Thursday, January 29, 2009

Carnival of the Africans #6

The 6th edition of the Carnival of the Africans is out over at The Skeptic Detective. Highlights: subtle shift in emphasis on Danie Krugel's pathetic dowsing and on the homeopath Jeremy Sherr's irresponsible promotion of quackery in Africa, Simon at Amanuensis on transitivity in the rhesus macaque, and Doctor Spurt of Effortless Incitement on how values influence taste. There's much more to explore -- so get check it out!

The Lay Scientist will host the next edition of the carnival on February 28th. If you'd like to participate, have a look at the guidelines and contact to host. If you'd like to host the carnival itself, contact me...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Financial feng shui bollocks

The world faces its greatest financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression. If there was ever a time to make prudent, rational, decisions based on a clear-sighted analysis of the facts, now is it. And yet Reuters decided to publish this piece of utter nonsense about what feng shui “masters” predict for the rest of the financial year. (I first saw it syndicated in the business section of South Africa’s Sunday Independent). Apparently, 2009 is the “Year of the Ox” and also a “yin earth” year, which means it “will be the most peaceful year globally since 2000” and the markets will thus be “calmer, if subdued”. Vincent Koh, a Singaporean feng shui “master”, advises that you avoid “high-risk assets” and remain patient. He also thinks banks will “continue to be reluctant to lend”, diseases will spread and natural disasters (landslides, floods and earthquakes) will strike the northern hemisphere (but not exclusively).

Sigh. I probably don’t need to say this, but there is just no reason at all to think that feng shui is anything other than silly superstition invented when humanity didn’t know any better. (Yes, it’s ancient. But that doesn’t mean anything). Feng shui may be interesting, or stimulating, or valuable in some vague sense, but it’s very likely false and it’s almost certainly worthless as a tool for predicting the future or ‘attracting wealth’. Look at those predictions again: they’re almost all either uselessly vague or high-probability hits. You don’t need a magical ability to detect 'metaphysical energies' to tell you 2009 will likely be calmer than 2008 – last year was so tumultuous that regression to the mean alone predicts that. And of course diseases will spread, landslides will occur, floods will sweep in and earthquakes will strike. That happens every year. And of course most of these will occur in the northern hemisphere: there are more people there (so we’re more likely to hear about it) and there is more land there (so they’re more likely to occur in the first place). And, of course avoiding “high-risk assets” is a good idea. But my gran could have told you that. And of course banks will still be reluctant to lend, it’s still not clear how much certain toxic assets are worth (if anything at all), so banks continue to be risk averse.

Despite some token skepticism in the article about how financial feng shui doesn't have a great track record, overall, the article is credulous crud. The Reuters editors ought to be ashamed of themselves for publishing such irresponsible and irrational bollocks.

Encephalon #62

The 62nd edition of Encephalon is out at The Mouse Trap. Highlights: Maria Goddard at Brain Blogger on the psychology of face transplants, Neurological Correlates on the neurology of stalking, Highlight Health on metabolism, evolution and schizophrenia, and The Neurocritic on voodoo correlations in social neuroscience.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Carnival of the Africans -- call for submissions

The wonderful and HAWT Angela from The Skeptic Detective is hosting the next edition of our little skepticism and science carnival, the Carnival of the Africans. If you'd like to participate, check out the guidelines and then send your submissions to skepticdetective(at)gmail{dot}com... Also, Angela's call for submisions is here.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Homeopathy in Africa

Estimated number of people in the world living...Image via WikipediaI just found out via the excellent Lay Scientist that a homeopathy quack, one Jeremy Sherr, is up to no good in Africa. Sherr, apparently a big-time homeopath (whatever that amounts to), thinks homeopathy is the solution to the AIDS pandemic in Africa, so he decided to travel to Tanzania to treat patients and conduct trails. To document his activities and garner support, he started a blog, Jeremy's Journal from Africa. Inexcusably and pathetically, once he was called-out, he started deleting and editing posts, and censoring comments. Luckily, several of his posts were saved so we can confirm that he really is an irresponsible loon who has no business near any patients, let alone ones who suffer from a serious, life-threatening illness.

