Tag Archives: NeuroLogica Blog

Saved by Psychic Powers

via NeuroLogica Blog

eye_see_the_future_250pxIn just about every disaster or event in which there are many deaths, such as a plane crash, there is likely to be, by random chance alone, individuals who survived due to an unlikely sequence of events. Passengers missing their flight by a few minutes can look back at all the small delays that added up to them seeing the doors close as they a jog up to their gate. If that plane were then to crash, killing everyone on board, those small delays might seem like destiny. The passenger who canceled their flight because of flying anxiety might feel as if they had a premonition.

This is nothing but the lottery fallacy – judging the odds of an event occurring after the fact. What are the odds of one specific person winning the lottery? Hundreds of millions to one against. What are the odds of someone winning the lottery? Very good.

Likewise, what are the chances that someone will miss or choose not to take any particular flight? Very high – therefore this is likely to be true about any flight that happens to crash. If you are that one person, however, it may be difficult to shake the sense that your improbable survival was more than just a lucky coincidence.

A similar story has emerged from the Sandy Hook tragedy. A mother of a kindergartener there, Karen Dryer claims that her 5 year old son was saved by his psychic powers. She reports that her son, after a few months at the school, started to cry and be unhappy at school. He was home schooled for a short time, during which the shooting occurred. Now, at the new elementary school that recently opened, he seems to be happy.

In retrospect it may seem like a compelling story – if one does not think about it too deeply. As Ben Radford points out in the article linked to above, the story as told is likely the product of confirmation bias. The mother is now remembering details that enhance the theme of the story (her son’s alleged psychic powers) and forgetting details that might be inconsistent.

Continue Reading @ NeuroLogica Blog . .

Organic Farming is Bad for the Environment

By vie NeuroLogica Blog

Marketing sometimes involves the science of making you believe something that is not true, with the specific goal of selling you something (a product, service, or even ideology). The organic lobby, for example, has done a great job of creating a health halo and environmentally friendly halo for organic produce, while simultaneously demonizing their competition (recently focusing on GMOs).

These claims are all demonstrably wrong, however. Organic food is no more healthful or nutritious than conventional food. Further, GMO technology is safe and there are no health concerns with the GMO products currently on the market.

There is an even more stark difference, however, between beliefs about the effects of organic farming on the environment and reality.  In fact organic farming is worse for the environment than conventional farming in terms of the impact vs the amount of food produced.

First, organic farming may use pesticides. They just have to be “natural” pesticides, which means the ones they use are not chosen based upon their properties. Ideally choice of pesticide and the strategy in using them would be evidence-based and optimized for best effect, minimal impact on health and the environment, cost effectiveness, and convenience.   Organic farming, however, does not make evidence-based outcome choices. Their primary criterion is that the pesticides must be “natural”, even if they are worse in every material aspect. This represents ideology trumping evidence. It is based on the “appeal to nature” fallacy, an unwarranted assumption that something “natural” will be magically better than anything manufactured.

In fact my main complaint against the organic label is that it represents an ideological false dichotomy. Each farming practice should be judged on its own merits, rather than having a bunch of practices ideologically lumped under one brand. I don’t care if a practice is considered organic or not, all that matters is the outcome.

Continue Reading @ NeuroLogica Blog – – –

Flat Earth Rising

By via NeuroLogica Blog » Flat Earth Rising

A Flat Earth model depicting Antarctica as an ice wall surrounding a disc-shaped Earth.
CREDIT: Creative Commons 1.0 Generic | Trekky0623

Interest in the notion that the earth is flat has been increasing in recent years. I have to say, as much of a jaded skeptic as I am, this level of self-deception is still amazing to me. It truly demonstrates that there is no practical limit to the power of motivated reasoning or the absurdity of conclusions which it can defend.

Serious flat earth proponents actually do believe that the earth is not a globe, but a flat disk. When you think about this for even a moment, many problems arise, but they have an answer to all of it. Not a good answer, but enough of one to allow motivated reasoning to take over.

Space Exploration

Perhaps the most obvious problem with belief in a flat earth is that we have been to space. You can actually see the earth as a spinning globe. There is no other viable interpretation of this direct and dramatic observational evidence. You might as well tell me that a basketball is not round.

This is what the flat earth wiki has to say about this challenge to their position:

The most commonly accepted explanation of this is that the space agencies of the world are involved in a conspiracy faking space travel and exploration. This likely began during the Cold War’s ‘Space Race’, in which the USSR and USA were obsessed with beating each other into space to the point that each faked their accomplishments in an attempt to keep pace with the other’s supposed achievements. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the conspiracy is most likely motivated by greed rather than political gains, and using only some of their funding to continue to fake space travel saves a lot of money to embezzle for themselves.

In light of the above, please note that we are not suggesting that space agencies are aware that the earth is flat and actively covering the fact up. They depict the earth as being round simply because that is what they expect it to be.

The conspiracy theory, of course, is the last refuge of the hopelessly deluded. Any inconvenient evidence can be swept aside by making up a conspiracy theory ad hoc. What is the evidence for this alleged conspiracy? Zero. As they admit, this conspiracy would have to involve many nations in the world, not just the US and USSR/Russia. China, India, the UK, the European Union all have space agencies.

Why would the space agencies of all of these countries be engaged in the exact same conspiracy?

Continue Reading @ NeuroLogica Blog

Fake Psychics Scam Billions


steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

I know, it’s redundant. All psychics are fake and a scam, but some are worse than others.

Why don't you remember this headline?

Why don’t you remember this headline?

When most people think of psychics they conjure an image (see what I did there) of someone dressed in robes in a mystically decorated parlor who reads your palm or the tarot cards for $40. They are making a meager living giving people a bit of harmless entertainment. Some may actually think they have powers, some may know it’s all an act, but what’s the harm?

In truth, however, many psychics are predators who scam people out of hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. They prey on the vulnerable and the desperate and can ruin lives. This is not a benign industry.

A recent report from Toronto is just one of many – a steady stream with no expectation of ending. They report stories of people who have been victimized by psychics promising to turn around their fortunes, while parasitically bleeding them of as much money as possible. 

How the scam works

Encounters usually begin like any street-corner psychic, with a simple reading. Everyone who comes in for a reading is a potential mark. The more desperate the better.

psychic 856_250pxSuch psychics (I am just going to use the term “psychic” for convenience, but assume the usual caveats – alleged, fake, etc.) are adept at creating the illusion that they have some magical insight. They are, after all, just mentalists, and usually not very good ones. They don’t really have to be, as their audience wants to believe, often desperately.

