The Plant-Eater’s Dilemma

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“The world is a fabric of suffering and pleasure; in every action, good and evil dance together like a pair of lovers.”

Alejandro Jodorowsky

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Earlier this year I joined some colleagues for lunch, and they decided to try out a local poke restaurant (poke, if you happen to have missed the rise of this ultra trendy cuisine, is a raw fish salad made popular in Hawaii). I eat a plant-based diet, but hoped that—since this was southern California—there would be a tofu bowl or other veggie option.

When it was my turn to order, I asked my waiter if they had any vegan options. He seemed unsure what I meant so asked his manager, who responded that they could make me a seaweed bowl. Then, the waiter asked me tentatively, “You know seaweed is alive, right? Is that okay for you to eat?”

My first response was to laugh out loud at the fact that he didn’t realize seaweed was a plant, not an animal. But then I thought for a second. Although it wasn’t his intention, the waiter’s question hit a deep philosophical nerve inside me that all vegans and vegetarians must confront at some point—what truly is the difference between eating plants versus animals? As if he was channeling a Buddhist monk, this man’s question innocently drove to the very root of our human dilemma: by our nature, we must consume other living things and thus cause suffering in one form or another—so where do we draw the line of “allowable” suffering? Well played, sir!

Of course, each of us creates our own moral boundaries, and no two are exactly the same. Nearly all religions evolved to address this very question of how we conduct ourselves in a ‘savage’ world, and most include at least a few dietary taboos. For example, the Jain religion of India, which dates back to the 6th century and is still practiced today, asserts that humans should not eat the flesh or eggs of animals, and should avoid any injury to sentient beings—even by stepping on insects (the most ascetic Jains carry a broom to sweep an area before they walk or sit on it to clear away any bugs etc. that could be harmed). However, many Jains, while avoiding meat and eggs, still consume dairy products, wear leather or silk, or partake in other activities that directly or indirectly cause suffering to animals. As with all of us, even Jains have to draw a line somewhere as long as they exist in this world. That line seems often to be drawn at ‘intent’; doing your best to avoid intentional harm while accepting that by living and breathing we will inevitably cause unintentional harm.

In a similar vein, most vegans and vegetarians choose to avoid animal products for ethical reasons, whether out of a desire to reduce animal suffering, or to reduce their environmental footprint. I am not going to go into the topic of sustainability in relation to large-scale agribusiness and meat production in this post, but I’ve covered that topic in some of my past blogs including this one.

The most dedicated vegans not only avoid consuming animal-based foods, but also clothing and other products either made with or tested on animals. Side note: this is more difficult than it sounds—I only recently found out that most wine isn’t technically vegan, because the filtration process usually involves some sort of gelatin (sourced from fish, cows or pigs), egg whites, or casein (a milk protein). But even the most hardcore vegans can’t avoid causing suffering on some levels: eating plants still involves the killing of insects and microbes (not to mention the killing or ‘harming’ of the plants themselves) and has a carbon footprint. And if you choose only to live on air? Well, you would still inhale microbes that get destroyed by our own immune systems. You can’t win.

Thus the unavoidable conclusion: life is suffering.

How do we cope with such a conclusion, as beings that are blessed (or cursed) with the ability to feel such strong compassion? Alejandro Jodorowsky, whom I quote at the beginning of this blog, has spent the majority of his life and career as an artist exploring this uniquely human paradox. One of Jodorowsky’s childhood memories, which he recreates in surrealist style in his film ‘The Dance of Reality’, illustrates his inner turmoil. He recalls a time when, as a boy of 6, he wanders down to the beach and witnesses huge numbers of sardines washing ashore and dying. He tries to scoop them up and throw them back into the sea, but they keep washing up in greater numbers. Seagulls start to gather and snatch sardines out of his hands.

