Archive for June, 2013

Jun 28 2013

Head Transplantion

Here’s a fun one to finish out my vacation week – I recently received the following question:

I recently listened to a podcast dedicated to an often forgotten Skeptic, H.P. Lovecraft. (www.hppodcraft.com). In listening to the episode devoted to “Herbert West: Re-animator”, they mentioned historical experiments where animal heads were transplanted to other bodies, and survived. This set off a ping on my SkepDAR, and I researched it further. (Read: Wikipedia)

I found reference to a journal article in Surgical Neurology International, in which the author claims to lay the ground-work for the first successful surgical transplant of a human head.

As a lay-person, it seems like a plausible medical intervention. That being said, I’d love to hear the SGU tackle both the plausibility of the procedure and the ramifications such a procedure could have on our society. Could this be the key to Bob’s immortality?

In a word, no. At least not anytime soon. The technical hurdles are still too great.

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Jun 25 2013

Hummingbirds

Published by under General

I’m still on vacation. I had an encounter with some hummingbirds this morning. If you live in the North Eastern part of the US and you see a hummingbird in the wild, then it is overwhelmingly likely to be a ruby throated hummingbird. This is the only species that is endemic to the area. There are occasional reports of other species of hummingbird, but they are likely accidentals.

This little guy is a male ruby throat – the reason for the name is quite visible in the photo.

I usually don’t see hummingbirds perched like this. I have a feeder, and the hummingbirds usually hum in, hover while they feed, then flit away.

They are famous for their rapid wing speed, beating their wings up to 53 times per second. Their high metabolism means they have to consume up to twice their body weight in food each day. In addition to nectar, they will also eat insects and spiders.

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Jun 24 2013

Bird Conservation

Published by under General Science

I am on vacation this week, so my post today is going to be brief and somewhat self-indulgent (probably redundant when referring to blogs generally). I am a casual birder. It started as a hobby I could do with my daughters, and it has turned out to be an excellent activity – it’s fun, it gets them outside when perhaps they would prefer to play Minecraft, and there is actually a ton of science you can teach in the context of casual birding.

The picture here is of a pileated woodpecker which I took yesterday morning. It’s a bit grainy because of the distance and the low light – it was early in the morning – but I like the way the sun caught its red crest.

The pileated is the largest extant woodpecker. This is assuming that the ivory-billed woodpecker is really extinct, something which is somewhat controversial. You can tell this guy is not an ivory-billed because of the white chin and lack of broad white stripe on the wings.

I am currently visiting in Cumberland Maryland. We have pileateds in Connecticut where I live, and I have seen them on occasion, but not near my house. They will come to suet feeders, and I’m hoping one day a pileated will move into my neighborhood and visit my feeder.

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Jun 21 2013

Black Salve is Quackery

I received this question from an SGU listener:

I’ve been listening to your show for years now, thanks for brightening my life. :)
I have a question about an alternative cancer treatment my mother has started using to treat ‘skin cancer’ on her face (undiagnosed). It is called Black Salve and people claim it removes the cancerous cells from your flesh without damaging healthy cells. The ‘cancer’ literally falls out of your skin.
Do you know anything about this? What is your view on this treatment?

Thanks again for a great show.

I get similar questions almost every day. There appears to be an endless supply of dubious health claims and products – far more than any one person can deal with, with new ones popping up so fast it is a losing game of whack-a-mole. This is why I strongly advocate more effective regulation.

(warning: graphic picture below the fold)

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Jun 20 2013

Sally Morgan Libel Suit

Published by under Paranormal,Skepticism

This is an interesting story with an unfortunate update.

UK self-proclaimed psychic, Sally Morgan, sued the Daily Mail for libel because they claimed that she used deliberate fraud during some of her performances by receiving messages through an earpiece (Popoff style). The case was recently settled, with Morgan receiving £125,000 to cover damages and legal fees. In a statement the paper said:

Brid Jordan, for Associated Newspapers, told the judge: “The Daily Mail withdraws the suggestion that Mrs Morgan used a secret earpiece at her Dublin show in September 2011 to receive messages from off-stage, thereby cheating her audience, which it accepts is untrue.”

The story may therefore be a cautionary tale for skeptics – don’t overstate criticism or state as factual speculation about motivation or fraud. This is challenging when also wanting to engage in critical analysis of dubious claims without pulling any punches – but that is the line we have to walk.

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Jun 18 2013

Mind and Morality

One of the themes of this blog, reflecting my skeptical philosophy, is that our brains construct reality – meaning that our perceptions, memories, internal model of reality, narrative of events, and emotions are all constructed artifacts of our neurological processing. This is, in my opinion, an undeniable fact revealed by neuroscience.

