Archive for June, 2011

Jun 30 2011

The Truth Fairy

In one of the most famous child abuse cases in recent history, the “Little Rascals” ritual abuse case in Edenton, NC involved 90 children accusing 20 adults of long term ritual sexual and other abuse. Among the adults accused were the mayor and the sheriff. The reports from the children included the following claims:

  • being taken to the back room of a store and sexually abused. There is a very wide opening between the back room and the rest of the store, so that any sexual abuse would have been perpetrated in the full view of customers.
  • being taken on board a space ship and flown into outer space where they were abused.
  • seeing a large fish tank where sharks were trained.
  • being taken on board a ship into the ocean and abused while trained sharks swam around the boat.

As far as I can tell from reports none of the sharks had frikin’ laser beams on their heads. The case has become a classic example of a modern witch hunt – driven by hysteria and incompetent investigation.

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Jun 28 2011

“Brain Like” Computing

I am fascinated by the quirkiness with which science is communicated to the public, and specifically the way the media filters and presents science. For example, there are a limited number of hooks used to sell science stories. The formula is as follows: take any scientific discovery and ask, “how will this discovery affect or interest the average person.” Then you find some holy-grail type problem or some iconic futuristic application and make any connection you can to it – no matter how tenuous.

Some of these science-journalism cliches are now familiar to all of us. Every fossil find has to be a “missing link.” If a connection can be made to human evolution, no matter how far removed from our tiny branch, then that connection will be pointed out. Every advance in virology might someday lead to a “cure for the common cold.” Similarly, any biological advance with the slightest possible connection will someday lead to a “cure for cancer.”  There is also the fairly recent addition – any advance in metamaterials will lead to the development of a “Harry Potter-like invisibility cloak.” The goal is to get the phrases in quotations into the headline of the article at all costs.

I believe there is another similar science journalism cliche in the making – relating any computing advance to the development of artificial intelligence or “brain-like” computing. The connection is not always unreasonable, but the catch phrases are key.

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Jun 27 2011

Egnor Is Back

Remember Michael Egnor – the creationist neurosurgeon who made a second career out of embarrassing himself with nonsensical blog posts over at the DiscoTute’s blog, Evolution News and Views? His crowning achievement on this score, in my opinion, was his argument that if evolution were true brain cancer should result in improvements in the brain.

I haven’t heard from Egnor in a while, but now I learn that he has his own blog, called “Egnorance.” The name is a nice touch on his part – some bloggers have been using the term “egnorance” to refer to Egnor’s particular brand of nonsense. It is sometimes successful to take a term meant to be derisive and adopt it as your own in order to turn it around. At the least it can take the wind out of the sails of your critics. Unfortunately, the content of the blog is a bad as ever.

This came to my attention because Egnor wrote a blog post responding to my recent post about Michele Bachmann’s creationist stance. Egnor (true to his style) thought he could get a blog post out of my use of the term “creationist” by projecting his own intellectual dishonesty. Egnor does provide an excellent example of the apologist form – exploiting any vagueness in meaning to create confusion and the appearance of sinister intent on the part of those with whom he disagrees.

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Jun 21 2011

Dumb Statement of the Week

I am traveling this week. Right now I am in a hotel in Phoenix with really slow internet access. And the rest of the week I am down to my phone for internet access. So – not much blogging this week.

I will give you a quick one for today. In a recent New York Times article about Orin Hatch’s support for the supplement industry (with a token quote from this humble blogger), Dr. Vaughn T. Johnson, an osteopathic physician and Xango distributor, was interviewed for the article, which states:

Studies showed, Dr. Johnson said, it was “anti-tumor,” “anti-obesity,” “anti-aging,” “anti-fatigue,” “antiviral,” “antibiotic” and “antidepressant.”

Xango is just the latest in a long line of exotic fruit juice products with all sorts of unsubstantiated and frankly unbelievable health claims. Here is the money quote from Dr. Johnson:

“How do I know this isn’t just snake oil? It’s a really simple answer. A company that is selling snake oil is not going to stay in business for almost 11 years and grow as fast as this company is growing.”

Wow. Of course, this raises the typical question for skeptics – is this guy really dumb enough to believe this, or does he not just care? This sounds like it came right off a company brochure. When it comes to health products, an actual physical effect is not necessary to stay in business. The placebo effect is sufficient. Blood letting was used for a couple thousand years, and I doubt is ever helped a single person.

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Jun 19 2011

Bachmann Promotes Creationism

Published by under Education,Evolution

The Republican primary season is already starting, and we are in for another round of candidates saying embarrassing things about science. To be fair (this is not a political blog so I want to make sure I don’t come off as partisan) bad science is not limited to the Republican party. But there are some issues where they definitely take the lead – and evolution/creationism is one. In some states creationism is on the Republican party platform. Last election cycle 4 of 10 Republican primary candidates endorsed creationism over evolution when asked directly in a debate.

This cycle we have Michele Bachmann, congresswoman from Minnesota, who is already on record as supporting creationism. In 2006 she stated:

“there is a controversy among scientists about whether evolution is a fact… hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel prizes, believe in intelligent design.”

Now, following a speech to Republicans in New Orleans, she said to reporters:

“I support intelligent design. What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide. I don’t think it’s a good idea for government to come down on one side of scientific issue or another, when there is reasonable doubt on both sides.”

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Jun 17 2011

Follow Up on Atlantic Article

The Freedman Atlantic article I wrote about yesterday continues to generate discussion – too much for me to simply respond in the comments of a blog. The issues raised go to the heart of the CAM controversy, and so they are worth exploring in detail.

