Sunday, December 28, 2008

Carnival of the Africans #5

The 5th, and so far the best, edition of the Carnival of the Africans is out at 01 and the Universe. My picks: Prometheus Unbound on what we should tell our children, other things amanzi on the shockingly poor quality of Russian-trained African doctors, Psychohistorian on some silly astrology in South Africa, and Retroid Raving on (yet another) shake-up at South Africa's main research funding organization.

Angela of The Skeptic Detective is hosting the next edition of the carnival on January 28th. If you're an African science blogger, or have blogged about African science issues, please check out the guidelines and consider participating!

Oh, we also need hosts for future editions, if you'd like to volunteer, please send me an email...

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Afrikaner theocratic totalitarianism

My uncle, a pastor in the Reformed Church in Johannesburg, told me today about a batshit crazy and seemingly growing movement among Christian Afrikaners: the Ezra Movement. (Note: the website is in Afrikaans, although there are several English documents available if you click on "Esra Verslag" at left). The mission of the movement is "To contribute to the reformation of family, church and civil government in South Africa, through education in, and defence of, the Biblico-Christian worldview in every sphere of life and thought" (my translation). Their basic doctrine is theonomy, the belief that the Bible, literally interpreted, is the only souce of human ethics. As a consequence, these guys quite literally and unselfconsciously advocate religious totalitarianism. The following, from "Covenant and State" (English pdf) by University of Free State law professor Andries Raath (pdf), is particularly hair-raising:
The State is instituted by God to exercise His wrath upon evildoers, and to praise and protect those who live righteously. We see that the State is called upon to administer righteousness in society. (p. 43)
According to Raath, then, the South African constitution should be set aside, its liberal freedoms severely curtailed, and the government should "demand obedience to both tables of the
Ten Commandments" (p. 52). Chillingly, Raath goes on to say that he "rejects the ridiculous idea of the right to life, according to which the right to life for evildoers is guaranteed" (p. 57) and thus apparently advocates the death penalty for blasphemy, homosexuality, witchcraft, adultery... As I said. Batshit. Crazy.

Incidentally, an unprovable but highly plausible argument I've heard a couple of times is that the divergence between Dutch Calvinism (which became far more liberal over time) and Afrikaner Calvinism (which until recently did not) is due to the Enlightenment. Holland, of course, has long been an important intellectual center, and Dutch culture was thus strongly influenced by the Enlightenment. South Africa, on the other hand, was isolated from these developments and could thus not benefit from them. The result? The enormous difference between South Africa's shameful, intolerant and illiberal political and cultural history and Holland's mostly tolerant and liberal political history. Of course... this claim is untestable and speculative and, given that I'm a fan of the Enlightenment, I could be suffering from confirmation bias. But, it's certainly interesting and plausible.

Friday, December 26, 2008

TED 2009

As most of my regular readers will know, I'm a huge fan of the yearly TED conference so it should come as no surprise that I was unreasonably excited about the release of the TED 2009 speaker schedule (also have a look at the program guide). The theme for this coming year's conference is "The Great Unveiling" (whatever that's supposed to mean) and there are some awesome speakers scheduled: Bill Gates (you know, the Microsoft guy), Tim Berners-Lee (a key figure in the rise of the web), Jill Tarter (the SETI astronomer), Mary Roach (author of Bonk and other cool sciency books), Dan Ariely (the noted behavioral economist and Ig Nobel Laurette) and Alex Tabarrok (the economist and Marginal Revolution co-author).

I can hardly wait. Srsly.

(Via the TED Blog)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Fun with RSS

Thanks to fellow SA science blogger Orion Spur, I found myself perusing RealWriteWeb's 100 Best Products of 2008 (a fantastic resource), and there came upon their list of the Top 10 RSS Syndication Products of the year. It's via the latter that I discovered PostRank, perhaps the most useful RSS tool since the invention of Google Reader... So why do I like it so much? Well, say you subscribe to a high-volume but intermittently interesting feed. That is, you're subscribed to a blog that's very good but gets updated very regularly -- a bit too regularly. Traditionally, in such a case, you basically had two options: unsubscribe and miss out on the good stuff or wade through tons of not necessarily interesting posts in order to get to the good stuff.

