Friday Cephalopod: Looking for love

February 18-26 is going to be Octopus Week at the Seattle Aquarium (unlike Chez Myers, where every day is Octopus Day, in spite of our lack of cephalopods in the neighborhood…OK, point goes to the aquarium for actually hosting octopusses).

One of the big events leading up to Octopus Week will be Valentine’s Day, when romance might slither into the tank.

Watch live to see if romance blossoms between our male and female giant Pacific octopuses, Pancake and Raspberry, when they meet for the very first time on Valentine’s Day. Aquarium biologists will set the mood with decorative hearts, roses and romantic music at the Octopus exhibit. Will her three hearts skip a beat? Will he wrap his eight arms around her? Join us to find out!

Come on, give the kids a little privacy, for Cthulhu’s sake!

Morris got a shout-out from Rachel Maddow

Everyone has been telling me that they saw my face on Rachel Maddow’s show, but what’s more interesting are all the other faces. I haven’t seen the show myself (we don’t get MSNBC on our local cable), but I’ve been sent the screen cap:


That’s our local Indivisible group which met for the first time earlier this week. The meeting was held at the public library, not on campus, and while there’s a healthy leavening of university faculty and staff, there was also a solid turnout from community people who are already thoroughly disgusted with the Trumpian regime. We’re already making plans to throw the rascals out. Keep that in mind when “flyover country” is dismissed as a uniform red mass.

You should read the Indivisible guide — it’s full of good advice to keep the pressure on our representatives in congress.

Science, we have a systemic problem

I read with growing horror this account of the research practices of the Wansink lab. They do research in nutrition, or maybe some combination of economics, psychology, and dietary practices — it’s described as “research about how people perceive, consume, and think about food”, and it’s not stuff I’d ever be interested in reading (although that does not imply that it has no value). The PI, Brian Wansink, wrote up a summary of his process on a blog, though, and honestly, my jaw just dropped reading this.

A PhD student from a Turkish university called to interview to be a visiting scholar for 6 months. Her dissertation was on a topic that was only indirectly related to our Lab’s mission, but she really wanted to come and we had the room, so I said “Yes.”

When she arrived, I gave her a data set of a self-funded, failed study which had null results (it was a one month study in an all-you-can-eat Italian restaurant buffet where we had charged some people ½ as much as others). I said, “This cost us a lot of time and our own money to collect. There’s got to be something here we can salvage because it’s a cool (rich & unique) data set.” I had three ideas for potential Plan B, C, & D directions (since Plan A had failed). I told her what the analyses should be and what the tables should look like. I then asked her if she wanted to do them.

He described it as a failed study with null results. There’s nothing wrong with that; it happens. What I would think would be appropriate next would be to step back, redesign the experiment to correct flaws (if you thought it had some; if it didn’t, you simply have a negative result and that’s what you ought to report), and repeat the experiment (again, if you thought there was something to your hypothesis).

That’s not what he did.

He gave his student the same old data from the same set of observations and asked her to rework the analyses to get a statistically significant result of some sort. This is deplorable. It is unacceptable. It means this visiting student was not doing something I would call research — she was assigned the job of p-hacking.

Further, what’s just as shocking is that Wansink sees so little wrong with this behavior that he would publicly write about it.

He’s not done.

Every day she came back with puzzling new results, and every day we would scratch our heads, ask “Why,” and come up with another way to reanalyze the data with yet another set of plausible hypotheses. Eventually we started discovering solutions that held up regardless of how we pressure-tested them.

Note: no new experiments. This is all just churning over the same failed experiment, the same failed data set. Back in the day, I learned that you design an experiment to test a specific hypothesis, and that you don’t get to use the data to test different hypotheses until you get a result that you like. But what do I know, I’m old.

Still not done.

I outlined the first paper, and she wrote it up, and every day for a month I told her how to rewrite it and she did. This happened with a second paper, and then a third paper (which was one that was based on her own discovery while digging through the data).

Out of this one failed (I repeat, fucking failed) data set, they ground out FOUR papers. Four. Within a few months. Good god, I’ve been doing everything wrong.

