Sunday, August 31, 2008

Encephalon #53: Out of Africa

Welcome to the 53rd edition of Encephalon, the premier blog carnival for cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience and other mindy / brainy -ology's. If I'm not mistaken, this is the very first Encephalon to be hosted from Africa. (Yay for globalization!). Cue a gratuitous stereotype-reinforcing picture of Africa:

With that safely out of the way, we can proceed with the fun...

First out of the blocks is Mo the Neurophilosoph[er] with the longest blog post I've ever seen (it's very good too). The post is a detailed history of the renowned neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield and the invention of the Montreal Procedure.

Doctor Spurt of Effortless Incitement is recently big into chimps, he's got two great posts on our closest cousins. The first is on the surprising finding that chimps use self-distraction to counteract impulsivity and the second covers a cool PNAS paper on stress reduction via consolation.

Scicurious of Neurotic Physiology submitted a post related to my own research interests (bless her heart): she has the lowdown on a PLoS ONE paper that found culture influences how we process faces.

Chris of Ouroboros (as in the mythical serpent eating its own tail) has a post sure to get Aubrey de Grey excited: he covers a paper that found a way of counteracting age-related decline in neurological function. (In mice, alas).

Vaughn of Mind Hacks visited London's red light district recently. For research purposes. No, really.

Neuronism is a new blog that looks promising (check it out!). The author submitted two posts: the first covers the widely-reported Nature Neuroscience paper about predicting hits or misses in basketball from 'thin slices' and the second is about grid cells.

David of deadpopstar has a really odd name for his blog; which certainly doesn't explain why he knows a lot about Cochlear implants. (That, I suspect, may have something to do with his Ph.d...). Anyway, his post is about a couple of papers on ways of improving the implants.

Jake of Pure Pedantry is a veritable research blogging machine. (I'm not jealous of his work ethic or anything...). His latest piece is on an example of encoding diversity, namely, orthogonal encoding. I'm not at all sure I understand what's going on, but it looks pretty darn important.

Next is posts by two of the Neuroanthropology authors, Greg and Paul. The former disputes the notion that the difference in the variance in math ability between men and women has biological roots, and the latter produced a useful post listing some of the web's best neuroscience resources.

Jennifer Gibson, writing for Brain Blogger, has a fascinating piece about the new theory that the visual system generates images that predict one tenth of a second into the future. Crucially, the theory, dubbed "perceiving the present", seemingly explains how optical illusions arise.

Brain Stimulant, appropriately enough, submitted a post on transcranial magnetic stimulation as a treatment for Asperger's syndrome.

Finally, a trifecta of posts from Sharp Brains: Laurie Bartels with a list of resources related to neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, Adrian Preda on how the brain benefits from exercise, and Alvaro with a roundup of cognitive health news.

That's it! The next edition of the carnival will be hosted by the most excellent Neurophilosophy on September 15th. If you would like to contribute, send an email to {encephalon}{dot}{host}{at}{gmail}{dot}{com}.

Swedish lake monster vs. Hume

AFP is carrying the story that Sweden's answer to the Loch Ness monster, the so-called "Storsjöodjuret" or "Great Lake Monster", has been spotted at Lake Storsjön in the center of the country. (A sculptural representation is at left. Note: the AFP calls the creature "Storsjoe" for some reason). A group dedicated to finding Storsjöodjuret - and partially funded by the local government - is responsible for the story, and they've released footage on their website from an infrared camera they've installed on one of the lake's islets. (The ~$62,000 camera system the group has set up is described here). From what I gather, the creature itself is supposed to be six meters long, serpent-like, with humps on its back and the head of a dog or a cat. The footage, admittedly, is quite odd and depics a vaguely snake-like creature floating across the screen. However, the video is very low-resolution and indistinct so it's hard to make out what's going on. Moreover, there are no reference-markers, making it impossible to determine whether the thing in the footage is small and close-by or large and far away. (The same issue that came up in the "gas station ghost" case). A further problem is that it's not quite clear where the camera is installed - is it under water and pointing horizontally or above water and pointing diagonally downwards? My untrained eye suggests it's underwater, in which case a close-by snake, worm or other small creature are plausible candidates. Indeed, even if the camera is installed above water, a small and close-by serpentine creature known to science is sill a distinct possibility.

Coming on the heels of the great bigfoot hoax, it seems mythical creatures are the flavor of the moment. So let's be entirely clear: cryptozoology is utter bollocks. While there is absolutely no doubt that there are numerous undiscovered species, the chances that the classic cryptids - Bigfoots, the various lake monsters, griffins, yetis, unicorns, etc. - exist is vanishingly small. (It's not impossible, certainly, but enormously unlikely). I will explain presently why this is the case, but for now consider the following. The minimum viable population of a large (and thus likely k-selected) animal is hundreds or thousands of individuals. With billions of people running around equipped with many millions of cameras, it's nearly inconceivable that no compelling evidence would exist if there really were thousands of individuals of some large undiscovered species. (And, if there are large cryptids they must have evolved, so where is the fossil evidence?). Moreover, the pattern-seeking human mind seems especially prone to inventing lake monsters: Wikipedia's "List of Reported Lake Monsters" is huge, including 20+ 'species' from Sweden. Even the most ardent cryptozoologist has to admit that the chances of all these stories being true is infinitesimal, which means that even true believers have to invoke the normal skeptical explanations of misidentification, hoaxing, false memories, and the general unreliability of eyewitness testimony. But, given the lack compelling evidence (like high-resolution, clearly unhoaxed video or a live specimen or a dead body), it's unclear why any of the stories ought to be taken seriously. That is, the skeptical explanations of cryptids is a bit like Daniel Dennett's universal acid: once invoked, they eat through all the purported cases.