PostRank, bless it, adds a third option... Using a PageRank-esque algorithm (that takes account of the number of comments, Diggs, inbound links, del.ico.us saves and so on) PostRank gives a feed's individual posts a score of between 1 and 10, and these rankings in turn allows filtering for quality. So, for example, I love Phyrangula but I can handle only so many three-line posts about some random US politician defending creationism (or whatever). So all I have to do is add Phyrangula's feed to PostRank, specify that I only want to see "Great" posts (i.e. those with a PostRank score higher than 6), and then subscribe to the custom feed that gets generated, using my customary feed reader. The result? No to Jolly Squidmas wishes, but yes to the conversion of a prominent atheist blogger to Christianity. Best of all, there are two helpful Firefox addons that works with the service: a feed manager that makes handling all those RSS's simple, and AideRSS Google Reader integration that improves Google Reader with various PostRank tools.

Of course, the filtering is only as good as the algorithm, but so far I'm very impressed with the results. Obviously, also, there are a bunch of other ways PostRank is useful; I've only focused on the filtering because I'm so keen to reduce my RSS reading duties...

DNA & Dating

I blogged back in January about ScientificMatch, a dating service that, perhaps rather unromantically, matches people based on their genes. I see New Scientist magazine has caught on, and has published a great article about this rather odd development. The author of the piece, Linda Geddes, summarizes the scientific rationale for the service, delves into several of the criticisms thereof and, most interestingly, subjects herself and her fiancée to the testing. Good stuff indeed.

My bottom line, for what it's worth, is that it's plausible to think this kind of genetic matching is an improvement over sheer chance, but I doubt very much it'll be superior to our evolved sexual psychology. (Although I do suspect it'll in general predict compatibility better than questionnaire-based online matching services). So, if you're wealthy and lonely, give it a try... otherwise, stick to the singles bars.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Joburg skeptics in the pub

I'm up in Johannesburg for the holidays and it seems my timing is perfect: I'll get to attend the 2nd Joburg Skeptics in the Pub. The details: we're meeting on January 5th at 18:30 at Tony's Bar in the Malanshof shopping center (click for map) in Randburg.

If you're anywhere in the area, drop in... I have no doubt it'll be a great deal of fun.

Èncephalon 61

The 61st edition of Encephalon is out at Sharp Brains. My picks: Mind Hacks on how medical jargon affects our understanding of disease, The Neuroskeptic on 'non-material neuroscience' (aka Egnor vs. Novella), Cognitive Daily on men's faces as angry faces, and Neurophilosophy on reconstructing visual images from brain activity.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Participate in an experiment...

My favorite psychologist Richard Wiseman has teamed up with New Scientist magazine to conduct an interesting looking mass psychology experiment. Participating is simple: you fill in a brief questionnaire and then email in a portrait photograph of yourself. Allegedly, the aim of the experiment is to investigate the relationship between personality and appearance and somehow merging the photos together will aid this endeavor. I, for one, don't buy this for a second: my guess is deception is afoot and that they'll simply throw away most of the answers to the questionnaire and then use the photographs to replicate the finding that average faces are usually judged to be more attractive than almost any individual's face. Whatever the case may be, participate, it'll be fun...

Oh, and I see Wiseman appears on this week's edition of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. I haven't heard the interview yet, but I'm sure it'll be worth a listen.

Licking wounds

I was looking through the list of human universals in the back of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate the other day when I saw an item I hadn't previously noticed: sucking wounds. Then I remembered reading something about a compound in dog's saliva having been identified that speeds up healing. I couldn't find the dog saliva story again, but did find a study (press release) published back in July that concluded human saliva promotes healing. Specifically, saliva contains a peptide called histatin that not only kills bacteria, but seemingly accelerates wound closure. This finding, together with the observation that wound licking is a human universal, is exceptionally interesting, but before going on to speculate rather wantonly about its significance, a couple of caveats are in order. Firstly, the study was conducted in vitro, not in vivo, and thus its net clinical significance is unknown. Secondly, the researchers used epithelial cells - those that line the cheeks - in their experiments and so one has to extrapolate, if fairly reasonably, to the conclusion that saliva accelerates wound closure in other types of cells. (Though, there is some evidence that saliva promotes healing in skin cells). Finally, the research I cited is quite preliminary, and thus will have to be replicated before we can be confident about its findings.

