Sunday, May 31, 2009

Words have consequences

In my last post, I shared the news that Dr. George Tiller has been murdered. I have absolutely no doubt this happened because of his willingness to do his job as a doctor and provide late-term abortions to his patients.

Now I see that Operation Rescue, an anti-choice organization, which has tried to stop Dr. Tiller in the past through lawsuits, have put up a post denouncing the murder.

It has been learned today that George Tiller was shot and killed while entering his church on Sunday morning, May 31.

Operation Rescue releases the following statement:

We are shocked at this morning’s disturbing news that Mr. Tiller was gunned down. Operation Rescue has worked for years through peaceful, legal means, and through the proper channels to see him brought to justice. We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning. We pray for Mr. Tiller’s family that they will find comfort and healing that can only be found in Jesus Christ.

This is an understandable reaction, but it doesn't absolve Operation Rescue of guilt.

One of David Neiwert's points in the Eliminatorists is that dehumanizing of people allows other people to commit atrocities against them, and Operation Rescue has been very busy dehumanizing Dr. Tiller indeed.

I took a screenshot of their denouncing the murder, and posted it below (click on it to see a larger version).

If you look closely at the image, you might notice a image in the lower right corner saying "America's Doctor of Death" bearing an image of the face of a man wearing spectacles. That man is Dr. Tiller, and clicking on the image on their website brings you to a category under their website called "Tiller watch" (the URL is

Calling someone "America's Doctor of Death" is dehumanizing him to an extreme degree, allowing people to ignore the fact that he is a person, which again allows people to do things like murdering him. Operation Rescue might not have pulled the trigger on Dr. Tiller, but they created an environment, where someone could pull the trigger on him.

Update: Jill Filipovic has written a piece in the Guardian which explains my sentiment a lot better: Who killed George Tiller?

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Abortion doctor murdered

Well know Dr. George Tiller of Wichita, who was known for being one of the few doctors in the US willing to make late term abortions, has been murdered.

NY Times has the story

Abortion Doctor Shot to Death in Church

George Tiller, a Wichita doctor who was one of the few doctors in the nation to perform late-term abortions, was shot to death on Sunday as he attended church, city officials in Wichita said.

It was not the first attempt on his life - he was shot in both arms in 1993, but unfortunately this time, it was fatal.

Dr. George Tiller was a brave man, and my thoughts go out to his family, colleagues, and friends. also has more

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Texas keeps murdering

One of the big reasons why I was very much opposed to George W. Bush even before he ran for president, was the fact that while he was Governor in Texas, he carried out more executions than any other Governor - 152 at the time he stopped. To give an impression of how big a number that is, let me just say that no other state have executed that number of people since the death penalty was re-introduced in 1976. The state that has executed the second most, Virginia, has executed 90 people since 1976.

It seems that the current governor of Texas, Rick Perry has surpassed Bush in murdering people - the 200th execution under Rick Perry is slated for June 2nd.

Why do I call it murder? In my opinion, the killing of anyone who you have full and total control over, cannot be considered anything else than murder. Societies can, and should, defend themselves against certain type of people, but when these are safely locked up in prison, murdering them only reduces society to their level.

Protest the 200th Rick Perry execution

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Social animals

Time magazine has a interesting article up about the correlation between social animals and brains size.

Social Animals: Not Necessarily Brainier

Being social isn't for dummies. Animals that gather into packs, herds or troops — never mind into cities and countries — need to be smart. How else to negotiate the complex rules and hierarchies of their cultures? It's not for nothing that sharks, among the dimmest of the large carnivores, are loners, or that humans — far and away the smartest — are so enthusiastically collectivist.

What this ought to mean is that social animals have bigger brains than solitary ones, and the research has indeed suggested as much. A landmark 2007 paper called "Social Brain Hypothesis," published in the journal Evolution, showed that increased sociality was linked to steadily bigger brains in at least three orders of mammals: primates like us, carnivores like lions and ungulates like zebras and bison.

