Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sharkfins Must be Banned! (by a guilty Chinese person)

I am here to rant about the recent controversy over banning the selling of sharkfin soup to combat the threat to sharks all around the world. While I am still fuming, I hope I will be able to write a comprehensible piece...

Recently, the municipal governments of Vancouver and Toronto, Canada, has been trying to place bans on the selling of sharkfin. For anyone not familiar with the Chinese tradition, sharkfin is an ingredient used to make sharkfin soup, a traditional delicacy to the Chinese people and a classic dish for the special event. There is almost no Chineses banquet I have attended in which sharkfin has not been served, and dried up specimens can often be seen in displays in Chinese seafood restaurants and shops selling traditional Chinese herbal medicine. In recent decades, sharkfin has become more accessible and demands have been enormous, threatening wild populations of sharks. In lieu of conservation demands, the municipal governments have attempted to place bans on the selling of sharkfin.

Here in Vancouver, this has been met with some success, as sharkfin has been banned in some parts of the city. Better yet, Chong Qing Seafood Restaurant, the first Ocean Wise and sharkfin free restaurant of its kind, has recently opened its doors to the public.

However, the success this movement has had can only be matched by the hindrance it has also met. Just tonight, I was watching the news. Apparently, the ban has not boded well with the Chinese Community in Toronto at all and the result is a failure of the ban, as the Judge who was responsible for this case admits that "the ban pertains to some elements of racism" and that they do not actually have the rights to make this ban effective. Later, the newscast interviewed several people of the Chinese Community, who were celebrating their "victory". Translations best as I could:

"The greatest victory for us is that the Judge admits that this bylaw pertains to racism and therefore should not be enforced...There has never been a bylaw that has been targeted at a certain group of people like this..."

"If 'Westerners' can eat shark meat, than why can't we Chinese people eat Shark Fin?" 

I am still fuming, so I will just have to say this: as  Chinese person, I am absolutely disgusted and ashamed at the logic that is being used here.

In summary, there are a few reasons why the Chinese Community is responding to this with negative attitudes:

1) The bylaw is targeted at the Chinese Community and is therefore racist
Why would the government place this ban? Inherently, the reason springs from environmental concern. The government was responding to the demands for restrictions to fisheries to control shark-fishing for the sake of Shark conservation. It just so happened that the Shark Fin (one of the major reasons sharks are being overfished worldwide) is a Chinese Delicacy, and so it happened that confronting this environmental concern would also involve confronting a Chinese tradition.
Therefore, Chinese people are not the target of this ban. Rather, the tradition that is upheld by us is the barrier to a very important environmental goal. There is no racism in these actions. 

2) Sharkfin is a Chinese tradition and should not be removed from menus
There are 5000 years of Chinese history, and with it, traditions. I am almost certain that the so called unchanging traditions have changed within that time, as dynamically as the times itself. Therefore, traditions are prone to change and completely malleable to the times.
What isn't going to change, if this tradition does not, is the extinction of sharks, or at the very least, the rapid depletion of sharks. So which should it be, the Sharks, or our soup?
Sharks are an important controlling factor in the aquatic ecosystem. Without them, the ecosystem can be flipped on its head and not only will we lose the sharks, the collateral damage associated would mean we could also be losing and affecting thousands of other species.
Should we then, for the sake of upholding a ritual, ignore all planetary responsibility and continue feasting on shark fin (which by the way, has very limited nutritional value)?

3) Why can Shark Meat be eaten and Shark fin not be? 
They shouldn't be. Remember, our goal is to conserve sharks. Therefore, if a ban is to be placed on sharkfin, naturally, a ban should also be placed on the selling of any parts of the shark, as long as it involves the death of the shark. Saying that someone else is doing something equally wrong as you doesn't make you right.