This realization, in turn, leads to neuropsychological humility – putting our perceptions, memories, thoughts, and feelings into a proper perspective. Thinking that you know what you saw, or you remember clearly, or that your “gut” feeling is a reliable moral compass, is nothing but naive arrogance.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of constructed reality to fully accept is our morality. When we have a deep moral sense of what is right and wrong, we feel as if the universe dictates that it is so. Our moral senses feel objectively right to us. But this too is just an illusion, an evolved construction of our brains.

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Jun 17 2013

A Homeopathy Debate

On two occasions I was invited to UCONN to debate the scientific legitimacy of homeopathy - in 2007, and again in March of this year. I often directly confront or debate those who hold an unscientific belief. Sometimes this is criticized as being pointless, but that claim is premised on the assumption that the only point to such a debate is convincing the person on the other side, but that is not the case.

I have several goals in direct confrontation: to better understand the claims and logic of those holding that view, to explore my own position and improve my ability to explain it, and to demonstrate scientific and critical thinking with respect to this issue to the audience.

The more recent homeopathy debate was between me an Andre Saine, a Canadian naturopath and homeopath. During the debate we barely scratched the surface of this complex topic, so we both agreed to continue our discussion in writing, moderated by Peter Gold who organized the debate.

Here is Andre’s first question to me, and my answer.

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Jun 14 2013

What is Unconscious?

I recently received this question:

I heard Seth Shostak mention in one of the “Big Picture Science” podcasts, that we are unconscious when we sleep.

I disagree. This is an altered state of consciousness.

Then.. you go further…

What about a COMA? Still not truly unconscious. People have memories after they wake up of people talking to them. They just don’t know where they come from.

What about NDE’s?

C’mon… if you were truly unconscious (regardless of scientific unmeasurability of brainwave activity) , you are still either having thoughts or remembering the thoughts before you wake up.

I contend that TRUE unconsciousness is ACTUAL death. (not clinical death – a decision made by instruments) The inability to think AT ALL in any capacity as if you had never been born.

Please discuss this? Am I wrong?

I do not believe in dualism. I trust that as I lay dying, I may have experiences that feel like fantastic dreams… but when I actually die… I am dead.

If I were unconscious while sleeping… How did my alarm clock wake me up? How did my snoring wife rouse me from non REM sleep?

Michael Goff (Aka, Evil Eye)

Thanks for the question. In short – this is wrong, or at least overly simplistic to the point of effectively being wrong. The primary problem is in dealing with consciousness as a binary state, and therefore any flicker of consciousness is not “unconscious.”

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Jun 13 2013

The Problem of Addiction

Published by under Neuroscience

The central nervous system evolved as a tool for rapidly dealing with and adapting to the environment. If we strip down the nervous system’s function to its essential core, it functions as a tool for sensing the surrounding environment and responding with either reward or aversion. As vertebrates evolved this function became increasingly sophisticated, but the essence remains.

Even in the human brain there remain reward circuits that respond to thoughts and sensations by creating a good feeling, and others that respond with an emotionally negative experience. Despite our incredible neurological sophistication, humans are still powerfully motivated by this simple binary system. We seek out pleasant experiences and avoid negative ones. Psychologists have identified a number of cognitive biases, such as cognitive dissonance, that essentially follow this paradigm.

Building a nervous system around reward/aversion circuits is apparently evolutionarily successful, but comes with a significant vulnerability – what if the system can be “hacked”? What if a creature hits upon a behavior that is not advantageous to its survival or propagation, but stimulates the reward circuits? A little bit of this is probably inevitable – incidental behaviors around the edges of those that are truly adaptive. But what if such behaviors take over one’s existence?

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Jun 11 2013

Don’t Stare Directly Into the Sun

This is the sort of thing that most people learn when they are very young. In fact, you don’t necessarily have to learn this – light that is bright enough to damage the retina is also painful and will cause you to close your eyes or look away. So telling people not to stare into the sun is the equivalent of telling them not to put their hand into a raging fire.

The exception here is an annular or partial solar eclipse – when most of the sun is blocked out by the Moon but a tiny sliver remains, that sliver is still bright enough to carve out pieces of your retina but too small to cause pain. Telling people not to stare directly at a solar eclipse is therefore useful advice.

Given the human penchant for believing feel-good nonsense it should not come as a surprise that there are those who advocate sungazing – staring into the sun. They believe this will give them magical powers.

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