Sunday, August 30, 2009

Carnival of the Africans #10

The 10th edition of the Carnival of the Africans is out at Owen Swart's 01 and the Universe. My picks... The Skeptic Detective on the bullshit around organic food, other things amanzi with a depressing anecdote about muti, and The Skeptic Blacksheep on woo products for health.

The Skeptic Detective will host the next carnival on September 28th...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Lazy Linking

Some more lazy linking...

  • Dolphin safe tuna, it turns out, is really bad for the environment. For every dolphin saved, 382 mahi-mahi, 188 wahoo, 82 yellowtail and other large fish, 27 sharks, and almost 1,200 small fish die needlessly. And dolphins aren't even endangered.
  • Extracts from Richard Dawkins' upcoming book, The Greatest Show on Earth.
  • A piece arguing forensics is actually not particularly scientific. Rather scary. C.f. Gladwell's article on how criminal profiling is pseudoscience. Two quotes:
  • "The scientific method is instrumental to our understanding of the physical world. To scientists, the process is sacrosanct: Research your topic, generate a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, analyze your data and then publish the results for peer review. Forensic science, however, was not developed by scientists. It was created by cops—often guided by little more than common sense—looking for reliable ways to match patterns from clues with evidence tied to suspects."
  • "Fingerprints are believed to be unique, but the process of matching prints has no statistically valid model... [but as] Jennifer Mnookin has written, “fingerprint examiners typically testify in the language of absolute certainty.”" (Via Skepchick)
  • Pretty good (and certainly funny). However, the author overstates the case a number of times, especially on #4 & #3. Obviously, you shouldn't rely on Cracked for scientific information, so take with a pinch or two of salt.
  • Good advice on how to get writing done, based on interviews with several professional non-fiction authors. (Via Michael Nielsen).
  • Chris French on why it's a good idea to teach anomalistic psychology (which is like parapsychology minus the credulity) to teenagers.
Holding heavy objects makes us see things as more important Not Exactly Rocket Science
  • The glories of the human mind! Among other things, people holding heavier clipboards think foreign (read: non-American) currencies are worth more than do control subjects with lighter clipboards.
See my Google Reader Shared Items RSS for more...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Globalizing Science Publishing

Wieland Gevers, Emeritus Professor of Medical Biochemistry at UCT, has an interesting editorial (gated, I think) in this week's Science about how to make scientific publishing truly global by including the developing world. An excerpt:
Publishing in scientific journals is the most common and powerful means to disseminate new research findings. Visibility and credibility in the scientific world require publishing in journals that are included in global indexing databases such as those of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). Most scientists in developing countries remain at the periphery of this critical communication process, exacerbating the low international recognition and impact of their accomplishments. For science to become maximally influential and productive across the globe, this needs to change.


How can the global reach and potential impact of scientific research in Africa and other developing countries be optimized? Of primary importance is boosting the quality and quantity of work that is locally published, through measures including review of submissions by peers from within and outside the country, skilled editing, and exploitation of local niches and special research opportunities. A proliferation of journals, short-lived publications, print-only journals, and poor distribution constitutes a picture that must change. A nationally organized project can probably make the biggest difference, with investment by government and research-support agencies, as well as wide participation by local and regional scientific communities.

Religious atheists

So I was thinking again today about a post of mine from a while ago, "Atheists who believe in God". The short version: a Pew religious survey found, incredibly, that 55% of agnostics and 21% of atheists say they believe in God or a "universal spirit". In my previous post I did joke that "in other news: 1 in 4 vegans eat meat" and so on, but I didn't quite spell out how preposterous this actually is.

An atheist, basically, is someone who lacks a belief in (any) God. So the very definition of an atheist is someone who does not believe. A theistic atheist, in other words, is a necessarily non-existent being; such a thing simply cannot exist in any possible universe. The same is true of, for example, a married bachelor. The definition of bachelor is "unmarried man", so a person cannot possibly be both a bachelor and married. The same goes for two-horned unicorns, three-sided squares, non-black black ravens and absolutely certain agnostics.

A person who self-identifies as atheist but also claims to believe in God, then, is either dumb, deeply confused or doesn't know what 'atheist' means. What certainly isn't true is that this person is actually both an atheist and a theist. (Well, at least not at the same time).