You might be wondering what these papers were that he milked out of this failed data set. Here are the titles:

Lower Buffet Prices Lead to Less Taste Satisfaction
Peak-end pizza: prices delay evaluations of quality
Low prices and high regret: how pricing influences regret at all-you-can-eat buffets
Eating Heavily: Men Eat More in the Company of Women

I am trying hard not to be judgmental, and failing. These sound like superficial, pointless crap churned out to appease a capitalistic marketing machine, with virtually no value and making no contribution to human knowledge. But I guess it’s good enough to get you a leadership position in a prestigious lab at Cornell.

It’s also a huge problem that this kind of strategy works. It’s not just Wansink — it’s a science establishment that allows and even encourages this kind of garbage production.

I hear there’s a replication crisis in the sciences. I have no idea how that could be.

The third and fourth week of ecological developmental biology


I’d intended to make these reflections on the progress of my new course in ecological development a weekly feature on the blog, and then I failed to post an update last week. Bad professor, very bad. My excuse, though, is that I’m on a job search committee, we had three interviews in the last week, and they’ve all been kicking my butt and leaving me exhausted at the end of the day. That’s a duty that’s also a lot of work for us academics: there’s the gay social whirl all of a sudden, the scrutiny we have to give to each candidate, and sitting through job talks. The stress can be enormous, too — not for the candidates, although I’m sure they’re feeling a little anxiety, but for us. In the dream search, you bring in two candidates who suck and third that is gloriously qualified and a joy to spend time with, because then the decision-making is easy. In this case, we got three marvelous candidates and I want to hire them all, and we have to pick one. Just one. We’re going to make that painful decision on Saturday, so while all the work is done, the agonizing has only just begun.

And meanwhile, classes go on!

Last week was assessment time. I’m also teaching our genetics course, and they got an exam…an exam they did pretty well on, with an average of 79%. It could be that this cohort of students is just generally brilliant (but all of our students are brilliant), or it could be that some changes I’ve made in this class have been effective. I’ve been concentrating on laying a solid foundation: we’ve gone over basic Mendelian genetics, something I remind them over and over that they should have already been thoroughly exposed to and so this should just be review, and I also remind them over and over that later it’s going to get much harder and that we’re going to spend almost the entire semester talking about exceptions to this simplistic Mendelian stuff, and if they don’t fully grok the basics they’re going to be so screwed. We’ve also been working on a probability and statistics toolbox that they’ll be using repeatedly throughout the term.

I may have scared them into studying hard. Not only did they get a higher average score than past years, but the range tightened up considerably. I’m trying to build a strong foundation here, because as Al Franken explained to the nation in the DeVos hearings, we care more about growth than an arbitrary standard of proficiency. Give ’em the basics so the weaker students have something to build on rather than floundering and falling apart on the first day, and keep nudging them upwards at every step in the class.

My ecological development course also took a turn. The first two weeks, you may recall, consisted of the traditional Old Bearded Guy standing at the front of the room Old-Bearded-Guysplaining developmental biology to them — again, trying to put everyone on a firm footing in the fundamentals. The next step is to coax them into student-splain stuff to me. This has been harder than it should be, because this is an 8-fucking-am course, and I’m not my perkiest, and the students aren’t either. Next time I teach an interactive course, I must insist that it be offered sometime in the mid-day. Either that or demand IV bags from the ceiling filled with caffeinated beverages and start the morning going to each desk and jabbing everyone into alertness with a needle in a vein.

Instead of intravenous drugs, though, my approach to jump-starting their brains and making them comfortable speaking was to force them to do presentations last Tuesday. Short presentations; I gave them copies of Langman’s Medical Embryology, used a deck of cards to randomly assign each of them a week of human development, and had them give five-minute summaries of what was happening then: they had a few questions to guide them, like show what the embryo looked like, say something about critical events in their week, and discuss clinical correlates. It was straightforward and didn’t require intense thought, so it was simply a way to get them all to say a bit in class, as well as introducing a topic that we’ll return to in, for instance, a later discussion of teratogenesis.

Last Thursday, they had to talk again (I am such a cruel tyrant). They’d been assigned to read Lewontin’s Triple Helix, and this day was dedicated to a critical assessment of the text. I gave them a set of questions about the book, and then sat back and let them tell me the answers.

