Posts Tagged ‘how i’m going to save the world’

(This is what blogs are for, so…)

If you ever, particularly in scientific writing, find yourself saying “the process of …” (e.g. the process of evolution, the process of adaptation, the process of speciation), STOP. You are writing three extra words that add no meaning. Evolution is a process. Speciation is a process. You could just use those single words. Using fewer words is usually the classier choice. It’s certainly the sensible choice when you’re writing something with a word limit. Similarly, there is seldom any need to say (to pick an example) “the evolutionary process”; again, “evolution” suffices. I defy you to find a situation in which the wordier construction adds vital meaning.

I have spoken.

(Ask me sometime about starting papers with “Ever since Darwin”.)

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File under “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.”

About a week ago, a small tempest erupted in the science blogosphere over a remark made by Dr. Dario Maestripieri, a professor at the University of Chicago, on his Facebook page. The comment read, in full:

My impression of the Conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. There are thousands of people at the conference and an unusually high concentration of unattractive women. The super model types are completely absent. What is going on? Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain? No offense to anyone.. [sic]

Screenshots of the offending status have been spread far and wide, and a few good commentaries on why this statement is problematic and offensive have been written by, among others, Dr. Isis, DrugMonkey, and Janet D. Stemwedel. I encourage you to read these posts, and at least some of the comments, because I don’t intend to explain in detail why this post is so unfortunate here. Suffice it to say, in DrugMonkey’s succinct words,

Don’t do this. It’s sexist, juvenile, offensive and stupid. For a senior scientist it is yet another contribution to the othering of women in science.

There is still sexism in science. I am most pleased and heartened to see established scientists, like the bloggers I linked to above and (allegedly) some of Dr. Maestripieri’s colleagues on Facebook, speak out against it. Behaviour like Dr. Maestripieri’s contributes to an uncomfortable work environment for female scientists, an environment that makes many of us question whether having a job in the field we love is worth putting up with such condescension and objectification.

Don’t believe this? (cf. these guys, and kudos to the commenters who have already thrashed them.) Let me tell you something.

I am a young female scientist.

And Dr. Maestripieri holds an appointment in one of the academic sections to which I’m applying to do my PhD.

His comment, while extremely distateful to me, is nowhere near brazen enough to make me withdraw my application, and isn’t likely to weigh very heavily among all the other factors I’ll have to consider when I decide which school to attend. But if all else turned out to be equal, this comment could damn well tip the balance. Do I want to have to potentially interact with a man who’s made it clear that he judges female scientists based on their looks first?

And you know what else? If I had been considering joining Dr. Maestripieri’s lab, I would be running the fuck away from that application right now. If I were working for him, I’d have to assume that he’s judging me based on my appearance, and that he’s perfectly comfortable talking about my appearance to me or to colleagues. That’s the sort of academic environment that I want to avoid, and one that I shouldn’t have to put up with.

To be clear, I don’t care whether professors, or anyone really, mentally rate people’s attractiveness; I think most of us do this at least some of the time. But when this thought process leads to unprofessional behaviour, be it overt harassment, subtle differences in treatment based on looks, or comments like this that both make their female colleagues uncomfortable and tacitly endorse this sort of behaviour in others, it is not acceptable.

Dr. Maestripieri’s comment is far from enough to drive me away from a science career. But it could well drive me, and other women, away from his lab, his department, and his university. As far as I’m concerned, it’s their loss.

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Parliament just voted on, and passed, a motion that Bill C-279, which would extend protection against hate crimes and discrimination to trans people, be read a second time (bills in Parliament go through three reading before being made into law) and referred to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. This is good news!

The vote was 150 to 132, and all of those 132 nays were Conservatives. However, 15 Conservatives voted for this motion. This gives me some hope. I know it doesn’t mean they plan to support the final bill, but it’s not a bad sign.

Here is the full list of how MPs voted on the motion, broken down by party. If your MP is among the Conservatives who voted against it, I urge you to write to them to express your support for C-279. Tell them to vote for it in future. Perhaps more importantly, if your MP is one of those 15 Conservatives who supported the bill being moved to second reading, PLEASE write to them to find out how they stand on the bill and to encourage them to continue supporting it. Heck, you don’t even have to be in their riding to tell them this. I think I might go ahead and email them all.