Their primary tool is the cold reading. This is the technique of listening to what your mark says, then feeding it back to them as if it came to you magically. You can also make vague statements that are likely to apply to most people, then following up when you get a positive reaction, while glossing over any misses. Simple observation also plays a role. A willing target will do most of the hard work, making all the connections in their own mind. This can seem quite impressive to someone naive to the technique – in fact a skilled mentalist can seem impressive even to someone familiar with it.

This is all part of the grooming, drawing the mark in and gaining their confidence. This is, after all, a confidence game. Once you believe that the psychic has the magical power to fix your life, you are lost.

They then use a variety of tricks to bleed their marks of all their money. They may use some slight of hand, like pretending the water their mark gargled is full of insects, or an egg used in a seeing is full of black ichor. They try to convince their mark that they are cursed, and that the psychic has the power to lift the curse. This frequently involves praying over cash, gift cards, or other untraceable items of value – items the mark never sees again.

In one case a psychic scammed a business man whose girlfriend died unexpectedly out of $700,000.

Continue Reading @ NeuroLogica Blog – – –

psychic-john-edward-2012-events_02

Charlie Sheen’s HIV Quack

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

Charlie Sheen is HIV positive. As was revealed on the Dr. Oz show, when diagnosed his viral load was 4.4 million. After six months of the a standard anti-HIV cocktail his viral loads were undetectable.

sheen winningThis does not mean he is HIV negative or free of this virus. As part of the viral life-cycle it goes into hiding inside of cells. It is undetectable while hiding, and also cannot be eradicated by medications. This is a major challenge to curing HIV, or even pushing the efficacy of our current treatments further. Researchers are looking into ways to force the virus out of hiding so that anti-retroviral medications can go to work.

With current anti-HIV treatment someone who is HIV positive can expect to live an almost normal life expectancy free of any major complications of the disease and will not go on to develop AIDS from the virus. The big challenge now is to get this modern medicine to those who are HIV positive in the third world, or to those who cannot afford it.

Interestingly, Charlie Sheen, who has all of the advantages of wealth in a Western industrialized country, opted for third-world treatment of his HIV. He recently went off of his anti-HIV medications and instead decided to rely on the ministrations of an unknown doctor in Mexico making bold claims.

This prompted an on-air intervention by Dr. Oz and Sheen’s own doctor (which was ethically dubious but good television, I guess), after which Sheen reported he would go back on his medications.

Of course, most HIV patients who are lured to Mexico with the promise of a miracle cure will not benefit from a personal intervention by Dr. Oz. Hopefully they will benefit from watching that episode, but if history is any guide (unfortunately) the exposure is likely to lead more people to the Mexico charlatan than warn them away.

Why People Seek Charlatans

The Sheen episode raises a fascinating and important question – what is the allure of the lone maverick making bold claims? Often the answer provided is desperation, but what makes the Sheen example so interesting is that desperation was not a factor. He was effectively in remission from his HIV with undetectable loads. He still has to take medications for the rest of his life, but that seems a small price to pay for taking a horrible deadly disease and transforming it into a benign chronic condition with a normal life-expectancy and quality of life. The situation did not call for desperation.

Continue reading @ NeuroLogica Blog – – –

Contaminants Found in 92% of TCM Herbal Products

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A new study out of Australia looked at 26 different Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) products purchased from stores. Chinese herbs_300pxThey performed three types of analysis: heavy metal screening, toxicological analysis, and DNA sequencing. They found that 92% of the products tested had at least one type of contaminant.

This adds to a growing list of studies and revelations about how poorly the supplement industry is regulated, and raises further concerns about the overall quality of herbal and supplement products.

A 2008 study found that about 20% of ayurvedic herbal products contained heavy metal contamination, often at levels high enough to be toxic. 

A 2013 study published in the BMC found that:

“Although we were able to authenticate almost half (48%) of the products, one-third of these also contained contaminants and or fillers not listed on the label. Product substitution occurred in 30/44 of the products tested and only 2/12 companies had products without any substitution, contamination or fillers.”

A 2014 study published in JAMA found that half of the product recalled by the FDA for being adulterated with banned drugs were dietary supplements, including up to one third of products purchased online. Further, when the FDA followed up they found that 6 months after they had issued a recall for adulterated supplements, two-thirds were still on the market and still contained the banned drugs.

Continue Reading @ NeuroLogica Blog – – –

Superbrain Yoga is BS

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

Here is the latest fad to make you smarter with one easy trick – Superbrain Yoga. The technique is simple (and worthless, but we’ll get to that).

All you have to do is touch your left hand to your right earlobe, your right hand to your left earlobe, take a deep breath, and do a squat. Who knew it could be so easy to improve your brain function. There are a few more details, helpfully shared by Parenting Special Needs magazine:

– Connect your tongue to your palate.
– Face East
– The left arm must be inside and the right arm must be outside (over the left arm).
– Inhale while squatting down and exhale while standing up.
– You thumbs should be touching the front part of your earlobes, index fingers behind the earlobes.
– Perform the exercise 14-21 times, once or twice a day.

Facing East is very important, because magic.

superbrain-yoga_0450px

When I first heard of Superbrain Yoga I thought it was going to be a neuroscience-based pseudoscience, with some hand-waving explanations about blood flow or something. This one is actually blatantly spiritual magical nonsense.

This practice is based on the principles of subtle energy and ear acupuncture. Basically, SuperBrain Yoga allows energy from your lower chakras–or energy centers–to move up to the forehead and crown chakras. When this happens, this energy is transformed into subtle energy, which is utilized by the brain to enhance its proper functioning.

It’s Eastern mysticism, however, which is a far-off exotic culture, so that makes it OK.

