30 April 2009

The chase for stimulus money is on

From this article at Slate:

Since no one knew, at least initially, how many others were applying or what the odds of success were, a sort of wild optimism—that it might be possible to throw something together faster than competitors and edge them out—took hold, especially among many less-established scientists. Meetings were postponed, articles and experiments delayed. “In my lab, people stopped doing anything smart,” a biology researcher in New Jersey told me.

It makes me want to say, “I told you so.”

Students’ point of view on evolution in Texas

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette has an interesting article on the Texas science standards from someone we don’t hear from all that often: Students. I think it’s particularly interesting to hear the students describing how their teachers respond to the task of discussing evolution.

29 April 2009

How do viruses swap genes?

Coping with swine flu in MexicoIf there’s a disease epidemic in the country that’s literally just a few miles down the road from you, but what you’re worried about is how viruses might exchange genetic information...

...You might just be a scientist.

Yes, everyone’s been worried about the swine flu. But what has been bugging me are comments that this swine flu strain was a mix of human, bird, and pig viruses. I read this in New Scientist:

(F)lu surface proteins come in 16 different families, and viruses interbreed and swap genes.

I knew that this had to be a simplification. And that’s fine, because New Scientist is not a technical journal. But I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the concept of viruses “interbreeding.”

Interbreeding implies two organisms loving each other very much in a very special way, which is to say, sex. In organisms like ourselves, sex at the genetic level requires the fusion of sperm and egg cells. Single celled organisms, like bacteria, don’t have to mess around with all that, but just exchange bits of DNA directly.

Viruses, though, are not cells at all. They have two main bits: genetic material (either DNA or RNA) and some proteins. Viral particles infect living cells, and they take over the machinery of infected cells to make new genetic material and proteins. This cycle is shown below.

Viral replication
I could see how you could get genetic variation in viruses by mutation. In particular, a lot of viruses have very sloppy mechanisms for duplicating their genetic information, and so they throw up a huge variety of variations. This is why it’s been so hard to get a handle on, say the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV): it mutates at very high rates, so it’s almost never the same exact virus.

I could also see how a virus could pick up some DNA from an infected cell by some sort of freak mistake, I suppose.

I went digging through Google Scholar, and fairly quickly confirmed that yes, viruses can intermix their genetic material, but the papers I saw made no mention of how they do this. But then I saw the key word I’d been looking for: “reassortment.” That’s what experts call viruses picking up new genetic information, not “interbreeding.”

Even once I started zooming in, I was surprised by how many papers said that reassortment occurs, but said nothing about how. Finally, I found a couple of articles (one older, one newer) that seemed to indicate what I suspected.

It seems that viruses can pick up new genetic information from each other when two viruses infect the same individual simultaneously. I’m still sketchy on the details, but I think what’s going on is that when two viruses are in the same cell, virus #1 can accidentally pick up genetic material or proteins being generated by virus #2. It’s probably not deliberate, just the nature of random chance at the unpredictable molecular level.

Ironically, literally as I was writing this post, it turns out that the idea that the current swine flu virus has a mix of bird, pig, and human viruses may not be correct. Nevertheless, I learned something very new and interesting in my efforts to sate my curiosity.

28 April 2009

Is the mimic octopus misnamed?

ResearchBlogging.orgThe mimic octopus has star power. It’s not the largest octopus, nor the most colourful, but it makes for the best television.

Star power lets you do things that others don’t get to do. Here, it allowed Roger Hanlon and colleagues publish... a natural history paper. Despite Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen’s warning that contempt for observation is a lethal trait for any science, basic observational papers of natural history are unusual. There are a few exceptions, particularly for behaviours that are very rare and have not been observed before.

In 2001, Mark Norman and colleagues published a paper describing a species of octopus that was undescribed, but has since been named Thaumoctopus mimicus. The clip below is a good introduction of the behaviours that Norman and colleagues saw, and how they interpreted it. Norman and colleagues suggested that this octopus imitates other species, including flounders, lionfish, sea snakes, and possibly anemones and jellyfish.

The issue is that “mimicry” implies a whole heck of a lot more than just “resemblance.” “Mimicry” implies a function; that one species is the “original” and another “wannabe” species has “copied” it – usually over evolutionary time – and that the “wannabe” gains advantages from looking like the original. But how do you test whether similarity is mimicry or mere resemblance?

