31 December 2008

Evolutionary gems

Nature has just published a freely available PDF about evidence for evolution called, "Evolutionary gems." This is their first official issue of 2009, which will be (in a few hours) the 200 anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of his "abstract," On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

And I mention this mainly because it's interesting, but secondarily, by doing so, I reach an nice even number of posts for this blog this year: 300.

Now, I'm off to pick up posters for the SICB meeting.

Dissertation variation

Over at Uncertain Principles, check out the comments section in the post about whether doctoral students should publish papers before defending their dissertation. It's very interesting, because, as I mentioned in my comment, I had never heard of any place that required publication before defense. Yet apparently many do.

I wonder if this is a question of different practices in different disciplines, or whether it's just institutional variation.

A personal review of 2008

Despite a fair amount of good news professionally, it's been a long, tiring year.

Two papers finally came out, after way too many months of me not finishing revision. One is a quite substantial review article on the evolution of crustacean tailflipping that I'm quite happy about, from a writer's point of view. I think the explanations are clear, with good turns of phrase. Figure 1 was a bear that went through many revisions, but I'm pleased with how it finally turned out.

The second paper, on larval ascidian settlement, I'm pleased with because it came from work I did with my former high school intern, Amanda. And it's just cool to have a high school student as an author on a peer-reviewed journal article.

I got a small grant for my Marmorkrebs research. I got good feedback on the Marmorkrebs blog, and the Marmorkrebs research is chugging along well.

I had a set of damn fine research students, and my first Master's student, Sandra, successfully defended her thesis. Working with them has probably been the best thing about the year.

I blogged a lot here, on Marmorkrebs, and for my REU program.

I got tenure. In a year of economic meltdown, the prospect of a little security is welcome. But I still have mixed emotions about it.

And I taught non-stop. I taught in spring, I taught both summer sessions, and I taught through a fall semester that forced me into hiding.

So yet again, I can't wait to see the back end of this year. Roll on 2009.

30 December 2008

No limitations in Texas science standards

Just before Christmas, the National Center for Science Education reported that the latest draft of K-12 science standards for Texas has removed the "strengths and limitations" wording found in an earlier draft.

This is a pleasant surprise. Maybe the turnout at the public hearings actually accomplished the change. Hard to say.

Blog in review 2008

Late in 2007, I decided to try to ramp up my blogging. I wanted to do more substantive posts more frequently. While others will have to judge whether I was more substantive, this was certainly the most active this blog has been by far, pushing close to 300 posts.

Of course, it was helped by the amount of stuff going on in Texas concerning the forced resignation of Chris Comer, the efforts of the Institution for Creation Research to offer Master's degrees in science education, and the ongoing review of the Texas K-12 science standards. All three stories focused attention on the relationship between science and creationism. I could have written much more about this, but I wanted to keep focused on those that were occurring here in the place I live.

Some favourite posts of mine from this year follow. Following convention, I've cut it to 10 examples.


The point of doubt


Deep research
Lecturing doesn't matter


Why am I blogging about buying a car?


Making mimetics scientific (The one I nominated for the Open Laboratory 2008)
The big four questions


Anniversaries: One even number, one odd
A word is needed for an inability to think graphically


Tools of the trade


Don't hate beauty

23 December 2008

Cityscapes and recession

Over at Ockham's Razor, Peter Newman makes a case for urban sprawl being a contributing factor to the current financial recession. Really interesting, one of my favourites on this show for a while.

Briefly, he argues that people will only spend about an hour commuting to work on a daily basis, regardless of whether they walk, take trains, drive, or what have you. The current city design -- expanding circles around a core central business distract -- was made possible by cheap fossil fuels. The far edges of cities were all about cheap housing, so people who moved there were often more economically vulnerable to start with. Now, combine people with mortgages (especially those sub-primes we hear about) with increases in fuel costs. The rise of fuel prices disproportionately squeezed on people who were already struggling to make ends meet, and suddenly a lot of mortgages don't get paid. And that may have helped collapse the whole thing...

Did earthrise change us?

