Archive for June, 2009

Jun 30 2009

Toyota Gets In The Game

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In April of this year I wrote about Honda’s press release announcing that they had made some breakthroughs in the area of mental control of robots. On close inspection it seemed that Honda had not accomplished anything that other researchers weren’t already doing, so they were essentially announcing that they were in the game. Well, not another Japanese car manufacturer is in the game also – Toyota.

They announced that they have developed a system that allows a person to control a wheelchair with their thoughts alone.  The system allows a person to make the chair go right, left, or forward with thoughts alone. Curiously, in order to stop the chair a traditional puffer control is still needed (where the operator controls the chair by puffing into a tube).

This is nothing new – devising a system that can distinguish among three brain states is fairly crude. Obviously they could not make it distinguish a fourth to command the chair to stop. But Toyota needs their distinguishing feature – something to put in the press release to make their technology seem like a breakthrough. So, they tell us, theirs is the fastest system yet. While other systems take several seconds to process the thought commands, their system accomplishes this task in 125 milliseconds (thousandths of a second). That is fast enough to give the feel of instantaneous control. In fact the response time of the brain itself, from thought to action, is about 100 milliseconds.

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9 responses so far

Jun 29 2009

The Jury Is In For Steorn – No Free Energy

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This is one of those stories that science writers, educators, and journalists will have to write about forever – free energy claims. The story is always the same, only the names and details change. The allure of free energy, it seems, is just too great. There will always be someone to get snared in its beguiling charms, or to exploit it to ensnare others.

This time around the name of the company is Steorn, an Irish company that announced in 2006 that it had created “a technology that produces free, clean and constant energy.” The typical news cycle ensued. The company touted its innovative technology, with a promised demonstration. The press covered the story with a mixture of wonder and skepticism, depending upon the savvy of their journalists and editors. The free energy community starting buzzing – sure that this time the Great Pumpkin would finally makes its appearance.  The scientific and skeptical community scoffed and used the episode as an opportunity to remind the public of the conservation laws, thermodynamics and all that – you cannot get energy from nothing. Period.

It’s one of those few actual laws in science that cannot be violated. It’s just the way nature works. In order to overturn this law something new and fundamental would have to be discovered about the universe, and the burden of proof would be enormous. History is now littered with the stories of those who believed they had found a loop hole in physics (or pretended to) only to crash and burn, or simply fade into obscurity.

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23 responses so far

Jun 26 2009

Gay Exorcism

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A Connecticut church is being investigated for possible abuse after a video showed up on YouTube documenting an exorcism of a 16 year old boy to get rid of his “homosexual demons.”

CT is nowhere near the bible belt, and is not usually a place to find fire and brimstone sermons. But there has been a subculture of demonology and exorcism here. I can’t be sure exactly why that is true, but it may have something to do with the historical connection with ghosthunting.

I wrote earlier in the week about our past investigation of the Warrens – perhaps the most famous ghost hunters.  Well, Ed Warren was a self-proclaims demonologist, and as part of his schtick he professed belief in demons and evil spirits. He even occasionally worked with ministers and a defrocked priest who performed exorcisms (without the sanction of the church).

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22 responses so far

Jun 25 2009

Life in Enceladus

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One of the greatest scientific mysteries is the question about the frequency and nature of life beyond the Earth. This is not a mystery because of any theoretical problems – it has just been difficult so far, with the technology we have had available, to investigate this question.

We can look at planets around other suns, but so far not with the detail necessary to identify life. This technology is rapidly progressing, however, and so we will likely have tantalizing clues in the coming years, and maybe a definitive answer.

We have been listening for intelligent signals from space, but so far have only sampled a tiny fraction of what might be out there. This is also looking for intelligent life only – and perhaps most life is not technology in a way that would lend itself to sending out radio signals.

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Jun 24 2009

The New Spiritualists – Channeling in Connecticut

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Lynne LaFountain lives in a modest condo in the small town of Winsted, CT, which NESS investigators were invited to visit this May. As we sat in her living room, this ordinary appearing middle-aged woman spoke to the small gathering in the voice of D’Hartma, the spirit of a man who allegedly last lived more than 1000 years ago in Nepal, but now resides in the seventh spiritual dimension. Lynne has been channeling (the modern word for this form of spirit summoning) D’Hartma for 24 years, and claims that his only purpose is to bring his philosophy of love and spirituality to mankind.

A Brief History of Spiritualism

Modern channelers are the successors to a long history of spiritualism in this and other countries, which has waxed and waned in popularity over the centuries. The most recent rise in popularity of spiritualism prior to its modern resurgence, was around the turn of the century. This was the age of mediums and seances.

The classic séance involved several people gathering in the parlor of a medium, who, with the lights off, would summon the spirits of their client’s lost loved-ones. As proof of the presence of the spirit, there were often many physical manifestations, such as rappings, bell ringing, or other noises, items moving about the room, and levitating tables. These “parlor tricks” were often very persuasive to those who already had a strong desire to believe, and were likely not schooled in the techniques of magic. The spirits would sometimes speak in a disembodied voice, speak to the medium, who would then relay their messages, or would speak directly through the medium, who would be in a trance state while the spirit used their voice to communicate.

