controversy

Strawberries for the teeth: nettles and rainwater: oatmeal they say steeped in buttermilk.

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“Most people are simply not designed to eat pasta:” evolutionary explanations for obesity in the low-carbohydrate diet movement

Low-carbohydrate diets, notably the Atkins Diet, were particularly popular in Britain and North America in the late 1990s and early 2000s. On the basis of a discourse analysis of bestselling low-carbohydrate diet books, I examine and critique genetic and evolutionary explanations for obesity and diabetes as they feature in the low-carbohydrate literature. Low-carbohydrate diet books present two distinct neo-Darwinian explanations of health and body-weight. First, evolutionary nutrition is based on the premise that the human body has adapted to function best on the diet eaten in the Paleolithic era. Second, the thrifty gene theory suggests that feast-or-famine conditions during human evolutionary development naturally selected for people who could store excess energy as body fat for later use. However, the historical narratives and scientific arguments presented in the low-carbohydrate literature are beset with generalisations, inconsistencies and errors.

{ SAGE | Continue reading }

related { Habit makes bad food too easy to swallow }

Known as ‘Ocean of Wisdom’ and ‘Buddha of Compassion’

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Genes determine 50 percent of the likelihood that you will vote. Half of your altruism. One-quarter of your financial decisions. How do we know? Twin studies.

Researchers compare some behavior or trait in a set of pairs of monozygotic (identical) twins and a set of pairs of dizygotic (fraternal) twins. In theory, the siblings in each pair have been raised in the same way—i.e., they have “nurture” in common. But their “natures” might be different: Identical twins come from the same sperm and egg and are assumed to share their entire genomes; fraternal twins match up at only about half their genes. So if the pairs of monozygotic twins tend to share a trait more often than the pairs of dizygotic twins—be it the likelihood they will vote, a tendency toward altruism, or a strategy for managing their financial portfolios—the difference can be chalked up to genetics.

Some call this approach beautiful in its simplicity, but critics say it’s crude, potentially misleading, and based on an antiquated view of genetics. The implications of the studies are also just a little bit dangerous, because they suggest, for example, that some people just aren’t cut out for being nice to one another.

The idea of using twins to study the heritability of traits was the brainchild of the 19th-century British intellectual Sir Francis Galton. He’s not exactly the progenitor you might want for your scientific methods. Galton coined the term “eugenics” and was the inspiration for the push to manipulate human evolution through selective breeding. The movement eventually gave us forced sterilization and the most offensive passage in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court (and that’s really saying something): “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (…)

Twin studies rest on two fundamental assumptions: 1) Monozygotic twins are genetically identical, and 2) the world treats monozygotic and dizygotic twins equivalently (the so-called “equal environments assumption”). The first is demonstrably and absolutely untrue, while the second has never been proven. (…)

Twin studies also rely on the false assumption that genetics are constant throughout one’s lifetime. Mutations and environmental factors cause measurable changes to the genome as life progresses. Charney cites the example of exercise, which can accelerate the formation of new neurons and potentially increase genetic variation among individual brain cells. By the time a pair of twins reaches middle age, it’s very difficult to make any assumptions whatsoever about the similarity of their genes.

{ Slate | Continue reading }

Well my baby’s so fine, even her car looks good from behind

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Intuition is one of those iffy concepts. Its purpose, use, and ontology have been heavily debated in its long and contentious history. Western proverbial jargon illustrates this: we’ve been told that he who hesitates is lost, but shouldn’t we look before we leap? And believe that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but don’t the clothes make the man?

Now, psychology is weighing in. However, in place of armchair-rationality, it is using empirical data to illustrate how we actually behave. With concrete data, it seems like the intuition debate could finally be put to rest. But the opposite has occurred. Psychology has shown both the powers and perils of intuition only to complicate matters. (…)

First, there is a question about perception: How much do we see? (…)

Second, there is a question about judgment and decision-making: Should I go with my gut? Or think things through?

{ Why We Reason | Continue reading }

oil on canvas { Ingres, Comtesse d’Haussonville, 1845 }

Travis Bickle: Now I see this clearly. My whole life is pointed in one direction.

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Burundanga is a scary drug. (…) The scale of the problem in Latin America is not known, but a recent survey of emergency hospital admissions in Bogotá, Colombia, found that around 70 per cent of patients drugged with burundanga had also been robbed, and around three per cent sexually assaulted. “The most common symptoms are confusion and amnesia,” says Juliana Gomez, a Colombian psychiatrist. (…)

News reports allude to another, more sinister, effect: that the drug removes free will, effectively turning victims into suggestible human puppets. Although not fully understood by neuroscience, free will is seen as a highly complex neurological ability and one of the most cherished of human characteristics.

{ Wired UK | Continue reading }

Neuroscientists 
increasingly describe our behaviour as the result of a chain of
cause-and-effect, in which one physical brain state or pattern of
neural activity inexorably leads to the next, culminating in a
particular action or decision. With little space for free choice in
this chain of causation, the conscious, deliberating self seems to
be a fiction. From this perspective, all the real action is
occurring at the level of synapses and neurotransmitters.

