From the Science March to the Classroom: Recognizing science in politics and politics in science

Jeanne Garbarino (with edits by Mike Klymkowsky)

Purely scientific discussions are hallmarked by objective, open, logical, and skeptical thought; they can describe and explain natural phenomena or provide insights into a broader questions. At the same time, scientific discussions are generally incomplete and tentative (sometimes for well understood reasons). True advocates of the scientific method appreciate the value of its skeptical and tentative approach, and are willing to revise even long-held positions in response to new, empirically-derived evidence or logical contradictions. Over time, science’s scope and conclusions have expanded and evolved dramatically; they provide an increasingly accurate working model of a wide range of processes, from the formation of the universe to the functioning of the human mind. The result is that the ubiquity of science’s impacts on society are clear and growing. However, discussing and debating the details of how science works, and the current consensus view on various phenomena, such as global warming or the causes of cancer or autism, is very different from discussing and debating how a scientific recommendation fits into a societal framework. As described in a recent National Academies Press report on Communicating Science Effectively  [link], “the decision to communicate science [outside of academia] always involves an ethical component. Choices about what scientific evidence to communicate and when, how, and to whom, are a reflection of values.”

Over the last ~150 years, the accelerating pace of advances in science and technology have enabled future sustainable development, but they have also disrupted traditional social and economic patterns. Closing coal mines in response to climate predictions (and government regulations) may be sensible when viewed broadly, but are disruptive to those who have, for generations, made a living mining coal. Similarly, a number of prognosticators have speculated on the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on traditional socioeconomic roles and rules. Whether such impacts are worth the human costs is rarely explicitly considered and discussed in the public forum, or the classroom. As members of the scientific community, our educational and outreach efforts must go beyond simply promoting an appreciation of, and public support for science. They must also consider its limitations, as well as the potential ethical and disruptive effects on individuals, communities, and/or societies. Making policy decisions with large socioeconomic impacts based on often tentative models raises risks of alienating the public upon which modern science largely depends.

Citizens, experts or not, are often invited to contribute to debates and discussions surrounding science and technology at the local and national levels. Yet, many people are not provided with the tools to fully and effectively engage in these discussions, which involves critically analyzing the scope, resolution, and stability of scientific conclusions. As such, the acceptance or rejection of scientific pronouncements is often framed as an instrument of political power, casting a shadow on core scientific principles and processes, framing scientists as partisan players in a political game. The watering down of the role of science and science-based policies in the public sphere, and the broad public complacency associated with (often government-based, regulatory) efforts, is currently being challenged by the international March For Science effort. The core principles and goals of this initiative [link] are well articulated, and, to my mind, representative of a democratic society. However, a single march on a single day is not sufficient to promote a deep social transformation, and promote widespread dispassionate argumentation and critical thinking. Perspectives on how scientific knowledge can help shape current and future events, as well as the importance of recognizing both the implications and limits of science, are perspectives that must be taught early, often, and explicitly. Social or moral decisions are not mutually exclusive from scientific evidence or ideas, but overlap is constrained by the gates set by values that are held.

In this light, I strongly believe the sociopolitical nature of science in practice must be taught alongside traditional science content. Understanding the human, social, economic and broader (ecological) costs of action AND inaction can be used to highlight the importance of framing science in a human context. If the expectation is for members of our society to be able to evaluate and weigh in on scientific debates at all levels, I believe we are morally obligated to supply future generations with the tools required for full participation. This posits that scientists and science educators, together with historian, philosophers, and economists, etc., need to go beyond the teaching of simple facts and theories by considering how these facts and theories developed over time, their impact on people’s thinking, as well as the socioeconomic forces that shape societies. Highlighting the sociopolitical implications of science-based ideas in classrooms can also motivate students to take a greater interest in scientific learning in particular, and related social and political topics in general. It can help close the gap between what is learned in school and what is required for the critical evaluation of scientific applications in society, and how scientific ideas can and should be evaluated when it comes to social policy or person beliefs.

A “science in a social context” approach to science teaching may also address the common student question, “When will I ever use this?” All too often, scientific content in schools is presented in ways that are abstract, decontextualized, and can feel irrelevant to students. Such an approach can leave a student unable or unwilling to engage in meaningful and substantive discussions on the applications and limitations of science in society. The entire concept of including cost-benefit analyses when considering the role of science in shaping decisions is often over-looked, as if scientific conclusions are black and white. Furthermore, the current culture of science in classrooms leaves little room for students to assess how scientific information does and does not align with their cultural identities, often framing science as inherently conflicting or alien, forcing a choice between one way of seeing the world over the other, when a creative synthesis seems more reasonable. Shifting science education paradigms toward a strategy that promotes “education through science” (as opposed to “science through education”) recognizes student needs and motivations as critical to learning, and opens up channels for introducing science as something that is relevant and enriching to their lives. Centered on the German philosophy of Allgemeinbildung [link] that describes “the competence for participation in critical dialogue on currently important matters,” this approach has been found to be effective in motivating students to develop the necessary skills to implement empirical evidence when forming arguments and making decisions.