A lot of posts are commenting on the anniversary of the famous picture of Earth from space (here's one, two, and three). Many people claim this picture changed how we view the world. Admittedly, I was only 2 when this picture was taken, but I don't know if it changed things as much as we would like to think.

I think there was sense in the few years of the Apollo missions that this was just the start. But it hasn't worked out that way. True, we have a lot of fantastic robots exploring the solar system. True, India and China have started to pick up the slack left by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But that's a far cry from what we were expecting. People were expecting us to have a permanent presence on the moon and be well on the way to a manned mission to Mars in the first decade of the 21st century.

People also talk about this picture being the start of the environmental movement. But it's been 40 years, and I only have to say "climate change" to point out that people's goodwill towards the environment hasn't exactly resulted in great outcomes.

Maybe I am just too young to fully appreciate the differences in mindset that occurred 40 years ago. Or maybe this is just my "Bah, humbug" post for the year.

22 December 2008

Heroes! Villains!

This article is worth checking out for the title alone: "Science heroes and villains of 2008."

I didn't make either list. Hmmmm. That may be my first New Year's resolution.


Jennifer Mather gets to speak at TED 2009.

Jennifer is my former boss, from way back in my undergraduate days*. She helped get me rolling on this research thing.

Words cannot describe how incredibly jealous I am.

Congratulations, Jennifer! I can't wait to see your talk on the TED website!

* My student Sakshi gleefully reminded me recently this was 20 years ago.

21 December 2008

The Zen of Presentations, Part 23: Bad presenter thought

The opposite of a great presenter is a bored presenter, not a scared presenter.

Advent days

Last week was busy. Two students are prepping papers for the SICB meeting in Boston in January. A third student was gathering data that will go onto an abstract for the Texas Academy of Science meeting in March. I try to help...

Yes, that's a heater at right. I know you're thinking, "Why do you need a space heater in southern Texas?" Because the first time it got chilly this month, the building heating didn't work right, and the temperature dropped in the lab quite substantially. And while uncomfortable for us, that's not as important as the animals -- which really don't do well when they're cold.

These crabs don't measure themselves, you know...

Photos by Kevin Faulkes. Thanks Dad.

15 December 2008

Teaching rubbish doesn't help students think

Arnold Loewy has an opinion piece in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (which may well be the coolest name for a newspaper I have yet heard).

Although the name of the newspaper may be cool, the column is not.
Currently, a national debate is raging over whether or not to teach intelligent design in public schools.

I haven't seen much debate on that front since the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. I see a lot of people who want to attack the teaching of evolution, though.
To begin with, it is important to disabuse ourselves of the notion intelligent design is an alternative to, or the opposite of, evolution. The opposite of evolution is creationism, the theory that the Earth was created in six days, less than 6,000 years ago.

This is a peculiar opening gambit: to claim that some complex scientific idea has a necessary logical opposite. What's the opposite of germ theory? The opposite of atomic theory?

Be that as it may, there's a strange backhanded effort to claim that intelligent design is not an alternative to evolution. But that is expressly what it is meant to be.
The opposite of intelligent design is no intelligent design, or atheism. It is possible to believe that an intelligent designer designed evolution as many (I have been told, including Darwin) believe.

And here we have the classic wedge strategy: it's any religious belief you might happen to have, or evolution and godlessness. As always, this does a huge disservice to the wonderful variety of human beliefs.
Most of the objection to teaching intelligent design is predicated on the ground that the subject matter is religious, and should be taught only in church. I disagree. The characteristics of the intelligent designer are most assuredly a matter for religious training and belief. On the other hand, most religions posit the existence of an intelligent designer (usually denominated God), but do not seek to examine all of the scientific/philosophic evidence for or against that supposition. In short, they accept it on faith.

It's like he's destroying his own case. So... I think he's arguing that ID is religious... but that somehow that doesn't matter because...? I really don't understand the argument here.
While faith is everything in religion, it is not everything in schools. Every proposition has to be empirically examined to determine its validity. Thus, when intelligent design is examined in school, there is no a priori assumption of its correctness, or incorrectness. The evidence is examined and the chips can fall where they may.

