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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Carnival of the Africans #5


That's right, loyal readers! We promised it, so here it is: the fifth instalment of the blog carnival celebrating science, scepticism and reason in Africa: Carnival of the Africans! Woohoo!

First I'd like to thank everyone who sent in submissions this time around. It makes hosting so much easier when the stories simply arrive in my inbox, without having to go digging for them. 

First up, we have a couple of items from James Hough over at Acinonyx Scepticus: James brings to our attention an important term in the sceptical phrasebook: Cargo Cult Science. Next, he points out how Rand Merchant Bank dropped the thinking ball in one of their advertising campaigns.

Next is our fearless leader, Michael Meadon from Ionian Enchantment. Michael explores the idea of wound licking as a plausible adaptive behaviour.

Simon Halliday from Amanuensis reviews some books of sceptical and ecomonic interest.

Doctor Spurt from Effortless Incitement explores the correlation between metaphorical language and actual experience.

Ewan McPhail from Ewan's Corner points out the bizarreness (is that a word?) of the warnings put out by local government regarding seaside religious rituals.

Michael from Irreverence highlights a list of "myths about the SA economy" published by the SA Communist Party.

Bongi from Other Things Amanzi offers us a frightening insight into the state of affairs in African medicine.


Auke Slotegraaf from psychohistorian.org gives us a detailed account of a presentation he attended given by an astrologer.

The doctors from The Science of Sport run down the top 8 sports stories of 2008.


And now, we have some newcomers!


Jonathan Davis from Limbic Nutrition makes some comments on the news coverage of the recent riots in Greece.


Blogroll

In case you missed it, here's a concise list of all the blogs involved with the Carnival - perfect for copy/paste action (do it now!):

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Johannesburg Sceptics in the Pub

The unbelievably popular Skeptics in the Pub has made it's way to Johannesburg. Although my invitation to the first one evidently got lost in the mail (*elbow*), the second installment will take place on the 5th of January 2009.

Go show your support on Facebook. See you guys there!

Thanks to James from Acinonyx Scepticus for hooking that up!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Call for Submissions: Carnival of the Africans

So, it's that time again where we start getting ready for Carnival of the Africans, our monthly blog carnival for African bloggers with a sceptical, rational and scientific focus.

This time around it'll be hosted right here on 01 and the Universe! Woohoo!

So, if you're an Afri-scepto-blogger, send me a link or two to good posts of yours you would like me to include in the Carnival. You can send the link, with a brief description, to owen(dot)swart{at}gmail(dot)com. Please try and get them to me by the 27th, if you possibly can.

If you're not sure what to send, take a look at the guidelines over at Ionian Enchantment. 

Okay, lemme have it!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Back to Basics: UFOs

As a Trekkie and a sceptic, I am frequently asked my opinion on UFOs. Here's a high-level overview of my position on the topic.

What are UFOs?

UFO stands for Unidentified Flying Object. It's a jargon term originally used by military radar operators as a place-holder name for anything they detected on their screens until it could be identified. Some detected objects were never conclusively identified, and were then logged simply as 'UFO'.

Around the time of the Roswell incident, the term found its way into popular usage, and took on a whole new meaning.

Roswell, New Mexico, is a small town near a military base that was used extensively for testing of new and secret military technology. Farmers and other residents in the area would, from time to time, see strange things in the sky (experimental military aircraft) or find unidentifiable debris littered on the ground (crashed experimental aircraft). One such incident happened in 1947.

A litany of blunderous military cover-ups trying to hide the true nature of the experimental technology, combined with the popularity of science fiction literature at the time, led to the birth of a modern myth: a crashed alien spacecraft.

This incident is widely regarded as the birth of the UFO craze. Reports of "flying saucers" became more frequent, and before long people started reporting that they had encountered actual alien life-forms, often being abducted by them, and subjected to medical experiments.

In the midst of all this, the term 'UFO' lost its original meaning, and became a popular term for 'alien spacecraft'. Radar operators, pilots and other people familiar with the term started using it in public to describe their own experiences, and it caught on.

Is there any truth to the claims?

This isn't an easy question to answer. In order to address it properly, we need to break it down into several distinct claims:

  1. Intelligent alien life-forms have developed a technology that allows them to travel across interstellar space and visit our planet.
  2. A lot of people have seen things in the sky that can only be alien spacecraft.
  3. Alien spacecraft have crashed or been shot down on Earth, and there is a government conspiracy to hide it.
  4. People are visited or abducted by aliens and subjected to experiments.

Let's look at them in that order.

Aliens Are Here

The prospect of interstellar travel is a very difficult one, as far as our understanding of the laws of nature can tell us. The problem is that the stars are very VERY far away.

The nearest star, Promixa Centauri, is about four light-years away. A light year is a measurement of distance, and tells us how far light travels in a year. Light travels very fast (about 300 000 000 meters per second), so that means Proxima is about 39 732 000 000 000 kilometers away. Far.

So, if you were traveling at the speed of light, it would take you about four years to get from Promixa Centauri to Earth. But what if nobody lives at Proxima? The rest of the stars in our neighborhood of the galaxy are dozens, if not hundreds of light-years away. That's a very long trip, at the speed of light.

But there's another problem. As far as we can tell, it doesn't seem to be possible to travel at the speed of light. Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity tells us that the closer you get to the speed of light, the more massive you become, so the amount of energy needed to accelerate you increases exponentially. To move something the size of the space-shuttle even close to the speed of light would take more energy than the sun puts out in its entire lifetime. That's a lot of energy.

So interstellar travel is very VERY difficult. It's so difficult that from our point of view right now, it's effectively impossible to do. There may be other factors we don't yet know about that make it completely impossible.

However, as I said, all of that is based on our current picture of the universe. It's not preposterous to suppose that there might be intelligent people out there on other planets who have a superior understanding of physics, and have somehow found a way to get around all of that. It seems pretty unlikely, but we can't rule it out.

Okay, so, what's the bottom line? Could aliens be coming to visit us? Probably not, but it's not impossible.

Lights in the Sky

When people claim to have spotted a UFO, the evidence presented comes in two forms:
  1. Photographs and video footage.
  2. Eyewitness accounts.
If someone shows you a photograph, or even a video, of something strange in the sky, it's pretty much impossible to know what it is you're looking at. Sure, it could be a giant spacecraft. Or it could be a hubcap tied to a string. Or a cloud. Or a firefly. Or an aeroplane. Or a sophisticated CGI forgery. Even if the photograph seems to obviously present something that looks like an alien spacecraft, there's simply no way to know if that is, in fact, what is being presented.

