30 March 2008

Extra credit is for suckers

I never offer extra credit in my classes any more, but a lot of my colleagues do. And we've all noticed that students will sell their grandmothers for tiny amounts of extra credit. Amounts that almost never impact on their final letter grade.

All in the Mind has an interview this week with author Dan Ariely, who wrote Predictably Irrational. He talks at some length about the persuasive power of “Free!” People will make bad decisions when something is free. A $1,000 discount on a car may not means as much as a few free oil changes – even though that may only total a hundred dollars in value or so.

I suspect that “extra” does much the same thing for students. Somehow, something “extra” has more weight than regular points, even if their tiny.

I’ll let you students in on a secret. You will never, ever be able to talk a professor into changing your final grade is he or she offers extra credit. If you were close to the dividing line and you didn’t take the extra credit, the professor will say, “Your fate was in your hands – you could have got the better grade if only you'd taken the extra credit.” If you did take the extra credit, the professor will say, “Look, you didn't make the grade even with all that extra credit you took.”

Heads I win, tails you lose.

29 March 2008

Houston, Part 2

At the Houston Museum of Natural Science sundialWhy take irreplaceable objects like the Lucy fossil out to display publicly?

One answer might be the magical belief that there's some sort of "essence" to the thing. That the real fossil stirs us in a way that no copy ever can. Another might be that there are little details that are not readily appreciated in reproductions or at a distance. I have a small collection of sketches and original comic art, and I do love seeing little changes that were masked in the final printed page. An artist's quick sketch on the reverse of the paper, an editorial change where the art was covered over and redrawn. And I definitely get a better appreciation for the sheer size and scale of a dinosaur when I see a complete mounted skeleton of an Allosaurus and its trio of wicked meat hook claws.

I went to the Houston Museum of Natural Science because I probably wouldn't have another chance to see the Lucy fossil again. I'm not sure if I went because of the first reason or the second. Being an evolutionary biologist, it seemed somehow important for me to take this opportunity. And it was a good excuse to get out of town for a weekend.

The Lucy fossil was part of a much larger display on Ethopia. I found this very interesting, because I knew next to nothing about the history of the region. I had never heard of ancient cities like Aksum and Gondar, so I appreciated the exhibit greatly.

But as for the Lucy fossil itself... I don't know that seeing the original Lucy fossil really enriched my understanding or appreciation of human evolution. Although renowned for being so complete, it is still really fragmentary. This makes it hard to pull much of a sense of anything. And because I don't know much about vertebrate morphology, I couldn't make sense of even something simple like how this skeleton is distinctly female, or how it differs from other early hominids. My ignorance was simply too vast.

Still, despite my personal ambivalence, I don't oppose the exhibition of the fossil, as some have. Because I am an evolutionary biologist, perhaps I had too much information in some ways so that what would be new and unusual to other people were things I already knew. And hopefully others will be struck by little details and gain some deeper understanding of Lucy that they didn't have before.

26 March 2008

Sweet mystery?

I will have much more to say about the tenure process later. But for now, here's an interesting post about the subject. Kind of as a warm-up.

Additional: More commentary here.

25 March 2008

Mind reading: almost here

I've been writing and thinking about the implications of fMRI for a while now, notably in a Brain Awareness Week talk I gave a couple of years back.

But I'm still surprised at how fast the technology is moving.

22 March 2008

Houston, Part 1

Spent the entire day at the Houston Museum of Natural Science -- and didn't quite get through everything! Even leaving out the two special displays you had to buy separately. This is an excellent museum, with lots of wonderful things to see.

The most unexpected pleasure was the gem gallery. I would never make a specific trip to see a gem gallery, but this is really excellent, with all manner of stunning minerals in shapes that almost defy belief.

Also saw the Imax movie Galapagos 3-D, which may well be one of the best Imax films I've seen yet. Really amazing footage on th land and underwater. The close-ups of some of the giant tortoises and marine iguanas are particularly effective, with the combination of the huge Iamx screen and the 3-D really making you almost feel like you're kneeling right there.

