Archive for July, 2010

Jul 14 2010

Anti-Vaxers Spanked

This bit of good news is already spreading around the science blogosphere, but I wanted to chime in also. The New South Wales Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) has issued a very damning statement against Australia’s largest anti-vaccination organization, the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN). According to reports:

The HCCC accuses the AVN of providing inaccurate and misleading information and selectively quoting research out of context to argue against vaccination.

The report has also noted accusations that the AVN harassed the parents of a child who died of whooping cough last year, after the parents advocated the importance of childhood vaccination.

This is the result of a long investigation – but also the result of a campaign by my friends and colleagues “down undah,” specifically Rachael Dunlop (Dr. Rachie) who spearheads the anti-antivax efforts of the Australian Skeptics. They have done an excellent job of keeping the pressure on the AVN and have been scoring huge victories in the media.

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Jul 13 2010

Conspiracy Science

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

Maybe it was at a party, a family event, or even at work, but you have probably encountered before a person whom we would call a conspiracy theorist. Were you cornered as they became more and more animated, discussing how the shadow world government is slowly preparing for world domination using chemtrails and vaccines? Perhaps you became progressively sheepish as every logical question was met with an even more absurd bit of circular reasoning, accompanied by accusations of being naive, until physical escape was your only option.

This, of course, is an extreme example while conspiracy thinking occurs on a spectrum – we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside of us to some degree. Understanding conspiracy thinking in its subtle and extreme forms seems like an important topic of psychological investigation, and yet there is a paucity of good scientific research. Perhaps this is due to the stigma of conspiracies – academics don’t want to get the stench of conspiracy theories on them.

But there is some interesting research, and recently psychologists Viren Swami and Rebecca Coles reviewed this research in their article The Truth is Out There. This is a keeper – one for the skeptical files, if for nothing else than that they provide a handy list of references on conspiracy research.

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Jul 12 2010

ClimateGate Follow Up

Published by under General Science

I know this is already a bit of old news, but I am just returning from TAM8 (which was awesome, BTW) and am behind on my blogging. Recently the third of three independent reviews of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) e-mail scandal has been completed. All three reviews concluded that the CRU was not hiding, destroying, or manipulating data.

Last year I wrote about what has come to be called climategate – leaked e-mails from the CRU at the University of East Anglia which revealed some troubling statements and attitudes among the CRU scientists. At the time there were those who believed the e-mails to be the innocent chatter of scientists and others who thought it was the smoking gun of scientific fraud. At the time I wrote:

I don’t know what the lessons of climategate are yet – we need to see what actually happened first. But how people deal with climategate says a lot about their process. Those who are making bold claims based upon ambiguous, circumstantial, and out-of-context evidence, are not doing themselves or their side any favors.

In other words – let’s withhold final judgment until there has been time for investigations to discover what has actually been happening at the CRU. The e-mails were concerning, but not smoking gun evidence of anything – let’s wait and see. Well, now we have the results of several reviews of the evidence and therefore have something substantial upon which to based an informed opinion.

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Jul 09 2010

At TAM 8, Having Great Time, Wish You Were Here.

Published by under Skepticism

I am currently at TAM 8  – The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas. If you consider yourself a skeptic, and you have never been to a TAM, I recommend you make it your mission to attend one. This year the conference is co-sponsored by the JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation), the Skeptics Society, and the CSI (committee for skeptical inquiry) – all three national skeptical organizations. I guess that means it is now officially the annual meeting of the skeptical movement (it has already been that de-facto).

I am having a great time meeting people who listen to the SGU or read NeuroLogica or SBM regularly – putting faces to some commenter pseudonyms. But I am also very busy. Yesterday I held two SBM workshops (the room was packed for both). Friday and Saturday morning we are recording two live SGU episodes. And Saturday I am moderating an SBM panel.  Friday night we are hosting the SGU dinner. In between I will be interviewing as many of the speakers as possible.

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Jul 06 2010

Modern Bloodletting

I used to think that bloodletting was a Western cultural invention – part of Galenic medicine involving the balancing of the four humors, one of which being blood. Bloodletting faded away with the advent of science-based medicine in the 19th century. But it turns out that bloodletting was common throughout ancient cultures and not unique to the west.

