Sunday, March 30, 2008

Video: Beware the Believers

The Expelled brouhaha is a gift that just keeps on giving: the latest is a glorious video satirising the movie's thesis that creationist academics are being systematically discriminated against. (Some people think the video is actually a viral ad for Expelled or an anti-atheist piece. This, however, doesn't seem to be the case - surely a clever atheist made the video. If not, the creationist crowd are enormously inept and even more comically stupid than I thought).

Anyway, the video features Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Eugenie Scott, Charles Darwin, and PZ Myers rapping... As a friend is wont to say: truly we live in a golden age. (The video is embedded below, click here to go directly to YouTube).


Friday, March 28, 2008

Skeptics' Circle #83

The 83rd edition of the Skeptics' Circle is out at Mike's Weekly Skeptic Rant. He does a very good job, so check it out. My contribution to this edition is "Five Oft Repeated Medical Myths". Other entries to check out: Aardvarchaeology on a case of sibling incest in Germany; Skeptico explaining (AGAIN) that Darwinism is not responsible for Nazism; and Bug Girl's Blog on a (possibly real) pubic lice fad (no, really).

Friday fun: xkcd again

xkcd is deservidly one of the most popular web comics and Friday fun wouldn't be the same without it. There have been some classic xkcd's, like this one:

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Geckos rock

So I was lying on my bed the other day when I noticed a gecko hunting around the light on the roof of my bedroom. As I'm used to geckos running around everywhere, usually I don't pay too much attention, but that day I did. I watched this particular gecko hunt (unsuccessfully as it turned out) and was amazed to discover how much it used its tail to maneuver. Specifically, it coiled up its tail and used it as a kind of spring to launch it towards its query. Pretty cool stuff, I thought, and another example of evolution's ingenuity.

Today, I was pleasantly surprised to come across a new study in PNAS on geckos and their tails. The abstract:
Geckos are nature's elite climbers. Their remarkable climbing feats have been attributed to specialized feet with hairy toes that uncurl and peel in milliseconds. Here, we report that the secret to the gecko's arboreal acrobatics includes an active tail. We examine the tail's role during rapid climbing, aerial descent, and gliding. We show that a gecko's tail functions as an emergency fifth leg to prevent falling during rapid climbing. A response initiated by slipping causes the tail tip to push against the vertical surface, thereby preventing pitch-back of the head and upper body. When pitch-back cannot be prevented, geckos avoid falling by placing their tail in a posture similar to a bicycle's kickstand. Should a gecko fall with its back to the ground, a swing of its tail induces the most rapid, zero-angular momentum air-righting response yet measured. Once righted to a sprawled gliding posture, circular tail movements control yaw and pitch as the gecko descends. Our results suggest that large, active tails can function as effective control appendages. These results have provided biological inspiration for the design of an active tail on a climbing robot, and we anticipate their use in small, unmanned gliding vehicles and multisegment spacecraft.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Economist on the science of religion

The always fabulous Economist has a very good article on the scientific examination of religion this week. The article focuses on the (ingeniously-entitled) Explaining Religion project (pdf) that is being funded by the European Union. As The Economist explains:
Religion cries out for a biological explanation. It is a ubiquitous phenomenon—arguably one of the species markers of Homo sapiens—but a puzzling one. It has none of the obvious benefits of that other marker of humanity, language. Nevertheless, it consumes huge amounts of resources. Moreover, unlike language, it is the subject of violent disagreements. Science has, however, made significant progress in understanding the biology of language, from where it is processed in the brain to exactly how it communicates meaning. Time, therefore, to put religion under the microscope as well.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Friday fun: Penn & Teller reveal the saw trick

The magic duo Penn & Teller are terrific performers and first-rate skeptics (their show Bullshit debunks nonsense regularly). This week's Friday fun is a great act wherein Penn & Teller reveal how the famous (but now cheesy) saw trick is done. (The video is embedded below, here is the direct link to Metacafe). Obviously, if you don't want to know how the trick is done, don't watch the video...


Penn & Teller: Saw Trick Revealed! - The funniest home videos are here

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Paleolitihic diet

One of the things I love about Wikipedia is the large number of good articles on strange or obscure topics. Today's featured article (i.e. a very high quality article placed on Wikipedia's main page) is a perfect example: Paleolithic-style diet. So we all know the standard evolutionary psychology view that human beings are adapted to the Pleistocene, not to modernity. As a result, our taste for sugary, fatty and salty foods is maladaptive when supermarkets and fast food restaurants abound. The Paleolithic diet (aka paleo diet, caveman diet, Stone Age diet or hunter-gatherer diet) starts from a very similar view and advocates a diet consisting of:
wild plants and animals that humans and their close relatives habitually consumed during the Paleolithic (the Old Stone Age), a period of about 2 million years duration that ended about 10,000 years ago when Homo sapiens developed agriculture... Building upon the principles of evolutionary medicine, this nutritional concept is based on the premise that modern humans are genetically adapted to the diet of their Paleolithic ancestors and that human genetics have scarcely changed since the dawn of agriculture, and therefore that an ideal diet for human health and well-being is one that resembles this ancestral diet. Proponents of Paleolithic-style diets differ in their dietary prescriptions, but all agree that people today should eat mainly meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, roots and nuts, and avoid grains, legumes, dairy products, salt and refined sugar.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

AIDS Denialism in South Africa

Nicolli Natrass, an economist at the University of Cape Town (who, for the record, taught me a fantastic course on the economic problems of Africa), had a great article about AIDS denialism in Skeptical Inquirer last year. The article, "Aids Denialism vs. Science", documents in detail how dangerous unscientific thinking can be - in this case, hundreds of thousands if not millions of people were harmed. Concludes Natrass:
People in positions of authority, be they statesmen like Mbeki or parents like Maggiore, hold the lives of others in their hands. For them to reject science in favor of AIDS denialism is not only profoundly irresponsible but also tragic. But responsibility for unnecessary suffering and death rests also with the AIDS denialists who promote discredited and dangerous views and encourage people to reject scientifically tested treatments.

Kanazawa smackdown

Satoshi Kanazawa is not exactly being welcomed in the science bloggging community. I led the way with a rapid response to his irresponsible call for nuclear genocide, then Cosma Shalizi had a go (as I mentioned yesterday) and now PZ Myers - author of the world's most widely read science blog - roasts Kanazawa as well. I'm sure there will be much more to come...

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Homo floresiensis update II

See also my earlier pieces: "The floresiensis mess" and "Homo floresiensis update".

