Friday, August 29, 2008

Carnival of the Africans #1 is out...

So, the somewhat oddly named Carnival of the Africans (which is a carnival, and is African, it's just also sceptical and naturalistic, which you can't tell from the title, which could just as well go for a festival of anti-naturalist woo-lovers) is out. Cheers to Michael Meadon for the initiative, and let's hope it's a success. Among other things there's an article by leading SA sceptic George Claassen on Angus Buchan which includes preliminary results of a national survey on religious and other supernatural beliefs, and Owen Swart's (unsuccessful) "homeopathic suicide attempt" in a series of video clips. Wim Louw has an article on basic tools of the sceptic over at his blog too.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Handy Research Blogging list of Effortless Incitement posts

One of the main things I do with this blog is write up peer reviewed science that seems interesting to me. (Then submit entries to carnivals in case any of it interests anyone else.) Research Blogging.Org is a cool initiative that aggregates blog articles meeting certain criteria, including being based on peer-reviewed research that the blog author undertakes to have read properly, and be trying to say something more than "this is cool" or "this sucks" about. I find their feed to be one of the most useful that I've got, and also find their criteria a useful discipline when writing articles about papers that I've found interesting. I've just found that there's a digest page for my blog (I'm one of their registered blogs, which you have to be to generate the Research Blogging citation). It's a handy list containing only postings that are about peer-reviewed research, and an indication of how much traffic (not much so far) is getting to me from their aggregator.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Byrne & Eno at it again :-)

So this isn't science, and it isn't woo-bashing, but by golly I'm pleased to report it: Brian Eno and David Byrne have made another album.

Everything that Happens, Will Happen Today.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Technology and the economics of reading 2.0

This article is about how various kinds of technology at the same time as making things to read more available, can make it more difficult to get proper reading done. It is a second attempt at a topic I wrote something about a little while ago (here’s version 1). This version is substantially longer and I think better.

In the first version I acknowledged an article I remembered but could not find by Tim van Gelder. In correspondence with him I figured out what the article was, and he sent me a PDF. His article is called "Penicillin for the mind? Reason, education and cognitive science", and as far as I can tell it isn't available on the web. (I've suggested to van Gelder that he post it on his blog, and I hope he does.) The paragraph that got my thinking going is the following one:
My mother was a philosophy major at the University of Melbourne some 25 years before I arrived to do the same degree. In those days, there was often only one copy of a book or article, and it was in the library. She went there to read it, and anything she took away had to be in her head or in her laboriously handwritten notes. This forced her to distil the text down to its essentials; and she did this time and time again. Today, almost nobody does it; if something is worth reading, it is worth copying first. In the library at the University of New South Wales students make 15 million copies a year (cost: 400 large trees). Photocopying fosters the illusion that knowledge has been acquired. The mental effort of comprehending and remembering has been postponed, often forever. These days teachers arrange to have class materials copied in advance, to save students the trouble. As a result, students get much less practice digesting a text. They are losing the disposition and ability to do such basic things as identify the main point and the main line of argument. They cannot form a critical response because they never engage with the reasoning in the first place.
I think van Gelder is onto something important here. What I found when I returned to his text, though, was that the way I'd "remembered" it included a more explicit economic concepts (not many, mind you), and I realised that was mostly the way I'd been thinking about it, and a product of my own research interests. So what I offer here are some reflections largely provoked by reading van Gelder's remarks a few years ago, but adding to them, and in some ways suggesting corrections to them. I don't actually think that the key problem is that copying fosters an illusion of knowledge acquisition, but that availability -- of texts and distractions -- does something to the value of individual reading episodes. In case it's not already obvious, I'm mostly talking about academic reading here, although some of the points probably generalise.

When I was an undergraduate student it was regularly the case that a key reading for a course with over 100 people in it was only available in a part of our main university library called the "Reserve Room" items on reserve could not be taken out, but only used for limited periods of time in the Reserve Room. There were waiting lists for high-demand items, and although it was possible to use your time to make a copy of the text, what most people did most of the time was sit down and give it a good thorough reading. This often meant trying to make notes in sufficient detail to make it very unlikely that a second trip would be needed. As a doctoral student I had a similar experience working at the British Library, which is not a lending library. On mornings when I worked there, I'd approach my reading with a view to doing everything so thoroughly that I'd not need to go back.

Now, in common with many people, I have close to permanent access to large numbers of versions of things that I believe I need to read, and yet seem to spend less of my time than ever before engaged in the sort of serious, deeply focussed reading that I've just described. The access I'm referring to amounts to the following: on my office PC, and my laptop, I have substantial numbers of dowloaded articles, with something around 100 of them at any time in one way or another designated as "things to read soon". I can print any of them with almost no delay, and take the laptop with me. Without doing anything, then, I have significantly more material that I want to read on hand right here and now, than was available to me in the old Reserve Room, or than I could have hoped to get through in a week at the British Library. So why am I not reading more things, but with the same intensity? I admit, a lot of other things have changed. I'm older (maybe dumber), have a bunch of responsibilities I didn't have before, and so on. It seems clear to me, though, that besides those differences, there's something important about the different reading situations -- the old ones, and the ones I routinely face now.

The first thing is that in the two cases above (the old Reserve Room, and the British Library) the costs of wasting, or semi-wasting, a reading session were quite high. In both cases it meant waiting at least hours, and maybe days, before a second chance. Making use of the chance itself took up a decent amount of time. The delays could have serious 'knock on' effects, if work I was planning on doing later on was dependent on what I'd been hoping to find out in the reading session. This is just not the way it is when I can start reading just about any time. If I procrastinate for 20 minutes, I can almost always start again in 20 minutes.

How is this an economic phenomenon? Well, it drives down the (apparent) costs of procrastination - and if our sometimes fickle and unreliable selves are thought of a buyers of procrastination, we can expect ourselves to buy more of the same thing when the manufacturers lower the price.

A second thing that is dangerously seductive is the almost free availability of various ways of "foraging" for things to read. Again, let me compare two cases.

