Sunday, May 29, 2011

Gender Bias in Science

Like any opinionated adult, I'm drawn to gender bias discussions like a moth to a flame.

Two interesting articles came across my desk a while back. Why Can't a Woman Be More Like A Man? by Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute and Women in science -- passion and prejudice, by Nobel Prize Winner Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, in Current Biology.

Both are carefully reasoned articles. Both attempt to dissect the issues surrounding gender bias in science. I have a left wing knee jerk liberal bias against anything that comes out of the AEI and a corresponding pro bias against anything a Nobel Prize Laureate has to say. The AEI article has been represented as anti-women and the Current Biology article as pro-women. What's interesting to me is how similar both articles are.

Both articles make the assertion that top drawer science is an obsessive occupation, often consuming personal resources that would otherwise go to home and family regardless of the scientist's sex. Both articles suggest there is, in part, a biological component in vocation choice of women and men. Both articles suggest that vocation choice is at root the real reason women are under represented in science-- to quote the AEI article quoting Hillary Clinton, "women comprise 43% of the workforce but only 23% of scientists and engineers". The AEI article points out that while women now occupy the majority position in undergraduate and graduate schools and are the majority of graduated Ph.D's, the majority of those Ph.D's are not in "hard" science: physics, engineering, etc. Life sciences are grouped outside of "hard" sciences-- something I don't understand. There's a lot of physics in biochemistry.

The conclusion of the Current Biology article is that we are not yet "at a stage where women have the same opportunities as men to turn their passion for science into a successful career". The conclusion of the AEI article is against using a Title IX approach to science, saying "Will an academic science that is quota-driven, gender-balanced, cooperative rather than competitive and less time-consuming produce anything like [current] results?"

I suspect there is some gender bias in science. Overcoming such things takes a generational time frame and not a political time frame. The generation time of science is long with professors often teaching or directing well into their seventies or eighties. This means if you have a student that gets his Ph.D in 1973 (the year Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard finished her thesis), with all of the sexism at the time, it's highly likely the resulting professor will be running his own lab or directing an institution thirty-five years later. Or, as is just as likely, the student gets his Ph.D in 1959 at age 30, he'll be 79 in 2008. I know several researches at or around that age.

This means that for sexism to change in science it is not sufficient to wait around for the previous generation to die off. Unlike politicians and CEOs, scientists last. The scientific governing structure must change itself.

Which it has. The AIE article points out that forty years ago that 23% number was 4%-- a six fold improvement.

Are there biases against women in science? Absolutely, as demonstrated by the attitudes espoused by Larry Summers when, as President of Harvard University, he suggested one reason for the disparity between men and women in science was a difference in intelligence. One can ask why the President of Harvard University might think this was a wise and expedient thing to say regardless of whether he believed it-- perhaps Summers is in the lower intelligence group. It is interesting to note that both Summers and Nüsslein-Volhard have said that intelligence is not the deciding factor.

For my own part, I expect there is a cognitive difference between men and women-- note I said cognition and not intelligence. If you look at hunter-gatherer cultures there is a difference in roles. If you look at chimps, there's a difference in roles. There's enough selection in chimps to generate a difference in body size, for example. It's unreasonable to expect that evolution of cognition isn't open to natural selection as any other phenotypic trait.

It is interesting that when one examines the animal models of cognition-- chimps-- there's not much cognitive difference shown between males and females except a suggestion that females are smarter than males. But how significant could that be?

Regardless of the possibility of cognitive differences, and this is the important part so don't look away, they are not relevant to modern society. By "modern society" I mean when we left hunter gatherer cultures and moved to agriculture. Very few hunter gatherer qualities are useful today. Like all evolutionary systems, we've taken what we used for one purpose and reuse it in a new context. Therefore, any cognitive differences between men and women that arose a hundred thousand years ago are irrelevant in the society we live in now. Sure, women probably think differently than men. They've had different selection pressures put on them.

So what? Men and women today both have to solve completely new problems that have no connection to the problems those purported cognitive differences evolved to solve. The cognitive differences are just not relevant.

Differences in bodies-- i.e., women bear and nurse children and men don't-- are more significant.

Though the bias undoubtedly exists, I'm loathe to attack the issue in a political way. Title IX has opened sports to a lot of girls-- an unequivocally good thing. But by the Law of Unintended Consequences, it also killed a lot of sports programs. For example, take a Big 10 University sports program that is required match sports funds with its female students. Is it going to reduce the football program? Hm. Biggest revenue source for the University. Biggest draw for alumni donations. I don't think so. Then, where's the money come from? It comes from lesser men's programs. This isn't right or good but that's the way it is in the Land of the Brave and the Home of the Free. Money talks.

