It’s okay to admit when you’re wrong.

I’m wrong sometimes. I’ve been wrong about a lot of things.

One clear example: when I started this blog in January 2017, I thought it was a reasonable expectation to write a new post once a week. For a lot of bloggers that’s definitely doable. But I underestimated how much time and mental energy would be taken up by my research, with two new projects going at the same time and exciting data rolling in and getting me hooked on bench science (again), and with my last semester as Art Director of the Berkeley Science Review bringing responsibilities and a chance to put my often-dormant art skills to use (see: the cover for the spring 2017 issue). I also started blogging for the BSR, which took up what little bandwidth for writing I had. I wasn’t slacking off, but I still felt guilty for neglecting my blog, mostly because I had made an unrealistic promise to myself to write more than I could. I’m not trying to make excuses for myself, but more to be honest about the reality of the situation so that I won’t feel guilty when I inevitably blog less often than I aspire to, and so I can have more realistic expectations in the future. And this is okay.

I’m going to be an armchair psychologist for a second. People often feel uncomfortable being wrong, to the point where sometimes when presented with solid evidence disproving our claims, we’ll dig our heels in deeper. I wonder if this is just human nature, or if this has to do with people never learning to be comfortable with being wrong sometimes. When we realize we’re wrong, or when someone calls us out on it, we react as if it’s a personal attack as opposed to an objective fact that has nothing to do with our personal character. Or people see being visibly wrong as demonstrating that we are unintelligent, or careless, or incompetent: all things that could affect others’ perception of us, and people in general don’t want to be disliked or shunned by others (I think very few people truly give zero fucks about what others think about them, much as some of us try to behave that way).

A little bit of worrying about what others think about us is fine; it’s what allows us not to socially alienate other people and helps make us empathetic. It’s also good, and admirable, to stand firm on our beliefs when we have a strong backing for them. The problem arises when we ignore or dismiss evidence that we are wrong and continue making decisions based on our false views.

The way white Americans in general view and internalize our country’s history of mass atrocities against racial minorities is a good example of this. How many of us feel, and I mean really feel, an ever-present sense of guilt over the way black Americans were first enslaved, and then discriminated against and brutalized during the Jim Crow era? Or how Native Americans had their land seized and were forced on a death march on which thousands of people died? How many of us, thinking back to U.S. history class in high school, involuntarily felt their stomach knot in disgust when learning about these things, because we were instilled with the idea that these atrocities were, and still are, a national responsibility to be shouldered by every American? Do we constantly think about how the historical fact of these hideous acts continues to affect our society now, and how exactly it contributes to the challenges faced by African American and Native American communities? No, most white Americans probably don’t. I’m willing to bet most of us learned about these things and thought, “Well, that’s terrible,” and on a deeper level, “It’s in the past and it’s not my problem”. Many of us were probably even taught a watered-down version of these events, or worse, a very inaccurate one.

Contrast this to how things are in post-World War II Germany*: people learn about the Holocaust multiple times in school, in great detail, with the intent to accept what happened but not forget it, and to learn from it. There’s some level of national collective guilt. It’s not that Germans whose grandparents fought in World War II should feel as though they are personally responsible for the actions of the Nazis, but rather that they are responsible for remembering what happened, recognizing how terrible it was, and preventing something that horrific from happening again. We just don’t do that in the U.S. We acknowledge that mistreatment of racial minorities was bad, but we then distance ourselves from it and don’t learn about it extensively, shrouding ourselves in a protective blanket of ignorance. We don’t fully take on the historical responsibility of being wrong. And because of this, an undercurrent of racism has been allowed to flourish.

In current U.S. politics, admitting you’re wrong is often seen as a sign of weakness. Politicians won’t admit they’re wrong unless it’s so glaringly obvious that people have figured it out without them even needing to admit it. They do this because if they do admit they’re wrong, they face serious backlash; their constituents lose faith in them, assuming they have no deeply held principles, or can’t be decisive, or that they aren’t loyal. This has to stop. We need to be more accepting of people being wrong, as long as they acknowledge it and try to make it right. Otherwise there’s no incentive for people to correct their mistakes, and all the more reason for them to dig their heels in and rationalize sticking to information that’s obviously wrong, or ignore information counter to their incorrect beliefs. We need to place more value on honesty, as opposed to stubborn refusal to entertain solid ideas counter to your own. We need to admit that we aren’t perfect, and that that’s okay, as long as we’re consistently trying to better ourselves.



*I am not an expert on how Germans handle teaching of the Holocaust and have no personal experience with it, so I’m basing my opinion on what I’ve heard from the German people I’ve asked about this issue and some Googling. I don’t mean to put Germany on a pedestal; rather I think this is a good example of doing the right thing.


