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Honor Codes and Impeachment

February 16, 2021

This week, the US Senate failed to impeach a former President for inciting an insurrection on January 6th. Those who voted to acquit largely relied on the argument that one cannot impeach a public official who is no longer in office. Essentially, they are saying that you can avoid the consequences of your actions by either serving your term that ends prior to being put on trial for the impeachable offenses or by resigning to avoid being tried for the impeachable offenses.

And then I thought of my College’s Honor Code. When a student cheats on a test or commits plagiarism, etc., faculty are required to file an Honor Code violation and there are a long series of policies and procedures that govern how these cases are dealt with. Among the policies is the following:

“No student will be allowed to withdraw from a course in order to avoid an Honor Code process.”

So, you can withdraw from the course to avoid the negative effect that an Honor Code violation might have on your GPA but the Honor Code procedure continues even though you are no longer a student in the course. And if you want to transfer to another college or university, your transcript will not be released until the Honor Code violation is adjudicated. So, I can complete the procedure for an Honor Code violation in my class for a student who is no longer enrolled in my course as long as the violation occurred when my student was enrolled in the course at the time of the violation.

I find it odd that we hold our students to a higher standard of ethical behavior than the Senate held the President to but that is evidently the world we live in. I also wonder to what degree things like this happening at the national level will have an effect on our ability to guide our students toward ethical behavior in our courses.

I guess time will tell but I am anticipating students trotting out the January Exception defense in the future.

We just had an insurgency!!

January 8, 2021

On Wednesday, something happened that shocked me but did not surprise me. Insurgents overran the US Capitol in an effort to overthrow the results of the 2020 Presidential election at the same time senators and representatives were attempting a less violent overthrow in a joint session of Congress to certify the election results.

I am left wondering what to make of all this. Our country is divided in ways that I think are going to be hard to unite. The United States engaged in a Civil War in the past and, after that war, we tried to press on and say, “That is all behind us,” but the stench of that conflict clings to body of this nation to this day. All this time has passed but we are still fighting a war where white people are afraid of losing power because some people want to grant more power to those citizens who did not have power in the past. When things are going well, we drift along on this undercurrent of racism and privilege separating different segments of society and we don’t sense the turbulence that lies just beneath the surface. And then a psychopath (used here in the clinical use of the term) comes along and sees that he can use this turbulence to divide an electorate in ways that vault him into political power and that turbulence rises to the surface and threatens to sink the fragile vessel that is democracy.

So, we know what the problems are. What are the solutions?

I think that a good way of getting this country on a better path is if we look at our politicians and those wishing to serve in public office and ask ourselves a series of questions about that person.

1. Is this person honorable?

2. Does this person seem like the type of person who will put the needs of others ahead of their own desires or needs?

3. Regardless of their own natural gifts, do they recognize their weaknesses and seek the aid of others when faced with decisions that lie outside their area of expertise?

4. Do they have the ability to see the world through the eyes of another and, even if they do not have that experience, they can acknowledge that experience? Another way of saying, do they have the capacity for empathy?

5. Are they genuinely prepared to see another side of an issue?

6. Are they prepared to pay attention to data and facts rather than trafficking in fiction?

If I can’t say yes to every one of these questions about a particular candidate, why am I voting for them? Does this mean that, some years, in some races, I simply do not cast a vote? That will be hard for me given that I am generally given two candidates to choose from, neither of whom have all these qualities. Not sure what I will do when asked to choose the lesser of two evils. But shouldn’t we be submitting something other than evil to the electorate?

Perhaps it is time that we, collectively, say to ourselves, “We deserve better than the people who are currently running the country.”

But how do we do that?

First, I think there should be public funding of political campaigns and spending limits prohibiting spending above the limits of those public levels of funding. This levels the playing field for those who might want to run for office in that public office will no longer be limited to those wealthy enough to undertake the process of being elected.Additionally, limiting spending hems in a candidate’s communication and this will require candidates to be prudent about the type of advertising they invest in because they do not have an unlimited amount of money to pour into getting their message out. They might actually have to say substantive things about their own platform rather than tearing down their opponent if they have a limited amount of air time to say things. Engage in negative advertising all you want, but when the money is gone, you are done.

Second, term limits up and down the administrative hierarchy. Two terms as Senator and 6 terms as a representative. 12 years total in a given part of the Legislature if you can get re-elected. That is still 4 years longer than the president gets if the president can get re-elected. If a candidate wants to run for Senate after being in the House, they should probably use their limited time in the House in ways that demonstrate their value to their constituents. If they want to be president, they should use their limited time in the Senate to convince the people that they would be a good choice for president by actually working for the people of the United States.

If you only have 12 years, you had best get to work.