In this paper, Hanlon and colleagues’s aim is to gather evidence as to whether mimicry is actually going on. They report on what they saw during many hours of videorecording these octopuses in their natural habitat. They don’t do any experiments or manipulations. Perhaps because of this, there is a lot of interpretation and subjectivity in this paper (slightly ironic for a paper that complains that the case for mimicry has been “overrated”).

Hanlon and colleagues agree that the octopuses are doing some mimicking, particularly flounder. In this clip below (not by the authors), you can see the octopus and the fish it is supposed to be mimicking.

The main quantitative finding in this paper is that octopuses are staying still and camouflaging themselves immediately before and after flounder-like swimming. Hanlon and colleagues argue that moving in a flounder-like manner is a way for octopuses to move quickly across a bare, sandy landscape without being detected as an octopus. They also show that the duration of a swimming burst by the octopuses is similar in length to a swimming burst by the flounders – both 6 seconds on average – which certainly is in line with mimicry.

Yet the case for mimicry is still weak.

For instance, the authors note that these octopuses also swim in a more typical octopus fashion: jetting with the rear of the mantle (“head”) going first. But there is no comparison of “regular” swimming with flounder-like swimming, which would be useful. A major prediction of true mimicry would be that the octopuses’ behaviour should be sensitive to context. For instance, one might predict that “regular” swimming occurs mainly as an escape response triggered by some external stimuli, whereas flounder-like swimming occurs more during spontaneous foraging.

Next, the authors note that when swimming like a flounder, the mimic octopus often shows a colouration that is not very founder-like! The authors suggest that this species might actually be a “poor mimic,” and that another local unnamed octopus, the “blandopus,” looks more like the local flounders when it swims.

Further, surprisingly little is know about the local flounders. Even what species are present is unclear. This makes it difficult to know what advantage an octopus might gain from mimicking it. Are the flounders poisonous or distasteful?

Although all of this is cast in the context of predator avoidance, Hanlon and company recorded not one instance of anything killing an octopus in 189 hours of videotaped recordings. They did record aggressive interactions with fish and one with a stomatopod, and noted some octopuses were missing bits of their arms, however, so clearly not all is rosy for the octopuses in this habitat.

Hanlon and colleagues mention that they were not allowed to do any collection during this study. They might have been unable to carry out simple field experiments, too. If someone was able to carry out field experiments, however, they might be able to, say, present octopuses with models of potential predators. In the first video above, it is suggested that the mimic octopuses imitate sea snakes to deter potential fish predators. If so, it should be possible to elicit that specific response experimentally in response to fish but not other threats.

Another simple field experiment could be present some models to potential predators of octopuses swimming in “regular” mode versus those in “flounder” mode. Again, if true mimicry is going on, there should be more investigations or attacks of models by predators towards models in “regular” mode.

Clearly, this is a huge amount of research still to do on these wonderful animals.


ROGER T. HANLON, LOU-ANNE CONROY, JOHN W. FORSYTHE (2008). Mimicry and foraging behaviour of two tropical sand-flat octopus species off North Sulawesi, Indonesia Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 93 (1), 23-38 DOI: 10.1111/j.1095-8312.2007.00948.x

Additional: The DOI for this article refuses to work. Here’s direct link to the abstract: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/119394156/abstract

Norman MD, Finn J, Treganza T. 2001. Dynamic mimicry in an Indo-Malayan octopus. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 268: 1755-1758. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2001.1708

23 April 2009

Will McLeroy continue as Texas State Board of Education chair?

The Austin American-Statesmen and Evo.Sphere blog report that Texas legislators are giving State Board of Education Chair Don McLeroy a right grilling.

“You’ve created a hornet’s nest like I’ve never seen,” (Democratic senator Eliot) Shapleigh said, noting that 15 bills – “the most I’ve ever seen” – have been filed during this legislative session to strip various powers from the State Board of Education.

McLeory’s borderline contempt for expertise continues to be on display:

We want our children to learn, McLeroy said, and “if that means having to stand up to the establishment viewpoint… I don’t mind having a hornet’s nest.”

The Texas Freedom Network also has a liveblogged record of the hearing.

