Saturday, January 30, 2010

The scale of the universe

I've linked to a video that puts the scale of the universe into perspective, but that started with Pluto and worked its way up. Now Newgrounds user Fotoshop has created an awesome interactive flash animation showing the scale of the universe from the very smallest - the Planck scale - to the very largest - the universe itself. It is made entirely out of win. Check it out. Srsly. (Below is just an image of the thing, click here to go to the animation).

(Via James, via Phil Plait).

Video: Holy Shit Man Walks on Fucking Moon

Okay, so I've probably been posting too many videos of late, but this is just awesome. It's video rendition of the Onion piece (in Our Dumb Century) on the moon landing. It's embedded below, and here's the direct link:

By the way, if anyone wants to make me really happy, buy me a framed copy of the piece from the Onion store... :-)

(HT: David Spurrett).

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Video: Dara O Briain on quackery

Dara O Briain really gets it. And he's damn funny to boot. Check this out (or click here):

(HT to Hugh Pastoll).

Rational thoughts about homeopathy

I never cross-posted this from (the defunct group-blog) The Intrepid Aardvark, so here it is now (slightly edited).

The most excellent Leonie Joubert (a journalist and acclaimed author) had a great Mail & Guardian column about homeopathy a while back. Writes Joubert:
I've taken my share of homeopathic remedies over the years and have given the same assertion that most users do: "I tried it when I had x-y-z and I got better." Well, maybe the placebo effect was strong, or I was going to get better anyway (after all, illnesses either run their course or kill you). Personal anecdote isn't evidence of efficacy.

What's the harm in a bit of placebo effect, dressed up as a legitimate remedy? Britain's Royal Pharmaceutical Society agrees there's place for "harmless faith-based ­remedies". But when a cancer patient abandons chemo or a kid's eardrum ruptures because the infection didn't get treated with more than sugar pills, that's another matter. And my medical aid payments are subsidising another's sham treatment. That irks.
Also check out Leonie's blog. Oh, and I reviewed Leonie's book, Scorched, some time ago.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

African science/skepticism blogrolling for January

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 (which, alas, is in hiatus again), 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. 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. 

