Scientist Sarah Schlesinger on Art and Entertainment

Question: What do scientists need to learn from the arts?

Sarah Schlesinger: Oh, well, first, scientists, though many don’t like to admit this, are human. And I think that the arts enrich our lives in ways like nothing else. And I have been known to say, as I said I have several friends who are artists, that if I could be an artist, I would be. I’m a scientist because that’s what I can do, but if I had it in me to be an artist, I would do that. One of my cousins is a composer, and it amazes me that he has the ability to create something of beauty that impacts some peoples’ lives in the way that it does. I have the ability to learn and discover about the natural world and to teach that to people, which I feel honored about everyday, but he actually gets to make something new. And so I think that art in that sense enriches our lives as scientists.

I think to enjoy art and to appreciate it keeps us humble a little bit, which is a good thing. And I also think that our minds work in all different ways. And I’m not a neuroscientist, and I don’t claim to understand it, but I do think that when you’re thinking really hard about something, and you’re trying to figure it out often, at lest for me, I get to a place where I just can’t go any farther. I sort of explore each avenue and I think and I think and I think. And then at some point I just have to say, “You know what? I can’t think about that right now.” And that’s when going to a museum or for me often reading a book, frees my mind to a different place, and it’s with that freedom that often what I needed to have happen happens. One of the things that we’re very fortunate about on our campus is we have this beautiful campus. And there’s a lot of art on the campus, both architectural art and visual art. And I think that on some sort of subconscious level that, at least for me, that that helps me. I can’t tell you how, but I can tell you that it does.

 

Question: What is your favorite book?

Sarah Schlesinger: Oh, I have many favorite books. My all time favorite book is “Anna Karenina”, because I think that if one is looking for truth in some way, in literature you can find truth about the human condition. And I enjoy reading those sorts of things immensely. And I love “War and Peace” for all the sort of plot, the great story, because I often say that literature. I’m a consumer. I want to read it and I want a good story. I want to enjoy it and just revel in it, get away from what I’m thinking about. And there’s nothing like a Russian novel for that. But I love the sort of truth about the human condition that I find in “Anna Karenina.”

 

Question: How do you feel about medical dramas on TV?

Sarah Schlesinger: Oh, I love watching medicals. So, I’m talking about “Anna Karenina”, but I read New York Magazine, and I read People, and I read The Times, and I live in the world, and I read the latest novel, and I watch “Sex in the City” and “The Sopranos”, and I loved “Rome.” Part of the reason I loved “Rome” was because of the sex and violence, but part of it was because of the absolutely beautiful backgrounds, and the idea that it was showing Rome as it was, not as how we think of it. I’m sorry.

So I watch medical shows, and I began watching medical shows with my mother when I was a little girl, and she watched “Dr. Kildare.” And I loved watching “Dr. Kildare” with her because I got to stay up late. Now, and actually as I’ve gone to medical school and been a physician, I find that some of them irritate me. If they have bad technical advice, I can’t watch them. If they’re saying stupid stuff and doing stuff that you wouldn’t actually do, then I get irritated and it’s not recreational, so I don’t bother.

But, for instance, “ER” has very good technical advice. And Michael Crichton came and lectured at the university, and we had the opportunity to talk with him. He was telling us that actually some of the actresses particularly are actual real nurses. So they really, it rings true. And it might be a busman’s holiday, but I enjoy it. It’s like a guilty pleasure.

 

Recorded on: June 10, 2008

 

If Schlesinger could be an artist, she would be, she says.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.