Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Lazy Linking

"Psychopathy seems to be caused by specific mental deficiencies"
  • The Economist reviews research that used the venerable Wason selection task to reveal psychopaths seem unable to understand social contracts. This suggests (albeit weakly) that psychopathy is a frequency-dependent adaptation. 
  • Time magazine profile of the courageous James Onen, head of Freethought Kampalaan organization dedicated to science and reason in a highly superstitious country.
    "The Shadow Scholar"
    • Disturbing Chronicle of Higher Education profile of an 'academic mercenary' paid to write essays and other academic work for students. Scary stuff.
    • It seems to me that there is little academics themselves can do about this problem. If I suspect a student has paid someone to do her work for her, then what? I... hack her email account? The only long-term solution, it seems to me, is to criminalize the companies that provide these services - after all, they're arguably committing (or at least abetting) fraud. When the companies' records are seized, guilty students should be tracked down and punished. Degrees should be withdrawn, etc. I'm not saying this will solve the problem completely, but it'll at least lessen it, and provide some deterrent. 
    "Freaks, Geeks, and Economists"
    • The subtitle says it all: "a study confirms every suspicion you ever had about high-school dating".
    • Fallacies categorized and their family relationships mapped. Good stuff. 
    "This Is Your Brain on Metaphors"
    • Robert Sapolsky does great work, and this piece is as good evidence of that as any. He reviews a bunch of research which demonstrates that the brain conflates the literal and metaphorical. That is, certain 'higher' mental functions (like morality) is simply bolted onto 'lower' mental functions (like disgust). 
    • "Nelson Mandela was wrong when he advised, “Don’t talk to their minds; talk to their hearts.” He meant talk to their insulas and cingulate cortices and all those other confused brain regions, because that confusion could help make for a better world."
    "Tanzania's first elected albino MP fears for life"
    • What's the harm? This. This is the harm. 
    • Quacks + poachers = rhinos in trouble.
    "Not so fast... What's so premature about premature ejaculation?"
    • Jesse Bering strikes again. Premature ejaculation from an evolutionary perspective... Be sure to read the incisive comments.
    • Profile of Arthur Goldstuck, premiere cataloger of South Africa's urban legends. I attended the book launch, and I've read his latest book (The Burglar in the Bin Bag). Very good stuff. 
    • Arthur is on Twitter as @art2gee and blogs at Urban Legends.
    "What’s In Placebos?"
    • Apparently placebos are not all alike. Steven Novella covers the fascinating details and discusses the consequences. 
    "Palestinian Blogger Angers West Bank Muslims"
    • It's not exactly surprising that an atheist is unwelcome in the West Bank, but (1) it's still lametable that he isn't but (2) heartening that he exists at all. 
    "10 Bizarre Medical Discoveries"
    • Sample: symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller coaster ride... 
    "Kasparov versus the World"
    • The fascinating story of Gary Kasparov's epic game against the rest of the world (well, a huge number of chess players who collaborated online). Kasparov called it "the greatest game in the history of chess".
    "The glorious mess of real scientific results"
    • This is written by Ben Goldacre. Go, read.
    "Calculate the Effect of an Asteroid Impact on Earth"
    • Go on, what are you waiting for? You know you want to...
    "Putting a Hex on Hitler, 1941"
    • Life covers a batty attempt to defeat Hitler... with witchcraft. 
    "There Are 5,000 Janitors in the U.S. with PhDs"
    • :-(
    • Another Economist piece, this time a review of the book A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment. According to the review, the book is the story of the salon presided over by the (unjustly forgotten - but not by me) Baron d'Holbach
    "The Fascinating Story of the Twins Who Share Brains, Thoughts, and Senses"
    Pretty / WOW / heh

    "'Dance Your Ph.D. 2010' Winner Announced"
    • This is just wonderful. Watch the video, srsly.
    "National Geographic's Photography Contest 2010"
    • Must see gorgeousness from Big Picture.
    "Wildlife through the lens"
    • Beautiful wildlife photography.
    "The Difference Between Jesus and Zombies"
    • heh
    "What I Think About Atlas Shrugged"
    • Sci-fi author John Scalzi rips into Ayn Rand. Hilarity results. 

    Tuesday, November 23, 2010

    15 Authors

    There is a meme going round Facebook called "15 Authors" in which you list (you guessed it) 15 authors who have "influenced you and that will always stick with you". This is mine...

