Thursday, July 31, 2008

The 92nd Skeptics' Circle

Hey hey! The 92nd Skeptic's Circle blog carnival is just out, at The Lay Scientist. Among the highlights, is Bing McGhandi's account of his pseudo-legal menacing at the hands of someone representing a Feng Shui 'expert' he subjected to a well-deserved drubbing some time ago. The good citizens at Autism Street also report on a similarly well-deserved spanking handed to someone peddling nonsense regarding vaccines and autism. Greta Christina who has written about atheism and porn and more has a typically good article on why she doesn't believe in souls. Far be it from me to call it a highlight, but I'm pleased that my report on my mate Dave's correspondence with Roger Coghill over his inducement to commit infanticide made the cut.

I love the smell of arguments in the morning...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mixing memory gets it wrong

There's a diatribe including all manner of false dichotomies, ad hominem attacks and nonsense, over at (the usually good) Mixing Memory on the PZ Myers cracker desecration. I wrote a little bit myself recently on why I don't think PZ did anything wrong. To the extent that there's a discernible argument in the piece, it hinges on this:
The lesson I'm trying to convey is that in cases like that of the Danish cartoons and the response to them, there are two paths one can take: frank, reasoned discussion, or circus-like attention-whoring, and only one is truly effective.
I don't know, but this sort of makes Rosa Parks and any number of other peaceful activists including participants in disobedience campaigns over nuclear disarmament, pass laws in South Africa, etc., etc., etc., come out as engaged in "circus-like attention-whoring". Where's the "by your actions showing where you stand on something" option? (To mention only one. And it matters, because talk is cheap.)

I wish I had more time to write about this. It seems like Mixing Memory is working with a frankly disastrous notion of the nature of communication, and that the costs of endorsing his key dichotomoy are altogether too high. PZ didn't do anything wrong in any sense of wrong worth taking seriously.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing

ResearchBlogging.orgHere’s some more cool social psychology, this time from a few years ago (2006). We’re all used to literary and other artistic associations between bad acts and physical dirtiness. In suitable formulaic television and film you can tell the ‘good’ from ‘bad’ characters almost instantly. The association is found in the figures of speech in a variety of languages. It’s an interesting question how cognitively deep the association is, and whether the pattern we see in language and art reflects something deeper about the ways our minds work.

Considered as a strictly conceptual question, the superficial association appears as an irrelevance. And in some sense we all know this: we would presumably mostly agree if asked with the claims that physically clean people can do awful things, and physically dirty people can act nobly. But how powerful is the association when we’re not asked questions that force us to be a bit more conceptually careful?

This paper reports on a series of related experiments, all suggesting that the association has significant measurable effects in cases where it should be conceptually irrelevant. More specifically the authors sought to investigate:
(i) whether a threat to moral purity activates a need for physical cleansing (i.e., the Macbeth effect) and (ii) whether physical cleansing is actually efficacious in helping people cope with moral threats.
The paper reports four separate, related, studies. Here’s a brief gloss of each, and its punchline:

Study 1: Subjects recalled either an ethical or unethical deed from their past, and then describe the emotions (not the deed itself). All then engaged in a word completion task, and subjects who had recalled an unethical deed completed words in cleaning related ways (e.g. W _ _ H, which could be ‘wash’ or ‘wish’) more frequently than subjects in the ethical recall condition. This suggests that thinking about unethical deeds makes cleaning related concepts more accessible.

Study 2: Subjects told that the study was about handwriting and personality, copied a short story in the first person, identical except for the final sentence which in one case suggested an ethical act, in the other an unethical one. They were then asked to rate the desirability of a range of products. Subjects who had copied the story with the unethical ending reported the cleaning products as more desirable. (See figure.)

Study 3:
These subjects did the same recall task as in Study 1, but were then offered one of two different free gifts for their participation, either a pencil or an antiseptic wipe. Subjects in the unethical recall condition selected the antiseptic wipe more frequently.

Study 4: Again the same recall task (Study 1, 3) was used, except that all subjects recalled an unethical deed. Half of the subjects were then asked to clean their hands. Subjects who had cleaned their hands agreed to participate in a further experiment for no reward than subjects who had not. This suggests that the cleaning in some sense reduces the subjects’ perceived guilt.

What’s going on here? We don’t really know yet – this work measures some related effects, but sheds no direct light on mechanisms, including mechanisms of development. As the authors note, there’s already work suggesting that moral and what they call ‘pure’ disgust (such as reaction to rotting meat) are associated both with similar facial expressions and with overlapping brain activation (Moll et al, 2005). Overlapping brain activation isn’t on its own that impressive, although the overlapping brain activation isn’t that hard to come by, and the subjects in the Moll et al study were reading statements which seems to me a noisy kind of stimulus.

I reckon we could find out a lot about the mechanisms here from further investigation in non-human social animals. In fact ‘we’ probably have, it’s just that I need to go and do some more reading. I’d also be interested to see work on how early in human development the effect is measurable. We already know that preverbal infants have preferences that are at least relevant to moral questions.

As I said earlier, this research isn’t new. It’s been blogged a bit already, including here and here, and covered in the New York Times.

