BEN # 188 - April 1st

Adolf Ceska 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.
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 Dr. A. Ceska, P.O.Box 8546, Victoria, B.C. Canada V8W 3S2
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BEN CONTEST: HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW BRITISH COLUMBIA RARE PLANTS ?

How well do you know rare plants of southwestern British
Columbia?

Find the following URL

    http://victoria.tc.ca/Environment/Botany/contest.html

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
   winners.

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
   entries.

Deadline  for  submissions  is April 15. We reserve the right to
   check whether your are an antipode or not.


BIAS

[Authentic or semi-authentic quotations are printed in
   CAPITALS.]

   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
scientific progress.

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
of Quotations). 

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.

Control question:

When Socrates said I KNOW THAT I KNOW NOTHING he was:

   1) ignorant;
   2) biased;
   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

Anatomy

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.

Botany

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
   web: http://www.island.net/~johnb/
   
"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-
ample:

 ...  the astrophysics group of Imperial College London has been
collecting odd "package warnings". Here  are  three  from  their
collection:

 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
    severe damage."

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
      really stupid.

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