Science Education

I thought Texas may buck the trend and put someone in charge of the Board of Education that cares about the state of our high school graduates and accuracy in the curriculum.  This is why I am not paid to think about things like policy and politics, Rick Perry has nominated Gail Lowe as the new head of the board.  And we’ve yet to hear a response from maybe the most powerful group of science standard bearers in the state, the university professors.  I have sent three letters now to Texas A&M, UT, and Texas Tech science faculty and have yet to receive a response or an acknowledgment about what is going on, but it seems to be par for the course for the gatekeepers of science in our state.  So who is Gail Lowe?

Looking at her track record on the board you can find that she stands for “traditional conservative values.”  This includes making our schools family friendly (unless your family is homosexual, because we all know that isn’t a real family), censoring books about alternative lifestyles, and maybe my favorite…”she guarantees she will turn down any book encouraging population removal or blaming global warming on the normal activities of everyday people” (emphasis mine).

Via TFN:

In 2004 Ms. Lowe opposed requiring that publishers obey curriculum standards and put medically accurate information about responsible pregnancy and disease prevention in new high school health textbooks.

In 2007 Ms. Lowe voted to throw out nearly three years of work by teacher writing teams on new language arts standards. Over the strenuous objections of teachers and curriculum specialists, Lowe instead voted for a standards document that the board’s far-right bloc patched together overnight and slipped under hotel doors the morning of the final vote.

In 2003 and 2009 Ms. Lowe supported dumbing down the state’s public school science curriculum by voting to include unscientific, creationist criticisms of evolution in science textbooks and curriculum standards.

And her conservative friends on the board just love her, here’s Terry Leo (R-Spring): “Philosophically I believe she is the most conservative SBOE member. We tease her, that if we are not voting with Gail we need to check our conservative compasses.”

And if didn’t seem things could get worse (more…)


So Francis Collins (of Human Genome Project fame) is the new pick to head the NIH under President Obama.  I would give my thoughts but they’ve been covered pretty well throughout the blogosphere.

You can guess the general reaction to a guy who published a book called The Language of God, and you would be right.  He has been panned by almost every writer I have seen so far.

PZ Myers, RPM and Steven Pinker questioned both his scientific knowledge and his reliance on religion to answer questions which he deems “unknowable“.  In the end I think this is what will get him.  His claims that humans have stopped evolving (this is stupid for so many reasons) and that every base in the human genome is functional should bring down the wrath of most scientists.  It won’t…

He has been getting flak for his insistence on parsing religious meaning into a scientific question.  He views morality, altruism, and other aspects of human behavior unknowable to the sciences.  He says that they must arise from God and that we as humans cannot answer these questions.  This is what should scare most of those who care about scientific advancement.  The whole purpose of the organization he is going to run is to probe our understanding of every scientific niche, not relegate wide swaths of it to the whims of a god.

Matt Nisbet and Dr. Val did throw their support behind him, with Dr. Val putting out some good reasoning as to why she thinks he will do well.

As for me, we all know that the Director of the NIH is nothing more than a figurehead to present to the public so why not get someone who is amazing at it?  I give you Neil deGrasse Tyson!!!!!  Call me biased (and I don’t care but I am) but I love everything this guy does.  He runs one of the most fascinating programs called NOVA ScienceNow on PBS and makes the talk show circuit pretty regularly (Colbert, Daily Show and this past week on Conan).  It doesn’t hurt that he was also named the sexiest astrophysicist by People Magazine in 2009.

The guy is personable and down to earth, heck he did a bit on Nova talking about the science of auto-tune (so you can sound like T-Pain).  You can’t beat that if you want to get the science out to the public.  And if we’re going to play the political game (Collins is going to fly through confirmation because of his religious beliefs, what if an athiest was this vocal about their stance? or a hindu? or muslim?) he is black, doesn’t that count for something (the answer should be no, but too often I think it is yes).

So there are my rambling thoughts on the direction we’re going to send the NIH, look for huge multi-center research projects that eat up half of the budget buying equipment and building space, and fear that everything that may contradict his belief in god will be shut down.

