Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dawkins embarrassed after death and subsequent resurrection

Maybe I have a weird sense of humor but I found the NewsBiscuit satirical article "Richard Dawkins embarrassed after death and subsequent resurrection" hysterically funny. A sample:
Confirmed atheist Richard Dawkins was forced onto the defensive yesterday after he died but subsequently rose from the dead in a miraculous resurrection, much like that of the son of God Jesus Christ.

‘There are a number of perfectly logical scientific explanations for what has happened’ he told journalists flocking to hear his story or just touch the hem of his clothing. ‘Although I was pronounced dead after the unfortunate incident on Friday, the doctors clearly made a mistake. The fact that there was thunder and lightning, and those around claim to have heard the sound of angelic voices is completely irrelevant.’
Read on...


More Infidelity

Talking about infidelity... New Scientist has a report on a recent study in Human Nature that concluded men are better at detecting infidelity than women, but that women are adept at hiding it. A paragraph or two:
"This adds to the evidence that men have evolved defences to detect their partner's infidelity," says David Buss at the University of Texas, Austin. He adds that it demonstrates a "fascinating cognitive bias that leads men to err on the side of caution by overestimating a partner's infidelity".

Andrews suggests that women have countered this by becoming better at covering up affairs. Complex statistical analysis of the data hinted that a further 10 per cent of the women in the study had cheated on top of the 18.5 per cent who admitted to it in the questionnaires, whereas the men had been honest about their philandering.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


While society has always accepted that men engage in (or want to engage in) short-term sexual liaisons, women have sometimes been seen as 'pure' and entirely faithful. Evolutionary sexual psychologists, on the contrary, argue (pdf) that men and women pursue mixed sexual strategies, that is, are prone to engage in both long-term and short-term mating. Roughly speaking, the optimal strategy for a woman is to have a long-term relationship with the best mate she can attract but then, subject to an assessment of the risks, to have short-term sexual relationships with higher quality men (pdf). (Since the average woman is more likely to attract the highest quality men into a short-term rather than long-term relationship, she can often increase her fitness by engaging in extrapair copulations. If she can convince her primary partner to care for the children that (sometimes) result, so much the better). The optimal male strategy, on the other hand, is quite a bit more promiscuous: attract the highest quality mate possible to a long-term relationship (at least usually) and then, again taking account of risks, engage in as many extrapair copulations as possible, whatever the quality of the female involved. (As should be clear, I'm ignoring homosexual relationships for present purposes).

All of the above, however, is theory-driven and it leaves open the question of how prevalent infidelity is in the modern world. Determining the true incidence of infidelity is extremely challenging - not least because people find it difficult to admit to it - but we do have some idea. There is fascinating research, for example, showing that a not insubstantial proportion of children - at least 10% - are fathered in extrapair copulations. And a recent review of the literature found that infidelity occurs in about 25% of long-term heterosexual relationships in the United States. The latest is that the New York Times published a pretty good article summarizing some of the recent research and some recent trends, again in the United States. The most titillating finding is that there seems to be a trend towards greater female infidelity, but whether this is due to more honesty on questionnaires or more actual cheating is difficult to determine. What is clear, though, is that sexual fidelity is hardly universal and women are not necessarily less fallible in this regard than men. Obvious, perhaps, but many have denied it...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Carnival of the Africans #3

The 3rd edition of our very own blog carnival, the Carnival of the Africans, is out at Amanuensis. Posts that stood out: Pause and Consider on why the belief in bigfoot is stupid, Amanuensis on experimenter bias in economics and Botswana Skeptic on lying to an astrologer. My contributions to the carnival were "Neuroscience is the new wedge" and "Genius and Precocity".

Check it out, and send some link love its way!