Third, we need to invest in education more. And that education needs to be heavy on reading great works of thought and the foundational documents of our own democracy in addition to things like science and numeracy (I have been shocked at the number of people who are out there who have never read the US Constitution based on comments they make on social media). We need to teach a history of our country that recognizes the greatness of the democracy that has been built in the United States but also recognizes that much of the progress we have made has been progress for only some segments of our society accomplished at the exclusion of others. We need to teach a history that is honest about our failings as a nation, not merely its triumphs. We need a history curriculum that does not whitewash over the stains of our history. And we need to teach our children how to think critically. Information literacy is needed more and more in a world where “information” is a click away. I have seen so much lack of critical thinking in the last 48 hours that it makes my head hurt.

If I thought about it longer, I am sure other things would come up but I am tired of thinking about Washington, D.C. for this week.

One way we can use the events of this week to make the United States stronger is by using it as an opportunity to say, “Stop. We can do better than this. We can turn this around.”

But we can’t turn this around if we keep electing sociopaths and psychopaths to public office. We can’t turn this around if we keep electing people who value political power above all else. We can’t turn this around if we continue to elect people incapable of mustering a scintilla of empathy for other human beings.

And if we don’t turn this around, we can expect insurgencies to be more common in the future.

We can change, or we can get used to the new normal.

Game Theory and the 2020 US election.

November 2, 2020

In behavioral ecology, an economic tool called game theory is employed to explore behavioral decision making in animals that are in some form of conflict, be it over access to mates, access to resources, etc.. The way it works is that the person sets up a game with a set of rules

For the classic Hawk-Dove Game, 2 tactics exist: Hawk and Dove.

The Rules are:

1. When someone playing the Hawk tactic meets someone else playing the Hawk tactic, we assume that any individual wins half the time and suffers injury half the time.

2. Individuals Playing Hawk always beat individuals playing Dove.

3. Individuals playing Dove always immediately retreat, losing but incurring no injury.

4. Individuals playing Dove agains another individual playing Dove wins the encounter 1/2 of the time.

These rules lead to the following pay-off matrix.

The payoff for a Hawk encountering a Hawk is (1/2*50)+ (1/2 * -100) = -25.

The payoff for a Hawk encountering a Dove is +50.

The payoff for a Dove Encountering a hawk is 0.

The payoff for a Dove encountering a dove is +25.

This games results in a mixture of strategies within a population because a population full individuals playing the Hawk strategy could be invaded by individuals playing the Dove Strategy (Payoff of Dove meeting Hawks is 0 while Hawk versus Hawk is -25).

In the same way, a population of individuals playing the Dove Strategy could be invaded by Individuals playing the Hawk strategy because Dove meeting Hawk = 0 and Hawk versus Dove = +50.

This results (via math) in a population of Doves and Hawks where 7/12s of the population plays Hawk and 5/12s of the population plays Dove. Known in the business as a Mixed Evolutionarily Stable Strategy.

Now imagine that the contest is over territories such that there are territory holders and intruders. A third tactic, called Bourgeios is the tactic of “Play Hawk when the owners” and “Play Dove when the intruder”. This third tactic is actually a strategy that has higher average payoffs than either the Hawk or the Dove tactic.

If the person doing the game theoretical analysis does not know (or knows but refuses to acknowledge) that this third tactic exists, they will come to wrong conclusions about who the winners and losers in the game will be. I would argue that Biden is playing one game and Trump is playing a different game and Biden refuses to acknowledge that a third tactic exists.

So, we are currently in an election and there are generally a set of rules that we all agree to and they keep the American democracy running. However, the outcome of the election depends on everyone in the game playing by the same set of rules and employing tactics that are recognized and accepted. If that is the case, the outcome of the election, if not predictable, is something everyone can agree upon was arrived at under a set of rules that govern our democracy. But what happens when another strategy enters the game, a strategy that essentially says, “Win at all costs, regardless of the structure of the game.” In this case, it becomes very hard to predict the value of the other tactics in the game because the game was not designed with that tactic in the list of possible tactics than can be employed.

When someone in the game challenges what some people might consider minor democratic norms (demonizing the press, lying about reality and then saying they did not say the things they said, mocking the disabled, attacking ones opponents with slurs and mockery, etc.) it lays the groundwork for normalizing other, larger, violations of democratic norms (inciting violence against your political opponents, attempting to invalidate legally cast votes, refusing to leave office in the event you lose the election, inciting violence by your followers after the election if you lose the election, etc.) because what were once democratic norms are not normal any longer. One of the players has changed the game by adding a new tactic. If the other players are not aware of the new tactic or are aware of the new tactic and don’t alter their behavior in light of the new tactic, they stand a chance of losing the game because they were playing one game and another player was playing a different game.

