The Greater Blogosphere

It’s the Skepchick Sundaylies! Refugee Nation, Naked Trump, Singing Your Love for Calculus, and more!

Skepchick - Mon, 2016-08-22 05:30

Sunday Funny: Resting Geek Face. (via Wondermark)

Teen Skepchick

Awesome Sauce Music Friday: I Love Calculus
The Joan Jett/math crossover you didn’t know you needed.

Mad Art Lab

Make It Stranger
Stranger Things meets typography to make the perfect nostalgia storm.

Do You Have a Flag?
The Olympics put a spotlight on refugee athletes, and now they have a flag and anthem of their own.

The Naked Trump
Jim explains the problems with those naked Trump statues that have been popping up.

Grounded Parents

Citation Needed
Green Party candidate Jill Stein has implied that the FDA can’t be trusted. Topher is going to need your sources, Dr. Stein.

Depression Through the Generations
Bethany explores a study of depression a 30 year, four generation study.

Weekend Reads: 3D Clitoris, Watership Down, and Olympic Heroes as Superheroes
Lou keeps you up to date on the best reads on the internet.

Featured image credit: Scott Akerman via Flickr

Global Quickies: Women in Stadiums, Period Taboos in Sports, and Hair Salons Help Family Planning

Skepchick - Sun, 2016-08-21 03:00

JORDAN
“A gag order has been placed on a Jordanian writer who was arrested for posting a cartoon deemed offensive to Islam. […]The cartoon depicts God in paradise, being treated as a servant by an Arab man, who is in bed with two women and asking for wine.”

FRANCE
“A French court has refused to release a 68-year-old woman pardoned for murdering her husband after nearly 50 years of rape and violent, sparking a public outcry with some describing the ruling as “incomprehensible”.”

PERU
“On August 13, Lima became the site of a massive demonstration against the systemic gender-based violence of recent decades. More than 50,000 Peruvians, mainly women, swarmed the streets of the city in an unprecedented march in which they called for justice for the many Peruvian women who are habitual victims of gender violence, or worse, of judicial negligence.”

BRAZIL / CHINA
“A Swimmer’s ‘Period’ Comment Breaks Taboos In Sports — And In China. Fu Yuanhui, a Chinese swimmer at the Rio Olympics, made headlines this week for telling the world she was on her period.”

EGYPT (From Donna)
“Eight female Egyptian presenters told to lose weight or lose Jobs.”

GERMANY
“The German Interior Minister, Thomas de Maiziere, has called for a partial ban on the burka, a day after saying a full ban might not be constitutional.”

FRANCE
“The decision by a handful of French mayors to ban the Islamic burkini swimsuit has divided the country and shocked its neighbours, with critics seeing the prohibitions as profoundly discriminatory.”

BRAZIL / IRAN
“Olympic security personnel questioned a female Iranian volleyball fan when she showed up for a match holding a large sign and wearing a T-shirt that said “Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums.””

GUINEA
“Guinea is set to expand its use of hair salons to promote urban family planning beyond the capital, even introducing it to tailors’ shops”

TURKEY
“Women’s rights groups, lawyers and doctors have condemned Turkey’s decision to introduce a mandatory chemical castration programme for convicted sex offenders, arguing the treatment does not address the underlying reasons for widespread violence against women, and that bodily punishment will instead lead to increased abuse.”

GIBRALTAR
“Gibraltar took a decisive step toward recognizing same-sex marriage on Monday when its government announced a draft bill to modify the British Overseas Territory’s Civil Marriage Act. The bill will now go before parliament, which will approve the change to the law in six-weeks, as required by the Constitution.”

 

Featured image: #NiUnaMenos (not one less), art by Diana Solis for Peru’s march against gender violence

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quickies: Oxygenating maxi pads, negging women in sports, and spitfires

Skepchick - Sat, 2016-08-20 01:48

Communicating Risk and Certainty

NeuroLogica - Sat, 2016-08-20 00:11

A recent article in the Guardian discusses how scientists and experts should communicate risk and certainty to the public. The author, Jack Stilgoe, makes some good points, but unfortunately frames it as part of a defense of Jill Stein:

She said that there were ‘real questions’ about the dangers of vaccines, that GM foods have ‘not been proven safe’ and that ‘more more research is needed’ on the risks of electromagnetic fields.

