30 January 2014

No more As all around

A few years ago, I wrote about Denis Rancourt, a professor who gave every student in his class an A. I listened to an interview with him, and he did it because he didn’t like how pursuit of grades interfered with the intrinsic satisfaction of learning.

He was fired, and even though he had tenure, and that decision has been upheld by an arbitrator.

By all accounts, though, he did much more than just give a highly skewed distribution of grades. He liked breaking rules generally, and admitted as much. It’s possible that factored into his firing.

Related posts

Everybody gets an A

External links

Arbitrator Upholds U. of Ottawa’s Firing of ‘Dissident’ Professor
The Current: March 18, 2009

Photo from here

29 January 2014

Storytelling is dead, long live narrative

At the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting earlier this month, Randy Olson said, “The word ‘storytelling’ is damaged.”

Coincidentally enough, this was something that had been drilled home to me when I gave an exam just a couple of weeks earlier in a technical writing class. I gave students an article that appeared in Nature Methods by Krzywinski and Cairo (2013)  arguing in favour of storytelling, and a response from Katz (2013) against it. There were other follow-up articles, but I just used the initial two to make it easier to complete an essay within exam time.

I asked the students to evaluate the two articles, and take a position on whether scientists should tell stories.

I was stunned by the students’ essays. Every single one of them said scientists should not use storytelling techniques. I’d done these sorts of “Two opinions, which do you agree with and why” sorts of exams before, but I had never seen such a completely lopsided response.

A couple of phrases got used in multiple essays. One was some variation of, “Storytelling is okay for kid’s books, but not for science.” Another was, “Science is supposed to be about the facts.”

This is perfectly in line with Olson’s plenary, in which he noted scientists suffer from “storyphobia.”

Scientists are afraid of the word “story", because of connotations of fabrication and “tweaking” of facts. These aren’t the same.

He advised people to avoid using “storytelling” and talk about “narrative” instead.

Because it was a final exam, I didn’t have a chance to follow up with the students about this. If I had, I would have asked them this:

If science is purely and solely about “the facts,” why do we publish scientific papers at all? Why not just upload methods and datasets? If you have the data and the methods to generate them, isn’t that all you need to assess the “facts” in play?

The other point that I would have raised with them is that there is an inherent connection between stories and experimental science: they are both about causes. A satisfying story is built around causal connections. Without those causal connections, you have a series of disconnected events that makes about as much sense as a random inkblot. Having a character win just because she got lucky makes for an unsatisfying story, because there is no explanation for luck: it just happens. From here (my emphasis):

21. My Porn Director Name Will Be “Therefore Butts”

Click here and get schooled by the South Park guys. The key thing they’re getting across with this is that scenes and events in storytelling don’t happen independently of one another. There must exist a chain of cause and effect, of action and opposite reaction, of consequence. Dominoes do not fall separate from one another. They fall against one another. Embroider that profound shit on a throw pillow.

Cause is the great beating heart of any story... and experiments. The whole point of an experiment is to determine if one thing causes another. Thus, any time you have done experimental science, you have a thread that might be woven into a stor—oops, I mean narrative.

This isn’t to say that non-experimental science can’t generate a narrative, but experimental science has an inherent advantage in doing so.

Additional: Some nice commentary on Google Plus.


Krzywinski M, Cairo A. 2013. Points of view: Storytelling. Nature Methods 10: 687. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nmeth.2571

Katz Y. 2013. Against storytelling of scientific results. Nature Methods 10: 1045.http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nmeth.2699

28 January 2014

Tuesday Crustie: Lavender

I’ve featured many colour variants of fished crustaceans on Tuesday Crustie, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one quite like this. It’s quite spectacular. It’s now on display in a seafood shop, where, given the age of big crabs, it might live for many years.

Hat tip to Miss Mola Mola and Judith Price!

External links

Seamen in Hokkaido shocked to discover bright lavender crab
Picture from here.

