Aug 22 2014

What’s The Harm – Ebola Edition

A common defense of implausible treatments is the question – “what’s the harm.” In other words, implausible therapies might help and can’t hurt, so there is no harm in trying. Is this a valid argument, however?

In trying to assess which side of a controversy has the better position I look toward logic and evidence. Evidence is critical, of course, but in fields outside my expertise I have to rely upon experts to interpret that evidence and put it into a broad and deep scientific context. In controversies, often the data itself is not the core issue, but which data to trust and how to interpret that data.

Therefore, when evaluating various controversial positions, it is very helpful to determine which side has the better arguments. If there is a dramatic asymmetry with one side relying heavily on logical fallacies, that is often very telling. Further, on any particular point you can follow the exchange through to completion and see which side ultimately has the better position.

For example, creationists argue that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics which states that in any system entropy should increase. Scientists counter that the second law only applies to closed systems and the Earth is an open system, receiving energy from the sun. Creationists then counter that the universe is a closed system and so entropy should be increasing in the universe. Scientist counter further that entropy is increasing in the universe but this does not preclude local decreases in entropy where energy is available, such as the biosphere of the Earth. Creationists then respond by changing the subject. In other words – they have no response. They are wrong and have lost the argument.

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Aug 21 2014

Researching Magic

David Gorski and I have just published a paper in Trends in Molecular Medicine titled: Clinical trials of integrative medicine: testing whether magic works?

While we have published literally thousands of online articles discussing these issues here, at Science-Based Medicine, and other venues, it’s great to get an article in the peer-reviewed literature, which hopefully will spark more of a discussion in academic circles.

The full article is available online at the link above, but here’s a quick summary of the main points:

The question is – should we devote limited research resources to investigating CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) methods? Those resources include not only money, but researcher time, available patients, and space for reporting and discussion at conferences and in the published literature. CAM is actually a false category, in my opinion, used really as a marketing strategy and not a meaningful designation. It makes it difficult to answer this question, because we first have to operationally define CAM. (As an aside, “integrative” medicine is essentially the same as CAM, just a different marketing term.)

The real question is – how far down the scale of plausibility should we go in allocating research resources? Should it matter?

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Aug 19 2014

The Reid Technique of Investigation

If you like crime dramas, you have probably seen this countless times. The officer interrogating a suspect chums up to them, says they understand, and then offers them a face-saving version of guilt to which they can confess. It’s compelling drama.

What is being depicted is known as the Reid Technique, developed by John Reid in the 1950s. This technique remains popular, but is also highly controversial.

A recent study, however, claims 100% accuracy using the Reid technique to detect deception in 33 interviews. That is very impressive, but raises some red flags. The study also claims 97.8% accuracy is a second trial of experts interrogating suspects, and 93.6% accuracy when students viewed tapes of the interrogations in order to determine guilt.

The primary reason I don’t find the results compelling is that the psychological study may not be a good analog of real-life situations. The suspects were students who were participating in a fake psychological study and were cajoled into cheating by a confederate in order to obtain a monetary reward that was part of the fake study. The interviews were also fairly brief, 3-17 minutes.

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Aug 18 2014

Planned Obsolescence and Attribution Fallacy

There are multiple threads to this story, all revolving around how we make sense of the data before us. Regular readers will likely not be surprised to hear that we tend to labor under a host of cognitive biases that lead us from an accurate interpretation.

This story starts with big data – a loose term referring to the access to massive amounts of data made possible by the internet, search engines, and social media. Google, for example, can track search terms in real time and look for trends. Tracking search terms related to the flu, for example turns out to be an accurate predictor of flu outbreaks.

Recently, Harvard University PhD student Laura Trucco searched through Google Trends and found that searches for “iPhone slow” tend to peak just before Apple is set to release a new model of iPhone. This led to speculation that perhaps Apple is deliberately gimping older models of the iPhone in order to motivate users into upgrading.

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Aug 15 2014

Bad Reporting About Epigenetics

Brad Crouch should be fired. At the very least he should never write a science news article again (well, maybe after remedial education and appropriate penance). At first I thought perhaps he was a general or fluff journalist taken off the dog show beat and asked to cover a science news item, but his byline for The Advertiser (an Australian news outlet) says he is a “medical reporter.” That’s frightening.

I read a lot of bad science news reporting, but rarely does a reporter so thoroughly misrepresent the actual science news – unless there is an obvious ideological agenda, but as far as I can tell this is just pure incompetence.

He is reporting on a review article on epigenetics recently published in Science. The two articles have very little in common, and it’s difficult to see how Crouch arrived at his story other than just making shit up. He begins:

LANDMARK Adelaide research showing that sperm and eggs appear to carry genetic memories of events well before conception, may force a rethink of the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, scientists say.

First, the paper is not research, let alone “landmark” research. It is a review article. It’s not even a systematic review or a meta-analysis, which a reporter might be forgiven for calling a “study” – it’s just a discussion of the topic of epigenetics.

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Aug 14 2014

An App To Monitor Parkinson’s Disease

In 2000 Michael J. Fox began a non-profit organization to support research into Parkinson’s Disease (PD). This was shortly after he was diagnosed with the disease. Since then Fox has been the model celebrity spokesperson and advocate. (He doesn’t kibitz, he just raises awareness and supports the science.)