It's unwise to underestimate hoaxers. They're clever, and have a vast array of tools at their disposal to create unbelievably realistic looking photos and footage.

Unfortunately, photographs and videos simply aren't strong evidence for the existence of alien spacecraft. At best they can show you that there was something weird in the sky that day, but often it can't even tell you that.

When it comes to looking at the sky and seeing strange things, on the surface it makes sense to take the word of people like pilots, air-traffic controllers, radar operators and other professionals who spend a lot of time dealing with airborne things. You would think that they would know what they're talking about.

The thing is, those sorts of people spend a lot less time actually looking at the sky than you might think. They probably know more about aeroplanes and air traffic than anyone else, but what do they really know about the sky? If they're not the experts, who is? Who spends more time actually looking at the sky than anyone else?

Amateur astronomers.

How many UFO sightings are reported by amateur astronomers? Very VERY few. This is because amateur astronomers have spent considerable amounts of time learning about strange atmospheric effects that can make the moon or the planet Venus look strange. They are trained to tell the difference between an aeroplane, a satellite and a meteorite. They're accustomed to being able to tell the size, distance and speed of an object, just by looking at it.

So things that, to most of us, would look odd or even inexplicable, are ordinary and mundane to those people who are accustomed to looking at the sky.

So when a policeman or other respected public official claims to have seen a strange light in the night sky, that he is positive was an alien spacecraft, he's not necessarily lying. He's probably just mistaken, because he wasn't able to accurately identify what he was looking at.

Alien Contact

The claims surrounding alien spacecraft crashes and the surrounding conspiracies sound convincing when they're explained by believers, but when you look at them in more detail, you see how little evidence there really is: none.

The quintessential example is the Roswell incident I mentioned earlier. Eyewitness reports give details of strange, unearthly materials that were recovered from the crash site. The military files on the incident were recently unclassified, including the wreckage. The so called "unearthly materials" were aluminium foil and balsa wood. It would be surprising to find that in the middle of nowhere, but but it's pretty mundane stuff. Even the eyewitness testimony is full of holes.

Based on a critical analysis, there doesn't appear to be any reason to doubt the military report on the incident. Unless you believe the conspiracy. 

That's the trouble with conspiracy theories. Any evidence against the claim (like the evidence produced by the military) is evidence for the conspiracy (in this case the assumption is that the military fabricated the "evidence" in order to cover up the "truth"). Conspiracy theories are unfalsifiable (they can't be proven wrong) and therefore we can't put much stock in them.

Of course we can't rule out the possibility that such a conspiracy may exist. But when you take into account the sheer number of people that would need to be in on it, it becomes a pretty unlikely possibility. Remember that four guys were in on Watergate and they couldn't keep that a secret.

Abductions

This, to me, is a very interesting part of the whole UFO mythos. The claims are that some people are kidnapped, subjected to experiments (that are usually of a sexual nature) and then returned to where they were found.

The first real story of this nature was the Betty and Barney Hill story. I can't do a better analysis of that whole story than Brian Dunning did, so I suggest you go and read (or listen to) that before you continue here.

Go on, I'll wait.

Back? Cool.

More recent accounts seem to have a lot in common. For the most part they follow a script something like this:

I was lying bed when I suddenly heard a very strange sound. I found that I was completely paralysed, except for my eyes. I felt a presence in the room with me, and I saw several small people with grey skin and large black eyes. They lifted me up and took me to their spacecraft, where they probed me with strange looking instruments. I lost all sense of time.

They returned me to my bed. When the noise stopped, I regained the use of my limbs and they were gone.

Sounds terrifying, right? How is it possible that so many accounts are so similar? Surely something must be going here!

Well, yes there is. But it probably has nothing to do with alien abductions.

Hypnogogic hallucination, also known as sleep paralysis or a waking dream, is a fairly common and well documented phenomenon. Essentially it is when your brain wakes up, but your body is still asleep. It's a highly unstable state, and is often accompanied by audio, visual, olfactory and even tactile hallucinations - particularly in the form of a "presence", a grey form, a feeling of being pressed down, and awareness of paralysis and loud rushing noises.

The brain will struggle to interpret those hallucinations in terms of familiar frame of reference. In the past this resulted in myths arising like the Old Hag, vampires, chupacabras, ghosts and possibly the Tokoloshe. It seems that new cultural pervasiveness of UFO stories has lead many people to overlay the cultural image of the "grey alien" onto these hallucinations

Most people will experience sleep paralysis at least once in their lives. Some people suffer from it chronically. 

So we have two competing hypotheses here:

1. An intelligent race from possibly hundreds of light years away decline to make themselves known to us as a whole, but see no reason not to pick up people at random performing odd experiments on them, leaving no evidence behind.
2. A well documented and common (but not well understood by the public) neural malfunction.

Both of these explain the phenomenon equally well, but only one of them doesn't raise any additional questions, or require us to introduce exotic physics. Occam's Razor tells us which is more likely.

Conclusion

Right, so where does this leave us?

It seems to me that this can all be summed up as follows:

Although it's possible (even likely) that intelligent life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, it is exceedingly unlikely that they have ever visited Earth, and almost certainly aren't visiting us now. If they are, they're very VERY good at covering their tracks, as they haven't yet left a single piece of evidence.

As a Trekkie, I hope for and look forward to the day when we might make contact with an alien intelligence. But I think that we're far more likely to do so through the efforts of SETI than through anal probes.


Monday, December 08, 2008

African Sceptical Blogroll

Hey kids. 

Here are some awesome Afro-sceptical blags for you.


Enjoy!


--

UPDATE: I should have said in the original post that this blogroll is part of Michael Meadon's (from Ionian Enchantment) initiative to unify and cross-pollinate the African sceptiblogs. Woohoo!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Skeptics Circle #101

Michael Meadon from Ionian Enchantment pulled a sly one and combined some examples from the last Carnival of the Africans into the latest Skeptics Circle.

Check it out!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Zuma's Country of God - The Sequel

This is an appendix to my previous post in which I pointed out that Jacob Zuma is an idiot.

My lovely and talented wife pointed me to a series of articles on a Democratic Alliance blog, 'The Real ANC Today', going into much greater detail on the attitude towards religion of the ANC in general and Zuma in particular. Paying specific attention to the inherent contradiction between nationalist and religious absolutism and a democratic government.

