31 January 2009

You have to do what?

Simon LeBon of Duran Duran once described how everyone in the band really, really wanted to be pop stars. And then they realized this would require that they learn how to play musical instruments.

Similarly, lots of people really, really want to be doctors / surgeons / dentist / optometrists / health care professionals. And eventually they will realize this will require that they learn how to fight with insurance companies.

People who want to be scientists eventually realize this will require that they learn how to administer grants, create graphics, do accounting, be a coach, be a teacher, be a communicator, be a diplomat, and much more.

Careers rarely require just doing one thing. This is emphatically so for science.

28 January 2009

People worry about themselves, not funding

Dr. Isis writes:

I believe that many young scientists are afraid of a career in academia -- not because they don't believe themselves capable of managing the research, but because they are afraid of running in the funding race.

A huge number of students have bled away from scientific careers long before they know what "R01" means. For instance...

  • The training period is too long.

  • The career path is downright hostile to families. It's hard enough to keep things working with a partner, never mind kids.

  • You can't easily pick where you live. The job market is so small that even trying to find a position in a particular country is tough. (And yes, I'm speaking from personal experience.)

I think there's a lot of projection going on. Researchers with grants worry about getting the next one, so they think that's what more junior scientists (students, post-docs, etc.) are also worried about. I don't think that's the case.

We're having a sale on amazing

Bison nickelDr. Isis writes:

Now, you show me $250,000/year for five years and I will show you something amazing.

I'm having a sale in my lab. I'll deliver "amazing" to your door for $25,000 a year. Maybe even less after a mail-in rebate.

(See recent related posts on the distorted scientific market and animals costs.)

Robert Ballard in conversation

Robert BallardDr. Robert Ballard was in town yesterday for out university's distinguished speaker series. I'd seen his TED talk (below), which is pretty good, but his talk last night was really superb. If I were to characterize his presentation approach, it would be, "Take the best stuff from 50 years of work and be funny." (Ballard went on his first expedition as a high school student a the age of 17.)

Echoing a recent theme in this blog about being inspired by fiction (here and here), he talked about how he wanted to be Captain Nemo when he grew up.

He talked about the discovery of hydrothermal vent communities, and how they almost blundered into a vent plume that could have turned their submarine into a molten heap of slag. He talked about his finding the wreck of the Titanic, and -- actually more interestingly -- his search for more ancient shipwrecks, looking for the "empties" of sailors in the Mediterranean Sea. He talked about how they found even better preservation in the Black Sea. All this with wry humour and a kid's enthusiasm.

During questions, he'd just said that he was most proud of his discovery of hydrothermal vent communities, because they were really new forms of life. Shortly after, he spotted a large cockroach and joked, "I've discovered another new form of life. It's got it's hand up. I'll take your question in a minute."

He indulged the audience and took quite a few questions. He talked about how a huge amount of wrangling he did to get an expedition associated with the Jason Project in the Galapagos Islands going after a barge with almost all the equipment sunk... It was perfectly clear that he could have talked a lot longer and not run out of material for a long time.

My one concern was that during his talk, he mentioned exploiting the ocean's resources a couple of times. During the reception afterwards, I asked him about that, pointing out that management of ocean resources has an abysmal track record. Being Canadian, the example that comes to mind is the collapsed cod fishery, which looks like it may not come back for a very long time, if ever. He gave a much more nuanced answer, saying, "You can't turn 72% of the planet into a park." He also talked about the importance of knowing what is out there so it can be sensibly managed.

If you have a chance to hear this guy speak, don't miss it.

Even more aftermath of votes of Texas science standards

The Houston Chronicle has a new editorial that isn't kind to the recent votes of the Texas State Board of Education:

But, as if to remind the world that evolution is indeed a long, slow process, the social conservatives on the board are still attempting — in the face of all reliable evidence to the contrary — to keep the bogus controversy over evolution alive and to sabotage, yet again, Texas’ chances of being taken seriously in the realms of science and education.

And this blog in the Springfield News Sun in Ohio asks:

Does it concern you that decisions in other areas could affect the information Ohio students have in their books?

May be worth checking the comments over the next few days.

27 January 2009

More aftermath of votes of Texas science standards

The Houston Chronicle follows up on the amendments that Texas state board of education members added to the draft science standards.

“There are many, many gaps that don’t link species changing and evolving into another species, so we want our students to get all of the science, and we want them to have great, open discussions and learning to respect each other’s opinions,” said Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, a former science teacher.

