Friday, February 17, 2017

Heeeeeeere's Connie!

Note: I have also posted a YouTube video about this.

When software changes the spelling of names, sometimes it’s a hoot, and sometimes noot.

Let me introduce you to Connie Maculatum, the poison hemlock plant.

Actually, the name is Conium maculatum, but apparently certain Microsoft programs automatically change scientific names into words that the programs think should be there. One of the best-selling books of the Christmas 2016 season, and one which I received as a present, contained this error. I doubt that the authors or editors intended the text to read “Connie.” But apparently, even after the correct name is written, Microsoft changes it from scientific accuracy to one of its standard, approved list of words. This might happen even after an author reverses the change.

It gets personal sometimes. One of my lab students last fall had the last name Cotten. In case your software changed it, the name ends with an -en. I had to write this twice in order to get Word to accept this spelling. But when we recorded her grades in Excel, it kept changing the spelling to Cotton no matter how many times we tried to correct it. We apologized to the student. She, however, has had this experience so many times that she hardly reacted. Her birth certificate, the IRS, and the university might have her name with the correct spelling but, dammit, Microsoft is determined to change her name to Cotton.

Science magazine reported that twenty percent of genetics articles that have been published online contain incorrect names of genes because Excel automatically changed them—and refused to unchanged them. One example is the gene septin-2, abbreviated SEPT2, which Excel changed to September 2. This happens even in the top journals. Notice: twenty percent of papers.

Technology is supposed to be our servant, but it determines the framework of reality. You have no choice but to enter information into Microsoft software in a prescribed format and to accept whatever form it comes out.

For centuries, people have had to accept occasional and embarrassing misspellings. The nineteenth-century report that Edgar Allan Pee had published a new book is probably apocryphal; in fact, I might have made it up. But at least newspaper and book publishers had the option of spelling it correctly.

I studied, and am now trying to rescue, an endangered plant species: the seaside alder, Alnus maritima. If I see this plant referred to on websites as Alnus maritime one more time, I think I am going to scream.

I don’t mind Microsoft underlining words that it “thinks” are misspelled, so long as I have the option of overriding its “decision.” It’s the automatic, silent, and unstoppable changes that I hoot.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Popechick, or, St. Colonel Sanders

Okay, this title is going to take some explaining. It comes from a web link publicized by Science magazine.

Apparently, until about 1000 CE, the Catholic Church did not make a big deal about eating meat on Fridays and certain holidays. But after that time, probably as a direct result of the papal edict, there was a market for chickens. Farmers bred chickens that were plumper and which laid eggs all year long rather than just seasonally. These characteristics are associated with a gene variant known as thyroid stimulating hormone receptor (TSHR), which is now found in virtually all commercial chickens. Archaeologists (for whom DNA sequencing is now a standard tool) sampled twelve sites in Europe ranging from 280 BCE to the eighteenth century and found that the TSHR allele was rare in chickens before about 1000 CE.

Is it too much of a stretch to say that the whole modern chicken industry exists as a result of papally-enforced religious dogmas from a thousand years ago? Just remember the Law of Unintended Consequences: this is certainly not what the Catholic Church was trying to do.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Maybe There Will Be a Mass Exodus

In an earlier essay, I speculated that, despite Trump’s attack on science education and research, insisting that both education and research should be focused entirely on his loudly-stated beliefs rather than on any data from the real world, there would probably be no mass exodus of scientists out of the United States into (for example) China. But events of recent weeks have caused me to rethink this.

Trump announced the appointment of his chair of a task force that will recommend reforms for higher education. That man is Jerry Falwell, Jr. Yes, the president of Liberty University, and the son of its late former president, Jerry Falwell. Jerry Falwell Jr. has said that he will redesign higher education so that it is focused on the Bible, and will bring higher education “back to some form of sanity.” And what this undoubtedly means is that, in order for students to receive loans to attend colleges and universities, they will have to attend colleges and universities that promote the utter and absolute truth of Creationism. Science education will quickly collapse, and therefore science educators will quickly leave the United States (this is my plan) or else find some other kind of job (I have not ruled out the possibility of being a science-education supermarket produce stocker, leading customers on economic botany tours in the produce section). If the entire function of science education is to indoctrinate college students in creationism, then scientific research will quickly collapse in the United States. Other countries, more welcoming to science, will benefit immensely from the inevitable brain drain.

What could possibly go wrong?

The creationists do not really want to see God, Jesus, or the Bible exalted in science education. They do not want the Bible to be taught. They want their interpretation of the Bible to be taught. Creationists consider themselves personally inerrant, incapable of error, when they open a Bible and start talking. There have been many interpretations of Genesis 1, for example, and the history of these interpretations goes back hundreds of years. But creationists consider all these other interpretations of the Bible to be wrong. The creationists, and they alone, are chosen by God to tell people what to believe about the Bible. Jerry Falwell Jr. thinks that we should all bow down and revere Him, Falwell, as the single approved explicator of God’s truth.

I don’t have a problem with Jesus. I don’t have a problem with the Bible, which may be inspired by God or may be an historical record of people trying to understand God. I have a problem with creationist Republicans elevating themselves to Godlike status and pushing God out of the way. This is the “form of sanity” that Falwell intends to impose on all scientists, educators, and students.

