Archive for Monday, April 24, 1995


April 24, 1995


Nature and the trial of the century come together on Earth Day.

You would expect to hear talks about prairie wildflowers and bison behavior at the Prairie States Ecology Conclave on Earth Day.

But sure enough, someone had to bring up O.J.

Even while the nation struggled to absorb the meaning of last week's terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City, O.J. permeates the collective mood, even among biologists.

The ecology gathering, held this past weekend at Prairie State Park, north of Mindenmines, Mo., just east of Pittsburg, Kan., was a two-day meeting for Midwest scientists who perform ecological research.

A number of them made short presentations about their work, such as Rick Williams of Nebraska Wesleyan University, who gave a talk titled, "Gender variation among gynodioecious Geranium richardsonii populations in Colorado."

Brock McMillan, a graduate student at Kansas State University, talked about his studies of white-footed mice in the Flint Hills; Sara Taliaferro, a graduate student at Kansas University, talked about genetic variations in populations of a smut fungus.

Another KU graduate student, Joy Jobe, talked about an insect that can rapidly adapt to pollution.

And my wife, Jenny, also a KU graduate student, spoke about her study of a tree disease's influence on the diversity and structure of old-growth forests in Oregon.

The presentations were technical. A writerly type like me could follow some of them, with occasional snoozes in the darkened meeting room. I wasn't alone. A number of the scientists also napped.

The setting was appropriate: a state park with a remnant patch of native prairie, a small bison herd and an even smaller elk herd. Spring rains didn't thwart walks through the prairie Saturday afternoon.

Norm Slade, a KU professor of systematics and ecology, was the group's "distinguished after-dinner speaker" following a Saturday night "banquet" of fried chicken.

He came with slides and a talk about his life's work on cotton rats.

But he also brought a different set of slides, and he gave the audience of mostly serious research ecologists a choice: cotton rats, or O.J.

They voted for O.J.

For those of you who have forgotten, O.J. is O.J. Simpson, the former football star and national hero accused of murdering his ex-wife and another man. Geologists believe the trial started some time in the Cretaceous period. It is still under way in Los Angeles.

The case doesn't hinge on cotton rats, but it may well boil down to debate about blood tests that will link the defendant to the crimes through DNA, the genetic blueprint for all living things.

Slade talked about the probability of guilt or innocence based on DNA evidence.

I can't tell you any more, mostly because I didn't understand it. For the scientists at the meeting the O.J. talk proved somewhat more serious than they may have expected, with a lesson about assessing the design of experiments.

I took home this message from my Earth Day outing: We can all rest assured that the O.J. jury includes enough mathematicians and statistical experts to sort out the formulas required to assess the validity of DNA tests.

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