Continue Reading at NeuroLogica Blog – – –

Another Nail in the JFK Conspiracy

jfk
steven_novellaBy via NeuroLogica Blog

More than 50 years after JFK was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald the majority of Americans believe that the assassination was part of a conspiracy. Recent Gallup polls show that 61% believe others were involved in the assassination, while 30% believe Oswald acted alone (in 2000 the numbers were 81% and 13% respectively).
JFK crosshairThis is despite the fact that the evidence overwhelmingly shows that Oswald acted alone, and there is no solid evidence of any conspiracy. What this reflects, in my opinion, is two things: the psychological allure of conspiracy theories, and the cottage industry of conspiracy theorists.
Whenever I discuss conspiracy theories I have to add this caveat about what I mean. Obviously there are real conspiracies in the world – whenever two or more people work together to commit a crime or do something nefarious, you have a conspiracy. “Conspiracy theories,” however, is short hand for a grand conspiracy, something that involves many people or powerful organizations working over long periods of time through vast networks of control.
Further, like many categories of proponents that skeptics tend to address (pseudoscientists, cranks, true-believers, deniers, etc.), conspiracy theorists are defined mainly by their behavior, the way that they construct their beliefs and arguments.
For example, the power of conspiracy thinking is that it is immune to refutation through evidence. Any lack of evidence was covered up. Any evidence against the conspiracy theory was planted. Anyone who mounts a convincing argument against the conspiracy is part of the conspiracy.
Oswald-Rifle-244x300But the cornerstone of conspiracy thinking is anomaly hunting – their “evidence” for a conspiracy is largely apparent anomalies, things that don’t quite make sense at first blush. It’s actually easy to trump up apparent anomalies, because the world is complex and it’s difficult to explain any complex event down to the tiniest detail.  Further, people are quirky individuals, and have their own complex motivations for doing things.
Why was there a man standing on the side of the road near where JFK was shot with an open umbrella, on a clear day? The behavior seems anomalous. Perhaps he was signalling the shooter. Unless you had some very specific historical information, you would never guess the real explanation.
One apparent anomaly that JFK conspiracy theorists have pointed to for years is the photo of Oswald prior to the shooting holding a Carcano rifle, the very one used in the assassination of JFK.

Continue Reading at NeuroLogica Blog – – –

Also See: Photo Forensics: Is The Lee Harvey Oswald Photo A Fake? (iLLuMiNuTTi.com)

Another Study that Doesn’t Show How Acupuncture Works

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

The pattern is now quite familiar – a study looking at some physiological outcome while rats or mice are being jabbed with needles is breathlessly presented as, “finally we know how acupuncture works.” As is always the case, a closer look reveals that the study shows nothing of the sort.
electroacupuncture-ratThe current study making the rounds is, “Effects of Acupuncture, RU-486 on the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis in Chronically Stressed Adult Male Rats.” We are told that acupuncture has the same effect as pain medication, but honestly I don’t see that anywhere in the study.
The study presents two experiments with rats in which there is a control group, a stress group, stress plus acupuncture, and stress plus sham acupuncture. The first thing to notice is that the rats were not actually getting acupuncture. They were getting the fiction known as “electroacupuncture.” Electroacupuncture is not a real thing – it’s just electrical stimulation through a needle which is called an acupuncture needle.
The authors claim that their results show that electroacupuncture (EA) at the St36 acupuncture point (which is behind the leg), but not sham EA on the back blunt the stress response as measured by cortisol levels, ACTH, and stress behavior in the rats.
acupuncture 835_225pxJust looking at the data itself, separate from the context of acupuncture, there are a few things to notice. The first is that the study is very small, with (in the first experiment) 7 rats in the control and stress groups, and 14 rats in the EA and sham EA groups. That’s not a lot of data points. There is no mention of blinding anywhere in the study. Unless everyone involved in those aspects of the study measuring outcomes were effectively blinded, I see no reason to take the results seriously.
Further, the results are completely unimpressive. The differences are slight. The researchers also pull a common statistical trick. They say, for example, that the difference between control and EA was statistically significant, while the difference between control and sham EA was not. However, they don’t tell us whether or not the difference between EA and sham EA was significant (and by looking at the data I would guess not).
acupucture_chinese_medicine_300pxIt is therefore not valid to conclude that there is a difference between EA and sham EA. This is a common statistical “mistake” researchers make, probably having something to do with the fact that it makes negative data look positive.
It is possible that this study tells us nothing at all. Given the small number of rats in the study, no documentation about blinding, and the unimpressive results, just a touch of researcher bias (exploiting those researcher degrees of freedom) is all that is necessary to get the graphs to look good enough to publish.
Therefore, regardless of the subject matter, these are preliminary results at best, and unimpressive preliminary results at that.
If we put these results into the context of acupuncture, we then have the equivalent of Bem’s psi research – unimpressive results used to support a massive claim.
Let’s be clear – acupuncture points are a complete fiction.

Continue Reading – – –

Are We Seeing the End of Homeopathy?

steven_novellaBy via NeuroLogica Blog

Several years ago, during a lecture on Science-Based Medicine, I noted that if there were one medical pseudoscience that was vulnerable to extinction it was homeopathy. Homeopathy is perhaps the most obviously absurd medical pseudoscience. It is also widely studied, and has been clearly shown to not work. Further, there is a huge gap in the public understanding of what homeopathy is; it therefore seems plausible that the popularity of homeopathy can take a huge hit just by telling the public what it actually is.

homeopathy-in-the-NHS-number-of-prescription-items
Further, homeopathy is in a precarious regulatory position. Homeopathic products are presented and regulated as drugs, but clearly they are not, and they are also not supplements, herbal drugs, nutrition-based, or natural products. They are simply fraudulent drugs riding a wave of ignorance.

In the last few years homeopathy has had a rough time. While the industry is still growing, there are signs of clear trouble on the horizon. Let’s review:

Some Background

homeopathy 803_250pxHomeopathy is a 200 year old pre-scientific system of medicine based upon magical thinking. It is mostly based on two notions, the first of which is that like cures like. In other words, a substance that causes a symptom can cure that symptom in extremely low doses. There is no scientific basis for this, despite the desperate attempts by homeopaths to invoke vaccine-like analogies, or their new favorite, hormesis.

The second notion is that you make a remedy more powerful by diluting it to extreme degrees. People have fun making comparisons, such as the need to drink a solar-system’s worth of water to have a 50% chance of getting a single molecule of active ingredient. No problem, say the homeopaths, homeopathic potions contain the magical “essence” of what was previously diluted in them. It’s turtles all the way down.

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Fight Over WiFi In Public Schools

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A Los Angeles middle school has turned WiFi off in a classroom to accommodate a teacher, Anura Lawson, who believes she has electromagnetic sensitivity. Now Lawson is petitioning to have WiFi turned off in every classroom in California. That’s what you get for catering to pseudoscience – more pseudoscience.

wifi ouch_200pxElectromagnetic (EM) sensitivity is a controversial disorder; well, controversial in that the scientific community has investigated it and concluded that it does not exist, but some individuals still believe they have it. Like many spurious disorders, the symptoms are mostly non-specific. Lawson claims she experienced, “dizziness, migraines, and heart palpitations,” while her daughter claims that her “brain was running slower.”

Such non-specific symptoms can be the result of anything stressing out the system: poor sleep, lack of physical activity, an unrecognized chronic illness, anxiety or depression. They may also be purely psychological. There are no specific symptoms or objective signs to indicate that there is any pathology present. Once treatable pathology has been ruled out, it’s best to focus on treating symptoms and improving quality of life.

