Showing posts with label science education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science education. Show all posts

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Reading assignments, vol. 10

Here's the link roundup for the week:

Science communication

Denialism, chemophobia, and fraud

Chemical education & academia

Public policy


Sunday, January 27, 2013

Reading assignments, vol. 8

Links and interesting topical stories from the week follow below.


  • Scientific and writer DNLee of Scientific American gives a powerful account of the factors denying good STEM education to many students (namely, those of low socioeconomic status). It's a very important read, as it highlights many issues in science education (and education and science culture in general) that very often get ignored. 
  • At Gene Expression, Razib Khan comments on affirmative action and science. He's largely dismissive of it, saying science doesn't need cultural diversity per se (with a caveat that such diversity is valuable from a social perspective). It's a worthwhile read; only the myopic would be reluctant to admit there is a rather skewed demographic makeup in science relative to the entire population.
  • Derek Lowe has a commentary on an ACS Med. Chem. Lett. opinion piece regarding the role of academia in drug discovery. It's worth thinking about, especially to those interested in science funding or science policy. The case can really strongly be made that academia can not replace pharma as a productive drug production vehicle, but the decoupling from financial risk means academic labs can push innovations that are potentially high impact but not necessarily profitable.

Scientific representation and misrepresentation

Chemistry job market

  • Glen Ernst comments on a 1979 article from C&EN bemoaning an impending surplus of chemistry PhDs exceeding the number of available jobs. As Glen points out, "non-traditional" here meant not being a university professor. Today, the scope of "traditional" careers has broadened, but the employment outlook seems bleaker. Still, it's an interesting insight from the late 70s.
  • I found this interview of ChemDraw wizard (and recently-hired Perkin Elmer employee) Pierre Morieux by Chemjobber quite interesting. It's a neat career path, and a cool story of how social media and online networking can land you a job. At the same time, comments imply that some chemists think it is overkill (and perhaps a telltale sign of the job market) that a long PhD and a competitive postdoc do not result in a "traditional" job. (I'd caution that non-"traditional" careers aren't  necessarily fallbacks and can be more rewarding than the big-name jobs; I'd also like to point out that many people in many professions change career paths many times!). 
  • At Chemistry World, economist Paula Stephan has some perhaps-controversial, perhaps-obvious (depending who you ask) points on the PhD glut. She likens grad school to a pyramid scheme, where the focus of grad school has shifted from producing quality scientists to producing PI-promoting research. She has a series of thoughtful recommendations for improving graduate education. Derek Lowe notes the article and comments on the proposal to increase permanent lab staff (i.e. how to fund it?).
  • Chemjobber has some commentary and depressing statistics on the job market and unemployment rate for chemists (spoiler: it's worse than the average rate for bachelor's degree holders).
  • Don't miss See Arr Oh and Chemjobber's podcast on amusing interview stories.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Reading assignments, vol. 6

First week of 2013 has rolled in. Some news from the week:

Public health

Social media and science

Public perception of science



Sunday, December 30, 2012

Reading assignments, vol. 5

Despite the widely celebrated secular/pagan holiday this week, science-related journalism trudged on. Some interesting posts below related to the fiscal cliff, science education (creationism is sneaking back), scientific imagery and creativity, and some science- (and pseudoscience)-related awards.

Science and politics

  • New Statesman guest editors Brian Cox and Robin Ince have written a pointed commentary on the role of science in policymaking. They highlight that non-scientific political issues have invaded public interpretation of science; this risks damaging society's confidence in scientific truth. It's a good read. A couple of responses quickly followed, including two weakly critical responses from Rebekah Higgitt (The Guardian), Jack Stilgoe (also The Guardian), and a favorable reply from Jon Butterworth (still at The Guardian). I commented on this earlier this week here.
  • Discover Magazine blogger Keith Kloor (Collide-a-Scape) comments on the above article and also on the current toxic environment of the science-vs-religion fights. He argues against the "Puritanical" zero-tolerance policy of Richard Dawkins and like-minded skeptics.
  • Bill Nye has written a sort of open letter to the federal legislature regarding the impending fiscal cliff; he urges (like most of us do) a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, but makes the case that legislators avoid cuts in science. His argument is that science drives innovation which drives American economic superiority. Is science going to be immune from the cuts? I doubt it, unfortunately.
  • Antibiotic use (also discussed last week) in livestock is a major contributor to widespread drug resistance. Laura Rogers reports on recent issues and developments in laws and regulations regarding antibiotic use, including increased oversight of how and where the drugs are used, an end to non-prescription antibiotic use for animals, and stopping the practice of using antibiotics when they're not needed.