In extending the idea of the perceived value of science in sociopolitical debates, students can build important frameworks for effectively engaging with society in the future. A relevant example is the increasing accessibility of genome editing technology, which represents an area of science poised to deeply impact the future of society. In a recent report [link] on the ethics of genome editing, assembled by an panel of clinicians and scientists (experts), it is recommended that the United States should proceed — cautiously — with genome editing studies on human embryos. However, as pointed out [link], this panel failed to include ANY public participation in this decision. This effort, fundamentally ignores “a more conscious evaluation of how this impacts social standing, stigma and identity, ethics that scientists often tend to cite pro forma and then swiftly scuttle.” As this discussion increasingly shifts into the mainstream, it will be essential to engage with the public in ways that promote a more careful and thoughtful analysis of scientific issues [link], as opposed to hyperbolic fear mongering (as seen in regard to most GMO discussions)[link] or reserving genetic engineering to the hyper-affluent. Another, more timely example, involves the the level at which an individual’s genome be used to predict a future outcome or set of outcomes, and whether this information can be used by employers in any capacity [link]. By incorporating a clear description of how science is practiced (including the factors that influence what is studied, and what is done with the knowledge generated), alongside the transfer of traditional scientific knowledge, we can help provide future citizens with tools for critical evaluation as they navigate these uncharted waters.

It is also worth noting tcorrupted sciencehat the presentation of science in a sociopolitical contexts can emphasize learning of more than just science. Current approaches to education tend to compartmentalize academic subjects, framing them as standalone lessons and philosophies. Students go through the school day motions, attending English class, then biology, then social studies, then trigonometry, etc., and the natural connections among subject areas are often lost. When framing scientific topics in the context of sociopolitical discussions and debates, stu
dents have more opportunities to explore aspects of society that are, at face value, unrelated to science.

Drawing from lessons commonly taught in American History class, the Manhattan Project [link] offers an excellent opportunity to discuss the fundamentals of nuclear chemistry as well as sociopolitical implications of a scientific discovery. At face value, harnessing nuclear fission marked a dramatic milestone for science. However, when this technology was pursued by the United States government during World War II — at the urging of the famed physicist Albert Einstein and others — it opened up the possibility of an entirely new category of warfare, impacting individuals and communities at all levels. The reactions set off by the Manhattan Project, and the consequent 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are ones that are still felt in international power politics, agriculture, medicine, ecology, economics, research ethics, transparency in government, and, of course, the Presidency of the United States. The Manhattan Project represents an excellent case study on the relationship between science, technology, and society, as well as the project’s ongoing influence on these relationships. The double-edged nature often associated with scientific discoveries are important considerations of the scientific enterprise, and should be taught to students accordingly.

A more meaningful approach to science education requires including the social aspects of the scientific enterprise. When considering a heliocentric view of the solar system, it is worthwhile recognizing its social impacts as well as its scientific foundations (particularly before Kepler). If we want people to see science as a human enterprise that can inspire rather than dictate decisions and behaviors, it will require resifting how science — and scientists — are viewed in the public eye. As written here [link]. we need to restore the relationship between scientific knowledge and social goals by specifically recognizing how

'So... cutting my funding, eh? Well, I've got a pair of mutant fists that say otherwise!'
‘So… cutting my funding, eh? Well, I’ve got a pair of mutant fists that say otherwise!’

science can be used, inappropriately, to drive public opinion. As an example, in the context of CO2-driven global warming, one could (with equal scientific validity) seek to reduce CO2 generation or increase CO2 sequestration. Science does not tell us which is better from a human perspective (although it could tell us which is likely to be easier, technically). While science should inform relevant policy, we must also acknowledge the limits of science and how it fits into many human contexts. There is clearly a need for scientists to increase participation in public discourse, and explicitly consider the uncertainties and risks (social, economic, political) associated with scientific observations. Additionally, scientists need to recognize the limits of their own expertise.

A pertinent example was the call by Paul Ehrlich to limit, in various draconian ways, human reproduction – a political call well beyond his expertise. In fact, recognizing when someone has gone beyond what science can legitimately tell us [link] could help rebuild respect for the value of science-based evidence. Scientists and science educators need to be cognizant of these limits, and genuinely listen to the valid concerns and hesitations held by many in society, rather than dismiss them. The application of science has been, and will always be, a sociopolitical issue, and the more we can do to prepare future decision makers, the better society will be.

Jeanne Garbarino, PhD, Director of Science Outreach, The Rockefeller University, NY, NY

Jeanne earned herJGarbarino Ph.D. in metabolic biology from Columbia University, followed by a postdoc in the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics and Metabolism at The Rockefeller University, where she now serves as Director of Science Outreach. In this role, she works to provide K-12 communities with equitable access to authentic biomedical research opportunities and resources. You can find Jeanne on social media under the handle @JeanneGarb.

