Archive February 2011

my blackberry’s not working… Alison Campbell Feb 27

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Well, not mine…

I thought everyone might enjoy a good chuckle - I’ve had a few IT issues recently and one of our Faculty computer folks thought that the following might take my mind of it. Which it did :)

my heart goes out to christchurch Alison Campbell Feb 24

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I haven’t managed to settle to blogging for a few days – like everyone else I know, I’ve followed the dreadful events in Christchurch and wondered what on earth I could do (settling on dispensing hugs both real & virtual, offering beds to friends & family if they need to leave home, and making a donation to the relief fund – I would urge anyone who can afford to, to do this). There are many others who’ve already made substantial efforts around communicating about the quake itself & its immediate aftermath (here, and here, and here, for example); I can offer nothing there. And somehow at the moment I just can’t bring myself to write about more mundane, everyday, normal things. So apologies, but it might be a few more days before I get back to the biology.

a (shaky) date for your diaries Alison Campbell Feb 20


I noticed an intriguing headline in Saturday’s Waikato Times: “Quake forecast a horoscope.” On reading further I found it led to an article based on a prediction by Ken Ring, who claims to be able to use the Moon’s position relative to Earth to predict the weather, that there would be an earthquake somewhere in the South Island on March 20th. The article also quoted GNS Science seismologist, Laura Bland, who described this as a ‘horoscope’. (I was rather surprised – although I suppose I shouldn’t have been – to discover a number of astrology websites claiming to be able to predict earthquakes when I used the headline as a search string.)

A reasonable description. New Zealand’s not called the ‘shaky isles’ for nothing, as Geonet data show, and the Alpine Fault is seismically very active. So the odds are reasonably good that there’ll be a quake centred somewhere along the Fault, or a subsidiary fault at right-angles to it, on or around the 20th of March. After all, we have earthquakes most days – it’s just that most are too small to be noticeable. In other words, a fairly easy call to make, & so non-specific that it would be very easy to claim success, in the same way that horoscopes in the papers are so general that someone reading them is bound to find something that could apply to them. (And similar to the claim that earthquakes are most likely in the period a week either side of the new or full moon… Incidentally, scientists don’t deny that the moon’s gravity has no impact on seismological events – but they do dispute that these events can be accurately predicted.)

But – I see that Mr Ring has given a bit more detail: “It could be one for the history books.” From which I would assume that he thinks this will be a big , damaging quake, because the little ones won’t gain that status. So I guess we will have to ‘watch this space’.


A commenter on the Silly Beliefs website has posed a number of well-formulated questions concerning this particular prediction. I’ve pasted them below (for those who follow the link, scroll down to comment #107). They were asked on September 29 last year.

Ken, I neither believe or disbelieve what you write and predict but I would like to make my mind up. Hence I refer to the following paragraph on your site regarding the prediction of an earthquake.

“Next year, the morning of 20 March 2011 sees the South island again in a big earthquake risk for all the same reasons. This date is the closest fly-past the moon does in all of 2011. The node arrives on the 20th at 9.44am. As that date coincides with lunar equinox this will probably be an east/west faultline event this time, and therefore should be more confined to a narrower band of latitude. The only east/west fault lines in NZ are in Marlborough and N Canterbury. All factors should come together for a moon-shot straight through the centre of the earth and targeting NZ. The time will be just before noon. It could be another for the history books.”

Could you answer the following please

1. Quote “Next year, the morning of 20 March 2011 sees the South island again in a big earthquake risk for all the same reasons.” (The same reasons being the moon etc as you explain in your article)

Q.1.1 Ken – risk or certainty? If it’s not a certainty – why not? If it doesn’t happen – why would that be?

2. Quote “The node arrives on the 20th at 9.44am. As that date coincides with lunar equinox this will probably be an east/west faultline event this time, and therefore should be more confined to a narrower band of latitude. The only east/west fault lines in NZ are in Marlborough and N Canterbury.”

Q. 2.1 Why probably an east west failure as opposed to a North South failure or South North failure?

Q. 2.2 You say probably – what is the probability factor – 50%, 25%, 90% or what?

Q. 2.3 How do you know that the only east / west fault lines are in Marlborough and N Canterbury and why do you say that when the recent quake in Canterbury was on an unknown east west fault line that had been dormant for 16000 years. Hence there may well be others “undiscovered”. You see also looking at a map of known fault lines in New Zealand I can see several more east to west lines in Southland, North Otago, McKenzie Country – some in the Waiarapa, some in Poverty Bay, Central North Island, etc.