Yet more about whether the Flores specimens discovered in 2004 constitute a new species, this time on the positive side. In an upcoming article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, paleoanthropologists Adam Gordon, Lisa Nevell, and Bernard Wood of George Washington University argue a statistical analysis of one of the skulls (LB1) reveals the Flores specimens cannot be shrunken Homo sapiens. Intriguingly, they say the skull most closely resembles Homo habilis, a very primitive hominid indeed. Says Gordon: "This is particularly exciting because ... it suggests that we really do have a hominin lineage that split off from our own as much as 1.7 million years ago, yet persisted up until the time when modern humans started peopling the Americas. That's pretty cool."

When the study goes online, I'll update this entry with a link to it.

Update: the article can be found here.

Encephalon 41

Encephalon #41 is out at Pure Pedantry. Entries to check out: The Phineas Gage Fan Club on domain-specificity in the visual system; Advances in the History of Psychology on how the term 'industrial psychology' may have been the result of a typo; and Neuroanthropology on dissociation strategies for peak performance.

Kanazawa gets the Cosma treatment

Cosma Shalizi, polymath author of the Three-Toed Sloth blog and keeper of innumerable useful Notebooks, has also responded to Satoshi Kanazawa's crazy call for nuclear genocide. Shalizi concludes Kanazawa is:
the Fenimore Cooper of sociobiology, a man who has leveraged an inability to do data analysis or understand psychometrics into an official blog at Psychology Today, where he gets to advocate genocidal nuclear war as revenge for 9/11. He seems to mean it, rather than be fukayaming.
I plan never to get on Cosma's bad side...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Templeton 2008

The Templeton Prize ("For Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities") purports to be a science prize but it is nothing of the sort. The stated aim of the Templeton Foundation is to reconcile science and religion, it entirely discounts the possibility that there are serious tensions between scientific and religious views of the world. (There are also direct contradictions when religious texts are interpreted stirctly instead of metaphorically, exactly what the vast majority of religious people do). The Templeton Prize, in my (and Dawkins') view, distorts science and comes close to being a bribe for scientists to say nice things about religion.

It also thrusts manifest silliness into the public spotlight. The winner of the 2008 Templeton Prize is one Michael Heller, who has some seriously daft ideas. His musings about evolution and intelligent design are particularly annoying.

See also: Controversies at the Templeton Foundation Wikipedia article.

Video: Jill Bolte Taylor at TED

Jill Bolte Taylor, an Indiana University School of Medicine neuroanatomist, gave a fascinating talk at TED in February. (The video is embedded below, here is the direct link). While I certainly think the video is worth watching (otherwise I wouldn't feature it here), I have a couple of serious reservations. It's clear from the video that Taylor's experience was an intensely emotional one and, let's be frank, science and intense emotions don't go so well together. It certainly made me worry when she started going on about "nirvana", it annoyed me that she dramatically oversimplified the very nuanced, complicated and still emerging picture of hemispherical specialization in the brain, and it frustrated me generally that she seems to let her emotions get in the way of her science. (To be clear: emotions are important and I have no problem with them being expressed, even at TED. But we should try our best not to let our emotions influence our intellectual positions - that's what I'm criticizing Taylor for, not the sheer fact of being emotional).



See also: Wired's article on Taylor's TEDTalk.

Friday fun: A 'Scientific' Guide to Flirting

As I've said before, I am completely convinced some clever publisher will stumble upon the findings of evolutionary psychology and commission a self-help book based on its findings. It's bound to happen, if it hasn't already. In fact, there is a "scientific" self-help guide (based in part of evolutionary psychological findings) available online already: the Social Issues Research Centre's "SIRC Guide to Flirting". Combining common-sense and research findings, the guide offers amusing and (it seems to me) perfectly reasonable flirting advice.

Anyway, don't take it too seriously, this is "Friday fun" after all. (In other words, I disclaim all responsibility: if you follow the advice and it backfires, don't send me an angry email!)

Homo floresiensis update

The other day I blogged about the continuing debate over Homo floresiensis, the possible species of Homo. I mentioned two recent papers that challenge the proposition that the Flores specimens constitute a new species: Obendorf et. al.'s suggestion that the specimens are Homo sapiens who suffered from cretinism and Berger et. al.'s report on a new find of small-bodied remains on Palau that suggests the Flores specimens might have been Homo sapiens who exhibited physiological dwarfism. The anthropoligist John Hawks has now examined the Berger paper (which he peer-reviewed for PLoS One) and written a detailed blog entry on it. I can, by the way, highly recommend Hawks, he certainly knows what he's talking about.

See also: SciAm Observations Blog's piece on Berger et. al.'s paper and National Geographic's article.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Skeptics' Circle #82

The 82nd edition of the Skeptics' circle is being very ably hosted by Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes. My contribution to the circle is my review of Francis Wheen's How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World. Other posts to check out: PodBlack Cat's fantastic entry on superstition, Greta Christina's thoughtful entry on theism and morality, The Bad Idea Blog's piece on the revival of exorcism in Europe, and Archaeoporn's critical analysis of the claim that Moses was on drugs.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Video: Craig Venter and Artificial Life

Craig Venter is a scientific maven and maverick who leads a team that is on the verge of creating artificial life that, among other things, might produce artificial organisms capable of replacing the entire petro-chemical industry. This is Important Stuff.

Venter's 2008 TEDTalk is embedded below, or here is the direct link.

Jobs for academic types

Benoit Hardy-Vallee, author of the fantastic blog Natural Rationality, has a great little post on what to do with a Ph.D outside academia. He even has a whole section of links to resources for philosophers on finding non-academic jobs! Who would have guessed it? Philosophers in demand!

An Oniony Shroud of Turin

I'm on record saying The Onion's satire sometimes cuts through bumpkin better than serious analysis can. It has just happened again: "Shroud Of Turin Accidentally Washed With Red Shirt". With all due respect to Joe Nickell, The Onion dealt with this shroud nonsense far quicker and in a far more entertaining way that he ever did. (Okay, so Joe's been far more thorough).

Prostitution

Unsurprisingly, a debate about prostitution has erupted in the US after it emerged New York governor Elliot Spitzer had sex with several prostitutes. Melissa Farley and Victor Malarek argue in a piece in the NYT that the notion that prostitution is a victimless crime is a myth: "Whether the woman is in a hotel room or on a side street in someone’s car, whether she’s trafficked from New York to Washington or from Mexico to Florida or from the city to the suburbs, the experience of being prostituted causes her immense psychological and physical harm. And it all starts with the buyer." This, to put it mildly, is not an argument I buy - I have long thought prostitution ought to be legal, only coercive (and child) sex-work ought to be combated. What consenting adults get up to behind closed doors (whether it involves money or not) is nobody's business. Luckily, this is a topic the wonderful Greta Christina has taken on, so don't take my word for it.

An academic debate has also ensued: why would Spitzer risk his career for 10 minutes of pleasure? Over at Psychology Today's blog collective a vibrant discussion is taking place (especially in the comments). Kramer reposted an article he had written in 1998 to explain why Clinton had risked it all, and then Kanazawa responded with an evolutionary psychological view.

