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.

15 October 2008

The good news is drudge work

While the latest moves by the Texas State Board of Education annoy me, I did get something that pleased me: page proofs for my next article!

Of course, reading proofs is something every author dreads, myself included. And this is one of my longer articles, coming in at 11 typeset pages.

Stand up for Texas science petition

I am normally loathe to point at petitions, especially petitions that require you to "opt out" to avoid emailings, but the Texas Freedom Network has a petition to the Texas State Board of Education concerning the state science standards.

Its called "Stand Up for Science." It's here.

Irreconcilable differences

GridlockTexas Freedom Network reports that the Texas State Board of Education has appointed a review panel to look at the new science standards.

At a glance, it's a recipe for disastrous gridlock.

The Texas Freedom Network press release writes:

The two authors are Stephen Meyer, who is vice president of the Discovery Institute, and Ralph Seelke, a professor of the department of biology and earth sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. A third panel member, Charles Garner, is a professor of chemistry at Baylor University in Waco.

All three are supporters of the anti-evolution concept “intelligent design”/creationism and have signed the Discovery Institute’s “Dissent from Darwinism” statement. In addition to their textbook, Meyer and Seelke testified in 2005 against evolution in hearings called by religious conservatives who controlled the Kansas State Board of Education.

Texas state board members nominated all six panelists. The three other members of the review panel are Texas scientists with long, distinguished resumes:

  • David Hillis, professor of integrative biology and director of the Center of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at the University of Texas at Austin
  • Ronald K. Wetherington, professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence
  • Gerald Skoog, professor and dean emeritus of the College of Education at Texas Tech and co-director of the Center for Integration of Science Education and Research

So they've got real scientists on a panel with adminstrators from the Discovery Institute?

I try to be somewhat measured on this blog, but this is madness. Throw three people with views 180 degrees apart from each other and ask them to reach a consensus.

That's not going to be a review, that's going to be a bloodsport.

PZ Myers notes on Pharyngula:
Note that Meyer and Seelke are co-authors of that ghastly new ID textbook, Explore Evolution, and would no doubt love to tweak the curriculum to make their book marketable in Texas. Conflict of interest? Nah.

Just jump!

The Houston Chronicle has a brief editorial about a Board of Education representative running for election. Interestingly, science is the main reason for their endorsement of a candidate, who supports teaching evolution without all the "strengths and weaknesses" talk.

There's a revealing, though tiresomely predictable, quote by vide president of the board:
One of the board members supporting the "strengths and weaknesses" provision is the vice chairman, David Bradley of Beaumont. Bradley, a Republican representing District 7, which includes parts of the Houston area, contends: "Evolution is not a fact. Evolution is a theory and, as such, cannot be proved. Students need to be able to jump to their own conclusions."


"Jumping to conclusions" is right, considering that the usual meaning of the phrase is to make an immediate but unwarranted decision on something.

A slightly older editorial by the Austin American-Statesman makes a similar point.
Inserting supernatural ideas in the science curriculum damages its integrity. McLeroy and other board members should be strengthening science standards to accommodate a big push to attract world-class biomedical researchers, companies and grants to Texas. Those are growth industries that have not looked favorably on communities that water down science studies with vague and unproven ideas.

There's also an opinion piece from that same day, but an analysis will have to wait for a later post.

08 October 2008

Texas Board of Eductation member speaks on science

This report on on of the members of the Texas State Board of Education doesn't deal with evolution directly, but has an interesting quote nonetheless (emphasis added):

Lowe said she guarantees she will turn down any book encouraging population removal or blaming global warming on the normal activities of everyday people.

“That’s another textbook that will be turned down by me — political agenda and not solid objective science,” she said.

Prepare for sputtering

New Scientist is reporting the discovery of a major new transitional fossil that starts to unravel the evolution of the plastron.

"Great, Zen.

"What's a plastron?"

Plastron is the $5 word for "turtle shell."

I like the reconstructions in the picture above, particularly the second from the left. It reminds me of an Ankylosaurus. I've always loved those things. Too bad turtles didn't keep the spikes...

The sputtering in the post title refers to the sounds that various creationists will make when learning about this.

06 October 2008

I know they don't fly, but...

Emperor penguinA depressing story about mammalian extinctions is making the rounds this morning (see it here in The Age and New Scientist).

Sadly, one of the news stories is probably more revealing than it wanted to be about why these animals are endangered:

Because we're bloody ignorant.

The Age claims (with emphasis added):

Threatened mammal species include the African mountain gorilla, the emperor penguin of Antarctica and the Sumatran orang-utan.

Not a mammal!

Penguins have beaks. Lay eggs. Even putting aside the platypus for a second, I think those feature would twig to most people that penguins are birds, not mammals.

Does nobody fact check anymore?

04 October 2008

The Zen of Presentations, Part 20: The presentation book you must own

SlideologyI like to think that I do not suck at presentations. I like to think that I've thought reasonably hard about them. I like to think I've got a better understanding of presentations than most people.

Then a book like Slide:ology comes out.


Suddenly I realize how much more there is to think about and how much more there is to learn.

This is a deep book. From concept to final execution, from typesetting to data to missions to colour palettes, it's all in there. And all with a careful attention to craft and detail.

It shouldn't be surprising, considering that author Nancy Duarte is one of the people behind the slides in the acclaimed Oscar and Nobel winning film An Inconvenient Truth (which I wrote about here). Given her track record, how highly her work is regarded, I knew it this book would be good, but this completely exceeded any expectations. Indeed, reading this book made me upset at how low my expectations were. It expands horizons, on par with books like Edward Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information or Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics.

To say this book "raises the bar" would be unfair, because raising the bar doesn't catch how dramatically and substantially this book surpasses everything else. It's far beyond anything else that I've seen on the subject. Other books on presentations raised the bar. This one goes into high Earth orbit.

I would love to see this book in a hardcover edition, perhaps with larger pages or larger text. Because I know this book is going to get re-read, referred to, handled, browsed, passed to students in my lab, and get beat up and worn out through constant use.

Check out the book website.

03 October 2008

Called it!

Ig Nobel prizeBack in January, I wrote:

(T)his paper should be a leading candidate for an Ig Nobel prize for Economics this year.

As it was written, so shall it be.

01 October 2008

A Jeff Corwin experience

Jeff Corwin
Television personality Jeff Corwin was on our campus yesterday as part of our distinguished speakers series. So far, he's the closest we've had to a working scientist as part of that series over the five years that speaker's series has been running.

Corwin had lots of animals, mostly reptiles, on hand to display. Some really wonderful beasts. My favourite was an alligator snapping turtle... very cool looking. And he was a very laid back and personal presenter. Shown above is Corwin, a volunteer, and an albino Burmese python that was retrieved after being a pet.

And what was great to see was that the room was packed. When he asked for a volunteer, huge numbers of hands went up.

Volunteer wannabes
A lot of the people there were quite young, which is great to see -- I just hope their enthusiasm survives their schooling.