Mar 17 2014

Life Imitates Science Fiction

A man is in an extended coma after a traumatic injury. When he finally awakes from his coma he finds that he has brought something back with him from the darkness –  psychic powers. Yes, this is the plot of the 1983 Stephen King movie, The Dead Zone. It is also the alleged story of a 23 year old Southend student named Rob Ball.

Ball was assaulted and hit in the side of the head resulting in a two week coma. He had significant brain injury, and after waking from the coma he suffered from significant memory loss and needed extensive physical therapy in order to walk. Describing his injuries, he said:

 ”It feels like my head is going to blow up and I’m convinced I’m going to die all the time now, because it’s had such an impact on my life. I get deja vu all the time. I don’t know if it’s something to do with the head injury, but I keep thinking ‘I remember this before’, and think something is about to go wrong.”

Memory loss and headaches are typical symptoms of a traumatic brain injury. The deja vu is an interesting symptom – this is the phenomenon of feeling as if a current experience is familiar, as if it has happened before. We do not yet fully understand the neuroanatomical correlates and functional causes of deja vu, but we have some fairly compelling leads.

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Mar 14 2014

GMO and Indian Farmer Suicide

In 2005 PBS aired a Frontline special: Seeds of Suicide, in which they report:

In recent years, as Heeter finds in the fields of Andhra Pradesh, crop failure can often be traced to Bt cotton, a genetically modified breed that contains a pesticide that naturally occurs in soil rather than plants. Bt technology should, in theory, repel bollworm — cotton’s worst enemy — but some farmers who plant more expensive Bt seeds often wind up worse off than those who don’t. One farmer, Pariki, confides that after he fell into debt, his wife killed herself, leaving him to care for their three small children.

In 2008 Prince Charles, who has campaigned against GM crops, directly blamed a rise in suicides among Indian farmers on the failure of GM crops and the predatory practices of big seed companies. It was reported at the time:

“He called cultivating the modified crops ‘a global moral question’ and ‘a wrong turning on the route to feeding the world.’ He associated the technology with ‘commerce without morality’ and ‘science without humanity.’”

And Prince Charles criticized in a speech:

‘the truly appalling and tragic rate of small farmer suicides in India, stemming… from the failure of many GM crop varieties’.

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Mar 11 2014

Can Thinking Change Reality Part II

Yesterday I discussed a recent article claiming 10 lines of evidence supporting the claim that consciousness can directly alter reality. I addressed the first five claims in the list. Here are the next five.

6. The Placebo Effect

The author claims:

“It suggests that one can treat various ailments by using the mind to heal. Many studies have shown that the placebo effect (the power of consciousness) is real and highly effective.”

This is a common misconception, but it is demonstrably not true. Placebo effects (plural) are mostly reporting bias, regression to the mean, investment justification, researcher bias, and other sources of self-deception. They are transient, and significant only for subjective symptoms where reporting bias can play a major role. Studies have shown, in fact, that there is no significant “healing” that occurs due to placebo effects – no objective biological improvement.

I discuss placebo effects at length here, here, here, and here.

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Mar 10 2014

Can Thinking Change Reality

I love the documentary series, The Day the Universe Changed, by James Burke. It’s a follow up to his equally good, Connections (I know, they have their criticisms, but overall they are very good). The former title is a metaphor – when our collective model of reality changes, for us the universe does change. When we believed the earth was motionless at the center of the universe, that was our reality.

But Burke was not arguing that the nature of the universe actually changed, just our conception of it. Thinking alone cannot directly change external reality. That is magical thinking.

Such thinking, however, lies at the center of much new age spiritual claims. The secret of The Secret is that you can change your world by wishing. Proponents of such ideas are desperate for scientific validation of their basic premise. Such evidence does not exist. In fact over a century of such research shows rather conclusively that there is no such effect in operation in our world to any significant degree.

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Mar 07 2014

Health of Vaccinated vs Unvaccinated

One of the new realities of social media is that old news can be dredged up and spread around. In this way old memes can keep coming back to life like the Terminator, and we have to kill them over and over again.

The antivaccine crowd, for example, has their narrative of conspiracy and evil and their cherry-picked factoids to support their narrative. In their world vaccines don’t work and are all bad all the time, and only corporate evil and public malfeasance can support them. They scour the internet for anything to support their beliefs, and then splash it around as if it’s news.

In this case, they have resurrected a terrible survey from 1992. The survey was conducted in New Zealand by the Immunization Awareness Society. Unsurprisingly, when this anti-vaccine group surveyed their own anti-vaccine members, they found a higher incidence of disease among vaccinated children compared to unvaccinated children.

