Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Oct 09 2014

AWARE Results Finally Published – No Evidence of NDE

Back in May I participated in a debate for Intelligence Squared regarding “Death is not Final.” At the time I was updating myself on the published literature regarding alleged near death experiences or NDEs, and noticed that the AWARE study (AWAreness during REsuscitation) had been completed but the data not yet published. I was disappointed that I would not have these results available to me during the debate.

I had read about the study several years earlier. This is a prospective study of cardiac arrest patients to not only describe their NDEs when they occur, but to conduct a large prospective test looking for objective evidence of conscious awareness during resuscitation. The lead researcher, Sam Parnia, is a believer in NDEs, but designed a study theoretically capable of finding objective evidence.

The multi-center study involved placing an image in a location that was hidden from normal view but could be viewed by a person floating above their body during an NDE. This could be a way to objectively differentiate between the two leading hypotheses. Parnia and others believe that reports of NDEs represent actual awareness during cardiac arrest when the brain is not functioning. This, of course, would be compelling evidence for cognition separate from brain function.

I and most scientist favor the more mundane and likely explanation that memories of NDEs are formed at other times, when the brain is functioning, for example during the long recovery process. At least the memories themselves do not differential between these two hypotheses, and this explanation does not require inventing entirely new non-materialist phenomena.

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Sep 25 2014

Newtown and FBI Crime Statistics

On December 14, 2012, a disturbed shooter killed 20 children and 6 adult staff at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. This was a horrific event, and the community is still recovering.

Almost immediately after the shooting, and continuing to this day, conspiracy theorists have been shoe-horning this tragic event into their preferred narrative, calling the event a “false flag” operation. In other words, they believe that no children were killed on that day. The entire event was staged by the powers that be as a pretext to take away the guns of law-abiding citizens.

The claim is absurd on its face, but does provide an interesting window into how people can come to believe something that seems so “bat shit crazy.” It provides a lesson into the iron grip that a compelling narrative can have on someone’s mind.

The preferred narrative of the conspiracy theorist is that you cannot believe anything anyone in authority says. The government lies and only seeks to oppress us, so if the government says something it cannot be true. Anyone who believes the government is hopelessly naive.

So if “corporate media” is saying children were killed at Sandy Hook it must not be true, no matter how implausible the alternative might be.

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Sep 23 2014

Flavors of Nonsense

I, like most people, like to categorize things. It helps me keep my mental space organized and tidy. A good system of categorization is also like a framework on which I can hang specific facts and details. Categories are most useful when they reflect underlying reality, rather than superficial or arbitrary features. Categories are therefore often at the nexus of facts and theory in science – they can organize the facts in a way that reflects the underlying theory. 

You have to be cautious, however. Reality often does not cleave in clean straight lines. There are likely to be exceptions to any rules one devises for defining specific categories. Groups tend to be fuzzy around the edges. While categories can be a useful tool for organizing ideas, they can also become a mental prison or straightjacket.

Is Pluto a planet? It depends on how you define planet, and why you would define planet in any particular way. Is there a difference between planets, dwarf planets, and planetoids? Or do these objects exist along a spectrum and scientists are simply drawing arbitrary lines for convenience? Is schizophrenia one disease or a group of diseases, how do we categorize the subtypes, and do they reflect real underlying differences in cause? Are such labels helping or hindering research?

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Sep 08 2014

Internet Echochambers

I recently came across a post on the skeptic subreddit pointing to the rules of the 9/11 truther subreddit:

Welcome to 911truth! The purpose of this subreddit is to present and discuss evidence showing that the US Government’s version of the events of 9/11 cannot possibly be true. Submissions or comments supporting the official version, including links to sites purporting to “debunk” the 9/11 Truth Movement (depending on context), are considered off-topic here.

Rules:

  1. Stay on topic. Off topic comments are subject to removal.

Rule #7 also made me smile:

7. No caps lock.

This is the double-edged sword of the internet – it allows for unprecedented on-demand access to incredible information, but that information is biased.

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Aug 26 2014

Scientific Literacy

I was recently interviewed for an article on Medical News Today by David McNamee regarding Why is scientific literacy among the general population important? The topic, of course, is very important to me, as I have spent a great deal of my time attempting to promote scientific literacy generally, with an emphasis on medical science since that is my specialty.

Carl Sagan articulated the basic issue well (of course) – to paraphrase, we live in a civilization increasingly dominated by science and technology, and with a populace less and less able to understand current science and technology. This is a recipe for disaster.