Not to mention in the Land of the Brave and the Home of the Free, where money talks, raising children is penalized since it does not directly create wages. As long as that's true we're going to have problems. Why not pay women (or families) to rear children? It is by far the most important job in the country. Yet we regularly penalize those that do it. The tax incentive method we now employ is embarrassingly inadequate.

But I digress.

Frankly, I don't care all that much about sports programs. I think Americans are far too sports conscious at the cost of academic programs. Not so about science. This country has a love/hate relationship with science. We love science when it's spiffy and neat and does good things for us. We hate science when it comes up with things that poke at our preconceptions. Note the issues with evolution and global warming. To inject forced quotas into a system that is already beleaguered is likely a recipe for disaster.

I have no clear answer at to any solution to bias. Women bear and largely rear our children. It's unlikely we're able to completely abandon our mammalian biology. Therefore, it's unlikely we're ever going to have complete numerical parity in any professions. There is always going to be a significant population of women that would prefer to (or are forced to) engage in the rearing of their children instead of attacking tough scientific problems. There are always going to be fewer men than women that would have the same preference. I have no idea where the percentages fall once all the other impediments are handled but expecting 50/50 is probably unreasonable.

But if that's true, where's the end state of the problem? When will we reach it? If we do reach it, will we be able to tell? Legislation and institutions outlive the purposes for which they were created. If we create an institution to enforce "equality", will it be smart enough to disassemble itself when the job is over? Few other institutions have this ability, will this institution be any smarter? If we screw up a generation or two of athletes, so what? But if we screw up a generation or two of the cognitive elite, men and women, we're in hot water.

There are some generational problems that may just be better handled generationally.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Abandoned Spirit

Spirit, the plucky little rover on Mars, is thought to be no more.

Spirit was the first of the two rovers, the other being Opportunity, to land on Mars. Originally, both were thought to have 90 day lifespans. That was in 2004.

While Opportunity landed in a Meridiani Planum, where new discoveries seemed to happen every day, Spirit landed in Gusev Crater where the discoveries of a more subtle nature.

The poor little guy got stuck and then lost functionality in one of his wheels. Unfortunately, the angle of his solar arrays wasn't very productive and he's been getting weaker ever since. Then, in March last year winter descended and Spirit slipped into a coma. NASA hoped it would wake up by spring but it has not. NASA will continue to listen to the end of the month (May, 2011) and then pull the plug.

I've always thought of Spirit as the dogged accountant brother to Opportunity, his flashy traveling salesman brother. Larry to Moe and Curly. Bud Abbott to Lou Costello. Hardy to Laurel. Martin to Lewis. The straight man.

Little Spirit is gone now. Let's remember him.

New York Times and here
Wikipedia: Spirit and Opportunity
JPL Rover Home Page and here

Friday, May 27, 2011

Palestinian Non-Violence

I recently came across a spate of articles detailing Palestinian non-violent protests. It's amazing how little coverage they have.

Here are some links:
Foreign Policy
The Economist
From Occupied Palestine
Business Insider
UN Dispatch

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Artistic Theft

I mention cool sites here on my sites. And, when I use material here from other sites, I attribute it either in the sending or putting a link to the site with the material. I can't possibly pay those other sites for their material so this is the least I can do. and have a business model of stealing artists' material and putting it up on their sites after slathering the material with adverts. The work is unattributed and the advert money does not go to the artist in any way.

The Oatmeal has a good discussion of it here.

I suggest no one click on the above sites since that rewards them. However, if you want to send an email to them, use the email address

Since FunnyJunk uses Gmail you might contact google and at least complain.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Views on the Rapture

The End of the World happened on Saturday. Didn't you notice?

Here's how Oatmeal views it.
Here's how Cyanide and Happiness views it.
Jerry Coyne's.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

BVC News

Book View Café Releases Exordium: The Phoenix in Flight by Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge

Exordium: The Phoenix in Flight (Science Fiction)
Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge
May 17, 2011 $3.99 ISBN: 978161138 059 0

Brandon nyr-Arkad, the Emperor's scapegrace youngest son, defies protocol and evades a ceremonial duty, a defiance punishable by death. He's just ahead of an attack on the Panarchy of the Thousand Suns by Eusabian, a revenge twenty years in the making.

Phoenix in Flight begins the five volume arc of Exordium, as Brandon discovers what happened to his home after he left, and he has to make a decision: stay an outlaw, or return and deal with the smoking ruins of his rejected world?

Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge are longtime science fiction readers as well as writers

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Avatar meets Yellow Submarine

Every now and then perusing the interweb you get lucky. Here is Real Life Fiction. Go check it out.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Taylor Mali

I've been introduced to the poet Taylor Mali. (Blog here. Website here.) A wonderful poet. Look him up on youtube.

Thanks Madeleine.

Monday, May 16, 2011

News from BVC

Book View Café Releases Pati Nagle's PET NOIR

Pet Noir (Fun SF/Mystery)
Pati Nagle
May 10, 2011
$4.99 ebook
ISBN: 978 1 61138 063 7

Can a lowly gumpaw hope for love with a girl who rides in a jewel-encrusted carrier?

Feline investigator Leon, with opposable thumbs and the ability to talk, is possibly the most dangerous cat in the galaxy. Indentured to the Security department of Gamma Station until the cost of his creation is paid off, Leon alternates between harassing his human partner/roommate Devin and fighting sleazoid criminals, yet still finds time to flirt with the lovely Leila, an exotic Burmese who lives in the swankiest level of the station. Will he win her heart, and more important—will he win his freedom?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

r vs K

Humans have a tough time understanding evolution. I wonder if part of the problem actually stems from our biology.

The reproduction approach taken by most vertebrate animals fall somewhere between what are called r and K strategies. (See here for r/K theory and here for the subsequent improvement of it into life history theory.) To make a long story short, r strategies involve large numbers of offspring with the expectation that most will die off. K strategies involve fewer, higher quality offspring, that require more care but the investment pays off in higher quality reproduction.

It is no surprise that humans are consummate K strategists.

Of course, this is an oversimplification. There are lot of trade offs involving roles of organisms beyond individual reproduction, modification of environment, timing of events, etc. But the nice thing about the r/K metaphor is it captures the gamut of reproductive approaches.

Humans are mammals. Mammals are inherently in the K strategist arena-- after all, no animal would evolve lactation that wasn't. Birds are also K strategists with some interesting species that manage to get out of doing the job themselves, i.e., cuckoos. Consequently, we have a K-centric point of view.

The rest of the world is essentially based on r-strategy.

Mammals and birds together have about 16k species between them. The remaining 45k species of vertebrates (reptiles, amphibians and fish) are largely r-strategists, though some reptiles (e.g., crocodiles) and some fish (e.g., sticklebacks) do some post-egg care. Once the animals are hatched they're essentially on their own.

But the non-vertebrates invertebrates comprise about 1.2 million species. Plants, fungie, etc., bring up the total to about 1.5 million species. Essentially all of them are r-strategists. That is, they put out a large number of potential new organisms that must fend for themselves. That doesn't even include the microbes.

We are one little corner of a group (great apes) of a lesser order (primates) of a comparatively small class (mammals) that is clearly the minority (vertebrates.) We are a minority within a minority within a minority that does not follow the path laid down by older and wiser phyla.

Now, I would expect an intelligent organism to be self-involved and to consider it's own heritage the best and most magnificent example of craftsmanship. But, had we evolved from, say, insects, we would be able to see the common ground between us and a million brethren. (God has an "inordinate fondness for beetles," from J. B. S. Haldane.)

Or, we could have evolved from cephalopods. There would have been only 800 of our immediate brethren but we still would have shared our heritage with as many as 120k clams, oysters and snails.

Instead, we divide the world into vertebrate species and invertebrate species, dividing mammals (and ourselves) in one quick slice of taxonomy.

How many co-species do we have? Four: chimps, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas. All of them out of sight, out of mind, so we can safely forget them. We can see our resemblance in the 350 species of primates but the damage was done: our uniqueness trumps incidental resemblances to lesser species.

Is it a surprise we have trouble viewing ourselves as anything but uniquely gifted?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fixing Schools

My friend Madeleine Robins has a terrific blog piece on schools over at the Book View Cafe. Check it out here.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Model of a Modern President

Ronnie Butler has put together this Obama meets Gilbert & Sullivan. See here.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Wallace and Gromit Engineering, Ltd

I'm a big fan of Wallace and Gromit. Now they've teamed up with the BBC to create the Wallace and Gromit World of Invention.

Go here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Free Enterprisizm

Some time in the seventies there was a resurgence of capitalism and the free market as religious doctrine. In this context "religious doctrine" means dogma that cannot be questioned. Health care problems? Free enterprise! Political corruption? Free enterprise! There was no problem great or small that the private sector could not correct if government would only get out of the way.

