Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Here's fascinating and enlightening article about the Nacirema, a little-known New World tribe.

[Via Kieran Healy.]

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Dennett on religion

Daniel Dennett, the namesake of this blog, has a new book coming out about the natural history of religion:
For those who do not need to be persuaded, the main draw here is a sharp synthesis of a library of evolutionary, anthropological and psychological research on the origin and spread of religion. Drawing on thinkers such as Pascal Boyer (whose own book is called Religion Explained) and giving their work his own spin, Dennett speculates how a primitive belief in ghosts might have given rise to wind spirits and rain gods, wood nymphs and leprechauns. The world is a scary place. What else to blame for the unexpected than humanlike beings lurking behind the scenes?

The result would be a cacophony of superstitions — memes vying with memes — some more likely to proliferate than others. In a world where agriculture was drawing people to aggregate in larger and larger settlements, it would be beneficial to believe you had been commanded by a stern god to honor and protect your neighbors, those who share your beliefs instead of your DNA. Casting this god as a father figure also seems like a natural. Parents have a genetic stake in giving their children advice that improves their odds for survival. You’d have less reason to put your trust in a Flying Spaghetti Monster. At first this winnowing of ghost stories would be unconscious, but as language and self-awareness developed, some ideas would be groomed and domesticated.
Sounds like a modern, Darwinian twist on Hume...
No wonder, then, that mankind, being placed in such an absolute ignorance of causes, and being at the same time so anxious concerning their future fortune, should immediately acknowledge a dependence on invisible powers, possessed of sentiment and intelligence. ... Nor is it long before we ascribe to them thought and reason and passion, and sometimes even the limbs and figures of men, in order to bring them nearer to a resemblance with ourselves. ...

It may readily happen, in an idolatrous nation, that though men admit the existence of several limited deities, yet is there some one God, whom, in a particular manner, they make the object of their worship and adoration. ... his votaries will endeavour, by every art, to insinuate themselves into his favour; and supposing him to be pleased, like themselves, with praise and flattery, there is no eulogy or exaggeration, which will be spared in their addresses to him. In proportion as men’s fears or distresses become more urgent, they still invent new strains of adulation; and even he who outdoes his predecessor in swelling up the titles of his divinity, is sure to be outdone by his successor in newer and more pompous epithets of praise. Thus they proceed; till at last they arrive at infinity itself, beyond which there is no farther progress.

Brokeback Mountain

I want to pose a question about a scene in Brokeback Mountain, but to avoid spoilers (it's not much of one, actually), I'll pose it in a comment to this post.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Fair reporting from NYTimes

The official Vatican newspaper has published an article saying that "intelligent design" shouldn't be taught as science, and that there's no conflict between Catholicism and Darwinism-as-science. (Previous post on conflicts between evolution and religion from me here.) I just wanted to point out the NYTimes reporter's fair reporting (as opposed to the unquestioned parroting of what the two sides say, which often gives the illusion of credibility to cranks by giving them equal time). The article quotes a creationist as per journalistic practice, but also includes true facts that undermine him - which is as it should be.

After the Discovery Institute spokesman attempted to dismiss the Vatican article by saying it wasn't official Church policy, the reporter notes
L'Osservatore is the official newspaper of the Vatican and basically represents the Vatican's views. Not all its articles represent official church policy. At the same time, it would not be expected to present an article that dissented deeply from that policy.
And the article includes this refreshing reminder:
There is no credible scientific challenge to the idea that evolution explains the diversity of life on earth, but advocates for intelligent design posit that biological life is so complex that it must have been designed by an intelligent source.
It's not perfect, but credit where due... though I was still more impressed by this article from the Washington Post a few months ago.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Paper authorship

One consequence of the Hwang stem cell fraud scandal has been that the journal Science is considering reforms that would require authors to list their specific contributions to the paper and to sign a statement that they agree with the conclusions of the paper. Somewhat unusually, Nick Wade at the New York Times has created a parody of what would result from this:
Extension of Human Lifespan to 969 Years Following Vector Insertion fo Bristlecone Pine Antioxidant Gene Complex

Paul Kammerer,1 Charles Dawson,2 Jean-François Pipette,3 Trofim D. Lysenko4

1I supplied the midwife toad cells used in this experiment, on condition that my name was included as co-author.
2I was riding in the elevator with Dr. Lysenko one day and gave him an idea about spring wheat; he very graciously said he would add my name to his next paper.
3I performed all PCR reactions, gel analysis, bioinformatics, statistical analysis, collection of pine tree samples, and nuclear transfer procedures. I also suggested the original idea for the experiment, wrote the grant proposal and executed all experiments without the aid of a technician.
4As chief of the laboratory, I secured all the funds, hired all the personnel and credit for this publication.
It's an exaggeration, obviously (the do-nothings on the list are usually more towards the end), but not even so far from the truth as you might think - which is why I think the proposed reforms (already in place at Nature and JAMA) are a great idea. See also here.