References: Moll, J., de Oliveira-Souza, R., Moll, F. T., Ignacio, F. A., Bramati, I. E., Caparelli-Daquer, E. M., et al. (2005). The moral affiliations of disgust: A functional mri study. Cogn Behav Neurol, 18(1), 68-78. [Link]

Zhong, C. (2006). Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing. Science, 313(5792), 1451-1452. DOI: 10.1126/science.1130726

Monday, July 28, 2008

The fame formula (bollocks)

So there's a book about the PR industry coming out, in which Mark Borkowski (read about him on Wikipedia) tries to make PR look like science. It seems to be utter bollocks. There's an extract in The Guardian. (The Guardian is an odd rag, combining quite sensible stuff (include Ben Goldacre's column) with cringeworthy trash, regularly including horrifying simpering in the media section. Here's a long-ish extract from the extract:
The formula for illustrating the decline in fame from its peak works out as follows:

F(T) = B+P(1/10T+1/2T2)


F is the level of fame;

T is time, measured in three-monthly intervals. So T=1 is after three months, T=2 is after six months, etc. Fame is at its peak when T=0. (Putting T=0 into the equation gives an infinite fame peak, not mathematically accurate, perhaps, but the concept of the level of fame being off the radar is apposite.);

B is a base level of fame that we identified and quantified by analysing the average level of fame in the year before peak. For George Clooney, B would be a large number, but for a fabulous nobody, like a new Big Brother contestant, B is zero;

P is the increment of fame above the base level, that establishes the individual firmly at the front of public consciousness.

This formula fits the data remarkably well, giving a precise numerical value to the 15-month theory: if I put in T=5 (corresponding to 15 months after the peak), it gives F=B+P(1/50+1/50), which works out at F=B+.04P. In other words, up to 96% of the fame-boost achieved at the peak of public attention has been frittered away, and the client or product is almost back to base level.

Ah, right. So division by zero gives you infinity does it? Well, no. Division by zero is a meaningless operation in real number arithmetic, and from what I gather it's a headache trying to define it in just about any other domain.

Quoting Wolfram MathWorld:
To the persistent but misguided reader who insists on asking "What happens if I do divide by zero," Derbyshire (2004, p. 36) provides the slightly flippant but firm and concise response, "You can't. It's against the rules." Even in fields other than the real numbers, division by zero is never allowed (Derbyshire 2004, p. 266)

(Reference: Derbyshire, J. Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics. New York: Penguin, 2004.)
It's bollocks, Jim, just as we know it.

A Woman a Day

There's suggestive evidence that "A Woman a Day", generally attributed to Philip Jose Farmer, may have been a mash-up of a rough draft by Jeff Lint, with each of the (many) scenes in which all the characters gathered in a hill and screamed until they lost consciousness removed, and the waiter-dog protagonist pair transposed into a man-wife combo. The remaining references to both pasta and tentacles are now simply silly, where they were previously baffling, and the "man" occasionaly muttering "stick with me" no longer properly references Jack Marsden, the pointless and hostile hero of "The Caterer".

It's well known that Lint's first work was most likely published not on its (it is generally agreed) slender merits, but as a result of his decision to submit the manuscript under the name "Isaac Asimov". It appears that further obstacles confront the project of identifying the real Lint. On days like this I'm pleased not to be one of the editors of the planned scholarly edition of Lint's collected works.

More sleazy SF covers are available here.

So PZ Myers stuck a nail through a cracker…

Following a series of hotly debated posts on Pharyngula (including this and this and this), and a campaign by hysterical cranks to have him fired for suggesting such a thing, PZ Myers has stuck a rusty nail through a communion wafer, and a few pages from the Qur’an and (for good measure) The God Delusion. There’s further yelling going on as we speak, all over the place. I’m not even going to try to give a roundup, but I will tip a nod to Michael over at Ionian Enchantment.

Is there anything wrong with what he did? Was anyone harmed in any sense of ‘harm’ that we should respect? No. No.

It is simply intolerable to allow it to count as harmful for one person to do something that another person doesn’t think should be done.

Some things definitely are harmful. Killing someone is, for example. So is physically hurting them. More generally, in any way obstructing their free pursuit of their own desires and interests, as long as that pursuit doesn’t harm anyone else, is harmful. What PZ did falls on the other side of the lines, and so there’s nothing wrong with it.

I regularly run into people who seem genuinely furious that gay people they don’t know, and will never know, are getting married in some distant country. I’m no longer surprised when I run into another dose of that kind of bigotry, but I still find the state of mind baffling. What the fuck do they think it has to do with them?

There’s an important point here that complicates matters a little, but doesn’t change the main conclusion. You can harm some people by harming others. That’s because how (at least some) others feel is actually worth something to us. Most of us, to say the same thing another way, would make an effort to prevent harm to people we care about, and voluntarily suffer outcomes that we’d seek to avoid if all that was at issue was how we felt. So we step in to break up fights where our friends might get hurt, and we give to charities that benefit people we don’t know at all, but whose well being concerns us.

The crusading bigot types like to think that their apoplectic hostility to the happiness of, for example, gay people they’ll never meet is somehow like this -- that they’re protecting someone or other, maybe even the poor deluded gay folks themselves.

But there’s a key test that has to be applied here: do those we want to help accept having us take an interest in them? If some person on the other side of the world refuses to use a mosquito net, for example, then the charity I give to doesn’t get to force her to do so. And if it is my considered conviction in the light of biology, human history, and everything we know about the properties of matter that the idea that wafers turn into flesh is outrageous bollocks, I don’t get to demand that people who participate in (what I take to be) this idiocy get to be fired or otherwise harassed.

If there is a God, and s/he/it’s annoyed about maltreatment of (a little piece of) the kid some people supposedly had to torture to death because of something to do with a very weird kind of love and forgiveness, then s/he/it can take the matter up with PZ. Worrying that somebody might have insulted one of your imaginary friends isn't a good enough reason to interfere with a real person.

(PS I’m leaving out direct consideration of children, and others where there's a serious presumption of rights to be protected, but that really isn’t relevant to whether PZ has annoyed God, or whether any crazed kooks have a legitimate grievance with him.)

