December issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach out

| 27 Comments

Adrian Thysse flags the December issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach and provides links to individual articles that are easier (for me, at least) to navigate than those on the journal site. Some good stuff there.

Correction: Turns out that Adrian’s post came up in my reader this morning and I blasted right ahead not noticing that for some reason the reader had displayed Adrian’s 2009 post on that issue. Sorry, folks. (There’s still some good stuff there, though.)

27 Comments

Thanks for the link. Already helpful.

They need to fix the dates. It says December 2009 in some places, and 2010 in others.

Ah, no, the link from HERE is wrong - it takes you to December 2009.

And the current issue came out over two weeks ago. I forgot that I had already downloaded the articles.

Ack! Adrian’s post came up this morning in my reader and I blasted right ahead, not noticing that the post itself was dated 2009. As you were. Nothing to see here. Move right along. :)

Regardless, thanks for the link. I found the article on the evolution of morality very interesting.

There is a link on the left under current content that will get you to the December 12010 issue.

I didn’t notice either. It was still useful.

I recently merged my old Evolving Complexity blog with my current blog. I think the ever-watchful ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ picked it up as a new post and inadvertently spread it.

Just replace the original link up there with this:

http://www.springerlink.com/content[…]36-6426/3/4/

Problem solved!

Looking at the December 2010 issue (my university pays for access) I note the discussion of phylogenies. But all of it is discussed in terms of synapomorphies. I have to let out one of my standard rants and raves on this:

More and more textbooks and museums (and people debating creationists) are explaining the inference of evolutionary trees (phylogenies), which, they say, is really very simple – all you have to do to determine groups in the tree is to allow each derived state to define such a group. This is said to be an amazing new, powerful method called “cladistics”.

If that were so, we would not need computer programs to reconstruct phylogenies, and terms like Bayesian inference, likelihood, or even parsimony would be totally unnecessary. Unfortunately, the museums and textbooks (and the commenters in debates with creationists) are presenting the Mickey Mouse version. In it, there is never any ambiguity about which state is the ancestral state, and reversals and parallel changes never occur.

I’m not arguing that we should present the issues with their full complexity every time trees are mentioned – this would overload the students and museum visitors. But there will ultimately must some acknowledgment that the matter is not so simple.

Perils of hasty editing:

But there will ultimately must some acknowledgment that the matter is not so simple.

should of course have been:

But there must ultimately be some acknowledgment that the matter is not so simple.

I like very much Doug Eldredge’s proposal to teach the stories of science, especially of evolution, via an expanded English curriculum (BTW he is related to the editors of EEO.).

Joe Felsenstein said:

If that were so, we would not need computer programs to reconstruct phylogenies, and terms like Bayesian inference, likelihood, or even parsimony would be totally unnecessary. Unfortunately, the museums and textbooks (and the commenters in debates with creationists) are presenting the Mickey Mouse version. In it, there is never any ambiguity about which state is the ancestral state, and reversals and parallel changes never occur.

I struggle with this when I teach a simplified version of molecular orbital theory. I never discuss hybrid, non-bonding or anti-bonding orbitals - I just pretend that it’s as simple as 1s, 2s, 2p, etc. Technically, this is wrong, but it gives a good sense of how MO can explain bonding. I tried to teach it *more* the right way once, but it just became an incomprehensible mess to the students.

I struggle with this when I teach a simplified version of molecular orbital theory. I never discuss hybrid, non-bonding or anti-bonding orbitals - I just pretend that it’s as simple as 1s, 2s, 2p, etc. Technically, this is wrong,

Maybe you could just say in passing that there are more complicated forms of that stuff, that won’t be covered in this class?

I’ve lived both parts of the issue, one being very frustrated as a student when too many of the explanations were watered down. To the point that college felt like one great big discovery after another. I’ve also been on the otherside as a teacher pushing the complexity to hard and just confusing everyone. knowing how to draw that line I think is a big part of the art of teaching. My general approach has been to start with the simplifications, but try to remain faithful to the truth and point out where there are important exceptions, and simplifications, so that the more advanced students have a sense of where the next layer of knowledge is to be found.

