Where does this weird idea come from?

Ed Yong has written about a common assumption that scientists must be ‘objective’: Do Scientists Lose Credibility When They Become Political? (the answer is “NO”, by the way), and ThinkProgress is also concerned about it.

Scientists have historically stayed above the political fray, but now that researchers face regular attacks under the Trump administration, many are planning to fight back.

TP cites the same study to say that it does no harm for scientists to be politically active.

I’m curious, though, where this odd notion that scientists are or should be apolitical comes from, though, because it’s never been true. Never. Not once in the history of science. When scientists have socially relevant information in their field of expertise, they tend to speak out — even when they’re wrong. How do you think eugenics became so popular? It wasn’t because geneticists at Cold Spring Harbor were reluctant to advise the public. How about the battles over the health effects of smoking? Scientists were generally quite clear about how bad it was, except for the minority of paid shills who, again, weren’t shy about advertising their views.

I’d have to say that it’s a nearly universal property of scientists that they are political because they are human. The only time it hurts their credibility is when they use their authority to promote lies.

Way back when I was a grad student, I worked with George Streisinger, the man who put zebrafish on the map. He was also Jewish, born in Hungary, and when he was a child, his family emigrated to the US to escape Nazi persecution. Do you think he was apolitical? He organized to oppose the Vietnam war. He shut down efforts to create a unit for war research on the University of Oregon campus. One time, I was in his office to talk about some routine lab issues, and we somehow got off on a tangent about dose-response curves to toxins and radiation, and we spent an hour talking about testimony he was going to give in a court case for the Downwinders. He was passionate and fierce, and a model for me for how a scientist ought to be.

So when people beat their breasts about whether scientists are too political, I feel like I’m listening to aliens from another culture, another world, one that I have never visited. It’s very strange. I wish George were still alive to instruct them in the folly of their assumptions.

That ThinkProgress also has a remarkable map that shows what happens when scientists aren’t loud enough. This is a map of the proportion of people who have swallowed the lie that scientists are in disagreement about global warming. This is not true, of course: the overwhelming majority of scientists agree with the consensus that global warming is happening, and that it has an anthropogenic cause. So this is simply a Map of Wrong, where all the blue areas represent large numbers of people who hold demonstrably incorrect views about what scientists think.

The proportion of adults who believe that most scientists think that global warming is happening.

The proportion of adults who believe that most scientists think that global warming is happening.

That’s stunning. This doesn’t say that scientists should avoid political issues, it’s saying that there are active forces of ignorance lying about the science, and at the same time spreading this destructive idea that a good scientist should be above the fray.

How can you be a good scientist and restrain yourself from pointing out where people are wrong?

Marching, marching onward for Science!

I just had a conversation with Adam Ford about the March for Science and miscellaneous other topics, and it has been recorded for posterity.

My greatest accomplishment here is that my lungs were gradually filling with phlegm the whole time, and I managed to avoid doubling over and horking up a lobe for a whole hour. It helped that my ribs are so sore from prior coughing episodes that it’s agony every time I do that.

Also, drugs. Drugs are good.

Let’s play “spot the flaw in that argument!

Today’s exciting game will be played with quotes from Softbank Robotics CEO Masayoshi Son given at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. A tech CEO? This will be a target-rich opportunity. You can expect a flurry of ambitious exaggerations from this one!

Players at home, you know what to do: get your buzzers ready, and slap that big red button and be prepared to give a succinct summary of what exactly was wrong with the statement. If you are chosen, you stand a chance to win fabulous prizes.

Are you ready? Brace yourselves, here it comes:

In 30 years, the singularity

Whoa! That was quick! The switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree with that one. Too easy?

OK, first answer is from Ronald in Ohio, who takes exception to the 30 year claim. No, I’m sorry, Ronald, you do not win a prize. That number is actually correct. As we all know, the singularity is always 30 years away.

Our next caller is Darlene in Seattle, who asks, “What the heck is a singularity?” and — judges, what is your call on that? — the judges say yes! That is a damn good question! Pierces right to the heart of the issues! It’s a quasi-mystical boojum that is invoked in place of the idea of “heaven”, which makes many technocrats uncomfortable because it is too unsciencey.

