May 06 2014

Afterlife Debate


I will be involved in a debate Wednesday evening (May 7th) at the Kaufman center in New York.

The debate will be from 6:45 to 8:30pm.

The debate is hosted by Intelligence squared, which hosts a series of such debates. While tickets are sold out, the debate will be live streamed. I have embeded the stream below, or you can see the stream here: http://goo.gl/WNV6nQ 

The specific topic is “Death is not Final”

Against this proposition will be me and Sean Carroll. Sean is  a physicist, so he will cover the physics angle, while I will cover the neuroscience.

For the proposition will be Eben Alexander, author of Proof of Heaven, and Raymond Moody, author of Life after Life.

The evening promises to be very interesting, so please tune in.

You can view the live stream of the debate here:

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May 05 2014

David Katz on Evidence in Medicine

David Katz is a fellow physician at Yale, and he is also a strong proponent of so-called “integrative medicine.” He has written a recent commentary at the Huff Po, defending the integrative approach. He writes:

Integrative Medicine — a fusion of conventional and “alternative” treatments — provided patients access to a wider array of options. So, for instance, if medication was ineffective for anxiety or produced intolerable side effects, options such as meditation, biofeedback, or yoga might be explored. If analgesics or anti-inflammatories failed to alleviate joint pain or produced side effects, such options as acupuncture or massage could be explored.

His basic argument is this – when we lack strongly evidence-based options, we need to explore not-so-evidence-based options, for the good of our patients. Mainstream medicine is not that evidence-based either. And – mainstream medicine relies on money-driven research, which is biased against integrative approaches.

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May 02 2014

Framing Bias

Let’s say you need a surgical procedure and the surgeon tells you there is a 98% survival rate with the procedure. How would you feel about that? What if she told you there was a 2% mortality rate? Would you feel the same way? Probably not, according to years of psychological research.

This is known as framing bias, just one more of the many ways in which our brains are biased in the way we evaluate information. The two scenarios above are identical, but statistically people will make different decisions based upon how the information is framed. We generally respond better to positively framed information (98% survival) than to negatively framed information (2% mortality).

The framing effect is often exploited by those who are deliberately trying to manipulate our reactions. Politicians, for example, can talk about employment rates or unemployment rates. Events can give you an early-bird discount or a late registration penalty. Products can have 4% fat or be 96% fat free.

Framing is another way in which we construct our picture of realty, by deciding what information is important.

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May 01 2014

Can Diet Cure MS?

I always find it fascinating to read an opinion piece that, from my perspective, is entirely wrong. In general I like to confront views that differ from my own; it is a great opportunity to probe and understand your own position better. I also find it fascinating to dissect the process that could lead someone to a demonstrably wrong position. Are they just misinformed, is their logic flawed, or are they overwhelmed by bias and ideology?

Usually it is the result of all three of these things in a self-reinforcing echochamber, an ideologically pleasing narrative propped up by confirmation bias.

A number of people have sent me links to this opinion piece, and other articles about Dr. Terry Wahls, who claims to have cured her own multiple sclerosis (MS) with diet alone. She advocates a paleo-style diet to cure whatever ails you. The evidence for this claim – zippo.

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Apr 29 2014

Neuromorphic Computing

Kwabena Boahen and other engineers at Stanford University announce that they have developed a computer chip modeled after the human brain. They call the technology “neuromorphic” and their current device the neurogrid. They say it can simulate 1 million neurons in real time, a feat that would otherwise require a super computer.

The idea is that the human brain is much more powerful and energy efficient than our current computers. A mouse brain can process information 9,000 times faster than a computer simulation of its functions, while using much less energy.

The article does not explicitly state it, but I suspect these numbers are for virtual simulations – in other words, we are not building mouse brain circuits in silicon, we are using standard digital computer to simulate the mouse circuits in software. Virtual simulations are much less efficient (about an order of magnitude) than dedicated circuits.

Even still, the neurogrid looks like a huge advance even over building dedicated brain circuits using standard digital chip technology.

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Apr 28 2014

Dueling Narratives on Organic Farming

There are many public debates raging that are essentially dueling narratives, both sides claiming to have science, evidence, and logic on their side. It always fascinates me when two groups can look at the same evidence and come to opposite conclusions. Is man-made climate change a real danger or all hype? Are alternative medicine treatments a revolution or a scam? Is GMO our best hope for sustainable agriculture or a looming health menace? Is organic farming useful or just marketing the naturalistic fallacy?

