Aug 05 2014

Persistent Anti-GMO Myths

One persistent theme in my writing about scientific topics is that, to optimally serve our own interests, public discourse and decision-making on issues that are highly scientific should be informed by the best evidence and scientific analysis available, not on lies, myths, misconceptions, or raw ideology. I am therefore attracted to topics where I think the myth to fact ratio is particularly high.

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) is one such issue. The propaganda machine seems to be way out in front of the more sober voices trying to correct the record and focus the discussion on reality. I also see GMO as the ideological flip side to global warming denial.  In the latter case we seen industry and free-market ideologues sowing confusion and misinformation. They also do the ideology shuffle – a dance in which, whenever they are nailed by the facts on one point, they state that their objection is really based on some other point. They never really acknowledge the point, just side-step it.

Anti-GMO activists, in my experience, operate the same way. They have marshaled every possible point they can against GMO, whether or not they are true or valid. When one such point is exposed as a myth, they simply slide over to some other point as their “real” motivation for opposition, but never give any ground.

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Aug 04 2014

Ebola Pseudoscience

It is natural for there to be a certain amount of fear and uncertainty surrounding the reported outbreak of a deadly virus. The recent ebola outbreak is the worst in history, with over 800 deaths reported out of over 1,400 infections (case fatality rate so far of 57%).

Crises like these tend to bring out the best and the worst in people. Health care workers are literally risking their lives to contain this outbreak. Meanwhile, charlatans are coming out of the woodwork to exploit the crisis to spread their nonsense.

Ebola was first discovered in 1976. The virus exists in central and western Africa, and outbreaks are usually small, involving isolated villages. The virus can exist in fruit bats, which is the usual reservoir that spreads to humans. Other animals can be the vector, however, including chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines. Once a human infection occurs, however, the virus can spread from person to person.

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Aug 01 2014

NASA Tests EM Drive

I’m skeptical. I know, you’re shocked. When you recover, take a look at this article about NASA “validating” an allegedly impossible drive.

The bottom line is that I just don’t believe it. I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t necessarily think the results of NASA’s test are untrue, just that I don’t think they have “validated” that the propellantless drive is what proponents say it is.

My reaction is identical to the claim made in 2011 that a team of researchers found that neutrinos travel faster than light. I didn’t believe those results either. The researchers were very careful, they rigorously reviewed every aspect of their experiment, and only announced the results when they were confident they ruled out all error. The physics community didn’t believe it, but they did their due diligence. After further analysis, it was found that the results were an error – an artifact introduced in the experimental setup. Initial skepticism was vindicated.

The claims made for a machine that can provide thrust without propellant is as unlikely and at variance with the laws of physics as neutrinos traveling faster than light or free energy machines. Sure, it’s always possible that our understanding of the universe is incomplete in a way that allows for one of these phenomena to be true, but our current understanding calls for extreme initial skepticism. Such a stance has a very good history to support it.

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Jul 31 2014

Just Asking Questions – Creation Edition

One of the strategies of denying established science is to “just ask questions” (affectionately known as JAQing off). The point is to undermine the science by probing for things that don’t appear to make sense, but not in a sincere attempt to understand. Rather, the idea is to ask questions that have already been answered, or that are based upon false assumptions or straw-man distortions of the science.

Recently I was sent this article by Fred Reed in which he asks questions about evolution. He writes:

To this end, I submit a few questions which have strained my admittedly paltry understanding for some time. They are not new questions, but could use answers. I agree in advance to accept his answers (if any be given) as canonical.

The “his” refers to John Derbyshire, who is an author and journalist. I am not sure why Reed directs his questions toward him or would consider his answers “canonical.”

I don’t know how sincere Reed is in his questions, but I would suggest if they are sincere that he read a few books by biologists. Answers to all his questions are out there, or at least the information necessary to determine why his questions are naive.

Since I like answering questions as a format for explaining complex science, I thought I would take up Reed’s questions myself.

(1) In evolutionary principle, traits that lead to more surviving children proliferate. In practice, when people learn how to have fewer or no children, they do. Whole industries exist to provide condoms, diaphragms, IUDs, vasectomies, and abortions, attesting to great enthusiasm for non-reproduction. Many advanced countries are declining in population.   How does having fewer surviving children lead to having more surviving children? Less cutely, what selective pressures lead to a desire not to reproduce, and how does this fit into a Darwinian framework?

Reed’s first question illustrates what I mean. There is no direct answer to his question, because the question itself contains false premises. His question cannot be answered, only deconstructed.

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Jul 29 2014

Reward and Punishment in the Brain

In a recent study, scientists looked at the brain with high resolution fMRI scanning while they showed subjects pictures. Following each picture was a painful electric shock, or a money reward, or no response, or a random response. Subjects quickly learned which pictures would be followed by which stimuli – positive, negative, neutral, or unpredictable.

Scientists do this sort of thing not because they like to torture people but to study the brain’s response. In this case they were particularly interested in a small deep structure called the habenula. What they found, for the first time in humans but consistent with prior animal research, is that the habenula would light up when subjects saw a picture that would be followed by a shock, and the activity in the habenula increased the more certain the subjects were that negative stimuli were following.

The researchers conclude that the habenula is a critical structure for the processing of negative stimuli, in fact it seems to be the hub of the neural network involved in learning to anticipate negative stimuli.

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Jul 28 2014

Dinosaur Extinction Revisited

Sometimes I just have to indulge my childhood fascination with all things dinosaur. Actually, paleontology in general is one of my favorite subjects – reconstructing an utterly alien past, including incredible and strange-looking beasts.