Lazy Linking

"Growing Up in Ethology" - Richard Dawkins
  • Richard Dawkins' autobiographical essay, published as part of Drickamer and Dewsbury's Leaders of Animal Behavior - The Second Generation. The Dawkins piece is highly recommended.
  • An important titbit: "As for the idea of The Selfish Gene being an advocacy of either selfishness or niceness, both were absurd, and good examples of the inflated importance of titles. The 'selfishness' we are talking about is of genes. From selfish genes, either altruism or selfishness at the individual organism level might flow, depending on the economic conditions that obtained. That was the whole point!"
"Desire influences visual perception"
  • The human mind is really weird. Mo of Neurophilosophy reviews a study that found another example of this: among other things, thirsty subjects (who were given lots of pretzels to eat) thought a bottle of water placed a set distance away was closer to them than did non-thirsty controls. 
  • "These findings demonstrate that higher order psychological states can have a significant effect on visual perception. Specifically, they show that our desires have a direct influence on the perception of distance, such that desirable objects are perceived to be closer than they really are. This mechanism would serve to guide behaviour in the optimum way, by encouraging the perceiver to reach out and acquire the desired object."
"Adapting to the new ecosystem of science journalism"
  • Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science on the future of science journalism in the age of the internet.
  • The good news: "Thanks to new media, everyone with a computer and a connection has the ability to write about science or to comment on what others have written. The ability to produce content has been thrust into the hands of a broad range of people who are keen to talk about science to a mass audience. It's a Cambrian-style explosion in the practice of journalism. This adaptive radiation has also brought in an influx of expertise, people who have both the skill to explain science and the knowledge to talk about it correctly. That means greater accuracy when reporting the findings of studies. It also means better choices in terms of what gets covered. I have argued before that this process of critically analysing a story before the point of publication is vital to ensure that bad science doesn't contaminate the public's news diet. A greater diversity of writers also means more coverage for smaller stories that might fall through the gaps of more mainstream publications. As an example, interesting papers on controversial issues like race, gender equality and religion are widely ignored, while the most recent panacea-of-the-day or evolutionary just-so story has no trouble in grabbing headlines."
  • The bad news: "Enthusiastic amateurs will not compensate for a decline in mainstream news reporting or the vast audiences that it reaches. Even the most successful blogs have readerships that are orders of magnitude lower those of mainstream publications. If such publications decline, the worry is that fewer people will be exposed to science stories, save those who actively go in search for it. Communities like ScienceBlogs or Discover Blogs provide a good model for pooling individual audiences and offering diverse content but, again, they largely target people who are already interested. As Dan Gillmor has repeatedly said, we have a problem with demand rather than supply. There is a risk that the science writing of the future will only reach the eyes of the converted."
"100 Best (Free) Science Documentaries Online"
  • Title says it all. Note that some flaky stuff is unfortunately included... (via Ben Goldacre).
"Teaching scientific knowledge doesn't improve scientific reasoning"
  • Not exactly surprising, but interesting. There are, however, a bunch of potential flaws. The researchers relied on a 'natural experiment' (Chinese students knowing a lot more science facts than US students), and this means subjects weren't randomly assigned to the groups. The bottom line finding, for example, is that though Chinese students knew many more science facts, they were no better at scientific reasoning than American students. This, argues the authors, suggests science education focuses too much on facts, and too little on a 'deep understanding of scientific reasoning'. But hold on. Maybe US culture (pluralist, individualistic) is more conducive to the emergence of scientific reasoning skills, but the US education system bad at teaching it formally. And maybe Chinese culture (conformist, hierarchical) is bad at fostering those skills, but better at teaching it formally. In other words, it could be that Chinese education does teach scientific reasoning skills, which partly overcomes various cultural biases against it. Granted, it would be a coincidence that the magnitude of this change happens to make it statistically no different from the Americans' skills, but this is not impossible, nor is it the only problem with the study.
"Robots evolve to deceive one another"
  • Another Not Exactly Rocket Science piece, this time on an awesome study that used a genetic algorithm to study the evolution of communication.
  • "[The researchers] think that similar processes are at work in nature. When animals move, forage or generally go about their lives, they provide inadvertent cues that can signal information to other individuals. If that creates a conflict of interest, natural selection will favour individuals that can suppress or tweak that information, be it through stealth, camouflage, jamming or flat-out lies. As in the robot experiment, these processes could help to explain the huge variety of deceptive strategies in the natural world. "
"Americans’ Role Seen in Uganda Anti-Gay Push"
  • I blogged a while back about Uganda's shocking child sacrifices. Now it seems American evangelicals have fanned the flames of anti-homosexuality extremism in the country. A Ugandan lawmaker has actually proposed the death penalty for homosexuality. Evil and religion, who would've thought?
"Let’s Talk About Faith"
  • NY Times columnist Ross Douthat on tolerance. He points out, correctly, that tolerance (in its valuable and defensible sense) isn't about mealy-mouthed, relativistic "acceptance". It's about a lack of compulsion - i.e. coercion - in matters of belief and conscience. Vigorous debate is certainly compatible with tolerance.
  • "Liberal democracy offers religious believers a bargain. Accept, as a price of citizenship, that you may never impose your convictions on your neighbor, or use state power to compel belief. In return, you will be free to practice your own faith as you see fit — and free, as well, to compete with other believers (and nonbelievers) in the marketplace of ideas."
  • "That’s the theory. In practice, the admirable principle that nobody should be persecuted for their beliefs often blurs into the more illiberal idea that nobody should ever publicly criticize another religion. Or champion one’s own faith as an alternative. Or say anything whatsoever about religion, outside the privacy of church, synagogue or home."
 "Homeopathy by the (mind-boggling) numbers"
  • Breaking: homeopathy is bollocks.
  • "To put homeopathy in a medicinal context, if you wanted to consume a normal 500mg paracetamol dose you would need ten million billion homeopathic pills. Where each pill is the same mass as the Milky Way galaxy. There is actually not enough matter in the entire known Universe to make the homeopathic equivalent of a single paracetamol pill."

Monday, January 18, 2010

Video: Human sacrifice in Uganda

Human sacrifice is an ancient and culturally widespread practice that - preposterously, mind-bogglingly, burning indignation-invokingly - survives to the present day. BBC reporter Tim Whewell recently traveled to Uganda and produced a deeply disturbing film for Newsnight about a seeming rise in child sacrifice in that country. Watch it and be shocked.

