Archive for December, 2013

Dec 30 2013

Wi-Fi in Schools

Sometimes scientific issues are fought by people in local communities who may not be (and probably are not) experts. This becomes a lesson in applied scientific skepticism, and highlights an important reason why we need a scientifically literate and critically thinking populace. Such issues include: fluoridation of public water supplies, allowing vaccine exemptions, teaching evolution vs creationism in science class, whether or not a public building really is a “sick building,” allowing students to attend class with a “facilitator”  to help them communicate, and countless others.

Add to this list whether or not it is safe to have wi-fi in public schools. (This is part of a class of issues surrounding the health risks of various electronic technologies – electromagnetic fields, “dirty” electricity, high-voltage power lines, etc.) It’s possible to work up irrational fear over just about anything. We seem to be hard-wired for fear. It makes sense, in a way, to err on the side of caution (the so-called precautionary principle) but it is also easy to misapply this principle and cause more harm than good.

Recently a New Zealand school buckled to pressure from two fathers, Damon Wyman and David Bird, who have been campaigning to remove wi-fi from the local schools. Wyman recently lost a 10-year old son to brain cancer, and his subsequent search for a cause led him to misinformation on the internet about wi-fi.

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16 responses so far

Dec 23 2013

Brain Scans and Psychics

In a trifecta of pseudoscience, Dr. Oz calls upon Dr. Amen to demonstrate (live on TV) how the Long Island Medium is real.

Where do I begin?

Dr. Oz has long ago abandoned any scientific legitimacy, not to mention self-respect. He has gone from giving basic medical advice, to promoting alternative quackery, and now he is just another daytime TV sellout, gushing over psychics. With Dr. Oz, however, it is all done with a patina of science.

The Medium

Theresa Caputo is just another fake psychic doing bad cold readings before audiences that have more of a desire to believe than apparent critical thinking skills. Her performance on Dr. Oz is fairly typical – she fishes with vague and high probability guesses, working multiple people at once, who then struggle to find some connection to what she is saying.

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17 responses so far

Dec 19 2013

OK – But Should I Take a Vitamin

In a follow up to my post earlier this week, I have received (in the comments and elsewhere) multiple questions about whether or not it is still reasonable, in some circumstances, to take a multivitamin. This is ultimately an issue of how to apply scientific evidence to specific individuals – something which physicians have to do every day.

What studies of vitamin supplementation have generally found is that taking a multivitamin does not reduce the risk of cancer, reduce the risk of vascular disease, or prolong survival overall. The question is – can we generalize from the populations in these studies to the general population – to you? Perhaps you are in a subgroup that would benefit from vitamins.

Another common question is whether or not it is reasonable to take a vitamin for “nutritional insurance” in case your diet is lacking in one or more vitamins.

The scientific evidence we have is imperfect and incomplete, otherwise we would have a definitive answer to any such questions. Scientific evidence in medicine is always incomplete – we cannot study every possible permutation of physical conditions and interventions.

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43 responses so far

Dec 17 2013

Strike Three for Multivitamin Use

This week the Annals of Internal Medicine published the results of three studies looking at the health effects of long term use of multivitamins. Two of the studies are placebo controlled trials, both completely negative. The third is a systematic review, which found scant evidence for benefit. Together they are a significant blow to the routine use of multivitamins for health promotion or disease prevention.

This is one of the most common questions I get – “what about vitamins.” That taking your vitamins is healthy behavior has been successfully embedded in our culture. It is something that the vast majority of people take for granted.

There is a superficial sense to it. Vitamins by definition are essential for health, as are minerals. The lack of specific nutrients causes or predisposes to disease. If some is good then more is better, and there seems to be little harm in taking extra nutrients for “nutritional insurance.” It just feels like a wholesome thing to do.

However, the same medical science that taught us about vitamins also taught us other lessons. Biology is complex, and simplistic reasoning such as “more is better” rarely turns out to be true, or at least not the whole picture.

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32 responses so far

Dec 16 2013

The Logic of God

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Fox News recently ran an opinion piece called: A Christmas gift for atheists — five reasons why God exists, by William Lane Craig. I usually don’t spend time here addressing issues of faith, but I will address any argument that purports to be based on logic and/or evidence.

Faith is often defined as believing without evidence. Hebrews 11:1 is often quoted:

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

I prefer Christopher Hitchens’ take:

“Faith is the surrender of the mind, it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other animals. It’s our need to believe and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. … Out of all the virtues, all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated”

Sometimes those who have faith also seek evidence and logic to back up their belief. This is a win-win for them because if the logic and evidence are found wanting, they can always then fall back on their faith. In any case – let’s take a look at alleged five reasons why God exists:

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257 responses so far

Dec 10 2013

Do Seed Companies Restrict Research?

Published by under General Science

Well, yes and no. Such questions are often complex. With some exceptions, we generally do not live in a world with cartoon heroes and villains. Rather we live with people who have conflicting perspectives and priorities. Yet we have a universal human desire for simplicity and the sense of control, so we often reduce the horrific complexity of the world to white hats and black hats.