We probably won’t hear much about C-279 for a while now, as the Omnibus Budget Implementation Bill of Doom and Also we Hate Science is going to take up a hell of a lot of Parliament’s time. (Oh yeah, while you’re writing to your MP about C-279, maybe you should tell them how you feel about the budget, too.)

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Yes, I have not posted much recently; this is mostly because I’ve been travelling and have had irregular internet access. More on that in a bit. I’d like to draw everyone’s attention (but particularly that of my Canadian readers) to the fact that Bill C-279, “An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (gender identity and gender expression)”, has been re-introduced in the House of Commons. I’ve written about this bill’s earlier incarnation—which passed in the House but didn’t make it through the Senate before Parliament was dissolved for the last election—on a couple of occasions before. It would add discrimination based on gender identity and expression to the list of things explicitly not allowed under the criminal code. Previously, cases of discrimination against trans-identified people have been treated as cases of sex discrimination, but this label is technically wrong—and transphobia has a way of slipping through cracks in the legal system. A solid legal protection for the rights of trans people under Canadian law is sorely needed. If you haven’t already, I urge you to contact your MP and ask them to support Bill C-279. Make sure you get a clear response from them! If you’ve moved between ridings, or there’s a new MP for your riding since the last election, I would especially encourage you to speak to them about this bill. While this bill has made it through the House before, that was not under a Conservative majority.

On a related note, I first heard about the resurrection of this bill at Sincerely, Natalie Reed, a blog with which I have recently fallen madly in love. It even has unicorns. Go read it.

Now for an update on Helikonios’ whereabouts, for the curious. I survived Peru and took another rainforest bird job in Hawaii. This probably sounds like a plush job to you, and I certainly am not complaining, but I’d like to point out before you get out your violins that I’m now working in one of the rainiest places on earth. It gets something like 11 metres of rain a year. I’m here for four months (or about 2.75 metres of rain, assuming it’s constant throughout the year) and plan to post about the natural history of Hawaii and some of the daunting conservation issues going on here somewhat regularly. My work requires me to spend 9 days at a time in the field without internet access, though, so don’t expect these to be super frequent.

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A friend asked for my thoughts on this article a while back (while my internet access was fairly limited). Here they are!

The idea of “conservation triage”—choosing which endangered species to protect/rehabilitate based on both their risk of extinction and our ability to save them—has been kicking around for a while. But I seem to have heard about it more lately, and specifically in the context of pandas.* Pandas are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity and inhabit a very narrow, and increasingly rare, habitat type. There’s a good bet that even without human-induced habitat destruction, they’d have gone extinct due to demographic stochasticity (their populations were never large and they reproduce slowly, so by chance they could easily have experienced a population crash) or habitat loss due to natural climate changes. In fact, perhaps human intervention has already prolonged their tenure on this planet. Are we, by continuing to invest money and zoo space in panda conservation efforts, wasting our time on a doomed species, and worse, redirecting funds from species that actually could be saved from extinction? Are some species not worth saving?

The problem with this debate is that pandas are a red herring. They’ve become conservation emblems. People love pandas, so (I suspect) any panda exhibit in a zoo is automatically cost-effective by virtue of the extra visitors and merchandise sales it brings in. Even if, in the future, pandas only exist in zoos, they’ll probably pay for their own upkeep.

There is nothing wrong with using furry, charismatic species as rallying points for conservation. In fact it can work quite well—many such species require large wild spaces in order to thrive, and providing this sort of habitat automatically makes room for many smaller, perhaps equally endangered species that share that ecosystem. So let’s consider a hypothetical triage situation—not a panda, but, say, a small fly. Let’s say it’s as rare and as difficult to raise in captivity as a panda, but certainly far less cute. Let’s say, further, that its impact on its ecosystem is minimal—not irrelevant, but it’s not a keystone species either—its loss won’t completely ruin the ecosystem. I personally think that said fly is as “valuable” in vague treehuggery moral terms as the panda. But I know as well as any biologist that funding is limited and that using those funds to stave off this fly’s extinction is also hastening the demise of other flies (and mosses, clams, sea cucumbers…) that do have a chance. There’s a strong argument for leaving this little fly to its doom.

