Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dennett in South Africa

So I advertized Daniel Dennett's talk at UKZN the other day, but if you couldn't go, some good news: Dennett is giving a couple of more talks in South Africa in the next week. First he'll lecture at SciFest (in Grahamstown) on April 28th (program) on "How materialism transforms our understanding of consciousness", then he'll deliver the TB Davis Memorial Lecture on March 31st at the University of Cape Town on "What should you be free to teach your children about religion?" (press release) and, finally, on April 1st he's at Stellenbosch University with a talk entitled "From animal to person" (press release).

If you're in any of these towns -- go to these events! You will not be disappointed.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

SA blog awards -- go vote

The finalists have been announced for the SA blog awards and, though I didn't make, there is good news: Angela of The Skeptic Detective did! She's up for the best SA Science and Technology blog. Please go vote for her! (Note: you need to submit your email address and then click on a confirmation email). Unfortunately, the Sci-Tech category is light on the Sci and heavy on the Tech, so Angela is the only science blog in sight, which is even more reason to vote for her...

Oh. And full disclosure: Angela is my girlfriend. So, I might be biased.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Carnival of the Africans -- call for submissions

It's almost time for the 8th Carnival of the Africans, the premier (and only...) carnival dedicated to African science and skepticism. And... it'll be hosted right here on Ionian Enchantment! Please check out the guidelines, and then send your submissions to me at

Get writing folks, let's make this edition the best one yet!

Clay Shirky on newspapers and the web

Ok, so this is seriously off topic, but Clay Shirky's post about the impact of the web on newspapers, and the revolution in how we manage information more generally, is an absolute must read. Shirky argues, in brief, that there is nothing natural or inevitable about how journalism is current conducted -- it's simply a product of the economics of the printing press. And, rather disconcertingly, we simply don't know -- can't know -- what system will replace the current one. A snippet:
Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.
With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

Dennett in Durbs

The great Daniel Dennett, cognitive scientist and philosopher of mind, will be speaking at the University of KwaZulu Natal on Wednesday, March 25th, 2009 at 17:20 for 17:30. The venue is at the Howard College campus (map) in the L5 Lecture Theater (map).

All are welcome!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Skeptics' Circle #107

The 107th -- podcast! -- edition of the Skeptics' Circle is out over at The Skeptics Field Guide. (The mp3 is here). Some eye-catching posts: Religion, Sets, and Politics on electronics and the supernatural, Whiskey Before Breakfast on stunning creationist ignorance, and Verbal Razors on yet more feng shui bollocks.

Picture: A High-Resolution Map of Science

This map of science (from this PLoS paper) is awesome:

(Yes, yes. We must be careful about how we interpret this, the methodology must be carefully checked and the limitations spelled out, etc. But it's pretty. And interesting).

Monday, March 16, 2009

Encephalon #66: The No-Frills, No-Fuss Edition

Welcome to the 66th installment of the venerable Encephalon -- the premier brainy / psychology-y blog carnival! My hosting philosophy is to be minimalist, so I figured I'd make this an official no-frills, no-fuss edition, presented with 'just the facts, ma'am' (with apologies to Orac).

Scicurious of Neurotopia is first up and has a lengthy and fantastic piece on how the serotonin theory of depression is wrong, or at least incomplete. This submission is the 4th installment in a series of posts about depression, all most certainly worth checking out.

The most excellent Neurocritic does his neurocritical thing about a study that claimed (to put it very crudely) that atheists are neurotic and religious zealots are antisocial. It turns out the paper uses the same methods as Amodio et. al., the study that got a lot of attention in 2007 and was one of the very first things I wrote about on my blog (I now think I was rather too kind).

Dr. Spurt (yes, there is an interesting story behind this pseudonym) of Effortless Incitement summarizes the findings of a fascinating ("sociobiological") study that found knowledge about whether a sibling is dead or alive varies by relatedness.

I don't think Mo of Neurophilosophy needs an introduction at this point. Go read his posts on the brain mechanisms seemingly involved in Freudian repression and on how spatial memories are encoded.

The Neuroanthropology co-authors, Greg and Daniel, has a post each in this edition. The former asked: is Facebook bad for you? (AKA 'there is technophobia afoot'). And the latter wrote about the four steps of addiction (viz. vulnerability, training, intentions, and meaning).

Sandeep, from The Mouse Trap, has two posts in this edition: the first is on a paper in PNAS that argued that religiosity can be devolved into three underlying factors, all relating to the Theory of Mind circuitry. Sandeep's second post on the fascinating contention that schizophrenia is due to heightened attribution of agency.