“The world was offering me two options,” Jodorowsky writes. “I could suffer with the anguish of the sardines, or I could rejoice at the good fortune of the seagulls. The balance tilted toward joy when I say a crowd of poor people—men, women, and children—chasing away the birds and gathering up every last fish with frenetic enthusiasm. The balance tilted toward sadness when I saw the gulls, deprived of their banquet, pecking dejectedly at the few morsels that remained on the beach.”

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This one scene encapsulates the whole of life’s joy and sorrow. What nourishes one, depletes another—at least in the physical world. To cope, many philosophers would argue, we must find a higher purpose or cause that gives meaning to the suffering. Some find this through religion, others through charity or vocation.

The biologist and philosophical thinker Ed Ricketts (author John Steinbeck’s close friend and inspiration for the character Doc in his classic Cannery Row) spent years developing his concept of ‘breaking through’ to address this same dilemma. Similar to the concept of enlightenment, breaking through referred to the ability to move from a state of suffering to a state of peace and joy. But Rickett’s version took a more intellectual slant; he described ‘breaking through’ as reaching a heightened state of understanding that could lead to solutions for a given problem—including societal problems such as poverty and racism. As Sagarin and Crowder (2007) write: “Ricketts acknowledged that breakthroughs were driven by passionate conviction and adherence to a cause or belief. He wrote, “Its most common vehicle is love, love of a cause, of people, of a person”.”

It all comes down to love. It’s the simplest truth we know and yet the hardest to adhere to. If we do our best to act out of love, than we can reduce suffering and perhaps even reach our own breakthroughs, spiritual or otherwise. For some people, acting out of love means avoiding all animal products. For others, it means making thoughtful choices about what they eat or what they buy or how they act in other ways.

If your main goal is to have a low carbon footprint, you may choose to avoid meat and dairy but still eat mussels and oysters, since bivalves can be sustainably cultured with little energy input or harm to other organisms; plus, there’s evidence (though not definitive) that sessile bivalves don’t feel any more ‘pain’ than plants when harvested. Others would argue, however, that plants do have some of the capabilities of sentient beings, such as the ability to communicate with each other and respond to danger. Without central nervous systems, however, its unlikely plants have any sense similar to ‘pain.’ In my opinion, it all comes back to making thoughtful choices, and showing gratitude and respect for the resources available to us—whether they are plants, animals, soil, rock, or water. If we could revitalize more widely the ancient practice of paying respect to the food we consume, perhaps this gratitude would spill over into other aspects of our lives.

I’ll admit that sometimes I find it difficult to reconcile the fact that many of my friends are passionate about conserving the ocean and saving wildlife, but still choose to eat unsustainable seafood, or beef and pork from factory farms. But then I remind myself that I often drive a regular car that runs on fossil fuel instead of riding a bike, and I buy foods wrapped in plastic when I could choose to avoid them. Rather than developing guilt complexes about all the things we do ‘wrong’ or finger pointing at others who do so, we could put that energy towards building empathy and compassion for each other as well as other living things.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

So ultimately, was I okay with eating seaweed? By the time my order arrived, I wasn’t so sure. Ironically, I was mistakenly served a poke bowl filled with raw fish, and had to send it back for the seaweed bowl. I had to hope that although I didn’t eat the fish that had been prepared for me, it wouldn’t go to waste. I had inadvertently caused undo waste and suffering by ordering the vegan dish. Morality is a complicated game. When my seaweed bowl finally arrived, fish-free this time, I acknowledged the effort and life that went into the meal and ate it without complaint.

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Seven Signs of Fall in California

People who move to California from places like the Midwest or East Coast of the U.S. tend to complain that our state has no seasons. They balk at the year-round sunshine and ease of commuting to work in the dead of winter. But I’m a native Californian, and I can tell you that California most definitely does have seasons—the cues are just different from other places, subtler perhaps.

To dispel the ‘no seasons’ myth, I’d like to share seven ways you can tell that Fall is on its way in California right now:

7 Signs of Fall in California (2)

Four Things Every Science Communicator Dreads about Conference Posters (and how to avoid the things!)

