Category Archives: Non-science

Culture wars

To Dr Harlene Hayne, Vice-Chancellor***, Otago University, New Zealand

Dear Harlene,

As an Otago graduate (Zoology, Class of 1984), I’ve always enjoyed your articles in our Alumni Magazine. Congratulations, btw, on five years in the job. I hope the next five are as good for you and the university as the last five.

Here at Penn State, I am a research professor most of the time. But for 15 challenging weeks a year, I teach 365 non-science majors about science. I’ve been doing it since 2010, and each year I am amazed by just how hard it is. I have a high bar (and struggle with how high set it) and I do everything I can to get the students over that bar — except lower it. I also expect (demand) that the students seize control of their own learning. But many of my students just hate it (they want A’s on a plate) and most of my colleagues don’t much care for my efforts or standards.

And so it’s a struggle. I’ve often wondered why I bother. No one would complain if I aimed low. But now, thanks to your recent article, I know where my teaching aspirations come from. You went on US tour to get feedback from the US students who do Study Abroad at Otago and, in your words, everyone

… reported that the academic standard at Otago was much higher than that of their home institution. I was constantly told that the American students – many of whom came to us from highly selective, and extremely expensive private universities – had to work twice as hard at Otago as they did at home.

They also told me that Otago required students to think for themselves and to take responsibility for their own learning; that Otago fostered a sense of independence that was initially a bit daunting to many of them.

So that’s it! My aspirations are Otago’s fault. Ironic that you, an American in a NZ university have the perspective to explain to me, a NZer in an American university, what’s going on.

Well, here’s to the ‘smart, ambitious and warm-hearted, edgy‘ Otago people who shaped me. To name just three still on your books: AlisonEwan and Alan. You’ve made me realize their reach is long and their contribution to my professional discomfort great. I am sure my own students will one day thank them. I do.






Dr Andrew Read FRS
Evan Pugh Professor of Biology and Entomology
Eberly Professor of Biotechnology
Director, Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics.

This from Otago's recruitment literature...

A major reason I had a fantastic time at Otago University (1981-1984).

***In US speak, the Vice-Chancellor is the University President.

Class with Mike Mann: Climate Change and the Hockey Stick Wars

I teach Lysenko as an example of what happens when science isn’t allowed to work properly because outside political influences intervene. That’s a very extreme case (skeptical Soviet scientists got imprisoned and killed) but for several years I’ve been using Prof Mike Mann in our very own meteorology department as an example of how politics in this country can also try to make science work differently (for the most part, so far without success). For producing the iconic Hockey Stick graph, Mike has been on the receiving end of death threats, email subpoenas and fraud investigations (detailed here). As he put it, the rules of engagement you learn as a scientist [robust debate] are not the rules of engagement used against you as a scientist [personal attack]. This year, finally, his schedule and the SC200 time slot lined up to make it possible for him to come to talk in class.

Mike Mann in action Oct 25

Mike Mann in action Oct 25

It was an interesting experience for me (and I hope the students). The comment wall was more active than I have ever seen it. Questions ranged across the political spectrum and varied widely, some focusing on the science of climate changes (what’s the evidence?) and others on the politics (e.g. “The Democratic Liberal agenda of this presentation makes me sick.”). I had trouble trying to sift through all the comments to find a balanced range of them to put to Mike. For the first time, I wondered if the class is actually too big – so many views and interests, most of which might not have been dealt with sufficiently in so brief a time.

After, I asked Mike to comment on some of the questions we didn’t get to. Below, the questions (bold) and his answers where he offered them.

Is the carbon footprint of building devices such as solar panels and putting expensive filters on car exhausts worth it because of the building process?

What’s our preferred method of alternative “clean” energy?

 What are your thoughts on the youtube video ? [Hide the Decline] 

Where is the decline? 

Alas, it is largely in the quality of the public discourse over matters of policy-relevant science.

Did you sue everyone for the videos they made about you?

Does that mean a democrat would deny climate change if from Oklahoma?! 

In my view, it shouldn’t mean that *any* politician deny climate change. But unfortunately, most climate change deniers these days are on the republican side of the isle, and it’s not a coincidence. Folks like the Koch Brothers have spent millions of dollars funding primary challengers against republicans who express an enlightened view on climate change (like former republican congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina), i.e. they have sought to “purify” the republican party with respect to climate change denialism. And that’s a big part of how we’ve arrived at the extreme partisan polarization we now have on climate change. It is ironic, since many past Republican presidents (Nixon, Reagan, George H W Bush) displayed leadership in acting on climate environmental problems like acid rain and ozone depletion. It is only relatively recently that the environment has become a partisan political issue. And it is most unfortunate. I talk about this in my new book “The Madhouse Effect”.

In 2014 there was record sea ice in Antarctica.