For Tradition's Sake
In conclusion, I am in complete and utter support of the ban on Shark  Fin. As  member of the Chinese Community, I think I have the responsibility to inform my group that their is no reason Sharkfin should not be banned. 
For another thing, I want to apologize to all the sharks of the world (yes I am apologizing to sharks that can't hear me if I was next to them because they don't have ears). I have not eaten a shortage of your fins at Chinese banquets either, although I have raised feeble efforts to look worried and concerned and refrained enough from eating you that I have been able to make my table-mates aware of my reasons for doing so. 
I will continue to try and raise awareness of this issue whenever I can for your (sharks) sake. In addition to that, you can be rest assured that there will be none of your fins for when I wed and must have a banquet. 
I will speak in your place, because you have no voice box and there are some who wouldn't listen if you did, because of your fins.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Teaching Journal Day 3

Yesterday, I had my most successful run so far with the students at my place :D. I felt more like a "real" TA and those papers that Angie (my supervisor for this project) gave me for good teaching really helped! I love my "job". The only thing that could make it better would be if I got paid for it. If I do with all the luck in the world make it into Grad School, the first thing I'll do is sign up for TAing! 
Icings on the cake: 

  • I was paired with a TA (Carla), a master's student, whose honour's thesis concerned bird nesting behaviors, almost the exact same thing I want to do for my honour's thesis (if I do it). She's talkative, sarcastic and loads of fun, not to mention I can shake some info off of her for potential supervisors. Carla the money tree.  
  • I tend to feel more confident and act much differently than I usually do when in a teaching position. I talk louder, I'm more social and worry less about what others might think of me (except for how they might think about my teaching)
  • I guess you get some respect in a teaching position too, provided you teach well. Which is always nice :).  

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Lab 3
Today has been my most successful run so far. It was probably because I actually practiced doing the intro before I went up in front of the class. It felt more smooth, I was stuttering less, was more projecting, less nervous and much more confident.
I was responsible for introducing the three components of the vertebrate skull as well as form and function of teeth. I found that many of them were still not quite grasping the terminology for the taxa, although this is to be expected. There was one question: “What is the teleostomi?” They were completely stumped. I sent them to discuss amongst themselves what they thought the teleostomi is for about half a minute. Although I heard some ideas and answers (while others seemed completely stumped anyway), I got no answers from anyone when I turned them back around. So for me, this tactic of discussion did not seem to work.
I did let slip one fatal detail for my intro today. When I asked them “Which of the three tooth insertion types we (humans) have, and almost everyone replied thecodont I accidently commented “obviously” after saying that was indeed correct. It was a slip on my part and I should not have let it happen. 1) For the students who know it, it’s almost like one less thing to be proud of (that they know) 2) for the students who didn’t know it, I just insulted them.
                Once again I tried to lead them to the correct answer instead of giving it to them. However, this lab was different, since many of the facts are based on “know-or-don’t” rather than logically thinking through it. I must be careful to differentiate between the two types of questions so that when people are just asking for an answer for “know-or-don’t” questions, I don’t get tempted to take them on a long trip just to tell them the answer after all that work. For the logical thinking questions, however, it pays to ask more questions than to answer. This is because deep processing of information (actually thinking about the material themselves) beats shallow processing (me telling them the material) (Chow, 2007).
            Because the midterm is approaching, some students approached me to ask me about study techniques. One student asked me how he should go about studying and whether he should use cue cards to memorize the words. After reading the article by Chow (2007), I warned him that that is not the best way to approach the material. Since cue cards promote promotion of isolated facts, whereas the material in this class is in fact very much interrelated with each other as concepts, cue cards would not work. Instead, I taught him to create concept maps and work on those.
Example (in a blog I can't put arrows, but there would be lines between the three components and the skull. 
                                                                  Skull (Component of Lab 3)

Dermatocranium                                   Chondrocranium                     Splanchnocranium

                 The concept map would of course than be elaborated. This technique promotes understanding of relationships between terminology rather than the definitions of terminology themselves. Mentally, it also organizes the material into comprehensible “packages” that would organize all the material that was viewed and understood about that portion of lab (in other words, they are constructing a schema).
                One of the points that was mentioned in the paper (What all instructors should know) was that I should find out and understand what students are thinking and recognize that they think differently from me. This is a legitimate point to explore, since I feel that sometimes I think differently than a student and I end up asking questions where I know what I’m asking, but the student will give me a blank look. Sometimes I may blast through material without realizing that I am leaving behind some details.
                I practiced not doing so when I taught a few students about the “story” of the splanchnocranium. I went through it with them slowly, realizing that many of them had not completely learned the journey too well. For example, when I asked students what jaw suspension a mudpuppy has, one student replied “amphistyly”. Realizing that they had not completely  understood the material, I went through it with them step by step, asking them  questions along the way, such as “what happens to the hyomandibula in metautostyly jaw suspension?” I realized many of them did not understand…
·         The difference between the first and second branchial arch
·         That quadrate and articular are the exposed parts of what is left of meckel’s cartilage and palatoquadrate that has become ossified
·         That the hyomandibula is not associated with the jaw in autostyly
·         And some false conceptions
Apparently I am somewhat more thorough than Carla (my Co-TA).
I anticipate many questions on how to study for the exam. I should be ready for those and can even present the material I learned in the paper by Chow (2007).

