28 November 2008

Barbara Forest talk in and about Texas

Who's who of Texas ID supportersBarbara Forest has a talk recorded at Southern Methodist University on 11 November 2008, specifically about Texas.

She gives a great metaphor of intelligent design being a Trojan horse, not in the classical Greek sense, but like a Trojan horse that is a computer virus. It disguises itself as something beneficial and helpful... but when you actually try to run your computer, you discover everything is messed up.

For those who read this blog, there's not a whole lot new, but Forest's tracking of what people say is wonderfully comprehensive.

Additional: A good supplement to Forest's talk is this summary of objections raised by several State Board of Education members to people testifying on the Texas K-12 science standard. It totally fits with Forest's thesis that despite minor relabellings, the actual content of objections to evolution never, ever changes.

27 November 2008


"Shocked" is used too often, and its impact is lessened as a result. I guess it's partly because of that that I would say that I am not easily shocked.

But today, I was shocked.

I was listening to The Current podcast for the day. And the story they described (scroll down to Part 3) is gruesome and horrific and nearly beyond belief.

In Tanzania, people who are albinos are being murdered so their body parts can be used in the potions of witch-doctors.

People are being killed to make magic potions.

I'm upset that this story broke over a month ago, but I haven't heard about it until now. This should be a much higher profile story than it is. And I'm upset that there's effectively nothing I can do. I signed a petition, and sometimes those can document that people are paying attention.

Do you still doubt that superstition and magical thinking are dangerous?

26 November 2008

Prepare for more sputtering

I mentioned a new turtle fossil a while back. Today, Nature reports on another transitional fossil turtle. Strangely, it looks like the turtle shell formed bottom first, top second -- which might be the opposite of what you'd expect, since we tend to think of shells as armor, protecting from attacks to the animals' back.

See also here.

24 November 2008

The Zen of Presentations, Part 22: Conversation, not isolation

I spotted this resource, iBioSeminars, over at The Daily Transcript. I'm not impressed with what I've seen so far -- and these are some very bright people, who I know can be playful and interesting. I see the same old stuff. I see low end PowerPoint slides and the sort of lifeless delivery that sucks the joy from so many scientific presentations.

The only novelty is that they’ve put the presenters on a green screen stage so that their slides can be projected behind them. These things make me appreciate television weather forecasters and reporters. The speakers I looked at don't do handle it well, looking offscreen more than looking at the camera. And some of these things go on for hours.

Videotaped talked can work; I’ve linked to enough TED talks in this blog to show I believe that.

A major problem here is that there’s no audience.

Hans Rosling gave a now famous talk at TED, but less well known are comments he made about it in a later presentation. Rosling said he originally wanted something that was interactive, and that people can explore, and not something passive that people would just watch. He was astonished that millions of people viewed his TED talk.

Rosling's talk would not have been watched by millions of people if it was was presented like the iBioSeminars: alone on a green screen stage with projected slides.

The audience is a big part of what makes Rosling’s talk so great. Go watch the first five minutes, and don’t listen to him—listen to the audience. The spontaneous responses, the laughter, the applause, those things make that talk live. I also doubt Rosling’s performance would have been anywhere near as energized if he was alone in a room, looking off camera to figure out if his fingers are pointing in the right place.

Human beings are very good at conversation, very good at face-to-face interactions. We like it. We crave it. Trying to take the information out of that social context almost always kills it. I think it’s why we have interviewers in many cases, not just people saying what they want. Having an interviewer makes it a conversation, not isolation. It’s why television comedies used to be filmed before an audience, and those that weren't had laugh tracks dubbed in over them.

The audience feeds into the presentation more than you’d think. The dynamics between a presenter and the audience cannot be underestimated. Every time the audience comes out of the equation, presentations suffer.

23 November 2008

22 November 2008

Not a rock

The round thing in the foreground of the picture? It's not a rock.

It's one cell. An amoeba.

4 cm in diameter.

And it leaves trails on the ocean bottom as it moves.


Protesting ethics

PACE conference protest posterYesterday, I gave a talk at an ethics conference hosted at UTPA (mentioned here). I was talking about ethical implications relating to brain scans. I've been interested in this for a while, and some elements of my talk were taken from a presentation I gave in 2006 for Brain Awareness week.

I missed the opening of the conference on Thursday, but I saw the aftermath of the opening. There were protesters. I'm not sure if I've given a talk at a conference that had visible protesters before. I probably have, since I've been at Neuroscience conferences in Washington, D.C., which is protest central, but if there were, the protests were so low-key that I didn't recall.

