Archive for June, 2010

Jun 09 2010

Is Evolution Science?

Published by under Evolution

Evolution is, undeniably, a science. It is not only science, it is a robust and highly successful line of research and a powerful explanatory model.

But there remains confusion in the public as to exactly what it means to be scientific, on both sides of the evolution/creation debate. Even, at times, among proponents of evolution. The following comment to a recent blog post expresses some of this confusion.

Using the scientific method as the criterion, neither creation nor evolution is an established scientific theory. Evolution is stuck on the 3rd step of the 7-step process, establishing a testable hypothesis. After 150 years, the evolution hypothesis is still being “tweaked” and the 4th step, testing the hypothesis has not yet occurred. As of this date, no peer review publications have been presented that go beyond more observations or modifications to the hypothesis. So, why is evolution being pushed as a “fact”? The scientific method also requires that a proposed principle be “falsifiable”, that is, there is a method to prove the hypothesis false. Since creation is based on the existence of God, and God cannot be proven by science, it is a matter of philosophy or faith, not science. Actually, evolution suffers from that same deficit and is, until the falsifiable requirement is met, more of a philosophical speculation than a scientific theory. An excellent resource regarding the creation-evolution debate can be found at

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398 responses so far

Jun 08 2010

Brain Scan Lie Detectors

Published by under Neuroscience

One common type of pseudoscience is to grab onto the latest exciting research, while it is still in its infancy, and then sell it as if it is already established. This is particularly pernicious because the dubious promoters can point to legitimate research to bolster their claims. It requires a sophisticated consumer to understand the role that different types of scientific research play, and that you cannot extrapolate from basic science, often preliminary research, to specific applications.

One egregious example of this is the use of brain scans as a lie detector. This stems from interesting research looking at fMRI scans (functional MRI) of healthy subjects while being instructed to lie. This research is based upon the notion that lie requires the suppression of telling the truth, which uses additional brain resources. This additional brain activity can be detected by the fMRI, indicating the lie.

Several studies, summarized in a good review by Joseph Simpson, found that reseachers can, with about a 90% accuracy, detect when a subject is lying based upon their fMRI activity.

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6 responses so far

Jun 07 2010

Superstitions – Not All Bad?

Published by under Neuroscience

The word “superstition” has a pejorative connotation – superstitious beliefs are generally considered to be silly and irrational. People often engage in superstitious behavior with a slightly embarrassed smile, pretending like they don’t take it seriously even while they feel compelled to perform their lucky ritual.

This is all appropriate, in my opinion, as superstitions are magical beliefs. Research has also shown that they are psychologically motivated – a way of dealing with a sense of lack of control. The magical ritual gives us a false sense of control over events (if I wear my lucky T-shirt, my team will win). In fact, research by Whitson and Galinsky shows that feeling a lack of control increases pattern perception even in unrelated areas:

Participants who lacked control were more likely to perceive a variety of illusory patterns, including seeing images in noise, forming illusory correlations in stock market information, perceiving conspiracies, and developing superstitions.

A 2006 study by Perkins and Allen shows that people with a history of physical abuse as children are more likely to believe in the paranormal, especially those beliefs that provide a sense of control, like ESP and witchcraft. Continue Reading »

15 responses so far

Jun 04 2010


Have you had your coffee yet today? Do you feel that caffeine is helpful, perhaps even necessary, to being alert and energetic? You may want to reconsider regular use of caffeine.

Caffeine is one of the most, if not the most, commonly consumed drugs among humans. A 2005 extensive survey found that 87% of Americans consume caffeine regularly, with an average intake of 193 mg per day.

The most common sources of caffeine are coffee (71%), soft drinks (16%), and tea (12%). Other sources include chocolate, over-the-counter medications (like headache or cold medications), and dietary supplements. Caffeine derives from the coffee bean, cocoa bean, kola bean, and the guarana fruit.

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54 responses so far

Jun 03 2010

Altruism in Squirrels

Creationists always seem to be about 100-150 years behind the times in their understanding of evolutionary theory. They keep raising arguments that were dealt with by Darwin himself, and think that giving it a new name is enough (like irreducible complexity). One assertion I frequently hear is that evolution cannot explain altruism. For example, from Apologetics Press:

Altruism is in direct conflict with evolutionary theory. Yet, evolutionists always have been able to put a spin on it. As Buchanan acknowledged: “For several decades, researchers have had a possible explanation: apparently selfless acts are nothing of the kind, but are instead a clever way of promoting individual self-interest” (2005).

They go on to misinterpret research about the role of altruism in a social animal – they actually think that because humans are social and will engage in behavior that is directed toward the benefit of the group rather than the individual, this is somehow incompatible with evolution. They are stuck in the early 20th century vision of evolution as always a brutal fight for survival – nature “red in tooth and claw.”

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22 responses so far

Jun 02 2010

Potential New Mechanism of Pain Relief Discovered

Published by under Skepticism

The development of drugs and other treatments for specific symptoms or conditions relies heavily on either serendipity (the chance finding of a beneficial effect) or on an understanding of underlying mechanisms. In pain, for example, there are limited ways in which we can block pain signals – such as activating opiate receptors, or inhibiting prostaglandins. There are only so many ways in which you can interact with these systems. The discovery of a novel mechanism of modulating pain is therefore most welcome, and has the potential of leading to entirely new treatments that may have a better side effect profile than existing treatments and also have an additive clinical effect.

A recent study by Nana Goldman et. al., published in Nature Neuroscience, adds to our understanding of pain relief by identifying the role of adenosine in reducing pain activity in the peripheral nervous system. The researchers, in a nice series of experiments, demonstrated that producing a local painful stimulus in mice causes the local release of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) that peaks at about 30 minutes. This correlates with a decreased pain response in the mice. Further, if drugs are given that prolong the effect of adenosine, the analgesic effect itself is prolonged.

Also, if drugs are given that activate the adenosine A1 receptor, the observed analgesic effect is replicated. When these experiments are replicated in knockout mice that do not have the gene for the adenosine A1 receptor, there is no observed analgesic effect.

Together these experiments are fairly solid evidence that local pain results in the local release of adenosine that in turn binds to the adenosine A1 receptor inhibiting the pain response. This is potentially very exiting – it should lead to further investigation of the adenosine A1 receptor and the effects of activating and inhibiting it. This may lead to the development of drugs or other interventions that activate these receptors and may ultimately be a very useful addition to our ability to treat acute and chronic pain.

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60 responses so far

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