Archive for February, 2008

Feb 29 2008

Has the Government Conceded Vaccines Cause Autism?

No. But David Kirby and other anti-vaccinationist ideologues and members of the so-called mercury militia would like you to think so. For background, the Autism Omnibus refers to a set of hearings before the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program regarding claims by about 5000 parents that their childrens’ autism was caused by vaccines. These claims are primarily based upon the various hypotheses that the MMR vaccine, or thimerosal in some vaccines (but not MMR), or the combination of both, is a cause of autism.

So far there have been hearings, but only one final decision. In November the US government settled one case in favor of the petitioner. This is the case those who have supported the failed hypothesis that vaccines cause autism now point to as admission that they were right all along (or at least as a means of stoking the flames of fear about vaccines.) But the US government did not admit vaccines cause autism – they conceded one case that is highly complex and not necessarily representative of any other case and cannot be reasonably used to support the vaccine/autism connection.

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66 responses so far

Feb 28 2008

I for one welcome our new robotic overlords.

Published by under General

University of Sheffield professor and computer scientist Noel Sharkey, best known for his appearances on the BBC show Robot Wars, in a talk before Britain’s Royal United Services Institute warned the world that automated military robots “pose a threat to humanity.” I agree. Seriously.

Well, OK – not right now. But it is not too early to think about the implications of developing increasingly automated robots designed for warfare. While I think it is an unlikely scenario that such machines will take over the world anytime this century, as in The Matrix or Terminator, they may pose a credible risk in the near future.

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52 responses so far

Feb 26 2008

Quackometer vs Obi – Abusing Lawsuits to Silence Critics

Andy Lewis, who runs the Quackometer website, is dedicated to educating the public as to the very legitimate criticisms of unscientific medical practices and claims. I consider his efforts to be in solidarity with my own, and those precious few others who take time out of their lives and careers to improve the public understanding of science, in part by taking on popular but faulty beliefs.

We endeavor to make the basis of our criticism science, and our efforts reflect the fundamental nature of science – it is a community effort requiring transparency and open unrestrained criticism. This in turn requires freedom of expression – science cannot thrive under the yoke of oppression.

Those whom we criticize, however, are often either not dedicated to science or suffer from a profound misunderstanding of how science operates. Many practitioners and promoters of unscientific medicine simply fight back against criticism with criticism of their own. Even though I generally disagree with what is ultimately apologetics for anti-science, at least they are fighting back with words and ideas.

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13 responses so far

Feb 25 2008

Would You Want A Perfect Memory?

Published by under Neuroscience

Brad Williams has a phenomenal memory. Give him a date, even decades ago, and he will give you numerous accurate details about the events of that day. He is not the first person to crop up with such verifiable preternatural memory. The existence of such persons generates many questions. What is it, exactly, that is different about their brains that gives them such astounding memory? Is this enhanced memory due to superior memory function itself, or some other aspect of information processing? Do most people have the capacity for such memory that is being inhibited somehow, or do their brains contain new anatomical or neurophysiological features that most people lack? Why doesn’t everyone have similar memory? Is having such a memory a boon, a bane, or a little of both?

I wish I had the answers to these questions. Dr. James McGaugh, who is studying Brad Williams, is quoted as saying:

You want the Nobel Prize right now? Tell me that answer and I’ll publish it. We don’t know. We do know that he carries this information with him, that it’s detailed, that it’s just there. That’s what we want to know — why is it there?

I am sure we will learn some very interesting things about Mr. Williams and those like him, but right now we do not have the technology to image brain function with sufficient resolution to probe where the answer likely lies. Brain function is dependent upon the pattern of neuronal connection and the details of their synapses, receptors, and neurotransmitters. But what can we infer from what is currently known?

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27 responses so far

Feb 22 2008

Dr. Egnor Won’t Give Up – Finds a New Way to Get It Wrong

Controversies and debates are a great way to learn about logic and the functioning of science. Opponents wrestling over how to interpret the evidence and painstakingly pointing out the logical errors on the other side in a great intellectual exercise. That is primarily why I am enjoying so much my debate with Dr. Michael Egnor, who is writing over at Evolution News and Reviews – the blog of the Discovery Institute, an organization created to promote Intelligent Design.

Today he published his latest response in our ongoing discussion about strict materialism (the mind is the brain) vs dualism (the mind is the brain plus something else undefined). This is his attempt to respond to my direct challenge for him to name a prediction of materialism that has failed. He now claims he has done so, but actually he has completely failed to do so and had instead just added more logical errors to his argument.

