Archive for May, 2012

May 31 2012

Richard Leakey, Evolution and Motivated Reasoning

Richard Leakey, son of Mary and Louis Leakey, is a deservedly famous paleoanthropologist who has contributed significantly to our understanding of human evolution. In a recent interview he expressed his confidence that skepticism over evolutionary theory will fade away over the next 15-30 years. He is quoted as saying:

“If you get to the stage where you can persuade people on the evidence, that it’s solid, that we are all African, that color is superficial, that stages of development of culture are all interactive,” Leakey says, “then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges.”

While I hope this is true, I am not as optimistic. I think the primary problem with his argument is the premise that you can get to the stage, “where you can persuade people on the evidence.”  In my opinion the evidence indicates that for many people, you cannot persuade them on the evidence. Unfortunately, human psychology simply does not work that way.

I agree with his premise that the evidence for evolution as a fact is overwhelming. In fact, I think we are already there. We do not need to wait 15-30 years for the evidence to be solid and convincing. There is a confluence of evidence from genetics, paleontology, anatomy, and developmental biology that has only one scientific explanation – common ancestry and organic evolution. We’re still working out the details, but the big picture is crystal clear.

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18 responses so far

May 29 2012

Modern Medical Zombies

There was a lot of buzz over the long weekend within skeptical circles about a recent article by Mike Adams of Natural News infamy about the coming zombie apocalypse. In the article Adams, who is notorious among skeptics as a conspiracy theorist and promoter of every sort of dubious medical medical claim, reports the story of a Miami man who was shot by police because he was eating the face off another man and would not stop when instructed to do so.

Let me say right off that I get that Adams is being tongue-in-cheek through most of his article. He is using the current cultural fascination with zombies as a metaphor for the kind of medical zombies he thinks modern society is creating. I understand the use of satire and metaphor, and have done so myself on occasion. But I have also learned to be crystal clear about it (and even then you run the risk of being misinterpreted). I found Adam’s article, however, to blend points he was seriously trying to make with distortions and metaphors in a very unclear way. It doesn’t help that his serious points are themselves conspiracy mongering and fear mongering nonsense.

Here, I think, is the actual point Adams is trying to make:

Humans who subject themselves to fluoride, aspartame, psychiatric drugs, vaccines and street drugs end up lobotomizing their higher brains. Vaccines, for starters, cause extreme neurological damage, and some vaccines are actually made of aggressive viruses designed to “eat” targeted regions of the brain, resulting in a biological lobotomy.

See what I mean? Adams occupies that part of CAM world that is anti-government, conspiracy mongering, and anti-medical establishment. Those imperatives seem to trump science and reason at every turn. The anti-fluoride community is a very vocal minority who have had some success in scaring communities away from a safe and effective public health measure. They employ misinformation, distortion, and half-truths to fear-monger about fluoride.

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32 responses so far

May 25 2012

Understanding Evolution and Being a Good Doctor

I need to dip into the topic suggestions more often. Here is a good recent question:

Hi Dr. Novella,

Over at Why Evolution is True Jerry Coyne wrote about Ben Carson, the creationists doctor at Johns Hopkins, saying some bizarre stuff about evolution. In the comments a couple people have made the point that they don’t think understanding evolution is directly relevant to being a doctor (especially a surgeon, ENT, or oncologists). One commenter even said he thought oncologists “have precisely and exactly zero need to understand evolutionary theory.”

I tried to argue that understanding the foundational principle of biology was directly relevant to physicians, in a variety of areas. I am very interesting in your views on the subject. Does understanding evolution help a doctor be better as her/his job? Is understanding evolution going above and beyond as a doctor, or something that should be expected of physicians?

Here’s the link to the main comment I had in mind (#30) and a couple responses, including mine:


In my opinion there are two basic questions here: how relevant is evolution to the science of medicine, and how does understanding the science of medicine impact the practice of medicine?

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51 responses so far

May 24 2012

The Aging Brain

Published by under Neuroscience

Maintaining our cognitive ability into old age is a top priority for some neuroscience researchers. As our population ages, cognitive decline and dementia are becoming more prevalent, requiring tremendous health care resources and having a significant impact on quality of life. Also, anyone who has had a family member suffer from dementia knows the heavy toll that this slow loss of self takes on the individual and their family.

