Public Perceptions of Science

Yes, the public, on the whole, doesn’t understand STEM fields. In fact, one economist was briefly detained for questioning when a fellow passenger on an airliner saw what he was writing down and thought it might be something evil (it was a differential equation).

And the results can be difficult to understand. When one attempts to explain them to a non-expert, say via a popular article or a popular book, one has to make simplifications:


Though this meme is probably unnecessarily harsh, it does get across the point that when one is trying to understand something outside of one’s specialty, one is doing a translation of sorts, and we know that information can be lost in translation.

I go through this all the time when I go to mathematics conferences and take in a talk that is outside of my narrow area. I have the advantage that I KNOW that I am missing the nuances and that if I wanted to understand the results or the conjectures, I’d have to engage in intense study in that field..and I still might not be able to understand what is going on.

Aside from that, there is how the media interacts with the science studies themselves, along with the fact that scientists like publicity too. This John Oliver segment (30 minutes) is outstanding and is making the rounds on the various science blogs.

May 13, 2016 Posted by | mathematics, science, social/political | Leave a comment

Human evolution: vestigial traits in the human body

Many of the traits of our body are there because they were useful to our distant ancestors:

There are other traits that wouldn’t make sense if we were intentionally designed; the Vagus nerve is one of them.

I can recommend Neil Shubin’s book Your Inner Fish.

March 20, 2016 Posted by | evolution, science | | Leave a comment

Human evolution and cross breeding

I recently joked about new discoveries on humans mating with other homo species. There is more detail here, including how scientists figure this stuff out. Of interest is that we had mating with other homos both in the “failed migration” out of Africa, and again in the successful one (65 K years ago), and these conclusions are possible because of modern genome sequencing techniques.

On a more mundane (but still fun) level, here is a little video describing an evolutionary trajectory that lead to modern humans.

Science humor: a joke about curved spacetime:


February 19, 2016 Posted by | evolution, human sexuality, physics, science | , , | Leave a comment

Should have been my Valentines Day Post (human evolution)

Hey, you think that you’ve pushed the envelope in seeking romance? Both of us are downright shy compared to what our ancient ancestors did:

The discovery of yet another period of interbreeding between early humans and Neanderthals is adding to the growing sense that sexual encounters among different ancient human species were commonplace throughout their history.

“As more early modern humans and archaic humans are found and sequenced, we’re going to see many more instances of interbreeding,” says Sergi Castellano, a population geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. His team discovered the latest example, which they believe occurred around 100,000 years ago, by analysing traces of Homo sapiens DNA in a Neanderthal genome extracted from a toe bone found in a cave in Siberia.

“There is this joke in the population genetics community — there’s always one more interbreeding event,” Castellano says. So before researchers discover the next one, here’s a rundown of the interbreeding episodes that they have already deduced from studies of ancient DNA.

5 different episodes of inbreeding are discussed, with two different species of homo (based on DNA analysis) Surf to the article to read the rest. The conclusion:

We’re looking at a Lord of the Rings-type world — that there were many hominid populations,” one evolutionary geneticist told Nature when the findings were presented at a conference in 2013.

Kink is nothing new for us; in fact we are tamer than we used to be.

February 18, 2016 Posted by | evolution, human sexuality, nature, science | | Leave a comment

Best intentions waylaid by blogging: Dawkins, Scalia, Clinton and Trump

I had a good morning; long run and a delightful lunch with a dear friend, where we caught up on our personal lives and discussed the events of the day.

So, I figured I’d study some, and yes, it isn’t evening yet. So I might still do that. But for now, some on the events of the day:

Antonin Scalia has been found dead in West Texas. No, I didn’t like his rulings nor his politics nor his social views. But he had friends and loved ones, and there is no doubt that he was a very smart, successful man. I’ll never see anything close to that level of success. So I’ll leave my remarks at that.

Richard Dawkins had a stroke, but his prognosis is excellent. Here he gives a public update.

Politics The uproar over Hillary Clinton’s e-mail is mostly political nonsense. I am NOT saying she handled this optimally (politically speaking) but it really is a non-issue.