That widely accepted truth might be coming undone, however, thanks to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to the authors, evolutionary biologists John Finarelli of the University of Michigan and John Flynn of the American Museum of Natural History, there's a much murkier link than we thought between big brains and big societies. As it turns out, it was our favorite nonhuman critters — dogs — that threw off previous data.

Finarelli and Flynn only focused on carnivores when looking at this, so the study is not as broad as earlier studies (like the 2007 study mentioned), but it goes into more dept in one area, studying not only the living species but also the fossil record.

The study is unfortunately behind PNAS' paywall, but the abstract can be found here: Brain-size evolution and sociality in Carnivora

I highly recommend the Time article, which is pretty well written, and which explains the research quite well.

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Sunday poetry

This is a video made by YouTube atheist ZOMGitsCriss featuring her own poetry. I thought I'd share it with you all.

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Final call for submissions

Image: wemidji (Jacques Marcoux).

Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est (And thus knowledge itself is power)

-- Sir Francis Bacon.

The Scientia Pro Publica (Science for the People) blog carnival celebrates the best science, nature and medical writing targeted to the public that has been published in the blogosphere within the past 60 days. To send your submissions to Scientia Pro Publica, use this automated submission form. Be sure to include the URL or "permalink", the essay title and, to make life easier for the host, please include a 2-3 sentence summary.

I'm hosting the next round of Scientia Pro Publica blog carnival, which will go up on June 1st. If you have submissions for that round, please submit them so I'll have them on Monday morning, CET. For Americans, that means that the posts need to be submitted before midnight tomorrow.

I'm sorry I haven't responded to the people who have already submitted, but I've been quite busy lately (which also explains my light blogging), so I haven't gotten around to looking at most of them yet.

It's probably also worth mentioning that the Skeptic's Circle blog carnival is also calling for submissions

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Segregation in the US - Prom night edition

I'll admit that I don't fully understand the significance of Proms in the US, but I get that it's a very big deal indeed. This is why this story is a very big deal indeed.

A Prom Divided

About now, high-school seniors everywhere slip into a glorious sort of limbo. Waiting out the final weeks of the school year, they begin rightfully to revel in the shared thrill of moving on. It is no different in south-central Georgia’s Montgomery County, made up of a few small towns set between fields of wire grass and sweet onion. The music is turned up. Homework languishes. The future looms large. But for the 54 students in the class of 2009 at Montgomery County High School, so, too, does the past. On May 1 — a balmy Friday evening — the white students held their senior prom. And the following night — a balmy Saturday — the black students had theirs.

The concept of racially divided proms is quite shocking. How can this happen in this day and age? And it's not like this is a freak occurrence.

Racially segregated proms have been held in Montgomery County — where about two-thirds of the population is white — almost every year since its schools were integrated in 1971. Such proms are, by many accounts, longstanding traditions in towns across the rural South, though in recent years a number of communities have successfully pushed for change.

The schools might be integrated, but obviously the societies they are in, are not. These kids study together, probably play sport together, but when it comes to the biggest party in high school, they spend it apart.

It would be easy to condemn the white children for doing this, but when reading the article, it becomes absolutely clear that the kids are innocent bystanders to their parents' prejudices.

Students of both races say that interracial friendships are common at Montgomery County High School. Black and white students also date one another, though often out of sight of judgmental parents. “Most of the students do want to have a prom together,” says Terra Fountain, a white 18-year-old who graduated from Montgomery County High School last year and is now living with her black boyfriend. “But it’s the white parents who say no. … They’re like, if you’re going with the black people, I’m not going to pay for it.”

It's easy for us to say that the white kids should stand up for their friends, and I'd like to think that I would had I been in their place, but that's easier said than done when living with your parents, being dependent upon them.

