Everything I ever needed to know started out a lot like this…

Everything I ever needed to know started out a lot like this…

I should hope it’s patently obvious that this person is just having fun, but just in case it isn’t, now you know.

We’ve all felt like this was the explanation for something at one time or another. There seemed to be no particular rhyme or reason to the explanation, and it totally seemed wrong in your head, but the speaker was all, “Trust me; I’m a professional.” Well, the going joke among my science friends (as I’m sure it is at universities everywhere) is that they call it a B.S. for a reason. I mean, at the end of the day, a lot of what we think we know is just really, really well-educated guesses based on years of observation and experimentation, and we just haven’t pushed the right, or rather, wrong buttons yet. Or rather, if there are any wrong buttons, and there may very well not be, we haven’t pushed them yet because out of a set of a googol or so buttons, finding the one that doesn’t behave as expected is well beyond Herculean in terms of tasks.

Yes, there are irrefutable facts in this world, and math is a lot of how we understand these things. Math, at its core, is immutable. But some of the fields that use it aren’t yet because as much as we know, we also know that there’s some part of it that we don’t know because we haven’t been able to explore it yet. Current theory seems to cover everything we’ve discovered so far pretty well, though. However, I get the feeling that a lot of people don’t really get what a theory is in scientific terms. It’s basically one step down from God’s own truth, if I’m putting it in layman’s terms. As Wikipedia puts it (which is accurate, and better than what my sleep-deprived brain can come up with right now): “In modern science, the term “theory” refers to scientific theories, a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science. Such theories are described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand and either provide empirical support (“verify”) or empirically contradict (“falsify”) it. Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge, in contrast to more common uses of the word “theory” that imply that something is unproven or speculative (which is better defined by the word ‘hypothesis’). Scientific theories are also distinguished from hypotheses, which are individual empirically testable conjectures, and scientific laws, which are descriptive accounts of how nature will behave under certain conditions.”

This, my ducks, is why I was absolutely pissed when the 2011 Miss America contestant from my home state decried teaching evolution in schools because “we kinda want to stay away from little theories … I believe in the truth and the truth only”. (And this is where my roommate will jump in and tell you that it’s okay for definitions to have multiple definitions, even when they contradict each other. Considering how important it is to know the difference here, though…) Okay, so, in that case, we definitely shouldn’t talk about relativity, gravity or a lot of other things that we take as truth simply because we haven’t seen proof that we’re wrong yet. Good to know. None of these things are just “little theories”. (Side note—I am aware that some parts of evolution are rather more shaky at least in people’s minds because, let’s face it, it’s hard to test a process that takes that much time in such a way that it can produce results in a reasonable amount of time. However, I think we can all at least agree that there is pretty strong evidence that micro-evolution has occurred and continues to do so.) We might not fully understand them yet, and we may never fully understand them, but that doesn’t mean they hold no weight.

Unlike this explanation for how algebra works.


The science (or lack thereof?) of attraction

In the beginning, there was the sun and the earth. The earth said, “Hey, you’re pretty hot”, and the sun replied, “Thanks—you’re pretty cool yourself.” And thus, the moon was born.

Okay… That might be a little wrong.

Okay, maybe a lot wrong. Nobody ever said I was a genius! Don’t judge me!

*deep breath*

Anyway, attraction is weird. I’m sure we all know this.

It should be relatively straightforward, though, right? I mean, the way everyone talks about it, you find someone who instantly agrees that you would have beautiful babies, you get married, and… happily ever after. BAM! End of story.

Hah… Hah Hah… Haaaaaaahhhhhh…

Yeah, not gonna even try. Just not gonna… no.

Attraction is complex. Attraction can be messy. Attraction can be unexpected. Attraction can be physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, or some combination thereof. It can be between people you’d mistake for twins, or it can be between complete opposites. (Jeez, I’m starting to remind myself of Yvaine’s lines about how strange love is in the movie version of Stardust. Which is amazing, by the way.) And yet, we’re told that attraction is primarily biological; primarily for the source of finding someone whose genes, when mixed with yours, will produce strong offspring who will in turn pass on those strong genes… you get the picture.

Already, though, there’s a few things wrong with this. The most obvious thing is that some people, no matter how much sexual attraction they feel to others, don’t want/can’t have kids. Even when they’re biologically capable of having kids, some people just don’t feel they would be good parents. Some just don’t want to raise kids. Whatever their reasons, they’re completely valid. I’m not even gonna bring up the whole same-sex attraction except for to say that I firmly believe this is a biological thing—not a choice at all—and their relationships are just as real and valid as any loving heterosexual couple, and that’s the end of that.

Second, the strongest genes will be the ones that win out over time, it’s generally true; however, they won’t always win out in a given generation for a given couple. For instance, a lot of people wind up needing glasses at one point or another. But I guess that’s something of a given, and so not seen as a disadvantage, since we have the technology to correct it, more or less. Here’s a more personal example: the boyfriend is hard-of-hearing. When he’s not wearing his hearing aids, I have to speak louder than I would normally (and I have been told I am loud normally) in order to make sure he’s got what I’m trying to say. There’s no cure for the specific cause, so you’d think he wouldn’t be “prime mating material” or whatever. (Gives me the willies referring to him like that! If you’re reading this, dear, I hope you’re laughing at my attempt at silliness and not face/palm-ing at it. It gets better, though! Just read on!)

