Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Censorship is bad

This week is the American Library Association's Banned Book Week, an awareness campaign dedicated to opposing censorship. To mark the occasion, Time magazine has put together a list of some of the 10 most challenged books in history. It's sobering to see how many great books are on that list - indeed, my favorite novel, Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov, is on the list. Imagine the sheer cultural loss if censorial organizations still had the power to suppress books.

(See also: "List of most commonly challenged books in the U.S." and "List of banned books").

Encephalon #55

The 55th edition of Encephalon is out at Neuroscientifically Challenged. Highlights: Neuroanthropology on exaggerated claims of neuroplasticity on All in the Mind; Cognitive Daily on teenage sexual behavior and sex education; Sharp Brains on some of the psychological effects of video games; and The Mouse Trap on the 8 basic adaptive problems animals face.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Postmodernism vs. Evidence-based medicine

Sigh. The fools who brought us the utterly mind-boggling impenetrable stupidity that is "Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: Truth, power, and fascism" (pdf) are back. Their new piece, "On the constitution and status of ‘evidence' in the health sciences" doesn't quite reach the same level of idiocy as their previous effort, but the stupid still makes my head burn. Luckily, two bloggers far more dedicated and knowledgeable than I have responded robustly. Orac of Respectful Insolence argues persuasively that the new paper is "like a black hole of PoMo stupid". And David Gorski, one of the Science-Based Medicine authors, has a characteristically lengthy piece that demolishes both of the above mentioned articles. I'm honestly grateful to Orac and David - someone has to respond to these wackaloons and I certainly don't have the patience.

(HT for the picture to Bad Astronomy. Somewhat relatedly, I speculated earlier this year about the causes of the uselessness of the humanities here).

Video: Pinker on the blank slate

Steven Pinker, evolutionary psychologist extraordinaire, has given several TEDTalks; the most recently released is a 2003 presentation on his most excellent book, The Blank Slate. The video is embedded below (or click here).

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Carnival of the Africans #2

Wim Louw of the little book of capoeira has done a fine job of hosting the second Carnival of the Africans. My picks from this edition: Simon of Amanuensis on egalitarianism in small children; Angela of The Skeptic Detective on water-related pseudoscience (homeopathy!); and George of Promethues Unbound on Hitchens' The Portable Atheist.

Simon at Amaneunsis will host the third edition of the carnival on October 28th. If you'd like to submit, check out the guidelines and then send up to four posts to Simon at {simon}{dot}{d}{dot}{halliday}{at}{gmail}{dot}{com}. As always, we need volunteers to host future editions of the carnival - if you're interested please email me!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Bye bye Manto, bye bye MCC

Unsurprisingly, I'm not the only one celebrating the axing of Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. Fellow South African skeptical bloggers Irreverence and subtle shift in emphasis are also overjoyed, as is the local media. Perhaps a tad surprisingly, the international media has also reacted: CNN, The Scotsman, BBC News, the Associated Press and several others carried the happy news of Manto's ouster.

Again, however, the news is not all good... I found out via Nature News that parliament quietly passed the "Medicines and Related Substances Amendment Bill" (pdf) two days before Mbeki's retirement. While there are positives to the bill, overall it is an enormous blow to the scientific regulation of medicines in South Africa. The principal reason for this is that it replaces the fairly independent and internationally respected Medicines Control Council (don't judge an organization by its website) with the "South African Health Products Regulatory Authority" that, crucially, is "accountable to and reports to the Minister" (p. 3 of the above pdf). The Authority, in other words, is not independent of political interference. Specifically, while the Authority can "certify" a medical product (i.e. declare that it is safe, effective and so on [see p. 5]), the minister decides whether it is "in the public interest" to "register" it. Amazingly, the minister is to make this decision in terms of, amongst other things, "public health interests including national epidemiological trends", "economic interests in relation to health policies" and "whether the product is supportive of national health policy and goals in the long term" (p. 6). In other words, the minister can do as she damn well pleases. And, it seems, not only can a product be sold only if it is both certified and registered, the minister can authorize the sale of products which have not been certified or registered (p. 10 - 11). So, on the one hand, the Minister of Health can, by law, block access to treatments that are safe and effective, and, on the other, allow the sale of untested and possibly unsafe medical products. Again, the minister does what she wilt and South African patients will thus have to suffer what they must. (Sorry Thucydides). No wonder the Democratic Alliance and the AIDS Law Project together with the Treatment Action Campaign (pdf) opposed the legislation. (The TAC and AIDS Law Project's proposed amendments (pdf) were excellent but, alas, the bill's text actually became worse after their submission: compare the September 3rd text (pdf) to the official act's).

