31 March 2009

Neurochemicals and Superman villains

Patsy Dickinson, I always like talking to you at meetings. But couldn’t you and your team have given the new peptide a name that a human being might actually have a prayer of remembering? Or, you know, pronouncing?


It’s the Mr. Mxyzptlk of neurochemicals.

I wonder what will happen if I say the name of the chemical backwards...


Dickinson PS, Wiwatpanit T, Gabranski ER, Ackerman RJ, Stevens JS, Cashman CR, Stemmler EA, Christie AE. 2009. Identification of SYWKQCAFNAVSCFamide: a broadly conserved crustacean C-type allatostatin-like peptide with both neuromodulatory and cardioactive properties. The Journal of Experimental Biology 212: 1140-1152. doi: 10.1242/jeb.028621

In which claims are verified

Some time ago, I bemoaned that about one in three Americans don't know where food comes from. Recently, I found some photographic evidence of that fact.

Yes, even more Texas science standards voting aftermath

Christopher Hitchens writes about the new Texas K-12 science standards in Newsweek here. Hitchens has a talent for finding devastating turns of phrase and unusual angles of attack, and this isn't an exception.

The Texas anti-Darwin stalwarts also might want to beware of what they wish for. The last times that evangelical Protestantism won cultural/ political victories – by banning the sale of alcohol, prohibiting the teaching of evolution and restricting immigration from Catholic countries – the triumphs all turned out to be Pyrrhic. There are some successes that are simply not survivable. ... There are days when I almost wish the fundamentalists could get their own way, just so that they would find out what would happen to them.

Also, an editorial from last week in the Dallas News that I missed.

There's also this comment from the Minneapolis Church and State Examiner.

Something there is about the Texas mentality that discounts the life of the mind.

Here’s a snippet of some quite good analysis in
  • Ars Technica:

    (T)his focus on multiple theories makes frequent appearances when elected bodies, like school boards and state legislatures, attempt to modify science education. It suggests that, when faced with the fact that science has adopted a theory that the officials dislike, they assume there must be another, competing theory that is more amenable to their beliefs.

  • Popular Science (?!) and USA Today, the latter saying:

    The issue is so complicated and controversial, however, that we thought we’d give you a flavor of the issue by showing you how various news organizations reported the final vote: [snip]

    Newswise provides a quote one-liner to summarize:

    NCSE’s Josh Rosenau summed up the frustration of scientists and educators alike: “This is a hell of a way to make education policy.”
  • 30 March 2009

    Can Master’s degrees make a comeback?

    Professional Science Masters logoThe frequently asked questions regarding the National Science Foundation and the Recovery Act mentions a Science Masters program. Intriguing.

    I’ve commented to NSF staffer multiple times about Master’s degrees. The NSF have lots of programs for undergraduate research (I run one), and how they have programs for doctoral research, but Master’s are almost completely ignored. For department like mine, which has a Master’s program but no doctoral program, this is a real issue.

    The problem is that in many institutions with doctoral programs, Master’s degrees are viewed as a consolation prize. It’s lovely parting gift for those who can’t
    hack it in the Ph.D. program. And that point of view seems to have permeated the funding agencies.

    But in an institution like ours, a Master’s degree for our students, can be an important stepping stone to a doctoral program at another institution, or the key to a higher entry level in a job. It’s not an “also ran.”

    Perhaps not coincidentally, Science magazine featured a policy forum on Master's degrees this week. The model it explores is something called a professional science Master’s degree. At a glance, it seems to be a degree for industry technicians (and, just to be clear, I am not disparaging that). Students take academic courses in their scientific discipline as well as in business.

    The NSF will have $15 million to fund new professional science Master’s programs. My concern is that this doesn’t address – or justify – continuing to ignore the more traditional academic Master’s programs.

    29 March 2009

    More aftermath roundup on Texas K-12 science standards

    The image is from the Bad Astronomy blog, which comments (original emphasis):

    Do I sound unhappy? Yeah, damn straight I am. These creationists are trying to destroy science in Texas. And they’re succeeding. They are imposing their narrow religious and ideological views on reality, and it’s the schoolchildren in the state who will suffer. ...

    It seems incredible that here we are, in the 21st century, and a group of less than a dozen religious zealots has the kind of power to affect millions of children across the country, but there you have it. One problem with a democracy — and it’s a doozy — is that it’s possible to game the system, and give far too much power to people who are far too unqualified for it.

    And it’s brought us here.

    A warp-up on Thoughts From Kansas reminds us:

    Texas has new science standards. Those standards are better than the old ones, but those old standards really did suck.

    I referenced a New Scientist article before that described the standards as containing “loopoholes.” But I wanted to call out one point (emphasis added):

    Experts suspect that strategically, the Discovery Institute actually wants teachers to be prosecuted in a Dover-style court case, and that they are using the proposed Texas academic freedom bill to lure teachers into a legal trap by encouraging them to bring religious ideas into the classroom. ...

    “The Discovery Institute is pushing the legal envelope and inviting litigation because they have been shopping around for years for the right judicial district in which they could win this kind of case,” (Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University) told New Scientist. “They need a district where they can control the people on the ground, as they do in Texas. They want a ruling that conflicts with Dover in a different judicial district, because that would be the most likely scenario in which the Supreme Court would hear a case. That is exactly what they want.”

    Elves and hidden people

    Houses of hidden peopleOne of the things I do to try to challenge myself and expose myself to things I would not normally encounter is to listen to the CBC podcast of The Current. Yesterday was another one of those time when I learned something new.

