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February 2012 Archives

 A while back, I wrote about the way that the geology of the Grand Canyon has been misrepresented by 'Young Earth' creationists. Now here's a good discussion of this from geologist Steve Newton

You may also remember the comments about evolution that were made by some of last year's Miss USA contestants. A 2012 Darwin Day talk by Josh Rosenau looks at how closely the contestants' views match those of Americans in general. His context is the continuing efforts to see various 'flavours' of creationism taught in science classrooms.

Both are interesting viewing & could form the basis of some good classroom discussion :-)

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This post was originally written for Talking Teaching, where it has the title "what is the caminalcule lab supposed to teach?" You can get some good ideas for posts from reading the search terms that bring people to your site :-)

I was first introduced to the Caminalcules way back in the dim dark past when I was a brand new undergraduate student. They were the basis of a lab exercise on evolution & evolutionary relationships, & were invented by the taxonomist Joseph Camin to aid learning about taxonomy & classification. Here's what they look like (these are just the 'living' species):

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One of the ‘big things’ in schools these days seems to be the increasing expansion of e-learning. I've written previously on one school's decisionto require all its new students to have iPads, or similar tablet-style computers. At the time I worried about whether, in the rush to embrace new technology, the question of whether its use would enhance student learning was being left behind. And a friend of mine who's a secondary teacher recently said something similar: these technologies can be tools for learning but do not & should not replace the need for linking our teaching to a student-inquiry-based experiential and cognitive-conflict-based learning (which requires a lot of forethought & planning from teachers!).

That concern resurfaced yesterday as I was reading the NZ Herald' on-line edition (on my iPad, lol), & found one story citing a couple of US reports suggesting that perhaps e-learning isn't all it's cracked up to be.

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At Respectful Insolence, Orac has a recent post discussing 'anti-science', and I thought of this when I finally got around to writing this piece (which Grant has kindly 'left to me', as it were!). Here's how Orac defines the term 'anti-science': 

It's an imperfect term for people who reject well-established science. To get a flavor of what being "anti-science" means, take a look at people who reject evolution, reject anthropogenic global warming, reject vaccines, and reject scientific medicine in favor of quackery.

Which is a reasonable characterisation of some of the content from the IAS website that Grant's deconstructed, leaving this bit for me (because I asked nicely):

When a well meaning friend or relative questions your decision [not to vaccinate], simply say "I fail to see how injecting heavy metals, foreign proteins, multiple viruses and many toxic substances into a body all at one time can keep someone well, can you explain it to me?"

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This post is also on Talking Teaching.

Over on SciblogsNZ we had a bit of a discussion around the issue of science & belief systems. How far should scientists, & those who communicate about science, go in 'pushing' against strongly-held beliefs? (These could include creationism, but also beliefs about 'alternative therapies' such as homeopathy & TCM.)

It is an area where care is needed, because if you 'push' so hard that people feel their ideas are threatened, they may become defensive & those ideas more entrenched. Neither's a desirable outcome from science's point of view. On the other hand, in teaching about science, from time you actually need to put students in an 'uncomfortable' place regarding their conceptions about the world, if they're to examine those questions critically & perhaps reshape them in the light of the new knowledge they've acquired. (If that doesn't happen, then that new knowledge is likely to be learned only superficially - quickly gained & just as quickly forgotten.)

I'd like to reproduce a comment from that thread, partly because it would be good to get a discussion going around the question of how far & how best to promote a science-based world view, & partly because the comment reminded me of the late, great Carl Sagan: I'm just re-reading his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I enjoy the lyrical nature of much of Sagan's writing, but I also like this book for it's 'baloney-detection tool kit' - a set of useful questions & approaches to encourage & strengthen critical-thinking skills. 

Anyway, here's the comment: 

[if we just accept a belief system], in the end we pass deeper into the land of moral equivalency (how dare you question my belief system - it's as valid as yours!).

Here be dragons.

Dragons are best slain - no good comes from people attempting to turn them into pets, or ignoring the fact that they scorch the curtains and eat children.

What do you think about this?

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The title for this post is taken from one of the search terms used by people visiting my 'other' blog (the one I share with Marcus & Fabiana), Talking Teaching. It caught my eye & I thought I'd use it as the basis of some musings (which are re-posted here).

We'll assume that this question is directed at Science Faculties :-) Using 'degraded' suggests that a university education used to provide more than simply a knowledge base in science. (If I wanted to stir up a bit of controversy I could say - oh, OK, I will say - that it's just as well that they 'only' teach scientific knowledge, however that's defined. My personal opinion is that the teaching of pseudoscience (eg homeopathy, 'terapeutic touch' etc) has no place in a university, & it's a matter of some concern that such material has appeared in various curricula eg in the US, UK & Australia. Why? Because it's not evidence-based, & close investigation - in one case, by a 9-year-old schoolgirl - shows that it fails to meet the claims made for it. You could teach about it, in teaching critical thinking, but as a formal curriculum subjet? No way.)

