View from Kamiak Butte. Outside Moscow, ID.

View from Kamiak Butte. Outside Moscow, ID.

A lot of pixels have been spilled on the subject of the adjunct crisis in academia. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it refers to the explosive growth in the use of adjunct faculty to teach courses at colleges and universities in the United States. These faculty are hired on a course by course, semester by semester basis. They receive no benefits and don’t have a shred of job security. By some estimates an average “full-time” adjunct faculty member teaching 8 courses a year (3 each semester and 2 in the summer, perhaps?) would make less than $30,000 a year and it’s thought that adjunct faculty are now doing 70% of the teaching at higher education institutions in the US.

Much of the discussion of this issue has focused on the perceived fundamental unfairness of employing highly educated professionals in such an absurd fashion, or on the pyramid scheme-y aspects of graduate programs that chew up students and spit them into this cesspool of underemployment. In the comments sections of these pieces, there is an ever-present retort, presumably emanating from those free market-loving capitalists among us, that if adjunct faculty hate their plight so much, they should change career paths.

In response to this, I want to use a recent post at this blog to highlight a slightly less well covered aspect of the issue and the other side of that coin: when you offer shitty compensation, you might just get shitty employees.

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The gold-star creationist?

2010.02.15 - Life Sciences South

The Life Sciences building at the University of Idaho. Photo by jby.

Academic freedom is a bedrock principle of higher education—part of the point of having classes taught by working scholars is that, at the university level, students should be exposed to the interplay of ideas at the cutting edge of each field of study, and so professors should have latitude to explore controversial topics and defend their own perspectives.

But there are limits to that principle. Common sense, and the need to organize prerequisites across a multi-year curriculum, dictates that even a tenured professor would get into trouble if she devoted her entire introductory chemistry course to a critical reading of The Lord of the Rings. In a (maybe) less extreme example, a professor who spent an astronomy class arguing that there is a scientific basis to the Zodiac would, at the very least, get a talking-to from his department chair. In order to meaningfully teach a given class, there are topics that need to be covered—and there is material that has no legitimate place in the syllabus.

This is why I was so surprised to learn, a few weeks ago, that the University of Idaho—the institution where I earned my Ph.D., where Noah earned his Master’s degree and Sarah earned both her B.S. and Master’s—has hired someone who believes that the Earth was created over the course of six days about six thousand years ago, to teach an introductory microbiology course.

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Why study whether we evolved this way?

baby i was born this way

John Corvino, the chair of the Philosophy Department at Wayne State University, has recently published a book, What’s Wrong With Homosexuality, which systematically knocks down objections to the equality of LGBTQ folks. He’s been discussing major points from the book in a series of clever and widely-circulated videos, and I just recently discovered that, in an episode about the biological basis of sexual orientation, he talks about that review article proposing a possible epigenetic basis for sexual orientation that I discussed here a few months ago.

Full disclosure: I found Corvino’s post, actually, because he linked to my piece about the epigenetics paper, and he did so while paying it what I consider the highest compliment it’s possible to pay a science blogger: “A nice explanation of the paper can be found here.” Which: look at me blushing.

But Corvino comes at the question from a somewhat different angle than a biologist: he says it really doesn’t matter whether there’s an inborn basis to sexual orientation.

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Does science promote morality?

Almost a year ago today, I wrote my first post here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!.  The post, titled ‘The Data on Science and Religion‘, discussed a article in Science that investigated whether analytical thinking promoted religious disbelief.  I thought it fitting that my post today would tackle a new article, just published in PLoS One that asks whether analytical thinking also makes you more moral.

The authors of the article, Christine Ma-Kellams and Jim Blascovich, used a series of four experiments to ask whether there was a link between exposure to science and moral behavior.  In the first experiment, the authors examined how previous exposure to scientific thinking influenced perceptions of moral behavior.  Participants were asked to read a short story describing a date rape situation and rate how wrong the behavior was on a scale of 1-100, where 100 is considered completely wrong.  They were then asked, on a scale of 1-7, how much they ‘believe’ in science.

