Friday, May 22, 2009

Video: Ten things you didn't know about orgasm (NSFW)

Mary Roach, science writer and author of Bonk: The Curios Coupling of Science and Sex, gave an excellent and funny talk at TED earlier this year about the science of sex. (Embedded below, or click here). Warning, this is mildly NSFW.

Oh. Hold out for the pig farmers bit, it's priceless...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The follies of science journalism

Ph.D Comics at its best... (click to enlarge).

The longest ellipsis...

(Note: this post is shamelessly unoriginal – John Lynch did all the hard yards on this one).

The most annoying thing about creationists, I submit, is not that they’re wrong (and they are) but that they are often astonishingly intellectually dishonest. One manifestation of this dishonesty is their wont to quote mine, and the nadir of quote mining is constructing unfavorable quotes by using absurdly long ellipses. John Lynch of Stranger Fruit uncovered a doozy of this genre a while ago. Attempting to discredit Darwin by linking him to Marx, social Darwinism and the Nazis, Edward T. Oakes writes:
Darwin actually, if unwittingly, promulgated the charter for all later social Darwinists: "Let the strongest live and the weakest die... Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows."
As many of you no doubt noticed, there is something decidedly odd about this Darwin quote. And this is it: the first part of the quote comes from the last bit of the last sentence of Chapter 7 of On the Origin of Species. And the second part? The (famous) last paragraph of Chapter 14. Yes, that’s right: seven chapters – or almost 200 pages – later. Astounding, isn’t it?

The more charitable among you may object that perhaps Oakes got the quote from another creationist (from the book he's reviewing?) and thus maybe he’s guilty only of bad scholarship, not bona vide intellectual dishonesty. I would vehemently disagree: pretending to know when one does not is an especially vile form of intellectual dishonesty and if Oakes is not guilty of deliberate deception, then he’s certainly guilty this intellectual fakery. His claim, after all, concerns Darwin’s beliefs, and intellectual honesty demands, surely, that anyone making such claims demonstrate enough familiarity with Darwin’s most famous work to recognize its most famous passage and notice it doesn’t really go with the first bit of the quote.

All of this, of course, is strictly irrelevant to whether the theory of evolution by natural selection is true or not. Even if it were the case that Darwin was a sadistic wife-beating pedophilic Nazi bent on genocide, it wouldn’t change the fact that his theory is true. Nice guys don’t always finish first...

Oh, and some fun proving both sides can play this ellipses game...

"Luke... I am your... father".
-Colossians 4 :14, Genesis 27:31, Genesis 2:24

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Gladwell on David versus Goliath

It's now pretty much a tradition on this blog to link to all Gladwell's recent articles, and I see no reason to stop. In his latest piece, "How David Beats Goliath: When underdogs break the rules", Gladwell argues that when underdogs beat champions it is (usually? often?) the triumph of effort over ability and unconventional tactics over conventional ones. An excerpt:
We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability—legs, in Saxe’s formulation, can overpower arms—because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.
See also: Gladwell's response on his blog to criticism of this piece.

Goldacre on Rath: Or Quackery Smacker vs. Charlatan

As you may recall, the most excellent Ben Goldacre was sued for libel (along with the Guardian) by the notorious quack Matthias Rath. As a result, Goldacre couldn’t include the shocking tale of Rath’s activities in South Africa in his superb recent book, Bad Science. Luckily, Goldacre has now made the excluded chapter freely available, and I very highly recommend reading it. My favorite bit:
Despite the extremes of this case, not one single alternative therapist or nutritionist, anywhere in the world, has stood up to criticise any single aspect of the activities of Matthias Rath and his colleagues. In fact, far from it: he continues to be fĂȘted to this day… The alternative therapy movement as a whole has demonstrated itself to be so dangerously, systemically incapable of critical self-appraisal that it cannot step up even in a case like that of Rath: in that count I include tens of thousands of practitioners, writers, administrators and more. This is how ideas go badly wrong.