Archive for March, 2008

Mar 14 2008

False Memories in the Courtroom and Elsewhere

Published by under Neuroscience

Scientists and skeptics are keenly aware of the nature and limitations of human memory (or at least they should be). While so-called “believers”, and the public at large, generally put unjustified faith in the accuracy of memories, especially their own. This often constitutes the gulf that separates believers and skeptics on many issues.

Many people remember being abducted by aliens or seeing ghosts. Advocates of dubious medical treatments often site stories of people who were apparently cured by the treatments. The stories often seem very compelling, the facts all line up, the conclusion seems obvious. Yet skeptics will easily shake their head and say, “I just don’t believe it.” This frustrates the believers no end. How can the skeptics dismiss what so many people have experienced, they wonder.

The reason is simple – human memory is incredibly unreliable, and most people grossly underestimate the extent to which their own memories can be altered and fabricated.

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Mar 13 2008

Oklahoma’s Proposed “Religious Freedom” Law

Published by under Creationism/ID

HB2211 is a proposed bill that has recently passed the Oklahoma House Education Committee. The bill is called the “Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act” (you can access the full text here). The proponents of this bill claim that it’s purpose is to protect students from religious discrimination, but the bill is actually a Trojan horse – a stealth bill that has a different purpose – as a backdoor method for getting creationism into the public schools.

Such deceptive lawmaking is nothing less than malfeasance – it is the work of ideologues who are trying to make an end-run around the Constitution, around public debate, and sneak in their ideology under a deceptive label. It is exactly like the “Healthcare freedom” laws that a number of states have that are not really about promoting healthcare freedom but rather their specific function is to protect quacks and charlatans from being held accountable to a reasonable standard of care.

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Mar 11 2008

The Price of Placebos

Placebos are inactive treatments used in clinical trials as a comparison for the active treatment being studied. This is necessary because there is a host of artifacts and effects that create the appearance of a response to a treatment above and beyond any real physiological response – collectively called “the” placebo effect. To further illustrate how squirrelly the placebo effect can be, Waber et. al. recently published a study (you may need a subscription to access this link – here is a link to a NYTimes article discussing the study) in which they found that more expensive placebos had a greater effect on pain reduction than less expensive placebos.

The researchers looked at 82 subjects who were receiving a placebo they were told was a pain reliever and their pain tolerance was assessed using small electrical shocks (a standard procedure). Half of the subjects were told the placebo was a medication that cost $2.50 per pill and the other that it cost $0.10 per pill – 85.4% of the subjects getting the expensive placebo experienced pain reduction, while only 61% of the cheap placebo group experienced pain reduction.

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Mar 10 2008

The Homeopathy-Allergy Shot Analogy

Homeopathy is a pre-scientific healing belief system that is based on several invented “laws” that turn out to be no more than magical thinking. The “law of similars” holds that a substance that causes a symptom will actually treat that symptom when given in small doses. The “law of infinitesimals” holds that the smaller the dose the more potent the homeopathic remedy. Such homeopathic notions have no basis in reality, and modern scientific investigations of homeopathic remedies, when taken together, show that they have no clinical effect – they are no different than placebo. This is not surprising given that a typical homeopathic remedy is diluted far past the point where even a single molecule of active ingredient remains.

One argument often used by defenders of homeopathy is that they are analogous to allergy shots, which involve giving a small dose of a substance in order to cure an allergy to that same substance. During one of my lectures this argument was made to me by a fellow physician who is a believer in homeopathy. Allergy shots therefore seem to follow the laws of similars and infinitesimals. Superficially this analogy may seem compelling, but a closer look reveals that it is not legitimate.

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Mar 06 2008

New Scientist Article on Autism

Published by under Neuroscience

Although I am on vacation this week, I am still maintaining my blogging schedule. However, today I am going to write a very short entry. I just want to alert my readers to an interesting article that appeared yesterday in the online science magazine – the New Scientist. The article discusses two related topics – the recent decision by the US government to award damages to a child with autism, and the possible connection between some forms of autism and mitochondrial disorders.

The article does a good job of covering the important issues. Of note, I was interviewed for this article, based upon my previous blog entry on the topic.

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Mar 04 2008

McCain’s Autism Gaffe

It must be tough being a presidential candidate. You have to field so many questions, and there are hidden landmines everywhere. Well, John McCain recently stepped on a doozy. When asked about vaccines an autism he is quoted by ABC News’ Bret Hovell as saying:

“It’s indisputable that (autism) is on the rise amongst children, the question is what’s causing it. And we go back and forth and there’s strong evidence that indicates that it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.”

Yikes. This is yet another example of why, in today’s science and technology dominated world, we need leaders with a modicum of scientific literacy. I don’t expect every politician to be completely up to date on every complex scientific question, not even every one that has political implications. The big ones, sure. Politicians need to have an opinion about global warming, the utility of biofuels, the importance of science education, and why intelligent design is not science.

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Mar 03 2008

Gingko Biloba And Memory

Gingko biloba is a plant that has long been used as a Chinese herbal remedy in a standard extract. Since the deregulation of the supplement industry in the US in 1994 gingko has become one of the more popular herbal supplements sold in the US (annual sales for 1997 were estimated at $240 million, and have only increased since). The primary claim for gingko is that it improves memory and cognitive function, and may even stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s dementia. Other claims include that it is useful for headache, depression, and tinnitus (ringing in the ears).

The problem with the current regulation is that it essentially allows companies to make claims without having to provide evidence to back up those claims; therefore, the marketing is ahead of the research. This has been true for gingko as well – it has been marketed as a memory aid for years and only later has the research started coming in.

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