Article Archive for April 2008

Comic #2 - The Uncanny Valley
By Lave
Posted in syndicated on 30 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Say you are making an artificial life form. As you get closer to ‘human’ your robot eventually enters a region called “The Uncanny Valley” where it suddenly become extremely repulsive. Ben Goldacre recently wrote in his miniblog that the maybe the sam…

Rise of the machines continues in Israel
By Frank the SciencePunk
Posted in syndicated on 30 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have become a staple of modern warfare, so it was only a matter of time before ground vehicles caught up. Although it looks like a stock racer crossed with a hatchback, the Guardium is actually Israel’s first (and the world’s second) autonomous ground attack vehicle.

The robot is designed to replace human [...]

Is Holford Teesside’s Professor of Nutrition?
By jonhw
Posted in syndicated on 30 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Here at HolfordWatch, we are a bit puzzled as to Holford’s position at Teesside: it is no longer clear whether or not he is visiting professor of nutrition at the University. As far was we know, Holford’s appointment was in Teesside’s school of Social Sciences and law. As HolfordMyths notes, Teesside previously told [...]

Next Time, Pray For Forgiveness
By andrew
Posted in syndicated on 29 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

I’ve just read a post about “what prayer is” on Why Don’t You, which was inspired by a post about “prayer in schools” on GodBeGone. Heather sees prayer as “special pleading” to God, which seems pretty reasonable to me. Obviously it depends on what you hope to achieve by the prayer, but many people seem [...]

IANT write terrible response to Cochrane - and block comments
By jdc325
Posted in , syndicated on 29 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

The Irish Association of Nutritional Therapy have written a response to the Cochrane review of antioxidant pills. It’s not very impressive. Holford Watch have posted on it here: IANT and have also attempted to leave a comment (or comments) on the IANT piece. Unfortunately, the IANT appears to be blocking these comments and I haven’t been [...]

Amorth Watch: He’s back because he’s got himself a TV show to help separate possession from psychiatric problems
By Lave
Posted in syndicated on 29 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

The last time Amorth got mentioned in Skeptobot was way back in August 2006, and then he fell off the radar. So to pop up again a year and a half later he’s got to be up to something, and indeed he is. Obviously most news reports about him are in Itali…

Dear Terence Kealey, About Natural v. Synthetic Vitamins
By dvnutrix
Posted in , syndicated on 28 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Vice-Chancellor Terence Kealey has some general comments about the short-comings of peer-review and some surprising criticisms of science. Fortunately, his perspective is placed into a useful context when he attacks the Cochrane Review using sadly familiar bogus arguments.

Neal’s Yard Ethical Bullshit Remedy
By Le Canard Noir
Posted in syndicated on 28 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off
Death by Caffeine
By Frank the SciencePunk
Posted in syndicated on 28 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Alfredo Duran hit the news for the first and the last time recently, as the 40 year old shift worker died of heart failure exacerbated by his four-can-a-day Red Bull habit. This gave me pause to reflect upon my own energy drink habit, currently standing at a can of Relentless each workday - primarily [...]

Homeopath says it’s patients fault they are ill
By gimpy
Posted in , syndicated on 28 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Homeopaths like to present themselves as a caring profession with their talk of holistic medicine and treating the person not the disease. One might also be inclined to think that they themselves are of sensitive disposition as their innocent bleatings grow ever louder as their ideas come under attack. Indeed I have often [...]

Neal’s Yard Ethical Bullshit Remedy
By Le Canard Noir
Posted in , syndicated on 28 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Neal’s Yard Remedies has announced that it is withdrawing is Malaria CO 30C homeopathic remedy from sale. This is the absolute minimum it could have done given that its Exeter Branch was recently caught out by the BBC South West programme Inside Out selling this remedy as protection against malaria. (I wrote about this staggering event recently.)

What reason do Neal’s Yard give? Let’s look at

DCA and the UK
By coracle
Posted in syndicated on 28 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

The Pope’s Exorcist Amorth is back on the case of the literal devil
By Lave
Posted in syndicated on 28 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Skeptobot is a long time fan of Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s Chief Exorcist. Because he’s insane. He thinks that Hitler was possessed by the Devil and that possessed people have superhuman strength and can levitate. So I guess he thinks Hitle…

Miscellanea: It’s Like The Dark Ages Again
By Grey
Posted in syndicated on 28 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off
Many-handed clock spells out the time
By Frank the SciencePunk
Posted in syndicated on 27 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Reading the time just got easier thanks to this ingenious timepiece. Industrial designer Christiaan Postma used over 150 clockpieces to build a single clock whose hands spell out the hours throughout the day. I’m always on the lookout for novel ways of displaying the time (I’m a sucker for binary watches), and [...]

