Archive for the 'Uncategorized' category

I have awesome friends.

Not to brag (at least, not more than I should), but my friends are pretty great.

When I checked my mail at work today, I found an envelope that contained this note:

Note with text: "Sorry the blogosphere is rough. : (   Audrey."

and these gloves:

Gloves with letters on the fingers that spell FEMINIST.

And I gave thanks for having friends who understand that, some days, trying to get the world into better shape is a slog, but who remind me that it is work worth doing, and who show me (and many, many others) kindness to help me (and the others) find the strength to get the next incremental piece of the job done.

Thank you, Audrey. You rock!

3 responses so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: You've made it clear "it's a girl thing," but is "it" science?

If your Tweeps have been hashtagging about the same things mine have today, there's a good chance you've already seen this video from the European Union:

Ummm ... yeah. As science outreach, this would never have worked on a younger time-slice of me. But maybe I'm not the target audience.

In the interest of generating empirical data from the two possible members of the actual target audience to whom I have access, I showed the video to each of the Free-Ride offspring (both daughters, as related in my newly-published story at Story Collider) separately, then asked for their reactions, which I've transcribed below:

From the elder Free-Ride offspring, almost 13 years old:

I didn't really see those women doing science. Plus, they were trying to act too sexy. Yuck.

Me: Did you find any of the visuals engaging?

Some of the sprays of orbs were cool.

Me: How about the glassware?

Sort of. But we don't actually see how any of it is used to do science.

Based on this teaser, I would not watch the full music video.

Me: Um, I think it's supposed to be a teaser for an outreach campaign rather than a music video, although it's interesting that it read to you as "music video."

Or whatever. I feel like I've seen enough of this.

Me: Did you feel like it conveyed any information about science?


Me: Did you feel like it conveyed any information about what kind of people do science?

The only clear scientist in that video was the man. The women in that video didn't come across as scientists. They were more like giggly models with scientific props.

Me: If it were you, what kind of strategy would you use to get girls interested in science?

Don't show me make-up, lipstick, and high heels. Show me an actual scientist at work.

* * * * *

From the younger Free-Ride offspring, 11 years old and no stranger to feminine accoutrements:

Why the high heels?

It was bad. I didn't like it. And science isn't just a girl thing.

Me: What didn't you like about it?

How the guy was all seduced by the girls. And the girls were acting too girly -- abnormally girly.

I didn't feel like anything in the video had anything to do with science. It was just lipstick and stuff -- that's not science.

Me: Well, there's science that goes into making cosmetics.

We didn't see that in the video. We saw make-up exploding on the ground and women giggling.

I don't think this is a good science outreach strategy except to girls who want to have exactly that image.

* * * * *

It appears the sprogs aren't the target audience either -- or, if they are, that this video is 53 seconds of highly produced FAIL.

UPDATE: While the original video was reset to "private", there is a mirror of it:

Because you want to know what the fuss is about, right?

15 responses so far

Things my mother never told me about astronomical observations.

Feb 01 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Or, maybe my mother did tell me about this particular reason to "clean up" images from deep space and I just wasn't paying attention? (But how could that be?)

Space Cats

When Super Sally has a chance, I hope she'll check in (in the comments) to explain to us the optical principles behind these artifacts.

One response so far

The Thanksgiving feast and sleepiness: let's crowdsource some data!

A few years ago, we talked about the role turkey consumption might (or might not) play in post-Thanksgiving-feast fatigue. The oft-heard hypothesis is that the tryptophan in turkey gives you the yawns, but there was the suggestion that carbohydrates from starchy and sweet side dishes were an accomplice -- and that eating additional protein might counteract the tryptophan's soporific effects. Also, the amount you eat may be involved in how your body prioritizes consciousness relative to digestion.

It gets complicated pretty fast when we don't eat standardized lab chow.

Also, in passing, let me note that for all its association with tryptophan, turkey doesn't even crack the top 50 in this list of tryptophan-rich foods. (Number one: stellar sea lion kidney.)

Bora has a nice discussion of what tryptophan is up to in your body. Myself, I'm interested in working out observable patterns in Thanksgiving dining-and-yawning experience. Once we know what the patterns are, then we know what we need to explain with a biochemical mechanism.

To this ends, let's conduct some citizen science (and, come Friday, to collect some reports from the field).

Here is a form for data collection (*.doc format).

