Brain and Behavior

Early in the history of this blog, I had a running gag that I'd use every now and then. Basically, it involved humorously extravagant descriptions of how I wanted to hide my face behind a paper bag in sheer embarrassment at the antics of fellow physicians, particularly fellow surgeons. Over time, the gag evolved to my expressing a mock desire to hide my visage behind a metal Doctor Doom-style mask, again, over sheer embarrassment over the idiocy of my colleagues about a scientific issue, again, usually evolution. Sadly, creationist physicians are a very common source of such embarrassment,…
Earlier this summer, Michael Shermer wrote a column for Scientific American to explain Why Do Cops Kill?. I was rapturously unaware of it because he's an author I long ago decided I could ignore, but just recently a reader had to destroy my state of ecstatic ignorance by pointing it out to me. I read it with growing disbelief, my jaw sagging further and further at the dreadful illogic and the scientismic insipidity of the thing. How does he still get published? To make it short, for those who prefer not to read anything associated with The Shermer, his answer is…it's not racism, it's because…
I previously promised to read Hansen et al., and I finally have - well, at least skimmed. It hasn't really changed my opinions. global CO2 emissions continue to increase... the threat posed by ice sheet instability and sea level rise This is in accord with what I've said before, that the most obviously unambiguously bad physical consequence of GW is SLR (see What I think about global warming from 2010 for the rest, which I don't see any great reason to wish to update). So H focussing on it is understandable; but this leads to a regrettable tendency to need lots of SLR earlier than is…
I don't review books that often. The reason is simple. My posts for this blog sometimes take as much as a several hours to write (particularly my more "epic" ones that surpass 5,000 words), and I usually don't have the time to add several more hours to the task by reading an entire book. Also, by the time I've read a book I might want to review, weeks—or even months—have often passed, and a review is no longer of much interest to our readers anyway. Today, I'm making an exception for a book hot off the presses. The main reason is curiosity, because the book is about a topic that I've blogged…
When I first started writing about the claims made for medical marijuana and the cannabis oil derived from it, it didn't take long for me to characterize medical claims for cannabis as the "new herbalism," as opposed to pharmacognosy, the branch of pharmacology devoted to the study of natural products. The reason is simple. Although I support legalization of marijuana for recreational use, when I look at how medical marijuana has been promoted as a "foot-in-the-door" prelude to legalization, I see testimonials and flimsy evidence ruling over all. I see all the hallmarks of alternative…
I used a cruel headline, but this is actually a useful list: Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases. It's not just the popular media that mangle scientific language, but also more technical works sometimes slip into misleading shorthand. For instance, #1 on their list of bad terms: (1) A gene for. The news media is awash in reports of identifying “genes for” a myriad of phenotypes, including personality traits, mental illnesses, homosexuality, and political attitudes (Sapolsky, 1997).…
It is a mystery no more: A physical model can explain how a bunch of ants are able, with no visible leader (or highly-developed brains, for that matter) to drag that oversized cake crumb or leaf all the way across your floor to their nest. It turns out that there are, indeed, leaders, of a sort. Those ants you see surrounding the prize being hauled are switching places with other ants that have been scouting out the directions to the nest. The new ants then direct the collective movement, at least for a moment or so until they begin to lose their sense of direction and newer ants take over.…
Three weeks ago, I did a post about how prone the antivaccine movement is to conspiracy theories. At that time, one example that I used was the then-very recent death of an autism quack and antivaccinationist (but I repeat myself) who's been big in the "autism biomed" movement for a long time and a regular fixture at autism quackfests like Autism ONE for many years. I'm referring, of course, to Jeff Bradstreet, whose body was found in a river on June 19, dead from a gunshot wound to the chest that appeared to have been self-inflicted. It didn't take long (less than a week) for the antivaccine…
One of the odd things about having been a blogger as long as I have been is that, occasionally, posts that I wrote years ago rise up to bite me long after I've forgotten that I even wrote them. Actually, that's usually not the right way to put it. Blogging is a very short term activity in that most posts are very ephemeral. They're usually (but not always) about something immediate, of the moment. Don't get me wrong. There are quite a few posts that I've written that aren't so ephemeral and could be read now without reference to the events or news that inspired them and be just as good now as…
Josh Harkinson at Mother Jones recently posted an item called "Scores of Scientists Raise Alarm About the Long-Term Health Effects of Cellphones." I like Josh's work, but there are some problems with this article I want to point out, some of which parallel problems in the more general discussion of cell phone safety. Before looking at the Mother Jones piece, here's the bottom line: There is no known mechanism by which cell phone use can lead to cancer (usually, brain cancer is of concern). There have been many studies on this and related issues. They vary in quality and in what they look…