Most human actions are in a continuous conflict between altruism and self interest. Human beings are the most cooperative animals on the planet (and I include ants and bees in that comparison) but that cooperation is always under tension. Private enterprise stands towards the self interest side of the human condition. Not all the way-- no company can operate without cooperation. Government stands more in the direction towards altruism. Again, not all the way: no institution can operate on purely altruistic motivations. My point is civilization creates and is created by this tension.

Consequently, pushing the balance too far in either direction destabilizes the system and makes it hard for everybody. A completely self centered society that doesn't provide some safety net for the poor creates a crime and disease breeding ground that ultimately comes back to haunt them. A completely government run system removes incentive for people to cooperate and brings about its own ruin.

Balance. Always balance.

Humans tend to follow a model that seems to be a cross between chimp and gorilla. We raise our children until the point they can leave the family group. Both men and women leave the group and find other associations. In the US, this often involves some sort of higher education during which the juvenile humans experiment with different opportunities before finding their niche. Since we are so much more intelligent than our great ape cousins, we have many more opportunities to develop or exploit.

One of the developmental problems for humans is to keep our juveniles alive and relatively undamaged when they go through this phase. Chimps, gorillas and baboons all go through a wandering phase before they light but many of the die in the process. We tend to find that distasteful. So we create a series of playgrounds of increasing difficulty and danger to train our young until they can compete in the adult world successfully. They are our bloodline, after all. It makes sense to insure their ultimate reproductive success as best we can.

Hence, college.

Here is where our young go to experiment. They should try all sorts of new things: liberalism. Conservatism. Sex. Drugs. Rock and Roll. (Keep it to beer, don't drive, use a condom and for God's sake don't put any pictures up on the internet. Trust me on this.) They should also get some sort of life skills here as well-- which, regardless of the propaganda, they pretty much do. I work with a lot of young people out of college and at least in my field (biology and s/w engineering) they are coming out better skilled than I did.

Again, back in the sixties and seventies, colleges were the bedrock of experimenting. We were going to change the world. We scared everybody.

Ha. Look at me. I live in the burbs and work for a defense institution. I sure turned out to be dangerous.

My point here is that the experimentation of juveniles is supposed to be wacky and out there. It's supposed to be a challenge to the previous generation-- that's how change occurs. We force our kids to hold on to our virtues and points of view. If our virtues are good and our points of view valid, they'll back to them on their own. (Hm. Isn't that sort of free enterprise?)

Enter the Koch family.

The Koch brothers fund the Koch Family Foundations, primarily known for their support for conservative and libertarian causes. The Koch family is free to fund any charity that will take their money but I don't think it's a good idea for them to strangle universities. (Opinionated analysis here. Original article here.)

A quick summary: One of the Koch foundations has given 1.5 million to Florida State University and gotten overseer status on hiring. They want FSU to only hire people that agree with Charles Koch.

We don't tend to like helicopter parents. Why should we side with helicopter philanthropists? Because money talks. And, with the FSU economics department, it doesn't take very much.

Human change is mostly generational and, I suspect, this current infatuation with libertarian economics fueled by industrialists will ebb as well. Carnegie funded libraries and there are a lot of libraries that still exist because of him. But they're no longer funded by Carnegie. They're funded by government dollars.

It's the style for the last few decades to attempt to restrict juvenile experimentation: Oral Roberts University and its ilk. Koch is breaking new ground in attempting to control a publically funded university department.

Koch's department will probably become a breeding ground for foaming libertarian fundamentalists that will continue to shout that government can do no good--ever--private enterprise can do no wrong-- ever. (The occasional (translated: institutionalized) bad apples are really good apples misrepresented by the leftists media.) It will give a boost to the youth membership modern version of the Know Nothing Party, the Tea Party, which utterly hates experimentation.

For a couple of generations juvenile experimentation will ebb. We'll get a couple of crops of stupid graduates-- you don't learn if you don't experiment. America will suffer a bit.

But the rest of the world is less risk averse. There is unrest in the college campuses in the middle east. China is investing enormously in R&D (as opposed to the US which is cutting it) and much of that R&D is going to colleges. Inevitably, well funded campuses encourage creative thinking so we'll see some conflict coming.

Like weeds growing up through the sidewalk, juvenile experimentation marches on.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Facial Evolution

As anyone who has spoken to me more than about forty seconds, I'm a biologist at heart and an evolutionist by inclination. Consequently, I tend to think about things such as marital relationships, love, art, lifespan and nearly everything else within a biological and evolutionary context.

This article came across my desk recently, thanks to Jerry Coyne's blog, why evolution is true.

There are very few things as fundamentally human as our faces. Other animals use scent, sounds, color displays and bodily fluids to exchange personal data with one another. We use the expressions on our faces.