As with climate change, it is tempting to claim that the science is certain, the evidence is clear and the debate should move on. Things are rarely so black-and-white. In politics, the facts don’t speak for themselves, so it falls to experts to make sense of the shades of grey.

Stilgoe is speaking of a dilemma faced by experts and science communicators when dealing with political or ideological opinions that diverge from the scientific consensus. The real dilemma is that if we communicate the science in technically accurate detail, it seems as if we are equivocating and those on the anti-science side will unfairly exploit this to exaggerate the uncertainty. If we gloss over the uncertainty to emphasize the bottom line, then the anti-science side will unfairly exploit that to say we are engaged in a cover-up and are being uncritical.

It is a no-win scenario, which is often the case when dealing with those who put ideology above science and reason. They aren’t playing fair, which can give them a rhetorical advantage over someone honestly trying to be fair.

It is also a lot easier to create and exploit doubt and confusion, than to give a thorough understanding of a complex topic.

Stilgoe concludes:

Expert groups are often relied upon by politicians to tidy up the facts on contentious issues. It rarely works. People don’t like being patronised with easy answers where there are none to find. With mobile phones, a group of experts took a different approach. They instead admitted that there are uncertainties and trusted in citizens’ ability to navigate them. When it comes to climate change, Wi-Fi, GM crops, vaccines and mobile phones, there will always be scientific grey areas. If experts want to regain their credibility, they urgently need to find ways to talk about them.

I agree with this basic approach, but would emphasize different points. I also seem to disagree with him regarding how uncertain we are about the topics he uses as examples.

The solution to the dilemma, in my opinion, is that the scientific community, science communicators, journalists, and government experts need to develop a common language with the public for communicating about risk. Right now there is confusion.

For example, Stilgoe writes:

In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified mobile phone EMFs as a ‘possible human carcinogen’ (placing them alongside bacon and almost every other enjoyable food).

What does “possible human carcinogen” actually mean in terms of the scientific evidence? The IARC even admits:

Perhaps not surprisingly, based on how hard it can be to test these candidate carcinogens, most are listed as being of probable, possible, or unknown risk. Only a little over 100 are classified as “carcinogenic to humans.”

Even worse, the classification says nothing about dose. To get a good idea of how confusing, even to the point of being worthless in terms of public communication, just follow the link above to the list of known and probable carcinogens. Alcohol is a known carcinogen, yet people consume it on a regular basis without fear. Formaldehyde is also listed, without noting dose. There is natural formaldehyde in our bodies, and in many foods we eat. It is often pointed out that pears have more formaldehyde in them than vaccines, but the fact that this is listed as a known carcinogen is great fodder for anti-vaccine fear mongering.

Hot beverages and red meat are also listed. If you go down to “possible carcinogen” then you start to include things like caffeine.

This categorization may accurately reflect the scientific research in some way, but it does not communicate useful information to the public. In fact, it creates confusion. It doesn’t tell people how to stay healthy or minimize their risk.

We live in a complex world and are generally overwhelmed with information. What people want and need is an “executive summary” – what’s the bottom line? What people want to know are categories like: tiny theoretical risk, don’t worry about it; safe for everyday use; minimize exposure at all costs; safe in small doses but avoid excess, etc.

This goes beyond safety and carcinogens, of course. For climate change, for example, of course we are not 100% certain, the science is not over, there are unanswered questions and remaining uncertainty. There always will be. But the bottom line is – there is a solid scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels is warming the climate with potentially costly and unwanted (possibly even catastrophic) outcomes. If we want to avoid these probable outcomes we will need to start reducing our overall CO2 release now.

With vaccines the bottom line is – vaccines have a long history of both scientific evidence and clinical use demonstrating that they provide orders of magnitude more benefit than risk. There is no credible link to autism, and serious negative outcomes are extremely rare. Seriously, getting vaccinated is a no-brainer positive health intervention. (You may notice the difference between this and Jill Stein’s bottom line that “real questions” remain about the safety of vaccines.)

You can give an accurate overview of the science of a technology or substance without using unjustified words or phrases, like the “science is settled” or “zero risk.” Even if you think saying something like the “science is settled” is justified, that phrase is now a dog whistle to science deniers and is therefore counterproductive.

Make no mistake, effectively communicating science like this is very tricky, and it is a two-way street. I try to be as careful as I can be in discussing these controversial topics, and accurately reflecting the science while simultaneously communicating the proper bottom line. This often means putting things into their proper context.

