Sunday, June 29, 2008

Public service announcement: Your brain lies to you

Samuel Wang and Sandra Aamodt (authors of Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life) have a fairly interesting and useful piece in the NYT entitled "Your Brain Lies to You". None of this will be new to those familiar with the heuristics and biases research literature, but the article is certainly useful as a 'public service announcement': it's important to popularize the finding that we are fallible, liable to lapses of memory and subject to all sorts of biases. A representative paragraph from the article:
The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.
(See also: Wang and Aamodt's blog and their talk at Google).

I love xkcd

xkcd just rocks. Have a look at:

And then:

Friday, June 27, 2008

Freedom to blog

This isn't a political blog, but I've written about freedom of expression before and as a blogger, I care quite a bit about the freedom to blog. So I find it deeply upsetting that in numerous countries bloggers are in fact in jail for airing their opinions. As an article in this week's Economist explains:
Security officials who once scoffed at blogs, or ignored them completely in favour of bigger and more conspicuous targets, are now bringing their legal and other arsenals to bear. A common move is to expand media, information and electoral laws to include blogs. Last year, for example, Uzbekistan changed its media law to count all websites as “mass media”—a category subject to Draconian restriction. Belarus now requires owners of internet cafés to keep a log of all websites that their customers visit: in a country where internet access at home is still rare and costly, that is a big hurdle for the active netizen. Earlier this year Indonesia passed a law that made it much riskier to publish controversial opinions online. A Brazilian court has ruled that bloggers, like other media, must abide by restrictions imposed by the law on elections.

The chilling effect of such moves is intensified when governments back them up with imprisonment. From Egypt to Malaysia to Saudi Arabia to Singapore, bloggers have in recent months found themselves behind bars for posting materials that those in power dislike. The most recent Worldwide Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, a lobby group, estimates their number at a minimum of 64.

For those of you who haven't read it, John Stuart Mill's On Liberty provides an overwhelmingly strong case for freedom of expression. As Mill put it:
The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Video: The Hubble Deep Field

An awesome, Saganesque video is embedded below for your viewing pleasure.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Atheists who believe in God

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has just released the second part of their "US Religious Landscape Survey". While there is a bunch of good news (a good deal of tolerance, for one) there is one seriously odd finding: 55% of agnostics and 21% of atheists say they believe in God or a "universal spirit". Even more amazingly, fully 8% of atheists and 17% of agnostics said they were absolutely certain God existed. No, I'm not kidding. And in other news: 1 in 4 vegans eat meat, 1 in 7 pacifists are warmongers, 1 in 8 virgins have had coitus and 1 in 2 triangles are circular...

More seriously, here are the details: in question 16 of the full report (pdf) respondents were asked "What is your present religion if any?" 16.1% of the 35,556 individuals questioned replied "unaffiliated" (p. 210), that is, 5,048 (+/- 2% margin of error) individuals self-identified as either atheists, agnostics or someone who believes in "nothing in particular" (p. 177). Of the total number of respondents, 1.6% (or about 589 in absolute terms) said they were atheists, 2.4% (~853) said their were agnostic and 12.1% (~4302) said 'nothing in particular' (p. 217; note: I had to calculate the absolute Ns myself). Then, in questions 30 and 31, respondents were asked "Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?" and "How certain are you about this belief?" (p. 227-228). As I already said above, 21% of atheists (~124) and 55% of agnostics (~469) said they did so believe (p. 9) and, incredibly, 8% of atheists and 17% of agnostics said they were absolutely certain in their belief. A few more crazy statistics: 11% of atheists and 14% of agnostics say they "completely" believe in miracles while 6% of atheists and 7% of agnostics "completely" believe in angels and demons (p. 35). Perhaps most ridiculously of all: 3% of atheists said they think the Bible (or another holy book) is the literal word of God...

A couple of points: firstly, question 16 was 'What is your religion?" and question 30 was "Do you believe in a God or a universal spirit?" So some of those who self-identified as atheist or agnostic might have said yes to q. 30 due to the 'universal spirit' part and since that term is vague and left undefined, it's hard to tell what the answers mean. This explanation, however, is not the whole story: 6% of atheists and 14% of agnostics say they believe in a personal God, while 12% and 36%, respectively, believe in an "impersonal force" (p. 6). In other words, at least 6% of the self-described atheists and 14% of the self-described agnostics need a smack. Some people will no doubt think this result reflects badly on atheists: 'atheists are so silly and confused that they believe in God. Hallelujah!' Well, actually, no: this finding reflects badly on theists: an atheist, by definition, is someone who lacks a belief in God so those who self-identified as atheist and then said they believed in God aren't atheists, they're stupid or deeply confused religious people. That is, these people are theists who don't know what either atheism or agnosticism means.

I want to end on an optimistic note: one of the key findings of World Values Survey is that cultural change occurs through generational replacement, that is, the total incidence of some value or belief alters not because people change their minds, but because the incidence varies between generations and as the oldest generation dies, the total incidence changes as well. Take a simple example: if 5% of generation 1 but 15% of generation 2 believe homosexuality is an acceptable life choice, the total population's tolerance will increase as generation 1 dies and gets replaced by generation 2. (The idea is essentially the same in Max Planck's famous quote: "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it"). With generational replacement in mind, have a look at the following table:

Note how the proportion of people who say they're absolutely certain that a personal God exists is much lower in younger than older people: 57% of over 65's but only 45% of 18-29 year olds in the total population are certain in that way. The same pattern (with a couple of exceptions) holds for the religious sub-groups as well. In other words: young Americans are much more doubtful of God's existence. Now have a look at:

We again see the same pattern: 69% of those 65 and over, but only 45% of those between 18 and 29 say religion is very important to them. And again the pattern holds for the different affiliations: younger Americans, in other words, think religion is much less important than older Americans.

