What libertarians like are stories

One of the side-effects of the political moment we’re in is that liberals finally feel compelled to lay down the arguments in favor of specific policies. While politician seem immune to fact-based policies, the general debate on healthcare, education or minimum wage often elicit reactions that plays with hypothetical to dismiss their mere possibility, before even considering that… almost every other country in the world do it! The amusing part is that they often took inspiration on the US when implementing these policies, and the US has them in place (New Deal, Great Society) before the Chicago school invaded the West Wing — with an actor, a storyteller.

Now, we need to fight people hacking your system I (storytelling and branding — actually two flavor of the same things — are part of the innovations than made the US):

One thing you should always remember about libertarians is that they hate facts. If they touch a fact, they die. Facts are to libertarians like water was to the Wicked Witch. What libertarians like are stories. Here’s what I mean: If you say “We should raise the minimum wage to a living wage so that companies have to pay their workers enough to afford their rent,” a libertarian will not reply with facts, but with a story. They will say: Ah, but if you do that the company will simply lay off a bunch of workers and unemployment will rise. Note that this is not empirical evidence. It is a tale. A prophecy. Because the actual empirical evidence is that this does not in fact happen, that “the number of jobs cost by minimum wage laws is negligible” and “they raise wages without much downside.” Go near a libertarian with this and they will scream as they melt.

Many Of The Arguments Against Wealth Taxes Are Pathetic – Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs

Now… remember that facts can be debatable too!

 

Science and politics – Part 1

On October 30th, 2019 I’ve organized an event at Manny’s (3092 16th St, San Francisco) on Science and Politics, with accomplished scientists Elaine DiMasi and Michael Eisen who chose to run for congress, in the wake of the 2016 US election, the Women’s March and the March for Science.

Dr. Michael Eisen and and Dr. Elaine DiMasi, who respectively ran for US Senate (CA) and US House of Representative (NY-1) , at Manny’s in San Francisco on October 30th, 2019

The setting was quite ideal for the speakers (Manny’s has held event for 17 out of the 20 Democratic candidates to the US Presidential election), and the two accomplished scientists shared many thoughts on their unsuccessful run.

A man’s life is interesting primarily when he has failed — I well know. For it’s a sign that he tried to surpass himself
George Clemenceau

Of the wave of scientists who ran in 2018, few were elected, but it’s is hard to change a political machine that has been here for many decades on the first attempt.Trial, error, re-calibrate, try again. I hope to shortly provide a summary of lessons learned in a “Part 2” (I have a recordings of the event, but it’s low quality.)

While there is a lot of work done in the realm of science policy (how to inform our representative and make sure they make evidence-based decision)—groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) or closer to me the Berkeley Science Policy Group and interesting programs such as the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships— very few scientists do engage politics frontally, as candidates.

While other countries do have trained scientists at their helm (Angela Merkel from Germany and Xi Jinping from China are both doctors in Chemistry, and their respective term have been relatively successful up to this point), other countries not so much. Currently, Rep Bill Foster (D-Il), Steve Englebright (NY state assembly) and Dan Kalb (Oakland City Council) are scientists in public offices; Vern Ehlers and Rush D. Holt were the first physicists to be elected in congress (party did not matter so much, Ehlers being a Republican and Holt a Democrat; see College Professors Who Have Served in Congress – The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 2014) for a partial list)

Interestingly, a few rising stars (or shining bright already!) of the Congress are professors (but not scientists): Katie Porter, ❤️Kirsten Sinema💙, Elizabeth Warren. Jess Phenix is a geologist who has ran for the House of Representative; she has still been unsuccessful, but her time might come.
https://vis.sciencemag.org/midterm-science-candidates/

(edit 11/8/2019: note that Olivier Ezratty published a post on “Do we need more scientists and engineers in politics“, quite thorough (in French.) And if you speak French there’s this podcast on Les sciences peuvent-elles aider la démocratie?  (“Can sciences help democracy”) featuring Philippe Kourilsky (author of De la science et de la démocratie) – I was a bit disappointed: it’s mostly about scientists helping democratically elected leaders, not participating in it, but at least there’s some conversation.

