Tag Archives: Science Education

Getting a paper past pee review

OK, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but some kids take longer than others …

But seriously, this is a heartwarming and touching story of science reaching into childhood and yanking some poor unsuspecting kid into the world of … academia…

From Once Teased For Her Love Of Bugs, 8-Year-Old Co-Authors Scientific Paper.

REVIEWER THREE
Sophia was a bug loving 8 year old (reminds me of my neighbor) who’s mother put her in touch with the Entomological Society of Canada, and this eventually led to Sophia’s collaboration on a paper that was recently published.

The paper, published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, is called: Engaging for a good cause: Sophia’s Story and Why #BugsR4Girls by Morgaan Jackson and Sophia Spencer. (Annals of the Entomological Society of America, Volume 110, Issue 5, 1 September 2017, Pages 439–448), comes with this abstract:

Scientists, particularly those involved with nonapplied or “basic” science, are often asked to justify the broader impacts of their work, or more acutely, how they and their work contribute to society. Although it may be difficult to articulate the immediate importance of providing names for new flies, the inherent value of knowledge is undeniable. At times, however, the positive impact scientists have on society, or even on a single individual, can burst into reality in real-time. Here we examine one such example: a tweet and hashtag that circled the globe in support of a young girl being bullied for her entomological passion. We explore the responses to the tweet, within Twitter and in the larger media landscape, and what they mean for entomology, scientific societies using social media, and the promotion of women in science, and provide recommendations for increasing engagement on social media to improve representation of science.

Hat Tip: Adam

You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. Unless you live in Florida

This is disturbing, but since civilization is ending as we speak, I suppose it is not surprising. From the Washington Post:

Any resident in Florida can now challenge what kids learn in public schools, thanks to a new law that science education advocates worry will make it harder to teach evolution and climate change.

The legislation, which was signed by Gov. Rick Scott (R) this week and goes into effect Saturday, requires school boards to hire an “unbiased hearing officer” who will handle complaints about instructional materials, such as movies, textbooks and novels, that are used in local schools. Any parent or county resident can file a complaint, regardless of whether they have a student in the school system. If the hearing officer deems the challenge justified, he or she can require schools to remove the material in question….

Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Council for Science Education, said that affidavits filed by supporters of the bill suggest that science instruction will be a focus of challenges. One affidavit from a Collier County resident complained that evolution and global warming were taught as “reality.” Another criticized her child’s sixth-grade science curriculum, writing that “the two main theories on the origin of man are the theory of evolution and creationism,” and that her daughter had only been taught about evolution.

“It’s just the candor with which the backers of the bill have been saying, ‘Yeah, we’re going to go after evolution, we’re going to go after climate change,'” that has him worried, Branch said.

Here is the original

Notable Women in the Physical Sciences

Did you ever hear the expression, “You’re a real card!” Well, if you are a notable woman in the physical sciences, you just might be a card!

My sister has a project, and Amanda and my niece Koren and some others are involved, that puts notable women in the physical sciences on cards, with a bit of biographical information. The idea is to underscore women in STEM while at the same time getting cards! The long term model is to sell the cards to interested buyers, such as YOU, and use the net thusly obtained to get decks into classrooms.

So, here’s what you need to do. Click here, and buy two decks of cards. One, you keep and play cards with, the other, you give to someone, perhaps a teacher or perhaps a young female who has shown interest in the physical sciences. Or, perhaps, you place one of these card decks somewhere were cards go, like a local bar or coffee shop that has some games, or at the cabin or something.

In addition, at this early stage of their project, they could use some plain old donations, so please consider doing that as well.

I have already heard from several physical science teachers that these cards are great and that they are doing things with them in the classroom.

As a science writer, I was at first shocked and dismayed to find that the science writers in the deck were on the Joker card! But when I asked my sister about it, she told me the Jokers are the most sought after cards for the science communicators, because Jokers are the most flexible and a bit on the wild side, and can cope and adapt to any situation. So, I suppose that’s OK (or is she joshin’ me?).

Anyway, have a look, pass it around, pick up some cards (buy double if your game is Canasta). I am not joking when I say the cards are great!

Science Gone Awry, Science Haters Mailing Mailers

I’m currently reading Paul Offit’s Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, in preparation for an interview with him that I’ll be recording later this week. I’ll let you know about the interview, but at this time I can say that I’m very much enjoying the book. The publisher’s description:

What happens when ideas presented as science lead us in the wrong direction?

History is filled with brilliant ideas that gave rise to disaster, and this book explores the most fascinating—and significant—missteps: from opium’s heyday as the pain reliever of choice to recognition of opioids as a major cause of death in the U.S.; from the rise of trans fats as the golden ingredient for tastier, cheaper food to the heart disease epidemic that followed; and from the cries to ban DDT for the sake of the environment to an epidemic-level rise in world malaria.

These are today’s sins of science—as deplorable as mistaken past ideas about advocating racial purity or using lobotomies as a cure for mental illness. These unwitting errors add up to seven lessons both cautionary and profound, narrated by renowned author and speaker Paul A. Offit. Offit uses these lessons to investigate how we can separate good science from bad, using some of today’s most controversial creations—e-cigarettes, GMOs, drug treatments for ADHD—as case studies. For every “Aha!” moment that should have been an “Oh no,” this book is an engrossing account of how science has been misused disastrously—and how we can learn to use its power for good.

The story of opium reminds me of that movie, Very Bad Things. Remember that?

Also, I did a podcast, the guest rather than the interviewer (I go both ways), on Geeks Without God, which will be up on the 16h, here. I think that if you are a subscriber you can get it early, like, now. The interview was about the Heartland Institute‘s recent recent mailing of anti-science materials related to climate change, sent out to a very large number of teachers.

Minnesota March For Science

Just a little video and some pictures from today’s March for Science, Minnesota.

This one from the march route on the way to the capitol. Skip ahead to about 1:12 go get the best chant:

PHOTO_20170422_111658

Another video, this one from The Hedge:

You don’t see this sign at many protests:
PHOTO_20170422_114843

Mammals were welcome at the march:PHOTO_20170422_115032

And, now, Here is my extraordinarily well timed Facebook Live post

Teachers: Be on the alert for this anti-science mailing!

A well known anti-science “think” tank has sent around, to teachers, a mailing including an antiscience book, a movie, and nice letter and, oddly, a pamphlet exposing the fact that the mailing is entirely politically motivated.

Most science teachers will ignore this. A few science teachers are science deniers, and they already had the material in the mailings. So, I think this was a huge waste of money and effort. But it happened and you should know about it, and you should warn anyone you know that is a teacher.

The real concern, in my opinion, is not this falling into the hands of science teachers. The science teachers will recognize this for what it is. The concern is this mailing in the hands of non-science teachers who are not inoculated against it, who may then wonder why their colleagues down the hall are not “teaching the controversy,” as it were.

The Heartland Institute, famous for supporting research to prove that smoking is not bad for people, and more recently for promoting research that climate change is not real, has sent this mailing to many thousands of teachers. I’ve heard the number 300,000, but that number is probably from Heartland, and they lie all the time, so I don’t believe it.

