Archive for September, 2008

Sep 16 2008

Is Guilt Written in the Brain?

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Perhaps, but as yet we do not have the technology to read it. This is the holy grail of law enforcement, counter terrorism, and intelligence – the ability to detect with absolute accuracy whether or not a subject is lying or telling the truth. It stands to reason that the process (on a neurological level) of fabricating a lie would be different than remembering an actual event. So why shouldn’t we be able to detect whatever differences there are?

This question has now gone from theoretical to very real with the conviction in India of a woman of murder based upon a controversial new technology called Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature test (BEOS) developed by Indian neuroscientist Champadi Raman Mukundan.

Theoretical Background

It is not impossible based upon our current knowledge of neuroscience that there would be detectable difference in brain activity between lying and telling the truth, or recalling a true memory from a fabricated one. There is already a great deal of research looking at this very question. Much of the recent research uses fMRI, which measure blood flow to the brain and from that can infer the relative activity of the different parts of the brain. Using fMRI for this kind of research is doable – but very tricky. The awake brain is constantly in a state of chaotic mental activity and it can be challenging to tease out the relevant activity from the tangential or incidental.

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Sep 15 2008

An Important Victory Against HIV Quackery

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Ben Goldacre – one of the pillars of science-based medicine in the UK, and a splendid chap – has recently emerged victorious from a libel law suit filed against him and his paper, The Guardian, by Matthias Rath. Rath recently pulled the suit. He is now responsible for the 500,000 pound legal expenses of The Guardian, and has already been made to pay half that amount.

Rath is a vitamin pusher – not unlike any snake-oil salesman, making unsubstantiated and far-fetched claims for his concoctions. He is a particularly insidious and odious quack, using populism and conspiracy theories to scare people away from science-based medicine and into his waiting arms. Look at his website, it is chock full of utter nonsense all presented as cutting edge science being oppressed by the powers that be – but he assures us we are at a turning point, looking upon the cusp of a brave new world where he is the king. Right.

One of the features of this brave new world, is that while Rath accuses the powers that be of trying to control information (Wikipedia is one such conspiracy, he claims) he is hostile to any open discussion or free debate on his claims. His hostility comes in the form of intimidating legal action. It is therefore particularly satisfying that he has so spectacularly lost – and in a country where he is automatically forced to pay his opponent’s legal fees.

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Sep 12 2008

Teaching Creationism in Schools

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Reverend Professor Michael Reis, Director of Education at the Royal Society has recently advocated the “teach the controversy” approach to creationism in schools. He is quoted as saying:

“An increasing percentage of children in the UK come from families that do not accept the scientific version of the history of the universe and the evolution of species.

“What are we to do with those children? My experience after having tried to teach biology for 20 years is if one simply gives the impression that such children are wrong, then they are not likely to learn much about the science that one really wants them to learn.

“I think a better way forward is to say to them ‘look, I simply want to present you with the scientific understanding of the history of the universe and how animals and plants and other organisms evolved’.”

This an an extremely problematic position. There are some kernels of wisdom, perhaps, buried in this view, but it cannot be implemented as stated.

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Sep 11 2008

London Taxi Drivers and the Brain’s Navigational System

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London, being an old city that developed its street plan long before cars were invented, and without any top-down planning, is a maze of 250,000 streets. London taxi drivers who have mastered this complex meshwork of byways over years were found to have greater than average hippocampus size. This built on earlier work showing that London taxi drivers activate their right hippocampus when recalling specific routes through London. (The right hemisphere is typically the one responsible for visuo-spacial memory and processing.)

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Sep 10 2008

Supporting New Science Teachers

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I saw this press release today and thought it would make a good addition to my recent discussion of how to improve science education. The study looks a the recent trend of school districts hiring science teachers who are trained in science but not teaching – uncertified science teachers. This practice is increasing due to the shortage of science teachers.

They found that the outcome of science education and the retention of new science teachers can be improved by two factors: supporting them with mentors (retired science teachers who observe them in the classroom) and with lesson plans.

