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September 15 is National Online Learning Day. Now that everyone should be well and truly back to school, I thought it would be a good time for a few miscellaneous notes on various resources.
Evolution: A Course for Educators. American Museum of Natural History via Coursera. Learn about evolution from an expert at one of the best places in the world to study it. Taught by Dr. Joel Cracraft, the course will cover everything you need to teach evolution well. The course is free and offers a paid certificate for teacher professional development hours. It is four weeks long and requires 5-8 a week. It begins October 1st, so you will be done by Halloween.
Introduction to Human Evolution. Wellesley College via edX. A subject that is endlessly fascinating, but seldom taught in schools. Learn about the origins of us from an expert. Taught by Dr. Adam Van Arsdale, the course is self paced, meaning you can start when you want. It takes 4-6 hours for four weeks and is free.
Paleontology: Theropod Dinosaurs and the Origin of Birds. University of Alberta via Coursera. A five week course headed by the esteemed dinosaur expert Dr. Phillip Currie on the anatomy, diversity, and evolution of theropods leading to birds. They offer a paid certificate for those needing the credit. Expect to spend 4-7 hours a week on the course. The course is free, but it started September 12, so join up now before you get too far behind.
Paleontology: Early Vertebrate Evolution. University of Alberta via Coursera. This course covers the evolution of vertebrates through the Paleozoic Era and is taught by Dr. Alison Murray. This is a four week course with an expected 3-5 hours per week. This course is free, but offers a paid certificate for those who need the credit. This course also started September 12th, so sign up now.
Dinosaur Ecosystems. University of Hong Kong via edX. A six week course on dinosaurs in their habitats. The course is taught by a collaboration of Dr. Michael Pittman and Dr. Xu Xing, along with other guests, all with an abundance of expertise on the topic. As a bonus, the course includes the work of one of my favorite paleoartists, Julius Csotonyi. The course requires 1-2 hours a week, so not a big time commitment. It is free, although it does offer a paid certificate for those who need the credit, and starts October 4th.
Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology. University of Alberta via Coursera. Another course by Phil Currie, along with Dr. Betsy Kruk. This is a great introduction to dinosaurs. It is 12 weeks long and requires an estimated 3-10 hours per week, so expect more out of this course. The course is free and starts September 29th, so get signed up now.
Origins – Formation of the Universe, Solar System, Earth and Life. University of Copenhagen via Coursera. Learn how it all began by Dr. Henning Haack. This course is 12 weeks long and expects 5-7 hours a week. The course is free and starts September 17th, so don’t waste time signing up.
There are several more available. If you go to any of the course links shown here, they will guide you to other related courses that are available.
Tetrapod Zoology. Darren Naish has kept his blog, often abbreviated to TetZoo, for over a decade. Through all the years, he has provided multitudinous essays on a variety of animal groups, both extant and extinct. Sprinkled in are also essays on the truth of cryptids (Bigfoot, Nessie, and the like), paleoart, and other topics. Sadly, the blog at Scientific American has closed up shop. But don’t panic, because it has moved to another location. He has set up shop under his own banner at Tetzoo.com. Time to change your bookmarks.
Beautiful Minds. Scott Barry Kaufman has been writing a Scientific American blog about psychology off and on. He recently announced an upgrade to the blog allowing him to have a weekly online column, so expect more articles about human nature from him.
Science Sushi by Christie Wilcox has always been one of my favorite blogs. While I am not a marine biologist by any stretch, she has always been interesting to read. So it is sad to report her Discover blog is closing up shop. She is moving to ScienceSushi.com, but will not be adding regularly to it. She will continuing to write, so keep an eye out for her on the sites she lists in the post linked to here.
Dataset Search. You’ve heard of Google Search, Google Scholar, Google Maps, and a plethora of other ways Google lets people search the web. Now meet Dataset Search, for when you are trying to find data that has been published or stored online. This searches for data files or databases according to how they are identified, not by what is in the file.
Science without publication paywalls: cOAlition S for the realization of full and immediate Open Access, by Marc Shiltz. PLoS Biology. 2018. This article discusses Plan S, a proposal by a coalition of European leaders to make science articles free for everyone. In their words, “no science should be locked behind paywalls!” (emphasis theirs).
Seriously, Science? A great blog on Discovermagazine.com that covered weird and humorous published research has been canceled. No word on why, the authors just said they were informed they would no longer have a slot on the blog roll. So long, Seriously Science, it was good to have known you.
