Primer: The Scientific Method

These posts, tagged “Primer,” are posted for two reasons: 1). to help me get better at teaching non-scientists about science-related topics; and 2). to help non-scientists learn more about things they otherwise would not. So, while I realize most people won’t read these, I’m going to write them anyway, partially for my own benefit, but mostly for yours.

There are quite a few things that go flying by in the news that concern me (and I have posted about them here…at…length…), but one that really gets to me is public misunderstanding of Science.  As in, capital “S” Science.  Not really the fact that many people don’t know certain scientific facts, or don’t really understand how many things work, but more that they do not understand how science is done and what it really means.  I will seek to clear up some of that here.

First, however, what does Dictionary.com tell us?

Science – noun

1. a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences.
2. systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.
3. any of the branches of natural or physical science.
4. systematized knowledge in general.
5. knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.

Now, this definition seems to center upon the natural/physical sciences, however many, if not all, of the principles that “science” adheres to apply to the social sciences (e.g. sociology, psychology, etc.) and to many other degrees.  However, I will focus on what I know best.

“Systematically” is the word sprinkled about in the definition above, and rightfully so.  “Systematically” refers to how science is conducted, generally through what we refer to as the scientific method.  The Wikipedia article, as usual, is a good start for further information on this particular subject, but basically, here’s how it works:

  1. Formulate a hypothesis
  2. Test the hypothesis through experimentation and observation
  3. Use collected data to confirm or refute the initial hypothesis
  4. Form a new hypothesis based on what was learned in steps 1-3

A “hypothesis,” put simply, is an educated guess toward a question you have.  Many times, especially when you’re first learning the scientific method, you may phrase it in the form of an “If/Then” statement.  For example:

If I drop this rock, then it will fall

The “If” portion of the above statement represents the “Independent Variable,” while the “Then” portion represents the “Dependent Variable.”  Effectively, the Dependent Variable is what you’re measuring and the Independent Variable is what you’re changing in the system.  In this particular case, if you drop the rock, does it fall or not?  You can measure whether or not it falls.  If you don’t drop the rock, does it still fall?  And so on.  It is called the Dependent Variable because it “depends” on what you do in the Independent Variable.

You are generally allowed to have multiple Independent Variables in a given hypothesis (or series of hypotheses), but the Dependent Variable cannot change. What would happen if I dropped a rock on Earth and dropped another one on Mercury?  My results wouldn’t be comparable, because I changed too many things.  I could change the size of the rock, but if I’m measuring the rate at which the rock falls to the ground, I need to make sure the force of gravity is held constant.

Obviously, this is a very simple example.  If one were to ask something a bit more complicated, you could ask the following:

If Tylenol is administered to people with headaches, then they will experience pain relief.

The question above seems simple enough, right?  I could just give Tylenol to a bunch of people with headaches and see if we get an effect.  Then I would know if my hypothesis was correct or if it wasn’t.  But what would happen if I grabbed people prone to migraine headaches were participating in my study?  Or alcoholics (that don’t break down Tylenol all that well)?  The data I would receive would be flawed, as the Tylenol probably wouldn’t do anything to people with migraines and it may actually make alcoholics feel worse.  My hypothesis would be proven wrong.

Here is where we really need to consider “Controls.”  These are a separate series of experiments that you use to compare your experimental results to.  You may choose to set this up in your experiment in a variety of ways, but one possibility is to give those with migraines or the alcoholics (and all other test subjects) a “placebo,” or something that looks like Tylenol, but is actually inert.  Then, you can compare your responses to see if Tylenol had any effect or not.

Above, I mention that after you formulate a hypothesis, you must test it.  You must test it by holding as many things constant as you can while only varying a specific aspect of the experiment, especially an aspect that you can control to some degree.  This brings us to the idea of “testability.”  In order for your experiment to be considered “Scientific,” it must be testable.  If it isn’t “testable,” then it doesn’t satisfy the “systematic” part of the definition.