A recent study sheds some light on the brain changes that correlate with cognitive decline in the elderly. Researchers studied 420 adults in their 70’s, using four different imaging methods to look at their brain anatomy. They found that the robustness of connections within the brain (the white matter tracts) correlated well with general intelligence.

What this study implies is that overall intelligence may be largely a factor of processing speed within the brain and the ability of the various brain regions to communicate with each other. General intelligence is less a factor of the function of any one or small number of brain regions. The white matter are the tracts in the brain where the axons that make up these connections reside.

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17 responses so far

May 22 2012

Video Game Violence

Published by under Neuroscience

A recent study looking at the correlation between video game violence and real world actions found a significant correlation, and that’s what the authors were hoping to find. The study was not looking at the propensity for violent video games to increase real world aggression or violence, but rather as a training tool.

Researchers compared several groups – playing a video game involving shooting at a human, shooting at a target, and non-shooting game, and also the shooting games either used a realistic gun-controller or a standard controller (like a joystick). They then had each group shoot a real gun at a human mannequin. They found that the group who played the video game involving shooting at humans with a gun-like controller had the highest accuracy overall including the most head shots. In the nonviolent shooting (using a target) there was not much of a difference between the gun vs non-gun controllers. The non-shooting video game did slightly worse overall on accuracy but significantly lower on head shots.

The results are not that surprising. Essentially they show that using a video game simulation of an activity does improve the real world skill, and the more similar the video game (in this case using a gun-like controller) the better the training. I was a bit surprised that the gun vs non-gun was not significantly different in the target shooting game.

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25 responses so far

May 21 2012

Mental Control of a Robotic Arm

Published by under Neuroscience

Another step has been taken in the research to develop practical brain-machine interfaces (BMI). The basic concept, as I have discussed previously, is to read electrical activity from the brain, then use a computer to interpret that electrical activity and use it to control something, which can be a cursor on a computer screen, a robotic arm, or any other electrical device.

In order for this technology to be useful it has to be possible for the person whose mental activity is being monitored to learn how to control the cursor or robot with their thoughts. Previous research shows that brain plasticity allows for such BMI prosthetics to feel natural – in other words, it is possible to learn how to control external devices through a BMI just as if they were a part of the body.

There are two basic ways to read electrical activity, through implanted sensors or through scalp sensors. The implanted sensors are much better because they are in direct contact with the brain, but then there needs to be some way for the sensor to communicate outside the brain. This is done currently with wires. This, of course, is an invasive procedure and can have complications. The scalp sensors are much safer and easier to apply, but the resolution is much lower as the electrical activity of the brain is attenuated by the skull and scalp – so it’s like looking through a thick pane of foggy glass. For this reason it seems that the future of BMI will be implantable sensors.

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24 responses so far

May 17 2012

What Is Consciousness? Another Reply to Kastrup

Published by under Neuroscience

I hadn’t planned for this topic to take over my blog this week, but it happens. Judging by the comments there is significant interest in the issue of consciousness, and Kastrup and I are just getting to the real nub of the argument. So here is another installment – a reply to Kastrup’s latest offering. First, however, some background.

Materialism, Dualism, and Idealism

Philosophers of mind, such as David Chalmers, now recognize three general approaches to the question – what is consciousness? Materialism is the view that the mind is what the brain does. This is often stated as the mind is caused by the brain. Some commenters took exception to this phrase, saying it implies a dualist position, that the mind is its own thing,  but I disagree. The brain is the physical substance, while the mind or consciousness is a process that emerges from the brain. A dead or deeply comatose brain has no mind, so they are manifestly not the same thing. Language here is a bit imprecise, but I think the phrase – the brain causes the mind – is an acceptable short hand for the materialist position.

Dualism is the position that consciousness is something separate from the brain and not entirely caused by it. It may be a separate property of the universe (property dualism) or be something beyond the confines of our material universe. Whatever it is, it does not reduce to the firing of neurons in the brain, which cannot, in the opinion of dualists, explain subjective experience.

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187 responses so far

May 16 2012

Kastrup Responds

Published by under Neuroscience

Yesterday I wrote a reply to a science blogger, Bernardo Kastrup, who wrote a critique of an earlier blog post of mine. He has now written a reply to my reply. I find these blog discussions very useful – each side can take their time to compose their argument and we can usually get down to the key issues.  They can also be fun.

