22 November 2021

UK eyes new crustacean legislation

The Guardian is reporting that there is the potential new animal welfare regulations that would affect decapod crustaceans and cephalopods. The London School of Economics, whose report is being used to justify the move, seems rather more confident than The Guardian and is basically saying this is a done deal and that it will happen.

I am a little concerned by the backstory here, particularly cased on this:

The study, conducted by experts from the London School of Economics (LSE) concluded there was “strong scientific evidence decapod crustaceans and cephalopod molluscs are sentient”. ...

Zac Goldsmith, the animal welfare minister, said: “The UK has always led the way on animal welfare and our action plan for animal welfare goes even further by setting out our plans to bring in some of the strongest protections in the world for pets, livestock and wild animals.

“The animal welfare sentience bill provides a crucial assurance that animal wellbeing is rightly considered when developing new laws. The science is now clear that crustaceans and molluscs can feel pain and therefore it is only right they are covered by this vital piece of legislation.”

See, I want to know what Minister Goldsmith knows that I don’t. Because I follow scientific literature on this topic and the science on whether crustaceans “feel pain” is nowhere near as clear as Goldsmith claims. We are only barely getting a handle on whether crustaceans have nociceptors,

And “sentience”? Yeah, I don’t think there is a generally agree upon set of criteria for that, either.

A cursory glance at the London School of Economics report shows that none of the authors have stated experience in crustacean biology. (One studies cephalopod cognition.) A major review on this topic by Diggles (2018) is not included. Some of the references in the report are dated 2021, so leaving out a 2018 paper is a puzzling omission. 

But at first blush, this report looks more comprehensive than the documents used to argue for legislation in Switzerland. But I’ve only glanced at it so far, and will need some more time to read in detail.


Diggles BK. 2018. Review of some scientific issues related to crustacean welfare. ICES Journal of Marine Science: fsy058. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsy058

Related posts

Switzerland’s lobster laws are not paragons of science-based policy

External links

Boiling of live lobsters could be banned in UK under proposed legislation

Review of the Evidence of Sentience in Cephalopod Molluscs and Decapod Crustaceans

Octopuses, crabs and lobsters to be recognised as sentient beings under UK law following LSE report findings

19 November 2021

Do not make professors guess a student’s childhood

I was filling in recommendation forms for students today, and was gobsmacked by this question:

English Competency: For students whose first language is not English, please rank the applicant’s ability and comment on the applicant’s English competency in the box provided below.

Wow, that’s a bad question. Wait, let me upgrade that. That’s a freaking terrible question.

Why am I only asked to assess the English competency of students “whose first language is not English”? I know a lot of students who are native speakers whose linguistic skills are not good.

More to the point, how can I possibly know what a student’s first language is?

Maybe a student will mention this to me, but probably not. It’s not in a student’s records for a class. I am quite confident it is not part of a student’s university record.

(And this was a non-optional part of a form, which is also weird, because presumably I am supposed to skip it for native English speakers?)

The only way anyone could complete this part of the form is by making assumptions. So this question is code for:

“Does this student speak with an accent?”

“Does this student’s name look European?”

“Does this person have black or brown skin?”

The question singles out some people as needing extra “assessment”, but it’s based on the recommender’s stereotypes about who a “non native English speaker” is.

If you’re going to ask a question about language proficiency, ask, “Rate this applicant’s proficiency in communication” for every single applicant. Don’t even mention the language. Because there are some people who will never speak English who should be afforded the opportunity to have an education. (I’,m thinking of people who sign, for one.)

Update, 23 November 2021: In this case, a happy ending! The program changed the question so that every recommender is simply asked to comment on language skills for every applicant.

08 November 2021

The University of Austin: Stop it, you’re just embarassing yourself.

 Spotted on Twitter this morning (hat tip to Michael Hendricks):

We got sick of complaining about how broken higher education is. So we decided to do something about it. Announcing a new university dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth::

It offers no degrees. It has no accreditation. This is its physical location:

REsidential house in Austin Texas that does not look like a university campus.

But they offer “Forbidden courses” where students can have “spirited discussions” about “provocative questions.”

Presumably for a tuition fee. Since this wouldn’t lead to any degree or course credits, not at all clear why would a student do this when they can just have an drunken argument in any bar with “provocative questions.”

Having been through the creation of a new university (in Texas, no less), I can say with confidence:

This is trash.

This is probably one of two things.

