Archive for March, 2008

Mar 31 2008

Preponderance of Evidence

I wrote previously about the case of Hanna Poling – whose case was before the vaccine court and was settled by the US government who decided that “compensation was appropriate.” Today in the New York Times Paul Offit, a vaccine and infectious disease expert, wrote a great editorial about the case and its potential for harm to public health.

He made one interesting point, of which I was not aware, and so want to point it out as an addition to my previous post. Offit points out that up until a few years ago the Vaccine Compensation Court, who administers a special fund set up to compensate those legitimately injured by vaccine, used the legal standard of preponderance of the evidence in order to decide compensation cases.

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Mar 31 2008

Keeping An Open Mind

I am away this week filming the pilot for The Skeptologists. For NeuroLogica this week I am updating and editing some previous essays that I have written. This one was originally published in my Weird Science column in November 2004.

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I listened patiently as the UFO enthusiast explained how humans were transplanted to the earth from another world by our alien forebears.

“Then how do you explain the fact that humans share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and a genetic code will all life on earth?” I asked.

“Well, I think you have to keep an open mind,” was her starry-eyed response.

People who believe odd things-that coffee enemas can cure cancer, that the Loch Ness Monster exists, that art on the dollar bill can explain secret conspiracies-are always telling us to “keep an open mind.”

The now standard skeptical response is to quip: “Keep an open mind, sure–but not so open that your brains fall out.” In the endless sparring between skeptics and believers, the “keep an open mind” rejoinder is the favorite weapon in the believers’ arsenal. It is their all-purpose tool. But what does it really mean to be open-minded, and is it the skeptics or the believers who are truly closed-minded?

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Mar 28 2008

The Skeptologists

Next week I will be in Los Angeles filming a pilot for a new TV show called The Skeptologists. The show is the brain child of Brian Dunning (of Skeptoid fame) and producer Ryan Johnson (of American Dragster fame). At this point the show is just a pilot, produced on spec, as it were, so not big TV contract yet. But we can always be hopeful.

The show will be a reality investigative documentary – we will explore fringe and unconventional claims from a scientific point of view. I think the time is ripe for such a show. There are far too many credulous paranormal shows out there, with kids and plumbers playing at science but getting it wrong. I think (hope) the pubic will welcome a show with actual live scientists taking a look at some of these claims.

Here’s the lineup:

Me, Michael Shermer, Phil Plait, Yau-Man Chan (yes, that guy from Survivor), Kirsten Sanford, and Mark Edward (here are more details on the cast).

This also means that next week I am planning on being too busy to update my blog, but fear not. I will be re-editing and updating some of my classic essays from back in the day (originally published either in my Weird Science Column or in the New England Journal of Skepticism) and posting them up throughout the week. If I have time I may also give you an update on how the shooting is going for Skeptologists. So stay tuned.

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Mar 27 2008

Is Intelligent Design Falsifiable?

Published by under Creationism/ID

Intelligent design (ID), according to the Discovery Institute, is defined as follows:

“Intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”

The primary scientific criticism of ID is that it is not a legitimate scientific theory, but rather a transparent attempt at recasting religious faith (creationism) in scientific-sounding jargon. But ID lacks the minimal criteria to be considered science. ID proponents, of course, reject this argument because the entire purpose of ID is to masquerade creationism as a scientific theory.

Much of the discussion on this question focuses on the specific point of whether or not ID can be falsified – can it theoretically be proven false by scientific evidence. ID proponents say yes, scientists generally say no. While I agree that the answer is mostly no, the more precise answer is that it depends – it depends on exactly how ID is being formulated and practiced. I contend that in practice, ID proponents have rendered ID unfalsifiable while playing with semantics in order to pretend that it can be falsified.

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Mar 25 2008

Hubub Over Expelled

Published by under Creationism/ID

The promoters of anti-science like to turn reality on its head. The reason is simple: if your cherished beliefs do not fare well when seen through the prism of reality, then the problem is with reality – so just change it. Of course, you can’t change reality, but you can lie about. So the warriors of woo inevitably get sucked into spiraling deception.

Anyone who has dealt with creationists, or their latest incarnation – Intelligent Design proponents (or, as we call them, cdesign proponentsists – a reference to a copy-and-paste error in the book Of Pandas and People), has experienced spiraling deception first hand. Just read the Discovery Institute blog; it is more potent than a bottle of Ipecac.

The latest ID propaganda endeavor, the new movie Expelled featuring Ben Stein, is a good example of deception at work – both in its content and the hubub surrounding an early screening of the movie in Minnesota and some prominent scientists (Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers).

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Mar 24 2008

Responding to Dana Ullman

Recently homeopath Dana Ullman has been gracing the comments section of this blog. I always welcome contrary views – it sparks great debate and always seems to deepen my understanding of what advocates are saying on all sides of an issue. Recently he has brought up some points that could use a detailed response, sufficient to fill a separate blog entry, so here it is.

In response to my blog entry on A Golden Age of Quackery and Antiscience, Dana Ullman wrote:

Quackery is commonly defined as the use of unproven methods by practitioners who claim impressive results and who charge a lot of money. When you consider how much of conventional medicine is not evidence-based, and when you consider how much they wear the guise of “science” and how much they charge for their services (and drugs), we ARE living in the golden age of quackery…conventional medical quackery.

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Mar 21 2008

Mystery Airline Illness

I am always skeptical of “mystery illnesses.” Whenever a new apparent illness pops up the first question any scientifically-minded person should ask is, “Is it real?” Is there any objective evidence that a real new illness even exists, or are we seeing an apparent pattern that is not real but is just part of the background of known symptoms and illnesses?

Of course the press loves mysteries, and what’s better than a mystery illness; that’s a two-for-one deal – you get the appeal of a mystery and you get to scaremonger the public at the same time. A recent MSN headline proclaims:

Mystery illness sickens airline passengers, crews

The report focuses (as they almost always do) on a specific case – the story of one person dealing with the illness. I understand this is to add a personal and storytelling element to the news report but it has the unfortunately effect of distracting from the relevant science with misleading anecdotes. The case in question is that of a 77 year old woman who started to have shaking episodes following a flight on a commercial jet. She and her husband report that her shaking started the day after the flight and she was previously healthy.

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Mar 20 2008

A Golden Age of Quackery and Antiscience

Published by under Skepticism

Sometimes it’s useful and instructive to take a step back and look at the big picture. While many who read this blog (and affiliated blogs, and listen to my podcast) may see it only as a source of information (and hopefully at least mild amusement), it is also very consciously and deliberately part of a greater struggle for the very nature of human society and civilization. That may seem grandiose (and I am not making any judgments about the scope or impact of my humble efforts), but this has always been part of public intellectualism – engaging in the broader conversation about the nature of knowledge and the human struggle to grapple with it and ourselves.

The big picture is that homo sapiens is a curious species that is pushed and pulled in divergent directions by psychological and cultural forces both conscious and subconscious. There is a literal struggle for dominance among these various forces – each carving out a niche while often trying to defend and expand its territory. Some of my colleagues have recoiled at this military analogy – but I feel it is apt. It is a struggle for dominance and resources – and that is what all war is about.

My side in this struggle marches under various banners, all imperfect and faded at the edges, leading to internal struggles as to which banner is best, without any clear consensus. Mine is the side of science, scientific skepticism, rationality, reason, and methodological naturalism. No one label captures all of that, and attempts to do so have spectacularly failed, in my opinion (remember the “brights”). But we know who we are and we are increasingly organized and active, thanks largely to the internet.

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Mar 18 2008

Monocular Depth Perception

Published by under Neuroscience

An important realization for any scientist or skeptic is that reality is almost always more complex than our understanding of it. This is especially true of the common or lay understanding of any topic in science. (In fact this is likely to be true unless you are on the absolute cutting edge of knowledge in an area.)

Take depth perception. The common, and correct, belief is that depth perception results from what is called binocular disparity – the brain compares the images from each eye and uses the degree of difference to estimate distance. From my casual discussions with friends and family it seems that most people think this is the only mechanism by which our brains create the perception of depth. It isn’t. Real life is almost always more complex.

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Mar 17 2008

Facilitated Testimony in the Courtroom

Published by under Neuroscience

In the late 1980′s and continuing into the 1990′s there were a number of child abuse cases in which convictions were based upon courtroom testimony given through a technique known as facilitated communication. The technique involves a facilitator holding the hand of a client who has impaired communication so that they can type on a keyboard or point to a letter board. The belief was that some children who were thought to be severely cognitively impaired were in fact very bright, but rather just had impaired communication. Once investigators finally got around to putting these claims to the test, however, it was definitively shown that the facilitators were doing all the communication, not the clients.

It is shocking that the extraordinary claims of the facilitated communication (FC) crowd became as widely accepted as they were prior to any skeptical investigation. It is even more shocking that today, long after FC has been shown to be nothing more than self-deception through the ideomotor effect (subtle unconscious motor movements), testimony through FC is still occasionally heard in the courtroom.

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