Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Encephalon #79

The 79th and year-end edition of Encephalon is out at The Mouse Trap. Posts to check out: Neuronarrative on further evidence that our memories are highly fallible, and The Neurocritic on the neurobiology of internet addiction...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Lazy Linking

Some (much delayed) lazy linking...

"To Science!"
  • Heartwarming piece, roughly, about "leaving science". Must be read to be appreciated.
"A slow evolution of theory" - Phillip Tobias
  • The doyen of South African evolutionary science and anthropology, Phillip Tobias, on Darwin's theory of descent with modification. It's a Good Thing that scientists are reaching out to the South African public about evolution. 
"Questions Odd and Profound"
  • A wonderful article in the NY Times on some fascinating history of science. It turns out early scientists ('natural philosophers') conducted some truly weird experiments. 
  • By the way, I love the Royal Society's motto: nulluis in verba or "Take nobody's word for it".
    A distinguishing feature of science is the acknowledged supremacy of experimentation: the ultimate arbiter of truth is empirical demonstration, not authority or abstract ratiocination. This motto nearly sums up that ideal.
 "On the Origin of Religion" (subscription required)
  • A News Focus piece by Elizabeth Culotta in Science on the various hypotheses about the origin of religion. Interesting, but it's clear we are a long way away from having a robust consensus account.
"Fair play: Monkeys share our sense of injustice" - Frans de Waal
  • Frans de Waal on various animal studies that seem to demonstrate that a concern with fairness is not uniquely human, but is widespread among social species.
  • "All of this shows that our hostility to conspicuous consumption and excess at the top is only natural. It is part of a long evolutionary history in which cooperation and equity go hand in hand, even though it is undeniable that we have also a hierarchical streak. This is equally true for other primates, not to mention for canines, but no species accepts these vertical arrangements 100 per cent of the time."
"Creating God in one's own image"
  • One of the more annoying theist arguments is that it is impossible to be moral without God. This idea has remained popular despite powerful rebuttals, most notably Euthuphro's Dilemma
  • Anyway, the most excellent Ed Yong covers a study that concludes people decide what God wants largely by inspecting their own beliefs. Not exactly surprising, but a fascinating study nonetheless.
  • "People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want. The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God's beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing."
"Life on Mars?!"
  • Remember the to-do back in the 90s about the meteorite that supposedly contained alien microbes? Well the same team that published the original study in 1996 have now released two new papers that again defend their conclusion. Very interesting stuff. I sure hope they're right, but obviously we'll have to wait and see what the experts think of the recent stuff.
"National Geographic's International Photography Contest 2009"
  • Big Picture with a gorgeous set of nature photographs.
"Meet the Ex-Jihadis"
  • Johann Hari interviews a bunch of ex-Islamists and tries to understand what attracted them to radicalism, and what made them give it up.
  • "I realise how far all my interviewees – and new friends – have travelled. They have burned in this fire of certainty. They have felt it consume all doubt and incinerate all self-analysis. And they dared, at last, to let it go. Are they freakish exceptions – or the beginning of a great unclenching of the jihadi fist?"

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cyclone Roberta - FAKE

A public service announcement: the rumors and emails (example after the jump) doing the rounds that KwaZulu Natal is about to be hit by a "tempestuous cyclone" is fake, false, a hoax, bollocks, and completely made up. (There is a warning of heavy rainfall - "in excess of 50mm in 24 hours" - but there is no cyclone). Some observations: South Africa's east coast is very rarely hit by cyclones and email hoaxes are plentiful. Put these facts together, apply a bit of common sense, and you get doubt. And doubt should motivate some fact checking (Google is your friend)... If you did so, you'd find this East Coast Radio article saying it's fake, this cyclone tracking service showing no cyclones heading South Africa's way, and this blog entry by the SA Weather and Disaster Information Service saying it's a hoax.

Doubt will set you free.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Encephalon #78

The 78th edition of the mind/brain/psychology/etc. carnival Encephalon is out at Providentia. Posts to check out: Generally Thinking on the Buddhist brain, Brain Stimulant on neurorobotics, and The Neurocritic on unusual sexual changes due to various types of brain damage (including a kind of tumor-induced pedophilia).

My posts on estimating formidability from bodies and faces were featured.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Picture: Family chain-mail fun...



Anti-vaccination and South Africa's measels outbreak

South Africa is in the grip of a measles epidemic (luckily confined primarily to the province of Gauteng), with 2000 cases and 4 deaths. The culprit? Parents not vaccinating their children (among other things) due to the fear that jabs can cause autism. Before getting into a bit more detail, I want to praise reporter Kim Hawley at the Times (of South Africa) for getting the story exactly right: her article emphasized the unscientific nature of such worries. Well done.

A press release issued by South Africa’s department of health contains the following revealing paragraph:
One striking feature of this latest outbreak is that while it has affected children of the poorer communities, it has also been concentrated among relatively well-off children, predominantly in the 15-19 year old age group. We believe that in both groups, the underlying cause has been failure by the parents or guardians to take children for immunization i.e. both the initial and follow-up doses.
It seems likely that among the well-off children (and much less so among the poorer children, where other factors were likely involved) the cause is parents’ fears over vaccines causing autism. The source of these fears is the anti-vaccination movement (and their idiotic celebrity sponsors) that has spread unscientific claims that either the MMR vaccine causes autism or that thimerosal (until recently a common vaccine ingredient) causes autism. These claims have been disproved beyond reasonable doubt. Being more influenced by Britain than America, it's probable that the MMR claim is most relevant to South Africa, so I'll focus on that. The source of the MMR-autism worry was a deeply flawed, and possibly fraudulent, 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues, that was merely a case series of 12 subjects (that is, a series of 12 anecdotes) that could not, in principle, determine whether there was a causal link. Moreover, Wakefield had undisclosed conflicts of interest (he received £50,000 in legal aid money from lawyers preparing a case against MMR – over the years he received over £434,000 from such cases). Wakefield is also currently under investigation by the UK's General Medical Council on charges of serious misconduct, and he might lose his license to practice.

Just because the original study was flawed does not mean, of course, that the there cannot be a link between vaccines and autism. But, as I said above, numerous subsequent studies have found no such link. In other words, there is no good reason at all to think vaccines cause autism. Note to parents: VACCINATE YOUR CHILDREN. Dammit.

(via The Lay Scientist)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Lazy linking...

Your semi- quasi- pseudo- weekly dose of Lazy Linking...

