More on “Implicit Bias”

My post from earlier today, “Some of my best friends are …,” discusses my personal experience with the idea of unconscious bias. The same topic is discussed in Charles Blow’s column in today’s New York Times.

Published in: on February 21, 2009 at 7:14 am  Leave a Comment  

Some of my best friends are …

Some of my best friends are …

…. unconsciously biased against certain social groups (e.g., Women in Science; African-Americans). And I am, too.

At least, that’s the claim by three psychologists from Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington. These psychologists study a phenomenon known as “implicit association.”

Here, for example, are two of the findings from these studies:

• People are often unaware of their implicit biases. Ordinary people, including the researchers who direct this project, are found to harbor negative associations in relation to various social groups (i.e., implicit biases) even while honestly (the researchers believe) reporting that they regard themselves as lacking these biases.

• Implicit biases predict behavior. From simple acts of friendliness and inclusion to more consequential acts such as the evaluation of work quality, those who are higher in implicit bias have been shown to display greater discrimination. The published scientific evidence is rapidly accumulating.

If these findings are valid, they have profound implications for the way we make career decisions for ourselves and for others. The findings offer support to the idea that a slight skewing of many minor and major decisions (by interviewers, reviewers, colleagues, etc.) gradually add up, over time, to a measurable decrease in the number of women and under-represented minorities in the scientific workforce. (See, for example, Virginia Valian’s book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women.)

As a member of the “enlightened” generation that came of age in the 1970s, I find this hypothesis disturbing and these findings problematic. After all, I’m objective, fair-minded, sophisticated, sensitive, rational, and data-driven. Right?

Before I accept the notion that I’m unwittingly harboring sexist. racist, or ageist biases, I’d like to see some evidence, please. Show me the data.

“Take this test,” the researchers respond, inviting me to the Project Implicit website.

So I take the tests.

Guess what? The tests find:

• “Your data suggest a slight association of Male with Science and Female with Liberal Arts compared to Female with Science and Male with Liberal Arts.”

• “Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for European American compared to African American.”

I’m not proud of the results, and I decide not to take any more tests right now. I don’t really want to take more tests and then be told about my biases in other areas (including weight, religion, age, Arab-Muslim, etc). Besides, the tests require concentration and time (actually only about 10 minutes per test).

Do I find my results distressing?
– Yes

Do I believe the validity of the test?
– Maybe. I’m not a psychologist, and I haven’t studied the peer-reviewed literature on this topic. Is there a scientific consensus on this subject?

Does it make me think?
– Absolutely.

Does it make you think?

Published in: on February 21, 2009 at 6:49 am  Comments (1)  

It Happens Sooner Than You Expect

While finishing my first cup of coffee this morning, I realized that my adolescent had not returned at all last night. I knew he was getting more restless every day, but I never expected him to stay out all night. I searched the house and the neighborhood, calling his name. I put out an online appeal on Can anybody help me? Have you seen him?

It was probably his hormones, I realized. Puberty arrived earlier than I expected. “You should have taken action sooner,” I scolded myself. But…I thought I had more time, so I hadn’t made it a top priority. Did I wait too long? Would he be safe? Would others be safe around him?

At 11 am, he finally came home. I was relieved…until I saw the blood around his ear.

Leo, my nine-month-old, orange-and-white tabby cat, had been in a cat fight. After I cleaned him up and assured myself that he was not seriously injured, I called the vet and made the appointment I had been procrastinating—Leo will be neutered next week. Until then, he’s not going outside, no matter how loudly and often he howls.

A year ago, my previous pet cat, the beloved 13-year-old Midnight, had never returned home after one of his nightly outings. Although that incident was unrelated to cat puberty, it was nonetheless a very traumatic event for me and my boys. This morning, when Leo didn’t return, in spite of winter temperatures well below freezing, I’d experienced a flashback to last year’s heartbreak. With Leo, why hadn’t I taken action sooner?

Leo’s adolescent urges will be tamed pretty easily, with just a little snip. With human teenagers, however, that option is not available. At least, I don’t think it is…

When my sons went through puberty, I also procrastinated before taking action. I assumed that school and church would educate them properly about matters related to sex, morals, and relationships. Maybe I wouldn’t have to have “the talk” with them.

The schools and the church did their best, but, to be honest, those institutions provide little shelter in the hurricane of our modern culture. From TV sitcoms to movies, from MySpace to mp3 lyrics, our children are buffeted by strong societal winds as they enter puberty. As parents, we need to voice our values, knowledge, and wisdom to them—early and often.

As my sons can tell you, I did eventually have “the talk” with each of them, but it was brief and awkward. As a father-son talk, it was true to stereotype—short on details, long on unspoken assumptions, with minimal eye contact. It was not one of my finer moments as a Dad, and I regret not doing it sooner or more conscientiously. (Is this an easier job for Moms?)

