Oct 14 2014

Ebola and Human Error

It has been fascinating, and a little scary, to watch the first ever Ebola epidemic from the comfort of my Connecticut environs – about as far from the epidemic as you can get. Two thoughts keep coming back to me. The first, as this epidemic progresses and the CDC and WHO keep advancing their predictions about how bad it’s going to get, is this question: are we witnessing the unfolding of a major epidemic or even pandemic? Are we going to look back at the second half of 2014 and wonder how no one recognized how serious this is going to get?

Of course, I do not want to overstate the situation, stoke unnecessary fears, or come off as sensationalist. So I, like the CDC, will point out that the probability of a pandemic is extremely small. Unlike West Africa, most industrialized nations have a robust healthcare infrastructure and we’ll be able to deal with an outbreak before it gets out of control.

But this leads me to my second thought – how did it get so bad in the first place? The story is essentially a story of human error. The current epidemic represents a failure at many levels. This is not about finger pointing, but recognizing human limitations and frailty.

By all accounts the current Ebola epidemic is overwhelming the governments and the infrastructure in West Africa where it is still spreading, and in fact increasing geometrically. The world is reacting, some have charged, too late to this crisis. In fact, an Ebola rapid response infrastructure should have been in place, ready to squash any outbreak in its infancy.

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Oct 13 2014

Anomaly Hunting and the Umbrella Man

This is not a new story, but it is worth repeating. At the moment that bullets were being fired into JFK’s motorcade, a man can be seen standing on the side of the road near the car holding an open black umbrella. It was a sunny day (although it had rained the night before) and no one else in Dallas was holding an umbrella.

This is exactly the kind of detail that sets a fire under conspiracy theorists. It is a genuine anomaly – something that sticks out like a sore thumb.

The event also defies our intuition about probability. Even if one could accept that somewhere on the streets of Dallas that morning one man decided to hold an open umbrella for some strange reason, what are the odds that this one man would be essentially standing right next to the president’s car when the bullets began to fly?

Our evolved tendency for pattern recognition and looking for significance in events screams that this anomaly must have a compelling explanation, and since it is associated with the assassination of a president, it must be a sinister one.

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Oct 10 2014

E-Cat Cold Fusion Claims are Back

For years Andrea Rossi has claimed that he has invented a method for generating cold fusion, but has been unable to convince an appropriately skeptical scientific community. Fusion is the nuclear process of combining lighter elements into heavier elements, such as fusing hydrogen into helium. Fusion is what powers stars – in fact, the only processes scientists know about that can cause fusion require the heat and density of stars.

When lighter elements combine into a heavier element that overall has less mass, the missing mass is essentially converted into radiation and energy. The amount of energy released is orders of magnitude greater than what can be released from chemical reactions. Only matter-antimatter reactions are more energetic.

Now Rossi is claiming that an independent third party has verified that the E-Cat cold fusion device can generate large amounts of energy, the kind that can only come from nuclear fusion. What are we to make of these claims?

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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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Oct 06 2014

Italy Smacks Down “Rogue” Stem Cell Clinic

Cases such as this highlight for me the need to have a clear understanding of the actual issues that underlie controversies. With regard to medicine, there is a clear need for a standard of care in order to protect the public from snake oil, charlatans and incompetence.

Promoters of therapies and health products that do not meet a reasonable standard are always distracting from the real issue by trying to make it about something else – freedom, conspiracies, East vs West, or philosophy. This unfortunately works, at least with some people.

However, if you ask people – do you think medical treatments should be supported by sound science, most will say yes. Do you think the government should protect the public from harmful or useless products with deceptive claims, most think this is already the case.

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Oct 03 2014

Are Health Apps Helpful?

There seems to be an app for everything, although we are just at the beginning of this new technology. It is a very recent phenomenon that many people in industrialized nations are walking around with a hand-held networked computer. This creates a new opportunity – to have constant access to applications that can help us run our lives. Even though there are already millions of apps, we really are just beginning to explore this opportunity.

