Archive for June, 2013

Jun 10 2013

Science Journalism

I recently got into a small kerfuffle with a journalist, actually a sports writer who decided to dabble in science journalism. The exchange started at science-based medicine when I wrote a piece critical of the claims being made for a new device called the GyroStim, which is being offered as a treatment for brain injury.

In this article I linked to a piece in the popular press about the treatment, in the Denver Post by a sports writer, Adrian Dater. Dater thought I was being unfair in my criticism of his piece, and so wrote a response on his blog.  The exchange and the comments have exposed many of the problems with journalism in general and science journalism in particular, that I would like to explore further here.

First I have to say that there are many excellent journalists and science journalists out there. I am not implying that that there are no good journalists. I do find, however, that the baseline quality of science journalism is lacking and, if anything, getting worse. Part of the problem is the evaporating infrastructure for full-time journalists. Many outlets no longer maintain specialist journalists, and use generalists (including editors) to cover science news stories.

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Jun 07 2013

Error in the Development of Brain Circuits

Published by under Neuroscience

One thing you learn going through medical school and studying all sorts of diseases and pathology is a powerful medical corollary to Murphy’s Law – anything that can go biological wrong with the body, does. Every single function in the human body is associated with a disease or disorder in which that function is impaired or not working, unless such an impairment is incompatible with life.

Pick any cell, protein, enzyme, structure, ion channel, hormone – anything you can think of, and I bet there is either a disorder associated with that thing not working, or dysfunction would result in a non-viable embryo or fetus.

In fact, there are diseases and disorders caused by underlying biological mechanisms we haven’t discovered yet, and studying these diseases offers big clues to healthy biology.

The brain is no exception to this rule. This is an argument I frequently offer to those who deny that anything that can meaningfully be called mental illness exists. The details of the wiring of the brain – which neurons connect to which other neurons, in what pattern, and with what strength of connection – are what largely determine brain function. (There are other factors also, like glia and biochemical factors.)

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Jun 06 2013

Star Trek – Into Bad Science

Published by under Culture and Society

On the SGU this week, the episode that will be released on Saturday June 8th, we do an extended review of the new Star Trek movie, Into Darkness (STID). so – this is a warning to SGU listeners, if you want to hear the episode without spoilers, see the movie before Saturday (or whenever you typically listen to the episode).

We talk about the science in the movie, the characters, the writing, its overall quality as a film and how well it lives up to the Star Trek franchise.

Here I am just going to delve into some aspects of the science in the movie. I am a fan of science fiction, and I am unapologetic in desiring good science in my science fiction. I have no problem suspending my disbelief, and allow writers to invent new science and technology as needed for the story, but there are limits. The unwritten rule-of-thumb in science fiction writing is that you get one huge gimmie, but not more than that.

Regardless of your preference for hard science fiction, there is no reason for gratuitously bad science in science fiction. Science howlers can take you out of a movie, it’s lazy writing, and often that also translates to bad storytelling.

Overall STID was not bad with the science, but there were a few annoying moments, and one unnecessary howler that did immediately take me out of the movie.

(Spoilers below the fold)

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Jun 05 2013

TAM Around the Corner

Published by under Skepticism

The Amazing Meeting 2013 is coming up, July 11-14 in Las Vegas. This is an annual meeting for science, skepticism, and critical thinking hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). It is a truly incredible event each year, and I always enjoy meeting my regular readers at such events.

The lineup of speakers is impressive this year – check out the full list here.

There are a number of events that I am participating in or running:

The SGU will be giving a live show on the main stage.

The SGU will also have a table to sell swag, and we make an effort to spend as much time as possible there to be available to our listeners (and we will have some scheduled times when we are all there).

There is an SGU dinner Friday night where we spend a few hour with our listeners. We usually have some well-known skeptics joins us as well. We will have some fun activity, and also we have an auction, including auctioning off a coveted guest rogue spot on the SGU.  You have to register separately for this event (on the registration page, go down to Fundraising Meals and click “add option.” You then have to click on the bottom of the page on the “Continue to make ticket selections” button to add the number of tickets you want for the SGU dinner.)

The SGU is also sponsoring a late night poker tournament on Saturday night. This was incredible fun when we did it last year. See if you can knock out a well-known skeptic from the tournament and win a prize.

I am running a Science-Based Medicine workshop on Thursday, with David Gorski, Harriet Hall, and Mark Crislip. We will cover the basics of SBM and have an interactive section.

I will also be moderating an SBM panel discussion on fighting the medical fakers, with a special report from David Gorski on the Burzynksi clinic.

I will be on a another panel about the nature of scientific skepticism, discussing many of the topics I have covered in this blog over the last few years.

Hotel rates are super cheap if you register by June 8th. Hope to see many of you there.

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Jun 03 2013

Vaccine Denial Pseudoscience

I was recently asked about this article, Bedrock of vaccination theory crumbles as science reveals antibodies not necessary to fight viruses, which is a year old, but is making the rounds recently on social media. I was asked if there is any validity to the article. It’s from NaturalNews (not to be confused with NatureNews), which means, in my experience, it is almost certainly complete nonsense.

For the average consumer my advice is to completely ignore NaturalNews and Mike Adams. He is, among other things, an anti-vaccine crank. This article is written by staff writer Ethan Huff.  Let’s take a close look  and see if it lives up to the site’s reputation.

He writes:

While the medical, pharmaceutical, and vaccine industries are busy pushing new vaccines for practically every condition under the sun, a new study published in the journal Immunity completely deconstructs the entire vaccination theory. It turns out that the body’s natural immune systems, comprised of both innate and adaptive components, work together to ward off disease without the need for antibody-producing vaccines.

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