Depends on what you mean by “know”

Chris Mooney is galloping around on his anti-science education hobby-horse again. That’s a harsh way to put it, but that’s what I see when he goes off on these crusades for changing everything by modifying the tone of the discussion. It’s all ideology and politics, don’t you know — if we could just frame our policy questions and decisions in a way that appealed to the conservative know-nothings, we’d be able to make progress and accomplish things. And, as usual, I expect he won’t recognize the irony of the fact that the way he communicates his message alienates scientists and science communicators.

He’s reporting on the work of Dan Kahan, who has done interesting and informative work on how ideology, both left and right, distorts decision making. Motivated reasoning is a real problem, and we all need to be aware of it. But this work, at least as described by Mooney, goes a step further to argue that conservatives aren’t as dumb as they seem — that they know the science, but are using politics and identity to dictate their answers. They already know the science, so teaching them how the science actually works can’t possibly be the answer — instead, we have to work around their biases and lead them by careful wording towards the resolution of real problems. Kahan says,

The problem is not that members of the public do not know enough, either about climate science or the weight of scientific opinion, to contribute intelligently as citizens to the challenges posed by climate change. It’s that the questions posed to them by those communicating information on global warming in the political realm have nothing to do with—are not measuring—what ordinary citizens know.

I disagree. The public does not know enough. I don’t think Kahan or Mooney have a clear idea of what they mean by “know”. And I don’t think they’re recognizing that if they believe they are clever enough to trick the public into revealing their true knowledge by rephrasing questions about science, that perhaps the public is also clever enough to hide their true ideas about science in their answers.

They’ve evaluated public knowledge of science with sets of multiple choice questions phrased in two different ways, to show that the answers you get vary with the wording. First: speaking as a teacher, multiple choice questions are terrible at testing in-depth knowledge and understanding. They’re fine for evaluating basic facts, but even there, they can be gamed. Often, the strategy for answering multiple choice facts isn’t necessarily based on knowledge of the material, but understanding human nature and the psychology of the person who wrote the test — the wording of the question and the alternative answers can be a good clue to which one the instructor thinks is best.

Second, we’ve known about this phenomenon for a fairly long time. About ten years ago, I heard Eugenie Scott explain how soft polls on evolution were: that by changing the wording from “Humans evolved over millions of years” to “Dogs evolved over millions of years”, you could get a tremendous improvement in the percentage of respondents approving of the statement.

Kahan has discovered that you get the same improvement from conservatives if you change “the earth is warming” to “climate scientists believe the earth is warming,” testifying to the fact, Mooney says, that they actually do know what the science says, it’s just that phrasing question wrong punches their button and causes them to reject the idea.

Bullshit. Look, I know creationist arguments inside and out; I can often finish their sentences for them, and can even cite the original sources that they didn’t know their claims came from. This does not in any way imply that I think like a creationist, that I’m ready to accept creationism, that I sympathize or agree with their position, or that I think creationism ought to be considered as a source of facts in public policy. I know what they say, but I also know all the arguments against their nonsense. That a climate change denialist is able to regurgitate what he’s heard a scientist say does not mean he is not also packed to the gills with lies and rationalizations; that he’s able to check a box on a paper exam does not mean that he won’t act against that fact in his public activities.

I’ve also talked at length, hours on end, with creationists. And no, I’m sorry, despite being able to puke up quotations from what scientists actually say, they really are grossly ignorant of evolution. Are we going to start using quote-mining as an example of the scientific process?

Another example from teaching genetics. I once assigned a problem of medium difficulty on a homework assignment, involving Mendelian crosses of flies with different wing shapes. A little later I had the students do the exact same problem in an in-class exercise — a way to spot check whether they’d actually worked through the problem. Easy peasy, they breezed through it in class, and the students I asked could even explain the process for solving it. Then, on an exam, I repeated the very same problem, except that I changed every mention of Drosophila to Danio, and changed the hypothetical phenotypes from wing shape to fin shape. But the numbers, the crosses, the outcomes were all copied directly from the homework. All the changes were superficial.

A third of the class bombed it.

Did these students know how to solve the problem? I suppose Mooney could claim that they knew how to do fruit fly genetics, but simply didn’t know the details of fish genetics. But I would say no, not at all; that they could reiterate the procedure they memorized in one problem does not in any way imply that they could understand the concepts. It was the same damned problem! The students who could repeat an answer in one very narrow context did not know the science. They were unable to generalize and apply a conceptual understanding to a specific problem.

