Thursday, July 31, 2008

Video: James Randi on homeopathy

James "the Amazing" Randi takes on the asinine silliness that is homeopathy in the video embedded below (or click here). Randi is funny, appropriately indignant and absolutely devastating. Highly recommended!

Skeptics' Circle #92

The 92nd edition of the esteemed Skeptics' Circle is out at The Lay Scientist. Recommended submissions: Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes on woo-woos using legal bullying tactics; Greta Christina on the non-existence of the soul; Skeptico on the necessity of provenance; and Providentia on the cognitive dissonance of failed prophecy.

Clark and Advanced Cognition

I have a paper out in the South African Journal of Philosophy about Andy Clark's widely-read 1997 work, Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again. My argument, in brief, is that Clark's attempt to explain advanced cognition in terms of the influential view of mind as an embedded 'associative engine' fails dismally. The paper is called "Being Where? Andy Clark and the Problem of Advanced Cognition" (pdf); the abstract follows:
Andy Clark (1989, 1993, 1997) is a leading philosophical exponent of a view of mind as an ‘associative engine’, or connectionist pattern-completer, composed of multiple special-purpose modules 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’ (1997: 33). 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 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 in the economic sphere.

Utter nonsense in the pages of the NYT

There is an utterly ridiculous op-ed in yesterday's NYT about the security threat UFOs supposedly pose. The author is one Nick Pope, unsurprisingly, a "ufologist" and seeming utter crackpot. (His other interests include ghosts, crop circles, remote viewing and similar bollocks). Pope's argument is decidedly odd, he lists some silly anecdotes (no extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims for this guy) and concludes:
The United States is no less vulnerable than Britain and France to threats to security and air safety. The United States Air Force or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration should reopen investigations of U.F.O. phenomena. It would not imply that the country has suddenly started believing in little green men. It would simply recognize the possibility that radar alone cannot always tell us what’s out there.
Now, clearly, Pope is being coy - he doesn't want to look too silly, so he doesn't come out and say he believes some UFO sightings are due to alien visitation, but he clearly thinks so. (He seems to suggest the sightings might be due to super-advanced terrestial aircraft operated by some unidentified enemy nation, but his heart really isn't in that hypothesis). I don't want to bore you with yet more reasons to think UFOs are most probably not visiting alien spacecraft, but I have a couple of comments. Firstly, despite what Pope thinks, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, and it therefore fully deserves to be ignored when it concerns highly implausible phenomena. Also, there has been several thorough, neutral scientific investigations - not least the Condon Committee - so it's blatantly false to suggest that the UFO phenomenon has been ignored (or restricted to radar data). In sum, there is no evidence whatsoever that reports of Unidentified Flying Objects are due to anything other than misidentification, credulity, hoaxing, ignorance and other human frailties. And if there is no evidence of a real signal among all the noise in the UFO reports, there is also no evidence of a national security threat. Why, I ask you, did the NYT publish this nonsense?

(Via Pharyngula)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Oh the infamy!

So I would much rather forget it, but many of you no doubt remember my embarrassing little foul up (and retraction) recently. I didn't know Nature published fiction, so shoot me! :-)... Anyway, the author of the Nature article that fooled me so badly, Peter Watts, has now posted quite a nice piece about the incident on his blog. On the upside, there has recently been an uptick in subscriptions to my blog, so maybe being honest about one's mistakes earns one new readers... Now, wouldn't that be nice?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Quote: Genghis Khan

We may not always like to admit it, but human beings are a bloodthirsty lot. I know of no better illustration of this than the following quotation from Genghis Khan, the great Mongol conqueror. The story goes that Khan and some fellows were debating the question 'What is life's sweetest pleasure' when one man said it must surely be falconry. Genghis Khan is said to have replied:
You are mistaken. Man's greatest good fortune is to chase and defeat his enemy, seize his total possessions, leave his married women weeping and wailing, ride his gelding, and use the bodies of his women as a nightshirt.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Rapid human evolution

There is a pretty good article in US News and World Report about the growing evidence for very rapid recent evolution in human beings:
At the same time, the human genome has been scrambling to adapt to a rapidly changing world—11,000 years ago, nobody farmed, nobody milked domesticated animals, and nobody lived in a city. People with a mutation that aided survival were more likely to thrive, reproduce, and pass that mutation along to offspring. For example, the capacity to digest lactose, the sugar in milk, has become common only over the past 3,000 years. Now, about 95 percent of the people in northern Germany have the mutation, which also popped up independently among the Masai in Africa and the Lapps in Finland. Hawks says: "This is really rapid evolution."
Unfortunately, instead of sticking to the science, the second half of the article goes into genetic engineering and its ethical complications. Speculation ensues and the piece ends off with a pathetically pat conclusion. Despite its shortcomings, the article is still a decent popular summary of very important science.

(Via John Hawks, who features in the article).

Saturday, July 26, 2008

You gotta love PZ

As many of you no doubt recall, PZ Myers, author of the excellent Phyrangula, has had a run-in with a horde of Catholic fanatics because he said some mean things about a cracker and threatened to "desecrate" one. Two developments on that front: the Chancellor of PZ's university has come out in support of his academic freedom and, more importantly, PZ has now gone ahead and abused a cracker, just as he promised he would. He even did the same to pages of the Qur'an and The God Delusion.

