Monday, March 24, 2014

Consumer Pressure

Please see below, or visit the website for the Oklahoma Science Teachers Association, for information about the upcoming Second Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip!

Like most college instructors, I wish to give my students an experience that will make a real difference in their lives. Sometimes it is as simple as getting them to take a close look at the world around them, which they may never have done before. Once they have done it, the first step has been taken and they might continue the habit. Well, maybe half of them will.

But I think it is important for us to also participate in some form of activism. While I admire the work of Bill McKibben and,  I have all kinds of excuses why I do not personally undertake such activities. But it occurred to me that there might be something else I could do, which I have a specific ability to do, and which not everyone else has.

I teach classes. And I want my students to become activists on some issues. And students want extra credit. And voilĂ , the perfect fit: have the students write letters.

I have to choose the issues carefully, so that they are related to my field (biology) and are not partisan. But there are plenty of such issues. I decided to start with something that is pretty straightforward: tobacco.  Nobody takes the position that “tobacco is a blessing to the world.” Well, I think, anyway. I realized that I could get students to write letters to tobacco corporations, expressing their disapproval (or horror, if they prefer) at what the tobacco corporations are doing, and their refusal to purchase products or invest in the corporations responsible for them.

This is not as easy as it might sound. A student might have no idea what to write, and almost certainly not how or to whom. So I did this work for them. I drafted a model letter (but I will require students to use some of their own words and insert their own feelings and experiences). I tracked down the contacts to which they could send physical letters or emails. This is not always easy. Some corporations very effectively insulate themselves from the public. Some of the tobacco corporation websites cannot be entered by anyone under 21 years of age, which covers most of my students. If nothing else, there may be media representative emails to which the students can write. The media reps do not want to be bombarded by activist emails, but, tough beans. If they get a lot of emails, maybe they will report this fact to management that is above them. If they don’t want emails, they shouldn’t put their email addresses on the website. I also encouraged students to direct their comments to the CEO, whose name I provided, for each of four major tobacco corporations. (This is down from seven in 1994 when the “seven dwarves” presented perjured testimony to Henry Waxman’s committee in the House.) I also provided the brand names marketed by each company.

This may seem to be a futile exercise. But if this idea spreads beyond my classroom, and if it is maintained over the years, it might make a difference. These comments may never be read—certainly not by the CEO—but they may be counted.

Once a student has written these letters, it will never be as difficult again to write an activist letter.

I had to think carefully about possible legal difficulties, and specifically mention them in the document I posted for my students. And I posted a PDF file rather than an alterable Word file. And I made this an extra credit activity rather than a requirement, for now.

And I hope you, my readers, may join in. And if you have students, get them involved also. You may access the PDF file at my website; the specific URL is here.

Let’s get our students over the activation energy that is preventing them from becoming participants in our economy and society, based on the things they are learning in our classes.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Competitive Photosynthesis

Announcement: See the earlier blog post about the Second Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip! Full information, and registration, are available at the website of the Oklahoma Science Teachers Association. Bob Melton will soon post one revision: the Saturday afternoon trip will not visit the fossil site out on Highway 51. It takes too long to get there and the parking along a busy highway seems inadequate to me. My wife and I went out to check on Redbud Valley yesterday, and she helped me find even more fossils there than I had known about.

Warning: If you go to a Chinese buffet and have one of those steamed mussels, do not open up the body. Just pretend the whole thing looks like that nice grayish muscle tissue. If you open the body up, you will see a bunch of organs, most of which are digestive and some, I assume, reproductive. A knowledge of biology only makes the experience worse. Tastes good, though. Now for the essay.

Like many botany instructors, I use variegated coleus as a way of demonstrating that photosynthesis occurs only in green tissue. The leaves of variegated coleus have sections that are green, or red, or white, or both red and green. The procedure is simple. You use a double boiler and ethanol to remove chlorophyll and anthocyanin from a leaf, then use iodine solution to stain the starch. Starch is present only in the green parts of the leaf. (The ethanol boiling process is itself a source of pleasure, I might add.) A variegated coleus leaf is sort of like a field trial with two experimental conditions (chlorophyll vs. anthocyanin), a control (the white part), and an interaction (red overlaps green).