27 January 2014

Just me: blogging under my name

I see at Denim and Tweed that Hope Jahren has started a project to collect stories from scientists who blog under their real names. I talked about this at the Identity session at Science Online last year. Luckily, this one was recorded, I start at 8:40 in. I have transcribed my comments (lightly edited) below.

I’m Doctor Zen, and I have the advantage that a lot of people think that’s a pseudonym. But it isn’t. It is my real name, and I have always worked under my real name from the beginning, and there are a couple of reasons for that.

One of which is that I’ve been blogging for a long time. When I started blogging, I don’t think there were any examples or models of pseudonymous bloggers. So it never occurred to me that I would do anything other than be me, for whatever that means.

And, also, I had this idea of what I wanted to achieve as an academic, as a scientist, which – and this sounds incredibly pretentious – was to be a public intellectual. To be somebody that was going to bring ideas and be visible and be noticed. For me, that was kind of the point of being a professor.

Now I realize having said that, that I have advantages. I’m a guy. I’m a white guy, as it happens to be. And now, I have even more advantages, ‘cause I’m a tenured white guy. I’m the person, you know... Now I’ve sort of taken it upon myself to try to use that more, and some of you have heard the kilt story: I wear the kilt as a reminder to myself to be fearless. And that’s always been my point and why I’ve continued, and I’ve never had any desire to take on a pseudonym (that you know of) because I’ve always felt, to use another superhero metaphor, that Sci saw on her blog, to use the Ghost Rider: “You can’t live in fear.”

(But it’s easier for me to not live in fear.)

Additional: Shortly asfter I posted this, Doctor Becca wrote:

Seriously, white dudes. You do not need to explain why you don't use a pseudonym.


I am just annoyed by the slew of “why I blog under my real name” posts.

I hadn’t realize when I wrote this that there were more posts today both at Hope Jahren’s group post some of which were crossposted on individual blogs, like Small Pond Science.

Sorry that I was vain enough to highlight my own comments. I hope anyone interested in this topic will view the video I linked to above, which contains much more good discussion.

Related posts

Using advantages
Science Online 2013: Days 3 and 4

External links

On blogging under my Real Name
Why I write with my own name
#scio13ID We are who we are? Who are we? Issues of identity and the internet
On identity: #Scio13
Group Post: Real-Life Identity and The Internet
DNLee: Real-Life Identity and The Internet
Karen James: Real-Life Identity and The Internet

23 January 2014

Minute Physics tries their hand at biology, and flubs it

This is an odd video from Minute Physics.

First, they say that “evolution” is misused, and just means, “change” in anything, not just biological species. This is extremely odd, and I don’t know what purpose they are trying to serve making this claim. The horse is out of the barn on the use of the “evolution,” with no qualifiers, to mean “biological evolution.” Both the general public and working scientists use the word that way. Geologists and cosmologists don’t get all in a snoot that the Society for the Study of Evolution too their word and should be called the Society for the Study of Biological Evolution, just to be clear. Ditto the Society’s journal, called Evolution

Trying to say “evolution” just means “change” in this day and age is a little like trying to assert that “gay” just means “happy.” “Evolution ain't goin' back to mean “change” in general.

Second, they claim that when people talk about “evolution,” they really mean, “natural selection.” No, they don’t. Biological evolution is not synonymous with natural selection. Natural selection is the main mechanism driving biological evolution, but it isn't the only one. There’s drift, there’s neutral theory, there are environmentally driven mass extinctions, there’s epigenetics, and so on.

Minute Physics should stick to physics.

21 January 2014

Tuesday Crustie: The predator

This wonderful pic is just a teaser of a great series of pictures that Sara Mynott has done over at Saltwater Science. She describes of how crabs try to make a meal of a limpet, which is a tough job. And you have to love a post that includes phrases like, “top-squeezing oddballs.”

Hat tip to Alexis Rudd.

External links

Making A Meal Of Things: How Crabs Handle Lunch

20 January 2014

Get charter

January has been a crazy month, what with the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting, manuscripts due, the start of classes, a public talk at the World Birding Center this past weekend, and much more.

