Thursday, January 31, 2008

Scientific American Mind (Feb)

The February edition of Scientific American Mind is out and there are a number of interesting freely available articles online. First, there is a review article that (among other things) lists the web's best psychology / neuroscience blogs: Cognitive Daily, Mind Hacks, PsyBlog, The Neurocritic, and The Frontal Cortext all get favorable mentions. (I read all these blogs, by the way, and can recommend them all).

Then there is the fascinating column by Scott Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz on "brainscams" that they dedicate to the late skeptical psychologist Barry Beyerstein. (Beyerstein, incidentally, was interviewed [mp3] on The Skeptics Guide to the Universe shortly before his death). The column debunks three persistent myths: (1) that we use only 10% of our brain, (2) that some people are left-brained and others right-brained and (3) that we can use alpha waves to aid relaxation and achieve a more profound consciousness.

Yvonne Raley and Robert Talisse argue that widespread public misconceptions (like most Americans believing there is incontrovertible evidence of WMD in Iraq before the war) is not due to "politically motivated disinformation campaign[s]" but to "common types of reasoning errors, which appear frequently in discussions in the news media and which can easily fool an unsuspecting public." Specifically, they think public misconception engendered by the media is due to the straw man fallacy and, a variation thereof, what they call the weak man argument (in which someone attacks the weakest argument of an opponent, falsely implying it is representative of the opponent's arguments).

Finally, Chip Walter attempts to answer the mystery of why we kiss and, in doing so, he surveys a host of intriguing recent findings that are starting to shed some light on why kissing evolved and what its biological effects are today.

Skeptics circle #79

The 79th edition of the skeptics circle is out at Podback Blog - and its theme is, of all things, LOLcats. I think we best not even ask... My favorite entries: Greta Christina asks "What's the harm in a little woo?", Polite Company playfully suggests you date a nerd and Skeptico explains why extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Audio: James Flynn on intelligence

Professor James Flynn delivered an excellent lecture [mp3] on intelligence and, specifically, how best we can understand the Flynn effect, at an RSA meeting at the end of 2007. Some of you might remember Flynn featured prominently in Malcolm Gladwell's brilliant article on race and intelligence that I blogged about in December.

I highly recommend listening to the lecture - it's fascinating and Flynn is as eloquent as he is erudite.

(Hat tip: BPS Research Digest)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Never mind this post, it's just me participating in a Google bomb organized by Anonymous.

Scientology is most certainly a dangerous cult.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Video: A cement cast of an entire ant colony

I just came across probably the single coolest science video I have seen in ages: a six minute excerpt from the documentary Ants: Nature's Secret (which won the special jury prize at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in 2005). The documentary itself focuses on the work of Bert Hölldobler (who co-wrote the Pulitzer-prize winning The Ants with E. O. Wilson), but the excerpt (embedded below, or click here to go to YouTube) features Walter Tschinkel's amazing cement cast of an entire ant colony. (The cement technique itself seems to have been pioneered by Moreira et. al.). I highly recommend watching the video - it gets especially interesting after about 2 minutes.

(See also: ABC's article on Tschinkel's work, BLDG Blog's fantastic entry on Nest-Casting, and Ask a Biologist's podcast interview with Hölldobler in which he discusses the documentary [click here for the mp3]).

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Research blogging

I have been participating in the Bloggers for Peer-Reviewed Research Reporting (BPR3) initiative, which attempts to highlight serious, thoughtful blog entries on peer-reviewed research (using icons). The aggregation system I mentioned before has now gone live on the great site Basically, whenever a blog author wants to make use of the new system, they go to the Researchblogging site, enter citation meta-data into a form which then spits out code that gets included in the relevant blog entry. Then aggregates all the blog entries that contain the code, lists them on the website and categorizes them into subject-areas.

Have a look at the site, it's a fantastic way to discover more academic blogs and entries on serious research.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Skeptics Circle #78

Sorry I'm late on this... The 78th edition of the Skeptics Circle is out at The Skeptical Surfer. There are a bunch of great articles but my favorites are: Greta Christina's post on how alternative medicine is untested by definition, Knudsen's News' great satirical piece and The 327th Male's thoughtful "How to be a nice skeptic" (also see the follow-up).