Not all opinions are worthy of respect. At some level, science strives for "visible certainty," to quote Galileo, and that means that some things are just wrong. They're just not supported by any evidence.

She scoffed at claims that social conservatives on the 15-member board were just trying to find another way to expose students to creationism — the belief that life, Earth and the universe were created by a supreme being.

“This isn’t about religion. I don’t know how many times we have to say it before people accept it,” she said. “It’s about science. We want to stick to the science.”

You know, I might -- might -- be willing to give Barbara Cargill (pictured, with current Texas governor Rick Perry) personally the benefit of the doubt, because I don't have at my fingertips statements from her about her religious views. Although she does have a science camp that is described as an outreach project of The Woodlands United Methodist Church which had (the web page doesn't seem to be active any more) links to animations of the seven days of creation. And Cargill was one of the board members suggesting a Bible studies curriculum. While Cargill may be totally about the science, I hope that she appreciates how someone might get the wrong impression that her actions are highly informed by her religious beliefs.

Cargill aside, several other board members have made it very clear that they are Biblical literalists and fundamentalist Christians.

The Chronicle also gets letters about the recent State Board of Education decision, and not surprisingly, there are cranky creationists with many of the usual arguments. (science is as inflexible as religion, they have something to hide, etc., etc.) But there's one surprise -- for its goofiness.

Amphibians and reptiles have three-chambered hearts, and birds and mammals have four-chambered hearts. The gradualism part of the theory requires that the change from three-chambered to four-chambered hearts came about by a long series of micromutations. Our students should be permitted to ask: “Where is the evidence of a three and one-half chambered heart?”

This reminds me of an old kid's riddle. "If it takes 10 minutes to dig two holes, how long does it take to dig three and a half holes?" The punchline: "You can't dig half a hole."

And right after looking at this, one of the next articles I read in my newsfeed mentions the "textbook" Explore Evolution, saying:

In one particularly egregious case he discussed, a claim in Explore Evolution about the evolution of the four-chambered heart "is supported by citing a single article ... which does not mention heart development, but does discuss developmental (non-neo-Darwinian) sources of evolutionary novelty. The next paragraph refers to it as a 'critique of neo-Darwinism.' And this after giving an explicit warning against the logical fallacy of equivocation."

I can't help but wonder if there's a connection...

Coverage in New Scientist can be found here. Cargill will surely dislike the headline, "Creationism defeated in Texas."

Meanwhile, the San Antonio Express News has an article featuring much sane commentary from people teaching in unabashedly religious schools:

The theory of evolution is “the cornerstone of teaching biology,” he said. Without it, it would be “like teaching chemistry without teaching atomic theory.”

But that doesn't mean there's no room for talking about intelligent design and creationism, which, (Rob) Friedrich (co-chair of science department at The Episcopal School of Texas) argues, are not scientific theories.

If students have a genuine religious objection to evolution, Friedrich said he takes the time to talk it out.

“I have no problem with that,” he said. “But I impress on them that it is a religious conflict, not a scientific conflict.”

Another instructor nails what's always been one of my biggest gripes with ideas like intelligent design: it stops research dead.

“We don't tell folks evolution is wrong,” (Pat Cunningham, the principal of Central Catholic High School) said. “We say there are some things that are more difficult to explain. The importance is to let science grow.

A blog post on the subject contains some humour:

Some were rather silly in an attempt to inject "humility and tentativeness" into science standards. I'm still giggling over that one. Wouldn't want the science standards to think they were better than the math standards, eh?

In all seriousness, I realize she just wants to take scientists down a peg what with their elitist insistence on evidence and falsifiability and such.

Funny, but I like Conan O'Brien's bon mot even better:

Members of the Texas public school board are debating just how evolution should be treated in science class. For instance, should they call it "the theory of evolution" or "the lie that makes God cry"?

Sleep does not always bring good ideas

Insight from a dream the other night:

"All scientists should wear hats."


Always remember, any plan where you lose your hat is a bad plan

26 January 2009

An appreciation

Incredible Hulk cover #124I'd like to take a moment to thank Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for teaching me something about science.

Stan and Jack was the core team that created what is now Marvel Comics. The Fantastic Four, X-Men, and the Hulk were all their creations. I'd like to single out the latter for teaching me a little science: specifically, radiation.

The Hulk comics frequently referenced gamma radiation and gamma rays, since the Hulk was the product of an accident involving radiation. I looked it up in an encyclopedia and found out it wasn't just gibberish -- that there were such things as gamma rays. And along the way, I learned about alpha particles and beta particles and atomic decay.

