Archive for December, 2008

Dec 12 2008

More Neuroscience Denial

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Dr. Michael Egnor has written two more posts reiterating his neuroscience denial over at the Discovery institute. This reinforces the impression that neuroscience denial is the “new creationism” – the new battleground against materialism as a basis for modern science. It is important to keep an eye on the arguments and tactics being developed by the DI to deny the core claim of neuroscience, that the mind is what the brain does. This is likely to be an increasing area of attention for the DI and others with an anti-scientific agenda.

Intellectual Dishonesty

Creationists are intellectually dishonest because they are not engaged in a genuine search for understanding, but rather have staked out an ideological position that they will defend at all costs. This applies as well to Dr. Egnor, who is ideologically dedicated to denying the obvious conclusion from the last century of neuroscience – that the brain causes mind.

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Dec 11 2008

New Stats on CAM Usage

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The Wall Street Journal declares, “Alternative Therapies Have Gone Mainstream.” The Washington Post claims, “Survey Documents Rise in Alternative Treatments.” (That headline was in the RSS feed.) Reuters writes, “Many Americans turning to unconventional medicine.”

Fail!

They are talking about the 2007 National Health Statistics report on CAM use by Americans.  This data was actually released in September. I went through the statistics at the time and reported on them for Science-Based Medicine. I guess that was too much work for most journalists, so they waited three months to be spoon-fed the data by the NCCAM. They also appear to have been spoon-fed their conclusions, for none of the outlets even comes close to getting it right.

In fact, the statistics show the opposite of what the headlines proclaim – for as long as statistics have been gathered on CAM use the numbers have been remarkably stable – not increasing.

Here are the actual numbers reported by the survey:

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Dec 10 2008

Pareidolia In The Brain

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Skeptics have long argued that pareidolia, the tendency to see familiar patterns in random stimulae, is in the brain, meaning that it is a brain phenomenon. This is not exactly what we meant, however.

Pamela Latrimore believes that an aparition of the Virgin Mary has appeared on an MRI scan of her brain.  She also hopes that others might believe this, as she is selling her scan on Ebay to raise money for her medical bills.

This is not a particularly impressive example of pareidolia. Mary sightings are common, perhaps, because it is relatively easy to provoke pareidolia for this type of image. All that is needed is a downward curve that can look like a hooded bent head. Sometimes there is a face present, sometimes not. In this case there are some dots that the brain can fit into a very crude face. It doesn’t take much for our visual processing cortex to match a pattern to something recognizable. Picaso was evidence of this – he could evoke the impression of human figure with a single curved line.

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Dec 09 2008

SETI Science

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I am a strong supporter of SETI – the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. To me this is a fascinating scientific endeavor with a potentially huge payoff. And yet, I find that even within skeptical circles I hear grumblings that SETI is not real science.

The primary complaint stems from the misapplication of an important scientific principle – that a necessary criterion for any scientific hypothesis is that it needs to be falsifiable. If you cannot make an observation or conduct an experiment to prove an idea wrong, then that idea is not useful to science.

SETI critics argue that the notion of extraterrestrial intelligence is inherently unfalsifiable. No matter how much you look with negative results, one could always argue that it is not enough, we have to look deeper into space, for fainter signals, in more EM frequencies.

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Dec 08 2008

Skeptical Battlegrounds: Part II – Creationism

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Last week I gave an overview of what I believe is one of the core missions of the skeptical movement – to fight the good fight against pseudoscience and mysticism. This week I will discuss what is perhaps our greatest victory to date – our vigilant campaign against creationist incursions.

This one issue nicely illustrates many of the points I made in Part I of this series any may even provide a road map forward for some of our other issues.

A Brief History of Creationism

The various forms of creationism, including its most recent incarnation in so-called Intelligent Design, are really just evolution denial. The theory of evolution has been culturally controversial since it was formally proposed by Darwin and Wallace in 1859. it is not hard to imagine why, it shattered one of the pillars of the human ego – that we are something more than animals, than the accidental products of nature.

