Archive for May, 2013

May 10 2013

Separation of Church and State

A comment on my recent post about Backdoor Creationism calls into question the premise that the US Constitution demands separation of church and state, and therefore religious beliefs cannot be taught in public schools. The comment reads:

The first amendment states that the federal government can neither (sic) or prohibit the exercise of religion. “separation of church and state” is just a propaganda term used by some to stave off religious nuts who use undue social pressures or indoctrination to push their beliefs to others.

Here’s a section of the first amendment.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

And here’s the definition of the word “respecting” from a dictionary dated 5 years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights.

RESPECT’ING, ppr. Regarding; having regard to ; relating to.

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May 09 2013

Nocebo Mass Delusion

Published by under Neuroscience

Expectation bias cuts both ways, for positive and negative expectations. Expectation bias, the tendency to perceive and accept data that reinforces your expectation, is one of the many contributors to placebo effects (the illusion of a positive benefit that derive from something other than an active treatment). It is also, however, part of nocebo effects  (the illusion of negative side effects from something other than active treatment).

Expectation bias can be powerful enough in some people to lead not only to the perception of a benefit or side effect but to a frank delusion. When this happens on a large scale, that can lead to a mass delusion. There are many episode that demonstrate this effect, but now there is also a controlled experiment that also confirms it.

A recent study looked at sham exposure to wifi signals in 147 subjects. They were first exposed to either a documentary about the dangers of wifi, or to a documentary about internet security. A total of 54% of the subjects experienced

“…agitation and anxiety, loss of concentration or tingling in their fingers, arms, legs, and feet. Two participants left the study prematurely because their symptoms were so severe that they no longer wanted to be exposed to the assumed radiation.”

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May 07 2013

Atacama Specimen

Published by under Pseudoscience

One persistent theme that skeptical investigators encounter is the fact that true-believers of various stripes often whine about the fact that they are not taken seriously by scientists and that their claims are dismissed out of hand. Ironically they often direct their whining at skeptics, even though we are the ones addressing their claims and investigating them. Mainstream scientists won’t taint themselves by even acknowledging their existence.

What the true believers repeatedly fail to appreciate, however, is that it is not necessarily their claims that relegate them to the fringe, but their atrocious methods. They giddily squander their credibility by accepting poor-quality evidence, making bad arguments, and dismissing perfectly reasonable alternative explanations.

In short, they are not taken seriously because they are not serious scientists. A version of the Dunning-Kruger effect seems to make them incapable of perceiving their own gross scientific incompetence, and so they have no choice but to whine about those “closed-minded scientists” and the conspiracy of silence against them.

Yet another example of this is the Atacama specimen – a six inch tall humanoid skeletal remains discovered in the Atacama desert, Chile, in 2003. The Disclosure Project, founded by Steven Greer, has promoted the specimen as evidence of aliens. They make the classic mistake of looking for evidence and arguments to support their hypothesis, rather than properly considering other hypotheses or looking for evidence to disprove their hypothesis.

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May 06 2013

The Lunar Effect and Confirmation Bias

I gave a seminar recently to science teachers and the topic of whether or not there is a lunar effect came up. I was not surprised to find that 80% of them believed that emergency rooms and police stations are more busy during a full moon. I was also not surprised, but only because I have been there before, that they were highly resistant to my claim that the scientific evidence shows that there is no such effect.

Several questions emerge from the notion that the phases of the moon affect human behavior: what is the plausibility of such a claim, is there actually such an effect, and if not why do so many people believe that there is?


One of two justifications are commonly given for how the moon might influence human behavior. The moon basically has two physical effects on our environment – gravity and light. Astrological influences are not worth further discussion in this article, and I rarely hear that as a justification from the general public in any case.

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May 02 2013

HIV Cure Close?

Only two patients have ever been demonstrably cured of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Timothy Brown has not had any detectable virus in his blood since receiving a bone-marrow transplant for leukemia. More recently a child infected with HIV at birth was apparently cured after receiving an early high-dose regimen of anti-retrovirals. These cases are considered “functional cures” – they have no detectable virus even off anti-retroviral medication.

The press has a habit of throwing around the word “cure” prematurely or inappropriately. We hear all the time about a potential “cure” for cancer, for example. Invariably the new treatment in question, if it pans out at all, becomes a useful treatment for cancer – one more tool in our toolbox – but not an outright cure.

I was therefore skeptical of the following headline, “HIV cure months away, Danish scientists say, citing novel new DNA treatment.” Perhaps there are Danish scientists claiming this, but that is a bold claim. I also worry about any clinical claim that a treatment is close. What does that mean, exactly? Either there is compelling clinical evidence of efficacy or there isn’t. You can’t predict the results of future research, so if the evidence isn’t here yet then we simply don’t know. At best such statements are expressing an optimistic hope.

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