The pernicious effects of disrespecting the constraints of science

By Mike Klymkowsky

Recent political events and the proliferation of “fake news” and the apparent futility of fact checking in the public domain have led me to obsess about the role played by the public presentation of science. “Truth” can often trump reality, or perhaps better put, passionately held beliefs can overwhelm a circumspect worldview based on a critical and dispassionate analysis of empirically established facts and theories. Those driven by various apocalyptic visions of the world, whether religious or political, can easily overlook or trivialize evidence that contradicts their assumptions and conclusions. While historically there have been periods during which non-empirical presumptions are called into question, more often than not such periods have been short-lived. Some may claim that the search for absolute truth, truths significant enough to sacrifice the lives of others for, is restricted to the religious, they are sadly mistaken – political (often explicitly anti- religious) movements are also susceptible, often with horrific consequences, think Nazism and communist-inspired apocalyptic purges. The history of eugenics and forced sterilization based on flawed genetic premises have similar roots.

Copyright Sidney Harris
Copyright Sidney Harris; http://sciencecartoonspplus.com/ Please note: this is not a CCBY image; must contact copyright holder above.

Given the seductive nature of belief-based Truth, many turned to science as a bulwark against wishful and arational thinking. The evolving social and empirical (data-based) nature of the scientific enterprise, beginning with guesses as to how the world (or rather some small part of the world) works, then following the guess’s logical implications together with the process of testing those implications through experiment or observation, leading to the revision (or abandonment) of the original guess, moving it toward hypothesis and then, as it becomes more explanatory and accurately predictive, and as those predictions are confirmed, into a theory.  So science is a dance between speculation and observation. In contrast to a free form dance, the dance of science is controlled by a number of rigid, and oppressive to some, constraints [see Feynman].

Perhaps surprisingly, this scientific enterprise has converged onto a small set of over- arching theories and universal laws that appear to explain much of what is observable, these include the theory of general relativity, quantum and atomic theory, the laws of thermodynamics, and the theory of evolution. With the noticeable exception of relativity and quantum mechanics, these conceptual frameworks appear to be compatible with one another. As an example, organisms, and behaviors such as consciousness, obey and are constrained by, well established and (apparently) universal physical and chemical rules.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_universal_common_ancestor
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_universal_common_ancestor

A central constraint on scientific thinking is that what cannot in theory be known is not a suitable topic for scientific discussion. This leaves outside of the scope of science a number of interesting topics, ranging from what came before the “Big Bang” to the exact steps in the origin of life. In the latter case, the apparently inescapable conclusion that all terrestrial organisms share a complex “Last Universal Common Ancestor” (LUCA) makes theoretically unconfirmable speculations about pre-LUCA living systems outside of science.  While we can generate evidence that the various building blocks of life can be produced abiogenically (a process begun with Wohler’s synthesis of urea) we can only speculate as to the systems that preceded LUCA.

 

Various pressures have led many who claim to speak scientifically (or to speak for science) to ignore the rules of the scientific enterprise – they often act as if their are no constraints, no boundaries to scientific speculation. Consider the implications of establishing “astrobiology” programs based on speculation (rather than observations) presented with various levels of certainty as to the ubiquity of life outside of Earth [the speculations of Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel on “directed panspermia”: and the Drake equation come to mind, see Michael Crichton’s famous essay on Aliens and global warming]. Yet such public science pronouncements appear to ignore (or dismiss) the fact that we know (and can study) only one type of life, the descendants of LUCA. They appear untroubled when breaking the rules and abandoning the discipline that has made science a powerful, but strictly constrained human activity.

 

Whether life is unique to Earth or not requires future explorations and discoveries that may (or given the technological hurdles involved, may not) occur. Similarly postulating theoretically unobservable alternative universes or the presence of some form of consciousness in inanimate objects [such unscientific speculation as illustrated here] crosses a dividing line between belief for belief’s sake, and the scientific – it distorts and obscures the rules of the game, the rules that make the game worth playing [again, the Crichton article cited above makes this point]. A recent rather dramatic proposal from some in the physical-philosophical complex has been the claim that the rules of prediction and empirical confirmation (or rejection) are no longer valid – that we can abandon requiring scientific ideas to make observable predictions [see Ellis & Silk]. It is as if objective reality is no longer the benchmark against which scientific claims are made; that perhaps mathematical elegance or spiritual comfort are more important – and well they might be (more important) but they are also outside of the limited domain of science. At the 2015 “Why Trust a Theory” meeting, the physicist Carlo Rovelli concluded “by pointing out that claiming that a theory is valid even though no experiment has confirmed it destroys the confidence that society has in science, and it also misleads young scientists into embracing sterile research programs.” [quote from Massimo’s Pigliucci’s Footnotes to Plato blog].