But why teach discredited ideas in a school setting? Should we teach phlogiston theory?
The reason that I am so supportive of teaching intelligent design in public schools is because I studied essentially the intelligent design/no intelligent design debate in an English literature course at Boston University.

Stop! There is a huge difference between teaching something at a K-12 level and at the university level. What is perfectly appropriate for one level does not export well to all levels. Plus, the rules for universities are totally different than they are for K-12 public classrooms.
Frankly, this course of action is not risk-free for fundamentalists. Although I concluded that it was more likely than not that there was an intelligent designer, I suspect some of my classmates were not similarly persuaded. Consequently, if we do adopt the "teach the controversy" perspective that many fundamentalists are advocating in regard to intelligent design, there is a real risk that some percentage of the students will conclude that there is no intelligent designer, and hence no God.

For me, this is a risk worth taking.

That he characterizes this as a "risk" shows a lot going on here. Being religious is good. Not being religious is bad. So this clearly shows that proposing to teach intelligent design cannot be taught in K-12 public classrooms, for the same reason creationism can't be taught in classrooms: it is about using a public government institution to promote particular religious views.

14 December 2008

Science teachers who don't understand science

The San Antonio Express News has an opinion piece by a public school teacher, one Scott Lane, about the "strengths and weaknesses" -- oops, "strengths and limitations" -- language that the Texas State Board of Education wants to put into the K-12 Texas science standards.

Mr. Lane is a science teacher, but he shows effectively no understanding of the state of modern science.
We... can present several hours of scientific evidence which supports creation. Included in these will be the fact that evolution violates the 1st and 2nd Laws of Thermodynamics, as well as the Law of Biogenesis. We can show you creation evidence in the fields of microbiology, genetics, probability, biochemistry, biology, geology and physics which support creation and undermine evolution.

Just... wow. This is one of those points where you don't even know where to begin.

13 December 2008

Ups and down in teaching

Watching Ben Zander in his Pop!Tech talk the day after submitting final grades for my classes is a humbling experience.

This week, I have worried a lot about teaching. Am I being fair and consistent in my grading? (That's a big one for me, as I know unfairness drives students absolutely nuts.) Did I ask reasonable amounts of work? Was I too soft?

Zander makes me think those are not the first questions I should ask. The first one I should ask might be, "Did I lift students up, or did I grind them down?"

I may have done more grinding than lifting this semester.

How interesting.

Missing the point of Science Commons

I've watched the Science Commons video (below) and visited the Science Commons website.

And I don't get it.

The video talks about knowledge in "silos," that highly overused business term. I think the "silos" they're talking about are for-profit journals that are protected behind password-protected subscriptions and pay per view deals. But it's maddeningly vague about this. If you mean you want open access publishing, say open access publishing.

The video talks about sharing data. For me, the big problem is still generating data. It feels like this is talking about automated, high throughput molecular data, not those who do any other kind of science.

12 December 2008

U shaped

Why does it always seem that when marking assignment, you get a couple of really good papers right off the bat, followed by lots of utter dreck, before a few people near the end restore some semblance of hope that someone was paying attention?

Michael Rennie was ill...

Gort T-shirtThe Day the Earth Stood Still – the original – was made at a critical point in Earth’s history.

Humans had split the atom, but hadn’t gone into space.

What a wonderful combination of terror and optimism. We saw the potential for complete destruction, yet I think there was really a sense of incredible potential then. People could almost taste space travel. And really, isn’t there a hint of pride that other civilizations could actually perceive us as a threat?

Today, I think we feel the threat, but not the sort of hope the early 1950s had. I don’t think we think of ourselves going into space, expanding ever out, they way we did then. Space travel has proved difficult.

It’ll be very interesting to see what zeitgeist the remake opening today tries to tap into.

11 December 2008

This quiz must be faulty


Which College Major Should You Be?

Your major should be Engineering. Logic is your friend. With enough work, you can find a solution to anything... Unless it involves dating or parties.

Find Your Character @ BrainFall.com

Well, too late now...