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Star Wars: A political theory

It is said that the original Star Wars series was a prelude for the culture that would avail in the Reagan years.

Let’s see if we can make parallels with current times!

Episode 1 (2015)
The phantom menace
(rides a golden escalator)

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Threads

I’ve been using Twitter (@awojdyla) more frequently over the last 3 years, finding a lot value in this tool which allows to address a worldwide audience and reach out to people in a very effective way.

Straight goals

Twitter is a very strange medium, in that it can be extremely helpful to reach out to people (the six degrees of separation collapse to one, basically), but whose rules and purpose are hard to understand.

Here’s a few remarks on my experience, and some resources if you’re interested in engaging the tweet game!

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Good optics

Here are collected pictures from the vendor exhibition at the SPIE Optics+Photonics 2019 conference in San Diego, CA.
I always find these exhibitions strangely fascinating, and I wanted to capture why. Enjoy!


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The New Yorker and the current times

Since I arrived in the US about six years ago, I’ve been interested in learning about the culture of my new country. An obvious way is to read the magazines and learn what people are talking about. Alas, the free press is usually not very interesting. Some magazines are standing out; I’ve been subscribed to The Atlantic, the Pacific StandardWired and Rolling Stones, and I’ve read GQ, Vanity Fair, The Economist (though British), but while there’s a bunch of good articles, they are plagued by terrible layouts, dull advertisement, and I can’t find any thing that matches some of my favorite French magazines, such as Les Inrocks or Le Nouveau Magazine Litteraire, though I must say I now realize they often feature subjects that have been thoroughly digested by US magazines.
There is however a publication which is consistently good, entertaining, frequent (every week) and almost free of advertisement: The New Yorker, which contrary to its name suggests doesn’t delve too much on the (otherwise great) city of New York.

“He tells it like it is.” August 18, 2016

Agency

Not only the quality and the length of the articles, which are often sheltered from the ceaseless stream of news, allows go deep into some subjects (some arcane but always interesting), but they do make an impact.
For witness:
It is quite remarkable for a journal to be able to uncover so many stories. Maybe the times are ripe for that and comes the reckoning…

Legacy

The publication has a tremendous legacy, with writers such as Hannah Arendt (who published her series on the banality of evil there), James Baldwin who covered the civil rights movement and Susan Sontag who mused on various topics (see her collected articles in Against Interpretation and On Photography.)

I am speaking as a member of a certain democracy and a very complex country that insists on being very narrow-minded. Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue along with sincerity. One of the results of this is that immaturity is taken to be a great virtue, too. – James Baldwin

Culture

There are many contributors to the magazine, but there are three I am particularly fond of, maybe because I can relate and they write things I don’t even know to express. Jia Tolentino covers Millenial generation with great nuance, and how we navigate the navigate the culture rift; Adam Gopnik often writes about culture in the broad sense, often threading from his experience in France (he has a very acute knowledge of France culture and how it differs from US culture); Louis Menand writes excellent book reviews.
It is interesting to see that both Gopnik and Tolentino released books in the past month (“A thousand small sanities” and “Trick Mirror”), which both deal with the current, heavy, atmosphere that lingers over the country as a whole, not complaining, but trying to find an outlet.

Open access – redux

Wow the levy is about to break on Open Access!

I’ve written a few times on Open Access (here, and here), and things have been changing at an incredible pace.

A quick explanation about the topic: scientists share their research by publishing into very specialized journals. These journals then either charge a fee (>$10) for any reader to read a specific article, or as is more often the case, collect a subscription for an institution so that all of the people who work for this institution get complete access to a journal or a set of journal. The problem here is that the research submitted by the authors is often funded by public entities, which do not have the right to read the publications of other group freely (open access.) And the subscription fees have skyrocketed (e.g. in the order of $10 million for UC Berkeley.)

But now, large entities are rebelling.