    1. Joseph Heller -- Catch-22 is funniest book ever written - also: it's profound. Pity the fools who don't get it. [You know who you are].
    2. Sophocles -- his plays are masterpieces. I've read Oedipus Rex five times, and it still gives me goose-bumps.
    3. Dan Dennett -- too many brilliant books to count. Darwin's Dangerous Idea is arguably one of the best non-fiction books of the 90s. His "Postmodernism and Truth" shaped my thinking significantly.
    4. Jorge Louis Borges -- author of innumerable mind-bending and beautiful short-stories. If you've not done so yet, listen to "The Library of Babel" (the mp3 is here).
    5. John Stuart Mill -- On Liberty is his most important book, but his autobiography and A System of Logic are also very good.
    6. Mancur Olson -- An economist actually worth reading. The Logic of Collective Action and Power and Prosperity are both must-reads. (The speculation about the origins of states in P&P is fantastic).
    7. Vladimir Nabokov -- I've not read enough of his work, but Lolita is a disturbing, incisive study of obsession. His prose is sublime.
    8. Simon Blackburn -- I actually like only one of his books - Think. The latter is the best single-volume introduction to philosophy. I read it at a pivotal time in my intellectual development.
    9. Steven Pinker -- possibly the best popularizer of science around. Like Think, I read How the Mind Works at a pivotal time: it was really the start of my interest in science as a whole, and psychology and evolution in particular. The Blank Slate is also excellent.
    10. Jared Diamond -- Guns, Germs and Steel is in my opinion THE best non-fiction book of the 90s. Must. Read. The Third Chimpanzee is also worth a read. (But avoid Why is Sex Fun?)
    11. Cormac McCarthy -- The Road and Blood Meridian are wonderful both. I've decided to read his entire oeuvre over the next couple of years.
    12. Paul Theroux -- his travel writing is something to behold. I'm not a huge fan of his fiction, other than The Mosquito Coast.
    13. Richard Dawkins -- He's had a tremendous influence on me. The Selfish Gene first introduced modern theoretical biology to me, and it's had a lasting impact. The God Delusion inspired me to "come out" to my family as an atheist. His best book since The Blind Watchmaker is The Ancestor's Tale, if you haven't read it yet, do so.
    14. Malcolm Gladwell -- my favorite science journalist. I've read all three of his books (Outliers is the best, followed by Blink, then The Tipping Point). He's actually on the list for his long-from New Yorker essays. Have a look at his archive.
    15. John Rawls -- A Theory of Justice is the locus classicus of 20th century political philosophy. Reading it had an absolutely profound effect on me.

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010

    Light posting apology (again)...

    Apologies about not posting much of late - I've been rather busy in the meatspace. I'm planning a couple of posts in the next week or so, so you won't be completely without your IE fix.

    In the mean time, two bloggers who haven't been bloggily-unproductive are Ed Yong (of Not Exactly Rocket Science) and Vaughn Bell of Mind Hacks. So go there!

    Wednesday, September 29, 2010

    Lazy Linking

    "This is a news website article about a scientific finding"
    • Martin Robbins' absolutely wonderful parody of bad science reporting. I really can't recommend it enough. 
    • Also: read the superb comments (well, some of them at least - there are over 500). 
    "An Ode to the Many Evolved Virtues of Human Semen"
    • Jesse Bering on the psychological effects of semen (mostly on women). He covers tons of fascinating research, including the finding that semen may have an anti-depressant effect. (Though, as this comment points out, there is a serious confound). 
    • Best line: “I’m not a medical doctor, but my testicles are licensed pharmaceutical suppliers”. (Said in jest, by the way). 
    • Anthropologist Pascal Boyer pwns lefty/po-mo academics. 
    • Pew surveys Americans about their knowledge of religion. Shocking ignorance found. (You can take a quiz featuring some of the questions in the survey. FWIW, I got 13 out of 15...)
    • Amazingly, only 85% of the respondents knew that an atheist is a person who doesn't believe in God. A finding consistent with the existence of 'atheists' who believe in God. (Yes, that is a contradiction in terms, but there you go).
    "I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat – but farm it properly"
    • I'm not linking to this for the content, but for George Monboit's wonderful demonstration that there is honor in saying "I was wrong". I've never been a fan of Monboit's, but his willingness to write this column certainly sways my opinion more to the positive side. 
    • Yes, says Ed Yong. They should (do their best to) side with truth
    "Power Leads Us to Dehumanize Others"
    • BPS Research Digest reviews research that vindicates Lord Acton. (Not that there was much doubt to begin with). 
    "Ratzinger is an Enemy of Humanity"
    • Richard Dawkins brilliantly responds to the Pope's deeply idiotic comment comparing atheists to Nazis. Read it. 
    • Excellent piece at Ars Technica by Chris Lee on the evils of confirmation bias - our tendency to see only what we expect to see. Lee looks at the topic through the lens of various scientific controversies, including Jacques Benveniste's 'water memory' nonsense. 
    • China's answer to Ben Goldacre, Fang Shimin, gets beaten up and threatened, apparently by plagiarists and/or charlatans who stand to lose from being exposed. Shocking. 
    • Another fascinating study covered by BPS Research Digest.
    • The researchers compared 'global' vs. 'local' thinking among "Dutch Conservative Calvinists (a form of Protestantism), Liberal Calvinists (who aren't so strict), Conservative Calvinists turned atheist and life-long atheists." 
    • The results were surprising: "the life-long atheists showed the strongest bias for the big picture, followed by the Liberal Calvinists, and then the Conservative Calvinists and the former Conservative Calvinists turned atheist. The latter two groups performed similarly suggesting that more than seven years without religious practice wasn't enough to remove the effects of the religion on a person's attentional mindset."
    Heh / LOL / Wow