Audio: Rebecca Watson on women in skepticism

Rebecca Watson, prominent “skepchick” and panel member on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, gave a talk recently for the New York City Skeptics on women in the skeptical movement. She did a bunch of research and concluded, contrary to her initial beliefs and rather depressingly, that the average woman seems to be significantly less skeptical than the average man. Based on evidence she collected from a poll of her readers, Watson then goes on to suggest various ways in which to encourage more female participation in the skeptical community.

This is interesting and important stuff. (And Rebecca is always a blast). Give it a listen…

Five Oft Repeated Medical Myths

Note: I'm writing outside my field. Reader beware. (Oh, and please correct my mistakes).

I have no training whatsoever in medicine and, honestly, my approach has always been to outsource my opinions to the experts. If an MD told me I had disease X, I was happy to accept that I had disease X. As a result, until I got involved in the skeptical movement, I knew next to nothing about quackery: while I never took woo claims seriously and went to proper medical doctors, I couldn't tell you why, say, chiropractic was nonsense. A second consequence of relying on experts was that I never paid much attention to what average people said about medicine ("folk medicine"), I didn't much care and didn't trust such people to know what they were talking about. Now that I've been paying attention to medical questions more - actually listening when people talk, reading some medical blogs, looking stuff up occasionally, etc. - I've come to realize just how much utter nonsense circulates even among intelligent people. I have heard smart friends and acquaintances confidently repeat all five the medical myths listed below and I only subsequently found out they were in fact contradicted by science. One learns.

Myth 1: MSG is bad for you. I've heard this one more times than I can remember from numerous intelligent people. I only discovered this is a myth the other day when the New York Times ran an article on it. Subsequently, I found an FDA review of the evidence, which concluded that, for the vast majority of people, eating a normal dose of MSG has no established clinical effect. A quick PubMed search confirmed there doesn't seem to be negative clinical effects associated with this food additive.

Myth 2: you should drink 8 glasses of water. Everyone I've ever met who has been on a diet knows about - and believes - this one. And yet Heinz Valtin conducted a review of the relevant scientific literature and concluded that: "Not only is there no scientific evidence that we need to drink that much [water], but the recommendation could be harmful, both in precipitating potentially dangerous hyponatremia and exposure to pollutants and also in making many people feel guilty for not drinking enough."

Myth 3: sweetner causes cancer. Again, several people have repeated this myth in my presence (including people who I respect a lot) because I use sweetner regularly. There is certainly no way I'm going to be able to shoot this idea down better than Steven Novella, so check out his blog entry that argues sweetner - or at least aspartame - has no demonstrated negative clinical effect.

Myth 4: depression is caused by a "chemical imbalance" or a serotonin lesion. This claim is ubiquitous - whenever depression comes up in conversation, someone is bound to hold forth on "chemical imbalances in the brain". In fact, the cause of depression is currently unknown. Despite this, as Jeffrey Lacasse and Jonathan Leo have demonstrated in two studies (pdf), pharmaceutical companies perpetuate the myth in their advertisements and the media parrots them uncritically.

Myth 5: drinking megadoses of vitamin C cures illness
. At least one person who reads this blog (you know who you are!) has tried to convince me this is true. It's not. The idea seems to have originated with Linus Pauling, the great American chemist and (double) Nobel Laurette. Unfortunately, as the always reliable Quackwatch documents in detail, later in his life Pauling branched out into medicine and promptly went off the rails. There is simply no reliable evidence that large doses of vitamins cures either the common cold or cancer.

Book Review: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

I expected to like, enjoy and agree with Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (retitled Idiot Proof for the American market). I really did. Unfortunately, however, while I certainly agree with a broad array of his conclusions, Wheen significantly undermines the value of his book by turning it into a catalog of things he disagrees with, which only partially overlaps with scientific consensus. Specifically, Wheen arrogantly treats debatable political questions as if they were skeptical issues, that is, he condemns Francis Fukuyama in the same terms as Deepak Chopra, equates supply-side economics and homeopathy, thinks Margaret Thatcher no better than a quack, treats Samuel Huntington no better than a postmodernist and so on. This, I will argue below, is dubious at best and is hubristic in the extreme. Before we get to my criticisms, however, some praise is due and Wheen’s argument needs sketching.

Wheen is a big fan of the Enlightenment; a devotee of Kant, Voltaire, Jefferson, Diderot, Hume, d’Alembert, and their ilk. (Hooray to that!). These thinkers, contend Wheen, may have been diverse but they all shared a characteristic ethos: “a presumption that certain truths about mankind, society and the natural world could be perceived… and that the discovery of these truths would transform the quality of life” (2004: 3). What is more, these thinkers ‘insisted on intellectual autonomy, rejected tradition and authority as infallible sources of truth, loathed bigotry and persecution, were committed to free inquiry and believed knowledge is indeed power’ (p. 5-6). The Enlightenment’s legacy, Wheen goes on to argue, was enormous: it resulted in “the waning of absolutism and superstition, the rise of secular democracy, the understanding of the natural world, the transformation of historical and scientific study, the new political resonance of notions such as ‘progress,’ ‘rights’ and ‘freedom’” (p. 6). Assuming these achievements are desiderata (as seems reasonable), it would certainly be undesirable were the Enlightenment values forgotten – indeed, the purpose of the book, Wheen says, “is to show how the humane values of the Enlightenment have been abandoned or betrayed, and why it matters” (p. 8). And it matters because "[t]he sleep of reason brings forth monsters, and the past two decades have produced monsters galore… the proliferation of obscurantist bunkum and the assault on reason are a menace to civilisation" (ibid.: 7). The villains in Wheen's piece include "holy warriors, anti-scientific relativists, economic fundamentalists, radical post-modernists, New Age mystics or latter day Chicken Lickens" (ibid.: 311-312).

Mumbo-Jumbo is explicitly modeled on Charles Mackay's classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and succeeds admirably in some respects, particularly when he turns to manias such as the dotcom bubble. The book as a whole is well written, clear, decently researched, funny in places and right on target with quite a few issues. Indeed, if only Wheen had steered clear of political questions and social science problems, his book would have been very good. His attack on the business self-help movement (Ch. 2) is sound, his chapter on post-modernism (Ch. 4) is superb (the best part of the book I’d say), his skewering of doomsday nuts, UFO-believers and quacks (Ch. 5) is admirable, and even his rant against breaches of the wall of separation between church and state (Ch. 6) is good. In fact, I would recommend the book – with some reservations – if it consisted only of the just-mentioned chapters and the introduction. Wheen, however, overlooked this felicitous possibility.