Bad science and bad journalism

  • Under the "bad journalism" theme comes a Fox News (!!!) science section piece titled "Duh! 12 obvious science findings of 2012". I have a problem with pieces that pander to readers by highlighting "obvious" research (especially since many things previously considered "obvious" are now known not to be true). To be fair to Fox News, this same piece appeared at Huffington Post.
  • Complementary to bad journalism is bad science. Christopher Wanjek writes on HuffingtonPost about  the top five science retractions of 2012. The first one (the scientist who made up his own peer reviewers and clued editors in by responding too favorably and too quickly) is the best. This, too, is cross-posted to Fox News. Although the retractions highlighted are certainly disturbing, the tone of the article's introduction sets an atmosphere of general mistrust of scientists and science. Of course, scientific misconduct is serious (and increasingly we are being made aware of it) but the author seems to de-emphasize the role of kneejerk journalism in public disappointment.
  • Disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield (the guy who had that fraudulent study linking autism and vaccines) has been given the Golden Duck award for 'lifetime achievement in quackery'. The award is part of an effort by scientists and science advocates to spread awareness of bad science and pseudoscience. However, some, such as Frank Swain of SciencePunk, feel the award is counterproductive: things like this come across as smug and contemptuous, and the group giving out the Golden Duck isn't influential enough to matter.
  • To the long list of "people at The Ohio State University who have gotten caught committing research fraud" we can add pharmacologist Terry S. Elton, who apparently manipulated over two dozen figures in papers and grant applications. (For other examples see pharmacy professor Robert J. Lee and, most familiar to chemists, Leo Paquette).

Science education

Imagery in science

  • Imagery and aesthetics are usually the last thing on scientists' minds, but they can be instrumental in promotion of science. See not only this post by Alex Wild asking readers to submit the year's best science imagery, but also this fascinating blog where a chemist uses large quantities of materials and takes beautiful high-resolution -- and artistic -- photos of labware and reactions.
  • Wired features a gallery of what they describe as the best scientific figures of 2012 (i.e. figures in journals, not "figures" as in people/scientists). I like "The Essence of Tomato" -- it's the one that looks like a DNA microchip heat map and it describes relative abundance of various flavor compounds in varietals of tomatoes. There's also an image of a lonely yttrium atom.
  • On a related tangent, there's a piece by Virginia Hughes on Only Human over at National Geographic regarding perception of science and the importance of creativity. It's short and well-written and highlights important issues in how children at impressionable ages are losing interest because they don't see creativity in it. The piece also addresses strategies for combating this notion.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Reading assignments, vol. 4

The following are some interesting topics and posts from the last week or so. A lot of links, but they're pretty good.

Online education (i.e. MOOCs)

  • At the Chronicle of Higher Education, George Washington University Dean Doug Guthrie criticizes Coursera, a for-profit company that partners with universities to offer massive online open courses (MOOCs). Guthrie insists that Coursera is a fad; "thoughtful interactions" do not occur; and educators are frequently creating a crowd, not a community. It's a valid point; online education has promise but very often falls short, even with the best of intentions. See also this other criticism/analysis of MOOCs.   While we're at it, if you really want to read more about MOOCs check out this year-in-review about MOOCs.
  • In the midst of the recent surge in MOOC popularity, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is running an online Intermediate Organic Chemistry course, taught by educational specialist Michael Evans and Dr. Jeff Moore.
  • Dayna Catropa and Margaret Andrews compare MOOCs to MOCCs (midsized online closed courses), predicting that MOCCs will replace MOOCs, as they provide an opportunity to monetize the online experience and deliver it to smaller groups.

Public health

Scientific communication

The F word (funding)

  • At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Indiana University president Michael A. McRobbie warns that the fiscal cliff may spell out serious damage to research universities. He makes the case that this would be perilous to the economy, as research drives innovation in engineering/manufacturing.
  • The United States is not the only place where scientists are feeling the squeeze of a scant funding environment. Nature gives an account of Spanish scientists who protested their government's reductions in science funding (39% drop since 2009).

Scientific philosophy

  • On HuffingtonPost, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake writes a commentary on the arrogance of modern science, criticizing materialism and insisting that dogmatic thinking is "crippling" modern science. I disagree with most of what he says; it's overly dramatic, simplistic, and feels like it's pandering to the pseudoscientist crowd (as well as an advertisement for the author's new book). But it's worth reading; is this a pervasive viewpoint?
  • For the philosophically inclined, read this. (tl;dr = is science tool-driven or idea-driven??).


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Reading assignments, vol. 3

Some reads from the internet are below. I should have some organic synthesis-oriented post(s) on here this coming week, so for anyone who likes organotrifluoroborates: stay tuned.