But poor Son, we didn’t even finish his quote. Here’s the rest:

will happen and artificial intelligence in all the smart devices and robots will exceed human intelligence.

Ouch! Our board lit up so bright that the room lights flickered and dimmed! Let’s take…caller #1274. Vonda in Florida, what’s your criticism?

“Thanks for taking my call, PZ. I’ve been trying to get through for years, and this is my first time on.”

Great, Vonda. And the flaw you spotted is…?

“Well, there’s a couple: one is that he can’t define ‘human intelligence’, and another is that he can’t possibly define it as a single scalar in a range on one axis that you could speak of something exceeding something else.”

Excellent, Vonda! Judges? Yes, the judges agree! Let’s move on with this juicy speech.

Just to give you a hint, Son is about to try to answer Vonda’s question:

Son says that by 2047, a single computer chip will have an IQ of 10,000 — far surpassing the most intelligent people in the world.

Yikes! The responses are pouring in —

Dmitri in Siberia: “…absurd reductionism. You can’t assign intelligence a single number…”

Kim in Korea: “…what kind of IQ test can generate scores that high…”

Jim in Manitoba: “…if you can measure the IQ of a computer, tell me what the IQ of a Dell Windows 10 machine is right now…”

Rudy in New South Wales: “…God won’t let a computer get that smart…”

Andrea in New York: “…IQ tests are designed to test human minds…”

OK! Except for Rudy, you all win!

I’m going to let Son complete his thought. Don’t buzz in on this one, gang, we’re just going to let him finish digging that hole already.

Where the greatest geniuses of the human race have had IQ’s of about 200, Son says, within 30 years, a single computer chip will have an IQ of 10,000. “What should we call it,” he asks. “Superintelligence. That is an intelligence beyond people’s imagination [no matter] how smart they are. But in 30 years I believe this is going to become a reality.”

I know. It’s embarrassing. The man is a CEO and he doesn’t understand what IQ is, and thinks that sticking a “super” prefix on something makes it clever or informative. Maybe he’s just hoping that if he lives another 30 years, he might learn something.

Let’s go on. This one is for scoring:

Son built this prediction by comparing the number of neurons in a brain to the number of transistors.

Uh-oh. The Big Board is on fire. Literally on fire. Hold those calls!

He builds the comparison by pointing out that both systems are binary, and work by turning on and off.

Oh, christ, we’ve got a thousand enraged neuroscientists trying to get through. Watch out! Those cables are shorting out! Get the studio audience out of here!

According to his predictions, the number of transistors in a computer chip will surpass the number of neurons in a human brain by 2018. He is using 30 billion as the number of neurons, which is lower than the 86 billion that is estimated right now, but Son says he isn’t worried about being exactly right on that number.

Oh god. He actually said he isn’t worried about being exactly right on the number? With this audience? Cut the power. Cut the power! Call emergency services!

Wait, what’s that loud rumbling sound I’m hearing from the bowels of the building? The generators? GET OU…


Another reason to be cranky

This week we worked out our teaching schedules for next year, and it has been determined that next Fall I will teach cell biology and a section of our writing course, and in the Spring I will teach…evolution (a new course for me) and neurobiology (a course I haven’t taught in over 5 years), which is going to be painfully intense, possibly worse than this semester. I think the anticipation of stress is contributing to my insomnia.

It will be an interesting time, at any rate. I have some of the same complaints about the current status of neuroscience that Ed Yong describes.

But you would never have been able to predict the latter from the former. No matter how thoroughly you understood the physics of feathers, you could never have predicted a murmuration of starlings without first seeing it happen. So it is with the brain. As British neuroscientist David Marr wrote in 1982, “trying to understand perception by understanding neurons is like trying to understand a bird’s flight by studying only feathers. It just cannot be done.”

Oh, man, Marr was amazing. I could just spend the whole semester trying to puzzle out his work on color perception, which is a perfect example of complex processing emerging out of simple subunits, all figured out with elegant experiments. I went through his vision book years ago, it was bewilderingly complex.

