Archive for November, 2012

Nov 30 2012

Another Journalism Fail on the Denver Bug-UFO

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A couple weeks ago I wrote about a local Denver news report about “mysterious UFOs” caught on video. The news report includes several videos of blurry dark objects zipping past the camera and actually tried to make this into something interesting any mysterious. The report is an excellent example of a journalism failure when dealing with such topics.

In the age of the internet, such local news stories can now go internationally viral, which is apparently what happened here. This is a double-edged sword for the local news teams – they seem to revel in the widespread attention their local fluff news stories garner, but also seem a bit stung by the criticism it equally attracts.

Now, the news station, Fox 31 WKDVR in Denver, and the reporter, Heidi Hemmat, have decided to double-down on their original journalism failure, apparently concluding that negative attention is a good thing. Their follow up report is entitled: Insect expert: UFOs over Denver not bugs; images on video remain a mystery. Wrong and wrong. What they have offered us is another example of how journalists fail to properly cover controversial science stories.

Most of the videos in question clearly show some sort on insect close to the camera. A few of the videos show what is probably a bird flying by. Some have argued that there are also videos showing what might be a radio controlled plane – there is one quick shot of a video which might show this, but it’s not clear. What is clear is that the majority of the videos are bugs and birds (mostly bugs).

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6 responses so far

Nov 29 2012

Are We Living in a Simulated Universe?

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In short, we don’t know. But let’s explore the problem a bit deeper.

What is meant by a “simulated universe” is that our universe, the one that we experience as our reality, is actually a simulation being run on a fantastically powerful computer, presumably designed and built by a race profoundly more technologically advanced than ourselves. In the movie, The Matrix, most humans were plugged into and experiencing a simulation of the entire Earth. This movie is often brought up as an example of a simulated universe, but it’s not quite what we mean. In the Matrix, humans still had a physical existence. Their brains were just plugged into a simulation. In a simulated universe, however, we would be entirely simulated ourselves, not really floating in a bubble of liquid while information is being fed into our non-simulated brains.

There are several basic approaches to this question – philosophical, theoretical, and empirical. The Rationally Speaking blog recently tackled the philosophical approach to this question. In that series of posts David Kyle Johnson writes:

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34 responses so far

Nov 27 2012

Did You Not Notice or Not Remember?

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Quick – think of the location of the nearest fire extinguisher to where you work (your office, desk, station, or whatever). Fire extinguishers are fairly large and usually conspicuously red objects that are deliberately placed in an obvious and accessible location. Their design and placement is meant to make you notice them, so that you know where they are in an emergency.

However, in a recent study, only 13 out of 54 subjects (24%) we able to recall the location of the nearest fire extinguisher to their office. In some cases subjects worked in the same location for years and walked by the fire extinguisher multiple times per day. How could they not notice something so obvious after hundreds of encounters?

Psychologists have identified a number of phenomena related to how people attend to the world around them. By now you have probably seen the famous basketball passing video (if not, take a look before reading further). This is an example of inattentional blindness – we can only attend to a small percentage of all the sensory information that is coming our way. Our brains evolved to sift through this information and pick out the bits that are likely to be important or relevant. Further, we can consciously direct our attention at certain details of the environment, and when we do we become relatively blind to other aspects of our environment to which we are not attending.

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21 responses so far

Nov 26 2012

Bigfoot DNA

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The Bigfoot community (yes, they still exist) is abuzz with the announcement that Bigfoot/Sasquatch DNA has been analyzed with interesting results. Bigfoot is the alleged large North American furry hominid that roams the deep forest, largely in the Pacific Northwest. It is known only from sightings and ambiguous trace evidence (blurry photographs, footprints, hair samples), but is most famous from the Patterson-Gimlin film (touted by believers, but highly criticized by skeptics).

After decades, however, what we lack is a physical specimen. No one has captured a bigfoot, killed one, found a dead body or skeleton. There is also no fossil evidence supporting the existence of such a creature. Researchers have found biological samples (such as hair or skin) that they claimed were from a bigfoot. The big news today is that a five-year study to sequence and analyze DNA from these samples has now concluded. I predict that the results will be touted by believers but highly criticized by skeptics.

The results have not yet been peer-reviewed or published, so there will definitely need to to be follow up when this occurs. The work was headed by Dr. Melba Ketchum, a geneticist working in Texas. Apparently she was scooped by a Russian collaborator, Igor Butsev, who released the results on his Facebook page. Ketchum was then forced to put out a press release confirming the findings. The press release indicates:

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29 responses so far

Nov 20 2012

Some Feedback on Organic Farming

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Anyone who has been blogging for a while and covers even remotely controversial topics is likely to get hostile comments and e-mail. I recently received the following comment on a prior blog entry about organic farming:

It suits well that this shill would say some ubsurd shit like conventional pesticide and herbicide drenched food isnt bad for you! lol why dont you drink some round up to show us it isnt harmful! you fucking lame

Its too late people are losing conventional foods like its a hot potato! So its only a matter of time before your out of business because the corporations that pay you will be out of business.

But theirs alot of things I want to say to a scum like you but I will keep my mouth shut. I hope you sleep well at night you sellout and enemy to humanity!


There are some common themes in the comment and the linked article that are worth exploring. First, the tone of the comment is hostile and juvenile. I don’t mind the judicious use of profanity, but it’s clear when people are relying on profanity as a cheap way to lend emotional weight to their words because they cannot do so with their ideas or prose. This, unfortunately, has become common in the social space of the internet. Psychologists are beginning to look at the phenomenon sometimes referred to as “internet balls” – the lack of usual social cues and pressures allows for the shedding of normal polite behavior. People commenting anonymously into a virtual space are free to say things they would never have said in person.