Return to Reason: The Science of Thought, by Scientific American. 2018. This ebook is a collection of essays discussing why facts don’t seem to matter to people or help persuade them and what we can do about it. Well worth a read.
Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, by Marcia Bjornerud. Princeton University Press. 2018. Most people can barely remember what they had for breakfast yesterday. We really aren’t well equipped to think about time on the scale of millions and billions of years. Dr. Bjornerud has written a great book to help people come to grips with the immensity of time. I highly recommend it.
Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology, by Lisa Margonelli, Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. This book is not really about termites. The study of termites is used as an illustration of scientific inquiry and the questions that researchers come across during their studies. There are questions about the termites, but also about how science is done and about humans viewed through a different lens.
Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection, by Evelleen Richards. University of Chicago Press. 2017. This book tells the story of how Darwin figured out problems with natural selection by coming up with sexual selection. To my mind, sexual selection is a subset of natural selection, but it is generally viewed as separate, with natural selection being success based on fecundity and survival of offspring, whereas sexual selection deals with the choices of mates. However you look at it, sexual selection is an important concept and this book explores the origin of that idea.
The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy, by Paige Williams. Hachette, 2018. Williams tells the story about a skeleton of a Tarbosaurus bataar, what could be described as a Mongolian Tyrannosaurus rex, and the long and confusing battle of who owned it and where it would eventually reside. The worldwide fossil trade is a morass of differing opinions, laws, and money. This book attempts to tease apart the strands to answer the question of who owns fossils.
Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, by David P. Barash. Oxford University Press, 2018. As the great physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.” Humans are masters of deluding ourselves, but science helps us remove the wool we place over our eyes to see things, and ourselves, as we truly are. Only then can we become the people we see ourselves as. That is the goal of evolutionary biologist Dr. Barash in this book.
The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect, by Judea Pearl and Dana McKenzie. Basic Books, 2018. A big problem that any educator sees is the rather unbelievable lack of understanding many people have about cause and effect. Please get this book and teach people about how cause and effect works. Since this book relates the science of cause and effect to robots and artificial intelligence, it will be the perfect addition to tech classes.
I think that is enough for now. It is certainly enough to keep you busy if you try even a few of the many offerings available for furthering your education or just indulging your curiosity. Enjoy. If you try them, come back and let us know what you thought of them.
With all that has been going on in the world and all the important societal problems, I have been despairing that my desire to push for a natural history museum and more evolution education seemed not as important. But it struck me today that it is perhaps one of the most important things we need to do. There are a lot of misunderstandings about evolution, even among people who accept it, that hinder our ability to get along in the world. Understanding two important truths of evolution will go a long way towards healing our societal divides. What are those truths? 1. We are all the same, and that is a good thing. 2. We are all different, and that is also a good thing. These may seem contradictory, but if you understand how they are meant, they make perfect sense.
- We are all the same, and that is a good thing.
When you start really studying life on this planet, it quickly becomes inescapable that we are all connected. We are all part of the same family. Strip off the skin from humans and we see essentially the same underneath. We all share the same skeletons, our muscles and organs are the same, there are no important differences in our brains. Sure, there are differences, but no matter what way we try to divide humans, especially by skin color or nationality, we find that the differences within the groups are greater than the differences between groups. What this means is that the dividing lines are arbitrary and have no biological basis.
When we go beyond humans and look at all vertebrates, we see the same thing. If we compare skeletons, we see the same bones over and over again. Every animal that has four limbs shares the same bone structure. They may look different, but the bones are all the same. All of our front limbs have a humerus, an ulna, and a radius. We all have the same number of fingers and toes. They may look different, they may lose some as they grow from fetus to adult, but they are all there. As we get farther and farther away from direct ancestry and relationships, the superficial differences start piling up, but the core is always the same.
Going even farther, we all share the same base code. We all use essentially the same DNA and RNA. The sequences may be different, but just as all computer programs are different, they all share the same underlying coding language. We all share metabolic pathways, from bacteria to humans.
Why do we see all these similarities? Because we all share an ancestor. Somewhere down the line, we are all related. We are one family. It may be a very extended family, but we are all together. All life on Earth is connected. Through that life, we are all connected to the very rock upon which we stand. Life has shaped the surface of the Earth. It has shaped the air we breath. We all sprang from the same roots. When you look at someone from a different culture, someone with a different skin color, you are not seeing an other, you are seeing a long separated family member. Embrace that connectedness. Now, I know that no one can get more under your skin and angry than a close family member, but at the end of the day, we don’t generally let that tear us apart. No matter how much we may disagree with our family, we still recognize they are family. Just take that feeling and extend it to recognize that every living thing on Earth is also part of your family.