One category of apps that seem to have a great deal of potential are health-related apps. There are apps to help people count calories, track their migraines, track their exercise, or even look up medical information or take a crack at diagnosing their own symptoms. There are apps to help you quit smoking or using alcohol, manage your medications, track your diabetes, or to provide some automatic therapy for mental illness.

The UK’s NHS maintains a list of approved health apps with hundreds of vetted apps you can browse.

In there are some useful ideas, and not-so-useful ideas. Trial and error will sort that out over time, and there are probably some killer health apps waiting to be developed.

How evidence-based are typical health apps, however? How would we even study that question?

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Oct 02 2014

Wind Turbine Syndrome

It looks like sustainable energy sources are going to be playing a larger role in our energy infrastructure in the future. Wind and solar are what first come to mind, but there is also hydroelectric, geothermal, and wave-generated electricity.

With the introduction of any new technology, especially on a large scale, there are bound to be some issues. Giant wind turbines are sprouting up, and this has caused some protest among people who don’t like the presence of the behemoths near their homes. Some claim that the noise from wind turbines is causing them ill health effects.

What are the real risks and benefit of wind turbines?

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Sep 30 2014

Dr. Oz, Autism, and GMOs

It is no longer news that Dr. Oz has long ago abandoned any pretense to scientific rigor and is simply another scaremongering hawker of snake oil and nonsense. Still, it’s hard not to marvel when he sinks to a new low.

On a recent show Oz’s target was genetically modified organisms (GMO). This is not new for Oz, he has hosted anti-GMO activists in the past, warning his audience about non-existent health risks.

This time around Oz and his guest are claiming that pesticides used with certain GMO varieties may cause autism. Why is it always autism? It’s likely at least partly due to the fact that awareness of autism has been increasing in the last 2 decades, creating the false impression that autism itself is increasing. This leads to numerous false correlations (most famously with vaccines) and the assumption of cause and effect (often to support a preexisting bias). As you can see from the graph, however, the rise in autism diagnoses tightly correlates with increased organic food sales – but I guess you have to cherry pick the correlation you want.

The narrative that Oz spun for his audience was this: GMO is tied to pesticide use. Those pesticides are hazardous to your health, and specifically might cause autism. Organic food is pesticide free, and going organic can actually cure autism.

Every link in that chain of argument is misleading or patently wrong.

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Sep 29 2014

How Our Brains Respond to Ambiguous Images

A new study looks at how our brains respond to images of celebrities made ambiguous by morphing two images into one, such as the combination of Halle Berry and Angelina Jolie shown here. The question is – will our brains fire in a way that represents the details of the picture, or will they fire based upon how we perceive the picture?

The researchers were able to study subjects who had small electrodes placed on the surface of their brains for clinical purposes. Such electrodes are capable of detecting the firing of a single brain neuron. They showed the subjects pictures of two celebrities to see how their brains responded. Typically a single neuron, which encodes the memory of that particular celebrity, would fire. They then showed them a morphed picture and asked them to identify the celebrity.

When subjects recognized Halle Berry, for example, the single neuron that previously fired when viewing Halle Berry also fired.

This is an interesting, but not unexpected, result. How does this fit into our understanding of brain function?

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Sep 26 2014

FDA Takes On Essential Snake Oils

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is tasked with ensuring quality and transparency in the foods and drugs that are sold to consumers. This is a daunting task, and by all accounts the FDA is commonly understaffed, without the resources to thoroughly do its job. Further, politics often hamstrings the agency, so they don’t have the actual authority to do their job.

The most egregious example is the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). This law (courtesy of Hatch and Harkin) effectively removed “supplements” out of the control of the FDA, and broadly defined supplements to include herbal drugs and other products that are not actually dietary supplements.

Essentially DSHEA created two categories of consumable health products. Drugs, by definition, are any products for which specific disease claims are being made. If you say your pill or ointment treats diabetes, then it’s a drug, because diabetes is a disease. A supplement, by definition, makes no claims to cure or treat a disease, but is allowed to make “structure function” claims. This is a giant loop hole manufactured by DSHEA and wrapped as a present for the supplement industry, at the expense of consumers.

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