(For those of you concerned about my students, this is a common problem; a lot of what I’m doing in the classroom and exams is taking ideas they’ve grown comfortable with and twisted them a little bit to compel them to THINK about the problem, rather than trying to find which rut in their brain it fits best. Learning has to be procedural and general, not liturgical. They mostly get it eventually, oh, but how they suffer through the exams. “This wasn’t in the homework or the class examples!” is a common complaint, to which I reply, “Of course not.”)

Mooney likes to cite empirical, practical results of his approach, which is good…but unfortunately, they always undermine his premises, and he sometimes isn’t even aware of it.

Later in the paper, Kahan goes on to assert that precisely this strategy is working right now in Southeast Florida, where members of the Regional Climate Change Compact have brought on board politically diverse constituencies by studiously avoiding pushing anyone’s buttons. Kahan even shows polling data suggesting that questions like "local and state officials should be involved in identifying steps that local communities can take to reduce the risk posed by rising sea levels" do not provoke a polarized response in this region. Rather, liberals and conservatives alike in Southeast Florida agree with such a statement, which references a major consequence of climate change while ignoring the gigantic elephant in the room…its cause.

I’ve emphasized that las bit, because it is so damning. What good is this approach? If you know anything about science at all, you understand that how we know what we know, the epistemology of science, is absolutely critical to our progress. You’re stuck like my students in the early part of the semester, able to tick off check boxes on a multiple choice test or follow a cookbook procedure to arrive at a specific answer, but unable to generalize or extend their knowledge to new problems (really, let me assure you though, most of them got much better at that by the end of the term!). Those respondents in Florida don’t understand the science — all the participants know is which buttons to push, which ones to avoid, with the aim of steering the poor stupid mouse through the maze to a cheese award at the end.

OK, to be fair, this is a case where Mooney is at least vaguely aware of the problem. Here’s his next paragraph.

Here’s the problem, though. Maybe this approach will work up to a point, or in certain locales (in North Carolina, the response to sea level rise is pretty different). But at some point, we really do need to all agree that the globe is warming, so that we can then make very difficult choices on how to deal with that. To save our feverish planet, it is dubious that merely having conservatives know what scientists think—rather than accepting it themselves, taking the reality into their hearts and identities—will be enough.

Very good. So why did Mooney write a whole column arguing that conservatives aren’t really as anti-science as they seem to be, that ends with an acknowledgment that, well, not knowing how reality works isn’t a good long-term strategy for responding to challenges from reality? The entire first 90% of the article is bogged down with this misbegotten notion that we can equate science understanding with checking the right alternative on a multiple choice test, only to notice in the last paragraph that oh, hey, that’s not science.

So that’s what chemistry is good for…

Stinky stuff! This fits perfectly with my biased preconceptions. So here are two examples of chemistry used to analyze things you’d normally run away from.

The oldest traces of human poop have been dug out of a cave in Spain — and it’s Neandertal poop. It’s about 50,000 years old, and it’s been reduced to a compressed, thin smear of organic compounds, so I guess it isn’t actually so stinky anymore, but there was enough of it to analyze chromatographically. In case you’ve wondered your whole life about what Neandertal poop would look like, here you go.

Microphotographs of a slightly burned coprolite of putative human origin identified in El Salt Stratigraphic Unit X (sample SALT-08-13). The images under plane polarized light show the pale brown color and massive structure of the coprolite, as well as the common presence of inclusions, which are possibly parasitic nematode eggs or spores.

Microphotographs of a slightly burned coprolite of putative human origin identified in El Salt Stratigraphic Unit X (sample SALT-08-13). The images under plane polarized light show the pale brown color and massive structure of the coprolite, as well as the common presence of inclusions, which are possibly parasitic nematode eggs or spores.

Dead for 50 millennia, and what we know about this dead person is that they took a massive dump that was full of parasites. TMI.

I thought the paper was preliminary and rather general — they don’t or can’t make very specific conclusions, but then, I imagine they were excited to be the first to get any discussion of Neandertal feces into the scientific literature. We do know a couple of things: Neandertals ate both their meat and their vegetables, and they had gut bacteria with similar physiological properties to our own.

