The Closer You Get… the fear and disgust response

32 years ago today, Blair and I were in a serious car accident. It was soon after we were (first) married and I was pregnant with our first son. You don’t know our son Abraham because Abraham didn’t survive.

As I often do, I like to write my way through things. It helps me to understand myself and the world that I live in. I’ve always journaled. And some of my journal entries I’ve turned into public blog posts (edited, of course).

So, here’s one about that tragic time in our lives. Warning: a lot of it is “sciencey”. It is about the human cognitive and behavioral response to tragedy and how that can shape the way we view risk (fear); the way we perceive others and the world (with fear). It’s also about mind-numbing and soul-sucking depression – if you care to read between the lines.

Excerpt: “There are physical and moral dimensions of disgust. On that fateful day in 1986 (and many days after), I experienced both. That Alabama song elicited a strong physical response in me – a stomach-churning, heart-palpating reaction. It was a benign, harmless song but one that I associated with a negative experience in my life.”

Food fads and grey matters

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) is one of my favorite writers. And while I can easily spend hours pouring over her thoughtful and creative prose and poetry, I also love this quote of hers:

“Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.”

I ran across her quote today and it prompted me to pull this blog post out of the archives… a reminder of the importance of critical thinking. It’s tough work but now, more than ever, critical thinking is vital in navigating our information rich world.

Self, society, and the science of skinny jeans

bullet-LeafThis past weekend, for the umpteenth time, I cracked open Matthew Lieberman’s book Social: why our brains are wired to connect (2013). I skimmed through it like I normally do with non-fiction books. I picked out bits and pieces – like an uncle foraging through a Sunday smorgasbord – finding things that I find intellectually appetizing (AKA things that confirm my bias).

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Credit: author

Among the many gems outlined in this marvelous book, one passage in particular stood out to me. The author refers to Neitzsche, who argued that:

“…our sense of self is typically something constructed, primarily by the people in our lives, and that the self is actually a secret agent working for them more than for us.”

We humans are herd animals. We respond to signals from those around us; the world around us. We see this behavior play out, for example, in how we respond to cultural trends. Here’s an example.

SKINNY JEANS

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Source: Pixabay

Remember when skinny jeans first emerged on the fashion scene? 

I said, “Yuck. No damn way.” A few months later, I was… “Well, maybe…” 

Now I have three pair. For some reason, skinny jeans became a palatable fashion choice for me.

So, what’s that all about? 

We are influenced by those in our close personal networks. Our nature is to elevate and preserve the status we have (or aspire to have) within our social ‘herd’. This means that we need to abide by the collective rules of that social network.  If necessary, we will go to great lengths to protect a position. This is reflected in our “conforming” behaviors  (see Christakis and Fowler 2009). We pick up on social cues (behaviors) of others to know if and when we have “fallen out of favor” or crossed the boundaries of social norms. When it appears that we have broken away from “what is acceptable”, we risk being penalized by our network. Whether we care to admit it or not, we are highly influenced by the people around us, our environment (work, etc). This influence frames our behaviors, thoughts, perceptions, and opinions. And even what we choose to wear.

When it comes to fashion, I have always been “fashionably late”; slow to respond to changing trends. I eventually get there (well, somewhere in the vicinity anyway). As for skinny jeans, I’m not going to die on that fashion sword. But knowing me, it will take a while to move onto the next trend. And the ‘nudge’ will inevitably come from the people around me.

Suggested things to read, see, and listen to:

*This blog post is an updated excerpt from a post Ready, Set, Shame! (April 2016). 

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Monitoring the ‘information diet’: learning from the Registered Dietitians

bullet-LeafIf you listen to only one podcast episode this year, let it be this one. My friend, Robyn Flipse – Registered Dietitian and Cultural Anthropologist – chats with Registered Dietitian and podcaster Melissa Joy Dobbins (on her program, Soundbites) about how we are influenced by food cultism.

A summary of Robyn’s ‘nuggets’ of ‘food’ wisdom…

  1. We are the only animals that use symbolism in our lives. We apply that symbolism in many ways (for example, think currency). We also apply symbolism to food. We give food certain status and meaning in our societies and cultures.
  2. Our human nature leaves us vulnerable to influence by “food gurus”; people that step in and play on our fears and anxieties that we naturally have as humans. We are susceptible to the dogmatic traps and ideologies that these gurus use and perpetuate. They use language with claims about food that can “detoxify” or “purify” us.
  3. This, combined with our need to “belong” to tribes and social groups along with the influence of social media has left us vulnerable to food cultism and influencers. We are often willfully blind to the fact that there are usually a profit-based motives driving these food-related ideologies.

