Archive for the '[Information&Communication]' category

Engaging in creationism vs. evolution debates is anti-science

When I was a weer lad starting down the road of science, I used to think that any opportunity to engage creationists in debate was a Good Thing. We should take the education to them and show them how wrong they are! I was gung-ho and ready to pull back the curtain of ignorance on religion.

But then I watched some of these circus acts and realized very quickly that there is nothing to be gained here and everything to be lost.

I was unaware that there was a televised creationism debate on last night until my Twitter timeline was rapidly filled with scientists pointing out logic flaws in the creationist's arguments. My response: creationism STARTS with the suspension of reality. It does no good to treat it as anything more than a fairy tail.

The problem is that it is not a debate. A debate is an argument of two valid sides. It's the use of facts to make your option sound more appealing than the other person's. But the entire exercise is futile when one side has facts and the other side has only unsubstantiated belief. It's not even that creationists are bringing a knife to a gun fight, it's that they're showing up empty handed imagining they have a nuclear bomb.

These "debates" aren't constructive, helpful or useful to spread facts. Instead, they play right into the hands of creationists by lending false credibility to the very idea that the two sides are on equal footing. Do doctors conduct open public debates with faith healers? Do physicists debate astrologers or magicians? Do geologists debate flat-Earthers? Of course not! We don't give that kind of lunacy the public stage that we do creationism, but the absurdity of such "debates" is no different.

The FACT is that we can observe evolution in real time. Antibiotic, herbicide and insecticide resistance? How about the annual global migration of the flu? The very reason why vaccine development for diseases like AIDS and malaria has not been effective? All of these are examples of evolutionary forces we can observe, record and demonstrate. It's repeatable and crystal clear what is going on. It's not debatable. Either you are willing to look at the data or have decided you refuse to accept reality. There is no middle ground. The very act of engaging in these spectacles legitimizes the lunatic fringe and is anti-science.

So what do we do? Yes, creationism has gained a lot of steam in certain parts of the US and it's not just "the ignorant masses". Doctors, lawyers and politicians count among those who have chosen to ignore observable data for belief. But the thing is, you're not going to argue those people into submission. You're not not going to have a break through with 99.9% of adults who Believe. You can spend all of your professional time trying to shine the light of science into every dark corner and you will never reach every nook and cranny.

Instead we need to concentrate on the schools and youth. Educate the kids. This is the exact tactic creationists have been using for decades now, resulting in the level of acceptance you see today. How was big tobacco crippled? Not by going after the life long smokers, but by making it "uncool" to the youth. You'll never get them all, but educating kids is the best tool we have to less ignorant future.

In addition, I think it's critical to engage religious people who are not literalists. There are millions of religious people who do not take every word of the bible as fact and who are willing to accept science, and specifically, evolution. Thousands of scientists, including the current director of NIH, consider themselves people of faith. Science and religion are NOT incompatible and it will require the engagement of religious and agnostic alike, to ensure we educate the future leaders of our country.

22 responses so far


The third installment of #IsisVsTomasson went down last night, and.... it was a wide ranging discussion. There were some extremely lucid statements, some cancer and a proposal for a new reality show: GuerrillaPimpPI. If you don't have time for anything else, skip to 1:15:00 when the latter discussion takes place.

But there was a lot of circling around the idea of communication, both to the public and to granting agencies. I'm on the record as thinking the ability to "sell" one's work to any audience is critical. Who your target is depends on how the message is packaged, but the ability to make a convincing case for why your work is The Best Thing Eva! is a really important skill.

Additionally, NSF has a Broader Impacts requirement, which has taken on increasing importance in the last few years. Although outreach, specifically, isn't required, it's one of the BI options most people engage in. Despite the perception and popular Ivory Tower myth that scientists and holed up in labs and can't speak to the public, many of the people in my field are engaging the public regularly. Hell, I've spent several weeks myself with over a total of 100 local teachers, working with them to increase their capacity to educate students of my state.

But anyone who has managed to get funding in the current climate should know how critical communication is. It's what we're forced to do and if you can't pull it off things don't go so well. I've mentioned before that part of what I really enjoy is the story telling aspect of grant writing. You're building a case and talking about what is possible, which is very different than describing what was done, in the case of manuscript writing. But as we have discussed at length, review panels are not just people in your field. In many ways, you are writing a general document meant to excite, especially at the NSF preproposal stage. Engaging your audience is the difference between getting invited and not.