The star, and the ostensible reason I made the trip up, Lucy? More about that in a later blog post.

20 March 2008

Quote of the moment

Many professors are bizarre — and unaware that they are bizarre. A hilarious combination.
- "UD Strikes Back…", University Diaries blog

Gearing up for a frank exchange of views on evolution in Texas

The Dallas Observer has a lengthy article about the upcoming revision to the Texas public school science standards. For those who have been following this, there is not a tremendous amount of new material here. And are a few minor mistakes. But this doesn't detract too much from the piece.

Just like high school?

This post over at Uncertain Principles argues that the problem with introductory physics classes are that they're too much like high school physics classes. Students are bored and have seen it all before.

The same argument could probably be made about any first year introductory science class. I'll slide this over to introductory biology rather than physics for the rest of this post, because I think the issues are so similar.

First, there's an empirical question of how similar those really are. And if they are similar, it is because they represent core concepts students need to progress?

Second, even if the subject matter of the classes are similar, does it hurt to revisit the basics? After all, expertise is not something that one develops over their last year of high school -- it takes years of practice and effort. And even if students have seen something before, they may not have seen it "my way." Give two instructors the same material, and one can take it and create something intriguing and entertaining, and the other can suck the life right out of it.

Third, are students bored because they know it already? If so, you'd expect very high rates of success -- which is not what most introductory university science classes see. Hugh failure rates in introductory science classes are the norm, not the exception. Sad but true. This suggests that if students are bored, it's not because they "know it."

But for the sake of argument, if the author is on to something, there may be a deeper problem in addressing it. It's highly doubtful that university instructors know what is being taught in high schools. Most university level instructors may have only vague ideas of the conditions "on the ground" in the schools their students attended.

19 March 2008

I ♥ textbook reps!

I have, almost without exception, really enjoyed working with every textbook publisher salesman that has visited our campus.

Even though the job of these reps is to make the sale, many of the companies send their reps to our department to visit regardless of whether we are currently using any of their books. They'll be visiting even if there's not a prospect of us using one of their books for several years.

Another thing I appreciate is that I've found most textbook reps are quite interested in teaching. They want to know how we instructors are teaching, what our challenges are. They often have very thoughtful things to say about the thought and design process that went into a book that are not immediately obvious.

Textbook reps have a very unique perspective on the state of teaching. They are probably among the few people who go from institution to institution and actually talk to different instructors about their teaching.

It does not hurt that when they are here, they often feed us lunch if they think there's a sale to be made. And even when there isn't, they'll often bring cookies.

18 March 2008

Not quite a whim, not quite planned

I'm going to Houston this weekend.

I didn't expect to be saying that a week ago.

I'm running up to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The main reason (excuse?) is to see the Lucy exhibition, which features one of the most famous fossils in the world, which is shown very, very rarely. And travels even less.

More about this later.

17 March 2008

Much is explained

Many lament the lack of scientific knowledge of those outside of the field -- the general public, the lay audience, etc. A new report of cable news networks gives one possible indication of why that might be.

Amount of time spent on reporting on science and technology on cable news networks:

Less than 1%.

Okay, but lots of people have pointed out problems with cable news network coverage, particularly in the U.S. They have 24 hours to fill, must be on air, and have very little time for reflection or investigation.

And indeed, the broadcast news networks fare better.


What about newspapers, that bastion of investigative journalism, thoughtful reflection, and longer attention spans? Also 2%.

But what about the internet? I mean, the whole internet is based on science and technology, was first put to practical use by universities...


And remember, this is science and technology. If you took out coverage of computer stories -- announcement of a new iPod, Google buying... anything, maybe the HD DVD Blu-Ray war is counted in there -- I shudder to think what the values would be. I think there would be a few zeros between the decimal and the number.