    "The Real Stuff White People Like"
    • Absolutely fascinating analysis of 526,000 OkCupid profiles reveals the differences in tastes between White, Black and Asian males and females. 
    • The sample is unlikely to be representative, but it's interesting nonetheless. 
    "The Data So Far"
    • Classic xkcd... (For xkcd n00bs: read the mouse-over text).
    • Astronomy porn at its finest. #7 and #11 are especially good.
    • Need I say more?

    Monday, September 20, 2010

    SA Blog Awards: The End

    Alas... none of the skeptics I've been punting have made it to the top two of the South African Blog Awards. Congratulations to the all those who made it, and thank you very much to all of you who supported us!

    Next year...

    Tuesday, September 14, 2010

    Technology Quarterly

    So it's time again for the Economist's Technology Quarterly... My picks:

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010

    Picture: Climate solutions comic...

    Most excellent...

    Climate denialists believe the darnedest things

    You may recall that back in February I took on Daily Maverick columnist and climate denialist Ivo Vegter. Following on from my then just-published piece on deference, I argued Vegter was incredibly arrogant to take a stance contrary to the scientific consensus on climate change when he's a journalist - not a climatologist or even a meteorologist. Vegter entertainingly replied. While I replied in turn in the comments of his blog (I liked this one) and occasionally engaged in Vegter-baiting on Twitter, I always meant to reply properly via my blog. But then I got married, ran a bunch of psychology experiments, moved cities, etc. and I never got round to it. Anyway, a recent exchange gave me some impetus. I asked Vegter, putting aside causes, whether he accepts the simple fact that the average global temperature has been increasing. Since it would be enormously idiotic to deny it has - you'd have to believe in a nearly-impossible grand conspiracy - Vegter replied: "I'm on record agreeing to warming until 1940, cooling '40-'70, warming '70-2000." But... believing warming has occurred but then denying it's anthropogenic, I submit, requires you to believe the darnedest things.

    First of all, let's review what the instrumental temperature record looks like:

    The black line is the annual air temperature mean, the red line is a five-year running average and the green bars are confidence intervals. It's clear from the graph that Vegter is more-or-less correct about the temperature record: we observe warming until about 1940, cooling or more likely a plateau from 1940 to around 1975, and warming since. (Vegter is dead wrong to think warming stopped in 2000: 2009 is the second warmest year on record - after 2005. The 2000s is the warmest decade on record. June 2009 to May 2010 is the warmest 12-month period on record. And 2010 is shaping up to be the warmest year on record).

    How does the mainstream scientific community explain this pattern? Why was warming interrupted from 1940-1975? Here is a very simplified explanation: the early (~1915-1940) warming trend has a different explanation to the ~1975-2010 warming trend, and the cooling in between has yet a third explanation. The earlier warming was due to "a combination of factors, including a lull in volcanic activity (therefore the absence of its cooling influence), a slight increase in solar output, and yes, an increase in greenhouse gases too (although not nearly so much as during more recent times)". The second warming period was caused largely by our industrial emissions: mostly CO2, but other greenhouse gases played a role. The lull in warming from 1940-1975, in turn, was due to anthropogenic cooling due to global dimming. The quick version is that aerosols such as sulfates increased very rapidly from about 1940 to about 1975 (spot the relationship?) and then declined again rapidly. In other words, the warming forcing of the greenhouse gases was masked by the cooling forcing of various aerosols, and the rapid decline of the latter after 1975 meant net radiative forcing suddenly turned positive - resulting in warming. While this is undoubtedly complicated (though, what would you expect?) and may even seem contrived, it is important to note that this version of events is consistent with the available data and no other scenario is consistent with the available data.

