I have been, and always shall be, your friend.
- Spock, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan
The world lost not only a great man today, but also one more connection to an era that seems to be slipping away. Leonard Nimoy, best known as Spock from Star Trek, died earlier today at 83. The fact that Spock, a character initially devoid of human emotion and attachment, would emerge as one of the most beloved characters from Star Trek is a testament to the complexity both the character and the actor would bring to the role as it evolved from a campy TV series to a cinematic cultural icon.
In many ways, Spock represented an outsider’s view of humanity, a lens that allowed us to look back on ourselves from the position of a rational observer. At times Spock reflected how absurdly irrational we were, at others he embraced what was best about the emotion that sparked that absurdity. Reflecting back on the world that made Spock a cultural icon illustrates just how different things are today. Spock was embraced for how he let logic guide his decisions. Today we let celebrity charlatans override volumes of scientific data and consensus with one 140 character remark.
Spock also represented a kind of common popular culture that our fragmented world of YouTube and Twitter has largely killed. Star Trek was an institution, even if you didn’t watch the show you knew who Spock was, you might even have been able to do his famous hand gesture. Popular culture is far more fragmented today, we have more choice and more narrow networks of interest than ever. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the world in which a charismatically challenged alien could occupy a central place in pop culture simply seems impossible now.
However what was most remarkable about Spock as a character, and Leonard Nimoy as an actor, was how both evolved over time to embrace a more holistic view of humanity. Though Spock was half-Vulcan, he was also half-human, and over time he began to embrace the emotion, passion and humility that comes with being part of humanity.
This, more than anything, is what makes me wish my kids were old enough to watch the Star Trek movies (soon!). Today it seems like society either speaks with passion or with logic. We’re polarized by the debate over rationality vs. emotion, science vs. religion, and technology vs. people. What Spock, and Leonard Nimoy, showed us was that this was a false dichotomy. As humans we don’t have to choose, our gift is the ability to take the best of both worlds and employ them to our advantage. Supporting vaccination does not mean ignoring natural wellbeing. Tackling climate change doesn’t mean abandoning economic prosperity. Teaching our kids to embraces science and math doesn’t mean the end of arts, music and athletics. What Spock learned on the big (and small) screen was how to balance both sides of his being for the benefit of himself and everyone around him. He also learned the value of sacrifice, the meaning of friendship, and what it takes to be part of a community greater than yourself.
There are those that believe science is the only answer, and as someone who is staunchly pro-science, it’s hard to disagree with that. However it is only through balancing that knowledge with the greatest respect for the traits that make us human–compassion, respect and love, that we bring out the best in our species.
Live long and prosper.
As I sit here watching my two young daughters play, I wonder about the world they will grow up in. Will it be peaceful? Will it be prosperous? Will it be full of wonder? Recently, as a father of girls, I have been given pause to consider whether or not the world they will inherit will be more dangerous simply because of their gender.
In recent weeks, I have seen several women who I respect and consider role models express fear and exasperation at the things they are seeing in our society. From the Ghomeshi revelations to Rehtaeh Parsons, and from Gamergate to Dalhousie University, it seems as though we are reversing much of the progress that our society has fought so hard to achieve on gender equality.
Here’s the thing though, our society is safer and more gender equitable than at any time in our history.
This isn’t just my opinion, this is fact. As difficult as these revelations are to stomach, it’s important to realize that crime in Canada, indeed in most industrialized nations, is at historic lows. This is seen most dramatically in the drop in violent crimes, including sexual assault. Of course we know that most sexual assaults go unreported, a troubling fact, but it’s unlikely that less women come forward in 2015 than in 1972. The stigma is strong, but nothing compared to what it used to be. We absolutely need to find a way to make more women feel safe telling their story (however lowering the legal burden of proof isn’t one of them), but today’s atmosphere is clearly more welcoming than ever before.
So what is causing this surge in misogynist behaviour? Clearly our always-connected lifestyles are part of the blame. Idiots with a keyboard now have an outlet for their hate and can publish it to the world. Where before they might have just been that asshole at work who made rude comments, now they are the asshole on the Internet who can harass thousands of women at once. The marvels of efficiency. The always-on nature of how we get our news is also a factor. Whereas previously we may have received news once or twice a day, now it bombards us constantly through social media. This means that news outlets always have to have something to say, they dig deeper for these stories, they seek out the tales that have the most shock appeal. This is not necessarily meant as a criticism of media. Their job is supremely important and we benefit tremendously from the increased spotlight they put on monsters of all types. But the price of that spotlight is the perception that women are under attack, suffering a massive setback in gender equality. I just don’t see it.
What I see is outrage and action where there once might have been a “boys will be boys” attitude. The difference today is that these acts are no longer swept under the rug, no longer tolerated, and no longer kept quiet to preserve the status quo. Woman are getting pissed off and men are joining the fight to root out these assholes and expose their ignorance. If there's an attack going on, we're the ones on the offensive, not the misogynists.
I see a number of strong female leaders who stand up, speak out, and take action. Whereas a few decades ago women in leadership positions might have felt the need to stay quiet so as not to jeopardize their standing in a male-dominated world, now they feel empowered to use their positions as platforms for change. Odds are the next U.S. President will be a woman.
I see men of all backgrounds who stand up and call out other men on their behaviour. Who support their female friends and family in their struggles, and who raise their daughters to believe that no avenues are closed to them because of their gender.