Featured image: A very big newt in Lake County.



New BSR blog: The Moral Responsibility of Genome Editing

Hey all, I’ve been busy with so many things over the last few months, one of which was writing this blog post for the Berkeley Science Review on the ethics of genome editing. We’re approaching an era where we can relatively easily edit genes in the cultured cells of sick patients, or in patients’ cells within their bodies, or even in early embryos— this brings up a whole host of ethical issues to consider. Check out the article for a discussion of these issues!

This is us.

Perhaps the “this is not what American values represent” attitude towards racial violence is aspirational; people want to believe that our country has reached a level of racial equality and peace such that it defines our society. At best, that involves a hope that we have overcome previous societal racism, with a vague memory of what that racism actually entailed. At worst, it involves denial that societal racism was ever really that bad, or defensive justification of it. But to respond to incidents like Charlottesville by saying “this isn’t us” ignores the stain of racial violence on American history, as well as how that history continues to impact our society.
This IS us, and it’s been us for centuries. “American values” used to represent enslavement of black people, and unchecked violence against them for generations after emancipation. “American values” used to represent denial of basic citizenship rights that white people take for granted, like the ability to vote or go to school, to choose where to own or rent property, or congregate freely in public places. One could justifiably argue that “American values” still effectively represent these things, and that it just looks slightly different than it did 100 years ago. What America has not done, unlike other nations that have committed large-scale atrocities, is admit what we did wrong and instill in our society a level of collective guilt about it.
Yes, it’s uncomfortable to own up to this history, but it’s what we have to do. Racism against black people is woven tightly into the legacy of America and nothing will change that part of our past. However, we can work to change its impact on our future as long as we recognize this fact. We cannot truly address the problem if we deny its existence.
(Originally written as thoughts in response to this article from The Atlantic.)

Hatred and bigotry: the Republican legacy.

I’m a little late in sharing this, but if you haven’t seen it yet, Vice News created a video that is an incredible look into the far right white supremacists mobilized by Trump who sparked the violence in Charlottesville, and seek to do so elsewhere. It’s incredibly disturbing, to put it mildly.
I am Jewish. My whole family is Jewish. The men shown in this video don’t know me or anything about me, but they state here that their ideal America is one that is “cleansed” of me and people like me. If you care about me, or any other Jewish person or person of color or queer person, this should chill you to the bone. If you are a decent human being, this should make you ill.
These white supremacists have been courted by the Republican party for years, and the GOP has relied on their support while simultaneously pretending not to encourage them. Now we’re seeing the results of this Republican strategy: a president who campaigned on racial hatred, who egged on his violent far right supporters and relied on them to win, who refuses to strongly denounce these white supremacists and instead insists that many of them– many of the neo Nazis, the KKK, the people who thought that running over nonviolent counterprotesters with a car was justified– are “fine people”. A president who supports the racial profiling and inhumane treatment perpetrated by Joe Arpaio so much that he pardoned him. Emboldened white supremacists who seek to terrorize others. A majority of Republicans in Congress, sitting on their hands and doing nothing to help, but talking a lot about how “troubled” they are. They are the ones in the position to do something, and many of them recognize how wrong this overt bigotry is and that something should be done, but they are silent. Cowards.
This hatred and bigotry is the Republican legacy. People who voted Republican, and especially those who voted for Trump, voted for this. Even if you didn’t approve of Trump’s racist rhetoric and voted for him for other reasons, you tacitly approved this. It’s now your responsibility to stand against the white supremacists and far-right bigots, and to call Trump out for supporting them. If you remain silent, you are continuing your approval of their actions. You’re saying, “This racist terrorism is fine by me.” And that makes you either a coward, or frankly, a shitty person.

Weaponizing the scientific method

We’re experiencing an unprecedented level of lying in American politics right now, mostly courtesy of our “so-called” president. What is there to do about this? Right now it seems like no amount of calling out bullshit stops Trump from baldly lying, or his supporters from accepting the lies, or congressional Republicans from spinelessly hiding in a corner pretending it’s not happening. Trump is doubling down on his lies and lashing out at the media for exposing him, which threatens our free press and our ability to fight back against his wannabe-authoritarian regime. I’ve talked about how hopeless this makes everything seem before, but also how we don’t have much of a choice except to fight back. We are still scrambling to figure out the best way to fight.

