Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Foregrounding Hidden Figures

Lately, I've noticed others realize they've never heard about  Katherine Johnson, the African American mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for NASA's Project Mercury and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. You can actually still download Dr. Johnson's report detailing azimuth angles at burnout for a satellite (published in 1960 by NASA) on the NTRS (Nasa's Technical Report Server).
So it bothers me that some people didn't realize, haven't heard, and blame NASA for not promoting it.
It bothers me that good people don't understand and ask, "why didn't NASA make this public sooner?"
They didn't because we didn't. Society, crowds, are large dumb apathetic masses that take a hell of a lot of energy to educate.  Hell, it takes a hell of a lot of energy to get a crowd's attention for 10 seconds.  Then you've got to be brilliant enough to educate someone in 10 seconds. Tough to do, huh?
See that famous hidden figure, the man in the moon?
So back to NASA and publicizing Katherine Johnson's accomplishments. They did try to publicize it (e.g. those of us who worked there saw her name and work lauded every year in at least two internal programs promoting women and minorities with innovative ideas), but it takes a movie--a story portrayal of the information and it's meaning--to garner public awareness, to educate a crowd.
As a novelist, I know I should be delighted that the public wants stories to help sort and define salient information into social consciousness because it gives me no end of job security and career potential...but as a social scientist it makes me cringe because I realize how much public information, how much heroic effort, how many potentially life-changing scientific discoveries go completely unknown because no movie has been made about them or no novel has been written including them.
Too many of us sit passively scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and base 90% of our awareness about the world on only the information spoon fed to us.  Me included. Because it is part of our human nature to do so. Because finding, parsing, and interpreting data requires massive amounts of time and mental energy and we are overwhelmed with a buffet of data like never before. We are drinking water out of a fire-hose and the velocity is starting to rip the skin off the face of our humanity. Some of us are drowning, some of us are withering from dehydration because we can't swallow enough nourishing data in this deluge, and some of us are miraculously managing to get sips enough to thrive as well as survive.
Mostly, I manage to get sips and thrive, so I think it is my social duty to share these 4 tricks I've learned to make finding, parsing, and interpreting data in the fire-hose flow easier.

1Feed your desire to know more by starting with the topics you are interested in or most upset about. If you're a space exploration nut like I am, then visit each of the world's space agencies websites (www.NASA.org, www.ESA.inthttp://global.jaxa.jp/http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/http://en.roscosmos.ru/, http://www.kari.re.kr/eng.do, http://www.cnsa.gov.cn/) and look at what they actually say they are doing rather than relying on second-hand sources. Many of the organizations dealing directly with a topic also have tools, applications, on-line classes and history archives (e.g. www.siop.org, http://www.redcross.org/ux/take-a-class, https://shrm.org/https://www.aeaweb.org/resourceshttps://www.ama-assn.org/). If you follow your interest rather than trusting the information gate keepers to post what you are interested in, then you will make discoveries that streamline how you spend your reading time and encourage you to read more. For example, I can peruse NASA's Sceintific and Technical information program and find out how to build a solar-powered refrigerator or a portable desalination system: https://www.sti.nasa.gov/. It is free...American tax dollars already paid for me to have access to it and I get excited about nerding-out over the world's water problems in ways that matter to me.

2. Even when following a headline to skim an article, go to the sources yourself before spending more than two minutes trying to understand or interpret anything. We're quick to jump to conclusions and make interpretations with too little data because that is how we are wired to accommodate life-threatening situations; but it isn't how we should operate as a norm if we want to be honest and genuine with each other or garner any respect for seeing the wider truths. Good articles will reference the sources somehow so you can follow the links to the sources, but even if they don't, you can find them or at least get verification that more than one news agency reports it. It is easier to do so now for many of us than it has ever been in the course of human history, thanks to our ability to freely search a global network from palm-held devices. You can even pull actual data and run your own analysis for many things. Here are just some examples of good sources to keep on your list:
3. Learn the cognitive biases. We humans are susceptible to cognitive biases any time we think. The good news is that awareness of them is half the battle. When you are aware of them, you are less likely to commit them and get tricked into doing stupid things when the information to help you do better was right in front of your face all along. Do a search on-line for cognitive biases and read about them. You'll be glad you did before one tricks you into having a stupid argument again with your colleague, spouse, sibling, parent, or child. The "Availability Heuristic" really gets a lot of us these days given our feeds on social media--are you being duped like this? Casinos rely on "Gambler's Fallacy" to part your pocket from money.  These cognitive biases can work for or against you. Your choice.

4. Follow the 10 Commandments of Logic and require those who provide you news to do so too. Many persuasion tactics violate one or more of these commandments, so if something you read violates one of them then odds are that someone is attempting to persuade you into doing something based on something other than fact or your best interest. Know them so you can spot them happening to you and so you can control your own use of these tactics. When other people outside of your own social in-group see you violating these 10 commandments without their explicit consent, then you risk losing credibility (and coming across as skanky, smarmy, or narcissistic). 
Please share your tricks as you are able. I for one, am eager to learn more, so that I can thrive in the information deluge and help others. I'd also just like to see more courageous hidden figures and brilliant discoveries achieve critical mass in crowd awareness. Thanks for reading.


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