2. We are all different, and that is a good thing.
So if we are all essentially the same, how can we all be different? No matter how closely we are related to someone, there are always differences. Even identical twins are not completely identical. Our DNA and life experiences mean that each and every one of us is different in some way from everyone else. While we all share the same basic body plan and organization, there are always some differences.
Those differences are important. Ask any agricultural scientist and they will tell you that one of, if not the biggest danger in our food supply is the monoculture crops we grow. When everything is the same, that means they also share all the same limitations and vulnerabilities. Monocultures only work when there is no change. But they do not handle change well. And if there is one thing we know about life, it is that change is inevitable. These days, we are pushing change faster than ever before, so this vulnerability to change is deadly.
Purity is the death of a species. We need diversity to weather changes. As new diseases crop up, as weather becomes more unpredictable and changeable, we will need the diversity to be able to handle whatever is thrown at us. The more diverse the population, the more changes we can tolerate. In a diverse population, there will always be some fraction of the population that is prepared for anything that happens. Those people will make sure that we continue. Moreover, they will help those of us unprepared for the changes make it through. When a new disease appears, those that are naturally immune will be key to developing medicines that will allow the rest of us to survive. Those that can handle climatic changes will be the ones to build the structures and infrastructure that will allow the rest of us to weather the storms. We need diversity. If we try to homogenize our culture and our people, we will die.
We need evolution education and a natural history museum.
So how do we get people to understand this? First of all, on a broad scale, we need to teach people a proper understanding of evolution and evolutionary theory. But we have to do it in a way that exemplifies its importance in our everyday lives. We need to get people to understand why they need to understand it. Evolutionary theory affects us every day. People need to understand how.
We need natural history museums for a multitude of reasons, but two very important ones apply here. First, they will stand as storage houses of information. They are a public recording of the changes that have taken place and are taking place. Secondly, they are a way to teach people who are not in school. Even if they don’t pay that much attention to the details in the museum, they will see a record of the changes. Museums can be designed to showcase the importance of evolution, the advantages of diversity, and the dangers of reducing that diversity. Museums are one of the most trusted sources of information. We need to leverage that to showcase both the interconnectedness of life on Earth and its diversity and why that has allowed its continued existence. It also can showcase what happens when that diversity is not there.
One may argue that history museums would be better at this. The advantage of history museums is that it makes it personal and easy to make it easy for people to relate to it. The disadvantage is that it makes it personal and easy for people to get defensive about it. Natural history museums can teach these lessons on a canvas that people can view and learn from more dispassionately, without it feeling like a personal assault upon their culture that can often happen in history museums.
To be sure, many people will feel that any mention of evolution is an assault upon their worldview, so I am not advocating the idea the natural history museums are inherently better. Instead, I am advocating the view that all types of museums work better when there is a diversity of museums that can tell the stories from different angles. Without a natural history museum, we lack an important viewpoint in the public arena. By building a museum network, we can spread the ideas much more effectively. A natural history museum will not hurt other local museums. It will help all of them. We don’t need just a natural history museum. We need a natural history museum, a local history museum, an international history and cultural museum, an art museum, and other museums. In Arkansas, we have some of the history, art, and culture, but we do not have a natural history museum. As such, we lack that long and broad view that can only come from an understanding of natural history.
On November 4th, I presented a workshop on evolution at the Arkansas Curriculum Conference. The workshop was sponsored by TIES, the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science, an organization dedicated to helping teachers teach evolution, itself sponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.
Unfortunately, the wifi died right at the beginning of my talk, so the videos embedded in the talk were not able to be played. So for those of you who attended, and for those of you who would like to see the talk, I am posting the powerpoint file here. I know, it is incredibly overdue, but in my defense, the world took a sharp turn into weirdness right afterwards and then we had Thanksgiving. Any of you who are teaches or students also know what a crazy time of year this is. At any rate, here is the powerpoint. I will see about trying to record some audio for it at some point, along with the other talks I have meant to put up. We will see how that goes over the holidays.