Taken together, these data suggest that the Neanderthals from El Salt consumed both meat and vegetables, in agreement with recent hypotheses based on indirect evidence. Future studies in Middle Palaeolithic sites using the faecal biomarker approach will help clarify the nature, role and proportion of the plant component in the Neanderthal diet, and allow us to assess whether our results reflect occasional consumption or can be representative of their staple diet. Also, this data represents the oldest positive identification of human faecal matter, in a molecular level, using organic geochemical methods.

Besides having corroborated our method and obtained the first evidence of an omnivorous Neanderthal diet from faeces, our results also have implications regarding digestive systems and gut microbiota evolution. Approaching the evolution of the human digestive system is difficult because there is no fossil record indicating soft tissue preservation. Our results show that Neanderthals, like anatomically modern humans, have a high rate of conversion of cholesterol to coprostanol due to the presence of bacteria capable of doing so in their guts. Further research will allow us explore this issue in the context of human evolution.

I said I had two unpleasant examples of useful chemistry, and here’s the second: using the characteristic odors of different stages of decay to quantify the time of death.

An international research team used two-dimensional gas chromatography time-of-flight mass spectrometry to characterise the odours that create this smell of death:  volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  By measuring the VOCs released from pig carcasses the team identified a cocktail of several different families of molecules, including carboxylic acids, aromatics, sulfurs, alcohols, nitro compounds, as well as aldehydes and ketones. The combination and quantities of these VOCs change as a function of time as a cadaver goes through different stages of decomposition.

I think I’m getting a sense of the difference between chemistry and biology. I prefer the bodily fluids in my subjects to be fresh, preferably spurting; chemists seem to favor observing the degradation and volatilization of fluids from dead things. Chemists may offer their repudiations of my sentiments in the comments.

Joining the ranks of great American masters of the English language

Twain and Webster, Lincoln and King, every past paragon of the American idiom, are sighing in their graves right now, because Sarah Palin has announced her desire to split the Republican party in two.

Well if Republicans are going to act like Democrats, then what’s the use in getting all gung-ho about getting more Republicans in there? We need people who understand the beauty of…. the value of … allowing  free market to thrive. Otherwise our country is going to be continued to be over-regulated, driving industry away, driving jobs away. We’re going to be a bankrupt, fundamentally transformed country unless those who know what they’re doing, and aren’t going along just to get along with those in power, it being today the Democrats. That does no good. So yeah if Republicans aren’t going to stand strong on the planks in our platform then it does no good to get all enthused about them anymore.

While I applaud her desire to take the Tea Party on a lovely ride off the cliff of irrelevance, to explode in a cloud of futility on impact with reality, I regret that she’s doing her damnedest to drag the language to hell with her.

Criminal, arrogant, and stupid

Ah, Mormons. Utah is a lovely state, but one thing I don’t miss at all are inhabitants who make a mess of it — I recall a camping trip in the Stansburys in which we found a campsite totally trashed by the previous visitors. That just took a little clean up, but here’s a story of a group of enthusiastic Mormon missionaries visiting a designated wilderness area, climbing up a mountain, and using concrete to mount a flagpole so they could leave their ugly mission flag flapping over the area. Not cool, dudes, not cool at all.

But just to further tarnish the reputation of Mormon missionaries everywhere, they did one thing further: they signed the flag.

They signed the evidence of their crime.

I know. It sounds so…Mormon.

Convergence is coming

Everyone is announcing their schedule at Convergence: there’s the whole dang SkepChickCon schedule, Jason Thibeault and Brianne Bilyeu of FtB have produced theirs, and Dr Rubidium is doing a bunch of panels (wait…they let chemists in?). So I guess I’ll mention what I’ll be up to.

We have a little family affair every year in the Sandbox — these are hands-on activities, aimed mainly at kids, but everyone is welcome to show up.

CONvergence 2014: Bones.

Discover what an owl had for dinner! Dissect an owl pellet to solve the mystery and reveal clues about the owl’s diet and predator/prey relationships. What types of bones will you find in your pellet? Panelists: Mary Myers, Skatje Myers, PZ Myers

Thursday July 3, 2014 2:00pm – 3:00pm

CONvergence 2014: Create a Real DNA Necklace.

How do you extract DNA out of living things? What does your DNA look like? Find out and make a special necklace using your unique DNA! Panelists: Mary Myers, PZ Myers, Skatje Myers

Saturday July 5, 2014 3:30pm – 4:30pm

Then there are the panels, lots of panels. I cut back on the number I was on this year, because last year I did something like a dozen and it was exhausting.

