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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 cod 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 underpinning about the research you are going to be presenting in the Methods section.


On the Imminent Demise of the EPA

February 17, 2017

Today, Scott Pruitt was confirmed as the new Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

I can only guess that this bodes ill for the future of this agency and means we will probably live in a nation that is less healthy and more polluted four years from now.

There are a number of bills that have been introduced or passed whose intent is to weaken the EPA or disband the agency altogether. They are:

H.J.Res. 38: Disapproving the rule submitted by the Department of the Interior known as the Stream Protection Rule.
H.R. 806: Ozone Standards Implementation Act of 2017
S.Res. 12: A resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that clean water is a national priority, and that the June 29, 2015, Waters of the United States Rule should be withdrawn or vacated.
H.R. 694: Stop EPA Overregulation of Rural Americans Act
H.R. 861: To terminate the Environmental Protection Agency.
H.R. 717: Listing Reform Act
H.R. 637: Stopping EPA Overreach Act of 2017
H.R. 481: REBUILD Act
S. 263: Ozone Standards Implementation Act of 2017
H.R. 848: Farm Regulatory Certainty Act
H.R. 119: LEVEL Act
S.J.Res. 21: A joint resolution providing for congressional disapproval under chapter 8 of title 5, United States Code, of the rule submitted by the Environmental Protection Agency relating to Cross-State Air Pollution Rule Update for the 2008 Ozone NAAQ
H.J.Res. 60: Providing for congressional disapproval under chapter 8 of title 5, United States Code, of the final rule of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service relating to the use of compensatory mitigation as recommended or required under the Endangered Species Act.

I could have cut and pasted all day long. As you read this list thought, you may be asking, what could be so bad about some of these laws?

Their titles are sometimes misleading. For example, the “[R]esolution expressing the sense of the Senate that clean water is a national priority, and that the June 29, 2015, Waters of the United States Rule should be withdrawn or vacated” sounds great. But, when you go read the bill, it attests that “the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (33 U.S.C. 1251 et seq.) (commonly known as the Clean Water Act) is one of the most important laws in the United States and has led to decades of successful environmental improvements,” just before it proceeds to vacate the rule that gave the EPA governance over setting guidelines for what constitutes water pollution and assigns that determination to the states.

If you go and read these bills, you can see that there is a systematic attempt to either remove the agency altogether or to significantly weaken the ability of the EPA to protect the environment from degradation, largely by ceding the responsibility of setting regulatory guidelines and enforcement to the states, thus gutting the ability for the EPA to provide consistent environmental standards for the nation.

I heard on NPR this morning that the EPA may be suffering from its own record of success, that many Americans don’t think that the EPA is needed any longer because we have clean air and clean water and lower lead levels in our children. But they don’t seem to register the fact that these gains in the quality of our environment are largely due to laws passed by Congress that are enforced by the EPA. And ceding these responsibilities to states will merely reduce enforcement and we, as a nation, will race to the bottom in terms of environmental quality.

I just hope we don’t come to live again in a time when rivers burn and we cannot see the skylines of our cities any longer.

HELP!! I agreed to speak in public about NUMERACY!!

February 10, 2017

I opened myself up to do a Nerd Night KC talk in May. If you are not familiar with Nerd Night, it is a sort-of global movement where people get together in a bar to listen to other people present about things the rest of society might consider nerdy. I think of it as a way to get some science-y things out there to the broader public and the topic I have chosen to present on is…


So, I am preparing now for the talk. I have some ideas of my own that I am keeping to myself but I am interested in hearing the ideas of others.

My goals for the talk are to:

  1. Explain what is generally meant by the term numeracy.
  2. Provide some examples of numeracy and especially some examples of when a lack of numeracy went terribly wrong.
  3. Share with the audience some examples of a lack of numeracy negatively affecting our ability to stave off hucksters.
  4. Share with the audience some ways of thinking about numbers that might help us get into the habit of interrogating numbers.

What do I need from you? Ideas.

What do you think the term numeracy means?
What are some examples of numeracy gone wrong from your own experience?
What are some examples of numeracy applied well that headed off disaster?
What are your strategies that you employ to make you own numeracy skills better?
How do you interrogate numbers?
Or anything else you want to share on this topic.

I am thinking of the title: Interrogating Numbers: Numeracy and Why We Need It.



Do EPA Regulations Cost Jobs? The resounding answer is NO.

February 6, 2017

Representative Matt Gaetz (R – FL) has introduced a bill entitled, “To Terminate the Environmental Protection Agency“. This seems to be one of the goals of the current administration and I have already written about the value of the EPA. If you need more information on this, I recommend the information found here. Now, this bill has no text and no summary, but I assume that those are coming, but no sense in letting this go without a comment.