As I mentioned above, despite his book’s several merits, Wheen significantly undermines its value by arrogantly consigning every political ideology and every interpretation of social phenomena but his own to the same category as the genuine pseudosciences. While it is appropriate to condemn, perhaps even ridicule, positions that are anti-science, that fly in the face of scientific consensus (e.g. creationism, psi) or that are manifestly silly (e.g. cerealogy), it is not cricket to do so on issues about which reasonable people can disagree. When there is no scientific consensus (or any other kind of consensus) on some issue, that is, when intelligent, thoughtful people occupy a large range of different positions, it is plainly hubristic to condemn, or ridicule or accuse one’s opponents of obscurantism and irrationality. Fallibilism, we should remember, is an important virtue for any thinker: certainty (about empirical questions) is epistemologically unsound and confidence is appropriate only when there is consensus among the relevant experts. Having a strong opinion on a currently controversial question is perfectly acceptable, of course, but you should understand the arguments in the debate and realize that you could be wrong. That is, it is perfectly acceptable to take sides in current debates if (a) you know the relevant literature and have (what you think are) good reasons to prefer one side and (b) you don’t pretend to be infallible. It is patently ridiculous, though, to be certain when (a) there is nothing remotely resembling consensus and (b) you don’t even provide solid reasons for your own position. Wheen, I submit, is so arrogant he appears to be certain his and only his narrow set of political opinions (basically, unreformed Keynesian Labour with a dose of muscular foreign policy focused on opposing Islamic fundamentalism) is the only reasonable position and is in no need of real, systematic defense.

Take, for example, Wheen’s treatment of Margaret Thatcher: he begins the book by comparing her to Ayatollah Khomeini, and then goes on to pan her economic policies (and monetarism and supply-side economics generally) as ‘Voodoo economics’, accuse her of supporting terrorism, being a crazy religionist, and much else. Indeed, he has nothing whatsoever positive to say about her. (Nor, I note, any other politician save Ralph Nader. Not even Clinton or Gore is spared: Wheen calls Gore an “expensive mountebank” [p. 106] and says Clinton is “a sexual predator and alleged rapist [and] a man of no discernible moral scruples” [p. 198]). Now, while no one should think Thatcher was perfect or an unmitigated blessing, as The Economist notes in its review of Mumbo Jumbo, reasonable people – some of them experts – credit Thatcher with turning the British economy around. Let’s not forget that, for all of the post-war period before Thatcher’s rule, Britain was ‘the sick man of Europe’: other European countries consistently outgrew it, to the extent that its GDP per capita rank position began to drop. One of the primary reasons for this economic lethargy, many others and I think, was a radical, highly organized and irresponsible special interest group: the labor unions. (For background, see Olson, 1982). During her first and second terms, Thatcher won a bitter and protracted battle to reform the labor market. This, together with a series of other important economic reforms, is widely credited with injecting dynamism into the economy, resulting in a long period of fast, sustained economic growth. You may or you may not agree with this analysis, and I won’t here try to convince you, I’m only highlighting the fact that there is a reasonable argument to be made, endorsed by many clever people and some experts, that Thatcher’s rule, for all its faults, had some positive effects. Once we acknowledge reasonable, intelligent people think, for reasons that aren’t crazy, that at least some of Thatcher’s economic policies were beneficial, Wheen is utterly exposed. It is simply untenable to equate ‘Thatcherism’ or ‘Reaganomics’ (supply-side economics, monetarism and so on) with homeopathy, Iranian fundamentalism, or the irrational exuberance of the dot-com era. And do so without real argument! Frankly, this sort of uninformed arrogance doesn’t merely annoy me, it outrages me. (I am not saying, of course, that supply-side economics hasn’t been taken too far, or stretched too thin, I’m saying it’s not pseudoscience or anything close to it. If Wheen actually knew something about, say, the Laffer-curve, he’d know it’s more than “discredited superstition” [p. 18], there is a lot of research behind it. Politicians have indeed misused it, as is their wont, but that doesn’t invalidate the notion.)

I said above that, had Wheen restricted himself to genuine pseudoscience (quackery, self-help and so on) I would have recommended his book, but with a few reservations. And the reason I would have reservations even then is that Wheen regularly makes small but annoying factual mistakes, worryingly often commits logical errors (erecting straw men and making ad hominem attacks being most common), sometimes employs very weak arguments, occasionally descends to ugly pettiness and plays hard and fast with evidence on a number of occasions. I won’t try to substantiate all these charges, I’ll simply illustrate a few of them.

Firstly, an example of childish pettiness: in the midst of a discussion of Tony Blair’s political ideology, known as the “Third Way”, we find the following: “Blair also revealed that the Third Way was ‘vibrant’ and ‘passionate’, rather like Bill Clinton’s libido, but also ‘flexible’ and ‘innovative’, like Clinton’s definition of sexual relations” (p. 227). What? Does Wheen really think it is a good idea to intersperse a purportedly serious discussion of the most important political movement of the 90s with weak jokes about Clinton’s sex life? Secondly, a couple of examples of small but annoying factual errors: Wheen thinks Dwight D. Eisenhower was a four star general (p. 172) when he wore five, thinks the “linguistic turn” was a postmodern phenomenon (p. 85) when it was a mainstream philosophical development, and believes Francis Fukuyama is a historian (p. 70) when he’s a political scientist. While these mistakes are of course innocuous individually, cumulatively they undermine one’s hope that Wheen cares about evidence and checks his facts. Thirdly, an example of Wheen playing hard and fast with evidence: “By then, Thatcher’s application of Friedmanite principles – restricting the money supply, cutting public spending – was indeed producing results. During her first year inflation surged from 9 per cent to more than 20 per cent; interest rates and unemployment both rose sharply” (p. 18-19). While inflation did double in the first fourteen months of Thatcher’s first term, it is utterly disingenuous to attribute it to her policies. Thatcher took office in May 1979, after the Iranian Revolution (which culminated in February 1979) set off the Second Oil Crisis, during which the crude oil price more than doubled. Now, either Wheen knows this and he’s deliberately withholding information from his readers to score points (which is bad) or he doesn’t know and is thus ignorant of basic international history (which is worse).

I could carry on multiplying examples of Wheen’s errors or defend Fukuyama, Paul Kennedy, Samuel Huntington, Thomas Friedman and others from the charge that they’re comparable to charlatans like Deepak Chopra, and so on. But I don’t want to try my readers’ patience. I think the take-home message is clear at this point: maybe a third of the book is decent, the rest is poor to appalling. Rather don’t read this book, you have better things to do.

References

Olson, M. (1982) The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Wheen, F. (2004) How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (London: Harper Perennial)

(Other reviews: Complete Review, Guardian(a), Guardian(b), Telegraph, and Washington Post).