While the above data are suggestive, the first Religious Landscape Survey (pdf) contains very solid evidence generational replacement is happening. The report notes:
Important generational differences in religious affiliation are also evident. For example, one quarter of all adults under age 30 are not affiliated with any particular religion, which is more than three times the number of unaffiliated adults who are age 70 and older, and nine percentage points higher than in the overall adult population. (p. 36).
These conclusions are clearly borne out in the data:

Atheism and agnosticism is quite a bit more common among 18-29 year olds than among 65 year olds and over. Indeed, fully 25% of those in the youngest cohort are religiously unaffiliated, and the proportions follow the generational replacement pattern perfectly. The bottom line is clear: younger Americans tend to be significantly less religious than older Americans and, as time passes, the proportion unbelievers (and non-fundamentalists) should increase dramatically. Now that's good news indeed.

(I should note that in arguing generational replacement is occurring I have throughout assumed religious beliefs and values remain largely unchanged throughout people's lives. I have assumed, specifically, that younger people's relative irreligiosity is not due to their youth, that is, I have excluded a 'life stages' approach in which people become more religious as they age. This assumption, I contend, is reasonable: the World Values Survey has collected solid evidence that people's fundamental values and beliefs tend not to change after their early-20s. It's important to bear in mind nonetheless that there is room for disagreement here).

(Hat tip: Andrew Dellis).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Encephalon #48

Encephalon #48 is out at Neuroanthropology. Recommended submissions: John Hawks Anthropology Blog on the universal intuition of a logarithmic number line; Neurotic Physiology on out of body experiences; Greg Laden's Blog on the discovery that glial cells are functional; Pure Pedantry on symbolic thinking in capuchin monkeys; and Neurophilosophy on planning for the future in non-human apes.

That's a lot, I know... but Encephalon just seems to get better and better. This really was a great edition.

Follow-up: Darwin and Wallace

I blogged earlier this month about the relative fame of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. There is a very good recent article in The Guardian about the intellectual history of natural selection and Darwin and Wallace's contributions thereto. A key paragraph:
Indeed, historians argue that had it not been for Darwin, the idea of natural selection would have suffered grievously. If he had not been the first to develop natural selection, and Wallace had been the one to get the kudos and attention, the theory would have made a very different impact. 'In the end, Wallace came to believe evolution was sometimes guided by a higher power,' adds Endersby, who has edited the forthcoming Cambridge University Press edition of The Origin of Species. 'He thought natural selection could not account for the nature of the human mind and claimed humanity was affected by forces that took it outside the animal kingdom.'

Monday, June 23, 2008

Reports from TAM

I'm slowly recovering from my huge disappointment at not being able to attend TAM 6... So how was the meeting this year? Well, I've come across four blog reports so far:
  1. I posted Not Totally Rad's reaction already. (Bottom line: Neil deGrasse Tyson's talk was amazing).
  2. Steven Novella shares his thoughts about TAM. (Bottom line: meetings of this kind are important and the skeptical movement is on the brink of entering the mainstream).
  3. Phil "The Bad Astronomer" Plait summarizes his TAM experience. (Bottom line: Randi is Amazing, it was the best meeting ever and there were lots of red headed women).
  4. Evan Bernstein also blogs his TAM memories. (Bottom line: it was great and the SGU panellists were treated like celebrities).
There will no doubt be more of these reminiscences coming out in the next week or so, I'll probably do a fellow-up post. Oh, and I'm so going to TAM 7. I'm going to beg, save, steal, do whatever it takes. I will be there.

Video: Zimmer on the evolution of mind

Carl Zimmer is my second-favorite science journalist (after the incomparable Malcolm Gladwell) and embedded below (or click here) is an excellent talk he gave recently about the evolution of mind. While Zimmer doesn't really deal with human brain evolution directly, he does put it into a fascinating broader phylogenetic context. (Running time: 01:04:14; note: annoyingly, the audio breaks for about two minutes after ~00:13:00).

A quibble: Zimmer at one point implies that nerve cells are necessary for intelligence while explaining why bacteria don't learn. While it's true that bacteria don't learn (as far as I know), there was a remarkable report recently that amoebae learn. (Being eukaryotes, they're obviously far more complicated than bacteria, but they're still orders of magnitude less complex that C. elegans, Zimmer's example of a simple creature that can learn).

Some of the studies Zimmer refers to: "The Hidden Structure of Overimitation" (pdf) by Lyons et. al.; "Great ape DNA sequences reveal a reduced diversity and an expansion in humans" (pdf) by Kaessmann et. al. and "Evolution in the Social Brain" by Dunbar et. al.

(Hat tip: Neurophilosophy)

Clever monkeys

Interesting primate news: the long-tailed macaque (aka crab-eating macaque) has been observed fishing on three occasions in three different troops at two different sites in Indonesia. While fishing has been documented in other primates (although its incidence is extremely low), this is the first time long-tailed macaques have been observed fishing. Stewart et. al. describe one of the incidents as follows:
Five females sat on rocks in one of the pools and seemed to be scanning the water. The rest of the group was in the forest, in trees and on the ground. After 3 min, 1 female with a small infant clinging to her bent closer to the water and grasped a fish. She used both hands and quickly ingested it. The fish was ca. 15 cm long, and she chewed it for 2 min before swallowing it completely. While eating the fish, she remained seated on the rock whence she caught it. The fish tail hung out of her mouth for a short time, and the infant tried unsuccessfully to grasp it. The 4 other females watched her while she ate the fish, but soon returned to staring at the water. At 1055 h, a different female reached for the water but caught nothing. It was not possible to see whether she tried to grasp a fish or something else.
(Via The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe episode #152).

This is your brain on nonsense

Remember that idiotic NYT editorial from November last year that claimed fMRI scans of swing voters' brains could be used to read their minds? Well, the same company that pulled off that stunt is back with an equally egregious piece in The Atlantic. Slate's suitably skeptical,
The neuropundits are more like tarot readers than scientists: They claim to read specific mental states from patterns of blood flow and brain activity, but the narratives they invent are arbitrary, equivocal, and inconsistent. And whenever the imaging data happen to contradict reality, they change their interpretation without a second thought.
Indeed. Another example of cognitive neuroscience gone badly awry...

Goodbye, George

Sad news... the great George Carlin has died. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Carlin's greatest comedy sketch (NSFW):

(Via Podblack Cat).

