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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May 30 2014

Measles Coming Back

There are some topics I just have to revisit from time to time. I consider this a public service announcement. So far this year there have been 288 confirmed cases of measles. This is the largest number of cases since endemic measles was declared eliminated from the US. The previous worse year was 2011, which saw 220 cases total. 

There is no question that this is tied to vaccine non-compliance. The anti-vaccine movement is scaring people with misinformation and pseudoscience into not vaccinating their children, and as a result we are seeing the return of vaccine-preventable diseases.

When a disease is endemic that means there is a self-sustaining infection – there is always someone infected somewhere and it keeps getting passed around. The MMR vaccine (especially after the second dose was added) resulted in herd immunity, which is a high enough immunity rate so that the infectious disease cannot be passed around indefinitely. High vaccination rates in the US resulted in eliminated measles as an endemic disease by 2000.

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May 29 2014

Medical Information on Wikipedia

Wikipedia is now the most common general reference on the internet, and the 7th most popular site overall. It is, in a way, our collective online store of human knowledge.

Wikipedia is also a wiki, which means that anyone can theoretically write and edit articles. Wikipedia has editors, however, and they manage this process, evaluating the authoritativeness and apparent motives of editors. It is not the wild west like it used to be. (We discussed this recently on the SGU – look for the interview with Tim Farley and Susan Gerbic here.)

The question remains, however – how accurate and reliable is the information on Wikipedia? There have been several comparisons of Wikipedia to traditional references, such as the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and Wikipedia compares fairly well to such sources.

How does Wikipedia do when it comes to more technical, and specifically health care, information? This is a critical question as many people use the internet and Wikipedia specifically as a source of medical information, often to guide medical decisions or self-treatment. A recent study set out to test that very question.

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May 27 2014

The Brain Is Not a Receiver

Whenever the discussion of a dualist vs materialist model of the mind comes up, one common point made to support the dualist position (that the mind is something other than or more than just the functioning of the brain) is that the brain may not be the origin of the mind, but rather is just the receiver. Often an explicit comparison is made to radios or televisions.

The brain as receiver hypothesis, however, is wholly inadequate to explain the relationship between the brain and the mind, as I will explain below.

As an example of the brain-receiver argument, David Eagleman writes in his book Incognito:

As an example, I’ll mention what I’ll call the “radio theory” of brains. Imagine that you are a Kalahari Bushman and that you stumble upon a transistor radio in the sand. You might pick it up, twiddle the knobs, and suddenly, to your surprise, hear voices streaming out of this strange little box. If you’re curious and scientifically minded, you might try to understand what is going on. You might pry off the back cover to discover a little nest of wires. Now let’s say you begin a careful, scientific study of what causes the voices. You notice that each time you pull out the green wire, the voices stop. When you put the wire back on its contact, the voices begin again. The same goes for the red wire. Yanking out the black wire causes the voices to get garbled, and removing the yellow wire reduces the volume to a whisper. You step carefully through all the combinations, and you come to a clear conclusion: the voices depend entirely on the integrity of the circuitry. Change the circuitry and you damage the voices.

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May 23 2014

Solar Freakin’ Roadways

A YouTube video and Indiegogo campaign promise a new solution to our energy woes – “solar freakin’ roadways.”

The concept is to build roads out of hexagonal plates of transparent hard material (tempered glass) with built in solar panels. You can also incorporate heating elements and LED lights. Buried alongside such roads could be a new energy grid, for transporting all that solar generated electricity.

Here is the vision as presented: With such solar freakin’ roadways we could generate much, if not all, of our needed electricity. We could replace telephone poles and hanging wires with buried lines, and upgrade our energy (and even information) grid while we’re at it.

The heating elements could melt ice and snow, removing the need for plowing or salting roads. Potholes or other damage could be easily repaired by simply replacing the hexagonal units, one at a time, as needed.

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