The one statement that Robyn made that really stuck out for me was this one:

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What and how to eat: we humans need to be taught and shown.

I hadn’t really thought about it like that before. And it makes sense. It also reminded me of a blog post that I wrote a couple of years ago: Fast Information Nation: the social costs of our highly connected world. As is the case with food, we need to be taught and shown how to consume information:

Excerpt: “We have an information banquet at our finger tips.  It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears; a smorgasbord of colour, content and a constant (sometimes annoying) presence in our lives.  Information has become the new flavourful, colourful commodity that dominates our lives and it’s shared on a fast-moving and highly-connected supply chain…But we have only so much space in our grey matter and we are presented with a ‘bountiful diet’ of mass information every day.  Ensuring that we access and share high quality, accurate information is important. Not only for our personal (mental) health and the health of our families, but for the health and wellness of our communities as well.”

In short, not only do we need to monitor our information diet (“calories” in, “calories” out), we need help in understanding how best to consume information in a balanced way. Especially in this fast-paced, socially-media driven world that we live in. This requires some work – discernment and critical thinking. Some good guiding principles can be found through these sources:

 

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Understanding conspiracy theories and cognitive styles in a post-truth era

Over the past few years, I’ve read, enjoyed, and learned a great deal from the friendly banter that goes back and forth between Stephen Lewandowsky (@STWorg) and Dan Kahan (@cult_cognition) on Twitter. While Kahan often points to politics and ‘tribes’ as triggers for risk perception and behavior, Lewandowsky reframes things in a slightly different way. He suggests that perceptions may be less shaped by political ideology and more by something he calls “cognitive styles.”

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“Cognitive style” is a way of thinking that can often invoke conspiracy theories. Lewandowsky sees the tragic events such as 9-11 or the assassination of Kennedy as random events.  These random events are frightening and highly unpredictable. And humans (the ‘survivalists’ that we are) will create a story to make sense of these kinds of events that appear to defy explanation. These tragic, random events are then readily woven into the conspiracy theory narrative (A good example of this is The Beatles Never Existed; the greatest, weirdest conspiracy theory of all time” — yep, it’s a thing. I kid you not).

There are a couple of key behavioral characteristics of a conspiracy theorist:

  1. If a person believes in one conspiracy theory, he/she is likely to believe in others;
  2. He/she will often believe in conspiracy theories that contradict one another. (i.e. Princess Diana was murdered in a plot contrived by MI6 and Princess Diana’s death was a hoax and she is still alive and well).

The other common element to conspiratorial thinking is that the cognitive style frequently requires the fabrication of a malicious enemy. You probably know where I am going next here.  Big, bad Monsanto. Let’s face it, no story is complete without a “villain.” Without a villain, there can be no victim and, by default, no hero.  According to Lewandowsky, creating a villain gives the storyteller or conspiratorial thinker a “sense of control” and it “makes him/her feel better.”

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What does this mean for us as science communicators? Consumer perceptions will be influenced, to some degree, by the stories circulated by the conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theories (and theorists) are never going to go away.  But continuing to chase fiction-filled ambulances is futile. It’s sort of like playing an ongoing game of whack-a-mole. Instead, we need to:

  1. Think proactively about how and when conspiracies may originate.
  2. Understand the triggers (events or things (i.e. new products and technologies)).
  3. Anticipate how people will potentially respond to them.
  4. Be aggressively positive about the work we do and love.
  5. Frame stories in ways that are authentic to self and, at the same time, meaningful for diverse audiences.
  6. Commit to sustained engagement. We must continue to share stories about how science improves societies and economies.

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References:

Lewandowsky, Stephan, Gilles E. Gignac, Klaus Oberauer. (2013). “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science.” PlosONE. Volume 8, Issue 10. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0075637

Buckley, Thea. (2015). “Why Do Some People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-some-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories/. July 27th.

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My Science Love Story

SAIFood Blog recently allowed me to take up a bit of their ‘online real estate’ to share my thoughts on storytelling and science communication. An excerpt:

“…the art and science of storytelling is evolving. And storytelling today requires a whole new level of agility and ingenuity than it ever has before. It is one part engagement and two parts personal branding. It also requires an aptitude for self-reflection.”

“Sure, Cami. You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk? What’s your story?”

