In lecturing about behavioral biology (in any of a number of classes) it has been hard for me to avoid the lion story and the languar story. Both involve infanticide and selfish strategies by individuals. In both cases, females do things that are unexpected from the middle class heternormative Caucasoidowestern perspective. Babies die. For all these reasons, the stories wake up the students, get the students interested, and stuff gets learned. The key pedagogy here is this: If you are presented with a counter intuitive situation (and you are alert enough to recognized its counterintuitiveness even if it wasn’t natively counterintuitive for you personally), and then you study the situation long enough and deeply enough to understand why it is NOT really counterintuitive, then you are now in a new place. Good for you.

With the lions, the main counterintuitive part is this: After one or more male lions drive off the resident pride’s male lions, taking over said pride, and they have finished the job of killing off all the baby lion cubs, the females become sexually receptive and mate with these kitten-killers. They mate with the lions that killed their own babies. That whole process takes days, but not too many days. The languar story has it’s own interest as well, but I won’t describe that here.

One day I was talking about this in class and part of that involved describing the dimorphism (behavioral and physical differences) between female and male lions. This in turn involved explaining the lion’s mane. As one part of that explanation I mentioned that the mane is said to help in fighting … like a break-away shirt worn by a football player, if “grabbed” by the clawed paw of another male, a bunch of hair comes out and the swipe was thus less effective than if it had hit flesh. There were other reasons for the mane suggested at the time, but I do not remember what I said. Since signaling is important both in mammalian biology and in my own thinking about behavioral biology, I probably said something about that as well. And, I do know that this would have been during week four of a 12 week course.

So I was both intrigued and disturbed … after the semester ended and grades were given out and we received the student evaluations that had been filled out on the last day of class … to read this from one of the students (I paraphrase):

Laden is full of shit. He told us that the mane of a lion is to help in fighting but my other professor who is an expert on lions told us that this is an old idea that is no longer true. the mane of the lion tells the female how much testosterone he has. Now I know that every other thing Laden said is wrong. What a waste of time taking his course.

Now, I will tell you unabashedly that of the 200 or so evaluations with comments I would receive for this course of 500-600 students, most were good to non-committal, dozens were outstanding, over the top positive about how wonderful I am, and between one and five for a given semester were astonishingly negative (“this person should never be allowed in front of a group of students, ever” and so on). Unfortunately, it was very rare to have actual useful criticisms, but I got plenty of those from the dozen or so teaching assistants involved in the course. Naturally, a certain number of the negative reviews were politically motivated, easily discerned by the commentary attached (“Global Warming is not too realz!!11!!” or “There is no way that it is tru that athletes and teh gayz are the same thing on that graph he showd!!11!!” or “Laden never once gave proof that god does not exist, so why do I want to believe this evolution bunk???11??” and so on).

I characterize these comments to make the point that it is possible that the “Laden is full of shit” comment was actually political, or meta-political, and served as a way for this student to avoid accepting anthropogenic global warming or evolution or the fact that everybody is a little gay or some other outlandish thing I may or may not have said in class. But even if that is true, it is still an example of a phenomenon that is always disturbing, and happens here on the blogosphere now and then.

This is the phenomenon of people, often the young but sometimes just the ingenuous, characterizing an entire paradigm, or an entire person’s repertoire of thought, or an entire complex perspective, as totally wrong because one thing is found out to be wrong.

Let me explain what happened with the lions, which is kind of funny and very instructive. The reason I originally mentioned the break-away mane is because my grad school advisor, Irv DeVore, had mentioned this idea years earlier to me as something he had heard from a lion researcher he hat met in Tanzania a year or two earlier. The student, I’m pretty sure, was also taking Craig Packer’s class. Craig Packer is the world’s leading expert on African Lions. About six months after the above mentioned semester, Packer’s research team published a paper showing the link between testosterone levels and mane size and color. It seemed at the time that this link more than adequately explained the lion’s mane, and other explanations, while perhaps somewhat relevant, seemed much less important. I’m guessing (though I never asked him about this) that Craig was doing what everyone does: Mentioning the current research, stuff that is about to come out or that is in process, during class. For all I know, the lion expert with the break-away theory encountered by DeVore was Packer or one of his team. In fact, that is fairly likely. So it is all one big interconnected complex whole.