5:43 - Sen. Shapleigh: Why did you reject the opinions and advice from the country’s science organizations — which collectively included Nobel laureates.

5:44 - McLeroy: I looked at the scientific evidence. He says evidence in the fossil record argues against the concept of common ancestry. “I quoted from scientists!”

Weird. McLeroy invokes the credibility of science on the one hand, but then rejects it all with statements like his now infamous, “Someone’s got to stand up to these experts.”

Plus, it seems McLeroy thinks that his interpretation of selected quotes of what scientists write is better than what scientists themselves actually say when asked.

22 April 2009

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 33

This post analyzes the ICR’s lawsuit from legal perspective. The poster, Andrew, says he is a lawyer specializing in civil litigation.

When the first line of analysis is:

This lawsuit is gloriously insane.

...You know that’s going to be some entertaining reading.

A Gmail avatar, sort of

Although my first name gets a lot of comments, my last name is more problematic, in some ways. I’ve seen many alternate spellings and heard many variant pronunciations. In particular, a lot of people say it like the small tricky mammal. (For the record, the first part is pronounced like “fall,” the season.)

Late last week, I met the wife of a colleague who was telling me about an Asian-inspired Gmail theme called Tea House. It’s fun, because it changes through the day. And she told me about this little character featured in it...

Zen Fox
She named it, “Zen Fox.”

21 April 2009

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 32

Just when I start to get depressed that I will no longer have the easy blogging target of the Texas State Board of Education's review of the K-12 science standards... The institute for Creation Research rides to my rescue, to provide me with more material.

They’re suing the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for ruling against their request to offer Master’s degrees in science education.

As you can tell by the title, I’ve been following this story for a while.

There’s a short blog entry in the Dallas Observer, and a longer, more substantive post at Freespace.

20 April 2009

Are big brains for adulterous cheating?

ResearchBlogging.orgHumans are obsessed with the things that make us different from other animals. And thus we are obsessed with trying to figure out what makes large brains.

Ideas for what drives selection for large brains include the idea that predators have bigger brains than prey, generalist feeders have bigger brains than specialist feeders, and that organisms living in complex social groups have bigger brains than those that do not. In this paper, author Michael Schillaci focuses on the latter possibility, and in particular, mating systems. The paper does a fairly complex set of comparisons, but I want to focus in on brain size, since I am a neurobiologist.

The approach is simple. Measure a bunch of brains, bodies, and testes, and see if there are any correlations between brain size and various other measures of social systems and mating. There are no experiments here, only analyses.

This sort of analysis can only be as good as the initial data, so it’s worth looking at where these are drawn from. The author did not collect any of his own data, but reanalyzed data compiled in a book chapter of about 31 primate species, including humans.

Of all the primate species, I think it’s fair to say that we understand humans better than any others. And the data for humans here say that the average mass for humans is... 40 kilograms? Less than 90 pounds for the average human?

Similarly, the human mating system is listed as... monogamous? It seems to me that there is anthropological data for a very wide range of human mating systems (although the mode may well be monogamy).

When two of your data points for the best known species are... arguable... you burn a fair amount of credibility in the other data included in the analysis. Unfortunately, since these data are all published elsewhere, in a book chapter, if you can’t track down that original book chapter, you’re sort of stuck in terms of understanding the argument and logic behind those choices.

Schillaci finds a correlation that monogamous species tend to have larger brains. This is perhaps surprising, given that the hypothesis has usually been that large brains are positively correlated with complex social systems, and monogamy is usually viewed as a simpler social system.

From here, Schillaci advances an hypothesis: If you’re monogamous, you have a large brain to have extra-pair copulations. That is, to cheat on your partner. This is a modification of the “social complexity” hypothesis: the complexity is not in the number of individuals you partner with, but in deception necessary to find mating opportunities outside of monogamy.

This is an interesting idea, but it is way more speculative than the last sentence in the abstract suggests. For one thing, only four of the sampled species are monogamous (one of which, Aotus trivergatus, is pictured), even when humans are included. It seems to be a small sample from which to draw conclusions.

The good news is that testing this hypothesis is conceptually straightforward with DNA fingerprinting. You could measure the rate of extra-pair paternity of offspring. The species with the highest rates would be predicted to have larger brains, according to this hypothesis.


