Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Happy Halloween!

My Halloween geekitude, (or Geekoween spirit) has inspired my ichnology-themed pumpkin. He answers to the name of Ichno Facey. (If you get that bad play on words, you are as geeky - or more - than me, and you are awesome.)

Ichno Facey, the ichnology god of Halloween.
Have a Happy (and safe!) Halloween!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Eggs, Turtles, and Toast: When Pareidolia Meets Paleontology

Discoverer: "Hi, Unicorn Scientist. I have made a cool discovery. At least I think I'm on to something. Can you take a look and tell me what it is?"

Unicorn Scientist: "Sure! We like seeing new things, and like people coming in with possible finds. Let's take a look."

Discoverer: "Now, I don't want to influence your opinion, but I think it is a saddle that Bigfoot uses to ride unicorns."

There is at least a minute of respectful study of the piece of shoe leather.

Unicorn Scientist: "Well, I can see why it looks like a piece of Bigfoot unicorn saddle, but saddles for unicorns are all made out of taffeta, and are stitched together with candy-floss because unicorns have such delicate skin. There are eyelet holes here for the laces of a shoe. It has the [insert your favorite shoe brand here] symbol partially preserved."

Discoverer, Version #1: "Why aren't you confirming my interpretation? It's shaped like a unicorn's back! I thought you were an expert on unicorns!"

Discoverer, Version #2: "Well OF COURSE you would say that! You've been brainwashed by Big Unicorn and are too close-minded to see the Cover-Up of the Truth!"

Discoverer, Version #3: "You have dared to disagree with my most insightful observation. I will not rest until I expose you for the fraud that you are, for the sake of all those who wish to see a Bigfoot ride a unicorn!"
* * *
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you? I'll bet they do. I'll bet that if you're in a profession that is remotely scientific, you've had one of these encounters.

First, I want to state that most people who bring fossils into the museum for identification do not behave like the above Discoverer. If they bring in a funky shaped rock and I tell them that it's a cool funky shaped rock, it usually spurs a series of questions which turn that funky shaped rock into a teachable moment about erosion and different rock types. Even better, if they seem really keen we can give them a behind the scenes tour and show them tonnes of real fossils, and we may even interest them in volunteer work. Of course, the pleasant encounters stick in my mind as the general warm fuzzy feeling I get when I think about the joys and passions of being in paleontology. Those fuzzy moments are thrown into sharp abrasive contrast by those other encounters.

The other encounters involve that person who, on finding a rock or an odd-shaped shadow on a photo, have already convinced themselves of the identity of the find. It's usually a fairly spectacular find (in their mind) with an even more spectacular interpretation (again, in their mind). The person brings their find to their local scientist. The local scientist offers a different, yet less fantastic identification. The person, on seeing that the scientist does not agree with them, becomes defensive and/or outraged. Sometimes the scientist never hears from this individual again. Sometimes the scientist will have to deal with this person for the rest of their career.

My first encounter with a person like the Discoverer was back in 1999 when I was still an undergraduate. I was visiting my parents over summer break and joined them on a day of antiquing. I was browsing through the store when my parents called me over to the front counter. They had been talking with the proprietress of the shop, and somehow it came up in conversation that I was studying paleontology. The woman was very excited to talk to me: she had a fossil to show me. Before showing me the fossil, she gave me a long background explanation of finding it in the badlands of southern Alberta (promising). She had even done some preliminary research and thought it might be a scapula from a hadrosaur. Needless to say I was intrigued.

This was my first lesson in fossil identification: the bigger the set-up, the less likely the accuracy of said set-up. Lying on the counter in front of me was a glacial erratic composed of metamorphic rock. There were even garnet crystals embedded in the surface. The only aspect of this specimen that was bone-esque was that it was elongate. During my examination the proprietress stared at me with eager anticipation.

I tried my hand at tact and diplomacy (also a first). "It does have a similar shape to a bone (it really didn't, but I was trying to let her down gently), but there is no bone structure present. This is a metamorphic rock that is shaped like a bone." I pointed out the different minerals. I showed her the garnet crystals, which I thought were cool because they were of a decent size and a deep red. I told her what bone texture looks like.

She wasn't impressed. The eagerness was quickly replaced with indignant exasperation. "I thought you were a paleontologist. Clearly you don't know what you're talking about," she huffed.