Over time, enough experiments are done to warrant considering a certain concept to be a “Scientific Theory.”  That is to say, a Theory is an idea that is supported by an array of evidence and co-exists with other known Theories that are equally verified by experimentation.  Assuming a Theory stands the test of time, it eventually is considered to be a “Scientific Law,” meaning it represents something truly fundamental on which the rest of science and knowledge rests.  An example of a Theory is “The Theory of Natural Selection.”  An example of a Law is “Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics.”  Wikipedia also has a nice list of other Scientific Laws.

Most Laws tend to be Physics/Chemistry-related, as these are the bedrock concepts upon which everything else stands.  You can’t really study Biology without fluid dynamics and quantum mechanics (well, you can ignore them for the most part, but they do get involved in certain situations).  Theories, on the other hand, are much less clear cut.  They tend to represent a constantly evolving field of research, where new data is being applied every day.  I will steal the US National Academy of Sciences definition to explain more fully:

Some scientific explanations are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them. The explanation becomes a scientific theory. In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation. Not so in science. In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by facts gathered over time. Theories also allow scientists to make predictions about as yet unobserved phenomena.

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not “guesses” but reliable accounts of the real world. The theory of biological evolution is more than “just a theory.” It is as factual an explanation of the universe as the atomic theory of matter or the germ theory of disease. Our understanding of gravity is still a work in progress. But the phenomenon of gravity, like evolution, is an accepted fact.

So in some ways, a Theory is treated on almost the same plane as a Law, but they really aren’t the same thing. A Theory can still be modified, while a Law is much, much harder to change.  In that first sentence, it says “no new evidence is likely to alter,” meaning you could still alter it, but it’s highly unlikely.

My overall concern with perceptions of what Science is stem from the various debates over climate change, evolution, stem cell research, etc.  In many ways, much of the political hubbub is regarding something that Science isn’t equipped to answer.  By definition, it can only give you a fact – it is up to the individual to decide how to apply their morals to that fact.  Science can tell you that Evolution is happening and that Natural Selection is the current Theory to describe how it happens.  It’s a “Theory” because more data is getting added every day, but the Theory is only strengthened, not weakened.  Overall, Natural Selection is what happens.  End of story.  Scientifically, embryonic stem cells come from an embryo, which is a collection of cells that does not fit the accepted definition of “alive” (i.e. self-awareness, self-preservation, consciousness).  Whether or not you agree that an embryo is not alive is up to you to decide, but arbitrarily suggesting that “Science says that it’s a life” is incorrect and a misuse of the term.  Saying that there are “gaps in the geological record,” so that must mean that God exists and God created the Earth in 6 days, ignores how Science works – God is, by nature, “untestable,” and therefore beyond the purview of Scientific understanding.  These are but a few of the examples of how some would misunderstand Science and try to apply it to things that it shouldn’t be applied to, or at least in ways it shouldn’t be applied.

The Study of Science is a systematic, logical progression that involves the formulation of a testable hypothesis, where testing involves experimentation, observation and collection of data to support or refute the hypothesis.  Hypotheses around a general subject can eventually add up to a Theory, and truly fundamental observations of the natural world become Law.  That’s all it is, folks.  No more.  No less.

Teaching Experience

About a month ago, the FUTURE in Biomedical Sciences group here at the University held a forum, of sorts, to help answer questions from graduate students and postdocs regarding what it takes to get a job at a Liberal Arts institution, especially in the State of Iowa (where these four individuals reside).  The FUTURE group, now in its second year, has multiple professors from Liberal Arts schools across the state (this year’s participants came from Loras College, Drake University, Morningside College and Wartburg College) come to Iowa City to do research for the summer, learning some new experimental techniques and generally expanding their horizons beyond what they can do at their respective institutions.  The forum was very informative, covering a variety of topics including how to write up your resume, what kinds of places to apply to, what to look for in a school, when to start looking for jobs, and what the jobs tend to be like.  More than anything, however, they all stressed the need for experience: the more experience you have on your application, the better chance you’ll stand against other applicants.  I’m not really looking for another job yet or anything, but it’s really good to have this information at the back of my mind as I keep building up that resume.  Hearing them talk about their jobs makes me want to get to that stage even more, providing me with some much needed motivation to get a few things done while I’m here!