The protests revolves around a center established on campus that was funded through a security office of the American government. Some argue that this money has strings attached and compromises the university. I will not comment on the general, but will say something about my specific involvement.

There was zero editorial influence on my talk from anyone other than me. It was just like any other conference in that regard.

19 November 2008

Maybe one good point

This post has been sitting in the "draft" file for a while. Sorry...

The Waco Tribune has an opinion column by Charles Garner. Dr. Garner is one of the reviewers of the Texas K-12 science standards, which I wrote about before.

Garner makes one potentially good point. Really.
The “strengths and weaknesses” language has been in place for a decade. If it had been used to introduce religion or supernatural explanations into the classroom, these groups would have a long list of specific incidents, with names, dates, etc.

But when I contacted Dr. Dan Bolnik, an assistant professor of Integrative Biology at the University of Texas and the head of the 21st Century Science Coalition (from whose Web site the above quotes were obtained), Bolnik could not provide me with a single specific example of such an incident.

I give Garner credit for bringing in evidence about the number of complaints. I may criticize the details (He only asked one person? Why didn't he phone NCSE, an organization with a longer history?), but I appreciate the empirical approach.

There are many reasons why I think the argument, "There hasn't been a lawsuit, so the wording must be okay" argument has shortcomings.

First, advocacy groups don't file complaints or launch lawsuits; teachers, students, parents and school administrators do. And doing that is not trivial. Getting involved in these things takes time, money, a willingness to be put in a national spotlight, and a big risk of social ostracism. These things happened in Dover, Pennsylvania. So it's entirely possible that a lot of problems get ignored, and that people are not willing to step up. It's the cliché "chilling effect."

Second, there is a good reason to be very careful in wording policies. I am greatful to author Neil Gaiman for writing recently:
The Law is a blunt instrument. It's not a scalpel. It's a club.

Even if the wording of "limitations" and "weaknesses" was put in to education standards with the avowed intent of fostering critical thinking skills in students, the blunt instrument of Law may not distinguish that from wholesale inclusion of religion into classrooms.

Of course, that "even if" is not the case. We know this wording is being proposed specifically for evolution; Board of Education chair Don McLeroy said so. These are creationists pushing an agenda to get a religious point of view in classrooms. Here's some recent evidence of this.

But all that aside, Garner still blows it.
Perhaps what the 21st Century Science Coalition fears is criticism of a naturalistic Darwinistic worldview, the view that science has explained (or will someday) that life and everything is simply an accident of chemistry and physics.

That worldview, cherished by some in the scientific community and promoted heavily in the proposed Earth and Space Science TEKS standards, has several serious scientific weaknesses that students deserve to understand.

As is so often the case, Garner does not spell out -- heck, even hint at -- these "weaknesses" of the "naturalistic worldview."

Let’s teach more about evolution, not less, and give the students of Texas enough scientific evidence to decide for themselves.

Ah, "Let them decide for themselves." I've written before that this is unethical. The Panda's Thumb helped spot a post describing a case where it's highly doubtful that those pushing for the "Let them decide for themselves" approach for evolution would support it for another subject...
A great many religious conservatives - many of the same ones who call for teaching the controversy on evolution, I don't doubt - change their tune when it comes to public-school health classes, demanding that students be taught an "abstinence-only" program that omits contraception, or mentions it only to discuss its failure rates. How strange. Whatever happened to fairness? Whatever happened to learning about all sides? Why can students make up their own minds about evolution, but not about how to protect themselves from STDs?

Meanwhile, there are many columns about the hearings on K-12 science standards last month.

Here's what several rabbis said.

And more summary than opinion is found in The Texas Observer (scroll down).

Here's a Houston Chronicle commentary:
Forget Kansas. If we're not careful on this issue, people across the nation could soon be asking, "What's the matter with Texas?"— if they're not already.

Unlike many questions in science, the answer would be simple: the politicization of education.

Outside the state of Texas, in The Flint Journal, this column:
It appears that everything really is bigger in Texas, including the size and scope of their mistakes.

That's my conclusion after watching the Texas State Board of Education try to wrangle creationism, or intelligent design, into their state science curriculum.

Meanwhile, Seth Godin talks about why selling evolution is hard.

Liveblogging Texas science standards hearings

Steve Schafersman has some great reporting and pictures of the State Board of Education public hearings of the K-12 school science standards.

