|BOTANICAL ELECTRONIC NEWS|
|No. CLXXXVIII All Fool's Day Issue April 1, firstname.lastname@example.org|
How well do you know rare plants of southwestern British Columbia?
Find the following URL:
and identify as many pictures as you can (there are 7 of them) and send your answer to
Prizes: Free subscription to BEN to all participants. In addition, 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 contest, 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.
[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 RANDOMIZATION 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 Ecology, page 30).
Finally, an effective way of overcoming bias was found. In a letter to the late professor J.K. in Prague, an unknown scientist 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 pausterization 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 experiments 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.
[Check your answer at the end of this BEN.]
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 controversies 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.
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 example:
... the astrophysics group of Imperial College London has been collecting odd "package warnings". Here are three from their collection:
Don't miss this collector item.
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.
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