Carl Sagan's quote "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is justly famous. But too few skeptics realize that the principle behind Sagan's line goes back to the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. (Indeed, it might go back even further), In the chapter "Of Miracles" in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume writes:
The plain consequence [of the preceding argument] is... ‘that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.’ When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
While Hume frames his discussion in terms of miracles, they're not crucial to the argument; the principle is generalizable and even formalizeable. Basically, Hume argues that whenever we're confronted with some body of evidence, call it E, for the truth of some proposition, P, we must weigh the evidence against the probability, given everything else we know, that P is true. So let's apply this logic to the Storsjöodjuret case. The point of the previous paragraph was to establish that, in this case, the prior probability of P being true is extremely low. That is, there is only a very small chance, given everything else we know, that there are previously unknown 6-meter serpentine monsters with dog-like heads in a particular Swedish lake. And how about the evidence? Well, we have a low-resolution, indistinct video of a snake-like thing and some anecdotes. So what's the greater 'miracle'? That hundreds or thousands of huge snake-like creatures with no known ancestors live in a Swedish lake and happen never to have been filmed clearly, caught or washed up on shore? Or that the video is of something else, that well-documented human biases deceived the eyewitnesses, and that the local people (and government) are telling tall-tales to attract tourists?

Make up your own mind, but I'm with Hume on this one.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Facebook for Academics

Richard Price, a philosopher at All Souls College, Oxford, has just launched Academia, a social networking-type site for academics. The site aims to display every academic in the world - from graduate students to emeritus professors - in a tree-like structure of universities, colleges, departments and so on. The idea is for each academic to create a personal page on the site (here's mine, here's my supervisor's), which then lists her research interests, websites, papers, conference presentations, and so on. There is also the equivalent of Facebook's "friending": you can add someone as a "contact", which, like Facebook, then sends that person an email to confirm the connection. All this information is then browseable via the above mentioned tree, which displays how people are connected to their departments and colleagues. It's a bit hard to explain so have a look at UKZN's slot on the tree.

By the way... I haven't yet mentioned Academic Blogs, a wiki for listing academic blogs and thus a great way to find serious reading material. Ionian Enchantment is listed under Neuroscience / Cognitive Science and even has its own page.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Video: Slow-motion bursting water balloon

Ok, so this is totally random and has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, but you just have to see the video embedded below (or click here). It's awesome.

Skeptics' Circle #94

Hot on the heels of the 1st Carnival of the Africans, the 94th edition of the Skeptics' Circle is out at Reduce to Common Sense. Recommended: Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes on the latest silliness emanating from AiG; Breaking Spells on pareidolia and anthropomorphism; and Skelliot’s Weblog on Ray Comfort (of "The Atheist's Nightmare" fame) and the argument from design.

Go forth and read!

Neuropod podcast

Nature Neuroscience's monthly podcast, Neuropod, is just superb and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in neuroscience, cognitive science or psychology. Perhaps the coolest thing about Neuropod is that it mostly consists of interviews with the actual authors of notable recent papers. This month's edition is particularly good, it features interviews with the authors of:
  1. The awesome recent Nature article that tracked the development of altruism in children and how it may be related to parochialism
  2. A fascinating essay in Nature on the role of imprinted genes in mental illnesses such as autism and schizophrenia
  3. A Nature Neuroscience paper, with very promising future applications, on the role of the neurotransmitter GABA in obesity in mice, and
  4. An awesome Nature Reviews Neuroscience piece (coauthored by Teller and James Randi!) on how magicians can help neuroscience research (and possibly vice versa).
As I said, just awesome. Check it out!

Pop-sci book meme, Or, I don't read enough

So Jennifer of Cocktail Party Physics has put together a fun popular science book meme and, since it's Friday and I'm procrastinating, I thought I'd join in. This is a bit embarrassing... I've only read 9 of the book on Jennifer's list. Although, honestly, I'm not that into physics.

Here are the rules:
1. Highlight those you've read in full
2. Asterisk those you intend to read
3. Add any additional popular science books you think belong on the list
4. Link back to me [i.e. Jennifer]... so I can keep track of everyone's additions.