Henry J said:

I struggle with this when I teach a simplified version of molecular orbital theory. I never discuss hybrid, non-bonding or anti-bonding orbitals - I just pretend that it’s as simple as 1s, 2s, 2p, etc. Technically, this is wrong,

Maybe you could just say in passing that there are more complicated forms of that stuff, that won’t be covered in this class?

This is exactly what I do. It’s sort of an academic CYA.…

Joe Felsenstein said:

More and more textbooks and museums (and people debating creationists) are explaining the inference of evolutionary trees (phylogenies), which, they say, is really very simple – all you have to do to determine groups in the tree is to allow each derived state to define such a group. This is said to be an amazing new, powerful method called “cladistics”.

If that were so, we would not need computer programs to reconstruct phylogenies, and terms like Bayesian inference, likelihood, or even parsimony would be totally unnecessary. Unfortunately, the museums and textbooks (and the commenters in debates with creationists) are presenting the Mickey Mouse version. In it, there is never any ambiguity about which state is the ancestral state, and reversals and parallel changes never occur.

I’m not arguing that we should present the issues with their full complexity every time trees are mentioned – this would overload the students and museum visitors. But there will ultimately must some acknowledgment that the matter is not so simple.

I wonder if an example from doing genealogy and tracking ancestral lines could be used.

Very frequently one ends up with a number of names that could be the parents or grandparents of a given individual. So you put them in a “hopper” along with the pros and cons of their being the correct individual; and then you keep digging on tracking the ancestors, descendants, and other relatives of each until you eliminate as many as you can.

In a sense, you have a bunch of tentative lines going into a “cloud” that doesn’t allow you to see which connects with which. But you have fragmentary information that at least allows you to continue – and keep track of – the search. Sometimes you know these individuals connect back to a common ancestor, but you don’t know which connects to a particular descendant line.

In the end, even if you can’t “prove” a particular ancestry, you can at least list the individual as probable, give the reasons, and leave the line open for further study in the future.

When I was a university student, which was before the internet era, you had to really love science, or be hell bent on getting into medical or dental school, or both, because science professors were largely scornful of anyone except upper level students. I had a professor who literally said, in a pompous British accent, “This is organic chemistry, it is a WEEDER course; most of you will be weeded out” (For full disclosure, I did very well in my courses and went on to medical school, despite an unpromising high school career). Not everyone was like that but it was the general gist. The one course I had with a gentle hippie professor who just wanted everyone to dig the beauty of nature was a heavily mathematical and rigorous population genetics course, and by far one of the hardest courses I ever took, with a huge drop rate, despite the professor’s kind intentions (but also an extremely useful and insight-generating course).

I recall an editorial in Science or Nature saying that science should be “fun”. It generated a massive slew of angry letters, scornfully demanding that science be HARD.

But of course, that’s a false dichotomy. It has to be hard - it’s the challenge of using maximum intellectual effort to discover more and more about nature. But it’s also fun, or nobody would ever have started it.

These days, there are innumerable incentives against a scientific education, in US society. Finance, sales in general, and “management” careers require far shorter training yet generally pay more. Whether this is sustainable is a valid question, but it is the case right now.

Medicine is still somewhat lucrative and prestigious, but it requires a minimum of 11 years training after high school, and many basic primary care specialties don’t pay that well. Specialty dentists do considerably better than many medical specialties; even nurses and physician assistants with a bachelor’s and then work experience instead of medical school and residency may make more than some primary care doctors.

Undergraduate education is outrageously expensive - the cost has been increasing at far faster than the rate of inflation for years. But that isn’t the case in most other nations, and the US is happy to import many debt-free international students for graduate school and post-doc positions - a good thing, of course, but it ironically puts debt-loaded US graduates at some disadvantage.

