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Call Me Crazy, But…

by Steven Novella on Sep 24 2012

Elyse over at Skepchick has written an interesting commentary on the use of potentially hurtful language, such as colloquial use of the term “crazy.” Her conclusion:

That maybe, if someone tells me that a term hurts them, I don’t get to decide whether or not I’m actually hurting them. I know they’re hurt. My only decision is whether or not I want to keep hurting them or not. Usually, the answer is no.

The comments range the spectrum of opinion from full agreement to complete disagreement. I do agree with Elyse that this is a fascinating discussion, partly, in my opinion, because there is no objective answer. I would like to offer my opinion and explore some angles of this issue that were not addressed by Elyse or the commenters.

Taking an ethical view, there appear to be several legitimate ethical principles at stake with the question of using potentially offensive language. One principle is that of nonmaleficience - the directive not to inflict evil or cause harm to others; in this case the harm is psychological due to offensive language. Another principle is that of personal liberty, in this case freedom of expression. These two principles appear to be at odds with respect to the question of offensive language.

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Conning the Con

by Mark Edward on Sep 20 2012

Dragoncon’s 2012 Skeptictrack was an absolute blast this year. In between getting to meet Alice Cooper through my dear friend James Randi, hanging out for hours talking mentalism with him and wading through thousands of the most intense costumes I have ever seen in one place – ever, I managed to get a standing room only 400+ group of both paranormal seekers and skeptical minds in one room for an hour of my best psychic “readings.” (continue reading…)


Homeland Security Buying Ammunition (Again)

by Brian Dunning on Sep 20 2012

News on the conspiracy websites is once again reporting that the US Department of Homeland Security is making huge purchases of ammunition, which they believe is to be used against American citizens. For the entire decade I’ve been following the conspiracy theorists, they’ve been predicting the imminent war on the American people by the American government. That this prediction has always failed to come true every time it’s been made has not seemed to suggest to any of them that perhaps the idea should be reviewed.

This particular report from our old friends at InfoWars cites a purchase of 750 million rounds of ammunition in addition to a previous purchase of 450 million rounds. Evidently it has not occurred to anyone at InfoWars to consider reasons for this other than a war on the citizens. (continue reading…)


Cracking earth and crackpot ideas

by Donald Prothero on Sep 19 2012

Most educated people in modern society have no difficulty accepting the idea that the earth is roughly spherical, or that the sun is the center of the solar system and the earth moves around it. Nearly everyone laughs, or shakes their head in disbelief whenever you tell them about people who seriously believe in a flat earth or groups of people who still don’t accept the discoveries of Galileo and Copernicus after 500 years. Yet both of these long-rejected ideas have strong adherents, mostly creationists who use literal interpretation of the Bible to deny any scientific reality that contradicts scripture. For these people to continue clinging to these long-discredited ideas, they must ignore the hundreds of photos from earth and space that show its true shape (the flat-earthers claim they are NASA hoaxes, although the other international space programs produce similar images). In addition, we now have space probes visiting all the planets on paths predicted by the heliocentric solar system, and some have looked back and taken shots that show the layout of the solar system, and the earth where it really is. But in this age of the internet, silly ideas like geocentrism can reach an audience of millions in seconds, without any fact checking or scientific peer review, which most mainstream media still practice. Any fool with a hot idea, a computer and possibly some decent graphics or animation can cook up a wild theory and instantly generate thousands of hits, and hundreds of favorable comments from those who can’t tell science from garbage. (continue reading…)


Why I’m Still Working on Ankylosaur Attack a Year After Publication

by Daniel Loxton on Sep 18 2012

Comparison of original and revised Ankylosaur Attack spread.

Original and revised version of Ankylosaur Attack spread. Click to enlarge and compare. (Popup gallery window will display the original version first. Click “next” on the right side of the popup image to see the revised version. Click “prev” on the left side of the image to jump back to the original version.)

At this point in my life I can claim a few trades. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I have a reasonable amount of professional experience in sheep herding, in illustration, in writing for kids, or in critical scholarship regarding paranormal claims (or at least certain such claims in specific). But there are many things I’m not—things with which skeptics may sometimes feel more identification than we have expertise. I’m not a psychologist, sociologist, nor doctor, for example. My statements related to those (and indeed most) academic fields should not be considered remotely authoritative.

And despite my children’s books touching on topics of prehistoric life, I’m not a paleontologist.