Schillaci, M. (2006). Sexual Selection and the Evolution of Brain Size in Primates PLoS ONE, 1 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0000062

18 April 2009

Making textbooks

This article explains how you make high school textbooks and why Texas has So. Much. Clout.

California has more students (more than 6 million versus just over 4 million in Texas), but Texas spends just as much money (approximately $42 billion) on its public schools. More important, Texas allocates a dedicated chunk of funds specifically for textbooks. That money can't be used for anything else, and all of it must be spent in the adoption year. Furthermore, Texas has particular power when it comes to high school textbooks, since California adopts statewide only for textbooks from kindergarten though eighth grade, while the Lone Star State's adoption process applies to textbooks from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

There is much more to learn about the textbook editorial process in this article, however.

16 April 2009

Will Texas State Board of Education be revised?

Following on this year's tumultuous review, not just of science, but many different aspects of the Texas K-12 school science standards, a lot of legislators are asking, “Is this a good way to set the curriculum?”

The bill under consideration will let the Texas Education Agency set most of the standards, but the Board of Education could overrule the Education Agency recommendations with an 80% vote.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the move to change the authority of the Board of Education, which contains a classic example of the pot calling the kettle black:

“As crazy as the Texas Board of Education is, there are just as many crazies, percentage-wise, in the state Legislature,” said board member Pat Hardy.

Unsurprisingly, State Board of Education chair Don McLeroy doesn’t like this idea, says a report from the Austin American-Statesman. Nobody likes giving up power, and McLeroy has proven to be very adept at wielding it:

“There is nobody to question them if this bill is passed,” McLeroy said. “What is wrong with having a debate?”

Debate isn’t necessarily the problem. going back to the Wall Street Journal article for a second, I’d wager that legislators are more concerned about things like this:

Last year, (the State Board of Eductaion) rejected a reading curriculum that teachers had spent nearly three years drafting. In its place, the board approved a document that a few members hastily assembled just hours before the vote.

That’s not debate. That’s dereliction of duty. That’s messing with the process. That’s contempt for professionals.

I sympathize with McLeroy on one point, though (Austin American-Statesman again):
“Regular people have a say-so with the State Board of Education because they elect us,” McLeroy said.

This is also raised by an Education Committee member, according to the Dallas Morning News story on this issue:

Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, was the only committee member defending the authority of the education board to approve curriculum standards and textbooks.

Noting that the 15 board members are elected from their regions of the state, Patrick suggested that stripping the board of its authority would take away residents' ability to have a say over the textbooks used in public schools.

“Aren’t you concerned that you’re taking this out of the hands of the people?” he asked Seliger. “Because the State Board of Education is elected, the people of Texas now have a direct say.”

People get the governments they deserve, I suppose.

Additional: The Dallas Morning News has an editorial on this topic.

15 April 2009

How much I missed

I’ve spent the last couple of days working on a review manuscript I was asked to do on digging. This was the subject of my doctoral work and a couple of subsequent papers I did in my second post-doc. I haven’t looked at it very much in a while.

And it’s little depressing.

For instance, here’s a figure from one of the papers arising from my Ph.D. work. It shows the limb movements of the mole crab Emerita analoga. I was pretty pleased that I was able to work out that the fourth pair of legs circle in the opposite direction at the second and third.

Emerita digging, 1997 style
And today I found this picture from a 1942 paper. Different species (east coast here; mine was west coast), but digging should be very similar.

Emerita digging, 1942 style
Love the very graceful lettering and drawing here, especially compared to my more modern figure.

Anyway, one of the key things I thought I’d learned, about how the fourth leg circles around in the opposite direction from the second and third, is shown really nicely here. Not sure about their uropod direction, though.

Why didn’t I find this when I was working on this all the time in grad school? Sure, Google Scholar didn’t exist then, but even so, finding something this spot on to what I was researching is a bit of a surprise. And this is just one example. There’s a lot of other stuff on crustacean digging that I’m just discovering for the first time.

12 April 2009

An examination of the attached strings

StringsMany people worry about giving public money for researcher. But even the most hard nosed will support government funding for something like cancer research.

This article in the Dallas Morning News shows how terribly convoluted funding can be, even for something that enjoys wide support. Here’s a summary.

