Is Blogging Dead? There may be hope.

Having only just discovered that ScienceBlogs closed at the end of October, seeing this in my WordPress reader struck a chord. Although at the same time, one of my friends at UVA just started a blog this spring and got over 10,000 views by September, so clearly there’s still a place for blogs. I wonder about the extent to which most people have to manage multiple social media accounts in addition to their blog makes it hard to form dedicated networks.

Thinking of the Urban as Natural

Image result for urban ecology

“Name everything you can think of that is alive.” This was the prompt given to three different groups of children: the Wichi, an indigenous tribe in the Gran Chaco forest, and rural and urban Spanish-speakers in Argentina. It might not surprise you to know that the indigenous children who directly interact with wildlife often named the most plants and animals that lived nearby and were native to the region, and they often gave very specific names. The rural children named a mixture of both native Argentinian wildlife and animals associated with farming. But the urban children were very different from the others. They would name only a few animals in Argentina. Instead, they named significantly more “exotic” animals from forests and jungles in other countries and continents. This result has been replicated in multiple studies on child development. But we shouldn’t be so hard on the urban children.

This reflects a somewhat uncomfortable truth about how we learn. If you live in a city, you mainly learn about nature indirectly, through pop culture and formal science education. In both contexts, it is much easier to find information about “exotic” animals like lions or tigers instead of most of the organisms that make a home in the city. I think this is a symptom of a deeper cultural notion: that somehow cities are “fake” environments divorced from nature. I will argue that this distinction between the urban and natural is not only wrong, but also harmful to our society.

First, we should consider that this notion really only makes sense relatively recently in history. Cities are young in a geological and even anthropological sense, but since we’ve been making them as a species, they have been influenced by nature. We talk about “cradles of civilization” because they were places where the natural environment was well-suited to supporting early, complex social systems and their infrastructure. To use the literal Ur-example, consider the Fertile Crescent region, the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This provided lush soil at several elevations, which supported the growth of a variety of crops and helped with irrigation. And many modern cities can still be traced back to earlier environmental decisions. I am from Louisville, a city by a part of the Ohio River that could not be crossed by boat until the building of locks in the 1830s. The city was founded as a natural stopping point for people before they would go on to the Mississippi River.

Second, it seems incredibly alienating to argue most of humanity is “unnatural”. Since 2008, the majority of humans have lived in cities. By 2050, 70% of the global population will live in urban areas. We should not discourage the growth of cities or devalue them, when their more efficient use of resources and infrastructure is necessary to keep projected population growth sustainable. The smart development of cities recognizes they can help preserve other environments.

Finally, this urban-natural distinction distorts our understanding of the environmental and ecological processes that affect cities and even our broader understanding of the environment. A recent study showed that insects help reduce food waste just as much as rodents in New York City – for every memeable “pizza rat” there’s an army of “pizza ants” getting rid of rotting food. Despite their importance, in New York’s American Museum of Natural History renowned insect collection, they have almost no species native to the city. And since many city-dwellers like the Argentinian children only know about exotic species, it affects animal conservation efforts. Well-known “charismatic” species like pandas or rhinos have support all over the world. Few people are aware of endangered species in urban areas And sometimes scientists don’t even know. For instance, relating to the above, 40% of insect species are endangered, but we don’t know if that number is different in cities.

Instead of rejecting the last few thousand years of our society’s development, we should (re)embrace cities as part of the broader natural world. Recognizing that cities can have their own rich ecological and environmental interactions can help us build urban spaces that are better for us humans, other city-dwelling creatures, and the rest of the world.

(Note: This post is based on a speech I gave as part of a contest at UVA, the Moomaw Oratorical Contest. And this year I won!)

Lynn Conway, Enabler of Microchips

Are you using something with a modern microprocessor on International Women’s Day? (If you’re not, but somehow able to see this post, talk to a doctor. Or a psychic.) You should thank Dr. Lynn Conway, professor emerita of electrical engineering and computer science at Michigan and member of the National Academy of Engineering, who is responsible for two major innovations that are ubiquitous in modern computing. She is most famous for the Mead-Conway revolution, as she developed the “design rules” that are used in Very-Large-Scale Integration architecture, the scheme that basically underlies all modern computer chips. Conway’s rules standardized chip design, making the process faster, easier, and more reliable, and perhaps most significant to broader society, easy to scale down, which is why we are now surrounded by computers.


