“Complementary medicine” is not helping cancer patients

“…Belief is powerful, it disrupts, distorts, delays or stops the comprehension and acceptance of scientific evidence. Scientists call this phenomenon the ‘3Ds+S’ cognitive effects of illusory thinking. Now, the best tonic against its infectious sequels was discovered long ago; it consisted, still does, on proper healthcare education for all. And, in contrast to misleading and unwarranted ‘paramedicine,’ the side effects of widespread science education will always be cheaper, plus save, for sure, some lives…”

By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C

Cancer hides or thrives in our bodies. Someone we know, close or distant, is destined to die because of it. And although therapies continue to improve thanks to scientific advances, diverse cancers persist and it might take decades, if ever, to fully manage them.

In the United States, breast, prostate, lung and colorectal cancer are the most prevalent, and chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, and/or hormone therapy the usual treatments. Yet, more than half of the patients with cancer opt for “complementary medicine” to improve, as they believe, their quality of life and survival.

But, do herbs and botanicals, vitamin and mineral supplements, probiotics, traditional medicines, homeopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, massage, prayer, reflexology, energy medicine, or special diets have an actual impact on prolonging cancer patients’ lives? The short answer seems to be no.

Physicians from the Yale School of Medicine have just published the study “Complementary Medicine, Refusal of Conventional Cancer Therapy, and Survival Among Patients with Curable Cancers” in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). From a data set of 1.9 million individuals, gathered between 2004 and 2013 and stored in the National Cancer Database, the researchers extracted a representative sample of cancer patients whom opted for complementary medicine (CM) versus those exposed to conventional cancer treatment (CCT).

The study was straightforward. It aimed at identifying and comparing survival rates between CM and CCT groups.

Patients exposed to complementary medicine had a greater risk of death than those under conventional cancer treatment. In fact, only 82 percent of the CM patients versus 87 percent of the CCT patients survived during a 5-year monitoring lapse since they were first diagnosed with the condition. The trend was noticeable in women suffering breast cancer, with only 85 percent of the CM patients versus 90 percent of the conventionally-treated patients surviving since diagnosis (also during a 5-year follow up).

According to Skyler Johnson, Henry Park and Cary Gross, authors of the study and fellows at the Department of Therapeutic Radiology, as well as the Cancer Outcomes, Public Policy, and Effectiveness Research Center at Yale, the general risk of death associated with complementary medicine was primarily linked to the patients’ refusal to receive: surgery (7 versus 0.1 percent refusal between the CM versus CCT groups, respectively), chemotherapy (34 versus 3 percent), radiotherapy (53 versus 2 percent), and/or hormone therapy (34 versus 3 percent).

Quite interestingly, patients in the complementary medicine group were more likely to be young, women, have breast or colorectal cancer, belong to high socio-economic cohorts, have private medical insurance, high-school education, and reside in the Intermountain West or Pacific West of the United States (where alternative-medicine schools are common, protected by state legislation).

In essence, the Yale study concluded that if patients went for unconventional cures to fight cancer, rather than scientific medicine, they had higher risk to die and do it earlier. Complementary medicine did not help.

As David Gorski, member of the Department of Surgery at Wayne State University School of Medicine and the Department of Oncology at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute (both in Michigan), already alerted back in 2014 when compiling a comprehensive review for the journal Nature “the vast majority of ‘integrative’ [complementary oncology] treatments [were] supported by little, if any, scientific evidence.” He pointed out, with concern and irony, “therein lies a key problem with integrative oncology. The less ‘alternative’ the intervention, the more it resembles conventional oncology; the more ‘alternative’ the intervention, the more it resembles the quackery from which integrative oncologists rightly distance themselves.”

Why do patients opt for unscientific methods to battle cancer? There are multiple reasons, and only one of them has to do with “hope,” trust on a possibility (the “alternative cure”) beyond the “conventional scientific wisdom,” one that might work and, if not, at least, it won’t hurt. There is always a friend or a relative that recommend “holistic cures” to somebody they love. But the Yale study demonstrates that such paths can indeed be harmful: remember that they were associated with higher risk of dying and doing it earlier among patients choosing “complementary practices.”

Belief is powerful, as research on people’s attitudes toward science suggests, it disrupts, distorts, delays or stops the comprehension and acceptance of scientific evidence. Scientists call this phenomenon the “3Ds+S” cognitive effects of illusory thinking. Now, the best tonic against its infectious sequels was discovered long ago; it consisted, still does, on proper healthcare education for all. And, in contrast to misleading and unwarranted “paramedicine,” the side effects of widespread science education will always be cheaper, plus save, for sure, some lives. — EvoLiteracy © 2018.

This op-piece appeared in The Standard Times (South Coast Today), see HERE.

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Smarter Than Average? Majority of Americans Think So

“Just believing in self- or collective-greatness will not materialize into competitive performance… For us, it will be impractical and blindfolding to insist on national self-flattering. But, if there is anything we do better than anybody else is to blindfold ourselves.”

By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C.

Overconfident? Self enhanced? Smarter than average? Yes.

Such widespread public opinions about relative intelligence were first reported in the United States in 1965. Yet, as a team of researchers puts it in a replication study just published in the academic journal Public Library of Science (PLoS), “American’s self-flattering beliefs about intelligence are alive and well several decades after their discovery.”

When asked to assess the statement “I am more intelligent than the average person,” via phone or online polling, 65 percent of responders either agreed or strongly agreed with the premise.

The pollsters, Patrick Heck, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, affiliated with the Autism & Developmental Medicine Institute in Pennsylvania, the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois-Champaign, and the Institute for Advance Study in Toulouse-France, respectively, interviewed 2,800 adults in the 50 states of the country, and analyzed their responses as per sex, age, race/ethnicity, and educational attainment.

More men (about 70 percent) than women (about 60 percent) considered themselves smarter than average, a trend comparable to the adults younger than 44 years of age (also 70 percent were confident in their intellect) versus those older than 44 years (60 percent). In terms of race/ethnicity, about 65 percent of both “whites” and “non-whites” agreed with the notion “I am more intelligent than average,” with the peculiar feature that up to 71 percent of “non-whites,” who responded to the survey online (rather than by phone and were likely skillful computer users), mostly or strongly concurred with the statement.

Interestingly, responders with college or post-graduate degrees underestimated themselves, with 70+ percent thinking they were above average intelligence; note that the pollsters expected 80+ percent of the highly educated to think that way according to their usual cohort performance in IQ-tests. Those with “no college” or “some college” education, by contrast, surpassed the expected 47 percent confidence score on self-brain-ranking, with 55-62 percent of them believing (themselves) to be smarter than the mean.

“…both the naturally talented as much as the taught-to-reason-average-individual can perform better in ‘the real world’ if provided with educational tools to excel…”

Overconfidence is not necessarily bad. It can actually boost performance, encourage bold, creative thinking and help persist on innovative projects even though they might have been initially dismissed by others (for an evolutionary take see Nature). The “smarter than average effect,” as it is known among psychology scholars, is apparently ubiquitous across cultures (particularly in the West; but see an alternative perspective here), although the trends in the United States are not directly applicable elsewhere.

There is no doubt that education brings self confidence to people, but there is also innate differential talent among individuals, which can be developed even further with proper mentoring and schooling. Take youth math ability, for example, the most reliable predictor of later-in-life career success (go to scientific article): all significant aspects of modern societal development, which are bound to science and technology, depend on quantitative, rational thinking to solving problems and innovating progress. And both the naturally talented as much as the taught-to-reason-average-individual can perform better in “the real world” if provided with educational tools to excel. Thus, “above average performance” — in respect to the past — can be continuously built in anyone and, by doing so, raise the bar for all.

Paradoxically, at some point, perhaps at a crucial one in history (now!), just believing in self- or collective-greatness (as celebrities often claim “as long as you believe, anything is possible,” which is always followed by tens of thousands of “likes” and “shares” in social media) will not materialize into competitive performance; at least not when so many countries out there are committed to, via meaningful actions in elementary-, high-school- or higher-education, lead the future.

For us, it will be impractical and blindfolding to insist on national self-flattering. But, if there is anything we do better than anybody else is to blindfold ourselves. — EvoLiteracy © 2018.

This op-piece appeared in The Standard Times (South Coast Today), see HERE.

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No, There Is Not “A” Grandeur In This View Of Life – Oh My Darwin!

