Dec 23 2016

Man Living with 10% of His Brain?

hydrocephalus2Here is the title of a science new story from July 2016: A man who lives without 90% of his brain is challenging our concept of ‘consciousness’. This is an excellent example of horrible science news reporting. It is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a reporter does not adequately vet their story with actual experts.

These are the images from the original paper, which was published in 2007. They are quite impressive and I can see how a lay person might misinterpret them. I can see how a journalist might make assumptions about what they are seeing, and not even know enough to question those assumptions and therefore never asked the experts they interviewed the right questions.

In fact the journalist, Fiona MacDonald, got off on an irrelevant tangent about consciousness, even though this case reports has not implications for our understanding of the neurological basis of consciousness.

I was recently reminded of this case, and the bad reporting surrounding it, by a comment left on a previous blog of mine in which the commenter notes:

Furthermore the author noted, rightly that if a model of externalized consciousness was to be tested, we would have to look for anomalies, cases where the brain does not explain the mind. There has been a case recently where a man who retained only 10% of his brain by mass was found to function semi normally with an IQ of 75, a job, a wife and two kids.

So he was offering this case report as an anomaly which calls into question our model of consciousness.

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Comments: 274

Dec 22 2016

Mental Illness and Demonic Possession

A recent article by Emily Korstanje details the story of Nadia, an 18 year old girl from Saudi Arabia who suffered from depression. Her religious parents took her to a faith healer who, through dubious methods involving choking her until she passed out, concluded that her symptoms were the result of demonic possession.

Fortunately Nadia was able to break away from that healer and defy her parents, but she still faces a more difficult challenge – her society.

“They need to separate religion from psychology, especially for us women, who suffer from depression because of our shitty circumstances, or we cannot—and will not—get help,” Nadia sad. “Society also needs to be rid of this of shame toward mental illness and stop saying that people are weak or not perfect believers, or possessed! Spirituality is important but it doesn’t mean that you deny what is really going on because it will only get worse.”

In the past, before science helped us understand things like psychology and neuroscience, it is understandable that prescientific cultures would reach for superstition to explain mental illness and neurological disorders. They had no way of understanding what a seizure was, let alone schizophrenia. So they used what explanations they had at hand and decided that such individuals were possessed by evil spirits, or cursed, or were being punished by god or the gods.

It amazes me, however, that in the 21st century this still occurs. Now, with all the knowledge of modern neuroscience, there is no excuse for confusing a brain disorder with spiritual possession. Further, we do not need to look to third world countries to find example – this is still happening in modern industrialized nations.

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Comments: 78

Dec 20 2016

New Radiation Resistant Metals

radiation-alloysThis is a bit of a wonky technical post, but that is actually a point I want to make. Often I find that the scientific advances that have the most potential get the least coverage, while interesting but incremental advances, or one-off findings, are given broad coverage with sensational headlines. This is an unfortunate artifact of how scientific news is communicated. First, a company’s or institution’s press office will determine if the new study or finding is press-worthy, and if so they will compose a press release. Then journalists and news outlets will decide if it is worth publishing, which usually means – can they spin it as a major breakthrough, creating or solving some “mystery”, a potential cure for some disease, or tie it to some science-fiction technology.

Meanwhile, real advances that are not “sexy” get overlooked. So when I saw this item I thought, this is likely to be one of those advances with huge potential but very little press coverage.

Researchers have figured out how to make metal alloys that are far more resistant to radiation damage than existing alloys. The key is mixing three or more different metals in equal proportions. They compared nickel to nickel-iron, nickel-cobalt-iron, and nickel-cobalt-iron-manganese-chromium. The alloys with three or more metals were 100 times more resistant to radiation damage than the pure nickel.

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Comments: 11

Dec 19 2016

Skeptical Questions Everyone Should Ask

critical-thinkingBecause I am an activist skeptic I am often asked specific questions about how to be a better skeptic. This is obviously a complex question, and I view skepticism (like all knowledge) as a journey not a destination. I am still trying to work out how to be a better skeptic.

One recent question, however, took a great approach to the issue of practical skepticism – what questions should a skeptic ask themselves when confronted with a news item? Here is my process:

1 – How plausible is the claim?