The list:
1. Micrographia, Robert Hooke
2. The Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin
3. Never at Rest, Richard Westfall
4. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, Richard Feynman
5. Tesla: Man Out of Time, Margaret Cheney
6. The Devil's Doctor, Philip Ball
7. The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes
8. Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, Dennis Overbye
9. Physics for Entertainment, Yakov Perelman
10. 1-2-3 Infinity, George Gamow
11. The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene
12. Warmth Disperses, Time Passes, Hans Christian von Bayer
13. Alice in Quantumland, Robert Gilmore
14. Where Does the Weirdness Go? David Lindley
15. A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
16. A Force of Nature, Richard Rhodes
17. Black Holes and Time Warps, Kip Thorne
18. A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
19. Universal Foam, Sidney Perkowitz
20. Vermeer's Camera, Philip Steadman
21. The Code Book, Simon Singh
22. The Elements of Murder, John Emsley
23. *Soul Made Flesh, Carl Zimmer
24. Time's Arrow, Martin Amis
25. The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, George Johnson
26. Einstein's Dreams, Alan Lightman
27. *Godel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter (I've read big chunks of it)
28. The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, Lisa Jardine
29. A Matter of Degrees, Gino Segre
30. *The Physics of Star Trek, Lawrence Krauss
31. E=mc2, David Bodanis
32. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Charles Seife
33. Absolute Zero: The Conquest of Cold, Tom Shachtman
34. A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, Janna Levin
35. Warped Passages, Lisa Randall
36. Apollo's Fire, Michael Sims
37. *Flatland, Edward Abbott
38. Fermat's Last Theorem, Amir Aczel
39. *Stiff, Mary Roach
40. Astroturf, M.G. Lord
41. The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
42. Longitude, Dava Sobel
43. *The First Three Minutes, Steven Weinberg
44. The Mummy Congress, Heather Pringle
45. The Accelerating Universe, Mario Livio
46. Math and the Mona Lisa, Bulent Atalay
47. This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin
48. The Executioner's Current, Richard Moran
49. *Krakatoa, Simon Winchester
50. Pythagorus' Trousers, Margaret Wertheim
51. Neuromancer, William Gibson
52. The Physics of Superheroes, James Kakalios
53. The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump, Sandra Hempel
54. Another Day in the Frontal Lobe, Katrina Firlik
55. Einstein's Clocks and Poincare's Maps, Peter Galison
56. The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan
57. The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins
58. *The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker
59. An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
60. Consilience, E.O. Wilson
61. *Wonderful Life, Stephen J. Gould
62. Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard
63. Fire in the Brain, Ronald K. Siegel
64. The Life of a Cell, Lewis Thomas
65. Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Timothy Ferris
66. Storm World, Chris Mooney
67. The Carbon Age, Eric Roston
68. The Black Hole Wars, Leonard Susskind
69. Copenhagen, Michael Frayn
70. From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne
71. Gut Symmetries, Jeanette Winterson
72. Chaos, James Gleick
73. *Innumeracy, John Allen Paulos
74. The Physics of NASCAR, Diandra Leslie-Pelecky
75. Subtle is the Lord, Abraham Pais

My ten picks for what should be added to the list:
  1. Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, Carl Zimmer
  2. Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond
  3. The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould
  4. Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett
  5. How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker
  6. The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
  7. Power and Prosperity, Mancur Olson (yes, it's social science but it's damn good social science).
  8. Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science, Martin Gardner
  9. Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial, Simon Singh & Edzard Ernst
  10. Pluto's Republic, Peter Medawar
(Via PZ).

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Carnival of the Africans #1

Welcome to the inaugural edition of the Carnival of the Africans! The carnival is an outgrowth of an initiative I launched a while ago to foster better cooperation and communication between South African skeptical or science bloggers. A specifically South African carnival, however, struck me as far too narrow - there are very few African science bloggers (AFAIK) and part of the point of the carnival is to encourage people to start their own blogs or existing bloggers to cover science. Moreover, Africa as a whole needs science: it needs science to develop, to prosper, and to grow the reality-based community. So, as you'll see if you look at the guidelines, this carnival has an Africa-wide mandate: it covers any science or skeptical topic related to Africa and any science blogging by Africans. The aim, ultimately, is to promote the skeptical and scientific world view, but more concretely, to stimulate discussion, disseminate good blogging and to cultivate a greater sense of community among the small number of science-minded African bloggers.

A quick note on carnivals for the uninitiated. A carnival is a kind of blog event that brings together in a single place various bloggers' good posts on a specific topic. For example, once a month the Carnival of the Africans brings together science and skeptical posts on or by Africans. The point, again, is to highlight our best posts, to allow discussion and engagement, to create a community among African science bloggers and to attract readers to our blogs. As I've noted before, participating in carnivals is a really good idea. I encourage everyone, by the way, to link to this edition to spread the word. Also, carnivals only work if there is active participation - I've had to forage for posts to include here, I strongly encourage active submissions in future.

Without further ado, this month's Carnival of the Africans...

First out of the gate is "Captain" Owen Swart of 01 and the universe with two posts: the first is on quackery about chronic-fatigue syndrome (aka ME) and the second is a lactose eating session homeopathic suicide attempt! (Also check out his follow-up)... No prizes for guessing he survived.

Effortless Incitement has a substantive post about an awesome recent study in PNAS that concluded non-verbal displays of pride and shame are innate. That Darwin fellow sure was on to something...

George Claasen, founder of Sceptic South Africa and author of the blog Prometheus Unbound, is probably South Africa's most prominent skeptic, so it's certainly appropriate to include a post by him. Back in July George produced a particularly noteworthy post combining criticism of Angus Buchan (who allegedly has 'faith like potatoes') with a report on a recent survey he did on South Africans' belief in bollocks. Depressingly, large majorities buy into ESP, alien visitation, telepathy, and young earth creationism. South African skeptics clearly have work to do.

the little book of capoeira might be the blog with the world's least descriptive title but Wim produced a good post outlining the basics of the skeptical toolkit. He takes recent events in South Africa as an example of why a functional and well-honed baloney detector is indispensable.

Amanuensis is, admittedly, a blog that focuses on the lesser science of economics, but let's be inclusive. Simon has a daunting but fascinating three-part series of posts on University of Chicago economist John List. The posts, in order, are "List-onomics", "The Interpretation of Giving", and "Homo Economicus evolves, or not". These aren't for the faint-hearted, but they certainly repay careful reading.

Next up is Angela of The Skeptic Detective with a thoughtful post about discovering her doctor is a crank. On that score, my doctor routinely prescribes antibiotics when I have the flu. She knows antibiotics don't attack viruses, but she has some sort of convoluted explanation I didn't really follow. I really should get round to emailing Steve Novella about this...

Hugo of thinktoomuch submitted a post summarizing his criticisms of the Creation Ministries International's seminar series at Stellenbosch University. Oh man creationists annoy me - can't they at least leave universities alone?