“…As for the ‘a’ in the t-shirt, which echoes the pain of a tattoo gone wrong, well, there is not ‘a’ grandeur in this view of life, as per Darwin 1859 (TIES must now produce a clever errata t-shirt amending the misfortune). Neither science is ‘like magic but real,’ as also disseminated by TIES with fervor on Facebook. Nor is the theory of evolution, as presented by Sewell in his misguiding article shared by TIES ‘…a ‘necessary’ truth… not contingent on supporting evidence.’ Nor do ‘Sea Turtles Swim Against the Darwin Current,’ another nonsense from Evolution News that TIES contributed to set in motion in yet another post. — We closed our friendly alert [to TIES] with an ‘Oh My Darwin!!!'”

By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C & Avelina Espinosa

Typos and errors in scientific publications, or in any long text, are not rare. Even experienced copy editors of journals, magazines and books have their share of faults during volume production. That is why errata exist, to report “wrongs” and, if possible, amend them a posteriori. For example, in our two books, Measuring the Evolution Controversy: A Numerical Analysis of Acceptance of Evolution at America’s Colleges and Universities (2016, best seller 2017), as well as in the recent Kin Recognition in Protists and Other Microbes: Genetics, Evolution, Behavior and Health (2018), we discovered mistakes after publication, even though the publisher and us copy edited and corrected the manuscripts numerous times. We posted the errata online (see Typos and Errors 2016 and 2018) and asked readers to help us spot additional mistakes. Future re-editions will be improved. But keep in mind that our 2016 book was a 198-page and 57,420-word manuscript; and the 2018 volume contained 139,142 words in 428 pages, including +200 figures/sub-figures and tables in each book and their captions (with statistical notation).

“I fully accept the evidence of evolution —including human evolution, but I have to question the grammar on the back of this jacket.”

Although the grammar-correction software available to publishers and authors are powerful enough to detect misspellings, incorrect use of verbs, word redundancy and syntax problems in a text, typos and errors continue to be our most unwanted companions. But errors can be small, sometimes trivial, others substantial, and a few we wish had never been made:

How about introducing error in one of Darwin’s most famous statements “there is grandeur in this view of life” (an eight-word quote from the last paragraph of On The Origin of Species… 1859) and print it on the back of a t-shirt [*] as “Evolution: There is a grandeur in this view of life” (our emphasis on the bold a)? Well, that is precisely what the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES) did, a few weeks ago, in a promotional campaign to “Unlocking the Wonders of Life for Teachers and their Students,” as printed on the front of the t-shirt (in reality, a long-sleeve sweatshirt).

I fully accept the evidence of evolution —including human evolution, but I have to question the grammar on the back of this jacket” commented one of TIES followers (TP) on Facebook. His wit received likes and smiles [*]. But another (MW) was moved: “Every time I read this I think, such profound words from such a humble man. Makes me shiver every time.”

TIES mission is to “…familiarize interested middle school science teachers with the concepts of natural selection, common ancestry, and diversity in order for them to confidently cover the topics in their classrooms and fulfill their curriculum requirements.” TIES also clarifies that “a middle school science teacher will typically cover many areas of science within his/her annual curriculum, including earth science, physical science, and life science.” And remarks that “it is virtually impossible to become an expert in all of these areas, at least not initially.” Sounds reasonable, however, misquoting Darwin’s ultra famous statement “there is grandeur in this view of life” is a biggie; it denotes cluelessness at best.

“Are we making a big deal out of a silly t-shirt? The ‘a’ in Darwin’s old saying? Below we explain why the ‘a’ symbolizes a pattern of missteps, and there is nothing trivial about them.”

A Google search of Darwin’s phrase gives you 19.5 million hits in 0.28 seconds, at 10:18 AM of a Tuesday in Northeastern United States. In our search, hit number ten corresponded to a 2009 Richard Dawkinsvideo precisely titled “There is grandeur in this view of life,” an impeccable talk delivered at the Atheist Alliance International Conference in Burbank, California.

Are we making a big deal out of a silly t-shirt? The “a” in Darwin’s old saying? After all, it just resembles misquoting Genesis 3 and going to press with “…Let there be light: and there was electricity.” Below we explain why the “a” symbolizes a pattern of missteps, and there is nothing trivial about them.

TIES and Dawkins are connected directly since the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science is part of the Center for Inquiry (CFI, a pro secularism organization), which, in turn, is an amalgamation partner of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science (RDFRS). In fact, in 2016, CFI merged with RDFRS. Both organizations originally explained in their websites the rationale (here is the link to F.A.Q. for CFI-RDFRS Merger, but see note below): “…CFI and RDFRS have similar objectives and it makes eminent good sense to combine their resources. CFI’s stated mission is to foster a secular society based on reason, science, and humanist values, and RDFRS shares that goal. And CFI shares the stated mission of RDFRS: to remove the influence of religion in science education and public policy and eliminate the stigma that surrounds atheism and non-belief…” [Note that CFI has a brand new website and this statement from 2016 no longer appears, but in the now-cyber-space-fossil-record CFI had also stated “…By combining their talents, brainpower, and resources, they (CFI-RDFRS) now become the largest freethought organization in the United States. As a result of this merger, they will have greater success in advancing their shared mission. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science will continue as a division of the Center for Inquiry…”].

“Anyone following the evolution wars must have a grasp of the historic players on both sides: evolution versus creationism and its morphs.”

Our discontent with TIES, which has been mounting up for a while (e.g. its ambivalence to openly and up front endorse secularism in science education when interacting with teachers —which is a concern to us, as researchers of the evolution controversy from the perspective of the incompatibility hypothesis and as science educators), reached lava-flow level this past Memorial-Day weekend after TIES posted on its Facebook page a link to a pseudo-science and pseudo-philosophy article by Granville SewellWhy Evolution is More Certain than Gravity,” an attractive yet impostor heading. TIES engaged its Facebook followers with the bait “check this out” and soon the post received +40 likes and 12 shares [*]. Whoever did this at TIES-Facebook had no idea, or forgot, that Evolution News & Science Today, the platform where the Sewell blurb was unleashed, was a news outlet for the Discovery Institute and its Intelligent Design disciples, the writers at Evolution News.

Anyone following the evolution wars must have a grasp of the historic players on both sides: evolution versus creationism and its morphs (design creationism or intelligent design, theistic evolution, creation science, evolutionary creation, young-earth creationism YEC, or BioLogos, all proponents of proximate or ultimate supernatural causation in evolution, or full deniers of evolution, like YEC). And the 2005 Dover-Pennsylvania trial on ID (Tammy Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District et al.) should be in the memory of those who profess the proper teaching of evolution in America’s classrooms: ID lost in court for violating the rules of science by “invoking and permitting supernatural causation” in matters of evolution, and for “failing to gain acceptance in the scientific community.”

We immediately alerted our Facebook community that TIES had made that mistake (although some educators had already shared the Sewell article without digesting it; we inferred they did it after trusting TIES and assuming that TIES knew what was being disseminated on social media), and copied Bertha Vázquez, TIES Director, on our post (one of us, GPC, did it). We stated that “…we hope she [Bertha] acts on this immediately and instructs her staff to stop making mistakes like this…” We also referred to the “a” in the t-shirt misquoting Darwin as another bout of inattention in TIES’ record (made public weeks earlier when promoting the slogan Unlocking the Wonders…), and added “…if the excuse is that the post [Sewell’s article] just aimed at generating discussion, well there are hundreds of topics available in the news that can be used for the purpose, rather than sharing, without much thought, a ‘check this out’ article written under the umbrella of INTELLIGENT DESIGN, DESIGN CREATIONISM.” We closed our friendly alert with an “Oh My Darwin!!!” [*]. Bertha did not respond, but the TIES’ post was later deleted. Good for TIES and its Director; amending is what science educators ought to do when erring.

“If there is anything that we remember about our first face-to-face exposure to Richard Dawkins, as graduate students back in the 1990s, is that Richard never tolerated brainlessness or sloppiness in science. — We want TIES to succeed, as much as Dawkins’ brave legacy to prevail.”

TIES states in its Facebook “purpose,” that it “…provides busy educators [our emphasis], homeschooling parents, and curious science lovers with an easily accessible online version of our professional development events and other helpful resources…” Hopefully, our observations to TIES and its Director help those in charge to improve their path of action and honor the association with the prominent RDFRS brand, and with Dawkins himself. We want TIES to succeed, as much as Dawkins’ brave legacy to prevail.

If there is anything that we remember —and we remember a lot— about our first face-to-face exposure to Richard Dawkins, as graduate students back in the 1990s, is that Richard never tolerated brainlessness or sloppiness in science. His talks then, as much as now, were a delight, challenging, inspirational and transformative to colleagues and scientists-to-be. And his sharp, unyielding approach to outreaching the public by conveying the plain scientific truth, the power of evidence and nothing else to engage-bait the skeptics of evolution or give them the impression of harmony between reality and faith, influenced our careers —and deeply— as researchers and evolution/science communicators.