She is less known for her work on dynamic instruction scheduling (DIS). DIS lets a computer program operate out of order, so that later parts of code that do not depend on results of earlier parts can start running instead of letting the whole program stall until certain operations finish. This lets programs run faster and also be more efficient with processor and memory resources. Conway was less known for this work for years because she presented as a man when she began work at IBM. When Conway began her public transition to a woman in 1968, she was fired because the transition was seen as potentially “disruptive” to the work environment. After leaving IBM and completing her transition, Conway lived in “stealth”, which prevented her from publicly taking credit for her work there until the 2000s, when she decided to reach out to someone studying the company’s work on “superscalar” computers in the 60s.

Since coming out, Dr. Conway has been an advocate for trans rights, in science and in society. As a scientist herself, Dr. Conway is very interested in how trans people and the development of gender identity are represented in research. In 2007, she co-authored a paper showing that mental health experts seemed to be dramatically underestimating the number of trans people in the US based just on studies of transition surgeries alone. In 2013 and 2014, Conway worked to make the IEEE’s Code of Ethics inclusive of gender identity and expression.

A good short biography of Dr. Conway can be found here. Or read her writings on her website.

The Demographics of Granola Science

It is taken for granted by a certain segment of our pundit class that Republicans and/or conservatives don’t play well with science. But after a decade of mining that trope, it’s starting to seem thin. Fortunately for the pundits, there’s a whole other half of the political spectrum to criticize with vague framings of science policy. In January, The New Republic published the most recent major piece in this trend about Democrats (or maybe liberals, or who knows, because the article uses them interchangeably) not really following science. Armstrong, like most authors, criticizes the cultural qualities everyone “knows” are emblematic of the left: alternative medicine, an obsession with “natural” products, anti-GMO sentiment, and distrust of nuclear power. But that’s my issue: most of the article, and others like it, is powered by the author’s sentiments on the party in question with little to support them.

Right off the bat in explaining homeopathy, Armstrong has to use the official platform of the Green Party to make one of his points in an article nominally about Democrats. Then Armstrong strains to accept that liberals actually don’t differ from conservatives much in terms of GMO acceptance. Also, weirdly, Armstrong skipped the data that fit the title of his article more: people who identified as or leaned Republican were a bit more likely to say genetically modified food is safe than those who identify as or lean Democrat, 43% to 38%, although the analysis says the differences weren’t statistically significant by party or ideology. (Still, I’m a bit surprised by the swing. I would assume comparing “Democrats” over “liberals” would have gotten rid of more granola-y GMO skeptics.) But that brings me to my main point – so many of these conversations are strange without any data.

Again, we don’t get a data point proving that homeopathy practice is much more common among Democrats/liberals compared to Republicans/conservatives. Technically, Armstrong does link to a YouGov poll claiming that liberals are the “worst” on the issue, but the summary doesn’t include a breakdown by ideology and the link to the full survey results misdirects to one on tax policy. Libertarians and conservatives have proven sympathetic to homeopaths through the health freedom movement. Laws “protecting” practitioners of homeopathy and other alternative medicine systems from charges of unlicensed practice of medicine have passed in blue, red, and purple states: Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. Heck, Walmart and CVS sell homeopathic “medicine” now. It’s worth pointing out that the data I’m asking for here is hard to find. There are some studies on homeopathic demographics, but few are on American populations, and there’s not a great line up with those social and political norms across cultures. (Here’s a UK one and a Norwegian one.) Seriously, American grad students in sociology (of science/tech/medicine) or public health, there’s a great topic for you to dissect here.

I’m open to the idea that homeopathy is more prevalent among liberals, but most of the conversation is just anecdotes and stereotype. But in that case, why does major “alternative medicine” guy Dr. Mercola have a lot of support in conservative circles? Similarly, although vaccination skeptics don’t have to be homeopaths, they’re often stereotyped as liberals. But in 2012, it was two Republican Congressmen who basically heckled an NIH institute director about mercury in vaccines causing autism in a Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing. And based on this study by the Cultural Cognition Project, you’re actually least like to question vaccine safety if you’re very liberal and a  bit more likely than average if you’re somewhat conservative, although I don’t think the difference is significant.