The Heartland Institute

…is a Chicago-based free market think tank … that has been at the forefront of denying the scientific evidence for man-made climate change. The Heartland Institute has received at least $676,500 from ExxonMobil since 1998 but no longer discloses its funding sources. The Union of Concerned Scientists found that “Nearly 40% of the total funds that the Heartland Institute has received from ExxonMobil since 1998 were specifically designated for climate change projects.”

David Padden founded The Heartland Institute in 1984 and served as its Chairman between 1984 and 1995, co-chairing with Joseph Bast. Padden was also one of the original members of the Board of Directors of the Cato Institute…

In the 1990s, the Heartland Institute worked with the tobacco company Philip Morris to question the science linking second-hand smoke to health risks, and lobbied against government public health reforms. Heartland continues to maintain a “Smoker’s Lounge” section of their website which brings together their policy studies, Op-Eds, essays, and other documents that purport to “[cut] through the propaganda and exaggeration of anti-smoking groups.”

In a 1998 op-ed, Heartland President Joe Bast claimed that “moderate” smoking doesn’t raise lung cancer risks, and that there were “few, if any, adverse health effects” associated with smoking.

The mailer includes the book “Why Scientists Disagree about Global Warming, with three authors including Craig Idso, Robert Carter, and Fred Singer, with a forward by conservative columnist Marita Noon.

Idso is the head of an organization who’s stated purpose is to “separate reality from rhetoric in the emotionally-charged debate that swirls around the subject of carbon dioxide and global change,” which means, in this case, to deny the basics of atmospheric physics. He has numerous ties with the oil industry. Carter died in 2016. He advised several climate change denying organizations and filled the print media with many anti-science op eds and editorials. He has openly admitted that he is a paid shill of the petroleum industry. Singer is an actual former scientist but recognized by his colleagues as an anti-climate science spokesperson. Singer has been on the Heartland Institute payroll for quite some time.

The book is full of lies and misdirections. It is mainly an attack on the “scientific consensus” on climate change.

You have probably heard a lot about the “climate consensus.” Since the attacking the consensus is the main objective of this mailing, I’d like to spend a moment on that topic. Feel free to skip down to the bottom of the post for suggestions on what books would be good for your favorite science teacher to have in his or her room, in case you want to participate in a sort of grass-roots counter mailing!

In most scientific endeavors, where new discovery is being made, a period of uncertainty, perhaps confusion, perhaps vigorous competition among ideas, is usually followed by a period of growing consensus around a particular scientific idea (a model, a theory, a set of methods and interpretations of findings, etc., depending on the science).

The growth and establishment of consensus is one of the key objectives of science. Scientists know that consensus is powerful and even limiting; an incorrect consensus can mislead researchers and be very counter productive. For this reason, scientists take consensus pretty seriously. Like a jury deciding on innocence or guilt of a person accused of a very serious crime, scientists don’t want to make a mistake. However, scientists are more like a civil case jury than a criminal case jury. We are not required to reject an otherwise well developed case because someone has raised doubt about one tiny aspect of it. Rather, we arrive at consensus using the preponderance of evidence, like in American civil law.

And, once consensus is established, it does not become dogma. Rather, it becomes a dart board, always hanging there in sight, always subject to attack and interrogation. (OK, I know that nobody interrogates their dart board. Maybe it is more like an Elf on the Shelf. But I digress.)

Consider “continental drift” (aka plate tectonics). When Alfred Wegener proposed his theory that continents move around in the early 1900s, he noted that many others had suggested similar ideas. Wegener proposed a comprehensive model of what may have happened in the earth’s past, but he lacked a good mechanism for it. So, the middle of the 20th century involved a period of criticism of his theory, with the idea eventually being more or less thrown out. One of the key features of plate tectonics is how the two kinds of Earth’s crust interact, but geologists did not yet know that the Earth has these two kinds of crust. “Deep sea” exploration had found submerged continental crust, and that looked like regular crust, so it was assumed that the land under the sea was the same as the land on the land.

I note that even though oceanic crust was not understood in the 19th century, Darwin had observed, during the voyage of the Beagle, that a set of islands in the Atlantic, which are actually a bit of ocean crust thrust above the sea surface, was very odd, and that with more study, may cause us to think novel thoughts about rocks.

Even though the theory was eclipsed, some people still thought it was a good idea.

So, we went from nobody getting continental drift, but with a few people mentioning it now and then, to a surge in thinking about it, to a widespread rejection but with a few people thinking it might be valid. I oversimplify, but it is safe to say that by the middle of the 20th century, even though “continental drift” had been a conversation in science since even before science could be said to exist, there was no consensus.

The later part of the middle of the 20th century, however, saw more and more evidence mounting. Rocks were found to be absolutely identical in the evidence of how they formed (that is the main way geologists divide up rocks) across large areas. For example, there are rock formations in South America, South Africa, India, Antartica, and Australia that clearly were once part of a single geological formation all on the same continent. This required that the continents had moved, and in this case, that these particular continents were all attached to each other at one (or more) time.

Also during this period, deep water oceanography was advanced and the actual sea floor was observed and sampled. Mid ocean ridges were discovered and documented. This is where the continents were spreading.

Meanwhile, the dynamic of continental crust subducting under other crust were being figured out, and the significant movement of continents right now (like around the Pacific) became the only way to explain, for example, Japan. The fossil record, which demonstrates a complex biogeography of evolution and movement of species, either restricted by being on different continents, or able to move around large areas that are now on different continents, started to makes sense only in the light of the emerging and increasingly detailed theory of continental movement. Research on how the Earth itself works as a planet, below the surface, eventually allowed for, if not definitively providing, a means for the continents to move.

Plate tectonics (the process) and continental drift (the historical events) eventually became consensus science.

Climate change, the processes by which climate patterns form and change over time, including the role of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, and the potential contribution of human release of fossil Carbon as CO2 or Methane in causing significant change in climate, was consensus science at least a few decades ago. But agents of the petroleum and coal industries preferred citizens (voters and consumers) and governments (regulators) to not act on this already happening climate change. They funded libertarian and conservative front groups and others to manufacture doubt about climate change. For this reason, five years ago, to pick a date, the casual observer could not tell, depending on who they listened to and what they read, whether or not climate scientists were all on the same page.

A group of rather brave and smart scientists decided to do something that had not been done very much before, and that had never been addressed with a fully committed research program: Measure the consensus.

I have a few comments on that, but the best way to learn all about this effort is to check out “The Consensus Project.”

Normally the consensus over a scientific issue forms and all the scientists know about it. That is part of what being a scholar of science is about. You learn to learn about the developing arguments, the fights, the building consensus, the overturning of ideas, all of it, over historical time, recent decades, the present, as you study to become a scientists and you continue to keep track of this information as a working scientists.