Here's a highlight:
[T]he notion of governing by divine right is intricately linked to the idea that, ultimately, physical force will be used to impose that ‘right’ - if not by the respective deity, then by those who supposedly represent its will on earth. In South Africa today, we are faced with a position where those aligned to Jacob Zuma have threatened to take up arms in his name - indeed for him - a comment Zuma has failed to condemn.
Chilling. 

Here's another:
Thus, as the apartheid state has been dismantled and its edifice diluted and washed away, so the ANC has been forced to re-invent ‘the demon’ of racism as a central and eminent threat to our democracy, and the evil against which it must both fight and justify its existence. It has simply substituted, exaggerated and conflated the one, generic racism, for the other, apartheid. For, as its Constitution illustrates, central to its ‘historic mission’ is the struggle against apartheid. Remove that, and the ANC’s core mission is denuded. Just as religion needs evil to exist, so the ANC needs racism.

Good, eh?

Here are the links:
One thing caused me to grimace and make sceptical noises while reading these, and that was the author's continued assertion that objective reality is a myth, as opposed to simply being partially hidden by the veil of subjective experience, and therefore unavaible to anyone for the purpuses of full understanding.

But I'm happy overlook that small quibble due to the otherwise highly rational argument presented - it's only a tangential point anyway.




Friday, November 28, 2008

Zuma's Country of God

Jacob Zuma is apparently an idiot.


That's no big surprise to the bulk of my readers, I'm sure. There have been plenty of examples of idiocy spewing forth from him over the years, but I suppose I always gave him the benefit of the doubt... assuming that his lack of formal education left him intellectually stunted, but not necessarily stupid.

After reading this article on IOL this afternoon, I've decided that there's probably no difference between the two. His stuntedness is, for all practical purposes, equivalent to stupidity.

This is what has led me to this conclusion.

At the National Presidential Religious Leaders summit* yesterday, Zuma said

"When all of us take office in government... we raise our right hand and indeed pronounce... so help me God. I believe no one can argue South Africa is not based on the principles of God," said Zuma.

"The bible says pray for those who are in government. I believe we must go beyond that. You must advise and criticise if there are things we do that are not in keeping with the principles of God."
He also points out the fact that the following phrase appears in the preamble to the constitution:

"May God protect our people...God bless South Africa."
Now, I wasn't there when the constitution was being drafted, but it seems pretty obvious to me that this specific wording was chosen so as to remain ambivalent to which "God" was being referred to here. Is it YHWH? Jehovah? Jesus? AllahThe Deist God? Spinoza's GodZeus? Thor? Quetzlcoatl? The Flying Spaghetti Monster?

It doesn't specify. And I imagine that it was a deliberate choice to write it this way, and not to refer to a specific version of God, so as not to alienate South Africans adhering to faiths other than Christianity. (I'll ignore for the moment the fact that it still manages to alienate those of us who believe in no gods - that's a subject for another post).

So isn't it interesting that Zuma automatically assumes that the God of the bible is the one we should be paying attention to? Why is Zuma's God the important one, and everyone else's gods are not?

He also presumes that the bible is the best way to find out what "the principles of God" are. The morality expressed in the bible is at best ambiguous. How are we to interpret it correctly? What makes Zuma's interpretation better than mine?

Of course it makes sense that Zuma would look to the bible for his values. He is, after all, a polygamist and not opposed to having his way with younger women - both of which are strongly advocated in the Christian bible.

I would expect a presidential candidate to be capable of looking beyond bronze-age mysticism and see the functional logic in a utilitarian ethical system. Blind adherence to a non-specific religious moral code is intellectually immature, and does not serve a president, or a country, well. Particularly a country such as ours which claims to pride itself on its ethnic diversity.



*Exactly why such a summit exists mystifies me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Tokoloshe

There are a wide variety of spellings for this creature, so I'll just stick with this one.

The Tokoloshe is a mythical creature. I designate it as such because no physical specimens of it have ever been found, catalogued or analysed. Until that happens, I will generously categorise it alongside the sasquatch, yeti and chupacabra as a cryptozoological creature.

I'm not convinced that it even deserves that classification though. I'll explain why a little further on.

The Tokoloshe is frequently described as a vaguely humanoid creature the size of a human child. The precise description varies considerably depending on which version of the story you hear, but generally speaking it's a pretty ugly critter. It's usually described as furry and possesses very large genitals.

It's troublesome and mischievous, and can potentially cause harm to people.

Okay so far. Here's the crazy part.

The tokoloshe is often employed (sometimes created) by witches and wizards for a variety of functions. From personal revenge to sexual favours. It can even turn invisible by swallowing a magic pebble.

Right. So we're talking about a fairy here: a magical being with mystical powers. 

The only way to deal with claims like this sceptically seems to be to separate it into two distinct claims:

  1. There is a small, mischievous, vaguely humanoid creature that inhabits certain parts of Southern Africa that sometimes interferes with and causes trouble for humans in the area.
  2. There is a magical creature employed by witches and wizards to perform a wide variety of strange things. 

Let's deal with them in that order.

Another cryptozoological creature that gets way more press than the Tokoloshe is Bigfoot. A large bipedal ape-like creature inhabiting the forests of North America. There is at least one well documented animal fitting that description that everyone knows lives in those areas. Bears.

Bigfoot

A great many alleged Bigfoot sightings are attributable to bears. Could the same be true of the Tokoloshe? Are there any native wildlife that fit the Tokoloshe's description?

Yes there are. Monkeys.

Tokoloshe


Of course I can't prove that all Tokoloshe sightings are attributable to monkeys. But it seems a likely hypothesis, doesn't it?

So we have two competing hypotheses:
1. There is a previously undocumented ape living in Southern Africa... a well-explored eco-tourism destination.
2. Monkeys.

Both of these hypotheses explain the phenomenon equally well. The first hypothesis requires that we introduce some new ideas to explain the phenomenon, as well as raising questions about how such a creature evaded detection for so long, whereas the second only relies on the misinterpretation of some culturally sensitive eye-witnesses. That doesn't tell us which one is true, but Occam's Razor does tell us which is more likely.

The second claim is more difficult to deal with. The most difficult thing about it is the lack of consistency. In my research, I haven't been able to come across a consistent list of the magical attributes Tokoloshes are supposed to have.

