I don’t think muses inspired computer kiosks…

14 09 2007

Me, Edmontosaurus Mummy
The author in front of Charles H. Sternberg’s Edmontosaurus (“Trachodon”) mummy at the AMNH. Sternberg was often hard-pressed for cash, so he packed this specimen up before one of H.F. Osborn’s man-in-the-field could take a look at it. Having purchased quality specimens from Sternberg before and knowing that the specimen could very well go to another museum, Osborn decided to pay Sternberg the sum he asked for, and it proved to be a very wise decision.

“Do you want to go and visit your dinosaurs?” “Are you kidding?” comes my incredulous reply, and my wife and I climb the alternating staircases up to the famed fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I can scarcely remember the details of my first visits to the museum when I stood little higher than Ornitholestes, taking a cab from Penn Station to the museum with my parents, a poster of a horse skeleton next to a human skeleton in the elevator making quite an impression on me (I recognized the human form, but I had no idea what the other one was). The rest of the museum was interesting, surely, but my young brain was only interested in one thing; dinosaurs. Even to this day, no visit is complete without at least a passing visit among the fossils (or, at least, what look like fossils in some cases), and anyone who has taken a trip to the museum with me knows I am loathe to leave without meandering through the 4th floor pathways.

My first visits took place during a time when the great fossil halls were divided by time period, the skeletal contents of the halls of Saurischian and Ornithischian dinosaurs jumbled together in the dark, musty halls of Jurassic and Cretaceous dinosaurs. Some non-dinosaurian celebrities appeared through the halls as well, a far wall of the Jurassic hall displaying the ever-impressive Dimetrodon from the Permian of Texas. What I remember most clearly, however, was the imposing form of “Brontosaurus” looming out of the shadows. Long before the renovations of the mid-1990s, the fossil halls were shadowy places, the subdued lighting casting a more “primordial” mood on the hall. I was in awe of that composite skeleton, and even though I knew it was a herbivore, the short head with large blunt teeth made me think twice about whether I would call the dinosaur “harmless” in life. It didn’t matter that the skeleton I was standing beneath did not hold up huge masses of flesh for over 100 million years; I could have sworn that I heard the behemoth breathing in that dark, dusty hall. The trackway that R.T. Bird collected from Glen Rose Texas, positioned just under the feet of the giant, further gave the impression that it had just walked out for its daily viewing, perhaps waddling back into one of the storage rooms where it went to pieces at night. If I had believed in ghosts, I would have sworn that one of the restless spirits had lumbered all the way over from the Howe Quarry assemblage in Wyoming, taking possession of the skeleton but never getting a bite to eat as the paleontologists hadn’t had the presence of mind to bring some “fossil fuel” in the form of petrified leaves and ferns for poor Bronty to eat.

An archival image of “Brontosaurus,” posing in the older fossil halls before the first renovation during the era of R.T. Bird and Barnum Brown. This was the skeleton that so awed me as a child, although the setting in which I first saw it was a bit darker.

I’m sure that I saw the impressive Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops in the Cretaceous hall, and I faintly remember seeing some of Charles R. Knight’s fantastic murals that I had only seen miniaturized in so many children’s books (you really must see them blown up to their true size, or at least in high resolution; so much of the vibrance is lost in many books that have reprinted the paintings), but it was the Jurassic Hall that made the biggest impression on me. The life-size Blue Whale downstairs filled me with a sense of astonishment as well, and it was hard to believe that anything could possibly have been that big or that such creatures still swam in the oceans. Unfortunately, I did not get to visit the museum again until about 2002, mostly because of a general unease about New York City that my parents possessed and subsequently instilled in me as well. The dinosaurs were still there when I returned, even in greater number than before, but things were not how I remembered them.

A crested pterosaur hangs over the distal portion of the Hall of Vertebrate Origins at the AMNH.