Teaching Journal Day 1 and 2

One of my classes for this semester is something called Teaching Directed Studies (Biol 448). What I do is I co-teach a lab component with a TA. I was lucky enough to be paired with a cool TA who happens to love birds as much as I do, is extremely talkative, sarcastic and fun. 
One of my jobs is to keep a teaching journal that I write in every day after I finish the lab and record what worked and what didn't work. I felt like sharing them today :) 
I have worked through three labs so far. Today was the third one. I love the class, they are so much fun and I love teaching them! 

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

Lab 1 

Today went pretty well. I was in charge today for introducing the “development of vertebrates” and also “translating terminology”.
                For “development of vertebrates”, I feel like I went a little too rushed and fast. I tried a couple of techniques…
·         I asked them if they felt like they were in the wrong class when development was taught. Since I am the student teacher, I figure I’m the “example that survived”.  So relating to them and making it clear that it’s normal to find this material alien, I was hoping, would comfort them
·         I then explained the purpose of teaching development first so that, hopefully, understanding why they are doing what they are doing will help
I didn’t have a chance to share study tips. I wish I did though.
Most people screwed up on their plasticine models. That’s understandable though. The parts that most people screwed up on…
1.       The head fold was next to non-existent in the embryo
2.       The gut (endoderm) did not rise into the head
3.       The bump of endoderm was non-existent or if made existed posteriorly also
4.       Mesoderm. People were very confused about mesoderm.
a.       Where it went
b.       Coeloms (is a space)
c.       Difference between epimere/mesomere/hypomere mesoderm
Most I should remind them too that they will also be taking them apart at the end… plasticine pressed too firmly together!
I feel like I could’ve asked more questions and a bit more patient. I felt rushed to get the student to the answer during which I case I forgot about leading to the answer rather than giving it. I need to watch that for next time.
Especially when students were pressed around me, I felt pressured to get through the material quickly.
Overall though, I feel stoked to continue!
Oh wait! I was also kind of nervous… my teeth were chattering slightly, my hands were shaky…
I also learned that contrary to what I thought the TA’s don’t really know everything about the material and that they are not almighty beings and have their limits… EPIPHANY!

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Lab 2
                Nervousness… I was giving my intro and then I couldn’t hear the student’s answers to my questions… it was that awkward moment where I couldn’t hear them and didn’t know what to do. Felt too awkward… O_O. It made me feel nervous. And pretty soon I felt my face redden.
                I might have also forgotten to breathe.
                So I must remember that what feels like an eternity to me actually is seconds below the stage. When I am met by awkward silence to a question I feel they should know, I should tell them I can wait and they know the answer.
                I explained what they were doing with the specimens in the lab today in the context of if they were scientists investigating the phylogenetic relationships of deuterostomes. I hoped that would make them realize what they were expected to do with the specimens.
                When the students were staring at me with somewhat bored expressions, I was getting very worried that I was boring them and I think started talking even faster and become more nervous. Because I was afraid they may have been getting impatient by then.
                Overall, I thought I may have been too worried about what students thought about me/my performance and perhaps not as concentrated as I should have been on delivering the material. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Story of Heaven and Hell

Just wanted to share a story this post :). There is also an explanation for the story following it.   

A man who has done good all his life dies and goes to the Spirit World. There he sees a field of flowers and beautiful mountains in the backdrop and his family sitting in the grass smiling at him. He smiles tearfully and joins them. He is in heaven. 

A man who has done bad all his life dies and goes to the Spirit World. There he sees a field of boring flowers and large, domineering mountains in the backdrop as well as the family he never cared for sitting in the grass. There is nothing in this world for him, he thinks. 

He turns to the man who has done good all his life and asks: "Here I am in this good for nothing Hell and you are smiling and being happy. Tell me, am I in Hell or am I in Heaven?" 