Republicans Ok, it is down to Trump, Carson, Cruz, Kasich, Rubio, and Bush. Who will prevail? Right now, Trump is in the driver’s seat. Sam Wang discusses this here, in terms of delegates and how the GOP assigns them after a primary election:

Given the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as national polls, if the Republican front-runner were a more conventional candidate we would be writing about near-inevitability. Donald Trump is in a very similar position to Mitt Romney’s at this point in 2012 – if anything, a somewhat stronger position. In 2012 Romney lagged at various points to other candidates. For Trump, this has not happened since he entered the race.

Nonetheless, what would it take for Trump to fail to get the nomination?

With the Republican field so divided after New Hampshire, the path for anyone other than Trump requires nearly all candidates to drop out. Multiple candidates want that to happen. For example, Ted Cruz thinks it is time to unite around one candidate: Ted Cruz. And so on. However, after getting 3 or 4 convention delegates each on Tuesday, Cruz, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio all have reasons to stay in. Under these conditions, Trump wins.

Many political journalists have a wrong understanding of the early-state delegate process. It is not proportional at all, but what I call pseudo-proportional. As suggested by my computational simulation of the delegate process [the code is here], in a field of four candidates, an average-across-states vote share of 30% is enough to get 50% of delegates through Super Tuesday. That’s an average: the winner could get 20% of the vote in Texas and 40% in Georgia, and so on. Donald Trump is well on track for this scenario: he won 24% of the vote in Iowa and 35% in New Hampshire. As of today, he is at 36% in national surveys.

The not-Trump scenario occurs if Republicans cull their field, fast. […]

Surf to the article to read the detailed, but highly readable analysis. It is interesting.

February 13, 2016 Posted by | Friends, political/social, politics, science | , , , | Leave a comment

A lesson from monkeys and a joke….

I’ll start with what I think is the underlying principle.

Here are a couple hypothetical questions:

1. You and someone else apply for a job opening. You are told that there is one opening. What stings worse:

a. The other person gets the job and you are just told “no”.
b. The other person gets the job. Then you are told: “we are sorry..but we do have this lesser position that we’d like to offer you.”

Now I know that when money is tight and one really needs a job, one might see option “b” as preferable. But what “stings” your ego more?

2. You are single (unattached) and have a romantic interest in someone..or at least are attracted to them. There is an outing/event that you are interested in. What stings worse:

a. You ask them out and they say “no”.
b. You ask them out and they say “yes, but only as “friends””, making it clear that they have no romantic interest in you.
c. They ask YOU to the event, but only as a “safe friend” because they don’t have to worry about romantic feelings getting in the way (or for some other reason, say, their first choice turned them down).

At least for me, it is pretty clear which stings less (“a”). (Remember, I am talking as a single person; as a married person I have female friends whose company I look forward to and enjoy at things like hikes, yoga classes, runs, sporting events, etc.)

Now this is illogical, in a sense. Isn’t “we want you for this” better than “we don’t want you at all”? Isn’t companionship with someone you like better than none at all?

And, in this case of a monkey, isn’t a piece of less tasty food better than no food at all?

Evidently not, at least to this monkey.

What brought on this train of thought: the joke

From time to time, I post a photo of a handsome guy for my lady friends. And once in a while, just for fun, I’ll open myself up to be “roasted” (I call it a “goat roast”, because my online persona is a ornery, dimwitted, smelly goat).


I got a few “politically correct” “awww, I’d hug you instead of the hunk” responses, which was fine. I got one “I’d hug you because you probably smarter than that moron” type of response (from a scientist)..ok, I liked that one. I admit that I’d rather hug a plainer looking but smarter, accomplished woman over someone who merely looks “hot”. But that is me, at my current age.

And most of my women friends played along with the “sorry pal, you are out of luck; I’m hugging the hottie”, which was what the post was for. I even mocked being sad about it:

But ONE response …actually angered me even though it was intended to be part of the joke (I think): it was “oh, I’ll hug the guy on the right but I’d give the one on the left so much more..”
My immediate response wasn’t like it was with the others “sorry buddy, but he is hotter than you” responses. I’m too polite to reproduce some of the thoughts that I had…and that was over a frigging joke!

But I think that I had nightmares of the old “dating/friend zone” stuff all over again, so many years …wait, make that decades ago (early 80’s?)