The fourth floor of the AMNH, containing its fabulous vertebrate fossil collections, was entirely renovated between 1994 and 1996. In addition to “Brontosaurus” getting a name change, a new head, and an extended tail, the halls were reorganized according to cladistics and opened up to the sunlight, great windows throwing plenty of light on the stark white walls. Indeed, rather than organizing the fossils by time period, as had been the tradition previously (a tradition of grouping by convergent structures being an even older European tradition, as in Cuvier’s museum), the curators and designers decided to group the fossils according to their evolutionary relationships, creating something of a path for visitors to walk through. In addition to this, various computer kiosks featuring video explanations of many of the fossils were installed, adding a new level of “interactivity” to the exhibitions. Despite all this reshuffling of old bones mounted on armatures, however, I can’t say that I especially like the newer layout.

Anyone who regularly visits this blog knows how much I enjoy my visits to the AMNH, but my familiarity with the institution has also made me a bit critical of it as well. While I do have my gripes about the Hall of Biodiversity exhibit and the sorely out-of-date Hall of North American Mammals (it is now so old that I don’t know whether the laugh or cry when I read the labels of many of the animals presented in the dioramas and reflect at the current state of their populations in the wild), the fossil halls do the most to inspire and irk me simultaneously, and much of what I have to relate deals with the great osteological collections.

Note: If you want to follow along, the floor plan is available online.

While I can understand the reasoning behind organizing the exhibits in terms of derived characters, the approach quickly goes to pieces and seems to be above the heads of many of the visitors. The first section of the fourth floor, the Hall of Vertebrate Origins, does an acceptable job at branching off along a main path into different groups of vertebrates, acting something like a progression through time as well (at least until the end where turtles, phytosaurus, crocodilians, mosasaurs, pterosaurs, plesiosaurs, etc. are all grouped closely together). The primary problem I have with this sort of set up (which is the same problem I usually have with cladistic trees) is that everything ends abruptly in a cul-de-sac, giving the viewer no indication of whether the group continued, went extinct, or who the direct ancestors were. Location in terms of both time and place are ignored, and while this may be able to be understood by the more scientifically-informed visitors, I don’t think it presents the best understanding of evolution to those generally unfamiliar with the topic.

A head-on view of the reproduction of Deinonychus in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs.

Things start to get shakier once we leave the Vertebrate Origins hall. Although I don’t usually follow this route, the path directs the visitor towards the Saurischian Dinosaurs, the theropods Tyrannosaurus and Allosaurus dominating this hall. Apatosaurus is sequestered (even coralled) up against the wall, still frozen in its tracks, but visitors can not get anywhere as close to it as I could in earlier years. This hall leads the visitor to the Ornithischian dinosaurs, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and Anatotitan giving their imposing presence to the hall. These dinosaurs didn’t seem to get the same refurbishment as the Saurischians; poor Triceratops is still holding its front limbs out at 90 degree angles in a “super sprawl” pose, and the Anatotitan pair still have tails that would have had to be broken in order to make them droop in the manner that they do.

The Ornithischian dinosaurs give way to “Primitive Mammals,” although Dimetrodon, Edaphosaurus, Lycaenops, and other Permian forms are the main representatives in the first half of the hall, the second half being a mish-mash of various unrelated genera and xenarthrans like giant ground sloths and glyptodonts. The Milstein Hall of Advanced Mammals follows, starting off with early primates like Notharctos to the right, saber-toothed cats and other unrelated convergent forms to the left, the pathway proceeding through titanotheres, sirenians, and other groups before culminating in the impressive mammoth and mastodon skeletons at the end (be sure to look carefully around the feet of the mammoth; there is quite a surprising specimen of a baby mammoth’s skin in a glass case).

Barnum Brown T rex
“Mr. Bones”, Barnum Brown, posing with his “favorite child” in the old Cretaceous Dinosaur hall at the AMNH.

The chief problem of the plan for the 4th floor is that the the layout of the museum does not allow for a neat phylogentic layout, barring the proper grouping of the vertebrates. The four halls create a square around the central area, and the visitors has to walk through various groups before coming to the next-of-kin in terms of evolution, the halls still giving the visitor the impression of moving through time (especially since most, if not all, the mammals exhibited lived after the demise of the dinosaurs). I think it would have been much better to stick to the old system of time periods but to somehow code or tag each group (maybe by putting them in corresponding sections of each other) so that visitors could follow who was related to who through time. Regardless of how it is done, however, the set up will be tricky as the fourth floor currently occupies all the space it is ever going to have, and being that it is already so densely packed with skeletons it is hard to conceive how future renovations might bring in new specimens while keeping the “classics.”

