Archive for February, 2011

Feb 11 2011

Homeopathy Overdose Befuddles Homeopaths

Recently the 1023 campaign conducted another homeopathic overdose. In coordination with this, James Randi issued a $1 million  challenge to the homeopathic community to demonstrate that there is any difference between homeopathic water and regular water (there isn’t). Last week skeptics around the world downed fistsfull of homeopathic pills (i.e. sugar pills) to demonstrate that there is no effect or side effect to the products. You can take a couple of boxes of homeopathic sleeping pills without feeling the least bit drowsy.

To be clear – the homeopathic overdose is a stunt, and nothing more. It is not an experiment or meant to be scientific in any way. It is a stunt for the camera – to raise public awareness of the fact that there are generally no active ingredients in homeopathic products. They are sugar pills that have been kissed with magic water – nothing else. This is an important campaign because generally the public lacks awareness of what homeopathic products really are. Most people I encounter have no idea what the claims of homeopathy are, and assume that homeopathic means “natural” or “herbal.”

It is true that by doing this skeptics are demonstrating that homeopathic products lack toxicity and side effects – a feature prominently promoted by homeopaths. Of course, they have no side effects because they have no effects. It is easy for nothing to cause no direct harm. (Indirect harm is another matter.) So homeopaths should be happy – we are simply educating the public about their favorite snake-oil and demonstrating how wonderfully safe they are.

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Feb 10 2011

Evidence for Neural Networks

Published by under Neuroscience

It is common knowledge that the human brain is horrifically complicated – perhaps the single most complex thing of which humans are aware. I am often asked if we understand how the brain works, often phrased to imply a false dichotomy, a yes-or-no answer. Rather, we understand quite a bit about how the brain is organized, what functions it has and how they work and connect together, and we know quite a bit about brain physiology, biochemistry, and electrical function. But there is also a great deal we do not know – layers of complexity we have not yet sorted out. I would not say that the brain is a “mystery” – but rather that we understand  a lot, but we also have much to discover.

One aspect of brain function that is an active area of investigation is the overall organization of brain systems. Specifically – to what degree is the brain organized into discrete modules or regions that carry out specific functions vs distributed networks that are carrying out those functions? I have written about this debate before, concluding that the answer is both. As is often the case in science, when there are two schools of thought, each with compelling evidence in their favor, it often turns out that both schools are correct.

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Feb 09 2011

Live Chat February 22

I was invited by Trine Tsouderos to take part in a live chat with the Chicago Tribune about alternative treatments for neurological disorders. This will take place on February 22, from 1-2pm Eastern time.

Trine is an excellent journalist who has been writing many hard-hitting science news stories. She clearly gets it and does not fall into the common trap of false balance. Her reporting has made her an enemy of the anti-vaccine loons, earning her a place in the infamous Age of Autism baby-eating photo.

Here is the official blurb for the event – the link below will take you to the official page, and when the event goes live you can click in to the chat from that page:

Chat topic: Alternative treatments for Alzheimer’s, MS, Parkinson’s, ALS and other neurological diseases: Do they work?

A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, MS, Parkinson’s or ALS is devastating. There are no cures. Mainline treatments are not miraculous. Desperate, many patients and their families turn to the world of alternative medicine for help. They spend thousands of dollars on (often cash-only) doctor visits and therapies, which are advertised with promises of improvement and relief. Some even promise a cure. But do these therapies work? What is the science behind them? Are they worth a try, or are they risky wastes of time and money? We’ll discuss all of this with Yale neurologist Dr. Steven Novella.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/ct-health-chat-alternative-medicine-alzheimers,0,3398097.htmlstory

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Feb 08 2011

Processed Foods and IQ

A new epidemiological study finds a correlation with eating a highly processed diet at age 3 and later slightly lower IQ (by a few points). The study compared diets of children from ages 3 to 8 – the diets fell into three categories: high in processed food, traditional (meat and potatoes) and “health conscious” (lots of salads and fish). They found a difference only in the high in processed food diet with the lower IQ.

