Science Writing and the Pseudoscience Trap

“…Error magnification is the single most vicious and pervasive meme in popular science miscommunication. It is seeded and driven by the science communicator him/herself and feed-back-looped into society, creating a cycle of half truths rather than educating the public…” — GPC

Science Writing Evolution Literacy

By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C

I am not fond of giving unsolicited advice, I almost never welcome it, although one should be open to internalizing constructive guidance when sincerely offered to us. And writers of any kind need editors to help us spot mistakes in our articles and improve format and content.

But I do have some experience writing about science for the general public. Occurrences that I can share with all.

My first article (1987), for El Comercio, explored the impact of aggressive shrimp-farming on the pristine mangrove ecosystems of Ecuador. The piece summarized a hands-on and in situ research project conducted as a biology undergraduate. Not only did it ignite my interest in investigative coverage, but led me to editorialize –ever since– on science, technology and the environment. Twenty-plus full-page reports –text and pictures– followed up to 1993 in Diario Hoy (another leading newspaper in Quito) and wildlife magazines. When I came to the United States to attend graduate school, I contributed 35 op pieces to El Popular (1996 to 2000), the foremost Hispanic newspaper in Toronto.

“…English has an advantage, it is the currency of modern science. It is an idiom of exploration, almost anything goes. Unfortunately, junk-writing is also part of this trial-and-error…”

Over time, I transitioned to writing almost exclusively in English (my second language), which has its own science etiquette, quite distinctive from Spanish. But English has an advantage, it is the currency of modern science. It is an idiom of exploration; anything goes. Unfortunately, junk-writing is also part of this trial and error.

Writing about science for the American readership –lay or specialized– is always a challenge. The landscapes (e.g. editorials, chronicles, reports, notes, blogs), styles, theme trends, and audiences’ interests change constantly. The internet has brought dynamism to sharing science news, via imaging (photos and video), more than text, or in short reports (150 to 300 words, rather than the usual 600 to 800 expected by publishers in the past), and quick and dirty delivery. The latter is a powerful temptation that a cautious columnist should avoid.

Editing Proofreading Marks for use on blogs and social media

Proofreading marks were used in the past for copy-editing scientific manuscripts and articles. They are extinct nowadays (the image shows a humorous version of proofreading symbols broadly shared in the social media). The edition and copy-edition of manuscripts is currently done automatically on computers and online servers. Still, human intervention is needed.

“…I do not consider myself a science writer, although I have been called ‘science journalist,’ as an insult, by a rodentologist incapable of graceful interaction with people…”

Before advancing any further, note that I do not consider myself a science writer, although I have been called “science journalist,” as an insult, by a rodentologist incapable of graceful interaction with people. But, I am a biologist who happens to write about science. I come from a background of journalists (my grandfather, father and a sister), essayists (two brothers who are professors in academia and regular contributors to newspapers), and a novelist sister. Plus, my father’s line run, for decades, a publishing initiative. Books were around us. Still, my only assertion here is that the publication process, from paper to ink on it, or to the sorting of pages and final binding of volumes, is the foundation of my cultural imprinting.

Learning to Spot Mistakes

A good, skeptical eye is essential in a writer, and this can be acquired by training. In my case, I worked as a copy editor for the journal Biotropica while I was a graduate student and, later, a postdoc (1996 to 2003). I revised 80 manuscripts by world authors and on multiple subjects. My responsibility was to find mistakes (typos, grammar errors, non-sense sentences, contradictions and, occasionally, bring content issues to the attention of the editors). That experience taught me to minimize the errors I still make while preparing scientific papers and perspectives. Perfection is never achieved, only sharpness to spot what seems incorrect and improve the outcome.

“…The skill of spotting mistakes shall make anyone a better author…”

And not to forget, I was also production editor and copy editor for Animal Behaviour (2001 – 2003), something I remember with mix feelings: although I did not revise as many manuscripts as for Biotropica, the AB Editorial Office in Indiana passed on to me difficult, long manuscripts, loaded with problems, arid science, although written by famous ethologists. In retrospect, I am grateful to my colleagues for the tedious assignments, and for forcing me to examine unpolished papers. The skill of spotting mistakes shall make anyone a better author.

Learning to Be an Editor

From 2003 to 2012, I became founder editor of The Conservation Behaviorist, a biannual periodical of the Animal Behavior Society’s Conservation Committee, which I chaired for three years (2003 – 2006). I edited and produced, from scratch, each of the issues of the ten volumes published during that decade.

“…One must avoid the pseudo science trap, sequel of adopting language that feeds the readers’ unsophisticated comfort zones, at the expense of hurting scientific rigor via distortion…”

What I value most from that activity is that I discovered how to adapt the texts submitted by scientists —in the interface animal behavior / conservation biology— to a media-friendly format, language and delivery. I spent hours reshaping the prose without changing the intention of the writers or the scientific accuracy of their proposals. And that is key in science writing. One must avoid the pseudoscience trap, sequel of adopting language that feeds the readers’ unsophisticated comfort zones, at the expense of hurting scientific rigor via distortion.

This malady is widespread in the work published in major newspapers, magazines, blogs and social media. Here is an example: claiming that naked mole rats are “cancer free” is not only falsehood, but it does not make scientific sense (i.e. relative lower incidence of cancer in a given organism, in respect to others, including humans, does not mean cancer-immunity, nor its absence; UPDATE: for a comprehensive review see Cancer Across The Tree of Life: Cooperation and Cheating in Multicellularity). As much as it was questionable, when in the 1990s, the “shark- cartilage pill industry” made a fortune ecociding sharks, milling their dried skeletons and selling “miracle powder” in anti-cancer capsules for the pro-natural-medicine ignoramus. Science writers must not fall in love with inaccuracies or fables like these.

The point here is that, by being an editor, one can learn to honor science, respect its integrity rather than allow free ride to sensationalism by promoting “breaking news” soon-to-be debunked.

Network of Science Communication Lemerg dot com - Evolution Literacy

The Network of Science Communication. The pseudoscience trap is inherent to networking. Science writers must not fall in love with inaccuracies and fables (image iStockphoto/Thinkstock).

Developing Your Own Style

You do not need to please everyone, particularly family, friends, colleagues or supervisors. Actually, it works best to stay away from their never unbiased reviews (except if they are writers themselves). But it is important to define the type of science writer you want to be, and develop a style with which a readership identifies you.

“…it is important to define what type of science writer you want to be, and develop a style with which a readership identifies you…”

When I wrote my initial op piece for The Standard Times in 2010, it was welcomed instantly, but two subsequent editorials were rejected. I spoke with the Editor in Chief and persuaded him that we needed to develop –together– a readership for the types of articles I would offer: an analysis of science topics with my personal take, rather than a report-story vast in empty phrases like “scientists say” or “according to researchers” or “in the opinion of experts.” Reluctantly, he agreed and months later we enjoyed the interaction with the readers and their feedback; positive and, sometimes, disapproving.

The Standard Times and I published 28 editorials (2010 – 2015) under the “Your View” column, thus conveying that I, as a writer, was one more member of the community, discharging from the inside my criteria and views about dissimilar or related topics, including: the relevance of curiosity-based research, the anti-vaccine movement, the collapse of basic science under the for-profit model, the scientific challenges to the reputation of the Stradivari violins, the wrongly called God-particle (Higgs boson), or the false beliefs in faith healing (for complete access to articles go to publications).

