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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Jun 16 2014

9/11 Conspiracy Debate – Part I

This is the first of a four part written debate between myself and Michael Fullerton, who believes that the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was not due to the official story of damage from the impact of commercial jets, but rather the result of a controlled demolition. My response will follow next Monday, and another round of responses with one post per week.

_________

Part I – The Collapse of the Twin Towers was a Controlled Demolition

by Michael Fullerton

Dr. Steven Novella has graciously agreed to a debate on which explanation of the collapse of the World Trade Center Twin Towers (WTC 1 and WTC 2) on 9/11 is more scientific, the official US Government explanation or the controlled demolition explanation. I will argue that the controlled demolition explanation is more scientific. Dr. Novella will presumably argue that the official US Government explanation is the more scientific explanation. We have both agreed that no logical fallacies are to be used in this debate.

It’s very important to recognize this courageous act by Dr. Novella. It takes a strong character to put your reputation on the line and discuss such controversial and highly emotional issues. Good skeptics though must recognize when the scientific method proves their beliefs undeniably wrong.

I want to begin by asking all readers a question. Are you smarter than a 5th grade science student? Why? Because, starting as early as kindergarten, elementary school students learn that when you have two competing explanations you are supposed to favor the explanation which has the most supporting evidence. They are taught that an explanation with no supporting evidence is an explanation you cannot ever accept as true. By grade 5 at least, students are taught the scientific method. They learn that you must have evidence before putting forth an explanation for a phenomena. They learn that if you start with only a belief you are not doing science. They learn that if you ignore evidence that does not fit with your belief you are not doing science. Portraying something as science when it is not, is pseudo-science. People that claim to follow the scientific method but do not are pseudo-scientists.

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Jun 13 2014

Moms for Pseudoscience – Roundup Edition

I really resent groups that transparently try to take the moral high ground, or appropriate an entire category of people, to bolster their personal ideology. The Thinking Moms Revolution (TMR) is one such group. Sorry, you don’t speak for moms, and your group is certainly not based on thoughtfullness.

A recent blog post in the HuffPo is clear pro-organic propaganda, borrowing the “mom” meme from TMR and another such group, Moms Across America. The theme of the blog is that glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, is a horrible toxin that is destroying our health, but luckily these plucky moms are going to take on the EPA and demand safety for our children (because the EPA obviously can’t do their job without help from non-scientist ideologues).

I went through a couple of overloaded irony meters reading the post, especially with this section: “Swaying Decision Makers With Science.” The article, rather, is a series of anecdotes, misrepresentations, and cherry-picked factoids masquerading as science for the purpose of ideological advocacy. No, eating organic is not going to cure your child of autism.

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Jun 12 2014

Dumb Things Creationists Say

Having read deeply into the creationist literature and having had countless discussions with creationists, one thing is clear to me – creationists do not understand evolutionary theory.

To be fair, most people don’t really understand evolutionary theory, but creationists have a particularly poor understanding. Their problem goes beyond generic scientific illiteracy. They primarily learn about evolution from secondary hostile sources – other creationists. What they learn is creationist made-up nonsense about evolution, which they confuse for the science of evolution. This condemns them to mostly attack pathetic straw men rather than what scientists actually claim about evolution.

For example, Michael Egnor (remember him?), the creationist neurosurgeon who blogs for the Discotute, claimed that if evolution were true, then brain cancer should evolve a better functioning brain.

Today I am going to pick on another example of “if evolution were true, then…” creationist nonsense. This one comes from Creationtoday.org, in a Youtube video Derek Isaacs, a young-earth creationist, claims that:

“If evolution is true and it’s all about the male propagating their DNA, we had to ask hard questions like, well is rape wrong?”

It’s a little disturbing that Isaacs finds this a hard question, but let’s break down the many fallacies in this statement.

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Jun 10 2014

Turing Test 2014

The press is abuzz with the claim that a computer has passed the famous Turing Test for the first time. The University of Reading organized a Turing Test competition, held at the Royal Society in London on Saturday June 7th. The have now announced that a chatbot named Eugene Goostman passed the test by convincing 33% of the judges that it was a human.

The Turing Test, devised by Alan Turing, was proposed as one method for determining if artificial intelligence has been achieved. The idea is – if a computer can convince a human through normal conversation that it is also a human, then it will have achieved some measure of artificial intelligence (AI).

The test, while interesting, is really more of a gimmick, however. It cannot discern whether any particular type of AI has been achieved. The current alleged winner is a good example – a chatbot is simply a software program designed to imitate human conversation. There is no actual intelligence behind the algorithm.