Much more lively looking than I was expecting. Much more press coverage than I would have expected.

Additional: The Texas Freedom Network also have someone liveblogging the hearings. I am surprised by the sheer marathon nature of these hearings... The meeting started at 9:00 am. The science standards started at 4:00 pm. The most recent blog post is 9:38 pm, and it's still going, as far as I can tell.

15 November 2008

I worked so hard my sandals broke

Broken sandalsI've been out collecting sand crabs on South Padre Island for a few years now. Today was probably the most unpleasant collecting trip I've made. And, just for perspective, one of the last times I was out was while Hurricane Ike was advancing towards Texas.

The waves were pretty high last time, but today there were whitecaps and wind.

It wasn't exactly cold, but the wind was whipping sand around like snow in a blizzard. Seaweed was rolling down the beach like tumbleweeds. My eyes were watering, particularly the first few minutes on the beach. It felt like I was back in southern Alberta, shoveling sidewalks during a snowstorm. Except that in Alberta, I probably wouldn't have needed sunscreen, which I did today. But the top of my right foot is pink... I know, worrying about sunscreen and sunburn in mid-November? Crazy, crazy, crazy. It does violence to my Canadian internal mental calendar.

Unlike the last time I went out before Ike, the pickings were poor. I found one small sand crab in the first hour, and after three hours had only four live ones.

And when I was walking back with my few spoils, I started to wonder, "Why does my foot feel funny?" Then I looked down and realized the sole of my sandal was detaching itself.

And I was literally still feeling sand in my ears and around my eyes tonight.

14 November 2008

Open door

My office door is open right now. During this semester, that has been unusual.

This has been a tough semester, which I blame (fairly or not) on teaching a class new to me, which is Biological Writing. Because it is a writing course, there is a huge amount of marking. Some of the longer assignments have taken a more than a solid work day of doing almost nothing but marking. And having my office door open makes it impossible to get in such solid working days.

I've really hated it.

Not the marking, but that I've been forced to shut myself away. But I haven't found any other alternative. I suppose I could make my students write less -- but that would make the class nearly pointless.

Something I tell students a lot is that in many ways, scientific careers are not predictable because so much of it is about personal connections. And I tell them, "You never know who's going to walk through your door, and you never know who's door you're going to walk into." Someone walks into your door, strikes up a conversation, and it sets you off on something you didn't expect.

And obviously, when your door is closed...

Yeah. Really hate doing it.

If you liked something here...

The Open Laboratory 2008 is a competition for science writing in blogs. The current list of nominees is here, and yes, I self-nominated a post from this year from this blog. If there was a post this year you liked, you might consider mentioning it by this form.

13 November 2008

First pictures of planets outside our solar system

When I wrote one of my first science-related articles in 1991, planets outside our solar system were only suspected. None were known directly. When I revised the article in late 1996, the first extrasolar planets had just been demonstrated.

Now, we have pictures.

Extrasolar planetary system

More here.

And some people say there's no such thing as progress.

11 November 2008


Nrain, Behavior and Evolution logoThe post title is the digital object identifier of my newest article, a review on the evolution of tailflipping that I'm quite pleased with.

You can read the abstract here.

08 November 2008

In the news(letter)

I have a hard time hearing the phrase "goodie basket" without thinking about Hoodwinked!, though.

05 November 2008

Incumbent effect

All the incumbents won in the Texas State Board of Education elections, according to the Associated Press. This means that the fractious process of revising the Texas science standards for K-12 education is not going to change much either way.

03 November 2008

Beautiful brains

Technology Review has an article about some recent brain imaging studies, and the article contains many new images that weren't in the original paper. An owl monkey brain is shown above.

Guess what Texas taxpayers are paying for?

The Texas Observer has a piece on an online academy that is attracting parents because it doesn't teach evolution, in defiance of the state of Texas's existing K-12 science standards.
Though the state of Texas requires that each student “knows the theory of biological evolution,” K12 makes plain on its Web site that it considers the theory optional.

“K12 sells its curriculum to a taxpayer-funded public school and then tells users to just ignore parts of the curriculum they don’t like or agree with,” Quinn said. “So the company promotes educational malpractice for profit, and taxpayers pay for it.”

The Texas Education Agency seems unconcerned. In August, Commissioner Robert Scott elected to double the virtual school’s enrollment from 750 to 1,500 students, despite objections from dozens of school districts concerned that defections would hurt their finances.