"Grandma Plays Favorites"
  • A report by ScienceNOW on fascinating research on grandparent kin-altruism. According to the grandmother hypothesis, older women survive well past menopause (or have it in the first place) because over evolutionary time the marginal benefits of taking care of grandchildren were larger than the marginal benefits of additional children (possibly because the chance of having a healthy baby decreases dramatically with age).
  • Various studies have been done to test this hypothesis, but the results have been mixed. Now Fox et. al. have a proposal that could account for these mixed findings: that altruism varies by sex-linked chromosomes. In terms of the sex-chromosomes, paternal grandmothers are on average 50% related to their granddaughters, but not related to their grandsons at all. (Since a male is  XY and a female XX, a boy must get his Y chromosome from his father and his X chromosome from his mother). Maternal grandmothers, on the other hand, will on average share 25% of their sex-chromosomes with both grandsons and granddaughters.    
  • In other words, if you are a paternal grandmother it makes sense to dote on granddaughters (again, at least when it comes to sex-chromosomes) and if you are a maternal grandmother, it makes sense to dote equally. And, apparently, controlling for these different genetic interests makes sense of the previously-inconsistent data.
"Who's the Scientist?"
  • Seventh graders describe scientists before and after a visit to Fermilab. Not surprisingly, meeting an actual scientist changes children's perceptions dramatically, and for the better.
"Clever fools: Why a high IQ doesn't mean you're smart"
  • Excellent New Scientist piece on how IQ does a pretty bad job of measuring intellectual competence. The problem with people like George Bush, I have long thought (and the article basically agrees), isn't that they are stupid, it's that they subscribe to an unjustified epistemology in which they elevate intuition, ideology, and "gut feelings" over critical thinking and science. As I have said time and again, the human mind is prone to innumerable biases and rigorous thinking, humility, open mindedness and a reliance on reason are the only antidotes.
"Creationism Taught as Science in South African State Schools"
  • The title says it all. Depressing, annoying, unacceptable.  
"A Language of Smiles"
  • It has been known for a long time that the simple act of smiling can lift your mood and frowning can sour it. The most excellent Olivia Judson puts these findings together with the fact that different languages require different frequencies of mouth movements, some of which resemble smiling and others frowning. So if language A has a lot of sounds requiring speakers to pull a smile-like face, and language B lots of sounds requiring a frown-like face, we might have an interesting (but subtle and partial) explanation for different national cultures. German, for example, contains a lot of vowels that make you frown... 
 "Reforming libel law: A city named sue" (registration required).
  • The Economist argues, entirely convincingly, that England's libel laws are archaic and damaging to free speech. Some American media organizations are now actually threatening to stop publishing in England and blocking access to their websites there. 
  • Good ideas for reform include shifting the burden of proof to the claimant and capping damages. Dear House of Commons: do something, dammit. 
"Probably guilty: Bad mathematics means rough justice"
  • Innumeracy - the inability to deal competently with basic mathematics and statistics - is a Bad Thing. (As John Allen Paulos has argued). As this article explains, innumeracy in the legal system leads to miscarriages of justice.
"Next-gen PhDs fail to find Web 2.0's 'on-switch'"
  • The Times Higher Education Supplement reports on a survey that suggests 'Generation Y' graduate students have not embraced Web 2.0. C'mon guys... RSS and blogs are particularly valuable tools: use them. (I have my doubts about social bookmarking).
  • A weakness: the study (at least as reported here) did not compare patterns of use among the Ph.Ds to the wider population of Generation Y.
"Face the Facts - and End the War on Drugs" - Johann Hari
  • It so obvious I find it embarrassing to have to point it out: governance ought to be evidence-based. Alas, policymakers are notoriously immune to the facts, especially so on issues people are prone to go into moral panic about. The evidence with regards to drugs is overwhelming and clear: prohibition causes far more harm than good. Deal with it like alcoholism: decriminalize and treat it like a public health issue.
  • See also: a piece in this week's Economist on how drugs are becoming 'virtually legal' due to laws not being enforced.
"How did I get Here?"
  • Wonderful post over at Science, Reason and Critical Thinking tracing various contingent links between events, books and so on that led him to where he is now. Cue a cliche about the butterfly effect.
"Cell Size and Scale"
  • Awesome little interactive on the Learn.Genetics site showing the size of various biological parts and organisma, ranging in scale from a rice grain to a carbon atom. It reminds me of that awesome video I posted a while back on the size of the planets compared to the Sun, and the Sun compared to other stars.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Adaptations for the visual assessment of formadibility: Part II

In Part I of this series, I summarized the experiments and findings of Aaron Sell and colleagues' paper "Human adaptations for the visual assessment of strength and fighting ability from the body and face". In Part II, I evaluate their claims.

The evidence Sell et. al. present seems compelling with regards to proposition (i): adults appear to be able to make remarkably accurate estimates of upper-body strength from even degraded cues such as static images of faces. As I noted in Part I, however, the truth of propositions (ii) (that this ability is an adaptation) and (iii) (that upper-body strength determines formidability) are more doubtful. I will assess the evidence for each of these claims, starting with the latter.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Skeptics' Circle #123

The 123rd incarnation of the Skeptics' Circle is out at Blue Genes. Posts to check out: The SkepVet Blog on CAM and religiosity; The Evolving Mind on cognitive biases; and Skeptic North on the lack of evidence for the healing power of prayer.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Skeptics in the Pub Durban

There's been a Skeptics in the Pub Joburg for a while now, so it's about time Durban got in on the action too! Our inaugural SIP is on Wednesday, November 18th from around 19:00 at Badgers in Davenport Center. (Tangent: Badger, Badger, Badger...). All are welcome! Check out the event on Facebook.

I've created a Google Map with the exact location (embedded below). Note that maps.google.co.za was recently significantly upgraded (for the upcoming Soccer World Cup), so it's now an extremely useful resource. Click on the pin on the map, and then select 'Get Directions: To Here', slap in where you are, and Google will recommend the best route. All hail Google.

View Badgers in a larger map

Just note that we might have to change the venue: if a lot more people want to come, Badgers will be too small. If we do need to change venues, it will be in the same area though (likely in Buxton's center). You'll be informed of any changes if you confirm attendance on Facebook and I'll put up any updates on my blog.

Adaptations for the visual assessment of formidability: Part I

In the last couple of years there has been an explosion in research on faces and what can be inferred from them. It turns out, for example, that you can predict electoral outcomes from rapid and unreflective facial judgments, that women can (partially) determine a man's level of interest in infants from his face alone, that the facial expression of fear enhances sensory acquisition, and much, much else. A particularly interesting addition to this literature is Aaron Sell and colleagues' paper, "Human adaptations for the visual assessment of strength and fighting ability from the body and face". Sell et. al. hypothesized that human beings possess evolved psychological mechanisms 'designed' to estimate the fighting ability (or physical formidability) of conspecifics - i.e. other Homo sapiens sapiens - from minimal visual information. An ancillary, but important, claim the authors also make is that formidability is largely a function of upper-body strength and thus the latter is a suitable proxy for the former. To summarize for clarity, Sell et. al. claim that: 
  • (i) people can estimate the formidability of others from visual cues of their bodies and faces, 
  • (ii) this ability is an adaptation, and thus evolved by natural selection, and
  • (iii) upper-body strength is the single most important determining factor of fighting ability. 
The authors’ rationale for the first two hypotheses stems from the observation that in social species such as humans, ‘the magnitude of the costs an individual can inflict on competitors largely determines its negotiating position’ (p. 575). That is, formidability is often an important component of an organism’s ability to compete in zero-sum games (notably, access to limiting resources). Given the dangers of physical confrontation, a rapid visual assessment of the formidability of an opponent could be extremely beneficial because it would allow an individual to weigh up its chances of success, and thus choose to fight only when there is a reasonable prospect of victory. Indeed, Sell et. al. note that the widespread so-called ritualized animal contests are best interpreted as joint demonstrations and assessments of formidability, with physical violence usually ensuing only when individuals are closely matched. If the ability to visually estimate a competitor’s formidability was indeed adaptive, and if violence was frequent and recurrent throughout human evolutionary history (as is likely the case), it is not unreasonable to expect natural selection to have forged mechanisms to make such estimates. Sell and his colleagues tested hypothesis (i) empirically in a number of studies and the evidence seems to bear it out overall. While the truth of (ii) is more doubtful, I will argue that, pending further research, it is reasonable to accept it preliminarily for a number of reasons. Finally, I will argue the lack of empirical evidence in the study for (iii) is problematic but not decisively so: it is clear that there is a correlation between upper-body strength and formidability, but we do not know how strong this correlation is so it is difficult to judge how good a proxy the one is for the other.