If we do eventually manage to stop our growing carbon footprint, is there any way to bring it back down to safer levels?

Is it too late to do something about climate change?

If you could have us take away one point from today, what would it be?

Has all these government issues made you even more passionate about climate change?

What can be done to separate science and politics? 

What’s the effect of rising sea levels on the subways in NYC? Isn’t there something about brine levels? 

Why is climate change so heavily denied by a majority of republicans? 

Addressed in a separate response above.

What is a non-believers thought process towards climate change?

How does one combat this issue of climate change when the United States and many other countries are so dependent on fossil fuels? Is there an alternative?

What company does Frank Luntz work for? Why did he want to confuse the public? 

Luntz is a pollster, and has largely worked for republican clients. It is unclear what his own views are. He is merely doing what is asked by his clients, and I doubt he actually
wants to confuse anyone. But in the end, his polling and focus group research has indeed provided fodder for those looking to confuse the public.

Why do you think people are so avid on denying climate change? 

Have you ever been successful convincing someone that climate change exists?

I like to think so. I’ve given many public lectures and media interviews over the past decade and a half, and I’d like to think that my fact-based approach to talking about climate change has won over many honest skeptics. And indeed, I’ve been told a number of times by people that had been skeptical beforehand that they were convinced after listening to what I had to say. That having been said, there is a fringe sector of the population that sees issues like climate change entirely through a partisan political lens, who see it as a part of their tribal political identity. For those people, facts and figures and information and logic alone are often insufficient to change their mind. Their mind is already made up. And our efforts, arguably, are better spent on the “confused middle”—a large group of people in the political center who *think* that there is a scientific debate about whether climate change is real. They are typically receptive to learning more about what the science has to say.

What do you see the future looking like ? How much hope do you have for our generation (us students)?

I am optimistic for several reasons. In “The Madhouse Effect”, we spend the last chapter of the book outlining the reasons for cautions optimism in the battle to combat climate change.
I’m optimistic because of the tremendous progress that has been made, domestically and internationally, over the past few years in tackling climate change—the huge growth in renewable energy, the monumental agreement last December in Paris to lower carbon emissions that was reached by nearly 200 nations around the world (read e.g. this Huffington Post commentary I wrote about the Paris agreement), the fact that global carbon emissions dropped for the first time in decades last year even though the global economy continued to grow). I am also optimistic because millennials (read—you folks!) have really gotten it in a way that older generations have—there is considerable energy and passion surrounding the issue of climate change specifically, and environmental sustainability more generally, among college students today. I see that here at Penn State, and at other colleges and universities around the country where I lecture. I think that energy and passion will help power the critical transition that is underway toward a green energy future.


But most amazing to me was that Mike really got the classes attention when he was asked about whether its good or bad to have celebrities weighing in on the debate. All was normal until he said Leo. Leo, more than glaciers melting, NY flooding, extreme weather events, …… Leo got a reaction. LEO? I did not know whether to laugh or cry. At least its not my generation who will be mopping up the mess.

Anyway, Mike was worried after that the class did not believe he advised Leo. So here folks, is Leo and Mike (with more here, including Bill Clinton):


And here’s the Penn State premier of the film Mike helped Leo make:


Mike is very keen any interested students come to that event. And that students who liked — or did not like — what he said follow him on Twitter @MichaelEMann.

And, a final irony, Mike himself is now apparently something of a celebrity. Here’s the selfie shot after class.


The work of climate scientists like Mike and his many colleagues here at Penn State repeatedly survives peer review. That means the science as sound as it can be at this point in time. My overwhelming impression is that all of the scientist involved are very scared about what they are concluding. Many of them are knocking themselves out trying to warn the public. I wish the SC200 class of 2016 — and their children –the very best as a they struggle to deal with the fall out of the current US political inertia.

Class with the Dean

Dr Cavener, Dean of the Eberly College of Science came to class last Thursday to talk about creation and evolution, religion and science, as well as giraffes. The comment wall lit up with various questions. We didn’t have time in class for him to answer them all but over the weekend he sent me the following answers. I am particularly grateful that our very busy Dean took time out of his packed schedule for students that are most assuredly not in his College.

Dean Cavener in action

Dean Cavener in action

Was it difficult for you to change your mindset from gods creation to just evolution and natural processes? 

The first step of accepting evolution was actually not difficult. However at the last step, where I decided that there was no evidence or reason to believe that god was involved any aspect of the origin of life, was more difficult.

Did your parents want you to go to college and how did you get there coming from such a small background/limited opportunities?    

I only applied to a single college, which was a small christian college that was associated with the denomination of my church, so my parents were supportive of me going there.

What advice would you give to students who have ventured towards agnostic or atheist views who have very religious parents? 

