Archive for: May, 2011

I want to live in their world.

In my "Ethics in Science" course, we talk a lot about academia. It's not that all the science majors in the class are committed to becoming academic scientists, but many of them are planning to continue their scientific training, which usually means pursuing a graduate degree of some sort, thereby putting them in contact with a bunch of academic scientists and the sociopolitical world they inhabit.

But, as we're talking about the dynamics of the academic sector of the tribe of science, the students express some interesting, often charming, assumptions about how that world works. Two recent examples that stick with me:

  • There is some mechanism (analogous to student evaluations of a course and its instructor at the end of the term) by which graduate students regularly evaluate their graduate advisors/lab heads. And, these evaluations of the advisor have actual consequences for the advisor.
  • Getting tenure ensures financial stability for the rest of your life.

Would that it were so.

Some years ago I wrote a glossary of academic science jargon for the class. I'm on the verge of adding to it a brief description of a generic training lab (though maybe not properly a "typical" one, given the amount of local variation in labs), sketching out different career and training stages, levels of connection to the institution (with the financial security and power, or lack thereof, that go with them), and so on.

But now I'm tempted to get each new batch of students to tell me how they imagine it works before I point them towards the description of how it tends to be. Some of the features of the world they imagine are much nicer.

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Tomorrow on Skeptically Speaking: animal research.

Sunday, May 8th, I'll be on the Skeptically Speaking radio program, as part of an episode looking at "the practical advantages, and the ethical pitfalls, of using animals in scientific and medical research".

The show records live (unlike most of my blog posts!) starting at 6 PM Mountain Time (5 PM Pacific Time/7 PM Central Time/8 PM Eastern Time). Or, if you have plans (perhaps with your Mother) at that time, the podcast will be available for download at 9 PM (Mountain Time) on Friday, May 13th.

If there are questions you'd like to submit for the show, the Skeptically Speaking website is taking them now.

By the way, the other guest for this episode will be Bill Barry, Chief Historian at NASA, who will be talking about the history of animals and spaceflight ... which is a perfect excuse for a Jonathan Coulton video:


Space Doggity

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Ask Dr. Free-Ride: how much help is too much help?

In the comments on the post about the younger Free-Ride offspring's science fair project, Isabel asks:

I don't remember if I've seen your response to this question before, but, if you don't mind my asking, how much do you help your kids with their homework/science projects?

Actually, I'm pretty sure I haven't explicitly answered this question on the blog before, partly because the answer is something that constantly feels like it's being renegotiated. We're constantly trying to find the right level of assistance/engagement/oversight that ensures that the kids are:

  1. really mastering the material they're supposed to be learning,
  2. maybe seeing some of the stuff they're learning has cool extensions or consequences (because this is where a lot of the fun in learning seems to be),
  3. showing their teachers what they know (so that there's some chance of their grades reflecting that knowledge),
  4. doing their damned homework (please don't get me started on this),
  5. finishing their damned homework before bedtime.

As you might imagine, these goals are sometimes in tension with each other. Also, it turns out that I and my better half often have a fair bit of work that we're trying to accomplish at home ("homework", if you will), and no one is stepping up to help us with that -- the point being that we have to strive for some level of efficiency in supervising/helping the sprogs, else get our hands on a time machine.

I should share two nuggets of experience that I think inform my strategies on helping my kids with homework and projects. One is an interaction I had with a colleague maybe six years ago, when the elder Free-Ride offspring was in kindergarten. This colleague had a child in fifth grade and was bemoaning the fact that the school seemed to be assigning projects that it would be practically impossible for a fifth grader to do on his or her own. "So the parents end up doing much of the projects, because what choice do they have? If you resist it, it's your kid who gets the bad grade."

This state of affairs, dear readers, rather pissed me off. It helped me decide that, if my own clever kid's best effort was not enough to satisfy the requirements of a given project or assignment, I should be conferring with my kid's teacher about whether that project or assignment was actually appropriate.

The other experience that has informed my view here is what it was like to get help on schoolwork from my dad. His approach was, in a word, Socratic. I could approach him with what seemed like s straightforward question (e.g., how do I get started balancing this redox reaction) and he could be counted on to launch into no fewer than twenty minutes of questioning designed to help establish what I already understood and to help me figure out how to extend that knowledge to the problem at hand.

When I was a teenager, this bugged the heck out of me -- sometimes enough to motivate me to engage in my own (more focused) Socratic inquiry. But darned if I didn't develop some effective problem-solving strategies as a result of his questioning.

So, we pretty much went Socratic on the sprogs as soon as they gave any evidence of paying attention to what we were saying. (The Friday Sprog Blogging archives will attest to this.) And, this naturally carried over to homework once they started bringing it home. We routinely asked questions like:

  • What are you supposed to do here?
  • What can you tell me about how to do that?
  • How can you check whether doing it that way works, or whether your answer is a reasonable one?
  • Can you think of any other strategy for figuring this out?