Q. 2.4 Having established that there are more east west fault lines outside of the Marlborough and N Canterbury areas, and based on your knowledge of nodes, latitudes, longitudes, perigees, lunar equinox , moon positioning, moon shots, sun spots, which region that has east west fault lines would be more vulnerable on the 20 March – Marlborough, North Canterbury, McKenzie Country, Southland, Poverty Bay, Wairapa, or Central North Island and why?

Q. 2.5 Which of the above areas is in the narrower band of latitude you refer to and what is the longitude?

3. Quote “All factors should come together for a moon-shot straight through the centre of the earth and targeting NZ. The time will be just before noon. It could be another for the history books.”

Q. 3.1 On what basis do you say it could be another for the history books? What makes you think it could be a history book event? There must be some reason why you write that.

Q. 3.2 There are four types of crustal block movements that can occur along faults in an earthquake – normal, reverse, sinistral strike slip and dextral strike slip. From a moonshot straight through the centre of the earth targeting New Zealand perspective – which type of fault do you think would be more vulnerable taking into account all the factors you have published on your site re the prediction of the 20 March 2011 event?

Q 3.3 Please provide a definition of what a “moon shot” is.

You can follow the SB thread further for some rather equivocal answers.

there are some questions that google can’t answer… Alison Campbell Feb 16


… and I’m afraid that Facebook isn’t the place to go looking either.

I was happily reading Pharyngula while eating lunch (& trying to avoid dropping crumbs into my keyboard), and decided that as a good pharyngulite I should perhaps pharyngulate a poll for once. (I was not at all surprised to find that ’pharyngulate’ is now a word in at least one on-line dictionary.)Anyway, having done so I lingered to read the comments thread associated with the poll-associated article, and discovered…

… someone asking on Facebook for advice on how to cure their type-2 diabetes. (Or rather, what ‘natural’ treatments they could use instead of their current drug regime.) And being answered by a homeopath – at least, to do them credit, the homeopath doesn’t advise any homeopathic treatments. Howerver, on his website he does claim to have reversed his own type-2 diabetes with homeopathy, diet, and exercise. Since we know that diet and exercise can have this effect, I do wonder how he could be sure that homeopathy had any impact at all…

(There were some v-e-r-y i-n-t-e-r-e-s-t-i-n-g posts on that Facebook page!)

All that aside, what I can’t get my head around is why one would ask for, or take seriously, advice given by someone on a Facebook page. Is it a case of someone who’s already made up their made but is looking for validation for that decision? Is it down to the po-mo view that all points of view, all knowledge, all ‘ways of knowing’ about an issue are equally valid? Or is it something else that can be sheeted home to a distrust of science and a misunderstanding of how science works?

where do you find the ideas for your posts? Alison Campbell Feb 13

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“Where do you find the ideas for your posts?”

It’s a question I get asked reasonably often, by both colleagues & students. They probably think I bang on a bit in my answer, but it’s not as simple as a straightforward list :-)

One source is the scientific literature. Obviously I can’t read everything, but I do skim the contents pages for Science Nature, & of course PLoS One. Often I’ll see something there that makes me think, Hmmm, that looks like an interesting paper to write about. And I’ll read it, look at the references, weigh up what it’s saying, & try to come up with a way of making it interesting & relevant to my ‘target’ audience. (If I can’t do that last part, then often I’ll pass it over for blogging, although I may well give it to my first-year students to read.) Material from this source has been through the peer-review process, and while this is definitely not perfect, you can at least (usually!) rely on the paper not containing serious flaws.

Related to that is the work of the science blogging community. Many of us use the ResearchBlogging logo to denote posts about published research papers, & that can also tip me off about an interesting paper that I can read & interpret myself. Or – if the original blogger has pretty much said it all! – I can just point you all in that direction :-)

And there are news stories about science - but those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that I tend to take these with a grain of salt :) (Just use the word ‘journalism’ to search this blog & you’ll see what I mean.) Stories in the media are going to be framed in such a way as to sell papers (or magazines) or attract viewers/listeners, & this can mean that they don’t necessarily give a completely accurate view of the science involved. So when I read them, one of the things I’m looking for is a reference to the scientists involved (by name) & the journal(s) in which this particular piece of work was published. Then I can go to the original scientific paper & read what was done for myself.