 

While the examples above are relatively egregious, it is worth noting that various pressures for glory, fame, and funding can tend to impact science more frequently – leading to claims that are less obviously non-scientific, but that bend (and often break) the scientific charter. Take, for example, claims about animal models of human diseases. Often the expediencies associated with research make the use of such animal models necessary and productive, but they remain a scientific compromise. While mice, rats, chimpanzees, and humans are related evolutionarily, they also carry distinct traits associated with each lineage’s evolutionary history, and the associated adaptive and non-adaptive processes and events associated with that history. A story from a few years back illustrates how the differences between the immune systems of mice and humans help explain why the search, in mice, for drugs to treat sepsis in humans was so relatively unsuccessful [Mice Fall Short as Test Subjects for Some of Humans’ Deadly Ills]. A similar type of situation occurs when studies in the mouse fail to explicitly acknowledge how genetic background influences experimental phenotypes [Effect of the genetic background on the phenotype of mouse mutations], as well as how details of experimental scenarios influence human relevance [Can Animal Models of Disease Reliably Inform Human Studies?].

 

Speculations that go beyond science (while hiding under the mantel of science – see any of a number of articles on quantum consciousness) – may seem just plain silly, but by abandoning the rules of science they erode the status of the scientific process.  How, exactly, would one distinguish a conscious from an unconscious electron?

In science (again as pointed out by Crichton) we do not agree through consensus but through data (and respect for critical analyzed empirical observations). The Laws of Thermodynamics, General Relativity, the standard model of particle physics, and Evolution theory are conceptual frameworks that we are forced (if we are scientifically honest) to accept. Moreover the implications of these scientific frameworks can be annoying to some; there is no free lunch (perpetual motion machine), no efficient, intelligently-designed evolutionary process (just blind variation and differential reproduction), and no zipping around the galaxy. The apparent limitation of motion to the speed of light means that a “Star Wars” universe is impossible – happily, I would argue, given the number of genocidal events that appear to be associated with that fictional vision.

 

Whether our models for the behavior of Earth’s climate or the human brain can be completely accurate (deterministic), given the roles of chaotic and stochastic events in these systems, remains to be demonstrated; until they are, there is plenty of room for conflicting interpretations and prescriptions. That atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases are increasing due to human activities is unarguable, what it implies for future climate is less clear, and what to do about it (a social, political, and economic discussion informed but not determined by scientific observations) is another.

Courtesy NASA.As we discuss science, we must teach (and remind ourselves, even if we are working scientific practitioners) about the limits of the scientific enterprise. As science educators, one of our goals is to help students develop an appreciation of the importance of an honest and critical attitude to observations and conclusions, a recognition of the limits of scientific pronouncements. We need to explicitly identify, acknowledge, and respect the constraints under which effective science works and be honest in labeling when we have left scientific statements, lest we begin to walk down the path of little lies that morph into larger ones.  In contrast to politicians and other forms of religious and secular mystics, we should know better than to be seduced into abandoning scientific discipline, and all that that entails.

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M.W. Klymkowsky  web site:  http://klymkowskylab.colorado.edu  email: klym@colorado.edu

 

 

 

 

Why Statistics Should Be A Mandatory Part of High School Education

Back in 2007, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in Britain ruled that the oral health manufacturing giant Colgate could not use its claim that “More than 80% Of Dentists recommend Colgate” or that its brand was “used and recommended by most dentists.” These bans were based on the finding that Colgate had used deceptive statistics to derive its numbers.

 

For instance, when reading the original claim, consumers would likely think that four out of five dentists had recommended Colgate over its competitors. Instead, ASA revealed that dentists in the study were allowed to recommend more than one brand. The numbers were less impressive than Colgate had made them sound.

 

The ASA explained that “The claim would be understood by readers to mean that 80 per cent of dentists recommend Colgate over and above other brands, and the remaining 20 per cent would recommend different brands. […] Because we understood that another competitor’s brand was recommended almost as much as the Colgate brand by the dentists surveyed, we concluded that the claim misleadingly implied 80 per cent of dentists recommend Colgate toothpaste in preference to all other brands.”

 

This sort of fact-fudging is concerning because numbers permeate our lives. Sports fans pore over statistics of their favorite teams and players. Consumers are bombarded with product information on billboards, TV, and the internet. Pundits and politicians rattle off figures to tell voters how better or worse things have gotten. People tune into the weather channel to see the chance of rain. Some data are truly informative, some are twisted to support a point, and others are outright fabricated. And yet, every day, we are inundated with a deluge of numbers we must continually process.

 

So how can we make sense of it all?

 

According to Charles Wheelan, a senior lecturer and policy fellow at Dartmouth College and bestselling author of Naked Economics, one of the best tools that we have to separate the wheat from the chaff is statistics, a system used to gather, organize, and interpret data. In short, statistics helps us to conceptualize information by allowing individuals to understand how data is collected and how it can be interpreted and communicated. Wheelan states, “Statistics is one of those things that people need to understand in order to be an informed citizen, especially the use and abuse of data.”

 

Given its importance, descriptive statistics ought to ascend from its status as an elective to the pantheon of required high school mathematics, next to the trinity of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Statistics is “also more intuitive and applied than other kinds of high school math courses (e.g. calculus or trig),” states Wheelan, “so it certainly strikes me as sensible to make basic statistics an integral part of any high school math curriculum.”

