Archive for July, 2011

Jul 29 2011

Is Intelligence Inevitable?

Published by under Evolution

I received the following question in my inbox this morning, and thought it would be a great topic for my blog today:

The dinosaurs were wiped out, along with much of the species of the Earth at some point. The few species that managed to survive eventually evolved and branched until something made it all the way to the modern human.

My question is – if humans were wiped off of the earth, would whatever primitive animal or insect that survives after our demise have no other choice than to evolve into something more intelligent than we are today? Or, is our human intellect the result of a very specific evolutionary path.

It makes sense to me that acquiring intelligence, at some point in the long, long process of evolution, would be one of the very few ways to get a leg up on your competition. The clever roaches live, ensure survival, pass along those smart genes. The next generation has an even higher bar, so only the most clever of those roaches survives, and so on.

Assume the only surviving species is a left undisturbed by the universe, and is coerced by its environment to compete and adapt until the end of time. Would intelligence be unavoidable?

This is a great question. Is the evolution of intelligence inevitable given the clear survival advantages of being smarter. This question is relevant to the Drake equation – on planets with life, how often will a technological intelligence arise?

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43 responses so far

Jul 28 2011

Some Bad Reporting about Archaeopteryx

Archaeopteryx lithographic is one of my favorite fossils. The Berlin specimen is practically a work of art. It is also a classic example of a transitional species, with a compelling blend of avian and dinosaur features. As much as it’s possible for a single fossil to be so, Archaeopteryx is a smoking gun of the evolution of birds from theropod dinosaurs.

It is also a much maligned fossil. Creationists have attacked it in every way imaginable, calling it a fraud, and ironically at times saying it’s just a dinosaur, and at others saying it’s just a bird.

But perhaps the most common misconception about the fossil, and about transitional fossils in general, is that their value as evidence for an evolutionary connection is dependent on their being a literal ancestor of the descendant group (in this case, birds). In other words, Archaeopteryx’s value as a transitional fossil is dependent on it being on the direct line that led to birds. This, however, is almost certainly not the case, and is also mostly irrelevant.

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10 responses so far

Jul 26 2011

How Dedicated Minorities Become Majorities

Published by under Neuroscience

One of my favorite science fiction series is the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. In this series one of the main characters, Hari Seldon, is a psycho-historian, a scholar who uses knowledge of human psychology to explain and predict major trends in history. I always thought the idea intriguing, but probably ultimately a lost cause.

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have attempted to take a baby step toward something like psycho-history – studying how ideas spread through society. In the age of information we seem to be engaged in a pitched competition of ideas, which I think is a very healthy thing for society. So understanding how ideas spread and gain traction can be very useful.

The researchers used computer models of various types of social networks to see what factors contribute to the successful spread of a minority opinion to a majority view. Here’s the punch line – once an idea is adopted by just 10% of the population it reaches a tipping point where it rapidly spreads to become the majority view.

In their models they considered individuals to be either true believers, who were firmly dedicated to the new idea, or general population, who did not hold the idea but were open-minded. This is a critical variable as they did not account for resistance in the general population to the idea, nor to the existence of competing “true believers.” Therefore their models would not be applicable to any idea that has dedicated opponents, or to which there is strong cultural resistance.

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13 responses so far

Jul 25 2011

What’s Causing the Obesity Epidemic

There is no question that Americans are getting fatter. The CDC animated graphic tells the tale – state by state statistics of the percentage of population that are obese. The big question is, what’s causing it? There are three main hypotheses, which are not mutually exclusive. The first is that activity levels are down. People, especially children, are spending more time indoors in front of computer screens and TVs and less time outside running around. The second is that people are eating more calories. And the third is that the type of calories we are eating is playing a significant role. There are two main camps in this third group: those who blame fat consumption and those who blame carbohydrates.

I do not feel that the evidence supports the third group – blaming calorie type. This hypothesis is great for selling books advocating one fad diet or another, but there is just no convincing evidence that altering the type of calories consumed has a significant effect on weight. Certainly the low-carb craze has not caused a blip in the steady rise of obesity in the country, just like the low-fat craze failed to have an effect. You can argue that this is because not enough people actually adopted an effective diet. However, if book sales are any indication, millions of people tried low-carb diets, and they do not appear to have struck upon the secret of easy weight loss. The clinical data also shows that weight loss is generally a factor of total calories, not calorie type.

It is true that Americans are becoming more sedentary, and it’s hard to imagine that this is not contributing to some degree to the obesity problem. But the data is not clear. The evidence shows an overall association between obesity and greater time spent in sedentary activities. However, recent data suggests that obesity causes lower activity levels (at least in children), not the other way around.

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105 responses so far

Jul 22 2011

Pure, Slick Pseudoscience

I have been wading into the cesspool of pseudoscience for many years, so it’s difficult to shock me. I have become thoroughly convinced of the axiom that there is no claim so absurd that it cannot attract flocks of true believers. The default mode of human psychology is to think with our emotions, then deftly rationalize our decisions. As a result there do not appear to be any practical limits to human gullibility.

Even still, some pseudosciences are so slick that they can manage to catch my eye. Recently I was asked about a new product – just another in the endless line of dubious health products. Here is an excerpt from the e-mail:

I have thyroid cancer and am considering purchasing an expensive product made by Enzacta that may cure me.

Their representatives say that their product will probably cure my cancer and that I should get into their MLM business (it’s one of the fastest growing businesses in the U.S.) so that I can recommend it to other people because it also cures Autism, ADHD, Down’s Syndrome, Parkinson’s, and a lot more.

