Courtesy MamyjomarashOh, hey there, Buzzketeers! Do you know what day it is today? That's right: it's Wednesday! It's also July 11, and twenty-nine years ago today, one JGordon burst screaming from his mother's thoracic cavity, covered in gore and bits of sternum. He would go on to grow a beard, to grow taller and weaker than any other member of his family, and to learn about childbirth from the movie Alien. And also to use the Internet.
Who could have predicted any of that? Sure, my mother and father consulted the stars, the entrails of guinea pigs, and their massive probability crunching computer (which runs on star dust and rodent entrails, coincidentally), and they predicted some things correctly. Their son would never have a tail. Their son would have an older brother. Their son would likely be male, if he wasn't female. Their son would accidentally staple a Kleenex to his finger in 7th grade. But how could they have guessed the rest? Could anyone have?
Yes! Sit back and let your mind-holes be cracked wide open by black and white footage of Arthur C. Clarke taking a break from writing about ape frenzies to tell us about how things would be. Now that we can compare "would be" with "are be," it's pretty uncanny.
Here A-Clarke essentially predicts LOLCats:
And here Wart tells us how much we will like Facebook:
And here ACC shows us how much we will be into nehru collars in a couple years:
(I guess he also has some things to say about private spaceflight, nanotech materials, and other stuff.)
Man oh man! If only Sir Arthur was around today to tell me what the next 29 years have in store! Super strong robotic arms, maybe?
Courtesy Mark RyanYou’d think since the decision handed down in the Kitzmiller et al v. Dover court case in 2005 creationists would have given up trying to force their decidedly non-scientific views into public school science curricula. But apparently that’s hasn’t been the case. Those touting pseudo-scientific explanations such as intelligent design (creationism all dressed up in a monkey suit – as someone cleverly put it) are still at it, trying to get their religious-based ideas included in science classroom discussions.
A talk given by Steven Newton at this year’s Geological Society of America meeting in Minneapolis dealt with ways to counter the methods creationists use to push back against the information presented in earth science classes within the K-12 public school settings. The talk was one of several in a session titled, Geoscience Education X: Overcoming Threats to Earth and Space Science at K-12 Levels.
According to Newton, who’s with the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the creationists’ methods amount to nothing less than sabotage.
Some of the feedback he said he heard from the nation’s public schools helps illustrate the kind of resistance earth science teachers continue to get from students, parents, and even school administrators. When a controversial subject such as evolution or climate change is being presented, teachers report being told to “tone it down” or “skip that chapter”* or to “teach both sides” (why just two sides? why not 200?). Newton said teachers also heard pleas of “don’t offend parents” from school administrators.
Of course, the earth sciences aren’t the only disciplines under attack. Just this past week, a story came out of Kentucky about how the school superintendent in Hart County complained in a letter to the state’s education commissioner and board of education members that he was concerned to learn that the state testing guidelines for biology considered evolution as a fact while at the same time “totally omitting the creation story by a God who is bigger than all of us.” It’s a harrowing example of the anti-science attitudes that are still prevalent in our country, and how creationists continue to threaten science education.
These don’t-rock-the-boat mitigations of scientific knowledge are harmful to science in general and aren’t doing the students any favors. Spoon-feeding watered down information or adding non-scientific knowledge into the mix confuses students and deprives them of a proper science education. Strong suggestions such as “teach the controversy” (when there is none) serves no purpose other than as a way to force religious or irrationally-based information into the public schools.
The anti-science crowd uses various means of attack to undermine geoscience knowledge in the schools and elsewhere. It questions the fossil record, pointing to something like the 19th century Piltdown Hoax as an example of how fossils and their interpretation can be faked. They make a huge leap of logic and argue that since one fossil was faked then all fossils must be questioned. The validity of radiometric dating is thrown into doubt with misinformation such and out-of-context or re-edited quotes from legitimate scientists, and even salted quotes.
Some worn-out creationist ploys have been lurking about for years, stories of dinosaurs spotted living in the Congo, fossil human footprints discovered alongside dinosaur tracks, a stegosaur figure found in the carvings of an ancient temple in Cambodia, a plesiosaur carcass hauled up from the depths by a Japanese trawler. These and other stories have either been thoroughly debunked or have failed to ever present any concrete evidence, yet continue to creep into otherwise serious evolution discussion,
The Internet is clogged with creationist viewpoints, some sites disguised with scientific-sounding domain names. This requires students to be alert and very careful about their research sources.