Ideally, we'd all want to sit down to the same Thanksgiving meal together (having all gotten a good night's sleep the day before, etc., etc.). Sadly, that's not going to happen. However, maybe you can rope those with whom you are dining on Thursday into participating.

Depending on the vibe at your Thanksgiving table, you can either ask the diners to keep track of what kinds of foods they eat, or you can assign your guests particular consumption objectives. Then, before dessert, have everyone do a quick assessment of his or her energy level.

With luck, we'll get data for the following variations:

  • High-tryptophan food (like turkey), high carbohydrate intake. (Prediction: sleepy)
  • High-tryptophan food, low carbohydrate intake. (Prediction: not sleepy)
  • Skip the high-tryptophan food, high carbohydrate intake. (Prediction: sleepy)
  • Skip the high-tryptophan food, low carbohydrate intake. (Prediction: not sleepy)
  • High-tryptophan food, high carbohydrate intake, extra protein. (Prediction: not sleepy)
  • High-tryptophan food, low carbohydrate intake, extra protein. (Prediction: energetic)
  • Skip the high-tryptophan food, high carbohydrate intake, extra protein. (Prediction: not sleepy)
  • Skip the high-tryptophan food, low carbohydrate intake, extra protein. (Prediction: frighteningly energetic)

Of course, if you track participant input a bit more precisely, maybe we'll stumble upon some other factor that turns out to be important, like vitamin A or sage.

If you use my form, you can return your results to me (as a *.doc or scanned into a PDF) by email: dr - dot - freeride - at - gmail - dot - com. I'll compile the responses and we'll see if we can make sense of the data.

See you back here on Friday morning with your results!

2 responses so far

What are honest scientists to do about a master of deception?

A new story posted at Chemical & Engineering News updates us on the fraud case of Bengü Sezen (who we discussed here, here, and here at much earlier stages of the saga).

William G. Schultz notes that documents released (PDF) by the Department of Health and Human Services (which houses the Office of Research Integrity) detail some really brazen misconduct on Sezen's part in her doctoral dissertation at Columbia University and in at least three published papers.

From the article:

The documents—an investigative report from Columbia and HHS’s subsequent oversight findings—show a massive and sustained effort by Sezen over the course of more than a decade to dope experiments, manipulate and falsify NMR and elemental analysis research data, and create fictitious people and organizations to vouch for the reproducibility of her results. ...

A notice in the Nov. 29, 2010, Federal Register states that Sezen falsified, fabricated, and plagiarized research data in three papers and in her doctoral thesis. Some six papers that Sezen had coauthored with Columbia chemistry professor Dalibor Sames have been withdrawn by Sames because Sezen’s results could not be replicated. ...

By the time Sezen received a Ph.D. degree in chemistry in 2005, under the supervision of Sames, her fraudulent activity had reached a crescendo, according to the reports. Specifically, the reports detail how Sezen logged into NMR spectrometry equipment under the name of at least one former Sames group member, then merged NMR data and used correction fluid to create fake spectra showing her desired reaction products.

Apparently, her results were not reproducible because those trying to reproduce them lacked her "hand skills" with Liquid Paper.

Needless to say, this kind of behavior is tremendously detrimental to scientific communities trying to build a body of reliable knowledge about the world. Scientists are at risk of relying on published papers that are based in wishes (and lies) rather than actual empirical evidence, which can lead them down scientific blind alleys and waste their time and money. Journal editors devoted resources to moving her (made-up) papers through peer review, and then had to devote more resources to dealing with their retractions. Columbia University and the U.S. government got to spend a bunch of money investigating Sezen's wrongdoing -- the latter expenditures unlikely to endear scientific communities to an already skeptical public. Even within the research lab where Sezen, as a grad student, was concocting her fraudulent results, her labmates apparently wasted a lot of time trying to reproduce her results, questioning their own abilities when they couldn't.

And to my eye, one of the big problems in this case is that Sezen seems to have been the kind of person who projected confidence while lying her pants off:

The documents paint a picture of Sezen as a master of deception, a woman very much at ease with manipulating colleagues and supervisors alike to hide her fraudulent activity; a practiced liar who would defend the integrity of her research results in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Columbia has moved to revoke her Ph.D.

Worse, the reports document the toll on other young scientists who worked with Sezen: “Members of the [redacted] expended considerable time attempting to reproduce Respondent’s results. The Committee found that the wasted time and effort, and the onus of not being able to reproduce the work, had a severe negative impact on the graduate careers of three (3) of those students, two of whom [redacted] were asked to leave the [redacted] and one of whom decided to leave after her second year.”

