Friday, February 29, 2008
Anyway, the 81st edition of the Skeptics' Circle is out at Conspiracy Factory. Contributions to check out: Rebecca at Skepchick making fun of Oprah; Archaeoporn reflecting on the moral dilemmas of ethnomedicine (which has some bearing on traditional medicine in South Africa); Podblack Cat's terrific, challenging, thoughtful post on strategies for skepticism; and 3QuarksDaily's guest piece by John Allen Paulo.
Update: part 2 and part 3 of Podblack Cat's "Strategies for Skepticism".
A pompous, bigoted, self serving, atheist political tirade with nothing new to add to the debate, save a sophomoric level of inept 'scholarship' in service of a transparent sham of propaganda and sophistry. In his sad excuse for recycling the propaganda of the radical leftist / gender feminist / homosex lobby, malignantly narcissistic pseudo-pundit David Smith spends far more time telling his readers how objective he intends to be, than actually engaging in any sort of open minded investigation. In doing so, he provides no new insights in to his alleged subject of war, but does open a window on the preening self aggrandizing egoism that fuels the Thought Police in the pathetic farce that passes itself as 'higher' education; and particularly the rigidly narrow and dogmatic agenda of conformity in 'Academentia' better known as the "Pander or Perish / Cannibal Soup" social engineering pogrom.Wow... Read the rest of it, if you dare.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
I am disgusted and extremely angry that there are people so blinded by religion, so pathetically ignorant and insecure in their opinions or their faith that they want to murder those who disagree with them. I am talking, of course, about the recently uncovered plot to murder the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard who drew perhaps the most controversial Muhammad cartoon back in 2005. And what was this immensely controversial cartoon? Here it is:
Look, I understand this image "offends" people. I understand some Muslims think (without Koranic authority, I might add) that representations of the Prophet Muhammad are not allowed. I understand many Muslims feel persecuted. But none of these considerations come close to justifying censoring Westergaard, let alone killing him summarily. The cartoon - whether you agree with its implication or not - is an entirely legitimate comment on the relationship between Islam and violence. It is the sort of thing that any enlightened society would not only allow, but encourage. Freedom of speech, let's not forget, is an absolutely non-negotiable part of liberty - I direct those who disagree to ch. 2 of On Liberty by John Stuart Mill.
So what of "tolerance"? What about "respecting people's beliefs"? I think the matter is simple: people, not ideas, deserve respect. (See this wonderful Greta Christina post). And tolerance is a political not a cultural desideratum, it is the commitment not to use violence to settle intellectual disputes. It is the the idea that people are free to make up their own minds about every issue, even the big ones like religion and morality and justice. There certainly is no case that tolerance means people shouldn't disagree, or argue or criticize one another. Disagree we will, and disagree we must and disagreement must be protected: even the nasty, insulting kind of disagreements that may make us uncomfortable.
It is the following sort of mentality that we should find deeply offensive and commit ourselves to stamping out, not the scribblings of a cartoonist:
While reading a list of the Top 100 Quotes from crazy Christian fundamentalists, I tied to follow a link to a website that claimed the Rapture would happen in 2007. Unsurprisingly, the website is now down - but thanks to Google Cache we can still get a glimpse. The person responsible is one Shelby Corbitt who wrote a book that supposedly is:
a prophetic message from God for the world. Everyone must know and will know this warning from Him. This book tells of events to prepare for and a date that the rapture of the church will happen. Catastrophic events are about to happen, just like in the days of Noah. God is saying, "Are you rapture ready?" This message is for every single person living in this present day and hour.As some of you might have noticed, the rapture did not in fact happen during 2007... so a bit of backpedaling was in order. Corbitt posted the following on January 1st, 2008:
We made it to 2008. I am extremely disappointed that I was wrong about the rapture. I apologize for any disappointment I caused others. I apologized on my main page. I will leave it up for a few days before I take the website down. I want to thank the 1000's of emails I have gotten over the past few days, expressing the gratitude to the website. So many of you have said that even if the prophecy did not happen the website helped them to get back in touch with God and get their lives straight. I am so glad that good came from this whole ordeal. Several people want to know what I intend to do. I am a nurse so I will go back to work, unless I have another option come to me that sounds better. I really do not have much to say at this point. God bless you all and have a Happy New Year!!But, fear not: there is already another website up which claims that, rapture wise, 2008's the charm.
