Lessons Learned From the Facebook Study

By now, anyone who is remotely interested knows that the Facebook data-science team, in collaboration with some researchers at Cornell University, recently published a paper reporting “experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks.” If you’ve heard about this study, you probably also know that many people are upset about it. Even the journal that published it, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has issued an “editorial expression of concern


Facebook Is Good for Science

Over the past two weeks, an important debate has taken place about the ethics of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science by researchers at Facebook Data Science and Cornell University. In the study, researchers manipulated some parameters in news feeds to evaluate how the changes influenced readers’ moods as defined by their subsequent posts. While it is easy to get lost in the weeds of this debate, the controversy has raised significant questions about the role o…


Milton, Locke, and Net Neutrality

To gain some perspective on the debate about Internet neutrality, we would do well to consult John Milton and John Locke. The Federal Communications Commission is considering the creation of a fast broadband lane that would permit companies like Netflix to purchase more-rapid delivery from Internet-service providers like Verizon. The defenders of net neutrality oppose that proposal and invoke ideals expressed in manifestoes such as the “Digital Declaration of Independence”: “We hold this t…


All Knowledge Starts Somewhere in Faith

It is bracing to have my institution—Wheaton College—held up in the pages of The Chronicle as the embodiment of “The Great Accreditation Farce,” the headline on Peter Conn’s essay. Conn suggests that Wheaton and other religious colleges are “intellectually compromised institutions” that betray the intellectual standards that should mark accredited institutions of higher education. Colleges like ours, he argues, “systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education,”…

The New Misogyny

When Elliot Rodger set out to kill what he described as “hot” sorority women, his actions set off a nationwide discussion about sexism. That Rodger had posted a YouTube video and an extensive manifesto stating his murderous intentions, and that he had frequented an online message board called PUAHate, where users employed extremely misogynistic language to rail against “pick-up artists,” focused attention on the possible role new media might play in facilitating sexist violence.

Feminists have a…


Why Doubt Is a Scientific Virtue Worth Supporting

On May 28, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology passed the First Act. Among other things, the legislation would cut some $50-million in funds to the National Science Foundation for research in the social sciences.

Elected officials might have more than one reason to oppose NSF support for the social sciences.

First, social scientists study humans, and politicians govern humans. For that reason, the social sciences cannot avoid producing political claims. “We don’t like your stud…


Cursive Is an Endangered Species

hotchkiss photo

(Photo courtesy of the author)

Over the past decade or so, something big has been happening in public schools throughout the United States: Instruction in cursive writing has all but disappeared, cut from curricula as schools bring more technology (and keyboarding) into the classroom. The new Common Core Standards for education omit training in cursive handwriting altogether. Even in the few schools where cursive is still taught, the subject is often covered in one year and writing in cursive is…


Life After Lab Closure

For the past six years, I’ve been watching myself die out.

Across three decades, I studied social organization in insects. Investigating how ant colonies went about their daily work, as well as how evolution shaped their societies, held me captive for most of my professional life. Then, six years ago, I closed my “ant lab” to devote my remaining academic years to gender issues in science and engineering. Moving into a completely different area of scholarship has been fun and exhilarating. Bu…


In Praise of Dispraise

Each year I attend 30 or more literary readings sponsored either by the colleges where I teach or by bookstores and community organizations. Their quality varies both in performance (writers are not necessarily good readers of their work) and in the writing itself. Sometimes I feel “like some watcher of the skies/when a new planet swims into his ken.” Other times, I am held hostage.

At one literary-nonfiction reading this year, when the writer (who is white) reached an insight she thought brilli…


Too Fat to Be a Scientist?

I have long dreamed of becoming a scientist, but now—just weeks after receiving my B.A. in biology from a prestigious university—I’ve decided to leave science behind. I am rejecting a career in science, or rather, science is rejecting me, because much like oil and water, being fat and being a scientist don’t mix.

The problem with being a fat scientist is that, as a scientist, I’m supposed to know better. Science is all about rules, laws, and logic that can be applied to even the most complicat…