Given the fact that the young people seem to be less prejudiced than their parents, we would probably see an end to the segregated proms sooner or later. However, instead of waiting for that, I'd hope that the schools would address the issue, and try to work out a way to integrate these proms, as everything else in the kids' daily life should be integrated.

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Fossil trading

I have previously briefly mentioned the publication of the new primate fossil, Ida. One thing I didn't mention in the blogpost was that the fossil was not a new finding, but rather a fossil bought from a private collector and then studied.

The Guardian has more on this.

Unearthed: the murky world of fossil collecting

This week, a 47m-year-old primate hailed as a missing link was unveiled, but it took an astonishing fee to bring it to light

I have some deep ideological problems with the thought of fossils being in the hands of private collectors without scientists having access to them. This means that any potential knowledge we might gain from those fossils is unavailable to the rest of humanity, until the owner either sells the fossils or allows others access to them. There is also a risk of damage to the fossils due to wrong handling and storage.

In Denmark there has since 1990 been a law which requires that all fossils should be turned in at a state run naturalistic museum which will evaluate it, and see if it is considered rare or valuable enough for the State of Denmark to buy it. If that's the case, the finder will receive a finders fee, depending upon the value of the object. Otherwise the finder can keep the object.

Up until now, approximately 450 fossils has been acquired by the state, gaining the status of danekræ (Dane creatures).

This seems like a reasonable way of doing it. The finder will either get to keep the fossil, or will get compensated, while the scientists (and the public) will have access to any rare or valuable findings.

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Book Review: Society without God

Society without God - What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment by Phil Zuckerman

About 10 years ago, while I was studying full time, I had a part-time job in the evenings. One evening, when I was at work, I was talking with my colleagues, and the subject of our talk turned to religion. This is not an usual subject to talk about in Denmark, except in general terms and not touching upon personal opinions. This time was no different, and we somehow touched the idea that some people take the Bible literally, believing in a seven day creation etc. Much to my surprise, even shock, one of my colleagues told us that she believed exactly that. I was stunned, and after asking if she really believed that the world had been created by the Christian God in seven days, we all dropped the subject.

At the time, I was 24 or 25 years old, and that was the first time in my life I experienced a biblical literalist (or at least one who told me that he or she was one), and I have yet to meet another such in Denmark.

Depending on where you live, this story could surprise you in different ways. If you live in the Bible belt of the US (or even most of the rest of the US), you'd be surprised that I've only worked with one biblical literalist in nearly 35 years of life. On the other hand, if you're Danish, you'll surprised that I've actually met a biblical literalist, and that she admitted it.

The difference between these two cultures are really that stark.

It was these differences that Zuckerman experienced when he moved to Denmark for 14 months in 2005, and being an atheist, he appreciated the differences. What's more, Zuckerman noticed that while fundamentalist, evangelistic Christians in the US always claim that non-religious societies will descend into amoral atheistic anarchy, this was far from the picture he saw in Denmark and the neighboring Sweden, two of the least religious countries in the world. As a matter of fact, a good case could be made that those two countries could be considered among the best to live in in the world (he argues for this by presenting a number of metrics by which this could be measured, in which Denmark and Sweden usually rank among the highest in the world).

Given this fact, his atheism, his profession as a sociologist, and the simple fact that he, as he admits, has an axe to grind, he decided to set out to find out what godless countries like Denmark and Sweden might teach religious countries like the US.

Very early in the book Zuckerman made a distinction between a society without religion and a society without God, since Danes and Swedes to a large degree are members of the official churches and call themselves Christians, but don't believe in God, the divinity of Jesus, nor heaven and hell. Outside Denmark and Sweden, these concepts would seem essential for being Christian, but here, being a Christian is considered a cultural thing. People consider themselves Christian since they come from a country with a Christian background, and because they like the Christian ideals, not because they actually believe in the supernatural baggage the Christian faith carries along.