I teach about evolution, biodiversity, and global warming. Will I soon be considered an enemy of the state? History is full of scientists who have been crushed by religious power, from Galileo to Vavilov.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Scientific Honesty

Scientists may not be naturally more honest than other people, but the scientific method enforces honesty when it is followed, as it usually is, at least in the underfunded ecological and organismic sciences. Actually, scientists are, on average, more honest partly because the scientific enterprise attracts honest people—that is, people who do not want their reputations tainted by dishonesty. For preachers and presidents, of course, the more taint the better. So keep grabbing that p***y, Trump! And all you evangelical Christians, keep praising Trump for doing so!

One of my major projects is that I have kept records on the spring budburst dates of almost 400 trees (22 species) for the last twelve years in southern Oklahoma. While my data set is not the biggest in the world, it is one of the major on-the-ground data sets (as opposed to satellite imagery), and certainly the best one for hundreds of miles around where I live and work. On January 30 and 31 of this year, almost all of the sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua, in the Altiginaceae family) burst their buds—that is, the bud scales separated enough that I could see the green underneath. But there was one tree I missed. It was way over across campus, not close to any other trees in my data set. Since it is surrounded by brick walls, creating a warm microenvironment, I assumed that its buds had opened also. This was a statistically valid assumption. But if I wanted to make this tree a data point (datum) in my study, I had to go look at it. I did so—it was a nice 73 degree F day, like many other winter days in southern Oklahoma (itself an indicator of global warming)—and found that, indeed, I was correct. All this, for one datum out of several thousand.

This honesty is in striking contrast to the ruling junta in Washington, where the worshipers of Donald Trump believe that they can just make up “alternative facts”, assertions that God Himself is obligated to accept. My data clearly show that budburst over the past twelve years has occurred about three weeks earlier—more in some, less in other, species. But Trump can just make up an alternative fact, and say that this has not happened, and that simply sweeps aside my thousands of data and the millions of data worldwide not only of global climate change but of organism responses to it. I fear—and I hope I am wrong—that Trump and his junta will force federal research facilities to make up data to prove that global warming is not occurring, and cut off grant funding for anyone who does not agree with Him. This won’t hurt me; I just keep records on the trees I see when I walk to work or drive down to the park. All I need is statistical software, which the university provides (don’t tell Trump). The ascendancy of “alternative facts” or Trump-truths is one reason I believe that the very scientific way of thinking is under assault in America.

Maybe not in France. They have their own political mess right now, but even the right-wingers over there appear to accept global climate change and the importance of doing something about it. There is more than one way of being wrong. You can be in error, or you can be abusively wrong. The former, in French, is se tromper (to deceive oneself) (Trump le trompe), I think. The latter is avoir tort (Trump a tort). Perhaps the best description of Trump is Trump nous trompe—Trump deceives us. He should be ashamed, but Trump n’a jamais honte.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Scientists as Communicators, or, Those Amazing Insects

May Berenbaum, President of the Entomological Society of America, published an editorial in the September 23, 2016 issue of Science magazine. She described the unfortunate lack of knowledge and appreciation that the general public has regarding insects. The average American thinks of insects as disgusting and dangerous. This, she says, has to change.

One reason that it has to change is that some very important challenges—not just ecological, but economic and medical—depend on insect research. The first one that comes to mind is the massive dieoff of honeybees, which pollinate important crop plants. As May said in a radio interview a year or so ago, “every third bite” of food depends either directly (as in apples) or indirectly (as in cattle that eat alfalfa) on pollinator activity. But in the editorial May also told amazing success stories in controlling the spread of insect pests and the diseases that they spread. Her main example was the male-sterilization approach to eradicating screw-worm flies (whose maggots live in cows), first on CuraƧao and then, by 1966, the United States. In 2005, USDA wanted to eradicate screw-worms in Central America, to prevent them from spreading back to the United States. But Republicans dismissed this as a flagrant and silly waste of taxpayer money—I can just hear them saying who the f*** cares about screw-worms?—and it was mentioned in The Pig Book: How Government Wastes Your Money. It appears that “just ignore insects” might be a good summary of Republican policy. One Trump administration official late last fall briefly speculated that mosquito-spread Zika virus research was not necessary.

May puts part of the blame on entomologists themselves, who appear to be even more loath than other scientists to tell taxpayers and readers about the importance of their work. May said, “entomologists…need to talk about insect science with the rest of the world.” May has spent an entire career not only as one of the leading entomologists in the world but also as a tireless promoter of the public appreciation of insects. Her books include Ninety-nine Gnats, Nits, and Nibblers, Ninety-Nine More Maggots, Mites, and Munchers, and Bugs in the System. But even as a very young assistant professor at the University of Illinois, she had a radio show on a local radio station, WEFT, Those Amazing Insects. They only let her have a few minutes and she crammed as much as she could into that precious time. That is why I refer to her by her first name; I remember her from back in those days, when I was a graduate student at Illinois. I think I attended all of her Insect Fear Film Festivals while I was in grad school.