All of this means that we should be more happy than ever that Manto has been ousted. Imagine, if you can stomach it, the damage she could have done with this kind of authority. Imagine the quack remedies she would have authorized, contemplate the effective products she would have banned. While I certainly don't think any Minister of Health should have as much power as this amendment bill gives her, it's far better for Barbara Hogan to wield it than Manto. I really do hope Hogan turns out to be as good as advertized because, otherwise, we're in real trouble.

(More information on the new health minister, by the way, has become available. Wikipedians, bless their hearts, have already created a biography, and News24 has interviewed Hogan [mp3 here, via Irreverence].)

Skeptics' Circle #96

The 96th Skeptics Circle is out at -endcycle-. Posts to check out: Greta Christina on the top 10 reasons she doesn't believe in God and The Perky Skeptic on (a personal view of) the harm of astrology.

The pickings were a bit lean this time round...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Good riddance

As all my South African and some of my foreign readers will know, South Africa is going through extraordinary political times. Thabo Mbeki, until recently our president, was ousted today after a titanic struggle with his former deputy, Jacob Zuma. I'm not going to comment on these developments (I try to keep politics out of this blog and, besides, I'm not sure I have anything substantive to say) but I will note that there is good news for skeptics amid the chaos. Kgalema Motlanthe, interim president until the election next year (when Zuma will almost certainly take over), today announced his cabinet and mercifully, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang is no longer our Minister of Health! (Given that Motlanthe is a close Zuma ally, the cabinet is unlikely to change substantially after the election). So... good riddance. Manto was an unmitigated disaster as health minster, an international embarrassment and quite possibly an unsavory character to boot. First among her many sins was AIDS denialism: while countless people died from AIDS and millions more got infected, Manto did not content herself to sit idly by. No, she actively opposed effective science-based treatment. In the face of a pandemic, she eschewed proved treatments like anti-retrovirals, and advocated sheer quack remedies like eating beetroot, garlic and the African potato. While Mbeki has to shoulder a lot of blame for South Africa's disgraceful AIDS policies during the first part of this decade, there is plenty of blame left over for Manto.

Unfortunately, we're not rid of Manto completely, Motlanthe appointed her Minister in the Presidency. This move, alas, is something of a promotion: the position is a powerful one (occupied until recently by the influential Essop Pahad) and is very, very roughly the equivalent of the Chief of Staff in the American system. Of course, how much power Manto will yield depends on the president and we can only hope Motlanthe and later Zuma will ignore her quacking.

Manto's replacement, incidently, is Barbara Hogan, a struggle hero. I know little about her but Zackie Achmat, leader of the Treatment Action Campaign, has endorsed her enthusiastically. And that's good enough for me.

Note: I heard one political commentator describing Manto's move to the Presidency as a demotion. I'm no expert on the South African political system, so I'm not really in a position to disagree. As I noted above, thought, in presidential systems a minister's power depend less on her position in an organizational flow chart, and more on her relationship with (and influence on) the president. However, South Africa has a weird system whereby the president is elected by parlaiment, but then has presidential powers. What all this amounts to is hard to say...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Because sometimes we forget.

How - The best free videos are right here

Note: According to Wikipedia's "List of largest known stars", VV Cephei is in fact not the largest star known, that honor goes to VY Canis Majoris (although there is controversy about how big it really is).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Carnival of the Africans #2: Call for submissions

On the 28th of September, Wim of the little book of capoeira will host the 2nd edition of the Carnival of the Africans, the monthly science and skepticism blog carnival by Africans or on African topics. He has put out a call for submissions... Please look at the guidelines and then email Wim at {wim}{dot}[louw}{at}{gmail}{dot}{com} with up to 4 of your best posts from the last month.

Oh, and we always need hosts - I've if you'd like to volunteer, please email me!

Islamic creationism

Creationists are not known for their facility with reason and evidence, but Adnan Oktar, the infamous Turkish Islamic creationist, is several standard deviations dumber and crazier than any other creationist I've ever come across. Here's Oktar in an interview with Spiegel Online:
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Richard Dawkins, one of the most prominent of the New Atheists, has recently brought out his bestselling book, The God Delusion, in Turkish and we gather it has already sold 15,000 copies. One of the things he writes is that religion can be a cause of terrorism.

