On science, and why we should respect it

We’ve all sighed in resignation, spluttered in indignation or rolled our eyes in straight-out derision when someone reveals a belief we find ridiculous, like that chlorophyll supplements are re-energising or that wifi causes cancer. Our dismissal of their crazy notions feels righteous, because, after all, we have science on our side – only fools argue with facts. Science is the one institution that should be wholly trustworthy, based as it is on evidence, on only believing in results we can see and recreate.

How is, it, then, that even in the educated echelons of society, we’re still in constant disputes of how much we can trust science, or which science to trust?

It’s true that science is all about being willing to rewrite the accepted rules if any contrary evidence is found to disprove them, and that there’s been more than one occasion where science hadn’t advanced enough to recognise the dangers in something it touted as perfectly safe, like that time when we thought putting radium in chocolate and makeup was a wonderful idea.

But the idea of people outside the scientific community refusing to believe the testimony of experts is not only ridiculous, but dangerous. Yes, challenging ideas and questioning assumptions is important. Yes, further research may change currently accepted facts. That does not excuse the cherry-picking of what scientific truths you may or may not believe in, a phenomenon becoming all too common in a socio-political culture insistent on allowing everyone their ‘voice’, regardless of qualifications.

Of course, people are generally not consciously trying to promote ‘alternative facts’. Sometimes their misbeliefs are rooted in partially-understood concepts where context or disclaimers have been conveniently forgotten, or their information comes from a source with enough graphs and statistics paired with information written in professional-sounding terms to appear trustworthy, despite not necessarily following appropriate scientific method.

While this isn’t too much of an issue if it’s your neighbour warning you that drinking tea will make you anaemic (it won’t, not by itself) or a single housewife not buying GM food for her family, it can have much wider consequences and become a grave issue. On an individual level, extreme diets founded on inaccurate information, like the Paleo lifestyle, can be personally dangerous, not to mention expensive. GM food is vilified worldwide, potentially undermining the vital role it could play in managing famine and unpredictable harvests. Climate change obviously affects the future of literally every living being, and suffers hugely, just like Tinkerbell, from people not believing in it.

Problems like global warming urgently need to be addressed, and for that they to be acknowledged and funded. When significant proportions of the population, or even just individuals significant in decision-making, do not trust the science and facts laid out before them, these problems do not receive the attention and support necessary for them to be resolved.

Most of us have constant access, grace of the internet, to almost all the knowledge of the human race. Our actions, small though they may seem, can affect our health, the lives of the others, and even the fate of the planet. We need, perhaps now more than ever before, to be encouraging trust in experts and in science. We need to be criticising those who propagate information from unreliable sources or incomplete facts, even if it regards a relatively minor topic, because we cannot allow the belief of inaccurate ideas to become normal. Every time we ignore a qualified scientist so as to interpret information in a way more pleasing to our personal ideologies, we are making it that much easier for dangerous misinformation to become widely believed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Travelling Alone

I used to hate the idea of travelling alone. It seemed so boring, so lonely, and practically a waste of time – who wants to go do anything when you have no one to discuss it with? Where’s the point in looking at a famous church if you can’t inform the person beside you of your opinion on the décor?

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Snapchat helped me share my rage at this sign forbidding you from sitting down in a public square, even if you’re as depressed as the little figure looks

Now, though, I’ve been sightseeing alone in Paris for three months, and I’ve just spent three delightful days as a single traveller in Venice. As it turns out, travelling alone can be tonnes of fun, and even considerably better than travelling with other people. Why’s that? Well, in a word, it’s about freedom.

Plus, I have Snapchat these days, so I can always just broadcast my opinions via low-quality photos with witty* captions.

Even if you get on terribly well with your friend/partner/relative, you’re sure to have a few disagreements, however slight, on how to sightsee or properly enjoy a new place. That’s completely normal: we all have different opinions on what’s important to see or do, and no one can really say what the ‘right’ way to be a tourist is.

Money can be a major issue, whether because of differences in budget or just dispute over what’s worth spending money on – I, personally, love sampling the specialities of any new region, and I’m willing to pay a little more to have the traditional sarda in saor at an authentic, atmospheric cicchetti bar instead of just eating slices of pizza which, though cheap and delicious, can be obtained relatively easily where I live. There’s a million examples, though, like whether you prefer to spend your money on museum entry and go everywhere on foot, or would rather pay for the public transport but content yourself with glancing at the exterior of every famous monument. And how much is too much for accommodation?