Next up (from Down Under), is the Podblack Cat, who submitted a cool and decidedly quirky post about poetry and expert performance. I must say I never expected to have to conjoin those two clauses...

Dr. Shock (who writes a Neurostimulating blog...) covers a study that investigated why online gaming is so popular. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, participants most often cited socializing as their reason for gaming.

Lastly... two posts from Brain Blogger. Joseph Kim (MD & MPH, nogal) covers a possible new treatment for chronic migraines: nerve stimulation therapy. And Sajid Surve surveys the challenges faced in creating pluripotent stem cells.

Late addition: Sharp Brains on a new study that supports neurofeedback as a treatment for ADHD and a two-parter on Maggie Jackson's book on distraction.

That's it!! Neuroskeptic will host the next edition of this carnival on March 30th, so, as usual, please email your submissions to encephalon{dot}host{at}gmail{dot}com.

2009 SA blog awards

Note: if you do want to nominate a blog, you need to register with your email address, not just click on the links.

Nominations are open for the 2009 SA blog awards... Have a look at the rules and then nominate some blogs! If you think I'm worthy (indeed, only if you do) you can nominate me in the Science and Technology category by clicking here or on the SA Blog Awards widget at right. Please also consider nominating some of the other excellent skeptical blogs from South Africa!

Video: Fun with the Dandy Warhols

Some random fun with the most excellent Dandy Warhols...

Books III

I do book reviews once in a while, but I've been naughty and haven't done one in months... To make up for it, here are no less that 8 mini-reviews.

Somewhat strangely, I was introduced to the theory of evolution by natural selection (while I was in high school) through evolutionary psychology, specifically, through Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works. And, following Pinker’s references, I read Dawkins, Dennett, Cosmides, Tooby and that crowd. To put it mildly, Stephen Jay Gould was never popular with these writers so I found myself being suspicious of and vaguely hostile to Gould, despite having read only bits of his work. When I came across a collection of Gould’s writings, The Richness of Life, in a bookshop last year it struck me how unreasonable this attitude was: partisans never paint a flattering picture of their opponents. I would have to read Gould himself to come to a fair assessment. So I bought the book and read all 600+ pages and I am extremely glad I did. Gould was without doubt a masterful essayist, a stupendously gifted writer, enormously erudite and capable of making charming connections between seemingly disparate topics. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Gould was one of the greatest 20th century essayists, up there with Medawar and Berlin.
That is not to say that I agree with Gould about everything or that I think his work was uniformly excellent. On the contrary, I think “The Spandrels of San Marco” was a travesty (and unoriginal to boot), and “More Things in Heaven and Earth” (his infamous New York Review of Books piece) was just horrendous. Gould's views about evolutionary psychology (“ultra-Darwinism” he called it) and the evolution of the human mind generally were silly. And, the actions of Science For the People – with which Gould was centrally involved – were inexcusable. Moreover, Gould misled the public because he failed to be clear about when he was explaining or illustrating settled science and when he was engaging in partisan debate.
All that said, I don’t think we should condemn him too much: it’s human (‘all too human’) to be led astray by one’s passionate political and moral convictions. Besides, there is no doubt that nearly anyone has much to learn from Gould and that his essays are, on the whole, delightful, cogent and enlightening. Read Gould (but with eyes open and pinches of salt at the ready).

Unfortunately, South Africa does not have very many science journalists who know their stuff (see George Claassen on this point), so we better support and treasure the ones we do have. Leonie Joubert (who blogs and has a Mail & Guardian column) is certainly on the side of science and reason and, yes, she knows her stuff. Scorched, her first book, is a riveting and beautiful account of the science of climate change and the projected effect this will have on South Africa. While not perfect (there are a few stylistic solecisms, there are missing references and Joubert sometimes bombards her readers with facts) Scorched ought to be widely read. The South African reality-based community, at a minimum, should all go out and buy this book and policy-makers would do well to pay attention.