The author of the article, David Freedman, has written follow up posts in a debate thread on the Atlantic, but I think he mainly restates his premises. He has also left a comment on my blog here, and another at Respectful Insolence. In the comments he takes the gloves off a bit, and gets more to the point – so I would like to respond to those comments.

On Neurologica he writes:

As the author of the Atlantic piece, I’d like to point out a few things. It’s true that the author of an article can score points by framing things a certain way, and no doubt I did that in my piece. But let’s look at how this post is framed. Apparently, according to the post, the point of view in my piece is that of the CAM apologist, while the (true) opposing point of view is that of mainstream medicine, as represented by Steven Novella.

This is not quite fair. This is my personal blog – I have never presented it as anything other than my personal opinions and analysis. That is pretty much accepted for a personal blog (and Freedman admits his lack of familiarity). With regards to what mainstream medicine believes, I have written about this before and will summarize my analysis again to be clear in this discussion. I spend a great deal of time talking to academic and private physicians about this issue, so I think I have some insight. When I was interviewed by Freedman he certainly seemed honest and fair – I just think, despite his efforts, he got a distorted view of the status of CAM.

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Jun 16 2011

Alt Med Apologetics at the Atlantic

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by journalist David Freedman for an article on so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) he was writing for the Atlantic. I get many such requests, and I’m happy to provide the science-based medicine (SBM) perspective – but I always have to worry about how such articles or documentaries will turn out. Journalists (regardless of medium) often have a story in mind and can build the facts around that story. So I wonder – how much of an influence am I having on the story, or am I just providing sound bites that will ultimately serve whatever agenda the journalist has going in?

The article has now come out in the Atlantic, and the title pretty much says it all – “The Triumph of New-Age Medicine.” Ugh.

Freedman does try to be fair – he quotes me at length, as well as Steven Salzberg, who is also skeptical of CAM. But in such an article framing is everything. If you consistently give one side the final word, you can use the words of the other side just to set them up to be knocked down. You give the superficial sense of balance, but the agenda comes through loud and clear. That is essentially what Freedman did with his article. Also – clearly he is now steeped in CAM apologetics, and can rattle off the standard rationalizations they have to offer.

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Jun 14 2011

A New Turing Test?

Published by under Neuroscience

Alan Turing is best known for the test that bears his name – the Turing Test was his proposal for how to efficiently determine if a computer is “intelligent.” He proposed that if a human interrogator could not tell the difference between the computer and a human, the computer can be said to “think.”

Neuroscientists Koch and Tononi have a proposal for a new kind of Turing test. It’s an interesting idea – but first some more background.

So far, no computer /software combination can consistently pass a Turing Test, but some are getting close. Recently the computer system called Watson defeated human Jeopardy! champions. This was an impressive display of an expert system (powered by an impressive array of hardware as well).

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Jun 13 2011

Global Warming and Statistical Artifacts

The 1936 Literary Digest poll was a telephone survey attempting to predict the outcome of the 1936 presidential race between Roosevelt and Alf Landon. The poll is infamous for predicting a huge victory for Landon, when in fact Roosevelt won by a landslide. Conventional wisdom is that the phone survey (a relatively new technology) was biased toward the affluent, who disproportionately supported Landon – therefore it was a problem with the representativeness of the sample. However, later analysis shows that the low response rate was also a contributing factor.

This episode is now the textbook example of the broader concept that data may contain spurious patterns or results, depending on the methods used to gather that data. Humans are great at detecting patterns, and researchers will often mine large pools of data looking for connections. We also do this automatically in our everyday lives – mining the massive amounts of data of our daily experiences for patterns and then often responding as if these patterns are real and meaningful.

There are many kinds of false patterns in data other than sampling bias, and it often takes an expert to know how to interpret a complex data set. Meanwhile complex data can be presented to the public in a partial or deception way in order to create a false impression. The global warming controversy is now the poster child for this phenomenon. The notion that the planet is slowly warming and that human activity is playing a significant role is based upon large sets of data that has to be analyzed in very complex and subtle statistical ways. Both sides of the controversy point to biases or errors in the data that falsely make it look as if the Earth is or is not warming.

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Jun 10 2011

Repairing the Heart

One of the probable early applications of stem cell technology to repair damaged or diseased tissue is heart failure. The heart is essentially a big muscle. There is some complexity to its structure, in terms of how the chambers and vessels are arranged, and the electrical system that coordinates how each chamber pumps in succession. But if this structure is largely intact, and only muscle is damaged (most commonly from an infarct – a heart attack), then all that is needed is for more cardiac muscle cells to grow to replace the damaged ones. Heart cells automatically synchronize their contractions, so new heart muscle should pump right along with the others without a problem.

There are now two approaches that I have read about to repair damaged heart muscle in order to improve cardiac function. Researchers are looking at injecting stem cells into the heart that will then differentiate into cardiac muscle. Researchers have already tested the treatment in humans – injecting a patient’s own stem cells into the heart. They report an average of 9% increase in ejection fraction, and a range of 0-20%.

A 9% improvement may not sound like much, but for patients with heart failure this can be huge. A healthy adult has a significant reserve of cardiac function. The heart can work much harder when running a marathon or climbing stairs, than when just sitting or walking. But heart failure patients typically have little or no reserve – their heart is working at maximal capacity with just sitting or light movement. This, of course, is very limiting. Any increase in heart function therefore translates into greater endurance and comfort, even for everyday activity.

This treatment is not yet mainstream, and is still considered experimental, but it seems poised to become a standard treatment for heart failure.

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