    But how does someone who agrees that global warming has occurred but denies anthropogenic forcing is responsible, explain the observed temperature record? (And, importantly, the pattern of warming). To think both the above propositions true, you have to believe the darnedest things: (1) that some mechanism entirely unknown to science inhibits or obviates the warming effects of our greenhouse gas emissions and (2) that some other mechanism entirely unknown to science caused the warming that has been observed. We know beyond all reasonable doubt that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas - it's a basic finding of physics, established under the most rigorous laboratory conditions. We also know, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases has increased dramatically because of our industrial emissions since the Industrial Revolution. To think these two facts don't combine to produce warming is to think that there is something (no one knows what) that somehow (no one knows how) inhibits the warming that would normally occur. But worse, there is yet something else (no one knows what) that actually caused to warming we see. (Something must cause it! And it's not the sun, in case you were wondering).

    To be a climate denialist, then, you need to believe at least one of the following: that there is a grand conspiracy among scientists to withhold the truth about the climate record or that, extraordinarily improbably, (1) and (2) are true. On the first, note that there is no precedent in all of history for the existence of a conspiracy on the scale climate scientists have been accused of. ("Climategate" was a non-event. No fewer than three independent inquiries concluded there was no serious misconduct). On the second, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and, as far as I know at least, no one has yet provided convincing, let alone extraordinary, evidence for either (1) or (2).

    My Zimbabwean two cents worth: Vegter is no idiot (I actually quite like him) and, unlike several other climate denialists, I think it highly unlikely he's in the pocket of Big Pollution. My view is that he suffers from immense confirmation bias given that, as a libertarian, he doesn't want global warming to be true. One thing is clear, though, and this should give Vegter some comfort: the truth of climate change is logically independent of what our political response to it should be. It is possible to think - as Bjorn Lomborg's new book demonstrates - that climate change is real and a serious problem, without thinking policies libertarians despise are the remedy. A final note: as George Monboit nicely illustrated recently, there is honor is saying "I was wrong". Ivo, it's time to change your mind.

    Friday, September 3, 2010

    SA Blog Awards Finals...

    Consequences of not voting may vary
    Woohoo! I've made it to the final round of the 2010 South African Blog Awards - and in two categories nogal! I'm in the running for the Best Science and Technology Blog and my post "In Praise of Deference" is shortlisted for the Best Post on a South African Blog. Rather gratifyingly, two other skeptics have made it to the finals as well. My gorgeous wife Angela (The Skeptic Detective) is also in line for Best Sci-Tech Blog, and Jacques Rousseau (no, not that one) of Synapses is up for Best Blog About Politics and his "Giving Jacob Zuma the Finger" is in the running for Best Post.

    So... please go vote! Honestly, I suggest voting for whoever (and whatever post) you think is best and if that's me (or mine) I'll be honored. Also: vote early and vote often! Everyone is entitled one vote per 24h...

    Video: Penn and Teller on Vaccinations

    The most excellent Penn and Teller (of Bullshit fame) destroy anti-vaccinationism (direct link)...

    Monday, August 30, 2010

    Satoshi Kanazawa is wrong (again)

    Longtime readers of this blog may remember a post from a couple of years ago - ingeniously entitled "Crazy Kanazawa" - in which I argued LSE evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa's call for a nuclear response to 9/11 was a touch... excessive. It turns out time has not diminished Kanazawa's silliness.

