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)...