These binary choices are a bit of a false dichotomy, but not entirely, as people do tend to fall into one or the other camp. The narratives then tend to polarize the two sides with self-reinforcing echochambers of opinion and information.

I am also not suggesting that in each of the topics above the two sides are symmetrical or equally valid. Alternative medicine, for example, is a scam – it is the explicit creation of a double standard in order to market treatments that fail the test of scientific validity.

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Apr 25 2014

Prebiotic Earth

One of the great scientific mysteries is the specific processes and pathways that led to the first living organisms on earth. This is not mysterious in that we don’t know how it could have happened, it’s just that it is extremely difficult to reconstruct how is actually did happen. Chemical reactions don’t fossilize, and so understanding a complex process that likely took millions of years to unfold billions of year ago is a bit challenging.

Researchers have mostly had to rely on plausibility studies – experiments that show how prebiotic evolution could have happened and extrapolating from data on early earth conditions. More progress has been made with this type of research. The title of the paper says it all – Non-enzymatic glycolysis and pentose phosphate pathway-like reactions in a plausible Archean ocean. (Markus A. Keller, Alexandra V. Turchyn, Markus Ralser)

The researchers showed that, in conditions based upon published literature about the early prebiotic ocean, certain metabolic pathways central to life could happen spontaneously and without the presence of enzymes. That last bit is critical – enzymes are proteins that act as catalysts, which are substances that make a chemical reaction happen faster. Enzymes are critical to life, as the biochemical reactions of life would occur at too slow a rate without them.

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Apr 24 2014

Ernst on Homeopathy

Edzard Ernst is one of my intellectual heroes. If you are a skeptic, you need to know who he is. He began his career amenable to the claims of alternative medicine. He became the world’s first professor of complementary and alternative medicine, and set about to do the one thing that no other CAM proponent (to my knowledge) has truly ever done – he wanted to use rigorous scientific research to find out if any specific CAM modality worked. Most proponents use research to prove that CAM does work, or simply to describe how it is used or how it can best be implemented.

Throughout the publication of his more than a thousand scientific articles, Edzard became increasingly convinced that most CAM methods simply do not work. Further, he learned what happens to people who point to the scientific truth about CAM, they are vilified by true believers.

I have to admire anyone who changes their world-view significantly in the face of scientific evidence. His intellectual honesty is refreshing.

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Apr 22 2014

Motivated Memory

I have had the following experience many times, and so I suspect that it is a near-universal experience. You are in a heated conversation with one or more other people who have differing opinions on the topic of discussion. Perhaps it’s just a fight over personal matters. After the heat has died down and calmer emotions prevail, you try to come to some sort of resolution about the prior conversation. Such efforts, however, are complicated by the fact that everyone has a very different memory of the conversation you just shared.

A related experience that is also common occurs when discussing a topic about which there is disagreement (such as politics), and then revisiting the topic weeks or months later. Again, everyone has a different memory of the prior discussion, including which facts were established. It’s almost as if the previous conversation had not taken place.

It’s as if everyone edits their memories to fit their existing narrative. In this way, memory can be a very dangerous thing – it gives us a false confidence in our current beliefs and attitudes. We believe the facts support our position. However, we often choose our facts based on our narrative, rather than craft a narrative based upon facts.

We tend to easily see this process in others, but of course often fail to see it in ourselves.

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Apr 21 2014

Not Looking Good for Biofuels

I have yet to be convinced that biofuels will be a significant benefit in our attempts to achieve sustainable energy production. Ideally we would run our civilization on energy that does not burn a limited resource or contribute CO2 or other compounds into the atmosphere. Any limited resource will eventually run out, by definition. Further, no matter what you think about the current effects of climate change, it’s hard to deny that if we continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere this is likely to be a problem.

Biofuels sound like a good idea at first. Plants get their energy from the sun and fix CO2 from the atmosphere. Because we can grow plants, this is a renewable resource. When we burn fuel made from plants we are releasing the previously captured CO2 back into the atmosphere, and so the process is carbon neutral. Sound pretty good.

However, experts argue that we have to consider in this equation every aspect of the production of biofuels. The equation will change depending on the source of the fuel, and it is possible that if we use the right plant source and have a sufficiently efficient process, then we might have a biofuel with a net benefit. I think we will get there, but even still how much of a benefit is an important question.

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