Archive for June, 2008

Jun 30 2008

A Neurological Approach to Skepticism

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A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt called Your Brain Lies to You discusses many themes I have covered in this blog (here and here for example). The piece appears to be a preview of their upcoming book: Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life, but it is an excellent summary of many skeptical principles – namely that we cannot trust our memories.

They write:

The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.

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Jun 27 2008

Egnor vs PZ Myers

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I toyed with the idea of staying away from this one. I have been writing quite a bit about Michael Egnor, a neuroscience and evolution denier who blogs for the Discovery Institute, and I try not to give too much attention to any one crank. I have focused on his nonsensical version of dualism (shocking for a neurosurgeon) and so was going to let PZ Myers and Orac deal with his latest bit of illogic – partly because Egnor is directly attacking PZ and because the topic is cancer treatment which is Orac’s specialty. They both did a fine job of deconstructing Egnor’s absurd claims.

But this is the NeuroLogica blog and there were a couple of logical nuances that PZ and Orac did not focus on, so I just couldn’t stay away.

Here is the bit I want to focus on:

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Jun 26 2008

New Gallup Poll on Creation and Evolution

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The Gallup polling organization has been collecting data for over 20 years about American attitudes toward creation and evolution. They have just published their latest data, and it is not surprising in that the numbers are basically unchanged from previous surveys. Here they are:

As you can see, those lines are pretty flat. This suggests that we have not been making much progress in the last two decades improving public understanding of and acceptance of evolutionary theory. However, the situation may not be as bad as it at first seems.

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Jun 24 2008

Skepticism and Web 2.0

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The theme of TAM6 (the just concluded skeptical meeting hosted by the JREF) was iSkeptic – skepticism in the internet age. This was appropriate as web 2.0 has transformed skepticism from a fringe movement to one that has already made major incursions into the mainstream and continues to grow.

Some History

I have been involved in skeptical activism for 12 years, primarily as the president of the New England Skeptical Society and as a writer, so I have witnessed this transformation first hand. For the first half of my skeptical career being a local, part-time skeptic was a great deal of work with little result.

Running the NESS involved all the logistics of maintaining a non-profit organization, publishing a quarterly newsletter (including printing, mailing, etc.), hosting local meetings, doing local investigations, and being a resource for the media. This was all a great experience, but our impact was extremely limited.

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Jun 23 2008

The Skeptical Movement – Thoughts from TAM6

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I spent the last week at The Amazing Meeting 6 (TAM6) – a skeptical conference hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). TAM consists of a series of lectures, workshops, and presentations by prominent skeptics and scientists, but is has also evolved into something much more. It is, in every practical way, the annual meeting of the skeptical movement. So it is not surprising that I return with some thoughts about how the skeptical movement is doing. I don’t really have a coherent thesis to present – just some random thoughts and observations.

Skeptical Meetings

First, TAM  was awesome. These  meetings alway recharge my intellectual and skeptical batteries. Their obvious utility is in providing educational lectures – to learn from experts in other fields. But the benefits of such meetings go way beyond that. It is also an opportunity for cross-fertilization, to exchange ideas with others in the movement in a concentrated forum. Everyone comes away with new ideas, deeper understandings, and plans for future collaboration. We need more meetings like TAM. Hopefully, as the skeptical movement grows, more meetings will emerge also.

The social aspect of these meetings also should not be underestimated, or dismissed as “mere” socializing. Skepticism is not just a good idea, it is an organized movement. These meetings allow people who share an intellectual outlook to be connected, and not just for networking, but to make a real social connection. Everyone was completely approachable and eager to answer questions or just chat. This grows and spread the movement. At least a dozen times I was approached by someone who was inspired by TAM to form their own local skeptical group, or to offer their specialized services to the movement.

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Jun 19 2008

Psychic Alleges Sexual Abuse

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“It’s a very dangerous thing to believe in magic.” – James Randi

Since I am currently at TAM6 I thought it would be appropriate to open with a quote from Mr. Randi. It is especially appropriate to this story of Colleen Leduc and her 11 year old autistic child. Unfortunately for Colleen and her family she lives in a world where people still believe in magic. They are the victim of a chain of gullbility – people who should have known better victimizing her out of pure stupidity.

