Friday, February 29, 2008

Is academia a cult?

Bug Girl thinks so. I'm not sure how serious she's being, as I don't read her blog regularly, but her post is certainly funny, interesting and suggestive. Assuming she is being serious, I can only say I'm somewhat skeptical. It has certainly not been my experience of academia and it would surprise (and really worry) me if many people did experience it that way.

Skeptics' Circle #81, the leap day edition

Random fact: on my calculation (which could very well be wrong), the next time leap day will fall on a Friday is 2036. Some way off...

Anyway, the 81st edition of the Skeptics' Circle is out at Conspiracy Factory. Contributions to check out: Rebecca at Skepchick making fun of Oprah; Archaeoporn reflecting on the moral dilemmas of ethnomedicine (which has some bearing on traditional medicine in South Africa); Podblack Cat's terrific, challenging, thoughtful post on strategies for skepticism; and 3QuarksDaily's guest piece by John Allen Paulo.

Update: part 2 and part 3 of Podblack Cat's "Strategies for Skepticism".

The angriest book review, ever...

So I was browsing around for books to order and I came across a customer review by one Michael J. Mcdermott of The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War by David Smith. Writes Mr. Mcdermott (in part):
A pompous, bigoted, self serving, atheist political tirade with nothing new to add to the debate, save a sophomoric level of inept 'scholarship' in service of a transparent sham of propaganda and sophistry. In his sad excuse for recycling the propaganda of the radical leftist / gender feminist / homosex lobby, malignantly narcissistic pseudo-pundit David Smith spends far more time telling his readers how objective he intends to be, than actually engaging in any sort of open minded investigation. In doing so, he provides no new insights in to his alleged subject of war, but does open a window on the preening self aggrandizing egoism that fuels the Thought Police in the pathetic farce that passes itself as 'higher' education; and particularly the rigidly narrow and dogmatic agenda of conformity in 'Academentia' better known as the "Pander or Perish / Cannibal Soup" social engineering pogrom.
Wow... Read the rest of it, if you dare.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

So the Rapture DIDN'T happen in 2007

Note: this started its life as a Facebook note, I'm not quite sure why I never posted it here. Google Cache no longer archives Corbitt's nonsense, but I promise that's what she said!

While reading a list of the Top 100 Quotes from crazy Christian fundamentalists, I tied to follow a link to a website that claimed the Rapture would happen in 2007. Unsurprisingly, the website is now down - but thanks to Google Cache we can still get a glimpse. The person responsible is one Shelby Corbitt who wrote a book that supposedly is:
a prophetic message from God for the world. Everyone must know and will know this warning from Him. This book tells of events to prepare for and a date that the rapture of the church will happen. Catastrophic events are about to happen, just like in the days of Noah. God is saying, "Are you rapture ready?" This message is for every single person living in this present day and hour.
As some of you might have noticed, the rapture did not in fact happen during 2007... so a bit of backpedaling was in order. Corbitt posted the following on January 1st, 2008:
We made it to 2008. I am extremely disappointed that I was wrong about the rapture. I apologize for any disappointment I caused others. I apologized on my main page. I will leave it up for a few days before I take the website down. I want to thank the 1000's of emails I have gotten over the past few days, expressing the gratitude to the website. So many of you have said that even if the prophecy did not happen the website helped them to get back in touch with God and get their lives straight. I am so glad that good came from this whole ordeal. Several people want to know what I intend to do. I am a nurse so I will go back to work, unless I have another option come to me that sounds better. I really do not have much to say at this point. God bless you all and have a Happy New Year!!
But, fear not: there is already another website up which claims that, rapture wise, 2008's the charm.

Being out

When I started this blog, I didn't quite know how it was going to turn out but it's certainly surprised me in some ways. In the beginning I thought I was going to blog exclusively about specific academic papers in social and evolutionary psychology but, for numerous reasons, it didn't work out that way at all. I soon realized - and admitted - that my interests cannot be contained, that I can't not blog about everything I'm interested in. I have, however, been a bit cagey about one issue: my atheism. (Yes, I am an atheist. And proud of it.) For some reason I thought that, if I discussed atheism, my blog would no longer qualify as a science blog - and I most certainly want it to be that. As a result, I would write up entries about atheistic issues and then end up posting them as Facebook notes instead of on this blog. But it occurred to me that plenty of paradigmatic science bloggers - PZ Myers comes to mind - discuss atheism/religion issues and are still regarded as science bloggers. So phooey to being cagey. Don't fear: this will always remain an academic blog. I won't ever discuss, say, my favorite Pancetta pasta recipe or drone on about my love life.