If you go to the TIES website, you will see a version of this talk. I have modified it to include more information on fossil formation, which I skimmed over, for the most part, in the workshop itself. I focused more on the slides discussing why learning evolution is important in the first place. It has far more everyday impacts than most people imagine and is well worth understanding even if one believes in creationism or doesn’t care about esoteric biological concepts at all (for instance, if you are a cutting edge software or robotics designer).
In addition, there are a couple of other things I wanted to post. First is an icebreaker activity that TIES provided. In this activity, participants determine whether or not a series of statements about evolution are true or false. In a twist that catches most people off guard, they are ALL false. They are all commonly held beliefs about evolution, but they are all wrong, which makes a good way to start a conversation about the topic.
Here are the statements and a very brief explanation of why they are wrong, as supplied in the document. Further clarifications and discussions are happily supplied upon request.
1. Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution.
The theory of evolution existed before Darwin; it was Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection that became widely accepted.
2. Living things adapt to their environment.
As a whole, living things are adapted to their environment. Individuals are unchanging, they either live or die based on the traits they are born with.
3. Biologists “believe” in evolution.
Science is not based on belief. The theory of evolution provides a model for scientists to understand the relationships between organisms on the planet.
4. Monkeys will eventually become human.
There are many species of primates and all are adapted to their environment. A chimpanzee would not turn into a human over time anymore than a cheetah would turn into a lion (or vice versa).
5. Evolution is JUST a theory.
Saying that it is “just” a theory implies that it is a guess, or that its not well supported. There is much evidence to support the theory of evolution, as well as direct observation of species change.
6. Only atheists accept the Theory of Evolution.
Scientists of many religions across the world accept evolution, and do not find it incompatible with their faith.
7. If evolution is disproven, creationism must be true.
A problem with logic (disconfirming evidence). Even if you disproved evolution, you would have to develop and support another model of organism diversity. Disproving one, doesn’t
prove the other.
8. No one has ever seen evolution happen.
In organisms that reproduce quickly (like bacteria) changes in species can be directly observed, such as resistances to antibiotics.
9. Order cannot come from disorder, so evolution is false.
Many instances in nature show molecules and substance organizing, such requires energy. The sun provides the energy that ultimately fuels all of life’s processes.
10. There is evidence that dinosaurs lived with humans.
There is no evidence that suggests humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time.
11. Scientists regularly debate that evolution occurs.
Scientists debate elements of evolution, relationships between organisms, and fossils. The only place the evolution debate really happens is in the social settings.
12. Creationism is a valid scientific theory and should be presented with evolution. Creationism violates the scientific principle of natural causality.
13. There are no transition fossils. Museums are filled with fossils that show intermediate species.
14. Carbon dating is not accurate, therefore the age of the earth cannot be determined.
Carbon dating is one of many methods used to date the earth. Taken as a whole, the evidence is overwhelming that the earth is very old.
There is also a dice game that I want to share with you demonstrating how natural selection works, but that will have to wait until next post.
Aliki Brandenberg, known mostly simply as Aliki, has written several popular books for children in the Let’s-Read-And-Find-Out Science series published by Harper Collins. Among these books are ones about fossils and dinosaurs written for 5 to 9-year -olds (I think 4-8 would be a better range, as many 4-year-olds will like the books and most nine-year-olds will have moved on to books with more information). When they came out in the 1980s, they were widely regarded as excellent books for children. The books were voluminously illustrated with colored pencil drawings of fossils and people studying them. The main text was supplemented with word balloons for the human characters, supplying interesting tidbits and additional information, so should not be ignored. Unlike many books of the time, these were about as accurate as one could expect to get without going into so much detail that a person of that reading level would feel overwhelmed.But it has been 25 years or more since then. We’ve learned a lot since then. How have they held up? Surprisingly well, for the most part, better than the majority of books published at the same time. I will review four of them here, two in this post and two in a following post. Some people might find the reviews a bit lengthy, so here they are in a nutshell: still good reads for kids, even better with a few additional comments to update them and correct a few misconceptions that kids might get from the simplicity needed to pare down complicated subjects into something that would fit the space constraints and interest levels.
Fossils Tell of Long Ago
Publication Date: 1972, revised 1990.
Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN: 978-0-06-4455093-5
AR Book Level: 3.6
Fossils Tell of Long Ago endeavors to explain what fossils are, how they form, and what they can tell us. In a quick 32 pages, Aliki provides a wealth of information well written for the intended reading level of early elementary kids.