So, in many ways I think we sometimes make a false dichotomy between scientists and communication. The science comes first and foremost, but if you don't get it funded, published and discussed at meetings, you might as well set your lab books on fire now.

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If you don't talk to your kids about it someone else will

If I've learned anything about parenting, it seems you spend most of your time catching up to what your children have already been trying to figure out. In the last 6 months or so we've gotten a number of questions about death from the Wee One. At five years old kids are starting to figure out that things die and the natural question is "then what?" I've provided answers about the chemicals in your body going back into the Earth so that other things can grow, largely to a dissatisfied stare in return.

"So you then grow into a horse? Or a squirrel?"

"Well, maybe some of the chemicals in your body help to make up a squirrel..."

"Daddy, I'm becoming a squirrel when I die!"

We've had a few of these conversations, which have become a bit more productive over time, but it's a challenging concept so I let her go at her own pace. What I didn't expect to have a conversation about was something that came up last night.

We were listening to the kid's album Snack Time by the Bare Naked Ladies and the song "Raisin" came on. The very first line of the song is:

"Raisins come from grapes, people come from apes"

The Wee One looked up and said "Why did they say that? How can we come from apes?"

Hey, teachable moment, I thought! "Well, honey, apes are kind of like our really distant cousins. People and apes share a greatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreat grandmother and..."

"But daddy, GOD made people! My friends and teachers told me that."

And I was all:

Alrighty then! Nothing like playing from behind in a game you didn't know you were in. For the next hour we chatted about religions, what it meant and why different people believe different things. She was offended that there were no "girl gods" and insisted that she should be able to grow up to be a girl god and I told her that seemed like a reasonable request. In the end she told me that she still thought god made people, but it was a girl god. For now, I'll take it.

But for an atheist family with a child going to a school that celebrates no religion-based holidays and prides itself on diversity, I was (stupidly) unprepared to field these kinds of questions. Good lesson to learn now.

24 responses so far

Time to get a lock

Mar 11 2013 Published by under [Et Al], [Information&Communication]

This morning my daughter busted into the bathroom wearing 3D glasses. Breathless, she yelled "Daddy, these glasses make my voice louder! I"m whispering right now!!"

No responses yet

Does blogging count as NSF Broader Impacts?

There's an arms race happening in the world of NSF broader impacts these days. Where it was once okay to basically describe the parts of your job that contribute to training (grad and undergrad student mentoring, incorporation of current research into the classroom), the bar for what constitutes a successful broader impacts section of an NSF proposal continues to rise. Everyone is looking for new and creative ways to satisfy this requirement without committing huge amounts of time to the endeavor.

Potnia Theron has a post up about an NSF panel and the discussion there regarding blogging as an acceptable BI activity:

The blogging people who got good scores on this were ones who had blogged for a while and who could demonstrate significant traffic (by statistics). The PZ Myers of this world (whatever you think about his politics and his feminist credentials) do well, and the guy who is just starting a blog about the sadness of endangered species does not.

This reflects my experience as well. At the last panel I was on, reviewers had checked the blogs or websites being held up as BI contributions and found almost every one of them to be unremarkable in content. Many had only just been started, with a single or a few posts. That's not the kind of thing that gets any BI cred. The people who had something established and could give traffic numbers were taken more seriously. And no, posting a bunch of risotto recipes doesn't count.

For those of you considering taking this approach, it would be a good idea to decide what you want as an outcome of blogging and how you might measure success. Are page views a good yard stick? Unique viewers? Clicks to links of papers? What are you going to use to demonstrate that your writing is reaching your audience and not just racking up Google hits because you have the phrase "nude cats" in many of your post titles?

With the right approach, blogging is starting to become an acceptable form of outreach. But just like anything else in the BI section, it needs to be thought out and have measurable outcomes or else it's just another empty promise.

23 responses so far

Here's the value of an NSF blog.

