New Caledonian crow
Humans and other animals

Crows’ reasoning ability rivals that of seven-year-old humans

Using the Aesop’s Fable Paradigm to Investigate Causal Understanding of Water Displacement by New Caledonian Crows:

Understanding causal regularities in the world is a key feature of human cognition. However, the extent to which non-human animals are capable of causal understanding is not well understood. Here, we used the Aesop’s fable paradigm – in which subjects drop stones into water to raise the water level and obtain an out of reach reward – to assess New Caledonian crows’ causal understanding of water displacement.

We found that crows preferentially dropped stones into a water-filled tube instead of a sand-filled tube; they dropped sinking objects rather than floating objects; solid objects rather than hollow objects, and they dropped objects into a tube with a high water level rather than a low one.

However, they failed two more challenging tasks which required them to attend to the width of the tube, and to counter-intuitive causal cues in a U-shaped apparatus. Our results indicate that New Caledonian crows possess a sophisticated, but incomplete, understanding of the causal properties of displacement, rivalling that of 5–7 year old children.

(via The Guardian)


The Venn Diagram of Irrational Nonsense

The Venn Diagram of Irrational Nonsense by Crispian Jago. (via Boing Boing)

The curiously revered world of irrational nonsense has seeped into almost every aspect of modern society and is both complex and multifarious. Therefore rather than attempt a comprehensive taxonomy, I have opted instead for a gross oversimplification and a rather pretty Venn Diagram.


The Venn Diagram of Irrational Nonsense

“As such nonsensical beliefs continue to evolve they become more and more fanciful and eventually creep across the bollock borders. Although all the items depicted on the diagram are completely bereft of any form of scientific credibility, those that successfully intersect the sets achieve new heights of implausibility and ridiculousness. And there is one belief so completely ludicrous it successfully flirts with all forms of bollocks.”

Evolution icon by Michael McMillan

Why I do NOT “believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution”

Paul Braterman: Why I do NOT “believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution”

A recent Harris poll asked Americans “Do you believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution?” Others more eminent have commented on the answers; I would like to comment on the question.

It would be difficult to cram a larger number of serious errors into so small a space.

The word ‘theory’ means different things to the general public and the scientific community: In common language a theory always involves speculation. In academic discourse, it means a coherent set of ideas that explain the facts.

Darwin didn’t understand evolution (or ‘natural selection’) as well as we do today: He knew nothing about mutations or even about the existence of specific genes, and so he had no idea how new variants could arise and spread. His assumption of gradualism is in contrast to later ideas such as punctuated equilibrium, and we now know that much if not indeed most variation arises through neutral drift. Thus not only do we know far more facts about evolution than Darwin could have dreamt of, but our theories, too, incorporate numerous additional concepts.

Belief implies that disbelief is an option: Some people believe that Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States, but no one would say they “believe” that Barak Obama is the current incumbent, because no sane person doubts it.

Evolution icon by Michael McMillan

Climate change denial pie chart

Out of 2,258 peer-reviewed articles published between November 2012 and December 2013 articles (9,136 authors in total), only 1 rejected the notion of human-driven global warming.

To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of climate change denial is how deniers essentially never publish in legitimate journals, but instead rely on talk shows, grossly error-laden op-eds, and hugely out-of-date claims (that were never right to start with).
Phil Plait, writing for Slate

Shape of things to come

The very, very thin wedge of climate change denial

If you listen to Fox News, or right-wing radio, or read the denier blogs, you’d have to think climate scientists were complete idiots to miss how fake global warming is. Yet despite this incredibly obvious hoax, no one ever publishes evidence exposing it.


Hypermorgen is an interdisciplinary lab for futures research:

We recently designed some icons to represent topics that will most likely become increasingly interesting in the next few years.

Some of them are tongue in cheek (like the Stanford bunnies in the 3D replication icon), some are more critical (like the synthetic biology spidergoat). They are meant to provoke different associations to start discussions about the future.


