Saturday, April 29, 2006

"Prove it, test it, and repeat it - or shut up."

In the April 27 Albuquerque Tribune, an editorial by Larry Spohn (“Behold, science: Why realm of facts, not faith, belongs in the public classroom”) comments on efforts in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, to open the door a crack to discuss religion in science classes.

I like the way he concludes:

... [S]cience does best when it is allowed to flourish in an open, democratic environment in which facts rule - unmercifully so.

Indeed, scientists give no quarter. None. You say it's fact; they say, "Prove it, test it, and repeat it - or shut up."

Imagine somebody saying that to the pope or a Muslim cleric. Their realms are faith, not science. Their debates, if they occur, center on doctrine, belief, faith.

But from evolution to cold fusion, it's always a tough sell, because scientists only buy what can be proved, as observed in nature or the lab. There, matters of faith, by definition, are going to have a rough time.

Which is why you don't see any sessions on the latest discoveries in intelligent design at the annual biology or ecology conferences. And until you do, don't let anyone ever tell you it belongs in your kid's science classroom.

For more on Rio Rancho, see Panda’s Thumb.

Monday, April 17, 2006

More smart folks

A few days back I wrote about where the smart people are. (Everywhere.) By coincidence, the next morning I saw a story in the Wall Street Journal titled “How Animals Decide Things” (By subscription only. Sorry.) The piece described interesting ways that buffaloes, bees and other critters come to a group consensus about, say, which direction to head. And it’s not just follow-the-leader.

Shortly after I read that article, someone sent me a pointer to an article in the April issue of Scientific American titled "Why Are Some Animals So Smart?” by Carel van Schaik. I had already read van Schaik’s book, Among Orangutans: Red Apes and the Rise of Human Culture, so I was familiar with his discussion about the culture of tool use among orangutans in high-density populations.

Early in the article, he discounts the role of social complexity as adequate explanation for the evolution of intelligence:

This Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis suggests that success in social life relies on cultivating the most profitable relationships and on rapidly reading the social situation--for instance, when deciding whether to come to the aid of an ally attacked by another animal. Hence, the demands of society foster intelligence because the most intelligent beings would be most successful at making self-protective choices and thus would survive to pass their genes to the next generation. Machiavellian traits may not be equally beneficial to other lineages, however, or even to all primates, and so this notion alone is unsatisfying.

He posits that “social learning” is another key factor:

Our analyses of orangutans suggest that not only does culture--social learning of special skills--promote intelligence, it favors the evolution of greater and greater intelligence in a population over time. Different species vary greatly in the mechanisms that enable them to learn from others, but formal experiments confirm the strong impression one gets from observing great apes in the wild: they are capable of learning by watching what others do. Thus, when a wild orangutan, or an African great ape for that matter, pulls off a cognitively complex behavior, it has acquired the ability through a mix of observational learning and individual practice, much as a human child has garnered his or her skills. And when an orangutan in Suaq has acquired more of these tricks than its less fortunate cousins elsewhere, it has done so because it had greater opportunities for social learning throughout its life. In brief, social learning may bootstrap an animal's intellectual performance onto a higher plane.

So what does all this have to do with the theme of this blog? Well, it’s just that I am mystified that some people are so viscerally offended to be compared to apes. Or to be classified as animals. What’s the big deal? We are all part of nature, and there is so much we can learn from observing animals -- from orangutans and tamarins to snakes and spiders. Of course, we don’t know how chimpanzees feel about our claim to be their cousins. I sure wish we could talk it over.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Where the smart people are

I work at a large, intense and highly competitive corporation. When the VPs discuss the competition and the challenges we face, they often point out that “there are a lot of really smart people in the world … and they don’t all work at [our company]. "

As school boards and legislators around the country rumble over science education, they need to keep in mind that there are a lot of really smart, talented and motivated people in the world … and they don’t all live in the great ol’ U S of A.

Check out this story on the SciDev website: “Scientific literacy: a new strategic priority for China.”

Raising public awareness about science has, for the first time, been made an official part of China's national development strategy.

The plan has two main aims: boosting China's scientific power and the role that science plays in the country's development, and equipping Chinese citizens with the skills needed to apply an understanding of science and technology to daily life.

Whether you like it or not, we live in a global economy. While we’re dinking around with science education standards to make them more palatable to people who don’t really understand science, other countries are working hard to move forward. Nowhere is it written that the US will always be the center of invention and innovation. If we want to stay competitive in the 21st century, we’d better get serious about giving our kids the best science education possible. (And it wouldn’t hurt to make sure their parents are also science literate.)

Note: SciDev is a good site to bookmark if you want to see science headlines from the developing world.

Where did March go?

It went to Florida –but just for a week. It went to filing taxes. It went to doing a little yard work. Very little. It went to the office and it went to loafing and reading and grocery shopping and volunteering at the zoo, but obviously it didn’t go to blogging.

Well, I did haunt the usual blogs: Panda’s Thumb, Red State Rabble, and assorted destinations at Scienceblogs. I even left a few comments here and there. I also watched some streaming video, like part of the “Evolution: constant change and common threads” lecture series at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) site.

So, here it is almost the middle of April … Hey, where did April go?