So, I didn’t know what had not been published yet, therefore I knew nothing. If I misspel a word, everything I say is wrong, or at least, highly questionable.

The belief that one wrong thing equals all is wrong is a known feature of student thinking in early development, from an educational perspective. Many students enter higher education simply wanting to know what is true or not true, so they can respond correctly to exam questions. Then, they encounter this problem where ‘truth’ and stuff is complex. The idea that an instructor would have something “wrong” and therefor has most stuff wrong is one of many similar totally stupid ideas that many students have at least a few times during the transition OUT of this early “just the facts, please” stage. As the students learn that there is complexity, a common response is to believe that instead of everything being simple and made of truths that one can learn, everything is complex and there are no truths anywhere. Some people get stuck in that modality and they enter the humanities. Others continue to develop and eventually understand that it is quite possible to have a sense of truth, to even accept immutability in some cases as long as one understands what that really means, and to have in some cases multiple alternative conflicting models of an important aspect of reality and understand that this complexity is not only how life works, but what makes live interesting. (Those that truly embrace this also usually develop an excellent sense of humor and also enter the humanities but in much smaller number.)

Everything I say in this essay is true except one thing.

Comments

  1. #1 Anon
    November 9, 2009

    “Everything I say in this essay is true except one thing.”

    Then why the hell should I believe any of it?

  2. #2 oldcola
    November 9, 2009

    Everything I say in this essay is true except one thing.

    Greg, I love your humor.
    Thank you for the whole post.

  3. #3 Alex
    November 9, 2009

    Was it the part where you spelled “its” wrong? Because I totally noticed that.

  4. #4 Jason Thibeault
    November 9, 2009

    If I misspel a word, everything I say is wrong, or at least, highly questionable.

    Now there’s a qutoe* I’ll have to pull out from time to time. Quote mining FTW!

  5. #5 The Science Pundit
    November 9, 2009

    Greg Laden is full of shit! Everyone knows that the lion’s mane can only be explained by an aquatic past.

  6. #6 Katharine
    November 9, 2009

    I vote we start an ironic ‘Greg Laden is full of shit’ meme, because Greg Laden is rarely full of shit. A bit uncareful sometimes, but rarely full of shit.

  7. #7 Jason Thibeault
    November 9, 2009

    Katharine: I’m in, if Greg can spell “ironic” correctly.

  8. #8 Yahzi
    November 9, 2009

    There is a similar corollary that the student may have simply misapplied:

    If you tell even one lie, then everything you say is a lie.

    This principle is not at all unreasonable. We can’t blame students for adhering to it. The only problem here is that your student couldn’t tell the difference between a mistake and a lie.

  9. #9 Stephanie Z
    November 9, 2009

    Yahzi, you’re oversimplifying. The theory about lions’ manes that Greg presented to the class may have been wrong, or not. It may have only been wrong in that it wasn’t the entire story, as he mentions in this post.

    However, if he presented it there the way he presented it here, there was no mistake in what he said. He presented it as a theory.

    Katharine and Jason, there’s no need to start a meme. All you need to do is treat everyone else who tries to say that as though those people are being ironic. And it shouldn’t be any less fun.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    November 9, 2009

    Yahzi, as you suggest, if a student things that a conflict between a minor point a professor makes and a major point a different professor makes who studies the issue at hand is a LIE … not just wrong, but a lie … then some readjustment in point of view is necessary on the part of the student.

    I understand that a lot of the kids these days are just sitting in their seats and shouting out “YOU LIE!!!” every now and then.