Scientists know what consensus means, and they know its limitations and what questions remain. Today in geology nobody is working to disprove the idea that Cambridge Argillite and its sister rock in Norway match up and were once part of the same sea basin prior to the opening of the Atlantic Ocean, because that fact can only be wrong if everything we know about rocks is wrong. But others are working on, and arguing about, important details of the deep layers of the Earth and how they act in moving continents around.

But the scientists studying climate consensus were forced into the position of addressing consensus, as a concept or as a measure of the maturity or stability of a particular scientific construct, because the bought and paid for deniers forced them to do so with their politically motivated anti-science (and anti environmental) yammering.

There were actually two groups, and their work is often confused. The less widespread but excellent analysis that happened first showed that almost 100% of scientists agree on the basics of global warming related science. The more intensive analysis showed that nearly 100% of the literature agreed on the basics of global warming. In both cases, they were a couple percent short of full consensus, but I note the following:

1) The research was conservative, biased a little towards including items or people on the non-consensus side, in order to be unassailable.

2) The research was done with scientists and peer reviewed papers over a period of time, and the work ended (most of it) a couple of years ago. So, a figure like “97%” reflects, perhaps, the state of the field in 2010 better than 2017. The last few years have seen the total wiping out of certain non-consensus generating observations (like the so called “pause” in global warming). In other words, if this work showed a 3% non-consensus, I expect at least half of that to have gone away by now.

3) The deniers and their works, if they are scientists and if the work is peer reviewed, are of course considered in such studies, so that accounts for a half percent of so.

4) In normal society, something like 8% of people believe they were abducted by aliens. About 1% or a bit less probably believe they are aliens. (That works out nicely.) Among scientists, there are always going to be a few oddballs. There is a tenured professor at Harvard who is a UFO-ologist. There was until recently a tenured professor in Washington who thought Bigfoot was real. There are probably one or two geologists who think plate tectonics is fake. Science is lucky that the oddball number is low compared to society in general. But it is not zero.

The Heartland mailing asks teachers, “How do you teach global warming?”

Let me ask you that now, if you are a teacher? I’d love to know how and if, and using what materials and methods, you address climate change and global warming. Let us know in the comments!

Meanwhile, please let any teachers you know about this mailing. Feel free to share this blog post with them. And, if you are not a teacher but know one, or if you are a parent with a kid in school, consider sending the teacher a note, and if you feel up to it, a book! (But not the one Heartland sent!)

I do have some suggestions for you. There are many books on climate change and global warming, and they have tended to differentiate themselves so that there is remarkably little redundancy. Here, I’ll note a handful of recent (all are very current) books that serve a variety of different purposes. I’ve reviewed most of these on this blog (see links below) if you want more info on them.

Dire_Predictions_Mann_KumpDire Predictions, 2nd Edition: Understanding Climate Change by Michael Mann and Lee Kump.

The UN’s IPCC periodically summarizes the state of scientific thinking on climate change. It is a huge report written for an expert audience. This book turns that report into something accessible by the average person, and does so with excellent graphics and other material. This book should be on the shelf in every science classroom.

Explore global warming with graphics, illustrations, and charts that separate climate change fact from fiction, presenting the truth about global warming in a way that’s both accurate and easy to understand. Respected climate scientists Michael E. Mann and Lee R. Kump address important questions about global warming and climate change, diving into the information documented by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and breaking it down into clear graphics that explain complex climate questions in simple illustrations that present the truth of the global warming problem clearly.

My review

Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 11.10.24 AMA Global Warming Primer: Answering Your Questions About The Science, The Consequences, and The Solutions by Jeffrey Bennett.

This is the book sent around to teachers by the National Center for Science Education. It is an excellent overview of climate change and human impacts, using a unique approach that will work especially well in both high school science and social studies classrooms.

Is human-induced global warming a real threat to our future? Most people will express an opinion on this question, but relatively few can back their opinions with solid evidence. Many times we’ve even heard pundits say “I am not a scientist” to avoid the issue altogether. But the truth is, the basic science is not that difficult. Using a question and answer format, this book will help readers achieve three major goals: To see that anyone can understand the basic science of global warming; To understand the arguments about this issue made by skeptics, so that readers will be able to decide for themselves what to believe; To understand why, despite the “gloom and doom” that often surrounds this topic, the solutions are ones that will not only protect the world for our children and grandchildren, but that will actually lead us to a stronger economy with energy that is cheaper, cleaner, and more abundant than the energy we use today.

Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know® by Joe Romm.

This is more for the parents and teachers than the students, but it could be an excellent choice for an environmental science class. Romm discusses many of the pragmatic aspects of global warming, for the average individual, which is not seen as intensively developed in other books.

This book offers the most up-to-date examination of climate change’s foundational science, its implications for our future, and the core clean energy solutions. Alongside detailed but highly accessible descriptions of what is causing climate change, this entry in the What Everyone Needs to Know series answers questions about the practical implications of this growing force on our world:

· How will climate change impact you and your family in the coming decades?
· What are the future implications for owners of coastal property?
· Should you plan on retiring in South Florida or the U.S. Southwest or Southern Europe?
· What occupations and fields of study will be most in demand in a globally warmed world?
· What impact will climate change have on investments and the global economy?

My review.


Climatology versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics by Dana Nuccitelli.

Dana examines climate change by comparing what people, both real scientists and the fake ones, predicted, with what happened. He does other stuff too, but that is my favorite part of this book.

28 Climate Change Elevator Pitches: Short Explanations on the Scientific Basis of Man-made Climate Change by Rob Honeycutt.

This is hot off the presses. Again, this is more for the teacher and parent than the school setting, but since it is new I wanted you to know about it. My review is here.

Learn Scratch Programming (For Kids And Adults)

Scratch Programming Playground: Learn to Program by Making Cool Games is a brand new offering from No Starch Press.

scratchprogrammingplayground_coverNever mind all the other programming books for kids, this is the best so far.

It helps that the Scratch Programming environment is so easy to use and allows such creative development, and it also helps that Scratch is likely to be a programming environment for basic robotics in the future (as I discuss briefly here). But the book itself is excellent, and works at several levels. A young kid working with an adult, a medium level kid working on their own, or an adult playing on the computer after the kids have gone to bed.

Scratch is in the Logo family of object oriented programming. Indeed, Scratch itself, as a language, is a very short distance from the original object oriented programming, much closer to the source than many professional object oriented language.

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-8-55-57-pmIt works like this. See the graphic to the right. This is code that controls a “sprite” which in this case is a picture of a ball.

The light brown C-shaped things are control constructs. An outer one called “forever” contains code that will be run from the time the program is started until it is stopped externally. Inside that is an “if” loop that checks to see if the object “paddle” (specified in the blue object) touches the sprite (ball). If that event happens, then the code inside the “if” thingie is executed. In this case, the variable “score” goes up by one, a funny little blerp sound is made, and the ball turns in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, the paddle has a wadge of code that goes with it as well, which responds to key presses or mouse movements, so that the paddle can be used as part of the bouncing the ball game. And so on.

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-8-55-24-pmIn the code block on the left, contact between a pirate (a sprite) and a leaf causes the leaf to disappear and the pirate to get a score for making the leaf disappear.

You can imagine the possibilities.

So, imagine the following game. A complex maze is on the screen. The player uses arrow keys, etc., to move a tiny cat around in the maze, working the cat from the beginning to the end. At the end, there is a hole that the cat goes through, and now the cat is in another maze. And so on for several mazes.

Are there objects in the maze the cat must avoid? Or obtain? Will you time how long it takes to get through each level? Will you keep a high score? Will you have two cats, with two people controlling them, each moving in opposite directions through the maze?

The code examples I give above are not from Scratch Programming Playground, but the maze example is. It is one of several projects that the book works you though, as you learn all the various programming concepts in Scratch 2.0. The programs you learn to code produce complicated results and are really spiffy, but the programming itself is easy and the code is not extensive, because Scratch 2.0 is so powerful yet easy to use.

Each example, such as the maze, is fully developed, and then, new versions (like having the second player ability, etc.) added, and by the time you are done with that example, if not sooner, you are already adding things of your own design, from your own imagination.

Scratch 2.0 can be run as a stand along program in windows and on a Mac, but works better on the web, in a browser, on all platforms. Working in that environment, on the browser, has the important advantage of immediate access to a large amount of work done by others, that you can freely borrow from. And, of course, you can show off your own work.

Scratch Programming Playground tells you how to obtain or set up an account on Scratch at MIT, holding your hand effectively but respectfuly through the entire process. The book is also associated with, as per usual for a No Starch book, a web site with the code and other items used in the book. However, I recommend actually hand building most of this code on your own, so you actually learn what you are doing.

This is the overview table of contents for the book:

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-8-52-19-pm

And this is the Maze Runner project contents expanded, to give you an idea of how the learning and making process is parsed out:

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-8-52-35-pm

Note the multiple versions of the project that are developed after the main project is up and running.

It is possible to figure out how to make a hand held game controller work with Scratch programs, but that will depend on the controller you have and the platform. A USB controller and a bit of software from the web that lets you set up the buttons should work.

I would not be surprised if future Internet of Things programming, robotic programming, and other coding you might want to get involved in either uses Scratch or follows this model. The mBot robots can be controlled with a version of Scratch, which produces Arduino code for that robot, and there is now a compiler that allows the general use of scratch for Arduino. Arduino is a basic prototyping machine that can run things, as in “Internet of Things” and that is similar to controllers in general, like the ones in your computer, VCR, thermostat, DVD, car, Mars Rover, etc. (Wait, did I just say “VCR” … whatever.)

A bit of the book giving instruction on a code block to control a tennis ball sprite.
A bit of the book giving instruction on a code block to control a tennis ball sprite.
Anyway, Scratch 2.0 on the web, as per Scratch Programming Playground, gives you, er, your kids, great training in all the programming concepts, and with it you basically controls sprites (objects) on a screen. But the same language is already adapted to control a common form of robot (mBot) and has been adapted to program a widely used controller. So, with Scratch Programming Playground, a little practice and nine dollars worth of hardware, you can take over the world! Or, at least, a good portion of the Tri State Area.

When I do my “Science oriented holiday gift guide” (SOHGG) in a few weeks, this book is going to be on it. Al Sweigart, author, has really nailed a kids oriented programming book better than I’ve seen done before, and I’ve seen them all.

Science Books For Early Readers

We went to the local library the other day to find books in the range appropriate for Huxley to read. It isn’t sufficient to say he’s in the first grade. Between preschool and second grade, there are (in English, anyway) probably about four or five levels of reading ability, and kids move through them fast. In addition to that, there are who the heck knows how many different scales, developed by various individuals and organizations, to reflect reading levels. It is so complicated that there is actually a company that you can pay to tell you what reading level a book is.

dk_book_on_otters
So we asked the librarian to help. I should mention that this is a good library and the librarian seemed generally competent. But she wasn’t able to help much. It turns out that reading level is not part of the Library of Congress system. Or so I surmise.

Personally, I think this confusion stems from the apparent fact I noted above. Kids, when they start reading, go from chimpanzee to NYT reader in a couple/few years. There are many levels of ability in there, and really, of course they are not levels but rather arbitrary stages imposed on a continuum. Or a set of continua. The problem of categorizing early reading books is so difficult because all the different systems that attempt this run aground at the early end of the scale, and thus, so many different appearing systems. This is why, when you put tile on a wall, you don’t start on the bottom. You start a few rows up, and work your way down and up from there. That way you will not be foiled by the lack of level at the base, and your only cost is having to cut every one of the bottom tiles. This may seem like a digression but some day you will thank me for that information.

Anyway, I recently got a good look at a sample of DK Publisher’s “Learn To Read” books, which are have six categories, pr-1, 1, 2, 3, 4, and “Adventures.” OK, that’s a bit clumsy, but the key point here is that the numbered levels, 1 through 4, are consistent and meaningful categories.

Let me give you some examples of the text by reading level, followed by links to a selection of the more science oriented books. There are many books at each level, dealing with LEGO themes, super heroes, and other things.

dk_book_volcanoesLevel 1: Beginning To Read
Example Text:

A butterfly flits from leaf to leaf.
On each little leaf she lays one or two eggs.
She squeezes the eggs out of her body.

(From Born to Be a Butterfly.)

Example books:
Bugs Hide and Seek
Tale of a Tadpole
Jungle Animals
Sea Otters

Level 2: Beginning to read alone

Example Text:

The air ambulance plane rescues injured people from places that are difficult to reach.
It can deliver people to the hospital much faster than an ordinary ambulance can

Example Books:
Eruption!: The Story of Volcanoes
Space Quest: Jump to Jupiter
Dinosaur Dinners
Spaceships and Rockets

dk_book_on_rainforestLevel 3: Reading alone

Example Text:

Emergency dispatchers often stay on the phone until help arrives. They talk to callers to keep them calm. Most importantly, they tell the caller what to do until the emergency services arrive.

Example Books:
Rain Forest Explorer
Hope for the Elephants
Rocket Science

Level 4: Proficient readers

Example Text:

Ride the little train that climbs high into the Alps in Switzerland, and you will be treated to some of the finest mountain scenery in the world. From a small alpine town, the red train makes a steep climb up the Jungfrau mountain and past a famous peak called the Eiger. Many climbers dies on the sheer north face of the Eiger before it was finally scaled in 1938.

Example Books:
Dinosaur Detectives
Earthquakes and Other Natural Disasters
Secrets of the Mummies
Big Fantastic Earth

You can see changes in vocabulary, sentence structure, tone, topic, etc. Not visible in these samples are change in typeface (larger to smaller) and the overall structure of the books. The lower levels tend to have pictures and words. The higher levels add captions to the pictures, sidebars, etc.

DK books are always good, and they do a pretty good job with science. I won’t quibble with details on little kids books (such as the lack of attention to biogeography and central evolutionary paradigms). These are a far sight better than the science books I had access to when I was a kid!

