Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A time-traveling Tangled Bank

The latest edition (#82) of the Tangled Bank, that venerable blog carnival, is now up in the form of a most excellent temporal travelogue by a Derwin Darwin II, alleged nephew of Charles Darwin, describing encounters from the "Blogos Fear" of a whole bunch of things evolutionary in the year 2007!

Hats off to Greg Laden for so lovingly rendering this edition of the Tangled Bank in the venerated genre of victorian travel writing.


Friday, June 15, 2007


Here's a fabulous idea that can help build support for science education in our community! Yes, it's Cafe Scientifique! This forum for promoting public engagement with science began in the UK, but since has spread to North America. There are Cafes in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Los Angeles and San Diego in California. Now, it is hoped that by building a broad coalition of local educators, academics and business people we can get this venture off the ground here in Fresno this fall.

If you're a Fresnan, and you would like to be placed on a mailing list that will notify you of Cafe Scientifique events and other news, please send an email with your name and (if you like) your 'snail-mail' address, to:


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

More godless eloquence from PZ Myers

If you read just one thing today or this week, go read this wonderful essay on how much more awesome the Gilgamesh, the Bible, the Koran, the Gita and all your religious texts are, not to mention the concept of God itself, if you but stop taking them literally as words of some imaginary being, rather than as wonderful expressions of entirely human awe and anguish over our existence in this strange, beautiful, indifferent universe. And please stop telling us atheists that we just don't get it about your faith - as PZ expresses it far more eloquently than I can, we get it all right, I'd say we get it at a deeper level than many believers do.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Gallop poll says our work as educators remains cut out for us...

Over the past few days various people have noted, in the blogsphere and in my email inbox, the latest USA TODAY/Gallup Poll results pertaining to Americans' views on Evolution vs. Creationism. The main results, as summarized (below) by John Lynch, are causing much understandable despair among science bloggers and friends:

  • "Evolution, that is, the idea that human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life" is probably or definitely false: 44%
  • "Creationism, that is, the idea that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years" is probably or definitely true: 66%
  • 15% said that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate that did not believe in evolution.
This made Lynch want to go lie down even as some of his commenters and Laelaps question the methodology of the poll. PZ Myers, on the other hand, accepts the validity of the results since they match his personal impressions, and noting the discrepancy between those first two numbers, concludes "that about half the country is ignorant or deluded about science, anyway." Greg Laden, meanwhile, was reminded of the Alexander Hamilton quote (alleged) that "The masses are asses", although his somewhat more careful reading of the poll results led him to think there has been a slight improvement (presumably since the last such poll) although the 15-30% respondents inclined to rejecting a presidential candidate professing belief in evolution suggests the continuing strength of the religious fundamentalist minority. While I share these concerns, a few thoughts are nagging me about this poll and the blogsphere reaction to it.

First, what to make of the 82% of those polled who claimed that they were familiar (41% very familiar) with evolution, or the 86% that said the same (50% very familiar) about creationism? I think these numbers reflect, in part, the average person's wish to not appear ignorant with a pollster, some (considerable?) hubris about how much they truly do understand, and, perhaps most importantly, our failure as educators in making people able to see the difference! This may be another sign of how ignorant/deluded much of the country is about science - and how much our work is cut out.

At the same time, however, I'm uncomfortable with calling the masses asses, because that is the kind of "framing" likely to make them turn away from rather than towards scientists for knowledge. I'm more inclined to wonder about the poll's sample size and methodology - but note the widespread acceptance of similar Gallup polls by a variety of people across the political spectrum; would they be able to continue publishing similar poll results if the methodology was as egregiously wrong as Laelaps suggests? Perhaps I am being naive on that point, but I do have to question the design of the poll questions which seek separate responses for evolution and creationism (of the Young Earth variety, i.e., YEC) given that 53% accept Evolution, while 66% accept YEC - why not make it a binary choice between the two notions? As it is, it seems clear that a lot of people are quite capable of simultaneously believing multiple contradictory ideas without their heads exploding! Sounds like some students I know...


Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Read the latest "Tangled Bank"

Looking for some intellectual stimulation of a summer afternoon? Go browse the 81st edition of the Tangled Bank, the oldest blog carnival, still going strong, at Behavioral Ecology Blog.


Do you think your grade in this class had to do with my arm strength?

And does my recent mysterious muscular fatigue then explain why there were so many A's (9/30) and B's (11/30) in the Evolution class this spring? Well, Daniel Solove has let out the secret (one I was only recently initiated into) in this Guide to Grading Exams. So can you guess if I went top-higher-grade or bottom-higher-grade? I think next time I should try the other more modern method mentioned at the bottom of this guide, don't you think?


Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Whither Natural History Museums?

While we are all dumbstruck by the glitzy new creation museum, with its animatronic vegetarian dinosaurs in the garden of eden, the LA Times has a more sobering article on the decline of real natural history museums. You know, the kind where the fancy displays are actually just the public face of the far more important and significant research collections where actual science takes place.

