Archive for January, 2012

Jan 31 2012

Blank Healing

I come across many different healing claims or requests for me to evaluate such claims. They are depressingly similar. You can essentially put the word “healing” after just about anything and insert it into a boiler plate article about how fabulous it is. Here is a credulous article about one self-styled healer, with the specific reference removed:

“Lhoest, one of Pucci’s blank students, had pain in her back and feet from the stresses of work and child rearing. She came to Pucci’s home for blank healing. Others around the world use similar techniques with different instruments, such as blank or blank. Pucci uses blank like a “focused laser” because it is the best tool she has for the job.

“It’s really hard to explain this because there is no language for it. In a way, it’s magic. All I know is that it works,” Pucci said. “Sometimes people cry because it allows them to release something they were holding on to.” There are schools for blank healing, but Pucci never went to one. Aside from reading books and taking a few workshops on the subject, she has been on a self-taught journey for 30 years. She makes a living as a blank and doesn’t advertise herself as a blank healer. In fact, she practices blank healing only on her students and others who are close to her. “It is so special to me that I don’t want it to become commercialized,” said Pucci, holding back tears sparked by that thought. “It’s like this magic I do that I’m very careful about.”

This article could be about anything – of course you have to open with a warm and fuzzy anecdote, and portray the practitioner as a saint who just wants to help people. In this case Pucci may in fact be sincere, in other cases the practitioners are clearly making a living from their claims.

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Jan 30 2012

Early Detection of Autism

Autism is a spectrum of neurological disorders that involve, primarily, reduced social aptitude. People with autism tend to make less eye contact, they have less of a response to viewing a human face, and they are less verbal. Half a century ago autism was blamed on bad parenting, but that view is now considered outdated and even cruel. Autism is a brain disorder. Neuroscientists are learning more and more about what is different about autistic brains from more typical brains. One feature seems to be reduced communication among neurons in the brain.

Autism is diagnosed clinically. It is usually first recognized by the parents, who then bring their child to medical attention and after an evaluation the diagnosis is made. At present there are no supporting laboratory tests – we don’t diagnose autism by an MRI scan, EEG, or blood test. It is diagnosed by clinical observation and some standardized questionnaires and cognitive tests. At the more subtle end of the spectrum the diagnosis may not be made right away, not until the child is a bit older and can be more thoroughly evaluated.

The median age at diagnosis was 4.4 years in 1992. This has steadily decreased, to less than 3.4 years by 2001. This effect is greater in higher socioeconomic status (SES) groups. Low SES children are diagnosed later than higher SES children, and this gap has widened in the last 20 years.

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Jan 27 2012

Genesis Weak

Published by under Creationism/ID

I advise you to please turn off your irony meters before reading further or clicking the link to the video I will be discussing today. You may also want to take a couple of deep relaxing breaths to help preserve your neurons from the irrational assault they are about to suffer.

I was recently asked to take a look at Genesis Week with Ian Juby (Wazooloo), a slick YouTube series in which Juby takes us on a mystical journey through the looking glass of creationist nonsense. In his world science and reason are flipped completely upside down. It is, as they say, a “target rich environment” – too rich for any one blog post, so I will pick out a few gems.

The title of this episode is “I’m hooked on a feeling,” referring to new research showing that acceptance of evolution is strongly influenced by a gut “feeling of certainty” that people have about the theory. Juby makes much of this study (without, of course, putting it into any context) concluding that people believe in evolution despite the evidence (what he describes as overwhelming evidence for creation) rather than because of it.

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Jan 26 2012

Exposing Nutritional Pseudoscience

Which? magazine is the UK equivalent of Consumer Reports – an independent magazine primarily focused on product reviews and providing objective information to the consumer. They recently conducted an investigation of nutritional therapists, with scandalous (although not surprising) results.

This kind of expose is becoming more common, and that is a very good thing. The concept is very simple – just present as a typical client off the street and ask practitioners to do what they do every day, give their professional advice.

This is a good real-world assessment of what a profession is like. When they know they are in a public forum they try to put their best foot forward, and the more savvy members will know to pretend to be moderate and evidence-based. But when they do not think anyone is looking, they are more likely to represent what they are really about. And that’s what matters, of course – what they actually do in practice.

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Jan 24 2012

Stem Cells for Blindness

File this one under “encouraging but preliminary.” Published in The Lancet – researchers report the results of two patients with two different forms of macular degeneration (the most common cause of blindness in the developed world) who had stem cells injected into one eye. Both patients reports improved vision. This study is the first to report a clinical benefit from the use of embryonic stem cells (other kinds of stem cells, like bone marrow, have been used for a long time).

The study, however, is a very preliminary study designed mostly to look at safety. There are concerns that injecting stem cells into the eye, or anywhere, might result in tumor formation. In these two patients the stem cells survived well as retinal pigment epithelium cells. They did not form any tumors, grow uncontrollably, show signs of rejection or other negative effects as far as could be seen. This is just two patients, however, so any statements about safety have to be very cautious.

What surprised the researchers is that both patients also reports improved vision. In one patient there was clear improvement in visual acuity (from hand waving to 20/800). In the second patient there were more subtle signs of improved vision, but also in the untreated eye leading researchers to believe this was likely due to placebo effects.