I would argue that this is what is happening to American democracy on the eve of the 2020 election. Joe Biden is playing a game with one set of rules, one pay-off matrix, and one set of tactics and Donald Trump is playing an entirely different game with different tactics that alter the payoff matrix of the game Biden is playing. Don’t be surprised when the winner of the game is someone you did not expect.

While I am not sure whether they used a game theoretical approach or not, there was an experiment (simulation) done on the 2020 election by a group of people that “gamed out” different scenarios for the 2020 election. It is described in some detail on an episode of Radiolab. It is worth a listen.

Democracies are fragile. Democracies are fragile because, when politicians are playing a game and the tactics of democracy are presumed to be the only tactics of the game, individuals who are playing by another set of tactics, let’s say, autocracy tactics, it is easy to subvert democratic norms to put in place autocratic systems of government because democracies are subject to invasion by autocratic tactics. Only by understanding this will we be able to guard against autocrats subverting democratic norms to depose democracies.

And even that understanding may not be enough.

On Studying

October 18, 2018

My first year students are struggling. This is a common occurrence for a number of reasons. First, high schools seems to stress different areas of biology (not evolution and ecology) and they teach in ways that seem to stress memory rather than understanding. In my department, we stress first principles and know that much of the factual content will be learned in the process of learning about those first principles but learning the principles helps our students understand and apply the material. But this requires a different approach to learning and a different approach to preparing for exams. So, here is a little advice for students trying to understand biology.

  1. If your professor advises you to practice something, do it. – Nothing substitutes for actually doing something. Trying to learn Mendelian Genetics? Work through as many different kinds of Punnet squares as possible. Trying to master Lotka-Volterra competition equations? Recall the equations from memory. Define the variables from memory. Solve for the equilibrium conditions (without looking at your notes). Graph those conditions in a phase plane graph. Make predictions about the outcome of competition in all the sections of the graph. If you can DO that, there is nothing about those equations I can put on a exam that you cannot kill. So, practice. Practice recalling factual information. Studies show that recall practice is very effective in mastering factual content especially over short time frames. This involves making up quizzes for yourself or have a classmate make up quizzes that you have to take (and you should do the same for them).
  2. Form a study group, but make it the right kind of study group – I was a member of a study group from my second semester as an undergraduate through graduate school (MS). We would meet to study but the reality was that we had already studied. Our meetings involved creating a set of questions prior to our meeting that we thought would be the kinds of questions on the exam. We would then pass them around and answer them. We discussed the different answers and ask ourselves what other ways could those types of questions be asked and answered. By hearing other people’s perspectives on a topic, it deepened our own understanding of the subject and the discussion prompted  us to think about the material in more analytical ways than we probably could have achieved on our own. After a while, we would get to the exam and our study group had already asked and answered all the questions that ended up appearing on the exam. Those exams were pretty easy to do well on. There were rules. If you showed up without questions, you were dismissed and invited to return the next week; coming unprepared was not useful to the others in the group. Also, it was not super social. We socialized at other times.
  3. DON’T READ OVER YOUR NOTES – this is possibly the least effective way of studying. Simply reading over your notes is an amazingly passive way of studying. Same thing goes for highlighting text in textbooks. TOO PASSIVE. Try instead recopying notes. It helps you to organize material that is perhaps disorganized from class. It also allows you to relate material from the current day’s notes to material from previous days’ notes. This relational approach fosters understanding of the material in ways that is not compartmentalized and thus enhances understanding rather than simply rote memorization. And if you do this on a daily basis, you will know at the next class meeting the things you don’t fully understand and you can ask the professor at the beginning of class about that misunderstanding.

If you have other suggestions, please post them in the comments section below.

#MeToo at the #JMIH2018

July 15, 2018

I am at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (JMIH) convening in Rochester, NY. Before going to a meeting I download the schedule and look it over. I am especially interested in who is speaking at the plenary session because that tells me whether I need to hit the ground running or can be a little more relaxed. This year, I saw that the Herpetologists League had chosen Richard Vogt, a turtle biologist well known for including photos of his students/field assistants (almost exclusively female) in revealing clothing holding turtles, as its Distinguished Herpetologist. I saw this in his presentations during the first herp meetings I went to in the early 1990s and thought it was inappropriate then. So I immediately knew that my first morning was going to be more relaxed because I would not endorse the man with my presence. I also thought to myself, why did they award him an award that included presenting a plenary talk in the first place?

Well, I did not go, and evidently he did exactly what he had a reputation for doing. People reacted with shock (really?) and indignation and soon he was stripped of the award and the Herp League issued an apology (I thought it was weak but you can see the image of the HL statement in the  news article link above and decide for yourself) and adopted the JMIH Code of Conduct. Closing the gate after the misogyny has escaped but better than nothing.