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The floresiensis mess

The debate over the status of Homo floresiensis, the possible species of Homo that survived until about 12,000 years ago that was discovered in 2003 on the Indonesian island of Flores, just won't go away. Two separate much-publicized studies that challenge the notion that floresiensisis is a distinct species emerged this week. First, Peter Obendorf, Charles Oxnard, and Ben Kefford argued in their study in Proc. Roy. Soc. B that the purported floresiensis skeletons were actually Homo sapiens who suffered from congenital hypothyroidism, or cretinism. The anthropologist John Hawks, for one, disagreed with this finding on his blog, arguing Obendorf et. al. got it badly wrong.

More recently, University of Witwatersrand paleoanthropologist Lee Berger and colleagues describe a new set of small-bodied human skeletons that were found in Palau, Micronesia. Berger et. al. conclude that their specimens are Homo sapiens who exhibit physiological dwarfism that regularly emerges in island contexts. They also suggest that the characteristics of the Flores specimens "may be best explained as correlates of small body size in an island adaptation, regardless of taxonomic affinity. Under any circumstances the Palauan sample supports at least the possibility that the Flores hominins are simply an island adapted population of H. sapiens, perhaps with some individuals expressing congenital abnormalities."

Monday, March 10, 2008

The New Darwinism in the Humanities

Something a bit more positive about the humanities...

A couple of years ago Harold Fromm, an English studies professor at the University of Arizona, published the best short study of the application of evolutionary psychology to the humanities I have ever come across. The article, published in the Hudson Review, was "The New Darwinism in the Humanities" and came in two parts: "Part I: From Plato to Pinker" (pdf) and "Part II: Back to Nature, Again" (pdf). As I have mentioned before, while I have don't know the literature well enough to sides in internal debates, a scientific approach (with suitable Darwinian infusions) is exactly what I think the humanities needs. A flourishing, successful, scientifically orientated research program may finally loosen the grip of fashionable nonsense such as postmodernism and start bringing the "two cultures" closer together. Done right, such an approach may fetter theorizing in the humanities to the real world, preventing it from drifting randomly.

In any case, Fromm's article is an excellent guide to an emerging field. Give it a try.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Video: The first video from TED 2008

Microsoft Research is doing some really cool stuff recently. One of their most inspiring projects is WorldWide Telescope, an interactive software package which lets people explore the universe through a seamless integration of the best astronomy pictures. Encouragingly, the software will be downloadable free of charge. (The video is embedded below, here is the direct link TED).

Saturday, March 8, 2008

A random, speculative hypothesis regarding the humanities

The requirement of regular accurate feedback for the development of expertize that I mentioned in my previous post made me think (read: speculate wildly)...

Maybe the manifest uselessness of some of those in the humanities can be explained by the fact that they never, or rarely, get suitable feedback. When a surgeon makes a (serious) mistake, a patient dies. When a civil engineer fouls up a calculation, a bridge comes tumbling down. When a vulcanologist prophecies falsely, the volcano shows her up. When a physicist hypothesizes wrongly, the experimental data exposes it. In contrast, an English professor (say), gets no feedback whatsoever from his materials, his subject matter - only from colleagues. And colleagues - unlike erupting volcanoes or a dead patient - can be argued with, dismissed or (seemingly reasonably) rationalized away. As a result, thinking in the humanities can become totally untethered - free to drift capriciously like fads or fashions. The result? Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Luca Luce Irigaray...

Anyway, don't take this too seriously.

Lazy linking: Some popular pieces

There has been a flood of really interesting popular articles relevant to this blog in the last couple of weeks. Here are a few of them...

Pride of place must go to Dr. Mark Colvin's short, sharp critique of homeopathy. Colvin argues convincingly that South Africa (and Africa generally) should only use medicine that has been shown to be effective. He concludes: "Internationally there is a growing recognition that approaches that claim to have beneficial health effects must be substantiated scientifically. Maybe we should follow suit and seriously review the contribution that homeopathy and other forms of complementary medicine have, or do not have, towards improving human health."

Scientific American's fantastic psychology/neuroscience/cognitive science blog Mind Matters published a good piece on embodied cognition. The author, Art Glenberg, begins by attacking the "mind as computer" analogy, summarizes some recent research and then speculates about the possibility of using the findings of embodied cognition research to help improve pedagogy. While I'm somewhat skeptical of the more extreme claims made by embodied cognition enthusiasts, Glenberg's article is interesting and worthwhile.

Then there is Jim Holt's genuinely fantastic New Yorker article on "the numbers guy", Stanislas Dehaene. Dehaene, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Collège de France, is one of the leading lights in the field of numerical cognition, the study of the cognitive and neurological bases of the number sense. The article is long and detailed but definitely worth it.

The Times ran a light-hearted but interesting article on "finger expert" John Manning. Manning, a psychologist at the University of Central Lanchester, has established pretty convincingly that sporting ability, sexual orientation and a number of other variables correlate strongly with 2nd to 4th digit finger ratio. The finger ratio, in turn, is determined by prenatal exposure to sex hormones such as testosterone. (To be clear, the hypothesis is that prenatal hormonal exposure determines both sporting ability, etc. and finger ratios. The ratio, in other words, is a proxy, it's not directly causal).

Finally, Time Magazine tackled expert performance in its article "The Science of Experience". The bottom line of the literature the article summarizes is that experience alone does not result in expertize; it is the combination of "deliberative practice" ("dedicated, slogging, generally solitary exertion") and regularly obtaining accurate feedback that yields expert performance. (Please ignore the silly speculation about Obama and Clinton, I have no idea why the journalist found it necessary to ruin a perfectly good science article with such cant.)

Audio: PZ Myers crushes creationist

The American biologist, and author of the world's most widely read science blog, PZ Myers, recently debated [mp3] Discovery Institute creationist Geoffrey Simmons on radio and absolutely crushed him. I recommend listening to the debate, not only for the schadenfreude, but because, as Steven Novella pointed out, Simmons played the "martyr card" ('you Darwinists are so mean') and this seems set to become their new strategy. (Ben Stein's upcoming movie Expelled is another good example of this trend).

An early 'new atheist' piece

It is often said that the new atheist movement - Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and a host of others taking on religion - only came about because the atrocities of 9/11 opened a space for it by making it acceptable to question religion. While this view certainly contains several grains of truth, we shouldn't exaggerate 9/11's importance: atheism was alive in and well on September 10, 2001, even if it were far less salient.

I mention the above only because I serendipitously came across an early 'new atheist' article the other day: Natalie Angier's "Confessions of a Lonely Atheist", which was published way back in January 2001 in the New York Times Magazine. Angier (who, by the way, was interviewed on Point of Inquiry recently) covered almost exactly the same ground as later, much more famous, atheist writers. Appositely, the authors of the Bible itself wouldn't have been surprised:
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.
- Ecclesiastes, 1: 9-11.
.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Crazy Kanazawa

I mentioned a while ago that LSE evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa recently launched a blog, The Scientific Fundamentalist. I was quite excited about this - there are a dearth of evolutionary psychology blogs, so I thought it was great an up and coming researcher was taking on the blogosphere. Kanazawa, however, is worrying me a bit...