Anyway, back to the chase. Did universities teach more than just 'the facts', in the past? And is it a Bad Thing if we don't do that now?

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This one's really intended for students in year 11/12, & their teachers & parents - those of my readers who are in year 13 will already have worked out where they'd like to be & made their subject choices.

In the weeks before the start of the A semester, my diary rapidly fills up with appointments as new and returning students come in for advice about their programs. For the latter group it's usually fairly straightforward: have they met the various pre-reqs? Is their major remaining the same? How many papers do they need to complete their qualification? Things like that.

With new students, helping plan a program can be a bit more difficult, & often this difficulty also hinges on pre-requisites - the subjects (&/or the number of credits in a subject at Level 3 of the NCEA) that you need to have taken in order to study a particular subject at university. For example, for Engineering you need to have a certain number of credits in physics, maths (with calculus) and - for some areas - chemistry. The same's true for Chemistry, Physics, & Maths. While my own subject - Biology - doesn't have any formal pre-reqs, it's still useful to have studied it at year 13 as we do tend to move along fairly quickly & you'll probably feel more comfortable with that if you've got some prior learning in the subject. If someone comes along who's never studied bio at all, I strongly encourage them to take a 'catch-up' course over summer. And while I remember - a bit of maths can never go amiss. Contrary to what many students seem to think, biology is not a maths-free zone & it's useful to have some familiarity with basic maths concepts.

So for someone who doesn't really meet the prior-learning requirements for a particular discipline but is set on studying it, we work with them to identify a pathway that will give them the best chance of succeeding with that goal. That 'catch-up' course is one avenue, after which we follow the tutors' recommendations about what papers the student should be placed in. For someone with insufficient credits in maths or physics for  the papers specific to an Physics or Engineering program, we would enrol them in the relevant introductory papers (& on passing those, they'll move to the degree-specific papers), plus encourage them to take up all available opportunities for extra tutorials & other learning support - & in fact I direct students from all disciplines to these resources as & when it seems necessary.

However, all of this imposes extra costs in terms of time & things like student loans, in that it will take a bit longer to complete the desired program of study. And one way to avoid this is to work with your teachers, careers advisers, & the recruitment staff from universities to identify where you want to be in terms of study & careers options and to do it early. Ask around - contact the universities you think you might want to attend to ask about pre-requisites for the degree programs you're interested in, & then work with school to make sure you have the opportunity to achieve them.

(And yes, returning students can & do change their career intentions in ways that have a similar impact, in that they may have to take extra papers - & hence longer than originally intended - in order to achieve their goals. And again, the job of advisers like me is to work out the best options available for them to do that.)

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I drive a car. I also ride a bike to work a couple of days a week (an 18km round trip each time). And this is not a post on the science of either, but a plea to some car drivers for a bit more consideration (& road space).

Today I consider myself lucky to have got to work in one piece. To the driver of the white company van who came up fast on my right & turned left in front of me - yes, I know you indicated as you pulled alongside, but I still had to brake hard to avoid being collected as you shot down that side road. Were you really in such a hurry that waiting a couple of seconds for me to clear the intersection was going to cause an unbearable delay?

And the car driver who cut into the cycle lane ahead of me on that sweeping bend between 5 Crossroads & Southwell School - I wear a fluoro reflective jacket & have a cover of the same on my back-pack, there are reflective strips on my panniers, and my flashing lights were going front & back, so "I didn't see you" would not have done you much good had you hit me with all the inevitable consequences of a heavy moving object hitting a much smaller one. 

And don't get me started on the idiots who think it's a good idea to chuck bottles into the marked cycle-way, so that at rush hour cyclists have the choice of an almost inevitable puncture or to move onto the carriageway & take their chances with the cars.

Yes, there are cyclists who don't obey the road rules & take foolish risks - just as there are car drivers who do the same. But most cyclists - like most motorists - are careful: we can imagine all too well the consequences if we aren't. It would be wonderful if everyone thought about those consequences too - in an accident involving maybe 90kg of cyclist+bike travelling at 25kph, & a tonne or of car doing 50 (or even 25), the cyclist is always going to come off very much the worse for wear.

And I'd rather we all did our bit to avoid those consequences.