In this matter, the reports echo sources from inside the Sames lab who spoke with C&EN under conditions of anonymity when the case first became public in 2006. These sources described Sezen as Sames’ “golden child,” a brilliant student favored by a mentor who believed that her intellect and laboratory acumen provoked the envy of others in his research group. They said it was hard to avoid the conclusion that Sames retaliated when other members of his group questioned the validity of Sezen’s work.

What I find striking here is that Sezen's vigorous defense of her's own personal integrity was sufficient, at least for awhile, to convince her mentor that those questioning the results were in the wrong -- not just incompetent to reproduce the work, but jealous and looking to cause trouble. And, it's deeply disappointing that this judgment may have been connected to the departure of those fellow graduate students who raised questions from their graduate program.

How could this have been avoided?

Maybe a useful strategy would have been to treat questions about the scientific work (including its reproducibility) first and foremost as questions about the scientific work.

Getting results that others cannot reproduce is not prima facie evidence that you're a cheater-pants. It may just mean that there was something weird going on with the equipment, or the reagents, or some other component of the experimental system when you did the experiment that yielded the exciting but hard to replicate results. Or, it may mean that the folks trying to replicate the results haven't quite mastered the technique (which, in the case that they are your colleagues in the lab, could be addressed by working with them on their technique). Or, it may mean that there's some other important variable in the system that you haven't identified as important and so have not worked out (or fully described) how to control.

In this case, of course, it's looking like the main reason that Sezen's results were not reproducible was that she made them up. But casting the failure to replicate presumptively as one scientist's mad skillz and unimpeachable integrity against another's didn't help get to the bottom of the scientific facts. It made the argument personal rather than putting the scientists involved on the same team in figuring out what was really going on with the scientific systems being studied.

Of all of the Mertonian norms imputed to the Tribe of Science, organized skepticism is probably the one nearest and dearest to most scientists' basic understanding of how they get the knowledge-building job done. Figuring out what's going on with particular phenomena in the world can be hard, not least because lining up solid evidence to support your conclusions requires identifying evidence that others trying to repeat your work can reliably obtain themselves. This is more than just a matter of making sure your results are robust. Rather, you want others to be able to reproduce your work so that you know you haven't fooled yourself.

Organized skepticism, in other words, should start at home.

There is a risk of being too skeptical of your own results, and there are chances to overlook something important as noise because it doesn't fit with what you expect to observe. However, the scientist who refuses to entertain the possibility that her work could be wrong -- indeed, who regards questions about the details of her work as a personal affront -- should raise a red flag for the rest of her scientific community, no matter what her career stage or her track record of brilliance to date.

In a world where every scientist's findings are recognized as being susceptible to error, the first response to questions about findings might be to go back to the phenomena together, helping each other to locate potential sources of error and to avoid them. In such a world, the master of deception trying to ride personal reputation (or good initial impressions) to avoid scrutiny of his or her work will have a much harder time getting traction.

16 responses so far

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

2 responses so far

Some situations just call for a T-shirt.

Apropos of looming changes at ScienceBlogs.

5 responses so far

Autism Awareness Month: some links.

Since April is Autism Awareness Month, here are some links to relevant posts worth reading:

At Shakesville, a guest post from LydiaEncyclopedia: Autism Acceptance For Autism Awareness Month:

Autism Awareness Month has been a thorn in my side for as long as I've been an adult. I am at heart an attention-seeker, so you would think having an entire month devoted to people like me would be a joy to behold. But that's the problem behind Autism Awareness Month. It isn't about me. It's not about me—the autistic person. The entire conception of Autism Awareness Month doesn't even revolve around autism, not the kind I have or the kind that anyone I know lives with. The ‘autism' of Autism Awareness Month is a mysterious, esoteric, silent force, which magically swoops into the homes of unsuspecting families, and replaces regular, darling children with empty husks, ala the Changelings of ancient myths.

It's not even entirely about the children who are these so-called "empty shells." The entire focus of Autism Awareness Month seems to be divided between what sad, pathetic existences they must lead, and the potential for a real, neurotypical, normal child that lies just around the corner in the next type of chelation, cure, or therapy. Rather than shedding light on what autism is, Autism Awareness Month has served to cloud autism further in lies, half-truths, pity, and the tyranny of low expectations.