The first salvo came from funding agencies, which require the papers to be made freely available, either by sharing the pre-prints (e.g. on arxiv) or by publishing in an Open Access journal (journals where the authors pay (usually $1000!) to get published, and where anyone can read.)

Then came Germany, which reached an impass with the academic publisher Elsevier (one of the leading actors, together with Springer and Wiley) and decided not to pay for the racket (projekt DEAL). The issue has not been resolved yet and German researchers still do not have access to publications such as Cell (they can however directly contact the authors of the papers to get the papers — which actually sound like a good way to start off collaborations!)

Next is the University of California (the whole UC system, with UC Berkeley, Los Angeles, … including Lawrance Berkeley National Lab and Los Alamos), who decided not reneged a deal with Elsevier. That’s a lot of people, for the most important public university system in the world. The impact can be quite dramatic…

And soon will be the turn of Europe as a whole, with Plan S, starting next year…

I can’t wait to see the science literature being unshackled!

Still, don’t expect much changes in the conduct of science… “Authors do not publish to get read, they publish to get reviewed.”

 

Poetry as philosophy in action

Every now and then, I read bits of poetry. Lately, I nibbled on Apollinaire, whose Alcools my father offered me, and I discovered W. H Auden’s Sonnet from China thanks to Shoshana Zuboff:

Falling in love with Truth before he knew Her,
He rode into imaginary lands,
By solitude and fasting hoped to woo Her,
And mocked at those whose served Her with their hands
— W. H. Auden

While I enjoy reading poetry, it only occurred to me recently that poetry is more than a thoughtful collection of word. Poetry is actually philosophy in action —  and even the Greeks knew that: ποιεῖν (poiein) means “to make”.

poenies

The reason for that has to do with the distinction between axioms and theorems (if you want to learn about that, I have an excellent book for you), or between things that are self-evident and things that are derived. Philosophy, being very rigorous, deals with theorems. Poetry enunciates subtle truths and help us navigate the blind spots of philosophy, such as beauty, love and meaning: everything that sets us in motion.

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Ojai Music Festival

Every year, early June in Ojai, CA, a quiet town half an hour away from Santa Barbara, the Ojai Music Festival takes place.

The festival has a glorious history of convening the cream of the crop of new classical music (Stravinski, Messiaan, Boulez and Copland are among the artistic directors who brought their vision to the festival), and is a wonderful crucible for geniuses in music.

I went there for the first time in 2016, and I was struck by the brilliance of the pieces I saw – a delightful blend of music from all around the world, mixing ICE and the Indian vocalist Aruna Sairam, under the tutelage of Peter Sellars. I remember being particularly impressed by Leila Adu‘s performance (wonder what she’s up to nowadays…)

In the years since, I could just go to Berkeley’s CalPerformances to see the show (Ojai in Berkeley),  held a week after the main festival. I fondly recall Vijay Iyer’s take on the Rite of Spring with Radhe Radhe: Rite of Holi, and some standout performances by Tyshawn Sorey, a regular of the festival who never stops to amaze, though I’m more impressed by him in live settings than by the recordings I’ve heard since.

Sadly, this year the Berkeley program no longer exists, since since CalPerf’s director Matías Tarnopolski left for Philadelphia. Therefore, I had to drive down the California 1 to see what was happening there.

And boy I wasn’t disappointed! This year’s artistic director Barbara Hannigan prepared wonderful program, going from Stravinski (again!) Berg to Steve Reich. Some of the concerts that really struck a chord were Patoulidou performance on Vivier’s Lonely Child, Barbara Hannigan rendition of John Zorn’s Jumalattaret, and Steve Schick leading Terry Riley’s in C (the latter can be on a viewed video of the festival here, at 1h48.)

Ojai Music Festival 2019

Not only the artistic content was great, but there is also a sense of passing along the baton (in a way beautifully narrated in Maria Stodtmeijer‘s Taking Risk) to younger artists such as Aphrodite Patoulidou and Yanis Francois.