In his very first post, "If the truth offends, it’s our job to offend", he defended the laudable notion that scientists should follow the evidence wherever it may lead. He took it a bit far for my liking though, by arguing scientists should never think about the consequences of their research. Said Kanazawa, "Scientists are not responsible for the potential or actual consequences of the knowledge they create." Really? If a physicist's experiment might, say, create a black hole and destroy the earth, should she ignore this possibility? Were the Manhattan Project scientists wrong to worry about igniting the atmosphere (pdf)? Don't get me wrong, I'm all for PC-bashing, academic freedom and following the evidence where it leads, but the notion that scientists should never consider the consequences of their research is absurd. Bacon was right: knowledge is power. But it's not necessarily or always a power for good. In some cases - the extreme ones - scientists should most certainly consider this.

The above, however, is pretty minor compared to Kanazawa's latest post, "Why we are losing this war". Why is it, he asks, that WWI and WWII lasted only four years but the "war on terror" has lasted seven years, with no end in sight? (Ignore for the moment the fact that, by any reasonable definition, WWII lasted six years, not four). Why is it that the West did not quickly defeat enemies who are much poorer, less well-equipped, and comparatively technologically backward? Kanazawa answers:
It seems to me that there is one resource that our enemies have in abundance but we don’t: hate. We don’t hate our enemies nearly as much as they hate us. They are consumed in pure and intense hatred of us, while we appear to have PC’ed hatred out of our lexicon and emotional repertoire... We may be losing this war because our enemies have a full range of human emotions while we don’t.
This is an interesting theory, and it could be right, but it's not clear to me why Kanazawa highlights this single factor. Firstly, he doesn't seem to have enough evidence to argue this is the only or even most important variable. Where are his citations to rigorous academic research demonstrating his 'hate theory' is anything more than only vaguely inspired by evolutionary considerations, anything but feral speculation? Secondly, the war on terror is asymmetric and regular armies have always had trouble with enemies who employ terrorist and guerrilla tactics, no matter how much they hated them. Thirdly, it's unclear whether the war on terror really qualifies as a "war" in the traditional sense and can thus be settled by military means. Lastly, there is a much better argument for why powerful countries lose wars against less capable enemies: Andrew Mack (1975)'s application of the life-dinner principle to international politics. Mack argued that when powerful countries, like the United States, are defeated by weak ones, like Vietnam, it is not because of the 'insurgents' military victory on the ground', but because of "the progressive attrition of their opponents' political capability to wage war" (1975: 177). That is, relatively weak enemies win exactly because they are weak, because the conflict is asymmetric: weak enemies do not pose an existential risk to their opponents, but powerful ones do. Consequently, the war is necessarily "total" for the weak and "limited" for the powerful. (That's where the life-dinner principle comes in: why does the hare run faster than the hound? Because the hare is running for its life, but the hound merely for its dinner). There are, I admit, a number of wrinkles here (most importantly, terrorists may pose an existential risk if they acquire weapons of mass destruction and it could be that people only hate powerful enemies) but I'll skip over these and ask the concerned reader to look at Mack's paper (who addresses a number of potential concerns that might arise).

The real reason I'm worried about Kanazawa, however, only emerges in the second to last paragraph, when he writes:
Here’s a little thought experiment. Imagine that, on September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers came down, the President of the United States was not George W. Bush, but Ann Coulter. What would have happened then? On September 12, President Coulter would have ordered the US military forces to drop 35 nuclear bombs throughout the Middle East, killing all of our actual and potential enemy combatants, and their wives and children. On September 13, the war would have been over and won, without a single American life lost.
The above, to be sure, is somewhat ambiguous. It could be that what he's saying is that, were Coulter president, she would have hated her new-found enemies appropriately, nuked the Middle East and thus "won" the war on terror in a day. But it could be that Kanazawa doesn't think that would have been a good idea, it could be that he's simply arguing hypothetically without endorsing that course of action. And yet... it really doesn't read that way. The tone, the context, and the register all suggest to me that Kanazawa would have approved of a nuclear response to 9/11. And this, I submit, is a little extreme. Forget for the moment that killing millions of innocent people is a Bad Thing, forget that the Middle East contains a good proportion of the world's oil, forget that America's democratic ally Israel is in the Middle East, forget that the fall-out would do extensive damage to other parts of the world, forget that there are tens of thousands of Americans (and far more other foreigners) living in the area, forget that the environmental damage would be enormous, forget that the Middle East contains innumerable priceless cultural artifacts, forget that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims living outside the Middle East (India, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc.), and forget that 9/11 was planned from Afghanistan, outside the Middle East. Have you forgotten all of these factors (and any others you came up with for yourself)? Good. Now it's a good idea to nuke the entire Middle East. Now only does it make any sense whatsoever to call the hypothetical nuclear destruction of the entire Middle East a "victory" for America.

Kanazawa ends his article with, "Yes, we need a woman in the White House, but not the one who’s running." I agree this too is somewhat ambiguous, but, wow, he really seems to be saying Ann Coulter would make a better president than Hillary Clinton. Coulter, for those of you who don't know, is a batshit crazy, deeply uninformed Creationist, extreme right-wing, fundamentalist Christian. (Have a look at her website or her page on Wikiquote). I find it hard to think of someone who would be a worse president.

Unless I have been uncharitable, unless I have misrepresented his position, and unless he was joking, Kanazawa is crazy. Frankly, he gives evolutionary psychology a bad name by associating it with this kind of extremism. Evolutionary psychologists are not the heartless right-wingers they're sometimes characterized as being (Tybur, Miller & Gangestad, 2007), but Kanazawa is hardly helping to combat that erroneous perception with posts like these.

References

Mack, A. (1975) "Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict," World Politics, 27(2): 175-200.

Tybur, J. M., Miller, G. F., & Gangestad, S. W. (2007) "Testing the controversy: An empirical examination of adaptationists' attitudes towards politics and science," Human Nature, 18(4): 313-328.

Friday fun: The Onion Gets It

The people who produce The Onion, "America's Finest News Source", really get it. Their preposterously funny, entertaining, cutting satirical pieces invariably get to the heart of the topic, exposing bumpkin, spin, absurdity and the folly of the human condition along the way. Indeed, some of their articles do a better job of dealing with contentious issues than much longer non-satirical works. (Take how brilliantly they've exposed Creationism: "Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New 'Intelligent Falling' Theory", "I Believe In Evolution, Except For The Whole Triassic Period" and "Kansas Outlaws Practice Of Evolution", among others).