As a scientist and someone who prefers to rely on logic to make decisions, I believe that one way to do this is by teaching people to get comfortable using the scientific method all the time. It’s not really that hard once you train yourself to think that way and apply it to all kinds of situations, even those that occur outside of the lab. So what is the scientific method? In a nutshell, it’s a set of principles used to conduct evidence-based inquiry. It’s founded in the idea that you can make an observation (“X phenomenon occurs”), extrapolate a hypothesis to explain the observation (“Y is acting on Z to cause X phenomenon”), and then do tests to find out if your hypothesis is correct or not (“If I remove Y, does X phenomenon still occur?”). A good scientist will form multiple possible hypotheses, including null hypotheses (“Y is not acting on Z to cause X” or “Y and Z have nothing to do with X”), and set up tests that will generate observations to address each hypothesis. At the root of the scientific method is thinking of multiple possible scenarios and applying skepticism to all of them, as opposed to just accepting the first one you think of without questioning it further. Oftentimes you come up with a hypothesis that makes logical sense and is the simplest explanation for a phenomenon (i.e. it’s parsimonious), but when you investigate it further you find that it is not at all correct.

Let’s apply this to politics today. Here’s a basic example: Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes, but he keeps claiming that this is due to massive voter fraud where millions of people voted illegally. You could just take his claim at face value and not question it. After all, he is the president, so he’s privy to lots of information the general public doesn’t have, and as the leader of the U.S. he should be acting with integrity, right? You could use this logic to form the hypothesis that he is correct and there is evidence of massive voter fraud. Or you could apply a bit of skepticism and formulate an alternative hypothesis: Trump’s claim is false, and there’s no evidence of the massive voter fraud that he cites. How to test this? You can look for the evidence that he claims exists just by Googling… and you won’t actually find any. What you will find are instances of his surrogates claiming that the voter fraud is an established fact, various reputable news agencies and fact checkers debunking the claim (even right-leaning Fox News admits there is no evidence for the claim), and a complete dearth of any official reports that massive voter fraud occurred (which I would link to, but I can’t link to something that doesn’t exist). In support of the claim you will find right-wing conspiracy websites like InfoWars that don’t cite any actual evidence. So based on that inquiry, you could conclude that Trump’s claim is false. It didn’t take much skepticism or effort to address the question, just enough to ask “Can I easily find any solid evidence of this?”

One problem with this strategy: we aren’t doing a great job at teaching people how to think rationally and critically. On a large scale, we would do this by refocusing our education standards around critical thinking (part of what Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards aim to do, albeit with mixed results over the methods and implementation with which they teach the scientific method/critical thought). There has been a lot of pushback to this, particularly in conservative areas. Why? One explanation could be general distrust of government and antipathy towards regulations/standards demanded by the federal government. Another could be over-reliance on religion, which fundamentally demands faith in the absence of evidence. I’m not going to fully wade into this murky debate right now, and before I do I’ll say that not all religion is bad, and it’s not true that no religions teach their followers to think critically and analyze things. But some religious groups don’t teach these principles, and they rely much more on encouraging their followers to just believe what they’re told by their pastor (or whatever religious leader), or face moral doom. This dangerously reinforces the idea that it’s okay to just blindly follow certain authority figures without question. It extends past the church doors, to the school teacher slut-shaming high school girls instead of providing them with comprehensive sex education, to the public official who expresses skepticism over climate change despite an abundance of evidence that it’s happening and caused by humans. People believe what these authority figures say. We’re seeing it now, as more than half of Republicans accept Trump’s claim that he really won the popular vote, with the percentage being higher among Republicans with less education. One of the main reasons we hear from Trump supporters why they voted for him was his tough stance on immigration, and they seem to be happy with his controversial travel ban, even though just recently the Department of Homeland Security found that people from the countries targeted by the ban pose no extraordinary threat compared to people from other Muslim-majority countries (Trump rejected this report, even though it was ordered by the White House). This underscores the importance of providing people with an opportunity to learn and practice critical thought. Rather than putting in a tiny bit of effort to look for the evidence that those claims are true, or thinking about their news source to figure out if it’s biased or not, they blindly trust what Trump says.

Fixing the education system to provide more training in critical thought and use of the scientific method is absolutely necessary long-term, but right now we need a strategy to deal with people who don’t have that training. So if you have conservative friends or family and you’re brave enough to talk politics with them, ask them why they believe things to be true. If they cite something as evidence that isn’t rigorous, ask them why they trust that source. I think it’s possible to do this without talking down to them; most people are probably capable of applying logic in their thinking even if they haven’t been trained to do so. Instead of trying to argue that someone is wrong and back it up by saying “here’s a fact to support my argument and you should believe it because it’s true” (even if that’s accurate), ask them why they think your fact isn’t true, and respectfully lead them to your evidence to back up your argument. Perhaps it won’t work all the time, but if the seed of skepticism can be planted in at least some people, they may be more careful in their voting decisions in the future. If you rely on logic and rational skepticism to make your decisions, you have an obligation to help other people do the same. It’s worth a try.