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Jan 23 2012

Science, Medicine, and Academia

Proponents of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) are forcing us to answer a question no one has explicitly asked – should there be a scientific basis to medicine? Proponents are generally very coy about this topic, and in most venues want to pretend that they are being scientific, while really promoting “other” forms of evidence and “other” ways of knowing. They promote health care freedom laws designed to weaken the scientific standards of medicine, while simultaneously infiltrating academia with assurances that they are science-based.

Unfortunately most academics and health care professionals are simply naive to the situation (so-called “shruggies”) and too easily accept these assurances without checking out the facts themselves. Their initial reaction to those of us who are calmly but insistently pointing out that the CAM emperor has no clothes is to assume that we must be overreacting, because CAM can’t truly be as bad as we say. Homeopathy can’t really be made of nothing, can it? But it’s a large industry, with entire hospitals in the UK. How can it be as nonsensical as the skeptics are saying?

This naivete extends, unfortunately, to many university administrators, who are used to being egalitarian and accommodating. Proponents of CAM are sincere, and know how to play the game, so they put their best academic foot forward (often lubricated with grants from ideologically dedicated organizations like the Bravewell collaboration) and work their way into academia. They are persistent, and good at dismissing their critics as closed-minded, unfair, or having an axe to grind.

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Jan 20 2012

Biofuels from Seaweed

Published by under General Science

We are at a time in history when collectively we are re-examining the flow of energy through our civilization. It’s a fascinating question from a purely scientific point of view, but also with profound practical implications.

For the last century we have relied heavily on fossils fuels – energy stored in hydrocarbons that we pull out of the ground. This is a cheap and convenient source of large amounts of energy, and it’s difficult to imagine that we could have gotten to this point in our technological development without it.

But looking to the future we can see the light at the end of the tunnel of our fossil fuel society. Experts still debate how much of the stuff there is left in the ground. Do we have 50 years left or 500? Probably the truth is somewhere in between, but in any case the supply is finite and will be exhausted eventually. There is also the issue of releasing all that sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere and its long term effects on the climate. Further, some countries with large stores of crude oil, perhaps the most important form of fossil fuel, tend to be politically unstable.

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Jan 19 2012

TCM Apologetics

A recent article defending Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) provides, ironically, an excellent argument for the rejection of TCM as a valid form of medicine. The authors, Jingqing Hua and Baoyan Liub, engage in a number of logical fallacies that are worth exploring.

Their introduction sets the tone:

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has a history of thousands of years. It is formed by summarizing the precious experience of understanding life, maintaining health, and fighting diseases accumulated in daily life, production and medical practice. It not only has systematic theories, but also has abundant preventative and therapeutic methods for disease.

It may be trivially true that TCM has a long history, but it is hard to ignore that the placement of this statement at the beginning of a scientific article implies an argument from antiquity – that TCM should be taken seriously because of this long history. I would argue that this is actually a reason to be suspicious of TCM, for it derives from a pre-scientific largely superstition-based culture, similar in this way to the pre-scientific Western culture that produced the humoral theory of biology.

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Jan 17 2012

NECSS 2012

Published by under Skepticism

 It’s the beginning of the new science and skeptical conference season, starting with the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) 2012 April 21-22 in New York City! James Randi will be attending, as well as other skeptical superstars like PZ Myers, Seth Shostak, and Joe Nickel, with Jamy Ian Swiss returning as our MC.

Of course, there will be a live recording of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (my podcast – with Bob and Jay Novella, Rebecca Watson, and Evan Bernstein), as well as Rationally Speaking with Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef. George Hrab will also be returning to give another fabulous performance.

I am very excited to be part of NECSS, and I think it shows how the skeptical movement has grown and matured. We have sold out every NECSS at this venue and expect to do so again this year, so register soon.

NECSS is also about outreach – spreading enthusiasm and appreciation for science and critical thinking – so also consider becoming a NECSS sponsor or sponsoring a student. Or perhaps just bring a friend or family member who would not seek out such a conference on their own.

I try to make myself as available as possible at these conferences to meet as many SGU listeners and NeuroLogica readers as possible – so if you come to the conference please come up to me to say “hi” and chat.

Here is the official announcement:

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Jan 16 2012

Facial Recognition Culture

Published by under Neuroscience

It is well established that people generally have a well developed ability to recognize human faces. There is a substantial part of the visual cortex dedicated to doing just that, giving us the ability to recognize any of thousands of  familiar faces in a fraction of a second.  This is a useful skill to have for a social species like Homo sapiens. In addition to being able to recognize individuals, we can also gain information about health, fertility, gender, age, mood, and intention from looking at the face.  We can also convey a great deal of non-verbal communication by facial expression alone.

A recent study published in PLOS One looked at the small question of what part of the face do people generally look at when trying to recognize an individual? In particular the authors were exploring the question of cultural differences.

Prior research has shown that Westerners tend to look at each eye then the mouth when sizing up another person. This suggests that they are looking at the details of these individual features. Asians, however, generally look at the center of the face, around the nose, perhaps so that they can take in the spacial relationship among the various facial features. These are two different strategies that can be used for facial recognition. This finding raises at least two questions – are these differences genetic or learned, and is there an adaptive reason for them? The research suggests that it is largely learned (Asians who grew up in the West use a combined Western and Asian style of facial recognition.)

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