Doubts aside, this is fascinating stuff. Why? Because if wound licking really promotes healing (but not obviously so), and all human beings lick their wounds, then it's plausible to suggest this behavior is adaptive. Or, in other words, if it increases fitness and if nearly everybody does it, it's possible that licking one's wounds is a behavior that evolved by natural selection. (Do note that I say 'plausible' and then 'possible'. The evidence I've presented here is merely suggestive and far, far from definitive). Moreover, if wound licking behavior occurs widely among mammals - and a couple of searches in Google Scholar suggests it is, including among several species of non-human primate - then it might be a very ancient behavior indeed. That is, because specific characteristics that different but related organisms share is likely to be inherited from a common ancestor, wound licking could have arisen tens of millions of years ago.

So next time you instinctively pop your injured finger into your mouth, remember that you're engaging in a behavior that may be significantly older than even the hominid lineage. You animal you.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Audio: The Library of Babel

The greatest short story writer of all time, without a shadow of a doubt, is Jorge Luis Borges and his best short story, in my opinion at least, is "The Library of Babel". There is no way I can do the story justice in summary so just trust me on this, download the mp3 and have a listen. It's absolutely sublime.

And if you're keen to explore the philosophical implications of Borges' library, pick up a copy of Daniel Dennett's (magisterial) Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

Praxis #5 & Skeptics' Circle #102

Doctor Spurt, emerging lazily from a blogging-strike, hosts the 5th edition of Praxis, the carnival for academic types. Highlights: Michael Nielson on Malcolm Gladwell's use of the '10,000 hour rule'; Dr. Amy on Thabo Mbeki's disastrous AIDS policies; and The Quantum Pontiff on why open access is important.

Meanwhile, Bing is hosting the 102nd edition of the Skeptics' Circle. Recommended: Dr. Aust's Spleen on Mbeki and AIDS (again); Respectful Insolence on Egnor's creationist silliness and denialism blog on silly journalism.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Call for submissions

The 5th edition of our own little carnival - imaginatively named the Carnival of the Africans - is due to go up on the 28th over at Owen Swart's 01 and the universe. So, if you're an African science-y blogger or you've blogged about African science issues, please send your submissions to owen(dot)swart[at]gmail{dot}com. For more details, check out Owen's call for submissions...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My Mini-blog

A feature of this blog some of my readers might not be aware of is my mini-blog, that is, the articles, papers, essays and so on that I share with Google Reader. You see, I subscribe to a lot of feeds - 95 at the moment - including various journals, magazines, columns, science blogs, and science news sites. When I find something particularly interesting, amusing, or important, I 'share' it on Google Reader, which then automatically places it on my mini-blog feed. Anyway, check it out, you might find it useful.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Video: Atul Gawande

I don't think I've mentioned this before, but the surgeon and Harvard professor Atul Gawande is one of my favorite non-fiction authors - his lengthy articles for the New York Times, Slate and The New Yorker are just fabulous. I haven't had a chance to read either of his books yet, but I did watch a fantastic public lecture [73mb .m4v] he gave last year on his latest book, Better. The book, it seems, builds on a New Yorker article Gawande wrote back in 2004, in which he explored the somewhat surprising fact that the performance of medical doctors fits onto a bell curve. That is, some doctors, for reasons that are difficult to discern, are significantly better than others despite seemingly similar levels of skill, conscientiousness and professionalism. His conclusion is nicely summarized by the following:
We are used to thinking that a doctor’s ability depends mainly on science and skill. The lesson from [the preceding stories] is that these may be the easiest parts of care. Even doctors with great knowledge and technical skill can have mediocre results; more nebulous factors like aggressiveness and consistency and ingenuity can matter enormously.
Anyway, I highly recommend both the video and the article.

(Thanks to John McCoy for introducing me to Gawande's writing...).

Islamic creationism

Salman Hameed (who writes the blog Science and Religion News) has an interesting essay in this week's Science entitled "Bracing for Islamic Creationism". (I think it's freely available, but I'm not sure). The money shot:
[A]lthough the last couple of decades have seen an increasing confrontation over the teaching of evolution in the United States, the next major battle over evolution is likely to take place in the Muslim world (i.e., predominantly Islamic countries, as well as in countries where there are large Muslim populations). Relatively poor education standards, in combination with frequent misinformation about evolutionary ideas, make the Muslim world a fertile ground for rejection of the theory. In addition, there already exists a growing and highly influential Islamic creationist movement.

