Archive for January, 2013

Jan 31 2013

PZ Replies

Published by under Skepticism

I thank PZ for taking the time to respond to my prior post. I think this is a very useful conversation, and our readers seem to agree. To be clear (sorry for getting all “kumbaya”) my goal here is largely to explain my approach to my own activism, but also to clear the air between different identifiable segments of the skeptical movement so that we can move forward in the most productive way. There are inevitable philosophical differences that arise in any intellectual movement – what is not inevitable is how we deal with them.

My hope is that as a rationalist movement we can respond – rationally.

The discussion has been focusing on how different subcultures within the skeptical movement view other subcultures in the movement. This has not been stated overtly, but that is exactly what I think this is about. There are different conflicting narratives, and it will probably be useful to try to understand those narratives. They include logical and empirical arguments that can be objectively resolved, but also subjectivity for which we can only achieve tolerance.

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237 responses so far

Jan 29 2013

Bigfoot Skeptics, New Atheists, Politics and Religion

Published by under Skepticism

The skeptical movement is having some (charitably characterized) growing pains. It’s nothing new, actually. Ever since I have been involved in organized skepticism (about 17 years) we have been struggling with the exact same identity crisis, and from speaking with older skeptics it seems much longer than that.

What is the skeptical community all about? What are the limits, if any, of skeptical analysis? What should be our goals, and our main focus of attention? There is also an even deeper question – are we, in fact, a movement at all?

These are all interesting and important questions. Recently PZ Myers wrote a brief but provocative blog post addressing some of these questions, which in turn was a response to a longer blog post at Grime and Reason. These posts reflect some common themes that crop up in this discussion, namely that skeptics should address more political, social, and religious issues. This position is nothing new – Paul Kurtz wrote about this years ago, arguing for “free inquiry in every area of human interest.”

At the other end of the spectrum are those like Daniel Loxton who feel that the skeptical movement is best served if we focus on the basics that have defined us as a movement – the scientific analysis of fringe claims.

Before I specifically address some of PZ’s points, let me just lay out my own position. I do think, first of all, that the skeptical movement is a movement. We have organizations, outlets, meetings, activists, and our own subculture. However, we are a movement of people who generally do not like labels, are very protective of their intellectual independence, and do not like, ironically, belonging to movements. Further, skeptics represent a wide diversity of backgrounds and opinions on many topics.

What we are discussing now (and always have) is  – what is the intellectual core of skepticism?

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146 responses so far

Jan 28 2013

Up-Goer Five and Science Communication

Published by under Education,Skepticism

Do you think you could communicate a scientific concept to a general audience using only the 1,000 most commonly used words? A thousand words sounds like a lot, but is it? Clearly this would not allow for the use of specialized scientific jargon, which is the point. A good science communicator should be able to translate complex science into everyday language, and use accessible analogies to make those concepts understandable.

This is something I do everyday, and not just on my blog and other social media. As a physician I have to communicate sometimes complex medical information to patients and their families. To make things more challenging my patients vary from being other physicians, health care workers, scientists or academics, to lacking a high school education or even not being a native English speaker.

Communicating to the public effectively means targeting a broad range of background knowledge. An effective science communicator should be interesting to experts while being understandable to a novice. Another challenge is to make scientific concepts simple without being oversimplified.

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27 responses so far

Jan 24 2013

Man or Woman – Smoking Is Still Bad For You

By now it should hardly be a news flash that smoking is bad for your health. What is interesting, however, is that the risks associated with smoking are getting worse over the last half century. For most of this time the health risks from smoking were greater among men than women – because men smoked more. However, a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, indicates that women have essentially caught up to men in this regard (probably not a form of equality they were hoping for).

The article traces trends in smoking-related health risks over the last 50 years. To summarize the finding – smoking increases the risk of developing heart disease, lung cancer, strokes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Those first three conditions are the number one, two, and three causes of death respectively (well, cancer in general, not specifically lung cancer). The new study tracks the relative risk of dying from all causes among current smokers and those who have never smoked. For lung cancer specifically they found:

For women who were current smokers, as compared with women who had never smoked, the relative risks of death from lung cancer were 2.73, 12.65, and 25.66 in the 1960s, 1980s, and contemporary cohorts, respectively; corresponding relative risks for male current smokers, as compared with men who had never smoked, were 12.22, 23.81, and 24.97.

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35 responses so far

Jan 22 2013

Cloning the Neanderthal

Cloning technology has advanced to the point that we can reliably clone large mammals, like Dolly the sheep. Today you can have your pet cloned. So far no one has cloned a human as we are still sorting out the complex ethical issues. In some countries, like the UK, human reproductive cloning is illegal.

There are many wrinkles to this new technology – one is using it to bring back extinct species. There are efforts underway, for example, to clone the wooly mammoth. Recently extinct species, like the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), dodo, and passenger pigeon, also might be resurrected by cloning technology. Although, don’t expect Jurassic Park anytime soon as current evidence strongly suggests that DNA cannot survive for millions of years.

But it can survive for thousands, and even tens of thousands in the right conditions. We have mostly reconstructed, for example, the DNA of our closest evolutionary cousins, Homo neanderthalensis. Now a Harvard scientist, George Church, is proposing that it may be possible to clone a Neanderthal.