Back in the day, when I read something I'd regularly encounter references to other works that it seemed I should read too. Mostly I'd make notes about that fact, and later make the results of a bunch of such note-takings the basis for a trip to the library. If I was already working in the library, I'd very occasionally get up and look for the document right away. But mostly the costs of searching around didn't seem worth interrupting my work for, and so I'd wait until I had enough on the "things to find" list to justify a proper expedition. Now if I'm reading a paper and see a reference to an interesting looking article, I can be reading the abstract of the paper within a few seconds if I'm online, which I almost always am. If the abstract looks important, I can be downloading the paper into my "things to read later" tray. I can do a quick search to find papers citing the paper I've found, look to see if any of them are important. Or find the web page of one or more of the authors to see if they've done other cool stuff I "should" know about. Sometimes I don't even finish one paragraph of an article before getting side-tracked like that, and after 30 minutes I've read hardly anything, but skimmed a pile of titles and abstracts, and added 20 papers to the "things to read" pile. It's close to going backwards, and relative to old-style reading it is clearly inferior.

This foraging is important - a key part of reading is working out what to read. But it shouldn't be allowed to eat into the reading process too much, at the risk of displacing proper reading with the kind of superficial knowledge that comes from having seen a bunch of abstracts and done little else. Even people who're honest about the fact that they've not yet read anything properly (and so not endorsing the "illusion" that they've acquired knowledge) may find it hard to stop being distracted and foraging to much eating (reading) too little. You need to invest some time in prioritising, and cheap foraging might (at least for some people) make it harder to settle on what to do, because you have a wider range of things that you "could" read at any moment, and so can more easily spend time browsing before settling down.

Again the phenomenon is partly economic - when the costs of foraging get lower, you'll buy more of it. And it's seductive in a way that other kinds of procrastination like fooling around with social networking aren't, because it really is a part of the working process.

A third problem (related to the above, but different) is the frankly awesome availability of distractions with close to zero start-up costs. One key distraction is socialising. 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 and trying to bug them (with mixed success - I was less charming then). 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 writing open in a word processor. The occasional knock on the door or phone call of someone else looking for escape has been replaced with the steady pinging of mail notifications from a network of friends and acquaintances in almost every time zone, who I can also bother more or less ad lib. Again, a tempting product (and also one that is important to some extent) has been made cheaper.

So what can we do? How is it that anybody gets any proper reading done (since many clearly do)?

I think there are a few things.

First, we can make more of an effort to be clear with ourselves about the costs of delay are. It's not hard to keep track of costs when they're obvious things like having to make additional trips to libraries, it takes more effort to keep aware of the opportunity costs of the wasted hour you're right in the middle of it when it seems as though you can start work with no cost at the end of the hour. But our time is at least as scarce as ever. It also helps to me more clear about why pseudo-work like foraging can be counter-productive. Having definite targets so that you can tell whether you're falling short of them helps too.

Second, we can manufacture scarcity in various ways. Go to lunch (without a laptop!) taking only one article to read. If you don't read that one, you've failed, and you can't mask the fact so easily because there's no citation index (or facebook) to mess around with, or giant folder of downloaded articles to organise and browse. I've found that a terrific place to get reading done is in meetings. It really is possible, with only a little practice, to keep track of a basically administrative meeting and participate in it while reading something unrelated. And in meetings where you really are mostly expected to sit still and keep quiet, reading becomes a merciful release from the tedious and often inefficiently conducted business at hand. Part of manufacturing scarcity is raising the costs of distractions, and even small barriers can be helpful. Work off-line, or at least close down email and social networking stuff, for fixed periods.

These three suggestions are presented impressionistically - in some cases I know of peer-reviewed research that suggests they really would help, but in others I'm pretty much saying something about what I try to do, which seems sometimes to work. I'd welcome more research on academic reading from a behavioural economic perspective, and especially work on strategies and interventions to encourage intense critical reading.

Something I'm also very interested in is how all this plays out for new students, who've mostly never experienced the sorts of scarcity that give me the backdrop for assessing the effects of the current situation. It seems to me that many of them are far less likely to get any proper reading done than they should be. I'm just not sure what to begin to think about how to help that.


van Gelder, T. J. (1998) Penicillin for the mind? Reason, education and cognitive science. Preprint No. 1/98, University of Melbourne Department of Philosophy.

Top cartoon - "Hard Read" from the Perry Bible Fellowship.

Effortless Incitement readership update

So here's another roundup of the Effortless Incitement readership (the first one is here). This is a matter that likely doesn't interest anyone except me, but there's no better place to write about it. Since I started tracking with Google Analytics, I've now had 714 visitors, and 1063 page visits, from 50 countries, still only two of them African countries. The USA and UK account for about 50% of traffic so far, and including South Africa the three account for nearly 2/3rds of visits.

My technorati rank has grown steadily - back on August 3 it was 787,635, up from 1,287,256 when I first registered there, and now it's at 518,149. The'authority' of this blog has reached the dizzying heights of 13. Only a tiny fraction of visitors comment - I'm not sure what that's about, and don't know what ratio of visits to comments to regard as healthy. (That last sentence is a very flimsy pretext for posting the Bristol Stool Chart.) The blog itself, or individual articles have been picked up at sites that I admire, which is gratifying. The fraction of visits that are referrals is picking up as well.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Dawkins vs. Meadon

So there's a somewhat unseemly spat going on at Richard occasioned by some criticism of Dawkin's new documentary by Michael Meadon, who earlier took issue with some of the pedagogy in the show. I thought that some of Meadon's remarks where a bit on the bracing side, but left the matter alone mostly because I'd not yet had a chance to see the film and so wasn't qualified to engage. But there's something here that can be remarked on without seeing the film at all. Dawkins responded to Meadon by saying (see the comment thread):
That is a bloody lie. I tried to persuade those children to abandon their belief in CREATIONISM. That is NOT the same as persuading them to become atheists. I was scrupulously careful to do no such thing.

I suspect that you didn't watch the documentary at all, but read one of the critics, such as Libby Purves, and believed her.