I recently discovered one of the single best blogs I've ever come across: Greta Christina's blog. She writes, well, about atheism and science and... porn. I don't want to gush or anything, but Christina writes beautifully, she's damn smart, always interesting, clearly very knowledgeable and gloriously passionate. Most of all... she really does have a unique voice. It's rare to come across an author (especially one who covers well-worn topics like religion / atheism) who has fresh, insightful and challenging things to say.
Anyway, I highly recommend you check out her blog and other writings. Start with the seriously fantastic "Atheism and Anger", have a look at "Are we having sex now or what?", go on to "A Self-Referential Game of Twister: What Religion Looks Like From the Outside", then learn all about the scientific method and why it's important "The Slog Through the Swamp: What Science Is, And Why It Works, And Why I Care". There is much, much more to explore too - so don't stop reading.
(Note the new links in my blog roll and the shiny scarlet A, right. See also Greta Christina's rationale for including the A on her blog.)
When we apply these evolutionary findings to economic life, we learn that Enron and the Gordon Gekko “Greed Is Good” ethic are the exception and that Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto is the rule. Two conditions must be present to accentuate the latter: first, internal trust reinforced by personal relationships, and, second, external rules supported by social institutions.Shermer then goes on to compare the corporate cultures of Enron and Google in some detail, thereby illustrating his contention about trust and social institutions. This is all very interesting (and certainly worth a read) but I have a few misgivings. What follows are a couple of unconnected observations.
Firstly, Shermer seems to fail to appreciate that to evaluate a hypothesis rigorously it needs to be tested against data not used to come up with it in the first place. That is, if we hypothesize x based on observations y, to test x we need to compare its predictions to a different set of observations z - we can’t use y again because that would be circular. So it makes me worry when Shermer says
By studying how modern companies work, we can gain insights into the evolutionary underpinnings of our morality, including concepts such as reciprocity, altruism and fairness. When we apply these evolutionary findings to economic life…Is he using human behavior in corporate settings as data for evolutionary psychology or is he using evolutionary psychology to explain human corporate behavior? Perhaps I am being a bit unfair, Shermer has limited space and the above is somewhat tangential, but it remains an important methodological point.
Secondly, it is important to note that in most of the article, Shermer is speculating, not doing science or reporting on established science. For example, he explains Google’s success at creating a productive corporate culture by invoking egalitarianism:
A horizontal corporate structure [like Google’s] generates an atmosphere of equalitarianism and nonelitism that taps into the environment of our Paleolithic ancestors, who evolved in what are believed to have been largely egalitarian bands and tribes.This seems plausible enough and, sure, we infer from the egalitarian cultures of current hunter-gatherers that our Pleistocene ancestors had similarly egalitarian ways, but we don’t really know what the significance of this is. Numerous successful organizations – the American military comes to mind – have decidedly vertical structures. And soldiers too have ancestors who we infer lived in egalitarian cultures. So what does this “tap into” business really amount to? Some actual science would have been nice – plausibility is not a sufficiently high bar, support from serious academic studies is what Shermer’s hypotheses need. (When n=2 [Google + Enron] we can’t be really sure of anything). More importantly, Shermer should have explicitly warned his readers he was speculating. To be clear: I have nothing against speculation; it’s a valuable and important exercise. But it is vital to distinguish carefully between speculation and fact, between speculative extensions of theory and well-established theory.
A small matter also annoyed me a bit in the article: Shermer uses the term “evolution” in several distinct senses without clear distinction. There is vague metaphysical evolution, cultural evolution, biological evolution, and many others. Shermer invites misunderstanding by not being clear about which sense he’s referring to.
