Archive for January, 2009

Jan 15 2009

Sorry, Egnor, Your Pillars Are Still Shattered

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Michael Egnor, the creationist neurosurgeon who blogs over at the Discovery Institute, has been a busy beaver lately. He has written several entries on his side of the materialism vs dualism debate we’ve been having. I have been reading them, waiting for him to say something new I need to respond to, but mostly he is just reiterating the same points I have already refuted. Putting an old argument in a new form, or citing a new source, does not change the argument nor is it a response to refutation.

But now he has specifically responded to my previous post on the topic (although still not really addressing my points), and so a response from me is in order.

In a post titled, “It’s Time for Me to Unshatter My “Three Pillars of Neuroscience Denial,” Egnor tried and failed to refute my summary of his core logical fallacies.

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Jan 14 2009

Some Questions about Vaccines

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This morning I received the following e-mail from Jennifer:

The above article was quite comprehensive and thoughtful but a few things haunt me. One is the fact that just because thimerosal was removed in around 2003 does not mean there will be a neat distinction in the numbers of autism (presuming thimerosal is the cause-some even see it as a symptom now of autism rather than the cause). This could be for many reasons,  including:

using up of thimerosal stocks already in existance up until the expiry date.
flu shots or multi-dose vials (containing mercury) could still be in use.
pregnant ladies are actually given flu shots and these may contain mercury
immigrant children ( from countries where thimerosal is not removed) may move to areas and be inluded in epid. studies
Also, you do not mention many shots at once and the lack of safety studies in regard to this.
Also,also, recently the mumps portion of the MMR was reduced. It was quadrupled in 1990 from what it was. This may also play a role in autism development.
What about all the kids with seizures and asthma these days. Why is MSG in the shots. EWWWW

I frequently receive similar e-mails, and similar questions appear in the comments of this blog whenever I write on the issue of vaccine and autism.  Jennifer touches on many of the current points in the moving target of anti-vaccine propaganda.

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Jan 13 2009

New Insight into the Origins of Life

Published by under Evolution

Tracey A. Lincoln and Gerald F. Joyce from the Scripps Research Institute this week published a paper in Science detailing their research into Self Sustained Replication of RNA Enzyme. What they found is that their altered RNA, which they modified so that two strands can cross-replicate without the need for any other enzymes or proteins, can replicate indefinitely, doubling their numbers every hour. This has interesting implications for our understanding of the origins of life.

RNA and DNA are the molecules that carry genetic information. It is believed that life arose from molecules that were the ancestors of modern RNA – that the ability of RNA to act as a template for its own replication was enough of a toe-hold in evolution for life to eventually develop around RNA. While it is plausible that such molecular evolution was a precursor to life and the evolution of species, molecules don’t fossilize and so we have precious little direct information about this earliest stage of the development of life. What we do know is largely inferred from laboratory experiments that try to replicate the conditions in which life probably arose.

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Jan 12 2009

Pain is No Laughing Matter

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A new study performed at the University College London reveals that people are more suggestible under the effect of nitrous oxide – laughing gas. The study involved subject receiving nitrous oxide, and controls receiving regular air (both scented to disguise which was which) and then were asked to imaging an image or sensation and report on how vivid they believed it to be. Those getting nitrous oxide reported 10% higher on the scale of vividness, suggesting that they slightly more suggestible.

This effect is plausible, and also nothing new. Various compounds have been believed for a long time enhance suggestibility. Anything that inhibits our critical faculties would likely have this effect.

The study authors are particularly interested in how this effect of nitrous oxide can be exploited to enhance pain relief from anesthesia. They site that hypnosis has already been demonstrated to have such an effect, and perhaps the combination of nitrous oxide and hypnosis would have an additive effect.

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Jan 08 2009

Is the Rise In Autism Rates Real?

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It is without controversy that the number of autism diagnoses being made is on the rise. In 1991 there were about 6 cases per 10,000 births, and in 2001 there were about 42. This number continues to rise at about the same rate.

The cause of this rise, however, is very controversial. There are basically two schools of thought: 1 – that true autism rates are on the rise, and 2 – that the measured rise is an artifact of increased surveillance and a broadening of the definition. A new study published today in the journal Epidemiology lends support to the school claiming that autism rates are truly rising – or at least that is how proponents are interpreting it. After a closer look, I am not so sure.

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Jan 07 2009

SETI vs Intelligent Design

Published by under Skepticism

Blogging for the Discovery Institute, Michael Egnor repeats the already debunked canard that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is analogous to the search for Intelligent Design (ID) in nature. This time he is responding to a recent blog entry of mine on SETI. He doesn’t actually respond to any of my points – he is just using my entry as an excuse to repeat the SETI false-analogy.