Please apologise NOW. As an educator, I feel extremely strongly about this.
Well, no. At most Dawkins had grounds to believe that according to his view Meadon was incorrect. A justified assertion to the effect that someone is lying requires something else - it requires grounds for believing that they believed what they were asserting to be false, yet asserted it anyway. Dawkins had no such evidence, and although Meadon (who had indeed watched the film) has, on further watching and considering the responses to his original post, retracted some of his claims, last I saw Dawkins was still tiresomely insisting on calling him a liar. Dawkins has no grounds for doing so. Such evidence as is publicly available strongly suggests that Meadon (in general an admirer of Dawkin's work, which he follows enthusiastically through his blog) had absolutely no mendacious intent. At best Dawkins is bullshitting (in the sense of Frankfurt - asserting something for reasons other than concern with truth). I don't see any way to read his response where it doesn't turn out pretty mean, although the discussion continues.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Two notable pieces on BPS research digest

I've found myself reading the British Psychological Society Research Digest Blog more and more. There's a brisk flow of brief write ups of psychology research, focussed on peer-reviewed publications. I used to get there from the Research Blogging feed. (This is a cool aggregator of blog posts on peer-reviewed research, which you should check out if you're not already aware of it.) But I ended up there so often I've subscribed to BPS in its own right.

Here are two recent articles well worth looking at (had I but world enough and time, I'd consider blogging both of the papers they refer to):

(1) Recent research suggests that people who volunteer for psychology experiments / surveys are generally more stable and outgoing than those who don't. We need better recruiting strategies to get after the sulking neurotics.

(2) It also seems that self-perception of how well you are doing something impacts on your assessment of others who you are observing. So don't just try to impress folks - have them check you out while they're doing something well.

Associations between iris characteristics and personality in adulthood

ResearchBlogging.orgThere's a body of data, some of it contested, relating eye colour, or eye colour at some ages, with personality traits. Among other things its been reported that there are associations between dark eyes and traits like extroversion (Gentry et al, 1965), and that among kindergarten children below certain ages blue-eyed children were disproportionately likely to be extremely withdrawn (Rubin and Both 1989). Apparently researchers in the area came to agree that eye colour had very little to do with adult personality (e.g. Rubin and Both, 1989).*

There are some speculations regarding mechanisms that might connect eye colour and personality, relating to the fact that production of some substances involved in eye pigmentation is associated with production of other substances (including norepinephrine and cortisol) that are known to have their own associations with behavioural differences.

After reviewing some of the literature just mentioned the authors of this study point out that there are other significant differences between irises besides their colour, including the number and other properties of features called 'Fuchs' crypts', 'contraction furrows' and 'pigment dots' (see figure below). They sought to investigate whether the mechanisms associated with frequency of these properties were also implicated in behaviour. If they were, then there could be systematic correlations between iris features and personality.

Here's a figure illustrating the iris features, from the paper, via MindHacks:

One example of the sort of pleiotropy at issue here is the gene Pax6, which is apparently involved in the process of muscle-cell differentiation in the iris, and hence some of the visible iris features noted above, and also expressed in the brain with one Pax6 mutation being associated with disinhibition, impulsivity and other traits. Pax6 is also associated with production of dopamine neurons, in turn known to be important for a variety of cognitive processes, including some relating to learning, patience, valuation, and response to risk -- all related to personality.

So if some genes are expressed both in ways that bear on what irises look like, and on personality, there might be correlations between the two. This won’t necessarily be the case. There are multiple causal processes on each side, and room for any single factor common to both to get driven away from showing interesting or detectable correlation. There’s an empirical question here, and the present paper has a go at it. There’s a lot of detail that I won’t try to cover – here’s the main story in sketch form.

428 human undergraduates had their irises imaged, and incidence and properties (e.g. size) of the iris features noted above coded. They also completed the NEO PI-R, an instrument based on the ‘Five-Factor’ model of personality (where the five factors are neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness). Each factor was assessed in a way that measured six specific factors (in the case of neuroticism the specifics concern: anxiety, angry-hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsiveness, vulnerability).

The study included two main analyses. One was a correlational analysis focussed on associations between individual iris characteristics and specific factors in the NEO PI-R. The other was a cluster analysis looking for relationships between overall iris properties and whole personalities. Both found interesting results, even though the effect sizes were (as expected) generally small.

A number of significant correlations were found in the variable based analysis, including between furrows and 'impulsiveness', furrows and 'self-discipline', crypts and 'warmth', crypts and 'positive emotions', and crypts and 'tendermindedness' (I've only listed associations significant at p<0.01 - others were found at p<0.05).

In the person oriented analysis a number of clusters of iris feature types were found, and a number of them had significant correlations with personality measures. It's more difficult to summarise these results in prose, and the pre-publication PDF annoyingly won't allow copying to the clip-board.

This is interesting. There are a few sorts of follow up I'd like to see:
  1. The same general thing, but with behavioural (delay discounting) measures of impulsivity.
  2. Direct measurement of the genetics, with the same personality measures.
  3. Attempt to find out whether people are sensitive (likely unconsciously if at all) to any of this. One could manipulate images of faces replacing or otherwsie changing the irises, and see whether this alone made differences in respect of attractiveness, perceived mate-worthiness, etc. It could be that folks don't notice this, but if there is a decent visible indicator of personality lying around, there's a chance individuals sensitive to it would have been at an advantage.
Here's the text of the abstract:
Variable and person-oriented analyses were used to explore the associations between personality and three previously untested general iris characteristics: crypts, pigment dots and contraction furrows. Personality data, as measured by the NEO PI-R and ratings of iris characteristics from 428 undergraduate students were collected. Crypts were significantly associated with five approach-related behaviors, i.e., feelings, tendermindedness, warmth, trust and positive emotions, whereas furrows were associated with impulsiveness. These findings suggest that because Pax6 induces tissue deficiencies in both the iris and the left anterior cingulate cortex, Pax6 may influence the extent people engage in approach-related behaviors. The results from using a person-oriented analysis suggested that people with different iris configurations tend to develop along different personality trajectories. Future longitudinal studies, twin-studies and genetic association studies, may benefit from collecting iris data and testing candidate genes for crypts and furrows.
This paper has been written up elsewhere, including at MindHacks, and BPS Research Digest.

* The references here are in the first paragraphs of the paper. I'd put them in full here, but as I said above the "article in press" PDF is locked to copying to the clipboard.