Their representatives tell me that I should go and see their presentations that are being given by M.D.s that support the product.

My friend tells me that the company is spouting a bunch of scientifically sounding non-science mumbo-jumbo, and that their M.D.s are either unethical or idiots.

I checked out the brochure – it is, in my opinion, a masterwork of health supplement pseudoscience. In fact it can be used as a textbook example of exactly what’s wrong with the regulation of such products. This past week, at TAM9, we presented a workshop on the major categories of medical pseudoscience – and this product hits almost all of them.

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19 responses so far

Jul 21 2011

Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease

Published by under Neuroscience

In the latest incarnation of Planet of the Apes, Mark Wahlberg plays Captain Leo Davidson, a researcher on a space station. The movie is set in 2029 and typically presents technology far in advance of anything we can reasonably hope to have by that date (the station depicted could not be built even if we started it today). Future fiction tends to overestimate short term technological advance and underestimate long term advance.

In the film Davidson is researching a cure for Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Apparently the writers think our space technology is advancing much faster than neuroscience, which is the opposite of my impression. But it is true that today we do not have a thorough understanding of what causes AD nor are we on the heels of a cure. We are far enough away from a cure, in fact, that we cannot predict when such a breakthrough will occur.

Also, it is probably misleading to think in terms of “cure.” While a complete cure would be nice, it is more likely that we will develop partial treatments that reduce the risk of developing AD and slow its progression. We may even slow progression to the point where it is inconsequential – not exactly a cure, but pretty close. We already have a few drugs that are considered symptomatic treatment – they improve memory function mildly in AD patients, enough to keep them out of nursing homes for a few more months on average, but overall a modest effect.

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9 responses so far

Jul 20 2011

The Internet and Skepticism

Published by under Skepticism

How has the internet affected the skeptical movement and the promotion of science and critical thinking? Is the internet a boon or a bane to scientific literacy?

This question came up several times at the recent TAM conference, including while we were being interviewed for an article in TidBITS, a tech journal.

I wish I had more scientific evidence with which to answer this question. But I do have some informed opinions based upon being in the trenches for the last decade.

There is no question that the advent of social media, blogs, and podcasts correlated with an explosion in the skeptical community. We went from being a loose collection of small local groups, with a few national groups largely pursuing their own agenda, to a vibrant intellectual community. At the recent TAM there was over 1600 people in attendance – which is unprecedented for this type of meeting.

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14 responses so far

Jul 19 2011

The Rise and Fall of Placebo Medicine

I am just getting back from The Amazing Meeting (TAM9 from Outer Space) – it was awesome but I had no time to blog while there. One of the events I participated in at TAM was a panel discussion on placebo medicine. We decided to focus on placebos for our science-based medicine panel because it increasingly looks like this will be the front lines for the next phase of the battle against pseudoscience in medicine.

I began the panel discussion by declaring victory, of a sorts. Over the last two decades the public and the scientific community have be told by CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) proponents that we were missing out on many potentially very useful and effective medical treatments simply because they are from other cultures or do not fit into the current scientific paradigm. “Give us the resources to research these diamonds in the rough,” they argued, “and we will give you new tools to promote health.”

Well – a couple a decades and a few billions of dollars worth of research later, and the CAM community has essentially nothing to show for it. The research is in: none of the major CAM modalities actually work. The evidence shows that homeopathy is just water, that acupuncture is no more effective than the kind attention of the practitioner, and that mystical life energies in fact do not exist.

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64 responses so far

Jul 12 2011

Sagan Series

Published by under Skepticism

I am off to TAM9 today, so I only have time for a brief entry.

Carl Sagan was one of my intellectual heroes. I know I have written this before – but he is my role model for the way to popularize science and rationalism. He combined poetry and the awe of the scientific view of the world better than anyone else I can think of. I love just listening to his voice.

That’s why I love the Sagan Series by Reid Gower. He takes Sagan’s voice from Cosmos, and also I think from his books on tape, a sets them to music and imagery. He does a great job, and it’s a nice tribute to Sagan’s legacy. I recommend you check them out.

Also – I was informed that the 6th video in the series is out and a certain neurological blogger makes a brief appearance (something about science in the media). Needless to say I was a bit stunned, and honored, to be placed next to Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye in that context.

Now it’s time to fill my head with all the excellent skepticism at The Amazing Meeting. I will try to find a few moments while there to blog anything interesting that happens.

16 responses so far

Jul 11 2011

Sleep Paralysis

Recently I received the following e-mail:

Thank you so much for your show. The other night your podcast saved me from a night full of stress and fear. I woke up in the middle of the night after a nightmare not being able to move and started hearing voices. My eyes were wide open, I could see that everything was normal but kept hearing a voices asking me to go to bible studies. After five minutes of freaking out I remembered sleep paralysis stories from you show and realized what was happening to me. I rode the strange voices out for an hour just realizing my mind misfiring and not having a spiritual awakening.

I have heard similar stories from other readers/listeners and also my patients. I have also had similar experiences myself (always when sleep-deprived). They can be quite frightening and unpleasant. A typical episode of sleep paralysis, or hypnagogic (when falling asleep) / hypnapompic (when waking up) hallucinations includes the feeling of being paralyzed combined with a sense that there is a malevolent presence in the room. Often there is also the sense of pressure on the chest, as if it is difficult to breathe or even that something is sitting on your chest. There may also be auditory and visual hallucinations to complete the package. The situation is scary enough, but there also appears to be an element of spontaneous terror as well.

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288 responses so far

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