Anyway, to come to this week's Friday fun, a wonderful article on pseudoscience, entitled "Rogue Scientist Has Own Scientific Method":

"TALLAHASSEE, FL—Only months after abandoning a tenured position at Lehigh University, maverick chemist Theodore Hapner managed to disprove two of the three laws of thermodynamics and show that gold is a noxious gas, turning the world of science—defined for centuries by exhaustive research, painstaking observation, and hard-won theories—completely on its head.

The brash chemist, who conducts independent research from his houseboat, has infuriated peers by refusing to "play by the rules of Socrates, Bacon, and Galileo," calling test results as he sees them, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary..."
(Read the rest of the article).

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Voting for authoritarianism

This is the last Facebook note I'm reposting here. It might not be of particularly wide interest, but I think the piece is pretty good. I wrote it at the beginning of 2007 when I got angry at one of South Africa's votes at the United Nations Security Council.

In its first major action since being elected to the United Nations Security Council, on January 12th [2007] South Africa voted with Russia and China against a draft Security Council (SC) resolution that censured Burmai over its continued human rights abuses and called for democratic reform. (Among other issues, see the draft’s full text). Obviously, since both China and Russia wield vetoes, South Africa’s vote was technically moot, but this action bodes ill for both our international reputation and for a clear-headed pro-democratic foreign policy.

Background
After gaining independence from Britain in 1948, Burma had a fairly democratic governance system until Ne Win led a military coup d’etat, became dictator and introduced a disastrous set of policies called the “Burmese Way to Socialism". Pro-democratic protests and unrest sporadically erupted from the 1970s onwards (particularly after U Thant’s funeral in 1974), culminating in the 8888 Uprising in 1988 which was brutally suppressed by the military after a second coup. Quite possibly due to pressures created by the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1990 free and fair legislative elections were held which the National League of Democracy (NLD) won overwhelmingly, taking 392 out of 492 seats (369 more than its closest competitor – full results here). Sadly, the military refused to accept the outcome of the election, placed the NLD’s leader – the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi – under house arrest and continued both with its irrational economic policies that have impoverished the country and with serious human rights abuses.

The resolution and the vote
As noted above, the draft resolution censured Burma’s junta for continued human rights abuses, called on the military to cease its attacks on ethnic minorities (including widespread rape and sexual violence), and urged the government to initiate political dialogue with the NLD.

Of the 15 members of the SC, 3 voted against (SA, Russia & China), 3 abstained (Congo-Brazzaville, Indonesia & Qatar) whilst the remaining 9 (Belgium, Ghana, Italy, Panama, Peru, Slovakia, UK, US and France) voted for. Shockingly, South Africa is the only liberal democracy that voted against the resolution (Indonesia, who abstained, is also a democracy). While Russia and China’s no votes were expected (they fear setting precedents that could be used against their own regimes or against their authoritarian allies), South Africa’s vote was utterly baffling. According to the South Africa’s representative, Dumisani Kumalo, government is extremely concerned about the situation in Burma but had three reasons for its position: adopting the resolution (1) would compromise the work of the Secretary General’s envoy to Burma, (2) dealt with issues best left to the Human Rights Council (HRC) and (3) did not fit the mandate given to the SC by the UN Charter.

Analysis
It seems clear to me all three arguments South Africa offered to justify its position are bunk or, at the very least, reasons for abstaining, not for opposing.

The first argument is, in effect, a defense of “quiet diplomacy" – something there is good reason to believe doesn’t work. It’s a basic principle of the theory of games as applied to negotiations that mere talking, by itself, rarely produces desirable outcomes if the real world incentives of the parties involved are not changed somehow. Dictatorial governments very rarely (or never) give up power voluntarily; the idea, therefore, that the UN Secretary General (or his envoy) can talk “sense into" the junta and convince them to open negotiations with the NLD is naïve at best.

The second argument, though perfectly correct in a narrowly legalistic sense, fails on two counts: firstly, the HRC has almost no power whatsoever (so it’s a talking shop, nothing more) and, secondly, its structure is inherently flawed. Though the HRC is something of an improvement over its immediate predecessor, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, a large number of countries on the council have poor human rights records themselves, including China, Pakistan, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia and others. (See the full list). Thankfully, liberal democracies have a slight majority (~54%), but non-democracies, and countries with a strong agenda to discourage the protection human rights (China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, etc.), nonetheless have an important say on the Council, especially with the decline of America’s soft power. In short, referring a case like this to the HRC is the international equivalent of “killing legislation in committee".

The third argument is arguably the most powerful – there is certainly something to this position – but I still think it fails to justify SA’s vote. Firstly, both the UK and the US made strong arguments that Burma’s domestic problems have important regional security consequences. Narcotics and human trafficking, millions of refugees, the radicalization of minority groups (leading to the adoption of terror tactics), and the political instability of Burma are serious regional, and perhaps even global, security concerns. Secondly, from the mid-1990s there has been a growing consensus that the world’s nations have a collective responsibility towards oppressed peoples. As Kofi Annan put it eloquently in his final speech in office:
[Collective responsibility] also includes our shared responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity – a responsibility solemnly accepted by all nations at last year's UN summit. That means that respect for national sovereignty can no longer be used as a shield by governments intent on massacring their own people, or as an excuse for the rest of us to do nothing when such heinous crimes are committed.
The idea that national sovereignty – adopted as a governing principle of international relations for purely pragmatic reasons at the Treaty of Westphalia – is some sort of grand, unbreakable moral principle is patently absurd. South Africa should not pretend governments have the right to slaughter their own population if they feel like it. Indeed, it’s somewhat ironic that the ANC, who benefited from South Africa’s isolation over the purely sovereign issue of Apartheid, would adopt a reactionary position with respect to the right to freedom of other peoples. Moreover, even ignoring the above considerations, the narrowly legalistic interpretation that the SC can only do what the Charter says it can is itself incoherent. There is an important sense in which there just is no such thing as international law (for states, there manifestly is international law for individuals) – consequently, the SC, not the Charter, is sovereign. If this is right, then there is no reason whatsoever for South Africa not to support resolutions like these – unless, of course, our foreign policy is to be dictated by old-style Resistance loyalties or if the content of the resolution is being objected to.

Note
i. Burma officially changed its name to the Union of Myanmar in 1989, but since the regime that changed the name is illegitimate, many nations don’t recognize the emendation. (Much like Mabutu Sese Seko’s attempt to rename the DRC “Zaire" was widely unrecognized). See Explanation of the names of Burma/Myanmar for further information.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Allegedly good CAM news

Medical practices are only called "alternative", the always fantastic Skeptic's Dictionary reminds us, "if it is based on untested, untraditional, or unscientific principles, methods, treatments, or knowledge." In view of this, not to mention the dangers, it is more than a little depressing that complementary and alternative medicine remains so popular. So it's heartening whenever some good news emerges on this front. It seems the campaign against CAM in the UK, led by David Colquhoun (DC's Improbable Science), Richard Dawkins (The Enemies of Reason) and Ben Goldacre (Bad Science), is starting to pay some dividends. Not only has the NHS been turning away from woo such as homeopathy, but recently the BBC health website removed their CAM section completely. (There is an article about the development from the quack perspective here).