    A majority of Icelanders believe in elves and hidden people. Companies pay real money to hire people with psychic powers to determine if their buildings and constructions would interfere with the domains of elves and hidden people – which live in another dimension. Apparently the Icelandic term for this is “Hulduf√≥lk.”

    Of course, I’m one to talk.

    28 March 2009

    Aftermath roundup on Texas science standards

    Don McLeroy and Gail LoweThere will probably be more articles early next week reacting to the votes on the Texas science standards. For today...

    This Salon article described how excited the Discovery Institute is over the new standards. And provides yet more quotes by Don McLeroy that make me wonder why what he says isn’t being criticized by more scientists.

    “Scientific consensus means nothing,” he tells Salon. “All it takes is one fact to overthrow consensus. Evolution has a status that it simply doesn’t deserve. People say it’s vital to understanding biology. But it’s genetics that’s the foundation for biology. A biologist once said that nothing in biology makes sense without evolution. Well, that’s not true. You go into the top biology labs, and it makes no difference if evolution is true or false to what they’re doing and studying. It makes no difference."

    I’d love to know what “top biology lab” McLeroy has ever gone into.

    Why Evolution is True has a good summary about the two worst additions to the standards. The good news, such as it is, is that the wording specifically says “scientific explanations,” which should cut out the worst possible offenders.

    The Houston Chronicle features an AP wire story. They have another story here.

    The Austin American-Statesman, naturally, had is own reporters there for this article. And what I read makes me proud of the representative whose district our university sits in, Mary Helen Berlanga:

    Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, was one of two board members who consistently voted against the rewrites proposed by members critical of evolution today. She also voted against accepting the document in its entirety.

    New Scientist has an article here.

    Pharygula also has some analysis, including a comment on one of the Chronicle stories:

    (T)he Houston Chronicle blandly reports that "Scientists from throughout Texas helped shape the new science curriculum standards." What they don't bother to mention is that these insertions into the standards were generated in opposition to the input of scientists, in defiance of what the scientific position would propose.

    And, lest I leave you thinking that only biologists are targets of contempt, the Marshall News Messenger notes that the new standards also attack climate science. In particular, it is official educational policy to cast doubt on global warming.

    Language that instructed students to “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming,” which had been offered as an amendment and was adopted unanimously in an initial vote Thursday, led to outrage among environmental groups.

    Texas has been oil country for a long time. Old habits die hard, I guess.

    Additional: ScienceInsider policy blog calls it a win for creationists.

    27 March 2009

    See you in two years for the textbook fight

    Damning with faint praise: “It could have been so much worse.”

    The final votes on Texas K-12 science standards are done. “Strengths and weaknesses” didn’t make it in (yesterday), and neither did a lot of other non-scientific amendments. But things got watered down.

    I must remember to write an email to Rick Agosto, the Republican who voted against arguably the most non-scientific language and who must have received incredible pressure not to do so. Interestingly, he represents the northern half of the county our university is in, although the university resides in Mary Helen Berlanga’s district.

    And here, perhaps, is a good summary of the entire anti-intellectual, unprofessional, disrespectful nature of these events... Don McLeroy, quoted on the Texas Freedom Network and Thoughts From Kansas blog:

    I disagree with all these experts. Somebody has to stand up to these experts.


    A man charged with an important supervisory role of a massive education system says he doesn’t value expertise. Experts are the enemy.

    Isn’t one of the points of education to create experts?

    How can we make expertise and skills and professionalism respected again?

    Textbook adoption in two years. But it looks like there won't be too many more posts with the “Texas science standards” label in the near future.


    Our university has an arts festival called Festiba. This year, a group of students, who taking two courses that have been joined at the hip – one on evolution and one on linguistics – put together several displays relating to evolution in some way, but with an artistic bent. This is not all of the coolness that was there on Thursday, but some pictures came out better than others for blogging purposes. And several have to be seen close up to really be appreciated.

    Very cool.

    Photos by Deborah Cole (but with a camera supplied by yours truly!).

    26 March 2009

    Roundup of Texas science standards articles

    25 March 2009

    Am I a far left academic or a secular elite opinion maker?

    On the first day that the final hearings on the Texas K-12 science standards begin in Austin (covered in blog form at Evo.Sphere and Thoughts from Kansas; the link goes to the first in a series of posts), Don McLeroy offers an insulting essay in the Austin American-Statesman.

    (T)he greatest difficulty in writing these standards is the culture war over evolution.

    The controversy exists because evolutionists, led by academia’s far-left, along with the secular elite opinion-makers, have decreed that questioning of evolution is not allowed, that it is only an attempt to inject religion or creationism into the classroom.

    Having already hit the gutter, McLeroy somehow manages to actually go downhill from there.

    He redefines science.

    He distorts the ideas of Stephen Jay Gould.

    I want to fisk it, but I’m really too angry to do it now.

    What am I going to write about after this?

    The final debate among the Texas State Board of Education about the K-12 science standards starts today.

    I’ve been thinking over the last couple of weeks: “What am I going to write about after this?” I’ve been blogging about the Texas science standards so much over the last year, and it’s been such a rich vein to mine... After this week, the science standards won’t be reviewed again for years.

    I’m going to have to work harder to come up with more substantive blog posts.

    While I’m here, I might as well mine the vein a little longer and point out an editorial in the Washington Post on the subject:

    It’s disturbing enough that the Texas board of education might seek to impose its religious views on public school students in that sizable state. It’s even more alarming that the Lone Star State's textbook market is so large that many publishers write books to meet its standards and then sell them across the country.