So they may be a little crass but I think they’re pretty funny and an interesting strategy to combat the misinformation that is spread around about “the link” between autism and vaccines.  And props for Leann Tweeden for appearing in the ads, along with Amanda Peet, this is two beautiful and intelligent women who have been able to break the Oprah hold.  Via Rethinking Autism

Wow, I just ran across this post from Genomicron about a special edition of the aforementioned journal which is available completely free on the internet.  It has some really good information in it and I encourage everyone to check it out.  The table of contents is listed here for easy copy and pasting for all you bloggers who want to pass on the information.

Evolution: Education and Outreach
Volume 1 Issue 4


351. Editorial by Gregory Eldredge and Niles Eldredge (PDF)

352-354. Introduction by T. Ryan Gregory (PDF)

355-357. Casting an Eye on Complexity by Niles Eldredge (PDF)

Original science / evolution reviews

358-389. The Evolution of Complex Organs by T. Ryan Gregory (PDF)
(Blog: Genomicron)

390-402. Opening the “Black Box”: The Genetic and Biochemical Basis of Eye Evolution by Todd H. Oakley and M. Sabrina Pankey (PDF)
(Blog: Evolutionary Novelties)

403-414. A Genetic Perspective on Eye Evolution: Gene Sharing, Convergence and Parallelism by Joram Piatigorsky (PDF)

415-426. The Origin of the Vertebrate Eye by Trevor D. Lamb, Edward N. Pugh, Jr., and Shaun P. Collin (PDF)

427-438. Early Evolution of the Vertebrate Eye–Fossil Evidence by Gavin C. Young (PDF)

439-447. Charting Evolution’s Trajectory: Using Molluscan Eye Diversity to Understand Parallel and Convergent Evolution by Jeanne M. Serb and Douglas J. Eernisse (PDF)

448-462. Evolution of Insect Eyes: Tales of Ancient Heritage, Deconstruction, Reconstruction, Remodeling, and Recycling by Elke Buschbeck and Markus Friedrich (PDF)

463-475. Exceptional Variation on a Common Theme: The Evolution of Crustacean Compound Eyes by Thomas W. Cronin and Megan L. Porter (PDF)

476-486. The Causes and Consequences of Color Vision by Ellen J. Gerl and Molly R. Morris (PDF)

487-492. The Evolution of Extraordinary Eyes: The Cases of Flatfishes and Stalk-eyed Flies by Carl Zimmer (PDF)
(Blog: The Loom)

493-497. Suboptimal Optics: Vision Problems as Scars of Evolutionary History by Steven Novella (PDF)
(Blog: NeuroLogica)

Curriculum articles

498-504. Bringing Homologies Into Focus by Anastasia Thanukos (PDF)
(Website: Understanding Evolution)

505-508. Misconceptions About the Evolution of Complexity by Andrew J. Petto and Louise S. Mead (PDF)
(Website: NCSE)

509-516. Losing Sight of Regressive Evolution by Monika Espinasa and Luis Espinasa (PDF)

Book reviews

548-551. Jay Hosler, An Evolutionary Novelty: Optical Allusions by Todd H. Oakley (PDF)

The print is small so click the pic for a bigger version.  Florida Citizens for Science sponsored a competition for the best stick figure drawings about science misunderstandings and they are hilarious, good job to everyone involved.  Go check out the winners and other finalists!

Yesterday the FDA advised the public not use use three Zicam products because they have been related to nerve damage and loss of smell.

  • Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal Gel
  • Zicam Cold Remedy Gel Swabs
  • Zicam Cold Remedy Swabs, Kids Size

Debrorah Autor, Director of the FDA’s Office of Compliance, laid out a pretty firm statement today when she said “consumers should stop using these products immediately and should discard or return them.”  Here’s a copy of the FDA’s letter to Matrixx Initiatives, the company who markets Zicam and other homeopathic “drugs”.

