The Greater Blogosphere

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July Book Club Pick: Shrill by Lindy West

Skepchick - Fri, 2016-07-08 05:00

This month, we will be reading Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West. I’ve been following her writing for years and so I know I’m going to like this book just as much as everything else. (If I had her talent for words, I could think of something better to say than “this sounds awesome!”)

Just to get you started, here is the most recent segment she had on This American Life, reading an excerpt about what it’s like to “come out” as fat.

Here are some other related links:

Our live meeting is in Boston on Saturday, July 30th and I’ll put up a post on here the following day (ish).

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Quickies: Earthquake science, sex testing, and Iron Man

Skepchick - Fri, 2016-07-08 02:42

Kubrick and the Moon Landing Hoax Conspiracy

NeuroLogica - Thu, 2016-07-07 23:58

One of the silliest grand conspiracy theories is that the US faked the Apollo moon landings. Moon landing hoaxers engage in a combination of anomaly hunting and the argument from personal incredulity or ignorance. They engage in an elaborate exercise in JAQing off (just asking questions), like, “why are there no stars in the background of pictures,” and “why does the flag wave if there is no air?”

They have no positive evidence for a conspiracy, just a wild theory and completely unimpressive anomalies that have all be easily and adequately explained. They also ignore gaping holes in their theory. How could NASA maintain this 50 cover up when scientists around the world, including in competitor nations, could easily reveal it?

Some moon hoaxers engage in a related theory, that filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was the one who filmed the fake moon landing footage for NASA. It is not uncommon for such theories to aggregate around famous people. Otherwise it is not clear why they would chose Kubrick and not a struggling director desperate for cash who could be conveniently eliminated when the task was done.

Recently, Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian Kubrick, lashed out at moon hoaxers, who have been apparently harassing her with their theories about her father. She wrote an open letter in which she states:

My father’s artistic works are his unimpeachable defence!

Finally, my love for my father notwithstanding, I actually knew him! I lived and worked with him, so forgive my harshness when I state categorically: the so called ‘truth’ these malicious cranks persist in forwarding – that my father conspired with the US Government to ‘fake the moon landings’ – is manifestly A GROTESQUE LIE.”

She essentially has two points. The first is that her father was not the kind of person who would engage in a massive cover up for the government, and as evidence that this is the case she refers to his body of work.

Second she argues that she personally knew him. This has at least two implications. The first is that she knew him well enough to know he would not do such a thing. The second is that she would probably have noticed if he was squirreled away for months working on a secret project in the middle of his career. In fact I think a lot of people would have noticed.

Kubrick was a busy filmmaker. He was also high profile. An entire industry would likely have noticed if he were working in secret, and the speculation would have been rampant.

In other words, if you want to make a super secret film to help with a massive conspiracy and cover up, a very high profile director is probably the last person you want to use.

As evidence for Kubrick’s involvement, moon hoaxers often point to the film The Shining, which they say contains many clues deliberately placed in the film by Kubrick to reveal the truth. This is just a rationalization that conveniently gives them an excuse to anomaly hunt a complex Kubrick film looking for patterns. Kubrick’s films are full of cinematic imagery, so they are fertile ground for the imagination.

I actually took a film class on Kubrick in college and we studied The Shining, so I have some idea what was really going on in the film. The Overlook hotel was essentially a representation of civilization itself. It was therefore full of icons of government and authority, including the Apollo images on Danny’s sweater.

The movie Room 237 (which I did see) lays out all of the imagery that hoaxers believe betrays Kubrick’s involvement in the moon landing hoax. It is worth a view for any skeptic – it is a classic example of ad hoc rationalization and the ability to see patterns where they don’t exist.

Being a Redshirt on a Bad Sci-fi Show

Skepchick - Thu, 2016-07-07 11:41

What if your only purpose in life was to serve as an expendable target? Not only that, what if the only reason that you were alive was to die on a bad sci-fi TV show? That’s the question asked in the darkly comical book Redshirts by John Scalzi, for this month’s Skepchick Book Club.

The premise of the book is that crewmembers on a starship (whose primary mission is exploration) start noticing an effect when they go on away missions: the missions are dangerous for everyone, and at least one crew member has to die, but bridge officers will always be saved by a last-minute miracle. And it’s not that the away missions themselves are inherently dangerous–it’s that something always goes wrong.

One crew member, Jenkins, who has stayed alive by hiding in the ship, has compiled charts and made notes about all the weird things that happen on the ship, and came to the conclusion that their reality is actually a science-fiction show, and the worst part is it’s not even a good one. Here are some of the observations he noted:

  • The intertial dampeners on the ship work well enough for space travel, but somehow they seem to go offline during any crisis situation
  • Decks 6-12 will almost always sustain damages during an attack because these are the decks the show has sets for
  • Every battle is designed for maximum drama and people stop thinking logically and start thinking dramatically
  • There is always a meaningful pause before going to commercial
  • In this crew, there are extras and there are glorified extras. The average extra just gets killed, but the glorified extra gets a backstory and then they get killed so that the audience feels like a real person is dying.

The so-called glorified extras decide that they need to figure out a way to get off of this show, and so they kidnap one of the bridge officers and take the shuttle to the nearest black hole, so that they can travel back in time and stop the writers before they kill off any more characters. The only reason they kidnap a bridge officer is because they know if they do, the show’s drama physics will be in play and the wormhole will function as a time-travel device. Otherwise, they would just get spaghetti-fied.

(source)

(Don’t worry, there’s more surprises in the plot that I haven’t revealed.)

Overall, I enjoyed this book, because it was a fun summer read. Plus, I’m a huge Trek fan and this is a fresh take on the redshirt trope. There was one section that I especially enjoyed, and it’s the sequence involving The Box (the mysterious plot device that fixes everything before the show is over). Basically, a bridge officer (Karensky) gets sick with a flesh-melting plague, and Ensign Dahl is given the task of finding a counter-bacterial (or as everyone asks, “wait, don’t you mean a vaccine??”) in six hours. Dahl runs to the lab to get the “counter-bacterial” and is stressing about how to develop such a thing in six hours (when normally it would take weeks). Then Collins pulls out The Box and this exchange happens:

Dahl walked over and examined it, opening it and looking inside. “It looks like a microwave oven,” he said.

“It’s not,” Collins said, taking the vial and bringing it to Dahl.

“What is it, then?” Dahl asked, looking at Collins.

“It’s the Box,” Collins said.

“That’s it? The Box?” Dahl said.

“If it makes you feel better to think it’s an experimental quantum-based computer with advanced inductive artificial intelligence capacity, whose design comes to us from an advanced by extinct race of warrior-engineers, then you can think about it that way,” Collins said.

