I started this website primarily to give myself an informal platform to talk about things that interest me and draw threads between different aspects of my work. While the content is mostly professional, I have talked a little bit about the articulation between the personal and professional, such as in this post about taking small children to the SAA meetings. As far as I can tell, that blog post (which had nothing whatsoever to do with any specific aspect of my work) got more attention than anything else I’ve written here. I’m guessing that is because a lot of us experience the tension between the “human” and “science” parts of what we do.
For me, science is the easy part. It is a blessing to have the time, quiet, and energy to think about a problem or issue and try to figure out a way to address it that helps us learn something about how human cultures and societies work and change. I want my ideas to be “right,” but nothing really horrible happens if they’re not: “wrong” ideas will eventually be extinguished because, over the long haul, science is cumulative and self-correcting.
The human part can be a lot tougher. I think we all know that. There aren’t necessarily “right” and “wrong” answers, it is often impossible to break a problem down into discrete chunks that can be individually addressed, there really isn’t any sort of reliable mechanism for understanding cause and effect, decisions may have profound implications for people’s lives, and you usually don’t get a “do over.”
These past two weeks have really brought into focus for me the potential size of the gap between a difficult “human” issue and a difficult “science” issue. I decided to allow my 12-year-old daughter to move away to a different state without a court battle. Making that decision was heart-wrenching - it is difficult even to write it down in a short sentence. It is the hardest thing I have ever done. I think it was the “right” thing to do, but I have no way of knowing that for sure and I probably never will. That’s a tough spot to be in as a parent. If you’ve been there, you understand.
How will this affect the “science” part of my life? I don’t know, exactly, but I’m sure it will. What I do know is that nothing I have done professionally has been anywhere near as difficult as these last couple of weeks.
Science is the easy part.