    Explanation and evangelism

    I was reading a review of Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True in the new issue of Current Biology. Reviewer Tom Tregenza writes:

    Like many biologists, I occasionally panic that if the appeal of religious dogma can prevail over such a well-supported and rigorously tested theory as Darwin’s, then it can only be a matter of weeks before we’re all wearing sandals and the next breakthrough in oncology is expected to come from making offerings to a parsnip with a resemblance to the Virgin Mary. At such times, I vow that I will drag myself out of my ivory tower and try to explain what I do to the (surely fairly rational?) man in the street. Similarly, reading the manifestos of those seeking election to offices of the European and American Evolution Societies, there is universal agreement that evolutionary biologists need to do more to explain their work to the public. The fact is, however, that we’re still not very good at delivering on these good intentions.

    This reveals a lot about why good intentions don’t deliver. People think the problem is that people outside of science don’t know. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they don’t care.

    To use a wacky Zen metaphor...

    I enjoy Australian Rules Football, for a lot of reasons. Those around me... don’t.

    I might think that this is just due to their lack of information about the game. So I should go around and explain to them the rules and how it’s played. Then they will automatically become more interested, right?

    Not necessarily. They may understand the game on an intellectual level, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to start bugging me to set up a footy tipping competition, start checking the AFL website on weekends, adopt a team and learn the club song. In short, they won’t care.

    Getting someone to care is complicated. Marketers spend all day and all night trying to work it out. It isn’t just about explanation. It requires evangelism – not in the religious sense, but in the general sense that Guy Kawasaki talks about is always talking about. The sort of evangelism that sales and marketing people talk about. Going out there and connecting with people and demonstrating passion, solving peoples’ problems, engaging with them.

    A lot of scientists are out there explaining Aussie rules football and wondering why people don’t show up for the games. The people who don’t show up for the game are not necessarily ignorant or uneducated about how the game is played. It takes more than explanation to create a fan.

    We might be better off if we ditched phrases like “public outreach” and thought about “building a fan base.” We should create science fans.

    (I’ll bet this post didn’t head in the direction you thought it would from reading the title.)

    23 March 2009

    This is the week for Texas science standards

    The final vote on the Texas K-12 science standards is this week. It’s going to be... intense.

    The Wall Street Journal reports:

    All members of the board have come under enormous pressure in recent months, especially three Republicans who support teaching evolution without references to “weaknesses.” The state Republican Party passed a resolution urging the three to back Dr. McLeroy’s preferred curriculum. A conservative activist group put out a news release suggesting all three were in the pocket of “militant Darwinists.”

    It’s time to put the word “militant” away and save it for people who actually carry guns and bombs.

    Meanwhile, the Evo.Sphere blog is collecting letters from national scientific agencies who have written letters to the Texas State Board of Education that more or less ask them to adopt the standards the experts originally submitted, and take out some of the amendments that McLeroy and other got in. The big one is the letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who got signatures from an impressive number of big university mucky-mucks, including the chancellor of the University of Texas system to which my institution belongs.

    I feel sad for those State Board of Education members who are generally characterized as “swing voters.” I don’t even want to think about what kind of politicking they must be getting subjected to.

    Prediction: I’m betting that all of this won’t change much. I think there will be a lot of 8-7 votes. I think they’ll be in favour of the original expert recommendations, but I’m not counting on it.

    Fisking an editorial

    Don McDonald has an opinion editorial in the San Angelo Times with the misleading title, “Teach evolution in classroom.” In fact, Dr. McDonald (who does not live in Texas and is not a biologist; he instructs in human resources) he teaches argues quite the opposite, as obvious from his first sentence:

    As a doctoral candidate in sociology in the 1990s, I found my dissertation process derailed until I feigned allegiance to Darwinism.

    I must admit, it’s a fairly gutsy opening gambit to admit lying to get a doctorate. And then we’re off with a typical stack of creationist objections.

    Objectors to the proposed language in the science standards commonly express fear of “Creationism creeping into the classrooms.” But the amendments to the indicators say nothing of creationism, and they do not mention intelligent design.

    First, the proposed language implies a debate where none exists. Second, it doesn’t matter much if the exact words “creationism” or “intelligent design” are in there or not. People can interpret generalities in ways that people never intended. Remember, the law is a club, not a scalpel. The law is a blunt instrument that does not make fine distinctions or easily take into account whether consequences are intentional or not.

    And since he’s admitted to having little use for evolution, I can’t help but wonder if phrases “creationism” or “intelligent design” were in the proposed standards if Dr. McDonald would be okay with that.

    If we tell students that they must have one certain conclusion before peering into a microscope or turning over a rock, is that science?

    By McDonald’s argument, if students do experiments that shows that heavy objects fall faster than light ones, we shouldn’t tell them that they’ve likely made a mistake or not measured accurately enough. For some things, there is a solid body of evidence that K-12 students are extremely unlikely to revise or overturn. To say that teachers should ignore that established science and let students’ own conclusions reign supreme is not good teaching practice.

    19 March 2009

    Where scientific progress occurs

    The Dallas Fort Worth Star-Telegram has a story concerning Representative Christian’s house bill to re-introduce “strengths and weaknesses” back into Texas K-12 science standards.

    The bill says that neither student nor teacher could be penalized for subscribing to any particular position on any scientific theories or hypotheses. ... Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, who filed the bill, said it is not an out for students, because they must still be evaluated on course materials taught.