For now most of us are content to believe that we have control over
our own lives, but what would happen if we lost our faith in free
will?

{ Susan Sayler | Continue reading }

oil on canvas { Aron Wiesenfeld, The Wedding Party }

I was born in North Dakota a long time ago, see. And now I’m lucky enough to be here with you.

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Dr Bryan Caplan, an academic and economist from George Mason University in Virginia, believes parents are working far too hard at bringing up their children. (…)

“Quit fretting over how much TV your kids watch. Don’t force them to do a million activities they hate. Accept that your children’s lives are shaped mostly by their genes and their own choices, not by the sacrifices you make in hopes of turning them into successful adults.”

Caplan points to scientific evidence to support the idea of “serenity parenting.” Research on twins and on adopted children shows, he says, that parents’ long-term effects range from small to zero for a wide range of outcomes such as health and success. (…)

Research also shows that a child’s intelligence can be increased by parental interaction when they are very young, but by the time the child reaches 12 the effect has disappeared.

{ Guardian | Continue reading | More: Bryan Caplan on Parenting | EconTalk | Audio + Transcript }

You murdered the future. That’s negative, Cam. Defeatist. Disappoints me to hear you talk that way.

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If there’s one topic likely to generate spit-flecked ire, it is the controversy over the potential health threat posed by cell phone signals.

That debate is likely to flare following the publication today of some new ideas on this topic from Bill Bruno, a theoretical biologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The big question is whether signals from cell phones or cell phone towers can damage biological tissue.

On the one hand, there is a substantial body of evidence in which cell phone signals have supposedly influenced human health and behavior. The list of symptoms includes depression, sleep loss, changes in brain metabolism, headaches and so on.

On the other hand, there is a substantial body of epidemiological evidence that finds no connection between adverse health effects and cell phone exposure.

What’s more, physicists point out that the radiation emitted by cell phones cannot damage biological tissue because microwave photons do not have enough energy to break chemical bonds.

The absence of a mechanism that can do damage means that microwave photons must be safe, they say.

That’s been a powerful argument. Until now.

Today, Bruno points out that there is another way in which photons could damage biological tissue, which has not yet been accounted for.

He argues that the traditional argument only applies when the number of photons is less than one in a volume of space equivalent to a cubic wavelength.

When the density of photons is higher than this, other effects can come into play because photons can interfere constructively.

{ The Physics arXiv Blog | Continue reading }

photo { George Tice }

‘For it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.’ –Parmenides

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With the steep decline in populations of many animal species, scientists have warned that Earth is on the brink of a mass extinction like those that have occurred just five times during the past 540 million years.

Each of these “Big Five” saw three-quarters or more of all animal species go extinct. (…)

Biologists estimate that within the past 500 years, at least 80 mammal species have gone extinct–from a starting total of 5,570 species. The team’s estimate for the average extinction rate for mammals is less than two extinctions every million years, far lower than the current extinction rate for mammals. (…)

If currently threatened species–those officially classed as critically endangered, endangered, and vulnerable–actually went extinct, and that rate of extinction continued, the sixth mass extinction could arrive in as little as 3 to 22 centuries.

{ EurekAlert | Continue reading }

It has been estimated that the earth alone could accommodate twenty million times its present population, living at 120 per square meter in a 2000-story building covering the entire earth. It would take us 890 years, at our present rate of growth, to get to that point.

{ via EconLib | Continue reading }

painting { Eric Thor Sandberg }

The highest endeavour of the mind is to understand things by the third kind of knowledge.

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It’s about Professor Daryl Bem and his cheerful case for ESP.

According to “Feeling the Future,” a peer-reviewed paper the APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology will publish this month, Bem has found evidence supporting the existence of precognition. (…)

Responses to Bem’s paper by the scientific community have ranged from arch disdain to frothing rejection. And in a rebuttal—which, uncommonly, is being published in the same issue of JPSP as Bem’s article—another scientist suggests that not only is this study seriously flawed, but it also foregrounds a crisis in psychology itself. (…)

Over seven years, Bem measured what he considers statistically significant results in eight of his nine studies. In the experiment I tried, the average hit rate among 100 Cornell undergraduates for erotic photos was 53.1 percent. (Neutral photos showed no effect.) That doesn’t seem like much, but as Bem points out, it’s about the same as the house’s advantage in roulette. (…)

“It shouldn’t be difficult to do one proper experiment and not nine crappy experiments,” the University of Amsterdam’s Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, co-author of the rebuttal, says. (…)

Before PSI, Bem made his biggest splash in the nonacademic world with a politically incorrect but weirdly compelling theory of sexual orientation. In 1996, he published “Exotic Becomes Erotic” in Psychological Review, arguing that neither gays nor straights are “born that way”—they’re born a certain way, and that’s what eventually determines their sexual preference.

“I think what the genes code for is not sexual orientation but rather a type of personality,” he explains. According to the EBE theory, if your genes make you a traditionally “male” little boy, a lover of sports and sticks, you’ll fit in with other boys, so what will be exotic to you—and, eventually, erotic—are females. On the other hand, if you’re sensitive, flamboyant, performative, you’ll be alienated from other boys, so you’ll gravitate sexually toward your exotic—males.

