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Applying the story circle to academic writing

Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we’d naturally do.

I’m a big fan of the work of Dan Harmon, writer of amazing tv shows like Community and Rick & Morty, and I’ve often heard him talk on his podcast (‘Harmontown’) about his ‘story circle’: a pattern to which most good stories conform.

The REAL structure of any good story is simply circular – a descent into the unknown and eventual return – and that any specific descriptions of that process are specific to you and your story.

The structure itself is pretty simple: a circle, divided and numbered as below, with each number representing a step on our journey.

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  1. When you
  2. have a need,
  3. you go somewhere,
  4. search for it,
  5. find it,
  6. take it,
  7. then return
  8. and change things.


It got me thinking about whether research papers fit this kind of pattern, whether they should, and also whether thinking about such a pattern when developing our papers would help structure them better.

“But my paper is about SERIOUS RESEARCH,” you might say. That may be so, but don’t you want your readers to also enjoy reading about it? If your paper isn’t compelling, then will it even leave a lasting impression?

I’ve taken most of this from Harmon’s notes on the Channel 101 page on story structure, and it’s worth going through that to see some more examples of how some of our favourite movies (ok, he mostly focuses on Die Hard) fit the pattern.

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Let’s go through the steps, and see how this structure might relate to the typical academic paper.

1. Establish a protagonist

Who is the protagonist in a research paper? This is – on the face of it – a tricky question, particularly as we are often taught to write in a weird passive (third-person?) voice, resulting in bizarrely disjointed sentences. The crusade against such an impersonal style includes things like the ‘by zombies’ meme, but still some people push it for reasons like ‘the focus should be on the results’, or ‘science should be impartial’. I agree, in that your research should not be carried out with an agenda. But you came up with the question, you designed the experiment, you carried it out, and you are presenting and interpreting the results. You are taking the reader on a journey with you. Don’t write yourself out of it.

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In fact, the context of a research paper means your reader instinctively knows who the protagonist is: a scientist, pluckily trying to advance their field. You don’t need to flesh it out any more than that. But you do have to establish the ‘zone of comfort’: the current state of research in your field. By bringing others into your zone at the beginning of the story, this is how your reader identifies with you.

2. Something ain’t quite right

Things aren’t perfect. They could be better.

Science in a nutshell. We could always understand things better than we currently do. Your job here is to show the reader what’s missing, what the gap in your knowledge is. This is your call to adventure.

3. Crossing the threshold

You are now entering an unfamiliar situation, because that’s what science is about: driving into uncharted territory, in search of something more. Harmon says here to figure out what your ‘movie poster’ is; that maybe doesn’t work as an analogy for scientists, as we have a tendency to front-load presentations of our research with the results. The threshold we are crossing here is between defining our knowledge gap, and attempting to rectify that gap with further research. Our movie poster is not the results, but the question.

4. The road of trials

Is there a more fitting descriptor for a methods section? Harmon talks here of how, in ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’, Joseph Campbell “evokes the image of a digestive tract, breaking the hero down, divesting him of neuroses, stripping him of fear and desire”. You’ve crossed the threshold, the adventure has begun; “our protagonist has been thrown into the water and now it’s sink or swim”.

Your reader needs to know the tools with which you are going to approach your call to adventure, and they need to know this as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The purpose here has become refreshingly – and frighteningly – simple.

5. Meeting with the goddess

This is a time for major revelations, and total vulnerability

…In other words, the results of your research. What did you find? Don’t be afraid to say, we found nothing – particularly if your trials were designed well enough that you can say that conclusively.

To paraphrase Harmon’s words here: we started from a position of safety and comfort (1), but a lack of completion (2) drew us to a question (3) and we were pulled across a threshold into the unknown. Via our experiment, our understanding was transformed (4) by gaining this new, hitherto-unknown knowledge (5). Show it with a definable moment, advises Harmon. Clear, understandable figures and tables bring the reader with you in these revelations.

On the circle, this is the opposite of the protagonist’s zone of comfort; movement beyond this point requires you to push forward. Figuring out the question, and performing the experiment, was almost the easy part compared to what comes next…


6. Meet your maker

This half of the circle has its own road of trials – the road back up. The one down prepares you for the bed of the goddess and the one up prepares you to rejoin the ordinary world.