    Emphasis added. It seems to me that Representative Christian just admitted that teachers could not be held accountable for teaching just about any fringe idea and calling it “science.” In which case, ooooh, there would be a world of bad teaching and probably many lawsuits to follow.

    “The state is successful and will continue to be so,” said Jonathan Saenz, a lobbyist for the Plano-based Free Market Foundation, which promotes Judeo-Christian values. “It’s important that we fix the curriculum to allow for scientific progress and debate.”

    Real scientific progress and debate doesn’t occur in K-12 schools. They happen in universities and research institutions. And I’m saying this as someone who has published research co-authored by someone who was a high school student when she was working in my lab (Flores and Faulkes 2008). The overwhelming majority of scientific papers are from universities.

    See also an editorial in the same paper. I feel bad for students in Kansas... they’ve got a reputation through not fault of their own.

    18 March 2009

    Open Laboratory 2009 candidate logo design

    Open Lab 2009 design
    A Blog Around the Clock asked for graphics for buttons to encourage people to submit nominations for the next Open Laboratory anthology of science blogging. The one above is my take.

    The goal here is not to get people to vote for me, just to explain a little bit of the thought process behind the design. For comparison, here is last year’s logo:

    Open Lab 2008
    Basically, I wanted to make my design to be 180° away from last year’s. So I started with the idea of a greenish hue for the background. Similarly, I looked for a font that was distinct from the heavy font used in last year’s logo. I wanted to play with the idea of expressing the feeling of “openness” in the type, so the letters are set very far apart.

    The space at the top is deliberately unfilled here. The idea is that this space can be used to put in different things like “Nominate for,” “Judge for,” “Featured in,” and so on.

    Win, lose, or draw, it was worth the bit of time I put in, because I learned a few new tricks in Corel Photo-Paint doing this.

    Check out the other fine button designs by Daniel Brown (who blogs at Biochemical Soul) at A Blog Around the Clock, and leave a vote in the comments.

    Why tweet?

    Twitter logoI was listening to CBC Radio’s The Current coming in yesterday morning. They were talking about Twitter, and in particular, its use in political circles. Stephen Marche may have had the best one-liner when he said something like, “I’m not a fan on instant thinking.”

    I agree with that. I’m not a fan of instant thinking, either. Since I’m on Twitter now, this raises the question: Why?

    The original reason I started Twittering was to provide an easy way for students to figure out where I was. But as I’ve used it more, it’s become more like mini-blogging. I try to put out more substantial stuff on Twitter than I did at first. Pointing out a cool article might have got a short blog post before, but now it gets a tweet.

    But in both blogging and twittering, the reason I do it is, in my mind, that I want to take on the responsibility of being a public intellectual. Not always easy, especially considering that “intellectual” is an insult to some people’s thinking.

    Plus, I would add that for some people, writing is a way of thinking. I’m not arguing that I’m working on my next research paper through Twitter, but there is something to be said for practicing being concise. Saying the most you can in the least space requires discipline.

    Now that I think about it, a lot of scientists should twitter more, because it might help them write things like “now” instead of “at this point in time,” or “can” instead of “has been shown to be capable of,” and so on.

    Additional: A good post on “Why should scientists blog?”

    Incidentally, I think I am the only active blogger out of my entire department. Maybe several science departments in our university.

    17 March 2009

    Use your laptop, lose a letter grade

    laptopsI’ve noted that I don’t allow laptops in my classes. So far, I haven’t heard any students grumbling about this.

    Now, Diane Sieber at Colorado University has given students another reason to put away computers: enlightened self-interest. She found those using computers in class did 11% worse on average than those who didn’t (my emphasis). (See also here.)

    Last fall, Sieber had 96 students in one of her courses and she took note of which ones were frequently using their laptops. After the first test, she alerted the 17 students who used their laptops intensely that, on average, they performed 11 percent worse than their peers who weren’t glued to computer screens. The number of students on laptops eventually dwindled to a half dozen, and the test scores of students who stopped using their computers during class shot up, according to Sieber.

    “These are grown-ups,” she said. “They need to identify what keeps them from learning, and then act on it because they aren’t going to have me for the rest of their lives telling them ‘No, no, no. Focus.’”

    Now, how can I get them to put away their smart phones?

    External links

    Profs grapple with laptop rules as campuses go wireless
    Students Stop Surfing After Being Shown How In-Class Laptop Use Lowers Test Scores

    Science publishers are agents

    A while back, I talked about how science publishing is undergoing a Marxist revolution. Today, Seth Godin notes:

    Travel agents... gone.
    Stock brokers... gone.
    Real estate brokers... in trouble. Photographer’s agents, too.
    Literary agents?

    The problem with being a helpful, efficient but largely anonymous middleman is pretty obvious. Someone can come along who is cheaper, faster and more efficient. And that someone might be the customer aided by a computer.

    If specialized scientific publishers want to survive, Godin points out a way:

    Middlemen add value when they bring taste or judgment or trust to bear on a transaction that isn’t transparent. ... To thrive in a world of self-service, agents have to hyperspecialize, have to stand for something, have to have the guts to say no far more than they say yes.

    Right now, there are still research journals that do this. Science, Nature, and Cell, although sometimes derided as “glamour mags,” do this: they make judgments about what constitutes cutting edge science. They say “No” a lot.

