Archive for October, 2009

Oct 16 2009

Are Psychopaths Fearless?

Published by under Neuroscience

One of my favorite current series is Dexter – a show that dares to have a psychopathic serial killer as a protagonist. Dexter regularly feeds his “dark passenger” by ritually killing people, but he lives by a code drilled into him by his adoptive police officer father – only kill people who deserve it. So the audience gets to watch brutal ritual murders, but the horror is tempered by our sense of justice and need for revenge.

What I find even more interesting is the running voice over – hearing Dexter’s thoughts as he goes through his day, trying to fit in with the world of “normal” people. Dexter has no clue about typical human emotions or behavior, and so in a way he provides an outsider’s view of humanity.

Although Dexter retains enough of a shadow of humanity to be likable as a protagonist, the writers have given him the typical personality profile of a psychopath, including being relatively fearless. Recently, however, psychologist Joseph Newman has questioned whether psychopaths are truly fearless, or perhaps they have some other deficit that explains their apparently fearlessness.

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Oct 15 2009

More Nonsense from Dr. Jay Gordon

Dr. Jay Gordon is a pediatrician to a particular subculture of pseudoscientific celebrities, such as Jenny McCarthy. He lends his MD cred to this community. He also appears, in my opinion, to be a shameless self-promoter – one of those pop professionals (Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil) who has sold his soul for some easy celebrity.

Regardless of his motivations, he has been spouting arrogant nonsense about vaccines for years, essentially arguing that his clinical gut feeling and anecdotal experience trump the actual science. This is exactly the wrong approach to science-based medicine.

In a recent open letter on his website, he adds to the anti-vax chorus advising not to get the H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine. It’s almost as if this crowd wants to maximize the morbidity and suffering from this somewhat preventable disease. I know this is not literally true, but their ideologically motivated and confused actions will have the same effect.

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Oct 13 2009

2012 Fizzle

Published by under Skepticism

Obsession with the apocalypse is a  cultural phenomenon. Apolinario Chile Pixtun, a Mayan Elder, thinks this obsession is particularly Western, and perhaps he is right. Certainly in my lifetime it seems there has been one or another apocalypse right around the corner. In 1982 the planetary alignments were going to cause massive earthquakes. There were a number of doomsday predictions over the 80s and 90s, but they were overshadowed by Y2K – perhaps the biggest doomsday fizzle of them all.

Smaller doomsdays have come and gone since the turn of the millennium, but the next big date is 2012, December 21st to be precise (although some prefer the numerical symmetry of 12/12/12). To solidify this date in the mind of the public Hollywood is coming out with a doomsday thriller called 2012 (I don’t blame them, and it looks like good eye candy).

The date of this apocalypse is based upon the Mayan Calendar, which allegedly ends on 12/21/2012. The Mayans were fairly advanced in their study of naked-eye astronomy and had a sophisticated calendar. Their “long count” calendar had, as its largest cycle, a period of 394.3 years known as a B’ak’tun. Thirteen was a sacred number to the Mayan, and counting 13 B’ak’tun from their presumed date of creation lands us in 2012.

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Oct 12 2009

Bill Maher Followup

If you peruse skeptical blogs you are probably familiar with the recent controversy over giving the Richard Dawkins award to Bill Maher by the Atheist Alliance International (AAI). To summarize, the AAI decided to recognize Bill Maher with their award named after Dr. Dawkins. The award is for:

The Richard Dawkins Award will be given every year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins.

The part that caused controversy was the bit about “advocates increased scientific knowledge.” A number of skeptics (Orac, I think, was most verbose) had a problem with this because Bill Maher is an advocate for medical pseudoscience. He does not believe in vaccines, he denigrates “western medicine” as a scam, and he has a problem with germ theory.

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Oct 09 2009

Archaeopteryx Bones Dinosaur-Like

Published by under Education

archaeoI wrote a couple of weeks ago about a new bird-dinosaur link and the new oldest bird, Anchiornis huxleyi, which took the title away from one of the iconic fossils of evolution – Archaeopteryx. A new study just published gives us some new information about Archaeopteryx. It turns out the structure of its bones was more like a dinosaur’s than a bird’s.

This has led to some annoying headlines: ‘First Bird’ Not Very Bird-Like. The new study actually does not change our thinking about Archaeopteryx – it is a basal bird, so it has some primitive bird features, and some dinosaur features. Now we know its bones were more like a dinosaur – just like its teeth and tail. This is what we would expect from a transitional species like Archaeopteryx.

For background, Archaeopteryx lithographica was first discovered in 1861 – what is now called the London specimen. There are currently a total of 10 specimens plus one separate feather (many sources I found still give the outdated number of 8 specimens, but there have been a couple more recent finds). Pictured above is the Berlin specimen.

