Evolution by Any Other Name

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A little more than a week ago, word went around our circles here at The Thumb regarding a paper published on Public Library of Science on the use of the word evolution in medical journal articles. In essence, the authors compare the use of the word evolution in articles written by and published in journals generally read by evolutionary biologists versus physicians. Unsurprisingly, the evolutionary biologists mentioned evolution more by name, even if both groups appealed to the same concepts. Why physicians don’t use the word evolution to describe implications or the concept of evolution is the issue.

Other authors (PZ Myers, Orac, and Sequiteur, among others) have dealt with the topic, but it hasn’t appeared here on PT yet, so I thought I’d just ditto Orac’s opinion with a few thoughts of my own. Find them below, after the jump.

When I was a surgery resident up at the University of Minnesota, I was privileged to work under an attending who had deadpan, cutting sarcasm. (Think Scrubs’ Doctor Cox but with a flat affect.) When I was presenting a patient in flourid fluid overload, I described her as having lungs that were filling with fluid. His response to this was that, “This was the sort of explanation I would expect to hear if you were a guest on Oprah,” his point being that the patient was suffering from pulmonary edema and that I should name it using the language that big, grown-up doctors use.

Now I knew perfectly well what pulmonary edema was and I could have answered as much or comprehended had this been some sort of passive activity like a multiple choice test or lecture or something. But until I was presenting the patient in front of that wonderfully cynical attending, I didn’t really think of the pathophysiology of “lungs filling with fluid” as “pulmonary edema.” (Sound silly in retrospect, but there it is.)

I’ve noticed the same sort of thing when I’m trying to speak a foreign language. I can read Spanish decently well, but until I try to speak it, I just don’t formulate language the way a native speaker does - until I’m put in the posiiton of doing so. I knew the words, but until I had to say them, I just didn’t make the connection. So it was with me and “pulmonary edema,” - I just didn’t make the connection until that great Scrubs-like moment when I was the humbled object of that attending’s joke.

I think this is more or less the issue at stake here. Despite the poor example set by a few, Okay, maybe a minority of them would be able to define genetic drift, but they generally put their support foursquare behind science rather than pseudoscience. So when I read studies like the one in PLoS, I don’t see this as the pervasive effects of creationism. Like Orac, I see this as a minor finding, one that could be remedied completely by encouraging learners to do the same thing I did with regard to pulmonary edema: call evolution by its name.

BCH

12 Comments

I see this as a minor finding, one that could be remedied completely by encouraging learners to do the same thing I did with regard to pulmonary edema: call evolution by its name.

One problem with that is:

It has been repeatedly rumored (and reiterated by one of the reviewers of this article) that both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have in the past actively discouraged the use of the word “evolution” in titles or abstracts of proposals so as to avoid controversy.

It may not be so easy to remedy if the above (from the article) is true. In which case, I’d say the creationists have already won a battle…

My girlfriend is a first-year med student, and it truly amazes me how little emphasis the classes seem to put on evo-bio in general…they’re focused very heavily on application and functional aspects of human biology, with little higher-level theory (and probably for good reason; there’s a ton of material to get through). It doesn’t surprise me that plenty of doctors seem to graduate with creationist views intact.

It has been repeatedly rumored (and reiterated by one of the reviewers of this article) that both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have in the past actively discouraged the use of the word “evolution” in titles or abstracts of proposals so as to avoid controversy.

Given that NSF has a separate “cluster” for “Population and Evolutionary Processes”, this seems extremely strange. Their web site describes their research area as including “Evolutionary Ecology” and “Evolutionary Genetics”, and they ran a workshop in 2006 that produced a document with the title “Frontiers in Evolutionary Biology”. I did a search of that cluster, and found 24 awards with the word “evolution” in the title. However, the most recent start date of any of those awards (at least as shown in the search results) was 2004.

However, the Antonovics et al. paper concentrated on microbiology research, especially on antibiotic resistance in human pathogens. Researchers in this field would probably be submitting proposals to NIH rather than NSF, and these agencies may differ in their policy X culture interactions (sorry, just my evolutionary-ecology training coming out).

Anyway, the final sentences of the PLoS article are excellent (boldface mine):

It is doubtful that the theory of gravity (a force that can neither be seen nor touched, and for which physicists have no agreed upon explanation) would be so readily accepted by the public were it not for the fact that ignoring it can have lethal results. This brief survey shows that by explicitly using evolutionary terminology, biomedical researchers could greatly help convey to the layperson that evolution is not a topic to be innocuously relegated to the armchair confines of political or religious debate. Like gravity, evolution is an everyday process that directly impacts our health and well-being, and promoting rather than obscuring this fact should be an essential activity of all researchers.

Politicians in the past have tried to defund NSF and NIH grants that they deemed inappropriate.

The attending physician in this case apparently recognized something that many of us who have done research and also taught scientific topics have learned. Use the scientific terms frequently and consistently. If they are established scientific terminology, they carry the intended meaning concisely and accurately.

Physics Education Research over the last 35 years has consistently shown the persistence of preconceptions and misconceptions. They are very hard to dislodge and frequently return after remedial efforts cease. Sometimes it is necessary to engage in long discussions and set up situations in which misconceptions lead to contradictions in the student’s thinking.