After the jump, I summarize Sell et. al.'s primary findings (though I leave out one of their experiments). In Part II - coming later in the week - I evaluate their paper.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

African science/skepticism blogrolling for October

For those of you new to my blog, I've for a long time now been trying to foster better cooperation and communication between those dedicated to science and reason on the African continent. Part of that initiative is our carnival, another is this blogroll (which is Africa wide, though it started as South African) and the last is our mailing list on Google Groups...

So this is the updated blogroll - there are quite a few new blogs, which is a very good thing. If you know of any more, please let me know and please consider adding the blogroll to your own blog. Also, please do a post like this one linking to everyone on the list - it promotes all of our blogs. 

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Carnival of the Africans #12

Welcome to another (somewhat late) edition of Carnival of the Africans the best and only carnival for African scientists, rationalists and skeptics...

We start this month's edition with a few newcomers:
On the the familiars...

Simon Halliday, bless his soul, actually submitted a post to this edition (so I didn't have to forage on his blog), so I'll give him pride of place. He has a fascinating piece on whether gender affects risk aversion (hear the evolutionary psychologists stir...)

Jacques Rousseau (who used to lecture me at UCT, btw) at Synapses has two posts in this edition: on how faith kills and Blasphemy Day.

The Skeptic Blacksheep (aka Michelle) reports that a psychic, amazingly, claims to have contacted Michael Jackson. Sigh.

Next up is Angela of The Skeptic Detective who blogged about a deeply boring psychic fair in Durban (I was there: yes, it was that boring). She also demolishes another idiotic chain mail doing the rounds, this time about snakes in kiddies' ball pits. (People really need to learn how to spot shopped pictures).

Tim at Reason Check does a great job of taking on Marietta Theunissen, a notorious and frankly dangerous 'psychic' who was interviewed on South Africa's 702 radio station recently. (I commented on Tim's post with a link to the mp3. Listen, if you dare).

Dr. Spurt (whose friend Dave is my supervisor...) continues his series of posts on Mad Ads (also: this) and takes on the weird claim that music not produced by a human brain is worthless.

Finally, my contributions: I attack ignorance about evolutionary psychology, explain that you have an immune system (yes!) and review a bunch of skeptical books.

We don't have a host for next month so email me if you're keen! Especially if you haven't hosted before. It'll be good for you...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Encephalon #77

The 77th edition of Encephalon (along with Grand Rounds) is out at Sharp Brains. Pieces to check out: Mind Hacks on the curious spike in brain activity at the moment of death (and how this may explain near death experiences), Neurophilosophy on how vision can alleviate pain, and The Neuroctitic on the same.

Skeptics' Circle #122

The 122nd edition of the Skeptics' Circle is out at Young Australian Skeptics. My picks: Effort Sisyphus on how skepticism has improved his health, J. R. Braden of The Gaytheists on debating a creationist cousin, and The Skeptical Teacher on that silly claim that the LHC will be sabotaged from the future...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Ida: Damp squib...

So remember Ida? The fossil that was going to "change everything"? That was a "missing link"? That was supposed to be a human ancestor? Well it seems all that media hype was for nothing because, according to a new paper in Nature, Ida was the ancestor of... nothing. (Or at least nothing extant).

I don't have the necessary expertise to have an opinion about the controversy itself, but lots of people who do were skeptical right from the start and the naysayers now hove more ammunition that ever. Note to all: doing science by media is a really, really Bad Idea.

Further reading:

Call for contributions!

So it's almost Carnival of the Africans time again - it'll be back on the 28th, and I'll be your host. Write something, check whether it fits our guidelines and then send it to me at ionian.enchantment@gmail.com. Or preferably, first check the guidelines and then write something. Anyway, DO send me entries!

Oh. And if you'd like to host the carnival, email me too...

Lazy Linking

Your (sorta) weekly dose of lazy linking...

"Churches involved in torture, murder of thousands of African children denounced as witches"
  • A genuinely sickening report on Africa's growing witch craze. It's positively Medieval. And who's at the forefront? Yep, the churches. Religion and evil, who would have thought...
"Facial Profiling: Can you tell if a man is dangerous by the shape of his mug?"
  • A Slate piece on recent research by Aaron Sell and colleagues on adaptations for the visual assessment of formidability. I have in fact written a lengthy piece on Sell's research and once it's done and dusted, I'll post it here. Physiognomy is making a comeback. (Via Mind Hacks)
"The Pilgrim's Progressiveness: Does going to Mecca make Muslims more moderate?"
  • A report on very clever research (pdf) that seems to demonstrate that going on the hajj may in fact make Muslims more moderate. Fascinating and surprising. Note: as far as I know, the research has not yet been published, so it's not been peer-reviewed. Buyer beware.
Obituary of Margo Wilson
"Experimenting on Mechanical Turk"
  • Using Amazon's Mechanical Turk (in which people get small payments to do simple tasks) to do psychological experiments. Pretty cool, but rather fraught. (Via John Hawks).
"England’s libel laws don’t just gag me, they blindfold you"
  • An op-ed in The Times by Simon Singh urging reform of libel law. He argues convincingly that England's preposterous libel laws not only limit freedom of expression, it limits people's right to know. A healthy democracy allows open debate and putting the onus on the defendant and not having a public-interest clause stifles such debate. It boggles the mind that these laws survived into the 21st century. 
"Refuting this post helps confirm it"
  • A short but sweet post on Marginal Revolution about why blogging is good for you. Some of the critical comments are worth reading too: it's certainly possible to blog in a echoing chamber.
"Goodbye HuffPost, Hello ScienceBlogs: Science as a Religion that Worships Truth as its God"
  • David Sloan Wilson's inaugural post at his new home over at ScienceBlogs. Wilson, if you don't know him, is an eminent biologist and one of the leading proponents of neo-group selection. Note: some other dude seems to have posts on the same blog (despite not being listed as an author). Those posts are dumb.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Gene Callahan vs Evolutionary Psychology

So I recently had an uncharacteristic (and unpleasant) online altercation with one Gene Callahan about evolutionary psychology and, amazingly, whether Daniel Dennett should be taken seriously. I'm not blogging about this because it is inherently interesting (it's not), but because it nicely illustrates several common misconceptions about applying evolution to psychology and it reminds us that intellectual arrogance is a Bad Thing.