I like the description Harmon gives in a later page:

The hardest part (both for the characters and for anyone trying to describe it). On one hand, the price of the journey. The shark eats the boat. Jesus is crucified. The nice old man has a stroke. On the other hand, a goal achieved that we never even knew we had. The shark now has an oxygen tank in his mouth. Jesus is dead- oh, I get it, flesh doesn’t matter. The nice old man had a stroke, but before he died, he wanted you to take this belt buckle. Now go win that rodeo.

With the results in hand, you now have to do the hardest part: interpret what they mean. The ‘heavy price’ we pay as scientists is that sometimes we don’t find what we expect, and things are often messy, and complicated, and hard, and we have to think about them a lot. Again, look at the opposite side of the circle, which was the call to adventure (2). You identified a knowledge gap, and now you need to consider what your results mean in that context – and bring your readers with you.

Now, instead of reacting to the forces of the current state of research – “adapting, changing, seeking” – you have BECOME the current state of research. You are the cutting edge.

You have become that which makes things happen. You have become a living God.

(So I guess this is about where you start fantasising about submitting to Nature)

7. Bringing it home

It’s not a journey if you never come back.

The return to the familiar situation – we can now come back to the beginning of the story, the state of research as we left it, armed with the new knowledge gleaned on our journey.

8. Master of both worlds

The protagonist, on whatever scale, is now a world-altering ninja. They have been to the strange place, they have adapted to it, they have discovered true power and now they are back where they started, forever changed and forever capable of creating change. In a love story, they are able to love. In a Kung Fu story, they’re able to Kung all of the Fu. In a slasher film, they can now slash the slasher.

…And in a science paper, you can now science the science. How are you capable of all this? Because of what happened before – just look at the opposite side of the circle. The opposite of (8) is (4), the road of trials. You did a science, and now you can science some more. Show your reader what you’ve done. The state of research in your field is forever changed, because of your journey. A hero’s journey.


To finish, Harmon provides an example of breaking down the structure using The Matrix: the story of an everyday guy (1) that gets a weird call (2) and, upon following it, realizes that reality was an illusion (3). He learns the ropes (4), talks to the oracle (5), loses his mentor (6), goes back (7) and saves the fucking day (8). Can we apply this kind of structure to our favourite science papers?

Andersson (1982) Nature

Malte Andersson believed Darwin’s hypothesis about the evolution of male sexual ornaments through female preferences was plausible (1), but saw little experimental evidence that such preferences exist (2). Would experimental increase of ornaments confer higher mating success (3)? He manipulated widowbird tail length (4), found males with elongated tails won more mates than those with shortened or ‘control’ tails (5), and excluded other variables to conclude that changes in tail length caused the differences in attraction (6). His results supported Darwin’s hypothesis that certain male ornaments are favoured by female mate choice (7), and probably evolved through it (8).

Not as snappy as the Matrix, sure – but Andersson’s journey changed the idea of sexual selection as ‘plausible with no great evidence’ to ‘plausible with some solid evidence’. A basis for further journeys. For more heroes to come.

Will knowing this structure make you a great writer? No. To return to a quote from earlier:

The REAL structure of any good story is simply circular – a descent into the unknown and eventual return – and that any specific descriptions of that process are specific to you and your story.

You still need a story to tell. But this might just help you figure out how to tell it.



Quotes all taken from Harmon’s ‘Story Structure‘ posts on the Channel 101 wiki.


Update: Through the delights of twitter, I just found that Ian Lunt has a video online of a talk he gave on using this approach for science communication, called ‘Shaping stories to save the world‘. I highly recommend watching this, particularly as Ian discusses the difference between the circle and the ‘hourglass’ approach to telling a story. It comes to mind that the story circle may be better suited to seminars and popular writing than it is to research papers – something to think more about, anyway…


Interview on the Career 100 podcast

I was interviewed recently for an episode of the Career 100 podcast, part of the College Funding Resource. The podcast is aimed at people trying to decide on a college course, and introduces them to various different careers. I was given the task of covering ‘biologist’, which – as you are probably aware – is a bit of a catch-all term that is difficult to negotiate in a half-hour interview! Hopefully I managed to make clear the breadth of different careers within the domain of biology, while making it clear I can only really advocate for the evolutionary sphere (and I feel like I’m only occupying a very tiny niche within that anyway!).