...

The message about evolution in the Islamic world needs to be framed in a way that emphasizes practical applications and show that it is the bedrock of modern biology--thereby capitalizing on the existing proscience attitude. The national academies of Muslim countries will need to tailor the specifics of the message according to the political and cultural realities of their respective countries. Religion in the Muslim world plays a much larger role in the social and cultural landscape, and thus, our discussions with the general public need to take that into account. As scientists, we should present, without compromise, the best available science. Evolutionary ideas about human origins may face serious obstacles, but a peaceful religious accommodation is also possible. However, efforts that link evolution with atheism will cut short the dialogue, and a vast majority of Muslims will reject evolution.
(Via: John Hawks).

Picture: Some Friday Fun

Science IS this absorbing. Srsly.

Encephalon 60

The 60th edition of the brainy / neurosciency / psychology'y blog carnival, Encephalon, is out at Living the Scientific Life. Highlights: Neurophilosophy on the body-swap illusion, Cognitive Daily on word-gustatory synesthesia (!!), and Podblack Cat on the psychology of paranormal beliefs.

Great edition... go, read!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Gladwell's latest

Malcolm Gladwell, the master scientific raconteur, is at it again with a New Yorker article (indirectly) about the Peter Principle. The principle, as many of you will know, states that "In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence"; which then raises the question of how to decide whether to give people a raise, or hire a person into a position a step up in the hierarchy. It's this latter question Gladwell address, arguing that there are several fields - NFL quarterbacks, teachers and financial advisers - where it is impossible to know whether a candidate will succeed or fail. An excerpt:
There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching.

...

In teaching, the implications are even more profound. They suggest that we shouldn’t be raising standards [for hiring teachers]. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with what we care about. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before... [The teaching profession] needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated.

Once again, say it with me now: p-a-r-e-i-d-o-l-i-a

No, the image at left is not the an apparition of the Virgin Mary. It's just your brain fooling you. It's not magic, it's a misinterpreted brain and nothing more. So, once again, folks, say it with me: pareidolia; that's /pæraɪˈdoʊliə/.

Sigh.

SGU 5 by 5, by the way, recently briefly explained the concept of pareidolia - listen [mp3] and be amazed.

(Hat tip: Mind Hacks).

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Saturday, December 6, 2008

New Scientist's Top 10 Brain Articles of 2008

New Scientist magazine has a interesting list of their Top 10 Brain Articles of 2008. My picks:

Technology Quarterly

The latest edition of The Economist's Technology Quarterly is out. The articles I found most interesting:

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Economist & Books

The Economist has released its list of the best books of the year ("pick of the pile" as they put it). I was especially pleased to see that Ben Goldacre's Bad Science made the list! Their brief review: "A fine lesson in how to skewer the enemies of reason and the peddlers of cant and half-truths".

There are a bunch of other cool-looking science (and non-science) books, so have a look...

African science blogrolling for December

So I've blogrolled like this before focusing on South African blogs alone, but I think African skeptical and science bloggers can use all the exposure they can get, so I'm going continent-wide. Before long, I hope, it will be impossible for me to maintain such a list but, for now, I looks doable. If you know about an African science or skeptical blog that is not on this list, please let me know!

Oh, and if you are on the list please do a blogrolling entry like this too - it'll be great exposure for everyone.

Grief hallucinations

Vaughn Bell, author of the mighty Mind Hacks, has a fascinating little article about grief hallucinations in Scientific American:
The dead stay with us, that much is clear. They remain in our hearts and minds, of course, but for many people they also linger in our senses—as sights, sounds, smells, touches or presences. Grief hallucinations are a normal reaction to bereavement but are rarely discussed, because people fear they might be considered insane or mentally destabilised by their loss. As a society we tend to associate hallucinations with things like drugs and mental illness, but we now know that hallucinations are common in sober healthy people and that they are more likely during times of stress.
(Also check out Vaughn's blog entry on the article.)