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59 responses so far

Feb 21 2008

The MAPS Treatment for Autism – Be Skeptical

The Brain Repair Institute of Canada makes all the promises a parent of a child with autism wants to hear. That in itself is sufficient cause for skepticism. Savvy consumers have learned to be skeptical of salesmen who make promises that sound too good to be true. But illness often begets a desperation that saps even the most cynical consumer of this virtue.

Their website proclaims:

The MAPS Treatment programme for autism (Monitored Multi-cortical Activities for Additional Pathways and Synapses) is a stress-free programme, designed for parents who have not given up hope. Who better than you, the parent, you are the expert of your own children!

You are the expert, you are in control, the system is stress-free, easy, and all natural. It enhances the natural healing ability of your child’s own brain. This stuff writes itself.

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6 responses so far

Feb 19 2008

Ancient Cambodian Stegosaurus?

Published by under Creationism/ID

Any bit of nonsense can be used to derive some general observations about logical fallacies, scientific methodology, and faulty thinking. So sometimes I like to take a poke at more lighthearted silliness, and also I love dinosaurs (I have always been partial to stegosaurus in particular) and pointing out creationist illogic is one of my favorite hobbies. So how could I resist this gem – the claim in that an ancient Cambodian temple at Angkor contains a carving of a stegosaurus.

There are many preserved reliefs of various animals on the surviving temple walls. One of them depict this curious creature.

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56 responses so far

Feb 18 2008

Reverse Engineering the Brain

Published by under Neuroscience

The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) concludes today in Boston. Unfortunately my schedule did not allow me to attend, but the press releases and news reports are flowing from Beantown. Among the announcements were the 24 greatest scientific challenges facing humanity in the 21st century (produced by a panel of experts put together by the National Academy of Engineering). On the list was the task of reverse engineering the human brain. (You can see the full list in this article.)

To me it seems highly likely that this is a goal we will achieve in the 21st century – 92 years seems like more than enough time. We have already begun, in fact, to reverse engineer the brain. If we separate this task into two broad categories – hardware and software – both have progressed very far but still have a long way to go. By “hardware” I mean how the neurons and other brain cells work together to create memory, information processing, and sensory perception – how does the brain physically work. By “software” I mean what information is actually in the brain and how that information and different processing areas work together to produce the net effects of mood, thought, and behavior.

Our understanding of the hardware of the brain is already highly detailed, but it is also clear that there is at least a layer of complexity that we have not yet drilled down to. We know how neurons conduct signals, how those signals affect the firing of other neurons, how neurotransmitters work, how neuronal function is modulated by other neurons and other brain cells (like astrocytes), and how the strength of neuronal connections relate to memory. However, the more we look the more layers of complexity to all of these things we find. And we have only begun to explore how patterns of neuronal activity relate to specific cognitive functions.

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75 responses so far

Feb 15 2008

Dr. Egnor Misses the Point Again

Published by under Skepticism

I have been having a blog debate with Dr. Michael Egnor, a neurosurgeon who advocates for Intelligent Design and dualism, the notion that we need to hypothesize something other than the physical brain in order to explain the mind. On Monday I responded to Egnor’s most recent post in which he claimed that I was being dogmatic (a favorite tactic of creationists) because I maintain that all of the evidence so far supports the materialist hypothesis of mind. I concluded:

If he wishes to persist in his claims, then I openly challenge Egnor to name one prediction of strict materialism that has been falsified. To be clear, that means one positive prediction for materialism where the evidence falsifies strict materialism. This does not mean evidence we do not currently have, but evidence against materialism or for dualism. I maintain that such evidence does not exist – not one bit. Prove me wrong, Egnor.

Well, Dr. Egnor has not taken long to respond. However I will note that Dr. Egnor has not answered my challenge – he has not given a single example of a failed prediction of materialism nor has he given any evidence for dualism. I guess he’s still hunting around for an example, since I have shot down all of his prior arguments.

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113 responses so far

Feb 15 2008

ESP for Healthcare Professionals

Most states require that health care professionals acquire continuing education (CE) credits (or continuing medical education – CME – for MD’s) in order to maintain their license. This is a good concept but unfortunately the system is completely broken. What I consider to be a minor problem with the system is that it is haphazard – professionals can get CE/CME credits essentially on random topics within their field. There is no attempt at ensuring that critical updates are part of continuing education. But as I said, this is a minor flaw.

What completely breaks the system is the absurdly low standards for what kinds of information qualify for CE credit. A professional could easily fulfill their CE requirements without having to expose themselves to any legitimate educational information. For example, nurses can get CE credits for learning how to do therapeutic touch, even though this modality has no scientific legitimacy at all. Of course the bigger problem here is that TT is used by nurses at all.

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5 responses so far

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