I'm sure my expression was one of stunned surprise. "Well, I do, and that's not bone," was my only response. (Note: I was taken off guard by her response, and I bypassed diplomacy and defaulted to direct and blunt. I probably should have held on longer to try to educate her.) She bundled up her prize and walked away. Since my first encounter I have had many people bring in non-fossils for identification, and some are pretty darn convincing. There was a rock shaped like Pac-Man that just had to be a skull (that one was not convincing, but I had to mention it because it still amuses me.) Concretions are brought in as either eggs or turtles. A piece of railway slag looked like a bison skull. There are river-eroded igneous and metamorphic rocks that look like bone. I was once asked to identify a Bigfoot tooth (piece of calcite).

The pseudo-egg on the right is the most convincing: there are even "pores" present.
One of our largest pseudo-turtles. Concretions often preserve with what looks like shell ornamentation.
OK Nature: now you're just f**king with me. The most convincing pseudo-bone I have ever seen.
What would be the "medial" side if this were something other than eroded metamorphosed sandstone.
These wonderfully deceiving rocks are pseudofossils. I make it a point to always have some pseudofossils on hand for when someone brings in a fossil that is not a fossil. Being able to explain to the person that they are not the only ones who were "tricked" by a funky rock can go a long way to ease the disappointment. This works beautifully with kids. I love identifying rocks and fossils for kids. Even when they bring in a non-fossil, it always cheers them up to hear they have a pseudofossil.

Seeing orderly shapes where no shapes exist is the well-documented phenomenon of pareidolia: the phenomenon of perceiving patterns in randomness. One well-known example of pareidolia is the "Face on Mars" which, on thorough examination, was only an illusion visible from one angle. Our brains are likely hard-wired to do it. If you see a pony in the clouds it's your brain trying to organize information that seems unordered. Pareidolia can also send our species' reasoning skills down the path of the illogical. Dieties appear in toast and other starchy foods. A wisp of mist in a photograph becomes a shrouded ghost (same with camera straps, insects, dust specs illuminated by flash, water spots or smudges on lenses...). Skeletons are seen on Mars.

Unfortunately, pareidolia often teams up with pseudo-reasoning to create the most frustrating experience a scientist can face when working with the public. Convinced that their eyes and brains would never deceive them, those being coached by the Pareidolia-Pseudoreasoning Double Team not only are damned sure they have something, but there is no amount of evidence to the contrary will sway their interpretation. This is what science ISN'T. Science does not cherry-pick the data to support a pre-set interpretation. A proper scientific investigation looks at all the available data and then sees which interpretation best explain the data. Unfortunately, this is not how science is viewed by society: based on the Comments section of science articles, scientists are only publishing the data that support their ideas. By extension, that's how one engages in a scientific discussion.

I will be the first to admit that when I was an ichnology newbie I used pareidolia often. My mentors, being the very patient educators that they are, checked out every depression (for natural moulds) and odd-shaped sedimentary river rock (for natural casts) I though might be a track. For each pseudo-ichnite (there were many explanations that started with the phrase "That's very interesting, but...") they would carefully explain why it wasn't an actual ichnite. I think ichnofossils are more prone to pareidolia than other fossil types. Ichnofossils are, in essence, shapes in the rock (you can't look for bone texture in an ichnite), but they are shapes made by specific biologic processes.

I continued to ask questions about objects I found when prospecting, but I also paid close attention to what my mentors were showing me when we encountered actual ichnofossils. I studied the tracks of extant animals in various different sediment types. Eventually I saw enough ichnites of many different types (mammal, dinosaur, bird, turtle, crocodile, pterosaur, invertebrate burrows, etc.) that my brain began to recognize those patterns: I had developed a search image.

Does pareidolia still creep in when I am prospecting? I admit that it does, but I now use it as a prospecting aid. When I'm prospecting, I give my brain two tasks. One, I let it process shapes in the rock. If my brain applies order to the chaos of a rock ("Hey Strange Woman, that looks footprint-esque,") I stop and examine it more closely. Two, I use the accumulated experience of having seen what is and isn't a track and look for ichnologic indicators (repeated biologic structure such as digits, slide marks, skin impressions, etc.). The process is now automatic for me, but in the beginning it was a learning curve with which I struggled. If I can't apply biologic or evidence-based support to the pattern detected by my brain, I move on.

The difference between someone who is truly trying to learn and someone who is just trolling to "win a debate" with a scientist is what that person does when they are told their discovery is not a fossil. If a recent thread I've been following on a paleontology Facebook page is any example, there is no amount of data or explanation that can re-train a brain devoted to the Pareidolia-Pseudoreasoning Double Team.

"But Strange Woman", some may ask, "surely these people just need to be educated about the facts and the scientific method?" A more likely question might be "Why feed these trolls?"