Everybody Always Gets This Wrong, Even Smart People

This is a great cartoon by Randall Munroe that makes a very important point very effectively. Spread it around, love it, learn from it.

Here is an excellent video walkthrough of the cartoon, discussing its value as a communication tool.

But do ignore the details of the prehistory because the cartoonist has fallen into the same trap so many others have, well meaning in intention but simply a) not an expert on key things and b) unaware of the real consequences of getting certain things wrong.

When we represent prehistory, we represent humanity both past and present. It is not difficult to do so in a way that leads to serious and meaningful, even impactful, misconceptions.

So, here, I’m going to complain not just about this cartoon, but about the general phenomenon of people who are not paleontologists or archaeologists (or some other appropriate expert) using human prehistory to make a point, but at the same time, throwing accuracy about that prehistory under the bus.

Right way, I want to point out the consequences: Westerners, for sure, but this is more widespread than that, tend to have a view of humans that involve concepts of civilized and primitive, and hierarchical concepts mixed with evolutionary ones. And there are other problems in the conceptualization of prehistory and the diversity of humanity. These problems make it very easy to maintain a racist perspective despite overwhelming evidence against the validity of biological race. These problems make it very easy to lessen the pain and suffering of certain people, which, often, we are busy causing in our own self interest. These problems in conceptualizing the nature of humanity across time and space lead to all sorts of misunderstandings with all sort of consequences including, but not limited to, simply getting it all wrong.

XKCD is a comic written in and fully appreciated by the context of modern skepticism and science cheerleading. Let us please not throw the important social and natural sciences of archaeology, prehistory, paleoanthropology, etc. under the bus in service of making a point in some other area of study. A smart man whom I respect quipped, “but this comic is not about archaeology.” My answer to that: This comic makes one point about climate change and dozens of points about archaeology. It is about archaeology.

Why this is a great cartoon.

Look at the cartoon. Go from top to bottom.

It tells us that over a very long period of time, as humans did all sorts of different things, and conditions on the earth changed dramatically, the global surface temperature a) remained within a fairly narrow range and b) didn’t vary that quickly even when it did vary.

Then, all of the sudden, temperatures shoot way up and are expected to shoot way up even more. Holy crap. Point well made.

Missed opportunities

The climate change science is not bad but a bit off. The baseline of temperatures (pre industrial) vs. now should be somewhat different in relation to the current temperature. If you take the last few thousand years as basline, which is the proper thing to do, we are closer to 1.5, and not 1.0, degrees C above it. But that may be a nitpick since the time scale of this cartoon is larger. But, once you get past that level of time scale, the question of baseline becomes untethered from pragmatics and you can justify anything.

Also, there are probably times in the past, within the time range of this cartoon, where more abrupt and dramatic climate change did indeed occur. And, at those times, major effects happens with humans.

This is where not getting the archaeology right causes the cartoon to both miss some key points and become inadvertantly somewhat less than straight forward.

Here’s the thing. Climate change can have a very negative effect on humans. How do we know? Because it apparently has happened over and over again. For example (and there are many examples), within the time range of this graphic, climate changed caused a significant increase in aridity in a huge area of southern Africa. The place was pretty well populated by hunter-gatherers before that, and after that, and for thousands of years, no one could live there. Climate change had made the region uninhabitable for humans.

Similarly, climate change probably caused depopulations, evacuations, and migrations in many other parts of the world at several points in time represented here.

Critics from the denier side of things would point out that climate change has always caused problems, so this new change is no big deal, and XKCD ignore this. But the cartoon, had it mentioned more of these earlier changes, would instead represent a different fact: Natural variation in climate can be catastrophic to humans. The level of change happening now, and expected in the near future, still caused by humans, is much larger than what happened during this time period, or faster. So look out!!!

But that’s not the point I want to make.

Simple facts and big concepts

NOTE: Since I wrote this post, at least one change was made in the original carton, pertaining to the flooding of the scablands in Washington State. Perhaps other changes will be made over time!

There are a number of simple facts that the time line either gets wrong or represents in a way that we would not like for a basic intro class in archaeology or paleontology. Some of these facts were pointed out to me by John McKay or Helga Ingeborg Vierich. This is not comprehensive, but gets the point across:

  • Impressive prehsitoric art appears on the cartoon at 15K. Art and adornmnent appear well before the time line begins, and jot just in Europe. The super impressive cave wall art dates well before the time line, and somewhat less impressive works occur very much earlier. This is a decades old conception overturned many years ago.
  • The Clovis First model of the peopling of the Americas is on its last legs and should not be used as assumed knowledge.
  • The Missoula mega-flods affected eastern Washington, not Oregon.
  • The glaciers weren’t just in New York and Boston, they covered many other places. If the idea is to connect glacial geography to people’s lives, references to other areas might be helpful.
  • Wrangle Island is not tiny. He may have confused Wrangle Island with Ts. Paul in the Privilovs.
  • Abu Hureyra is one of several sites with early year round settlement. More important may be the more southerly Natufian, where foraging peoples, for a very long time, took up permanent settlement, and the first commensal organisms (which would become very important to humans, like plague carrying rats and domestic dogs, etc.) came on the scene.
  • Agriculture has multiple origins, but a single origin is implied here.
  • The origin of copper metal working happens in multiple places (two with smelting in the old world, plus it was worked in the new world).
  • Similarly, other metal working has multiple origins.
  • People will fight about the date for “proto-indo-european” languages or even is fuch a proto-thing existed or could be dates. The majority of historical linguists don’t accept this at all. But if that is right or not, again, Indo-European languages are not particularly important in overall human history. The cartoon centralizes a relatively rare language group and ignores thousands of other language groups, as though the mostly post hoc Western lineage of human civilization is assumed to be the most important.
  • “Permanent settlement in the fertile crescent” is out of the blue, and contradicted earlier on the time line. Permanent settlements in the region predate this by 6,000 years.
  • All of the early steps in civilization rising are focused on a very limited area, represent only a small (and very Western oriented) portion of civilization, ignoring most of human prehistory, and privilege “civilization” over what the fast majority of people were doing at the time.
  • Same problem with writing. Writing was invented many times over many areas, but it looks here like it may have a single origin, the origin that is part of the Western Civilization story.
  • Missed opportunity: “Invasion of the sea peoples” may very well have been an example of climate change messing up a population and causing a mass migration.
  • For later civilizations, I appreciate the reference to the New World. But again, it is only part of the story, mentioning a small part of the record. Isn’t it a much more interesting story to note that between 10K and 2K (or so) dozens of independent highly organized hierarchical societies, often referred to as “this or that civilization” arose all over the world, while at the same time, the vast majority of people lived off the land as foragers?
  • The Industrial Revolution starts in the 18th, not 19th,century, in Europe.

Larger scale things you might learn from this graphic that are wrong.

That agriculture was invented once, as part of Western Civilization, and the same for metal working, marginalizes the new world, many regions of Asia, many regions of Africa. These are misconceptions that those of us who teach intro to world prehistory or similar courses have to spend a large amount of our time refuting.