The Tipping Point, published in 2000, is Malcolm Gladwell’s first book and though it is considerably less serious than his subsequent offerings, it is still worth a read. (It helps that it is short and very easy to read – I finished it in a couple of hours). The book, says Gladwell, is a biography of an idea: that products, messages and behaviors spread like epidemics. Broadly speaking, then, Gladwell is popularizing a kind of memetics, with the addition that ‘little causes can have big effects’ and that there can thus be dramatic and rapid changes when the Tipping Point is crossed. Gladwell illustrates these ideas with his trademark case studies and anecdotes, in this case, the sudden popularity of Hush Puppies in the 1990s, the dramatic fall in crime in New York, the success of Sesame Street, suicide in Micronesia, and others. Along the way, he outlines three ‘rules’ of the Tipping Point: the Law of the Few (“a tiny percentage of people do the majority of the work” [p. 19] and these people can be divided into Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen), the Stickiness Factor (“there are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable” [p. 25], often by tinkering at the margins [p. 131]), and the Power of Context (“human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they might seem” [p. 29]).
Gladwell has often been criticized for being unoriginal and not particularly rigorous and, frankly, I mostly agree. Indeed, Gladwell has admitted to the former (he’s a popularizer of science, not a scientist). The latter charge is more damning and is in evidence throughout the book. The ‘rules’ of the Tipping Point, for instance, are extremely vague, even when fleshed out considerably more than above, and there are no doubt many exceptions. Moreover, several of Gladwell’s examples are rather pat – he seems to simplify complicated phenomena for the sake of narrative clarity. For example, the story Gladwell tells about how HIV spread in North America – through so-called Patient Zero, Gaetan Dugas – crudely simplifies the real situation, and has been disputed.
Nevertheless, Gladwell remains my favorite science journalist, despite his flaws. I read his articles and his books because they introduce me to interesting research, which I can (and do) then follow up for myself. This may be condescending, but I don’t really expect scholarly rigor from Gladwell: he writes popular science for a wide-audience, not academic tomes for specialists. Just like you don’t watch the latest shoot-‘em-up for intellectual stimulation, or read trashy romance novels for their literary merit, or, indeed, read Science for its humor, so you shouldn’t read journalists for unimpeachable rigor or entirely justified true beliefs. In short, read journals, not journalists, for rigor. A well-written and entertaining but simplified account of solid research, worked into an interesting narrative, certainly has its place. And that is exactly what Gladwell provides.

Dark Continent My Black Arse by Sihle Khumalo is an engrossing, entertaining, funny and wonderfully politically-incorrect account of the author’s trip, entirely overland and by public transport, from Cape to Cairo. While not quite up there with Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson’s travel writing, the book is nevertheless very good indeed and worth the price of admission. A single complaint (the skeptic in me couldn’t let this go…): Khumalo on a number of occasions endorses bollocks, most notably, saying that rhino horn is ‘the best medicine for sexual vigour’. Six words: magical thinking + placebo effect + lamentable superstition.

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is an absolute tour de force, a modern masterpiece. [Mild spoilers follow]. The central character is the eight-year-old American Jew Philip Roth, who inhabits an alternative history where Charles A. Lindbergh, the notoriously anti-Semitic aviator who was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, wins the 1940 presidential election. True to form, Lindbergh then tacitly supports the Axis powers in World War II (under the guise of isolationism) and enacts successively more repressive anti-Jewish laws (under the guise of assimilation). The rest of the novel follows Philip and the rest of the Roth clan as they come to terms with, and accommodate to, the new dispensation. [Spoilers end].
I don’t pretend to be a competent literati, so I won’t do much of a review except to note that the prose is sublime and that Roth has a preternatural ability to render the psychology of people buffeted by events beyond their control and understanding. I said the same about McCarthy, but I think it’s equally true of Roth: he deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life is, in my view, Richard Dawkins’s best book since the excellent Blind Watchmaker. The device around which the book is built, modeled on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is a pilgrimage starting at the present with Homo sapiens, and working backwards in time to meet our common ancestors with the rest of life. The first rendezvous, for example, is with chimpanzees and bonobos (our common ancestor lived 5-7 million years ago), the 6th with the New World Monkeys (40 million years ago), the 17th with amphibians (about 340 million years ago), the 23rd with lancelets (very approximately 560 million years ago), and so on. Along the way, various creatures tell tales, among other things, about the history of life, the principles and quirks of evolution, and the methods and techniques biologists use to figure all this out. The book, then, is simultaneously a history of life, a primer on evolution, an account of human ancestry, and a survey of the diversity of life.
While it’s quite an investment of time – 629 pages in paperback – The Ancestor’s Tale richly repays that investment: I haven’t learned so much from a single book in a very long time. Not only that, but it’s as beautifully written as we’ve come to expect from Dawkins, and, perhaps more importantly, it illustrates the wonders of life, and sparks one’s curiosity and enthusiasm for such under appreciated critters as sponges, lungfish and fungi.
The dust jacket quotes the Financial Times thusly: “One of the richest accounts of evolution ever written”. It’s not hyperbole.