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Dec 05 2008

The Search Is On

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Believers claim that this creature lives in the remote swamps of northwestern Florida and Arkansas. Several eyewitnesses claim to have seen it, but they have only returned with blurry photographs that are not of sufficient quality to make a positive identification. Skeptics charge that no one has come across a corpse or any hard physical evidence that the creature actually exists.

In addition, there have been several large expeditions hoping to find the creature, but they have come up empty handed. Believers claim this is due to the rare and elusive nature of the creature. They plan another excursion this Spring – their confidence high despite broad skepticism in the scientific community.

I am talking, of course, about the ivory-billed woodpecker.

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Dec 04 2008

Turtle on the Half-Shell

Published by under Evolution

I love it, on many levels, when dramatic new transitional fossils are discovered. Tiktaalik is a recent favorite – an important transition from fish to tetrapods. Ambulocetus (the walking whale) is also a beautiful transitional animal – it’s about as close as you can get to a half whale/half terrestrial mammal.

And, of course, my all time favorite is the classic archaeopteryx – bridging two major groups, dinosaurs and birds. Archeopteryx has teeth, clawed wings, and a bony tail, but also has feathers and could clearly fly. It lacks the keeled breast bone of modern birds for attaching powerful flight muscles, however, and also lacks a triossial canal, necessary to perform a wing flip maneuver for taking off from a standing start. This thing was half bird/half theropod dinosaur.

Now a new transitional fossil species has been discovered: Odontochelys semitestacea (the half-shelled turtle with teeth), which is 220 million years old.

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Dec 03 2008

And One More Thing…

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Yesterday I deconstructed Michael Egnor’s tangle of logical fallacies and false premises that he uses to attack modern neuroscience. There was one point I forgot to address, however. (One of the hazards of daily blogging.) It’s important enough to warrant a separate entry, however.

Reader Gary Goldwater hit upon this contradiction, although tangentially, with this comment:

I also wonder to myself….and perhaps you can explain this…how a brain surgeon would come to Egnor’s conclusions. If my knowledge base is correct, a brain surgeon would have a professional lifetime experiencing the direct connection between the material brain and the function of mind. It seems to me that one of the major foci of a brain surgeon is to limit collateral damage during surgery for the specific purpose of limiting an affectation in the patient’s mind.

The answer to Gary’s question lies, I think, in Egnor’s logical contradiction I did not point out yesterday.

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Dec 02 2008

The Mind of Egnor

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Our favorite creationist neurosurgeon, Michael Egnor, must have had some free time last week. He wrote a spate of blog entries at Evolution News & Views, each one more absurd than the last. Including this one where he serves up a six pack of logical fallacies about the mind and materialism.

And yet he still has not had time to write his promised follow up on Terri Schiavo. He essentially challenged me to a blog-off on this issue, and I obliged. I am still waiting for his response that he claimed he would post in “a week or so” five months ago.

Anyway, he seems to be the designated hitter for the Discovery Institute’s new ventures into neuroscience – their next frontier of anti-materialist propaganda (because the evolution-denial thing is going so well). Egnor has done two things with this most recent post. The first is to string together a series of outrageous logical fallacies in an attempt to argue that the brain cannot entirely cause the mind. The second is to simply co-opt the language of legitimate skepticism and graft it onto his point of view. It fits as well as a nun’s habit on a vulgar construction worker.

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Dec 01 2008

Skeptical Battlegrounds: Part I – Background

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The skeptical movement, in my opinion, serves a vital role in modern society. We are increasingly dependent upon cutting edge science for our quality of life, and even just to run our complex civilization. And yet, while there seems to be broad respect for science – or at least the fruits of science – in the general public, there is also widespread distrust and overwhelming scientific illiteracy.

We are also in the midst of an endless culture war, a struggle between two aspects of human nature. On the one hand are the proponents of mysticism, superstition, pseudoscience, and anti-science. On the other are the defenders of science and reason.

Some of my skeptical colleagues have objected to the military analogy, but we are engaged in a real struggle, and we are fighting over more than bragging rights. The stakes are real: control of resources, support and recognition of government, the running of institutions, access to the media and to the halls of academia and education.

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