Archive for November, 2010

Nov 29 2010

Report From TAM OZ

Published by under Skepticism

The first TAM Australia meeting is now over. I always find these events a good opportunity to take the pulse of the skeptical movement. So what did I learn?

First – Australia has a vibrant and fun skeptical movement. Richard Saunders, Eran Segev, Rachael Dunlop, and Joanne Benhamu did a fabulous job of organizing and running the event. The Australian Skeptics are an active group with a great deal of energy and ideas. Beyond the coordinating committee there are many skeptics in Australia who are positive and enthusiastic.

The crowd at the meeting was composed of a broad age range, with a lot of young people and a lot of women. The demographics of skepticism are certainly changing – the fact that younger age groups are getting involved is a good sign for the future. I believe the youngest attendee was 11 years old – a boy named Alex who will be making an appearance on the podcast we recorded during the conference. Imagine an eleven-year-old whose heroes are not rock stars or sports legends, but scientists and educators. (OK, sure, that describes many nerds, but Alex was a cool kid and it’s good to see that the skeptical movement can inspire one so young.)

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Nov 22 2010

Help Launching New Show

You may remember The Skeptologists – a TV pilot featuring a group of skeptical investigators taking on a range of pseudoscientific claims. Well – that project is not over, although it has morphed a bit. The working title of the show is now The Edge. And, rather than try to get a commercial TV executive to bite on the idea, the producers (Brian Dunning and Ryan Johnson) are trying to get a grant to produce a season for public television. It’s still an uphill battle, but they are making progress. Phil Plait has moved on with his Discovery Channel contract, including Phil Plait’s Bad Universe. So, Pamela Gay has stepped in to fill his role on the show.

Pamela is also helping with the grant – and she has asked for help. She needs to show that there is demand for the kind of content we aim to produce, and this is where you (potentially) come in.

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Nov 19 2010

Did Lou Gehrig have Lou Gehrig’s Disease?

Published by under Neuroscience

Today I begin my day and a half of travel to get from CT to Sydney Australia for the the first TAM Australia event. Along the way I will stop off in Vancouver for a live show there, with special guest George Hrab and an appearance by Fraser Cain. Right now I am doing last minute packing and trying to remember the hundred things I need to bring along and have prepared before I leave. I will still be blogging over the two weeks that I will be out of the country – but I will probably keep a light blogging schedule, starting with today.

Here is just a quick item about Lou Gehrig’s disease – also known as motor neuron disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). ALS is a neurological disorder in which the motor neurons progressively die off. There are basically two types of motor neurons – the upper motor neurons carry signals from the cortex of the brain down to the spinal cord. They synapse on the lower motor neuron which then carries that signal out of the spinal cord, through the peripheral nerve, and to the target muscle. There are interneurons that modulate function, but basically it’s a two-neuron system. In ALS both the upper and lower motor neurons die, that is the hallmark of the disease.

Actually ALS is a category of diseases, not one pathopysiological entity. There is familial ALS, about 20% of which is caused by a mutation in the SOD1 gene (for a protein that reduces oxygen free radicals). Sporadic ALS itself likely has multiple causes, all leading to the final common pathway of motor neuron death. While we know a lot about what is happening in ALS, we have not yet found the smoking gun (or guns) of the ultimate cause(s).

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Nov 18 2010

Brain Balance

Published by under Neuroscience

I was recently interviewed for an article on Brain Balance, a franchise that promises to treat a variety of neurological disorder from autism to ADHD. Their website claims:

This proprietary, non-medical program has been successful in helping hundreds of children reach their physical, social/behavioral health and academic potential. We work with children who suffer with ADD/ADHD, Dyslexia, Tourette’s, Asperger’s and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

The program has all the red flags of a pseudoscientific clinic. First it claims there is one underlying problem for a host of separate disorders:

Called Functional Disconnection—an imbalance in the connections and function between and within the hemispheres (sides) of your child’s brain—this condition is responsible for a host of behavioral, academic, and social difficulties.

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Nov 17 2010

Reviving the 10% Brain Myth

Published by under Neuroscience

If you do a Google search on “10% brain” all of the relevant hits on the first page are discussing the fact that the notion that humans use only 10% of their brains is a myth. I took this myth down myself 12 years ago. It is a fun myth to debunk, and it a good hook for the discussion of brain function and anatomy and all the ways in which we know that we use more than 10% of our brains.

The Mythbusters even took this one on this season – and found that during specific tasks about 30-40% of brain capacity was used. I have some quibbles about how they approached the question, but they did provide some useful information, and certainly busted the myth.

But I was recently pointed to this article by Neil Slade. Yes – it has all the markings of a crank site, but it’s a crank site that is selling something, and I think that is the underlying context. Slade wants to sell you products that will “supercharge” your frontal lobes.

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Nov 16 2010

Robert Lanza’s Quantum Woo

Here we go again – in an article that would make Deepak Chopra proud, Robert Lanza over at the HuffPo has written a mystery-mongering piece about biocentrism. Lanza asks the question – Why are you here? This is one of those cosmological questions that borders on metaphysics, like why is there something rather than nothing? These are interesting questions, but one needs to tread carefully along a tightrope of logic amid a chasm of philosophy and ideology. Lanza dives right off the cliff into the chasm. He sets up the question:

Even setting aside the issue of being here and now, the probability of random physical laws and events leading to this point is less than 1 out of 100,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, equivalent to winning every lottery there ever was.

