Archive for December, 2009

Dec 31 2009

End of a Decade

Published by under Skepticism

Today is the last day of the first decade of the 21st century and third millenium. Please don’t get pedantic on me about there not being a year zero and therefore the decades begin with years ending in 1 and not 0. I know the whole story – I choose to count my decades (like most people) from 0-9. The 70s does not include 1980.

It does not seem like we have yet reached a consensus on what to call this past decade – the “aughts”, the “naughties” or what. In any case I would like to muse about science and skepticism over the last 10 years as I did about 2009 earlier this week.

Rather than consider single news items, since we are covering an entire decade I want to write about those big issues that skeptics have dealt with over the last 10 years, and sum up how I think it went. My goal is to offend as many people as possible (not really, but I often feel as if it might as well be).

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Dec 30 2009

Blogoversary

Published by under Skepticism

This week marks my the end of my third year as a blogger. This is my 687th blog post on Neurologica, plus additional posts on SkepticBlog, Science-Based Medicine (I have a new post on SBM today about Gingko biloba), and the Rogues Gallery. NeuroLogica now has 14,303 comments.

According to Technorati, by mid 2008 184 million people had started blogs. Estimates vary, and this is a moving target, but there is something like 3-5 million active blogs in the US alone. Most new bloggers last about a month, and most blogs are left fallow.

So surviving for three years is something of an accomplishment, and I get a decent amount of traffic and links to my humble blog. All things considered, I think it has been worth the effort.

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Dec 29 2009

Skeptical Musings about 2009

Published by under General

This is the time of year for looking back at the big news stories of the previous year. I’m not going to give any numbered top-ten list – but will simply reflect, in no particular order, on those science news items that made an impression on me this year.

Ardipithecus ramidus

Ardi, as he is known, was certainly the coolest fossil of the year. The remains of 17 individuals were actually found in 1993 and first described in 1994, but this year the first full analysis of these fossils was published, along with the new genus designation of Ardipithecus. Ardi is the oldest hominid species now known, displacing Lucy – an Australopithecus afarensis.

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Dec 28 2009

A Review of Sherlock Holmes

Published by under General

Sherlock Holmes has always been a favorite fictional character of mine. He is a deeply flawed character, and that is likely part of his appeal and popularity. But mostly, at his core, he is a profoundly rational character, combining impeccable logic, keen observation and attention to detail, and an astounding fund of knowledge.

I doubt there is a fictional character more famous than Holmes for his towering intellect.

Like any fan, I approach a new imagining of a favorite hero with some trepidation – and that is how I approached the new Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

There is simply no way for me to discuss this movie without massive spoilers. So do not read on if you have not seen the movie and are planning to. I do recommend the movie – so go see it, and then come back and read the rest of this post.

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Dec 25 2009

Happy Holidays

Published by under General

Happy Holidays to all my readers – whichever holiday you choose to celebrate during this season. I am partial to Festivus myself. And although I am not a druid, I do love the Winter Solstice – we are turning the corner at the bottom of the analemma and the days will now start to get longer (and also this is likely the original reason why this is the holiday season).

I will be spending the holidays with family, and while I will continue to post blogs through the holidays, I will be away from the computer most of the time and so comment moderation will be slow – so be patient.

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Dec 24 2009

Some Good News About Libel Laws

Skeptical bloggers have been focusing this year on England’s terrible libel laws – and with good reason. Our attention was sparked by the suit against Simon Singh brought by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA).  Last year Simon wrote this piece, criticizing the use of chiropractic to treat certain childhood conditions, treatments for which there is no credible evidence of efficacy. Actually I would go further – there is evidence that some of the treatments don’t work.

The BCA responded by suing Simon Singh, it what certainly seems like a transparent attempt at silencing legitimate criticism through the chilling effect of England’s oppressive libel laws. Being sued for libel in England is so expensive that most people will just settle rather than risk financial ruin. And the laws are so liberal that they lend themselves to libel tourism – foreigners suing in English court to take advantage of the favorable laws.

BCA’s lawsuit seems to have largely backfired (due largely to Simon bravely sticking out the law suit, at great personal expense). They have been embarrassed by the episode, and if anything it has just highlighted how terrible the evidence is for their treatments. It further spawned a movement to reform English libel laws, spearheaded by Sense about Science. There is currently a reform libel campaign going on, and you can sign the petition.