LARSSON, M., PEDERSEN, N., STATTIN, H. (2007). Associations between iris characteristics and personality in adulthood. Biological Psychology, 75(2), 165-175. DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2007.01.007

Friday, August 22, 2008

IDiots at their mendacious games again...

As PZ Myers notes, there's a good post at Panda's Thumb called Von Neumann, Berlinski, and evolution: Who’s the hooter? It turns out (again, or should I say yet again) that defenders of ID are helping themselves to the usual mix of selective quotation, selective attention to the facts, wish-fulfillment driven bullshitting (in the sense of Frankfurt) and outright dishonesty. This is worth paying serious attention to: their 'mistakes' are not mistakes in the innocent sense - the fact that they all trend in the one direction (misrepresenting science, misrepresenting specific historical figures, leaving out the bits of context and background that you have to leave out to get even a fake case for ID off the ground) tells you something is driving the process. In this case it sure isn't natural selection - just the kind of systematic deliberate distortion that would end a scientific career, but turns out to be no obstacle to advancement among those of "faith".

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Praxis #1 is out!

I mentioned a little while ago that a new carnival was starting, called Praxis, and about the work of science. Well, number 1 is out, at A Blog Around the Clock. Check it out - there's a lot of articles in it, and I won't try to pick one or two highlights here. In fact I've hardly scratched the surface myself.

The next edition will be on September 15 at Life 3.0.

The spontaneous expression of pride and shame: Evidence for biologically innate nonverbal displays

The picture on the left shows two different judo competitors, just after winning a bout. One of them is sighted, the other congenitally blind. Can you tell which is which?

It took longer than it should for the case that facial expressions of emotion are largely human universals to be made (in fact wider than human, and conserved across many species). Paul Ekman is a leading figure here, and his introduction to one of the many editions of Darwin's The expression of the emotions in man and animals (Ekman introduced edition on Powell's here, eText edition here). Expression of emotion isn't simply universal - cultural differences can modify and mask it. Also, there's ongoing work on what sorts of basic emotions are relatively universal - early work focussed on states like happiness, fear and disgust. This paper considers highly relational states, in particular pride and shame.

There's some work already suggesting that the non-verbal expresions of pride and shame are fairly universal within humans, and between humans and some other species. (Think of inflated chests, raised arms, strutting, etc., for pride.) One key question not yet rigorously tested is whether displays of pride and shame universally follow actual successes or failures. If they do, that's encouraging news for functionalist accounts of the purpose of such displays in social signalling.

This paper presents the results of an elegant and beautiful attack on the question. There are few cases of success and failure clearer than sporting events with two individual competitors. Typically there's one clear winner and one clear loser. Also, participants in some sporting events are congenitally blind. Quoting the abstract of the paper:
"Specifically, we tested whether sighted, blind, and congenitally blind individuals across cultures spontaneously display pride and shame behaviors in response to the same success and failure situations—victory and defeat at the Olympic or Paralympic Games."

Data for athletes from 37 nations participating in judo matches at the 2004 Olympics and Paralympic games was gathered and coded. The codes showed good inter-rater reliability. Figure 1 below shows the results for a selection of non-verbal behaviors including tilting the head back, smiling, forming fists, etc. among 108 episodes involving sighted athletes (some individuals were recorded more than once).

Figure 2 shows the same measurements for 12 congenitally blind athletes.

There's some striking congruence, especially in the narrowing chest and slumped shoulders of losers, and in a selection of the behaviours of winners. But there's also more - the nationalities of athletes were used to assign them ratings on a number of cultural dimensions, including individualism vs. collectivism, secular-rational vs. traditional, and survival vs. self-expression. The data thus produced turned out to be interesting too. Again, quoting the formulation in the abstract:
"...culture moderated the shame response among sighted athletes: it was less pronounced among individuals from highly individualistic, self-expression-valuing cultures, primarily in North America and West Eurasia."

As the authors note, their findings don't settle the questions, even though they're interesting and important. One limitation is that while it seems reasonable to suppose that winners felt pride and losers shame, this wasn't directly measured. Also, the presence of an audience in all cases leaves open the possibility that the behaviours were in some sense "intentional social communications", although as they also note this seems considerably less likely for the congenitally blind. There's more to find out, but it does seem very likely that there's a significant universal component to the non-verbal expression of pride and shame, that may go on to be subject to cultural modulation.

This research has also been written up elsewhere, including BPS Research Digest, Wired and MindHacks.

Here's the full text of the abstract:
The present research examined whether the recognizable nonverbal expressions associated with pride and shame may be biologically innate behavioral responses to success and failure. Specifically, we tested whether sighted, blind, and congenitally blind individuals across cultures spontaneously display pride and shame behaviors in response to the same success and failure situations—victory and defeat at the Olympic or Paralympic Games. Results showed that sighted, blind, and congenitally blind individuals from >30 nations displayed the behaviors associated with the prototypical pride expression in response to success. Sighted, blind, and congenitally blind individuals from most cultures also displayed behaviors associated with shame in response to failure. However, culture moderated the shame response among sighted athletes: it was less pronounced among individuals from highly individualistic, self-expression-valuing cultures, primarily in North America and West Eurasia. Given that congenitally blind individuals across cultures showed the shame response to failure, findings overall are consistent with the suggestion that the behavioral expressions associated with both shame and pride are likely to be innate, but the shame display may be intentionally inhibited by some sighted individuals in accordance with cultural norms.
(The answer to the opening question is, incidentally, that you can't tell by looking and that as it happens the athlete on the right is the congenitally blind individual. This pair of images is figure 3 in the paper.)
Tracy, J.L., Matsumoto, D. (2008). The spontaneous expression of pride and shame: Evidence for biologically innate nonverbal displays. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(33), 11655-11660. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0802686105

Encephalon #52

Encephalon number 52 is just out, in a Q&A format, over at Ouroboros.
There's plenty of good stuff in the roundup, including a useful piece on
grandmother neurons over at combing cognits, and something on the neural
basis of social attachments at Neurotic Physiology. The next issue of the
carnival will be hosted by Michael Meadon at Ionian Enchantment.

Brains ... brains ... brains ...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Take Spurtotox!!!