Zicam was an over-the-counter (OTC) product that had applied to the FDA as a homeopathic drug which means that it didn’t have to go through FDA approval to get put on the shelves.  Here’s the FDA’s Compliance Policy Guide (CPG) concerning homeopathy, I recommend you do not read it.  Well maybe if you’re a policy buff you would get into this but it really makes my head spin.

Homeopathy is truly a pseudo-science.  Many physicians and senior researchers attack the practice with more vitriol than a Hitler speech and even in my young scientific career I can easily see how the goal of homeopathy is to co-opt scientific ideals into a completely mystic form of treatment.  You can go all over the internet and find out why homeopathy is ridiculous but I feel the need to torture myself and look into the policy of homeopathy and how it relates to the FDA, specifically OTC products. (more…)

Two examples of items used to test anatomical knowledge
Two examples of items used to test anatomical knowledge

How well do you think you could do on an anatomy quiz like this?  If you frequent the south London public library my guess would be not very good.  That’s what University College London (UCL) researchers have found in a publication that recreated a 1970 study to see if the general public has improved in their knowledge of basic anatomy.

The results show that the public hasn’t improved in this area; or maybe I should restate it to say the medical community has not found a better way to reach the public about this type of anatomical information for the last 40 years.  Very surprising is that patients with diseases affecting specific organs are no better at finding the organ than the general public.  The liver disease and diabetes affected groups were the only two to show a significant increase in identifying their affected organ.

A few other stats that came from this study were that socio-demographic factors were associated with anatomical knowledge, and women did far better when given a representation of the female body.

The media saturation of health issues has surely grown over the last 40 years but yet the population is still no better at knowing the most basic features of anatomy.  The mean age for each selected group fell around 48 years old so there was no bias due to kids and one would assume that by 48 a person has had a few face-to-face meetings with a physician.

A worthwhile study would be to look at where discrepancies enter into the exchange of information.  Somewhere along the communication pathway there is a (or possibly many) reason that the patients and physicians aren’t seeing eye-to-eye.  Its scary to think what information a patient comes away with from a visit with a physician about complicated disease processes and necessary treatment protocols when a good majority can’t even tell you where the diseased organ is in their body.

I like this line that the researchers put at the end of the paper.

“Moreover recent evidence shows that when doctors’ and patients’ vocabulary for anatomical and other terms are matched in the consultation, then significant gains are found in patients’ overall satisfaction with the consultation as well as with specific components of it such as rapport, communication comfort and compliance intent.”1

This type of thing I feel like can easily be remedied by clear communication and doing little things like pointing to the part of the body instead of just saying the organ name all of the time.  Make use of all those pretty body illustrations you paid for in your exam rooms, it seems like that could clear a lot of confusion up.  This is a pretty glaring example of the information divide between health care professionals and patients.  Though we’ll never be able to explain a disease as in depth as we’d like (I mean there is a reason that medical school is difficult, followed by an even more difficult training program) there are some things we can do to make patients a little more stasfied when they leave the office.

This hits close to home as my step-father has Hepatitis C, a diagnosis he received in 1993.  Until earlier this year I don’t think he had much of a clue as to what the disease was, and until a gallstone popped up on an ultrasound no physician had explained to him how his liver coordinates and communicates with the other organ systems.  Liver disease had been an organ isolated disease in his mind until he had to consider the magnitude of a malfunctioning liver on his other body systems.

I leave you with a chart which are super simple to read and pretty much sum up all the data collected for this study.  Gotta love the Creative Commons License from the BMJ.

Percentages of correct answers for the location of each organ by each clinical group and the  general public sample
Percentages of correct answers for the location of each organ by each clinical group and the general public sample

Weinman, J., Yusuf, G., Berks, R., Rayner, S., & Petrie, K. (2009). How accurate is patients’ anatomical knowledge : a cross-sectional, questionnaire study of six patient groups and a general public sample. BMC Family Practice, 10 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1471-2296-10-43
1“The Impact of matching the patient’s vocabulary: a randomized control trial.” Nigel Williams, Jane Ogden. Family Practice 2004, 21(6). doi:10.1093/fampra/cmh610

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