    Responding to the astonishing Pew poll that found 18% of Americans believe Barack Obama is a Muslim, Kanazawa wrote "If Barack Obama Is Christian, Michael Jackson Was White". This is such a mind-bogglingly stupid article that I suspect any summary from me will come off as a straw man, so I'll just quote Kanazawa at length:
    Anybody who believes Barack Obama is Christian must also believe that Michael Jackson was white. Like other world religions, Islam not only is a religion but also comprises largely endogamous ethnic groups. When a group of individuals remain largely or entirely endogamous (marry only other members of the group and not outsiders), forming what geneticists call a deme, they become genetically distinct over time. A long history of endogamy, usually but not always necessitated by geographic or social isolation, is how genetically distinct racial and ethnic groups emerge. Muslims, both in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, are a largely endogamous ethnic group... It’s not only about who you worship; it’s also about who you marry.
    One’s genome is entirely determined at the moment of conception, and absolutely nothing that individuals do during their lifetimes can alter the composition of their genes. For most of his adult life, Michael Jackson (apparently) believed he was white and (obviously) wanted to be white. He thus underwent numerous plastic surgeries to look white, and mostly looked and acted white. But his genes were still the same genes that he inherited from his black parents at the moment he was conceived, and no amount of plastic surgery could alter his genes. No matter how white his skin was, underneath he was still just as black as the day he was born.
    Similarly, the fact that Barack Obama’s father was a Muslim Kenyan, descended from a long line of Muslims, will remain true until the day he dies, and nothing he ever does in his life can change half of his genes that he inherited from his father. His genes are for keeps. The fact that he has attended Christian church for the past 20 years is not going to change that. Michael Jackson looked white much longer than Barack Obama sat in the pews of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s church. Obama is still as (half) Muslim as the day he was born.
    Erm... right. So, firstly, Michael Jackson suffered from the skin condition vitiligo and the auto-immune disease lupus, which combined to significantly whiten his skin. Suggesting that he "wanted to be white" is mere speculation, and I'm not sure what the hell it even means to "act white".

    Second and more importantly, Kanazawa apparently just doesn't know what the word Muslim means. Communicated meaning is determined by usage and convention, and in the English language the word Muslim refers to someone who believes there is no God but Allah, and that Muhammad was his prophet. Someone who converted to Islam yesterday is as much a Muslim as someone who, like all their ancestors stretching back to the 7th century, was indoctrinated into Islam as a child. (I blush to have to point this out, but, as Richard Dawkins has been repeating for years, no one is born a Muslim or a Christian. We are all born atheists). Now, granted, an author is free to use stipulative definitions - giving a new or specific meaning to a term for the purposes of some discussion - but it is obvious equivocation to defend the 18% of Americans who understand "Muslim" conventionally by invoking an entirely different, stipulative, definition.

    It gets worse. Much. Worse. Remember the claim that Obama is "descended from a long line of Muslims"? Rather embarrassingly for someone making an argument like Kanazawa's, that's... erm... not true. His father, Barrack Obama Sr., was raised Muslim, was non-practicing and later became an atheist. His step-father was also "non-practicing" Muslim. His mother, Ann Dunham, was either an atheist or an agnostic. His grandfather, Hussein Obama, first converted to Catholicism, and later to Islam. His grandmother, Habiba Obama also converted to Islam later in life. Yes, that's right: Obama's grandparents converted to Islam. In other words... Kanazawa's argument is so mind-bendingly stupid that it's not only invalid, misguided, misleading, and has false supporting premises, it actually has a false major premise. Such sloppiness deserves nothing but contempt and ridicule.

    Hat Tip: Jeff Martin.

    Sunday, August 29, 2010

    African science and skepticism blogroll for August

    The updated African science and skepticism blogroll for August... If you know of blogs not listed here, please let me know. Also: add it to your blog! Tweet it! Do a post like this one! (Email me, and I'll send you the HTML).

    Note: I generally remove blogs that have been inactive for more than 6 months, so if you're no longer on the list and have resumed blogging, please email me.

    Lazy Linking

    Some stuff that may (or may not) Be Of Interest....

    "Letting Go: What Should Medicine Do When It Can't Save Your Life"
    • If you haven't yet read Atul Gawande's riveting, humane, insightful and magisterial New Yorker piece, do so now. 
    • Then read Ed Yong's analysis of Gawande's writing techniques. 

    • Jerry Coyne's most excellent response to Phil Plait's much-discussed "Don't Be A Dick" speech. See also: Richard Dawkins' comment on that post, PZ Myers' takedown and Daniel Loxton's spirited defense (featuring references to actual scientific research!!). 

    "The Ten Commandments of Science Journalism"
    • Excellent.
    • "Each time a journalist writes “just a theory” or “only a theory” or “merely a theory” — or insinuates pseudoscience (astrology, parapsychology, acupuncture, etc.) is a scientific theory — I cry. And Carl Sagan rolls over in his grave. And a furious hobgoblin emerges from some deep crevasse to defecate on concepts such as gravity, electromagnetism, plate tectonics, evolution, antibiotic resistance and so on."
    • Via Ed Yong.
    • Premiere quackery-smacker Ben Goldacre (again) catches the media being irresponsible (again). Cue lesson on the evidentiary status of anecdotes (something I have written about myself).