This is admittedly a tricky question that requires a lot of judgment. The risk is that you will think any claim that already aligns with your beliefs as being plausible and anything that contradicts them as being implausible. This is not as bad as it sounds, however, if your current beliefs are based on logic and evidence. To the extent that your beliefs (by which I mean the model of reality that you construct in your head) are based on ideology and subjective perspective, the notion of plausibility can be self-fulfilling.

I say “can be” because it does not have to be. This is partly because this first question regarding plausibility is the first question, not the only question. You should not reject implausible claims out of hand. The purpose of evaluating plausibility is to determine the appropriate bar of evidence needed to accept the claim. This is essentially, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

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Comments: 13

Dec 16 2016

Facebook Takes On Fake News

facebook1Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has announced that his platform is now going to have third parties review news stories and news sources and label what they think is “fake news.” Facebook will then demote those stories in their news feed.

They have tapped Snopes,, ABC News, and PolitiFact to be their third-party reviewers.

While this move has been controversial, I think it’s a fantastic idea, although of course not without its risk.

In the last decade we have been moving away from traditional edited sources of news to social media, which blends news and opinion and has essentially removed any editorial barriers. This has been a boon to content producers, with many upsides. The barrier to sharing your information or opinions with the world has essentially been removed. This has led to many great things, like scientists sharing their field of expertise with the public.

There is also somewhat of a meritocracy, with quality writers rising in popularity. People have access to much more information and many more viewpoints.

However, the barrier has also been removed for spreading misinformation. Content creators and websites have sprung up catering to every extreme ideology. This is nothing new but in the past marginalized ideas had marginalized distributions. This too was a double-edged sword – it kept out a lot of nonsense, but also made it difficult (but not impossible) for minority but legitimate opinions to be heard. Without barriers, every voice can potentially be heard, but it became more difficult to distinguish real news from fake news, mainstream from fringe opinions, facts from misinformation, and quality journalism from ideological hack jobs.

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Comments: 98

Dec 15 2016

Abusing Science You Don’t Understand

insulinInterpreting scientific studies is difficult. You need to have a thorough working knowledge of scientific methodology, statistical analysis, and the specific field of the science itself. Individual studies also need to be put into the context of all the other studies that touch upon the same question.

It also has to be recognized that all scientific studies are imperfect and only look at a slice of a larger question. Even scientific experts can therefore honestly disagree about how best to interpret the evidence, until that evidence becomes overwhelming (and even then there are often outliers with minority opinions).

If you have an agenda other than understanding the best interpretation of all available evidence, it is easy to find evidence you can twist to serve your preferred narrative. You can then (falsely) claim that your position is supported by science. You can also rely on the fact that most of the public will not be sufficiently scientifically savvy to see the flaw in your reasoning.

A recent article by Edward Morgan on the alleged risks of GMO insulin is a great example of this phenomenon. The title is: GMO Insulin Causes Type 1 Diabetes in Type 2 Diabetics, Study Finds. That is not what the study found.

The author has a clear anti-GMO agenda and so they are trying to argue that insulin which is made from genetically modified bacteria (which is how almost all insulin is made today) is dangerous. They do this by cherry picking studies they clearly don’t understand and then misinterpreting them.

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Comments: 11

Dec 13 2016

Feathered Dino Tail Trapped in Amber

amber-feathered-tail2Lida Xing from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing was walking through an amber market in Myitkina, Myanmar when he discovered a rather interesting specimen. The seller believed that the large chunk of fossilized tree sap they were selling contained plant material. Xing recognized that it contained primitive feathers. Even more exciting, those feathers were not connected to a bird ancestor, but to the tail of a dinosaur.

A scientific analysis of that specimen has now been published in Current Biology.

This is a tremendous specimen for a number of reasons. Scientists interested in the evolution of feathers have been trying to piece together the developmental steps that occurred and in what order in order to transform scales into feathers. Developmental biology itself provides some clues – the path that feathers take when they develop in the embryo likely reflect their evolutionary history. It would be nice, however, to confirm this hypothesis with actual specimens.

Up until now paleontologists have had two kinds of fossil feathers. The first is feather impressions associated with fossil specimens. The advantage of this kind of evidence is that we know exactly what species the feathers belong to and so they can be placed in a phylogenetic tree of feathered dinosaurs, both avian and non-avian. The disadvantage is that the feather impression are compressed, so the three-dimensional information may be lost, and they often lack fine detail.