And of course, one of the most fascinating aspects of the dinosaurs is that, after 165 million successful years on earth, they suddenly went extinct 66 million years ago. What could cause such a catastrophe? When I was in grade school, the textbooks still contained an outdated (and ridiculous) answer – they ran out of food.

Now most people know that the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid, and the event is frequently depicted in movies and popular culture. It is less well known, however, that scientists are still debating this issue.

There is no question that a large meteor slammed into the earth 66 million years ago and caused devastation. We even found the crater, Chicxulub in the Gulf of Mexico. There is also evidence of shocked quartz from the impact, and a layer of iridium from the meteor itself. This event marks the K-T boundary (now called the K-Pg boundary) between the cretaceous and tertiary periods.

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Jul 25 2014

Mike Adams is a Dangerous Loon

Where do I even begin? Mike Adams, the self-proclaimed “healthranger” who runs the crank alt-med site naturalnews, has sunk to a new low, even though he was already scraping bottom.

Adams combines the worst CAM propaganda with a blend of conspiracy theories from across the spectrum, while selling supplements and other nonsense. He portrays himself as someone who is engaged in a righteous battle against the forces of evil – so hardly someone who is engaged in rational discourse.

In a recent rant, however, he has become a parody even of himself. This time he is raving about Monsanto and GMOs, writing:

Monsanto is widely recognize (sic) as the most hated and most evil corporation on the planet. Even so, several internet-based media websites are now marching to Monsanto’s orders, promoting GMOs and pursuing defamatory character assassination tactics against anyone who opposes GMOs, hoping to silence their important voices.

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Jul 24 2014

Sleep and False Memory

When someone looks at me and earnestly says, “I know what I saw,” I am fond of replying, “No you don’t.” You have a distorted and constructed memory of a distorted and constructed perception, both of which are subservient to whatever narrative your brain is operating under.

One of the more dramatic aspects of memory distortion is false memories. These can be completely fabricated memories that are indistinguishable from genuine memories. False memories can involve small details, or entire scenarios. One way to fabricate false memories is with suggestion – just suggesting to someone a detail of an experience they had may cause them to incorporate that detail into their memory of the experience.

The apparent reason for this is that our brains appear to favor consistency over accuracy. Memories are updated to bring them into line with our current knowledge. If we are told that the person was wearing a blue jacket, then our memory might change so that it is consistent with what we now believe to be true.

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Jul 23 2014

Another Lawsuit To Suppress Legitimate Criticism – This Time SBM

I suppose it was inevitable. In fact, I’m a bit surprised it took this long. SGU Productions, the Society for Science-based medicine, and I are being sued for an article that I wrote in May of 2013 on Science-Based Medicine. My SBM piece, which was inspired by an article in the LA Times, gave this summary:

“The story revolves around Dr. Edward Tobinick and his practice of perispinal etanercept (Enbrel) for a long and apparently growing list of conditions. Enbrel is an FDA-approved drug for the treatment of severe rheumatoid arthritis. It works by inhibiting tumor necrosis factor (TNF), which is a group of cytokines that are part of the immune system and cause cell death. Enbrel, therefore, can be a powerful anti-inflammatory drug. Tobinick is using Enbrel for many off-label indications, one of which is Alzheimer’s disease (the focus of the LA Times story).”

The claims and practice of Dr. Tobinick have many of the red flags of a dubious medical practice, of the sort that we discuss regularly on SBM. It seems that Dr. Tobinick does not appreciate public criticism of his claims and practice, and he wants me to remove the post from SBM. In my opinion he is using legal thuggery in an attempt to intimidate me and silence my free speech because he finds its content inconvenient.

Of course, we have no intention of removing the post as we feel it is critical to the public’s interest. This is what we do at SBM – provide an objective analysis of questionable or controversial medical claims so that consumers can make more informed decisions, and to advance the state of science in medicine.
We also feel it is critical not to cave to this type of intimidation. If we do, we might as well close up shop (which I suspect the Tobinicks of the world would find agreeable). Defending against even a frivolous lawsuit can be quite expensive, but we feel it is necessary for us to fight as hard as we can to defend our rights and the work that we do here at SBM.

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Jul 22 2014

Aliens are Sinners

To paraphrase Carl Sagan: in one unremarkable galaxy among hundreds of billions, there is an unremarkable star among hundreds of billions of stars in that one galaxy. Around that star revolves a world with life. Some people who live on that world believe they are the center of the universe.

Sagan nicely puts into perspective how absurd it is to believe, given our current knowledge of the cosmos, that we are the center of all things, either physically at the literal center, or metaphorically as in, we are the most important things in the universe. This is a childish view, held by our ancestors because they couldn’t know any better. Science, as Stephen Gould noted, is partly a process of smashing pillars of human narcissism. Neither the earth, nor our sun, nor our galaxy are at the center of the universe. The universe, it turns out, has no center. Neither are humans at the pinnacle of the evolutionary tree – we are just one twig, and every other twig has just as much evolutionary history behind it as we do.

Humans are certainly the most encephalized species on the planet, with by far the most advanced culture and technology, so we are special in that sense. Every time, however, scientists believe they have nailed down something that is unique about humans, some researcher finds that chimps (our closest cousins), or even other species, can do it too. We are part of the animal kingdom, part of this physical world, the result of natural processes that seem ubiquitous throughout the universe.

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