So they put the vial in, and sure enough, in 5.5 hours, the Box gives off a *ding* and the counter-bacterial is ready. Except there’s one thing left to do: make the bridge officers feel useful by leaving something wrong in the documentation for them to find and fix. And even though Dahl thinks that sounds like a ridiculous thing to do, he does it and it works. He gets the counter-bacterial to Kerensky right before his organs start melting and everything goes back to the way it should be. (In my experience in the corporate world, maybe I found this to be more like more real life than fiction.)

Next Month’s Book:

Shrill:Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West. I just heard her segment on This American Life, and she is one of my favorite writers anyway, so I couldn’t pass up this book. Our next date will be Sunday, July 31st (Saturday is when we have the in-person club in Boston).

 

How our (fake) dream gap years turned into (fake) nightmares

Skepchick - Thu, 2016-07-07 09:11

Louise Linton went through a lotta ish during her gap year White Savior Tour™ of Zambia and wrote them all up in a book called ‘In Congo’s Shadow‘. She shared some details with The Telegraph:

Two hours had passed – maybe three. I couldn’t tell. The dense jungle canopy above me had eliminated what little moonlight there was and plunged me into inky blackness deep in the Zambian bush. I lay very still, listening for the armed rebels and wondering how long it was until daybreak, not knowing if I’d survive to see it.

As the night ticked interminably by, I tried not to think what the rebels would do to the ‘skinny white muzungu with long angel hair’ if they found me. Clenching my jaw to stop my teeth chattering, I squeezed my eyes shut and reminded myself how I’d come to be a central character in this horror story.

Becky With The Angel Hair learned a lot in Zambia…

I learned some of their language, planted a vegetable garden and created a little school under a Mukusi tree, writing about my experiences in my diary.

But I soon learned that Africa is rife with hidden danger. I witnessed random acts of violence, contracted malaria and had close encounters with lions, elephants, crocodiles and snakes. As monsoon season came and went, the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in neighbouring Congo began to escalate and then spill over into Zambia with repercussions all along the lake. Thousands of people were displaced and we heard brutal tales of rape and murder.

After learning enough lessons, Linton left Zambia – but she didn’t stop learning lessons when she left Africa! Linton’s biggest lesson is going on right now while she chills in Los Angeles.  She is learning that Zambians are on twitter. She is learning the meaning of the word ‘dragged’ with #LintonLies.

And we’re all taking a page from Linton. Over at Buzzfeed, Gena-mour Barrett and Hannah Jewell published a woeful tale of a gap year in the England’s rugged Cornwall. We too had (fake) dream gap years that turned to (fake) nightmares.  Channeling the spirit of Barbie Savior, we’re sharing our stories below. Feel free to add your (fake) gap years and how they were (fake) ruined in the comments!

  • Homelessclubkid: “I remember my gap year in Scotland vividly. It was right after Hitler’s army had scorched the land and given thousands of purple-eyed children ebola. I met one of those girls, she was an orphan named Annie. Her greatest joy in life was to sit on my lap and drink traditional Scottish Saké. One night in December, the midnight sun shone brightly while armies of vikings invaded our igloo village. I left Scotland after that attack.”
  • Me: “I remember my gap year in Nebraska vividly. It was right after Nebraska’s Cornhuskers were annihilated at the Rose Bowl, dashing the hopes of the Husker Nation. I met one of its citizens, an alumna named Sarah. Her greatest joy in life was to sit on my lanai and drink Pepsi, which she called “soda pop”. One day in April, the sun shown brightly while Husker fought Husker for the annual Spring Game. I left Nebraska after that scrimmage.”
  • Melanie: “I vividly recall the first time I left my home state of Minnesota for the Independent Republic of Arizona. I remember huddling beneath the ice shelf locals called home, listening to the sound of the zeppelins approaching from neighboring Maine. All seemed lost until I remembered the bottle of Pinot I had stashed beneath my white woman cape. The joy in the eyes of the local children who sat at my feet will be imprinted on my memory for the rest of my days.”
  • Julia: “I remember my gap year in Madison vividly, to which I ventured from the Kingdom of Buffalo. I recall my wide-eyed fear as I entered the local co-op grocery for the first time, the fliers advertising cat chakra alignment and beginners’ anti-vaccination clinics. The locals were zombie-like, unwilling to make direct statements, awkwardly fidgeting as they waited for a chance to snatch the last remaining carton of vegan ice cream from the solar-powered freezer. I asked myself, What is life’s purpose here? What do they know of chicken wings, of deodorant––of modern medicine, even!––of hair conditioner? I felt helpless to save them all until, consumed by a fit of inspiration, I drew upon my white liberal soul and made a flier of my own offering spiritual guidance to them all. The joy in the eyes of these white hippies with dreadlocks as I discussed with them the power of astrology was only eclipsed by my realization that the power to be a true savior was inside me all along, though I’d confused it for Frank’s hot sauce.”
  • Will: “I don’t remember much of my gap year, but the parts that I do remember are very compelling stories. The clearest recollection is from a time shortly after I arrived in San Antonio, for my gap year. I had only been in the area for a short time when I decided to make a day trip to the Heart of San Antonio, what the locals refer to as “The Alamo.” After paying my respects to The Ancestors of Texas at this Very Important Shrine, I walked—on foot—the perilous journey to the local river, an excruciating .2 (point two) miles. At last, after what seemed an eternity, I arrived at “The Riverwalk,” appropriately named considering the arduous quest I had embarked upon in order to lay my eyes upon its splendor. There, I watched as locals and travelers mingled, and boats trafficked humans up and down the river while being yelled at over loudspeakers by the boat drivers, who were adorned with straw hats, sunglasses, white or blue polo shirts, and white khaki shorts. This was it. This was exactly the sight I wanted—nay, needed to see. It was in this moment that my purpose in life became clear. Now I knew what I needed to do to help the people of this Great Texas City. But first, I needed to remember in which parking garage I had left my Prius.”

