Field of Science

Real vs. fake science: How can you tell them apart?

Yesterday, I posted at Double X Science a checklist of 10 questions anyone should ask themselves when assessing a claim that purports to have a scientific basis. It starts like this: 


Pseudoscience is the shaky foundation of practices--often medically related--that lack a basis in evidence. It's "fake" science dressed up, sometimes quite carefully, to look like the real thing. If you're alive, you've encountered it, whether it was the guy at the mall trying to sell you Power Balance bracelets, the shampoo commercial promising you that "amino acids" will make your hair shiny, or the peddlers of "natural remedies" or fad diet plans, who in a classic expansion of a basic tenet of advertising, make you think you have a problem so they can sell you something to solve it. 

Pseudosciences are usually pretty easily identified by their emphasis on confirmation over refutation, on physically impossible claims, and on terms charged with emotion or false "sciencey-ness," which is kind of like "truthiness" minus Stephen Colbert. Sometimes, what peddlers of pseudoscience say may have a kernel of real truth that makes it seem plausible. But even that kernel is typically at most a half truth, and often, it's that other half they're leaving out that makes what they're selling pointless and ineffectual.

If we could hand out cheat sheets for people of sound mind to use when considering a product, book, therapy, or remedy, the following would constitute the top-10 questions you should always ask yourself--and answer--before shelling out the benjamins for anything, whether it's anti-aging cream, a diet fad program, books purporting to tell you secrets your doctor won't, or jewelry items containing magnets: 

Read more... and download a handy cheat sheet at Double X Science.

Kathleen Sebelius should have attended my middle school

Kathleen Sebelius did not attend the same middle school I did.

If she had, she've seen girls, ages 12, 13, 14, who were pregnant. Sometimes for the second or third time. She'd've seen girls who'd just crossed the threshold into their teen years talking about having sex with boys, even with grown men, all unprotected. She'd've seen a cheerleader on her first day of class in 9th grade, clearly pregnant in her cheerleading uniform. She'd know that these girls who got pregnant disappeared from school, never to be seen again. She'd've seen real life, the real world, of pregnant pre-teens and teens. Their pregnancies meant a life--a very young, uninformed life--derailed. Given their ages, I suspect that their pregnancies derailed more than the one life. 

Sebelius, the Obama Administration's Health and Human Services secretary, shocked the world of people who care whether or not preteens and teens conceive unwanted children by blocking plans to make Plan B, or "morning after" contraception, available over the counter (OTC). The much-anticipated OTC availability of this intervention had already received FDA approval. Sebelius's countermove against the FDA's OK--and to the imprimatur of a large number of medical professionals, including the American Academy of Pediatrics--was Stone Age decision-making in the 21st century. One member of the AAP called her decision "medically inexplicable." She also has failed the girls of our nation who, through their life circumstances, ignorance, and myriad other factors, find themselves having sex irresponsibly.

Her decision keeps Plan B behind pharmacy counters, available only to women ages 17 and over without a prescription. According to data from the Guttmacher Institute, in 2006, the teenage abortion rate was 19.3 abortions for every 1000 women. Sebelius's decision helps to ensure that the rate of teenage abortions will not decrease. Her decision helps to ensure that rather than obtaining a straightforward hormonal intervention to avoid pregnancy, a girl--and teenagers are still girls--will instead have to wait to see if implantation occurs, if an embryo develops, and then make the decision to have a surgical procedure to terminate the pregnancy, or--like so many of my classmates in middle school--carry a child to term and become mothers in their teens. Lives, derailed.

That one night that a high-school freshman drinks too much, depresses her judgment, and has unprotected sex? That night leads to a crossroads. Before Sebelius's decision, that crossroad held the promise of including a path to Plan B, a way for a girl to head off a lifetime of serious consequences for that single poor decision. Thanks to Sebelius, the options now still consist only of wait and see if there's a pregnancy. It's a one-way ticket to anxiety at the least and to another crossroad of decisionmaking between abortion or having a child while a teen. 