  1. Texas legislators start cancer initiative to give money to cancer researchers to “cure cancer.”

  2. To get the bill through, a late addition requires researchers provide 50% matching funds. For every $10 dollars from Texas, the scientist has to find another $5.

  3. Texas law also forbids using the money for overhead (i.e., costs of maintaining infrastructure, like power), which can be 70% of the grant. For every $10 dollars from Texas, the scientist has to find up to another $7.

  4. Thus, to get the grant, a researcher may have to raise more money than the actual value of the grant.

    If a researcher won a $1 million grant from the state, the university could need an additional $1.2 million – $500,000 for the match and as much as $700,000 for indirect costs.

  5. Researcher spend more time chasing money to do research and less time actually doing research.

Can you feel the crazy? Does any reasonable person think this is an effective way of achieving a goal?

Apparently, some are so used to this that they don’t realize how inefficient this all is:

“I think everybody had assumed that the goal was to leverage state money,” DuBois (Dr. Ray DuBois, provost and executive vice president of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center) said. “But I don’t think anyone anticipated that things would go south with the economy.”

Don’t blame the economy for a counterproductive funding structure. And in particular, don’t try to tell me that research money has just suddenly dried up in the last year. The major sources of U.S. funding for this kind of research have been flat or shrinking and becoming ever more insanely competitive for almost a decade, nearly destroying scientific careers.

I also wonder whether, in these “touch economic times,” institutions with 70% overhead will start getting black marks against them for their high indirect costs? For instance, our institution currently charges 43.6%. And it used to be much lower. Thus, if someone at my institution were to try to get money from this program, we would “only” have to raise money slight less than the value of the grant.

This also brings up a story that I’ve commented about on other blogs. This paper recently came out, arguing that for the Canadian funding agency NSERC (who I owe a lot to), it’s cheaper to just award every grant than it is to try to sort through and review every grant and give money based on merit. This seemed to be similar to points I’d made before about micro-grants.

And my sale on amazing is still valid!

10 April 2009

Washington on Texas (sort of), part 2

Arne DuncanFor those who watch the fight for science standards go on state by state, as recently happened in Texas, or in some cases school board by school board, and wondering why the American federal government lets this happen, I offer this snippet from Arne Duncan, the new U.S. secretary of education, from this week’s Science magazine.

Q: You’ve said we’re lying to kids by having these different, low standards. And you’ve also said you want to do what works. If we know what works, why don't we just mandate it?

A.D.: You could, although I think that would ultimately fail... because there would be such a backlash. The goal here is to get it done and not create a lot of drama. ... And having it come from the states, and from the community, rather than top-down, is much more powerful.

Still hope, but no change.

09 April 2009

Washington on Texas

John HoldrenAt the Science Insider blog, presidential science adviser John Holdren of the White House Office of Science and Technology talks about the Texas K-12 science standards and what the federal government might do concerning them:

I'm not aware of any leverage we have, at OSTP or within the federal government, over the science curriculum in Texas, other than exhortation. We can argue and we can beg and we can try to educate. But we have no authority to act.

Ah, the joys of federalism and division of responsibilities.

I hope that the Washington lot do not underestimate the value of exhortation, though. While it's clear that nothing will change the mind of someone like Don McLeroy, it might change the mind of some Texas legislators.

08 April 2009

The downsides of Twitter

Twitter logoRecently, The Island of Doubt blog put up a list that I think will generate a lot of RTs ("re-tweets"): Why Twitter is evil. A small sample:

Maybe if we weren't paying so much attention to our iPhones and Blackberries, we'd notice that the planet is going to hell in a handbasket

Interestingly, the first time I heard of Twitter, it was on the much-missed Creating Passionate Users blog, raising the same concerns. (And by the way, that was in late 2006. Remember, it takes years to become an overnight sensation.)

The first post about Twitter:

Worst of all, this onslaught is keeping us from doing the one thing that makes most of us the happiest... being in flow. Flow requires a depth of thinking and a focus of attention that all that context-switching prevents. Flow requires a challenging use of our knowledge and skills, and that's quite different from mindless tasks we can multitask (eating and watching tv, etc.) Flow means we need a certain amount of time to load our knowledge and skills into our brain RAM. And the more big or small interruptions we have, the less likely we are to ever get there.