(Note the new links in my blog roll and the shiny scarlet A, right. See also Greta Christina's rationale for including the A on her blog.)

Shermer on the evolutionary psychology of corporate behavior

As I have mentioned before, Michael Shermer has recently become enamored with evolutionary psychology and it’s really showing in his Scientific American columns. He may, however, have become a tad too enthusiastic for his own good. In a recent piece, “Do all companies have to be evil?”, Shermer applies evolutionary psychology to the corporate world. His conclusion, gratifyingly, is that the “greed is good” mindset (Objectivism, for example) not only does not breed success but actually leads to failure. Argues Shermer,
When we apply these evolutionary findings to economic life, we learn that Enron and the Gordon Gekko “Greed Is Good” ethic are the exception and that Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto is the rule. Two conditions must be present to accentuate the latter: first, internal trust reinforced by personal relationships, and, second, external rules supported by social institutions.
Shermer then goes on to compare the corporate cultures of Enron and Google in some detail, thereby illustrating his contention about trust and social institutions. This is all very interesting (and certainly worth a read) but I have a few misgivings. What follows are a couple of unconnected observations.

Firstly, Shermer seems to fail to appreciate that to evaluate a hypothesis rigorously it needs to be tested against data not used to come up with it in the first place. That is, if we hypothesize x based on observations y, to test x we need to compare its predictions to a different set of observations z - we can’t use y again because that would be circular. So it makes me worry when Shermer says
By studying how modern companies work, we can gain insights into the evolutionary underpinnings of our morality, including concepts such as reciprocity, altruism and fairness. When we apply these evolutionary findings to economic life…
Is he using human behavior in corporate settings as data for evolutionary psychology or is he using evolutionary psychology to explain human corporate behavior? Perhaps I am being a bit unfair, Shermer has limited space and the above is somewhat tangential, but it remains an important methodological point.

Secondly, it is important to note that in most of the article, Shermer is speculating, not doing science or reporting on established science. For example, he explains Google’s success at creating a productive corporate culture by invoking egalitarianism:
A horizontal corporate structure [like Google’s] generates an atmosphere of equalitarianism and nonelitism that taps into the environment of our Paleolithic ancestors, who evolved in what are believed to have been largely egalitarian bands and tribes.
This seems plausible enough and, sure, we infer from the egalitarian cultures of current hunter-gatherers that our Pleistocene ancestors had similarly egalitarian ways, but we don’t really know what the significance of this is. Numerous successful organizations – the American military comes to mind – have decidedly vertical structures. And soldiers too have ancestors who we infer lived in egalitarian cultures. So what does this “tap into” business really amount to? Some actual science would have been nice – plausibility is not a sufficiently high bar, support from serious academic studies is what Shermer’s hypotheses need. (When n=2 [Google + Enron] we can’t be really sure of anything). More importantly, Shermer should have explicitly warned his readers he was speculating. To be clear: I have nothing against speculation; it’s a valuable and important exercise. But it is vital to distinguish carefully between speculation and fact, between speculative extensions of theory and well-established theory.

A small matter also annoyed me a bit in the article: Shermer uses the term “evolution” in several distinct senses without clear distinction. There is vague metaphysical evolution, cultural evolution, biological evolution, and many others. Shermer invites misunderstanding by not being clear about which sense he’s referring to.

Lastly, Shermer’s contention that Google is a paragon of goodness (and thus an illustration of his evolutionary speculations) is vulnerable to the observation that the company doesn’t always behave as advertised. Google, let’s not forget, conveniently disregarded its principles for access to the Chinese market (among many other lapses, as Shermer himself documents). But his response to this problem is as lame as it comes, “Controversies of this nature are inevitable for any company that grows as rapidly as Google has, and no matter how lofty a company philosophy may be, perfection will always be an unattainable goal.” Human aren’t perfect. Great. But we knew that already. What happened to Shermer’s hypothesis that there is an evolutionary reason that “don’t be evil” breeds business success? Scientists don’t get to rationalize away inconvenient facts. (To be fair, this problem doesn’t implicate the contention that aspects of the “don’t be evil” philosophy cultivate an internal corporate structure conducive to business success. Shermer, however, unwisely defends a broader hypothesis at the end of the article).