(PPS The image at the top was stolen from

Social Support and the Perception of Geographical Slant

ResearchBlogging.orgYou might think that perception is a process that basically extracts information from the environment, and passes the results on for further cognitive processing. And anyone would grant that perception could lose some information along the way and make the odd mistake -- who's perfect, after all. Actually, perception is a whole lot more complicated, and often a bit strange.

One way it’s strange is that how things ‘out there’ seem, turns out sometimes to depend quite a bit on how we are at the time.

So, for example, it’s been found that perception of slopes and of distances is influenced by whether the perceiver is wearing a heavy backpack, with backpack wearers reporting steeper slopes and greater distances, even when standing still and not expecting to have to walk up the slope or over the distance. (For a review of this and related findings see Profitt 2006). We also know from social psychology experiments that subjects primed with words associated with advanced age walk more slowly in the period immediately following what they take to be the end of the task (Bargh 1990).

The authors of this study, in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, explore the relationship between social support and perceived geographical slant. (At the time of writing this entry the paper is still listed as an article in press.)

The research was simple and elegant:
Participants accompanied by a friend estimated a hill to be less steep when compared to participants who were alone (Study 1). Similarly, participants who thought of a supportive friend during an imagery task saw a hill as less steep than participants who either thought of a neutral person or a disliked person (Study 2).
Not only that:
In both studies, the effects of social relationships on visual perception appear to be mediated by relationship quality (i.e., relationship duration, interpersonal closeness, warmth). Artifacts such as mood, social desirability, and social facilitation did not account for these effects.
The result occurred for verbal and visual estimates of slant, but not for a haptic measure where subjects used their dominant hand to push a surface until they felt it was at the same slope as the target slope. This isn’t unusual – haptic measures are often more accurate, and resistant to the kinds of manipulation in question here. (For an extended discussion of the evidence relating to two separate visual systems, see Norman (2002).) Here’s the graph of results from Study 1:

This is interesting stuff. It suggests that our deliberate assessment (as determined by verbal and some other probes) is an interpretation, pricing in a variety of other considerations. There’s related work going on in some kinds of behavioural economics, for example finding that delayed food is discounted at higher rates than delayed money, even though you can use the money to buy food (e.g. Kirby and Guastello 2001).

I’m especially interested in impulsivity and decision-making, and so I’d be interested to see some work on how financial and other decision making is affected by manipulations of this sort. You’d figure that the value of the future for someone was related to her estimate of what relationships might be expected to persist. People primed to think of themselves alone might well have less interest in various kinds of planning, saving, avoiding risks, than people primed to think of lasting connections and responsibilities.

Bargh, J. 1990. ‘Auto-motives: Preconscious determinants of social interaction’, in T. Higgins and R. Sorrentino (eds.) Handbook of motivation and cognition, New York: Guilford.
Kirby, K., and Guastello, B. 2001. Making choices in anticipation of similar future choices can increase self-control. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 7: 154-164.
Norman, J. 2002. – Two Visual Systems and Two Theories of Perception: An Attempt to Reconcile the Constructivist and Ecological Approaches, Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 25, 73–144.
Proffitt, D. R. 2006. Embodied perception and the economy of action. Perspectives on
Psychological Science, 1, 110-122.

Schnall, S., Harber, K.D., Stefanucci, J.K., Proffitt, D.R.Social Support and the Perception of Geographical Slant. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, In press(In press) DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.04.011

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Save Bletchley Park

As almost any fule should kno, Bletchly Park is the place where a team of scientists and others, led by Alan Turing, cracked the German Enigma codes, a major contribution to the Allied war effort and the eventual defeat of Nazism. The secret work remained little known for some time after the war, and the site was only made into a museum in the 1990s. The work done at Bletchly is a crucial part of the history of the world, especially of the Second World War, and the history of computers. The museum is also in a rather shabby state, as computer scientist Sue Black recently discovered on visiting. She's got a group of computer scientists to help her make a noise, and hopefully see the site better looked after.

Some links:

Sue Black's page.

Article about the recent noise in The Times (Black and 96 other experts, mostly computer scientists, sent an open letter to The Times). And another on the BBC.

The Bletchley Park museum website.

There's also a (now expired) petition to save Bletchley, predating Sue Black's visit and campaign.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Odd God

So apparently God has been writing his name (Allah in this case) on pieces of cooked beef. As the BBC reports a guy in Nigeria was about to nosh on a piece of meat, when he "suddenly noticed the words in the gristle".

"When the writings were discovered there were some Islamic scholars who come and eat here and they all commented that it was a sign to show that Islam is the only true religion for mankind," the Beeb quotes the restaurant owner as having said.

According to the same source, there's previously been divine grafitti in a tomato and on a fish. In all cases this is pretty optimistic blotchology.

Let me get this right. You're supposed to be the boss of the universe. You could -- were you so minded -- write your name in the stars in the sky, or with a mountain range or something. Or just show up with suitable clamour and fanfare to remind folks "oi!, I'm in charge". Or deal out a suitable and unmistakable vanquishing to some crowd following the wrong God or a non-God. Instead, you sneak about putting a few odd blotches onto a fish, in a tomato and on some gristle. I'm sorry, but this sounds more like the behavior of a stalker (contriving 'accidental' and deniable encounters) than a supreme being.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

WASP injection knife

OK, so it would be possible to put this to use in some seriously non-OK ways. But by golly a knife with a compressed air function is also pretty damned cool. I wonder if they're planning any swords. You can read a little more about the knife here.

(Shouts to Sam who published a link on Facebook.)

