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Cognitive Dissonance: Public Enemy Number One

With the arrival of our new commander in chief, political, religious, or philosophical beliefs that were once considered taboo are now scattered throughout the masses on a daily basis. If you have been living under a rock for the past few months, just take a look at basically any source of media and you will see what I’m talking about. Conservatives and liberals are arguing about abortion laws, Christians and Atheists are going head to head regarding the separation of church and state, and just about everyone is giving their opinion on the choices made by our new President – Donald Trump.

It is a very controversial time to be an American. With all this constant bickering one has to wonder, “Is any of this doing our people any good?” In response, I believe it depends completely on whether or not you are one of the billions trapped in the psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance theory was developed by Leon Festinger and basically states that people want to keep believing what they are believing. Our cognitions and our actions can have three types of relationships with each other, a consonant relationship, an irrelevant relationship, or a dissonant relationship. Consonant relationships put our mind at ease. We believe that smoking kills, so we don’t smoke. It’s as simple as that. Irrelevant relationships are just that – irrelevant. We believe smoking kills, and we happen to get a smoothie. There is no problem here because the two concepts are not related. However, a dissonant relationship can cause some major problems. Someone may believe that smoking kills, but they are addicted to their habit so they continue with the action anyway.

A dissonant relationship creates psychological stress that is often described being as powerful as our drive for hunger or lust. If the dissonance is not dealt with, an individual will become more and more aggravated. How does one go about reducing dissonance? Festinger proposed four possible routes.

  1. Change the behavior or belief – (“I will stop smoking.)
  2. Justify the behavior or belief by modification – (“I can have a cigarette every once and a while.”)
  3. Justify the behavior or belief by adding new beliefs – (“I’ll start eating healthier and exercising so I can keep smoking.”)
  4. Ignore or deny information that is dissonant to existing beliefs – (“Smoking isn’t actually bad for me.”)

From there we create social categories by which to label which groups agree or disagree with our beliefs. This takes the form of race, sex, gender, age, political affiliation, or religion. That way we can simply disregard certain beliefs only on the basis of separation. In our minds it somehow makes sense that information shared by a liberal, conservative, Christian, Atheist, or any other group with which we disagree is automatically incorrect because it is being said by a member of that group. The reality is that truth is truth regardless of who believes it.

So how should someone respond to dissonant information? I hope the solution is obvious. If you feel a stressful tension arise from within when an individual says or does something that you don’t agree with, just a take a second to breathe. Be a better person and set your emotions to the side so you have room to process the situation logically. Ask yourself, “What is the reason that I feel this way?” “If I respond emotionally, will it help clear up the issue or will it cause dissonance to spread?” “Are my current beliefs misplaced?” Analyze your emotions, do research into whatever topic is bothering you, and try to come to a better understanding of both your own mind and the mind of the individual with which you are in a conversation. The better we understand each other the quicker we will be able to resolve conflicts.

Oh, and one more thing. Don’t expect immediate change within yourself or others. Our brains are a complex network of neurons and some of those connections take constant work before finally breaking down. On top of that, new beliefs take constant reinforcement before they become truly grounded in your mind. Take time out of your day to decide what you believe for yourself. And don’t forget, you are in control of your actions. Make the best out of them.

 

Source:

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.

Can Women Be Scientists?

Of course women can be scientists. In fact, some of the greatest discoveries in human history were made by women! But that doesn’t change the fact that female scientists are grossly underrepresented in cultures all around the world – including the United States. A research article published in the journal PLOS ONE analyzed gender stereotypes in science education and found that men are much more likely to be depicted with a science profession, while women are more likely to be portrayed as teachers. While this is a somewhat accurate depiction (there technically are more men in science than women), when girls grow up seeing male scientists dominate the field, it can be disheartening. A study published in January of 2017 in the journal of Science found that when children at the age of five are told a story about a person who is extremely smart, both boys and girls are likely to imagine that person as being of their own gender. However, by the age of six, both boys and girls imagined this person as a male. This is why equal gender depiction in culture and media is so important.


Any belief that says women are less intelligent than men is blatantly incorrect. Statistics showing lower test scores from women suffer from what is called the stereotype threat. When a person is a part of a social group that is negatively stereotyped, they are more likely to show decreased performance in comparison to those that belong to a social group with more positive stereotypes. I hope that this makes it obvious that our cultural depiction of women can actually harm them. If we want true equality, from salaries to professions, we need to start culturally depicting these individuals differently.

