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In Which Anastasia Writes A Review

January 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Dearest readers,

I just wanted to take some time to share this review from my fiance Anastasia on the play “Informed Consent” by Zoe Laufer.

Anastasia’s take on the play is much more critical than others, and I find myself largely in agreement with her criticisms. The issues raised in “Informed Consent” are complicated and require careful and subtle understanding. To heighten the drama, it seems to me that complexity is substituted for one-dimensional conflicts that simplify and obscure, rather than elucidate, the problem.

The scientist has motivations that make her obsession with the research much more personal than what happened in real life, and I believe that this skews the conversation that the play tries to create against the scientific research aspect. Like other plays Anastasia has reviewed, such as Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem,” it seems that the drive to create a compelling narrative for the heart overtakes the story for the brain. Complex ethical and philosophical issues can be explored in theater, but “Informed Consent” and “The Hard Problem” do the topics that they cover a disservice and, therefore, their audiences.

Make no mistake: I certainly believe that we should have these kinds of difficult conversations, especially the one that “Informed Consent” tries, but fails, to elucidate. But narratives can be a dangerous way to approach them, and these two plays show why. Ascribing emotional, personal motivations to the researcher undercuts the argument in favor of scientific research while doing nothing to really advance our understanding of the ethics involved between the Native American tribe and the researchers.

In case you’re wondering, in large part I sympathize with the Havasupai Tribe’s concerns and I think that the University and the researchers erred and acted somewhat unethically. But I do not believe that automatically makes the scientific questions raised and the answered found ethically wrong, or morally wrong. My hope is that, in the future, researchers will tread carefully and ensure that they do have consent for the kinds of genetic studies that they want to perform.

I also hope that if someone writes a play about future ethical issues in scientific endeavors they will not distill the side of science into a character with made-up questionable and personal motivations that were not present in the real events that seem to poison the well for science and scientific investigations.

Penn and Teller: Bull*%&! Episode 2: “Alternative Medicine”

April 27, 2015 2 comments

So it’s pretty obvious that I haven’t been doing a great job of keeping any of my blogs updated regularly. I have a new job as a Nurse Assistant at McLaren Greater Lansing working the night shift (7 PM-7AM) and I’m still getting used to the new sleeping schedule. I’ve also been doing some work for the Clinton County Democratic Party, so the time I have for writing is a little slimmer than I’d prefer.

Still, I wanted to make the next post in my rewatch of Penn and Teller Bullshit and maybe get back in the swing of writing. I was upset that I completely forgot about the April 2015 A-to-Z Blogging Challenge, but I don’t think that I would have been able to keep up with it.

Anyway, let’s get to the good stuff:

Original Air Date: January 31, 2003
Production Code: 102

The second episode of Penn and Teller’s show is called “Alternative Medicine.” This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart as I am extremely skeptical of complimentary and alternative medicine. In fact, I’ve linked back to one of my favorite blogs, Science-Based Medicine, multiple times over the years on this very subject. I haven’t seen this episode in a long time, so I’m very anxious to see their treatment of the issue.

The show starts with Penn reciting a list of diseases that Teller is supposed to have, while Teller acts as if he’s afflicted by them (and he sneaks in a few tricks, too). It’s a very comprehensive list of maladies that most people have had some experience with, including cancer and eczema. Penn wants to try to cure Teller of these diseases without visiting a doctor, declaring, “Let’s try some bullshit!”

And I think he’s right on point, there: the thing about a lot of alternative medicine is that it doesn’t have a good basis of support. Often, the scientific studies that are done on alternative treatments show no better outcomes than a placebo, and when alternative treatments do have some kind of benefit, they become mainstream medicine. I think it’s rather fitting that Penn starts the episode with a brief history of medical quackery, including showing a picture of an advertisement for cocaine toothache drops.