John Allen Paulos is a rare specimen indeed: an effective popularizer of and unflinching advocate for mathematics who is himself an academic mathematician. Not only are his mathematical credentials excellent, more importantly for his role as popularizer, Paulos writes exceedingly well. In his third book, Innumeracy, Paulos argues mathematical and, more particularly, statistical ‘illiteracy’ (the eponymous innumeracy) leads to the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of reality. He shows persuasively that the innumerate are vulnerable to personalizing the random, and thence to charlatanism, magical thinking and pseudoscience. The book is not, however, an abstract treatise on the importance of mathematics, it’s a vade mecum for the educated but innumerate. As such a guide, the book succeeds admirably: it gently introduces the basics of number and probability with a series of well-chosen examples. Overall, it is a superb little book which, I daresay, might benefit the numerate as well.
I can’t resist quoting Paulos at length:
The discrepancies between our pretensions and reality are usually quite extensive, and since number and chance are among our ultimate reality principles, those who possess a keen grasp of these notions may see these discrepancies and incongruities with greater clarity and thus more easily become subjects to feelings of absurdity. I think there’s something of the divine in these feelings of our absurdity, and they should be cherished, not avoided. They provide perspective on our puny yet exalted position in the world, and are what distinguish us from rats. Anything which permanently dulls us to them is to be opposed, innumeracy included. The desire to arouse a sense of numerical proportion and an appreciation for the irreducibly probabilistic nature of life – this, rather than anger, was the primary motivation for the book.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Witchcraft in Africa and the feminist fightback

There is a superb but frightening article by Johann Hari in the Independent about witch hunting and genital mutilation in Africa. Let no one say irrationality does not have costs. And please don't dare to suggest we need to "respect" the idiotic ideas that lead to these practices. Hearteningly, there is also a feminist fightback afoot -- one that we should all support. A sample:
Across Africa, a war is being waged on women – but we are refusing to hear the screams. Over the past fortnight, I have travelled into the secretive shadow world that mutilates millions of African women at the beginning of their lives, and at the end. As girls, they face having their genitalia sliced out with razors, to destroy their "filthy" sexuality and keep them "pure". As old women, they face being hacked to death as "witches", blamed for every virus and sickness blowing across the savannah.

For decades, we have not wanted to know, because it sounded too much like the old colonialist claims of African "primitivism", used as an excuse by our ancestors to pillage the continent's resources. Our bad memories stop us hearing their bad experiences. But today, a rebellion of African women has begun, in defence of their own bodies, and their own freedom. They are asking for our support, and receiving it from Comic Relief and the tens of thousands of people raising money for them tomorrow. This is the story of the great African feminist fightback – and how you can be part of it.
(Cross posted on Intrepid Aardvark).

Quote: Anti-theism is nothing new

Religious doubt and even anti-theism is not as new as some may think. The following fantastic quote is from the great French enlightenment thinker and atheist, Baron d'Holbach (1723 -- 1789):
A being who can do every thing, and who owes nothing to any one, who, in his eternal decrees, can elect or reject, predestinate to happiness or to misery, who has the right of making men the playthings of his caprice, and to afflict them without reason, who could go so far as even to destroy and annihilate the universe, is he not a tyrant or a demon? Is there any thing more frightful than the immediate consequences to be drawn from these revolting ideas given to us of their God, by those who tell us to love him, to serve him, to imitate him, and to obey his orders? Would it not be a thousand times better to depend upon blind matter, upon a nature destitute of intelligence, upon chance, or upon nothing, upon a God of stone or wood, than upon a God who is laying snares for men, inviting them to sin, and permitting them to commit those crimes which he could prevent, to the end that he may have the barbarous pleasure of punishing them without measure, without utility to himself, without correction to them, and without their example serving to reclaim others? A gloomy terrour must necessarily result from the idea of such a being; his power will wrest from us much servile homage; we shall call him good to flatter him or to disarm his malice; but... such a God will never be able to make himself beloved by us, when we shall reflect that he owes us nothing, that he has the right of being unjust, that he has the power to punish his creatures for making a bad use of the liberty which he grants them, or for not having had that grace which he has been pleased to refuse them.” (The System of Nature, vol. 2., ch. 2.).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Encephalon #64 & #65

I've been a bit tardy on keeping up with Encephalon, so I'm posting about two editions at once...

