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February 2010 Archives

Friends rang us in great excitement this morning to ask if we were following the news about the big earthquake in Chile, and of tsunami alerts that had been issued for coastal areas around NZ. (The answer was actually 'no'; I'd just got in from a walk with the puppy & hadn't turned the radio on.)

Anyway, the Science Media Centre has some very good commentary & resources centred on this seismic event, & I thought that those teachers with students who'll be working on 'Planet Earth' standards this year might find them extremely useful. There's a media briefing here, and a post by Peter Griffin, that includes a presentation by Victoria University's Dr John Townsend, here.

Big quakes are not uncommon in Chile, given that it sits above the boundary of two big tectonic plates. Charles Darwin wrote about the aftermath of one such event in his Beagle diary, and it's still worth a read today. He also complained, in a letter to his sister Catherine, about how he'd experienced 'just' one little earthquake himself - he almost sounds disappointed! Those looking for some other reading material might enjoy Perils of a restless planet by Ernest Zebrowski. I found it fascinating, although my Significant Other laments that there a are no colour pictures (hardly surprising when you consider that the book covers past events, some of which occurred well & truly before cameras were invented, much less colour film!)

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When I visited Pharyngula today I saw that PZ had posted a video about spotted hyenas. Female spotted hyenas. And that reminded me of one of the late Stephen Jay Gould's wonderful essays on the same subject. (Gould remains one of my favourite science writers -although, having said that, I do find some of his later work rather overblown - and you can find examples of his work at The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive.)

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I've been reflecting on my teaching career lately, partly because I have to write a teaching portfolio. It occurred to me that talking about how I came to be where I am now might perhaps be interesting to some of you who are thinking about your future. In my experience, at least, things don't always go according to plan :-) & it pays to be flexible.

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In the Dean's office we've spent the last few weeks working on enrolments. As always, there've been students who - for whatever reason - haven't met our re-entry requirements, & so the registrar & I have to interview them before admission. And as always, there's a subgroup of those students who attribute their poor results last year to having too active a social life...

funny graphs and charts

OK, so far no-one's mentioned s*x, but a busy social life certainly can certainly have an impact on study - less time for homework, & if you have a few too many late nights you'll probably end up sleeping too long & missing lectures. (And as I think I've said before, your university lecturers probably won't nag you about it - & the office certainly won't phone home!)

One rueful young man told me he wouldn't be missing classes again. "I've worked it out," he said; "you're paying about $60 a lecture in fees & that's a lot of money to throw away." Now, that puts it in perspective! And someone I don't think he'll be back in my office for this again :-)

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One of the nice things about working at a university is that there is almost always an interesting talk to go to (supposing you have the time...). Yesterday I managed to go to a fascinating discussion of the use of meta-analyses by a Waikato graduate, Shinichi Nakagawa. (I suspect that Grant knows much more about this technique than I do, but Shinichi's talk was very post-provoking.)

Shinichi began his studies here a year or so after I joined the University staff. He was invited to do a BSc(Hons), something reserved for the really able students, & it's a sign of the quality of his research project (on zebra finches) that he's since published five papers from it. After gaining his PhD at a UK university, Shinichi's come back to New Zealand to work at the Universit of Otago. Over the last few years he's begun to use meta-analyses more & more to identify relationships (or the lack of them) between data sets, & this particular research tool & its applications were the subject of his enthusiastic presentation. (He recommended Morton Hunt's 1997 book How science takes stock: the story of metanalysis as an excellent introduction to the area, written by a journalist for a lay audience.)

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A while ago now I wrote about Rom Houben, who'd been in a vegetative state for 23 years but who, it was claimed, was really conscious inside an immobile body & now able to communicate via something known as 'facilitated communication'. I and many others were sceptical of this claim - it looked too much as if the 'facilitator' was controlling what was going on. (That's not to say they didn't genuinely believe that they were assisting Mr Houben to communicate.) And there were simple ways to test this, which at the time the lead researcher in the case seemed to feel unnecessary.

Now Steve Novella reports that such a test has been done. Mr Houben was shown several objects while the 'facilitator' was out of the room, & subsequently asked to name them with her assistance. He got none of them right. Not one. This very strongly suggests that the facilitator, consciously or otherwise, was imposing her own words & understandings on Mr Houben, and supports Dr Novella's characterisation of 'facilitated communication' as a pseudoscience. (My fellow Sciblogger Darcy Cowan has also posted something about this.)

I feel intensely sorry for Mr Houben & his family in all this. If Mr Houben really does suffer from 'locked-in syndrome' (one possible diagnosis), then imagine how that must be for him, day after day. And imagine how profoundly frustrated you would be, in that context, if some well-intentioned person began claiming to help you to 'speak' - and got it all wrong. And his family - his mother had insisted for years that her son really was alert inside his unresponsive body. To be told that he was, to have him 'speak' to her, and then to have all that taken away by the lead researcher's admission that he'd got it all wrong - to me this is indescribably sad.

It also saddens me that people will continue to cling to the hope - exemplified by one of the commenters on Dr Novella's post - that facilitated communication really does offer the chance of communicating with people who are otherwise cut off from their loved ones (eg children - & adults - with severe autism). But, as the Houben case shows, the words will be those of the facilitator, regardless of their beliefs or intent. (And in case you think I'm being too harsh here, the Houben case is not the only one where the idea of facilitated communication has been shown to be false.)

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... the intriguing title of a brief news item in the latest edition of Science. The story (anon, 2010) outlines some of the most serious plant & fungal threats to agricultural production. One of them is the potato blight fungus, Phytophthora infestans. The leaves & stems of an infected plant blacken & fall, & the tubers themselves basically turn to mush:

Potato blight

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And for a bit of vaguely scientific fun, you might like to try 'devolving' yourself here (found this one via a commenter on the Young Australian Skeptics - whence also came the image above).

