Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Garbage In, Garbage Out

I've been away for a while, 'cause of trying to move, and other things.

What's on my mind lately is not science so much as this rock climbing mentor-ship program I'm doing with the local rape crisis center. At-risk teenage girls are challenging, but working with them has strengthened some things I already believed, even if I don' t know yet what to do about them.

That people whose needs are met are not as likely to cause trouble. That engaging people as human beings, regardless of outward attitude or appearance, can by itself work to alleviate the constant things pushing them in not-so-healthy directions.

But, like any good challenge, I feel I've actually been doing a whole lot of failing at it. The engaging part, I see that it's important...but when every spare moment brings their heads together to talk of boys, fights, clothes, you hate to be the broken record who jumps in and says "talk about something else!" twenty times a night. Furthermore the point isn't to be constantly telling the girls what they should and shouldn't do or talk about, because they get enough of that from teachers and principals and parents. The point is to engage them, not by dictating, but by offering other options and letting the girls reach for themselves, by showing a different way, by facilitating, not advising, the girls through problems with boys or fights or drugs and sex or what have you.

Yet when you are sitting at a table next to two girls who are clearly talking about who is going out with whom and who is going to beat up whom, and yet you're goal isn't to tell them that talking about boys is bad, you do wonder, what am I supposed to say? How can I say anything that is interesting to a thirteen year old girl? And why is it, darn it, that I care so much about saying something they find interesting, or, heaven help me, cool?

I hear that parents go through this too. They don't want to constantly be telling their teenagers "no", "don't do that," "do this and this", etc. They want their kids to like them, to think they're cool too. It is in some sense hardwired in human nature. You even hear of parents buying their kids things that our parents would never have caved into buying us ( and our parents' parents would have thumped 'em for even asking), because the other kids' parents will inevitably get their son or daughter that ipod, that car, and nobody wants to be the uncool mom if everybody else's parents are going to be cool.

I would say to those parents, suck it up, for the sake of your child. I wish my parents had done so more, with me. But now that I've stared down the will of a thirteen-year-old, I understand somewhat more how hard it could be. If it wasn't just a girl I was supposed to be mentoring, but my child, the light of my world and all that.

So what's with the title, Garbage In, Garbage Out? Well, two things. One, I wish I was better at this, wish that instead of sitting there quietly and letting the girls' chatter pass me by, I had the courage to engage. All this self-conscious head-fluttering is what we're supposed to be helping the girls break free of, not deal with ourselves, and it really is just garbage anyway. Who cares if you don't know what to say?

Second, when debriefing all of this with a friend who is also in the program, she said, wisely, "Sometime you're just going to say things that are stupid. It's better to just accept that." And she's right.

This relates to my astronomy work in a way, too, because I spend a lot of time wondering and worrying if I know what's going on and if I've got it right. I'm trying to attack the data scientifically and intelligently, but I'm not a Ph.D. astronomer, so I'm just doing my best without the benefit of much experience. A lot of days, research goes that what you did the previous day is completely invalidated by something you just realized, especially if it's computational and you forgot to square a factor in your computer program, But whenever you make strides in understanding, you often realize that the way you were doing it was inefficient and not helpful. But that time's gone, so you've just go to move on.

So, Garbage In, Garbage Out. A lot of what goes through our heads, what we say, I'd say definitely half or more, is just trash. Just silliness, just worrying, just falsehood or logical fallacy or based on incomplete knowledge. Incomplete knowledge is always a limitation, whether it's in doing science or deciding the best thing to say to a thirteen-year-old. We're not always going to be on top of it, we're going to say stupid things sometimes, and yes, sometimes, we are going to try at something even thinking we know what we have to do to succeed, and we will fail.

But if we accept that, then we can get around to the, maybe as much as half, of what we say, think, or do, that isn't garbage, that might actually be on to something.

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