In hopes of legitimizing their point of view, creationist organizations of late have sponsored lectures and propaganda films in venues rented from legitimate scientific institutions such as they did at Southern Methodist University (SMU) and the California Science Center. When objections are raised and such events cancelled, the creationists proclaim it amounts to nothing less than censorship of ideas. But creationist ideas have always been poor in scholarship, lacking peer review or any kind of objective testing. Many are totally untestable.
Newton also warned against what he considers mistaken solutions to the problem of creationist pushback. Debating pseudo-scientists or giving their ideas equal time in the classroom only gives them unwarranted credibility. And why “teach the controversy” when there is none in the first place?
But, Newton insists that this doesn’t mean earth science teachers should avoid dealing with the pushback. Creationist tactics evolve over time, coming up with new ways to attack legitimate science. And just as new vaccines are developed to fight evolving flu viruses, science teachers need to stay a step ahead of the creationists and counter their anti-science attacks with a vaccine of cold, hard, scientific facts. Perhaps this affliction can be wiped out in our lifetimes.
*Attacks against science aren’t reserved only for the schools. Just this past week biologist and science-blogger PZ Myers alerted his readers to the fact that the Discovery Channel had purchased rights to broadcast the BBC documentary series by David Attenborough titled “Frozen Earth” but that it wouldn’t be including the last episode regarding climate change because the subject was too controversial. (Evidently, after a flood of well-deserved complaints the Discovery Channel has now reversed its decision and will air all seven episodes).
A couple weeks ago, I introduced Buzzketers to scenario-based decision-making (SBDM) as a way to plan for an unknowable future. You can check out that original post here.
In theory, scenario-based decision-making (SBDM) is a four-step process:
ORIENT: Identify the client, issue, and participants.
EXPLORE: Conduct pre-workshop participant interviews to identify both the important certain and uncertain factors/drivers.
SYNTHESIZE: Participants develop different, but equally plausible scenarios. They focus not on what should be, but on what could be. They discuss implications and effects of each scenario and identify possible early indicators.
ENGAGE: Plans of action are developed that answer what should happen if a given scenario “comes true.”
As with most good things, in reality, SBDM is not a tidy four-step process; it’s less of a science and more of an art. Last month, I got to be a fly on the wall at the St. Paul Climate Change Adaptation Scenario Planning Workshop (“Workshop”), an exercise in SBDM that took place right here at the Science Museum of Minnesota. My next post will be primarily about the conclusions of my group and the Workshop as a whole, but first I want to share a general observation:
SBDM is messy because people are messy. We each have unique personalities, experiences, and values that cause us to think about the world around us differently than everyone else. That’s pretty cool! But you can see why asking a group of individuals to collaborate on a thought experiment might be troublesome. It’s kind of like trying to get all the balls in the cart after recess. Order from chaos.
The Workshop’s goal was to have a discussion between three groups of people that don’t often have the opportunity to talk deeply about climate change: public professionals, business people, and academicians. Talk about a group with different personalities, experiences, and values!
Asking scientists and engineers to make educated guesses about the future is tricky. Asking decisionmakers to talk about what could be instead of what should be is tricky. Why? Because doing so goes against how they usually go about their business. Scientists and engineers are trained to study a world that can be measured and repeated. Decisionmakers are trained to make their best judgments for the future and rule out inferior possibilities. In asking them to make educated guesses about a possible future, even if it’s not a future for which they would hope, SBDM asks both groups to go outside their comfort zone.
The beauty of SBDM is that it takes messy people outside their comfort zone to create a masterpiece of a resource that will help plan for an unknowable future.
In preparing to write this post, I was investigating ways in which we as a society plan for an unknowable future. Naturally, I began with psychics (wouldn’t you?). Did you know that there is an American Association of Psychics? Or that right here in St. Paul you can pay $150.00 for your “One Year Future Forecast” or a “Five Year Future Overview” at a place called Astrology by MoonRabbit? And my personal favorite, did you know that in 1995 it broke that the U.S. government had spent millions of dollars on psychic research?
You’ll be happy to know public officials and decisionmakers (following the lead of businesses) have developed a better method to plan for an unknowable future called scenario-based decision-making. That sounds fancy and all, but it really begins with a simple tool: imagination.
Before you get all up in arms saying, “KelsiDayle, imagination isn’t that much better than psychics,” let me correct you: Yes, it is. At least it can be.