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Science, in brief

(Stolen from Seeds Aside).

Plants, it turns out, are not nearly as boring as we thought

I have to admit: I'm not a huge fan of botany. My high school biology teacher was a botanist, and I have horrible memories of trying to memorize the names and functions of organelles in various plant cells. A new article in the New York Times, however, summarizes the growing evidence that plants are in fact much more animal-like (and in my parochial view, at least) therefore much more interesting that we ever thought.

There is evidence, for one thing, that the Great Lakes sea rocket practises kin altruism, that is, it can detect related plants and treat them favorably. The study the NYT piece refers to in this regard is Susan Dudley and Amanda File's "Kin recognition in an annual plant" (pdf). Their conclusion is that
in the annual plant Cakile edentula, allocation to roots increased when groups of strangers shared a common pot, but not when groups of siblings shared a pot. Our results demonstrate that plants can discriminate kin in competitive interactions and indicate that the root interactions may provide the cue for kin recognition. Because greater root allocation is argued to increase below-ground competitive ability, the results are consistent with kin selection.
In other words, these lowly seeming plants, remarkably, can somehow directly detect kin (something that has not been demonstrated in many animals) and thus they have a family-life.

Even more remarkable is the finding (also summarized in the NYT article) that the parasitic plant Cuscuta pentagona (aka dodder) uses chemical cues to detect the most desirable hosts, which it then grows towards. This finding comes from a paper ("Volatile Chemical Cues Guide Host Location and Host Selection by Parasitic Plants" [pdf]) published in Science in 2006. Watching the time-lapsed video (.mov file) of this behavior (and it is most definitely behavior) really gives one a new perspective on plants.

There is even a Society for Plant Neurobiology! (Yes, that's neurobiology). The locus classicus of this emerging field seems to be Bremmer et. al.'s "Plant neurobiology: an integrated view of plant signaling" (pdf) that appeared in Trends in Plant Science in 2006. They defined the field as follows:
Plant neurobiology is a newly focused field of plant biology research that aims to understand how plants process the information they obtain from their environment to develop, prosper and reproduce optimally. The behavior plants exhibit is coordinated across the whole organism by some form of integrated signaling, communication and response system. This system includes
long-distance electrical signals, vesicle-mediated transport of auxin in specialized vascular tissues, and production of chemicals known to be neuronal in animals. Here we review how plant neurobiology is being directed toward discovering the mechanisms of signaling in whole plants, as well as among plants and their neighbors.
While I suspect some of this is a tad overexcited rhetoric and while these ideas are controversial (pdf), they're certainly stimulating and exciting. If the research holds up, plant neurobiology promises to transform our view of a large segment of the natural world and, as has happened repeatedly in Western intellectual history, we will have to abandon a view dominant since Aristotle.

(See also: an NPR podcast on the dodder's abilities)

Cephalopods are awesome

I'm on record saying cephalopods are amazing and everything I've learnt about them since has confirmed me in this view. The fantastic Carl Zimmer asks in a just-released Slate piece: "How smart is the octopus?" The answer, in short, is 'very smart, if not necessarily in human terms'. Zimmer reports on a paper that even claims octupi are conscious (in a limited or "primary" way). If you haven't seen the TEDTalk I posted earlier, have a look and also check out the YouTube videos Zimmer links to.

Two Pieces on Pinker

As regular readers will know, I'm a huge fan of Steven Pinker's - he's the one who got me into evolutionary psychology in the first place. (I was imprinted by How the Mind Works in high school). There are two interesting Pinker related pieces out in the last while: the first is a new Guardian profile by John Crace, the second a New Scientist video interview (embedded below, or click here) about his book The Stuff of Thought.

(Via Marginal Revolution for the Guardian article).

TAM so far

Not Totally Rad posted a summary of TAM so far (lucky bastard!). Apparently, Neil deGrasse Tyson's keynote address was absolutely superb. His talk was
built around the central theme of the close relationship between the scientific literacy of a population and the intellectual and creative health of their nation. Tyson gave a vivid account of the role of rising religious fundamentalism in the fall of the Islamic intellectual empire around 1100 CE -- a disaster from which the Islamic scientific community has never recovered. Parallels drawn by Dr. Tyson between this disaster and the current U.S. decline in scientific literacy were quite chilling. One hopes that the next administration can begin to repair some of the great damage done in the last 8 years to U.S. scientific research by the current administration.
(Via Podblack Cat).

Three Encephalons...

I really have been a bad boy about keeping up with carnivals (just like with the Skeptics Circle), I've missed three editions of Encephalon. Well, later is always better than never, so here we go...

The 45th instalment of the carnival was ably hosted by PodBlack Cat. Recommended pieces: Mind Hacks on trends in neuroscience research and Giovanna Di Sauro on an exceptionally cool study about gender (not sex) determination in fruit flies that is controlled by something of a 'master-switch'.

The 46th Encephalon was hosted by The Neurocritic and is possibly the best edition yet. Posts to check out: Neuroscientifically Challenged on the neuroscience of distributive justice and vaccines for drug addiction; Mind Hacks on supernumerary phantom limbs and Developing Intelligence on a study that seems to show hyperbolic discounting is the result of nonlinear time-perception, not a lack of self-control.

Chanel N hosted Encephalon #47. Recommended entries: Podblack Cat on a classic science paper about belief in fortune tellers and Mind Hacks on placebos for children.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Video: Why a scared expression brings a survival advantage

A new paper in Nature Neuroscience (which I haven't read, because I can't access it) argues facial expressions have an adaptive value. Specifically, the study found that the fear expression enhances sight and air-intake, while the expression of disgust reduces air intake. Check out the great New Scientist video (embedded below or click here) that admirably explains the study's results.

(See also: New Scientists' article and ScienceNOW's take).

Homeopathy, Challenged

According to a New Scientist report, Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst (co-authors of the just released skeptical volume, Trick or Treatment?) have issued a challenge: anyone who can prove homeopathy works in a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial wins the tidy sum of £10,000.