Anyway, my reaction surprised me..and then I remembered the monkey inequality experiment.

February 1, 2016 Posted by | economics, nature, relationships, science | , , , | Leave a comment

Trying to put some quality back in the blog

Ok, while I’ll still post about workouts, races, games (and to be fair, cute butts), I’ll attempt to at least add some intellectual content back to the blog. It has been missing lately.

Workout notes: about 6 miles of running, which included 35 minutes of hill repeats in Lower Bradley Park (the hill near the dog park); that stretch is barricaded off for the winter and yet is ice free. The first 6 weren’t that bad; the final 4 hurt. I tried to go hard enough to make myself stop and walk when I got to the top of the hill.

Nature is brutal Via Why Evolution is True

That is how it works, isn’t it? Either one animal dies so another can live, or one survives and the predator goes hungry. I’ve seen duels between squirrels and birds of prey before; the squirrels won the encounters that I saw. But they don’t always…obviously.

Politics I don’t often read Robert Reich saying “son of a bitch” but here he uses the phrase. Yes, he is talking about the “revolutionary” candidates: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

I’ve been both amused and saddened to see some of the Democratic infighting. I don’t mind debates over ideas. But I’ve been “unfriended” by Sanders supporters who accused me of being…well, some dupe of the oligarchy, blinded or something else. I find this to be an especially interesting accusation when it comes from someone whose own life doesn’t demonstrate exceptional intellect, insight or talent.

I don’t mind differences of opinion, but if you are going to accuse me of being a delusional, duped might ask yourself why I’d be willing to accept such a rebuke from you.

But hey, some of these accusations are being directed at PAUL KRUGMAN?

But if you’re a progressive who not only supports Sanders but is furious with anyone skeptical about his insurgency, someone who considers Mike Konczal a minion and me a corrupt crook, you might want to ask why Barack Obama is saying essentially the same things as the progressive Bernie skeptics. And you might want to think hard about why you’re not just sure that you’re right, but sure that anyone who disagrees must be evil.

And yes, there are issues with Sen. Sander’s health care platform and those who have actually worked on this issue can see it:

Oh well. Meanwhile, the Sanders skepticism of the wonks continues: Paul Starr lays out the case. As far as I can tell, every serious progressive policy expert on either health care or financial reform who has weighed in on the primary seems to lean Hillary. This could be because being in the trenches of the health care fight gives you an acute sense of the possible, and because having paid close attention to the financial crisis makes you a shadow-banking, not too big to fail guy. Or it could be because they are, one and all, corrupt corporate lackeys. I report, you decide.

Just to be clear, Sanders himself is not at fault here. And if Hillary is the nominee, I expect him to do what she herself did in 2008, and will surely do if he wins an upset: make it clear that whatever their differences, and whatever the primary loser’s personal frustration, there’s no comparison with the reactionary extremism of all the GOP candidates.

But it’s disappointing to see so much intolerance over what are basically differences in strategy, not goals.

Civil liberties, free speech, free press and the like

Remember the unrest at the University of Missouri? Well, a faculty member has been charged with assault:

On Monday, Melissa Click learned that lesson, as prosecutors charged her with assault.

Click is the communication professor who grabbed a videographer’s camera and said in a confrontation with a reporter covering a public protest at the University of Missouri: “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here. I need some muscle over here.”

I recommend reading the rest of Mr. Randazza’s article (he is a First Amendment attorney); he admits that the charges, while legal, might be overkill. He suggests that her being fired might be the better action. A biology professor from the University of Chicago also weighs in.

I don’t know how I feel about the firing; I feel that a reprimand is in order. And yes, this is the problem with zealots (be they classified as left wing zealots or right wing zealots): they are SO sure that they are on the side of “right” that they’ll not only break the law, but they’ll also trample on other people’s rights in the process.

It seems that all of them view themselves as, say, those who protested unjust racial segregation. So there is part of me that thinks “good; teach this unrepentant attention-seeking self-righteous idiot a lesson” but overreacting is never good either.

(psst: that is one reason that Donald Trump appeals to me just a little: he isn’t afraid to call out the idiots).