Now his foundation, together with Intel, have developed a wearable device and accompanying app that can monitor the symptoms of PD in real time 24 hours a day. This is an interesting application of technology, and something that we are beginning to see more, and will likely increase in future.

PD is a neurodegenerative disease affecting a part of the brain called the substantia nigra. Neurons in that structure produce and release dopamine. These neurons are part of a circuit (the extrapyramidal system) that essentially monitors and adjusts the sensitivity or gain of the motor system. It’s a sensitive feedback loop that keeps our movement smooth. If the gain is turned up too high then we would constantly be moving and writhing. If it’s turned down too low, then we start to freeze. People with PD have the gain turned down too low.

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Aug 12 2014

Tocco’s Anti-vaccine Narrative

Part of the scientific approach to knowledge is to integrate information at various levels. It’s important to get the tiny facts correct, but you also have to put those facts into progressively broader and deeper frameworks. Theories are informed by facts which in turn make sense only in the context of the theory.

I try to take this approach with topics on this blog, by not only spending time addressing specific facts but also trying to see the big picture. For example, Mary Tocco, who is an anti-vaccine activist, was recently given space for a guest column on Michigan Live. I will go through and deconstruct her specific claims, but it’s also helpful to view her article in the broader social context.

Tocco is part of Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccination, or MOM (how can you not love “mom”). In her article she writes:

“The authors labeled Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccines an anti-vaccine group. Our organization is about protecting parental right to choose whether or not to use vaccines as a method of health care for themselves and their children.”

From this one paragraph we can see many of the threads currently weaving through culture. The big picture is that there is an ideological struggle going on between those who take a science-based worldview and believe that rational regulations should be based on the best science available, and those who wish to promote some other agenda that is not science-based.

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Aug 11 2014

Another Carrington Event Inevitable

On September 1, 1859, a massive solar flare struck the Earth, resulting in beautiful auroras but also inducing currents in telegraph wires causing them to spark and start fires. Hours earlier amateur astronomer Richard Carrington was observing the sun and noticed large sunspots giving off a brief bright flare. In 1859 the telegraph was about the only electric infrastructure we had. What if a Carrington-type event struck today?

Solar flares result from the complex magnetic fields of the sun. Gas in the sun is so hot the electrons are stripped from the hydrogen, resulting in a plasma. Since plasma is therefore made from ions, it carries an electric charge, and when electric charges move they generate a magnetic field. Magnetic fields further induce electric current.

Sometimes the magnetic fields near the surface of the sun interact in such a way that they give off an explosion of energy, called a solar flare. There is also something called a coronal mass ejection, in which a bubble of hot gas erupts from the sun’s corona in a fashion similar to a solar flare. CMEs and solar flares often occur together, but not always, and their causal relationship is not clear.

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Aug 08 2014

IBM’s Brain on a Chip

Well,  a small one, but it’s a start.

IBM announced that they have build a computer chip, dubbed TrueNorth, based on a neuronal architecture. The team published in Science:

Inspired by the brain’s structure, we have developed an efficient, scalable, and flexible non–von Neumann architecture that leverages contemporary silicon technology. To demonstrate, we built a 5.4-billion-transistor chip with 4096 neurosynaptic cores interconnected via an intrachip network that integrates 1 million programmable spiking neurons and 256 million configurable synapses. Chips can be tiled in two dimensions via an interchip communication interface, seamlessly scaling the architecture to a cortexlike sheet of arbitrary size. The architecture is well suited to many applications that use complex neural networks in real time, for example, multiobject detection and classification. With 400-pixel-by-240-pixel video input at 30 frames per second, the chip consumes 63 milliwatts.

Sounds pretty cool. I have written about brain-like computing previously (most recently here). Von-Neumann architecture refers to the traditional basic setup of modern computers, which were described in 1945 by (you guessed it) John von Neumann. This setup has three components: memory, communication, and processing. Information is binary, essentially ones and zeros.

The neuromorphic architecture combines these three elements into one. The neurons are the memory and the processing, and they communicate with each other, similar to a biological brain. Instead of binary code, the neurons spike with a certain frequency. When they send spikes to another neuron, they bring it closer to its threshold for spiking. This is very similar to how the brain functions.

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Aug 07 2014

Antibiotic Resistant Markers in GM Crops

Neil deGrasse Tyson stepping into the public GMO debate has raised the profile of this issue, and so I am likely going to return to the issue as new claims surface.

Recently Jeffrey Smith posted a Youtube video in which he directly challenges Tyson on his claim that people should “chill out” about transgenic GM technology.  Smith is an anti-GMO activist, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, and producer of the anti-GMO documentary, Genetic Roulette — The Gamble of Our Lives. 

For further background, Smith attended Maharishi University of Management in the 1980s and was a Natural Law Party member in 1996 and participated in a TM-Sidhi program yogic flying demonstration in Des Moines, Iowa.

His latest anti-GMO effort is full of specific claims I have not previously addressed. He makes an attempt to seem as if his claims are scientific, but upon investigation it quickly becomes clear he is cherry picking studies and then wildly speculating way beyond the evidence. It would take many articles to deconstruct his 20 minute Gish-galloping video, so I will pick out a few prominent claims.

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