 

In doing so, students will be better prepared to make informed decisions as adults over a wide range of subjects. For instance, as consumers, students will learn to question and be skeptical of advertisement claims. As voters, they will be able to interpret basic socioeconomic data touted or slammed by candidates, understand how surveys and polls work, and be aware of how data can be skewed—intentionally or unintentionally—through bias.

 

By incorporating more knowledge of statistics into our everyday lives, we will be able to foster an educated citizenry, helping future generations to make sense of our increasingly data-deluged world.

 

What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press)

 

Check out my new guide aimed at helping college students excel in science, What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press)

Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Commander Chris Hadfield captured the world’s imagination last year, when, from 13 March to 13 May 2013, he was the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station. While aboard the ISS, Commander Hadfield did a series of “experiments,” both for scientists, but, perhaps most importantly, for youth. This included genuinely interesting questions like “How do you cry in space? (video above)” and “How do you cut your nails?” and the always important “How do you go to the bathroom?” His amicable nature and genuinely infectious enthusiasm brought science to the masses, and helped inspire thousands of youth.

Recently, Chris Hadfield released his book – “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.” My sister waited in line for 3 hours at our local Costco to get me a signed copy for my birthday, and I finally got around to reading it for this review. The book follows the life of Chris Hadfield as he becomes the commander of Expedition 35, detailing his attitude and the path he took to become the first Canadian Commander of the ISS. The book is split into three broad sections leading up to Expedition 35 titled “Pre-Launch,” “Liftoff” and “Coming Down to Earth,” with several chapters within each section.

The book was fascinating to me – Hadfield is a hybrid pilot-engineer-scientist-lab rat. His expertise is in engineering and as a test pilot, but throughout the book he references how his work is interdisciplinary, and he has to have a broad understanding of several domains in order to be effective. In addition to his role as an astronaut and Commander, he is also a fully fledged lab rat, and people on the ground will ask him questions about how he’s feeling, take samples while he’s in space and after he returns, as well as measure how quickly he recovers to life back on Earth in order to further our understanding about how life in space impacts the human body. Since, at some point, we hope to explore the stars, any data we can get on how astronauts respond to life in space is valuable.

One of my favourite parts of the book was how it didn’t just focus on the mundane, it relished them. He spends pages describing the drills he went through, and how important have a strong grasp of the fundamentals was for his success. I found this refreshing – too often in science we glorify the achievements but ignore all the hard work that got them there. A breakthrough in the lab might take months or even years of work before things go right, and having some acknowledge that, not only do things not work (often), them not working is not the end of the world. This was a refreshing take on the scientific method, and really highlighted the value in “the grind” of slowly perfecting your skills.

Click the book cover for purchasing options!
Click the book cover for purchasing options!

He also has a certain brand of “folksy wisdom” that is inspiring in it’s own way. It’s not inspirational in the nauseating sense that these things are often written in, but more practical. He states the importance of reading the team dynamic before getting involved for example, or how important it is to really understand the nuts and bolts of what you’re doing, but at no point does that feel patronizing or “hey, look at me, I’m an astronaut!” For many budding scientists, the idea of trudging through another page of equations, or washing beakers, or just doing the mundane, less exciting parts of science makes you apathetic and bored. Hadfield takes this moments and stresses just how important it is to learn from them, as well as ensure that you know exactly why they are important. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in STEM careers, and especially those early in their careers.

To purchase, check out Chris Hadfield’s official website.


Featured image: Commander Hadfield performed at the 2013 Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa, ON | Picture courtesy David Johnson, click for more info

Guest post: Interpreting Lemurs

Chris Smith was one of the first people I met in Raleigh. He showed up at the hotel in a big van, carrying a clipboard with a list of 20 names.  

Chris and I had been talking before. We had discussed Sci-Ed projects via email. We chatted over a Southern breakfast of biscuits and gravy. I even made pushy requests (e.g., can I follow you around with a camera and microphone?), to which he consented with shy enthusiasm.

 That clipboard list of 20 names included mine. Chris took the group of 19 and I to a tour of the Duke Lemur Center. But it was on the tour that I witnessed a transformation in our host. Something about his tone of voice, posture, and eye contact had changed. Chris had morphed into a confident, lemur-authority science interpreter. 

Atop the tallest pine tree, Kizzy sat poised and tense. Then, like a skydiver jumping from a plane, she leapt from the branches. Arms and legs outstretched, she crashed through the tangle and landed with a big bear hug onto a small limb below. Black and white ruffed lemurs are not the most graceful of lemurs.

If you read Sci-Ed regularly, then we’ve met. I was the guide and narrator of Cristina’s Lemur Week videos (Part I and Part II). I work at the Duke Lemur Center, the world’s largest collection of lemurs outside of their native Madagascar. The Center houses over 250 animals on 70 acres in Durham, NC. I serve as the education specialist, and it’s my job to introduce people to the world of lemurs. I take small groups of visitors on guided tours of the facilities. Our goal is to get them close to the lemurs so they can see why lemurs are so special.

kizzy_r2
Kizzy, the black and white lemur, leaping through the forest. Photo courtesy of Duke Lemur Center/David Haring.

