Archive for April, 2010

Apr 30 2010

Foreign Language Syndrome

Published by under Neuroscience

Last week it was widely reported that a Croatian girl awoke from a brief coma speaking fluent German, to the surprise of her mother and the doctors. The case was hailed as a mystery and “medically unexplainable.”  The story spread mainly through those paper with less than a stellar journalistic reputation – but today that matters much less than it used to. Now stories get on the internet, regardless of their source, and become part of the seamless viral spread of information.

There actually isn’t a legitimate foreign language syndrome, and superficially the story is highly implausible. (Incidentally, there is a foreign accent syndrome, but this is really just a speech deficit that causes altered pronunciation that happens to superficially resemble a specific accent.) Croatian is a Slavic language, but has some German words mixed in due to its history with the Hapsburg Monarchy. The reports indicate that the girl studied German in school – and so she could speak it before her coma. Not much of a mystery, really.

We discussed the story on the SGU, prompting a listener from Croatia to write in with more details (local media always seems to have more detailed and accurate reporting). Ivan Osman wrote to me:

Now the interesting part is that after she woke up from the coma she could speak German a lot more fluently than before and not a word in Croatian. My guess is that Sepsis caused a brain damage in left temporal lobe. Probably mostly in Broca’s Area, thus disabling her in speaking Croatian but not damaging her knowledge of German language. At that point her brain probably switched to best alternative and her passive knowledge of German sprang to life. Without possibility to fall back to Croatian vocabulary there is no dilemma in which words to choose and how to use them so her German must have sounded a lot better to doctors and her parents. In my opinion the most unsettling thing about this story is not mystical nonsense around it but a quote from a neuropsychiatrist that was connected to this case. He said “This case is medically unexplainable” – only a day after the whole incident. Seems to me that people like him should not be even remotely connected to science. If he is capable of abandoning any rational explanation only a day after girl woke up. I could understand if he spent 50 years researching on that particular case and/or related cases and then states he can’t explain it. But his reckless statement made this story a mockery of journalism and his career instead of interesting medical case what it probably is.

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Apr 29 2010

Gary Null – Hoist with his Own Petard

Sometimes the irony is so perfect it could not be better if it were scripted. Gary Null, a notorious health guru, is now suing the manufacturer of his Ultimate Power Meal, claiming that his own health product nearly killed him. His claim is that the manufacturer overloaded the supplement with too much vitamin D, which Null then overdosed on, causing kidney damage.

Null’s career is similar to many other health guru’s, like Mercola and Kevin Trudeau – the pattern is now fairly well established. In each case we have individuals who have dubious scientific or health credentials. Null has a business degree, and then higher degrees in nutrition from “non-traditional” schools of questionable value. He has made a career selling two thing – dubious products and conspiracies.

Worse than just selling vitamins with over-hyped claims, Null has promoted such treatments for serious illnesses. He seems to like any treatment which is rejected by mainstream medicine, justifying this by claiming that scientific medicine is all a scam – what he has called “medical genocide.” Of course, this leads him to accept and promote treatments that are rejected because they are not safe and/or do not work – the usual reason that treatments are rejected.

For example, he has promoted chelation therapy for heart disease, nutritional therapy for AIDS, and many dangerous and useless cancer treatments.

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Apr 28 2010

The Vaccine Wars

Last night Frontline aired a show called The Vaccine Wars. You can watch the full episode online here. Overall, they did a good job of representing the current state of the science, and the anti-scientific nature of the anti-vaccine movement.

The overall theme of the piece was that anti-vaccine parents are irresponsible and go against the science. In fact, their view are immune to science, as they dismiss the evidence which contradicts their position, and constantly shift the goalposts when evidence goes against a link between vaccines and autism.

The piece did cut some corners on details, but probably will only be noticed by someone steeped in the anti-vaccine movement.

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Apr 27 2010

Dossey on the Scientific Method

Dr. Larry Dossey, author of The Power of Premonitions, has the audacity to educate us about the scientific method, appropriately enough in perhaps the most prominent anti-scientific venue on the web, the Huffington Post. He starts off with a horrid straw man quoted from Jeremy Rifkin:

The scientific observer is never a participant in the reality he or she observes, but only a voyeur. As for the world he or she observes, it is a cold, uncaring place, devoid of awe, compassion or sense of purpose. Even life itself is made lifeless to better dissect its component parts. We are left with a purely material world, which is quantifiable but without quality … The scientific method is at odds with virtually everything we know about our own nature and the nature of the world. It denies the relational aspect of reality, prohibits participation and makes no room for empathic imagination. Students in effect are asked to become aliens in the world.

This is a Hollywood level cardboard stereotype. It certainly does not resemble what I have experienced as science or scientists. Without getting too much into this side point, Rifkin himself is a controversial figure in the scientific world. He is an economist, not a scientist, and just to give you a flavor of his reputation, Stephen J. Gould once wrote about his work that it was, “a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship.”

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Apr 26 2010

Why Are Nerds Unpopular?

Published by under Skepticism

On the latest episode of the SGU an audience member (it was a live recording) asked about the youth culture today and why kids don’t seem to be interested in science, or much else of perceived intellectual value. I basically responded that this question is thousands of years old – every generation, apparently, has felt this about the youth of their time. Things are not necessarily getting worse, although confirmation bias and a narrow perspective may make it seem so.

The generation question aside – this also raises the question of how to make science and skepticism more popular in general, but especially with the next generation. A listener then sent me a link to the following article: Why Nerds are Unpopular. The author writes:

I know a lot of people who were nerds in school, and they all tell the same story: there is a strong correlation between being smart and being a nerd, and an even stronger inverse correlation between being a nerd and being popular. Being smart seems to make you unpopular.