Michael McKean as Chuck Thurber - Better Call Saul _ Season 1, Episode 4 - Photo Credit: Lewis Jacobs/AMC

Charles “Chuck” McGill (Michael McKean) suffers from Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity on the AMC series Better Call Saul. Photo Credit: Lewis Jacobs/AMC

However, there are many fake or dubious diagnoses out there to place a label on patients with such non-specific symptoms. These labels have changed over the generations, but apparently have always existed. Today there are several popular fad diagnoses for non-specific symptoms, including candida hypersensitivity, multiple chemical sensitivity, chronic Lyme disease, adrenal fatigue and EM sensitivity.

Giving someone a dubious diagnosis can be harmful. It may lead to unnecessary treatment, may delay or prevent making a correct diagnosis of an underlying disease, may delay or prevent optimal treatment, is often expensive, perpetuates false ideas about health and disease, and fosters mistrust of medical professionals, often to the point of conspiracy theories.

There have been a number of provocative studies of what is now called idiopathic environmental intolerance with attribution to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF).

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Lunar Cycle Effects Busted

steven_novellaBy via NeuroLogica Blog

When I was an intern doing a rotation in the emergency department, on one particularly busy shift a nurse commented (to no one in particular) that it must be a full moon. I habitually look at the moon and generally know what phase it is in (right now it is a waxing gibbous, almost full), and so I knew at the time that in fact there was a crescent moon in the sky. I informed her of this. She gave a disappointed look and then went on with her work without any apparent further thought on the matter.

The episode struck me at the time. It seemed to me that I just witnessed a clear example of confirmation bias – what if it had been near a full moon?Moon_Animated_250px That would have confirmed her prior belief in a lunar effect, while this negative correlation was brushed aside and likely did not have any negative effect on her belief. (Although, my interpretation and memory of this event can itself be an example of confirmation bias regarding confirmation bias.)

Belief in the so-called lunar effect, that the phases of the moon exert an influence on human behavior with the most common element being a full-moon inducing extreme behavior, is very common. In my experience it is one of the most common pseudoscientific beliefs I encounter in the general public. One survey indicates that 43% of adults believe in the lunar effect, especially mental health professionals, including nurses.

When someone expresses such a belief to me I often use it as an opening to discuss skeptical principles. While belief in the lunar effect is widespread, it is usually not part of any emotionally held religious or ideological belief. It is therefore an excellent teaching opportunity. One question I like to ask is, “how do you think that works?” The most common answer I receive is probably the least plausible – that the tidal effects of the moon influence the brain because the brain is sitting in water (spinal fluid).

The tidal effect answer is incredibly implausible for a number of reasons.

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Sting Shows Supplement Regulation Worthless

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It seems that the regulation of supplements, homeopathy, and “natural” products in Canada is as bad as the US. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC, the equivalent of NPR and PBS in the US) recently conducted a demonstration of just how worthless and deceptive the regulations are.

snake-oil_275pxThey created a fake treatment called “Nighton” which they claimed treated fever, pain, and inflammation in children and infants. They then applied to the government for a Natural Product License. On the application they checked all the appropriate boxes and submitted as evidence copied pages from a 1902 homeopathic reference book. That was it. Five months later their fictitious product was approved as “safe and effective.”

What this means is that when the Canadian government approves a natural product as safe and effective, it is completely meaningless. It is essentially a license to lie to the public about a health product.

It is reasonable to assume that many if not most of the public, if they see a product on the pharmacy shelf with the label, “licensed as safe and effective for fever, pain, and inflammation,” with an official government issued product number, that some sort of testing and quality assurance was involved.

warning-homeopathy-not-medicineThe situation is identical in the US. Companies can market homeopathy products or supplements without providing any evidence that the product is safe, and can even make health claims (as long as they don’t mention a specific disease by name) again without the need to provide any evidence. In essence, in the US or Canada a company can put anything in a pill or bottle (as long as it doesn’t contain an actual drug), then without any testing market their random assortment of vitamins, herbs, or just water (in the case of homeopathy) with specific health claims. Pharmacies are happy to sell these fake products side-by-side with real medicines.

This is nothing short of a scandal.

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How To Create a Fad Diet

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Fad diets pop up on a regular basis. I believe that is because they are so easy to manufacture and there is a ready made market for them. Add to that the fact that it is difficult to lose weight. There is also a great deal of misinformation out there about diet and health, so the environment is very friendly to pop pseudoscience.

If you want to create your own fad diet, here is a handy formula. These things pretty much write themselves.

#1 • You need a catchy title, usually taking the form of “The blank Diet.” You can fill in the blank with almost anything. For example, a recent fad diet is called “the bulletproof diet.” This doesn’t say anything about the diet itself, it’s just a catchy phrase, a brand. You can fill in the blank with a title that does reflect the diet itself, but this is optional. Creating a catchy title is actually the most creative work you have to do in making a fad diet.

#2 • Make outrageous claims of success. The bigger the lie, the more people are inclined to think that it’s not a lie because no one would be that audacious. before and after_300pxSo just come up with a very impressive figure – a pound a day, 10 pounds a week, or whatever. In reality, on a healthy weight-loss diet people will lose about 1.5-2.5 pounds per week maximum, depending on their current weight, fat percentage, and other variables. Also, weight loss itself is not the ultimate goal, just a marker. People really want to reduce fat and build muscle. Following waist size is also a good measure, and perhaps better. Using the scale is helpful to make sure you are staying on track, however. Liberally use the world “miracle,” although admittedly Dr. Oz has tainted this word a bit by overusing it.

#3 • Testimonials. Personal stories, starting with your own, are the bedrock of fad diets. Don’t worry if there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support your claims – fad diets are not about evidence. They are about selling a narrative, one in which people struggled endlessly to lose weight, but then started the X diet and the weight just fell off. Testimonials can be very compelling, even though they are almost worthless as evidence. Actually, that is their advantage for you as a fad diet marketer, because you can find testimonials to support whatever claims you wish to make.

#4 • The Secret. Your fad diet has to have the secret or key to weight loss. Make this as compelling as possible, using  .  .  .

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Anomaly Hunting and the Umbrella Man

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This is not a new story, but it is worth repeating. At the moment that bullets were being fired into JFK’s motorcade, a man can be seen standing on the side of the road near the car holding an open black umbrella. It was a sunny day (although it had rained the night before) and no one else in Dallas was holding an umbrella.