Mr. Sherr, get the hell out of Africa and take your silly magic water pills with you

Skeptics' Circle #103

The 103rd edition of the Skeptic's Circle is out at Bug Girl's Blog. Highlights: Dr. Aust's Spleen on Rath vs Goldacre and also on Singh vs the British chiropractors, The Skepbitch on psychic hotlines, and Mike's Weekly Skeptic Rant with a primer on skepticism.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I, Procrastinate

Sometimes I procrastinate. Tonight, I spent a good 5 minutes creating a tag cloud out of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1st edition) using the very cool Nothing surprising, but still pretty interesting.

(Inspiration: this Marginal Revolution post).

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


The NYT op-ed columnist David Brooks writes in his latest piece, "In Defense of Death," about prominent religious leader Richard Neuhaus and how he "used death to mystify life". What struck me is that Neuhaus seems to have had a hypnogogic hallucination, which he then misinterpreted as a message from beyond. Here's Neuhaus' description of the event, in full.

It was a couple of days after leaving intensive care, and it was night. I could hear patients in adjoining rooms moaning and mumbling and occasionally calling out; the surrounding medical machines were pumping and sucking and bleeping as usual. Then, all of a sudden, I was jerked into an utterly lucid state of awareness. I was sitting up in the bed staring intently into the darkness, although in fact I knew my body was lying flat. What I was staring at was a color like blue and purple, and vaguely in the form of hanging drapery. By the drapery were two “presences.” I saw them and yet did not see them, and I cannot explain that. But they were there, and I knew that I was not tied to the bed. I was able and prepared to get up and go somewhere. And then the presences—one or both of them, I do not know—spoke. This I heard clearly. Not in an ordinary way, for I cannot remember anything about the voice. But the message was beyond mistaking: “Everything is ready now.”

That was it. They waited for a while, maybe for a minute. Whether they were waiting for a response or just waiting to see whether I had received the message, I don’t know. “Everything is ready now.” It was not in the form of a command, nor was it an invitation to do anything. They were just letting me know. Then they were gone, and I was again flat on my back with my mind racing wildly. I had an iron resolve to determine right then and there what had happened. Had I been dreaming? In no way. I was then and was now as lucid and wide awake as I had ever been in my life.

This is classic hypogogia: it was night, so Neuhaus was quite possibly falling asleep or waking up as he had the experience, he was awake and lucid (but stationary), he experienced a proprioperceptory illusion (thinking he was upright when he wasn't), and there are ill-defined "presences" in the room. Neuhaus then simply interpreted his experience in the light of his pre-existing Christian beliefs.

In one of the very first posts on the blog, I wrote about how compelling an illusion like this can be and how we should take the experiences seriously and not belittle those who have them. Nonetheless, the interpretation of any such experience is a matter for science and, in this case, it seems clear hypnogogia is a far better explanation than visiting spooks.

South African astronomy

Photograph of :en:Knockin radio telescope, Kno...Image via WikipediaThis is seriously off topic, but anyway... The Blog has an interesting interview with Benne Holwerda, a University of Cape Town astronomy postdoc, about South Africa's bid for the giant Square Kilometer Array radio telescope. Especially good news is that South Africa is already building MeerKAT, a technology development and pathfinder array, which will do some seriously cool science whether or not South Africa gets the SKA. Hearteningly, there are various scholarships attached to both these projects, so they look set to contribute to the creation of a flourishing astronomy community in the country.
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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

African science blogrolling for January

I try my best to promote African science and skepticism blogging and this blogrolling post is one of the most efficient means available to me: it drives traffic to the blogs included (hopefully!), ups Technorati authority all round, provides Google juice and generally spreads awareness. You, too, can help: please consider (a) adding the blogroll and (b) doing a blogrolling entry like this one. (And make sure you're a member of Afrigator and Technorati). To make your lives a bit easier: here is a .txt file containing the HTML of the list of blogs (so you can easily create an entry like this one) and here is an OPML file of the blogroll (so you can easily import it).

