Archive for December, 2012

Dec 31 2012

Nutrigenomics – Personalized Pseudoscience

I wrote last week about the problem of stem-cell quackery throughout the world, mostly in poorly regulated countries but with the purpose of attracting international customers. Stem cells are real, and the science of developing medical applications of stem cells is both real and promising, but these stem cell clinics are making claims that are years or decades ahead of the science. They are capitalizing on stem cell hype as a marketing ploy to those who are more desperate than scientifically savvy.

I was asked to comment on yet another example of the same phenomenon – nutrigenomics. That’s a very impressive-sounding name, just like a real science, but as always the devil is in the details. The claim is that by analyzing one’s genes a personalized regimen of specific nutrients can be developed to help their gene’s function at optimal efficiency. One website that promises, “Genetics Based Integrative Medicine” contain this statement:

Nutrigenomics seeks to unravel these medical mysteries by providing personalized genetics-based treatment. Even so, it will take decades to confirm what we already understand; that replacing specific nutrients and/or chemicals in existing pathways allows more efficient gene expression, particularly with genetic vulnerabilities and mutations.

The money-quote is the phrase, “ it will take decades to confirm what we already understand.” This is the essence of pseudoscience – using science to confirm what one already “knows.” This has it backwards, of course. Science is not use to “confirm” but to determine if a hypothesis is true or not.

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Dec 27 2012

More Stem Cell Quackery

Stem cells are an exciting area of medical research. They are cells that have the ability to transform into different cell types, a property known as pluripotency. Some stem cells, such as embryonic stem cells, can turn into any cell type, which is called totipotency.

The hope is that researchers will develop the technology to harvest or create stem cells, manipulate their properties if necessary, transplant them into patients with specific diseases or damage, and coax the stem cells to fix, support, or replace the diseased or damaged cells. This is a potentially powerful treatment in theory, but is very tricky in practice. Researchers are still, in most cases, working out the basics of the technology – getting stem cells to survive and do what they want them to do, without growing into tumors or causing other problems. Researchers are making incremental advances, but are mostly in the test tube or animal research stage. For some indications they are making the first forays into preliminary human research.

Public awareness and interest in stem cell treatments, however, is way ahead of the reality. It takes years, perhaps decades, to innovate an entirely new treatment paradigm such as stem cell therapy. Unfortunately some unscrupulous clinics have decided to cash in on the premature hype by offering bogus stem cell treatment for serious illnesses. Most of these clinics are in countries with lax health care regulations and oversight, hoping to lure in wealthy and desperate foreigners. In fact, one of my first blog posts was about one such clinic in China.

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Dec 21 2012

The End of the World

Yet again we face a doomsday prophecy – the Mayan Apocalypse. By now most people have heard that according to the ancient Mayan calendar, today marks the end of the current cycle, with tomorrow (the bit doomsday prophets miss) the beginning of another. As many people have already pointed out, it’s no more big a deal than December 31 giving way to January 1st. In fact there are Mayan calendars that extend well into the future.

One big clue that this is nothing to worry about is the fact that modern day Mayans living in Mexico are openly unconcerned, and are celebrating their “new year.”

I must say that I am happy this time around there isn’t much end-of-the-world hysteria. Sure, there are a few pockets of crackpots that are helpfully announcing themselves to the world by huddling in remote villages waiting for aliens to come rescue them. The average person, however, seems to be greeting doomsday with a big yawn, and maybe an amused grin.

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Dec 20 2012

Disco-Tute – Fake

Published by under Creationism/ID

The Orwellian-named “Discovery Institute” is an organization dedicated to the promotion of Intelligent Design (ID), which is little more than a superficial repackaging of long-discredited creationist arguments against evolutionary theory.They do not have a legitimate scientific program, although they desperately try to create the impression that they do.