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33 responses so far

Jan 18 2013

NECSS 2013 and Darwin Day

Published by under Skepticism

NECSS 2013

The first national skeptical conference of the season is NECSS 2013 (The Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism), hosted by the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society. The conference will be held in New York City on April 5-7.

We have a great lineup of speakers this year. The keynote is physicist Leonard Mlodinow, author of The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. In addition we have Simon Singh, Michael Shermer, Mariette DiChristina (editor of Scientific American) and many other great speakers. As always there will be live performances of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast and Rationally Speaking podcast.

We are also running a number of workshops on the Friday of the conference. I will be running one with George Hrab on using podcasting and other social media to promote your cause (or just for fun).

Readers of Neurologica can receive a 10% discount by registering with the following code – NECSS2013 (I know, real tricky).

If you do come be sure to come up to me at the SGU table and introduce yourself.

Darwin Day

For the last five years Darwin Day has been an international celebration of science and humanity. There are many local events held on or around February 12th (Darwin’s birthday) – you can probably find one in your area.

I live in CT, and there will be a Darwin Day celebration here. There will be a dinner on Saturday Feb 9th starting at 6pm, at the Continental Manor in Norwalk. (See for more details and to register.)

If there are no Darwin Day events in your area – then perhaps you are just the right person to organize one.

One response so far

Jan 17 2013

Sandy Hook and Online Harassment

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

I was half expecting that this conspiracy theory, that the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting was a hoax, would die on the vine, it’s so transparently absurd, but it appears to be gaining traction. I guess I should never underestimate the ability of conspiracy theorists to twist reality.

As I discussed last week – some conspiracy theorists are claiming that the shooting of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook either never happened or is a government hoax, designed to provide public support for gun control. As with all grand conspiracies, this one collapses under its own weight – literally an entire town would need to be involved in this conspiracy.

The conspiracy theorists have nothing to offer but anomaly hunting. For example, in this video it is claimed that one of the shooting victims is seen after the shooting with President Obama – this is offered as “absolute proof” of a hoax. However, the girl in the later video is simply the younger sister of the victim.

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19 responses so far

Jan 15 2013

Defending the Million Dollar Challenge

Published by under Paranormal,Skepticism

Randi’s Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge is an icon of the skeptical movement. The challenge basically offers $1 million to anyone who can, “show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.” So far no applicant has passed even the preliminary test for the million dollars.

It should not be surprising that the challenge is a thorn in the side of all proponents of the paranormal and charlatans whose living depends on belief in supernatural powers. The challenge is therefore under frequent attack by such proponents – always, in my experience, using unfair and often factually incorrect charges.

For full disclosure, even though this information is already on my author page, I am a senior fellow at the JREF (the James Randi Education Foundation, who offers the challenge), and I have participated in several preliminary tests. I have actually run three preliminary tests, and have participated in the development of protocols for others. The three tests I ran were designed and executed independently by me, with no input from Randi or the JREF, but following the rules they lay out and approved by the JREF before being executed.

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50 responses so far

Jan 14 2013

Lead and Crime

A recent article in Mother Jones discusses the potential role of lead in the increase in crime from the 1960s to the early 1990s, and the subsequent steady decline in crime rates since then. I have received numerous questions about this article and this possible connection between lead and crime. It is a well-written article, and an interesting question. Could one toxin really be responsible, among all the other possible causes, of the rise and fall in crime rates in the US?

Before we get to that, it’s interesting that this is not the first time in history this question has come up. There is a theory that the fall of Rome was due, in part, to chronic lead toxicity. The Romans used lead to make their water pipes (the origin of the word “plumber” as the root “plumb” refers to lead). But this was probably not the most significant source of lead for the Roman aristocracy, who also sweetened their wine and some of their food deliberately with lead. Analysis of lead levels in bones of burials from the time do show variable but often elevated lead levels, but the data is too scant to draw any firm conclusions.

They apparently knew of the toxic effects of lead, but thought that this was limited to acute lead toxicity – something that slave lead miners had to worry about, but not citizens. They did not think that low level chronic exposure was a risk, and apparently they were wrong.

However – there are problems with this nice story. Some scholars doubt that lead poisoning was as endemic in Rome as others claim. The evidence is complex. Lead was probably not added deliberately to wine, but wine was occasionally heated in lead containers. Terra cotta pipes were often used instead of lead for carrying water specifically because the risk of too many lead pipes was understood. And contemporary references in medical and veterinary writing make scant mention of lead poisoning, even though the syndrome was well recognized.

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15 responses so far

Jan 11 2013

Objective vs Subjective Morality

I am fascinated by the philosophy of ethics, ever since I took a course in it in undergraduate school. This is partly because I enjoy thinking about complex systems (which partly explains why I ended up in Neurology as my specialty). I also greatly enjoy logic, and particularly deconstructing arguments (my own and others) to identify their logical essence and see if or where they go wrong.

In a previous post I wrote about the philosophy of morality. This spawned over 400 comments (so far), so it seems we could use another post to reset the conversation.

The discussion is between objective vs subjective morality, mostly focusing around a proponent of objective morality (commenter nym of Zach). Here I will lay out my position for a philosophical basis of morality and explain why I think objective morality is not only unworkable, it’s a fiction.

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459 responses so far

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