Exposed scientific dishonesty illustrates why science is so great

That title may sound counter intuitive, but give me a chance to explain.

You may have heard about the bit of academic scandal that’s been happening at Harvard recently. Marc Hauser is a Professor in the Departments of Psychology, Organismic & Evolutionary Biology, and Biological Anthropology. He was the leading researcher on the evolution of morality and moral behavior in primates and humans and an author of a number of books, including Moral Minds and (in progress) Evilicious: Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad.

In a somewhat amusingly ironic twist, he was found guilty of scientific misconduct, including fabrication of data that will result in several papers being retracted.

This is a very serious situation, especially since Marc Hauser was such a big name in his field. His career is effectively over, and now reseachers in the field have to rethink everything they’ve learned from him (and cited from him). It’s even more serious for his students, whose futures are uncertain when their graduate advisor has such a black mark on his record. It’s upsetting to the field of science as a whole, which does rely on a certain level of trust for practical reasons. We peer review to the best of our abilities, but you still have to hope everyone else is being honest like you since it can take time to expose problems.

It’s also a little jarring to me personally. Not only will I have to reexamine what I read in one of his books that I greatly enjoyed, but I almost went to graduate school in one of the departments he teaches in. Academic scandals aren’t the best way to start your graduate career.

But we have to remember this is what makes science so great. Science is not dogmatic. It’s based on peer review and constant criticism. Scientists are still human and make errors, sometimes purposefully and sometimes not, so it’s important to have these checks in place. Hauser was a giant in his field, but even he was not immune to scrutiny. It was his own graduate students who brought these problems to our attention at great personal risk.

Some people are using this as a chance to pooh-pooh the whole field of evolutionary psychology. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time for creationists like Ken Ham to squeal with glee and twist the facts for their own “Never trust science!!!” agenda. But I really don’t think this is quite so tragic. Isn’t it good to know that we still expose bad science, even when we may have political reasons to not? Would we rather have evolutionary psychology trucking on without criticism, or get the fraudulent data out in the open? I’d be more concerned with the field if it was just being swept under the table. While it’s sad such dishonesty occured, I’m happy to know that we can still sniff it out, correct it, and punish those who perpetuate it.

Maybe I’m being overly optimistic (I know, unusual for me). But I think it’s good to use this as an example of why science is the best way of exploring the world around us: Because when our findings are wrong, we’ll admit it.

Bias for male lecturers in Physics

Lately there has been a lot of discussion here and elsewhere about male privilege and sexism. I think one of the reasons this is such a touchy subject is because many of our actions that are inherently sexist are unconscious, so we can get especially defensive when people call us out on them. For example, let’s look at how Physics students react differently to male and female lecturers:

Why aren’t there more women physicists, and in senior positions? One factor may be unconscious biases that could keep women physicists from advancing—and may even prevent women from going into physics in the first place.

Amy Bug, a physicist at Swarthmore University, examined the bias question. Her research team trained four actors—two men, two women—to give a 10-minute physics lecture. Real physics classes watched the lecturers. Then the 126 students were surveyed.

When it came to questions of physics ability—whether the lecturer had a good grasp of the material, and knew how to use the equipment—male lecturers got higher ratings by both male and female students.

But when asked how well the lecturer relates to the students, each gender preferred their own. And while female students gave a slight preference to female lecturers, male students overwhelmingly rated the male lecturers as being superior. The research appears in the journal Physics World.

Bug says the results may be evidence of inherent biases that could hold women back—along with economic inequalities, such as lower wages and smaller start-up grants. Which reduce career acceleration and thus the amount of force available to crack the glass ceiling.

Note that it’s not just male students who have some sort of unconscious biases – the female students do as well. This is why it is so important to become aware of our biases. When someone points out that something you said is sexist (against women or men) or that you’re privileged, it’s not to make you feel guilty or like a bad person – it’s to make you conscious of your actions. Only once we are aware of what we’re doing can we actively try to correct it.

Back to the science aspect – I would like to see this repeated looking at scientific papers in addition to lecturing ability. Often times when names on papers are represented by initials alone, people assume those authors are male. If given the same paper, but one with a male name and one with a female, would students say they are the same quality?