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Sep 09 2008

More Thoughts on a Wiki Science Textbook

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Last week I discussed some ideas I had about what constitutes good science education and offered a suggestion that might improve the current state of science education. I appreciate all the feedback and discussion, which is exactly what I asked for. I recognize this is an extremely complex topic with no easy solution and so ideas from a variety of backgrounds is useful.

My premise for that post and this one is that science education is currently inadequate, as evidenced by the high level of scientific illiteracy in this country and to some extent more generally. Specifically most students seem to graduate high school without sufficient critical thinking skills and appreciation for the process of science.

On resource that might help, I suggested, is an online science curriculum that properly focuses on teaching scientific method and critical thinking in an engaging way.

Let me address some of the specific points that were raised.

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Sep 08 2008

Lack of Association between Measles Virus Vaccine and Autism

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A new study published in PLOS One shows no association between the MMR vaccine and autism or the presence of measles virus in the gut of children with autism and GI symptoms. This is yet more evidence against the claim that the MMR vaccine is responsible for some autism cases. Of course, no one study can clearly settle a complex medical question. The entire literature must be taken as a whole, and when we do this it becomes clear that the evidence is strongly against any association between MMR and autism. This new study is an important addition, and strengthens this conclusion.

This study has some interesting features. The lead author is Mady Hornig – who (until this study) was one of the research darlings of the anti-vaccine crowd. It will be difficult for the anti-vaccinationists to dismiss this study as coming from a vested interest or someone with an agenda, as they have previously be extolling the virtues of this particular researcher. Further, in the press release we learn:

(John Snow Professor of Epidemiology and director of the Mailman School’s Center for Infection and Immunity) adds, “The study design process was a critical piece for us, as there is still so much public concern over the safety of the MMR vaccine. For this reason, we involved the autism parent/advocacy community as we designed the study to ensure that all issues were being addressed. We are hopeful that this process of community engagement will build important partnerships among members of the autism community, physicians, public health agencies, and clinical researchers; serve as a paradigm for the conduct of future studies to understand the causes of this disorder; and facilitate the rapid communication of clinically relevant scientific findings to the broader community.”

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Sep 05 2008

How To Improve Science Education

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The stated “mission” of the loosely defined “skeptical movement” is to promote science and reason. At the core of this mission is the promotion of life-long quality science education. The many blogs, podcasts, magazines, lectures, and books primarily serve this purpose – to popularize science and help teach scientific philosophy, methodology, and facts to the public.

But what about formal public science education? There appears to be general agreement among skeptics that the quality of science education is generally poor, and yet is critical to our goals. But what have we done about it? Too little, I think.

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Sep 04 2008

An Acupuncture Debate

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Recently I was invited to write my views on acupuncture for a website called Opposing Views. I pre-published (with permission) my side of the debate on “Does Acupuncture Work” here at NeuroLogica. Taking the pro-acupuncture side is Bill Reddy – his profile states that he is “currently serving on the Executive Committee of the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.”

The format of the website allows for moderated comments, which are intended to allow for a written debate with the two sides. Here are my responses to the first round of arguments.

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Sep 02 2008

Skeptics at DragonCon

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This is a lesson in the power of historical contingency – sometimes things happen for unique and quirky reasons. They do not make sense because they were not designed from the top down from a sensible plan, but occurred spontaneously from the ground up – in other words, they were a product of real life. They therefore do not make sense unless you know the quirky history.

And so most people’s reaction to the heavy presence of skeptics at a fantasy/sci-fi/horror/gaming convention is befuddlement.  For me, however, DragonCon 2008 was completely natural.

The quirky history you may not know, as I understand it, centers around Derek and Swoopy – the hosts of Skepticality, a popular skeptical podcast.  DragonCon is divided into “tracks”, so there is a sci-fi track, a horror track, a writers’ track, etc. Derek and Swoopy have been running the podcasting track – and they happen to be skeptics. So they incorporated a lot of skepticism into their track. This year the skeptical presence increased to the point where they got their own track – so now there is a skeptics track at DragonCon. There is also a science track at DragonCon, which makes sense as there is quite a bit of science in science-fiction.

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