PZ's conclusion to the cracker-abuse post is wonderful:
By the way, I didn't want to single out just the cracker, so I nailed it to a few ripped-out pages from the Qur'an and The God Delusion. They are just paper. Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet. You are all human beings who must make your way through your life by thinking and learning, and you have the job of advancing humanity's knowledge by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality. You will not find wisdom in rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-satisfied ignorance, but you can find truth by looking at your world with fresh eyes and a questioning mind.
(By the way, translated copies of the Qur'an are not considered "holy" so strictly speaking PZ has not really guilty of desecration from a Muslim perspective).

Friday, July 25, 2008

I, publish

My good friend David Ansara and I have an op-ed (pdf) in today's edition of Business Day. The article builds on my earlier blog pieces "Voting for authoritarianism" and "South Africa's shame". Our argument is that South Africa's foreign policy at the UN Security Council has been a travesty, richly earning us the appellation of 'rogue democracy'. Check it out!

Liberal creationism

Michael Shermer calls the unfortunate tendency of liberals ("the left") to resist the application of evolutionary biology to human beings 'liberal creationism'. David P. Barash, a psychologist at the University of Washington, takes up exactly this theme in a recent LA Times op-ed entitled "Monkeying with evolution":
And there's the rub. For more than 30 years, left-leaning academics -- notably residing in the humanities and, to a lesser extent, the social sciences -- have been strongly opposed to using evolutionary theory to help make sense of human behavior, in part because their professional training emphasizes the role of social learning and cultural traditions, and -- perhaps even more -- because they fear the possible findings. Do racial differences imply genetic distinctions that might argue against social equality? Are women fated for kitchen work and childbearing, not high-level physics? And even if the science is more nuanced than that (which it certainly is), will the simpler message drown out the details and provide ammunition for social regression?

Religion can be bad for you

The South African media is reporting that a man by the name of Matthew Naidoo, calling himself the "third son of God” and "God's messenger", convinced Westville brother and sister Hardus and Nicolette Lotter to murder their parents. The father, Johan, was strangled to death with an extension cord and the mother, Magdelena ("Riekie"), was stabbed to death. Apparently, Naidoo was told by "voices in his head" that “God wanted Johan and Riekie [Magdelena Lotter]”. It's unclear whether the three belonged to a cult, but The Times quotes sources claiming the murder was some sort of religious ritual. Thankfully, police arrested Naidoo, Hardus and Nicolette and they are reported to have made a full confession.

This incident reminds me of Voltaire's justly famous quote:
Truly, whoever is able to make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities. If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world. (From, "Questions sur les miracles", 1765).

Why are there still monkeys?

One of the most annoying creationist canards is to ask "if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" John Wilkins of Evolving Thoughts has taken the time to answer this question in much more detail than anyone could possibly want. The quick answer, by the way, is:
Now, back to the "why are there still monkeys?" part of the question: on the older view of evolution that was the common idea of evolution for a century prior to Darwin (both the evolution of organisms, or languages, and of social institutions), if a lineage had evolved, it moved "up" the ladder as a whole. On the Darwinian view, only one part of a species evolves into the next (and there's no "next step" - a species evolves into whatever suits the local conditions of the population it evolves from; it may be bigger brained or smaller brained, or for that matter bigger or smaller). The rest of the species remains. So we end up with an increase in the diversity of life, which is, I think, the single most important point Darwin ever made. Monkeys remain because we are monkeys, and so are chimps, orangs, and all those other primates. All of them remain because they evolved by the multiplication of taxa.
(Hat tip: Carl Zimmer).

Thursday, July 24, 2008


There is an interesting article in this week's Economist about neuroeconomics. A representative paragraph:
As well as the ultimatum game, neuroeconomists have focused on such issues as people’s reasons for trusting one another, apparently irrational risk-taking, the relative valuation of short- and long-term costs and benefits, altruistic or charitable behaviour, and addiction. Releases of dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical, may indicate economic utility or value, they say. There is also growing interest in new evidence from neuroscience that tentatively suggests that two conditions of the brain compete in decision-making: a cold, objective state and a hot, emotional state in which the ability to make sensible trade-offs disappears. The potential interactions between these two brain states are ideal subjects for economic modelling.


Forgive the sheepish look, but, ooooopsss... I got very badly taken in with my post "Death by Skepticism". So the Nature article that got me all in worked-up was published in the Futures section, which is, erm, science fiction. So, yes, the whole Hillcrest vs. Velikovsky case never happened. Cue much embarrassment. Thanks to PZ for correcting my silliness.

Oh, and this nicely illustrates the importance of skepticism! In my rush to defend skepticism, I forgot the be skeptical myself. Not everything published in Nature should be taken literally...

Death by skepticism

Note: I got badly taken in by this one... it turns out the Nature article by Peter Watts is, erm, science fiction. That's right, it didn't happen. Thanks to PZ for correcting me. (See more).

In an absolutely mind-boggling case reported by Nature, a skeptic by the name Linus C. Velikovsky (no, not that Velikovsky) was charged with the negligible homicide of one Lacey Hillcrest. The story runs as follows: five years ago, Hillcrest was diagnosed with terminal lymphatic cancer and given 6 months to live, but (so the story runs) she survived miraculously due to the placebo effect activated by a necklace supposedly containing a fragment of the cross of Jesus. Then, in June of this year, she visited Velikovsky's Museum of Quackery and Pseudoscience where she saw a display on the placebo effect, immediately rendering her "subdued and uncommunicative" and she died less than a month later. This was enough to get Velikovsky charged - the "vile little Russian" (in Hillcrest's sister's words) was responsible for her death. Luckily, the jury wasn't absolutely crazy and it returned a verdict of not guilty.