Says the man who has done good all his life with a smile: "Well, it depends on how you see it."

Do good, see good; Do evil, see evil.


I thought up this story one day while making lunch.Out of the blue, I imagined I was trying to explain to a child why the world seems so unfair sometimes. Why do the mean children get the good toys while the good children cry from being bullied? 
I decided I would tell them a story. A story of a strange world. 
A Strange World: Sacred Heaven to some and Burning Hell to others. 
What is so strange? The strange thing is that all people who go their observe the same spectacle. A snow-capped mountain in the far distance, a field of flowers, and their family on the grass. Yet in the story, one man saw Heaven while the other saw Hell. 
What was the difference between these two men in persona? One had done good all their lives while the other had done nothing but selfish deeds. 
So why did one man see Heaven while the other see Hell?


The Man who has done horrible deeds all his life... and sees Hell where there is Heaven.

 Some people do horrible deeds without guilt and live comfortable lives. Others do and think only good while living in inhuman conditions. Is this just? Many, me included, would think not. 

But at the same time, I would perceive some subtle punishments and rewards in the seemingly upside down world.

Because you see, even though the "bad" man lives comfortably, he pays a cost for his misled ways. If he cannot see the horribleness of what he's done, he is also blind to the beauty around him
He lives for luxury. Luxury is his meaning in the world, the reason why he will do anything, immoral or not, to get it. 
If someone sees merit in only luxury, how could they possibly enjoy the happiness they should be seeking, happiness that comes from helping others, from the simple beauties and fortune to be found around us? 
This is the price the "bad" man pays: for his immoral ways to achieve his desires, he, ironically, surrenders the possibility of true happiness in the form of being able to see happiness around him, instead of seeking it.

Hence, A man who has done bad all his life dies and goes to the Spirit World, and "sees" Hell.
Note of Interest: this is one of the core concepts of Buddhist teachings: desire is the root of all unhappiness.         

The Man who has done good all his life... and sees Heaven regardless.

The "good" man is different. He may not have the luxury of riches and fame, but these are not what he needs to be happy. Instead, he seeks happiness where it should be sought: by helping those in need, by enjoying simple pleasures, by being the best person he can be in his own right.
If someone sees merit not in luxury, but takes advantage of the happiness already available around him, he does not need to (nor would he want to) be immoral, cheat and lie to get it. Happiness comes to him because he doesn't do those things.  
This is the reward that is paid the "good" man: because he does not cheat or lie around (because he is not greedy for the luxuries that he would otherwise get), he is rewarded true happiness. True happiness is not superficial like "happiness" from luxury, it is light to carry for their is no burden from guilt and runs as deep into the soul as the abyss. It is good for the soul. 

The child may be very confused by the end, but one day, he may understand this:
The World may not seem fair from a superficial perspective. However, from a deeper analysis, we may see that the good man is indeed rewarded, while the bad man is indeed punished in subtle ways. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

How Science WORKS (that thing they never taught you in school)

Today, we live in a world surrounded by Science. Science is literally everywhere: in the news, in  magazines, in help books and school curricula...I thought I knew Science. It wasn't until my first year studying Science at UBC that I realized how little I knew (and still know) about Science. In hindsight, I am surprised that the high school science curriculum at my school did not cover one of the most central concepts of science: how it works. This is known as the scientific method. Knowing how science works is as important as knowing what "facts" Science generates. This post is a basic introduction into the how of Science.
This post is more of a reference post to later posts regarding Science in everyday life. If your interests allow, I encourage you to know more :). 

Many believe they know Science. After all, we are surrounded by it. Every other day, news and magazine articles revel over the newest findings..." study finds..."..." study finds new way to beat belly fat!"...Science, the new answer to everything, and judging by the sheer number of magazine articles dedicated to it, especially how to achieve the body of a stick-bug. 

However, as many people who believe Science is the new gospel, few know how it works. How do scientists generate new findings? Is one study enough to disprove or "prove" something? Is natural selection only a "theory"? These are questions that the layperson who knows science only from magazine articles would likely not have the answer to. And not knowing these answers is the equivalent of being fed new strange food without knowing what it is made of or how it was cooked. We are then vulnerable to whatever claims anyone makes about this new food: without the knowledge to arm ourselves against anyone's claims, we leave ourselves open and vulnerable to believing the wrong people. 