Thankfully, I already have a leg up on that one.  Back at SLU, I had the good fortune of getting to teach in “Drugs We Use and Abuse,” a course run by the graduate students of the Pharm/Phys Department.  It is team-taught each Fall to around 50 non-majors (e.g. Business majors, History majors, etc.) and generally centers around…well…just what it sounds like.  If you ever wanted to learn what meth, cocaine, opiates, depressants and caffeine do to your body, then this is the class for you.  I taught in it for 3 years: I was a section director for 2 of those years and course director for 1 year.  The experience was very good, so much that I decided I want to do it full-time as a career: teach at the undergraduate level.

When I took the position here at the University of Iowa, I asked my mentor if it would be alright for me to continue teaching occasionally alongside the rest of the research I’m doing.  He was kind enough to allow it (if anything, he was excited that I’d take a few lectures off his hands).  This October, I’ll be teaching two classes of Advanced Toxicology, one talking about neurotransmission and the other talking about neurotoxic agents (e.g. cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy).  Both of these subjects are within my proverbial wheelhouse, so they shouldn’t take up all that much preparation time.  That, and I have the previous year’s lectures in a Powerpoint file to help me throw something together.  While Drugs We Use and Abuse was directed at non-major undergraduates, this class is for graduate students and there are only 12 in the class, so the dynamic will be quite a bit different than what I’m used to.

I will likely get the opportunity to teach in the Spring as well.  That course is in our department, Medicinal Chemistry and Natural Products, and is also targeted at graduate students (and will likely be just as small, if not smaller).  Not sure when we’ll get that going, but it probably won’t be until January, knowing how things go around here.

Either way, I think I’m doing a reasonably decent job at preparing for what’s ahead, with regards to that whole “career” thing.  At the very least, getting to add a few “guest lecturer” points on my CV is always a welcome addition.

And maybe I’ll even have a little fun doing it.  :-)

A Need for Expulsion

Mike has been Facebooking and blogging about the subjects surrounding the material in the Ben Stein documentary, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.” Primarily, Mike got to thinking about it after reading an article by evolutionary theorist, Richard Dawkins, where he says that Stein distorted things Dawkins said in the documentary. Admittedly, Mike hasn’t actually seen the movie (as of this writing), and neither had I when I first read his post, but thanks to the wonders of Netflix Instant Queue, I took the time to watch it.

In his blog post, Mike argues that one of, if not the, primary issue in the debate is a lack of civility, where both sides (Creation vs Evolution) take things so personally that they cannot have a reasonable argument about the matter. I’ll leave that discussion to Mike, however, as my problem with the whole thing is a general ignorance of the definition of “science.”

science –noun

1. a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences.

2. systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.

Now, the key in that definition is “…gained through observation and experimentation.” I know I’ve talked about this before (stupid Lee Strobel…), but the definition of science is quite important to understanding what the problem is with the debate.

By the definition put forth above, Intelligent Design (and, relatedly, Creationism) is not science.  I can say this with conviction because I know that in order for it to be science, it must be testable.  If you cannot test a theory, then you cannot consider it science and it must stay firmly in the realm of philosophy.

philosophy –noun

1. the rational investigation of the truths and principles ofbeing, knowledge, or conduct.

5. a system of principles for guidance in practical affairs.

Philosophy is very good about providing analysis of an argument.  One could even describe them as “thought experiments,” where one ruminates on a particular moral or existential issue and comes to a conclusion.  However, those conclusions are hardly “evidence,” as they cannot be reproduced by other individuals performing the exact same experiment with the same parameters.  If one person has a “thought experiment,” their experiences in their own lives will inform their conclusions, leading to differences between individuals.  Science, on the other hand, holds specific variables consistent so that any individual can come to the same conclusion, irrefutably.  If I drop a ball in Iowa and you drop the same ball in Missouri, or China, they will both hit the ground in the same amount of time (assuming the ball is held the same way and the height it is dropped from held constant, but only the location of the experiment has changed).