I’m glad you asked. This short, animated video documents my evolving ‘love story’ with science. And you might be in for a surprise. How that love affair started had very little to do with the science that was being done.

(story by me; illustrations by me; narration by me)

What’s your story? How are you going to tell it?

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Ideological Bias & Social Survival: don’t get voted off the island!

My colleague, Bill, popped his head into my office one day with two words: “Ideological bias”. Then a few more: “What do you know?”

I shared some info with him. And I thought that I would share it with you, my reader.

ideological bias

Ideological bias is less of a ‘thing’ than it is a family of things. It is defined as a collection of ideas, or beliefs, held by an individual, or a group of people. Ideology and bias – together – are built upon commitments to and consistency of ideas usually in the form of promise, effort, money, beliefs, relationships.

Ideological bias is a part of a broader family of interconnected behaviors and biases.

  • There’s confirmation bias where humans like to seek out information that affirms their world views. If faced with (accurate) information that shakes the ground beneath ‘sacred cows’ (beliefs), one is more likely to retreat and follow information that supports a personal world view. And if that accurate information is delivered in a such a way that is received as a ‘personal affront’ (so, poorly communicated), we are left with a backfire effect that can push people even deeper into ideological spaces.
  • There is also identity protective motivated reasoning which reinforces personal standing in social groups. What dominates people’s fears today is social alienation. This kind of motivated reasoning protects people from this.
  • We also become solution averse (which is linked closely to both identity protective motivated reasoning and confirmation bias) where we just avoid workable solutions (like GE crops) because they do not resonate with our ideological bias or world view.
  • Biased assimilation might sometimes be involved (or appear to be involved) when identity protective motivated reasoning is at work. But because sticking to what one believes doesn’t always promote one’s status in one’s group, people will often be motivated to construe information in ways that have no relation to what they already believe. (Kahan looks at this / see his quote below).
  • Further complicating (polluting?) the environment is media bias wherein decisions by editorial staff and journalists shape news stories to suit political opinions. We see this in play out currently in ‘fake news’ or through ‘alternative facts’ (not to mention, our interconnected, social media-driven world just adds to all of this).

There are others: intellectual and emotional bias, political bias, sensory bias, social bias, and content bias. The list is endless. But a key underlying element to all of this is how personal networks become a very important ‘enforcement’ factors for and key outputs of ideological bias. Yale’s Dan Kahan says it best:

“People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand…The trouble starts when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings — ones that effectively announce that ‘if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them’. In that situation, ordinary individuals’ lives will go better if their perceptions of societal risk conform with those of their group.”

struggle is real

Social networks are important to the human animal; for status, personal identity, and for survival. In our outreach efforts, we must seek ways to communicate the good news about science and modern agriculture in ways that won’t alienate people from their close personal networks – and compromise their identities.

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The power of storytelling…

This Valentine’s Day, share the love… of a story. Paul Zak says so….

” Zak examines the psychological effects of stories and narratives on the human mind – the ‘neuroscience of the narrative’. According to Zak, whether they play out at bedtime, in our communities or in popular media, stories can build trust. Zak’s research finds that stories cause our brains to produce a chemical called oxytocin (there are others too). The production of this oxytocin, in turn, enhances our feelings of empathy. Stories can be powerful influencers of both opinion and behavior.”

“It’s all just pretend…” #predatorypublishing

If you have been keeping up with my blog posts of late, you will know that the issue of predatory publishing has been on my radar (see this and this). What is predatory publishing? Jeffrey Beall, founder and archivist at Scholarly Open Access defines it as:

“…[A]n exploitative open-access publishing business model that involves charging publication fees to authors without providing the editorial and publishing services associated with legitimate journals (open access or not).”

The number of predatory publishers and journals has grown significantly over the past few years. A favorite journalist of mine, Tom Spears, has investigated this trend and the issue of predatory publishing extensively (and creatively, I might add) – often by carrying out elaborate ‘sting’ operations.  His latest ‘sting’ is recorded in this article he published in the Ottawa Citizen entitled:

This ‘predatory’ science journal published our ludicrous editorial mocking its practices

I won’t dig into tragically-comedic details of Spears’ latest story. Spears can tell it much better that I can. So, I encourage you to read the article. (Also, check out this clever post by Retraction Watch that summarizes Spears ‘social experiment’ and its results.) What I will do is recap the high-level key messages and pull some illuminating excerpts from the article:

  1. Scholars publish in these journals
  2. By default, scholars often end up on editorial boards of these journals (either knowingly or unknowingly)
  3. ‘Publish or perish’ pressures can misdirect young scholars into predatory publishing spaces
  4. …and, yes, there are predatory conferences, too.