To avoid confounding past experiences, the following three experiments manipulated the participants recent exposure to scientific thinking by asking them to play a word game that either contained scientific vocabulary (i.e. hypothesis, scientists, etc.) or control vocabulary (i.e. shoes, paper, etc.) and then complete one of three alternative tasks aimed to measure morality.  The second study repeated the same moral judgement scenario as their first experiment.  The third study asked participants to report the likelihood that they would engage in certain activities in the following month.  Those activities fell into two categories: (1) prosocial behaviors that benefit others, such as giving blood and (2) control activities with no benefit to others, such as going to the movies.  Finally, the forth study measured actual moral behavior by giving the participants $5 and asking them to split it (in any manner they desired) between themselves and another anonymous participant.

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Friday Coffee Break, Official Springtime Edition


Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

With the official start of Spring this week, at least depending on where you are.  For me, I’m currently sitting in Ithaca, NY where the high for the day is still only squeaking into the above freezing range which only makes me miss Richmond, VA right now all the more.  So without further adieu, which is apparently my new catch phrase, your links for the week.

To start things off on a light and happy note.  Sarah has some wonderful news that she passed her dissertation defense!!  She is so excited, as she should be, that her link this week is a ton of dancing GIFs.  Of note, she things either Carlton or Ace Ventura match her mood best.  Congrats Sarah!

This week CJ wonders about the possibility of a gender gap in pain perception as discussed in the NYTimes article.  She also thought this article gave a good break down of the process of becoming tenured and is indeed quite helpful (and makes me glad to be in the field that I am in).  And finally, an opinion piece on why De-extinction would not work.

From Jeremy, a piece from the blog Why Evolution is True on why science writing is tedious and often boring and what it takes to write good science.

From Amy, a depressing story on the passage of an amendment limiting the funding for NSF research regarding political science and the letter from Senator Tom Coburn justifying this measure.

Finally, I’d like to end things with a video.  I’m a big fan of TED talks and also of U2, so when I saw that Bono gave a TED talk about his passion of helping to fight to end poverty I thought it was worth a look.  I loved his analogy of how poverty could end in as short a time period as about 3 more Rolling Stones farewell tours.

Evolve the vote?

Barack Obama in Lima - November 2nd

President Obama at a rally in Lima, Ohio, on Friday.

Cross-posted from Denim and Tweed.

You may have heard that there’s an election happening in the United States today. It’s been ten months of “campaign season” since the early Republican party primary elections in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the two presidential campaigns and their various allies have raised and spent going on two billion (billion!) dollars on advertising and campaigning and probably also consultants’ fees.

This seems like an awfully expensive and inefficient way to choose someone to run a government, which is to say an awfully expensive and inefficient way to work together to decide upon and achieve common goals. Winston Churchill famously noted that democracy is the worst form of government “except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” But Churchill was really only talking about democracy in comparsion to other human forms of government. The living world contains all sorts of examples of individuals coordinating their actions for mutual benefit, and none of them need political action committees to do it.

Is there a better approach to group organization somewhere else on the tree of life? Let’s consider a few options:

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Friday Coffee Break, Turkish style!

Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

From Jeremy and Noah:

Apparently this particular link is so impressive it gets two recommendations!  “OneZoom is committed to heightening awareness about the diversity of life on earth, its evolutionary history and the threats of extinction. This website allows you to explore the tree of life in a completely new way.”

From Sarah:

The quintessential list of items every graduate student should have (at least something similar in each category).  And also, in this story on NPR global warming could have a very detrimental effect on one particular species of  lizard the Tautara as egg temperature determines gender.

From Devin:

Australian scientists respond to massive government budget cuts for funding here and also here.

From Amy:

The evolution of drug resistent strains of gonorrhea or how the clap came back.

And finally from Jon:

Healthcare is very slow to adopt new technology but the flood of mobile technology might help make trips to the doctors office less painful with real time updates on when the doctor is available and to help patients check in.

Give the NSF a piece of your mind

Cross-posted from Denim and Tweed.

This last year, the Biological Sciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation—one of the biggest single funders of ecology and evolutionary biology research in the U.S.—introduced a new process for reviewing grant proposals.

Lots of other folks with better first-hand knowledge have written about the new process. The key change is that, where formerly NSF offered two opportunities per year to submit a proposal for funds, the new procedures introduced a “pre-proposal” stage in which biologists write a much shorter pre-proposal first. If this mini-proposal is judged worthy, the applicant is then invited to submit a full proposal several months later.