A couple of comments. Firstly, the placebo effect is much misunderstood, in fact, the idea that it involves "mind over matter" is simply a myth. There is no evidence whatsoever that one's mood or beliefs can influence the objective course of a disease, only that placebos may help patients cope better with subjective aspects of a disease (like pain). Indeed, a large, well-constructed study published last year in the journal Cancer concluded that "The current results add to the weight of the evidence that emotional functioning is not an independent predictor of survival in cancer patients" (emphasis added). In other words, there is no evidence that the placebo effect can alter the course of a disease like cancer. On this evidence alone Velikovsky is innocent: he simply cannot be guilty of killing Hillcrest because her necklace and the placebo effect weren't responsible for her survival.

Secondly, this case beautifully demonstrates the dangers of non-scientific and illogical thinking. The prosecutors and Hillcrest's family committed the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc: she died soon after seeing Velikovsky's exhibit, therefore she must have died as a result of seeing it. While I can understand the emotional cachet of this view for her family, I fail completely to understand why the prosecutors fell for it - one would expect lawyers to be familiar with an elementary logical error like confusing correlation with causation. I've long thought all high school students should be required to learn elementary logic and critical thinking, and this case demonstrates just how necessary that is.

Third and finally, this case also shows just how far the skeptical movement has to go before it gains mainstream acceptance. While it seems Velikovsky didn't help his cause by being impolite and unnecessarily combative, there was never even a semblance of a case against him, he was guilty of nothing more than being a grumpy skeptic. I'm afraid that until we get the public to understand the value of skepticism, until we've made skepticism more mainstream, this sort of low-level persecution (in less extreme forms) will continue.

Anyway, at least Velikovsky wasn't found guilty, now that would have been a travesty.

(See also: Steven Novella's blog entries on the placebo effect, here, here, and here).

Nature on China

Nature is running a special issue on China this week, and there are a bunch of interesting articles. The introductory editorial summarizes some of the other pieces and notes, interestingly, that there might be a growing tension between science and China's political realities. Also have a look at the essay, "China: The end of the science superpowers", which argues the rise of China heralds not only the eclipse of the United States' dominance in science, but the eclipse of scientific superpowers generally. Interesting, stimulating and immensely exciting stuff - China certainly promises to contribute enormously to our understanding of the universe.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Video: Andy Thompson on suicide terrorism

Andy Thompson gave an absolutely superb and erudite talk about suicide terrorism at the 2007 Atheist Alliance International Conference. In his lecture, Thompson convincingly uses evolutionary psychology to explain the psychological mechanisms responsible for the occurrence of violence generally and suicide terrorism specifically. The first part of the talk is embedded below (or click here); alternatively you can download the video in .mov format here.

Hawksian advice

John Hawks, the anthropologist and hell of a nice guy behind the fantastic John Hawks Anthropology Weblog, has an interesting and thoughtful piece about the benefits and risks of academic blogging. Highly recommended.

Encephalon #50

The 50th edition of Encephalon is out at Sharp Brains. Recommended: Effortless Incitement on cool rat neuroscience, Mind Hacks on Facebook and mental health, and Pure Pedantry on temporal discounting in the primate brain and the function of fearful expressions.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


I blogged the other day about A.J. Jacobs, the American journalist who self-experiments with weird ideas and then writes about it. Anyway, I've now had a chance to read a bunch of his articles and they're absolutely hilarious. Check out: "I Think You're Fat" (about the Radical Honesty movement), "My Life as a Hot Woman" (about pretending to be a sexy woman on an internet dating service), and "My Outsourced Life" (about outsourcing much of his life to personal assistants in India). The excerpts from his books The Year of Living Biblically and The Know-It-All are also worth a read.

Oh, and Jacobs had a pretty amusing feud with one Joe Queenan who thought The Know-It-All was a travesty and wrote a snarky review in the NYT - Jacobs replies here.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Video: My Year of Living Biblically

A. J. Jacobs is a New York-based journalist who works for Esquire magazine and specializes in immersing himself in odd, demanding projects and then writing about it. Jacobs spent a year reading all 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica (resulting in The Know-It-All) and later spent a month following the principles of the Radical Honesty movement (the article he wrote about this experience is entitled "I Think You're Fat", which should give you an idea) . His latest project was to follow all the rules of the Bible for a full year, which he then documented in his book The Year of Living Biblically. In the talk embedded below (or click here) Jacobs describes his year as a fundamentalist and then draws a bunch of interesting lessons. It's well worth watching, not least because it's screamingly funny.

Misunderstanding evolution

New Scientist magazine published a great series of 24 articles a while ago on the most common misconceptions about evolution. All the pieces are worth reading (and the links are certainly worth following), but my six favorite articles were:
  1. Religion and evolution are incompatible
  2. Evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics
  3. Accepting evolution undermines morality
  4. The theory is wrong because the Bible is 'inerrant'
  5. Half a wing is no use
  6. Evolution cannot be disproved
I'm making the whole series required reading for the Darwinism course I'm teaching this coming semester...

Skeptics' Circle #91

The 91st edition of the Skeptics Circle is out at Sorting Out Science. Pieces to check out: David Gorski from Science-Based Medicine on bad reporting on the anti-vaccination movement and PodBlack Cat on a silly Aussie show looking for psychics.

Quote: Quine on the Ancient Egyptians

I was looking through an old intellectual notebook of mine and I came across a cool quote I wrote down from W. V. O. Quine's autobiography, The Time of My Life:
The [Ancient] Egyptians… were gifted artists, brilliant engineers, indefatigable workers, and insane. Dazzling wealth, much of the economy of the world’s richest country, was buried forever, once in each reign, in a hidden and forgotten hole in the Theban desert or squandered on the fastidious megalithic masonry of a useless pyramin. It must be significant, somehow, that civilization at its first great height was so irrational (1985: 326-327).