This is, inherently, the issue: Evolution (in the form of Natural Selection) can be, and has been, tested in many, many different ways and it has held up to the toughest of scrutiny; Intelligent Design cannot be tested and, therefore, is not science.  Have all facets of evolution (in the form of Natural Selection) turned out to stand up to that scrutiny?  No, and the Theory of Evolution has been modified when that new evidence has appeared.  I can’t think of a time when Creationism/Intelligent Design has been modified when new evidence has been presented.

Creationists have been trying to get Creationism in public schools for decades, believing that Evolution is not only incorrect, but is somehow anti-Creation.  I’m not going to get into that part of the debate, although I have some pretty clear opinions on it.  I don’t even necessarily have a problem with teaching religion in public schools, as long as they’re all treated equally (i.e. you can teach Christian tenets as long as you also teach the ideas of Islam, Judaism, etc.).  But I do have serious problems with passing off Intelligent Design as science, and serious issues with the people that purport that Intelligent Design should be taught in public schools in science classrooms.

Whether my comments are “civil” or not, I don’t know (they probably aren’t…), but I do know that the proponents of teaching Intelligent Design in science classes are wrong and are doing a disservice to students everywhere.  Science is difficult enough to understand as it is, let alone adding things into the classroom that don’t belong there and simply confuse everyone involved.

Getting To Work

I started working here at the University of Iowa‘s College of Pharmacy on May 10th, so while I’m certainly not familiar with everything yet, I can at least report on some of the new research stuff, as well as the logistical experiences regarding the University of Iowa as a whole. I’ll probably post other tidbits of info about the new job over multiple posts, but for now, I’ll start at the proverbial beginning of the day.

First, let me start by pointing out that parking around the University is nothing short of ridiculous. There simply aren’t enough parking garages close to the buildings for people to park at, which is quite a change from what I’m used to at Truman State or at SLU. Thankfully, Iowa City has done a pretty good job with their Cambus system, which is a free (yes, I said “free”) commuter bus system for any resident of Iowa City or attendee of the University. There are various stops around town, so it actually gets used by a wide range of people. This is my first experience relying on a bus to get to work, however, so things have gotten “interesting” to say the least.

Secondly, let me point out that we live in Swisher, IA, which is a good 10 miles north on I-380 from Iowa City, let alone to the actual University itself. Therefore, due to the parking situation and the driving distance, I decided to start off by parking about halfway down to work at the Oakdale parking lot, a campus outside of town that has bus service, but also has free parking. This worked alright, however, the buses only seem to run every 45-60 minutes, so you really have to be there at a prescribed time, otherwise you’re waiting forever to catch another one. Also, my second day of work, the bus coming to pick us up was in an accident, meaning that the bus that replaced it ended up being an hour late. I ended up driving myself to work and finding a parking lot, which finally cost $15 for the full day of parking.

After that, I signed up for one of the commuter lots closer to campus, one that still has bus access, but the buses come to the lots more often. These lots, however, cost $20 to park in per month. There are two of these lots, both excessively far from campus, but the closer you get, the more expensive the lots become. The next “step up” would be $45/mo, and I’d still end up needing to ride the bus to get to my building. If I read the maps correctly, I’d end up paying $85/mo in order to park in a lot that’s anywhere near walking distance of my building, but it could take years before I’d be eligible to park there. So yeah, I’ve resigned myself to waiting on buses for the foreseeable future, but at least it means I get to listen to more podcasts and use my Nintendo DS more often.

In the afternoon, the bus schedule is also difficult to navigate, but I’m getting better about it. Effectively, for the ride home, I need to be at the stop for either the 4:59 bus or the 5:06 bus…but if I miss those, I have to wait until 5:36 for the next one. After I get on the bus, and get to the car, I still have the 30 min drive home from the parking lot. So yeah, on average, once you take traffic into account at the beginning and end of the day, I’m driving for close to an hour each way every day. That, and I’m staying at work longer than I used to (stoopid real jobs…).