Censorship and good intentions
Beware of proposed legislation which limits free speech under the guise of “good intentions“:

A Kentucky legislator recently proposed a narrow restriction on free expression — and it seems that it came from reasonable and logical intentions. Unfortunately, when you consider this idea while keeping the First Amendment in mind, the implications are no longer acceptable. They are intolerable.

Representative John Carney introduced a bill to prohibit anyone who witnesses “an event that could reasonably result in a series of physical injury” from publishing information about that event on the internet for at least an hour if their posting could identify potential victims.

I see where he is coming from. Do you want to hear about your loved one being killed in a car accident from Facebook? Do you want to wake up from an accident and find your traumatic and personal experience all over Twitter? I get it. In short, we have significant social media privacy issue – and the United States seems to be forgetting all about privacy issues as we steam forward into the Internet’s adolescence.


A law like this is what is known as a “prior restraint” – a rule that attempts to prevent speech from occurring. As Justice Blackstone eloquently wrote: The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state, but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications…” Or, as Walter Sobchak shouted, “THE SUPREME COURT HAS ROUNDLY REJECTED PRIOR RESTRAINT!” Kinney v. Barnes, 57 Tex. Sup. J. 1428 at n.7, (Tex. 2014) (citing SOBCHAK, W., THE BIG LEBOWSKI, 1998). See also, How to Cite to Walter Sobchak.

That rejection is rounder than you can spin me like a record. Rounder than Ken’s noggin.

It has been that way since Near vs. Minnesota. So, you’ve had 85 years to get with the program.

Prior Restraints are permissible under the U.S. Constitution. However, they are restricted to situations with which there is an immediate, clear and present danger that something awful will happen if the speech gets out there.

Read the rest of Randazza’s article: it is excellent. Good intentions often have terrible consequences. Example: do you want to have a law that allows you to criminalize the act of recording police misconduct?

January 28, 2016 Posted by | nature, politics, politics/social, running, science | , , , , | Leave a comment

The 12 days of “ugh..”

Workout notes: lightening did not allow for me to swim during my planned “workout window” so I walked to the university indoor track and walked 8 miles (64 laps of the middle lane): 1:51:15. All miles were about 13:55 plus/minus a few seconds; no 14 minute miles but no sub 13:40 either. Very, very consistent and slow-ish.

Then I did a little bit of yoga.

The gym was empty though I did see two older guys; one I had followed at the Peoria Marathon (but couldn’t quite catch and stay ahead of) and one who ran a 4:15, which pleased him.

Issues: well, the Holidays are the price I pay for having a good year. I’ll have a chance to “get away” though (2 day). I am looking forward to it. I’ll probably also write a “Christmas/New Years Newsletter” and post it here.


Of course, I’ll just touch on highlights and keep some private stuff private. But yeah, many (most?) have stuff going on beneath the surface that few others realize.

And I am going to write about some mathematics!

I’ll close with a bit of science: not all stuff that appears in the public media is correct; this video, while mostly good, does make some errors (and not just the “buzz bombs” error either; it was plain old conventional bombing that drove them to the subways):

December 23, 2015 Posted by | evolution, science, walking | Leave a comment

Between classes

I’ve got incentive: IF I get done with grading I’ll get to watch the clowns the Republican debate…and maybe, just maybe, catch the Rams last game in St. Louis on Thursday night. Yes, Donald Trump fascinates me, and yes, his ideas are really mainstream Republican ideas. What the Republican elites object to is his tone and manner of presenting such ideas directly.

I’m done with scoring the final exams for one class and about to start another batch.

Workout notes: 10K shuffle (aka run) in Bradley Park; I was a wee bit faster today than I had been recently. Great weather for December in Illinois (slightly chilly; leggings under shorts was overkill). I didn’t have the “fire in the belly” to push the pace though.

Quick posts

A friend sent me this. There is some truth in this, even for math research talks. Here is what often happens to me: I’ll go to a research talk in an area that is “sort of close” to mine. Now keep in mind that while I’ve been modestly active, because I am a small college professor, my research has been rather narrowly focused.

So the talk might start with some concept that I’ve seen before, perhaps 20-30 years ago. My mind will try to recall that concept and make sense of it….and by the time I return the speaker has moved on and I am hopelessly lost. The good news is that if the topic isn’t too far away, I can often find the speaker’s notes and study them later.