Being Aware of Your Skills

Because pop science writing lacks the editorial process of a scientific article, it is tempting to avoid fact-checks. Editorial reviewers of newspapers and magazines pay more attention to the journalistic aspects of the story than to its scientific accuracy. Many science writers have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the humanities, with some training in science and technology (note that this is evolving and today’s media firms hire contributors with graduate certifications and previous experience in the job). If they possess a doctoral degree, it often lacks the postdoctoral practice that a recently-graduated student needs. And if a postdoctoral training is under the belt, the exercise of peer-reviewing (or being peer-reviewed), editing, publishing and, most importantly, reading thousands of scientific papers is just not there.

Peer Review Process Evolution Literacy

The Peer-review System of Scientific Papers

“…If, as a science writer, you feel confident with your grasping of scientific papers, think twice. You are probably wrong…”

Not only science writing is difficult, but also reading and correctly translating what the scientists communicate in their publications. Cutting-edge research is usually understood by highly specialized investigators. The best a science writer can do is to seek the original source and obtain interpretations of findings directly from the horse’s mouth. Do not rely, to write your own report, on other writers’ stories in the media. That will only magnify the error. And error magnification is the single most vicious and pervasive meme in popular science miscommunication. It is seeded and driven by the science communicator him/herself (including the press-releases from university campuses about their faculty’s discoveries) and feed-back-looped into society, creating a cycle of half truths rather than educating the public.

If, as a science writer, you feel confident with your grasping of scientific papers, think twice. You are probably wrong. Principal investigators all over the country read the same articles you claim to understand and discuss them in journal clubs with colleagues, postdocs, and graduate students. They dissect the articles to a level of extreme, yet fine criticism and end up comprehending the experiments, the math and statistics, the theoretical context and significance of the studies. If they struggle collectively in this effort, what makes you think that you have it clear?

“…It is up to you, therefore, to publish well-documented perspectives or copious shallow reports…”

In addition, writing hundreds of 300-to-600-word notes about science is not equivalent to preparing a single peer-review publication for a scientific journal. If you do investigative coverage, which might take days, weeks or months (to confirm the veracity of the info), any average science writer could surpass you in production by spawning hourly articles. It is up to you, therefore, to publish well-documented perspectives or copious shallow reports.

Your Work Is Needed

Society needs science communicators, and science writers are crucial in this respect. But be realistic, just examine the turnout of science writers at any major newspaper or magazine (info available online under “contributors”), and realize that, after a few years, the entire staff might have crossed the revolving door. Although there are still more job opportunities for science writers than for TV or documentary anchors. Writing for radio is also an alternative, yet with limited employment. Freelancing, therefore, shall be your probable route.

If you have passion for writing about science, it can be an enjoyable journey. However, here are additional tips:

  • Obtain the highest education possible and dismiss the notion to not pursue formal schooling and, instead, “learn on the job.” The latter is damaging advice, usually given by people without specialized education, or by those who benefit from your unpreparedness. If you actually get the job, you will always “learn the praxis” while on it. But you will never compensate, “on the job,” for the formal education you missed. Science, math and technology are not taught in the streets.
  • Read by far more topics than you can write about; develop a sense for science.
  • Travel internationally to scientific meetings and try to understand the cultural contexts in which science is done elsewhere; this could be difficult since we all see the planet through parochial preconceptions. However, modern science is done collaboratively and international partnerships are ubiquitous. Writing from home will keep your mind at home.
  • Write about science itself, rather than people in science. Do not celebritize individuals, but grant credit to all who deserve it.
  • Do not become enticed by the ivory-tower institutions as the sole source of science stories to report; that will turn you into a snob writer.
  • And remember that a good science tale should be good by itself, no matter its origin, but only a good story teller would make it shine.

Science writing can be art or artistic, profound and beautiful, but also commercial and prone to “likes” and “shares” in the social media, which are addicting. If you want to “go viral,” then consequential science communication might not be the path to take. It is not for you. After all, the most significant science books and articles for the general public are written by scientists (some in collaboration with reporters), not by science writers. But you can create a niche for yourself as science communicator-facilitator in a way that servers your local community and society. — EvoLiteracy © 2016.

Acknowledgment: I thank Avelina Espinosa for editorial comments and feedback to improve this article.

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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Measuring The Evolution Controversy - FourBooks - Paz-y-Mino-C & Espinosa 2016

Paz-y-Miño-C, G & Espinosa, A. 2016. Measuring the Evolution Controversy: A Numerical Analysis of Acceptance of Evolution at America’s Colleges and Universities. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, United Kingdom. ISBN (10): 1-4438-9042-1, ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-9042-7.

BOOK small format - Measuring the Evolution Controversy 2016Measuring the Evolution Controversy can be ordered directly from Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Amazon US, or Amazon CA . The publisher has made available a “VIEW EXTRACT” (in PDF), which includes the first 30-pages of the book: Cover, Table of Contents, Acknowledgments, Preface, Chapter ONE and the beginning of Chapter TWO. For PDF of color illustrations go to Image Resources of Didactic Relevance.

“The great contribution of ‘Measuring the Evolution Controversy’ is the rich content of data and analysis that asks detailed questions about the social, economic and political backgrounds of those who tend to reject evolution vs. those who accept evolution as science. Paz-y-Miño-C and Espinosa deftly analyze their data drawn from institutions of higher learning in the United States and particularly New England —which stands as a microcosm of the rest of the country, and indeed elsewhere in the world. It is their scientific approach to these issues which makes this book stand out as a uniquely original contribution.” — Niles Eldredge, PhD, Curator Emeritus of Paleontology at The American Museum of Natural History, New York.

“Pro-science activists and educators constantly bemoan the resistance to the teaching of evolution in the United States. All of us have anecdotes about encounters with the public, parents and students who are misinformed by their churches, Religious-Right groups, and creationist organizations. Paz-y-Miño-C and Espinosa present hard data that support the anecdotal evidence. They also show that although anti-evolutionism typically begins with religion, it is a multi-faceted problem that intersects with political and cultural ideologies. Gathered through careful research over a period of years, their data will enable scientists and defenders of science education to comprehend the roots of the evolution controversy and counteract resistance to evolution more strategically and effectively.”Barbara Forrest, PhD, co-author with Paul R. Gross of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (2007), and expert witness for plaintiffs, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District (2005).

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Paz-y-Mino-C_Book_Cover_Evolution_Stands_Faith_Up_JPEGPaz-y-Miño-C., G. 2013. Evolution Stands Faith Up: Reflections on Evolution’s Wars. NOVA Publishers, New York. By NOVA Publishers, New York Soft Cover. Find it at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.comAmazon UK

“The sweet spot of this collection of essays is the interface of science, history and literacy. Paz-y-Miño-C is, in essence, a champion of rationalism and a passionate defender of literacy standards. His essays deftly weave hard survey data and memorable turns of phrase with evocative imagery… While the essays in this collection are vast in coverage —from climate change to energy policy, stem cell research, vaccinations and, especially, evolution— a clear underlying theme emerges: [the author’s] goal is no less than to counter, through the lens of history and the majesty of rationalism, social forces that sanction ignorance, celebrate denial and… continue to diminish our global status in the fields of science and technology.” Jeff Podos, PhD, Professor of Biology, University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA.