While they're a tad gimmicky, I'm generally in favor of these challenges - Randi's million dollar challenge (which is, sadly, coming to an end soon) has been great for the skeptical community, if only rhetorically. I say we should organize a general alternative medicine challenge for a defined list of modalities (homeopathy, therapautic touch, anti-vaccinationism, chiropractic, and so on). It'll be an excellent way to call out woo enthusiasts in public.

In any case, given that homeopathy is precluded from working (beyond placebo) by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, Ernst and Singh's money is obviously safe. But if you think we skeptics are wrong, bring it on, homeopaths... It's time to 'put up or shut up', says Singh. Indeed.

(I blogged earlier this year about Singh's appearance on The Skeptics Guide).

Is Darwin Deserving?

The wonderful Olivia Judson addresses an interesting question in the history of ideas in her latest blog post: is Darwinmania justified? That is, does Darwin deserve his immense reputation and all that acclaim?

My answer, is 'yes, most definitely.' I've read a couple of his books, several biographies (recently a superb very short introduction), and many shorter pieces on his life and the more I find out, the more I respect Darwin as a scientist. Judson agrees, arguing:
And the “Origin” changed everything. Before the “Origin,” the diversity of life could only be catalogued and described; afterwards, it could be explained and understood. Before the “Origin,” species were generally seen as fixed entities, the special creations of a deity; afterwards, they became connected together on a great family tree that stretches back, across billions of years, to the dawn of life. Perhaps most importantly, the “Origin” changed our view of ourselves. It made us as much a part of nature as hummingbirds and bumblebees (or humble-bees, as Darwin called them); we, too, acquired a family tree with a host of remarkable and distinguished ancestors.
'Darwinmania', it should be noted, need not be exclusive: Judson argued convincingly back in January (as I noted then) that Alfred Russell Wallace deserves more recognition. Darwin was a great scientist - up there with Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein - but that doesn't diminish Russell in absolute terms. While Russell went off the rails later in his life (he fell for Spiritualism), he made extremely important contributions in his own right.

But, yeah, Darwin is the man.

Who's the greatest modern thinker?

Stephen Dubner (co-author of Freakonomics) asks his readers an interesting question: Who do you think is the greatest modern-day thinker? As I'm writing this, there are almost 500 answers (mostly utterly crazy suggestions, like Ayn Rand or Jacques Derrida).

The question, it seems to me, is pretty much unanswerable, and it all revolves around how you define, "greatest", "modern-day" and "thinker". But that doesn't mean I can't have a go for the hell of it... (Please don't take this too seriously).

Taking "thinker" broadly as anyone who has written non-fiction books or articles, but excluding mathematicians (who I don't know nearly enough about to have an opinion) and leaving "greatest" vaguely defined as 'making important contributions,' then...

If "modern thinker" is defined as "after the scientific revolution started in c. 1543", I'd say Charles Darwin, without a doubt. (With Newton as a close second, and Hume in the running). If "modern thinker" is restricted to the 20th century, I'd say Einstein and then John von Neumann. If "modern thinker" is only those currently living, I have no idea, it's far too soon to tell.

As I mentioned above, a bunch of commentators gave deeply silly answers. Rand? Ron Paul? Alan Greenspan? Malcolm Gladwell? Bill Gates? Christopher Hitchens? Michel Foucault? Jacques Derrida? I think not. And with all due respect to Pinker and Dawkins, they're great communicators and synthesizers of other people's ideas, but neither has made original contributions even remotely comparable to, say, an Einstein.

(Via Marginal Revolution).

Darwinian pick-up lines

I just came across an old post of Rebecca's at Skepchick that's seriously not to be missed... it's the Top 10 Darwinian Pick-up Lines. A teaser: "Trust me baby, my selection is ALL natural"... Hold out for the winner, it's a real gem. (This link is not for the prude, by the way).

I'm SO going to try one of these if the opportunity arises!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The 89th Skeptics Circle: The I'd Rather be in Vegas Edition

Welcome to the 89th edition of the esteemed Skeptics' Circle! This is, I believe, the very first time the Circle has been hosted from Africa (I had to fend off psychic lions to get this edition up. Srsly) so hooray for that. This will also, however, be the bitterest Circle yet because, as much as I love you guys, frankly, I'd rather be in Vegas... Some of us, you see, live far, far away and are terribly poor so we can't afford to attend Randi's Amaz!ng Meeting 6 that's starting today. (I didn't know about the scholarship until just now. Dammit.) So, yeah, I suppose we can get started. Sigh...

First off is the inimitable Greta Christina who takes on the vexed question of how to think about progressive religious claims that are neither contradicted nor supported by science. (Plus: Russell's teapot in the context of his original article!)

The keynote speaker at TAM, you know, is Neil deGrasse Tyson. Neil deGrasse Tyson!!! Mr. Science Preacher himself! And I'm missing (1) his talk and (2) the opportunity to meet him. Great...

Redonkulous Redundancy is a new blogger and first-time Circle participant (be nice!) who aptly skewers CAM advocates for their bait-and-switch tactics: yes mainstream medicine has (serious) problems, no, CAM is not the answer.

Have you seen the TAM line-up?? It's so damn awesome I want to scream for missing it... Steven Novella - Dr. Omniscient I-have-a-full-time-job-and-a-family-and-two-podcasts-
and-three-blogs - is speaking. And the whole SGU crew is there! They're recording a show! Holding parties! And here I am fighting lions in Africa.

Oh, and hosting a Skeptics' Circle. Right... Hyphoid Logic ("Mentations of a Mad Mycologist") submitted not one but two posts on crazy creationist nonsense: the first deals with the silliness emanating from Don McElroy (Chair of the Texas state board of education), the second with a looney lawyer who thinks he knows something about Darwinism.

Okay, so I'm trying to hold back the bitterness but c'mon! Greydon Square! Skeptical hip hop!! Hip hop!!

The Bad Idea Blog is next in line with a post on the dark chasm of woo that is The Secret, specifically, with a motivational speaker in Hawaii who promotes that bollocks. Yes, the cover is cool-looking, but that doesn't mean The Secret has any merit.