The idea seems to be represented that humans made the transition from hunter-gatherers at one point in time and thereafter were mostly agriculturalists. The opposite is true. Most humans were living in small groups as hunter gatherers for the entire time represented by this cartoon, except at the end. Half the humans or more at the time of Christ, for example. It is likely that in many regions, at various points in time, an early stab at horticulture was abandoned, and people returned to agriculture.

Is this important?

Well, getting facts right is important. In the case of prehistory, this mainly means not overstating the facts. One might argue that in a simplified version of reality (like in a cartoon) it is ok to overstate things as facts where we really don’t know. No, it isn’t. There are ways to speak briefly, and in an interesting way, of a past that we understand more vaguely than some DK book for five year olds. So let’s do that.

The oversimplification of prehistory contributes to the co-opting of intelligence, innovation, rights over various things like landscapes and cultural phenomena, by the dominant cultures who have condensed the relevant prehistories to centralize and privilege themselves. The prehistory presented here mostly privilages what we sometimes refer to as “Western Civilization” with its middle eastern roots and its simple, linear, one way, always improving, progressive history. A very inaccurate history.

As Helga Vierlich wrote on my Facebook timeline, “In short, this reflects a preoccupation with “progress” whereas what it really shows is a progressive ecosystem and social clusterfuck that brings us to the present situation – characterized by continuing destruction of the last ecologically sustainable (“indigenous”) economies… and also characterized by deforestation, massive climate change, pollution, ecosystem distraction, soil erosion, and species extinction.”

So, in making a point about self destruction by the human species, due to anthropogenic climate change, the oversimplification misses key points in that actual process.

But it is still a good cartoon.

I would like people who pass this cartoon around to make a brief statement, like, “I hear the prehistory is oversimplified a bit, but this makes a great point about climate change” or words to that effect. Many will argue that this statement is not enough. But I’m not a big fan of sacrificing the really cool for the sake of the perfectly pedantical. Usually.

A Science Film Festival in Saint Paul (Get a discount from me!)

Ever been to a CON? Like, ComiCON, or CONvergence? One of the best parts of a CON is the science, often involving panels with interesting science experts, or perhaps even a film or two.

Well, Twin Cities denizen Ryan Johnson founded and organized a new thing, which is set up as a film festival, to provide these fantastic CONnish features in a very attractive package. Admission is by the day, and thus less expensive than the average convention. Also, you can get a 15% discount if, when you go online to buy your tickets, you use the code “laden”

The Northstar Science Film Festival is a new film festival that celebrates the collision of science and entertainment. The first festival is scheduled for September 15-17, 2016, with events at Twin Cities Public Television, Bedlam Theatre, and Tin Whiskers Brewing in Saint Paul.

Scientists participating include Drs. David Tillman, Marla Spivak, James Kakalios, Chuck Niederriter, Clifford Johnson, and many others.

They have a great line up of films and speakers scheduled for this year’s festival. Here are (most of?) the speakers:

  • Paula Apsell, Executive Director of NOVA
  • Shawn Otto, author of The War on Science, screenwriter of House of Sand and Fog, and founder of Science Debate
  • James Kakalios, PhD, professor of physics at the University of Minnesota and author of The Physics of Superheroes and How Quantum Mechanics Made Life Worth Living
  • James Burke, host ofConnections and The Day The Universe Changed“>The Day the Universe Changed
  • Ann Merchant from the National Academy of Sciences
  • Information, full schedule and ticketing is all available at www.northstarscience.org. Again, readers of this blog can get a 15% discount on tickets by using the coupon code “laden”.

    I hope to see you there!

    Northstar’s advisory board includes the following:

    *Ann Merchant-Deputy Executive Director of National Academy of Sciences, Science and Entertainment Exchange
    *Shawn Otto-filmmaker and co-founder of ScienceDebate
    *Michael Halpern-Director at Union of Concerned Scientists
    *Richard Hudson-Director at Science Programming at Twin Cities Public Television
    *James Kakalios, PhD-physicist, professor at University of Minnesota, author of Physics of Superheroes
    *Lawrence Krauss, PhD-theoretical physicist, author (Physics of Star Trek), and director of Arizona State University’s Origins Project
    *Matthew Chapman-filmmaker, co-founder of ScienceDebate, and great, great grandson of Charles Darwin
    *Christine Walker-filmmaker and Executive Director of Provincetown Film Festival
    *Melissa Butts and Kim Rowe, Filmmakers with Melrae Pictures
    *Scott Bur, Professor of Chemistry, Gustavus Adolphus College
    *Ryan Johnson-attorney and science advocate
    *Tad Ware-advertising executive

    The Guts Of Mythbusters All Over!

    What I mean by that is that the real guts of the defunct TV show Mythbusters, Kari Byron, Tory Belleci and Grant Imahara, are all over this new thing they are doing for Netflix!

    Apparently this is a thing: Network TV shows almost all die a certain kind of death. They get more and more expensive to run every year because the expectation is that contracts become more and more valuable if the show is successful. So, eventually, the producers have to start killing off the staff. For a fictional TV show, this is done by ordering the writers to do in various characters. For a live action non fiction show, you just fire them.

    Then, the show falls apart and shuts down.

    (One might wonder how the Simpsons stay so good for so many years and not have this happen. I can only assume Bart and his family got one hell of a contract!)

    Putting aside the exact details of what happened with Mythbusters, Grant, Tory and Kari did get cut loose, and a short time later the show was cancelled. AND THERE ARE SO MANY AS YET UNBUSTED MYTHS. Jeesh.

    Adam and Jamie are great and all, but in my opinion, Tory, Kari and Grant are and were equally as great, and often, just plain better because they were not fettered with lofty production goals that seemed to stifle Adam and Jamie on occasion.

    This will be a Netflix Original called “The White Rabbit Project,” referring to that time honored tradition of going down one or another rabbit hole.

    There are no details available at this time, but this is great news.

    Electronics for Kids: Great new book for kids and their adults

    The simplest project in the new book Electronics for Kids: Play with Simple Circuits and Experiment with Electricity! by Øyvind Nydal Dahl is the one where you lean a small light bulb against the two terminals of a nine volt battery in order to make the light bulb turn on.

    The first several projects in the book involve making electricity, or using it to make light bulbs shine or to run an electromagnet.
    The first several projects in the book involve making electricity, or using it to make light bulbs shine or to run an electromagnet.
    The most complicated projects are the ones where you make interactive games using LED lights and buzzers.

    Electronics for Kids: Play with Simple Circuits and Experiment with Electricity! does almost no electricity theory. Thankfully. It simply delves in to messing around with electricity (and in so doing, provides basic theory, of course).

    This is a book about how to play with electricity, not how to get a Masters Degree in electricity. In other words, any kid, the ones who seem destine for a career in electronic engineering and the ones who don’t, can get along in this book because it does not assume itself to be a building brick to a greater career. Yet the projects are interesting and informative and educational, and any kid who does a dozen of these projects is going to learn.

