Apr 18 2014

OMG – The Chemicalz

The Foodbabe is at it again – well, she never stopped being at it. She is apparently trying to make a career out of a combination of the naturalistic fallacy and chemical illiteracy.

I wrote previously about her campaign to scaremonger about completely safe ingredients in food. She called azodicarbonamide, an ingredient to make bread fluffier, the yoga mat chemical because it also has a variety of industrial uses, including making yoga mats. Soy also has a variety of uses, including making yoga mats.

She successfully marshaled her scientific illiteracy to pressure Subway into removing the ingredient from their bread.

Her modus operandi is simple – look at ingredient lists for names that sound like chemicals or are difficult to pronounce, bypass any scientific analysis or evidence and go straight to hyperbolic fearmongering. Then just hope that companies cave in order to avoid negative press before anyone can ask too many questions.

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Apr 17 2014

Predicting Recovery from Coma

I have been following the literature on using newer technologies (PET, fMRI, and quantitative EEG) to evaluate the brain activity of patients who appear unresponsive, loosely referred to as coma, or more generally disorders of consciousness. A new study, which I will get to below, adds an interesting element to the research.

For background, disorders of consciousness result from brain injury or disease that affects either the brainstem (needed for arousal) and/or both brain hemispheres. Level of consciousness is a continuum from drowsy to brain dead, but for the purposes of this discussion I am going to focus on three categories of chronic impairment of consciousness.

The first is called a minimally conscious state. In this condition patients are barely able to interact with their environment. They are mostly unresponsive, non-verbal, cannot care for themselves, but may respond to stimulation or show some interaction with their environment.

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Apr 15 2014

Why We Need a Skeptical Movement

Skeptics tend (as they should) to question everything, even the need for a movement of self-identified skeptics. It is an interesting question – what is the net cultural effect of organized scientific skepticism?

Of course, we can’t really ever know the answer to this question. There are too many moving parts. We could point to cultural trends, but this is probably the worst line of evidence. There is no way to control for skepticism as an isolated variable. We have no way of knowing what the world would be like without organized skepticism.

We can point to individuals whose lives have been changed, they believe for the better. I am heartened by every e-mail I receive from a reader or listener who says their life has been changed for the better because of skeptical outreach. Perhaps they were steered away from a career in pseudoscience, learned how to think more critically about everything, or just found a community to which they could connect.

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Apr 14 2014

Navy Process to Make Fuel from Seawater

Researchers at the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) announced that they have successfully tested a process to convert seawater into jet fuel. They can extract CO2 both dissolved and bound from the water as a source of carbon, and can extract H2 through electrolysis. They then convert the CO2 and hydrogen into long chain hydrocarbons:

NRL has made significant advances in the development of a gas-to-liquids (GTL) synthesis process to convert CO2 and H2 from seawater to a fuel-like fraction of C9-C16 molecules. In the first patented step, an iron-based catalyst has been developed that can achieve CO2 conversion levels up to 60 percent and decrease unwanted methane production in favor of longer-chain unsaturated hydrocarbons (olefins). These value-added hydrocarbons from this process serve as building blocks for the production of industrial chemicals and designer fuels.

They claim that with this process they can mass produce jet fuel for $3-6 per gallon. They tested the fuel on a model airplane, and it appeared to work fine.

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Apr 10 2014

NECSS 2014

I will be at NECSS this weekend – the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, in New York City. This is an excellent conference full of science and critical thinking lectures and panels. My podcast, the SGU, will be recording a live show on stage Saturday.

I will also be running two 1-hour workshops on critical thinking on Friday. I will be moderating a panel debate on GMO which should be very exciting. Finally I will be on a neuroscience panel talking about the uses and abuses of neuroscience.

Our keynote this year is Lawrence Krauss. You can see the full line up of speakers at www.necss.org.

Online registration will remain open today (Thursday), and onsite registrations are welcome. You can register for one day or the entire weekend. There is also a comedy show Friday night, stimulus response, in which, apparently, I will be skewered by a professional improv comedy group. (They did my brother Jay last year and it was hilarious – so he made sure I got payback this year.)

