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Sunday, August 12, 2018

Scientists as Stoics?

I have made no secret of my academic pursuits. I have been an educator in the classic liberal arts and sciences for some time now. I am of the firm belief that the classics inform every aspect of adult life. I'm one of the few out there that believes that people should not hyper-specialize in their educational pursuits, but should have a broad knowledge set. Save the specialization for doctoral / post-doctoral work.

I have also made no secret of my athletic pursuits. The Russian martial art of Sambo has within it a provision of rank that factors not only your competition appearances and wins, but also your reach as a coach. How many people have you assisted in their path to success? The Russian martial art of Systema grounds one in an ethical foundation that effortlessly considers the consequences of action / non-action in everything. This mindfulness becomes a part of taking every breath. To achieve it's goals, Systema seeks to remove the practitioner from the attention of a potential threat, rather than boastfully seeking every violent encounter.

My love the many martial systems that I have studied and trained do inform my work as a forensic scientist, as does my love of the classics and the pursuit of knowledge.

It's with this in mind that I share this post with you today. I've spent a lot of time traveling this summer. I've been criss-crossing the country spreading the good news of science. I've also been stuck in airports and on the tarmac enduring endless delays. Thankfully, I have a Kindle and can engage in one of my other favorite pursuits, reading.

I came across William Ferraiolo, PhD, and his book via a friend on social media. As someone who teaches and lectures on philosophy, religion, and politics, I'm always looking for fresh insight on the classics. Meditations of Self-Discipline and Failure is just that.

It was quite refreshing to read this book, especially in light of the current social media driven culture. Everyone on LinkedIn is an "expert." Everyone on Instagram is a cultural influencer. Everyone on Facebook is having a great time eating every meal at some amazing destination. Real life, I'm afraid, isn't at all like that. I think that so many of the problems that our western culture is facing is due in large part to a loss of our connection with our history. Without a grounding in the classics, without the ability to utilize logic and reason, judging one's own life against what one sees on YouTube will not end well. Sadly, so many seek solace in a bottle or a pill when their life doesn't measure up to what they see on the screen. Tragically, many willingly choose to end their life for similar, trivial reasons. As long as one draws breath, there's always a chance of turning things around for the better. Nothing is ever truly hopeless.

I share this tragic fact with my forensic science students: all of the people whom I have known, and who willingly chose to end their lives, have been employed in the forensic sciences. Six of them. That's six too many. I share it with them ahead of informing them of the many ways that they can mitigate the vicarious trauma associated with working in this world - ways that don't include a nightly bottle of Gin.

The totality of my life informs my work in the forensic sciences. My knowledge and absorption of stoicism guides my work, reporting style, and testimonial delivery. It also helps me deal with the vile filth and foul of the criminal world. It's not about me, it's about the case, the evidence, and the facts. The case is not about me, and I do not make it so. I do not personalize the case. I do not absorb it - "I worked the ... case." I am a practitioner assisting the Trier of Fact, nothing more. It's about the results, grounded in science and the scientific method. I think others in the sciences would benefit from this approach.

All this being said, I believe Dr. Ferraiolo's Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure: Stoic Exercise for Mental Fitness, to be a worthwhile read. Here's a quote that fits nicely within this discussion, as well as serving as commentary on recent events.

Do not become overly enamored with yourself, your abilities, or your paltry status. You are, in the grand scheme of things, a trifling, ephemeral phenomenon of little consequence. You are slightly smarter than an ape or a dolphin. If there is a Creator who has endowed you with any special status, recognize that this is a gift and not an accomplishment in which you may rightfully take pride. No one earns birth as a member of the reasoning species, or any privileges pertaining thereto. If the matter is entirely propitious, you have still less warrant for a swollen ego. Note your good fortune, but do not claim to be intrinsically good, due to a chance concatenation of molecules. Set about the business of trying to understand your place in this vast cosmos, your duties as a human being, and a method and practice leading to enlightenment—or the closest approximation you can manage. (p. 23)

On science as science, not consensus or mob rule:

Do not be swayed by the mere opinion of the masses or the majority. The truth is not determined by plebiscite. (p. 46)

On earning respect:

Do not pretend to respect other persons either more or less than you actually do respect them. You owe no one a pretense of deference, and you owe everyone the deference that they have, by your own lights, earned. You should have nothing to do with sham collegiality or faux civility. Some persons are worthy of your contempt, and their behavior, as well as other outward indications of their character, is sufficient grounds for reasonable (though not perfectly reliable) assessment of their merit. If anyone demands that you “try to get along” with any person that you do not respect, then you have grounds for reconsidering your relations with the former individual (the one issuing the demand). Do not allow yourself to be pressed, bullied, or cajoled into relations that strike you as unhealthy or pointless. (p. 9)

The book is simultaneously easily digested and incredibly disturbing. If one's goal is self-improvement, the improvement of the self will always be a painful slog. No one likes to examine one's own shortcomings and failures. But it is a very necessary pursuit. You'll end up the better for it. This book can serve as a guide to get you started down that vital path of making one's life worth living.

Every scientist should be a stoic. I believe stoicism to be an essential characteristic and a necessary defense against error and falsehood. Perhaps you don't agree. Perhaps you don't understand what I mean. If you'd like to know more, start with this book. You'll be glad that you did.