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Jun 09 2014

Origins of the Moon

What do Theia, Vulcan, Nibiru, Phaëton, and Antichthon have in common? They are all hypothetical planets that do not currently exist. Antichthon is the “counter-Earth” – a planet claimed to be in the same orbit as the Earth but always on the opposite side of the sun, so we can’t see it.  We know Antichthon does not exist because its gravity would be apparent.

Phaëton was the hypothetical planet between Mars and Jupiter that broke apart to form the asteroid belt. Phaëton likely never existed, and the asteroid belt simply failed to ever form a single planet. Nibiru is the planet, not taken seriously by any scientists, that some believe will collide with the Earth sometime this century (predictions have already failed multiple times). Vulcan was hypothesized to orbit within the orbit of Mercury, invented to explain anomalies in the orbit of Mercury that were later explained by general relativity.

Theia is unique among this list of hypothetical planets in that it probably actually existed. It was the Mars-sized planet that struck the proto-Earth 4.5 billion years ago, creating the current Earth-Moon system. This is, at least, the currently most accepted theory of the origin of the moon. It is supported by computer models, and explains many observations about the moon.

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Jun 06 2014

PETA Responds

Last week on Science-Based Medicine I wrote an article about the embrace by PETA (people for the ethical treatment of animals) of pseudoscience – in this case they are engaging in a fearmongering campaign linking dairy products to the risk of autism or increasing the severity of autism.

Yesterday I received an e-mail from PETA, essentially doubling down on their prior embrace of pseudoscience:

Dear Steven,

I want to follow up on your story last week about PETA’s campaign that points out how a dairy-free diet may help children with autism. PETA’s website and campaign serve to provide parents with potentially valuable information, albeit mostly anecdotal, from families’ findings—for example, just this week, the editor of Autism Eye magazine, Gillian Loughran, who has a 14-year-old son with autism, contacted us in support of our campaign and wrote a letter to the editor on our behalf (see below). Until such time as there is a large study into whether there is a dairy-autism link (and one we hope will not be funded by the dairy industry), it seems unwise to overlook a growing body of anecdotal information supporting that removing dairy and gluten from the diet of a child with autism may improve the child’s sleep, behavior, and concentration. We hope this letter will change your mind about PETA’s campaign—or, at least, that you will share this letter with your readers so that they can arrive at an informed opinion.

Thank you for your time.

Best regards,

Heather 

There are multiple problems with this position.

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Jun 05 2014

Preventing Memory Impairment

One of the more common complaints I see in my clinical practice is subjective memory impairment (SMI) – the perception of poor concentration and short term memory. SMI is distinguished from full-blown dementia in that the mental status exam and diagnostic tests are normal, but the symptoms can still be significant.

Once an underlying disease or specific pathology has been ruled out, the working diagnosis for SMI is that it is functional, meaning that it is a symptom of some process that is temporarily impairing brain function but not causing permanent or progressive brain damage. The task then becomes to identify any lifestyle factors that may be causing SMI.

A recent study published in PLOS One sheds further light on such risk factors. The authors conducted a survey of 18, 614 people of various ages and asked questions about memory and behaviors. They found:

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Jun 03 2014

More 9-11 Anomaly Hunting

It’s been almost 13 years and the nonsense shows no sign of stopping. It is still amazing to me – thousands of direct eyewitnesses saw two passenger jets plow into each of the twin towers. Further, there are countless videos from multiple vantage points clearly showing these events.

Also keep in mind that after the first jet hit the North Tower, media attention descended onto the towers. The media was in full force when the second jet hit the South Tower. In addition, many personal video cameras were up and running. It is therefore an extensively documented event.

In the face of this overwhelming direct eyewitness and corroborating video evidence, who could deny the basic fact that two jets struck those two towers that morning?

Well, this guy, for one. I know this is beating a dead horse, but I think it is useful to have occasional reminders of the extent to which people can deceive themselves into absurd conclusions. It should also be noted that, while apparently declining in more recent polls, belief in a 9-11 conspiracy remains high. Averaging all surveys, less than half of those asked accept the standard explanation that 9-11 was an Al Qaeda plot.

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Jun 02 2014

The Clinical Evidence for Homeopathy

Dana Ullman is a notorious apologist for homeopathy. He has a reputation, at least among skeptics, for cherry picking data and making dubious arguments – whatever it takes in order to defend his beloved homeopathy. He then tops it off by accusing skeptics of being closed-minded for not accepting his drivel.

An article of his recently popped up on the Skeptic subreddit (posted by rzeczpospolita) with the challenge, “Countless scientific studies showing that homeopathy works. Or are you “skeptics” too closed minded to accept this fact?”

The article is too long to deconstruct in one blog post, so I will focus on the key claim – that clinical evidence demonstrates that homeopathy works. His primary piece of evidence is this:

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