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One of the conflicts faced by probably every classroom teacher is the one between the amount of material one has to teach (& the students to learn about) and the time available. I face it myself: huge (though also very good) textbook, requests from my colleagues to make sure that the first-year course adequately prepares students to take second-year papers, students coming in with a range of backgrounds & prior experiences of biology - & a 12-week semester in which to accommodate it all. Reflecting on my teaching practice over the last several years in our A semester intro bio paper, I think I probably teach less content, less detail, than when I started in this particular paper, but have more of a focus on identifying (& dealing in depth with) big, or key, ideas. As you've probably guessed from my posts, I encourage my students to think critically about what they're learning, and to gain an understanding of how those ideas & concepts relate to each other. And of course I'd like all my students to view science as fascinating, fun, useful, & relevant to them in their daily lives...

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Over on Code for Life, Grant's recently put up some posts concerning homeopathy (here & here, for example). He's also suggested that homeopathic (& other) remedies should carry disclaimers to do with their active ingredients (or lack thereof) and what they can & can't do.

Anyway, one of the common responses to articles critical of homeopathy & other 'complementary & alternative medicines'** is that, even if they 'work' only via the placebo effect, at least they do no harm. I would argue that if the placebo effect masks an ongoing problem, then it is doing harm. And the same is true if patients are led to stop taking necessary medication. But - & I think more seriously - here's an example where following a homeopathic prescription may do considerable damage: homeopathic vaccinations.

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I found this XKCD cartoon whlie clearing out my mailbox - I found it via PZ quite a while ago now (so it's probably circumnavigated the world net 3.5 times by now!), but thought it was worth sharing. (Keep an eye out for cuttlefish, Marcus!)


(Many of the XKCD cartoons are hilarious; some I just find quite strange... Must say something about my sense of humour!)

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I was at the gym yesterday when I read something in a women's mag that quite put me off my stride on the cross-trainer. (In my defence, I'd forgotten to take a book & the only other reading material on offer was car magazines.) The offending article contained the following factoids: you need to drink at least 8 glasses of water a day, if you don't drink it your cells will be sloshing in dirty recycled water, tea & the like won't do - but 'lemon water' will & is especially good because it will alkalise your blood & help you metabolise fats (which your cells store to protect them against acids...).

Hmmm. Let's look at all this through the lens of science - or to put it another way

funny pictures of cats with captions

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'Risk intelligence quotient' (RQ) - something I'd heard about but never really thought about until I read one of PZ's posts today. (Where on earth does he find the time to write so much???) Turns out that RQ is the subject of a private research project that hopes to assess levels of risk intelligence in the general population.

Risk intelligence quotient is described by the project's authors as a measure of a person's ability to estimate probabilities accurately - those with a high RQ are better at this task. (They comment that high RQ seems to have been low or missing in action in many lenders & borrowers on the world financial stage in recent times - how true!)

Anyway, they offer a test that you can take to get an estimate of your own RQ. It doesn't matter if you don't know the answer to some of the questions (I will confess that I didn't know many of them, myself). What you're asked to do is give an indication of how certain you are that a given statement is true or false. Takes about 5 minutes to complete & you can then decide whether you want your answers to become part of the larger data set.

I can be fairly sure that my RQ is 73... what's yours?


PS yes, there are some ambiguous questions there & it's definitely US-centric - but those were the ones where I was most likely to pick 50% & cover all my bases that way!

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Those of you who've followed my blog for a while (thanks, guys!) will know that in mid-2009 I farewelled my lovely old labrador Bella - & that after 9 weeks I'd had enough of being dogless & Ben joined our family.

Ben at Christmas.JPG

Having Ben hasn't made me forget Bella, of course (I'm as soppy as the next person!). So I rather liked the contents of an e-mail one of my friends sent today & thought I'd share it. (Yes, I know it's been all round the interwebs by now & no, it's not science and not scientific at all, but 'dog people' will know why it clicked.)

Being a veterinarian, I had been called to examine a ten-year-old Irish Wolfhound named Belker. The dog's owners, Ron, his wife, Lisa, and their little boy, Shane, were all very attached to Belker, and they were hoping for a miracle.
I examined Belker and found he was dying of cancer. I told the family we couldn't do anything for Belker, and offered to perform the euthanasia procedure for the old dog in their home.
As we made arrangements, Ron and Lisa told me they thought it would be good for six-year-old Shane to observe the procedure. They felt as though Shane might learn something from the experience.

The next day, I felt the familiar catch in my throat as Belker's family surrounded him. Shane seemed so calm, petting the old dog for the last time, that I wondered if he understood what was going on. Within a few minutes, Belker slipped peacefully away.
The little boy seemed to accept Belker's transition without any difficulty or confusion. We sat together for a while after Belker's death, wondering aloud about the sad fact that animal lives are shorter than human lives. Shane, who had been listening quietly, piped up, 'I know why.'

Startled, we all turned to him. What came out of his mouth next stunned me. I'd never heard a more comforting explanation.
He said, 'People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life -- like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?' The six-year-old continued, 'Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don't have to stay as long.'


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Today's Herald carried a story from the UK's Telegraph, which looked at some research into the social behaviour of chimpanzees & bonobos ('pigmy' chimanzees). And - as usual - extrapolated from this to people... Grumpiness, it told is, was a sign of a more 'advanced' nature, whereas the happier, more peaceable bonobos were 'less evolved'.

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