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January 2011 Archives

A little while back I wrote a post on the fact that so-called 'intelligent design' is simply creationism by another name, a name intended to obscure the link & to get around the US prohibition on teaching religion in science classes. When this was posted on the NZ Sciblogs site, one commenter said, Firstly, there is nothing to fear, even if it is true. Students can think for themselves, can’t they? I was reminded of this when readinga new article in Science magazine's Education forum: Defeating creationism in the courtroom, but not in the classroom (Berkman & Plutzer, 2011).

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Because I seem to have very little time on my hands at the moment, I thought I would re-post something I wrote very early on in my blogging career - it hasn't dated & in fact is quite relevant to a more recent post on 'intelligent design' creationism

The camera-type eye of humans (& in fact all vertebrates) is often held up as a classic example of what 'intelligent design' (ID) proponentsists (& no, that's not a slip of the keyboard) call irreducible complexity. The argument goes like this: a) the camera-type eye needs all its parts to function. b) It couldn't possibly be assembled randomly as Darwinian theory claims. c) The eye thus supports the concept of intelligent design. After all, Darwin himself commented that "To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree" (1859, "On the origin of species").

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That's the attention-grabbing title of a new paper in Science magazine's 'education forum' section (Anderson et al. 2011). Most readers will know that science education is a subject dear to my heart, & a topic that Marcus & I write on from time to time (here & here, for example). The authors are all professors at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute & are supported by that institution to create 'new programs that more effectively engage students in learning science' (ibid), so I was keen to see what they had to say on the topic of raising the profile and status of teaching at the tertiary level.

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In my idle moments (haha) I visit a number of different science blogs - both the posts and the comments threads can be educational and entertaining as well. Sometimes, for particular topics (vaccination being one, but anything to do with 'natural health products' can almost be guaranteed to set things off as well), the discussion can be derailed by one or two commenters who seem unwilling or unable to follow the normal rules of a rational debate. This can make it really hard to keep a discussion on track & must be frustrating for others trying to follow the thread of ideas.

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I always enjoy reading Oliver Sacks' books, not least for the wonderful anecdotes but also with the humane, compassionate way in which he described & discusses the various problems that his patients present with. And so I was delighted to get my hands on another one, The Mind's Eye - as the title suggests, this volume examines the ways in which neurological problems manifest themselves in the way we see the world. One reason the book caught my eye was its cover: red with yellow font - & a font that's deliberately fuzzy & blurred in places, by way of mimicking how some people see the world. Another reason was that as a child, I remember being fascinated by the question of how other folks perceived colour. I mean, was their 'red' the same as the 'red' that I saw? And if it was different, how would we actually know, given that we'd both use the same name for the colour of fire-engines & 'red delicious' apples. (I didn't think of traffic lights - there weren't any in Wairoa when I was a kid.)

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One of the topics that comes up for discussion with my Sciblogs colleagues is the issue of 'resistance to science' - the tendency to prefer alternative explanations for various phenomena over science-based explanations for the same observations. It's a topic that's interested me for ages, as teaching any subject requires you to be aware of students' existing concepts about it, and coming up with ways to work with their misconceptions. So I was interested to read a review paper by Paul Bloom & Deena Weisberg, looking at just this question.

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Due to popular request (oh, all right, one of my colleagues asked), I thought I'd upload some pictures of the old & new fishponds. Meant to do it when I first wrote about the Great Goldfish Shift but for some reason our VPN server kept cutting me off when I tried to upload the images, & then other things cropped up...

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With the new house came a long drive lined with agapanthus. My mother would have said, "the dreaded agapanthus", & she wouldn't have been far wrong. I don't like the things very much; they spread very vigorously & I tend to view them as a weed. (I see from Te Ara that Biosecurity New Zealand was looking at calling for a nationwide ban on the plants, back in 2007. I wonder what happened with that? Where we live now, every second house has agapanthus in the garden.) Still, we haven't really given any thought to what we might replace them with, so the agapanthuses (agapanthi?) have had a reprieve for the moment. And this means that I have to cut back all the spent flowerheads - a bit before they've finished flowering, actually, so as to minimise the chances of them setting (& spreading) seed.

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Grant & I have stumbled across another NZ science blog, planktonandphilosophy (well, he did the stumbling & then pointed me there). We both particularly liked the excellent post on misreporting of statistics on armed bank robberies: if you took the headlines at face value, the number of armed heists soared last year. But this post looks at the actual data & discovers.... drumroll.... that they've dropped. Go over there & read the whole story :)

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Well, our happy expectations of duckweed & waterfern carpeting the top of our nice new goldfish pond have been dashed - the little beggars (fish) scoffed the lot! We've restocked with weed from the old pond but somehow I suspect we might be doing that for a while.

Which shows how ignorant I am about goldfish, really. Back at the old house we were removing great handfuls of weed from the top of the pond, pretty much every second day. (The pumpkins grew very well on this.) Same fish, same amount of commercial goldfish food every day. The only difference I can think of is the lack of any real functioning ecosystem, in the sense that until all sorts of invertebrate life colonises the new pond, there isn't anything other than the weed to supplement our feedings if the fish get peckish between meals. So maybe we'll just have to feed them more... And keep some weed growing in a separate bucket, as this goldfish afficionado suggests.

I should have looked into it more deeply, really, as it seems that goldfish adore duckweed... (Which just goes to show that data trump personal anecdote every time!)

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A few weeks ago one of my fellow SciBloggers, Siouxsie Wiles, wrote an interesting piece about a childrens' film that she'd seen where the underlying message seemed to be: you don't have to understand, you just have to believe. Which as she says, does rather encapsulate a lot of pseudo-scientific nonsense that's promoted these days (homeopathy, 'miracle mineral supplements', etc etc etc). Anyway, Siouxsie mentioned creationism in her post, & now a new commenter has dropped by to inform us that 'intelligent design... is not creationism in any shape or form, but serious scientific debate about the latest evidence for the origins of life.' My immediate response emulated the famous Tui billboards (here's an example), but then I & other regulars there went on to point out that this comment is a long way off-base. And I thought the subject was worth revisiting in a separate post.

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Once upon a time, a long time ago when I was a high school student, I remember being taught about human evolution as a fairly linear, straightforward narrative. OK, there were those 'robust' australopiths (aka Paranthropus) on a dead-end side branch, but otherwise species followed species - beginning around 14 million years ago with Ramapithecus (or Sivapithecus) - until you got to us. I don't remember being taught much about 'new' finds, either, although there must have been some; it all came across as pretty much done & dusted. In other words, we didn't learn much about the nature of science, either; there was no sense that new discoveries could overturn existing understandings.

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Or so our cats might be forgiven for thinking. For among the many things that have occupied the family's time in the last couple of weeks (along with moving house, having elderly relations to stay for Christmas, & cleaning up the old house for sale) has been the Great Goldfish Shift.

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