Sunday, September 23, 2012

Raising kids with science

Last week, I took my daughter Harriet to the IgNobel awards.  This was a terrible idea, of course, since she's only two months old, but in the spirit of the ceremony I figured that a terrible idea might just turn out to be great and went for it.  Fortunately, my decidedly risky reasoning turned out to be correct---she enjoyed some parts of the raucous performance (especially the opera), ignored most of the rest, drank quite a bit of formula, squawked loudly only once or twice, had one fast and discrete diaper change, and slept through the last fifteen minutes or so.  During the paper airplane barrage, the nice folks sitting near me formed a missile shield and deflected wayward planes that might have otherwise hit her.  But beyond all the parenting and silliness, I had some serious thoughts as well: sitting there in that theatre, listening to a celebration of the strangeness in science, made me think a lot about the question of raising kids with science.

I'm a scientist---as well you know from the tagline on this blog.  So's my wife, and our shared love of inquiry in one of the standing waves of our relationship.  So I have a feeling that my daughter is likely to either embrace science from the start, or to end up running screaming away as fast as she can.  So, how should I think about this as a parent?  What's the responsible way to approach this whole area of life?

Well, an important place to start is getting a clearer idea of what I mean by "science" in the first place.  The obvious starting point is that, yes, I do SCIENCE! for a living, and write papers and grants and take data and stuff.  But my study of the more obscure types of questions that makes up my career has had a backward effect on the rest of my life as well.  During graduate school, one of the most liberating lessons that I learned was that "I don't know" is a totally respectable answer---quite liberating for somebody who used to be an obnoxious know-it-all have-to-be-right kid in grade school.  You mean I don't have to stake my ego on having answers?  Later, one of the hardest struggles toward my thesis was staring at the pile of conjecture and mechanisms I was working with and asking how I could really justify what I thought I knew.

Those lessons I learned in graduate school boil down to two simple questions that I believe are the root of science, and they are eminently applicable to everyday life:
1) What do you actually know, and what do you not know?
2) How do you know what you know?
Once you know where you stand, the obvious and tempting extensions are "Let's go find out..."and "Would this help?"

Science, the profession, is simply about answering those questions in places that other people are also interested in and where the answers are not yet known and finding the answers typically requires rare knowledge or equipment.  But you can practice the same things anywhere.  Does taking this shortcut actually help me get home faster at rush hour?  Should I pack my lunch or eat at the cafeteria?  Day care or nanny or stay-at-home parent? Get the baby her vaccinations on schedule?  None of this requires the trappings and ceremonial indicators of science, just a willingness to recognize that you may have bias in your preferences, to ask how you can test what makes sense, and then get the information.

Let me give an illustrative example---good scientific practice, giving the reader a cross-check of what's been said so far.  When Harriet was but a young fetus, we faced a common modern pregnancy dilemma: an expecting mother is supposed to eat lots of fish because it's jam-packed with Omega-3s and other Good Nouns, yet must limit her fish intake to one to two servings per week to avoid mercury.  What's a loving parent to do?  So as the designated reader of medical horror material, I went digging around to try to understand where the one to two servings limit was actually coming from, since it's cited everywhere but typically doesn't actually come with hard numbers about how much mercury is the actual recommended dose limit (unlike, say, caffeine, where the recommendations almost always come with milligram dose numbers).  It turns out, though, that with a little bit of Googling you can actually get hard per-species numbers directly from the FDA.  Taking canned tuna as a reference point (recommended 1 serving per week, 0.128 mean ppm), it quickly becomes obvious that the species lumped together into "two services per week" vary wildly in their typical mercury load.  Herring is clearly at the right level (0.084 ppm), as is mackerel (0.050 ppm for Atlantic), but you can safely eat an order of magnitude more sardines or tilapia (both 0.013 ppm) and scallops until you're sick (0.003 ppm).  Moreover, since mercury is an accumulative toxin that is flushed out of your system over a long period of time, it's the mean rate of consumption that matters rather than the particular time period (again, unlike caffeine). That means that if you've had a week where you didn't eat fish, you can eat double as much the next week with little worry.  So science showed us a clear way out of the dilemma: we just wrote down a list of all the seafood where appetite was a bigger limiter than mercury, taped the list to the fridge, and had our seafood without fear.  Science to the rescue, needing just a little math.

I give that example to show how thinking scientifically can help us sort through the blizzard of information that makes up normal daily life.  The science in that story is not about how the FDA got those numbers to put on its website, but the fact that we realized we didn't know why "two servings" was given as the magic number, went and found a reliable source of information (the FDA), and then solved our real problem ("What should we cook for dinner?") by turning that complex information into a simple list on the fridge.  So, in the putative words of Socrates,  "[I am wise] because I do not fancy I know what I do not know," or to quote another more recent philosopher: Science. It works, bitches.

Coming back to the original point...
Do I care if my daughter becomes a Scientist?
Not in the least.  But I care deeply that she understands the process of science, that it's something for her as natural as breathing and as basic as talking.

What exactly that translates to in terms of actionable policy recommendations for parenting a particular sample size of one (viz: Harriet) is a subject of ongoing study, but at least I know what I'm trying to do as a parent...

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