Fossils starts off describing what fossils are and how they are formed. The description of the fossilization process is simplistic and doesn’t get into the microbes precipitating minerals around the bones during decomposition, but that was not known when the book was written and the description in the book is sufficiently accurate for the level of reader at which the book is aimed. I do like the use of the famous Xiphactinus fossil as the lead example as it is a fascinating fossil in its own right and thus a good fossil with which to hook readers. Aliki’s description of coal as a fossil is great. She does a good job of introducing different types of fossils, even including different pieces of information that may be gleaned from fossil footprints.
Aliki then goes on to talk about mammoths in ice, amber, and how fossils can tell us about the environments when the rocks were deposited, introducing many more types of fossils along the way. She ends the section by reinforcing the utility of fossils to tell us about past environments and organisms that no longer exist, even putting in a plug for museums.
The book ends with showing how to make your own fossil track and thoughts about how people in the future may interpret it. Best of all, she ends on a positive, encouraging note that anyone can find fossils, even the kid reading the book, and discover something no one else in the world knows. And that is a powerful motivator.
All in all, the Fossils book stands up very well and can still be recommended as a great book for kids.
Publication Date: 1988 (Amazon lists the publication date as 1990, which differs from what is printed in the book).
Harper Collins Publishers, ISBN: 978-0-06-445077-5.
AR Book level: 3.7
“Dinosaur Bones” tells about the early history of the study of dinosaurs and briefly discusses dinosaurs and the world of the Mesozoic. This book does not hold up quite as well as the “Fossils” book and shows its age by being out-of-date in some places, but is still reasonably accurate a good read for young kids. It provides an interesting glimpse at the beginnings of the modern studies of dinosaurs (dinosaur bones have been found for millenia, but modern scientific study is much more recent) and a very brief introduction to dinosaurs and their world.
This book, like almost every other book, has a European bias. On the very first page, it says the Dr. Robert Plot was the first person to describe a dinosaur bone in 1676. He had no idea what it was and he described it as possibly a giant human thigh bone or some other such animal. He was hardly the first to find dinosaur fossils and try to describe them though. Native Americans, ancient Greeks, and many others found them far earlier. They just did not recognize them as dinosaurs. Fossil Legends of the First Americans and The First Fossil Hunters:Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, both by Adrienne Mayor, are filled with accounts of early fossil hunters.
The book begins by describing how she was introduced to dinosaurs and her curiosity about how scientists know what we do about past life, which she begins to answer by talking about people finding fossils. The book provides an excellent short history of the early scientific study of dinosaurs by Europeans, hitting all the famous highlights. The best part of this section is her emphasis on early ideas changing with new fossils and new data. She presents dinosaur paleontology as a dynamic process, with ideas being revisited and revised in the face of new evidence, which is a great thing to put into a book for kids.
The book then delves into the world of the dinosaurs, showing that the world was much different than it is today. I like that this was included and I realize there were space limitations, but I have a small problem with this section. The Mesozoic Era, what is commonly known as the time of the dinosaurs, lasted for over 200 million years. That is a huge time. In general, the description of the continents being joined together into one land mass was accurate for a good bit of that time, but it broke up during the Mesozoic,which had important effects on the evolution of the dinosaurs. The temperatures were also only warm everywhere, as stated in the book, if one considered temperatures warmer than current “warm.” Neither the Arctic nor Antarctic were covered in glaciers, but it was still cold enough to snow and reach frigid temperatures at night in the poles. Basically, it is not possible to compress the diversity of climate and landforms of 200 million years across the entire world into two pages and six sentences. But given that constraint, she did the best that could be done. At the very least, she presented the concept of great changes in the globe over great expanses of time, which is a substantial achievement for a book aimed at elementary kids.
Following this section are two pages describing how fossils are formed and geologic time. She mentions the important concept of dinosaurs evolving. For the space available and the intended audience, the book does remarkably well. For the purpose of just introducing the concepts to kids, they are handled succinctly and clearly. The biggest place where it falls down is saying that scientists tell time by looking at the order of the fossils. This is indeed one way, but if that were the ONLY way, it would be a circular argument. You can’t use the fossils to date the rocks and the rocks to date the fossils at the same time without additional evidence. This method also only provides relative dating, there is no way to really tell how old the rocks and fossils are this way, only the order they were laid down. There are some rocks though, such as ancient lava flows or ash beds, for which we can get absolute dates using radiometric techniques. Between the two dating methods and comparing rock units from different areas to each other, we can get reliable dates for all the rock layers. Having said that, the major geologic time units were devised by looking at the order of fossils. It was only later that we learned how to provide the absolute dates, which told us how old the rocks really were. I would have preferred a simple change of wording to say that finding fossils is ONE of the methods scientists use to tell time and not make it look like it is the only way. The change may not look like much, but it really does make a big difference and many kids will pick up on the distinction so long as adults don’t give them misinformation.