In my opinion the Disco-Tute is founded on intellectual dishonesty. They are primarily a propaganda machine for pseudoscience. You might recall they funded the movie Expelled – which was an exercise in intellectual dishonesty from beginning to end. They deceived many of the scientists who they interviewed for the film, even going to the extent of creating a dummy production company as a front. The result was a hack-job of transparent propaganda.

Now another example of Disco-tute intellectual dishonesty has come to light, exposed by The Panda’s Thumb blog. This started with a critique of a new Disco-tute video on population genetics. It was noticed that the video is a green-screen shot with the Disco-tute scientician in front of an image of a laboratory. We are apparently meant to assume that she is in the Disco-tute labs where actual research is conducted. However, the image is a stock photo.

OK – this is a small deception, the kind of thing many video producers would do to create the right “look” for the video. It’s part of the culture of film-making – it doesn’t matter if it’s real, as long as it looks good. But this is not a sufficient excuse.

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Dec 18 2012

Some Thoughts on Sandy Hook

Published by under Neuroscience

I received an automated message on Sunday that there will be enhanced security at my daughter’s elementary school. The doors to the school are already locked, requiring someone in the front office to buzz visitors in. The school will now no longer grant admittance to any unannounced visitor, even a parent. Any visitor must call or write ahead of time with the time and purpose of their visit.

This is fine, and probably a reasonable security policy for a school, but it would not have stopped the shooter from carrying out the horrific killings that took place four days ago in Newtown, CT. The killer apparently shot his way into the school.

It’s difficult to process the events that occurred in Sandy Hook Elementary School. A 20 year old gunman entered the school with an assault rifle, large capacity clips, with hundreds of total rounds, and two additional pistols. He went to the principal’s office and killed everyone there, then proceeded to classrooms to kill as many children as he could. (Correction – the news report now is that the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, went to investigate the gun shots and was killed while rushing the shooter.) In the end he killed 20 children, all aged 6-7, and 6 adults. This was after shooting and killing his own mother at home. The gunman’s last victim was himself, committing suicide when his spree was done (it’s possible he killed himself when he heard the sound of approaching sirens).

I understand the emotions of such an event. I am a parent, and one of my daughters is still in elementary school. This scenario is every parent’s unthinkable nightmare. We send our kids off to school and trust they will be safe.

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Dec 17 2012

Trusting Intuition vs Analysis

Published by under Neuroscience

We all make decisions every day. I started out my day deciding what to wear, following by a decision of what to write about for this morning’s blog post.  Most decisions are small and likely have insignificant consequences, but even small decisions can have a large cumulative effect. Some decisions are huge and can have dramatic effects on the course of our lives or the lives of others. Studying human decision-making, therefore, seems to be a useful endeavor, one likely to have implications for critical thinking.

The current dominant model of decision making is the so-called dual-process approach. Decision-making is seen as coming in two flavors: intuitive-affective, or system I, decision-making is based upon our “gut-feelings”, while analytical system II processing is based upon careful analysis. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and researchers are busy trying to  sort out which approach is superior in which circumstances.

Intuitive decision-making has the advantage of being quick. We get an overall feeling for a situation, based upon evolved emotions and heuristics and modified by our own experiences, and can act quickly on such feelings. The disadvantage of this approach is that it is highly susceptible to bias and may not properly weigh important details.  The analytic approach has the advantage of being detail-oriented, logical, and quantitative and can be highly evidence-based, given a statistically accurate weight to each factor considered. The analytic approach is specifically designed to weed out bias and faulty thinking. The disadvantage of the analytic approach is that it is time and effort intensive, and it is only as good as the evidence that feeds into it.

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Dec 13 2012

What is Time?

Published by under Education

One of the joys of having children is the opportunity to vicariously view the world through child-like eyes. Children are generally curious, and are free from the bias of “knowledge.” I am not trying to make ignorance into a virtue – knowledge helps us to think about things on a deeper level and to see the connections that make up the tapestry of reality. But knowledge can also be a trap that constrains how we think about things.