___________

Featured image from Wikimedia Commons and owned by WillMcC

 

Quickies: the High Price of EpiPens, Samantha Bee’s Writers Room, and the 419.99 Mile Marker

Skepchick - Wed, 2016-07-06 22:37
  • High price of EpiPens spurs consumers, EMTs to pick up syringes for allergies – “Amie Vialet De Montbel felt that she didn’t have a choice but to try the syringe. Her 12-year-old son is so allergic to milk that he wears a mask when he goes out in public. Last month, when she filled his prescription for two 2-packs of EpiPens — one to take to camp, and one for home —the cash register rang up a charge of $1,212. ‘I was in absolute shock,’ said Vialet De Montbel, who lives in Troy, Va. ‘I don’t even pay that much for my mortgage.’ She has health insurance with a $4,000 deductible, so she would have had to pay the whole sum out of pocket. She didn’t buy the EpiPens.”
  • 419.99 Mile Marker – “Since the recreational use of marijuana was made legal in Colorado in 2012, the “Mile 420” post became a hot commodity. So hot, it kept disappearing — and the Colorado Department of Transportation got tired of replacing it.”
  • The ‘Holy Grail’ for earthquake scientists has been accidentally destroyed – “Since at least the 1970s, scientists have painstakingly photographed the curb as the Hayward fault pushed it farther and farther out of alignment. It was a sharp reminder that someday, a magnitude 7 earthquake would strike directly beneath one of the most heavily populated areas in Northern California. Then, one early June day, a city crew decided to fix the faulty curb — pun intended. By doing what cities are supposed to do – fixing streets – the city’s action stunned scientists, who said a wonderful curbside laboratory for studying earthquakes was destroyed.” From Amy.
  • Samantha Bee Filled Her Writers Room With ‘People Who Have Been Underestimated’ – “In a recent profile, Full Frontal host Samantha Bee told Rolling Stone that she, unlike many Daily Show viewers, had never expected to take over Jon Stewart’s role—and that her acceptance of TBS’s Full Frontal offer came in part out of her own assumption that she would be passed over. ‘It didn’t seem like a reality to me, to be perfectly honest,’ she said.”
  • Did the Supreme Court just admit affirmative action is about racial justice? – “Basically, the question in Fisher boiled down to: How much diversity is enough? The Court’s answer was that only UT itself could make that call. ‘Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission,’ Justice Kennedy wrote.”

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Quickies: Juno, microscopic Pac-Man, and hacking

Skepchick - Wed, 2016-07-06 02:44

A Psychiatrist Falls for Exorcism

NeuroLogica - Wed, 2016-07-06 00:16

John Mack was a Harvard psychiatrist who famously fell for his patient’s own delusions. He came to believe that some of his patients were actually abducted by aliens. He was never able to provide any compelling evidence of this, just their testimony. Despite being a professional in mental health, he lacked the skeptical skill set necessary to see his errors.

We now have another very similar case – a Yale trained psychiatrist, Richard Gallagher, who has fallen for his patients delusions that they are possessed by demons. His editorial in the Washington Post is stunning for its utter lack of skeptical awareness.

I am sometimes questioned by well-meaning but confused scientists who do not understand the role that scientific skepticism plays in society. Isn’t science itself enough? Aren’t all scientists skeptical, or at least they should be?

What they miss is that skepticism is a real and deep intellectual skill set that works with science. It includes specialized knowledge that is not necessarily acquired during scientific training. There are frequent examples of this, and Gallagher’s article is now a prime example as well. He hits almost every true-believer trope there is. Ironically he has created a classic case study in the need for scientific skepticism.

He writes:

So I was inclined to skepticism. But my subject’s behavior exceeded what I could explain with my training. She could tell some people their secret weaknesses, such as undue pride. She knew how individuals she’d never known had died, including my mother and her fatal case of ovarian cancer. Six people later vouched to me that, during her exorcisms, they heard her speaking multiple languages, including Latin, completely unfamiliar to her outside of her trances. This was not psychosis; it was what I can only describe as paranormal ability. I concluded that she was possessed.

He may have been inclined toward cynicism, or what he thinks of as skepticism, but clearly he does not understand skeptical principles.

Here he is making the case that, in rare cases he has investigated, the allegedly possessed displayed knowledge that is unexplainable without invoking demonic possession. Let’s count the logical fallacies.

First, he makes an argument from personal incredulity. Because he cannot explain a phenomenon, he thinks it is unexplained.

He goes from that fallacy to confusing unexplained with unexplainable. He then makes the argument from ignorance to fill in the alleged gap with his preferred belief, demonic possession. This is a very common true-believer trifecta, which is often wrapped in faux skepticism.

Gallagher could benefit immensely from even a basic understanding of cold reading and mentalism (not part of psychiatry training). Cold reading is the technique of seeming like you have specific knowledge when you don’t. It might include making a statement that is likely to be true of most people, or seems specific when actually it is quite general.

Saying something like, “you have a secret sin,” is a perfect example. Who doesn’t? This is like saying, you have money concerns, or sometimes you feel insecure.

He further says:

For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness — which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work.

This is another common fallacy I call the residue effect – sure, most UFO sightings (or bigfoot sightings, or spontaneous healing, or whatever) are fake or misinterpreted, but there are a few cases that cannot be explained. Those cases are real.

That logic is invalid, however. When you look at hundreds or thousands of cases, you are going to see common things commonly, and then more rare things more rarely. If you have seen a hundred cases, you have likely seen one which is a one-in-a-hundred case.

Rare, however, does not mean paranormal. Rare could mean, a cold reading that was incredibly lucky. Or perhaps the patient (let’s not forget, these are mentally ill patients), happened to hear people talking about something when they thought the patient was not paying attention, because they looked unconscious or in a trance, and then later the patient feeds back that information as if Satan himself fed it to them.

This is not even unlikely. Mentalists do this on a regular basis – on demand, even. If you think guessing how someone’s mother died (actually just giving the illusion that you did) or that someone is guilty of the sin of pride, then you really need to see a good mentalist in action.

He provides more “evidence”:

A possessed individual may suddenly, in a type of trance, voice statements of astonishing venom and contempt for religion, while understanding and speaking various foreign languages previously unknown to them. The subject might also exhibit enormous strength or even the extraordinarily rare phenomenon of levitation. (I have not witnessed a levitation myself, but half a dozen people I work with vow that they’ve seen it in the course of their exorcisms.)

I have also heard patients voice statements of astonishing venom. I am sure Gallagher knows that mentally ill does not mean ignorant or unintelligent. I have met patients who had an uncanny social sense for other people’s vulnerabilities. If you spend a lot of your mental time thinking you are possessed, some will probably get good at it.

Speaking languages they did not previously know – that is an extraordinary claim. All Gallagher has to offer as evidence is stories. Perception and memory are incredible flawed, especially so in a highly emotionally charged situation. How long had those attending the allegedly possessed kept their vigil before the interesting stuff started to happen? How sleep deprived were they? How willing to believe?

It’s also possible that a patient might memorize Latin phrases to throw out during one of their possessions. Were they having a conversation in Latin? Did they understand Latin spoken to them? Or did they just speak Latin?

I have heard the claims of enormous strength before, but all (and I mean all) of the video evidence I have seen did not demonstrate this. During one exorcism taped for a TV documentary, the voiceover said that the subject displayed supernatural strength; meanwhile they were being held down by two old ladies who did not seem to be struggling.

I have literally watched dozens of hours of exorcisms on video. They are all incredibly boring. Nothing interesting happens. No levitations.

Here Gallagher makes his most embarrassing statement, a “friend-of-a-friend” claim for levitation. He has never seen it, but other people have? What did they see, exactly? Was the person just arching their back and bouncing off the bed?