Sure, I’m painting a fawning picture of the festival here, but I’m so drained of creativity that I will leave it to better voices than mine:
Outsiders (2015 edition)
The Sonic Fury of the Ojai Music Festival (2018 edition)

How to promote diversity among scientists

This is a compendium of the things I’ve learned discussing the issue with other trained scientists and running an association with many young researchers. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but should help with the discussion. This discussion is primarily based on gender imbalance, but intersectionality applies (sometimes in weird ways), though the case is not as thoroughly documented.

(I wrote this initially for colleagues in my organization, since I couldn’t find a good resource. Here’s a bunch of additional resources – Ideas In Action – that have sprung out since. I’d be very grateful if you could point me to other concise lists)

*   *
*

The lab touts about the number of Nobel Prizes in spurned out, but it is remarkable, if not surprising that none of them are women (Nobel Prize in physics awarded to women (3) are rarer than total solar eclipses in California.) While there are many great women scientists at the lab who will eventually receive the coveted distinction, we must, given the historical significance of the lab and its stature, move forward, lead the way set some guidelines.

 

Personal safety

The first and most important step to promote diversity among scientists is to promote and enforce personal safety, first in terms of fighting against harassment (sexual or other), not only in physical safety terms and how women are depicted (sexist and lewd jokes, prejudiced opinions; see Tim Hunt’s comment on how “Women in labs ‘fall in love with you … you criticize them, they cry’”), but also in terms of financial safety, especially when some populations can experience hardship due to delayed entry into the (paid) workforce without external support (see also “parental leave” below.) It is also generally a good idea not to eschew virtue signaling when it can make a difference (a rainbow flag on a door can go a long way.)

 

Acknowledge your bias

A common objection from researchers is that they are not biased because, you know, they only judge with the data in hands, and that they can tell a good scientist from another using objective information – a resume, a publication list, a curriculum. The trouble here is that biased are ingrained in us (see Daniel Kahneman), which are somehow necessary for us to navigate a complex world (see Gigerenzer), and that even women have biases against women (see Walton). It is therefore important to acknowledge our own biases in order to try to compensate when needed (e.g. in hiring committees.)

In my experience, the mere fact of pointing at an implicit bias does wonder. People are often willing to help, but they don’t even realized there is a problem. It’s often good to point out to organizers of conferences or panels that they are actually manels when you see one.

 

The luster of meritocracy

The most common bias in science is the idea that no matter who you are, your application should be based purely on your academic records, and not on other factors… such as gender. While it seems logical at first glance, we know better and should acknowledge that these seemingly objective metrics must be understood in a more general social context (for example have learned that even artificial intelligence, supposedly fair and objective, is far from immune to bias, see Katie O’Neil.)

 

The need to fight for diversity

Some scientist would come and say, hey, yes there’s an imbalance, but maybe we should let it be (don’t force women into physics if they don’t like it.) The trouble is that the end result is deeply shaped by the system (Fig. 1) and it is important to act early, ideally at the PhD level by making sure that the contingent is not too skewed towards one gender.)

 

Figure 1. The making of inequality (from Paul Walton)

 

While in a democracy it should be obvious that laws should be made by a legislative body with balanced gender, one might notice that the representative democracy in America is not very representative (only 20% of US representatives are women, while roughly half of US constituents are indeed women), while there is no reason other than history to explain this imbalance.

Though science is not a democratic process (there is no expressed need for equal representation), similar historical factors are at play, and diversity or lack thereof can cancel any competitive advantage in terms of science (see Marie Hicks) and inclusivity of technology (see Caroline Criado Perez.)

 

Alleged differences

Some people will go as far as to say that women are actually undesirable in science, based on alleged differences in mental capacity (see Saini), or more subtly in the “variance” of the population (men supposedly show more variance, therefore more chances of fringe cases; see Strumia, Fig. 2)

 

Figure 2. Excerpt of the infamous Strumia’s talk at the workshop on gender diversity at CERN

 

Similar arguments from the Charles Murray’s racist book Bell Curve are used to promote borderline anti-semitic ideas – see also Jordan Peterson.