Variegated coleus grows well in gardens and greenhouses and homes, even though approximately half the leaf area is non-photosynthetic. It only recently occurred to me that this ought to seem strange. Why would a plant produce non-photosynthetic leaf area, unless it is modified for some other function? The answer is obvious: variegated coleus is an example of a mutant form that would not survive in the wild.

But why would it not survive in the wild? The plant grows perfectly well. But a plant that produces twice as much leaf area as it “needs” would be unable to survive in the wild because of competition with other plants. That is, if plants produced only as much leaf area as they needed to keep themselves alive, the world would have only about half as much leaf area as it does. Forests and grasslands would look very shabby, and noticeably less green. Even from outer space, our planet would look a lot less green if it were not for the extra leaf area that plants produce in order to compete with other plants. This is what I mean by “competitive photosynthesis,” which might otherwise sound like a new Olympic sport. (The sportscaster would say, Look, there goes a carbon dioxide molecule now…it made it into a glucose molecule! There goes a water molecule, and here comes the oxygen!)

This is not a new idea, but it is a good one to stop and think about. A long time ago Garrett Hardin pointed out that if it were not for competition, all plants would be crusty green goo. Why do any plants grow up into the air? The sun is 93 million miles away, so a 300-foot-tall tree is not significantly closer to the sun than is a one-foot-tall shrub. But the tree’s leaves are closer to the sun than the shrub’s leaves. It is like the old saying, if you and another person are running from a bear, you don’t have to outrun the bear, just outrun the other person. This is competition, the basis of natural selection and evolution. Hardin called it “in praise of waste.”

A natural world without competition would be much less interesting, at least much less green. Competition is a good thing. In our economic system, however, it has gotten out of hand. Big money crushes small business, and anyone who chooses to serve humankind rather is doomed to a life of near-poverty. I say this as a college professor, husband of a librarian, and father of a school teacher. We public servants work hard and well, harder and better than many people richer than we are. Competition is good, but so is altruism. In our species, we need to lay a greater claim on altruism.

Friday, March 14, 2014


Announcement: Registration for the Second Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip is now open at the website for Oklahoma Science Teachers Association. The cost is $95. Depending on enrollment, we may have some money left over for partial refunds for teachers.

The buds are opening and the leaves will be coming out and soon here in Oklahoma. I will be taking my systematic botany class on field trips. In this class, the students learn to recognize 38 plant families and 129 species of trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, and grasses. I just want to briefly mention just one reason of many why I am convinced that a class such as this is essential, and why I wish everyone would take a systematic botany class. Fortunately, many of these students have been outside a lot and already know many of the species.

At the very least, people should know how to recognize poison ivy. While this seems to be a simple accomplishment, I have lost count of the number of senior-level conservation majors who cannot do this.

Everyone knows that they should stay away from poison ivy. But people who do not know what poison ivy looks like must be afraid of everything. Not just of every vine, but of every plant. Poison ivy vines can grow in trees, and mix their branches with those of the tree; poison ivy vines can insinuate themselves along the ground and sprout up amidst wildflowers. So if you do not know what poison ivy looks like, you had better not even leave the sidewalk. Maybe, if you don’t learn to recognize poison ivy, it is better to spend sunny spring days inside playing video games.

This would be so, so sad. So, to save yourself from that fate, learn to recognize different species of plants!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Science and Truth

Reminder: see the previous essay about the Second Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip. Registration will open soon.

I consider science and scientists to be perhaps the best source of truth in the world. When I was a kid I believed politicians, and then along came Watergate. I believed radio evangelists, and then along came Garner Ted Armstrong. I think most of us realize that politicians, lawyers, corporations, and evangelists are in the business of selling image, not truth. In selling their image, sometimes they use truth, and sometimes not; they use it selectively, and sparingly.