Uganda, it is important to note, is a scarred country: the religiously-inspired Lord's Resistance Army (led by the batshit crazy Joseph Kony) has engaged in armed rebellion since the late 1980s. And the LRA is seriously bad news: they've committed a panoply of human rights violations, including a systematic campaign of torture, rape and mutilation. Obviously, also, Uganda has a complex history, and, like many other African countries, was an artificial creation of colonialism. Pinning Uganda's current problems on any one cause, then, is folly. I can't help but notice, though, that superstition, religion, magical thinking and other vices are unmistakably implicated in the evils that are so widespread in the country. Whatever other social, economic, cultural, and psychological causes we identify, it is obvious that people having idiotic premodern beliefs will be part of the explanation, and perhaps even a necessary condition for the occurrence of such horrors as ritual child sacrifice. (Having dumb beliefs is certainly not sufficient though).

I found it interesting, also, that even those who campaign against child sacrifice - former witch doctors, government ministers and so on - buy into the superstitious belief system that underlies the sacrifices. This reminds me of a great quote from the famed anthropologist E. E. Evans-Prichard. In Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, Prichard wrote:
The Azande see as well as we that the failure of their oracle to prophesy truly calls for explanation, but so entangled are they in mystical notions that they must make use of them to account for the failure. The contradiction between experience and one mystical notion is explained by reference to other mystical notions (p. 388).
So entangled in religious bollocks is a former witch doctor who now campaigns against child sacrifice (and admits to ~70 killings), that he explains his previous behavior, not by rejecting the underlying stupid belief system, by but invoking yet more bollocks: he claims to have been possessed by a demon while he committed his atrocities.

(See also: Jourdemayne's piece on the killings at The Lay Scientist).

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Skeptics Circle #128

Welcome to the 128th edition of the venerable (yes Orac, it is venerable) Skeptics Circle, brought to you from the beautiful continent of Africa once again. (Oh, and, no signs of prawns yet, but I'll let you know)...

First up is the indefatigable David Colquhoun (who I just learned, courtesy of Wikipedia, is an FRS) with a fantastic post on what actually gets taught in a homeopathy course. Disturbing stuff, and admirable work by Colquhoun.

Greg Laden addresses an important and rather touchy subject: the meaning of the term "skeptic" (as opposed to "denialist" and so on). He argues, convincingly I think, that there is an important difference between skepticism as a process (i.e. accepting as true only those propositions for which good evidence is available) and skepticism as a position (e.g. "global warming skeptic").

Angela Butterworth of The Skeptic Detective (full disclosure: she's my fiancée) has another great piece debunking a chain-mail, this time one that claims canola oil is dangerous. In a surprise development, the chain-mail contains falsehoods...

In solidarity with the libel-troubled Simon Singh, the last time I hosted this carnival I dedicated it to chiropractic. Alas, yet another skeptic is being sued: this time it's Paul Offit, and the culprits are the deplorable anti-vaccinationists. David Gorski has the details over on Science-Based Medicine.

JDC325 of Stuff and Nonsense has a post on Shiv Chopra and Joseph Mercola's idiotic views on vaccines. Apparently, swine and avian flu are hoaxes. Yeah, like gravity and carrots.

True believers keep churning out nonsense acupuncture studies and the mainstream media keeps reporting on them in a lazy, irresponsible manner. Luckily, Red Stick Skeptic on the case.

Karen Stollznow, the Skepbitch herself, takes on one Frank Sumption who claims to have invented a "Ghost Box" that can be used to communicate with ghosts, aliens and whatnot. Karen concludes, appropriately and to no rational person's surprise, that Sumption is a nutjob.

The Skeptical Teacher has a trifecta of posts: winter is not proof of global cooling (for FSM's sake, deniers are stupid), two steps forward and one step back in US science education, and on Deepak Chopra's further decent into craziness. 

Traversing the Razor (lovely blog name, eh?) has chalked up a small victory against quackery, all in the name of a friend recently lost to cancer. Great work. 

Effort Sisyphus is "doing [his] little part to stop the spread of nonsense" (cheers to that), this time round on high fructose corn syrup. The stuff isn't nearly as bad as headline writers and lazy reporters would have you believe...

Andrew over at The Evolving Mind has two pieces in this edition of the carnival: bad psychological science on 'serious emotional disorders' and woo in a retailer's magazine

Last, and quite possibly least, a couple of (somewhat older) posts from yours truly... First, I report on the recent increased incidence of measles in South Africa, likely due to anti-vaccination bollocks. Second, I reveal that you - yes you! - have an immune system, which means, among other things, that medical anecdotes are useless.