Encephalon #50

Hey hey - the latest Encephalon, number 50, is just out at SharpBrains. There's much of interest, and it's also the first blog carnival featuring postings from this blog. There's an archive of older issues of Encephalon over at WordPress, and of more recent ones at Sharp Brains here. I've not looked through the whole thing yet, but one high point so far is Jack at Pure Pedantry on I want it now - temporal discounting and the primate brain.

(PS: I've not been posting much. I got some vile malware on my latop, which is where I do most of my blogging and writing, and not managed to kill it off yet. Normal service will be resumed asap.)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Technology and the economics of reading

Naively it might seem as though, with access to so much more to read (blogs, electronic journal access), we should all be reading more. But mostly we're not. I don't think this is accidental, and in fact it's partly caused by the increased access. I hope to write something longer and more careful on this, but here are a few brief thoughts for now. They're all roughly economic in orientation.

(1) More opportunities drives down the value of individual reading episodes, so procrastination costs less. When I was a nipper some things I had to read were only available in paper copies and in small numbers. For example, in my first year at university several of my courses had compulsory readings that were in the "reserve room" at the library. With, say, 150 or so Political Science 1 students and four copies, you mostly had to book a session with one of the copies - if you didn't make good use of it, you had to go through the whole process again, so you read carefully and made good notes. Now everybody wanders around with loads of PDFs of stuff that they "should" read, but can start reading almost any time.

(2) Having more available at any time (which the web and big private collections of electronic papers and stuff) drives up the effective opportunity cost of reading any one thing. This makes it easier to justify "foraging" around superficially, trying to work out what to read properly.

(3) The web has made the costs of distractions close to zero. Again, when I was a nipper working by myself at night, if I wanted to mess around there was less TV to chose from, and social interaction usually meant making a phone call, or maybe wandering around the university residence to see who else was awake. Now I typically have two email accounts and facebook running in tabs on my browser at the same time as I've got a PDF of a paper open in another application, or a draft of something I'm reading open. With the transaction costs of starting to waste time so low, it's also not surprising many of us take so many more opportunities to interrupt ourselves.

What can we do? Well, we can partly manufacture scarcity, by working off-line. I now do some of my best reading over lunch or coffee, when I go to a restaurant without my laptop, and take only one or two papers with me. I also get more and more reading done in meetings, since I've found that you really can read one thing and follow the discussion around you pretty well, as long as the layout of the meeting doesn't make it too obvious to others that you're doing two things at once (some folks feel neglected or seem otherwise mildly offended). We can also learn, and most of us seem to, that the apparent low cost of procrastination is partly an illusion - our time is still scarce, even if the start-up costs of an individual reading episode are lower.

Those of us in the teaching business not blessed with hyper-competitive students, also have some head-scratching to do working out how to help those we teach do more proper reading.

(Acknowledgment - Tim van Gelder wrote something I read a while ago about how photocopying had hurt reading. I couldn't find a web version to link to, or even find a version I might have downloaded on my own PC, but when I can I'll give proper acknowledgment here.)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Ernest Madu Rocks too...

Yup, two TED talks in a row. Talk about lazy blagging. Nod to the Sceptical Alchemist where I first saw this one.

Hans Rosling Rocks

OK, so this isn't new, but it's very very cool. I've got a thing about data visualisation, and how it's often done very badly. Once you've watched the video, you should play around with the visualisations at GapMinder. The fact that a version of this kind of visualisation has been built into Google Office is one of the most distinctive reasons to give it a further look.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Neural encoding of the concept of nest in the mouse brain

ResearchBlogging.orgWe're finding out cool stuff about the Hippocampus all the time. This paper, by Lin and colleagues, in PNAS last year, is a fine example. As it says on the box, they find evidence of interestingly selective responses - responses relating to nests - in the mouse brain. Thanks to Michael over at Ionian Enchantment for drawing my attention to this paper.

The neurons in question were in the hippocampus. This brain region is known to be important for a variety of memory related, but also decision making, functions. (See my earlier posting on hippocampal representation of physical locations forward of actual movement in the rat.) The authors of this study describe this as evidence of encoding of the 'concept of nest'.
Aside: Some researchers have tiresomely mantained that conceptual thinking is distinctively human. It doesn't help that philosophers and psychologists don't use 'concept' univocally, and rarely in the same ways as each other. Appropriate behaviour is going to be reasonably responsive to interesting equivalence classes (predators, escape routes, possible mates, nest materials, etc., etc.) and the cognitive processes relating to these classes is at least necessary for 'conceptual' cognition, even if some might want to demand additional features (like compositionality).
Back to the main story: This crowd stuck the tools for ensemble recording into region CA1 of the hippocampus of each of the subject mice, and the exposed the mice to a variety of nests and objects that were in some sense nest-like, but not appropriate (being upside down, far too big, of poor materials, etc.) as well as unusual but suitable nests (like oddly shaped ones). The mice also approached the target objects from different directions. In the luxurious world of the lab-mouse, a nest is a paper or plastic cup about the right size to curl up in (see the images with the supplemental information.)

Their analysis found three categories of interesting activity:
  • "Transient-on" cells responded temporarily to, for example, initial encounter with the home nest, but not to a similar circular object (a water cup) or to a nest when upside down. (These cells are associated with activity amounting to "there's a nest!") See the movie below.
  • "Persistent-on" cells responded persistently to presence in the home nest, irrespective of direction of original approach. (These cells are associated with activity amounting to "I'm in a nest!")
  • "Persistent-off" cells were the opposite of the above, going quiet outside nests. ("I'm not in a nest!")
Here is one of the movies from the supplemental information, showing a transient on cell about its business as the mouse goes about its:

Additional sub-experiments placed appropriate nests under odd conditions (e.g. being under a glass floor) and found that the 'nest cells' weren't keen on nests that weren't readily useable. This complements the finding that the cells didn't like upside down (otherwise appropriate) nests either.