South African Science Blogrolling for October

I've been trying to foster cooperation between South African, and indeed African, science bloggers for a while now. My initiative has been a modest success - there is a bit more communication going on, and the Carnival of the Africans has done fairly well. There is, however, some room for improvement... please participate in the carnival! And volunteer to host it! And, most importantly, let's all promote each others' blogs - including the SA Science Blogroll on your blog is a great way of doing just that. Better still, also create a blog post like this one listing all the SA Science Blogs; that'll be great for everyone's Technorati authority and Afrigator / Amatomu rank.

The updated blogroll for October:

The latest on ovulation

There is now a pile of research demonstrating that the ovulatory cycle affects female preferences and behavior. Specifically, when ovulating, women find stereotypically masculine males more attractive, place a higher premium on confidence, fantasize about men other than their partners more often and so on. (See Gangestad et. al. [pdf] for a review). And, perhaps most memorably, Geoffrey Miller and colleagues demonstrated that lap dancers' tips are highest (pdf) when they're fertile. (Earning Miller and co an Ig Nobel).

The latest paper (press release here) in this area is by Martie Haselton and Greg Bryant at UCLA on how womens' voices become more high pitched and feminine during ovulation. The abstract:
Recent research has documented a variety of ovulatory cues in humans, and in many nonhuman species, the vocal channel provides cues of reproductive state. We collected two sets of vocal samples from 69 normally ovulating women: one set during the follicular (high-fertility) phase of the cycle and one set during the luteal (low-fertility) phase, with ovulation confirmed by luteinizing hormone tests. In these samples we measured fundamental frequency (pitch), formant dispersion, jitter, shimmer, harmonics-to-noise ratio and speech rate. When speaking a simple introductory sentence, women's pitch increased during high- as compared with low-fertility, and this difference was the greatest for women whose voices were recorded on the two highest fertility days within the fertile window (the 2 days just before ovulation). This pattern did not occur when the same women produced vowels. The high- versus low-fertility difference in pitch was associated with the approach of ovulation and not menstrual onset, thus representing, to our knowledge, the first research to show a specific cyclic fertility cue in the human voice. We interpret this finding as evidence of a fertility-related enhancement of femininity consistent with other research documenting attractiveness-related changes associated with ovulation.

Encephalon #57

The 57th edition of Encephalon is out at Mind Hacks. Highlights: PodBlack Cat on superstition; Songs From the Wood on the fascinating phenomenon of infantile amnesia; Sharp Brains with an interview with cognitive neuroscientist Michael Posner (about self-regulation and other topics); and Pure Pedantry on the neuroscience of hypothesis generation.

Great edition!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Picture: Science Worldwide

Talking of science in the developing world... New Scientist features a series of maps distorted to reflect some metric, like the proportion of rain falling in a certain area. The picture below shows the proportion of scientific papers published in 2001 by authors living in particular territories:

As you can see, the United States, Western Europe and Japan dominate, and Africa lags far behind. We have work to do...

Quote: Feynman on science

A great quote from Richard Feynman, from "The Value of Science":
It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress and great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.

Yet another skeptical blog

Remember the Skeptologists TV show (which I mentioned before) that is currently under development? Well, the whole cast plus one of the producers have launched a group blog called Skepticblog. The contributors are: Kirsten Sanford, Michael Shermer, Phil Plait, Ryan Johnson, Mark Edward, Yau-Man Chan and Steven Novella. Now that's the who's who of skepticism right there...

I must say that I am a tad worried about Steve though. He now has four blogs, two podcasts, a full-time job and a family. How the hell does he do it?

Audio: The rise of therapeutic nihilism about depression

Therapeutic nihilism - the belief that we have no effective medical cures at all, or no cure for some condition - has recently arisen about clinical depression. Most famously, University of Hull professor Irvin Kirsch and colleagues argued in a recent meta-analysis published in PLoS Medicine that, when previously unpublished data are taken into account, there is no evidence that antidepressants have clinically significant benefits over placebo. (It is important to note that there is a strong placebo effect, so in a sense we do have a somewhat effective remedy - it's just not pharmacological).

