Archive for the ‘Science’ Category
Fascinating article by James Krupa in Orion magazine:
i’m often asked what I do for a living. My answer, that I am a professor at the University of Kentucky, inevitably prompts a second question: “What do you teach?” Responding to such a question should be easy and invite polite conversation, but I usually brace for a negative reaction. At least half the time the person flinches with disapproval when I answer “evolution,” and often the conversation simply terminates once the “e-word” has been spoken. Occasionally, someone will retort: “But there is no evidence for evolution.” Or insist: “It’s just a theory, so why teach it?”
At this point I should walk away, but the educator in me can’t. I generally take the bait, explaining that evolution is an established fact and the foundation of all biology. If in a feisty mood, I’ll leave them with this caution: the fewer who understand evolution, the more who will die. Sometimes, when a person is still keen to prove me wrong, I’m more than happy to share with him an avalanche of evidence demonstrating I’m not.
Some colleagues ask why I bother, as if I’m the one who’s the provocateur. I remind them that evolution is the foundation of our science, and we simply can’t shy away from explaining it. We don’t avoid using the “g-word” when talking about gravitational theory, nor do we avoid the “c-word” when talking about cell theory. So why avoid talking about evolution, let alone defending it? After all, as a biologist, the mission of advancing evolution education is the most important aspect of my job.
TO TEACH EVOLUTION at the University of Kentucky is to teach at an institution steeped in the history of defending evolution education. The first effort to pass an anti-evolution law (led by William Jennings Bryan) happened in Kentucky in 1921. It proposed making the teaching of evolution illegal. The university’s president at that time, Frank McVey, saw this bill as a threat to academic freedom. Three faculty members—William Funkhouser, a zoologist; Arthur Miller, a geologist who taught evolution; and Glanville Terrell, a philosopher—joined McVey in the battle to prevent the bill from becoming law. They put their jobs on the line. Through their efforts, the anti-evolution bill was defeated by a forty-two to forty-one vote in the state legislature. Consequently, the movement turned its attention toward Tennessee.
John Thomas Scopes was a student at the University of Kentucky then and watched the efforts of his three favorite teachers and President McVey. The reason the “Scopes Monkey Trial” occurred several years later in Dayton, Tennessee—where Scopes was a substitute teacher and volunteered to be prosecuted—was in good part due to the influence of his mentors, particularly Funkhouser. As Scopes writes in his memoir, Center of the Storm: “Teachers rather than subject matter rekindled my interest in science. Dr. Funkhouser . . . was a man without airs [who] taught zoology so flawlessly that there was no need to cram for the final examination; at the end of the term there was a thorough, fundamental grasp of the subject in bold relief in the student’s mind, where Funkhouser had left it.”
I was originally reluctant to take my job at the university when offered it twenty years ago. It required teaching three sections of non-majors biology classes, with three hundred students per section, and as many as eighteen hundred students each year. I wasn’t particularly keen on lecturing to an auditorium of students whose interest in biology was questionable given that the class was a freshman requirement.
Then I heard an interview with the renowned evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson in which he addressed why, as a senior professor—and one of the most famous biologists in the world—he continued to teach non-majors biology at Harvard. Wilson explained that non-majors biology is the most important science class that one could teach. He felt many of the future leaders of this nation would take the class, and that this was the last chance to convey to them an appreciation for biology and science. Moved by Wilson’s words, and with the knowledge that William Funkhouser once held the job I was now contemplating, I accepted the position. The need to do well was unnerving, however, considering that if I failed as a teacher, a future Scopes might leave my class uninspired.
I realized early on that many instructors teach introductory biology classes incorrectly. Too often evolution is the last section to be taught, an autonomous unit at the end of the semester. I quickly came to the conclusion that, since evolution is the foundation upon which all biology rests, it should be taught at the beginning of a course, and as a recurring theme throughout the semester. As the renowned geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” In other words, how else can we explain why the DNA of chimps and humans is nearly 99 percent identical, and that the blood and muscle proteins of chimps and humans are nearly identical as well? Why are these same proteins slightly less similar to gorillas and orangutans, while much less similar to goldfish? Only evolution can shed light on these questions: we humans are great apes; we and the other great apes (gibbons, chimps, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans) all evolved from a common ancestor.
