26 July 2008

The battle begins for Texas science standards

Austin ChronicleThe Austin Chronicle has an article discussing the start of the revision of Texas K-12 science standards. I thought those were going to be discussed later in the year, but apparently things are starting now.
According to SBOE chair and College Station dentist Dr. Don McLeroy, this year's "battle is to bring in some of the weaknesses of evolution," to ninth- and 10th-grade biology classrooms, retaining language requiring that teachers instruct students in the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories.
And why should we do that? Isn't the evidence overwhelming? What weaknesses are we talking about?

For once, McLeroy spells it out. Get ready. You can feel the sense of dread permeate the room.
In McLeroy's opinion, there are three major weaknesses of evolutionary theory that schoolchildren should be made aware of. He arrived at these conclusions by "reading everything [he] could get [his] hands on" and listening to podcasts.
Setting aside whether all the kids in the state's education should be determined by one dentist listening to some stuff on the internet, let's get on to the criticisms.
First weakness: the fossil record. "There are gaps," said McLeroy, that do not include enough transitional forms of life to support evolution. Second, McLeroy says there has simply not been enough time on Earth for the minute changes required by evolution to have taken place. Thirdly, McLeroy says the incredible complexity of cells proves divine design.
In turn.

First, McLeroy seems to imply that there are some transitional fossils, so the issue is that there isn't enough. Of course, there will never be enough for him.

Second, McLeroy doesn't say how old he thinks the Earth is. Since he is a Young Earth creationsist, he probably thinks the world is about 6,000 years old. If that's how old the world was, McLeroy would be right that there hasn't been enough time. But the Earth is ancient.

Third, argument from personal credulity.

The article concludes with the concern:
If the weak-evolution curricula passes, Texas schoolchildren will be able to achieve that success in one of two ways: fly out of state for biology class and be back in time for lunch or set their sights on excelling at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

25 July 2008

Heritage expanded

Oh, wow.

While messing around trying to find data for my SciLink tree (see here), I stumbled across NeuroTree.

This represents a substantial improvement on my earlier efforts to track my intellectual heritage. It really allows me to track back to the beginning of psychology and neurophysiology.

It is quite astonishing.

The above picture shows a small part of the tree to which I belong... Click above on Don Kennedy to see what I mean.

Science, classical percussion, and zombie movies

I really hate zombies.

Not in the literal sense, since they are fictional things, after all. Sadly for me, zombie stories have become a popular genre the last few years. But I may have to try to watch Diary of the Dead. Because I was very intrigued by George Romero's comments about it, and his planned sequel:
“There's still quite a lot left to say,” he feels, “about tribalism, because my feeling is that what happens on the internet is not discourse. Anyone can get up there and write a blog and people who happen to agree with your perspective are going to plug into it.” Far too often, he thinks, the attitude becomes, “I’m right, and here's another guy who thinks the same as I do. The internet reinforces things: it creates tribes, rather than bringing people together for some kind of discourse or understanding of opposite views.”
This resonates a lot with me, as it's something I've written about before several times.

One of the key elements of thinking scientifically is that you must be willing to change your mind. In many cases, you'll change your mind in response to evidence, but that might not be the only way. But science is becoming unusual in that regard, in that it is becoming one of the few areas that positively demands discourse and works against “tribes,” as Romero calls them.

And that demands that you really listen to what the other person is putting out there.

In that spirit, check out Evelyn Glennie's talk. She says:

Of course, my job is all about listening, and my aim really is teach the world to listen. That's my only real aim in life.

Can 2008 Cats top 2000 Bombers?

Bombers and CatsWhen I was doing my post-doc at the University of Melbourne in 2000, I was around to witness one of the most amazing seasons in professional sports. The Essendon Bombers romped through the home and away season and finals with a mere one loss, when they got caught napping in one game. They were seemingly unstoppable.

Now I find myself wondering if the Geelong Cats, less than a decade later, can pull off another fairy tale season. They've just beat their closest competitor... and they've only lost one game. Can anyone stop them one more time this season?