The 36th Maudsley Debate (mp3 here), held at King's College London, considered this question in the form of the motion "This House Believes Antidepressants are no Better than Placebo." Irvin Kirsch and Joanna Moncrieff (of University College London) argued for the motion and Lewis Wolpert (of King's College) and Guy Goodwin (of Oxford) against. From my lay perspective, Kirsch won the debate hands down. While I thought Goodwin raised a bunch of interesting methodological points, I don't think they were decisive and he did commit several fallacies (the appeal to consequences, most prominently). Moncrieff's argument, on the other hand, was rather weird and somewhat beside the point. And Wolpert, I thought, was pretty bad: he was impassioned and entertaining, to be sure, but his substantive argument was shot through with fallacies and factual inaccuracies.

In any case, give the debate a listen. What do you think?

(Via The Mouse Trap).

Sunday, October 26, 2008

SA Bloggers Survey

News24, Afrigator and Amatomu are running a survey of South African bloggers. I suggest my fellow SA bloggers participate - it will certainly be interesting to see the results. As a sweetener, there are a bunch of prizes for participants, including the possibility of your blog being featured on News24. (That should drive some nice traffic).

(Via: Ewan's Corner)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Mouse Party

Mouse Party is an awesome little animation that teaches the basics of the neuroscience of addiction. The animation is part of a set of educational resources on the science of addiction, which is itself one part of the broader Learn.Genetics site. (There is also Teach.Genetics website, but it's still in beta). By the way, the Inside a Cell animation, part of the Amazing Cells suite of materials, is pretty cool too.

All these resources were created by the NIH-funded Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah.

(Hat tip: Hugh).

Prescribing placebos

According to a new study in the BMJ, between 46-58% of 679 surveyed US internists and rheumatologists regularly prescribe placebo treatments. Indeed, a large majority of the respondents - 62% - said they think the practice is ethically permissible. Interestingly, though, only a minority of the surveyed physicians prescribe inert substances (like sugar pills), preferring painkillers and vitamins.

While medical ethicists disapprove, arguing prescribing placebos undermines trust and violates the principle of informed consent, I'm not so sure it's a bad thing. If we view medicine as a technology for healing (a perspective persuasively advanced by David Wootton in Bad Medicine), then disallowing anything that works seems odd. Indeed, given how powerful the placebo effect is - often significantly outperforming pharmacological or surgical interventions - not occasionally prescribing placebos seems perverse. Patients, it seems to me, care about getting better, not about how they get better. If so, I agree with Ben Goldacre: prescribing placebos is permissible.

(See also: Goldacre's two-part radio program on the placebo effect and the NYT's piece on the BMJ study).

Science in the South

Science is carrying an interesting editorial this week by Mohamed Hassan, the executive director of the Third World Academy of Science, who argues that, while science has surged in parts of the South, it has stagnated elsewhere. The good news is that developing countries produce 20% of the articles published in international journals. The bad news is that a couple of countries - China, India, Brazil, Turkey, and Mexico - account for over half that proportion. Indeed, according to the figures Hassan quotes, sub-Saharan Africa generates just 1% of international journal articles.

There is certainly reason for hope, though. I have long thought that recent advances in information technology - especially "Web 2.0" innovations, but the 'basic' internet too - has made it possible to do cutting-edge science far away from traditional research and education centers in the developed world. Podcasts, blogs, online audio lectures, freely shared public talks, and other new developments allow for self-study of unprecedentedly quality and depth. And a movement to open access, together with RSS and free science news services, make it possible to keep abreast of the latest developments. Moreover, email and academics' generosity with their time and findings, make getting input from leading experts entirely feasible. (Of course, all of this depends on cheap and reliable internet access, but that's becoming more usual in Third World countries). Admittedly, there is good evidence that, in neuroscience research at least, there is still a very strong geographic concentration in a couple of locations in the rich world. But my own personal experience of doing and learning about science in a backwater - and that's what Durban is, no doubt - suggests that less capital intensive-research can flourish in the developing world.

