Archive for November, 2011

Nov 11 2011


Published by under Neuroscience

Numerology is a funny thing – the magical belief that numbers possess a mystical meaning and power beyond their mathematical notation. Numbers speak to us, they resonate somewhere in our brains.  Perhaps it is because they present an opportunity for pattern recognition and data mining. But it seems to be more than that. We notice when the odometer ticks over from 29,999 miles to 30,000 miles. And we notice when there are funny patterns with numbers.

For example, today is November 11, 2011 – 11/11/11. Skeptics understand that there is no cosmic significance to this. Our calendar numbering system is completely arbitrary, and so the date has no more significance than the change from Dec 31, 1999 to Jan 1, 2000 (putting aside the debate about when the new millennium actually started). With Y2K there was a number-based computer issue, one that was largely fixed by feverishly updating old code. With 11/11/11 there’s nothing but a pretty pattern. Next year we will have 12/12/12, which is just as insignificant, although some people claim (I think mostly not seriously) this will be the end of the world as predicted by the Mayan calendar.

But still, it’s cool. There is something as least passingly neat about the fact that today is 11/11/11.

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Nov 10 2011

When Science Fails – Bully

There seems to be no end to the questionable tactics of CAM promoters. The one thing they do not have on their side is the science. Two decades ago, when they really started clamoring for legitimacy, their frequent cry was that all they wanted was a fair chance to prove that their modalities worked. They claimed that treatments like acupuncture and homeopathy were simply not studied, and once they were properly studied the world would see how effective they were.

Now, two decades and billions of research dollars later (mostly through the NCCAM) the evidence is increasingly clear – these modalities are alternative for a reason, they don’t work. Those clinical trials that are well controlled an rigorously designed demonstrate that acupuncture, homeopathy, reiki, and similar methods do not work any better than placebo. They are physiologically inert.

If proponents were intellectually honest, they would have simply admitted this and moved on. But CAM proponents use scientific evidence (to borrow an excellent metaphor) as a drunkard uses a lamppost, for support rather than illumination.

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Nov 08 2011

US Government Says There Is No UFO Conspiracy

While I welcome the disclosure, the fact that the US government has now officially stated that they are not hiding evidence of alien contact is not likely to change any minds.

The Obama White House has created a website called We the People in which anyone can write a petition for information from the administration. The current rules state that a petition has to achieve 150 signatures within 30 days to appear on the publicly searchable database, and then must reach 25,000 signatures within 30 days in order to trigger a response from the administration. This second threshold was just increased from 5,000. The two UFO petitions combined garnered 17,000 signatures, but I guess it beat the increase to the higher threshold.

UFO conspiracy theorists have been claiming for years that the US government has been hiding extensive knowledge of contact with aliens. The alleged crashed saucer at Roswell New Mexico is just one famous example. The conspiracy claims include the claim that the government maintains a secret facility, Area 51, in which they examine recovered alien craft, and that they are attempting (and perhaps even succeeded) to reverse engineer alien technology. Many claim that a shadow organization exists within the government, or perhaps is even transnational, such as the Men in Black, who swoop in and suppress any hard evidence of aliens when encounters occur. Some also claim that the government is in contact with aliens and is collaborating with them.

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Nov 07 2011

Holmesian Deduction

Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most iconic detective in literature. His character continues to enthrall – there is a new BBC series with a modern Sherlock Holmes, and other popular TV characters, such as House, are significantly based on Holmes. What I think is endlessly compelling about Holmes is the seemingly preternatural skill with which he “deduces” specific facts about people and situations, based upon careful observation and a rigorous thought process. But then he makes it all seem so easy in retrospect when he reveals his method.

Because Holmes is such a fascinating character and Doyle wrote prolifically about this character, Holmes is also a useful and frequently used example of logic and the process of detective work. I took a course on Holmes in medical school, using Sherlock Holmes short stories as examples of diagnostic principles (Arthur Conan Doyle was a physician, and clearly drew upon this experience in writing Holmes). A recent Scientific American article, for example, used Holmesian logic as an example of how not to make several common fallacies of thinking – falling for the conjunction fallacy, the representativeness heuristic, and failure to consider the base-rate.

Briefly, we tend to assume that someone belongs to a category if they have features we find representative of that category, or if we can readily bring to mind similar examples. We tend not to consider the base rate – what percentage of the relevant population belongs to that category. Sherlock Holmes encapsulated part of this idea with his famous quip to Watson that if you hear clopping on a cobblestone street in London, think horse, not zebra. This principle is common in medical diagnosis, and in fact we call rare diseases (those with a low base-rate) “zebras” after Holmes’ example. In other words – even if a person has signs and symptoms that resemble a specific disease, the probability of that diagnosis is still low if the base rate is very low – it’s a rare disease. In fact, an atypical presentation of a very common disease may be more likely than a typical presentation of a rare disease.

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