As humans, we don’t have to be slaves to our animal instincts. Teenage boys don’t inevitably tomcat around, and teenage girls don’t go into heat. But if you’re a parent of a child on the cusp of adolescence, please don’t underestimate the power of puberty.

Published in: on February 19, 2009 at 8:56 am  Comments (2)  

Minnesota Senate Recount: The First Quantum Election?

The American public, the national media, and even the Minnesota Secretary of State, all seem to agree with Albert Einstein, who famously said, “God doesn’t play dice.” Most scientists, however, now believe that Einstein was wrong on this particular point. Reluctantly, physical scientists have accepted that there are some things we can’t ever know for sure. And maybe the Minnesota Senate election of 2008 is one of those things.

Einstein’s oft-repeated quote refers to his distaste for quantum mechanics, its probabilistic nature, and its long-term implications about what we can ever hope to know. In the world of classical physics, first described by Isaac Newton in the 17th century, every physical event is ultimately knowable and predictable, if we have enough time and information. If we look long enough, hard enough, smart enough, and close enough at any physical situation, we’ll be able to eventually describe it exactly and predict what will happen next.

In the world of quantum physics, first explored theoretically in the early 20th century, different rules prevail. And the implications of these rules are often counter-intuitive, paradoxical, and downright unaesthetic. Even when we look long enough, hard enough, smart enough, and close enough at some physical situations, we still can’t know everything. There is uncertainty that we will never be able to resolve. It’s not just a matter of “margin of error” due to our skill at making measurements. It’s a more fundamental uncertainty, and it’s described by the “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.”

Werner Heisenberg, in 1927, stated that we can’t know both the exact location and exact speed of a small particle, like an electron. (Actually, scientists usually refer to “momentum” instead of “speed,” but these quantities are related to each other.) The very act of precisely measuring the location, for example, will yield a range of speeds for the electron. Or, vice versa, the very act of precisely measuring the speed of an electron will yield a range of locations. If we repeat the observation a number of times, we’ll get a variety of different answers. The only way to describe the system accurately is with a “probability cloud” for the electron.

In the “normal” world in which we live, these quantum effects are so tiny and are averaged out over so many particles and events, that we will never observe any differences between the world as described by quantum mechanics and the world described by classical mechanics. However, when we dive into a nano-world where we no longer look at the aggregate result—where we look instead at the tiny individual particle or event—we start to see quantum effects.

But what does this have to do with the U.S. Senate?

Let’s replace the word “electron” with the word “election”—we’re just changing one letter.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Elections, by analogy, tells us that at the micro-level, there is a fundamental uncertainty that we can’t ever dispel. The quantum election principle states that you can’t truly know the winner of the election, because there isn’t one true vote count, there is just a probability cloud of final tallies. Every time an observer goes into the voting system at the most micro of levels (for example, looking at each individual ballot and at the circumstances surrounding the casting of that individual ballot), the observer will come out with a different vote count. The very act of counting the votes introduces a fundamental uncertainty into the system.

Up until now, this principle has only been of theoretical relevance. With the Minnesota Senate recount, however, we are seeing the first experimental evidence of this principle in action.

No matter how many times we count the Minnesota Senate votes, no matter how close we look at each ballot, no matter how transparent the election process, no matter how unbiased the election officials, we can’t know the “true” winner. In fact, there is no such thing as a “true” winner.

So what do we do? Some have suggested that we flip a coin once and declare a winner who will occupy the Senate seat for the next six years. But I have a better solution.

Let’s flip a coin every morning and declare a “Senator-for-the-day.” If we really want to reflect the “will of the people,” the daily coin flip is a much better reflection of “reality.”

And wouldn’t it make for interesting politics? Maybe we’d finally achieve something closer to the mythical “bipartisanship” we seem to need in this time of crisis.

I believe we are going to be seeing more and more elections just as close as the Minnesota Senate election of 2008. Well-financed and sophisticated campaigns can fine tune their candidates’ positions to match focus group results and tracking poll data on an increasingly local level—from gerrymandering individual districts to tailoring mailings by individual zip codes to robo-calling individual phone numbers.

It’s time to recognize that, in Minnesota, we are experiencing the first quantum election. It’s time for political scientist departments to add courses on “quantum elections” to the current curricula, which only reflect the world of “classical elections.” It’s time for talking heads to bone up on their quantum theory.

And perhaps it’s time to introduce a “Heisenberg Uncertainty Amendment” to the Constitution.

Published in: on February 16, 2009 at 9:18 am  Comments (2)  
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Will today’s financial meltdown be this generation’s Sputnik?

