Archive for August, 2012

Aug 30 2012

Massimo’s Look at the Community of Reason

Published by under Skepticism

From time to time it’s healthy to take a close and honest inward look at yourself – your life, community, philosophy, goals, and strategies. One of the things I admire about the skeptical community, of which I am a proud member, is that it does this on a regular basis. We wring our hands about exactly what we believe, the scope of our activity, the role of various philosophies in our thinking, the definition of skepticism, and even the word “skeptic.”

Collectively we seem to be endlessly restless and uncomfortable with ourselves. I think this is a good thing. Comfort and complacency may feel nice, but they don’t get you up in the morning an hour earlier so that you can blog to the world about some intellectual nuance, and they don’t lead to the kind of hard introspective questions that allow a movement to mature.

I find it especially useful when some comment about skepticism or the skeptical movement really annoys me. That annoyance is a signal that there is a cognitive disconnect between me and the opinions that annoy me – a conflict that can potentially be explored and resolved.

Recently Massimo Pigliucci appears to have reached a critical mass of annoyance and needed a cathartic dump about the skeptical community, which he refers to as the Community of Reason (CoR). As is typical of Massimo, his article is well-reasoned, and well-written – a useful stick with which to poke the CoR (to use his term).

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Aug 29 2012

The Power of Replication – Bems Psi Research

Note – This article was also cross-posted at Science-Based Medicine. 

I love reading quotes by the likes of Karl Popper in the scientific literature. A recent replication of Bem’s infamous psi research, Feeling the Future, gives us this quote:

Popper (1959/2002) defined a scientifically true effect as that “which can be regularly reproduced by anyone who carries out the appropriate experiment in the way prescribed.”

The paper is the latest replication of Daryl Bem’s 2011 series of 9 experiments in which he claimed consistent evidence for a precognitive effect, or the ability of future events to influence the present.  The studies were published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a prestigious psychology journal. All of the studies followed a similar format, reversing the usually direction of standard psychology experiments to determine if future events can affect past performance.

In the 9th study, for example, subjects were given a list of words in sequence on a computer screen. They were then asked to recall as many of the words as possible. Following that they were given two practice sessions with half of the word chosen by the computer at random. The results were then analyzed to see if practicing the words improved the subject’s recall for those words in the past. Bem found that they did, with the largest effect size of any of the 9 studies.

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Aug 27 2012

Looking Back at TWA Flight 800

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

On July 17, 1996 TWA flight 800 took off from JFK airport on its way to Paris. Fifteen minutes into its flight, shortly after climbing to about 13,000 feet, the jet exploded in mid air. The nose of the jet fell off into the Atlantic while the rest continued to fly, erratically while on fire and spewing smoke, until 42 seconds later when there was a second explosion. The right wing and the rest of the fuselage separated and descended as two separate streams of burning debris until they hit the surface of the water 7 seconds later. All 230 people aboard lost their lives.

Sixteen years later there are still those who believe that TWA flight 800 was shot down by a missile. This is despite the fact that the largest and most expensive investigation in history into the crash of a commercial airliner came to a very different conclusion. I had the opportunity this past week to speak to six different eyewitnesses of this tragedy, some of whom firmly believe a missile took down the jet, while others are unsure. The incident remains a classic historical case demonstrating the fallibility of perception and eyewitness accounts.

The Official Version of Events

The NTSB, FBI, FAA, CIA, and even NASA were involved in the investigation of the explosion of flight 800. At first everyone assumed it was a bomb. Jets don’t just spontaneously explode in mid-air. Then eyewitness accounts of a missile strike starting coming in and that became a viable theory (and that is also when the CIA became involved). The FBI interviewed 270 different eyewitnesses, mostly people on Long Island, who had an excellent view of the entire episode from the beach or further inland. There were also eyewitnesses on boats, surfing, and even aboard other airplanes.

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Aug 23 2012

Yet Another Nail in the CCSVI Coffin

Published by under Neuroscience

I have been following the story of chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency (CCSVI) as a new hypothesis for the cause of multiple sclerosis (MS). The idea comes from an Italian vascular surgeon, Dr. Zamboni, who claims that blockage of the veins that drain the brain are the primary cause of MS. His initial study on this question found 100% of MS patients he studied had this blockage.

There are numerous problems with this hypothesis, however. First, we have decades of research indicating that MS is an autoimmune disease. The immune system attacks the central nervous system, causing flares of inflammatory plaques that damage myelin (the insulation around axons) and disrupts the flow of signals. While we don’t understand everything about what causes the disease, what we do know does not square well with the notion that it is all being driven by venous blockage.

Zamboni’s idea has been met with appropriate skepticism by the neurological community, but at the same time it has been widely studied in just the few years since it was proposed. The community is doing its due diligence and not rejecting the idea out of hand. The studies coming in so far have been largely negative. No one has replicated Zamboni’s original results. Various studies just looking at the correlation between venous blockage and MS have had varied results, but nothing approaching Zamboni’s 100%. Some studies found no correlation, others a possible small correlation.

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Aug 21 2012

Phineas Gage Revisited

Published by under Neuroscience

Phineas Gage

It is always amazing to see people survive and recover from massive brain trauma. The first medically described case of this is the now famous Phineas Gage(whose fame is probably at least partly due to the fact that his name is so memorable – very Dickensian). Gage was a railroad worker who was injured when he was tamping down explosives with an iron rod. A spark set off the explosives, sending the rod up and through his skull like a bullet. He somehow survived and remained conscious long enough to make it to help. He later was noted to have a significantly changed personality - disinhibited, profane, and restless with an inability to plan and control his behavior.  He suffered from seizures following the injury, probably an infection, and died about 12 years later.

