Archive for September, 2013

Sep 30 2013

Why Isn’t the Spinning Dancer Dizzy?

Published by under Neuroscience

This is not a reference to the spinning dancer optical illusion, but rather to real dancers. Why don’t ballet dancers get dizzy when they spin around? Partly this is due to technique – a technique called spotting, in which dancer keep their head in one position for as long as possible then rotate it around quickly back to their fixed position. You have likely noticed this while watching ballet dancers.

But spotting does not entirely explain the ability of experienced dancers to tolerate spinning without becoming vertiginous. A new study finds that brain plasticity is also playing a role – the brains of experienced dancers adapt by reducing the signals that would cause dizziness.

To clarify, the term “dizzy” is a bit non-specific. People use it to mean vertigo (the sense of spinning or movement), but also light-headedness (feeling as if you might pass out), just being off balance, or even for any vague sensation in the head. What is being addressed in this study is vertigo, the feeling you get if you spin around.

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Sep 26 2013

The Pharma Shill Gambit and Other Nonsense

Those of us who have been writing about science and medicine for a few years or more quickly experience the fact that there is a subculture of people who are greatly hostile to our message. In addition, they tend to use the same fallacious arguments against us over and over again, as if they are reading from the same script.

As a result we answer the same bad arguments repeatedly, at least so that those who are paying attention will be more prepared to deal with such arguments themselves. Earlier this week Harriet Hall wrote an excellent post over at Science-Based Medicine in which she answers 30 common fallacious arguments against SBM.  The next day I received a comment here that parroted some of the same arguments yet again.

I have addressed these common anti-SBM arguments multiple times, mostly in piecemeal, so it’s good to have Harriet’s post as a sort-of SBM FAQ. Before you leave a critical comment, read the FAQ.

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Sep 24 2013

Misinformation from Mayo Clinic

The Mayo Clinic is a recognized center for excellence in both clinical medicine and research. They also maintain one of the best medical information websites on the net. I often find myself there when searching for information on a topic with which I am not familiar.

The Mayo Clinic also represents the current problem with academic medicine and the current fad of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) – they just don’t get it. They do not seem to understand what CAM really is, its history,  its current practice, and the state of the evidence. But they know it’s out there and people are interested in it (because they are told they should be) and so they feel the need to address it.

When they do address CAM, however, they have apparently done what most academic centers have done in my experience – they turn it over to “CAM experts,” which ends up being CAM proponents. The result is that CAM propaganda and shameless promotion becomes endorsed by an academic institution (what my colleagues and I have come to call “quackademic medicine”).

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Sep 23 2013

Body Image and Giving the Finger

Published by under Neuroscience

The most astounding sensory illusions occur by exploiting brain processes you are not aware even exist, or need to exist. Definitely in the running for the best such illusion are body ownership experiments. Your brain uses sensory information to decide which parts of your body you own, control, and where they are in three-dimensional space. This process can be easily fooled into creating an alternate image – making you feel as if you own and control fake body parts, and even virtual avatars.

Various researchers have consistently shown this basic effect, while they explore the details and limits of this phenomenon. One such experiment, published today in the Journal of Physiology, adds a few new details to the picture.

Researchers had subjects hold an artificial finger in their left hand. They then had them flex their right index finger, while the artificial finger also flexed itself. They were blocked from seeing their hands, and the skin of their right hand was numbed with medication. Subjects then reported that they were holding their right index finger.

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Sep 20 2013

Health Canada Misses the Point

This is an unintended follow up to my post yesterday about holding the line against pseudoscience – this time with regard to regulations. It is one thing to lend an organization’s reputation to pseudoscience, and another when outright unscientific practices are given official sanction by a government or regulatory body. It continues to amaze me how naive (or perhaps it’s just politically expedient) such regulators can be.

On September 6th Nathan Kunzler and Arthur Caplan published an excellent editorial in The Star in which they called out Canada’s public health agency for hypocrisy. They pointed out that, according to Health Canada’s own website:

“To be licensed in Canada, natural health products must be safe, effective, of high quality and carry detailed label information to let people make safe and informed choices.”

Therefore, if they license a product they are proclaiming it safe and effective. Health Canada licenses homeopathic products, which are not effective. They are nothing but placebos, magic potions based on prescientific notions and with “active ingredients” that are often diluted beyond the point where any original substance is likely to remain. Homeopathic products are therefore literally nothing. Further, clinical trials have consistently shown that they do not, in fact, work.