  11. #11 A
    November 9, 2009

    Indeed, if one is sufficiently mature, and has enough time, one should evaluate every proposition on its merits, based on available evidence, and independently (of the proposer). But often, one does not have the time to do so, and goes by trust in the institution, or individual, who proposed it. This trust is established by past history: How often was that institution right/wrong on important or less important propositions? Is there an obvious bias?–
    Perhaps one should recognize the ‘lion’s mane’ as a less important matter, and still believable in light of uncertain evidence, or innocent mistake (and the mane might have two functions, being practical in lion fights, and signaling testosterone levels to females). But still, especially in the public sphere, one should look at past predictions or statements. And given available time, that might be the only information easily available. For example, I’d like to see some tests for public pundits, to assess their believability, such as:
    – On economics: Did he/she predict the most recent (mortgage/real estate/CDO…) bubble? The ‘dot.com’ bubble? Or was he a ‘Dow 36,000′ booster?
    – On the middle east (and judgment in general): Did he/she enthusiastically support the invasion of Iraq? Or warn of difficulties there? Did he/she believe the obvious lies about Iraqi WMDs?
    – On health care reform: Did he/she talk about death panels? Or other things not actually in bill? Misled the public by focusing on irrelevant detail? (Rather than mentioning: – US spends ~twice as much per person, and has worse outcomes, millions not covered at all; – private insurance has 20+% overhead, government [Medicare etc] ~3%, – Recissions )
    – For science-related public matter: Does he/she refer to peer-reviewed literature, interview and quote presumably unbiased scientists? Or refer to lobbyists, industry shills?
    – And so on, invent your own (It is like that for scientific theories, where we ask: Does the theory predict most phenomena/ experimental results in its purview correctly? Does it lead to obvious contradictions to existing results?).
    I feel often insulted by the ‘Mainstream Media’ that they still offer us as pundits ‘serious people’ who were wrong about everything in the past, endorsed views and stated as facts things which now have become obviously wrong and misguided, while many of those making the right calls at the time are still ignored (Exception: Paul Krugman in the NYT).–
    Then there is another ill effect of the previous administration, explained by
    http://morialekafa.blogspot.com/2009/11/goebbels-is-passe.html
    “…if you tell constant lies about everything, all the time, truth simply becomes completely irrelevant… We have reached the point where the lies have become so commonplace and ubiquitous that no one has any idea of truth anymore…..The result of it is that nothing can be taken seriously as there is no truth.”
    (Read the whole post there.)

  12. #12 JGlenn
    November 9, 2009

    It is really, truly sad that attitude exists. One of the reasons that I read your blog is that periodically I will truly, adamantly disagree with you and think you are utterly wrong in your wrongy wronginess.

    Of course, after considering your arguments and doing a bit more research, I quite often find that, yes, there is a reason you have a well-read, respected blog and I am but a mutton-head.

    It is sad that more people can’t make similar discoveries. That they are wrong – not that I am. I’m pretty sure they’ve already discovered that.

  13. #13 BdN
    November 9, 2009

    This happens really too often. Or they think you know nothing about primate behavior because you can’t remember the exact date of Cebidae’s emergence mentioned in a text they had to read because it contains an explanation of Visual Predation Theory.

    Or they think you are an asshole because when they’re asked to explain what rB > C means, they don’t get all their points since they only put the variables in words without discussing the different implications.

    Or they think you are really thick and stupid because you refuse to give them more than half their points if the question is “can operant conditioning be considered an adaptation (in a darwinian sense)” and they answer “yes, of course, since the animal adapts it’s behavior to the environment”.

    So much fun!

  14. #14 JenW
    November 9, 2009

    I always love the criticisms that are highly specific, but would have been easily remedied by the student. Such as “I couldn’t go to her office hours, because she never told us where her office was.” Which was true…I hadn’t been assigned an office at the beginning of the semester. But really, student, you couldn’t figure out a way to find my office for a whole 18 weeks?

  15. #15 Rich Wilson
    November 9, 2009

    Back in the mid 90s I was a computer science TA. Our 2nd programming class was an Engineering requirement, and for some strange historical reason had a different name for the Engineering students. So CS students took CS 115 and Engineering students took CS 160. Same room. Same instructor. Same time. Same everything. Normally the reviews were simply grouped. Nobody ever thought to split them by Engineering vs. CS. A new person took over the data munging, and did split them. The results were just about mirror opposites. Whatever the CS students liked about the TA (my co-worker) the Engineers hated. Whatever the Engineers liked, the CS students hated. ‘Hate’ is probably too strong a word for the CS students. They were generally polite. The Engineering students were a lot more blunt.