Only one science-related story -- global warming -- made the top 10 stories in any of those four media, with an astonishing 1% of coverage on network news. Astonishingly low, that is.

I was going to make a graph of this, but it was too depressing. Is it any surprise that people do not have a good understanding of science when they hear so little about it?

(Thanks to Framing Science blog for pointing this out.)

15 March 2008

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 29

It's been almost two months since the position for the Director of Science curriculum of the Texas Education Agency closed. This used to be Chris Comer's job.

And yet, the contacts list for the TEA Science Unit still shows no replacement.

Now, hiring someone in a bureaucracy can take a long time. I've been a search committee chair in a university -- I know this firsthand. But I wonder how long it will take to fill? Will it fill before the science standards are reviewed? Will there be any attention from the media, blogosphere, and the like when it does fill?

14 March 2008

Achievements of civilization

The scientific enterprise is one of the greatest and most valuable achievements of western civilization.

Another is the creation of a tolerant, pluralistic society.

It’s not all the same

I was going to let this go, but it's been bugging me too much. This New Scientist article is an interview with Michael Heller, who’s won a major award that is geared towards “spiritual realities.”

Here’s part of it, where the interviewer asks:
What do you make of the current debate between science and religion, in which the two are often presented as mutually exclusive?
The question bothers me. A lot. I'm disappointed that Heller took it as posed.

It assumes that there is this unitary, singular point of view called “religion.”

This does a tremendous disservice to the wonderful breadth and variety of religious beliefs out there. Of course, “religion” for most Westerners means “Christian” – or possibly one of the other monotheistic religions. But you have Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, the beliefs of First Nations of North America, the aboriginals of Australia, to people who don't have any well articulated system of religious thought but just feel "spiritual" – just to name a few.

Is it not possible that some religious beliefs really are mutually exclusive with science? And is it not possible that some religious beliefs are completely compatible with science?

13 March 2008

Roamin' holiday

Easter eggsI just realized Easter is next week.

Which means Good Friday is next week. Which means there are no classes Friday. Which means that I can't do the lectures I planned to do next week. Which means I have only a few days to think of something for Monday's lecture.

See, my lectures are organized by week. They are very highly structured. Normally, I do have a "short week" lecture I fit in around the holiday near the end of semester, be it American Thanksgiving or Easter.

But Easter moves around the calender. And in the six years I've been teaching, this is the earliest it's been. Usually, I have one, maybe two, weeks of lecture before I hit the short week.

Excuse me. I have to go think of something to talk about.

12 March 2008

Expertise and belief

Two interesting articles that I want to point out.

The first is a Psychology Today article on magical thinking. This, to me, is another way of looking at the more fundamental question about the basic nature of belief, which fascinates me. Why do people believe something or not? Are there limits to what we can believe? And as a teacher, how can I affect what people believe -- or should I?

Second is a Time article looking at research into expertise. As a teacher, I want to pass on expertise. As a researcher, I want to hone my expertise. How do I do that?

Ericsson's primary finding is that rather than mere experience or even raw talent, it is dedicated, slogging, generally solitary exertion — repeatedly practicing the most difficult physical tasks for an athlete, repeatedly performing new and highly intricate computations for a mathematician — that leads to first-rate performance. And it should never get easier; if it does, you are coasting, not improving.

11 March 2008

Bruisewatch, March edition

I now find myself in the unusual position of having to trim this fingernail... from both ends. Eeewwwwwww!

January edition
February edition

Savings by sleeping

The switch to daylight saving is kicking my butt. It's a good thing that there are no classes this week, because I'm sleeping later than I'd like and arriving to work later than I'd like -- if there were classes.

And the thing is, switching earlier was supposed to save us energy, but it doesn't appear to be doing so.

Something that may interest a few readers: a news aggregation service called Alltop has a fairly decent selection of science news feeds, and not the usual combination of science and computing / IT news.

07 March 2008

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 17

The Nature podcast has an featured editorial (link opens an mp3 audio file; editorial starts 14:24 in) on the Institute for Creation Research's application to grant Master's degrees in science education in Texas.

