Archive for December, 2010

Dec 14 2010

H1N1 Vaccine and Miscarriages – More Fear Mongering

From Natural News we have more fear-mongering about the H1N1 flu vaccine, claiming:

According to the report, the rate of miscarriage among pregnant women during the 2009 H1N1 / swine flu pandemic soared by over 700 percent compared to previous years, pointing directly to the vaccine as the culprit — but the CDC denies the truth and continues to insist nobody has been harmed.

However, there was no link to “the report” – I had to do some digging to find out what this was based on, and not surprisingly I turned up a “wretched hive of anti-vaccine scum and villainy.” What I did not find was any scientific data to back up this dramatic claim.

For background, Natural News is a crank alt med site that promotes every sort of medical nonsense imaginable. If it is unscientific, antiscientific, conspiracy-mongering, or downright silly, Mike Adams appears to be all for it – whatever sells the “natural” products he hawks on his site.

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Dec 13 2010

The Decline Effect

While there is a complex spectrum of attitudes toward science, there are three clusters worth pointing out, specifically in reference to the provocative New Yorker article by Jonah Lehrer called The Truth Wears Off. The first group are those with an overly simplistic or naive sense of how science functions. This is a view of science similar to those films created in the 1950s and meant to be watched by students, with the jaunty music playing in the background. This view generally respects science, but has a significant underappreciation for the flaws and complexity of science as a human endeavor. Those with this view are easily scandalized by revelations of the messiness of science.

The second cluster is what I would call scientific skepticism – which combines a respect for science and empiricism as a method (really “the” method) for understanding the natural world, with a deep appreciation for all the myriad ways in which the endeavor of science can go wrong. Scientific skeptics, in fact, seek to formally understand the process of science as a human endeavor with all its flaws. It is therefore often skeptics pointing out phenomena such as publication bias, the placebo effect, the need for rigorous controls and blinding, and the many vagaries of statistical analysis. But at the end of the day, as complex and messy the process of science is, a reliable picture of reality is slowly ground out.

The third group, often frustrating to scientific skeptics, are the science-deniers (for lack of a better term). They may take a postmodernist approach to science – science is just one narrative with no special relationship to the truth. Whatever you call it, what the science-deniers in essence do is describe all of the features of science that the skeptics do (sometimes annoyingly pretending that they are pointing these features out to skeptics) but then come to a different conclusion at the end – that science (essentially) does not work.

I often feel that those in this third group – the science deniers – started out in the naive group, and then were so scandalized by the realization that science is a messy human endeavor that the leap right to the nihilistic conclusion that science must therefore be bunk.

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Dec 10 2010

Supporting Skepticism

Published by under Skepticism

I rarely take up space on this blog simply to ask for support, so I hope you will indulge me. I also know that the skeptical “movement” is a very loosely organized collection of people who have some overlap in world view (a basic respect for reason and intellectual rigor) but are otherwise diverse in beliefs, politics, and even some values. Many self-identified skeptics don’t like belonging to “movements”, or even attaching labels to themselves, and resent any attempt to talk about skepticism as a movement or organization.

But like it or not, we are a movement. We are collectively trying to make our society and the world at large a more skeptical place, to raise the level of appreciation for science, logic, and reason and to counter the influences of superstition, mysticism, and fraud – some just by educating themselves, but at the other end of the spectrum by direct activism. It is a Herculean task, especially since fraud and superstition seem to pay very well, and so the forces attempting to make the world less skeptical are generally well-funded.

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Dec 09 2010

Evolution Victory in Louisiana

Today the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) will have a final vote on adopting a biology textbook that includes a reasonable treatment of evolution, but does not include a disclaimer that evolution is “only a theory.” A preliminary vote to accept this carried 6-1 two days ago. The final vote is expected to uphold the preliminary vote.