“Paz-y-Miño-C  is a firm believer in evolutionary processes. He would like to see decisions made on the basis of facts, not unsupported opinion. He abhors and fears irrational thinking, especially ‘the views of those who see evil in truth and menace in the realities discovered by science.’ He marvels at the intricacy and diversity of life, and how it came about through natural selection… and is clearly frustrated by the unwillingness of so many to see the beauty and majesty in this view of the world and all that it explains.” – Jan A. Pechenik, PhD, Professor of Biology, Tufts University, USA, author of The Readable Darwin: The Origin of Species, as Edited for Modern Readers.

World Visitors to EvoLiteracy

EvoLiteracy News 02 17 2016

World Visitors to EVOLUTION LITERACY – Readers from 103 countries visited EvoLiteracy during 2015. Three in every four readers were from the United States. About one in every five visitors were from Brazil, Canada, UK, Germany, India, Ecuador, France, Australia and Spain. And one in every ten cyberworms came from 93 other countries. EvoLiteracy is growing thanks to our world friends and followers. – Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C.

UPDATE – a supplementary post to this one is available at EvoLiteray January 1, 2017.

World Visitors to Evolution Literacy 2015

There are 190+ countries in the world (member states of the United Nations). EvoLiteracy reaches half of them (52%). The image below includes flags of nations, which total 230+. We still need to reach as many nations as possible. Please share EvoLiteracy with others.

Flags of the World

Flags of 230+ nations in the world. Click on image to enlarge. Source Danilka’s Blog.

Top 25 Most Read Posts of 2015

Here are the most popular postings of 2015. I was glad to discover that the biology science videos made much of an impact, particularly among science educators. I also liked that three crucial postings about higher education (marked with an asterisk * below) were well received. To my surprise (and I thank the readers for liking it), the posting about Ecuador’s Academy of Science was ranked top 10. My personal favorite was Science Challenges Golden Age of Violin Making, and this is because I am fascinated with string instruments (classic guitars, ukuleles, charangos); I learned much while investigating the violin ancestry. But I cannot close without admitting how much pleasure gave me to see our readers liking Evolution Wars Debunk II (ranked 13th, a lucky number). Plus the most commented story was Shroud of Turin, Poor Science, and the Persistence of a Myth, which was reposted in various blogs and generated two weeks of discussions. Thanks to all for supporting EvoLiteracy. – GPC

EvoLiteracy – Biology and Science Videos

Photography – Wildlife – Fossils – Landscapes – Museums – Monuments – Cities

GPC Scientific Publications

Evolution Controversy and the Incompatibility of Science and Religion

5 GPC BioArt

EvoLiteracy News 10 26 2015 Shroud of Turin, Poor Science, and the Persistence of a Myth

A Secular Humanist’s Plea for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Life

2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Goes to Curiosity-Based Research

Antivaxxers and the Educated-Public-Herd Effect

10 Ecuador’s Academy of Sciences Earns International Recognition

11 Science Challenges Golden Age of Violin Making

12 The “Jackprot Simulation”

13 Evolution Wars: Debunk II

14 EvoLiteracy News 05 08 2015 Should scientific journals request authors to change their practices for presenting continuous data in small sample size studies?

15 The Incompatibility Hypothesis: Evolution vs Supernatural Causation

16 At The Down House: Darwin’s Home

17 The Art Of Nature: Sculptures Of Dinosaur Tracks and Traces

18 College Educated But Deeply In Debt For An Overpriced Degree *

19 New Book: Why does Evolution Matter? The Importance of Understanding Evolution

20 Imminent Collapse of Basic Science Under For-profit Model *

21 Dehumanizing Academia by Dismantling the Humanities *

22 EvoLiteracy News 03 19 2015 US Senator Ted Cruz Distorts NASA’s Mission Budget

23 Hiking among Trilobites, Ancient Whales and Dinosaurs

24 EvoLiteracy News 09 09 2015 Protisto-Biologists Flock to Seville for ECOP-ISOP Scientific Meeting

25 Reviews of Book Evolution Stands Faith Up – Reflections on Evolution’s War

The Art Of Nature: Sculptures Of Dinosaur Tracks and Traces

By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C PhD — © 2015

New England Science Public – An Initiative for the Public Understanding of Science – on Twitter @gpazymino@EvoLiteracy – Facebook – ResearchGateAcademia.edu

An Amazing Museum in the Heart of Massachusetts

[click on subtitle to be redirected to The Standard Times]

“…Edward Hitchcock’s collection of fossilized tracks and traces of dinosaurs is one of the largest in the world and the Beneski Museum of Natural History exhibits them as fine art, carved by nature… Under soft lighting, a saturation of textures emerges from or deepens into the flat rocks. The 200-million-year-old footprints are so exquisite…”

Anchisauripus and Grallator tracks - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Cast of Anchisauripus and Grallator tracks at the Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

The United States houses the world’s best exhibits of natural history. From the Smithsonian National Museum in Washington D.C., which opened in 1910 and now cares for 126 million specimens (the largest collection ever), to smaller local displays of high quality, like the University of Nebraska State Museum, in Lincoln (85,000 specimens catalogued since 1871). Its “Elephant Hall” and skeletons of the North American megafauna —which vanished 5,000-10,000 years ago— are spectacular.

Beneski Earth Sciences Building - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C 2015

Beneski Earth Sciences Building – Photo GPC

But my latest encounter with fossils just happened at the Beneski Museum of Natural History in Amherst College, where precious casts of dinosaurs’ footprints are showcased as fine art, sculptured by nature. An award-winning facility (for its architecture), the Beneski Earth Sciences Building (2006) blends a permanent exhibit for the public with a research collection of 200,000 objects available to scholars and students, and the teaching labs.

I returned to inland Massachusetts attending an invitation to present a seminar at the UMass Amherst Graduate Program in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. A privilege to reach an audience of 70, including faculty, postdocs and graduate students, and discuss with them my research on acceptance of evolution. Professor Jeffrey Podos, the host, organized a visit to the Beneski Museum during my two-day stay. What a treat.

“…More than feeding the public’s dinosauria-frenzy, the goal of the Museum is to educate about the geology and paleontology of New England by taking advantage of the fossils’ beauty…”

Although the collection of dinosaur tracks is the main treasure guarded by the Beneski Museum, its 1,700 objects on display for the general public are, not only introductory for what the visitor will experience once face-to-face with the fossilized footprints, but also cleverly distributed in three floors within the building’s brick, steel and glass structure. More than feeding the public’s dinosauria-frenzy, the goal of the Museum is to educate about the geology and paleontology of New England by taking advantage of the fossils’ beauty.

Dire wolf and Sabertoothed Cat - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Dire wolf (left) and Sabertoothed Cat (right) at the Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Beneski’s main hall welcomes the visitor with gentle, almost unpretentious bone casts of a dire wolf and a sabertoothed cat (both roamed 100,000 years ago). Behind them, however, enormous skeletons of a mammoth and a mastodon capture all the attention, to the point that the wolf, cat, and the soon-to-be-seen cave bear and Irish elk appear small in contrast to the tusks protruding out of the proboscideans‘ (elephants’) skulls.

Mammoth and Mastodon - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Mammoth and Mastodon at the Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

This floor includes two more displays. The evolution of the Equids (horses), which took place almost entirely in North America, from ancestral forms of dog-sized quadrupeds, which over 50 million years —since the Eocene— gradually increased in mass, decreased in the number of toes —from 5 to 3 and to the single middle digit on which modern horses gallop— and changed their diet from browsing to grassing, as revealed by their teeth. All visible traits in the fossil record and unequivocal evidence in support to Darwinian evolution.