Ahh! intersectionality….

 

Role models

It is important in order to bring more balance to have role models to whom young scientist can identify, ideally more recent (and more diverse) than Albert Einstein or Marie Curie. The role models should be invited to give talks on site, but ideally *not in the context diversity* — it is important not to fall in the Bechdel test trap, since (i) you will lose a lot of speaker who are tired of having to repeat again and again the many hurdles they faced (ii) these interventions are usually not very interesting outside the TED talk format (iii) the point of role models is to inspire to do science because of it, not in spite of it (that’s what we have experimented with Series X).

 

Mentors

Similar to role models but closer to the person, it is important to have mentors, that can come naturally or through some kind of pairing. These mentors can provide help and support, through sharing their personal experience, advices, and promoting their mentees through invitations to talks and workshops (that’s what we experimented with forum@MSD and  forum@ESA). Be careful that mentors should promote their mentee, not undermine them – the mentor should acknowledge the accomplishments of the mentee, not their own.

 

Provide a platform

Given the current imbalance in gender and diversity as whole, we must make sure that people from underrepresented groups get invited to the lab and are being able to leverage this position, through announcements and support. Success begets success, and the lab is a good reference when someone wants to get booked in other places. Given that diverse speaker are paradoxically more rare, a budget must be set aside to fly them here and/or for an honorarium (they should not work for free, especially when they are themselves not in a position of power.)

Scientists at the lab usually yield considerable power in their own field, and they should be encouraged to seek and promote diversity when they look for invited speakers (best practices and guidelines can be useful here, e.g. never have an all-male panel or seminar series.)

 

Promote scientists to leadership position

Academia is a very competitive environment, and any differentiating factor is useful when it comes to apply to position, especially when women face external factors that gradually push them outside academia (Fig. 1) Encouraging women to pursue ancillary activities (association, EAA or ERGs), where they can learn leadership skills and strengthen their network, is seen as important, and the lab should further its support to extra-curricular activities.

 

Work-life balance

Work-life balance is a vague concept that still has very real implications: while men do not face the discrimination related to their potential being pregnant, women do. The consequence of childbearing should be shared between the two parents, and initiatives such as (non-gendered) parental leaves are very useful to bridge the gap.

Some policies to make it more convenient to raise children can be implemented, such as policies against emails past 5pm during week-ends, or enforcing one day per week without meeting, to allow for telecommuting (parking at the lab is nearly impossible when an appointment to a doctor pushes your commute later in the day.)

 

Smash the patriarchy

Oftentimes I hear people (old white male) arguing about the current push for equality, dismissed as a PC coup and a threat to the freedom of expression, where they feel that *they* might become victims. This is baloney, and they should learn about the distinction between men (them) and patriarchy (the system), and not feel threatened – this is not about them, it is about all of us. They might have to change their habits coming from a position of power they rarely acknowledge, and learn to speak up when they see something wrong.

This applies to men… but also to women. I seen many times over

 

References

Paul Walton: Gender equal­ity in Aca­demia – what we have learnt

Angela Saini, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, fast and slow

Katie O’Neal, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Marie Hicks, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing

Nearly half of US female scientists leave full-time science after first child, Nature, 19 February 2019

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00611-1?fbclid=IwAR2unznTjBTUUTlkEQJTiFmV6ZOxQUxTmhFQw_5j48r6YFXnHjoDoUEH2wM

Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/feb/23/truth-world-built-for-men-car-crashes

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/03/06/new-study-nih-funding-says-women-get-smaller-grants-men

http://berkeleysciencereview.com/inclusive-mcb

http://antoine.wojdyla.fr/blog/2017/10/20/sexism-in-academia/

OSA and SPIE Professional Conduct Research Assessing And Addressing The Level Of Harassment At Scientific Meetings

(edit March 9th, 2020)

The researcher journey through a gender lens – Elsevier (March 2020)