Archive for October, 2013

Oct 31 2013

Thorium Reactors

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Thorium is a radioactive element (atomic number 90), discovered by a Norwegian and named after the Norse god, Thor. It is fairly common in the earth’s crust, widely distributed throughout the world, with the largest deposits in Australia, the US, Turkey, and India.

If advocates have their way, you may be hearing more about thorium in the future. It is a potential fuel for nuclear reactors. We have not yet fully developed the technology for building thorium reactors, and the debate is on over whether or not this is a useful investment of energy development funds.

Carbon emissions and global climate change have raised the stakes of this controversy. I am with Bill Nye in advocating searching for the win-wins in combating carbon emissions – rather than asking people to sacrifice, find ways of improving their lives while lowering carbon emissions. The question is, is thorium a potential win-win?

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15 responses so far

Oct 29 2013

Gender – It’s Complicated

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A new study by gender researcher, Laurel Westbrook, explores attitudes toward gender determination in various contexts. The issue of gender is interesting partly because it is one of those topics that at first seems fairly straightforward when in fact it is quite complex, not only biologically, but ethically.

By now many people are familiar with the distinction between sex and gender, sex referring to biological characteristic relative to male and female, and gender being a social construct relative to masculine and feminine. In both cases the first thing we must realize is to avoid the false dichotomy as sex and gender occur along a spectrum, and are not binary.


Biological sex in humans is determined by several factors. Developmentally there are two main factors, genetics and hormonal environment. The system is binary in that there appears to be a female developmental pathway and a male developmental pathway, and most individuals do end up unambiguously toward one end or the other of this axis.

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36 responses so far

Oct 28 2013

Quantum Medicine

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Earlier this month the World Congress of Quantum Medicine was held in Hawaii. You may be wondering what quantum medicine is. Here is a quick description from the congress website:

Quantum Medicine uses the principles of quantum physics such as non-locality, tangled hierarchy, and discontinuous leap in consciousness to better understand medicine.

How will attendees benefit?

If you could increase your knowledge and skills in just four exciting days… if you could learn new strategies for developing a true mind/body system of healing… if you could bring that knowledge back to your practice where you’ll get better results with your clients while increasing your income, then the benefits are incalculable.

Some of the talks are available on the website, so you can get a good idea of the content. The top video on the conference page is a panel discussion that opens with a discussion of Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy because of her genetic risk for breast cancer.

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15 responses so far

Oct 24 2013

Golden Rice – A Touchstone

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Psychologists have documented a human tendency to pick a belief and then defend it at all costs. We all do this to varying degrees, and the more emotionally invested we are in a belief, the more extreme we are in our defense.

In fact, a skeptical world-view is largely about avoiding this mental trap by tentatively accepting or rejecting claims based upon available evidence, and modifying our beliefs as new arguments and evidence come to light. Skepticism values the process over any individual belief.

Since reality is complicated, if one follows an objective process it will often be true that any controversial issue will have valid points on both or all sides. This is not always true (creationists are completely wrong in their denial of evolution, making this a false controversy), but it often is. For this reason, one of my skeptical “red flags” to alert me to the probability that someone is an ideologue rather than an honest broker of information and analysis is whether or not their opinions point entirely in one direction on a genuinely controversial topic.

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114 responses so far

Oct 22 2013

Free Energy and the Casimir Effect

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Free energy is to physics what creationism is to evolutionary biology. Both offer a teaching moment when you try to explain why proponents are so horribly wrong.

Free energy proponents have been abusing the laws of thermodynamics (come to think of it, so have creationists), and more recently quantum effects a la zero-point-energy. Now they are distorting a new principle of physics to justify their claims – the Casimir effect. Apparently this was a hot topic at the Breakthrough Energy Conference earlier this month.

Before I get into the specifics, I do want to address the general conspiratorial tones of the free-energy movement. I wonder if anyone influential in the free-energy subculture realizes that their conspiracy-mongering over free energy is perhaps the greatest barrier to their being taken seriously. There is also the fact that they get the science wrong, but if they think they are doing cutting edge science (rather than crank science), then convince us with science and ditch the conspiracy nonsense.

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23 responses so far

Oct 21 2013

Dragon Video

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These make for light-hearted posts, but occasionally it’s fun to deconstruct viral videos purporting to show something fantastical on the internet. Most such videos are one of the big three – ghosts, UFOs or Bigfoot (or some other cryptozoological creature).

The current video is in the cryptozoological category – a video purporting to show a dragon flying through the skies of Truro England.

