Nov 04 2014

The Primeval Code

Conspiracy theories, pseudoscientific belief systems, and urban legends are fascinating in that they provide a window into culture and the human psyche. Essentially these are stories that are disconnected from reality, and therefore represent common narratives, beliefs, and fears in the culture.

I recently came across a conspiracy theory I had not heard of before, the Primeval Code, popularized in 2007 by a Swiss journalist, Luc Bürgin. Here’s the story:

Dr. Guido Ebner and Heinz Schürch, scientists working at the time for the pharmaceutical company, Ciba, discovered that if you expose seeds to an electrostatic field their ancient DNA will be awakened. Corn, wheat, even salmon will revert to a more primitive form, as if remembering their prior evolutionary states.

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Nov 03 2014

As I Walk Through the Valley of Death

The term “valley of death” is a colorful (and biblical) reference to the difficulty of bringing scientific advances to the market. Researchers make a discovery in the lab that has a potential practical application. They then create a start up company to translate their discovery into a marketable product or service. The valley of death is the gulf between the lab and a profitable product, a desert that turns out to be too long for many, resulting in funding drying up before the market is reached.

As someone who is interested in science and technology, I have witnessed the valley of death many times from the sidelines. Often, when a scientist makes an interesting discovery, a science journalist reporting on the discovery feels obliged to connect the advance to some practical application. The more this application resembles technology from popular science fiction the better.

I enjoy speculating about future applications as much as anyone, but this practice can become formulaic and mindless. Every discovery about a virus will cure the common cold, every advance in understanding the machinery of cells will cure cancer, and every material science advance will give us hover cars or invisibility cloaks.

Another pattern that has emerged is the “5-10 years” claim, which is how long it will always take for the advance being reported to be translated to the marketplace. Often the scientists themselves are actively involved in the hype and overly optimistic predictions. Someone cynical might interpret “5-10 years” as “one more funding cycle.”

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Oct 31 2014

Brain Size and Intelligence

I was recently asked about the relationship between brain size and intelligence. This is a question I get every now and then, because the relationship is not an obvious one. In this particular case, the questioner was curious about the fact that Neanderthals had a larger cranial capacity on average than modern Homo sapiens.

For the sake of this discussion I am going to avoid a detailed treatment of the concept of “intelligence.” It’s important to note that intelligence is a multifaceted phenomenon, there is no single way to measure it, and it cannot be captured by any single number. Having said that, we can use various markers or measures of cognitive ability to loosely represent overall intelligence. Problem solving, for example, is one measure, and can be used in multiple species. I will come back to this later, for for the sake of this discussion I will be referring to intelligence as overall cognitive ability without getting specific.

Once scientists figured out that the brain is the seat of intelligence, we were quick to observe that humans had relatively large brains. This made sense – humans seem to be, by far, the most intelligent species on the planet, so it makes sense that we have the biggest brains.

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Oct 30 2014

Homeopathy for Ebola

New Zealand Green MP, Steffan Browning, stepped in it recently when he signed a petition asking the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop and distribute homeopathic remedies to end the Ebola epidemic. Unfortunately this is not an Onion article.

Browning later tried to do damage control by stating that his support of the petition was “unwise” and he blamed it partly on it being late at night when he signed it.

Asked whether he thought homeopathy could cure Ebola, Mr Browning said: “It’s not for me to go down that track at all. The World Health Organisation, world health authorities are doing that.”

This is a common political response. Ask a Republican eyeing national office what they think about global warming or evolution and you might get a similar answer. It is a disingenuous dodge to essentially say, “I’ll let the scientists decide.” when they have already decided. It’s simply a way to stake out a neutral position and not piss anyone off.

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Oct 28 2014

What Americans Believe

Surveys are always problematic because they are subject to interpretation, the precise phrasing of questions, sampling bias, and perhaps hidden assumptions on the part of those taking the survey. The results of any single survey, therefore, should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, they can provide a useful snapshot (if done well) of the current culture. 

Skeptics are always interested in what the general public “believes.” The term “belief” is itself problematic, and when used in a survey it is subject to interpretation by those taking the survey. I am not one of those who object to ever using the term “belief.” It is a reasonable short hand for, “I find the totality of available evidence to be compelling,” or “I accept the scientific consensus on this issue,” at least in informal writing or conversation.

In a survey, however, I would prefer any questions about what people “believe” to be replaced by, or at least supplemented by, statements about what the scientific evidence says.

In any case, we have another recent survey about what Americans believe, from Chapman University. The survey covers a lot of territory, from religious affiliation and practice, to what people fear, to what they believe about scientific and paranormal topics. You can download the entire 73-page report of the results from the link above.

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Oct 27 2014

7 Propaganda Talking Points Against GMOs

After reading about genetically modified organisms for years, it seem pretty clear to me that the anti-GMO activist position is not an objective science-based position. Rather it has all the features of a political/marketing campaign. The campaign has talking points that are all spin and propaganda. Like a slick car commercial, it is selling a vibe, a worldview and a certain self-image.