I am NOT an expert in this scientific method, but hopefully, this post will help anyone still unknowing about the workings of science arm themselves to baseless claims too common in our world today and engage in one of the most central skills science has to offer: thinking critically. Below is a step by step intro to the Scientific Method (a step by step way of how scientific studies are conducted). 

The Scientific Method 

We will work through this step by step diagram using a very commonplace, mundane question as our example: "Do cells arise from non-living material spontaneously?"
An overview of the Scientific Method


Ask a Question

Any scientific endeavour always starts with a question. Every field of science has its own questions to tackle. In the field of my study, Animal Biology, many are now desperately studying, "How does global warming affect animal species?" 
This question will then lead us into coming up with ways to research it to find the answer. And perhaps more everyday questions...

"Why do I get so dizzy when I drink too much?"
"Does eating only grapefruit make someone slimmer?"
"Will this drug work to reduce cancer?"

In 1858, a man by the name of Rudolph Virchow proposed the Cell Theory, a theory that proposed that all cells arise from pre-existing cells, something we take for fact today. However, at the time, this was directly challenging a hypothesis (a proposed explanation) that cells arise spontaneously from non-living materials. So the question that was asked..."Do cells arise from non-living material spontaneously or from pre-existing cells?" 


Do Background Research

In Science, you will hear a lot about "the literature". What does the literature say about the effects of tobacco on health?
On our homework, "research the literature and cite at least 2 empirical journals to support your findings".
So what is "the literature"?
The literature is basically a compilation of all the scientific findings within a field of Science. These are separated into three types of sources:

Primary sources: consists of original work, published in scientific journals. E.g. if I did a study on the effects of tobacco on the health of mice and published my findings into a journal, this would be considered a primary source, since I am the one who reports the findings. 

Secondary sources: if I published my findings about the effects of tobacco on the health of mice, but someone wanted to report the overall effect of tobacco on health, he may report my research article, along with possibly hundreds of other articles related to tobacco on health. This will give us an overview of what the "literature" has to say about tobacco. This process of taking many many studies about a particular topic and summarizing them in an argument, a report etc. is also known as a meta-analysis

Tertiary sources: gives one a very broad overview of what could be thousands of research articles to give the reader a very broad introduction to the source material. An example of this is an encyclopedia or a textbook.

Note: the definitions above are really really general, and each field will have their unique distinctions of each. 

Of the above, the most reliable and informative is the primary source, although the secondary and tertiary sources are good for getting a good idea of the overall view of a topic. Before any study is done, background research must be done. 

For example, if I wanted to know whether tobacco is harmful to the human brain, I may consolidate the literature and find out what other studies have found: the effects of tobacco on the rat/guinea pig/monkey brain, what tobacco is made out of, whether the individual components has been found to have an effect of the human brain... all these things, that could help us predict (or make a good guess) whether tobacco is harmful to the human brain. 


Construct Hypothesis 

This step happens after you have done all necessary background research. In the context of a new study a hypothesis is a prediction. That is, it predicts the results from a study I am about to do or perhaps even studies similar to mine. 
In another context, it can be an explanation for something observed. For example, before Darwin's ideas became the theory of natural selection, his general explanations for animal diversity could be considered a hypothesis. 

One requirement of a hypothesis is that it MUST be testable. By that, we mean that there must be some way to test the hypothesis to falsify or support it. When the test (experiment) is done, we can conclude that the hypothesis' alternatives are not true, but that does not prove our hypothesis is true. After all, we never know whether another study is just waiting around the corner to falsify our hypothesis.
If a hypothesis is not testable, then there is no way to falsify it! That would be like someone who enters a game where he might not win, but he'll never lose.  "I am right, because you can't prove I'm wrong!" That just isn't fair.

So can we test if cells arise spontaneously OR from other cells? Sure we can! All we need is what Louis Pasteur used, a straight and swan necked flask, and some nutrient broth to grow cells in. Plus, we need a hypothesis...   
In this case, Louis Pasteur didn't test either the hypothesis or the cell theory. He was only trying to discern which is false. Therefore, he didn't really have a prediction. But never mind that, let's move on!
Straight and swan necked flask 


Test with an Experiment

There are a few key things about experiments that must be done...
  • There must be an Experimental and a Control condition
  • The experimental and control condition must differ by only one condition
    • They must differ only from the independent variable
    • The dependent variable is then measured
Experimental and Control Condition
Let's say you were in a lawn... you wanted to test if a fertilizer is going to make it greener. You spray the fertilizer over the entire lawn. 4 weeks later, your lawn looks like Heaven made a visit.  You think to yourself, "That ridiculous price I paid for this bottle of fertilizer was worth it after all! 