I don’t think there is any one algorithm for communicating science that cuts through all the complexity. However, in certain situations when classification systems are used, they should be crafted with meaningful communication in mind. The “probable” or “possible” carcinogen categorization, in my opinion, is horrible and generates tremendous confusion and potential for anti-science exploitation.

Regarding Stilgoe’s article, he failed, in my opinion, to defend Stein’s statements. Just because the science is not absolute, because it is never absolute, that does not mean Stein’s exploitation of the usual scientific uncertainty was justified or appropriate. She pandered to the anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, and anti-technology crowd with phrases meant to convey sympathy to their anti-science positions.

She was exploiting scientific complexity and poor communication for ideological purposes.

 

 

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!)

2010-07-30 Spike activity

Mind Hacks - Fri, 2010-07-30 20:00

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Popular Science reports on proposals to study the obscure hallucinogen ibogain as a treatment for opiate addiction.

A study on how money restricts life's pleasures is covered by PsyBlog.

Yale Alumni Magazine looks at research "which seeks to use robots not to perform tasks for humans but as a means of investigating the inner workings of human behavior and psychology".

The chance of getting executed for killing a white person is about three times higher than for killing an African American, regardless of the offender's race, according to research covered by In the News.

The New York Times piece on free will by philosopher Galen Strawson has some insightful commentaries here at The Frontal Cortex and here at Oscillatory Thoughts.

Stereotypes of mental illness in cinema - a brief diagnostic guide - over at Frontier Psychiatrist.

Wired Science reports on a study finding synchronised brain activity between people in a conversation.

The first and preliminary controlled trial of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD is covered by Drug Monkey.

New Scientist analyse the shaky idea that bigger brains means more intelligence.

A video introduces IBM cognitive computing's SyNAPSE project - which stands for 'Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics' since you asked - is over at Developing Intelligence.

The Today Programme from BBC Radio 4 interviews psychologist Til Wykes on changes to psychiatric diagnosis and the shrinking definition of normality.

What proportion of chemical leaks provoke mass hysteria? asks the BPS Research Digest.

Seed Magazine has an interesting review of 'Sex at Dawn' - a new book looking at the history of sexuality in pre-history.

Brain scan based career advice? The Neurocritic covers a curious study on using brain structure and cognitive performance for 'vocational guidance'.

Life Matters from ABC Radio National discusses whether 'bad kids' become more popular as rule-breaking becomes attractive as kids age.

There's a great piece on how a study of heroin addiction in ex-Vietnam soldiers gave birth to the 'disease model' of addiction over at Addiction Inbox.

The New York Times has an in-depth article discussing whether the seemingly permanent record of the internet means an 'end to forgetting'.

The Research Blogging editor's selections of psychology and neuroscience articles posted regularly at The Thoughtful Animal are excellent.

Wired has an in-depth article on the possibilities of a 'stress vaccine' that protects against the damage associated with chronic stress.

Can music negatively affect your memory? asks Barking Up The Wrong Tree.

New Scientist reports on how a doctor has been reprimanded apparently for asking valid questions about the validity of 'shaken baby syndrome'.

There is some intelligent commentary concerning the recent Edge online seminar on the psychology of morality over at Neuroanthropology.

Scientific American Mind has excellent coverage of the recent 'self-fulfilling feigning of mental illness' study.

BBC Radio 4's Inside the Ethics Committee programme had an interesting discussion on when it is ethical to accept a mentally ill patient's decision to refuse a life-saving operation if their objections are based on delusional ideas.

Not Exactly Rocket Science discusses an awesome 'sniff-detector' that allows paralysed people to write messages, surf the net and drive a wheelchair.

What if there had never been a Cognitive Revolution? asks Cognition and Culture.

Booty calling

Mind Hacks - Fri, 2010-07-30 00:00

Someone, somewhere, can look you straight in the eye and say "I've got a PhD in booty call research".

A new study just published online in the Journal of Sex Research investigates where the booty call falls on the spectrum of relationships.

Positioning the Booty-Call Relationship on the Spectrum of Relationships: Sexual but More Emotional Than One-Night Stands

Peter K. Jonason; Norman P. Li; Jessica Richardson

Journal of Sex Research

Most research on human sexuality has focused on long-term pairbonds and one-night stands. However, growing evidence suggests there are relationships that do not fit cleanly into either of those categories. One of these relationships is a “booty-call relationship.”

