Archive for July, 2013

Jul 30 2013

The SGU and Skeptical Activism

Published by under Skepticism

This week we are in the final stages of pre-production and then will complete production of our new web-series, Occ The Skeptical Caveman (you can see the pilot here). We are producing four episodes, and expect the first to be available by late September.

This is just one of many projects we either have in the works or in the planning stages, all with the goal of making the world a more skeptical place. We have many colleagues who are doing the same.

The problem is that skeptical activism takes resources – time, money, technical support, and energy. Everyone I know who is active in promoting critical thinking, science literacy, reason, and skepticism does so with limited resources. Meanwhile the promoters of pseudoscience, mysticism, snake oil, and all varieties of woo seem to be generally well funded.

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Jul 29 2013

Legal Courts And Science

Facebook is like a graveyard in a zombie movie, where old news items rise from the dead to have a second life. I am often asked about news items that are burning up Facebook, only to find that they are years old, but never-the-less they have to be addressed all over again. ]

One such item (actually a few items) is a 2012 news report about the Italian courts awarding money to the Bocca family a large reward because it concluded their 9-year-old son acquired autism from the MMR vaccine.

History here is a useful guide. The courts have historically often been out-of-step with the science, tending to err on the side of awarding compensation for possible harm. For example, until about the 1920s it was thought that physical trauma could cause cancer. Animal studies and epidemiological evidence, however, showed that there was no causal connection. Recall bias and increased surveillance were likely the cause of the apparent association.

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Jul 26 2013

Implanting False Memories – Sort Of

Published by under Neuroscience

I never pass up an opportunity to remind people of the weaknesses and flaws of human memory. It is perhaps the most widespread and persistent delusion that our memories are reliable sources of information.

A new study in mice attempts to create false memories of experiences the mice never had. False memories are one of the major flaws of memory. Memory is not a simple process of encoding, storage, and recall. Rather, memories are actively constructed. In this sense, all memories are “false.”

We construct and reconstruct our memories every time we recall the memory. This process is susceptible to suggestion, confabulation, fusion of details, bias and distortion.

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Jul 25 2013

Mission to Mars

Published by under Technology

In the decades prior to December 17, 1903, when the Wright Brothers flew for the first time at Kitty Hawk, the invention of the heavier-than-air flying machine was highly anticipated. There was a buzz. Many teams were working on the invention, and there were many false premature reports of sightings.

Today I get the same feeling about a mission to Mars. It seems that we’re just ready for such a mission, and multiple teams are proposing concepts for how to get there.

The latest proposal comes from scientists at the Imperial College London. They do not suggest any new technology or techniques, but simply put together a plan for addressing all the technical hurdles to such a mission. Their proposal is for a three person crew to travel to Mars and be safely returned home.

Here are the issues that need to be addressed on such a mission.

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Jul 23 2013

Brainwashed

Published by under Neuroscience

In the movie, The Manchurian Candidate, a Korean war POW returns home, but during his captivity he had been “brainwashed” and turned into a sleeper political assassin. The movie is partly responsible for bringing the concept of brainwashing to the public consciousness.

I occasionally am asked something to the effect of, “is brainwashing real?” The problem with this question is that first you need to define “brainwashing.”  The answer depends on that definition.

Brainwashing is the process of altering one’s beliefs and opinions through aggressive influence, and typically without the consent of the individual. Brainwashing combines three techniques – social influence, persuasion, and education.

Social influence is simply altering someone’s beliefs and behavior through emotional appeals and psychological manipulation. Persuasion involves argument – persuading someone that the new beliefs are correct. Education involves propaganda – giving people information selected or distorted to lead them to a set of beliefs.

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Jul 22 2013

Forget Amnesia

Published by under Neuroscience

A recent article in The Guardian has the provocative title, “American man wakes up with amnesia speaking Swedish.” The article itself contains some significant misconceptions about amnesia, and so is a good opportunity to discuss this interesting topic.

In brief, amnesia is a pathological loss of memories (not just normal forgetting). The most common type of amnesia is traumatic – caused by trauma to the brain. Trauma can cause retrograde amnesia, which is loss of memories prior to the injury, and anterograde amnesia, which is loss of memories following the trauma. Contrary to the common movie cliche, these lost memories cannot be recovered by subsequent head trauma (or by any other means).