Also like many political and commercial campaigns it is based on fear. Fear is a great motivator and politicians know the value of making the voters afraid of what will happen if their opponent is elected. Advertising agencies understand that you can sell a product by making it a solution to an imaginary fear. “Better safe than sorry” sells a lot of widgets.

The anti-GMO community seems closely tied to the organic food industry, which essentially sells the naturalistic fallacy on the back of irrational fears about everything artificial, whether or not there is any science behind those fears. Both, in turn, are tied to the alternative medicine community, which overlaps considerably in its fetish with all things natural, its demonizing of anything technological, and its apparent disdain for science (see Whole Foods as a good example of this overlap).

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Oct 24 2014

The Many Interacting Worlds Hypothesis

Howard Wiseman, a theoretical quantum physicist at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, and his colleagues have come up with an entirely new theory to explain the weird behavior of particles at the quantum level. The idea is that quantum effects result from classical universes interacting with each other.

Classical physics is essentially the physics of Newton and describes the macroscopic world. In classical physics particles have a definitive location and momentum. At the scale of fundamental particles, however, the world behaves very differently.

At this so-called quantum level, particles move in waves but then interact as particles. They have only a probabilistic location and cannot be nailed down specifically. There is a minimum amount of uncertainty when trying to measure any linked properties, such as location and momentum. Even more bizarre is quantum entanglement in which particles have linked properties, even when separated across the universe.

The bottom line is that we do not really know why the quantum world behaves as it does. We have experimental data, such as the double-slit experiments, that show consistent results. When light beams shine through two close narrow slits they interfere with each other as if they are moving like waves, even when the beams are so faint that only one photon will be passing through the silts at a time. One photon can apparently cause a wave interference with itself. But when those same photons strike a film plate or detector, they behave like a particle.

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Oct 23 2014

A Brain-Training Update

Can playing video games or specifically designed computer games improve your cognitive function? There are many companies who claim that they can and who would like to sell you such games that they claim are “scientifically designed.”

So-called brain-training is a burgeoning business, with perhaps the best known product being Lumosity. Lumosity promises:

“Scientifically designed games: Lumosity scientists study many common neuropsychological tasks, design some new ones, and transform these tasks into fun, challenging games.”

They claim to be a “leader in the science of brain training,” and include a list of 13 studies that allegedly show Lumosity is effective. Many of the studies do not even test efficacy, and strangely the list does not include this recent study from August 2014 showing that Lumosity is not effective.

This new study involved 77 subjects randomly assigned to play 8 hours of Lumosity or Portal 2 (a popular video game). They found that the Portal 2 players outperformed the Lumosity players on all three cognitive evaluations: problem solving, spatial skills, and persistence. The only pre-test to post-test significant improvement was the Portal 2 group for spatial skills.

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Oct 21 2014

Graphene Neuro-electrode

This news item combines two technologies that I have been eagerly following, graphene and brain-machine interface. Researchers have developed a 1-molecule thick graphene electrode that is transparent and can be used for high-resolution electrophysiological recordings of brain cell activity.

Before I explain why this is such a cool advance, I will quickly review these technologies. Graphene is an allotrope of carbon – it is made of a single atom thick layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal sheet like chickenwire. This arrangement is very stable with strong bonds, making for a strong material. It is also flexible and has useful electrical properties. It can be manufactured as a sheet or rolled up into carbon nanotubes.

Graphene is an incredibly promising material that is likely to be the cornerstone of future electronics, promising small, efficient, and flexible components. It conducts both heat and electricity very efficiently and it is a semiconductor. “Doping” the graphene with other elements also has the potential to tweak its physical properties, expanding the number of applications.

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Oct 20 2014

Defending Sick Children

One of the most difficult issues that skeptical physicians face is dealing with children sick with cancer whose parents refuse standard therapy. These cases are always highly charged, because the stakes are extremely high. Obviously the stakes are highest for the child as their life is literally on the line. The stakes are also high for society, however, because they force a specific decision regarding the relative rights of parents vs the responsibility of the state to care for minors.

Two recent cases once again raise these issues. One comes from Western Australia where 10-year-old Tamara Stitt was diagnosed with liver cancer. Her oncologist recommended chemotherapy. Her parents were (understandably) concerned about the side effects of chemotherapy.

He said he and his wife decided against chemotherapy for their daughter because of its horrific side effects and because he felt threatened by doctors.

Mrs Stitt testified that she believed her daughter had a 100 per cent chance of being cured with natural therapies, and she had initially responded well to such treatment.

Her parents decided against chemotherapy and instead chose “alternative” therapies including clay wraps, herbal teas and a healthy diet. Tamara’s cancer predictably progressed until her parents finally relented. Tamara received chemotherapy in El Salvador, but it was too late, and unfortunately she died of her cancer.

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