I would never claim I became a scientist because of comics. But I do appreciate that they got me thinking.

Aside: I didn't pick the cover shown at random; I had a beat-up copy of that issue.

23 January 2009

News roundup on Texas science standards

As I expected, there were a lot of 8-7 votes on the Texas science standards by the State Board of Education, with "weaknesses" of evolution being kept out of the standards. But other changes got stuck in, and there's a very clear pattern of who tried to make changes to the draft standards, in every case trying to weaken them so they would be more palatable to biblical literalists.

Coverage in the press can be found in The New York Times:, two from The Dallas News (first, second)) the Austin American Statesman, where the latter quotes:

Changing the standards from those recommended in the draft document for what seemed to be ideological reasons could make it more difficult for teachers to teach often controversial science topics, said Joe Bean, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, a labor group.

Coverage in blogs includes Bad Astronomy, Houston Pres blog, and NSCE news.

But this still isn't done. One more round of education death match in March. Unfortunately, is the only one that matters.

Biological costs

Expanding a bit on relative costs of different kinds of research... Something I noticed while at a trip to the pet store to pick up supplies and animals.

  • Grass shrimp: 33¢
  • Guppy: $3.00
  • Mouse: $30.00

That's a hundredfold cost difference in research subjects. Many years ago, I heard researchers say the cost of a single cat was $300, which would make for a thousandfold difference in cost of subjects. And that's not including animal care.

Now, I am not taking shots at the science done using mammals as research subjects. But maybe the recession will create an opportunity for people working on invertebrates to make the case that funding research in invertebrates is very cost efficient way of doing good science.

22 January 2009

Second day of meetings on science standards

The public testimony is over, but the Texas State Board of Education meeting from yesterday is still going on in Austin today. Blog coverage again at Evo.Sphere, Thoughts From Kansas, and I missed yesterday's posts from Texas Freedom Network (first, second, third; "expert" testimony, first second, third). Wish I'd been there to see David Hillis in action:

Too bad we can’t type faster. Hillis is kicking butt and taking names. One anti-evolution argument after another bites the dust in his presentation.

Meanwhile, more coverage on yesterday's hearings from the New York Times. It's better than AP's article, but still tends to create the "two equal and opposite views and gee, they both seem valid" structure that journalists often create in an effort to seem objective.

Coverage of yesterday's hearing

An Associated Press wire article contains a lot of the elements that media frequently earns criticism for. It's to be a superficial, "He said, they said."

The crowd — as well as the review panel — was sharply split on the proposal to drop language in the current curriculum that requires teachers to address "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theory.

Of course the panel was split. Because the Texas State Board of Education is split. And the many members of the have been doing all sorts of things (here) to try to create the impression of an even split, and to manufacture the appearance a scientific controversy.

21 January 2009

Second hearing on Texas K-12 science standards

Eugenie ScottEvo.Sphere and Thoughts from Kansas (first post, second; more may be coming) are both liveblogging today's hearing on the Texas State Board of Education's public hearings of the state's K-12 science standards.

Pictured: NCSE's Eugenie Scott, lifted from Evo.Sphere blog.

Money and science

Bison nickelThe Understanding Science website was a big launch at the SICB meeting in January. In each of our little conference bags was a poster put out showing the "How science works" flowchart that is sort of at the core of the website.

One of my colleagues looked at it, and said, "There's no place where it says, 'Beg for money.'" You might think this to be a joke, but this person was deadly serious. A little upset, maybe. "If that's what they want us to tell people about science..."

So I've been thinking a lot about how science is funded. And it's hard not to come to the conclusion that it's seriously messed up.

Costs are going up faster than inflation. Faculty are expecting a lot to get their research going, because if they don't do it right, they're screwed afterwards. New faculty at MIT get (all together in that Dr. Evil voice of Mike Meyers) one million dollars.

Zuber, head of MIT's department of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences, says a new junior faculty member receives a $1 million start-up package from the university for buying equipment, renovating existing space, and doing whatever else it takes to launch an experimental program. After that, the fledgling scientist generally must fly solo.

Not sure about other sciences, but in biology, if you are doing medical research, there are various charitable organizations that might fund your work, plus the National Institutes of Health. If you're not doing medical research, almost the only source of money to fund science is the U.S. federal government. Competition is very, very, tight for every single federal dollar.

And one of the perverse things, as a letter in Science noted last year, is that there is no reward for being frugal or efficient. If two researchers run their labs, and both get our 3 papers in a year, but one gets those out with a million dollar grant and the other a ten thousand dollar grant, the former is probably going to get better reviews because that person "brought in more money to the institution."