“…Brontops was a browser shaped like a colossal rhino and with two blunt horns over the snout. On display, its cast shrinks the presence of its wall-of-fame, equally extinct hoofed companions…”

The Ungulate Wall of Fame - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

The Ungulate Wall of Fame, with Brontops at the bottom, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

The last prominent display in the main lobby is of ungulates. On a wall, half of their skeletons, as seen from aside, come out as 3D sculptures mounted on the silhouettes of their flesh. The largest is a Brontothere, member of a lineage that became extinct 30 million years ago, and that was remotely related to today’s rhinoceroses, which, by the way, belong to the odd-toed mammals (together with horses and tapirs). This Brontops was a browser shaped like a colossal rhino and with two blunt horns over the snout. On display, its cast shrinks the presence of its wall-of-fame, equally extinct hoofed companions.

The Museum’s tradition goes back to the foundation of Amherst College (1821) and the hire of Edward Hitchcock, who by 1825 had left the Congregational ministry to become Professor of Chemistry and Natural History. His “Ichnology Collection” of fossilized tracks and traces of dinosaurs became one of the largest in the world and the Beneski Museum exhibits casts of them in its lower level. I counted 25 by 15 steps while assessing the tracks’ gallery. It was divided in four alleys with eight parallel displaying walls. On them, and under soft lighting, a saturation of textures emerged from or deepened into the flat rocks. They were so exquisite.

“…Footprints of early Jurassic dinosaur transients were left on muddy soils along the Connecticut River Valley. The tracks dried out, hardened and rock formed over time…”

Casts of Fossilized tracks and prints B - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Casts of fossilized dinosaur tracks and prints at the Wolansky Gallery, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC – Click on image to enlarge.

Footprints of early Jurassic dinosaur transients were left on muddy soils (200 million years ago) along the Connecticut River Valley, and the geological chronology of this ancient plateau is explained in the third floor of the museum. The dino-tracks dried out, hardened and rock formed over time. Nowadays, we know they belonged to the hind limbs of bipedal species like Eubrontes (3-toes), Grallator (3-toes), Otozoum (4-toes), and the quadrupedal Anomoepus, with 5-toed forelimbs and 3-toed hind limbs.

“…As former clergyman, Hitchcock could not avoid espousing the fallacies of Natural Theology, and during his entire career attempted —and failed— to prove God’s existence in (from) nature. A dead-end path taken with his contemporaries Louis Agassiz, Richard Owen and Adam Sedgwick, who also opposed Charles Darwin’s proposal of evolution via natural selection…”

Edward Hitchcock - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Edward Hitchcock as carved on marble by artist Martin Milmore, Wolansky Gallery, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

As former clergyman, Hitchcock could not avoid espousing the fallacies of Natural Theology, and during his entire career attempted —and failed— to prove God’s existence in (from) nature. A dead-end path taken with his contemporaries Louis Agassiz (Harvard), Richard Owen (British Museum) and Adam Sedgwick (Cambridge), who also opposed Charles Darwin‘s proposal of evolution via natural selection. By 1845, Hitchcock became President of Amherst College, at times when highly educated academic administrators were still on demand. But not surprisingly, a later President, Julius Seeyle, a Reformist Pastor, prohibited, in 1877, the teaching of evolution on campus. In retrospect, Hitchcock’s Ichnology Collection —rather than his bureaucratic and creationist distractions— was destined to become the most valuable possession of the Beneski Museum.

Despite the abundance of splendid natural history exhibits in the U.S., where evolution is so creatively communicated to the public, only 40 percent of Americans —or just 60 percent of New Englanders— embrace the reality of evolution. A regrettable contradiction in a nation that continues to lead today’s most meaningful scientific discoveries. — © 2015 by Evolution Literacy all rights reserved.

Image Gallery:

Mammoth frontal view B&W - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Mammoth, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Mammoth close up - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Mammoth close up, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Mastodon frontal view B&W - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Mastodon, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Mastodon hind leg - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Mastodon hind leg, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Mastodon African Elephant Mammoth Teeth - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Mastodon, African Elephant and Mammoth Teeth, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Cave Bear - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Cave Bear, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Diceratherium - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Diceratherium, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Eryops megacephalus - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Eryops megacephalus, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Gryposaurus - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Gryposaurus, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Tyrannosaurus rex - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Tyrannosaurus rex, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Tyrannosaurus rex upper jaw - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Tyrannosaurus rex, maxilla or upper jaw, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Tyrannosaurus rex lower jaw - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Tyrannosaurus rex, lower jaw, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Triceratops - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Triceratops, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Diplodocus longus - limb - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Diplodocus longus – limb, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Gastropod fossils - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Gastropods in the fossil invertebrate collection, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Ammonites - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Ammonites parkinsoni, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Promicroceras - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Promicroceras, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Clypeaster - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Clypeaster, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Phacops - trilobite - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Phacops – trilobite, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Hominid micro exhibit lateral view - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Hominid micro exhibit lateral view, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Hominid micro exhibit front view - Photo G-Paz-y-Mino-C Beneski Museum 2015

Hominid micro exhibit front view, Beneski Museum of Natural History – Photo GPC

Related Articles:

Hiking Among Trilobites, Ancient Whales and Dinosaurs

On Whales And A Whaling Museum

Boston’s Hayden Planetarium carries standard of scientific study

Suggested Readings: click on image for open access PDFs

Journal Book Covers Paz-y-Mino-C Espinosa Articles

 

2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Goes to Curiosity-Based Research

By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C PhD — © 2015

New England Science Public – An Initiative for the Public Understanding of Science – on Twitter @gpazymino@EvoLiteracy – Facebook – ResearchGateAcademia.edu

Nobel Prize in Chemistry Goes to Curiosity-Based Research

[click on subtitle to be redirected to The Standard Times]

“…Mutations are essential to evolutionary change; they provide the genetic variability that lineages of organisms need to persist over the eons. At the same time, evolution has equipped our cells with repairing mechanisms to fix, edit DNA errors that can be detrimental…”

If completely stretched into a single, long molecular chain, the DNA of a human cell would measure about two meters. During our lifetimes, our bodies would replicate enough DNA that, theoretically, it could be extended from Earth to the Sun, and back, 250 times. Ample opportunities to accumulate 37 trillion mutations while re-copying the genetic material.

D - DNA Repair image by Tom Ellenberger

DNA-repair, image by Tom Ellenberger, Washington University in St. Louis.

Yet, evolution has equipped our cells with repairing mechanisms to fix, edit such DNA errors. And this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to Tomas Lindahl (Sweden), Aziz Sancar (Turkey) and Paul Modrich (US) precisely for discovering and characterizing –independently— these processes.

What I admire most in these investigators is their obsessive pursue of knowledge during a vigorous exploration of the intimacy of our inner molecules. As Modrich puts it “curiosity-based research is so important; you never know where it is going to lead.” And it did lead them from almost extraneous observations of the harmful effects of UV-light on the DNA of bacteria to –four decades later— its applications to our current understanding of cancer, neuro-degenerative disorders and ageing. Another lesson for today’s academic administrators infatuated with worshiping the science-for-profit model.