On Uncertain Principles discusses an example of how instant communication was... abject failure, from the sounds of it.

Dan Roam takes blogging, Facebook, and Twittering to its logical conclusion.

Additional: A good post on the pros and cons of Twitter and how it’ll interact with presentations here.

07 April 2009

Obsessed with process

Behind the scenesI think the late film critic Gene Siskel once said something to the effect of, “A documentary about the making of a movie should not be more interesting than the actual movie.”

I routinely see scientists bemoaning that non-scientists only pay attention to the cool new facts that science generates, and not the process that uncovered them. To which I say, “Well... yeah. That’s how it is with everything. Why should science be different?”

When you watch an athletic event, is it important to know the atheletes’ training regime and diet that allow them to perform on the day? Sure... if you are part of a small number of hardcore enthusiasts. But not for most.

When you see a great performance in a movie, do you care what it tok to get it on film? Admittedly, there are those who love Inside the Actor’s Studio, and I’m one of them, but even without that knowledge, you still have a great performance.

It’s important to respect hard work. But just like not everyone has to watch the DVD extras to enjoy the movie, I’m not sure that trying to tell people that they have to understand all the details of that process of hard work is really necessary for them to appreciate scientific research.

What’s the scientific equivalent of DVD extras? I think blogs are starting to do some of that, and peek into the process for those who care.

06 April 2009

Remember, she’s a science specialist

Ozone formationHere’s a revealing quote from Laura Clark, secondary science specialist for the Texas City public school district, quoted in the Galveston Country Daily News (emphasis added):

Global warming is more debated in Texas City classrooms than evolution, she said.

“It’s amazing how hotly it can get debated in class,” Clark said. “There are some students who believe the media and the government are trying to make it a bigger deal than it is and that they are trying to cause panic. Then there are other students who truly believe an increase in carbon dioxide in the air is breaking down the ozone layer ... We teach both sides, anyway — especially if it’s something controversial like that.”

Now, there are some ellipses in there, and it’s possible that she’s quoted out of context, but it sure looks like she’s saying that global warming is related to the ozone layer.

It isn’t.

And if she’s the instructor, indeed, a science specialist, I cringe.

The article has more to say about the recent Texas K-12 science standards and evolution, but this quote is a reminder that in many senses, the standards are less important than the teachers on the ground. And their knowledge of science and willingness to teach it is... variable.

Also this morning, an editorial in the Corpus Christi Caller:

The idea of having an elected body of citizens have a say in what is taught in public classrooms may be admirable on its face, but having that body in the hands of an ideological faction is not.

Still more aftermath and anlysis of Texas science standards

Staking a vampireOne of the best post-vote analyses I have yet seen on the Texas K-12 science standards is over in the York Daily Record. It has an article comparing Texas to Dover, Pennsylvania. It interviews some of the participants in the Dover trial where the school board went to court, and lost the decision and lots of dollars, over the teaching of intelligent design. Here’s what Dover plaintiff Steve Stough said:

"Oh ----," he said. "That's intelligent design without using the nomenclature. It really, truly is."


Science magazine has a news story this week about the recent Texas K-12 standards vote.
The creationists were “dogged,” says Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California. “It was like you put the stake in the heart of the vampire and it comes back.“ Moderates on the board may have failed to recognize the final amendments as intelligent design talking points, she added, because they were focused on the “strengths and weaknesses” clause.

The Scientific American podcast also has an interview with NCSE director Eugenie Scott about “lunacy in the Lone Star state” (starts about 15:40 in).

Chris Mooney talks about biology textbooks here. Mooney finds the whole affair depressing, but reminds us that progress has been made in the legal sides
(I)n the space of thirty years, we’ve moved from the stupendous absurdities of “creation science” – the attempt to teach students about a biblical flood having laid down the fossil record, about humans and dinosaurs living together (on the ark, among other places), and so on—to Texas’s vague, poorly written agnotology. That’s progress, if it’s to be measured merely by the substantive positions that anti-evolutionists are now forced to advocate.

The Associated Baptist Press has coverage here.

An opinion piece from a Texas writer in a Canadian paper also talks about the clout of Texas is determining textbooks in other states.