  16. #16 Kapitano
    November 9, 2009

    Greg Laden is full of Hit. As usual.

    I’ve been through the university mill a few times, and I’d say about 40% of students never get beyond the “I just want to know the simple absolute truth” stage, 40% don’t get past “All teacher and all books are wrong”, and 10% stay stuck as “I already know more than everyone about everything” from the first day.

    Now I’ve somehow become a teacher, and it’s not easy accept that 9 out of 10 students are a complete waste of classroom space, because they don’t have – and most likely never will have – the emotional maturity to benefit from education.

    So what should I do? Only try to teach those who listen? Or try to make the others grow up? Most of my colleagues admit to the first approach.

  17. #17 David
    November 9, 2009

    Every professor has gotten personal attacks disguised as course evaluations. Professor Laden has the ability to see the larger issue here (as in so many cases).

  18. #18 Katherine
    November 9, 2009

    @Rich #15: If only we had had evaluation forms to fill in for tutors when I was at university. Some of them blatantly contradicted what the lecturer said, while claiming to have been in the lecture (Engineering, so there wasn’t much they could contradict and still both be “right” for a given value of right). But we only got to evaluate lecturers.

  19. #19 KBHC
    November 10, 2009

    Fantastic post Greg! I appreciate how you described scientific thought and the complexity of academic science.

  20. #20 Ryan
    November 10, 2009

    The nice thing about ad hominem attacks is that once they’re thrown, you pretty much know what kind of person you’re dealing with. I find they help me to focus my energies on useful debates.

  21. #21 Lynn
    November 10, 2009

    “If I misspel a word, everything I say is wrong.”

    And, isn’t misspell with two l’s?

  22. #22 Greg Laden
    November 10, 2009

    Yes. Therefore this sentence is wrong. Or should I say that sentence.

  23. #23 outeast
    November 10, 2009

    The criticisms may be fair – but equally they are uncharitable. It is not implausible that the student concerned simply mistook the value of the theory and the value of the myth as a shibboleth.

    There are things which any expert in his or her field may reasonably be expected to know; likewise, there are falsehoods and fallacies that are clear signifiers of ignorance. We all know this: in our own fields, I’m sure we could all think of giveaways that reaveal the articulate and seemingly well-informed pontificant as a bluffer who’s just read a couple of magazine articles. More: we recognize that knowledge is constantly being updated and that expertise does not last without continual education – and we know that there really are professors and experts who gain tenure or reputation and then fail to keep up with the changing state of knowledge.

    It is not implausible that this student understood the finding about lions’ manes* to be the kind of thing that anyone truly informed in the field would know – a shibboleth to distinguish the informed academic from the faker or laurel-rester. That’s an error in its own right, but a different (and in my opinion lesser) offence than ‘one thing wrong, ergo all things wrong.’

    *It’s evident, too, that this student had been led to believe that this was irrefulable fact rather than well-supported theory. I am reminded of the debate over the Whippo clade: I have read sources that present that as done-and-dusted, with only uninformed ignoramuses who have failed to keep up with developments in genetics denying the clade – but I’ve also read highly considered and informed challenges to the hypothesis based on anatomy. Someone reading the former sorts of sources alone might readily end up seeing any dispute of the Whippo Clade hypothesis as a shibboleth in just this way.

  24. #24 Greg Laden
    November 10, 2009

    There are things which any expert in his or her field may reasonably be expected to know; likewise, there are falsehoods and fallacies that are clear signifiers of ignorance.

    This is not evidence of an unfair criticism. A freshman in a “science for people who hate science” 1000 level class is unqualified to make that estimate.

    It’s evident, too, that this student had been led to believe that this was irrefulable fact rather than well-supported theory.

    WARNING (the term “led to believe” has been used. this is usually a sign”)

    Which part of “there are a lot of different hypotheses out there about what this mane is for …” leads you to believe” that… Oh never mind. nothing of the sort is evident. You just like using the word “evident.”