Now with that said, let’s take a look at some of the great things that women have done for science.


Florence Bascom (1862-1945)

Florence_Bascom2Florence was the first woman and first geologist to receive a PhD from John Hopkins University. In 1896 she became the first woman scientist hired at the United States Geological Survey and pioneered the use of microscopes to study rocks and minerals. She taught at Bryn Mawr College for 33 years, inspiring hundreds of women to study geology.


Rachel Carson (1907-1962)

7803227436_b1042b5546_b.jpgRachel was a Marine Biologist and a writer who spent much of her time studying the dangers that pesticides have on our environment. After she graduated from Johns Hopkins, she joined the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries writing about fishing and the sea for radio programs. Because of her work, lethal pesticides were banned in the United States. In 1980, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Jewel Plummer Cobb (1924-2017)

hqdefaultJewel was a cell biologist who received her masters degree and doctorate in cell physiology from New York University. She entered the National Cancer institute and spent much of her life studying chemotherapy and cancerous cells. In total, she published over 50 books and articles while simultaneously spending her time promoting programs that worked to increase interest in science for girls and minorities.


Maria Sklodowska Curie (1867-1934)

Marie_Curie_Tekniska_museetMaria was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize and to this day is still the only woman to be awarded two in separate fields. She was a physicist and chemist who spent much of her time studying radiation and is the discoverer of radium and polonium. Her choice not to patent her radium-isolation process allowed radiation research to flourish.


Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979)

cecilia_helena_payne_gaposchkin_1900-1979_3.jpgCecilia studied at Cambridge University, but did not receive a degree because the school did not award them to women at the time. She studied astronomy, and by studying the spectra of stars determined that hydrogen and helium are the most abundant elements in stars. She was the first woman chairperson of a department at Harvard University.


Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

rosalind_franklin.jpgJust like Cecilia, Rosalind studied at Cambridge but was not awarded a degree because she was a woman. But that didn’t stop her. She became a prominent biophysicist who frequently worked with x-ray technology. Her x-ray diffraction photographs helped with the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure.


Shirley Ann Jackson (1946-Present)

drjackson-lgShe was the first African American Woman to earn a doctorate at MIT, going on to become a theoretical physicist. She studied subatomic particles, specifically hadrons, at the Fermi National Laboratory. She is currently the president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for her significant contributions as a distinguished scientist and advocate for science education.


I often wonder what these spectacular women of past and present would think about the fact that in 2017, equality for women is still a ways off. Our species has made some powerful strides forward, but when it comes down the the details, women are likely to be paid less by employers. They are less likely to be chosen for a job. There are still people telling them what they can and cannot do with their own bodies. I sincerely hope that you have come to realize how ridiculously primitive this is. If you want to help make a change, it starts by removing your own preconceived notions of what women are capable of. Men, you are not necessarily stronger, smarter, or more talented than women. Women, you are not weak, unintelligent, or inept. You make up about 50% of this planets population, and therefore you deserve equal treatment.

If you want to help in the fight to create gender equality, think about donating to the Association of Women in Science.


Here is a list with a lot more women that have benefited the scientific community.

A Simplified Understanding of Quantum Physics

In the early 1900s scientists in multiple labs were conducting studies which were trying to reproduce and expand on a study done by Thomas Young a century earlier. The results that concluded were so controversial that even Einstein, arguably one of the greatest physicists in history, had strong disagreements with it. And it’s no surprise why! This discovery changed everything. In fact, it was so profound that now, over a century later, it has revolutionized the way we think about not only physics, but biology, engineering, computing, and even philosophy. This discovery has fundamentally changed the way that we think of reality as a whole, and has given rise to an entirely new type of physics that has made possible the technological world we live in today. This was the beginning of what is currently called Quantum Physics.

The study being replicated was called the double slit experiment, and it is a relatively simple setup. A laser is positioned as to point at a metal plate with two thin slits cut into it in parallel. Behind this plate is a detector that can tell you where the photons of light traveling from the laser meet their final destination. The hypothesis behind this experiment is that if photons behave like particles, we expect to see two lines appear on the measuring device, indicating that they simply passed through the slits and hit the wall on the other side.

