Mind Games 2.0

Bloggin' 'bout science and life

Category: Science Page 2 of 6

American Society of Naturalists Presidential Address 2016

Here’s the Presidential Address I gave at the 2016 American Society of Naturalists annual meeting in Austin, Texas.



Are We Really In An Economic Apocalypse?

Given that the Republican Convention speakers last week all argued that the Obama Administration has destroyed the economy, I was curious what facts might exist to support such claims. As somebody who lives his life according to the creed “Show Me The Data”, I wanted to see for myself just how bad job growth has been during the Obama Administration. ( I didn’t want to hear some business reporter who never took a math or statistics class tell me.)

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Is There A Best Way To Choose A PhD Dissertation Topic?

For every new graduate student, the first major headache is what their dissertation will be about. In many areas of science, graduate students have very little choice. The laboratory leader essentially assigns a topic to the student, based on funding requirements and the laboratory structure.

However, in ecology, evolution and behavior, most laboratories still work on the principle that each graduate student must develop their own thesis topic.  Of course this is done in consultation with their dissertation supervisor, and it is often closely associated with other research that is being done by others in the laboratory.  It may even form a part of the larger project of the laboratory.  However, the student must develop the questions.  In this post, I want to discuss the two main ways that students in these disciplines approach this most important of problems for them.

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A Seminar I Gave At Harvard

Here’s a video of a seminar I gave at Harvard in 2009 in their Biodiversity, Ecology, and Global Change Lecture Series in their Center for the Environment.


Scientific Publishing Metrics & The Associated Social Media Are OUT OF CONTROL!

You know you’re an old fart when you start writing blog posts like the one I’m about to write.  This morning I woke up to a collection of e-mails from various publishers about what a fantastic researcher I am and how successful all my papers are.

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Some Insights About Lying & Not Lying With Statistics

The good folks at Vox have some words of wisdom about graphing data and lying and not lying with statistics.


A Brief Thought On “Race”

Last year in our Intro Biology course, I gave a couple of new lectures on human races. When you look at the genetic basis of race, you come to the conclusion below. In these lectures, I used President Obama as my example. His mitochondrial DNA is completely from Northern Europe (his mom’s ancestry), and his nuclear DNA is a 1:1 mix of northern Europe and Africa. If you only looked at his mitochondrial DNA, you’d conclude he was from Northern Europe, but if you considered his nuclear DNA, you’d get a more mixed picture. And in fact, we’re all like that.

As part of our class last year, we sequenced the genomes of all the students in the class. My sequence indicated that I’m 99.7% European, but I’m also 0.2% East Asian & Native American. So should I also tick off the Asian or Native American box on the next census form? My X-chromosome is most likely from Scandinavia (i.e., the X-chromosome I have has the highest frequency in Scandinavian populations of humans). So should I say I’m Scandinavian. But my Y-chromosome is most likely from Spain. So am I Hispanic? I also happen to be 2.7% Neanderthal, so I want that box to check for the next census as well. (Race very quickly starts to be “ethnic” and not “racial” as you can see here, too.)

This video from Vox does a great job explaining the complexities of race in a simple manner.

Speaking as a biological scientist, there is no gene for race. What we have are simply genes for skin color, and hair color and texture. Many of these traits are the result of natural selection for local adaptations (e.g., skin color), and probably sexual selection for what was considered locally attractive attributed in a mate (e.g., hair color and texture). Are those really the fundamental traits for evaluating a person (sarcasm!)? That is not to say that race is not important. As a white guy from the south, I know what “race” does and means. “Race” is mainly a cultural construct, and since culture is inherited from ancestors as well, the cultural and physical get conflated.

When you start trying to quantify race biologically (read genetically), you quickly realize that this is a futile exercise. We’re all ancestrally mosaic mongrels. If you think you’re racially “pure”, my advice to you is don’t have your genome sequenced. You are definitely not going to like what you find.


“Typical” Scientific Creativity

Last week I was listening to the Fresh Air podcast of Terry Gross interviewing Keith Richards in 2010 about his autobiography, Life.  Despite his reputation, I have always found Keith Richards to be a very thoughtful and introspective student of his life’s work. While listening to Richards describe the process of writing songs and working with co-authors (obvriously mainly Mick Jagger), While listening to this and another interview with him, I realized that he was describing the primary method of how most good scientists write their best papers as well. He says that his process is mainly to sit down and start playing his guitar, and after an hour or two of just fiddling around almost aimlessly, a small idea will occur to him, just a germ.  Then he expands on that, and tries something.  That may not work, so then he tries something else.  But all the while playing with the germ of an idea, that you think is good but you’re not sure.  

That’s the creative process in a nutshell for most good scientists, too.  What most people would describe as journeyman work, and not revelatory.  Scientific discovery is portrayed as mainly the “eureka” moments that scientists have.  It is described as the blinding insights that come from nowhere – Kuhn‘s Scientific Revolution.  Well, sorry, but it really doesn’t work that way for almost all of us.

However, it kinda does in very small  moments of insights.  I would say that our insights come in small “eureka” moments.  I can remember many of my own.  When you listen to someone like Keith Richards talk about songwriting, you hear the same process of creativity.  That process is to simply start doing whatever you are doing.  Then question yourself, add something small to it, and play with that for a while.  In this process, little moments of insight and “eureka” emerge.  

Most of your time is spent plodding away.  The moments of insight come when you start to question yourself, particularly with how two things fit together. My moments of insight come when I ask myself one of two questions.  The first is when I’m working on something and then I ask myself, “and then what about this?” trying to add in the next piece.  The other is when I step back and ask myself a very simple question about a hard problem I’ve been thinking about.  Both allow your mind to simply free-associate things.  I’ve found that it’s during that free association, where my mind simply wanders, is where these “eureka” moments happen.


Why Are Grades Higher In The Humanities Than In The Sciences?

In Academic Year 2013-14 the grades given in the Arts & Humanities Division at Dartmouth were on average 0.29 points higher than in the Science Division on a 4-point grading scale, and in 1977 the difference was 0.25 (you can see the data here).  The Social Sciences Division has always been sandwiched between the two, with grades about 0.05 points higher than the Sciences on average over the years. Finally, grades in our Interdisciplinary Programs show more variability over time, but are more similar to the Arts & Humanities than the Sciences and Social Sciences (again, see the data here).  

Discussions about grade inflation typically devolve into a shouting match between the Sciences and Humanities, which is completely wrong.  Grades in all Divisions and in all departments within them over the past 50 years have risen at nearly identical rates (again, see the data here).  Let me say that again: grades in every Science department at Dartmouth are increasing at the same rate as grades in every Social Sciences and Arts & Humanities department and in every Interdisciplinary Program over the past 50 years.  

Our committee believes that these differences in grade distributions among academic disciplines are natural.  Our effort is decidedly not to equalize grades across Departments or Divisions at all.  I think very good educational reasons exist why grades in the Arts & Humanities and Interdisciplinary Programs are higher than in the Sciences and many areas of the Social Sciences. Let me outline some of them here, but in so doing challenge everyone in every discipline to return to more rigorous grading standards.  If we do, our students will be better and accomplish more.

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Another Hilarious Take Down of Science Denial

Another great piece by Aasif Mandvi about the consequences of science denial.  


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