Here's a newsflash: Teenage pregnancy carries a large number of health risks for both the teen and the child. And of course, it's a risk to a healthy life or decent education for both mother and child. Misguided moralists may claim that a girl who has unprotected sex must deal with the consequences of it. To that, I respond that a child is not a consequence, and the girl in question is herself not yet an adult. To that I also respond that these moralists have not witnessed, as I have, a pregnant teenage girl throwing herself down the stairs in an unsuccessful attempt to trigger a miscarriage of a pregnancy that was the result of a one-night stand, of about 15 minutes of bad decision-making. She was 16.

Some people seem to be unaware of these outcomes for a teen pregnancy for both the mother and child. Chuck Grassley, the Republican US senator from Iowa, was quoted in an AP story as saying, "This is the right decision based on a lack of scientific evidence that it's safe to allow minors access to this drug, much less over-the-counter." Clearly, the gentleman from Iowa needs a few instructions in how reproduction and contraception work. The "drug" is hormones, mimics of the hormones these teens make in their bodies already. These hormones have several effects on reproductive tissues that can prevent either conception itself or possibly implantation of a fertilized egg. There's no mystery about it and no question of available evidence. 

What the gentleman from Iowa--and his fellow moralists--fail to understand is that actually becoming pregnant, carrying a child to term, and having a baby all are far, far more damaging to the health of a teenager than any Plan B pill ever would be. It's irresponsible to try to ward off a pregnancy preventive on the grounds of health concerns or "evidence" when the option is health-damaging, lives-destroying pregnancy.

Plan B was going to be an OTC intervention that could be used before a girl sets foot on the pathway to lives derailed. One OTC pill packet could do it. And Sebelius blocked it. She claims, according a report from ABC, that she was "worried about confusing 11-year-olds." This intervention costs $50. An 11-year-old is unlikely to have that kind of money lying around, much less sufficient interest in Plan B to become "confused" about it. Unless, of course, that 11-year-old is like one of my family members from a previous generation who did, in fact, become pregnant at age 11. Let's just say that having access to Plan B would have made a huge difference not only in her life but in the lives of many, many others. The fetus from that pregnancy was stillborn.

We're in an era when girls are becoming able to conceive at earlier and earlier ages. Having an intervention available that could keep a girl not even in her teens from a pregnancy is a logical and reasonable option. Issues of responsibility or morality or gnashing of teeth over their youth do not efface the cold hard facts: Some girls are having sex at this age. Some girls are getting pregnant at this age. Their hormones are actively readying them for pregnancy, even as their minds and bodies and the society in which they live have not. They deserve, just as much as any 17-year-old or grown woman, access to interventions that can keep them from conceiving. It's easy to say from an airmchair that they shouldn't be having sex. Of course they shouldn't. But some are, and that is a simple, stark reality.

I've seen the outcome of it in person. Has Kathleen Sebelius?

Autism is not the monster. Postpartum depression is, and it has some help

Having a baby changes things. I'm not talking about the unexpected terror that can come with suddenly realizing that you've got this life in your hands, one that you'll now fight helplessly, without control, for the rest of your life to nurture and maintain. I'm talking about the changes in you that happen once you've grunted and strained and torn and struggled to push that little human out. I'm talking about the hormone crashes. The mental instability. I'm talking about the veil of darkness that can fall across what everyone assumes is a joyous, celebratory event. I'm talking about postpartum depression.

Postpartum depression isn't just the blahs you feel in the aftermath of a big life change. It's not just anxiety about this new person or exhaustion after too many sleepless nights, that endless series of timeless darkness and bleary days that no one quite explains to you before you have an infant. It goes far, far deeper than that. I know because I've had three children. With the first two, sure, there were those nights when my husband had to take over to keep me from fleeing to Mexico, never to be seen again. But with our third, it was different. 

We had struggles--he couldn't breastfeed and I pumped every two hours, around the clock, to make sure he got breastmilk. We stayed up all night together for days--weeks--on end. I was obsessed with SIDS, convinced that every time I awoke, I would find him dead in his crib. I thought he was going to die, that he wouldn't live past the age of six months. I would look into his eyes in the darkness, only a nightlight illuminating what was near-madness for me, and we'd stare at each other. I don't know what he was thinking, but at the time, I thought he was telling me that yes, he was going to die, and soon.

