Recommended Reads #52


What the heck do they put in denatured ethanol, and how and why did they start doing this? “The little-told story of how the U.S. government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition with deadly consequences.”

Here’s a really worthwhile new paper from The Journal Formerly Known as Conservation Ecology: “Unstructured socializing time, education for daring exploration, and cooperation with the arts are among the potential elements. Because such activities may be looked upon as procrastination rather than work, deliberate effort is needed to counteract our systematic bias.”

When I first went to Costa Rica as a graduate student in 1995, The National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio) was full of gleaming promise as a privately-supported venture to catalog, explore, share and profit from the country’s biodiversity. In recent years, it’s been slowly shutting down, and now it’s kaput. Here’s a good story of the ascent and atrophy of INBio from, Scientific American. [update: I’ve been informed that there are a number of factual errors and bias issues in this article, that frankly hadn’t occurred to me when I linked to it. Now that they were pointed out, I definitely see them. Caveat emptor.]

Here is one of the most hilarious things I’ve seen in a long time: “Cambridge, we have a problem.” It’s a news story in Boston when Harvard and MIT don’t get a prestigious NASA grant. Even though, as the article points out, that it doesn’t even seem that the institutions even applied for the grant! Yes, that’s right. there’s a whole article in the Boston Herald about how it’s an outrage that MIT didn’t get a grant that it didn’t apply for. 

The NSF Division of Environmental Biology outdoes itself again with a big summary of numbers about per-person success rates. Because some PIs get multiple awards, the awards statistics can be confusing. These data fix that problem. One thing that caught my eye: men are more than 70% of the participants of DEB grants.

Community colleges are great for people who are clearly on a well-paved trajectory for a four-year university. For those who aren’t, though, not so much. “Enrolling in a four-year college brings large benefits to marginal students.”

What is the relationship between student performance and their evaluations of the professors who taught their prerequisite courses? The more students dislike your course, the better they do in future semester. At least according to this paper (actually I didn’t read it, but according to the blog post that cites the NPR report of this paper, that’s the take-home.)

Student effort declines as the average grade increases.

Open peer review: a randomised controlled trial. Signed reviews are, very very slightly, better in quality.

Ecologists far too often use causal language for relationships that clearly are not known to be causal.

Two scientists die while conducting Arctic fieldwork, because of the thin ice that they were out there to document.

Here’s an interesting conversation between developmental biologist Sean B Carroll and EO Wilson.

How to become a(n) ________ologist. The post says “arachnologist,” but it just as easily be any any other organism. Next time a parent asks you, “my kid wants to study X, and what should I do?” – this link can help that conversation.

Even more from Arthropod Ecology: Do students who complete an exam more quickly (or more slowly) do better on the exam? Chris Buddle’s answer is “no.” (I actually did the the same thing several years ago for a few exams, and in contrast, I consistently found an overt negative relationship between the completion sequence and exam score. In that course, the time allotted for the final exam was rather long, and I found that students who were unprepared would just spend a lot of quality time with the exam with the hope that enlightening might strike before they handed it in. Those who prepared were just, “bam – bam – bam – I’m done.” If you’re curious, my exams were about 4-5 pages of short-answer responses, and some problem-solving sections. Unlike Chris, I don’t have the data to share with you.)

Mythbuster Adam Savage has a great prescription of for STEM education: Bring back shop.

Planning your field work? Have you thought about safety?

The New York Times is still pretty good. But man, they don’t just understand California. Exhibit A and Exhibit B. Does LA suck or does it rock? Make up your mind, folks. (Anyhoo, the NY Times still does a good job with other stuff. Like this gorgeously illustrated piece about Messenger’s mission to, and collision with, Mercury.)

Instead of the NY Times, learn more about Los Angeles from filmmaker Werner Herzog and why he chose LA as his home. And also about how and why he chose to end Grizzly Man as he did. And about how nonchalantly he took getting shot while getting filmed for an interview with the BBC.

While we’re talking about LA — it turns out that >80% of nail technicians here are Vietnamese. That’s not a surprise, but is it really true that this is the case because of Tippi Hedren? And just for current context, there are ethical misgivings about nail salons.

Here’s a nice story from BBC about how one species of ant excavates really well, with some good video. (But you can ignore the pitch about how successful digging is part of the success of an invasive species. That’s just a dumb part of the sales pitch. For all we know, non-invaders dig just as well.)

From last year, here’s a great backstory about Maryam Mirzakhani, who was awarded the Fields Medal in 2014. If you know a girl who loves math but doesn’t feel good at it (does anybody feel they know enough math?), this could serve as some inspiration.

Here’s an important post about Gender Issues in Taxonomy – more than just Latin. If science has a gender problem, then systematics has a big big gender problem.

If you’re reading this site, then you also probably have heard elsewhere about the outrageously sexist review that one scientist got from the editors of PLOS ONE. It’s summarized here in a story from Science. Considering how bias in reviews like this isn’t an extreme rarity, it’s interesting how this one picked up so much steam. I’m guessing it’s because one specific argument of the reviewer (about how women are less vigorous than men) are so absurd and offensive and bizarre. An additional negative consequence of this affair is that PLOS ONE might be requiring reviewers to be non-anonymous. That would just require the sexist reviewers to hide their bias more effectively, meanwhile making the environment more difficult for junior scientists. Ugh. But as people point out, if you’re asked to do a review non-anonymously, then you don’t have to say yes. Then again, that’s not a good way to win the favor of influential editors, either :(

As for the outrageous PNAS paper that erroneously declared a bias in favor of women in STEM hiring decisions, this is the wittiest and most-spot on response. Meanwhile the authors of the original piece have chosen to respond to the great number of critical replies, the majority of whom are women. However, the authors somehow only chose to respond to the male critics. Huh? That irony itself speaks volumes.

Here is a summary of a good conversation about informal science education.

The anticlimax of finishing your dissertation.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Baltimore uprising. (This event resonates on my campus. We were essentially created as a university fifty years ago, in the aftermath of the Watts Rebellion. The campus was put in a huge patch of undeveloped land, just two blocks from Compton, to provide higher education for a community that has historically been denied access. We — as an institution — are a tangible example of a positive community response to uprisings that manifest from systemic violence and murder by police. Creating our university obviously didn’t fix the problem of police violence against black men — the LA uprising in 1992 was a response to the acquittal of the police who assaulted Rodney King. By remembering that we were united with the charge of rectifying a diffuse systemic illness, we are able to have higher expectations of ourselves and our broader community.)

Faculty mentoring faculty: Relationships that work (and those that don’t.): “If mentoring between colleagues happens in the context of relationships, then that explains why structured mentoring programs are only intermittently successful.”

2 thoughts on “Recommended Reads #52

  1. Re: the marks of students who finish exams faster vs. slower, I’ve looked at this semi-formally in the courses I teach, and haven’t found any relationship, even on exams in which there’s massive variation in the time students take. Basically, I think there are lots of different reasons for students to be fast or slow on exams. Some of which correlate positively with exam performance, some of which correlate negatively. So the net result is no correlation between time taken and exam performance.

  2. Interesting that NPR just recently picked up on that Italian experiment on student course evaluations and their subsequent performance. That study’s at least a year old, we’ve linked to it before.

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