Archive for February, 2011

Feb 28 2011

A Creationist Challenge

One of my earlier posts on NeuroLogica was Ten Major Flaws in Evolution: A Refutation, published four years ago. This continues to be a popular post, including an updated version I published on Skepticblog, and still attracts the occasional creationist who shows up to snipe at the post, like this one:

i read this and found it funny. It supposedly gives a scientific refutation, but it is full of more bias than fox news, and a lot of emotion as well.

here’s a scientific case by an actual scientists, you know, one with a ph. D, and he uses statements by some of your favorite evolutionary scientists to insist evolution doesn’t exist.

i challenge you to write a refutation on this one.

Challenge accepted.

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33 responses so far

Feb 25 2011

Supreme Court Decision on Vaccine Injury

I previously wrote about the case of Hannah Bruesewitz, a girl who developed a seizure disorder soon after receiving her third in a series of five DTwP vaccines. (You may want to read the previous post before going on, and this post is a follow up.) To briefly recap – Hannah’s parents claim that the DTwP vaccine caused their daughter’s brain injury and seizure disorder. They sued in vaccine court and their case was dismissed. So they decided to file a civil suit.

The Supreme Court has now ruled on whether or not the parents can sue in civil court for an alleged vaccine injury – and they decided 6-2 that the answer is no.

There are a couple of issues here. One (which was actually not the focus of the SC ruling) is whether or not the DTwP vaccine causes neurological injury. I reviewed the literature in my last post – essentially the evidence is against a link between this vaccine and any neurological injury. However, the DTwP has largely been replaced with the DTaP vaccine, which is potentially safer.

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11 responses so far

Feb 24 2011

Locked-In and Happy

Published by under Neuroscience

A recently published survey of patients suffering from locked-in syndrome finds that many of them (47/91) report being happy. Only 18 in the same group reported being unhappy, and only 7% reported suicidal thoughts. Of note, there were all chronic patients, and longer duration of locked-in syndromes (LIS) correlated with greater happiness.

Locked-in syndrome results from brain damage, from either trauma, stroke, or similar event, with damage at the level of the brainstem. This results in almost complete paralysis – patients cannot move their arms and legs and cannot speak but they can partially move their eyes. Many learn to communicate by blinking in a yes/no fashion.

From the outside this certainly seems like a horrific situation. The ability to communicate, socialize, and engage in anything recreational is severely limited, and indeed patients with LIS do complain of these things as limiting their happiness. But this study suggests that we should not just assume what people with chronic LIS are feeling.

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47 responses so far

Feb 22 2011

Atheism and Morality – Jon Topping Responds

In response to my earlier post today, the target of my post, Jon Topping, wrote a response in the comments. I thank Jon for stopping by and participating in the conversation. One of the reasons I chose to respond to his YouTube video is because he is trying to frame the argument in terms of logic. Here is his response, with my responses:

Great write up, enjoyed it very much.
Atheism requires a naturalistic cause. Evolution is the only natural cause we know of. I would say evolution is not sufficient for atheism, but it is necessary.

To be clear, atheism is simply the absence of belief in a deity. Most (but certainly not all) atheists are also naturalists, meaning that they believe the universe follows natural laws of cause and effect and that it is not valid to introduce supernatural causes as an explanation for what we observe in the natural world. Certainly for a naturalist, evolution is the only game in town in terms of the origin of species. It actually does not deal with the origin of life, or the origin of the universe, although these are often conflated.

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196 responses so far

Feb 22 2011

Does Atheism Lead to Immorality?

This is an argument that will just not go away – that atheism leads to the absence of morality. I was recently pointed to this YouTube video once again making this point. Yes – this is just some random guy (Jon Topping) on the internet, but he is trying to put forward a logical argument and he is making the standard argument  – the same one I have heard from many religious sources, so it’s fair game.

His argument is fundamentally a false dichotomy – objective morality comes from belief in God (or some supernatural thingy) and if you are an atheist then morality has no objective basis and your morality must ultimately be subjective, which he argues logically leads to amorality. He dismisses many straw-man alternatives but never addresses the true alternative to his simple dichotomy, something again I find common.

First, let’s address his premises. He equates atheism with belief in evolution. This is not valid, but I will give him that most atheists accept evolution, because they have no reason to dismiss the overwhelming scientific consensus. Where he gets into trouble is in equating evolution with doing everything you can to survive and pass on your genes, even if it means stealing and killing. This is a simplistic and outdated view of evolution – of nature “red in tooth and claw.”

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53 responses so far

Feb 21 2011

Body Snatchers, Phantom Limbs, and Alien Hands

One of the critical bits of wisdom central to a skeptical outlook is the realization that our brains are not objective perceivers of reality. Not even close. What we perceive as reality is constructed in an active process that is rife with assumptions and flaws. Everything you take for granted about what you experience as yourself and the outside world is actively constructed by specific brain processes.