I don’t say this to downplay the legitimate discussions and concerns being voiced by women, their actions are helping make the world safer for my girls. Rather, I feel that as our society takes these important steps, we must keep in perspective how far we have come. The last thing we need is a society of fear and paranoia, where danger is around every corner.
The extreme misogyny and intolerance we are seeing is simply the death throes of an old way of thinking lashing out with the power of social media. Such views and discussions used to be confined to locker rooms and private conversations, but now these bullies are exposing themselves. This is a good thing. It is better that these discussions happen in public, where they can be countered, than hidden behind closed doors. Intolerance doesn’t like the light of publicity. Much like other struggles against hate and intolerance, once they hit the streets, once they become a topic of public discussion, they are well on their way to being marginalized. Great societal change is often accompanied by a heated public debate, that's the sign that the insidious nature of intolerance is being exposed.
I am in no way trying to downplay the severity of the crimes we are seeing in the news, or the real world experiences many women. Nor do I doubt that many women face adversity on a daily basis in a society that still hasn’t fully committed to equality. However, as a father, what I know in my bones is that the society my girls are growing up in is orders of magnitude better than the one I experienced. And it gets better every day.
Every night before we put the girls to bed, we go to a window in the hall outside their rooms and look for the moon. I talk to them about the moon, and tell them they will go there someday. I have my youngest convinced she will be an “axetronaut” (her word, which I assume means some kind of terraforming specialist). I prefer to inspire hope and wonder in my girls. There is real struggle going on in the world today, but let’s not let fear control how we raise our girls.
If you peruse your Facebook feed or your Twitter stream on a daily basis, you see a variety of articles proclaiming that science has made a dramatic new discovery.
“Thing X causes cancer;” “Thing X prevents cancer;” or “Thing Y will kill you, unless it doesn’t; who the fuck knows”.
The problem is that what we know as science has changed a lot. It used to be that science was something that required rigorous review and testing, peer scrutiny, and usually ended up getting you beheaded or burned at the stake by the Catholic church. That was the old school, when science was a calling, and when a discovery was truly something that changed the world.
That kind of science still endures today, but it’s overwhelmed by an avalanche of junk that erodes our faith in real science. I had a facepalm moment the other day when I saw this article from TIME, 10 Things Most Parents Are Dead Wrong About: Backed By Research. First off, when did TIME, a magazine that used to a cultural and generational touchstone, become a list-making, linkbait factory? But I digress. If you read the article, which is really just a list of links to other sites, it’s clearly designed to piss people off enough to click. Among the things the article appears to support are: talking back, spanking, peer pressure, oh, and if you think you’re a great parent for reading to your kid, you’re probably doing that wrong too.
Here’s the problem, any researcher can publish a paper on a blog these days with little to no peer review, and virtually no need to back up their findings or even provide a reference back to their work. The first link in the article, the one about kids talking back to their parents, links to another blog post that is only 139 words long (which credits another blog post with a dead link) and doesn’t contain a single number to back up the findings. No indication of sample size, no numbers to show how definitive the findings were, and most importantly, nothing to indicate the background of the researchers, who paid them, what their motives were, nothing.
The problem is that most people won’t bother to look into the details, most people will just feel fear and anxiety that they are somehow being a horrible parent, they are doing something wrong.
The biggest problem with this junk science, research done with all the precision and care of a fast food drive-thru window, is that it devalues our trust in real science.
The thing about science is that everything is really just a theory. Even the things you and I think to be settled are really just highly probable theories. The Theory of Gravity isn’t just a turn of phrase, it’s actually what the thing is called. That’s because science is only our best interpretation of the world as we know it right now. That doesn’t mean everyone should go out tomorrow and jump off a cliff trying to disprove gravity, it means that our understanding of nature, matter, and energy is always evolving. Something like gravity, though still a theory, has a 99.9999 percent probability rate–we’re pretty damn sure we have it right. This is why trust is so important in science. We must trust that what we are being told is legitimately the best guess, based on empirical evidence, that the scientific community can muster at this point in our evolution as a species.
This all sounds highly abstract, “what’s your fucking point, Spencer?” Well, the point is that as trust is eroded we replace trust with celebrity, we replace evidence with volume, and we replace credibility with who has the biggest audience. Which is why a mind-boggling number of people think a former Playboy bunny is an expert on vaccination. The scientific consensus on vaccines is pretty overwhelming. It may not have not gravity-level confidence, but it has enough empirical evidence, backed by decades of peer-reviewed research, that we’re pretty damn certain it saves lives. So why do so many people not trust science? I think it’s because we’ve allowed our lives to be filled with the mindless psuedo-science that changes week to week.
It’s the same reason so many of us don’t believe in climate change, because we’ve grown so used to science changing its mind, getting it wrong, and flip-flopping that we’re holding out hope that they might have fucked this one up too.
And hey, scientists, you’re not off the hook here either. When you publish papers based on tiny sample sizes to get headlines, when you cover up evidence that doesn’t support your theories, and when you sell your souls to the highest bidder, you are helping erode the trust in science.
Scientists used to be rockstars, they didn’t care about what people thought, didn’t care about the mainstream, they cared about the science. Now, like an aging rock band touring long past their prime to pay for their divorce settlement, science has forgotten what they were supposed to be in it for.
When I was a kid, Pluto was a planet, and now it isn’t. That’s the power of science, not the cancer scare du jour, but the real power that comes with using evidence and data to shape our understanding of the world. Anything else is just linkbait designed to generate outrage. And really, doesn’t reality TV give us enough to be outraged about?