Where do they get the time? Gin and Sitcoms in units of Wikipedia.
By Lave
Posted in syndicated on 27 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Gin carts kept society ticking over when the industrial revolution brought people in from the fields and gave them lots of free time in the company of others. It was a hole to dump the excess social time that society wasn’t complex enough to consume. W…

Patrick Holford and His Conspiracy Theories in The Times
By menefreghismo
Posted in , syndicated on 27 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Professor Patrick Holford and his criticism of the Cochrane Review of antioxidant supplements and mortality is mentioned in The Times: apparently, “the Cochrane review is part of a conspiracy by the medical establishment to undermine the advance of the nutritional route to better health”. The University of Teesside must be so proud.

Looking for Hosts for Molecular and Cell Biology Carnival
By dvnutrix
Posted in syndicated on 27 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Call for future hosts of the Molecular and Cell Biology Carnival.

Inconsistent with health and healing
By What the hell is this?
Posted in syndicated on 27 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

BPSDBIn his editorial introducing Lionel Milgrom’s latest paper, “A New Geometrical Description of Entanglement and the Curative Homeopathic Process” [1], Alex Hankey (“Self-Consistent Theories of Health and Healing” [2]) can’t even spell homeopathy: he cites Simon Baker’s letter to eCAM (in response to “Journeys in the country of the blind” [3]) as “Re: Homeoathy and hubris”. There’s also a citation to a letter written by someone called “Chrastana”. (This is after Lionel Milgrom got confused between Simon Gates and Simon Baker and ended up replying to Simon Bates.) There’s clearly little hope for any sort of scientific or technical accuracy when basic proof-reading is clearly beyond both Hankey and the staff of J. Alt. Complement. Med in which this is published.

It doesn’t take long for Hankey to have a dig at so-called “scientific conservatives” as if the ones who are desperately trying to dig a 200-year-old quasi-mystical idea out of the deep grave marked “contradictory to all of current modern physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine” are the innovators, not the scientists who have shown why we need to leave Hahnemann’s ideas behind. To summarize: the past couple of hundred years have seen the development of the germ theory of disease, the discovery of viruses, the development of genetics, the discovery of DNA and of its structure and the birth of molecular biology generally, the development of atomic theory and the arrangement of elements into the Periodic table, and the formulation of quantum mechanics and special and general relativity. All of these things are very well confirmed by experimental evidence and most of them contradict the principles of homeopathy. The germ theory of disease contradicts those who still believe in miasmas, molecular biology basically contradicts all that stuff about the Vital Force, and atomic theory explains that the kind of dilutions frequently used by homeopaths contain nothing of the supposedly active ingredient (as if containing a tiny amount of it would really make any difference anyway). But sadly, quantum mechanics, if understood poorly enough, seems to give the homeopaths hope that they haven’t actually been wasting their lives. In the final insult they then claim that it’s the rest of us who are stuck in an old paradigm. When Philippe Leick said that [4]

“the claim that dilutions beyond Avogadro’s limit can have any specific effect linked to the properties of the original substance… if
solved to the satisfaction of the adherents of homeopathy, probably will revolutionize physics.”

he was pointing out just how much we’d have to throw away if it were true (which it isn’t).

One thing which has come out of quantum theory of the solid-state is the transistor, and therefore the computer, without which none of this would be happening. David Chalmers and Roger Penrose are invoked by Hankey to explain what’s wrong with modern science, in that it apparently doesn’t have a theory of consciousness.

Now the only Penrose I’ve read is the The Road to Reality [5], so I’ve mainly bypassed all that quantum-gravity–consciousness [6] nonsense [7,8]. (In The Road to Reality Penrose complains that string theory [9] is useless because so far it’s only been able to create the graviton, and then tries to explain his twistor theory, which he’s been working on for 40 years, and which has so far only been able to create half a graviton. But he’s an extremely clever mathematical physicist even if I think he’s wrong about a couple of things. His insights into thermodynamics and entropy are interesting [10,11].)