      • Johann Hari: exactly right. There are few things in the world that would yield society as large an immediate gain as the decriminalization of drugs. This is how to do it.

          • Erm... the title says it all. What do you want from me??

            • Another Hari piece. Despite what some scientifically illiterate people may think, the science is beyond question at this point. 
            • Note: Hari attributes the calving of a giant ice island off Petermann Glacier to global warming, but this is  premature

            • The Hauser misconduct case continues to unfold. Bad, very bad.

            • PZ Myers absolutely nails Kurzweil's silliness. Kurzweil responds (badly) and PZ responds to the response. Steven Novella also wades into the debate.
            • Takeaway: Kurzweil doesn't understand the brain. 

              • Finally the difference between farther and further makes sense! Also... please people, don't say "beg the question" when you mean "raise the question". Srsly. 

                • Yes, really. Even more evidence that drinking copious amounts of alcohol is good for you... 

                  "Malaria, Sea Grapes, and Kidney Stones: A Tale of Parasites Lost"
                  • The most excellent Carl Zimmer writing excellently about a parasite that decided to forgo a life of crime... 
                  • Ok, "decided" and "crime". 

                  "Why I Quit Chiropractic"
                  • Not only is (straight) chiropractic sheer pseudoscience, some chiropractic schools mercilessly exploit their students (while teaching them to exploit patients).   

                  • Wikipedia in all its glory. 

                  • There are some real gems here. I learnt, among other things, that God has a "Holy, Righteous Penis," that apes do not exist, and that women subconsciously want to be hit and told to shut up. 

                  Friday, August 27, 2010

                  How bad is mainstream science reporting?

                  Zoë Corbyn has a good feature in the Times Higher Education Supplement on the state of science journalism. It's a very interesting read, and does a good job of surveying the various positions people take on the quality of science journalism. I'm neither going to summarize Corbyn's article nor comment on all of it, but I do want to make a point about the clash of values between journalists and scientists. It will help if you've read the article before continuing reading here...

                  Ok, welcome back. Here is the bit that I want to comment on:
                  [Andy] Williams attributes much of the bad feeling that exists to a "disparity of interests". The "news values" that drive journalists - such as the need for conflict and newness - are very different from the values and motivations of scientists.
                  "Scientists don't understand that it is not the job of journalism to be a science communicator. It is the job of journalism to tell a story to sell a paper or gain a bigger audience: that is a basic fact of life, but it's also the root of a lot of bad feeling.
                  "So many of the things that scientists complain about in the reporting of science stem from the fact that information in the news media is not primarily for the public good. It is about turning information into a commodity to be sold in the market. That is the cause of most of the problems in one way or another ... I don't think scientists will ever like what the media do: they have a different set of motivations."
                  This strikes me as exactly right. But here is my question: how do scientists and those who care about science communication influence the media's values? Assuming we science-boosters care about truth and accuracy above all else, and the media cares about commercial interests first and then only about accuracy, how can we nudge mainstream journalists in our desired direction? Why, by making it in their commercial interest to be accurate! And, it seems to me, people like Ben Goldacre are doing an excellent job of doing exactly that. Naming and shaming bad science journalism affects the reputation, and thus market position, of the newspapers thus named and shamed (and possibly even the employability of the journalists). Were it to be generally realized, for example, that one should never ever trust the Telegraph's science reporting (especially not Richard Alleyne's), its reputation would take (something of) a hit, and will thus affect its commercial interests. It may even make editors think twice about giving sports journalists a science gig.

                  What I'm saying, in other words, is that an occasional pistol-whipping (what Jeremy Laurance accused Goldacre of) is one way for those of us who care about truth and accuracy to make the mainstream media care more about truth and accuracy. (By the way, see Goldacre's response to Laurance). There are, of course, other ways of improving the media's accuracy, but naming and shaming (along with more constructive criticism, of course) is one excellent way.

                  Joburg Skeptics in the Pub: The Plait edition

                  It's almost time for the next monthly Skeptics in the Pub Joburg, scheduled for Wednesday, September 1st at 19:30. This time round we're meeting in Sandton (full address below and see the Facebook page for more details). We'll be screening and then discussing Phil Plait's much-debated "Don't Be A Dick" speech at TAM8, which Phil posted about in three parts. Alternate views you might want to look into include Jerry Coyne's critique (see also Dawkins' comment on that post) and PZ's takedown.