Another part of the procedure in addressing these preconceptions and misconceptions is, as an instructor, to be consistent and as precise as possible while communicating with your students. Insist on the same from them. At the very least it helps alert them to the fact that there is more here than immediately meets the eye. The alert and reasonably intelligent ones will get the message and dig deeper.

Anyone who wants to enter a science based profession and make a contribution needs to think clearly about the issues. Fuzzy thinking can lead to an inappropriate diagnosis, a bad model of a phenomenon, or any number of dead-end, time-wasting efforts

Couldn’t have said it better, Mike.

As an educator, though, I’d like to point out that certain “misconceptions” are deliberately taught, to enable students to grasp key concepts. Beginning chemistry, for example, usually teaches that a hydrogen atom is an electron “orbiting” a proton, much like the planets orbit the sun. I believe HS biology also often uses an “assembly line” analogy to describe protein synthesis.

The problem is that many teachers are not really trained to inform students that these analogies are really “crutches” that should be thrown away once the student has the key concepts down. They generally don’t take the time, as you say, to dislodge them.

Or worse, they never get the opportunity to try, and a guy who hasn’t studied biology since high school gets elected to a Board of Ed thinking that cells are exactly like “factories.”

Mike, could you expand on the misconceptions and research? Are you referring to beginning students, and the need to convert them from Aristotle to Newton in the first weeks of class?

Could the research and remediation both consist in part of the short concept questions that are given automatically in some physics courses?

“Use the scientific terms frequently and consistently. If they are established scientific terminology, they carry the intended meaning concisely and accurately.”

“Physics Education Research over the last 35 years has consistently shown the persistence of preconceptions and misconceptions.”

Definitely agree, but it’s a long process before use equates to understanding. There is a fundamental difference, of course, between memorizing terminology, and formulating concepts from the terminology. Yes, most definitely scientific terminology carries the intended meaning concisely and accurately, but simply learning vocabulary does not mean you will learn the concept, nor does using it frequently and consistently mean that you are using it consistently and frequently for its proper meaning or in the proper context even if you can memorize it.

“As an educator, though, I’d like to point out that certain “misconceptions” are deliberately taught, to enable students to grasp key concepts. Beginning chemistry, for example, usually teaches that a hydrogen atom is an electron “orbiting” a proton, much like the planets orbit the sun. I believe HS biology also often uses an “assembly line” analogy to describe protein synthesis.”

Yup, teaching concepts requires the use of not just imprecise analogies but imprecise language that the allows the learner to connect the concept to prior knowledge (preconception).

“The problem is that many teachers are not really trained to inform students that these analogies are really “crutches” that should be thrown away once the student has the key concepts down. They generally don’t take the time, as you say, to dislodge them.”

Yup, but the connections have to become strong enough so that the models and language used to describe the concept can become accurate enough to match the level of the terminology and actual models. The problem is, with every increase in accuracy of language used, there might be some residual misconception and preconception of you don’t take the time, which is indeed the huge problem. I’m not sure if it’s a case of lack of training, or lack of time to cover all the necessary concepts. For me its just the time constraint.

Add in the fact that scientific terminolgy builds on itself, while fuzzy understanding of concepts building on itself just leads to more misconceptiona and preconception of more involved scientific concepts, and you have a real problem when it comes to concepts like Evolution.

I’m definately guilty of using the “cell factory” and “protein assembly line” analogies, hopefully dislodging them at some point. Dislodging them often means just stating over and over again, “this not how it really is, but this might help you see what’s going on here”. Sorry guys.

Dizzy (comment # 163146) and Pete Dunkelberg (comment #163164) raise many more questions that I can probably address in a single comment on this forum. Pete seems to have encountered some of the diagnostic questions (e.g., the Force Concept Inventory) that occurred in some physics courses that may have been part of a larger study.

Misconceptions arise from experiences that are not examined deeply for various legitimate reasons. They also the come about for other illegitimate reasons, such as a politician or demagogue using his (usually male) microphone to deliberately misinform people about fundamental ideas (e.g., evolution).

I don’t think that Dizzy’s example of the hydrogen atom is as much a “misconception” as it is a simplified model. Obviously one can’t start a beginning chemistry course with quantum mechanical ideas and orbitals. To get there, you start with a simple model that you can build on, and you extend it and modify it as you gain more knowledge. In the process of doing this, you discover inadequacies or contradictions in your simple model that must be addressed. This is a legitimate process, and it replicates what has happened historically in most of the sciences (certainly this has been the case with the hydrogen atom). There is nothing wrong in being up-front about starting with a simple model and letting students know that it will be developed and improved as they learn more. So, Dizzy, I don’t think you are doing anything illegitimate by teaching “misconceptions” You are building on something that is within the grasp of the beginning student and, for the moment, captures gross features well enough to get you going. :-)

But I do know that the research suggests very strongly that deliberately teaching actual misconceptions (intelligent design, for example) first is not a good approach. Students, especially the younger or the less mature, will grab the first idea but, under the pressure of increasing course load during the semester, won’t be listening or reading carefully when the instructor springs the surprise that is suppose to help the student never forget the correct idea. If one is going to use a misconception to strengthen a correct concept, it is better to do it after there is enough evidence that students are close to a proper understanding, and then a misconception can be use as a foil to show how the correct idea works better. But DO IT CAREFULLY.