For any of my readers who are sweating out a decision from a DEB panel at NSF, you're going to want to read the DEB blog post from today. If I'm reading it correctly, it would appear that many who have been told that they will be funded if there is money may actually have reason for optimism today. The money paragraph is here, emphasis added:

According to the official NSF notice on impacts, the sequester will take ~5% from 100% of the FY2012 funding level. It is not a decrease out of the 80% we have been working with in FY2013. The practical message is that the sequester does not mean cuts to any DEB awards that were made in prior years and is not canceling new awards NSF has already made this year. Awards recommendations that are working their way through the system will also not be impacted by the sequester. There is even a potential, but no guarantee, that once all is said and done we will be able to support a few more awards later in the year. The actual impact in terms of gross number of awards, number of PIs supported, etc. in DEB won’t be known until after September 30th, but keep in mind that 1000 fewer awards across the agency is only an estimate.

Go comment, question and read. This is what we wanted from an NSF blog - direct access to critical information - so go take advantage of it!

One response so far

Reader Poll: twitter on your CV?

Just a quick question about social media and jobs.

Would you include your twitter handle on a CV for a tenure track job? Why or why not


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So where are the liberal Christians?

I rarely use this space to talk politics and almost never to discuss religion, but last night's GOP debate, and really everything about the Republican national party these days, has essentially made the two inseparable. I didn't watch the full debate last night because I feel the same way about those things as I do about punching myself in the face - it's pointless pain. I did, however, catch some snippets and read about it afterwards.

Make no mistake, these candidates terrify me. Primarily because the front-runners think that their personal religious beliefs should be the foundation that guides national policy for the next four years. We're not talking about their beliefs on the role of government in healthcare or in guiding economic policy, or even the role the US should play in global affairs. No, we are talking about the role they feel their religion plays in these arenas. And the worst part is these are the front-runners, so a lot of our country thinks this is a good approach.

Not too long I ran across the following, which sums up my thoughts pretty well:


In the coverage I read on last night's debate, one of the most striking statements was from Santorum, who said "You can't be a Christian and a liberal" (EDIT: I'm unclear whether this was stated by Santorum last night or just several times in the recent few years.). Now I'm no expert on religions, not at all. I have, however, read more of the Bible than I would have liked and it seems to me that that Jesus dude was pretty liberal. Something about helping the poor and giving up material goods for the benefit of the downtrodden. I realize of course, that mainstream US Catholicism likes their idea of who Jesus was much more than what the Bible says he actually did, but has it gone that far astray? Can a social ultra-conservative make such a ridiculous statement* that flies in the face the very document he holds most dear without anyone objecting?

Where is the vocal faction of liberal Christianity? Perhaps it is out there in large numbers in places I am generally blind to, but the world is seeing Santorum as the spokesperson for US Christianity right now. It's embarrassing enough to be associated to that guy via geography, but if I identified myself as a Christian as well I would be bullshit right now.

So where is the outcry? Either liberal Christians have just started tuning Santorum's frothy ravings out or we, as a country, are in far worse shape than I thought.

*Yes, yes. I realize facts are harder to find at a political debate than Waldo

34 responses so far

A semester of women in science

Here's a question I have been pondering this evening and I would like some help getting and answer: How many departments can we convince to field an all female invited speaker slate for the fall semester of 2012?

This was spurred by a twitter conversation with @phylogenomics and @duffy_ma that began with Jonathan Eisen suggesting that he wanted to start a conference with all women presenters.

In my limited scientific capacity I have tried a version of this experiment. I organize my department's seminar series, and a year ago I decided I was going to invite only women and not tell anyone in my department. I was nearly able to fill the semester with all female speakers, but a few visiting scientists ruined my sweep. However, not a single person in the department ever appeared to notice.

But I would like to take this a step further. For the fall of 2012 I would like to not only invite a full slate of female scientists as speakers, but I plan to get my colleagues on board with the plan. Beyond that, I want to get you, dear readers, on board as well. Between you and I, let's see just how many departments we can convince to invite only women to give talks in the fall of 2012.

I plan to bring it up in faculty meeting. I'll inform my department that I'm doing this and ask for suggestions to be sent. By doing it publicly, anyone who scoffs will be announcing that they are an asshole. It may already be widely known, but it never hurts to let these people self identify. By presenting my plan as a done deal, my guess is that people will buy in. Everyone likes something a little different and also likes someone else to do the work.