I owe my career path to a metallic sphere that weighed about 185 pounds and was slightly larger than a big beach ball. Launched by Russian scientists on October 4, 1957, Sputnik-1 had a profound effect on American culture, education, and science. As the first satellite in outer space, it shocked the American public and its political leadership. Fortunately, the Sputnik scare served as the catalyst for a strong and broad emphasis on science and engineering that influenced a generation of American students–including me.

I celebrated my second birthday while Sputnik was orbiting the earth in 1957. When I was in first grade, my class gathered in the back of the school auditorium to watch John Glenn’s historic space flight. My high school textbooks in physics (PSSC Physics) and chemistry (CHEM Study) were developed in the aftermath of Sputnik and adopted widely across the country. Although I realized early on (shortly after I got my first pair of glasses in second grade) that I wasn’t going to grow up to be an astronaut, I could become a scientist—an occupation that was highly respected and sought after in those days.

The post-Sputnik fervor, of course, didn’t last forever. As icons of American culture and success, the astronauts and scientists of the 1960s were replaced, forty years later, by Wall Street investment bankers and hedge fund managers. In 2007, according to a survey conducted by the Harvard Crimson, of the Harvard seniors graduating that year and heading directly to the workforce, half of them (47 %) were heading into jobs with consulting firms and financial-sector companies. Yes, you read that right—47%!!

I expect that the survey results in 2009 will be quite different.

Just as Sputnik shocked American society into re-evaluating its priorities, the current financial meltdown will be forcing similar re-evaluations by a generation of students. Where will America’s best and brightest students be heading over the next generation?

The stimulus bill being passed today on Capitol Hill includes significant new funding for science and technology. President Obama promised in his inaugural speech to “restore science to its rightful place.” If we slog our way out of the current financial crisis, the solutions to the looming crises of the next generation (e.g., health care, energy, and climate change) will all require science and engineering.

We’ll need bright, creative scientists and engineers, of course. But perhaps more importantly, we’ll need a general public and citizenry that values and rewards innovation, invention, and success in areas other than just financial services.

It’s time for STEM (Science, Technology, Education, and Math) leaders and educators to make a difference again in the future of our country. It’s time to “step up to the plate.” And I don’t mean home plate on a baseball field. Forget that tired, old sports metaphor. I’m referring to the “plates” we’ll find in laboratories, nature, and classrooms. It’s time to step up to agar bacterial plates, tectonic plates, and thin layer chromatography plates.

Published in: on February 13, 2009 at 9:21 am  Comments (3)  

Bonding in the Blogosphere

As I’ve watched my teenage and young-adult children the past few years, I’ve become painfully aware that they live in a different communication environment than I do. We all have access to the same tools—e-mail, voice mail, cell phone (both talking and texting), list serves, and social networking sites (LiveJournal, LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace).  But we use these tools in fundamentally different ways.  My kids use Web 2.0, and I’m still getting used to Web 1.0.

Nevertheless, I’m trying to understand (and emulate) their style of communication, because it’s the Future.

So over the past few months, I’ve listened to dozens of podcasts, exchanged frequent text messages with my sons, joined LinkedIn, and started using RSS feeds to follow others’ blogs. I’m now getting all my news online, and I’ve canceled my print newspaper subscription (sorry, Star Tribune employees). I even signed up for Twitter.

But I don’t think I really “got it.” I didn’t really understand how and why these forms of communications were fundamentally different. Until February 5.  Now, I get it.

What happened last week that changed my experience of communicating?

To put it simply, I took my first real step into the world known as the Blogosphere. As part of my strategy to join the 21st century, I had recently started a blog, “The Alchemist in the Minivan.” But I hadn’t yet made any attempt to generate traffic to my site.

However, that changed on February 5, when a blog entry I submitted as a “guest blogger” was published by the New York Times on its “Motherlode” Parenting Blog. (See “Just Chill, Dad.”)

Suddenly, I felt exposed to the entire world.  After all, the New York Times website receives millions of visitors each month, from all over the world.   And some of those people might actually read my article!  As a writer, I was excited and proud.

But as a shy chemist and unassuming father living in Minnesota, where we value reticence and modesty, I was uncomfortable.  That feeling didn’t last long, however, because the Blogosphere took over.

I started seeing “comments” added to my NYT story—“comments” from parents around the country sharing their own experiences, humor, and wisdom. Fifty comments flooded in over the first two hours.

Their comments were warm, articulate, and insightful.  Some of these people followed the link to my blog site.  The number of daily hits on my website went up by a factor of 30–at least for that one day.    I was communicating and interacting, in a new way, with all these people.

And I enjoyed it! It wasn’t like talking to them face-to-face, by phone, by e-mail, or by teleconference. It was a qualitatively different type of bond—not particularly strong on an individual basis but powerful on a wide basis.

When faced with new situations, groping for a way to understand something, I often reach for a chemical metaphor. So I accessed the chemistry memory bank in my brain, searching for a chemical metaphor for this new type of bonding.

