Dec 07 2015

Steorn Is Now Selling Free-Energy Products

Steorn is an Irish company that has been promising for years that they have pioneered what is essentially a free-energy device. They recently announced that they now have two devices available for pre-order. The OCube is a USB charging device that they are selling for €1,200, and the OPhone which is a cell phone that never has to be recharged.

I first wrote about Steorn in 2007 when they promised a live demonstration of their free-energy technology, a demonstration that never manifested. Steorn did not give up their claims. In 2009:

Twenty-two independent scientists and engineers were selected by Steorn to form this jury. It has for the past two years examined evidence presented by the company. The unanimous verdict of the Jury is that Steorn’s attempts to demonstrate the claim have not shown the production of energy. The jury is therefore ceasing work.

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Dec 04 2015

Testing the Holographic Universe

The job of theoretical physicists is describing the universe – a complex, subtle, and extremely weird place from a human perspective. It seems weird because we occupy a certain range of size and distance, which has adapted our intuition to a very narrow range of reality.

It is amazing that we have been able to use our collective intellect to probe the universe at scales of size, distance, and time that are vastly outside our experience. Two tools of intellectual rigor have made this possible – math and science.

Theoretical physicists sometimes rely more on the former than the latter. This means they spend their time constructing mathematical descriptions of the universe based upon what is already known. They are thinking about what might be, and then seeing if they can make the math work out.

Such a process is part of science, but it does not close the loop on science until the mathematical models are tested against reality in some way. This may pose theoretical or practical hurdles.

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Dec 03 2015

Detecting BS

A new study is getting a lot of attention, partly because of its provocative title: On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. It also seems that people generally like to hear stories about how dumb other people are. That is why I often emphasize that such studies are not about “other” people, they are about people.

In this case, however, the researchers do find that there are subsets of subjects who react differently to what they call “pseudo-profound bullshit.” They write:

Here we focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous. We presented participants with bullshit statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”).

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Dec 01 2015

Male and Female Brains

Is it more accurate to say that male and female brains are generally the same or categorically different? This question has been somewhat of a controversy, both scientifically and culturally. A new extensive comparison of male and female brains with fMRI scans hopes to provide a definitive answer.

First for some background, we need to address the basic question of how we even approach or address the issue of categorization. Nature is fuzzy and complex, but humans tend to prefer neat and tidy categories to simplify the task of keeping track of everything, and even to help our understanding. There is therefore frequently a conflict between our desires and reality when it comes to creating categories.

The Pluto controversy is a good example of this, one which was surprisingly heated despite the fact that there are no real social or political issues at stake. There is no objective and definitive line between planets as solar system objects and other planet-like objects. Astronomers had to come up with some rules, rules that are unambiguous to apply. Ideally, such rules of categorization will reflect some underlying phenomenon, in this case, for example, how planets form.

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Nov 30 2015

Anti-Environmental Opposition to GMO Salmon

The FDA just approved the first GMO animal for human consumption – AquAdvantage Salmon. Those ideologically opposed to GMOs have predictably opposed this approval, and now are calling for labeling. Meanwhile some food outlets, like Costco, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Safeway and Korger, have pledged not to sell the fish.

This is a great example of how ideological thinking leads to irrational and self-contradictory positions.  Other than the fact that they were produced using genetic modification technology, these salmon are a wet dream (pun intended) of sustainable and environmentally friendly food production. ]

AquAdvantage Salmon

Salmon evolved a growth pattern that fits their seasonal migrations and their overall life cycle. There are several species of salmon, some Atlantic, some Pacific, and some exclusively fresh water. Atlantic salmon are the most common in fish farms.

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Nov 27 2015

There is no Right to Experimental Treatments

From time to time courts are called upon to determine whether or not desperate patients have a right to experimental treatments. In the US we are also currently in the middle of the spread of “right to try” laws from state to state. The issue has recently come up in Brazil over patient access to an experimental cancer drug, phosphoethanolamine.