The final few pages describe the history of the dinosaurs in a few sentences. The Triassic Period is done well for the allotted three sentences and the illustrations provide examples of some of the dinosaurs. The only problem here is the description of Heterodontosaurus, which is out of date (for cool information on this unusual animal, go here and here… no, really, check it out).
The Jurassic Period is a bit problematic in that it has the giant, long-necked sauropods tromping around what look to be swamps and dragging their tails, which is no longer considered accurate. Interstingly, all the carnivores are shown in dynamic, tails-up poses. The Cretaceous Period starts with saying “dinosaurs had taken over.” Dinosaurs were dominant throughout the Jurassic Period, long before the Cretaceous. The dinosaurs are also drawn too much in the old, upright positions. More than any other page, this one looks like a throwback to an earlier artistic era. In the entire section, the dinosaurs are drawn very simply and generically, despite the fact that they are named with specific names.
The final page starts with “Then suddenly, they all died out. No one knows why.” This is followed by several things scientists don’t know about dinosaurs. By and large, it is true, but we have made great progress and can now provide at least partial answers to all of them now. We now have some very good ideas about why they died out. There is also considerable debate about how “suddenly” it was. Most notably, dinosaurs didn’t all die out, just most of them. Birds are directly descended from the Mesozoic dinosaurs and are the most diverse group of vertebrates that live on land. Scientists are also making strides to answer the final questions the book states about their colors, what sounds they made, and their metabolism. While there are still many gaps, we have made much progress on those questions. As a result, I would recommend that anyone reading this book to kids mention how old the book is and that a lot of work has been done since then to find answers to those questions, but there is still much more to do.
Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of the Mythbusters do a great job of presenting commonly held myths and testing them in a variety of ways, trying and adjusting and retrying experiments. They even sometimes revisit myths with a new point of view and new questions. It is this that I think is the key to their success. They present science as a series of questions and experiments, revising and retesting, a dynamic process. Starting with what people believe and then presenting the evidence to show the real answer is an important part of the educational process. Derek Muller, who runs the Veritasium Youtube channel, did his PhD dissertation on just this topic, showing that simply providing the information did not increase learning. Unless the misconceptions the audience already held were first acknowledged and dealt with, people thought the material was clear and that they understood it, when in fact they had learned nothing at all.
All of this involves asking lots of questions. But what some teachers view as a downside to this approach (although it absolutely is not) is that invariably you will wind up with lots of questions you can’t answer. Your students will ask questions you have no idea what the answer might be. So what do you do in this case?
Hopefully, you already knew which of these options is the better choice. But where do you go to learn more? Some questions can be rather esoteric or have answers that can’t be easily looked up. Fortunately, hordes of scientists are at your beck and call to save the day. Here are four websites where you can ask real scientists any question you like. None of the scientists on these sites will do people’s homework for them, but are enthusiastic about answering questions.
Ask a Scientist has 30 scientists that will answer questions on biology, chemistry, physics, space, earth and environment, health, technology, and science careers. In addition, they have links to videos for some questions. You can look at answers to past questions and ask your own. Even though it is based in the United Kingdom, with all the scientists being from the U.K., they will answer questions from anyone.
This site is also based in the United Kingdom, but has scientists from all over the world. This site is limited to biology and paleontology, but it has over 100 scientists who can answer questions. Some are doctoral students, some are the tops in their field with decades of experience. All of them are experts in what they do and all of them are there to help. They have answered thousands of questions, all of which can be searched and read. If you don’t find what you are looking for, ask your own question. You might even find that you have started a lengthy discussion of your question between several experts, as has happened from time to time.
This Ask A Biologist is a National Science Foundation grantee and is hosted by Arizona State University. Again, it is limited to biology and is run by the biology faculty and graduate students of ASU. So on the one hand, you might think they might be more limited. But ASU has an extensive biology department and this site has much more ancillary material than most of the others. They have activities, stories,coloring pages, tons of images, videos, and links to other information. They have a teacher’s toolbox, providing easy searches for teachers to find exactly what they want, searchable by topic, activity, and grade level. In short, while they have several scientists available to answer questions, that is but one aspect of this educational site.
