Google Scholar and the literature glut

November 12, 2011

From Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine

We’re often told that young people tend to be the most tech-savvy among us. But just how savvy are they? A group of researchers led by College of Charleston business professor Bing Pan tried to find out. Specifically, Pan wanted to know how skillful young folks are at online search. His team gathered a group of college students and asked them to look up the answers to a handful of questions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the students generally relied on the web pages at the top of Google’s results list.

But Pan pulled a trick: He changed the order of the results for some students. More often than not, those kids went for the bait and also used the (falsely) top-ranked pages. Pan grimly concluded that students aren’t assessing information sources on their own merit—they’re putting too much trust in the machine.

Now I’m a *huge* fan of Google Scholar. When I am writing a paper or grant, Google Scholar, my university library’s page, and my second brain DevonThink  all stand at the ready. This is because I do much of my reading while in the process of writing. Writing exposes the holes in my understanding. So when I go to Google Scholar to find out what’s what, and I get the inevitable list of 3000 entries for, say, “thermal ecology ants”, which ones do I pay attention to?  Read the rest of this entry »

Know your brain: the just world bias

November 12, 2011

Academics spend much of their lives inside their head, mulling cause and affect, conjuring experiments, weighing options. This quiet time is absolutely essential. But what if are we aren’t seeing clearly?  What if our logic is weighted toward one conclusion? What if our mental mirror has defects, or, worse, is of the funhouse variety?

As scientists we design experiments to minimize bias. Indeed science as a way of knowing acknowledges bias and attempts to circumvent it. We have one, often unacknowledged ally in this cause, experimental psychologists.

Now, I know, many associate psychology with the treatment–effective or not–of mental illness. But one of the most useful products of psychological research is the uncovering of inborn biases–the defects in the lenses through which our brains perceive the world. Our wiring, evolved on the plains of Africa, rejiggered in clans, tribes, and societies, is that which allowed our ancestors to survive, not necessarily to see the world clearly.

We are semi-rational beings. How do we avoid being run over by the Semi?

We need to know our biases so we can work to circumvent them. We need to know our student’s biases so we can work, as teachers, to circumvent them.

And so I introduce an occasional series called: “Know your brain”.  Read the rest of this entry »

And sometimes Science is about re-imagining what we thought we knew

November 8, 2011

Harpo Marx let’s loose…

Science is like jazz

November 8, 2011

Improvisational; an orderly universe that leads to the unexpected; new discoveries that make you  shake your head and laugh.


November 8, 2011

We in the AntLab are learning through trial and error to photograph tiny things under the microscope. The goal is to produce web- based catalogues of critters from the brown food web, the microbes that decompose dead stuff like leaves, and the invertebrates that depend on them for food and shelter. The catalogue, which will go online sometime next year, is for our use as we quantify patterns of diversity, abundance, and body size across the New World forests. Hopefully it will help others interested in the same questions.

Here are a couple of photographs from Jelena Bujan, early efforts toward capturing the elusive beauty of Collembola, or springtails.

The art of insect photography, a tutorial

November 8, 2011

Alex Wild, of Myrmecos, and Alex Wild Photography, has fashioned his post-Ph. D. life into a career in insect photography. He is now an evangelist for taking better photos.

Check out a video of his recent presentation at UC. Davis. Or use this link to access his slide show.

Takehome: its about lenses, lighting, and composition.

The course not taken

November 8, 2011

In the States, there is now a big hoop de do about the value of a college education, and, more precisely, how do we define value. Not surprisingly, a 4-year  liberal arts (humanities + science) education is less valuable to some than something that will get you a job in an engineering firm. That said, since anything of creative quality is a function of style*content, being well read, culturally aware, and deft with words and equations is a pretty fantastic tool set with which to face an uncertain future.

Still the following argument will only work on some people.

My only serious academic mistake was in learning German rather than Ancient Greek in high school. My dad was convinced we’d all be run by Germans in the future (and how right he was) but the now rusty skill hasn’t helped much at all. A Heidegger sentence makes a teensy bit more sense in the original, but that’s about it. (Yeah, I know: poseur alert material). But Greek? I could tackle the Gospels in the original! I could read Plato and Aristotle as they were meant to be read.

But the main reason for a classical education is precisely its uselessness. True learning is practically useless; and it should be. It is not about deploying knowledge to master the world, it is about the pursuit of truth for the sake of nothing else. It is about the highest things. How is a life worth living if it ignores them?

From Andrew Sullivan

Ahh, if I had only taken Spanish in high school, and not French (sorry Madame Schmelling). Then perhaps I would not have been voted “Gringo mas gringo” in my first tropical biology course in Costa Rica.

Today’s dose of wisdom

November 7, 2011

Give a person a fish and you feed them for a day. Teach a person to
use the Internet and they won’t bother you for weeks, months, maybe

Been away on a mission of mercy. More to come soon.