Monday, September 2, 2013

Science, Reporters, Teaching, And More Coffee: Part I

Every year, or most every year at least, I head off to Eastern Washington University to teach and counsel at Satori, a summer camp for kids who like to learn stuff—and learn them we instructors do. But in between learnings, there’s a lot of time for conversation and a lot of time for a lot of coffee. Seeing as I’m a reporter now, I have an excuse to talk to anyone about anything, so I asked Thomas Hammer barista-manager Abby* whether she’d talk with me about science. She cheerfully obliged, though she also had to work. When she was off doing that, Satori director and Spokane school teacher Mike Cantlon filled in, making for an interesting back-and-forth of sorts that ranged from—well, this to that and a number of places in between.

This is part one of two. Next time, more on religion, beauty, and communication. Enjoy!

*History, or more precisely my phone’s audio recording application, does not record her last name.

Nathan Explains Science: Tell me a little about yourself.

Abby: I was born and raised in Spokane, went to school here at Eastern [Washington University]. Grew up all my life in the same house. Got a degree in communication.

And what do you do now?

I am the manager of the Thomas Hammer here at Eastern and I’m also a barista. I do all the manager paperwork.

What comes to mind when you think about science?

Honestly, I think of the word “fancy”.

You think of “fancy”?

I think of fancy. Because it’s something that’s not in common use in my everyday life. So if I do have to use it or be around it, it’s one of those things like, “Ooo that’s really cool and different”. My dad is a stockbroker, my mom’s an opera singer, so I never was super exposed. 

Do you trust scientists? If you read something in the newspaper, “Scientists say X..”

I believe that.

Is there any circumstance when you wouldn’t believe it?

Tom Cruise. Scientology. Is that considered your idea of science?

No, that’s something else. Yeah. [Everyone laughs.] Climate change. What do you think of that?

Yeah. I guess so.

That sounded a little bit—maybe not.

Well, I think sometimes, especially in college you have these generic classes. You have this professor that teaches we’re going to be living on an iceberg in five years. I’m out of college and that was five years ago, and I’m looking around. There’s no iceberg yet, so I think that the lack of trust or belief—I think things change a whole lot and it’s updated.  Scientists don’t ever believe they’re totally right, and I wouldn’t trust them at that time, but I think things also change daily sometimes. 

You’re not sure that what gets reported is necessarily correct? Or is it that you think that the science itself is changing quickly enough that you don’t really know what to –

The reports. I think the problem lies more with the journalist side of it. Because the stories of journalists, you know what I mean, that are crooked or are supporting one side, like a political side or like corporate side, so they report the story to convey that side. But that doesn’t always happen.

So let me take a different tack here. Is there a particular science or a particular topic that interests you more than another?

The technology part of science. I’m part of a company [that does] home automation and home installation for smart homes. I think it’s an aspect of it for our architect and our designer, that they have to think of the field of the room and how it will change with the climate. So that part interests me. And I like to run a lot so I get to think of the science for my body.

So in that sense do you think now that we say that, is it more a part of your daily life then maybe you would’ve said initially?

Actually yeah probably. A lot more than I actually thought originally.

[At this point Mike Cantlon sits down.]

Mike, when you think about science, what’s the first thing that comes into your mind? 

The very first thing is teaching. That’s the first thing I love—teaching science. Being in a classroom and sharing science with people to me is a wonderful experience. The second thing about science is the controversy over science. It seems to me there’s a whole faction of people that thinks science gets in the way of real information or something. I don’t know what I mean by that exactly except I do know that there’s a whole group of people who think that science will interfere with their belief systems and they don’t want that, so they reject science as a result of the conflict with their belief system.

So you’re thinking about religious belief systems?

Correct. That’s the second thing that comes to my mind.

Abigail, were you raised with any particular religious or political belief system?

I was raised Episcopalian.

Did an understanding of science ever come into conflict with something that you believed?

Sure, like the age-old—evolution versus not, definitely it’s come up. Maybe not from church, more from just talking about it with friends from classes. Definitely that came up, for sure.

Do you believe in evolution?

I’m actually very back-and-forth about that. I’m not sure if I do. I’m not going to be that person that says, “no I do not”, or, “I definitely do”. I think that I’m 23 years old and I haven’t experienced enough in my life to really pick my side. So I don’t know.

Mike, did you ever have beliefs that were sort of challenged by something that you saw in science and then had to think about where you came down on an issue?

Yeah, I think that I was raised in a very religious family. Yet I don’t remember people saying that evolution doesn’t exist. As an example, evolution, because that seems to be the most controversial issue when it comes down to religion versus science. I don’t remember ever having the conflict in conversation, but I remember believing just avidly in evolution, because that was the only thing that made sense to me. Then as I started working in biology and started getting into single cells and watching and taking a look at what happened, I thought, how can evolution exist? I mean, evolution exists, but how did all this start? Why does all this decide to get together and do what it does? What’s the coordinating principle behind all of that?  So then you start having doubts. 

But here’s the way I respond my students who ask me if I believe in evolution or not. My response is that, yes, I believe in evolution, but I kind of reject the creation versus evolution idea, and the reason is it could be something much more beautiful than all of that. I have no idea what that would be, but I think that at some point we will gain more knowledge, scientific knowledge, and we will discover something magnificent that we didn’t know before. I don’t know. That’s just my thought.