Reflections on the Past Week: 2/19/2017

I don’t know what to write about this week. I don’t feel like writing this week.

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In Honor of Darwin Day

We are all Keynesians now.

This quote, usually attributed to Richard Nixon, is really believed to have been said by Milton Friedman. What Nixon actually said was “I am a Keynesian in economics now.” Both statements are powerful in the fact that they come from people who are ideologically on the right. They are in  a sense saying the tenets of and evidence for Keynesian economics are so powerful that they are able to sway people who may be ideologically resistant to accepting the theory. I remember my declaration of my Keynesian identity. That came in the fall of 2011. I was taking a macroeconomics course at the time, and the country just had the “natural experiment” of the Great Recession. I remember how much Keynesian theory made sense, fit the evidence, but was also so simple.

It may seem strange to talk about economics and Keynes on Darwin day, a celebration of the life and studies of Charles Darwin. But if it weren’t for Darwin and his (and Wallace’s) theory of natural selection, I would have never become a Keynesian. I would have never pursued academia. Hell, I wouldn’t have ever understood science. That’s because Darwin’s theory of natural selection made me understand what is and isn’t a good scientific theory.

I first truly understood the theory of natural selection when I took a course in ecology and evolution in spring 2009. Before then, I never really understood science. I treated it like a series of facts to be learnt and spit out instead of understand the process. Sure, I had learned the scientific method, but even then, it was more a series of steps understood by my conscious brain. I could write them down, but beyond that, nothing. It was only after learning the theory of natural selection that I could understand its power and the power of a good scientific theory.

Evolution by natural selection is often taught to people in terms of examples. The fastest antelope is able to evade the cheetah, the tallest giraffe gets the leaves, the most extravagant bird gets the mate. Taught this way, it is hard to synthesize what is actually going on. And that’s how  I learned natural selection until spring 2009. It was then that my college professor laid it out in four specific bullet points:

  • Individuals differ in traits from one another
  • Some of these traits are at least partially, if not fully, heritable
  • The traits an individual has can affect the number of offspring it has (its fitness)
  • An individual’s environment determines its fitness

These four points are simple, so simple that a child could grasp and understand how this happens and what is going on. In fact, we can reduce them to just five words: “heritable variation and differential fitness”. 5 words, 4 points and yet more than enough to explain a significant portion of the diversity of life on Earth. I felt like Thomas Huxley – “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that.” When I learned about natural selection like this, I had to declare “I am a Darwinist in biology now”.

From then on in the course, we built up from Darwin’s theory, learning in detail the peculiarities of how evolution worked about the strange and interesting dynamics that could come from it. Natural selection (along with some genetics) formed the backbone of what we know about the diversity of life today. It was the steel structure in our tower of knowledge. Everything flowed easily and seamlessly from it, nary a hic-cup or bump slowing it down. So much power from so simple a beginning idea. It was then I realized how to determine the validity, the “truth” of a scientific theory. Was it simple, blindingly intuitive, and yet able to explain an enormous amount of evidence? Then it must be — on some level — true. That’s what made me a Keynesian, that’s what made me a Darwinist, and that’s what made me understand science.

Darwin shaped me in many ways. Learning about him and other scientists like him solidified my love ecology, evolution, and natural history. They made me want to pursue a career in academia. Because of them, I work at the intersection of ecology and evolution, trying to answer the fundamental questions about the natural world. More than that though, Darwin specifically gave me a way of thinking. It gave me a way of understanding the best tools to answering questions and the best answers to a question. It freed me from the magic tricks that people often do to convince you of bogus theories. It freed me from the mounds of bullshit that plagues us. Darwin gave me a way of understanding the world around me.

Reflections on the Past Week: 1/22/17

With regards to what has happened over the past two days (and what will likely continue as an ongoing saga), I cannot add anymore to the outrage. The wrongness of this executive order has been said many times and more eloquently by many more people than anything I could say. If I do have to add my voice to this issue though, it would be one thing: we cannot cede the fundamental morality in this fight. I don’t mean tactically (how we protest, free speech, etc.), but I do mean why we support immigrants and refugees.

An all too common tactic by those who support immigration is the stereotype of the acceptable immigrant. This may be the immigrant who “pays back” to their host country far more than what is received, often depicted as the post-graduate student/employee working in some STEM sector. Or the refugee fleeing from terror, hoping and struggling to make a better life for themselves, seeking shelter in their host country. We who support immigration must resist these images. In my mind, each person — no matter where the come from and no matter where they go — has the right to travel freely across borders. To me, this is a fundamental right of every human being and must be held sacred. Chicago cannot ban people from Rockford or Joliet entering the city limits, Illinois cannot bar people from Missouri crossing the Eads and river, why should America or any other nation on Earth be allowed to restrict the rights of Iranians, El Salvadorians, Somalians, Mexicans, Syrians, or Hondurans?