Prayer in SA schools

Science journalist Leonie Joubert has an excellent article in the Mail & Guardian taking on ANC president Jacob Zuma's support for daily prayer in South African schools. An excerpt:
The point, Jacob Zuma, is that we don't need pious school leavers; we need ones who are developing razor-keen skills so that they can keep this country on the road to modernity. I'd like some of them to become super-healers, the kinds of doctors, nurses and medical researchers who are so good at what they do that the ruling party won't have to suffer the indignity of sending its ailing leaders off to the hospitals of former colonisers to get decent medical treatment. So let's leave the teachers to do their jobs -- teach -- and spare them the distraction of daily incantations.
Joubert also writes a blog, Scorched... why hadn't I heard about her previously?!

(Via Skeptic South Africa).

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Skeptics' Circle 101: The African Edition

Welcome to the 101st instalment of the now venerable Skeptics' Circle, your fortnightly dose of reality, logic and critical thinking! Being the second time I've hosted the carnival, I figured I'd be the opposite of demure and seize the opportunity to promote African skepticism because the continent, you see, needs skepticism. Irrationality, of course, is a world-wide phenomenon to which Africans are no more or less susceptible and we aint no 'Dark Continent'. But Africa lacks, it seems to me, a sufficiently effective rational counter-insurgency and to get one off the ground, we need your help. That 300,000+ people died in South Africa due to AIDS denialism, that children in Nigeria are widely accused of witchcraft and that many other horrors attributable to false beliefs occur, is everyone's business. So... what can you do? Many things, but two stand out: (1) write about African skeptical topics and contribute to our carnival, and (2) read, support and promote at least one African skeptical or science blog. (Oh! And link to Stop Danie Krugel... we need your Google juice!).

The African Invasion

I have a large list of African science and skeptical blogs in my blogroll, under "African Science Blogroll" (please let me know if you know of any more!) but here are some notable blog entries from African skeptics over the last while...

First up is James Hough of Acinonyx Scepticus with a fascinating post on the application of evolutionary psychology's error management theory to scientific skepticism.

Owen Swart of 01 and the universe introduces and debunks the tokoloshe, a common Southern African superstition sure to interest many of you. (It's a bit like a really evil leprechaun).

Probably South Africa's best known skeptical activist is George Claassen, who runs Prometheus Unbound. George has two great recent entries: on 13 things we should tell our children and on creationist stupidity in the South African media.

Angela, The Skeptic Detective, admirably dissects a crazy quack chain email that claims rubbing Vicks Vaporub on your feet will cure your of a cough.

Finally, a couple of entries from a blog new to me, The Skeptical Blacksheep: silly Christians yet again being fooled by pareidolia and a deeply troubling instance of censorship at the CSRI (an important research outfit in South Africa).

Everybody else...

Leading the non-African pack is Techskeptic's Data Daily with an excellent explanation of why fMRI cannot be used to justify pseudoscience.

Skeptico explains how there is a big difference between race, sex, sexual orientation and handicap status on the one hand, and religion on the other, which means anti-discrimination laws cannot be used to justify banning 'blasphemy'.

Happy Spirochete of Ideas are Dangerous claims Michael Egnor is a stupid poopy head. I, for one, am not skeptical of that claim...

Greta Christina, in usual good form, explains that the universe is not perfect or 'fine tuned'.

Karen Stollznow, The Skepbitch, discusses bigfoot (aka Bigfootae Ambiguus Subjectico).

Next up is Scepticon (all the way from New Zealand, it seems), who interviews Alison Campbell (of BioBlog).

Also from Down Under is Kylie (the PodBlack Cat) on a play that promotes the 9/11 conspiracy nonsense. Who would have though such a thing possible?!

Aerik Knapp-Loomis has a challenging post about feminism and skepticism, specifically, he takes Phil Plait to task for allegedly sexist comments.

Politics and science. Science and politics. It'll never work... or at least not as long as a chiropractor is the Minister of Science, as is the case now in Canada, as Polite Company explains.

Our next host, Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes (how did he come up with that name?), has a Modest Proposal... (about drugs).

Next, Einar from Waffle ("Devoid of all delusions save those of observation, experience and reflection") reviews CS Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. To put it lightly, he was not impressed, and I can see why...

The Lay Scientist submitted an appropriately indignant post on science reporting so preposterously bad that even the NHS was pissed off.