CONvergence 2014: When Science Isn't Your Friend.

When has science hurt people in reality and what has that taught us about how science should be practiced? We’ll discuss everything from the Tuskegee experiments and Henrietta Lacks to continuing issues like surgery on intersex babies. Panelists: Stephanie Zvan (mod), Caleph Wilson, PZ Myers, Mary Brock, Debbie Goddard

Thursday July 3, 2014 8:30pm – 9:30pm

CONvergence 2014: Real Monsters.

Reality is stranger than fiction. The deep seas and uncharted lands hold unimaginably bizarre creatures. This panel explores some of the strangest, ugliest, and most unlikely creatures known to live. Panelists: Brianne Bilyeu, Ryan Consell, Matt Kuchta, Siouxsie Wiles, PZ Myers

Friday July 4, 2014 9:30am – 10:30am

CONvergence 2014: Ask a Scientist.

A general Q & A with expert scientists from a variety of fields. Panelists: Bug Girl, Dr Rubidium, Matt Kuchta, PZ Myers, Lathan Murrell

Friday July 4, 2014 12:30pm – 1:30pm

Friday July 4, 2014 5:00pm – 6:00pm

CONvergence 2014: Alien Conspiracy Theories.

The truth is out there, and we’ll help you find it! We’ll cover a wide range of alien-centric conspiracy theories and discuss the implications these have on individuals and society at large. Panelists: JD Horn, Jason Thibeault, Nicole Gugliucci, PZ Myers, Scott Lynch

That’s the Scott Lynch who wrote the Locke Lamorra fantasy novels, by the way.

Friday July 4, 2014 7:00pm – 8:00pm

CONvergence 2014: Coming Out Atheist.

Join us to discuss what it’s like to come out as an atheist in various parts of the country, with different religious backgrounds, and the intersection for many of us with coming out in other ways, such as in sexual orientation and gender identity. Panelists: Ashley F. Miller, Heina Dadabhoy, PZ Myers, Debbie Goddard, Brianne Bilyeu

Every year we do what is basically a biology of sex panel, held late at night after the kiddies have gone to bed. It tends to get a little raunchy and amusing — it also tends to be overwhelmed with attendees. If you want to get into this one, show up early.

CONvergence 2014: Superstimuli: My, What a Big _____ You H….

Doing stupid things to attract mates isn’t limited only to humans. From the peacock’s tail to the bird of paradise mating game, evolution itself makes animals go to ridiculous lengths for the sake of reproduction. Panelists: Emily Finke, Bug Girl, Sharon Stiteler, Matt Kuchta, PZ Myers

Friday July 4, 2014 11:30pm – 12:30am

There are lots of other panels going on — it’s non-stop brain stimulation all weekend long. There also the parties late at night. The Skepchicks host one party room — their theme this year is the Skepchick Space Lab — and Freethoughtblogs hosts the adjacent room, in 228. Our theme is…the Deep, to complement the spacey chicks next door.

Freethoughtblogs is hosting a party to celebrate the mysteries of the ocean: fierce sharks, grasping tentacles, an alien world right beneath us. Enjoy cool drinks, talk with deep thinkers, get eaten by a squid…oh, wait, no. No one will be eaten. Probably. We’ll just have fun.

You’re all coming, right? Bloomington. 3-6 July. It’ll be fun.

Really…we’re against shooting anyone

This op-ed by Robert Grant, claiming that the New Atheists are ‘dangerous’, was infuriating. What a string of stupid cliches!

While their starting point was the lack of scientific evidence for God’s existence, they quickly expanded their target to argue that religion is the “root of all evil” in the world. Far from being tolerated, religion should be banished. It obstructs the progress of the human race; and progress based on the pursuit of science and reason.

Can anyone find a single quote by a prominent New Atheist that demands that religion be ‘banished’? Anyone? Anywhere? Bueller? How about any one of them stating that the root cause of all evil in the world was religion?

The New Atheists offer a binary world view, neatly divided into good and evil. Science and reason on the one hand, religion and faith on the other. The implication being: if we get rid of religion we get rid of evil.

Oh, nonsense. Morality is always going to be an ongoing struggle; it’s a process, not a state of bliss. Freeing yourself of religion rids yourself of one source of ignorance and flawed thinking. It does not make you perfect.

They make the mistake here of treating evil as if it exists exclusively within a set of beliefs or practices, rather than as an inherent part of human nature.