But the thing is, you don't know if it was really the fertilizer! If you had sprayed the fertilizer in late March or early April, there's a good chance your fertilizer wasn't the one that did the magic, it was summer. Or perhaps, it just happened to rain more over the four weeks than it did the entire year. Or better yet, maybe the weather was beautiful and dogs who were being walked decided your lawn looked spectacularly inviting for their business.
The point is, you have no idea whether it was the fertilizer or not

So what SHOULD you have done? How about spray the fertilizer on one side of the lawn and leave the other untouched? Assuming rain or summer doesn't prefer one side of the lawn over the other, the two sides are relatively equal. Therefore, the only significant difference between the two sides should be only the fertilizer

Experimental Condition: the condition that receives the "treatment" (in this case the side of the lawn that receives the fertilizer)
Control Condition: The condition that does not receive the "treatment"  

Why is this important?
Because only one side receives the condition and the other doesn't, the one that doesn't provides a base condition for comparing the two groups. Therefore, any difference between the two groups can be attributed to the "treatment"

Independent and Dependent Variable

I'll keep this short... the independent variable is whatever is manipulated by the experimenter (you) to make the difference between the experimental and control group. However, the dependent variable is what is then measured to evaluate the difference between the two groups (probably the "healthiness" of the lawn).

Pasteur's Experiment
Pasteur's goal was to determine whether exposure to pre-existing cells would or would not cause cells to arise. 
Independent variable: exposure to cells 
Dependent variable: whether the inside of the flask will have cells in it

In order to control for the exposure of cells, he used two flasks (see above image). One of the flasks would be exposed to the atmosphere, where many cells exist. The other is a swan-necked flask, which traps cells in the swan neck so that the broth will NOT be exposed to pre-existing cells. 

Experimental Condition: straight necked flask
Control Condition: swan-necked flask

Note: the "treatment" in this case is the pre-existing cells


Analyze Results

Once you are actually done the experiment, you can then analyze your results.
For Pasteur's experiment, the results were this...
Straight necked flask: cells grew in broth
 From this, we can conclude that both the cell theory and spontaneous generation hypothesis is supported, since we cannot discern between whether it was the pre-existing cells or the non-living material (the broth). However...
Swan necked flask: cells did not grow in broth
This conditions serves to falsify the spontaneous generation hypothesis since only the broth but no pre-existing cells could get into the flask. 
We can then draw our conclusion: that our data supports the cell theory and does not support the spontaneous generation hypothesis

Operation Lawn Experiment
We look at our lawn after spraying one side but not the other. The side that was sprayed was indeed greener! 
Can we then conclude that the fertilizer did indeed have an effect? Not quite. In these experiments, where we are concerned with not whether we HAVE greenness or not, but the DEGREE of greenness... there is always the off-chance that something affected our results. Maybe the dog did indeed poop on one side but not the other. In this case, one study is not enough, we must REPLICATE, or repeat the experiment several times. 

In this case, we use something called the standard deviation. Let's say there was a way to calculate how healthy our lawn was, perhaps by the length of the grass. 
I won't go into detail... through a set of statistical steps, including calculating the average length of each set (treatment and control), then calculating variance (for both treatment and control)...that is about how much the data VARIED from the average
where u is the average and N the number of scores (repeats)
 We can then calculate the 95% confidence interval. The 95% confidence interval, once calculated, allows us to decide with a 5% chance of error (which is pretty darn small), whether the differences between two or more samples (replicates of an experiment) are due to random chance/sampling error/human error. 
So when scientists say that there is a significant difference between treatment and control, it typically means they are at least 95% confident that it was due to their treatment, not by chance (like dog pooping on lawn).   

Interesting Side-note: this language difference between Science and everyday language has been used by the media to draw the conclusion that global warming is disclaimed. A scientist once said, "the data is almost significant, but not quite". He was referring to the trend of increasing temperatures and how likely it was attributable to global warming. What he was actually saying was that the data was, instead of the conventional 95% + confident, was instead 92% confident. The next day, the news were filled: "Scientist disclaims global warming". 