Medicine used to be a hodge-podge of nonsense (though, to be fair, things outside of mainstream medicine are more than likely still nonsense). Modern medicine has added structure, regulation, and standardization to medical treatment in a way that has reduced mortality, stopped disease, and increased the lifespan. There’s still a rich, fascinating history of medical treatments before we achieved this, such as using radium-infused water as a health tonic. As you can imagine, drinking radioactive substances didn’t have many health benefits.

The first target that Penn lays his sights on is reflexology. Basically Penn says that “reflexologists believe that the foot contains pathways to every nerve ending and organ in the body, and that by putting pressure on various points of the foot, a plethora of diseases can be eliminated.” This is followed by a gag where Teller is trying to change the sparkplug in Penn’s car by tapping the tires. It’s not a bad metaphor, to be honest. There isn’t any anatomical or physiological reason to believe that manipulating the feet will have an impact on any organs.

One thing that the show recognizes is that these alternative treatments are huge cash cows. Not that mainstream medicine isn’t expensive–at least it produces verifiable results and is backed by numerous studies. The reflexologist that is shadowed on the show charges, according to Penn, $55 an hour to apply a pulsating machine to the foot that seems to be nothing more than a foot massage. It’s noteworthy that there is no consensus about how reflexology is supposed to work, even amongst reflexologists.

Next, Penn tackles magnet therapy, which he notes at the time of the show’s production was a billion-dollar per year industry. According to Quack Watch, “There is no scientific basis to conclude that small, static magnets can relieve pain or influence the course of any disease. In fact, many of today’s products produce no significant magnetic field at or beneath the skin’s surface.” This is backed up by links in the wikipedia article, which note that the magnetic fields produced by the magnets used are too weak to influence blood flow.

The doctor that they have promoting magnet therapy on the show is, to be frank, wrong on just about everything. Magnets do not produce an “energy field,” they produce a magnetic field–magnetic fields that are orders of magnitudes too weak to affect the body. This doctor also has no idea what magnets are and stumbles through a frankly embarrassing attempt to describe them which I won’t even attempt to repeat here.

Sigh. The doctor is nuts and thinks that stress builds up in your body and that magnets can…do something? I think. To relieve that stress, apparently. It’s a big pile of nonsense. Teller does another gag, this one involving blood and magnets that I won’t give away, to demonstrate it.

I think that the highlight of the episode is a gag that they put on in a mall to show how gullible people are, and how responsive they are to the power of suggestion. An official scientist-looking person will demonstrate how effective the magnets are at treating them (even though, as they reveal, the magnets were completely demagnetized). It’s a pretty fantastic experiment.

The third target is chiropractic. This is harder to tackle because it’s so widely accepted and there are several different lines of thought on it. The quack chiropractors are the ones that agree with the nonsense idea of subluxations (and that most health problems come from the misalignment of the spine–hey, screw germ theory of disease, am I right?) and skew anti-vaccine to others that are nothing more than glorified physical therapists. It’s not hard to see that I don’t have a high opinion on chiropractic and I try to steer people clear of it if I get the chance (why go to an expensive chiropractor when you can go to a physical therapist and get the same, if not better, outcomes?).

And, again, the show finds the perfect avatar of the extreme side of chiropractic in a man who makes claims about chiropractic spinal adjustments that are irresponsible and unfounded, and in a perfect world a few would be criminal.

One of the things I appreciate about Penn and and Teller Bullshit is that they don’t shy away from showing things that will be controversial and disturbing. They show the chiropractor cracking the necks of children, along with the cracking sounds. Anyone with any knowledge of human development would know that children, especially young children, aren’t even fully developed or grown. Spinal and neck manipulations are dangerous–extremely so! This chiropractor then goes on to tell the story of how he treated a baby, and boasts that the youngest he ever adjusted was, in his words, a minute and a half old.