As journalist Chris Hedges puts it, they externalise evil. Fundamentalist religious groups do the same, only for them evil resides in liberal secularism.

Oops, -100 points for relying on the rabid anti-atheist Chris Hedges.

Again, why does Grant keep claiming these things that are simply not true? He got into an argument with Michael Nugent on this, and Michael rightly hammered him on this claim. He can’t cite one source or give even one quote to back up this assertion (neither can Chris Hedges, who in a recent talk was reduced to this same strategem of equating atheists with fundamentalists, so he could quote fundamentalists, and then announce, “Aha! see! That’s how atheists think!”)

Religion is a specific problem of traditional teaching of invalid and bad ideas. It’s not that we think people are perfect if their brains are freed of the poison of religion — quite the contrary, human brains are faulty and full of shortcuts and limited in their degree of comprehension of the real world. But it doesn’t help if we compound our flaws with lies and lazy excuses and incoherent moral teachings. That’s the objection to religion: that it is counterfactual and destructive.

It’s as if we’re trying to teach that 2 + 2 = 4 in our math classes, but swarms of people were to insist that in their cherished traditional folkways, and in the words of their holy book, 2 + 2 = 3, and they must teach it that way. We should be able to say that that will give them wrong answers. It does not in any way imply that if only they all accept the truth of fourness, math becomes easy and everyone will be doing calculus by the time they hit kindergarten.

On the other hand, teaching people to question religion does mean that maybe, just maybe, they won’t kill other people who also question it. Check out this horror story from Iraq: fanatical Sunni Muslims in ISIS are administering roadside tests to refugees. There is, apparently, an absolutely correct answer to how you hold your hands during prayers: a Sunni way, and a Shiite way, where praying like a Shiite is utterly wrong, and the penalty for failing the quiz is to be led off to the side of the road and get a bullet in the brain.

You won’t find the New Atheists sympathizing with that approach. Rather, we’re appalled that anyone finds these artificial distinctions within bogus superstitions, whether Sunni or Shiite, Catholic or Protestant, to be useful ways to order one’s life. That we point out the futility and waste of these divisions does not imply that we’re planning to take all parties to the side of the road and have them shot — that’s religious thinking, and that’s what seems to be infecting poor Robert Grant’s mind.

Time to kill all the kittens

I think that’s the only reasonable response. We’ve been conditioned to think that animals are all furry and big-eyed and most importantly, cute, and every animal that isn’t must be reclassified as vermin. We’re going to need a radical readjustment of the public; every time you send someone a LOLcat, a thousand annelids and a million arthropods die in despair.

At least, that’s how I feel on the news that the Smithsonian is closing their Invertebrate Zoo. There are some fucked-up priorities here.

The Smithsonian says the Invertebrate Exhibit costs $1 million a year to operate, and that necessary upgrades to the facility will cost another $5 million. "We have several other fundraising priorities which preclude us from launching a… campaign for the invertebrates to stay in their existing space," reads a statement on the Zoo’s Facebook page.

The National Zoo’s annual budget runs about $20 million, with its friends group kicking in another $4 to $8 million a year. Which basically means the Zoo has decided it can’t afford to allocate five percent of its annual budget to educate the public about 97 percent of the animal species in the world.

“Priorities”. What defines their priorities? An accurate presentation of the science, or pandering to brains high on fluff? I suggest we start feeding the Red Pandas to the octopuses until those priorities get readjusted.

Get used to it

My daughter is off to ACL 2014 (if you see her, say hello), and has discovered that some people are complaining that the main web site for the meeting features an anti-harassment policy. Why this disturbs some people is a mystery to me: if you aren’t harassing anyone, it won’t come into play; if you’re the victim of harassment it provides a clear guide to an appropriate response; only dedicated harassers will be perturbed by a discreet explanation for how to cope with a common problem.

If you’re one of those people still whining about common sense anti-harassment policies and meetings that expect you to treat other attendees fairly and equally and with respect, get over it. That battle is over, and the people who are expecting equitable treatment for all have won. Every worthwhile conference now sets up these policies. If you find them objectionable, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to switch to attending fundamentalist Christian meetings, or perhaps clandestine KKK events, or maybe you can find a Cigar Smoking Whisky Guzzling Sexist Boor club to attend. But professional meetings…I’m sorry, you’re now expected to make room for women as equals.