There are still a few objections: we never know whether, in losing our poor fly, we’re also losing a potential cure for cancer, AIDS, malaria, etc. This is another factor that has to go into the triage equation. But I’d argue that there’s a point at which the resource drain of trying to save a “lost cause” species outweighs this hypothesized benefit. (Furthermore, if it’s that hard to raise in the lab, it’s going to be tricky getting any research material.)

Okay, so hypothetically we should triage species. But determining where to draw the lines is going to be extremely difficult. Take cases like the California condor and echo parakeet, which, while still endangered, have made astonishing recoveries (from a nadir of ten individuals for the parakeet and from 22 for the condor) due to concerted, dedicated human intervention. Which brings me to another point: there’s a strong emotional factor in the triage equations as well. As soon as you say something’s too rare to save, you’ll probably find a few people who are willing to try.

I would thus advocate some pretty strict parameters: only the truly lost causes, i.e. less than one breeding pair left for sexually reproducing organisms, should ever be “rejected”. But I must hedge even further: it’s really, really hard to tell if a species is a lost cause. Especially if it lives somewhere remote: who knows if we’ve overlooked a few individuals? We hear of “rediscovered” species that were thought to be extinct on a fairly regular basis. While remoteness may favour survival, sometimes a captive-breeding intervention is the only thing that will allow a population to recover (see again the California condor).

Finally, what if we don’t have enough resources to “treat” all these borderline cases? One possibility is to focus on the species that are most evolutionarily unique. This way, we’d preserve the maximum genetic (and phylogenetic) diversity. In a way, it would be an attempt to take a representative sample of earth’s species from across the tree of life. Conservation biologists have been trying to develop guidelines to this end. One implementation of this approach is the EDGE of Existence project. It’s currently identifying species that meet the criteria of “Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered” as a way to direct conservation resources towards species that need them the most. In fact, if you have a bit of money to throw around, I would highly recommend donating to this project.

*There is in fact a book called “Do We Need Pandas?” on my to-read list.

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There’s been a small but interesting discussion on an ecology-related listserver that I subscribe to in response to someone’s request for resources for teaching kids about their local environment. Most of the responses have cited variations on this 30-item inventory. I’d be curious to hear readers’ scores on it, but I’m even more interested in knowing how you know the answers. How much of it did you learn in school? And was that on the syllabus or the result of a particular teacher’s desire to impart local knowledge? How much did you look up for yourself just out of curiosity one day? What did you learn just by observing, or from talking to people who have lived where you live for a long time? If you have lived in more than one place, how does the length of your residence correlate with your score for each location?

My intuition is that most people gain their knowledge about their local ecosystem these days through education rather than experience out working/playing in/on the land. Because there’s no immediate practical applications for knowing many of these things in our day and age. I don’t mean because we can just google it; I mean because the average person does not need to know when high tide is or what kind of bird that is any more. At the same time, you probably have only the vaguest notion where your garbage goes after the truck comes because, not only do you not care as long as that garbage is out of your sight, you’ve never met your local garbage truck driver and the dump is miles out of town. I’m not saying it’s bad that many people in the western world don’t live off the land directly, or that many more live in cities these days than in the past. Just that, because of these factors, we don’t know things about the places in which we live, and we have to obtain that knowledge by other means, if we ever obtain it at all.

And this sort of knowledge isn’t just something we should learn for the sake of knowing. It could actually be useful. Knowing about the climate and soil type of a region is useful for, say, designing buildings to put there. You could just dream up a blueprint without knowing anything about the land it’ll be built on, and that would probably be fine for a while, but in the long run you could save a lot of maintenance and energy bills if you instead designed your building to maximise its light exposure (or shade) and to deal with, say, the fact that it’s in an earthquake-prone area.

So these are all really obvious statements, I know. But apparently not obvious enough that people will actually enact principles based on them as often as they should be.