    So the real pressure of open access, and that everyone can have a printing press and distribution channel, is going to weigh upon, not the top journals, but the many other journals that publish most of the bread and butter, meat and potatoes scientific research. What can a journal do that’s going to add value for either the authors or their readers that’s above and beyond what an author can do herself? Here are a few thoughts:

    • Develop a review system that checks for scientific fraud as well as scientific rigour.
    • Become more active in revising manuscripts for clarity.
    • Offer more assistance revising graphics.
    • Create long-term archival materials, perhaps more than just the published text.
    • Retain scientific reviewers to ensure fast turnaround on review times. Days, not weeks or months.

    Any other suggestions? What could a journal do that would be “a dream come true” for the authors?

    16 March 2009

    Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 31

    Reprinted from the Austin American Statesman, I think, in News-Journals.com, Leo Berman talks about his Institute for Creation Research legislation:

    Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, said his proposed legislation is intended to allow the Bible-oriented group to proceed without the coordinating board's blessing.

    "Why are people who call themselves scientists afraid to hear two sides of a debate?" Berman asked Friday.

    We’re not afraid, we’re bored. Your guys lost in a fair fight. Evidence for evolution has kicked the collective ass of creationist ideas for over a century. The creationists have lost on the field of science over and over and over. There isn’t a scientific debate.

    Berman said his proposal encourages different viewpoints and debate.

    "Personally, I don't believe in evolution," he said. "I don't believe I came from a salamander that came out of a pond."

    Representative Berman, I’d like to find what biological scientist has ever told you personally originated from a salamander. There may be a relationship between you and the salamander, but it’s far more complex than “salamander -> you.”

    Graffiti I agree with

    Watch your stepSome time ago, I blogged about these safety signs. I think they’re dumb, because they’re just posted on regular old walkways, where the ground is not uneven. In fact, I would go so far as to say they are flat. Very flat. They have proper concrete sidewalks here, not dirt trails with leaves and branches sticking up all over the place.

    The thing that Occupational Health and Safety offices seem to be unwilling to admit is that you cannot put up enough signs to prevent accidents. You just... can’t. They’re not willing to admit this, of course, because like so many offices in a bureaucracy, they feel they must be seen to be doing something regardless of whether there is any actual improvement. It’s the same principle that has made going through airport security so tedious.

    So this made me laugh:

    15 March 2009

    More creationist calvinball

    Creationists, apparently sensing that they are failing to get what they want through normal means, are going to the ol’ boys’ network. First, it was Representative Leo Berman introducing a law for the Institute for Creation Research.

    Now, in a classic case of nominative determinism, it’s Representative Wayne Christian (pictured) with House Bill 4224. According to the National Center for Science Education that would require the Texas State Board of Education to expect students:

    (A)nalyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information(.)

    Yes, this is the phrase that is at risk of being voted out of the new Texas K-12 science standards.

    Christian is a businessman with no background that I can see in either education or science. It’s just amazing how everyone wants to copy edit the advice of the educational and scientific experts. Science educators don’t tell business people how to manage inventory or marketing, or tell dentists whether to do a root canal, so why do they insist on telling us how they want us to do science education?

    14 March 2009

    More than 235

    Here’s a list of scientists on Twitter. The page title claims 235, but I am pretty sure that is out of date and there’s much more.

    Open Lab 2009 nominations are go!

    The nomination form for The Open Laboratory is now up here.

    Now that I’ve received my printed copy of the book, I’ve started browsing it more than I did the list of links. (Books can encourage serendipity in a way that links do not.) I’m becoming more and more pleasantly surprised that one my posts (from the Marmorkrebs blog, not here) made it in. It really is an honour.

    Competition last year was intense, with over 800 submissions for 50 final entries. And judging from the sampler of nominees that’s come in so far for next year, competition this year is going to be crazy. There’s really good stuff there already.

    13 March 2009

    Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 30

    The Evo.Sphere blog reports on the latest efforts by the institution for Creation Research (ICR) to be allowed to offer Master's degrees in science education. This is a story I’ve previously blogged about in some detail. The ICR’s latest gambit?

    Get someone to rewrite the law just for you.

    What most readers don't know is that since the 2008 April hearing in Austin, in which ICR was denied the certification necessary to offer the M.S. degree in Science Education, ICR and THECB have been engaged in mediation to resolve the impasse, but without success. ... ICR has been offered the opportunity to award a M.A. degree in Christian Studies, Creation Studies, Origins Theology, or any other appropriate topic that matches the pseudoscience it promotes, but ICR has refused to compromise. The THECB can't compromise in any way that allows ICR to offer a master of science degree in a science program since Texas law is firm on that point.

    Enter House Bill 2800, sponsored by Representative Leo Berman (pictured).

    The bill amends the appropriate part of the Texas Education Code that regulates the conditions under which an institution can have the right to award valid, certified, and transferable graduate degrees in Texas. Berman’s bill gives “certain private nonprofit educational institutions” an exemption from this law.

    Unlike many pieces of legislation that would promote “stealth” creationism, Berman’s office are straight shooters:

    John Kingman... visited Rep. Berman's office in the Capitol. He spoke with Andy on the Legislator's staff since Rep. Berman was not in. When asked if the bill would apply to ICR, Andy said it would. John then asked Andy the key question: what was the objective of the bill? Andy thankfully did not attempt to dissimulate. He replied forthrightly that it was “for institutions that want to teach creation science or intelligent design.”

    When you can’t win legitimately, I guess the only options are to cheat or change the rules in your favour.

    Yup. The ICR is playing...


    Can “theory” be saved?

