Archive for February, 2013

Feb 28 2013

Tattoo Electrodes

Headlines read: “Temporary tattoos could make electronic telepathy and telekinesis possible.” The technology is actually quite cool and interesting, but it is distressing how much of the mainstream reporting has been calculated to misinform for the sake of some cheap sensationalism. The technology is interesting enough without turning it into science fiction.

The temporary tattoos are really skin surface electrodes that can read electrical signals, such as EEG signals from the brain. They can also incorporate other sensors, like heat or light sensors. They can contain antenna to receive energy or communication, and wireless technology to communicate to devices.

The electrode circuits are also thin (100 microns), flexible, and small. Combining several features into such a small device is the real advance here, expanding the number of feasible applications of such technology.

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2 responses so far

Feb 26 2013

Neuroscience of User Friendly

Published by under Technology

I have been involved in assessing and implementing several medical informatics applications, as electronic medical records (EMR), expert systems, and other software applications are becoming more common in my field. For this reason I have had to explain to others specific details of what I mean by “user friendly.” I’m a nerd, so I just like becoming super reductionist about such things. It also occurred to me that there are some findings of neuroscience that are relevant to the question.

In colloquial terms “user friendly” means a software application that is easy to use. There are several aspects to ease of use, however. I am coming at this from the perspective of an experienced user, not a programmer, so consider this a (somewhat cranky) user’s guide to being user-friendly. The types of issues I list below are actually all related and interact with each other, but I find it helpful to consider them as distinct issues.


One aspect is often referred to as “intuitiveness.” An application is said to be intuitive if it is easy to figure out how to use it without specific instructions, reading the manual, or extensive prior specific knowledge. Functions should be labeled in plain language that makes their use obvious. Remember all the jokes about Windows users having to click the ‘Start’ button in order to shut down the computer?

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23 responses so far

Feb 25 2013

Moving Forward

Published by under Skepticism

As movements grow, internal conflict becomes inevitable. A movement dedicated to reason, thoughtful introspection, and putting logic above emotion, one would think, should be able to deal with such conflict in a constructive way. If the events of the last couple of years have taught us anything, however, it is that we are all still biased and flawed humans, despite our striving for reason.

There is, perhaps, some sign of a light at the end of the tunnel, if you bear with me for a bit more preamble.

I have not been a direct participant in the recent drama over sexism in the movement, but I have had a front row seat. It has struck me throughout that many of the people involved, steeped in critical thinking, firmly believe they are correct and are being reasonable and yet are in such heated conflict with other critical thinkers who also believe they are correct and being reasonable.

There are, it seems to me, three general sources of this conflict. One is sincere and real ideological differences. If you read the recent exchange between Harriet Hall on SBM and Will on Skepchick, and a sample of the comments to each, these differences become apparent. Where exactly to draw the line between free speech and the avoidance of offense is one recurrent theme. Still, this by itself should not be enough to cause such a rift, for our common ground dwarfs these differences.

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363 responses so far

Feb 21 2013

Another Alleged Spontaneous Human Combustion Case

Published by under Pseudoscience

News reports of a recent death by fire in Tulsa, OK read, “Sheriff: Oklahoma Man Died of Spontaneous Human Combustion,” and “Sheriff Rules Out Homicide, But Not Spontaneous Combustion After Autopsy.”

It’s actually not difficult to rule out spontaneous human combustion (SHC) – you can rule it out because SHC does not exist. The notion of SHC is that some process occurs in the body that causes it to heat to the point of spontaneous ignition, without an external ignition source. There simply is no known process by which this could occur.

This is not a trivial objection. While it is, of course, impossible to completely rule out the unknown, the laws of physics can make something so improbable that we can comfortably treat it as if it were impossible. At the very least the burden of proof should be extremely high – not so high that if the phenomenon were genuine we could not demonstrate it, but high enough to rule out other, even unlikely, causes.

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8 responses so far

Feb 19 2013

Comments to Science Articles

A study presented at the AAAS meeting (and yet to be published) looked at the effects of the tone of comments following a science article on the interpretation of the article itself. The researchers presented a balanced article on the dangers of nanoparticles, followed by fake comments. One group read fake comments that were polite, while another read comments that were rude and personal.

Because the study is not published I can’t review the details, but the way it is reported (and discussed here on NPR) makes it sound like the content of the comments were the same, and only the tone was varied. Also, the rude tone was just rude, and did not rise to the level that we would call trolling. The researchers found that the rude comments significantly affected how the content of the article was perceived, pushing readers to believe that nanoparticles were more dangerous.

This is a question that every bloggers, and perhaps especially science blogger, faces – how do we moderate the comments to our articles. It is not uncommon, for example, for commenters to hold me as the author of a blog post responsible for claims made in the comments, as if I obsessively police every comment. At the same time, if the author is participating in the comments perhaps it is reasonable to make inferences about which comments they challenge and which they do not.