Friday fun: Glorious xkcd

So Friday fun has become very sporadic, but today's xkcd is just too good to pass up:

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

South Africa's shame

This isn't a politics blog, but I've argued before that South Africa's participation on the UN Security Council is brining shame to the country, that it amounts to "Voting for Authoritarianism". On that occasion, I condemned the South African government for voting with Russia and China against a draft resolution that would have censured Burma over its human rights abuses. Now South Africa has again sided with a bunch of autocracies (China, Libya, Russia and Vietnam) by voting against a resolution (pdf) on Zimbabwe that would have, among other things, (a) condemned the regime for stealing the recent election, (b) called for a return to democracy, (c) imposed an arms embargo and (d) placed targeted sanctions on the upper echelons of the government. Just like on the Burma vote, South Africa is the only liberal democracy that voted against the resolution. (Indonesia, which is also a democracy, abstained on both votes).

The minutes (pdf) of the meeting make it clear that the South African government is taking a ridiculously procedural view of matters. South Africa's ambassador to the UN, Dumisani Kumalo, argued that while government was worried about the situation in Zimbabwe, South Africa is obliged to follow the African consensus as expressed by SADC and the AU. And SADC and the AU did not call for sanctions, simply expressed "grave concern". Kumalo went on to say "dialog" between the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC parties is the only way the problem can be addressed.

While I have not been a critic of "quiet diplomacy" in the past (because the alternative policy options looked worse), it's clear things have changed: the Zimbabwean government has absolutely no legitimacy left and it has taken electoral fraud, violence and political intimidation to new heights. It is also clear that Mugabe will never give up power voluntarily and negotiations are doomed to failure as a result unless outside pressure is put on the regime. The argument that South Africa is oblidged to follow African consensus is a transparent excuse and belied by the fact that tiny Burkina Faso managed to vote for the resolution.

Thomas Friedman is perfectly right, I think, to argue South Africa, Russia and China may be popular, but they are spineless.

Update: the UN document handling system seems to be deeply silly, so the links to the draft resolution and the minutes might not work. Have a look at this page, and search for "Peace and security--Africa (Zimbabwe)" to find the relevant documents.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Impossible experiments

The fantastic BPS Research Digest posed an interesting question to bunch of psychologists a while back: "What's the most important psychology experiment that's Never been done?" Now (the considerably less fantastic) Psychology Today has done something similar: they asked their resident bloggers to dream up the experiment they would most like to do if ethics or logistics didn't stand in the way. A couple of the answers were a bit, well, unimaginative (especially from the philosophers - tellingly, they proposed Baconian, not Galilean experiments). I'll echo Vaughn and say I most liked Bella DePaulo's proposal:
I'd like to take couples who are living together and randomly assign half of them to marry and the others to stay unmarried. Then we could really know something about the implications of co-habitation vs. marriage. More outrageously, take people who are not in a serious romantic relationship, and assign half of them, at random, to marry. Single people are randomly assigned to a spouse who is chosen at random, or to a spouse who fits their description of their perfect partner, or to stay single. Who do you think would end up the happiest a decade later? Same for divorce. If married parents are already at each other's throats, is it better for the children if they divorce, or stay together? Randomly assign half of them to divorce, and half to stay together; then we'll see. Now take married couples who say they are happy and are not considering divorce. Randomly assign half of them to divorce! Now who will be happier ten years hence?
From my recent post about the Stockholm Syndrome it should be clear what my answer to this question would be...

(Hat tip: Mind Hacks).

Wilson profile

The New York Times has a pretty interesting profile of E. O. Wilson, the grand-daddy of evolutionary psychology (and daddy of sociobiology), one of the most influential biologists of the latter half of the 20th century and one of the best science writers I've come across. A teaser:
The new fight is one Dr. Wilson has picked. It concerns a central feature of evolution, one with considerable bearing on human social behaviors. The issue is the level at which evolution operates. Many evolutionary biologists have been persuaded, by works like “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, that the gene is the only level at which natural selection acts. Dr. Wilson, changing his mind because of new data about the genetics of ant colonies, now believes that natural selection operates at many levels, including at the level of a social group.

It is through multilevel or group-level selection — favoring the survival of one group of organisms over another — that evolution has in Dr. Wilson’s view brought into being the many essential genes that benefit the group at the individual’s expense. In humans, these may include genes that underlie generosity, moral constraints, even religious behavior. Such traits are difficult to account for, though not impossible, on the view that natural selection favors only behaviors that help the individual to survive and leave more children.
An interesting titbit is that Wilson is apparently working on a novel involving ants - I'm skeptical, but his prose is so good that he might just pull it off. Oh, and when the journalist refers to an updated edition of a book called "The Superorganism", I strongly suspect he means The Ants.

(Hat tip: John Hawks).

Monday, July 14, 2008

Evolution and the Stockholm Syndrome

One of the things I'm wont to speculate about wildly after imbibing a few too many beers is the possibility that the Stockholm Syndrome is in fact an evolved psychological adaptation. The logic is simple: women, especially young women, seem to be most likely to develop the syndrome and if coming to identify with one's captors is an effective survival strategy and if being kidnapped was a recurrent survival problem in the environment of evolutionary adaptiveness, then it's likely evolution would have favored such a psychological mechanism. The problem, of course, is that data about the Stockholm Syndrome is extremely difficult to come by for the simple reason that doing experiments would be deeply unethical. Indeed, there is some reason to think the syndrome does not exist, that it is an urban myth. Moreover, determining whether Stockholm syndrome is an adaptation is even more difficult: we don't have nearly enough data to settle the issue one way or the other, and I've tried and tried but failed to come up with an ethical way of approaching this topic experimentally. (I considered doing by MA thesis on this but the lack of data and the impossibility of doing experiments dissuaded me. I doubt my university's ethics committee would have looked kindly upon a proposal to kidnap a bunch of doe-eyed first years...). Unless someone comes up with a novel experimental technique, in other words, I doubt we could ever settle this issue.