Science and Spandex


But, but…I was just studying the Periodic Table!

Affirmative Action Yes, I am in favor of affirmative action…done correctly. Many opponents of affirmative action don’t have their facts straight. But some who support affirmative action don’t have their facts straight either.

I am no fan of Justice Scalia but, in my opinion, he had a valid point when he said that some students would actually be harmed by being put into academic programs that they weren’t ready for. Yes, that applies to white students too (some elite universities have “regional affirmative action” which I’ve seen applied to not only racial minorities but to, say, white students from underserved rural areas).

The Naval Academy (and the other service academies) have prep schools to get promising recruits up to speed academically prior to entering and, for the most part, it does little good to throw underprepared students to the wolves before they are ready.

December 15, 2015 Posted by | education, mathematics, republicans, republicans politics, running, science, social/political, spandex | , , , | Leave a comment

Frogs and some college issues…

Frogs There is an African frog, known as the rubber frog, which evidently found a way to mimic the chemical signature of a particularly vicious type of ant. The ants don’t recognize this frog as something to attack and eat. This is called “chemical camouflage”.

Colleges and universities There have been a few articles in the news about student unrest in universities; for example. Now I linked to an article from The Nation (written by a professor) which, of course, enables this sort of behavior (e. g. students issuing “demands” to college presidents and the like).

What is going on? Jerry Coyne directs us to this Jonathan Haidt article: he claims that certain groups are conferred “victim status” even while in high school and everyone else is told to “shut up and listen” (so to speak). He comments that this happens in high school:

And Centerville High is not alone. Last summer I had a conversation with some boys who attend one of the nation’s top prep schools, in New England. They reported the same thing: as white males, they are constantly on eggshells, afraid to speak up on any remotely controversial topic lest they be sent to the “equality police” (that was their term for the multicultural center). I probed to see if their fear extended beyond the classroom. I asked them what they would do if there was a new student at their school, from, say Yemen. Would they feel free to ask the student questions about his or her country? No, they said, it’s too risky, a question could be perceived as offensive.
You might think that this is some sort of justice — white males have enjoyed positions of privilege for centuries, and now they are getting a taste of their own medicine. But these are children. And remember that most students who are in a victim group for one topic are in the “oppressor” group for another. So everyone is on eggshells sometimes; all students at Centerville High learn to engage with books, ideas, and people using the twin habits of defensive self-censorship and vindictive protectiveness.
And then… they go off to college and learn new ways to gain status by expressing collective anger at those who disagree. They curse professors and spit on visiting speakers at Yale. They shut down newspapers at Wesleyan. They torment a dean who was trying to help them at Claremont McKenna. They threaten and torment fellow students at Dartmouth. And in all cases, they demand that adults in power DO SOMETHING to punish those whose words and views offend them. Their high schools have thoroughly socialized them into what sociologists call victimhood culture, which weakens students by turning them into “moral dependents” who cannot deal with problems on their own. They must get adult authorities to validate their victim status.
So they issue ultimatums to college presidents, and, as we saw at Yale, the college presidents meet their deadlines, give them much of what they demanded, commit their schools to an ever tighter embrace of victimhood culture, and say nothing to criticize the bullying, threats, and intimidation tactics that have created a culture of intense fear for anyone who might even consider questioning the prevailing moral matrix. What do you suppose a conversation about race or gender will look like in any Yale classroom ten years from now? Who will dare to challenge the orthodox narrative imposed by victimhood culture? The “Next Yale” that activists are demanding will make today’s Centerville High look like Plato’s Academy by comparison.

There are some tough issues that deserve a fearless and complete intellectual investigation (e. g. is affirmative action a good idea?) and shouting down different points of view…well…that does no good at all. After all, are people spending lots of time, effort and money to find ways to be offended?

And speaking of higher education, I wish that columnists who write “colleges and universities should do this” actually knew what they were talking about. This person does not. Example: when he talks about faculty and summer, he should have researched the topic; he would have found out that many of us (tenured professors) have 9-10 month contracts. As far as costs: the new technology (computers, internet) is a huge cost driver. A professor writes a nice response.

December 3, 2015 Posted by | education, frogs, science | , , , | Leave a comment


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