Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Advice from Ben Franklin: Doctors should be competent in science

In 1766 Ben Franklin wrote letters of recommendation for the sons of two friends who were applying to medical school at the University of Edinburgh, which might have been the premier institution for studying medicine (or "physic") at the time.  Along with the letters he supplied the young students with some words of wisdom:
But you will be your own best friends, if you apply diligently to your studies, refraining from all idle, useless amusements that are apt to lessen or withdraw the attention from your main business.
Evidently, even 250 years ago the elder generation was concerned about their youngsters going off to drink and party at college.  More interesting to me is the following:
I recommend one thing particularly to you, that besides the study of medicine, you endeavour to obtain a thorough knowledge of natural philosophy in general.  You will from thence draw great aids in judging well both of diseases and remedies, and avoid many errors.  I mention this, because I have observed that a number of physicians, here as well as in America, are miserably deficient in it.
 How interesting that Franklin thought it necessary to explicitly draw the connection between medicine and science!  Medicine really must have been more an art (or pseudoscience) in that time.  I am sure he would be proud of the progress of modern evidence-based medicine, and would decry recent movements against it.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Ben Franklin's "Compleated Autobiography": First Thoughts

After the dismal story of Joseph Stalin's rise to power, I was hungry for a more uplifting biography, and one closer to home.  So, when I saw The Compleated Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin on the shelves of my audiobook shop, I eagerly picked it up.  Like a typical American, I have some nebulous ideas about Franklin as an accomplished statesman, inventor, scientist, and Founding Father of my country, but these perceptions tend to be changed by the long fermentations of history, spiked with the obligatory patriotic admiration.  But who was he, really?

Having just read Stalin's story, it will be interesting to compare these two historical figures.  Ben Franklin is something close to a demi-god to Americans, and it seems Stalin and his government worked to instill a similar opinion of himself during his rule of the Soviet Union.  Both men were revolutionaries with above-average intelligence and considerable charisma.  What about their personalities distinguishes these two towering figures of history?  What characteristics resulted in one being remembered as a brutally repressive dictator while the other persists as a beloved national hero?  It may seem naive, bizarre, or even offensive to make this comparison, but I'm trying to remain open-minded since my opinions of these historical figures are certainly colored by my education and culture.

In fact, it might not be fair to base my comparison on these two books.  Ben Franklin's autobiography was largely written by the man himself, then ultimately compiled and edited by historian and Franklin descendant Mark Skousen in 2007, more than two centuries after Franklin's death.  Young Stalin, on the other hand, is written entirely from the perspective of a modern Western historian who is not at all sympathetic to the dictator or his cause.  Certainly the tone of the two books will differ greatly with regard to their subjects.  Yet I do think that actions speak louder than words, and I hope that the actions and choices these two men made will provide a fair testament to their respective characters.

Now into the third chapter, I am already impressed by the clarity and versatility of Franklin's thought.  In one minute he is discussing tax disputes with the proprietors of Pennsylvania, and in the next, he is describing a musical instrument he invented or a chemistry experiment he conducted with Cambridge professor John Hadley.  Then, his mind will turn to a critique of a religious text and its moral implications.  Reading these words two and a half centuries later, Franklin's words still speak of a sharp mind tirelessly examining all aspects of the world around him, and an earnest desire to offer improvements when possible.

A modern replica of Franklin's musical instrument, the armonica.
His philosophy was clearly influenced by his Puritan upbringing.  He valued hard work, good deeds towards others, and a measure of sobriety (on returning to his home town of Philadelphia in 1762 he decried the rapid proliferation of taverns there in his six-year absence).  Yet he always had one foot firmly planted outside of his times, and a long stride he had.  While he must have been a racist by modern standards, Franklin, upon visiting a "negro school" in Philadelphia with a clergyman friend, observed that the children's "apprehension seems as quick, their memory as strong, and their docility in every respect equal to that of white children."  It took the rest of society two more centuries to come to that recognition of equality, and some still haven't caught on.  Similarly, when mobs of angry countrymen began brutally massacring innocent Native Americans in their midst, Franklin took initiative to condemn these attacks and secured the majority public opinion behind him.  Still, he didn't express any guilt over his countrymen taking the Natives' land in the first place.