While I'm yet to publish a paper in an international journal, that'll change soon(ish). Watch this space...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Skeptics' Circle #97

The 97th edition of the Sleptics' Circle is out at The Uncredible Hallq. Posts to check out: Andrea’s Buzzing About on why good intentions plus bullshit still equals bullshit; The Bronze Blog on more ID idiocy; and Greta Christina on the process of deconversion from religion. Which rather reminded me of:

Neuroscience denial is the new wedge

New Scientist magazine has a great article out on how the Discovery Institute, the Seattle based "think"-tank infamous for promoting intelligent design creationism, has a new wedge: neuroscience. While the Institute has long focused on evolution, its overarching aim and its real ideology has always been to overturn materialism, as the opening paragraphs of the Wedge document (pdf) made clear:
The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements...

Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art.
Perhaps as a result of a string of recent setbacks on the evolution front (like Kitzmiller vs. Dover), it seems the Institute is switching tactics and is trying to resuscitate Cartesian dualism. The 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes, you will remember, argued in the Meditations on First Philosophy and elsewhere that there were two kinds of substances: matter, which made up the body, and a nonmaterial soul which accounted for the mind and consciousness. (The mind and the body were supposed to interact via the pineal gland). It goes without saying that there are innumerable problems with this view and long before the advent of modern neuroscience numerous philosophers contended dualism is untenable. Indeed, as far as I can see, dualism is dead in modern professional philosophy. Of course, neurology and neuroscience have closed the case on dualism: the evidence is now overwhelming that the mind is what the brain does (in Pinker's felicitous phrase).

The problem for the religious, though, is that materialism is manifestly incompatible with traditional religious notions like personal immortality and a divinely ordered universe. (See Richards, 2000 for example). A successful science of the mind and brain, therefore, indirectly undermines religion by reducing the area of the unexplained, thus eliminating gaps where Gods might otherwise reside. It's as if neuroscientists are saying of skyhooks, like LaPlace is reputed to have done: 'I have no need for that hypothesis'. In the perverse logic of the intelligent design movement, therefore, dualism must be resurrected and defended from attack.

While I have no doubt Discovery Institute fools will fail (once more), our understanding of how the mind and brain work is far less complete than our understanding of evolution and is thus more open to attack. Vigilance is necessary: neuroscience denial is the new wedge and we should parry the thin edge.

(See also: Steven Novella's response to the New Scientist piece).

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Video: Amazing Ocean Depths

David Gallo is a pioneering oceanographer and in the TEDTalk embedded below (or click here) he surveys some of the astonishing life forms that live in the ocean's depths around hydrothermal vents.

(I've posted another of Gallo's TEDTalks before, which is most certainly also worth watching if you haven't previously seen it).

Picture: Africa in perspective

Talking about keeping things in perspective... As an African, one of the things that annoys me most is ignorant generalizations about the continent. People are wont to talk about Africa in unitary terms, ignoring the fact that the continent is really really big and extraordinarily diverse. Consider the following next time you're tempted to say something like "Africa is...":

(Via Doobybrain)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Carnival of the Africans #3 - Call for submissions

Simon of Amanuensis is hosting the next edition of the Carnival of the Africans on October 28th. Check out his call for submissions for more details... If you're an African blogger or you've blogged on an African topic, please contribute! Participating in carnivals is an excellent way to promote your blog - it not only drives traffic directly, but also indirectly by increasing your Technorati authority.

Get writing!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Phil Plait fans...

Note: The following is totally random.

So Phil "the Bad Astronomer" Plait, author of the blog Bad Astronomy and latterly president of the JREF, is big in skepticism and a great guy... but also an utter nerd. And, it turns out, so are his fans. My evidence? (Apart from the obvious). Well, Phil has a new book coming out, Death from the Skies, which I added to my Wish List. And what did I find soon afterwards while browsing through my recommendations (generated using collaborative filtering) on Amazon?