10 December 2008

Make me laugh

In one of my classes, I had my students blogging throughout the semester. Last week, since it was the end of semester and I reckoned everyone could use a break and do something different, I threw down the gauntlet and issued a challenge.

"Make me laugh."

Oh, that was fun.

I got Canadian cartoons and signs.

I got profane Muppets.

And I got a couple of posts mentioning this picture, which I used in during lecture twice (only twice, really).

So that's what they're referring to here and, my personal favourite, this post.

08 December 2008

Fail, 8 December 2008 edition

One of my students is trying to share some work with me through Google Docs. I try to login, and can't. I contact the specified email address. I am told, "You have to share the documents with their @gmail.com email addresses."

He apparently hasn't looked at the login screen.


Even the might of Google is no match for institutional cluelessness.

On the fence

One of my earlier articles concerned the evolution of intelligence on other planets. This lengthy blog post picks up on some of those ideas.

06 December 2008

Farewell, Forry

Forrest AckermanForrest ("Forry") J. Ackerman has died at 92 (reported many places, including here and here).

If you knew Forry Ackerman, you were one degree of separation from everything connected to science fiction and fantasy in the 20th century. He was an architect of today's society. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and thousands more like them learned about movies through Forry's Famous Monsters of Filmland, for decades the only SF magazine about film and TV until Starlog came on the scene.

I can't say I knew him, but had the honor of seeing and meeting him a couple of times.

The first, at Norwescon, he brought the voice of H.G. Wells to the fans. Ackerman had seen a talk by Wells when he was young, and decided that he would try to memorize the way Wells spoke and some of his words. he had been inspired by one child who was so moved by Lincoln's Gettysburg address that he memorized it and would recite it in Lincoln's style to preserve it. Ackerman relayed his surprise that Wells had a thin, high voice, almost like one of old ladies in Monty Python skits. And the phrase was something like, "I am going to talk to you about the war. [Not certain if it was "war," actually.] East is east. West is west. And the two are coming together with a bang."

Additional: A better recounting of Ackerman's anecdote is here.


Ackerman: It was 1938. It was predicted that 100 years into the future that on top of Mt. Everest, a statue would be erected in his memory, 'First of Civilized Men.' When he spoke, because he had given us WAR OF THE WORLDS and TIME MACHINE and so on, I thought he'd have this deep, sonorous, Orson Welles personality. I was very surprised to hear he had this squeaky little voice. He had this small rolly-polly, bloody complexion and said [in a high accented voice], 'I am going to talk to you for about an hour. Today, East is West, and West is East, and they're coming together with a bang.' He was very prophetic, because unfortunately we went to war with Japan.

The second time, at Con*Cept, I had more opportunity to hear him. He was in Montréal tracking down a rare edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. He gave an hour long panel talking about some of his many experiences. He talked about his love of Esperanto, and complimenting a beautiful woman in the audience in Esperanto. He expressed how disappointed he was with Tim Burton's movie Ed Wood, a depiction Forry said was terrible. (Forry had been Wood's agent.)

I asked him if, in building his renowned collection of sci-fi memorabilia, there were any pieces that he had tried to get for his collection that "got away," as I phrased it. His reply was not what I had expected, and he talk about items that had literally got away because someone had stolen them from his house.

At the end of his panel, I was able to get an autograph from him on -- of all things -- a Vampirella trading card. (Vampirella was a character Ackerman named that was undergoing a resurgence of popularity at the time.)

Robert J. Sawyer's post on meeting Forry gives a good sense of the well known generosity of the man.

I have to disagree with the reports that say he died from heart failure. A heart like his would never fail -- only stop.

04 December 2008

No more waking from a dream

Arguably anyone who has studied psychology or neuroscience has probably heard of HM, a patient who lost the ability for form new memories. He died Tuesday, 2 December 2008, at the age of 82.

His real name was Henry G. Molaison.

See here, here, and here.

Here is a famous quote from him, speaking on his own condition:
Right now, I’m wondering, have I done or said anything amiss? You see, at this moment everything looks clear to me, but what happened just before? That’s what worries me. It’s like waking from a dream. I just don’t remember.