24 July 2008

Dolly delivers


Lili, Claudette, Erika, Emily, Rita all rated mentions here, and a couple even warranted shutting down the University.

But Dolly was the first where the action was justified. I am taking some perverse enjoyment in that it was not a false alarm situation.

Wednesday morning was cloudy and rainy, but by afternoon, it was definitely a storm. Nothing all that fearful if you were inside, for the most part, but not something you'd want to be outside in.

We lost power about 6:45 pm yesterday, and didn't get it back until about 1:30 pm today. If it wasn't for the power loss, we would have been largely unaffected.

When I got up this morning, however, it was clear that Dolly had a bit more oomph that I'd thought.

Dolly aftermath 1: split tree
No, the picture below wasn't taken in the middle of the storm. It's not windy at all. I'm pretty sure it wasn't at that angle last I looked...

Dolly aftermath 2: leaning tree
Most of the roadways were clear in the area around our apartment, but it was clear that it had rained. Campus is going to be a mosquito breeding ground for a day or two, I'll bet.

Dolly aftermath 3: Standing water on campus
Was surprised to see this big palm on its side on campus. Palms usually don't move.

Dolly aftermath 4: felled palm
Some businesses near campus were open, but some damage was visible.

Dolly aftermath 5: busted Long John Silver's sign

23 July 2008

How inbred are biology research labs?

I've written a little bit before about my academic history. And my Bacon number, for that matter.

So when I read this post on The Daily Transcript about how SciLink is plotting relationships between researchers, I had to get me some of that. I joined right away and already found some interesting links between myself and some other researchers through our former mentors.

Beautiful tree

Dinosaur phylogeny
This is a phylogeny of most known dinosaur species. While I appreciate the scientific information it contains, I also enjoy it just as a piece of graphic design. I'm tempted to make it one of my "Classic graphics" columns, but maybe that will be for another time.

Here's the article in New Scientist about it.

Something good in stormy times

Got an acceptance letter from an editor today. Another article is now in the publishing pipeline. Hooray!

22 July 2008

Here we go again

Tropical storm Dolly is heading roughly this way, and they're saying it's liable to become a hurricane. I am not terribly concerned, as it looks like this will just amount to being windy and rainy for a day or so.

Additional: The university is closing shop for two days. A chance to get some uninterrupted writing time in, mayhaps.

18 July 2008

A word is needed for an inability to think graphically

Illiteracy is the inability to read with any proficiency. The use of the word goes back to the 1600s.

Innumeracy is an inability to use mathematics with any proficiency. This word was coined in the 1980s.

I know of no similar word to describe an inability to read, create, and understand information graphically.

I am thinking about this now because I am awake very late at night working on a graph to help out a student. The images are the graphical equivalent of a student handing in a written assignment in LOLspeak.

I wonder how many people can't make head or tails of a simple X/Y scatterplot?

14 July 2008

McLeroy admits targeting evolution

Texas Education Agency's Don McLeroy continues his efforts to fool people, as documented in this article in The Bryan/College Station Eagle.

The thinktank called the Discovery Institute has a new dodge around the American constitution. They're tell people to put in discussion of "strengths and weaknesses" in the teaching of evolution. Texas has had such language for a while.
Don McLeroy, a creationist and the chairman of the state board, said he would make it a priority to keep the phrase in the state science curriculum.

"It (strengths and weaknesses -ZF) was written for evolution, and everybody admits that," he said. "They say we're trying to put in creationism. We're not. To me, this whole evolution controversy is a distraction."

McLeroy is the one making distractions. The "strengths and weaknesses" phrasing specifically targets evolution, but McLeroy won't say why, of all the science that gets taught in schools, evolution is singled out. Because he knows he can't, because it's clearly about attacking and undermining evolution and thereby indirectly promoting fundamentalist religion.