Spears’ interviewed Jim Germida, executive editor-in-chief of Canadian Science Publishing (a legit science publisher, by the way) and vice-provost of faculty relations at the University of Saskatchewan (my alma mater happyface2). Spears quotes Germida:

“In overseeing appointments at [the University of Saskatchewan], …We have actually discovered people who have published in predatory journals or are sitting on an editorial board of one of these journals. And it can get them into big trouble for associating with an organization that is substandard or worse…”

“The other problem is there is the pressure of ‘publish or perish.’ It still exists,” and this pushes young academics to look for publishers, sometimes in the wrong places. Academics often argue they’re smart enough not to fall for predatory journals. Germida warns: “It is something all universities should be more aware of … I have seen cases of people being taken in,” and sometimes of people knowingly working with predatory journals.”

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You might think: Look, I’m not a scientist. I don’t work at a university. Who cares? I don’t have a dog in this fight.

Well, you might be surprised to know that you are affected by predatory publishing. Maybe not directly, but there are downstream implications for consumers when the science’s integrity is weakened in this way. Predatory publishers not only trick scholars that conduct sound research, they provide the channel for poorly conducted studies. Steven Salzberg articulates this well in his Forbes article dated January 3, 2017:

“On the surface, these publications look and act just like real scientific journals, but it’s all just pretend. The publishers of these journals presumably care more about their bottom line than about scientific integrity….[they] will create a never-ending demand for fake breakthroughs and science-y sounding studies that are built on a house of cards.”

Kevin Carey wrote a nice piece for The New York Times that exposes this weird world of “fakedemia” [my term]: “…within the halls of respectable academia, the difference between legitimate and fake publications and conferences is far blurrier than scholars would like to admit.”

As I stated in a previous blog post: “Scientific integrity is at risk. As scholars, we need to distinguish the good journals from those ‘other ones’. As consumers, we need to think critically about how science is represented in the media.”

Unfortunately, there continues to be a lack of awareness about this problem of predatory publishing across the board, from lab scientists (public and private sector) to downstream end users and consumers.  We need to spread the word. Sting operations, like the ones that Spears has commandeered, bring the problem to light through relatable narratives.

Resources:

Beall, Jeffrey. (2016). Scholarly Open Access: Available online at: https://scholarlyoa.com/ [SOA website is down as of January 2017; service is no longer available]

Burdick, Alan. (2017). “Paging Dr. Fraud”: The Fake Publishers that are Ruining Science. The New Yorker. March 22.

Carey, Kevin. (2016). “A Peek Inside the Strange World of Fake Academia.” The New York Times. December 29th. Available online at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/upshot/fake-academe-looking-much-like-the-real-thing.html?_r=0

Giddings, Val. (2013) Peer Review – where you thought it ended? That’s just the beginning! Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Available online at: https://itif.org/publications/2013/07/12/peer-review-%E2%80%93-where-you-thought-it-ended-that%E2%80%99s-just-beginning

Rennie, D. (2010). “Integrity in Scientific Publishing.” Health Services Research. June. 45(3). Available online at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2875766/

Rennie D., Yank V., Emanuel L. (1997). “When authorship fails. A proposal to make contributors accountable.” The Journal of the American Medical Association. Aug 20;278(7):579-85

Retraction Watch. Available online at: http://retractionwatch.com/

Ryan, Camille and John Vicini. (2016). “Why You Should Avoid Predatory Journals, Welcome Rigorous Review”. Forbes. Available online at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/gmoanswers/2016/06/30/predatory-journals/#410a888a5558

Salzberg, Steven. (2017). “Fake Medical Journals Are Spreading, And They Are Filled With Bad Science.” Forbes. Available online: http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevensalzberg/2017/01/03/fake-medical-journals-are-spreading-and-they-are-filled-with-bad-science/#7d7b04ff68cb

Spears, Tom. (2016). “This ‘predatory’ science journal published our ludicrous editorial mocking its practices.” Ottawa Citizen. Available online at: http://ottawacitizen.com/storyline/this-predatory-science-journal-published-our-ludicrous-editorial-mocking-its-practices

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In her shoes: the role of empathy in our conversations

I just picked up Paul Bloom’s latest book “Against Empathy: the case for rational compassion”… I’m about halfway through (and enjoying it) and it reminded me of this blog post that I wrote last year: “In Her Shoes: the role of empathy in our conversations”…