This episode brings up a number of questions for myself and the Herpetologists League.

  1. Who allowed this award to go forward given the (at least) three decades of sexist behavior exhibited by this researcher, regardless of his sustained productivity?
  2. Why has the HL been so slow to adopt more inclusive policies? If you look at the different cohorts of herpetologists, you will find that the oldest cohort is dominated by white males, but the youngest cohort has an impressive number of women doing work equal in quality to their male counterparts. Does the HL not realize that perpetuating an environment that makes women feel alienated (at best) or unsafe (at worst) will also perpetuate the lack of diversity we see in the older cohorts of HL members? Or do they realize this and don’t care, or worse, purposefully want to perpetuate a culture that discourages diversity? My hope it is ignorance and complacency but, if that is what we can hope for, we are in a terrible place.
  3. About my own behavior, should I have gone to the plenary and walked out when what I expected to happen happened? Or should I have gone to the plenary and did what Danielle Wasserman did, calling him on his misogyny by asking him “if being a provocateur has ever hurt you [him] financially.” Or was my decision to not honor the behavior with my presence the most appropriate response.
  4. As a white male, what can I do in the future to insure that we don’t find ourselves in this situation in the future? How do I respond in the future? Should I have emailed the President of the HL and expressed my concerns prior to the meeting? My thought was, :surely someone has thought this through and made a reasoned decision about this honor.” I was evidently wrong.

I am not sure what the answers are to these questions but, at a societal level, HL and other scientific societies must do better unless they want to be relegated to irrelevance in world where behavior of the type exhibited at the 2018 JMIH will not be tolerated. Any thoughts you have about this issue are welcome in the comments.


On Unions and Higher Education – one faculty member’s experience

June 29, 2018

In 1998, I interviewed for a position at a University in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. When I asked the department chair what my salary might be if I got the job, he spun around in his chair, grabbed my CV and looked at a chart that matched my advanced degree held and other experience to the salary I would make. It was a unionized campus so faculty salary was negotiated across the system. And salary determinations were completely transparent. When I accepted the position, I came to realize that I would need to join the union or pay what they referred to as “fair share” because the union negotiated the contract i had signed. I bristled at this because I was only going to be there a year and, “Why should I pay for something that won’t benefit me in the future?”

Then, I got hired as a post-doctoral associate at a non-unionized university and took a pay cut. Then, I took a tenure-track position at my current institution and took another pay cut. My current institution is pretty hostile to transparency in salary which is why I tell anyone who asks what my yearly salary is. For some reason, my colleagues think that not telling others what they make might threaten their salary rather than information that can be used to raise the salaries of those faculty who are unfairly compensated. I attempted to get a local chapter of AAUP organized on our campus in 2004 and could not get the 7 people to sign up that would be required to get chartered. People thought it would lead to a non-collegial environment on campus. I did this in response to conducting a quantitative analysis of faculty salaries that revealed a gender bias in salary that the Dean of the college at the time then said did not exist and I thought that the only way to get something done about the situation was to organize. No one was interested. I was dumbfounded.

This November, people in my state (Missouri) will vote on a “right to work” law (Proposition A) that will seriously erode the ability of unions to protect workers. A recent Supreme Court decision has also eroded the ability of unions to function in support of workers rights and salaries. The middle class in the United States is eroding and the erosion of unions to protect workers is one reason.

On Teaching and Learning

September 15, 2017

I think my first year students are a little confused. I am team-teaching the first year biology course at my institution (as I almost always do) and my co-teacher is covering the “Central Dogma” so students will understand the process of transforming the information in DNA into the structure of a protein so that they can understand the relationship between genetic information and the phenotype. She began by assigning them some homework and then built off that homework by having the students draw a concept map of the process and then discussing the details of their concept maps with their peers in learning groups we set up at the beginning of the semester. She found some of the groups reluctant to talk to one another and I had to stop them and explain that her having them do this is good pedagogy. Having students create their own knowledge aids in their learning of that knowledge in ways that delivering this knowledge to them in traditional lecture cannot. They come to us from their public school experience with the idea that our job is to teach them and their job is to receive this teaching and somehow come to knowledge and understanding. What they don’t realize is that our job is to create environements, activities and opportunities that facilitate their learning. And, if we are doing our job correctly and informed by what educational research says are effective ways of teaching, sometimes we will involve them in activities that do not look or feel like us teaching them.