So, there's a moderately amusing tool to create a spurious advert for a non-existent drug over at CEDRA, which is kinda fun to play with. It's worth going through the process once to see how your choices are used. Here's the ad for Spurtotox, a highly desirable cream.

And here's Jeffitol, a Jeff Lint tribute that rather strains the limits of the canned humour that the site is based on.

Sadly there's no option to save the result as an image file, or even a decent print option. Always a drag to see a decent idea with its own bootlaces wrapped around its neck.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Miracle!

Even my own robust scepticism has been shaken by this very convincing manifestation of the risen (or rising) Christ on the back end of a dog of indeterminate breed but, it seems, considerable charm:

After messing about with bits of cooked beef, the damp on building walls, pieces of toast, etc., this really is a return to the sort of 'burning bush' form attributed to the super-being during the earlier heyday of his career. (Hat tip to Michael Meadon.)

Praying for lower gas prices

As this piece on BBC News reports, some members of the God Squad who have been praying at gas stations in the US are claiming that their petitioning is responsible for the recent fall in gas prices. Besides being all at once a fine example of the 'post hoc ergo propter hoc' (after this therefore because of this) fallacy, and a redundant 'explanation' (since there's the old supply, demand, action of speculators, etc., story as always) this really suggests a dreadful failure of imagination when it comes to what these folks like to ask their imaginary friend for.

How about they prayed for fuel that didn't help cook the planet when it was used? Coal that burned cleaner? A distribution of fossil fuels that didn't give so much power to misogynistic creeps?

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Google Images Dylan Search String Challenge

Sometimes I chuck odd sets of words into Google to see what comes up, especially under Images. You can find some pretty peculiar stuff.

(For example, and in case anyone was curious, the top result (on 15 August 2008) on a Google Image search for [quantum arse camera] is what is alleged to be a picture of Morrisey's posterior with "YOUR ARSE AN ALL" written across it in an unspecified pigment. The proportions in the image suggest that it was not taken recently.)

One of my sets of words returned only three image results, the top one of Bob Dylan smoking a joint. The set is [yodel metaphysics jelly deflowered]. Can anyone find any other odd looking strings that return images of famous rock stars (ideally his Bobness) consuming narcotics?

(The Tubes are an odd place - changing one word in the the set to [yodel metaphysics jelly dildo] gives 11 images, two of them of cats, and one of a concentration camp.)

SA Science and Scepticism Carnival

So Michael Meadon over at Ionian Enchantment was, according to my mate Dave, all long-faced today over the fact that a day or two had passed after his rallying call about pro-science and woo-smiting bloggers in (or from, or in other unspecified ways connected to) South Africa, and I still hadn't waxed joyful over it here at Effortless Incitement.

(At the time Dave neglected to point out that this was a very good illustration of Effortless Incitement - in this case vexing by inactivity. Failure to do anything at all is, of course, not the only way of achieving effortlessness, as Jeff Lint fans are well aware.)

Anyway, the initiative is a welcome one. The ANC figured to leave evolution out of school biology for more than the first ten years of democracy. (Thereby simply keeping the biology part of the travesty of a school science curriculum left by the ideological whack-job architects of Apartheid.) Leaving that aside, levels of basic comprehension of science are low, and levels of credulity for spooky, magical, and other 'super'-natural things depressingly high. (See the second half of this post for a preview of a recent study on the topic.)

Michael wants to get up a carnival of SA sceptics and woo-smiters, and (a) is looking to find participants and hosts and stuff, and (b) desperately needs help improving on the rather clunky name proposal that's on the table now ("South African Science & Scepticism Circle").

I hereby suggest (since my first proposal went down like a streaker at Easter Mass at the Vatican) the following:

Southern Exposure. (Regrettably also the name of a group in NZ dedicated to exploring "Polyamory, Intimate Communications, BDSM, Alternative Lifestyles and more...")
[The] Sceptics of the South.
[The] Southern Fried Sceptics.

And, finally for now:

The Azanian Rational and Scientific Expeditionary force (Or the A.R.S.E. Carnival for short) .

Also, I'll be hosting the thing, whatever it's called, in late November.

Friday science clip: Robot with "Rat Brain"

This is very, very, very cool:

Thursday, August 14, 2008

BPSDB - Danie Krugel

One of the most famous pseudo-science figures in South Africa is Danie Krugel, he of the box that apparently does some unspecified quantum wotnot, in order to variously locate subjects (which he failed miserably to do in the case of Madeleine McCann), substances, detect tumours and so forth. (There's a fair bit about Krugel on the blog-o-pipes, including this and this.)

I just learned from Michael Meadon over at Ionian Enchantment that Krugel has apparently managed to get some SA academics to sign up to a murky vague but nonetheless enthusiastic endorsement of his apparatus, on the basis of a sketchily specified and frankly awful seeming 'experiment'. The article Michael sent me is this one at Yet Another Sceptic’s Blog. Michael's taking up the case - partly by contacting some of the academics who signed the report - I'll note any progress here. And if I can find the time I'll get into asking some pointed questions of those who signed on the line.

Stress reduction through consolation in chimpanzees

ResearchBlogging.orgConsolation behaviour is interesting in various ways. Why do some individuals spend effort going and doing consoling things to some others? Why, for that matter, don't they sometimes? Why does it sometimes help? When doesn't it?

One promising arena for shedding some light on these questions is observation of the smarter non-human social primates. (There are plenty of open avenues of enquiry here - one of my earlier posts on this blog relates to the effect of social support on perception of geographical slant, which is relevant to the "what does it do" question. I'd like to see some good neuroscience on some of this.) Chimpanzees sometimes enage in consoling behaviour, and it's possible to observe who consoles who, after what, and measure a host of other socially important considerations in detail that would be at least very difficult in humans.