Science has built-in systems to prevent both error and fraud. One of these is anonymous peer review. And it usually works. Whenever I would hear about scientific fraud, or about scientists who rushed forth to print unreliable results even if it was not fraud, I considered it to be a rare exception to the rule.

But after awhile the number of “exceptions” reached a critical point for me. I reached that point last night when I listened to the news.

The general rule for fraud is to follow the money. The more money is involved, the more desire there is to lie in order to get the money. That is why, for example, fossil fuel corporations lie about the science of global warming more than do solar energy companies. Fossil fuel companies want to sell us the energy-dense materials that they alone control; in contrast, the sun shines on everyone. Nobody can corner the solar, or wind, markets. Also, it is much more likely to find scientific fraud in medical or biotechnology research than in ecological research: more money is involved.

Perhaps no field of scientific research has been more of a gold-minefield for fraud than stem cells. In late 2004, Woo-suk Hwang published a paper in Science in which he claimed to have produced embryonic stem cells with donor nuclei—that is, you could get bio-identical stem cells. By late 2005 his fraud was exposed. At the 2005 AAAS meeting, everyone was thrilled by his discovery. When I went to the 2006 meeting, I saw the biotechnologists going around with sheepish looks on their faces.

Last year, a lab in Oregon managed to actually do what Hwang had only pretended to do. So far I have not heard anything negative about these findings.

This year, another group of scientists claimed to be able to produce pluripotent (almost-stem) cells by treating animal cells with acid. Once again it looked like a bright future for stem cell biotech. But just last night, the news reported that these results had been retracted. Fraud? Error? It is too early to say.

Creationists claim that evolutionary science is fraud. But this cannot be true, since evolutionary theory is based on thousands of individual research projects over centuries. However, it is possible for any one of these projects to be fraudulent, though extremely unlikely for them all to be. Scientific conspiracies just don’t work. But the results reported by a single lab can be, and often is, fraudulent.

If you follow the news section of Science, you find that scientific fraud is relatively common. Ten to a hundred times less common than among lawyers, politicians, and preachers, but still common enough that I have reached this conclusion: Scientists are more honest than most other people, but it is only a matter of degree. I am no longer a scientific idealist. I see it as a business in which truth pays off more than in other businesses, but when the opportunity or temptation for fraud comes along, scientists may embrace it. It is just that such temptation is less common in science than for corporations or politicians.

I can feel good about my line of work but there is no good reason for me to feel righteous about it.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Coming Right Up! The Second Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip!

Last summer we had the First Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip, with ten participants and two instructors. I wrote all about it in my blog entries at the beginning of June, 2013. Well, we have a Second Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip scheduled for April 26-27 in Tulsa.

The Oklahoma Evolution Road Trips are open to anyone who is interested in learning more about evolution and the evidence for it that can be seen right here in Oklahoma. (Last year we included Texas as well.) You don’t need a science background, just a willingness to observe and learn. It is specifically intended for science teachers, who can receive a certificate of professional development credit. Registration cost is $95. Online registration will be available soon through the Oklahoma Science Teachers Association—I will keep you posted! If you are interested, block off these dates in your schedule now!

Because this is a serious learning experience, young children are not encouraged to participate, although there can always be exceptions. This sounds like the kind of trip I would have loved when I was twelve years old, but that few other twelve-year-olds would have appreciated.

The $95 cost covers transportation during the trip, refreshments on both mornings, and lunches on both days. It does not include accommodations (which most participants will not require) or the evening meal for those who wish to participate in it. Participants who need accommodations can let me know as soon as possible and, if there are enough of you, I will try to get a group discount.

Last summer, the trip was longer and more expensive because it was in a location more distant from Oklahoma metropolitan areas. I believe we would have had more teachers in the group had the cost and location been more convenient. Well, we have solved that problem for 2014.

The two instructors will be myself (Dr. Stanley Rice), a biology professor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, and Cora James, the science curriculum director for Putnam City Schools and a good amateur geologist. I am the author of four nationally and internationally published science books, two of which are about evolution. Both instructors bring a lot of experience with how to make science, and especially evolution, interesting and relevant to the school classroom in such a way as to highlight the positive learning experiences rather than to create tension and conflict.