Anyway – it was a very fun interview to do, and if you want to hear me rambling at greater length than I get to do on Breaking Bio (although let’s face it, that is definitely for the best), you can find it here.

Plus I even got my own fancy little podcast cover art!



Web miscellany, 01/12/13

Lab website


After much prompting and haranguing from yours truly, my supervisor has finally given in and set up a website. This means that the lab now has some online presence that isn’t just me going on about insect humping. The site is in its infancy just now, but head on over to to read about our research and various activities (most of which seem to involve going to the pub, but maybe this is a good way to attract future lab members?!). One of our latest ventures is to cover relevant classic papers in lab meetings (which are held in the pub, because SCOTLAND), then write up summaries for the website – if you’re interested in sexual selection and life history evolution, it might well be worth keeping an eye on that…

Breaking Bio


Breaking Bio, the podcast that I co-host with a bunch of other similarly misguided fools, now has a Facebook page! You can ‘like’ us on there to keep up to date with new episodes and other fun stuff, or you can just follow us on Twitter if ‘liking’ implies a preference that you may not have. I’m trying to get stuck into the signalling reliability literature, so don’t make this harder for me.

Speaking of the podcast, we recently achieved the milestone of our 50th episode, and managed to attract a pretty incredible guest to come and speak to us: award-winning author and science journalist, David Quammen! We recorded a special double-length episode, which I’ll pretend was what we meant to do and not just that we forgot to check the time because David is super-interesting and incredibly nice. He is a delight. You can get the podcast on iTunes, or watch these episodes embedded below:

What the fox says

Since hearing the awesome ‘What Does the Fox Say?’ track by Ylvis, I have been planning to make time to investigate the literature and write a post on communication in Vulpes vulpes. Of course, having a thesis to write has got in the way a little, so I was relieved to find that the folks over at Popular Science are on it.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you should probably watch this:

Bizarre social media list

For some reason, my Google+ page has been featured on the ‘99 Google+ pages every PhD candidate should follow‘ list, compiled by I very rarely post anything there, mainly due to the fact that it was another thing to take care of and resulted in pretty much no links to my blog ever. Now I feel like I should post stuff to it. I don’t know. It’s weird.

I will celebrate with the very topical ‘Plus Ones’ by Okkervil River:

I have new pets

First up is our new Extatosoma tiaratum stick insect, named Lieutenant Commander CHOMP!


I also just came into possession of four Creobroter gemmatus mantis nymphs, which are making short work of my Drosophila supplies…


In other animal-photo news, I think I’ve pretty much completed my Borneo collection! Have a look at them here, and feel free to ID anything (especially insects / spiders) in the comments…

I have had a moustache


I should probably mention that this wasn’t just for making Freddie Mercury lookalike photos, but for Movember (raising money for research into and awareness of men’s health problems, including prostate and testicular cancer). Our moustachioed team at Stirling Uni raised over £400 through sponsorship and manly things like bake sales.

How to survive soul-crushingly long experiments

tub (Medium)

It has been quite some time since I posted anything on my blog, but rather than providing a long whinge about why this is so (and because ‘I’ve been busy’ doesn’t really cut it at any stage once you’ve decided to plough into the academic lifestyle), I thought I would use the experience of the last couple of months to give some handy hints to other students on a topic I have good experience of: surviving long, complicated, tedious, lonely lab experiments. As in, 8-13 hours per day, every single day of the week, for several months, in a small room by yourself, kind of experiments. The real glamour of PhD life.

1) Let yourself go

Me in my dungeon
Me in my dungeon

Because nothing tells your colleagues that you’re working hard like a terrible beard (not sure what the female equivalent is, I’m afraid), and the red eyes that indicate a person running on caffeine fumes. Over the last couple of months, I’ve lost over 6kg accidentally, purely from being too busy to eat lunch. Not that I’m asking for sympathy, because I’d got a bit fat beforehand – this just means I don’t have to start running again. SCORE.