This is an unfortunate issue, because over the last century experts have developed a thoughtful system that attempts to carefully balance patient autonomy, hope for very ill or terminally ill patients, patient safety, and the good of society. Now thoughtless legislators or misguided courts are attempting to bypass this system with predictably horrible results.

However, on a superficial emotional level it is much easier to persuade people to bypass the system than respect it.

Here are the issues:

First, most experimental drugs will eventually not work. They will either fail to produce a clinically relevant result, or they will cause more toxicity than benefit. Even drugs that are promising when studied in cell cultures or animals will often fail human trials. It has to be understood, then, that what we are talking about is giving patients access to drugs that probably won’t help them and may harm them.

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Nov 24 2015

Scientific Consensus and Corporate Influence

A new study published in PNAS explores the messaging of organizations commenting on climate change and their relationship to corporate funding. The sole author, Justin Farrell, finds that those organizations who received corporate funding were likely to network their messaging together, and to engage in a campaign of casting doubt on the scientific consensus. There was no such network among those organizations not receiving corporate funding.

Farrell notes:

“This counter-movement produced messages aimed, at the very least, at creating ideological polarization through politicized tactics, and at the very most, at overtly refuting current scientific consensus with scientific findings of their own.”

As further evidence of corporate influence, the Washington Post notes:

The publication of the report comes two weeks after New York prosecutors announced an investigation into whether Exxon Mobil misled the public and investors about the risks of climate change. The probe was prompted in part by reports in the Los Angeles Times and the online publication Inside Climate News, alleging that Exxon researchers expressed concerned about climate change from fossil fuel emissions decades ago, even as the company publicly raised doubts about whether climate-change was scientifically valid.

This should come as no surprise to those following the climate change debate. Climate change and other issues, in fact, challenge the very notion of scientific consensus and what it means, but also demonstrate why we should listen to a robust consensus.

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Nov 23 2015

Health Advice from the 1950s

One of the pillars of alternative medicine propaganda is historical revisionism. Proponents often claim that they were ahead of the curve on diet and exercise advice, while the medical establishment lagged behind. They go as far as to take credit for the entire field of nutrition by labeling it “alternative.”

The fact is, the disparity between mainstream and alternative advice has not changed much for the past 60+ years. There are even some elements that are literally centuries old – using “natural” as a marketing angle, for example.

The alternative narrative is not based on reality, however. Fortunately we have records from the first half of the 20th century that document exactly what the scientific mainstream and alternative culture were saying. It is a good idea to frequently question your own narrative and check the actual facts. I sought to find some historical documents that would demonstrate what the medical mainstream were saying in the 1950s.

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Nov 20 2015

Vitastiq – Indiegogo Pseudoscience

Crowdfunding is an excellent application of social media and the web. Anyone with a great idea, who can sell their idea, can get funding from the public. You don’t necessarily need big investors.

But of course, any tool or application that can be used for good can also be used for ill. Crowdfunding sites have been used to fund pure pseudoscience. A recently example was sent to me by a reader – Vitastiq. The campaign was 185% funded, for over $210,000.

What the product claims to do is measure vitamin and mineral levels non-invasively by simply touching a small probe against a specific location on the skin. I was immediately skeptical of these claims – how can the blood level of vitamin B12, for example, be measured on the skin? Further, the probe just has a simple electrical conductor. At best it is measuring skin conductance, which can be used to measure sweat levels but not much else.

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Nov 19 2015

Gene Editing Humans

A Chinese team of researchers recently announced that they attempted to edit the genes in human embryos with the genetic disease beta-thalassemia. They used the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, which they said was not successful enough in this application to be used. Some of the embryos resulted in mosaics, with only some of the cells being fixed, and other resulted in unwanted mutations.

While the attempt to fix the genetic disease in embryos was unsuccessful, the announcement has prompted discussion over the ethics of gene editing in humans.


First for some background, because I have not yet written about the CRISPR technology, this is an exciting gene-editing technology that allows for rapid, accurate, and inexpensive gene editing.

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