Lastly, Shermer’s contention that Google is a paragon of goodness (and thus an illustration of his evolutionary speculations) is vulnerable to the observation that the company doesn’t always behave as advertised. Google, let’s not forget, conveniently disregarded its principles for access to the Chinese market (among many other lapses, as Shermer himself documents). But his response to this problem is as lame as it comes, “Controversies of this nature are inevitable for any company that grows as rapidly as Google has, and no matter how lofty a company philosophy may be, perfection will always be an unattainable goal.” Human aren’t perfect. Great. But we knew that already. What happened to Shermer’s hypothesis that there is an evolutionary reason that “don’t be evil” breeds business success? Scientists don’t get to rationalize away inconvenient facts. (To be fair, this problem doesn’t implicate the contention that aspects of the “don’t be evil” philosophy cultivate an internal corporate structure conducive to business success. Shermer, however, unwisely defends a broader hypothesis at the end of the article).
Also, Wired has released (warning: NSFW and disturbing) new photos from Abu Ghraib prison that they obtained in advance from Philip Zimbardo, who is scheduled to give TEDTalk later today. They also conducted an interview with him about people's capacity for evil and why the Abu Ghraib guards acted as they did.
On a much lighter note, Wired continues its coverage of the TED conference with a report on "surfer dude" (and physicist) Garrett Lisi's simple unified field theory.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
This post also again brings to my attention that *I* have failed to address key skeptical questions in South Africa. That's certainly something I intend to remedy.
Read, agree and support open access!
The project, by the way, is being spearheaded by the seemingly ubiquitous E. O. Wilson: check out his TEDTalk on the encyclopedia.
In a similar vein, Paul Keedwell writes in The Guardian on "The Upsides of Being Down" and argues depression has beneficial effects that have been overlooked. While Keedwell has a point, he seems to conflate transitory sadness and clinical depression in places while underestimating just how debilitating repeated episodes of major depression can be. (He pays lip service to this, to be sure, but doesn't take it fully into account in my view). Also, I spotted at least a few fallacies: some ad hominems and a post hoc ergo propter hoc.
(Hat tip: David Spurrett for the Keedwell article).
Monday, February 25, 2008
Saturday, February 23, 2008
(Hat tip: PsyBlog).
Since the recognition of just how subject the mind is to bias is the foundation of skepticism and science, educating people about bias seems to be a good way to get them to appreciate the importance - nay, the necessity - of the scientific method. Although visual illusions are well known (putting in doubt the old saw that "seeing is believing"), it is less widely known that our auditory system is also subject to error and illusion. Now, as part of a special feature on music, New Scientist magazine has put together a useful list of their top 5 auditory illusions. If you don't know about this topic, I highly recommend you listen to all five illusions - and then come to terms with the fact that what you hear isn't always a good mirror on nature.
Maybe if the ease with which our ears can be fooled became more widely known people would be less likely to fall for such nonsense as electronic voice phenomena and other auditory pareidolia.
(Hat tip: Mind Hacks. See also: Michael Shermer's skeptical TEDTalk that features his analysis of purported Satanic lyrics in a Led Zepplin song.)
Friday, February 22, 2008
There is one issue, however, that I'm not quite sure how to deal with: students defending creationism. It's come up a couple of times now: one student said she felt offended by the theory, another that her uncle (a pastor) was aghast she was learning about evolution and a couple of objections to the evidence for evolution has surfaced as well. I don't have a fully worked out method for dealing with creationist students, so I responded off the cuff and I'd quite like to know how others deal with this and whether you think my response was adequate. Here's what I said: I was quite firm and adamant, first of all, that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming and that creationism is not an intellectually respectable position. (I dealt with specific objections with specific reasons for preferring evolutionary theory). Then I pointed out that while some atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, etc.) and some religious people (the Discovery Institute folks, Ken Ham and the Answers in Genesis nuts, etc.) think evolution and religion are incompatible, many religious people accept "theistic evolution". (Even the late John Paul II conceded in a speech that evolution is "more than a hypothesis" I told them). Since it also happens to be my actual opinion, I told the students I honestly see no logical contradiction between evolution and religion: one could respectably be religious and a Darwinist. I then pointed to Ken Miller (author of Finding Darwin's God) as an example of a devoutly religious person who is nonetheless a staunch defender of evolutionary thinking and suggested they read his book if they were troubled.
