2013 Enlightener & Deceiver Awards

Dan Josefsson: Enlightener of the Year 2013

Dan Josefsson: Enlightener of the Year 2013

The Swedish Skeptics have announced their annual awards for 2013.

The Enlightener of the Year award is given to Dan Josefsson for his book Mannen som slutade ljuga, “The Man Who Stopped Lying”, and his documentary film Kvinnan bakom Thomas Quick, “The Woman Behind Thomas Quick”. Both describe the outlandish Freudian cult around psychoanalyst Margit Norell and how her ideas about repressed memory therapy caused an incarcerated junkie to confess over thirty murders and become convicted for eight despite a complete lack of forensic evidence. He has since been acquitted from all eight. Norell’s followers at a psychiatric clinic and in the legal system were stuck in a thought structure that made itself immune to critical testing. If the suspect confessed to serial killings, then this was proof of his guilt. If he seemed unable to remember or describe even one detail of a murder correctly, then this too proved him guilty. Josefsson illuminates a case that has occupied Swedes and Norwegians for 20 years and finally makes it comprehensible.

The Deceiver of the Year anti-award is given to Strålskyddsstiftelsen, “The Radiation Protection Foundation”, a small alarmist lobby organisation that disseminates skewed and inaccurate health claims and conspiracy theories about cell phones and wifi connections, not least to schools.

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Download Dawkins’ God Delusion In Arabic For Free

Bassam Al-Baghdady (@Al_Baghdady on Twitter) is a Swedish film writer. He’s translated Richard Dawkins’ 2006 best-seller The God Delusion into Arabic. Bassam tells me the file may be disseminated freely, so go ahead and download Dawkins’ God Delusion in Arabic for free! وهم الاله بقلم ريتشارد دوكنز.

Two disclaimers, though.

1. Despite numerous contact efforts over many weeks, I haven’t received any response from Richard Dawkins or his staff when I’ve asked for permission to put the book up for download. The reason that I am going ahead anyway is that there is no official Arabic translation of the book that I could recommend people to buy. If Dawkins or his staff get in touch with me and ask me to take the file down, I will do so swiftly.

2. I don’t know Arabic. For all I know, the file may actually contain the script of the third season of Seinfeld. But I trust Bassam and I will be interested to receive comments on his translation.

Critical Thinking Training Makes Kids Smart And Also Atheist

I’m weeks late to the party here. If you pay attention to atheist issues you’ve probably heard that a recent major meta-study* concludes that at the population level, atheists are a bit smarter than religious folks (mainly Protestant Americans and English in this case). Not dramatically so, but in a statistically significant way. The difference persists even if you control for gender and education level. This means that if you look only at poorly educated people, the unbelievers are a bit smarter, and likewise if you look only at highly educated people, or women, or men. Here are some thoughts about this.

Intelligence is, to the extent that it is measurable, caused by both genetics and environment. Take a pair of twins and give one good nutrition, care and education – and withhold all this from the other twin. Then the first twin will score better at IQ tests than her sister. On the other hand, kids with smart parents tend to grow up smarter than other people even if they are separated from their parents at birth. The new study documents a drop-off in the difference in intelligence between atheists and believers after higher education. Atheists are still smarter, but the difference shrinks. That is very telling to me.

I don’t think having atheist beliefs makes you smarter. Nor does being smart make you more likely to become an atheist. The study’s authors suggest that the main explanation for the difference is that “intelligent people do not accept beliefs not subject to empirical tests or evidence”. This is almost certainly the wrong explanation. It may be an observational truth, but it is not a causal explanation.

Here’s how I think it works. It has to do not only with the amount of education controlled for by the study, but with the content of your early indoctrination and later education – specifically, whether you are encouraged to think critically or not.

By definition, religious upbringing and education teaches acceptance of some scriptural authority. Not only on ethical issues, but on matters of fact, such as “Is there a god and what’s her name?”. This is why religious affiliation runs so strongly in families, communities and cultures. There are an awful lot of Hindus in the world, for instance, but geographically and culturally they are sharply delimited. This religion’s success has nothing to do with smart people in India looking over the global options and picking the best one. It is due to everybody in that area, smart or stupid, being indoctrinated in the readily available and culturally accepted default faith. Religious people often attend religious schools and universities.

Non-religious upbringing and education, on the other hand, tends to be equally big on the ethics but more critical and open on factual issues. My kids, for instance, often get the reply “Can you guess?” when they ask their dad questions. This, I believe, gives a child’s intelligence a big push. The fact that this correlates with atheism is simply an epiphenomenon. If taught critical thinking, kids become more intelligent and also happen to be less open to accepting untestable or empirically false religious beliefs. Critical thinking training makes kids a bit smarter – and also atheist.