Shape of things to come

Icons for the future

Hypermorgen have designed some icons to represent topics that will most likely become increasingly relevant in the next few years, available on the fantastic Noun Project site.


From the Northern to the Southern Cross by Nicholas Buer

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Light-based media

From the Northern to the Southern Cross

There is a road that connects the Northern to the Southern Cross but you have to be at the right place and time to see it. The road, as pictured above, is actually the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy.

Glow in the dark plant
Life on the Internet

Is Kickstarter hostile to science?

Popular Science is worried that by discouraging a promising science project, Kickstarter could be encouraging corporate monopolies, enabling sloppy legislation, and keeping cool glow-in-the-dark plants out of our houses.

On July 31, Kickstarter updated its guidelines to include this sentence: “Projects cannot offer genetically modified organisms as a reward.” That seems like a small and specific ban, but there’s a lot more going on here than that suggests: this is about the future of science funding, the future of agriculture, of bedroom experimentation and synthetic biology and the impact of all of that on nature. And it’s about whether Kickstarter has a problem with science.
Is Kickstarter Hostile To Science?


Official Trailer from Comic Con for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

More spaceporn. Laughably dramatic in places, but I’m eager to see it. Personally I find Neil deGrasse Tyson to be a poor man’s Carl Sagan though.

The animated sequences look very cool too. I’m curious to find out how this shot fits in:


TED-Ed: Myths and misconceptions about evolution

How does evolution really work? Actually, not how some of our common evolutionary metaphors would have us believe. For instance, it’s species, not individual organisms, that adapt to produce evolution, and genes don’t “want” to be passed on — a gene can’t want anything at all!

Less Wrong
Humans and other animals

Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions: Essential readings for skeptics

Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions are a ‘core sequence’ of essays by Eliezer Yudkowsky from Less Wrong, a skeptic community blog, discussion board and general resource site.

I haven’t read all of these yet, but I thoroughly recommend all the ones I have. The posts are each an easily digestible mini-essay with a single point made very well. I’ve cut and pasted a few sound-bites below from some of the posts that grabbed my attention.

“It is a great strength of Homo sapiens that we can, better than any other species in the world, learn to model the unseen. It is also one of our great weak points. Humans often believe in things that are not only unseen but unreal.”
Making Beliefs Pay Rent (in Anticipated Experiences)

“Where it is difficult to believe a thing, it is often much easier to believe that you ought to believe it.”
Belief in Belief

“Your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality.”
Your Strength as a Rationalist

More Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions →


The three levels of Climate Science Denial

Writing for Climate Progress, Joe Romm identifies three levels of Climate Science Denier:

  • CSD1: A climate science denier of the first kind simply denies basic climate science, that, say the Earth is warming or that CO2 is a greenhouse gas.
  • CSD2: Climate science deniers of the second kind say that they accept basic climate science — so they aren’t ignored by the media — but then just assert that it isn’t going to be a big deal. They usually latch on to some tiny subset of the recent literature to make this argument.
  • CSD3: A CSD3 says that they accept basic climate science but then starts making arguments that effectively deny that science. Indeed a CSD3 who is rhetorically clever often says he or she used to believe in climate science, but then supposedly looked into the matter closely and were shocked, shocked to learn that they had been misled.

I don’t know that Romm created these distinctions himself, but this is the first place I’ve seen them laid out.


I’ve often wanted to download the source files for these images and make my own interpretation. Just for fun.

One of the primary tools for measurement and observation is imaging using cameras connected to powerful telescopes on Earth and in space. And although it’s not the primary motivation for photographing space, beauty is one of the most intriguing byproducts.

See also: /r/spaceporn

Daniel Dennett
Use your words

Daniel Dennett’s seven tools for critical thinking

Cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett is one of America’s foremost thinkers. In this Guardian extract from his new book (Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Critical Thinking), he reveals some of the lessons life has taught him.