2) Give your ears a treat

Your hands and eyes may be focused on some monotonous task – like, say, putting tiny food dishes into many boxes which each hold a single insect, just as an example I made up for no reason at all – but your ears are still free to feast upon the glorious smorgasbord that is the collected works of human endeavour (or something). You can raid iTunes U for lecture series, catch up on your favourite podcasts (and a bunch that you don’t really like, but you’re so tired that you can’t bring yourself to search for better ones), or – and this has revolutionised my recent listening – sign up for an Audible audiobook account. If you’re going to be stuck in a lab by yourself for hours on end, you can even get through audiobooks that you would otherwise baulk at, which is how I managed to power through all 57 glorious hours of the unabridged version of David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’.

Podcasts I like:
Little Atoms (be sure to get the ‘Little Atoms Road Trip’ podcasts as well)
Quirks & Quarks
The Life Scientific
Breaking Bio (*cough*)

Audiobooks I enjoyed:
‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace
‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ by Richard Dawkins
‘Snow Crash’ by Neal Stephenson
‘Life on Air’ by David Attenborough
‘The Human Stain’ by Philip Roth
…also, ‘How to be a Woman’ by Caitlin Moran, although this is not necessarily the wisest choice when spending many hours in the dark, by yourself, and feeling a bit confused about everything in general.

3) Take your birding when you can get it

Birds are great, and if you don’t think so then YOU ARE DEAD INSIDE. I filmed this from the lab window, having spotted this dust-up on a short break from my sealed-off dungeon to weigh a bunch of crickets (the only lab scales are upstairs). I really need to thank the guys in the BTO office down the hall for having put a bird feeder outside…

4) Walk to work

This enables you to get the bare minimum of sunlight and fresh air that you probably need, and also stops your muscles from completely atrophying. Hopefully.

It also helps if your ‘commute’ looks like mine.

Just some hares and some deer hanging out in front of the Ochils. No big deal.
Just some hares and some deer hanging out in front of the Ochils. No big deal.

5) Take your animal behaviour when you can get it

We all like watching animals do stuff, right?

Even if you’re restricted to just watching your study organism over and over again, it still counts.

6) Pretend everything is fine

I don’t want to get all ‘the power of positive thinking’ or any bullcrap like that, but there’s a lot to be said for just deciding not to be in a huff when you get home from 13 hours slogging away in the lab and not having spoken to anyone all day. If you have a partner, they’ll certainly thank you for it. Or at least be less likely to break up with you because you are being massively insufferable.

7) Arrange something at the end to look forward to

I’m getting married, but maybe you don’t want to plan for that every time you start designing a long experiment. We are then going to Borneo for three weeks as well. You probably can’t plan for that either, but at this point, I don’t care about you. I don’t care about any of you. I just care about MY DATA.


Oh, and try not to think about the fact that you’ll probably spend the next 6 months trying to do statistical analysis and work out what any of it means. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAWHYYYYYYYY

My dirty mammal secret

Anyone who knows me, or follows me on twitter, will be aware that I continue to fight a losing battle against the mainstream and its hideous mammal bias. The joy I felt when I found a twitter account named ‘Mammals Suck‘! The despair when it turned out to be a pun, because the person running it is Harvard assistant professor Katie Hinde, who studies MILK. She’s the worst*.

But I have a secret weakness, and that weakness is for otters. Now there is an otter living in the river outside my flat.

Just look at this guy.

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Enjoying a little swim in the snow.

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After it bounded past the tree, it just rolled about in the snow for a while, having an awesome time.

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At least I have a trump card to play when it comes time to put the flat on the market…


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Let us never speak of this again.

*Of course, Katie is actually awesome. Just check out this video of her ‘Harvard Thinks Big’ talk.

Goodbye to #stabbycockdagger

Stabbycockdagger is BACK, but in a new location! Go here:


Due to reasons too numerous and boring to go into, I had deleted this post, but now I have decided that I don’t care about those reasons, so the post is back. But somewhere else. You should go and read it. But maybe you want to read something else instead? Or AS WELL? Why not try this post on beetle sex: ‘horny decisions, sneaky f**kers, and the importance of balls‘?