Help the National Academies of Science

National Academies logoThe National Academies are running a short and sweet poll on current science issues to find out what resources they should be focused on developing.

One of the interesting things is that when you reach the end, they should you how people have voted so far. I won't spoil the surprise.

Check it out and vote.

03 December 2008

Lectures are over!

Just gave the "dead dog" lecture to my last class. I still have a huge amount of marking to do (about three major assignments), but at least there's no more prepartion to do, and the end is now in sight.

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."

31 October 2008

Zombie science

As I've mentioned before, I hate zombies. But since it's Hallowe'en, I can't resist Glen Branch's characterization of creationism as "zombie science": something that was once alive and vital, but now just won't stay down. Branch is particularly discussing the current state of affairs in Texas Board of Education.

PZ Myers, riffing off Branch, gets the bon mot: "One difference: these zombies are repelled by brains."

29 October 2008

Tough week

It's one of those weeks where you get bad news. Not for me personally, but for some programs I'm involved with. Nothing for it except to retrench and try to get the program on life-support until things turn around.

23 October 2008

As close to a bird as you can get without being a bird

Anytime you get a title with the word "bizarre" in it published in the normally staid and dry primary scientific literature, you know you have a winner.

The journal article title in Nature this week is, "A bizarre Jurassic maniraptoran from China with elongate ribbon-like feathers."

Epidexipteryx hui
Love that reconstruction.

"As close to a bird as you can get without being a bird" is how Epidexipteryx hui was described in the Nature podcast. Which means, yes, it's another one of those pesky transitional fossils that the Texas State Board of Education chair Don McLeroy thinks we don't have enough of.

Hey Texas, people are noticing...

Allan LeshnerAn editorial in the Houston Chronicle by Allan Leshner, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, puts it bluntly:

(I)t would be a terrible mistake to water down the teaching of evolution in any way.

Much of the rest of the article has a more conciliatory tone (religion and science doesn't have to fight, students do need to learn weaknesses), but the key message is simple: don't mess this up, guys.

22 October 2008

Even less ready than I thought

So I ran into a colleague in another department, who told me about a conference our university was hosting on ethics in intelligence and security. I said I thought I might have something relevant, she agreed, and I submitted an abstract. I've been getting a little nervous, because the classes I'm teaching this semester have been nearly all-consuming, and I haven't put in the amount of prep time I normally would for a conference talk.

That was when I thought this would be a standard 15-20 minute conference talk.

I just found out I have an hour.

Right. No fear. I can do it, no worries there, but it certainly changes the parameters of what I have to prepare quite significantly.

War on two fronts

When people ask what my research is, I usually tell them it’s about the intersection of brain, behaviour, and evolution. As things have unfolded in Texas (triggered by Chris Comer's forced resignation and the kerfuffle over the new recommended Texas science standards for K-12 teaching), I’ve been blogging a lot about the misunderstandings of evolution.

Looks like I’ll have even more to blog about.

This New Scientist article notes that some people starting to attack neuroscience on theological grounds. Although the article calls them creationists, that’s really a misnomer, since there’s no necessary link between thinking the Earth was specifically created as described in the bible and holding that mind is something immaterial and outside normal physical laws. The latter, strictly speaking, is dualism, which has a long intellectual history.

I think it’s fair to say that dualism hasn’t received the same degree of hard thumping that creationism has. Regardless of how much dualism is bandied about is philosophy departments, however, it’s certainly not the foundation for much serious research on neuroscience.

Regardless, it is certainly noteworthy that many of the same cast of characters are interested in “non-material neuroscience” as promoting “intelligent design.” We’re going to need a new term for people who object to science because it is “materialist.”

The article concludes:

What can scientists do? They have been criticised for not doing enough to teach the public about evolution. Maybe now they need a big pre-emptive push to engage people with the science of the brain - and help the public appreciate that the brain is no place to invoke the “God of the gaps”.

The challenge I throw out is the same as the ones for evolution: What new, testable predictions does “non-materialist neuroscience” generate that could not be generated by regular neuroscience?