There are some assumptions that are so fundamental to your construct of reality that you take them for granted – you are not even aware they are happening. We only know about them from cases where these mechanisms break down. For example, there is specific brain processing that makes you feel as if you are separate from the rest of the universe. If this processing breaks down, you will have the sense of feeling merged or one with the universe. Most people who experience this, usually as a consequence of psychoactive chemicals, feel that they have had a profound experience. In a way they have – they have had a “for the world is hollow and I have touched the sky” moment. They have peeked behind the curtain of their brain’s function and have experienced what it is like to have their brains construct reality in a different manner from what they are used to.

In essence they have had a profound internal experience. Many people however will interpret this as an external experience – that in some meaningful way they have touched the universe or experienced God or something similar. It is no surprise that many cultures have traditions that involve the use of psychoactive drugs in order to induce profound spiritual experiences.

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63 responses so far

Feb 18 2011

Dr. Watson

Recently an IBM computer program, named Watson, beat the pants off the two top performing Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. This if being hailed as a demonstration of the superiority of computers over human intelligence, and also a breakthrough in intelligent systems (although no one is claiming any sort of artificial consciousness for Watson). The demonstration has also sparked speculation about how systems such as Watson can be applied in the future – with some speculation going too far, in my opinion.

First, let’s find out what Watson actually is. IBM describes Watson as a “system designed for answers” and to work with natural language. They chose Jeopardy (a trivia game show) as a model of this task. This is how they describe the hardware:

Operating on a single CPU, it could take Watson two hours to answer a single question. A typical Jeopardy! contestant can accomplish this feat in less than three seconds. For Watson to rival the speed of its human competitors in delivering a single, precise answer to a question requires custom algorithms, terabytes of storage and thousands of POWER7 computing cores working in a massively parallel system.

It is interesting to know that in order to create the winning performance in real time such a massive system was required – thousands of computing cores. Such a system won’t be sitting on the average desktop anytime soon. However, Moore’s law (assuming it continues to hold up for a while, which seems to be the consensus) predicts that within 20 years or so we will have today’s super computers on a desktop.

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16 responses so far

Feb 17 2011

Lucy’s Feet

Published by under Education,Skepticism

Lucy is one of the most famous fossil specimens of a human ancestor we have. It is a fossil of a female Australopithecus afarensis, a species that lived from 3.7 to 2.9 million years ago. This is soon after the split from our common ancestor with the chimpanzees (about 6-8 million years ago). It therefore tells us a great deal about the evolutionary forces that were shaping the hominid line.

One question of great significance is the extent to which A afarensis was bipedal. Was it bipedalism that defined the hominid line and made humans what they are, or was bipedalism a later adaptation?

The consensus has been that A. afarensis was indeed bipedal. This comes from multiple independent lines of evidence – the shape of the pelvis, the articulation with the femur, and details of the spine, for example. However, at the same time examination of the upper extremities reveals retained adaptations for life in the trees, such as strong curved fingers for gripping branches.

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9 responses so far

Feb 15 2011

Reporting Medical Cases as Human Interest Stories: Chase Britton Edition

I have not been shy about discussing journalistic behavior that I despise – so here’s another one. Take an unusual medical case and report the following about it: 1) Doctors are baffled,  2) this challenges everything we thought we knew, 3) some are calling this remarkable case a miracle, 4) the patient (or their parents) did not listen to the doctor’s negativity, and bravely persevered.

In the reporting of the case make sure you emphasize the unknown as much as possible. Doctors are just besides themselves with how dang impossible the whole thing is. Then find a physician or other expert who is relatively clueless about how to deal with the media and goad them into saying all kinds of irresponsible but very sensational statements. In order to showcase the triumph of the human spirit, exaggerate as much as possible how much better the patient is doing than they should be, according to those nasty skeptical doctors.

Now before someone accuses me of being a curmudgeon, let me say that I get the human interest angle of unusual medical stories. I have no problem with showcasing brave and optimistic patients or parents, or even overly enthusiastic therapists. But I do object to rank mystery-mongering, getting the facts wrong, and not talking to proper experts. I also find it annoying when physicians or scientists who are not media savvy ram their feet down their throats.

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28 responses so far

Feb 14 2011

Reporting Preliminary Studies

A recent study, presented as a poster at the American Stroke Association International Stroke Conference, found a 61% increase in risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease among survey respondents who reported drinking diet soda compared to those who drank no soda.  The study has resulted in a round of reporting from the media, and in turn I have received many questions about the study.

Frequent readers of this blog should have no problem seeing the potential flaws in such a study. First – it is an observational study based upon self-reporting. At best such a study could show correlation, but by itself cannot build a convincing case for causation. Perhaps people who are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, for whatever reason, are more likely to choose diet sodas because they are trying to avoid unnecessary calories. Questions that should immediately come to mind – what factors were controlled for and how was the information gathered? According to an ABC report:

The researchers used data obtained though the multi-ethnic, population-based Northern Manhattan Study to examine risk factors for stroke, heart attack and other vascular events such as blood clots in the limbs. While 901 participants reported drinking no soda at the start of the study, 163 said they drank one or more diet sodas per day.

The study also controlled for “smoking, physical activity, alcohol consumption and calories consumed per day.”

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3 responses so far

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