The Mad Sci Network has a huge amount of information. You can ask a question about anything. The site has experts from world class institutions available to answer questions. They have a searchable archive of over 36,000 questions already answered, so they may have already answered your question. In addition to the search features, they have several categories listed, in which you can pull up all the questions in those categories. They have a “Random Knowledge Generator” if you just want to have fun browsing at random. They also have a series of what they call “Mad Labs”, which are activities and experiments you can do at home or in the classroom. They have links to more information and resources elsewhere, including general science, educational methods and techniques, museums, science fairs, suppliers, and more.
So there you have it. When you are faced with questions you can’t answer, don’t try to bluff your way through. Who ya gonna call? Hundreds of scientists from around the world, that’s who.
I have been working on lectures on early amniote evolution, along with the following reptilomorph and synapsid lectures for my vertebrate paleontology course. We will be getting into dinosaurs and the other Mesozoic animals very soon, hooray! However, in preparing these talks, it has brought to my attention just how prevalent two sites in particular are: Reptileevolution.com and Pteresaurheresies.wordpress.com.
When I did a search for “pterosaur”, Google actually responded by saying “Did you mean pterosaur heresies” and provided images that all but one are either from the site or sites complaining about the site.
This is quite unfortunate. Both sites present an abundance of beautiful artwork done by a stellar paleoartist. There is an abundance of information on the animals and their relationships. All in all, the websites look fantastic and are quite the draw for paleo-enthusiasts.
But it is all wrong.
None of the hypotheses presented on these pages is accepted by virtually any other paleontologist. The techniques used to gather the information is not considered valid and no one who has tried to reproduce the data using the methods have had any success.
I won’t get into details about why the websites are wrong. I am frankly not qualified enough to provide a step-by-step breakdown of the problems (not being an expert in either pterosaurs or basal tetrapods), nor do I really have the time. I will say that many years ago, I heard the author of these websites give a talk about his evidence for a vampiric pterosaur and even as a young undergraduate, it was clear to me that neither the technique nor the conclusions were valid. I found it very unfortunate because the idea of a vampiric pterosaur was incredibly cool and the technique, which involves detailed image study, is useful in many contexts. However, it is very easy to let personal biases enter into conclusion based on these methods, to allow oneself to extrapolate well beyond anything the data can actually support. Oftentimes, those biases are completely unknown to the observer simply due to the way our brains interpret sensory input and modifies them based on past experience. We really do not see everything we think we see, which is why the scientific method requires other scientists examining your conclusions and your methods and trying to poke holes in your ideas. So it is vital to recheck one’s conclusions with many detailed images from various angles and lighting methods and, most importantly, detailed examination of the fossil itself.
So instead, I will point you to articles written by people who are experts in the very animals that are discussed on those pages and what they have to say about them. The first is an article by Dr. Christopher Bennett, who is an expert on pterosaurs. In this article, he discusses the validity of the techniques and discusses specific claims of two pterosaurs in particular, Anurognathus and Pterodactylus. Anurognathus is a very odd-looking pterosaur and is quite aptly named “frog mouth.” Pterodactylus is probably the most famous pterosaur next to Pteranodon and is why so many people mistakenly refer to all pterosaurs as pterodactyls. Dr. Bennett does an excellent job critiquing the science in a professional and readable way.
The second article is a blog post by Darren Naish, a noted researcher and science author that has researched pterosaurs and many other animals who has a deep understanding of both the accepted science and the author of these websites and the work presented therein. Here is what he says: “ReptileEvolution.com does not represent a trustworthy source that people should consult or rely on.Students, amateur researchers and the lay public should be strongly advised to avoid or ignore it.” The emphasis is completely his. The post is quite long and discusses several aspects of the work, discussing the accepted science and the material on the websites that is not accurate, including the techniques used to arrive at the conclusions, both accepted techniques and those by the website author that are not.
The next site is an article by Pterosaur.net, a website devoted to research on pterosaurs by pterosaur researchers. It is a brief article that uses Naish’s article as a starting point and continues on with a discussion of why they think it important for people to know why these sites should be avoided. To quote: “The issue taken with ReptileEvolution.com is not that it exists, but that it’s internet presence has grown to the point that it is now a top-listed site for many palaeo-based searches. Tap virtually any Mesozoic reptile species into Google and either ReptileEvolution.com or the Pterosaur Heresies is likely to be in the first few hits. The situation is even worse for image searches, which are increasingly dominated by the many graphics that Peters’ uses on his sites.” This would not be a problem that the sites are so well known if they were correct, but their prevalence presents a highly flawed version of what scientists really think. People are taking these sites as truth, when in fact they are regarded by professionals as seriously wrong.