But faces, like everything else about us, came from our forebears and are not completely unique to human beings. Anyone who's ever owned a dog knows that dogs have expressions showing their inner state.

Now we know that our face came from fishes.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

BVC News

Book View Café Releases RESONANCE by Chris Dolley

Resonance (Science Fiction)
Chris Dolley
May 3, 2011 $2.99 ebook
ISBN: 978 1 61138 061 3

Graham Smith sees things others can't...or won't. He knows that roads can change course, people disappear, office blocks migrate across town. Annalise Mercado hears voices, all from girls calling themselves Annalise. They start telling her about Graham Smith and the men who want to kill him. Two people whose lives are fragmented hold the key to the future of a billion planets...

Chris Dolley has been a computer consultant, a pioneer computer games designer, an amateur detective and once, as a teenager, freed a small country. Now he lives with his wife and a large collection of animals on a farm they renovated in the Normandy-Maine Regional Park.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Fossils of New Jersey

We were on vacation last week. We spent a couple of days in New York City. Then, we went down to Colts Neck, New Jersey. Horse country. Gentleman Farms.

Cretaceous Fossils.

Huh? In New Jersey?

It turns out that New Jersey was largely underwater during the Cretaceous period and the sedimentary rock preserved them. A good discussion of the Big Springs are in Monmouth County is here. A good ID sheet is here.

We found many things. I have here some incredibly poor pictures I took with my android. I will be putting up better pictures as they become available.

Fossil hunting in this area essentially meant wading through streams for about six hours. Much of it was an exercise in frustration since for the longest time all we found were oysters. Oysters the size of my fist. Oysters curled over on themselves. We took a few but left the Oyster Graveyard largely intact.

The first picture is of a mosasaur tooth-- the prize find of the area. This one we purchased in the city from Maxilla and Mandible to act as a standard against which we could compare our finds. We did not find mosasaur teeth, though there was a rock that resembled one. We did find many other things.

Since this area was largely underwater, there were a lot of invertebrates. These were mostly clams, oysters and belemnites. Belemnites were an odd sort of nautiloid mollusc. The fossil is of the guard component of the body. At first we thought they were some sort of manufactured item-- a brown semi-translucent material like a ceramic of sorts. But we kept find them. And finding them. The longest in this picture was about 2.5 inches but we read about ones much, much longer.

We also found ghost shrimp burrows. At first I thought these were crinoids but they were much earlier. These were the fossil relics of a tiny shrimp that made tubes in the sand.

The site we were investigating was cut in half by a bridge and we'd been crawling over the downstream section. Somewhat discouraged (No teeth. No bones. Nothing but invertebrates as far as we could see.) we were going to find another site. But I was looking upstream from the bridge and I got to remembering the Joggins site.

Joggins was a nice Mississipian site in Nova Scotia we'd visited a few years ago. Great site. Cycads falling out of the cliff. If you found it on the beach and could carry it you could keep it. We'd walked down to the beach and turned left, wandered all over the beach and had a great time. Then went back to the hotel. Later in the trip, down in Parrsboro, we talked to someone more familiar than we were with the site and found out that the best fossils were on the right side of the beach. Including a famous Cycad fossil perhaps twenty feet tall.

Hm. I thought. Best check upstream as well.

We walked up and met a fossil collecting Jersey native, Doug Wells. Who showed us what to look for and how to find it. That's when we started finding some really interesting things.

For starters, we found many shark teeth. Goblin sharks. Crow sharks. Many sharks as shown here.

We also found a "saber toothed salmon"(Enchodus petrosus) and a remnant of a fossil claw, shown here.

This was pretty much all we expected. But Ben and I found actual vertebrate bones. At least two and maybe four.

The two black stick like things are fossil bones. The white one is an unfossilized tooth.

These pictures are poor. The left most bone looks to me like a tibia. The middle bone a humerus. Though they were found close to one another in the stream bed, I don't think they were from the same animal. The humerus is pretty much intact: both ends show joint articulations. The tibia is broken part way. I'd like to show these to a paleontologist.

The last two may or may not be skull fragments.

I, of course, don't know this for a fact. These are two pictures of the fragments from the outside and inside. At first, I thought they were eroded oyster shells but we had seen few oysters at this section of the site. The broken edges look like bone to me rather than the edges of shells. Again, I'll have to show these to a paleontologist to properly identify them. Which means better pictures.

I haven't looked at any of these finds under a microscope yet. I expect that will be fun.

There was also a zinc mine trip we took but that's for another blog entry.