The feel of the exhibits is also different from how I remembered them. Originally there was a more relaxed tone, visitors being allowed to get very close to the specimens, giving you the feeling that you were really under the feet of dinosaurs. I can see how this can be a problem for security/safety/janitorial reasons (lots of garbage and debris often ends up under the mounts), but now visitors are kept at arms length from specimens by glass or other barriers. It no longer feels like the fossils are part of a common heritage, something that everyone has a right to observe and learn from. Instead, it feels like we’re being allowed a look at the fossils, specimens that we have no claim to. This correlates with a major shift in paleontology that has taken place in the last 50-75 years; fossil studies have increasingly come into the fold of “good” science, and it is doubtful if the bone sharps of old could have contributed what they did to science if they were born today. Where amateur collectors and those who possessed an interest and passion for fossils once built up the fossil halls and the science of paleontology, non-professional workers are often scorned or looked down upon today, and there are often battles between what is publicly owned, what is privately owned, and what should be done with fossils that are not in the hands of museums or universities. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, the AMNH halls reflect a step away from public access, I feel, making the bones some more cold and distant, objects to be studied but not really appreciated. The lighting probably affects this more than anything else from my perspective; the lack of contrast and shadow removes much of the mood, and it is harder to imagine the animals as they would have been in life when harsh light is thrown upon them. I much prefer the set up of the Royal Tyrell Museum near Alberta, Canada, the dinosaurs there taking on a life of their own in the shadows (click here and view the see two virtual tours to see what I mean).

So what of the computer kiosks? The fourth floor has a few kiosks here and there with a guide-ball and computer screen, users being able to click on various creatures or nodes on a cladogram to get more information. This is not a bad idea in and of itself, allowing those who are interested to learn something more, but it doesn’t seem to be a big hit. Children often think the screens should allow them to play some sort of computer game, and I have seen far more rapid and irritated clicking than attentiveness whenever a child has used one of the computers. The computers are also relatively slow, taking a good amount of patience, and when they’re working it is sometimes hard to hear what the person on the video screen is saying. I’ve learned a thing or two from the video kiosks, but overall they were not very exciting or interesting, and I don’t think they appeal the younger audiences at all (and if you’re talking about dinosaurs and can’t interest kids, the adults probably won’t be any more intrigued by a discussion of why theropods have so many holes in their skulls).

I had mentioned games just a moment ago, and from what I have seen from my last visit to the Philadelphia Zoo, educational games seem to work better to interest visitors to an extent. The game I checked out myself, which seemed to be fairly popular, was one at the Big Cat Falls exhibit, the user playing a Jaguar in the southwest of the United States. The goal was to direct the Jaguar step by step to migrating across an area while eating food but not getting shot by ranchers, each step taking a moment to explain why the big cats are rare in the U.S. Not everyone will stop and play, and it’s not the ultimate answer (I am somewhat ill-at-ease with the concept of children coming to a natural history institution to play video games), but it is still better than many other displays that I’ve seen.

Part of the problem is that “interactivity” has typically translated to “computers” for many museum designers, while I think the best answers as to how to get guests involved are far more low-tech. I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine who is working with a museum on an exhibition, and she had proposed setting up a battery of microscopes in order to allow children to look at various specimens first hand. This was shot down as being too risky/expensive because someone would have to be there supervising the children. Another idea of having a visible chick incubator so that children could see the animals being born was rejected as well, and giving children little cups with some seed so they could grow a plant at home was also turned down. As my friend and I agreed, these were the sort of things that drew us into science when we were young, being direct observers to something amazing that cannot be reproduced by computers.

Even beyond the aspect of computers, I am a bit saddened to see so many artifacts and fossils on display that are replicas rather than the genuine articles. Early exhibitors did a lot of damage to wonderful specimens by drilling holes in them in order to fit them onto metal armatures, but I feel like my experience has been cheapened when I look at a skeleton and I know that it’s only a replica. Great care should be given to the bones and they belong to the generations after me as well (it would do us little good if putting something on display helped cause its destruction), but I know I’m not alone in this sentiment. In fact, this is likely part of the reason why “Lucy” is touring the U.S.; almost every major museum has a cast or replica of the famous australopithecene, but the actual skeleton that came out of the ground is something of a scientific sacred relic, and I know that when Lucy is in New York I’ll “pay my respects.”

