Archive for August, 2018

Aug 20 2018

Bullshit Research

Published by under Neuroscience

I am not talking about dubious research, but rather research into the phenomenon of bullshit (BS) itself. BS has an operational definition or paradigm within psychological research – it is the extent to which subject rate as highly meaningful statements which are crafted to be vacuous, unconcerned about the truth, and lacking in any unambiguous meaning. Think just about anything Deepak Chopra says. Such statements are also called “pseudoprofound” when they are BS and try to sound profound or philosophical.

“Intuition expresses visible choices.”

“Meditation makes the entire nervous system go into a field of coherence.”

“Experiential truth belongs to the expansion of abstract beauty.”

One of those quotes is from Chopra, the other two from the Chopra simulator.

A recent study extends the research on BS a bit, but first gives a brief summary of what existing research has found:

Recently, some psychological research has focused on individual differences in the extent to which people perceive bullshit as meaningful. These studies have shown that people who rate bullshit sentences as highly meaningful have more religious and supernatural beliefs, are less reflective, intelligent, and numerate, more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, endorse free market policies more, and have more favorable views of Republican presidential candidates in US politics. The aim of this study is to develop the academic field of bullshit further.

Given the relatively few number of references in the paper, it’s probably best to consider these conclusions preliminary. While many of these features make sense, like being prone to believing in the paranormal and conspiracies, I would want to see some independent replication before making any firm conclusion.

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Aug 17 2018

Death by Herbalism

“It’s dressed-up quackery isn’t it?” magistrate Daniel Reiss said.

“That’s one view, your honour,” the prosecutor replied.

That is a good summary of pretty much all alternative medicine. Practitioners have gotten very good at dressing it up, enough to even fool academics who aren’t paying close attention. But in the end, it’s all quackery.

The quote above refers to a recent case of a Sydney Chinese herbalist, Yun Sen Luo, who was arrested and charged with manslaughter in the death of 56 year old client he was treating. He advised the diabetic woman to go off her diabetes medication, ultimately resulting in her death. The charge is gross negligence.

The success of alternative medicine over the last few decades has been in convincing the world that what they offer is a genuine alternative to real medicine. They have rebranded it as complementary, and the integrative, but it’s all the same – using unproven, fanciful, or even disproven treatments instead of real medicine. They justify the substitution by appealing to nature, distracting with hand-waving pseudoscientific jargon, appealing to antiquity, or straight-up lying. In the extreme they weave complex conspiracy theories about the medical establishment to scare people away from real medicine.

This case is just one example, but it’s not atypical. The core problem is that we have a practitioner who is practicing medicine without a license, and without the requisite medical knowledge, training, and experience. The con is that if you simply call what you do “alternative” you can get away with it (until you kill someone – and even then, sometimes).

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Aug 16 2018

Drug-Induced Near Death Experience

There is no question that people occasionally have strange experiences, sometimes very strange. There is a tendency to interpret such experiences as external, reflecting something happening in the world, rather than internal, reflecting something happening in our brains.

Neuroscience, however, has provided us a powerful tool for understanding some of these experiences. They are a window into how our brains construct our experience of reality, and what we experience when that process breaks down or is altered by drugs, trauma, electrical stimulation, oxygen deprivation, or other stressors.

A recent study looking at the hallucinogen DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) adds an interesting insight into our collective knowledge of these altered states of consciousness. The researchers studied 13 healthy volunteers, who were given placebo, and then in a separate session a week later DMT, and extensively questioned about their experiences. The researchers specifically wanted to test the possibility that a DMT-induced hallucination would be similar to reported near-death experiences.

In short they found that the DMT experiences were extremely similar to near-death experiences (NDE), but let’s look at the details.

They gave the subjects an established NDE scale, which assesses for 16 features reported by those who experience an NDE. A score of 7 or higher is considered to be a genuine NDE. All 13 subjects scored 7 or higher on this scale when given DMT. Ten of the 16 features were statistically more likely during DMT than placebo. And the total scores were similar to a historical control group of reported NDEs. So again – DMT produced an experience that was very similar to reported NDEs.

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Aug 14 2018

Phantom and Prosthetic Limbs

One of the goals of prosthetic technology (replacement limbs for amputees) is to make the user feel like the prosthetic is part of their body – that they own it and control it (called embodiment). It is more difficult to control a limb that does not feel like part of your body, and users need to visually look at a prosthetic to see where it is. This is true of passive prosthetics as well as robotic ones.