What follows is the best that I've been able to distill from all the conflicting accounts:
  • They can turn invisible - either completely invisible or only to particular people, like adults.
  • They can be summoned or created by witches and wizards to do their bidding.
The first attribute is terribly convenient. How can you prove or disprove the existence of something that's undetectable? You can't. This is, as Pauli said, not even wrong. And of course the proposed mechanism through which they turn invisible is "magic". As soon as magic is invoked, the conversation is over... there's nothing verifiable about magical explanations.

The same goes for the second attribute. It's unverifiable, and therefore not a valid hypothesis.

The entire second claim sounds like prescientific, stone-age superstition and mysticism. I suspect that it's propagated by sangomas and inyangas in order to keep themselves employed. And of course it's protected from public scrutiny under the banner of "culture".

Of course, if you're reading this, you probably don't believe in the Tokoloshe anyway. But I hope I've made a small contribution, so that should you ever find yourself face-to-face with a believer, you'll be able to tell them not to be scared of monkeys.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sceptical Activism and the Prime Directive

In a recent episode of the Geologic Podcast, George was asked a question about how he felt about sceptical activism in contrast to respect for cultural diversity. He immediately equated it to the Prime Directive, and discussed his initial thoughts on it.

This is a thought that has occurred to me as well. I was recently asked to participate in a panel discussion at an SFSA convention on the Prime Directive, so its intricacies are still relatively fresh in my mind.

The Prime Directive is a fictional law in Star Trek that prohibits Starfleet personnel from interfering in any way with members of other cultures. The assumption is that any interference, even if benevolent in intent, could have unforeseeable consequences that could potentially be disastrous.

The motivation for it stems from one of the underlying philosophical tenets that Starfleet adheres to: IDIC - Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Federation citizens are not permitted to assume that just because their technology is more advanced than other cultures, that they are superior to them in an way. And therefore may not impose their own values upon other cultures, but must rather allow them to develop on their own, in the hope that someday they might greet them as technological equals, and possibly as allies.

While this law makes sense in the context of a world where interstellar travel is easy, and where primitive cultures can exist in effective isolation until they are able to master Warp Drive, how applicable is it to 21st century Earth? And particularly to those of us who wish to advocate and propagate what we think is a superior technology: critical thinking?

In short: do I have the right to try and help a true believer by exposing them to critical thinking? If the believer asks for help, that would be one thing. But that almost never happens... in the vast majority of cases, the believer is happy in their delusions, and doesn't want my "help".

James Randi makes an analogy that sceptical activism is like running into a burning building and carrying some poor resident out over your shoulder. That certainly seems like the right thing to do. But what if that resident doesn't want to be saved? What if they like it in there, and are blindly willing to accept the consequences of remaining inside?

It seems silly that that might be the case, but it does appear to be. True believers seem content to sit comfortably in the blazing inferno, blissfully unaware of the danger they're in. And unwilling to listen to anyone tell them otherwise.

Conversely, a Christian might see my atheism as similarly sitting in the fire of eternal damnation. They're probably wrong, but they don't know that.

I see blogging as something of a compromise. I put content into the ether, and people can find it if they're looking. It's a pretty milquetoast medium though, because it's so passive. I would much rather have a soap-box in the mainstream media - television or radio, where I could actively get my message to a far larger audience. But do I have a right to do that?

Yes, I know that the woo faction don't hesitate to use the media to propagate their nonsense... and to substantial effect. Just as in Star Trek, races that don't adhere to the Prime Directive see no harm in exlploiting technologically less advanced people wherever they find them. But that doesn't make it right. Fighting fire with fire isn't necessarily the ethical choice.

So I find myself in something of a quandry. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Back to Basics: Evolution

I was inspired by a recent debate I participated in to present here a brief outline of the evidence that exists for evolution. I'm not the first to do this, and this is far from an exhaustive resource, but hopefully I'll be able to provide a good starting point for any evolution deniers who are genuinely interested in learning more about it.

Where did the idea of evolution come from?

It's a common misconception that the theory of evolution was developed, in whole cloth, by Charles Darwin and remains dogmatically unchanged to this day. This is not the case.

The idea of biological evolution seems to date back to the philosophers of ancient Greece, who noticed anatomical similarities between different life forms, and postulated that those life forms might share some sort of common ancestor.

This idea fluctuated in its popularity, but remained pretty firmly in the realm of philosophy until Charles Darwin provided a plausible mechanism through which evolution might work: natural selection. Only then did evolution transform from an idea to a theory - it could make predictions that could be tested.

And tested it was. Since Darwin's first publication, On the Origin of Species, much has been learned about biology, and all of it, so far, has fit neatly into the Theory of Evolution. Sure, a lot of the details had to be rethought, but no evidence produced so far has refuted the theory as a whole.

Okay, so what's the evidence?

As with most theories, there is no one piece of evidence that can prove or disprove evolution. That's not how science works. Rather there are multiple lines of evidence that all converge at a point, and that point is very successfully explained by the theory of evolution.

The first evidence, that which gave rise to the idea to begin with, is that of anatomical similarities between species. This is something we can see with our own eyes.

Look at your hand. It's attached to the end of a limb. One of four similar limbs. It probably has five digits - four fingers and an opposable thumb. 

Now look at a chimpanzee's hand. It's very similar, isn't it? It's also at the end of one of four limbs, and also consists of five digits - four fingers and an opposable thumb. A chimp's hand is a little different though. It's hairier, and the comparative lengths of the digits is a little different. 

Now look at a monkey's hand. Again, very similar, but not quite as similar. Now look at a lemur's hand. And a rat's. And a lizard's. And a frog's.

If you line up all these images you can almost see a steady progression from frog hand to human hand. It almost looks as if frogs possess the primeordeal hand, and that lizards, rats, lemurs, monkeys, chimps and humans all descended from the frog, collecting upgrades to their hands as they went.


This isn't how it happened, but it's not far off. What it does suggest is that chimps and humans had a common ancestor... one that probably looked more like a chimp than a human. And that that common ancestor probably had another common ancestor shared with modern monkeys - one that probably looked more like a monkey than a chimp, and so on all the way back to frogs.

Okay, so now we have the makings of a hypothesis. In order to test it, we need more evidence.

What else do we now know about living things? They have DNA which is passed down from one generation to another. We know that DNA is largely responsible for determining what we look like, how we act and what we do. So if chimps and humans have a recent common ancestor, we can predict that they would probably have very similar DNA. Right?

Well, that has been tested. And guess what? Humans and chimps have very similar DNA! Not only that, humans have DNA that is similar to monkeys, but not as similar as to chimps. And even less similar to lemurs. And so on, all the way down to frogs.