Here's the abstract of the current paper:
Consolation, i.e., postconflict affiliative interaction directed from a third party to the recipient of aggression, is assumed to have a stress-alleviating function. This function, however, has never been demonstrated. This study shows that consolation in chimpanzees reduces behavioral measures of stress in recipients of aggression. Furthermore, consolation was more likely to occur in the absence of reconciliation, i.e., postconflict affiliative interaction between former opponents. Consolation therefore may act as an alternative to reconciliation when the latter does not occur. In the debate about empathy in great apes, evidence for the stress alleviating function of consolation in chimpanzees provides support for the argument that consolation could be critical behavior. Consistent with the argument that relationship quality affects their empathic responses, we found that consolation was more likely between individuals with more valuable relationships. Chimpanzees may thus respond to distressed valuable partners by consoling them, thereby reducing their stress levels, especially in the absence of reconciliation.
Note here that reconcilliation occurs between the conflicting parties, and is not what this study is about.

Here, roughly and leaving out a lot of detail, is what the authors did with a well-established group of chimpanzees varying in size from 26 to 32 members over the course of the study:

  1. Observed aggressive conflict, defined as "any interaction involving a bite, hit, brusque rush, trample, chase, or threat in addition to screaming" (p8559). (Obviously a longer list would be needed for research subjects with access to firearms, lawyers, bagpipes and medium sized pieces of iron-mongery.) Conflicts were further analysed to determine who "won", since losing is taken to be more stressful.
  2. Measured post-conflict (PC) stress by counting rates of self-grooming and self-scratching, both known to increase under stress. (As before, for subjects who can buy dumb stuff on E-Bay, bang tools together in their shed, etc., a richer coding scheme is required.)
  3. Measured consolation behaviours, by counting affiliative interactions, defined as "kiss, embrace, grooming, finger-in-mouth, gentle touch, or play". (Exercise for the reader.)
  4. Measured relationship quality between different pairs of chimps, using coding methods developed for use with mother-infant relatioships.
The details I've left out are important - this kind of primatology is tough, and depends on laborious examination and encoding of recordings of interaction and activity, before any analysis can begin. (It involves amounts of crushingly dull drudge work impossible before the invention of the scientific underclass known as the 'graduate student'.) The analysis here also depends on some specific policies dividing up time for coding purposes, and more specifically classifying episodes of consolation as a function of time since conflict.

Subject to the various coding schemes and data collection policies, the authors collected data on 234 pairs of episodes (ones involving post-conflict behaviour and matched controls lacking it) for 22 recipients of aggression, involving 129 distinct pairings of individuals in the original conflict. The sophisticated analysis (detailed in the paper and the supplementary materials) established the main finding: that consolation reduces stress, and that the best predictor of the effect of consolation was relationship quality: it's worth more to be comforted by those who matter to us. The two figures below summarise some of the main results.

For another article on chimpanzees on this blog (not about consolation) see Chimpanzees use self-distraction to cope with impulsivity.

And for anyone who doesn't know, the picture at the top is Philippe from Achewood (used without permission) . He's got his own blog here.

Fraser, O.N., Stahl, D., Aureli, F. (2008). Stress reduction through consolation in chimpanzees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(25), 8557-8562. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0804141105

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Two good new psychology related blog posts

Here are two posts worth looking at:

(1) First, Ed over at Not Exactly Rocket Science reports on an elegant study on the effects of wearing red in sporting events. Unlike previous studies, many of which have focussed on statistical analyses of real games, this one is a proper experiment, where qualified judges scored tae kwon do matches, shown to them on video. The cool idea was using digital editing to swap the coloured panels on the competitor's kit around, so being able to show an effect for the very same performances. Fighters wearing red got more points.

(2) Then there's a short report over at the BPS research digest, on reduced cognitive performance (especially selective and sustained attention) in subjects engaged in an emergency drill. This helps shed some light on why so many die in emergencies. (There's a related article at Cognitive Daily on working memory and choking under pressure.)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Recent blog articles I've read

Just a short nod to two recent blog articles that I found worthwhile:

(1) A report on how visualising an achievement from the perspective of onlookers does more for motivation to succeed that visualising it from the achiever's perspective, over at Sports are 80 percent mental.

(2) Something on the evolution of schizophrenia over at Neuroscientifically Challenged.

I've got some more social psychology write ups on their way - just having a crazy busy time, so not getting that much writing done.

Chimpanzees use self distraction to cope with impulsivity

ResearchBlogging.orgThis is an interesting and important paper about a strategy for dealing with impulsivity that has not previously been documented in non-humans. Here's the abstract:
It is unknown whether animals, like humans, can employ behavioural strategies to cope with impulsivity. To examine this question, we tested whether chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) would use self-distraction as a coping strategy in a situation in which they had to continually inhibit responses to accumulating candies in order to earn a greater amount of those rewards. We tested animals in three conditions in which they were sometimes given a set of toys and were sometimes allowed physical access to the accumulating candies. Chimpanzees allowed the rewards to accumulate longer before responding when they could divert their attention to the toys, and they manipulated the toys more when the candies were physically accessible. Thus, chimpanzees engaged in self-distraction with the toys when such behaviour was most beneficial as a coping mechanism.
One of the most persistent ways in which people make poor decisions is by being impulsive. In the behavioural sense, impulsivity amounts to a temporary preference for a smaller reward that is available sooner over a larger one that is available later. (There are more complicated impulsivity constructs in psychiatry and personality psychology - they're not what I'm writing about here.)

This is a dangerous kind of preference to have - it's by definition inconsistent with some of your own preferences over longer ranges, making us open to exploitation, and setting us up for regret. There's a substantial pile of evidence across various species that the discount function describing the decline in the present value of a reward as delay to delivery increases is approximately hyperbolic. Only an exponential curve (so called because the delay term appears as an exponent) has the property that the relative value of rewards at different delays stays constant without ever going to zero. Hyperbolic curves, instead, can lead to temporary preferences (see figure below):

George Ainslie (e.g. 2001) describes a number of strategies that people can use to try to fight inconsistency, including managing attention, preparing emotion, making side-bets and using other committment devices, and chosing
according to rules that connect future rewards and present temptations in different ways. One of his own key experiments (Ainslie 1974) showed
something related to committment as a way of dealing with impulsivity is observed in pigeons: some birds trained that pecking one key would lead to a smaller sooner reward, and another a larger later one, learned to peck an additional key earlier on that had no effect except to remove the temptation of the smaller sooner reward.