It’s obvious why it can feel stifling to holiday with someone with a different budget or just a different sense of value to you, because no one likes to pay for things they didn’t particularly want to do, or, conversely, to feel guilty about putting someone else in that situation. But that’s just one aspect of travelling, and perhaps you and your potential travel buddies are lucky enough to not worry about how much you’re spending. Even then, travelling with anybody else means making compromises between what you want to do, and what they want to do.

I woke up early and left my hostel early to make the most of the light, but some people would rather have slept in, or dawdled over their breakfast or doing their makeup. To me, that seems a waste of time, but they’d probably think the same of me happily getting lost in backstreets and retracing my steps to that pasticceria I saw last night which had such delectable pan del doge in its window.

Travelling alone, though, meant that I could do exactly that, and that I could choose to eat pastries for breakfast every day instead having, y’know, the vaguely healthy option of fruit and cereal and bread rolls that would have cost me the same as my beloved cannolo Sicialiano and espresso shot but wouldn’t have pleased me nearly as much.

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Eating pastries by the lagoon was literally what I came to Venice for, after all.

 

It meant that I could spend as long as I wanted trying to find the perfect postcard, and not worry about being judged for not spending enough time admiring the Tintoretto paintings I’d paid good money to see at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. It meant that I didn’t need to worry about whether my travel companion minded taking a detour to see this basilica I’d heard was kinda pretty, or, alternately, if they’d be awfully disappointed if I couldn’t be bothered going to see Torcello.

I delighted in being left to my own devices because I was the only one to bear the consequences of my

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Buying these, for instance, was definitely the right choice

decisions – that being, in this case, very sore feet after foregoing the expensive waterbuses in favour of walking everywhere and spending the money on obsessively consuming fritelle, a type of fried doughnut often filled with cream, chocolate or zabaglione which I frequently ate in lieu of real meals. They were divine, and I regret none of it. And that is the crux of the matter: I could make choices based entirely around my own impulses, without worrying about inconveniencing others. I had the freedom to do, quite simply, whatever I wanted. And it was wonderful.

 

*witty according to me, whose opinion I value most

 

 

 

On Feminism and Good Taste

My parents encouraged me to be egalitarian, to care about being kind and fair, and to stand up for what I believe in. These are all excellent qualities to pass on, and are the basis of my feminism today. And yet at the same time as they instilled these values in me, they warned me to not cause scenes, and not get angry at people if they’re doing something wrong. They wanted me to know whatever facts I needed to know about sex, but they didn’t want me to ever, god forbid, mention the topic. Their opinion on the LGBT* community was always simple: ‘I don’t care what anyone else does with their sex life but I don’t want to know about it – it’s just not right to discuss that kind of thing in public!’

I can completely understand why they taught me these rules of society, because they live in a world that considers good taste, politeness and breeding to be very important. I still think those things are important myself, it’s just that I’ve expanded my idea of good taste to include two of most vital components of feminism – unbiased discussion of sex, anatomy and sexuality, and a willingness to dispute the status quo and keep arguing even if it might upset someone.

I’ve never been shy about calling people out for doing something wrong, whether it’s speeding, littering or using offensive language. And yet it’s with feminist issues that people get most upset with me and tell me to ‘be nice’ and ‘not cause a fuss’ if I dare tell someone they’re being rude. It’s weird, really: I get accused of being mean when I’m asking someone to stop doing something that’s hurtful or offensive.

Unfortunately, there’s still this strange expectation that if you’re well-raised, you won’t maintain an argument with someone for fear of upsetting them, and it’s a really poisonous concept because it suggests that a single individual’s feelings are more important than the entire idea of social equality. Of course no one should be rude for the sake of it, or angry if they don’t have to be – but to be told you’re not acting appropriately because you’re standing your ground on issues you care about it is ridiculous.

