Monthly Archives: August 2017

What is a species?

The Logic of Science

Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

Before you read any further, I want you to take a minute and try to answer the question in the title. Go ahead and write down (or at least think about) the definition that scientists use to determine whether or not two organisms are members of the same species. Now that you have hopefully done that, I am going to burst you’re bubble and tell you that if you wrote down a definition, then no matter what definition you wrote, you’re wrong, or at the very least, incomplete. You see, there is no one universally agreed upon definition of a species. Rather, there are numerous “species concepts” and scientists debate endlessly about what constitutes a species. Further, taxonomic revisions happen constantly and it is extremely common for one “species” to get split up into multiple “species” while other “species” get lumped together into a single…

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Reluctant hero Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children from the Holocaust, dies at 106

Why Evolution Is True

Nicholas Winton is not only an unknown hero, but a reluctant one.  A London stockbroker, he flew to Prague in 1938 and, seeing the many Jewish refugees (and prescient about what would happen to Europe’s Jews under the Nazis), he went to work organizing a series of railroad trains to evacuate Jewish children to Britain, one of the few countries that would accept them. Winton saved 669 lives in seven trainloads, but on Sept. 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, the trains stopped. The 669 children lived, but became orphans, as nearly all their parents died in the concentration camps.

Here’s Winton with one of his beneficiaries:

02wintonobit3-master675 From the NYT: A family picture of Nicholas Winton with one of the hundreds of Jewish children whose lives he saved during World War II. Credit Press Association, via Associated Press

Winton, whose effort was hercuclean—involving bribes, donations, and complicated paperwork—never spoke of his deed after the…

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Nicholas Winton: the man who saved 669 children from the Holocaust

Why Evolution Is True

This morning Matthew Cobb sent me a tweet that reminded me of this story—a story I’d known about but never mentioned. It’s about Nicholas Winton—now Sir Nicholas Winton—a British stockbroker who, on a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1938, managed to launch a rescue operation that ultimately saved 669 children, most of them Jewish, from the Holocaust. Rather than recount the details, just watch the “60 Minutes” clip below, the way I first learned about him. It was filmed when Winton was 104.

In 1988, the BBC, in a surprise event, reunited Winton with many of the children he had saved. Winton was a guest at a television show recounting his exploits, and suddenly the host asked if anybody whom Winton had saved was in the studio. The BBC had brought 24 of those children (80 were living in Britain) to the show, unbeknownst to Winton, and all of them…

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2017 Bendigo Writers Festival

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

Apologies for being offline this last weekend when we were at the Bendigo Writers Festival – but the internet was playing up at the hotel we stayed at.  I read books instead of blogging, of course! (More about that later, reviews are on the way).

We started Saturday with David Marr in conversation with Sian Gard in a session called Mood Swings. It was about That Dreadful Woman who was the subject of the most recent Quarterly Essay called The White Queen. I’m a subscriber to QE, so I have a copy of it but I’m afraid it went to the Op Shop unread, because I find That Woman and the politics she is associated with, so very depressing.  Marr, however, made an entertaining session of this, though I have to say he had an easy target…

After that The Spouse went to something called Make Mind Music, and that…

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Climate change has changed the way I think about science. Here’s why

The Conversation

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Science is a human approach to understanding the world. Nitirak Rakitiworakun/shutterstock

Sophie Lewis, Australian National University

I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was five years old.

My idea of a scientist was someone in a lab, making hypotheses and testing theories. We often think of science only as a linear, objective process. This is also the way that science is presented in peer reviewed journal articles – a study begins with a research question or hypothesis, followed by methods, results and conclusions.

It turns out that my work now as a climate scientist doesn’t quite gel with the way we typically talk about science and how science works.

Climate change, and doing climate change research, has changed the way I see and do science. Here are five points that explain why.


Read more: Australia needs dozens more scientists to monitor climate properly


1. Methods aren’t always necessarily falsifiable

Falsifiability is the idea that an assertion can be shown to be false by an experiment or an observation, and is critical to distinctions between “true science” and “pseudoscience”.

Climate models are important and complex tools for understanding the climate system. Are climate models falsifiable? Are they science? A test of falsifiability requires a model test or climate observation that shows global warming caused by increased human-produced greenhouse gases is untrue. It is difficult to propose a test of climate models in advance that is falsifiable.