Yup, D&D... (And note the date). Case closed I think. Not that I can talk...

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Genius and Precocity

Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite science journalists and his lengthy New Yorker articles are so excellent (and infrequent) that I invariably link to them. His most recent piece came out a couple of days ago and is entitled "Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?" (See also the audio accompanying the article). Gladwell's conclusion is simple: there is no necessary connection between being a genius and being precocious, that is, some geniuses bloom late. Gladwell relies on the work of the Chicago economist David Galenson, who has produced a series of papers and a book arguing that the distribution of creative genius is bimodal, i.e., that there are two types of geniuses: conceptualists who bloom early and experimentalists who bloom late. As is his style, Gladwell weaves several engaging anecdotes into his overall argument. In this case, he compares the careers of Ben Fountain (who wrote for 19 years without much success and then took the literary world by storm) with Safran Foer (who wrote the best-seller Everything Is Illuminated in 3 months at age 19), and that of Picasso (who burst on the scene at a young age) with Cézanne (who only really became successful in his 50s).

All this is very interesting and if you're at all interested in the topic, I recommend reading the article. But, honestly, I'm not convinced. All of Galenson's data relate only very indirectly to creative genius, that is, he correlates the age of the artist with some proxy for genius, like the auction value of paintings or whether a certain poem has been anthologized often. While I understand why he does this - rigor and the method of economics require hard numbers - I'm not so sure the proffered proxies really track genius. Having to rely on entirely subjective criteria, the art world is notorious for being detached from reality and subject to fads. A great work of art, then, is just what the art world says is a great work of art. So it's possible for an unmade bed to count as "art" and sell for £150,000 (~US$250,000), for an empty room with a light that switches on and off to win a prestigious prize and for an artist's entirely ordinary missing cat posters to be hailed and taken down as souvenirs. Indeed, a particularly apt comparison given the current global situation is the world of finance: how do we know that, say, Cézanne's fame isn't the equivalent of tulip mania that has not burst because there is no underlying reality for it to jut up against? I will no doubt sound like an utter philistine but, frankly, I for one fail to see much merit in Cézanne's work...

Encephalon #56

The 56th edition of the blog carnival Encephalon is out at Combining Cognits. Highlights: A Neurostimulating Blog on deep brain stimulation as a treatment of addiction; Jared Tanner at Brain Blogger on reduced empathy following traumatic brain injury; and Science Blog on why the insanity defense is unscientific (I'm not so sure I agree, but it's interesting).

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Open Access day

As I've said before, I strongly support open access. I don't want to sound sanctimonious, but I honestly think the fight for the golden road to open access is one of the most important in academia. So I'm pleased to point out that today, October 14th, is Open Access Day. The day, co-sponsored by PLoS, SPARC, and Students for Free Culture, is meant to "broaden awareness and understanding of Open Access, including recent mandates and emerging policies, within the international higher education community and the general public."

Support open access. It's important.

(Relatedly, there is a brand-new contributor to Science Blogs: John Wilbanks runs the Science Commons project at Creative Commons and now blogs about copyrights and other relevant issues at Common Knowledge).

Video: Gecko inspired nanotech

I love geckos and think nanotechnology is incredibly cool. So the video embedded below (or click here) is just my kind of thing.

AI has a long way to go

The 2008 Loebner Prize - awarded yearly to the chatbot that comes closest to passing a restricted Turing test - has been awarded to Elbot. Elbot, created by Fred Roberts of Artificial Solutions, managed to fool 3 of the 12 judges which, at 25%, is the best performance in the history of the prize. I recommend chatting to the bot yourself for a while because you'll soon see that, frankly, it's pretty damn bad: it gives generic answers to specific questions, tries (and fails) to be funny, reeks of canned responses, has very limited conversational memory, has almost no general knowledge and is very easily confused. Elbot, in other words, is all artificial and no intelligence.

