Archive for November, 2013

Nov 26 2013

Biocentrism Continued

Published by under Pseudoscience

Yesterday I discussed the proposal by Robert Lanza he calls biocentrism – that consciousness creates the universe. While he is trying to portray himself as  ”one of the leading scientists in the world,” and right up there with Darwin and Einstein, his “theory” is nothing new or unique to him. It is the same quantum woo tripe that has been debunked for decades. In fact, he is “not even wrong” – his ideas present no testable hypotheses.

I have already discussed his “god-of-the-gaps” style argument regarding the Big Bang and why there is something instead of nothing. I started to discuss his abuse of quantum mechanics; specifically his confusion of particles interacting with the environment with the effects of a conscious observer. The very experiments he refers to, the double-slit experiments, demonstrate that the presence or absence of a conscious observer is irrelevant. All that matters is if the photons interact with anything, such as a detector, while they are passing through the two slits.

More Quantum Woo

His quantum woo does not end there, however. He also refers to quantum entanglement, which I grant is one of the more counterintuitive aspects of quantum mechanics. Once particles are entangled, let’s say because they were created as a virtual pair, their properties are linked and complementary – if one particle is spin up, the other will be spin down. Here comes the weird part: even if the particles have been separate for millions of years traveling along their own paths, as soon as you measure the spin of one particle and force its probability to collapse to a definite property, the other particle will also collapse and will have the opposite property.

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Nov 25 2013

Biocentrism

Published by under Pseudoscience

Robert Lanza appears to be a legitimate and accomplished physician and stem cell researcher. Unfortunately he has decided to follow in the footsteps of Linus Pauling in venturing outside his area of expertise into the world of pseudoscience.

Lanza is promoting the idea of biocentrism, the notion that consciousness creates the universe, rather than simply being a physical phenomenon within the universe. His ideas are remarkably similar to those of Deepak Chopra, which I have recently discussed, but are stated in more coherent and less flowery prose. His views, however, are just as nonsensical.

Here is the abridged version of his arguments, which he lays out in his 2009 book. I found nothing new in Lanza’s ideas – he simply brings together now tired and long discredited distortions of physics and mystery mongering on the edge of scientific knowledge.

Before I delve into some of his specific arguments (which will take a part II) I must point out that nowhere in his description of biocentrism is an actual scientific theory. He does not posit anything that results in testable predictions. Rather, he seeks only to “explain” life, the universe, and everything, as if explaining is science.

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Nov 19 2013

Coyne Destroys Chopra

Chopra continues his attack on his skeptical critics with a piece in the New Republic, focussing his attention on Jerry Coyne. Coyne, in turn, responds to Copra. I gave away my assessment of the exchange in the title of this post, but take a look and decide for yourselves.

Chopra continues his attempt to portray the situation as him being the victim of militant skeptics who are using underhanded tactics to attack anyone who would expand science beyond our narrow materialist view. In so doing he actually betrays his pseudoscientific natture.

Coyne immediately zeros in on Chopra’s major fallacy – he is arguing that he is not a pseudoscientist by listing all his credentials and associations. That is exactly what a pseudoscientist would do, surround himself in the trappings of science. There is no doubt that Chopra is a successful self-promoter, and in fact he is partly responsible for the infiltration of pseudoscience into academia. None of that rescues him from being a pseudoscientist.

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Nov 18 2013

MAVEN

Published by under Astronomy

I am away this week, visiting the Kennedy Space Center and hoping to see the launch of MAVEN. I was kindly invited, along with my family, by Elliot Goldman, an SGU listener who works for Lockheed Martin, the company who built the MAVEN craft. At the mission briefing yesterday they said there is a 60% chance of launch – scattered lightening storms are predicted which may interfere with the launch. The skies look pretty good this morning, so I am keeping positive.

MAVEN stands for Mars Atmosphere Volatiles EvolutioN. The probe will insert into Mars orbit (no lander) in a highly eccentric orbit in order to study the atmosphere of Mars. The craft will also do double duty as a communications relay to the current rovers on Mars, Opportunity and Curiosity.

The atmosphere on Mars is 0.6% that of Earth, barely a wisp.  We know, however, that Mars once had a much thicker atmosphere. There are clear signs of rivers and bodies of water on the surface of Mars. This would require not only that the temperature was above freezing, but that there was enough atmospheric pressure to keep the water from just bubbling away.

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Nov 15 2013

More Troubles for Trudeau

Following the spectacle of Kevin Trudeau has been fascinating and disgusting. Trudeau is a career con-man, convicted of fraud, who has simply moved from one con to the next. He came to prominence as the king of infomercial, selling, for example, his coral calcium supplements.

After he was essentially banned from selling such products by the FTC, Trudeau realized he could just sell information in the form of books and access to websites. Information, he reasoned, is protected free speech. He has also learned the power of the conspiracy theory – make outrageous claims and cover up all the blatant logical flaws and lack of evidence with a grand conspiracy about how the powers that be are trying to keep such information from the public.

He started with “Natural cures they don’t want you do know about” – it was a huge success. Trudeau had hit upon a formula (although nothing new) to combine claims people want to believe with the suggestion that powerful people are keeping that information from them. I suspect part of the success of this approach is that the very people who are susceptible to such claims are also easy targets.