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Dec 23 2009

More Homeopathy Apologetics

It seems that one criterion to being a practicing homeopath is the requirement to publicly embarrass oneself .  Dana Ullman now regularly does this over at the Huffington Post. Dr. Werner, however, in a single YouTube video, may have won for the most embarrassing homeopathy nonsense of the year.  Her mutilation of Einstein and relativity is self-parody.

Here’s another one from John Benneth – the science of homeopathy. He discusses the latest nonsense about “nanocrystalloids” in homeopathic remedies which emit radio frequencies. This is just empty jargon to jazz up the same false claims of homeopaths that their remedies contain the energy signature or essence of what was diluted in them. But this is not supported by any reputable science.

And here is the recent review by The Parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee on homeopathy in the UK where Robert Wilson of the British Association of Homeopathic Manufacturers admits that there is no evidence to support the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies, but they sell them anyway.

And now, Amy L. Lansky, PhD, a computer scientist and now homeopathy proponent, writing for Mercola.com (a site that promotes every sort of medicine – as long as it is unscientific), decides to enter the fray for the most embarrassing homeopathy apologetics.  After a bit of whining about persecution, she attacks homeopathy’s critics, referring to a recent editorial by Michael Baum and Edzard Ernst:
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Dec 22 2009

Dr. Beetroot and AIDS Denialism

Last week the former health minister of South Africa, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, died of complications of a liver transplant. She had been health minister under Thabo Mbeki from 1999-2008.

As the BBC reports:

Without doubt, Dr Tshabalala-Msimang was a brave liberation fighter, a deeply loyal comrade in the ruling ANC, and a woman with a formidable intellect.

But sadly the world is likely to remember her for her for just one thing – her Aids policy.

It is unfortunately true that we tend to deal with the overwhelming complexity of the world by oversimplifying. We attach labels and archetypes to people, replacing the rich complexity of their lives with their single most dramatic feature or event. I know very little of Eliot Spitzer’s life and career – I can only spare the neurons to remember that he was that New York governor who prosecuted prostitution, and then had to resign in disgrace because of his own use of prostitutes. Time only exacerbates this phenomenon.

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Dec 21 2009

Autism Prevalence

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has published the results of their latest study on the prevalence of autism. There is no question that in the last 20 years the number of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnoses has increased. What is also clear is that during this time there has been increased surveillance and a broadening of the diagnosis of ASD. Whether or not this accounts for the entire increase in ASD numbers, or if there is a true increase in there as well, is unknown.

Into that context, the CDC adds their most recent numbers, concluding:

In 2006, on average, approximately 1% or one child in every 110 in the 11 ADDM sites was classified as having an ASD (approximate range: 1:80–1:240 children [males: 1:70; females: 1:315]). The average prevalence of ASDs identified among children aged 8 years increased 57% in 10 sites from the 2002 to the 2006 ADDM surveillance year. Although improved ascertainment accounts for some of the prevalence increases documented in the ADDM sites, a true increase in the risk for children to develop ASD symptoms cannot be ruled out. On average, although delays in identification persisted, ASDs were being diagnosed by community professionals at earlier ages in 2006 than in 2002.

That 1 in every 110 children on average now carry an ASD diagnosis is not new news. This CDC data was actually released ahead of publication in October. At the same time a phone survey published in Pediatrics found 110 in 10,000 children carried an ASD diagnosis – or a little more than 1%. This 1% figure seems to be highly replicated – a National Health Services survey released in September also found a prevalence of 1% for ASD in the UK.

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Dec 18 2009

The Nature of Synaesthesia

Published by under Neuroscience

Fans of the show Heroes are familiar with a recently introduced character whose mutant power is to see sounds. She is deaf, making the ability more interesting for her, and discovered that loud sounds, like music, produce beautiful colored lights.

This is a real phenomenon known as synaesthesia – an uncommon neurological condition in which people perceive one kind of sensory input as if it had properties of another – for example numbers have color or shape, or visual stimulation producing the perception of sound. The current interpretation of synaesthesia is that one sensory area in the brain is leaking electrical signals to an adjacent brain area – visual signals are stimulating auditory cortex resulting in the perception of sound.

However recent evidence suggests that synaesthesia may be more complex than just leaking signals between adjacent brain areas. Perhaps it results, at least in some cases, from higher levels of cortical processing involved in attention and concentration.

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