TED update

I just found out the TED prizes will be streamed live online tonight (28 February) starting at 5:15 pm US-Pacific time, the speakers are: Karen Armstrong, Dave Eggers, and Neil Turok.

Also, Wired has released (warning: NSFW and disturbing) new photos from Abu Ghraib prison that they obtained in advance from Philip Zimbardo, who is scheduled to give TEDTalk later today. They also conducted an interview with him about people's capacity for evil and why the Abu Ghraib guards acted as they did.

On a much lighter note, Wired continues its coverage of the TED conference with a report on "surfer dude" (and physicist) Garrett Lisi's simple unified field theory.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Manto and traditional health quakery in South Africa

I lied in my previous post, I have to Lazy Link yet again, because ├╝ber-skeptic Steven Novella (one of my heroes) has taken on a topic close to my heart: anti-scientific medicine in South Africa. (For those of my readers who don't know, I am South African myself, residing in Durban). Novella roasts our incompetent minister of health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, for assuring traditional healers they need not bother with clinical trails or evidence. While I'm not sure I buy Novella's analysis of President Mbeki's reasons for firing Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, everything else he says is spot on. Rhetoric notwithstanding, science most certainly is not "Western" in any sense other than key elements of it having been invented in Western Europe in the 17th century. And, importantly, emotionally appealing though it may be in South Africa, the argument from antiquity remains fallacious.

This post also again brings to my attention that *I* have failed to address key skeptical questions in South Africa. That's certainly something I intend to remedy.

SSRIs and our failure to regulate the pharmaceutical industry

Sorry, this will be the last Lazy Linking for the day... Ben Goldacre really knows what he's talking about. On his blog (BadScience) and his Guardian column, Goldacre regularly and authoritatively talks up evidence-based medicine and takes apart pseudoscience and medical myths. So I wasn't surprised that Goldacre expertly puts the much publicized recent study on the effectiveness of SSRI antidepressants into perspective. In his latest column entry, he argues, persuasively, that the importance of the study's findings pale in comparison to the importance of sorting out the problem at the root of what has transpired: our failure to regulate the pharmaceutical industry adequately. Specifically, the need to combat publication bias by creating a compulsory international medical trails register.

Read, agree and support open access!

The Encyclopedia of Life

The always wonderful Carl Zimmer has a terrific NYT article about the launch of the Encyclopedia of Life, a free online collaborative encyclopedia that aims to document every species on earth. (Visit it at As anyone who regularly follows the links in this blog will know, I am a big fan of collaborative online encyclopedias (Wikipedia!): I think the model has proven itself beyond all reasonable doubt. As a result, I am extremely excited about this project, it will prove to be an invaluable resource to scientists and laypeople alike.

The project, by the way, is being spearheaded by the seemingly ubiquitous E. O. Wilson: check out his TEDTalk on the encyclopedia.

TED conference

Wired also has an article on the opening of my favorite conference: TED or Technology, Entertainment and Design. Boy do I wish I could be there, the schedule of speakers (pdf) looks very impressive. (Well, except for the dude who "radiates love" to his followers). Susan Blackmore, Philip Zimbardo, Karen Armstrong and Craig Venter's talks, especially, should be interesting. Luckily, the conference is recorded and videos are intermittently released (under a Creative Commons license no less) as TEDTalks.

Reevaluating autism and depression

Wired magazine is running a fascinating article on autism and the growing movement to accept "neuro-diversity" and thus normalize the condition. Specifically, the article challenges the "disease model" of autism; autistics, it argues, aren't 'damaged or dysfunctional, just different'. I don't really know what I think, but it is certainly interesting. It is also noteworthy that autistics (just like atheists) are drawing inspiration from the gay rights movement and are campaigning to end discrimination and public misunderstanding.

In a similar vein, Paul Keedwell writes in The Guardian on "The Upsides of Being Down" and argues depression has beneficial effects that have been overlooked. While Keedwell has a point, he seems to conflate transitory sadness and clinical depression in places while underestimating just how debilitating repeated episodes of major depression can be. (He pays lip service to this, to be sure, but doesn't take it fully into account in my view). Also, I spotted at least a few fallacies: some ad hominems and a post hoc ergo propter hoc.

