Archive for March, 2012

Mar 09 2012

ID – Making an End-Run Around Science

Published by under Creationism/ID

We live in an increasingly complex society. There is a proliferation of clever strategies to deceive you, including in areas that require a great deal of expertise to sort out. We can no longer take comfort (if we ever could) in the notion that the trappings of legitimacy are a reasonable guide to what is legitimate. Universities have been infiltrated by all manner of pseudoscience, their good names abused to provide legitimacy for nonsense. False controversies are manufactured to erode confidence in legitimate science, while ideological journals are invented to pretend to be part of the mainstream scientific literature. Docudramas can dress up fiction as if it were fact. The quality of journalism is eroding while it is getting more challenging to separate scientific truth from pseudoscientific fiction. Meanwhile the internet has made the dissemination of information so fast that it’s a challenge just to keep up. It has also drastically reduced the price of pretending to be a legitimate organization – all you need now is a slick website.

The purveyors of pseudoscience are also getting slicker at distorting and getting around the institutions of science and academia, while eroding confidence in those institutions. The two movements that have perhaps been the most successful at this are alternative medicine and creationism, and there is remarkable overlap in their strategies (for example, the use of “health care freedom” laws and “academic freedom” laws respectively).

Recently we learned about creationists infiltrating geologist scientific meetings in order to spread stealth creationism.

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Mar 08 2012

Weight Loss Supplements Don’t Work

This is something I and others have been saying and writing about for years – there is no current utility to weight loss supplements. Now a systematic review of the literature has come to the same conclusion. From the abstract:

Weight-loss supplements typically fall into 1 of 4 categories depending on their hypothesized mechanism of action: products that block the absorption of fat or carbohydrate, stimulants that increase thermogenesis, products that change metabolism and improve body composition, and products that suppress appetite or give a sense of fullness. Each category is reviewed, and an overview of the current science related to their effectiveness is presented. While some weight-loss supplements produce modest effects (2 kg), especially in the long term. Some foods or supplements such as green tea, fiber, and calcium supplements or dairy products may complement a healthy lifestyle to produce small weight losses or prevent weight gain over time. Weight-loss supplements containing metabolic stimulants (e.g., caffeine, ephedra, synephrine) are most likely to produce adverse side effects and should be avoided.

Definitely the most troubling category are those that contain stimulants. They are added to give the user a sense of increased energy – it’s a cheap way to make it seem like the supplement is doing something. But the long term effects are negative overall. Your body will simply adjust to the constant use of stimulants, and then if you stop you will likely gain back any weight you lost and more. Further frequent use of such stimulants may not be safe. Ephedra itself was banned by the FDA because of cases of sudden death in users.

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Mar 06 2012

Natural Feeling Neuroprosthetics

Science fiction is full of a future in which we plug our brains into a computer (or a computer into our brains, I guess) and experience a seamless connection to either a virtual world (ala The Matrix) or a robotic machine that we can control as if it were a part of our body. This is called a brain machine interface (BMI), and the applications of this technology would be many and profound.

The question remains, however – will it work? Will the experience be truly seamless? Can our brains adapt to mesh with a virtual reality or control something external? There are two ways you can think about this based upon our current understanding of neuroscience. The first is that BMI will be inherently limited because as the brain develops it adapts to our bodies and the sensory information that it receives. There are also windows of developmental potential, and after our brains develop to a certain point it loses some of its potential to adapt and wire itself to novel input.

We might hypothesize, therefore, that an adult would have a limited capacity to adapt to a BMI. Therefore the experience will seem unnatural and perhaps even unpleasant, and the level of control will be limited and awkward. This is the pessimistic view.

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Mar 05 2012

Oxygen Around Dione

Published by under Astronomy

NASA has recently announced that their Cassini mission to Saturn has detected a thin layer of oxygen around the small moon Dione. The layer is so thin they are not calling it an atmosphere, but an exosphere. This is an interesting new piece to a picture that has been developing over the past few years – the chemistry of the Saturn system and how the moons influence the planet and each other.

One reason this is interesting is because oxygen is often thought of as a chemical signature for life. Free gaseous oxygen is highly chemically reactive, which means it won’t hang around for very long. It will react with other substances and be chemically bound. If there is gaseous oxygen in the atmosphere of a planet, therefore, there must be a source of new oxygen being made. On earth the source of oxygen is plant life – plankton and other plants make energy from the sun, take CO2 from the air as a source of carbon, combine it with water and release O2.