Unrelated to anything in the book, I should perhaps mention that this is something that causes problems with integrating immigrants and children of immigrants. You'll frequently hear people refer to others as Muslims, even though the people being referred have grown up in Denmark, and don't hold any religious faith. Since their parents come from a predominantly Muslim country, people think of them as Muslims, and thus non-Christians (and thus non-Danish).

Well, back to the book. Zuckerman tried to get to understand the religious feelings of Danes and Swedes better by interviewing both religious and non-religious people from both countries, trying to get them to answer questions about religion and their views on life. Based on these answers, Zuckerman has written a book with chapters focusing on such issues as "Fear of Death and the Meaning of Life", frequently referring to the answers he got, and the experiences he had while interviewing these people.

Now comes the part where my review will probably differ from what the experience people from religious countries will have.

What I found interesting about the book wasn't so much the answers to the questions, since they were pretty much as I would have expected, but rather the absolute astonishment that shines through the pages. Let me give you an example.

The first noteworthy part of the "group interview" [of 3 Swedes on a train] came when I asked them if they believed in God. Two of the women immediately said no. But the third, Katarina, hesitated before answering. She sat there, paused in thought. We quietly awaited her reply. She looked out the window, at the night blurring by. And then she said that she hadn't really thought about it before. She didn't know whether she did or didn't believe in God - not because she was philosophically agnostic, per se, but rather, because she found it somewhat a novel question. She asked for some time to think it over. Finally, after several moments, she came to her conclusion: no, she didn't think so. What struck me as so remarkable about her response was not that it was in the negative (I was quite used to that), but that she had needed time to mull it over, having admitted that it just wasn't something she had pondered much before. This was a slight shock to me. Never thought about belief in God before - come again? How is it possible to be in one's thirties and not yet have formed an opinion in God

Emphasis in the original. While not having thought about religious questions is a bit unusual, even in non-religious countries like Denmark and Sweden, it's not really that unusual (I believe Zuckerman found approx. 15% mot having done so), yet Zuckerman acts as I felt when I experienced a perfectly intelligent person tell me that she actually believed that a God created the Universe, Earth, and life in literally seven days (and not figuratively as Danish religious people usually do).

So, while the book will give Americans a good introduction into what a non-religious country can be like, it also will give Danes and Swedes an idea of how prevalent religion is in the US. This is probably not something Zuckerman had in mind when he wrote the book, but is just a lucky side effect.

In other words, I highly recommend the book, whether you are an American trying to understand non-religious countries, or you're a Dane or Swede trying to understand how our societies appear to outsiders.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

What to do in a zombie attack

Given the disturbing news over at Pharyngula, I thought I should share this informational video.

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Seeking science posts

As Grrlscientist explains I am the host of the next edition of Scientia Pro Publica, which will go up on the June 1st.

If you have a good science post, explaining science to the public in one way or another, please submit the post to the carnival (see Grrlscientist's post for explanation of how).

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Exciting new primate fossil discovery

If you follow science news, I am sure you've already heard about the new and exciting fossil find in Germany, but I still thought I'd mention it. It's a real scoop for PLoS One, and Bora is of course happy about it.

Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology by Jens L. Franzen, Philip D. Gingerich, Jörg Habersetzer, Jørn H. Hurum, Wighart von Koenigswald, B. Holly Smith


The best European locality for complete Eocene mammal skeletons is Grube Messel, near Darmstadt, Germany. Although the site was surrounded by a para-tropical rain forest in the Eocene, primates are remarkably rare there, and only eight fragmentary specimens were known until now. Messel has now yielded a full primate skeleton. The specimen has an unusual history: it was privately collected and sold in two parts, with only the lesser part previously known. The second part, which has just come to light, shows the skeleton to be the most complete primate known in the fossil record.