Or is it just, “That can’t be all there is!”?

I’m expecting a deafening silence.

State Board of Education chair still at odds with biology

State Board of Education chair Don McLeroy has a guest column in the Waco Tribune. As usual, McLeroy say a lot of things that at at odds with mainstream science. Like this:

First, is understanding of evolution “vital” to the understanding of biology? No.

Pretty deep contrast to the often quoted sentiment of geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky:

Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

McLeroy continues making bold, absolute statements with no support.

Next, has evolution been demonstrated to be true beyond any reasonable doubt? No.

Is evolution’s support from the peer-reviewed literature unassailable? No.

I might be charitable and assume that he was unable to expand how he arrived at these conclusions -- which again are at odds with mainstream biology -- due to space limitations. I'm not sure how charitable I feel, though.

21 October 2008

Some people never learn... Okay, I never learn

Just finished proofreading my next article to be published, and it was depressing. I caught two errors that I could only groan I didn't catch in the writing stage. I should know better. But the proofs are, well, proof that I don't know better.

I used "data" as a singular, even though I berate my own writing students that the word is plural. (Note to any of my students reading: Do as I say, not as I do!)

And I seem to be completely unable to submit a manuscript in which the crustacean group "Thalassinidea" or its variations is spelled correctly throughout the paper.

I hope I caught them all this time. But experience tells me that there will be one obvious thing I missed.

Who are the Texas Eagle Forum?

Radio Station KTRH has a short article with comments on the recent appointment of a review committee for Texas science standards.

"We want the truth taught to our children. That means scientific evidence of both evolution and creation," said Texas Eagle Forum President Cathie Adams, who also said evolution supporters need to open their minds.

"Instead of discussing the facts, they choose to discourage, and debase the credibility of those who hold a different position," Adams said.

Ultimately, Adams said she wants the students to have access to all the information, and decide for themselves what they believe.

Apparently, Ms. Adams hasn't gotten the memo that teaching creationism is illegal. The American Supreme Court said so in Edwards v. Aguillard.

And incidentally, scientists are kind of known for discussing facts.

20 October 2008

All politics is local: Case in point

Mary Helen BerlangaThe McAllen Monitor, our own local newspaper, does a fine job of summarizing the upcoming elections for the State Board of Education. Yes, the people who are playing hardball on science standards and making many highly dubious decisions, are elected officials.

Seven of the fifteen seats are up for grabs, including our local representative. The local candidates are incumbent Mary Helen Berlanga (right) and Peter H. Johnston (below). And here's a quote from Johnston (emphasis added):

Johnston, 55, a former school teacher and interim principal of Living Water Christian School in Rosenberg, said he believes schools should teach the strengths and weaknesses of all theories.

"By law (schools) have to teach the strengths and weaknesses of (all) scientific theories," he said. "A movement to take out the weaknesses, I think, would be a tremendous mistake and detrimental to students to compromise facts. Intelligent design is a bona fide scientific theory."

If you're reading, Mr. Johnston, may I make a quick comment?

Mr. Johnston, you are wrong.

Sorry to be blunt, but as a scientific professional, as someone who interacts with other scientific professionals, I can tell you with certainty that intelligent design is not science. My colleagues do not consider it science. Courts ruled that that intelligent design is not science (Kitzmiller v. Dover, in case you're interested).

19 October 2008

More responses to creationists on science review board

The Dallas News explains how three creationists ended up on the review panel of the Texas science standards:

The committee was chosen by 12 of the 15 members of the board of education, with each panel member receiving the support of two board members. For example, Republican board members Geraldine Miller of Dallas and Pat Hardy of Weatherford selected SMU anthropology professor Ronald K. Wetherington, who is also director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the university. ...

Jonathan Saenz of the conservative Free Market Foundation said the panel is "balanced" because two of the other three members, UT-Austin biology Professor David Hillis and Texas Tech Professor Gerald Skoog, have joined a group of science educators wanting to eliminate a current requirement that weaknesses of the theory of evolution be taught.

