You might be surprised at what is computable nowadays

Meet Oliver.

I’m a Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) researcher and programmer living slightly north of Castle Black. I study online communities, focusing on how people consume content, how user behaviour varies between desktop and mobile platforms, and how we can best understand systemic bias in peer-production communities.

He writes C++ and R code. His perspective sounds like the kind of contribution a lot of programming communities need, so I would think it valuable to keep him around. Unfortunately, he has resigned from the R community. He found something simple, obvious, and wrong, so he fixed it and submitted a report. Exactly as you’re supposed to do, right? Only this was the problem:

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Inequities breed arrogance everywhere

Paul Campos commits a really good deconstruction of the NY Times article on Jason Lieb’s resignation for harassment. He teases out all the understated assumptions in the article, and exposes the biases that minimized the consequences of Lieb’s actions…and the culpability of the institutions that have been hiring him.

But this is also a case where I’ll tell you to read the comments. They’re entertaining. The audience seems to be lawyers and the so-called softer side of academia, and they’re all talking about how the sciences get so much more money, and how so many scientists are dismissive of philosophy and the liberal arts and think the humanities are worthless, and how STEM is hostile to women.

As someone imbedded in that STEM community, I would just like to say that they’re completely right. It’s a serious problem.

I have a brand new perspective on my class this term!

I’m teaching genetics. It’s pretty much 15 weeks of pushing flies around in the lab, although I have to say I do lecture about plant and bacterial genetics, so it’s not all animal stuff. But I have learned from Cell that I’m thinking about it all wrong.


I’m now trying to figure out what kind of class this is. Am I teaching botany now? Or microbiology? Maybe flies are just ambulatory fungi now. I can never keep up with the taxonomy.

(via Björn Brembs)

Creationism isn’t just an opinion, it’s bad science

You’ve all heard this kind of nonsense before, from the worst kind of ignorant creationist.

Evolution is not a fact. That’s why it’s called a theory! There’s more evidence that the Bible is true.

It’s just jam-packed with stupidity — if only we could condense science as densely as people do ignorance, we could educate everyone in a day. Evolution is a fact, there’s an immense amount of evidence for it; this person doesn’t understand the scientific meaning of “theory”; and no, there’s evidence that the Bible exists and was written by an assortment of human beings, but no evidence that it is of supernatural origin or contains a particularly accurate history of the universe.

Unfortunately, the person who wrote that pile of ineptitude was the head teacher at St Andrew’s Church of England school in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire.

She is trying to defend herself against all the scorn being poured out against her.

Amid criticism and calls for her to resign on Twitter, Wilkinson issued a statement saying: “I’d like to make it clear that we teach the full national curriculum in school and that our pupils receive a fully rounded education.”

She also said her tweet was sent from a personal account and “represents my own views”. However, her Twitter handle was @WilkinsonHead, apparently referencing her role as headteacher.

That is not an adequate defense.

I’m glad to hear that the students are getting a proper education, in spite of the incompetence of the head teacher. But one has to wonder at her capabilities to implement that education when it defies her views of science, and one has to wonder why any institution would hire someone who rejects the values of their organization.

You are certainly allowed to have your own opinions. No one is saying that you can’t have strange opinions (I have a few of those myself) — the problem is that she’s promoting her own version of facts, which are contrary to reality and unsupportable, especially in the context of education. She can go to church, if she wants (and almost certainly does), but when she publicly hectors other teachers about the proper way to teach science, a subject she obviously has no talent in, then a response that tells her loudly and clearly that she’s wrong is not out of line. It’s actually necessary.

A calm, rational reaction to the Zika virus

Peter Doherty explains the likely outcomes of the Zika virus pandemic.

What we are seeing in the Americas is a classic “virgin soil” epidemic. Enormous numbers of people and mosquitoes are being infected, the virus is transmitting at a very high level, and there may be as many as 4×106 cases. Apart from affected neonates, all will likely recover, with increasing “background” immunity progressively limiting the number of new infections in subsequent years. The current molecular technology is such that making a protective vaccine should be technically straightforward, but the process of safety testing and evaluation could take several years.

The long-term prospect with Zika virus is that we will live reasonably comfortably with it, especially if there is a vaccine to protect women of reproductive age. The principal decision for responsible authorities, like National Governments in endemic areas and the WHO, is whether there is a case for fast-tracking, then funding, a vaccine to protect all young women. For the present, pregnant women are advised not to travel to these countries and, for those where this in not an issue, insect repellant also offers some protection against much nastier viruses like dengue and Chikungunya.

It’s spreading rapidly, and one contributor to that is the ridiculous attitudes of conservative Christianity, but this one, tragic as its consequences can be, isn’t the big pandemic that will kill us all. And the answer to it lies in natural properties of adaptive immunity and vaccines.

As much as I’d like to believe it…

This claim that beards are good for you is unadulterated anecdotal nonsense.

In an investigation led by the BBC, beards were found to contain microbes that kill bacteria — in other words, a potential new kind of antibiotic.

First clue: the BBC is not a scientific institution. They’re a media company.

Second clue: they set up an imaginary conflict with a hypothesis by another media company: the New York Post.

By that point, the third paragraph, you can just dismiss the whole crapfest.

I kept going, but their whole methodology is pointless. They sent off swabs taken from men with beards to be dabbed on petri dishes, and some were found to have bacteriocidal properties. Whoop-de-doo. You can do that with dirt, too. Why are people surprised that there are complex and diverse interactions between organisms at the microbiological level?

Those troublesome, shaky X chromosomes!

It’s easy to find lists of dumb things creationists say, and I’m familiar with that lot, but here’s a fun new time-waster: Things Anti-Vaxxers Say. Here’s a beautiful example of something I’ve rarely seen so clearly stated: they get the facts totally wrong, actually the reverse of the actual situation, but nope, that doesn’t stop them from inventing a bogus rationalization around them.

You can do your own research but it comes down to chromosomes -- the X chromosome is shaky, and boys have two of them. So they are quite literally twice as likely as girls to be adversely affected by genetic and environmental factors that can lead to the development of autism -- they are at twice the risk, purely because of their gender alone.

You can do your own research but it comes down to chromosomes — the X chromosome is shaky, and boys have two of them. So they are quite literally twice as likely as girls to be adversely affected by genetic and environmental factors that can lead to the development of autism — they are at twice the risk, purely because of their gender alone.

Uh-oh. I have 22 other chromosomes besides my sex chromosomes (I’ve actually seen them!), and…they’re all in pairs. I’m doomed.

But wait! I only have one X chromosome! I’m saved by the reduction in its pernicious influence!