This paper is specifically concerned with managing attention as a way of dealing with temptation. As the authors note there is some evidence that human children can adopt self-distraction as a strategy to help them not give into temptation in an experimental setting where refraining from taking an immediately available reward leads to greater reward accumulating later on. Although nobody has attempted to see whether Chimpanzees can do the same thing before, other work suggesting that chimps use behavioural strategies to cope with other kinds of stress suggested it would be worth looking.

The key experiment was quite simple: candies accumulated steadily in a dispenser, but when the dispenser was taken, accumulation stopped. So waiting led to greater rewards, but there was a growing temptation. In some conditions the chimps had toys available - the hypothesis was that toy use would increase during the waiting intervals, suggesting that play was a behavioural strategy for dealing with temptation. In a variation the chimps had no control over the dispenser, because it was out of reach - toy use in that condition was taken as a baseline measure, to be compared to cases where toy use could have been related to resisting temptation.

The results are fairly clear: toy use in the 'toys available' condition was greater (for three out of four of the chimps) when it was up to the individual chimp how long to wait. As the authors conclude:
"This is the first evidence indicating that non-human animals can use a behavioural strategy to reduce their own susceptibility to ongoing temptation."
This is cool stuff. It will be interesting to see how much sophistication in managing impulsivity can be found in other non-human animals when these and other means are made available.

References (besides the 'BPR' tag):

Ainslie, G. (1974) Impulse Control in Pigeons, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 21: 485–489.
Ainslie, G. (2001) Breakdown of Will. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, T.A., Beran, M.J. (2007). Chimpanzees use self-distraction to cope with impulsivity. Biology Letters, 3(6), 599-602. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2007.0399

Sunday, August 10, 2008

LHC goes live on 10 September...

... so if you think the world might end when they turn it on for real, best get your world-ending duds ready, and perhaps mix a few cocktails.

Here's the official LHC page. Here's an earlier post on this blag. And here, below, is the awesome LHC rap, which there's a good chance you've seen, but just in case not...

(And isn't that Stephen Hawking one incredible ventriloquist? I saw him on telly blathering on about galaxies for hours and I never saw his lips move once. Genius. [Thanks to the Viz letters page.])

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

BPSDB has moved...

So BPSDB has moved, and somewhat transmogrified. It used to be an aggregator of blog articles attacking pseudo-science, called, in full, 'Blogging Pseudo-Scientific Douche Bags'. The old site had gone quiet, and nobody could get hold of the administrator, and so it's been shifted over to Lay Science. The rescue job is welcome - although the old BPSDB is still 'there' the new version is actively managed. But along the way it became the rather more respectable and well-mannered 'Blogging on Pseudo-Science Database'. Sigh.

(I remember when the old 'Digital Research' software company dropped what I'd thought of as the coolest bit of their original name. Who's both old and geeky enough to remember what it was? That, BTW, doesn't mean who's young and/or non-geeky but knows how to use a search engine.)

Encephalon #51

Sandy G hosts the latest Encephalon, over at The Mouse Trap. It's cool. Among the fine things there is an article at Mind Hacks about how just calling a deck of cards special fools even accomplished tricksters into entertaining crazy hypotheses about the tricks done with it, reminding us of something Dennett has said about the non-existence of a genuine 'hard problem' of consciousness. There's also a piece at Mind, Body, Soul on Asperger's syndrome patients and their deficits at reading others. That latter piece is fruitfully read alongside one at Neurocritic on differences between autistics and Williams' sydrome subjects found with eye tracking. My own piece from a little while ago on encoding of the concept 'nest' in the mouse hippocampus also made the cut. There's more - check it out.

An analysis of the forces required to drag sheep over various surfaces

ResearchBlogging.orgI'll be honest, I'm mostly blagging this piece from Applied Ergonomics (Volume 33, Number 6, November 2002) because it has such a terrific title. It's the title that got the paper an Ig Nobel (see this story in WIRED) a while ago, suggesting that the Ig Nobel processes at least sometimes don't get beyond the title.

The motivation for the study was related to occupational health. Sheep shearing involves some dragging work, and the shearers are prone to back injuries plausibly related to the dragging. Here's the abstract:
Some occupational health and safety hazards associated with sheep shearing
are related to shearing shed design. One aspect is the floor of the catching
pen, from which sheep are caught and dragged to the shearing workstation.
Floors can be constructed from various materials, and may be level or gently
sloping. An experiment was conducted using eight experienced shearers as
participants to measure the force exerted by a shearer when dragging a
sheep. Results showed that significant changes in mean dragging force
occurred with changes in both surface texture and slope. The mean dragging
forces for different floor textures and slopes ranged from 359 N (36.6 kg)
to 423N (43.2 kg), and were close to the maximum acceptable limits for
pulling forces for the most capable of males. The best floor tested was a
floor sloped at 1:10 constructed of timber battens oriented parallel to the
path of the drag, which resulted in a mean dragging force 63.6N (15%) lower
than the worst combination.
The rest of the paper is hardly exciting - they got some shearers and some sheep, and interchangeable panel to experiment with different surfaces, a force plate, did some biophysical modeling, and came to the conclusion at the end of the abstract. The 'change' that came with changes in slope was the anticipated 'finding' that its easier to drag a sheep down hill. As with
much applied work, doing the sums meant including some simplifying assumptions, my favourite being:
The best available estimate of the force being applied by the hands of the shearer is predicated on the assumption that the sheep were inelastic and moving at constant velocity.
This simplification leads to a caveat at the end, since, given that it takes more oomph to get the sheep moving in the first place, and those sudden bursts of effort is likely a key culprit in wear and tear on the back:
Another issue is that the initial force required to begin motion exceeds the steady-state dragging force. Calculation of this initial force from force plate measurements was infeasible because estimates of acceleration and elasticity of the sheep would be required.
Acceleration seems like the sort of thing that you could measure easily enough, maybe even from video footage, but I'd guess that rigorous assessment of the elasticity of sheep would demand a study in its own right.