Mythbusters. Without doubt the best (non-fiction) show on television. And who co-hosts the show? One Adam Savage. And where is Adam? In Vegas. And what is he doing in Vegas, pray tell? He's at TAM. Where am I? Thousands of kilometers away.

Denialism Blog (over at them fancy Science Blogs) submitted a post that deals with how "naturopathic doctors" are legislating legitimacy for themselves. (Sorry about the alliteration... Hyphoid Logic started me off and now I can't stop).

I have two letters for you: PZ. Yes, the author of the most widely-read science blog in the world is at TAM. And I'm not.

Don't hold the fact that Podblack Cat is Australian against her - neither g'day, mate nor Shane Warne is her fault (as far as I know...). Anyway, the skeptical Cat asks a vital question: how best do we teach skepticism to the young?

Dr. Michael Shermer... urbane, smart, knowledgeable, funny... and he's giving a talk that I'm not going to see... Maybe if I use the 'law of attraction'. Hmmmm...

Then there's Reality Dysfunction (featuring an awesome header) with a post that takes on the mercury militia and their spokespeople (spot the PC!) among celebrities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conclusion is not that comedians and former Playmates are among the intellectual elite who's opinions we should take seriously...

Dr. Art Benjamin's show "Mathamagic" is just stupendous, utterly unbelievable. Have you seen this guy's TEDTalk? He does math in his head a calculator would have trouble with. Oh, to see him live...

Humbug! Online discusses two issues that arose out of Richard Dawkins' excellent documentary series, The Enemies of Reason. The first post concerns the special pleading practised by dowsers (among many others) and the second how astrology may be as offensive as racism and other forms of prejudice.

When it comes to combining skepticism, rabid libertarianism, gratuitous nudity and magic... no one can possibly beat Penn & Teller. These guys actually live in Vegas. Frankly, I think it's utter bullshit that I'm not there.

No edition of the Skeptics' Circle could possibly be complete without an entry from Orac, the Respectful[ly] Insolen[t]. Orac reviews a recent rigorous trial (conducted by, would you believe, naturopaths) that found, to no skeptic's real surprise, that St. John's Wort is ineffective as a treatment of ADHD in children. Hooray for evidence.

Talking about magicians... James Randi's protoge Banachek - the master mentalist - is at TAM 6 too. Imagine the anecdotes about Project Alpha I'm missing out on...

The excellent Holford Watch skewers Dr. John Briffa for becoming, well, Holfordesque. On a bit of a tangent: I saw today at the airport that Holford's Optimal Nutrition Made Easy (or something) is the third best-selling book in South Africa's largest book store. Sigh.

Who do you call when someone sprouts nonsense about astronomy? Well, Phil Plait, "The Bad Astronomer," of course. And guess where Phil is at the moment? Yeah, that's right... where I'm not.

'Heathen Mike' of Mike's Weekly Skeptical Rant, well, rants about a new television show featuring 'psychic children'. Apparently one of the hosts is 'just as accurate as John Edward'. Wait. That might actually be true...

Even the only holder of a professorship in the public understanding of psychology is going to be at TAM. I'm talking, of course, about Richard Wiseman, the Quirkologist... Apparently, he has an amazing, closely guarded presentation prepared. Dammit.

The Lay Scientist takes on a topic new to me: the pseudoscience (and conspiracy theories) of oil. Is there no field exempt from fuzzy thinking and woo?!

TAM, of course, means "The Amazing Meeting"... named after The Amazing James Randi... And Randi (along with Carl Sagan, Paul Kurtz and so on) is the granddaddy of the skeptical movement. So, Randi, the legend, is in Vegas too... Man, I'm bitter.

Finally... Archaeoporn continues his series on 'Impossible Knowledge'. Part II focuses on ever popular pseudoegyptology.

That's it... The next edition of the Skeptics' Circle - the 90th! - is going to be hosted by The Millenium Project on July 3rd. Check out the guidelines for the Circle and get your posts ready...

Oh, and damn those lucky bastards in Vegas.

Late Skeptics Circle

Plane crash = cancelled flight = screwed up schedule = limited internet access = late Circle... Sorry. Barring further unavoidable hitches, it'll go up no later than 5pm GMT and hopefully much sooner.

Video: Ants Eating Gecko

As regular readers (with good memories) will know, I am a fan both of ants and geckos... So what could possibly be cooler than a time-lapsed video of ants eating a gecko in an amazingly short time? Nothing, I submit. The video is embedded below, or click here to go directly to YouTube.

Friday, June 13, 2008

10 Problems with Memetics

As I have mentioned before, I have never been a fan of memetics: it always struck me as a potentially interesting redescription, but not as a genuine causal theory of culture. I don't think I hate it as much as Greg from Neuroanthropology, though. He thinks memetics "is nonsense on stilts on skates on thin ice on borrowed time (apologies to Bentham), as deserving of the designation ’science’ as astrology, phrenology, or economic forecasting." And he has 10 reasons (including one drawn from yours truly) to back up his position: check out his article.

I do think Greg takes it a bit too far occasionally. Poisoning the well with respect to Susan Blackmore isn't fair and I don't think she's as bad as Greg lets on (when she's not waffling about memetics). She came across as perfectly sensible when she was interviewed on Point of Inquiry, for example. That said, memetics deserves all the flak it gets.

(Hat tip: Simon Halliday)

What the hell is "atheist porn"?

Back in February, I wrote a post about Greta Christina's blog (which deals with atheism, skepticism and porn) and called it (cleverly, I thought) "An atheist porn blog for the whole family...". As a result of that single post, however, I've been getting a steady stream of people finding my blog when searching for "atheism porn" or "atheist porn". (I can only imagine how disappointed they must have been landing up at a nerd-fest blog like mine). Now, don't get me wrong: I'm a pretty liberal guy and I don't object to porn or people trawling the web for it... but what the hell is atheist porn and why are people looking for it? If it's the obvious - naked atheist girls - I have a couple of questions: (1) how could you tell they weren't faking? and (2) why would it make a difference?

