Archive for July, 2007

Jul 31 2007

Chief Justice John Roberts Seizure

Published by under Neuroscience

I have received many questions from friends, family, and over e-mail in the last day about the nature and implications of John Roberts’ seizure. Of course, I don’t have any more specific medical information than is available in the general media. But I can give general information about seizures that will help put Roberts’ situation into perspective.

A seizure is an event – an episode of abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Seizures come in many flavors, largely depending upon what part of the brain the abnormal electrical activity is in. Partial seizures only involve part of the brain, while generalized seizures involve the entire brain. Partial seizures may (which are called “complex”) or may not (“simple”) impair consciousness, and they also may or may not secondarily generalize.

The media reports indicate that Roberts fell to the ground as a consequence of his seizure, was shaking and foaming at the mouth. This sounds like a generalized seizure. It is not possible from this information to tell if the seizure was primarily generalized or started out as a partial seizure and then later generalized.
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Jul 30 2007

Mentally Ill Mice

Published by under Neuroscience

Takatoshi Hikida, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and his team have produced a strain of mice that they claim can serve as a useful animal model for schizophrenia. The press reports refer to the lab mice as “mentally ill,” which is not untrue but does tend to cause some confusion. At least they did try to convey the fact that is potentially a huge breakthrough.

Understanding the different kinds of research is necessary to put a new research finding in perspective. The lay press generally does a poor job at this, so it is something I try to address in my blog. This type of research is designed to improve research, rather than to achieve a specific end in itself. It’s like inventing a machine that will improve manufacturing – the machine itself is not something useful to the average consumer, but it may make the manufacture of many products more efficient, and therefore less expensive.

Likewise, research is an industry and it requires tools. Researchers get very excited, and rightly so, when a new research tool is developed, because it may mean that research will now be easier, cheaper, and progress more quickly.
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Jul 26 2007

Texas Now Has a Creationist Heading the State Board of Education

Published by under Creationism/ID

Texas Governor Rick Perry has appointed outspoken creationist, Don McLeroy, to head the Texas State board of Education. Yikes!

One of the recurring themes of this blog is that science should never be subverted by ideology. Science needs to be open, honest, transparent, and driven by an uncompromising dedication to method. Science education should reflect this. Ideology places a preferred belief ahead of methodology, and therefore must pervert the scientific method, strain logic, and compromise honesty. Creationism is the poster-child of ideology perverting science.

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Jul 25 2007

Ward Churchill, 9/11, Tenure, and Academic Freedom vs Standards

Published by under General Science

Yesterday Ward Churchill, the tenured professor at The University of Colorado, was fired by an 8 to 1 vote for academic misconduct. Churchill came to fame for making comments about 9/11, specifically comparing the victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks to Adolf Eichmann, who was complicit in the Nazi holocaust. This case raises interesting questions about academic freedom, the role of tenure, and the implications of pseudoscience and pseudohistory in academia.

Although the Churchill case raises these issues, as is usually the case in real life, it is not a clean, perfect “Hollywood” ending or climax. It’s a bit more messy. Churchill was not fired for his comments on 9/11. His comments were not even part of the 2-year long review process. Rather he was fired for academic misconduct, including falsifying research and plagiarism. The universities investigation into Churchill activities, however, was triggered by his 9/11 comments.

Churchill says he now plans to sue the University of Colorado for violating his freedom of speech. This raises the issue of what the relationship is between a professor’s free speech, the role of tenure, and the rights and responsibilities of a University to discipline their faculty and maintain quality control.
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Jul 24 2007

The Creationist Nonsense Just Doesn’t Stop

Published by under Creationism/ID

I promise my blog will not turn into all creationism all the time – but that has been a recent theme. I just can’t resist a juicy bit of illogical nonsense, and the creationists just keep serving them up.

In response to yesterday’s blog entry, reader James Collins wrote a pro-creationist response chock full of logical fallacies, ambiguous statements, misstatements of fact, and internal inconsistencies. Before anyone accuses me of picking on an easy target that is not representative of creationist arguments in general, or the best the creationists have to offer, read my other posts dealing with Michael Egnor and other prominent ID/creationists featured by the Discovery Institute. This kind of sloppy reasoning and lack of respect for facts is quite representative of creationists and is about as good as it gets.

Collins primary argument is this:

“If evolutionists want to end the arguments all they have to do is, get their brilliant heads together and assemble a ‘simple’ living cell. This should be possible, since they certainly have a very great amount of knowledge about what is inside the ‘simple’ cell.