In fact acupuncture was originally a form of bloodletting – the “needles” were really lances and the acupuncture points locations over veins to be opened. Chi, or the Chinese concept of the life force, was believed to be partly in the blood, and bloodletting could be used to free the flow of chi. This was closely related to the Galenic concept of using bloodletting to free the flow of static blood in the tissue.

For example, in the ancient medical text of Suwen, we find:

When heaven is warm and when the sun is bright,
then the blood in man is rich in liquid
and the protective qi is at the surface
Hence the blood can be drained easily, and the qi can be made to move on easily…

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Jul 05 2010

Neural Stem Cells and Exercise

Published by under Neuroscience

It is only recently (the last decade or so) that neuroscientists have realized that the brain harbors a reservoir of neural stem cells, even into adulthood, waiting to be recruited to make new connections. This is an important part of neural plasticity and learning. Now that we know the stem cells are there, research is underway to learn as much about them as possible, including their regulation. Perhaps they play a role in certain diseases, like Alzheimers. Or perhaps they could be exploited to treat or prevent such diseases.

It has also been learned that not all brains are the same in terms of aging. Most brains atrophy and develop pathological signs of aging, and this correlates with a reduction in mental agility (especially the ability to learn new things). But a lucky few do not seem to develop these age-related changes, and can remain mentally nimble well past 100. Nailing down the environmental and genetic variables that make the difference would be interesting and potentially very useful.

For now we are at the basic science level in addressing these questions – just figuring out what is going on. Clinical applications will hopefully come later. But there is one thing it seems we can say now based upon existing research – exercise, both physical and mental, is good for the brain and staves off the negative effects of aging.

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Jul 02 2010

Oldest Multicellular Life

Published by under Evolution

Nature recently reported the finding of what may be the oldest examples of multicellular life – 2.1 billion years old. These are centimeter-sized “cookie” shaped fossils that show an internal structure that may reflect the complex organization of a multicellular creature.  If true, this would push back the oldest example of multicellular life by about 200 million years.

Multicellular life, like plants and animals, did not really take off until the Cambrian Explosion – about 530 million year ago. At this time all of the basic body plans that make up modern life emerged. It is not clear exactly how long it took for all of this diversity to evolve, but it may have been as little as 5 million years. This rapid expansion was at least partly fueled by a rise in atmospheric oxygen.

However, the Cambrian Explosion is also partly a fossil artifact. It represents the first occurrence of multicellular life with hard parts that fossilize – a turning on of the fossil record more than of plants and animals. This creates the question of what the real history of multicellular life was prior to the development of hard parts. We have a few foggy windows into the pre-Cambrian era, and more questions than answers. What evidence we have found likely represents random pieces to the puzzle that happened to leave fossil remnants we have discovered, rather than anything approaching a complete picture of pre-Cambrian life.

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Jul 01 2010

Subconscious Motivation

Published by under Neuroscience

Neuroscience research has been increasingly fleshing out the fascinating and complex relationship between the subconscious processing of the brain and our conscious awareness. We all labor under the illusion that our decisions, feelings, and behaviors are all conscious. When we do something, it seems, it is because we wanted to do it. We are very good, in fact, at retrofitting a logical explanation for why we consciously did something.

But much of our brain’s decision making occurs at a subconscious level. When presented with a choice various parts of our brains make a calculation – processing the choice, weighing varying factors based upon some neuro-algorithm, and then present that choice to our conscious mind (the global workspace, if you accept this hypothesis). Research shows that if we change the subconscious algorithm, by suppressing, for example, one part of the brain, the decision-making process is altered. We are not aware of this, and we still are under the illusion that the decision was completely conscious.

Added to this is increasing evidence for information processing in the brain of people who appear to be in a persistent vegetative, or perhaps minimally conscious, state. They give no evidence of conscious awareness, but fMRIs will show that their brains are responding to environmental stimuli in complex ways. This research is still preliminary, but perhaps the subconscious processing is still there – there is just no consciousness to present decisions to.

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