Bones don’t even have to be put permanently on display in order to make an impression; the Page Museum, which handles the La Brea Tar Pit fossils, has a lab with a panoramic window that lets visitors see what the researchers are doing. This is a very simple thing, but I think that every major museum should have a similar facility that lets visitors look in on the work being done, and if workers can take some time out to answer questions or give a little talk, all the better. (The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia has a smaller, but far more cozy open fossil workbench, too). Open labs allow the public an look into what paleontologists really do, and I really feel that it is a shame that more museums do not scientifically open themselves up to the public in a similar way.

Everything is not as harmonious behind the scenes as one might be led to surmise, as well. Often curators bang heads with designers, mini-battles being fought over what to include and what to leave out, exhibits being subject to an editing process just like films or books. Author Stephen Asma, in the book Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, relates such an experience through a conversation with Dr. Eric Gyllenhaal of Chicago’s Field Museum as he tried to design the Life Over Time exhibit;

“…I have to say I’m not really impressed with having the scientists in on weekly meetings, because an inevitable part of any exhibit is that you have to trim the content down to what people will actually look at in the time that they have available to go through the entire museum. But this trimming is a very painful process for the scientists, and they tend to obstruct the process; and I say this even though I myself have a Ph.D. in geology. There are limits to what you can accomplish within a museum exhibit if you’re thinking about what you can accomplish with a normal visitor. The scientists wants to have way too much information included; it’s overkill.”

Eric started laughing and impersonating the curators. “‘You can’t leave that out, you can’t leave this out,’ or ‘This is too important an idea, you’ll be confusing people by leaving it out’-that kind of thing is endless. The scientists who consulted with us on ‘Life over Time’ for example, browbeat us with their buzzword, content. ‘You’re leaving out the content,’ they would shriek. And, of course, the content tends to be what people fill textbooks with, and textbooks these days are a thousand pages long. We like to pretend that students read these information-overload textbooks and get something out of it, but, you know, it doesn’t really happen that way. Even in college! But even though many of these curator-scientists have taught college, they haven’t caught on to this fact.”

Not everything is the fault of museum curators or designers, however. Those who visit natural history museums are responsible for their own education (or lack thereof) too, and you will only get out of a museum what you put into it in terms of attentiveness and a thirst for knowledge. Much like zoos, however, natural history museums are primarily a visual feast, a place to go and look more than anything else. David Quammen describes such a role succinctly in his essay “The White Tigers of Cincinnati”;

What is a zoo? Most essentially, it’s an arena of the visual. It’s a place to see wonders. The act of seeing is the primary zoo experience – whereas learning, thinking, and emoting are dimensions of encounter that come secondarily, if at all. We go there to look; in passing, we read a few labels and placards, of which the information content is low.

If you sit long enough to “people watch” at a museum (or a zoo), Quammen’s thesis seems all too apt. People go to see dinosaurs and move along without reading much because they already “know” what dinosaurs are; they’ve heard about them in school, seen them “come to life” in movies, bought models and toys, etc. The visit to the museum is a trip to see the animal life size, as close as we’re likely to get, and unless there’s a deeper desire for more knowledge “looking” is as far as it often goes. For now I’ll bypass the idea that dinosaurs are somehow childish and do not merit more comprehensive understanding by “proper” adults, but natural museums should appeal to the inquisitive child in all of us if they are to be effective at all.

Such desire for understanding is not always encouraged or rewarded, however, especially in a hustle-and-bustle world of deadlines and field trips. If you watch any group of schoolchildren visit the fourth floor of the museum, you’ll usually see one or two who are inordinately fond of the skeletons on display. They are not allowed to linger to indulge their curiosity, however, as they are told to keep up with the class, bumping into their classmates because they’re continually looking over their shoulders as they leave the museum. Indeed, it seems like curiosity is only allowed as long as it does not interfere with itineraries and the projected lesson plan. This is sad, especially because as the children get older and can move off on their own through the museum (typically in high school) they will probably show less interest in the things that so enthralled them when they were younger.