Double-slit

However when the test was performed they did not register two parallel lines. They registered several lines, fading outward from the middle. This was an interference pattern, showing that the photons of light were behaving like waves. Imagine that same metal plate with the double slits was partially submerged in water. As a single wave of energy travels through the water and hits the metal plate, it breaks into two separate waves on the other side. These waves then interfere with each other, creating an interference pattern as seen below. Seems simple enough. However, the experiment was just beginning.

Double_slit_simulated_2.jpg

The scientists then placed a detector next to the metal plate to observe which slit the photon was passing through. This is where things get weird. When they checked what pattern had appeared on the detector behind the plate, they simply found two parallel lines – exactly what you would expect if photons were behaving like particles. But how is this possible? Photons cant simultaneously be particles and waves, can they?

The answer is yes – and it doesn’t only apply to photons. This strange phenomenon is called wave/particle duality, and it has been found to apply to just about everything that is really small. Electrons, protons, neutrons, atoms, and even molecules! But what exactly is an electron wave? Aren’t electrons just tiny particles with a negative charge that orbit the nucleus of an atom? No. The truth is much more interesting. If you have never heard this information before, it might sound insane. But I promise, it’s the truth.

For every particle, there exists a field of energy that is the size of the universe. There is an electron field, a proton field, a quark field, and many more. Each field ripples with energy like water, and if enough energy is concentrated in a single area, there is a high probability that you will find a particle there. I say “probability” because, technically, until that particular area of space is observed, or interacted with, the particle is everywhere at once. A quantum field is a field of probability, and the more energy that exists within a certain area of the field, the higher your chance is of finding a particle when you look there.

For example, our understanding of an atom was that protons and neutrons are bonded in the nucleus, while electrons orbit around it like planets orbit the sun. However we now know that electrons don’t orbit the nucleus at all. Instead, they exist within probability fields that surround the nucleus called orbitals. It is the mathematics that describe these orbitals, or the energy within the system itself, that separates a carbon atom from a hydrogen atom.

845px-Hydrogen_Density_Plots.png

Confused yet? You’re not alone. Quantum physics is one of the most insane yet revolutionary theories of the natural world that humans have discovered. But regardless, it is also very well understood. In fact, it is so well understood that we have used it to create entirely new fields of study such as quantum biology. It used to be believed that quantum effects could never be observed within a biological system. It’s just too warm and messy inside of a body. However recent studies have began to discover that the quantum world is much more all encompassing than we realized. Particles can perform something called “quantum tunneling”, in which they simply disappear from one location and miraculously reappear elsewhere. This happens within our DNA, and is one of the causes of mutation.

In addition, birds and some other animals seem to have evolved to use quantum physics to their advantage. One study found particles exhibiting quantum behaviors within the eyes of birds that allow them to detect and follow the magnetic field lines of the earth. When a specific liquid was removed from the eyes of birds, they were no longer able to migrate.

But perhaps the most thought provoking theories created because of quantum physics is string theory. It has yet to be proven, but the mathematics included in this theory seem to explain many aspects of our universe that we currently have no explanation for. There are many different interpretations of string theory, as well as a conglomerate called M-theory, but it basically describes how tiny one dimension strings form all of the natural world through their vibrations and interactions. String theory opens up the possibility of higher dimensions we are unable to perceive, as well as the possibility of a multiverse in which an infinite number of universes with infinite variation exists.

Some believe that quantum physics opens the possibility of creating a natural explanation of free will. Observing our universe through a framework of classical mechanics creates a domino universe, in which every action is simply the result of a previously predetermined action that chains all the way back to the big bang. But if everything is actually part of a field of probability as described in quantum mechanics, and if consciousness is intimately tied to quantum mechanics, it is possible that we are free will beings after all. However until this can be proven, all we can do it wait.

As I’m sure you’ve seen, the implications of quantum physics are profound. If every possible outcome exists in the quantum world, does that mean that every possible universe is actually real? Are there an infinite number of universes out there with infinite versions of ourselves? These are a few of the questions that scientists are still trying to answer. Until then, it is our duty as humans to absorb this information and apply it to the way we look at the world around us. This room, your clothes, your phone, and even your body is made of particles that exist in multiple states at once. You aren’t just you. At some level, you are everything.