Oktar: Darwinism was the foundation of Hitler's and Mussolini's Fascism and Stalin's Communism. And if we look at the present day, we see that all terrorists – even those who consider themselves to be Muslims – are actually Darwinists and atheists. A believer who prays regularly does not plant bombs. The only people who do that are those who are pretending to be Muslims – or who are Darwinists clearly saying that they are terrorists or Communists. So it follows that they are all Darwinists.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you seriously believe that someone like Osama Bin Laden, who uses the Koran and the godlessness of the West to justify terrorist attacks, is being driven by Darwinist ideals?

Oktar: These people aren't always the way they seem to be in their youth. If one tests them to discover their true beliefs, one realises that they are materialists and Darwinists at heart. It is impossible for a person who fears Allah to commit terrorist acts. Such acts are perpetrated by people who have studied abroad and have had a Darwinist education, people who have internalised Darwin and later call themselves Muslims.
I stand in awe of such utter stupidity.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Video: It's Time for Science and Reason

The Center for Inquiry's new promotional video:

(via: Richarddawkins.net)

The Economist on science blogging

The august Economist has an awesome article this week about science blogging. The money-shot:
Earlier this month Seed Media Group, a firm based in New York, launched the latest version of Research Blogging, a website which acts as a hub for scientists to discuss peer-reviewed science. Such discussions, the internet-era equivalent of the journal club, have hitherto been strewn across the web, making them hard to find, navigate and follow. The new portal provides users with tools to label blog posts about particular pieces of research, which are then aggregated, indexed and made available online.


By itself this is unlikely to bring an overhaul of scientific publishing. Dr Bly points to a paradox: the internet was created for and by scientists, yet they have been slow to embrace its more useful features. Nevertheless, serious science-blogging is on the rise. The Seed state of science report, to be published later this autumn, found that 35% of researchers surveyed say they use blogs. This figure may seem underwhelming, but it was almost nought just a few years ago. Once the legion of science bloggers reaches a critical threshold, the poultry problem will look paltry.
See also: Scientific American's article on "Science 2.0" from back in January.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

I am such a nerd

Man I'm a nerd... My all time top 10 visited sites according to Google Web History:

1. en.wikipedia.org
2. www.youtube.com
3. ionian-enchantment.blogspot.com
4. www.amazon.com
5. www.ted.com
6. www.nytimes.com
7. scienceblogs.com
8. richarddawkins.net
9. www.nature.com
10. technorati.com

Of these sites, I only use YouTube for recreation (and then only sometimes)... [Edit: Well, ok, some of the others are recreational at times too. And many of them would count as 'intellectual recreation'. Which, of course, reinforces the conclusion that I'm a nerd.]

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Video: Animal Intelligence

Now this is seriously impressive.

Baby kissing (!?)

So I'm doing terrible, terrible grunt work at the moment: collecting suitable pictures of American political candidates so I can replicate Alexander Todorov's research with South African subjects for my masters research. Anyway, I'm browsing Flickr for a picture of Mark Warner (the Democratic Senatorial candidate in Virginia) when I come across this:

Politicians still kiss babies? Seriously!?!?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Encephalon #54

The 54th edition of the mindy / brainy blog carnival Encephalon is out at Neurophilosophy. Highlights: The Neurocritic on borderline personality disorder, Sandra Kiume at Psych Central on the top 10 online psychology experiments, and neurobiotaxis on the evolution and evolvability of modularity in the brain (especially recommended).

Monday, September 15, 2008

Awesome science: First picture of an exoplanet around a sun-like star

Oh wow. It seems that we have the first image of an exoplanet around a sun-like star! (It's yet to be confirmed though. Some skepticism is in order). The image:

Phil Plait has all the details over at Bad Astronomy.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

100 Countries!!

Note: the following is probably only interesting to myself and my mom.

Yaaay!! My blog has now been visited from over 100 countries! Maybe I'm a tad weird, but since I got my Google Analytics account, I have kept closer watch on my country count than my page views or unique visits. I have a thing for geography apparently. So I'm extremely pleased I've passed the 100 barrier. My visitor map:

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Rath vs. Goldacre

Good news! Matthias Rath, the deeply irresponsible peddler of quack remedies who conducted illegal medical trials in South Africa, has dropped his libel suit against the wonderful Ben Goldacre and the Guardian newspaper. Hearteningly, he was even required to pay the Guardian's legal fees! Goldacre says he will now write a book about Rath and his activities, certainly a good thing given all the damage Rath has done. An important paragraph from Goldacre's piece:
I trust that this episode will act as a very strong cautionary note to the more vicious UK figures from the very corporate $50bn food supplement industry some of whom have used bullying, smears, and legal threats in their desperate bid to prevent people from examining their ideas: this goes to the very top of the industry, you should know by now that it will not work, and unless you change tack rapidly, some of you will have some very interesting surprises to come. Play nicely now, they’re only ideas.
Also have a look at the Guardian's story on its legal tusstle with Rath - I especially recommend having a look at the video.