  1. Use your mistakes: When you make a mistake, you should learn to take a deep breath, grit your teeth and then examine your own recollections of the mistake as ruthlessly and as dispassionately as you can manage. Try to acquire the weird practice of savouring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray.
  2. Respect your opponent: Here Dennett quotes Anatol Rapoport‘s rules to composing a successful critical commentary:
    1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
    2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
    3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
    4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
  3. The “surely” klaxon.
  4. Answer rhetorical questions: Whenever you see a rhetorical question, try – silently, to yourself – to give it an unobvious answer. If you find a good one, surprise your interlocutor by answering the question.
  5. Employ Occam’s razor.
  6. Don’t waste your time on rubbish: In order not to waste your time and try our patience, make sure you concentrate on the best stuff you can find, the flagship examples extolled by the leaders of the field, the prize-winning entries, not the dregs.
  7. Beware of deepities.

I hadn’t heard of deepities before, but I will have fun looking out for them in the future!

A deepity is a proposition that seems both important and true – and profound – but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading, it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading, it is true but trivial. The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That’s a deepity.

Here is an example (better sit down: this is heavy stuff): Love is just a word.
Daniel Dennett’s seven tools for thinking


Our solar system turns out to be a bit of a freak

I’ve always assumed that the characteristics of our solar system would prove to be typical of most solar systems we would find throughout the galaxy.

Typical solar system?

However, that doesn’t appear to be the case at all: As of this month, we’ve discovered 884 planets, 692 planetary systems, 132 of them with more than one planet and, strange to tell, almost none of them look like us.

“So our solar system is, in some sense, a bit of a freak and not the most typical kind of system that Nature cooks up.”
Steve Vogt, astronomer, University of California

The newest explanation is that new planets don’t stay put. They move. A gassy planet will form on the far side of the frost line, orbit for a while, and then gradually move inward, pulled in closer by the star. It stops only when the sun pushes back

“It really is something that I find deeply weird. What does it all mean? I don’t know. I am certain that this single-minded emphasis on planets-in-habitable-zones is making people forget that there is still a lot of weird stuff happening out there and that we still don’t even understand the basics of how we ourselves got here.”
Mike Brown, astronomer, Caltech

Our Very Normal Solar System Isn’t Normal Anymore –


Half a penny

NASA’s annual budget is half a penny on your tax dollar. For twice that—a penny on a dollar—we can transform the country.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson

NASA is making excellent use of Tumblr ( to promote its Penny4NASA campaign.


More things your penny can get you →

Shape of things to come

Penny for NASA

NASA is making excellent use of Tumblr to promote its #Penny4NASA campaign.

The "take out data points" trick
Use your words

Separating science from hype

From the Rockerfeller University, a simple guide to separating science from hype, no PhD required:

  1. Separate the sales pitch from the science“In short, read articles carefully and figure out if the claims they make are based on the facts they present.”
  2. Find the data“use Google Scholar to look for the original source. Search with whatever information you have: the names of the scientists, their institution, or the main topic.”
  3. Evaluate the data“Think about it this way: if you were in charge of figuring out the height of the average American male, you would need to measure a bunch of people to get it right. If you only measured a few people, and they happened to be basketball players, you’d be way off.”
    The section on misleading graphs here is brilliant.
  4. Put the story into context“If you’re having trouble finding alternative perspectives, the Wikipedia page for the topic can be a good place to start, especially if it contains a “controversy” or “criticism” section.”
  5. Ask an expert“Is there a science blogger you like? Tweet at them. […] Nothing beats a real discussion (even over Twitter or email!), but you can also check out neutral, non-biased sites like Mayo Clinic.”

(via Boing Boing)

Shape of things to come

What if a book could read you?

Neurofiction is a new kind of literary experience, that combines off-the-shelf hardware, machine learning and customised prose.

In neurofiction, the story’s effect on the reader’s brain – electrical activity of their neurons – is captured using an electroencephalography headset. Using an algorithm that learns what themes and elements engage each reader, our neurofiction engine turns this data into a unique path through the story. The reader can be guided to one of multiple possible endings or allowed to explore a new region of the story space.