                  Anyway, please come join us for a beer (or three) and some skeptical goodness....

                  Full address: McGinty’s Pub, Morningside Medical Mews
                  4 Hill Road, Morningside
                  Sandton, South Africa

                  Thursday, August 26, 2010

                  SA Blog Awards (again...)

                  It's almost the end of the nominations phase of the 2010 SA Blog Awards and I'm currently one position away from making it to the next stage. (I'm 11th, and 10 blogs go through). So, please nominate me (and while you're at it, some of the other sciency / skeptically South African bloggers). See my previous request for nominations for more details, and here are detailed instructions:

                  ‎1. Go to
                  2. Select category 11
                  3. Enter into the Blog URL dialog box one of the addresses below
                  4. Repeat for the other addresses
                  5. Enter your email address, insert the 'security code' and click 'Submit'


                  To nominate my post "In Praise of Deference", do the following:
                  1. Go to
                  2. Select category 4
                  3. Enter into the Blog URL dialog box
                  4. Enter your email address, insert the 'security code' and click 'Submit'

                  Thanks! (Also: HT to Mike Breytenbach on instructions). 

                  Wednesday, August 25, 2010

                  Video: Ben Goldacre on the nocebo effect

                  This is fantastic and Must Be Watched. It's the incomparable Ben Goldacre on the amazing scientific research into the placebo and nocebo effects. The video is embedded below, or click here for the direct link.

                  Tuesday, August 10, 2010

                  Video: Tooby & Cosmides

         (a project of, a prominent libertarian publication) has an extended interview (embedded below, or click here) with Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, two of the founders of evolutionary psychology. There are all sorts of interesting tidbits and it serves as quite a good introduction to the field. It might do some of the more extreme critics of evolutionary psychology some good to see what actual (and responsible) scholars in the field think.

                  One thing: I can't say I was a fan of Cosmides and Tooby's foray into economics. The video can still be enjoyed, though.

                  Saturday, August 7, 2010

                  Lazy Linking (the return)

                  I haven't done a Lazy Linking post for quite a while. I figure it's time to reinstate it...

                  "Topic of Cancer"
                  • A wonderful, poignant, piece by Christopher Hitchens on his recent cancer diagnosis. Must read.
                  • "To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?"
                  "The CSI Effect: An infographic"
                  • TV shows on forensic science (the various CSI's, NCIS, etc.) grossly distort reality. Hardly breaking news, but especially disturbing in light of recent reports about the shaky science behind forensics
                  • The most excellent Ed Yong on 'citizen science' at its best: a computer game that lets anyone help work out how protein folding works. Cool and important. 
                  • Also: the paper Ed reports on apparently holds the record for the most authors ever: ~57,000. 
                  "Chiropractic" (1924)
                  • Great little piece by H.L. Mencken. Ignore the odious Social Darwinism. 
                  • "That pathology is grounded upon the doctrine that all human ills are caused by pressure of misplaced vertebrae upon the nerves which come out of the spinal cord -- in other words, that every disease is the result of a pinch. This, plainly enough, is buncombe. The chiropractic therapeutics rest upon the doctrine that the way to get rid of such pinches is to climb upon a table and submit to a heroic pummeling by a retired piano-mover. This, obviously, is buncombe doubly damne"
                  "Dinosaur-alien link unearthed"
                  • Heh - maybe even lol. 
                  "Faith and Foolishness: When Religious Beliefs Become Dangerous"
                  • The indefatigable Laurence Krauss on how evil in religious clothing should be called evil. Obvious, but many deny it and wish to exempt religious claims and institutions from criticism. 
                  • "I don’t know which is more dangerous, that religious beliefs force some people to choose between knowledge and myth or that pointing out how religion can purvey ignorance is taboo."
                  • "Keeping religion immune from criticism is both unwarranted and dangerous. Unless we are willing to expose religious irrationality whenever it arises, we will encourage irrational public policy and promote ignorance over education for our children."
                  "Complacency has blinded the Vatican to the gravity of the abuse crisis"
                  • The Economist on the Vatican's inability to respond appropriately to the continuing abuse crisis. It turns out a bunch of old men cloistered away from society is out of touch with it. Gasps of surprise. 
                  "Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber"
                  • This is an old story, but not one I've heard before. It turns out Ted Kaczyinski participated in brutal (and deeply unethical) psychology experiments during his undergraduate years at Harvard. Cue speculation about whether it was causally related to his terrorist campaign. 
                  "Visually depicting the disconnect between climate scientists, media and the public"
                  "New study clinches it: the Earth is warming up"
                  • Well, it was clinched before... so call it re-clinched. Phil "the Bad Astronomer" Plait reports. 
                  • The Economist on the weird and wonderful 'novelty bets' bookies are now offering. I just love this. The LHC finding evidence of God before the end of this year is at 100/1. The discovery of alien life before 2013 is at 33/1. That Mt. Vesuvius will be the next major volcanic eruption is at 12/1. The WWF declaring the world's polar bear population to be less than 10,000 individuals is at 20/1. 
                  • Not quite as cool as a bet a bookie once offered that Michael Gorbachev is the Antichrist: if I recall, at something like a trillion to one.  