All began in the 1920s when American geneticist Hermann Muller (Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, 1946) found that X-rays could harm bacterial cells. By the 1940s, it was known to scientists that UV-light also had mutagenic effects on most cells. Interestingly, despite radiation-induced damage in bacteria, laboratory colonies continued to persist, which led researchers to infer that these organisms had repair-mechanisms to reinstate the internal chemistry. In 1944, DNA was recognized as the material of heredity and UV-light as a deteriorating agent of its structure.

“…What I admire most in these investigators is their obsessive pursue of knowledge during a vigorous exploration of the intimacy of our inner molecules… [Their] story only grows in beauty…”

The first breakthrough in DNA-repair mechanisms was unexpected: Albert Kelner (US) discovered that, in response to UV-induced cellular damage, bacterial enzymes could reverse the process by using –surprisingly— light, and capturing its energy-particles (photons), which excite electrons in the enzymes’ functional parts, thus jump-starting their repairing engines. The process was termed photo-reactivation and the enzymes photolyases. The story only grows in beauty.

Keep in mind that DNA is built of four “bases,” called adenine A, guanine G, cytosine C and thymine T. Under ordinary circumstances, A always pairs with T, and G with C, hence forming the steps of the DNA’s double helix, which is usually depicted as a staircase. In 19741976, Tomas Lindahl studied a frequent mutation in which G, rather than pairing with C (as G-C), had, as partner, the base U (uracil), a constituent of other molecules in the cell. Why? C and U are very similar, but when C loses some of its parts, due to predictable chemical contingencies, it can resemble U more closely. Thus DNA would temporarily accept the pairing G-U, but the cell would fix it by enzymatically chopping off U and restoring the correct coupling G-C. And Lindahl mapped, so elegantly, this entire process, which was labeled single-base excision repair. Later, it became part of the cell’s toolbox for DNA repair mechanisms, of which numerous have been described.

A - Base Excision Repair

Illustration: Johan Jarnestad – The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (click to enlarge).

In a separate study, Aziz Sancar experimentally manipulated with UV-light-induced mutations and characterized how the cell could fix errors via an alternative pathway, termed multiple-base excision repair, which included cutting off several bases, not only one, as described by Lindahl. Sancar knew that UV-light could make T behave strangely and pair with its homologue (T-T), rather than with A, as it normally does (T-A).

Let us imagine two parallel rows of DNA sequence in which the top one is G,C,T,T,C,G. Its complementary, bottom, pairing (following the rule A-T and G-C) would be C,G,A,A,G,C. However, UV-light damage can induce the Ts on the top row to pair with each other, as T-T, rather than with their corresponding As in the bottom, as T-A and T-A. Thus creating a bump loop on the top row (T-T), leaving the As in the bottom unpaired.

In 1983, Sancar plotted the entire mechanism of repair of the T-T mutation, which included multiple enzymes responsible for accurately cutting and restoring 12 bases in the top row of DNA, five prior and five post T-T. An amazing work.

B - Nucleotide Excision Repair

Illustration: Johan Jarnestad – The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (click to enlarge).

By 1989, Paul Modrich had unveiled a third mechanism, which involved the fixing of DNA sequence mismatches, which randomly emerge during cell divisions. A process called DNA mismatch repair. It included even larger stretches (beyond 12 bases) of folded DNA, which specific enzymes would cut and restore to the correct sequence (watch VIDEO).

C - Mismatch Repair

Illustration: Johan Jarnestad – The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (click to enlarge).

What is the value of curiosity-driven research? Because cancer, neuro-degeneration and ageing start with DNA damage, almost all we understand about them –including drug treatment— relies on the basic science of DNA repair mechanisms. — © 2015 by Evolution Literacy all rights reserved.

E - DNA Repair cartoon

DNA Repair during evolution… Image from public domain Google Images

Suggested Readings:

Historical paper by Tomas Lindahl published in Nature 1993: Instability and decay of the primary structure of DNA.

Press Release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences: the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Scientific Background on the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Mechanistic Studies of DNA Repair, compiled by the Class for Chemistry of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Popular Science Background: DNA Repair – Providing Chemical Stability for Life.

History of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1901 – 2015.

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Evolution Stands Faith Up: Reflections on Evolution’s Wars By NOVA Publishers, New York Soft Cover. Find it at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.comAmazon UK.

Paz-y-Mino-C_Book_Cover_Evolution_Stands_Faith_Up_JPEG

“This is an inspiring, readable collection of essays of reflective value to everyone. Paz-y-Miño-C points to the vain attempt by many to try and accommodate scientific rationalism with supernatural beliefs. They are simply incompatible. The author has a marvelously eloquent style of writing, full of inspiring metaphors and lateral observations that reinforce connections to the foundations of scientific inquiry and to biological evolution in particular. These thoughtful essays… are inspiring… [and] help clear the fog in our communities and arm our neighbors [with arguments] against theistic anti-science, medical quackery and other irrational nonsense.” – Greg M. Stott, PhD, Geoscientist with the Ontario Geological Survey, Canada.

“Paz-y-Miño-C doesn’t ask the reader to ‘believe’ in evolution. He provides overwhelming evidence, clearly written, that shows how scientific inquiry leads to important and practical results, while superstition and faith lead nowhere. Although we may not be able to reason someone out of what they were never reasoned into, the author presents a roadmap for those whose minds are open to discover the wonders and beauty of science.” – Herb Silverman, PhD, author of Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.

“Too many of our colleagues work so hard to appear open minded that their brains seem to have fallen out. When they teach our students that they can pick and choose when to be logical, critical thinkers, they are modeling the type of reasoning that leads to the politics of convenience and its bridesmaids: racism, sexism, and the whole host of xenophobias. Paz-y-Miño-C is a prolific essayist, he does not pull any punches, but when he cuts to the core of an argument, he does it with the flare of a true artist.” – Stan Braude, PhD, Professor of Practice in Biology, Washington University in St. Louis, USA.

College Educated But Deeply In Debt For An Overpriced Degree

By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C PhD — © 2015

New England Science Public – An Initiative for the Public Understanding of Science – on Twitter @gpazymino@EvoLiteracy – Facebook  ResearchGateAcademia.edu

College Educated, But Deeply In Debt For An Overpriced Degree

[click on subtitle to be redirected to The Standard Times]

Ivory Tower 2015

“The breakdown of the Ivory Tower is figurative in the architectonic sense, but not in the intellectual. Education does not need to be cheap, just affordable, sincere. Not vibrant entertainment.” – GPC

“…The race among higher-ed campuses to capture the funds available to students for education is self inflicted, a textbook example of out of control free market competition, in which education is a commodity, rather than a priceless investment in culture, the ultimate possession of a nation…”

The current for-profit model of higher education in America is destined to crash. Its failure will injure primarily the students, today’s borrowers of $1.19 trillion. What for? Mostly tuition and collateral life expenses in exchange for an overpriced degree.

During the past three decades the cost of college has grown 1,120 percent, doubling health care (600 percent), and more than quintupling the expenses of food (200 percent higher since 1978). A reality aired in Ivory Tower, the 2014 documentary by Andrew Rossi on how “the very concept of the institution of higher-learning is about to be broken.”

Price Increases Since 1978 Ivory Tower Evolution Literacy

Source: Ivory Tower 2014 – Documentary by Andrew Rossi

“…education is expensive and its alternative, ignorance, would be more damaging in the long term…”

If the quality of higher education had improved parallel to its fees, then the argument for an overcharged college certificate would be unsound. Now, education is expensive and its alternative, ignorance, would be more damaging in the long term. But, how expensive should education be to justify its actual cost?

