Brain and Behavior

I've made no secret of my opinion of Jenny McCarthy. To put it mildly, I don't think that much of her, particularly her flaming stupid when it comes to her promotion of dangerous antivaccine nonsense. To her, vaccines are chock full of "toxins" and all sorts of evil humors that will turn your child autistic in a heartbeat if you let those horrible pediatricians inject them "directly into the bloodstream" and in general "steal" your "real" child away from you the way she thinks vaccines "stole" her son Evan away from her. Indeed, among other "achievements," she's written multiple books about…
In science, there's data, and there's interpretation. It's really easy to collect data (usually), but interpretation is the hard part — it requires an understanding of context and theory, and an appreciation of the real complexity of the problem. It's tempting to simplify all your models — the spherical cow problem — but you also have to justify the reduction in complexity to show that it is reasonable. And that's where some papers blow a hole in their foot. This is particularly a problem when the interpretation of the science is used to argue for policy changes. Here's a paper that's a…
SteelyPalooza came off very well, despite high disaster potential. We were, after all, inviting a dozen five-year-olds plus assorted siblings to our house, on a day when Kate and The Pip were out of commission due to coxsackie virus. Everything went smoothly, though: the kids loved the bouncy-bounce, SteelyKid's playset and playhouse, and the six-person tent we set up out back. They're getting close to an age where they can entertain themselves, so I was even able to enjoy snatches of adult conversation during brief lulls in my hosting duties. This was, however, thoroughly exhausting, so…
Here we go again. The "Holy Grail" (well, a "holy grail") of the antivaccine movement is to have a "vaccinated versus unvaccinated" study performed, or, as it's frequently abbreviated a "vaxed verus unvaxed" study. They believe that such a study will confirm their fixed belief that vaccines are the root of nearly all health issues children suffer today, particularly autism and autism spectrum disorders. In particular, they believe that a "vaxed versus unvaxed" study would demonstrate once and for all that vaccines are the cause of the "autism epidemic." Hilariously, a few years back, the…
You might find this hard to believe, but sometimes I find the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism to be useful. Obviously, I don't find it useful in the same way that its editors think it is useful. Those paragons of the arrogance of ignorance and fetishism of hatred of science-based medicine don't actually teach me anything about vaccines and autism. The torrents of pseudoscience, quackery, conspiracy mongering, and hostility do, however, serve their purpose. They keep my finger on the pulse of the "autism biomed" movement and what the latest "autism biomed" quackery du jour is. It looks…
I previously addressed the criticisms of my criticisms of evolutionary psychology by Jerry Coyne; Now I turn to the criticisms of my criticisms he solicited from Steven Pinker. This is getting a bit convoluted, so let me first state the basics. I dislike evolutionary psychology. Pinker is an advocate for evolutionary psychology. What brought on this back-and-forth was that I was a member of a panel at a science fiction convention that discussed evo psych; I made a few brief comments on my blog that were capsule summaries of my discussion there. In the section below, the paragraphs preceded by…
On July 15 and 16, about two dozen farmworkers paid an unprecedented visit to Capitol Hill to ask Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House to support increased protection from exposure to pesticides. Farmworkers have lobbied Congress before, but this is the first time such a visit focused entirely on pesticide exposure issues, explained Farmworker Justice director of occupational and environmental health, Virginia Ruiz. Farmworkers are asking Congress to support strengthening the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard for pesticides, a regulation that has not been…
I have disturbed and distressed Jerry Coyne, because I have dissed the entire field of evolutionary psychology. I find this very peculiar, because in my field, Jerry Coyne has a reputation for dissing all of evo devo, so it can't possibly be that we're supposed to automatically respect every broad scientific endeavor. There has to be something more to it than just an academic defense of a discipline. And there is, unfortunately. Here's his prelude. I’ve been known for a while as a critic of evolutionary psychology, particularly when it first began as “sociobiology” in the Seventies. At that…
Last year, reported cases of West Nile virus in the United States hit their highest levels in nearly a decade. It's a good reminder to keep protecting yourself from getting bitten, but it also begs the question: Is this just a sign of a much bigger threat? The answer is just as wily as the pesky mosquito. According to recent data published June 28 in CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the federal public health agency received reports of 5,780 nationally notifiable arboviral disease cases in 2012. (Arboviral diseases are those transmitted by arthropods, such as ticks and mosquitoes…
Breasts are interesting. For starters, people interested in behavioral biology make much of the fact that in many species males have elaborated or exaggerated traits. But they seem to ignore that other than size and a bit of redistribution of muscle mass, males in humans don't. Maybe facial hair is an elaborated trait, possibly a deeper voice, but both of these could be argued to be non-elaborated in males and, rather, altered in females. Meanwhile, human females have a whole bunch of elaborated traits. Breasts are among these traits. There is a good explanation for this we may touch on…