TIES, a fairly new association of vibrant educators, has a unique opportunity to play a different, courageous and original role in public outreach in matters of evolution and science. Fill in the available niche to educating teachers and the public with no stoppers of thought or restrains on logic; and without, as Dawkins often puts it, “bending over backwards” in attempts to finding harmony between science and belief (i.e. paracreationism, still prevalent among science educators in the US). As progeny of the hybrid CFI-RDFRS, the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science must also contribute to “remove the influence of religion in science education and public policy and eliminate the stigma that surrounds atheism and non-belief,” and do it so explicitly that teachers and the public know —from the beginning, to the middle and to the end of an interaction with TIES— that they are dealing with a pro-secularism organization committed to “question and challenge the extraordinary claims of religion, pseudoscience, and the paranormal” (goals that are central to the CFI mission, the conceptual umbrella over TIES).

All statistics suggest that the American youth is heading toward a more science-based approach to life and living (e.g. Pew Research science and religion; see also Evolution and the Upcoming Challenges of a Predictable Landscape). Thus, TIES must lead the reason and science debate that projects science educators to the future, rather than inaugurate its journey by experimenting with outreach strategies already entertained by the evolution-and-faith accommodationists of the past.

“We wonder why TIES-Facebook is captivated by the writings of the very Dawkins’ adversaries. Is TIES-Facebook aware of how anti-evolution internet memes become viral in social media via blind sharing? BTW, we take for granted that TIES-Facebook knows who coined the term meme.” 

As for the “a” in the t-shirt, which echoes the pain of a tattoo gone wrong, well, there is not “a” grandeur in this view of life, as per Darwin 1859 (TIES must now produce a clever errata t-shirt amending the misfortune). Neither science is “like magic but real” (despite its 665 million hits on Google), as also disseminated by TIES with fervor on Facebook (the fact is that science is like science and magic is an illusion). Nor is the theory of evolution, as presented by Sewell in his misguiding article shared by TIES “…a ‘necessary’ truth not contingent on supporting evidence.” Nor do “Sea Turtles Swim Against the Darwin Current,” another nonsense from Evolution News that TIES contributed to set in motion in yet another post (May 22, 2018), and about which evolutionary biologist and philosopher of science Kirk Fitzhugh commented “You do realize that EvolutionNews is a mouthpiece for the Discovery Institute and intelligent design?” Yet, TIES gave Kirk a like and kept the post; thus, validating it [*]!

But, in hindsight, that is not all. On April 19, 2018, TIES shared [*] “Cambrian Explosion Shrapnel Still Hitting Evolutionary Scenarios” (the article was from March 28, 2018), a potpourri of statements amassed by the Evolution News staff in which the Cambrian proliferation of life forms was mocked via recycling ID’s favorite smoke grenades: the late “bacterial flagellum” (which ID still believes was designed by a Designer as an “irreducibly complex” structure) and the “blind-Darwinian-evolution analogy” twisted —ID-style—  to invalidate Dawkins’ 1986 The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (a fantastic read!). We wonder why TIES-Facebook is captivated by the writings of the very Dawkins’ adversaries. Is TIES-Facebook aware of how anti-evolution internet memes become viral in social media via blind sharing? BTW, we take for granted that TIES-Facebook knows who coined the term meme.

And for the busy passionate and curious science lovers, we recommend to seriously explore The Extended Phenotype (1982), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (2009), as well as The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True (2011). We are not ignoring The Selfish Gene (1976), which we read as undergraduates in the 1980s (and continue to cite in our academic papers A, B), since those aware of Richard Dawkins “the author” —or his contributions to evolutionary biology— often assert to have read it. — EvoLiteracy © 2018.

* For supplementary materials “[*]” to this article, go to EvoLiteracy-Supp-06-07-2018

Contact info: Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C guillermo.pazyminoc@gmail.com  Avelina Espinosa aespinosa@rwu.edu — Follow us on Twitter and Facebook @gpazymino  GPC-Facebook — @AvelinaEspinosa  AE-Facebook.

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Evolution: Is There a Controversy?

Evolution and the Upcoming Challenges of a Predictable Landscape

The Incompatibility Hypothesis: Evolution vs. Supernatural Causation

Darwin’s Skepticism about God

Evolution Wars: Debunk II

 

Taming a Fox in the USSR

“More than a ‘tit for tat’ encounter between Lee and Lyudmila, I see the production of this volume as an act of academic altruism, an exemplar of the evolution of goodness and cooperation between humans, in which the story of Vulpes vulpes, Dmitri and Lyudmila has been rescued from the glacial night and eternalized in a book for the large, youthful crowds. How to Tame a Fox resembles the launching of Sputnik and Vostok, but rather than commissioning Laika or Yuri Gagarin to pioneering our presence in space, it seems to have sent the red foxes, Dmitri and Lyudmila in a journey to the stars, where they belong.”

by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C

Almost two decades ago, a graduate student in a lab in which both of us were associates, she as a second-year trainee and I as a postdoc, gave me an end-of-the-year card with a wolf sketched on the cover and a note inside: Don’t Let Them Tame You. I loved it. Darkness in the sky, a snowy cliff and a grayish Canis howling at the moon were softly printed on pale paper.

Over the years, I have realized that her intention was to warn me, at least symbolically, about the nasty working environment I had just joined, and which required ferocity to survive. We both did it, no taming in trade. — But the card’s message at that time simply got me thinking of Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), in which he discussed “Variation Under Domestication” (Chapter I) and the many examples of humans’ successes in taming —over centuries and millennia— all sorts of animals and plants. In fact, Darwin’s central inference that Nature played the role of a “beast master” in shaping not only behavior but entire species’ anatomies and functions came directly from the evidence of domestication. He later dedicated a whole book, The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), to expand on the ideas first presented in The Origin.

“…If anything, the book’s wedge is Taming a Fox in a Dystopian USSR…”

Photo credit The Institute of Cytology and Genetics, Novosibirsk (with permission – LAD).

When biologist Lee A. Dugatkin approached me in January 2017, via Facebook, to ask me to share one of his posts announcing the upcoming How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog), I volunteered to —instead— write a review of the book for EvoLiteracy. Before long, I received an electronic copy of the proofs, read them enthusiastically non-stop, and came up with a 600-word commentary. I gave the book three stars, but never posted the narrative. I found the story light and told Avelina Espinosa (my research collaborator and co-author in papers and books) that How to Tame a Fox will become a best seller and do well in the popular science market: my review will make no difference. Besides, I said, this book is hard to assess without turning too critical. Starting from the title, nobody tames a fox and builds a dog, but rather selects for a tamed fox, the actual product. To me, the heading was equivalent to stating “how to tame a Grévy’s zebra and build a horse;” or tame a white-lipped peccary and build a pig; or a lynx and build a cat. All misleading premises; all involving relatively close taxa: canids (foxes and dogs), equids (zebras and horses), tayassuids and suids (peccaries and pigs) or felids (lynxes and cats). Although, it is true that the foxes were tamed –for the most part– in the dog’s image, no fox was ever turned into “The perfect dog” (Prologue). This early analogy fogged reality and remained latent, subliminal in the chapters.

“…The book narrates the work, struggles and joys of Russian scientists Dmitri Belyaev and Lyudmila Trut, whom in the early 1950s started one of the most ambitious experiments in domestication: the turning of a wild red fox (Vulpes vulpes) into a pet-lookalike…”

Along its pages, How to Tame a Fox resembles the ornate prose of the Victorian Era (Dugatkin’s style, also evident in Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose, 2009). The book narrates the work, struggles and joys of Russian scientists Dmitri Belyaev (1917-1985) and Lyudmila Trut, whom in the early 1950s started (i.e. Belyaev) one of the most ambitious experiments in domestication: the turning of a wild red fox (Vulpes vulpes) into a pet-lookalike. The igniting motivation was commercial (for the fox fur industry) as much as inspired by scientific curiosity (an attempt to fast-domesticate a wild animal by means of intense selective breeding), although the outcomes remained little known outside the Soviet Union during the Cold War (but see American Scientist 1999, BioEssays 2009). Sixty years later, Lee has teamed up with Lyudmila to host the late Dmitri’s journey together with his companion foxes. An arrangement of convenience, I suppose, to achieve harmony between writing and factuality in telling the story.