Total Debt Balance 2015 Evolution Literacy

By 2015, the total debt balance in the U.S. reached $11.85 trillion; 69 percent of it corresponded to mortgages; 10 percent to student loans; and the remaining amount to auto, credit cards, and revolving loans. Note how from 2003 to 2015 student loans (red bars) grew significantly in respect to other types of loans. Image source: Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, May 2015.

The race among higher-ed campuses to capture the funds available to students for education is self inflicted, a textbook example of out of control free market competition, in which education is a commodity, rather than a priceless investment in culture, the ultimate possession of a nation.

About 40 million Americans are borrowers of student loans, two million of them currently owing at least $100,000. But the situation is complex and a distinction must be made between undergraduate and graduate student loans.

Ivory Tower Evolution Literacy 2015“…the assumption has been that post-graduate degree holders shall be reliable payers, and not flock toward debt-forgiveness programs. A risky supposition…” 

Sixty percent of the $1.19 trillion debt belongs to the undergraduate students. The technicality here is that the remaining 40 percent of the balance corresponds to 14 percent of the borrowers, who are graduate students. Thus, the per capita obligation is much higher for the latter. In either case, the responsibility to pay back is substantial, although the assumption has been that post-graduate degree holders shall be reliable payers, and not flock toward debt-forgiveness programs. A risky supposition considering that since 2007, when such initiatives started, additional rescue plans emerged, including President Obama’s 2012 Pay As You Earn.

The forgiveness paths facilitate government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector to hire debt-borrowers to work for a reduced salary and, in return, benefit society by taking public-service roles during a prearranged period. Other alternatives, like the President’s debt relief law, include the capping of monthly payments at 10-15 percent of the borrower’s discretionary income, thus lessening the stress while carrying the loan over time.

“…the national student debt is… a time bomb… comparable to the mortgage transactions of the 2000s, which benefitted financiers but turned unmanageable for home-owners wannabes…”

Despite these damage control policies, the national student debt is, in foresight, a time bomb. Its societal sequels will unveil in a few years. As The Wall Street Journal characterizes it: “offering unlimited loans to students, with the prospect of forgiveness, creates a moral hazard by allowing borrowers to amass debts they have little hope or intention of repaying, all while enriching institutions and leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab.” Sounds comparable to the mortgage transactions of the 2000s, which benefitted financiers but turned unmanageable for home-owners wannabes.

Percent of Balance Delinquent by Loan Type 2015

By 2015, student loans reached the highest percent of balance 90+ days delinquency in contrast to credit card, mortgage, auto loan and revolving loans. In essence, 10+ percent of student borrowers were not repaying. Image source: Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, May 2015.

And this situation is central to the looming collapse of our country’s higher education, the repercussion of handling colleges and universities like corporations. Statistics from the New America Education Policy Program —which uses information from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Postsecondary Student Aid Studies— are telling:

In 2004, the typical borrower (combined graduate and undergraduate) owed $40,000 upon graduation (undergrads $20,000). In 2012, the latest data processed by NAEPP, the standard student borrower owed $57,000 (undergrads $25,000). These are median values, which convey fractional information: one in every ten borrowers owed $153,000 once graduated.

These figures varied according to field of expertise and as per typical borrower: $161,000 among those graduating from the medical and health sciences, $140,000 from law school, $58,000 from a master of arts program, $50,000 from a master of science or education, and $42,000 from a master in business administration.

Share of Graduate Degrees NAEPP 2014 Evolution Literacy

Typical debt of borrowers (share of graduate degrees). Source: New America Education Policy Program, March 2014.

Among the in-debt, the typical monthly payment, at a 6 percent interest rate and 15-year repayment term, was: $1,365 among graduates from the medical and health sciences, $1,187 from law school, $494 from the arts, $429 from science or education, and $354 from business administration (values adjusted to 2012).

“…The present generation of student borrowers is fated to limited socio-economic mobility, to be trapped in an unsustainable system in which, as customers, they demand satisfaction…”

On the administrators’ side, in contrast, the finances have been blooming. The top ten U.S. public college presidents‘ earned, in 2013-2014, from $1.5 million to $745,000, while their top five counterparts at private colleges made from $7.1 to $1.8 million in 2012.

Highest Paid Presidents Public Private Colleges US Evolution Literacy

Top: highest paid Presidents at public colleges in the United States. — Bottom: highest paid Presidents at private colleges (smaller numbers in histogram = base pay salaries). Data from The Chronicles of Higher Education (see summarized list in Business Insider).

The breakdown of the Ivory Tower is figurative in the architectonic sense, but not in the intellectual. The present generation of student borrowers is fated to limited socio-economic mobility, to be trapped in an unsustainable system in which, as customers, they demand satisfaction, rather than proper schooling.

Education does not need to be cheap, just affordable, sincere. Not vibrant entertainment.

— © 2015 by Evolution Literacy all rights reserved.

Student Debt by Donkey Hotey

Illustration by Donkey Hotey

Related Articles:

Imminent Collapse of Basic Science Under For-profit Model

Dehumanizing Academia by Dismantling the Humanities

Fragmentary Truths and the Intellectual Imbalance in Academia

Evolution Illiteracy at America’s Colleges and Universities

Massachusetts Gets an A- in Science Standards

*  *  *  *  *     *  *  *  *  *     *  *  *  *  *

Evolution Stands Faith Up: Reflections on Evolution’s Wars By NOVA Publishers, New York Soft Cover. Find it at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.comAmazon UK.

Paz-y-Mino-C_Book_Cover_Evolution_Stands_Faith_Up_JPEG

“This is an inspiring, readable collection of essays of reflective value to everyone. Paz-y-Miño-C points to the vain attempt by many to try and accommodate scientific rationalism with supernatural beliefs. They are simply incompatible. The author has a marvelously eloquent style of writing, full of inspiring metaphors and lateral observations that reinforce connections to the foundations of scientific inquiry and to biological evolution in particular. These thoughtful essays… are inspiring… [and] help clear the fog in our communities and arm our neighbors [with arguments] against theistic anti-science, medical quackery and other irrational nonsense.” – Greg M. Stott, PhD, Geoscientist with the Ontario Geological Survey, Canada.

“Paz-y-Miño-C doesn’t ask the reader to ‘believe’ in evolution. He provides overwhelming evidence, clearly written, that shows how scientific inquiry leads to important and practical results, while superstition and faith lead nowhere. Although we may not be able to reason someone out of what they were never reasoned into, the author presents a roadmap for those whose minds are open to discover the wonders and beauty of science.” – Herb Silverman, PhD, author of Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.

“Too many of our colleagues work so hard to appear open minded that their brains seem to have fallen out. When they teach our students that they can pick and choose when to be logical, critical thinkers, they are modeling the type of reasoning that leads to the politics of convenience and its bridesmaids: racism, sexism, and the whole host of xenophobias. Paz-y-Miño-C is a prolific essayist, he does not pull any punches, but when he cuts to the core of an argument, he does it with the flare of a true artist.” – Stan Braude, PhD, Professor of Practice in Biology, Washington University in St. Louis, USA.