That morning, the tour group and I had been in the forested free-range enclosures for only a few minutes before the lemurs descended. As we watched Kizzy and her four sons come crashing down, I talked to the group about the lemurs who roam free in the forest. Lemurs are primates – the most ancient primates on Earth, in fact. Evolved more than 60 million years ago, lemurs found themselves in isolated Madagascar and over time adapted into more than 80 unique species, with characteristics and behaviors all their own. Today, lemurs are considered the most endangered group of mammals on the planet. More than 90% of all species are threatened with extinction. Some could disappear in as few a ten years.  Now surrounding us, the lemurs furiously clamored for their treats as the keeper tossed crunchy chow around. I took the opportunity to talk about the diet, foraging behavior and social interactions between lemurs. The visitors smiled, laughed and gasped while these ruffed lemurs ate, jumped, and squabbled over food.

A science interpreter facilitates learning

The role of an interpreter (that’s me) is to reveal the “awesome.” Interpretation in museums or zoos goes beyond reciting facts. It’s about building an emotional connection with the audience. Interpretation done well meets the audience intellectually and provokes their own curiosity. It’s a way of communicating that involves connecting the visitor to the resource through the experience. The goal is to promote action on the part of the participant: to learn more, share what they’ve learned with others or take action directly on the issue.

At the Lemur Center, I try to get visitors as close to the animals as possible while highlighting the different aspects of lemurs’ lives, research and conservation. When the blue-eyed black lemur stares at visitors, guests often comment on the beauty of the lemur’s blazing blue eyes. I can use that as a perfect opportunity. Only 4 primate species have individuals with blue eyes (one of them is humans), but only in blue-eyed black lemurs do each individual possess this trait. They’re also critically endangered, and their unique genetic distinction could disappear forever due to habitat loss. The Duke Lemur Center houses the only two breeding females in captivity.

Chris Smith talks about Madagascar to his tour group. Photo by Cristina Russo.
Chris Smith talks about Madagascar to his tour group. Photo by Cristina Russo.

The combination of fluffy, bright-eyed animals and a knowledgeable guide is magic for guest experience and education. Ballantyne et al. (2007) studied the impacts of different animal exhibits and interpretation schemes at zoos and found that when guests can see an active animal and they have someone to easily explain what they’re seeing, guests learn more. Interpretive programs have been shown to positively influence environmental awareness and conservation action in visitors to natural heritage sites (Zeppell 2008). These effects were discussed in Sci-Ed previously, here, here and here.

I conducted my own little research project at the Lemur Center and asked a few people about their experiences on the forest tour. Why did they visit? What did they like? What do they remember most? In the course of my conversations, no one would really own up to having learned anything. Still, they were able to tell me many lemur stories, including ring-tailed lemur stink fights, aye-ayes with rodent-like incisors, or a ruffed lemur’s loud, barking call. Guests were receiving information, but the emotional response to seeing the animals up close made them receptive to the information.

Kizzy and her family withdrew to the treetops to sunbathe. As I lead the guests out of the forest, they continue to ask me questions and talk about the experience. We still have more lemurs to meet, and I have more information to share. I’ll see their pictures on Instagram later in the afternoon – a sure sign:  they’ll be lemur lovers for life.

References

  1. Conservation learning in wildlife tourism settings: lessons from research in zoos and aquariums. R. Ballantyne, J. Packer, K. Hughes, L. Dierking. Environmental Education Research, Vol. 13, Iss. 3, 2007

  2. Education and Conservation Benefits of Marine Wildlife Tours: Developing Free-Choice Learning Experiences. Heather Zeppel, The Journal of Environmental Education. Vol. 39, Iss. 3, 2008


 

Featured image: A black blue-eyed lemur. Photo courtesy of Duke Lemur Center/David Haring.

Say Hello to the Nation’s T-rex

“Anyone here doesn’t like T-rex?”

No hands were raised, but the packed auditorium welcomed Jack Horner with laughter and enthusiasm. The paleontologist climbed into the Smithsonian stage, and with flailing arms declared: “I’m going to talk about a very special T-rex”.

DSC03528
A replica of a T-rex skull with human size comparison.

The special Tyrannosaurus traveled via Fedex truck.

It was packed inside wood crates.

This famous dinosaur has a stage name: Wankel T-rex. An arm fossil bone was first uncovered by Kathy Wankel (pronounced WON-kal) in 1988, and later rescued by Horner’s team of paleontologists and graduate students.

DSC03506
Jack Horner. Photo by the author.

The Wankel T-rex was the largest and most complete specimen found at the time (and still stands as one of the most complete ever found, right after Sue). Last week, the dinosaur made it’s trip to Washington DC, to reside at the Natural History museum. It was received by director Kirk Johnson and the press with great fanfare. Photographers fought to get a close-up shot of the locked crates. One box, of a size that could house a widescreen TV, was labeled “WOW”. It contained a piece of the T-rex mandible, cheekbones, and banana-sized teeth.