Back in April 2017, I put aside my commentary on How to Tame a Fox, continued working on my own writing, and waited for the public’s reaction to the book (not that it would change my views). While in Prague, in July-August 2017, I asked Miklós Müller, a knowledgeable critic of the villainous Trofim Lysenko‘s work in the former Soviet Union (see Volumes I and II) and his influence on distorting science for ideological reasons in the USSR and Eastern Europe during the 1940s-50s (times that coincided with the starting of the first Belyaev fox investigations, toward the late 50s), if he —Miklós— was aware of the foxes book. Indeed, we both had read a blurb in The New York Times drafted by Marlene Zuk in May 2017: How Do You Make a Fox Your Friend? Fast-Forward Evolution. — Miklós and I had a passionate conversation about Lysenko; we put the foxes on hold, and then were interrupted by the beginning of a scientific talk about unicellular eukaryotes (protists), the purpose of our overlapping presence in the Czech Republic (for related article see A visit to Prague and Kutná Hora).

“…the red fox trials are analogous to the long-term evolution experiments in Escherichia coli, in which, in only a few years… new geno-phenotypes emerged relatively quickly under persistent directional selection…”

Excerpts of How to Tame a Fox have been reproduced in numerous venues (e.g. American Scientist, Evolution Institute, for endorsements go here). However, there are two academic reviews of relevance that I recommend. A generous one by Dan Blumstein, published in The Quarterly Review of Biology, and a more critical by Adam Miklosi, which came out in Current Biology. Adam states “…this experiment [i.e. the foxes’ breeding for tameness] should have been referred to as an animal model of domestication in which foxes were selected for ‘tame’ behaviour. So just to be clear, nobody has domesticated these foxes. These are not domesticated animals, they are the result of a scientific experiment — no more, no less…” So far, so good, Adam is right. But he also highlights that “…scientists working in this field [animal domestication] agree that domestication is an evolutionary process taking place on a 1000–10000 (or longer) year time scale and it involves complex interaction between people and a specific set of animal species (e.g. dogs, pigs, bees etc)…” Here Adam misses the point. The Belyaev and Trut experiments demonstrate that, under controlled conditions of directional —and relentless— selection with a clear intention in mind (to tame the foxes), the “domestication-like-outcome” (i.e. significantly reduced aggression in the foxes toward humans or each other) was comparable to what has been accomplished over thousands or tens of thousands of years with dogs, pigs or bees. Of course not in all possible traits correlated with domestication, like some features of dog cognition that seem to have evolved in parallel with tameness, but at least in one specific dimension: reduced aggression and, therefore, increased amicable behaviors toward humans and conspecifics. In this respect, the red fox trials are analogous to the long-term evolution experiments with Escherichia coli (late 1980s – present), in which, in only a few years and thousands of generations (nothing unusual for bacterial populations that replicate every couple of hours), new geno-phenotypes emerged relatively quickly under persistent directional selection [(i.e. the emergence of aerobic metabolism based on an organic-acid nutrient called citrate, rather than on ordinary sugars, which E. coli “prefers;” but again, nobody domesticated or tamed the bacteria to build another microbe; the cells were selected to tolerate citrate and their descendants expressed geno-phenotypes that allowed them to feed on the citric acid –for an encyclopedic summary see E. coli LTEE)].

“… How to Tame a Fox does little to challenge the reader and engage him/her into inferring time or space connections via literary devices, even though the vast historical setting and wealth of the Russian literature were accessible to the authors; after all, Lyudmila was a contributor…”

My discontent with the book was not the buoyancy of the science, its redundant passages, the sticky narrative or emphasis on people (Lee, as narrator of historicity, Dmitri and Lyudmila as heroic characters struggling to doing science in a “communist regime”) rather than on the foxes, which are elements cleverly assembled into the text to precisely appeal to a broad readership prone to loving cute pets and being empathic with non-human animals; a multitude shallowly aware of the advent of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, and predominantly uninformed about the monumental cultural ancestry of the Russian people. How to Tame a Fox feeds on the stereotypic views the West has about life in the USSR; it swiftly examines the geopolitical past with Western values of the present, a no-no approach among academic historians. [(And this observation is not, by default, an endorsement of Stalin’s brutality, which still roams the mental architecture of Moscow’s modern politicians, nor a denial that the USSR imploded due to self-inflicted wounds plus its unsustainable clashes with the gluttonous capitalists, whom today form West-and-East alliances of their own to extort the world)]. If anything, the book’s wedge is Taming a Fox in a Dystopian USSR. As Miklós Müller justified it when we spoke in Prague: well, it is because an American author wrote the book.

How to Tame a Fox does little to challenge the reader and engage him/her into inferring time or space connections via literary devices, even though the vast historical setting and wealth of the Russian literature were accessible to the authors; after all, Lyudmila was a contributor. This only required creativity. — By contrast, the book secures an intellectual safe space; the discomfort is in others (Dmitri, Lyudmila, the foxes, the Soviets, the communists, the totalitarians, the thugs, the cronies, them), the comfort is in the self (the flawless bookworm). Yet, it is fun to explore its passages and envision its events in a video-clip fashion. And more than once I pictured the foxes jumping and playing adorably with their caregivers, unaware that their ancestors had been tamed —selectively— by scientists. Sometimes, I even envisioned their DNA changing as the experiments progressed: I felt The Commotion in the Genes as referred to in Chapter 10.

Early this year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science awarded How to Tame a Fox one of the 2018 AAAS/Subaru Children’s Science Book Prizes, in the category Young Adult Science Book. The work is currently —as I predicted a year ago— a best seller, and it is being translated into other languages (Arabic, Chinese, German, Italian and Korean –not Russian, yet). But the fortune of this tale might travel farther than that, and it is not wild to imagine a Hollywood animation about gentle versus vicious foxes; good battling evil in the cold, endless winters of Siberia; with oppressors wearing ushanka hats and mismatching Cossack attires; with Lysenko- and Stalin-like characters plotting malice against scientists and the creatures of the snow. A mirage of the imprinted allegories about the past.

“Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs.” — Leo Tolstoy

More than a “tit for tat” encounter between Lee and Lyudmila, I see the production of this volume as an act of academic altruism, an exemplar of the evolution of goodness and cooperation between humans, in which the story of Vulpes vulpes, Dmitri and Lyudmila has been rescued from the glacial night and eternalized in a book for the large, youthful crowds. How to Tame a Fox resembles the launching of Sputnik and Vostok, but rather than commissioning Laika or Yuri Gagarin to pioneering our presence in space, it seems to have sent the red foxes, Dmitri and Lyudmila in a journey to the stars, where they belong.

I do recommend this enchanting book to all audiences, just don’t let it tame you.

— EvoLiteracy © 2018.

You can contact Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C via email at guillermo.pazyminoc@gmail.com — Follow us on Twitter @gpazymino and Facebook.

Exploring Hawaii when the false alert of a missile threat happened

“…The regrettable human error, or plain stupidity, will be part of the Hawaiian history. The wrong button was pushed; in reality, double clicked by a suboptimal employee abusing a computer mouse at times when the contest on who had the ‘much bigger nuclear button that works’ was in the news. And more than one real war has been triggered in the past by a surreal, confusing event…”

by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C

I was in Oahu on Saturday, January 13, when the false alert of a missile threat to Hawaii was issued on TV and also reached cellphones in the entire archipelago “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” We (my research collaborator and co-traveler around the world, Avelina Espinosa) knew there was something wrong with the broadcast. First the message came out early in the morning, when test alarms usually take place (like the weekend before when we were already in Hawaii). Second, the sirens did not go off, which was puzzling (they were supposed to join in loud and shock every city, town or rural area in case of an imminent catastrophe). Third, no additional alarms followed, but the city of Honolulu became quiet for a few minutes. We had the windows opened at a 26th-floor apartment and the usual traffic noise, construction workers, service trucks and even people talking in the streets became silent, just like in the middle of the night. And that was surprising.

Wrong Button? Honolulu “oopses” False Missile Alert, Star Advertiser (click on image to enlarge)

Although our rational minds were telling us that the alarm did not make sense, adrenaline was inevitably circulating. Conditioned fear is such a peculiar sensation. Freeze, fight or fly responses emerged together, at the same time that rationality gradually suppressed them. Our education was, in the end, the victorious opponent to the illogical. Soon we found ourselves finishing our Kona Coffee and looking at the majestic Diamond Head Crater in front of us. Honolulu continued to be awaken and warmed up while the sun brushed in yellow the slopes of the Koolau mountains. After 20 minutes, no nuclear blast occurred; it was 5 minutes overdue. At minute 38 an anti-alarm was sent “There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.”

The regrettable human error, or plain stupidity, will be part of the Hawaiian history. The wrong button was pushed; in reality, double clicked by a suboptimal employee abusing a computer mouse at times when the contest on who had the “much bigger nuclear button that works” was in the news. Hawaii might not have the biggest, but for sure now has the wrongest red switch. And more than one real war has been triggered in the past by a surreal, confusing event.