Danie Krugel. Sigh. When will this guy go away? Well, let's hope the following two posts will help that along a bit... The excellent subtle shift in emphasis has long attacked Krugel's nonsense, and has two recent posts on the latest developments. The first piece deals with silly and irresponsible academics partly endorsing Krugel's device and the second with Krugel's most recent failure.

The new Yet Another Sceptic's Blog has already produced some great material, particularly, a post on the tragedy in Krugersdorp arguing death metal is not to blame.

Finally, my own contribution, also on the events in Krugersdorp. I take the same line as Yet Another Sceptic's Blog and argue there is little reason to think heavy metal music was causally involved.

That's it! The next edition of the carnival is scheduled for September 28th and will be hosted by Wim over at the little book of capoeira. If you'd like to contribute, please check out the guidelines and then email Wim at {wim}{dot}{louw}{at}{gmail}{dot}{com}. (Removing the brackets and replacing 'dot' and 'at' with the appropriate symbols). If you'd like to volunteer to host the carnival in the future, please email Mike at

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

CAM can be bad for you

So it turns out "alternative medicine" (read: quackery) can be really bad for your health... According to a study just released in JAMA, both US and Indian manufactured Ayurvedic medicines bought over the internet contain detectable levels of lead, mercury, or arsenic. The researchers bought 230 randomly selected Ayurvedic medicines from 25 websites, found using standard search engines, and then measured their metal concentrations using x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy. Incredibly, 20.7% (one in five) of the medicines contained levels of metal that violated one or more standards of acceptable daily intake. Perhaps surprisingly, US manufacturers actually faired worse than their Indian counterparts - 21.7% of the US products contained metal vs 19.5% of the Indian products.

There is a reason scientific medicine was invented. There is a reason regulatory bodies were set up. And avoiding situations like this - where medicines which probably do people little good anyway end up harming them - is it.

(Via New Scientist).

Carnivals - call for submissions

I'm hosting two carnivals in the next couple of days: Carnival of the Africans on August 28th and then Encephalon on September 1st. I've already issued a call for submissions for Carnival of the Africans so here is one for Encephalon...

Suitable topics for the carnival include well-written and substantive posts in any of the following fields: artificial intelligence, biological & cognitive anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, cognitive science, consciousness, mind-brain philosophy, molecular neurobiology, neuroethology, neuropsychology and psychology. If you would like to contribute, please email me at encephalon{dot}host{at}gmail{dot}com (remove the brackets) before 21:00 GMT on August 31st. (Here is a time-zone converter).

Note: I'm not in the US, so Labor Day does not apply to me and I will thus bring out the carnival on time on September 1st. (Indeed, it'll most probably go up around GMT midnight on September 1st, so some of you might see it late on August 31st in your time-zones).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Trick or Treatment?

I reviewed Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst's excellent book, Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial, a while ago and now the brilliant Harriet Hall of Science-Based Medicine has done the same. Hall's review is much more substantive than mine was and she's certainly in a better position to evaluate the book. I highly recommend her review (and, certainly the book itself).

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Common misconceptions

I just love Wikipedia, I really do. Where else would you find an interesting, well-referenced, useful, and pretty comprehensive list of common misconceptions? I knew about most of these already, but I did learn a few things: I apparently had an over-simplistic idea about how the Christian canon was decided, there are 128 mutations at human conception (1.3 of which are harmful, on average), horseshoe crabs have blue blood because their blood is copper-based, and shaving does not cause hair to grow back thicker.

There is, I admit, one serious problem with Wikipedia, nicely illustrated by xkcd:

(Hat tip: Dean)

Call for submissions (n.b.)

The Carnival of the Africans is just four days away and so far I have only a few submissions. African science bloggers and others blogging about African issues - please contribute!! There are certainly enough of us to justify a monthly carnival, but this initiative will only work if there is enough of you actively contributing. C'mon guys, get writing!

By the way, contributing to carnivals is a great way to promote your blog. Bora of Blog Around the Clock has a full explanation but here are my top three reasons:
  1. Carnivals drive traffic to your blog. Why bother writing something if nobody reads it?
  2. It increases your Technorati authority and thus ups your visibility.
  3. Good posts submitted to carnivals attacts regular readers, i.e. people who subscribe to your feed. Contributing to carnivals is therefore an important way to build a reader-base.

Nature & Human Nature

There is a great article by Gordon Orians in the spring edition of Daedalus entitled "Nature & Human Nature". Orians, an eminent biologist, has long defended the view that human beings have an evolved preference for certain landscapes, primarily, ones that were fitness enhancing to our ancestors living on the African savanna. Orians traces the intellectual history of human beings' relationship to the environment, outlines the evolutionary psychological view and then relates it to conservation efforts. His view, incidentally, has much in common with E. O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis. Orians' conclusion:
We are unlikely to care about our environments and other species and be motivated to preserve them unless we live and interact with them and directly experience how they enrich our lives. Conservation success in the United States will depend to a large degree on our willingness to exploit options that fall under 'reconciliation ecology.' Reconciliation ecology is the science of inventing, establishing, and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work, and play. Reconciliation ecology is an applied science that assists us in designing habitats so that we can share them with other species. As the ancient Chinese sage said: "The careful foot can walk anywhere." Nature needs us to walk carefully. So does human nature.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Genius of Charles Darwin update

I criticized Richard Dawkins for his bad pedagogy in the first episode of his new Channel 4 documentary "The Genius of Charles Darwin" a while back. A quick note: all three episodes are now available for download on Dawkins' website. I haven't seen the third episode yet, but, despite the problems, I think the series is worth watching.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Video: The Genographic Project

Spencer Wells gave a superb talk (embedded below or click here) at the 2007 TED conference about The Genographic Project. The project is a collaboration between National Geographic and IBM to build on the pioneering work of Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and document human genetic variation and chart ancient migration patterns. Very highly recommended.