If you’re set on some other stabbycockdagger action, then head on over to the Breaking Bio website to find some of our podcasts…  Episode 10 features Nik Tatarnic talking about traumatic insemination in plant bugs, while Episode 11 is an interview with Prof Mike Siva-Jothy, whose research involves work on some very stabby bedbugs. You can also get the Breaking Bio podcasts on iTunes.

How sexual conflict can drive the elaboration of a sexually dimorphic trait

Every so often, a scientific paper comes along that really ticks all the boxes: the science is exciting, the methods innovative, the outcome tells you something new, and it comes together to make a great story. The latest research from Locke Rowe’s lab at the University of Toronto, Canada, is one such paper. I’m a big admirer of Rowe’s work – his 1996 paper with David Houle on the ‘genic capture’ model is a great bit of theory which provides a conceptual solution to a very thorny problem, while his book on sexual conflict (with Goran Arnqvist) is a thorough examination of the subject, and is packed with enough examples of weird mating systems that I really have no excuse for being so rubbish at updating my other website. Oh, and Rowe made me explain my poster to him at the European Society for Evolutionary Biology conference in Tuebingen last year while he drank a beer and pretty much just laughed at my nervous, sweaty mumblings. So, in all: great guy.

The paper in question furthers Rowe’s research into sexual conflict, which is the idea that males and females of a single species can have conflicting strategies when it comes to optimising fitness. The most obvious example of sexual conflict in action is mating rate. Females often need to mate only once to fertilise eggs (in insects, females can often store sperm away for future fertilisation); not only do additional matings bring no fitness benefits, but they can actually have detrimental effects on the immune system. By way of contrast, males should gain fitness with each mating, as it should fertilise more eggs (and thus produce more offspring). Anyone with a passing interest in reading science blogs is likely to be aware of the kind of morphological terror that can occur when there’s conflict over the frequency of reproduction: that’s right, it’s time to link to Ed Yong’s seminal (hah) duck-genitalia article. Again.

This time, we’re taking a closer look at the murky world of those poster children for sexual conflict: water striders. Females don’t just resist their suitors due to the usual costs of mating; there is an additional reason for their vigorous struggles. Because males try to mount females atop the surface of the water, the female in particular is susceptible to death from below – a situation that has led to something of an evolutionary ‘arms race’ in terms of morphology and tactics in water striders as each sex aims for a fitness advantage.

Image by Chang S Han. Read Han’s paper with Piotr Jablonski – or just watch the video – about males intimidating females into sex by attracting the attention of predators here. Alternatively, check out the feature in Nature!Sex!TopTips!

The Rheumatobates genus of water striders is known for strange structural modifications in males, used as ‘graspers’ in order to overcome the vigorous resistance they come up against in females. This female resistance is so strong that only around 12% of mating attempts by males are actually successful, indicating just how much of a force sexual conflict is in this species. In this paper, Rowe and colleagues Abderrahman Khila and Ehab Abouheif were studying a particular species named Rheumatobates rileyi, in which the antennae of males are curious and elaborate structures. Through the use of high-speed video, flash-freezing mating pairs, and scanning electron microscopy, they were able to show that there are four composite traits in these antennae, perfectly adapted to grasp the female head. Just in case that passed you by: mating pairs of water striders were lobbed unceremoniously into liquid nitrogen in order to study exactly how these male graspers fit to female heads. Science is AWESOME. This was the first piece of the puzzle: to find some evidence suggesting that the structures are driven by sexual conflict, and that they are not simply for general grasping use by males (hint: look at the picture below).

A: close-up of male head
B: super-intense-close-up of the hook
C,D: female’s head, colour-coded to match where male grasping traits ‘lock’ in
E,F: male antennae grasping female head (two different positions)

Using superfancypants transcriptome sequencing technology, they determined that the gene ‘distal-less’ (dll) was responsible for causing males to develop all four grasping traits on their antennae. While dll is expressed in both male and female antennae, it has no such effect in females. By using a technique called RNA interference (RNAi) to disrupt the expression of this dll gene, they produced male water striders which had varying expression of these traits, from “complete loss to a subtle reduction”. They then put these males to work in trying to mate with normal females.