I have written previously about researcher attempts to provide sensory feedback to robotic limbs. A new study adds to this growing knowledge about how embodiment works and how to hack the brain to make it happen.

The key to embodiment seems to be multimodal sensory feedback. If the brain sees and feels the same action, that is all that is necessary for the “ownership module” to kick in – that part of the brain that makes you feel as if you own the various parts of your body. The most primitive manifestation of this is the rubber hand illusion. If you have a rubber hand protruding from your sleeve as if it is your real hand, and you see the rubber hand touched while your real hand is touched (and therefore you feel it), this will create the temporary illusion that the rubber hand is your real hand. Obviously this is not practical for everyday use of a prosthetic.

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Aug 13 2018

Dunning Kruger Effect and Anti-Vaccine Attitudes

One of the persistent themes of this blog is that expertise matters. This is not to say the experts are always right (sometimes they disagree with each-other), and there is also a range of expertise, and different kinds of experts can have different biases and blind spots. But all things considered, someone who has formal expertise on a specific topic is likely to know much more about that topic than someone who has read about it on the internet.

Further, most people underestimate the amount of knowledge that exists on a topic, and therefore the vast gulf of knowledge that exists between them and the experts. In fact, the more someone knows about a topic the more they understand how much is known, and the more humble they tend to be with respect to their own knowledge. The flip side of this – people who know little tend to overestimate their relative knowledge – is an established psychological phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Operationally Dunning and Kruger found in their study that the lower someone performed on a test of knowledge, the greater the gap between their perceived knowledge and performance and their actual performance. At around the 80th percentile and above, people tend to underestimate their relative knowledge. Below that point they tend to increasingly overestimate it, and everyone thinks they are above 50%.

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Aug 10 2018

Organic Solar Cells

Published by under Technology

I’ve had a few posts this week that could come off as pessimistic – but there is an upside to these stories. It is true that we don’t currently have enough arable land to feed the world with the USDA recommended diet. We need to continue to improve the efficiency of production and reduce waste. The silver lining is that we have the technology to do this, if we invest in that technology (genetically modifying our crops to have desirable traits) and push back hard against those greenies who are misguided and the organic industry who are trying to demonize a perfectly safe technology.

It is also true that human-caused global warming is happening, we are already seeing negative consequences, and we may be getting close to a point of no return that could cause disastrous outcomes. The good news is that there are technological solutions, if we prioritize them. While we have been pointlessly debating whether or not global warming is real with closed-minded ideologues, energy technology has been slowly but steadily improving in the background. We could, right now, massively reduce the carbon footprint of our energy infrastructure.

We may be getting to a good tipping point – where clean energy is so much cheaper than fossil fuel based energy that everyone is going to want it. We need to make this tipping point happen faster, and we can if we eliminate fossil fuel subsidies (including the subsidy of not charging for the externalized health and environmental cost of pollution).

One technology that offers the hope of a green tipping point is organic solar cells. These are photovoltaic cells (OPV) that are based mainly on carbon rather than silicon. Silicon produces more efficient solar panels, but they are rigid and heavy. Organic photovoltaics can be dissolved in ink and then printed on cheap flexible plastic or other material. You end up with a light, flexible, and cheap solar cell.

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Aug 09 2018

The Climate Tipping Point

Published by under General Science

It’s now pretty clear that as we increase global CO2 levels in the atmosphere, mainly by burning stuff, global average temperatures have been increasing as well. This is predicted based upon the greenhouse effect of CO2 and other gases like methane, amplified by reactive gases like water vapor. The amount of warming that results from a given CO2 increase is called climate sensitivity (specifically the rise in average global temperature averaged over 20 years resulting from a doubling of atmospheric CO2), and there is some debate about exactly what the climate sensitivity is.

Without any feedback effects, from just the primary greenhouse effect of CO2 itself, climate sensitivity is about 1 degree C. However, there are feedback effects, meaning that rising temperatures affect the climate in such a way that more warming results. For example, if the polar icecaps reduce in size, they reflect less light back into space, which results in more warming. Current estimates of climate sensitivity are between 2 and 4.5 degrees C.

However, a new paper published in PNAS argues that climate sensitivity is not the only issue when it comes to predicting future climate change due to increased CO2. Those feedback loops do not only affect climate sensitivity – they also affect climate homeostasis. In other words, at any given amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, taking into consideration all the feedbacks in the climate, an equilibrium will be achieved. There are climate cycles around that equilibrium, but that equilibrium determines long term global average temperatures.