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Sep 19 2013

Holding the Line Against Pseudoscience

Published by under Pseudoscience

What is the responsibility of a venue, an event organizer, a social media outlet, or any institution or publication for filtering out fraud and pseudoscience? This question keeps coming up in multiple contexts.

About a decade ago free-energy scammer Dennis Lee was making the rounds, selling the opportunity to invest in his “inventions.” His MO was to make a several-hour presentation of dozens of bogus devices. By the end of the evening those that remained in the audience were ripe for the picking. Often they felt that if any one of the devices they had just witnessed were legitimate, they would strike gold.

Dennis Lee has been convicted of felony fraud, passing bad checks, has been banned from doing business in multiple states, and has been characterized as a “menace to the investing public.”  We discovered that he was booked at a local hotel in CT to give one of his predatory presentations. We contacted the hotel, notifying them that their venue was being used to commit fraud, and gave them all the necessary information. Their response was that this was not their responsibility, they do not control how their patrons use their conference rooms, and in fact we could not come on their premises to protest the event.

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Sep 17 2013

More On Mental Illness Denial and How Not to Argue

Published by under Neuroscience

I recently came across a critique of a prior post of mine on the DSM-V – Mental Illness vs Normal Behavior. The critique is by Philip Hickey, a retired PhD psychologist, on his blog Behaviorism and Mental Health – An alternative perspective on mental disorders.

Hickey disagrees with my defense of psychiatry, which he seems to equate with an extreme “medicalization” approach to life problems. In his response, however, he does not actually address my position, as I very carefully laid it out. Instead he attacks a series of straw men – characters in a narrative that he apparently already has well established in his mind. This narrative creates a very thick filter distorting his view of my position.

Hickey summarizes his position early on:

Now, for me, this is fairly obviously true and is borne out by the facts.  Psychiatrists who talk in terms of “diagnoses” and “chemical imbalances” etc., do in fact ignore causal factors such as abuse, poverty, and social deprivation.  They call their clients “patients” and they routinely tell these “patients” that they have “an illness just like diabetes” and that the pills will fix their brain chemistry.

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Sep 16 2013

Science Proves I’m Right

Published by under Pseudoscience

From the 18th to the early 20th century there were scientists who studied the various human “races.” They had various theories about the meaning an origin of “race” which all concluded that their own race was superior.  Christoph Meiners had a particularly bigoted theory in which he concluded that the dark races were “ugly” due to their moral degeneration.

Along the way science was frequently used to justify what we can now easily recognize as blatant prejudice. Anatomical studies comparing facial features and cranial capacity demonstrated European superiority, while anthropological studies supported the conclusion of “primitiveness” in native peoples.

These now stand as classic examples of exploiting science to bolster a narrow cultural view – to give it the imprimatur of scientific legitimacy. Who, after all, can argue with science? To do so makes you vulnerable to accusations of being unscientific and irrational.

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Sep 13 2013

More on Logic and Thermodynamics

Michael Egnor likes to play the game of Name That Logical Fallacy – or at least he likes to set up other people to play that game. He is a creationist neurosurgeon who has been blogging over at Evolution News & Views, an intelligent design propaganda outlet. In a recent post he attempts to reply to my post deconstructing a paper by Graville Sewell in which he claimed that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.

Egnor blows his first attempt at naming a fallacy.

Novella begins his critique of Sewell’s argument with the usual Darwinist ad hominem:

“Creationists will just not let go of an argument, no matter how many times it is pointed out to them that their argument is unsound. They simply find new twists of logic and distortions of science to resurrect their precious argument, clinging to it more tightly than Gollum held onto his ring.”

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Sep 12 2013

The Undervaccinated and Motivated Numeracy

It will probably come as no surprise that not being vaccinated, or being undervaccinated (missing a schedule routine vaccine) is associated with a higher risk of being infected with the disease that the vaccines are meant to prevent. This is just another way of saying that vaccines work – they reduce the risk of infection.

Often anti-vaccinationists deliberately look at such data wrong, however, in order to create a false impression. They will cite data showing that the majority of the infected are vaccinated, implying that the vaccines do not work. This argument is not valid, however. If, for example, 95% of a population is vaccinated, but 2% of them are non-responders and get the illness, while 5% are unvaccinated and 20% of them get the illness, the vaccinated will outnumber the unvaccinated among those infected – even though ten times as many unvaccinated as vaccinated get sick.

This represents what researchers are now calling “motivated numeracy” – losing basic math skills when ideologically motivated.

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