One possibility is that it’s a wild mix of huge egos and a cash grab. It will come to nothing besides  separating a few suckers from their money. It reminds me of a “university” created by a former US president that was sued and gave out a settlement of $25 million

Or maybe it’s a pure criminal operation

Everything about this stinks like the kind of stink that make you involuntarily gag and fight the urge to vomit.

Update: Sarah Jones reminds me:

I’m not convinced this experiment is going to last, but they seem to have money and as a general rule I think it’s wise to take the right as seriously as it takes itself.

This is true. Being badly wrong has not prevented many ideas from having amazing longevity.

31 October 2021

Science Twitter calaveras

Thanks Namnezia!

Skeleton wearing t-shirt with crayfish standing in front of poster
Poor ol' Zen Faulkes, 

the mob confused him for Guy Fawkes. 

Said "You got the wrong guy, I study crayfish!" 

But they thought he was being all selfish. 

From the bonfire he yelled "No, really, look at my poster!" 

That didn't work,they thought he was another imposter.


25 October 2021

How to fix an author in 10 ways

Wow, it’s been far too long since I’ve had a new paper with my name on it.

I got an email out of the blue asking if I would be interested in participating in writing this paper. It arose from my earlier paper on authorship disputes (Faulkes 2018) and why I think we should have more alternative dispute resolution in academic publishing.

I said yes, obviously.

You will notice that there are an equal number of “strategies” and “authors.” This is not coincidence. For the most part, each person on the author list tackled one section of the paper.

I’m section #8. 😉

My section was originally something like “Seek arbitration.” This was obviously inspired by the title of my previous paper, but I wanted to make something that was a little more expansive and wasn’t as close to what I’d written before.

After we each wrote our sections, all the authors read through and left comments for each other. Steven Cooke did the work to smooth out the rough edges and harmonize the contributions of all the authors.

I made one other contribution. I think after the first draft went for review, Steven Cooke suggested it would be nice to have some sort of figure in the paper. I made this very quick and dirt concept figure in PowerPoint:

Flow chart with causes of disputes on left, dispute in middle, and solutions for disputes on right.

The final version in the paper is much better! It added more elements (four solutions instead of three). It used a lot of icons to make it much more visual.

So I am extremely pleased to have been part of this paper. I hope people find it useful.


Cooke SJ, Young N, Donaldson MR, Nyboer EA, Roche DG, Madliger CL, Lennox RJ, Chapman JM, Faulkes Z, Bennett JR. 2021. Ten strategies for avoiding and overcoming authorship conflicts in academic publishing. FACETS 6: 1753-1770. https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2021-0103

Faulkes, Z. 2018. Resolving authorship disputes by mediation and arbitration. Research Integrity and Peer Review 3: 12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41073-018-0057-z


24 October 2021

Science isn’t the only one fighting recommendation algorithms and bemoaning education

This article about crises in American evangelical churches resonates with crises we see in science communication.

The churches’ problems? People aren’t getting enough education and social media’s recommendation algorithms are too influential.

“What we’re seeing is massive discipleship failure caused by massive catechesis failure,” James Ernest, the vice president and editor in chief at Eerdmans, a publisher of religious books, told me. Ernest was one of several figures I spoke with who pointed to catechism, the process of instructing and informing people through teaching, as the source of the problem. “The evangelical Church in the U.S. over the last five decades has failed to form its adherents into disciples. So there is a great hollowness.” ...

“Culture catechizes,” Alan Jacobs, a distinguished professor of humanities in the honors program at Baylor University, told me. ... Our current political culture, Jacobs argued, has multiple technologies and platforms for catechizing—television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, and podcasts among them. People who want to be connected to their political tribe—the people they think are like them, the people they think are on their side—subject themselves to its catechesis all day long, every single day, hour after hour after hour. ...

(W)hen people’s values are shaped by the media they consume, rather than by their religious leaders and communities, that has consequences. “What all those media want is engagement, and engagement is most reliably driven by anger and hatred,” Jacobs argued. “They make bank when we hate each other.(”)

And wow, does that ever sound familiar.

The clergy bemoaning the lack of education in religious instruction puts a twist on the long-running arguments about teaching creationism in public schools. It suggests the reason some fundamentalists fought so hard on those issues because at some level they saw their own catechesis was failing.

Related posts

Recommendation algorithms are the biggest problem in science communication today

External links

The evangelical church is breaking apart

13 September 2021

The rise of TikTok in misinformation

Ben Collins’s Twitter thread about how misinformation about medication to get worms out of horses has become the cause du jour for many.