I’m also curious how prevalent this is in other disciplines. Is it a science thing, or does the same trend hold in liberal arts? Would it be less pronounced in a field with a more equal sex ratio like Biology? Something I get to think about before I become a lecturer…

(Hat tip to Rugved)

I have my first scientific publication!

My first scientific paper has been published! “Allelic recharge in populations recovering from bottleneck events” by Joseph D Busch, Jennifer McCreight, and Peter M Waser. It’s included in the new book developed by the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University, Molecular Approaches in Natural Resource Conservation and Management:The book was actually released in June, but somehow I missed it. Just found out today because my professor gave me a copy as a going away present.

I guess I’m officially a scientist now. Woohoo!

Evolution 2010 recap

This was my second year going to Evolution 2010, the join meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE), the Society of Systematic Biologists (SSB), and the American Society of Naturalists (ASN). Last year I went as part of the Undergraduate Diversity program (which funded my way!) and had a blast.

This year was just as good. My talk was on the first day of the conference, which was awesome. I only had to spend that morning fretting, and I got to enjoy the rest of the conference stress-free (unlike most of my labmates). My presentation went alright – Prof said I did a good job, but I think I could have been a little smoother. I was surprised that I still had a good number of people in attendance, even though I was speaking at the same exact time as the end of the USA World Cup match. Yes, annoying vuvuzela sounds filled the conference hall.

As for the talks themselves, I went to a lot of interesting ones. Well, the first day started off a little shaky, but the conference improved once I started going to research talks. One of the bad things about the conference was that there were just so many talks – 12 concurrent sessions to choose from! You never know what talk is going to be good, so I know I missed some great ones just by choosing poorly.

The downside of going as a post-bach (I’m in undergrad/grad student limbo!) is that most of the stuff is still way over my head. Almost all of the talks are given by professors, post-docs, or nearly finished graduate students, so no matter how much of a nerdy brainiac I am, I was still way out of my league. So, sorry, no talk re-caps for you. Though Wired did cover one talk that I thought was super cool (and actually understood!), so check it out: Lizard Camouflage Confuses Males About Gender. Pssssssshhhh, Wired covered that but not my copulatory plug talk?

Some amusing things about the conference:

  • I met Jerry Coyne! I was nervous to approach him since he was one of the most famous people there – not just for his blog (which I love) or his book (which my dad loved), but for kind of being the leading authority on speciation. He was super nice to talk to, so my nerves were unfounded. We talked for a good amount of time, mostly ranting about religious accommodationism and evolution. It surprised my lab, though. Or as my professor said, “Even I’d be nervous to talk to him.”
  • There was a Christian Homeschooling Conference going on at the same time in the convention center. There was much loling by the evolutionary biologists. I think at least four different talks I saw made a joke about this is one way.
  • Speaking of jokes, at least two presentations had penis jokes in them. We are so mature.
  • So many nerdy t-shirts! One day I wore the same exact nerdy shirt as someone else, and we kept running into each other and giving each other shirt-props. Also, one day I was wearing my “You say Tomato, I say Lycopersicon esculentum” shirt and I actually ran into someone who studies tomatoes, who informed me that that was not the current accepted binomial nomenclature for tomatoes. Which I knew, but I just found it amusing that this was one of the few places where that could happen.
  • All of the receptions had free “unlimited” (it said limit 2, but no one checked) beer and wine. However, you had to pay 3 dollars for water or pop. I think the conference understood it’s grad student audience very well.

Some amusing things about goofing off in Portland:

  • I went to my first sushi-go-round. I had never heard of these things (mainly because I’m not a huge fan of sushi). Basically they put different small servings of sushi on a conveyor belt, and you snatch the ones you want to eat as they go by. It was pretty good, and that says a lot coming from me!
  • Voodoo Donuts is fucking amazing. It’s a good thing I’m not living in Portland, or I would surely gain 300 pounds. Seriously, I’m going to have to make a trip from Seattle just to get another Old Dirty Bastard. Chocolate, peanut butter, and oreos on a donut? For less than two dollars? Hell yes. All the donuts I tried were delicious, not to mention that all had hilariously inappropriate name. We took our professor there the second night and tried to convince him to get the Cock and Balls. Thankfully he was amused and didn’t fire us all (yet). Also, I was severely tempted to get a The Magic is In The Hole shirt or panties, but I was too cheap.
  • Right next to Voodoo Donuts was a creepy little hentai movie theater. I had to explain what hentai was to my labmates and professor.