This is the same fight science educators have been having with creationists for decades. The  creationist agenda is simple – to fight against the teaching of evolution in public schools any way they can. The courts have not been their friends – they failed to gain “equal time” for “creation science”, the inclusion of disclaimers in textbooks has been overturned, and their latest farce of “intelligent design” failed spectacularly at Dover. Their latest strategy – using the concept of “academic freedom” to introduce creationist pseudoscience into schools, has been somewhat successful (specifically in Louisiana) but has not yet faced a legal challenge.

Unfortunately, this relentless creationist attack against the teaching of one of the most solid and central theories of modern science has been successful in watering down the teaching of evolution and the public understanding of evolution, especially in regions of the country where literalist Christian belief is popular. This feeds on itself, as a populace ignorant of evolutionary theory is not equipped to defend against crafty attacks against it.

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Dec 08 2010

Cell Phones and Behavior

Cell phones continue to be a focus of epidemiological studies and public concern, despite the fact that so far there is no compelling evidence of any health risk from cell phones. Concerns are likely to be sparked anew with the report of a study linking cell phone use to behavioral problems in children.

The study, by Divan, Kheifets, Obel, and Olsen, is a follow up of a prior study which showed a correlation between cell phone use in pregnant women and behavior problems in their children. They sought to replicate this study with a larger data set and taking into consideration more possible confounding factors. They found:

Results The highest OR for behavioural problems were for children who had both prenatal and postnatal exposure to cell phones compared with children not exposed during either time period. The adjusted effect estimate was 1.5 (95% CI 1.4 to 1.7).

Conclusions The findings of the previous publication were replicated in this separate group of participants demonstrating that cell phone use was associated with behavioural problems at age 7 years in children, and this association was not limited to early users of the technology. Although weaker in the new dataset, even with further control for an extended set of potential confounders, the associations remained.

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Dec 07 2010

The Context of Anecdotes and Anomalies

The most succinct criticism of postmodernist philosophy as applied to science that I have heard is this – that proponents confuse the context of discovery with the context of  later justification. It occurred to me that the same is true of the role of both anecdotes and anomalies in science. Often when I criticize reliance on anecdotes or so-called anomaly hunting, I get feedback that makes the exact same confusion of context.

The context of discovery refers to how new ideas are generated in science. Playing off of Thomas Kuhn’s work on paradigms (and without getting into a side discussion of Kuhn’s own position), some post-modernists argued that science is a humanist-type of endeavor because scientists come up with their ideas in quirky and culturally contingent ways, rather than rigorous or methodical ways.

However, what makes science methodologically rigorous is not how new ideas are generated (the context of discovery) but how they are tested (the context of later justification).

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Dec 06 2010

Alternate Biochemistry

Published by under General Science

NASA has announced the discovery of a strain of bacteria that is not only able to live in an extreme environment loaded with the toxin arsenic, but is able to incorporate arsenic into its basic structure. The research is part of NASA astrobiology project – exploring the limits of life in order to infer the possible environments beyond earth in which life might exist.

Researchers were investigating bacteria in the harsh environment of Mono Lake – which has been without a supply of fresh water for 50 years and is loaded with arsenic. The discovery of so-called extremophiles – bacteria that have adapted to extreme environments – is nothing new. Bacteria are amazingly adaptable forms of life and have been found in very hot as well as cold environments, and in environments under high pressure and with high salinity. The ability to tolerate the presence of a toxin is interesting, but also not surprising given what has already been discovered about extremophiles.

What is entirely new with this discovery, however, is the fact that these bacteria, a strain (GFAJ-1) of a common type of bacteria called Gammaproteobacteria, appear to incorporate arsenic into their own biochemistry. In normal living cells phosphorous is used as part of the DNA and RNA backbone, in addition to being the energy transporting molecule (adenosine triphosphate), and being part of structural phospholipids. Arsenic is chemically similar to phosphate, and in fact that is partly the reason for its toxicity – it is very disruptive to normal biochemistry. These bacteria seem to have replaced phosphate with arsenic in some of these structures and molecules.

This is an important proof of concept – an alternate biochemistry in which arsenic replaces phosphate is possible.

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