Featured image: Barbara Lee’s town hall, February 18th, Oakland.

Open access and peer review, in a nutshell

Let’s talk about something scientific.

One of the key underpinnings of the scientific process is the ability to share research results with others. Before scientists do this, we share our results with each other to get feedback on our work and suggestions on what other experiments we can do to provide more solid evidence for our claims*. This is a fundamental part of the publishing process and known as peer review, which is basically just scientists checking each other’s work. Who is more qualified to do this than other scientists in the field? If you’ve looked at an article published in a scientific journal recently, you might notice that 1) it’s very dense, and 2) the techniques used, and often the questions asked, are pretty complex. It would likely be hard for someone with no scientific training, or even a scientist from a different field, to provide useful critique, or to spot things the authors may have overlooked. So when we submit our manuscripts to journals for review, we try to have them reviewed by other scientists in our sub-field who are most familiar with the techniques and questions discussed in the manuscript (and thus, the benefits and pitfalls of what we discuss).

If scientists didn’t rely on peer review, we’d be able to publish just about anything and claim it to be fact, and then it would be up to the general public to critique it and spread the word about whether or not the results are valid. That would just be inefficient, and highly unlikely to succeed. Peer review acts as both a filter and a stamp of approval**.

After a manuscript is peer-reviewed and published in a journal, that information is theoretically available to the public and part of the established scientific knowledge base. But scientific research isn’t truly available to the public unless it’s actually accessible. Many journals are behind what’s known as a pay wall, where you have to subscribe in order to access the content beyond the abstract (a summary of what an article is about). This is similar to how the New York Times charges $2.75/week for digital access. The difference is that the subscription costs of many journals are exceedingly high, such that most individual people can’t afford a subscription, let alone multiple subscriptions to different journals. Scientists can usually access these articles because they work for a university or company that shoulders the cost of subscriptions to many journals, but depending on how well-funded your employer is, the cost may still be prohibitive.

Why is this a problem? There’s the obvious issue of forcing published science into a black box that remains mysterious to the general public, which helps to feed the perception that scientists’ work is beyond the reach of “normal people” and blocks public interest in all but the sexiest or weirdest stories. There’s also the fact that a majority of scientific research is paid for by the government, which uses taxpayer money to fund grants. So taxpayer funds are going to facilitate scientific research, but then most taxpayers can’t actually read about the research they paid for. If the research isn’t even made available to all scientists, it prevents future scientific progress (what do scientists have to build on if they don’t know the current state of the field?) This is where the idea of open access comes in.

Some publications are open access, like the PLOS journals and eLife, and these publications do not require a reader to pay to view their articles. Other publications, like Nature and Science, charge a subscription fee. Nature‘s fee is $3.90/issue. Perhaps that sounds on par with subscriptions to non-scientific magazines and newspapers, but keep in mind one fundamental difference: you can get the news from multiple sources, so if something important happens, several news agencies will report on the same story, and you don’t necessarily need to pay for it. With scientific publications, the research article will only be published in one journal, so to access all research as it comes out, you’d have to pay for a subscription to many different journals. It adds up quickly, and effectively leads to people paying twice for scientific research (assuming they already pay taxes).

Together, peer review and open access are fundamental to scientists’ ability to share our work with the public, demonstrate convincingly that our findings are accurate, and allow non-scientists to engage in scientific research. Attempts to limit this are wholly detrimental to the scientific process and public understanding of science. Last month, the Trump administration ordered a media blackout on several government agencies including the EPA, and also indicated that research from EPA scientists would need to be approved by the Trump administration so as to “reflect the new administration”. The Trump administration is not run by scientists, and it’s unclear who in the administration would be reviewing scientific results. This amounts to unqualified, politically motivated people deciding based on their agenda what science gets published—clearly problematic and fundamentally counter to widely-held standards of scientific integrity.

Regardless of who is in office, scientists should be working to improve peer review and the general public’s access to scientific research. On top of that, we should work to help non-scientists understand the process of doing research and the lengths we go to in order to demonstrate that, to the best of our knowledge, our findings are accurate. Without this line of communication, we will be forever holed up in our ivory towers, piddling away on experiments that will never make as great of an impact as they should, because people either cannot hear or cannot understand us.


*Or to find out if our claims really are accurate; sometimes you do another experiment and it demonstrates that what you thought was an interesting phenomenon is actually just noise, or that it’s less significant than you thought.