Obviously the prior-probability here is vanishingly small, and so it would take a very compelling video to have any chance of being taken seriously, and this video does not come close. Before I take a close look at the video itself, let’s explore the plausibility of the claim.

Dragons are gigantic flying predators, at least in their current Western cultural image. Such creatures if they existed would be voracious. Flying is a high-energy activity and animals pay for the benefits of flight by needing to eat incredible amounts of calories. Bald eagles, for example, eat about 10% of their body weight per day. If we extrapolate that to a dragon, even if light for its size so it can fly, would require hundreds of pounds of food per day.

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11 responses so far

Oct 17 2013

PPMOs – The New Antibiotic?

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People generally worry too much and about the wrong things. The media exploits dramatic risks for sensational headlines and exciting narratives, but rarely put risks into a useful context.

Meanwhile, there are some real things to be worried about out there. One thing that has long been on my short list is the coming post-antibiotic era.

Antibiotics have dramatically improved human life and life-expectancy. I know many people who would likely be dead without them. The are one of modern medicines greatest success stories. But they have a critical weakness – evolution.

The antibiotic era started an evolutionary arms race with the pathogenic bacteria they kill or inhibit – and the bacteria are winning. Antibiotics work through a number of mechanisms that interfere with the cellular function of prokaryotes, but not eukaryotes, so bacteria are affected while host cells are unharmed.

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19 responses so far

Oct 15 2013

What’s In Your Herbal Supplement?

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I am not a fan of herbal supplements for many reasons. In short, herbs are drugs. Herbal products on the market are simply poorly regulated drugs that probably don’t work, have variable doses, often have contaminants, and may be incorrectly labeled. So, they are terrible drugs.

These disturbing facts are “greenwashed” by marketers of herbal products with the hype that such products are “natural.” That doesn’t change the fact that they are still dirty, poorly regulated drugs.

A recent study adds to the growing body of evidence that supports my summary above. A study published in BMC Medicine concluded:

Most of the herbal products tested were of poor quality, including considerable product substitution, contamination and use of fillers.


Most (59%) of the products tested contained DNA barcodes from plant species not listed on the labels. Although we were able to authenticate almost half (48%) of the products, one-third of these also contained contaminants and or fillers not listed on the label. Product substitution occurred in 30/44 of the products tested and only 2/12 companies had products without any substitution, contamination or fillers. Some of the contaminants we found pose serious health risks to consumers.

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5 responses so far

Oct 14 2013

The Science of Learning

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As a perpetual student and frequent teacher, I am very interested in the science and technology of learning itself. In medical school, for example, we have to transfer an incredible amount of information to students over a relatively short period  of time. The trick is to get students to maintain their attention, focus on the important bits of information, and understand and remember that information.

This is very challenging. Simply lecturing is not very effective. There are different figures as to what the average “attention span” is, depending on exactly how it is measured, but the figures are generally less than 20 minutes, and as low as 5 minutes. Of course, this depends on attention to what. I can pay attention to a 3 hour movie without difficulty, if it’s Lord of the Rings or similar quality. Try listening to a 3 hour lecture on a dry technical topic, and effectively process the information presented the whole time.

So how do we get students to spend the day in lectures and actually learn a significant portion of the material?

There are many answers to this question, but a recent study perhaps adds another technique to improve lecture efficiency. Robert Collins conducted a multi-year study in which he used video during his lectures, but for the first year the video had captions turned off, and for the second year he had captions turned on. He found that during the second year class discussion improved, and grades significantly improved.

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9 responses so far

Oct 10 2013

Extreme Dogmatism

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It is the standard skeptical narrative that people are biased in numerous ways. The “default mode” of human behavior is to drift along with the currents of our cognitive biases, unless we have critical thinking skills as a rudder or paddle (choose your nautical metaphor). Metacognition – thinking about thinking – is the only way for our higher cognitive function (evidence, analysis, logic) to take control of our beliefs from our baser instincts.

Political ideology is one form of such bias. Psychologists have demonstrated that people generally will identify with a stated belief, and then will defend their existing belief by default simply because it’s theirs. This phenomenon seems to be exacerbated by ideology – identifying with a suite of beliefs that come as a package deal, with a convenient label.

One type of ideology is political. In the US this is usually thought of as a dichotomy between conservative and liberal, represented by the Republican and Democratic parties respectively. In reality the political landscape is more complex. Libertarians, for example, are economically conservative but socially liberal, because in reality they care about something else entirely, something tangential to the typical conservative-liberal axis, and that is personal freedom over government control.

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59 responses so far

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