But why? Basically, the author argues that smart kids invest their time and energy into the things that they like. Meanwhile, being popular in high school is a full-time job, requiring a great deal of time and effort – time the nerds are unwilling to commit.

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Apr 23 2010

More on Science Education

Published by under Education

Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief of Science, the magazine of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), has written an interesting editorial on prioritizing science education. The gist of his article is that we should combine literacy education with science education, as these two knowledge bases are intimately connected. I agree with both his specific example and the general principle, which should be more broadly applied.

The idea is that, whenever possible, learning tasks should involve real world applications. In this case, he points out that much of the literacy education in schools uses fiction for reading material. Why not also use science and factual texts? Factual texts are different than fiction, and being able to comprehend and write non-fiction is as important (if not more) than understanding fictional literature.

By the same token, there should be more teaching in science class about how to read and write science texts. Students would benefit by having greater literacy and a greater understanding of science, and ability to communicate science. That sounds like a win-win to me.

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Apr 22 2010

The Layer of Unnecessary Ritual

Fans of Bruce Lee are likely familiar with Jeet Kune Do, the style of fighting he developed in the 1960s. Lee felt there was too much wasted motion in most martial arts styles – there was a layer of ritualized and superfluous movements built up over the years. So he set out to strip away all the ritual and reduce martial arts technique to the minimal core movements that conveyed optimal function. The result was Jeet Kune Do.

It seems humans have a tendency to clog systems with ritual and fluff. In the cognitive sciences this fluff is often treated as “theory” and when interventions based upon the theory seem to work, proponents interpret this as validating the theory.

But in order to know that the theory is truly valid, variables need to be controlled to skeptically ask the question – is it the elements unique to the theory that are working, or the more basic elements of the intervention? For example, with eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapists basically ask clients to ponder their fear or anxiety while they follow an object with their eyes back and forth. Proponents claim the eye movements affect the brain’s hardwiring, but they ignore the more basic elements of the intervention. First, there is the most basic and non-specific effect of introducing a novel technique into a therapeutic relationship – whenever you do anything new with a client, there will be a non-specific effect. Second, there may be an element of cognitive therapy involved. If you control for these variables, do the eye movements themselves add anything to the effectiveness of treatment? Probably not.

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Apr 21 2010

Computer Models for Medical Diagnosis

One of the premises of The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande is that modern society is too complex for our humble monkey brains to handle. We cannot keep track of all the complexity that modern technology has created – tasks such as flying jumbo jets or doing surgery are accidents waiting to happen. So we should, he argues, use a mental crutch – the humble checklist.

I agree, and I would add medical diagnosis to the list of those tasks that tend to overwhelm our cognitive capacity. It takes years of practice, and a vast fund of ever-changing knowledge, to be an effective diagnostician, and even a low rate of failure can lead to unacceptable outcomes. As our medical knowledge explodes, we are becoming the victims of our own success. Systems have been put into place to help – such as requiring maintenance of certification for specialty boards, and continuing medical education, but it is still a struggle.

Computer technology, in my opinion, is the best way forward. Computers and information devices hold tremendous promise – doctors can now hold in their hands a searchable database of information that they can access at the point of patient care – right when they need the information. Don’t be put off if your doctor starts searching Google during your consultation. That’s a good thing – it means they know how to access information and are not afraid to do so, even if just as a check on their memory, or to make sure they haven’t forgotten anything or missed any new and relevant publications.

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Apr 20 2010

The Chiropractic Conundrum

Some of the pseudoscientific “alternative medicine” modalities we deal with are easy to summarize: homeopathy is 100% nonsense – nothing but water; acupuncture (if you define it as placing needles in specific acupuncture points) has no measurable effect beyond placebo, and therapeutic touch and other forms of energy healing are nothing but magical thinking. But when people ask me, “What do you think about chiropractic?” there is no one-liner. This is partly because “chiropractic” is not a monolithic profession; it is a many-headed beast. It is a mixture of legitimate interventions and pure pseudoscience in widely varying proportions. But also, chiropractors tend not to be self-reflective as a profession, and are shy about outside scrutiny.

But the internet contains a wealth of information and is increasingly useful as a tool to survey practices and claims. Edzard Ernst has recently published a survey of English-speaking chiropractic websites and found some very informative results. Ernst is a professor of complementary and alternative medicine and has become the Energizer Bunny of holding CAM up to the light of rigorous science.

The question is this – since many chiropractors mix evidence-based and non evidence-based practices, what can we say about the percentage of chiropractors who are basically evidence-based vs pseudoscientific?  Are most chiropractors mostly scientific, or are most chiropractors peddling pseudoscience with just a patina of legitimacy?

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Apr 19 2010

Report from NECSS 2010

Published by under Skepticism

This past weekend was the second North East Conference on Science and Skepticism, or NECSS (meant to be pronounced “nexus”). The conference is jointly sponsored by the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society. While I have a completely insider view of the conference, I want to share my thoughts about it in the context of what, if anything, it says about the skeptical movement.

First, I think it reflects the fact that the skeptical movement is heading in the direction of greater collaboration and cohesion. We are slowly weaving together the many threads that make up what is very loosely called the skeptical movement.

This was more than a conference run by two local skeptical groups – the keynote was given by D.J. Grothe, president of the James Randi Educational Organization (JREF). James Randi himself gave a talk and participated in two panels. There was also a live taping of the Skeptics Guide podcast (SGU), a performance by George Hrab who produces the Geologic podcast, and another panel on promoting skepticism which included Steve Mirsky from Scientific American and was moderated by Julia Galef who hosts the Rationally Speaking podcast.

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