Three themes for this week, as discussed below.

Research in practice:

Science and the public:

  • Via Talk Nerdy to Me, a good video commenting on anti-science politicians, including the House Science Committee. One of my favorite topics, so watch it.
  • Karen Kashmanian (a dean at the WPI) recommends that science (and access to science via technology) be formally deemed a human right.
  • Rebecca Harrington comments on a UC Berkeley study on the dialogue surrounding environmentalism. The rhetoric used to promote environmental protection (i.e. the wording, not necessarily the factual arguments) is critical in shifting conservatives toward environmentalism. Should be of interest to those fighting denialism.
  • An excellent post on Slate about the public's perception of conservation and ecology. Turns out white tigers are inbred mutants, and their breeding causes harm to animals as well as depletion of valuable resources otherwise useful for conservation. It's an important read for any scientist or conservationist.

Graduate chemical education:

  • Chemjobber points out that now even the higher-ups in ACS are acknowledging that there are way too many chemistry PhDs. In a separate post, other surprising assertions by the ACS leadership are noted.
  • An opinion piece by Stacey Patton at the Chronicle of Higher Education (posted also to HuffingtonPost) discusses the combination of student debt and poor employment prospects in the context of graduate school (more geared toward humanities but this applies to science to a degree). She and others recommend that graduate programs warn prospective students and offer guidance.
  • A commentary by science writer and Earth science professor Scott K. Johnson makes the case for a different model of science education in order to better teach critical thinking to science and non-science students alike. He argues against the current (failed) paradigm that thinking abilities come as a byproduct (side product?) when you teach the basics. He's right.


  • Greg Laden points out the convergence of a fake study and a real study on the conclusion that Fox News viewers are, on average, unintelligent. 
  • Because See Arr Oh likes odd things in chemistry, there's a post on Just Like Cooking about the use of Sweet 'n Low in an Org. Lett. procedure. At least it found a use in chemistry, because it tastes gross.
  • A brief New Scientist interview with Tom Knight about synthetic biology. On a somewhat related note, see this Scientific American post about complexity in science/engineering.
  • Derek Lowe (In the Pipeline) points out a scientist angry to the point of legally claiming defamation over not being awarded the Nobel Prize.
  • Chemists generally know about the helium shortage (better learn to do NMR without magnets!). Here's a piece that talks about it on Starts With a Bang.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

On the nature of ignorance and the futility of facts

Two or so weeks ago, Adam Laats (author of Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era and historian at the Graduate School of Education at Binghamton University) posted the following perhaps obviously-titled commentary (To Teach Evolution, You Have to Understand Creationists) at the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle often has some interesting (often either pleasantly interesting or agonizingly irritating) commentaries, and I found this one worth comment.

Denialism is well-established phenomenon, and Laats writes on the nature of creationists. Specifically, and somewhat aggressively, he points out the ignorance of evolutionists in the ongoing clash, using Paul C. Broun's famous remarks as a starting point. From the article's introduction (bold emphasis mine):
"If you follow the news about culture wars, evolution, and creationism, you've probably seen it by now. Earlier this fall, U.S. Rep. Paul C. Broun Jr., Republican of Georgia who ran unopposed for re-election, said in a widely distributed video that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang theory were "lies straight from the pit of hell."

I don't agree. But the ferocious response to Broun's remarks tells us more about the widespread ignorance among evolution supporters than it does about ignorance among creationists."
I guess it's good that Laats doesn't agree with a statement attacking the entire foundation of modern science and medicine, for which an inordinate amount of evidence has been amassed.

But what is this about ignorance among evolution supporters? Well, Laats insists, evolution supporters are ignorant in assuming creationists are ignorant. He points to Broun's formal credentials:
"I disagree with Broun's views on evolution—and on a host of other topics, for that matter. But if we hope to understand creationism, we need to abandon the trope that only the ignorant can oppose mainstream evolutionary science. It is a comfortable delusion, a head-in-the-sand approach to improving evolution education in the United States. In the end, it stems from a shocking ignorance among evolutionists about the nature of creationist beliefs
First of all, Broun is no ignoramus. He holds a bachelor's degree in chemistry and an M.D. He is the most recent in a long line of educated creationists. In the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan similarly defended his role as a man of science. In response to Clarence Darrow's accusation that only "bigots and ignoramuses" opposed evolution education, Bryan listed his many college degrees."
While I think many of us have taught enough pre-meds to know that a B.S. in chemistry and an M.D. are not assurances of wisdom, or even common sense, the fact that Broun is as educated (formally) as he is while still assuming a denialist stance is eye-opening. (It's also a little embarrassing). 