A Secular Humanist’s Plea for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Life

By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C PhD — © 2015

New England Science Public – An Initiative for the Public Understanding of Science – on Twitter @EvoLiteracy@gpazyminoResearchGateAcademia.edu

A Humanist’s Plea for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Life

[click on subtitle to be redirected to The Standard Times]

“…the Tsarnaev brothers were internet-self-taught jihadi-aspirants, erratic online consumers of radical Islam; no less dangerous or accountable. But obviously their dysfunctional upbringing, combined with individual failures, made them prone to recruit each other and act criminally… Even so, “Jahar” belongs more in jail than in the execution chamber… Incarceration counters more rationally [his] alleged desire to die as martyr… And, as a humanist, I plea for a life.”

Jahar Tsarnaev illustration by Jane Flavell Collins

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Court, Boston; illustration by Jane Flavell Collins

As a secular humanist, I oppose the death penalty, but have no sympathy for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s self-inflicted condition in which his execution is probable. After all, a jury found him guilty of killing three people and injuring 260 when he and his brother, Tamerlan, deliberately detonated pressure-cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon of 2013. And guilty was Dzhokhar found on 30 counts, 65 offenses, including the murder of an MIT Officer. Still, as a college educator, another element in my plea, I think that the juvenile, subordinate-sibling and neither-so-bright Dzhokhar deserves imprisonment rather than death. Incarceration counters more rationally Dzhokhar’s alleged desire to die —in his mind— as martyr.

I was in North Carolina, at Duke University, attending an academic event at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, when I learned that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (the name was not initially released), student at UMass Dartmouth, had been identified as one of the marathon bombers, and that the Tsarnaev brothers were being hunted by the police. The previous day, April 18, I had met with colleagues at NESCent and, although our dialog was mostly about the upcoming “Evolution Education and the Underserved Catalysis Meeting,” sponsored by the National Science Foundation, we were all troubled by the events in Boston.

Whit Hat and Black Hat Suspects as per the FBI

“White Hat” and “Black Hat” subjects, as depicted by the FBI. Soon after detonating pressure-cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon, on April 15, 2013, the Tsarnaev brothers (Dzhokhar and Tamerlan) were being hunted by the police.

The following morning, when I returned to our sessions at NESCent, a conspicuous silence awaited: almost everyone was devouring the news about the Tsarnaevs. More than their identities, their faces and actions had been exposed on TV. I broke the ice by sharing that I had also become aware that one of the suspects (“white hat,” as identified by the FBI in the surveillance videos) was a student at my own campus —I never knew him. Stillness and discomfort continued as we gradually drifted toward the purpose of our panel: promote the participation of minorities in science careers, specifically evolutionary biology.

I must admit that I remained multitasking for two consecutive days: contributing to the NESCentNSF discussions and, simultaneously, checking emails from UMass Dartmouth and monitoring the media. Snapshots of the “white-” and “black-hat subjects” plus visuals of the UMassD grounds appeared everywhere.

Jahar Tsarnaev RollingStone MagazineThe momentary embarrassment that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev caused me was, of course, minuscule in contrast to the pain and suffering he and his brother inflicted on people, families, the majestic city of Boston and the country that homed the Chechen-Avar-Tsarnaev kin of refugees. Overnight, the brothers, particularly Dzhokhar, became front-page nourishment —in a dreadful manner— for the world’s news outlets. By August 2013, Rolling Stone magazine doubled its sales after featuring “Jahar” on its cover; Adweek awarded it “Hottest Magazine Cover of The Year.”

Dzhokhar’s deplorable conduct, prior and post the marathon’s blasts, will certainly influence the jury’s final judgment of his wicked psyche: capital punishment or confinement. Yet, justice can be served by not vanishing the quasi-adolescent killer, and by rather relying on the legal system itself to convey a message —human rights, even for brutal felons— and teach a lesson —ultimate civility. Lock him up, as pleaded by some of the victims’ families, although not all, nor a majority.

Bruce Hoffman, Director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, characterized the Tsarnaev brothers as “jihadi autodidacts,” and this assessment might be accurate. In fact, out of the 30 counts in which Dzhokhar was found responsible, including conspiracy to use and possession of a weapon of mass destruction (pressure cookers and pipe bombs), possession and use of a firearm, bombing of a place of public use, conspiracy to and malicious destruction of public property, carjacking, and violent crime (murder), none related to militant participation in organized domestic or international terrorism. Largely, the Tsarnaev brothers were internet-self-taught jihadi-aspirants, erratic online consumers of radical Islam [self radicalized]; no less dangerous or accountable. But obviously their dysfunctional upbringing, combined with individual failures, made them prone to recruit each other and act criminally.

Illustration of Jahar Tsarnaev by Josie Jammet The Boston Globe

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, illustration by Josie Jammet (click on image to enlarge). “Jahar didn’t try very hard to conceal his drug-dealing, keeping a scale in his dorm room desk and bagging marijuana with the door open” (Credit “The Fall of the House of Tsarnaev“)

Again, I have no sympathy for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Before his explosive act in Boston, he was indeed a 19-year-old petty law offender, with no deep political or religious ideology, who probably did not deserve to be in a university, although his high school years seem to have been more promising (his teachers and wrestling-team coach remember him fondly). But, in college, he was a “high-volume pot dealer” (weekly profit $1,000) as depicted by The Boston Globe’s “The Fall of the House of Tsarnaev,” detached from studying, indolent, borrower of a pistol from his best buddy (the very Ruger P95 9mm semiautomatic co-used with Tamerlan to kill Officer Sean Collier), which Dzhokhar needed to “rip” his weed customers.

Even so, “Jahar” belongs more in jail than in the execution chamber. And, as a humanist, I plea for a life. — © 2015 by Evolution Literacy all rights reserved.

Illustration of Boston Marathon Trial by Jane Collins

Judge George O’Toole speaks during the penalty phase of the trial of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – Illustration by Jane Flavell CollinsBoston com

Resources: videos and in-depth analyses

Boston Marathon Bombings – History Channel

Inside the Hunt for the Boston Bombers – National Geographic

Manhunt Boston Bombers – NOVA PBS

Timeline of the bombings, manhunt and aftermath – CNN

Boston Marathon Bombing Trial – The Boston Globe Metro

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Has the Most Ferocious Lawyer in America Defending Him – Vanity Fair Law and Order

*  *  *  *  *      *  *  *  *  *     *  *  *  *  *

Evolution Stands Faith Up: Reflections on Evolution’s Wars By NOVA Publishers, New York Soft Cover. Find it at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.comAmazon UK.

Paz-y-Mino-C_Book_Cover_Evolution_Stands_Faith_Up_JPEG“This is an inspiring, readable collection of essays of reflective value to everyone. Paz-y-Miño-C points to the vain attempt by many to try and accommodate scientific rationalism with supernatural beliefs. They are simply incompatible. The author has a marvelously eloquent style of writing, full of inspiring metaphors and lateral observations that reinforce connections to the foundations of scientific inquiry and to biological evolution in particular. These thoughtful essays… are inspiring… [and] help clear the fog in our communities and arm our neighbors [with arguments] against theistic anti-science, medical quackery and other irrational nonsense.” – Greg M. Stott, PhD, Geoscientist with the Ontario Geological Survey, Canada.

“Paz-y-Miño-C doesn’t ask the reader to ‘believe’ in evolution. He provides overwhelming evidence, clearly written, that shows how scientific inquiry leads to important and practical results, while superstition and faith lead nowhere. Although we may not be able to reason someone out of what they were never reasoned into, the author presents a roadmap for those whose minds are open to discover the wonders and beauty of science.” – Herb Silverman, PhD, author of Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt. — READ MORE at EvoLiteracy Mini Reviews.

