Twittering in the classroom

Readers may be interested in participating in this, from Dave Wessner at Davidson College:

Building on a project I piloted last fall, I will explore the potential role of Twitter more intentionally this fall in a course I teach on HIV/AIDS at Davidson College. I invite you to join me in this exploration.

Here are a few details:
Basically, I am interested in extending the class conversation outside the classroom walls and beyond the appointed class hours. I want the students to begin thinking on their own about what aspects of the subject (HIV/AIDS, in this case) truly interest them. I want to move away from the professor as purveyor of all information model. I want students to improve their ability to critically analyze information from disparate sources.

With Twitter, students can gather information from a wide variety of sources, some very reliable, some less reliable. They also can post information/questions/thoughts and get feedback from a wide variety of sources – again, some reliable and some not. Finally, Twitter provides a platform that they can easily access in their dorm room, the student union, or the local coffee shop (at any time of the day or night). And accessing Twitter, I hope, will not seem as overtly class-related to the students as accessing, for instance, course material via Blackboard.

This fall, I am requiring the students in my seminar to have a Twitter account. Students will post items on a regular basis, using the hashtag #BIO361. We also will devote some time on a regular basis to discussing items or responses from Twitter. Our first post probably will be on the first day of classes – Tuesday, August 24, 2010.

For this project to work most effectively, we need a critical mass of people outside of our class to participate. If you, your students, friends, or colleagues would like to join us, please do. We will appreciate any new comments, retweets, or responses. I’m looking forward to an engaging discussion throughout the semester.

This is up and running now, so keep an eye on #BIO361 and @dawessner.

Skepchicks are made of awesome–and they could use your help

The Skepchicks are sponsoring a pertussis vaccination clinic at Dragon*Con over Labor Day weekend. They’re teaming up with the Georgia Dept. of Health, who is providing free assistance and vaccines, but they need some assistance raising funds to cover space rental, posters, and other miscellaneous charges. If you’re able to assist, you can donate to their “Hug me! I’m vaccinated!” campaign at the links included in the post.

And while I’m nagging about donations, I’ll also note that donations to help the flooded in Pakistan have been slow, especially compared to the Haiti earthquake. If you can spare a few dollars, Doctors Without Borders is one of my favorite charities (though I’ve not seen a dedicated Pakistan donation page there), and here is one list of other charities working there. With either of these causes, remember that every little bit helps.

Additional thoughts on Bible-flu and the retraction

PZ has some additional thoughts on the Bibleflugate retraction up at Pharyngula. Choice quote:

This is a serious concern, to my mind. Scientists are expected to be open and communicative about their work, explaining all the details about how we achieve our results. Yet then we hand that work over to a publisher (usually a for-profit organization), where it is subjected to an arcane process cloaked in mystery that they call peer review. And every once in a while, some strange fluke exposes the inherently arbitrary and chaotic nature of that process, everyone asks “how the hell did that get published?”, and some guy in a business suit steps out to unconvincingly tell us “oops” and reassure us that all is well in the machineries of their journal.

I don’t think it’s enough. If a publisher wants to manage this profitable business of publishing science journals, there ought to be an expectation of transparency — a fuller explanation of how submissions are handled, and when mistakes are made, a more thorough explanation of exactly how it happened. Without an open explanation of how such mistakes occur, I can’t have any confidence that efforts will be made to correct the process that led to them.

He also notes the lead author responded to a request for comments, basically saying he was surprised at the response and was only meant to be “thought-provoking.”

Biblical flu paper going bye-bye

Well, that was quick. Yesterday’s post highlighting a really terrible paper in BMC’s Virology Journal drew a lot of comments here and at Pharyngula, and attention at the journal (where it currently stands as the 5th most-accessed article in the last 30 days). The journal’s Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Robert F. Garry, this in the comments section to my post:

As Editor-in-Chief of Virology Journal I wish to apologize for the publication of the article entitled ”Influenza or not influenza: Analysis of a case of high fever that happened 2000 years ago in Biblical time”, which clearly does not provide the type of robust supporting data required for a case report and does not meet the high standards expected of a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Virology Journal has always operated an exceptionally high standard of thorough peer review; this article has clearly not met these thresholds for balance and supporting data and as such, the article will be retracted. I should like to apologize for any confusion or concern that this article may have caused among our readership, or more widely.