From one point of view, the lesson to be drawn from this study is obvious – growing kids have a high metabolic and nutritional demand, the brain is particularly demanding, and therefore suboptimal nutrition can be a drag on development. This effect is clear in children who are undernourished. It remains unclear if there are significant difference in children who are well-fed but who have diets which are not considered healthful. This study suggests there is a small difference.

But I must point out that this is an epidemiological, not experimental, study. So the children were not randomized to different diets. The researchers controlled for the obvious confounding factors, like socio-economic group and breast feeding, but there are potentially many other confounding factors that were not controlled for. For example – parents who rely on processed food might do so because they have little time to cook or prepare better meals. These same parent may spend less quality time with their children. Or parents who allow their kids to eat mainly processed foods may be more permissive in general. I wonder, for example,  if they controlled for television watching or video-game playing.

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Feb 07 2011

How Gullible Are You?

Published by under Skepticism

Have you heard of the tree octopus? This is an endangered cephalopod that lives in the trees of the pacific northwest. Of course, the tree octopus does not exist – it is a famous internet “hoax” beloved by skeptics as a common example of human gullibility. It is right up there with dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) – a component of acid rain, a chemical so deadly that if you breath it in you can die, and in gaseous form it can cause severe burns. DHMO is otherwise known as water – but it is easy to get people to sign petitions banning its use.

The inherent gullibility of humanity is a lesson important to the skeptical outlook for it speaks to the need to have a skeptical filter in place – a bullshit-detecting filter or baloney detector. But how gullible are people, generally?

Research at the University of Connecticut uses the tree octopus to test school children for their tendency to believe what they read on the internet. Subjects were chosen for their already demonstrated reading aptitude and this age group is generally considered to be internet savvy. And yet, when exposed to the tree octopus website virtually every student believed the content – unless they were already exposed to the information that it is a hoax.

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Feb 03 2011

Follow up on Pandemrix and Narcolepsy

Last year it was reported that there was a possible increase in narcolepsy, a sleep disorder characterized by excessive sleepiness, in children who had received the Pandemrix brand of H1N1 flu vaccine in Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. However a review of the data did not find a convincing connection, although concluded there was insufficient data at present and recommended further surveillance. A narcolepsy task force was formed in Finland, and now we have their preliminary report.

They conclude that the evidence suggests there is a connection:

Based on the preliminary analyses, the risk of falling ill with narcolepsy among those vaccinated in the 4-19 years age group was 9-fold in comparison to those unvaccinated in the same age group. This increase was most pronounced among those 5–15 years of age. No cases were observed among those under 4 years of age. Also, no increase in cases of narcolepsy or signs of vaccination impacting risk of falling ill with narcolepsy was observed among those above 19 years of age.

These results are intriguing, but should be considered preliminary. Epidemiology is a complex endeavor, and there are lots of wrinkles to this data. The increased risk of narcolepsy was only seen within a certain age range. In Iceland (but not Sweden or Finland) the increase in narcolepsy was also seen in those who were not vaccinated. And further, other countries that also used the Pandemrix vaccine have seen no increase narcolepsy, including Norway, the UK, Germany, and Canada.

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Feb 01 2011

Jerusalem UFO

Have you seen the latest viral UFO video – this purports to be of a UFO spotted hovering over the Dome of the Rock Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This is actually presented as confirmatory evidence of a previous UFO video of the same location. Viral videos are a great opportunity for a little “armchair skepticism” – applying critical thinking to assess the logic and probability of a claim and to think of potential alternate explanations for what is being claimed. If you are ambitious you can then follow up with some actual investigation, or at least see if someone else has.

I also like to think about how an individual case fits into the bigger picture. What patterns of behavior does this reflect? First take a look at the videos and we’ll analyze them for plausibility.

The first video I linked to above seems superficially compelling. At least it does not seem like any natural or mundane phenomenon. It’s not a helicopter, flare, floating lantern, or ultralight. It’s not a re-entering satellite, or an out-of-focus blimp. But also – it does not look like an alien spacecraft, meaning that we are not seeing details of what can only be a technologically advanced craft. What we are seeing is a pulsating blob of light. Blobs of light, no matter what they appear to do, are never compelling because you cannot tell what they actually are. You also often cannot tell size, distance, and speed. Blobs of light are common photographic artifacts. They are also easy to fake.

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