Methodology/Principal Findings

We describe the morphology and investigate the paleobiology of the skeleton. The specimen is described as Darwinius masillae n.gen. n.sp. belonging to the Cercamoniinae. Because the skeleton is lightly crushed and bones cannot be handled individually, imaging studies are of particular importance. Skull radiography shows a host of teeth developing within the juvenile face. Investigation of growth and proportion suggest that the individual was a weaned and independent-feeding female that died in her first year of life, and might have attained a body weight of 650–900 g had she lived to adulthood. She was an agile, nail-bearing, generalized arboreal quadruped living above the floor of the Messel rain forest.


Darwinius masillae represents the most complete fossil primate ever found, including both skeleton, soft body outline and contents of the digestive tract. Study of all these features allows a fairly complete reconstruction of life history, locomotion, and diet. Any future study of Eocene-Oligocene primates should benefit from information preserved in the Darwinius holotype. Of particular importance to phylogenetic studies, the absence of a toilet claw and a toothcomb demonstrates that Darwinius masillae is not simply a fossil lemur, but part of a larger group of primates, Adapoidea, representative of the early haplorhine diversification.

I could write a lot about why this is such a great find, but there will be others, much more qualified to do so, who will do that. Instead I'll point you to PLoS One's community blog, where they have a little background.

Introducing Darwinius masillae

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Book Review: The Eliminationists

The Eliminationists - How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right by David Neiwert

The author of this book, David Neiwert, is a well-respected blogger, who blogs at Orcinus. In my opinion, he is one of the best writers in the blogsphere. His blogposts are well written and well researched, building on top of his great knowledge of the topics he blog about. On top of that, he is one of the few genuine experts in the blogsphere - he is your go-to man, if you want to know something about the far-right movement(s) in the US; a subject he has written books about in the past.

His newest book also relates to the far-right movement(s), and this time he focuses on how pundits, especially talk radio hosts, transmits extremist ideas into the mainstream conservative movement, by either transmitting these ideas as facts, or by allowing right-winged extremist access to their microphones, presenting them as mainstream voices and/or experts on the subject being discussed.

If you've read Neiwert's blog, Orcinus, you'll recognize the theme, and in many ways, the book can be considered a collection of his blogposts on the subject, distilled down to the core ideas and concepts, and fleshed out a bit.

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed by the book, since it was neither as scholarly nor as journalistic as I had expected, based upon his earlier books. This time Neiwert's own opinions come to the fore much more, though still backed up with research and references. Even so, I would still consider this an important book, showing both how extremist ideas can spread and become mainstream, and how there are some real worrisome tendencies towards fascism among these extremists and their broadcasters.

This should not be misunderstood to mean that Neiwert thinks that the conservative movement is fascists, but he thinks the tendencies towards fascism are there, and he explains why he reaches this conclusion.

If you live in the US, or are interested in US politics, I recommend this book. It's not pleasant reading, but it's important, and even if you end up disagreeing with Neiwert's conclusions, you will have some things to think about.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Dunning-Kruger effect

We've all experienced situations where we've run into people who seemed unable to estimate their own (lack of) skills in a particular area. It might be as extreme as the Creationist who tries to explain science to the scientist, but it can also be people in your day to day life, who overestimates their own skills in one thing or another.

There are two explanations for this. One is the "above-average syndrome", the other is the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The "above-average syndrome" is, simply put, that the average person in a given field will believe themselves to be above average. In other words, more people believe themselves above average than really are. Obviously, only 50% can be above average, but there are perhaps 80% who believes they are.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is related to the above-average syndrome, but it's one explanation of why this syndrome exist (there can be other reasons). The effect is named after Justin Kruger and David Dunning who made a series of experiments, which results they published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in December 1999. The title of the article was Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments (.pdf), which to my mind is one of the greatest titles I've ever seen on an article.

I highly recommend downloading the article, and reading it. It's fairly straightforward, and you don't need any background in psychology to understand it.

Dunning and Kruger looked at the above-average effect, and formed the hypothesis that it takes skills to evaluate yourself. With that hypothesis in mind, they set out to make a number of experiments to either disprove it, or to support it. Since I'm writing about the effect now, you've probably already figured out that their experiments supported their hypothesis.