I care about accuracy in all my work. But although I work hard to get things right in my natural history-informed paleofiction storybooks for kids (Tales of Prehistoric Life, from Kids Can Press), it was probably just a matter of time until some error came to light. That happened when we brought in paleozoologist (and Scientific American blogger) Darren Naish as Science Consultant early in the production cycle for Pterosaur Trouble (the upcoming second book in the series, following Ankylosaur Attack).

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No Benefit from Ginkgo biloba in MS

by Steven Novella on Sep 17 2012

One of the themes of this blog (and my other medical blog, science-based medicine) is that there is a structure and natural history to scientific (and specifically medical) research and in order to understand the answer to any specific scientific question one must look at the whole of the research, not just a single study.

Analyzing individual studies is important because they are the units of which the scientific literature is comprised. Further, some individual studies are large, rigorous, and fairly definitive – but it takes a long time to get there, and most of the scientific literature is comprised of less-than-definitive studies.

There are also recurring patterns in the research that help us put individual studies into context and better arrive at reliable conclusion, which is the whole point of research in the first place. For example, medical studies usually begin with pre-clinical basic science, then progress to pilot clinical studies. A pilot study is small and usually less rigorous in design. Such studies are exploratory – their purpose is to see if we should even bother, and if it will be safe, to do larger more difficult trials. Studies progress with larger or better designed studies until we get to fairly definitive trials. Then and only then do we have some idea if a treatment actually works and is safe.

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Stirling Engine

by Brian Dunning on Sep 13 2012

Just a quick fun thing today, a view of my new Stirling engine:

This is a just a simple little toy one that I found on Amazon for $40, but if you look at the related videos on YouTube, you’ll see that many people have built much more sophisticated engines, including many that are capable of useful work. (continue reading…)


Bill Nye, our science guy

by Donald Prothero on Sep 12 2012

Compared to nearly every other industrialized country, our culture is abysmally illiterate in science. As I have pointed out in previous posts, we fall near the bottom of the developed nations in science literacy, among nations like Turkey with strong religious fundamentalist influences and a fraction of our spending on education. Many studies have shown that our science illiteracy begins partway through childhood, where kids go from excited about dinosaurs and astronomy and other topics when they begin school to way behind kids of other industrialized nations by the time they leave high school. A lot of different reasons have been suggested, but certainly we are fighting a rearguard action against a culture which values jocks and pop stars more than scientists or scholars. This is especially apparent in teen culture where science seems to move from “cool” to “nerdy” as soon as puberty kicks in. Then the social pressures seem to turn kids off, no matter how hard their high school science teachers work and try to keep their attention and interest. (continue reading…)


What is Seen and What is Unseen

by Michael Shermer on Sep 11 2012

The Hidden Price of Immoral Acts

I’ve been reading Tyler Hamilton’s new book, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, co-authored by Daniel Coyle, a journalist and author with considerable literary talent. It’s a gripping story about how Tyler Hamilton, Lance Armstrong, and all the other top cyclists have been doping for decades, using such advanced scientific programs of performance enhancement that estimates show the benefit could be as much as 10%, in races won by fractions of 1%. After nearly two decades of racing with both dope and no dope, Hamilton concludes that although a clean rider might be able to win a one-day race, it is not possible to compete in, much less win, a 3-week event like the Tour de France.

The lengths these guys go to win are almost beyond comprehension. All you do is train, eat, and sleep. And dope. The drug of choice is (or was—now that the drug testers have caught up riders use other drugs that have similar effects) EPO, or erythropoietin, a genetically modified hormone invented by Amgen that stimulates the body to produce more red blood cells, a life-saver for anemic patients undergoing chemo or suffering from other long-term ailments. Also on the menu is testosterone, human growth hormone, steroids (for injuries, not bulk, since cyclists get as skinny as they can), and others. Tyler nicknamed his EPO Edgar, as in Allen Poe. The drugs worked, he says, but only if (continue reading…)


Science Debate 2012 Answers

by Steven Novella on Sep 10 2012 is a group dedicated to promoting the discussion of important scientific issues in American politics. They formed around the idea of holding a science-themed debate in the 2008 presidential election, and have continued since then. They were never successful in getting the two campaigns to agree to a live debate concerning scientific topics, but they did agree to submit written answers to questions. This time around, in the 2012 presidential election, it also appears that there will be no live debate, but both campaigns have submitted written answers to science questions.

The idea behind ScienceDebate is this – from their website:

“Whenever the people are well-informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.”

Science now affects every aspect of life and is an increasingly important topic in national policymaking.

I remember Carl Sagan hitting this theme often, in Cosmos and in his interviews. He said, for example:

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

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