This tendency makes my job difficult, although also useful – specifically whenever I attempt to wrap my head around a controversial issue, such as GMO crops and agritech, I have to wade through tons of ideological propaganda in order to dig down to some clear information.

In the world of GMO, anti-GMO activists have generally made Monsanto (and big agritech generally) into the cartoon villain. Many of the claims made by critics against Monsanto, however, turn out to be gross distortions. They don’t sue companies for accidental contamination, only deliberate piracy, for example. Pointing this out does not make one a Monsanto shill.

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32 responses so far

Dec 09 2013

False Memory Fundamental

Published by under Neuroscience

It is now well established in psychological research that humans can form false memories – memories for events that never occurred. Further, these false memories are indistinguishable from genuine memories. Questions remain, however, about the neuroanatomical basis of false memories.

One potential window into this question are subjects with so-called “Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory” (HSAM).  HSAM itself is a fascinating topic – there are people who can remember many details about specific days in their past. You can ask them, what were you doing on December 9, 2012, and they can think back and tell you, “it was raining and I forgot to bring my umbrella, and I was late for work.” For details you can check, like whether or not it was raining on that day, their details check out.

A new study explores whether or not you can generate false memories in people with HSAM. This may tell us something about HSAM and false memories.

They used standard false memory tests. In one test you show the subject a list of words that all have a theme, for example words that all relate to sweet foods. You then show them a list of words and have them choose which words they can confidently remember from the previous slide. Among the new list of words is “sweet”, which was suggested but never listed in the original set of words (called a “lure word”). A significant number of people will have a false memory of seeing the word “sweet” on the previous slide.

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11 responses so far

Dec 05 2013


I was recently asked to analyze a study looking at electroencephalogram (EEG) tracings for people separated in two different and shielded rooms and claiming to show correlations between the two – the suggestion being that some sort of unusual communication (anomalous cognition) was taking place.

This study was from 2003, so it’s not exactly news, but this line of research is worthy of a skeptical analysis. Using EEG to look for ESP effects goes back to the 1960s. Like all of ESP research, this paradigm produced some anomalies but not a consistent and replicated effect, Every now and then someone tries to replicate it, with varying results.

As a research tool using EEG can be very problematic – or useful, depending on your perspective. EEGs work by placing electrodes (called leads) in a specific pattern along the scalp. An EEG channel – one tracing of squiggly lines – is produced by recording the difference in electrical potential between two adjacent leads. An EEG montage (the French pioneered much of EEG technology and so EEG jargon is largely French)  is a particular pattern of channels covering the available leads.

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13 responses so far

Dec 03 2013

Seralini GMO Study Retracted

Published by under General Science

Elsevier has announced that they are retracting the infamous Seralini study which claimed to show that GMO corn causes cancer in laboratory rats. This is to the anti-GMO world what the retraction of the infamous Wakefield Lancet paper was to the anti-vaccine world. At least this retraction only took one year.

The Seralini paper was published in November 2012 in Food and Chemical Toxicology. It was immediately embraced by anti-GMO activists, and continues to be often cited as evidence that GMO foods are unhealthy. It was also immediately skewered by skeptics and more objective scientists as a fatally flawed study.

The study looked at male and female rats of the Sprague-Dawley strain of rat – a strain with a known high baseline incidence of tumors. These rats were fed regular corn mixed with various percentages of GMO corn: 0 (the control groups), 11, 22, and 33%. Another group was fed GMO corn plus fed roundup in their water, and a third was given just roundup. The authors concluded:

The results of the study presented here clearly demonstrate that lower levels of complete agricultural glyphosate herbicide formulations, at concentrations well below officially set safety limits, induce severe hormone-dependent mammary, hepatic and kidney disturbances. Similarly, disruption of biosynthetic pathways that may result from overexpression of the EPSPS transgene in the GM NK603 maize can give rise to comparable pathologies that may be linked to abnormal or unbalanced phenolic acids metabolites, or related compounds. Other mutagenic and metabolic effects of the edible GMO cannot be excluded.

Sounds pretty scary. Now let’s look at the multiple criticisms:

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109 responses so far

Dec 02 2013

Champagne Tasting

Published by under Neuroscience

One of my primary goals for this blog is to reinforce, strongly and frequently, the notion of neuropsychological humility – the understanding that our perceptions and memories are deeply flawed and biased. There appears to be almost no limit to the extent to which people can deceive themselves into believing bizarre things.

Psychologists have documented these flaws and biases in numerous ways, and when confronted with demonstrations of such people tend to be amused, as if they were being entertained by a magic show, but do not necessarily apply the lessons to themselves and their own lives. This is one of the key differences, in my opinion, between skeptics (critical thinkers) and non-skeptics – a working knowledge of self-deception.

With that in mind, here is yet another study showing that extrinsic factors and expectation affect our sensory perceptions. I will say right off that this is a small study involving only 15 subjects, but given the nature of the results it is still useful.

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26 responses so far