(I’d like to note before proceeding that it’s not as if I’m an uncritical fan of evolutionary psychology. There are, I think, numerous problems in the field, and the standards of evidence is far too often far too low. Some papers in the field are downright embarrassing (this one is the worst I’ve come across) and on my blog I have, among other things, excoriated Satoshi Kanazawa and critiqued Shermer’s application of evolutionary psychology to markets.)

Anyway, the saga in question started when a friend shared a blog post of Callahan’s on Google Reader in which he endorses John Dupré’s Human Nature and the Limits of Science, an uninformed screed against evolutionary thinking in psychology. (See this critique). I won’t have that much to say about the content of Callahan’s post – I will focus on his replies to my comments – but one remark about it is in order. Callahan:
I’ve just been re-reading John Dupre’s wonderful take-down of evolutionary psychology, Human Nature and the Limits of Science. Now, Dupre never disputes the obvious truism that, say, human ethics or religion evolved. But he notes that this is remarkably uninformative, since everything humans do so (sic) evolved, including their ability to write papers on evolutionary psychology!
This is somewhat cryptic and unclear, but straightforwardly interpreted, it is obviously wrong. To see why, consider the following. (I) Phenotypic structures (more precisely, biological processes) are either adaptations or the by-products of adaptations. (II) What distinguishes evolutionary psychology (at least of the Santa Barbara School) from sociobiology is the claim (see Tooby & Cosmides, 1987 [pdf]) that manifest behavior doesn’t evolve, modular information processing systems embedded in brains do. (III) Behavior is the result of a complex interaction between the environment and these information-processing systems; including direct environmental influences (e.g. drugs, brain injury) on the physical substrate of these information-processors. Observed behavior, then, is the product of the environment interacting with information processing mechanisms in the brain, and the brain is constituted of adaptations – structures that exist just because they increased fitness relative to alternatives in evolutionary history, including by producing or facilitating certain behaviors – or the by-products of such adaptations. It is therefore false that ‘everything humans do evolved’ since behaviors themselves don’t evolve, some behaviors result from by-products of evolution (not to mention pathology), and rapidly changing environments (the appearance of development of civilization, say) can interact with evolved psychological traits to produce novel behaviors (including writing papers on evolutionary psychology). The proposition that evolutionary psychology – broadly construed – is uninformative stems from these misunderstandings, and is indistinguishable from the crazy idea that evolutionary thinking generally is uninformative. Moreover, this claim is belied by the fact that we have discovered psychological abilities and traits (e.g., e.g.) that we didn't know about until we thought about human psychology from an evolutionary perspective.

On to the actual altercation… Callahan’s post rather annoyed me, so I left an aggressive – probably too aggressive – comment to the effect that (a) he is unqualified to have an opinion and (b) that he should read Daniel Dennett’s critique of the book. On reflection, I regret making point (a) as baldly as I did: I failed to err on the side of charity and to assume good faith. (Not to mention that I took Wikipedia’s word that he’s an economist, when he self-identifies as a philosopher, though I can’t help pointing out that he has a PhD in neither, so appending “in-training” is appropriate. Note: I don’t have a PhD either, so I happily concede I’m a wannabe cognitive scientist, not the real deal... yet). Understandably, Callahan didn’t take too kindly to my comment, so he replied aggressively himself, and then headed over to my blog and threw insults around on two of my posts: here and here. (Some tangential pedagogy: as I explained at length in my Fun with Fallacies post a while back, there is a difference between the ad hominem logical fallacy and mere insult. Callahan [I think, the comment was anonymous] calling me a “rude little punk”, for example, is not an instance of the ad hominem logical fallacy; even saying ‘you’re wrong and a rude little punk’ wouldn’t be fallacious. Only if he had said (or implied) ‘you’re wrong because you’re a rude little punk’ would he have committed the fallacy. There must be some inference drawn from some purported negative quality for the fallacy to occur, merely alleging someone has a negative quality is not itself fallacious, though of course it may be false or libellous).

Anyway, Callahan’s reaction to (b) was remarkable and illustrative: he dismissed Dennett’s critique of Dupré without reading it because he thinks Dennett’s work is a “rubbish heap”. Here’s what he said:
“Oh, and I’m not going to bother reading his [Dennett's] criticisms of Dupre. If I read several things by someone and they are universally rubbish, I really can’t be bothered to keep going through the rubbish heap. Anyone dull enough to have come up with the ‘brights’ idea really can be dismissed out of hand, don’t you think?”
Wow. The first sentence is the most interesting, but note that the second is factually inaccurate (Dennett endorsed the Brights idea – as did Dawkins – but neither came up with it) and invalid to boot. Worse, the suppressed premise (pdf) that would make the argument valid - ‘anyone who has one really daft idea can be dismissed out of hand (on all topics)’ – is clearly false. Granting for argument’s sake that the Brights idea was daft, it’s simply not true that if someone has one spectacularly bad idea that everything else they say will be wrong. Newton had silly ideas about alchemy and the Bible, but that doesn’t mean we can dismiss the Principia. Linus Pauling obstinately stuck to the incredibly implausible notion that ultra-high doses of Vitamin C can cure cancer, but that doesn't mean his work in chemistry was worthless. Physicists with idiotic philosophical or religious views are a dime a dozen, but that doesn’t mean their work as physicists is necessarily bad. Is it really that surprising that a philosopher and a ethologist, respectively, could be persuaded to endorse a bad marketing idea? If they did so would it mean that their professional work was all worthless?

Callahan’s first point in the above paragraph, though, is far more interesting and so worth looking into in a bit more detail. At first I thought he couldn’t possibly believe it – that perhaps he was just pissed off and said something silly in the heat of the moment – but he failed to back down in subsequent comments, so he really does seem to believe it. In summary, his argument is: ‘I read x% of Dennett’s work, what I read was universally rubbish, therefore everything by Dennett is rubbish’. (Callahan calls Dennett's work 'a rubbish heap', so he's not just making the more reasonable claim that 'he couldn't be bothered to read more of it'). This argument too is invalid - though of course I hardly expect people to make consistently logically valid arguments in blog comments. The point is that it contains at least one false suppressed premise, namely: ‘if I’ve read some proportion of a scholar’s work, I can judge all of it.’ This is both arrogant and false, the latter since for it to be true everyone would have to produce either consistent rubbish or consistent non-rubbish: it implausibly rules out a mixed bag. Newton, again, produced utter nonsense and sublime science, Jared Diamond wrote both Guns, Germs, and Steel (one of the best books of the 90s is my opinion) and Why is Sex Fun? (which was very bad indeed) and so on.