Now, sometimes any differences between the journal article & the story in the popular press can be put down to journalistic license (see Jim McVeagh’s recent post on some work by the Liggins Institute) – or they may be due to the press release put out by the scientists’ institution (sometimes written by the scientists themselves, & sometimes by the organisation’s PR office, based on something that the researchers have sent across). Every now & then a release may be exaggerated a bit, or might add a bit of spin that wasn’t in the original information. Or the science team themselves may do this – after all, it’s a competitive world & you do want to get people to pay attention to what you’ve done. For those reasons I wouldn’t use unsupported press releases as the basis for a story. Again, I want to see the publication based on the original research. If the release (& subsequent media article) don’t point to an actual publication well, that makes me very cautious indeed.

And sometimes, of course, something I’ve done or seen or thought will set me off & voila! we may have a different sort of post altogether :-)

(A while ago I was actually asked if I’d write posts based on press releases – the answer was a resounding ‘No!!’. Not only because of my concerns about framing & spin & the need to see the original research paper, but also because it seemed to me that I’d be losing a certain amount of independence if I went down that route.)

happy darwin day Alison Campbell Feb 12

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This being the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, I thought I’d share this little gem. (Hat tip to Ken over at Open Parachute – I thought I’d post it here as well in case you don’t also frequent Sciblogs NZ.) I bet PZ likes the squid! 


Evolution Made Us All from Ben Hillman on Vimeo.

helping students think like scientists Alison Campbell Feb 09


Today I was involved in a session on ‘large-group teaching’, run by our Teaching Development Unit. (Secondary teachers can probably skip this post as most likely what I’m going to talk about is pretty much routine for you.) Why? Well, there’s a fairly common perception that ‘the’ model to use in large first-year science classes is the bog-standard lecture: an academic discourses on a particular topic & students take notes. I accept that this may be seen as a bit of a caricature & I do know that not everyone teaches this way, but it is the way that most lecturers of my generation were taught & we do tend to model that sort of thing.

Anyways, back to the chase. What do I see as a ‘large’ group, an average lecture size? Well, Waikato is a smallish institution so my ‘large’ classes have around 200 students in them. But I need to say up front, I don’t think there’s actually much difference in how I teach a class of 20 and a class of 200. Maybe it takes a bit more planning with a large class, but the same techniques work with both.

When you’re on my side of the lectern it’s worth identifying, up front, the things you want your students to get out of your teaching. I see myself as educating my students in the broadest sense – that means I want them to take the information, the concepts, the ideas, the perceptions of how science works & how it sees the world, and fit them into the personal intellectual framework that lets them make sense of the world (the keynote at an e-learning symposium I attended last week called this framework a ‘schema’). To me, when I’m working with students, what I’m hoping for is that I’m helping them incorporate those new data points, & the new way of thinking I’m presenting, into their personal schema.

So I’d like to think that my lectures are exciting, sometimes, and entertaining, sometimes, and engaging – hopefully all the time, because I believe that students are more likely to make meaningful learning connections if they’re engaged with the material. But I want more than that.

I want them to interact (with each other, with me, with the ideas they’re encountering), because that too makes it more likely that meaningful learning is going to take place.

I want them to participate, because if you’re actively participating in a class you’re far more likely to be thinking about what’s going on & engaging with all the ideas flying around, & making sense of them – and maybe changing some of your existing conceptions about the world. Because, after all, education should be transformative, taking you from one state of knowledge (in the broadest sense) to another.

I want them to learn a darn sight more than ‘the facts’. (I can’t think how often I’ve heard someone say, “oh that’s all very well, but if you do those things you must be missing out an awful lot of facts.”) What are the most important things we want students to gain from a paper, or a program of study? In science (at any level), one of the aims surely has to be to gain an understanding of what science is, how it’s done, & why it’s such a powerful tool for gaining an understanding of how the world works? In which case, it’s not enough to tell students about science & to fill them up with facts (many of which will probably be dropped from short-term memory storage as soon as the exam is past); we have to give them opportunities to practice doing science, & thinking like scientists, for themselves, & to fit their new knowledge & understanding into the long-term storage of their personal intellectual framework.

So how do you do this in a class of 200 or more? That’s really what I was asked to talk about - but in the light of what I’ve just said, what do you think would be my preferred approach? Yep, the seminar participants got to do the things I was advocating. A couple of examples:

In about the third lecture I’ll give in the next semester, I ask the class to consider why I think it’s important for them to know something about plants. Why are plants so important to the very existence of life on earth? Part of this includes looking at a graph which up until now (& thus failing to practice what I preach!) I’ve basically just talked about. This year I’ve decided to put it up on screen & ask the students to tell each other what it means – challenging their comprehension, giving them the opportunity to interpret & explain data presented in this particular way. So I showed it to my colleagues & said right, go to it, why are plants so important to life on earth? What’s going on in the graph? What evidence is there for your interpretation?