As with ghost claims, bigfoot claims, and the like, we always hear fantastic stories, but the interesting stuff never ever seems to happen when the cameras are rolling. Gallagher has an answer for this also:

One cannot force these creatures to undergo lab studies or submit to scientific manipulation; they will also hardly allow themselves to be easily recorded by video equipment, as skeptics sometimes demand. (The official Catholic Catechism holds that demons are sentient and possess their own wills; as they are fallen angels, they are also craftier than humans. That’s how they sow confusion and seed doubt, after all.) Nor does the church wish to compromise a sufferer’s privacy, any more than doctors want to compromise a patient’s confidentiality.

These are all classic excuses for lack of evidence, and nothing more. How do they not allow themselves to be recorded? Especially now with cell phone cameras – how could they stop the recording?

Confidentiality sounds like a legitimate concern. However, if a patient were not mentally ill but in fact were possessed, and they levitated feet above their bed in proof, they would probably agree to releasing the video at that point as evidence. Plus, doctors videotape their patients to show to other doctors all the time. Recording for scientific or educational purposes, with proper consent, is perfectly legitimate. 

But demons are crafty. Right, and aliens are super intelligent, and bigfoot can teleport, and psychic powers don’t work in front of skeptics. We have heard it all. These are all just lame excuses (post hoc rationalization) for lack of evidence.

This always reminds me of the documentary about a satanic witch hunt in Texas where the “investigator” proclaims: “These people are master satanists. The fact that there is no evidence just proves that they did it.”

Gallagher also throws in calling skeptics closed minded, “unpersuadable,” and “materialists.”

Conclusion

Richard Gallagher is now a classic example of how even a highly trained professional can fall prey to bad logic and the desire to believe. He nicely demonstrates why basic skeptical knowledge is necessary, even for scientists and professionals.

He finishes with an appeal to gullibility for the sake of the victims:

Those who dismiss these cases unwittingly prevent patients from receiving the help they desperately require, either by failing to recommend them for psychiatric treatment (which most clearly need) or by not informing their spiritual ministers that something beyond a mental or other illness seems to be the issue. For any person of science or faith, it should be impossible to turn one’s back on a tormented soul.

This is like every snake oil salesman who says they are too busy treating patients to do proper research. This is not an excuse for lack of skepticism, but all the more reason for it.

I can easily turn the tables on his logic – what if these are all just mentally ill patients with firm delusions, who happen to be smart and clever enough to do a decent cold reading? By accepting their delusion, you are reinforcing it, making it even harder to treat. You are victimizing the people you are supposed to be helping, by failing in your primary duty as a professional to be detached and evidence-based.

Juno on the 4th with the SciSchmooze 7.04.16

Bay Area Skeptics - Tue, 2016-07-05 11:22

Hello Juno, Welcome to Jupiter!

I hope everyone is having a safe and great celebration of the start of our country. I hope you celebrate what amazing things the USA has accomplished and led others to accomplish in science and technology. It seems fitting that July 4th is the day that Juno will arrive at Jupiter almost 5 years since launch on August 5, 2011.

I’d like to share a special request from the folks at Bio-Link Depot. They really need some help this week. You can help in several ways. If you know a science teacher, your help is needed to...

get the word out. If you are a science teacher you can get some amazing supplies for your class, you can even get some professional lab supplies and equipment to teach your kids some bioscience at home. Most importantly, you can even volunteer to help give the supplies away! I hope to see you there, be sure to say Hi.

    The Depot has an immediate need of volunteer help.

They have been asked by City College of San Francisco to reduce its stock by at least 40% at the SF Airport campus. They are rushing to dump many items before their Open House on July 9th. Please help by volunteering to help this Friday, July 8th from 10 to 2 PM and/or pickup the consumable supplies they provide free to science educators from all parts of California and beyond. Many items will have to be dumped this week due to lack of space! You can sign up to help here—> Volunteer at Bio-Link Depot! Be sure to include in the comment section any questions you may have. Here’s some info on how to find them. Check out the Bio-Link Depot Mission: To give unneeded lab supplies and equipment a new life at middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities.

Here’s another opportunity to get involved, consider the Billion-Year Walk. It will be held on Sunday and they are still looking for more volunteers to help with making it happen. They really need to have some folks with science backgrounds but can use help from others as well. If you’re interested contact David Almandsmith as soon as you can.

I also want to remind everyone that Friday Night at the explOratorium is a very cool opportunity since it is a new schedule and not so well known yet. The explO is open from 10 to 10 on Friday for all ages as well as regular hours on Mondays (summer only). These are great opportunities to experience Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen when it isn’t so crowded.

Mark your calendars for the Bay Area Science Festival October 27 to November 5.

It seems as summer has arrived with a torch. I must confess to looking forwards to fall and cooler weather already. Fortunately there are still a lot of cool presentations happening to help us get through the heat. Here are few that I think warrant some attention…

  1. The world of native bees, why care for these little buzzers? Wednesday Albany @ 7:00
  2. BYOBeest: After Dark Tuesday San Francisco @ 6:00
  3. Billion-Year Walk: Lake Merritt Sunday Oakland @ 9:00 (open until 4:00)

One of the things I love about science is how it helps us figure out how and why things are the way they are. Consider Gaussian Curvature and the Way People Eat Pizza.

Do you ever wonder what really amazing and inspiring people think about some of the questions they get? Sally Ride on Dumb Questions is well worth a listen, it is from Blank on Blank a very cool series. Many of you will remember Rod Serling. Check out this one as well… Rod Serling firmly believed in the connection between smart science fiction, imagination and progress.

I may be straying into some touchy waters but science and politics make for some odd discussions… Check out Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy for some interesting thoughts on the GOP’s Denial of Science. I was chatting with some friends about the zika virus problem and we realized that the Donald has the answer… He will erect mosquito nets all around our borders and he’ll make Brazil pay for them!

Have a great week celebrating what our nation has accomplished and celebrating science and reason. (If you want one more reason to celebrate, today is the 11th anniversary of me retiring!-}
 

herbert a. masters III
ScienceSchmoozer and a shameless promoter of:
the SciSchmooze @ www.BayAreaScience.org
 

"There is nothing which can better deserve our patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness."
— George Washington, address to Congress (1790)
 

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Chelation for Autism - Putting the Cart before the Unicorn

JREF - Mon, 2013-12-02 02:00

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a challenging neurological condition characterized by difficulty with social interaction and communication. As the name implies, it occurs across a wide spectrum from barely detectable to debilitating. ASD is usually diagnosed by 3 years old, but studies have found that signs are often present as early as six months old.

It is understandable that parents of children with ASD are eager for effective treatments and feel obligated to do their best for their children by leaving no stone unturned. This is not, however, always the best approach in medicine. Some stones can cause harm and are best left unturned.  