Okay, so we now have one line of evidence that points to evolution being true. Of course there are other possible explanations for the DNA similarity. And that's okay. What we need to do is look for other predictions that evolution makes, and test those.

If humans and chimps had a common ancestor, it would probably have been very long ago. Millions of years. We know this because we know the average mutation rate of human DNA, and therefore we can come up with a pretty good estimate of how long it would take something like a chimp to evolve into something like a human, one mutation at a time.

So how do we find out whether animals existed in the distant past? Unfortunately there's no good way of doing that. But there is one way: fossils.

Sometimes an animal dies in just the right spot at just the right time and impresions of its body are preserved in rock. This is very rare, and we're lucky to have any fossils at all. But we do have a few... just enough to see that animals once existed that were something like a chimp, and also something like a human.

We can also tell, by using various techniques, how old the rocks are that the fossils are preserved in. This gives us a rough date of when that animal lived. If that date is close to the date predicted by evolution, we have another confirmatory line of evidence on our hands. And guess what! It matches!

Again, it's still possible that it's just a coincidence that humans and chimps share DNA and that an animal once existed that looks like it may have been a common ancestor of both. There are still other hypotheses that could explain both of these. So how do we go about determining the better theory?

One way is by applying the same test to other species. If we see the same pattern of DNA similarity and fossil record apply to lots of other species, it lends considerable weight to the evidence. This, also, has been done. And guess what? It confirms it!

So what do we have? We have a theory that makes some pretty clear predictions. Those predictions have been tested, and the theory has been upheld. So it's plausible. But is evolution actually possible? Can we see organisms developing new traits as a result of random mutations coupled with natural selection? Yup.

Is that it? Three lines of evidence?

Well, yes and no. What I've given here is a very broad oversimplification of the lines of evidence supporting the theory of evolution. Each of these lines of evidence actually consists of hundreds, if not thousands, of individual strands of evidence. The depth of this subject, and its many, many forms of evidence, is enough to keep some of the brightest people busy all the time. I encourage you to explore them, as I have been doing.

One strand on it's own is weak, and can't withstand much scrutiny. But the combined strength of all those individual strands, all aligned in the same direction, makes the Theory of Evolution one of the most reliable ideas known to science. Evolution isn't just a fact, it's an orchestra of facts, playing in harmony the music of life as we know it. 

Evolution is us.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Stop Sylvia Browne

Due to a series of unfortunate events, Skeptical Superhero Robert Lancaster has had his old domain commandeered by psychic pirates.

If you're looking for Robert's Stop Sylvia Brown goodness, you'll need to point your browser to stopsylvia.com.

If you want to find out what you can do to help, check out this article over at Skeptools.

Dauntless Crew Show Me the Love

I thought some of you may enjoy some of the art produced by one of my Officers, Ensign Jim Nave, in an attempt to educate and protect his crewmates.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Open Letter to Danie Krugel

Hopefully this letter will receive a better response from Mr Krugel than mine did.

(In case you're wondering, he never did respond to mine)

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Stop Danie Krugel

As my regular readers will no doubt be aware, I have blogged about Danie Krugel several times.

For the new kids, Krugel is a guy who obtained notoriety for his supposed invention of a machine that can track people over long distances using DNA, quantum mechanics and GPS technology.

In other words, it doesn't track anybody.

But that hasn't stopped him from preying on vulnerable and desperate people looking for their missing loved ones, and generating a fair amount of media buzz.

Fortunately Ivan from Subtle Shift in Emphasis has launched a campaign to expose this fraud for what he is. Go check it out: www.stopdaniekrugel.com

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

New Blog

I've started a new blog that probably won't interest many of you. But I thought I'd announce it here anyway, in case some of you are desperate for something to read.

STARFLEET International are going through a tough time at the moment. The Commander STARFLEET is pretty unpopular with a small group of outspoken dissidents, and has faced an unending torrent of what can only be described as abuse from them since he entered office in January.

As a result of the unending flame war, hundreds of members are choosing not to renew their membership, and STARFLEET is in pretty bad shape. Several of the dissidents have created blogs as a soap-box for their rhetoric, and I thought it was time for someone to inject a little logic into the proceedings.

So I launched STARFLEET Fail FAIL, a play on the name of the biggest of the dissident blogs, STARFLEET Fail. My fellow bloggers and I intend to try and critically analyise the arguments presented by the dissidents with the intent to weed out all the logical fallacies, propaganda techniques and pure silliness in the hope of finding the real message behind it all.

I hope that there is actually a message there, and it's not just a group of difficult-minded people with nothing better to do than annoy other Trekkies. But we'll see.

So, if you're interested in social dynamics of volunteer organisations, the inner workings of organised Star Trek fandom, or just have a morbid curiosity about just how seriously Trekkies take all of it, please feel free to take a look!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Carnival of the Africans #2

We're back from honeymoon, and apparently it's been a busy week. There are lots of stories I want to get stuck into, but first I've got about a gazillion emails to wade through. You guys will just have to be patient.

In the meantime, however, here's something to read: Wim Louw over at The Little Book of Capoeira is hosting the second instalment of the Carnival of the Africans. Go check it out!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Trekkie Sceptic Review - Where No man has Gone Before


As my regular readers will know, there's more to me than just being a sceptical activist. I am also a serious Star Trek fan. I was a Trekkie long before I became a sceptic, and I still self-identify as a STARFLEET Officer first, and a sceptic second.

Several months ago, I initiated an endeavour within my Star Trek fan club, the USS Dauntless, to set up a special interest group that tackles sceptical and scientific ideas. I named that group Special Scientific Operations, or SciOps. Our most notable success to date was our Homeopathic Suicide Attempt.

Under the auspices of my duties as Officer in Charge of the Dauntless SciOps team, I've decided to write a semi-regular column for the USS Dauntless website and newsletter doing sceptical reviews of Star Trek episodes and related concepts. I'll be cross-posting those articles here as well.

Before I begin the first of these, I want to clarify what my intentions are with this project. I'm not trying to refute the physics of the Star Trek universe. This has already been done by people far more qualified than I. My aim here is to examine subjects that are already of interest to the sceptical movement when they are introduced into the Star Trek universe.

Since the creators of Star Trek tried their best to make the science of the show as plausible as possible, I think it's fair to point out where they dropped the ball: taking more than the allowed amount of artistic license and buying into credulous propaganda. I'd also like to step up and defend the Star Trek creators when appropriate. Trek is my passion, after all.