    This kind of activity, which should involve parents for most kids, is the cure for the sense of depression you feel when you go to the toy store and look at the “science” section and everything you see is crap. Just get this book, order 50 bucks worth of parts, and get to work-fun. Then order some more parts, probably.

    No kids' book on electronics would be complete without a batter made from something you get in the produce section.
    No kids’ book on electronics would be complete without a batter made from something you get in the produce section.
    This book for kids is very kid oriented, as it should be. One of the first practical projects you build is an alarm system to keep your parents the heck out of your room. You can make a noisy musical instrument. You can make a device that makes sounds some humans can hear (the kids, likely) and some can’t (parents).

    Although soldering is done, it is minimal and, frankly, can probably be avoided by using alternative techniques. But really, it is not that hard and one should not be too afraid of it.

    A lot of the projects use and develop logic circuits. Kids actually love logic circuits, I think because they end up rethinking a bit about how tho think about simple relationships. And, it is good to know this stuff.

    Unlike many electronic kits you can buy (which can be quite fun and educational in their own right) this approach does not rely on ICs (integrated circuits) that produce magical results with poorly described inputs and hookups. There are some basic ICs, including gates, an inverter, flip flops, and a timer. These are very straight forward circuits that are mostly (except the timer) really just very fancy switches.

    The web site that goes with Electronics for Kids: Play with Simple Circuits and Experiment with Electricity! gives you a list of all the parts used in the book, with enough information to find them easily on line or at a hardware or electronics store. The book suggests a multimeter, which is probably the most expensive thing on the list. (this one is perfectly good and is about 35 bucks.) Other tools include a soldering iron and related bits, a wire cutter, some scissors, tape, etc.

    Many of the parts, including a breadboard, LEDs, hook up wires of various kinds, and pretty much all the resistors, capacitors, etc. etc. can also be used with the more sophisticated Arduino projects, should you end up going in that direction.

    This is a really fun book. If you have a kid of the right age (maybe from six to 12, with 100% adult involvement under 10 years) get it now, secretly, get some parts, and work your way through several of the projects. Then, make it (and the parts) a holiday present. Then look really smart.

    This chapter-end section give you an idea of the level of the projects.  There is a lot of stuff in here. All doable, but it will take a while to get through it all.
    This chapter-end section give you an idea of the level of the projects. There is a lot of stuff in here. All doable, but it will take a while to get through it all.
    Here is the overview table of contents (the book is much more detailed than suggested by this top level TOC):

    PART 1: Playing with Electricity
    Chapter 1: What Is Electricity?
    Chapter 2: Making Things Move with Electricity and Magnets
    Chapter 3: How to Generate Electricity

    PART 2: Building Circuits
    Chapter 4: Creating Light with LEDs
    Chapter 5: Blinking a Light for the First Time
    Chapter 6: Let’s Solder!
    Chapter 7: Controlling Things with Circuits
    Chapter 8: Building a Musical Instrument

    PART 3: Digital Electronics
    Chapter 9: How Circuits Understand Ones and Zeros
    Chapter 10: Circuits That Make Choices
    Chapter 11: Circuits That Remember Information
    Chapter 12: Let’s Make a Game!

    Appendix: Handy Resources

    Women and Physics by Laura McCullough

    Women and Physics by Laura McCulloch is a concise addition to the IOP Science Concise Physics series.

    McCullough is an award winning Professor of Physics at UW Stout, and served for several years as the chair of that university’s Chemistry and Physics Department. Her research focuses on physics education, and gender and science. By both chance and design, I know a lot of people in this area, and I’m pretty sure IOP Science could not have had a better choice in authors for this important book.

    How do you make a physicist? Well, you start with a child, and poke at it for 25 year or so until it become something, and maybe it will become a physicist. Meanwhile, the growing and developing individual passes through several stages. If the child is a male, those stages are called opportunities. If the child is a female, they are called filters.

    McCullough writes,

    When I walked into my physics graduate school on day one and there were twenty-four men and me, I knew that we had a problem. A problem begging for a solution, and because I am a scientist and what I do is solve problems, that moment was the beginning of what has been twenty years of research on gender issues in science for me. I don’t know all the answers, and I doubt the problem will be solved in my lifetime, but I know more than I knew then, and sharing that is part of the solution. Hence this book.

    McCullough surveys and describes the filters, and the stages. She looks at how women are challenged at every stage. She describes what the field of Physics has done so far to remove gender biased barriers to women’s progress, and what needs to be done in the future.

    I should probably mention that the sciences in general, the physical sciences in particular, and super-duper-especially physics (in its various forms) have a) not allowed women to progress fairly at any stage, ever, and b) still manage to have been shaped and influenced by the important work of a number of women. I’m sure you already knew that, but just in case, there it is.

    This isn’t just about institutions. It is also about how individuals interact, about social and cultural stereotypes and biases, and individual decisions.

    Here is how McCullough underscores the filtering process:

    A little girl waits patiently at a science exhibit for another child to finish. Her brother butts in when he comes over to see it and she never gets her turn.

    A young woman in high school physics is always relegated to be the record keeper and never gets a chance to play with the equipment.

    A woman walks into her first day of physics graduate school and sees twenty four men and no other women.

    A physics professor is called ‘Mrs’ by her students instead of ‘Dr’.

    An assistant professor is placed on every departmental committee in order to
    have female representation.

    A woman makes a suggestion at her weekly research group meeting. Her idea is ignored. Three minutes later, a man makes the same suggestion and is applauded.

    How many physicists are women? What does the process of filtering, which in some ways applies to all would-be physicists of any gender, do differently with women? How are these trends changing?

    Two of McCullough’s core chapters are titled “What helps, what hurts: family and education” and “What helps, what hurts: family and career.”

    These social and professional spaces are where the rubber meets the road. This is where, to use a physics metaphor for a social problem affecting physics, kinetic energy (desire and motivation) and friction (the status quo, power structures, the patriarchy) come into play.

    Is there a “masculinist” and a “feminist” nature of science? This is the sort of question that can cause spit to come flying out of the heads of the most mild mannered seemingly non-sexist male scientists, especially in physics (many biological scientists know there are gendered features of science, at multiple levels). I suspect that in physics, this is mostly surficial gendering, which has profound impacts on women’s careers. In other sciences, human genders interact with other human genders, and non-human genders, in all sorts of ways. My own biological science with respect to humans had to be fully gender bound, as my field studies could only be done with male subjects. My female colleagues could only work with female subjects. I’m not sure if physicists have the same issues. I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky (maybe) that in the naming of quantum-level aspects of matter-energy, male-female gender was never employed (as opposed to color, orientation, strength, etc.) Imagine what cold have been…

    But I digress. McCullough writes about this aspect of gendering in the physical sciences as well, as ingress to the topic of covert discrimination.

    I regard this book as something of a manual for women in physics, and for men who may be, should be, mentors. It is for teachers of physical science (or, really, all science) in high schools and colleges. These are all people who a) already feel they know what is going on with gender discrimination, but b) often mistakingly ignore that this is a separate subfield of study and no, they don’t. Parents of kids (boys and girls) who are leaning into the sciences would benefit too, but they are probably not that likely to read an academic book like this. Note to self: Suggest to Laura that she write a version of this for the families.