Nature news editor Alex Witze paints a none-too-pretty picture of Texas and Texas scientists. She wrote for the Dallas Morning News for nine years, so she is familiar with the place. She essentially says, "Texas is about the only place where the ICR's application wouldn't be laughed out of the office."

I think incredulity doesn't do justice to the situation. There are several good reasons why ICR application isn't being laughed out. It's no fly-by-night operation, they've done the requisite paperwork, and they have shown a nasty tendency to sue.

She chastises scientists for not talking to people. If only we scientists got out of our ivory towers, creationism wouldn't have such a hold on people and would not be seen as credible.

I have two objections to this.

First, I am not sure what venues she thinks scientists should be doing all this communicating in. Are we supposed to walk door to door with a copy of On the Origin of Species in hand and as people, "Have you considered the benefits of rational empiricism to society?" Stand on a soapbox in the town square and announce to passers-by, "The Earth is ancient! Humans evolved!"? I blog for just this reason, but gone are the days where a spot on the web would guarantee an audience tooling around.

Finding venues for meaningful communication is not a trivial problem.

Second, she claims, "If you want regular Americans to understand why science trumps creantionism, you need to get out of your ivory tower and talk to people. They're ready to listen."

Are they ready to listen? Just yesterday, I wrote about how people's trust of experts varies depending on the perceived values of those experts. For many people, they don't believe in evolution not because they don't have enough information about it -- it's part of their values. These are people who want to be "a good person" and have decided that following a particular form of Christianity is how they can be a good person. And part of that package is that evolution is atheism, therefore evolution is bad, and evolution leads to moral decay, breakdown of the family, homosexuality, drug use, and genocide. And let's not forget that fossils are the handiwork of the devil.

So I really have to question how many people are ready to have a serious conversation about why evolution trumps creationism.

06 March 2008

Ignorance and trust

The reliably fascinating Science Show had some interesting comments about how people evaluate things that they know nothing about. In this case, the example is nanotechnology. Interestingly, according to Dan Kahan:
(A)lthough most people don't know very much about nanotechnology, they're still pretty opinionated about it.

Wait. How can someone hold an opinion on something they know nothing about?
What we found is that that very quick visceral reaction was driven a lot by emotions. So just the term 'nanotechnology' or even a very brief description of it can give somebody an initial sense of whether it's risky or beneficial.

So people are making snap judgments based on very limited information.
(A)s people start to learn about nanotechnology they don't form a uniform opinion. In fact they become culturally polarised. There's a body of research and cultural cognition is the mechanism that describes the phenomenon that shows that people tend to conform their beliefs about risks to their values. So if you're somebody who likes commerce and industry and private initiative you tend to be very sceptical about environmental risks. If you're somebody who believes that commerce and industry does bad things and creates inequality, you'll embrace findings of risk. We found that people who have values like that, when they're exposed to even just a little bit of information about nanotechnology they divide along those lines.

And the thing that interests (and scares) me most is how people viewed expert opinion.
We did an experiment where we created fictional experts, and we found that people, just by looking at them and by reading a mock CV, would impute to them values just about how society should be organised. Then we assigned to those advocates positions on nanotechnology just randomly -- suspend it pending more research on risk, allow it to continue pending more research on risks -- and we then saw how people reacted to the arguments of these fictional experts. It turned out that people would adopt whatever argument on nanotechnology was being advanced by the experts whose values were closest to theirs.

Emphasis added. And a big factor, which the piece talks about later, is religiosity. You don't have to look very hard for evidence of that in America. They call it the culture war.

This, to me, is a very depressing set of facts, but Dr. Kahan did leave me with a little bit of optimism:
(Y)ou shouldn't just assume that people are going to form beliefs about nanotechnology that match the best scientific understandings out there. In the normal course they're going to form beliefs that fit their cultural predispositions but then don't assume that's inevitable. In fact it is possible to devise communication techniques that can help to counteract that bias.