Their experiments were fairly straightforward:
- Ask people to do some tests.
- Get people to evaluate how well they did compared to others.

At later tests they also included the following:
- Show people how others did.
- Get people to re-evaluate their level compared to others.

First they put people through a number of tests in different areas, and afterward asked them to evaluate how well they would do compared to others based on how they perceived their skill level. The results can be seen in the following figure from the paper.

Dunning-Kruger results 1

As can be clearly seen, while the trend line of the perceived skill level was correct, everyone who took the tests believed that they were in the 3rd quartile. In other words, while the people in the 1st quartile estimated themselves lower than the people in the 2nd quartile, they vastly overestimated their abilities compared to others (by some 50 percentage points).

As the study says, there are two potential sources for the this wrong estimate, which Dunning and Kruger tried to evaluate.

Finally, we wanted to introduce another objective criterion with which we could compare participants' perceptions. Because percentile ranking is by definition a comparative measure, the miscalibration we saw could have come from either of two sources. In the comparison, participants may have overestimated their own ability (our contention) or may have underestimated the skills of their peers.

The way they tested this, was by not only asking people to compare themselves with other people, but also by asking them to tell how many questions they thought they had answered correctly. If they were correct in the number of questions they had answered correctly, this would mean that they had underestimated the skills of their peers rather than overestimated their own skills. This was, unfortunately, not the case. It turned out that people were actually pretty good at estimating how many correct answers would place them in their position, but were not able to estimate how many answers they would answer correctly.

In other words, it was not a failure of estimating others, it was a failure of estimating themselves (this held true across all quartiles, but was most strikingly among the lowest quartile).

All in all, the test results pretty much supported the hypothesis which Dunning and Kruger had made, but while it demonstrated the inability of people to estimate themselves, it didn't really address whether people would have the skill-set to re-evaluate their ability.

This is also something Dunning and Kruger set out to test.

Participants. Four to six weeks after Phase 1 of Study 3 [a grammar test] was completed, we invited participants from the bottom- (n = 17) and top-quartile (n = 19) back to the laboratory in exchange for extra credit or $5. All agreed and participated.
Procedure. On arriving at the laboratory, participants received a packet of five tests that had been completed by other students in the first phase of Study 3. The tests reflected the range of performances that their peers had achieved in the study (i.e., they had the same mean and standard deviation), a fact we shared with participants. We then asked participants to grade each test by indicating the number of questions they thought each of the five test-takers had answered correctly.

After this, participants were shown their own test again and were asked to re-rate their ability and performance on the test relative to their peers, using the same percentile scales as before. They also re-estimated the number of test questions they had answered correctly.

The results were very interesting, as can be seen in the two figures I'e made based upon the numbers from the article.

Dunning-Kruger lowest quartile

Dunning-Kruger highest quartile

As the figures plainly show, the people in the highest quartile could use the information they gained to adjust their evaluation in the correct direction, though they were still too low. The people in the lowest quartile on the other hand, were unable to properly estimate their own effort, and actually misjudged their score even more afterward.

All in all, the tests supported Dunning and Kruger's hypothesis, and it gives us a better understanding of why people some times are so bad at judging their own skill level.

Having said all that, I should probably mention that later researchers disputes some of the conclusions made by Dunning and Kruger. In Skilled or Unskilled, but Still Unaware of It: How Perceptions Difficulty Drive Miscalibration in Relative Comparisons (.pdf) Burson et al. argues that it's not just unskilled people who can have a hard time evaluating their own skill level.

