Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Man Behind the Curtain Turns 1

The Man Behind the Curtain turns 1 today! In the past year, this blog has had over 4800 views from people in 104 nations. This surpassed what expectations I had, and I am looking forward to another good year.

The most popular posts this year were:

Dinosaurs are not Extinct

Hot or Not

Do genes skip generations?

Testing a Claim: Ceramic Knives

The least popular posts were:

Drug-Resistant Diseases

Skipping Generations Part 2

You’re Doing it Wrong, Part 2: Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

A UFO (which was my first post)

And these are my personal favorite posts:

For All Mankind

Dinosaurs are not Extinct

10% of our Brains

The Evolution of Flight

Thanks for reading! I hope 2015 will be even better. (Tomorrow I will go through and fix all of the broken images. Sorry about that.)

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Sex vs Gender

does-not-equal

America was settled by puritans. It may or may not be a coincidence that, hundreds of years later, we are still pretty weird about sex. Most people don’t even like saying the word “sex.” Enter “gender.” With the word “gender,” people can communicate their thoughts without the ickiness of having to say “sex” out loud. Or can they?

As a teacher, I often had to correct students who tried to tell me the gender of the cockroaches they were using in their experiments. Even biology professors, who really should have known better, would sometimes use the word “gender” when they meant “sex.” A friend of mine is having a baby soon. She and her husband recently made a big announcement about the gender of the baby. Official documents are notorious for items like, “Please indicate your gender: __male __female.” But what is the problem here? In short, sex and gender are not the same thing.

Sex is the biological component. Male mammals* have an X chromosome and a Y chromosome, have testicles, a penis, and produce sperm. Female mammals have two X chromosomes, have ovaries, a uterus, a vagina, and produce eggs. Sex is basically a categorical variable — you are either male or female. About 1% of people are “intersex.” For these people, there may be a disconnect between their arrangement of chromosomes and their anatomy — sometimes people will develop outwardly as male, but have two X chromosomes and no Y. The opposite can happen, too, with people developing outwardly as female, but having XY chromosomes. (People with XXY or YYX chromosomes are not considered intersex.) Sometimes people are born with ambiguous genitalia, or a mismatch between their external and internal genitalia. This throws a bit of a wrench into our concept of biological sex, but around 99% of people can be categorized comfortably as male or female. (For more information, go here.)

Gender is a psychological component. It deals with how you feel and how you present yourself. Unlike sex, which is mostly binary, gender is a smooth, continuous variable. Most human males are clustered towards the masculine end of the gender continuum, and most human females are clustered towards the feminine end of the gender continuum. But you can have males who are more or less masculine than other males, and females who are more or less feminine than other females. You can have females who are more masculine than some or most males, and males who are more or less feminine than most females. Most males identify as men, and most females identify as women, but this is not always the case. Some males identify as women, and some females identify as men — these people usually identify as “trans*” or “transgender.” (For more information, go here.)

So do cockroaches have gender? Not if the answer you are looking for is “male” or “female.” Male and female are choices for sex. Do cockroaches have a gender identity? Not as far as we know. Do cockroaches have any sense of self at all? Again, not as far as we know. There might be some scientific questions about cockroach gender, but most people don’t think about these things.

Likewise, official documents shouldn’t ask for your gender when what they really want to know is your sex otherwise the question would look like this: “Please indicate your gender on the following scale: masculine_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _  _ _ _ _ _ _feminine.”

My friend’s baby? Has a sex, but the gender will be up in the air until he or she develops a self-identity.

Both sex and gender are real things, but they are different. Make sure you’re using word you mean.

*In other types of animals, sex is determined in different ways.

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New Science and Math Standards

Education has always been important to me, and I don’t just mean my own education. My parents both started their careers as science teachers and I have been involved in science education education professionally for the past 10 years. In a country where 1 in 4 adults believe that the sun orbits the earth, it’s no secret that we have some serious work to do to improve our education. I could make this entire post about the state of scientific literacy in the United States, but I want to go in another direction. One way we can improve our education is by changing the way we teach. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which covers only science, and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which covers only math and english, are the latest attempt to do just that. The political fallout associated with these standards are very interesting, as they have been attacked for various reasons from people on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Some conservatives believe, for example, that these standards are just another case of government overreach, whereas some liberals believe that the standards are just a way to prioritize corporate profits over the education of our children. Various celebrities have come out against these standards, including Louis CK and Stephen Colbert. However, given that they are neither teachers nor education experts, I care about their opinion on the Common Core about as much as I care about Jenny McCarthy’s opinion about vaccines. I want to know what experts think.

Back in June, I started at C2ST as a volunteer. One of my first tasks was to research potential speakers for a public panel discussion on the NGSS and CCSS-M (the math standards within the common core), which Illinois had just adopted. Not knowing much about these standards myself, I wanted to learn about them as much as everyone else did. My first stop was finding people who knew the most about education. I quickly found researchers who study how people learn math and science.

But I also wanted to know what teachers actually thought — there is sometimes a difference between research and practice, and I didn’t want to get lost in that space. I had heard various opinions from my teacher friends, but none of them actually had any experience in applying the standards. I reached out to some professional organizations for teachers, and they put me in touch with a math teacher and a science teacher who both had experience with the new standards.

The panel still needed a moderator. I wanted to have someone who had very broad experience, who could understand the viewpoints of each of the panelists. We found a guy who had just the experience we needed — he had been a teacher, an administrator, worked for the US Department of Education, and directed an educational institute at a university.

Then in mid-August I was hired as the Director of Programming at C2ST, and I was given the helm on this project. I spoke with each of the people on my list, and I was impressed by how much they all knew about their respective subjects. Collectively, they had the expertise to present the education standards to the public. And we made sure they knew what we wanted: we wanted the truth. We didn’t have an agenda for or against these standards, and we only wanted the best possible information to be given to the public.

I would tell you about each of the panelists, but here they are doing it for themselves. I did not film any of these videos, but I am next to the camera asking questions to the panelists:

And here is the complete program. I don’t care what your opinion is of the new education standards. What I care is that everyone has quality information so that they can decide for themselves.

Have a topic you want me to cover? Let me know in the comments or on twitter @cgeppig

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