There is a cottage industry of so-called "biomedical" treatments for ASD - they treat ASD as a biological disease that can be cured or at least significantly ameliorated. This conflicts with the current scientific consensus regarding ASD, that it is a neurodevelopmental disorder (a result of brain wiring), and not an active disease. Legitimate interventions focus on improving function. Critics of biomedical treatments (myself included) argue that such treatments are unscientific, exploit parental desperation, and even victimize children with ASD.

A recent systematic review looks at one popular biomedical treatment for ASD, chelation therapy. The idea here is that autism is caused by, or significantly worsened by, the presence of toxic heavy metals, such as mercury, in the body. This is often tied to the claim that vaccines are the source of the heavy metal poisoning and therefore are linked to autism (a claim that has been soundly refuted by the evidence).  

Chelation therapy is a legitimate treatment for real heavy metal poisoning. Chelating agents can be given orally or intravenously, they bind to heavy metals and help the body excrete them. In this regard they work well - after receiving chelating agents the body will excrete heavy metals.  

Chelation therapy, however, has been a popular target for the fringe. For decades a persistent but tiny minority of physicians have believed that chelation therapy is an effective treatment for vascular disease, despite the fact that the evidence has refuted this claim on both basic science and clinical grounds.

One has to wonder if the fact that chelation therapy is an expensive procedure and has to be given multiple times is a factor in its popularity on the fringe.  

In any case - at best chelation therapy can be considered experimental for autism. This raises issues regarding the ethics of giving experimental treatments, ethics which have been thoroughly explored.  

First, experimental treatments should not be offered instead of proven therapies. In other words, they are not a justification for withholding standard of care treatment. In cases where such treatments are not available or insufficient, however, resorting to experimental treatments is reasonable.  

Experimental treatments, however, should be reasonably justified by existing evidence. There should be good reason to believe that such treatments are likely to be safe and effective, often stated as - they are more likely to produce benefit than harm.  

When researchers are applying for grants and permission to perform human medical experimentation, they have to provide data to support this conclusion. If they cannot do so, then the experiment is considered unethical and likely will not get approved. The threshold does vary depending on the situation. For terminal illnesses without effective treatment we are willing to dip deeper into speculative treatments (so-called "compassionate" use).  

It is also generally accepted that experimental treatments should be given, whenever possible, in the context of a clinical study, so that we can learn whether or not the treatment is effective. This also assures that proper informed consent will be given, and further means that patients will be given proper follow up and will not be charged for experimental treatments.  

In every regard chelation therapy for ASD fails. The treatment is based on the hypothesis that heavy metal poisoning causes or contributes significantly to ASD. The evidence does not support this conclusion; however, and in fact it is reasonable to say that this hypothesis has already been rejected by existing evidence. Further it is often given outside of the context of a proper clinical trial.  

The new systematic review looks at five clinical studies of the effectiveness of chelation therapy for ASD. They found that four of the five studies had mixed results, while the fifth had positive results. All the studies, however, suffered from fatal methodological flaws (they were weak, poorly designed studies), and therefore collectively they do not provide evidence to support the use of chelation therapy for ASD.  

Despite this, about 7% of parents of children with ASD have tried chelation therapy. The review also warns that chelation therapy is not without direct risk. The lead author is quoted as saying:

"The chemical substances used in chelation treatment have a myriad of potentially serious side effects such as fever, vomiting, hypertension, hypotension, cardiac arrhythmias and hypocalcaemia, which can cause cardiac arrest," said Tonya N. Davis, Ph.D., assistant professor of educational psychology in Baylor's School of Education and co-author of the study.  

Conclusion  

Offering chelation therapy for ASD is a basic violation of medical ethics. If the treatment is considered experimental (which is generous) then it should only be given as part of a well-designed clinical trial. Existing trials, however, are anything but well designed.  

But calling chelation therapy for ASD experimental gives it more credit than it deserves. It is not even speculative. There is evidence to suggest that the basic premise of chelation for ASD is wrong. Giving chelation for ASD is therefore not really an example of putting the cart before the horse, but putting the cart before the unicorn.  

It is therefore not only unacceptable to give chelation for ASD, it is also unethical to even perform a clinical trial of chelation for ASD - the basic science justification is simply not there.

 

Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.

Meditation - Specific or Non-Specific Effects

JREF - Sun, 2012-12-16 02:00

One of the challenges of scientific investigation, perhaps especially in the complex arena of medicine, is teasing apart specific from non-specific effects. A specific effect is one that derives from the details of a particular intervention, with a distinct mechanism of action. Non-specific effects are everything else.  

Non-specific effects are part of placebo effects, but not the same as placebo effects also include statistical effects, bias, and other sources of illusory effects. Non-specific effects are real; they just do not derive from the specific intervention itself.  

For example, with therapy techniques for anxiety or depression, non-specific effects would include the caring attention of the therapist, taking time out from one's regular schedule to think and talk about their feelings and problems and the hope generated from taking positive action to address one's symptoms. Any specific technique, therefore, would seem to be effective due to these non-specific effects of the therapeutic interaction.

Before one claims that moving the eyes back and forth, or guided imagery, or being regressed to a prior life has specific effects, and is therefore evidence of a specific mechanism, the non-specific effects outlined above need to be carefully controlled for. This is especially true when the alleged mechanism is outside the bounds of currently known biological phenomena.

 

  This confusion of specific with non-specific effects is at the core of much of what is labeled "alternative" medicine. Acupuncture is another great example. The best evidence strongly supports the conclusion that there are only non-specific effects from acupuncture, deriving from the kind attention of the acupuncturists. It doesn't seem to matter where or even if you stick needles through the skin, arguing against any specific underlying mechanism.  

Another treatment increasingly popular in the world of alternative medicine is meditation, or specifically transcendental meditation. Interestingly, one study on TM (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23204989) contained the following statement: "Transcendental Meditation and TM are trademarks registered in the US. Patent and Trademark Office, licensed to Maharishi Vedic Education Development Corporation and are used with permission." I noticed that few other studies of TM contained this statement, and realized it was probably because the studies were all conducted at the Maharishi University of Management (more on that below).  

TM is a specific meditation technique and proponents claim that it is effective at reducing blood pressure, reducing cardiovascular risk factors and generally promoting health. This sounds like another perfect example of confusing specific and non-specific effects. Relaxation therapy and stress reduction have been demonstrated to lower blood pressure and cardiovascular risk. There is a known mechanism for this - emotional stress increases sympathetic tone, which raises blood pressure and stresses the heart.  

Unless there is very good evidence controlling for the non-specific effects of stress reduction, there is not reason to believe that TM has any additional specific effects that relate to the details of the TM procedure. Occam's razor would favor the known over the unknown as an explanation.  

