What attracts laypeople to science stories?

Yesterday, I attended series of talks about the state of public science in Canada organized by Scientists for the Right to Know. Among many other lessons in civic engagement in public science in Canada, we learned about the immense public support received by efforts to save government funding for the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) from Dr. Diane Orihel. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that vast numbers of people, often far removed the from bureaucratic realms and scientific institutions came out in support of sustaining the operations of the ELA. This is testament to the fact that given the right information and sense of agency, the public at large is more than willing to partake in citizen science initiatives and support outcomes that support public science in Canada. The role of effective science communication is critical here, and I am beginning to wonder what specifically can be used to target laypeople, to push forward scientific agendas to their governments. This is a basic question we tend to ask whenever there is conversation about evidence-based policy making in Canada, and was among the chief goals of the Evidence for Democracy meet-up in Toronto. 

Perhaps some of us science communicators can seek out our friends who are not formally trained in the sciences, or even do formalized surveys regarding what attracts public attention to science stories, that are not necessarily as politically charged as the ELA debacle or the debates regarding muzzling of government scientists. What are the fundamental components of effective public engagement in science through science communication?

Science Borealis launch!

I’m very happy to be part of the editorial team at the new Canadian science blogging platform at Science Borealis as Technology and Engineering editor. Science Borealis is scheduled to officially launch today at Canadian Science Policy Conference as part of the science blogging panel that starts at 1:30 PM EST.

I would also like to take this opportunity reach out to all my friends in the technology and engineering communities with science communications aspirations to submit their blogs to Science Borealis. We hope to become the home for comprehensive science blogging in Canada, and we can’t do that without a strong focus on technology and engineering.

If you have any questions about technology and engineering blogging at Science Borealis, feel free to get in touch with me!

“Be on your own side”: self-sabotage and self-preservation

'Song of Shambala' by Nicholas Roerich
‘Song of Shambala’ by Nicholas Roerich

In times when our interactions with the universe seem to only propagate undesirable outcomes, the least we can do out of love for ourselves is to be on our own sides. It’s a simple idea, but you really have to know first hand what it’s like to become so disinhibited in one’s self-sabotaging in times of duress. Being on our own side is often the hardest things to do on a sustained basis.

We have many ways of harming ourselves. Some are conscious and ‘controlled’ while others are insidious and the roots of their ‘wrongness’ often elude us until it is too late. We may be the most observant and conscientious people when it comes to others and can astutely identify destructive patterns in organizations and persons, but more often than not, we lack the self-awareness to see similar patterns in ourselves, and subsequently break free from them.

I consider myself to be a rather levelheaded person who routinely scores low in neuroticism in everyday personality tests. This is because consciously or subconsciously, I have trained myself to be selective about the kind and degree of stimuli I seek in people and situations. However, constantly having to do this gets pretty boring quickly and limits one’s opportunities for growth. Thus, as young adults are often wont to do, in the spirit of exploring the unknown territories within myself, in the last couple of years I have undertaken various things that are situated beyond my preconceived comfort zone. 90% of these situations have left my inner peace unscathed, whereas 10% has definitely wreaked havoc in my being, beyond the time I committed to the specific situations. It’s the type of learning process we continue to explore throughout our lifetimes, but the problems arise when we don’t deviate from patterns that have hurt us.

There is an oft-repeated saying, misattributed to a series of imminent people; “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. With this in mind, we can deviate from our daily routines for novelty and excitement, and bring them into our lives. However, not abiding by this admonition can also entrap us in situations that no longer serve our best interests. In my experience, the inertia experienced by people doing the latter is far greater than the former. It is easy to ‘improve’ your life when you’re not self-sabotaging. It is far more difficult to put an end to the demolition you have ordered upon your own being, and slowly do the necessary clean up to start anew.

Broadly speaking, introverts tend to be the minority in human populations. From childhood, we are encouraged to be more outgoing and be ever-present and eager for opportunities that await us in the outside world. Introversion manifests itself in a variety of forms, but in a world where the default is to always be open to socialization, most of these forms are at least implicitly stigmatized. In the last few years, I began to forget how to practice the sublime art of self-preservation, and how tending to the spectacular garden inside our minds can be a pursuit worthier than any sort of high society schmoozing, and as a result, I became increasingly apt to self-sabotage.

