Archive for March, 2007

Mar 16 2007

Autism Genetics and Controversies

Two recent studies bolster our knowledge of the genetics of autism. One, published this week in Nature Genetics, is the product of the Autism Genome Project – a consortium of scientists putting the Human Genome Project to good use. They have identified numerous genes associated with autism risk. The second looks at the effects of spontaneous mutations and autism risk.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurological disorder that typically presents in toddlers and is characterized by poor social ability and may include abnormal movements and cognitive deficits. The spectrum ranges from barely detectible to severely disabling. ASD is at the center of swirling controversies concerning its cause(s) and treatment, with the mainstream scientific community often at odds with various ideological groups.

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Mar 15 2007

An Intercessory Prayer Hodge Podge

A newly published meta-analysis of 17 published studies looking at the efficacy of intercessory prayer claims that it demonstrates a positive effect. David R. Hodge, an assistant professor of social work in the College of Human Services at Arizona State University’s West campus, performed the meta-analysis and concluded, “Using this procedure, we find that prayer offered on behalf of another yields positive results.” The study is a good example of how not to use meta-analysis.

A meta-analysis is the process of combining the results of different studies and then performing statistical analysis on the combined data. The benefit of this procedure is that it affords greater statistical power to the data – so that effects that are too small to see with one study can be demonstrated to statistical significance.
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Mar 14 2007

Schizophrenia and Bad Wiring

Published by under Neuroscience

Yale researchers have just published a study showing abnormalities in brain function in schizophrenics. It’s an intriguing new piece to the puzzle of this complex mental disorder. It also adds further evidence to the already well accepted concept that schizophrenia is a neurological disorder – although one that has psychiatric manifestations.

Schizophrenia is not split personality – although that is a common misconception. Rather, it is a brain disorder that results in a number of psychological symptoms. The primary dysfunction is a thought disorder known as psychosis – which basically means having thoughts that are disconnected from reality. “Reality testing” is actually an active process of the human brain, and if this malfunctions or functions sufficiently suboptimally, the result is the inability to separate our internal thoughts from external reality. This psychosis takes many forms, the most common of which among schizophrenics are paranoid delusions (the idea that people and events are conspiring against them), ideas of reference (the sense that everything that happens is being directed specifically to them – even the news announcer on TV), and other types of delusions, such as delusions of grandeur. Schizophrenics may also suffer from visual or auditory hallucinations. They may have so-called “positive” symptoms of pressured speech and agitation, or “negative” symptoms of flat affect and withdrawal, and in extreme cases catatonia (a complete mental shut down).

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Mar 13 2007

He May be a Neurosurgeon, but He’s No Evolutionary Biologist

Published by under Creationism/ID

I love a good tussle with creationists. It’s like working out with a punching bag. Recently some Intelligent Design (ID) proponents have been mud wrestling with some science bloggers, and I was invited to join in. Of course, I couldn’t resist.

The scrap was provoked by the grotesquely misnamed Discovery Institute – a think tank of ID proponents barely pretending to do science – who recently claimed that the number of scientists “dissenting from Darwin” is growing. To highlight the point they trotted out their latest poster child – Neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Egnor of SUNY Stony Brook.
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Mar 12 2007

Another Nail in the Coffin of Repressed Memory

By now it is old news that so-called “repressed memory syndrome” is a dangerous myth, but it keeps cropping up in the news from time to time, and the notion still has its adherents. Recently, Harvard researchers published an interesting study suggesting that repressed memory syndrome is a cultural phenomenon, not a scientific one. The lessons of this sad episode in therapy are timeless and it will likely endure as a classic cautionary tale of psychological pseudoscience.

The Courage to Heal

In 1988 Ellen Bass and Laura Davis published The Courage To Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (now in its third edition). In it they claim that over 45%, maybe more, of all women have been sexually abused as children, but most have repressed the memory, resulting in a host of psychological problems from eating disorders to depression. The book sparked an industry of repressed memory therapists whose goal in therapy was to recover the repressed memories of abuse as a path to solving the psychological manifestations.

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Mar 09 2007

That’s Unpossible!

When I was younger I once witnessed with a friend a “V” formation of 5 lights in the sky, flying very slowly, almost hovering, and completely silent. I watched them for about 5 minutes until they disappeared over the horizon. At the time I could offer no prosaic explanation for what I had seen. I discovered later, through newspaper articles, that what I saw were 5 ultralight aircraft flying in formation – deliberately trying, it turns out, to manufacture UFO sighting reports.