I've though for a long time that a lot of researchers would end up pricing themselves out of the market. But the market can reward people who do expensive science, not productive science.

Messed up.

There are several links to talks and article about funding are found at the TED blog. See also how scientific funding shouldn't be part of "stimulus packages" here.

20 January 2009

A surprise announcement

The president of our university will be resigning at the end of the month.

Listen, and you can hear university vice-presidents around the country updating their CVs.

Additional: News coverage here, here, here.

Many are speculating. I suppose they're allowed.

19 January 2009

Wrong approach

The title of this editorial, “Universities should flag up which websites to trust,” sums up a well-intentioned but wrong-headed approach. The article goes on:

(T)o make best use of the internet as an educational resource, its content has to be audited for reliability, and a system of classification introduced.

No, it really doesn't. People have to learn how to evaluate information on their own. They have to learn to ask not, "Who do you trust?", but "What is the evidence?"

Knowing kids

The Texas State Board of Education will meet this week to have public hearings on K-12 science standards for the next 10 years. The Austin American-Statesman has an article about it.

Ken Mercer, a member of the State Board of Education, says that excluding the phrase about strengths and weaknesses "raises a huge red flag about academic freedom and freedom of speech" by essentially telling students that they are not qualified to ask questions about scientific theories, he said.

Mercer uses the concept of academic freedom in a weird way. Academic freedom is about what instructors do research on and say in class, not what students can ask.

"I'm hoping for a 10-5 vote, with a strong majority on whatever we go with, whatever's best for the kids," Mercer said.

I strongly suspect an 8-7 vote. Everything I have read indicates that about seven of the State Board of Education members are unlikely to change their opinions.

"I know the kids of today, and if you tell kids not to ask questions, you lose your credibility," he said.

That Mercer says "kids of today" suggests he really might not know them as well as he'd like to think. When I was younger, that's sure what "you kids today" signaled to me. But I digress.

Mercer provides no evidence that anyone has said the science standards should limit what students can ask. The science standards more to do with things like what textbooks can be purchased, and what topics are covered.

Meanwhile, while some in the state fret about evolution, some Texas A&M University faculty have apparently done some interesting research showing evolution in real time in yeast. I say apparently, because this is a press release with no indication of what journal is publishing this work.

And there's an engaging article on transitional fossils over at Science News.

17 January 2009

Secret reports

In the Evo.Sphere blog, Steve Schafersman reports that creationist members reviewing Earth and Space Science (ESS) standards submitted secret "minority reports" to the State Board of Education. The post in lengthy, but provides important documentation of the general smarminess going on in the Texas State Board of Education review of science standards. This is relevant to evolution because earth science has things to say about the age of the earth.

Additional: Only about 5 hours after I initially wrote about this, the post I referred to was taken down for as yet unknown reasons. The content of the original post can be read here.

Teach Them Science

Teach Them ScienceThere's a new website devoted to the current kafuffle over the Texas K-12 science standards called Teach Them Science. I wish it had come to the party earlier.

I particularly love the summary of "False weaknesses." For each example, it gives an summary of why teaching the alleged weakness is counter-productive in an educational setting. For instance, the common claim the "Transitional fossils are rare or missing" ends with the summary:

This false weakness…

  • Teaches students to argue illogically.

  • Teaches that one unknown invalidates everything.

  • Teaches students to argue by establishing impossible criteria.

This website is among the best I've seen for clearly summarizing why teaching "limitations" or "weaknesses" to K-12 students is a poor idea.

16 January 2009

I’m a “highlight”!

An email from The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology comes in this morning, and says, “Visit SICB Home Page to see photos of the Boston meeting; you might be there!”

I went looking for pictures of my students, but, to my surprise...

Zen and Erica and SICB
It should be noted that the woman I’m talking to, Erica Chao, is on the home page twice.

15 January 2009

Weird chemistry on Mars

I'm betting chemistry, not life. But Carl Zimmer's report of a press conference suggests researchers are seriously thinking they may have evidence for life on Mars.

We'll see. People have gotten excited about this twice before that I can recall. Once in the 1970s, after Viking landed, and again in the 1990s, when people saw some suspicious things in Martian meteors. Neither panned out.

Additional: The research being referred to is here, with the decidedly low-key title, "Strong Release of Methane on Mars in Northern Summer 2003."

More additional: The Bad Astronomy blog looks at headlines related to this story. Annoyance ensues.