It's important to note that the Loebner prize is in fact very controversial and widely dismissed in the academic community. Indeed, many critics think that its design is flawed and Marvin Minsky has called it "obnoxious and stupid". Even the congenial Dan Dennett has criticized the prize harshly.

Incidentally, I hadn't previously read the paper, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," in which Turing sets out his celebrated test. I have to point out that portions of it are deeply silly, especially (but by no means solely) the bit where Turing endorses ESP...

(See also: New Scientist's piece).

Quote: Richards on the controversy about sociobiology

Janet Radcliffe Richards' Human Nature After Darwin (which I use in a course I teach on the philosophical consequences of Darwinism) is the best, and not unrelatedly, the most level-headed book on the 'Darwin wars' I've ever read. A great quote:
The resistance to sociobiology when it first appeared was fuelled mainly by the conviction of its opponents that any claim about genetically ingrained characteristics must be the first premise of an argument for concentration camps, forced sterilization and the abolition of the welfare state (p. 222).

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Stop Danie Krugel

Danie Krugel, probably South Africa's most well-known pseudoscientist, claims he has invented a device (a “Matter Orientation System”) that can find missing objects or people. Briefly, he claims putting a small sample of whatever needs to be found (a lock of hair to find a person, for example) into his device allows it to use "quantum mechanics" to pinpoint its location. Alas, there is no evidence whatsoever that this works and, moreover, the prior probability of his claims being true is extremely low. That is, he is making an extraordinary claim but has presented no real evidence. The South African and international media, however, has in many cases uncritically promoted Krugel and his device. As a result, many families of missing people have turned to Krugel for help and, in return, have received nothing but false hope followed by heartbreak.

It's time for us to Stop Danie Krugel.

Google juice: Danie Krugel, Danie Krügel, Krugel, Krügel, Stop Danie Krugel, Danie Krugel criticism, Danie Krugel sceptic, Danie Krugel facts, Danie Krügel facts.

Skeptics' Circle #97

The 97th Skeptics Circle is out at Evolved and Rational. Highlights: denialism blog on alternative medicine vs. Bayes; Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes on the latest stupidity from Answers in Genesis (sigh); and Greta Christina on God, the blind men and the elephant.

Check out the skeptical goodness!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Evolutionary Psychology joins the 21st century...

The online open-access peer-reviewed journal Evolutionary Psychology has finally joined the 21st century... They've launched an RSS! Now it'll be possible to keep track of new articles properly. (They've had a email notification system for a while, but I didn't find that particularly useful).

Anyway, here are some of the coolest looking recent studies (all links to full pdfs):

The first of these papers looks particularly interesting and it's related to my research to boot. Expect a review of it soon...

Friday, October 3, 2008

Ig Nobels for 2008

The 2008 Ig Nobel prizes, awarded for research "that make people laugh – then think", have been awarded. Some of the coolest / most interesting awards:

  • Peace: the citizens of Switzerland and its federal ethics committee on non-human biotechnology for adopting (pdf) the legal principle that plants have dignity.
  • Medicine: Dan Ariely and colleagues for demonstrating that expensive placebos are more effective than cheap placebos, and
  • Economics: Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tybur and Brent Jordan for showing (pdf) that lap dancers' tips are highest when they're ovulating.

Congratulations to the winners! A video of the ceremony, by the way, will soon be available.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Say it with me now: p-a-r-e-i-d-o-l-i-a

Sigh. Don't be fooled by randomness, the picture at left is not an apparition of the Virgin Mary. It's simply pareidolia. That's /pæraɪˈdoʊliə/, say it with me now. If it were any more obvious, it would hit you in the face.

SGU 5 by 5, by the way, recently briefly explained the concept of pareidolia - listen [mp3] and be amazed.

(Oh, FYI: there's no Face on Mars either. And you know the images you're wont to see in clouds? They're not real either. But I hear an atheist has in fact seen an image of the Big Bang on a piece of toast...)