Museum shops can do some damage as well, and I am often surprised at the inaccurate models and toys being sold to children by various establishments. I have a Tyrannosaurus bobble-head on my desk that appears to be plantigrade, with a tail that for some reason is drooping onto the ground, and a head held up like that of a startled chicken. This is not the image of the carnivorous dinosaur depicted in the fossil hall, so why is it fit to pass off to children? Other souvenirs feature dinosaurs from all different time periods lumped together as if Jurassic Park had just let out for the weekend, and while I might seem like a crank in complaining about this, I wonder what sort of message it sends about 1) the role of scientific accuracy in museums, and 2) marketing in museums. Almost any item even bearing the image of a dinosaur is bound to bought by someone, and it often seems like the more dinosaurs there are on a product the better. Given that the most famous ones live in entirely different time periods, the presence of the dino-celebrities is more important than reflecting the ecology of one time period or another.

I really do worry about the present state of natural history museums. When I walk the 4th floor of the AMNH, I usually have a general idea of who dug up what and when, being able to spot what has changed since the displays were put up and what is still accurate. Most people don’t have the same background as I do, though, and I can only imagine what they’re getting out of the displays. We all bring out our understanding of nature to natural history museums, our prior knowledge directly influencing our experience. Last February, for instance, I stood in front of an ungulate bone bed section, a jumbled mass of mammal bones preserved under glass. The woman next to me said to her companion “Oh, I’ve heard about this. This is evidence for The Flood, right?” before moving off. She didn’t read the placard, nor did she study the assemblage; all she did was recognize a potential example of something she heard or read at one point or another and moved on. Maybe it’s because I’m a pessimist, but I feel that many visitors to natural history museums do the same thing, merely taking in the familiar but paying little attention to detail.

How can we save our natural history museums? Times are pretty tough right now, staff layoffs being common and some museums, like the aforementioned Academy of Natural Sciences, which recently sold off parts of its mineral collections in order to keep the doors open. The famous and nearly-complete Tyrannosaurus “Sue” was purchased by the Field Museum in Chicago for $7.6 million dollars after it went up for auction, but not without help from the California State University system, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, McDonald’s, Ronald McDonald House Charities, and a few donors, part of the deal being a McDonald’s being placed in the museum (as well as the fossil prep lab being called the “McDonald’s Fossil Preparation Lab”), a cast being made for Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom Park, and two more casts going on a traveling tour put on by McDonald’s. Even beyond such deals, corporate logos are starting to sneak into natural history institutions, the big cat exhibit at the Philadelphia Zoo being named the “Bank of America’s Big Cat Falls” with a big Bank of America logo at the entrance, whereas previously corporations were relegated to a name on a list of donors made available to those inquisitive enough to ask for the list. As some have predicted, I have the feeling the corporate sponsorship (even ownership) of natural history museums will become a bigger problem in the coming years, and museums may go from research institutions to huge curiosity cabinets, being more about displays and making money than learning. Such an event occurred just recently in my own state, in fact, the New Jersey Aquarium in Camden changing over into private hands and becoming a for-profit institution under the new moniker of Adventure Aquarium, education being secondary to sensationalism.

I sincerely hope that we do not lose our natural history museums. Speaking for myself, I know I probably would not be as interested in evolution and paleontology if it was not for early visits to the AMNH, and I know there have been many much more intelligent and prominent scientists like Stephen Jay Gould who can trace back their own feelings of wonder to the 4th floor fossil halls. Small, home-grown institutions like the Museum of Osteology and the Black Hills Museum of Natural History offer some hope, continuing a tradition put forth by many paleontologists from the turn of the 20th century, but such institutions are usually small and difficult to reach. Even if the larger natural history museums never fully decline and the great dinosaur skeletons remain, we should work hard to promote responsible, accurate, and interesting representations of the history of life on earth, as it is possible for the history of an institution to overtake its intellectual mission of enlightenment, towering masses of bones collecting dust and being petrified in the position of their last revision from ages before.