The great American natural history museum could be headed for the vulnerable species list, alongside the polar bear and the redwood tree.

A national survey last year showed nature museums' annual bottom lines sinking chronically into the red by $300,000 on average, while art museums outperformed them by nearly half a million dollars. Some of the leading institutions have winnowed their staffs since the decade began, among them the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Science leaders worry that financial pressures and demands to boost attendance could prompt natural history museums to self-lobotomize, cutting away brain matter — the pure scientific research that's largely hidden from the public — to save the exhibits and educational programs that are the institutions' visible cash generators.
The kind of science where the goal is not to merely present a diorama of a dogmatic belief from a single ancient text, but to actually test hypotheses about evolutionary change.
Research is what makes natural history museums special: the mandate to venture into nature and bring back new finds and fresh questions, while maintaining millions of specimens.

Some scientists say that amid global warming and a rapid die-off of species, these collections encompassing the world's life forms, living and extinct, have become especially valuable for the clues they might hold.

How have creatures through the eons adapted or failed as their environments have changed? What's happening now? Biologists say those questions are vital in coping with today's challenges, and they can't be answered fully without museum collections.
Given the pace of global warming and the necessity to sharpen our abilities to predict how organisms may respond to rapid climate change, museum collections play a much more significant role - and one that even many academic biologist do not quite appreciate.
Universities aren't a strong alternative, scientists say, because many have given up their expensive-to-maintain natural history collections and focused their efforts elsewhere, including biomedical research, genetics and technology.
And I'm sorry to say that my own department here at Fresno State is part of this trend. Our small but potentially significant vertebrate collection and herbarium have some rare early specimens from the local Sierra Nevada mountains that could play a role in understanding some of the ongoing shifts in elevational range and phenologies in the region. But we too don't have the money to properly maintain these as active collections, and it is very difficult to justify hiring full-time curatorial staff (or even a faculty member with part-time curatorial duties) when these resources are not seen to be "productive" - i.e., generating dollars (research grants / donations).

Why is it that these natural history museums have been bleeding red ink lately even as art museums seem to have outperformed them? And let's not even bring up the nauseating millions of dollars that charlatans like Ken Ham rake in for their scam "museums". Is this just a coincidence or part of the collateral (or direct) damage from the republican war on science? How does one stop the death spiral of dollar cutbacks forcing research cutbacks which further reduce the inflow of new grants?
Joel Martin, the crustaceans curator [@ the L.A. Museum], who has been at the museum nearly 20 years, worries that with every cutback, the chances to win grants worsen. Ambitious research often depends on scientists being able to win highly competitive grants from outside sources.

"They're not likely to put a lot of money into an institution that itself is not funding it," he said.

In the three years before 2003, the L.A. museum landed $2.4 million from the National Science Foundation. In the three years since, L.A.'s share dropped to $1.6 million.
Perhaps the science museums also need to re-frame themselves to maintain support from a jaded public as the LA Times suggests.
Experts even worry that the very name "natural history museum" has a Victorian tinge that makes it harder to compete for audiences and funding.

"It harks back 300 years and doesn't resonate anymore," said Krishtalka, the University of Kansas museum director who reclassified his venue as a "biodiversity institute." The challenge and potential salvation, he believes, lie in making visitors and donors understand the connection between the fate of the Earth and all those seemingly inert specimens tucked into drawers or arrayed on back-room shelves in jars of alcohol.

"Our collections and knowledge help inform solutions to the problems the planet's facing," Krishtalka said. "Our time is now, and museums that reach out and grab that mission strongly will be the ones who survive."
Perhaps this is a short-term dip and one that will be reversed by the brand new California Academy of Sciences which will reopen to the public next year.
A completely rebuilt California Academy of Sciences is due to open next year in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The museum, which will have a "living roof" of greenery designed by Renzo Piano, could be the canary in the coal mine. If a leading institution that has had a chance to reinvent itself with almost half a billion dollars can't score a hit, the future for all natural history museums could be a real dodo.

Driving the project, for which about $385 million in mostly private donations has been raised, was the realization that people had become bored with natural history museums, said curator John Patrick Kociolek, the former executive director who spearheaded the rebuilding. "Before you'd go, you could write down what you were going to see. The same stories were being told."

The new museum, he said, aims to stay fresh by uniting its public face with its hidden brain, clearly linking research to what visitors see by basing exhibits on the work of the museum's scientists.

For that to succeed, Kociolek said, there has to be a better exchange of ideas within the museum.

That's why Piano was asked to design hallways, office wings and other staff areas so that formerly "siloed" scientists would mingle routinely with colleagues in other departments.
Something to look forward to I suppose, even though the cynical realist in me has to wonder about that last part... are we en route to making museum relics out of scientists too by putting them on display, in laboratory dioramas mixed in with all the other exhibits?

[Crossposted to Reconciliation Ecology]


Monday, June 4, 2007

Night at the Creation Museum

I found this video via Pharyngula:



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