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In Memory of Paul Kurtz and Leon Jaroff

by Steven Novella, Oct 22 2012

We lost two towering figures in the world of rationalism over the weekend. On Saturday October 20, Leon Jaroff died at the age of 85. Then on Sunday October 21 we learned that Paul Kurtz had died at the age of 86. Both men hit their peak prior to the explosion of blogs, podcasts, social media, and as a result, the skeptical community. They therefore might not be that well known to many of the younger skeptics in the community. Their legacy, however, is worth knowing.

Paul Kurtz was a philosopher who dedicated the better part of his life and career to promoting science, reason, and humanist values. He was one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement – someone who was there at the beginning. Kurtz had something that the others did not – the ability to organize a movement. Other giants, like James Randi, Ray Hyman, and Martin Gardner, got together and knew that the world needed a dose of reason. Kurtz had the  skills, however, to make it happen.

He founded two “sister” organizations, the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, now CSI – the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry). Regarding Secular Humanism, he took the existing humanist philosophy and essentially purged it of supernatural fluff to craft it into Secular Humanism. This he presented as a philosophical alternative to supernatural-based religions. He made a powerful philosophical argument that one could lead a moral life without any appeal to a supernatural belief system.

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The Organic False Dichotomy

by Steven Novella, Oct 08 2012

I don’t have any a-priori or ideological issue with any of the specific practices that fall under the “organic” rubric. I do have a problem with the fact that there is an organic rubric. In fact I think the USDA made a mistake in giving into pressure and creating their organic certification. At the time they tried to make it clear that “certified organic” said absolutely nothing about the product itself, only that certain rules and restrictions were followed. It was not an endorsement of organic farming, just a way to regulate the use of the term in labeling food. Unfortunately, it further solidified the organic false dichotomy.

I recently wrote about the Stanford study – a systematic review of studies of organic produce. They concluded:

The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Some of the reaction to the Stanford study, and my discussion of it, illustrates the problem with the false dichotomy – it encourages muddy thinking. There is a range of practices that are allowed and not allowed in organic farming to meet USDA certification. Excluded practices include genetically modified (GM) ingredients, ionizing radiation, and use of sewer sludge. There is also a long list of allowed and excluded substances (such as organic vs non-organic pesticides).

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See What You Feel

by Steven Novella, Oct 01 2012

One of the main themes of scientific skepticism, at least one of my favorite themes, is that we cannot take the accuracy of our own perceptions for granted. We cannot trust what we remember about what we think we experienced – a principle I call neuropsychological humility. Human brains process information in a complex way, making assumptions and adjustments that are useful most of the time, but introduce multiple opportunities for misperceptions. This is partly why we need objective evidence as a check on our perceptions.

Neuroscientists continue to document the many ways in which our perceptions can be fooled. One category of such phenomena are so-called cross-modal interactions – one sensory modality influencing another. The basic concept here is that our brains are receiving multiple streams of information simultaneously and they weave those streams into one seamless experience of reality. Therefore what we see influences what we hear, and what we hear influences what we see, which influences what we feel, etc.

By exploiting these cross-modal interactions researchers can trick the brain into a false experience – by bending or breaking the rules of these interactions. They do this somewhat like magicians, creating scenarios for which evolution would likely not have prepared us.

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Call Me Crazy, But…

by Steven Novella, 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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No Benefit from Ginkgo biloba in MS

by Steven Novella, 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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Science Debate 2012 Answers

by Steven Novella, 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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Looking Back at TWA Flight 800

by Steven Novella, Aug 27 2012

On July 17, 1996 TWA flight 800 took off from JFK airport on its way to Paris. Fifteen minutes into its flight, shortly after climbing to about 13,000 feet, the jet exploded in mid air. The nose of the jet fell off into the Atlantic while the rest continued to fly, erratically while on fire and spewing smoke, until 42 seconds later when there was a second explosion. The right wing and the rest of the fuselage separated and descended as two separate streams of burning debris until they hit the surface of the water 7 seconds later. All 230 people aboard lost their lives.