With that out of the way, I'd like to begin my sceptical analysis of the Original Series episode, Where No Man has Gone Before.

The premise of the episode is that the USS Enterprise picks up the flight recorder from a long lost Earth starship, the SS Valiant. The recorder reveals that the crew underwent some severe catastrophe after passing through an energy field at the edge of the galaxy. The Enterprise flies off to investigate, and encounters the same energy barrier, which transforms two members of her crew.

Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell and Doctor Elizabeth Denher are suddenly imbued with psychic powers, including photographic memory, telekinesis, telepathy, remote viewing and so on. They become a danger to the crew, and Captain Kirk must figure out how to save his friends and his ship.

The point of interest I'd like to examine in this article is a plot device that was used to describe the mechanism by which the two crewmembers were imbued with special powers while the others were spared: the ESP Scale.

The premise of this idea is that all Starfleet personnel are subjected to a series of tests during their training, which are designed to evaluate their inherent psychic abilities. The assumption made by the writers is that everyone has some inherent psychic power, and that some are more talented than others with these gifts. And that's where they dropped the ball.

We have to remember that this was written in the 1960s. I don't think we can judge the writers too harshly for harbouring a hope that some kind of psi could be discovered. Forty two years later, we can say with a high degree of confidence that there is no such thing.

How can we say that?

Because it's been tested, that's how.

Although some government-funded studies were performed into a number of possible psi abilities (including a CIA-endorsed investigation into remote viewing so as to allow US spies to observe Soviet military secrets), possibly the most damning experiment against any kind of psi is the JREF Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge.

Years ago, James "The Amazing" Randi put up a prize for anyone who could reproducibly demonstrate any kind of psychic ability. The requirements weren't difficult: all a claimant had to do was prove (through testing) that their claim was for real, and they would walk away with the prize. Years passed and the prize-money grew to a Million Dollars (US), which is the amount at which it currently sits.

It's still there because nobody has yet claimed it. Not for lack of trying. The James Randi Educational Foundation is willing to provide details of hundreds of applicants who have been tested, and not a single one passed even the first round of testing. Not one.

The JREF Challenge has been widely criticised by believers in the paranormal as being unfair, rigged, fraudulent or irrelevant. Yet the JREF are tenacious in their willingness to present their methodologies, results, bank statements and cooperative attitude to anyone who asks. The challenge is being retired, since the JREF can put those funds to much better use, but Randi remains committed that if anyone were to demonstrate real paranormal abilities, they could still win it... as well as the many other similar prizes offered by other organisations.

Is it possible that psi really does exist, and that the JREF (and their counterparts) simply failed to find it? Of course. No open minded individual can rule out the possibility. But given the complete failure of all applications to the JREF to demonstrate any psychic abilities, the probability seems pretty small. It's probably safe to say that Terrestrial life-forms are not capable of psi. And that any government organisation screening all their members for it according to a predefined scale would be wasting their time - all the applicants would have a rating of zero.

Of course, not all members of the Federation Starfleet are terrestrial life-forms. Who knows what species of other planets might be capable of? But the characters of Mitchell and Denher were most certainly Terran, and should not have registered a ESP rating above zero if that aspect the episode were consistent with scientific reality.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

More Public Reactions to Stuff

There are more interesting things happening in the news this week. This time centred around an editorial cartoon by controversial political cartoonist Zapiro.

First, here's the cartoon.

In case you don't recognise any of the figures, it's depicting the female Justice being held down by various important South African political figures who have all made statements to the effect that Jacob Zuma should not stand trial for the corruption charges he currently faces.

Zuma is the man on the left unbuttoning his trousers. He is identified by the showerhead attached to his shaved dome, an allusion to his statement that he took a shower after having sex with an HIV+ woman in order to prevent his infection. Yes, he's that ignorant. And he was elected to the presidency of the ruling party?

Anyway, the showerhead is a cheap shot. The real point of the cartoon is to suggest that Zuma wishes to metaphorically rape the justice system, and his allies in the ANC, ANC Youth League, COSATU and SACP wish to support him in that attempt.

Whether or not this is an accurate statement is open for debate, and I'm not going to discuss it here. What I'm going to look at is the reaction to the cartoon.

The cartoon is violent in nature (although careful not to incite violence), and deliberately inflammatory. I would argue that this is largely the function of editorial cartoons. But the figures represented in the image, understandably, don't like the implications that the cartoon makes. That's fine. The nice thing about liberal democracies is that nobody has to agree with, or like, anything anyone else says, provided they don't venture as far as hate speech.

But these parties have gone further than simply being upset about it. They have claimed that there has been criminal activity on the part of the cartoonist, and his publication, the Sunday Times.

In their press release, they have used words like "abuse of press freedom", "defamation of character", "direct assault on the ANC" and so on. The closest the statement comes to attempting to actually refute Zapiro's argument is the following:

We have repeatedly stated our commitment to uphold and defend the Constitution, and the rule of law. We have never attacked the judiciary but criticised [sic] unfair treatment of our President. This, we did in a normal public discourse of a democratic society. There can, therefore, be no justification for such unwarranted insult on our leadership by the Sunday Times.

Isn't that interesting?

What they're implying here is that they've never stated that Zuma should not stand trial for his crimes, but rather that he is being "unfairly" treated by the judiciary. They must have a short memory.

What we see here is an interesting attempt at diversionary tactics.

Zapiro has merely stated what many South Africans are thinking and saying in private. But instead of tackling the allegations head on, or trying to clarify their earlier statements, these organisations resort to the old tactic of one who knows he has a weak position: they cry foul, and maintain that their accusers are violating their rights simply by making the accusation.

This is seen all too often in the discourse ideologues like the Cdesign Proponentists or Scientologists. If they can make enough of a fuss about how offended they are, they think they will get away with not having to actually deal with the argument. And it works, at least in the short term.

But sooner or later they're going to have to actually face up to the argument. But it's only their constituents who will facilitate this change. Let's hope those constituents are not buying the okidoke this time.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Carnival of the Africans #1

We promised it, and now you're getting it. The first instalment of the African sceptical and scientific blogger carnival is up over on Ionian Enchantment.

Get your read on!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Death by Satanist Ninja

There has been a very odd news story capturing the focus of the South African middle-class over the last week or so. In a high school close to where I live, a teenager showed up at school one day brandishing a katana. He managed to kill one of his classmates with the sword, and also injured several other people.

Although the details appear to be a little sketchy and various sources report contradictory events, that seems to be the gist of what happened.