As a rule of thumb, I’d say that unless (1) you have read a good proportion of some scholar’s output, (2) you are qualified to judge all of it, and unless (3) everything you have read is entirely devoid of merit and without any redeeming qualities whatsoever, making a black-and-white inference about an entire corpus of work is just not reasonable. (People who make a priori unlikely claims in conflict with scientific consensus, show no interest in justifying their claims, and who lack relevant expertise can in most cases be dismissed out of hand. Sylvia Brown’s books, for example, are just not worth paying attention to. I take it as obvious that Dennett does not come close to fulfilling these criteria). Given how much Dennett has produced I’m willing to bet Callahan has not satisfied (1), and I have serious doubts about (2) since as far as I know not even Callahan himself claims to be a qualified cognitive scientist or philosopher of mind. More importantly, the prior probability of (3) is preposterously low and Callahan thus has a huge burden of proof to discharge. For him to do so he would not only have to demonstrate (preferably in a mainstream peer-reviewed journal) that, say, Consciousness Explained (CE) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (DDI) are rubbish but also explain why so many smart people – whether they agree with Dennett or not – were fooled into concluding the opposite. In other words, he must rigorously justify his initial contention not only that Dennett is wrong, but so wrong that his work is entirely worthless. And, if Dennett’s work is indeed utter rubbish, Callahan must explain why Dennett has been so influential: why, for example, CE has been cited 4700+ times and DDI 3000+ times. (Callahan objected to this point by saying it merely shows Dennett is famous, and mere fame presumably doesn’t track genuine merit. I responded that there’s a distinction between fame and influence: Dennett is both, Paris Hilton is only the former, Frege (say) is only the latter, and both Callahan and I are neither. Scholars just don’t see the need to read, let alone refer or respond to, utter rubbish so either Callahan is wrong or thousands of highly trained and really intelligent people are deluded. Of course, Callahan could be right, but I wouldn't recommend betting on it).

The moral of the preceding analysis, I think, is that intellectual arrogance is a very Bad Thing. I admit that I’m not exactly diffident, and that I have regularly fallen afoul of the principles I outline below. But I’m not nearly arrogant enough to dismiss whole disciples or declare all of an influential and prolific academic’s work utter rubbish. The common cause of such extreme beliefs, it seems to me, is overweening intellectual self-confidence, which is in turn arguably a product of an insufficient familiarity with one’s own fallibility. Cognitive biases and illusions are universal and ineradicable, the world is incredibly complicated and you can know only a fraction of the currently knowable. The mark of someone familiar with the above is scepticism, suspicion of bald assertions and hasty generalization, doubt, caution, a willingness to reconsider and admit error, and being scrupulously careful with facts and arguments. Callahan, it seems to me, fails to live up to these principles and the result is beliefs that, frankly, are downright idiotic. Or, as I put it rather more colorfully in my comments on his post, if these really are his beliefs, he should STFU, GTFO and take his FAIL with him. Srsly.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe I've been blinded by emotion, maybe I've been unfair, maybe I've misunderstood. If so, show me I'm wrong and I'll reconsider. Really.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Skeptics' Circle #120 and #121

The 120th edition of the Skeptics' Circle is out at Pro-Science; it also features a nice discussion of the history of the carnival. Anyway, posts to check out: The Bronze Blog on how to deal with trolls and other annoyances, and Unleashed (part of the ABC stable of blogs) on the silliness of homeopathy. My post "Fun with a local homeopath" was included.

The 121st edition of the Skeptics' Circle is out at The Mad Skeptic. Have a look at: Effort Sisyphus on the goings-on at the NECSS conference (which was hosted by the NESS and NY Skeptics), Podblack Cat on the process of skeptical blogging (and what skepfails to avoid), and The Examining Room of Dr. Charles account of visiting a Darwin exhibit.

Encephalon #76

The 76th edition of Encephalon is out over at Neuroskeptic. Posts to check out: The Neurocritic asks whether neuroscience tells us torture doesn't work, Neurophilosophy on how vegetative and minimally conscious pantiens can learn, and Crime and Consequences on the silliness of neurolaw.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Public Service Announcement: You have an immune system

As some of you might know: you have an immune system. In fact, you have an adaptive, extraordinarily intricate and complex immune system that evolved over hundreds of millions of years because there are innumerable tiny predators (bacteria, viruses, etc.) that, in effect, want to eat you. And, as anyone with immunodeficiency (whether innate or acquired) can attest, the immune system is almost always effective and, without it, you'd be in serious trouble. Even people with functional immune systems do get sick, of course, and this happens for several reasons, including that it just needs time to adapt (by evolving responses to novel infections) or because the system simply can't deal with the infection.

Why bring this up? Doesn't everybody know this? Well, I'd hope so, but many people effectively deny that they have an immune system when they claim something along the lines of 'I took medicine X, I got better, therefore I got better because I took medicine X'. My point is just this: you simply can't know whether you got better because of your immune system or because of X. Your immune system is really good at it's job - not perfect, of course, but damn good (see immunodeficiency again). And since it's adaptive - in a quite literal sense it evolves ways to deal with new infections - when you get sick and then better, it might be because you took medicine or because your immune system found an effective response (or both, or neither). But in an individual case you simply can't know. Concluding you got better just because of taking medicine - i.e. saying without taking it you wouldn't have gotten better - is an instance of the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy. That is, you're saying just because Z happened after X, it must be the case that X caused Z to happen. But of course this doesn't follow: Z (getting better) might have nothing to do with X (taking medicine) because X could just have been incidental, the real cause of Z might have been P (your immune system) or Q (the placebo effect) or something different. In general, the only - and I do mean only - way to decide in a rational way whether some treatment is effective or not is to do science: that is, do a properly designed, large-scale, double-blind randomized clinical controlled-trail.

Saying you got better just because sometime earlier you had taken medicine, then, is in effect to deny you have an immune system. Which is dumb. Take home message: (1) Thou shalt not rely on anecdotal evidence and (2) Thou shalt rely on evidence-based medicine (or, better yet, a variant known as science-based medicine).

Friday, October 16, 2009

Video: Eyes on the Skies

There is more science to celebrate in 2009 than just anniversaries relating to Charles Darwin, 2009 is also the International Year of Astronomy. (Because it's the 400th anniversary of the first astronomical observations with a telescope). Anyway, since my fiancée is such an astronomy nut, I downloaded "Eyes in the Skies" for her, the freely-available official documentary of the IYA. (Alas, they don't have a single file for download, so you have to download 7 separate 'chapters')

My verdict: watch it. While it's not quite professionally produced, and while there is weird and annoying pronunciation throughout (e.g. NAzzzA for NASA), the actual content is great. It's basically a primer on the history of telescopes - not just optical, ones that observe all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum - and, most interestingly, it covers future telescopes that are being built or that are on the drawing board.

(Hopefully South Africa will win the bid for the Square Kilometer Array. That would be awesome).

