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. 

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