Archive for May, 2010

May 31 2010

Our Coming Robot Overlords

Published by under Technology

The recent oil spill in the Gulf has prompted a great deal of wringing of hands – how do such disasters happen? David Brooks discusses in the New York Times that the cause is primarily due to the fact that our modern technological civilization is becoming too complex for us to manage adequately. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig is just one example of a piece of technology that is beyond the mastery of any single person. But there are also nuclear power plants, computer operating systems, jet airliners, financial systems, operating rooms, and numerous other examples.

Brooks concludes:

So it seems important, in the months ahead, to not only focus on mechanical ways to make drilling safer, but also more broadly on helping people deal with potentially catastrophic complexity. There must be ways to improve the choice architecture — to help people guard against risk creep, false security, groupthink, the good-news bias and all the rest.

This seems reasonable. Certainly we  need to get better at managing such complexity, by having clear lines of authority and responsibility, proper risk assessment, and a thorough understanding of group dynamics.

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May 28 2010

Shark Cartilage – No Benefit for Lung Cancer

Shark Cartilage has long been an alternative cancer treatment – very typical in that it has a shaky but superficially compelling theoretical basis, not empirical support, but plenty of anecdotes to lure the desperate. Promoters claim that sharks do not get cancer, because of anti-cancer properties of their cartilage. However – sharks do get cancer.

Proponents further claim that shark cartilage (and other cartilage products, like bovine cartilage) increase immune activity, kill cancer cells, and prevent angiogenesis – the formation of new blood vessels to feed tumors. None of these properties have been demonstrated, however.The anti-angiogenesis theory is at least plausible – but the simple fact is, if this potential were there a pharmaceutical company would have isolated, purified, and produced a drug based upon the cartilage long ago – with proven efficacy. There has been some interesting basic science, but nothing that has led to an effective drug. And what is on the market is mostly “crude extracts” – nothing but snake oil.

Despite years of use, and millions of dollars spent by cancer patients on dubious cartilage products, the evidence has been solidly negative. So negative, in fact, that we can confidently conclude that shark cartilage is probably not an effective treatment for any type of cancer. There is certainly no justification for its use, which has led to several very negative outcomes: a decline in shark populations, worse outcomes for cancer patients who delayed or ignored proven treatments due to the false promises of shark cartilage, and a vast waste of resources, mostly diverted to people of dubious credibility and motivations.

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May 27 2010

Barriers to the Acceptance of Science

For those of us trying to increase scientific literacy – understanding of the methods, philosophical underpinnings, common pitfalls, and current findings of science – it can be a frustrating endeavor. Sometimes it seems we are caught in a Catch-22: some people don’t care about science because they don’t understand it, and they don’t want to learn about science because they don’t care. Even worse, at times (most times) we seem to be coming up against emotions and patterns of thought deeply rooted in evolution that nothing short of transcendence will solve.

Three recent studies reinforce our worst fears about human nature and make it clear how much of an uphill battle we face. The first looks at attitudes toward the MMR vaccine and which sources parents trust the most. The researchers found:

Five key themes emerged. Parents felt they didn’t have enough information, especially in relation to the dangers associated with not vaccinating. Government sources were not trusted. By contrast, other parents were trusted: ‘Parents trust advice from other parents,’ one mother said. ‘[You] take it on board. You listen to them.’ Parents also revealed they were biased towards risk-related information. And they misunderstood balance, believing that pro- and anti-MMR arguments should be given equal weight even though the scientific evidence overwhelming favours MMR vaccination.

Part of this seems solvable, but part is inherent. The solvable parts include parents not having enough information regarding the dangers of not vaccinating. Lack of information is always the easiest problem to solve – make the information more readily available, especially to people when and where they are making decisions that will be informed by that information.

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May 26 2010

It’s Crop Circle Season

Published by under Paranormal

I have to admit, I love crop circles. I think they are a compelling art form. So I have anticipated for many years the coming of crop circle season in the Spring. Circle makers have really progressed the art form tremendously.

Here is the first one I have seen so far:

The theme seems to be mathematical – a common theme. The implication is that aliens are trying to communicate to use through the use of math and music, of course they never seem to teach us anything – just copy established mathematics. But it does represent the utility of math in producing beautiful symmetry in art.

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May 25 2010

Vaccines – Too Few, Too Late

The anti-vaccine movement is nothing if not savvy about marketing their nonsense – at least in the last decade. One of their successful slogans has been “too many, too soon” – implying that children are receiving too many vaccines while they are still too young to deal with them. The result, anti-vaccinationists argue, is potential neurological toxicity or “overwhelming” the immune system.