Yes, a baby. Spinal and neck manipulation of a baby. Let that sink in. The fact that this man isn’t in jail speaks volumes about how permissive we are of bullshit alternative medical treatments. The bones of a baby’s body aren’t fully formed. Any kind of manipulation of the spinal chord or neck could be fatal.

I just don’t have the ability to spend any more time on this bastard. I sincerely hope he never seriously injures anyone.

But the bottom line here is that all three of these alternative treatments are about salesmanship. We’re talking money pumped in to create the illusion of legitimacy, advertisements, and political lobbying to feed million and billion dollar industries that produce very few, if any, positive health outcomes. Tell the people what they want to hear: don’t like vaccines? Say that you don’t need them with this magical herb. Don’t trust “Big Pharma?” Sell essential oils and claim they can heal disease, when in reality they do nothing more than make things smell better.

The show moves back to the reflexologist, who trains people to be reflexologist in a sort of “pay as you go” setup, where the people will actually start “treating” people before they even start to “learn” his methods so that they can pay him for more. If you think that this is a scam, well, you’re not alone. Imagine if they let medical students practice medicine before they got their medical degrees.

I think that this was a great episode, when the dust settled. It was hard to watch the chiropractor manipulate the neck of a child, but that’s the kind of thing you can’t shy away from if you want to see how dangerous these people can be. I don’t have a problem with new ideas in medicine getting a fair shake. If the doctors or whoever can come up with an idea, and it can stand on its own after tests and experiments and criticism, that will advance medicine.

But the examples of alternative medicine demonstrated in these episodes have been tested. And they don’t produce good results. Often, you have people who are trying to sell you something you don’t really need if you just go to the doctor regularly and take care of yourself. The lesson to learn is to be skeptical. Ask questions. Do this for doctors and people in mainstream medicine, too. If a doctor can’t answer a question, or deflects, then you have good reason to seek another opinion. I would be good money that none of these alternative medicine practitioners could satisfactorily answer questions put to them. For instance, “What is a meridian, and how does rubbing a foot draw ‘energy’ from the brain to these meridians?”

The safe bet for health is always the treatment that has a mountain of credible data to back it up. Alternative medicine lacks that.

Previous episode

StarTalk Radio and Scientific Ignorance

January 26, 2015 Leave a comment

I’ve long been a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson, and see him as my generation’s Carl Sagan. I think it’s important to have affable people who can communicate scientific ideas and philosophy clearly and an in a friendly manner, especially now that our society is so steeped in anti-science sentiments or largely ignorant of science. Recent headlines, for instance, talk about how 80% of Americans are supportive of efforts to make labeling food containing DNA mandatory.

Sure, there are problems with that study and it should be taken with a grain of salt. But I think it’s part of a larger dialogue going on now about things like genetically modified organisms and medicine. I don’t want to go into the GMO debate right now (suffice it to say I generally and vocally support them–but don’t confuse this with support for companies like Monsanto or personal ignorance about the dangers of modern agriculture from monocultures to fertilizer runoff), and as for the uptick in, say, people sympathizing with homeopathy, I refer you to this news story about a recent study.

I don’t really blame people for ignorance, but I do not suffer it. It’s not that hard to get facts and learn new things with things like the internet (which, to be fair, can also be used to learn absurd and wrong things, like the bone-headed notion that vaccines are bad). So, in the spirit of trying to enlighten people, I want to talk a bit about StarTalk Radio.

Tyson hosts this show (with frequent guest hosts like Bill Nye), and it’s generally both entertaining and enlightening. Topics range from questions about gravity to discussions about technology. One of the better shows is “StarTalk Live: I, Robot” (Part 1, Part 2). Tyson, comedians, and robotics experts discuss the current state of robotics and where it might go in the years to come. It’s certainly not a topic that should be ignored, even by laypeople. Whether we like it or not (I’m looking at you, Luddites) robots and, possibly, superhuman intelligence, will be a part of human society. If we’re smart about how we approach it, we can do amazing things like this:

If we’re not so smart, we could do things like this:

StarTalk has conversations that are worth having, while educating and entertaining you. I really recommend listening to it, even if you don’t know that much about science or technology. Both of these topics should be priorities for a civilization that depends on them, as ours does.

