Archive for October, 2011

Oct 31 2011

Lie Detection

Published by under Neuroscience

Before I launch into my topic for today, just a brief note on my recent activity. I am just getting home from New Orleans and CSIcon – which was an excellent conference full of interesting talks. The conference and traveling kept me too busy, however, to keep up with my blog posts at the end of last week.

Then I got home to no power. An early snow storm has taken down many branches and trees, and many power lines with them. These early storms are often worse because there are still leaves on the trees. As I told my daughter – now you know why the deciduous trees drop their leaves for the winter. Conditions are so bad, actually, many towns are considering canceling Halloween. We are still not sure what we are doing tonight.

No power also means no internet which means no blog post – at least not until my lunch break at work. This also means I have had no time or opportunity to troll for science news stories. By smart phone has been my only thin connection to the interwebs, and it’s just no substitute. I really have to get that 4G adapter for my laptop, but that’s another story.

On to my topic for today:

Lie Detection

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Oct 25 2011

Cell Phones and Cancer – Update

Research continues into the question of whether or not cell phone use is associated with an increased risk of brain cancer. The latest epidemiological study, a Danish study of 358 thousand cell phone subscribers, reassuringly shows no correlation.

Researchers compared subscribers to non-subscribers for the incidence of central nervous system (CNS) tumors, such as glioma or meningioma. They found no difference in the incidence of any such tumor relating to use of cell phones. There was also no correlation to duration of use – i.e. no dose-response. And there was no correlation with location of tumor – users were no more likely to have a tumor in the part of the brain next to where a cell phone is typically held.

The study, in other words, was completely negative. This study was an extension of previous studies using the same databases, but extending the time of follow up. Of course, we can only study a duration of exposure that is less than the time cell phones have been in widespread use. Researchers will therefore have to continue to monitor this data to see if long term exposure is beginning to increase the risk of CNS tumors.

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Oct 24 2011

Adding to the Consensus on Global Warming

Published by under General Science

On October 20th Nature News reported on a new analysis of land temperatures by an independent group. They found the same results as previous analyses – since 1950 the earth has warmed by about 0.9 C. The results have yet to be peer-reviewed, but already reports of their analysis are making some waves.

The analysis was designed to be what can be called a consensus study – an independent group is taking a thorough analysis of the data, accounting for prior criticisms, to arrive at a result that everyone can agree on. Prior to announcing the results, in fact, some global warming skeptics stated publicly that they welcome the independent analysis and would stand by the results. PZ Myers reports on Anthony Watts response – initially saying he would accept the study results, but now considering the study to be fatally flawed.

The point of a consensus study is to bring all sides of a scientific controversy together, account for all criticisms of existing data, and then try to specifically address those criticisms so that everyone can agree on the results. This actually does happen at times, although it does seem that there remain holdouts for the view that “loses” when the new data comes out. The consensus data, however, does tend to marginalize the holdouts.

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Oct 21 2011

Fear Mongering the Flu Vaccine

In a recent article in The Canadian, journalist Anthony Gucciardi trots out long discredited anti-vaccine canards in the guise of actual journalism. The piece is poorly researched and resourced, blatantly biased, and amounts to little more than irresponsible fear-mongering about the flu vaccine.

Gucciardi writes:

Each dose of flu vaccine contains around 25 micrograms of thimerosal, over 250 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s safety limit of exposure.

Mercury, a neurotoxin, is especially damaging to undeveloped brains. Considering that 25 micrograms of mercury is considered unsafe by the EPA for any human under 550 pounds, the devastating health effects of mercury on a developing fetus are truly concerning.

Everything Gucciardi wrote is either outright factually wrong, or incomplete in a way that makes it highly misleading.

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Oct 20 2011

Malaria Vaccine

Malaria is a serious illness in humans caused by several species of mosquito-born parasite (Plasmodium falciparum, vivax, and ovale). The CDC reports:

 In 2008, an estimated 190 – 311 million cases of malaria occurred worldwide and 708,000 – 1,003,000 people died, most of them young children in sub-Saharan Africa.

Efforts to reduce the incidence of malaria have largely focused on reducing the number of mosquitoes and preventing bites (for example by providing netting to cover beds), and these efforts can be very successful. But despite these measures malaria remains the 5th largest cause of death worldwide from infectious disease.

It was therefore exciting news when GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced a successful clinical trial of a new anti-malaria vaccine. The vaccine is the result of 24 years of research led by Joe Cohen. The report:

Final stage clinical trial data on RTS,S, also known as Mosquirix, showed it halved the risk of African children getting malaria, making it likely to become the world’s first successful vaccine against the deadly disease.

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Oct 18 2011

Camping’s Doomsday Prophesy

Published by under Religion/Miracles

Harold Camping is now, among other things, an IgNobel Laureate. He shares the 2011 IgNobel award for mathematics: “for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.”

This Friday, October 21, Camping predicts the world will end – making him just another doomsday crank. He came by this date through a complicated and thoroughly contrived calculations involving the Bible. It’s not the first time. He predicted the world would end in 1994. It took him a while to recover from that lack of the end of the world back then.

