Saturday, March 21, 2015

Twenty years after Beijing conference on gender equality: violence against women still a problem

Time has a brief article to read here. The UN's latest report suggests that progress in the last two decades has been inconsistent, at best. Over a third of women worldwide experience sexual or physical violence from either an intimate partner or from a non-partner. Only a fraction of those who experience such violence report it. Sexual harassment is experienced by over half of women by the time they reach the age of 15. Victim blame is still a major problem, and I suspect a major stumbling block toward getting those experiencing either physical or sexual assault from reporting it. The findings serve as a reminder of how far we as a global community have to go.

Even cockroaches show individual variations in personality

Here's a story that initially appeared in one of my social media feeds. Suffice it to say, I found the story so odd, that at first I was tempted to write it off as a hoax. However, it does turn out that there is some actual evidence of personality variations among cockroaches. The basic categorization seems to be one of "shy or cautious" versus "bold explorers". The explanation currently is that individual personality variations in cockroaches enable the species to survive when disasters occur. The belief is that at least a few of the creatures survive, depending on the circumstances surrounding the disaster, thus enabling those survivors to continue to propagate.

This is not the first time that I have seen mention of cockroaches as somewhat more complex creatures than they might appear on the surface. A number of years ago, a social psychologist named Bob Zajonc conducted experimental research demonstrating that under some circumstances, cockroaches showed the same sorts of social facilitation effects found in humans. One could almost imagine a follow-up experiment in which the newly discovered personality traits would serve as a "person variable" that might interact with manipulations of social facilitation (the presence or absence of other cockroaches).

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Science and freedom of expression

Recently, there has been some question as to whether the state of Florida saw fit to ban the use of the term, climate change. The upshot of such a policy, if true, would be to stifle scientific communication by researchers working in the state. Although I am not a climate scientist, I do find it important to stand and be counted on matters concerning any of the sciences, as politically motivated attempts to silence researchers in one science potentially affect all of us engaged in scientific work. In any event, the AMS published a statement, summarized on their blog, that I find well worth sharing. In the blog post itself are some statements that deserve highlighting:
Freedom of expression is essential to scientific progress. Open debate is a necessary part of science and takes place largely through the publication of credible studies vetted in peer review. Publication is thus founded on the need for freedom of expression, and it is in turn a manifestation of freedom of expression.
One might think the job of journals is to screen out unwanted science, but it’s quite the opposite. Papers are published not because they are validated as “right” so much as they are considered “worthy” of further scientific consideration. In addition, the publication process itself—which AMS knows well in its 11 scientific journals—is not just for authors to report and interpret their work. It relies on free discussion. The peer review process usually allows reviewers maximum protection of anonymity to preserve the ability to speak freely about the manuscripts being scrutinized. The papers that pass review are then the starting point for documenting objections, alternative interpretations, and confirmation, among other expressions that only matter if made accessible to other scientists through peer reviewed journals.

Scientists are not the only ones to treasure such freedoms, of course. Society benefits from the progress of science every day. This only happens when scientists freely, promptly, and prolifically report what they find—and that means exactly what they find, not what they are told to find. The alternative is to compromise the pursuit of truth and the very foundations of our health and prosperity.
We all become victims when science is not shared and cannot flourish. The fact that climate change has deep social, economic, and political implications today means it is even more important to recognize that with increasing value of climate change science comes the increasing temptation for policy makers to co-opt and alter that science. As the AMS Statement warns, the principles of free expression “matter most—and at the same time are most vulnerable to violation—precisely when science has its greatest bearing on society.”
As a researcher in the behavioral and social sciences, I understand all too well that any of the sciences involved in socially significant research can become the targets of corporate and political busybodies who deem the research to be inconvenient for their profit margins or re-election efforts. The moment we find ourselves only able to generate "data" that fits a preconceived politically correct outcome (bearing in mind that I am using the term "politically correct" in the broadest sense to include any speech or activity intended to maintain some real or imagined social order), we leave the realm of science and enter the realm of science fiction. At that point, the work we once did withers, and the potential to benefit society withers as well. This might be a good time to look back at the history of governments in which scientific research was interfered with by those holding the levers of power, and to examine how well that worked out for them in the long run.