Consider this when if you're writing a syllabus

Teresa Neilsen Hayden wrote:
Over-specific rules are an invitation to people who get off on gaming the system.
She's talking about internet moderation here, but this can be applied to many other situations.

14 January 2009

Hero worship

I have many heroes who don't exist. Such is the power of art.

Patrick McGoohan died today. He created a television series that is amazing in how completely, unabashedly it declares itself as a piece of art. A television series that is amazing because, in a medium where realism rules, it makes no sense. (Taking the series as a whole -- individual episodes often make perfect sense.)

That series was The Prisoner. CBC ran it a couple of times late at night in the 1980s, where I caught it by chance one night after I came home from working at the movie theatre, if I remember correctly. I was instantly hooked. I was a member of The Prisoner Appreciation Society for a while.

I loved the design, the font, the strange but somehow plausible game of kosho, the human chess game, the music, the top notch actors who rotated through playing Number Two, the Lotus car that McGoohan drove in the opening credits, the clever traps in "The Girl Who Was Death," and above all, the uncompromising commitment of the lead character, Number Six, played by McGoohan, to independence and individualism.

Number Six is one of my heroes. Thank you, Patrick McGoohan, for your art and craft and intellect.

A new version of The Prisoner series is in production. I hope it will be good. One of the nice bonuses of that is that you can watch the original episodes online here.

Advice for next Texas State Board of Education hearings

In a Houston Press blog, Richard Connelly is being snarky (and I like it):

Just in case you were worried that Texas hadn't made an embarrassing spectacle of itself lately, you need fret no more.

Once again the State Board of Education is coming to your rescue.

There is some actual news here, however. Apparently, the Discovery Institute is coming to town for the next State Board of Education public hearings on the science standards. A member from the institute writes:

Texas has invited scientists on both sides of the evolution debate to testify about the scientific status of Darwin's theory.

Connelly's responds to the idea that this is all just about "good teaching" and offers advice:

We assume these people will also call for standard that demand critical thinking in the theory of the boiling temperature of water and whether gravity makes things go up or down.

January 21, folks. In Austin. Bring popcorn and enjoy the show.

The Evo.Sphere blog has more.

Only (SBOE member and chairman, Don McLeroy) has the power to invite the six experts to attend a SBOE hearing to give testimony and answer questions from the other State Board members, but this idea was not his alone. He was coached by his Discovery friends to set up this misleading debate, since it is designed to fit perfectly with the Discovery Institute marketing campaign to spread fear and doubt about evolution, thus promoting the currently-popular alternative that the DI markets, Intelligent Design Creationism.

Oh, and one more thing: Apparently, Texas has the lowest high school graduation rates in the country.

13 January 2009

What grades should look like

Another riff emerging from a conversation at SICB...

My students may not like knowing this little fact about my teaching philosophy. I tend to think a grade distribution should look like this.

C, being the middle letter grade, should be average. An A should be fairly unusual... but so should an F. Now, I'm not saying my grade distributions actually look like this. They're often skewed one way or another. And I'm okay with that. Every class is different, and I don't feel there's any reason to have any particular distribution of grades. And, interestingly in the context of this discussion, nobody in my institution has really said I should have any particular sort of grade distribution. I do submit my grade distributions during my annual review.

I had a very interesting conversation with a colleague at a different kind of higher educational institution. Her institution expects grade distribution like this:

I'm not sure of the distribution of Bs and Cs, but I distinctly remember 25% As, and 5% Ds and Fs combined.

And if the grades deviated from that too much, a faculty member could conceivably get in trouble.

I'm tired right now, so don't want to comment about the pros and cons of either scheme. But I had never really encountered someone working under such a significantly different regime.

Being an empiricist, I wonder if there's any evidence of what grading system produces the best outcomes.

12 January 2009

SICB 2009, Part 4 and how long to get into science?

Ira Flatow of National Public Radio's Science Friday was another featured speaker at this year's SICB meeting in Boston. In fact, he was the opening speaker. I particularly appreciated one response to a question near the end. Someone asked if Flatow could show that his shows (and presumably other science journalism) actually educated people, or if there were mere entertainment.

Flatow immediately responded with the question, that was something like, "Do you have any evidence that entertainment is not also educational?" I clapped at that. Substitute "entertainment" with "engagement" and maybe people will remember the point. Scientists' suspicion of "mere" entertainment is crazy, much like scientists' distrust of beautiful things.

By curious coincidence, near the end of his talk he hit upon a theme that I'd been listening to in the Scientific American podcast the day before, on the plane to Boston.

