Archive for April, 2011

Apr 29 2011

European Union to Regulate Herbal Products

Regulations are about to go into effect in the EU regarding the sale of herbal products. The regulations seem reasonable, but they have sparked near hysteria on the part of herbal sellers and advocates of “natural” medicine.

The law was sparked by cases of toxicity from over-the-counter herbal products. For example, aristolochia is a toxic plant species that is either used deliberately or can be accidentally or carelessly substituted for other plant species. It is known to cause kidney damage – even leading to kidney failure is some cases. Another herb, kava, has been linked to liver damage.

The new EU law, going into effect May 1, 2011, will require herbal products to be licensed, or prescribed by a licensed herbal practitioner. In order to be licensed evidence for safety of the product must be presented. It is estimated that it will cost between 80,000 and 120,000 British pounds to get an individual herbal product licensed.

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14 responses so far

Apr 28 2011

Social Media and Health Priorities

We are in the middle of a social-media revolution, which is rapidly changing the way we access information and engage in public discussion. The change is still incomplete, and all the ramifications are not yet clear – but that change is happening rapidly is clear. Scientific and health care institutions in particular are struggling to deal with these changes, to take advantage of them while not being buried by them.

In the past, to a large extent, scientists would largely talk with each other through journals and meetings, and only when scientific ideas reached a certain threshold would the media and the public take notice. But increasingly social media are allowing for the public to peek at the backroom process of science. Climategate is one example of what can happen when the candid comments of scientists (in this case via e-mail) are leaked to the public. While it seems there was no actual wrongdoing, the e-mails created a scandal that affected the public’s confidence in climate science.

More recently an internal memo among scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was leaked, leading to rumors that the Higgs boson had been discovered. But this was a very preliminary interpretation of results, the kind that happens frequently but had yet to be verified. This was just part of the noise of day-to-day research that would normally not filter through to the public attention.

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12 responses so far

Apr 27 2011

Open Invitation to Dr. Oz

In follow up to my recent appearance on the Dr. Oz show, I am extending an open invitation to Dr. Oz to continue our conversation. He can either engage in a written exchange on science-based medicine, or he can appear as a guest on my podcast, the SGU.

You can read about my appearance on Dr. Oz where we discussed so called “alternative medicine,” here at NeuroLogica, and also Orac wrote a nice analysis as well. As you can see, while I was given a chance to make some points, Dr. Oz made many more points to which I was not given an opportunity to respond. He was able to frame and control the discussion in a way favorable to his point of view. And further there was far too little time to address the many issues that were raised.

If Dr. Oz is serious about addressing these issues, then let us continue the conversation in a longer and more balanced format.

24 responses so far

Apr 26 2011

A Skeptic in Oz

Cross-posted from Science-Based Medicine

I must say I was a bit shocked two weeks ago when I was contacted by a producer for The Dr. Oz Show inviting me on to discuss alternative medicine. We have been quite critical of Dr. Mehmet Oz over his promotion of dubious medical treatments and practitioners, and I wondered if they were aware of the extent of our criticism (they were, it turns out).

Despite the many cautions I received from friends and colleagues (along with support as well) – I am always willing to engage those with whom I disagree. I knew it was a risk going into a forum completely controlled by someone who does not appear to look kindly upon my point of view, but a risk worth taking. I could only hope I was given the opportunity to make my case (and that it would survive the editing process).

The Process

Of course, everyone was extremely friendly throughout the entire process, including Dr. Oz himself (of that I never had any doubt). The taping itself went reasonably well. I was given what seemed a good opportunity to make my points. However, Dr. Oz did reserve for himself the privilege of getting in the last word—including a rather long finale, to which I had no opportunity to respond. Fine—it’s his show, and I knew what I was getting into. It would have been classy for him to give an adversarial guest the last word, or at least an opportunity to respond, but I can’t say I expected it.

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58 responses so far

Apr 26 2011

IQ and Motivation

Published by under Neuroscience

A recent study finds that motivation is a key component of performance on standardized IQ test. Researchers compared IQ scores with and without a material incentive to perform well. They found that everyone performs better with the incentive, but those with lower baseline IQ scored have a larger effect. They conclude from this that performing well on an IQ test requires both intelligence and motivation, but that those who score poorly may lack either one or both – and some simply lack motivation.

These results reflect a broader theme I often point out to students – when we examine the nervous system we are mostly asking people to perform specific tasks and then we infer how well the system is working based upon their performance. We cannot (with few exceptions) directly interrogate the nervous system to see how well certain components are functioning. So we design tasks that are meant to isolate, as much as possible, one function and to also maximally stress that function.

But it is impossible to completely isolate one subsystem within the brain, and so other functions can interfere with our testing, and we have to tease this out by using multiple tasks and then triangulating to the common element that seems to be causing trouble. This is most true for cognitive function.