(Hat tip: David Spurrett for the Keedwell article).

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Return of Encephalon

After a brief hiatus, the neuroscience/psychology blog carnival Encephalon has returned (under new management). Check out: The Phineas Gage Fan Club on face recognition, Sharp Brains on depression research and Advances in the History of Psychology on psychology and the CIA.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Video: human echolocation

That some blind people learn to echolocate has been known for half a century, but what people can learn to accomplish with human echolocation - mountain biking, for example - is still rather surprising. Watch Daniel Kish, Executive Director of World Access for the Blind, explain and demonstrate the technique in the video embedded below (or click here to go to YouTube). (Oh, ignore the silly journalist's "more than human" angle).

(Hat tip: PsyBlog).

Auditory illusions and the importance of skepticism

The foundation of the scientific method is skepticism: the notion that, as one of the inventors of the method Sir Francis Bacon put it, the mind is an “enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture” and thus always subjected to “idols” that incline it to error. In slightly more modern language, skepticism sees the human mind as inherently prone to error, inclined to wishful thinking, inevitably subject to biases and thus that subjective confidence does not correlate with truth. Consequently, if we want to find out what is in fact true, various mechanisms need to be put in place: first and foremost, controlled experimentation but also peer-review, the public examination of results, repetition replication, and so on.

Since the recognition of just how subject the mind is to bias is the foundation of skepticism and science, educating people about bias seems to be a good way to get them to appreciate the importance - nay, the necessity - of the scientific method. Although visual illusions are well known (putting in doubt the old saw that "seeing is believing"), it is less widely known that our auditory system is also subject to error and illusion. Now, as part of a special feature on music, New Scientist magazine has put together a useful list of their top 5 auditory illusions. If you don't know about this topic, I highly recommend you listen to all five illusions - and then come to terms with the fact that what you hear isn't always a good mirror on nature.

Maybe if the ease with which our ears can be fooled became more widely known people would be less likely to fall for such nonsense as electronic voice phenomena and other auditory pareidolia.

(Hat tip: Mind Hacks. See also: Michael Shermer's skeptical TEDTalk that features his analysis of purported Satanic lyrics in a Led Zepplin song.)

Friday, February 22, 2008

Dealing with creationists in the classroom

I am teaching a second year cognitive science course this semester and we're focusing on evolutionary psychology (using Pinker's How the Mind Works as a text). Alas, South Africa's education system - specifically at secondary level - is broken and, moreover, teaching evolution is very controversial. As a result, many students reach college criminally uninformed about evolutionary theory. Obviously, before students can get to grips with evolutionary psychology, they need to have some understanding of evolutionary theory itself. Consequently, I'm forced to give my students a crash course in evolution: I screened the first episode of PBS's Evolution, made them read a bit of Mayr, banged on about common misconceptions (misunderstanding "fact" and "theory" being my favorite), and tried to get all the other basics across.

There is one issue, however, that I'm not quite sure how to deal with: students defending creationism. It's come up a couple of times now: one student said she felt offended by the theory, another that her uncle (a pastor) was aghast she was learning about evolution and a couple of objections to the evidence for evolution has surfaced as well. I don't have a fully worked out method for dealing with creationist students, so I responded off the cuff and I'd quite like to know how others deal with this and whether you think my response was adequate. Here's what I said: I was quite firm and adamant, first of all, that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming and that creationism is not an intellectually respectable position. (I dealt with specific objections with specific reasons for preferring evolutionary theory). Then I pointed out that while some atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, etc.) and some religious people (the Discovery Institute folks, Ken Ham and the Answers in Genesis nuts, etc.) think evolution and religion are incompatible, many religious people accept "theistic evolution". (Even the late John Paul II conceded in a speech that evolution is "more than a hypothesis" I told them). Since it also happens to be my actual opinion, I told the students I honestly see no logical contradiction between evolution and religion: one could respectably be religious and a Darwinist. I then pointed to Ken Miller (author of Finding Darwin's God) as an example of a devoutly religious person who is nonetheless a staunch defender of evolutionary thinking and suggested they read his book if they were troubled.

So... how did I do? Did I go too far by saying creationism isn't intellectually respectable? (I have no doubt that it isn't, just whether it's pedagogically sound to say so). Did I leave anything important out? Feedback would be much appreciated.

A new evolutionary psychology blog

Note: since Kanazawa turned out to be batshit insane I no longer recommend his blog. See this post for another recommendation.

