Archive for March, 2011

Mar 31 2011

Boy Genius

Jacob Barnett, the 12-year old boy genius, has been a hot news item this week, and I have received numerous questions about him. Jacob is clearly a mathematical wiz, mastering algebra, geometry, and even calculus on his own in weeks. At 12 he is attending Indiana University and running out of advanced math classes to take. Jacob also has Aspergers syndrome, which is now considered to be at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum (ASD).

Most of the questions I received are from people who want help putting the media hype into perspective – specifically Jacob has some questions about the Big Bang and relativity. Is this kid really as much of a genius as they claim? I can only infer from the media reports, and watching Jacob’s YouTube videos, but I do have some thoughts.

First, the combination of Aspergers and mathematical genius makes sense, and Jacob clearly has a talent for math that is extreme. This combination is sometimes called “savant”, but that term may be redundant when applied to Aspergers. I do question the inclusion of Aspergers in the autism spectrum. The combination makes sense in from a phenomenological point of view in that autism is clinically defined as a decrease in social skills and facility. People with ASD have a hard time connecting with other people – making eye contact, reading social cues, etc.

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Mar 29 2011

Video Evidence

I am constantly being sent links to YouTube videos or news reports of alleged video evidence. The classics are still the most common subjects – UFOs, ghosts, Bigfoot, with some recent additions such as the chupacabras. I guess these are the iconic types of misidentification. If you see something weird in the sky it’s a UFO, in the woods it’s Bigfoot, and in your home or some spooky place then it’s a ghost.

The formula is simple – start with a picture, video, or just sighting of a poorly defined object, or photographic artifact. This could be something at too great a distance to see clearly, or obscured by partial cover, or under poor viewing conditions, or just out of focus. Then you add the prevailing cultural belief of the observer with a pinch of the argument from ignorance, and you have a paranormal sighting. This process can be summarized as “believing is seeing.”

This process is made more obvious when people of different cultural backgrounds interpret the same basic experience according to their own cultural beliefs. A waking dream in one culture might be a visit from the Old Hag, while in another it is a demon, and in yet another it is an abducting little gray alien.

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Mar 28 2011

A Pre-Clovis Find?

Published by under General Science

I love scientific mysteries of all kinds – ones where competent experts can legitimately disagree on the interpretation of the evidence, and all agree on what evidence would most likely settle the debate. It’s like a cliffhanger of a great mystery series, except you don’t know when the new season will begin. You just have to wait for new episodes to pop up unexpectedly.

One such debate is the question of how and when were the Americas peopled. This is a story of our recent pre-history. Knowledge of this time has not survived to the present, so we have to reconstruct the past from the clues left behind. And it is recent enough in the past that there is likely to be good physical evidence for archaeologists to find.

For a time the Clovis culture was considered to be the first people in the Americas. They likely crossed the land bridge from Asia to North America about 13,500 years ago, and then worked their way down to South America. They are called the Clovis culture because they are defined by the artifacts they left behind – their projectile points have a very distinctive feature that defines the Clovis. They are fluted at the base on both sides – the stone is precisely carved to be made thinner at the base to allow for better hafting to a wooden spear. These points were designed to hunt the large game of North America, like mammoths. Wherever Clovis points are found – you have Clovis culture.

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Mar 25 2011

Another Acupuncture Fail

Here we go again. What if I said to you that drug X and a placebo of drug X (i.e. a placebo) worked better for the relief of a subjective symptom than no treatment, but no different from each other? I conclude from this that the “drug cohort” (whether the real drug or the placebo of the drug) did better than the no-treatment control group.  This may mean that the drug works through a general care effect and patient expectancy.

Let’s say, rather, that a pharmaceutical rep were saying this about their latest drug. It would be obvious that the drug company decided to use some Orwellian new speak in order to contrive a sentence in which they get to say that their drug works (by a general care effect). And in order to obscure the fact that their drug worked no better than placebo, they refer to both the drug and the placebo as the “drug cohort” and compare them both to a no-treatment group. The “drug cohort” had an effect.

In the real world of scientific medicine (not the bizarro world of CAM), when a treatment works no better than the placebo control we conclude that – the treatment does not work. Looking past all the obvious spin above, a more honest conclusion would simply be – drug X does not work for the tested symptom. Period. There is no “drug cohort”, and you don’t have to confuse the reader by calling placebo effects a “general care effect” or “expectation.” These are placebo effects.

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Mar 24 2011

Sexual Preference Chemical

Published by under Neuroscience

Is sexual preference a result of biology, environment, or personal choice? Like many things (unfortunately), scientists pursuing this question are steadily moving in one direction, while those with an ideological agenda simply ignore the science and make up the answer they want.

We are a long way from understanding everything about human sexuality, but knowledge is not black or white. We have identified a number of factors that strongly suggest sexual preference is a biological phenomenon – something you are born with. There is no evidence to suggest it is a result of upbringing, and the idea that it is a choice defies not only the scientific evidence, but the experience of most humans on the planet.