Harvey, J. (2002). An analysis of the forces required to drag sheep over various surfaces. Applied Ergonomics, 33(6), 523-531. DOI: 10.1016/S0003-6870(02)00071-6

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Praxis: New carnival

Lay Science has launched what should be a cool new blog carnival, called Praxis. Here's what it says on the box:
The carnival is intended to cover all aspects of life as an academic, whether it's the lifestyle, career progress, doing a Ph.D., getting funding, climbing the slippery pole, academic life as a minority, working with colleagues and students, dealing with the peer-review process, publishing, grants, science 2.0, amusing anecdotes, conference experiences, philosophical musings, public engagement, or even historical articles about what life was like in the good (or bad) old days.
I'll link to this when it comes out, and maybe even contribute from time to time.

Doctor Who? Deception by chiropractors

David Colquhoun's always splendid DC Science blog has a terrific piece on Chiropractic, and the mis-use of the title 'doctor' by pseudo-science whackos. I'm linking it here mostly as an opportunity to tip my hat at a fine blog, one of the ones that helped get me into the blogging enterprise.

Effortless Incitement readership

So this here blag has been running for nearly two months. According to Google Analytics, it has had a bit over 400 visits, a bit over 600 page views, and a bit over 300 unique visitors. (Yes, you are all individuals.) The most viewed individual article so far is The Coghill Challenge - Part 2, mostly on the back of it being featured in the most recent Skeptic's Circle blog carnival. The daily maximum readership has been 54 so far, and 18 subscribe via feedburner.

The visitors mostly come from the USA, UK and South Africa, but 39 countries in total have sent traffic so far, including most of Europe and Asia, but only one other African country, and nowhere South of the USA in either the Americas or Caribbean. Maybe I should write something en Espanol. Most of the traffic is direct or via referral (from blogger, and the blog carnivals I've participated in, as well as research blogging in the case of articles on peer-reviewed research). Only a small fraction so far is from search results, with 'effortless incitement' being the most common way of getting here by searching.

I can also report the following:

63.4% of visitors are using Firefox.
83.8% of visitors are using Windows.
83.8% of visitors are using 32 bit colour, and 96% have Java support.

Technorati seems to have been wobbly for a while, and the page for this blog there has persistently been a few days or more out of date for a while. Still, since Effortless Incitement got listed, its Technorati rank has climbed from 1,287,256 to 787,635, and its 'authority' from zero to 8. It's one person's favourite there (thanks, Michael).

So it's early days yet. I'll get good and liquored up when daily readership passes 100, and when unique visitors passes 1000.

Duffy Antigen Receptor for Chemokines Mediates trans-Infection of HIV-1 from Red Blood Cells to Target Cells and Affects HIV-AIDS Susceptibility

ResearchBlogging.orgSo there's a genetic variation common in Africans, which both confers malaria resistance and facilitates HIV infection. I am totally not an expert in this area, but this is really important research, so I struggled through it in order to write it up. HIV/AIDS prevalence is disproportionately high in Africa, and we need to know why to try to figure out what to do about it. (For some prevalence data see here and here and especially the CIA world factbook rank order page here.) I've left out almost all technical detail from the paper here, to try to get the main outline as clear as I could. Among the other accessible accounts of the research out on the tubes is this piece in The Economist. (Shout to Michael over at Ionian Enchantment for sending me the paper in the first place.)

First some background. Among the factors affecting HIV prevalence are:

(1) Individual susceptibility to infection, and (especially in the case of HIV) to trans-infection of some cells by others within an infected individual. Leaving aside contingencies like other infections, age and more, this susceptibility can vary between individuals for genetic reasons - and there can be different ways, and combinations of ways, that a given individual can be more or less susceptible to infection by one or more strain of HIV.

(2) The rate of progression from being HIV-positive to developing AIDS. People who are HIV+ for longer before being debilitated by AIDS are, other things being equal, going to have more chances to infect others. Here too individual biological differences could be important.

(3) Individual biological differences might be patterned across the human population. We should expect this in cases where there are stable environmental considerations, and there are various examples including lactose tolerance, and sickle-cell anemia. The sickle cell trait affects haemoglobin properties in ways conferring malaria resistance, but when an individual inherits the gene from both parents she or he suffers from a form of anemia. (For more see here and here.)

This paper gives a variety of pieces of evidence relating to all three:

(1) It describes some of the evidence relating to a genetic difference between individuals that increases susceptibility to trans-infection by HIV-1.

(2) It describes some of the evidence that the same genetic difference also decreases the rate of progression to AIDS. (The authors are not able to explain this phenomenon, although there is clearly an association.)

(3) It shows that the genetic difference, which is associated with resistance to vivax malaria, is relatively more common in African Americans, and Africans. The key is a molecule called the Duffy antigen, which is the receptor molecule that malaria vivax uses to enter host cells, and is at least a part of the sickle cell trait. The absence of the antigen makes a difference to the course of HIV infection, by preventing some inflammatory activity that would otherwise slow the rate of trans-infection.

This is bad. Everything else being equal, some Africans, as a by-product of an adaptation conferring advantages against malaria are relatively more vulnerable to HIV infection, and relatively more dangerous epidemiologically, through having more time to pass on the infection. The authors of this study estimate that their findings might explain around 11 percent of the HIV burden in Africa.

The details of the research mostly concern providing evidence for the main claims, by means of genetic analysis of cohorts of people for whom data on disease progression is also available, laboratory studies of trans-infection in cell cultures, and plenty of specific detail regarding the molecular processes at work. Much of the specifics relate to red blood cells, which is where the malarial resistance is manifest, and where the properties conferring malarial resistance are also responsible for accelerated trans-infection by HIV-1.

The authors do not have direct African data, but make use of a substantial number of US servicemen in the Wilford Hall Medical Center cohort, including significant numbers of African Americans, who agreed to participate in a long term health study. Additional genetic and other work in Africa will help clarify matters.

HE, W., NEIL, S., KULKARNI, H., WRIGHT, E., AGAN, B., MARCONI, V., DOLAN, M., WEISS, R., AHUJA, S. (2008). Duffy Antigen Receptor for Chemokines Mediates trans-Infection of HIV-1 from Red Blood Cells to Target Cells and Affects HIV-AIDS Susceptibility. Cell Host & Microbe, 4(1), 52-62. DOI: 10.1016/j.chom.2008.06.002