This is very cool. Encodings like this are efficient resources for other processing, like selecting responses (whether to "poop here" or not), and populating more plainly spatial memory with meaning ("here be a nest"). The Johnson and Redish paper I blogged previously suggests that "here be good stuff" is encoded in some way that indexes to spatial memory, although their main point is to show something about the use of that memory in action selection. It also wasn't obvious in advance that the encoding would be, as it seems to be, primarily functional, although I'd have been surprised if it wasn't.

It would be good to know more about how these encodings are constructed.

I wonder if any of those Heideggereans, prone to letting off clouds of portentous bull about how science can't tell us anything about the real nature of embodied being in the world, or how it is that we come to relate in an immediate way to objects that are appropriate for our purposes, are paying attention. I doubt it, and doubt that they read PNAS.

Lin, L., Chen, G., Kuang, H., Wang, D., Tsien, J.Z. (2007). Neural encoding of the concept of nest in the mouse brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(14), 6066-6071. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0701106104

Monday, July 14, 2008

Preschool Programs Can Boost School Readiness

ResearchBlogging.orgIn an earlier post on the Durable effects of concentrated disadvantage on verbal ability among African-American children I reported some rather depressing, if excellent, research measuring the cognitive penalties children suffer along with, and likely as consequences of, serious disadvantage. There's some relevant good news in this short paper by Gormley, Phillips and Gayer. (Also available at the publications section of the site of the Crocus project.)

This time around the data reports that specific pre-school programs among pre-school children leads to significant gains in scores on tests that are regarded as good predictors of later school achievement. Two programs. both in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were studied - the Head Start Program, and the Oklahoma pre-K program. Each differ in how they work (the differences are briefly described in the paper) and Oklahoma was selected partly because:
The Oklahoma pre-K program has relatively high standards compared with those of other states and offers relatively high pay and benefits to well-qualified teachers. Every lead teacher must have a B.A. degree and must be certified in early-childhood education. Student teacher ratios of 10-to-1 and class sizes of 20 must be maintained. The Community Action Project (CAP) of Tulsa County, whose Head Start program serves the largest number of children in Tulsa, is eligible for state funding. Its teachers meet the same standards as their Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) counterparts and receive similar pay (p1723).
To avoid selection bias students who'd attended were compared with students about to attend the respective interventions. Variation in ages at start allowed the relationship between age and test scores either side of the age cut off for entrance to be estimated. The analysis also conditioned on indicators of poverty and race, and found program participation to be a more powerful predictor of success. The results are impressive. Here's another quotation:
The TPS pre-K program has sharply improved students’ cognitive development.
One way to capture this is to look at the effect sizes: 0.985 for letter-word identification, 0.743 for spelling, and 0.355 for applied problems. These effect sizes substantially exceed those reported for pre-K programs generally and are somewhat greater than those reported for five states with relatively high quality pre-K programs. The effects of the Tulsa Head Start program, though less spectacular, are also impressive: 0.514 for letter-word identification, 0.334 for spelling, and 0.369 for applied problems. These effect sizes exceed those reported for a national study of Head Start with random assignment of children.
Then take a look at the figure, converting the measured gains into monthly equivalents. These figures are, according to the paper, greater than those (not represented in the graph) occurring through maturation.

Cool. Well resourced educational programs with qualified instructors and good pupil-teacher ratios actually do some good. Also, they do good even with kids who we've got good reason to expect have been cognitively harmed by their environments. That's hardly surprising, but it's good to get a sensible measure of it, especially with all the flaky opinionated yelling that goes on over education.

As with the paper by Sampson, Sharkey and Raudenbush I referred to previously, a key feature of this research is the construction of a large enough sample, with appropriate differentiation within it, to extract meaningful data with statistical tools. The more social science like this we see the better.

Gormley Jr., W.T., Phillips, D., Gayer, T. (2008). THE EARLY YEARS: Preschool Programs Can Boost School Readiness. Science, 320(5884), 1723-1724. DOI: 10.1126/science.1156019

Friday, July 11, 2008

Support for PZ Myers

So, as any fule in the blagosphere kno', crazy catholic fanatics have declared war on PZ Myers. You can read his original posting, the one that annoyed them this time here. You can read their noxious little attempt to attack him here, and his response here. It's also covered (among many, many places) at Richard Dawkins' place here.

All PZ offered to do, is visit some good atheist disrespect on a communion wafer, and blag the process. You know, do some stuff with his free speech, act in ways that made clear that he held beliefs incompatible with those of the loons and freaks who call the act of some poor kid who smuggled a wafer out of church to show a friend a "hate crime" and a "hostake taking".

My mate Dave wrote a letter to the President of PZ's university. It's copied below. Also, if anyone can get me a wafer, then by golly I'll give it a going over myself.