    Much has been written about how non-scientists don’t exactly understand what the word “theory” means in science. In science, “theory” specifically means a large and well supported organizing principle that predicts, controls, and explains.

    Non-scientists typically disparage things called theories, frequently by saying something is “only” a theory. fnord. Indeed, the phrase is used so much that Ken Miller used it as the title of one of his books on creationism in the U.S.

    But I think there’s another reason that people outside science attack anything associated with the word “theory” so often. What common English phrase do you most often hear that contains the word “theory”?

    How about, “conspiracy theory”?

    Is it any wonder that people think scientists are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the public when they talk about scientific theories, when the only other time they ever hear the word “theory” is next to unsupported, rampant, and usually flat-out freakin’ crazy ideas about secret organizations, the course of history, persecution, and maybe a little dose of bigotry on the side?

    Maybe the “theory” is too degraded to be saved for use in discussions with the public. Maybe it’s time for scientists to give up caution and nuance, and just say “true,” as, for instance, Jerry Coyne did in his book title.

    12 March 2009

    Did he say that? Bush on intelligent design

    Former American President George W. Bush admittedly made a lot of mistakes during his presidency. But as far as I can recall, he never said this:

    Bush himself told Texas reporters in 2005 that evolution and intelligent design should be taught at the same time so – he really said this – students could decide for themselves.

    And I don’t remember this, either:

    For eight years the Bush administration proposed the teaching of “Intelligent Design,” a religious doctrine disguised as science so as to surpass the constitutional separation of church and state(.)

    “Come, Sherman, let’s set the Wayback Machine for 2005...” One Google search later, we find that here’s what Bush was quoted as saying.

    “Both sides ought to be properly taught... so people can understand what the debate is about,” he said, according to an official transcript of the session. Bush added: “Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. ... You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.”

    Note that Bush never even used the phrase “intelligent design” himself. Yes, that was the context of the question, but Bush chose to answer a specific question with a general one. An editorial in Science or Nature noted this. Bush could have made a much stronger statement, but he didn’t.

    Note that Bush never used the phrase, “So kids can decide for themselves.” Many other people have used that phrase. Some may see “understand the debate” as the same as “make their own decisions,” but really, I think people are making an inference – or, more likely, calling on a half-remembered recollection – of what Bush actually said.

    The above quote, as far as I can remember, is the one and only time time Bush or his administration even came close to this issue.

    Bush gave no sign that he intended to wade that far into the debate. The issue came up only when a reporter from the Knight Ridder news service asked him about it; participants said the president did not seem especially eager to be asked. "Very interesting question," he told the reporter playfully.

    Here’s another account of this point:

    Mr. Bush was pressed as to whether he accepted the view that intelligent design was an alternative to evolution, but he did not directly answer. (Emphasis added. -ZF)

    And let us not forget that it was a Bush appointee, Judge John Jones, who delivered the devastating ruling against intelligent design in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. So who the heck in the Bush administration was supposedly working to put intelligent design into schools? This is a slightly weird claim, given that education is a state mandate, not a federal one. The biggest advocate for intelligent design has never been federal or state governments, but local school boards and the Discovery Institute.

    While I always appreciate people supporting for science, this should never mean putting words into anyone’s mouth. No matter how much you might think it belongs there.

    11 March 2009

    The Zen of Presentations, Part 25: Caged tiger

    Lazy blogging time, in which I point to photographer James Duncan’s blog entry called, Dear Speakers. About half of his eight entries can be boiled down to, “Stop moving around so much!” As a photographer, you can certainly understand why he wants people to stay put: it makes it much easier to make the photo.

    As a presenter, I am probably guilty of the “caged tiger” problem at times. I like to move. I like to present with energy. I like to try to look to different parts of the audience or classroom. There is a threshold that you cross where that energy just looks abnormal, like a big cat looping around the same track in its enclosure in a zoo.

    You have to be aware enough of your conditions to figure out if, or how much, you can move. Some stages have very definite light and dark spots; a recent talk by Robert Ballard at our university reminded me of this. His talk was lit by several stage lights, with some areas being very bright, and quickly fading to very dark. Ballard rarely stayed in the light, and it was bothersome. Some rooms, however, have very uniform lights, so this may not be a problem.

    The “caged tiger” look also becomes less of a problem if you can simply remember to pause occasionally. It’s the constant movement along the same path that is most distracting.

    For many presentations, there is simply a sweet spot on the stage where you can see the audience, the audience can see you, you can reach the lectern, but are not concealed by it. Find that spot before the talk. Then you’re less likely to go prowling for it during the talk.

    10 March 2009

    Life with undergrads

    There's much to comment upon in this post from Kim Hannula, who used to blog here but has since joined the Seed empire at ScienceBlogs here. I also find a lot of interesting comments on a question Kim poses here, to wit, “What kind of skills do undergrad science/technology/engineering/math majors need in order to survive and thrive?”

    On a related note, there's this study on why people don't want to go into graduate school. In short, it’s seen as something that consumes every minute of your life – and still wants more.

    I meant to post this several weeks ago, but kept delaying because I was trying to formulate my own comment. And I just don’t have much to add. Except, perhaps, to say that I recognize it all. I want to change it, but don’t know how. It’s amazingly frustrating.

    09 March 2009

    What our university should do, and why, but won't

    I walk past these three vending machines every day as I go to my office. In my building, there are at least 17 vending machines, of which at least 11 sell beverages. I think our university should get rid of them.