Actually, while I'm on my hobby horse erm, I mean 'soapbox' - could those cyclists who come rushing up at speed behind other cyclists (& behind walkers on the river paths) please please let those ahead know you're coming? Ringing the bell would be good, or just calling out a cheery 'excuse me'. It's incredibly disconcerting to have someone whoosh past when you haven't heard them coming (modern bikes really do run quietly). Thank you :-)

/vent over

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 ... but not in the middle of the night. 

As I've got older, I've found that little bouts of nocturnal restlessness in the legs department have become more common. Apparently it's called "restless legs" syndrome (RLS), which for me presesnts as a rather unpleasant, hard-to-resist feeling that you just have to move your legs, sometimes accompanied by having your legs jerking & twitching while you're asleep. (Which then wakes me up, alas!). Trying to relax doesn't seem to have any effect, & the whole thing can make it quite hard to drop off to sleep.

For a while I thought it was 'just me', but apparently up to 10% of the over-65 population (in Western countries, anyway) suffer from this syndrome, with women more susceptible than men. In fact, in a recent paper describing new work on identifying genetic markers for susceptibility to RLS. Winkelmann et al. (2011) identify it as "one of the most common neurological disorders." As you might expect in a syndrome with neurological underpinnings, at least some of the genes implicated in RLS are involved in neuronal transcription pathways. However, it's a complex issue as there may also be links with iron deficiency (there's an interesting question: are people with iron-deficiency anaemia more likely to suffer from RLS than the general population?)

It's even got a name: Willis-Ekbom disease. I really must check with my siblings as researchers estimate that about 60% of cases are familial ie there's a genetic component: so far 6 gene loci are known to be linked to "restless legs", with an autosomal dominant pattern of inheritance & variable 'penetrance' (that is, the trait isn't expressed in everyone carrying the mutation). 

And what can one do about it? Well, I guess there's always the pharmacological solution, if sleep disruption becomes a significant problem. But apparently you can also get relief by giving in to the urge to move your legs, so I'll give it a go (trying not to kick the little black dog on the foot of the bed as I do so!).

Winkelmann J., Czamara D., Schormair B., Knauf F., Schulte EC, et al. (2011) Genome-Wide Association Study Identifies Novel Restless Legs Syndrome Susceptibility Loci on 2p14 and 16q12.1. PLoS Genetics 7(7): e1002171. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1002171





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A commenter on one of Orac's posts (& now I'm darned if I can remember which one) informed the others present that, while arsenic can be fatal for humans, it doesn't kill rats. (It was part of a discussion on animal testing, which means the post was probably this one.) Now, I am a fan of the "Lord Peter Wimsey" books by Dorothy Sayers. One - Strong Poison - sees our hero attempting to clear a woman of using arsenic to murder her lover (a guilty verdict would have seen her sent to the gallows). It's definitely not good stuff to consume in any quantity, although for a while arsenic in small amounts was regarded as a tonic in some circles. 

But I also recalled that one source of the arsenic used for killing those whom the poisoner disliked, or wanted out of the way, was - rat poison. Another was fly-papers, which used to be hung to catch flies back when flyspray hadn't been thought of. My recollection was confirmed when I came across this interesting post by Deborah Blum at Speakeasy Science, which discusses some notorious cases with arsenic as the murder weapon. (Deborah also muses on a question by another writer - why don't we remember infamous personalities like Mary Ann Cotton, who killed at least 20 people, including some of her own children? She suggests, & I agree, that it's a matter of choice "not to dwell [too long] in the darkest corners of human behaviour, to spend too much time in the company of aberrant personalities."

Arsenic remained a common choice for poisoners until the advent of the Marsh test, at which point it became rather straightforward to detect the presence of arsenic in the deceased's remains. 

As for the rats - it takes around 763 mg/kg (or 0.763 g/kg) of arsenic to kill your average rat, although this particular poison is not part of the modern rat-killers armamentarium.

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"Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world." - Louis Pasteur (via ScienceAlert on Facebook, where you can find many cool things.)

At ScienceAlert I also found this wonderful quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson: The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it." (This is particularly relevant to a discussion we've been having over at SciBlogsNZ about interactions between scientific attidudes and people's belief systems.)

Readers - please feel free to add your own favourite quotes to the list :-) 

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 That's a question that many science blog-posts examine, implicitly if not explicitly. I do it here (quite a lot, recently!) when writing about various pseudo-scientific claims, & the same goes on over at Sciblogs NZ. It's an interesting question that sometimes receives rather slick, glib answers.

Over at Science-Based Medicine, Kimball Atwood has written a particularly good discussion around the 'what is science?' question, including an explanation of why many of those glib answers are based on a mis-characterisation, or a mis-understanding, of the nature of science. 

(I really enjoyed reading it. But now - I must get back to revising my study guides!)

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