Last night, we had a review session for the exam coming up on Monday (today is Friday). After we had exhausted their questions, my co-teacher asked the students to draw a fitness landscape. One volunteer drew it and switched the axes relative to the shape of the surface of the fitness landscape. A simple and easily fixed mistake which is why my co-teacher started to correct him before I jumped in and interrupted her to ask the class if everyone agreed with the fitness landscape he had drawn. No one agreed and I asked if anyone wanted to correct it. One student volunteered and, as she was beginning to get up and correct the figure on the board, the student at the board realized the mistake he had made and began to correct the figure. We then stressed to them that the best way to study was to practice recalling information and doing this in the presence of people who know enough to point out when you get something not quite right (or completely wrong). I am not sure that they believed this but there is evidence that says it is true.

And this is not just an issue with our students. When we (faculty) go up for a promotion, one requirement is that the Dean of our college come and observe our teaching to determine whether or not we know what we are doing in the classroom. It is unfortunate that we only do this once because it does not necessarily reflect our effectiveness on a daily basis. I invited the Dean to come and view my teaching on a day when I was employing a technique referred to as a jigsaw. The jigsaw I used was one I downloaded from the Case Study Teaching website at the University of Buffalo and it involves food webs in temperate forests in the northeastern United States that relates the production of acorns to mouse population growth to tick populations and gypsy moth populations and how all this is implicated in cycles of Lyme disease prevalence. It involves having students look at figures from the paper and understand them in small groups but each group has only one figure. After they understand the figure, members move from group to group, bringing their figure with them and teaching their new group the figure they are carrying and learning about figures possessed by other groups from those group members. The task is to figure out the stucture of the food web and what the paper is about that is not in any of the figures (Lyme disease). The coolest thing about it is that it really works and it helps the students learn in a way that really sticks with them. During this learning activity, I am circulating around the room and answering questions, asking questions of students designed to get the students to delve more deeply into the figures or to pick up on things they missed in the figure, and managing time. The Dean began my teaching observation report with the something along the lines of: Dr. Klawinski began class at 9:00 and proceeded to not teach for the next 65 minutes. He then went on to describe the process of running a jigsaw fairly accurately as he described what he saw in the classroom.

Why I am writing all this down? This post is mostly for our students. Sometimes we come into class and ask you to do things that don’t seem to you like we are teaching you anything. It isn’t that we are unprepared. We are simply asking you to learn in ways that you perhaps have not been asked to learn in the past. And we are doing it because the methods we are using have been shown to be effective in getting you to learn. Trust us a little because we care deeply about your learning. Be open to learning new ways of learning. Recognize that good, effective teaching might not look like what you saw in high school. And be willing to go on the journey with us.

What are our shared national values?

August 3, 2017

I don’t write about politics very often but it seems like we maybe need to have a chat as a nation about politics. If you haven’t noticed, things are a pretty big mess in the USA right now. I think it might be time to have a national conversation about our national values.

Right now, our political climate seems to be all about “winning” but when people speak that word, I am not sure what they are meaning. Who is “winning”? What are they “winning” when they do “win”? Who “loses” in this situation (the term “winning” implies that there is also a losing side)? By what metrics can we objectively measure a “win” versus a “loss”? And what do we concentrate on when we are so focused on “winning”, potentially at the expense of other things we could/should be focusing on? Is our governance system a zero-sum game?

I would like to propose that we focus on our national values. “What are those?”, you might ask. Some might look to our past behavior as a clue to what our national values are. I would not recommend this as there are many things in our national past that are not too positive (slavery, the extermination and/or displacement of Native Americans as the US pushed westward, the lack of equal rights for women, incarcerating Japanese-Americans During WWII, etc. I could go on but you could also just go and read a history book.). Some might look to the foundational documents of our nation to search for national values. That is somewhat better than looking at behavior but these sources are also fraught with historical norms that I think most of us would be uncomfortable (treating black people as property, lack of voting and property rights for women, etc.) Once again, sit down with those documents and read them carefully. They hide the notion of slavery by not referring to it as such but masking it in other terms but it is in there (how else can you “import” an “other person”?). But you can look through the amendments to our Constitution to get an inkling of what our national values are as we recognized that the original documents perhaps did not reflect our national values as well as we wanted. And our culture changed as well which required updates. If we could have a conversation about what we all think our national values are, we would see where we agree and disagree on those values. Once that is known, we can begin discussing ways to live out our national values in our governance structures and we can begin the process of negotiating why we do differ on some of these fundamentals.

What are some of these national values? Going back to some of our founding documents gives us a starting place.