You can look at local data for trends, but that doesn’t clearly map out politics either. Silicon Valley daycares allegedly have low vaccination rates, except at the biotech companies. But according to this reporting of California vaccination exemptions, conservative Orange County also has one of the highest rates of exemptions. (Although maybe liberal anti-vaxxers are more likely to cluster together?)

In an article in Policy Review titled “Science, Faith, and Alternative Medicine“, philosopher Ronald Dworkin pointed out that alternative medicine tends to not be a partisan issue:

The confusion surrounding alternative medicine is reflected in the political arena, causing deep divisions within both the liberal and conservative camps. Within the conservative camp, libertarians see any governmental regulation of the alternative medicine movement as a violation of individual freedom. Cultural conservatives, on the other hand, are suspicious of the movement’s links to anti-Western multiculturalism. Within the liberal camp, progressives like Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Henry Waxman have pushed for greater regulation of the alternative medicine industry in the spirit of consumer protection. Yet multiculturalists want alternative medicine to flourish unimpeded because they see it as a powerful weapon to use against traditional Western ideas.

Granted, he wrote than in 2001 and in the same article, he feared that alternative medicine would end up becoming politically polarized. But the data above suggests that still hasn’t happened.

I think we should target liberals who are “bad” on science issues just as much as conservatives, just like the famous Daily Show clip on the Outbreak of Liberal Idiocy. But the trope of these “bad science issues for liberals” misses a lot. Even the Daily Show clip placed it as a kind of specific cultural strain of liberalism (see Bee’s question below to test the qualifications of her vaccine denialist), not liberalism writ large – and the interviewed expert points out that vaccine denialism matches up with wealthy, white, college-educated people. Also, the trope often seems like a weak cop-out, either by conservative writers who think this somehow gets them out of problems with science by their own movements or when liberal or moderate authors attempt to make equivalence out of this as a poor attempt at crossing the aisle but without any clear understanding if the stereotype is true or where it comes

(You’ll notice I’m skipping the last section of the article here, and that’s for good reason. Armstrong actually provides a good data point, not just a stereotype, on Democrats skepticism towards nuclear energy. And I agree with his basic argument: unreasonable skepticism towards nuclear just leads to the adoption of other power sources, and right now, those are overwhelmingly fossil fuels. It’s worth pointing out that there’s something interesting in that while polarization increases with scientific literacy on nuclear power, it turns out liberals still accept it more as they become more informed, it’s just that conservatives tend to accept it way faster. Also, can we guarantee this won’t become a NIMBY problem if suddenly our bipartisan elites agreed?)

You might ask, why does this matter? Well, this framing of currently  nonpartisan/nonideological issues as partisan can turn them into ideological markers. So a trope of just assuming Democrats hate GMOs and vaccines and love homeopathy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which would go against the goal of most of these articles I’m criticizing (and my own!). There’s probably a decent case to make that this process did happen with the politics of climate change, though I could only offer a vague outline at the moment without digging through more sources. Also the stereotype doesn’t suggest a clear way to deal with the groups who reject the science on these issues. There’s my obvious complaint that I think it ignores that conservatives, and even moderates, (probably) represent a significant share of people with these beliefs.

But even just within liberal groups, there’s diversity in the way these beliefs manifest. You’re not going to convince a center-left Silicon Valley anti-vaxxer to vaccinate with the same approach as some honest-to-goodness hippie because they’re in cultural environments with different values.This also applies to groups on the right. Good science communication accepts that those values matter if you want to engage meaningfully with someone, just as much as the relevant knowledge. And if there’s something we should be learning from last year, it’s that figuring out how to communicate to people with different values is going to be a major part of approaching politics in the future.

2015 in review

Thank you everyone for reading my blog this year! May you all have a Happy New Year!

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,100 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 35 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Short Sweet Science

Biomedical Engineer David Odde and Carl Flink from BLM dance company joined forces to model molecular interactions within cells using dancers. The dancers were given rules to follow to mimic particular molecules and the idea was to get an idea of what this interaction might look like. They also aimed to test out completely new ideas about how molecules in a cell interact. The dancers can give a clear, immediate impression about how well the interaction would work, if at all!

I have to admit that I’m somewhat skeptical about any actual scientific insights to come out of this project – (apart from highlighting the dynamism of activities going within a cell). However, I adore cross-overs between art and science – so the creativity of this approach is enough to impress me. Not only that but as a dance the work is really interesting to watch. The dancers do not…

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