It's a tragedy. Some poor kid was murdered. That sucks big time.

But there's more.

Ever since the story first broke about a week ago, the airwaves have been buzzing with all sorts of speculation about what caused it. The consensus of public opinion seems to be that the perpetrator was a Satanist, which was evidenced by the fact that he listened to heavy metal band Slipknot. I've heard some other ideas expressed, along the lines of violence on TV, video games and so on. But the Slipknot Satanist Hypothesis seems to be the most popular.

Let's parse that hypothesis. It appears to consist of several unstated premises, which are as follows:

  1. Slipknot is a Satanist rock band.
  2. Satanists are dangerous and violent people.
  3. Listening to Satanistic music is likely to convert an otherwise normal teenager into a Satanist.
I'll deal with each premise separately.

Slipknot is a Satanist rock band.

In order to evaluate the accuracy of this assertion, we need to understand two separate points:
  1. What kind of a band is Slipknot, and what kind of music do they make?
  2. What is a Satanist?
Slipknot are a heavy metal band. They have cultivated a shocking and somewhat controversial image, including the wearing of grotesque masks. But when asked about their relationship to Satanism, they emphatically deny it.

Although their denial of being Satanists by no means disproves the suggestion, it does at least imply that if they are Satanists, they aren't interested in publicising the fact. And that lends discredit to the idea that their music would contain a strong Satanistic message. Why would they publicise Satanism in their music but then deny it in an interview?

So what is a Satanist? There are two broadly defined groups of people who tend to self-identify as Satanists.

The first is the social organization called the Church of Satan, founded by Anton LaVey. Despite the name, members of the Church are not devil-worshippers. LaVeyan Satanists are atheists with a penchant for theatrics and a particular moral code: "Return good with good and evil with
evil" (a kind of post-hoc version of the Golden Rule). LaVeyan Satanists would not, if they were truly devout, launch an unprovoked attack against anyone. That's not the point.

The other kind of Satanist is the rebellious teenager variety. There's no organized society of these Satanists, but rather isolated kids who have bought into the Satanic Scare propaganda and have embraced it as a way of sticking it to the conservative society they live in. Since there's no moral code or universal ethics guiding these kids, they are unpredictable, and have been reported to hurt themselves or other people.

It should be noted that this variety of Satanist probably isn't a devil worshipper either, although if you spoke to one, they might identify themselves as such. These kids are socially maladapted and design their appearance and behaviour to be shocking to their parents and other authority figures - even their peers.

Based on what we've seen here, I don't think we can support the conclusion that Slipknot are a Satanist band. They probably share some values with most Satanists of both varieties, but their music doesn't carry a Satanistic message, and they don't self-identify as Satanists.

Satanists are dangerous and violent people.

As dictated by their moral code, LaVeyan Satanists are not inherently violent people. Their ethical code dictates that when among nice people, they should be nice. When amongst nasty people, they should be nasty. In other words, their behaviour is a mirror of their surroundings, neither inherently peaceful nor violent.

Rebellious and psychologically troubled teenagers are unpredictable, but also not inherently violent. I'm not a psychiatrist, but having been something of a misfit teen once myself, I think these kids are more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else. Being a social outcast is a hard thing, and more likely to lead to depression than murderous rage.

Based on what we know about both kinds of Satanists, I don't think we can support the conclusion that they are inherently dangerous or violent. I might go so far as to say that you're probably safer in the company of a Satanist than in that of a religious fundamentalist. Satanists aren't suicide bombers, and they don't murder doctors for performing abortions.

Listening to Satanistic music is likely to convert an otherwise normal teenager into a Satanist.

This one is pretty absurd to begin with. It's analogous to claiming that watching Xena: Warrior Princess is likely to convert the viewer into a leather-wearing lesbian. It's rather silly.

I wasn't able to find any peer-reviewed research on the subject. If you guys know of any, please point us to it in the comments.

What I was able to find is an awful lot of conjecture. There appear to be equally strong opinions on both sides of the debate. What I found interesting was that those who support the idea that heavy metal music leads to Satanism appeared to be speaking from a position of trying to convert the reader to Christianity, or warning the reader that heavy metal may corrupt their Christian faith.

It's always interesting when an opinion seems to be shared by a group who already have some ideology in common, and those who hold a contrary opinion seem to speak from a diverse array of ideologies. That doesn't prove or disprove either side's argument, but it does raise some questions about how the conclusions are derived.

In the absence of good data and reliable expert opinion, I must rely on my own subjective experience. I used to listen to a lot of heavy metal music. In my early twenties I wore my hair long, dressed in black and frequented heavy metal clubs. I would frequently go straight from a night head-banging at The Doors to church where I taught Sunday School.

I was both a heavy metal listener and a devout Christian. In other words, I don't think that there is any reason to assume strong correlation between heavy metal music and Satanism.

Based on what we know about how people are influenced by the music they hear, I don't think we can support the conclusion that listening to Satanistic music is likely to convert a teenager to Satanism.

So what do we have? We have a hypothesis supported by three basic premises. I've shown that those premises are weak at best, and more likely completely fictional. So then what drives a teenager to kill his peer with a sword?

In the words of Chris Rock: "Whatever happened to crazy?"

Is it not likely that this kid is in severe need of psychiatric help? Mightn't some sort of pathology be responsible for this tragedy? Why must we always point the finger at societal factors, when the cause is just as likely to be internal?

Again, I'm no psychiatrist, but I submit that this kid is just as much a victim of circumstance as the one who wound up at the other end of the sword. He's clearly a sick little boy who needs medical attention. His actions appear, at least to me, to be consistent with those of someone suffering from severe mental illness. Perhaps some kind of psychopathy or sociopathy. Is this not a far more likely explanation?

If we apply Occam's Razor (All things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one), it seems that my Crazy Hypothesis is a more likely candidate to explain the tragedy. It doesn't rely on several layers of implausible events, but rather on one simple cause, compounded by the failure of the educational and medical systems to identify and treat the condition before this happened (That failure is not unprecedented, and quite likely).

I predict that when police psychologists analyse the boy's history, they will discover a pattern of destructive behaviour, violence and antisocial tendencies leading up to this tragic event. A pattern that should have been spotted by either the child's parents or educators, but for some reason was missed or ignored by both.

Let's not waste our time trying to lay responsibility on foreign musicians, obscure social movements or The Media, but rather focus more on how we can improve our education and medical systems, so that sick children like this can be identified and treated before they hurt anyone.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I now pronounce you...

