Sunday, August 12, 2007

Scientific Value

I recently finished reading Peter Kramer's Against Depression. Kramer is the psychiatrist who wrote Listening to Prozac some years ago. In talks on the Prozac book, he frequently got questions about the tension between treating depression and the suppression of artistic temperament ("what if we gave van Gogh Prozac", for example). Against Depression is his discussion of society's view of depression juxtaposed against the reality of what doctors understand of the disease, or in his terms, "what it is" versus "what it is to us".

That phrasing of the contrast grabbed me. The descriptions of modern understanding of depression were fascinating and unnerving (covering issues such as the way depression alters the brain, how we become more susceptible to it after each episode, and how the disease is really about the loss of resiliency). It is his bigger question, however, about the tension between the scientific reality and our perception of the problem, that I keep thinking about. We see this all the time with scientifically-valid evidence: people don't believe or even absorb something just because it is true. Kramer attempts to explain why this is dangerous in the case of depression.

It reminded me of a science education video I saw several years back: middle school children did science lessons on light and the inability to see in completely dark places. One by one, children who had done well on these lessons were put into a completely dark room and asked whether they could see anything. They persisted in believing that their eyes would adjust soon, thus enabling them to see. Experience (of being in fairly dark places) overrode the facts (of being in a completely dark place). The video was demonstrating how educators have to elicit the experiences or prior beliefs that contradict new knowledge in order to help students absorb new knowledge.

Kramer's case seems both easier and harder to make. Easier because he can explain the realities of depression in terms of vivid human stories to which readers can relate; the human stories give a hook on which the reader can hang the new knowledge. Harder, though, because our society has a lot invested (emotionally) in romanticizing depression. Kramer works hard to distinguish medical depression (which has corresponding brain pathology) from variations in temperament. Lay people often miss the distinction, which in turn reinforces existing misconceptions about the disease.

Heading into the academic year, the book gives a good reminder of the role of existing beliefs in learning and the importance of casting ideas in ways that grab people's attention. Even if you aren't an educator, there's a lot to learn from this engaging and well-written book. It's a good reminder that we should ask ourselves what beliefs we hang on to, what value we ascribe to them, and how that value might contradict more compelling evidence.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Blogging, on Balance

I had intended this post for the last Scientiae Carnival (topic: balance), but got tied up in work for a computer science curriculum workshop I ran at the end of July and never finished the post. That delay is, however, related to what I had planned to write about balance.

I began blogging this spring in response to perceived lack of balance in my professional career. Lack-of-balance is easier to recognize than balance, because it manifests as something concrete that captures our attention. I noticed I wasn't devoting enough energy to observing my surroundings for how computing really fits into society (something I wanted to do more of as a result of sabbatical). Blogging was meant to force me into finding observations to write about, on the oft-proposed strategy of announcing intentions to motivate action. That strategy hasn't worked nearly as well for the blog as it has in other areas of my life. Do I not actually want balance, or is something else afoot?

The term "balance" raises a visual metaphor of a scale with equal weights on all sides. Taken too far, "balance" in the context of my original desire to generate more observations misses the nature of research: it can take years to develop the results underlying a single idea. Several weeks is a minimum (once you include evaluation, which may include implementation). Aiming to post once or twice a week means that I'll be generating far more observations than I'll ever act on. Which in itself is fine, given the percentage of ideas that end up being worth pursuing.
Even given that, though, the question remains of where you want your attention to go. Yes, I want to be better at making observations that lead to interesting projects. But as someone who prefers to only juggle 2-3 big efforts at a time, I also need long stretches of downtime to work through observations. Observations in spurts followed by a weed-out phase is better-suited to my style of thinking.

The visual metaphor of balance still feels broken, though. Balance requires a reference weight. When I say "life-work balance", I don't (personally) mean that my life and work should take equal portions of my time. I simply mean that I should feel satisfied with the proportions. The "reference weight", such as it is, contains my available time or energy. The pieces of my life must balance out to that reference, but the devil is in the proportions. The scale metaphor is misleading. Far better is the one I heard on a mailing list some years ago about life being a large jar into which you must place your biggest items first, letting the little things fit in as they may.

For me, blogging is a small-to-medium item to fit into the jar. I still like how it forces me to articulate ideas, how it encourages me to make observations that I'd be willing to put my name on without having carried them through to research results. I'll continue to blog occasionally, when mood and ideas strike. But I don't expect to try to keep this up on a twice-weekly basis as I initially thought. Other items are just more important, especially with classes starting again in 10 days. I do want to make sure that "observing" stays sufficiently visible in my jar that I don't lose sight of it completely. But on balance, balance need not be balanced for my life or career to feel in proportion.