Monday, September 8, 2014

We are taught that stereotypes are always wrong. I see them as approximations based  on 'data' gathered by people from interactions with each other. Approximations help us build simplified models of the world we live in.   They are always wrong when compared to an exact result. However, in order to improve our understanding of the world, we have to simplify it.  Even simplified models that are in good agreement with data are valid only with many ifs and buts. Yet because we are human we forget the assumptions where the "general statement" is valid, and take it as true - always. Such errors are unavoidable. The same flawed logic goes into the many "theories of everything" that I get via email.

Ideally, one could systematically get rid of the stereotypes/models/approximations that are based on inaccurate data or hear-say, and build models with a scientific basis that are adjusted when new data comes in. But we cannot expect to restrict thinking to the scientific community, which is very tiny.  Otherwise, we stall progress. I believe it's important that regular people, who now have access to huge amounts of data via the internet, keep creating new models/approximations for the world around us. Some models will be wrong, some will be almost-right in certain situations, and some of the wrong ones will end up widely accepted for some time. It's important to retain the courage to not only question existent models, but to create new ones.

So, does this mean that I like it when people tell me how easy everything is for me vs. them because I am a woman in a field with almost no-women? (especially when data suggests the opposite) Or when they assume I don't understand what they are saying because of how I look or who I am? Do I like my yearly visits to the immigration office where I am treated as an unwanted entity who is a cross between a criminal and a moron?  Of course, not. I am not masochistic. I leave that for the female protagonist of Fifty Shades of Grey. But I try not to get too upset when I receive such treatment. Life is hard for everyone in different ways. Gratuitously offensive words/statements mean that most of us (including me sometimes) should think more before speaking to avoid being offensive.

Should we aim to understand "everything"?
No! The idea is to easily see what's important. This is what school is supposed to teach us. Over the course of my life so far, I have met a few people who are smart enough to almost always understand the main points of any conversation or seminar. I classify them as "out of this world smart".  

Does my understanding of science correlate with my looks or with the way I dress?
Obviously, my ability to understand an idea has no correlation to the color of my hair or to the length/shape of my skirt/jeans/dress-pants on a given day. If I do not understand something, often my colleagues do not understand either. This is happens when (1)  the research work is not explained clearly, (2) I don't know enough of the background material, (3) a combination of both (1) and (2), or (4) I an not paying attention. 

Am I bitter?
No, or at least I do not think so. I've always had good relationships with my bosses, my co-authors, and the students I work with. They are each very talented. I admire them, learn from them, and consider them my friends.  The letters my professors write for/about me are praising, and I think they like me as a person, too.

Then why do I write on this topic?
Sometimes I feel the need to write on topics that are not science. I have thought about giving up making philosophical statements on this blog. However, somehow when I have not made palpable progress in other ways, writing gives me comfort and a sense of accomplishment. It's partly a way to procrastinate getting scientific work done.  It's easier to write blog posts than scientific papers. I cannot seem to completely abstain from writing, and I am not sure I want to try.