The Second Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip now has four professional organizations sponsoring it! The sponsors are:

·         Society for the Study of Evolution (Education Committee)
·         Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education
·         Oklahoma Science Teachers Association
·         Oklahoma Academy of Science

The first of the organizations is one of the leading scientific societies in the world and has sponsored and provided financial support for this trip through a competitive grant. The other three organizations are the major professional organizations for science education in the state.

Here are the things we are going to do on this trip:

Saturday morning, April 26. We will meet at the Martin Regional Library in Tulsa (2601 S. Garnett) for a discussion about what the participants know, and what they want to know, about evolution, including: the rapid evolution that is now going on in viruses and bacteria; the new DNA evidence for the evolutionary ancestry of organisms, including humans; and the ongoing discovery of geological evidence (especially fossils) for evolution. We will also learn about the geological history of what is now Tulsa, right up to the last Ice Age, and how fossils form.

Saturday afternoon, April 26. After a catered light lunch, we will get into vans to go find our own fossils. (Participants can leave their vehicles at the library.) Bring plastic bags for collecting fossils (the instructors will have some for you also). We will go out rain or shine, unless the weather is actually dangerous. Individual vehicles are discouraged because of limited parking in some places. Our destinations are:

1. A location on Highway 51 where Ordovician fossils are washing out of loose rock. You can find mostly crinoids but also an occasional trace fossil (fossilized track).A crinoid is a stalked echinoderm. The traffic can be heavy but where is plenty of space to keep away from the vehicles. This is public easement and you can collect fossils.

2. Lake Skiatook. At one location on this lake maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers, there are numerous fossils of crinoids and brachiopods. Brachiopods have been rare for the last 250 million years but were common during the Ordovician period. They looked a lot like mollusks. Fossil collecting is also allowed here.

3. Arkansas River. The bed of the Arkansas River, usually mostly dry, contains a lot of things washed in from surrounding places; you can never be sure where they have come from. Most of it is garbage, but once in a while you can find coal, or even fossils such as this crinoids that got washed downstream from some unknown source. Of course, you can keep whatever you find.

For those who wish to continue discussion on Saturday evening, we can meet at a restaurant. (The registration fee does not cover this cost.)

On Sunday morning, April 27, we will meet again at the parking lot of the library (which will be closed at that time), but where participants can leave their vehicles. We will go by van out to Red Bud Valley northeast of Tulsa where we will walk around most of the morning on the bluff trails.

If you know where to look, you can find fossils, such as this amazing brachiopod fossil I found last summer. Collecting is not permitted here, although if you find something interesting the visitors’ center will be happy to get it for their displays.

We will also learn about tree adaptations. There are many, many different evolutionary adaptations, each one appropriate for its own set of conditions. For cottonwoods, living in flood plains, this means rapid growth, cheap wood, and a short life. For oaks, living in stable forests, this means slow growth, strong wood, and a long life. Tree ranges also shift during evolutionary time, and in Red Bud Valley there are some trees, such as sugar maples, smoke trees, and blue ashes, that were very common in Oklahoma thousands of years ago but have mostly died off—except in this little sheltered spot. You see, evolution is not just something that happened in the past and that you can study with fossils; it is ongoing, and you can see it in the trees around you.

During a catered light lunch in the shaded parking lot at Red Bud Valley, we can discuss what we have seen, and then go back to the library parking lot. Participants will be able to leave by 3:00 at the latest on Sunday afternoon.

A word about next year’s Third Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip: Plans are underway for this trip to be offered for college credit through the Oklahoma Scholar Leader Enrichment Program (OSLEP) during Spring Break 2015, housed (like the 2013 trip) at the University of Oklahoma Biological Station on Lake Texoma. Depending on the success of this year’s trip, we hope to offer the cheap and short version of the trip on alternate years, so the next two-day trip in an Oklahoma metropolitan area should take place in 2016.

Please watch this spot for announcements about online registration, which we hope to begin (along with public radio announcements) about March 17.