Alas, the news might not be as good as it might seem at first. Reacting to complains, the BBC said, basically, that it removed the section for purely economic reasons. Apparently, it required too much effort for the amount of traffic they were getting.

Maybe if we continue our educational efforts, sometime in the far future quality news organizations like the BBC wouldn't even dream of carrying pro-woo content.

Encephalon #40

The 40th edition of Encephalon, the psychology and neuroscience blog carnival, is out at Mind Hacks. My contribution to this edition: "Shermer on the evolutionary psychology of corporate behavior". Other entries to check out: The Neurocritic on the abuse of cognitive neuroscience by marketing types; Sharp Brains on (the basics of) brain plasticity; and Not Exactly Rocket Science on an analogue of Broca's area in chimps.

AAAS roundup II

I forgot to mention in my last entry on the AAAS annual meeting that The Economist ran a series of four interesting articles on the conference a while back: "And now there is a virus forecast", "Moral thinking", "Sour times", and "A poisoned Pill". I especially recommend "Moral thinking".

Monday, March 3, 2008

AAAS Annual meeting roundup

The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the organization that publishes the august Science Magazine) came to a close earlier this month. There were a bunch of interesting talks, announcements, developments and results. Perhaps the most publicized of these was the announcement of the National Academy of Engineering's list of the 14 grand engineering challenges of the 21st century. (The coolest of which, by far, was reverse-engineering the brain). Also relevant to this blog was that Richard Lewontin (a notoriously grumpy critic of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology) reportedly gave a talk in which he argued that we know nothing about how the brain evolved. (Michael Balter responded in Science).

The AAAS has made a couple of videos of the meeting available for free, but unfortunately the audio recordings made of the whole conference are for sale, not free. (The AAAS, I suspect, ought to read Chris Anderson's fantastic new Wired piece on why free is the future of business). Luckily, Science's news blog contains plenty of information and Science's podcast did a series of short episodes from the meeting (I highly recommend, by the way, the episode on the evolution of morality):

Science, Evolution and Creationism: A podcasty follow-up

I blogged about the National Academy of Science’s recently revised booklet on the evolution-creation controversy the other day. As luck would have it, Matthew Nisbet, of Framing Science fame, is this week’s guest on Point of Inquiry and he discusses the publication and how it was written. Interestingly, and appositely, the NAS took an evidence-based approach to figuring out how best to communicate with the public on these issues by using focus groups to identify key stumbling blocks and effective strategies. According to Nisbet, the importance of evolution to medicine and the compatibility of evolution with religion were two of the key elements identified. As I mentioned before, the booklet does a particularly good job on the latter – among other things, it features statements by both religious scientist and pro-science religious leaders that I’m guessing would assuage many religious laypeople’s concerns.

Nisbet also criticizes the strategies employed by the atheist movement and, particularly, by Richard Dawkins. In Nisbet’s view, the “metaphor of war” which both religious fundamentalists and some atheists (Dennett, Hitchens, Dawkins etc.) employ marginalizes the majority, consensus, view that religion and science are compatible. In this sense, he thinks the atheist movement is shooting itself in the foot because it is polarizing. While I disagree with Nisbet on many of these points, they’re certainly interesting and worth considering.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

TED update II

See my earlier TED update.

Today is the last day of the TED conference and I'm still seriously depressed about not being there to see all those wonderful talks and meet all those amazing people. Ironically for a technology conference a few technical glitches have apparently cropped up: their website appears to be broken at the moment and, reportedly, the comedian Robin Williams (who was in the audience) had to save the day during a technical delay.

Wired has continued its coverage of the conference with: an interview about memes with Susan Blackmore (of paranormal psychology and Meme Machine fame); a great article on Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who reacted to the massive stroke she had in 1996 with "Wow, this is so cool" and a short piece about Microsoft's new WorldWide Telescope software.

Odd Economist

The Economist has a strange leader this week that celebrates, of all things, the potato. Specifically, the potato's role in the development free trade - it turns out the Irish potato famine (caused by the failure of the potato crop due to blight) led to the scrapping of the infamously protectionist Corn Laws and thence to free trade generally. In fact, The Economist itself was founded in 1843 by James Wilson to advance the cause of free trade and get the Corn Laws scrapped. Concludes the leader:
Mashed, fried, boiled and roast, a humble tuber changed the world, and free-trading globalisers everywhere should celebrate it.
(See also: "Llamas and mash" and "Wonder-food", the other potato stories in this week's edition).

Audio: The co-evolution of altruism and war

The latest edition of Scientific American's weekly podcast, Science Talk, features Santa-Fe Institute economist Samuel Bowls who recently made a splash when he and a colleague argued, in a paper published in Science, that altruism and war had to have co-evolved. The interview with Bowls starts at roughly 15:00, in the first part of the show there is an interview with "spider woman" Greta Binford (also worth a listen).

Video: Steven Pinker interviewed by Robert Wright

In the video embedded below (or click here to go to Google Video), journalist and science popularizer Robert Wright interviews Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker. The video runs for about an hour and all of it is very much worth watching. Check it out!

An excellent evolution/creationism resource

Science, Evolution and Creationism, the newly revised booklet on the evolution-creation controversy issued by the National Academy of Science in the US, is the best short, accessible introduction to evolution that I have ever come across. It is authoritative, quite comprehensive, interesting, very well organized, beautifully illustrated, concise, clear and (surprisingly for something produced by committee) well written. The three main chapters – “Evolution and the Nature of Science”, “The Evidence of Biological Evolution” and “Creationist Perspectives” – cover everything the average layperson needs to know about science and evolution. More importantly from a tactical perspective, it does an excellent job of arguing science and religion can be compatible, thereby neutralizing the primary source of people’s rejection of evolution.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover the booklet discusses physics and cosmology – e.g. the Big Bang, how the Milky Way and our solar system formed and so on. In my experience, people unfamiliar with evolution (who tend to be ignorant of cosmology and most of science as well) find it difficult to accept the theory unless it’s placed in the context of the grand scientific narrative of the universe.

In any case, the booklet is an excellent resource – I’ll most certainly use it when I have to teach evolution to the uninitiated again. The booklet, by the way, is free to download as a pdf.

(See also: PNAS editorial on "Evolution, Science and Creation" and, as I mentioned before, the NAS podcast discussed (mp3) the release of this publication a while back.)