Most of the scientists I know are natural educators. They see every opportunity to turn a seeming frustrating conversation into a teachable moment. When misinformation rises from the depths like a pseudological Kraken, scientist are there with the recent data (and their years of experience) to slay the Pseudoscience Beast. What is sad is that these efforts might actually feed the Beast. A recent study (link here: it's pay-walled) on the political perceptions of the public suggests that offering corrections to previously read inaccurate statements failed to reduce misperceptions (1). In fact, the study also shows that corrections tended to strengthen political misperceptions rather than correct them. If people's minds work the same way with misinformation in science (I would love to read a study on that), what hope do we have of countering misinformation, especially when those misinformation is potentially detrimental (e.g. climate change deniers, misinformation on reproductive health, anti-vaxxers, etc.)?

It's likely we will never find the magic formula of words that will break through that armor of pseudologic. That won't stop us from trying. No matter what, scientists will continue to ensure that the correct information is out there for those not caught on the circular reasoning merry-go-round.

So, Dear Reader, we are more than happy to take a look at your funky specimen. Please don't be insulted if it is not a fossil. We're not trying to trick you, just teach you. We want you to develop a fossil search image and discover something cool for science!


1. Nyhan, B. and J. Reifler. 2010. When corrections fail: the persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior 32(2):303-330.

Monday, October 14, 2013

We're Better Than This.

Finally, we hear from Biology Online regarding the editor who called a scientist an "urban whore" when she politely declined an unpaid blogging position. An apology was posted by a site administrator this morning (read the full apology here):

"We would like to express our sincerest apologies to Danielle N. Lee (DNLee) and anyone else who may have been offended by the way our recently hired employee, Ofek, handled the conversation with her. Ofek's behaviour was completely out of line and after gathering the facts we immediately terminated his employment. Ofek failed to show the respect and prudent behavior expected of him as a contributor to Biology Online."

THIS. This is how to apologize and rectify a situation. You apologize without conditions or excuses. You deal with the inappropriate behavior in such a manner so there is no doubt of your organization's stance on an issue. You don't push ANY of the blame back onto the victim.

Kate Clancy at Scientific American delves deeper into the issue as to why so much "Twitter-rage" erupted over Scientific American's decision to pull Dr. Lee's response to the abuse by the ex-employee of Biology Online. Read it here: if you read nothing else about this incident, read this.

Dr. Clancy summarizes the situation perfectly:

"It’s a rare thing to speak up in the face of victimization. But the secondary trauma from not being believed and being silenced (pulling a post first for the reason that it is not “discovering science,” then pivoting and claiming it was for “fact-checking”) is far too common. It’s that secondary trauma from Scientific American’s actions that crush a person. Going somewhere you trust – a blog network that prides itself on inclusivity in terms of the way it has fought intolerance in the past, in the identities of its bloggers and in its allowable content – and then being shut down? It’s like going to someone you trust and being called a liar."

Why do these issues of race and gender discrimination continue to persist in academia, which one would assume is populated by people intelligent enough to avoid these pitfalls? Dr. Clancy offers this insight:

"This is why fake gender and race blindness is so problematic, it’s why not talking about whiteness and privilege is problematic. Avoiding these things is silencing to the people who need to talk about it to reset boundaries. And if we consider ourselves allies, it’s time to start talking about this stuff."

Where I live and work I am not a minority, but I will always be a woman no matter where I am in academia. I can pretend all I want that gender discrimination or gender stereotypes do not exist. I can chant "It doesn't matter, it doesn't matter" until I pass out (it may be time to break out a post or two of my experiences). I can think that my colleagues and I are intelligent enough not to let discrimination and stereotypes be an influencing factor.

Gender and race discrimination are not like the Ravenous Bugbladder Beast of Traal who believes if you can't see it, it can't see you. Ignoring the problem won't make it go away. Ignoring the problem allows it to accumulate in the dark corners like society's unsightly dust-bunnies, only to be discovered when they roll out from under the couch in front of your dinner guests. We leave ourselves in the uncomfortable position of reacting rather than acting. We sweep away the accumulated dust of the ages and pretend it was never there.

By admitting there is a problem with race and gender discrimination in academia, we are essentially admitting to ourselves that we are not intelligent enough as a community to passively weed out discrimination. Fortunately for us, we are intelligent enough to identify when a strategy is not working. If this recent incident highlights nothing else, it is that our current strategy for dealing with gender and racial discrimination in academia with fake blindness is not working.

