Sunday, November 29, 2009

In which I met the press, and started reading a new book

Yeah, I did it again. I watched David Gregory.

I've decided he's pretty good at interviewing. He just sucks at moderating. Last week's was a fiasco with people talking over each other, arguing, and he couldn't get a word in edgewise to control them or the direction of the conversation.

This week's was more watchable. (Probably because half of it was pre-recorded and edited!)


So I was surprised to find that I actually agreed with some of what pastor Rick Warren had to say. Much of it, actually.

Of course this post is not just about agreeing - that would be dull. The two things he said that I didn't like were about a) gay marriage and b) abortion rights.

He said he's more sympathetic to gays now that he's doing more AIDS outreach, even though he has these Biblical views on homosexuality. That's just... yuck. Condescending, righteous. But okay. Sympathy is better than hatred or violence.

But then he went on to say how he believes there are 46 million unborn Americans who don't get to vote because they were aborted.

Now that's just ridiculous.

He quoted Peggy Noonan as saying that any 16-year-old boy who uses a condom knows when life begins.

So now 16-year-old boys are the experts.

Of course! What were we thinking? Let's elect them to run everything! Oh and Peggy Noonan! She's my new hero!


He also said something about the economy that got my attention. He said that with unemployment at around 10% in this country, that's equivalent to the entire country of Canada being out of work.

Wheew. Is that even right?

The US census puts the US population at 308,046,671. (I'd love to know who that last person is, wouldn't you? Ha ha ha, no seriously there are let's say 8 babies born per minute in the US).

So ~10% of the steady-state (ish) US population then is about 30 million people. Okay yeah, that sounds about right from what I've been hearing on the news (give or take for people who are able to work). Of course, some states are worse than the average (Michigan is at 15%).

So what's the population of Canada (I know it's low)?

Apparently Rick Warren is more or less correct. It's 33,859,000, at least according to wikipedia.

Of course, I disagreed with what he said next, but not very strongly. He said we need to get people back to work first, and worry about healthcare after that. Personally, I think we need to solve healthcare first, since then it's not literally a life-and-death question of whether we're all working in traditional careers or not.

And then he said something interesting when David asked him about what happened at Ft. Hood. And he gave the standard speech about how, and I'm paraphrasing now, there are nutjobs in every religion. But he said they are fundamentalists. And he said yeah, it's a term that has changed in meaning. Fundamentalist used to refer to people who took the Bible too literally (I think that's what he said). But now he said it means anyone who believes in a religion but refuses to listen.

And I thought, hey, that's my problem. I'm a scientific fundamentalist. I don't subscribe to what the scientific church is saying.

I want to go back to why we believed in this stuff in the first place. So that makes me a fringe lunatic. Not that I'm going to physically attack anyone. But it's another way to describe feeling marginalized and abandoned by something you really tried to have faith in.


In a strange kind of irony, the other guests on today's episode were Bill and Melinda Gates.

This issue of the Gates Foundation is interesting to me, and I was curious to hear what they had to say.

They said what they were talking about is only 0.25% of the entire US budget (I think they're referring to NIH funding, but they didn't say the word "NIH"). They said the most important part of the US economy is innovation, and especially in health research and at universities, and that it had not been cut.

Um, really Bill? You DROPPED OUT OF COLLEGE and you have the nerve to say that
a) universities are the most important source of innovation
b) research has not been cut

???? He said the "best" scientists are doing all this great stuff.... As usual, I'm afraid it's not the horse's mouth that's talking. How is Bill Gates qualified to say anything about the "best" science, especially health research? Because he has a lot of money?


Meanwhile I'm still unresolved on whether I really support the Gates foundation's efforts. Okay yes, I agree that getting vaccines to sick kids everywhere is good and worth doing. But do I agree that our priorities should be to help save the rest of the world when the US is not doing nearly as well as they want us to believe?

Yeah, this might be news to you - it was news to me. And it kind of made me laugh.

I started reading Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. And immediately felt like, oh my god, I really liked what I had read of her previous work, but now I may have to write her a fan letter.

Right up front, she gives you the cold, hard facts.