In looking over the literature on this question, however, I ran into a significant problem. All of the primary research into TM is conducted at one or another Maharishi institution. Every one. Perhaps this has something to do with their patent. I could not find any truly independent replication. I did find one review (the one above with the patent disclaimer), but this was just a review of Maharishi studies.  

A conflict of interest alone does not prove that the results are unreliable, but given how difficult it often is to tease apart specific from non-specific effects and the obvious motivation to promote TM, it certainly places a question mark at the end of all such research. Further, it is impossible to fully blind such interventions - subjects know if they are performing TM or not.  

Subjects could be trained in one of several relaxation techniques, without being told which one, and then assessed by blinded evaluators. That would be one way to reasonably separate specific from non-specific effects of TM. Until then, it's difficult to take pro-TM research at face value.  

Further, the result of TM on blood pressure and cardiovascular risk tend to be modest, barely statistically significant and variable from study to study (where various outcomes are measured - systolic vs. diastolic BP and stress response vs. ambulatory blood pressure, for example). (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9134445 and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15691622). The data, in other words, are a bit noisy if generally positive.  

I remained unconvinced that there is any specific effect from TM that is not present with any reasonable method of stress reduction. The kind of studies that would tease apart specific from non-specific effects, independently replicated by researchers not affiliated with TM, would be more convincing.  

Meanwhile, any method of stress reduction appears to be a reasonable intervention for high stress people with increased blood pressure or cardiovascular risk.

 

Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.

Etsy Gets Creative

JREF - Sat, 2012-12-15 02:00
D.J. Grothe recently reported that Ebay planned to prohibit sales of many paranormal services, including spells, curses, prayers, and healing. Of course, this was easier said than done. In a quick search of Ebay plenty of woo can still be found, including a Time Machine, a Deluxe Quantum Radio Amulet for ghost hunters, and an EBook that teaches you how to have sex with a succubus or incubus.

Some sellers use workarounds to avoid deletion, such as misspellings, or hedges that a painting is “possibly” possessed. For example, one seller offers a clown doll for $450, with the header: “Is this clown haunted?” followed by the disclaimer:

Ebay I am not saying that this particular clown is haunted, just saying it is similar to one that was.

Craigslist users are in on the act too. Boulder’s “Eco Psychic” charges $74 to channel the musician of your choice to compose a song for you. The seller claims he can communicate with a number of artists, including Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder or Dolly Parton (even though they’re not dead…)

Another ecommerce site that needs to clean up its act is Etsy.com, which is a kind of fixed price Ebay for arts and crafts. They specialize in selling handmade and vintage items, but which of these categories do love spells and penis enlargement fall under?

Etsy sells a large range of paranormal and pseudoscientific goods and services, including Wiccan, Voodoo and Santeria spells, amulets and talisman, ghost hunting tools and alternative medicine products. The ads make grandiose claims, without supplying any evidence that they will work in the way promised.

Etsy sells hundreds of unproven weight loss remedies. Who needs exercise and diet when you can simply wear a ring? Red Dragon Apothecary casts the spell of your choice onto rings, pendants and charms. For example, they sell a ring containing a spell that supposedly “assists in weight loss and overall health. It will help boost metabolism and flush out toxins.” Moonstone Dancer offers “Weight Watchers Oil” that you simply “Rub the oil over areas where you wish to rid fat”. The secret isn’t in the oil, let’s not be silly about this. The key is visualizing yourself as thin. “Visualization is MOST important, so make sure that you perform all of these while visualizing yourself healthy and fit.”

Arcane Spells will “connect to your soul” during meditation, and “using your soul as a bridge, will “connect to your subconscious mind” and send energy that “will increase the metabolism of the body a lot. As a result, not only your body will burn fat at a very fast rate, but you will also have much more energy. The spell will continue it’s [sic] effect until most of the fat in the body is gone.” Not only will you lose weight, but “you will never gain weight again”. Even witches have BOGO sales. If you buy two spells, the seller promises to “send three times more energy”. Ironically, Arcane Spells reminds us to let the buyer beware, as “Most spellcasters on the internet are crooks”.

Papa Hoodoo sells hundreds of Hoodoo, Voodoo and Wiccan spells, but not as curios. The shop offers a necklace that when worn will “Increase your breast size, get firmer larger breasts, rid of stretch marks around breasts, get the nipples you desire.” Other spells will increase the size of your penis; give you “6 pack abs”, make you to gain hair in wanted places or rid your body of unwanted hair. A powerful ring contains:

A WHITE MAGICK BUTT & THIGH ENHANCEMENT SPELL FOR MEN OR WOMEN~ IMPROVES THE BOOTY GIVING A NICE ROUND BUBBLE BUTT , TIGHTENS LOOSE SKIN, REDUCES FAT OR CELLULITE, ENHANCES THE BOOTY IN AREAS YOU MAY NEED IT MOST!

For $124.95 the buyer can also be assisted with “gender sex change”.

FEEL LIKE YOU WERE BORN THE WRONG SEX? ATTRACTED TO MEN NOT WOMEN? OR WOMEN NOT MEN? MAYBE JUST TIRED OF DEALING WITH THE OPPOSITE SEX? THIS SPELL CAN HELP TO TRANSFORM YOUR BODY & MIND FROM MALE TO FEMALE OR FEMALE TO MALE!

Etsy is riddled with thousands of ads selling spells to attract love, fertility and money, and to banish or curse. There are “healing” herbs, oils and incense, and snake oil “cures” for PMS, prostate problems, baldness and much more. There are hundreds of homeopathic treatments, “healing” magnetic bracelets, “healing” crystals, and thousands of pendulums. There are “haunted” dolls, voodoo dolls and even a “Chiropractic adjustment doll”.

Some of these dangerous products contain disclaimers that state these products are for “entertainment” purposes only, or that they are “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.” These are mere afterthoughts following their numerous claims and anecdotal evidence attesting to the efficacy of the product.

Etsy also has a questionable feedback system. Negative or neutral feedback for sellers is frequently deleted or hidden from view, while the sellers are still shown as having 100% positive feedback. Etsy doesn’t appear to offer any consumer protection against dodgy sellers and their shonky products.

I encourage skeptics to flag these sellers and their individual products. At the bottom of each page there is a button to “Report this item to Etsy”. However, we can’t rely on these companies to purge their sites of dishonest listings when they’re profiting from the sales. However, we can submit complaints about these companies to the Better Business Bureau and the FDA’s Medwatch. Join me in reporting these sellers, and making these ecommerce sites accountable for the useless and often dangerous products they sell.  

 

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist, author, skeptical paranormal investigator and a research fellow for the James Randi Foundation. You can follow Karen on Twitter here.

