s also clear the effects tend to be worse when the trauma occurs repeatedly over time, with symptoms lasting for months to years.’

And, ‘Unlike athletes who have suffered a sport-related concussion, survivors of intimate partner violence also quite often experience emotional difficulties such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.’

‘[…]the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reports each year, 2.3 per cent of women over the age of 18 experience severe physical violence including “being slammed against something” or “being hit with a fist or something hard.” Furthermore, up to 90 percent of survivors of intimate partner violence report head, neck and face injuries at least once and typically on multiple occasions.’

Although I’d like to hope that we live in somewhat different conditions from our neighbours to the south, ‘Assuming similar percentages in Canada, this translates into approximately 276,000 women per year who will suffer a traumatic brain injury as a result of intimate partner violence.’

One of the many disturbing things about this trauma is the possibility of subsequent cognitive deficits -some of which may be severe, and because they may have occurred years before, difficult to remedy, let alone reliably assign attribution. As the author of that op-ed in the L. A. Times, Maria Garay-Serratos, wrote of her mother: ‘For as long as I can remember, my mother took aspirin every day, complaining of unbearable headaches. Sometimes she locked herself in the bedroom with the lights off, asking me to take my siblings outside because she couldn’t tolerate the noise. As she got older, her naps grew longer and her sensitivity to light and noise intensified. By her 50s, her memory had begun to fail.

‘On the day she finally asked me to take her away from my father, I found her in a worse state than I had ever seen her. She could barely stand. She was crawling from room to room while my father ignored her. […] When all the tests were finished, the neurologist told us my mother was suffering from moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. The head trauma had been so great and so consistent that there was little they could do.’

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to focus on simply treating the physical symptoms -and, of course, rescuing the victim from further harm. This is obviously important, and yet woefully insufficient; there is also a need to be alert to problems that seem temporally unrelated. The link to head trauma may be more evident with events like automobile and athletic or combat injuries, but less so in a woman who escaped from an abusive relationship years ago.

Maybe Pinker really has spotted an inexorable trend towards less violence in our society. In the meantime, however, I think ongoing surveillance and counselling for the effects of head trauma might help the abused victims to live a better life while we await an actual treatment for what we now call CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). Oh, and an effective prevention strategy, too -in case those better angels lose their jobs…