“We need to have empathy”

It may not be well-advertised, but if asked directly I make no secret of the fact that one of the most interesting things in the world to me is humanity. We fall everywhere on every single spectrum, both disgustingly predictable and stunningly spontaneous, both consistent and inconsistent. Trying to apply a layer of logic on top of humans, their thoughts, and subsequent actions is like fitting a square peg in a round hole.

And frankly, these gray areas absolutely fascinate me. It’s why, ever since entering graduate school in computational biology, I have taken such a huge interest in statistics and machine learning. It’s a microcosm of our universe: life is one big Gaussian distribution, and it is because of academia’s immersion in and embracing of these gray areas that I want to pursue a PhD (for those interested, I have been accepted to the University of Virginia for computer science, Carnegie Mellon for biology, and Carnegie Mellon for computational biology).

It’s made even more interesting by the fact that human brains don’t seem to be wired to think statistically; generally, we have a much shorter view of things. We also often invert probabilities (fit facts to theories – a la politik – instead of the other way around), we infer nonexistent patterns (there’s still been no definite cause found for the Toyota sudden acceleration problem), or we simply botch the odds (you lost roulette four times in a row; you really think that raises your chances of winning the fifth attempt?).

I absolutely love it. But when my passions reach the political stage, they lose their luster…

Politics is exceptionally interesting to me because it gets people riled up, and consequently shows their true colors. People’s prejudices, assumptions, and thought processes are made clearer than ever when engaged in discussion over hot-button topics. Let someone express their opinion on an active topic of debate and you have a veritable window into the workings of their mind. That is amazingly fascinating to me.

But it’s also where I hit a wall. I, like everyone else, have an opinion as well, but the only way I know to express that opinion is to argue using the most coherent logic I can. I present my opinion, my reasons for believing that opinion, and any supporting data I have. The problem is, topics such as politics rarely garner a logical following. In fact, if you read this article from Psychology Today, you’ll gain some insight into why the current political debate among citizens is at a standstill.

The “problem,” then, is not the paranoid story line but the anxiety, helplessness, and pain that generate it. And that pain is not irrational or crazy. It’s real. We all feel it. Most of us do feel helpless in relation to the most important aspects of our lives, from the nature of our work to its security, from our politicians who are on the corporate dole to those perpetuating gridlock through their narrow ideology, from the quality of our health care to its availability, and from the isolation and loneliness of everyday social life.

We all gravitate to people of similar beliefs; that tendency runs as deep as our genetic makeup. As such, I like to think on the theoretical and abstract side of things, and how those theories could be applied into something practical. Hence, my next step in life will be entering a PhD program. Using computational methods to explore biological processes seems to be the perfect storm. Unfortunately, it creates an inherent amount of disconnect between me and people with a more concrete vocation. It’s likely where the “intellectual liberal elitist” moniker came from.

BUT! Isn’t that the purpose here? When I was President of my fraternity at Georgia Tech, I realized very early on that, even though our fraternity was one of the smallest – 30 active brothers on a good day – this would be one of the most challenging jobs I’d ever had in my life. Not necessarily because of the regular responsibilities, or keeping the other officers accountable. It was because, due to the uniquely elevated standards of acceptance, not only were all 30 of those brothers exceptionally intelligent, but each and every one had a different perspective on where they wanted to see the fraternity move. I cannot think of a more difficult task than assembling 30 differing yet equally innovative opinions into a single, cohesive mission.

Except, of course, if we’re talking about the office of the United States President assembling the collective will of the 300 million disparate American citizens. But that’s where the immense payoff comes in, the benefit of having such a heterogenous mixture of thoughts and ideas – we’re bound to find some answer we wouldn’t have found as disparate groups with our own agendas. We’ll find something more innovative and creative than we could have ever found on our own.

That’s what makes the gray areas so interesting 🙂

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About Shannon Quinn

Oh hai!
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2 Responses to “We need to have empathy”

  1. eksith says:

    Congratulations on getting accepted!
    Just remember one thing when you design your first android… Hard-coding is OK when it comes to the 3-laws 😉

    “Politics is exceptionally interesting to me because it gets people riled up”

    And, primarily because of the helplessness, on occassion it reaches the pitchforks and torches phase. If political discourse was like matter, I believe that would be the equivalent of plasma.

    Confine a group of people who are similar enough to repel each other and yet be opposites in terms of polarity… Add friction and pressure, and viola!

    If we want true political discourse, we’ll have to start looking elsewhere. The good news is that we may be finaly starting to understand this en masse.

    I understand Bill O’rly and people like him…

    Why carry the burden of thought on your shoulders when it can be shed away in the span of an hour. All you have to do is swallow the drivel in easy to swallow caplets of FUD every weeknight at 8PM and 11PM EST.

    Even though Billy boy sells diet pills and he’s very good at it, of course even he doesn’t believe in what he sells.

    I’m reminded of an episode of Boston Legal, where the character of Alan Shore (played by James Spader) argues that a school principal was wrong to censor a TV channel (basically a stand-in for FOX).
    The premise was that all channels are basically selling a product. Some cater to the flag waving pseduo-patriots, others to the closet facists and yet others to the tree huggers.

    Bottom line, the mainstream media isn’t left or right, it’s just an infotainment buffet. Likewise, the politicians have learned to exploit the demand. We’re going to pick and choose what we like anyway, so the market just delivers.

    • magsol says:

      Thank you sir! 🙂

      I’ll admit, while it’s very cool to learn about people and what makes them tick, listening to the infotainment drivel for more than a few minutes quickly becomes tiresome.

      Honestly though, I’d rather listen to Bill O’Rly than, say, Glenn Beck. I can tolerate the former because he’s actually a decently intelligent guy who is passionate about his conservative beliefs. Beck and his ilk, on the other hand, are flat-out insane. And it’s very clear they’re insane after two seconds of listening to them.

      And yeah, the media is absolutely useless, with Faux News leading the pack. Ugh.

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