Feb 08 2018

Did a Comet Kill the Mammoths

Between 12,800 to 11,500 bp (before present) there was a cold period in North America called the Younger Dryas – named after the dryas flower whose pollen is a good marker for such cold periods. During this time the megafauna of North America, including the Mammoth, largely died out. Along with them went the Clovis culture – a big game hunting culture with distinctive stone points.

What caused this period of climate change and mass extinction?

This is a genuine scientific controversy. One group of scientists believe that the melting glaciers dumped fresh water into the northern Atlantic, temporarily shutting down the ocean currents that bring warm water to North America. Another group think that a comet impact is to blame.

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Feb 06 2018

Mindfulness No Better Than Watching TV

A recent systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of mindfulness meditation on prosocial behavior found, essentially, that there is no evidence that it works. I find these results entirely unsurprising, and they yet again highlight the need for rigorous research before concluding that a phenomenon is real.

As I discussed recently on SBM, mindfulness meditation is the practice of sitting quietly, focusing inward and on the present, and avoiding mind wandering or daydreaming. The recent review I discussed on SBM found that the research into mindfulness, however, does not use a uniform or operationalized definition. That is critical to good science – you need to carefully define something before you can do research on it.

It is especially important to specifically define a concept in order to do research into the question of whether or not the phenomenon is real. If your question is, “Does X exist,” you better have a very specific definition of what X is. Otherwise it is easy to misinterpret the evidence, or to wiggle out of evidence that X does not exist.

The best example of this in medicine is acupuncture. Acupuncture is defined as sticking thin needles into acupuncture points – except when research shows that it does not matter where or even if you stick the needles, then acupuncture can be something else, which is vaguely defined.

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Feb 05 2018

Neuro-Quantum Entanglement Pseudoscience

On the Canadian Entrepreneur show, Dragon’s Den, the dragons were given a demonstration of a clip (that’s right, a small metal clip like you would use to hold papers together or put in your hair) that the creator claimed would improve your balance, strength, and health through the power of “quantum entanglement.” The clips, called Neuro Connect, were “developed” by a chiropractor and his partner. The Dragons fell for it, amazed by the demonstrations, and invested $100,000 for a 30% share.

The show aired, giving a huge boost to the company’s sales. However, the way the show works, even when the Dragons make a deal on camera, the deal is contingent on them doing due diligence for confirmation. When they did they found that there were serious scientific objections to the claims being made by company selling the clips, NeuroReset Inc. The deal was off.

But this did not stop the show from airing. The public did not get the benefit of their due diligence Рthey protected themselves, but completely threw their audience under the snake oil bus.  Canadian news outlet CBC contacted the producer to get their response:

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Feb 02 2018

Carbon Capture

Hopefully it’s not news to you that the Earth is warming due to human release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. A number of studies have assessed the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW), with results clustering around 97%. Overwhelmingly, most climate scientists have looked at the data and concluded that AGW is happening.

Climate scientists have gone beyond just establishing that AGW is happening. They are trying to quantify it and project the trend lines into the future. This type of effort is always fraught with uncertainty, with the error bars increasing with greater time into the future. However, we can take a 95% confidence interval and make reasonable extrapolations of what is likely to happen.

Recognizing this uncertainty, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that we should keep post-industrial warming to less than two degrees Celcius if we want to avoid serious effects of climate change. Given that as the goal, they can then determine how much more carbon would need to be released to cause this amount of warming. This can be used to determine how much we need to decrease future carbon emissions.

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Feb 01 2018

A Case of Brain Death

The New Yorker magazine’s latest issue features an article about the sad story of Jahi McMath. Jahi was a 13 year old girl who four years ago underwent a routine tonsillectomy to treat severe snoring and breathing problems. Unfortunately the surgery was complicated by severe bleeding post-op, leading eventually to a cardiac arrest. After a sustained effort at resuscitation the doctors did manage to get her heart working, but by that time her brain was severely damaged by lack of oxygen. She was declared clinically brain dead.

This is not where the story ends, however. Since then the family has refused to accept the diagnosis of brain death, prompting a prolonged conflict with the hospital. Eventually Jahi was removed by the family to an undisclosed hospital in New Jersey, and ultimately discharged to home care, where she remains.

I have had several questions about the story, and I will try to add some insight, with the caveat that I have no direct knowledge of the medical facts of the case beyond what is reported in the New Yorker article and elsewhere. I have not examined her, spoken directly to anyone involved in her care, or reviewed medical records. But there is a lot of information in the public domain and I can speak to that information, as far as it is accurate.

There are several layers to this story. There is a legal layer, as the family is suing the hospital for malpractice. I will not address that aspect of the case. There is the neurological layer – what is brain death and is this girl dead? There is also a personal and cultural layer here in terms of the family’s reaction. Let me start with some thoughts on this.