The other issue with trying to be fiercely feminist while making sure you don’t disappoint your grandmother is, of course, that of polite language and taboo topics. Polite society, apparently, pretends that sex and sexuality doesn’t exist except as a means to make babies. I’m told that ‘you shouldn’t talk about vaginas in public’. I’m told it’s not what nice girls do. But I study biology, and vaginas are totally fascinating. Apart from my own interest, girls absolutely have a right to discuss their own body parts so that they can look after themselves better.

I can’t help but sigh at the craziness of a situation where people accuse me of not being ‘well-raised’ because I’m happy to discuss sex and happy to do battle against sexism. Being well-raised has nothing to do with whether you talk about penises and vaginas or not. As with so many things, it’s about how you do it. Is it conversation based on common interest, on exchanging facts and opinions with each other, or are you just making cruel comments or sexualised suggestions? Are you sharing information, or just perpetuating sexist myths?

In the same way, being-well raised doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be angry at people. It means you should know the right times to be angry. Is the person you’re arguing making a choice that harms others? Or are you just upset over something that isn’t their fault? As long as it’s the former, feel free to keep arguing as much as you’d like.

I find it funny, because I’ve always been a huge supporter of ‘good taste’. I hate to imagine that someone would consider me badly brought up – I want to immediately point out my wide reading, my travels, my good works, my broad perspective. To think that someone would dismiss the positive values and wide experience that govern my life because of something as inane as me using the word vulva makes me first laugh, then sigh when I remember that that’s what does happen. Nonetheless, regardless of whether it makes some people think worse of me, I’m convinced of one thing: being well-raised should never mean you can’t talk about the things important to you, especially if acquiescing to the demands of politeness means perpetuating injustice against yourself or others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Refugees and how we see them

In France, the question of refugees has become truly pressing only in the last years thanks to the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ affecting Europe. Their issues are vastly different to our own decades-long struggle in many ways, including the nature of the refugees, the sudden increase and France’s own cultural and socio-political differences, but the situations are alike in the most vital details: each country is currently dealing with large numbers of genuine asylum seekers who we expect our government to aid according to the human rights convention.

Australia’s island state has prevented us from seeing the same sudden arrival of so many asylum-seekers, as the difficulties of the ocean voyage leads to most refugees being detained and sent to off-shore detention centres for processing before they reach the mainland. In comparison, the most popular tourist destination in the entire world – Paris – is also a makeshift home for up to 3000 refugees. There are the lucky ones, in organised camps, but walking through the city still means walking past whole families tucked onto a doorstep with plastic shopping bags spread over their few belongings to keep off the autumn rain. At Saint-Lazare, one of Paris’ largest stations, the repetitive melody of the metro announcements mingles with the haunting tones of the refugees who wait at the top of the escalators, begging for sympathy from the commuters.

Yet the vast majority of commuters treat these refugees as little different than any of the usual beggars, rarely stopping to toss them a few coins. The most common reason stated for not giving money to beggars on the street is that the would-be giver fears their donation will be wasted on alcohol or illicit substances, as they assume these are the reasons for the beggar’s current state. But with refugees, there’s no evidence to suggest they have any issues apart from being cruelly mistreated by chance and other humans’ selfish actions, and as such, no reason to withhold your spare change. Sadly, though, it is human nature that when confronted with mass suffering, aware we cannot give to everyone in need, we tend to give nothing – justifying it by telling ourselves we can’t save them all.

These are heartbreaking scenes, and unlike what we see in Australia, even though the deplorable conditions of our detention camps and the seemingly endless time periods required for processing prompts many Australians to consider the government’s policies an aberration of human rights. Yet there remains one silver lining in this dark cloud, and that is our maintained interest in the welfare of these displaced peoples. Thanks to our outrage at our government’s policies, there are constant lobbies and protests, and the media continues to report on the conditions. We stay invested in these people kept out of sight on far-away islands in a way that would likely not occur if the same people were lining our city streets with their handwritten cardboard signs.

Gerda Lerner, famous feminist scholar, once noted that it took ‘long periods of organised effort to accomplish any advance in social policy’, and her point is, sadly, very apt. Change of any kind comes gradually, and only when we refuse to give up – and our outrage at human rights violations is exactly what fuels such determination. As much as our government policies may displease us, we can be glad that they have kept us angry, and in doing so, kept us resolved to change the current state of affairs instead of turning away for fear that because we can only make a small difference, it is not worth trying to make a difference at all.