A few days later, the community got a chance to to get involved. I joined in as the crowd filled the Smithsonian auditorium to hear from Horner, Johnson, and curator Matt Carrano. We were even introduced to Ms. Wankel, who recounted her discovery tale.

“Wait a minute, I found something out here”, said Ms. Wankel’s husband Tom. “I think I found something bigger out here”, said Ms. Wankel referring to an old and porous dinosaur arm bone.

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Kirk Johnson. Photo by the author.

“I wonder if it’s real.”

I’d risk saying that’s the most frequent question museum visitors ask. They have to hear from the museum staff, that yes – those bones belonged to a tyrant dinosaur over 60 million years ago.

Visitors to the Smithsonian will get an affirmative answer to that question, and hopefully marvel at that titanic creature. Hopefully that celebrity T-rex will attract many new people to the science museum.

After all, there’s not a person who dislikes T-rex.

Judging science fairs: 10/10 Privilege, 0/10 Ability

Every year, I make a point of rounding up students in my department and encouraging them to volunteer one evening judging our local science fair. This year, the fair was held at the start of April, and featured over 200 judges and hundreds of projects from young scientists in grades 5 through to 12, with the winners going on to the National Championships.

President Obama welcomes some young scientists to the White House | Photo via USDAGov
President Obama welcomes some young scientists to the White House | Photo via USDAGov

Perhaps the most rewarding part of volunteering your time, and the reason why I encourage colleagues to participate is when you see just how excited the youth are for their projects. It doesn’t matter what the project is, most of the students are thrilled to be there. Add to that how A Real Life Scientist (TM) wants to talk to them about their project? It’s a highlight for many of the students. As a graduate student, the desire to do science for science’s sake is something that gets drilled out of you quickly as you follow the Williams Sonoma/Jamie Oliver Chemistry 101 Cookbook, where you add 50 g Chemical A to 50 of Chemical B and record what colour the mixture turns. Being around  excitement based purely on the pursuit of science is refreshing.

However, the aspect of judging science fairs that I struggle most with is how to deal with the wide range of projects. How do you judge two projects on the same criteria where one used university resources (labs, mass spectrometers, centrifuges etc) and the other looked at how high balls bounce when you drop them. It becomes incredibly difficult as a judge to remain objective when one project is closer in scope to an undergraduate research project and the other is more your typical kitchen cabinet/garage equipment project. Even within two students who do the same project, there is variability depending on whether or not they have someone who can help them at home, or access to facilities through their school or parents social network.

As the title suggests, this is an issue of privilege. Having people at home who can help, either directly by providing guidance and helping do the project, or indirectly by providing access to resources, gives these kids a huge leg up over their peers. As Erin pointed out in her piece last year:

A 2009 study of the Canada-Wide Science Fair found that found that fair participants were elite not just in their understanding of science, but in their finances and social network. The study looked at participants and winners from the 2002-2008 Fairs, and found that the students were more likely to come from advantaged middle to upper class families and had access to equipment in universities or laboratories through their social connections (emphasis mine).

So the youth who are getting to these fairs are definitely qualified to be there – they know the project, and they understand the scientific method. They’re explaining advanced concepts clearly and understand the material. The problem becomes how does one objectively deal with this? You can’t punish the student because they used the resources available to them, especially if they show mastery of the concepts. But can you really evaluate them on the same stage and using the same criteria as their peers without access to those resources, especially when part of the criteria includes the scientific merit of the project?

The fair, to their credit, took a very proactive approach to this concern, which was especially prudent given the makeup of this area where some kids have opportunities and others simply don’t. Their advice was to judge the projects independently, and judge the kids on the strength of their presentation and understanding. But again, there’s an element of privilege behind this. The kids who have parents and mentors who can coach them and prepare them for how to answer questions, or even just give them an opportunity/push them to practice their talk, will obviously do better.

The science fair acts as a microcosm for our entire academic system, from undergrad into graduate and professional school and into later careers. The students who can afford to volunteer in labs over the summer during undergrad are more likely to make it into highly competitive graduate programs as they have “relevant experience,” while their peers who have to work minimum wage positions to pay tuition or student loans are going to be left behind. The system is structured to reward privilege – when was the last time an undergrad or graduate scholarship considered “work history” as opposed to “relevant work experience?” Most ask for a resume or curriculum vitae, where one could theoretically include that experience, but if the ranking criteria look for “relevant” work experience, which working at Starbucks doesn’t include, how do those students compete for the same scholarships? This is despite how working any job does help you develop various transferable skills including time management and conflict resolution. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the negative stigma many professors hold for this type of employment.

The question thus is: Are we okay with this? Are we okay with a system where, based purely on luck, some kids are given opportunities, while others aren’t? And if not, how do we start tackling it?

 

 

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Disclaimer: I’ve focused on economic privilege here, but privilege comes in many different forms. I’m not going to wade into the other forms, but for some excellent reads, take a read of this, this and this.

