Battling the Red Queen

March 11th, 2010

The Red Queen has to keep running just to stay in the same place. In the same vein, drug development for infectious diseases has to constantly keep on its toes. Infectious disease sources, like some bacteria, can evolve resistance to our drugs, and when that happens we need new drugs to maintain our effective battle against the threat to our health.

But, is there a way to get around this process of evolution – to be done with this race for survival? Dr. Andrew Read and several other researchers think there is, and they are working on ways to create “evolution-proof” drugs.

I spoke with Dr. Read last week on Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour. We discussed this idea of “evolution-proof”, focusing specifically on the malaria parasite and strategies that he and his colleagues are working on to reduce the impact that malaria has on people around the world. We also spent time talking about evolution generally, and why Dr. Read finds it so fascinating.

I invite you to take a listen to the show – you can find it in audio format here. Or, you can watch it in video at

A TWISmas Cartoon

December 28th, 2009

Tony Steele's Xmas Evolution

Thanks to Tony Steele for this awesome TWISmas cartoon!

Want to Buy A Banned T-Shirt? Update

September 2nd, 2009

No word from Mr. Pollitt (yet), but I just sent another email offering to buy all the t-shirts from him.

Want to Buy A Banned T-Shirt?

August 31st, 2009

After reading this article about the Sedalia County (thank you Brandon for the correction!) school district’s treatment of the Smith-Cotton High School Marching Band’s new t-shirt, of course I tweeted the article. One comment came back from Tim Beauchamp (@tbeauchamp for those interested) wondering if there was a way to get one of the tees for himself.

This got me thinking… the Sedalia district’s Assistant Superintendent, Brad Pollitt, said himself that the district would have to cover the cost of the revoked shirts (some $700). So, why not try to get the school district to put the shirts up for sale as a fundraiser for the band and school district?

Here’s a letter that I wrote to Mr. Pollitt along those lines:

Dear Mr. Pollitt,

I’m writing you after reading a recent news article about the trouble that you and the Smith-Cotton High School marching band had with the “Brass Evolutions 2009” t-shirt design.

You are quoted as saying that the district will have to absorb the cost of the troublesome tees. I know several people who would be interested in purchasing the t-shirts. Perhaps there is an opportunity for the district to make the cost of the shirts back by selling them to individuals who are not upset by the creative design, and in fact who would wear the shirts proudly.

I am sorry to hear that the design was so distasteful to so many, and that you felt it necessary to respond by revoking the shirts at a cost to the district. Our nation’s schools never have it financially easy, especially so in this time of economic recession. This could be an economic win if approached in the spirit of fundraising.

All the best,

Kirsten H. Sanford, Ph.D

I think this could be an interesting way to approach the problem. Rather than bash anyone, or call anyone names, let’s try to publicize the evolution banning event by purchasing the t-shirts. It might actually help the school out, which is something very needed these days. We’ll see if and how Mr. Pollitt responds.

If you are interested in writing a similar letter to see if we can get these shirts back into the population, you can find the contact information of the Sedalia School District administrators here, and this is Mr. Brad Pollitt’s work email.

If you do write, please, keep in mind that this is a teachable moment, and civility and compassion will do more good than temper and bile.

High School Has An Impact

May 2nd, 2009

According to a study by University of Minnesota researchers, what is taught by high school biology teachers affects the views of their students.

“Co-authors Randy Moore and Sehoya Cotner, professors in the College of Biological Sciences, surveyed 1,000 students taking introductory biology classes at the University of Minnesota to learn how biology majors view evolution compared to non-majors. Results showed that the two groups’ views were similar and revealed that high school biology teachers influence whether majors and non-majors college students accept evolution or question it based on creationism.”

According to the article one-fourth of high school biology teachers believe that creationism can be scientifically validated. I haven’t found access to the original article to validate the reference. But, such a statement is concerning when considered alongside this new paper.

NCSE Executive Director Calls It Quits

April 1st, 2009

After last week’s Texas School Board disappointment, Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, says she’s tired of fighting this losing battle for evolution and critical inquiry in schools. She also mentioned that the Creationist politicians can teach whatever they want in science classes.

Heh. That’ll be the day.

What was actually said went more along these lines:

“Let’s be clear about this,” cautioned Dr. Scott. “This is a setback for science education in Texas, not a draw, not a victory.”

She went on to say:

“The revised wording opens the door to creationism in the classroom and in the textbooks. The decisions will not only affect Texas students for the next ten years, but could result in watered-down science textbooks across the U.S. There’s a reason creationists are claiming victory.”

“Will publishers cave in to pressure from the Texas board to include junk science in their textbooks? It has happened before,” says Scott. “But textbooks that please the Texas board will be rejected in other states. Publishers will have to choose between junk science and real science.”

I hope that people like Dr. Scott continue to work against the insertion of politics into the science classroom because the attempts to compromise science education show no signs of fading away any time soon.

Happy April Fools Day, everyone.

Evolution Education in Texas

March 27th, 2009

What is in a word?


What does it signify?

Well, to the debate taking place across the United States over science education standards it has come to mean much more than it should. Weakness is the word that is used to instill uncertainty in the minds of people. Because science is unable to know everything, then how could it know how we humans came to be? How can science have discovered the links from more primitive organisms to the complexity that makes us who we are? Uncertainty is a weakness in the minds of some people, and they would like an alternative view discussed.

The problem is that the science of evolution is not uncertain about the general process anymore. Over 100 years of scientific investigation have built the theory. There have been no studies that negate the process of evolution. Each study that brings new knowledge to the workings of the evolutionary process just make the theory richer.