On Preparation, and how to enjoy history properly

As a kid, my parents dragged me to half a million fascinating places between Portugal and Germany, and I have clear memories of quite a few of them. The common element of all those memories, though, is that I frequently barely even remember the historical or cultural significance of the place, but rather some silly anecdotal event that happened. Getting lost as an eight year old in the Schönbrunn palace and deciding to continue on with a random tour group I found, or carrying our pet cat through an abandoned-feeling monastery in Spain. There’s a place I went in Germany which I couldn’t describe as anything except ‘the place we watched a squirrel run up a vertical wall’.

Obviously, unless it’s a particular hobby of theirs, children are rarely as fascinated by who-lived-here-when and who-died-how as adults are. But even travelling as an adult I’ve found that a lot of the time, seeing the must-see sights of this famous city or that can be, rather, well, boring. This is despite my being both keenly interested in and possessed of a relatively well-developed understanding of Western history.

Almost everything is wonderful if I read the helpful placards and remember which king Henry VIII was (the one with all the wives, FYI) and what else was happening in the world at that time (European expansionism, mostly) because then I can put personalities to the scenes in front of me, whether it be an ornate display of the tea-table or a half-destroyed dungeon where some political prisoner was kept. That is without debate: it is amazing to see the remnants and reproductions of how these famous characters from our cultural development and their fellow man lived.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, you don’t really know the specifics of what you’re visiting. Yes, the Arc de Triomphe is an impressive monument in and of itself, but if you’re very vague on what Napoleon actually did except be made fun of by modern day students for being short, it doesn’t mean a great deal beyond that. The solution is surely to read the informative plaques that inevitably accompany any popular tourist site, but even then, the information might not be available in your language or it might be too dreadfully brief and expect you to already be well-versed in the exact succession of royalty in Hungary in the 18th century. Not many of us, sadly, are. Guided tours are often perfect for filling these gaps, but might be impossible due to timing, language barriers or costs.

What’s the solution, then? Should we confine ourselves only to seeking out the historical monuments we already know the history for? Of course not. The answer, while perhaps a little unattractive, is to read up beforehand. It sounds counterintuitive to think that you should be studying for your holidays, but the fact remains that you’ll get more genuine enjoyment out of what you’re seeing if you know why you’re supposed to be enjoying it. That’s why people get tours, after all – to have someone explain why they should care. But it’s easy to do it yourself, too, whether by buying a guidebook or just letting yourself fall into the rabbit hole that is link-hopping on Wikipedia. And as an added bonus, you can customise your research to include exactly what it is that interests you most – though you do run the risk of ending up completely off topic and wanting to go visit another three different sites because of what you’ve read about them!

In simple terms, unless you’re ready to throw yourself on fate’s /hands/ and hope that there will be adequate information that fits neatly into the jigsaw puzzle of what you already know, or, at least, an interesting event involving small furry animals, it’s nothing but a good investment to be prepared with all the facts you need to truly impress everyone with all your brand-new knowledge about the place you’re going to – even before you get on the plane.

On Perspective, and what you wouldn’t do

Sometimes, I’m convinced that being able to see things from other people’s perspectives is the most important skill we learn in our lives. I’m not very naturally empathetic, and if someone has even slightly different opinions or feelings to me on something, my immediate response is to stare at them in complete confusion, and perhaps tell them they’re wrong. Probably with rather unkind language.

Instead of doing that, I have to make a concerted effort to understand why they think differently from me. Frequently it seems impossible to do so, and I try to attack the issue as logically and analytically as I can. It’s a hard task, precisely because I am blinded by my own perspective, and because often I don’t even know what the biases I should be trying to overcome and see past even are. I am regularly amazed to discover the thousands of nuances that wealth, cultural background, religion, social status, education and myriad other factors bring to our personal understanding of the world.

It would never occur to me that women resent the endorsement of females in the workforce because it threatens their family income. In fact, something as relatively controversial as people disliking the growing prevalence of alternate gender identities always seemed strange to me, until I realised that it was because they didn’t want to see their own established sense of identity undermined.