He is now five years old. I'm no longer in the midst of that near psychosis. We both got through it, but not with the help of any modern interventions. I asked my OB about it, very concerned about my state, but she didn't seem to take it seriously. I'm still not sure why--my calm presentation of it? My education level? At any rate, I took matters into my own hands and forced myself to do things that would stabilize my mental health, things I do to this day: walking outside with Dickensian intensity. Eating food so spicy it makes me cry--and pop off a huge bolus of endorphins. Eating chocolate. Writing, my main form of catharsis. Thank the deities that it worked. Thank the deities that the darkness that hung over those nightlight-dim nights did not become deeper or lead me into true psychosis, one that might have led me to take away a son, a brother, a life. 

At the time I was experiencing this bottomless trough, we already had known for two years that our oldest son had autism. From the time our third son was born, I worried about autism. I did. I watched him even after I recovered from postpartum depression, monitoring him for signs of delay of any kind, ready to step in with some early intervention. He had many. But we'd had five years of living with our autistic son, one of our greatest joys, and I didn't have a fear of autism. I had a fear of SIDS. And because SIDS is deadly, because I'd written quite a few things about SIDS, because I'd purposely sought out information about preventing SIDS in the infancies of each of our sons, my obsession during my postpartum depression was...SIDS. Not autism.

The morbid obsessions that strike during a deep mood trough can be unpredictable, but when you look at them in context, they can make a whole lot of sense from the perspective of mental illness. We fixate on what is before us, on what we know, on what we've inculcated as our deepest fears, our greatest anxieties. To this day, I know that I'm experiencing anxiety of some kind not because I feel it consciously but because when I'm anxious, I dream about my greatest personal fear: roaches. It's strange, I know, but the brain is an enigma that sometimes serves itself up only in metaphorical bits. It's up to us to apply whatever insight we have to put it all together.

Lacking that insight can be fatal. Last year, a woman killed her 6-month-old son by smothering him. She did so, she said, because she was afraid that he was showing signs of autism. According to medical professionals with personal experience with the boy, Rylan, he seemed to have been developing typically. The mother, the boy's father reported, had been depressed and was taking Zoloft. The day before she killed her son--after a series of failed attempts--she had said to her husband that he'd be better off without her and their son

The mother, reports say, thought she had postpartum depression and commented to friends about it before she killed her infant. It was severe enough to metastasize into a psychosis that led her to kill her child out of, according to her, a fear that he was autistic. The DA involved in the case recently elected not to try her because of her ongoing mental state. According to reports, she was obsessed with the notion that her son was autistic and that his autism would destroy her life, her marriage, her finances, and her fun. Her husband filed for divorced within days of their son's murder, and he has also filed a wrongful death suit. She was aware enough of her actions to have, according to reports, hidden the blankets she ultimately used to suffocate the child on her final attempt. The story is horrific.

The mother's work experience prior to having the baby included two years working as a counselor at a children's hospital, where she had encountered children with autism. I do not know what the attitude of the professionals or parents at the hospital were about autism. What I do know is that if she had paid attention to any one of the thousands of fear-mongering news media reports about autism, she'd've been terrified if, in her mind, her son were showing signs of it. I know that if she'd paid any attention at all to what some organizations that purport to help autistic people say about it, she'd've been terrified at the prospect. I also know that if she'd read any of the verbiage on the Internet about "toxic" children, "monsters" whose "real selves" were "stolen" from their parents, she'd be terrified. Stories purporting to describe the horrific financial burdens of autism. Stories focusing on the horrific toll autism reportedly takes on marriages and families. Stories with the angle that autism destroys lives.

In the aggregate, experiencing wave after wave of information about the alleged horrors of autism--and working in a place where she'd likely seen the most severely affected autistic people--did this mother see autism as the bogeyman of the darkest hours of the night, the thing that would take her child away and replace him with a monster? Would the autism monster steal her marriage, her finances, her fun? She was insane, it seems certain, and still is. But the focus of her insanity was personal. Was autism for her what SIDS was for me, a thief in the night, the obsessions that haunted me in my mental abyss? The ones that made me sure that my son wouldn't survive infancy?

This woman killed her son with her own hands. She murdered him, and clearly, her mental state was in utter imbalance. She was in a place that people probably will never understand unless they've been there themselves. When you're in that place, the specters are many. It's a shadowy forest with little light, one where intangible demons take psychotic shape, one where the future looks like nothing. There is no logic in this place, and things that usually have little import become heavy with threat. 