I've been blogging for over a decade now, a fact that I find really hard to believe looking back on it right now. I've told the story before, but it's worth briefly recounting again because doing so will explain why the story I'm about to discuss caught my attention. My "gateway drug," if you will, into skepticism was discovering Holocaust denial in the late 1990s on Usenet, a vast and sprawling conglomeration of thousands of discussion forums that began to fade away at the turn of the century with the rise of web-based forums and Google providing an interface to it to make it Google Groups.…
Whenever I discuss the concept of being "antivaccine" and how almost nobody wants to have the label "antivaccine" applied ot her, it's not uncommon that I hear the whinging retort from antivaccinationists claiming that "I'm not antivaccine; I'm pro-vaccine safety," or some similar claim. Of course, whenever I see antivaccinationists likening vaccination to the Holocaust (and themselves to Jews wearing the Yellow Star of David), rape, and felonious assault, I realize that denials tend merely to help antivaccinationists convince themselves that they don't stand for something that society…
Imagine a world where two guys, graduates of the University of Guelph, a mid-sized university in southern Ontario, are able to parlay a series of funny and cool whiteboard-style science explanation YouTube videos into a global science communication empire. Without even "forgetting" to give credit to science illustrators in the process. Don't imagine too hard, because I think we're almost there. And what is it about Ontario and humourous science communications anyways? Is it something in the water? At least the most recent incarnation seems to be a little clearer on how things should be done.…
I hadn't planned on discussing the death of Jess Ainscough again, figuring two posts in a row were enough for now, barring new information. Besides, I was getting a little tired of the seemingly unending stream of her fans castigating me for being "insensitive" and saying it was "too soon" to discuss her death and wasn't sure I wanted to reawaken that discussion, which is only now finally dying down. This was a young Australian woman who was unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoma at age 22 for which the only known treatment with a reasonable chance of providing her…
“Life is strong and fragile. It's a paradox... It's both things, like quantum physics: It's a particle and a wave at the same time. It all exists all together.” -Joan Jett We've reached the end of yet another week here at Starts With A Bang, which means it's time to take a look back at everything we've covered. It also means it's time for you to catch up on any of the (amazing) articles you missed, which includes: Gravitational waves (for Ask Ethan), The Moon as no one's seen it (for our Weekend Diversion), The edge of the Sun (for Mostly Mute Monday), The tragic fate of physicist Paul…
This week's Realtime with Bill Maher was just about the most perfect example I've seen yet that maybe reality doesn't have a liberal bias. Due to the measles outbreak becoming a hot-button issue, and the realization that his smoldering anti-vaccine denialism would not go over well, our weekly debate host decided to instead unleash all of his other incredibly stupid, unscientific beliefs about medicine. This was astonishing. And because his panel, as usual, is composed largely of political writers and journalists, there was no one to provide a sound scientific counterpoint to the craziness…
It’s a persistent conundrum in the field of public health — how can we open people’s minds to positively receiving and acting on health information? Previous research has found that combining health tips with messages of self-affirmation may be a particularly effective strategy, but researchers weren’t entirely sure how self-affirmation worked at the neurological level. Now, a new study has found that self-affirmation’s effects on a particular region of the brain may be a major key to behavior change. In even simpler terms, researchers involved this new study — which examined how self-…
If you've thought about foster parenting at all, even for a couple of minutes, you probably grasp that someone has to do it. Because the truth is that kids whose parents can't care for them has been a global problem for all of human history. It is a problem that could get better or worse with various interventions, (and I am 100% in favor of any interventions that make my work less necessary), but it is never going away. As I said in my last post, you won't stop being needed just because you aren't there. While you've probably thought broadly that foster parents have to exist, you…
Yesterday, I wrote about false balance in reporting on vaccines in the wake of the Disneyland measles outbreak. For those who've never encountered this blog, what I mean by false balance is when journalists, in a misguided belief that there are "two sides" (i.e., an actual scientific controversy) about the safety of childhood vaccines and whether they cause autism and all the other ills blamed on them by antivaccinationists or not, interview an antivaccine activist, advocate, or sympathizer for "balance" and to "show both sides of the story." The problem with that technique, so deeply…
A paper was recently brought to my attention via a Creationist. It was the usual 'HAHAHA! Oh you silly Creationist! This paper says the opposite of what you think it says!', and I was going to write a blog post along that usual theme. Fazale Rana, 'Vice President' of 'Research and Apologetics' at Reasons to Believe said on Facebook: What happens when the best evidence for biological evolution becomes evidence for intelligent deign? Retroviruses, long thought to be junk DNA, play a role in regulating gene expression in the brain (link to ScienceDaily about the article) The article has some…