The purpose of this study was to describe the sexual and emotional nature of booty-call relationships by (a) examining the types of emotional and sexual acts involved in booty-call relationships and (b) comparing the frequency of those acts in booty-call relationships to one-night stands and serious long-term relationships.

In addition, the manner in which sociosexuality is associated with the commission of these acts was also examined. Demonstrative of booty-call relationships' sexual nature was individuals' tendency to leave after sex and infrequent handholding.

In contrast, the romantic nature of booty-call relationships was demonstrated through the frequency of acts like kissing. The results suggest the booty-call relationship is a distinct type of relationship situated between one-night stands and serious romantic relationships.

Guys, if you need a post-doc... just call.


Link to booty call study in the Journal of Sex Research (via @NoahWG).

The experiment requires that you continue

Mind Hacks - Thu, 2010-07-29 20:00

Spanish daily El País recently published an article on psychologist Stanley Milgram which had this amazing photo of the young conformity researcher where he looks surprisingly beatnick.

Sadly the photo isn't dated but it makes quite a contrast to the better known photos where he looks much more like the typical professor of the age.

He looks both wonderfully creative and slightly haunted, which seems to capture his contribution to psychology perfectly.

The article is also worth checking out but is only available in Spanish, so you may have to deploy a utilisation of the page of Google's Translate which can make a translate of the text if you desire to read it in the English.


Link to El País article 'El psicólogo'.
Link to big version of photo.

Poker face science

Mind Hacks - Thu, 2010-07-29 10:00

The best 'poker face' is probably not a neutral expression, but a happy one, as it led to a greater number of opponent mistakes in a study just published in PLoS One.

The research looked at how poker playing was influenced by the emotional expression of opponents and discovered that blank and threatening expressions had little effect, but a positive expression tends to lull people into a false sense of trust and puts them off their game.

Taken from the study abstract:

This study investigates whether an opponent's face influences players' wagering decisions in a zero-sum game with hidden information. Participants made risky choices in a simplified poker task while being presented opponents whose faces differentially correlated with subjective impressions of trust. Surprisingly, we find that threatening face information has little influence on wagering behavior, but faces relaying positive emotional characteristics impact peoples' decisions.

Thus, people took significantly longer and made more mistakes against emotionally positive opponents. Differences in reaction times and percent correct were greatest around the optimal decision boundary, indicating that face information is predominantly used when making decisions during medium-value gambles. Mistakes against emotionally positive opponents resulted from increased folding rates, suggesting that participants may have believed that these opponents were betting with hands of greater value than other opponents.

According to these results, the best "poker face" for bluffing may not be a neutral face, but rather a face that contains emotional correlates of trustworthiness. Moreover, it suggests that rapid impressions of an opponent play an important role in competitive games, especially when people have little or no experience with an opponent.


Link to Pubmed entry for study.
Link to full-text of study at PLoS One.

Plastic punk

Mind Hacks - Thu, 2010-07-29 00:00

Some awesome geek moves from the science of phonetics, as applied to the new wave punk classic 'Ça Plane Pour Moi' previously and falsely believed to have been sung by Plastic Bertrand.

From the AV Club report:

A staple of any new-wave dance night (ask a white person), “Ca Plane Pour Moi” made a chart-stopping star out of Belgian singer Plastic Bertrand (né Roger Jouret) and provided him with his most lasting legacy—except an expert linguist has just proved that Bertrand didn’t actually sing on his most famous record. The battle over “Ca Plane Pour Moi” has been brewing for four years now, stemming from a 2006 lawsuit involving original producer Lou Deprijck, who released his own version of the single under the marketing claim that he was the “original voice.” At the time, Deprijck found himself sued by record label AMC.

As a result, a panel of experts was appointed to study the track, and today a linguist announced that, after three months of study, during which he compared the original to Deprijck's 2006 version, he had determined that “the way the phrases end on each record show that the song could only have been sung by a Ch'ti—otherwise known as someone from the Picard region of France. It could therefore not have been Plastic Bertrand—who was born in Brussels—and was surely Monsieur Deprijck.” So it's been settled: Plastic Bertrand was the Milli Vanilli of the punk era.


Link to AV Club on the fake Plastic Bertrand (via @sophiescott).

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