In the future I hope to write more about robots, from ethics about them to their legal status. With the increasing possibility of superhuman intelligences, how we handle synthetic intelligence (and whether or not it constitutes life) will be of increasing importance in the coming years.

The Geek-in-Chief Does Science!

June 1, 2014 Leave a comment

I’ve got to be honest, dear readers. I love science, and I love experimenting. I had one of those cool whacky chemistry sets as a kid that allowed you to make all kinds of foamy, slimy concoctions and I had (have, actually) a telescope and a microscope.

I was a nerd of the best kind: I loved to explore the natural world and I had an unbounded curiosity. Sadly, my life didn’t really allow me to revel in that for very long as other concerns ate most of my attention as I got older. This is why I’m so happy that President Barack Obama hosts an annual science fair at the White House, demonstrating the capabilities of curious young scientists and engineers.

Kid: “You put a hole in the ceiling!” Obama: “Aww, you’re in trouble. I’m tellin’ Michelle.”

President Obama used the 2014 Science Fair to extoll the roles of girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and  Math) fields. According to an article by Kristin Lee at whitehouse.gov, entitled “Girls Rule at 2014 White House Science Fair,” the Obama Administration will “…host a series of ‘role model roundtables’ between girls and female STEM leaders…”

I think that this is very encouraging news. We need to get more people, especially people like women who aren’t as well represented in these fields as they could be, interested in science and math. The White House Science Fair allows some of the brightest and best to showcase their discoveries, innovations, and love of science, math, and engineering. These young people will be the people who build tomorrow’s world, and many of them could make discoveries that change the course of human history.

Alan Boyle, in an article at NBC News, noted that Obama announced more education initiatives, including an expansion of the AmeriCorps STEM program, new mentoring programs, and a series of interactive online lessons.

Boyle quotes Obama:

“As a society, we have to celebrate outstanding work by young people in science at least as much as we do Super Bowl winners because super-star biologists and engineers and rocket scientists and robot builders, they don’t always get the attention that they deserve, but they’re what’s going to transform our society,” he said. “They’re the folks who are going to come up with cures for diseases, and new sources of energy and help us build healthier and more successful societies.”

I hope that the next president keeps the White House Science Fair, and continues to encourage children to pursue careers in the STEM fields. I imagine that if I had that kind of encouragement when I was young I would have stayed involved in the sciences.

So here’s to the next generation of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Let’s continue to encourage younger generations to pursue lives of the mind to the benefit of all humanity.

The following is a video of the White House Science Fair:

A-to-Z Challenge Day Twenty-Four: Xenobiology

April 28, 2014 1 comment

I had a busy day so I just wanted to briefly touch on an idea I had to write a book on alien biology and anatomy as if it were a real book.

This idea first occurred to me when I was thinking of a realistic physiological explanation as to the green color of Spock’s blood. I want to write a kind of Grey’s Anatomy for aliens.

Anyway, that’s all I have tonight. Thanks for reading!

A-to-Z Challenge day Twenty-One: Universe from Nothing?

April 24, 2014 2 comments

Hello, dear readers! For a while now I’ve wanted to share some deep science videos but haven’t gotten around to it. The letter “U” for the A-to-Z blogging challenge has allowed me to under the shaky premise that the word universe begins with the same letter.

The first video is by Lawrence Krauss, in which he talks with Richard Dawkins. It is entitled “Something from Nothing” and it’s an interesting dialogue about science, cosmology, and other things.

The second video has eminent physicist and cosmologist Sean Carroll on the topic of existence, and why it exists. It’s a very interesting video, though it’s a bit heavy.