The 129th edition of the carnival will the Skepvet's responsibility, and it'll arrive on January 28th... Until then, may your bullshit detectors be with you.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Lazy Linking

  • Astoundingly stupid. What is worse, vultures are endangered. 
  • "Smoking dried vulture brains to have a vision of winning Lotto numbers -- that's why customers come to Scelo, a vendor of traditional medicines, but it's a trend being blamed for killing off South Africa's vultures."
  • This is a very significant find, if the interpretation turns out to be correct. It has long been thought that behavioral modernity - abstract thought, symbolism, language, etc. - emerged in a kind of 'great leap forward' about 50,000 years ago. I've never liked this theory - it smacks of cultural saltationism and is an argument from ignorance. If Neandertals did indeed display (kinds of) behavioral modernity, the continuity hypothesis suddenly looks far more parsimonious than the great leap forward (since the latter would presumably have to invoke convergent evolution). Add evidence that modern human behavior may have emerged some 150,000 years ago, and the case for continuity looks even better.
  • Vaughn over at Mind Hacks on a Wired article (which you should read) on the neuroscience and psychology of science. A bunch of interesting stuff emerges, including that breakthroughs in science are not, in general, made by lone geniuses. It is when scientists are confronted by their peers that breakthrough hypotheses emerge. Not exactly surprising to the initiated: science is a deeply social activity.
"The year in nonsense"
  • Ben Goldacre, quackery smacker of note, summarizes 2009's bollocks. Well worth reading.
  • A tribute to Margo Wilson, a trailblazing evolutionary psychologist who died recently (as I noted, very sadly, a while back).
  • Ed Yong is one of the best science writers around (read his blog, srsly). This piece is his review of 2009, the content of which was selected through a series of 9 polls by his readers. There is a lot to feast on.
  • Pseudoscience and scams abound in the dieting and nutrition industries, so a good dose of science will be good for you. The incomparable Steven Novella covers the complex literature concisely and comes to the following bottom-line recommendations (based on current evidence):
  • 1. Eat a varied diet, mostly plant-based. 2. Limit carbohydrates with a high glycemic index (simple sugars and starches). 3. Do not diet for weight loss. Rather, employ reasonable portion control and exercise regularly. 4. Whatever you do for weight control, make sure it is sustainable long term. You should be happy with your diet and exercise should be fun and convenient. Anything that seems burdensome will likely not last and be of no long term utility. 5. And most importantly – completely ignore diet fads, diet books, or any product that promises easy weight loss. They are scams.
  • Compare the bottom line of Reynold Spector's Skeptical Inquirer article (which I liked to previously): "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants".
  • More on how eyewitness testimony is flawed.
  • "Since the 1990s, when DNA testing was first introduced, Innocence Project researchers have reported that 73 percent of the 239 convictions overturned through DNA testing were based on eyewitness testimony. One third of these overturned cases rested on the testimony of two or more mistaken eyewitnesses."
  • "The uncritical acceptance of eyewitness accounts may stem from a popular misconception of how memory works. Many people believe that human memory works like a video recorder: the mind records events and then, on cue, plays back an exact replica of them. On the contrary, psychologists have found that memories are reconstructed rather than played back each time we recall them. The act of remembering, says eminent memory researcher and psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, is “more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording.” Even questioning by a lawyer can alter the witness’s testimony because fragments of the memory may unknowingly be combined with information provided by the questioner, leading to inaccurate recall."
"The Golden Woos #2"
  • Skeptico's second annual Golden Woo awards, awarded for "outstanding work in the promotion of Woo in the previous year". Funny stuff.
  • An LA Times blog piece on the BMJ's always-amusing Christmas issue. Studies covered include one that suggests Darwin's illness was due not to Chagas disease (as is often claimed) but to cyclical vomiting syndrome and one that reveals, among other things, that the healthiest individuals' ratio of systolic to diastolic blood pressures was 1.618 on average, damn close to the Golden Ratio of 1.618033...  
"To Media Covering Science: An Open Letter"
  • Short version: Dear Media: reference the articles you're covering. Provide a link or, at a minimum, the name of the paper and its authors. It's not hard. 

Monday, January 4, 2010

Fun with fossils

So the fiancée, her family and I had a lovely holiday in Clarens (Google Maps) over the December holidays. While there, we took a day trip to the Golden Gate National Park (go if you have a chance, it's gorgeous) and to everyone's delight, I discovered some fossils! Well, I think they're fossils - they certainly look like fossils to me. But, obviously, I'm no paleontologist so I might be entirely wrong. (Angela, the aforementioned fiancée, already blogged about the incident by the way). Anyway, some of the best pictures are below the fold.