Remember, even if our hypothesis is supported, we must repeat our experiment. An experiment may have to be repeated dozens and dozens of times before the results are published. 

If it is NOT supported, then we remodel our hypothesis and start over. In other words, we change our original hypothesis (guess again) and try again. 

Either way, the results can be published. 


Publish/announce Results

Then you publish your results. Whether your study was used to support/disclaim an existing/newly made hypothesis, the results are there. 

If a hypothesis has garnered enough empirical support (in other words, its stood up to a number of challenges), it can become a principle of the field... in other words, it can become a theory

Theory: "an explanation for a broad class of phenomenon or observation which has been verified to some degree (i.e. experimentally)".

Creationists have sometimes used this to dispel the Theory of Natural Selection (in other words, evolution). I have nothing against creationists as they are entitled to their beliefs, however, if I were in a debate with someone who happens to be a creationist, I would warn him/her that they're argument is not valid. 
Although in everyday language, a theory is synonymous with a "guesstimate". E.g. to paraphrase from the Pink Panther..."I have a theory about who stole the Klopman Diamond, but its only a theory. However, in Science, a theory is far more than a guess. It is probably one of the most powerful statements and the closest something can get to "fact" in Science. It is something that has not only withstood tonnes of challenges from individual studies (receiving lots of support), it is also, by definition, an explanation for and a predictor of a broad class of phenomenon or observations. For example, the Theory of Natural Selection is one of the founding principles of Biology and dominate almost everything biology. To make the point more obvious, here are a couple of well known theories: 
  • Theory of Natural Selection 
    • Explains animal diversity by evolution, adaptation of animals to different habitats, distribution of characteristics (such as beak length) in a population of birds in different areas etc...
    • Predicts that if we were to leave two populations of the same species in different enough habitats, that their characteristics, over a certain period of time will differ; predicts what would happen to the population dynamics (beak length across the species, weight etc.) of finches with certain changes in the environment (hotter weather, drought etc...) 
  •  Theory of Gravity
    • Explains why objects fall to the ground, why the earth orbits the sun (Theory of Heliocentrism) and why walking under apartments can be potentially dangerous
    • Predicts how far we must shoot a rocket into space in order for it to orbit the earth, not crash into it or be shot out into space; predicts how much support is needed for a building to not crash to the ground
  • Theory of Heliocentrism
    • Explains why we have seasons, explains why the stars in the sky move the way they do
    • Predicts what day will be the best day to get a tan. 
The above theories, especially the last two, are typically taken as "fact" rather than "theories". In Science, however, a theory is probably as close to "fact" as it can get. 

I hope I'll have the time to explain real world applications to the above that I have written, including why we should be VERY cautious about what the media has to say about "Science", how to really decipher fad science etc. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Toothy Tyrant Behind the Scenes: Why Canada should keep the Beaver as its National Emblem

This post concerns a recent suggestion by conservative senator Nicole Elton that the national emblem of Canada (currently, the beaver, whom Ms. Elton bluntly dismissed as a "dentally defective rat") should be replaced by the "stately" polar bear. This is my take on why Canada should keep the beaver as its national emblem, using an ecological argument (yes, you read right, a biology driven argument) as well as I why I think the ecological significance of the beaver should best represent Canadians. 

Word(s) you might want to know:
Ecosystem Engineer: A species that influences its community by creating, modifying, or maintaining physical habitat for itself and other species
Keystone Species: A strong interactor that has an effect on energy flow and community structure that is disproportionate to its abundance or biomass (community as in biotic community, meaning the living part of the ecosystem)
BiomassThe mass of living organisms, usually expressed per unit of area

Biodiversity: The diversity of important ecological entities that span multiple spatial scales, from genes to species to communities

definitions provided by Ecology (2nd ed.) by Cain (2011) (<-- e.g. my ecology textbook =w=") too lazy to cite properly...