Satoshi Kanazawa, evolutionary psychologist at the LSE and author most recently of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, has just launched a blog: The Scientific Fundamentalist. Kanazawa's blog is part of Psychology Today magazine's new blog collective, which also features behavioral economist Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational), Psychology Today's editor in chief Kaja Perina (Darwin's Arrow) and psychiatrist Peter Kramer (In Practice). There isn't much content yet, but all the blogs look quite promising.

Alas, the RSS feed doesn't seem to be set up properly yet: there seems to be no way of getting posts from only, say, Kanazawa instead of all the blogs. Hopefully they'll sort that out soon.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Literary Darwinism: Bridging the Cultures

In his famous 1959 Rede Lecture, "The Two Cultures," C. P. Snow argued that there existed a worrying divergence and growing incompatibility between two sorts of intellectual: scientists and literary intellectuals. Alas, almost 50 years later, many of the problems Snow identified remain and have probably even grown: witness the dominance of post-modernism, post-structuralism and other woo in the humanities. (This despite pointed and seemingly decisive criticisms).

So it's certainly a good thing that there is a group of researchers, Literary Darwinists, who are helping, in a modest way, to bridge the chasm from both ends. Jennifer Schuessler, writing on the NYT blog Paper Cuts, reviews a recent addition to this literature: Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altrusitic Punishment, and other Biological Components of Fiction by William Flesch. (Full disclosure: I haven't actually read the book, only about it). Flesch, professor of English Literature at Brandeis, seems to have solid humanities credentials, which means it's harder to portray Literary Darwinists as consisting solely of cold-hearted and naive scientists trying to colonize the humanities. Imagine that, scientists and English professors working on a single research program...

While I haven't read Flesch's book, I have ventured into other parts of the Literary Darwinist literature, mainly Joseph Carroll's work, and, speaking generally, I think it's exactly the sort of thing that should be happening. I don't know the field nearly well enough to have strong opinions, or to take sides in particular debates, but it's clear evolutionary psychology needs some account of literature and art generally. If we are aiming to provide a naturalistic (and pomo/nonsense-free) understanding of human behavior, it's clear we can't shy away from tackling distinctively human activities such as the creation and enjoyment of literature. Moreover, I would be extremely surprised if knowledge of our evolved mental architecture did not contribute to literary studies - so it's hardly only a matter of literature constituting a 'problem' for scientists to solve, a Darwinian perspective on literature might end up enriching the humanities.

(See also: D. T. Max's "The Literary Darwinists" in the NYT Magazine and Harold Fromm's fantastic "The New Darwinism in the Humanities": Part 1 [pdf] and Part 2 [pdf]).

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Skeptics' circle #80

The 80th edition of the Skeptics circle - the Valentines edition - is out at Bug Girl's blog. Posts from the circle to check out: Gateway Skepticism examines the evidence for the claims behind the new 'scientific dating service', (which I blogged about before); Skeptico asks "What's the harm?" (in quackery and pseudoscience) and Skepchick's writerdd explains how she lost her faith.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Happy Darwin Day!

As I'm sure most of you know, today is Darwin Day. The day, fairly recently instituted, commemorates Charles Darwin's birth (199 years ago, in 1809) and celebrates both the man and his ideas. Hooray to Darwin and his brilliant, dangerous idea!

So... happy Darwin day! Oh, and check out this video (complete with campy accompanying music) that was made for last year's celebration.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Video: Dan Gilbert on Happiness

Social psychologist Daniel Gilbert is a well known researcher in the burgeoning field of happiness studies ('positive psychology') and author of the award-winning Stumbling on Happiness. In the fantastic TEDTalk embedded below (or click here to go directly to the video) Gilbert summarizes a number of interesting findings, specifically how cognitive biases such as impact bias affect common sense notions of what makes us happy.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Skeptical poetry

DC Improbable Science has posted two fantastic skeptical poems by Anne Spencer written in the style of Jonathan Swift. Check them out!

An excerpt:

"So those who wish upon a star

Or herb or potion in a jar

To grant relief from ache or pain

Could well decide to think again

And weigh the chances that desire

Not reason is what we require

To make us well when we succumb

To ailments that are troublesome.

For wishful thoughts beguile the mind

But leave reality behind."

(Note & warning: the second poem is rather political, anti-Bush).