Boys will be boys

The great American criminologist Marvin Wolfgang found in his 1958 book Patterns in Criminal Homicide that an amazing 37% of homicides resulted from "altercations of relatively trivial origin; insult, curse, jostling, etc.". That is, a large proportion of murders are committed for utterly trivial reasons: some guys get into an argument, tempers flare, things escalate and someone ends up dead. (This work, incidentally, has held up in replicated since). I have just come across probably the purest example of this kind of homicide. It utterly boggles my mind. Not far from where I live, three men were shot dead and two others wounded following an argument over penis size. (No, really). According to the M&G, this is what happened:
The argument apparently began when a patron of Indian descent made a comment about the size of a white patron's genitals while both were at the tavern's urinals.

An officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "The white man went to the toilet and an Indian guy followed him. While in the urinal, the Indian man told the white man that his penis was bigger than his [that of the white man].

"The white man left the urinal and told his friends about what had happened and this is when the argument started."

Vulgarities were exchanged and then a group of five Indian men left the restaurant. All five returned with firearms.

Mngomezulu said: "The men opened fire and three victims aged between 30 and 55 years died on the spot. Another two were rushed to St Augustine's Hospital in a critical condition."
It's likely that racial slurs were exchanged and thus the murders were about more than genital size. But that three men could be murdered, two severely injured and five others set to face long jail sentences because of an argument that originated in something as pathetically trivial as who's penis is larger is mind boggling.

Video: South Africa's robotic medical couriers

Hooray for South Africa's necessity, it's mothered another (very cool) invention: robotic medical couriers. In the video embedded below (or click here) New Scientist explains how modified military drones are being tested to see if they can effectively transport spit, blood or other medical samples from remote rural clinics to urban laboratories. See also New Scientist's article on the couriers.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Another evolutionary psychology blog

Back in February I noted that there are a dearth of evolutionary psychology blogs, so I was excited that Satoshi Kanazawa had started a blog at Psychology Today. Unfortunately, it turned out, well, that Kanazawa is crazy (and I'm not the only one who thinks so). Luckily, the Psychology Today blog collective has another evolutionary psychology blog - Quirky Little Things by Jesse Bering - that looks pretty good. And, erm, it seems Bering isn't crazy...

(Via Mind Hacks).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Skeptics' Circle #95

The 95th edition of the Skeptics' Circle is out at the Skeptic's Dictionary. My posts in this edition are "UFOs vs Bigfoot" and "Swedish lake monster vs. Hume". Highlights: Orac of Respectful Insolence on another deeply stupid PoMo attack on evidence-based medicine (oh how I hate these guys), Skeptic Shock on ear candling, and Providentia on death by exorcism.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The NYT gets it right

One of the single most pernicious medical myths in the West at the moment is that vaccines cause autism. Despite clear scientific evidence to the contrary, the grass-roots anti-vaccination movement - and their deeply irresponsible celebrity spokespeople - keep promoting this nonsense, resulting a drop in vaccination-rates. The NYT (one of the better newspapers when it comes to science) yesterday published a great editorial that gets it exactly right:
The new study [just summarized] adds weight to a growing body of epidemiological studies and reviews that have debunked the notion that childhood vaccines cause autism. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the C.D.C. and the World Health Organization have found no evidence of a causal link between vaccines and autism.

Meanwhile, the original paper’s publisher — The Lancet — complained in 2004 that the lead author had concealed a conflict of interest. Ten of his co-authors retracted the paper’s implication that the vaccine might be linked to autism. Three of the authors are now defending themselves before a fitness-to-practice panel in London on charges related to their autism research.

Sadly, even after all of this, many parents of autistic children still blame the vaccine. The big losers in this debate are the children who are not being vaccinated because of parental fears and are at risk of contracting serious — sometimes fatal — diseases.


One of the most disorientating things about blogging - especially when starting out - is the huge number of services available to promote your blog, keep track of readers, attract new readers, find out who's linking to your blog and so on and so forth. A couple of services, however, are a must: Technorati, FeedBurner and Google Analytics are all examples. I have recently discovered another service that is certainly a must for African bloggers: Afrigator. (Note the funky "I am an African Blogger" button on my blog. It's at right, just below the atheist "A").

Afrigator is a bit like Technorati for African bloggers, but it has a bunch of other cool features. Like Technorati, Afrigator ranks the top African blogs, counts the number of links between registered blogs ("Gator Love"), and aggregates posts, highlighting important stories. Afrigator also serves as a RSS reader and a traffic counter to boot. Check out my blog's public listing (I'm 367th in South Africa and 566th in Africa... Hooray).