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Encephalon #74

The 74th edition of Encephalon is out at Neuronarritive. Posts to check out: The Neurocritic on a new clitoral homunculus, Brain Stimulant on the brain and free will (though not in the strict philosophical sense), and Neurospeculation on hand clapping as a test for hemispatial neglect.

I'll be hosting the next edition on September 14th...

Carnival of the Africans, call for submissions

So it's almost time for the Carnival of the Africans again. Owen at 01 and the universe will host this month's edition, as usual on the 28th. Please check out his call for submissions, the guidelines for the carnival, and then email Owen your posts at: owen(dot)swart{at}gmail(dot)com...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fun with sex

One important factor that drove the evolution of psychological sexual dimorphism is the difference in the minimum obligatory parental investment between the sexes. (This is the great insight of Trivers, 1972). Men, as the rather coarse saying has it, ‘can leave a bed unmade’. That is, a man need only invest a few minutes of effort and some sperm to produce a child. Women, on the contrary, must invest as much as men plus 9 months of pregnancy and, given the absence of baby formula on the African savannah, several months or years of breast-feeding. Moreover, before the advent of modern medicine, childbirth was very dangerous so a woman quite literally risked her life to have children. The minimum obligatory investment for men and women, then, is radically different, so we should expect the evolution of a dimorphic sexual psychology reflecting, as Trivers put it, 'female choice and male competition'. (This is, obviously, a crude simplification). And, not surprisingly, we have a mountain of empirical evidence that confirms this expectation.

There is a lot one can say about this theory, and the above sketch certainly does not do it justice or acknowledge the complexities and uncertainties of the empirical data. But a story I saw in a newspaper recently made me think of one of its features, namely, that a man could always be doing better. From the perspective of a man’s genes, women are an extremely valuable and limiting resource. This may seem a bit weird, so let me explain. There are (of course) a finite number of fertile women alive at any given time, and, since a man has such a low minimum parental investment, he could, in principle, impregnate tens of thousands of them. Women, on the other hand, have to carry and give birth to all their offspring, so the total number of children each woman could have in a lifetime is severely limited by comparison. Men have the potential to sire several orders of magnitude more offspring than women, and as a result there is an oversupply of willing males. (One interesting consequence is that there is a much greater variance in male reproductive success, which produces much greater variance in males in a whole range of traits. The variance in male mathematics grades, for example, is substantially higher than that of women).

In any case, the story that got me thinking about this again concerns one Desmond Hatchett (pictured above). Hatchett, an American man from Tennessee, is only 29 years old but, amazingly, has fathered 20 children. Not quite Ismial the Bloodthirsty (who reportedly sired at least 888 children) or Genghis Khan (who is the likely ancestor [pdf] of ~8% of Central Asian men, and ~0.5% of all men worldwide), but evolutionary speaking, not bad at all.

Trivers, R. (1972) "Parental investment and sexual selection" in Campbell, B. (ed.), Sexual Selection and the Descent of Man.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Lazy linking...

Some lazy linking, stealing Michael Nielson's technique...

Beate Eriksen (Norwegian actress).
The Holy Bible: A Book Review
  • at its best. A snippet:

    "Really, there are only a few criticisms I have: The sections where the author obviously forces their own political agenda into the story are rather distracting (at one point the whole story grinds to a halt so the Jesus character can give some sort of “sermon” on this “mount”-like thing that is little more than liberal propaganda extolling the benefits of a welfare state) and at times it seems like it could’ve used an editor with a heavier hand (1100 pages long?! Who do you think you are, David Foster Wallace?). I must say that overall, the Holy Bible is a story everybody should read at least once. Just keep in mind that though this may seem like your run of the mill fantasy adventure, there are a myriad of vicious maulings, explicit torture scenes, rape and prostitution, so it’s definitely not for children!"

LOLCat Bible Translation Project
  • The Bible translated into... lolspeak. Awesome.
  • A bit from Genesis ("Boreded Ceiling Cat makinkgz Urf n stuffs"):

    "Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem. Da Urfs no had shapez An haded dark face, An Ceiling Cat rode invisible bike over teh waterz.