A landmark study, published last year, beautifully illustrated his point using, of all things, retro video games. Eric Jonas and Konrad Kording examined the MOS 6502 microchip, which ran classics like Donkey Kong and Space Invaders, in the style of neuroscientists. Using the approaches that are common to brain science, they wondered if they could rediscover what they already knew about the chip—how its transistors and logic gates process information, and how they run simple games. And they utterly failed.

Wait! That’s perfect! I once knew the 6502 inside and out, writing code in assembler and even eventually being able to read machine code directly. I still have some old manuals from the 1970s stashed away somewhere. I wonder if the students would appreciate signing up for a course on how brains work and then spending the semester trying to figure out how an antique 8-bit chip works by attaching an oscilloscope to pin leads?

Even when I last taught it, that was the struggle. It was easy to give them the basics of membrane biophysics — it’s all math and chemistry — but the step from that to behavior was huge. If I just teach it from top down, beginning with behavior, it’s a psychology course, which is a subject so vast that we’d never get down to the cellular level. There is no in-between yet.

I have a year to fret about it. Who needs sleep anyway?

The word for the day is “inured”

I think Larry Moran has just discovered Michio Kaku. All those years on talk.origins must have toughened his hide, because he seems really unperturbed about the idiocy and ignorance pouring out of Kaku’s mouth. The only thing worse than Kaku here is the stupidity in the YouTube comments…but that goes without saying.

Who needs knowledge when being sublimely confident is regarded as a perfectly acceptable substitute?

Juggling flies, fish, and students all week long


Time for another reflection on my mundane week of teaching. I know this is unexciting, but I’m trying to be self-aware about what I’m doing in the class.

I’ve already summarized some of what I did this week: we explored the meaning of “epigenetics”, and I made a big push to get them to think critically about the papers we’re reading. They’re supposed to be developing a topic they’ll explore independently, so I’ve had them doing library work to find a line of research they find interesting, and master the skill of extracting the key questions the work is trying to address. I’ve got a small stack of short papers that I’m going to read this weekend and we’ll see how well they can do that.

We also discussed symbiotic interactions in development, and next week the topic is other environmental effects. They are getting much, much better at opening up and talking at the miserable hour of 8am.

The other regular highlight of my week is FlyDay, when I have to scrub dead maggots and pupae out of fly bottles. I had to postpone FlyDay this week! Yesterday I was scheduled to meet with students and parents visiting the university to confirm their plans to attend, and I was all spiffed up in a nice suit, which isn’t the best thing to wear when one is flicking bits of chitin and gooey medium around. I went in early this morning to scrub bottles and get them cooking in the autoclave.

By the way, at that student meeting I was the official biology representative, and although biology is currently the largest major on campus, almost no one stopped by to talk to me. It might have been my terrifying glare, or my sciencey reek, but no: it was because there was a separate table for the pre-professional programs (pre-med, pre-vet, pre-dental, etc.). This is a minor peeve of mine: this is not 19th century England. You do not graduate from your public school education and go straight into medical school — no, here in 21st century America you get a broad-based undergraduate education first, and then you apply to med school. You should be thinking about your liberal arts education first, and in a couple of years we’ll start coaching you on how to get into those professional programs.

Oh, well. They ignore me now, but I know that I’ll get my claws on most of them soon — they’ll want all those bio classes to prep them for the MCATs.

I should mention that I am teaching another course beyond ecological development — I’m teaching a lab course on transmission genetics. They’ve been doing crosses with flies all semester long, and we’re getting to an interesting point.

The first half semester we’re doing a mapping cross, using recombination to estimate the distances between a couple of genes on the X chromosome. We’re using flies that are mutant for eye color (white, w), wing length (miniature, m), and bristle morphology (forked, f), and I’ve also got a few groups mapping body color (yellow, y), wing veins (crossveinless, cv) and forked, f; the latter are doing a pilot test to see if I want to add that cross to our regular repertoire.