I'm only just delving into this book, but so far it seems that Franklin was a remarkable person who deserves every bit of his reputation.  He was both an optimist and a realist, seeking to appraise every situation clearly and then make the best of it.  I may have to work harder to read between the lines for Franklin's faults... but in any case, looking forward to learning more.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Final Impressions of Young Stalin

Soooooo, I finally finished Young Stalin last week.  I took a few days off here and there since the story got a bit boring right around 1908-1913. Stalin had finished with his major bank robberies, leaving several years filled with short exiles, a long string of covert political party meetings, and an equally lengthy list of brief love affairs.  Hence, this section was riddled with unfamiliar Russian, Georgian and otherwise Slavic or Caucasian names that make my brain hurt.  I eventually persevered, and even if I’ve forgotten many of the details, this book taught me a great deal about Stalin’s personality and the events of his early life that poised him to become one of the world’s most brutal dictators.

Montefiore’s thesis in this book is that Stalin was far from the mediocrity that his Bolshevik peer Trotsky claimed; rather, he possessed a singular combination of incisive intelligence, quiet charisma, complete confidence in his own convictions, and utter lack of empathy that combined to propel him to the pinnacle of Soviet power for three decades.  The memoirs of his political peers (and rivals, many of whom would later fall victim to his targeted killing sprees of the 1930s) testify to his intellect, gravitas, and pigheadedness.  And, as an old man, Stalin himself reflected that there were only two people he really loved in life: his first wife, the dressmaker Kato (Ekatarina Svanidze) and his mother, Keke (Ketevan Geladze).  Once Kato succumbed to what was probably typhus, he stated that “with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.” 

Keke Geladze (left) and Kato Svanidze.  The portrait of Keke is by Isaak Brodsky.

I find the role of Kato in his life particularly fascinating.  It fits neatly into the archetype of the prodigy turned evil by the death of his beloved (ala Darth Vader).  On the other hand, Stalin was wedded first and foremost to the revolution, and had committed violent atrocities in its name well before Kato died.  He might well have become the dictator Stalin even had his Kato survived.  Furthermore, his love for her didn’t stop him from later murdering most of her surviving immediate family, perhaps because they had expressed disapproval of him and even blamed him for causing Kato’s death through neglect.  Probably his disregard for the value of human life had deeper roots, extending all the way back to his abusive upbringing in a society full of belligerent drunkards.

Of course, bloodthirsty sociopaths can be found in all societies at all times.  One needs only look to serial killers and terrorists to find examples of this.  The only difference with Stalin was one of historical accident: he had the will and opportunity to enforce his psychosis on millions.  It’s interesting to note that more moderate Bolsheviks were also vying for power after the 1917 revolution – those that Lenin called the “tea drinkers,” the conciliatory intellectuals that wanted to unite with the opposing Mensheviks.  If these had gained power, perhaps the legacy of 20th century Communism/Socialism would have looked much different.

Moreover, Stalin could not have ascended to power without Lenin, his well-to-do mentor and colleague.  In contrast to the fatherly portrait some have painted of Lenin, Montefiore points out that at times Lenin was more extremist, less conciliatory, and more committed to underhanded gangster politics than Stalin.  In the young Georgian, Vladimir Lenin saw a man who could get the job done by whatever means it took.  And to both men, all means were justified in achieving their goal.  As Stalin told one Menshevik acquaintance, “a lie always has a stronger effect than the truth.  The main thing is to obtain one’s objective.”  In Stalin’s view, this clearly extended far beyond the world of words, as is revealed by his history of bank robbing, incitement of riots, and generally wanton killing that only accelerated late in his career.

Stalin (left) and Lenin (right) in 1919, a few years after the revolution.  They seem like nice guys, no?
Regarding the dictator’s atheism, Montefiore says little beyond the role it played in his early schooling at the theological seminary in Tiflis (Tblisi).  Stalin’s reading of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as a teenager had a strong impact on him, and seemingly prompted his initial questioning of Christianity.  “We’ve been deceived,” he told one peer at the time.  His introduction to the works of Marx, Plekhanov and others would come later, along with his conversion of many of his classmates to the cause.  On my reflection, it seems the main role of his atheism was to prime him to reject his teachers’ authority and gradually replace the Christian dogma with that of Marxism (or at least his own version of it, imbued at first with Georgian nationalism and later with many of Lenin's ideas).  Would there have been a Stalin had the young Iosef not read Darwin?  It’s hard to say; clearly he was a voracious reader and probably would have come across Marxist writings in any case.  Still, ironically, had his mother not worked doggedly to support his seminary studies, Stalin would likely have worked as a cobbler in his father’s workshop, and Soviet history might have looked quite different.