I have visited Oahu three times (2014, 2016 and 2018) and Hawaii on six occasions (Big Island 2012 and 2013, Oahu and Kauai 2014, Maui 2015, and Oahu 2016 and 2018), and written about it in Mauna Kea Telescopes to Sink in the Pacific, EvoLiteracy Update from Hawaii, and The Elegant Feral Chickens of Hawaii – Moa. This post is about my latest trip to the island of Oahu (first two weeks of January 2018), where the capital of Hawaii, Honolulu, is located. Readers might find similarities between previous posts and this one, particularly images of places I have visited before and reported about, but much of the material below is new.

Together with Avelina, we drove 801 miles (or 1282 kilometers) across Oahu (click on map to enlarge). This time, we concentrated on less driving and more on in situ hiking, landscape watching, bird watching, plant/wildflowers watching, coral-reef watching, visiting (historic monuments, museums, the University of Hawaii), and exploring (towns, cities, streets, particularly the non-touristic areas). We do not take vacations, but we travel with an academic mind to as many destinations as possible… to Explore Our Planet. We like islands and have reported for EvoLiteracy from the Galapagos (A, B) and Jamaica (C) in the past few years. Often, our cargo is heavy, this last time 200+ pounds of equipment (scuba, photography, books and field guides).

Enjoy the images, they speak for themselves (click on them for higher resolution); no particular order, except for the obvious beginning and end of the trip, Aloha.

Above: On our way to Hawaii. Frozen River, Minnesota – A cold beginning to a warm end… 2017-2018 – it will be tropical.

Above: ONE of OUR LAST VIEWS of EARTH during 2017- day 365 – the Rocky Mountains (between Montana and Idaho) on Dec 31st, from 36,000 feet (11,000 m) elevation.

Above: Even the airport has the Spirit of Aloha, Honolulu.

Above: The legendary Waikiki (btw, there are many “Waikikis” in Honolulu).

Above: Diamond Head Crater as seen from the Kapiolani Park.

Above: Diamond Head Crater as seen from within (spot the Zebra Doves).

Above: At least five species of coral-reef fishes. Manybar Goatfish, Moorish Idol, Convict Tangs (the common ones) and a couple of Acanthuridae.

Above: The many rainbows of Hawaii.

Above: Sketching Honolulu, local time 6:35 PM.

Above: Iconic Honolulu, National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

Above: We rescued this cute creature (a Jackson’s Chameleon) from the middle of the road, nearby Hawaii Kai, and released it back to a tree, still disoriented.

Above: Students’ outdoor art at the University of Hawaii Manoa, what a gorgeous campus; rich in nature and human diversity.

Above: If you ever find a sea cucumber drifting, you may gently place it in the bottom of the sea. Near the Aukai Beach Park.

Above: Water falling on glass, looks like oil on canvas, Honolulu.

Above: Manana Island (left) and Kaohikaipu Island (right), Oahu.

Above: Sky, Island, Ocean, Sand… Ka’ena Point State Park (Northwest Oahu).

Above: One with the ocean…

Above: the Koko Crater.

Above: Textures of nature (a Beaucarnea), Koko Crater Botanical Garden.

Above: Majestic Fever Tree (Acacia) at the Koko Crater Botanical Garden.

Above: Golden Barrel Cactus, look like they are rolling somewhere.

Above: Spiny bloom of the Golden Barrel Cactus.

Above: Palms and Sun W&B at the Huilua Fishpond.

Above: The Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Above: A leviathan, main exhibit, Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Above: Milionia moths, Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Above: Polymita snails (originally from Cuba) at the Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Above: Achatinella snails, endemic to Hawaii, Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Above: “CLASSIFICATION” by Pax Jakupa (Papua New Guinea) at the Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Above: Kumulipo Ke Ao – The Day, at the Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Above: All sorts of coffee…

Above: Coffee beans being dried in the open, Waialua.

Above: Close up of coffee beans being dried in the open, Waialua.

Above: Coffee Beans… world quality.

Above: Feral, it feeds on local endangered birds et al. Encounter at the Koko Crater.

Above: Frightening Forest… where the non-existing ghosts roam.

Above: Encephalartos at the Koko Crater Botanical Garden.

Above: Euphorbia at the Koko Crater Botanical Garden.

Above: Spot the humans… Koko Crater.

Above: Kamaka ukulele (right). Good sound and projection, simple varnishing and polishing; thus, aiming at looking classic. The strings were weird, some tightened in the opposite direction (never seen that before), Honolulu.

Above: Antidote to when kids don’t want to go to school, Waimanalo.

Above: A peculiar Soap Factory in Waialua.

Above: Honolulu awakening; in the background the Diamond Head Crater.

Above: Honolulu, the evening after the false-alarm missile attack – a historic mistake to be remembered forever.

Above: The evening after the false-alarm missile attack – a historic mistake to be remembered forever.

Above: Tunnel to The Sky, Honolulu.

Above: Japanese Light Tank, 1940s, Hawaii Army Museum.

Above: United States Light Tank, cf. 1940s, Hawaii Army Museum.

Above: Cute ukuleles of tourists quality.

Above: Statues at the Mall, Honolulu.

Above: Udon Noodles… among the best in the world, Honolulu.

Above: The gorgeous campus of the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Above: The gorgeous campus of the University of Hawaii Manoa, George Hall.

Above: The Hamilton Library (at the University of Hawaii Manoa) now has a copy of “Measuring the Evolution Controversy.”

Above: More of the gorgeous campus of the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Above: Oahu’s wilderness as seen from the Ahupua’a ‘O Kahana State Park.

Above: Rock (volcanic), wildflowers and ocean… Ka’ena Point State Park.

Above: Sand and symmetry, near Punaluu.

Above: The Iolani Palace, Honolulu, spot the tern.

Above: The Throne Room at the Iolani Palace.

Above: Dress ornaments made of PEACOCK FEATHERS, on display at the Throne Room, Iolani Palace.

Above: The Dining Room at the Iolani Palace.

Above: Quilt made by Queen Liliʻuokalani while under house arrest in the 1890s, Iolani Palace.

Above: Upstairs the Iolani Palace.

Above: Coronation Pavilion, Iolani Palace.

Above: The Many Gods, Honolulu.

Above: “…The only Gods the people ever saw with their eyes were the images of wood and stone…” David Malo 1835-36 (historian and later minister himself), Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Above: Ficus, a tree that can be a vine that can be a root that can be an epiphyte, Honolulu.

Above: Ukuleles of fine quality.

Above: Honolulu’s night life.

Above: Noodles, a moment of Chi — the right portion is in the hand; it feels correct; the small bowl is there to verify it, not for the server, but for the customer.

Above: This was our first B&W of 2018 at the Kapiolani Park, Honolulu.

Above: Ocean and wildflowers, Ka’ena Point State Park.

Above: Spot the glider at the Ka’ena Point State Park.

Above: A yellow close up at the Ka’ena Point State Park.

Above: Signs of a Satellite Tracking Station, Northwest Oahu (Ka’ena Point State Park).

Above: A purple close up at the Ka’ena Point State Park.

Above: Ka’ena Point State Park.

Above: Oahu’s landscape as seen from the Huilua Fishpond.

Above: More Textures of Nature, Huilua.

Above: Fury after the false alert missile inbound.

Above: The day after the missile threat false alert.

Above: Waiting for Sunset, Honolulu.

Above: Distasteful snacks, sardine-packing comfort… photo looks better than reality.

Above: Welcome return at the airport, Dallas, Texas, across the AA arrival gate. They knew exactly how the plane service was.

EvoLiteracy © 2018 — You can contact Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C via email at guillermo.pazyminoc@gmail.com — Follow us on Twitter @gpazymino and Facebook.

The Rigorous PhD

“…Although it is true that the PhD degree has been criticized in recent years for remaining classical and reluctant to being seduced by a more market-oriented skill-based training system, it still is the strongest higher-education formative experience ever developed in academia. The globalization of science and technology and international exchanges of professionals have led to agreements that attempt to equate higher-university titles across disciplines (the functional equivalents to a PhD), but it has also triggered worldwide the proliferation of fake, self-granted PhD acronyms to doctoral degrees that are no match to the education provided by the rigorous PhD-granting institutions…”

by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C

Before listing what makes a PhD-training unique, I will share the latest data about the United States. The statistics below come from the National Science Foundation and correspond to 2016 (released early December 2017). You will have to wait until late 2018 for NSF to process the data from 2017.