Science is complicated – and doesn’t always fit the simplified version we learn as children. FoxyImage/shutterstock

This difficulty doesn’t mean that climate models or climate science are invalid or untrustworthy. Climate models are carefully developed and evaluated based on their ability to accurately reproduce observed climate trends and processes. This is why climatologists have confidence in them as scientific tools, not because of ideas around falsifiability.

2. There’s lots of ways to interpret data

Climate research is messy. I spent four years of my PhD reconstructing past changes in Australian and Indonesian rainfall over many thousands of years. Reconstructing the past is inherently problematic. It is riddled with uncertainty and subject to our individual interpretations.

During my PhD, I submitted a paper for publication detailing an interpretation of changes in Indonesian climates, derived from a stalagmite that formed deep in a cave.

My coauthors had disparate views about what, in particular, this stalagmite was telling us. Then, when my paper was returned from the process of peer review, seemingly in shreds, it turns out the two reviewers themselves had directly opposing views about the record.

What happens when everyone who looks at data has a different idea about what it means? (The published paper reflects a range of different viewpoints).

Another example of ambiguity emerged around the discussion of the hiatus in global warming. This was the temporary slowdown in the rate of global warming at the Earth’s surface occurring roughly over the 15 year period since 1997. Some sceptics were adamant that this was unequivocal proof that the world was not warming at all and that global warming was unfounded.

There was an avalanche of academic interest in the warming slowdown. It was attributed to a multitude of causes, including deep ocean processes, aerosols, measurement error and the end of ozone depletion.

Ambiguity and uncertainty are key parts of the natural world, and scientific exploration of it.

3. Sometimes the scientist matters as well as the results

I regularly present my scientific results at public lectures or community events. I used to show a photo depicting a Tasmanian family sheltering under a pier from a fire front. The sky is suffused with heat. In the ocean, a grandmother holds two children while their sister helps her brother cling to underside of the pier.

After a few talks, I had to remove the photo from my PowerPoint presentation because each time I turned around to discuss it, it would make me teary. I felt so strongly that the year we were living was a chilling taste of our world to come.

Just outside of Sydney, tinderbox conditions occurred in early spring of 2013, following a dry, warm winter. Bushfires raged far too early in the season. I was frightened of a world 1°C hotter than now (regardless of what the equilibrium climate sensitivity turns out to be).

At public lectures and community events, people want to know that I am frightened about bushfires. They want to know that I am concerned about the vulnerability of our elderly to increasing summer heat stress. People want to know that, among everything else, I remain optimistic about our collective resilience and desire to care for each other.


Read more: Distrust of experts happens when we forget they are human beings


Communicating how we connect with scientific results is also important part of the role of climate scientists. That photo of the family who survived the Tasmanian bushfire is now back in my presentations.

4. Society matters too

In November 2009, computer servers at the University of East Anglia were illegally hacked and email correspondence was stolen.

A selection of these emails was published publicly, focusing on quotes that purported to reveal dishonest practices that promoted the myth of global warming. The “climategate” scientists were exhaustively cleared of wrongdoing.

On the surface, the climategate emails were an unpleasant but unremarkable event. But delving a little deeper, this can be seen as a significant turning point in society’s expectations of science.

While numerous fastidious reviews of the scientists cleared them of wrongdoing, the strong and ongoing public interest in this matter demonstrates that society wants to know how science works, and who “does” science.

There is a great desire for public connection with the processes of science and the outcomes of scientific pursuits. The public is not necessarily satisfied by scientists working in universities and publishing their finding in articles obscured by pay walls, which cannot be publicly accessed.

A greater transparency of science is required. This is already taking off, with scientists communicating broadly through social and mainstream media and publishing in open access journals.

5. Non-experts can be scientists

Climate science increasingly recognises the value of citizen scientists.

Enlisting non-expert volunteers allows researchers to investigate otherwise very difficult problems, for example when the research would have been financially and logistically impossible without citizen participation.


Read more: Exoplanet discovery by an amateur astronomer shows the power of citizen science


The OzDocs project involved volunteers digitising early records of Australian weather from weather journals, government gazettes, newspapers and our earliest observatories. This project provided a better understanding of the climate history of southeastern Australia.

Personal computers also provide another great tool for citizen collaborators. In one ongoing project, climate scientists conduct experiments using publicly volunteered distributed computing. Participants agree to run experiments on their home or work computers and the results are fed back to the main server for analysis.