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Nov 14 2013

Is There a Pseudoscience Event Horizon?

Earlier this week Massimo Pigliucci over at Rationally Speaking wrote an intriguing blog post asking whether or not there is a pseudoscience black hole – a point beyond which a pseudoscience gets sucked in and can never escape? Asked from the other direction – are there any historical examples of a pseudoscience that became legitimate, essentially turned out to be true?

I thought this was an interesting enough question to pick up the ball and explore the question further.

First, the question requires a discussion of what is pseudoscience. This is a common topic of discussion among skeptics. Any definition must contend with the demarcation problem – there is no bright line between legitimate science and pseudoscience. Rather, there is a smooth continuum, although I do think the distribution along that continuum is bimodal.

The differences between science and pseudoscience have to do with process, not subject matter. Pseudoscientists display a number of typical behaviors  (I will quickly list some of them here, but I am overdo for an updated post just on this topic):

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Nov 12 2013

Chopra Skepticism Fail Part 2

As promised, Deepak Chopra has written a follow up article about what he calls The Rise and Fall of Militant Skepticism. As we saw in part 1, Chopra remains consistent with his reputation for being intellectually superficial and careless, more interested in propping up his particular brand of mysticism than genuinely engaging with his critics.

In part 2 Chopra also continues his practice of erecting massive strawmen, consistent with the narrative standard in his corner of the wooniverse. He begins by once again conflating atheism with skepticism. Clearly he did not read or comprehend any of the skeptical responses to his first post. Now he trots out the tired claim that skeptics are negative and want to kill curiosity – it’s all just so tedious.

He also uses a strategy that I see increasingly within the subculture of many pseudosciences, specifically trying to adopt the language of skeptics but turning that language back against skeptics, as if they thought of in the first place.

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Nov 11 2013

Reprogramming Your Junk DNA

Published by under Pseudoscience

Every now and then I come across a stunning example of pseudoscience, an exemplar, almost raising pseudoscience to an art form. Some pieces of scientific nonsense read almost like poetry. Such examples make me wonder what is going on in the mind of the pseudoscientist – to me, the most fascinating question.

One example I recently came across is the idea that we can reprogram our DNA through words alone. Just about every red-flag of pseudoscience is flying high with this one. Here is the theory in a nutshell:

Only 10% of our DNA is being used for building proteins. It is this subset of DNA that is of interest to western researchers and is being examined and categorized. The other 90% are considered “junk DNA.” The Russian researchers, however, convinced that nature was not dumb, joined linguists and geneticists in a venture to explore those 90% of “junk DNA.” Their results, findings and conclusions are simply revolutionary! According to them, our DNA is not only responsible for the construction of our body but also serves as data storage and in communication. The Russian linguists found that the genetic code, especially in the apparently useless 90%, follows the same rules as all our human languages. To this end they compared the rules of syntax (the way in which words are put together to form phrases and sentences), semantics (the study of meaning in language forms) and the basic rules of grammar. They found that the alkalines of our DNA follow a regular grammar and do have set rules just like our languages. So human languages did not appear coincidentally but are a reflection of our inherent DNA.

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Nov 08 2013

Emerging Technologies

Most Fridays I submit a blog post to Swift, the official blog of the JREF. The article I submitted this morning is about a new study demonstrating  a brain-machine-interface (BMI) that allows a rhesus monkey to control two robotic arms at the same time. This is a technology I have been following here at NeuroLogica, blogging about it whenever I think a cool breakthrough is made.

The topic touches on several areas simultaneously that I find fascinating – neuroscience, computer technology, virtual reality, and predicting future technology. I make the point, as I often do, that predicting future technology has a terrible track record, with the only reasonable conclusion being that it is very difficult.

It’s fun to look back at past future predictions and see what people generally got right and what they got wrong, and then see if we can learn any general lessons that we can apply to predicting future technology.

Major Hurdles

For example, we are not all flying around with jetpacks or taking our flying car to work. This has become, in fact, a cliche of failed future technologies. I think the lesson here is that both of these technologies suffer from a major hurdle – fuel is heavy, and if you have to carry your fuel around with you it quickly becomes prohibitive. There just doesn’t seem to be any way to overcome this limitation with chemical fuel or batteries.

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Nov 07 2013

Early Detection of Autism

Part of the impetus for the fringe belief that vaccines are somehow causally related to the development of autism is that the signs of autism often become apparent at 2-3 years of age, after children have received many of their routine childhood vaccinations. (Average age at diagnosis is 3.1 years.) In an otherwise healthy child, the vaccines might be the only thing the parents can think of that could be a potential cause.

Signs of autism are not clinically noticeable prior to 6 months of age. From about 6-18 months the signs can be detected by careful clinical observation, but may be missed by parents. During this time parents may become slowly aware that their child is not developing as expected, and the creeping suspicion that something is not quite right often culminates in a diagnosis between age 2-3.

The phenomenon of temporal binding may then cause the parent’s memories to shift over time so that the temporal correlation between getting vaccines and signs of autism appearing become closer together. For some parents this can become a very powerful memory – my child was perfectly normal, then he received vaccines and started to show signs of autism.

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