Archive for October, 2008

Oct 31 2008

Single Neuron Neuroscience

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During some of my skeptical lectures I flash a picture of a familiar movie star on the screen for a fraction of a second to demonstrate that most people can recognize the person, out of the millions they have ever seen, even after such a brief exposure. It’s a quick way to demonstrate the power of our face-recognition ability, which still outstrips that of supercomputers. I use it to make the point that our brains are exceptional at pattern recognition, which also helps us understand one of our major cognitive weaknesses – hyperactive pattern recognition, or seeing patterns where they do not really exist.

Neuroscientists are also interested in face-recognition, and other pattern-recognition, that occurs in the human brain. R. Quian Quiroga from the University of Leicester has published a number of studies exploring this ability. His latest research reveals what the press has dubbed “The Jennifer Aniston neuron.” Quiroga recorded the activity in the visual cortex of using micro-electrodes of subjects viewing the faces of familiar stars, like Aniston, Tom Cruise or Halle Berry. He found that each familiar face seems to be encoded in a single neuron.

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Oct 30 2008

Religion vs Superstition – Mande Barung Revisited

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Michael Egnor has managed to write his most incoherent blog entry ever, and that’s saying something.  I was actually impressed with how many errors and misconceptions he could cram into each sentence. Writing for the anti-evolution Discovery Institute, Egnor also reinforces the point I have been making recently that the Intelligent Design movement is not just anti-evolution but anti-science, and their primary strategy is to paint any scientific conclusion they find objectionable as “materialist ideology.”

This time Egnor is playing off the recent Baylor University survey on religious beliefs, and true to form he gets it completely wrong. He begins:

“Skeptical” atheist Steven Novella has a blog post on “Mande Barung,” an Indian version of the Himalayan Yeti and the North American Bigfoot. Novella ruminates on the credulity of one Dipu Marak, a local passionate believer in the shy mythical creature. Debunking Yeti sightings is low-hanging fruit for skeptics like Novella, whose skepticism knows no limits — except for his own materialist ideology, about which he is credulous to the bone. One wonders why atheist “skeptics” need to explain to their readership — presumably compliant atheist skeptics all — that Yeti probably don’t exist.

I see that now he has taken to using “skeptical” in scare quotes. Clearly Egnor does not understand the first thing about skeptical philosophy. First, he seems to equate it with being an “atheist”. He does not bother to define “atheist”, which is not a small point, especially since I am on record as describing myself as an agnostic. (The atheist vs agnostic discussion is for another post.) This is also important because he is pushing the “materialist ideology” theme – and the whole point of agnosticism is anti-ideology.

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Oct 29 2008

Supplement Trial For Prostate Cancer Canceled

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For all I rail against the currently inadequate regulations of supplements in the US and some other countries, this does not mean I am against true supplements as a potential medical intervention or method of health promotion. Our bodies require nutrients, and as we push human biology to its limits by trying to live as long as possible with minimal disease and degeneration, it is reasonable to hypothesize that various nutrients may help. I often check for relative deficiencies in various vitamins related to neurological health, and even prescribe vitamins when supported by the evidence.

My problem with the current state of affair is that nutrtion and supplements are being “ghettoized” by the so-called alternative medicine movement.  Poor regulations are used (in fact were created) to bypass good science and create a hayday for snake-oil peddlers.

The only bright spot is that good clinical trials involving supplements and nutrients are still being done and the mainstream standard of care is largely based upon evidence from these trials. The supplement and CAM marketplaces are blissfully disconnected from the evidence, and that’s the problem that needs to be fixed.

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Oct 28 2008

More on Methodological Naturalism

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My posts from last Thursday and Friday on materialism sparked an unusual amount of activity in the comments, which is always great. There is much great discussion and links to further reading. But I feel I did not make my position clear enough, and a longer clarification than is appropriate for the comments is needed.

Much of the confusion and disagreement seems to revolve around definitions – it is difficult to find common ground when people are using different specific definitions for the same words. This is a common problem in philosophy, which seems to multiple terms with subtle distinctions, and has been further magnified by the fact that I was partly confronting how other people (like ID proponents) are using terms, vs how philosophers define them, vs how the public perceives them. Confusion ensued.

Although this is probably obvious, I want to say for the record that I am not a philosopher. I am a scientist trying to understand philosophy as it pertains to science and skepticism. This probably causes as many problems as philosophers who are not scientists trying to understand the philosophy of science.

So as I crawl back through this discussion of methodological naturalism and materialism I will try to be careful about defining terms and in which context.

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Oct 27 2008

SkepticBlog

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Yes – another skeptical blog. We can’t get enough of them.

SkepticBlog is a group skeptical blog featuring regular contributions from Michael Shermer, Phil Plait, Yau-Man Chan (yeah, the Survivor guy), Mark Edward, Kirsten Sanford, Brian Dunning, and Ryan Johnson. Oh, yeah – and me. That’s a pretty solid line up of skepticism, if I do say so myself.