So, what do I think about all of this? To be honest, I don’t really know. I think these leading thinkers offer interesting ideas and I’m willing to cast my lot in with them for now. Was the big bang the first big bang, or one in an infinite series? Who knows! There are people with very strong opinions on this one way or another, but I think that they’re unwarranted based on what we know and what it is possible for us to know.

For instance, are actual infinities impossible? I’m not so sure you could ever claim they are with certainty, outside of metaphysical arguments. I largely haven’t found this arguments convincing simply because they’re often excluding them from possibility (mathematicians often hold that they do exist, like in set theory, where you can have an infinite set of whole numbers) because they can’t imagine something existing that is actually infinite. Well, there are more reasons then that, to be fair. But in the end, can they be sure? No.

Anyway, I don’t really have time to write at length about the universe right now, even if I would like to. I hope you enjoy these videos in the meantime.

A-to-Z Challenge Day Twenty: Transcendence and Transhumanism

April 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Lately I’ve found science fiction movies and television to be largely disappointing. Star Trek Into Darkness was a letdown (and I’ll get into that at some later time). Almost Human was a HUGE disappointment and has left me feeling empty inside for all of the hope I had it wouldn’t be another vacuous JJ Abrams project (it was–I’ll get into that in another post, perhaps, someday when I talk more about artificial intelligence and whatnot).

So I put a little bit of faith in the movie Transcendence to not, well, completely disappoint. I haven’t actually seen the movie yet, but I have read some reviews that have given me pause.

The one that, I think, bears the most relevance for now is by Derek at SF Signal. In the review, Derek writes:

As with most technothrillers, Transcendence dares to ask Important Questions — What is the nature of the human? What happens when the quest for knowledge becomes a quest for power? — but, as with most technothrillers, very quickly devolves into a series of chases, forgetting its loftier aims.

It raises important questions! But…it doesn’t really offer any introspection to lead us to answers, it sounds. This is exactly what I was hoping wouldn’t happen. So, let me issue a preemptive sigh and move on to what I hoped the movie would be about.

Well, I can say that I hoped that it would raise those questions. But I want to list some of the questions that I had hoped would be addressed.

  1. What is the nature of humanity?
  2. What is the nature of consciousness?
  3. Is identity static or plastic?
  4. If a human mind is uploaded into a machine, will it maintain its humanity?

This is a movie that is, obviously, steeped in transhumanism. Mind-uploading is a very interesting idea on the frontiers of science and philosophy, and one that I find endlessly fascinating. Can a human being whose mind has been transferred to a computer or a machine maintain his perspective and identity as a human, or is it something fundamentally different? I don’t know the answer to that, but I had hoped that Transcendence would give an honest look at it without reducing itself to the standard technothriller formula.

So what is transhumanism anyway? This is how Wikipedia defines it:

Transhumanism (abbreviated as H+ or h+) is an international cultural and intellectual movement with an eventual goal of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.

The movement itself raises the question about what makes a human. For instance, is there a line between a real, natural human and something that was once a human but is no longer? If we upload a mind to a computer and we give it a synthetic, but realistic earth-like living condition will it maintain its humanity? And if we let it control its existence within the digital environment how will it change?

How can we handle the ethical debates of transhumanism and its many tenets? I would first argue that we’d need to have a lot more transhumanist innovations before we could actually really begin to talk about the ethics. Cybernetics are a good step, and we have a lot of modern examples of those. So will there be a point where a human being can replace their internal organs and limbs with fully-functional and realistic prosthetics that we have a hard time defining them as human?

So, I suppose that I shall have to watch it, take some notes, and then give a review about what happened in the movie. Will it fall victim to the kind of technophobia that tends to run through a lot of technothrillers and make artificial life or new ideas seem terrible? Or will it instead give it a dispassionate view of the subject matter that will leave the audience with a new appreciation of the topics of transhumanism and mind-uploading?

Based on Derek’s review I’m not hopeful for a positive outcome.