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31 responses so far

Feb 18 2013

GM Crops Overregulated?

Published by under General Science

Genetically modified (GM) crops are the target of significant worldwide controversy, to the greatest extent in Europe but also in the US and elsewhere.  Are the concerns over GM crops justified by the science? What is the proper balance between the precautionary principle and making potentially improved crops available to a hungry world?

GM “golden rice” – rice genetically modified to produce beta carotene, a form of Vitamin A, is set to be introduced in the Philippines, creating another round of debate on this issue.

Crops have been genetically modified to resist pests or herbicide, to thrive in adverse environmental conditions (cold, drought), and to enhance nutrition. At present GM crops are highly regulated, with proponents arguing that the regulation is too strict while GM opponents argue that they are too lax. Still others argue for a case-by-case assessment of each GM product, which seems to me to be the most sensible approach. 

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54 responses so far

Feb 15 2013

Scientific Skepticism, Rationalism, and Secularism

Published by under Skepticism

Conflict and crisis, while uncomfortable and even painful, can be a good thing if responded to constructively. The skeptical movement is having a bit of an identity crisis, which is an excellent opportunity to closely examine what and who we are, our goals, and our differences.

This post is a continuation of my prior two recent posts on this topic. Each post led to hundreds of comments and a very active discussion of all of the issues. To spare those who are interested from having to wade through hundreds of comments, I will try to summarize where I think we are with the discussion. I do think it has resulted in a better understanding on my part of the relevant issues and opinions.

The heart of the controversy is over the scope of activist skepticism. What topics should we address, how is “skepticism” defined, and what approach should we use. The main problem is that there are as many answers to this question as there are activist skeptics. Our movement, such as it is, has mostly been a bottom-up grassroots type movement, with individuals and organizations spreading all over the map in terms of every important aspect of the identity question. This has led many to compare “organized skepticism” to herding cats.

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103 responses so far

Feb 14 2013

Politics Trumping Science at the NHS

David Colquhoun is a tireless supporter of science-based medicine in the UK. He has used freedom of information requests to great effect in exposing all sorts on nonsense and CAM-based mayhem. Most recently he has exposed a disturbing episode of politics trumping science in the National Health Service (NHS), specifically the website NHS-Choices which is a forum for educating the public about health decisions and empowering their informed consent.

Unfortunately NHS-Choices has recently fallen victim to politically pressuring with respect to their entry on homeopathy. In my experience most academic and government outlets for explaining medical information to the public do a generally good job – except when it comes to CAM, then they fail miserably.  There seems to be three main reasons for this. The first is that most academics and scientists do not understand pseudoscience in general or CAM in particular. They are simply naive about what it actual is and how it operates. Second (and deriving from the first), in such situations they are happy to turn over responsibility for CAM entries to the “experts,” which means proponents. Proponents will even convince the naive academics that “skeptics” are biased and their input should be avoided.

The third factor is the one apparently at work here – political pressure from proponents combined with the desire to avoid controversy. Giving the public accurate information about health care choices seems to get lost in the calculation.

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90 responses so far

Feb 12 2013

Gorilla in the Bronchi

Published by under Neuroscience

Take a look at the picture just below the fold. Pretend you are a radiologist and your job is to find anything strange or abnormal on the scan. You are specifically looking for signs of cancer, but you need to find anything abnormal.

Done? OK – did you see the gorilla in the right upper corner of the scan? If you didn’t, don’t feel bad. Neither did 83% of radiologists studied, according to Trafton Drew who ran the study (which has not yet been published).

Readers of this and other skeptical blogs are likely familiar with this classic video of students tossing basketballs to each other  (if not, take and look before reading further). About half of the people viewing this video miss the obvious gorilla strolling across the screen. This is a phenomenon known as inattentional blindness – when our attention is focused on a specific task we are likely to miss information that is extraneous to that task, even if it is in our visual field and otherwise obvious.

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39 responses so far

Feb 11 2013

The Evolution of Feathers

Published by under Evolution

As a follow up to my post last week on feathered dinosaurs, I received this question over e-mail:

How would a creature get feathers in the first place? I figure there would be some intermediary stages between no feathers and fully feathered, but what would these stages possibly be? No other family of species seems to have anything remotely like feathers. Also, what would be the evolutionary advantage of having feathers be specially since the dinosaurs discovered in China were flightless and (to the best of my knowledge) flying dinosaurs like the pterodactyl were already featherless. Any light you could shed would be appreciated.

The e-mail comes from someone who accepts evolution (not a denier), but is genuinely confused about the above questions. This is an excellent question, one that Darwin himself confronted. This also remains one of the common denialist tactics of the creationists, despite the fact that Darwin gave a very cogent answer in Origin of the Species.

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8 responses so far

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