I would argue that Broun, having received his B.S. and M.D. degrees in 1967 and 1971, respectively, in the Deep South, may indeed be ignorant. His education took place in the heartland of fundamentalism in an era before the massive leaps in bioinformatics and genetic knowledge. How likely is it that, in his career as a politician and practicing physician, he has kept up with the literature? (N.B. I would think a physician should understand embryology and evolution, admittedly, given the seriousness of antibiotic resistance, drug development, and reproductive issues, but I don't know how broad or narrow his practice was).

But as the case probably is, this may be an issue more of confirmation bias. Laats doesn't say this explicitly, but it's hinted at as he discusses the formal credentials of a large number of creationism supporters and creationist science educators:
"Yet even among those 52 percent of Americans who know that scientists support evolution, large majorities still want schools to teach creationism. And, among those teachers who teach young-earth creationism, a majority—like Broun—hold a bachelor's degree or higher in science and almost half have completed 40 or more college credits in biology. [...] 
Nor can we take solace in the delusion that these teachers are somehow rogue agents of a vast right-wing creationist conspiracy. As Berkman and Plutzer demonstrate, the creationist beliefs of teachers embody the creationist beliefs of Americans in general. The teachers are not ignorant of evolution, yet they choose to reject it."
This raises some important questions: what does it mean to be ignorant with respect to science issues? What Laats is saying is that teachers and many Americans do know the requisite facts, have added up all the pieces, and have come to the conclusion that evolutionary biology is bunk. And that's certainly true in many cases; confirmation bias is objective science's biggest enemy. Our pre-existing beliefs color how we categorize and interpret data. Because of selective memory and selective reasoning, important facts get put in the dust pile and other facts get exaggerated. 

But is a confirmation bias-driven rejection of the facts altogether different from ignorance? Or is it just another level: ignorance on an argument-scale, rather than a fact scale? I'd be careful before I concluded that ignorance wasn't a problem among creationists. (Of course, that doesn't mean that throwing facts at the problem will improve anything).

So if facts don't work (re: educated creationists), is there hope for science education at all for converting denialists over to the side of scientific truth? A sobering comment from Laats:
"David Long, an anthropologist and science educator now at George Mason University, conducted an in-depth ethnographic study of creationists in college, reported in his Evolution and Religion in American Education (Springer, 2011). Among his batch of creationist biology majors, only one abandoned her creationist beliefs. Most striking, this woman was not convinced by the scientific evidence in her biology classes; rather, her home life in high school, including an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, had turned her away from her conservative Protestant upbringing. Of the biology majors Long studied, none was convinced of the truth of evolutionary science by scientific coursework alone."
Only one abandonment of creationist beliefs, and not even due to scientific education built from a foundation of decades of peer-reviewed research. That's a yield in need of optimization.

Another point:
"This commitment to creationism by those who know the facts of evolutionary science makes no sense to mainstream scientists, many of whom have always been utterly flummoxed by the durability of creationism. And a snarky insistence that Broun does not have the qualifications to serve on the House science committee blunders into an uncomfortable truth: Broun's views may fairly represent those of his constituents. Do we really want to demand that an elected official not fight for the ideas in which his constituents believe?"
I myself am guilty of "a snarky insistence that Broun does not have the qualifications to serve on the House science committee". And I stand by that.

This is the "uncomfortable truth" that Laats points out, highlighted above: Broun may represent his constituents' views. Hence he is, Laats hinted, indeed qualified for the committee.

No, no he isn't. Science shouldn't be a democratic process; we don't vote on the laws of the universe or whether carbon or nitrogen has a weight of 12 amu. Whether or not 50% or 95% of Americans believe the creation myth, evolution is factual. That aspect of science has implications: bacteria evolve resistance to drugs; embryonic stem cell research is powerful; the climate will continue to change and we influence that. Science-based issues are increasingly common. These are issues the House Science Committee has power over, via control of funding agencies. And the problem is, science-based issues depend utterly on facts.  Leadership should reflect that; leaders should strive to eschew confirmation bias with respect to these issues.

Near the end of his essay, Laats echos a sentiment that's been increasingly shared among scientists trying to solve the denialism problem:
"As it stands, scientists' blundering hostility toward creationism actually encourages creationist belief. By offering a stark division between religious faith and scientific belief, evolutionary scientists have pushed creationists away from embracing evolutionary ideas. And, by assuming that only ignorance could explain creationist beliefs, scientists have unwittingly fostered bitter resentment among the creationists, the very people with whom they should be hoping to connect."
This is in contrast to the Dawkins school of thought, but it's a fair point. And a challenge for science educators.