The science fair conundrum


Back when I lived in Philadelphia, I used to judge a couple of science fairs every year. It was a discouraging experience.

You’d go through the exhibits with a partner and a checklist, and, for instance, you’d see some kid who’d put together something with duct tape and string and a couple of sad looking plants next to a kid who’d had connections at UPenn and had used a sequencer, a confocal microscope, and a battery of fluorescent probes to put together a gigantic shiny display of images so bright they glistened. Guess who’d win? And it was sad because sometimes the kid with the simple experiment done with homemade gadgets had been more creative and curious and true to the spirit of the science than the kid who’d been fed some high-tech gadgetry and pooped out an answer.

Carl Zimmer is similarly concerned. Too often science fairs get sidetracked into celebrating the mindless use of expensive instruments over the business of thinking like a scientist.

If I were a public school teacher trying to get students involved in a science fair, I know what I would do.

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Sarah Palin delivers a sick burn, she thinks

Ooh, ouch.

Bill Nye is as much a scientist as I am.

Actually, though, she’s almost right. Bill Nye is not a scientist, he’s a science guy, which is something different. He was trained and worked as an engineer, was a science educator and popular TV show host, and is currently the CEO of the Planetary Society, an institution dedicated to promoting science. But strictly speaking, he’s not doing any of the things scientists traditionally do, which seems to be mainly writing grants and tearing our hair out in frustration at the science illiteracy of our nation. He’s just trying to do all the things that might help make scientist’s jobs a little easier.

Sarah Palin, on the other hand, is a babbling ignoramus who despises basic research and evolution, and is campaigning against actions to reduce climate change. She’s actively anti-science.

So, no, sorry Ms Palin, but Bill Nye is about a billion times the scientist you are.

Friday Cephalopod: Somebody’s been watching The Shawshank Redemption a few too many times

The guards should have known. Inky had just been biding his time, planning patiently. And then he scurried down a sewer pipe late at night, to freedom!


If I’d been guarding him, I would have been suspicious of that poster of Ursula from The Little Mermaid that he’d requested, too, and would have regularly checked behind it.

Sunday at the Rondo Public Library

I’ll be there, talkin’ evolution. You should come. Details in the latest Minnesota Atheists newsletter (pdf).

We’re coming into the big city on Saturday to putter around in some parks, so if you see me around, don’t be surprised. I’m hoping to catch some sun for a change, although I hear it’s going to be cloudy all day. Probably for the best, I should ease myself gently into this springtime nonsense.

How ignorant can Jack be?

Pretty damned ignorant.

Paleontology is what is classified as a hard science. I’m not a fan of the distinction being made, though: sociology also involves some demanding statistical work, so even if the basis of the stereotype is a lack of math, it’s wrong. Also, anthropologists don’t study dinosaurs.

I’m also amused by the claim that no tissue from dinosaurs has been found. Guess what? Bone is a tissue!

Before you indignantly explain that this has to be a spoof, that creationists believe dinosaurs were on the Ark, I have to tell you: Ken Ham is not mainstream. Answers in Genesis argues that dinosaurs existed (because the Bible says so, although it doesn’t), but there are a lot of creationists who reject all the fossil evidence, rather than trying to mangle and distort it. There are conspiracy theorists who think dinosaurs were an invention, and that the evidence is all made up.

Some of these dino-deniers are hilarious. “Mike”, for instance, is truly oblivious.

Think about it. I live in New Jersey. One of the shittiest states in the Union besides Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Connecticut. Why is it that there are no dinosaur fossils anywhere near the United States? If this whole Pangaea nonsense is in fact true and the entire world was connected together at one point, wouldn’t the fossils be spread around evenly? So they typically only find fossils in Canyon-like areas in the Middle East or Africa or Australia. But never in North America? Hmm. That seems a bit off to me. Needless to say, archaelogists have also never found an entire dinosaurs’ remains. And don’t you dare say because it’s 34,000,000 million years old. It’s because they never existed.

Hmm. New Jersey, you say? It’s too bad nobody ever mapped the distribution of dinosaur fossils.


Nye smack-down

I told you that Bill Nye was not going to be debating Sarah Palin on climate change, but that instead science denialist Marc Morano was going to be showing clips of Bill Nye to publicize his no-doubt horrid new “documentary”. It probably won’t be this clip. Bill Nye did meet with Morano, briefly, and made this little video.