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Oct 08 2009

More Vaccine-Autism Nonsense

The anti-vaccine community is tireless. As I wrote yesterday, they happily shift around their multiple goalposts as long as they have some working hypothesis about how vaccines are to blame for autism or some human suffering. They have moved from MMR to thimerosal to aluminum to “toxins” to squalene and now the HepB vaccine. They just spin the wheel and choose their next target – although they never really abandon their prior targets, they just back burner them a bit.

They also have their small dedicated group of researchers, like the father and son team of Geier and Geier, to produce crappy studies to support their anti-vaccine claims. Andrew Wakefield, who has been rightly vilified for starting the MMR scare with his now discredited Lancet study, has also apparently decided to make a career out of feeding bad studies to the anti-vaccinationists.

I acknowledge there is a certain symmetry to the situation now. The scientific community presents studies that show a lack of correlation between some aspect of vaccines and autism or other neurological disorders. They generally accept these studies as supporting vaccine safety, even while being open about their limitations. They also sharply criticize those studies that suggest there may be a connection between vaccines and autism as fatally flawed.

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Oct 07 2009

Autism Prevalence

Two recent studies concerning the prevalence of autism in the US have been getting a lot of attention, because they indicate that autism prevalence may be higher than previously estimated. This, of course, fuels the debate over whether or not there are environmental triggers of autism.

One study was conducted by the CDC but has yet to be published. The results were announced ahead of publication by the US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to the autism community. She reports that the new prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is now estimated at 1% or 100 in 10,000 children. This is an increase over the last few years. In 2002 the prevalence was estimated to be 66 per 10,000.

The second study was published in the journal Pediatrics and is a phone survey of 78,037 parents. They asked if they had any children who had ever been diagnosed with an ASD. Here are the results:

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Oct 06 2009

Shroud of Turin Reproduced

Published by under Religion/Miracles

SCIENCE-US-ITALY-SHROUDThe fact that the Shroud of Turin – a linen cloth revered as a relic by the Catholic church that some faithful believe is the actual burial shroud of Christ – is a medieval forgery is old news. But public controversies tend to live long past the scientific controversies on which they are based (creationism, vaccines and autism, HIV denial, etc).

Italian scientist Luigi Garlaschelli claims to have done what shroud proponents claim was impossible.  “We have shown that is possible to reproduce something which has the same characteristics as the Shroud,” he is quoted as saying.

Garlaschelli laid his linen across a volunteer (whose face was covered with a mask) then essentially did a rubbing of their face, and then did some aging on the cloth, adding some blood stains and burn marks. The result is a good copy of the original shroud.

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Oct 05 2009

Is Dark Matter Real?

Published by under Astronomy

Dark matter is cool – not necessarily its actual temperature, but as a scientific concept. It is one of the scientific mysteries of our generation, and it’s a fascinating story that is unfolding before our eyes with each new discovery. It’s just a good science story. A recent observation has just added to the drama, perhaps calling into question dark matter’s existence.

Dark matter is a helpful example of how the scientific process sometimes works. Scientists first proposed the notion of dark matter to explain anomalies in the rotation of galaxies – they rotate faster than they should, indicating that they have more mass than is visible. It’s as if they have lots of matter that is not visible – dark matter.

Dark matter became a working hypothesis to explain our observations about the universe, especially how galaxies move. But all scientific theories, in order to be of any value, must not only have explanatory power, they also need predictive power – they must make predictions that allow the theory to be tested.

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Oct 02 2009

Ardipithecus ramidus

Published by under Evolution,Skepticism

I have been following the story of human evolution for about 30 years, and in that time the story has become increasingly interesting and complex. It has been a microcosm for our understanding of evolutionary history itself – we tend to start with simple A leads to B leads to C stories which may be parsimonious but do not reflect the tendency for chaos inherent in evolution. Over time we find a complexly branching bush, and our simple linear storylines fall away.

When I took a course on human evolution under Pat Shipman 24 years ago Ardipithecus was not known, now it is the oldest known member of the branch of primates that led to humans. I cannot say that it is the oldest human ancestor because because we do not yet know if it is a direct ancestor or a side branch. But if it is a side branch, it is still very close to our branching point with chimpanzees, and is likely very similar to our contemporary ancestor.

Scientists led by Tim White have completed a 17 year excavation, assembly, and assessment of specimens of Ardipithecus ramidus from about 36 individuals, including men, women, and children. The fossils come from the Awash region of Ethiopia – a location that has been a huge source of hominid fossils for years.

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