It seems Rule 34 is not in danger, however, witness (NSFW) ("No heaven. No hell. Just Porno")...

ID is dumb

"Even the theology, moreover, would be hobbled by contradictions. Intelligent design awkwardly embraces two clashing deities—one a glutton for praise and a dispenser of wrath, absolution, and grace, the other a curiously inept cobbler of species that need to be periodically revised and that keep getting snuffed out by the very conditions he provided for them. Why, we must wonder, would the shaper of the universe have frittered away thirteen billion years, turning out quadrillions of useless stars, before getting around to the one thing he really cared about, seeing to it that a minuscule minority of earthling vertebrates are washed clean of sin and guaranteed an eternal place in his company? And should the God of love and mercy be given credit for the anopheles mosquito, the schistosomiasis parasite, anthrax, smallpox, bubonic plague...? By purporting to detect the divine signature on every molecule while nevertheless conceding that natural selection does account for variations, the champions of intelligent design have made a conceptual mess that leaves the ancient dilemmas of theodicy harder than ever to resolve."
- Frederick C. Crews, "Saving Us from Darwin".

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Astonishing intellectual dishonesty

I have been reading an excellent collection of Stephen Jay Gould's writings off-and-on for while now and have been thoroughly enjoying it. The book is called The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould and is edited by Steven Rose and Paul McGarr. While Gould is not popular among evolutionary psychologists (and understandably so), I don't want to focus on that right now, because the editors are guilty of truly astonishing intellectual dishonesty. In their introduction to the section of the book about "Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology", Rose and McGarr write:
Steve [Gould] was one of those centrally involved in the counterattack on the Wilsonian theses, notably the assumption that central features of United States society - its class, race, and gender structure, its inequalities of status and wealth - were adaptive, evolved feature of the human condition, deducible from Darwinian principles.
They are referring, of course, to E. O. Wilson's seminal 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. The risible thing is, Wilson never said anything even remotely like this. You will look in vain for any statement in the last chapter of Sociobiology or the whole of On Human Nature for an argument (or "assumption") that racism, sexism and inequality are somehow "adaptive". Indeed, given that racism and sexism have certainly waned in the US since 1975, surely the editors are now committed to the position that Wilson thinks current US society is maladapted because of these changes? If so, Wilson is not letting on.

Rose and McGarr again demonstrate there is a strong negative correlation between honesty and Marxism, and a strong positive correlation between Marxism and dumb beliefs.

A cure of alcholism (in rats)

There is a fascinating article about a promising looking new treatment for alcoholism in the latest edition of PNAS. Sebastien Carnicella and colleagues demonstrate in their paper, "GDNF is a fast-acting potent inhibitor of alcohol consumption and relapse", that administering glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (a kind of protein) to the ventral tegmental area (part of the reward circuit) of rats rapidly eliminates alcoholism. Interestingly, after multiple injections of GDNF over a couple of weeks, the rats didn't relapse, even when alcohol was freely available. Promising as this looks, it is important to be careful about extrapolating from animal models to humans: many promising treatments fail to transition from basic science to clinical application.

The abstract:
Previously, we demonstrated that the action of the natural alkaloid, ibogaine, to reduce alcohol (ethanol) consumption is mediated by the glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) in the ventral tegmental area (VTA). Here we set out to test the actions of GDNF in the VTA on ethanol-drinking behaviors. We found that GDNF infusion very rapidly and dose-dependently reduced rat ethanol, but not sucrose, operant self-administration. A GDNF-mediated decrease in ethanol consumption was also observed in rats with a history of high voluntary ethanol intake. We found that the action of GDNF on ethanol consumption was specific to the VTA as infusion of the growth factor into the neighboring substantia nigra did not affect operant responses for ethanol. We further show that intra-VTA GDNF administration rapidly activated the MAPK signaling pathway in the VTA and that inhibition of the MAPK pathway in the VTA blocked the reduction of ethanol self-administration by GDNF. Importantly, we demonstrate that GDNF infused into the VTA alters rats' responses in a model of relapse. Specifically, GDNF application blocked reacquisition of ethanol self-administration after extinction. Together, these results suggest that GDNF, via activation of the MAPK pathway, is a fast-acting selective agent to reduce the motivation to consume and seek alcohol.

Blogging epidemic

It seems I am responsible for a blogging epidemic among my friends... no fewer than four of my friends have taken up blogging, and another has returned to it after an absence. I do love those social epidemics. So, the run down:

I mentioned Dave Ansara's blog, Quid Pro Quo, already, but will note Dave has already produced a bunch of interesting posts. If South African politics is even remotely on your radar, read his blog!

Wim Louw, an honours student in philosophy at UKZN has started a blog entitled the little book of capoeira. Don't hold the title against him, he's young and obsessed with Capoeira. He's just started, but blogs about cognitive science and related fields.

The person who's returned to blogging is Simon Halliday, an old friend from my Cape Town days. Simon is a very interesting guy: he started out doing drama in his first year, but then switched directions and ended up with masters degrees in Economics and Creative Writing from UCT. Currently, he's doing his Ph.D at the University of Siena in Italy. His blog is called Amanuensis and covers a lot of ground, but particularly economics, literature, politics and general science. (Warning: reading this blog exposes you to occasional poetry).

Another very interesting friend who has started a blog is Mark Oppenheimer, a friend from Cape Town with degrees in philosophy and law. Mark's blog, Liberty Addiction, covers his interests in ethics, film, photography and more.

Last but certainly not least is David Spurrett with Effortless Incitement. Full disclosure: David is my supervisor and I will thus no doubt be accused of brown-nosing with this link. But I've been badgering him to start a blog because he has interestingly wide interests: philosophy of science, scientific skepticism, cognitive science, philosophy, experimental philosophy, neuroscience, behaviourism and, of course, radically inappropriate humor. Oh, and I've heard rumors that he's quite a clever guy...

