Small snails and evolution of a theory

I’ve heard Richard Dawkins give an example of ‘how science works’ several times over the past ten years or so (admittedly on telly or the radio). He tells a story of how evidence changes people’s beliefs in science with a story something along these lines (apologies if this isn’t 100% correct):

At the end of a research seminar at Oxford, a distinguished professor who has always had a fundamentally opposite viewpoint to the speaker, gets up, shakes the hand of the presenter, and says that his view has now changed, based on the evidence that has just been provided.

It’s a great story about how science should work. If it’s true, however, it is probably the only time it has ever happened. In reality, most scientists seem very stuck in their own beliefs about how various things work (evolutionary units of selection – as a current example). In truth, most undergraduate students are pretty good at seeing through these polarised arguments. I’ve been asked many times after lectures presenting two opposing sides to a theory “but isn’t it a bit of both?”, and the answer is normally ‘yes’.

In my own little research world, there has been considerable debate about aggregation in intertidal snails. It’s obvious (to me at least) that aggregations prevent desiccation stress once the tide has gone out. This photo really proves the point. However, it’s been difficult to collect data to prove this.


Recently, I (along with co-authors) wrote the ‘rant’ below. It spells out why you can’t measure the benefits of aggregation, as we are measuring the wrong thing (it also contains a nice analogy involving beer, a well-known Plymouth pub and a park bench). We need to measure the ‘rate’ of desiccation, not water content.

However, I am happy to be proved wrong, and I think this even more recent paper proves that while I wasn’t wrong, there is a more correct explanation. In fact, I’m happy to say that our explanation is around 30% of the answer, and this is most likely the remaining 70%.  Snails in aggregations are able to keep their operculum open, and hence continue to breath, for longer, because they don’t face a lower rate of desiccation.

So, a clear benefit of aggregation, a good explanation of why the water content of the snails in aggregations isn’t higher, and a scientist admitting that their theory has been outclassed by another. Pretty much a perfect outcome there.

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Radiation, really big squids and cause and effect

You may have heard the hype around the Fukushima radiation issues in the US at the moment, with a good summary of what many people think given here:

It’s clear that Fukushima was a disaster, especially for those living close by in Japan, and there are some severe environmental issues in this area, which will be very long lasting. However, there are a number of people who believe there are effects of this radiation far beyond Japan, and manifest themselves in some pretty weird ways, even though there is little scientific evidence to support it.

A few weeks ago, there was a report of a giant squid washed up in California, initiated on this website:

I have to admit, I really like this story for a number of reasons. Firstly, people believed it. Have a look at some of the other stories on a site called ‘lightly braised turnip’ and see why it may not be true… Secondly, I like this as it really does raise some important points about how people react to the unknown. We know very little about the sea, especially the deep sea, and there are some pretty big squid in the sea. However, I don’t see the potential of these squid to demolish any beachfront blocks of flats in the near future. Thirdly, anyone believing this has a minor issue understanding the role radiation has on mutations (largely random, so why gigantism would occur across species is rather unclear).

Finally though, this story, and all the other ‘radiation’ attributed things illustrate an important point. It is easy to make the ‘effect’ fit the ‘cause’.  What I mean is this: lots of odd things happen, lots of highly improbable things happen. The fact that lots of highly improbable things happen isn’t unusual, it’s because a huge amount of things happen. Far more things happen which don’t seem odd, than do seem odd. We, as humans, focus on the odd things, and try to work out why they occur.

If I told you odd things happen on Friday (and you believed me, of course), then anything odd on a Friday, you would simply put down to the cause of it being Friday.  However, there are probably no more odd things happening on a Friday than any other day, but now they seem related, because they have a cause.

The same with the radiation in the Pacific. Giant oarfish – two of them, Siamese whales. Seems odd, must be the radiation. However, tests for radiation levels don’t indicate a cause for concern.

A simple lesson in probability there, but I’ve also learned two things:

1) Ramblings like this have no place in scientific journals (see here)

2) Perhaps I need that proofreader (see here)

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I get to review a lot of scientific papers which aren’t always written in the best English. In fairness, it isn’t easy to write in a language which isn’t your own, especially some of the oddities of English grammar, and there is no way that I could write anything in another language. However, this spam email from a proof reading company made me laugh. Most (but not all) is technically correct, but reads very oddly. Any prizes for finding the mistake?


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What’s this all about?

It’s still almost the start of the year, and a good time to start new resolutions.

The resolution wasn’t strictly to start a blog, but was to provide a way of disseminating marine ecology a bit more. Sometimes it might be my work and observations, but there’s far more interesting stuff than just what I do (which often involves very small snails…)

It’s also a chance to stop publishing so many papers. Not to stop altogether, which is never a good career move… but to concentrate on what’s more important, and to use this as an outlet for some more minor results.

That’s about it for now. I need to do a bit of research into some of this nuclear fallout and gigantism stuff that’s almost certainly nonsense, but big in the US at the moment.

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Rick Stafford’s Blog

Just set up this site, as of the 14th Jan 2014. More to come very soon

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