People are inaccurate judges of how their abilities compare to others’. J. Kruger and D. Dunning (1999, 2002) argued that unskilled performers in particular lack metacognitive insight about their relative performance and disproportionately account for better-than-average effects. The unskilled overestimate their actual percentile of performance, whereas skilled performers more accurately predict theirs.
However, not all tasks show this bias. In a series of 12 tasks across 3 studies, the authors show that on moderately difficult tasks, best and worst performers differ very little in accuracy, and on more difficult tasks, best performers are less accurate than worst performers in their judgments. This pattern suggests that judges at all skill levels are subject to similar degrees of error. The authors propose that a noise-plus-bias model of judgment is sufficient to explain the relation between skill level and accuracy of judgments of relative standing.

In Burson et al. study, the best quartile underestimated themselves when dealing with hard tasks as the worst quartile overestimated themselves when dealing with easy tasks.

Burson et al

This doesn't necessarily invalidates the Dunning-Kruger effect, but it does tell us that we can't rely on people to correctly evaluate themselves, no matter their skill level.

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Blog carnivals

The approx. 110th Skeptics' Circle is up over at Ferret's Cage, and it's the Calvinball edition

The 3rd edition of Scientia Pro Publica is up at Deep Thoughts and Silliness - Scientia Pro Publica 3: the Swine 'flu Edition.
Scientia Pro Publica is a continuation of the earlier Tangled Bank blog carnivals, and was started by GrrlScientist

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Privacy in social networks

Like so many other people using the internet, I use several social networks (LinkedIn, facebook, MySpace, Twitter, flickr), which means that I have a social profile on the internet. My social profile on the internet is fairly public, but many people prefer to make themselves more anonymous while using these social networks (through the options provided by these social networks).

Many people, myself included, have had some doubts about whether it was really possible to have privacy while being on a social network. We no longer need to doubt this - we can now say for sure that it doesn't really know. A recent study which will be presented at IEEE Security & Privacy '09 has demonstrated that it's possible to de-anonymize social networks by using the data that the networks sell to advertisers and make public on the internet.

The study is described in Technology review

Unmasking Social-Network Users

Researchers find a way to identify individuals in supposedly anonymous social-network data.

What was studied was whether it was possible to use the data that social networks sell, where personal identifiers have been removed, together with public available data (accessible from the internet), and connect the sold data to actual people.

The actual study is available on the internet here: De-anonymizing Social Networks.

As the abstracts clearly states, the experiment was fairly successful.

Operators of online social networks are increasingly sharing potentially sensitive information about users and their relationships with advertisers, application developers, and data-mining researchers. Privacy is typically protected by anonymization, i.e., removing names, addresses, etc.

We present a framework for analyzing privacy and anonymity in social networks and develop a new re-identification algorithm targeting anonymized social-network graphs. To demonstrate its effectiveness on real-world networks, we show that a third of the users who can be verified to have accounts on both Twitter, a popular microblogging service, and Flickr, an online photo-sharing site, can be re-identified in the anonymous Twitter graph with only a 12% error rate.

Our de-anonymization algorithm is based purely on the network topology, does not require creation of a large number of dummy "sybil" nodes, is robust to noise and all existing defenses, and works even when the overlap between the target network and the adversary's auxiliary information is small.

The results are worrisome even for people like me who is fairly public on the internet. Since these data are sold to advertisers, it means that the social networks unwittingly provides them with personal information about me and my friends, even if they explicitly say that they won't do that.

The good things about this study is that the problem is now out in the open, and that there now is a framework for testing the privacy of social networks.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Rephrasing global warming

NY Times is reporting on a new attempt to convince more people that global warming is real.

Seeking to Save the Planet, With a Thesaurus

The problem with global warming, some environmentalists believe, is “global warming.”

The term turns people off, fostering images of shaggy-haired liberals, economic sacrifice and complex scientific disputes, according to extensive polling and focus group sessions conducted by ecoAmerica, a nonprofit environmental marketing and messaging firm in Washington.

Instead of grim warnings about global warming, the firm advises, talk about “our deteriorating atmosphere.” Drop discussions of carbon dioxide and bring up “moving away from the dirty fuels of the past.” Don’t confuse people with cap and trade; use terms like “cap and cash back” or “pollution reduction refund.”