Finally, there is Life, the Universe, and One Brow, with three posts skewering philosopher Thomas Nagel for claiming (among other things) that evolution and design are not alternatives.

AiG-obsessed Bing from Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes will host the next edition of the Circle on December 18th. If you'd like to contribute, check out the guidelines and then email your contributions to the host.

Unusual articles

I really love Wikipedia. And I don't mean love as in 'like' or 'find very useful', I mean love in the sense of deep uncompromising positive affect. Wikipedia is without a doubt one of the most important products of the internet and the greatest general encyclopaedia in history. (For a defence of Wikipedia against old fogies, see Clay Shirky's Bloggingheads.tv discussion with Will Wilkenson).

One beautiful illustration of Wikipedia's greatness is its comprehensive and fascinating list of unusual articles. A small sampling of the fun:

Nature vs. Mbeki

Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, has a freely available editorial this week on the cost of Thabo Mbeki's AIDS policies. An excerpt:

The needless deaths that occurred in South Africa prompt reflection on Mbeki's now infamous presidential AIDS advisory panel on the link between HIV and AIDS, the fate of which was chronicled in this journal in 2000–01. Its inconclusive report enabled Mbeki and his cabinet, who must bear collective responsibility, to portray this link as "deeply contested, and contestable", to quote Nattrass. Certainly, the AIDS dissidents (much criticized by Nature in the past) couldn't wait to participate in the panel. But should orthodox scientists have signed up?

Even in retrospect, this is a difficult question to answer. Once leading South African scientists, such as Malegapuru Makgoba, then president of the South African Medical Research Council and an outspoken critic of Mbeki, had agreed to do so, others were bound to follow suit in support. In turn, members from outside of the country in good faith believed that their colleagues deserved similar support, and so agreed to participate. Ultimately it became clear that these efforts were a waste of time, as there was no possibility of consensus being reached among the panel's two diametrically opposed camps.

The editorial also mentions that UCT economist Nicoli Nattrass (a previous lecturer of mine) made a very similar estimate of the lives lost to South Africa's idiotic policies in a study published earlier this year.

Thabo Mbeki is no doubt experiencing immense cognitive dissonance at the moment. I don't want to sound callous, but I hope he's not sleeping.

Goodbye HM

Patient HM, one of the most important subjects in neuroscience research for over 50 years, has passed away.

Donate processing time

Do you have a computer? Do you sometimes not use it? Well, then you can help to do important basic scientific research by donating your computer's idle processing capacity to a distributed computing project. The easiest way to help out is to download the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing software package (Wikipedia description here), which then lets you choose between several worthy projects. (I chose SETI@home... I want to know, rather than strongly suspect, that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe).

Another (more than) worthy project is FightAIDS@Home (which requires different software to the above). Oh, and you can also play a game to help determine protein structure...

Top 100 Anthropology Blogs

Rather oddly given that I'm not an anthropologist and this isn't an anthropology blog, Ionian Enchantment has been featured on a list of the Top 100 Anthropology Blogs. Woohoo!
(I think).

John Hakws Weblog, by the way, is a must read if you haven't seen it previously.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Irrationality kills

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki is a good, intelligent and hard-working man dedicated to improving the lives of all South Africans. And yet, tragically, he rejected the scientific consensus that HIV causes AIDS and consequently held up the roll-out of effective anti-retroviral drugs. A new study (pdf) by Harvard-based researchers estimates that Mbeki's policies can plausibly be blamed for 365 000 early AIDS deaths and the loss of at least 3.8 million person-years. This rather reminds me of Steven Weinberg's deservedly famous quote:
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
Except, in this case, religion wasn't to blame, it was a kind of weirdly diffuse but prickly anti-Western pro-Africanist ideology. This ideology - quite possibly, it seems to me, one outgrowth of Mbeki's painful emotional insecurity - predisposed Mbeki to reject science and logic precisely because he thought of it as "Western". And, perhaps more importantly, if the orthodox explanation for AIDS were correct, it would imply, Mbeki thought, that Africans were uniquely sexually voracious, for how else could you explain the fact that Africa has by far the highest incidence? All these worries are reflected in a newly released letter (almost certainly drafted by the president himself) that Mbeki's office sent to the then head of the Medical Research Council, William Makgoba in December 2000.