So – what we really need to do is determine where the new equilibrium will settle for any given amount of CO2. This requires predicting not only the effect of feedback loops on the climate, but their effect on each other. The authors argue that several feedback mechanisms can act like a domino effect – on feedback will increase temperatures enough to set off another feedback which increases temperature enough to set off yet another feedback. This whole chain has to work itself out before a new equilibrium is reached.

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Aug 07 2018

How Much Arable Land Is There?

Published by under General Science

This question comes up frequently in discussions of farming practices – how much arable land is there on the Earth, and how much are we currently using? It is a deceptively difficult question to answer. It’s an important question, because as the population grows, we need to grow more food. We can do this my increasing the amount of food each acre of land can produce, by farming more acres of land, or by producing food without land. But if we expand farming acres, where would those more acres come from?

Let’s start with the easy question – right now we are using 11% of all the land on Earth for farming (1.5 billion ha out of a total of 13.4 billion). What percentage of the remaining 89% could be used for farming? The answer is – that depends on your definition of arable land. We can take the upper limit of the estimate of remaining arable land, and then explain why use of that land is problematic.

First, “arable” is a continuum, not a dichotomy. Some land can only be used for a very limited number of potential crops. Other land is highly suitable for many different crops. We won’t count land that is not suitable for farming, even though theoretically it could be used with extreme measures. You can grow corn in the desert, if you import all the water.

If we count all potentially arable land, it is estimated that we are currently using 36% of that land for farming. That means that 64%, or 2.7 billion ha, remain. At first this may seem encouraging, that we have lots of farmable land left. But that figure is very deceptive. Let’s dive into that 64%. The fact is we have already “picked the low hanging fruit.” We have used the best farming land for farming. What remains is largely on the low end of the continuum of suitability. If, for example, land can be used only for olive groves, that is considered arable by the above calculation.

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Aug 06 2018

More Stem Cell Quackery

We’re doing it wrong. We are definitely making an effort to regulate the practice of medicine and sale of health-care products and services to protect the public from fraud and abuse, as we should. But we are doing it wrong, or at least not well enough.

Just one of the many examples is stem-cell quackery, which I have discussed before. Stem cells are an exciting area of research, and the basic technology is advancing significantly. Clinical applications, however, take time, and with a few exceptions we are simply not there yet. We are currently, therefore, in the sweet spot for abuse.

A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, called The Merchants of Hope, highlights the problem. The article should have been called The Merchants of False Hope, but otherwise it did a good job of exposing dubious stem cell clinics that have made their way to the US. A decade ago stem cell clinics were popping up in China, India, and other countries with lax regulation, leading to an industry of stem-cell tourism. But now you can find dubious stem cell clinics right here in the US.

Stem cells, for a quick review, are cells that can turn into other types of cells. There are pluripotent stem cells that can turn into several other kinds of cells, such as the cells in your bone marrow that can make different kinds of blood cells. There are also totipotent stem cells that can turn into any kind of cell. Researchers have gotten good at making totipotent stem cells, even out of mature skin cells. This technology holds the promise of treating a long list of conditions by replacing diseased or damaged cells with new ones.

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Aug 03 2018

Placebo Controlled Trials of Vaccines

There is a strong scientific consensus that vaccines generally are an effective approach to preventing infectious illness. The vaccine schedule is arguably the most effective and cost effective health promotion intervention ever devised. Vaccines are a public health home-run.

How, then, to explain the anti-vaccine movement? The anti-vaccine movement is based mainly on science-denial and conspiracy theories. This means they spread a lot of misinformation – the bits of misinformation become articles of faith, and any evidence to the contrary is denied or dismissed.

I recently received the following question, which is framed as a sincere question, but I have my suspicions that it may not be:

Have just read your article.

I fully agree that herbal medicines/substances should have full clinical trials but can never find anyone able to refer me to
any clinical trials placebo versus substance to be tested on vaccines.
So wondered if you could help me as you are obviously a man of science.
Would be very grateful as there must have been clinical trials sometime.
Even my Dr draws a blank.
Many thanks
Pam

Pam may simply be the victim of anti-vaccine propaganda, and may simply lack all Google skills, but the phrasing strongly suggests an anti-vaxxer goading a skeptic with a “gotcha” question. Since this is a common anti-vaccine trope, let me dispel it once again.

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