When you're depressed, you fight your own demons. Yes, that's true. But you're not the only person responsible for their existence...or their treatment. Rylan's mother had complained that she thought she had postpartum depression. She brought up killing herself and her son before she did so. These are all huge red flags that warrant immediate action.  

Among those shadows of darkness, one will loom largest. It will become the greatest fear, the one that drives your mind into even deeper, more impenetrable shadow. But what that greatest fear will become isn't a simple matter of the choices of your own disabled, lightless mind. There's a world out there that reinforces fear, hammers anxiety into you, one sharp, pointed sensationalized detail at a time. In the world of Rylan's mother, that fear took the shape of autism, and she didn't build that monster by herself.

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Today, we are working to let people know that autism isn't a deadly specter. Please take a moment to read through some of the tweets.

The values of science--and not of anti-science--should guide national discourse

I arose this morning to the Twitter news that someone I follow, Eric Shepherd, had received Twitter blockage from the Age of Autism (AoA) for tweeting a link to a list of the top 10 worst anti-science Websites on which AoA figured prominently--and deservedly. When he tweeted about having been blocked, their response tweet was, simply, "BOO!"


This nadir of discourse is a perfect example of why the anti-science movement in this country is so damaging. The refusal to think critically, to alter conclusions as necessary based on new evidence, to budge from some pre-set notion regardless of information to the contrary--that "BOO!" sums it all up. It says, "We do not care that you think we're anti-science, and we have taken our ball and gone home." It says, "We are incapable of defending our position, as usual." It says, "We are childishly adherent to our cause, no matter its level of failure, no matter evidence to the contrary." That "BOO!" encapsulates well the attitude and argumentative capacity of those who promote anti-science values.

Yes, I said, "Values." Because the anti-science crowd operates together on a fundamental set of values, whether they're evangelizing against evolution, climate change, or vaccines. They place more emphasis on boastful "gotchas" than they do on getting it right. They use half-truths to get buyers for what they sell--and yes, they're usually selling something--and make people forget that the yin to a half-truth's yang is a half-lie. They value the power of emotion and testimony over method and evidence, and they use emotion and testimony cynically and unabashedly. But most of all, they value the opportunity to say "BOO!" to the folk who rely on the long-term, unemotional, data-gathering process we call "science" to form conclusions.

Science has values, too. Those values are rooted in a requirement for evidence. At the bottom of any critical thinker's thinking is that need for evidence. The greatest value science has to offer is that the practice of it ultimately leads to an accumulation of data that point to a specific conclusion. That signpost of evidence can shift, and it's the understanding of that possibility that forms another value of science. 

Scientists understand that new evidence can alter conclusions. Critical thinkers know that it's best in most circumstances to avoid saying "never" and "always" because nature has a way of proving you wrong. Nature is more mature than an AoA tweeter and does not say, "BOO!" when proving us wrong. But we know that those gaps in knowledge will continue to shrink with the passage of time and that as they do, we will probably be shifting conclusions. It's a value in science to understand that today's scientific understanding may end up in tomorrow's dead hypothesis dustbin as new data come in. 

But another value of science is that we can draw conclusions based only on the evidence we have at present, and that evidence is what matters. One of the paramount scientific values is to not overinterpret, overextrapolate, or overspeculate. Scientific values demand that a critical thinker draw conclusions based only on the evidence at hand, genuine evidence derived from the testing of well-formulated hypotheses, evidence that has undergone some poking and prodding from people who know what they're seeing. 

Science values also demand that all data be held to the light of many minds for critique and that a conclusion that the evidence supports requires consideration, no matter how counter to one's precious ideas it may be. This last value is directly contradictory to the anti-science value of holding the line and refusing to budge no matter what the evidence says.

This clash of values between science and anti-science intersects with every sphere of our lives. People turn to the anti-science practitioners and jeopardize their health and lives and their children's health and lives. People turn away from the conclusions of science based on available evidence and endanger everything from the food we eat and water we drink to the very balance of the biosphere. People turn away from educating our children in science, preferring the value of ignorance over the value of knowledge. People turn our nation away from being competitive by making a mockery of the value of knowledge and emphasizing instead the anti-science value of embracing half-truths and promoting scientific illiteracy. Were they able to spin in graves, the US founding fathers, many of whom were extraordinary critical thinkers, would be spinning like tops to see the people of this nation they founded so proud in their emphatic and willful ignorance.