South African Science Blogging update

Earlier this month, I launched an initiative to foster better cooperation and communication between South African science bloggers. I made three suggestions - that we exchange email addresses to foster communication, that we start a monthly science / skepticism carnival and that we create a common blogroll. I am happy to report that there has been progress on all three fronts.

As should be clear from my previous post, I've decided to call our carnival the "Carnival of the Africans". The name might not be the world's most imaginative, but it's fairly descriptive and quite memorable. (Complain if you wish but, excepting unanimous revulsion, the name stays). You may recall that I originally envisioned a South African carnival, but I think a broader, Africa-wide, scope is tolerable (because of the small number of African science blogs) and necessary (for the same reason). If you are an African blogger, please write up something suitable (see the guidelines) or rustle up something from your archives and submit it to me ( for inclusion in the first edition scheduled for August 28th. If you're not an African blogger, you're more than welcome to participate also; I'd prefer a science or skepticism piece on something to do with Africa, but I'll consider everything.

If you have contacted me previously, you should shortly receive an email listing the participating South African science bloggers and their email addresses. If you would like to be added to the email list, please contact me at

If you look at my blog, at bottom-right, you'll see I've added the SA Science Blogroll to my page and I strongly encourage you to do the same. (Just remember to include Ionian Enchantment as well! Obviously, I haven't put my own blog in my blogroll). There are eleven SA science blogs on the list so far:

Carnival of the Africans - Guidelines & Schedule

The Carnival of the Africans is a science and skepticism blog carnival that takes place on the 28th of each month. The aim is to showcase the best blog posts on science, academia, and scientific skepticism by Africans or on Africa. The carnival is modeled on the Skeptics' Circle but the criteria are somewhat looser to allow a broader range of science topics to be included. Everyone (non-Africans included) are welcome to participate, but the intent is to highlight substantive, well-written and thoroughly thought through science and skeptical blogging by Africans, or on African topics.

The carnival is intended to be, as much as possible, non-partisan, apolitical, non-ideological and value-free. This means not covering controversial political issues or causes that are primarily about values or ethics. The exact line between politics /ideology and skepticism /science may not always be entirely clear, but in most cases it is fairly obvious. A good rule of thumb is that the data used to make a case or to debunk some claim should be empirical, that is, there should be a fact of the matter accessible to scientific investigation, even if the facts are difficult to establish.

With very few exceptions, the kinds of posts to avoid include anything on abortion, how affirmative action is justified (or not), why leader X is better than leader Y, how the evil capitalist countries systematically keep Africa down, why Mugabe is evil (or not) or how Nigeria deserves to get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. This carnival, in short, is not for personal political agendas, moral causes or a space to rant about politics. That said, posts on social science (and political science) are welcome, as long as they keep clear of value issues as much as possible and remain as non-ideological as is practicable. The kinds of posts that are encouraged include anything dealing in a critical and reasoned way with scientific skepticism (critical thinking, historical revisionism, the paranormal, medical quackery, pseudoscience, urban legends and so on) or with science generally (from anthropology to zoology). Ideally, general science posts should be based largely on peer-reviewed primary-sources but relying on trustworthy secondary-sources (like textbooks) is also acceptable. It should be noted that there are unavoidably political topics that are within the scope of this carnival, including, creationism, intelligent design, politicians endorsing pseudoscience, issues to do with medical regulation and so on. While the carnival is not intended to be a platform for atheistic or agnostic blogging, it is up to individual hosts to determine whether they want to include religiously skeptical posts.

As was noted above, these guidelines are modeled on that of the Skeptics' Circle, please consult that carnival's guidelines for additional relevant information.

Submissions & Hosting
To have your writing included in an upcoming edition of the Carnival of the Africans, send an e-mail with the URL of your post along with a brief description to the host.

To host an upcoming carnival, send an e-mail to Michael at Hosting requires a bit of work, specifically, reading through and moderating the submissions, working everything into a coherent post and, importantly, bringing the edition out on time. The Skeptics' Circle's Guidelines for Hosting and Sour Duck's thorough hosting guidelines provide further useful information.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

School killings in Krugersdorp

Sad news: American-style school violence has reached South Africa. On the morning of August 18th, a matriculant at the Nic Diederichs Technical High School in Krugersdorp attacked fellow students and two gardeners with what appeared to be a katana, killing one and wounding three. Unfortunately, the Krugerdorp community and the South African media has responded idiotically - the leading hypothesis seems to be that Satan and the heavy metal band Slipknot, and specifically their song "Disasterpiece", is to blame. Here, for example, is News24:

Community leader, Pierre Eksteen, who is in charge of a school support network for children, told reporters outside the deserted school grounds that Satanic music was probably the cause of the attack.

"He came here camouflaged as the guys from Slipknot. We know the wrong kind of music, and drugs have bad effects. Young people need to be informed of the effects of bad Satanic music," said Eksteen.