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15 responses so far

Jun 23 2009

Phrenology – History of a Science and Pseudoscience

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When first introduced in 1796, phrenology was the latest advancement in the field of neurology. It was widely accepted, even welcomed, by many practicing neurologists as a powerful diagnostic tool. Phrenologists were even on the winning side of an important scientific debate concerning a central concept of brain anatomy and function. As more scientific methods began to take hold within medicine, however, and the secrets of the brain began to yield to more careful investigation, phrenology became increasingly marginalized. By the early 20th century the last vestiges of phrenology were gone from scientific medicine and mainstream neurology, but not gone completely. Phrenology survives to this day as a classic pseudoscience, with dedicated adherents convinced of its efficacy.


The history of phrenology, and the story of its modern believers, is a classic one in the history of pseudoscience. To contemporary skeptics, the claims of phrenology sound no different than any wacky belief system. Believers claim to be able to read an individual’s personality, their strengths and weaknesses, hopes and desires, by examining the pattern of bumps on their skull. At first the idea sounds no different, and no less ridiculous, than treating liver disease by rubbing the foot, or diagnosing heart disease by the pattern of colors in the iris. It isn’t, but phrenology has a very different origin than reflexology or iridology.

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26 responses so far

Jun 22 2009

Hunting the Ghost Hunters

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I will be away this week, so I am dusting off some of my oldest skeptical writings and updating them. Below is a piece I wrote 12 years ago on ghost hunters, Ed and Lorraine Warren. The article is still relevant, and I enhanced it with some updated info. I also employed the wayback machine to provide links to old websites that are no longer active. I will be mostly out of touch, and only rarely monitoring the comments, so forgive me if I don’t respond quickly or at all.


Belief in the supernatural seems to be a nearly universal part of the human condition, but the details of specific paranormal belief systems depend on culture and location. In New England we have ghosts – or at least ghost hunters. So it is not surprising that in our younger days as activist skeptics, Perry DeAngelis, Evan Bernstein, my brother, Bob, and I (the investigative team of the New England Skeptical Society) cut our skeptical teeth investigating ghost hunters.

Taking on the New England ghost-busting industry led us inevitably to Ed and Lorraine Warren, the patriarch and matriarch of ghost hunting in New England. Ed and Lorraine hunted ghosts (Ed has since passed) – ghosts, apparitions, demons, possessed people, places and things. They did so for decades, and claim to have looked at nearly 4000 cases. They were made famous by books and movies, and as luck would have it lived only a couple towns over in Monroe Connecticut.

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9 responses so far

Jun 19 2009

The Price of Superstition

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I hate reading these stories – A Haitian woman is accused of burning her own daughter, 6 year old  Frantzcia Lauradin, in a ritual designed to purify her of demons. The child’s grandmother did eventually put out the fire, while the mother ignored her child’s screams of agony, but then allegedly put her to bed rather than take her to a hospital.

Only after a day of begging by relatives was she eventually taken to the ER, where she was found to have 2nd and 3rd degree burns on 25% of her body, including part of her face.


The mother, Marie Lauradin, is denying the charges, saying she accidentally spilled some boiling rice on her daughter and did not notice the burns until she was in the ER. As reported, that defense is not credible – a mother not noticing severe burns on her daughter’s face? Such burns would cause someone to scream in agony, making it impossible, in my opinion, to justify the delay in bringing the child to medical attention.

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17 responses so far

Jun 18 2009

TAM, Science-Based Medicine, DragonCon, and NECSS Conferences

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I am totally into crunch time for TAM and the SBM conference. I will continue to blog regularly, but will be updating some of my older articles for some entries. Today I just want to post a reminder about these excellent skeptical opportunities, plus other upcoming events:

Science-Based Medicine

July 9th, Las Vegas, Nevada

This is a one day conference featuring lectures by many of the SBM regular contributors. The conference is designed to be appropriate for a general audience – no prior expertise is expected – and for medical professionals simultaneously.

More information can be found here, including links to register.

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8 responses so far

Jun 17 2009

Comment Roundup

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My primary blog entry for today can be found at Science-Based Medicine – it covers the recent FDA warnings regarding Zicam and anosmia.

A couple of recent comments are worth a direct response. In response to my Heuristics entry from yesterday Zelocka wrote:

“You may be able to conclude, therefore, that people who walk more tend to have lower BMI”

But this would be an incorrect assessment based on perception of BMI. BMI is nothing more than weight / height. It would be perfectly reasonable for someone that walks to have more muscle mass then someone that does not. Since muscle weighs more, someone that walks could have a higher BMI then someone that does not for at least a certain period of time and maybe longer depending on the calories the muscle / exercise uses compared to the conversion of the excess on the person that does not walk. If you would have used body fat rather than then you would have removed this loophole.

Zelocka is technically correct – BMI is just height to weight, and a very muscular person can have a high BMI without being fat. This is a widely recognized limitation of BMI. Fat measurements are therefore better. However, BMI is still used in many epidemiological studies because the information is readily available.

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14 responses so far

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