After all, shouldn’t all the combined Intelligence of all the worlds scientist be able the do what chance encounters with random chemicals, without a set of instructions, accomplished about 4 billion years ago, according to the evolutionists, having no intelligence at all available to help them along in their quest to become a living entity. Surely then the evolutionists scientists today should be able to make us a ‘simple’ cell.”

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Jul 23 2007

Scientific Proof and Evolution Denial

In response to my Skeptics Circle entry last week, reader Tim left a comment decrying my reference to intelligent design proponents as “deniers.” In response I challenged Tim to give me one legitimate argument against evolution – the implication being that if there are none then the rejection of evolution as scientifically established is denial. Tim then responded:

“You are try to sucker me, aren’t you? Sorry. Not going to fall for it. I’m not aware of any evidence that disproves evolution.

It’s just that there is insufficent evidence to prove it. So I remain skeptical. For example, the existence of fossil evidence that show there at one time existed animals who in some way resembled horses, doesn’t prove that that horses are descended from those ‘proto-horses’. There is NO scientific evidence of descent. Possible but not scientifically proven.”

There are two significant errors in Tim’s response, one factual the other logical. The logical error is in the confusion of the concepts of “proof” vs “evidence,” which Tim seems to think are interchangeable.
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Jul 20 2007

More Propaganda, Logical Fallacies, and Rewriting History from the Discovery Institute

Published by under Creationism/ID

I truly hate propaganda – the twisting of facts and logic for a pre-determined ideological goal. It represents the worst of those things in the intellectual realm that I loathe. Yesterday Michael Egnor, the silly surgeon who aspires to be the primary mouthpiece for ID propaganda, has given the world an excellent example of the depths of intellectual dishonesty and shoddy thinking that the Discovery Institute (an ID “think tank”) is willing to sink to spread their nonsense.

The one bright ray I always find when contemplating such a steaming pile of cognitive dung is that at least it makes my job a bit easier. The unifying theme of scientific skepticism is that process and method are what matter – not conclusions or beliefs. So when those arrayed against the skeptical position employ gross logical fallacies and misstatements of fact, it’s a sort of vindication.

Egnor writes about the Scopes trial of 1925 in which John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in violation of the Butler Act, a recent Tennessee law prohibiting such teaching. The trial was contrived by those wishing to test the law, and Scopes volunteered to be the test case. The intention was for Scopes to lose so that the decision could be appealed in higher courts and eventually lead to the challenge of the Butler Act itself (in the US you need a case in order to challenge the constitutionality of a law).
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Jul 19 2007

Skeptics Circle #65 – A Tour Through the Museum of Skepticism

Published by under Skepticism

Welcome to the Museum of Skepticism

The room was filled with that odd combination of excitement, interest and restlessness that accompanies children forced to walk through a museum.

“Quiet down,” said Ms. Trueblood for the hundredth time. As experienced as she was a gaggle of nine-year-olds was always a challenge. “Raise your hand if you have a question, otherwise I want quiet, and pay attention to Mr. Lucious.”

“Thomas, please,” the museum guide said quickly with a smile. “Follow me, kids. We’re about to enter the largest wing of the museum – the Hall of Complementary and Alternative Medicine.” The young post-grad swept his arm with a flourish but was met with something less than the enthusiasm he anticipated.

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Jul 17 2007

Repressing Memories

Published by under Neuroscience

One of the basic concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis is that people tend to repress unpleasant memories and that this repression can lead to negative consequences. Bad memories were thought of as if they were a psychological toxin in the brain that had to be expelled by bringing them to the surface and confronting them. Although psychiatry has moved far from Freud, this basic concept still holds popular appeal and influences some current psychotherapies – most infamously repressed memory therapy.

It turns out that the ability to repress emotionally negative memories is likely a normal and adaptive behavior (at least for some, if not most people). Now neuroscientists have been able to catch the brain in the act with functional MRI scanning and show that the far frontal lobes are engaged in suppressing negative emotional memories.
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Jul 13 2007

Intelligent Design and the Argument From Ignorance

I admit to a certain affinity for logic-based arguments. There is a purity to logic, and the promise of an objective outcome, an unambiguous conclusion. Evidence is messy and always contingent; but logic is either valid or invalid; arguments are either sound or they are unsound.

This is partly why one of my favorite pseudosciences to stalk is creationism/intelligent design (ID). It is a treasure trove of logical fallacies. Countering all of the invalid arguments put forth by proponents of creationism/ID constitutes a thorough and in depth lesson in logic.

Today’s lesson regards the argument from ignorance. This fallacy describes an argument that bases a positive claim on the absence of evidence, or what is not known. If one sees an unidentified blob of light in the sky and concludes from the inability to identify the light that it is an alien spacecraft, that is an argument from ignorance.
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