The slogan also serves double duty, allowing anti-vaccinationists to argue that they are not “anti-vaccine” just “pro-safe vaccine.” This is just more marketing savvy, however – a deliberate deception, as many of the people who make this claim also state that they would never vaccinate. (Orac has pointed this out many times in great insolent detail.)

But there are some parents who have bought into this notion and have reduced and/or delayed the number of vaccines their children receive in the hopes that they can strike a better balance of risk vs benefit than the experts have struck. And there are fringe doctors, like Dr. Jay Gordon, who promotes his own evidence-free alternate vaccine schedule, playing into the “too many, too soon” meme.

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May 24 2010

Martin Gardner 1914-2010

Published by under Skepticism

Martin Gardner, a renowned mathematician, author of over 70 books, educator, and skeptic, died on Saturday at the age of 95. Gardner was a skeptic before there was a skeptical movement, and so has always been one of our intellectual giants.

When I think of him I cannot help but think of the phrase most famously used by Isaac Newton,

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

In fact another giant in the skeptical universe, and long time friend of Gardner, James Randi, felt the same way. He wrote in Swift:

That man was one of my giants, a very long-time friend of some 50 years or so.  He was a delight, a very bright spot in my firmament, one to whom I could always turn to with a question or an idea, with any strange notion I could invent, and with any complaint or comment I could come up with.

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May 21 2010

Artificial Life

Published by under General Science

Well – not quite. But Dr. Craig Venter’s lab has made an significant advance in crafting synthetic bacteria. This is an advance we have been anticipating, as Venter has not been shy about promoting his research program.

What he has accomplished now is the following: He has sequenced the genome of a specific species of bacteria, then manufactured a copy of the DNA entirely with a sequencer. The synthetic copy was then inserted into a bacterium of a different species whose own genome had been removed. The bacterium then transformed into the species of the synthetic genome it had received, and was able to reproduce normally as the new species.

So, the end result was just a normal bacterium of an existing species. But this is a significant proof of concept. First, it showed that they can manufacture a bacterial genome that will be fully functional. Second they demonstrated that this genome can function in a bacterium, even of other species, and will completely control the machinery and therefore function of that bacterium. And finally, the bacteria can reproduce normally.

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May 20 2010

Special Diets Do Not Work for Autism

Published by under Neuroscience

One of the burning controversies in the autism community is whether or not special diets, specifically gluten-free or casein-free, are of benefit to the symptoms of autism. About 1 in 5 children with autism are on a special diet, and many parents strongly believe it is of benefit, but there has been no scientific evidence to back up their anecdotal observations.

A recent study adds to the evidence for a lack of benefit from such diets. The study is not yet published, but is summarized on the University of Rochester website. The main weakness of the study is that it is small – the study enrolled 22 children and 14 completed the study. It’s strength is that it was tightly controlled. Children were placed on a gluten-free (no wheat and barley) and casein-free (no dairy products) diet for 4 weeks. They were then challenged in a double-blind manner with snacks containing gluten, casein, both, or neither (placebo) and observed for behavior and GI symptoms. The study found no benefit for any outcome measure.

By itself this study is far from definitive and I am sure it will not be the last word. It is a small addition to the growing evidence showing lack of benefit from such special diets in autism.

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May 19 2010

Pesticides and ADHD

A recent article published in the journal Pediatrics links exposure to certain types of organophosphate pesticides with ADHD.  This is a reasonable study and the results should be taken seriously, but as always they need to be put into context – something most media outlets are failing to do.

First – the study itself – here are the methods:

Cross-sectional data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (2000–2004) were available for 1139 children, who were representative of the general US population. A structured interview with a parent was used to ascertain ADHD diagnostic status, on the basis of slightly modified criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition.

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May 18 2010

The Cult Demarcation Problem

Published by under Skepticism

I recently received the following question:

Big fan etc etc but I often (in the podcast, in the Why Are Nerds Unpopular article) hear/see you use the term “cult”. Could you give a definition of what a cult is?

Specifically, could you provide one that distinguishes a “cult” from, say, a Baptist church, or a Buddhist society, while also being encompassing enough to include all of the different groups that people have applied the label “cult” to?

I ask because I do not have such a definition, and from everything that I know about the sociology of religions it is not possible to have such a definition. “Cult” seems to be a derogatory term applied by members of a dominant/popular religious group towards a smaller religious group that they don’t like, and I’m disappointed that you use it so readily and without any qualification.

The questioner is right to question the use of a term like “cult” but is apparently unaware that there has been a great deal written about what a cult actually is. There are many different lists of characteristics of cults, and not one list is definitive, but if you read through them you will find a great deal of overlap and recurring themes. One thing to keep in mind is that a cult is defined more by how it behaves than what it believes – a set of beliefs alone cannot constitute a cult. You can read through the many lists on the link I provided, but I will summarize what I think are the main themes:

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