Obviously this is not the most efficient way to get the homework done, at least in the short term. But it does seem to have helped the sprogs to get better at answering their own questions and developing their own problem-solving strategies, if only to get their Socratic parents to shut up.

For longer term projects, like science fair projects, we get a little more involved, not so much in directing the projects as in helping the kids assess whether the projects are plausibly doable in the time available and with the materials we have on hand or are willing to purchase. We help somewhat in developing the initial idea (I want to grow mold) to something like a testable hypothesis (although again, this help is Socratic in flavor). As well, as they're coming up with their experimental design, we'll ask more questions to help them think about whether their observations will really help answer the questions they're trying to answer, what confounders might complicate things, and so on.

The execution of the experiment is then up to the sprog.

I will cop to beating the time-management drum loudly and regularly for this round of science fair projects. Both concerned biological systems and data that was either necessarily to be collected over time (mold growth) or of a sort that you couldn't count on being able to collect all of the night before (because the rabbit gets bored hunting for treats after a while). Also, since the elder Free-Ride offspring's project involved research with a USDA regulated vertebrate animal, I was a hardass about getting the kid to commit to an experimental protocol in time for a veterinarian to give feedback on it before signing the required forms (and before any data collection commenced).

I did not micromanage how the sprogs kept their project notebooks. This meant that the younger Free-Ride offspring had to reap what was sown (with data recorded on dated but not chronologically ordered pages) when it came time to collect and analyze the data. I have a feeling that's a lesson that's going to stick.

As far as data analysis and visual representation of the data, this is something I discussed with the sprogs (again, Socratically) as they were deciding on the approach that they thought made the most sense. Once they settled on an approach, it was up to them to execute it.

They wrote up (and typed out) their own narratives for their project boards. They also decided how to organize text blocks, photographs, tables, and graphs on the project board. I, however, wielded the can of spray adhesive, on the theory that the sprogs would get into more trouble with sticky hands than I would.

Our approach to helping here is not always successful from the point of view of getting the sprogs to do their best work (or to actually turn it in). But, I think it has been a reasonable strategy in terms of ensuring that the sprogs know how to do that work, even the more challenging long-term projects. Also, they bring home grades that reflect their work, not their parents'.

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An open letter

May 03 2011 Published by under Communication, Mailbag, Passing thoughts

To the large multinational company trying to interest me in blogging about a "fun" story from its "sponsored news-site":

It's not that I really begrudge you your effort to get something (more eyeballs on a website that puts your company and its research in the most flattering light) for nothing. Hell, people at my day job try to get me to add value to their agendas while providing no return for me All. The. Time.

I put that down to human nature (even though, as a multinational corporation, you are an individual in only the most strained and legalistic sense).

However, when you pester me to do so in multiple emails, identical but for the persons identified as their senders, you actually make me even less likely to do your thinly-disguised greenwashing bidding.

Also? I'm unlikely to do any free shilling for your huge-profit-making corporation in a world where you persist in paying no taxes.

Kisses,

Dr. Free-Ride

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Can nothing be done about the exam-talkers?

That isn't a typo -- the issue is students who talk to each other while taking exams.

I received the following via email from a reader (lightly edited to remove identifying details):

I'm wondering if you and your readers can help me analyze this situation.

I caught two students talking during an exam.

This is not the first time for this pair. The first time this happened, I explicitly communicated my expectations about conduct during an exam to all of my students, specifically stating that talking during an exam will be taken as cheating. The academic integrity section of the undergraduate bulletin also states that conversation during an exam is not allowed.

After the second incident, I wanted to penalize both students with a zero for said exam and forfeiture of the dropped-lowest-exam-score policy. The students immediately said they will appeal to the dean and their parents have been hounding the chair as well as the administration.

The message I'm getting now is that I cannot prove the talking during the exam actually took place (although I saw it). Not only that, I'm basically being bullied to drop it for fear that the parents will file a law suit, maybe because the administration has decided the university cannot deal with another scandal after a recent one fueled by alcohol.

My question is, when did talking during exams become acceptable? (That it's acceptable is the message I'm getting regardless of what's written in the academic bulletin). I have not been teaching long but have read about faculty being fearful of repercussions when reporting cheating students. I don't want to end up like that, compromising my principles for fear of repercussions such as loss of job (I'm not protected by tenure). Unfortunately, this is where I am headed. This whole incident is very demoralizing. Is it too much to expect students to abide by a shared code of conduct during exams? Is this response by chair and administration common?

I'm going to give my advice on this situation, but since my correspondent specifically requested help from you, the commentariat, please post your advice in the comments, making sure to point out ways you think my advice goes wrong.

Continue Reading »

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When the news coverage departs from physical reality.

May 02 2011 Published by under Chemistry, Current events

On NPR's Morning Edition this morning, Dina Temple-Raston told Renee Montagne how Osama Bin Laden tried to evade detection:

[O]ne intelligence official told us that nothing with an electron actually passed close to him, which in a way is one of the ways they actually caught him.