Soon, every topic and lecture in my class was built on an evolutionary foundation and explained from an evolutionary perspective. My basic biology for non-majors became evolution for non-majors. It didn’t take long before I started to hear from a vocal minority of students who strongly objected: “I am very offended by your lectures on evolution! Those who believe in creation are not ignorant of science! You had no right to try and force evolution on us. Your job was to teach it as a theory and not as a fact that all smart people believe in!!” And: “Evolution is not a proven fact. It should not be taught as if it is. It cannot be observed in any quantitative form and, therefore, isn’t really science.”
We live in a nation where public acceptance of evolution is the second lowest of thirty-four developed countries, just ahead of Turkey. Roughly half of Americans reject some aspect of evolution, believe the earth is less than ten thousand years old, and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Where I live, many believe evolution to be synonymous with atheism, and there are those who strongly feel I am teaching heresy to thousands of students. A local pastor, whom I’ve never met, wrote an article in The University Christian complaining that, not only was I teaching evolution and ignoring creationism, I was teaching it as a non-Christian, alternative religion.
There are students who enroll in my courses and already accept evolution. Although not yet particularly knowledgeable on the subject, they are eager to learn more. Then there are the students whose minds are already sealed shut to the possibility that evolution exists, but need to take my class to fulfill a college requirement. And then there are the students who have no opinion one way or the other but are open-minded. These are the students I most hope to reach by presenting them with convincing and overwhelming evidence without offending or alienating them.
Some students take offense very easily. . .
And Phil Plait in Slate offers some answers to questions asked by creationists:
After writing yesterday about the now-famous/infamous debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, I don’t want to make this blog all creationism all the time, but indulge me this one more time, if you will. On BuzzFeed, there is a clever listicle that is a collection of 22 photos showing creationists holding up questions they have for people who “believe” in evolution.
These questions are fairly typically asked when evolution is questioned by creationists. Some are philosophical, and fun to think about, while others show a profound misunderstanding of how science works, and specifically what evolution is. I have found that most creationists who attack evolution have been taught about it by other creationists, so they really don’t understand what it is or how it works, instead they have a straw-man idea of it.
Because of this, it’s worth exploring and answering the questions presented. Some could be simply answered yes or no, but I’m all about going a bit deeper. With 22 questions I won’t go too deep, but if you have these questions yourself, or have been asked them, I hope this helps.
I’ll repeat the question below, and give my answers.
1) “Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?”
I’m not Bill, but I’d say yes, he is. More than just giving them facts to memorize, he is showing them how science works. Not only that, his clear love and enthusiasm for science is infectious, and that to me is his greatest gift.
2) “Are you scared of a Divine Creator?”
No. In fact, if there is a Judeo-Christian god, that would have fascinating implications for much of what we scientists study, and would be a rich vein to mine. Perhaps a more pertinent question is, “Are you scared there might not be a Divine Creator?” There is more room for a god in science than there is for no god in religious faith.
3) “Is it completely illogical that the Earth was created mature? i.e. trees created with rings … Adam created as an adult ….”
It might be internally consistent, even logical, but a bit of a stretch. After all, we can posit that God created the Universe last Thursday, looking exactly as it is, with all evidence pointing to it being old and your memories implanted such that you think you’re older than a mere few days. Consistent, sure, but plausible? Not really.
4) “Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove evolution?” . . .
