Saturday, July 31, 2010

Carnival of the Africans #15

Right, time for rounding up the best African scientific and skeptical blogging from the last couple of months - we haven't had a Carnival for a while, so while foraging for posts I decided to consider stuff written in June and July only, so that the posts would be relatively fresh.

Angela, the Skeptic Detective, has managed to cover the whole spectrum of woo-craziness, from its most air-headed and harmless, to its most grave and seriously shocking. In the former category she's given us a great series of posts of psychics and the Soccer World Cup. In the latter category, she's written what has to be one of the darkest blog posts I've read in a long while in which she deals with practice of "magic" and the associated "muti" killings which are a consequence of this system of beliefs. If you read only one of the blog posts in this Carnival, I suggest that it be this one.

Over at ionian-enchantment, Michael has been doing some interesting work. Firstly, he's posted about a commentary that he and his supervisor have just had published in Behavioral and Brain sciences (go Michael!). The target of their commentary is an article that points to a potentially significant problem in the behavioral sciences, which is that for the most part the subjects of their studies are WEIRD (that is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) and thus not representative of human beings in general. The problem being analogous to trying to say something about human fitness in general through studying professional athletes, or trying to draw conclusions about the average state of human livers through studying people who abuse alcohol - you just don't know if what you find can be legitimately generalized. Michael and Prof. Spurrett take this one step further, pointing out the fact that, if the subjects of these studies are WEIRD, then the researchers undertaking these subjects are extremely WEIRD, and that this fact itself has far reaching implications that have themselves been overlooked. Check out Mike's post summarizing the target article and his commentary, as well as a follow up post on the target articles authors' response to the commentary.
Be sure to also check out his post on the ASA and the Rock solid church of "miracles" (how did those shudder-quotes slip in there?)

At 01 and the Universe Owen defends SETI against some spurious, skeptical objections. He does a really great job of taking SETI's detractors to task, but I think that a little more can be said about the very first objection raised against them in his piece - I'm sure Owen wont mind if I add a little to his defense.
The point I have in mind is that "SETI is 'almost science', which [Massimo Pigliucci] justified by saying that although SETI is employing scientific methods in their endeavor, their hypothesis (that extra-terrestrial intelligence exists) is virtually unfalsifiable".
From the tone of his reply to this point, I think Owen would agree with me that this is an unsatisfactory objection to SETI's project. It's unsatisfactoriness can be demonstrated by a very unsatisfactory response, one that nevertheless meets this formal objection head on. Lets assume that the biggest worry is that SETI's working hypothesis, namely that "aliens exist" is unfalsifiable. Would SETI, without changing their day to day activities one iota, be rendered "scientifically acceptable" by adopting the eminently falsifiable "working hypothesis" of "Extra-terrestrial intelligence doesn't exist" - a hypothesis that can be easily falsified at the very first instance of prime numbers encoded in a signal from Vega? A hypothesis that is corroborated every single time they boot up their radio-telescopes and find nothing?
Somehow I don't think that SETI's critics would be satisfied with this response, but - without spending too much more time on this point - I think the fact that we can fudge the hypothesis to meet their formal requirement so easily speaks to the fact that there isn't much substance to their objection (at least, this simple version of it) in the first place. The point needs to be seriously developed before we should take it ... well ... seriously.

Sticking with space, at Communicating Science, the African way there is an interesting (if a little short) piece that asks whether Africans should care about space exploration. Also well worth checking out is the piece about whether we should be worrying about whether cell phones cause cancer - this latter question is particularly interesting because cell-phone technology has penetrated almost every level of African society. This is certainly not only a "first world" concern.

A few other notable highlights I found while looking for posts are Jacques Rousseau's article To ask for evidence is not (necessarily) scientism and Fluxosaurus' Cnidarian ecstasy. Both well worth a look.

And if you've not yet exhausted your enthusiasm on all this great writing above, feel free to take a squizz at my humble offerings on the reactive emotions, and Shame.

Okay - that about sums it up for this month - if I've missed anyone's awesome blog posts, I apologize, but - then again - shame on you for not submitting it. The only way you can make amends for not submitting is by hosting this very carnival on your own blog in the following months. If you're interested, browse over to this page, where you'll find all the relevant details.

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