Nonetheless, evidence is accumulating about one aspect of this problem: whether being kidnapped was a recurrent event in human evolutionary history. We already know women are regularly subject to capture in contemporary non-state societies (Keeley, 1996), but is the same true through history? A paper recently published in the journal Antiquity provides an interesting way to start answering this question: simply determine whether adult female skeletons are represented proportionally in ancient mass graves. (Note: I haven't been able to get access to the full paper, my institution's electronic access to journals is pitiful. I'm relying entirely on the abstract and a single news report). At a Linearbandkeramik site in Talheim, Germany the authors of this paper found that adult women were systematically underrepresented in a mass grave and this, the authors argue, suggests the women were selectively taken. Indeed, a very similar result was obtained at the site of the Crow Creek massacre. If these findings hold up, and if many more similar cases are found, we would have pretty solid (if entirely circumstantial) evidence that being kidnapped was indeed a recurrent problem in human history and that there thus might have been selection pressure for some kind of adaptation.

This kind of data, I must emphasize, is at best suggestive: as I said, I doubt we will ever be able to say for certain whether the Stockholm syndrome is an adaptation or not (or even whether it exists or not). It's still an interesting topic to speculate about over a few beers, however.

(See also: "Sex, Drugs and Cults" by Keith Henson).

Atheists who believe

I blogged a while back about the amusing new Pew finding that 21% of "atheists" believe in God. Sam Harris, one of the four 'horsemen of the counter-apocalypse', has also commented on this finding. His post is eerily similar to mine... Anyway, check out his article; an interesting bit:
Open the newspaper tomorrow morning, or any morning thereafter, and reflect upon the fact that half of your neighbors (51%) are “absolutely certain” that a “personal God” presides over all this casual destruction. The incongruity and moral carelessness of such certainty is reason enough to keep atheists (the real ones) awake at the ramparts until a proper war of ideas can be finally waged and won.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Video: Steven Pinker on language

I recently discovered a fantastic video resource: Talks@Google. These are recordings of lunch-hour talks given by authors, politicians, social activists and so on at Google's Mountain View, California headquarters. The list of speakers is pretty darn impressive: Noam Chomsky, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie, Paul Krugman, James Randi, George Lakoff, Marco Iacoboni, and many more.

Anyway, embedded below (or click here) is Steven Pinker's talk about his book The Stuff of Thought. The talk is extremely interesting and seems to serve as a decent summary of the book:

Support PZ

So PZ Myers, author of the world's most widely-read science blog, Pharyngula, wrote some mildly rude things about a cracker and as a result received death threats and campaign was launched by a bunch of Dark Age obscurantists at the Catholic League to have him fired. I suggest all of us who, you know, aren't utterly batshit crazy support PZ per his request. My letter to the President of PZ's university appears below, also check out the letter Dr. Spurt's mate wrote.
President Bruininks,

It has come to my attention that a campaign has been launched by the Catholic League to pressure you into taking disciplinary action against Professor PZ Myers for comments he made about a communion wafer on his weblog. I urge you, on the contrary, to follow common sense, stand by reason against obscurantism, respect Prof. Myers' free speech and academic freedom, and protect the pursuit of free inquiry at your insitutution by refusing to take any disciplinary action whatsoever against Prof Myers. Indeed, I urge you to go one step further: fight back against the forces of irrationality and censorship by publicly reaffirming Prof Myers' right to criticize and satirize those he disagrees with.

It has been suggested that Prof. Myers has violated your university's code of conduct by failing to be "respectful, fair, and civil". Whatever the merits of this argument (and I think these few), I note the self-same code of conduct adminishes admonishes faculty to "speak candidly and truthfully" and to "promote academic freedom, including the freedom to discuss all relevant matters in the classroom, to explore all avenues of scholarship, research, and creative expression, and to speak or write as a public citizen without institutional restraint or discipline" (emphasis added). It seems clear, therefore, that Prof. Myers should not merely escape sanction, but should be supported by the university administration.

Michael Meadon
University of Kwa-Zulu Natal
Durban, South Africa

Friday, July 11, 2008

What price Creationism?

Philip Kitcher's book Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature was an absolute travesty, but his earlier Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism (and later The Advancement of Science) seem pretty darn good. A quote from Abusing Science:
Creation "science" is spurious science. To treat it as science we would have to overlook its intolerable vagueness. We would have to abandon large parts of well-established sciences (physics, chemistry, and geology, as well as evolutionary biology, are all candidates for revision). We would have to trade careful technical procedures for blind guesses, unified theories for motley collections of special techniques. Exceptional cases, whose careful pursuit has so often led to important turnings in the history of science, would be dismessed with a wave of the hand. Nor would there be any gains. There is not a single scientific question to which Creationism provides its own detailed problem solution. In short, Creationism could take a place among the sciences only if the substance of methods of contemporary science were mutilated to make room for a scientifically worthless doctrine. What price Creationism?
(Hat tip: Doctor Spurt).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Encephalon #49

The 49th edition of Encephalon is out at Neuroscientifically Challenged. Pieces to check out: The Neurocritic on rigor and fMRI in Science; Neurophilosophy on functional recovery after stroke; and Mind Hacks on the recent backlash against fMRI. (Yes, I don't like a lot of current cognitive neuroscience: too often all one can conclude from a study is that "x happens in the brain!" [insert love, perception, fear, desire or any other mental trait for x]. The brain is really, really, really complicated, one method with many limitations is never going to give us anything remotely resembling the complete picture).