The first metaphor I visualized involved the delocalized electrons in aromatic rings, such as the electrons in a molecule of caffeine. I’ve written about that metaphor in an earlier published essay, “Coffee Chemistry,” so I kept searching for a new metaphor.

The second metaphor that came to mind involves the type of bonding that occurs in a metal. I’ll write more about this metallic bonding metaphor soon, but I first need to brush up and update my understanding (it’s been about 30 years since my college courses in inorganic chemistry ).

Where will I go to start my research?  I’ll use several of those new forms of knowledge and knowledge-sharing that have emerged in the 21st century. I’ll google “metallic bonding” and read the Wikipedia article.

Published in: on February 10, 2009 at 7:47 am  Comments (1)  
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Kindergarten Chemistry

In his inaugural address, President Obama thrilled scientists across the country by simply uttering the following phrase:  “We will restore science to its rightful place.”

What a relief! The last eight years have been bleak for many scientists, as the Bush administration seemed to place ideology over scientific fact all too often. A good overview of scientists’ attitude can be found in this January 21st New York Times article, Scientists Welcome Obama’s Words.”

Science will clearly play a more important role in the Obama administration. It’s about time. Science and technology have a great deal to offer on policy issues such as climate change, energy, and health care. Encouraging scientists and engineers to help on these issues is certainly one of the things that Obama meant when he referred to science’s “rightful place.”

But that’s not the only “rightful place” where science must return.

I did my small part last week, when I helped restore science to one of its most important rightful places–the Kindergarten classroom.

As a Christmas gift to my godchild, a bright and curious five-year-old girl, I offered to visit her class to do some hands-on science activities. When my sons were in elementary school, I enjoyed doing this once or twice every year at their school. However, it’s been more than five years since I stepped into a classroom. It’s definitely time to restore science to its rightful place…

I was just as excited as the students were when we began our activity last week. We did an activity that uses red cabbage as an acid-base indicator. You just rub the red cabbage leaf on an index card to leave a big reddish-purplish smudge. Then, you can dip a Q-Tip in a common household acid, such as vinegar (acetic acid) or lemon juice (citric acid). Swiping the moistened Q-Tip across the smudge will reveal a color change. You can also dip a Q-Tip in a common household base (a mixture of water and baking soda or Alka-Seltzer works well) and repeat the experiment to get a different color change.

We experimented with other plant materials–from carrots to radishes to hydrangea petals. Some gave us wonderful color changes, and others gave us no change.  We talked about making observations, making guesses, and doing experiments–the scientific method.

At the end of the class, I asked all scientists in the room to raise their hand. With a little prodding, every Kindergartner (and the teacher and I) raised a hand.

Science was restored to its rightful place.


Want to try the experiment yourself? Here’s a copy of the information I sent home with the students that evening. (I printed the handout on goldenrod-colored paper, which also undergoes some fascinating color changes when you try the same experiment.)


“Science is Fun”

In Mrs. A’s class today, we did some hands-on science experiments involving chemistry and color changes. We learned about some household acids (lemon juice, vinegar, soda pop) and bases (baking soda, Milk of Magnesia). We used red cabbage to make an acid-base indicator that can be used to test pH, a measure of acidity.

pH measurement can be important in many areas of life. If you watch your favorite TV show or movie carefully, you just might start seeing acid-base chemistry in action:

  • Medicine — Blood pH is a routine medical test. It’s part of the “blood gas” test the ER doctors always seem to want on their patients.
  • Cosmetics — Watch those ads carefully. Is your shampoo “pH-balanced?”
  • Food – Acid indigestion? Eat too much of that rich food? You might want to use “Tums” (a base) to take care of that extra stomach acid.
  • Forensic science – Those CSI investigators can tell you all about acids, bases, and pH.
  • Recreation — Swimming pools and hot tubs must be maintained at a constant pH. In those movies set in Southern California, the cute guy that takes care of those pools seems to always be kneeling by the side of the pool testing its pH.

Today’s activity is just one of dozens of fun “kitchen chemistry” experiments that you can do with safe materials that are readily available at your grocery store. If you want to try some of these experiments in your own home, there are many resources available. Here are some to get you started.

Resources on the Internet

One of the handiest sources for wonderful experiments is the World Wide Web. Here are two sites that I highly recommend.
This site, from the Exploratorium (San Francisco’s science museum), is perennially voted one of the best science sites on the web.
The website of the American Chemical Society (ACS) is a rich resource of information about chemistry. The webpage listed here will point you towards dozens of science activities for children (and their adult helpers). The red cabbage experiment that we did today is adapted from the activity called “Lose the Indicator Blues.” To go directly to the page for this activity, use this address:

Published in: on February 5, 2009 at 11:25 am  Comments (11)  
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