That actually went fairly well, I think. It still takes some time for them to warm up and get a conversation going, but they’re a smart bunch and we got some good discussion. It went well enough that we didn’t finish, so we extended the review to this past Tuesday. We identified a central theme of the book as construction: organisms are assemble themselves in an environmental context, and they are continually modifying their environment. These cycles of self-referential feedback mean that you simply cannot define an organism from nothing but its genome. They’re getting it!

This morning, I twisted the game around on them a little more. We’re digging into Gilbert’s Ecological Developmental Biology text with chapter 1, on normal plasticity, and this time I gave them the assignment ahead of time to write down three questions that chapter inspired in them. We spent most of our time bouncing questions and answers back and forth, which is always fun. I ended the session by listing some of the questions that got some vigorous responses, and putting them on the board. They were:

  • Temperature-dependent sex determination in reptiles: are there reptile intersexes? How often? We also got a suggestion that we should look more into behavioral sex determination in fish.

  • Inheritance of behavior differences: what causes differences in aggression in dog breeds? Is it genetically determined, how much and what genes are involved? (I asked where they fell on the continuum of biases about pit bulls, whether they where inherently vicious and needed to be put down, vs. a maligned breed that has a bad reputation because they are abused. I was surprised: 100% of the class came down in the not-intrinsically-evil camp. Dang liberals!)

  • Sneaker and dominant males: How do these differences within a sex in a single species arise? We discussed rhinocerous beetles and cephalopods.

  • Gravity. How dependent is development on this pervasive influence of gravity? We talked about some clear examples, like how the chicken body axis is dependent on rotation, and that led to speculation about human development and plasticity in microgravity. What happens to bodies in space? Can human fetuses grow normally in space?

  • Epigenetics…there were some good questions about that, but I deferred them all, telling them that we’re going to spend a whole week on epigenetics, so let’s take it off the table temporarily.

That was a good start. Then I divvied up the students — they volunteered for what subject most interested them — and sent them off to the library with an assignment, to find papers to address their question, and come back next Tuesday prepared to explain what they learned to the whole class.

Brains full. We stopped there. I’m looking forward to learning what they find next week.

Now I know what to do for Darwin Day

I got a notice from LinkedIn, of all places, informing me that my name had been invoked by Creation Today, Eric Hovind’s silly site of nonsense. Sunday is Darwin’s birthday, and they have suggested things you can do for Questioning Darwin Day.

Ideas for celebrating Darwin’s Day:

  1. Invite friends over for finger foods and a movie about Darwin.
  2. Invite a Creation Speaker to come speak to your church or group.
  3. Find an event already planned for your area.
  4. Print “15 Questions for Evolutionists” and distribute in a public location.
  5. Join The Question Evolution event on Facebook.
  6. Use Question Evolution graphics on various social media outlets.
  7. Wear your favorite creation T-shirt.
  8. Engage the culture with tracts or signs about evolution.
  9. Pray for seeds to be sown and souls saved. (Matthew 9:38)
  10. Enjoy a can of Primordial Soup.

Where am I in that list? It’s the first item: he recommends some good movies to watch that day, and here’s one of them.

EVOLUTION VS GOD – Hear expert testimony from leading evolutionary scientists from some of the world’s top universities:

• Peter Nonacs, Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UCLA
• Craig Stanford, Professor, Biological Sciences and Anthropology, USC
• PZ Myers, Associate Professor, Biology, University of Minnesota Morris
• Gail E. Kennedy, Associate Professor, Anthropology, UCLA

A study of the evidence of vestigial organs, natural selection, the fifth digit, the relevance of the stickleback, Darwin’s finches and Lenski’s bacteria—all under the microscope of the Scientific Method—observable evidence from the minds of experts. Prepare to have your faith shaken.

That’s about as dishonest a description of the participation of those four people I can imagine, although I’m gratified that my little liberal arts college is listed as one of the world’s top universities. At least he got one thing right. However, none of those four present anything to support creationism — unless you want to claim that the revelation that Ray Comfort will dishonestly edit interviews to be something that will shake your faith.