Embodied cognition in the popular press

This is by now quite stale, but the Boston Globe recently published a pretty good article on embodied cognition. The article covers the idea itself, its history, its possible practical applications and some criticisms. My view on the matter (by no means original, of course) even gets echoed:
"I think these findings are really fantastic and it's clear that there's a lot of connection between mind and body," says Arthur Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. He remains skeptical, though, that the roots of higher cognition will be found in something as basic as the way we walk or move our eyes or arms.

"Any time there's a fad in science there's a tendency to say, 'It's all because of this,"' Markman says. "But the thing in psychology is that it's not all anything, otherwise we'd be done figuring it out already."

Pravda silliness

The Russian online newspaper Pravda (ironically, "The Truth"; a distant descendant of the Pravda of the Communist era) is well known for being, well, crazy. My two favorite recent examples are "Centaurs appeared after copulation between humans and animals" and "Dolphins used to look like humans and lived in Atlantis". As I said, crazy. Now, oh the shock!, Pravda has published an embarrassingly naive article in defense of intelligent design. Frankly, the piece simply does not deserve a rational response - it rehearses the well-worn arguments we've heard hundreds of times from the evolution-deniers. My favorite part:
Trust me, Dawkins and all the evolutionists put together can't hold a candle to the scientific genius of Dr. Gish. Just read one of Dr. Gish's books and you'll see why. Dr. Gish has successfully debated hundreds of evolution scientists in secular colleges and universities across the nation over the past two decades, and students have consistently voted him the winner in all of those debates. Don't try looking for this news in the main stream media. You won't find it there anymore than you'll find a half-evolved chipmunk running around in your backyard!
Oh, we should 'trust him'! Right...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Andy Clark and the Problem of Advanced Cognition

I just presented a paper on Andy Clark at the Philosophical Society of Southern Africa's annual conference. Basically my argument in the paper is that the voguish notion that "embodied cognition" is sufficient to account for all human mental feats has not been demonstrated.

The abstract of the paper (which will hopefully get published in the conference proceedings):
Andy Clark (1989, 1993, 1997) is a leading philosophical exponent of a new view of mind as an "associative engine", or connectionist pattern-completer, composed of multiple special-purpose modules (composed of neural networks) that communicate in only limited ways and eschew detailed forms of internal representation. The modules, Clark and his allies argue, are both coordinated and integrated by the environment whilst 'off-loading' onto it by calling on external computational resources ("external scaffolds") to reduce cognitive load. Defenders of this position further maintain that even examples of sophisticated and distinctively human cognition such as long-term planning or running a multi-national company emerge from connectionist pattern-completing brains in the "constraining presence of public language, culture and institutions". This constellation of ideas, Clark argues, amounts to a completely new science of mind that radically reforms "our whole way of thinking about intelligent behaviour". Unfortunately, this rhetoric far outstrips the evidence: while a reasonable case can be made that external scaffolds are necessary for many types of cognition, the assertion that pattern-completion plus external scaffolding (etc.) is a sufficient explanation of all human cognition has not been demonstrated. The insufficiency of the Clarkian view is particularly evident in the case of advanced cognition.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Shermer on economic irrationality

Pinker isn't the only one who has a popular article out today that plays on an earlier book title, Michael Shermer (author of Why People Believe Weird Things) has an LA Times op-ed out entitled (wait for it...) "Why People Believe Weird Things About Money". Reflecting the fact that he's now a fan of evolutionary psychology (as I reported earlier), Shermer argues that various examples of irrational economic behavior (such as loss aversion) are the product of evolution. The article is a worthy read on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Shermer, by the way, has a new book out, The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics.

The Moral Instinct

Channeling the younger self who wrote The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker has written an article for the NYT entitled "The Moral Instinct", a fantastic survey of the moral sense and its various quirks. Although some of the material appeared in The Blank Slate, it's certainly still worth the read.

(Hat tip to Mind Hacks).

A podcasty follow-up

I blogged yesterday about Scientific American's new Web 2.0 initiatives, specifically the feature they're calling "Edit This" which allows readers to shape articles before print publication. As luck would have it, John Rennie, SciAm's editor in chief, is this week's guest on The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast (this link goes directly to the relevant mp3). The audio isn't great, but it gets better - and the interview is well worth listening to, Rennie discusses SciAm's foray into Web 2.0 in some detail.