Finally, Brian Switek, a science writer who authors the blog Laelaps, which moved from Wired Science Blogs to National Geographic and the now-defunct blog Dinosaur Tracking for the Smithsonian, wrote a piece on the site, in which he urged more paleontologists and paleontology blogs to call out misleading websites like these. In that spirit, I hope I can help some avoid getting a mistaken impression of dinosaur science and help steer them to better, more reliable sources.
* If you are wondering why I say “the author” or “the artist” rather than using the person’s name, it is because I don’t want this to be about the person, but the information. I don’t personally know the author, nor have I ever had direct contact, so I have nothing to say about the person. The work, however, can be and should be open for criticism, just like any other researcher, including my own.
Time for another Forum Friday! As always, please leave comments about what you liked and what you would like to see more about. What did you think about our stories? Do you have a book or show you want reviewed? Have any resources you would like to see discussed? Have you made an interactive or other resource that you think might be beneficial to others? Let us know.
On Facebook we celebrated National Fossil Day and Earth Science Week, looking at fossilized arthropod brains, new skulls of Homo erectus and what that means to our understanding of human evolution, how cartilage helped dinosaurs get so big, and learned about the origin of flowering plants. We learned a website letting you make your own geologic time chart. We found a great video discussing what phylogenetic trees are and how to interpret them.
Going along with Earth Science Week, we found special Earth Science Week resources and a STEM Student Research Handbook put out by the NSTA, as well as resources available at Scitable. We discussed the pros and cons of the NGSS and the benefits of preschool education.
We learned about unusual deep sea creatures off the East Coast, more ways to tell moths and butterflies apart, how Black Skimmer birds can skim, and how the arapaima’s armor protects them from piranha. We saw how color evolved and its role in mimicry, how hands came before bipedalism, and how epigenetics affects evolution (it’s not just about mutations).
It’s your turn. What do you want to talk about?
Time for another Forum Friday. Since last time, we learned that our grants did not come through, so our search for funding to expand the site continues and the teacher training programs and other events remain in the planning stages. We hope to see those ideas come to fruition, but for now, this site will continue to expand, just not at the rate we hoped.
Since the last Forum Friday, we have reviewed Dr. Holtz’s Dinosaurs: the most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages, and Dr. Sampson’s Dinosaur Odyssey, both of which come highly recommended. We also learned about the Cambrian rocks of Arkansas and the dinosaurs of Arkansas. We also learned how scientists really define dinosaurs and why most people’s conceptions about what dinosaurs are is incorrect.
We learned about dinosaur egg-laying, how pterosaurs could fly and be so big, and Arkansas trace fossils. We saw pictures of dinosaur feathers in amber and how to identify a fossil. We learned the Cambrian Explosion was caused by multiple factors and what the earth in the paleozoic looked like, along with how to visualize geologic time.
Speaking of new ways to look at things, we saw an evolution cartoon by paleontologist Matt Bonnan and art in science. We heard about Using rap music to teach the history of science and a song about evidence-based medicine. But we also saw why good intentions to help the oceans don’t help when you don’t know what you are talking about. Among problems in science education, we learned about unicorns and the dragons of inaction. Biology textbooks are written for pre-meds, providing short shrift for evolution and ecology. On the plus side, we also saw students fighting bad science and why generosity beats greed in the long run.
We found free tech, iPad apps for the classroom, an iTunes earthviewer, online modules to teach ecology and evolution, among other topics, and educational videos for the classroom, as well as brain-training to cut through bias. We found Citizen science opportunities for the classroom. Although we had to warn against the Exploring the Environment website. We also saw why simply asking students to write scientists without oversight is wrong and some resources to help.
We learned about the evolution of the avian flu, insects evolving gears, why asexual populations fare poorly, and how to breed a better cat. We saw how fish survive icy water by evolving antifreeze, adapt to puddles, and learned to walk on land. Finally, we saw that humans are still evolving and why being smart is cool.
So what was your favorite story? Did you have any questions, comments, complaints? Feel free to share.