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Jan 30 2018


The Human Genome Project was started in 1990 and completed in 2003. It took 13 years, multiple labs around the world, and hundreds of millions of dollars to sequence the human genome – this was more than two years ahead of schedule and millions of dollars under budget.

The reason for exceeding expectations is that the technology for sequence the genome was not static – it progressed throughout the project. DNA contains a code of four letters, the nucleotides indicated by the letters G, T, A, and C. This four-letter alphabet creates 64 different three-letter words, which code for different amino acids or operations that control the conversion of the code into proteins. Sequencing the genome essentially consists of discovering the order of these four letters in the string of a DNA molecule.

In 1997 the movie Gattaca, right in the middle of the genome project, portrayed the near future in which a cheek swab would rapidly yield an individual’s genome. It turns out this is not far fetched at all – we are almost living in Gattaca’s near future, at least in terms of sequencing technology. Scientists have just published a report of the nanopore device, which is a hand-held device capable of sequencing an individual’s genome.

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Jan 29 2018

Shameless Organic Fearmongering

I and others have long pointed out that anti-GMO fearmongering was largely created by the organic food lobby as a way of smearing their competitors. The strategy is simple – scare people way from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and offer organic products as a non-GMO alternative. This is nothing new in advertising, create a fear and then offer your product as a safe haven.

A recent video posted by Stonyfield Organic makes the connection between anti-GMO fearmongering and buying organic explicit, as the screen capture shows.

There are many problems with this short video, not the least of which is that they use young girls to parrot their anti-science. Clearly not aiming for subtlety, the first girl declares that GMOs are “monstrous.” To apparently explain what she means, the second girl says that, “They take a gene from a fish and put it into a tomato.”

No, “they” don’t.

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Comments: 37

Jan 22 2018

False Alarm

On January 13 a state-wide alarm was sent out in Hawaii warning of an incoming missile. “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” the emergency alert read. For the next 38 minutes the citizens of Hawaii had the reasonable belief that they were about to die, especially given the recent political face off with North Korea over their nuclear missiles.

However, within minutes the Governor and the Hawaiian government knew that this was a false alarm, resulting from a technician hitting the wrong button. So, there are two massive failures here – sending out the alarm in the first place, and taking 38 minutes to officially send out the correction. (They did tweet that it was a false alarm, but the retraction was not generally known and it wasn’t certain that it was official.)

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Comments: 17

Jan 18 2018

The Dangers of Celebrity Culture

Zooey Deschanel has a Facebook page where she gives advice on complex scientific topics. I love Deschanel as an actress and enjoy much of her work (particularly the otherwise mediocre movie version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide), but that does not mean I want to take advice from her on which foods I should eat.

Celebrity culture, in one form or another, has always been part of human society. Even chimpanzees will follow a charismatic leader, and it seems likely that humans are wired also to follow those we admire, and elevate them perhaps a bit too much. There is even research that shows that when we listen to a charismatic speaker the executive function part of our frontal lobes shuts down. We literally turn off our critical thinking when basking in the glow of our glorious leader.

Recognizing that this is part of the human condition is important. First, we need to be vigilant about surrendering our thinking to others. It’s also important to remind ourselves that everyone is a flawed human, and so constantly give those pedestals a reality check.

But that does not meant we should not admire and respect those who deserve it, or even look up to them for wisdom (as long as we maintain our critical eye). It does mean we need to choose carefully those we respect and follow.

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Jan 16 2018

More Mental Illness Denial

I was recently pointed to this article by Johann Hari in The Guardian that takes a critical look at depression and the treatment for depression. Unfortunately, it turned out to be nothing more than the usual mental-illness denial talking points, misdirection, and obfuscation.

As you will see if you follow the link above, this is a well-worn topic here. The basics are this – there are those, for various reasons, who are engaged in what I think qualifies as mental-illness denial. They include scientologists, because they push their cult/religion as an alternative to psychiatry. There are also those who follow Szasz who saw psychiatry as a mechanism for political oppression. I also find denial at times among rival professions who want to take psychiatry down a peg or two (often they just confuse their experimental expertise for clinical expertise – always a problem).

They all tend to have in common the core claim that “mental illness” is a fiction. How can thoughts be diseased? This is ultimately a straw man that confuses different types of illness. Some illness is based in biological pathology – cells are damaged, deteriorating, poisoned, genetically flawed, or essentially not functioning within healthy parameters for some reason. You can often see the pathology in a biopsy or measure it with some physiological parameter.

But not all illness is pathological disease. There are also disorders in which some biological function is outside of healthy parameters without clear pathology. The brain in particular is prone to this type of illness, and that is because brain function depends on much more than just the health of its cells (neurons and glia). Even healthy brain cells can be organized in such a way that their neurological function is compromised.

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