"If the theory of evolution is so strong and without weaknesses, why are the evolutionists so afraid to let students have a discussion about it?" he asked.

Dan Bolnick has an article in the Waco Tribune has a guest column that answer's Saenz's questions well:

(E)volution opponents continue to promote worn-out arguments based on demonstrably false information.

For instance, they claim that an incomplete fossil record disproves evolution. Yet they ignore the millions of fossils (yes, millions) that clearly illustrate a history of evolution.

Opponents also frequently distort published research from respected scientists in an effort to mislead the general public about the scientific consensus supporting evolution.

Evolution opponents who promote such phony “weaknesses” claim we are trying to censor them, suppressing free speech. But the entire point of education is to provide students with the best information available, without wasting time on bogus arguments.

We don’t teach alchemy alongside chemistry, for example, or astrology alongside physics. We don’t ask students to decide for themselves whether Earth revolves around the Sun or vice versa. Is that “censorship”?

No, it is good science.

Meanwhile, a blog entry at Thoughts From Kansas examines the Discovery Institute's claims that one of the biologists on the review panel has a conflict of interest.

An article in University Star (apparently a Texas State University student publication) about the 21st Century Science Coalition, which gets several interesting quotes from anthropology professors:

Floyd Melbye, professor in the anthropology department, said pressure between politicians and publishing companies is to blame for the sudden curriculum revision. Publishers over the years have grown more anxious for multiple editions of the same textbooks, though the difference in content is “miniscule,” he said.

“Learn to ask yourself who’s making the money,” Melbye said. “Booksellers have a cash cow called the State of Texas legislature. Whether you’re a student or not, it’s everyone’s tax money.”

16 October 2008

Response to creationists on science review boards

Reactions to appointment of creationists to the review of Texas's science standards are not in full swing yet, probably because there has been no official announcement from the State Board of Education, according to the Evo.Sphere blog. It notes:
(T)hat two of the nominees are from out-of-state is unprecedented when Texas has hundreds of highly-qualified professional scientists who could have served on the review panel.

Stephen Meyer is the most egregiously bad of the three noted. The other two may be more difficult to dislodge, as they do have genuine academic credentials, although, as the post notes, Ralph Seelke has a an anti-evolution textbook to hawk...

Over at The Panda's Thumb, a quick bon mot:
In other news, Kim Jong-il was appointed an expert reviewer of the standards related to economics…

The Zen of Presentations, Part 21: Don't hate beauty

Over at the TED website, Paola Antonelli talks about science and design in a recorded presentation from the EG conference.

I found this quote very, very interesting (it's about 8:20 into the talk):
Scientists are starting to also consider aesthetics. We were discussing this with Keith Shrubb this morning the fact that many scientists tend not to use anything beautiful in their presentations, otherwise, they're afraid of being considered dumb blondes. So they pick the worst background from any kind of PowerPoint presentation, the worst typeface. It's only recently that this kind of marriage between design and science is producing the the first pretty, if we can say so, scientific presentations.
Maybe this caught my eye because I spent the last week in one of my classes talking about scientific posters. (I have more to say about posters later.) I was talking to my students about design, and went back to a lot of things I learned from working on a student newspaper. There is a great body of theory, principles, and thought associated with layout and typography. I'm sure that more researchers have never really studied these at all, based on the apparent disregard for even a simple grid. I see poster after poster where you're lucky to see two objects out of twenty on the paper align with each other.

Part of the problem may be that scientists think that making something beautiful means decorating it like a wedding cake. Just as most wedding cakes start to be about matching the bride's gown and stop being about the point of a cake (delicious eating), maybe scientists think that making something beautiful inherently means losing the integrity of their information.

Admittedly, people might think that aesthetics corrupts, since so many "artsy" posters are hamfisted, amateurish and horrible to look at from both a scientific and graphic design point of view. But don't judge the field by its worst practitioners. Scientists never get formally trained in this. It's much better to study and embrace what professional graphic artists can teach us, and strive for graphic excellence in all presentations.

Surely making ugliness a virtue is the wrong way to go.