[The preceding rant was inspired by this rant]

Back to school, back to school…

4 09 2007

Today kicks off the fall semester here at Rutgers, and I just don’t know if I’m prepared for the overwhelming excitement that will be Soils and Society later this afternoon. As my friend John suggested, I could definitely get Darwin involved in the course by using his The Formation of Vegetable Mould Thhrough the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits as the basis for a paper if I must write one (I think there are just 3 exams, unfortunately), but geophagy is interesting and I’m sure I’ll get something from the course.

I also have recently received some more good news; I am not going to mention the details as yet, but it looks like I’ll once again have the opportunity to teach other students about evolution this semester. I’m also going to try and organize some Darwin Day lectures for February (it’s never too early to start), so I definitely have a lot to do at Rutgers in terms of evolution this year. I might give Darwin’s Beagles another shot, although it seems that there just isn’t enough of an undergraduate interest at this particular university. Even if most students don’t care, however, I’m still having fun with it, and so don’t expect the science writing to stop anytime soon.

School starts when?!

29 08 2007

Note: Thanks to the kind comments of people here and a relaxing evening reading some T.H. Huxley I’m feeling much better, although I’m sure putting out this little rant helped too. I’m going to try to make the best of the position I’ve found myself in, and hopefully I’ll move on to better things after I get my B.S. (both meanings apply) straightened out. Thanks to everyone who’s stopped in to show me some encouragement and support during this rough journey.

I’m not less than a week away from the start of the fall semester, and I’m definitely not done with summer yet (hell, I didn’t even go and get my first Rita’s gelati until Saturday). Still, I really need to buckle down and do well this semester as I’m essentially out of “last chances.”

Some of you might remember that I was considering switching into Evolutionary Anthropology. It appears that I cannot. Rutgers was recently restructured to consist of the School of Arts and Sciences (Busch, Livingston, Douglass, and College Avenue campuses) and the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (Cook campus), and I have too low of a GPA and too many credits (121) to transfer into the program. Perhaps if things were as they have been for a number of years I could have made a case, but it appears that there’s a whole new set of rules and administrative B.S. and I do not have much hope for my appeal for a transfer. I stupidly painted myself into a corner academically, and now I don’t have much choice other than to finish up my current program and try to escape in one piece.

Indeed, the coming semester is not really going to be an enjoyable one, as many of the classes I have to take are basic courses that are required for students that I had not taken in my early years. This fall I’ll be taking;

Precalculus – I can’t put it off any longer; I must face the math demons and hope to come out in one piece. If I fail this course I’ll be prevented from taking other courses that are critical next spring and summer, and so the pressure is definitely on.

Computer Science 110 – Basic computers course on Excel, Word, etc. that everyone has to take. It’s not hard, but it’s mind-numbingly boring and I have little use for it. Still, it’s something I have to take care of.

Fundamentals of Ecological Modeling – I’m a few credits short of my requirement for ecological courses within my major, and this was the only one that fit in my schedule. The name just screams “Math!” at me though, and I don’t particularly have a good feeling about this one.

Soils and Society – I tried to take care of my “soils” requirement last semester, but I ultimately picked the wrong course. “Soils and Water” kicked my butt and now I have to take the easier version (which I wished I had found out about beforehand). I don’t think this one will be difficult, but I’d be lying if I said I was interested.

Living Primates – The one course I’m actually looking forward to. Even though I can’t major in Evolutionary Anthropology, at least I’ll have this one “fun” course to make things a bit more enjoyable and even out my GPA a bit (hopefully). I may have to drop this one though, especially if I’m struggling in more important courses or I need to work more in order to pay the rent.

I apologize for being such a sad-sack, but I simply am not looking forward to finishing out my degree. I need to have a degree in something, and past mistakes have led me down a path with no other choice. My wife opined that it would be wonderful if they just let me write a thesis and handed me a degree (you would figure I would have fulfilled the general requirements for some course of study by now), but such a fanciful notion will never come to pass.

What does this mean as far as blogging goes? I’ll still be on here, and I’ll still have something new up every day, but I don’t know how much I’ll be able to actually post. I actually usually don’t write during the evening as I read during that time, but even my reading is likely to be curtailed. I’m sure my attitude to this whole affair isn’t helping either, but in general I feel trapped into a course of study that doesn’t engage my interests during a time of year when I start to feel the effects of seasonal depression (I’m a warm-weather creature). Still, things as they are now are still better than the alternative of getting a minimum wage job at a retail store, and I’m not ever going to be happy or contribute anything if I don’t try and make it through this last year and a half of college.