In 2016, the United States graduated 54,904 PhDs and doctorates (the latter included non-PhDs but doctors in education, law, business administration, social work, international relations, health-care professions like physicians, veterinarians, dentists, nurses and clinical psychologists, and technical posts like pharmacy) at 436 higher-education institutions. Of these graduates, 38,406 were American citizens and residents, and 16,498 were temporary visa holders of diverse nationalities (=international students). The top five PhD/doctorate-granting institutions were the University of Texas-Austin (849), University of Wisconsin-Madison (823), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (819), University of California-Berkeley (796) and University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (787).

The top five PhD/doctorate-granting institutions to the international students were Purdue University-West Lafayette (372), Texas A&M University-College Station and Health Science Center (328), University of Florida (297), University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (278) and Ohio State University-Columbus (267).

23% of the graduates obtained degrees in the life sciences, 17% in engineering, 16% in psychology and social sciences, 12% in physical and earth sciences, 10% in humanities and arts, 9% in education, and 7% in mathematics and computer sciences; the rest graduated in other fields, including business, management and administration, as well as communication (adding to 6%).

54% of the graduates were men and 46% were women. The men/women gap varied across fields, as follows: in the life sciences, 55% were women and 45% were men; in engineering, 77% were men and 23% were women; in psychology and social sciences, 59% were women and 41% were men; in physical and earth sciences, 69% were men and 31% were women; in humanities and arts, 52% were women and 48% were men; in education, 70% were women and 30% were men; and in mathematics and computer sciences, 76% were men and 24% were women.

“All PhDs are doctoral degrees, but not all doctoral degrees are PhDs”

What did those who got PhDs do to be granted the degrees of “philosophiae doctoris” or “doctor of philosophy”? My listing below is summarized and applicable particularly to the life sciences:

“…if your doctoral certificate does not read ‘philosophiae doctoris’ or ‘doctor of philosophy,’ chances are you might not have a PhD…”

Number 1 – Application. All began when they sent applications to multiple PhD programs in the US, knowing that, if lucky, a couple of institutions might accept them. Crucial to their applications were five components: a statement of interest (a sort of letter of intent, but broader, explaining why they wanted to pursue research), the curriculum vitae (CV), three letters of recommendation (preferably by academics with PhDs themselves), GRE / TOEFL scores if already available (the originals were sent directly to the universities by the GRE– / TOEFL-test agencies), and the undergraduate academic records (the “transcripts”). The personal statement had to be competitive in relation to the hundreds/thousands of statements submitted by students from all over the world. It revealed, in a few pages, the genuine intellectual potential of the applicant; his/her curiosity-driven mind and interest in seeking scientific knowledge. The CV needed to summarize the evidence that the applicant was a scientist in the making (format and content had to be just right). The letters of recommendation convinced a reviewing committee (made of professors in multiple fields and student representatives to the “graduate committee”) that the applicant will endure the challenges of the PhD academic environment (survive and succeed in it). The undergraduate transcript had to simply document that the applicant was as ordinarily outstanding as the other applicants (previous research experiences were always a plus, even more important than the excellent grades). Perhaps now the reader realizes how significant were the personal statements and CVs (the latter as supplements), considering that the letters of recommendation and undergraduate records of all competitive applicants were comparable.

Number 2 – Interview. This was done in multiple ways and more than one semi-formal or formal interview(s) took place. Via Skype (the first approach) and a later visit to the graduate program during which the potential student met with the graduate committee (usually with each of its members and also with the group), interacted with diverse research teams with which the student might work in the future (if accepted into the program), participated in a journal club discussion or laboratory meeting (for which the applicant was given scientific publications to read in advance, so that his/her contribution to the discussion was meaningful), and socialized over dinner, or equivalent gathering, where members of the program (faculty, postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students) got to talk, briefly, to the applicant. As the interview(s) made progress, the members of the graduate committee got feedback from those whom interacted with the applicant(s). Each potential student was ranked in respect to others and, after various meetings, the graduate committee made recommendations (to higher-instances in the institution) as to the list of students whom should be offered a “graduate student line” (i.e. the type of funding the student shall receive, either as research or teaching assistant, or both). In most cases, a database was created with quantitative scores as per all aspects relevant to the applicant(s) performance: personal statement, CV, letters of recommendation, undergraduate transcripts (this also applied to those with masters degrees in a separate column), GRE/TOEFL scores (or equivalents), research experience, publications (when applicable, as coauthor or leading author), presentations at regional, national or international scientific meetings (posters, talks), scientific competitive awards (including mini-grants), interview performance, participation in journal club/laboratory meeting discussion while visiting the program, and interaction with members of the department (e.g. scoring 1 = poor; 2 = fair; 3 = good; 4 = very good; and 5 = excellent). All applicants were ranked from highest to lowest scores, and only those voted positively by the graduate committee were contacted and offered the graduate student line. Not all the top-ranked accepted since some had several offers.

“…during two years, the PhD students were transformed by a rigorous academic environment in which ‘quality education’ was at the center of their intellectual development…”

Number 3 – The First Two Years. The entire PhD program lasted about 6 years; but years 1 and 2 probably marked the most significant transformation in the students. They were required to enroll in courses that emphasized further development of their analytical skills (i.e. strong in statistics, data processing or synthesis-writing), integration of information from the primary literature (hundreds of articles were required to be read) and weekly take-home assignments (mini-reviews of the literature and/or long papers addressing conceptual questions prepared by a professor). If the students had previous masters degrees or non-PhD-doctorates, only a fraction of the courses already taken were accepted into the PhD program. Everyone took new courses taught by world specialists in specific fields; double dipping was rarely allowed in more than 1/4 or 1/3 (exceptionally 1/2) of the total PhD curriculum. — Thus, in most cases, two in-house courses were taken per semester, combined with a discussion-based-third-course (a “graduate seminar”) based on weekly student presentations of scientific articles (about 5 articles per student, per week, in a class of 16 students and 1-2 instructors/facilitators). The latter were the foundation of the training in the “argumentative format,” which the students got to internalize. The graduate seminars were both in-depth academic discussions of the philosophical foundations (as per philosophy of science) of recent or classical literature, and intense exchanges in which the student leading the session was grilled by his/her peers and instructor(s). This format helped students to become aware of their academic strengths and weaknesses; all in the open, with peers and mentors watching. — Many PhD students worked 14 to 16 hours a day, all days; some took on and off naps while working continuously for weeks, occasionally months under that rhythm. At public institutions, most PhD students had “teaching-assistantship” lines (TAs) that paid their salaries, and they were responsible for teaching or co-teaching laboratory or reading sessions for freshman/sophomore undergraduates, grading exams and reports, and holding weekly office hours to mentor undergraduates. Each semester, their teaching performances were evaluated by the undergraduates and TAs-supervisor(s). — On top of the course work and TA responsibilities, all graduate students were required to attend weekly seminars by an internationally-known speaker invited by the program; they met with the speaker one-on-one, or in small groups, and read articles published by him/her. Weekly, sometimes twice a month, members of the PhD program (faculty or graduate students) hosted at their homes/apartments semi-formal evening-talks by local speakers (from sister institutions in the area); these discussions were enthusiastically attended by the “graduate community” (a voluntary practice built on the desire to reinforce a culture of learning). — And on top of these activities, the students participated at weekly meetings with their PhD advisor’s team in which they discussed the science being done in the laboratory or research group. At such meetings, the fresh PhD students were constantly taught by everyone else in the team (i.e. advanced research undergraduates, other PhD students, postdocs and the principal investigator) the methodological and conceptual rationale behind the research carried out by the team. — In many programs, the students participated in mandatory “rotations,” which consisted in doing practical research work at a laboratory, or with a research team other than his/her own and, after a semester, presented the results of that experience to the entire academic department in a public talk (1 to 3 rotations during the first two years of the PhD program, each up to 20 hours/week work). The purpose of each rotation was to expose the students to different fields of scientific inquiry, diverse working environments and mentors, and open the possibility for the students to change their minds and complete their PhDs in fields just discovered during the rotation experiences. — Some programs also required the students to participate in practical internships (3 to 8 weeks), during the summer of their first or second academic years (paid by the PhD program or by an external agency). As interns at known State or Federal agencies, or at NGOs, the graduate students “tasted and practiced, hands-on, the professional world” (e.g. National Institutes of Health, US-Congress, The World Bank, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Geographic, Department of Justice, Smithsonian Institution, Department of Labor; click on internship opportunities for graduate students). At their return, they submitted reports of their experiences and presented talks to their departments. — In sum, during two years, the PhD students were transformed by this rigorous academic environment in which “quality education” was at the center of their intellectual development.