**It’s not a perfect system, of course. Peer-reviewed results do get published that are eventually shown to be false upon further testing, or sometimes after it’s discovered that data was fudged. An ideal system would have scientists acting with integrity 100% of the time. But like every other field, people are sometimes deceptive, and do things that undermine the system when it looks like it will benefit them. Sometimes we publish results that we think are correct, but later advances in the field or attempts to repeat an experiment show that those results are not correct. This is an ongoing struggle, and peer review is one of the things that combats this.

Featured image: Berkeley neighborhood flower.


Don’t just check the box.

It’s been a very feminist week. There was a massive, worldwide march of millions to stand up for women’s rights, and to stand in solidarity with other groups targeted by the new Trump administration (read: anyone who isn’t a wealthy, white, Christian male who doesn’t criticize Trump). People were out in full force to make themselves seen, to make themselves heard; people with their children, people all across the gender spectrum, people of all colors, groups of scientists, teachers, you name it. It was incredible. And still, some people were invisible.

Last Monday I saw the movie Hidden Figures, which told the story of three African American women “computers” working at NASA in the 1960s and the struggles they faced to advance their careers and be taken seriously. These women—Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson— were instrumental to the success of the space program, but because of two inherent qualities they possessed (their femaleness and their blackness), they had to fight so much harder to access opportunities that white men were handed, they were not given nearly as much credit as they deserved, and they have been overlooked by history. I never learned about these three women in school. If you had asked me before Monday to name a historic black NASA employee, I regrettably wouldn’t have been able to do so. This is partially my fault for not being proactive in learning about African American history beyond the snippets taught in my history classes, but it also shows the gaps that persist in the education system and our culture. People are omitted, because omitting women and people of color is a normalized action in our culture. Perhaps in my case, this is a symptom of having gone to suburban schools in a mostly white area. People of color, especially black people, were relatively uncommon, and since they weren’t visibly present, it was easy to forget to talk about their existence and contributions. Their history was largely masked to me.

Just as the three protagonists of Hidden Figures have been overlooked, so have the people who laid the groundwork for the Women’s March that occurred on January 21st, 2017. One of my favorite podcasts, Stuff Mom Never Told You (RIP, I don’t know where I will get my feminist fix without you), recently featured an episode on women’s marches and highlighted the fraught racial history of the feminist movement. While white feminists in the 19th and 20th centuries fought for the right to vote, they simultaneously marginalized and elected to exclude black women from the movement. Much later, in the 1990s, black women organized the Million Woman March in Philadelphia, with the intent of empowering black women and with goals including increasing access to education and healthcare for black communities. But I doubt most people marching in 2017 know much about this history. I certainly didn’t until I listened to that SMNTY episode. If feminism as a movement is going to succeed, it must be inclusive, and it must take this history and the current social climate into account. Yes, it feels great to march and send a message that we stand with each other and against the tyranny of the Trump administration, but it’s not enough to actually make a change.

So how do we make change happen? White feminists especially need to start by being aware that women of color have had, and continue to have, greater struggles to be taken seriously and claim their rights. Be aware of the people who came before us and did the work decades ago. Listen to what they have to say, and ask what you can do to help them. Stand beside them when they march for their rights, even if it doesn’t directly affect you, the way men joined the Women’s March in 2017. Keep their concerns in mind as you continue to fight for people’s human rights, hopefully by calling your representatives and getting involved. Use whatever privilege you have to elevate their voices. I will try to do my part by blogging about underrepresented groups and people to raise awareness, even if my impact is small. And of course, I’m open to suggestions, because I certainly don’t know everything, and to some extent I’m a product of my upbringing and all the biases and ignorance it came with.

This is all in the hope that one day we’ll fulfill our lofty goal of achieving equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of race, gender, class, orientation, or whichever method of pigeonholing people you choose. By overlooking women and people of color, even by passively excluding them just because we don’t think about them, we are missing out on the potential of all those people who never got the chance to apply their talents to the best of their abilities. We are shortchanging our society by keeping doors closed to underrepresented groups. Things have improved slowly over time, yes, but we are not living in a post-racial society. If anything, Obama’s presidency made an obvious demonstration of that. So as we move into the age of anti-Trump resistance and attempts to redefine the truth, let’s all make an effort to learn about the history of our movement(s), even if that history is unpleasant, and take it into account as we act to protect and expand civil rights. And as Caroline from SMNTY said, don’t just attend this one march, check the box to say you participated, and call it a day. Take action, keep fighting, and make an effort. This is our job.

Featured image: Women’s March in Oakland, January 21st, 2017. Picture courtesy of G. Mannell.