N.B.: If you know about an African science or skeptical blog that is not on this list, please let me know!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

2008 Weblog Awards

Voting is open in the 2008 Weblog Awards... I voted for Neurologica (Steven Novella) in the Science Blog category, for Ask a Ninja for Best Video Blog, for Respectful Insolence for Best Medical / Health Blog, and for xkcd for Best Comic Strip.

Consider at least voting in the Science Blog category -- unfortunately, a couple of global warming-denialist blogs are in the running.

Wiseman blogs...

Richard Wiseman, "the Quirkologist" and the world's only professor of the public understanding of psychology, has finally started a blog... Go read!

(Via Skepchick).

Monday, January 5, 2009

Understanding Science

The Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science has declared 2009 the Year of Science. As part of this initiative, they've launched an excellent new website: Understanding Science. Hearteningly, the website focuses not on the content of science but on the process of science. Especially check out Understanding Science 101 and this great visualization of how science works.

For Google:
Science. How science works. Scientific explanation. Learn science. Become a scientist. Science 101. Science introduction. Science intro. What science is.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

God & Africa

I rarely get really righteously indignant. But this bollocks by Matthew Parris that 'Africa needs God' pisses me off. So Parris, a South African-born English journalist and "confirmed atheist", traveled to Malawi and became convinced that Christianity makes an enormous contribution to Africa, distinct from its charity work. 'The rural African mind', you see, is deeply superstitious and fearful (its bugbears are 'evil spirits, ancestors, nature and the wild, tribal hierarchy, and quite everyday things') and focuses on 'the collective', which "grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity". Christianity, Parris contends, "smashes straight through [this] philosphical [sic]/spiritual framework" and, unlike other Africans, its converts thus "stand tall" and are 'liberated, relaxed, lively, engaged with the world, and curious'. "Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation," he concludes, "may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete."

There is so much wrong with this that I don't really know where to begin. But... The rural African mind? Wtf is the definite article doing in there? Let's do some revision, shall we? According to Wikipedia, Africa covers over 20% of the Earth's land surface and has almost a billion inhabitants, over 2,000 languages, hundreds of ethnic groups, and extremely diverse religious beliefs. (Traditional African religious beliefs are even more disparate). Generalizing about such a large number of diverse people strewn across a huge continent is difficult at best, and literally impossible without rigorous and statistically representative surveys. Wandering semi-randomly across the continent making biased observations will never, ever, equip you to make valid generalizations about Africa. (I'm not saying one cannot generalize, I'm saying doing so is impossible without proper statistics). At the absolutely minimum, then, Parris presents no evidence that his characterization of 'the rural African mind' is accurate or captures even a small amount of the variance in beliefs.

Similarly, Parris presents no compelling evidence for his hypothesis that conversion to Christianity causes Africans to 'stand tall'. All we get from him are some anecdotes: non-Christians are fearful and superstitious and Christians aren't. (Apparently, believing in a cosmic Jewish Zombie isn't an example of superstition). Someone really needs to tell Parris about confirmation bias: he sees support for his hypothesis everywhere only because he expects to and ignores disconfirming instances. Moreover, in the absence of experimental control, it is impossible to determine the direction of causality even if we grant the existence of a correlation: does Christianity make Africans more confident and curious (etc.) or do more confident and curious Africans become Christians in larger numbers? Or is there a third-factor (access to the education and support Christian charities provide, for example) that accounts for both? Pariss makes no observations that can distinguish between these alternatives.

Furthermore, why does Africa specifically need Christianity? While I grant that some ideologies may be more conducive to economic and societal success than others, Parris presents no evidence that Christianity (let alone only Christianity) is the right sort of ideology for Africa. Does Islam not "smash through" the African "philosphical [sic]/spiritual framework"? (Assuming such a thing exists and needs smashing). Does communism not teach people to "stand tall"? How about Afrocentrism? Or humanism? Or liberalism? Or, for that matter, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, or Frisbeetarianism? Is there any reason to think that the only (or best) way to a better future for Africa is via a detour through the Bible? Is cultural evolution strictly linear, so that Africans can only reach Europe's vaunted current state by going through a period of Christian superstition? Apart from asserting the tautology that one belief system must be replaced with another, Parris addresses none of these questions.

