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!

                Sunday, August 1, 2010

                Three websites, three answers (aka Very Lazy Linking)

                The web is a wonderful thing. Three questions, three wonderful resources to answer them:
                1. How does homeopathy work?
                2. Is there a God?
                3. What happens after I die?
                Problem. Solved.