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112 responses so far

Nov 19 2012

Studying the Brains of Mediums

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What is happening when a medium claims to be channeling or speaking to spirits? Believers claim that they are actually contacting non-physical entities, and that their channeled words and actions come from a place other than their brain. The skeptical interpretation is that the mediumship, of whatever flavor, is nothing more than a performance. The truth lies in the brain of the medium, and since we cannot read minds it seems there will always be room for interpretation.

This may be changing, however, as we develop the technology to peek directly at brain activity. Electroencephalogram (EEG), functional MRI scanning (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) are all methods for looking at brain function. A recent study used the latter technique, SPECT, to look at the brains of mediums while performing psychography – automatic writing that they claim has an external source, that of spirits.

The study involved only 10 subjects, 5 novice and 5 experienced psychographers (with from 15 – 47 years of experience). They had each subject generate normal writing, then they had them generate “automatic” writing while allegedly in a trance-state. The researchers found two things – that the writing of the experienced (but not novice) psychographers were more complex in the trance state than the control state, and the experienced (but not novice) psychographers had decreased activity in certain parts of the brain related to higher cognition while writing in the trance state. Specifically:

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12 responses so far

Nov 15 2012

Homeopathic Logic

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Homeopathic logic is real logic that has been diluted into non-existence. The solvent is bias and propaganda. I was recently pointed to an excellent example of this – an article written by a homeopath arguing that homeopathy is superior to modern medicine. It’s published in what appears to be an obscure rag, but it does represent common arguments put forth by homeopaths so it doesn’t really matter.

Here is the main point of the article:

There are many differences in both the disciplines of medicines. Let’s just focus on one main difference and that is the fact that none of the homeopathic medicines introduced during the last two hundred and fifty years was withdrawn from the market.

The author, Asghar Ali Shah, uses the term, “allopathy” throughout the article. This is a derogatory term used mainly by critics of science-based medicine, and immediately reveals the author’s bias. In the statement above he is also trying to present homeopathy and mainstream medicine as two “disciplines of medicines,” which is a false equivalency. This is a common tactic of fringe beliefs, to appear as a viable alternative to the mainstream, followed, of course, by arguments for its superiority.

Homeopathy, however, is a prescientific superstition that is at odds with basic science, and not just medicine but physics, chemistry, and biology.

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40 responses so far

Nov 13 2012

Communicating with the Vegetative

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A BBC program, Panorama, will soon air a show in which they explore a new technique for communicating with people who were believed to be in a vegetative state. The technique is based on research published in 2010 in the NEJM: Willful Modulation of Brain Activity in Disorders of Consciousness.

This is an intriguing area of research that I have been following and writing about here for the past few years. For background, vegetative patients are those who have suffered a brain injury of some sort and are no longer able to display any outward sign of consciousness. They tend to go through sleep-wake cycles, they open their eyes and have roving eye movements, but there is no indication on exam of purposeful activity or any objective response to their environment (this is by definition). If such patients show some signs of consciousness or response to external stimuli then they are deemed to be in a minimally conscious state.

One challenge is that such patients are unable to communicate directly. We have to infer their consciousness (or lack thereof) from the neurological exam. Even an enhanced exam designed to look for subtle signs of consciousness is still a crude instrument. We have no way of directly looking at the “mind” of the patient to see what their experience of consciousness is. There is some utility to such exams, however. In one study 40% of patients thought to be in a persistent vegetative state by routine evaluation were found to be in a minimally conscious state by a more elaborate neurological exam.

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9 responses so far

Nov 12 2012

Bugged by UFOs

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UK UFO enthusiasts recently called a meeting to discuss the future of the UFO movement, specifically whether or not there is going to be one. Numbers of groups and members are plummeting as enthusiasm for talking about the latest Chinese lantern to be misidentified as a flying saucer is waning.

If history is any guide this is just a temporary generational downturn, and interest in UFOs will eventually rebound. It is possible, however, that the most recent decline is more than just the usual cycle. Perhaps the internet has changed the game, allowing for rapid turnaround of possible UFO stories. Before the ink would be dry on traditional print media, the new social media can debunk UFO stories and nip them in the bud.

Here is an excellent example: Mile High mystery: UFO sightings in sky over Denver. The beginning of the news report (it is just crappy local news, but it’s a Fox affiliate which means such stories can be picked up nationally) has all the red flags for sensational mystery mongering:

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23 responses so far

Nov 08 2012

Facilitated Communication Persists Despite Scientific Criticism

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Facilitated Communication (FC) is a technique for allegedly aiding those with communication impairment, such as some people with autism, to communicate through typing or pointing at a letter board. The idea is that some children have greater cognitive ability than is apparent through their verbal skills, but they lack the motor skills to type or write. The facilitator in FC is trained to hold and support their client’s hand, to help stabilize it, so that they can type out their thoughts.

FC was enthusiastically embraced by the special education community in the late 1980s and early 1990s but problems quickly emerged, namely the question of authorship – who is doing the communicating, the client or the facilitator?

The scientific evidence came down clearly on one side of that debate – it is the facilitator who is the author of the communication, not the client. The American Psychological Association has reviewed the available evidence and produced a position statement that concludes:

The short version of this long story is that study after study showed that facilitated communication didn’t really work. Apparently, the positive results that had generated so much enthusiasm were the results of a subtle process in which well-intended facilitators were answering questions themselves – without any awareness that they were doing so.

A 2001 review by Mostert came to the same conclusion – that the evidence supports the conclusion that the facilitators are the authors of communication in FC. He also points out that there is a relationship between the rigor of the studies and the results. The most rigorously blinded studies are all negative, studies with some blinding but also with problems are mixed and often show some positive results, and unblinded studies are all positive, showing dramatic effects. This pattern mirrors that of ESP and many other pseudosciences that are primarily the result of self deception.

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19 responses so far

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