I have some friends in entertainment, and I have to say that it is one of the last US industries to still successfully generate somewhat high tech products in the US, using highly paid US workers (not exclusively but frequently), for export to the rest of the world. However, an entire generation of young people, perhaps logically noting that it is the one industry not in decline here, seems to have invested in often futile dreams of this impressive but somewhat exclusive industry.

On the other hand, the internet is giving people from non-science backgrounds an exposure to much more discussion of science than one could get in the past, without access to, at a minimum, a university library.

It will be interesting to see how these competing trends play out.

Mike Elzinga said:

I wonder if an example from doing genealogy and tracking ancestral lines could be used.

In the end, even if you can’t “prove” a particular ancestry, you can at least list the individual as probable, give the reasons, and leave the line open for further study in the future.

There are some similarities to that, though we do not have a fixed set of possible ancestors, most of the ancestors are not known. Instead it is a matter of relative fit of the data to different of the many possible trees. The fit is never perfect, so one uses statistical criteria. The best tree (or sometimes a genealogy that is mostly a tree) tends to be very strongly confirmed once you pile up a lot of data – the evidence for common ancestry is extremely strong. Creationists say it isn’t all the time, but they generally flee from any real discussion of the issue.

However the presentations in museum displays and elementary textbooks oversimplifies to the point of implying that there is always perfect fit of the data to the best tree. This is not just a matter of the inevitable simplification involved presenting science to the public – it reflects a particular approach to describing the logic of the field, under the rubric of “cladistics”. Biological systematists were so smitten, in the 1970s and 1980s, by the compelling logic of Will Hennig’s scheme for inferring phylogenies, that they were led to oversimplify the matter and describe the inference in ways that almost overlook the presence of noise in the data. It is that view that has influenced the museums, the textbook writers, and the online commenters. I won’t go into the details here but it does involve disagreements in the field about how you describe the logic of reconstructing phylogenies.

The upshot is that the public in museums, and students in textbooks, and participants in online debates over common ancestry are usually treated to the Mickey Mouse version. Alas, that was so in the latest issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach. At least a disclaimer should be available.

harold said:

I had a professor who literally said, in a pompous British accent, “This is organic chemistry, it is a WEEDER course; most of you will be weeded out”

In my undergraduate days, the freshmen were herded into a large auditorium. The first speaker to get up said, “Look at the person to your right, look at the person to your left; by the end of this first semester, one of you won’t be here.”

In my PhD program years, the E&M professor said to the class, “There are too many of you here; I intend to eliminate two-thirds of you.”

Back in my Navy days similar “weeding” took place in the submarine schools. The top 1.5% of applicants was chosen for training. By the time the classes and training were passed the three week mark – especially with the escape tank training and psychological screening – half of these were gone. Then came the qualification training once one reported aboard a sub.

Of course there was good reason for this; you needed people everyone else in the crew could depend on under the toughest of conditions. And we were never far from those conditions.

Back then it was not politically incorrect to let people know what was expected of them. Nowadays many students seem to expect that simply enrolling in a course should guarantee them an A.

Joe Felsenstein said:

Looking at the December 2010 issue (my university pays for access) I note the discussion of phylogenies. But all of it is discussed in terms of synapomorphies. I have to let out one of my standard rants and raves on this:

More and more textbooks and museums (and people debating creationists) are explaining the inference of evolutionary trees (phylogenies), which, they say, is really very simple – all you have to do to determine groups in the tree is to allow each derived state to define such a group. This is said to be an amazing new, powerful method called “cladistics”.

If that were so, we would not need computer programs to reconstruct phylogenies, and terms like Bayesian inference, likelihood, or even parsimony would be totally unnecessary. Unfortunately, the museums and textbooks (and the commenters in debates with creationists) are presenting the Mickey Mouse version. In it, there is never any ambiguity about which state is the ancestral state, and reversals and parallel changes never occur.

I’m not arguing that we should present the issues with their full complexity every time trees are mentioned – this would overload the students and museum visitors. But there will ultimately must some acknowledgment that the matter is not so simple.