Skeptics' Circle #90

The 90th edition of the Skeptics Circle is out at The Millenium Project. Recommended pieces: PodBlack Cat on good science books and Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes on (no, really) AiG endorsing the existence of unicorns. (Unicorns!!! Apply head to table. Repeat).

Video: Dawkins on militant atheism

I just realized I've never posted Richard Dawkins' fantastic 2002 TEDTalk in which he advocates not atheism, but militant atheism. Dawkins, in my opinion, is eloquent, immensely funny, correctly righteously indignant and, most importantly, right. The only thing I disagree with in this talk is Dawkins' contention that Darwinism leads to atheism: as a matter of life-history it often does, but it need not do so logically. (That is, Darwinism does not logically entail atheism, even if it lends support by deflating the argument from design and making it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist).

The video is embedded below, click here for the direct link.

Put a Little Science in Your Life

Brian Greene, the physicist and popular science author, argues convincingly that you ought to "Put a Little Science in Your Life". The money-shot:
But science is so much more than its technical details. And with careful attention to presentation, cutting-edge insights and discoveries can be clearly and faithfully communicated to students independent of those details; in fact, those insights and discoveries are precisely the ones that can drive a young student to want to learn the details. We rob science education of life when we focus solely on results and seek to train students to solve problems and recite facts without a commensurate emphasis on transporting them out beyond the stars.

Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that’s been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living.

Picture: Science / Mythology

The following picture of a section indicator was taken a couple of days ago in my local bookstore and makes me rather depressed. (Ok, it also amuses me greatly...)

(Photo credit: Wim Louw).

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Video: Here Be Dragons

Brian Dunning, host of the skeptical podcast Skeptoid, has produced a pretty darn impressive short (~40min) movie that introduces skepticism and critical thinking called Here Be Dragons. While it is clear that the movie was not filmed or produced by a professional, it’s very good for something made in an amateur’s spare time and, besides, the content makes up for the film’s lack of polish. Dunning starts off by defining, then illustrating, pseudoscience, and then goes on to explain common fallacies and biases, why even smart people fall for nonsense and then ties everything together nicely with examples and illustrations. I especially liked his explanation of the randomized clinical trial, it’s by far to best short summary I’ve ever come across. Overall, I’d say it’s an excellent introduction to skepticism, Dunning gets nearly everything right (see below for a few examples of where I think he gets it wrong) and, while I doubt any experienced thinker will learn much that’s new, it’s still worth watching and certainly a good tool for proselytization.

A few nitpicks: (1) Dunning includes St. John’s wort as an example of pseudoscience when there is pretty good evidence it is effective as a treatment of mild to moderate depression. While some herbal advocates clearly go beyond the evidence with respect to St. John’s wort (and other herbs), skeptics should do better: the evidence must always rule. (2) Dunning in one scene endorses a deeply naïve view of history, vaguely referring to a 500 year period of the “Medieval Dark Ages” when there was absolutely no progress in science or scholarship. The idea that the Middle Ages was a period of Darkness is mostly mythical; Dunning would do well to familiarize himself with proper academic histories of the period.

The film has been released under a Creative Commons license, and is embedded below. High quality versions can be downloaded here.

Books I

Since starting this blog I have labored under the delusion that I would write a proper review for each and every book I read. Clearly, that was never going to happen (I like reading far more than writing), so I’ve now decided to follow Cosma Shalizi’s example and write regular mini-reviews.

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson is a superb biography that incorporates all the materials that were embargoed until 2006. Isaacson does his level best to explain the science in a cogent manner and, while I remain as mystified by relativity and quantum mechanics as ever, that illustrates the near impossibility of explaining modern physics to a popular audience rather than Isaacson’s limitations as an author. A particularly noteworthy aspect of the book is the astounding amount of fact checking that went into its creation as revealed by the Acknowledgements: I don’t think I’ve come across another book as carefully peer-reviewed as this one. (I spotted just one small error that got past the reviewers).
Einstein’s life, it should be said, was full and extremely interesting and thus certainly worthy of a long biography. Isaacson lives up to his subject: he writes well (if not brilliantly), adroitly weaves together the different threads of Einstein’s personality and career, and manages to convey Einstein’s greatness without becoming obsequious. Apart from a couple of inevitable differences in interpretation, the only negative thing I have to say is that Isaacson is unnecessarily repetitive in places. Overall, though, it’s a fascinating life, brilliantly portrayed. (See also: Isaacon’s interview about the book on The Skeptics Guide to the Universe starting at 34:30).

Why Is Sex Fun: The Evolution of Human Sexuality by Jared Diamond is utter junk. I can’t believe the author of Guns, Germs and Steel could produce something this bad. The less said about it the better – don’t read it, ever.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac Mccarthy (fiction). Atmospheric, absorbing, sublime prose, and totally believable. I’m not a huge fan of the ending (or the movie adaptation, for that matter), but it’s still one of the best novels I’ve read in ages.