This effectively reduced the workload (in terms of full proposals) for NSF reviewers, and it makes the funding rate for “full” proposals look much better—as long as you don’t look too closely at the triage (i.e., rejection) rate for preproposals, which, eek. But it also cut the “real” opportunities to submit a grant proposal in half. If you’re trying to land NSF funding in the few short years before a tenure review, that might make you a bit … concerned.

So a bunch of biologists wrote to NSF about this [PDF], pointing out that the new process

  • Creates a much longer “lag time” between submitting a new idea as a proposal and recieving money to pursue the idea, effectively slowing down the pace of basic science;
  • Reduces the scope and complexity of ideas that can be proposed; and
  • Provides less feedback for applicants, which makes it difficult to improve rejected proposals for the next round of applications.

That letter, and followup discussions, got NSF thinking about (or maybe thinking about thinking about) some changes to the new process. I’ve just learned via an e-mail from the Society for the Study of Evolution that there’s a very short survey that interested parties (i.e., those of us who study ecology and evolutionary biology, and might like the NSF to pay for some of our work) should fill out by next Tuesday, the 18th. It took me about a minute. So maybe go do it now?◼

Tell the White House: Make government-funded research open-access

As J.B.S. Haldane put it, “I think … that the public has a right to know what is going on inside the laboratories, for some of which it pays.” He was referring to the need for scientists to explain their work in popular media—which, amen, brother Jack!—but the point holds with regard to access to original scientific articles, too.

It doesn’t make much sense that U.S. citizens, whose taxes fund most of the basic science in this country, are then expected to pay upwards of $50 for a single PDF copy of a journal article presenting government-funded research results. The National Institutes of Health already requires that research it funds be archived online and accessible to the general public free of charge—why not expand that to all government-funded research? And hey, there’s a way to suggest exactly that out to the man in charge: a petition on

We believe in the power of the Internet to foster innovation, research, and education. Requiring the published results of taxpayer-funded research to be posted on the Internet in human and machine readable form would provide access to patients and caregivers, students and their teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and other taxpayers who paid for the research. Expanding access would speed the research process and increase the return on our investment in scientific research.

The highly successful Public Access Policy of the National Institutes of Health proves that this can be done without disrupting the research process, and we urge President Obama to act now to implement open access policies for all federal agencies that fund scientific research.

It needs 25,000 virtual signatures within 30 days before it’ll get any meaningful attention, so sign this thing and then start badgering all your online “friends” about it, why don’t you? Especially the jerks who keep filling your update stream with branded product promotions and/or time-sucking adorable cat videos and/or news about how they’ve just spent real money for a virtual cow—post this directly on their “walls,” if those are even still a thing, with or without a witty and/or pleading comment appended.

I mean, it’s Monday morning; it’s not like you’re going to get do anything else for the benefit of humanity in the next minute or two, you slacker.

The Data on Science and Religion

This post is a guest contribution by Amy Dapper, the proprietor of Evolve It!, a blog about (sometimes) cool (mostly) science-y things. Amy is a PhD student at Indiana University studying evolutionary theory.

Religious beliefs, or more likely disbelief, tend to be a hot topic on science blogs, particularly those with a evolutionary bend.  However, when these topics come up there is often more opinion than science, which is why I was excited to see an research article in last weeks edition of Science titled ‘Analytical Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief’ [1].  The article, authored by Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan, uses a series of five studies to build a causal link between analytical cognitive processes and religious disbelief.  I thought it would be fun to delve into the science behind their audaciously titled article for my guest post here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense.

The authors approach understanding the cognitive underpinnings of religious belief and disbelief using the dual-process theory of human thought.  This theory posits that we use two distinct and separate systems for reasoning.  The first, creatively termed System 1, is intuitive and produces a rapid response based only on prior knowledge and experience.  Previous research has found that individuals who rely more heavily on this intuitive cognitive system are more likely to believe in supernatural entities, and thus tend to have stronger religious beliefs [2]. On the other hand, System 2 is rational and produces a slower response based upon logic and reasoning that, when employed, often overrides the conclusions of System 1.  The authors hypothesize that, in contrast to System 1, this analytical cognitive system promotes religious disbelief.

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