As some of you may be aware, Hide and I are getting married soon. In planning the wedding, possibly the most difficult aspect we've encountered so far is finding someone to perform the ceremony.

The difficulty, as you may expect, is that we are not religious: Hide doesn't subscribe to any religious doctrine and I'm an atheist.

In some countries this wouldn't be a problem. In parts of the US we would simply recruit a Justice of the Peace to perform the ceremony. If we lived in Scotland we could contact the Humanist Society for a list of local Humanist Celebrants. But despite South Africa's allegedly very progressive constitution, non-religious people seem to be actively discriminated against here.

According to South African law, we have two options:

  1. Get married in court.
  2. Get married in a church.

The reason that these are the only options is that the only people (other than judges) who are allowed to obtain marriage officer certification from the Department of Home Affairs are members of the clergy of recognised churches. The law is progressive enough to include clergy of just about any religious organisation that has an established presence in South Africa, but stops short of recognising non-religious affiliations.

This is very problematic for us, and presumably for other non-religious couples in South Africa. If we want to be married in a traditional ceremony, but without involving someone's imaginary friend in the equation, we're out of luck. All we can hope for is to find a marriage officer who is either a religious apostate, or liberal enough to be prepared to leave the superstition out of it. And that appears to be no mean feat.

Getting married in court is an absolute last resort for us. It seems silly to have two weddings: one for the friends and family, and a second for the Department of Home Affairs. Why should we have to have two ceremonies when religious people need only one?

And that's not all. For some time now I've been interested in qualifying as a marriage officer myself. It seems only fitting that a Starship Captain (such as I) should be empowered to perform weddings - it's a maritime tradition going back as far as anyone can remember. But since STARFLEET International isn't a religious organisation, that would be impossible as well.

So what can humanists, secularists and atheists do about this sort of thing? How do we go about changing this clearly discriminatory piece of legislation? Seriously. That's not a rhetorical question. How do we do it?

Are you a married South African secularist? How did you get past this hurdle?

Are you an apostate or liberal marriage officer? Contact me, please!


South African Science and Sceptical Bloggers

Prolific and endlessly talented Sceptiblogger Michael Meadon from Ionian Enchantment contacted me recently with an excellent suggestion: that we and other Sefrican Sceptibloggers try and put together some sort of cohesive community.

I think that's a capital idea! Check out Michael's post on the subject for more details. Watch this space for more!


Monday, August 11, 2008

Stop Manto

She's at it again (still?)

The Minister of Health of South Africa, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, is trying her luck. She has put forward a bill apparently intended to improve the process surrounding the registration and certification of new medicines.

I have to put in my disclaimer here: I'm not an attorney, advocate or judge. I'm not a legal expert at all, and the sum total of my legal training was a course in copyright law at college. What follows is my reasonably well-informed lay interpretation of this piece of proposed legislation. I welcome any opinions or insights more enlightened than my own.

This bill is a pretty detailed document, encompassing a number of seemingly subtle changes to the existing legislation... some of which are potentially beneficial, many of which are very troubling.

I'll start with the good news.

The bill begins by redefining the substances that should be regulated as medicines. The definition has been expanded from only commercial pharmaceuticals to include just about anything about which medical claims are made, including foodstuffs and diagnostic machines.

This is good news because under this bill all quacks are subject to regulation just like real medicine is. Homeopaths, naturopaths, acupuncturists, sangomas, electrodiagnosticians, chiropractors, Danie Krugel, Matthias Rath and all other quacks will need to satisfy the same burden of proof as Adcock Ingram and GSK.

More good news is that efficacy is one of the items specifically listed by which any and all such interventions will be measured. In other words, the person seeking certification for their specific intervention will have to show, to the satisfaction of the registering body, that their gadget or pill does what it claims to do. If their product fails to be certified, they may not advertise it along with those medical claims.

I think this represents a remarkable step forward in consumer protection in our country. The same processes designed to protect the public from dishonest peddlers of pharmaceuticals is to be expanded to encompass anyone who claims that their magic product can cure a rainy day.

But as far as I see it, that's where the good news ends.

One of the primary aims of the bill is to change the whole process by which these products are regulated. It effectively dissolves the Medicines Control Council, and establishes a new office called the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority. This in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing. The problem comes in with how it's organized.

The Chief Executive Officer of the Authority is appointed by, and serves at the pleasure of the Minister of Health. There doesn't appear to be any formal selection process defined, other than an interview between the applicant and the Minister herself. This means that Manto gets to decide, all by herself, who she thinks is the best person for the job. That CEO is then responsible for appointing all staff and committees within the Authority, which means we have a single point of failure for the organization: the CEO. The CEO is accountable only to the Minister, and not to the general public or the scientific community.

It gets worse.

Assuming that by some fluke, Manto appoints a scientifically-minded and intelligent person to the position of Authority CEO, that person is still not the only one to decide if any given intervention should be certified or not. Once the CEO and his minions are ready to certify a given intervention, he must submit it to the Minister who has the right to exercise veto power over the application.

On the surface this may not seem like such a bad thing. Rather err on the side of fewer interventions making it through the process than getting false positives, right? Not so much.

Take this hypothetical situation as an example:

Big Pharma develops an HIV vaccine that has passed a great many clinical trials. The vaccine has demonstrated that it is safe (to within acceptable levels) and effective (also to within acceptable levels). It renders 95% of patients immune to HIV infection with minimal side effects. In other words, it's been proven to be a safe and effective intervention.

The CEO of the Authority is satisfied with the evidence presented along with the application, and approves it, sending it off to the Minister for certification. The Minister, being an ideologically motivated idiot with genocidal tendencies who believes that vegetables are a better treatment for HIV than anti-retrovirals, decides that she doesn't like the idea of an HIV vaccine, and rejects the application - thus sentencing millions of South Africans to a slow and painful death.

One need only run a Google News search on Manto to see that this hypothetical situation is far from unlikely. The fate of South African lives should not be left in the hands of any one person, least of all a stupid politician. (Not all politicians are stupid, but this one is)

The only way of making this approval process even close to effective is by employing a panel of qualified experts from a variety of medical and scientific disciplines, and submitting every request to a consensus-vote by them, not unlike the referee process employed by scientific journals.

Science, and particularly scientific medicine is not a matter of policy, politics or ideology - it is a matter of life and death. Can we, as a developing nation suffering under the weight of this deadly pandemic, stand by and allow these incompetent politicians continue to make decisions about whether our children live or die?