Archive for April, 2009

Apr 14 2009

Controversy Over Strengths and Weaknesses

Published by under Evolution

The strategy du jour of those who wish to water down the teaching of evolution, or to insert their religious creationist ideology as much as possible into the science classroom, is to ask, under the banner of “academic freedom” that schools teach the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories, particularly evolution. The Intelligent Design propaganda machine, the Discovery Institute, has been hitting this theme pretty hard. This was also the focus of the recent controversy over the Texas science standards.

Recently Michael Egnor has taken up this banner over at the DicoTute’s blog. He is responding to a blog post by Timothy Sandefur, and in typical fashion Egnor seems to have missed the fact that Sandefur has completely dismantled his position. In Egnor’s latest reply he resorts to his playing of semantic games and grossly misinterprets Sandefur’s position, while whining about his own position being misrepresented.

A Creationist By Any Other Name

The First point of contention is the use of the term “creationist” to refer to Egnor’s position – Egnor has made this complaint about others, including myself. He writes:

The term creationist in this debate refers to young earth creationism. I’m not a young earth creationist. Therefore when Mr. Sandefur calls me a “creationist,” he’s misrepresenting my views.

Egnor completely ignores Sandefur’s actual characterization of his views, and rather focuses on a single term. It seems Egnor has unilaterally (he provides no reference or other justification) and quite arbitrarily decided that henceforth, and retroactively, the term “creationist” only refers to members of one particular subset of creationism formerly known as “young earth creationists”.  Also henceforth the term “bear” will now only refer to black bears, and the literature will be altered to reflect this.

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Apr 13 2009

Inductive Reasoning In Science

Published by under Skepticism

Recently I received the following question from an SGU listener named Marty:

I’ve been debating with a friend about the nature of science, and he brought up the following argument:

“1. All inferences from experience to conclusions about the future presuppose the principle that the future will resemble the past. (Principle of the Uniformity of Nature)
a. If we suspect that the course of nature may change and that the past is no guide to the future, then all experience becomes useless and does not support any conclusion about the future.
2. Therefore, no argument from experience can support the principle that the future will resemble the past.
3. No deductive argument can establish the principle that the future will resemble the past.
4. Therefore, the Principle of the Uniformity of Nature cannot be rationally justified.
5. If the Principle of the Uniformity of Nature cannot be rationally justified, then inductive reasoning in science cannot be rationally justified.
6. Therefore, inductive reasoning in science cannot be rationally justified. ”

Your thoughts?

This type of question comes up frequently – they essentially are attempts to use philosophy to argue that science cannot lead to objective truth, therefore science is not valid (or at least I can ignore it whenever I choose, which is typically how such arguments are applied). The problem with all such arguments is that science is not about objective metaphysical truth, but rather it is a collection of methods for making abstract models of nature and then testing those models against reality.

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Apr 10 2009

Pillay Is Almost A Skeptic

Published by under Uncategorized

OK, not really. But in reading Srinivasan Pillay’s latest column in the Huffington Post it struck me that if you remove the headline and the first and last paragraph, the meat of the article is very skeptical. In fact many if not all of the specific points he makes are nearly identical to ones I have made in this blog. His only problem is that he comes to the exact wrong conclusion from the facts he presents. So his essay is almost skeptical if you go by word count.

Readers will recall that last week I blasted Pillay for defending distant healing with horrendously pseudoscientific arguments.  So it’s a bit surprising that he seems to understand many concepts critical to the skeptical perspective. In my opinion this make Pillay a crank – he has the facts at hand, but twists them in service to an agenda of scientifically bizarre conclusions.

Rather than extensively quoting (you can read the original article) I will summarize Pillay’s points:

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Apr 09 2009

Imaginary Phantom Limb

Published by under Uncategorized

The brain can be a freaky thing. We live in this illusion of reality created for us by our brains. This is not to say there is no objective external physical reality – there is as far as anyone can tell – but our experience of ourselves and the world is a neurologically generated illusion.

The brain processes sensory information so that it is a useful, and not necessarily accurate, depiction of the world. This sensory input is also highly selective, giving us that slice of reality that proved to be most evolutionarily adaptive. That part of our brain that pays attention then attends to a tiny slice of that highly processed selective sensory information and mostly ignores the rest.

The sliver of information that makes it to our awareness is combined with information from our memories – information about how we think the world works. The sensory data is therefore interpreted, mostly subconsciously, to fit our internal models of reality. Meanwhile, other bits of gray matter encode our mood and emotions, while others make us feel as if we are inside our bodies, which are in turn separate from the rest of reality. We have vast memory stores, organized as overlapping networks of pattern recognition. But can only hold a few bits (2-7) in our working memory where we can actively manipulate data.