Me: It’s anime porn.
Labmate: …Why would you watch that instead of the real thing?
Me: Because you’re not constrained by the bounds of reality.

And then the discussion went to tentacles. I mean, how could you not when discussing hentai? I’m just said I didn’t think to trick my lab into actually going into the theater before they knew what it was.

  • Omg Powell’s bookstore. It was so huge that I seriously got lost. They had a whole aisle devoted to evolution/genetics and a whole column to atheism. I was so overwhelmed I ended up not buying anything!
  • I met a couple of my blog readers, which is always fun. Hi guys! Oh, and Jaki was awesome enough to give me a graphic adaptation of the Origin of Species, which is awesome and made my lab jealous.

I’m sure I’m forgetting some craziness, but that’s all I can remember right now. It was a lot of fun, and hopefully I can go back to Evolution and Portland in the future.

Religious accommodationism at Evolution 2010

Amongst evolutionary biologists, there are differing opinions on how to communicate science to the public and increase acceptance of evolution. One of these opinions is religious accommodationism, which attracts much ire from more outspoken activists such as PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne. While I happen to agree with them, I do understand not everyone does. There are those who believe science and religion are totally compatible, that theistic evolution is good enough, and that we need to mince our words lest we offend liberal theists who could be on our side.
However, I was surprised to find a whole 2 hour symposium at the Evolution 2010 conference devoted to accommodationism. It was the Communicating Science Symposium, which started with a talk by Robert T. Pennock on Communication Evolution, focusing on audience and message. You all know my love for evolution and communicating it to others, so I was initially very excited for this talk. It definitely had good parts, especially about carefully choosing our wording as to not confuse others (Don’t say you “believe” in evolution, don’t call it “Darwinism,” don’t say you have “faith” in science, etc).

But it quickly went downhill. Much of the talk was about distancing support of evolution with atheistic views – that we need to stress that religion and science is compatible so people in the “middle” can still accept theistic evolution. That people are more willing to accept evolution if they hear it from their pastor. He lauded Francis Collins and the BioLogos foundation for being pro-evolution…even though BioLogos just had a piece trying to reconcile Biblical Adam and Eve with evolution.

That’s why there’s a problem with accommodationism. It’s more about winning numbers for your cause than truly communicating and educating people about evolution. Are people truly supporters of evolution if they’re not accepting it as a natural process? Do people really understand natural selection if they think God is zapping in mutations or had a plan for humans to eventually evolve? Why is it that our tactic involves people preserving their religious beliefs (which are based on faith), but molding science (which is based on facts) to fit their world view? If anything, it should be the other way around. Religion should have to accommodate science.

The reason why people feel compelled to do this is because religion holds a special status in our society where it can’t be criticized, even when it’s blatantly wrong. This really came out in the second part of the symposium, which was by a woman from AAAS (I unfortunately missed her name). She said there’s no use in including creationists or atheists in the discussion because we’re extremists who won’t change our minds.

Yep – we don’t want to potentially alienate theistic allies, but it’s totally okay to ignore those atheist extremists. Why is theism worth accommodation, but secular opinions are not? I commented on this in the Q&A, saying if they’re accommodating religion they should also accommodate secular opinions, but all I received was an awkward “Okay” and the Q&A ended – where every other question got a long reply.

I guess it’s just disappointing seeing such a one sided representation of “communication” at a large conference. Should have spent my morning going to the research based talks.

Here, have some links!

In a couple hours I’ll be on a plane to Portland! I’ve set up some posts to go up during my absence, and I may blog at the conference if I get burnt out on evolution (unlikely, I know). Until then, here are some interesting stories I’ve seen recently to keep you busy.

Female scientists: They’re super effective!

Exciting breaking news, everybody! This is a monumental step for female scientists everywhere. I just found out that we have the first female professor in a scientific field long dominated by men. I’d like to introduce Professor Araragi…the new Pokemon Professor!