President Robert H. Bruininks,

The public campaign against Professor P.Z. Myers by one Bill Donohue has recently come to my attention. I understand that he is exhorting people to write directly to your office calling for action against Professor Myers. While I object to their methods, under the circumstances -- including my rejection of their intentions -- I feel that it is my responsibility to add to the flood of messages.
Myers is not only a fine scholar, but an important and energetic public intellectual defending science and learning against some of its most committed and often unprincipled enemies. He is famous and widely admired for this among scientists, just as he is disliked by many opponents of science. His proposal to publicly express his lack of belief in the supernatural status of a communion wafer was, I think, an entirely legitimate exercise of free speech. It strikes me, furthermore, as an important intervention in the ridiculous reaction to the action of Webster Cook, including suggestions that Cook was guilty of a hate crime, and that taking the wafer amounted to holding a hostage.
With respect to the specific suggestion that Myers' remarks violate a university requirement to be 'respectful, fair and civil', it seems to me that the following points are worth making:
(1) Myers' proposal was calibrated to respond to the outrageous response to the actions of Webster Cook, which have included death threats to Cook. (And now, I gather, to Myers himself.)
(2) Myers' proposal is in an important sense brave - he's offering to put himself on the line, in defence of the rights of those who do not hold the communion sacred.
(3) While admittedly expressed with a certain fire, I do not believe that his post is in fact disrespectful, or unfair. That is, unless asserting that one emphatically holds a belief incompatible with that held by another is disrespectful or unfair. If it is, and fairness holds trumps, it's hard to see the point of universities, or a future for science.
(4) Finally, I do not think Myers' public utterances are truly examples of a failure of civility. They are a vigorous assertion of the right of some to do things that others find objectionable falling short of infringing those of their freedoms that do deserve protecting. They are no different in principle from the act of any individual who allows it to be known that she or he eats pork, shaves, thinks women have a right to education, has a same-sex partner, etc. If universities do not hold the line against conflating disagreement with lapses of civility, I wonder who will.

And apologies again for feeling duty bound to add to the deluge,

David Spurrett
Professor of Philosophy
Head of School of Philosophy and Ethics
University of KwaZulu-Natal,
Howard College Campus
South Africa

Savage Chickens: Read My Blog Cartoon

So this Savage Chickens: Read My Blog Cartoon is fairly old, but it sure hits the spot.

Atheist meme

So Michael Meadon over at Ionian Enchantment tagged me, and apparently I have to answer some questions. Fair enough.

1) How would you define "atheism"?
Not believing in God. Not believing that there's anything supernatural doing any of the jobs standardly assigned to God - making life, designing life, being the moral boss of the universe.

2) Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?
Erratically. Some half-arsed Christianity, but nothing systematic at home. Briefly captivated by Christianity (as opposed to going through the motions) in late primary school.

3) How would you describe "Intelligent Design", using only one word?

4) What scientific endeavor really excites you?
Cognitive neuroscience.

5) If you could change one thing about the "atheist community", what would
it be and why?
We need an armed wing. OK, more seriously, I think more vigorous and public intellectuals like Dawkins and Dennett.

6) If your child came up to you and said "I'm joining the clergy", what
would be your first response?
I'd try to reason him out of it. (I've just got the one so far, and it's a boy.)

7) What's your favorite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?
They're all bad, and I don't have refutations of my own. The one I face most is the argument from design, variously retreaded, and I respond with natural selection.

8) What's your most "controversial" (as far as general attitudes amongst
other atheists goes) viewpoint?
I'm pretty militant, but I'm not aware of any specifically controversial atheist view. Maybe the view (doesn't seem controversial to me) that it should be illegal to require religious observance from minors, including requiring it in the home.

9) Of the "Four Horsemen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is
your favourite, and why?
Dawkins followed by Dennett. I don't have Michaele's memo-phobia.

10) If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs,
who would it be?
The incumbent Pope.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


I'm about to take a short break. This will involve plenty of sleeping, epic eating, reading at least one novel (I'll finish Cormac McCarthy's "The Crossing" and I've got an issue of "The Caterer" by Jeff Lint as well), and some breakfast-time alcohol consumption. I'll just fritter the rest of the time away. This much needed R&R will take place in an undisclosed and rather primitive location with no access to the Interwebs. I figure I'll be back on the Tubes in about a week, and already scared to think of my inboxes upon my return. But I figure there won't be any blagging from me until about 11 July. Good thing hardly anybody reads this (yet).

The Coghill Challenge - Part 2

So I mentioned "The Cohgill Challege" a little while ago. It's hardly news - the challenge has been out there for years (since at least 1993 I hear) and attracted comment from various places. (Among them see a letter in the BMJ, some remarks in the Randi forums.)

Roger Coghill thinks exposure to ELF electric fields is dangerous at thresholds lower than many others claim. He thinks there's a big cover up, hence the challenge:
Place any human infant of less than three months age to sleep each night for at least eight hours in an ELF electric field of 100 Volts per metre for thirty days. My studies predict that child will die, or become so seriously ill that the test will have to be called off
. The NRPB and the power utilities' investigation levels by contrast predict there will be no adverse effect.
So this strikes many as very, very unethical. My mate Dave wrote to Coghill to ask him about it. He said (I've cut some sentences for brevity in some emails, but only ever quoted whole sentences verbatim):
It appears that you are encouraging people (by tempting them with a significant amount of money) to engage in behavior that you are very confident would harm a human infant. I have to say that this seems to me ethically dubious. Perhaps you could explain why it is morally defensible to challenge people to engage in behaviour while at the same time being confident that this behaviour would harm an innocent?
Coghill replied:
I disagree. The ICNIRP Guidelines argue that human exposure to ELF electric fields is safe below 5000 volts per metre. Actually this is a curious figure, being only half the occupational exposure guideline, when all their other EMF guidelines impose a fivefold safety factor. If the same fivefold safety factor had been exposed with the ELF electric field too – i.e. 2000V/m – then it would be exceeded under many UK powerlines, - very inconvenient for the power utilities.
He went on to say something about why he thought this, and concluded saying "If you have better ideas of how to bring about this change, please let me know."