This is not news to people like Dr. Lee, who does tremendous outreach work in STEM to engage under-represented youth. This is not news to anyone who has ever blogged about sexism or racism in academia. This is not news to all those people who provide outreach and mentorship to counteract racial and gender discrimination. However, it is still to easy for those having not experienced this kind of discrimination to dismiss these voices as being "over-sensitive", "over-emotional", or "over-reactionary", all of which are dismissive attitudes that lead to secondary victimization. They are dismissed because we believe that as scientists we are above this behavior.

We are above this behavior. So let us actively be better. As Dr. Clancy explains in her post, this will require some self reflection. Asking a question as simple as "Is there a correlation between how I behave around a colleague and the race/gender of that colleague?" is a key beginning. We examine phenomena all the time: that's what we do as scientists. Sometimes the phenomena are aesthetically unappealing. We just have to gonad up and do the work. An intelligent person doesn't want to discover that they may have behavioral traits they would attribute to the 1950s.

I want to be very clear on this next point, mostly because the most common argument I hear against focusing attention on racial and gender discrimination is that "it perpetuates an inferiority complex." Those are two different issues. A person belonging to an under-represented group in STEM does not need this attention because they lack the ability. That is ludicrous. What is lacking are support and encouragement: support and encouragement for kids everywhere to enter STEM careers, support and encouragement from role models with whom kids can identify personally, and support and encouragement for those who report discrimination are growing, but there is still a long way to go.

We can all do more. We can mentor. We can visit public schools and connect with kids. We can be vocal about our experiences in academia, no matter how uncomfortable or seemingly personal, because if it happens to a scientist it is part of life in the sciences. Our goal should be to talk gender and race discrimination to death because that is all it deserves. If we truly want to clean academia's house we'll have to air out the musty corners and deal with the dust-bunnies, because ignoring them won't make them go away.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Respect in Science: When saying "No" gets you called a "Whore". #StandingwithDNLee

What do you get when you are a busy scientist and you are asked to do work for free for a supposedly professional science-based blog, but you respond politely with "Thank you very much, but I have to decline your offer. Have a great day." (paraphrased)?

It turns out that you get called a whore.

This happened to biologist and STEM promoter DNLee. This happened just recently, as in within the last 48 hours. Rather than silently feel rightly outraged yet powerless to counteract the most blatant unprofessional conduct I have heard of in a long time, DNLee shines the world's largest halogen light on this bad behavior and shares the interaction via blog and video.

Like many others, I am sharing DNLee's blog post. This is my small part to keep the light shining on this grotesquely unprofessional behavior. As the old adage goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Here is DNLee's post, unedited (in-between the dashed lines):

wachemshehao hao kwangu mtapoa

I got this wrap cloth from Tanzania. It’s a khanga. It was the first khanga I purchased while I was in Africa for my nearly 3 month stay for field research last year. Everyone giggled when they saw me wear it and then gave a nod to suggest, “Well, okay”. I later learned that it translates to “Give trouble to others, but not me”. I laughed, thinking how appropriate it was. I was never a trouble-starter as a kid and I’m no fan of drama, but I always took this 21st century ghetto proverb most seriously:

Don’t start none. Won’t be none.

For those not familiar with inner city anthropology – it is simply a variation of the Golden Rule. Be nice and respectful to me and I will do the same. Everyone doesn’t live by the Golden Rule it seems. (Click to embiggen.)

The Blog editor of Biology-Online dot org asked me if I would like to blog for them. I asked the conditions. He explained. I said no. He then called me out of my name.

My initial reaction was not civil, I can assure you. I’m far from rah-rah, but the inner South Memphis in me was spoiling for a fight after this unprovoked insult. I felt like Hollywood Cole, pulling my A-line T-shirt off over my head, walking wide leg from corner to corner yelling, “Aww hell nawl!” In my gut I felt so passionately:”Ofek, don’t let me catch you on these streets, homie!”

This is my official response:

It wasn’t just that he called me a whore – he juxtaposed it against my professional being: Are you urban scientist or an urban whore? Completely dismissing me as a scientist, a science communicator (whom he sought for my particular expertise), and someone who could offer something meaningful to his brand.What? Now, I’m so immoral and wrong to inquire about compensation? Plus, it was obvious me that I was supposed to be honored by the request.

After all, Dr. Important Person does it for free so what’s my problem? Listen, I ain’t him and he ain’t me. Folks have reasons – finances, time, energy, aligned missions, whatever – for doing or not doing things. Seriously, all anger aside…this rationalization of working for free and you’ll get exposure is wrong-headed. This is work. I am a professional. Professionals get paid. End of story. Even if I decide to do it pro bono (because I support your mission or I know you, whatevs) – it is still worth something. I’m simply choosing to waive that fee. But the fact is I told ol’ boy No; and he got all up in his feelings. So, go sit on a soft internet cushion, Ofek, ’cause you are obviously all butt-hurt over my rejection. And take heed of the advice on my khanga.