If your parents were like mine, it is pointless to argue and try to convince them of evolution. I let them know what my beliefs were and left it at that. Maintaining a good relationship with my parents was very important to me, and I always thought that keeping this relationship was much more important than trying to convince them that I was right and they were wrong.

Do you have any particular feelings about The Willard Preacher?

Annoying! But protecting his right to free speech is important. The first amendment is vastly more important that the second!

How did you major in evolutionary biology with the opposition of your parents? And how did they feel about you majoring in this field of science?  

My undergraduate major was biology and my PhD was actually in genetics but much of my research was in the sub-field of evolutionary genetics.

What got you interested in science if you really didn’t have the opportunity to experience it growing up? 

I didn’t develop a strong interest in biology until I took a gen ed course in biology in my sophomore year in college. Although I went to a christian college I had some outstanding biology and chemistry professors who were also intellectually engaging. I was very much attracted to the emphasis on critical thinking, hypothesis testing, and discovery that I found in science.

Is there something that happened in your life that specifically made you go against religion?    

No not all. In fact for the most part I enjoyed the social and cultural aspects of religion and looked forward to going to church as a teenager. I was also my church’s organist. My transition from “faith to reason” was personal and intellectual; in the end reason won out.  Although I am an agnostic and don’t attend church, my moral and ethical beliefs are very much influenced by New Testament teachings of Jesus (e.g. “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). So in many ways I see myself as a christian but not in the way evangelical/fundamentalists would accept as “being a christian”. However, I think that much of the current evangelical/fundamentalist religious practices and politics have become divorced from the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus.

Are you still religious?   

See response to question above.

Are you glad that the church and the new pope have increased their beliefs in science in recent years? Does this steer you back towards the church?   

Yes, I am pleased to see the new pope embracing reason and science. In contrast many of the leaders in the protestant evangelical denominations have become overtly anti science.

Do you still consider yourself religious or “believe” what the bible says? 

See response above.

Do you believe in God?

I am an agnostic. I have flirted with pantheism – the believe that god is nature. What gives me a deep sense of meaning and pleasure is the knowledge that I am connected with all of nature. The idea that we are a separate creation from the rest of nature is empty and depressing.

Why do people continue to believe?    

Believe in god or creation story? Belief in god is central to identity and meaning of many people. I totally understand this. However, belief in the biblical creation story is a clear rejection of evidence and reason that is being strongly reinforced by the current leaders of the “religious right” by psychological intimidation. I should note that the level of psychological intimidation to conform is much higher now than it was when I was young, which was prior to the politicalization of the evangelical churches.

What did the church tell you about dinosaurs? 

Some people said that dinosaurs were hoax (bones fabricated by scientists). Others accepted the fact that dinosaurs once existed but claimed that God created them at the same time “he” created all the other animals and that the dating of dinosaurs bones was incorrect. It was particularly a struggle for them to explain why dinosaurs weren’t described in the Bible as they must have co-existed with man according to their beliefs. You’d think that a free living Tyrannosaurus rex would have made an impression on the authors of the Bible!

Getting better

This is the actual hat I use....

This is the actual hat I use in class…….

I like students answering questions I pose in class, but it tends to be the same minority who stick up their hands. I have tried cold-calling people, but that terrifies some and is unfair to those with speech disabilities. So this year I decided to offer up to 2% extra credit for students who opted-in to have their names in a hat for me to pick at random.

A little under a third of the class opted in. I was pretty pleased with that — it gives me 100 or so people, more than enough to make a classroom work. But it was amazing to me that >60% of the class doesn’t want 2% extra credit just for answering a question or two (and I made clear that ‘I don’t know’ would be a perfectly reasonable answer). I don’t know of too many professions where public speaking of some sort is not essential. And public speaking is something to practice. Answering questions in class is a safe, easy way to practice. I tell my grad students to try to ask a question in each research seminar they go to — even the exercise of trying to come up with a question sharpens the mind.

download-34So many of the skills that employers want can be easily honed by students themselves. The shy and under confident have it in their hands to become good public speakers. I have known several students who began their PhDs so terrified of public speaking, they would vomit before giving research talks. One of them solved the problem this way: she took up stand-up comedy. No kidding. In open-mic comedy clubs, with drunk people in the audience. Even more, she took up stand-up comedy about scienceBallsy or what?

She will surely go far.

Of words (and Dutch landscapes)

During class last Thursday, everyone suddenly started whispering. I asked if anything was wrong, no one said anything, things quietened down fast and I did not think more of it. But after class, a student explained (and I am very grateful she did). I had used a forbidden word.

I had been discussing the data on whether sugary drinks cause obesity, and one of the only really good studies involves elementary school kids in Amsterdam. It’s a reasonable sized double-blind randomized placebo trial, so powerful data.  For me, those data pretty much close the case (avoid Coke if you are worried about weight gain), but I was asking if a study on elementary school kids, and Dutch ones at that, generalizes to college-age Americans. In questioning whether the Dutch environment might be different from America, I picked from my head ‘land of dikes’.