Also, a couple of the links dropped by the excellent Shakesville commenters on that post:

At Square 8, The ever-expanding list of neurotypical privilege.
(H/T codeman38)

At ballastexistenz, Hey, watch it, that’s attached!:

I am going to take cure to refer to removal of all things that have been defined by the medical profession, about my body, as disabilities, in the individual, medical sense that medical people make it. Some of the things I am about to describe may not sound like they are out of the ordinary. They aren’t. But at some point along the line, they have, in my life, become medicalized. For instance, certain particular genes generate things considered (in the medical/individual model of disability) disabling, but also a number of other things that taken alone would be ordinary. Since all those traits stem from the same genes, I have to conclude that they’d have to go as well, even the harmless or relatively ordinary bits. Cure, after all, does not pick and choose, it’s about removing all traces of the thing regarded as “a disability” medically. ...

Cure means rearranging me on everything from the obvious physical level to the genetic level. Rearranging at the genetic level always entails surprises. Pull on one thing and you find it’s attached to ten other things you didn’t even notice and would never have predicted, because you didn’t know that gene dealt with all of those things at once instead of one tidy little thing at a time. Similarly, rearranging the brain and other parts of the body will always have effects you didn’t count on. This is what happens when you mess with systems that are complex and interconnected.

(H/T: KA101)

Finally, some interesting discussions of research:

At Cracking the enigma, How do siblings influence theory of mind development in children with autism?:

Research conducted in the past 15 years or so has consistently shown that children with siblings of a similar age tend to pass tests of "theory of mind" at a younger age than those without siblings. The implication is that the experience of interacting with siblings helps children to develop the concept that other people have minds and that their thoughts and beliefs are sometimes different from their own.

Children with autism typically struggle on tests of theory of mind. An interesting question, then, is what effect siblings have on theory of mind development in autism. Based on the literature on typically developing kids, we might expect siblings of autistic children to have a beneficial effect. We could even make a case that, because autistic kids may have fewer interactions with non-family members, siblings may be even more important than normal. Counterintuitively, however, a new study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry suggests that having older siblings can have a detrimental effect on autistic children's theory of mind development. ...

The authors speculate that well-meaning older siblings may over-compensate for the autistic child's difficulties. By treating them with kid gloves, they may somehow limit their development. Younger siblings might be less likely to do this and so have a more benign influence. However, it's not clear why having older siblings would be worse than having none at all.

At The Autism Crisis, Are autistic people lost in space?:

In one short paper, Elizabeth Pellicano and colleagues claim to demolish Simon Baron Cohen's systemizing account of autism. They also conclude that autistics' strong visual search and probabilistic learning abilities fail in large-scale space, ergo in the real world. ...

Well first, it's an interesting task, even if it's not a visual search task.

But even if autistics totally failed (they didn't, and search all you want again, but you will find no rationale in this paper for the drop-off-a-cliff thresholds pushed by the authors), this task doesn't map easily onto the authors' sensational claims. These include that autistics can't find "shoes in the bedroom, apples in a supermarket, or a favourite animal at the zoo" ergo can't achieve independence.

Of course I want a whole lot more data, or an excellent rationale (none is provided) for not reporting most of it. And numerous possibilities were overlooked. ...

No one knows how autistics would have performed if given accurate task instructions (to take the shortest path, as measured by the authors, to the target). Maybe someone else can bring up motor differences, which plausibly are relevant to this "true-to-life" task. And I wonder how clear, for autistics, the task instructions were with respect to revisits.

Autistics should be notorious by now for noticing aspects of tasks that nonautistics don't (fantastic example at IMFAR last year), and for exploring more possibilities than nonautistics (examples here and here). Writing this off as a bad thing, as autistics being lost in space or some dire equivalent, is shortsighted to say the least.

3 responses so far

Ethics and the First of April.

On the Twitters, journalist Lee Billings posted this:

In case anyone was wondering, this is an April-Fools-free zone. Misleading readers is a disreputable practice, even under auspices of fun.

I think this is a position worth pondering, especially today.

Regular readers will have noticed that I indulge in the occasional April Fool's post.

In fact, I posted another today.

And, today's April Fool's post was notable (for me, anyway) in its departure from "surprising news about me and/or my blog" terrain. Instead, I was offering "commentary" on a news story that I made up -- fake news that was outrageous but had just enough plausibility that the reader might entertain the possibility that it was true. (Lately, the "real" news strikes me as outrageous a lot of the time, so my suspension-of-disbelief muscles are more toned than they used to be.)