The graph looks a bit like this, although it has other information on it, including uptake of O2 first by marine rocks & later by terrestrial surfaces:

Well! I had to interrupt after 3-4 minutes so that we could come back as a group & discuss this. It was a good reminder for me that I needed to check that everyone in my first-year class is familiar with the conventions of how graphs are drawn & read, & for my ‘class’ of colleagues I really should have reminded myself that none were biologists & most weren’t scientists! But on the other hand, because this was completely new stuff for most in the room, they found it interesting & really got involved with working out what the graph was about & how to explain what they were seeing. Yes, this will take longer than me standing up in front of my first-years & expounding on the graph, but which approach do you think is going to result in a better-quality learning experience?

And another example to leave you with; again, what I’m trying to do with this one is to get students to look at things through a scientific lens; to ask questions, design hypotheses; consider how to test these. This time it’s from a lecture on reproduction.

When you look around the animal kingdom, you’ll find that for a great many species, individuals don’t live long beyond their prime reproductive years. Mayflies are probably an extreme example: after a mad orgy of reproductive activity that lasts only a few days at most, all the adults die. (They’re not called Ephemeroptera for nothing!) Now, in evolutionary terms this makes sense – once you’ve successfully passed your genes on, from an evolutionary perspective it doesn’t really matter too much if you’re run over by a bus the next day (or the mayfly equivalent thereof). But take a look at primates (the group of mammals that includes monkeys, the other apes, & us) & you’ll see something different. Many primates do live past their prime reproductive years.

The questions I pose – for you now, as I did for my colleagues today – are: why? What sort of selection pressures might lead to some primates living well past their reproductive years, to become grandparents? And, once you’ve made an hypothesis about this, how would you test it?

quirks of human anatomy Alison Campbell Feb 06

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I’ve just started browsing through a book with the promising title, Quirks of human anatomy: an evo-devo look at the human body. (Held, 2009). (The Science librarian does a great job of sifting through new titles & running them past the various departments in our Faculty to see what people would like to see added to the shelves.) Held says that he wrote the book as

a kind of amusement park. Its thematic ‘pretend game’ is to inspect each body part through the eyes of an alien visitor who asks, “why is it this way and not that?”

Very early in the book there’s an image of vertebrate ‘morphospace’, which moves from the familiar to the seriously strange, and from reality to things – like Dumbo & ET – that can be conceived of but which are unlikely to exist due to various physical constraints. Cool!

As I said, I’ve only begun dipping into Quirks, but I’ve already come across a couple of examples that I’ll probably use in class. One is of a set of twins, born in France in 1844, who seemed on the basis of various tests (done when they were 17) to be monozygotic – yet one child was a boy & the other, a girl. Seems impossible… When cells from each twin were karyotyped, the boy was (as expected) XY i.e. he had 23 pairs of chromosomes, 22 of them ‘somatic’ & the 23rd pair the typical ‘sex’ chromosomes of a male mammal. His sister, however, was XO: 22 pairs of somatic chromosomes & just a single X, characteristic of Turner’s syndrome.

How could this be? The original zygote must have been XY. Presumably a Y chromosome was lost from one or some of the embryo’s cells before it split to form 2 embryos, with all the XO cells cohering & thus giving rise to the female twin.

Just as strange is the story of one Daniel Burghammer, who’d been married for 7 years when, in 1601 he gave birth to a child (doubtless to the extreme confusion of his poor wife!).  According to the contemporary account, Daniel ”was half man & half woman” & had at one point slept with a another man, an act which resulted in his pregnancy. You might think that this is just a fantastical tale, were it not for another example reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2004: an infant who

had a penis (with hypospadias) and scrotally enclosed testis… on the right, but a hemiuterus, oviduct, and ovary internally on the left.

Where this gets really weird is that cells on the ‘male side’ of this child were all XY, but those on the ‘female side’ were XX. Held suggests that the child may be a chimera, where 2 sperm fertilised 2 eggs, but the resulting zygotes then fused to produce a single embryo. But as he says, without DNA analysis we’ll never really know.

I am really looking forward to my bedtime reading for the next few days!. And this will certainly enliven my lectures on reproduction!