The article goes on to say that local teachers interviewed for the approve of teaching strengths and weaknesses, but for all sciences. McLeroy's quote shows the motivations have nothing to do with science.

11 July 2008

What's in it for hyperskeptics?

I listen to lots of science radio on my iPod while I'm walking to work. Dr. Karl's phone in show on Triple J is an interesting case. When you listen on a regular basis, certain themes and questions emerge over the weeks. For instance, the question of "What would happen if you drilled a hole all the way through the Earth and dropped something down it?" is something that way more people are concerned about than I ever would have expected.

I'm interested that on a fairly routine basis, some listener has a go on climate change, expressing doubts about some aspect of the scientific consensus.

This puzzles me.

In understand why people dispute accepted science on medical issues. Their health or the health of loved ones are often at stake. That's a powerful motivator.

I understand why people dispute accepted science on evolution. It conflicts with some religious beliefs. That's a powerful motivator.

I understand why some people in the energy industry will dispute accepted science on climate change. They have vested interests and make their living from fossil fuels.

I don't understand why the average person on the street, so to speak, would feel compelled to dispute accepted science on climate change. What's in it for them? Which of their beliefs does man-made climate change challenge that compels them to "push back," so to speak?

08 July 2008

They're stealing my material

This cartoon takes on a question I asked previously:
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?"

Does grad school have a mismatch problem?

Malcolm Gladwell gives a fascinating talk about recruiting here. He claims is that the things we try to have as objective measures to predict future performance often don't work.

This resonated with me, because I am our graduate program coordinator. And we have just the kind of objective measures that Gladwell talks about, mostly undergraduate GPA and the GRE. It's tough, because these are known to be imperfect measures. I've seen students with low undergrad GPAs do fine in grad school, for instance. And there has been a lot of discussion about biases in the GRE, how good the predictive power is, and so on.

I don't think Gladwell is seriously advocating a strategy of, "Let everyone have a go and see who rises to the top." But given that resources are finite, what alternatives do we have? Companies can't hire all applicants, programs can't take all comers, and sports teams can't have infinite numbers of rookies. Gladwell's talk is good at identifying the problem of recruitment, but I am left wanting a hint of a solution.

Still, his talk is good in that it is a healthy reminder of just how imperfect these "objective" measures are.

Speaking of graduate school, grad students may be interested in a networking website called Graduate Junction.

Celebrity science

Oh, my fellow academics, you simply must follow this link to the Gallery of the Absurd.

07 July 2008

Should research reviewers strike?

StrikeThere's been a recent set of science blogs posting about a recent Nature article what I talked about over in my Marmorekrebs blog.

Mike the Mad Biologist writes:
That's why I almost never review articles for these journals anymore (as opposed to Open Access journals, which I do--two in the last month alone, and that's during grant season). Seriously, if they ever did want me to review, then they have to pay me just like any other business who wanted to consult my expertise would. If enough of us did that, well, things would get very interesting....
In other words, "Strike! The combined action of the scientific proletariat will bring the bourgeois publishers to their knees!"

I am very ambivalent about this idea. On the one hand, I definitely support the open access model. On the other, strikes only work when there is solidarity, and I am not sure enough researchers are willing to take this cause on. I think it has the potential to hurt scientists who are trying to publish in those journals more than the publishers themselves.

In the long run, I think open access will win just because that's where researchers will chose to submit. I think that serves the cause better than withholding reviews.

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 35

News 8 frameThe news about Chris Comer's suit against the Texas Education Agency has started hitting the press. Mostly in Texas, as evidenced by articles in The Austin American-Statesman) and News 8 Austin.

The News 8 Austin piece commits the soundbite problem: Here's one person on each side, now decide which apparently equally valid viewpoint is right.
"Intelligent design is credible, there are things that intelligent design begins to explain that evolution cannot," creationism supporter Lane Wood said.
Like... what, exactly?

It's interesting that News 8 calls Wood a "creationist" and not an "intelligent design proponent." Which shows again the "ID has nothing to do with religion!" to be pure fiction.