What were you thinking? That decisionmakers willy nilly imagined any old plan for the future?! No. Not when their using SBDM (my fingers are lazy, so I’ve created my own acronym for the much longer scenario-based decision-making… you know, what we’re talking about here). The key to SBDM is plausibility (believability, credibility, or having an appearance of truth or reason). Participants of varied expertise get together and hash out the facts they know and make a list of the important unknowns. Then they use their imagination to project (kind of like predict, but based on present facts) multiple future scenarios that are different but equally plausible given what they know and what they expect might happen to the unknowns. Finally, they create plans for how they might respond to each scenario. Ta-da!
Alright, it’s more complicated than that, but I don’t want to overwhelm you too much… at least not in one blog post, so I’m going to write a series of posts.
Up next, I’ll share about my own experience with SBDM, the city of St. Paul, and the Science Museum of Minnesota.
A psychic told me it’s going to be great.
You are Cordially Invited
Publication Party, Public Reading, and Book Signing Event
FOOL ME TWICE: Fighting the Assault on Science in America
SHAWN LAWRENCE OTTO
Introduction by Don Shelby
Emcee Jim Lenfestey
"A gripping analysis of America's anti-science crisis."
—Starred Kirkus Review
“In this incredible book, Otto explores the devaluation of science in America.”
—Starred Publishers Weekly Review
Courtesy Shawn Lawerence Otto
Tuesday October 18, 2011 at 7PM
Target Performance Hall, Open Book
1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis
(click here for directions and free parking)
This event is free and open to the public
the Loft Literary Center
the Science Museum of Minnesota
Beer, wine and light refreshments served
Books for sale at the event
Free book by drawing. To qualify: A) post about the event on Facebook B) tweet at the event with hashtag #FoolMeTwice and mention @ShawnOtto
What role do scientists should have in the political process. Do they have a responsibility to advocate and champion their research to the public by becoming involved in the political process? What impact would this have on their research being viewed as impartial and objective?
The Theater of Public Policy seeks to explore these issues with an in-depth interview with representatives from Broad Impacts, a U of M Science Policy group. After discussing these ideas, an improvisational comedy team will breathe life into these ideas; bringing to life the ideas, concepts and memes from the conversation. Through thought provoking conversation and inspired humor, the policy issue will be illuminated.
The show takes place at 6:30pm on Thursday, Oct. 6th at Huge Theater, 3037 South Lyndale Avenue, Minneapolis and costs $5. The Theater of Public Policy is supported by InCommons and the Citizens League.
Courtesy Mark RyanOver at the Smithsonian's Dinosaur Tracking blog, dinosaur maniac Brian Switek has a cool article about a little girl named Annabelle who had visited New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) recently and was miffed that it didn't contain any dinosaurs ("You call yourself a museum", she spewed on a comment card). Switek covers the usual early and well-known dinosaur artists such as Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Charles Knight, and Rudolph Zallinger and also mentions not only some of today's science illustrators, but also a guy I found really interesting named Allan McCollum who makes some very unusual dinosaur artwork using bone casts and other methods. He creates the dinosaur art for art's sake rather than scientific Occasionally, I've come across other dino art for art's sake, even here in the Twin Cities. Some readers will remember a few years back when the Science Museum of Minnesota held a competition called Diggin' Dinos that involved local artists painting several colorful dinosaur statues in celebration of the museum's 100th anniversary. There was a ton of dinosaur art created then, and some of the statues can still be found around the Twin Cities. Maybe the MoMA would be interested in exhibiting some of those, so next time poor Annabelle visits there she won't be disappointed.
Courtesy Center for Disease ControlY’all ever watch Degrassi High? Yeah, me neither! I always assumed it was sort of like a Canadian Beverly Hills 90210, which I also never watched!
Still, though, remember that episode where the boys found some sort of virus in Julie’s stool, and some people were like, “Ew! Gross! Party canceled, eh?” but Julie was like, “Shove it! A little disease in your stool doesn’t mean anything! You’re just looking for an excuse not to come to my party!”
And, of course, everyone was like, “Uh, no, we don’t care about your party. We just think your stool is sick.” And then Julie got her claws out, and if everybody didn’t have a virus before, they did afterward, because scratching is a dirty way to fight. Literally.