This further means that if we find oxygen in the atmosphere of a planet, either in our own solar system or an exoplanet in another solar system, this would be a clue that the planet might harbor life. The other possibility is that there is some chemical reaction going on that is producing the oxygen. That is likely the case with Dione.

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Mar 03 2012

Your Deceptive Mind

Published by under Skepticism

I am proud to announce my second course with The Teaching Company:  Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills.

The Great Courses are a series of college-like lectures designed for adult learners. They are very well produced – I have been impressed with the entire process, and I am happy that The Teaching Company decided to produce some courses with me. In this one I go systematically through all of the flaws and foibles of the human brain, our errors in perception and memory, hyperactive agency detection, pattern recognition, logical fallacies, and cognitive biases. Then I discuss how this manifests as delusions and pseudoscience, and finally how to develop the critical thinking skills necessary to overcome these limitations.

This is a great introduction into skeptical thinking for those not as familiar with skepticism and metacognition, and also a thorough treatment of the topic for those who are. I encourage you to check it out.

Also, if you have not previously seen it, take a look at my first course: Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: What We Think We Know May Be Hurting Us.

 

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Mar 02 2012

I Dream of Spectral Evidence

Published by under Legal Issues

During the European witch hunts that came in waves throughout the 15-17th centuries “spectral evidence” was allowed in court, as it was during the Salem witch trials as well. Spectral evidence is testimony based upon the dreams or visions of a witness. They could, for example, say that a visage of the accused came to them in a dream and put a curse on them. Reverend Cotton Mather, a prominent figure in the Salem witch trials, supported the use of spectral evidence, but cautioned that it should not be relied upon as the sole source of evidence because Satan could take the form of an innocent. His father, Increase Mather, after the trials opposed the use of spectral evidence on the same basis – not that it was an arbitrary and unreliable source of evidence, but because it can be the work of demons.

Alas, the specter of spectral evidence still lingers in our modern world. A Saudi court is considering whether or not they should allow a genie (or jinn) to give testimony in open court. (Actually this story is about a year old, but it just making its way to English-speaking news outlets, but the outcome of the case has not.) The case involves accusations of corruption and bribery – a judge is accused of taking a bribe to let off a defendant in his court. In his defense the judge claims that he was possessed by a genie summoned by the defendant, who is a sorcerer (that’s right – the “devil made me do it” defense). In order to prove his case the court allowed testimony from a cleric who claims to talk to genies:

The paper said the court summoned Fayez Al-Kathami, a well-known cleric and Raqi who is believed to have the powers of speaking to jinn.

It said the court summoned Kathami after the arrested judge said he was possessed by jinn through another defendant, who is a sorcerer.

Kathami told the judge later that he managed to “question” the jinn that had possessed the judge and would present a report to the court.

The attorney who is defending the man now accused of summoning a genie to possess the judge trying his case is not pleased with this line of evidence. He has requested that the court summon the genie directly so that it can give its testimony before a live court. It seems this is a ploy to have the genie’s testimony thrown out as hearsay – if the genie cannot appear in court to give its testimony against his client, then it should not be admitted. Given the situation that lawyer is in, I guess that’s a reasonable approach.

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Mar 01 2012

How To Spot a Guru

This is highly curious – the Natural News crank and conspiracy-mongering website has just published an article called: Signs you are being scammed by a fake guru, by Mike Bundrant. This is curious because Mike Adams, who runs the Natural New website, in my opinion is a fake guru. So – is this unintentional irony, or is this a preemptive strike? By condemning “fake gurus” you can create the impression that you are not one.

The article itself is reasonable, but not great. First I wonder why Bundrant chose to say “fake guru?” Are there real gurus? Let’s take a look at his specific points. He starts off with the guru claim that there are no limits:

Gurus love to preach that you’ll have no limitations (if you buy their products). Their “proven” strategies will either 1) catapult you past anything in your way or 2) give you unlimited power.

This is very true. The Secret is the ultimate manifestation of this – just think about what you desire and your wishes will make it true, without limit. Some newage scams claim that reality is all in your mind anyway, so there is truly no limit to what you can change with your mind. This is also the basic philosophy of Christian Science – the material world is just a reflection of the spiritual world. Keep your spirit pure and you will be perfectly healthy and live forever.  Getting medical care is therefore an act of loss of faith, and will weaken your spirit and therefore your body.

Bundrant misses an important feature here – when the unlimited potential is not realized, gurus blame you for the failure. It is not their ideas and their system that has failed, it is you who has failed. Either you lacked faith, conviction, or you simply did not apply the guru’s system diligently enough.

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