Even if you like to think you’re pretty good at being broad-minded, it’s dreadfully easy to slip into the habit of forgetting how much your perspective changes everything in your life. If you’ve ever read about a rape victim who kept silent, an abuse victim who went back to their abuser, a bystander who watched people be mistreated for the colour of their skin – anything that made you think, ‘If that had been me, things would have been different. I wouldn’t have done what they did,’ you’re guilty of forgetting all the thousands of differences between your life and theirs. It is pointless to think about what you would do in that situation, simply because the other person is not you. They don’t have the same influences, fears, securities and knowledge. You can’t judge their actions by the same metre as your own.

That is not to say that people do not do evil, terrible things of varying degrees, or that they shouldn’t be condemned for injustices against others. But the vast majority of people do believe they’re doing the right thing, or else they’d change their ways – we need to be able justify our actions to ourselves. And arguing with someone by telling them their views are wrong achieves very little when both sides are equally certain the other is wrong. It is better by far to, as it were, take the higher road and dedicate some time and care to figuring out why they feel that way, and which biases might be guiding their opinions. It is only when you discover that, and truly attempt to see the scenario from their viewpoint, that you’ll be able to convince them of anything new, because it’s only then that you can provide arguments, reasons and explanations that will mean anything to them.

By the same token, it’s equally important to remember that you are not an infallible source of human reason and justice. We are all fettered by our own perspectives, and if someone is willing to take the time to explain to you how some small part of your individual life might have changed your opinion on a certain issue, you should be willing to hear them out and do your utmost to move beyond such a bias.

Remember; perspective changes everything, regardless of its abstract justice or righteousness, and regardless of whether it’s your opinion, or theirs.

 

On Trump’s win, and why we’re angry

I am the first to admit that I tend to consume publications and move in spaces that are dominated by left-wing, liberal ideas. It is very true that I am a so-called bleeding heart who will happily defend the rights of any group that is treated unjustly: gays, Muslims, the poor, women, the non-gender-binary – the list is long. And I know that many of the people who consider my concern unnecessary or exaggerated don’t think so because they are terrible evil humans who want to live in a dystopian society ruled by antiquated and untrue stereotypes, but rather simply haven’t taken the time to investigate or understand the full extent of the various injustices that occur every single day.

I realise too that I might seem unrealistic, overly optimistic and naïve, to be trying to support all these different causes. There are obvious difficulties and complications, and no inequality can be completely fixed by passing one law.

I realise that I might seem hypocritical, or lazy, or insincere, because I talk a lot about doing the right thing but don’t actively devote my time to organising rallies or feeding the poor.

I realise that it is never right to attack people for expressing their own opinions, desires and perspectives, no matter how much it might clash with your own.

But right now, with Trump as the new President of the United States, I am genuinely scared of the perpetuation of inequality, as well as new injustices, that are likely to follow from this election.

Already, people are using Trump’s success to justify vile and offensive practices, whether it is demanding American citizens ‘go back to their own country’ or threatening and inciting sexual harassment, even in countries as far removed from the US as Australia, in my own university. But there are extremists in every political group and even the ever-growing number of travesties committed in Trump’s name isn’t enough to condemn him.

What’s really terrifying isn’t that the fringe-dwelling extremists are making full use of this opportunity; it is that a majority of the American people chose to elect this man despite his open acknowledgement of his own racism, sexual harassment and a blind denial of climate change.

It is that people are still defending his actions, and claiming that his gross disregard for human rights does not disqualify him for being an acceptable leader for a nation of more than 300 million, of which the majority belong to various groups that Trump has expressly demonstrated to consider as less worthy of humanity and fair treatment than himself –  that is to say, women, Muslims, Mexicans and people of colour, among others.

It is that the people most likely to negatively affected by his policies are being told to ‘accept democracy’ and ‘face the facts’. I thought that by eighteen, the minimum voting age, we’d all learnt that just because everybody else is doing something doesn’t make it right. Apparently, I was wrong about that.

People’s fear and shock at Trump’s winning this election is not just about a personal hatred of the individual. It is an abhorrence of the proof that there remain so many people who support such cruel injustice, and with this in mind, I cannot support anyone who fails to respect the extreme sadness and outrage with which people are meeting this outcome.

Further reading:
Aziz Ansari’s essay
The New Yorker: Who Believed in Trump, and Who is to Blame (Benjamin Wallace Wells)