“…Only if the students passed the qualifying exams satisfactorily, they were finally and officially called ‘PhD candidates,’ a placebo status of psychological value only to students…”

Number 4 – Qualifying Exams (Preliminary Exams = Prelims, or Candidate/Candidacy Exams). Before the second year was completed, PhD students took the most challenging test ever in their lives. The goals of the qualifying exams were multiple: test the analytical-thinking ability developed since the students joined the PhD program; assess the academic maturity gained during the first two years; evaluate their retention of information and capacity to integrate scientific knowledge coming from multiple sources; verify their capacity to answer “why” questions (i.e. ultimate causality) when confronted with theoretical academic scenarios that they were asked to solve; challenge them to propose the immediate and future directions an entire academic field should take to make significant transformations in science. These goals were accomplished via different exam-formats, including complex questions given to the students in advance, which they had an entire semester to think about, compile library information, scrutinize scientific papers and structure comprehensive answers to later be presented in written and/or oral examinations. Other formats consisted in developing research proposals on topics unknown to the students, although tangentially related to their areas of expertise (according to NIH, NSF, Department of Education guidelines), and that the students had to prepare as if they were world experts and later defend such proposals in front of the graduate committee. Or prepare a theoretical review of the literature, in an entire field of expertise, and present it to and answer questions from a team of professors. The qualifying exams took months to prepare (including in most cases the end-of-the-year break –no vacations!) and 1-2 entire days of in-writing and/or oral examinations by the graduate committee. — Only if the students passed these exams satisfactorily, they were finally and officially called “PhD candidates” (PhDc), a placebo status of psychological value only to students. In many programs, those who did not pass the qualifying exams were given a terminal masters degree and sent home. A few programs granted the students a second chance to retake the exams (usually in a more rigorous setting) and made final decisions by the end of the second academic year. — Some programs did not require qualifying exams, but had other formats of PhD-candidacy assessment; such programs were exceptions, rather than the norm.

Number 5 – PhD Dissertation Proposal. This document had to be approved by the students’ PhD-dissertation committees, and later defended in a public presentation (sometimes in close-door meetings with the thesis committees) at the end of the first or second semesters of year 3. The “thesis proposal” was comprehensive in its theoretical background (placing the students’ intended research in a historical context, as per the chronology of a research field), with central and auxiliary hypotheses to be tested, detailed in methodology, statistical analyses, expected results (i.e. figures and tables already built and specifying all outcomes based on hypothetical data), significance of the work in terms of generating new knowledge and advancing science, future grant-proposals to be submitted to local, regional or national agencies, as well as the forecast of conceptual publications (at least three) to be generated from the research. — The thesis committee (per individual student) likely included five members: an advisor, sometimes a co-advisor, 2-3 professors from within the PhD program, and a researcher from another PhD-granting institution. Depending on the field of expertise and program, the thesis committees occasionally included even more members (as many as the students needed for proper advice; 6-8 members were not rare). The approval of the dissertation proposal was done first by the thesis committee and later certified by the Department (remember that faculty, postdocs, graduate students and research undergraduates attended the oral presentation and thesis-proposal defense) and university. The officially approved thesis proposal turned into a “contract” that the students had to complete satisfactorily, within 3-4 years, in “partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of” philosophiae doctoris or doctor of philosophy. Note that some programs granted the PhDc status only after the thesis-proposal was approved (i.e. after the first two years of course work plus completion of the qualifying exams); thus, the students became PhDc during year 3.

“… the science was conducted in the open, shared with the institutional community, and subject to criticism and feedback all the time… Advanced or just starting in their PhD education, the students were pushed beyond their comfort zones. Seniority was rarely observed…”

Number 6 – The Research, Grant-Proposal(s) Submission(s), Participation at National and International Meetings. During years 3, 4 and 5 the students conducted the research to which they committed themselves in the PhD-thesis proposal. Those in TA lines continued to teach. — Weekly or monthly, they reported progress to their advisors and research teams (semi-formal oral presentations of results and/or difficulties delaying the project); once per semester, they met with the thesis committee for the same purpose (i.e. semi-formal presentation of data and analysis of partial results); and once a year they submitted comprehensive progress reports to the PhD Program Director (i.e. the parts of the research already completed, work in progress, poster or oral presentations at significant scientific meetings, awards, mini-grants or grants under review, as well as those that were funded) and received a letter of evaluation from the PhD Program Director; in it, the individualized expectations of the program to secure timely completion of the work were specified (note that the continuation of institutional funding to the student’s salary, including the TA line, depended on a positive evaluation). — As PhD-researchers, the students were expected to train undergraduates and provide and receive feedback to/from peers (this was part of the culture of academic reciprocity, which the program community embraced). They were also required to submit doctoral-dissertation grants to national agencies (e.g. NSF), regardless of them being funded or not. Each semester, they submitted competitive mini-grants to their own PhD-programs (from less than $1000 to up to a few thousand dollars), departments, colleges or universities, as well as to scientific societies (i.e. funds for traveling to international meetings or for materials and logistics related to the research). Each of those grants varied in narrative-length and conceptual/practical emphasis; in this way, the students became skillful at summarizing their projects in a few hundred words, or in lengthy documents with detailed budgets and justified expenses; all on a competitive basis and repetitively during years 3-5. Those researching off campus, in the field or other countries, returned each semester, or yearly, to their institutions and shared their progress via oral presentations (data oriented) and discussions with the entire program. Thus, the science was conducted in the open, shared with the institutional community, and subject to criticism and feedback all the time. — While on campus, the students continued to participate in journal clubs, seminar discussions, advising and mentoring sessions. Advanced or just starting in their PhD education, they were all pushed beyond their comfort zones. Seniority was rarely observed.

“… Every PhD dissertation aimed at becoming a unique and crucial contribution to science (work that had never been done before); many, perhaps most, accomplished it…”

Number 7 – Completion of Data Collection, Analysis and Writing of the Dissertation. By year 5 in the PhD program, the data collection ended and both the comprehensive statistical analyses and writing of the dissertation began. This was likely done in combination with a couple of papers already published, or manuscripts submitted during years 4 and 5 (or extended to year 6), but many students could not write such papers until full collection and processing of the data. It did take from six months to a year to complete the no-long-ago seemingly-eternal thesis. In the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics, the thesis was fairly short (200-300 pages, including raw data and analyses attachments), but in the humanities and arts the documents often reached +400 pages. Depending on the field of specialization, the students were expected to publish, at least, three comprehensive, conceptual (not descriptive!) papers of their own that contributed significantly to advance the scientific knowledge in their fields. As members of a productive team of researchers, they likely co-authored an equal number of additional articles (a combination of descriptive work, notes, reviews with their advisors, or joined papers with master students or undergrads). The important aspect of the PhD research was that it covered interrelated, yet separate topics (usually three, but often four or five), each comprehensively designed for testing, with specific conceptual questions, hypotheses, predictions and exhaustive approaches to examining each hypothesis and its predictions. Every PhD dissertation aimed at becoming a unique and crucial contribution to science (work that had never been done before); many, perhaps most, accomplished it.

“…After a month or so, the graduates received in the mail a modest certificate declaring them ‘philosophiae doctoris’ or ‘doctor of philosophy.’ Another document of little use considering that the certification that a PhD degree had been granted was usually extended by the university via official copies of the graduates’ transcripts –with the entire academic history…”

Percentages of doctoral degrees granted by OECD countries in 2014; left = N ca. 237,000; right = per capita (click to enlarge).

Number 8 – Thesis Defense and Graduation. The departmental seminars in which the PhD candidates presented and defended their dissertations were announced publically and attended by faculty from various universities, postdocs, graduate/undergraduate students and, occasionally, by the candidates’ family members. The students were introduced as “today’s seminar speaker” or, more frequently, in non-solemn manners since, although successful presentations and thesis-defense were expected (otherwise the students had not been allowed to get that far in their programs), prudent enthusiasm was honored. The 50-minute seminar was followed by 30-40-minutes of Q&A by the audience, and by close-door meetings between the students and their graduate committees (up to 2-3-hours). By the end of the day, social gatherings were often organized to celebrate the events. During the following weeks, sometimes months, the students made adjustments to the dissertations (from minor to substantial) and prepared final versions of the documents. These needed signatures of approval by each committee member. The properly formatted original and copies of the documents were then submitted for the universities’ final approval and filing. [Note that copies of all PhD dissertations written in the US are stored at national archives with access to the public, examples include ProQuest or DissExpress, but there are others]. Attendance to “graduation day” (i.e. the universities’ bi-annual ceremonies) was an option for all PhD students; quite a few did not participate (a common excuse was their mental fatigue and desire to just move on). After a month or so, they received in the mail a modest certificate declaring them “philosophiae doctoris” or “doctor of philosophy” (another document of little use considering that the certification that a PhD degree had been granted was usually extended by the university via official copies of the graduates’ transcripts –with the entire academic history).