    We don’t need bottled water, as there's drinking water on campus. This week’s Science Podcast discussed a study to estimate the energy cost of bottle water compared to drinking tap water, and bottled water doesn’t come out well:

    (I)t turns out that for every bottle of water you drink it might as well be a quarter full of oil, for the amount of oil that’s being consumed in order to produce all of this bottled water. ...

    (W)e’re talking about 50 million barrels of oil a year. And, just for point of comparison, that’s the same amount of oil used in the entire U.S. over two days – all the cars we drive, all the factories, all the lights we turn on – everything – so it’s a really big chunk of the oil that’s consumed. ...

    Just from bottled water.

    As for soft drinks, they ain’t the best of stuff for ya:

    Cutting the consumption of sugary drinks by half is a key recommendation of the World Cancer Research Fund report.

    And I’ll point out the additional perverseness of selling soft drinks for a university located in an area with rampant Type II diabetes.

    Then, there’s the sheer amount of plastic generated by bottled drinks, described in this TED talk.

    I don’t know how much money our university makes from vending machines. But I’ll bet it’s enough for the university wouldn’t get rid of them.

    08 March 2009

    Fellow scientists in Texas, a call to arms

    I’ve already emailed the Texas State Board of Education representative whose district includes my institution. If you have not, check The National Center for Science Education website for details on how you can and why you should.

    What a dentist believes, part 2

    The Austin-American Statesman has another profile (see also here) of the dentist at the center of the Texas K-12 science standards controversy, Don McLeroy. As usual, he says he just wants to teach science:

    “If you want to tell (students) there are not weaknesses to evolution and it’s as sure as the Earth going around the sun, it’s not,” he said.

    And there’s your problem right there: Evolution is on a par with the Earth going around the sun. It really is.

    It’s ironic that McLeroy would choose an example that was so famously disputed by Christian churches at the time, and that some fundamentalist Christians still dispute. Because the biblical view of the universe is something like this:

    Universe according to the ancient Hebrews
    Like the earlier profile, the article is quite nuanced and gives an account of some of McLeroy’s strengths as an administrator:

    “There are certainly people who disagree with him, but he’s well-respected,” said Bradley, R-Beaumont.

    You're not fooling anyoneThe article ends with McLeroy making another common creationist claim:

    “What I see is they’re rejecting the data for ideological reasons; they’re the ideologues in this debate, not us,” he said.

    C’mon, Mr. McLeroy. What data are you talking about? And why won’t you listen to the veritable army of expert after expert telling you the data – mountains of it – support evolution? And if you’re so concerned about science, why don’t you let the professional scientists work it out? Follow the regular pattern of science: We do the research. We present it and publish it. If it’s important and solid, then it goes into the textbooks because the textbook authors understand the science. It’s not added in from state education agencies.


    Don McLeroyThe national news coverage of the Texas K-12 science curriculum is gearing up again in advance of the final vote on the subject for the next decade. Yes, if you thought you’d read that sanity had prevailed and that “strengths and weaknesses” language about evolution was being removed, well, you forgot this is a bureaucracy, where multiple votes are always in order.

    “Anything can happen in the final vote,” said (Kathy) Miller (Texas Freedom Network). “The board can vote to go back to the old standards with strengths and weaknesses in them. The board can vote to eliminate the amendments that Chairman McLeroy forced into the curriculum standards. Virtually any change can be made.”

    McLeroy’s response?

    “I want to see the United States keep its scientific edge,” he said. “And I think the way you do that is by being honest with the kids, you teach them the science, you show them the weaknesses and strengths.”

    Mr. McLeroy, if you want to let them have edge, why don’t you listen to your experts? Why don’t you listen to professionals? Why don’t you listen to anybody else except those who just happen to agree with you? Why don’t you say what those alleged weaknesses are so we can talk about them?

    07 March 2009

    History of the world (compact version)

    The history of the planet in one minute flat, over at Seed Magazine. (Spotted at Why Evolution Is True.)

    Geologic time is hard for us to grasp, because the timespans are so vast. Everyone resorts to metaphors of one kind or another for comparative purposes. Verbal ones are okay, but I really like how immediate this one feels.

    06 March 2009

    The feeding frenzy resumes

    I have already received multiple emails and read several articles about the hit of money the U.S. federal funding agencies are getting through the economic stimulus package. I was, and, I think, to some degree still am, optimistic, but am starting to feel worried.

    In the 1990s, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget doubled. Universities have a lot of smart people in them. They saw the money, and they responded. They hired people and put up buildings based on the promise of NIH money. What few seemed to realize is that everyone else had the same plan.

    In the 2000s, the NIH budget stayed flat or shrank because of inflation. Suddenly, all those people who were counting on NIH money faced a low probability of success. So even though the NIH budget was about twice what it had been, the number of people chasing the dollars had gone up more than twice, so the chance of successfully getting funding actually went down.

    It’s almost impossible for outsiders to know how much angst and pent-up demand there is among researchers over research budgets and grant success for federal agencies. Many departments basically fire people if they don't get federal grants, even though the funding prospects have been so bad. In essence, the NIH is making tenure decisions for many researchers.

    I think researchers are going to be so relieved by hearing about the federal budget increases, so excited by the prospect that writing a grant proposal might be a better way to get money than buying a lottery ticket, that there could be a huge surge of new grant applications. I worry that the stimulus package is not going to be nearly enough, and that it will create its own little bubble in the research community.

    The fate of flash drives

    You wouldn't expect an article on computer backups to contain a good one-liner, but this one does:

    Be wary of memory sticks. Once full, they fall prey to the same monster that eats socks.