I have a deep, dark, shameful secret to admit—poster sessions at conferences make me cringe. There, I said it.

It’s not actually the sessions that bother me—I think they provide an opportunity to have one-on-conversations with colleagues and prospective collaborators, all while partaking in (hopefully free) booze and greasy snacks.

No, it’s the posters themselves that make my science communicator heart sad. When did it become the norm for posters to have infinitely small text, ridiculously jargony language, and obscenely dull visuals? Why isn’t anyone making use of the many at-your-fingertips editing and design apps to jazz up their posters these days? Who are those people taking time to actually read any of these wall-mounted journal articles? They must be angels.

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“Look how much fun we’re having designing this conference poster!” said no grad student ever….until now.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve walked past a poster that grabbed my attention and reeled me in for a closer read, and one of those times was because the poster was about manatees—my all-time favorite ocean animal. But the other times were posters that used an eye-catching design, graphics, and images, and more importantly didn’t include superfluous text. Most other posters look like they’ve downloaded their template straight from the PowerPoint starter pack:

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I think that all conference posters should be, nay deserve to be, eye-catching and creative. I don’t really blame the poster authors for the current state of blandness. Most of us are just following advice, templates, or examples from senior members of our field, assuming that a conference poster has to follow a specific set of poster-design commandments passed down through the ages. Poster sessions have become as standard as talks at scientific conferences, and the ‘poster presentation’ is a rite of passage for most graduate students.

But guess what? There are no poster commandments. And the budding young scientists rejoiced.

There are recommendations and guidelines for conference posters, but almost no conference committee requires that a poster be designed to look exactly like a scientific paper smooshed all onto one page. It’s true! Release the shackles. I looked up poster guidelines for several of the largest science conferences in my field, and not one of them prescribed a strict template. In fact, most stressed that less text and more visuals were preferred, and that posters should be used to spark conversation, not summarize your work in full detail.

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Here are some scientists rejoicing in the knowledge that they never have to use PowerPoint Template #3 again to design a conference poster.

Here are three examples of poster guidelines I found on conference websites:

The American Geological Union (AGU) states, “Include the background of your research followed by results and conclusions. A successful poster presentation depends on how well you convey information to an interested audience.”

The International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC): “Text should be limited to brief statements. Each poster should make a unified, coherent explanation of your work. Materials, both textual and visual, should be of professional quality and clearly legible from a distance.”

Ecological Society of America (ESA): The only specific poster guidelines listed on the ESA website are related to poster size dimensions.

So why aren’t more scientists breaking free from the standard PowerPoint three column poster template? It may be fear of breaking an unwritten norm and losing esteem in the eyes of their colleagues. Or it could be they just don’t realize that they have nearly a blank slate upon which to slather creativity and novelty. Either way, in the hopes of encouraging at least a few future poster presenters out there to consider changing it up, I’ve created a list of five things to avoid when making a conference poster, and what you can do instead. This isn’t an exhaustive list of pointers for designing a good poster—there are plenty of sites out there with that kind of information (like this, this, or this). My list is more about hacking away at the wretched habits of generations of boring posters, and moving into an era free from (okay, at least less dominated by) columns and boxes.

If you consider these four points the next time you are tempted to default to that icky PowerPoint template, your local science communicator will thank you, and may just give you a big grateful hug. And if you need help with a design, don’t be afraid to reach out to the #scicomm community!

Alright, without further ado, here are four  conference poster no-no’s according to a scientist turned science communicator:

1. Text, text and more text.

Your poster doesn’t need to describe every detail about your research. That’s what the interaction at poster sessions is for—the talk with other people about your work. Focus on the broader context and importance of your research, rely more on visuals, and provide your contact info so interested folks can contact you if they want to know more. A viewer should “get it” in 30 seconds. You can provide in-depth information in a handout.