So here’s what I’m going to do to Question Evolution. I’m going to answer questions about evolution! Leave questions you’d like to discuss here, on this thread. On Sunday, I’ll fire up the ol’ YouTube Hangout machine (say, around noon Central time) and I’ll go through them…and try to address any other questions you might bring up during the discussion. Maybe I’ll also try to dig up a few other biology/philosophy types to also be on-screen for the conversation, or you can volunteer yourself here, if you have some expertise in the field. Of course I will have to wear a favorite evolution t-shirt, but there will be no praying.

Does anyone have a recipe for that Primordial Soup? I’m afraid it would be hot, acidic, and sulfurous, so I might prefer recipes for something I can make from the blood of my enemies.

Deplorable DeVos is in

Betsy DeVos is unfit and incompetent; worse, the policies she champions destroy children’s opportunities. She’s a political hack who basically bought her position by donating $200 million to the Republicans.

She was just confirmed by a 50-50 vote in the Senate, with Pence as the tie-breaker. She is the new Secretary of Education.

Remember this: it was a straight party split, with only two Republicans voting against her nomination. Trump’s other nominees for other positions are just as, if not more, odious than DeVos, and aren’t getting as much protest — they’ll sail through, too. The Republicans will bear full responsibility for the nightmare scenario we’re locked into. We must resist even more, and tear them down.

They’re going to fight back, too, and we can already see what they’re up to. Someone infiltrated a pro-Trump meeting, and got a snapshot of their plans.

They have a team that monitors the public blogs and event postings of the Liberal groups (specifically mentioned Indivisible and MoveOn.) They laughed at the Indivisible Guide when one leader said “the Liberals will never get organized and carry any of this out, the snowflakes give up too easily, “a little heat and they melt.” They talked about the “visit your representatives office event” that was planned for earlier in the day which was posted on MoveOn and all over FB. They also were at their reps offices, and a handful admitted to going to the Democratic representatives office in their own district to have their voice counted.

They have a team who spies on FB posts. When the man who was with us asked how to do it, he was told that if he was a member of Pantsuit Nation it’s almost an automatic in into most closed groups, and then once you are in one, you can get invited to others. Someone on their team joins all the public and open groups. Their report included reading a few actual posts, in a mimic whining voice, where the members were posting their concerns and frustrations and why bother. They actually cheered this. One leader applauded the report and said, “we don’t care if they like what we have to say, we don’t need them to agree with us. We just need them to give up, shut up and stay out of our way.”

They’re organized and fanatical, and willing to engage in dirty tricks. We can’t just sit back and let it happen.

The Morris Indivisible group is meeting at the public library at 7pm tonight. If you’re local and you care, I expect you to be there.

Science is done by and for people

I am putting this here because I want to refer to it later, and it’s on Twitter, not the most convenient medium for archiving a lengthy story, and because it’s important: Michael Eisen explains the importance of the human element in science.

[Read more…]

Mary’s Monday Metazoan: What? Females aren’t beautiful for me?


That female crab doesn’t make herself gorgeous for the males of her species, it seems — sometimes a lady just has to look good.

Contrary to expectation, the model shows that winning the romantic interest of picky males is not enough to explain how desirable feminine features become widespread — even when better-looking females are more likely to land a good catch.

The results of their mathematical approach support other research suggesting that female beauty doesn’t evolve just to win mates.

Instead, traits such as the dance fly’s frilly legs or the blue crab’s red-tipped claws may help their bearers compete for other resources, such as social status or protection from predators. The results are consistent with an idea called the “social selection” hypothesis, first proposed three decades ago by theoretical biologist Mary Jane West-Eberhard of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Impossible. They might consider other resources than access to my magnificent manliness to be valuable? Heresy.

Not my America

I hope your breakfast is settled now, because here’s a video of Jared Taylor being interviewed by Jorge Ramos. In case you don’t know who Taylor is, he’s an unpleasant and pretentious leader of white supremacists — if you’ll watch the video (I don’t blame you if you don’t), you’ll see an unctuous, smiling glad-hander trying to sell hate as if it is pancakes. He’s a slimy, smarmy, sneering snake of a man, a slithering sibilant walking among us with little humanity in his smirking skull. But hey, watch and learn.