This doesn't really address the ethical question at all, which Dave tried to point out. He said in a follow up email:
It appears to me that your challenge calls on others to do something that, given your reasons, you believe would harm another person, in particular a preverbal human infant who is unable to consent to the procedure.
I asked whether in your view it was ethical for you to challenge people to do something you believed would harm an innocent. This calls for something other than an indication of the fact that you believe that their doing the thing in question would harm the infant, or an indication of your reasons for having the belief in the first place.
Coghill's reply again didn't answer the question at all:
So what is your opinion of those who very well know there are hazards from exposure to weak electric fields and deliberately cover this up by misdirecting research, procrastinating the research process and obfuscating and suppressing the results of research already carried out? For that is exactly what the power utilities have done over the last two decades. I do not dare to count how many people have suffered serious ill health or died as a result, whereas my Challenge has never hurt anyone.
So Davie boy tried again:
Suppose for the purposes of argument that I concede that those you refer to do indeed know that there are hazards and cover this up.
That doesn't seem to give an answer to the question whether it is right for you to challenge people to do what you seriously believe would harm a non-consenting person.
Coghill yet again didn't answer the question, pointedly banging on about what had been conceded for the purposes of argument:
Sorry David, but if you keep avoiding my points I see no point in continuing the dialogue. I suggest we just agree to differ in our opinions of who is the villain in this issue.
Ever patient if by now somewhat irked, Dave pressed on:
I don't believe I was avoiding your points, nor did I suggest that anyone was a villain. I was prepared to concede for the purposes of argument that your convictions regarding human exposure to ELF electric fields were correct, and asked a specific question about the ethics of offering an inducement to harm, and possibly kill, a non-consenting human infant for the purposes of proving a point. Since I was prepared to concede that point, I don't see that I was avoiding anything. As far as I can tell you have no interest in responding to the ethical question.
Given your lack of interest, you are probably also not concerned that the parameters of your challenge violate every code of ethics I know of for research involving human subjects that has been recognised in any democracy for nearly 60 years, starting with the Nuremberg Code.
Coghill was irked by this point too:
Rubbish! No one is going to be taken in by your false pretensions to propriety: it is transparent that neither you nor the power utilities are interested in the actual issue, namely that ICNIRP guidelines do not protect the public from ill health, so instead you try to attack the messenger using false moral values. Take a deeper look at yourself and examine your real motives.
Except it's not rubbish at all. Here's the "Directives for Human Experimentation" or Nuremberg Code, with the bits that the Coghill Challenge fails marked (Reprinted from Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10, Vol. 2, pp. 181-182.. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949.):

1. The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential. This means that the person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, over-reaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision. This latter element requires that before the acceptance of an affirmative decision by the experimental subject there should be made known to him the nature, duration, and purpose of the experiment; the method and means by which it is to be conducted; all inconveniences and hazards reasonable to be expected; and the effects upon his health or person which may possibly come from his participation in the experiment.
The duty and responsibility for ascertaining the quality of the consent rests upon each individual who initiates, directs or engages in the experiment. It is a personal duty and responsibility which may not be delegated to another with impunity.

FAIL! The challenge requires a preverbal infant. Hell, it doesn't even bother to ask for parental consent - any power worker who can get hold of a baby somehow is eligible for The Coghill Challenge.

2. The experiment should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by other methods or means of study, and not random and unnecessary in nature.

FAIL! A trial with a single subject (and no control group) proves nothing, so giving no results fruitful or otherwise.

3. The experiment should be so designed and based on the results of animal experimentation and a knowledge of the natural history of the disease or other problem under study that the anticipated results will justify the performance of the experiment.

FAIL! The most obvious thing to do here is a rigorous animal trial (there are ethical considerations there too), but Coghill shows no evidence of being bothered, preferring to hype his silly challenge instead.

4. The experiment should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury.

FAIL! Obviously.

5. No experiment should be conducted where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur; except, perhaps, in those experiments where the experimental physicians also serve as subjects.

FAIL! Coghill has just such a reason, even if his reasons are garbage.

6. The degree of risk to be taken should never exceed that determined by the humanitarian importance of the problem to be solved by the experiment.

FAIL! (Given fails on 1 through 5, this is practically guaranteed.)

7. Proper preparations should be made and adequate facilities provided to protect the experimental subject against even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death.

FAIL! There are no preparations, no requirements for facilities, no oversight. As far as I can tell, you show up on Coghill's doorstep with a dead baby and get your cash.

8. The experiment should be conducted only by scientifically qualified persons. The highest degree of skill and care should be required through all stages of the experiment of those who conduct or engage in the experiment.

FAIL! Any bozo is eligible, as long as she or he works for a power utility.

9. During the course of the experiment the human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end if he has reached the physical or mental state where continuation of the experiment seems to him to be impossible.

FAIL! (Guaranteed by the reasons for failing 1.)

10. During the course of the experiment the scientist in charge must be prepared to terminate the experiment at any stage, if he has probable cause to believe, in the exercise of the good faith, superior skill and careful judgment required of him that a continuation of the experiment is likely to result in injury, disability, or death to the experimental subject.

FAIL! There is no scientist in charge at all.

It's also pretty trivial to see that the Challenge fails current guidelines, for example those of the NIH pertaining to use of human subjects (especially here), or the Department of Health and Human Services.

Now it's possible that Roger the Dodger could try to argue that this isn't relevant because The Coghill Challenge isn't an experiment at all. That would be a lame defence, since he clearly thinks it would prove a point (which it wouldn't) and that it's an effective way of proving the point (which it isn't, given that only an ethically conducted animal trial would have a chance of making an impact on the research literature). But saying it's not an experiment won't help in another way. Even though it is clearly no more than a shameful PR stunt, it's still not OK to offer an incentive to kill babies as a PR stunt.

There's a lesson here. This quack isn't just bad at epistemology. He's resolutely unconcerned with the most basic ethical guidelines for the epistemic enterprise as well. Do you really reckon he'd reach for the cheque book if you showed up with a dead baby?

Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism

ResearchBlogging.orgLet me not mince words. This is the most egregious bullsh*t(1) I've ever read in a peer-reviewed journal. It claims that "the evidence-based movement in the health sciences is outrageously exclusionary and dangerously normative with regards to scientific knowledge" and that "scholars have not only a scientific duty, but also an ethical obligation to deconstruct" this dominant, "fascist", movement.

Ben Goldacre picked it up a while ago. (There's also a lively comment thread.) The paper dates from 2006, so there's probably more criticism on there on the tubes too.

Before saying something about what's up, here's the abstract, in full, so you can see clearly that I'm not trying to make these bozos out to be madder than they are:

Background Drawing on the work of the late French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, the objective of this paper is to demonstrate that the evidence-based movement in the health sciences is outrageously exclusionary and dangerously normative with regards to scientific knowledge. As such, we assert that the evidence-based movement in health sciences constitutes a good example of microfascism at play in the contemporary scientific arena.
Objective The philosophical work of Deleuze and Guattari proves to be useful in showing how health sciences are colonised (territorialised) by an all-encompassing scientific research paradigm -- that of post-positivism -- but also and foremost in showing the process by which a dominant ideology comes to exclude alternative forms of knowledge, therefore acting as a fascist structure.
Conclusion The Cochrane Group, among others, has created a hierarchy that has been endorsed by many academic institutions, and that serves to (re)produce the exclusion of certain forms of research. Because ‘regimes of truth’ such as the evidence-based movement currently enjoy a privileged status, scholars have not only a scientific duty, but also an ethical obligation to deconstruct these regimes of power.
Key words: critique, deconstruction, evidence-based, fascism, health sciences, power.


At least they say that they're going to "demonstrate" something. So there's going to be an argument, right - they'll give reasons, maybe some evidence. Let's see.

The first section of the article headed 'Introduction' is just scene setting - a longer version of the abstract with some name-dropping and some yelling, and bald insistence on draining the word fascist of all discriminating content, so that 'fascist'(2) turns out to mean just 'dominant' and 'exclusionary'. No argument here.

The second section starts with a paragraph describing(3) 'EHBS' (evidence-based health sciences). The authors give zero indication of understanding the reasons for the evidence-based approach, of properly used statistics, the need for control groups, the point of randomization, etc.

The second paragraph begins:
"At first glance, EBHS seems beneficial for positive patient outcomes, which is a primary healthcare objective."
  • Why "At first glance"? What the hell have glances got to do with anything here, when you're talking about efficacy study design, data analysis, etc.? Makes no sense at all unless you see that this is just more rhetoric. They're implying that EBHS only seems like a good idea superfically.
  • And notice the "seems". Why say "seems" when you've just pretended to give a description of the case for the evidence-based approach? Why not either acknowledge the case, or give reasons against it?
They continue:
"As a consequence, it is easy for healthcare researchers and clinicians to assume that EBHS is the method to assure that patients receive optimal care."
  • "Assume"? Why not "recognise on the basis of good reasons relating to what counts as evidence for efficacy"?
  • So a key part of the plot should be pretty clear by now. They persistently fail to acknowledge the arguments in favour of EBHS, or to give a fair description of EBHS. Then, they insinuate that supporters of EBHS are the ones guilty of superficiality, for believing things "at first glance" etc.
The other main ingredients here are:
  • A bunch of name calling ('fascist', etc.).
  • Some mis-representations of the work of certain French philosophers.
  • More preposterous non-sequiturs and pastiches of arguments.
Two more examples picked more or less at random:
  • We're told portentously that deconstruction is "notoriously difficult to define because it's a practice, and not a fixed concept" as though it's a generally recognised truism that practices (like nose-picking) are that much harder to define than concepts (like the concept of a surreal number). Uh, sure, that seems like the sort of thing that would be convincing at first glace to a group of lazy twerps passing of drivel as scholarship.
  • We're told that people who care about "evidence" maintain a "Newtonian, mechanistic world view". Cool. That'll explain why there's no evidence for anything non-Newtonian in the universe like, uh...

I'm sorry. I can't write any more about this. It's too annoying. I re-read the whole text carefully looking carefully for a paragraph that contained an argument that seemed worth taking seriously, or that showed any genuine appreciation of the fact that there are arguments in favour of the key features of EHBC, or that made a single scientific, historical or philosophical claim that did immediately make me think of two or three immediate criticisms based on general knowledge. Nada. This is bullshit of the first water. If you already thought evidence mattered, you'll get no reason to change your mind here, because there's no argument. If you didn't care about evidence, there's no point reasoning with you. Maybe if you had a bird-cage that needed a new floor-lining...

There may be worse, though. For now I'm too scared to look properly.


(1) In the sense of Harry Frankfurt.

(2) Goldacre shows a picture of Cochrane himself taken during the Spanish Civil War, where he was among other internationals fighting against ... er ... the Fascists. We should not complain too loudly - there's probably another paper forthcoming arguing that anyone who thinks that evidence matters in any area at all, including what counts as fascism, is a fascist.

(3) Not just describing - there's some undermining by rhetoric through use of constructions like "are believed" and "is deemed" in place of acknowledging that there are arguments in favour of a certain position. It is believed that this sort of strategy of undermining by insinuation is especially popular among weasels and cloth-eared constructivist bottom feeders.

Holmes, D., Murray, S.J., Perron, A., Rail, G. (2006). Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism. International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare, 4(3), 180-186. DOI: 10.1111/j.1479-6988.2006.00041.x

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

ONN: World of World of Warcraft

This is hilarious.

(There's more science blagging coming, and updates on the Coghill Challenge.)

'Warcraft' Sequel Lets Gamers Play A Character Playing 'Warcraft'