Now a new study adds to the mounting evidence that sexual preference is just another feature of hardwiring and neurochemistry. In this series of studies scientists either blocked the receptors for or the production of serotonin in mice brains. They then observed their sexual behavior.

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Mar 22 2011

Some Education News

The debate over teaching creationism continues – in the UK. That’s right, creationism is not just an American issue, nor just a Christian issue. There are fundamentalists in every major faith, and they generally don’t want their children taught in school ideas contrary to their faith.

In the US we have an overall higher percentage of biblical literalists who reject evolution, but we also have the Constitution. The first amendment wisely prohibits the government from passing any law that establishes a religion. There is now a couple hundred years of legal precedent on how to interpret this amendment, which follows the “separation of church and state” model. Essentially, there are no religious second-class citizens in the US. The government cannot promote or hinder any specific religious beliefs.

This means that religious faith, like creationism, cannot be taught in public schools. Creationists have constantly morphed their strategy over the last century, from banning the teaching of evolution, to requiring equal time for “creation science”, then for the rebranding of creation science as “intelligent design”, and now to “teach the controversy” or at the very least teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution or give teachers the academic freedom to do so. It’s all a giant game, but their motives are transparent – do anything possible to water down the teaching of evolution or insert creationist propaganda into the public schools.

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Mar 21 2011

Fuel From Bacteria

Published by under Technology

We are used to thinking of bacteria as germs – something to be shunned. In fact, the vast majority of bacteria species are indifferent to humans – they are neither helpful nor harmful. A small minority of species are pathogenic, capable of infecting humans and causing harm. And a small number of species live symbiotically with humans. We all carry an ecosystem of about 100 bacteria species in and on us.

With genetic engineering technology we have also created a fourth category of bacteria – those that can be used as microscopic factories. For years we have been using bacteria to cheaply manufacture drugs and other compounds. Just insert the gene for human insulin in the right place, and the little buggers start cranking it out.

Researchers are exploring the use of genetically engineered bacteria for other uses as well. For example, bacteria have been shown to secrete nanotubes, and can potentially be used for microelectronics.

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Mar 18 2011

Biases in Science Fiction

Published by under General

I woke up with a strange idea in my head that I wanted to get off my chest. This has to do with how we project our biases onto fiction, in this case specifically science fiction. My thought involves ship design – how would you design a ship for deep space travel?

First let’s take some common examples from science fiction, such as the Starship Enterprise. The decks of the Enterprise are oriented parallel to the direction of acceleration, which means that people standing on the decks are perpendicular and the force of acceleration would “push” them horizontal to the deck. The same is true of ships of all sizes in Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and many other popular science fiction shows.

I know there are exceptions. The ship in Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey had an interesting design, using a rotating doughnut to generate artificial gravity. This ship was designed, however, for relatively short interplanetary travel  and for coasting (rather than accelerating) most of the time. There are sure to be other exceptions – but my point is, they are exceptions, not what we commonly see in science fiction.

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Mar 17 2011

Is Philosophy of Science Dead?

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

In his latest book, The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking gives his opinion that the philosophy of science has outlived its usefulness – it is “dead”. The reason he gives is that modern philosophers have not kept up with the cutting edge of science, and therefore their musings have become irrelevant.

Not surprisingly, philosophers have not taken kindly to this suggestion. I find myself siding with the philosophers on this one. But Hawking’s observation is not without merit, especially if you give it one critical tweak - some philosophers of science have not kept up and their musings about science are largely irrelevant. I could also says that some scientists are not up on their philosophy and this hampers their efforts as scientists.

Christopher Norris does a good job defending philosophy (in the link above), so I won’t repeat the same points here except to summarize. Norris observes:

By the same token, scientific theories are always ‘underdetermined’ by the best evidence to hand, meaning that the evidence is always open to other, equally rational interpretations given some adjustment of this or that ‘auxiliary hypothesis’ or negotiable element of background belief. All the same, I don’t want to push that line of argument too far, because among some philosophers of science it has now become an article of faith; a dogma maintained just as fixedly as any precept of the old, unreconstructed positivist creed. Moreover it has given rise to a range of relativist or ‘strong’ sociological approaches which use the theory-ladenness and underdetermination theses to cast doubt on any distinction between true and false theories, valid and invalid hypotheses, or science and pseudo-science.

Very likely it is notions of this kind – ideas with their home ground in sociology, or cultural studies, or on the wilder shores of philosophy of science – which provoked Professor Hawking to issue his pronouncement.

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Mar 15 2011

I Can Fly

Published by under Skepticism

That’s right – I can fly, just like Superman (although not as fast – let’s be realistic). I can take off from a standing start and simply defy gravity by lifting off into the air. I can then soar through the air with perfect control and land gently on the ground at will.

You might ask how I can perform this amazing feat. Well, I don’t know how it works. I just know that I can do it. To those skeptics out there who say that this is impossible, I ask them to have an open mind. After all, science does not know everything. Look at Galileo, or that guy who claimed that ulcers were caused by bacteria. You cannot prove that human flight is impossible. What about quantum mechanics?

The inability to explain how something works does not mean that it does not work.

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