Antivaxxers and the Educated-Public-Herd Effect

By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C PhD — © 2015 with updates during 2016, 2017.

New England Science Public – An Initiative for the Public Understanding of Science – on Twitter @EvoLiteracy@gpazyminoResearchGateAcademia.edu

Antivaxxers will only Succumb to Educated Public

[click on subtitle to be redirected to The Standard Times]

“…It is a risky bet… to attempt to replicate the antivaxxer-meme and infect the populous with the reckless idea that we should refuse, as a matter of self-determination and individual freedom principles, to ‘put unnatural substances [vaccines] in our bodies,’ or, worse, continue to link vaccinations to ‘mental retardation and autism in children,’ a fabricated story long ago debunked by science… [The] anti-science gang will only succumb to a robust ‘educated-public-herd effect.’”

Anti-vaccination views can spread quite infectiously in society, mimicking the contagious nature of pathogens. But a “culturally immune” community —here I mean aware of the fundamentals about how vaccines work— can remain forever-protected from, or, at least, resistant to antivaxxer-memes.

The_Selfish_Gene

The Selfish Gene 1st Edition (1976)

Not only good ideas, but also ill ones, like the opposition to inoculations, can self-replicate, mutate analogously to a gene, and disseminate in a population. Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme,” in The Selfish Gene (1976), to refer to such units of information/ideas sharing, although his examples were not about antivaxxers (people who nowadays battle against vaccines on pseudo-science grounds, religion, or consensus-ignorance —my emphasis) but rather illustrated how catchphrases, fashion or melodies emerged and settled in culture. Dawkins wrote: “we need a name for [this kind of] replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene.’ I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.”

The word meme itself passed around as a replicator among academics, it became highly scrutinized, as well as valued, and an entire field of study, memetics, was born in the 1980s. Sadly, by 2005, the Journal Memetics: Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, the peer-reviewed forum for scholarly articles, published its last issue. JM became dormant more than extinct.

The metaphorical merit of the meme concept was both its major strength (for suggesting a didactic model to explain cultural information copying from one mind to another) and weakness (for not attaining consensus in the scientific community due to its subjectivity and the challenge to measure it). However, Dawkins and later “memeticists” (specialists in memetics) did manage to keep alive the meme debate for decades, and there is no indication that the meme hypothesis is irrelevant to modern science. After all, “cultural entities” are certainly hosted in brains, mimicked, subject to variation, competition for survival, and inheritance. Good, with-adaptive-value memes stick around, bad ones are prone to vanishing, but not without first instigating considerable damage.

Herd Immunity

Source: Illustration by Autumn Mariano

But, let us go back to antivaccination memes and their harmful makeup. As long as the number of vaccinated individuals in a population overwhelms the amount of unvaccinated, the “herd-immunity effect” will continue to protect those who have not yet developed defenses. The rule is mathematically simple: the probability of infection —and death— increases when the number of unvaccinated people augments. In fact, those lacking vaccine-induced immunity to smallpox, rubella, polio, pertussis, mumps, measles or diphtheria can “free-ride” in society only when the vast majority of the population has been vaccinated at an average rate of 83-88 percent, depending on the disease. That is perhaps all a nation needs to understand to get the shots!

But if the “public good” argument is no antidote for antivaxxer-poison, here I offer a single, yet historically gruesome example that illustrates why vaccinations have become required in many countries: smallpox, the sole predator of 300 to 500 million people during the 20th century, and possibly of 20 million North-, Central- and South-American natives after the Europeans’ arrived —from the Caribbean— in the 1520s.

Smallpox is caused by the variola virus, which transferred from wild or domesticated animals to Sub-Saharan humans, at least 3,000 years ago. Variola behaves like a “hit and run” pathogen, incessantly moving to the next target. Once it enters via inhalation the airway passages of the host’s lungs, it incubates for one or two weeks in lymphatic ganglia and disseminates to multiple organs. The patient becomes symptomatic when lacerations or blisters appear in the skin and endothelial membranes (inside the mouth, nose and throat), combined with fatigue, fever, forehead ache, overall muscle soreness and joint pain, nausea and vomiting. Ineffective immune response leads to death in 1-2 days. Smallpox is fatal in up to 30 percent of cases.

Smallpox Virus Images Evolution Literacy

Smallpox virus (click on image to be redirected to source:  gettyimages)

The key point is that when the virus runs out of “fresh prey,” it dies out, and this makes it vulnerable to vaccines. Via safe inoculations of laboratory-engineered-strains of the virus, scientists can “trick” the immune system to generate antibodies against variola. Relying on this procedure, smallpox was eradicated in the late 1970s. And by vaccinating most infants, in urban and rural areas worldwide, we all gradually built the herd-immunity effect on which the unvaccinated can freely —but unsafely— ride.

It is a risky bet, of course, to attempt to replicate the antivaxxer-meme and infect the populous with the reckless notion that we should refuse, as a matter of self-determination and individual freedom principles, to “put unnatural substances in our bodies,” or, worse, continue to link vaccinations to “mental retardation and autism in children,” a fabricated story long ago debunked by science (links to references provided below).

Lethal No-Injection Cartoon Evolution Literacy

Lethal Injection vs. Lethal Non-injection

Although non-adaptive memes are destined to disappear in the milieu of great-versus-wicked ideas, the human cost, in health and lives, during the path to eradicating the anti-vaccination movement, will be regrettably painful. Still new diseases will emerge in the future, old ones resurrect, while competent physicians try to manage them in crowded environments. But the anti-science gang will only succumb to a robust “educated-public-herd effect.” — © 2015 by EvoLiteracy, with updates during 2016 and 2017, all rights reserved.

Scientific papers rejecting the alleged association between childhood vaccines and autism, and between maternal immunization and autism (source PLoS)

Watch 4:34 min excellent video on “How We Conquered the Deadly Smallpox Virus”

 

Watch 8:47 min video “Just for Hits” by Richard Dawkins (2013)

 

And another video on “Should you get vaccinated?” by Piled Higher and Deeper PHD Comics 

 

national-average-vaccinations-usa

A - Measles Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

Measles vaccination and GDP 2014 The Economist - Evolution Literacy

B - Hepatitis-A Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

C - Mumps Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

D - Pertussis Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

E - Polio Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

F - Smallpox Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

G - Rubella Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

Additional Readings and Resources 

Memetics publications on the web.

Autism’s fight for facts: A voice for science. Convinced by the evidence that vaccines do not cause autism, Alison Singer started a research foundation that pledges to put science first. Nature 479, 28-30 ( 02 November 2011 ).

CDC AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDER. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. CDC is committed to continuing to provide essential data on ASD, search for factors that put children at risk for ASD and possible causes, and develop resources that help identify children with ASD as early as possible.

Learn about the latest Ebola research in Science Magazine.

Reduced vaccination and the risk of measles and other childhood infections post-Ebola, also in Science Magazine.

How the Anti-Vaxxers Are Winning – The New York Times

Watch how the measles outbreak spreads when kids get vaccinated – and when they don’t – The Guardian

The Next Pandemic? – The Economist

Autism and Vaccines

Source: The Scientific Facts About Autism and Vaccines nowsourcing.com

support-to-vaccinations-by-religious-group-and-ethnicity-us-pew-2016

Support to Vaccinations by Religious Group and Ethnicity United States – Pew 2016

Cartoons

Anti Vaccines Cartoons Evolution Literay