We live in a world in which, more than ever, critical thinking abilities and a broad and deep knowledge across the spheres of life and the rest of the physical world will be required tools for function and advancement. The anti-science emphasis on and exploitation of values of half-lies, ignorance, and illiteracy can only endanger us and the world around us, sometimes fatally. It's difficult for me to understand the mental processes of a person or a group of people who prefer ignorance and failure over method and evidence. But then again, my values don't involve resorting to playground childishness like "BOO!" as a retort to legitimate criticism.

The turtle man

Trachemys scripta elegans (Wied) (1865) by Karl Bodmer

This tale is the story of how I ended up one fine spring day leaving the confluence of two great rivers in Illinois, at the wheel of a rental car with a backseat full of hundreds of turtle eggs packed carefully into bins. I'd acquired the eggs courtesy of the turtle man, a man of some mystery about his person, his life, his living quarters, and his love of all things turtle. With that last, at least, we were in profound sympathy.

How did I meet the turtle man? Having spent the previous five years up to my ears in turtle eggs purchased from commercial turtle farms, I had a research need. I needed eggs from turtles living in the wild. From places that I knew had been contaminated with pesticides and from other places that had avoided such contamination. My goal? To move from testing pesticides in lab-controlled conditions toward the effects of real-life of exposures in these animals. 

The turtles in question don't have sex chromosomes. Instead, they develop as male at low temperatures and as female at high temperatures. But as I'd demonstrated, exposing eggs to certain pesticides, even at low temperatures, would lead to development of females. It was the same thing that exposing the eggs to estrogen did: it made females. In other words, to the developing turtles, these pesticides were like a "female" hormone.

Making that happen in a lab is one thing. But what did exposure in real life do, through a female exposed to pesticides and producing and laying the eggs? My quest to answer that query led me to the turtle man. Let's call him "John." In googling around, I'd found that John, the turtle man, had developed a technique that would cause a turtle to lay eggs on command. As long as I knew where each turtle had come from, I could collect her eggs and investigate associations between origins in contaminated areas and the development of embryos as female. 

The turtle man's technique involved another hormone, one that's gotten a lot of press lately: oxytocin. It's been mistakenly dubbed the "cuddle" hormone, although it's not particularly cuddly in many, many ways. One of those ways is what it does during labor in women: Its buildup contributes to the uterine contractions that force the massive squeezing of the body's most powerful muscle so that you can push a giant-headed offspring through a space that's much, much too small. There's nothing cuddly about that, although it's quite useful. Turns out that oxytocin also forces the contractions necessary for a female turtle to expel eggs from her oviducts, the tubes where they lie maturing until she's ready to lay.

Egg-laying is a much different process from human childbirth. Women I've seen in childbirth are nothing like a turtle. They're in pain. Often, there is noise--grunting, screaming, moaning. The experience of crowning is anything but zen. But a female turtle? They're animals in the Zone. In the midst of their egg laying, they are unflappable, immovable. They're in a different world--turtlespace?--as they methodically dig their deep holes, carefully position themselves above them, and deposit their clutches of eggs. Then...they leave. That's it. Perhaps that's one of the reasons they're so zen about it all: Somehow they know that parental care is not in their future.

As I learned from John the turtle man, if you catch a female turtle on her way away from the water, toward her targeted egg-laying location, you can scoop her up, take her to your lab, inject her with oxytocin, and collect her eggs that way. You know where she came from, so you can check that area for levels of contaminants and determine if there's any association between the hatchlings' sex and the contamination in the mother's swimming and stomping grounds. This much I'd gathered from John in a brief exchange of emails that led to my booking a flight to southern Illinois where two mighty rivers meet. What I hadn't gathered was the intensity of the turtle man and his ongoing battle to study, rescue, preserve, and understand this ancient and strangely resilient reptile.

