Sunday, May 11, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell on invention

Malcolm Gladwell is by far my favorite science journalist, and he has produced yet another fantastically interesting and well-research New Yorker piece. The article is entitled "In the Air: Who says big ideas are rare?". Gladwell takes on a somewhat neglected area of the philosophy and methodology of science, that is, the nature of scientific creativity. He argues, convincingly and at length, that the popular story of the "lone genius" without whom some or another discovery or invention would never have come about is a myth; instead, ideas are "in the air" (hence the title). "The genius," concludes Gladwell, "is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight".

Friday fun: The Economist rap

'Friday' fun this week is a tad odd: it's the rap duo Psikotic on... The Economist. I won't try to explain further, that would be futile. Have a listen for yourself: PsikoticThe Economist.

(See also: The Guardian's take).

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Encephalon #44

The 44th edition of Encephalon is up at Cognitive Daily. Recommended pieces: PodBlack Cat's review of Bonk; The Mouse Trap on belief in God as a type I error; Neuroscientifically Challenged on depression and serotonin; Not Exactly Rocket Science on cognitive enhancers; and Neuroanthropology on neuroscience and free will.

Evolutionary Applications

Blackwell Synergy has just launched a new journal, Evolutionary Applications, dedicated to the practical applications of evolutionary theory. The first issue has a bunch of interesting articles: an editorial outlining the journal's goals, Randolph Nesse and Stephen Stearns on evolutionary medicine and Graham Bell and Sinéad Collins on adaptation to global climate change.

Nesse and Stearns' piece is particularly worth reading, it's both convincing and important. (Nesse, as many of you will know, published an influential book with George C. Williams in 1995 entitled Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine). Essentially, Nesse and Stearns' argument is that:
an evolutionary perspective fundamentally challenges the prevalent but fundamentally incorrect metaphor of the body as a machine designed by an engineer. Bodies are vulnerable to disease – and remarkably resilient – precisely because they are not machines built from a plan. They are, instead, bundles of compromises shaped by natural selection in small increments to maximize reproduction, not health. Understanding the body as a product of natural selection, not design, offers new research questions and a framework for making medical education more coherent.
(See also: New Scientist's editorial on the new journal).

Mezmer's Dictionary of Bad Psychology

One of my favorite books of all time is Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, so I was very happy to come across a similar satiric dictionary: Mezmer Dictionary of Bad psychology. Some examples...

Brain: Congealed pudding like structure located inside a bony shell that swivels on a vertebrate stand, and is covered by a rubbery like skin. Brains are hooked up to olfactory, gustatory, auditory, and visual knobs, which are ironically attractive to other brains, rather than the brain itself. Generally, we use only 10% of our brains, and often we don't use them at all, and relegate thinking to our stomach, glands, or our diddler.

Consciousness: A thing in itself, or besides itself, the sum of all qualia, or perhaps a channel on the Matrix. Consciousness can be raised, lowered, embodied, or if it means to, float out of this room. It is everywhere, perhaps nowhere, but most certainly is here with you, reading this dumb definition, and is well, self-conscious about it.

Evolutionary Psychology: A branch of psychology, unwittingly inspired by Charles Darwin and Rudyard Kipling, that describes how we behave through made up stores that guess why we had to behave. In this case, the stories are about what traits our ancestors had to evolve 250,000 years ago to survive. At that time, Mother Nature or evolution was especially demanding, and selected those behavioral traits that permitted survival, much like a mom selects out table manners in her kids. Since all the evidence of this selection process has been washed away in the sands of time, this provides a wonderful opportunity for psychologists to act like trial lawyers, and fabricate evidence and design in tightly spinning plots that would do Agatha Christie proud. Evolutionary psychologists provide 'just so' stories to explain everything about human behavor, and all without the troublesome need to assemble proof. Thus, according to EP, we can run fast because our ancestors had to escape cave bears, got smart because they had to know where the cave bears were, and got sexy because they could rescue cave babes from the cave bears.

Freud, Sigmund: (1856-1939) Viennese physician who saw the mind as partitioned into metaphorical forces or agents (id, ego, superego) that were untestable, unprovable, and were of no more practical value than a belief in Casper the friendly ghost. By eschewing the strictures of scientific proof and reveling in absurd metaphor, Freudianism became a source of inspiration for bad psychology and bad literature that continues to this day.