I absolutely agree. However, the concept of noise in the data is not too hard to address. You just have to include a discussion of homoplasy and parsimony. It is sometimes difficult to get across the concept of confidence in a topology, especially the difference between a bootstrap value and a confidence interval. But you are absolutely correct. We don’t do anybody any favors by trying to pretend that anything in reality is cut and dry, black and white. That isn’t how science works. Easy answers usually don’t tell the whole story.

Of course there was good reason for this; you needed people everyone else in the crew could depend on under the toughest of conditions. And we were never far from those conditions.

Yes, life in the submarine service must require very good ability to handle stress.

Back then it was not politically incorrect to let people know what was expected of them. Nowadays many students seem to expect that simply enrolling in a course should guarantee them an A.

That is indeed the at least equally unhealthy opposite extreme, and it’s very common. Unfortunately, I think the trend of grotesquely high tuitions feeds into this. I paid almost no tuition for my college degree. There was no illusion that I was a “customer” or entitled to anything.

I believe that a competent examiner should try to avoid both extremes.

Some of my old professors were advocates of the “just curve it” school of thought (the organic chemistry guy didn’t even curve). I had a 55 that turned out to be one of the highest grades in the class in one course. However, in my opinion, exams that are ridiculously overly difficult aren’t fair, as an element of luck comes increasingly into play. If you want creative answers to highly elusive applications of the material, assign a project. A two hour exam should mainly test that the material was remembered and understood.

Having said all that, I had to direct a pathology course for physical therapy students. However, radiology technologist students were also required to take the same course, for some designer forsaken reason. Physical therapy is a highly competitive Master’s degree program. Radiology technologist is, with absolutely no disrespect intended, a basically blue collar job that can pay an honest, responsible, competent person a decent salary and benefits. The backgrounds and preparation were quite different. I had to allow a very high class average to assure that radiology technology students (who had unequivocally learned all the pathology they needed) didn’t all fail. It didn’t particularly bother me that the exam was easy for some students - as long as their grades were consistent with the ease. Both groups got a solid exposure to all the pathology they needed, and then some. And anyone who failed my course unequivocally deserved to fail.

Joe Felsenstein said:

Mike Elzinga said:

I wonder if an example from doing genealogy and tracking ancestral lines could be used.

There are some similarities to that, though we do not have a fixed set of possible ancestors, most of the ancestors are not known.

So, in genealogy as in poker, you propose a hypothesis (“show everybody what you have”) and defy everybody to prove you wrong by showing something better…which sometimes happens.

(I’ve got a distant cousin who happily claims we’re not only related to European royalty, but Egyptian pharoahs…)

your post is so good.thanks for taking time to discus this topic.

harold said:

When I was a university student, which was before the internet era, you had to really love science, or be hell bent on getting into medical or dental school, or both, because science professors were largely scornful of anyone except upper level students. I had a professor who literally said, in a pompous British accent, “This is organic chemistry, it is a WEEDER course; most of you will be weeded out” (For full disclosure, I did very well in my courses and went on to medical school, despite an unpromising high school career). Not everyone was like that but it was the general gist. The one course I had with a gentle hippie professor who just wanted everyone to dig the beauty of nature was a heavily mathematical and rigorous population genetics course, and by far one of the hardest courses I ever took, with a huge drop rate, despite the professor’s kind intentions (but also an extremely useful and insight-generating course).

I recall an editorial in Science or Nature saying that science should be “fun”. It generated a massive slew of angry letters, scornfully demanding that science be HARD.

But of course, that’s a false dichotomy. It has to be hard - it’s the challenge of using maximum intellectual effort to discover more and more about nature. But it’s also fun, or nobody would ever have started it.

I find the idea of science as an elitist activity disgusting in the extreme and would dedicate my life to stamping out that attitude among today’s science teachers, including university professors. EVERYONE should be able to do science and allowed to do science.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Richard B. Hoppe published on December 8, 2010 8:56 AM.

Ark Encounter Watch web site to track park’s progress and controversy was the previous entry in this blog.

It’s just a stage. A phylotypic stage. Part I. is the next entry in this blog.

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