Now, it could be the cause of this tragedy is Satanism and "bad music" but, given the counterfactual nature of causality, it is impossible to tell in a specific case because n=1. In other words, it's impossible to establish causality because confounds and third-factors cannot be ruled out. Correlation of course does not prove causation, so perhaps teenagers who are troubled to begin with tend to be both prone to violence and attracted to Satanism and heavy metal. Disentangling the direction of causality is possible with general studies but, unfortunately, the scientific literature on the media's influence on violent behavior is infested with moral panic, ideology and unnecessary shouting. However, a quick look through the literature turned up two interesting studies. The first, a review of meta-analyses published in The Lancet finds:
There is consistent evidence that violent imagery in television, film and video, and computer games has substantial short-term effects on arousal, thoughts, and emotions, increasing the likelihood of aggressive or fearful behaviour in younger children, especially in boys. The evidence becomes inconsistent when considering older children and teenagers, and long-term outcomes for all ages. The multifactorial nature of aggression is emphasised, together with the methodological difficulties of showing causation. Nevertheless, a small but significant association is shown in the research, with an effect size that has a substantial effect on public health. By contrast, only weak evidence from correlation studies links media violence directly to crime. (Emphases added).
In other words, we know the media has a small but statistically significant short-term influence on aggressive behavior in young children, but there is no consistent signal for long-term behavior or older children. Dealing specifically with the influence of heavy metal, Roberts, Christenson, and Gentile (pdf) conclude:
The best way to phrase the relation is to say that white adolescents who are troubled or at risk gravitate strongly toward the style of music that provides the most support for their view of the world and meets their particular needs: namely, heavy metal (p. 162).
Roberts et. al., therefore, conclude that there likely isn't a causal relationship between heavy metal and troublesome behaviors - troubled teens are drawn to heavy metal, heavy metal doesn't turn teens bad.

The literature on the media and violence is truly massive, and the above doesn't come close to being exhaustive, systematic or even representative. Nevertheless, it's clear that the knee-jerk community and media reaction - "Satan!" "Heavy metal!" - is unjustified and irresponsible. The causal relationship (if any) between violence and Satanism or heavy metal is in general unclear and difficult to establish and impossible to determine in a specific instance. While I think he is being somewhat too simplistic, I tend to agree with Ray Hartley from The Times:
Let’s hope that, in their rush to find supernatural causes for this tragedy, the good folk of Krugersdorp don’t forget to examine themselves. For, I fear, the real cause of this tragedy lies closer to home... Perhaps somewhere in that adolescent stream of crap that streams from Slipknot, he found a channel for his rage. Rage that may have come from school or from home or both - who knows. But to argue in all seriousness that this outlet for his real rage was the cause of his rage is facile and short-sighted. It will be a popular theory because it excuses those who responsible for raising this child in a nurturing, caring and protected environment from responsibility for their failings.
(Hat tips: Skeptic South Africa and Yet Another Sceptic's Blog. See also: "The devil didn't make him do it").

Encephalon #52

The 52nd edition of Encephalon is out at Ouroboros. Highlights: The Neurocritic on the finding that Olympic events featuring fewer clothes get more coverage (no!) and Neurophilosophy on plasticity in the visual cortex.

Note: I'm hosting the next edition of Encephalon on September 1st, so please send in your entries! Email them to [][at][gmail][dot][com].

Video: Robot solves the Rubik's cube

I, for one, welcome our new robotic overlords. (Embedded below, or click here).

Magpies pass the mirror-test

According to a study published today in PLoS Biology the European magpie (Pica pica), has passed the mirror-test, a widely-used and venerable measure of self-awareness. The magpie thus joins a select group of organisms that have passed the test (including, the Asian elephant, dolphins and all the great apes) and, more importantly, is the first non-mammal to pass. The authors did a bunch of mirror-tests on the birds, but the most convincing involved marking the animal somewhere it could see only with a mirror (like in the picture, left) and then looking for spontaneous self-directed behavior. There are a bunch of videos clearly demonstrating self-awareness in the Supporting Information, I especially recommend having a look at video S5 (3.1mb wmv).

The most exciting bit of the abstract:
In apes, self-directed behavior in response to a mirror has been taken as evidence of self-recognition. We investigated mirror-induced behavior in the magpie, a songbird species from the crow family. As in apes, some individuals behaved in front of the mirror as if they were testing behavioral contingencies. When provided with a mark, magpies showed spontaneous mark-directed behavior. Our findings provide the first evidence of mirror self-recognition in a non-mammalian species. They suggest that essential components of human self-recognition have evolved independently in different vertebrate classes with a separate evolutionary history.
(Via: New Scientist).

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Science in The Economist

The always fantastic Economist has three interesting science articles this week that are related to this blog's focus. "Primate intelligence: Out of the mist" (get it?) is about Rollie, a gorilla who looks set to become a animal-model star and who may change our view of gorilla intelligence. "Behaviour: Victory is mine" deals with a widely discussed study in last week's PNAS about how human displays of victory and defeat might be universal and evolved. And, finally, "Evolutionary psychology: A touch of generosity" covers a cool study in Evolution and Human Behavior that showed cooperation and trust skyrockets in people who received massages.

Video: Robot with a rat brain

This is the single coolest thing I've seen in a while:

Friday, August 15, 2008

Skeptics' Circle #93

The 93rd edition of the Skeptics' Circle is out at City of Skeptics. Pieces I particularly liked: Hyphoid Logic on religion, psychics and extraordinary evidence and Redonkulous Redundancy on big-CAM.

Although not included in the Skeptics' Circle, Steven Novella's take on the new CAM Wiki is also noteworthy.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

SA Science & Skepticism Carnival

Update: the guidelines and schedule for the carnival is here.