A long, long time ago in a ScienceBlogs far, far away (well, it seems that way anyway, given the halcyon times back then before Pepsigate), Mark Hoofnagle coined the term "crank magnetism." It was a fantastic term used to describe how susceptibility to one form of quackery, pseudoscience, or just plain crankery tended to be associated with other forms of quackery, pseudoscience, or crankery. It explains why so many creationists tend to be into quackery and/or antivaccinationism, why so many 9/11 Truthers also tend to flirt with Holocaust denial or anthropogenic global warming denialists go…
I saw Maria Konnikova's Mastermind on the book lottery stacks at Science Online, and the subtitle "How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes" practically screamed "This is relevant to your interests!" Not only am I writing a book about how to think like a scientist, one of the chapters I have in mind uses mystery novels and the reading thereof as an example of scientific thinking. I didn't score a copy of it at Science Online, but I did pick up the ebook shortly thereafter, and have been working through it during baby bedtimes for the last month or so, a process prolonged significantly by having to…
Last week, the Journal of Pediatrics published a study that did a pretty good job of demolishing a favorite antivaccine trope used to frighten parents. In fact, it's one of the most effective of antivaccine tropes, as evidenced by a large number of parents who are generally pro-vaccine expressing doubts when asked about this particular antivaccine slogan. I'm referring, of course, to the "too many too soon" slogan, in which antivaccinationists try to imply that the current vaccine schedule somehow "overwhelms" an infant's immune system and leads to autism by some unknown and undemonstrated…
There are some days when I know what my topic will be—what it must be. These are times in which the universe gives the very appearance of handing to me my topic for the day on the proverbial silver platter with a giant hand descending from the clouds, pointing at it, and saying, "Blog about this, you idiot!" Usually, it's because a study is released or something happens or a quack writes something that cries out for rebuttal. Whatever it is, it's big and it's unavoidable (for me, at least). This is one of those days. The reason it's one of those days is because just last Friday, as I was…
Skeptically Speaking has this: This week. we’re looking at what science has to say about the origins of selfless – and even self-sacrificing – behavior. We’ll speak to biology professor Lee Alan Dugatkin, about his book The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness. And we’ll discuss altruism from a neurological perspective, with Duke University Neuroscientist Steve Chang, whose research in monkeys looks at how their brains process and record helpful inclinations. Get the podcast here.
Over at Lapham's Quarterly, John Jeremiah Sullivan hasan excellent article on the subject of animal consciousness. Here's the opening: These are stimulating times for anyone interested in questions of animal consciousness. On what seems like a monthly basis, scientific teams announce the results of new experiments, adding to a preponderance of evidence that we’ve been underestimating animal minds, even those of us who have rated them fairly highly. New animal behaviors and capacities are observed in the wild, often involving tool use—or at least object manipulation—the very kinds of…
I've been waiting for people to die before I told this story on my blog, but certain people seem to take forever to do that so I'm not waiting any more. Besides, it happened a long time ago. The story I'm telling you happened to me a long time ago (about 1990) and the thing that happened to me really amounted to someone telling me a story, which in turn happened a long time before that (about 1977). There had been some kind of thing, a barbecue, at the home of Scotty MacNeish. If you don't know who Scotty is, you should. He is the archaeologist who discovered and documented the origins of…
Two links today for denialism blog readers, both are pretty thought provoking. The first, from Amy Tuteur, on the newly-released statistics on homebirth in Oregon. It seems that her crusade to have the midwives share their mortality data is justified, as when they were forced to release this data in Oregon, planned homebirth was about 7-10 times more likely to result in neonatal mortality than planned hospital birth. I'm sure Tuteur won't mind me stealing her figure and showing it here (original source of data is Judith Rooks testimony): Oregon homebirth neonatal mortality statistics, from…
Film producer Eric Merola seems to think that there is a conspiracy of skeptics (whom he calls The Skeptics) hell bent on harassing his hero, Brave Maverick Doctor Stanislaw Burzynski. According to his latest film Burzynski: Cancer Is A Serious Business, Part 2 (henceforth referred to as Burzynski II, to distinguish it from Merola's first Burzynski movie, to which I will refer as Burzynski I), there is a shadowy cabal of Skeptics out there just waiting to swoop down on any Burzynski supporter who has the temerity to Tweet support for him, any cancer patient being treated by Burzynski who…
And now for something a bit different. I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of zombies. So, I was intrigued when I started seeing press for Warm Bodies, a book by Isaac Marion about a zombie who is, well, not your typical zombie. Recently released as a feature film, I read the book a few weeks ago, and last weekend took my 13-year-old daughter to see the movie. I enjoyed both (as did my daughter), and asked Isaac if he'd be willing to answer a few questions for the blog. His interview is below (a few spoilers, take note): Tara: Your take on zombies is a bit different than most stories.…