You can read my introductory post here for more info.  Essentially, the blog has two functions. The first (and the impetus for the blog) is to help promote our pilot skeptical reality TV show The Skeptologists. That project is still moving forward, and the blog is a way to help promote it. If the show gets picked up then the blog will likely continue as a companion to the show – although I honestly have no idea what would happen once TV executives own the show.

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Oct 24 2008

Reports of the Demise of Materialism Are Premature – Part II

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Yesterday I wrote about the Wedge strategy of the intelligent design (ID) movement – namely to undermine and replace the materialist basis of modern science with something that conforms to their ideological spiritual beliefs. This anti-materialist agenda has been primarily targeted against evolution, but now seems to be shifting its attention to neuroscience.

An Unholy Alliance

The Wedge strategy of the Discovery Institute (DI) and other ID proponents is largely a Christian movement. It is interesting that they have found common ground with others who have a very different ideology but share in common a distaste for strict materialism because it is inconvenient to their spiritual agenda.

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Oct 23 2008

Reports of the Demise of Materialism Are Premature

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The New Scientist has recently discovered what readers of this blog have known for a while – that the denial of materialist neuroscience is the “new creationism.”  In fact I have written extensively over the past year about the embrace by the Discovery Institute (an intelligent design group) of cartesian dualism, the notion that the mind is a different substance from the brain. The primary proponent of this argument for the DI (and a frequent foil of my blog entries) is Michael Egnor, a creationist neurosurgeon. But the New Scientist article correctly points out that this is actually part of a larger movement and a larger strategy.

The Wedge Strategy

This current attack on neuroscience has the same underlying roots as the ID attack on evolution – the real enemy for ID proponents is materialism. The infamous Wedge document makes this clear in its opening paragraphs:

The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.

Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art.

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Oct 21 2008

That is so not a brain!

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I learned of this bit of creationist pseudoscience through Pharyngula, and since it deals with an alleged human brain I had to comment. Larry and Debbie Skelf believe (apparently) that they have a petrified human brain. In a press release they state:

The bizarre rock, owned by Larry and Debbie Skelf, was just a sentimental token until about two years ago when research began on it.
“It was given to my mother, Eddie Mae Hodge, by uncle Luther Hodge, in Tullahoma Tennessee, forty years ago. Since mom passed away in 1986, I just called it my pretty brain rock. Since then, we often used it as part of different ornamentations” Debbie states.

The rock, now certified to be a petrified human brain, is no longer a table ornament. It has been examined by many leading U.S. scientists, including acclaimed Neuro Anatomy
Professor Dr. Suzanne Vincent, Oral Roberts University.

Where to begin?  Go to their dedicated website, and you will find a classic example of not just pseudoscience, but what Richard Feynman calls “cargo cult science.” The term “cargo cult” refers generally to the phenomenon of a native pre-technological tribe or community coming into contact with a non-native technological society, and then using rituals and magical thinking to control the cargo spirits or gods.

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Oct 20 2008

Treating Coma with Magnetic Stimulation

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There has recently been a number of news reports relating to coma, a fascinating topic and subject of active research, so there is no wonder that the public (and therefore the press) take an interest. Often, mainstream news stories focus on the notion of people “waking” from coma, or recovering from what was thought to be a permanent injury. This tends to hype the important, but subtle, progress that is being made.

The latest such story is of Josh Villa, a 26 year old gentleman who suffered a severe head injury in 2005 from a car accident. The injuries resulted in coma – the inability to be consciously awake – which evolved into a persistent vegetative state (PVS). By description, Josh was able to open his eyes but not respond to any external stimulation or interact with his environment. This meets the clinical definition of PVS.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

His doctor, Theresa Pape, enrolled him is a study of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). TMS uses strong magnetic fields to either induce or inhibit electrical activity in brain neurons. Therefore the technique can be used to turn off part of the brain, or stimulate it to be more active.

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Oct 16 2008

Chiropractors Invade My Blog

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Recently several chiropractors have been posting comments on this blog, under the blog entry about a law suit over a stroke allegedly due to a chiropractic neck manipulation. A detailed-enough response to the several long comments is worthy of its own entry, so here it is.

First, I want to point out that I greatly appreciate when readers post contrary opinions on my blog. Agreement (while also appreciated) is boring and does not advance the discourse. If I am missing an important piece of information, or my logic is flawed, I love having it pointed out – that way I can make corrections. I want my arguments to be both valid and as complete as possible, so corrective feedback is very valuable.

I also greatly enjoy sparring with those who have used logic and evidence to come to a different conclusion from me. A constructive discourse can only be a learning experience all around. I find I understand a topic much better after having to defend my position to someone adverse to it and who is using every argument they can muster to take it down.

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