The Classical World: An Epic History of Greece and Rome by Robin Lane Fox is an enormously ambitious book: it is a survey of almost a thousand years of complicated and interesting history in only 600 pages. Frankly, I’m generally skeptical about epic surveys – telescoped history is often watered-down history. Not so with The Classical World, it is a magnificent, full-blooded, exciting and sympathetic account of Greece and Rome. Few scholars, I suspect, could pull-off anything similar: Lane Fox’s classical knowledge is veritably encyclopedic. A particularly congenial aspect of the book is how Lane Fox’s love for his subject matter shines through; he makes no apologies for his passion. Negatives: a sometimes-ponderous writing style and a surfeit of French words, the themes of ‘luxury’, ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ seem occasionally procrustean, the book has a slow and somewhat confusing start and Lane Fox can be a bit pompous at times. All that said, the book is a recommended introduction to the classical world.

Contact Wounds: A War Surgeon’s Education is Jonathan Kaplan’s sequel to The Dressing Station (which I read – and loved – a couple of years ago). The book is a memoir of Kaplan’s early life (including a trip to Israel just after the Six Day War) and his medical education both as a student at the University of Cape Town (my alma mater) and his residencies in various parts of the world. The book ends off with events in Kaplan’s life subsequent to the publication of The Dressing Station, most notably, his stints in Angola and Iraq. Kaplan writes exceedingly well and Contact Wounds radiates humanity, remains interesting throughout and documents an amazing life. My only worry about the book is that it reads like a novel, which isn’t bad in itself, but I’m somewhat dubious Kaplan remembers as many details as he pretends to about when he was, say, 14. Nevertheless, Contact Wounds is a riveting, eye-opening read.

I hate to say this, but I was thoroughly unimpressed with Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens writes beautifully, is widely educated and is a highly skilled polemicist, but, honestly, I found his arguments unconvincing. Given that I already agree with many of his conclusions and given the purpose of the book, this criticism is very harsh: Hitchens has failed to contribute to the ‘new atheist’ debate in a meaningful way. A relatively small failing I think speaks volumes: like a bad undergraduate essay, God Is Not Great is based almost exclusively on secondary-sources, it seems without Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt: A History Hitchens would not have been able to write his book. Bottom-line: watch Hitchens speaking (where he is second to none), but don’t read his book. (See also: Hitchens' interview about the book on Point of Inquiry).

A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology: The Plants and Animals Who Taught Us the Facts of Life by Jim Endersby is a new kind of intellectual history of biology that doesn’t focus on personalities (‘great men’) but on specific model organisms. Each of the 12 chapters focuses on one particular organism (Drosophila, humans, Equus quagga, guinea pigs etc.) and discusses at length how the organism came to be used and what questions biologists used it to answer. A theme running through the book is how difficult it is to transform a wild-type into a model organism: often it took years of patient work that bore no fruit in the short term. George Streisinger, for example, is the unsung hero of evo-devo; it took him nearly a decade to breed zebrafish suitable for scientific work. Another interesting theme of the book is that it took a whole community of researchers, collaborating openly and trusting one another, to produce scientific breakthroughs using a specific organism. Thomas Hunt Morgan and his ‘fly-boys’ (champions of Drosophila) set the precedent: they gave away whole colonies of newly standardized flies to any interested researcher and eventually even produced a newsletter, Drosophila Information Service, to spread useful fly information.
Negatives: Endersby’s last chapter reveals little about its purported subject, OncoMouse, and degenerates into an entirely uninteresting essay about what Endersby thinks about genetic engineering, the philosophy of science and so on. His editor should have spared him. A final, much less serious, criticism: the book sometimes gets bogged down in historical minutia (like what effect Great Britain’s 1845 abolition of the tax on glass had on the cultivation of flowers) but Endersby rarely strays too far from biology.
Overall, A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology is an original, interesting, well-researched and informative history. It comes highly recommended.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Carnival of the Godless #95

The 95th edition of the Carnival of the Godless is out at The Atheist Blogger. My contribution to the carnival is "Atheists who believe in God", an analysis of an odd recent Pew finding. Another post to check out: Greta Christina on the messed up teachings of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Galileo and Newton

A random bit of common-knowledge correction... A oft repeated little myth is that Galileo died in the year Newton was born and sometimes this is given mystical significance: reincarnation must be afoot! (I came across this myth again - sans mystical interpretation - in Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe). This case, however, bears out the maxim that things are always more complicated that they at first appear.

The problem, you see, is that for the Julian calendar a year is on average 365.25 days long, but a tropical year is in fact 11 minutes and 14 seconds less than that, which means the calender becomes progressively more out of sync with the seasons. The solution was calendar reform and the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. That calendar, however, is so named after Pope Gregory XIII who ordered the reform by Papal Bull in 1582 - but of course the Protestant Reformation had started in 1517, which meant that only some European countries adopted the calendar right away. Catholic Italy (where Galileo was born and died) adopted the new calendar as ordered in 1582 but Protestant Great Britain (where Newton was born) only adopted the calendar in 1750. So here comes the trouble: Newton was born on December 25th 1642 on the Old Style (i.e. Julian) calendar and Galileo died January 8th 1642 on the New Style (i.e. Gregorian) calendar. Newton's corrected date of birth (i.e. his New Style date of birth) is 4 January 1643, just under a year after Galileo's death and not in the same calendar year.

To rational people, of course, none of this really matters: even if Newton had been born in the same Calendar year as Galileo died, there would be no reason to think anything paranormal was going on, there just has to be many such coincidences in history. Nonetheless, the Newton-Galileo story is a nice little example of how complicated the world is and how even a book as carefully fact-checked as Isaacson's may contain errors. Skepticism, no matter the source, is always advisable.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Evidence matters

Quite possibly the single most dangerous and egregiously misinformed article I have ever laid eyes upon in a peer-reviewed publication is Holmes et. al.'s "Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism". I've been meaning to write a blog post about it for ages, but I still haven't been able to finish the paper because reading it makes me want to murder kittens by the dozen... Luckily, Doctor Spurt over at Effortless Incitement has produced a great post on just how deeply idiotic and dangerous the paper really is.

