Friday, March 19, 2010

Science Skeptics

I have had the rare occasion recently to discuss "controversial" science with non-scientist skeptics (read: family). I generally avoid politics and other such topics (the old "no politics or religion" plan), but naively thought that I would be safe discussing global warming. I was wrong.

Now, perhaps I should first comment that in some ways it's good that people are skeptical. It shows an engaged mind unwilling to be brainwashed. The family I was talking to have read up in great detail (more than I have, certainly) on global warming and know all the "arguments" against believing that it's human-caused. They've probably even read some "scientific" papers on the subject, and are generally unwilling to believe that something is true just because a newspaper says so (something that would have been welcome during the "there are WMDs in Iraq" era). And because they do take the time to learn about such topics, they don't fall victim to some of the more ridiculous anti-science theories (ahem: vaccines). But in the case of global warming, their skepticism isn't serving truth.

Why not? I believe the main reason is because of the scientific complexity of the issue. I certainly can't understand, in great detail, all of the arguments making the case that human actions are causing global warming. And I'm used to reading scientific papers. Obviously then, it's much harder for a non-scientist to understand the arguments. And how can you believe something you can't understand? Of course, politicians and oil companies (and politicians paid off by oil companies) are all preying on this to try to convince the world (non-scientist) public that those scientists are making everything up.

So what can we do? I'm actually glad that I stumbled into this argument, though it goes against my policy of "no politics or religion" with family. I think it's important that, as scientists, we stand up for science. Science needs better PR, and a good way to start is for all of us to take the responsibility of confronting the skepticism of people who already trust us.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sophie Morel

While doing a book review of Change is Possible: Stories of Women and Minorities in Mathematics by Patricia C. Kenschaft (I'll talk about the book itself some other time) I came across this gem: the Harvard mathematics department has never had a tenured female member. The book was written in 2005, so I checked the Harvard website to see if anything had changed. It hadn't. But that was a few months ago.

Hidden away in this article about women at Harvard was this history-making news:

And at Harvard, as at most American research universities, math and science remain male domains. The math department’s first tenured woman, Sophie Morel, arrived just three months ago. The department admitted two female graduate students this year and none last year.

Harvard, the oldest institution of higher learning in the US, was founded 374 years ago.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Women in Science Overview

There's a nice article in the NY Times giving an overview of the state of women in science worldwide (though with a definite focus on the US and Europe). Computer science is, as usual, given as an example of one of the lone hold-out fields where women are still sorely outnumbered. The article focuses on academia (without ever explicitly saying that's what it's doing).

A nice summary section:

The tug-of-war between encouraging numbers and depressing details is in many ways the story of the advancement of women overall. Women get more degrees and score higher grades than men in industrialized countries. But they are still paid less and are more likely to work part time. Only 18 percent of tenured professors in the 27 countries of the European Union are women.

And the big money in science these days is in computers and engineering — the two fields with the fewest women.

My main complaint with the article, or really with this type of press, is that while pointing out many of the reasons that women are still in the minority (lack of childcare, the tenure clock coinciding with the biological one, etc.), it also seems to reinforce these ideas by interviewing women who have faced these issues or framing women who haven't as being "lucky" or having overcome them. Perhaps this is true, and it is after all an article, not an advertisement (as I'd like everything to be), but I do wish that such articles would be sure to find some women to speak with who believe in the positive role that academia can play in their and their family's lives (I see the time flexibility as the big one).

But overall, if you're interested in these issues, or interested in an easy-to-read summary to get you up to date on the broad issues, this is a good one. (If you have a broader interest, the sidebar of the article leads to a yearlong series on women.)