I can’t conclude without mentioning his five-year exile in Siberia.  Stalin spent the time between 1912 and 1917 in the tiny village of Turukhansk, which consisted of three extended families living in small huts.  It was completely isolated from civilization; the only means of transit in winter was by reindeer-propelled sleigh on the frozen Yenisei river, and in summer, by boat on the same.  It was here that the 34-year-old Stalin seduced and married a thirteen-year-old girl (scandalous even at that time) named Lidia, who bore him a son that he promptly abandoned.  In any case, the frigid winters and self-reliant ways of life here had a lasting impact on Stalin.  Into old age, he recounted increasingly impressive tales of his hunting exploits there, and it is said that he retained the Siberian habit of snacking on bits of frozen fish for the rest of his life.

Turukhansk (A), where Stalin spent several years in exile. (Swiped from Google Maps).
All in all, Young Stalin provided a fascinating glimpse of the randomness of history.  It is incredibly ironic that a revolution that was supposed to give power to the proletariat only gave rise to a new monarchy, freshly imbued with a steel-hearted utopian vision to impose on the people it was supposed to represent.  Circumstance granted the megalomaniacal Iosef Dzhugashvili a window of opportunity, and he took it.  Sadly, such reigns of terror can and probably will happen again... all it takes is political instability and an opportunistic regime with the power to oppress its people.  Which makes me view the recent uprisings in the Middle East, as well as my own government’s steps towards tighter surveillance of communications, with greater anxiety.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Can Blogging Assignments Improve Science Education?

Image pilfered from Pitt County Schools.

I'm fortunate that my institution has large support centers dedicated to improving students' and faculty members' skills in writing (the Sweetland Center) and teaching (Center for Research on Teaching and Learning).  Today, they jointly hosted a workshop entitled "Blogging in the Classroom," which I attended. Coming from a field in the natural and physical sciences, I expected to be a fish out of water.  Surely a workshop on blogging as a teaching tool would be intrinsically catered to instructors in the writing-heavy humanities and social sciences?  I actually considered skipping it, since I have plenty of data to analyze from a recent round of experiments.

Am I ever glad I went!  The panelists were three well-spoken instructors from the disparate fields of history, writing and environmental science.  It was the presence of this latter speaker, Bill Currie, that convinced me that  blogging might be a valuable tool in a science classroom.  There are a lot of ways to implement a blogging module in a course, but Dr. Currie uses it as a platform for public posting of formal essays by students as part of their coursework, i.e., an alternative to a traditional term paper.  Students are invited to post (civil!) comments on each other's entries, and are graded for both their own entries and their reactions to others.

Coming away from this workshop, I can see the following as possible advantages of blogging assignments.

1) It puts the direction of learning into the hands of students, rather than solely professors and grad assistants.  Rather than listening to the lone voice of a professor, they have a role in shaping their own learning.  In this way, blogging plays a role similar to traditional oral presentations, but uses less class time and exercises a different skill set.  It might also allow more in-depth discussion than classroom presentations.  Of course, student-run learning comes with its share of caveats, but perhaps some form of instructor (or peer!) review could be implemented to rein in factual errors to some extent.

2) It provides a safe(r) forum to exchange ideas without fear of sounding ignorant.  If students are given the option to post entries and comments anonymously (that is, anonymously to everyone except the professor), the panelists noticed that students less inhibited in discussing controversial topics.  I bet it would also encourage them to ask for clarification of fundamental points of scientific arguments without embarrassment.

3) It provides an incentive for students to showcase their best critical thinking and writing.  After all, many of these course-run blogs are public.  If your essay is being read not only by your instructors, but also by your peers (and potentially your grandmother, as one panelist put it), you have a stronger motivation to put forth your best, most polished work.

4) It enfranchises students and prepares them for deeper participation in the democratic forum of the internet.  This seems to me a very valuable skill for anyone wanting to shape our increasingly interconnected society through their ideas.

5) It provides real-world, public writing experience.  This should make for a nice resume item, and possibly "open the valve" of open-ended communication for many students, as panelist Naomi Silver put it.

Since there is such a heavy emphasis on learning the core material in my field (chemistry), any writing and blogging assignments would have to take a backseat to more structured conceptual learning and problem solving.  However, science professors have already been incorporating writing assignments into their curricula for some time.  In my intro biochemistry course, for instance, my prof had us summarize one or two peer reviewed articles in our own words, discussing the main findings and any strengths or weaknesses of each study.  This could easily be translated to a blog format, with the added advantage of promoting discussion (and, one hopes, a sense of relevance!) of the topics.  I also expect the anonymity of blogging via usernames would make students less ashamed to admit their misunderstandings about a topic.  This might be a convenient way for future scientists and medical professionals to "break into" the primary literature without worrying about what they think they're already supposed to know.

Lots of exciting possibilities here... I'm so glad to be living in the information age!