The results are clear to see: just as the antennal grasping traits are reduced, so follows the mating success. RNAi males with no difference from ‘wild type’ had similar success to the average water strider; those with mild reduction in grasping traits failed significantly more, and those with moderate reductions failed on more occasions (and more quickly) than that. These ‘moderate’ RNAi males failed so quickly because their antennae failed to keep hold of the female’s head during the initial flip.

Taken together, this shows how the elaboration of the antennae in one sex of a species has arisen: the conflict between male and female fitness ‘strategies’, the fitness advantage which drives the need for grasping traits, and the genetic basis underlying the antennal elaboration. As the authors conclude, the graded effect of dll RNAi and the corresponding consequences show that even slight modifications to an unmodified ancestral state (like the female antennae) should result in higher mating success, and thus higher fitness. As such elaborate graspers are found in multiple species within this genus, there is a good possibility that variation in the expression and function of the dll gene, combined with sexually antagonistic behaviour, underlies this diversity.

Read the full paper here:

Abderrahman Khila, Ehab Abouheif, Locke Rowe (2012) Function, Developmental Genetics, and Fitness Consequences of a Sexually Antagonistic Trait. Science 336, 585

Image 1 copyright Chang S Han
Image 2 copyright Science magazine
Image 3 copyright Science magazine; modified by me (that’s right, they didn’t actually publish it like that)

An honourable rejection

I have been rooting around in my dad’s old stuff recently, trying to come up with anything I can use for the presentation which I shall be giving (alongside my younger brother) at his retirement party. This is one such gem – I don’t suppose everyone hangs onto all the rejection letters they received when applying for a PhD position, but then not all such responses measure up to this one…


If you don’t know who Francis Crick is, then just shut up (and read this).

Confusingly, although my dad retired from the University of Glasgow, he now seems to have at least three jobs. I’m just hoping I don’t have to give a speech for him every time he retires from one of those.

Oh, and having put this out on twitter earlier, I had some responses which showed that my father is not the only one to have engaged in a short collaboration with Prof Crick….   if there are any more such tales out there, send them my way!

Parasite fever


For anyone interested in weird parasites (which should be EVERYONE, but definitely includes me), Mo Costandi has a great piece on the Guardian website’s science section on new research into the Cordyceps fungi:

Zombie-ant parasitic fungus kept in check by hyperparasitic fungus

Well worth a read, especially if you enjoy scientists reeling off lines like “the high density of zombie-ant cadavers in the graveyard”. Also, Cordyceps is everyone’s favourite zombie-ant parasitic fungus, right?

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I took the picture at the beginning of this post just the other day…   after a girl in my office invited me over to watch those tiny white maggots burrowing their way out of that bee. It was AWESOME.

Because I’m super-pumped about it and it’s kind of tenuously linked as it seems like there’s some kind of weird alien parasite crap going on, here’s the trailer for Prometheus. I AM SO EXCITED.

This film is to be directed by Ridley Scott, and set in the same ‘universe’ as his original Alien film. On this topic, I was really interested to read the letter that James Cameron wrote to critics of his sequel to that movie (Aliens), especially his consideration of entomology and parasitism when constructing the aliens’ lifecycle. I suppose it isn’t too surprising given his recent trip to the Mariana trench, but very nice to see someone in that industry displaying a love of and interest in science…

Creationism in Tennessee

A display of a series of skeletons showing the evolution of humans at the Peabody Museum, New Haven, Conn., circa 1935. Hulton Archive / Getty Images file

Anyone with an interest in the teaching of evolution will no doubt have noticed the news this month from Tennessee, where a creationism bill (let’s call it what it is) was allowed to pass into law by Governor Bill Haslam. The reaction to this has been as incredulous as you might imagine, especially given the history of this conflict in Tennessee. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) campaigns tirelessly against such attempts, and their Director of Outreach has penned a good overview of recent events in the Huffington Post, which is well worth a read. He also does a good job of explaining why the seemingly innocuous language – which will be no surprise to anyone acquainted with the ‘wedge strategy‘ – presents such a problem for science educators (or, of course, a boon for those who wish to teach religious doctrine in place of science).

Dr Peter Hess on the Tennessee creationism bill:

Creationism and Monkey Business in Tennessee