I landed in Illinois and caught a cab to a hotel that stood in the middle of a mall parking lot. The only eatery open at the late, late Illinoisian hour of 9:30 p.m. was an Arby's. I hadn't eaten at an Arby's in probably 30 years, and deities willing, won't do so again for another 30. The next morning, I appeared in the hotel lobby at the appointed early hour and there he was, the turtle man. Quite tall. Beard that was a Grizzly Adams/ZZ Top mashup. Beat-up pickup truck that probably was in existence the last time I'd eaten at Arby's. Jeans possibly last washed at about the same time. A large, friendly black dog named Dixie. Thank God for the dog because neither John nor I were exactly People-people, and Dixie served as a furry, damp ice breaker from the minute we met.

Dixie was damp because John had already been at work that morning, saving turtles. As I soon discovered, this area of Illinois was, literally, crawling with turtles. Sometimes, these turtles crawled onto highways. Highways that transected their old byways, interfered with their transit from water to egg-laying spot. Sometimes, that trip across the asphalt would be their last. As John told me, locals would often go out of their way to run over the slow-mo reptiles, making it a sort of vile game to take out an animal that had no chance of escaping, one that simply was trying to work around the human infrastructure blocking its ancient paths.

Whenever he saw a turtle crushed in the middle of the road or struggling in a roadside gutter, John would swerve his battered truck to the side, hop out, grab the turtle, and place it in a cooler he had at the ready in truck bed. If the turtle was obviously a goner, he'd put it out of its misery as soon as possible. If it seemed like it might survive, he'd keep it to nurse it back to health safely away from roads and cars and cruel local drivers. Either way, he'd get the eggs if any were there.

John knew all of the secrets of the Way of the Turtle. He knew where they emerged to lay. He knew specific agricultural fields, even the specific shade of specific tress that turtles seemed to favor. We spent two days haunting sloughs, lurking in duckweed, sneaking around in cornfields as Dixie directed us to where the terrapins were calmly, methodically shifting dirt between the cornrows with their webbed hindfeet, readying a hole for their eggs. 

At the end of each day, we'd head with our haul to a large open-air warehouse where John injected turtles with oxytocin, collected eggs, incubated eggs, nursed injured turtles to health, and completed with compassion the cruel work of drivers getting their jollies by crushing wildlife with their wheels. I quickly learned that when a turtle has her head withdrawn and her tailed curled in, it can be hard to tell which end is which. I also quickly learned that telling the difference is important because when you hold a turtle by the head end, the turtle will bite the hell out of your hand, you will drop the turtle in surprise, and you will yell out an expletive that will echo around the warehouse. 

During our two days together at the confluence of these two mighty rivers in a fertile Illinois river valley, I learned a few things about the turtle man that had nothing to do with turtles. He had a couple of ex-wives and was working on another. He had a bed in his office, which was packed floor to ceiling with files, specimens, and the long-accumulated detritus of years of field work. Thanks to the ongoing contretemps with his current wife, that office was his home. 

In spite of the mess, before my arrival, John had method. He'd carefully collected dozens of turtle eggs for me, numbering each one in order, noting the location of the female who'd laid them, and placing them in bins lined with several inches of water-dampened vermiculite for safe passage. After two days of assisting him, I'd gotten a good idea of the lay of the turtles' land--of his land--and was ready for an early morning start and a 1000-mile drive back to my university. I said goodbye to Dixie, I bid adieu to John. Truth be told, I was ready to hit the road, to be alone for a couple of days of driving. Alone, that is, except for the several hundred turtle eggs nestled in the backseat of my rental car. 

In the intervening decade since I drove away with those eggs, I'd thought periodically about the turtle man, about Dixie, about that truck, and about stalking egg-laying turtles in the cornfields of southern Illinois. But a recent post at Scientific American brought it all rushing back to me. It describes the Turtle Roadway Mortality Study, and its goal is to reduce the death that our roadways inflict on turtles. This project invites citizens to help identify where turtles are most in danger near roadways so that researchers can take steps to limit the threat. After all, not everyone can be like John, devoting his days from dawn to dusk tracking turtles, rescuing them or their eggs, monitoring their every egg-laying move with the help of a dog named Dixie. Not everyone can be the turtle man.