As the student who talked to me after class said, that’s a culturally insensitive word in America, and no question it is. The distinction between a ‘i’ and a ‘y’ vanishes when spoken (even in my accent), and is completely lost in a land of levees. So serious apologies to anyone who took offense: absolutely none was meant.

That it was an issue says a lot about all of us, and how language evolves. I wonder how they deal with this in geology classes? At least I can talk of windmills from now on.windmillPhoto credit


I do this course to make a difference. How do I know if I am? At the start of semester, I ran a survey to gauge the students’ attitudes to science. I ran the same survey last week so I could measure the impact of my course.

I made no impact. None. Zip. Denada. ZERO.

There must be something wrong with the survey.
For the record, after the course, the students agreed more forcefully with one of the 20 statements offered to them. Astute SC200 graduates will recognize 1/20 as the false positive rate expected by chance if in fact I made no difference.
[However, that particular statement concerned perhaps the key learning objective of the course, Feynman’s statement that ‘Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain’. I take a crumb of comfort from the possibility that students understood that better after a semester of my labors. And if that shift in attitude was in fact due to chance, how are we to know without repeating the experiment?]
The remaining questions:-
  • Scientists are curious about the world
  • I think about science in everyday life
  • Knowledge in science consists of many disconnected topics
  • To understand science, I sometimes think about my personal experiences
  • I take science credits because I want to make a contribution to society
  • It is important for the government to approve new scientific ideas
  • Learning about science changes my ideas about how the natural world works
  • Science has little relation to what I experience in the real world
  • There is usually only one correct approach to solving a science problem
  • Learning about science that is not relevant to human health is not worth my time
  • Mathematical skills are important for understanding the world
  • I enjoy explaining scientific idea that I learn about to my friends
  • The general public misunderstands many scientific ideas
  • For me, science is about learning known facts as opposed to investigating the unknown
  • Science is a civilizing enterprise that generates wonder and awe
  • I need experts to tell me what to think about a scientific claim
  • In my lifetime, science will change the way people will think about the human condition and humanity’s place in the universe
  • Well educated citizens need to know something of how science works
Students were asked if they strongly agreed, agreed, were neutral, disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement. With perhaps the exception of the first question, where 82% of the students strongly agreed, less than 30% of students strongly agreed or strongly disagreed with any statement, and for the most part <10% strong agreed or strongly disagreed – in other words, if student attitudes had got stronger for or against any of those statements, there was plenty of room for the survey to have detected that. No such shifts occurred.
Return rates:- 84% at start of semester, 87% at end


One of my jobs is to give students’ new experiences. Tonight, they gave me one. A student from SC200 2012 nominated me for Homecoming Court, a bunch of others voted for me, and before I knew it, I was on the field during the big Penn State-Michigan Homecoming game in front of 107,000 people. I even made the big screen for a nanosecond.

I really don’t understand American Football, and I barely know what Homecoming is. But who cares? Stand tall and enjoy it for what is it, I was told. So this is me, standing tall and enjoying it. Truly an American Kiwi. Thanks.


Not freshmen, as one of my students puts it.

I went to two welcome functions for the class of 2017. The first was convocation, in the Bryce Jordan Center. I was straight off a plane from Scotland to Newark, and exhausted. But it was so energizing to see 9,000 young people raring to go. 
Convocation.jpgAnd then, next day, to see 900 new science students just thirsting for it.
ECoS Welcome.jpg
The class of 2017 includes my oldest son. All power to him and his classmates. I increasingly feel like it’ll all be ok if the world is in the hands of his generation.  

Time for wine: 2012, the end.

One of the nicest things about finishing the course is the emails some students send to say how much they have enjoyed the course, how much they learned etc etc. Most then ruin it by asking for a higher grade. But some do not. And its important to enjoy these ones, because really, that’s why I do it.

Two this year really struck me.
Thank you for a wonderful semester. I truly have come to appreciate your course. I have spent 5 years at Penn State receiving my undergraduate and graduate degree in accounting, and your class has been one of most enjoyable courses I have taken. I wish I had taken your course as a younger student at PSU. It has taught me how to analyze information better than just about any class I have taken at Penn State. I hope your course continues to help non-science majors like myself get a better appreciation for science.
I wish I had got to know that student during the semester. I wish him well.
Another student, a journalism student I think, emailed to say she’d been blogging about a science story herself, rather than pass it on to someone else at Onward State. Fabulous. One small step for man…
Ok, I am signing out of here. The class of 2012 is done. Maybe I will try to sum it all up later. 


Or maybe not.