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17 responses so far

Apr 25 2011


There is another major measles outbreak in Europe. The WHO reports:

The World Health Organization said Thursday that France had 4,937 reported cases of measles between January and March – compared with 5,090 cases during all of 2010. In all, more than 6,500 cases have been reported in 33 European nations.

That is four times the rate of 2010. I know – these reports are almost getting boring. The shock has worn off – we have come to accept that previously conquered diseases (at least reduced to minimal cases without outbreaks) have come back. The cause seems clear – outbreaks occur where herd immunity has been lost due to vaccine non-compliance. Fewer people are getting vaccinated, and not much fewer. But the numbers are falling below herd immunity levels in pockets. When vaccination rates fall below a certain level, then infectious organisms are able to spread and cause an outbreak.

The anti-vaccine movement has successfully spread unwarranted fear of vaccines, resulting in the compromise of herd immunity. There is a toll of morbidity and mortality associated with this movement.

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24 responses so far

Apr 20 2011

A New Hominin – A. sediba

Published by under Evolution

Following the branching bush of human evolution is getting increasingly difficult. When I studied human evolution in college, things were much simpler. There were a few Australopithecus species followed by a few Homo species, leading to modern humans. It was recognized at the time that these fossil species probably did not represent a nice clean straight line to Homo sapiens, but it seems the family tree has become much bushier than was imagined at the time.

Here is a recent representation of the hominin family tree. We have added more species of Australopithecus and Homo, plus new genuses of Kenyanthropus and Paranthropus (not even including older genuses that predate Australopithecus).

Now researchers have announced the discovery of yet another species of early hominin, about 2 million years old – likely a late species of Australopithecus named A. sediba. They discovered four individuals – two adults, a child and an infant, who likely fell into a “death trap”  in a cave in what is now Malapa, South Africa.

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20 responses so far

Apr 19 2011

Efficient Slaughter

Humans are efficient killers – and we have been for a long time. It seems like the inevitable consequence of our cognitive evolution combined with our tribal and hunting instincts. It’s one of those quirks of evolution. When the right combination of features arises in a species, it can have profound effects on an entire ecosystem – or an entire planet.

But let’s back up a bit to pre-historic Homo sapiens. Various hunter cultures figured out ways to mass slaughter hundreds or even thousands of animals, even very large animals. In the Americas, for example. the Clovis culture (11-13k BP) learned how to take down very large prey, such as mammoths, but they generally killed only one or a few at a time.

They were succeeded by the Folsom culture (9-11k BP) who figured out how to surround their prey and kill dozens at a time. Later paleo-indians figured out how to herd bison over cliffs, killing hundreds at a time. It is still controversial the extent to which this overkilling contributed to the decline and extinction of some large game in the Americas (vs environmental or other factors).

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22 responses so far

Apr 18 2011

Attention and Memory

Published by under Neuroscience

By now most readers have likely seen the famous basketball-passing video. But if you have not, check it out here before reading further. It’s a fun test, but will be spoiled by the discussion here.

The phenomenon demonstrated by the video is called inattentional blindness (I have also seen attentional blindness and inattention blindness). It reflects the fact that we have a finite capacity to process information. We cannot attend to all the sensory information coming from our environment at the same time, let alone do that and attend to other cognitive tasks as well, like solving a math problem. So, moment to moment, we apply our finite capacity selectively to one or a few tasks. The more tasks we try to do simultaneously (multitasking) the fewer cognitive resources can be applied to each task, and performance suffers.

Most people cannot effectively multitask, even if they think they can. Only about 2.5% of people can genuinely multitask – perform two demanding cognitive tasks simultaneously without both suffering. For most people, multitasking comes at a price. We can divide our attention, but not without a decrease in performance. Many states now have laws reflecting this research – prohibiting talking on cell phones while driving.

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35 responses so far

Apr 16 2011

My Friday

Published by under Skepticism

You may have noticed that there was no post yesterday (Friday).  I occasionally miss Friday when I am away at a convention or other event, and I missed yesterday for a similar reason. With very short notice I was asked to appear on a national TV show. I am not yet at liberty to reveal which one. Nor do I know exactly when it will air, but I should know soon, and the episode should air within a few weeks, so stay tuned. Suffice it to say, I think it’s going to be interesting. The taping went well (as good as can be expected), now I just have to wait and see what the editing does to it. I think the entire experience was worth missing a day of blogging. More info in a week or so.

BTW – If someone here somehow got wind of this, please do not reveal anything here. I promised the producers no mention until I get the green light.

Now I am off to ICON at Stony Brook in northern Long Island, NY. I have a full day of science panels. Hope to see some of you there:


Update: The show has been announced, so I am free to report that I will be on the Dr. Oz show Tuesday:

22 responses so far

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