* Zuckerman, M.; Silberman, J. & Hall, J.A. 2013. The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations. Personality and Social Psychology Review, Aug. 6, 2013.

I was inspired to write this blog entry by the discussion on episode #100 of the excellent Skeptikerpodden podcast. Congrats guys, keep up the good work!

Talking To Stubbornly Angle-Pushing Journalist About Vaccine

As part of my duties as chairman of the Swedish Skeptics, earlier tonight I took part in a studio discussion on Swedish TV4 about Gardasil, the vaccine against human papilloma virus that is offered to all 12-y-o Swedish girls. It was a pretty silly affair. The TV people had decided on the angle that the information given about the vaccine to young girls isn’t detailed enough. For instance, the school hallway fliers don’t tell the kids that the protection rate against HPV isn’t 100% (duh) or that very rarely the vaccine can provoke some serious side effects (duh again). These are traits, I should probably explain, that Gardasil shares with all other vaccines. And they had invited a young lady who suffers from a rare side effect. Not, as I pointed out on air, the 10,000 contemporaries of hers who have not experienced any side effects.

In my opinion, the crew had taken on a feeble story from a feeble angle and run way too far with it. Wouldn’t surprise me if they get their fingers slapped by the Swedish Broadcasting Commission. But still fun to practice my TV skillz.

The Sacred Blue String of Ethnic Identity

rarestblue-w180pxIn this well-written, painstakingly annotated and beautifully designed book, physicist Baruch Sterman (with contributor Judy Taubes Sterman) traces the history and prehistory of a certain blue pigment, along with its cultural and religious significance through the ages. It’s what the Torah and Talmud calls tekhelet, and it’s made from a gland harvested from Murex sea snails.

Though greatly interested in history, archaeology and biology, I find myself poorly equipped to engage with the book’s subject matter. Or put differently, I don’t think I’m part of its intended audience. Because there’s a major unstated premise here, explaining why a writer would want to view the history of the Eastern Mediterranean from such an odd thematic standpoint. Sterman assumes that his readers will find deeply meaningful certain mollusc-dyed blue treads prescribed in the Torah for the fringe of a Jew’s ritual shawl. Those tassels are where his entire project starts. He clearly feels that the 19th century rediscovery of the ancient sacred dye that had been forgotten for centuries was a symbolically important event that renewed Judaism’s ties with its origins. Indeed, working with dye is “… an integral part of my life’s goal: the modern renewal of ancient techniques and a return to practices forgotten for so many centuries and nearly lost to history” (p. 219). Whereas I – an atheist Gentile, a cultural relativist and a citizen of the world’s probably least nationalistic nation – believe that no culture is particularly meaningful or carries any intrinsic value.

All people have culture and funny traditional garments. That’s nothing to wave about. There is no way for us humans to avoid having culture and funny garments. If we manage to uphold some kind of long-term continuity in this area, then so what? A modern Jew still is not the same as an Iron Age Jew. A born-and-bred Swede, I am not even the same as the people who called themselves Swedes 500 years ago. The people who now wear blue-fringed ritual shawls are essentially reenactors to me. Renaissance Fair.

Don’t get me wrong: though he’s hugely enthusiastic about past leaders of Hasidism, I don’t think Sterman is an ethno-religious chauvinist. He just assumes that his reader will agree that customs such as the wearing of ritual shawls made according to ancient rules are very fine things. He describes his own attitude to those blue fringes in terms of “exuberant fervour” and “overwhelming sense of humility” (p. 210). Sterman is completely OK with the Baal-worshipping Canaanites of yore that get such a rough treatment by the Torah’s writers. But he doesn’t so much as mention today’s Palestinians. And after explaining that the Dome of the Rock sits on the site of the Jewish temple’s Holy of Holies, he admiringly describes the Temple Institute, an organisation that prepares for the reinstatement of scriptural Jewish temple service on that very spot! I can only call this passive-aggressive. And in that context it is distinctly odd to find Sterman speaking appreciatively about Irish independence from the English.

Sterman’s use of the Torah as historical source is completely uncritical. To point out just one of the more obvious issues, he doesn’t acknowledge that Kings David and Solomon are now widely considered to be fictional. They’re to Israel what the Yellow Emperor is to China. Last I checked, the 9th century BC King Omri of Israel was the earliest Biblical figure whose bare existence has unequivocal support in period sources. If I understand correctly, historians in Tel Aviv have accepted this for decades while the ones in Jerusalem hold on to the traditional accounts. Sterman is a very well-read man, as the book’s meaty bibliography attests. I can only assume that he knows that not even all Israeli Jews believe in King David any more, but has chosen to uphold a polite fiction that his intended reader will be happy to share.