    05 March 2009

    Sink or swim

    ScienceWoman, then Neurotopia, have posts on lecturing that generated a lot of comments. Useful stuff for anyone starting out to teach. I think everyone develops their own answers to lecturing, but I want to point out a couple of broad patterns of thought, using swimming as an example.

    You can teach people to swim by throwing them into the deep end of the pool where the diving boards are. Some will learn by this method, but many will drown.

    You can also teach people to swim by starting them in the shallow end of the pool and actually instructing them. It’s slower, but you'll probably end up with more people actually swimming by the end of it.

    Many university instructors teach using option one. This is frequently supported by statements like they want to challenge the best and brightest students in the class; that they are maintaining the quality of education and refusing to dumb down their instruction; students have to be responsible adults who learn on their own; and so on.

    I personally find this a terrible wasteful of human potential.

    04 March 2009

    Incoming publications

    A week ago last Thursday, I got both copies of the reprints of my latest article. Yes, I know people are going to download the PDF of my article, but dang it, I still like having the paper reprints. The publisher, Karger, does such a nice job on them... If you would like a reprint, just email me and I'll stick it in the mail.

    The same day, I also got an unexpected bonus: a copy of Sean Carroll’s Into the Jungle (see here describing his talk based on material in this book). I got sent a copy because the publisher is hoping to use it as a textbook or textbook supplement, I think.

    Monday night, I found out that the Open Laboratory 2008 is now available for sale. Again, I know you can read every entry in their original form on blogs, but the editors did such a nice job on the compilation...

    And finally, the actual issue that my latest review is in came into my mailbox yesterday.

    03 March 2009

    I'm not quitting my day job regardless of this estimate

    The value of the NeuroDojo blog, according to $timator:


    Check yours?



    There’s no way that’s even close to reality. My blog is not worth $4,571,815. I agree with Beth’s Blog on this one.

    If you are attempting to translate benefits into dollar amounts, particularly intangible benefits - make sure you have a credible formula that you can explain to your executive director in under 5 minutes and that is credible.

    By comparison, here’s the estimate for the main page of the institution I work for:

    My blog is not worth 100 times more than my university’s main page ($38,413). Even I don’t have that big of an ego to think so. My blog is also worth more than Richard Dawkins’ main site ($187,860), the Pharyngula blog ($2,361,839), Science magazine ($933,301), the National Science Foundation ($242,149), and the government of Canada ($191,781).

    I suspect the issue is that because this blog is hosted on blogger, it’s somehow incorporating values for all of "blogspot" in its calculations, inflating the estimate horribly. My Marmorkrebs blog is valued at $4,570,988, but the main Marmorkrebs page at $254.

    They try to explain this, but in a terribly confusing way:

    For a sub-domain you have to take under consideration if you are in a (for example) tumblr or blogspot context or in a situation where the sub-domain is an important piece of the main domain otherwise the final estimator value could be higher.


    I don’t think the site maintainers’ main language is English.

    02 March 2009

    Circus of the Spineless #36

    Check out the blog carnival of crunchies and squishies at Invertebrate Diaries.

    Teaching with Twitter

    Twitter is definitely the flavour of the moment. And I’ve succumbed, adding it to this blog, with the original idea that students could use it to check whether I’m in my office or not.

    Recently, Twitter head honcho and Blogger creator Evan Williams gave a TED talk (below), which ends with an examination of Twitter feeds about his talk, which prompted this article about Twittering during presentations, which prompted this tweet, which led to me writing this post.

    Currently, I ban laptops from my classes, but I use clickers to ask questions and tally feedback.

    Now, it’s dead easy to Twitter from a mobile phone. Most Twitter users do it that way instead of through a computer. And I’m willing to bet that 99% of my students have a phone within reach during my lectures.

    Consider this scenario. An instructor is giving a talk. When the instructor wants a question answered, students Twitter their response instead of using clickers. Ideally, this would involve some software that could recognize some special symbol or code associated with a class, so that responses could be tallied and a graph could be generated on the fly. I’m guessing that such software isn't out of reach for good programmers. Conceptually, it seems actually pretty simple.

    As suggested in the article, students are encouraged to send in their questions by Twitter, which the instructor can check periodically. This allows her to address questions that students have on the fly.

    “But why don’t students in the room... you know... stick up their hands and just ask a question?”

    First, never underestimate how intimidated students are of their instructor. (I’m becoming ever more convinced this is one of the biggest obstacles to learning.)

    Second, sticking up your hand and speaking out gets harder to do as the class gets bigger. If there’s a class of, say, 200 students in a lecture theatre, students may worry that their questions will disrupt the flow of the lecture. This is a legitimate concern. I think everyone will have seen a moment where an instructor can’t answer a question quickly, or some student has something important only to them that they’re fixated on, and the instructor says, “Come see me and we’ll talk after class.”

    The potential downside to using Twitter while teaching is obvious. People won’t pay attention. I’m totally unconvinced by the claim that Twittering during a talk helps people focus. And while people may think it’s their right to ignore a boring presenter, it’s a really bad thing to happen in a teaching situation.

    I wouldn’t try this in a class of 30 students, say, because ultimately, students do need to learn to ask questions by opening their mouths and saying what’s on their mind.

    More thoughts on the so-called “backchannel” here, here. Of course, I find these after I’ve pretty much completed the post above, and feel foolish for feeling that I’ve been ignorant of something going on for a while. I didn't even know the word “backchannel” before this week.