BEN # 188 - April 1st
aceska at VICTORIA.TC.CA
Wed Apr 1 10:38:19 EST 1998
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No. CLXXXVIII All Fool's Day Issue April 1, 1998
aceska at victoria.tc.ca Victoria, B.C.
Dr. A. Ceska, P.O.Box 8546, Victoria, B.C. Canada V8W 3S2
BEN CONTEST: HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW BRITISH COLUMBIA RARE PLANTS ?
How well do you know rare plants of southwestern British
Find the following URL
and identify as many pictures as you can (there are 7 of them)
and send your answer to
ua387 at victoria.tc.ca
Prizes: Free subscription to BEN to all participants. In addi-
tion, the editor of BEN has about enough money to buy ten
granola bars, but he cannot afford to deliver them to the
We would like to give everybody a fair chance to win. The number
of correct answers necessary to win the contest will decrease
with a distance of contestants from Victoria. Our antipodes
(48 deg. 25' S. 123 deg. 22 E), who live somewhere in the
Pacific Ocean half way between Kerguelen Island and Tasmania,
don't need a single correct answer in order to win the con-
test, but they are still required to submit their contest
Deadline for submissions is April 15. We reserve the right to
check whether your are an antipode or not.
[Authentic or semi-authentic quotations are printed in
I wrote the following article in 1970's. In that time
every ecological paper published in leading scientific
journals had to have "quantitative" in its title. Plant
ecology has progressed since then, and the catchword
"quantitative" has been replaced with "multivariate" or
"multidimensional" or once trendy "detrended." Now a
random permutation of "pattern," "spatial" and "scale"
does the trick. This essay goes back to the times when
plant ecologists still worried about the validity of their
results. - AC
With the introduction of precise mathematical methods into
formerly descriptive branches of science, scientists started to
observe that they did not get results that they had expected,
and they had not expected results they got. This DIFFERENCE
BETWEEN THE EXPECTED AND THE TRUE VALUE has become KNOWN AS BIAS
(Ostle, B. 1963. Statistics in Research, 2nd ed., page 104). It
became obvious that bias can pose the largest obstacle to any
Scientists who wanted to reduce bias to a reasonably tolerable
level began to study its causes. Quantitative plant ecology was
a scientific field that was most advanced in the study of bias.
Encouraged by numerous papers published by Raunkier on frequency
of plant species in vegetation sample plots, plant ecologists
began to toss rings of various diameters and to count the number
of species that were hit by those rings.
They soon realized that their results were strongly biased. Even
when rings were tossed at random, they always hit nice looking
plants and obviously missed plants unknown, and nasty plants,
such as stinging nettles. It was also found that even IF RAN-
DOMIZATION OF THE QUADRATS IS BEING ATTEMPTED BY THE CLOSING OF
EYES OR THROWING OVER THE LEFT SHOULDER, THEN INEVITABLY THE
TENDENCY IS TO TRY TO INCLUDE AT LEAST ONE THISTLE IN A QUADRAT
THROW (Kershaw, K.K. 1973. Quantitative and Dynamic Plant Ecol-
ogy, page 30).
Finally, an effective way of overcoming bias was found. In a
letter to the late professor J.K. in Prague, an unknown scien-
tist wrote (ca. 1930): I HAVE BEEN EXPERIMENTING WITH VARIOUS
FREQUENCY METHODS. I HAVE COME TO THE CONCLUSION THAT THE BEST
RESULTS ARE OBTAINED WHEN THE FREQUENCY RINGS ARE TOSSED BY AN
ILLITERATE SHEPHERD, ESPECIALLY WHEN HE DOES NOT HAVE THE
SLIGHTEST IDEA OF THE INTENT OF HIS ACTIONS.
The scientific method to eliminate bias was finally found: an
illiterate shepherd, totally ignorant in science. Ignorance is
that miraculous feature that can be used and has been used by
many scientists to combat bias. The best example may be the case
of Dr. F., who ... IS AN EXPERT ECOLOGICAL BOTANIST, BUT HARDLY
BIASSED SINCE A TOTAL STATE OF IGNORANCE EXISTED IN THE KIND OF
VEGETATION HE WAS INTERESTED IN BEFORE HE BEGAN WORK (Ecology
1972, vol. 58, page 367).
Unfortunately, the ignorance can impede progress of science in a
similar way as the bias does. I know only few illiterate
shepherds who wrote more than one scientific publications. On
the other hand, there are quite a few scientists who do not have
slightest idea of the intent of their actions.
We all know that it is difficult to maintain that precarious
balance between bias and ignorance. We can find many examples of
fatal cases where the scientists slipped into either bias or
into ignorance, and we can see the most tragic cases when a
scientist became the victim of a high-frequency oscillation
between bias and ignorance.