One sometimes wonder why Canada should choose the beaver as its national emblem. The United States has the beautiful bald eagle (although they came dangerously close to the turkey, it would be horribly inconvenient to kill your national symbol for thanksgiving and Christmas every year), England has the proud lion (which if I remember correctly, does not exist in England?)... why the beaver? 
This is one question posed as of late from Nicole Elton, conservative senator. Referring to the beaver as a "dentally defective rat", she proposes that the time has come for the beaver to step aside or at least, share the honor of Canada's emblem with the polar bear, whom she hails as strong, majestic and brave. From the National Post (for link, see below):

 “A country’s symbols are not constant and can change over time as long as they reflect the ethos of the people and the spirit of the nation”. 

On that one, I do agree with Ms. Elton. And the beaver is very suitable for reflecting our ethos and spirit! 
Before I continue with the argument, a mini background on the ecology of the beaver. 

The Ecology of the Beaver
In the ecological terms, the beaver is known as an ecosystem engineer (definition above) for their damming behavior. As we all know very well, the beaver fells trees to build their dams, in which they use for their defense. However, not everyone will know of the secondary effects of this: flooding. In a human context, this obviously isn't good news, however, for the vegetation and animals that depend on marshes and wetlands for survival, this is great news. The pictures below are examples of such beaver ponds
By reducing the flow rate of water in the stream, the lands turn into marshy wetland. Depending on the area, the plants that must have these ponds to survive will live, while fish and herbivores that feed on these plants will too thrive. And beavers don't come in only one, neither does each make only one dam. Therefore, an area can be transformed from only forested area, to a mosaic of wetlands. 
By increasing the number of species that can survive in the area, biodiversity of that area increases, and thus, the area has grown richer in the number of species too. A greater biodiversity is typically an indication of a healthy ecosystem. Due to the beaver's great effects on the ecosystem despite relatively small biomass, the beaver is also a keystone species.

What happens when the beaver is removed? 
We can see this in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962). During the late 1950's, insecticides and pesticides were applied to an area rich with sage, willows, beavers, moose, trout etc... The plan was to remove the sage. Unfortunately, the willow trees came within the line of fire, and were destroyed. The beaver and moose, which had depended on them, were also destroyed. With the beaver removed, the wetlands were gone, and so the trout that depended on them, the waterfowl that were attracted to the area, also disappeared. "The living world was shattered" (Carson, 1962, p. 68). 

So Your Point? 
You, dear reader, must be dying to know this. Okay, great, beavers are great, nice story, I get it. So what's your point?
Please see 2 pixels below =]. 

Why Beavers best represent Canadians
Canadians themselves couldn't deny this basic fact: in terms of land mass, we're huge, in terms of worldly population, we're close to insignificant. Mexico's capital alone practically outnumber's us. 
It's no wonder that on the worldly stage, we can sometimes be overpowered by other stronger voices. On the news, I saw a woman, when interviewed about the polar bear and beaver debate, say, "well people sometimes see Canadians as wimpy... so... go polar bear!" And indeed, my parents are sometimes exasperated that Canada is so "behind" and "non-driven". How it lags behind many on the worldly stage in terms of economics, military power, success on the world market (my parents are from Hong Kong).
But I argue no. 
Is success determined by power? Is success determined by our ability to overpower our enemies, turn the world upside down with the flick of a finger? Is success represented by the eagle or lion, that kills to survive? Or are there other types of success?
Should we model ourselves after animals that kill for survival (such as the polar bear), or should we model ourselves after the beaver, whose actions facilitate the survival of many species that depend on the wetlands and contribute to biodiversity, and therefore, overall health of the ecosystem? My very biased paragraph here tells you my thoughts =). 
These are the Canadians I'd like to see and am already observing. 
We Canadians may not be center of the world stage, we may not be very strong, we may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer either. But it doesn't matter, for our actions are not aimed at gripping the power to the world, but at seeing that the world is a better place to live. We are the peacemakers, when the world needs a hand, we will give it.
We shall be like the beaver: silently, he goes about his business, benefiting those around him, lending a helping hand. He might not get a lot of credit for it, he might still be laughed at for being a "dentally defective rat", wimpy... but our satisfaction stems not from gaining acceptance, but by doing what we know to be right and witnessing our own work toward a positive future, credit or no credit. 
These are the ethos and spirit of Canada.  

And of course, I couldn't help but add this one...
The Polar bear fail..."YaaaaaaAAAAHHHHhhhhhhhh!"

Here's the News article...

Carson, R. 1962. Silent Spring. New York. Mariner Books 

And I'm a little too lazy to cite my Ecology textbook but hey it's just a blog post right =P