But when it comes to the philosopher David Chalmers, Hankey cites “Facing up to the problem of consciousness” [12] which is a bit shorter than Penrose’s and is dealt with in another post, in which I try to argue that Chalmers’ dismissal of Penrose’s “nonalgorithmic processing” knackers Hankey’s “putting together” of Penrose and Chalmers. Chalmers has already considered Penrose’s ideas, and even if they were right (which I for one am not sure about) they aren’t what he was looking for. He isn’t particularly interested in general quantum mechanics either, which further knackers what Hankey is trying to suggest (and probably what Milgrom is trying to suggest, or at least what Hankey is trying to suggest about it). Chalmers also basically knackers all of homeopathy and frankly quite a lot of CAM by dismissing vitalism.

Hankey says that “creative thinkers… recognise such laws as necessary bases from which to depart…” and in doing so misses the point that you have to understand a rule completely in order to know its limitations (these guys only think they understand the rules based on some
popularizations) and the Dalai Lama quote about “The most important rule is to know how to break the rules” was probably about politics rather than science, in which the rules really can be broken because they are made up and imposed by humans rather than being discovered facts about the universe. Every research scientist, meanwhile, is trying to test, extend, and validate whatever laws have so far been discovered in whatever field he or she happens to be working in (and maybe even helping to discover new laws). It’s what we do all day.

It’s interesting how Hankey and those like him immediately react to criticism by complaining about the attitude of the complainants rather than by pointing to evidence for their positions: it’s becauese they lack the tools to deal with criticism, what without having any actual evidence. He just has philosophy and mysticism, understood at the same superficial level as he understands quantum physics.

In the end Hankey sees all of Milgrom’s work as having “striking confermation” because of the shape he makes up at the end is bit similar to another shape Hankey can think of. Analysis of Milgrom’s work will have to wait until another day - until then you can make do with “mere chemistry”.

References

  1.  L. R. Milgrom, J. Alt. Comp. Med. 14, 329 (2008).
  2.  A. Hankey, J. Alt. Comp. Med. 14, 221 (2008).
  3.  L. R. Milgrom, Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 4, 7 (2007).
  4.  P. Leick, Homeopathy 97,
    50 (2008)
    .
  5.  R. Penrose, The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe (Jonathan Cape, 2004).
  6.  
    S. Hagan, S. R. Hameroff, and J. A. Tuszyński, Phys. Rev. E 65, 061901 (2002)
    .
  7.  
    M. Tegmark, Phys. Rev. E 61, 4194 (2000)
    .
  8.  H. M. Wiseman and J. Eisert, arXiv.org e-Print archive physics, arXiv:0705.1232v2 (2007).
  9.  B. Greene, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory (Vintage, 2005).
  10.  R. Penrose, J. Stat. Phys. 77, 217
    (1994)
    .
  11.  J. Bricmont, Physicalia Magazine 17, 159 (1995).
  12.  D. J. Chalmers, J. Conciousness Studies 2, 200 (1995).

free hit counter javascript


This document was translated from LATEX by
HEVEA.

Consciousness… consciousness of other people… consciousness of beer… unconsciousness…
By What the hell is this?
Posted in syndicated on 27 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

In his editorial introducing Lionel Milgrom’s latest paper, “A New Geometrical Description of Entanglement and the Curative Homeopathic Process” [1], Alex Hankey cites “Facing up to the problem of consciousness” [2] by philosopher David Chalmers, which merits a blog post of its own. Hankey’s editorial itself is dealt with in the post entitled Inconsistent with health and healing.


Consciousness… consciousness of other people… consciousness of beer… unconsciousness…

BPR3Chalmers distinguishes the ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ problems related to explanations of consciousness. The easy problems relate to the explanation of what he redefines as awareness;

  • the ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli;
  • the integration of information by a cognitive system;
  • the reportability of mental states;
  • the ability of a system to access its own internal states;
  • the focus of attention;
  • the deliberate control of behavior;
  • the difference between wakefulness and sleep.

whereas the hard problem is that of explaining experience:

“When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.”