Temple-Raston went on to clarify that suspicions were raised when bin Laden's compound (which has been described as a "mansion" and was certainly bigger than the neighboring houses) had neither telephone service nor internet connections.

But, let us note for the record that all the furniture, walls, floors, window treatments -- indeed, Osama bin Laden himself -- were almost certainly lousy with electrons, and that these electrons would have been in motion. Electrons were not only passing close to Osama bin Laden -- they were passing in him and through him. Matter, in this universe, is made up of atoms, and ions, and aggregates of these, that contain electrons!

Verily, in the event that bin Laden's compound was actually electron free, I reckon the strong positive charge of the place would have given him away much sooner.

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Scientific knowledge and "what everyone knows".

Those of you who read the excellent blog White Coat Underground have probably had occasion to read PalMD's explanation of the Quack Miranda Warning, the disclaimer found on various websites and advertisements that reads, "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease." When found on a website that seems actually to be offering diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention, PalMD notes, this language seems like a warning that the big change that will be effected is that your wallet will be lightened.

In response to this, Lawrence comments:

This statement may be on every quack website but is on every legitamate website and label as well. Take vitamin C for example. Everyone knows that it can help treat & cure diseases. Vitamin C has been used for centuries to cure disease by eating various foods that are high in it. Even doctors tell you it is good to take when you are sick because it helps your body fight off the disease. So the fact that this statement is required to be on even the most obviously beneficial vitamins pretty much means that the FDA requires a companies to lie to the public and that they have failed in their one duty to encouraging truth in health. Once I realized this, it totally discredits everything the FDA says.

Sure if something is not approved by a big organization whose existance is supposed to safeguard health it makes it easier for the little con artest to step in at every opportunity, but that doesn't mean that the big con artests arn't doing the same thing

PalMD's reply is succinct:

"Everyone knows..."

A phrase deadly to science.

I'm going to add my (less succinct) two cents.

There are plenty of things that people take to be something everyone knows. (The "everyone" is tricky, because there are enough people on the planet that it's usually (always?) possible to find someone who doesn't know X.). And, I'm happy to grant that, for some values of X, there are indeed many people who believe X.

But belief is not the same as knowledge.

What "everyone knows" about celebrities should help us notice the difference. Richard Gere? Jamie Lee Curtis? Even in the event that everyone has heard the same rumors, the extent of what we actually know is that there are rumors. Our propensity to believe rumors is why the team at Snopes will never want for material.

This is not to say that we have to do all of our epistemic labor ourselves. Indeed, we frequently rely on the testimony of others to help us know more than we could all by ourselves, But, this division of labor introduces risks if we accept as authoritative the testimony of someone who is mistaken -- or who is trying to sell us snake-oil. Plus, when we're accepting the testimony of someone who knows X on the basis of someone else's testimony, our connection to the actual coming-to-know of X (through a mode other than someone else's say-so) becomes more attenuated.

At least within the realm of science, the non-testimony route to knowledge involves gathering empirical evidence under conditions that are either controlled or at least well characterized. Ideally, the effects that are observed are both repeatable in relevantly similar conditions and observable by others. Science, in its methodology, strives to ground knowledge claims in observational evidence that anyone could come to know (assuming a standard set of properly functioning sense organs). Part of how we know that we know X is that the evidence in support of X can be inspected by others. At this basic level, we don't have to take anyone else's word for X; the testimony of our senses (and the fact that others who are pointing their sense organs at the same bits of the world and seeing the same things) gives us the support for our beliefs that we need.

Claims without something like empirical support might inspire belief, but they don't pass scientific muster. To the extent that an agency like the FDA is committed to evaluating claims in a scientific framework, this means that they want to evaluate the details of the experiments used to generate the empirical data that are being counted as support for those claims. In other contexts, folks may be expecting, or settling for, other standards of evidence. In scientific contexts, including biomedical ones, scientific rules of evidence are what you get.

Why then, one might ask, might a physician suggest vitamin C to a patient with a cold if there isn't sufficient scientific evidence to say we know vitamin C cures cold?

There are a few possibilities here. One is that the physician judges (on the basis of a reasonable body of empirical evidence) that taking vitamin C is unlikely to do harm to the patient with a cold. If the physician's clinical experience is that cold patients will feel better with some intervention than with no intervention, recommending vitamin C may seem like the most benign therapeutic option.

It's also possible that some of these physicians accept the testimony of someone else who tells the there is good reason to believe that vitamin C cures colds. Being human, physicians sometimes get burned by testimony that turns out to be unreliable.

It's even possible that some physicians are not so clear on scientific rules of evidence, and that they make recommendations on the basis of beliefs that haven't been rigorously tested. The more high profile of these physicians are the kinds of folks about whom PalMD frequently blogs.

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