Wednesday, November 25, 2009

... On a Much Less Serious Note...

Not again...

Take a second to read this article. It's good to see someone finaly give a skeptical report of facilitated comunication. FC is a cruel farce that just will not go away. In test after test after test it has been shown that the patient cannot answer simple questions when the facilitator does not know the answers. Show a patient a card with a word and a picture on it and even spell out the word for them and they can re-type the word with the facilitator’s assistance. Then take the facilitator out of the room, when another card is shown and the word spelled. Bring the facilitator back in and the patient cannot spell the word. The only reasonable conclusion here is the most obvious one, the facilitator is just using the patient’s hand like a Ouija board pointer and typing the word herself, not the patient. Since she didn’t see or hear the word she can’t answer the question.

This is a particular thorn in my side because as I’ve said before, my brother-in-law is severely autistic and primarily non-verbal. No single medical breakthrough would trill me more than the ability to sit down with him and have a meaningful conversation. Unfortunately, FC is not that breakthrough. I believe that most facilitators are self-deceived, but some of them know full well it is a scam and are selling parent’s false hope in order to make a buck. It really chaps my hide to see once again some idiot reporter give a totally credulous report of a non-medical breakthrough. An eight year old can look at what is going on here and see right past it, but somehow reporters at MSNBC who call themselves "Dr" are completely taken in.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Lie To Me

So I’m typically well behind the curve when it comes to television I simply don’t watch enough to stay up to date. I typically prefer reading over TV hands down. On the rare occasion that I get some free time that I want to blow in front of the tube I am reminded of the Bruce Springsteen song “57 Channels and Nothing On.” Being so colossally underwhelmed by what I’ve found on TV hasn’t really inspired me to give it much of a second chance.
At my lovely bride’s behest I sat down and watched a couple episodes of Lie To Me. I have always been a fan of the work of Dr. Paul Ekman. I think his analysis of facial expressions and human emotion is absolutely amazing. Years ago I read his book Emotions Revealed. I found the universal nature of human expression to be highly fascinating. I didn’t realize it at the time but the lead character in Lie To Me was deliberately modeled after Ekman. In fact, the entire premise of the show revolves around Ekman’s research.
The characters and story are, of course, fictionalized but I think this is a very effective way to put real science out in front of a popular audience. In the few episodes I’ve seen I’ve found the characters to be very deep and relatable. Without this any story would get boring quickly no matter how accurate the science. I’ve blogged before about how real science is truly marketable and how irritated I get when bad science is used as a lazy excuse to tell a story. I’ve truly been impressed with how this series has stuck to real science to tell their story in a very entertaining way.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Last week I was taking my lunch hour walk and listening to podcasts just like I do every day that the weather will allow. I came across an interesting scene that at first I didn’t know what to make of it. A white car was pulled off to the side of the road and an elderly lady was standing in the sidewalk. A man in overalls was doing something to the front of her car. Parked across the street was a small pickup truck with some appliances and tools in the back. The truck had some minor damage to the rear bumper. The scene was kinda odd. That’s when it hit me what had happened any why I thought it was so abnormal.
From what I could piece together the truck and the elderly lady were at the same light and she rear-ended him as he was turning and she was going straight. Both car had a little bit of damage but the truck driver apparently didn’t think his damage was bad enough to get upset about. On top of that he seemed to have to tools in his truck to help the lady fix her car. He was hammering out the bumper and even had some kind of buffing compound to clean up where the plastic bumper cover had been discoloured.
All too often, we hear on the news and the radio about how this world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket. It was very refreshing to see that human decency and civility can still exist in a situation. All it takes if for cooler heads to prevail and people to treat each other the way they would like to be treated. I hope to see more of these type situations. I will consciously look for opportunities where I can help to create them.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Quote of the Day

"There is no place for dogma in science. The scinetist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any error."
J. Robert Openheimer

