If you’re in the UK, have a go at this science writing prize from the Wellcome Trust and the Guardian. The winners will have their work printed in the ‘Guardian’ or the ‘Observer’, receive a £1000 cash prize and benefit from a science writing workshop at the ‘Guardian’.
One category is for non-professionals and undergraduate students – that includes you, super-smart IB Biologists. The closing date is 20th May, so it’s perhaps not the best idea for students in their exams!
Some resources that might help:
Scitable’s Scientific Communication Library
Peter Clarks’ Quick 50 Writing Tips
“The science of scientific writing” from American Scientist
Why do otherwise rational, sensible people choose to reject good science in some cases and believe unfounded claims in others?
With apparently eroding trust in government and authority, people are looking to less reliable sources of information – which is particularly dangerous when it comes to health. On the one hand, they believe stories such as ‘Facebook causes cancer‘, or in the unproven alt-meds of homeopathy and vitamin supplements, yet they reject solid scientific evidence with regard to vaccine safety, anti-retroviral drugs or GM crops.
As Michael Specter says in this TED 2010 talk, “We hate BigPharma… and we run from it into the arms of Big Placebo*.”
“The idea that we should not allow science to do its job because we are afraid is really very deadening, and it’s preventing millions of people from prospering.”
From a TOK perspective, how does this talk highlight the clash between emotion and reason in the ways of knowing? (Or as Specter says, “You have the right to your own beliefs- but not your own facts.”)
*The industry in non-proven remedies and vitamin supplements runs to billions of dollars a year.
[Note: I wrote this in 2010 after seeing Wade Davis speak, and was reminded of it as I wrote Curriculum as a Compass?. I still love these stories – the ayahuasca one blows my mind. Stephen.]
I saw Wade Davis speak at the 2008 IB Regional conference, and he was brilliant. He gave an extended version of this talk from TED, and the focus on disappearing languages and cultures was brilliant. He really ventured into TOK, especially with the different ways of knowing demonstrated by various cultures.
There is a great example in the talk below of an amazonian shaman who makes a powerful psychoactive preparation of Ayahuasca, from a vine. Tryptamines are the active component and are similar to tryptophan (our famous amino acid/ end product inhibition example – animation). They act as neurotransmitters and include serotonin, which regulates mood. It is broken down by enzymes bound to the plasma membrane of cells in the digestive tract called monoamine oxidase (MAO), so can’t be taken orally. The amazing thing is the shaman uses a preparation from another plant that inhibits this enzyme, so that the potion can be ingested and is effective. This is amazing knowledge, gleaned from a totally alternative scientific method to the one we are used to, and demonstrates an advanced naturalistic intelligence.
When he asked how they knew this and were able to combine these two extracts from the thousands available, they answered “The plants talk to us.”
Discussion and questions:
1. In what ways can this specific example link the elements of the IB Biology course together?
Think about cells, membranes, amino acids, neurotransmitters, innate vs learned behaviour, reward pathways, evolution, enzymes and inhibition, genetics and the universality of the genetic code, ecology and conservation.
2. Think about the statement “other people, with their differences, can also be right” (from the IBO’s mission statement). To what extent is the ancient knowledge of indigenous cultures an example of this? What further questions does this inspire?
3. To what extent are these ways of knowing demonstrated in the contrast between modern scientific understanding of the effects of the active ingredients and the ancient wisdom of the shaman: sense perception, reason and emotion.
4. Discuss the impacts of disappearing cultures on scientific knowledge and understanding. How could modern science & technology be used to help preserve cultures and wisdom?
If you liked this, find out more about becoming an ethnobotanist!
Winner of the Sundance 2009 audience award:
Find out more about the cove here:
If you get the chance to see it, think about how it links with the Ecology and Conservation unit:
What is happening in terms of bioaccumulation and biomagnification of toxins?
Is this approach to the dolphin populations sustainable?
The actions portrayed in the movie are considered by many to be unethical but by those committing them to be a necessary part of life. Think about what determines one’s set of personal ethics – what parts of our own lives might be considered unethical by others? Are there actions we carry out which are unethical but which we choose not to think about because it is uncomfortable or inconvenient to do so?
How does this method of farming compare to intensive cattle and poultry farming in other industrialised countries?
Here’s a short clip of an intensively-farmed chicken’s life:
And you and find out more about it on Channel 4’s Hugh’s Chicken Run page.
“Can you tell the difference between science and pseudoscience”
“What separates effective medicine from alternative medicine?”
This is an activity from the ToK and Biology section.
As you grow through Biology and ToK, you should develop your critical thinking skills and become more of a skeptic. Being able to answer these two questions is a skill that you can carry through life, helping you to make sensible decisions when faced with a range of seemingly convincing alternatives.
Medicine is a system of rigourous testing, evidence collection, statistical analysis and controls to ensure that a treatment is effective when recommended to patients. If it works and it is strongly corroborated, we call it medicine – it is available to professionally-trained medical doctors to use or prescribe for their patients.
Alternative medicine is simply that – alternative to medicine. It is not rigorously tested, double-blind controlled or statistically analysed. It is built on belief without true empirical evidence. One might believe it’s efficacy based only on anecdotal or circumstantial evidence, but this is not enough.
This activity links with unit 3.1 – Chemical Elements and Water.
Richard Dawkins’ recent series Enemies of Reason tackles these issues brilliantly, as does Dr Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog. Start with this short clip of Dawkins explaining the idea behind homeopathy, a bastion of alternative medicine:
- So why is it that people buy into homeopathy and alt med?
- Have you heard of the placebo effect or the powers of suggestion and how they affect feeling?
- Watch the whole episode (below) and think of reasons why a patient might feel better after visiting a homeopath than after a consultation with the doctor.
- What is the difference between complementary and alternative medicine? Which might a doctor recommend as part of a treatment? Why?
To find out more about homeopathy and it central ideas:
Homeopathy from the Skeptics Dictionary
The End of Homeopathy? From BadScience
Watch the full series of Enemies of Reason on GoogleVideo:
Part 1: Slaves to Superstition
Part 2: The Irrational Health Service (includes the homeopaths)
And it’s not only homeopathy that abuses our sacred water. The oxygen-water companies are it too.
Unless you have gills, it’s an expensive burp! from Chem1.com
So, when you read the magazines, watch TV or wonder about a miracle cure, anti-ageing cream, magical treatment or anything else related to unusual claims and you health, think: “Where’s the evidence?”
Now here’s a funny sketch from Webb and Mitchell:
This 9-minute clip is an ideal ‘watcher’ to go along with the reader in the Course Companion – it tells the story of the discovery of the DNA double helix structure by Watson and Crick and how their discovery was dependant on the prior work of Rosalind Franklin and the compeitive/cooperative nature of research:
This clip is taken from the vdeo lesson resource provided by Virginia Commonwealth University’s ‘Secrets of the Sequence’ website. They have 50 different videos, each with accompanying lesson plans and activities.
They also have a YouTube channel: VCULifeSciences.