Figures lie and liars figure

Most of us frequently read mainstream media “science news” articles that make startling assertions about this or that. And, with very few exceptions, the assertions made in those articles are not supported by data included in the article, nor even by a link to the original paper.

For example, I read an article the other day that claimed that sitting for 6 hours or more per day greatly increased the likelihood that one would die young. Furthermore, said the article, exercising regularly did not offset the harmful effect of sitting for 6 hours or more per day. Presumably, one could run 10 miles before work and 10 miles after work, but that six hours of sitting in the middle renders all of that exercise worthless.

And the figures were pretty startling. Men who sat for 6 hours per day or more experienced 20% higher mortality over the course of the study than men who were less chair-bound. For women, it was even worse, with 40% increased mortality.

The obvious lesson here is that everyone who wants to live to a ripe old age should flee screaming from their chairs. Offices should scrap their desks wholesale and replace them with standing desks. Everyone should get rid of the sofas and easy chairs in their dens and watch TV standing up. Restaurants should get rid of their tables and booths and replace them with bars where one stands to dine. Sporting stadiums should rip out those rows of benches and chairs and require sports fans to stand while they watch a game. Schools and universities should remodel their classrooms to require students to stand during lectures.

I haven’t even looked at the original paper, but I still call bullshit. In the first place, this study, like all such studies, depends on self-reported behavior, which is notoriously unreliable. In the second place, although I might believe that it’s harmful to sit for 6 hours straight every day, week after week, year after year, not many people actually do that. Even the most chairborne office worker takes bathroom breaks, lunch breaks, smoke breaks, and so on.

I’m probably pretty typical in that respect. Even when I’m writing heads-down, I seldom sit still for more than an hour, and usually much less. I get up to use the bathroom. I get up to walk into the kitchen for more Coke or a snack. I take the dog for a short walk. (Right now, with a four-month-old puppy, that happens literally 20 times a day or more.) I get up when the mail arrives or the UPS guy delivers a package. Do I sit 6 hours during the course of a day? Sure, every day. I sit at my desk during the day, and on the sofa in the evenings. But I think the last time I sat for 6 hours straight was … never.

Science kits for religious versus secular homeschoolers

When we announced the CK01 homeschool chemistry kits on the MAKE blog, Geek Dad, and so on, we immediately started getting critical responses and emails about how we positioned the kits. The relevant part of the announcement was:

“The kit can be used with a religious curriculum or a secular curriculum …”

And a typical criticism started out:

“Pray tell, what religious curriculum requires a modification to a science chemistry set that would not first render all basic science moot in the first place?”

Fair enough. So I posted the following response:

“Religious home schoolers are often concerned that a secular science kit, such as this one, may include explicit or implicit criticisms of or hostility toward their religious beliefs. Although our company (and we) are secular, we wanted religious homeschoolers to know that nothing in our chemistry kit should be offensive to their religious beliefs.

As another commenter noted, this situation is particularly common with geology (and biology) materials that might contradict the religious beliefs of fundamentalist Christians, particularly Young Earth Creationists. We have many science kits planned for future release. Some of those, such as forensics and physics, are unlikely to offend anyone regardless of their religious beliefs.

Other kits, such as earth science and biology, will be secular and may indeed offend the sensibilities of some (not all) religious homeschoolers. We will flag those kits prominently to warn anyone who is concerned about their content that these kits may not be suitable for some religious homeschoolers.”

Now, as my regular readers know, I’m 100.000% secular, but they also know that I’m 99.44% pure libertarian and 100.000% pro-science. I don’t care what people choose to believe, whether it’s in Apollo or Thor or the Tooth Fairy. But I do care about as many kids as possible getting hands-on exposure to real science. And that’s what the kits are about: not ideology or politics or anything other than pure science.

In reality, none of our kits may contain anything offensive to anyone’s religion. We may or may not cover issues in earth science that Young Earth Creationists would object to. In biology, the issue is of course evolution. As the great biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, himself a devoutly religious man, famously stated:  Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution. No serious scientist disputes that.

So it might seem we’re going to have a problem with our biology kits, but in fact I don’t think we will. Even religious fundamentalists acknowledge the reality of micro-evolution, which is evolution within a species. They have no choice. We can actually watch it happen. Their problem is with macro-evolution, or one species evolving into another species.

Scientists consider micro-evolution and macro-evolution to be one and the same. The former typically occurs over relatively short periods, and the latter typically over longer periods as accumulated evolutionary changes in one organism lead to speciation, or the original organism evolving into an entirely new species.

The thing is, a micro-evolution lab session is perfectly reasonable for a high-school biology course. For example, we might do a lab session on repeated culturing of a bacteria species with forced selection to develop resistance to a particular antibiotic. That won’t offend even the most fundamentalist religious parents, because everyone admits the reality of evolution on this scale. Conversely, macro-evolution is not a practical (or even possible) hands-on lab session topic for high school biology, so the issue is moot.

It would be very different if we were writing a general biology textbook for homeschoolers, because then there would be no alternative but to present evolution in all of its aspects as absolutely true beyond question, verified by millions of observations and experiments over the last 150+ years, and further confirmed by new developments such as molecular biology and DNA analysis. If we ever write that textbook, you can be sure that it will be the best science we can do, and let the chips fall where they may. But we’re not in the business of writing lecture textbooks.