I only made it a third of the way through; I applaude Ramos’ persistence. But I have to address a few of Taylor’s assumptions.

Homogeneous countries have less violence. That’s a weird claim, because even if it were true, I’d want to know why. He’s going to constantly harp on the idea that Mexico is homogenous, just to get a dig in at Ramos, but the thing is that Mexico’s violent crime rate is higher than that of the more ethnically diverse USA. A good part of that is the drug war that the US has fostered. Maybe it’s not race, or conflicts between races, that cause the major problems?

I’d also like to point out that the US has more right-wing terrorism — that the people we ought to fear are not our Hispanic neighbors, but the people who argue that we need to provoke violence with our Hispanic neighbors. People like Jared Taylor. The real problem isn’t diversity, but the minority who so hate others with different skin color that they think oppression, discrimination, and forcible ejection are calm, reasonable, rational responses.

Mexico is just as racist as we are. He tries hard to bait Ramos by claiming that he just wants the US to be like Mexico, which he tries to pretend is some kind of uniform brown skin tone with no racial differences. But that’s not true! Mexican internal race relations are complex — there are rankings based on skin color, and different attitudes towards people who look more “Indian” vs. “Spanish”. I don’t know if there are people like Taylor who would argue for the superiority of the population who look more European (there probably are, given human nature), but at least I’m unaware of any prominent figures arguing for expulsion of all mestizos. If there is less conflict, it seems to me it has to be because people are more aware the deep history and obvious diversity of the Mexican people, making a simple binary distinction that demonizes one group harder to do. The US has a long history of treating anyone with “one drop” of black heritage as inferior. We’ve taken a range and turned it into a black and white distinction.

“Us” and “Them”. Taylor often claims he just wants to make his country safe for “us” against the invading hordes of “them”, those immigrants. He mentions that his family came over to North America from England in the 18th century — hey, so did my paternal line! But here’s the deal: his “us” includes people with Northern European ancestry (like me!), but no one else. I just have to say that I feel no intellectual kinship with Jared Taylor. I do not want to be part of his “us”. Skin color is nothing but a granfalloon, and to automatically assume that people with a similar genetic lineage are closer to you than someone with shared ideals is a mistake. He is part of a “them” to me — the racist club that excludes others. I am part of an egalitarian club that is inclusive and open to everyone with similar ideals. Jared Taylor would probably call me a “race traitor” because I can find common cause with my fellow Americans without worrying about what color skin they have, or what language they spoke while growing up.

Diversity makes us weaker. Pure madness. I’m looking at the scientific enterprise in America, and here’s a curious fact for you: of the 6 American Nobelists in 2016, every single one of them was an immigrant. Stop by an “American” research lab sometime, and you’ll find it is well-stocked with people from all kinds of exotic places — often only the PI was born in this country, while all the grad students and post-docs and technicians are British, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Malaysian, Nigerian, Indian. And quite often the PI isn’t American-born, either. Science is international. It becomes strongest when we don’t impose artificial barriers of race.

I’m not exactly the world’s biggest fan of Michio Kaku, but here’s an antidote to Jared Taylor, and it’s something on which Kaku and I agree 100%. Diversity has been one of the strongest tools we have in building the American scientific enterprise. We have grown by being attractive to people all around the world, gathering together new ideas, combining them in novel arrangements, and taking advantage of the brightest brains, which, it turns out, are all the same color.

What scares me is that the American public school system is doing such a poor job of educating students — guaranteed to get worse as long as we consider people like Betsy DeVos to be tenable candidates for running it — and at the same time we are now driving away the intelligent people who would otherwise be happy to come here and learn and teach. I refuse to be grouped with an “us” that so ignorantly insists on a racist delusion that is entirely destructive to a reality that has benefited us so much over the decades.

When the Jared Taylors of the USA destroy an environment that has formed me and led to new ideas and new strengths, I won’t identify with it anymore. I’ll find a new “us”. Canada is looking more like my people than the theocratic, racist cult that’s taking over here.