The genesis (parthenogenesis?) of my role in an all-woman evolution video

Our late dachshund, Daisymay Fattypants, who inexplicably got
herself stuck into the leg of a pair of footie pajamas.
A few months ago, a group of people from Project SCOPE put out a call to women in science to compile videos addressing a few basic questions about evolution, such as why it's important to learning science and why it should be taught in schools. Why would questions with such obvious answers require any clarification at all? The call for videos was a response to the global embarrassment known as the Miss USA Pageant, in which a series of women in the running to represent their nation in some way seriously were just not sure evolution should be taught in schools

The result was a compilation of clips from 16 women, all talking about why evolution is the unifying concept of the life sciences and why it should be taught in schools.



This video with my tired-looking visage frozen in the frame, has really been making the rounds. It's been featured at the Richard Dawkins site, at Gawker's Jezebel site, on a Guardian blog, (ETA) at Boing Boing, and at Pharyngula. Those of us who are in the video have been called many things, some more flattering than others. While there has been some kerfuffle over the choice of a bigoted intelligent design advocate to call us "gals" and "show mares," I took that less as personally offensive than I took it as more evidence that their agenda has a reactionary religious core. In other news, I'm not sure if my appearance in this video has anything to do with my sudden urge to purchase makeup, but I'm suspicious of a cause-and-effect scenario here.

I'm in love with the way some of the women in this video present themselves and with the way they speak so passionately about science and the central role of evolution in science. What I'm not so in love with is my face and awkward camera presence in the video. Making this thing was, to this relatively video-inexperienced show mare, a matter of difficulty. Where do I put my children? Should I use a script? But I didn't have a teleprompter and felt like I'd look like I was just...reading from a script. Should I wing it? OK, but winging it would result in my being there, on camera, babbling on and on about dachshunds. And why do I seem to be completely unable to move half of my upper lip. Should I consult a neurologist?

It was distracting, making this video. I am passionate about teaching science in science classes. I've taught thousands of students about evolution, approaching it in a way that my nonmajors could understand, showing them that it's not a specter sent by Charles Darwin to destroy their religion or their religious beliefs but instead is an established scientific phenomenon of natural change, a constant and exquisitely shape-shifting dance between living things and their environments. 

Did I say that in the video I submitted? Nope. I started out OK, if a little world-weary about what to me is just a no-brainer of a question: Should evolution be taught in schools? Then, I address the question, What is evolution? 


It was OK. I was trying hard not to use the word "alleles" because...even students who major in biology for some reason have a hard time with that one. I also managed to get through it without mentioning dachshunds. Dachshunds and I go way back, and I still think they're hilarious. That did not, however, come across in my video, thanks to an extraordinarily flat affect and some off-the-cuff incoherence, so I'm not even going to post that part here.

Then, I get to the most important fundamental information about evolution: It happens. The question is, How does it happen? And yes, this time, I had to bring up dachshunds. I also love this freeze frame. Was it wine o'clock?

And then, something happened while I was making the video. I'd already noticed that my background had all kinds of weird things in it. There were knives. A whole lot of knives. So I removed them. I also hid the ginormous bottle of vodka and the supersized Bushmills. Then, there were onions. For some reason, the presence of onions bothered me, so I move those, too. What I failed to remove, however, was the giant plaster pelican sitting on top of my refrigerator. My mother gave me that pelican as a gift with a note attached that read, "Please do not pick me up by my head." She is somewhat of an enigma. And now, there it is, in my first foray into making a science video, one that now has been featured in, you know, pretty important places. I think I will call him Alfred.

Anyway, something happened. I don't remember what...did my children come running in? Did the traffic noise outside my window suddenly escalate? I don't know. What I do know is that somehow, in that interval, I could not get my laptop camera to the same settings I'd been using. I'm a biologist, dammit, not a videographer. Clearly. Yet, for whatever reason, I felt compelled to get in these final few phrases:


It's as though Ed Wood had decided to make an evolution video, isn't it? 

Given what to me was a near video debacle, I can't say how grateful I am to the SCOPE team of Matt Shipman, David Wescott, Jamie Vernon, Kevin Zelnio, and Andrea Kuszewski for not making me look like a complete idiot in what they included in the final product, even if others think we all come across as dutiful little show mares. And I also thank them and the 15 other women who participated for talkin' 'bout evolution in ways that non-scientists might understand.


More on the video and its genesis from David Wescott and Matt Shipman (@ the Def Shepherd blog).