Newsflash: I don’t love a lot of people who have perfect hearing. I don’t dislike a lot of people who don’t. In fact, part of the attraction (not a turn on, but just a really, really cool thing) is that I now have an incredibly good excuse to learn ASL, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. But that’s not all of why I’m attracted to the boyfriend—not by a long shot. In my opinion, he’s a really good-looking guy. (Though he did get his hair cut very recently and I really liked his hair a bit shorter than the length it was, but c’est la vie. He still looks good, and I love him anyway.) He’s smart. He’s caring, but not to the point where I feel smothered or like he thinks I’m weak because I’m *ahem* of the fairer sex. *cough*choke*DIE* I could go on, but I’m not here to bore you with all the reasons he’s amazing.

I get that getting together because you actually like the other person is something of a newcomer as far as common institutions go. But when you think about it, you’re still getting something out of it, right? You’re getting someone who is in all likelihood willing to help you out, and who you will help to support. You’re getting someone who will care for your emotional needs as you will for theirs. It’s not a bad deal!

What I’m trying to say is that, anymore, genes aren’t the be-all-end-all of getting together. That’s not to say that we should ignore the child-bearing/-rearing factor completely. In fact, we shouldn’t ignore it at all—it’s just that there’s so much more than science can really quantify (at this point, anyway) about attraction. The number of times science has told me I’m apparently attracted to the wrong person is laughably (and at the same time scarily) high. We’re attracted to who we’re attracted to, no matter how much science tells us we shouldn’t be. I’d like to think it’s a little magical, myself. As long as nobody’s wrecking anyone’s relationships, why should we really care what’s behind it?

This is what happens when you don’t use the scientific method properly

A study recently published by the University of Canterbury in New Zealand has some… unfortunately obvious results, some might say.

The tl;dr version of the study is as follows: sex and booze make humans happiest in terms of three axes: pleasure, meaning, and engagement. Seriously, sex ranks in as the number one activity that makes humans happy, and drinking alcohol comes in second. This does make pretty good sense on a basic level, though. You have only to look at popular culture and the media to corroborate this supposed “revelation”, and science lends its own credence. Humans, after all, are huge fans of instant gratification—the part of the brain that enables long-term planning and weighing risk versus reward doesn’t fully develop until most people are in their mid-twenties! (This, as many of my friends half-joke-half-assert, is why people should not be allowed to marry or make other such life-changing, long-term decisions until they’re older than about 25.)

Now, a couple things concern me about this study: first and foremost, what are the demographics, here? Were they even reported? Looking at the compiled lists of the top ten activities that (allegedly) make humans happiest and the bottom ten, it seems skewed toward the culturally mainstream interests of those between the ages of about 16 and 35. (To be fair, though, nobody likes being sick, and recovering is rarely a pleasant journey, so at least the least happy activity makes sense.) I looked around for a little bit, and I could find no information on the demographics, and that’s a little concerning. If you’re going to generalize on what makes humans happiest, I’d hope that you’d at least have age and gender proportional examples! Given the proportions of those who text and/or use Facebook—the main avenues of reporting in this study—I’d say that this could use a little work.

Next, I happened to see this article from the Stir that talks about how sad it is that more people don’t want to be parents. First, I think this is kind of a load of crock. In terms of people commenting and essentially saying “Parenthood sucks”—it seems like these are the same people who also don’t like going to lecture or cleaning or much of anything that involves actual work; they’re probably not representative of the majority of people, and they’re probably commenting mindlessly. And kids, God bless ‘em, are a ton of work. Now, from what I’ve seen in real life, they can also be incredibly rewarding, but they tend to come with the most extreme of ups and downs. Popular media does not help, and often paints child rearing as something that is all pain and very little to no reward whatsoever for just about every reason imaginable. Compounding that, people like to make themselves feel better by examining the misfortunes of others. A childless person will look at some inaccurate representation in media portraying the incredibly vast majority of families as dysfunctional beyond help and think, “Well, at least it’s not me. And why would I want that, anyway?”

The author of the Stir article thinks that this supposed distaste for parenting is unfortunate, and, on some levels, I agree with her. Why shouldn’t we want to share our lives with these little miracles? Actually, there are plenty of reasons, so, hey, if people don’t want and/or aren’t ready to be having kids, the absolute dead last thing they should be doing is, well, having them. Not good for the parent, not good for the kid, not good for anyone.

And really, when you look at it, considering that there are at least twenty items on this list, being ranked in the top twenty-five percent (raising children comes in fifth) really isn’t all that bad. I suppose the point of the Stir article could be more (and very implicitly) that you keep on “needing” more alcohol and sex to be happy, and that threshold for how many children it takes to be happy is, in a lot of cases, far and away lower. To be honest, I also don’t understand what the gripe is about volunteering coming before having children. To a lot of people, volunteering strikes the correct balance of caring for others and caring for one’s self. In addition, those who volunteer a lot of their time likely don’t have a whole lot of it left to be rearing kids, which does take away from the time one is able to spend simply caring for one’s self. I just fail to see how volunteering ranking higher means that we don’t respect our kids. (Saying this about the ranking of sex, though, and, far more obviously, the booze, I can understand, but even then, if you use both in moderation, that alone does not mean you disrespect children.) Side note: I also wonder which category (volunteering or raising children) fostering kids falls under, because that could totally skew these results, too.

The point here is that it’s all too easy to extrapolate something that probably isn’t there (or at least, isn’t entirely accurate) from the little data that there is while missing out on the portion of the data that would be really telling.

It’s kind of funny—it’s really hard to construct a well-done survey. It’s a lot of effort that a lot of people don’t want to put forth, and thus, it generally winds up with a gigantic confirmation bias. Funny how “paid work”—which I’m assuming is what this research was for those conducting the research—does manage to rank in the bottom ten. Take a minute to let that sink in. And for goodness’ sake, next time, please be a little more accurate, people!