Do lemurs like to move it-move it? (video)

Lemurs had their 15 minutes of fame, back when DreamWork’s Madagascar came out in 2005. This year it’s time for IMAX Island of Lemurs: Madagascar to shine a spotlight on this primates.

We discussed before how nature documentaries influence the public’s understanding of science, and mostly increase the general public’s science literacy. Which is why I was curious to test the effect of the Madagascar movie: what did it teach the general public? Did it result in the public’s new understanding of lemurs? During my visit to the Duke Lemur Center, I had the perfect opportunity to find out. During  the 40 minute car ride, I asked acting driver and education specialist Chris Smith. And here’s what he told me:

This is the second installment of our participation on Lemur Week. For Part I, click here.

Sci-Ed joins Lemur Week (video)

Their ghostly eyes are lovely windows to their souls.

Lemurs are primates – they have long tails, tree-climbing hands, and incredible curiosity. At least that’s what I encountered on my visit to the Duke Lemur Center (sponsored by Owen Software). Education specialist Chris Smith led me on an amazing tour. See below:

The Duke Lemur Center offers tours, similar to the one above. Their goal is to raise funds for research (Smith estimated that 10% of the center’s funds come from tours). Most of all, the center aims to educate the public and raise awareness about lemur conservation. And it seems to pay off: in 2013, they received 18,000 visitors (5,000 more than a previous record-breaking year). In addition to tours, the educational department is expanding to bring in even younger visitors, so conservation education can start earlier. The Duke Lemur Center now has a “primates for pre-schoolers program” for kids ages 3-5, and a “leaping lemurs summer science camp” for 6th and 8th graders from all over the country. For the grown-ups, there’s an “evening with the experts” with such curious topics as “are you smarter than a lemur?”.

Come back Wednesday for another video on Duke Lemur Center, when we’ll explore some of Chris Smith’s strategies when talking lemur science to the public.

Childhood obesity drops 40% in the last decade. Or not really, but who’s checking?

“A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.”
― Alfred Tennyson

Last week, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association received a lot of media attention. The study, performed by Cynthia Ogden and colleagues at the CDC, aimed to describe the prevalence of obesity in the US and look at changes between 2003 and 2012. The study itself had several interesting findings, not least among them that the prevalence of obesity seems to have stabilized in many segments of the US population. However, they made one observation that caught the media’s attention:

“There was a significant decrease in obesity among 2- to 5-year-old children (from 13.9% to 8.4%; P = .03)”

This is where things get interesting, as the focus was not on the 5.5 percentage points difference. Instead of reporting the absolute difference, i.e. how much something changed, news outlets focused on the relative difference, i.e. how much they changed compared to each other. In that case, it would be (5.5/13.9 =) 40%. Which is much more impressive than the 5.5% change reported in the study. So you can guess what the headlines loudly proclaimed:

Headlines from Bloomberg, the LA Times and the WSJ
Headlines from Bloomberg, the LA Times and the WSJ | Click to enlarge, click links to read the articles

The media latched onto this “40%” statistic and ran with it, despite the researchers clearly stating that this was not their intention. In fact, from the paper itself, they said (in their conclusions):

Overall, there have been no significant changes in obesity prevalence in youth or adults between 2003-2004 and 2011-2012. Obesity prevalence remains high and thus it is important to continue surveillance. (emphasis mine)

This makes me wonder how many journalists read the article, how many got to the end, and how many just saw what other people had reported and ran with the same headline and narrative.

Here’s the thing – they’re technically correct (the best kind of correct). Yes, childhood obesity dropped 40% based on that report, and if that is true, that is a dramatic decrease. However, that is one group, and even the researchers themselves conclude this may be meaningless. It begs the question why, and if this is an actual association or just an artifact of something else like the type and number of statistical tests used. But since the narrative had already been written, everyone followed suit, and next thing you know we’re all slapping hi fives and proclaiming that there has been a drop off in childhood obesity that may not actually be something worth celebrating.

Now, had the results been portrayed fairly, two things would have happened. For one, the findings would not have been as positive as they are now. In fact, the headlines would have read “Business as usual: Obesity the same for the last decade” or “Obesity up 20% among elderly women!” (The latter refers to the finding that the prevalence of obesity went up among women aged 60 years and older from 31.5% to 38.1%). Secondly, a much more detailed discussion of the study findings would have happened – why has the prevalence stabilized? Have we finally reached saturation? Are all the people who could be obese now obese? Or is something else going on? But these weren’t the findings that were focused on.

The worst outcome of this media exposure won’t be felt right now. It will be felt in the next study. You see, this study in JAMA was reported all over the media, and millions would have heard about how we’ve finally “turned a corner in the childhood obesity epidemic” (to quote the New York Times). Unfortunately, this may not be the case, and if a new study comes out saying the opposite, this further undermines the public’s confidence in science, even though the researchers in question never made any such claim.

And that, dear readers, is the darkest of all lies.

References
Ogden, C. L., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B. K., & Flegal, K. M. (2014). Prevalence of Childhood and Adult Obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. JAMA, 311(8), 806-814.