Sixteen years later there are still those who believe that TWA flight 800 was shot down by a missile. This is despite the fact that the largest and most expensive investigation in history into the crash of a commercial airliner came to a very different conclusion. I had the opportunity this past week to speak to six different eyewitnesses of this tragedy, some of whom firmly believe a missile took down the jet, while others are unsure. The incident remains a classic historical case demonstrating the fallibility of perception and eyewitness accounts.

The Official Version of Events

The NTSB, FBI, FAA, CIA, and even NASA were involved in the investigation of the explosion of flight 800. At first everyone assumed it was a bomb. Jets don’t just spontaneously explode in mid-air. Then eyewitness accounts of a missile strike starting coming in and that became a viable theory (and that is also when the CIA became involved). The FBI interviewed 270 different eyewitnesses, mostly people on Long Island, who had an excellent view of the entire episode from the beach or further inland. There were also eyewitnesses on boats, surfing, and even aboard other airplanes.

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Nocebo Nonsense

by Steven Novella, Aug 20 2012

You have probably had the experience of having a heated conversation with one or more other people and after things calm down and you are comparing notes you find that everyone has a different memory of the conversation that just happened. Of course, you are certain that your memory is the one that’s correct.

Likewise, different people can look at the same set of information and come to radically different interpretations. That’s because we all have narratives inside our head – worldviews and ways in which we model and make sense of the world.  We are very clever and creative at incorporating new information into our existing narratives.

I was reminded of this when reading a recent article by Deepak Chopra on the nocebo effect. Nocebo effects are similar to placebos effect except they are negative – unwanted side effects that are reported from taking inactive placebos. Chopra clearly has a narrative that he is working from, one that is very different from my own. He is steeped in, and in fact is partly the architect of, various “alternative medicine” narratives.

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Conspiracy Thinking

by Steven Novella, Aug 13 2012

I remain fascinated with the mindset of the conspiracy theorist. Partly this is because I think we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside us – deep within our evolved psyche. There is something very compelling and satisfying about believing that you have peeked behind the curtain and seen the true machinations at work in the world. Hardcore conspiracy theorists are mostly regular people who have fallen into a psychological trap, or perhaps they simply have a greater tendency towards the kinds of thinking that leads to belief in conspiracies. Theirs, however, is a difference in magnitude, not kind.

I recently received an e-mail with an innocent question from someone who appears to fall into the former group – a regular guy whose conspiracy sense has been tickled. The e-mailer’s brother, who is a conspiracy theorist by his account, pointed him to this Youtube video – a short clip from an interview with John McCain and Barack Obama during the 2008 election. Take a look at the interview before reading further.

McCain is apparently posturing about the debate schedule between him and Obama (typical political fare for a US election), and refers back to the debate planning between Barry Goldwater and JFK before the “Intervention and the tragedy at Dallas.”  The video would probably pass most people by without a thought, or perhaps just the slightest notice of the word choice by McCain. Calling the assassination of JFK an “intervention” at first seems like an odd word choice. Did he say “the intervention and the tragedy at Dallas,” or “the intervention of the tragedy at Dallas,” – meaning that the tragedy intervened in the course of events? It’s probably the latter. It’s also possible that the wrong word came out, or the intended word did not come to mind (although there does not appear to be any delay or stuttering). Either way, this is a non-event.

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Health Information on the Internet

by Steven Novella, Aug 06 2012

Most Americans have used the internet to look for health information (a recent survey reports that 59% of adults have searched for health information on the net). Yet there are serious concerns about the accuracy and reliability of that information. There have therefore been many studies looking at the accuracy of health information, and not surprisingly the results are concerning.

Most of these studies pick a specific topic and then have one or more experts on that topic review websites obtained through specific search terms. For example, a British study looking at the treatment of fever in children concluded:

Only a few web sites provided complete and accurate information for this common and widely discussed condition. This suggests an urgent need to check public oriented healthcare information on the internet for accuracy, completeness, and consistency.

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