    At start, no has lyte. An Ceiling Cat sayz, i can haz lite? An lite wuz. An Ceiling Cat sawed teh lite, to seez stuffs, An splitted teh lite from dark but taht wuz ok cuz kittehs can see in teh dark An not tripz over nethin. An Ceiling Cat sayed light Day An dark no Day. It were FURST!!!1

    An Ceiling Cat sayed, im in ur waterz makin a ceiling. But he no yet make a ur. An he maded a hole in teh Ceiling.An Ceiling Cat doed teh skiez with waterz down An waterz up. It happen. An Ceiling Cat sayed, i can has teh firmmint wich iz funny bibel naim 4 ceiling, so wuz teh twoth day."

Handling the Climate Deniers
  • Leonie Joubert on how journalists should handle climate change deniers. Good stuff: token skepticism and false balance are serious problems, and both mislead the public.
What Is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn Effect
  • Cosma Shalizi's review of James Flynn's new book. The research is certainly well worth knowing about, and Shalizi does a great job of introducing it. Highly recommended.
Rejecta Mathematica -- The Economist
  • A journal for rejected (mathematical) papers. This is a great idea and there is definitely room for journals like these in scientific publishing. Peer-review and editors' judgments of significance are imperfect, and the threat of the prominent publication of rejected papers could serve as a check to keep the journals honest. Hopefully the idea will catch on for other disciplines.
See my Google Reader Shared Items RSS for more...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Skeptics Circle #117: The Chiropractic Edition

Welcome to the 117th iteration of the venerable Skeptics Circle! As all of you no doubt know, one of the hottest topics in skepticism in the last while has been Simon Singh's legal woes resulting from an entirely reasonable article of his that the British Chiropractic Association, absurdly, thought libelous. In the wake of the mass reposting of the said article and Simon's recent decision to soldier on, I figured making this edition chiropractic themed would be appropriate.

I also want to use the hosting soapbox to flog an idea: the single best way to push back against such scandalously censorious behavior is to harness the power of the Streisand Effect and make sure Simon's article is as widely disseminated as possible. The mass reposting was certainly a good first step, but ensuring skeptical and scientific information appears high in search rankings for "chiropractic" and "chiropractor" would have an even greater, and lasting, impact. So I propose we Google Bomb those BCA bastards. Here's what to do: take the words "chiropractor" and "chiropractic" and link them to: (which should look like: chiropractor and chiropractic). For extra credit you can also link those words to Chirobase and the relevant Skepdic entry and "British Chiropractic Association" to a critical Science-Based Medicine entry. If you really want to go the extra mile, link "English libel law" to:, so English libel law... (Note: I previously suggested we link to an archived version of the original article but apparently that could create legal complications for Singh, so the edited version on Sense About Science is arguably the most appropriate).

Anyway, on to the skeptical goodness.

First up, appositely, is two recent Science-Based Medicine posts on (what else?) chiropractic. The first, by Harriet Hall, demolishes the claim that chiropractic can cure deafness. The second, a guest post by retired chiropractor Sam Homola, examines the treatment philosophy of the 'National Upper Cervical Chiropractic Association'.

Adventures in Nonsense seems to be taking on British chiropractors. He has a good post on the General Chiropractic Council's dubious dealings with the Trading Standards body.

Next in line is young Aussie skeptic Richard Hughes, who explains why the British libel laws are freaking horrendous. I completely agree. (By the way, if you have access, this Nature editorial is a must read).

These are older posts, but I thought they are more than worthy of another plug: first, The Quackometer documents how the BCA targets children. Disgusting. And second, the incomparable Ben Goldacre with the unmissable "We are more possible than you can powerfully imagine".

Staying on children, Eric of Skeptics Canada has a great report on an undercover investigation of paediatric chiropractic. It turns out that five (count 'em) separate chiropractors diagnosed 'serious' problems with a little girl's spine who was actually in perfectly good health.

That's about it with the subluxation idiots, so how about something similarly depressing? Americans might think they have a problem reaching out to the public about evolution, but as Reason Check documents and Prometheus Unbound explains, South Africa is a creationist paradise. (At least we've finally got evolution by natural selection into the school curriculum...).

The Skeptical Teacher (how I wish I had one of those in school!) excoriates Willaim Dembski for his anti-science campaign and details how the Texas Board of Education is pushing religious ideology in social studies classes. Sigh.