We have unusual experiences all the time – things we cannot readily explain. Sometimes scientists observe a phenomenon under controlled conditions that no one can explain. How we respond to such events tends to differ greatly between skeptics and believers.

Believers tend to commit one or more logical fallacies in leading from such unexplained events to paranormal conclusions. Winston Wu, who has compiled a list of invalid criticisms of how skeptics interpret unexplained events, attempts to defend the pro-paranormal position, but ends up just torturing logic to an extent that would make even Jack Bower cringe.

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Mar 08 2007

No Love for Anecdotal Evidence

Scientists and skeptics have come to use the word “anecdotal” as a derogatory dismissal of certain kinds of weak evidence – and with good reason. Believers in the paranormal and unscientific healing modalities chafe at this and have rushed to the defense of anecdotal evidence, as it is often the only substrate out of which they construct their fantasies and attempt to pass them off as science.

Noted “alternative medicine” guru, Andrew Weil, for example, has advocated the increased use of “uncontrolled clinical observations” (a euphemism for anecdotal evidence) in evaluating non-traditional medical methods. Our favorite paranormal apologist, Winston Wu, also defends the anecdotal, or at least criticizes skeptics for not giving it the proper respect.

This difference in attitude toward anecdotal evidence is a persistent and critical difference between skeptics and believers, so it is important to understand why skeptics (by which I mean most scientists) do not trust it. Science, as I have written before, is a cumulative process – it builds upon itself (E.O Wilson’s book, Consilience, is a great discussion of this). Scientists not only build upon the facts and theories that have been developed by their predecessors, they also learn from prior experience with scientific methodology and discovery itself. In other words, scientists are getting better at doing science.

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Mar 07 2007

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

This statement, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, is (I believe correctly) attributed to Carl Sagan, and has become a guiding principle of skeptical philosophy. It’s little more than common sense, really, but is worth repeating. It has become for skeptics an indispensable shield against outlandish claims. For true believers it is an annoyance, and they have attacked it relentlessly.

The principle is based upon two premises: that we know stuff and that not all evidence is created equal.

It is a simple fact of history that we stand atop centuries of carefully accumulated scientific knowledge. There is a core of basic scientific knowledge that most people now just take for granted – for example that the development of biological organisms is guided by information which is stored in DNA within each cell. Most people do not even realize that prior to Mendel the prevailing belief was that templates, rather than digital information, guided development. Some facts in science are so well established that, as Stephen J. Gould noted, it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent. In other words, we know stuff.

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Mar 06 2007

Invisible Pink Unicorns

Published by under Skepticism

This week I am defending the pillars of skeptical philosophy from attacks by the champions of nonsense. The paranormal crowd relies upon a host of logical fallacies and flawed methodology to maintain belief in that which science has not validated. The skeptical movement has done an excellent job of exposing these flaws, including many intellectual lights such as Martin Gardner and Carl Sagan. It is a battle for quality and integrity in science and scholarship, and those promoting a spiritual or paranormal world view are fighting hard. They are trying to redefine science and even logic so that their flaws are not flaws, but virtues.

Yesterday I defended the proper use of Occam’s razor in evaluating competing hypotheses. Today I will discuss the “invisible pink unicorn” analogy. After explaining the actual logic behind this tactic I will then address common misinterpretations, again using this article by Mr. Wu as an example.

Perhaps the best known example of this argument was put forward by Carl Sagan in A Demon Haunted World, who used the example of someone who claims to have a dragon in their garage but answers each challenge for evidence of the dragon with a special reason why such evidence will not be forthcoming. This illustrates two logical principles important to science and skepticism.

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Mar 05 2007

Revenge of the Woo Woo and The Skeptics Strike Back

I sense that the skeptical movement has crossed a line in the last few years; we have not only gotten the attention of the woo woo crowd but we’ve shaken them up a bit – at least enough so that they feel they have to go on the attack against skeptics and skepticism. To which I say – bring it on. I’m always up for an intellectual scuffle. It’s a good way to get to the core of the relevant issues and logic.

I was recently sent one article in particular, authored by Winston Wu (a self-proclaimed researcher and explorer of the paranormal), that seeks to systematically dismantle the pillars of scientific skepticism. The aptly named Mr. Wu, however, systematically misunderstands and misrepresents skepticism, but in so doing he exposes many common misconceptions about skeptical principles. So I will use my blog this week to set the record straight.

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