So... how did I do? Did I go too far by saying creationism isn't intellectually respectable? (I have no doubt that it isn't, just whether it's pedagogically sound to say so). Did I leave anything important out? Feedback would be much appreciated.
To my surprise, when I posted it on Facebook as a note, one friend managed to get no fewer that 5 correct. Without further ado, the quiz...
1) Which country has a current head of state who has been dead for almost 15 years?
2) How did Marquis de Condorcet indirectly inspire Darwin’s discovery of the theory of natural selection?
3) What medical condition is it thought (but not established) that Paul of Tarsus, Mohammad and Joan of Ark had in common?
4) Which of the current or former candidates for the US presidential election in 2008 had a child serving in Iraq until recently?
5) What previous pandemic caused the evolution of a mutation that protects a proportion of people of European descent from being infected with HIV?
6) Which is the only region that we know of that had a (fairly recently extinct) bird as the top predator?
7) Which famous and extremely influential 19th century thinker’s thought may have been affected by a skin disease with known psychological effects?
8) What do the quotes “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it", ” “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” and “War is the extension of politics by other means” have in common?
9) What name would be credited as director in American films and television series between 1968 and 1997 if the actual director wanted to be disassociated from the production?
10) What do Vladimir Putin, George Bush Snr., George Bush Jr. and John McCain have in common? (Other than being politicians and leaders).
Satoshi Kanazawa, evolutionary psychologist at the LSE and author most recently of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, has just launched a blog: The Scientific Fundamentalist. Kanazawa's blog is part of Psychology Today magazine's new blog collective, which also features behavioral economist Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational), Psychology Today's editor in chief Kaja Perina (Darwin's Arrow) and psychiatrist Peter Kramer (In Practice). There isn't much content yet, but all the blogs look quite promising.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
So it's certainly a good thing that there is a group of researchers, Literary Darwinists, who are helping, in a modest way, to bridge the chasm from both ends. Jennifer Schuessler, writing on the NYT blog Paper Cuts, reviews a recent addition to this literature: Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altrusitic Punishment, and other Biological Components of Fiction by William Flesch. (Full disclosure: I haven't actually read the book, only about it). Flesch, professor of English Literature at Brandeis, seems to have solid humanities credentials, which means it's harder to portray Literary Darwinists as consisting solely of cold-hearted and naive scientists trying to colonize the humanities. Imagine that, scientists and English professors working on a single research program...
While I haven't read Flesch's book, I have ventured into other parts of the Literary Darwinist literature, mainly Joseph Carroll's work, and, speaking generally, I think it's exactly the sort of thing that should be happening. I don't know the field nearly well enough to have strong opinions, or to take sides in particular debates, but it's clear evolutionary psychology needs some account of literature and art generally. If we are aiming to provide a naturalistic (and pomo/nonsense-free) understanding of human behavior, it's clear we can't shy away from tackling distinctively human activities such as the creation and enjoyment of literature. Moreover, I would be extremely surprised if knowledge of our evolved mental architecture did not contribute to literary studies - so it's hardly only a matter of literature constituting a 'problem' for scientists to solve, a Darwinian perspective on literature might end up enriching the humanities.
(See also: D. T. Max's "The Literary Darwinists" in the NYT Magazine and Harold Fromm's fantastic "The New Darwinism in the Humanities": Part 1 [pdf] and Part 2 [pdf]).
Saturday, February 16, 2008
Friday, February 15, 2008
The first installment is a fantastic xkcd cartoon. I try my best to remember its message when writing this blog... (Note: strong language ahead, avert your gaze if needed).
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
So... happy Darwin day! Oh, and check out this video (complete with campy accompanying music) that was made for last year's celebration.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Sunday, February 3, 2008
"So those who wish upon a star
Or herb or potion in a jar
To grant relief from ache or pain
Could well decide to think again
And weigh the chances that desire
Not reason is what we require
To make us well when we succumb
To ailments that are troublesome.
For wishful thoughts beguile the mind
But leave reality behind."
(Note & warning: the second poem is rather political, anti-Bush).