The "umbrella man" seems strangely out of place and uniquely positioned in Dealey Plaza when Kennedy was assassinated.

The “umbrella man” seems strangely out of place on a sunny day in Dealey Plaza on the day Kennedy was assassinated.*

This is exactly the kind of detail that sets a fire under conspiracy theorists. It is a genuine anomaly – something that sticks out like a sore thumb.

The event also defies our intuition about probability. Even if one could accept that somewhere on the streets of Dallas that morning one man decided to hold an open umbrella for some strange reason, what are the odds that this one man would be essentially standing right next to the president’s car when the bullets began to fly?

Our evolved tendency for pattern recognition and looking for significance in events screams that this anomaly must have a compelling explanation, and since it is associated with the assassination of a president, it must be a sinister one.

When you delve into the details of any complex historical event, however, anomalies such as this are certain to surface. People are quirky individual beings with rich and complex histories and motivations. People do strange things for strange reasons. There is no way to account for all possible thought processes firing around in the brains of every person involved in an event.

The umbrella man appears before the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978.

In 1978 the umbrella man appeared before the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations.*

Often the actions of others seem unfathomable to us. Our instinct is to try to explain the behavior of others as resulting from mostly internal forces. We tend to underestimate the influence of external factors. This is called the fundamental attribution error.

We also tend to assume that the actions of others are deliberate and planned, rather than random or accidental.

The common assumption underlying all of these various instincts is that there is a specific purpose to events, and especially the actions of others. We further instinctively fear that this purpose is sinister, or may be working against our own interests in some way. In this way, we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside us.

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*Who Was the Umbrella Man?

By The New York Times via YouTube

Also See: Report of the Select Committee on Assassinations of the U.S. House of Representatives

Has Jack the Ripper Finally Been Solved?

steven_novellaBy via NeuroLogica Blog

Jack the Ripper is perhaps the most iconic serial killer in history. Part of the mystique of this dark figure is the fact that he was never identified, leaving room for endless sleuthing and speculation. Every Ripper fan has their list of favorite suspects, usually filled with famous and powerful people of the time to add even more interest. JACK DESTRIPADOR 2My favorite, of course, is that he was a time-traveling friend of H. G. Wells.

Now a private researcher, Russell Edwards, claims that he has finally solved the case. First I will present his story without comment, and then we can take a skeptical look at it.

Edwards claims he acquired a blood-stained shawl in 2007 that is supposed to be from Catherine Eddowes, one of the five fairly accepted victims of the Ripper. The shawl was apparently recovered from the scene of Eddowes murder, and was covered in her blood. Acting Sergeant Amos Simpson took the shawl home as a gift for his wife. She was, apparently, not impressed and stored the shawl away without cleaning it.

The shawl remained in the possession of his family until they auctioned it off in 2007 and Edwards acquired it.

Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes

Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes

Edwards then solicited the help of Dr. Jari Louhelainen, a Finnish expert in historic DNA. Louhelainen found that the 126 year old shawl contained a great deal of blood, likely all from the victim. However, he also found a semen stain on the shawl. Genomic DNA is unlikely to have survived 126 years sufficiently intact for DNA matching. However, mitochondrial DNA is more hardy and likely did survive.

Sperm, however, contain few mitochondria (almost none). Fortunately, Louhelainen was able to isolate an epithelial cell from the region of the semen stain. Epithelial cells line many tissues, and so it is possible that the cell (which would contain mitochondrial DNA) was from the same source as the semen itself.

Louhelainen was able to extract and amplify the DNA, and then type it, finding that it belonged to  .  .  .

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Also See: How Jack the Ripper Worked (howstuffworks)

Sleep and False Memory

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

When someone looks at me and earnestly says, “I know what I saw,” I am fond of replying, “No you don’t.” You have a distorted and constructed memory of a distorted and constructed perception, both of which are subservient to whatever narrative your brain is operating under.

memory falseOne of the more dramatic aspects of memory distortion is false memories. These can be completely fabricated memories that are indistinguishable from genuine memories. False memories can involve small details, or entire scenarios. One way to fabricate false memories is with suggestion – just suggesting to someone a detail of an experience they had may cause them to incorporate that detail into their memory of the experience.

The apparent reason for this is that our brains appear to favor consistency over accuracy. Memories are updated to bring them into line with our current knowledge. If we are told that the person was wearing a blue jacket, then our memory might change so that it is consistent with what we now believe to be true.

Psychologists have a number of ways of generating false memories in the lab. One method is to show subjects a video of an event. Then allow them to read a written description of the same event, containing or even just suggesting details that differ from the video. A certain percentage of subjects will incorporate the suggested but incorrect details into their memory. When asked they will “remember” those details in the video.

A new study combines false memory research with the effects of sleep deprivation. It is becoming increasingly clear that sleep plays a major role in memory formation and consolidation. Steven J. Frenda of the University of California, Irvine and his colleagues asked a simple question – would sleep deprivation increase the formation of false memories?

They had subjects view photos of a crime, then  .  .  .

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false memory dilbert

Mike Adams is a Dangerous Loon

Image source: naturalnews.com

Image source: naturalnews.com

steven_novellaBy via NeuroLogica Blog

Where do I even begin? Mike Adams, the self-proclaimed “healthranger” who runs the crank alt-med site naturalnews, has sunk to a new low, even though he was already scraping bottom.

Image Source: naturalnews.com

Image source: naturalnews.com

Adams combines the worst CAM propaganda with a blend of conspiracy theories from across the spectrum, while selling supplements and other nonsense. He portrays himself as someone who is engaged in a righteous battle against the forces of evil – so hardly someone who is engaged in rational discourse.

In a recent rant, however, he has become a parody even of himself. This time he is raving about Monsanto and GMOs, writing:

Monsanto is widely recognize (sic) as the most hated and most evil corporation on the planet. Even so, several internet-based media websites are now marching to Monsanto’s orders, promoting GMOs and pursuing defamatory character assassination tactics against anyone who opposes GMOs, hoping to silence their important voices.

He doesn’t stop there, he goes full Godwin – right for the Nazi analogies, which he repeats throughout his article, complete with pictures of the Holocaust. He goes on:

Anyone who resisted the Nazi regime was condemned as “anti-science” in precisely the same way that anyone who now questions the wisdom of unleashing genetically modified seeds into the open environment is also called “anti-science.”

Thus, GMOs aren’t based in science at all. They are the domain of a radical cult where questions are not allowed and critical thinking is condemned and censored.