May, shown here with me and her collaborator, the late Art Zangerl, in 2009, is an unusually gifted communicator. And I consider myself, while not quite in May’s league, to be above average. But all of us scientists can—and must—improve our communication with those citizens whom we serve and who pay at least part of our salaries.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Militant Trumpsters: How Much of It Is Hot Air?

Donald Trump and the militant Republicans have said lots of alarming things that, if they actually did them, would lead us toward a dark age from which we might never recover. But much of it might just be hot air. Here are some examples.

Anti-Muslim bias. Trump has been a very vocal attacker of Islam, in all of its forms, peaceful as well as violent. He promised to start a Muslim registry and to keep Muslims from even visiting the United States. But his pick for the United Nations, Nikki Haley, rejected this idea (see here).

Oil, oil, oil. Trump’s conservatives seem to think that America should scrap all of the progress it has made toward renewable energy production and rely totally on coal and oil. One might think that his choice for Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, would believe this also. But, although Rick Perry is one of the principal anti-environmental voices in the world today, he also promoted renewable energy (especially wind energy) when he was governor of Texas. Parts of Texas are devoted solely to oil (such as the Midland-Odessa region) while others (especially Sweetwater) have invested heavily in wind energy.

Federal land giveaway. The federal government (that is, you, the taxpayers) own millions of acres of wild lands, primarily in the west. Congressional Republicans are poised to hand over much of that land to state control (see here) which means that some states might sell it off to private interests. Trump will probably agree to this. But it appears that Trump’s pick for Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, says that there will be no selloff of federal lands. This might be a technicality—transferring land to state control is not a selloff—but it might be that Trump is just spouting rhetoric, knowing that his cabinet will not actually implement what he says.

Global warming. Trump has also famously said that global warming is a hoax—in fact, a hoax started by the Chinese. However, Ryan Zinke says that global warming is real and that he will believe what the scientists say about it (see here).

Torture. Trump campaigned on the idea that we should torture political detainees. Then, after the election, he reversed his opinion, no doubt in part due to the fact that his nominee for Secretary of Defense, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, made it clear that torture does not work (see here).

The most famous example of all is the huge wall that Trump said he would build along the border with Mexico, and make Mexico pay for it. Ha, ha, he was just joking. We all fell for it like suckers: his supporters lapped it up, his opponents such as myself got all bent out of shape.

What this means is that we have no idea what Trump will really do. Trump courted the idiot vote and got it. But when it comes to actually governing a country, he has already discovered that he cannot legally do many of the things he boasted that he would do.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Welcome, Science!

With the inauguration of a federal administration that is more hostile to scientific research and understanding than perhaps any in American history, scientists are beginning to feel anxious. Not all scientists; medical research will probably do okay. But climate scientists, ecologists, and evolutionary scientists now feel like a persecuted minority. As a participant in all three areas of research and writing, I feel like I do not want the new government to even know what I think. Fortunately, unlike some climate scientists such as Michael Mann, who has been repeatedly persecuted by the Republicans, I am a small target.

Many other countries are much more open to scientific insights. Make no mistake: they are opening their arms to American scientists. One of these countries is China. In the fall of 2016, at least four Chinese cities bought two-page spreads near the front of Science magazine depicting themselves as wonderful places for scientists to live and work.

  • September 9: Foshan “has an obvious advantage of industrial cluster.” The advertisement proudly displayed the data about how prosperous this city is, its 7.4 million residents and its 170,255 private enterprises.
  • September 23: Nanhai advertised itself as close to the Hong Kong economically-open region, and “a highly civilized city worth visiting. It is also considered as the national sanitary city…and one of the highly-educated cities in Guangdong.”
  • September 30: Sanshui promoted its industrial potential, but mainly depicted itself as a wonderful place to live. “The southern scenery is coquettish and graceful,” says the advertisement. “Here, with picturesque scenery, people live and enjoy the peaceful and prosperous environment as well as the wonderful and leisurely moment. Here, has got the breeze, drizzle and canoes on the river form the beautiful scenery of three rivers in the misty rain.” Thank God for Google Translate.
  • October 7: Shundei advertised itself as a growing hub of manufacturing.

Of course, they mostly want to attract the same scientists that American corporations want. But it has escaped nobody’s attention that China does not officially denounce scientists who study evolution, ecology, and climate science. If I were young and mobile and with a freshly-minted Ph.D. I would give China some serious consideration.

Many American cities could, and do, promote themselves in similar terms, and they are right to do so. Tulsa, where I live, has as its slogan “A new kind of energy,” meaning the promotion of entrepreneurship instead of just the continuation of Tulsa’s twentieth century image as an oil town. The difference is at the national level, where Beijing promotes science and Washington is antagonistic toward it.

In order to prevent the “brain drain” of scientists out of the United States, it is not necessary for the government to spend a lot of money. All we need is for the Republican leaders to quit making scientists sound like traitors. The Republican Congress has relentlessly pursued investigations of climate scientists in order to discredit them, and now they have a president who has proclaimed that global warming is a hoax.

I do not foresee a massive exodus of scientists out of America. But certainly more scientists will leave America than at any time in the past.