A good rule of thumb I’ve seen is that if you removed all the body text from your poster, your visuals should still be able to tell a story. If you’re really feeling bold, do away with paragraphs all together! Just use dot points and key phrases that people can easily follow. Also, try to keep 40% of the poster area empty of text and images. I would also love to see more posters with titles that I can understand without needing five PhDs (one is enough for me, thanks!). Simple language does not mean less scientifically sound.

Here’s some inspiration:

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This poster uses key highlights and large visuals to tell a clear, engaging story without much text.

 

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Brief text, large and interesting visuals, and contrasting colors really draw the eye to this poster.

2. Boring boxes in boring columns in boring colors.

While you don’t want your reader to be confused about how to follow the story you present on your poster, there is no law stating you have to use 3 columns with one box for each section and the standard Microsoft color scheme. There just isn’t. You can still organize your points from top to bottom and left to right, or by separating text using boxes in some cases, but you can do this and still make an interesting design. Think infographic instead of scientific poster.

Here are some examples:

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You can take a slightly unconventional approach to poster design and still get your points across clearly with a little creativity.

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This poster takes a bit more of an infographic approach to explain their research activities.

3. Low quality images that look like pixelated blobs.

Okay, so you’ve thrown a bunch of images on your poster to take the place of the text, but you failed to consider whether they were high enough resolution, or whether anyone would be able to tell that that pixelated bunch of brown cells is actually a soil sample under a microscope. Instead, make sure to use high quality images (check the file size and resolution), crop as necessary to focus on key parts of the image, and try to use photos that have contrasting colors or clear features that enhance your research story. Do you study wombats or pitcher plants or tardigrades? Use several awesome photos of them on your poster! Even if you study something less glamorous or more abstract, use drawings, cartoons, or photos of the habitat/region you study that draw attention to your topic, like this poster:

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This poster uses a fairly standard layout, but with minimal text (yay dot points!), and lots of helpful visuals that enhance the research story. Evidence that you don’t have to go full rogue to make a better poster.

4. Complicated figures that make people run away scared.

Similar to using bad images, bad figures negate the point of using visuals in your poster. I know it takes added time and effort, but I beg of you to simplify graphs, charts, or other figures so that they are easily interpreted in under 10 seconds. Again, you want people to ask you questions. While you’re at it, make sure they are high enough resolution to read clearly at full size. Don’t just plop a big graph on your poster to take up space and reduce your need to come up with descriptive text. Instead, highlight just the most important or interesting outcomes of your research, and leave your readers wanting more.

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This was a poster featured on betterposters.blogspot.com, and while they gave some advice on how to improve some of the layout choices, the author did a good job of keeping things simple, putting the results up front and center with simple visuals, and even making a question box for people to leave comments.

Do you have other suggestions or thoughts about conference poster design and presentation? Leave them in the comments below!

BTW, here’s an Infographic version with the 4 poster No-No’s for those who want a way less wordy version!

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Do you even empathize? How empathy training and communication can save us from ourselves

One word keeps surfacing in my mind over the past several weeks as headlines reveal the latest stream of human rights and environmental atrocities undertaken by our own government. Empathy.

As I learn of children being separated from parents in the name of border control, presidential decrees opening all U.S. waters to offshore drilling, and the dismantling of the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, I can’t help but wonder—what place does empathy have in our current society?

This word, coincidentally, popped up on a number of articles and videos I’ve seen recently. Obviously, I’m not the only person distraught both by these troubling media headlines and by people’s callous responses to them. Whatever the ultimate consequences of our current political leaders’ actions, they’ve certainly shone a spotlight on just how wide the spectrum of values is in our country, values that run much deeper than political views alone.

Fear Leads to the Dark Side

In a 2017 HuffPost piece titled I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People, author Kayla Chadwick expressed this growing angst over a seemingly unbreachable moral divide among U.S. citizens:

“I don’t know how to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy. I cannot have one more conversation with someone who is content to see millions of people suffer needlessly in exchange for a tax cut that statistically they’ll never see. Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters.”