I also blogged about the National Academy of Science's new publication on the evolution-creation controversy. It turns out the Academy also has a podcast, and there is an episode [mp3] all about the new book.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Using science to find The One

The Economist reports on a fascinating development in the dating world: using science to find a partner through "personal chemistry matching". In 1995 Claus Wedekink established in a landmark paper that straight women overwhelmingly prefer the smell of men who have dissimilar major histocompatibility complexes (MHC). (The study was later replicated and seems to hold for men's preferences as well). Since (1) MHC is a gene region partly responsible for the immune system, (2) disease is an important selective pressure and (3) individuals with a wider range of MHC genes are better protected against disease, the theory goes that people evolved preferences for mates with dissimilar MHCs (which is in turn detected through smell).

Now will analyze your DNA for only $1,995 and match you with people with the most dissimilar MHCs! Scientific Match claims that their service has a whole range of benefits (including a higher frequency of orgasm for women) and liberally cites the scientific literature to support their case.

It's amazing what people come up with. I have long suspected that it won't be long before evolutionary psychological self-help books start appearing (if they haven't already...).

Lazy Linking: Wallace, Wikis and more

Some interesting articles to tide my readers over while I work on a conference paper (and not on blogging)...

There is a fantastic article in the NYT blogs about Alfred Russell Wallace (co-discoverer of natural selection, the mechanism of evolution). Olivia Judson, the author and an evolutionary biologist, laments that Wallace does not receive more recognition.

I am a longtime fan of Wikipedia and its founder Jimmy Wales. (I was extremely skeptical of Wikipedia - for elitist reasons - and always urged my students not to consult it until I read, of all things, a positive Economist article sometime during 2005 and decided to see for myself. I had to change my mind about a lot of things as a result). Anyway, as most of you will know, Wikipedia is a wiki, a type of software that allows collaborative editing that has been pretty controversial, especially since the fact that it can be edited by anyone immediately makes people suspect it is unreliable. So I was more than a little surprised (and now we come to the actual link!) that an august traditional media publication is giving (a very watered down) wiki model a try. Scientific American announced that (appropriately enough) they're conducting an experiment to see whether allowing readers to shape an article improves it. Again appropriately, the article in question is on "Science 2.0", or how blogs, wikis, and other Web 2.0 technologies are (possibly) going to revolutionize science. Now if only they were brave enough to allow people to edit the article themselves... (The article all on its own, by the way, would have been worth a link).

Francisco Ayala has an interesting editorial in PNAS in which he discusses the new National Academy of Sciences publication "Science, Evolution and Creation" (available as a pdf once you sign in). The publication is a significantly revised version of "Science and Creationsim: A View from the National Academy of Sciences".

The Neurocritic has a good blog entry on the fMRI study of ESP I also reported on.

There is a particularly interesting guest on this week's episode of Point of Inquiry: Aubrey de Grey, a controversial gerontologist committed to fighting aging in all its forms. (He was also a speaker at the TED conference). The reason I find him so fascinating is that I genuinely can't make up my mind about whether he's doing genuine (and good) science, or whether he's a crackpot. He certainly makes bold claims that raises some skeptical red flags - but he seems very scientifically minded. There is a MIT Technology Review article subtitled "Aubrey de Grey thinks he knows how to defeat aging. He's brilliant, but is he nuts?" that might help you make up your mind.

Lastly, Furious Seasons has a post about the effectiveness of current anti-depression therapies.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Video: Shermer's skeptical tour de force

Michael Shermer covers a dizzying number of topics in this truly fantastic (and short!) TEDTalk, including dowsing, cereology, intelligent design, UFOs, and pareidolia. This video is really a must see - hold out for the particularly entertaining Katie Malua and Led Zepplin bits. The video is embedded below, alternatively, click here.

Mind changers's annual question for 2008 is: "What have you changed your mind about? Why?" There are a number of extremely interesting answers; I'm going to highlight only a small selection.

Susan Blackmore's de-conversion from parapsychology and the paranormal is well known, but it's still interesting reading. The tale is highly recommended reading to those not yet in the know.

David Buss says he now thinks female sexual psychology is several orders of magnitude more complex than he previously thought.

Michael Shermer is no longer a behaviorist, he has "thus changed [his] mind about this theory of human nature in its extreme form. Human nature is more evolutionarily determined, more cognitively irrational, and more morally complex than I thought." Welcome to the fold, Michael.

Marc Hauser says he has "lost the faith... in the power of the adaptive program to explain or predict particular design features of human thought." These, according to Hauser, include "language, morality, music, and mathematics".