What is viewed as weakness by some is actually a strength of science. Science has the capacity as a tool to make new discoveries.

The language intended to bring Creationism into the Texas classrooms will only serve to bring uncertainty about the scientific process. That is its intent — to undermine knowledge in favor of dogma.

If the intent of the Creationist members of the Texas school board is to allow critical thinking and knowledge seeking to thrive in the classroom, they should have accepted a motion to change the language from “teach the strengths and weaknesses” to “including discussing what is not fully understood in all fields of science.” But, they didn‘t.

So far, knowledge survives. But, just barely… with a vote of 7-7 yesterday, the language is supported by half of the Texas school board. That in itself is too much. The board is voting again today. Fingers crossed.

Update: The evolution specific amendment passed, 13 – 2, with the following wording: “In all fields of science, analyze, evaluate and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.”

For up to the minute blogging from the Texas school board meeting check out the Texas Freedom Network.

Evolving Landscapes

August 13th, 2008

Two articles today got me thinking today (because you know I wouldn’t have been thinking otherwise).

The first, from SF Gate, described the recent decision allowing the University of California to reject high school credits for courses using textbooks that don’t meet the accepted admissions standards. Rejection of course credits can ultimately block the admission of students to the University.

It’s too bad that some students can be kept from attending a school because of decisions that their teachers and school boards make. However, admissions standards are used for a reason, namely to be sure that students are prepared for the next level of their education. And, if a student has been taught inadequately it will at best be difficult for them to do well within the university environment. Allowing such students entry to a university would be a disservice not only to those students, but to the university environment as a whole.

Unfortunately, the case in question is being turned into a religious freedom issue rather than the simple matter of standards that it really is. The textbooks being rejected leave out evolution in favor of Creationism or focus on “supernatural” causes/events. The plaintiffs in the case argue that these texts aren’t incorrect, they just present an alternative view of science and/or history.

Ok, so if that’s the case, I should be able to start a school that teaches only from texts promoting the history and science of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Unicorns. Or, maybe I teach my home-schooled kids from texts that contain the history of the human race as being cultivated by aliens. Either way, I should expect that my students will gain entry to the UC system as long as they have good grades (and test scores, and of course, the appropriate extra-curricular activities).

It seems like the plaintiffs have the following view on getting into a STATE FUNDED university: it doesn’t matter what you learn, as long as you learn something.

I’ll stop with that soapbox now before I become even more snarky.

The second article that caught my eye was an editorial in the New York Times promoting the teaching of evolution in schools. The author lays out several great reasons why teaching and learning about evolution is important. In the process, she uses several examples of evolution in action to make her points. Unfortunately, I have to be the nit-picky scientists and point out that many of those examples are not necessarily evolution, but rather adaptations. Still, the ideas in the essay are solid. Many thanks to both the author and the New York Times for defending the teaching of evolution in schools by publishing the piece.

Finally, this all brought me to consider an interview with the US President on NBC I saw the other night. During the interview, Bob Costas did a pretty good job of asking hard-hitting questions, and Mr. Bush talked fairly openly about his visit to China. Three answers stood out to me, and I thought them especially telling of the President’s mind-set as he ends his tenure:

“…I think you should look at the relationship as one of constructive engagement, where you can find common areas like North Korea and Iran. But also be in a position where they can respect you enough to listen to your views on religious freedom and political liberty.”

Why just religious freedom? Why not personal freedom?

“…if you are a religious person you understand that once religion takes hold in a society it can’t be stopped.”

Uhhh… what? Excuse me, did he just say what I think he did? Sounds a little like zealotry to me.

“I went to church here. And I’m sure the cynics say ‘Well, you know, it was just a state sponsored church.’ On the other hand, and that’s true, it gave me a chance to say to the Chinese people, religion won’t hurt you, you ought to welcome religious people. And it gave me a chance to say to the Chinese government, ‘Why don’t you register the underground churches and give them a chance to flourish?’ And he listened politely. I can’t read his mind, but I do know that every time I met with him, I pressed the point.”

Right. So, he disrespected the beliefs of the Chinese President and the ruling party in order to promote his own religious views while acting as the President and official representative of the United States, which officially doesn’t promote religion what with the separation of church and state and all that silly stuff. And, he did it over and over again.

Thank you, Mr. President, for your efforts.

Home Is Where the Heart Is

February 15th, 2008

And, mine is certainly now in San Francisco. The past month has brought some incredible changes to my life, and I am now looking (only somewhat fearfully) at the upcoming year with excitement. I am commuting once a week to Davis, CA for TWIS. We’ll see how long I’ll be up to the commute, but I promise that TWIS will persist regardless. Food Science is on hold for the time being. Hopefully, we’ll be bringing new episodes to you sooner rather than later. And, I’m working on a new project with Revision3, which will launch in late February. Stay tuned for lots of science fun!

In the meantime, this past week included two important days: Valentine’s Day and Darwin’s birthday. While I saw people running around with flowers, cards, and candy for the former, the latter heralded hardly a peep outside the science community. It’s quite a shame I think that a vaguely known Saint is so celebrated, but Darwin remains in the sidelines aside for the occasional attacks by religious fundamentalists.

Many scientific hypotheses come and go, but Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection has weathered the tests of time. It remains a solid, well-tested mechanism comprising one of the fundamental processes of the Theory of Evolution. Darwin’s influence on the entire field of evolutionary thought cannot be discounted, and is possibly as important as that of Einstein on the field of physics. Yet, where is the love? Here’s a song produced by a friend of mine, which I think does a great job of covering the issue. Expect to hear it on the 2008 TWIS compilation cd!