Colleen’s daughter is in the public school system. A teacher’s assistant there utilizes the “services” of a psychic. This psychic told this teacher’s assistant that someone whose name begins with the letter “V”(the daughter’s name is Victoria” is being sexually abused by a man 23-26 years old. That was the beginning of the misadventure.

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Jun 18 2008

Away at TAM6

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I am away this week at The Amazing Meeting 6 in Las Vegas. This is the sixth annual meeting of the James Randi Educational Foundation, which has evolved into the meeting of the skeptical movement. For those of you who will be there, stop by and say hello. I will be conducting interview throughout the meetings. The Skeptics Guide will also be recording two live shows, from 8-9AM, Friday and Saturday morning. I will be giving a lecture Saturday morning on the similarities between creationism and cartesian dualism – pretty much a summary of my blogs on the topic.

I will still be posting my usual assortment of blogs here, at Science-Based Medicine, and the Rogues Gallery. However, I will not be as attentive to the comments as I usually am – so be a little patient.

Next week I will give you a report from the conference.

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Jun 17 2008

Chiropractic Lawsuit

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Sandra Nette suffered a stroke following a neck manipulation by an Edmonton chiropractor. She alleges that the manipulation caused the stroke and she is therefore suing the chiropractor and the provincial government that allowed him to practice for $500 million dollars. This is an interesting development and how this case plays out is likely to have a dramatic effect on not only chiropractic but the regulation of non-science-based medical practitioners.

Chiropractic Neck Manipulation and Stroke

At present there is no evidence-based indication for chiropractic neck manipulation. There are many claims made for this procedure, that it can cure migraine or other headaches being the most common, but the evidence does not support such claims. Straight chiropractors – those who believe in the ideology that a magical life energy they call “innate intelligence” is necessary for health, and that most or all disease is caused by the blockage of innate intelligence. They manipulate the spine, including the neck, in order to relieve imagined subluxations and free the flow in innate intelligence. This form of chiropractic is pure pseudoscience.

But even those who partly or completely reject this ideology may still not live up to the ideas of science-based medicine. Since there is no indication for which there is adequate evidence to conclude that neck manipulation is an effective treatment, any risk to the procedure will be risk without benefit. Assessing the risk/benefit ratio of every intervention is one of the cornerstones of scientific medicine. Zero benefit means no measurable risk is justified.

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Jun 16 2008

The Car That Runs on Water

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This story keeps coming back, and it is likes we will continue to see it into the future. The car that runs on water has become almost a technological icon – like the hover car or the cure for cancer. Except we will never see it because it simply is not possible.

Here is the latest iteration of this scam/pseudoscience. Japanese company Genepax claims that is has a car that runs on water. Reuters reports:

“The car will continue to run as long as you have a bottle of water to top up from time to time,” Genepax CEO Kiyoshi Hirasawa told local broadcaster TV Tokyo.

“It does not require you to build up an infrastructure to recharge your batteries, which is usually the case for most electric cars,” he added.

The Reuters article was pretty light on details. It was also light on skepticism (i.e basic journalism). It failed to inform readers that such claims have been made numerous times before and that the scientific consensus is that such claims violate the second law of thermodynamics.

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Jun 13 2008

B. Alan Wallace and Buddhist Dualism

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Previously I have discussed, largely in the context of an ongoing debate, the notion of cartesian dualism – the belief that consciousness is due, in part or whole, to a non-physical cause separate from the brain. (I hold the neuroscientific view that consciousness is brain function.) This form of cartesian dualism seems to be favored by Western dualists, like Michael Egnor from the Discovery Institute.

There are other forms of dualism as well. David Chalmers, a philosopher of consciousness, holds what he calls naturalistic dualism – that the brain causes mind but consciousness cannot be reduced to brain function. There therefore must be some higher-order (but still entirely naturalistic) process going on. This view is opposed by other philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, who believe no such higher order process need be invoked. Consciousness can be understood as an emergent property of brain function (the position I find most compelling).

Today I want to discuss the dualism of B. Alan Wallace, a former Buddhist monk. I interviewed Alan about a year ago for the SGU podcast and it was an interesting discussion. He is quite a prolific writer on the topic of science, Buddhism, and dualism – so in addition to the interview there is no shortage of material explaining his views.

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