David G. Myers
has changed his mind about, among other things, whether children are blank slates, repressed memory syndrome, electroconvulsive therapy and whether birth-order affects personality.

Scott Atran once "thought that individual cognition and personality, influences from broad socio-economic factors, and degree of devotion to religious or political ideology were determinant." Now, however, he "see[s] friendship and others aspects of small group dynamics, especially acting together, trumping most everything else." That is, he now thinks "fictive kin" plays a key role in religious politics.

Robert Trivers has come to believe that understanding human self-deception requires a surprisingly deep understanding of biology.

Judith Rich Harris argues generalization - e.g. fear of a white rat generalizing to a fear of white furry things - is the exception rather than the rule.

Steven Pinker
has developed doubts about evolutionary psychology's assumption that human evolution ground to a halt at the beginning of the Holocene. Evidence has accumulated that large parts of the human genome has been under strong recent selection pressure and the result, speculates Pinker, "could be evolutionary psychology on steroids. Humans might have evolutionary adaptations not just to the conditions that prevailed for hundreds of thousands of years, but also to some of the conditions that have prevailed only for millennia or even centuries."

Helena Cronin has changed her mind about how best to account for sex differences.

Geoffrey Miller now thinks the intellectual division of labor has gone too far: that behavioral scientists should start discussing human nature with ordinary people to help them come up with testable hypotheses. Says Miller: "Marine drill sergeants know a lot about aggression and dominance. Master chess players know a lot about if-then reasoning. Prostitutes know a lot about male sexual psychology. School teachers know a lot about child development. Trial lawyers know a lot about social influence." So "whenever we try to understand human nature in some domain, we should identify several groups of people who are likely to know a lot about that domain already, from personal, practical, or professional experience."

Dan Sperber discusses how reading one of Leda Cosmides' papers convinced him to become an evolutionary psychologist.

ESP vs. fMRI

Two Harvard psychologists, Samuel Moulton and John Lindsley, have a study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience which provides yet more evidence against extra-sensory perception. Moulton and Lindsley reasoned that if psi exists it must occur in the brain and thus neuroimaging should be able to detect it. Using several modalities aimed at detecting the existence of different psi abilities (clairvoyance, telepathy and precognition) the authors conclude that, since "the brains of our participants... reacted to psi and non-psi stimuli in a statistically indistinguishable manner", the study provides "the strongest evidence yet obtained against the existence of paranormal mental phenomena".

This probably goes without saying, but I sincerely doubt any true believers will be convinced by this evidence. The contentious issue will no doubt be whether psi abilities would have to be a product of the brain - cue dualist nonsense.

(See also: ScienceDaily's report, Deric Bownds's Mindblog and Scienceblog).

Friday, January 4, 2008

77th Skeptics Circle

The 77th meeting of the Skeptics Circle is up at WhiteCoat Underground. This time I have three favorite entries: Greta Christina (who, by the way, I recently discovered is fantastic) blogs about raising children without God, Orac at Respectful Insolence has a thoughtful discussion about skepticism and scientific consensus and Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes asks a tough question about skepticism's place in the humanities. (Great quote about postmodernism from this last blog post: "I am also intrinsically suspicious of a philosophy that is based entirely on French puns and the abuse of parentheses").

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Cool new skeptical blog

Steven Novella has just put together a promising-looking new group blog: Science Based Medicine ("Exploring issues and controversies in the relationship between science and medicine".) The contributors are all physicians and are a rather impressive bunch: there is Novella himself, Wallace Sampson (who was interviewed on Point of Inquiry a while back) Harriet Hall, and David Gorski. Apparently, more contributors will be added later on. The aim of the blog is simple:
The mission of this blog is to scientifically examine medical and health topics of interest to the public. This includes reviewing newly published studies, examining dubious products and claims, providing much needed scientific balance to the often credulous health reporting, and exploring issues related to the regulation of scientific quality in medicine.
Since science is routinely misunderstood by the public and by the media (as Ben Goldacre catalogs in a fantastic recent Bad Science entry) , and since health is such a key component of people's quality of life, there is a pressing need for rational, scientific voices to speak up in the field of medicine. Science bloggers, and sites such as Quackwatch, are already fighting the good fight against superstition, quackery and pseudoscience and it looks like Science Based Medicine will prove a welcome ally in this fight.