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Mar 06 2014

Raising Shields Against HIV

I have argued that HIV treatment is one of the shining examples of the success of reductionist modern medicine. In three decades we went from knowing nothing about a new disease that was almost universally fatal over a few years, to having an extensive understanding of the disease and reducing it to a manageable chronic illness. We still have not created an effective vaccine, nor have we figured out how to cure the disease entirely, but those are both active research programs with promising results.

Recent developments show how sophisticated our technology is becoming. Researchers just published a safety study in the NEJM in which they took the white cells from patients with HIV, treated them to make them resistant to the virus, and then transfused them back into the patients. There was one serious infusion reaction, but otherwise the procedure seemed safe.

HIV enters T-cells (part of the immune system) by attaching to a coreceptor called CCR5. There are rare individuals who have a mutation in the CCR5 gene which makes them resistant to HIV, demonstrating how important the receptor is to the life cycle of HIV. Researchers at the Clinical Cell and Vaccine Production Facility at the University of Pennsylvania used used a zinc-finger nuclease (ZFN) to render the CCR5 gene permanently dysfunctional in the T-cells taken from the patients, and then transfused the cells (about 10 billion of them) back into the patients.

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Mar 04 2014

Monoculture

A new article published in PNAS warns of, Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security. They reviewed crop production worldwide over the last 50 years and found that:

“The increase in homogeneity worldwide portends the establishment of a global standard food supply, which is relatively species-rich in regard to measured crops at the national level, but species-poor globally.”

In other words, there has been a globalization of crop production, with more nations looking very similar to each other in terms of which crops they grow in what amounts. This has caused a shift to the major energy-dense crops (wheat, corn, rice, potatoes, and sugar) and a relative reduction in more nutrient dense foods. At the national level, species diversity remains high. However local varieties around the world are being displaced by the same energy dense crops internationally.

This has allowed countries around the world to increase their calorie production to help feed a growing human population. However, the trend also raises several concerns discussed by the authors.

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Mar 03 2014

Your Baby Still Can’t Read

Five years ago I wrote a blog post about the product, Your Baby Can Read. I concluded:

While the background concepts are quite interesting, the bottom line is that we have another product being marketed to the public with amazing claims and no rigorous scientific evidence to back them up. This product also falls into the broader category of gimmicky products claiming to make children smarter or more successful academically.

Anxious parents wanting to give their kids every advantage is a great marketing demographic, in that they are easily exploited. But like all gimmicky schemes promising easy answers to complex or difficult problems (weight loss, relationships, or academic success) in the end it is likely to be nothing but a costly distraction from more common sense approaches – like just spending quality time with your kids and giving them a rich and safe environment.  What such products often really provide is a false sense of control.

The comments quickly filled with parents who had used the system, which claims to teach even infants how to read, saying that the system worked for them.

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Feb 28 2014

More Yoga Mat Hysteria

The “yoga mat chemical” (azodicarbonamide) is the latest food-based fearmongering, thanks to an unscientific petition by the self-described “food babe,” who apparently feels that she is qualified because she is a computer scientist. (Well, it has the word “science” in it.)

Unfortunately, the “yoga mat chemical” is an effective meme. Who wants to eat something that can be found in a yoga mat? Many journalists, such as Lindsay Abrams, have bought into the meme without any critical analysis. Abrams helpfully provides a list to her readers of “500 more foods containing the yoga mat chemical.”

Here are some other foods her readers might also want to reconsider:

This popular health food can also be found in industrial lubricants, solvents, cleaners, paints, inks adhesives and hydraulic fluid. It is burned as fuel. It is also used to make foam found in, “coolers, refrigerators, automotive interiors and even footwear.” It is used to make carpet backing and insulation.

But the worst part is – it is also used to make yoga mats.

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Feb 27 2014

Warning Labels on Cell Phones

Hawaii Senate Bill 2571, which is making its way through the legislature, would require that a large non-removable warning label be attached to the back of every cell phone. Originally the warning label was to read, “This device emits electromagnetic radiation, exposure to which may cause brain cancer. Users, especially children and pregnant women, should keep this device away from the head and body.” A revised version of the bill, however, changed the warning to, “To reduce exposure to radiation that may be hazardous to your health, please follow the enclosed product safety guidelines.”

This seems like an example of clear nanny-state overreach, but worse it is not based on science. According to reports every expert consulted by the relevant committees argued against the measure, but the legislators passed it anyway. The measure has one more committee to get through, and then it would go to the House for a vote.

As I have written before (see also here and here) there is no clear link between cell phone use and brain cancer. The plausibility of a link is low but not zero. Non-ionizing radiation is not energetic enough to break chemical bonds, and therefore should not cause DNA damage that could lead to cancer. However, an alternate physical mechanism cannot be ruled out, and biology is complicated, so I don’t think we can rule out a possible connection on theoretical grounds alone. We can just say it’s unlikely.

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