Please keep in mind that this isn’t a complaint: it’s just a reality, and certainly an adjustment I’m having to make as compared to my experience(s) over the last 5-10 years. At Truman, I could either walk from the dorm, or ride my bike to class, taking no more than 5 minutes to get where I needed to go. In order to get to SLU every morning in grad school, I had a 10 minute drive (sometimes less). Going from 5-10 minutes to an hour of transit time is a big jump to make!

Believe you me, though, the amount of time I’m in the car every day makes me ready to have a new one… :-)

Fin

DSC_0073

Yesterday was a long time coming. 13 years of primary and secondary education, 5 years of undergraduate education, and 5 years of graduate education…and now I’m done: Ph.D. achieved.

Different graduate programs carry out their various processes in different ways, but the way ours works is that you complete a Preliminary Dissertation (e.g. “comps”) after 2 years in the program, then you carry out your research, write up a Dissertation, and then defend it. In the Pharmacological and Physiological Science Department at SLU, you have a “Private Defense” between you and your Committee, the individuals that have been evaluating you since the Prelim to determine when you’re ready to be done. The meeting was scheduled for 11:00 am and, while it started a little late, it only ended up lasting an hour. After completion of the Private Defense, we moved on to the “Public Defense.” This one was a separate presentation of, essentially, the “story” my Dissertation told. Anyone is allowed to attend this presentation and ask any questions they want, although typically, there aren’t that many questions asked. I had a few and answered them accordingly. After all this, the ballots allowing my graduation were signed by the Committee and I was then granted the Doctor of Philosophy.

After the Defense(s), we had a lovely reception in the main conference room of the department. Food was eaten, beers drunken(?), presents given, and memories remembered. All in all, it was a great experience. I’m certainly sorry to leave SLU, and I’ll miss all the friends I’ve made over the last 5 years. However, it’s time to move on to the next stage of life.

Now that I’m out of school, after 22 years, one could argue that I’m finally ready to join the “real world.”

And I get to join the real world as Andrew J. Linsenbardt, Ph.D. :-)

The Stage is Set

As discussed a few months ago, we’re moving to Iowa City, IA for a postdoctoral fellowship I scored in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Iowa. Up until last week, we weren’t entirely sure what the exact plans were, so far as where we’d be living or when we’d be leaving.

Well. Now we know. :-)

I talked with my new boss, Dr. Doorn, last Wednesday and worked out various details of my employment in his lab. We had a lengthy conversation about all kinds of details, of course, and settled upon my start date being May 3rd. We opted to shoot for the beginning of May rather than June for a few reasons, one of which being that Brooke already told her current boss that they should have her replacement ready for the beginning of May, but also because the health insurance benefits in Iowa would save us some cash pretty immediately. My position will technically start May 3rd, but I won’t really go into work until May 10th, giving me some “adjustment time.” We’ll be back down on May 13th for my graduation, of course!

Therefore, we’ll be moving out of our apartment in Soulard on April 30th and moving in to our new place in Iowa on May 1st.

We went to Hannibal this past Sunday for Brooke’s Mom’s choir performance (very nice, Diana!), so Brooke stayed in Hannibal with Meg while I went ahead up to Iowa City to look for places to live. Brooke did an excellent job checking out practically every house on Craig’s List, so I visited a few of them and used the Flip Video to send some clips back to Brooke for her approval. I looked at a few properties, and investigated a variety of options, but eventually we settled on a farm house in Swisher, IA, about halfway between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. It’s got 3 bedrooms, one bathroom, a cellar-like basement, a huge attic (i.e. plenty of storage space), a 3 vehicle carport, and appliances (but no fridge…we’ll have to get that…and no dishwasher…so I may have to hire one…). We are expecting the lease to arrive here in St. Louis sometime this week so we can sign off on it.

So yeah, we’ve got one month for me to graduate; for us to pack…everything; and for us to say “see you later” to quite a few friends down here in St. Louis.

Somehow, I expect this April is going to fly by!