Allow me to quote:

Surprisingly, when psychologists undertake to measure the relative happiness of nations, they routinely find that Americans are not, even in prosperous times and despite our vaunted positivity, very happy at all. A recent meta-analysis of over a hundred studies of self-reported happiness worldwide found Americans ranking only twenty-third

And then she goes on to explain:

How can we be so surpassingly "positive" in self-image and stereotype without being the world's happiest and best-off people? The answer, I think, is that positivity is not so much our condition or our mood as it is part of our ideology

And then she strips it down to the bare bones:

If the generic "positive thought" is correct and things are really getting better, if the arc of the universe tends toward happiness and abundance, then why bother with the mental effort of positive thinking? Obviously, because we do not fully believe that things will get better on their own.

Well, that's exactly it, isn't it.

She's nothing if not opinionated:

The truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts. Positive thinking may be a quintessentially American activity, associated in our minds with both individual and national success, but it is driven by a terrible insecurity.

To which I say, AMEN.

And I think this underlines exactly what has been driving me nuts about the attitude of scientists in this country. It makes me see how to have more sympathy for them.

Maybe it's not a conscious choice to be in denial about what is happening. Maybe it's cultural. They can't help being blindly optimistic and positive to a fault. It permeates everything about this country.

Thanks, Barbara. You made my week.

And then she goes on to explain some more of what has been baffling me about the mentality of scientists (and apparently, everyone) in this country:

The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must be because you didn't try hard enough, didn't believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success. As the economy has brought more layoffs and financial turbulence to the middle class, the promoters of positive thinking have increasingly emphasized this negative judgment: to be disappointed, resentful, or downcast is to be a "victim" and a "whiner."

Wow, I couldn't say it better than that.

Essentially her point is, if we put half as much effort into ACTUALLY FIXING THINGS as we do into our carefully built and protected denial and arrogance, our country would be a lot better off. And ultimately, we'd all be a lot happier.


I'm thankful that I'm in a country where we're allowed to access any and all websites we want to, and we can talk about these things (even if it requires a pseudonym!).

From sea to shining sea.

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At 11:31 AM, Blogger Tom Comeau said...

10% Unemployment is 10% of the workforce, not the population. The workforce is about 153.6 million, and 139 million are employed. Between 14 and 15 million are unemployed. Mr. Warren overstates unemployment by more than a factor of two.

I'd treat his other "facts" with similar skepticism.


At 11:45 AM, Blogger yolio said...

Marvelous. I've been wanting to read her book. Now I think I'll run out and get it today.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Tom - Thanks for the correction!

Btw, how is the size of the workforce measured? Last time I checked, the measurement of unemployment could be underestimating how many people are actually out of work.

See for example this definition.

What I don't know is by how much. Maybe it's not off by two-fold, but if you're unemployed, you don't really care how much it's off by, do you?

Besides, we don't really think all of Canada is considered part of the Canadian labor force, either.

So maybe with some minor revisions (i.e. maybe our unemployment is approximately equal to the entire labor force of Canada?), Rick Warren's statement isn't that far off?

At 2:03 PM, Blogger Science Gal said...

I am a weekly MTP watcher and I enjoyed this weeks interviews although I was annoyed by most of it. Paster Rick reinforced my problems with my southern baptist leads to alienation of entire groups of people and ridiculous statements. The worse for me was when he said and I think I am almost quoting directly: life begins when the 16 year old boy buys the condom. WTF!!! I almost dropped my bowl of Cheerios. This is the type of backwards thinking that has lead to increased teenage pregnancy and fuels the AIDS epidemic. Considering he claims to have such passion for solving the AIDS crisis, I would think he would avoid saying such foolish things on TV...but alas he is a conservative pastor and anything different MUST be wrong (i.e. "gays", sex, etc).

At 2:34 PM, Anonymous HennaHonu said...

I don't understand the basis of this post. I am a scientist and pretty universally in my field the feeling is that we have destroyed everything and gone beyond the point of no return. That, and we should do everything we can to improve it as much as possible. How does this jive with whatever you're implying? Why do scientists need sympathy?

At 2:46 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Interesting that your field admits things are terrible. In my field, most people still cling to denial.