I would prefer it if people living in Israel rolled up both their fringed shawls and their prayer rugs once and for all and sent them off to be recycled. They are a stark example of how unhealthy it is hold on to tribal superstitions and ancient identities. Jews should be more concerned with tying knots of fellowship with the Palestinians and neighbouring countries than with the fictional kings of a bygone golden age.

But if you’re willing to agree that ancient religious traditions should be cherished, that ancient religious scriptures are trustworthy historical sources, and that disgruntled ethnic minorities should be ignored, then this is a good read.

Sterman, B. & Taubes Sterman, J. 2012. The Rarest Blue. Jerusalem & New York. 306 pp. ISBN 978-965-229-621-4.

Registration Opens For European Skeptics Conference

conf-logoRegistration has opened for the 15th European Skeptics Conference. Hie thee there and register NOW, because there’s only 400 tickets!

Here’s the confirmed (still evolving) line-up:

  • Anna Bäsén (Sweden): Undercover Health Journalism
  • Chris French (UK): Psychological Perspectives on Paranormal Belief and Experience
  • Maria Berglund (Sweden): Våra opålitliga hjärnor: hur fel vi uppfattar världen och hur fel vi tänker om det vi uppfattar
  • Dénis Caroti (France): CorteX and Chomsky’s Wish
  • Kendrick Frazier (US) of the Committe for Skeptical Inquiry: title to be announced.
  • Christer Fuglesang (Sweden): ESA: Did You Know That You Too Are Co-Owner of a Space Agency?
  • D.J. Grothe (US) of the James Randi Educational Foundation: Critical-thinking Teaching Materials for Schools
  • Kristine Hjulstad (Norway): How Magicians Fool Our Brains
  • Catherine de Jong (Netherlands): Pseudoscientific Addiction Treatments
  • Max Maven (US) does magic
  • Michael “Marsh” Marshall (UK): Bad News. PR and Spin in the Media
  • Beatrice Mautino (Italy): Solving Mysteries to Learn Science (and Vice Versa)
  • Hans Rosling and Ola Rosling (Sweden): A Fact-based Worldview Through Animated Data
  • Hayley Stevens (UK): The Things That Go Bump In The Night: A Look At The True Menace Of The Ghost Hunt
  • Tom Stone (Sweden): The Art of Deception
  • Barbro Walker (Germany): A Close Look at Brain Gym
  • Tomasz Witkowski (Poland): Is Psychology a Cargo-Cult Science?

Hindawi Responds

Paul Peters, Hindawi Publishing

The Scholarly Open Access web site says that Open Access journal house Hindawi Publishing may show some predatory characteristics. I’ve simply called Hindawi “dodgy”. Their Chief Strategy Officer Paul Peters commented here on the blog and then swiftly replied to some questions of mine, showing that the firm realises that its on-line reputation is important to success. Here’s what Mr. Peters says.

MR: Why did Hindawi’s Journal of Archaeology go on-line months before it had any papers?

This is generally the case for all new journals that we launch, and I believe it is quite common among other publishers as well. Having the website publicly available at the time that we open the journal for submission enables potential authors to see the list of Editorial Board Members and read over the journal’s author guidelines prior to submitting their manuscript.

[MR comments: The typical way to launch an academic journal is actually for the Editor-in-Chief to use their network to solicit papers for the first issue and go public when it’s been completed. If the initiative comes from a publisher, they will ask the Editor-in-Chief to do precisely this.]

MR: Why doesn’t the JoA have an Editor-in-Chief?

The Journal of Archaeology does not have an Editor-in-Chief since it uses a distributed editorial model in which each submitted manuscript is assigned to an appropriate Editorial Board Member based on their area of expertise, and then the Editorial Board Member takes full control of the review process for that manuscript. Our staff perform an initial check at the point of submission to check for potential cases of plagiarism or other academic misconduct, and then they assign the manuscript to the most appropriate editor, after checking to make sure that there is no obvious conflict of interest between the authors of the submitted manuscript and the Editor who it is assigned to. A full description of the journal’s editorial workflow can be found on the journal website.

[MR comments: So it’s not quite true that the JoA has no Editor-in-Chief. It has 71 independent Editors-in-Chief that don’t necessarily know each other, each of whom is putting their reputation at the mercy of all the other 70. And the person at the publishing house who selects which editor is competent to judge a given manuscript and select referees does not themself know anything about the subject.]