As part of my initiative to foster better cooperation and communication between South African science bloggers, I've decided to launch a blog carnival by and for South Africans on science and skepticism. It will be a monthly carnival modeled on the Skeptics' Circle but including a broader range of science topics. Everyone (non-South Africans included) will be welcome to participate, but the main aim will be to highlight science and skeptical blogging by South Africans, or on South African topics. The carnival will take place on the 28th of each month and the guidelines will be broadly similar to that of the Skeptics' Circle. That is, entries will have to be apolitical, avoid controversial and arguably unresolvable moral questions and should ideally be substantive, well-written and thoroughly thought through. Any skeptical topic (including critical thinking) is appropriate, but anything on science (preferably based on peer-reviewed research) is also welcome.

I will host the first edition of the carnival on the 28th of August, so please send in your articles to! Also, we need a name for the carnival and I'm not so good on the creative side of things. The best I've come up with is South African Science & Scepticism Circle (SASSC?). Or South Africans for Science & Skepticism. Doctor Spurt suggested "The Boerewors Club", but I'm not so sure about that one... Suggestions, please!! Oh, and we could do with some sort of nice icon or button. Any arty sceptics out there?

We also need volunteers to host the carnival. Hosting requires a bit of work, specifically, reading through and moderating the submissions, working everything into a coherent post and, importantly, bringing out the edition on time. The schedule so far:
Please spread the word!

Quick MSG update

I included 'that MSG is bad for you' in my list of "5 Oft Repeated Medical Myths" a while ago and, while my overall conclusion still holds, a new study (gated) in the journal Obesity has found that it might cause weight gain. As one of the researchers puts it in the Science Daily press release, "The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other health organizations around the world have concluded that MSG is safe but the question remains – is it healthy?" The researchers controlled for caloric intake, physical activity and so on and concluded:
Prevalence of overweight was significantly higher in MSG users than nonusers. For users in the highest tertile of MSG intake compared to nonusers, the multivariable-adjusted odds ratios of overweight (BMI greater than or equal to 23.0 and greater than or equal to 25.0) were 2.10 (95% confidence interval, 1.13–3.90, P for trend across four MSG categories = 0.03) and 2.75 (95% confidence interval, 1.28–5.95, P = 0.04). This research provides data that MSG intake may be associated with increased risk of overweight independent of physical activity and total energy intake in humans.
A couple of points: this was an observational study and so control of confounds is certainly imperfect. Moreover, while the sample-size was decent (~750), all the participants were rural Chinese, so it's unclear whether these findings will hold up elsewhere. In other words, the study should be taken seriously, but considered preliminary. More research is needed. That said, you might want to consider avoiding MSG if you're concerned about your weight.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Aliens? Point/Counterpoint

Point: "Aliens calling? Signals detected from beyond Solar System. Scientists in South Africa have detected radio signals from beyond the solar system for the first time – prompting a wave of excitement over who, or what, might have sent it. The signal is the most significant of its kind since radio telescopes started operating in the 1960s."

Counterpoint: "It should be noted that this is not an intelligent source, i.e. it is not a source that could be considered as having been transmitted by alien intelligence. Furthermore, it is certainly not a new discovery. The electromagnetic radiation emanating from Sagittarius A is well documented and an entirely natural phenomenon. A similar signal, although of a much larger magnitude, would be received by simply pointing the telescope at the Sun."

The source of the "point" is Russia Today, a rag of unknown provenance. The source of the "counterpoint" is a press release from the actual South African scientists referred to by Russia Today. Make up your own minds, folks...

(Hat tip: Doctor Spurt).

Dawkins and Bad Pedagogy

Note: there is a nasty controversy about this post over on Richard Dawkins' website. Indeed, Dawkins himself has taken offense and demanded an apology. I certainly regret the tone of this post and, on reflection, I don't think I have enough evidence to claim Dawkins was promoting atheism. I have therefore withdraw part of my criticism and apologized twice.

I linked to a documentary called "The Genius of Charles Darwin" a while ago, but embedded below (or click here) is the real deal: the first installment of Richard Dawkins' new 3-part series on Darwin. I'm linking to it for two reasons: because I think it's worth watching but also because I think Dawkins is guilty of just horrendous bad pedagogy in the documentary and I want to talk a bit about that.

Let me start with a few caveats: I really like Dawkins - he has inspired me, and I think he's had a tremendous positive impact. Also, I am a fairly "hardcore" atheist not a 'Neville Chamberlain atheist'. And, obviously, I think nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Nevertheless, I don't think there is any logical incompatibility between theism and evolution, that is, I deny (part of) the conflict thesis and think theistic evolution may be extremely unparsimonious, but it is not logically contradictory. Moreover, I take it as a given that there is a difference between pedagogy and polemics and that the latter should largely be kept out of the former. I take it for granted, in other words, that instructors ought in general not to evangelize for a particular point of view or ignore alternatives when there is no consensus among the relevant experts. Consequently, given the huge body of evidence and the consensus among the experts, teachers and lecturers are perfectly entitled to advocate the truth of evolution by natural selection and to dismiss or ignore alternatives. (I have been known to say things like 'anti-Darwinists are dumb and not worth taking seriously' in lectures). It is not cricket, however, to ignore alternatives and advocate a particular point of view about controversial issues like the relationship between theism and evolution.