So Lee Billings is, basically, right: I was striving to mislead you, my readers, at least momentarily, for laughs.

Was it unethical for me to have done so? Have I fallen short of my duties to you by engaging in this tomfoolery?

Maybe this comes down to what we understand those duties to be.

I try always to make my own thinking on an issue clear -- to explain my stand and to give you reasons for that stand. I also try to set out my uncertainties -- the things I don't know or the places I feel myself torn between different stances.

I actually did this in today's April Fool's post, even though I was giving my thoughts on the implications of a proposal that no one has made (yet).

When I'm responding to a news story, I accept that I have an obligation not to misrepresent the claims the story makes. This is not to say that I treat the source as authoritative -- indeed, in a number of cases I have expressed my own views of the "spin" of the reporting, and of the details that are not discussed in a news story. And, I include a link to the source so readers can read it themselves, evaluate it themselves, and draw their own conclusions about whether I've represented the source fairly.

Today's post had me responding to a news story that didn't exist. Clearly, that's a misrepresentation. Moreover, it means that the link I included to the news story didn't actually go to the news story -- more misrepresentation. However, the diligent reader who actually clicked on that link would be alerted to the fact that there was no such news story before getting into my presentation of the purported proposal or analysis of it.

Maybe this means that readers who were successfully mislead by the post actually fell short of their duties to click those links and read that source material with a critical eye.

It's possible, though, that I'm wrong about this -- that you all want me to break things down so clearly and accurately that you never have to click a hyperlink, that you'd like me to dispense with ironic phrasing (yeah, right!), and so forth. My sense is that readers of this blog have been willing to shoulder their share of the cognitive burden, but if I'm mistaken about that, please use the comments to set me straight.

The other ethical worry one might have (and some have expressed) about today's post is that my fake proposal might be taken up and advocated as a real proposal -- which, in this case, I agree would be bad. If that were to happen, would I be responsible?

I guess I might. But then so might authors of dystopian fiction whose ideas are embraced (and implemented) by people who have a different view of how the world should be. Personally, I think exploring the pitfalls of bad ideas before someone thinks to implement them could help us to actually find better ideas to implement. However, I suppose where bad ideas that get implemented come from is an empirical question.

Does anyone have a good way to get the empirical data that would answer it?

One response so far

Zucchini utilization: two recipes.

Aug 12 2010 Published by under [Etc], Food, Garden, Personal, Uncategorized

The Free-Ride family has spent the last several weeks dealing with an abundance of zucchini. Here are two of the smaller ones we harvested this week.

Since there's a limit to how many zucchini you can give away without alienating your friends and neighbors, it's good to have some tasty strategies for eating them. Here are to of the recipes we've been working.

Zucchini Faux-Risotto

Wash and trim about 3 pounds of zucchini. Halve them lengthwise and slice into semicircles (about 1/8 inch thick).

DIce one large onion.

Put a large pot of water on the stove to boil.

Heat up a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and zucchini and toss to coat with oil. Cook on high heat without stirring too much (so that the zucchini and onions brown a bit). As you cook, the onions will get translucent and the zucchini will cook down significantly.

Meanwhile, boil 1 pound of orzo. (Ours is al dente after about nine minutes.) Drain, add to the skillet with the onion and zucchini, toss gently, and turn heat off.

Finely grate some asiago or other hard cheese until you have 1/2 to 1 cup. Toss with the orzo and vegetables. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

This dish is good hot or at room temperature.

Zucchini Bread

Preheat your oven to 350 oF. Lightly grease a standard loaf pan, or line with parchment paper.

Grate a very generous 2 cups of washed, unpeeled zucchini. (In a two-cup Pyrex liquid measuring cup, you want it to be overflowing with the grated zucchini.) If you have a food processor with a grating disk, this is a good time to break it out.

Put the grated zucchini in a large bowl with 3/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, the finely grated rind of half a large lemon, and a large egg. Beat together with a fork.

Sift together into the zucchini mixture 1.5 cups flour (this last batch I used 1/2 cup whole wheat, 1/3 cup white whole wheat, and 2/3 cup all purpose), 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1/4 teaspoon baking powder, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, and 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom. Stir together until incorporated.

Pour into the loaf pan and bake for about 55 minutes. Cool before removing from the loaf pan and slicing.

This is so moist that you won't even think about buttering it until after you've gobbled it down.

9 responses so far

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