20 August 2019

Lessons from sport for science

Two of my interests recently intersected on ABC’s The Science Show.

As regular readers might know, I have been fascinated with the creation and ongoing development of the women’s competition of Australian Rules Football (AFL). (I am a card-carrying supporter of the Melbourne Football Club’s women’s team!) When I lived in Australia, it was clear that there were women who loved the game, but as spectators. The game was very much seen as being for blokes. I don’t think I ever heard about women playing in the time I was there.

Fast forward to a women’s league that is growing and making international waves, and that is expanding the audience for this sport significantly. The brilliant picture of the atheleticism of Tayla Harris (shown) and her subsequent poor treatment over it made news in the US. That was the first time I think I ever heard AFL on the news since moving here.

Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel talks about how this new league teaches us a lot about how creating opportunities makes a difference for people. And that science could learn from this (my emphasis).

So let’s go back and think about women’s AFL in the year 2000. (A year I lived in Australia! - ZF) If you were a schoolgirl in Victoria, you couldn’t play in an AFL competition once you hit the age of 14. Why not? Because there was no competition open to teenage girls. You had to wait until you were 18 to join the senior women’s league, and that league was a community competition, without sponsors, played on the worst sports grounds, in your spare time, at your own expense.

On the other hand, your twin brother with the same innate ability would be nurtured every step of the way. And by the time he turned 18, he could easily be on a cereal box and pulling a six-figure salary. Very few people in the AFL hierarchy seem to regard this as a problem. ...

(N)ow when a teenage girl has a talent for football in 2019, she has got role models on TV, she’s got mentors in her local clubs, she’s got teachers and friends who say it’s okay for a girl to like football. In fact it’s great for a girl to like football. She’s not weird, she's not an alien, she is a star. You can see that virtuous cycle starting to form: the standard of the competition rises, it attracts more women and girls, the standard of the competition rises. And we wonder why it took us so long to see what now seems so obvious: second class status for women in sport is not acceptable.

Second class status for women in science isn’t acceptable, either.

External links

Science should emulate sport in supporting women

This week on The TapRoot podcast...


I had the great fun of talking to Ivan Baxer and Liz Haswell for The TapRoot podcast!

We chatted about my two most recent contributions: a paper on authorship disputes, and my letter to Science about grad programs dropping the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). When I wrote those two articles, I didn’t have any connecting thread between them, but I found one for this roundtable:

(N)othing in academia makes sense except in light of assessment and how awful it is.

(And yes, I’m channeling Theodosius Dobzhansky via Randy Olsen.)

Confession time: I had never listened to Taproot until Ivan contacted me about being on the show. To prepare, I listened to a bunch of episodes. I became increasingly excited about the prospect of being one of the guests. Because The Taproot a damn good podcast. The discussion is great and the production values are excellent.

If you are a scientist, I recommend subscribing to The TapRoot – and not just because I’m on it! It’s on all the usual subscription services.

The recording process was not easy, though. Because I was mostly working at home at the time, we tried a test run of recording using my home wifi. Horrible. Awful delays, choppy audio, and just generally unusable audio.

Then I went to my university and used that wifi. You would think an institutional signal in the middle of summer with low use would be better, but nope. It seemed to be an issue with my particular laptop.

We finally solved the problem by using a LAN cable. I can’t remember the last time I had to use a physical cable to connect to the internet, but the old tech still works!


The screenshot is from audio editor JuniperKiss, who did a great job of making me sound more articulate than I am.

Please give the pod a listen or a read, since there’s a full transcript available!

P.S.—I mentioned in this interview that my department wanted to move away from using the GRE. That was no initiated by me, since I stepped down as our graduate program coordinator a while ago.

Dropping the GRE was the plan. I learned after this episode was recorded that our department’s attempt to drop the GRE as an admissions requirement was blocked by administrators up the chain. I think, but an not sure, that it was the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. As I understood it, they wanted data to show that the GRE was not predictive of success in our program.

I was surprised, because there are no shortage of peer-reviewed papers on this, some of which I cited in my #GRExit letter in Science. BUt I maybe should not have been surprised, since the Coordinating Board had required some master’s programs in my university add the GRE a few years ago.

I wonder why there is this desire to keep the GRE at the state level.

P.P.S.—I’m sorry I said “guys” as a generic for people.

External links

Taproot S4E2: The GRExit and how we choose who goes to grad school

Taproot Season 4, Episode 2 transcript

The TapRoot on Stitcher

The TapRoot on iTunes

05 August 2019

Interstellate goes international


Caitlyn Vander Wheele showcased the latest iteration of her Interstellate magazine project today! It is featured in the French magazine L’ADN, the their theme issue, “Game of Neurones.”

(Americans will not fully appreciate this pun, because Americans say the name of brain cells as “neuron,” with a short “o” – rhymes with “brawn.” Europeans have tended to favour pronouncing the name of brain cells as “neurone,” with a long “o” – rhymes with, yes, “throne.”