If something is a good solution, evolution tends to close in on it, and separate evolutionary paths thus reach quite similar good solutions: the eye, for example, has evolved independently 50 to 100 times. But the eye is a late-comer, evolutionarily speaking, whereas neurons are really basic—i.e., evolved very early, before much branching had been done. But, as it turns out, after some branching, so that we have different sorts of neurons. Emily Singer reports in Quanta:
When Leonid Moroz, a neuroscientist at the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine, Fla., first began studying comb jellies, he was puzzled. He knew the primitive sea creatures had nerve cells — responsible, among other things, for orchestrating the darting of their tentacles and the beat of their iridescent cilia. But those neurons appeared to be invisible. The dyes that scientists typically use to stain and study those cells simply didn’t work. The comb jellies’ neural anatomy was like nothing else he had ever encountered.
After years of study, he thinks he knows why. According to traditional evolutionary biology, neurons evolved just once, hundreds of millions of years ago, likely after sea sponges branched off the evolutionary tree. But Moroz thinks it happened twice — once in ancestors of comb jellies, which split off at around the same time as sea sponges, and once in the animals that gave rise to jellyfish and all subsequent animals, including us. He cites as evidence the fact that comb jellies have a relatively alien neural system, employing different chemicals and architecture from our own. “When we look at the genome and other information, we see not only different grammar but a different alphabet,” Moroz said.
When Moroz proposed his theory, evolutionary biologists were skeptical. Neurons are the most complex cell type in existence, critics argued, capable of capturing information, making computations and executing decisions. Because they are so complicated, they are unlikely to have evolved twice.
But new support for Moroz’s idea comes from recent genetic work suggesting that comb jellies are ancient — the first group to branch off the animal family tree. If true, that would bolster the chance that they evolved neurons on their own.
The debate has generated intense interest among evolutionary biologists. Moroz’s work does not only call into question the origins of the brain and the evolutionary history of animals. It also challenges the deeply entrenched idea that evolution progresses steadily forward, building up complexity over time.
The First Split
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 540 million years ago, the ocean was poised for an explosion of animal life. The common ancestor of all animals roamed the seas, ready to diversify into the rich panoply of fauna we see today.
Scientists have long assumed that sponges were the first to branch off the main trunk of the animal family tree. They’re one of the simplest classes of animals, lacking specialized structures, such as nerves or a digestive system. Most rely on the ambient flow of water to collect food and remove waste.
Later, as is generally believed, the rest of the animal lineage split into comb jellies, also known as ctenophores (pronounced TEN-oh-fours); cnidarians (jellyfish, corals and anemones); very simple multicellular animals called placozoa; and eventually bilaterians, the branch that led to insects, humans and everything in between.
But sorting out the exact order in which the early animal branches split has been a notoriously thorny problem. We have little sense of what animals looked like so many millions of years ago because their soft bodies left little tangible evidence in rocks. “The fossil record is spotty,” said Linda Holland, an evolutionary biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.
To make up for our inability to see into the past, scientists use the morphology (structure) and genetics of living animals to try to reconstruct the relationships of ancient ones. But in the case of comb jellies, the study of living animals presents serious challenges.
Governments often do not like scientists, who in general deal in reality and not in ideology, so governments take steps to stop scientific communication. We’ve seen it in the Soviet Union, in Red China, in Florida (state officials doing planning cannot discuss global warming or climate change), in North Carolina (state laws restrict the amount of increase in sea level that can be used), and now in Canada. Stephen Buranyi writes at Motheboard:
A coalition of journalists and academics is urging Canadians to write letters to government scientists, asking for data on pollution, global warming, and other federal research. They may not get much in response—but that’s precisely the point.
The week-long letter writing campaign, which began on Monday and is called Write2Know, is a protest of the government’s controversial practice of controlling access to both science and scientists—a policy that has never been officially codified, but has been enforced by government agencies for the past half-decade.
Typically, requests sent to federal scientists by members of the public are instead directed to a media relations officer who determines how much access will be allowed. Sometimes interviews will be granted, while in other cases, the officer determines that a number of questions will be approved and passed on to the scientist via email. Scientists may have their responses cut and edited before being released.
The government’s media strategy isn’t clearly defined, and the extent of these muzzling tactics have mainly been pieced together from leaked reports and scores of denied or stalled information requests. But it appears that anyone, inside or outside Canada, attempting to communicate with a Canadian federal scientist for anything other than a scientific project, is subject to this oversight.