I fully understand the power of words when trying to convince someone about an idea or a stance, which is why I won't ever refer to anti-choice people by the label they give themselves. Regarding global warming, however, we're not talking about ideas or stances, but hard scientific facts.

What's needed is for the decision makers to understand these facts, and act accordingly. As James Hansen said in a recent talk in Denmark, which I attended, the problem is the difference in what is known (by the scientists) and what is understood (by the politicians and the public).

The so-called "debate" about global warming, or rather anthropogenic global warming, is a debate between the scientific community on one side, and a well-funded pseudo-scientific inter-connected lobbyist network on the other side. Changing the words won't change this fact.

One of the most well-known speakers on the side of science is a politician, Al Gore. By US standards, he falls squarely in the center of the political spectrum (in Europe, he would be considered right-of-center). He has done a lot in convincing people about the threat - not by changing the terminology, but by presenting what we know (the facts, and the science behind it). This is how we convince people. Not by trying to think of new words to say the same things.

New terminology would perhaps be successful, if it was just an image problem, but since the problem is caused by people actively lying about the science, no amount of rephrasing will help.

In other words, while I understand what ecoAmerica is suggesting, they don't take into consideration the fact that there are well-funded organizations which will actively work against the new terminology, trying to keep real science from shaping the public opinion.

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Press freedom on the decline

I am not one of the bloggers who believe that the so-called new media (blogs, twitter etc.) will take over the role of the old media (newspapers, TV etc.). Rather I believe that blogs and other alternative news sources can add as supplements to, and fact checkers of, regular media. There are many reasons I believe this, and I am probably to some degree colored by the fact that I grew up with a father who was a financial journalist, but whatever the reasons behind my stance, it's very much dependent upon the existence of a free media.

This is why a new report by Freedom House disturbs me.

Their press release sums it up pretty well.

New Study: Global Press Freedom Declines in Every Region for First Time Israel, Italy and Hong Kong Lose Free Status

Journalists faced an increasingly grim working environment in 2008, with global press freedom declining for a seventh straight year and deterioration occurring for the first time in every region, according to Freedom House's annual media study. The rollback was not confined to traditionally authoritarian states; with Israel, Italy and Hong Kong slipping from the study's Free category to Partly Free status.

The actual report is linked from the press release, and it's well worth reading. Even if you disagree with my stance on old vs. new media, most, or all, of the limitations on press freedom will also but limits on blogging, podcasting etc.

For democracies to work properly, it's necessary for the population to have access to independent reporting, so it's especially disturbing to see several democracies on the list of "partly free" countries.

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Jack Kemp, supply-side economics champion, dies

Former Republican congressman and Housing Secretary in the George H. Bush administration Jack Kemp has died, 73 years old.

A major player in the Republican party, and a pillar of it's broad tent strategy, his greatest, and most damaging, legacy was the fact that he convinced Ronald Reagan to base his economic policies on the Chicago School of economics, and the now-disproved supply-side economics (Reagan's brand of this became known as Reaganomics, and resulted in huge national debt).

Blame for the economics morass caused by Reaganomics, and the later George W. Bush variant, cannot of course be laid entirely, or even mostly, at the feet of Jack Kemp. I cannot, however, help wondering what would have happened if someone with more economical sense had been able to convince Ronald Reagan and the neo-Conservatives about a more sound economical philosophy.

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

Lazy linking

Another round of things on the internet which I found interesting to share

Malcolm Gladwell “Black Like Them.” (via Alas, A Blog)

ERV tells us a disturbing piece of news: HIV-1 CTL Vaccine: OH SHI-

Chris Clarke has made a new environmental group/community blog: The Clade

NY Times has an interesting article on Homo Floresiensis; A Tiny Hominid With No Place on the Family Tree

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