All people are equal under the law. – This is a big one. It has to do with the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This is ultimately what decided the same sex marriage issue. All people should have equal protection under the law (see 5th and 14th Amendments for two versions of legal protection). ALL people. Regardless of any visible or invisible difference we might note in them. This becomes uncomfortable for some people who are offended by the lives other lead and by who a person loves. I am also uncomfortable with white supremacists but I cannot, in good conscience, elect to infringe upon their right to peaceably assemble and spew their hatred. Just as they cannot suspend my right to protest their message. Lots of things make us uncomfortable and we just need to get over some of these things. If we can freely embrace this core principle, lots of other things come into focus. Everyone should have the right to marry. Everyone should have the right to vote (if they are citizens). Everyone should receive a quality public education. Everyone should have equal opportunities to attend college, get a job, achieve the American dream. You might say that they do already, but they don’t if some public schools are not doing an adequate job of preparing students for the future (which many are not) or if there is implicit bias in admissions and hiring practices.

But we don’t have to go to our founding documents for shared values. Here are some others.

It is better for people to be employed than to be unemployed. – I would add to this that people need to be employed at wages that allow them to support themselves and their families. I think we can all agree to this. IF a candidate gets up in front of an audience and says something to the contrary, chances are that person will not get elected. But we often have candidates who say they don’t think it is better for people to be employed but they say it in different words, which when examined carefully, reveal their true meaning. When our leaders draft and pass legislation that makes it more economical for people to outsource jobs to other nations, they are expressing a value statement that runs counter to the idea that it is better to be unemployed than employed (see my earlier post on externalizing costs). We should not pass laws that actively encourage companies to relocate oversees. And as individuals, we should make individual purchasing choices that recognize that something made in America is being made by people who earn a living wage, have health insurance, work in safe working environments, and live in environments that are less negatively affected by the pollution generated by local industries. It is not just about what government does; it is about what we as individuals do. If a product is made in a country without environmental and worker protections, and we all refuse to buy that product, the company will move production to a place that has environmental and worker protections. Money speaks volumes. Where are we collectively spending our money?

It is better for people to be safe. – This includes in the workplace, in our homes and on our streets. This is about OSHA, police forces, the EPA, the FDA, etc. If we leave our safety up to corporations, we will get the least costly solution to problems which will probably be more unsafe than more costly solutions. We will get more dangerous products rather than less dangerous products and those will be produced in cheaply run production facilities that are less safe simply because that increases the profit margins of companies. See above comments about the power of money.

It is better for us to leave our children and grandchildren a world that is better than the one we inherited, from the standpoint of peace, economics and the environment. – How many of us really want to screw the next generation? Hopefully none of us do. But we often say we do in our choices. In our choices of the products we buy and how those products are produced, in terms of our choices about the houses we live in and the cars we drive, in terms of our choices about how we treat others not like ourselves, and in our choices of who we vote for for public offices.

We seek justice for people who have been oppressed. – I hope I don’t have to belabor this point. I am against the death penalty because there are too many cases ( > 1) of people on death row being exonerated due to new evidence, DNA, etc. I want criminals off the street as much as anyone, but not if it means killing innocent people because our system of justice is imperfect. And it is imperfect because it is run by people and people are imperfect. And this is not the only form of injustice I am referring to. See the first two bolded paragraphs above (equal protection and employment) or think about current moves to alter immigration policy.

I could go on, but you can see where I am going with this. I think there are common values that we all share. And all of these areas are difficult in the hammering out of policies that address these things. But, if we can not agree on the core principles, then there is no point of departure for debating the specifics of how we get more people employed or how we hand off a world that is better to those who come after us. But, if one candidate thinks we should leave our grandchildren a better world and another who does not, then you have nothing to discuss and you have the topic of your first campaign advertisement.

You will notice that I did not put “We think decisions should be based in reality/fact”, because I do not think that is a shared national value at the moment. But perhaps it should be.

It seems to me that both of our major political parties are struggling to find a platform that speaks to the American people. I think this is a symptom of a larger problem. I think both parties are so tied to special interests that both of them have lost sight of our shared values. I think the political party that embraces our shared values and then contrasts themselves with the party that does not will begin to win the hearts and minds of the electorate. With a Congressional approval rating of 20%, I would argue that both parties are losing the hearts and minds of Americans. Perhaps a new platform that embraces our shared values is the answer for success in elections 15 months from now.

What do you think should be added to our shared national values? Do you think this is all pie in the sky optimism and naiveté? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

I did a Nerd Nite…and it was fun.

June 1, 2017

I recently did a Nerd Nite presentation here in Kansas City. I had been meaning to attend Nerd Nite KC for a while but could never make it. It conflicts with my Wednesday night bicycling group and so I have always prioritized exercise over drinking and listening to people talk. And then the climate toward science in the United States shifted and I thought to myself that it is important, as a scientist, to work on communicating to non-scientists.

In case you are not aware of what a Nerd Nite is, Nerd Nite is an evening of science-y sorts of talks, usually at a local watering hole. The talks are oriented towards the general public and can cover a wide range of topics. The first Nerd Nite was in Boston and has now spread to over 90 communities around the world.

