Archive for August, 2009

Aug 31 2009

Facts are NOT Anti-Religious

In the small community of Sedalia Missouri there happens to be a substantial Krishna community. (I won’t get into the various names for specific Krishna religions, but will just refer to them as Krishna for simplicity.) Recently they took offense at the T-shirts worn by the local high school band. The theme was a trip to the moon and their shirts featured imagery from the Apollo moon landings.

The Krishnas took offense at this because, according to their Vedic scriptures, the moon landing was a hoax. Specifically it says that the moon is further away than the sun, and that in order for a human to exist on another world, they have to leave their body and adopt one made for that world. Therefore the astronauts could not have landed on the moon, and the moon landings must have been a hoax. Seriously – they really believe this.

But the issue here is that they complained about the T-shirts because they found it offensive to their religious beliefs. They argued that the school system is supposed to remain neutral with regard to religious beliefs, and that they violated this neutrality by endorsing the “controversial” Apollo moon landings.

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Aug 28 2009

A Few Questions on Evolution

Evolution and its pseudoscientific denial is a topic that comes up often on this blog. The comments to those posts, as well as e-mails resulting from my podcast, provide good fodder for discussion. I also think that confronting misconceptions is a very effective way to teach science, because it invariably involves exploring logic, evidence, and how we know what we know.

Here are a few recent tidbits I thought I would weave into a post.

Punctuated Equilibrium

SGU listener Michael Morrison e-mailed me about a discussion with his uncle, stating:

He stated that many scientists believe that there is not enough time in the history of the world for the current complexity of life to have developed through evolution.  He stated that this problem was the impetus  for developing the punctuated equilibrium theory and was just another example of scientists trying to explain away God.  He referenced Frances Crick and his alien seed hypothesis as proof that even noted scientists recognize that lack of time is a problem for the theory of Evolution.

First, let me correct the misconception about punctuated equilibrium (PE) – it has absolutely nothing to do with there being enough time for evolution to have occurred. PE was developed by Gould and Eldridge to explain the apparent stability of species in the fossil record. Species do not constantly change, as Darwin surmised, but rather remain at rough equilibrium with their environment, punctuated by relatively rapid speciation or extinction events.

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Aug 27 2009

Humans Do Not Have Multi-Core Processing

Published by under Neuroscience

Despite the siren call our our increasingly multimedia, multitasking society, humans seem to behave like old computers with a single-core processor, rather than the latest PCs with multiprocessing.

This is not literally true – our brains are massively parallel, and they can process multiple kinds of information simultaneously. This is why I wrote above about human behavior and not brain processing. To clarify the distinction – our brains can parallel process, but we can only pay attention to one thing at a time. So while multiple subconscious processes are going on at the same time, that part of our brains that pays attention, that manipulates information in our working memories, can only focus on one thing at a time. This stream of attention has peripheral awareness of other things going on, and information on the periphery of our awareness can grab our attention, of course. But there is a certain threshold for this, and it is higher than one might naively think.

But a number of independent lines of research all lead to the same conclusion – we can’t actually pay attention to multiple things at the same time. We may be able to switch back and forth, but the attention any one item gets will suffer.

And yet, people who multitask generally think they are good at it. They are deceiving themselves, it turns out.

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Aug 26 2009

By Definition

Published by under Skepticism

If you are not aware of Massimo Pigliucci’s excellent blog, Rationally Speaking, take a look. He covers the very important intersection of science and philosophy. His most recent post covers the concept of definitions in science and in general. It’s a great discussion that I wanted to expand upon a bit.

Massimo’s central point is that it is often not necessary, or even possible, to have a precise and unambiguous definition in science, and in fact scientific discovery is often exactly about exploring the nature of a thing.

To understand this we need to understand the nature and role of definitions in science and philosophical thought. At one end of the spectrum there is the fallacy that is called the “Socratic fallacy” (although Massimo points out that Socractes was not guilty of this fallacy) – the assumption that definitions need to be pristine to be useful. At the other end is the fallacy that definitions are hopelessly ambiguous and therefore of no value.

The reality is more complex, as it almost always is.

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Aug 25 2009

Low-Carb Diets and Heart Disease

Eat a balanced diet, containing foods from all the good groups, especially fruits and vegetables.

There – for the vast majority of people that is all the diet advice that you need for overall health. Get regular exercise, don’t smoke, maintain a healthy weight, and have good sleep habits – now we have covered most lifestyle risk factors. If people followed this basic advice they would significantly reduce their risk of the most common diseases and disorders.

Often, however, I meet or hear people who add unneeded complexity to what it means to have a healthy lifestyle, even while simultaneously ignoring more basic advice. I can’t tell you how many patients I have who spend hundreds of dollars a month on useless supplements while they still smoke.