Flatow pointed out that when people think of a scientist, they usually think of this guy:

In fact, the person who revolutionized physics with three incredible papers in one year was this guy:

Albert Einstein was doing astonishing science in his 20s. Flatow said that when we show pictures of scientists to students and others, we should use the second picture and not the first. Because students can't see how they can get to be the first guy (and, I should add, don't want to think of as that guy), but they might be able to see themselves as the second guy.

This riff came right after I was listening to the SciAm podcast on Doctor Atomic, an opera (!) about the Manhattan Project. During the discussion with some of the Manhattan Project team, they mentioned most of the people working on the atomic bomb were in their 20s and early 30s. I think Oppenheimer was the "grand old man" of the project at 38!

People working at NASA during the Apollo moon missions were in their 20s. 26 is the figure given for Apollo 17, one of the later missions; so the average age during the earlier missions like Apollo 11 must have been even slightly younger.

And this being a Darwin centennial, I should point out that Darwin was on a cruise around the world on the Beagle in his mid-20s. Sean Carroll mentioned the youth of Darwin, Wallace and Bates during their adventures far from England his talk.

Now, people are just barely getting their first "real job" in science usually in their 30s. Academics are maybe getting tenure and stability, and maybe their first stand alone grant, around their early 40s.

The current system is a horrible waste of talent. People are being put on hold for far too long. Is it any wonder that undergraduates who love science look at the length of training to do it as a career and say, "No thanks"?

How many species have you worked on?

To my fellow biologists: How long is the list of species you have published new data on, in peer reviewed research articles?

Being at the SICB meeting reminded me of something I've been meaning to put up for a while. I take a certain amount of pride in not being someone who has studied a single thing. There are a lot of people who spend their entire careers working on, say, yeast. Good for them.

I, on the other hand, have scientific attention deficit disorder. I am the proverbial mile wide and an inch deep.

I thought it would be fun to list all the species I've published new, original data on (taxonomic surveys don't count). In no particular order...

  1. Spiny sand crabs, Blepharipoda occidentalis (Paper)
  2. Pearly sand crabs, Lepidopa californica (Paper; pictured, right)
  3. Mole crabs, Emerita analoga (Paper; pictured, left)
  4. Squat lobster, Munida quadrispina (Paper)
  5. Signal crayfish, Pacifastacus leniusculus (Paper)
  6. Yabby, Cherax destructor (Paper)
  7. Spiny lobster, Panulirus argus (Paper)
  8. Balmain bugs, Ibacus peronii (Paper)
  9. Slipper lobsters, Ibacus alticrenatus (Paper)
  10. Spanner crab, Ranina ranina (Paper)
  11. Cricket, Teleogryllus oceanicus (Paper)
  12. Sea squirt, Ascidia interrupta (Paper)

I am hoping that by the end of the year, the number of in the list will go up by 2 to 4 species.

What does your species list look like? I'd like to find the most comparative biologist working out there...

11 January 2009

Fisking a Discovery Institute letter

Over at the San Antonio Express News, one Robert Crowther from The Discovery Institute makes a few interesting claims about the review of K-12 science standards. (Crowther is responding to an earlier editorial.)

Crowther correctly points out that viewed narrowly and literally:
The [Texas State Board of Education] is not considering religious, non-scientific beliefs, nor creationism, and certainly not intelligent design for inclusion in science classes. ...

The controversial issue before the SBOE is whether the TEKS will retain language calling for students to learn about both the scientific “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories.

Not all people view things narrowly and literally. This is why people object to the inclusion of wording like "strengths and weaknesses," particularly when the chairman of the Board of Education admits is is applied selectively to one theory (evolution).

Crowther then makes two incorrect statements.
Some have proposed removing that language from the TEKS entirely, while others have suggested that good science education that encourages critical thinking should apply to all aspects of the curriculum, especially to the teaching of controversial scientific theories like neo-Darwinian evolution.

Evolution is not controversial science. It's astonishingly well-supported, and the controversy around it isn't scientific, but social.
Furthermore, Lane’s absurd assertions that intelligent design advocates at the Discovery Institute are trying to usher in “a theistic fundamentalist Christian nation” are also false. As a libertarian agnostic who works at Discovery, I can attest to the fact that neither the institute’s motivations or aims includes Protestant fundamentalism, as Lane falsely claims.

I wonder how Crowther explains the Wedge document? It says, in part:
Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.

Maybe not Protestant, but definitely Christian, definitely theistic, and a damn good case can be made for it being fundamentalism.