But there's some national awareness, too, as seen by this USA Today piece. Which characterizes one woman's forced resignation, loss of income and benefits, and resulting struggle to support her father as a "tiff."


Note to USA Today: A tiff is what happens when you can't agree with a friend over what flavour of cheesecake to order for dessert. You don't get fired over tiffs.

04 July 2008

A personal view of a liberal arts education, part 1

University of LethbridgeNot that I obsess over the amount of traffic this blog gets, but I couldn't help but notice that it spiked yesterday. The number of people visiting went up. A lot.

I think this due to landing on a list of Top 100 Liberal Arts professor blogs.

I don't know that the content of this blog particularly screams out, "Liberal arts!" I am kind of pleased, though, as I do consider myself a product of a liberal arts education, and I do try to continue to incorporate liberal arts principles into some of the teaching I now do.

What I consider to be the essence of a liberal arts education is breadth. It's the study of different disciplines with the understanding that one can and often does inform and enrich understanding of the others.

I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Lethbridge (pictured), which then, as now, advertises itself as giving a liberal arts education. One of the things I am pleased about in having received my degree there is that I have a Bachelor of Arts and Science -- although it's abbreviated as B.Sc., it is in both fields, and indicates the breadth I had in my education. I'm not sure if that option is still available now.

I took acting classes, which helped me when I started giving presentations as a graduate student, because I knew how to project my voice. And I'm convinced that provided scaffolding for my lecturing and presentations today.

I took courses in philosophy, particularly logic, ethics, philosophy of science. In particular, I took some course in philosophy of biology that turned out to be very useful when I jumped ship from psychology to biology in my graduate work.

Of course, there were times when the cross-disciplinary nature worked against me. There was one semester where the writing of Karl Marx appeared prominently in every single class I was taking -- including unlikely locations like statistics. Mentioning Marx sent me into a fetal position by the end of the semester.

Read, white and review

I've spent the bulk of today working on reviewing a manuscript for a peer-reviewed scientific journal. I was asked by an editor that I have never met to review a paper by authors that I do not know for a journal I rarely read.

Of course, I leaped at the opportunity.

Some researchers hate this and shun it as much as possible. I actually like it. It makes me feel like I'm participating in the process, and I'm still at the stage where being asked to review papers is a rare thing. Being asked to write a review is still a bit of an ego boost for me.

Particularly in cases like this, where you have no direct personal connection with any of the players involved. The research community is so small -- especially the ones I tend to hang out in -- that it's kind of rare to have something like this drop out of the blue and have no personal knowledge of the people involved.

Speaking of the scientific publishing process, I was recently reminded of how little people understand how it works. I was explaining the submission process to one of my students, and mentioned how some journals have a submission fee (for instance, the PLoS journals).

This prompted a "Wait, what?"

Then I tried to explain page charges...

I genuinely think a lot of people think that scientific publishing follows the models of other forms of publishing: writers are paid for their work. It doesn't. In scientific publishing, you're lucky if you can find a journal that publishes your work that won't cost you anything.

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 34

The National Center for Science Education has posted a PDF of Chris Comer's suit against Robert Scott and the Texas Education Agency.

Hope springs eternal

Metropolis is a classic science fiction film. "Masterpiece" is usually in the same sentence as its name. It is to science fiction what Charlie Chaplin is to comedy.

The original, uncut version has been found (also here and elsewhere).

If you can find something like this after 80 years, who know what other things thought lost might be retrieved?

03 July 2008

Liberal arts blogs

The Top 100 Liberal Arts Professor Blogs includes this one. it's one of 6 science blogs.

[Zen waves]

Hi everyone! I hope there is enough interesting commentary here for you to make an occasional return visit.

Long live the scientific method

Chris Anderson provokes with an article titled, "The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete."