L.L.Held, Jr. (2009) Quirks of human anatomy: an evol-devo look at the human body. Cambridge University Press ISBN 978-0-521-73233-8

why do people blog? Alison Campbell Feb 03


A while ago now I gave a seminar at work called something like The joys of science blogging. (Well, I enjoy it!) It was basically a case for the benefits to scientists and the community of having researchers who also blog about their science from time to time. Don’t think I made any converts at the time but I’m slowly putting the makings of a paper on the subject together & of course that entails doing a bit of reading.

One of those papers got me thinking around the complex reasons why people may choose to start writing a web-log, something described by the authors (who very kindly provided me with a whole bunch of reading as my institution doesn’t subscribe to the relevant journals) as

personal Web pages, usually frequently modified, in which an individual posts information about himself or herself or about topics of interest (Baker & Moore, 2008).

Baker & Moore also comment that

blogs have been described as a medium for planning and organising ideas, and processing emotionally charged situations while engaging in cathartic venting and emotional expression.

Now, I guess my blog (blogs, counting Talking Teaching as well) does tell readers a bit about me: if they’ve followed it for a while they’ll know I have pets, a partner, children; that I’m a trained teacher, interested in education, & a biologist, interested in all things biological & in evolution as an organising, explanatory theme; & that I get really irritated by pseudoscience :) But my reasons for blogging had nothing to do with wanting to share my personal life (so I don’t, much – just enough, I hope, for people to see me as an individual person) & everything to do with science communication, so I was interested to see why the people in Baker & Moore’s study got into it.

Their participants – non-bloggers & intending bloggers  – were users of the social networking site MySpace: 75 men & 59 women, with an average age of 24.5 years (rather younger than most of the bloggers in my own ‘circle’). The researchers were interested in any differences in measures of psychological distress between the 2 groups, as blogging could be described as a form of journal-writing and that writing a journal can have a therapeutic role. They note that a major difference between ‘journalling’ and blogging is that the latter is public & offers an opportunity for dialogue with readers. (I’d amend this to “usually offers such opportunities” – some blogs are either heavily moderated, so that any ‘dialogue’ is highly artificial and biased, or else don’t allow comments at all.) Because of this, Baker & Moore wondered if one reason for blogging was to seek or enhance social support mechanisms for the writer.

Participants were assessed on the basis of their actual & perceived social support and their satisfaction with that support, and data were also collected on their mechanisms for coping with stress. The intending bloggers turned out to be significantly more critical of themselves than non-bloggers, & were also far more likely to vent their feelings. As a group they also appeared to be more depressed, more anxious, and more stressed than their non-blogging counterparts, and tended to feel less “socially integrated” and also less satisfied with their ‘face-to-face’ friends (but not with those they interacted with on-line). So maybe they did find blogging a useful way to raise their perceived levels of social support.

Whether this is typical of those in my own ‘circle’ (SciBlogs NZ) or not, I don’t know – all I can say is that I don’t feel depressed or anxious and I didn’t get into blogging to help me feel less so, although goodness knows the day job (the one that pays the bills!) can be stressful at times! However, talking of their study participants, Baker & Moore suggest that perhaps

intending bloggers are motivated by negative affect, planning to write their online diaries with a view to expressing and possibly alleviating their distress.

In other words, a sort of ‘confessional’ – which definitely doesn’t fit the model of science blogging that I’m familiar with. In fact, it would be rather interesting to survey those who blog in a specific discipline from the perspective of finding out why they do it (& I suspect the reasons would be quite varied but – in my own discipline anyway – with a strong focus on communicating about science) and also what they gain from it at the personal level. Takers, anyone?

At first I was a bit dismissive of the whole cathartic/venting thing. However, after a bit of reflection I realised that, well, some of my own writing could probably be said to be venting firmly-held opinions. And also that several of the blogs I read and enjoy on a regular basis (ERV, Pharyngula, Respectful Insolence) also regularly express the author’s personal, strong & evidence-based opinions, and that this is one of the reasons I enjoy those particular blogs so much. But overall, from a personal perspective, I tend to agree with one of the bloggers who commented on Baker & Moore’s paper (reported in a follow-up 2010 article by the same authors): I blog because I like to, because I enjoy writing & love communicating about science :-) And that’s quite sufficient motivation for me.

Baker, J., & Moore, S. (2008). Distress, Coping, and Blogging: Comparing New Myspace Users by Their Intention to Blog CyberPsychology & Behavior, 11 (1), 81-85 DOI: 10.1089/cpb.2007.9930

J.R.Baker & S.M.Moore (2010) An opportunistic validation of studies on the psychosocial benefits of blogging. Cyberpsychology, Behaviour, and Social Networking. doi: 10.1089/cyber.2010.0202

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