At the same time, I'm not going to make a big deal of it! No announcements, no drawing attention so that people will say "Oh, look. Affirmative action!" because you and I know that such a sentiment will only make people put a mental asterisk next to the speaker list, which is bullshit. In fact, I have been trying to get three female speakers in for two years and they have been too busy traveling. I'm not looking for any reason for people to view the speaker list as anything different, just like no one would bat an eye if it was an all white sausage party.

I like this evening idea for lots of reasons, but 1) I'm hoping it will help me convince a couple of my favorite scientists to make the visit in support of the notion, and 2) I want my colleagues to at least get it in the back of their mind that we generally invite too many old white dudes.

So help me out people. Who else thinks they can convince their department to spend a semester listing to some awesome science done by kick ass women?

34 responses so far

Should NSF become NIH Light?

I was going to explain this in the Strassmann blog discussion, but since even G-rated comments about people writing like they are building a medieval labyrinth seem to have a way of disappearing over there, I'll post it here. Ya' know, because we have to keep this discussion civil.

If you have been following the discussion over at the Strassmann blog regarding changes to NSF, you'll notice a few familiar themes. One of the most popular is comparison to the Canadian system and a call for smaller grants to more people. This debate was a particular hobby horse of the now tumbleweeded NSF is Broken forum. Suffice to say it's not a good solution without overhead reform, another re-occurring topic. Unfortunately, NSF's hands are tied on that front as well unless NIH wants to play along. So what to do?

IMO, the calls for a hybrid system make the most sense and we need not even leave the DC metro area to find a model for how to make it work. Regular readers will know that I have some limited experience applying to NIH. Whereas NIH has it's issues with success rates, one of the things they have right is the variety of mechanisms for funding. If we think of the traditional NSF grants as an R01-like mechanisms (the big individual PI grants), then I think NSF would be serving it's constituents well by instituting an R15 and R21-like mechanism of limited budget funding.

For those unfamiliar with NIH, the R15 awards are limited budget ($300K/3yrs in direct costs) awards aimed specifically at institutions that are not in the top XX% of NIH money getters. This mechanism would not only give NSF PIs a limited budget option, but also deal with the "the top schools take all the money and leave none for the little guy" concern, because the top schools would not be eligible. This has been a very popular program at NIH.

The R21s are also limited in their budget ($275K/3yrs2yrs), but are for exploratory research. Another major (and valid) criticism of the NSF process is that the bar for "preliminary" data is so high that you need 50% of the work done already. The R21 mechanism would solve this issue and provide an alternative to NSF's seemingly arbitrary EAGAR program by providing a source of funding to get a line of research off the ground.

If you want to get crazy, we could throw in an R03-like mechanism, but I feel less strongly about this.

But obviously the money for these programs can't come out of thin air. Instituting the change would require cutting some money from the regular programs, so how would that work? I don't know the numbers, meaning I'm just tossing out ideas here, but I would support something like a 5% cut to all existing grants (yes, mine included) and a slight reduction of the pot for the next round. While people will howl about further reductions to the pot given the current funding rates, I think the potential success of these programs will make up for it. In addition to that, I think panels should be empowered to tell investigators that if they want to resubmit a certain "regular" project as it is, it should come back as another (smaller) grant type.

So far, though, we have not dealt with the review load problem. For that issue I would support both a shorter grant application (8-10 pages) and a deadline set up like MCB has gone to - two deadlines a year, but an 8 month cycle of review with a limit of two proposals per PI per year. I think the 4 page preproposal is relatively useless, particularly when there are different people reviewing the preproposals and the full proposals.

Perhaps this doesn't fix all the problems instantly, but I think it goes a long way towards a good compromise. There may be good reasons why NSF is uninterested in the smaller grant mechanisms, but the argument that one can always submit a smaller budget doesn't fly because the science is judged first. There needs to be a way to separate out these smaller proposals so they can be judged against one another. I could see budgets for each of the smaller mechanisms limited to something in the $100K-$150k range in direct costs over a three year proposal. We could even shorten the length of the proposal for these grants to 6 pages if you want.

There's my suggestion, feel free to make your own.

22 responses so far

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