The lottery reference is appropriate, because Lanza is committing the lottery fallacy. In fact, his entire article is one giant lottery fallacy. This fallacy comes from reasoning backwards about probability and asking the wrong question. If John Smith wins the superball lottery with odds of 100 million to one against, this should not be considered a cosmically unlikely event that requires a special explanation. The wrong question to ask is – what were the odds of John Smith winning? The correct question is – what were the odds of anyone winning (pretty good, it turns out).

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Nov 15 2010

Investing in Basic Science

A recent editorial in the New York Times by Nicholas Wade raises some interesting points about the nature of basic science research – primarily that it’s risky. I follow science news reporting quite closely and this is a point that journalists, and the general public, do underappreciate (if they appreciate it at all).

As I have pointed out about the medical literature, researcher John Ioaniddis has explained why most published studies turn out in retrospect to be wrong. The same is true of most basic science research – and the underlying reason is the same. The world is complex, and most of our guesses about how it might work turn out to be either flat-out wrong, incomplete, or superficial. And so most of our probing and prodding of the natural world, looking for the path to the actual answer, turn out to miss the target.

In a way I liken such research to my philosophy about taking pictures – it doesn’t matter how many bad pictures you take, only how many good ones. You can always delete the bad ones, or just let them sit on your hard drive, but the good ones you can frame and display. However this is not literally true because (unlike taking digital pictures) research costs considerable resources of time, space, money, opportunity, and people-hours. There may also be some risk involved (such as to subjects in the clinical trial). Further, negative studies are actually valuable (more so than terrible pictures). They still teach us something about the world – they teach us what is not true. At the very least this narrows the field of possibilities.

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Nov 11 2010

English Libel Reform

Published by under Legal Issues

We are in the midst of a public push for libel reform in England. (I know there is a difference between England and the UK. Apparently it is the English libel laws that are the major problem, but still the issue is often presented as reforming UK libel laws, which I guess would subsume the English laws.) This issue came most prominently to light over the British Chiropractic Association’s libel suit against Simon Singh. Simon rode that costly trial through and eventually the BCA withdrew and will have to pay Simon’s legal costs.

The episode helped fuel a libel reform campaign – a grassroots campaign to keep the political pressure on for reform. This is one of those issues that will only change with constant public pressure – and you can help. Add your signature to the petition here: http://libelreform.org/

This is an issue of free speech. While everyone deserves the right to defend their reputation from malicious attack, there needs to be a proper balance to also protect public discourse and free speech. In England the libel laws are simply broken. It is ruinously expensive to defend even a frivolous libel suit, so the threat of suit can be used to silence critics and stifle debate.

David Colquhoun on his Improbable Science blog today presents some recent examples of much needed scientific criticism being silenced by bullying libel suits.

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Nov 10 2010

The Tiger Trade

In a disturbing article, the BBC reports that the tiger trade has been responsible for more than a thousand tiger deaths over the last decade. Tigers are listed as endangered with extinction, with only around 3 thousand animals thought to exist in the wild. Therefore the illegal tiger trade represents a significant portion of the wild tiger population.

The report also indicates that the black market in illegal animal parts is the third largest black market in the world, after drugs and weapons, and is estimated at about 10 billion dollars a year. What the report fails to mention, however, is what is chiefly driving this illegal trade – traditional medicine. Tiger bones have been a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for centuries, used in many potions. The Chinese TCM market remains the greatest demand for tiger parts.

However, in 1993 the Chinese government banned the use of tiger bones and removed them from the list of approved medicines – which I guess means that prior to 1993 they were actually approved. Many TCM leaders have supported the ban. This has not changed the fact, though, that there are still many TCM practitioners who use tiger bones – hence the thriving black market in tiger parts.

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Nov 09 2010

Carl Sagan Day

Published by under Skepticism

Today, November 9th, would have been the 76th birthday of Carl Sagan. We lost him in 1996 at the age of 62 – way too early. But by that time he had already established himself as an influential science popularizer. Many of the current generation of science enthusiasts, myself included, look to Sagan as a significant source of inspiration.

For me the television series Cosmos was the transition from science enthusiast to scientific skeptic. In one episode Sagan explains why the evidence for alien visitation is not compelling. It is the first skepticism regarding UFOs that I remember being exposed to, and it was a revelation. For the first time I fully realized that I could not trust and believe every “science” documentary I saw on TV.

I have loved science as long as I can remember, and I watched just about every science show on TV that came to my attention. However – when I was younger I could not distinguish real science documentaries from pseudoscientific imitators. To me, a show about UFOs or ESP was just as authoritative as ones about astronomy or paleontology. It was all fascinating and fantastic. There was no mainstream skepticism regarding these topics, at least if there were it was obscure enough that I never ran across it. And so I watched In Search Of with Leonard Nimoy and believed all of it – Spock wouldn’t lie to me.

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