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December 2011 Archives

 Orac has just put up a post deconstructing various claims by a US homeopath. One of those claims really tickled my fancy:

The problem is that homeopathy is aimed at treating the individual with a single remedy, chosen specifically for him or her. It is not for treating masses of people with the same pill. Twenty people could have the "same" flu, but each one would need a different remedy (not necessarily Oscillococcinum) and be rightly cured because each one would manifest illness in a way that is utterly unique to him-/herself. We always treat the person, not the disease. As such it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible to replicate homeopathic treatment the way pharmaceutical companies try to do in drug trials.

If this is the case, you really have to wonder why many pharmacies even bother to offer those rows of homeopathic 'remedies' on their shelves. After all, if our homeopath is correct, those commercial potions couldn't possibly work...

(The article is well woth a read - the various metaphors this practitioner uses in attempts to explain the unexplainable are rather entertaining.)

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My reading assignment today was a report just out from the Australian Academy of Science (the AAS) on science in Australian secondary schools (Goodrum, Druhan & Abbs, 2011). Not what you might expect on a reading list in the week before Christmas, but I was up to speak (briefly) about it on Radio NZ & needed to have an idea what the report contained. 

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From today's "Letters to the Editor" in today's NZ Herald:

Your correspondent correctly states that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is under threat.

The main threat, however, is not coming from "conservative religious school." It is coming from science.

Well, as a scientist, this is news to me. What scientific evidence does our correspondent present in support of this supposed 'threat'?

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The following post is an article that I originally wrote for the New Zealand Science Teacher journal (the official journal of the New Zealand Association of Science Educators), and is reproduced here by kind permission of the editor.

We live in a time when science features large in our lives, probably more so than ever before. It is  important that people have at least some understanding of how science works, not least so that they can make informed decisions when aspects of science impinge on them. Yet pseudoscience seems to be on the increase. While some argue that we simply ignore it, I suggest we use pseudoscience to help teach the nature of science (and I recommend Jane Young's excellent book, The uncertainty of it all: understanding the nature of science,(2010) as a resource).

The New Zealand Curriculum (MoE, 2007) makes it clear that there's more to studying science than simply accumulating facts: Science is a way of investigating, understanding, and explaining our natural, physical world and the wider Universe. It involves generating and testing ideas, gathering evidence – including by making observations, carrying out investigations and modeling, and communicating and debating with others – in order to develop scientific knowledge, understanding and explanations (p28). In other words, studying science also involves learning about the nature of science: that it is a process as much as, or more than, a set of facts. Pseudoscience offers a lens through which to approach this.

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The Prime Minister's Science Prizes were announced today, & among the winners was my good friend & colleague Angela Sharples, who was awarded the Science Teacher Prize. Angela & I have worked together to prepare NZ's teams for the International Biology Olympiad since 2004, during which time I've seen first-hand just what a superb teacher she is, & how much time & effort, passion & care she gives to all her students. Lucky is the school that has Angela on its staff! Anyway, because I was one of Angela's nominators & because it's so important to recognise teaching excellence in all its forms, I thought I'd share some excerpts from her citations here :-)

Over the years I have had many opportunities to watch Angela working with students, using a wide variety of teaching tools in effective lessons that are tailored to the needs of her students. For students aspiring to join New Zealand's Biology Olympiad team this has included organising and administering on-line tutorials - the only way to reach students from up and down the country. Angela supports all her students to reach the high academic standards that she expects, modelling these standards in her own practice and actively encouraging questioning and critical thinking. .

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 And yes, punctuation & grammar skillz, I has them :-) That apostrophe really is in the right place - read on to find out why.

The tale of the panda's thumb is well-known, & an excellent example of how the action of natural selection can result in jury-rigged solutions to problems: a result that works, but not necessarily a perfect result. I first encountered it way back when, through reading Stephen Jay Gould's wonderful book of the same name**.

A book which refers to the familiar black-&-white giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). I'd never really thought about it before, but of course we have 2 species of panda: the big fellas, & the much smaller red panda (Ailurus fulgens). Do they have 'thumbs' too?

As a post by Brian Switek shows, the answer is 'yes; yes, they do'. And this is really interesting, as the two pandas aren't closely related. Giant pandas are bears, while reds are more closely related to raccoons. Yet they both have modified a modified wrist bone, the radial sesamoid, that functions as a thumb and allows them to grip & manipulate bamboo - a lovely example of convergent evolution.


