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Brain Scans and Psychics

by Steven Novella, Dec 23 2013

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

Where do I begin?

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

The Medium

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

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False Memory Fundamental

by Steven Novella, Dec 09 2013

It is now well established in psychological research that humans can form false memories – memories for events that never occurred. Further, these false memories are indistinguishable from genuine memories. Questions remain, however, about the neuroanatomical basis of false memories.

One potential window into this question are subjects with so-called “Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory” (HSAM).  HSAM itself is a fascinating topic – there are people who can remember many details about specific days in their past. You can ask them, what were you doing on December 9, 2012, and they can think back and tell you, “it was raining and I forgot to bring my umbrella, and I was late for work.” For details you can check, like whether or not it was raining on that day, their details check out.

A new study explores whether or not you can generate false memories in people with HSAM. This may tell us something about HSAM and false memories.

They used standard false memory tests. In one test you show the subject a list of words that all have a theme, for example words that all relate to sweet foods. You then show them a list of words and have them choose which words they can confidently remember from the previous slide. Among the new list of words is “sweet”, which was suggested but never listed in the original set of words (called a “lure word”). A significant number of people will have a false memory of seeing the word “sweet” on the previous slide.

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Champagne Tasting

by Steven Novella, Dec 02 2013

One of my primary goals for this blog is to reinforce, strongly and frequently, the notion of neuropsychological humility – the understanding that our perceptions and memories are deeply flawed and biased. There appears to be almost no limit to the extent to which people can deceive themselves into believing bizarre things.

Psychologists have documented these flaws and biases in numerous ways, and when confronted with demonstrations of such people tend to be amused, as if they were being entertained by a magic show, but do not necessarily apply the lessons to themselves and their own lives. This is one of the key differences, in my opinion, between skeptics (critical thinkers) and non-skeptics – a working knowledge of self-deception.

With that in mind, here is yet another study showing that extrinsic factors and expectation affect our sensory perceptions. I will say right off that this is a small study involving only 15 subjects, but given the nature of the results it is still useful.

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by Steven Novella, Nov 25 2013

Robert Lanza appears to be a legitimate and accomplished physician and stem cell researcher. Unfortunately he has decided to follow in the footsteps of Linus Pauling in venturing outside his area of expertise into the world of pseudoscience.

Lanza is promoting the idea of biocentrism, the notion that consciousness creates the universe, rather than simply being a physical phenomenon within the universe. His ideas are remarkably similar to those of Deepak Chopra, which I have recently discussed, but are stated in more coherent and less flowery prose. His views, however, are just as nonsensical.

Here is the abridged version of his arguments, which he lays out in his 2009 book. I found nothing new in Lanza’s ideas – he simply brings together now tired and long discredited distortions of physics and mystery mongering on the edge of scientific knowledge.

Before I delve into some of his specific arguments (which will take a part II) I must point out that nowhere in his description of biocentrism is an actual scientific theory. He does not posit anything that results in testable predictions. Rather, he seeks only to “explain” life, the universe, and everything, as if explaining is science.

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Reprogramming Your Junk DNA

by Steven Novella, Nov 11 2013

Every now and then I come across a stunning example of pseudoscience, an exemplar, almost raising pseudoscience to an art form. Some pieces of scientific nonsense read almost like poetry. Such examples make me wonder what is going on in the mind of the pseudoscientist – to me, the most fascinating question.

One example I recently came across is the idea that we can reprogram our DNA through words alone. Just about every red-flag of pseudoscience is flying high with this one. Here is the theory in a nutshell:

Only 10% of our DNA is being used for building proteins. It is this subset of DNA that is of interest to western researchers and is being examined and categorized. The other 90% are considered “junk DNA.” The Russian researchers, however, convinced that nature was not dumb, joined linguists and geneticists in a venture to explore those 90% of “junk DNA.” Their results, findings and conclusions are simply revolutionary! According to them, our DNA is not only responsible for the construction of our body but also serves as data storage and in communication. The Russian linguists found that the genetic code, especially in the apparently useless 90%, follows the same rules as all our human languages. To this end they compared the rules of syntax (the way in which words are put together to form phrases and sentences), semantics (the study of meaning in language forms) and the basic rules of grammar. They found that the alkalines of our DNA follow a regular grammar and do have set rules just like our languages. So human languages did not appear coincidentally but are a reflection of our inherent DNA.