If you're an African blogger, I certainly recommend joining.

The Official God FAQ

So it turns out there is an Official God FAQ. It has to be seen to be enjoyed... 

(HT: Wim)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Technology Quarterly

The Economist publishes a fantastic Technology Quarterly that summarizes important recent scientific and technological developments. This quarter's edition has just been released (the other articles are listed in the box at right). Noteworthy articles:

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

UFOs vs Bigfoot

It seems the dismal science has something to contribute to scientific skepticism! Peter Leeson, an economist at George Mason University, is guest blogging this week on Freakonomics and has an interesting post on UFOs and Bigfoot. Leeson, who's other interests include piracy (as in, argghhh not as in file-sharing), reports the initial finding of a project he's collaborating on with Claudia Williamson to use the tools of economics to get to the bottom of the belief in alien visitation. Their intriguing preliminary result is that there seems to be a strong positive correlation between UFO and Bigfoot sightings per state. That is, US states where there are lots of purported Bigfoot sightings tend also to have lots of UFO sightings. Check out the graph below; it charts the total UFO sightings for each US state (per 10,000 people) between 1997 and 2007 against the total Bigfoot sightings in each state (again per 10,000 people):

This correlation is somewhat suggestive (but certainly far from conclusive) evidence that neither UFOs nor Bigfoots are real. Why? Because evidence for the existence of Bigfoots and evidence for alien visitation are clearly statistically independent, that is, sightings of the former do not increase or decrease the probability of sightings of the latter. Therefore, speaking very roughly, were there a real signal among the noise for either (or both) Bigfoots or UFOs, we'd wouldn't expect to find a correlation between them. (There are clearly a whole bunch of other ways in which a correlation could arise so there are numerous possible confounds. See Leeson's post for his response to some of these). The finding that there is a strong positive correlation between these sightings thus somewhat strengthens the skeptical argument that there is a common socio-cultural factor which produces both the purported Bigfoot and UFO sightings. It is important to keep in mind, however, that this research is (1) correlational and thus not compelling and (2) in its early stages. That said, it's certainly very interesting and seemingly quite a promising avenue of research.

By the way, I thought the second comment on Leeson's post was just awesome: "It strongly suggests to me that the aliens are Wookies." Indeed and LOL.

(HT: John McCoy).

Bad Science Book

Ben Goldacre, defender of reason and expert quackery smacker, now not only has a blog and a Guardian column called Bad Science, but a book too. The Guardian has two lengthy abstracts from the book, both certainly worth reading. The first is on how the media, and not Andrew Wakefield, is responsible for the MMR scare and the second on the medicalization of everyday life. The bottom line of the former extract:
It is madness to imagine that one single man can create a 10-year scare story. It is also dangerous to imply - even in passing - that academics should be policed not to speak their minds, no matter how poorly evidenced their claims. Individuals like Wakefield must be free to have bad ideas. The media created the MMR hoax, and they maintained it diligently for 10 years. Their failure to recognise that fact demonstrates that they have learned nothing, and until they do, journalists and editors will continue to perpetrate the very same crimes, repeatedly, with increasingly grave consequences.
I'm looking forward to the book coming out in South Africa - I'll no doubt quickly devour it when it does.

(HT: Mind Hacks)

Monday, September 1, 2008

Google juice

Ignore this post, I'm just supporting the Order of the Science Scouts of Exemplary Repute and Above Average Physique.


Blogging has serious downsides

Oh boy. Oh boy. Oh boy. So, the embarrassment continues. As many of you no doubt recall (I wish you didn't), I recently responded indignantly to an article in Nature that reported a skeptic was prosecuted for the negligent homicide of a sick woman. The story ran that the woman was kept alive by the placebo effect and that the skeptic's explanation of the effect, via a display at his museum, undermined its force and thus led to the woman's death. But, as PZ Myers (!!) soon pointed out to me, the article was published in the Futures section of Nature and was therefore, well, science fiction. I thus had to retract my post (very, very sheepishly).

As I reported soon afterwards, the author of the Futures article, Peter Watts, then wrote a nice blog entry on having taken me in, which resulted in quite a few more people witnessing my silliness. And that, I thought, would be the end of it... How wrong I was. Henry Gee, a Senior Editor (!!) at Nature, has now found out about my foul-up and today wrote a piece on his blog about it. So, cue more embarrassment...

Henry, if you're reading this, I'm usually not this gullible. I swear.