Santa: My Children Didn't Myth Him

JREF - Fri, 2012-12-14 02:00

One subject sure to start a fight with any group of skeptics is the subject of Santa Claus.  The most diehard skeptic gets all soft and mushy when it comes to the subject of St. Nick, flying reindeer and slave labor elves.

People that will demand the expulsion of anyone at a skeptic conference that even hints at being an agnostic ("agnostics are just atheists that are to afraid to stand up for what they really don't believe!"), will explain in detail why they tell their children Santa Claus is real.

I don't always buy their arguments.  "The rest of the family tells their children Santa is real, while I'm willing to stand up for my atheism and skeptic beliefs, I don't want my young child to have to fight with her cousins about Santa.  It's not fair for a 3 year old to have to take this on."

People that gave their grandmothers strokes when they came out as atheists, will say "It would really kill grandmother, I mean not just cause her to lose all ability to move her left side, I mean KILL grandmother if she thought the kids did not believe in Santa.  I can't do that to her."

There is the peer pressure argument.  "Our child will not fit in at school if she doesn't believe in Santa.  The other children will shun her."  I like to point out that the Jewish children manage to survive.  Children of other religions that do not celebrate Christmas, and I am sure are not told Santa is real, manage to have friends and not be scarred for life.  As a former preschool teacher I can assure you Jewish children, as well as Buddhist and Sikhs do not sit down their children, read the "Night Before Christmas" and explain "Except the reindeer don't land here, and you don't get presents. It isn't that you are bad children, we're just not Christians."

Skeptic parents that teach Santa at least don't pull the stunts that other non-skeptic parents do.  Anyone that has been shopping at this pre holiday insanity time has probably seen a parent do the "Santa threat".  In my day it was "If you aren't good Santa won't bring you presents, you'll just get coal."  Today, it's not serious holiday shopping if I don't see at least one parent pull out their cell phone and threaten to call Santa to tell him how horrible the children are behaving.  I've seen parents dial Santa and carry on conversations with him about how little Max doesn't deserve the complete Lego Harry Potter set as he's screaming in the middle of Target. It works, but I wonder how these parents keep their children under control the rest of the year.

My own choice for my children was based on how the school where I used to teach dealt with the holiday season. Santa is just one of many mid-winter myths.  Children love to hear how different cultures celebrate Christmas and other holidays.  Santa has different names and different looks all around the world.  He has different helpers, and some cultures don't have Santa at all.  My children learned "There are many traditions and myths, let me tell you about other Santa myths and winter celebrations from around the world".  Our family loved to incorporate other holiday traditions.  We even once included wreaths with candles worn on the heads of my girls, as a nod to Swedish tradition.  Despite my worries, both girls managed not to catch their hair on fire, or burn down the house.  Christmas was a wonderful cultural and history lesson for my girls.

Santa wasn't "real" he was a "myth" like the Easter Bunny or Ronald McDonald.  We also, like all families, made up our own Christmas traditions. We put out carrots for the reindeer, the next morning the carrots were not there.  The children knew they had become a holiday snack for hungry wildlife in our yard. It was just fun to "remember" how hard working the reindeer were.  When dad suggested Santa might like a beer, the children just giggled and joined in the fun.  Every year Santa has a beer waiting for him, it's our tradition.  If Santa were real, he would want to stop at our house, reindeer snacks and a Sam Adams!

I also taught the children why there are so many holidays at this time of year.  Long ago, there would not be enough food for all the animals on the farm to make it through the winter. Rather than letting the animals slowly starve, the extras were eaten.  If you are having a feast, you might as well have a celebration of some sort.  Later, when agriculture improved and farmers were able to raise enough crops to feed all their animals through the winter, a mid winter holiday celebration became just a fun way to liven things up.

I in no way advocate that skeptics and atheists should not teach their children about Santa Claus.  Parenting is a very personal matter.  I myself was not shocked when told that Santa was not "real", though I had a very hard time believing it as my older brother had informed me had had stayed up late one Christmas Eve and seen Santa.  I actually went around for a few years feeling the adult that had broken the news to me about Santa was misinformed.

My now adult brother swears he really did see Santa, though we now understand he probably fell asleep while waiting and had a very realistic dream.  This is why eyewitness testimony is never enough!  If just seeing Bigfoot makes Bigfoot real, then Santa certainly should be real based on my brother's evidence.

My only problem with skeptics and atheists that teach their children Santa is real, is their lack of honesty about why they are doing it.  Very few admit, "I tell my children Santa is real, as it's a lot of fun for me.  I like Santa!"  If telling your child Santa is real, and comes with presents on a sleigh pulled by reindeer and eats cookies and milk (or beer) gives you and your child a lot of happiness, you don't need to defend your choice.  Part of parenting is about having fun with your child and also reliving happy childhood memories.  I enjoyed Christmas much more after I had children than before.  I get much greater joy watching my children open their stockings or unwrap that perfect gift they have been wanting, than in opening a gift for myself.

My children enjoyed the myths of Santa, and enjoyed the thought that around the world so many other children would also be waiting for St. Nick, or Pere Noel, or Grandfather Frost, or even the Christmas Brownie.  It was a way for them to feel connected to other children on that special eve and morning.

So "To believe or not believe, that is the question!"  It's up to each parent, because this is a family choice, not a political or ethical or religious choice.  The holidays are about having fun, and I hope also making up new traditions and myths to be remembered and passed down in the family.  Trust me, the Santa gets a beer is one our family still practices.  (Sometimes even Mrs. Santa enjoys a beer)

When it comes to Santa, it's really just the business of you and your family.  Because the reason for the season is family.  (No matter what religious people say)

 

Kitty Mervine is a teacher, artist, and mother of 2 daughters. She is also a longtime volunteer with the JREF, helping staff the JREF forum table every year at TAM among other things. Kitty speaks on people who believe they have been abducted by UFOs and their experiences. She also blogs at Yankeeskeptic.com

New Video from the Amaz!ng Meeting 2012: Investigative Methods for the Skeptic

JREF - Thu, 2012-12-13 12:57

If you missed The Amaz!ng Meeting 2012, you can still catch great talks, panels, and workshops on science and skepticism given live at TAM 2012 on our YouTube page. Today, we are pleased to share one of those remarkable workshops.

Investigative Methods for the Skeptic

In this workshop from TAM 2012, a lineup of top paranormal investigators teach the best methods for examining extraordinary claims. Featuring JREF fellow Dr. Karen Stollznow, author Ben Radford, Bryan Bonner and Matthew Baxter of the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society, Carrie Poppy and Ross Blocher of the "Oh No! Ross and Carrie" podcast, and Blake Smith of "MonsterTalk".

Watch for new talks from The Amaz!ng Meeting every week, right here on randi.org. And enjoy new videos the moment they are posted by subscribing to our YouTube channel.

