Category Archives: Follies of the Human Condition

Attendance is Mandatory

I have taught this class. It was called “Introduction to Biology for Non-Majors”.

Incidentally, I got pretty good student evaluations and none of my South Carolinian students argued with me about evolution.

Science for the People: Effective Altruism

sftp412bnfgp2agl-_sl250_This week, we’re learning how science can boost the effectiveness of philanthropy. We’ll talk to philosophy professor William MacAskill about his book Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and How You Can Make a Difference. And we’ll speak to education researcher Brendan Rigby about the ethics and impact of “voluntourism.”

Don’t forget to support the Science for the People Patreon Campaign to keep the sciencey goodness flowing toward your ear holes.

*Josh provides research help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.


Treat everyone like they are your friend – even if they are not.

That is from my five year old child summing up the philosophy of Jesus*. We were talking about how to deal with classmates who are not being friendly. It struck me that this might, just might, be relevant to the current rhetoric surrounding the humanitarian crisis of Syrian refugees.

*We live in the pervasively Christian middle of South Carolina.

Putting numbers on the impact of basic research

Over at Pacific Standard, I tackle the question, How much does basic research really matter?

The idea that basic research is the indispensable foundation for technological and medical progress is widely accepted by scientists. It’s the core rationale for the major government investment in basic research made in the U.S and around the world.

But what’s the evidence for it? We can always come up with cherry-picked examples of a basic discovery that led to some revolutionary technology — general relativity and GPS, restriction enzymes and synthetic insulin, quantum mechanics and electronics, the double helix and genetic medicine, etc. Coming up with examples is easy. Quantifying the impact of basic research is hard.

A recent paper in Cell describes one way to do this. It’s not perfect, but the concept is surprisingly simple. Pick some new technology or therapy — the authors picked the new cystic fibrosis drug Ivacaftor — and follow the trail of citations to build a network of papers, researchers, and institutions that made the drug possible. Of course this network will include a lot of citations to studies that weren’t particularly critical. The trick here is sorting the wheat from the chaff: picking out the ‘network hubs’, the researchers and institutions that contributed consistently to the research that led to the drug.

The result may be not surprising to those of us working in science, but it’s still remarkable to see: dozens of researchers publishing hundreds of papers over several decades laid the essential scientific foundation for Ivacaftor. Continue reading

Representative Speier Calls on AAAS to Address Sexism in Science

In an open letter to Rush Holt (PDF – 974KB), the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and executive publisher of Science, Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) writes:

Women who speak out about these incidents have been subjected to torrents of online abuse, including rape and death threats. Female scientists from underrepresented minorities, already a small group, have been subjected to even more vociferous abuse and have received limited support from scientific institutions…At the beginning of the 21st century, while we are in the midst of exploring the solar system, unlocking the human genome, and creating ever-more-advanced technology, the demographics and attitudes of scientists and engineers must not be trapped in the 19th century.
Representative Jackie Speier

One of the things that was made apparent in the revelations about Geoff Marcy’s assaults on students was that our inherited culture of institutionalized science has favored protecting those in power over protecting those without. In many ways, the AAAS represents the scientific legacy of the United States. Representative Speier notes some missteps in Science that reflect that destructive culture.

The AAAS also has the opportunity to represent the future of science – a future that is inclusive and prioritizes the humanity of all. Representative Speier also notes the recent editorial by Bernard Wood in Science that chastises his fellow established scientists for failing to substantively address misconduct in their own ranks as a small step in the correct direction.

The third “A” in AAAS stands for “Advancement”. Representative Speier is asking the AAAS to recognize that overcoming its sexist heritage is a critical issue for the advancement of science into the 21st Century.