Junk Science

I think science is very cool. I’m not talking about technology or any of the applications of what science has discovered. Sure airplanes are cool. MRI machines are cool and on and on, but what I’m talking about is the process of science. I’m fascinated by the fact that human beings have developed a process that we can learn test and get answers to things that we didn’t understand before we started.
I reject the popular concept of scientists as just a bunch of know-it -alls sitting around gloating about everything that they already know. As Tyson said in my post the other day, “If you aren’t at the drawing board every day you aren’t in the game!” Science isn’t the list of facts that we collect it’s the process for learning those facts.
In Junk Science: How Politicians, Corporations, and Other Hucksters Betray Us By Dan Agin Ph. D., Agin shows many of the ways that science gets perverted by politicians, the media, religious leaders and the scientists themselves. The book is very thorough and covers many of the recent popular scientific discoveries and media controversies. Agin gives his take on what real science is behind the discoveries and then explains where and when those involved went from real science to bad science and then to junk science.
He make clear distinctions too. In order for it to be called real science it has to follow all of the rules. It puts away presuppositions, uses strict controls to avoid unintentionally biasing the results, is open and encourages others to duplicate their process and find any mistakes, and many other things. Bad science is frequently just when some of those protocols and procedures get sloppy. If the input gets sloppy the output can no longer be trusted.
Most of the book focused on the last category, junk science. All too frequently people with agendas other than honest discovery use a process that some observers mistake for science. My daughter gets a kick out of these so-called Ghost Hunters who walk around with insterments they don't really know how to use and then when something, anything happens that they don't understand they call it, "something significant". Sometimes these people have financial motives for going to the dark side(Andrew Wakefield and the Anti-vaccination movement) sometimes religious motives (Michael Behe and the Discovery Institiute) and frequently political motives (the Global Warming denialists). But regardless of their motives they all too frequently start with their conclusion and then look for evidence to prove it. This is backwards. With this attitude they are no longer doing science. They are doing junk science.
Again believes as I do that science deserves more respect than it gets in the public perception. I worry that in many ways we are going backwards. We are allowing religion and politics to define and even to trump science. I think that all three can have a place in a civilized society. I have no problem with a civilized debate on how to respond to a scientific discovery. But let’s not corrupt the science or deny it just because it may not be morally or politically what we’d like to do.
Science is just now starting to understand some processes that may have profound impacts on humanity. Stem cell research, for instance. Now I understand many of the ethic and moral concerns that have been raised by those opposing it. I agree that this should be the subject of vigorous debate. But leave the science alone. It stands outside the debate and should not be a part of it. Years ago doctors discovered a link to testosterone and hair loss. Identical twins where one had been castrated and the other had not the intact twin lost his hair and the castrated twin did not. Now is anybody recommending castration as a way to stop hair loss? Not that I’m aware of. You see in that case we had the science and we understood it. But we simply chose not to act upon it for social, political, or ethical reasons. But the science was not corrupted to make the arguments. In my opinion we need to have similar respect for the science behind many of the issues that are happening today. We can’t even begin to have a decent political discussion on global warming because so much effort is being spent on denying the science. The same goes for stem cells and several other top hot button issues. Let’s take the first step and accept the science as valid. Then we can have an honest discussion about how to react to the discoveries or even if we need to react at all.
It took me a while to get through this book, primarily because it is so thorough. I have no criticism at all of his points or his logic. If you’d like to read more on this subject I’d recommend reading Voodoo Science by Robert Park first. It isn’t quite as though but it’s easier to read and covers many of the same themes. Then come back and read Junk Science.

Monday, November 02, 2009


As a father I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the inherent paradox of compelled self-motivation. I want my kids to perform well in all of their pursuits. However I don’t want to have to hound them constantly in order for them to do that. The goal is that doing good and feeling good about their own accomplishments becomes the goal and not just keeping me off of their backs. If the latter is the goal what can they expect if I’m not there to encourage them? Yet if former is the goal they will just be good for goodness sake. The accomplishment remains the goal and not just fear of dad’s reprisals if they don’t accomplish the goal.
I have a problem with being more than a little too introspective. I personalize the problem and try to see where I might have set, or am setting a bad example for them. Not to deflect responsibility from my kids for their grades, however I feel that I may have been setting a bad example for them. Specifically in the area of completing a task and not giving excuses I think I’ve been setting the wrong example.
A few years ago we started a project to remodel the house. It needed an awful lot of work. The largest of the projects was to replace the siding and redo the kitchen cabinets. For the most part we got the tasks completed and they look nice. But we quickly ran out of money and time. The deck is still unfinished. The front of the house could use some shutters. The stairs are still carpeted in spite of the fact that the rest of the house has been replaced with hardwood floors. I still need to fix a new top on some bookcases installed a couple months ago and there are several little picky problems throughout the house, a power outlet that doesn’t work, a dripping faucet, a door handle that falls off, etc. etc.
I have good excuses for most of the problems. We ran out of money. I don’t have the right tool. The weather is too wet, to hot or too cold. I’m too busy this weekend. I don’t have enough room to work. Just to name a few. But these are all just excuses. I’m a hypocrite. I wouldn’t allow my kids to give me a line of excuses to justify their performance in school, scouts, or any of their activities. Yet I have my own litany of reasons and excuses to justify my shortcomings. And to top it off they live in a house that reminds them every day of the many things that I have failed to complete.
I don’t have a reasonable ETA for getting all of these tasks completed but I need to hold myself to the same expectations that I require of the kids. I’ll start with the ones that present a safety concern. Follow those with the ones that cost the least amount of money to remedy and work up to the ones that with take more time and effort. However I’ve put off correcting them for too long and now I fear that it is more than just my house that is suffering.