Parris, in short, overgeneralizes crassly, leaps to unwarranted conclusions, ignores a multitude of confounds, pays no attention to complexities, and disregards possibly disconfirming evidence. That his conclusion is also deeply insulting, borderline racist and mind-bogglingly patronizing is, of course, strictly irrelevant to its truth. Had he presented some evidence for his conclusion, I wouldn't have minded as much. But that he confidently asserts such an insulting proposition without any reasonably good evidence whatsoever is entirely unacceptable.

Mr. Parris, shut up.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Open Lab 2008

Bora at A Blog Around the Clock has released the list of entries to be included in this year's Open Labratory (a book published each year with a selection of the best blog posts around). A couple of picks:

Audio: Singh on Point of Inquiry

Simon Singh, the British science journalist and co-author of the excellent Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial (which I reviewed here), is this week's guest on the podcast Point of Inquiry. (Singh also appeared on The Skeptics Guide to the Universe a while back). I highly recommend the interview: alternative medicine is an interesting and important subject, DJ Grothe is an excellent host and Singh is reasonable and very knowledgeable.

I wonder if Edzard Ernst (Singh's co-author) has appeared on any (English) podcasts or radio shows about the book... anyone know?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Edge Question 2009

Every year asks a group of notable thinkers a provocative question and the resulting answers usually makes for fascinating and thought-provoking reading. (I blogged about last year's question here). This year's question is "What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?". I must say, I'm not a fan of the question: I agree with Pinker that it's an invitation to speculate wantonly... and look really dumb in 50 years. Human beings just aren't very good at predicting the future, and it seems likely that many things that won't change anything have been prophesied and the things that will change (nearly) everything have not. That said, several of the respondents focused on the relatively short-term and their speculations are therefore significantly more reasonable and interesting. My picks from among the latter:

Chris Anderson (the TED curator, not Wired editor) argues there will be a revolution in education due to the internet. Some of the best lecturers and teachers in the world, he says, will soon be available via video to anyone for free, unleashing a torrent of previously untapped talent and potential.

Jonathan Haidt's answer may prove to be the most controversial: the recent conclusion that evolution by natural selection may operate significantly faster than previously thought, he says, suggests there are significant biological differences between human groups. (He's careful to argue that these groups will likely not map onto social constructs like race).

Sam Harris thinks accurate and reliable lie-detectors will be invented in the next couple of decades, assuring that, whenever the stakes are high, truth-telling will be taken for granted.

Laurence Krauss' answer is deeply depressing, mostly because it's so plausible: the use of nuclear weapons against a civilian population. A nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, for example, is certainly possible and Krauss is right that the consequences (social, political, environmental, intellectual) would be immense.

Nicholas Humphrey argues, in effect, that nothing will change everything because human nature is stubbornly persistent. We are far more technologically advanced than the Romans, he points out, but the major themes of the human biography - sex, children, politics, intrigue and so on - remain unchanged.

Craig Venter, predictably, thinks synthetic biology will change everything. He's probably right.

Other titbits:

Why oh why does the pseudoscientist and crackpot Rupert Sheldrake keep being included in this exercise? This time round Sheldrake argues the end of materialism is nigh. Sigh.

PZ Myers produced a wonderfully quotable quote: "We are not the progeny of gods, we are the children of worms; not the product of divine planning, but of cruel chance and ages of brutal winnowing."

The youngest respondent seems to be David Dalrymple, a 17 year-old MIT graduate student. Wow.

(Via: The Thinking Meat Project)

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Change in Academia

I recently came across a very interesting new blog: Gideon Burton's Academic Evolution (tag line: "the order is changing, the change needs order") about the impact of Web 2.0 and associated developments on academia. Burton, a professor at Brigham Young University, has maintained a more general blog since late 2007, but created a breakaway blog in the hopes of emulating Chris Anderson (of "The Long Tail" and Wired fame) by writing a book via a blog.

Anyway, check out the blog -- it's certainly worth a read. Relatedly... Nature has an editorial out questioning the use of metric-based research assessment.