The media, weight-loss, and supplement industries are no help. They offer a constant barrage of complex, often conflicting, misleading, or downright false health information. Meanwhile, many people have lost sight of the basics.

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Aug 24 2009

Jet fuel from Seawater

Published by under Technology

The New Scientist headling reads: “How to turn seawater into jet fuel.” The “water into fuel” meme is one that will just not die – like lead into gold, it is an iconic example of turning something of little or no value into something of great value, which apparently appeals to our ape brains.

This is an old story that crops up from time to time. I recently blogged about a Florida inventor, John Kanzius, who found a way to burn salt water, resulting in many breathless news reports imagining a day in the near future when we would simply fill our gas tanks with seawater. The New Scientist story has a couple of new wrinkles, but first let me review the reason we will not be running our cars on water – the laws of thermodynamics.

As I discussed last week, in any new process that claims to produce energy it is a useful exercise to consider where the energy is ultimately coming from. In the case of water, the claims invariably are that the hydrogen and oxygen is split through some sort of electrolysis process, and then the hydrogen is burned back with oxygen to produce energy. Of course, thermodynamics tells us that this process must produce less energy than it consumes – it costs energy, it does not produce energy.

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Aug 21 2009

WHO Says No to Homeopathy

The World Health Organization, which does not have a good track record when it comes to pseudoscience in medicine (being too much of a political organization), has recently made a number of statements against the use of homeopathy for HIV, TB, malaria, influenza, and infant diarrhea. The WHO was apparently pressured to take a clear position on the use of homeopathy by a group of UK physicians. In their press release today they state:

As a group of early-career medics and researchers from the UK and Africa, we wrote to the WHO in June this year raising concerns about the aggressive promotion of homeopathy for these serious diseases, which puts lives at risk (www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/331/).

We have received the following responses:

Dr Mario Raviglione, Director, Stop TB Department, WHO: “Our evidence-based WHO TB treatment/management guidelines, as well as the International Standards of Tuberculosis Care (ISTC) do not recommend use of homeopathy.”

Dr Mukund Uplekar: TB Strategy and Health Systems, WHO: “WHO’s evidence-based guidelines on treatment of tuberculosis…have no place for homeopathic medicines.”

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Aug 20 2009

August Is Vaccine Awareness Month – Who Knew?

Published by under autism,Neuroscience

I applaud the recent attempts by the American Academy of Pediatrics to fight back against the anti-vaccine misinformation scare-mongering machine. As part of that goal August is Vaccine Awareness Month. However, this just brought home for me how much better the PR machine is on the anti-vax side than on the side of science. Here we are half way through August and I am just learning it is Vaccine Awareness Month. This is a topic I track quite closely, and blog about frequently. Where was the media blitz? Where was the rallying of troops?

The Good

OK – it’s not all bad. They did put out an open letter with a fair number of authoritative signature. Here is a brief excerpt:

We, the undersigned, support immunizations as the safest, most effective way to control and eradicate infectious diseases. This August, as another National Immunization Awareness Month comes to a close, we are reminded that diseases such as smallpox and polio were once commonplace in the United States. Thanks to vaccinations, we have not seen or experienced many of the infectious diseases that gripped past generations, but other countries have not been so fortunate and outbreaks continue in the United States.

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Aug 19 2009

New SBM Resource

Published by under Skepticism

On the Science-Based Medicine blog today I wrote about a new SBM resource – a topic-focussed reference page. The first topic- Vaccines and Autism – is mostly complete. This is designed to be one-stop-shopping for science-based information about major topics in medicine.

For me the most important feature of this new resource is the thorough list of relevant key research. What I find most challenging as a science writer and podcaster, is that after years of school and reading about science my head is full of information about prior research. I can often remember that there was some study that showed some important point I want to make, but I can’t remember the specific reference. I am constantly tracking down references I vaguely remember. Wouldn’t it be great if I had all those references in one place?

That is what this new resource will do – divided by topic. Take a look and tell me what you think.

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Aug 18 2009

Recognition of Facial Expressions Not Universal

Published by under Neuroscience

A recent study suggests that the recognition of certain facial expressions of emotions may not be universal, as was previously thought. This finding, if confirmed, raises some interesting questions.

Sociological studies have shown that in humans facial expressions and their recognition are universal – an American can easily interpret the expressions of an Australian aborigine. But more careful recent study suggests that there are differences.

Specifically, Rachael Jack studied 13 caucasian and 13 east Asian men and women for their ability to identify fear, surprise, anger, and disgust in a standardized set of facial expressions. They found that the caucasians had no difficulty, while the east Asians confused surprise with fear and anger with disgust.

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