Whilst only ever intended as an opinion piece and also a bit of relief from the ‘normal’ business of the journal, the speculations contained within this article clearly would be better expressed outside the confines of a peer-reviewed journal. Biomed Central does not support any views outlined in this article.

He also noted that the retraction will appear shortly. (This comment also appears in the comments section of the paper itself).

While saying it’s “only opinion” and removing the paper is a good first step, it’s still unclear to me how this passed peer review in the first place. I have a ton of opinions that have way more scientific support than that manuscript did, but I’m sensible enough to realize that they still won’t be able to pass any rigorous peer-review muster–that’s one reason I have a blog, after all, is to air these random musings. Articles that are a bit more amusing and a departure from the norm of the journal are all well and good (check out this article, for example), but for the “Biblical flu” one, either the reviewers/editor got conned or really let something slip through the cracks.

Either way, the retraction is a deserved result and a quick response by the journal and Dr. Garry, but something that really shouldn’t have been fodder for me to mock in the first place.

Biblical fever = influenza. You’re kidding me, right?

Via Bob O’H and Cath Ennis comes this truly bizarre article from the Virology Journal: “Influenza or not influenza: Analysis of a case of high fever that happened 2000 years ago in Biblical time”.

Now, regular readers will know that I normally love this type of thing; digging back through history to look at Lincoln’s smallpox; Cholera in Victorian London; potential causes of the Plague of Athens, the origin of syphilis, or whether Yersinia pestis really caused the Black Plague. I’ve even written a bit about the history of influenza. So analysis of a 2000-year old potential flu case? Bring it on.

But. For Christ’s sake (really), *bring the evidence with you.* From the article’s abstract:

The Bible describes the case of a woman with high fever cured by our Lord Jesus Christ. Based on the information provided by the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, the diagnosis and the possible etiology of the febrile illness is discussed. Infectious diseases continue to be a threat to humanity, and influenza has been with us since the dawn of human history. If the postulation is indeed correct, the woman with fever in the Bible is among one of the very early description of human influenza disease.

Infectious diseases continue to be a threat to humanity, and influenza has been with us since the dawn of human history. We analysed a case of high fever that happened 2000 years ago in Biblical time and discussed possible etiologies.

(more after the jump…)
Continue reading “Biblical fever = influenza. You’re kidding me, right?”

The development of a conspiracy theory

Interesting post today at, showing the evolution of a conspiracy theory akin to a game of telephone. Interestingly, it starts with an article in Wired by author (and former Scienceblogger) Johah Lehrer. Lehrer wrote an article on the effects of chronic stress on health outcomes, and one researcher’s work to develop something akin to a vaccine to mitigate the stress effects. Sounds reasonable, no?

Next, the Daily Mail picked up the article, and focused on the “stress vaccine” angle.

Finally, the folks at Alex Jones’ Prison Planet–who’ve never met a conspiracy theory they didn’t like–took the Daily Mail story and morphed it into a discussion of “brain eating vaccines,” and a government conspiracy to eliminate all emotions from an unknowing public (follow-up here, and they even have a third article bashing Lehrer. Impressive!

Now, I’m not necessarily blaming the Daily Mail as the intermediate in this. Yes, their story was certainly more sensational and less nuanced than the original Wired piece, but PrisonPlanet could also take the most innocuous story on any scientific breakthrough and make it out to be some kind of vast governmental-scientific-pharmaceutical plot. However, it does emphasize again the need to be aware of what’s going on out there in these corners of the internets–look how they encouraged their readers to manipulate Google so that “brain-eating vaccines” would trend on the site. This kind of thing is their bread-and-butter, and the fact is that “the facts” don’t always win converts to any scientific argument.

Addendum: several on Twitter pointed out this PhD comic, which succinctly summarizes the cycle.