    Women and Physics is available now, go read it.

    The War On Science: What It Is And How To Win It

    Thinker, writer, and independent scholar Shawn Otto has written an important book called “The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It” (Milkweed Editions, publisher)

    Read this book now, and act on what you learn from it, for the sake of your own future and the future of our children and their children.

    The rise of modern civilization, from the Enlightenment onward for hundreds of years, was the same thing as the rise of modern science. The rise of science was a cultural novelty with only vague foreshadowing. It was a revolution in the way humans think.

    People come to believe what they believe in a way that rarely involves scientific thinking. The human mind is not inherently rational in the sense we usually use the term today. The process of learning things, of inference, and developing habits that guide our reactions to the world around us, evolved to function well enough given our usual cultural, social, and ecological context. But the modern world presents challenges that are better addressed, and problems that are only solvable, with a scientific approach. Science is something we willfully impose on our own process of thought and, at the level of society, formation of policy and law.

    You have heard of the concept of “diseases of civilization.” For example, we evolved to seek and love sugars and fats, and then we developed methods of obtaining seemingly unlimited quantities of said nutrients. The success of our system of feeding ourselves solves the problem of uncertainty in the food supply and creates the problems of atherosclerosis, widespread obesity, and all too common diabetes.

    Self damaging stupidity also seems to be a disease of civilization. One would think that with the rise of science, the opposite would happen, and it has to some extent.

    People spend a great deal of time and energy, and other resources, acting on beliefs about food production and personal health that are contrary to their own best interests. Had a fraction of that energy been spent on trying to understand the relevant science of food production and health, those individuals would be much better off, as would the rest of society. The same pattern can be seen in all other aspects of life, from energy production and use to systems of transportation to diplomacy and warfare. Again and again, great ideas emerge that may become excellent new laws or common best practices, only to be watered down and compromised because of this self damaging stupidity. How, when, and why did we get here?

    Today, increasingly and powerfully, anti-science forces are strong and shape the way people think and act to our collective detriment. This is the problem Otto addresses.

    How is it that humans invented science, used science for all sorts of improvements (and, admittedly, a number of unintended negative consequences), and then came to new ways of developing policy and practice that hobble the use of this important cultural and social resource?

    Shawn Otto’s book is a careful and detailed scholarly examination of this question. I struggled for a time with whether or not I should make the following statement about The War on Science, because I want this statement to be taken in a positive way, though it might be seen as a criticism. Otto’s book is similar to, and at the level of, an excellent PhD thesis. I very quickly add, however, that since this is the work of a very talented writer and communicator, it does not read like a PhD thesis. It reads like a page turner. But the substance of the book is truly scholarly, contributes new thinking, and is abundantly and clearly documented and backed up. I can’t think of too many books that do all of this.

    The Enlightenment and the early rise of scientific thinking was a self conscious effort by a small number of individuals to rethink the way we think, and it was a very effective one. Almost every advance in technology, economy, and society – from vehicles and energy to the invention of money and markets, to new or modified forms of government – arose from the self conscious application of scientific thinking. The same great mind that contributed so much to the invention of modern physics and mathematics, that of Sir Isaac Newton, modernized the production of coinage and regulation of international exchange of money (as well as modern systems of engaging and neutralizing counterfeiting). The invention of the American system of government was the intentional and thoughtful product of individuals who called themselves and their actions scientific.

    But, as Newton would say, for each and every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Science is not only a powerful tool for doing new things and improving old approaches, but it is also very inconvenient. For some, under certain conditions.

    It isn’t that science itself is bad for powerful entities that make up the political and industrial status quo. Science is as essential today as it has ever been, or more so, to the owners of energy companies, the producers of military gear, the growers and purveyors of food, and so on. But there are times when the best available scientific evidence suggests that the best decisions that society or government should make are contrary to the vested self interest of those power brokers. So, really, the best method, from the point of view of stockholders in major corporations or the owners of vast energy or agricultural resources, or others, is to use science but also to control the interface between scientific action and public policy.

    In other words, the scientifically derived answer to a question is different when the premise is different. What is the best way to increase profits from making and selling energy? What is the best way to protect the public health while making and selling energy? These are two valid questions that, at least in the short and medium term, can produce dramatically different answers.

    In 2012, Shawn Otto posed the conundrum, “It is hard to know exactly when it became acceptable for U.S. politicians to be antiscience.” One could ask the same question about leaders of industry. The answer may be fairly obvious. This became acceptable the moment the interests being served by those politicians shifted from the populous to the smaller subset of owners and investors of business and industry. The money trail, which one is often advised to follow to find a truth, leads pretty directly to that answer.

    A harder question is, how did large portions of the academic world also decide to be anti-science? For this, one needs to take a more fine grained cultural approach, looking at self interest in the context of scholarship.

    How does religion fit in here? The modern, mainly social network-bound, conversation about religion science, secularism, etc. is over-simplistic and mostly wrong. It is not the case that religion and science are opposite things. Rather, the rise of science was part of revolutionary changes in European religious institutions, culture, and politics. There are ironies in that story and the details are fascinating and important. Otto covers this.

    Otto also identifies and discusses at length something I’ve been talking and writing about for some time. The nature of the conversation itself. If a conversation proceeds among those with distinctly different self interest, it quickly goes pedantic. If, on the other hand, a conversation proceeds among those with the common goal of understanding something better, or solving a particular problem, then it progresses and discovery and learning happen. On all of the different fronts of the “war on science” we see the honest conversation breaking down, or even, not happening to begin with, and from this nothing good happens.

    Otto identifies a three-front war on science: The identity politics war on science, the ideological warn on science, and the industrial war on science. Conflate or ignore the differences at your peril. Postmodernism problemtizes the very concept of truth. Much of what you think of as the war on science is part of the ideological war on science, often with strong religious connections. The industrial war on science is in some ways the most important because it is the best funded, and the anti-science generals have a lot at stake. When cornered, they tend to be the most dangerous.

    The last part of Otto’s book is on how to win this war. He is detailed and explicit in his suggestions, producing a virtual handbook of action and activism. Recognizing how the system works, how to marshal resources to reshape the conversation, what scientists need to do, what communicators need to do, are part of a coherent plan. He ends with a “Science Pledge” which is “a renewed commitment to civic leadership based on the principles of freedom, science, and evidence.” And there is nothing new in this pledge. It is, essentially, a fundamentalist approach to science, society, and policy, going back to the beginnings of the coeval rise of science and civilization. There is little in Otto’s pledge that would not have been said by Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, or Francis Bacon.

    You will enjoy Otto’s “The War on Science” and it will enrich and advance your understanding of the key, existential, issue of the day. And, it won’t just inform you and rile you up, but it will also help you define goals and give you tools to meet them.

    The War on Science is an essential work, a game changer, and probably the most important book you’ll read this year.


    Here’s an interview with Shawn Otto on Ikonokast Podcast.