Chalmers maintains therefore that what is required to explain experience is something which does not fit into or arise out of cognitive science and neuroscience,

“These methods have been developed precisely to explain the performance of cognitive functions, and they do a good job of it. But as these methods stand, they are only equipped to explain the performance of functions. When it comes to the hard problem, the standard approach has nothing to say.”

and even some sort of quantum mechanical effect or Penrose’s “nonalgorithmic processing” can’t be the missing ingredient, because these are physical effects which should already be covered by the time that cognitive science and neuroscience have done their stuff. Chalmers still wants to know why any such purely physical process should give rise to experience - “Experience may arise from the physical, but it is not entailed by the physical… When it comes to a problem over and above the explanation of structures and functions, [reductive] methods are impotent.” He then goes on to explain that he’s not being vitalist, but he admits that his position, in which he wants to “take experience itself as a fundamental feature of the world, alongside mass, charge, and space-time,” qualifies as a variety of dualism. He maintains though that it is an “innocent version of dualism… nothing in the approach contradicts anything in physical theory.” Well he says that, but he can’t know that without knowing something that nobody else does about cognitive science and neuroscience, or making his idea so nebulous that its connection to reality can be wherever it’s easiest to hide. The fact that this idea’s “overall shape is like that of a physical theory” is useless if he’s already decided that there’s nothing physical about it. (Incidentally, he mentions Maxwell’s introduction of electromagnetics as “new fundamental components of a physical theory” in addition to the wholly mechanical processes that previous physical theories appealed to” but it’s important to remember that electromagnetics led to special relativity [3] (and from there to general relativity) which changed mechanics quite a lot, so it’s not necessarily safe to go adding new fundamental entities without expecting anything else in the rest of physics to have to change. Anyway, mass and charge are fundamental because they are conserved quantities (once we realize that energy has mass [4]) and conservation laws relate to symmetry; it’s hard to argue that “experience” is a conserved quantity.)

But finally we get to the three principles which Chalmers thinks might go into a theory of consciousness:

  1. Structural coherence
  2. Organizational invariance
  3. The double-aspect theory of information

The first two of these are described by Chalmers as nonbasic principles but he considers the third and final one to be his “candidate for a basic principle that might form the cornerstone of a fundamental theory of consciousness.”

Structural coherence
“Any information that is consciously experienced will also be cognitively represented.” No argument there: put someone in an fMRI machine or PET scanner and watch the correlations between what they report and what’s going on in their brain. You have a cortical map of your body, and other parts of the cortex map visual or auditory fields.
Organizational invariance
“Any two systems with the same fine-grained functional organization will have qualitatively identical experiences.” The thought experiment here is to consider two conscious systems which have the same structure but are built from different components, and imagine that they might have different experiences, and then imagine progressing piece by piece from one to the other. The experience should surely need to change as we went from one system to another, but Chalmer decides this has to happen suddenly at one step in the progression rather than smoothly across the whole range; is there any real reason for that, or is it just that he is thinking in terms of mutually exclusive experiences of the same external phenomenon? One system might see red and have the experience of red, and another might see red and have the experience of blue, but is there one in the middle which would have the experience of grey or purple? This is the sort of question which reminds me why I have little patience for philosophy. It’s the sort of thing students discuss in pubs. Maybe we could sort it out in this case by examining the visual cortex, but then we’d probably be back to “awareness” rather than “experience”.
The double-aspect theory of information

Shannon [5] introduced the concept of information entropy to quantify the information content of a message. You can actually get an idea of the entropy of a Word document or something by seeing how much you can compress it with winzip (OpenOffice documents are already compressed). Documents which compress a lot contain a lot of repeated information* and have a low entropy, whereas a truly random string of bits is incompressible and has high entropy. But information entropy doesn’t say anything about meaning: that seemingly random string of bits might turn out to be an OpenOffice document, once you’ve installed the software on your computer which allows it to make sense of it and translate it into text on the screen… and then it might turn out to be in a language which you don’t understand, until you learn that language and then you have the mental software to translate the text into mentalese [6]. It’s fine to represent information as if it lived in its own information space, because on a certain level that string of bits and the pattern of lights on the screen have the same information content even if they have completely different physical forms, but it doesn’t give the information space any physical reality. You always find that the information is encoded in some physical medium, whether it be magnetic domains on a hard disk, charges on the gates of transistors, the orientations of liquid crystal molecules, or firing patterns of neurons. In some sense it’s the same information, but it relies on either the computer or the human having the right software in order to get the meaning out. How that translation into mentalese [6] leads to “experience” of that information isn’t at all obvious. It still seems like “awareness” to me. What’s fundamental about information? It’s just an arrangement of something which isn’t quite as random as it could be.