There's some interesting ideas, but the argument is based on a false premise.
This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear.
It's perhaps understandable that an outsider, a non-scientist would mistakenly believe this premise to be true: that there are massive amounts of data available for all scientific problems.

There are not.

There are only a few fields of science that generate large amounts of high-quality data. I'm thinking maybe some branches of physics (like nuclear physics, maybe astronomy), social sciences (demographic and census data, automatic tracking of web useage), and maybe genetic data for a select few animals (humans, mice, fruit flies, Arabidopsis).

These are the exceptions.

In most cases, scientists have to eke out by hand one experiment at a time. It's not automated, it's not massive, and it doesn't generate huge numbers. To take an example from my field, invertebrate neurobiology, there isn't really good agreement on how to describe neurons in such as way that they can be put into a searchable database (although the NeuronBank project is making an effort to at least think about that problem).

Anderson goes on to say:
There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: "Correlation is enough." We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.
Scientific theories have three traditional virtues. Predict, control, explain. Massive datasets may indeed give us pretty good predictive power -- correlations often do. It may not give us control. And it certainly doesn't explain. We really need causal mechanisms to explain.

For instance, let's take climate change. If it were the case that massive data is all you need, there would seem to be no need for the ongoing debates about climate change. We have massive datasets there. And indeed, the scientific questions are supported by a large consensus. But people don't care that there's a correlation between carbon output and temperature change, they want to know if one is caused by the other. The policy decisions are very different depending on what your thinking of causal mechanisms are. Cause is king.

Make no mistake, automation changes things. But it doesn't change everything.

Now that's big

From the Western Morning News.

Its fate? It was eaten.

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 33

Chris ComerOh, now this is interesting:
Now, Comer has filed – in federal court – to get her job back and her name cleared.
Of course, "Comer" is Chris Comer, former employee of the Texas Education Agency (TEA). She forwarded an email announcing a lecture about intelligent design, and was later asked to resign.
Comer is asking for reinstatement, for a judgment finding the TEA at fault and for reimbursement for legal fees.

The TEA was not available for comment late Wednesday.
Let me make a prediction as to what the TEA will say. "This wasn't just about the email, it was also about a whole slew of other policy violations." That's what they've been saying all along. And some of the released documentation does support that contention. Whether the infamous bone-headed statement about the Agency's neutrality on evolution is going to be enough for a judge to support Comer's case is not at all clear.

For those who want an reminder of how this story has unfolded, click here (reverse chronological order, so skip to the back and bottom and go up).

Also reported in Dallas Morning News here.

02 July 2008

Hey, I know that stuff...

It's always a kick to read about someone you know. In this case, this article talks about work by my former undergrad supervisor, Jennifer Mather. One of my first appearances in the biological literature was an acknowledgment for assisting her with research described in this paper.

01 July 2008

Anniversaries: One even number, one odd

Party!Today is the 150th anniversary of the first scientific announcement of the theory of natural selection, as described here. Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace had a jointly-authored paper read the Linnean Society of London.

The writer of the blog post speculates on why the contribution of Alfred Wallace has been overshadowed by Charles Darwin. Surprisingly, to me, it doesn't mention what seem to be pertinent facts.

First, Darwin had a much more highly developed theory. He had spent decades accumulating evidence and working through arguments and dealing with difficulties. Wallace had the idea pretty much full blown in a fever dream, and freely admitted that Darwin had ideas he'd never even thought of.

Second, Wallace got very interested in spiritualism later in his life. Certainly, there was a lot of interest in that generally in his time. While interest in the supernatural certainly doesn't disqualify someone from becoming a scientific icon -- cf. Isaac Newton's interest in alchemy -- it really doesn't help Wallace's reputation as a scientist or intellectual figure.

Be that as it may, less than a decade after Darwin and Wallace's paper in the Linnean Society of London announced one of the best scientific ideas of all time, a group of people had another great idea:

The confederation of Canada.

Happy evolutionary sesquicentennial and happy Canada Day.

The exuberant among you may now toot your party favours.