Skeptics, as far as I know at least, don't generally buy into the claims of the organic food movement. And, as Angela Butterworth of The Skeptic Detective explains, that's good thing: a recent systematic review found that there is no evidence that organic food is more nutritious. Bullshit, it turns out, is organic too... (Full disclosure: Angela is my girlfriend.).

Astrology is an unsinkable rubber ducky. But that's no reason to stop blasting it and Skeptico does just that. To no one's surprise, astrology still fails...

Dr. Karen Stollznow, paranormal investigator and Naked Skeptic, has two posts in this edition: "The Haunted (Pseudo) History of Bonaventure Cemetery" and the entertaining "No Sex Please, We’re Ghost Hunters!".

As Tim Farley has explained, skeptics really ought to pay attention to Wikipedia. So it's good to hear via Martin Rundvist of Aardvarchaeology that Wikipedia has started to crack down on cult propagandists.

I've long enjoyed Romeo Vitelli's posts on historical figures, and he again does a magnificent job on Providentia with the Nikola Testla conspiracy...

jdc325 at Stuff and Nonsense (who is NOT, I am assured, a robot) has an interesting post about a widely-noted phenomenon: how damn angry people get about health issues.

Finally, a couple of podcast entries: Monster Talk is a new podcast about, you guessed it, cryptozoology. There are two episodes up so far: on Bigfoot DNA and an interview with the author of The Anatomy of the Beast (also about bigfoot).

Bing McGhandi (aka Lance Goodthrust) of Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes has been podcasting of late and submitted two of his episodes: #11 (on how Jews, unsurprisingly, really don't control the whole world) and #12 (on, among other things, racist shitbags and diagnosing cats).

That's it! Remember: Google Bomb when you link! The next edition of the Circle arrives on August 27th at The Evolving Mind...

Richard Dawkins TV

So Richard Dawkins is embracing Web 2.0: his website has been a big success and he's now gone further with the launch of Richard Dawkins TV, a platform for releasing regular videos explaining the basics of critical thinking and evolution. (I do hope he expands to atheist topics). All the videos are available on YouTube, but also as high-quality .mov downloads. Anyway, one of my favorites so far, "Comparing the Human and Chimpanzee Genomes," is embedded below, but also check out "Ants that farm, compost and weed" and "The Baloney Detection Kit" (featuring Michael Shermer).

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sleep Paralysis

In one of the early posts on this blog, I related my experience of a frightening hypnopompic hallucination. So I was very interested to see The Psychologist had published an excellent article on sleep paralysis and how it accounts for reports of various paranormal phenomena. A titbit:
The experiential elements of sleep paralysis have been reported from many countries and cultures around the world but it is known by many different names and interpreted in many different ways. For example, in Newfoundland sleep paralysis is called the ‘Old Hag’. This is described as suddenly being awake but paralysed, usually just after having fallen asleep, and often feeling a weight on the chest and sometimes seeing a grotesque human or animal astride the chest (Ness, 1978). Newfoundlanders think it might be caused by either working too hard, the blood stagnating when they lie on their back, or hostile feelings from another person.

In Hong Kong a condition that seems identical to sleep paralysis is termed ‘ghost oppression’ (Wing et al., 1994). Chinese people have often thought that ‘the soul of a person is vulnerable to the influence of spirits during sleep’ (Wing et al., 1994, p.609) and, in a dream classification book written around 403–221bc, there are six types of dreams described. Wing and colleagues suggest that e-meng, dreams of surprise, are actually sleep paralysis and are distinct from ju-meng, fearful dreams.

(Via: Mind Hacks).

Sunday, August 9, 2009

PhD Comics on open access

The most excellent Ph.D Comics on open access (click to enlarge):

(Oh, and don't miss out on 'Nature vs. Science' Parts One, Two and Three).

Video: Ben Goldacre on homeopathy

Ben Goldacre is one of my favorite skeptics: his Guardian column is superb, his book was great and he even occasionally releases fantastic podcasts. Now I've discovered he's great on camera too. In the video embedded below (or click here) Goldacre introduces homeopathy and explains why it's utter bollocks.

Ben Goldacre on Homeopathy from science TV on Vimeo.

(Via Phil Plait).