Kastrup begins, unfortunately, with a bit of whining.

While I appreciate his having taken the time to reply, I am also somewhat surprised by the sheer amount of space he dedicates to ad homenen attacks on me, which dilutes his argument and the quality of the debate.

Sure, I got a bit snarky in my reply, but I will point out that my criticisms were all valid. Also my two sharpest barbs were direct quotes from Kastrup against me. It’s bad form, in my opinion, to open up a debate with personal attacks and then whine when you get the exact same thing back.  But fine – let’s get past that and focus on the substance of the discussion. His next point, however, is also about form. He writes:

This is correct. So let me take the opportunity to be explicit: I only read the post that was forwarded to me, and my comments were based on that alone. If Novella’s position in other posts was more nuanced, I’ve missed that, since I do not know Novella’s work.

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93 responses so far

May 15 2012

Another Blogger Jumps Into the Dualism Fray

Published by under Neuroscience

It has been a while since I wrote about dualism – the notion that the mind is something more than the functioning of the brain. Previously I had a blog duel about dualism with creationist neurosurgeon, Michael Egnor. Now someone else has jumped into that discussion: blogger, author, and computer engineer Bernardo Kastrup has taken me on directly. The result is a confused and poorly argued piece all too typical of metaphysical apologists.

Kastrup’s major malfunction is to create a straw man of my position and then proceed to argue against that. He so blatantly misrepresents my position, in fact, that I have to wonder if he has serious problems with reading comprehension or is just so blinkered by his ideology that he cannot think straight (of course, these options are not mutually exclusive). I further think that he probably just read one blog post in the long chain of my posts about dualism and so did not make a sufficient effort to actually understand my position.

Kastrup is responding specifically to this blog post by me, a response to one by Egnor. Kastrups begins with this summary:

I found it to contain a mildly interesting but otherwise trite, superficial, and fallacious argument. Novella’s main point seems to be that correlation suffices to establish causation. He claims that Egnor denies that neuroscience has found sufficient correlation between brain states and mind states because subjective mind states cannot be measured.

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44 responses so far

May 14 2012

Ghost Box

Published by under Paranormal

The subculture of pseudoscientific ghost hunting continues to evolve. Have you heard of a “ghost box?” It seems all you have to do is put the word “ghost” in front of something and it becomes technical jargon for ghost hunters, and also a great example of begging the question. A cold spot in a house is therefore “ghost cold.” An electromagnetic field (EMF) detector becomes a “ghost detector.” And now a radio scanner has been rebranded as a “ghost box.” Of course no one has ever established that any of these phenomena have anything to do with ghosts, so they are putting the cart several miles ahead of the horse.

A more scientific and intellectually honest approach would be to declare such phenomena as anomalous (although I don’t think that they are). Ghost cold would more properly be termed anomalous cold, or a regional cold anomaly, or something like that. One hypothesis for the alleged cold anomaly would be some sort of supernatural entity (call it a ghost) that acts as a heat sink generating cold spots. First, however, researchers should endeavor to find a mundane explanation for the cold. In fact before declaring it an anomaly they should thoroughly rule out any possible explanation. Only when that has been adequately done would they have a tentative anomaly.

It would then be reasonable to generate a hypothesis as to what is causing the anomalous cold, but such hypotheses are only useful if they lead to testable predictions. If the regional cold anomaly phenomenon is the result of “ghosts”, then what might we predict from that and how can we test it? I don’t know of any way to definitively test it, as ghosts are not a well-defined phenomenon, but perhaps there are some preliminary tests that could be done. For example, is there at least a correlation between cold spots and experiences often interpreted as ghosts or hauntings? Perhaps cold spots are just as likely in homes without other such “ghost phenomena.” Such a correlation would not prove the ghost hypothesis, of course, but it would at least be a start, and the lack of correlation would seriously jeopardize the hypothesis.

Ghost hunters, however, skip over all of this scientific methodology and reasoning and simply declare cold spots “ghost cold” and then use them as evidence for ghosts. They are then puzzled when scientists and skeptics don’t accept what they consider to be compelling evidence for ghosts, but what is really compelling evidence for the complete lack of scientific understanding on the part of ghost hunters.

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7 responses so far

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