Children may highlight this fact by innocently asking questions that are free of assumptions we didn’t know we had. Every parent has likely faced these questions. In my opinion these moments are tremendous opportunities to engage a young mind with everything that is awesome about science and intellectualism itself.

Alan Alda seems to get this. He has been parlaying his TV and movie fame to promote science communication. He is a founding member of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He wants scientists to explain basic concepts to the public – to children, in fact – in a way that they can understand. He gets questions from 11 year olds and then challenges scientists to explain the answer in a way that is engaging and accessible to 11 year olds, and then has 11 year old judge the answers (although referred to as “11 year olds” it seems the job of submitting questions and judging answers is open to 4-6th graders).

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Dec 12 2012

The Hobbit

Published by under Evolution

OK – I’m not talking about the upcoming release of the first movie in the next Peter Jackson Tolkien trilogy. I am, however, anxiously awaiting the film, because I love Tolkien, I thought the Lord of the Rings trilogy was incredible (the purists be damned), and I am also looking forward to seeing the 48 frames per second technology for myself. That is all a topic of a probable future post.

Today I am writing about Homo floresiensis – the hominid species native to the island of Flores in Indonesia that has been nicknamed the Hobbit because of its small stature. I have been following the story of H. floresiensis on this blog over the past few years. It has been an interesting controversy – whether or not the discovered fossils represent a distinct hominid species or rather represent modern humans suffering from a genetic disease. It seems the evidence, and the consensus of opinion, is leaning toward H. floresiensis being a real species, but there are holdouts.

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Dec 11 2012

Science – There’s An App For That

Published by under General Science

A large fraction of the population is walking around with a powerful computer in their pocket or on their hip. Cell phones, and specifically smart phones, are gaining popularity – a Pew poll in February 2012 found that 46% of Americans own smart phones. Smart phones are becoming almost extensions of our personal identities – our digital selves. This offers new possibilities for information gathering that simply did not exist before.  Scientists are just starting to dip their toes into this pool by exploring ways to use smart phone apps to gather useful data.

For example, I recently interviewed Richard Wiseman on my podcast, the SGU, and he discussed his dream research using an iPhone app, Dream:On. The app detect when you are dreaming by monitoring your movements. During REM sleep your body is paralyzed, and the accelerometer in the iPhone can detect this lack of movement. The app will then play a sound chosen by you with the intent on influencing the content of your dream. After the dream is over the app will wake you so you can record your dream in the app. Richard has gathered millions of recorded dreams this way. There are, of course, issues with gathering data in this way. Richard acknowledges that this is just an experiment – a “let’s see what happens” kind of exploratory experiment.  Anything, however, that can allow a scientist to gather millions of data points is intriguing.

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Dec 10 2012

Truth in Education

We have yet another propaganda slogan and strategy by creationists to sneak their religious beliefs into public science classrooms – “truth in education.”  This one comes from state senator Dennis Kruse from Indiana. He had previously introduced a bill (in 2011) that would have required the teaching of “creation science” alongside evolution. The bill died a quick death, largely because the Supreme Court has already declared such laws unconstitutional (in the 1987 Edwards vs Aguillard case).

Kruse’s approach has since “evolved.” It seems that after his failed and naive attempt to introduce a creation science bill, he has been connected with the Discovery Institute and is now up to speed on the latest approach to anti-evolution strategies.

Creationist attempts to hamper science education when it comes to evolution go back to the beginning of evolutionary theory itself. By the turn of the 19th century evolution was an accepted scientific fact, and opposition to its teaching was forming among certain fundamentalist sects. The first big confrontation between the teaching of evolution and creationist ideology came in the form of the The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, or the Scopes Monkey Trial. This resulted from the first creationist strategy to limit the teaching of evolution in public schools – they simply banned it. This strategy was killed when such laws were found unconstitutional in 1968 (Epperson v. Arkansas).

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