You don’t want none of this

Thanks to everyone who helped me focus my righteous anger on these less-celebrated equines. I appreciate your support, words of encouragement, and offers to ride down on his *$$.



The time and talents of professionals are worth something. It matters that people, specifically scientists, realize this. Too often I hear of colleagues underselling themselves, or assuming that if they demand some sort of fair compensation for their time (e.g. consulting, documentaries, etc.) that the prospective benefactor of the talents will go elsewhere, or under-represent them. Always expecting that a highly trained professional will do everything for free disrespects their time and expertise.

To put the crap icing on top of the pile of a cake, the insult had to take a sexist approach by using the time-tested term of "whore." [Begin sarcasm] Yup, nothing puts an uppity woman in her place like calling her a whore. [End sarcasm]. This was disrespect for DNLee as both a scientist and a person.

The only way this kind of behavior will end is if these incidents are not shoved in the dark closets or swept under the rugs. Don't just dismiss this behavior, or feel that you can do nothing about it. Call it out. Expose it to the sunlight and let it shrivel and die.

Off to do my job as a researcher and collections manager for which I get paid.

Shaman out.

Update: 12-10-2013

On the blog Isis the Scientist, Dr. Isis lays down the hard truth concerning Scientific American's removal of DNLee's original post. Follow the link and read. Whether that was the intent or not, Scientific American's removal of DNLee's post (and the subsequent justification of said removal on the grounds that it wasn't science-y enough) felt like a continuation of the original disrespect shown to DNLee by the editor of Biology-Online dot org. The situation was not pretty, but deleting it will not remove the problem, especially if the problem is one of disrespecting a scientist using abusive and sexist language.

Update #2

The editor of Scientific American's blog recently posted on Twitter that they are still collecting information.

Scientific American blogs editor Twitter statement. Follow the link here to read the replies.
We'll have to wait and see what the official statement is. I'm definitely curious!

As a completely personal opinion, the outrageous behavior that was highlighted in this incident, as well as all those incidents that continue to be under-reported, isn't magically "fixed" by singing the "I'm Very Sorry" song. When a person's go-to response is to trot out a sexual and race based insult, that speaks to the character and maturity of the person. If they have not yet internalized that a) this type of behavior is intolerable and (most importantly) b) WHY this type of behavior is unacceptable, there are larger issues at work than just an "Oops, I made a mistake in judgement", or worse "It was just a joke!" defense. You do not get to pick-and-choose to whom you behave professionally. Period.

No matter what the final outcome of this is incident is, it demonstrates that there is still a long way to go before discrimination is culled from the world of science and science communication. Everyone needs to keep exposing these incidents to the light of day, not just for ourselves, but for all those who will follow in our academic footsteps.


Update: 13-10-2013

The Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American has posted a more formal statement. Read it here:

As another completely personal opinion, reading this left me feeling rather unsatisfied. I realize they are not yet complete in their information gathering, but here are a couple of items that spring to mind (and to the minds of many who left comments on the recent post, now that I had finished reading their comments) that I still find troubling:

1) In no way was their any mention that the behavior (hell, phrase it as "alleged behavior" if there is a need for hiney-covering) of the Biology-Online editor was inappropriate and unacceptable. A simple statement along the lines of "if this is indeed what transpired, it was wrong" would have sufficed. Respected science organizations need to step up and emphasize that mistreatment of any professional is unacceptable. Institutions such as Scientific American have the ears and eyes of so many, interested public and professionals alike, that they should be at the forefront of promoting professionalism in science. This includes letting people, especially their bloggers, share their less than smiley experiences and how they dealt with said experiences. Their stories and experiences are our stories, too. Science and science communication are the last places where dark corners should be acceptable.

2) I am not sure how the statement originally made by the Editor-in-Chief regarding the removal of DNLee's post
Link to the original post on Twitter.

is connected to the statement "Unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post." The initial post stated that what DNLee experienced and her response was not suitable for Scientific American. This recent post states that they need to investigate for legal reasons. Those sound like two completely different reasons for removing the post.

There are still specific issues that will need to be addressed to help move on from this incident, such as how Biology Online will address their editor's actions, and how Scientific American and Biology Online are connected.

We will see what happens. For now, my phasianid theropod is roasting in the oven covered with the leaves of several species of aromatic angiosperms and the liquid from fermented grapes. Have a Happy Geeksgiving!