09 January 2009

I try to stay out of politics, but politicians don't stay out of science

Former presidential candidate John McCain takes a swipe at lobster research.
On Wednesday, McCain himself grabbed for the fruit-fly swatter at a press conference to unveil his new anti-earmark legislation.

After a long takedown of research into lobsters by the University of Maine that involves a "Lobster Cam," McCain, a Senator from Arizona, turned on the fruit flies, saying, "also, there's one in Paris that -- yes -- $212,000 for Olive Fruit Fly research in Paris, France."

I'll wager that's something related to the Lobster Institute. It used to have a lobster cam (picture from it is part of this post), but it's down now.

The article continues to make much about fruit fly research, was discussed at length during the presidential election.

I'm reminded of something Ira Flatow said during his talk at SICB, which was to point out that science is always the first thing to get cut. He was talking in particular about the closing of reporting in the media, like CNN's cut of its entire science division, but I think this is another example of the same mentality.

I appreciate the Senator's efforts to reduce government expenditures, but going after a couple of hundred thousand dollars for science projects seems to be a poor way of saving.

SICB 2009, Part 3

Last year at SICB, I got to see two of the witnesses in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, Barbara Forest and Kevin Padian. This year, I got to hear Ken Miller. Having seen several of these witnesses give live talks now, I am very thankful. They are great, articulate speakers, and you couldn't wish for much better advocates for biological science in a courtroom.

My favourite moment from Miller's talk was his discussion of the fossil Ambulocetus, an early ancestor of whales. He showed creationist literature -- recent, still on regularly updated websites -- claiming the fossil was only small and partial, and that most of the reconstruction was pure fantasy by scientists. What is neglected to mention is that while the original description was based on partial fossils... more have been found since then.

Another description of this story is here.


Here's some discussion of the Year of Science, and here's some personal notes from the meeting. (Note to students: See? Other people get nervous, too!)

And we weren't the only ones trying to do some science outside the conference.

A quick nod on the diversity of beliefs

An opinion piece in the San Antonio Express News is one of the few tackling Texas science standards that deals with a favourite theme of mine, the wonderful diversity of human belief:
Students in Texas come from families with diverse religious and personal beliefs about the origins of life. It is imperative to abide by the constitutional mandate of separation of church and state. No single religious perspective should be taught in our public schools and no religious belief should be taught as scientific fact.

Our founders understood this issue all too well. They had witnessed the treachery, both abroad and here at home, that state-mandated religion can create. That is why the Founders were so adamant to begin the First Amendment to the Constitution with “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.....”

Not much to add, really.

08 January 2009

SICB 2009, part 2

Sean Carroll gave an excellent talk near the end of the SICB meeting on Tuesday evening. Sean has written several fine books on evolution, one I've even gone so far as to buy! ;) I had never seen him talk, but had heard him interviewed, and admired his prose, so I suspected he would be good, and was not disappointed. He is a real raconteur.

Carroll has two new books coming out soon, which he used as the basis for his talk: Into the Jungle and Remarkable Creatures.

He began with a great quote by George Gaylord Simpson that I must find. It goes something like:
Life is the most important thing in the world. And the most important thing about life is evolution.

If you know where this is from, please let me know in the comments! Google has failed to turn it up for me...

Carroll told stories about the relationship between Alfred Wallace, Charles Darwin, and Henry Bates (he of Batesian mimicry). Carroll started off the talk surprised me with a fantastic story about Wallace that I had, to my surprise, never heard. If I had, I'd never heard it told well. He described how Wallace nearly died in a very dramatic way after coming back from an expedition in the Amazon. And he used that to set the stage for describing Darwin's own expedition, then Bates's work in the Amazon that Darwin thought was one of the best examples of natural selection in the wild. And he talked about the close friendship of these three men throughout their lives.

Carroll ended his talk with a great video that was made in his lab. It was the story of Darwin's trip on the Beagle, with shots of the Galapagos and wonderful animal footage, set to U2's song Beautiful Day. The final bars were so that each note coincided with words fading in from a famous quote by Darwin, "from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved," followed by Darwin's signature.

It made me totally reinterpret the song (which I was indifferent to). Coming on such great stories of adventure and friendship and evolution, it damn near made me cry.

The next day, I got to ask him briefly about it. Unfortunately, he can't post it due to copyright reasons; he can only show it live. So if you ever have a chance to see Carroll talk, don't miss him.



Someone finds biological inspiration in Boston during SICB.

Carl Zimmer mentions SICB in his Twitter feed.