Just a quick post to note that I have seen, and am not surprised by, a recent story that charter schools are teaching creationism.

Another Responsive Ed section claims that evolution cannot be tested, something biologists have been doing for decades. It misinforms students by claiming, “How can scientists do experiments on something that takes millions of years to accomplish? It’s impossible.”

The curriculum tells students that a “lack of transitional fossils” is a “problem for evolutionists who hold a view of uninterrupted evolution over long periods of time.”

I suspect it will take someone to launch a legal challenge to get these schools to knock that off. And the school will lose in court, as creationists always have.

Additional: Texas Freedom Network reports on the response from the Responsive Ed charter school, which mostly boils down to, “Yes, that’s right.”

Cook begins his defense by arguing that Responsive Ed’s instructional materials on evolution are simply conforming to the Texas curriculum standards by “examining all sides of scientific evidence” of scientific explanations.

This was a concern about the phrase “all sides of scientific evidence” when the standards were drafted, and I was hoping that the addition of the word “scientific” would squash such attempts. But then, creationists have a very unusual perspective of scientific evidence.

The Texas Education Agency is investigating.

Additional: And this story is starting to gain traction ntionally, as an LA Times article shows:

One way to react to a school system that places “supernatural intervention” on the same scientific plane as a natural process, however dopily described, is with relief that these 17,000 children won’t be equipped to compete in the real world with our kids. Life in modern America is hard enough, so there’s something Darwinian indeed about saddling all those kids with the burden of a 16th-century education.

Indeed, I think Richard Dawkins noted that those who oppose teaching selection in the classroom as wasteful and unlikely to produce anything often want to apply it with tremendous zeal in the social arena.

And this is why Texas struggles to become a tech leader. This is the image the state has: as anti-intellectual and regressive on the teaching of science.

External links

Texas Public Schools Are Teaching Creationism
Texas’ possibly unconstitutional biology lessons now happen in charter schools
Texas Creationists Demonstrate the Real Reason Behind the Support For Charter Schools
Texas Charter School Operator Defends Misleading Its Students with Junk Science, Political Propaganda
Texas Education Agency Looking at Troubling Charter School Curriculum

14 January 2014

Tuesday Crustie: Ye olde towne

I particularly like the “USA” in red, white, and blue.

Hat tip to Sleestak on Twitter.

13 January 2014

Flat funding

This morning, I got a survey from the Chronicle of Higher Education about flat research funding.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is working on an article about how cuts in federal support for scientific research are affecting university labs. We are asking principal investigators like you to tell us if budget pressures have influenced the kinds of research you do, how your lab is staffed, and how you advise young scientists.

Actually, there are no questions about that last one in the survey I got. This is interesting, because I think it’s critical. There is this big drumbeat from people not in science (politicians, administrators) to get people into STEM degrees, but we don’t necessarily know what scientists tell students.

Here’s what I wrote in the freeform section in reply to the question, “Please describe any specific problems or challenges that have stemmed from flat or declining financing for research.”

I’ve been criticized for saying that I have not had serious problems from flat or declining funding.

Flat and declining funding has not affected me because I have never had much funding. I have been largely overlooked by funding agencies. I realized years ago that if I was to have a productive scholarly career, I was going to have to find ways to produce papers without grants.

Consequently, the research I do is cheap, and my lab can run on minimal funding. I’ve also successfully experimented with crowdfunding.

Some other researchers have been critical when I say things like this, because they see it as undermining the cause for federal research funding. This is like worrying about the blood loss from a mosquito bite in a patient with gunshot wound through major arteries.

The survey is anonymous, but I’m not one to lose a few paragraphs of potential blog material. ;)

Photo by James Jordan on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

01 January 2014

Comments for second half of December 2013

Here are posts that I though were talking about in the last two weeks.

Dr. Isis’s blog is wonderful, and she’s looking for help describing how wonderful.

John Tainer asks if open access publishing is bad ResearchGate. It isn’t, although there are legitimate concerns about archiving, which I’ve addressed before (here, here).