I chose the topic of innumeracy for my talk. I arrived about 15 minutes before the event was to start and, what I did not realize, was that Neil DeGrasse Tyson was speaking at the same time at the Midland Theater. So, the audience was pretty light and the organizer (thanks to Matthew Long-Middleton for being the organizer of this event in Kansas City) was not there yet. So, I ordered a beer and chatted with my partner, the bartender and a guy at the bar. The organizer arrived and told me that things would be starting later than planned and that there were two presenters and the other guy wanted to go first. I drank my beer (KC Bier Dunkel) and waited, chatting about this and that. By the time the first presenter began (talking about the process of kidney donation, a first person account from the perspective of the donor), I was onto my second beer. He finished and I had a sliver of beer left and a slight buzz going because I had not had dinner yet. In reality, it loosened me up and I was still capable of running the numbers that were in the presentation.

The topic was Innumeracy. So there were a lot of numbers. I began with requesting definitions of numeracy from the audience. I think asking for crowd feedback at the beginning was a good move for the presentation. I then moved to trying to convince the audience that, whenever they are confronted with a number in their everyday lives, they are probably being asked to make a value judgement about that number. I used a speed limit sign as the illustration which I think was surprising for the audience but, when you see a speed limit sign, you have to make a whole series of judgements about that number. Will I adhere to it or not? If not, how far over the speed limit am I wiling to drive and what is my decision-making process by which I decide that value?

Aluminum-Speed-Limit-Sign-K-2073I then attempted to make the point that we should care about the lack of numeracy in our current society. The point about the importance of innumeracy was driven home by  a series of examples that I found especially funny. So did the audience and I had to slow down that section to wait for people to stop laughing. The examples were things like incorrect calculated tip suggestions and terrible signs advertising “sales”, etc., in stores.

I then moved on to a more complicated example regarding how to put big numbers in perspective using a claim made by Michael Pollan in The Omnivores Dilemma about the number of cattle (30,000) housed at Poky Feeders, a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) located north of Garden City. How does one come to the conclusion as to whether that is a number of cattle I can feel good, neutral or bad, about. I walked the audience through a common scientific tool for putting that big number into context (factor label method) that then allowed them to assess how many people that would be in a house. I talked about the Mother of All Bombs graphic that appeared in USA Today drawing a false equivalency between that bomb and the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (corrected the next day).atomic bomb

I then talked about the claims that the current president made during the presidential campaign about “increasing” murder rates in the 50 largest cities. These examples drove home how numeracy can help and how innumeracy hinders us in understanding the world around us. I finished with some examples of things we can do on a daily basis to help become more numerate.

When I was finished, I got a lot of good questions, both from the organizer and from the audience. It was fun and I think I did a pretty good job and think I would probably do something like this, on a different topic, again some day. Some things that I learned in the process of doing this.

  1. If you are talking about something you are less familiar with, give yourself some lead time to work through the presentation. Numeracy is something I think about a lot but normally talk about in my science courses and not trying to explain it to non-scientists. So it took a while to wrap my head around how to approach it.
  2. Be funny. But not too funny? Hard to ascertain how humor will go over before you actually present it but humor does have the effect of slowing down the presentation if it works, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
  3. Have only one beer before the presentation. At the Nerd Nite KC event, presenters are afforded two free beers. Have one before and one after.
  4. Practice your talk just like you would for any other presentation you would make.
  5. Be open to questions from the audience; be conversational. The audience members are genuinely there to learn and enjoy themselves and you are part of the entertainment, but you are also “the expert”. Stop and think about answers before they come out of your mouth, acknowledge when you don’t know something, and be honest with people (good advice to any question/answer portion of any presentation you make).
  6. Just do it. It was fun. And, if you are an expert on something, the process of thinking about your area of expertise is useful for you as an expert and your expertise is useful to others, so it would be nice to get it out there.

If you have done something like this, share your experiences in the comments section. I would be interested in hearing about what you did and how it went over.

Some advice to students on improving research paper introductions: Framing and conceptual models.

April 28, 2017

This is the season of student lab reports, papers and senior theses. And I find myself repeating lots of things I have said to students in previous semesters and at previous times during the current semester about how they set up the research they are working on in an introduction. Over the years, many students have told me that they find the Introduction to be the hardest part of any paper to write. So, I thought I would right down some suggested hints Many of these can be found in writing guides but it does not hurt to repeat these and elaborate on them as well as share some things that are not so obvious. Among the things that, if you get right, help you navigate the writing of the Introduction of a scientific paper: Framing and ordering.