“If a journalist or academic writes to a scientist to ask for information they encounter these barriers. We want to walk people through the steps of inquiry to get the same response or non-response we would get,” said Dr. Natasha Myers, director of York University’s Institute for Science and Technology Studies, and one of the primary organizers of the Write2Know campaign.
From March 23-27, those who write letters will get to experience the frustration of dealing with a government intent on keeping its own research and data under wraps—when it isn’t doing everything it can to shut down the production and storage of data by cutting jobs and research funding, and closing libraries and archives across the country.
Journalists first noticed the walls that had been erected around federal scientists when media officers began limiting access in 2008. A pair of high profile incidents a few years later, in which climate change and fisheries data was withheld, sparked widespread outrage, and outraged letters: journalists wrote an open letter; academics wrote an open letter; foreign scientists wrote an open letter; and yet nothing about the policy has changed.
Writing a letter to the Harper government is like writing a letter to Santa: it’s unlikely it’ll ever get read and you just have to hope you get what you want. They’re also both really into arctic industrialization.
But the organizers of the Write2Know campaign say that their campaign differs from previous appeals launched by professional bodies in a very important way. “For us it begins with a public,” Dr. Myers said. “The reason we’re doing this as a letter writing campaign is precisely because we want to generate a public that is interested and informed enough to engage with research.” . . .
Information control of this sort is a hallmark of authoritarian government.
Fascinating little study. Singing the blues is not so bad….
Very interesting: they bleed more (in surgery, for example) and also require 20% more anesthesia.
I linked to this article by Jack Hitt earlier, but in case you didn’t click the link, check out his conclusion:
. . . A 2011 study published in the journal Animal Cognition found that even expertly trained dogs and the most professional handlers cannot evade what is called the Clever Hans effect. In tests, dogs trained to detect explosives and drugs were sent, with their handlers, into a series of rooms to find non-existent contraband. In one room, there was a decoy that had been scented with sausage; in another, there was an unscented decoy accompanied by a sign telling the handler, falsely, that it smelled of contraband; a control room had no decoys. The investigators found, overall, that “human more than dog influences affected alert locations”: the meat decoy attracted more false alarms than anything in the control room, but the decoy with the sign prompted nearly twice as many false alerts as the one with the tempting scent. In other words, the dogs found their handlers’ unconscious cues significantly more compelling than the sausage. Trained animals, it turns out, are arguably better at reading our cues than we are at suppressing them.
A friend of mine recently saw a detection dog at a Metro-North station in Connecticut go into full alert when a fifty-something white businessman in a suit walked by. The trainer pulled the dog back and nodded for the man to pass. My friend noted, “Training a dog is not something that happens once and then it’s over. They are always being trained.” And so that Metro-North dog has begun a kind of continuing education. Repeat that action and the dog will learn: give middle-aged white guys in brogues a pass.
In 2011, the Chicago Tribune analyzed three years’ worth of data related to police dogs working in suburban Chicago. The analysis revealed how easy it is for certain cultural stereotypes—in this case, of drug-dealing Hispanics—to travel straight down the leash. When dogs alerted their handlers to the presence of drugs during traffic stops, the officers found drugs forty-four per cent of the time overall. In cases involving Latino drivers, that number fell to twenty-seven per cent. In other words, the dogs were erroneously implicating people of Hispanic descent far more frequently than other people. When this disparity was made public, the question naturally arose of whether handlers’ unconscious cues might be the cause? Paul Waggoner, a scientist at Auburn University’s Canine Detection Research Institute, who was interviewed by the Tribune, provided the answer. A “big, resounding yes,” he said.
There is a paradox in police-dog work, post-Ferguson. Depending on its training, a dog may or may not be good at alerting us to drugs or bombs. But there is one social ill that all detection dogs, even the poorly trained ones, reveal with searing accuracy: the hidden racial prejudices of the police officers who deploy them.