While we often think of scientists as trained experts working in labs and publishing in scholarly journals, the lines aren’t always so clear. Everyone has an opportunity to contribute to science.

My new book explores this space between the way science is discussed and the way it takes place.

The ConversationThis isn’t a criticism of science, which provides a useful way to explore and understand the natural world. It is a celebration of the richness, diversity and creativity of science that drives this exploration.

Sophie Lewis, Research fellow, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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More attempts to find out what happened to Amelia Earhart

Why Evolution Is True

In my continuing presentation of new evidence for what happened to Amelia Earhart—evidence that always turns out to be wrong—I’ll add this new article from National Geographic:Forensic dogs locate spot where Amelia Earhart may have died.” This summer, an expedition sponsored by National Geographic (which has an obsession with Earhart’s story) as well as The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), brought a team of researchers, as well as four “bone-sniffing” border collies, to Nikumaroro Island—about 400 miles from Earhart’s reported destination, Howland Island. (She was accompanied by her navigator Fred Noonan.)

Why Nikumaroro? National Geographic says there’s evidence of something there that could be Earhart-related:

TIGHAR’s hypothesis is that, when the aviators couldn’t find Howland, they landed on Nikumaroro’s reef during low tide. Proponents of competing theories argue that Earhart’s plane crashed and sank into the ocean, or that she ended up in the hands…

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Readers’ wildlife photos

Why Evolution Is True

Keep sending in your good photos, folks—I’ll be here all year.

The first two photos come from reader James, but he says to credit the photo to “Lusoman”. It’s a very unusual deer, and here are his notes:

This is a piebald Columbian black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) that was born last spring, and which we see regularly in Freeland on Whidbey Island in Washington state. We feed her, as do others in our community, and we’ve given her the nickname “Whitey.” Luckily, the hunters haven’t gotten to her yet. She lives primarily on an area of bluff woodland that is posted for hunting.

I hope nobody shoots her; she’d stand out in the woods like a sore thumb.  The first picture was taken in February, the second in late June. At any rate, this deer shows the condition of leucism, non-albino loss of pigmentation:

The next set…

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Salon disses dismisses Google memo as “biological determinism” that can “slip into eugenicist doctrines”

Why Evolution Is True

UPDATE:  A new piece at the Heterodox Academy by Sean Stevens and Jon Haidt, ‘The Google Memo: what does it say about gender differences?“, examines Damore’s claims about sex differences in ability and preferences by reviewing a great deal of the relevant literature. Some of it supports his claims; other bits don’t. Their general conclusions are below, but you should read their piece:

3) OUR CONCLUSIONS

The research findings are complicated, as you can see from the many abstracts containing both red and green text, and from the presence on both sides of the debate of some of the top researchers in psychology. Nonetheless, we think that the situation can be greatly clarified by distinguishing abilities from interests. We think the following three statements are supported by the research reviewed above:

1. Gender differences in math/science ability, achievement, and performance are small or nil.* (See especially the…

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The ideological opposition to biological truth

Why Evolution Is True

One distressing characteristic of the Left, at least as far as science is concerned, is to let our ideology trump scientific data; that is, some of us ignore biological data when it’s inimical to our political preferences. This plays out in several ways: the insistence that race doesn’t exist (and before you accuse me of saying that races do exist, read about what I’ve written here before: the issue is complex), that there are no evolutionarily-based innate (e.g., genetically based) behavioral or psychological differences between ethnic groups, and that there are no such differences, either, between males and females within humans.

These claims are based not on biological data, but on ideological fears of the Left: if we admit of such differences, it could foster racism and sexism.  Thus. any group differences we do observe, whether they reside in psychology, physiology, or morphology, are to be explained on first principle as resulting from culture rather…

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Slate article questions the veracity of science because of the Google document

Why Evolution Is True

I’ve read the infamous Google document, and I found it a mixed bag, though I don’t think the guy should have been fired for it. (That said, I have no idea about his history with Google). As reader Coel pointed out in a comment in the discussion thread on the Google fracas, there’s a much better article on the Slate Star Codex by Scott Alexander, “Contra Grant on exaggerated differences“, which makes the case that disproportionate outcomes, like a different proportion of men versus women in different professions, might reflect at least in part a difference in preferences based on psychological differences between men and women.  The point is not that there’s no gender bias in the tech industry (my techie friends whom I trust say that there is), but that the disparity in representation might not completely reflect sexist barriers to entry but also different preferences…

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