Lazy Linking

"The Durban Boredom Festival"
  • So a friend, my fiancée and I went to a local psychic fair recently. I was planning to write about it... but it was a horrid experience, so I never got round it it. Luckily, Angela (the aforementioned fiancée) has written a great account of what went down at the fair and trust me, short as it is, her post contains everything you'll possibly want to know about it. Overall conclusion: way too much incense, rampant woo, boring as hell, complete ripoff.
  • BPS Research Digest reports on using fMRI et. al. to spot lying. Short version: it doesn't work. (At least not yet).
  • Malcolm Gladwell's latest New Yorker piece in which he compares the morality of dogfighting - almost universally reviled - with that of American football. It turns out that, like with boxing, a football career often results in an Alzheimers-like condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Amazingly, new resarch using accelerometers has revealed players regularly suffer hits to the head of up to 90gs. Not surprisingly this is a Bad Thing that does severe damage to the brain over the long run. Gladwell suggests this may make football morally comparable to dogfighting: the injuries and suffering of the players are an inherent and ineradicable feature of the game.
  • As a big rugby fan I couldn't help wondering what the situation is like for my favorite Saturday diversion. Do rugby players also suffer as much damage? Obviously, only research could settle the issue (and some may already exist, I don't know). From the armchair, it's difficult to tell: on the one hand, there are many fewer hits to the head in rugby but, on the other, the players don't wear helmets or much protective gear. My (rather bland) guess, for the little that's worth, is that brain trauma is not as common in rugby as it is in football or boxing, but significantly more prevalent than in the general populace. I'm not going to stop watching though, that's for sure.
"Psychology: A Reality Check" (paywall, I think)
  • A great Nature editorial calling for evidence-based clinical psychology in the United States. I'd say it's also much needed elsewhere, the training of psychologists is often criminally devoid of science or even critical thinking. 
  • "Clinical psychology at least has its roots in experimentation, but it is drifting away from science. Concerns about cost–benefit issues are growing, especially in the United States. According to a damning report [pdf] published last week an alarmingly high proportion of practitioners consider scientific evidence to be less important than their personal — that is, subjective — clinical experience."
  • "The irony is that, during the past 20 years, science has made great strides in directions that could support clinical psychology — in neuroimaging, for example, as well as molecular and behavioural genetics, and cognitive neuroscience. Numerous psychological interventions have been proved to be both effective and relatively cheap. Yet many psychologists continue to use unproven therapies that have no clear outcome measures — including, in extreme cases, such highly suspect regimens as 'dolphin-assisted therapy'."
    "How We Lost Our Diversity"
    • Interesting piece by the excellent Ann Gibbons about new research on the causes of human genetic homogeneity (relative to other primates).
    • "Modern humans are a lot alike - at least at the genetic level - compared with other primates. If you compare any two people from far-flung corners of the globe, their genomes will be much more similar than those of any pair of chimpanzees, gorillas, or other apes from different populations. Now, evolutionary geneticists have shown that our ancestors lost much of their genetic diversity in two dramatic bottlenecks that sharply squeezed down the population of modern humans as they moved out of Africa between 60,000 and 50,000 years ago."
    • See also: John Hawks' fairly critical analysis of the same study.
    • Razib Khan over at Gene Expression on how Ardi drives home the message that drawing analogies between humans and the other extant apes can be misleading. Six million years is a long time, and there's no reason to think our common ancestor with the chimps and bonobos was particularly chimp-like. Somewhat counterintuitively, the opposite might even be true.
    "Dear Penn and Teller: Bullshit!"
    • I've only recently remembered that I have Season 6 of Penn & Teller's Bullshit so I'm only watching it now. And like Massimo Pigliucci in the above post, I just hated their episode (6-06) on environmentalism. Libertarians so obviously have blinkers on when it comes to global warming that it positively amazes me that they're not more self-critical. It also reminds us all, of course, that being vigilant about our own biases is important.  
    "Islam: A Shifting Focus"
    • One of the most widespread misconceptions about Islam is that most of its faithful are Arabs. In actual fact, Asian Muslims vastly outnumber Muslims from other parts of the world, making up 61.9% of the global number of 1.57 billion believers.
    • "A new survey of the world’s Muslim population, by the Pew Research Center based in Washington, DC, will help those who are keen to break that link [i.e. the perception that most Muslims are Arabs]. It estimates the total number of Muslims in the world at 1.57 billion, or about 23% of a global population of 6.8 billion. Almost two-thirds of Muslims live in Asia, with Indonesia providing the biggest contingent (203m), followed by Pakistan (174m) and India (160m)."
    • "Perhaps more surprising will be the finding that the European country with the highest Muslim population is not France or Germany, but Russia, where 16.5m adherents of Islam make up nearly 12% of the total national population. Compared with other surveys, the report gives a lowish estimate for the number of Muslims in France (3.6m), as it does for the United States (2.5m); in both those countries, secular principles make it impossible to ask religious questions on a census."
    Carnival of Evolution 16
    • A superb edition of the Carnival of Evolution - there are many worthwhile posts to check out. My pieces on foxes and on chameleons were featured. 

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009

    Video: Ardipithecus ramidus

    So unless you've been living under a rock for the last two weeks (well, or you don't follow the science news at all) you would have heard about Ardi (a female Ardipithecus ramidus), who is the oldest known hominid and a possible human ancestor. Ardi's remains and her likely habitat was analyzed in detail in a Special Issue in Science and several of the results are very surprising, including that she had arboreal adaptations (i.e. traits for living in trees) despite being bipedal.

    Anyway, I don't have much to say (not my field) but I do want to point to this video (embedded below, or click here) that the team at Science produced and that has not received enough playtime. It's a great primer on the significance of the find and what it could tell us about hominid evolution.

    (By the way: John Hawks has pointed out that one of the photos used in this video is poorly scaled, so it doesn't give a good indication of the skeletal proportions).

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009

    Fun with Search Terms II

    So back in August I did a post on the weird search terms people find my blog with, and it was so much fun that I think I'll do similar posts irregularly. Here are a few of the oddest ones culled from my Google Analytics account...
    • enchanted aardvark sign (umm... wtf?)
    • vicks rub sex fun penis (a bit of advice: don't. Srsly). 
    • e ionian lick (kinky, a whole region of Ancient Anatolia licks stuff...)
    • famous ellipses (aren't all ellipses equally famous? or are some ellipses more equal than others?)
    • absolute nude simon singh boobs (so I thought the one about Neil deGrasse Tyson in the last edition was bad, but seriously now. Simon Singh's boobs? He doesn't even have man titties for God's sake!) 
    • chiropractic medicine in durban violence (yup, when you let a chiropractor near your spine, it's ipso facto an act of violence...)
    • witchcraft and geckos (I knew those little bastards were in league with witches! Maybe we could check whether they weigh the same as a duck...)
    • interesting family porn (all family porn is interesting, surely? well, in a deeply disgusting way that is)
    • sex enchantment of god (wow... the ultimate ego boost: enchanting god into having sex with you!)
    • woman with monkey sex (a Mexican donkey show is bad enough, but monkeys? Gross). 
    • churchill burst into flames (my history isn't all that good, but I'm pretty sure THIS never happened).
    • alien impregnation of women porno video (note to porn surfers: this is not a porn blog, let alone a Hentai porn blog, so GTFO and take your perversions with you). 
    • do my eyes change color because im evil (Gawd superstition is bad for you. No dammit, it doesn't make you evil). 
    • women shouldn't do magic (no one can do real magic, so that's a bit redundant, eh?) 
    • ionia should stick (stick and lick? Sigh).
    Non-weird search terms...
    It always surprises me which posts become popular, and what posts end up attracting readers from the search engines. A preposterous number of people do searches - with a dizzying array of different search terms - about chameleon camouflage. Also surprising is how many people search for that video about a cement cast of an ant colony and similarly popular (probably as a consequence of Dawkins' latest book) are terms about fox domestication.