Often, lawmakers want to reduce regulations by the EPA and other regulatory agencies because they make the cost of operating more expensive and, so the logic goes, it costs jobs. So, I went to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and downloaded their long-term unemployment data. I then went to the EPA web site and looked at the history of their major accomplishments, most of which are new regulations and some of which are things that they funded to help businesses and industries cope with new regulations. I then mapped the new regulations onto the graph of unemployment over time. I have colored the unemployment data by presidential administration (red=Republican; blue=Democrat) and plotted actions of the EPA or laws passed by Congress that involve the EPA as black diamonds at 8% unemployment(8.5% if there were two major initiatives occurring in the same month), so you can see where they occur but they don’t obscure too much of the unemployment data. Keep in mind that I plotted EPA rules as well as laws that were enacted by Congress that then fell to the EPA to enforce. Here is the graphic:


A few things you should notice is that, since the EPA’s founding in 1970, there have been more years under Republican presidents than under Democratic presidents. The other thing you will notice is that unemployment rate varies a lot, both among and within administrations. You will also notice that some administrations were more active in terms of EPA regulation than others (both Bush administrations rather inactive; Nixon, Ford, Carter and Obama more active).

What we don’t see is any evidence that periods of increasing regulatory authority lead to increases in unemployment rate. Clearly, unemployment rate is affected by lots of issues that are probably operating at much more global scales than the actions of the EPA can influence. Also, there are four presidents who enjoyed long periods (greater than half their time in office) of decreasing unemployment: Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Obama. During these administrations, Carter and Obama had more active EPAs while Reagan and Clinton had EPAs that were more moderate in their activity. The first Bush administration had very consistent increases in unemployment despite the lack of new regulations and the second Bush administration had fluctuating unemployment rates that increased drastically at the end of his tenure, in spite of a relatively non-regulatory EPA. What is true is that there are more (cumulative) regulations on the books now and we are currently enjoying pretty low unemployment. So, regulation does not negatively affect the unemployment rate, at broad scales. I am not saying that it might not affect certain businesses specifically, but, at broad economic scales, the effect on unemployment is undetectable.

Now,some caveats, this is not a quantitative time series analysis (but the lack of pattern seems pretty obvious). Second, as I collected this timeline, I discovered that most of the actions of the EPA were called for by Congressional action. The other rules that were proposed by either the EPA or by presidential executive orders (EOs) merely call for strengthening the standards originally placed under the purview of the EPA by legislation. Of these, most of them were rules put in place by the EPA while some of them were presidential EOs. But in all cases, these rules were regarding things that legislation had already called on EPA to regulate.

So, in conclusion:

1.   The actions of the EPA do not cost jobs, at broad economic scales.

2.   The EPA does not seem to be an activist organization. It is merely following mandates issues by legislation coming from the legislative branch of government.

3.   Unemployment rate seems to be affected by other factors (which should surprise no thinking person).

So, if your reason for wanting to terminate the EPA is that the EPA does things that increase the unemployment rate, you are living in an alternative reality, one that is not supported by data.

On Externalizing Costs, or…The Price of My Chair

January 30, 2017

I am sitting in my house in my tenure chair, writing this post about the economics of the furniture in my house. In reality, this post could be written about anything in my house that I have paid money for but I will stick to this furniture because I really like my chair, on lots of levels.

The chair is a Stickley Morris Chair with accompanying ottoman. It is made out of oak and upholstered in leather. It is a classic. And it cost me $2207 for the chair and $432 for the ottoman. You are probably saying WOW! that is a lot of money for a chair.

file-jan-30-23-12-30The reason I own this furniture is partly because I like the design aesthetic. I like Arts and Crafts furniture. I like that it will outlive me and I will leave it to my nephew and he will enjoy it for years to come and then pass it to his children, etc. But there are deeper reasons.

The furniture is made by the L. & J.G. STICKLEY, INC., a company that has been based in Manlius, New York since 1900. As an American company, it is subjected to labor laws that protect workers, OSHA regulations that create a safe workplace and environmental regulations that keep the region where their workshop is located unpolluted. They provide their workers with a good wage, health insurance, a retirement plan, etc. All these things cost money but that cost is accounted for in the price of the product that I pay for. I am providing those protections and benefits when I buy the chair.

In this way costs are internalized. The person buying the product has now paid for a large proportion of the costs inherent in the production of the chair. Those costs are not passed on to the workers or the people who live around the workshop. They are paid by the person who receives the most utility from the product purchased.

This is different from externalizing costs. Costs become externalized when the person buying a product only pays a portion of the costs associate with production. So, if I buy a chair at a discount retailer that is made in another country, let’s say…China, it is cheaper, in spite of having to be shipped to the US across the ocean.