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Apr 08 2009

Chinese Slimming Capsules

Published by under Uncategorized

A German pharmacologist, in a newly published case series, discusses the risks of taking a popular Chinese “herbal” slimming capsule. The report highlights some of the common themes I have discussed often on this blog.

The capsules are marketed as “dietary supplements”, and the public is meant to be reassured by the fact that the “supplements” are herbal. However, this is just a marketing fiction. Herbs are drugs, and herbs sold as supplements are not supplements, but poorly regulated drugs.

The slimming capsules in question contained the drug sibutramine – which is a stimulant like amphetamine. In fact they contained twice the recommended daily maximum of this drug for prescription use.

Dr. Deiter Muller and co-authors present a case series of patients who presented with sibutramine toxicity from taking these “supplements.”

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Apr 07 2009

Viral Batteries

Published by under Skepticism

The conventional wisdom these days is that battery technology will play an increasing role in our energy future. Electronic devices continue to proliferate, we have the technology to produce amazing implantable medical devices, and we are looking increasingly to green-energy sources for our cars, homes and the infrastructure of our civilization. All of this requires electricity, which needs to either be produces as needed, derived from a grid or external source, or stored in a battery.

It is not surprising, therefore, that hardly a week goes by when I do not come across some amazing battery breakthrough while perusing science news. Industry seems to be betting that battery technology is a worthwhile investment.

Of course, most of these breakthroughs will not pan out – they will not lead to a viable product that can be manufactured on an industrial scale. Also, many techniques are mutually exclusive – they apply only to a certain type of battery. For those that can work, it will likely take years for a product to actually be on the market. So reading this type of tech news is often an exercise in serial disappointment and delayed gratification. But it is interesting to see what might be coming down the pike.

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Apr 06 2009

Home Energy Scams

Published by under Skepticism

I was recently asked about a device for saving energy costs at home – a device for power factor optimization. I checked it out, and it indeed does have all the red flags for a juicy scam.

Techno Scams

One flavor of scam is to overwhelm a potential customer with technical information that sounds superficially impressive but which the customer is sure not to understand. There may be a kernel of truth to the science, but it just takes one technical fatal flaw to doom an otherwise plausible scheme. Examples include special audio cables that cost thousands of dollars, but do not produce any audible difference in sound quality.

A subset of these scams is to take a technology that actually has some advantage in specific industrial applications and then adapt them for residential or personal use, where they have not benefit. An examples of this is filling tires with pure nitrogen – this has a small but real benefit for trucks and large vehicles, but not for your family car.

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Apr 03 2009

Mammoths and Nanodiamonds

Published by under Uncategorized

This is a story of the very big and the very small, but more importantly it is an interesting story of how scientists resolve different ideas with research and evidence. I have been following it for years and love to read about new updates.

The burning question is – what happened to the mammoths and other megafauna of North America about 13,000 years ago. Extinction itself is no big deal – most species that have ever lived are extinct, and all species go extinct eventually (at least so far). But this was somewhat of a mass extinction – a continent-wide extinction of large terrestrial mammals.

Theories as to the cause include overhunting by newly arrived human populations, climate change brought on by the transition from the recent glacial period to the current inter-glacial period, and (more recently) the impact of a large comet somewhere over Canada. It seems that overhunting likely was a factor, but not enough by itself to explain the loss of megafauna.

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Apr 02 2009

Texas Science Standards Update

Published by under Evolution

Many science bloggers have been writing about the clash between creationists and scientists in forming the Texas state science standards for the next decade. Now that the votes have been cast and this phase of the conflict is over I wanted to give a  brief recap. Also, I interviewed Paul Murray from Texas Citizens for Science for the SGU last night (this episode will be up on Saturday) and he provided some keen insight.

To review, the fight was largely over whether or not to put the “strengths and weaknesses” language back into the standards that had been removed in January. This was voted down. But the young earth creationists on the board (there are 7 out of the 15 members, with at least 1 swing vote) managed to recover from that defeat by getting equivalent creationist code word put into the standards.

The new language that was put in includes that students must “analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations” based in part on “examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific experiments.” Language was also put in to specifically question the age of the universe, the nature of stasis and change in the fossil record, and the complexity of the cell and information in DNA.

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Apr 01 2009

Controlling Robots with the Mind

Published by under Skepticism

Honda announced recently that they have built a device that reads the electrical impulses and blood flow of a person’s brainenabling them to control a robot with their thoughts. Sounds cool – but actually I did not find this to be a significant breakthrough. Other research centers have already achieved similar goals – remember the monkey that learned to control a robot with his mind?

Honda claims that their innovation is in developing a device that is painless because is uses only surface sensory and not implanted wires – but New York researchers have already accomplished that goal too, several years ago.

So really, this is a non-story (Shhhh….don’t tell the press).

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