    Saturday, October 10, 2009

    Video: Glorious Dawn

    Check out this awesome song: "Glorious Dawn - Cosmos Remixed" 'by' Carl Sagan (ft. Stephen Hawking). It's embedded below, or you can click here.

    (Via Owen Swart)

    Lazy Linking

    I've not linked lazily in a while (nasty flu...). So...

    • Very interesting New Scientist article, related to my recent post on the farm fox experiment, that focuses on work done by Max Planck Institute evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo (of Neanderthal genome-fame) on the genetics of domestication. (They worked on rats bred for tameness and aggression though, not the foxes). My hypothesis that the original fox domestication results could have been due to experimental biases gets some indirect support from the fact that Pääbo's team thought it necessary to introduce more rigorous protocols for determining tameness.   
    • Also noteworthy is a supplemental text-box that quotes Richard Wrangham as saying human beings may be a "self-domesticated species". Intriguing thought. 
    • A fantastic Douglas Adams essay from the late 90s. Among other things, he predicted the end of the broadcasting (one-to-many) pattern of communications (c.f. Shirky).
    • "Because the Internet is so new we still don’t really understand what it is. We mistake it for a type of publishing or broadcasting, because that’s what we’re used to. So people complain that there’s a lot of rubbish online, or that it’s dominated by Americans, or that you can’t necessarily trust what you read on the web. Imagine trying to apply any of those criticisms to what you hear on the telephone. Of course you can’t ‘trust’ what people tell you on the web anymore than you can ‘trust’ what people tell you on megaphones, postcards or in restaurants. Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do. For some batty reason we turn off this natural scepticism when we see things in any medium which require a lot of work or resources to work in, or in which we can’t easily answer back – like newspapers, television or granite. Hence ‘carved in stone.’ What should concern us is not that we can’t take what we read on the internet on trust – of course you can’t, it’s just people talking – but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV – a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make. One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no ‘them’ out there. It’s just an awful lot of ‘us’."
    • Via Michael Nielsen
    • Anomalistic psychologist Chris French on sleep paralysis (hypnopompia and hypnogogia). I have experienced this myself, which I described in a post early in the history of this blog...
    12th Edition of Science Pro Publica
    • The twelfth edition of the blog carnival Science Pro Publica hosted by Lab Rat. My pieces on chameleons and fox domestication were featured. 
    "How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?"
    • A lengthy piece by Paul Krugman in The New York Magazine on the causes of the failure of academic economics. 
    • Random anecdote: I still remember the day I decided I wouldn't pursue economics beyond undergrad. (It was the last straw...). It was a third year ecos course at UCT and we were covering a 2-buyer, 2-commodity and 2-seller model when, reflecting on possible problems with the model, the lecturer said "the assumptions may not reflect reality". MAY!?!
    • A bunch of hilarious verbatim howlers from the essays of undergrads collected over several decades by a history professor.
    • My favorite: "In the 1400 hundreds most Englishmen were perpendicular. A class of yeowls arose. Finally, Europe caught the Black Death. The bubonic plague is a social disease in the sense that it can be transmitted by intercourse and other etceteras. It was spread from port to port by inflected rats. Victims of the Black Death grew boobs on their necks. The plague also helped the emergance of the English language as the national language of England, France and Italy."
    "What conclusions can be drawn from Neanderthal DNA": Parts One and Two.
    • An excellent essay on... well, the title says it all. It's by one James Winters, a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh. There are a bunch of grammatical and stylistic solecisms and rather... creative use of adjectives, but the content is very interesting. 
    Entheogens - Wikipedia
    • "An entheogen ("creates god within")... in the strict sense, is a psychoactive substance used in a religious, shamanic or spiritual context. Historically, entheogens were mostly derived from plant sources and have been used in a variety of traditional religious contexts. Most entheogens do not produce drug dependency. With the advent of organic chemistry, there now exist many synthetic substances with similar psychoactive properties. Entheogens are tools to supplement various practices for healing and transcendence, including in meditation, psychonautics, art projects, and psychedelic therapy."

    Thursday, October 8, 2009

    Books IV

    I’ve been naughty in the last couple of months, not writing book reviews of what I’m reading. Here are some...

    The Afrikaners: Biography of a People by Herman Giliomee is a scholarly history of the Afrikaners (and, earlier, Dutch) from the colonization of the Cape in 1652 to modern times. While I doubt the book is of general (international) interest, it’s certainly an important contribution to South African historiography and as such will appeal to those who wish to understand the country. Despite being Afrikaans myself, I certainly learnt a great deal and Giliomee’s analyses of events are consistently insightful, if not always entirely convincing.
    As is to be expected, the bulk of the book covers the 20th century, with particular focus on apartheid. Several of Giliomee’s arguments here are very interesting, including that the National Party victory in the (all white) election of 1948 (surprisingly, with only 41% of the popular vote) was not a watershed, as the preceding system of ‘liberal’ segregation significantly curtailed black rights. He also argues, convincingly I think, that the root of apartheid among the elite theorists was in fact a moral reaction to the problem of ensuring white domination of the political system and thus ‘white survival’. Crude racism was absent among the framers apartheid, the rationale was that the curtailment of black rights in the ‘common area’ was justified in light of their status as ‘foreigners’ who belong in separate, independent and purportedly equal homelands. As Giliomee goes on to demonstrate in detail, though, the reality was very different. Chronic underinvestment in the homelands, lamented by the elite framers (except Verwoerd), and the fact that only 13% of the country was allocated to blacks resulted in the failure of influx control, the continuation and extension of the highly disruptive migrant labor system and a regime that was brutal and patently unjust. Much less convincing in my opinion are the last two chapters in which Giliomee argues, among other things, that economically apartheid was surprisingly successful, and that de Klerk’s failure to avoid a simple majority electoral system was a costly, avoidable, mistake. Also unconvincing is his contention that de Klerk’s failure to ensure the survival of Afrikaans as a public language is much to be lamented; the dominance of a common and international language – English – is far too beneficial (via network effects and others) for nation building and a proper national debate for this to be compelling. (As luck would have it, Giliomee has a recent op-ed about the continued existence of Afrikaans language universities).
    There were a couple of other problems. Giliomee repeatedly assumes a great deal of background knowledge of the history and devotes only a couple of paragraphs to several important events. Additionally, I thought the book focused excessively on elites and intellectual history; more social history and more in-depth descriptions of daily life would have been welcome.
    Criticisms aside, however, The Afrikaners is magisterial and, while certainly not the final word, will likely remain influential for a generation.

    Clay Shirky is one of the most insightful analysts of the internet and how it affects society. His book, Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together, is an extension of his previous arguments that the internet drastically lowers transaction costs thus greatly easing group-formation and collective action, which in turn erodes the “institutional monopoly on large-scale coordination” (p. 143). Prominent themes include the mass amateurization of publishing (and how this causes big problems for traditional publishers because the one-to-many pattern – broadcasting – is being replaced by a many-to-many pattern), the end of professional filtering (“publish, then filter”, “failure for free”), and how the web eliminates the technological barriers to participation, which means it’s no longer the case that small things get done for 'love’ (non-financial motivations) and big things for money. It’s now possible to do big things for love – like writing the largest, best and most comprehensive encyclopedia in history. Also important is that the distribution of attention, participation and contribution on the web follows a power-law distribution and not the familiar normal distribution (see Shirky’s original essay on this).
    I very highly recommend the book; indeed, I’d say it should be required reading.
    See also: his TEDTalk.

