So, I deliberately stayed out of PZ’s When humanists go bad thread. But y’know, I didn’t realize it had gone on quite this long. When I saw a spate of comments all directed to that thread, however, I had to check in again just to know what is keeping that thread alive.
The answer? Andy Lewis.
Science journalism is failing us in important ways. This post will be far shorter than I might like it to be, but I want it to be readable, and in any case I plan on following up soon with more information and also, I hope, a detailed action plan.
Here I simply want to point out a single article. In another post, I’ll also be discussing an article on the dismissal of Francisco Ayala from UC Irvine and the pattern of sexual harassment that led to that dismissal. But right now, let’s tackle an interesting article with a headline that is … terrible, in ways we will investigate later. The headline reads thus:
So, apparently some folks have known about this for a long time, but I just came across a reference to orca gathering together several members of a pod who then swim, dive, and surge synchronously to produce a wave displacing several tons of water.
Why would they do that? Well, it turns out it’s a good way for orca to wash prey animals who rest on ice floes – mainly seals – off the safety of their floating islands and into the open water where the orca can eat them.
Here’s one video which culminates in three orca using the strategy:
However, there are others. I came across a 45 minute TV program that would be inconvenient to use in demonstrating the tactic. Still if you’re willing to scan through and find it, you can see five orca swimming, diving, & surging synchronously to form a massive wave. While synchronized action isn’t unusual in the animal kingdom (think of birds migrating in V formations or schools of fish turning in near-unison among other things), this involves not only planning, but very possibly also either communicating a plan to one’s companions or, even more spectacularly, a theory of mind where the means to communicate a plan are absent, but other orca recognize what one orca is attempting to achieve in the future, then thinking about how to enhance the success of that other animal’s plan. Thinking from that other animal’s perspective, if that’s what’s happening, is a stupendous intellectual feat.
It would not be the only time one can see theory of mind operating in non-human animals, but the operation of theory of mind is rare.
And yet, the thing that completely disarms me intellectually is the thought that in this instance, the very water in which they swim has probably been rendered into a tool, which would challenge the very definition of the word. Wikipedia’s discussion of tool use by animals has a brief discussion of the difficulties inherent in defining “tool”. The first example they present, though, is sufficient to the point:
The external employment of an unattached or manipulable attached environmental object to alter more efficiently the form, position, or condition of another object, another organism, or the user itself, when the user holds and directly manipulates the tool during or prior to use and is responsible for the proper and effective orientation of the tool.
Is the seawater an “environmental object” or the orca’s environment itself? I’m not sure, but this is an incredible bit of cooperative hunting a raises a great many questions about orca, their intelligence, and even the nature of tool use itself.
Paul Selden, a paleontologist with enthusiasm for ancient arthropods, went crazy discussing spider/acarine interactions that helped him interpret a new find in which a spider-silk wrapped tick was found in Burmese amber:
“Just last year, I was on a field trip in Estonia and took a photo of a Steatoda spider wrapping up a red spider mite,” said Selden. “That was serendipitous.”
Ooh, baby: talk academic to me.
While ScienceDaily isn’t a science journalism site (it’s an aggregator for university press releases excited about a faculty member’s latest publication) that doesn’t mean there’s nothing of value there, it just means that the value varies wildly with the priority (and personnel) different universities assign to writing up good press releases.*1
My latest find there not only details a great new Devonian find (if it holds up, as always, IANAB), but it’s also fairly well written in that it details where and how the crucial fossils were found, why the authors believe they are significant, and what they might tell us, all in sentences constructed to be understandable. Joy!
This one’s awesome, evo/devo nerds: in the uppermost Ediacaran Dengying Formation (in the Three Gorges region of China, with the formation apparently centered in or largely in Guizhou province), Phys.org is reporting that researchers from Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Virginia Tech have found footprints arranged in two irregular but separate rows that are almost certainly the result of an ancient bilaterian traveling over the sea floor.
Since PZ was talking about science journalism the other day, I thought I’d bring up something I saw on sciencedaily.com (which is not really a science journalism site, but a press-release aggregator, but what the hell).
The last couple weeks have been difficult, not least because I passed a kidney stone (I have history with the buggers, and I could feel the pop and pressure release) over a week ago. That one took 2 days to pass. But then my kidney kept on being very, very sore (though mostly not quite as sore as before passing the stone). When the pain crept up to the excruciating level, I ended up in the ER. The doctor was not sympathetic, and appeared to doubt what I was saying about my kidney pain. I was worried that there might be bruising or some other lingering damage. Painful infection (these can actually be life-threatening) is also a possible complication, though as my temp hadn’t spiked, I was pretty certain it wasn’t that.
For weird reasons, I was at a hospital about 50 km away from home. It was a smaller hospital, and the CT machine there doesn’t operate overnight. So I had to wait for morning, in raucous pain the whole time, in a chair in the lobby. (Beds were apparently only available for priority patients.) The CT team had a couple patients higher in priority than me for first pics, but they got to me around 9am. Low! And Behold! The pics showed numerous stones in my kidneys. Most weren’t placed low enough to block fluid flow and create the painful pressure famously associated with them. One, however, was located low enough to cause pain, but not all the way down near the exit yet. Imagine my surprise! It was “large-ish” in the words of the physician, who suddenly became much more solicitous than my overnight doctor. I received good care from that moment on.
Because I write a blog, I can subject you to any damn fool thing I want, and they only thing either of you can do, my readers, is to stop reading. But then who suffers, huh? Huh?
And thus, while strung out on painkillers trying to find the way to finish the rest of my move today, I am taking the opportunity to write for you about a story that is years old, and not one like the Tuskeegee Experiments, which might occasionally still have up-to-the-minute relevance, or the Tuskegee Airmen, who were fortunate, indeed, to be part of a segregated air force unit so they didn’t have to fight side-by-side with Gungans. (I’m telling you, it was a pretty close call, there.) No, it doesn’t even have anything to do with slavery.
It’s just not that important. And yet, it is the very quotidian nature of it that stuck with me. I keep thinking every so often that I should write about it, then don’t because it’s never important enough. Well, today, strung out on a bit less than the prescribed dose of my prescription painkiller, so obviously not competent to consent to keyboard, there is nothing to stop me. Today is the day you get to hear me talk about the everyday horror that is vagina.