I'm not going to deconstruct Mbeki's letter in detail - I don't have the time or patience and, besides, it would an exercise in futility. But I will note that there just is no meaningful sense in which science is "Western". While science no doubt arose in the West (in Western Europe during the Age of Reason to be precise) that obviously doesn't mean it cannot be a universally good way of finding out what's true. And, to address Mbeki's other concern, Africans are not uniquely licentious, HIV is more common here because it arose on the continent possibly as far back as 1884 and thus became endemic. (Moreover, there is evidence that, due to the Black Plague of all things, people of European descent are fortuitously less prone to be infected (pdf) and, due to malaria of all things, people of African descent are fortuitously more prone to be infected).

Anyway, two breathtakingly silly quotes from Mbeki's letter if you can't stand reading the whole thing:

Among the socio-biological factors that have shaped our society over three and a half centuries are the western scientists who helped to create the psychological dependence that obliged Africans to depend on these western scientists for solutions to problems they were otherwise uniquely positioned to solve.

These are the people who created the ‘Eurocentric African university' which you sought to overthrow and replace with a truly African University.

It is they who created a "scientific" view of the African that made us the very essence of everything despicable in human society and behaviour.

(...)

What is said is that the questions the President is raising were answered by western scientists at least 15 years ago.

It is also said that the ‘dissidents' the President speaks to lost the scientific argument to other western scientists at least 15 years ago.

After this seemingly powerful argument, it is assumed and intended that our President should then admit the error of his ways with regard to the matter of HIV/AIDS and shut up!

All that is said is that Western science long made a ruling!

The question is then asked - what right does a non-scientist have, such as our President, to question matters that science in Britain, France, Portugal and the United States answered many years ago!

The real question however that those who oppose President Mbeki are asking is, what right does any African have to question the findings of western science, regardless of whether he or she is a scientist or not!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

NYT 100 Notable Books

The NY Times has released the 2008 edition of its annual list of 100 notable books of the year. There are a bunch of fascinating-looking books, so check it out. Books that caught my attention (all from the non-fiction section):

  • CHASING THE FLAME: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World. By Samantha Power. (Penguin Press, $32.95.) Vieira de Mello, who was killed in Iraq in 2003, embodied both the idealism and the limitations of the United Nations, which he served long and loyally.
  • DESCARTES’ BONES: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. By Russell Shorto. (Doubleday, $26.) Shorto’s smart, elegant study turns the early separation of Descartes’s skull from the rest of his remains into an irresistible metaphor.
  • THE DRUNKARD’S WALK: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. By Leonard Mlodinow. (Pantheon, $24.95.) This breezy crash course intersperses probabilistic mind-benders with profiles of theorists.
  • FACTORY GIRLS: From Village to City in a Changing China. By Leslie T. Chang. (Spiegel & Grau, $26.) Chang’s engrossing account delves deeply into the lives of young migrant workers in southern China.
  • THE SUPERORGANISM: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies. By Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson. (Norton, $55.) The central conceit of this astonishing study is that an insect colony is a single animal raised to a higher level.
  • THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. By David Hajdu. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) A worthy history of the midcentury crusade against the comics industry.
  • TRAFFIC: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us). By Tom Vanderbilt. (Knopf, $24.95.) A surprising, enlightening look at the psychology of the human beings behind the steering wheels.

Video: Brian Ferguson on war

Rutgers professor Brain Ferguson is one of the leading anthropologists of war and in the Bloggingheads.tv interview embedded below (or click here) he argues the evolutionary state of nature was not Hobbesian (i.e. warlike), but broadly Rousseauian (i.e. peaceful). To be clear, Ferguson does not deny that warfare exists worldwide, his position is that it emerged in the Mesolithic and that the Paleolithic - the period during which humans evolved - was therefore largely peaceful. Ferguson discusses, among other things, Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilization (which I reviewed here), Azar Gat's War in Human Civilization (which I read recently and will hopefully review soon), Wrangham & Peterson's Demonic Males and Napoleon Chagnon's influential Science paper "Life Histories, Blood Revenge and Warfare in a Tribal Population".

While I don't agree with Ferguson's conclusion, the interview is highly recommended if you are at all interested in prehistory or human evolution.