By framing, I am referring to the broader context in which your research will be placed. Choosing the correct frame at the beginning of the writing process makes lots of decisions further downstream easier. I will elaborate on this later when I work through an example. By ordering, I refer to the order in which you take the individual sub-topics within the broader frame and how you work your way down to the question, hypotheses that are the main thrust of your paper. This can be done in a way that makes logical sense to your audience or in a way that confuses them and dilutes your message. Too often, our students think that part persuading the audience of your point of view is not what you should be doing, but you want the intended reader to come along with you on the journey you are about to take them on and they will be more receptive to the information in your paper/presentation if you have made efforts to ease their entry into the information rather than organizing you presentation of the information in ways that makes that transition more difficult.


When you go to an art museum, you seldom see a painting that is not in a frame. In older paintings, the frame is often large and elaborate with little care taken as to whether the frame adds to or complements the artwork. If you have ever gotten some custom framing done at someplace like Michael’s, you have been confronted with the diversity of choices of frame colors and textures, mat colors, etc. And if you have taken the time to go through the options, it becomes apparent that some frames and mats work well with the art work you are framing and others don’t (see this blog post for a more in depth treatment of the topic). The same is true of your science. Some ways of framing a topic work better than others and enhance the information you are communicating rather than distracting from the information.

My students in Herpetology have been working a research project focused on the thermal biology and performance of nocturnal ectotherms. We raced winter-collected geckos in racetracks at different temperatures and also measured their preferred temperatures in thermal gradients. We also have field temperatures to compare to as well. As they have been preparing their final papers, each of them have come to me about how to get started and they all seem to have been approaching the paper from a different starting point. Some have begun with the thermal biology of nocturnal ectotherms but this seems too narrow for me as it provides no context as to why we would be interested in  nocturnal ectotherms in the first place and one thing an introduction should do is draw the audience in. Others have attempted to begin with thermal biology as a topic but did not have a well-defined conceptual model that they could use as the structural framework for a well-organized Introduction. Others have begun with the study organism. This is not a great place to start because it narrows the paper too much too soon and you have to find a way to move from the narrow biology of the organism to the broader aspects of its biology, the fact that it is a nocturnal ectotherm that then allows you to talk about thermal biology of ectotherms in a general sense. This seems backward for me.  So, instead, you should begin with thermal biology in general and work your way down to ectotherms and then to nocturnal ectotherms and then the specific study organism. Of course, this does not focus on the question at hand and focuses more on the species involved to answer the question. So, where should one begin in structuring an Introduction. My recommendation has been for them start at the end (question) and work their way out of that question into broader and more inclusive levels of information, each broader level being the information necessary to understand the current topic. This process is illustrated below.

What is the question/s we are addressing. First, the species we are working on is an introduced species that has been expanding its introduced range northward, exposing itself to increasingly cold winter temperatures. Our question about this systems is: Has this species evolved greater cold-tolerance as it has expanded north or is the species dealing with these novel environments via acclimation (which I realize can also be considered an evolved response) or is it a combination of both? In order to understand all this one needs to understand the relationship between environmental temperatures, field body temperatures and preferred temperatures as well as how body temperature relates to performance One of the potential challenges for this species in particular is that this species is a nocturnal gecko and that poses different challenges than if the species were diurnal because they have fewer options for behavioral thermoregulation. In order to understand this, one needs to understand how diurnal ectotherms thermoregulate so that the contrast with the nocturnal ectotherm can be made. In order to understand all this, one needs to understand the relationship between environmental temperatures, field body temperatures and preferred temperatures as well as how body temperature relates to performance. Having worked our way out to ectotherm behavioral thermoregulation, some students want to stop there, but if they are communicating to a broader audience, they might want to begin at something the audience can already relate to, such as the fact that they are homeotherms. This then serves as a jumping off point to ectotherms as a contrast that is easily relatable. But we are still left with the broader question as to why we should be interested in ectotherms at all. I was listening to NPR the other day and heard an interview with Brian Helmuth who works with mussels. He made the valid point that, in terms of global biodiversity, homeothermy is the exception rather than the rule. So, if we want to understand the relationship between temperature and the biology of organisms, we gain the most insight for the greatest number of species by concentrating on ectotherms.

Now, if you reverse the order of the previous paragraph, you have a logical structure for an Introduction and you have cast the Introduction inside a frame that reinforces the importance of ectotherms in studies of thermal biology and performance.

In addition to providing a frame and an order, this introduction also explains, in the process of covering other things, the underlying conceptual model about how we think ectotherms manage body temperature. This conceptual model is crucial if the reader is going to understand why nocturnal ectotherms are especially challenged, in a thermoregulatory sense, when compared to diurnal ectotherms and how diurnal ectotherms experience their environment in a very different way than we (homeotherms) do.

And in the end, you have a reader that is now well-informed about what will be coming next and who understands the conceptual underpinnings of the research you are going to be presenting in the Methods section.



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