The history of science recorded few exceptional cases in which
total ignorance or total bias had no effect on the importance of
the discoveries. Louis Pasteur never had any formal chemical or
microbiological training and his total ignorance in these fields
did not prevent him from making revolutionary discoveries.
Without Louis Pasteur we would have never heard about paus-
terization and we would all have rabies. On the other hand, if
you look at Sir Flemming, he was strongly biased when he
selected only those moulded Petri dishes. If he were ignorant,
he would have had washed the dishes and had started his experi-
ments anew. We would not have any penicillin today. As Louis
Pasteur once said, "WHERE OBSERVATION IS CONCERNED, CHANCE
FAVOURS ONLY THE PREPARED MIND" (The Concise Oxford Dictionary
It has been shown that scientists have a choice. They can be
either ignorant or biased. Or, in the most common case, they can
stand trembling in between, not knowing whether they are still
biased, or already ignorant, or even worse, not knowing whether
they are still ignorant, or already biased. You can check where
you stand by answering this control question.
When Socrates said I KNOW THAT I KNOW NOTHING he was:
3) other (specify).
[Check your answer at the end of this BEN.]
JOHN AMOS COMENIUS ON BOTANY (1663)
John Amos Comenius (1592-1670) was a great Czech educator, born
in Moravia. At the beginning of the Thirty-Year War he had to
leave his homeland and as a Protestant bishop he was never
allowed to return. He lived in Poland, Sweden, Hungary and
Holland, where he died in Amsterdam. In 1623 he wrote "The
labyrinth of the world and the paradise of the heart" that was
published in 1631. The following paragraphs are from the second
1663 edition (translated by Matthew Spinka, University of
Michigan, English edition published in 1972).
Chapter XIV: The pilgrim examines the medical profession
Having been conducted through some alleys between the physics
and the chemistry lecture rooms into another square, I beheld a
gruesome sight. There men stretched out a corpse before them and
cutting off one limb after another, examined the viscera, with
keen relish exhibiting each other what they found. "What cruelty
to deal with a human being as if he were a beast!" I exclaimed.
"It must be done; this is their school," my interpreter replied.
Thereupon, abandoning that task and dispersing into gardens,
meadows, fields, and mountains, they plucked whatever they found
growing there and piled it into such heaps that many years would
scarcely suffice for its mere sorting and scanning. ... Then
they shouted at each other in dispute; they had great con-
troversies about the very names of the herbs. He who knew the
greatest number of them and how to measure and weigh them, was
crowned with a wreath of those herbs, and was to be called the
doctor of art.
NEW BOOK: NORTH AMERICA'S GREAT APE: THE SASQUATCH
Bindernagel, J.A. 1998. North America's great ape: the
Sasquatch. Beachcomber Books, Courtenay, B.C. 270 p.
ISBN 0-9682887-0-7 [soft cover] Cost: CDN$25.00 + 3.00
(shipping + handling)
Ordering information: Beachcomber Books, Box 3286, Courtenay,
B.C., Canada V9N 5N4; Toll-free order line: 1-800-487-1494
e-mail: beachcom at island.net
"Finally, a book that goes beyond the debate about whether or
not the sasquatch exists, and discusses the anatomy, ecology,
food habits, and behaviour of this elusive mammal. Dr. John
Bindernagel, a Canadian wildlife biologist, has been studying
the sasquatch in British Columbia since 1975. ... This is a
serious and refreshingly candid look at a long misunderstood
North American animal. It answers many of our questions about
this mysterious wildlife species --- and raises many more."
[From the information leaflet.]
BIZARRE TALES FROM NEW SCIENTIST
This 64-page booklet is distributed with New Scientist No.2126
(21 March 1998). It is "a collection of the strange stories that
more than forty years have been the soul of New Scientist, if
not its substance." The following clip can be given as an ex-
... the astrophysics group of Imperial College London has been
collecting odd "package warnings". Here are three from their
1. Warning on the back of Sainsbury's 500g-packet of salted
peanuts: "Contains nuts."
2. Sainsbury's supermarket again, covering itself against all
eventualities: "Houseplants are for ornamental use and
should not be consumed."
3. Advice for Ultraswim shampoo users: "Use repeatedly for
Don't miss this collector item.
CAN WE CLONE PEOPLE WITHOUT HEAD?
From: Letters to the Science Editor
Can we clone people without head? Probably not. "Getting a human
being born and to adulthood without head would be a virtually
impossible task." Science 273 (1997): 1547.
BIAS - ANSWERS TO THE CONTROL QUESTION
If you answered that
1) Socrates was ignorant: you are biased;
2) Socrates was biased: you are ignorant;
3) Socrates was neither: you are right, this question is
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