Submissions for the upcoming Skeptics' Circle

I'm hosting the 89th edition of the Skeptics' Circle on June 19th. If you'd like to participate (and why wouldn't you?), write something about pseudoscience / scientific skepticism and email it to me ( before 20:00 GMT on June 18th. Check out the guidelines; that link also contains a list of appropriate topics.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Evolution in action

I just came across the single coolest evolution study I've seen in a very, very long time: Richard Lenski's E. Coli long-term evolution project. Here's the abstract of Lenski et. al.'s forthcoming PNAS article on this work:
The role of historical contingency in evolution has been much debated, but rarely tested. Twelve initially identical populations of Escherichia coli were founded in 1988 to investigate this issue. They have since evolved in a glucose-limited medium that also contains citrate, which E. coli cannot use as a carbon source under oxic conditions. No population evolved the capacity to exploit citrate for >30,000 generations, although each population tested billions of mutations. A citrate-using (Cit+) variant finally evolved in one population by 31,500 generations, causing an increase in population size and diversity. The long-delayed and unique evolution of this function might indicate the involvement of some extremely rare mutation. Alternately, it may involve an ordinary mutation, but one whose physical occurrence or phenotypic expression is contingent on prior mutations in that population. We tested these hypotheses in experiments that "replayed" evolution from different points in that population's history. We observed no Cit+ mutants among 8.4 x 1012 ancestral cells, nor among 9 x 1012 cells from 60 clones sampled in the first 15,000 generations. However, we observed a significantly greater tendency for later clones to evolve Cit+, indicating that some potentiating mutation arose by 20,000 generations. This potentiating change increased the mutation rate to Cit+ but did not cause generalized hypermutability. Thus, the evolution of this phenotype was contingent on the particular history of that population. More generally, we suggest that historical contingency is especially important when it facilitates the evolution of key innovations that are not easily evolved by gradual, cumulative selection.
Everyone: this is now the go-to study when any silly creationist claims "evolution hasn't been observed". Also, be sure to mention Lenski's work when the "micro-evolution vs. macro-evolution" objection comes up and point out that the ability to metabolize citrate was used before this study was conducted to distinguish between bacterial species.

Interestingly, the path dependence and contingency of the evolutionary sequence in this study at least partially vindicates Stephen Jay Gould's view (in Wonderful Life and elsewhere) that if you could replay the "tape of life", you'd get dramatically different results. The authors discuss Gould's view approvingly, and conclude their discussion with:
In any case, our study shows that historical contingency can have a profound and lasting impact under the simplest, and thus most stringent, conditions in which initially identical populations evolve in identical environments. Even from so simple a beginning, small happenstances of history may lead populations along different evolutionary paths. A potentiated cell took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
(See also: Carl Zimmer's take and the New Scientist article).

Monday, June 9, 2008

Durban Action Against Xenophobia

Talking about xenophobia... an organization I've been involved with, Durban Action Against Xenophobia, has now put up a blog. It's aimed mainly at organizing a response to the xenophobic violence in and around Durban, so might not be of terribly wide interest. That said, please spread the word to interested parties...

(Ignore this, it's for Pagerank's benefit. Durban Action Against Xenophobia. Durban xenophobia. South Africa xenophobia).

Fun with podcasts

This weekend’s crop of podcasts was especially interesting and entertaining, so here’s a quick rundown of the episodes: Episode #150 of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe featured an excellent interview with the renowned journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson about his latest book, Einstein: His Life and Universe. Donald Prothero was interviewed on the 78th episode of Skepticality, his views on Expelled’s failure at the box office and the legal injunction against it were particularly worthwhile. Finally, the inimitable DJ Grothe interviewed Taner Edis again on Point of Inquiry, their discussion was incredibly wide-ranging but was purportedly about his book, Science and Nonbelief.

Xenophobia and dormitive virtues

As most of you will know, South Africa was wracked by despicable and disturbing nation-wide incidents of xenophobic violence over the last couple of months. This has led, correctly, to much public debate about the causes of xenophobia, the conditions under which it results in violence, and what we can do to prevent it. This week’s edition of the Sunday Independent (South Africa’s best weekly), however, contains a near-perfect example of how not to go about explaining this phenomenon. In “Money and narrow nationalism won’t buy us a rainbow” (full article behind paywall), Colleen Lowe Morna asserts:
Xenophobia… has its roots in the failure to accept “otherness” mixed with misguided notions about the superiority of self. That fragile self is constantly threatened by the potential power of the other whether numerical, social, political or economic.
Well, erm, no. A ‘failure to accept otherness’ is not an explanation of xenophobia, it’s simply a redescription of it. Xenophobia, of course, is the hatred or fear of foreigners; the prefix xeno- derives from the Greek xenos meaning stranger or foreigner and the suffix -phobia derives from phobos, or fear. Obviously, strangers are “other”, hatred and prejudice entails one’s own superiority and a non-acceptance of the “other”. Lowe Morna’s purported explanation is, therefore, literally no better than saying opium causes sleep because it has "dormitive virtues".

Arthur Mutambara’s piece in the same newspaper, “Digging up the roots of xenophobia” (paywall again), illustrates another (far less egregious) failure in the debate so far. While Mutambara’s analysis is crudely simplistic, naïve in places and repeatedly factually inaccurate, at least he offers a set of causes that count as a genuine possible explanation. He argues:
At the root of the attacks are the grievances of increased poverty, growing inequality and unemployment, coupled with a deplorable social infrastructure in which health, housing and education are woefully inadequate.
I don’t buy this explanation – it’s clearly causally insufficient and probably doesn’t hold up comparatively – but, as I’ve said, at least it’s a candidate explanation. It is an explanation, however, that focuses exclusively on proximate causes, never mentioning ultimate causes. Why is it that increased poverty, inequality and unemployment where social services are inadequate lead to xenophobic violence? Why doesn't it lead to, oh I don’t know, an irresistible mass urge to recite poetry? Or a sudoku craze? Or anti-albino feeling? We need an account, in other words, of why the social ills Mutambara mentions (or the true proximate causes, whatever they are) lead to xenophobia rather than the infinite number of other possibilities.