    Think by Simon Blackburn is by far the best single-volume introduction to philosophy, or, as Blackburn puts it, ‘conceptual engineering’. Covering all the major topics in Western philosophy – free will and determinism, the existence of God, morality, rationality and reasoning, epistemology, the self, the existence of the external world and more – Blackburn gently and perspicaciously explains the important thinkers and their important thoughts. Suitable both for the uninitiated and for those with philosophical training (I’ve read it three times, and, despite four years of formal training, benefited each time), I cannot recommend it enough. Indeed, on Huxley’s principle that you should know something about everything and everything about something, I pretty much think everyone should read it. Atheists and skeptics, for one (um, two?), will come away with a significantly more sophisticated understanding of the fundamental philosophical issues.

    The locus classicus of the modern skeptical movement is arguably Carl Sagan’s last book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I figured it’s about time I read it. Hopefully this isn’t too blasphemous, but I wasn’t as impressed with it as the wider skeptical community seem to be. For one thing, Sagan patches together a lot of recycled material from essays and speeches and the result is a book that occasionally doesn’t quite flow or fit together coherently. (Books of essays that pretend to be monographs are a pet peeve of mine). Don’t get me wrong: the writing is fantastic but, while the individual paragraphs are all good, they often don’t fit together.
    I don’t want to overdo my criticism though; The Demon-Haunted World is certainly a fantastic book and one very much worth reading. I particularly liked Sagan’s explanations of the scientific method (and ‘baloney detection’), and he covers the European witch craze brilliantly. Also impressive is his trademark mixture of critical analysis and wonder: the universe, contends Sagan, is beautifully intricate and deserving of awe. Also significant is his explanation of how science combines radical open-mindedness with ruthless criticism of ideas. (See also this video that I linked to previously).
    One final comment: contrary to a blurb on the book that Sagan is “unfailingly respectful of religion”, I was quite surprised to see how critical he is of it. He doesn’t seem to belong to the school (Novella et. al.) that strictly adheres to the principle that advocating scientific skepticism and atheism should be kept separate. I say right on.
    See also: an interview of Sagan’s wife Ann Druyan on Point of Inquiry that also includes a speech of Sagan’s to a skeptical meeting. He’s extremely eloquent, so you’ll enjoy it methinks.

    The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson is a hilarious but rather frightening account of "what happens when a small group of men - highly placed within the United States military, the government, and the intelligence services - begin believing in very strange things." The title comes from a program at Fort Bragg where, for a time, members of Special Forces tried to stare goats to death. Equally remarkable and crazy is the CIA’s experimental clairvoyance program (it turns out thinking really hard about where Soviets subs are doesn’t work), a general who tried to walk through walls and the use of the song “I love you” from Barney the Dinosaur as a torture device. Unsurprisingly, the military is not immune to human folly: there are those who believe fervently in woo and the paranormal. That these people wield tremendous coercive power just makes it all the more frightening.
    The style is informal and journalistic, the content gripping and the book a pleasure to read. While there are no hard-core intellectual analyses, Ronson knows it’s all bollocks – he lets the silliness speaks for itself. Overall, a fun book on a serious topic that will keep you interested throughout.
    Oh. And the book is being turned into a major film, starring George Cloney, Kevin Spacey and Ewan McGregor. The trailer is here.

    My reaction to Amir Aczel’s Pendulum: Leon Foucault and the Triumph of Science was... meh: it’s intellectual bubblegum lacking real substance. The topic is Leon Foucault’s 19th century demonstration of the rotation of the Earth (the first time this was directly observed). While there is plenty of interest, I thought 239 pages were excessive; Aczel could have covered all the major points in ~120, and consequently there is a lot of filler material. Aczel, I think, also exaggerates the importance of Foucault’s demonstration. It’s not plausible that the lack of a direct observation of the Earth’s rotation was the crisis he makes it out to be since a rotating Earth is the only scientific fact that could possibly explain the day/night cycle in a heliocentric solar system.
    It’s not all bad, of course. The book explains the pendulum experiments very well (there is also a technical appendix to supplement the more popular account in the text), and I found Aczel’s sketch of early 19th century French intellectual life particularly interesting.
    Overall, though, I’d advise steering clear.

    Given my numerous criticisms of Michael Shermer on this blog, you might think that I’m a sucker for punishment for reading his Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstitions and other confusions of our time. But the book is another classic of modern skepticism, so read it I did. Overall I thought it was pretty good. I really enjoyed Shermer’s analysis of Holocaust denial and especially the fascinating cult around Ann Rand (he calls it “The Unlikeliest Cult” given that individuality and reason is at the heart of Objectivism). Shemer’s list and explanation of the ways thinking can go wrong is standard fare, but decent, and his chapters on the psychology of the belief in paranormal phenomena (particularly among smart people) is insightful.
    That said, I couldn’t escape the impression that the book was almost there, but not quite... Just as I started to enjoy it, Shermer would make a factual or logical mistake, or advance an unconvincing argument. This I found rather frustrating: the subject matter is inherently interesting (and Shermer knows his stuff), but, frankly, I ultimately think he’s just not a top drawer scholar.
    Read it, I think, but read it critically.


    The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson is fun post-Cyber Punk mind candy. Unusually for science fiction, it’s a bildungsroman; the central plot device being a unique computerized book that educates an indigent young girl. Interesting on the consequences of nanobots and matter compilers (c.f. this Economist piece on 3d printers that I linked to previously).

    The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass (i.e. the His Dark Materials trilogy) by Phillip Pullman are billed as children’s books, but the themes and vocabulary seem geared to adults to me. Anyway, it’s high-class fantasy that’s well written, exciting, and highly imaginative. All the novels certainly held my attention throughout, and they’re a subtle but effective critique of religion and obscurantism. Recommended.

    The best novel I’ve read in a long time is Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast. (While Theroux – father of my favorite documentary filmmaker, Louis Theroux – is best known for his travel writing, he’s also produced a ton of fiction). Allie Fox, a deluded technical genius, hyper-individualist and Rousseauian romantic, decides to leave the United States and take his family to the jungles of Honduras to live a simpler and ‘genuine’ life. As the story progresses, Fox becomes progressively more deluded and erratic, leading his family from one disaster to the next.
    The characters are brilliantly drawn, the prose is superb and Theroux manages to paint a sympathetic picture of a peculiar, darker, side of human nature. Read it.
    Also: the book was made into a movie, starring Harrison Ford.

    Set in 4034 AD when humanity has ‘made it to the stars’, Ian M. Banks’ The Algebraist is top-notch science fiction mind candy. I wouldn’t say it’s literature, but it’s a fun page-turner. I especially liked that for much of the book Banks doesn’t resort to faster than light travel (there are wormholes though), and sticks to plausible physics. Also pleasing was that the aliens weren’t implausibly anthropomorphic (contra, say, Star Trek). The space battles were cool while remaining realistic.