Can’t stress how wild the ivermectin Facebook groups have become. So many people insisting to each other to never go to an ER, in part because they might not get ivermectin, but sometimes because they fear nurses are killing them on purpose “for the insurance money.” ... It’s just a constant stream of DIY vitamin therapies and new, seemingly random antiviral drugs every day — but not the vaccine.

This is distressing, but I wanted to home in on this comment in the thread.

The ivermectin Facebook groups also offer a window into how pervasive antivaxx COVID “treatment” videos are on TikTok.

The groups serve as a de facto aggregator for antivaxx TikTok, a space that is enormous but inherently unquantifiable to researchers.

When I last wrote about the dangers of recommendation algorithms (in pre-pandemic 2019), I focused on YouTube. TikTok existed then (it started in 2016), but it wasn’t included in Pew Research’s list of social media platforms until this year.

Graph showing use of social media platforms in the US. 81% use Youtube, 61% use Facebook. No other platform is used by more than 50% of Americans. 21% of Americans use TikTok.

Even today, TikTok isn’t even used by one in four Americans. It’s more like one in five. It’s impressive that it’s pulled close to Twitter, which has been around far longer. And also frightening that it is having this outsized effect that is leading people to try... anything

Everything is a miracle cure, or it isn't, but every drug is worth a shot. Except, of course, the thing that works: the vaccine. Anything pro-vaccine is instantly written off as “propaganda.”

There are lots of issues raised here that I can’t process all at once. But I think Collins’s comment that TikTok is unmeasurable for researchers strikes me at something important. Could the requirement for more data transparency in how TikTok selects what videos to show someone help? Not sure. 

But we may be at the start of an arms race between social media platforms using data to show things to viewers, and researchers trying to “break the code” to figure out just what the heck people are actually seeing.

Related posts

Recommendation algorithms are the biggest problem in science communication today

External links

Social Media Use in 2021 - Pew Research

Naming the animals in research papers

This is Bruce. 

Bruce, a kea with no upper beak, holding an object with his tongue and lower beak.

Bruce has been making the news rounds because of a new paper demonstrating that he uses pebbles to groom. Bruce is a kea, a parrot that normally has a large upper beak, which Bruce does not have. In the picture above, you can see him using his tongue and remaining lower beak to pick up an object.

What I want to talk about is not the tool use (although that is cool), but that I know this bird was given a name. Because I found this paper within days of finding another paper about an unusual bird: an Australian musk duck named Ripper. 

Ripper’s claim to fame was that he was able to imitate sounds, like creaking metal and even human voices. Ripper seems to have picked up the phrase, “You bloody fool” from humans around him. 

This is interesting because vocal learning is found in only a few lineages and hasn’t been documented in ducks before.

But what interested me in both papers is that the scientific papers repeated refer to these bird by the names that humans gave them. Not just once in the methods as an aside, but all the way through.

I can see the value of using a given name in news articles and blog posts like the one I’m writing. And maybe it makes scanning the paper a little easier. But the kea paper refers to “Bruce” 62 times; the duck paper refers to “Ripper” 40 times. The extensive referencing to these names in the journal articles gives me pause.

It’s been clear for a long time that the efforts to keep animals at arm’s length to avoid humanizing them (a position taken furthest, perhaps, by B.F. Skinner and other behaviourists in American psychology) is a lost cause. The approach of people like Jane Goodall (who named her chimps rather than just giving them numbers) has won. 

But these two approaches sit on opposite ends of a continuum. And quite often, there’s a pendulum swing in attitudes. I wonder if the pendulum has maybe swung a little too far towards our willingness to humanize animals in the scientific literature.

It’s easy to slip into teleology (assuming everything has a purpose) and anthropomorphism (thinking animals are like humans). And constantly referring to animals’ names throughout a paper seems to make that even easier. 

I’m not saying that the names we give animals should never be mentioned in papers. But maybe it could be once or twice instead of dozens of times. 

And hey, these animals didn’t get to pick their names. Maybe that duck was thinking, “I say ‘Bloody fool’, and they name me ‘Ripper’ on top of that? Could I be any more of a cliché Australian?)

A Twitter poll suggests I am not alone in being wary of this practice.


Bastos APM, Horváth K, Webb JL, Wood PM, Taylor AH. 2021. Self-care tooling innovation in a disabled kea (Nestor notabilis). Scientific Reports 11(1): 18035. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-97086-w

ten Cate C, Fullagar PJ. 2021. Vocal imitations and production learning by Australian musk ducks (Biziura lobata). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 376(1836): 20200243. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2020.0243