                  Thursday, August 5, 2010

                  Three Radio Shows You Should Listen to as a Podcast

                  Podcasts are one of the coolest and most useful products of Web 2.0: I think I've learnt more from podcasts over the last five or so years than I have from nearly any other source. In case you're a touch behind the times, a podcast is essentially a radio show syndicated over the web - but, thanks to the long tail the web makes possible, there are podcasts on nearly every conceivable topic, the vast majority of which would never make it onto radio. (Hint: use iTunes to subscribe to your podcasts).

                  Luckily, the rise of the wonderful amateurs has not put the professionals out of work - well, at least not yet. And since many stations now release their radio shows online as podcasts in addition to broadcasting them, it's possible to listen to radio shows from anywhere in the world and at a time of your convenience. Here are three great podcasted radio shows I highly recommend:
                  • In Our Time is the single most unabashedly cerebral show I've ever come across. In a typical episode, the host Melvyn Bragg gathers half a dozen or so Oxford and Cambridge dons, who then discuss some topic in history, science, philosophy or art. Bless the BBC. There have been episodes on Darwin's Origin of Species, Munch's "The Scream", the Battle of AgincourtMachiavelli and the Italian City State, the Zulu Nation, and much, much more. I simply cannot recommend this show enough. (Bonus: you get to laugh at British academics' preposterous affected accents). 
                  • Like In Our Time, Material World is a BBC production, but its host Quentin Cooper takes himself far less seriously, and the show is a lot lighter as a result. Indeed, I suspect I love listening to it as much for the comedy as for its interviews with working scientists at the heart of important recent developments. It's as entertaining as informative, so it's an absolute joy to listen to. 
                  • Radio Lab is hard to describe. Produced for NPR and hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, this show is into telling stories and doing so compellingly. Not just fascinating, wonderful stories (it's not This American Life), but fascinating, wonderful stories about science. I'm not sure how to describe it further, so here are some episodes I particularly liked: "Placebo", "Limits", "Parasites" (featuring the wonderful Carl Zimmer), and "Famous Tumors". 
                  Oh, and just for the hell of it, my Top 5 (non-radio) podcasts:
                  (Hat tips: Simon Grest for introducing me to In Our Time; Clint Armitage for telling me about Radio Lab and some random commentator on a Facebook atheist group many years ago for telling me about The Skeptics Guide - the very fist podcast I listed to). 

                  Monday, August 2, 2010

                  The SA Blog Awards...

                  For detailed instructions, please see this.

                  So... the South African Blog Awards have come around again (somewhat later than usual, thanks to the World Cup), and I'm yet again going to test the patience of my readers by asking for support. I'm gunning for three categories this year: (1) Best South African blog (fat chance, but I'm going to try...), (2) Best Science or Technology Blog and (3) Best post on a South African blog (for "In Praise of Deference" - which I'm rather fond of). The easiest way to nominate me for the sci-tech category is to click here: that should pick the category for you, so you'll just have to enter an email address, pass a CAPTCHA and hit submit... I'm afraid nominating "In Praise of Deference" will have to be done manually using the following URL: Since the widget the the organizers provided doesn't seem to work, you'll also have to nominate me manually for Best SA blog.

                  I have also nominated a bunch of other worthy blogs, please consider nominating them too:
                  (Tangential moaning: why - oh why - do they insist on combining the science and technology categories? A blog about behavioural economics is incommensurable with one heavy into the latest gadgets.)

                  Carnival of the Africans #15

                  The 15th edition of the Carnival of the Africans is out over at Bomoko and other nonsense words. There is plenty of interest - aliens, SETI, muti killings, WEIRD subjects, etc. - so go check it out!