To close: the National Science Foundation indicates that, in 2016, about 30% of the PhD/doctorate graduates in the life, physical and earth sciences were headed to postdoc positions (2-3-years of additional research experiences in science productivity). By contrast, only 17% of their counterparts in mathematics, computer sciences and engineering had similar plans. And about 60% of most graduates were simply moving into research and development jobs (see Science).

Although it is true that the PhD degree has been criticized in recent years (see A, B, CD) for remaining classical and reluctant to being seduced by a more market-oriented skill-based training system, it still is the strongest higher-education formative experience ever developed in academia. The globalization of science and technology and international exchanges of professionals have led to agreements that attempt to equate higher-university titles across disciplines (the functional equivalents to a PhD), but it has also triggered worldwide the proliferation of fake (see E, F), self-granted PhD acronyms to doctoral degrees that are no match to the education provided by the rigorous PhD-granting institutions. — EvoLiteracy © 2018

You can contact Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C via email at guillermo.pazyminoc@gmail.com — Follow us on Twitter @gpazymino and Facebook.

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Honorary Authorship, Coercive Citations and Padding in Scientific Papers

“…Academics ‘are trapped; compelled to participate in activities they find distasteful,’ including the intricate world of scientific publications, which involves a range of journal publishers, editors, book producers, open-access periodicals, for-profit series, online-journals and other venues to disseminate research; plus, of course, individuals —charming, powerful or both— that free ride at the expense of others’ work…”

Cartoon by Pedro Velica

by  Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C

In an article just published in PLoS ONE, December 2017, Eric A. Fong and Allen W. Wilhite, researchers at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, document three practices in academia: (1) the inclusion of “honorary authors” in scientific publications (i.e. the addition of individuals to manuscripts as authors, even though they have contributed little, if anything, to the actual research), (2) coercive citations (i.e. when editors direct authors to add citations to articles from the editors’ journals ‒arguably to boost the journal’s citation index), and (3) padding (i.e. when authors add superfluous citations to a paper in an attempt to increase its chance for publication). Fong and Wilhite surveyed 12,000 scholars from 18 disciplines (i.e. health-care, engineering, science, social sciences and business) at diverse universities in the United States.

The specific fields of specialization of the interviewed researchers were: medicine, nursing, biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, physics, engineering, ecology, accounting, economics, finance, marketing, management, information systems, sociology, psychology, and political science. The Fong and Wilhite’s study is comprehensive and I suggest the reader to look at the original publication for details. In the figure below, I simply share the statistical trends that summarize the research. I have adapted an image from the PLoS ONE article (open access journal) to make it more appealing to a non-specialized audience.

In the image, note the following: (1) Adding honorary authors to manuscripts was common practice among 1 in every 3 of the surveyed scholars; it reached +40% in the health-care professions. (2) About 1 in every 5 scholars added such authors to a grant proposal; and, again, about 40% was typical in the health-care professions. (3) Coercive citations were common in +5% of the scholars in science, and beyond 20-25% in engineering and business. (4) The practice of padding a scientific article with irrelevant citations was common among, at least, 1 in every 5 authors, and particularly evident among those in science and engineering (around 30%), and +45-50% in business and the social sciences. Finally, (5) padding in grant proposals was common in +10-20% of all disciplines, and up to ≈40% in business.

The responders to the survey acknowledged that the main reason for adding honorary authors in their manuscripts was the relationship of director/authority of the honorary author in respect to the “real authors” of the paper (+20% of the responders thought that way); others included as co-authors their mentors, colleagues, individuals-for-reciprocity-reasons, for their reputation, or for funding. However, 60% of all responders added honorary authors to their grant proposals simply due to the latter’s “reputation,” and, thus, to increase the chances of getting the projects funded.

Interestingly, between ≈60% and +90% of all responders disapproved of the coercive citation practice across disciplines. But keep in mind that, despite the quantitative approach to the study, the responses were also based on perception, i.e. the researchers’ insight about honorary authors, coercive citations or padding in scientific publications and grant proposals.

Fong and Wilhite concluded that:

“…there is a significant level of deception in authorship and citation in academic research and while it would be naïve to suppose that academics are above such scheming to enhance their position, the results suggest otherwise. The overwhelming consensus is that such behavior is inappropriate, but its practice is common. It seems that academics are trapped; compelled to participate in activities they find distasteful…”

“…misattribution, spans the academic universe. While there are different levels of abuse across disciplines, we found evidence of honorary authorship, coercive citation, and padded citation in every discipline we sampled. We also suggest that a useful construct to approach misattribution is to assume individual scholars make deliberate decisions to cheat after weighing the costs and benefits of that action. We cannot claim that our construct is universally true because other explanations may be possible, nor do we claim it explains all misattribution behavior because other factors can play a role. However, the systematic pattern of superfluous authors, coerced citations, and padded references documented here is consistent with scholars who [are] making deliberate decisions to cheat after evaluating the costs and benefits of their behavior…”

To close: In my (our) own experience, I (we) have never included honorary authors in my (our) publications, or have never been an honorary author of a paper. But some colleagues have asked me (us), more than once, why have I (we) included such and such person in that or that paper, assuming that that individual did not deserved it. My (our) rationale has always been that if a substantial aspect of a manuscript had not been possible to be completed, unless that person had contributed directly or indirectly to the research, that individual ought to be acknowledged as co-author. This includes the very conceptual transformation of a manuscript due to crucial feedback, interpretation of results, and substantial modification of the scope with which an article was put together. — In cases like that, I have expected my name to be included as co-author, but that has happened sporadically (more during the times I was a postdoc and contributed with conceptual, methodological, analytical and copy-editing feedback to graduate students’ dissertations). In various occasions, I have requested to not be included in manuscripts as a co-author; this practice is not unusual among researchers.

In terms of coercive citations, I have never been asked by a journal editor to cite an irrelevant paper with the purpose of contributing to boosting the journal’s citation index (which, by the way, would require hundreds of authors to be simultaneously coerced to cite multiple articles to have a statistical influence on the journal’s performance), although I have been suggested by journal editors to take a look at some studies (published in other journals), of which I was not aware, and that I actually found very helpful to come across, and decided to discuss and cite them in a paper. However, and this is a big “however,” peer-reviewers have attempted to coerce us (Avelina Espinosa and I), more than once, to cite their papers (or their close collaborators’), or papers of their liking, in our studies. In many cases, such papers were irrelevant, or we disagreed fundamentally with them to even give them a citation in our manuscripts. On one occasion, a well known individual in a field insisted that we should cite non-scientific books in our work, and did so with assertive authority (plus specifically stated where in our text we had to acknowledge the merits of the organization with which the individual was affiliated ‒sounds surreal, right?), an issue we later resolved with the journal editor, who agreed with us and considered the suggestion to be imprudent. So, yes, coercive predators do exist and attempt to exert power at will… if you let them. But journal editors are very experienced, for the most part, and tend to not allow such approaches to peer-reviewing.

On grants, we have never included potential honorary recipients to increase our chances of getting funded. But, when attending a national-funders meeting in Washington DC, a few years ago, we were advised to add a specific anchor-individual to our team, otherwise “we will continue to be seen as outsiders” (verbatim) in that specific community of peer-reviewers. Of course, we declined to include that person in our proposals (three of which were not funded by the agency), although we did complete the research and publish the papers (N = 14) that we projected in the proposals to be the outcomes of the projects. Not only that, we were fortunate to publish an academic best-seller-2017-book summarizing all the research and with no strings attached to any honorary contributor.

I alert the reader that Fong and Wilhite are not suggesting in their paper that the academic system is unethical, which, at our current times of anti-intellectualism, the general public might be susceptible to believe (i.e. in response to anti-science campaigns, anti-evolution, anti-climate-change, anti-vaccines). Not at all. Broad unethical behavior has not been, or is, the case in academia. And Fong and Wilhite are not implying that in their PLoS ONE article. Although, it is true that academics “are trapped; compelled to participate in activities they find distasteful,” including the intricate world of scientific publications, which involves a range of journal publishers, editors, book producers, open-access periodicals, for-profit series, online-journals and other venues to disseminate research; plus, of course, individuals —charming, powerful or both— that free ride at the expense of others’ work. — EvoLiteracy © 2017

UPDATE: I thank George A. Lozano for pointing at his article “The Elephant in the Room: Multi-authorship and the Assessment of Individual Researchers. Current Science 105 (2013): 443-445 [PDF]” in which he proposes a solution to the multi-authorship problem.

You can contact Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C via email at guillermo.pazyminoc@gmail.com — Follow us on Twitter @gpazymino and Facebook.