Image source: naturalnews.com

Image source: naturalnews.com

According to Adams’ logic, anyone accusing anyone else of being anti-science is just like the Nazis, because they did that too. But here is the money quote:

This official ceremony sends a message to the world, and that official message from the nation of Germany to the rest of the world is that “it is the moral right — and even the obligation — of human beings everywhere to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.” (UPDATE: Those are the paraphrased words of the German government, not my statement.)

The emphasis is Adams’. As you can also see, Adams added an update trying to distance himself from this statement. He has been feverishly adding such updates to this article, which I will get to. Perhaps some small part of him realized he has stepped over the line.

He also writes:

Today, Monsanto collaborators — publishers, journalists and scientists — have signed on to the Nazi genocide machine of our day: the biotechnology industry and its evil desire to dominate the world’s food supply and blanket the planet with deadly chemicals that have been scientifically shown to cause horrific cancer tumors. They use many of the same tactics as the Nazi regime, too: intimidation, character assassination, threats and fabricated disinformation. Hitler’s Ministry of Propaganda, it turns out, is alive and well today in America. Its headquarters is not in Berlin but St. Louis.

and…

I’m hoping someone will create a website listing all the publishers, scientists and journalists who are now Monsanto propaganda collaborators. I have no doubt such a website would be wildly popular and receive a huge influx of visitors, and it would help preserve the historical record of exactly which people contributed to the mass starvation and death which will inevitably be unleashed by GMO agriculture (which is already causing mass suicides in India and crop failures worldwide).

mike adams straight-jacket_125pxLet me summarize Adams’ points here: Monsanto is equivalent to modern day Nazis committing their own genocide and bid for domination. Anyone who defends GMOs (or just doesn’t buy into anti-GMO nonsense) is a “Monsanto collaborator” and are just as bad as Nazi collaborators. He says directly, “These attacks all have one thing in common: they are orchestrated by paid biotech muckrakers — people I call ‘Monsanto collaborators.’”

These people should be named, their addresses and photos made public. And by the way, it is your moral right, even responsibility, to kill them.

He then tries to insulate himself from the unavoidable implications of his article by saying he does not condone violence and is not calling for vigilante justice. This is small comfort, however – the kinds of people who would respond to his obvious call to action are likely not to be dissuaded that he says it is not a call to action (wink, wink).

I also have to point out that Adams’ article is incredibly free of any facts or documentation. He states as a matter of fact that people are being paid by Monsanto to  .  .  .

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Image source: naturalnews.com

Image source: naturalnews.com

Moon Hoax Anomaly Hunting

steven_novellaBy Steven Novella via NeuroLogica Blog

Yesterday, July 20th, was the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the surface of the moon, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin becoming the first and second humans to walk on the surface of another world. This is, to be sure, one of the greatest achievements of the human species.

Moon-Landing-Hoax-250pxThere are those, however, who claim that we never sent astronauts to the moon, that the entire thing was an elaborate hoax by the US, meant to intimidate our rivals with our spacefaring prowess. As is typical of most grand conspiracy theories, they have no actual evidence to support their claim. None of the many people who would have to have been involved have come forward to confess their involvement. No government documents have come to light, no secret studios have been revealed. There is no footage accidentally revealing stage equipment.

What the moon hoax theorists have is anomaly hunting. This is the process of looking for something – anything – that does not seem to fit or that defies easy explanation, and then declaring it evidence that the standard story if false. Conspiracy theorists then slip in their preferred conspiracy narrative to take its place. Sometimes they are more coy, claiming to be “just asking questions” (also known as jaqing off), but their agenda is clear.

Genuine anomalies are of significant interest to science and any investigation, no question. For an apparent anomaly to be useful, however, mundane explanations need to be vigorously ruled out (conspiracy theorists tend to skip that part). Only when genuine attempts to explain apparent anomalies have failed to provide any plausible explanation should it be considered a true anomaly deserving of attention.

elmer moon anomalies_300pxAt that point the answer to the anomaly is, “we currently don’t know,” not “it’s a conspiracy.”

The reason that anomalies, in and of themselves, are not very predictive that something unusual is going on, is that they represent one method of mining vast amounts of data looking for desired patterns. Conspiracy theorists, in essence, make the argument (or simply implication) that where there is smoke there is fire, and then offer apparent anomalies as the smoke. This is a false premise, however. If apparent anomalies count as smoke, then there is smoke everywhere, even without fires.

In other words, any historical event is going to have countless moving parts, curious details, apparent coincidences, and complex chains of contingency. Further, people themselves often have complex motivations contingent upon the quirky details of their lives. All of this is raw material for apparent anomalies. It would be remarkable if you couldn’t find apparent anomalies when combing through the details of an historical event.

Here are some of the alleged anomalies that moon hoax conspiracy theorists have pointed out over the years.

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BBC Fail on Acupuncture Documentary

steven_novellaby via BBC Fail on Acupuncture Documentary

Alternative Medicine’s best friend, and in my opinion largely responsible for what popularity it has, is a gullible media. I had thought we were turning a corner, and the press were over the gushing maximally clueless approach to CAM, and were starting to at least ask some probing questions (like, you know, does it actually work), but a 2006 BBC documentary inspires a more pessimistic view.

acupucture_chinese_medicine_300pxThe documentary is part of a BBC series hosted by Kathy Sykes: Alternative Medicine, The Evidence. This episode is on acupuncture. The episode is from 2006, but was just posted on YouTube as a “2014 documentary.” Unfortunately, old news frequently has a second life on social media.

First, let me point out that Sykes is a scientist (a fact she quickly points out). She is a physicist, which means that she has the credibility of being able to say she is a scientist but has absolutely no medical training. It’s the worst case scenario – she brings the credibility of being a scientist, and probably thinks that her background prepares her to make her own judgments about the evidence, and yet clearly should have relied more on real experts.
She does interview Edzard Ernst in the documentary, but he mainly just says generic statements about science, rather than a thorough analysis of specific claims. I wonder what gems from him were left on the cutting room floor.

The documentary does get better in the second half, as she starts to mention things like placebo effects, and the problems with the evidence-base for acupuncture. But she follows a disappointing format – setting up a scientific premise, then focusing on the positive evidence. There is a clear narrative throughout, that acupuncture is amazing and surprising.

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Distribution of UFO Sightings

steven_novellaBy Steven Novella via NeuroLogica Blog

Scientists often take an epidemiological approach to a phenomenon to discover clues about its cause and nature. This is not limited to medical diseases, the basic concept can apply to any episodic event.

Click for larger view

Click for larger view

Take UFO sightings – the phenomenon in question is people reporting that they saw something unidentified in the sky. We can generate some basic hypotheses about factors that might influence UFO sightings: the presence of objects to be observed, viewing conditions, number of people available to make observations, and priming (the idea of UFOs in the culture, say following a movie about UFOs or a case reported in the media).

As reported by The Economist, the National UFO Reporting Center has released statistics on UFO sightings by state and by time of day. The Economist has conveniently placed this data in an infographic, depicted right. They helpfully labeled the three periods of the day as working hours, drinking hours, and sleeping hours. As you can see, UFO reports peak during the drinking hours.

I am going to assume the article is tongue-in-cheek, but it is being spread around social media, sometimes in a manner that seems credulous.

UFO2croppedI don’t doubt the data itself, but the labeling of the chart amounts to begging the question – calling the evening hours the “drinking hours” makes certain assumptions about cause and effect. A far simpler explanation for the peak of sightings in the evening is that night-time conditions are more conducive to seeing unidentified lights in the sky, and people are still awake.

The article cheekily states that aliens don’t disturb us while we sleep (don’t tell that to people who experience hypnagogia and interpret the experience as an alien abduction), but obviously people are simply not in a position to make observations while they sleep.

Therefore we don’t need to invoke alcohol consumption at all to explain the pattern seen in this data.

There are, however, patterns in the UFO data that . . .

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Pesticides and Autism

Autism spectrum disorder
steven_novellaby Steven Novella via NeuroLogica Blog

A study has been making the rounds on social media claiming an association between prenatal exposure to pesticides and the risk of autism and developmental delay. This means that I am getting asked by many people what the study actually shows. Spoiler alert – not much. But let’s break it down.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder involving brain development resulting in decreased communications among neurons in the brain and characterized by reduced social ability. Our current scientific understanding is that ASD is largely a genetic disorder. While environmental factors cannot be ruled out, it seems that genes are the primary factor. It’s reasonable to search for environmental risk factors, but so far none have been clearly established.

autism einstein 02_300pxThose who feel there likely is an environmental factor also tend to believe that there is an autism epidemic – that the incidence of autism is increasing in a way that is not easily explained by genetics, and therefore suggests and environmental factor. While it is uncontroversial that the number of ASD diagnoses has been increasing over the last two decades, this does not necessarily mean that the true incidence of ASD has been increasing.

The evidence actually shows that diagnostic substitution, broadening of the definition of ASD, and increased surveillance account for much of the increased recorded incidence. It’s possible that changes in diagnostic behavior entirely accounts for the apparent increase. It’s also possible that a subset is due to a true increase, but that has not been clearly established.

This still leaves us with the conclusion that an environmental factor is possible in ASD, but not necessary.

What does this current study show? The study in question is a case-control study using data from the CHARGE study and data about pesticide use in California. A case-control study is a retrospective epidemiological study. It looks at two or more populations based upon whether or not they have a condition, in this study there are three groups – ASD, developmental delay (DD) and typical. The groups are then compared based on exposure to a potential risk factor to see if it is correlated with the condition.

In this study the authors looked at proximity to pesticide use prior to conception and during each trimester of pregnancy. They concluded:

“This study of ASD strengthens the evidence linking neurodevelopmental disorders with gestational pesticide exposures, and particularly, organophosphates and provides novel results of ASD and DD associations with, respectively, pyrethroids and carbamates.”

Orac has already reviewed this study and I agree with his assessment – this conclusion is not justified by the data presented.

First, there is a fatal flaw in the study design  .  .  .

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Deepak Challenge to Skeptics

steven_novellaBy Steven Novella via NeuroLogica Blog

Deepak Chopra doesn’t appear to like skeptics much, or understand them. He just put out a YouTube video challenging ”Randi and his cronies” to his own fake version of the million dollar challenge.

All we have to do, apparently, is make 50-100 years of scientific advance in neuroscience in a single peer-reviewed paper. Chopra_711_250pxI’ll get started on that right away.

Actually, even that probably would not be sufficient. The whole point of pseudoscientific goal-post moving is to keep forever out of reach of current scientific evidence. It doesn’t matter how much progress science makes, there will always be gaps and limitations to our knowledge. Chopra lives in the gaps.

Here is his exact challenge:

Dear Randi: Before you go around debunking the so-called “paranormal,” please explain the so-called “normal.” How does the electricity going into the brain become the experience of a three dimensional world in space and time. If you can explain that, then you get a million dollars from me. Explain and solve the hard problem of consciousness in a peer-reviewed journal, offer a theory that is falsifiable, and you get the prize.

The challenge is absurd because it is completely undefined. “Explain” to what degree? Science often advances by developing theories that are progressively deeper. Obviously we can explain consciousness on some level, CHOPRAand just as obviously Chopra would not accept that level as sufficient, but he gives absolutely no indication of how much deeper an explanation he would require.

A challenge without a clear way of judging the outcome is worthless. This is very different than the JREF’s million dollar challenge (now supervised by Banachek) which negotiates a very specific protocol with clear outcomes and a clear threshold for what will be considered success.

The vacuous nature of Chopra’s challenge reveals it for what it is – an insincere stunt that Chopra no doubt wishes to use for rhetorical purposes.

If you listen to the rest of the video challenge it is also clear that Chopra likes to operate in the gaps – he is making a massive argument from ignorance, or “god-of-the-gaps” type argument. In essence he is saying that because neuroscientists cannot now explain consciousness to an arbitrary level of detail (determined at will by Chopra, with an endless option to revise), therefore magic.

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Deepak Chopra Gets Owned

Solar Roadways, a VERY expensive joke?

Intro by Mason. I. Bilderberg

TSolar Freakin’ Roadways_225pxhis is the third video in the Solar Roadways series. If you’re not familiar with this topic, you might want to two previous videos:

  1. Solar FREAKIN Roadways, are they real?, and
  2. Solar Roadways, IMPORTANT QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS!

If you want some background information, click one of the links above. Otherwise, enjoy 🙂

MIB


Via YouTube.

From the video description:

So the solar roadways has a page up to ‘answer’ its critics.
http://solarroadways.com/clearingthef…

Previously I had suspected that they have no technical expertise, now Im sure.

They claim that asphalt is softer than glass.
They claim LEDs will be fine for roads because of powerhungry LED billboards or LED traffic lights that work in the shade.

People gave them over 2 million dollars for this. You really have to laugh or cry at this.

This video was supported by donations of viewers through Patreon:
http://www.patreon.com/Thunderf00t

Turing Test 2014

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

HAL_9000_225pxThe press is abuzz with the claim that a computer has passed the famous Turing Test for the first time. The University of Reading organized a Turing Test competition, held at the Royal Society in London on Saturday June 7th. The have now announced that a chatbot named Eugene Goostman passed the test by convincing 33% of the judges that it was a human.

The Turing Test, devised by Alan Turing, was proposed as one method for determining if artificial intelligence has been achieved. The idea is – if a computer can convince a human through normal conversation that it is also a human, then it will have achieved some measure of artificial intelligence (AI).

The test, while interesting, is really more of a gimmick, however. It cannot discern whether any particular type of AI has been achieved. The current alleged winner is a good example – a chatbot is simply a software program designed to imitate human conversation. There is no actual intelligence behind the algorithm.

Of course we have to ask what we mean by AI. I think most non-experts think of AI as a self-aware computer, like HAL from 2001. However, the term AI is used by programmers to refer to a variety of expert systems, and potentially any software that uses a knowledge base and a sophisticated algorithm in order to interact adaptively with its user.

Such systems make no attempt to produce computer awareness or even anything that can be considered thinking. They may simulate conversation, even very well, but they are not made to think.

In this way Turing’s test has never been considered a true test of AI self-awareness, or true AI. It really is just a test of how well a computer can simulate human conversation.

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Want to chat with a computer? Try CleverBot!

cleverbot

Solar Freakin’ Roadways

solar roadways_600px
steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

solar-roadway1-300x225A YouTube video and Indiegogo campaign promise a new solution to our energy woes – “solar freakin’ roadways.”

The concept is to build roads out of hexagonal plates of transparent hard material (tempered glass) with built in solar panels. You can also incorporate heating elements and LED lights. Buried alongside such roads could be a new energy grid, for transporting all that solar generated electricity.

Here is the vision as presented: With such solar freakin’ roadways we could generate much, if not all, of our needed electricity. We could replace telephone poles and hanging wires with buried lines, and upgrade our energy (and even information) grid while we’re at it.

The heating elements could melt ice and snow, removing the need for plowing or salting roads. Potholes or other damage could be easily repaired by simply replacing the hexagonal units, one at a time, as needed.

Inventors of Solar Roadways, Julie & Scott Brusaw.

Inventors of Solar Roadways, Julie & Scott Brusaw. (YouTube)

The LED lights could be programmable, so that all road lines and traffic notices could simply be programmed in, and changed as needed. Parking lots could adjust spaces as needed – making bigger spaces or adding or removing handicapped spaces based on demand. Recreational areas can also be programmed to be different kinds of courts as desired. 

Pressure sensitive plates can also be added, allowing for the road to light up, for example, when an animal is walking across the road, providing real-time warning for drivers.

This all certainly sounds great – just like the roadway of the future you always imagined, maybe even better.

OK – now here comes the skepticism. First let me say that I like the concept, and I’m glad some some research funding is being dedicated to this idea. I also have no problem with privately crowdfunding the idea. If people want to invest in this, go right ahead. I wish them well.

But this is also a good time to consider all the possible roadblocks (pun intended) and potential problems with such a technology. I am just going to list my questions:

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New Study Shows Fluoride Safe

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

Public controversy over the safety of fluoridation programs continues, in some towns leading to successful resistance to water fluoridation. As a public health issue, the scientific evidence for risks vs benefits should be at the core of this debate. A new study sheds significant light on this question.

Fluoride_YourNotGoingToPoison_250pxSome anti-fluoridation activists will latch onto any claim they feel supports their opposition (common behavior in any context), and this leads to a great deal of nonsensical conspiracy-mongering. My favorite is the claim that public water fluoridation is all a plot to allow companies to cheaply dump industrial waste into the public water supply.

These sorts of claims distract from the real issues, and in my opinion does a disservice to the anti-fluoridation movement. I don’t mind the existence of opposition movements, even if I disagree with their position. They can serve a useful function in driving public debate and keeping the powers that be honest and transparent.

When they utilize highly emotional but irrational arguments, however, they relegate their own movement to the crank fringe, they marginalize what might be legitimate issues, and they can lead segments of the public into making fear-based and ultimately harmful decisions. They also miss their opportunity to run an effective and ethical opposition which focuses on legitimate scientific issues, and to effectively advocate for the rights of individuals. (Again, I am not saying I agree with any particular such campaign – but at least focus on the real issues.)

Fluoride 802_250pxPublic water fluoridation programs are a proven safe and effective method to improve oral health. It should also be noted that such programs do not always add fluoride to water – they deliberately adjust the level of fluoride in the water supply to optimal levels. Sometimes this involves reducing fluoride levels, but often involves adding fluoride.

The new study involves the safety of such fluoride programs, and specifically addresses the question of whether or not there is an adverse effect on neurological development, as measured by standard IQ testing.

This issue was recently in the news following the infamous “Harvard study” that claimed to show an adverse effect from fluoride on IQ. I discussed the study here – which was really a systematic review and meta-analysis. In short, the researchers looked at studies that compared high vs low exposure to fluoride and measured IQ. They found that the high exposure group had a lower IQ compared to the low exposure group.

There are two main flaws with concluding from this study that fluoridations programs are not safe. The first is  .  .  .

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Correlation and Causation

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

Every skeptic’s new favorite website is Spurious Correlations. The site is brilliant – it mines multiple data sets (such as causes of death, consumption of various products, divorce rates by state, etc.) and then tries to find correlations between different variables. The results are often hilarious.

correlation_600px

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Often it is more effective to demonstrate a principle than simply to explain it. By showing impressive looking graphical correlations between phenomena that are clearly not related (at least proposing a causal connection superficially seems absurd.), it drives home the point that correlation is not enough to conclude causation.

I think most people can intuitively understand that funding on science, space, and technology is unlikely to have a meaningful causal connection to suicide by hanging, strangulation, or suffocation.

Yet – look at those curves. If a similar graph were shown with two variables that might be causally connected, that would seem very compelling.

Screen Shot 2014-05-16 at 7.51.27 PM_600px

There are a couple of points about this I want to explore a bit further. First is the important caveat that, while correlation is not necessarily causation, sometimes it is. Two variables that are causally related would correlate. I dislike the oversimplification that is sometimes presented: “correlation is not causation.” But it can be.

The second point is a statistical one. The important deeper lesson here is the power of data mining. Humans are great at sifting through lots of data and finding apparent patterns. In fact we have a huge bias toward false positives in this regard – we find patterns that are not really there but are just statistical flukes or complete illusions.

Correlations, however, seem compelling to us. If we dream about a friend we haven’t seen in 20 years then they call us the next day, that correlation seems uncanny, and we hunt for a cause. We aren’t even aware of the fact that  .  .  .

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pirates

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