  25. #25 outeast
    November 10, 2009

    I didn’t say it was unfair criticism, merely that it was uncharitable – in the sense that a somewhat less damning interpretation is possible (not ‘more likely'; just possible). I also explicitly said that even the more charitable interpretation would be in error – as you say, a student would not be in a position to make that call. But it would be a different error: an overestimate of competence and consequent failure to recognize a lack of qualification to make such a judgement call, rather than a major syllogistic fallacy.

    (Parenthetically, you might disagree over which error would be the greater or lesser offence; I think such a fundamental failure of logic would suggest near-uneducability, whereas it is possible to learn of the limits of one’s competence and correct accordingly – if I remember my kruger and dunning correctly.)

    As to ‘it is evident’… You paraphrased the student as saying ‘my other professor who is an expert on lions told us that this is an old idea that is no longer true’ (etc.). This sounds pretty clearly like the student believed he had been told this as a fact beyond doubt. (And what do you mean by “‘led to believe’ is usually a sign”? Of what? All I meant is that whatever the other professor said had made this student believe that lion’s mane had been unambiguously explained. At least from your paraphrase.)

    Oh, and I wasn’t saying anything about the lions’ mane theories at all – I’m not qualified to comment. I was going to note in passing that the the two hypotheses are far from mutually incompatible anyway, but thought it OT.

    But whatever. Sorry to have rubbed you up the wrong way.

  26. #26 Greg Laden
    November 10, 2009

    in the sense that a somewhat less damning interpretation is possible (not ‘more likely'; just possible).

    I don’t consider it charitable to not engage studentdom in a conversation about how they might advance the ways they approach learning. And, no, that interpretation is really not possible. You can take it from a guy who was there.

    This sounds pretty clearly like the student believed he had been told this as a fact beyond doubt. ( Ah, right, I had misunderstood your point. Got it… Yes, that’s almost certainly true.

  27. #27 Thomas Leahey
    November 10, 2009

    A small point: The one lie = everything you say is wrong is true at law, too, where catching witness in one lie can be used to impugn his or her whole testimony.

  28. #28 daedalus2u
    November 10, 2009

    High testosterone causes hair growth in human too, men and women. Testosterone is regulated by nitric oxide with low NO causing high testosterone. The increase hair then expands the niche where the bacteria I am working with live, which increases the NO levels and decrease testosterone.

    The problem with the hypothesis that lion manes signaling testosterone levels to females is that it is my understanding that females will fight to protect the old male from the new male, even when the new male seems superior. This is explained because the new male will kill the kittens of the old male, which is why the females protect the old male. They are actually protecting their kittens.

    Very high stress causes low NO which causes high testosterone (in males and females). In females high testosterone increases libido. I suspect that Stockholm syndrome is analogous to what happens in female lions following the stress of their kittens being killed.

  29. #29 Omega Centauri
    November 10, 2009

    There is some truth that tell a lie (or more likely you just weren’t completely up to date on some arcana and thought you were on safe ground), does reflect negatively upon one’s intellectual rigour. Of course we be asking for an inhuman level of perfection to expect that everything said has to be correct -or else your credibility is zero. But, people who tell repeated and obviously refuted falsehoods multiple times, do deserve to have their credibilty set to zero. The problem in our political discussion is that the press no longer dares to carry out that later form of this function, and habitual liars get to be interviewd as if they have real credibility.

  30. #30 Greg Laden
    November 10, 2009

    Omega: Thanks for suggesting that maybe I wasn’t telling lies!

    As I said in the post, I was unaware of research results that had not yet been released to the scientific community. Jeesh..

    And yes, I personally think everyone in the press should have shock devices attached to delicate tissues and a board of scientists observes and preses green vs. red buttons as they carry out their jobs in full view.

  31. #31 Pascale
    November 10, 2009

    I feel much better about my last set of student evaluations.
    And just a reminder that testosterone causes hair loss in human male pattern baldness. So you just never know…

  32. #32 Greg Laden
    November 10, 2009

    Pascale, either way, it is a signal of unbelievable virility.

  33. #33 Tina St. Sebastian
    November 10, 2009

    I use this rule when picking travel guides. I look up the chapter (or book or page or article) on Iceland and see how well researched and written that is.