He became more widely known for his recent prediction of the rapture on May 21 of this year. This was frequently misrepresented as a prediction for the end of the world, but Camping only predicted that the world would be wracked with earthquakes – that there would be obvious signs of God’s wrath and the faithful would be raptured and spared. The earth would then suffer God’s wrath for five months until the final destruction of the world  – which brings us to this Friday, October 21.

The first phase of his two-phase prediction did not work out very well. May 21 came and went without anything unusual happening. At first Camping and his followers were perplexed – how could the careful mathematical calculations have led them astray (never mind the dubious underlying assumptions).

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Oct 17 2011

Reiki Doesn’t Work Either

I don’t think I have written specifically about Reiki before. This is a form of “energy healing,” essentially the Asian version of faith healing or laying on of hands. Practitioners believe they are transferring life energy to the patient, increasing their well-being (sound nonspecific enough?). The practice is popular among nurses, and in fact is practiced by nurses at my own institution (Yale).

Reiki is very similar to therapeutic touch, another energy healing modality that was popular among nurses, and although it continues to be used it is much less popular after 9 year old girl (Emily Rosa) performed an elegant experiment to show that it was nothing but self-deception. Reiki nicely moved in to fill the void.

The research on Reiki, and energy healing in general, is similar to that of many similar modalities – those with very low scientific plausibility that are not taken very seriously by medical scientists. The research is of generally low quality, poorly controlled small studies that seem designed to justify Reiki rather than see if it actually works. A 2011 review concluded just that:

The existing research does not allow conclusions regarding the efficacy or effectiveness of energy healing. Future studies should adhere to existing standards of research on the efficacy and effectiveness of a treatment, and given the complex character of potential outcomes, cross-disciplinary methodologies may be relevant. To extend the scope of clinical trials, psychosocial processes should be taken into account and explored, rather than dismissed as placebo.

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Oct 13 2011

Caveman Kindergarden

Published by under General Science

This is one of the coolest science news stories in the past few weeks – 13,000 year old cave paintings, likely by children. The discovery was made in the Rouffignac cave system, which contains more typical cave paintings as well. In one chamber, however, there is a concentration of finger fluting – drawing lines by dragging fingers through the soft silt of the cave walls. Researchers compared the lines to those made by modern subjects (they compared the distance between the fingers in order to make their assessment) and found that they were consistent with those made by young children, some 2-3 years old.

In addition some of the lines made by toddler-age children were too straight and steady to have been made by a young child, which suggests they were being helped – perhaps their hand was steadied by an adult who was showing them how to draw the lines.

Because of the heavy concentration of the child-created finger fluting in one chamber, the researchers speculate that this was a sort-of caveman kindergarden, or art class.

Of course, it is difficult to speculate about the true purpose and meaning of artifacts from other cultures and periods. There is a great deal of context that is always missing, and we tend to make unwarranted assumptions and project our current cultural beliefs onto the other time and place. Culture can be very quirky and different in ways that we cannot readily imagine. So any such inferences are likely to be naive.

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Oct 11 2011

Is Optimism A Cognitive Flaw?

Published by under Neuroscience

Just like  all measurable biological and behavioral attributes, people vary in terms of their degree of optimism vs pessimism. However there is a long recognized bias towards optimism. On average, we tend to view the world through the metaphorical rose-tinted glasses. This is just one of the many biases that affect how we process and remember information.

A new study looks specifically at the neurological processes that underly this optimism bias. Researchers looked at 19 subjects, asking them to answer a series of questions about their estimate of how likely they were to suffer negative events in the future (like having an accident or getting a serious disease). They then provided them with statistical information about this likelihood, and asked them again to estimate their personal chances of suffering the negative event.

The researchers found, not surprisingly, an optimism bias. Subjects were more likely to update their estimates when the real statistics were more optimistic than their initial estimates, and less likely to update their estimates (or by a smaller amount) when the real statistics were worse than their initial estimates. In other words, they selectively incorporated optimistic information into their world-view, and ignored or downplayed pessimistic information.

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Oct 10 2011

The Old Poor Richard’s Farmers’ Almanac(ck)

Published by under Pseudoscience

It would be nice to have an accurate prediction of the weather. Although for me personally the ability to predict the weather mostly affects my recreation – not my livelihood or my safety. Perhaps it would help prepare for a particularly harsh winter if I knew one was coming, but then again I could just prepare for a harsh winter in any case.

In years past, and for many people and in many parts of the world today, weather prediction can make a much bigger difference than planning their activities for the weekend. Farmers, in particular, depend on the weather for their living, and perhaps even their survival.

It is no wonder, then, that there is a big market for long range weather prediction. In the early US, almanacs that provided information on weather were many and popular. One of the most famous is Poor Richard’s Almanack, because it was published by Benjamin Franklin, who published it from 1732 to 1758. (Incidentally, Franklin used the pen name Richard Saunders for this publication – with no relation to the famous Australian contemporary skeptic of the same name.)

These almanacs were like household handbooks for the colonies – they contained calendars, astronomical information, statistics on precipitation and temperature, witty and entertaining aphorisms – and long range weather forecasts.

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