MR: Why did Hindawi’s Journal of Environmental and Public Health publish this infamously bad alternative medicine paper by Chevalier et al.? It suggests that this journal sees little or no peer review.

This manuscript underwent a full review process, as is the case with every article that we publish. We publish the name of the Editor who was responsible for handling each published article, and in this case the manuscript was recommended for publication by Dr Gerry Schwalfenberg from the University of Alberta (see a list of Dr Schwalfenberg’s recent publications), who was one of the Guest Editors of the Special Issue in which this article was published.

I do agree that the concept of “Earthing” is not a very widely accepted medical practice, however unless we have reason to believe that there was any academic misconduct during the peer review process, we are not in any position to overrule the editorial decisions of our Academic Editors and peer reviewers.

[MR comments: Gerry Schwalfenberg seems to be an open-minded sort of fellow with an interest in dietary supplements. On one hand he has published a paper in Hindawi’s abovementioned JEPH suggesting that vitamin D deficiency might cause autoimmune diseases. This is a fringe idea. On the other hand, he’s co-author of a PLoS paper documenting the presence of toxic elements in alternative medication. I’ll ask him to comment on the Chevalier et al. “earthing” paper.]

Hindawi: Another Dodgy OA Publisher

Hot on the heels of the hapless Science Publishing Group, I have received solicitation spam from another dodgy OA publisher, Hindawi Publishing in Cairo, with another odd on-line archaeology journal.

The Journal of Archaeology has 71 academics on its editorial board. And a strangely generic name. What it doesn’t have is any published papers yet, after months on-line, or an editor-in-chief. So I wrote to some board members at European universities, and they replied that they thought the journal was probably legit, though they weren’t exactly sure. “The lack of published papers and low manuscript turnover has concerned me, yet they appear very professional in approach”, says one scholar, and “I personally know a good handful of the other Editors including a senior member of staff in my department. They are very well respected and knowledgeable so I would be surprised if we have all fallen for a scam, but I will look into it further”, says another.

Anyway, Dear Reader, if out of the blue you get an offer to do something with an on-line scientific journal you aren’t absolutely sure about, here’s some advice.

1. If they immediately offer you to not only contribute papers, but to also become a member of the editorial board and a peer reviewer, then it’s a scam.

2. Search the Wikipedia article about the publishers for the word “predatory”.

3. Look the publishers up on the Scholarly Open Access web site.

4. Does the journal have a named editor-in-chief? If not, then it’s a scam. If there is a named editor, google that person. If the person seems legit, email them at their departmental address and ask them to confirm that they stand by the journal.

Note that when I say “scam” here, I mean that the journals in question have no academic standing, no impact factor and no readership. They will almost certainly publish any piece you give them once you’ve paid their fee. But equally certainly, nobody will ever read or cite that piece.

2012 Enlightener & Deceiver Awards

The Swedish Skeptics have announced their annual awards for 2012. Both the Enlightener award and the Deceiver award are given to the editorial staff of programmes on Swedish national radio.

Medierna is a weekly media criticism show. They roast journalists in an excellently skeptical fashion and have during the year touched upon mistreatment of subjects such as climatology, alternative medicine and vaccination.

Nyhetsguiden is a daily news analysis show. In April and May they ran several anecdote-based antivaccine stories about the ongoing effort to vaccinate prepubescent girls against the cancer-causing HPV virus. This was particularly irresponsible as the Swedish public has a heightened vulnerability to antivax propaganda after the nationwide swine flu vaccination programme was found to correlate with a heightened incidence of narcolepsy. Nyhetsguiden also flirted with climate denialism in November. This kind of reporting is alas what often happens when the science beat is left to general news reporters.

Swedish Skeptics 30 Years

Today is the Swedish Skeptics Society’s 30th birthday! It was started in 1982 on inspiration from the American organisation CSICOP (est. 1976). I’ve been a member since 1996 and now I’m the society’s sixth chairman.

So, what does a skeptical society do? We’re a science-friendly resistance movement. We fight quack medicine, newspaper horoscopes, spiritualist mediums, climate change denialism, anti-vaccine propaganda, technophobic scare mongering etc. We make the New Age a Past Age. This we accomplish by publishing a quarterly journal, organising lecture series and pubmeets, handing out prizes and anti-prizes, maintaining a lively on-line forum and generally making our agenda visible in old and new media. Join our chapters in Stockholm, Uppsala, Gothenburg and the Trestad area! And come to our big Euro Congress in Stockholm 23-25 August next year!