SSSM: or Standard Social Science Model, represents a metaphorical model of the mind that holds that the mind is a blank slate that is engraved solely by environmental or experience. Depending upon who you quote, this doctrine is believed by nearly everybody in the social sciences (as evolutionary psychologists would tell you) or close to nobody (as everybody else would tell you). The SSSM is useful for polarizing debate and groups of people in the mold of us vs. them, liberals vs. conservatives, and now evolutionary psychologists vs. the social science establishment, and has removed debate from the Socratic discourse of old to the block headed rancor of present day talk radio and TV

(Hat tip: Mind Hacks).

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Simon Singh on the Skeptics Guide

Episode #144 [mp3] of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe featured an excellent interview with Simon Singh, the renowned science-writer and journalist. Singh was on the show to discuss his upcoming book, Trick or Treatment?: Alternative Medicine on Trail. Singh is well-spoken and comes across as eminently reasonable and very knowledgeable. Unsurprisingly, Singh (and his co-author, Edzard Ernst) conclude there isn't much to most alt med modalities since they are "either unproven or are demonstrably ineffective, and several alternative therapies put patients at risk of harm". The interview is well worth listening to.

(See also: The Times' review of Trick or Treatment?)

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Skeptologists

We may have Mythbusters and Bullshit, but the science/skeptical community certainly needs more good TV. Luckily, a new series is in the works: The Skeptologists. Here is the blurb:
We're not willing to just accept stories of the paranormal or supernatural. We want proof. Each week, we'll take on a handful of wild claims -- from the Bermuda Triangle to Bigfoot sightings to haunted houses -- and apply accepted scientific practices and experiments to see if these ideas really hold up. Whether in the field or in the lab, we'll literally put these subjects to the test in the hopes that one day we may find something that can't be explained. Each episode will investigate one or more popular paranormal, supernatural, or other type of phenomena, in favor of evidence-based science.
The cast, is absolutely first rate, it includes: Steven Novella, Michael Shermer and Phil Plait. So far a pilot has been filmed and now the producers need to convince a network to pick up the show. There are a couple of ways to help: become a "fan" of the show on Facebook or send an email to with something like "Yes, I want to see a skeptical show like this!".

A short promo video (embedded below, or click here) has also been released:

More Pravda fun

As I have mentioned before, the Russian newspaper Pravda is utterly, completely batshit crazy. It is, without doubt, one of the most entertaining websites online. Some of the mind-boggling pieces I've come across in the last half-hour: "Men become impotent because of women's low-cut dresses and bare legs" (strippers, it turns out, are veritable weapons of mass destruction...), "Prayers indeed heal diseases, scientists say" (apparently, they've found the 'material mechanism of the divine phenomenon'...), and "Russian man lives normal life with a still heart" (no, really...).

Alas, the piece that looked like an absolute corker - "Vampires are proved to exist" - turned out to be short of crazy. Clearly, the headline writers went a bit overboard; the article itself takes the plausible view that vampire myths have their origins in the disease porphyria. Such a connection has been proposed by serious scholars, not only by crazy Russians. (See the also: Wikipedia's take on the connection).

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Beware the Believers again

Remember that glorious video, Beware the Believers? Remember all the speculation about who created it? Well, while I was away from the intertubes, there was a confession: one Michael Edmondson, an employee of Expelled's producers, has come forward. He revealed the video was originally slated for inclusion in film. That's right, it was made by the creationists... But according to an interview with Edmondson conducted by Bloggasm, the video was deliberately equivocal, allowing multiple interpretations (i.e. both pro- and anti-creationist ones) .

Anyway, it's still a glorious video. There is now even a brief sequel (embedded below, or click here).

Skeptics' Circle #85

The 85th edition of the Skeptics Circle is out at Andrea's Buzzing About. Entries to check out: Science After Sunclipse on how teaching evolution can get you, erm, expelled; on Ken Ham's silliness; Greta Christina on science education; and WriterDD from Skepchick on sexuality and Christianity (particularly recommended).

Does science make belief in God obsolete?

While I am certainly not a fan of the Templeton Foundation, they have an interesting feature on their website, the so-called "Templeton Conversation". Basically, they get together a bunch of luminaries and pose a "big question", each then responds with a short essay and debate among the participants is also possible. The latest "big question" is "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" and it's most certainly worth checking out. Among the participants are Steven Pinker, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Shermer, Mary Midgley, Pervez Hoodbhoy and Kenneth Miller. No points for guessing who I agree with...

Friday fun: Frozen Grand Central

So I'm back from vacation and "Friday" fun is here... The video embedded below (or click here) is a beautiful illustration of the organizational wonder of the internet. Flash mobs are the WAY. This stunt, by the way, was the work of a group called Improv Everywhere.