Denialism

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Michael Specter
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Jon Stewart had Michael Specter on “The Daily Show” last night, a staff writer for The New Yorker who’s out with a new book, “Denialism.” The sub-title for the book explains what it’s about: “How irrational thinking hinders scientific progress, harms the planet, and threatens our lives.” The interview is about 7 minutes long and covers a wide range of topics, but he mostly focuses on medicine, genetically modified food products, and vaccines.

He begins highlighting how 62 million people have gotten the H1N1 vaccine with no deaths or serious injury, despite half of American adults saying they won’t vaccinate their children or themselves because they believe it to be unsafe. Specter goes on, citing a friend of his that read the book, but still said she wouldn’t vaccinate her child for polio because “there is no polio anymore.” This is true, but only for the United States: polio is still around in other countries where airplanes travel. Similarly, 200,000 people died last year from the measles, another “forgotten disease,” and while none of them were in the United States, it’s not like it would be hard for the disease to spread here.

Specter also talked about how Vioxx “killed” 55,000 people (which, he points out, is the same number of Americans killed in Vietnam), yet Vioxx was never determined to be the sole cause of the deaths: just correlated. Those people had all kinds of other cardiovascular risk factors as well that likely contributed to the deaths. There were millions of other people that were on it and were just fine and benefited from the drug’s actions. Later in the interview, he points out that 45,000-50,000 Americans die in car accidents each year, but we don’t sue the automobile industry or stop using them like we did to Merck after the Vioxx scandal hit. He says, “We know if we lowered the speed limit 10 miles, we would save 8,000 lives, but, we want to get to the mall, so it’s something we’re willing to do.”

The whole vaccine thing just boggles my mind, honestly. A lot of it goes back to the idea of “over-parenting” (there was a nice article in Time Magazine a few weeks ago on that other can o’ worms), where we try to protect our children and ourselves from everything, when statistically, we’ve never been safer than we are now. Vaccines, according to Specter, are probably the single most important health achievement in human history next to clean drinking water, at least so far as the control of disease goes. And yet, there are people out there that continue to believe, against all scientific evidence, that they’re unsafe.

There are a wealth of other crazy beliefs that could be pointed out, of course, like those that don’t believe global warming is occurring (despite all scientific analysis saying it is)…or that mercury in vaccines causes autism, or that the Earth was created in 6 days, or that humans lived with dinosaurs, or that evolution isn’t real, or that the Earth is flat….and so on, ad infinitum…

Ignoring science certainly isn’t the answer. Humanity has developed knowledge over the generations that they’re supposed to use, preferably for the good of everyone. Picking and choosing the science you believe in is ridiculous. If you don’t believe in evolution, then you shouldn’t be allowed to use electricity: science has given us electricity and evolution, and if you won’t take one of those, you can’t have the other.

It’s a pity that rule isn’t enforced, as it would prevent all The Crazies from posting on the internet…

Happy 40th Birthday, Sesame Street!

It’s hard to believe Sesame Street is as old as it is, and still kicking.  Today marks the beginning of its 40th season, with Michelle Obama as the guest, talking about healthy eating, amongst other things. It’s crazy knowing there are literally over 4000 episodes of Sesame Street, providing quality television for young children now for generations of people.  I learned to count to 10 in Spanish from Sesame Street, amongst all the other things.  This is a show that taught kids it was alright to be different, that reading is fun, and that playing outside is good for you…oh, and cookies are yummy.

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By the way, I still enjoy seeing celebrities go on Sesame Street.  You can always tell that they have fun with it, even though they’re standing next to muppets.

Brooke and I were hoping to ask for Sesame Street DVDs for Christmas this year, but at least on Amazon, it looks like you can only get DVD sets for the really early years, and some Elmo-specific compilations.  So if you run across any collections from the 80s, let us know.  That, or they’d make excellent baby shower gifts. :-)

Travels: Part I

Brooke and I were in different parts of the Midwest last week (or even two weeks ago, almost).  Here’s the first post relating to all that – Brooke’s will follow once she pulls pictures off the camera.