02 November 2008

Old news

Stories I've been meaning to point to or comment on...

In the Austin American-Statesman last month, an opinion piece by two educational faculty from Baylor argued that biologists should not set the science curriculum for Texas. They argue, first, that religions of various sorts should be taught and studied in curriculum.

What (scientists) probably reject is the inclusion of discussions about religion in biology texts and classes. As that biologist claimed, "We shouldn't be teaching the supernatural in science classrooms." Setting aside the false assertion that religion is nothing but the "supernatural," biologists still, however, have not established a persuasive educational argument as to why religion should be banned from discussions of science.

Glanzer and Null do not explain what they think defines a religion aside from the supernatural. While there is more to religions that the supernatural, few to no religions have no supernatural elements. Regardless, it's those supernatural elements that generate the conflicts with established science.

It's very difficult to glean what Glanzer and Null have in mind here for including religions in science, particularly at the K-12 level. Do they want teachers to mention that Charles Darwin loved William Paley's Natural Theology? Do they think it is legitimate to teach, in a K-12 science class, that the Earth is about 6,000 years old, and fossils were generated by the Biblical flood of Noah? Because that would be illegal, not to mention unsupported by science.

One major reason why religious views should not be included in science classes is that such views are irrelevant, scientifically speaking. They make no testable hypotheses, generate no predictions, except for the few that have been tested, found wanting, and rejected because they did not explain the evidence.

Many questions remain unanswered by the biologists who seem most interested in trying to control curriculum. Why do biologists assume they are experts in curriculum when they are not? Why are biologists afraid to broach the exciting intellectual problems surrounding the relationship between faith and science? Why not discuss the history of biology as a discipline and how the field's approach to this problem has evolved over time? Why not discuss with students why biologists tend to operate within a naturalistic framework, including the benefits and limitations of the framework?

To answer their rhetorical questions in order:

At the university level, biologists do set the curriculum, and are the experts in curriculum at that level. That is the only domain for which expertise is claimed, and it is appropriate for us to do so. Because one of the goals of K-12 education is to prepare students for university, there should be alignment of the two. There is little point to teaching material that will not help students who go on to university.

Biologists are not afraid of exciting intellectual problems between faith and science, but such problems are pretty damn thin on the ground. We're not talking about subtle philosophies of free will and predestination here -- we're talking about strong, simple claims that are not supported by science. The Earth is not a few thousand years old. There are transitional fossils. Organisms have changed over millions of years. Bringing in religious claims to the contrary isn't an exciting intellectual problem, it's a rehash of discredited claims that are old and tedious and bloody boring.

We do.

We do. Although I wonder what "limitations" they're referring to.

Moving on, this story from the start of last month mentions how signatories of the 21st Century Science Coalition includes several who teach as Christian institutions. You can tell the story is out of date, since the number of signatures is now pushing 1400, not 800.

A short piece by TV station KFDA notes:
Even if the strengths and weaknesses phrase is deleted, Buchanan says that will not stifle a student's question on evolution.

01 November 2008

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 36

The Evo.Sphere blog has a lengthy analysis of the forced resignation of Chris Comer. This ananlysis was prompted by what author Steve Schafersman calls "an act of unparalleled malice", namely releasing many personnel files related to Ms. Comer.

"Out of control"?

First, there is an opportunity for the public to comment on the proposed K-12 science standards, which is described here. Not sure how long the comment period will last, though.

I hope many people of scientific bent will comment, because it seems likely that those supporting science education on the State Board of Education will need all the help they can get to ensure they are not watered down.

A Houston Chronicle column says:

The board 9of Education) under (David) Bradley and Chairman Don McLeroy, a College Station Republican — neither of whom have a background in education — has veered so far out of control that lawmakers are contemplating the option of converting the elected board back to an appointed one.

"I've heard the rumblings," House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, told me recently. "I've heard the 'A' word."

The author goes on to venture:

"I think we need to spend a whole lot more of our time and energy on reading, writing and arithmetic," he told me. "And, you know, if there's time to spare, the students might be able to spend a little time on some electives. But we're doing a very poor job on reading, writing and arithmetic to be spending time, money and effort on other curriculums."

And there you have it.

In 2008, the vice president of the board that decides what our children learn and what textbooks will teach it to them believes that science and social studies are unnecessary.

Additional: An op-ed om The Examiner similarly calls the State Board of Education "off the rails."