Recently we have a similar case from Brazil - Eduardo Leite, a construction worker, was struck by a metal rod which fell from several stories up. The rod pierced his hard hat, went through the top of his skull on the right, and then exited between his eyes. Like Gage, Leite remained conscious, and was able to tell the emergency workers the story of what happened.

Eduardo Leite

Leite went through a five hour surgery to remove the rod, which had to be pulled through in the direction it pierced the skull. According to report Leite is doing well and will likely recover with few deficits.

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Aug 20 2012

Nocebo Nonsense

You have probably had the experience of having a heated conversation with one or more other people and after things calm down and you are comparing notes you find that everyone has a different memory of the conversation that just happened. Of course, you are certain that your memory is the one that’s correct.

Likewise, different people can look at the same set of information and come to radically different interpretations. That’s because we all have narratives inside our head – worldviews and ways in which we model and make sense of the world.  We are very clever and creative at incorporating new information into our existing narratives.

I was reminded of this when reading a recent article by Deepak Chopra on the nocebo effect. Nocebo effects are similar to placebos effect except they are negative – unwanted side effects that are reported from taking inactive placebos. Chopra clearly has a narrative that he is working from, one that is very different from my own. He is steeped in, and in fact is partly the architect of, various “alternative medicine” narratives.

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Aug 16 2012

The Apple Social Psychology Experiment

Published by under Skepticism

Actually it wasn’t as much an experiment as a demonstration. Lukasz Lindell recounts on his blog how he and his coworkers threw a little bit of innuendo into the internet stream to see where it led.

One afternoon we sketched out a screw in our 3D program, a very strange screw where the head was neither a star, tracks, pentalobe or whatever, but a unique form, also very impractical. We rendered the image, put it in an email, sent it to ourselves, took a picture of the screen with the mail and anonymously uploaded the image to the forum Reddit with the text ”A friend took a photo a while ago at that fruit company, they are obviously even creating their own screws ”.

It didn’t take long for the internet to respond. Articles and blogs started appearing with headlines such as, “Apple May Be Working On A Top Secret Asymmetric Screw To Lock You Out Of Your Devices Forever.”

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Aug 14 2012

David Geier Fined

The father son team of Mark and David Geier have been causing mischief (to put it lightly) in the autism community for years. Mark Geier is a medical doctor but his son, David, never attended medical school and has no license to practice medicine or any form of health care. The State Board of Maryland recently concluded their hearing on David Geier finding him guilty of practicing medicine without a licence and fining him the whopping fee of $10,000.

It is good to see state boards of health doing their job and going after people who are, in my opinion, dangerous charlatans. They do far too little of this. But the fine amount is very disappointing. According to the order it is meant to reflect the amount that David Geier profited from his illegal activity. I don’t know what constraints the board has on them in this regard, but $10,000 is a slap on the wrist.

The Geiers are notorious among those of us who keep an eye on the anti-vax community because of their support for the mercury-autism hypothesis (to put it generously). In fact the Geiers developed a highly dubious theory and treatment, connecting autism to mercury and precocious puberty in boys – premature high testosterone. They put together their own institutional review that has been highly criticized for not meeting state and federal regulations. Through this board they got approval for a study in which they administered lupron, a drug that opposes testosterone and essentially causes chemical castration, to young boys who they diagnosed with autism. Their theory is that the lupron would allow chelation therapy to be more effective in treating mercury toxicity.

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Aug 13 2012

Conspiracy Thinking

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

I remain fascinated with the mindset of the conspiracy theorist. Partly this is because I think we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside us – deep within our evolved psyche. There is something very compelling and satisfying about believing that you have peeked behind the curtain and seen the true machinations at work in the world. Hardcore conspiracy theorists are mostly regular people who have fallen into a psychological trap, or perhaps they simply have a greater tendency towards the kinds of thinking that leads to belief in conspiracies. Theirs, however, is a difference in magnitude, not kind.

I recently received an e-mail with an innocent question from someone who appears to fall into the former group – a regular guy whose conspiracy sense has been tickled. The e-mailer’s brother, who is a conspiracy theorist by his account, pointed him to this Youtube video – a short clip from an interview with John McCain and Barack Obama during the 2008 election. Take a look at the interview before reading further.

McCain is apparently posturing about the debate schedule between him and Obama (typical political fare for a US election), and refers back to the debate planning between Barry Goldwater and JFK before the “Intervention and the tragedy at Dallas.”  The video would probably pass most people by without a thought, or perhaps just the slightest notice of the word choice by McCain. Calling the assassination of JFK an “intervention” at first seems like an odd word choice. Did he say “the intervention and the tragedy at Dallas,” or “the intervention of the tragedy at Dallas,” – meaning that the tragedy intervened in the course of events? It’s probably the latter. It’s also possible that the wrong word came out, or the intended word did not come to mind (although there does not appear to be any delay or stuttering). Either way, this is a non-event.

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Aug 09 2012

Iridology Update

I published this article on Science-Based Medicine about a year ago. Some of the commenters provided excellent additional information that I have incorporated into this updated version.

There are many medical pseudosciences that persist despite a utter lack of either plausibility or evidence for efficacy. Some practices emerged out of their culture of origin, or out of the prevailing ideas of a pre-scientific age, while others were manufactured out of the imagination of perhaps well-meaning but highly misguided individual practitioners. They were just made up – homeopathy, for example, or subluxation theory.

Iridology belongs to this latter category – a system of diagnosis that was invented entirely by Ignatz Peczely, a Hungarian physician who first published his ideas in 1893. The story goes that Peczely as a boy found an owl with a broken leg. At the time he noticed a prominent black stripe in the iris of one eye of the owl. He nursed the bird back to health and then noticed that the black line was gone, replaced by ragged white lines. From this single observation Peczely developed the notion of iridology.

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