Especially two groups: a) young scientists (junior postdocs and younger); b) well-funded scientists who feel the system is working for them, therefore it is working just fine.

Some of the older scientists will privately admit that everything is broken. But if you ask them about this in front of grad students or junior postdocs, they will say everything is fine, there will be plenty of jobs, and other assorted nonsense. It's kind of incredible to watch, actually.

Sympathy = by which I mean, to replace my anger with more compassion for their cluelessness... and/or coping mechanisms being different from mine. I choose action and open discussion. They choose "positive thinking". I think it's weak, but I see why they do it. We're all acting out of fear and the complete lack of career security.

At 3:47 AM, Blogger Genomic Repairman said...

I miss Tim Russert!

At 7:56 AM, Blogger steph said...

I would like to bring up a point about positivity. The idea of learned helplessness and its relation to depression is well-researched and can be fought by changing your thought patterns to more optimistic, positive patterns. It seems to be a respected viewpoint and I just read the book "Learned Optimism," which goes over these ideas. You can't (necessarily?) change what happens to you by positive thinking, but you can change your reaction and thus how happy you are in general. I thought it was a really interesting book, especially since he reviews the research behind it.

At 9:00 AM, Blogger Schlupp said...

Tom, the "workforce" point would apply to Canada as well, and since we are talking very approximate comparisons anyway, I do not think that we'd have to take into account possible differences in the demographics of the two countries.

So, yeah, the statement might be more accurate (others would say nitpicky, but well....) as "10% of the US workforce unemployed is similar to all the Canadian workforce out of work", but why bother? The comparison isn't all that interesting to start with, all it says is that the US has roughly 10 times the population of Canada.

At 9:15 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Schlupp- you're wrong. This is how you persuade people, and how you change their minds about what is important. By relating the factoids using analogies to things they can imagine. Numbers alone don't work.

At 12:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who often refers to herself as a chronic optimist but who also likes to have a firm grip on reality, I find positivity simultaneously makes my life better/happier and harder/more depressing.

Because of that whole insistence on personal responsibility, I can self-destruct and disappoint myself. Then again, I always manage to think that I can pull myself out of whatever mess I've gotten into, and that it'll get better.

I think when applied cautiously, optimism can be a great thing (see the whole change movement). It's when we go around using it to mask real problems that we get into trouble. We need to keep the optimism in check with a healthy dose of realism, and then we're good.

At 3:30 PM, Anonymous HennaHonu said...

I actually thought you meant in general - and was talking about the environment/global issues rather than science careers. I've had good advice within my field from many people on the issues in science careers, but I'm not as sure the problems are universally recognized.

This seems really relevant to this post:

At 10:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, Ms. PhD... did you know that Barbara Ehrenreich holds a cell biology PhD from Rockefeller?!!!!!!!! Her thoughts couldn't come from a more perfect background as the life sciences. :)

She understands the graduate school life and, possibly, the postdoc experience.

At 10:27 AM, Blogger commoncents said...

Great post! I really like your blog!!
Common Cents

ps. Link Exchange??

At 10:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I look forward to reading her book. I also can't stand it when people refuse to see reality when the reality is negative. I agree with you that almost all scientists are stupidly positive about jobs/funding/career options. But those are just the ones that are left. There are many who saw that science was not giving them the choices they wanted and that everyone around them was delusional. They moved on.

At 10:53 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

rocketscientista- it's all about the balance, isn't it?

HennaHonu- yes, I read that and laughed. "I was misinformed"!

Anon 10:43, I didn't know that! But I feel like I should have. I read Nickel & Dimed and maybe one other one, but it was a few years ago.

commoncents- thanks! As you can see, I don't really update my blogroll regularly, but if I visit your site enough I will want to add you to my list for my own convenience.

Anon 10:32- that's exactly it. It's selection bias.

It's like those idiots at NIH bragging about the handful of grants they gave out to address why women leave science "These studies are really important because we don't know anything about the women who leave."

REALLY?? They should read a few blogs. It's not exactly a mystery why or where they're going!

How many years has the National Academy been putting out reports on the postdoc problem? Every ten years or so they issue the same report. And then nothing happens.


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