Candidate for science story of 2009 in first week of the year

This could be huge. A self-replicating molecule. A molecule that copies itself is considered to be the first step towards a living system, but previously, no examples were known outside of existing biological systems.

Details forthcoming in the journal Science.

Carl Zimmer, who I just wrote about mere moments ago, may have pegged it first:
2009 may be the year in which synthetic biology finally goes mainstream.

SICB in review, part 1


What a wild, full, fun trip the SICB meeting was. Attendance was way up. The rumour I heard was that least year's San Antonio meeting brought in 1,200, but 1,800 showed up at Boston. The hotel was apparently overbooked by 20%.

I'm going to have to break down my review into several bite sized pieces.

A fairly significant element of running through this year's conference was a launch of a major mew website called Understanding Science and that 2009 was dubbed the "Year of Science." Several speakers were brought in as part of those launches.

One of these was Carl Zimmer (pictured), who blogs at The Loom, was there as part of the Year of Science kick-off. Carl described the changes that he's seen from his days of arguing with editors at Discover magazine that they should get email ("What's wrong with the phone?") to how he came to be blogging. Carl likes the immediacy of the medium, and emphasized several times that he can do things that would have been out of the question for print.

During question period, I jokingly told him that, in the spirit of his talk, I Twittered that I was there watching him. Sadly, I did so specifically to try to get a laugh -- which I did. I asked him what he thought made for a successful blog, and he had a good one-liner: "If you don't have comments, you don't have a blog."

Myelin myth busted

The Neurophilosophy blog has an excellent post on a recent article about sensory hairs involved in crayfish escape responses.

I did see an opportunity to correct a common error. What follows is a repost of my comment from the blog.

"Neuro myth busting" may have to become a blog label. Previous examples include this one on ascidian brains and one on reptilian brains.

Just a quick reminder for those who aren't biologists: Myelin is a covering around many neurons that makes signals travel along neurons faster.


The crayfish is an invertebrate, and therefore does not produce myelin(.)

Many invertebrates produce myelin (Hartline & Colman 2007). In fact, many decapod crustaceans (shrimps and prawns) have myelinated giant interneurons that are the core of the escape system described here. These crustaceans have the fastest known conduction velocity in the animal kingdom, about 200 m/s. This is about double the typical textbook value given for myelinated mammalian neurons.

It's not clear why crayfish lack myelin. Shrimps and prawns are more basal taxa, and the distribution of myelin suggests that myelination was the ancestral condition. Many decapods (including crayfish) seem to have lost myelin, rather than the shrimps and prawns gaining it (Faulkes 2008).


Faulkes Z. 2008. Turning loss into opportunity: The key deletion of an escape circuit in decapod crustaceans. Brain, Behavior and Evolution 72(4): 351-361. doi: 10.1159/000171488

Hartline DK & Colman DR. 2007. Rapid conduction and the evolution of giant axons and myelinated fibers. Current Biology 17(1): R29-R35. 10.1016/j.cub.2006.11.042

06 January 2009

SICB, Tuesday

Just a quick one.

Non-stop fascinating stuff. Can't believe there's not much left!

04 January 2009

SICB, Part 1

The SICB meeting is very well attended this year. The hotel is actually sold out, and there's about a dozen concurrent sessions going on this morning. It's crazy.

Spent yesterday sightseeing, including a trip to Harvard.

01 January 2009

The third draft of Texas science standards

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has a news story on the final draft of the Texas K-12 science standards. Although the removal of the "strengths and limitations" phrase is welcome, the article has an important reminder:
In the end, the wording in the final draft may not matter because the board is not required to use it. In May, the board threw out a teacher-suggested language arts curriculum in favor of another that some board members have said they had only an hour to read before voting on it.

Sadly, I am expecting that there will be some sort of last-ditch attempt to abandon the third draft. I hope I am wrong.

Tweeting SICB

I get on the plane tomorrow for Boston to attend the SICB conference. Since the Westin hotel, like so many of the swanky hotels that cater mainly to businesspeople, seems to to increase its profit margin by charging stupid prices for wireless internet access, I may not be blogging much until I get back. Unless, say, there's a Burger King nearby the hotel, since the cheap fast food place gives wi-fi access away for free.


If I don't have net access, I will still try to update via my Twitter feed (visible in the right hand of this blog), since I updates that by texting with my mobile phone.

And that's how I'll fight the hotel profit mongers.

Comments for second half of December, 2009

Byte-size Biology posts octopus and coconut videos. Regular readers can probably guess what my response was, since I’ve written about that very thing.