In a “publish or perish” world…

14 08 2007

Rich at evolgen has brought to everyone’s attention a very interesting opinion piece that has recently appeared in the journal Current Biology about how scientific research (and success) is all-too-often dependent on some rather arbitrary numerical statistics (Lawrence PA. 2007. The mismeasurement of science. Curr. Biol. 17: R583-R585. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2007.06.014). Should the number of citations a paper receives or the sheer number of papers an author’s name appears on determine who gets funding and who does not? While I am still on a very long and winding road to becoming a scientist, the amount of horror stories that I have heard have often made be dubious about a career in academia; I definitely have a deep desire to know more about nature, but I don’t know if I can handle all the bureaucratic B.S. that comes along with it. Fortunately for me that’s a choice that I don’t yet have to make, but I do have to wonder if the current system of publishing and becoming established are truly the best ways to advance our understanding. I may be wrong, but often it seems more about advancing the careers of certain individuals more than anything else.

As I stated, however, I’m a bit far removed from this being that I haven’t even tried to publish anything myself and I’m about as low on the academic totem-pole as one can get. (I have done some research “at the bench” this summer, although I have no idea whether my name will appear on the final product or not.) Still, I am going to try to write up a review paper based upon what I found in my evolution of human evolution post from the other day, although I don’t really know where to start. Gathering the information I need should be no problem at all (that’ll just take time), but as for the rules of writing such a paper, I don’t have the slightest clue.

David Attenborough’s “Life of [CENSORED]”

3 08 2007

There are few things in this life that are finer than a good BBC nature documentary hosted by David Attenborough, and The Life of Mammals is, by far, my most favorite. Not everyone is quite so pleased with the documentaries being presented in an evolutionary fashion, however, and the blog Pardon My Paradox tipped me off to something fishing going on in the Netherlands. Indeed, “James Randi’s Swift” has the fuller story, and it seems that an evangelical public broadcasting corporation in the Netherlands called the EO recently aired The Life of Mammals, but removed most of the content relating directly to evolution, omitting the last program about human evolution altogether. I don’t think I need to tell you why an evangelical Christian broadcasting channel would have such problems…

Anyway, the “creative” editing of the EO was first noted on the Dutch blog Evolutie, which has some articles about the EO getting creative with a few other documentaries as well. It’s in Dutch and all the web programs I’ve used have absolutely mangled the text in translation, but if you understand Dutch go ahead and have a look.

Casey Luskin doesn’t know how to read his own website

25 07 2007

Most of the time the Disco Institute and it’s hivemind simply aggravates me, but every once in a while they make me laugh. Such was the case when I popped over to the intentionally deceptively titled “Evolution News and Views” site and saw Casey Luskin’s plug for a new Granville Sewell article about how evolution will be taught someday, i.e. they believe it’ll become some sort of quasi-religious science where faith that evolution will be understood someday precedes science (although plenty of creationist cranks are content to state that now). Anyway, the end of Luskin’s intro paragraph reads;

Sewell continues to explain that this result would not be opposed by the Discovery Institute, which is not trying to push ID into schools

I guess he didn’t look to see that the odious Explore Evolution is featured on the left hand side of the page. This thin, seemingly worthless book has had the handwriting of the Disco Institute all over it for some time, although it’s always nice to have things confirmed. The Disco crew may swear up and down that they don’t care about getting ID into schools, but the evidence clearly shows otherwise. I’ve never heard a “textbook” (as Explore Evolution purports to be) marketed to any group other than schools, and plenty of our favorite Discovery Institute fellows showed up for 2005 Dover Trial (and some of the ones that didn’t even get on the stand won’t stop crying about it), although, despite much saber-rattling from some ID folk, Of Pandas and People II The Design of Life has yet to come out and put all us snooty “darwinists” (as if such a group still existed) in our place.