**The original essay, with the title The panda's peculiar thumb', is reproduced here.

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Over at Orac's place, one of his commenters mentioned the therapeutic use of didgeridoos for various health issues. Surely this is a joke, I thought - but no: it seems that didgeridoo sound therapy is indeed alive and well... 

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 While lurking over at Riddled (by doubt, insecurity and what appears to be a type of marine worm)** I was introduced to a journal article on in-flight metabolism in birds.More specifically, to the idea that melanin in the pecten - a structure in birds' eyes that appears to function in visual acuity - is able to convert sunlight to chemical energy available for cellular metabolism. The journal is Medical Hypotheses, so I looked forward to reading about a fascinating new research-based discovery. 

 ** Warning: if you haven't previously visited Riddled you will find that it is A Very Strange Place with an excellent sense of the ridiculous...:-)


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A few days back, Grant asked if I would follow up on my promise to write something on assessment. It would be great to get a discussion going around how & why we assess students, so after a bit of thought I decided to kick things off with the following post, derived from my own teaching portfolio document. (I rather feel that I need to be careful that too many of my posts don't become Oracian in length! Not that there's anything wrong with Orac's posts! Quite the contrary.)

For all teachers, the $64-question is whether students are learning (and, whether they're learning what we would wish them to learn!). Assessment is the usual tool for finding this out, although it may have unintended consequences when the nature of the assessment task shapes what and how the students learn. It took me a while to realise this - and it may be that many tertiary teachers still don't realise this, perhaps because they are focused on teaching the content in a particular discipline rather than on the best methods for doing that. 

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As Grant said earlier, there is a rich mine of potential posts in this particular website... This time, let's review its author's take on the phylogenetic relationship between Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes.

We are indeed linked to chimpanzees – by a common Designer.

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Today I spent an interesting & educational few hours at the University's "Celebrating teaching excellence" day. This is when thestaff who've received Faculty, University, or national awards for their teaching share their ideas & techniques with their colleagues, and this is just wonderful as you're guaranteed to learn something new :-)

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Via ResearchBlogging I found a post with the eye-catching title of Circumcision, preventing fraud, and icky toilets. What an odd juxtaposition, I thought. Darn good post, though! 

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One of the sessions at FYBEC - on the changes in NCEA Achievement Standards in order to align them with the 2007 Curriculum document - generated a lot of discussion. It was great to have this session, as a heads-up to the changes in prior learning that we'll see in students coming in to uni-level biology from 2013 (genetics will be moved to year 12, for example). Not least because I think many tertiary educators are still not really clear on how NCEA (the National Certificate in Educational Achievement, for my non-NZ readers) & the curriculum work, in the sense that there is plenty of room for flexibility in which (& how many) standards schools may decide to offer. From the uni perspective, this means that there will be a lot more diversity in prior learning among that 2013 cohort. (Even more than exists now, that is.)

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I spent Monday & Tuesday of this week down in Wellington, attending the 2nd First-Year Biology Educators' Colloquium. (Yes, that's a mouthful! We usually just say FYBEC to those in the know.) It was really refreshing to spend time focusing on how we teach first-year biology at university, and on research into ways to enhance that teaching.

The first keynote was by Pauline Ross, who's at the School of Natural Sciences, University of Western Sydney. Pauline's won a large number of teaching excellence awards & it was a real privilege - & a pleasure! - to learn from her. She started her talk by identifying a number of things (aka the '7 deadly ways to see') that can offer significant challenges to students beginning their uni-level studies in biology. But before I get onto those, I'm going to quote Pauline's own words on receiving an Australian national teaching excellence award:

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Via Orac I found this excellent article by Rhys Morgan, a sceptical blogger who has recently been the focus of some attempts at bullying by someone claiming to be a legal representative of the Burzynski Clinic. Rhys has written an article for the UK newspaper The Guardian that highlights a number of issues related to the clinic's activities - not least the fact that it charges a considerable amount of money for people to enrol in what are described as 'clinical trials', when surely it should be the other way around... (One does wonder why after 30 years they are still at the stage of clinical trials. Normally if something works, you'd expect to see the evidence by now. One also wonders how one treatment - 'antineoplastons' - can be claimed to cure so many different human cancers, given the variety of underlying causes.)

Anyway, the point I want to make that Rhys is a very good writer. Another one to follow. I wish that I was able to write that well when I, too, was 17 years old.  

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