Back to Pete’s question. After 35 years, Physics Education Research now covers all the major areas of physics and extends into graduate level courses. To keep my response as brief and as accessible as possible, I’ll pick a few examples from elementary mechanics. You mentioned Aristotle, so I am guessing you know about the misconception that a force is necessary for the continuance of motion. One can seem to squelch this by emphasizing the point that unbalanced forces cause accelerations. However, when you check what students predict when a force is removed, you discover the misconceptions.

For example, show a ball on the end a string whirling in a horizontal plane. Ask what the path of the ball will be if the string breaks. Most common misconception: ball follows a curved path with somewhat less curvature than the circle. Replace the string with a trough, and then remove part of the trough, and the misconceptions increase, but with the curvature now more closely approximating that of the trough. Correct answer: a straight line.

Another example: Two tug-of-war teams can each pull with a force of, say, 1000 pounds. They are pulling against each other. Ask what the tension in the rope is. Misconception number one: 2000 pounds. Misconception number two: the vector sum must make it zero. Correct answer: 1000 pounds.

In the previous example, replace the tug-of-war with compressing a spring between both of your hands and again ask what the compression in the middle of the spring is.

Another example: A space ship is drifting sideways in space. After a period of time its engines kick in with a constant thrust. Ask the student to draw the path of the space ship before and after the engines kick in. Misconception one: two straight lines at right angles to each other. Misconception two: two straight lines at an obtuse angle. Correct answer: a straight line with a parabolic path coming off the end where the engines started.

There are literally hundreds of example questions that have been developed to uncover misconceptions in each area of physics, so I can only scratch the surface in a brief reply.

I think Bhumburg, in putting up this post, is alluding to a larger question of the general understanding of science among the lay public. Who gets to define terms and concepts? We certainly know that demagogues won’t hesitate to do so. Personally, I think we are in a time when scientists cannot afford to be timid about this.

Oops, I didn’t finish the sentence in the correct answer to the ball on the string. The straight line is tangent to the circle at the point where the string breaks. A third misconception to this one is a straight line extending along the radius of the circle at the point where the string breaks.

Darwin himself avoided the word “evolution” in the beginning, mainly because of the virtually fore-ordained “unrolling” of the cosmos that existed in most notions of “evolution” at that time (though not, I believe, in Lamarckism). It doesn’t seem to me that it is truly essential that “evolution” be called “evolution”, then.

However I do think that it might be somewhat helpful if “evolution” were used more consistently today. Most of your doctors who are doing research, as well as other scientists, know that “emerge” and “evolve” are interchangeable in most cases, however the public do not, especially since there has been a concerted effort to proclaim that “evolution” is one thing, “microevolution” and antibiotic adaptation quite another.

But let’s not be silly—people don’t read medical papers, hence it is a combination of journalistic ignorance and medical terminology that conspires to leave the word “evolution” out. I can’t deny, though, that the fix almost certainly has to come from the journals, not the journalists, since we can’t really hope that journalists will begin to be well-versed in science.

Journals and authors of scientific papers need to use the same terminology for the same reason that ID fails the problem of demarcation—there is nothing to qualitatively distinguish any “level” of evolution from any other, and the same phylogenetic methods that ferret out HIV strains are the ones used to determine how apes and humans diverged from each other. “Emerging antibiotic resistance” simply is part of macroevolution (no honest biologist denies that microevolution is part of the macroevolutionary process). Evolutionary theory is what mainly ties biology together, the way in which we can see where minor developments are a part of the “major developments”, so that using terms which obscure the big picture are a service to nobody.

Of course the science journals often do the work of meshing together the details worked out in more run-of-the-mill papers into broader pictures of how evolution has proceeded in the past and how it occurs today, so that all is not lost. Yet the learning curve would happen more quickly if the bits and pieces were conceptually and terminologically included within the overall biological processes in the beginning.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/35s39o

I was reading the article and recalled how a couple years ago the media was talking non-stop about the avian flu “jumping to humans”, “mutating to infect humans”, “adapting”, “changing”, the list goes on. They must have used up the thesaurus or something because there doesn’t seem to be much discussion anymore, but they never once used the word “evolve”. I’d be curious to see how many other instances of evolution are passed off under another synonym to avoid “controversy” (read, pissing off the ignorant).

Obviously a graduate from medical school has encountered evolutionary ideas at least in passing. But that said, it seems to be similar to something I have noticed as I cross between disciplines and such myself: very often people in different fields have similar but slightly different ideas that are created or used with out any knowledge of the others.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Burt Humburg published on February 27, 2007 8:50 AM.

Martinez Hewlett and Ted Peters: Who Sets the Evolution Agenda? was the previous entry in this blog.

Raymond Finney asks questions, I got answers is the next entry in this blog.

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