Friday, December 06, 2013

Scientific hype, self-aggrandizement and the integrity

Just beginning to think about this topic: clearly related to science education, public gullibility, and pressures that promote careerism over integrity.

In case you are interested, some recent readings:

Trouble at the lab  &  How to Read About Science

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Let us (accurately) label everything

There is a call to label foods as to whether they contain ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs.)  Not to concern ourselves for the moment with the fact that all modern foods are GMOs, the result of centuries to millennia of human interventions, Craig Schiesley (speaking on the opinion page of the Daily Camera, apparently in his role as a vice-president of a company that stands to gain from such labeling), raises a particularly interesting question, why shouldn’t all foods, that is, anything people are expected to eat, be accurately labelled?
So where is this not done?  Well most obviously in the nutraceutical and nutritional supplement industry, in large part due to (successful) industry lobbying against product labeling and quality control measures.  In fact these groups succeeded with the passage of a 1994 Federal Law that allows nutritional supplements to “be sold and marketed with little regulatory oversight, and they are pulled from shelves generally only after complaints of serious injury.” 
 Two recent reports point out the problem quite dramatically, and one suspects in a way that the “natural foods” industry would rather ignore.  
The first is a scary report in the New York Times ( that summarizes an article by Newmaster et al  ( that reports that a high percentage of herbal supplements samples not only did not contain the herbs claimed, but often had replaced them with toxic alternatives.  
The second, a paper by Bruce Ames and co-workers some years ago (see, see also concluded that “99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce (quite naturally!) to defend themselves.”  Since many of these chemicals are, in fact, proven carcinogens while to date no GMO-derived substance has been found to significantly impact human health, shouldn’t the presence of these natural, but carcinogenic, chemicals be disclosed?   
Assuming for the moment that White Wave, Whole Foods, and other companies are sincere in the efforts in support of GMO labeling, when will they begin lobbying for the accurate labeling of “natural foods” as well?  

now published in the Boulder Daily Camera:  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On reading Lee Smolin's Time Reborn and thinking about the interactions between biology and physics

Having read the book, and a few reviews, I find myself particularly surprised by the disconnect between what (at least theoretical) physicists are concerned about and what I understand to be the concerns of most scientists, and perhaps most educated citizens.  

It seems rather too obvious that we live in the universe we live in, and that is (apparently) the only universe that we know with any certainty to exist.  

If other universes exist but are inaccessible to study, it is a waste of time (scientifically) to think about them. What does "fine tuning" initial conditions mean unless there is direct evidence that alternatives are actually possible? 

Perhaps I think this way because my prosaic mind is engaged by the real rather than the imaginary.  Such digressions are found everywhere in Smolin's book (and it writing of other physics popularizers), but they seem more like empty and pointless philosophizing, not science

This can be see in speculation of the universe and life.  As far as we know life, and intelligent life, is unique to earth, and arose only once; so speculation and generalization about the implications of life elsewhere in the universe seems premature at best (and descends into magical thinking at its worst.  

That said, it is imaginable that actual evidence of life outside the earth could be found and that would be a truly revolutionary discovery.  

As a snippy aside, there does not appear to be much understanding about how evolution works (and its basis on reproduction) and some of the digressions into the chemical seem incorrect.  All atoms do attract one another (through London Dispersion Forces / van der Waals interactions) and molecular systems are structured at the microscopic level (which gives rise to various entropic drivers)(see Chapter 17).   

Aside from that, there is just too much "wishful disembodied thinking" which, outside of silly science fiction, is neither interesting or compelling.  

Friday, March 29, 2013

Learning analytics, formative assessment and student data banking

If there are no targeted hints that students can ask for, if there is no targeted feedback, if there is no well-designed question, there is no semantic data.

There is a very interesting blog post (and an entry into the learning analytics universe that makes a number of important points about the types of data we need to capture from students in order to i) help them learn through coherent and useful suggestions, as well as to ii) to generate objective measures of what learning outcomes various courses and curricula (including MOOCs) actually achieve, as opposed to what they claim or presume to achieve.    

What can we do when we are empowered with this sort of semantic data and analysis?  Here are just some examples:  ... Use semantic analyses like learning curve analysis to identify areas where content needs to be improved

It also highlights the need for formative assessments that go beyond multiple choice questions, something that beSocratic is uniquely suited to do.  

Clearly something we need to incorporate into a useful educational tools (and student education bank) system.