We interrupt your normal service

Mind Hacks - Thu, 2010-08-05 05:37

There will be a brief pause in postings while The Mind Hacks Blog moves to a new home. I've disabled comments while this is happening. Full details after we've successfully completed moving the furniture behind the scenes (clue: not too much will change).

Legal highs found to contain illegal drugs

Mind Hacks - Wed, 2010-08-04 00:00

'Legal highs' may actually contain illegal drugs, according to a study just published in the medical journal QJM.

This new research provides a further insight into the foggy world of the 'legal high' industry, with particular reference to recent UK legislation which banned several previously 'legal highs' including a drug called mephedrone which was bizarrely dubbed 'miaow miaow' by the media.

The authors of the study bought several substances before and after the ban and sent them for lab testing to see whether the listed ingredients matched the advertised ingredients.

Surprisingly, they found on both occasions that the advertised ingredients of the 'legal highs' didn't meet the active ingredients they discovered through chemical tests.

For example, before the ban, a legal pill sold as 'Doves Original' was advertised as containing a blend of amino acids and ketones but actually contained the psychedelic drugs mephedrone and butylone. Both were completely legal but were simply not mentioned by the manufacturers.

Interestingly, after the ban, it seems that several companies just changed their packaging without changing their ingredients.

Out of the six products tested, all advertised as being legal, five included recently banned substances - including mephedrone, 4-fluoromethcathinone and methylone - and the other contained dimethocaine, a legal but unmentioned local anaesthetic (presumably to emulate the nose-numbing effect of cocaine).

This makes an interesting contrast to a recent study on 'legal high' synthetic cannabinoids that we covered previously, where new unregulated substances appeared on the market before the ban came into place.

In the case of the UK legal stimulant market, however, it seems rather than innovating new substances to avoid the ban, the industry has simply resorted to mislabelling and deceptive advertising.

What this may suggest is that the synthetic cannabinoid industry is more scientifically savvy than the legal stimulant industry, not least because synthesising cannabinoids can't be done as easily. But despite this, they seem to be more 'agile' when it comes to reacting to legal clamp downs.


Link to PubMed entry for study.
Link to previous Mind Hacks on synthetic cannabinoids.

Is Big Pharma abandoning psychiatry?

Mind Hacks - Tue, 2010-08-03 20:00

This week's Science has a thought-provoking article charting how several of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies have canned their development of psychiatric drugs, citing the medications as unlikely to be profitable given the difficulties in understanding the neurobiology of mental illness.

On 4 February, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced that it planned to pull the plug on drug discovery in some areas of neuroscience, including pain and depression. A few weeks later, news came that AstraZeneca was closing research facilities in the United States and Europe and ceasing drug-discovery work in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety.

These cutbacks by two of the top players in drug development for disorders of the central nervous system have raised concerns that the pharmaceutical industry is pulling out, or at least pulling back, in this area. In direct response to the cuts at GSK and AstraZeneca, the Institute of Medicine Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous System Disorders organized a meeting in late June that brought together leaders from government, academia, and private foundations to take stock.

But the biggest problem, researchers say, is that there is almost nothing in the pipeline that gives any hope for a transformation in the treatment of mental illness. That's worrying, they say, because the need for better treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders is vast. Hundreds of millions of people are afflicted worldwide. Yet for some common disorders, like Alzheimer's disease, no truly effective treatments exist; for others, like depression, the existing drugs have limited efficacy and substantial side effects.

Sadly, the full article is locked behind a paywall (news kills people) but the author, science journalist Greg Miller, discusses the topic in the freely available Science podcast which covers the same ground.

One theme to consistently emerge is how, for years, Big Pharma has been chasing easy profits by making slightly tweaked versions of existing drugs rather than investing in research aimed at developing genuinely new treatments. It seems this short-term-ism is starting to run out of steam.

By the way, the Science podcast piece on Big Pharma is followed by coverage of an innovative new study on dopamine and impulsivity so well worth a listen.


Link to 'Is Pharma Running Out of Brainy Ideas?'
Link to Science podcast.

Down and dirty

Mind Hacks - Tue, 2010-08-03 00:00

Baba Brinkman is a beat dealer and science rhyming pioneer who has just recorded an awesome hip-hop album on evolutionary psychology.

Most importantly, it's actually a great album. It's not an attempt at parody or a tribute, it's an inspired, groove heavy, high production values record with a wonderful lyrical touch.

It's not for kids, you simply won't be able to play half the tracks to your high school science class without risking your job, as in classic hip-hop tradition, it's down and dirty from beginning to end.

But it's also a brilliant guide to the theories and controversies of evolutionary psychology and covers everything from game theory to twin studies.

You can listen to it online and can download it to your computer and mp3 player, choosing whatever price you want to pay for it.


Link to Baba Brinkman's The Rap Guide to Human Nature (thanks Mark!)

The psychic origins of EEG

Mind Hacks - Mon, 2010-08-02 20:00

Oscillatory Thoughts has an excellent post on Hans Berger, the inventor of EEG, who created the technology not solely to investigate the electrical signals of the brain, but to try and uncover the neural basis of 'telepathy'.

It turns out, Berger was a big believer in psychic phenomena: namely telepathy. He believed that there was an underlying physical basis for mental phenomena, and that these mental processes—being physical in nature—could be transmitted between people. Thus, in order to show that psychic phenomena exist, Berger sought to show the nature of the underlying physical processes of thoughts and emotions.

The piece goes on the explain the details of Berger's early experiments and how the link between electrical activity and brain function has expanded since his revolutionary invention.

Berger is one of the most fascinating characters in the history of neuroscience, but is badly under-researched.

Sadly, he ended his own life in his later years as he struggled to come to terms with the rise of the Nazis, but he has left a weighty legacy which has become a central pillar of neuroscience, despite its somewhat idiosyncratic origins.


Link to Oscillatory Thoughts on Hans Berger and EEG.

Chasing the mechanical dragon

Mind Hacks - Sun, 2010-08-01 20:00

A coin operated 'opium den', found in the Musée Mécanique antique mechanical arcade on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.

For only 25 cents you can see some rather glassy-eyed Chinese gentlemen, a door which reveals a skeleton, and a dragon that appears through the window.

It's no coincidence that this somewhat eccentric piece of carnivalia originates in San Francisco, as it was the first place in America to ban smoking opium.

The city passed the 'Opium Den Ordinance' in 1875, timed to take advantage of the growing anti-Asian sentiment that had grown during the gold rush in which many immigrants from China had settled in the area.

The episode was perhaps the first modern drug scare, with moral panic making the papers and opium being blamed for a whole range of social ills, well beyond its actual impact.

These days, the last echoes of the turn of the century scare can be mechanically animated for anyone with a quarter and a curious mind.


Link to the Musée Mécanique website (thanks @aleksk!)

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