Despite Luskin’s memory lapse, however, we should have a look at what Sewell says about the future of evolution in public education;

But for most ID proponents, this will be a quite satisfactory outcome, certainly a huge improvement over the current sad state of affairs, where Darwin’s natural selection is the only scientific theory around which enjoys widespread legal protection from scientific criticism in the classroom. The Discovery Institute , which actively promotes ID as a scientific theory, does not (contrary to common belief) support the teaching of Intelligent Design in science classrooms, they only hope that biology instructors will be allowed to “teach the scientific controversy” over Darwinism.

Perhaps after a few generations in which biology texts point optimistically toward future discoveries which may uncover the mechanism of evolution, eventually some will begin to recognize the obvious, that there is no possible explanation without design. Until then, I will be happy with texts which simply acknowledge that the idea that the survival of the fittest can turn bacteria into giraffes, and cause human consciousness to arise out of inanimate matter, is doubted by some scientists.

Yes, they don’t want to teach intelligent design, they just want to, erm, teach intelligent design. From passages like this it is made to sound as if the Disco Institute just wants students to be told there’s a “scientific controversy” regarding evolution. Indeed, it seems like the fellows at the DI are going to an awful lot of trouble if all they want is for someone to say “There’s a scientific controversy. I can’t tell you it’s name, what it’s about, why it’s wrong, or anything else. Just know there’s a controversy.” Maybe, however, this does play into their hands; if teachers can talk about intelligent design they can’t refute it and show how bankrupt it is, so by telling kids that there’s a controversy and referring them to crackpot creationist texts they can bypass all open criticism of their ideas (and we all know that the DI would never, ever try to do something like that. How many peer-reviewed papers on ID have their advocates published now? Oh wait…)

At least when I’m dealing with creationists they’re usually up-front about their religious convictions; the DI takes a far more sneaky approach in an attempt to dupe teachers and students who might not be familiar with them or their cheesy wares. Why they’d want to be scientifically bankrupt AND liars, I don’t really know.

“I’m obnoxious and disliked, you know that sir”

18 07 2007

Matt, of Behavioral Ecology Blog fame, tagged me with a rather disturbing personality test… the author of it probably thought he was being cute, but ended up just giving me the creeps. That doesn’t mean that the result wasn’t on the money, though;

You are 100% Rational, 57% Extroverted, 28% Brutal, and 28% Arrogant.

You are the Hand-Raiser, that annoying kid in class who always had an
answer for everything. No doubt, as a child you probably sat in the
front of the class, anxiously waving your hand back and forth in the
air while your teacher desperately tried to avoid calling on you
because you were the ONLY fucking kid that answered her questions.
Clearly, the key traits of your personality are your rationality and
your extroversion. You are like a little talkative calculator, in other
words. You also tend to be rather gentle and less arrogant than most
people. Your presence is a bane to everyone’s existence, because you
are too nice for your own good and you absolutely will not shut up. So
what is your defect, then? Well, you’re boring, and when you’re not
boring, you are just plain annoying with your ultra-logical responses
and constant need to talk to others. So keep waving that hand in the
air, son. I’m still not calling on you. You are too logical, you talk
too much, and your humility and gentleness only makes me hate you more,
because they make me feel like I almost SHOULDN’T hate you. But I do.
Big time. And by the way, the more you wave your hand in class–your
extended hand becoming nothing more than a blur as you insanely wave
it, thinking we can’t see it–the more smug satisfaction the teacher
takes in watching the look of excrutiating pain cross your face as you
agonize over not being called on, and the longer we’ll wait to call on
you, just because we absolutely love torturing you so.

Link: The Personality Defect Test written by saint_gasoline on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test

In fact, I went one better than the hand-raiser; I gave a lecture on intelligent design/creationism last fall because I knew more about it than my professor did. I know my classmates hated it, as well as when the professor would refer to me when she wasn’t sure about something, but I liked the bit of recognition I got. I am a bit of a hand-raiser variant though; I don’t usually answer questions, I usually correct the teacher or offer some other insight. This is even worse than just being a regular know-it-all, so most of the time I just keep my mouth shut rather than appearing like an intellectual snob. Despite what my fellow students may think of me, though, things have paid off. Talking to my paleontology professor after class last fall definitely opened up some opportunities for me I wouldn’t otherwise have, so if I see a new Nature paper that’s of interest to the professor of a class I’m taking, I’ll bring it in if for no other reason to let them know I’m interested and paying attention.