Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Hopeful Monster Hypothesis

Warning: this is not a trailer review, though Hopeful Monsters does sound like a cinematic masterpiece. Rather, this is a discussion of a form of evolutionary theory: Hopeful Monster (or Discontinuous Variation if you prefer the dry scientific term, and who doesn't) is the hypothesis that suggests evolution proceeds through the same mechanism that basketball athleticism has: organisms who used to be a bit odd and possibly insanely tall now find their niche, excel, and rise to the top.

Prior to basketball, his height simply gave him neck cramps

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Lot of Oreodont Drawings

This summer Meaghan has been working as a Geocorps Paleontologist for the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, working on resolving John Day oreodont taxonomy. It's been a lot of fun, but it also means that oreodonts have been at the forefront of her mind literally all summer... so she's drawn a lot of them. As the summer has progressed, her oreodonts have become a lot more like My Little Ponies, with big feet and ridiculous expressions. Meaghan is now headed off to Kyrgyzstan for a month (to help this lady scientist with her dissertation work), and is too lazy to write blog posts ahead of time so in lieu of other blog material.... here are a bunch of Meaghan's oreodont sketches with her brilliantly witty commentary!

Coy Agrochoerus antiquus is an ass during hide-and-seek

Merychyus elegans just pranked the shit out of someone.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

How to Avoid Common Myth-Debunking Mistakes

We've all been involved in some sort of myth-debunking: evolution, climate change, vaccinations, genetically modified organisms, different ways of curing hiccups - all are important hot topics that are surrounded by lies and misinformation. It is pretty hard to hear some of the bat-shittery around these ideas and not fight back - after all, public policy on these and other topics are often dictated by people who buy into conspiracy theories. Also, some of us have little self-control when it comes to tolerating other people's stupidity.

Because for fucks sake, these are not equally-valid sources!!!

The logical way of battling a myth is to address the myth itself. For example:

Your Drunk Uncle at Thanksgiving: "We're pumping poor babies full of mercury before they're even 6 months old!"
Your Drunk Uncle (Sam)
You: "Thimerosal isn't toxic in the low amounts we give in vaccines, they're necessary to preserve vaccines from fungal and bacterial infection, and they've been phased out from the vaccines we give babies anyway. BOOM!"

YDUaT: "Yeah, well vaccines also cause autism! That playboy bunny says so."
You: "The one article that ever showed a link was debunked; that guy was 100% lying. Also please take health advice from your doctor, not a celebrity."

YDUaT: "We don't bother to test whether giving vaccines to babies so fast is a bad thing or not! Nobody looks at this stuff. Poor babies."
You: "Scientists totally test that shit. Also, would you rather your kids got measles and died? You make no sense to me."

Seems pretty self-explanatory: someone tells you about a bullshit theory and you tell them how they're wrong, their minds heal and become better and everyone is happy, right? Yeah, we wish. Unfortunately for you and our country, the mind is a tricksy place. Ask your uncle after your conversation about some vaccination myths, and he'll likely get about 20% of those myths wrong still. Ask him 3 days later he will still retain on average, a belief in about 40% of the myths that he previously asserted. What's even worse is that since he has talked to you, his well-educated niece or nephew about it, he now has a reinforcing valid "source" - you. Oops!

It turns out that addressing the illogical with the logical is actually not that effective for eliminating myths and misconceptions.  In fact, if you try and debunk a myth you can often end up reinforcing it instead simply by talking about it. So what's the best way to convince the Drunk Uncles of the world to join the 21st century, regardless of the topic? Here we lay out the commandments of Myth Debunking, the cardinal rules of how to work around people's crazy to get them to hear the logic of your actual content. These rules are our own, but we've compiled them after reading up on the psychology of bias emergence and attenuation. That's right. We read psychology papers for you mother fuckers, because we love our country. 'MERICA.

Sidenote: if you've never googled "the most patriotic picture ever" then you need to.
This picture nearly lost to the Star Spangled Donuts that were further down the page.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Glories of Collections-Based Research

Whenever I (Meaghan) tell other people that I'm a paleontologist, people tend to get really excited and ask one or both of the following two things:

First they ask if I've heard about the newest dinosaur fossil, which I never have but usually can bluff my way through with the sentence "oh right, isn't it the biggest one they've ever found, and it's from some country in South America or Asia or Africa or something?" because 90% of what dinosaur paleontologists in the media do is basically a prolonged, scientific dick-size competition that occurs in a foreign country my American friends consider jungle-ish.

The second thing they ask is if I get to do much field work, to which I throw back my head and cackle maniacally until the happy, excited gleam in their eye fades away and leaves nothing behind but the shallow husk of their dying inner seven-year-old.

Because no, I don't, and it's totally way better that way.

I know - it seems like it doesn't get much better than this right?*

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Awesome Dead Shit: The Saber Toothed Salmon

Meet Oncorhychus (previously known as Smilodonichthys) rastrosus, the Saber Toothed Salmon:

Hey people of Eugene, see this exhibit in person! Art by Ray Troll
We've mentioned it in passing here and there, featured a blurb about the new Saber Toothed Salmon exhibit at the UO MNCH during our Ray Troll interview, but have we really explained the beauty of this extinct fish? No, no we have not. Let us list the ways: