Tag Archives: 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 – – –


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

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

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.


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

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.

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.


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

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


Via YouTube.

From the video description:

So the solar roadways has a page up to ‘answer’ its critics.

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:

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!


The Brain Is Not a Receiver

circuitry-brain 05_600px
steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

Whenever the discussion of a dualist vs materialist model of the mind comes up, one common point made to support the dualist position (that the mind is something other than or more than just the functioning of the brain) is that the brain may not be the origin of the mind, but rather is just the receiver. Often an explicit comparison is made to radios or televisions.

The brain as receiver hypothesis, however, is wholly inadequate to explain the relationship between the brain and the mind, as I will explain below.

Brain Circuit1 844As an example of the brain-receiver argument, David Eagleman writes in his book Incognito:

As an example, I’ll mention what I’ll call the “radio theory” of brains. Imagine that you are a Kalahari Bushman and that you stumble upon a transistor radio in the sand. You might pick it up, twiddle the knobs, and suddenly, to your surprise, hear voices streaming out of this strange little box. If you’re curious and scientifically minded, you might try to understand what is going on. You might pry off the back cover to discover a little nest of wires. Now let’s say you begin a careful, scientific study of what causes the voices. You notice that each time you pull out the green wire, the voices stop. When you put the wire back on its contact, the voices begin again. The same goes for the red wire. Yanking out the black wire causes the voices to get garbled, and removing the yellow wire reduces the volume to a whisper. You step carefully through all the combinations, and you come to a clear conclusion: the voices depend entirely on the integrity of the circuitry. Change the circuitry and you damage the voices.

He argues that the Bushman might falsely conclude that the wires in the radio produce the voices by some unknown mechanism, because he has no knowledge of electromagnetic radiation and radio technology.

This point also came up several times in the 600+ comments following my post on the Afterlife Debate. Commenter Luoge, for example, wrote:

“But the brain-as-mediator model has bot yet been ruled out. We can tamper with a TV set and modify its behaviour just as a neurosurgeon can do with a brain. We can shut down some, or all, of its functioning, and we can stimulate to show specific responses. And yet no neurologist is known to have thought that the TV studio was inside the TV set.”

There are two reasons to reject the brain-as-mediator model – it does not explain the intimate relationship between brain and mind, and (even if it could) it is entirely unnecessary.

To deal with the latter point first, I have used the example of the light-fairy. When I flip the light switch on my wall, the materialist model holds that I am closing a circuit, allowing electricity to flow through the wires in my wall to a specific appliance (such as a light fixture). electric_fairyThat light fixture contains a light bulb which adds resistance to the circuit and uses the electrical energy to heat an element in order to produce light and heat.

One might hypothesize, however, that an invisible light fairy lives in my wall. When I flip the switch the fairy flies to the fixture where it draws energy from the electrical wires, and then creates light and heat that it causes to radiate from the bulb. The light bulb is not producing the light and heat, it is just a conduit for the light fairy’s light and heat.

There is no way you can prove that my light fairy does not exist. It is simply entirely unnecessary, and adds nothing to our understanding of reality. The physics of electrical circuits do a fine job of accounting for the behavior of the light switch and the light. There is no need to invoke light bulb dualism.

The same is true of the brain and the mind, the only difference being that both are a lot more complex.

More importantly, however, we have enough information to rule out the brain-as-receiver model unequivocally.

The examples often given of the radio or TV analogy are very telling. They refer to altering the quality of the reception, the volume, even changing the channel. But those are only the crudest analogies to the relationship between brain and mind.

A more accurate analogy would be this – can you alter the wiring of a TV in order to change the plot of a TV program? Can you change a sitcom into a drama? Can you change the dialogue of the characters? Can you stimulate one of the wires in the TV in order to make one of the on-screen characters twitch?

Well, that is what would be necessary in order for the analogy to hold.

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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.


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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OMG – The Chemicalz

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

The Food Babe is at it again – well, she never stopped being at it. She is apparently trying to make a career out of a combination of the naturalistic fallacy and chemical illiteracy.

I wrote previously about her campaign to scaremonger about completely safe ingredients in food. She called azodicarbonamide, an ingredient to make bread fluffier, the yoga mat chemical because it also has a variety of industrial uses, including making yoga mats. Soy also has a variety of uses, including making yoga mats.

“I can’t pronounce this ingredient
so it must be bad for me.”

She successfully marshaled her scientific illiteracy to pressure Subway into removing the ingredient from their bread.

Her modus operandi is simple – look at ingredient lists for names that sound like chemicals or are difficult to pronounce, bypass any scientific analysis or evidence and go straight to hyperbolic fearmongering. Then just hope that companies cave in order to avoid negative press before anyone can ask too many questions.

Her twitter feed recently contained this gem:

propylene glycol

She calls propylene glycol the “anti-freeze ingredient.” That comment officially makes her the Jenny McCarthy of food.

Propylene glycol does indeed lower the freezing point of water, and you can use it as anti-freeze, which says exactly nothing about its safety as a food ingredient. For the record, the chemical in car anti-freeze is ethylene glycol, which is toxic. Propylene glycol is considered non-toxic and is used as an anti-freeze for water pipes and in food production where ingestion is possible.

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Geocentrism – Seriously?

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

I just saw the trailer of a new movie, The Principle. The movie is produced by Robert Sungenis, who writes the blog Galileo Was Wrong. Sungenis is what we technically call a kook. He believes the earth is at the center of the universe and that there was no Jewish holocaust, but rather the Jews were conspiring with Satan to take over the world.

The Principle is produced by the kook Robert Sungenis.

The Principle is produced by the kook Robert Sungenis.

Sungenis, however, is apparently a kook with money, so he is making a documentary film preaching his bizarre notions to the world. This much is nothing new. There are plenty of such films out there, like What the Bleep Do We Know and Expelled. They superficially follow the science documentary format, but they have an ideological agenda.

This film, unfortunately, will be narrated by Kate Mulgrew, who played Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager. Old Star Trek stars lending their fame to pseudoscience is also, sadly, nothing new.

I was surprised to see Lawrence Krauss and Michio Kaku in the film. I know that Kaku has been flirting with the edges of responsible science promotion, but not Krauss. I suspect that they were duped into being interviewed for the film.* Perhaps they were not aware of the film’s editorial stance. (I will be seeing Krauss this weekend and will ask him.)

Krauss did tweet about the movie: “It is nonsense,” in case there was any doubt there.

It seems that Krauss and Kaku are there to simply say how strange and mysterious the cosmos are, and to discuss the edges of our current knowledge. This is a common ploy – focus on what we do not currently know in order to make it seem like we don’t know anything. The movie trailer opens with Mulgrew saying that everything we think we know about the universe is wrong.

Apparently Sungenis thinks he is smarter than the entire scientific community. Perhaps he thinks that modern science is all a conspiracy.

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*Update: This is from Krauss’s blog:

“I have no recollection of being interviewed for such a film, and of course had I known of its premise I would have refused. So, either the producers used clips of me that were in the public domain, or they bought them from other production companies that I may have given some rights to distribute my interviews to, or they may have interviewed me under false pretenses, in which case I probably signed some release. I simply don’t know.”

The Principle trailer via YouTube

Crowdfunding Pseudoscience

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

Indiegogo is rapidly earning a reputation for not caring whether or not they fund pure pseudoscience. This, in my opinion, is a bad business model, not to mention morally dubious.

I wrote previously about an Indiegogo campaign to fund a free energy device – a “home quantum energy generator.”  Indiegogo claims to have a process to weed out fraud from their campaigns, but this one apparently slipped through their process. When I e-mailed Indiegogo to question them about this campaign, I received nothing but a generic response.

Now pandodaily has been covering a new Indiegogo campaign for a “miracle” device – the GoBe by Healbe. The company claims on their Indiegogo page:

GoBe is the only way to automatically measure calorie intake—through your skin. Simply wear it to see calories consumed and burned, activity, hydration, sleep, stress levels, and more, delivered effortlessly to your smartphone.

"I found a publicity shy company, operated remotely from Russia, promoting a device unsupported by any medical or scientific evidence whatsoever."

“I found a publicity shy company, operated remotely from Russia, promoting a device unsupported by any medical or scientific evidence whatsoever.”James Robinson @ Pandodaily

They have raised almost a million dollars. Pandodaily has done a great job of investigating the company. It looks as if they are a Russian company with a minimal footprint in the US. They have no patents, have not published any data, and have no history of producing real medical devices. No one outside the  company has seen or tested a working prototype. Read the article for all the sordid details. I want to delve a bit further into the alleged science behind their claims.

One huge red flag for any scientific claims – especially one involving a working device – is when there is no trail of scientific progress leading up to the alleged device. Scientific advances tend to proceed through necessary steps. You have to establish the basics before you get to the more advanced applications.

For anyone following a particular scientific field you can see the paper-trail of a scientific advance as each incremental step is published and debated by the community. It’s a dynamic process. When a company or researcher claims to have made a breakthrough that is many steps ahead of the public transparent science, this is a red flag. Companies coming out of nowhere with advances that are 10-20 years or more ahead of their time is the stuff of movies, not reality.

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Also See (April 9, 2014):

As media outrage grows louder, Indiegogo scampaigners launch PR counter assault


With just six days of scampaigning left to go, Indiegogo-fraudsters Healbe have launched an all-out PR assault to stem the tide of refunds. (source)

Change Blindness and the Continuity Field

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

Change blindness is a fascinating phenomenon in which people do not notice even significant changes in an image they are viewing, as long as the change itself occurs out of view. Our visual processing is sensitive to changes that occur in view, but major changes to a scene can occur from one glance to the next without our noticing in many cases.

(See [this] color changing card trick for an example.)

One group of researchers believe they have a working hypothesis as to why our brains might have evolved in this way. Their idea is that the visual system will essentially merge images over a short period of time in order to preserve continuity – a process they call the continuity field. In essence our brains are sacrificing strict accuracy for perceived continuity.

understanding-the-brain_250pxThis is in line with other evidence about how our brains work. Continuity seems to be a high priority, and our brains will happily fill in missing details, delete inconsistent details, and even completely fabricate information in order to preserve the illusion of a continuous and consistent narrative of reality.

Visual continuity is important because otherwise the world would appear jittery to us, constantly morphing as shadows play across an object, or our angle of view changes. This could be highly disruptive and distracting.

The researchers also point out that in the real world objects are fairly stable. They don’t pop in and out of existence, or morph into other objects. So not being perceptive to such changes would not be a big sacrifice and would not be likely to affect fitness. If something is actually moving or changing in our visual field we are very sensitive to that, and our attention will be drawn to it.

Neuroscientists, however, can contrive all sorts of impossible scenarios in order to probe our processing of sensory information. We did not evolve with video or photography, but researchers can use this technology to test how our brains process information.

They also give real world examples, such as the movies. There are often continuity errors in movies, missed by the vast majority of movie-goers.

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There are often continuity errors in movies, missed by the vast majority of movie-goers.

Answering Conspiracy Theorists

steven_novellaBy via NeuroLogica Blog

We like to categorize and apply labels. This can be helpful in wrapping your mind around complex reality, as long as you avoid the pitfall of allowing labels to become mental straitjackets.

matrix-red_02_250pxI often discuss various  categories of people who are failing, in one or more important ways, to apply critical thinking. These categories are not meant to be dismissive, but rather to help understand various styles of thinking that lead people astray. For example there are deniers, true-believers, ideologues, and cranks.

Perhaps the most interesting category is the conspiracy theorist. I also find them to be the most consistent in their style of reasoning and argument. I do wonder, however, how much of this consistency is due to and underlying reasoning style and how much is culture. When I get the same fallacious argument over and over again, is that because they are all reading the same source material?

I recently came across a conspiracy website offering advice on how to answer “anti-conspiracy theorists” (their word for skeptics). Anyone who has had a conversation with a conspiracy theorist will recognize the style and tone, and now here it is codified in a primer for budding conspiracy theorists.

The article, however, also reveals the logical errors that underlie the conspiracy belief system. Let’s go through each point.

“You sound like a conspiracy theorist.”

RESPONSE: “Conspiracy Theorist? Now tell me the truth, where did you hear that term…on TV? (Laugh.) …So let me get this straight. Are you saying that men in high positions of power are not capable of criminal activity and telling lies to the general public? Are you really that naive?” (Laugh as you say this.)

As you can see this is a literal script. Right up front we see what I have found to be the typical attitude of the conspiracy theorists – anyone who does not buy their fantastical theories is “naive,” – said with dismissive laughter. This response is also a straw man.

agent smith 928_250pxOf course people in power are capable of lying and criminal activity. There are even genuine conspiracies. The recent lane-closing scandal in New Jersey was a conspiracy of at least several civil servants who lied and conspired to abuse their power to punish their political enemies (heedless of collateral damage).

When we talk about conspiracy theorists we are talking about grand conspiracies. These are conspiracies that involved large numbers of people, a vast expanse of power and control, unbelievable secrecy, and often sustained for years or decades. Of course there is no sharp demarcation between a small and plausible conspiracy and a grand conspiracy, but the larger the conspiracy would need to be, the more implausible it becomes. The largest grand conspiracies simply collapse under their own weight.

Ah, but the author has heard this response before and has an answer:

“You’re absolutely right. I agree with you 100%. It is impossible to totally cover up a conspiracy so massive. That’s why I know about it! What you must understand is that they don’t have to cover it up totally. Even a bucket that has a few leaks can still do the job of carrying water from here to there! They only need to fool 80% of the public, which isn’t hard to do when you control the major networks and newspapers.”

Of course the conspiracy theorists have to have learned about the conspiracy, but this entirely misses the point. Conspiracy theorists don’t have actual evidence. They don’t have leaked information, documents, photographs, or any hard or direct evidence of their specific conspiracy theory. As you will see from later responses – they simply believe they have perceived a pattern in events.

matrix alternate reality_350pxThis cuts to the heart of the logical fallacies at the core of conspiracy thinking. The conspirators in grand conspiracies have as much power, control, and reach as they need to pull off the conspiracy. Any missing evidence was covered up by the conspiracy. Any evidence against the conspiracy or for a more prosaic explanation was planted. Any events that would seem to undermine the conspiracy theory were clearly false flag operations.

Conspiracy theories are therefore immune to evidence. They are closed, self-contained belief systems that resist their own critical analysis. That is why they are a mental trap.

Often conspiracy theorists are generally smart people (even if they lack certain critical thinking skills). Smart people, however, are good at  .  .  .

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Homeopathic Products Recalled for Containing Actual Drugs

Story H/T: @ Skeptic Wars

steven_novellaBy via NeuroLogica Blog

Homeopathy is bunk. It is 100% pure unadulterated pseudoscience. That is – unless it is adulterated with actual working medicine.

The FDA recently put out a safety alert warning the public that certain homeopathic products may contain measurable amount of penicillin, enough to cause an allergic reaction in those who are sensitive:

pleo-fortTerra-Medica, Inc. is voluntarily recalling 56 lots of Pleo-FORT, Pleo-QUENT, Pleo-NOT, Pleo-STOLO, Pleo-NOTA-QUENT, and Pleo-EX homeopathic drug products in liquid, tablet, capsule, ointment, and suppository forms to the consumer level. FDA has determined that these products have the potential to contain penicillin or derivatives of penicillin, which may be produced during the fermentation process. In patients who are allergic to beta-lactam antibiotics, even at low levels, exposure to penicillin can result in a range of allergic reactions from mild rashes to severe and life-threatening anaphylactic reactions. See the press release for a complete listing of products affected by this recall.

One has to wonder if the company was aware that their product contained penicillin.  That’s a pretty good scam. In the US homeopathic products do not require testing or any FDA approval process. They are essentially pre-approved by law. homeopathy 803_250pxWhile this is a shameful scam, at least homeopathic remedies are completely inactive – nothing but water placed on sugar pills. However, some specific products have been found to have functional levels of active ingredients, so they are not truly homeopathic. For example, some Zicam products were found to contain active levels of zinc, and was linked to anosmia (a loss of smell) in some cases.

In this way a company can market a drug that has actual pharmacological activity, but market it as a homeopathic product that requires no testing and is automatically approved.

This is obviously a dangerous situation. Drugs need to be carefully regulated because they can cause allergic reactions, they are not safe to use in certain condtions, and they can interact with other drugs. In this case there is also the issue of overuse of antibiotics resulting in increased bacterial resistance.

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Can Thinking Change Reality

Story H/T: @ Skeptic Wars

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

I love the documentary series, The Day the Universe Changed, by James Burke. It’s a follow up to his equally good, Connections (I know, they have their criticisms, but overall they are very good). The former title is a metaphor – when our collective model of reality changes, for us the universe does change. When we believed the earth was motionless at the center of the universe, that was our reality.

James Burke The Day the Universe Changed

James Burke
The Day the Universe Changed

But Burke was not arguing that the nature of the universe actually changed, just our conception of it. Thinking alone cannot directly change external reality. That is magical thinking.

Such thinking, however, lies at the center of much new age spiritual claims. The secret of The Secret is that you can change your world by wishing. Proponents of such ideas are desperate for scientific validation of their basic premise. Such evidence does not exist. In fact over a century of such research shows rather conclusively that there is no such effect in operation in our world to any significant degree.

A recent article claiming that there is such evidence has been making the social media rounds – 10 Scientific Studies That Prove Consciousness Can Alter Our Physical Material World. After some flowery Eastern mysticism, and rather gratuitously abusing the memory of Nikola Tesla, the author gives a quick summary of what they believe to be ten lines of evidence supporting the notion that consciousness can alter physical reality. It would take a full-length post to debunk each of these ten claims adequately. I am only going to give an equally quick summary here, but will link to longer articles when possible.

1 – Quantum Double Slit Experiment

Double-slit experiment, artworkYou knew this had to be on the list. The claim is that the classic double slit experiments prove that consciousness affects reality at a fundamental level. Light (or other elementary particles, and even small atoms) traveling through one slit will shine as a blob on the other side, as if the particles of light were all piling up after the slit. If two adjacent thin slits are open, however, then we don’t see two blobs but rather an interference pattern, as if the light were traveling like water waves and interfering with each other as they traveled through the slits. This is the core experiment that demonstrates the wave-particle duality of light – it travels like a wave but then interacts like a particle.

These experiments are often distorted into the claim that the experimenter has to be watching, that their consciousness affects the outcome. This is simply not true, however. All that is required is a detector, which physically interacts with the particles. “Detecting” forces the wave function to collapse into a particle. I discuss this further here.

2. Government Sponsored Psychokinesis Experiments

The claim is that government experiments demonstrated the ability to bend spoons and forks with the mind. The links provided as references, however, do not establish such claims. This, of course, is a theme of the article, providing links that give the appearance of evidence, even though they do not establish the claims being referenced.

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ALSO SEE: NeuroLogica Blog » Can Thinking Change Reality Part II.

Reality Testing and Metacognitive Failure

steven_novellaBy Steven Novella via NeuroLogica Blog

Imagine coming home to your spouse and finding someone who looks and acts exactly like your spouse, but you have the strong feeling that they are an imposter. They don’t “feel” like your spouse. Something is clearly wrong. In this situation most people conclude that their spouse is, in fact, an imposter. In some cases this has even led to the murder of the “imposter” spouse.

Capragas-dellusion_300pxThis is a neurological syndrome known as Capgras delusion – a sense of hypofamiliarity, that someone well known to you is unfamiliar. There is also the opposite of this – hyperfamiliarity, the sense that a stranger is familiar to you, known as Fregoli delusion. Sufferers often feel that they are being stalked by someone known to them but in disguise.

Psychologists and neuroscientists are trying to establish the wiring or “neuroanatomical correlates” that underlie such phenomena. What are the circuits in our brains that result in these thought processes? A recent article by psychologist Philip Garrans explores these issues in detail, but with appropriate caution. We are dealing with complex concepts and some fuzzy definitions. But in there are some clear mental phenomena that reveal, at least to an extent, how our minds work.

The “reality testing” model discussed by Garran reflects the overall hierarchical organization of the brain. There are circuits that subconsciously create beliefs, impressions, or hypotheses. We also have “reality testing” circuits, specifically the right dorsolateral prefrontal circuitry, that examine these beliefs to see if they are internally consistent and also consistent with our existing model of reality. Delusions, such as Capgras and Fregoli, result from a “metacognitive failure” of these reality testing circuits.

dream_250pxGarran and others argue that dreams are a normal state we all experience in which our reality-testing circuitry is either off or hypofunctioning. This is why our dreaming selves accept dream events that are clearly internally inconsistent or at odds with our model of reality. When we wake up, if we remember our dream, we are often struck by how “bizarre” our dream was and marvel at how our dreaming self accepted the clearly unreal dream.

The question Garran explores is whether or not pathological delusional states are neuroloanatomically similar to the dreaming state. Both, he argues, may result from a failure of reality testing. Part of the problem of exploring this hypothesis is that “reality testing” is a broadly defined concept. What, exactly, is the process? It seems to be a higher level inference about what is likely to be real based upon logic, internal consistency, and existing knowledge.

Here is my own synthesis of what we currently know about how our brains work with respect to belief and reality testing:

There are multiple identified processes, acting mostly subconsciously, that “present” tentative beliefs or conclusions to our conscious awareness. These processes include our sensory perceptions, which are highly constructed and are not objectively reliable. Our brains not only construct our perceptions but give them meaning. neurons_200pxWe don’t just see shapes, we see objects that have a reality and a purpose. We also see people, who have emotional content, including familiarity. Locations also are imbued with a sense of familiarity or unfamiliarity.

Our memories are also highly constructed and malleable. We update our memories with new information every time we recall them. They become part of our dynamic internal model of reality.

There are also a host of biases and needs pushing our model of reality and our construction of events in a direction that is emotionally comforting and satisfying to us.

Further, we have a set of heuristics or inherent logic by which we, by default, attempt to make sense of the world. This includes an inherent (flawed) sense of probability. There are also inherent tendencies, such as the tendency to see patterns, to detect agency in others and in our environment, and to weave compelling narratives.

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The GMO Controversy

steven_novellaby Steven Novella via NeuroLogica Blog

What-are-GMOs-and-How-Safe-Are-They-_250pxThe controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMO) has intrigued me for some time, and recently I have been reading everything I can on the topic. It is an excellent topic for skeptics – it is mainstream (not a fringe topic), it has real importance for society, there are complex scientific and logical issues to sort through, and the topic is rife with misinformation and motivated reasoning.

I wrote recently about the fact that beliefs concerning GMO tend to be dominated by two opposing narratives: GMO critics despise corporate control and greed, and fear the unnatural, while GMO advocates see this technology as an example of the triumph of human ingenuity and science. I admit that with regard to this issue my bias is toward the latter narrative, however, I can understand caution regarding huge corporations (the tobacco industry comes to mind).

But, as a skeptic I have really tried to follow a critical thinking process and pull back from my initial gut reactions. Here, then, is my overview of the issues regarding GMO.

A Brief History of GMO

teosinteGMO advocates are quick to point out that pretty much all the food consumed by humans have already been extensively modified by human activity. Corn, for example, was cultivated from teosinte, which looks nothing like modern corn. In fact, it took some detective work to figure out that they are essentially the same species.

Cultivation is mostly about artificial selection – saving the best plants from one year’s crop to provide the seeds for the following year. Repeat that a few thousand times, and you have the development of agriculture and all the food you recognize today.

Cultivation can also involve cross-pollination, creating a hybrid species in an attempt to get the best traits from closely related species. Using a combination of cross-pollination and artificial selection, breeders have created countless varieties of common plants. The black or purple tomato, for example, of which there are about 50 varieties, is high in flavanoids, which give them their color.  Orange carrots were developed by a fortuitous mutation resulting in high levels of beta-carotine. This turned carrots into an important staple crop as a source of vitamin A.

Breeders who are impatient to wait for a fortuitous mutation to occur developed what is called mutation breeding – exposing plants to chemicals or to radiation that increases the mutation rate. Between 1930 and 2007, 2540 mutagenic plant varietals have been released.

Genetic modification is the latest technique for changing organisms to suit our wants and needs. The technology involves various techniques for inserting one or more specific genes directly into a target organism. There are two basic types of GMO – transgenic and cisgenic. Cisgenic involves inserting genes from closely related species, ones that could potentially cross breed with the target species. Transgenic refers to inserting genes from distant species – even from different kingdoms of life, such as putting a gene from a bacterium into a plant.

simsonsfishThere are four types of GM plants currently approved for use: herbicide tolerance, pesticide production, altered fatty acid composition (for canola oil), and virus resistance. Many other potential applications are in various stages of development.

GMO advocates are quick to point out that GM technology is nothing new, and that it is simply an extension of the various technologies we have used for thousands of years to alter organisms. This is overstating the case, however – transgenic GMO is not just a new technique, it also opens up new possibilities, like putting a gene from a bacterium into corn. But it is legitimate to put GMO in its proper historical context. It is not entirely new. Contamination of genes from other kingdoms even occurs in nature through horizontal gene transfer.

In any case, the “it’s not natural” argument is fallacious. Meanwhile, GMO should be looked upon as a powerful technology, and such technologies can have both powerfully good and powerfully bad consequences depending on how they are used.

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Bigfoot Hoax – How Far Will It Go?


steven_novellaBy via NeuroLogica Blog

I admit I am curious to see how this will ultimately play out. Rick Dyer is at it again. In 2008 Dyer claimed to have found a dead bigfoot. He claimed that scientific analysis was coming, he had the body for investigation, he held a press conference promising evidence.

finding-bigfoot_250pxIt was soon discovered that the bigfoot body was simply a rubber suit – the whole thing was a crude hoax, surprising only the most gullible bigfoot believers.

Amazingly, Dyer is now at it again. He claims to have shot and killed a bigfoot, that he has the body, that the BBC has footage of the whole thing, and that a team of scientists have thoroughly examined the body.

If his claims are true, then Dyer has the smoking gun evidence that bigfoot is real. Of course, at this point no nerd can resist quoting that Klingon saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Does Dyer honestly expect anyone to believe that a proven bigfoot hoaxer really caught bigfoot this time? Where so many have failed before, a hoaxer alone has struck gold.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 9.00.01 PM_250pxAgain we see the same pattern – the promise of stunning evidence, but only tidbits of unconvincing evidence so far. Dyer is showing only a short grainy video he took with his cellphone, and a couple of closeup photos of a furry face and back. You can see these images here as part of this local news interview.

In the interview Dyer is full of the expected excuses. He has promised a press conference, but he is having difficulty organizing everyone’s schedule. You see, if you are the scientist to have performed the first anatomical analysis of a bigfoot, you have to schedule the press conference around your daughter’s soccer game.

He promises that the BBC has stunning video – but they are not going to show it, or even acknowledge it, until their movie comes out.

The scientists are not talking because they all signed non-disclosure agreements.

He says he has the body back now, the scientific analysis being complete, and it is standing in the next room – but his video camera does not reach. I guess he didn’t consider that anyone might want to see it during the video interview.

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Inertial Propulsion and Other Delusions

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

Some ideas are so compelling and seductive it seems there will always be those who succumb to their siren song. We easily understand how transformative these technologies will be and can’t help feeling that if we work hard enough, we can achieve them – the panacea, free energy, anti-gravity, and regeneration to name a few.

perpetual motion 7043BFree energy and anti-gravity machines attract engineers and tinkerers who cannot help but think that if they can figure out the proper arrangement of moving parts, they can bypass the laws of physics. Over the decades they have produced often complex and sometimes elegant machines that seem like they might work, but always always they miss something subtle.

The pattern by now is very clear, and depressingly repetitive. The inventor spends years developing a machine to exploit some physical property, such as the interaction of magnets, or the seemingly funny physics of rapidly rotating systems. Their scale models seem to do what they are supposed to – usually they spin. At some point the inventor believes they are ready to show their incipient invention to the world, perhaps now they are ready to attract major investors to help build the full scale operating versions of their technology.

What they present to the world are complex diagrams, and scale models that do something, but never what they are claimed to do. We never see a free energy device actually producing energy and running electrical devices without any outside input or burning of fuel. We never see anti-gravity devices levitating.

Of course, if the inventors could actually produce what they claim, they would garner serious attention. Instead they are largely ignored and criticized – their years, even decades, of loving labor dismissed. How can this be? They must simply be too far ahead of their time for the rubes to understand their genius. Plus, there must be some sinister conspiracy working against them – Big Oil or whatever.

It’s sad – another mind, perhaps even brilliant in their way, lost to the allure of the impossible.

Inertial Propulsion

perpetual motion 702BThere are many phrases that are used to refer to impossible technologies. What seems to happen is that proponents come up with a term for their invention. Their invention is found to be nothing but a fantasy, and the term becomes associated with negative connotations. The next generation of proponents then come up with a new technical term, and the cycle continues.

So perpetual motion machines become free energy machines, then zero-point energy, then over-unity machines, etc.

Last year, January of 2013, an inventor by the name of Rick R. Dobson revealed his “closed loop propulsion” technology – the product of 27 years of development. Closed-loop propulsion is a synonym for inertial propulsion, or massless propulsion. He also calls his technology centrifugal propulsion.

The idea behind such technologies is to produce propulsion without any propellant. Propellant is one of those annoying necessities of physics.

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The Salinas Crop Circle

Introduction by Mason I. Bilderberg (MIB)

Calling all woomasters, please tell us, what does it mean?

Calling all woomasters, please tell us, what does it all mean?

You might remember the crop circle that suddenly appeared 11 miles southeast of Salinas, California on or about December 28, 2013. As usual, every UFOlogist and woomaster went nuts speculating on the deeper meaning of this symbol – especially as it might pertain to the new year and some kind of cataclysmic event or some kind of awakening. (Woomeisters always predict doom and gloom or some kind of awakening. It’s in their handbook.)

According to one “expert”, the Salinas Crop Circle:

«… contains three coded messages according to renowned crop circle researcher, Dr Horace Drew. According to Dr Drew, a retired molecular biologist who worked at Caltech and Australia’s CSIRO, one of the coded messages was to be vigilant about an upcoming astronomical event. The next message referred to a date in the near future when an astronomical event is to occur by July 8, 2014. The third and most startling message was that comet ISON was a space transportation system. Taken in their entirety, the three messages appear to be encouraging people to watch the skies for an upcoming astronomical event featuring remnants of ISON that will in fact be an extraterrestrial event of some kind.» (source)

You have to love it when an appeal to authority (a retired molecular biologist who worked at Caltech and Australia’s CSIRO) goes horribly wrong.

Another crop researcher Paul Jacobs, who began investigating the Salinas crop circle:

«No one in the area has made claim to it and the locals had no knowledge of it or its construction. I estimate it would have taken three men working in daylight conditions doing 9-hour shifts for nearly 9 days to complete this pattern. My gut feeling is we have an important event on our hands here.» (source)

Even KSBW Action News 8 wasted airtime deciphering this “mystery”:

So, is the truth out there? If so, where is it?

Well Fox Mulder, the truth is not out there. The truth is right here, on earth … the crop circle was created by the aliens at Nvidia.

«In case you’re not a gamer and don’t know what Nvidia is, the company is headquartered in Santa Clara and pioneers visual computing — the art and science of computer graphics. The crop circle was drawn in the shape of Nvidia’s 192-core super chip, called Tegra K1, and the artists said it was challenging to create.

«Nvidia CEO Jen Hsun Huang made his confession Sunday night in Las Vegas at International CES, the technology industry’s annual gadget show. While news of the crop circles spread as far as Mongolia in central Asia, Huang credited KSBW reporter Michelle Imperato with “cracking the code.”» (source)

Nvidia CEO Jen Hsun Huang discussing the Salinas Crop Circle:

There you have it. Enjoy the following article🙂


steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

I can’t resist this excellent example of the human capacity for ad-hoc reasoning and pattern recognition. The Salinas Crop Circle was discovered in late December, and instantly became famous in the crop circle world. It is an example of a complex design, that begs to be interpreted.

IMG_4798_250pxCrop circle believers – those who think the designs that are often found drawn in various crops around the world (curiously following cultural lines) are the product of aliens trying to communicate in their abstruse way with humans, like to find meaning in the crop circles. This becomes an exercise in pattern recognition, as they are often trying to find meaning where none exists.

Here is one example. The author, assuming the crop circle is an alien communication, comes up with an elaborate interpretation. He believes it refers to comet ISON, which recently burned up on its journey around the sun. This itself is a good example of “retrodicting.” I would be more impressed if a crop circle predicted something yet to be discovered.

The author interprets that middle square section with dots as braille and comes up with the number 192. It turns out, this is a correct interpretation (more below). He writes:

Its first inner code shows a brief message in Braille saying “192-192-2-192-1-192-192”. This may be a symbolic reference to the British search engine “192.com” (see http://www.192.com). Its implication might be that “the blind will see, and those who search will find”

He tells us 192 is a mystical number that comes up frequently in crop circles.  He also interprets some damage to the crops as a comet, the circles around the outer edge as either planets or at marketing the numbers on a clock, and:

crop circles cause_250pxIts third intermediate code involves a series of alphabetic characters in Morse code. They seem to read: “E-T B I-S-O-N S-T-S One interpretation of this cryptic message might be: “E T B(e)” or “extra-terrestrials exist”. Then “I-S-O-N (comet)” is an “S-T-S (space transportation system)” like for the NASA space shuttles.

What is interesting is how compelling it seems to us when we can find patterns, especially complex ones. We tend to react as if the fact that we can find a pattern means that it is real. We inherently lack an intuitive understanding of the power of data mining. In other words – we fail to appreciate the possible number of patterns that we can see when we use open-ended criteria. There are countless possible patterns, and the fact that we hit upon one or more means nothing – except that we are good at finding patterns and connections.

The Reveal

This is one of those uncommon cases where we have a definitive answer in the end, which is what makes it such a powerful example. The crop circle was actually commissioned by NVIDIA as a promotional stunt for their new mobile graphics chip. Here is a video of the making of the crop circle:

True believers might try to deny this evidence by saying it occurred after the fact as a distraction, but that is simply not possible. There would not have been time to fake this video, and to come up with an alternate interpretation of the design that so clearly matches NVIDIA’s new chip.

For example, the 192 in braille is accurate, but the 192 refers to the number of processors in the chip. There is a reason why 192 might crop up frequently in the context of computers – because it is 64 x 3, and 64 is a multiple of 8. Because of how computers are built, you will notice that from kilobytes to terabytes, hard drives, flash drives, RAM, etc. all come in such multiples – 64, 128, 256, 512, etc.

alien603_250pxIt’s interesting that crop circle believers have come to believe that the gray aliens like to communicate in braille. Apparently, so do human crop circle artists.

Watch the video for the full explanation of the meaning in  the crop circle. And then see how clever people can be in coming up with alternate interpretations. I guess this is a post-modern approach to crop circles as a narrative form.

On that point – also pay attention to the words of the crop circle artists interviewed in the NVIDIA video. They say, essentially, that part of their art form is creating the crop circles in the context of mystery. It is a collaboration with the crop circle believers, who provide the “other worldly” context and interpretation of their art.

Another artist also says that complex mathematical designs, the ones that look as if they have really complex relationships, are actually the easiest to lay out and create.

This always reminds me of my personal encounter with a crop circle believer who challenged me by saying, “how can they create perfect circles? That’s impossible.” I then introduced her to the concept of a compass, the crop circle equivalent of which is a stake and a rope.

Simple techniques can create mathematical perfection and complexity. That is sort-of the nature of math and geometry, which is all about relationships. These relationships create countless patterns, and believers can plumb the depths of those patterns to their endless satisfaction.


Brain Scans and Psychics

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

In a trifecta of pseudoscience, Dr. Oz calls upon Dr. Amen to demonstrate (live on TV) how the Long Island Medium is real.

Where do I begin?

Dr. Oz has long ago abandoned any scientific legitimacy, not to mention self-respect. He has gone from giving basic medical advice, to promoting alternative quackery, and now he is just another daytime TV sellout, gushing over psychics. With Dr. Oz, however, it is all done with a patina of science.

The Medium

LongIslandMedium_250pxTheresa Caputo is just another fake psychic doing bad cold readings before audiences that have more of a desire to believe than apparent critical thinking skills. Her performance on Dr. Oz is fairly typical – she fishes with vague and high probability guesses, working multiple people at once, who then struggle to find some connection to what she is saying.

For example, she tells one mark who is trying to connect with her father, “Your father wants to talk about  the coin collection?” This is a great vague statement. First, it is one of those statements that seems very specific, but in actuality is a high probability vague statement. Anything to do with coins can seem to be a hit, and in the fairly good chance that an older gentleman had a literal coin collection it will seem like a fantastic hit.

In this case, however, the target found a nice face-saving hit. Apparently another psychic told the same person that her father sends her “pennies from heaven.” There you go.

psychic 856_250pxIn another segment with Caputo she demonstrates almost a parody of terrible cold reading. She senses a father figure and a daughter figure. She says to an entire audience that someone lost a father and someone lost a daughter. She also goes out on a limb and says – something to do with the chest. Shockingly, someone from the audience steps forward. Caputo then makes two clear misses. She says that she senses the person was lost suddenly. The target clearly indicates this was not the case, at which time Caputo tries to recover by saying that – even when someone is ill, we did not expect to lose them at that exact moment. Right. She then goes for the daughter, which is also a clear miss, leading to that awkward moment when an alleged psychic so thoroughly fails that they struggle to find an escape hatch.

I also found it interesting that when asked about the brain scan test she was about to have, Caputo responded by saying that no matter what the tests show, she just wants to help people. She was seemingly pre-rationalizing for possible failure. Infer from that what you will.

Dr. Daniel Amen

Dr. Amen as made millions of dollars proving SPECT scans for a long list of diagnoses.  SPECT scans use a radioisotope to track blood flow in the brain, which can be used to infer brain activity. The problem with SPECT scan is that there is a tremendous amount of noise in brain activity so you need to be very careful about interpreting the results. There is some utility in looking for dead areas of the brain following a stroke, for example. SPECT has also been used to localize seizures (increased activity during a seizure and then decreased activity following the seizure).

SPECT Imaging

SPECT Imaging

Clinical use of SPECT, however, has been very limited because it is just too noisy. The test often does not have good specificity. Amen is using SPECT for a wide range of indications for which it has not been validated – we do not have data to show that the results of the test can be used to predict confirming diagnostic tests or response to treatment. But SPECT is very useful for generating pretty pictures that seem scientific and can be used to imagine any result you wish.

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Chopra Shoots at Skepticism and Misses

By via NeuroLogica Blog

CHOPRADeepak Chopra apparently has no love for organized skepticism. This is not surprising and his particular brand of spiritual pseudoscience has been a favorite target of skeptical analysis. He is also not the only one who has decided to fight back against the skeptics – if you cannot defend yourself against legitimate criticism, then shoot the messenger.

In a recent article Chopra renews his attack against what he calls “militant skepticism.” This is a blatant attempt, of course, to portray skeptics as extremist and on the fringe, a strategy that has been used against “militant atheists.” Chopra also uses his article to conflate skepticism with atheism, almost as if he is completely unaware of the internal discourse that has been taking place for decades within the skeptical movement.

Chopra writes:

The rise of militant skepticism clouded the picture, however, beginning with its popular attack on religion. The aim of Richard Dawkins, as stated in his best seller, The God Delusion, was to subject “the God hypothesis” to scientific scrutiny, the way one would subject anti-matter or black holes to scrutiny. In fact he did no such thing with God, for the scientific method requires experiments that can be replicated and facts that can be verified. Dawkins offered no experiments to prove or disprove the existence of God. What he actually did was to subject religion to a barrage of scorn and ridicule, attacking it on the rational improbability – as he sees it – that a deity could possibly exist.

This is an interesting bit of historical revisionism, although I think it probably just reflects Chopra’s complete unfamiliarity with his subject matter. The modern skeptical movement predates Dawkins by decades. We have had a clear philosophy and scope long before Dawkins appeared on the scene.

Dawkins is a highly respected figure among skeptics because of his powerful writing, his popularizing of science, and his unflinching criticism of pseudoscience. Most skeptics are atheists, and we also respect his defending science from the intrusion of religion and spirituality.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Where many skeptics, myself included, disagree with Dawkins is precisely in treating “the God hypothesis” as if it were only a scientific question. I say “only” because certainly it is possible to treat any supernatural hypothesis as if it were in the realm of methodological naturalism, and there is general agreement among skeptics when approached in this way the only reasonable conclusion is that there is no credible evidence to support the conclusion that any god exists, or that the laws of the material universe need to be extended to account for any alleged supernatural phenomena. If you frame God as a scientific hypothesis, it can be scientifically refuted. Looked at another way, the psychocultural hypothesis is a far better and more parsimonious explanation for belief in God than the actual existence of such a being.

The big “but” is that not everyone believes in God as a scientific fact. Some people choose to have faith in an unfalsifiable god, one that resides outside the realm of science. Once someone’s faith has retreated outside the realm of science, then science is no longer the tool by which one should address such faith. Logic and philosophy are now more appropriate, but you cannot say, by definition, that an unfalsifiable God can be scientifically proven to not exist.

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Free Energy and the Casimir Effect

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

Free energy is to physics was creationism is to evolutionary biology. Both offer a teaching moment when you try to explain why proponents are so horribly wrong.

Free energy proponents have been abusing the laws of thermodynamics (come to think of it, so have creationists), and more recently quantum effects ala zero-point-energy. Now they are distorting a new principle of physics to justify their claims – perpetual motion 7043Bthe Casimir effect. Apparently this was a hot topic at the Breakthrough Energy Conference earlier this month.

Before I get into the specifics, I do want to address the general conspiratorial tones of the free-energy movement. I wonder if anyone influential in the free-energy subculture realizes that their conspiracy-mongering over free energy is perhaps the greatest barrier to their being taken seriously. There is also the fact that they get the science wrong, but if they think they are doing cutting edge science (rather than crank science), then convince us with science and ditch the conspiracy nonsense.

Here is the opening paragraph from a recent blog pushing the Casimir effect as a source of free energy:

Who is benefiting from suppressing scientific research? Whose power and wealth is threatened by access to clean and free energy? Who has the desire to create a system where so few have so much, and so many have so little?

OK – you lost me right there. This is a naive child’s view of the world, where “the adults” form a monolithic inscrutable force controlling the world. When you actually become an adult you may realize that no one has total control. No one and no institution is that competent, powerful, and pervasive. It would take an obviously totalitarian state to exert that much control.

FreeEnergy_Logo1_200pxIf free energy were real, someone would be making it happen. Ironically the very existence of the free-energy movement proves their own conspiracy theories wrong. If a company could produce a genuine free-energy machine, they would, and they would become the wealthiest company in the world. Further, free energy would improve everyone’s quality of life. No matter who you are, your life would become better with free energy.

Free energy proponents, apparently, would rather believe the world is run by megalomaniacs who are simultaneously brilliant (in executing their conspiracy) and idiotic (in wanting to execute their conspiracy) rather than entertain the possibility that they have the science wrong.

The Casimir Effect

casimir effectScientific American has a good quick discussion of what the Casimir effect is. The Casimir effect is related to zero point energy, which refers to the fact that a perfect vacuum in space still contains energy in quantum fluctuations. This is sometimes referred to as the quantum foam, out of which virtual particles are created and destroyed.

This quantum vacuum energy exists as various wavelengths – in fact, infinite wavelengths. When you place two mirror facing each other in a vacuum, some of these waves will fit in the space between and some will not. This creates a situation in which there is more energy in the vacuum outside the mirrors then between them, which in turn results in a tiny force attracting the two mirrors together.

This effect was predicted by Dutch physicist Hendrick Casimir in 1948, and later confirmed by experimentation. I must emphasize that this force is extremely tiny.

Here is where the free-energy gurus, however, have their fun. Our current understanding of quantum effects predicts that there is an infinite amount of this zero-point energy in the vacuum. Imagine if we could somehow tap into that energy – infinite free energy. You can see why this is an exciting idea.

There are two problems with zero-point energy as a source of free energy, however.

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Area 51 Revealed

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

Area 51 is more than just a subject of UFO conspiracy mongering, it has graduated to a fixture in pop culture. Everyone knows what Area 51 is, or at least what it’s supposed to be. Mention crops up in movies, such as Independence Day.

area51b_300pxAccording to the CIA this facility’s official name is the much less alluring, Nevada Test and Training Range at Groom Lake, a remote detachment of Edwards Air Force Base. It is part of a 23 x 25 mile area of restricted air space. For decades there have rumors that Area 51 is a secret base where the US government has recovered alien spacecraft and conducts research on those craft.

The government denies these claims, but has never said what Area 51 is really for. It has never been mentioned in any public document, and documents obtained through any freedom of information act (FOI) request have never mentioned Area 51 (any possible mention being redacted).

George Washington University’s National Security Archive senior fellow Jeffrey Richelson made a FOI request in 2005 for information on the U-2 spy plane program. He received a 400 page reports entitled, “”Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart Programs, 1954-1974.” In this document the name Area 51 is no longer redacted – it is mentioned as the base at which the U2 was developed and tested.

The document confirms what UFO skeptics have been saying for decades – sure, Area 51 exists and it is shrouded in government secrecy. However, the US must have some secret air bases where they test new aircraft and from which they launch their spy planes. There has never been any evidence of alien spacecraft or advanced technology emerging from the study of alien artifacts. Lacking any evidence for an alien phenomenon, mundane government spying is the more likely explanation.

Of course, this will not end UFO conspiracy theories, involving Area 51 or otherwise. If you believe the government is covering up aliens then no government explanation will convince you otherwise. This in itself is reasonable, once you buy the conspiracy, of course.

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Spontaneous Baby Combustion

by via NeuroLogica Blog

Flames3_200pxNews reports are coming out of India of a “rare medical case” involving a newborn infant who apparently spontaneously bursts into flames. This has occurred four times so far. The baby is now in the hospital being treated for these burns.

The International Business Times, with a headline declaring a “mystery baby,” reports:

Rahul, a native of Tindivanam, Tamil Nadu was admitted to Kilpauk Medical College and Hospital on Thursday for burns reportedly caused by a rare medical phenomenon known as Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) wherein a person catches fire due to emission of inflammable substances through the body.

They do contain some token skepticism, but then go on to discuss the “controversy” over SHC and the various theories about how it might occur.  The earliest reports of this case did not even contain the token skepticism, which seems to have crept into the later reports.

Some of the doctors treating the baby seem to take the SHC theory as a given – a rare medical condition. They are seeking to explain how a baby can spontaneously burst into flame. The Daily Mail quotes one doctor as saying.

‘We will carry out tests to find out the kind of gases generated by the baby’.’

Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) describes reported cases of the burning of a living (or very recently deceased) human body without an apparent external source of ignition. (source)

I think she meant “if” the baby is generating gas. Others speculate that the baby has inflammable sweat. These are nothing but wild speculations, but they are presented as serious medical hypotheses, while SHC is presented as a real medical condition.

The media has apparently been waiting for medical tests that they somehow felt might shed light on the case. As far as I can tell, these were nothing but routine blood tests, perhaps with some specific tests thrown in, to see if there was anything unusual. Unsurprisingly, these tests came back normal. 

At least some of the doctors at the hospital where the baby is being treated understand that SHC is a “hoax theory,” as they are calling it. That is true enough. I have written about SHC previously – there are no confirmed cases and no plausibility to the phenomenon. A typical alleged case involves an infirm overweight individual with an obvious external source of flame, such as a lit cigarette. This is one of those cases when a non-mystery is treated as if it is a mystery and then “explained” with wild pseudoscientific speculation.

Given that the SHC explanation is nonsensical, the most likely (unfortunately) explanation remaining is child abuse.

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steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica BlogBrainwashed

The Manchurian Candidate, a Korean war POW returns home, but during his captivity he had been “brainwashed” and turned into a sleeper political assassin. The movie is partly responsible for bringing the concept of brainwashing to the public consciousness.

brainwash21_250pxI occasionally am asked something to the effect of, “is brainwashing real?” The problem with this question is that first you need to define “brainwashing.”  The answer depends on that definition.

Brainwashing is the process of altering one’s beliefs and opinions through aggressive influence, and typically without the consent of the individual. Brainwashing combines three techniques – social influence, persuasion, and education.

Social influence is simply altering someone’s beliefs and behavior through emotional appeals and psychological manipulation. Persuasion involves argument – persuading someone that the new beliefs are correct. Education involves propaganda – giving people information selected or distorted to lead them to a set of beliefs.

The problem with the definition of brainwashing is the demarcation issue – where do we draw the line between common everyday interactions, like advertising, political advocacy, and regular education at one end, and malignant brainwashing at the other?

brainwashed 817_250pxIf you include any attempt at manipulating the beliefs of others as brainwashing, then sure, it absolutely exists and works to some degree. If you define brainwashing as only the Manchurian Candidate end of the spectrum – the ability to implant secret commands that can be triggered at a future date – then, no.

Part of the problem is that the term “brainwashing” has entered the vernacular and is now used to refer to any significant attempt at altering the beliefs of others, even on a single issue. It therefore has lost much of its meaning through dilution.

The term is probably better reserved for those situations that go beyond everyday activity, such as advertising, or Fox News.

There are real examples of situations that can be meaningfully called brainwashing. Totalitarian cults, for example, seek to completely control and take over the lives of their members. This includes physical manipulation, such as sleep deprivation, starvation, and control of the environment and even basic bodily functions like going to the bathroom.

Totalitarian cults also engage in extreme emotional manipulation, such as “love bombing” – overwhelming someone with positive attention from the group.

Brainwashing, in other words, requires a high degree of . . .

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Revenge of the Conspiracy Theorists

By via NeuroLogica Blog

matrix alternate reality_350pxSkeptics have their work cut out for them. We are up against irrational forces that are becoming very savvy at turning the language and superficial tactics of science and skepticism against science and reason. We are not just debating details of evidence and logic, but wrangling with fully-formed alternate views of reality.

An excellent example of this was recently brought to my attention – an article using published psychological studies to argue that conspiracy theorists represent the mainstream rational view while “anti-conspiracy people” are actually the “paranoid cranks.” The article, by Dr. Kevin Barrett (Ph.D. ArabistIslamologist) in my opinion nicely reflects how an ideological world-view can color every piece of information you see.

He starts out reviewing an article by Wood and Douglas which examined the comments to news articles about topics that are the subject of conspiracy theories. Barrett summarizes the study this way:

In short, the new study by Wood and Douglas suggests that the negative stereotype of the conspiracy theorist – a hostile fanatic wedded to the truth of his own fringe theory – accurately describes the people who defend the official account of 9/11, not those who dispute it.

The article actually suggests nothing of the sort. Barrett cherry picks what he wants to see from this article and draws conclusions that are not supported by the evidence. The authors of the study found that comments to conspiracy news items were approximately 2/3 pro-conspiracy and 1/3 anti-conspiracy. Barrett concludes from this:

That means it is the pro-conspiracy commenters who are expressing what is now the conventional wisdom, while the anti-conspiracy commenters are becoming a small, beleaguered minority.

conspiracy-theory-alert_200pxThis is simply not justified from this data. Barrett assumes that the number of comments reflects the relative percentage of believers in the population, but it is possible (and very likely) that pro-conspiracy people simply comment more, perhaps due to greater passion for their beliefs.

Barrett makes no mention of polls or surveys that more directly get at the question of what percentage of the population believe to some degree in a conspiracy. For 9/11 there have been a number of different surveys conducted in various ways with a range of outcomes, but in all of them, believers in a 9/11 conspiracy are in the minority.

Barrett also ignores the many other conclusions of the paper. They write:

In accordance with our hypotheses, we found that conspiracist commenters were more likely to argue against the opposing interpretation and less likely to argue in favor of their own interpretation, while the opposite was true of conventionalist commenters. However, conspiracist comments were more likely to explicitly put forward an account than conventionalist comments were. In addition, conspiracists were more likely to express mistrust and made more positive and fewer negative references to other conspiracy theories. The data also indicate that conspiracists were largely unwilling to apply the “conspiracy theory” label to their own beliefs and objected when others did so, lending support to the long-held suggestion that conspiracy belief carries a social stigma. Finally, conventionalist arguments tended to have a more hostile tone. These tendencies in persuasive communication can be understood as a reflection of an underlying conspiracist worldview in which the details of individual conspiracy theories are less important than a generalized rejection of official explanations.

The main findings of the study, therefore, are that conspiracy theorists base their opinions largely on an “underlying conspiracist worldview” rather than the specific details of any case. They are not able to put forward and defend a specific alternate theory, but rather are primarily interested in contradicting the official story, whatever that happens to be. This is in line with conventional criticism of conspiracy theorists.

[ . . . ]

In another bit of reality-bending, Barrett writes:

Additionally, the study found that so-called conspiracists discuss historical context (such as viewing the JFK assassination as a precedent for 9/11) more than anti-conspiracists.

I’m convinced that anything can be twisted in a positive or negative way (just read political news stories). Conspiracy theorists believe they are putting events into “historical context” while conspiracy critics might say they are making leaps of logic in order to create the illusion of connections where none exist. In fact, conspiracy thinking is largely about seeing patterns where they do not truly exist – patterns in events that may be unconnected or only loosely connected in a generic cultural/historical fashion.

Barrett goes on to cite 9/11 truthers as if they are objective scholars. For example . . .

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The Lunar Effect and Confirmation Bias

moon-bigger-on-horizonBy via NeuroLogica Blog

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

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


Moon_Animated_250pxOne of two justifications are commonly given for how the moon might influence human behavior. The moon basically has two physical effects on our environment – gravity and light. Astrological influences are not worth further discussion in this article, and I rarely hear that as a justification from the general public in any case.

Gravity is the far less plausible explanation of the two physical effects of the moon. The reasoning often goes something like this: the moon causes tides, which are powerful gravitational effects on water. Our bodies are mostly water, and in fact our brain are floating in water, therefore the moon’s tidal effect might affect our brain function.

This reasoning fails on many levels. First, the moon has a tidal effect regardless of phase. The only difference with lunar phase is the relationship between the lunar tide and the solar tide (yes, the sun has a tidal effect on the Earth as well). During a full moon the lunar and solar tides are lined up, and therefore the combined effect is additive (which is called a spring tide).

However, the same is true of the new moon, therefore if the full moon effect were due to tidal forces there should be an equal new moon effect.

The bigger problem with the gravity explanation is that tidal forces are dependent upon the difference in the distance of the near and far side of an object from another large object. So the ocean tides are caused by the different gravitational pull of the moon on the near side vs far side of the Earth. The tidal force of the moon between the near side and far side of your head is negligible. This is simply not a viable source of an effect on human behavior.

The more plausible mechanism for an alleged lunar effect is the light from the moon. It is reasonable to hypothesize that people are more willing to be outside and active during a full moon because there is more light. This effect, however, should therefore not be present when the sky is overcast or in large cities where artificial light trumps moonlight.

Is There a Lunar Effect?

werewolf 928_250pxThis is one question that is very amenable to standard observational studies – is there a correlation between some kind of event and the lunar cycle? There have been hundreds of such studies over the last few decades, involving emergency room visits, births, accidents, crime, crisis center calls – just about any marker of human behavior you can think of. Systematic reviews of this research consistently demonstrate that there is simply no evidence for any such effect.

Many of these studies cover years or decades of data, and thousands or tens of thousands of data points. A recent German study, for example, found no lunar effect for births between 1920 and 1989. A review of studies looking at crisis center calls found:

12 studies are reviewed that have examined the relationships among crisis calls to police stations, poison centers, and crisis intervention centers and the synodic lunar cycle. On the basis of the studies considered it is concluded that no good foundation exists for the belief that lunar phase is related to the frequency of crisis calls. In addition, there is no evidence whatsoever for the contention that calls of a more emotional or “out-of-control” nature occur more often at the full moon.

An often cited 1985 review by Rotton, Kelly and Culver found no lunar effect for a long list of events, including suicide, homicide, crime, sleep walking, alcoholism, and many others. Several later studies of psychiatric hospital admission also found no effect.

The bottom line is this – this question has been asked and answered, there is no lunar effect. A massive amount of data simply shows no connection between lunar phases and human behavior.

Belief in the Lunar Effect

Why, then, does belief in this effect remain high? Surveys show that belief in this effect remains at about 40-45%, even among those highly educated. In fact, mental health workers have a greater belief in the lunar effect. The short answer as to why this is – confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is a bias in human thinking that causes us to notice, accept, and remember information that confirms beliefs we already have, while ignoring, forgetting, or explaining away contradictory data. This is a powerful effect that can lead to the very compelling illusion that an effect is real when it isn’t.

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moon phases

Nocebo Mass Delusion

by via NeuroLogica Blog

Nocebo_150pxExpectation bias cuts both ways, for positive and negative expectations. Expectation bias, the tendency to perceive and accept data that reinforces your expectation, is one of the many contributors to placebo effects (the illusion of a positive benefit that derive from something other than an active treatment). It is also, however, part of nocebo effects  (the illusion of negative side effects from something other than active treatment).

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

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

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

wifi ouch_300pxFurther, the group exposed to the wifi documentary experience significantly more symptoms.  This is a small study but it matches prior research showing that those who believe they have electromagnetic sensitivity will experience symptoms when exposed to sham EMF. The difference with the current study is that it used healthy volunteers and controlled for media exposure.

Systematic reviews of the research on EM hypersensitivity show that those who self-identify as having EM hypersensitivity (which has now been renamed in the technical literature as “Idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields”) cannot tell the difference between real and sham EMF. This review concluded:

“ No robust evidence could be found to support this theory. However, the studies included in the review did support the role of the nocebo effect in triggering acute symptoms in IEI-EMF sufferers. Despite the conviction of IEI-EMF sufferers that their symptoms are triggered by exposure to electromagnetic fields, repeated experiments have been unable to replicate this phenomenon under controlled conditions.”

The new study suggest that this nocebo effect can happen on a large scale due to media reports, and cautions the media about sensationalizing such reports.

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Atacama Specimen

by via NeuroLogica Blog

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

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

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

Yet another example of this is the Atacama specimen – a six inch tall humanoid skeletal remains discovered in the Atacama desert, Chile, in 2003.

The Disclosure Project, founded by Steven Greer, has promoted the specimen as evidence of aliens. They make the classic mistake of looking for evidence and arguments to support their hypothesis, rather than properly considering other hypotheses or looking for evidence to disprove their hypothesis.

What they are doing is essentially mystery mongering, as is evidenced by the title of their article on the specimen: Stanford University Research: Atacama Humanoid Still A Mystery.


Atacama Specimen

Their approach is similar to that of the Starchild Skull proponents – take a human specimen and look for anomalies, and then declare those anomalies evidence that the specimen is alien. The problem with this approach is that there are numerous causes of anatomical anomalies, including genetic, developmental, pathological, traumatic, or artifacts of what happened to the specimen after death.

Alien proponents would have to convincingly rule out all such possibilities before Occam would be satisfied that a new explanation was needed. Even then, all we would have in an anomaly – not something alien. That conclusion is a classic example of the argument from ignorance logical fallacy.

One way to address the question of whether or not the specimen is human is to . . .

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by via NeuroLogica Blog

handwriting2Imagine applying for a job, a position you really want and feel is a good match for your skills, and during the interview process you are seated in front of a psychic. The psychic is wearing full regalia, with a turban, crystals, and mystical garb. They proceed to give you a psychic reading – a reading which will be used to decide whether or not you will be hired for your dream job.

You can substitute any number of techniques for the psychic reading – a tarot card reading, palm reading, astrological chart, or phrenological analysis. Would you feel comfortable with such techniques deciding your fate? Would you feel outraged?

That is exactly what is happening in many corporations today, particularly in France. The technique that is being used, however, is graphology. It is as legitimate as any cold-reading technique (that is, not at all) but retains a veneer of scientific legitimacy. Graphology, or handwriting analysis, is a psychic cold-reading dressed up for the corporate world.

Graphology was first developed by Jean-Hippolyte Michon, a French priest and archaeologist. He published his first journal of graphology in 1871. The idea is that the particular aspects of a person’s handwriting reveals their character. Graphologists study the size, slope, pressure, connections, and other tiny details of handwriting, with each detail revealing an aspect of personality.

Like iridology, palmistry, and astrology, there is a complex system of graphology that can take years to master. That in itself, however, does not say anything about the legitimacy of graphology. People are industrious and we are good at developing complex systems based on nothing at all, except our imagination. Complexity alone is not a sign of validity.

The beginning of exploration is doubt. Skeptics learn about the many mechanisms of self-deception so that we understand that just because something seems to be real, that does not mean that it is. This is the motivation for scientific analysis – controlling for all of those mechanisms of deception and bias. Only then will we know if a phenomenon is real or not.

silly-beliefs_300pxHandwriting analysis has been subjected to properly blinded experimental tests. Graphologists are given samples of text that are neutral, meaning that the content of the text does not reveal anything about the person writing it. They are also blinded to the target subject, and given the task of analyzing the handwriting. Their results are then compared to standard personality profiles of the subject, and to other graphologists examining the same samples.

The results of such studies, not surprisingly, show that graphology provides no information to the graphologist. Their readings do not match the personality of the target, nor do they even match each other. Graphology does not work.

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Also see: How Graphology Fools People (QuackWatch)

Revenge of the Woo

by via NeuroLogica Blog

Sometimes the targets of our skeptical analysis notice, and they usually are not pleased with the attention.

acupuncture_1_250pxLast year the Acupuncture Trialists Collaboration published a meta-analysis of acupuncture trials in which they claim, “The results favoured acupuncture.” The report was widely criticized among those of use who pay attention to such things. In my analysis I focused on the conclusions that the authors drew, rather than their methods, while others also had concerns about the methods used.

The authors did not appreciate the criticism and went as far as to publish a response, in which they grossly mischaracterize their critics and manage to completely avoid the substance of our criticism.

To review, the original meta-analysis concluded:

Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option. Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo. However, these differences are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to the therapeutic effects of acupuncture.

In my critique I pointed out that the results do not show that acupuncture is effective, nor that it is a reasonable referral option. What they characterize as “modest” differences were, rather, not clinically significant.acupucture_chinese_medicine_cartoon_400px Further, such tiny differences are most parsimoniously explained as the result of researcher and publication bias, two phenomena that are well established in general and specifically within the acupuncture literature. Unblinding alone would be sufficient to explain these results.

What they call “factors in addition to the specific effects of needling” the rest of the scientific community would call “placebo effects,” which are not an indication that a treatment works, but rather the result of bias, noise, and statistical illusions. These results are due to unblinded comparisons with untreated groups in clinical trials – they are not evidence of any kind of efficacy.

Their conclusions are part of a pattern visible within the acupuncture community – attempting to parlay placebo effects into the mirage of a real effect from acupuncture. I commented in my original article that such a conclusion was evidence of pro-acupuncture bias in the authors.

In their response, the authors write:

Although there was little argument about the findings in the scientific press, a controversy played out in blog posts and the lay press.

Only one substantive critique of the paper has appeared in a scientific forum.

We find that there is little argument in the scientific press because most scientists pay little attention to what they consider fringe practices. That is precisely why it is left to those of us who do care and pay attention to fringe medicine to provide a detailed analysis and point out the flaws in reasoning used by proponents.

In fact we did submit a letter in critique of the study, in a traditional scientific forum, but it was not published. Only the brief letter by David Colquhoun was.

This represents a typical strategy by proponents of dubious fringe medicine – interpret lack of resistance by mainstream scientists as acceptance.

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