Dawkins, I think, falls egregiously afoul of the last principle in this documentary. In one sequence, he goes to a school to teach a group 16 year-olds about evolution. Unsurprisingly, religion soon rears it head; several of the students, it turns out, are religious and they reject evolution for that reason. And what does Dawkins do? He tries to persuade them to become atheists! Now, I have nothing against evangelizing for atheism (I do it myself sometimes) but doing so (1) does not belong in the science classroom and (2) interferes with teaching evolution properly. Moreover, Dawkins' approach criminally neglects the duty of a teacher to present all sides of an argument when there is no consensus among the relevant experts. Crudely speaking, there are at least four possible positions one can take on the relationship between religion and evolution: religious compatibilism (e.g. Ken Miller, Pope John Paul II), atheistic compatibilism (e.g. Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Novella), religious incompatibilism (e.g. Ken Ham, Henry Morris) and atheistic incompatibilism (e.g. Dawkins, PZ Myers). It is obvious that a teacher should at a minimum mention these four points of view and their respective proponents. Unless the scenes were not included in the documentary, Dawkins takes the atheistic incompatibilism point of view for granted and never even mentions the alternatives to his students. This is not only bad pedagogy, it is dumb from a tactical point of view twice over: if the aim is to convince students of the truth of evolution, removing impediments (like worrying they have to give up religion) is obviously a good idea. If the aim is to spread atheism, surely it is much easier to 'convert' someone who accepts science already than it is to convert someone who rejects science? Surely it is easier on average to convert a religious compatiblist who is knowledgeable about evolution than it is to convert an ignorant religious incompatibalist like a young earth creationist? (One issue here is that one does not want to be dishonest: lying to students about evolution's impact on religion would certainly be morally dubious. An incompatibilist can nevertheless go part of the way to allaying students' fears by mentioning millions of scientists and hundreds of millions of religious people do not think evolution undermines their faith. They can acknowledge, in other words, that their view is not the only one and that they might be wrong).

At one point in the documentary I wanted to scream at Dawkins to wake up - one student actually said he (I think it was a he) was afraid to learn more about evolution because he didn't want to give up his religion. By clinging dogmatically to atheistic incompatibilism, Dawkins failed this student, failed as a teacher, failed as an advocate of evolution and arguably even failed as an advocate of atheism.

Calling South African Science Bloggers

Update: the carnival has been launched. See also the substantive update.

South Africa needs science and South Africa needs prominent scientific voices. Unfortunately, like the media in much of the rest of the world, South Africa's media is not nearly welcoming enough to the skeptical and scientific views of the world. Luckily, we have great examples from the United States and elsewhere of how self-publication through blogs can affect public discourse, promoting science and acting as a counterweight to indifference, ignorance, and gullibility. However, unlike our comrades elsewhere, South African science bloggers are unconnected and not organized. I propose to change that...

Here are some suggestions. (Please let me know what you think of these and whether you'd be interested in participating. Also, other ideas are more than welcome).

  1. We need to keep in contact with each other - we're a small community right now, so we can all read each other's blogs, contact each other and so on. This will allow us to coordinate and react to developments particularly relevant to South Africa.
  2. We need to promote each other's blogs: I think we ought to create a South African Science Blogroll that we can put on our respective pages. (A bit like the Atheist Blogroll, but much smaller).
  3. A monthly South African science / skepticism blog carnival would be a great way to draw traffic and promote our cause.

Things you can do: firstly, if you are a South African science or skeptical blogger, let me know via email ( or by commenting on this post. Secondly, spread the word - please blog about this initiative and link to this page. Lastly, contribute your ideas: let's have a public discussion about how best we can coordinate our activities and support one another.

South African science blogs I know about other than my own:

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Fun with geography

Warning: this game is very, very addictive.

One of the benefits of a political science major (with lots of International Relations thrown in) is a solid knowledge of geography. Try this "Traveler IQ Challenge" and see whether you can beat my score: on my first try, I got to Level 11, with 446,361 points and a "Traveler IQ" of 119 ... [Edit]: I managed to get to Level 12 on my 4th try, but there's no way I'm beating it. My knowledge of Russian, Chinese and Canadian geography isn't nearly good enough.

(Hat tip to Kelly).

Orwell's "blog"

A growing trend is to take old (read: pre-Internet) diaries or letters and serialize them on a blog, usually on the same date a set number of years after they were written originally. WW1: Experiences of an English Soldier, for example, serializes the letters of a British soldier, Harry Lamin, 90 years after he wrote the originals. Now, The Orwell Prize has just started (on August 9th) serializing the great George Orwell's diaries on a blog 70 years after he wrote them.

One can, of course, read Orwell's diaries in book form, but I must say I find the idea of reading it in bite-sized chunks exactly 70 years later quite appealing.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Tangled Bank #111

The 111th edition of the Tangled Bank blog carnival is out at Denialism Blog. My contribution to this edition is a post from a while ago, "Chimpanzees hunt with spears". Other pieces to check out: Moore Groups Blog on 13th century Irish murder victims and Living the Scientific Live on the evolution of bird plumage.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Encephalon #51

The 51st edition of the cognitive science / psychology / neuroscience blog carnival, Encephalon, is out at The Mouse Trap. Highlights: Doctor Spurt on the neural encoding of the concept "nest" in the mouse brain; Mind Hacks on consciousness, magic and the word 'the'; and Neuroscientifically Challenged on how mirror neurons have been over-hyped.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Neurons: Animated Cellular and Molecular Concepts

University of Toronto researchers have created a fantastic animated introduction to the cellular and molecular biology of the neuron. The introduction is divided into eight thematic chapters (e.g. "Anatomy of a Neuron", "Action Potential"), that explains the basics of neuroscience using interactive text and accompanied animations. Highly recommended.

By the way, the Society for Neuroscience's "Brain Facts" booklet (downloadable for free as a pdf) is also a useful introductory resource.

(Via Science's Random Samples).

Video: The Genius of Charles Darwin

The first part (of five) of a cool documentary about Darwin is embedded below (or click here).

(Via: Pharyngula)