The 64th edition of Encephalon was hosted by The Neurocritic. Highlights: Dr. Spurt of Effortless Incitement on procrastination, Neurophilosophy on dinosuar brains and behavior, and Brainslab on enhanced neurogenesis in mice due to enriched environments.

The 65th (Pareidolia!) edition of Encephalon is out at The Podblack Cat. Posts to check out: The Neurocritic on men perceiving women as tools, Sharp Brains on whether cognitive training works (beware possible bias: Sharp Brains is a for-profit company in the 'brain fitness' market), and Genes to Brains to Mental Health on the epigenetic effects of child abuse (in people who committed suicide).

I'm hosting the 66th edition of the carnival on March 16th, so please send your submissions to me before 12pm GMT on March 15th, to encephalon{dot}host{at}gmail{dot}com.

Monday, March 9, 2009

It's Technology Quarterly time again...

The Economist has just released the latest edition of its Technology Quarterly. My picks: Brewster Kahle and his ambitious goals for the Internet Archive, balloons as solar panels, greener jet engines, simulating the behavior of crowds using software, revolutionary buildings that can rotate continuously, alternative reality games (shades of the movie The Game) and biofuels from... coffee.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Muti murders

Cross posted on Intrepid Aardvark.

The Southern Africa Network against Trafficking and Abuse of Children (SANTAC) has released a disturbing report on muti murders, the killing of people and the use of their body parts in traditional African medicine. From the summary:
This report documents that body parts are frequently trafficked in South Africa and Mozambique and so-called witchdoctors, usually through a third party, actively seek human body parts from live victims to be used in their medicine. The research found that it is a commonly held belief in South Africa and Mozambique that traditional medicine, when made with body parts, is stronger and more powerful.

The report highlights that the policies and programmes in place to counter trafficking body parts are practically nonexistent. The limited policies that could be used to counter this activity are out of date and not generally enforced.

The report draws attention to the lack of an internationally recognised definition of trafficking body parts and highlights that without such a definition, any attempt to counter this activity will be impaired and these Human Rights violations will continue unabated.
If there is another magic belief that is as evil as this one, I would be very surprised. These practises, it seems to me, are the very best example of the dangers of magical thinking. Having to ask "what's the harm?" seems like a luxury when considering these beliefs.

(See also: Wikipedia on medicine murder and a News24 article on the report).

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Pictures: Fun with robots

One of my favorite regular online activities is looking at The Boston Globe's Big Picture, a photographic blog showcasing beautiful high-quality images about a wide-range of topics. The most recently released set is on robots -- I highly recommend both The Big Picture and this series of photographs. My favorite picture:

Description: "Twendy-One demonstrates its ability to hold delicate objects by manipulating a drinking straw between its fingers at the Department of Mechanical Engineering laboratory in Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009. The sophisticated robot has been developed by the university's team, led by Dr. Shigeki Sugano, in hope of supporting people in aging societies. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)"

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Carnival of the Africans #7

The 7th edition of the Carnival of the Africans is out at The Lay Scientist. (The edition is a bit late -- apologies for the inconvenience). Highlights: Angela of The Skeptic Detective on an allegedly breast-enlarging ringtone, other things amanzi on being a surgeon in Africa, Leonie of Scorched on homeopathy, and Ivan at subtle shift in emphasis on Pick 'n Pay's censorship of a charitable student publication.

Go have a look!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Skeptics' Circle #106

The 106th edition of the Skeptics' Circle is out over at Disillusioned Words. Post to check out: Waffle on Citizendium's shocking homeopathy article [Wikipedia shall conquer all], The Skepbitch on stupid fundamentalists claiming Australia's bushfires were God's punishment for decriminalizing abortion, Greta Christina on theists' "Shut up, that's why" arguments, and Effort Sisyphus on how some alternative medicines are being adulterated with real medicine.

Video: Tarter on SETI at TED

Every year, TED (my favorite conference) picks three extraordinary individuals who are dedicated to some worthy goal, and awards each $100,000 and a 'wish' which the TED community will then help fulfill. One of this year's winners is Jill Tarter, an astronomer and SETI's director for research, who had a worthy wish and gave a fantastic talk (embedded below, or click here). While SETI has been somewhat controversial, there is no doubt that finding extraterrestrial intelligence would be one of the greatest discoveries of all time, so the search, in my view, is justified despite the low short-term probability of success. (It's a low-probability high-yield investment, in other words -- not unlike projects to defend ourselves from asteroids, except in the latter case we're trying to avoid the high cost of a low-probability event).

See also: an interview with Tarter on the TED Blog and follow the progress on her wish at her TED blog.