Egnor writes:

One is struck by SETI supporters’ speculative extravagance. The most cogent critique of SETI, in my view, is that it is akin to an article of faith. There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life. SETI is surely a shot in the dark, perhaps literally, but I do believe that it is a worthwhile scientific venture. Methodologically it is certainly science, even good science. The reception of signals with specified complexity or the discovery of artifacts apparently crafted by intelligent non-human agency would be clear evidence for extraterrestrial intelligent agency. Carl Sagan’s example in “Contact” is entirely valid. The reception of a signal repeating prime numbers would be very unlikely to have a non-intelligent natural source, and the most reasonable scientific inference would be that it was generated by extraterrestrial intelligent life.

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Jan 06 2009

The Detox Scam

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There is a cycle to the snake oil market – like the fashion industry. Words and claims come in and out of fashion, used for marketing impact rather than scientific accuracy. Some words, like “natural” and “energy” have staying power, while others last for a time and then may fade, but can come back into fashion like wide ties. Magnetism seems to rear its head every 20 years or so, going back to the animal magnetism of Anton Mesmer. Radioactivity ended with the atomic bomb, but radio or EM waves are back in style. Anti-oxidants are still in their heyday, but perhaps past their peek.

Recently “detox” is all the rage. The basic concept is nothing new – potential customers are scared with the notion that their bodies are being harmed by invading toxins. This triggers our disgust emotion – an evolved defense against eating spoiled, contaminated or dangerous food. There is something deeply satisfying about the idea of getting bad things out of our bodies. It also is an appealing notion that symptoms we may be having are not a problem with our body itself, but is the result of something foreign that can be purged.

The word “detox” tries to capture all that. It’s an effective marketing slogan. It is also (as used in such marketing) utterly meaningless.

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Jan 05 2009

Weblog Award 2008

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Well, it finally happened. NeuroLogica is a finalist in the Weblog awards for 2008 in the science category. Although this is a hopeless cliche, I am happy just to be nominated and in the finalists. Recognition of one’s efforts doesn’t suck.

Voting is open to the public until January 12th here. If you have enjoyed NeuroLogica over the past couple of years I would certainly appreciate a little blog love. I looks as if polls open 12 midnight EST tonight and everyone can cast one vot per day until the 12th.

Of course, I am up against the perrenial favorites, Pharyngula by PZ Myers and Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait. Both excellent gentleman who put a great deal of time and effort into their outrageously popular blogs.  Congratulations to them and the other finalists.

And to science blogging itself – something worth celebrating. I think science blogging is an unmitigated success of the so-called new media.

I’ll keep you updated on how the voting goes.

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Jan 05 2009

Water Snakeoil

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Water is the new snakeoil – well, it’s an old snakeoil too. There certainly seems to be something psychologically appealing about the notion of pure water. It is clear, crisp, untainted – it just has to be healthy. And, of course, clean water is essential for health and life, and nothing enhances a lie better than a kernal of truth.

It is not surprising, therefore, that “magic” water has long been a staple of snakeoil salesmen, gurus, and charlatans. Health spas originally centered around special springs of water, or mineral water, and later carbonated water.

I was recently asked about a recent incarnation of the water snakeoil routine, Kangen Water. The claims made on the website for this dubious product are unimaginatively representative.

Water is the single most important resource for the human body. Water is the most essential nutrient involved in every function of the body. Water accounts for approximately 70% of an individual’s complete fat free body mass. In order to function properly, water must be consumed in set quantities in consistent intervals (average of 2.5 liters per day). When not enough water is consumed, people can begin to develop certain illnesses and even accelerate their aging processes.

Many of the “magic water” website begin like this – water is an “important resource for the human body.” Well, duh. This says nothing, of course, about why any particular water is more healthful then, say, the water that comes out of your tap. Continue Reading »

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Jan 01 2009

HIV Denier, Christine Maggiore, Dies.

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Christine Maggiore was a major figure in the HIV denial community – those who deny that the human immunodeficiency virus is the cause of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Maggiore died at 52 at home on December 26th. At this time there is no official cause of death, but she was treated over the last six months for pneumonia, according to reports.

Maggiore founded Alive & Well, a group dedicated to the notion that HIV does not cause AIDS, in 1993 and since that time has been a fervent advocate of so-called HIV denial. In fact she argued that her own survival as an untreated person with HIV was evidence that HIV does not cause AIDS. It is now recognized, however, that some people have inherent resistance to HIV and researchers are learning more about the genetics of such resistance.

Maggiore’s dedication to HIV denial, however, still had tragic consequences. She decided to breast feed both her children, despite the fact that breast feeding increases the risk of contracting the virus. Her daughter, Eliza, died at the age of 3 apparently from pneumonia that was likely an opportunistic infection due to advanced AIDS. She never had her children tested or treated for HIV.  Her pediatrician, interestingly, was anti-vaccine crank Dr. Jay Gordon. He claims to support the conclusion that HIV causes AIDS, but his website used to contain some squirely comments on HIV that suggested he may have had some denialist sympathies.

Maggiore never acknowledged that her daughter’s death was due to HIV or AIDS. The HIV denial community rallied around her, claiming the death was due to an allergic reaction to amoxicillin. Denial is a powerful thing.

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