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February 2013 Archives

The 'fluoride in drinking water' debate is heating up again in Hamilton. A letter in one of our local free newspapers begins 

Sodium fluoride is the main ingredient in rat poison

and then informs us that the Nazis used it to keep their prisoners docile. And what I want to know is this: why, if the writer's case against fluoridation is so strong, do they feel the need to use such scare tactics & to invoke Godwin's Law? (Godwin's Law is applied "especially to inappropriate, inordinate, or hyperbolic comparisons of other situations (or one's opponent) with Nazis": there does not appear to be any evidence that NaF was used in the way the writer describes, but it sounds scary & helps to demonise those with a different point of view.)

As for the 'sodium fluoride/rat poison' claim, even a quick search suggests otherwise (here, & here, for example). But it's probably quite effective in promoting the 'fluoride = poison' idea in the public mind. However, as I (& others) have said before: the dose makes the poison.

I would have more respect for the writer's point of view, were it not 'bolstered' with inaccuracies and scare tactics. But some things never change...


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It appears that Wellington businessman David Ware has a thing about cyclists: he has described them as "road vermin", "roadkill", and "weasels in lycra". He is entitled to his opinion, but this is completely over the top. In fact, I have news for you, Mr Ware.

Yes, there are cyclists who demonstrate poor judgement & poor behaviour on the road. Failing to indicate, going through stop signs, that sort of thing. Funnily enough, I've seen the same in some car drivers. Stupidity, thoughtlessness, carelessness - yes! in all parties, on two wheels, and on four. And education for both groups is definitely needed. (The potential for damage to others, however, is far greater when such poor driving is perpetrated by those in motorised transport.)

And despite your claims that cyclists don't pay road taxes, many (perhaps a majority of adult cyclists?) also own cars & hence pay said taxes. They also subject the roading infrastructure to considerably less wear & tear than motor vehicles do.

Unfortunately I fear that you are not alone in your attitude to those with whom you share the road, & who have both a right and a requirement to be on it. (Cyclists aren't supposed to be on the pavement - apart from dedicated shared spaces - although it would be a darn sight safer there in some cases.) Coming to work this morning I entered a roundabout, clearly signalling my intent to turn right. I wear high-visibility gear, my lights work, and the intersection was clear ahead when I entered it. This didn't stop a woman in a van from speeding into the roundabout ahead of me, from the left; she had no intention of stopping & the only things that saved me a trip to A & E (or worse) were my reflexes & brakes. 

What's your take on that, Mr Ware?

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 We are in full enrolment mode at the moment - for some reason a lot of students have left re-enrolling &/or seeking advice until the Very Last Moment - so I have little time for serious blogging. (It's always the same at this time of year, only this year more of the same.) But I still have an eye for lovely biological images. So how's this for a combination of artistry and science?

They're from the Science is Awesome FB page:

They're the work of Italian artist Guido Daniele, who uses hands as his canvas. One hand can take up to ten hours.

Ah, well, back to the grindstone.Your turn, Grant :)

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That's the question blog-buddy Michael Edmonds asked some of us last night, & it got me thinking.

Sir Peter Gluckman raised the idea of a 'science for citizens' curriculum back in early 2011, in his report Looking ahead: science education for the 21st century. Included in that report was a brief list of some skills, knowledge, & abilities that all children need to have (characterised as 'citizen-focused objectives'):

  • a practical knowledge at some level of how things work;
  • some knowledge of how the scientific process operates and have some level of scientific literacy
  • enough knowledge of scientific thinking as part of their development of general intellectual skills so that they are able to distinguish reliable information from less reliable information.

As I said at the time, the tricky thing is to work out how to deliver this, & the sort of learning experiences we might use in the classroom (& out of it!)

The ability to distinguish 'reliable' from 'less reliable' information is essential, given that we are now in a time when that information is only a few mouse clicks away. Students need to be learning how to do this right from the start of their time in our education system. And the tools to do it are pretty much part of the scientific process, so learning about one complements gaining knowledge in the other.

If we're going to offer two 'streams' of science education, as proposed by Sir Peter, when should that start? Or should we simply take the 'science for citizens' from the start, hopefully keeping as many students as possible 'turned on' to science for as long as possible, & then split off an 'academic' stream - for potential scientists & engineers - later in the piece? 

And what would this mean for students who might come late in the day to realising that science/engineering is where they want to be? Split into the streams too early, & we risk closing the door to those young people. We need to lock in the flexibility to allow students to change course mid-stream, as it were.

(We need to provide them with good advice, too. Wearing one of my other hats for the moment, just now I'm seeing quite a few young men & women who want to study engineering but who are weak in physics, or maths. Or who dropped maths in year 12. And in at least some cases, they seem to have gained the impression that 'you can just pick that up at uni.' I can generally work out a pathway for them, but it means they'll take longer to complete their program; time that would have been saved by better choices earlier on.)

What about content? I mean, we can't deliver process skills in a vacuum? Personally I'd go for more human biology in the curriculum. Children tend to be fascinated by how their bodies work, & such knowledge is important when making decisions that affect health, for example. And I'd like to think that a good grounding there would help people to recognise when they're being offered sound advice as compared to some of the significant volume of health pseudoscience that's out there these days.

And I'd also go for developing awareness of our place in the global ecosystem. Yes, there's a lot to learn about our local environments & how to care for them, but our 21st-century science-literate citizens understanding of our large-scale impacts is also necessary if their world is to remotely resemble ours.

What would you like to see in this curriculum?


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Lately I've been amazed and entertained by some of the quirky science music videos out there (some are parodies, some not). Here are two of the latest to catch my eye.

This one - this one we're sooo going to show in the first-year cellular & molecular paper :)

And this works for me too (though I'm not a physicist 'n all).

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