So, I went to Chicago this year for our annual Society for Neuroscience meeting (I only took a few pictures, but here they are if you care…).  We decided to take the train this time around, as something of a change from the typical “hop on a plane” experience.  To be honest, the trip up there via Amtrak was actually pretty nice compared to flying Coach on an airplane: you get much more leg room, slightly more comfortable seats, AC plugins for your laptop (if you want to watch a movie, for example…no WiFi available, sadly…), roomy bathrooms, and a full-service snack car.  The trip was a bit over 5 hours, so it was basically as long as a car ride, but quite a bit more comfortable.

Anyway, we made it to Chicago and got off at Union Station.  Once there, we found a taxi and started heading toward it.  A “gentleman” grabbed our bags and put them in the trunk of the car.  At this point, Dr. Macarthur got in the back seat, and we both noticed that the driver of said car was still in the car, making me wonder who this guy was.  He then demanded a tip.  I was, of course, rather confused by this whole situation, not being used to taxi service in major metropolitan areas, but Dr. Macarthur was kind enough to get rid of him for me.  Once we started driving, Dr. Macarthur told him “Palmer House Hilton” as the destination.  The driver was talking on his cell phone (which he wasn’t supposed to do…), and a few minutes later, we made it to the Hilton Chicago.  Not where we wanted to go.  Then Dr. Macarthur tried explaining this to him, and he actually argued with her about it.  She was not pleased about this, of course.  Long story short, he ended up turning off the meter so we weren’t double-charged, so that was a bit better…  My first exposure to “Chicago,” proper.

The conference itself was pretty good.  Over 30,000 attended, making it pretty crowded.  I wasn’t a huge fan of McCormick Place (the convention center), as it seems pretty poorly laid out (multiple levels, funky entrances, etc.) and not in an area populated by any restaurants, making lunch a bit difficult.  We saw some interesting posters and heard a talk from Dr. Francis Collins, the current head of the National Institutes of Health.  My presentation wasn’t until Wednesday afternoon, the final day of the conference, making me wonder if anyone would still even be around to see my stuff.  Thankfully, I garnered some interest and got to present it multiple times…not as many as last year, but still, much more than I’d expected.

So, we left Wednesday afternoon, again via taxi.  This time, the driver didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign, so we got chased by a cop on a 4-wheeler (yes, they have those in Chicago…with sirens…).  The cop was on a power trip, taking advantage of this poor Asian guy that spoke little English.  When the cop went back to his 4-wheeler to input the license and registration information, the driver made the unfortunate choice of getting out of the car to go talk to the cop, who then proceded to yell at the driver: “GET BACK IN THE VEHICLE!  DO NOT EXIT YOUR VEHICLE!”  He knows better now, I guess…  Considering how many people don’t come to complete stops at stop signs, I kinda felt sorry for this particular driver, as he was actually a much better driver than the vast majority of taxi drivers out there, weaving in and out of lanes.  How about you cops on 4-wheelers try picking up some of them, eh?

Finally, we hop on the train for the ride home.  About 5 minutes north of Joliet, IL (which is around 30 minutes outside of Chicago…), we stopped to allow freight traffic to pass by.  Well, they couldn’t re-start our train.  Apparently, one of the computers wasn’t rebooting properly (probably running Windows Vista…).  We spent 2 hours sitting there waiting for the train to get going, and during that time, we were low on power as they’d shut the engines down.  Without power, you a). don’t have lights (making reading difficult) and b). don’t have snack car service, as you can’t use the cash register and can’t use the microwave.   They never actually re-started the train, but instead waited for the next train from Chicago to come down and attach itself to us, so we ended up having two trains heading down to St. Louis, making two stops at each town on the way because there were two trains-worth of people trying to get to their destinations.  Thankfully, Brooke was kind enough to pick us up 2 hours later than planned (12:45 am…).

So, that was my trip.  There were more good things than this (restaurants, some sights, etc.), but these are the more interesting aspects to report.

Science Education in the U.S.