Doctor Spurt even alleges to have read the paper *twice*. Verily, the Doctor has a stronger stomach than I.

Open access, under attack

I like open access. In my opinion, the serials crisis is an absolute travesty and, despite my 'capitalist' instincts, the spectacle of huge companies making profits from the efforts of academics who (a) are not in the companies' employ and (b) are funded (largely) by taxpayers, utterly disgusts me. So it rather pisses me off that the august Nature magazine (which, I should note, I have difficulty accessing because my institution can't afford the subscription fee) has published a bloody screed against PLoS, the best known open access suite of journals. The screed opens thusly:
Public Library of Science (PLoS), the poster child of the open-access publishing movement, is following an haute couture model of science publishing — relying on bulk, cheap publishing of lower quality papers to subsidize its handful of high-quality flagship journals.
Sigh. I'd respond myself, but I doubt I could be objective. Luckily, Living the Scientific Live has criticized the article at length and Blog Around the Clock has compiled a list of blog reactions.

Picture: Intimidating company

Imagine giving a talk in front of this audience... (Note that a bunch of luminaries are not even named in the picture: Marie Curie, for example, is sitting between Lorenz and Planck).

(I'm reading Walter Isaacson's new biography of Einstein at the moment, and this picture caught my eye. A full list of names is here.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Chimpanzees hunt with spears

This news isn't new, but it still amazes me: chimpanzees hunt with spears. Specifically, Jill Pruetz and Paco Bertolani have observed a newly habituated troop of Western chimpanzees in Fongoli, Senegal habitually using wooden spears to hunt lesser bush babies. (Pruetz and Bertolani reported this discovery back in early 2007 in their paper, "Savanna Chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes verus, Hunt with Tools"). While it is well known that chimps hunt red colobus monkeys, bush babies are rarely preyed upon, possibly because they are small and nimble. Unlike colobus monkeys, bush babies are nocturnal and spend the day sleeping in tree hollows - and that's where the Fongoli chimps hunt them.

First, the chimps fashioned their spears: generally speaking, they broke off a living branch, trimmed the side branches off, and sometimes they stripped the entire branch of bark and occasionally even sharpened one end by biting it multiple times. (See an example of a spear, left). Then the chimps "forcefully jabbed" the spear multiple times into suspected bush baby cavities and then smelt and/or licked it on extraction. At the time of the article's publication, in only incident was a chimpanzee observed actually extracting a bush baby after spearing a cavity, but several other individuals were seen eating bush baby meat. (And Pruetz's observations are ongoing). This remarkable behavior can be seen in the clip embedded below (the real action starts at around 4:00):

Interestingly, while colobus hunts are cooperative and male dominated, bush baby spearing is solitary and generally carried out by females and immature individuals. Pruetz and Bertolani speculate "that individuals whose access to preferred resources such as meat is limited by social or physical factors respond by developing alternative means with which to acquire them" (2007: 414). In other words, lack of access through usual means forces some chimpanzees to get creative and invent new ways to acquire desirable resources. This has obvious implications for human evolution: Miocene apes are thought to have evolved in a climate not dissimilar to that of Savannah chimpanzees and this paper's findings may thus "support the hypothesis that female hominids play a role in the evolution of the earliest tool technology, and we suggest that these technologies included hunting-related behavior, in addition to gathering-related activities" (2007: 414).

Amazingly, the Fongoli chimpanzees exhibit two further never-before-seen behaviors: using caves during the day to stay cool and bathing in water (see the video). These three cultural innovations together suggest there may be something to the theory that hominid evolution was driven by drought during the Miocene which caused woodlands to contract and the Savannah to expand. In conclusion: primatology rocks!

(See also: National Geographic's article on the chimps of Fongoli).

Pruetz, J., & Bertolani, P. (2007). Savanna Chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes verus, Hunt with Tools Current Biology, 17 (5), 412-417 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2006.12.042

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Skepticism and your lying brain

I blogged about Wang and Aamodt's 'public service announcement' to the effect that "your brain lies to you" the other day. Steven Novella, the über-skeptic, blogged about the same article and interestingly related it to scientific skepticism. Novella argues, among other things, that it is important to try to counteract source amnesia and that we must take care not to entrench myths when debunking them:
In terms of skeptical activism, knowledge of this aspect of human memory can help skeptics frame their message. We do not, for example, want to mention a myth that is not already generally known for the purpose of refuting it. We also need to be conscious of how we state things. Rather than saying that the claim that people use 10% of their brain is a myth, we should say first that people use 100% of their brain - first establish the framework of the positive true statement.

Also we need to emphasize teaching the tools of how to think, rather than just telling people what to think. Along these lines we need to teach people how we know what we know in science, not just the current findings of science. If you teach the process of arriving at a conclusion, that automatically gives them a framework to help remember information correctly and also gives them the ability to reproduce the argument and re-arrive at the correct conclusion - rather than just having to remember it correctly by rote.

Berry Go Round #6

Berry Go Round is a, well, plant blog carnival... and it's being hosted right now at Seeds Aside. My contribution to this edition is "Plants, it turns out, are not nearly as boring as we thought". Recommended: Blog Around the Clock takes on the classic papers challenge and writes about the development of chronobiology.