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Chopra Shoots at Skepticism and Misses

by Steven Novella, Nov 04 2013

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

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

Chopra writes:

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

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Quantum Medicine

by Steven Novella, Oct 28 2013

Earlier this month the World Congress of Quantum Medicine was held in Hawaii. You may be wondering what quantum medicine is. Here is a quick description from the congress website:

Quantum Medicine uses the principles of quantum physics such as non-locality, tangled hierarchy, and discontinuous leap in consciousness to better understand medicine.

How will attendees benefit?

If you could increase your knowledge and skills in just four exciting days… if you could learn new strategies for developing a true mind/body system of healing… if you could bring that knowledge back to your practice where you’ll get better results with your clients while increasing your income, then the benefits are incalculable.

Some of the talks are available on the website, so you can get a good idea of the content. The top video on the conference page is a panel discussion that opens with a discussion of Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy because of her genetic risk for breast cancer.

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Dragon Video

by Steven Novella, Oct 21 2013

These make for light-hearted posts, but occasionally it’s fun to deconstruct viral videos purporting to show something fantastical on the internet. Most such videos are one of the big three – ghosts, UFOs or Bigfoot (or some other cryptozoological creature).

The current video is in the cryptozoological category - a video purporting to show a dragon flying through the skies of Truro England.

Obviously the prior-probability here is vanishingly small, and so it would take a very compelling video to have any chance of being taken seriously, and this video does not come close. Before I take a close look at the video itself, let’s explore the plausibility of the claim.

Dragons are gigantic flying predators, at least in their current Western cultural image. Such creatures if they existed would be voracious. Flying is a high-energy activity and animals pay for the benefits of flight by needing to eat incredible amounts of calories. Bald eagles, for example, eat about 10% of their body weight per day. If we extrapolate that to a dragon, even if light for its size so it can fly, would require hundreds of pounds of food per day.

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The Science of Learning

by Steven Novella, Oct 14 2013

As a perpetual student and frequent teacher, I am very interested in the science and technology of learning itself. In medical school, for example, we have to transfer an incredible amount of information to students over a relatively short period  of time. The trick is to get students to maintain their attention, focus on the important bits of information, and understand and remember that information.

This is very challenging. Simply lecturing is not very effective. There are different figures as to what the average “attention span” is, depending on exactly how it is measured, but the figures are generally less than 20 minutes, and as low as 5 minutes. Of course, this depends on attention to what. I can pay attention to a 3 hour movie without difficulty, if it’s Lord of the Rings or similar quality. Try listening to a 3 hour lecture on a dry technical topic, and effectively process the information presented the whole time.

So how do we get students to spend the day in lectures and actually learn a significant portion of the material?

There are many answers to this question, but a recent study perhaps adds another technique to improve lecture efficiency. Robert Collins conducted a multi-year study in which he used video during his lectures, but for the first year the video had captions turned off, and for the second year he had captions turned on. He found that during the second year class discussion improved, and grades significantly improved.

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A Problem with Open Access Journals

by Steven Novella, Oct 07 2013

In a way the internet is a grand bargain, although one that simply emerged without a conscious decision on the part of anyone. It greatly increases communication, lowers the bar for content creation and distribution, and allows open access to vast and deep databases of information. On the other hand, the traditional barriers of quality control are reduced or even eliminated, leading to a “wild west” of information. As a result it is already a cliche to characterize our current times as the “age of misinformation.”

For someone like me, a social-media skeptic, I feel the cut of both edges quite deeply. With podcasts, blogs, YouTube videos, and other content, I can create a network of content creation and distribution that can compete with any big media outlet. I can use these outlets to correct misinformation, analyse claims, engage in debates, and debunk fraud and myths.

On the other hand, the fraud, myths, and misinformation are multiplying at frightening rates on the very same platforms. It is difficult to gauge the net effect – perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

For this post I will discuss one of the most disturbing trends emerging from the internet phenomenon – the proliferation of poor quality science journals, specifically open access journals. The extent of this problem was recently highlighted by a “sting” operation recently published by Science magazine.

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