How can this be? Because…that chair has more of its costs externalized. The chair is made in a country with fewer environmental regulations and thus has more problems with clean air and clean water. There are fewer worker protections so their workers work under conditions that are less safe and they have fewer guarantees that they will be able to keep their jobs. They lack health insurance and retirement benefits. For all these reasons, the company making that chair can produce the chair at a much cheaper price than the Stickley chair because more of the costs of production are not included in the price of the chair. When one of their workers gets sick, the worker has to pay full price for their medical bills. Perhaps what made the person sick is the level of pollution they live with because of the lack of environmental protections. In any case, a portion of the costs of production are being paid by people who receive nominal utility (a poor wage) from the production and sale of the chair. Companies have even externalized costs to their own customers (self-service gas stations and the self checkout line at the grocery store).

I teach this basic concept in my Ecology of Food class because there are lots of externalized costs in our food production systems and I think that they should be aware of these costs when they buy a head of lettuce. I think it is also something that should be taught more widely to society in general because it affects our perception of value which, in turn, affects what we buy.

When we complain about unemployment in the United States and our jobs being shipped overseas, we have to realize that we did this to ourselves.

When we go to the store and buy things that are made in countries without the worker and other protections we have in the United States, we are getting things at a cheaper price than we would if more of the costs of production were internalized to the product we are buying.

Because we want “everyday low prices”, we are sending the message to corporations that says, “Go somewhere and make products where the costs of production can be externalized.” OK, we don’t say it in this way, but in terms of economics, this is exactly what we are saying. Because the responsibility of a corporation is to maximize profit to its shareholders.*

So, what should we do?

First, buy American. Not because it is the patriotic thing to do. Not because it puts Americans to work and keeps jobs here. Do it because it is the right thing to do because you are not getting something on the cheap and making someone else pay for some of the costs of production, often economically as well as with their health and quality of life. But you might say, “Life is more expensive to live this way.” Sure it is, but we can save up for things, live more simply, not be so committed to the disposable culture we have become. I had to wait until I got a bonus at work after earning tenure before I could buy the tenure chair. And did I mention how durable these chairs are? People pass these things down from generation to generation. How many Nebraska Furniture mart chairs would you buy in the same time period? What are the actual long term costs of making a given buying decision. But we are terrible at thinking about longer time periods when making decisions.

Second, when you talk to your representatives and senators about economic matter, ask them how their economic policies encourage companies to internalize costs rather than externalize costs. They will generally look at you like you are crazy but then that gives you an opportunity to teach them something that they probably don’t think about on a regular basis but probably should.

Third, think about this concept whenever you have to make a buying decision. It makes life more difficult. When you are on a diet, trips to the grocery store are more difficult because you have to think about every item you buy and the effect it will have on your calorie count, your body, etc. Now you can think about every non-food item you buy and ask yourself, “To what degree are the people who made this product protected in terms of their environment, their workplace, their health, their future?”

Doesn’t that sound fun? No. It is a total grind.

But once again, we can do it because it is the right thing to do.

*Not strictly true but often true.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

January 25, 2017

mark-twainI lied.

I said my next post would be on economics but, here is a short one about a conversation had on social media a few days ago.

Someone tried to convince me that alternative facts were OK. They used President Trump’s claim that violent crime (homicides) in 50 major cities was up 17%. I countered that, nationwide, violent crime has been going down since the early 1990s. I even provided a helpful graphic:


My social media interlocutor then countered that I was just choosing “alternative facts” to prove my point just like Trump was. So, I had to drill down and do some research.

Trump’s numbers were based on crime statistics evidently reported by the FBI. Indeed, the data seemed to to show that, from2014 to 2015, homicide rates in these cities went from 9.3 deaths per 100,000 to 10.8 deaths per 100,000 (numbers are from Politifact who checked the data).


1.5/9.3=0.16 or 16%.

Not far from his claim of 17%.


This claim falls short in a number of ways from a scientific perspective.

It is a one year jump.

And since the homicide rate is relatively low, it does not take much of an increase to register as a large percentage increase.

And a simple one year uptick could just be random variation around an average that is pretty low by historical standards rather than the beginnings of a long term trend that has been going down for a couple of decades.

So, this is the danger in not fully interrogating the numbers politicians spout. Trump did not lie. But when you approach the claim like a scientist the truth reveals itself.

Trump used a very short time frame of data to make a disingenuous and manipulative claim to frighten people into thinking that the streets of America are running with criminals gunning down innocents. And he is the strong, law-andorder candidate who is going to fix it. It was disingenuous…manipulative…calculating …purely for political gain… and…successful.

But, is this how we want our leaders to treat data? Hopefully, after spelling this out, the social media interlocutor is a little less in favor of “alternative facts”. But I don’t think I can delude myself into think that is true.

And, next year, when it takes a 1.5 deaths per 100,000 downtick, he can say that he brought the homicide rate down. To historic lows.


The Insect Ecology Lab

at the University of Dayton (Dr. Chelse Prather & students)


Quantitative Genetics and more

Arthropod Ecology

Writings about arthropod ecology, arachnids & academia at McGill University

Random Walks

Mr. Chase blogs about math

Dynamic Ecology

Multa novit vulpes

Small Pond Science

Research, teaching, and mentorship in the sciences

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