One hope for containing the poor science standards that the Board of Education created is that in two years, the business model of textbooks will have changed so much that either textbooks will no longer be needed, they will be entirely electronic, or readily customizable from state to state. I deal with textbook publishers all the time who are willing to do custom print jobs for just our campus, and we’re a lot smaller than an entire state.

05 April 2009

400 years of science

This weekend is 100 Hours of Astronomy, part of the International Year of Astronomy, which in turn celebrates the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first use of the telescope. As a biologist, I’ve already celebrated Darwin Day with two posts (a phylogenetic tree gallery and “What would Darwin think?”), but I want to take second to celebrate Galileo’s legacy, which is much bigger than Darwin’s.

I”n not talking about the use of the telescope, the discovery of Jupiter’s moons, or that falling objects all accelerate at the same rate.

Galileo’s legacy is nothing less than science itself.

Galileo was the first practitioner of scientist as we understand it today. As Edward Tufte wrote in Beautiful Evidence, Galileo contributed a “forever idea,” that you should be able settle arguments with “visible certainty.” We would now call that “empiricism.”

Thanks, Galileo, for creating a career for people like me.

04 April 2009

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 38

Comer rulingThe judge’s ruling in Chris Comer's case against the Texas Education Agency is on the NCSE website here. Judge Lee Yeakel’s decision has a fair amount of legal jargon, particularly at the start, but it’s reasonably understandable.

Comer’s lawyers argued that the Texas Education Agency (TEA), by having a “neutrality” policy on evolution, violated the first amendment of the U.S. constitution (the Establishment Clause) that separates Church and state. In particular, Comer’s lawyers used the “Lemon test” (named after a plaintiff, not the fruit) which has three “prongs” that are used to determine if an action violates that clause.

The TEA says they are neutral on all policies that the Texas State Board of Education might set. TEA don’t set the curriculum. And the judge agreed. Here’s a snippet from page 15.

Agency staff must remain neutral on contested curriculum issues, no only creationism and evolution. The policy is reasonable, given the elected body (Texas State Board of Education - ZF) the Agency supports. The Agency supports 15 elected Board members who often disagree among themselves regarding curriculum issues and who make final decisions regarding such disputed issues. Agency staff, by virtue of their job description, must avoid acting in ways that favor any particular Board member’s position.

This seems to be the legal crux of the decision. The decision also notes that religious ideas may benefit from TEA’s neutrality policy, but this is an incidental effect.

In light of the recent vote on Texas K-12 science standards, however, I find this bit in Judge Yeakel’s decision very interesting.

The State “readily agree[s] that if the Board chooses to consider including some kind of recognition of alternatives to evolutionary theory in the biology curriculum, it will be entering perilous waters,” but that is the Board’s voyage to weather.

We’ll see how rough the waters get in about two years, when textbook adoptions come up.

03 April 2009

02 April 2009

Comfort zones

What do you do to challenge yourself?

What do you do to expose yourself to views besides the ones you already have?

What do you do specifically because you don’t know how to do it very well and you want to get better?

These are not rhetorical questions; I’d really like to know.

For me, one small thing I do it to listen to The Current podcast. Because it’s a general news show, I’m often listening to some story, covered reasonably substantially, that I wouldn’t otherwise hear in the southern U.S.

But I wonder about whether I’m pushing myself enough to do something hard. And whether other people do.

01 April 2009

Another day

The FoolP.Z. Myers writes:

You just can't trust anything posted to the web today.

In other words, it’s just like every other day.

Texas Education Agency and Chris Comer, Part 37

TEA logoChristina Comer’s lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency has been dismissed, according to the Dallas News. There is no explanation of the judge’s rationale for the dismissal.

I’ve blogged about this story extensively if you need background information.

What are you analyzing?

The Open Laboratory anthology series successfully brought science blogging to a new audience and showed a growing level of maturity and writing skills and styles for the blogging medium.

It’s time to move on to the next stage of science communication. I’m pleased to announce the first annual compilation of the best science tweets...

Twit Lab 2009
Twit Lab 2009!

They said bloggers would never produce any decent writing about science without editors and peer review. Now is the time to show that the twitterati can produce good science writing working under a 140 character constraint.

Send your best science tweets to @DoctorZen on Twitter. If the “@DoctorZen” tag puts your tweet over your 140, email me the tweet and your feed to doctorzen@gmail.com.