There are many examples that should be readily accessible to regular readers of this or other science blogs: are vaccines safe and effective, how much of our resources should we invest in reducing carbon emissions, are GMOs safe and are they a benefit or risk to the environment, should we put fluoride in public water supplies, how should alternative medical treatments be regulated and how should we invest further in clinical trials of their efficacy?

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Jun 17 2014

Deepak Challenge to Skeptics

Deepak Chopra doesn’t appear to like skeptics much, or understand them. He just put out a YouTube video challenging ”Randi and his cronies” to his own fake version of the million dollar challenge.

All we have to do, apparently, is make 50-100 years of scientific advance in neuroscience in a single peer-reviewed paper. I’ll get started on that right away.

Actually, even that probably would not be sufficient. The whole point of pseudoscientific goal-post moving is to keep forever out of reach of current scientific evidence. It doesn’t matter how much progress science makes, there will always be gaps and limitations to our knowledge. Chopra lives in the gaps.

Here is his exact challenge:

Dear Randi: Before you go around debunking the so-called “paranormal,” please explain the so-called “normal.” How does the electricity going into the brain become the experience of a three dimensional world in space and time. If you can explain that, then you get a million dollars from me. Explain and solve the hard problem of consciousness in a peer-reviewed journal, offer a theory that is falsifiable, and you get the prize.

The challenge is absurd because it is completely undefined. “Explain” to what degree? Science often advances by developing theories that are progressively deeper. Obviously we can explain consciousness on some level, and just as obviously Chopra would not accept that level as sufficient, but he gives absolutely no indication of how much deeper an explanation he would require.

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May 12 2014

Correlation and Causation

Every skeptic’s new favorite website is Spurious Correlations. The site is brilliant – it mines multiple data sets (such as causes of death, consumption of various products, divorce rates by state, etc.) and then tries to find correlations between different variables. The results are often hilarious.

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Often it is more effective to demonstrate a principle than simply to explain it. By showing impressive looking graphical correlations between phenomena that are clearly not related (at least proposing a causal connection superficially seems absurd.), it drives home the point that correlation is not enough to conclude causation.

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May 06 2014

Afterlife Debate

Published by under Paranormal,Skepticism


I will be involved in a debate Wednesday evening (May 7th) at the Kaufman center in New York.

The debate will be from 6:45 to 8:30pm.

The debate is hosted by Intelligence squared, which hosts a series of such debates. While tickets are sold out, the debate will be live streamed. I have embeded the stream below, or you can see the stream here: http://goo.gl/WNV6nQ 

The specific topic is “Death is not Final”

Against this proposition will be me and Sean Carroll. Sean is  a physicist, so he will cover the physics angle, while I will cover the neuroscience.

For the proposition will be Eben Alexander, author of Proof of Heaven, and Raymond Moody, author of Life after Life.

The evening promises to be very interesting, so please tune in.

You can view the live stream of the debate here:

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Apr 18 2014

OMG – The Chemicalz

The Foodbabe is at it again – well, she never stopped being at it. She is apparently trying to make a career out of a combination of the naturalistic fallacy and chemical illiteracy.

I wrote previously about her campaign to scaremonger about completely safe ingredients in food. She called azodicarbonamide, an ingredient to make bread fluffier, the yoga mat chemical because it also has a variety of industrial uses, including making yoga mats. Soy also has a variety of uses, including making yoga mats.

She successfully marshaled her scientific illiteracy to pressure Subway into removing the ingredient from their bread.

Her modus operandi is simple – look at ingredient lists for names that sound like chemicals or are difficult to pronounce, bypass any scientific analysis or evidence and go straight to hyperbolic fearmongering. Then just hope that companies cave in order to avoid negative press before anyone can ask too many questions.

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Apr 15 2014

Why We Need a Skeptical Movement

Published by under Skepticism

Skeptics tend (as they should) to question everything, even the need for a movement of self-identified skeptics. It is an interesting question – what is the net cultural effect of organized scientific skepticism?

Of course, we can’t really ever know the answer to this question. There are too many moving parts. We could point to cultural trends, but this is probably the worst line of evidence. There is no way to control for skepticism as an isolated variable. We have no way of knowing what the world would be like without organized skepticism.

We can point to individuals whose lives have been changed, they believe for the better. I am heartened by every e-mail I receive from a reader or listener who says their life has been changed for the better because of skeptical outreach. Perhaps they were steered away from a career in pseudoscience, learned how to think more critically about everything, or just found a community to which they could connect.

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