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Comments: 11

Dec 12 2016

The Energy Storage Gap

hourly_bigWe live in a time of rapid technological advance, so much so that we take it for granted. This also means we are more sensitive to situations in which a particular technology seems to be lagging.

Right now arguably the most critical technology that is lagging behind other related technologies is energy storage. As we try to update our energy infrastructure, specifically with the goal of incorporating more renewable sources, energy storage appears to be the main limiting factor.

Why Is Energy Storage So Important?

Even with our current energy infrastructure, having the ability to efficiently store large amounts of energy for later use would be a huge advantage. Energy production needs to be matched to energy demand, and demand fluctuates throughout the day. The chart above shows energy demand for New England, which peaks around 7:30 pm and bottoms out  at around 4 am. Peak demand is about 50% more than trough demand.

Energy producers have to constantly match production with this demand. This means they need to have additional power production on standby which they can bring online as needed. This causes inefficiency. For one thing, energy producers will use the most efficient energy production methods for baseline production, then bring on the less efficient production just for peak demand. Peak energy is therefore more expensive than off peak. This partly derives from the fact that peak production needs to come from sources that can be turned on quickly, while baseload sources do not need this feature.

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Comments: 14

Dec 09 2016

Trouble for the FDA?

fdaThere is persistent tension over the issue of drug regulations. On one side are those who think that before we sell drugs to the public with health claims, we should ensure there is a reasonable amount of objective quality scientific evidence to demonstrate that the drugs are safe and effective. I admit this is the side of the discussion on which I fall, and it is clear that most of the public assumes this is the case.

The other perspective is that requiring too much research and regulation slows the passage of potentially new and lifesaving drugs to the public. Potentially useful drugs should be fast tracked as much as possible. In the extreme version, held by some Libertarians, there should be no regulation (or perhaps minimal regulation for safety) and the free market should sort out what works and what doesn’t.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the regulatory agency in the US responsible for ensuring the safety of drugs and that efficacy claims are backed by adequate evidence. The FDA, however, is a creature of congress, from which it derives its authority. It can only do what the law says it can do. Within that law the FDA also has a certain amount of discretion. How much evidence is enough is a judgment call. Therefore who heads the FDA can have a significant impact on how tightly or loosely regulated the pharmaceutical industry is at any given time.

The FDA’s mandate is now being threatened from both ends, congressional law and possible picks by Trump to head the FDA.

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Comments: 27

Dec 08 2016

Scientists – Welcome to the Skeptical Movement

sterling-law-buildingDonald Trump has just named Oklahoma attorney general, Scott Pruitt, to head the EPA. Pruitt is a known denier of the science of anthropogenic global warming, and in fact has spent much of his time as attorney general suing the EPA over the issue. The conspiracy theorists are now running the show.

This is just the latest in what has been an eye-opening year, which has seen “post-truth” named as word of the year, and has also seen a surge in the notion of “fake news”.

In a recent editorial published in Nature, scientist Phil Williamson argues that:

Challenging falsehoods and misrepresentation may not seem to have any immediate effect, but someone, somewhere, will hear or read our response. The target is not the peddler of nonsense, but those readers who have an open mind on scientific problems. A lie may be able to travel around the world before the truth has its shoes on, but an unchallenged untruth will never stop.

He recounts that his awakening occurred after he had a run-in with Brietbart news over their gross misrepresentation of the science of global warming and ocean acidification. Now he is on a crusade to fight back against pseudoscience online.

For greatest effect, I suggest that we harness the collective power and reach of the Internet to improve its quality. The global scientific community could learn from websites such as travel-review site TripAdvisor, Rotten Tomatoes (which summarizes film and play reviews) and (which quantifies website popularity), and set up its own, moderated, rating system for websites that claim to report on science. We could call it the Scientific Honesty and Integrity Tracker, and give online nonsense the SHAIT rating it deserves.

While I completely agree with Williamson that this is a problem and the scientific community should take responsibility for it, I was struck by the complete absence of awareness in his editorial that there is already a movement of scientists, science communicators, and science enthusiasts who are doing this – the skeptical movement.  Continue Reading »

Comments: 193

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