We're left hanging on what those communication strategies are. Those are going to be hard to figure out, increasingly so, since people can avoid information that conflicts with their world view.

04 March 2008

Still paradoxical after all these years

Most people are inclined to think that the universe is teeming with life, because the universe is just so darned big. But if so, where are they? That's the question physicist Enrico Fermi famously asked, and has since become known as Fermi's paradox.

New York Times logoOne of my first articles concerned the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. It has been interesting to see new knowledge come in on that front since I wrote that article over a decade and a half ago. This article in the New York Times provides a nice overview from a more recent perspective, such as the discovery of extrasolar planets (none were known when I wrote my original article).

03 March 2008

Federal funding, baby!

The National Science Foundation has given me a small research grant. Hooray for me!


Smart carTook the plunge and bought the world's friendliest car. I almost literally got mobbed by five people at a gas station asking about it, with one girl taking pictures of it. For a hermit like myself, the level of attention will take some getting used to.

Last post on cars for a good long while. Promise.

01 March 2008

Why am I blogging about buying a car?

It all started when I saw this segment on Top Gear.*

I'd never seen a Smart of any sort before. And I absolutely sympathized with the team's assessment of the Smart Roadster: they want to hate it, but it's just such a giggle to drive. As I mentioned before, I used to drive an MG Midget.

British cars. The jokes are just too easy. “Two hours in the garage for one hour on the road.” “Why did the British never get into manufacturing computers? Because they couldn't figure out how to make them leak oil.”

But that MG was so. Much. Fun to drive. You can't fall out of love with an MG, despite how completely annoying the engineering was when you had to fix it. (And you would have to fix it, trust me.)

Fast forward to seeing an article on CNet a small electric car being sold by Zap motors. (Update, 8 March 2020: Defunct, as described here.) While tooling around their website, I see that they are importing these small little Smart cars.

Weirdly, soon after reading that article, I see one driving around on UTPA campus.

The Zap website had an article a lawsuit over the Smart cars, and Google eventually leads me to a website describing plans to bring Smart to America. Which leads me, ultimately, to reserving one and buying one, for reasons I've mentioned before. If all goes well, I'll be driving back from San Antonio in a new car tomorrow.

But why am I blogging about it? After all, this is allegedly a science blog.

I'm blogging about it because so much of doing science revolves around and is impacted by things that, on the surface, have nothing to do with doing science.

One of the reasons I took this job was that I am a comparative biologist. Looking at diversity of organisms and finding new behaviours is what winds my crank, scientifically speaking. That my institution has a lab on the beach (the Coastal Studies Lab), where I could have access to a whole variety of different species of crustaceans for collecting, seemed like a great research opportunity.

Since taking this job in southern Texas, my research has progressed... differently... than I originally anticipated. And part of that has just been because of cars.

I live in a two person household in a region that is a veritable hymn to the offspring of Henry Ford.

Absolutely everything revolves around cars, and absolutely everything assumes you have a car. Everything is strung out vast distances, where any two points you'd want to go are probably about hours of walking apart (if not much, much more). One of my colleagues went for a walk, and someone literally stopped and asked, "Are you okay?" That's right, if you are walking, something must be wrong; the concept of walking for enjoyment is quite alien. It's too hot and dangerous to bicycle. You won't see a taxi anywhere. And forget you even heard about public transportation.

The Coastal Studies Lab is about 80 miles from the main campus. If I drive there, that would in all likelihood means that my partner could not, say, go to work. So rather than being able to go out with any regularity, I end up not going out to the lab for months and months at a stretch.

One car means few trips to the lab which turns into fewer animals which means less research accomplished.

So that why I'm blogging about getting a car.

Although I wanted a small car as a second vehicle, I am glad that I didn't have to go to this extreme...

* Interestingly, memory cheats. I totally had forgotten this was the Roadster, not the regular fortwo model.