Quote: Lionel Tiger

I dare say that it remains overwhelmingly the case in the social sciences that almost everywhere it is possible to receive a doctoral degree without studying any other species than humans. Even then, the work is likely to involve people and their behavior in the past generation and in a highly limited geographical area. This is wholly understandable, yet intellectually, it is akin to studying the whole of geology but focusing exclusively on Minnesota or doing botany while ignoring photosynthesis.

The great divide in anthropology

There is a rather simplistic, but nonetheless interesting, article in the Times Higher Education Supplement on the great divide in anthropology between evolutionary and socio-cultural anthropologists. An excerpt:

On one side are the evolutionary anthropologists. "(They believe) our behaviour is based on things that we did to find mates in our years of evolution," says Alex Bentley, a lecturer in anthropology at Durham University. "Then we have the social anthropologists. Some of them really strongly reject this kind of thinking. They consider it reductionist. They are focused on the specifics of culture."

Put crudely, social anthropologists describe and compare the development of human cultures and societies, while evolutionary anthropologists seek to explain it by reference to our biological evolution. The two sides of the one discipline are struggling to unite.

Do also have a look at the comments, there are some real corkers...

Picture: Atheist tombstone

Funny stuff indeed (via Digg):


Not quite as good as Spike Milligan's epitaph: "Duirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite" or Irish for "I told you I was ill."

Skeptics Circle 100

I'm very late on this... but, anyway, the 100th edition of the Skeptics' Circle is out over at Respectful Insolence. Highlights: Dr. Aust's Spleen on William Rivers and the history of the double-blind trial (particularly recommended), Hyphoid Logic on Obama-as-anti-Christ silliness, Action Skeptics on the virtue of doubt and Cutting Through the Crap on religious belief.

I'm hosting the next Circle, so please email your contributions to ionian[dot]enchantment{at}gmail(dot)com. The edition will go up at around 10am GMT on December 4th, so get them to me before then!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Skepticism and the Long Tail

Tim Farley, creator of What's The Harm? and author of the blog Skeptical Software Tools, has an interesting post entitled "The Long Tail of Skeptical Wesbites". He argues, among other things, that skeptics should focus less on general websites covering many topics and start creating one-topic websites that will rank highly in Google. In other words, we need fewer blogs (like this one...) and more sites like Stop Danie Krugel.

As I said, interesting and provocative. Check it out.

Quackery in South Africa

I'm really not a big fan of journalists, they too often get things terribly wrong, especially when it comes to science or complicated political matters. So I was very surprised - and overjoyed - to find the article Quackery is big business in SA in The Witness. The journalists, Anna-Maria Lombard, Anso Thom and Kerry Cullinan, report on and condemn various medical health scams perpetrated by quacks in South Africa's big cites.

Let's hope the Health Department under Barbara Hogan (the new Minister) starts doing something about these outrageous practices.

The dizzying diversity of human sexual strategies

New Scientist magazine has an interesting article on the huge diversity of human sexual strategies. The article mainly focuses on a construct known as sociosexuality, the tendency to prefer either restricted or unrestricted sex. An excerpt:
Of course, it is not that simple. Women can be as sexually unrestrained as men. In fact, there is a huge overlap in the sociosexuality scores of men and women, with more variation within the sexes than between them. Some researchers are now trying to explain these subtleties in terms of biology and evolution.

Take the fact that women's interest in casual sex can vary wildly over time. A hint that these short-term sexual encounters might have biological and evolutionary advantages comes from the timing of them. Several studies have shown that women are more likely to fancy a fling around the time they are ovulating - although there is no suggestion that this is a conscious decision. Not only that, says David Schmitt of Bradley University, Illinois, women show a shift in preference to men who look more masculine and symmetrical - both indicators of good genes. Women may have a dual strategy going, suggests Schmitt. "Humans infants need a lot of help, so we have pair-bonding where males and females help raise a child, but the woman can obtain good genes - perhaps better genes than from the husband - through short-term mating right before ovulation."
This rather reminds me of David Buss's answer to this year's Edge.org question, "What have you changed your mind about?" (which I blogged about here). Buss said he had realized that female sexual psychology is significantly more complicated than he had previously thought. Just so.