Yes, I’m excited for Pokemon Black & White to be released. Don’t judge me for hanging on to a piece of my childhood – the games are addictive and fun! I did geek out about the Professor being a woman, though. Hey, when popular culture starts recognizing that scientists can be female – especially an attractive female instead of a frumpy stereotype – that’s a step in the right direction.

Thoughts on grad school

“What are you most looking forward to about grad school? What are you hoping to achieve? And, what will you actually be studying? I mean, is there really more to know about copulatory plugs?”

I’m most looking forward to finally be studying what I’ve always wanted to research: human genetics and evolution. I don’t know the exact topic yet since UW has you do a year of lab rotations, but there are a lot of exciting projects going on there. I haven’t been able to investigate that area yet since no one at Purdue really researches human genetics or evolution too much – I think mainly because we don’t have a medical school.

So no, I’m not going to be researching copulatory plugs anymore. Even that wasn’t my main project at Purdue. My bigger project was looking at population genetics and historical demography in kangaroo rats. I’ll be able to talk more about them here once they’re officially published, but until then, I have to keep quiet.

And looking at the bigger picture, I’m excited to be furthering my education and becoming an “expert” in my field. I really enjoy research and teaching, so I think academia is the right place for me. And I just love to learn – I’m geeking out about all the advanced classes that I’ll be taking, which I think is a good sign.

…Okay, and it’s nice knowing I have an assured paycheck for five years in this crappy economy and that I’ll be Dr. McCreight at the end. But really, those are just perks! Really nice perks, hehe.

No talking about animal sex in academia!

A while ago a paper was published that discussed oral sex in bats. Now, if you’ve ever hung around biologists or evolutionary psychologists for more than five minutes, you know that we tend to be a little obsessed with sex. Seeing papers like this greatly amuses and interests us – I know I was sent this paper by at least 10 different biologists I know.

So what happened to Prof. Dylan Evans of University College Cork surprises me. I’ll just repost his letter so you get the whole story:

Dear Colleagues,

The President of University College Cork, Professor Michael Murphy, has imposed harsh sanctions on me for doing nothing more than showing an article from a peer-reviewed scientific article to a colleague.

The article was about fellatio in fruit bats. You can read it online at

It was covered extensively in the media, including the Guardian – see

The colleague to whom I showed the article complained to HR that the article was upsetting. I had been engaged in an ongoing debate with the colleague in question about the relevance of evolutionary biology to human behaviour, and in particular about the dubiousness of many claims for human uniqueness. I showed it the colleague in the context of this discussion, and in the presence of a third person. I also showed the article to over a dozen other colleagues on the same day, none of whom objected.

HR launched a formal investigation. Despite the fact that external investigators concluded that I was not guilty of harassment, Professor Murphy has imposed a two-year period of intensive monitoring and counselling on me, and as a result my application for tenure is likely to be denied.

I am now campaigning to have the sanctions lifted. I would be grateful for your support on this matter. I have created an online petition at:

I’d be grateful if you sign the petition and ask your colleagues to do so. If you also felt like writing directly to the President of UCC, his address is:

Professor Michael Murphy
The President’s Office
University College Cork
Republic of Ireland.

Your support would be greatly appreciated.

Dylan Evans

If someone gets upset for you bringing up something sexual (that’s relevant) during a biology discussion, something is wrong. Just because us humans like to be puritanical about things doesn’t mean nature follows suit. I’ve blogged before at the diversity of sexual behavior in living organisms – we shouldn’t be ignoring that because “oral sex” sounds gross or sinful. It’s still part of the discussion, whether you like it or not.

I wonder what would have happened if Dr. Evans showed this colleague papers about homosexuality, polygamy, rape, necrophilia, traumatic insemination… I’m betting on fainting and pearl clutching.

(Via Pharyngula)

The Evolution Litmus Test

A couple days ago when I was waiting for my Biomedical Ethics exam to begin, I started chatting with this girl sitting near me. She was in my recitation class, but I didn’t really know anything else about her. Somehow I mentioned I was a biology major, and she brought up the one biology class she took as an Animal Science major: it was my favorite Biology class at Purdue, Evolution of Behavior.