(* - recently I had to make some posters in PowerPoint and I noticed that even simple edits caused the file size to increase significantly, but I discovered by accident that using “Save as” instead of “Save” cause the filesize to decrease back to its original value, even if you didn’t actually change the filename or anything.)

So what we are left with probably isn’t as exciting as Hankey seems to make out.

References

  1.  L. R. Milgrom, J. Alt. Comp. Med. 14, 329 (2008).
  2.  D. J. Chalmers, J. Conciousness Studies 2, 200 (1995).
  3.  A. Einstein, Annalen der Physik 17, 891 (1905a).
  4.  A. Einstein, Annalen der Physik 18, 639 (1905b).
  5.  C. E. Shannon, Bell System Tech. J. 27, 379 (1948).
  6.  S. Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Windows into Human Nature (Allen Lane, 2007).

free hit counter javascript


This document was translated from LATEX by
HEVEA.

The last rites for ‘alternative’ nutritional therapy?
By jonhw
Posted in , , syndicated on 26 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

In yesterday’s Telegraph, Damian Thomson asks whether we’re seeing “The last rites for alternative medicine?” For Thomson
CAM’s [Complementary and Alternative Medicine's] real problem…is shortage of proof. The information technology brilliantly exploited by unorthodox therapies is now being harnessed to spread the inconvenient truth that most of them don’t work. Sceptics in the blogosphere [...]

Paying the statin piper redux
By coracle
Posted in syndicated on 26 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Irish Association of Nutritional Therapy: Giving the Facts About the Cochrane Review of Antioxidant Supplements
By dvnutrix
Posted in , , syndicated on 26 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

You may remember that Miriam Barry of the Irish Association of Nutritional Therapy (IANT) offers a Response to the recent media coverage regarding antioxidants. She opens her response with these words:
As nutritional therapists we feel compelled to give the public the facts of this case. Please click here to inform yourself of the facts regarding [...]

Homeopathy and the Absence of Evidence
By apgaylard
Posted in , syndicated on 26 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Dr Damien Downing, the ‘Medical’ Director for the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH), criticises Ernst for being a bad scientist, then blatantly distorts the evidence for homeopathy contained in the homeopathy evidence section of “The National Library for Health” database and wildly misunderstands the meta-analysis performed by Shang et al (2005).

The deceptive lies by deliberate misinterpretation of science by the CAM community
By gimpy
Posted in syndicated on 26 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Via the ever hilarious Zeus mailout I have come across this article from the What Doctors Don’t Tell You site (WDDTY):
It was news when it was first revealed three years ago – and it was news again last week: antioxidant vitamins can speed up the development of cancer. But the researcher who first published [...]

“Manufacturing Doubt”: Sir Cliff Richard weighs in on the Cochrane review.
By Ben Goldacre
Posted in , syndicated on 25 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian,
Saturday April 26 2008
And so our ongoing project to learn about evidence through nonsense enters its sixth improbable year. This week, the assembled celebrity community and vitamin pill industry will walk us through the pitfalls of reading through a systematic review and meta-analysis from the Cochrane Collaboration, an international not for profit organisation [...]

Nutritionistas
By jdc325
Posted in , , , syndicated on 25 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

Possibly the highest-profile nutritionista in the UK is Patrick Holford. Patrick has featured on many sites, including the Quackometer blog. The Bad Science blog has often featured Holford and he also appears on Damian Thompson’s Counterknowledge blog. Holford has written several books on nutrition - most notably the Optimum Nutrition Bible and Optimum Nutrition for the Mind, [...]

Patrick Holford Frames His Comments on the Cochrane Review of Antioxidant Supplements
By menefreghismo
Posted in , syndicated on 25 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

The nation recently had many opportunities to listen to Professor Patrick Holford of the University of Teesside and Head of Science and Education at Biocare. Holford was engaged in a manufactroversy about the Cochrane Antioxidant supplements for prevention of mortality in healthy participants and patients with various diseases (review). In several of the interviews he framed himself [...]

The Next Superfood Nonsense
By jaycueaitch
Posted in syndicated on 24 April 2008
Stats: and Comments Off

I confidently predict that the newspaper health and living sections will be pushing the aronia berry as the next “superfood”.
Press releases are going out referring to work allegedly done by a “Professor McGregor, Head of Medical Science at Pascoe”. No references are provided, nor can this rersearch be found via Google. Googling Pascoe Aronia (of [...]