    This also applies to trivia books. If you really think Domino’s in Iceland has reindeer sausage as a topping or that the Blue Lagoon is a “natural wonder”, or that (please stop, I’m begging you) Icelanders all believe in elves, I’m going to take everything else you say with a heapin’ teaspoon of salt. Also, I’ve got some northern lights to sell you.

  34. #34 ecologist
    November 11, 2009

    There is a bright side to be looked upon. Remember how much time it takes to grade exams and homework problems? Correction: how much time it *used to* take. Now that you have the “you said one thing wrong, so everything else you said is also wrong” policy, you only need to grade until you find the first incorrect statement, mark a big 0 on the exam, and proceed to the next one. Announcing this to the class, after reading this evaluation, should do the trick.

  35. #35 Greg Laden
    November 11, 2009

    how much time it *used to* take. Now that you have the “you said one thing wrong, so everything else you said is also wrong” policy, you only need to grade until you find the first incorrect statement, mark a big 0 on the exam, and proceed to the next one

    Brilliant!!!!

  36. #36 ecologist
    November 11, 2009

    There is a bright side to be looked upon. Remember how much time it takes to grade exams and homework problems? Correction: how much time it *used to* take. Now that you have the “you said one thing wrong, so everything else you said is also wrong” policy, you only need to grade until you find the first incorrect statement, mark a big 0 on the exam, and proceed to the next one. Announcing this to the class, after reading this evaluation, should do the trick.

  37. #37 Gray Gaffer
    November 11, 2009

    Not only students. I hypothesize the “1 wrong == everything wrong” is a root of fundamentalist religious thinking too. (so do many others, including you, Greg, IIRC). Which probably puts it somewhere around the base state of human development in general, maybe as an aid in childhood learning, but one to be superseded later in life as its utility degrades. Or not, since it is apparently a pretty good indoctrination tool for *-ist thinking (there are many values of ‘*’, the(ist) being only one; I have a deep mistrust of any generalizations that result in adjectives or nouns ending in -ist or -ism, as they apparently universally denote rigid thinking).

    But, to continue a theme, since the blog contains typos (e.g. “what makes live interesting.”), we have to assume Greg does not know how to spell and can therefore confidently assume all his words are w0rng. Which means I must also be as ignorant, since I spell quite like he does. Grammar, not so much.

  38. #38 Lab Rat
    November 11, 2009

    Would just like to quickly point out that the whole “more interested in the right answer than an exploration of the answer” is not just due to intellectual immaturity. it’s due to the way we’re taught. I’ve been taking exams twice a year since I was ten years old(and thats only because I was lucky to be in a school that *diidn’t* examine before ten) and most of the school year seemed to be taken up with preparing us with answers for these exams.

    I remember one teacher who was explaining peptide bonds, and he did this whole ‘exploratory’ thing asking us how different potential bonds could work. And I started getting really, really frustrated with the guy in a kind of: “For goodness sake you know the answer, just tell us so we can move on! There’s too much to remember already!” way. I know what he was trying to do, and I did kind of appreciate it, but the system I was working through simply didn’t allow for that kind of learning. I needed a bunch of correct facts to stuff my brain with to get me through the exams, and hearing random hypothesis, unfortunately, wasn’t going to help with that.

    You get very used to putting things into very clear and distinct boxes: correct/factual/need-to-know-for-exams and incorrect/untrue/no-time-sorry. I think when he found out about the uncertain-lion-fact the student might have just automatically dumped you wholesale in the wrong box.

  39. #39 bala
    November 12, 2009

    Thx greg, i should say that i had similar feelings like one goes wrong everything goes wrong, but this post has provided that thats not the case. many thx.

  40. #40 tm
    March 25, 2010

    There is a similar corollary that the student may have simply misapplied:
    If you tell even one lie, then everything you say is a lie.
    This principle is not at all unreasonable.

    and

    A small point: The one lie = everything you say is wrong is true at law, too, where catching witness in one lie can be used to impugn his or her whole testimony.

    Sigh. The principle is that one lie puts everything you say in doubt, not that everything you say is a lie or even wrong.