In one sense, I admit, the focus on proximate causes is appropriate. There was a time the very same South Africans didn’t commit xenophobic violence (on such a scale, at least), and it’s important to understand what has changed to cause the difference so that we can do something to prevent the violence. But it is possible – perhaps likely – that designing optimum policies to prevent xenophobic violence depends on a full account of the phenomenon, including both proximate and ultimate causes. And evolutionary psychology, of course, has much to say about the ultimate causes of violence and xenophobia.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Crow Creek Massacre

I just finished reading University of Illinois archaeologist Laurence Keeley's fantastic War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. I will write a full review soon, but I wanted to mention an incident Keeley discusses that rather surprised me: the Crow Creek Massacre. Keeley's main argument in the book is that archaeologists have artificially "pacified the past" by overlooking evidence of warfare, murder, cannibalism and genocide in prehistory. Despite my rather Hobbesian view of human nature - which makes it pretty easy for me to accept Keeley's conclusions - it surprised me that such clear evidence of Native American brutality existed. I suppose all those Hollywood films with eco-pacifist Indians had a subconscious effect on me after all.

The Crow Creek massacre occurred around 1325 AD (that is, long before Columbus) in South Dakota, along the Missouri River. The victims were from a group of agriculturalists known as the 'Initial Coalescent people' who are thought to have migrated from the plains due to drought. There is evidence that the victims were malnourished and that several individuals had previous war wounds (healed scalpings, arrows embedded in bone, etc.). Additionally, they clearly felt threatened: a defensive ditch was under construction when the massacre occurred. The total number of victims is estimated at 486 people, which included men, women and children:

Disturbingly, many of the victims were tortured (including "tongue removal, decapitation, and dismemberment"), at least 90% of the people were scalped and their village was burnt. The victims were left to rot where they fell, and were apparently only buried some months later.

This event is quite possibly due to ecological stress but nonetheless serves as a clear existence proof of genocide and abject cruelty among prehistoric societies. Native Americans had clearly tasted evil before Europeans arrived; which is obvious, of course, except that recent intellectual history and popular opinion has denied such a thing was possible. This evidence, though, is incontrovertible.

Skeptics' Circle times three

I've been a bad boy and not keeping up to date with the usual blog carnivals... A full three Skeptics Circles have passed since my last linkage, and next time round I'm the host! (If you would like to contribute, check out the guidelines and email me at Anyway, here are the three missing Circles and my favorites:

The 86th edition of the Skeptics Circle was hosted at The Skepbitch. Pieces to check out: Denialism Blog on the silly notion that GM causes a non-existent disease, Respectful Insolence on penis enlargement woo, Skelliot’s Weblog on skeptical podcasts, and The Skeptical Alchemist on that Cochrane Collaboration meta-study that linked vitamin supplements to higher mortality.

The 87th Skeptics Circle was over at Action Skeptics. Check out: Whiskey Before Breakfast on the harm of woo, Polite Company on investment scams, and Greta Christina's Blog on nature vs. nurture in the gay community.

And, finally, the 88th Circle was at Jyunri Kankei. Recommended entries: Archaeoporn on Afrocentrism, the wonderful Podblack Cat on scientific education research, and Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes on the stupidity that is Ray Comfort.

A field day...

I know some evolutionary psychologists (to say nothing about Freudians) who would have an absolute field day with the following PostSecret:

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Video: Susan Blackmore at TED

Susan Blackmore, the noted parapsychologist and author of The Meme Machine, gave an interesting talk on memetics at this year's TED conference. (The video is embedded below, click here to go directly to the video at the TED website). While I found her talk interesting and stimulating, overall, I must say I wasn't all that impressed. I have always been skeptical of memetics and "universal Darwinism" because it seems to me at best a potentially interesting rediscription of cultural phenomena, but not a genuine causal account of them. Blackmore does nothing to assuage my concerns in this regard, indeed, she reinforces them. Natural selection, as we all know and Blackmore explains, requires just three assumptions to work: variability, heredity and scarcity. In biological evolution, we know exactly how these mechanisms work even if the details of specific cases elude us. In memetic evolution, however, there is no proper general account of heredity (which ideas are imitated by whom and why) and the accounts of scarcity and variability are somewhat iffy as well. Moreover, I'm not sure the memetic research program has produced particularly interesting or fruitful results, in stark contrast to biological evolution. (I must admit, though, that I don't know the field at all well, I haven't even read Dennett's Breaking the Spell. I'd therefore be happy to stand corrected). In my view memetics is best employed to understand phenomena like the variations on poems like "One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night" or how languages change over time, not as a universal explanation for design.

Blackmore also asserts several blatant falsehoods and commits at least one serious logical error. She claims, for example, that humans are the only true imitators, that other organisms imitate hardly at all. That is utter hogwash: some of the most important ethological findings over the last couple of decades is just how smart some non-human animals are and how many species engage in "differential social learning". Indeed, chimps as well as whales and dolphins have culture and crows are veritable geniuses (pdf). Blackmore even offhandedly suggests humans are the only species that uses tools!

The serious logical error comes in when she argues, amazingly, that humans have big brains in order to copy memes. That is, she argues there is a "memetic drive" favoring brains that are better at copying memes completely independently of genetic evolution. Language, on this view, is a parasite which we only later "adapted to". How such a process is meant to operate I have no idea. Why would selfish genes altruistically code for proteins that build bigger brains to help selfish memes replicate? I can see how memetic evolution could take off as a by product of increased intelligence brought about by biological evolution; I simply can't see how memetic evolution could cause larger brains to evolve in the absence of a biological fitness benefit. If that's right, then it's simply illogical to argue the large human brain evolved in order to copy memes more effectively, and memetics therefore is not nearly as important as Blackmore suggests.

(See also: Blackmore's reflections on the TED conference on her blog).

Monday, June 2, 2008

Link love: Dave's new blog

My good friend David Ansara has just started a blog, entitled Quid Pro Quo, on politics and the media in South Africa. Dave is an intelligent and knowledgeable guy who has just finished his masters degree in South African and comparative politics at the University of Cape Town. His blog looks very promising - check it out!