Please come up and say hi if you will be at NECSS. Also, the SGU will have a swag table so you can stop by there as well.

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Apr 08 2014

Geocentrism – Seriously?

I just saw the trailer of a new movie, The Principle. The movie is produced by Robert Sungenis, who writes the blog Galileo Was Wrong. Sungenis is what we technically call a kook. He believes the earth is at the center of the universe and that there was no Jewish holocaust, but rather the Jews were conspiring with Satan to take over the world.

Sungenis, however, is apparently a kook with money, so he is making a documentary film preaching his bizarre notions to the world. This much is nothing new. There are plenty of such films out there, like What the Bleep Do We Know and Expelled. They superficially follow the science documentary format, but they have an ideological agenda.

This film, unfortunately, will be narrated by Kate Mulgrew, who played Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager. Old Star Trek stars lending their fame to pseudoscience is also, sadly, nothing new.

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Apr 07 2014

Crowdfunding Pseudoscience

Indiegogo is rapidly earning a reputation for not caring whether or not they fund pure pseudoscience. This, in my opinion, is a bad business model, not to mention morally dubious.

I wrote previously about an Indiegogo campaign to fund a free energy device – a “home quantum energy generator.”  Indiegogo claims to have a process to weed out fraud from their campaigns, but this one apparently slipped through their process. When I e-mailed Indiegogo to question them about this campaign, I received nothing but a generic response.

Now pandodaily has been covering a new Indiegogo campaign for a “miracle” device – the GoBe by Healbe. The company claims on their Indiegogo page:

GoBe is the only way to automatically measure calorie intake—through your skin. Simply wear it to see calories consumed and burned, activity, hydration, sleep, stress levels, and more, delivered effortlessly to your smartphone.

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Apr 04 2014

Answering Conspiracy Theorists

We like to categorize and apply labels. This can be helpful in wrapping your mind around complex reality, as long as you avoid the pitfall of allowing labels to become mental straitjackets.

I often discuss various  categories of people who are failing, in one or more important ways, to apply critical thinking. These categories are not meant to be dismissive, but rather to help understand various styles of thinking that lead people astray. For example there are deniers, true-believers, ideologues, and cranks.

Perhaps the most interesting category is the conspiracy theorist. I also find them to be the most consistent in their style of reasoning and argument. I do wonder, however, how much of this consistency is due to and underlying reasoning style and how much is culture. When I get the same fallacious argument over and over again, is that because they are all reading the same source material?

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Apr 03 2014

Change Blindness and the Continuity Field

Change blindness is a fascinating phenomenon in which people do not notice even significant changes in an image they are viewing, as long as the change itself occurs out of view. Our visual processing is sensitive to changes that occur in view, but major changes to a scene can occur from one glance to the next without our noticing in many cases.

(See the color changing card trick for an example.)

One group of researchers believe they have a working hypothesis as to why our brains might have evolved in this way. Their idea is that the visual system will essentially merge images over a short period of time in order to preserve continuity – a process they call the continuity field. In essence our brains are sacrificing strict accuracy for perceived continuity.

This is in line with other evidence about how our brains work. Continuity seems to be a high priority, and our brains will happily fill in missing details, delete inconsistent details, and even completely fabricate information in order to preserve the illusion of a continuous and consistent narrative of reality.

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Apr 01 2014

Food Dyes and ADHD

There has been a recent increase in attention paid to the old question about food dyes and behavior in children. The idea that food coloring causes hyperactivity in children started with Ben Feingold in the 1970s. He popularized his “Feingold diet” for ADHD, which is still being promoted by some today.

Initial research showed a possible connection between certain food dyes, especially synthetic dyes, and hyperactive behavior in children. However, the next 20 years produced better controlled studies that did not show the alleged effect. It seemed like just another case of preliminary positive evidence that did not hold up to later more rigorous replication. Serious scientific interest in the question waned with this negative data.

However, recent popular interest in such issues has caused another wave of research. Dr. Oz’s website, for example, discusses the issue, giving it credence. Unfortunately, while it has renewed interest in the food dye question, the more recent research has not definitively answered the core question.

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