If Julie is a real character, and if something like that happened in Degrassi High, it bears more than a little similarity to a current situation in India. (Ok, maybe not more than a little, but, still, it was fun to take a stroll down memory lane back to ol’ Degrassi High. Remember when Joel got his hand stuck in Maureen’s mouth, and they had to go to class that way?! Ha!)
See, last fall a group of British scientists took a couple hundred water samples from around New Delhi. (I like to think of Delhi as the Degrassi High of South Asia*.) The scientist found that 2 of the samples from public tap water and 51 of the samples collected from the streets contained superbug genes. Based on that, they guessed that about half a million people in the city carry the superbug genes in their gut bacteria.
To be clear, when I say “superbug,” I’m talking about extremely antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and not the giant cockroach version of Tanya, featured in the “Metamorphosis” episode of Degrassi. For one thing, she would never have fit into one of those little water samples. Come to think of it, though, she did wear jeans.
The “superbug” in question isn’t so much a particular bacteria—it’s a set of genes for antibiotic resistance (called “NDM-1”). Bacteria are creepy little jerks (much like Degrassi High’s own “Wicked” William Beauchamp) and they trade genes like we (sometimes) trade jeans, and so the scientists found the superbug genes in 11 different types of bacteria, including the species that cause cholera and dysentery.
And this is where the high school drama gets spicy! The scientists and some World Health Organization folks were all, “Um… India? Gross! This stuff is dangerous, and we have to take care of it.”
But then India was like, “Your studies are garbage! We looked at 2000 people, and we couldn’t find any evidence of the superbug genes. Besides, everyone knows that bacteria containing superbug genes are, like, everywhere**, and it isn’t an issue. You’re just making people think India is scary … and it’s not, eh!”†
And then the British scientists said, “This is how epidemics start!”
And India was like, “You’re how epidemics start!”
And then they all got their claws out.
Anyway, India’s probably right that it doesn’t make sense picking on India for having some nasty genes in their bacteria, and making it seem like it’s a unique problem for them. But the scientists are probably right, too, because the study may be indicative of an increasing global prevalence of really dangerous traits in infectious bacteria, and acting like it’s no big deal isn’t going to help the problem. What will help the problem is investing in quality sanitation infrastructure for large (and growing) urban populations. Sort of like the transition from Degrassi Junior High to Degrassi High. We all know that Degrassi High had entirely new sets of problems. Teen pregnancy, for one. But arguing never solved that, and it won’t solve the spread of superbugs.
*Dhaka is the Beverly Hills 90210 of South Asia, in case you were wondering.
**Except, apparently, in the 2000 people they tested?
†For actual quotes, please see this article.
By the way, when you read about the gigatons of carbon emissions that human activities emit each year, it's helpful to have some perspective:
Let's talk gigatons--one billion tons. Every year, human activity emits about 35 gigatons of [carbon dioxide] (the most important greenhouse gas). Of that, 85% comes from fossil fuel burning. To a lot of people, that doesn't mean much -- who goes to the store and buys a gigaton of carrots? For a sense of perspective, a gigaton is about twice the mass of all people on earth, so 35 gigatons is about 70 times the weight of humanity. Every year, humans put that in the atmosphere, and 85% of that is power. Large actions, across whole nations and whole economies, are required to move the needle.
By comparison, our atmosphere is small--99.99997% of our its mass sits below the Karman line, which is often used to define the border between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. At 62 miles above Earth's surface, it’s about as high as the distance between St. Paul, MN, and Menomonie, WI.
The oceans also absorb some of that carbon dioxide, but not without consequence.
Of course, the great part about being responsible is having capability--if our inventions bring about such transformations in the air and oceans, then couldn't we be inventive enough to reduce their negative impacts?
Courtesy EPAI'm assuming that you aren't at home watching dense legal proceedings related to the regulation of molecules in our atmosphere. So here's the timeline of a recent important story.
OK, you're up to date. Unfortunately the media is framing this issue in military terms. "The coming battle." "EPA and Republicans spar over climate change." "EPA blocks Republican rocket launcher with sweet ion science shield." Yeah, I made that last one up. But we don't need battles, we need conversations and action.
My point is that this issue is a great opportunity to have a discussion about how science is used in our public policy decisions. Do you think the EPA is too focused on the scientific findings related to climate change? Are they ignoring the economic impacts? Are you frustrated with some of the Republican views that outright deny the scientific findings on what's causing climate disruption? Are they ignoring real facts? Could this issue be alleviated by better science education?