Now, even though one of my research advisors teaches that class, I promise I’m not being biased – every day I left that class absolutely amazed at how interesting and inventive nature was. I’ve always been more of a lab rat and genetics nerd, but this gave me real appreciation for natural history and behavior. We talked about insanely interesting topics like the evolution of echolocation, altruism, dominance regulated ovulation suppression, and electric fish communication. And as a perk, I thought the class was pretty easy; if you just understood basic evolutionary principles and paid attention at all (which was a given, since it was so cool), you’d do fine.

So when this girl brought it up, of course I gushed about how much I loved that class. To which she replied,

“Oh, I don’t believe in evolution. I just took that class to see what the different opinion was like.”

The only thing that kept me from calling her out on the stupidity of her statements (EVOLUTION IS NOT FUCKING OPINION) was the fact that I didn’t want to totally upset myself right before I had to take a difficult exam. But of course, she had to go on,

“It was so hard! I didn’t understand anything he was saying all semester!”

I asked her if she took the required introductory evolution classes before taking this one, and she said no – her Animal Science advisor said the class was easy and she waived the requirements. This made me fume. Evolution of Behavior is a 500-level class meant for upperclassmen and graduate students. We spend about a day reviewing the principles of evolution because it’s assumed you’ve already learned them in the various required classes. So if you stick a creationist in that class with no knowledge of evolution, of course they’re going to be totally confused. And now they can proudly claim “well I took a class on evolution and so I know it’s wrong” just because they didn’t have the skill set to understand the class!

The thing that annoys me the most is that this person is graduating with a degree in Animal Sciences. If you are getting a degree in something biology-related, you should understand and accept evolution. Hell, I know Biology students (mostly molecular or pre-med people) who don’t accept evolution, so it’s not a matter of curriculum*. But to know that we’re giving degrees to people who fail to understand – no, outright deny a basic tenet of biology is shameful.

Would chemistry give degrees to someone who thought the five elements were more accurate than the periodic table? Would physics give degrees to a someone who thought gravity was fairies holding us down to the ground? Would earth and atmospheric sciences give degrees to flat-Earthers? Would astronomy give degrees to people who think the moon is made of cheese?

Maybe with the way American education is set up, you can’t stop someone from graduating based on these things. Maybe they adamantly believe in fanciful superstition, but are smart enough to give the desired (aka correct) answers on exams. How do you hold back someone with crazy beliefs if they got As in all the classes?

And while I hate giving creationists undeserved credentials (“I got a degree in Biology, and I know evolution is false, trust me!”), I guess they can go have jobs where evolution doesn’t matter as much. Go pipette for hours at some company for all I care. But when these people are going on to become teachers or scientists, it’s scary. You need to be able to understand and accept evolution to 1) Teach it to others so we don’t keep perpetuating ignorance, and 2) Come up with plausible hypotheses, do good research, and interpret results correctly.

This is why I think we need an Evolution Litmus Test in these fields. Do not accept people into your school or Masters/PhD program unless they accept evolution. I don’t care how you do it – a written test, an essay question on the application, a simple check box to weed out the honest, asking pointed questions during interviews, sending grad student spies to mingle and get the truth out… But figure out what people deny basic science before you turn them into scientists. A friend shared with me a story about a fellow grad school interviewee at a very prestigious university who was a unabashedly proud young earth creationist around the other prospective students (but not current ones or professors) – do not let this ignorance infiltrate your program.

I know people are going to claim I’m just putting an “atheist requirement” on studying biology, but I am not. There are many many biologists who are religious but still accept evolution. I have friends here at Purdue who go to church weekly, are in religious clubs, and will still laugh at Intelligent Design for it’s anti-science lunacy. This is just a scientific standard. If you don’t believe in a fundamental of the field, you should not be able to claim some sort of expertise in it. It’s as bad as graduating in History with a focus on WWII and believing the Holocaust was a hoax. It proves you do not understand the topic, and it is embarrassing to the school.

But really, is it that outlandish to require people to understand the field you’re hiring them in?

*Note for non-Purdue people: AS is part of the College of Agriculture, and Biology (what I’m in) is part of the College of Science, so we have very different curriculum. Hence why she didn’t have to take those intro Biology courses that teach evolution (though those still fail to educate some bio majors).