I was going to write something about this a few months ago when NPR’s Science Friday did a blurb about it, but they just revisited the same subject again this past Friday and, today, I see another comment from ArsTechnica that goes over the same issue: science education in the United States is sorely lacking and it really needs to get fixed (put simply…).

The basic premise is that there is a divide between those that know science and those that don’t, and that divide is very difficult to surmount. As the ArsTechnica blurb points out, you can look at a set of data (in their example, a graph of CO2 and global temperatures over the centuries) and come to two different, one-sentence conclusions. The correct interpretation, however, takes three paragraphs to explain, and even then, it uses quite a bit of jargon. The problem, therefore, lies in both parties: the scientists can’t explain things succinctly enough to hold the general population’s attention, and the general population doesn’t have enough understanding and background knowledge to “get it” in anything shorter than a few paragraphs. Then, the result is that scientists stop trying to explain themselves and the general population will listen to any interpretation that’s short enough for them to follow, and assume it’s “the whole story.” The vast majority will look for the “quick fix” informative blurb (read: Wikipedia) and won’t, instead, take an extra college-level course in basic biology, chemistry or physics.

You can see the effects of this not only in the climate change “debate” and in such things as the need for vaccinations for young children, or more recently, in the health care debate. Hitting each of those briefly: 1). there is effectively no climate change “debate,” so far as the science goes; 2). the evidence in favor of vaccinating your children is overwhelming, and the evidence against it is ridiculously lacking; and 3). the health care “public option” will not kill your grandmother. These are all examples of very complicated issues that cannot be covered in a 5 min. newscast window to any real degree, BUT if people were educated properly on the background information, it actually COULD, potentially, be explained in a succinct manner.

Obviously, that last example (health care) is only peripherally related to science education, but I think there are plenty of principles from science education that translate into higher learning, in general, and can help promote understanding across the broader population. Not to sound too elitist (which I am…sorry…it’s how I roll), but I’d like to think that my head tends to work in a logical, evidence-based manner: if I’m wrong on a point, for the most part, I’ll accept that I’m wrong when I’m presented with the evidence that proves it. This is also how science works, in general: you put forth an idea (read: hypothesis) and then you look for evidence that supports it, but also for evidence that refutes it. This is the bedrock principle that all of scientific thought is built upon: evidence is required to make a conclusion, otherwise a true conclusion cannot be made and more evidence must be obtained. Things like global warming, evolution and childhood vaccinations have a wealth of evidence in support of them and very little that refute them.

Here we come to the point: the more science-based classes, or education in general, that people experience, the more likely they will be to think in a logical, evidence-based manner and, therefore, should make better decisions about themselves and society. When they are told something on TV or in a magazine or on a blog, they will be more likely to investigate the matter themselves, searching for unbiased, peer-reviewed sources. They will be less likely to listen to the opinions of others without having those opinions backed up by concrete, verifiable, evidence. One would hope that you could simply be “educated” and do all of these things, but there are plenty of “educated” people out there that don’t think very logically and can’t make a reasonable argument for or against a point. More “science-educated” people, however, would potentially help the matter.

Case in point: if anyone had actually bothered to check into the U.S. House bill being shopped around, they would find that there is no such provision for a death panel, as being touted by many on the conservative Right. It just isn’t in there. There’s no evidence to back it up. Yet, because we (read: Americans) are lazy and want things distilled down to a few bullet points, that idea can be propagated and used for nefarious ends.

Anyway, these are just some things I’ve been thinking about recently in dealing with people that are against a public option; and others that believe what they’re told without reading about those things from third-party sources, or at least truly listening to the broad evidence against their view before summarily dismissing it. These are all the type of people that have probably been around since the beginning of time, but I really think that it’s the kind of issue that could be solved by increasing logic-based, science-oriented education not only at the high school level, but especially at the college level. I have no clue how to make that happen unless at the expense of other coursework that is also important, like english, social studies, etc…but maybe it’s the kind of thing where we just need to hire more teachers and start teaching kids 10-11 months out of the year instead of 9 months.

Good luck with that, Andy…