EBE is not exactly universally accepted.

{ NY mag | Continue reading }

photos { Irina Werning, Back to the future, Mechi 1990 & 2010, Buenos Aires | more }

It ain’t over till the fat lady sings

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Computers are getting faster. Everybody knows that. Also, computers are getting faster faster — that is, the rate at which they’re getting faster is increasing.

True? True.

So if computers are getting so much faster, so incredibly fast, there might conceivably come a moment when they are capable of something comparable to human intelligence. Artificial intelligence. All that horsepower could be put in the service of emulating whatever it is our brains are doing when they create consciousness — not just doing arithmetic very quickly or composing piano music but also driving cars, writing books, making ethical decisions, appreciating fancy paintings, making witty observations at cocktail parties.

If you can swallow that idea, and Kurzweil and a lot of other very smart people can, then all bets are off. From that point on, there’s no reason to think computers would stop getting more powerful. They would keep on developing until they were far more intelligent than we are. Their rate of development would also continue to increase, because they would take over their own development from their slower-thinking human creator. (…)

We will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s. By the end of that decade, computers will be capable of human-level intelligence. Kurzweil puts the date of the Singularity at 2045. In that year, he estimates, given the vast increases in computing power and the vast reductions in the cost of same, the quantity of artificial intelligence created will be about a billion times the sum of all the human intelligence that exists today.

{ Time | Continue reading }

Economists only make predictions so that the weather guys have someone to laugh at

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One of psychology’s most respected journals has agreed to publish a paper presenting what its author describes as strong evidence for extrasensory perception, the ability to sense future events.

The decision may delight believers in so-called paranormal events, but it is already mortifying scientists. Advance copies of the paper, to be published this year in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, have circulated widely among psychological researchers in recent weeks and have generated a mixture of amusement and scorn.

The paper describes nine unusual lab experiments performed over the past decade by its author, Daryl J. Bem, an emeritus professor at Cornell, testing the ability of college students to accurately sense random events, like whether a computer program will flash a photograph on the left or right side of its screen. The studies include more than 1,000 subjects.

Some scientists say the report deserves to be published, in the name of open inquiry; others insist that its acceptance only accentuates fundamental flaws in the evaluation and peer review of research in the social sciences.

The editor of the journal, Charles Judd, a psychologist at the University of Colorado, said the paper went through the journal’s regular review process. “Four reviewers made comments on the manuscript,” he said, “and these are very trusted people.”

All four decided that the paper met the journal’s editorial standards, Dr. Judd added, even though “there was no mechanism by which we could understand the results.”

But many experts say that is precisely the problem. Claims that defy almost every law of science are by definition extraordinary and thus require extraordinary evidence. Neglecting to take this into account — as conventional social science analyses do — makes many findings look far more significant than they really are, these experts say. (…)

For more than a century, researchers have conducted hundreds of tests to detect ESP, telekinesis and other such things, and when such studies have surfaced, skeptics have been quick to shoot holes in them.

But in another way, Dr. Bem is far from typical. He is widely respected for his clear, original thinking in social psychology, and some people familiar with the case say his reputation may have played a role in the paper’s acceptance. (…)

In one experiment, Dr. Bem had subjects choose which of two curtains on a computer screen hid a photograph; the other curtain hid nothing but a blank screen.

A software program randomly posted a picture behind one curtain or the other — but only after the participant made a choice. Still, the participants beat chance, by 53 percent to 50 percent, at least when the photos being posted were erotic ones. They did not do better than chance on negative or neutral photos.

“What I showed was that unselected subjects could sense the erotic photos,” Dr. Bem said, “but my guess is that if you use more talented people, who are better at this, they could find any of the photos.”

{ NY Times | Continue reading }

There’s a good chance you’ve heard about a forthcoming article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP) purporting to provide strong evidence for the existence of some ESP-like phenomenon. (…)

The controversy isn’t over whether or not ESP exists, mind you; scientists haven’t lost their collective senses, and most of us still take it as self-evident that college students just can’t peer into the future and determine where as-yet-unrevealed porn is going to soon be hidden (as handy as that ability might be). The real question on many people’s minds is: what went wrong? If there’s obviously no such thing as ESP, how could a leading social psychologist publish an article containing a seemingly huge amount of evidence in favor of ESP in the leading social psychology journal, after being peer reviewed by four other psychologists? (…)

Having read the paper pretty closely twice, I really don’t think there’s any single overwhelming flaw in Bem’s paper (actually, in many ways, it’s a nice paper). Instead, there are a lot of little problems that collectively add up to produce a conclusion you just can’t really trust.

Below is a decidedly non-exhaustive list of some of these problems. I’ll warn you now that, unless you care about methodological minutiae, you’ll probably find this very boring reading. But that’s kind of the point: attending to this stuff is so boring that we tend not to do it, with potentially serious consequences.

{ Tal Yarkoni | Continue reading }