The way this works is that they are given wild type and triple mutant flies. I first have them raise a new generation of the purebred stock, simply to get a little practice in sexing flies and basic skills in growing them. So they first do these crosses:

♀w m f/w m f x ♂w m f/Y

which produces bottles full of homozygous white-eyed, miniature-winged, forked-bristled flies, and

♀w+ m+ f+/w+ m+ f+ x ♂w+ m+ f+/Y

which produces bottles full of homozygous wild type flies.

Then I have them do a reciprocal cross of flies from the two bottles. These are X-linked traits, so it matters which strain is the mother and which the father, and I want them to see that. That is, they cross wild type females to triple mutant males, like so:

♀w+ m+ f+/w+ m+ f+ x ♂w m f/Y,

which produces progeny that are all wild type, both male and female (they all inherit the dominant wild type allele at all loci from their mothers). After they’ve scored the flies from this cross, we dispose of them all and don’t think any further about them.

They also cross mutant females to wild type males, like this:

♀w m f/w m f x ♂w+ m+ f+/Y.

That has the useful result that all the sons inherit w m f from their mother and a Y chromosome from their father, so they all express the mutant phenotype. The daughters, however, are all heterozygous, inheriting the mutant alleles from their mother and a wild type chromosome from their father, so their genotype is:

♀w m f/w+ m+ f+

Now the fun begins. Meiotic recombination in those flies will rearrange the +’s and -‘s in those chromosomes with a frequency dependent on their distance from one another — you’ll get less recombination between genes that are close to one another.

This week, they completed the reciprocal cross and got their heterozygous females and mutant males. Yay! That worked. They are now setting up a test cross to assess recombination frequencies.

I just want to say that I think I planned everything perfectly. That test cross will be ready to score next week, which is the week before spring break, which means we’ll have the data for all the calculations before they leave, and when they get back, I’ll be able to lead them through all the theory. It also means I’ll be able to purge a lot of fly bottles and get them scrubbed up over the break (you can tell already that I have glamorous plans for my short vacation). Trust me, though, this is good — there have been semesters where, due to student error, the flies haven’t been ready, and then my spring break is spent maintaining 120 bottles of student flies.

It also means we can launch into the next experiment as soon as they get back: we’re going to do a complementation cross between two eye color mutants, brown eye (bw) and scarlet eye (st). If I’ve got this one all timed out correctly, we’ll be getting F2 results of crosses between heterozygotes for both loci a week before the end of classes.

Now you know. I choreograph fly sex for my convenience.

Next up, I have to choreograph my schedule. It turns out I have been summoned to Howard Hughes headquarters on 8 March and 18 April, which punch big holes in my planned lessons, and which I hadn’t accounted for in my syllabi. I’m going to have to juggle lectures and exams and rearrange the order of various things in a big way this coming week.

Historical zebrafish!

Way back in the dim, distant past, before YouTube and publicly accessible digital media, two of my friends, Don Kane, now at Western Michigan University, and Rolf Karlstrom, now at Amherst, made a video of zebrafish development. This was in 1992. It was on VHS tape. (If you don’t know what that is, ask your grandparents).

Then in 1996, a whole issue of Development was dedicated to zebrafish development and genetics, and they translated that tape into modern technology: a flip book. The top right corner of the issue featured one frame of the video, so you could flip through it and see a nice little timelapse. Like this:

Isn’t that quaint?

Sadly, I have not been able to find a copy of the flip book transported to the convenient medium of youtube (maybe I can find my copy of the file and upload it, but that thing was over 20 freaking years ago, so it may take me a while to excavate it), but at least there’s a version available via facebook, as facebook reminded me today.

I routinely make better videos than that one now, but it’s because I’ve got hi-res digital video cameras and fancy software — just remember that historical flip book was made off of VHS tape and edited by hand frame by frame. It’s really a vast improvement over the prior version, which was chiseled on slabs of sandstone and mounted in a row, so you had to run past them very fast to get the animation effect.

Also, the subject didn’t get much reward or glory, and probably ended up going down a drain in Eugene, Oregon.