Anyways, the knowledge inventory. I scored 16ish for my old stomping grounds in southwestern Ontario (should’ve payed more attention on the ol’ school trip to the water sanitation plant!), and a measly 8 for Vancouver. (For the record, I employed a fairly strict interpretation of the questions—so, for example, although I have a vague notion that Vancouver gets more rainfall than Toronto and I know how the rainfall is distributed across the year, I didn’t count that as knowing the answer to #21 for either location.) I know for sure I gained most of my local knowledge about Ontario from hanging out at a nature centre, although I do think some of this was also covered in school as well, particularly the parts about local aboriginal culture.

A final thought: the questions I could answer mostly easily—and the questions that I addressed in my “sense of place” blog series—were mostly the species-related ones. That’s probably my biologist bias coming through.

*colonial powers ignoring/devaluing local aboriginal knowledge of an ecosystem…see what i did there?!?/!?!11!!??

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What I’m calling the “dog/Smurf problem” is the common trend in children’s literature and other media to (1) assume that animals are male and (2) use token female characters (e.g. Smurfette) whose sole distinguishing quality is their femaleness. This is a widely-known and discussed pattern—here’s one particularly good explanation of it, from which I’m taking the “dog/Smurf” name.

There are many, many ways to deal with this problem, from the point of view of both writers and consumers of children’s (and grown-up, possibly to a lesser extent) media. I want to talk about one small thing people can do to combat part (1) of the problem—our tendency to assume animals are male unless told otherwise. While it’s not always easy to tell at a glance whether an animal is male or female, many familiar, urban species can be sexed pretty easily. Here’s a quick guide to some of them in eastern North America (some of these can be applied elsewhere, especially in the case of invasive species):

  • female American robins often have an oranger breast and paler head than males
  • male cardinals are completely red; females are reddish and olive/brown
  • male house sparrows have a black bib, grey cap, and chestnut-brown head; females have a plain brown head and breast
  • female house and purple finches are brown and stripey; males are brown with red heads and backs (more so on the purple finch)
  • female red-winged blackbirds are also brown and stripey, though larger than finches; males are black with red and yellow shoulders
  • female mallard ducks are mottled brown with an orange and black bill; males have green heads, a grey breast, and a yellow bill. However, for part of the year, males are in “eclipse” plumage, and look like females, but with a yellow bill. Fun fact: only the females quack.
  • female American goldfinches are mostly brown with a yellow head and black wings—as, in fact, are nonbreeding males; breeding males are bright yellow with black wings
  • pigeons (“rock doves” if you want to be a snob) are not obviously sexually dimorphic, but males are often bigger and will puff up their throats to display to females
  • grey squirrels are also not obviously sexually dimorphic, but in the breeding season, you can often see the female’s enlarged nipples (oh, grow up you guys)

So, there you have it for some common birds (and other denizens of birdfeeders) that I can think of. There are many that aren’t sexually dimorphic (or only subtly so). In those cases, try to stop yourself when referring to it as “he”. You could just call any animal “it”, or deliberately call them “she”. (Why not?)

(Oh, and if you see a bird bringing food to a nest, it’s not necessarily a female.)

Only a related note, for many species, there are different words for males and females (like mare/stallion, doe/stag, hen/rooster). I’ve noticed—I don’t know if this is a real pattern or just confirmation bias—that in many such cases, the word for the male animal is retained but the word for the female of the species is less commonly used. For example, “tomcat” is much more common than “molly” or “queen”, the proper terms for a female cat. Same with “drake” and “gander” (male ducks and geese) versus whatever you’re supposed to call female ducks and geese (possibly hens). The word “jackass” is rarely used to refer to a male donkey, but it’s even less common than “jenny”, the word for a female donkey. Oh, and “bull” versus “cow”—I hear many people use “cow” for cattle of any sex. This is really interesting to me, because for so long “man” referred to a generalized human whereas “woman” could only mean a female. Though male is still the default gender assumption for many animals, the common term for some species is actually the word for a female.

Update: How could I leave out the invertebrates? Most honeybees that you see are female, as are most ants (but not most bumblebees). Virtually all aphids are female. Slugs and snails are hermaphrodites. You can tell male and female crickets apart by looking for an ovipositor—a long pointy bit sticking out the back end, which females use to lay eggs.

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