There are people I know with whom I disagree regarding the best way to build a society. We disagree over government intervention in the economy; we disagree on the appropriate balance of positive and negative freedoms. But I know that what we really want is that all people are able to live a happy and healthy life with the most freedom. We are for people. Donald Trump is not. Donald Trump is for himself and “his people”. We who are against Trump must remember that we are for everyone regardless of how good of an example one is.

Reflections on the Past Week: 1/15/2017

So remember how I said last week how I hated not getting anything done?

I didn’t get much done this week.

And yet…I don’t feel like shit?

It’s strange. Usually I feel terrible for not doing anything. I almost always have a fear that I’m perpetually falling behind everyone, in every aspect. Whenever I don’t accomplish my goals, I get down and not in the dancing/party/hip-hop sense. But this week, I just…meh. I don’t know if much has changed in my psyche. Maybe I’m exhausted after working so hard the past couple of months. Maybe I’m used to it. Or maybe I’m like Arsenal. They got it done this week. They left it to really, REALLY late this week. Nearly didn’t come up with the vital 3 points. But they won. It’ll likely change nothing. Chelsea will steam ahead towards the Premier League title, leaving Arsenal in its dust. But Arsenal and we, the supporters, can always still hope. Arsenal is known for being perpetually optimistic. We play Chelsea in two weeks, right? If we win the next game and that game, we can get close right? At least 5 points right? Am I a perpetual optimist when it comes to my graduate career? Or have I just decided that being top four is good enough? It gets Arsenal into the Champions League year-on-year. Why be best and miserable when you’re good and happy? When you have that inner contentment? I don’t know what happened this week. I’m disappointed but not miserable. Maybe that’s what matters.

 

I actually know why I’m not miserable. Arsenal won today so I feel good. Had they drawn or lost, I would have felt like shit and would have been talking about how like them, I dilly-dallied etc., blah, blah, blah. But I guess that goes back to the point. Arsenal won, weekends mornings are good, why bother to worry about not ‘accomplishing’, whatever the hell that means.

Reflections on the Past Week: 1/8/2017

It feels strange to make what you love doing as a career. You simultaneously want and are obligated to do work. Wanting to do work is sort of constant; your enthusiasm for it never really changes. I liken it to eating my favorite food, eggs. I never really get massive cravings for them, because I never take a break from them. Every Sunday morning, I have to eat them. They are just regular part of diet, something I expect to eat. I can’t say that about most other food stuff. It’s like that with nature and science. I never crave it because I choose to experience it constantly. That’s why I could never go to New York; I could never imagine myself living in a place so devoid of anything ‘natural’ (What natural is is a whole other discussion). I need science, I need nature, I choose to work on my academic studies naturally.

The obligation part, on the other hand, is perpetually fluctuating. Sometimes, you don’t have to get work done — there’s no deadline or not much to do — so you are free to do more, or less, academic work if you like. It’s your choice. When there’s more work, you have to do more. The choice is not yours anymore; it’s been dictated from the outside, usually by someone else. If obligation exceeds want, you begin to dread academic work. That’s why many institutions can ‘exploit’ academics. Our want for the work is so high — and most importantly, consistently high — we will accept many more obligations before complaining and becoming disgruntled.

When there’s work to do and I don’t accomplish much, I become dispirited, dejected, disheartened. That’s why this week was a bit strange. There was a lot of work to do and I accomplished a lot. I was able to secure a good amount of funding for a communicating science conference of which I’m a member of the organizing committee. A paper I have been working on — the first chapter of my dissertation — suddenly became clearer and was no longer much of a weight. Good results for another chapter have come in and the abstract I’m writing for a conference based on those results is almost done. I’ve been able to do a lot.

…And yet, I still feel stressed. Despite all that I’ve accomplished, I am obligated to do more. I still have to get more funding for the conference along with my main responsibility of helping to find speakers and develop workshops. The paper, though clearer, needs a re-write which also means digging through the literature again. Results are in, but computational errors mean a block by block search for and fix those errors. The abstract still has to be finished, and other non-scientific, non-academic problems need to be sorted if I’m to go. Accomplishing a lot means a lot of obligations with more still on the way. Though I have made a significant dent in my work, the obligation remains above the want.

 

P.S.

Hi Meg!