Another cause of amnesia, especially anterograde amnesia, is drugs. Alcohol and benzodiazepines in particular can prevent the formation of memories while intoxicated.

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Jul 18 2013

Revenge of the Conspiracy Theorists

Skeptics have their work cut out for them. We are up against irrational forces that are becoming very savvy at turning the language and superficial tactics of science and skepticism against science and reason. We are not just debating details of evidence and logic, but wrangling with fully-formed alternate views of reality.

An excellent example of this was recently brought to my attention – an article using published psychological studies to argue that conspiracy theorists represent the mainstream rational view while “anti-conspiracy people” are actually the “paranoid cranks.” The article, by Dr. Kevin Barrett (Ph.D. Arabist-Islamologist) in my opinion nicely reflects how an ideological world-view can color every piece of information you see.

He starts out reviewing an article by Wood and Douglas which examined the comments to news articles about topics that are the subject of conspiracy theories. Barrett summarizes the study this way:

In short, the new study by Wood and Douglas suggests that the negative stereotype of the conspiracy theorist – a hostile fanatic wedded to the truth of his own fringe theory – accurately describes the people who defend the official account of 9/11, not those who dispute it.

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Jul 16 2013

Arthritis Foundation Promotes Shuzi Pseudoscience

The Arthritis Foundation is a non-profit organization founded in 1948 to help people who suffer from various forms of arthritis and to promote research. They are not a professional organization of experts, but more of a patient-centered organization. Many diseases and disease categories have such organizations to support sufferers and promote research.

In a perfect world all such organizations would be very science-based, but that is not always the case. They are generally good in this respect, but highly variable. It all depends on the organization’s leadership – do they recognize the need to have science-based experts advise them to make sure they do not accidentally promote bad science.

Unfortunately the Arthritis Foundation (AF) has fallen prey to pseudoscience, a failure that can be easily corrected. On their website they promote the Shuzi Comfort Band and have given the product their “ease-of-use” commendation. 

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Jul 08 2013

Off to TAM

Published by under Skepticism

I am leaving today for Vegas for The Amazing Meeting 2013. I may have time for a short post or two this week, but probably not.

I will be giving a Science-Based Medicine workshop on Thursday 2:30-4:00, along with Harriet Hall, David Gorski, and Mark Crislip. This will be an SBM primer.  We are also doing a panel, with Robert Blaskiewicz, on fighting medical fraud, on Saturday 2:40-3:30.

On Friday 2:45-3:45 I will be on a panel discussing the scope and mission of the skeptical movement. This will be partly based on some of my previous blog posts here.

Friday night will be the SGU dinner, from 6-9. This is a separate event you have to register for – there are still spots and you can register at the event. In addition to schmoozing with the Rogues, we will be doing our usual auction, which includes a guest rogue slot. This year we will also be doing a skeptical quiz show, with the audience member who wins receiving the TAM VIP package for 2014 (worth $1,000).  The SGU dinner is always a highlight of the event.

And of course, on Saturday from 11:45-12:45 we will be doing a live SGU podcast.

If you attend be sure to stop by the SGU table and introduce yourself. We will post some scheduled times when all the Rogues will be there. Hope to see some of you there.

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Jul 05 2013

Feedback on Feedback

Published by under Skepticism

There are many appealing aspects of the new media – its immediacy, the democratizing effect of lowering the bar on content production and distribution so that many people can participate, and the ability to customize the content you want. I especially love the interactive nature of blogging, tweeting, and even podcasting, the immediate feedback.

Having been on the giving and receiving end of such feedback for years now I wanted to share my thoughts on giving effective feedback. I am busy prepping for TAM, so this is also a good light topic to tackle.

The first thing to consider when giving feedback is – what is your goal? Why are you bothering? I find that feedback (meaning e-mails and comments not geared toward having a conversation about the topic at hand, but targeted toward the content provider) generally fall along a spectrum from simply expressing a feeling to wanting to change behavior.

I get many e-mails that can be summarized as either saying, “Love what you’re doing, thanks,” or “You’re a jerk, (although they don’t use the word “jerk”, if you know what I mean – btw, that’s a movie reference). That’s fine. People want to express their support or displeasure, and I get that. Just don’t expect the anonymous expression of raw displeasure to have any effect at all on my behavior.

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