I don’t think Morano knows how to deal with the issues outside of his little bubble of denialists.

Bill Nye vs Sarah Palin? Nope, sorry to say, it’s not happening

All day long I’ve been hearing that Sarah Palin and Bill Nye were going to appear together on a panel to discuss climate change. I looked into it and didn’t believe it: it was going to be some one-night media blitz to promote a “documentary” about global warming by denialist Marc Morano, with an in-person introduction by a gang of bozos.

With welcoming remarks by Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, cinema audiences will learn more about the topic through a panel discussion headlined by Sarah Palin, 2008 Republican Vice Presidential Candidate and Governor of Alaska from 2006-2009, moderated by Brent Bozell, Founder and President of the Media Research Center and including other notable experts. This riveting discussion will focus on climate change and issues brought up during the event.

Lamar Smith? Brent Bozell? Sarah Palin? I know Nye is willing to charge right into the lion’s den, but his name isn’t even mentioned there, and it would be total folly to leap into such a one-sided event.

Fortunately, it’s not going to happen. They’re going to play video clips of Bill Nye, no doubt so they can argue against him while he’s not there.

May I suggest, instead, that they put an empty chair on the stage? It’s a common Republican tactic, and it’s the only way they can win a debate on science.

On the absurdity of g

Since we’ve been talking about the biological basis of intelligence lately, this is appropriate Frans de Waal writes about animal intelligence. His whole point is that this thing we call “intelligence” is multi-dimensional and complex, and that other animals share properties of the brain with us. There are lots of ways an organism can be smart!

But think about it: How likely is it that the immense richness of nature fits on a single dimension? Isn’t it more likely that each animal has its own cognition, adapted to its own senses and natural history? It makes no sense to compare our cognition with one that is distributed over eight independently moving arms, each with its own neural supply, or one that enables a flying organism to catch mobile prey by picking up the echoes of its own shrieks. Clark’s nutcrackers (members of the crow family) recall the location of thousands of seeds that they have hidden half a year before, while I can’t even remember where I parked my car a few hours ago. Anyone who knows animals can come up with a few more cognitive comparisons that are not in our favor. Instead of a ladder, we are facing an enormous plurality of cognitions with many peaks of specialization. Somewhat paradoxically, these peaks have been called “magic wells” because the more scientists learn about them, the deeper the mystery gets.

I also very much like this illustration of the scala naturae that shows all the ways intelligence doesn’t fit neatly onto a progressive ladder (the only good use of the ol’ scala anymore is in debunking it).

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Unintended technological consequences


You never know what nefarious activity might be associated with your IP address — as it turns out, companies that try to map the physical locations of computers and electronic devices have a crude workaround for searches that don’t return a valid location. They instead return a default location, which is the geographic center of the country or state or county. The problem is that sometimes there are people living there, and suddenly the police trying to trace a stolen laptop are knocking on your door with a search warrant.

Back in the day when I was programming stuff, this was consider extremely lazy, sloppy programming. You were supposed to return a sentinel value or NaN for an invalid search, not throw in an arbitrary answer. This is a case where it’s a good idea to tell someone making a query “not found”, rather than making something up.

So now there’s a farmhouse in Kansas that is associated with 600 million IP addresses. The owner has an old Gateway computer that she uses to write Sunday School lessons, but apparently she’s the nexus of all the high-tech evil that goes on in America.

The company that sells this IP mapping service says they’re going to fix it.

Now that I’ve made MaxMind aware of the consequences of the default locations it’s chosen, Mather says they’re going to change them. They are picking new default locations for the U.S. and Ashburn, Virginia that are in the middle of bodies of water, rather than people’s homes.

They’ve learned nothing. That’s not how you do it. I’m kind of shocked that these security companies should be taking advice from an old geezer biologist: don’t substitute in any fake map coordinates. Your functions ought to be returning an indication that the IP address does not have a known physical location.

Next unintended consequence: county police all over the country start lobbying homeland security for the money to buy military surplus submarines, because of the sudden rash of high-tech meth labs being built at the bottom of the lake in the old gravel pit, you know, the one down the road near the center of the county? Yeah, that one. There are a million computers installed in that facility, so you better make sure you get us a nucyuler sub, with the best torpedos and missile tubes.