Archive for the ‘Scientific’ Category

Bad science: Whales, breast cancer, and autism

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

Science is the sacred cow of our age (if indeed there are any left), so any attack on the
output of the scientific enterprise may be taken as an affront by practitioners of the art.
Our concern, however, is not with the occasional forgivable accident or error, the
inevitable consequence of research being conducted by fallible people. Rather, bad
science is often deliberate. And in such cases it is usually allied with a non-scientific
cause, the force of which then results in bad science displacing the good. The normal
correcting and validating function of the multi-faceted scientific enterprise
cannot do its work. (more…)

Sense and Nonsense on Autism: Beyond Genetics

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

Sense and Nonsense about Autism: Beyond Genetics
beach “Autism is currently, in our view, the most important and the fastest-evolving disorder in all of medical science and promises to remain so for the foreseeable future.” —-Dr. Jeffrey A. Lieberman, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Columbia University’s school of medicine.

A few months back David Kirby (author of the book “Evidence of Harm”) interviewed Katy Wright about her autistic child Christian, and more specifically the recovery that he was beginning to make with biomedical treatments that have been developed over the years by the MDs and Ph.D.s involved with the organization Defeat Autism Now (DAN). (

Katy makes no bones about what she believes happened to her son: “I believe that Christian’s regression and subsequent autism was the result of receiving six vaccines during one office visit at two months of age,” she wrote. “He screamed for twelve hours and had a 104 degree fever nearly the entire time. His vaccines contained thimerosal,” the mercury-based preservative. “It is devastating,” she added, “because so much of this is preventable.” (more…)

Another Inconvenient Truth

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

Plant Truth ComicJonathan Chait, a senior editor at the New Republic, reports that when the National Journal asked Republican senators and members of the House last year “…whether it’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the earth is warming because of man-made problems,” only some 23% said yes. Since that time there has been a further strengthening of the scientific evidence, and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a study signed by 2000 scientists to the effect that the likelihood of man-induced global warming now lay at the 90% level. When a similar question was asked of the Congressmen this year, the percentage assenting had surprisingly dropped to only 13%.

This depressing development should be a cautionary tale for those who believe that the acceptance of neurofeedback is just going to be a matter of putting forward better and larger scientific studies. This might just possibly be true in an environment where entrenched interests are not involved. But when real economic interests or basic belief systems are threatened, the skills of scientists in making evidence disappear or look unconvincing are brought into play. Moreover, even if the scientists are of one mind, as they are on the matter of global warming, yet other interests can still manage to confuse the picture. (more…)

That Fish You Caught Was in Pain

Thursday, October 12th, 2006

Boy with FishThis week we were treated to the news that in addition to his other exotic and high-living habits, the esteemed leader of North Korea likes his sashimi cut from living fish. And this week also the topic of whether fish feel pain graced our newspaper. Elizabeth Braithwaite, a behavioral biologist at Edinburgh University, wondered why that question had not arisen before now. Perhaps anglers really don’t want to know. I thought it was because the question had already been answered.

Braithwaite points out that fish have the same architecture for nociception that we do: A-delta and c-fibers. It would be remarkable indeed if fish so equipped did not have the rest of the alarm system we call pain also in the repertoire of their nervous system. Indeed, fish react aversively under noxious stimuli, just as one would expect. And if they are then given pain-killing medication, they respond to that in the expected fashion as well. (more…)

The Reality and the Promise

Thursday, September 21st, 2006

The entire research agenda for stem cells is at this moment still based on a promise and an expectation for a big payoff downstream, on some uncertain timescale. There is nothing wrong with that. No one is putting conceptual barriers in the way with the argument that there is insufficient experimental support to go forward. Even the recent major research scandal in South Korea did not nick the halo of stem cell research. This work quite simply has the benefit of belief on the part of the scientific community.

Consider now the comparable state of affairs in neurofeedback. Here we are variously told that the data are insufficient to support our claims. But implicitly we are also being told that neurofeedback is insufficiently promising to be worth pursuing in research. That is the real message. But to be interested in neurofeedback research going forward, you would not actually have to have any data at all. You would simply need an intriguing hypothesis, just as in the case of stem cells. All you would need is the hypothesis that brain function could actually be influenced by means of operant conditioning techniques, for which the implications are so huge that it mandates investigation. (more…)

The Case for Decency

Thursday, July 6th, 2006

An article in the current issue of “The New York Review of Books” by John Gray carries the above title as it surveys the intellectual legacy left by Isaiah Berlin, who died in 1997. Berlin was shaped by the major totalitarianisms of the twentieth century, and he was also shaped by a Russian liberalism that was skeptical of any monolithic system of values or claims of universal truth. Perhaps it takes an outsider to see so clearly how deeply imbedded in Western thought is the ideal of an ultimate harmony of a core set of values, rationally arrived at, to guide human affairs. The existence of such an ideal is almost a given, an assumption needing no further defense or verification. Our society’s contentious values debates are but imperfections and diversions on the pathway toward greater ultimate harmony.

The origins of this notion go back to the Enlightenment and the power of rationality that was its guiding light. It was believed that a society could be achieved in which all of the truly important values could be realized. For a rationally based set of values that had to be the case, in that a rational universe must be a harmonious whole. This utopian ideal of social harmony also drew its support from theology, in that God cannot embody internal contradictions. Both sides in the US civil war may have prayed fervently to the same God, but God himself cannot have been of two minds. (more…)


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