I couldn’t be more pleased that somehow, my contribution from Volume 1 snuck into the issue! You can see the abdominal fast flexor motor neurons of Louisiana red swamp crayfish in the upper left.

Merci, L’ADN! Je suis très heureux d’être dans votre magazine!

External links

Interstellate, Volume 1
Interstellate, Volume 2

26 July 2019

“Follow the rules like everyone else” is not punishment

Because I curate a collection of stings and hoaxes, I have been following the so-called “grievance studies” affair by Helen Pluckrose, James Lindasy, and assistant professor Peter Boghossian (the only academic of the trio). They sent hoax papers to journals. Many people have sent hoax papers to journal (hence my anthology), but Pluckrose and colleagues described it as an experiment and published it.

Inside Higher Education reports:

Boghossian was ordered last year to take research compliance training; he has not yet done so, the letter states. Because Boghossian has not completed Protection of Human Subjects training, he is forbidden from engaging in research involving human subjects or any other sponsored research.

In other words, “Follow the same rules as everyone else.”

Just by way of comparison, and to give you an idea of what research with humans normally entails, I did an online survey for a couple of research papers (here’s one). That’s less intrusive than what Boghossian and colleagues did. I had to:

  • Go through “research with human subjects” training.
  • Submit a proposal to an institutional review board and have it approved.
  • Include detailed descriptions of the potential benefits and risks to anyone viewing the survey.

So “Take training before you do more research” is what anyone should do.

But some reporting makes it sound like Boghossian is being treated arbitrarily (emphasis added).


My prediction is that this is going to become a talking point in the American culture wars, with some trying to paint Boghossian’s letter as a dire consequence that has a chilling effect on academic freedom, is political correctness gone mad, continue buzzwords until exhausted.

Unfortunately, the language of the letter Boghossian got was pretty severe, which will contribute to the impression that the consequences for Boghossian are bad.

And it is bad, of course. It’s embarrassing to get called out for your actions and told you didn’t do the right thing by this institution and your profession.

But I bet a lot of people wish their punishment for something was a letter saying, “Follow the rules.” I’m sure some teenagers would like that more then being grounded.

23 July 2019

The failure of neuroscience education

In every field of science, there are certain basic facts. These are the facts that if you get them wrong, mark you as naïve at best and foolish at worst.

In chemistry, one of those facts might be that everything is made of atoms.

In astronomy, one of these facts might be that the earth goes around the sun and not the other way round.

In geography, geology, and astronomy, one of those facts might be that the earth is round and not flat.

These basic sorts of facts are often used to assess people’s scientific literacy. We consider it important that people be educated in these.

But neuroscience has failed in conveying its most basic facts. Case in point:

The myth that “We only use ten percent of our brain.”

People believe this. I mean, they really believe it.

I’ve heard multiple people mention it at public scientific lectures. I’ve answered dozens of questions about this on Quora, where some version of it crops up every few days.

And that damn Luc Besson movie didn’t help.

From a neuroscientist’s point of view, saying “We only use ten percent of our brain” is as big an error as saying, “The earth is flat.”

A few moments of thought should show why it can’t be true. We never hear a physician say things like, “Well, the bullet went through your skull, but luckily, it went through the 90% of you brain you never use.” It has no basis in reality.

If you go to the Society for Neuroscience to see what scientists say about this, you might find their  outreach page. There, have to navigate to their “Brain Facts” page (which should be “About Brain Facts”, not the actual landing page for “Brain Facts”), dig down to their “Core concepts” and under “Your complex brain” you can read:

There are around 86 billion neurons in the human brain, all of which are in use.

So the leading professional society for neuroscience counters the 10% brain myth with a sentence fragment that is hard to find and weakly worded.

If I was leading neuroscience education, my goal would be to make, “We use 100% of our brain” the sort of bedrock scientific fact that we expect people should know.

Postscript: The 10% myth probably dates back to 1936, when American writer Lowell Thomas wrote the foreword to one of the best all-time sellers, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Thomas was summarizing an idea of psychologist William James: that people have unmet potential. Most of us could learn Russian, but don’t. We could learn to play a musical instrument, but don’t. We could learn how to repair a 1963 MGB sports car, but don’t.

Thomas added a falsely precise percentage: “Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten per cent of his latent mental ability.” Somewhere along the line, “mental ability” became “brain.” This isn’t surprising, since the notion that “Thoughts come from our brain” is a scientific fact that is widely known. That’s our “Sun is at the center of the solar system” fact.

External links

Do we really only use ten percent of our brain?

“Teach the controversy” image from a super cool T-shirt from Amorphia.

20 July 2019

A sad story about the first moon landing

(This post contains material that some may find distressing; specifically, suicide.)


I’m too young to remember the moon landing.

(Continues below the fold.)