Chadwick implies that today’s conservative values reflect a lack of empathy for those in need (especially those outside your immediate family/ingroup), instead emphasizing one’s own financial wellbeing over others. While I agree it’s pretty obvious that the current Republican administration is driven by self-aggrandizement above all else, I don’t think it’s fair to attribute our country’s steady loss of empathy and compassion to one particular political party. To me, lack of empathy seems to correlate with a much more deeply rooted tendency that knows no political boundaries—greed.

Greed is closely allied with fear; i.e., the fear of losing possessions, losing power, and losing one’s sense of identity. “Our society is paralyzed by fear, making our compassion paralyzed,” says Dr. Joan Halifax, a medical anthropologist and Zen practitioner. Halifax argues that compassion is an inherent human quality, but stimulating this compassion often relies on activating specific conditions.michael-fenton-512963-unsplash.jpgIn other words, you can’t force someone to feel empathy. But what you may be able to do is provide the right enabling conditions that allow feelings of empathy and emotion to emerge. This concept of ‘compassion cultivation’ isn’t just the fancy of new-age healers and Buddhist monks. Plenty of scientific and medical studies have shown that feelings such as compassion, altruism, and empathy can be enhanced via specialized training—and that the results are beneficial to the individual as well as society at large.

Stanford University’s medical center, for example, has a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education that hosts workshops and other specialized trainings that teach participants ‘how to train your mind to intentionally choose compassionate thoughts and actions and develop skills that help you relate to others—and yourself.’ Their courses, designed by clinical psychologists and researchers from Stanford, include lectures, discussions, meditations, breathing practices and more to help people reduce their anxiety and build their emotional resilience in professional and personal environments.

This type of self-introspection training stretches far back to ancient eastern philosophical traditions, including Vedic and Buddhist teachings, centered on compassion via mindfulness and equanimity – meaning that you can cultivate feelings of compassion by listening to your inner voice, strengthening intuition, remaining calm in the face of adversity, and being present in each moment.

Empathetic Science?

In this era of runaway capitalism and blatant disregard for scientific consensus, what does it mean to be a scientist and a concerned citizen? Historically, being a credible scientist meant remaining objective and apolitical. But can scientists afford to stay disconnected from today’s critical ethical and moral crises? Or can they maintain credibility and perhaps even build more trust in science by engaging more fully in ethical and moral debates?

According to climate scientist Sarah Moffit in a recent interview with Grist Magazine, being a scientist and an advocate do not have to be mutually exclusive. “I think you can be both rigorous and objective and be human at the same time,” she says. “And I have come to a place where I’m no longer willing to divorce my humanity from the science that I have participated in and am stewarding.”

As a science communicator, I’ve come to see my role as a science empathizer and a human empathizer. In other words, I am committed to accurately communicating about scientific research, and equally committed to understanding human values and concerns—ideally breaking down barriers of understanding.

My goal is also to make us stop and think about the way our worldviews and cultures shape our assumptions about reality as much as (or more than) factual knowledge does, and how these assumptions often lead to misconceptions, fear, and prejudice. Many research studies have proven that our perception of ‘factual truth’ is shaped by our partisan beliefs and bias.

Even our ability to discern whether a statement is fact or opinion is based on whether we agree with the statement. The more we can reflect on our individual subjective experiences and how they affect our connection the world, the better we will be able to empathize with the views and experiences of others. We don’t have to share the exact same values to respect and empathize with others—we only need the capacity to be self-reflective and to engage in meaningful dialogue.

Science, philosophy, and intuition tell us that cultivating empathy and compassion is beneficial to our own health and wellbeing (including immunity, psychological health, and spiritual growth), that of our friends and family, and that of society as a whole. What greater reason could there be to emphasize these qualities in a time when they are needed perhaps more than ever?

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