The kind of self-sabotage I speak of did not leave me with tangible scars or even financial distress. It’s the kind of self-sabotage that manifested itself by reminding me that if I were somehow different, perhaps, more outgoing, less mellow and more of a Type A personality, I would miss out on less of the canonical experiences that make a life. It’s the fear of missing out that shackled me to superficial goals and made me compare my values and ambitions to others around me, whose lives I never really sought to have. Instead, I was in deep danger of missing out on my own version of canonical life experiences.

There is a rather out-dated model of personality psychology that categorizes individuals based on their instinctual subtypes: self-preserving, sexual or social. It seems that my self-preserving and sexual instincts have been in constant competition with each other. These two are quite different animals. The self-preservation instinct is a complacent self-indulgent cat that likes to sleep beside the fireplace. The sexual instinct is a curious albeit naive horse that doesn’t realize that sometimes curiosity can be damning when it is not properly guided. It doesn’t know when its own actions cast its life against itself. My self-preservation instinct wants to stay in indefinitely on grim fall days and drink cocoa whereas my sexual instincts told me to explore worlds beyond the everyday and have led me to the Killing Fields in Cambodia. Both of these have been good teachers and allies when the time was apropos, and at other times they have failed me miserably, and I have not given myself the respect I deserve. My hope for the future is that I find wiser ways to facilitate a happy marriage between my two competing, but not necessarily diverging instincts. I need this to be a resilient and content person. I need this to be on my own side.

The engineers who ‘fled’, ritualistic death and rebirth

A depiction of the Buddhist idea of Samsara
A depiction of the Buddhist idea of Samsara

As I’ve mentioned previously, I find myself often on the receiving end of considerable censure for permanently leaving a field commonly purported to be prestigious, stable and reliable in the pursuit of my vague social science-oriented dreams. There is a vast amount of cultural and economic rhetoric that go into creating the dialectic that disseminate the idea that this was a damning mistake that I will soon come to regret. I will try to configure this view in light of how I am currently viewing my engineering education, and how others have used it, in past and present situations.

Full disclosure: my choice to go into engineering over Arts & Science at U of T was contingent on the fact that I got enough scholarships in engineering to fully cover my first year of tuition and residential fees, and some more. Although some of these funds would definitely transfer over to Arts & Science had I chosen to pursue a BA or a BSc, the 17-year-old me was quite blinded by the ‘prestige’ that an engineering education seemed to confer, at least according to orientation propaganda. As I powered through my excruciating four years, I was constantly reminded that I belonged to an elite class of students who ‘survived’ while others were ‘deserters’ who ‘fled’ knowing that they couldn’t live up to the standards. This endorsement itself seemed enough of an incentive to carry on, despite that apart from a few punctuated periods of actual contentment, my values and abilities seemed better fitted to something else.

Currently, I simply see my engineering education as A) proof of my resilience and endurance in challenging academic environments, and B) something to ‘fall back on’. The latter aspect seems to provoke passionate responses from people who think I’ve ‘wasted my time’, or worse, an affront to the immigrant dream of fast and high-levels of capital accumulation in the adopted country. I find both of these reasons to be completely ridiculous because pursuing an engineering career as a ‘back-up plan’ is actually quite a luxury, and, frankly, the idea that first generation immigrants need to pursue socially-sanctioned ‘practical’ careers is insulting and exclusionary.

To celebrate my exodus from engineering, on the eve of my 24th birthday, I have concocted a ritual of ‘symbolic death’ for myself, in which I bid farewell to an older self, in preparation of the birth of the new self tomorrow. I want to take the time to remember others like me in history who also ‘fled’ engineering, and are known almost exclusively for their contribution to other fields. If these people are any indication, I’ve found myself in great company!

Without further ado, here are some engineers who ‘fled’. Feel free to leave comments to add more to the list!

Rowan Atkinson, comedian;  electrical engineering PhD dropout

Yasser Arafat, Nobel Laureate in Peace, former civil engineer

Alfred Hitchcock, filmmaker, former civil engineer

Cindy Crawford, model, actress, chemical engineering dropout

Frank Capra, filmmaker, former chemical engineer

Roger Corman, filmmaker, former industrial engineer

Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher, formerly a mechanical engineer who did early fundamental work in aerodynamics

Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States, trained in reactor technology and nuclear physics

Benjamin Lee Whorf, linguist and anthropologist, former chemical engineer