Wednesday, January 27, 2010

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."

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