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Scientific American

At the Boundary of Knowledge

published September 2016 | comments (25)
Is it possible to measure supernatural or paranormal phenomena?
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The history of science has beheld the steady replacement of the paranormal and the supernatural with the normal and the natural. Weather events once attributed to the supernatural scheming of deities are now understood to be the product of natural forces of temperature and pressure. Plagues formerly ascribed to women cavorting with the devil are currently known to be caused by bacteria and viruses. Mental illnesses previously imputed to demonic possession are today sought in genes and neurochemistry. Accidents heretofore explained by fate, karma or providence are nowadays accredited to probabilities, statistics and risk.

If we follow this trend to encompass all phenomena, what place is there for such paranormal forces as ESP or supernatural agents like God? Do we know enough to know that they cannot exist? Or is it possible there are unknown forces within our universe or intentional agents outside of it that we have yet to discover? According to California Institute of Technology physicist Sean Carroll in his intensely insightful book The Big Picture (Dutton, 2016), “All of the things you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life—objects, plants, animals, people—are made of a small number of particles, interacting with one another through a small number of forces.” Once you understand the fundamental laws of nature, you can scale up to planets and people and even assess the probability that God, the soul, the afterlife and ESP exist, which Carroll concludes is very low.

The postmodern belief that discarded ideas mean that there is no objective reality and that all theories are equal is more wrong than all the wrong theories combined.

But isn’t the history of science also strewn with the remains of failed theories such as phlogiston, miasma, spontaneous generation and the luminiferous aether? Yes, and that is how we know we are making progress. The postmodern belief that discarded ideas mean that there is no objective reality and that all theories are equal is more wrong than all the wrong theories combined. The reason has to do with the relation of the known to the unknown.

As the sphere of the known expands into the aether of the unknown, the proportion of ignorance seems to grow—the more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know. But note what happens when the radius of a sphere increases: the increase in the surface area is squared while the increase in the volume is cubed. Therefore, as the radius of the sphere of scientific knowledge doubles, the surface area of the unknown increases fourfold, but the volume of the known increases eightfold. It is at this boundary where we can stake a claim of true progress in the history of science.

Take our understanding of particles and forces, which Carroll says “seems indisputably accurate within a very wide domain of applicability,” such that “a thousand or a million years from now, whatever amazing discoveries science will have made, our descendants are not going to be saying ‘Haha, those silly twenty-first-century scientists, believing in ‘neutrons’ and ‘electromagnetism.’” Thus, Carroll concludes that the laws of physics “rule out the possibility of true psychic powers.” Why? Because the particles and forces of nature don’t allow us to bend spoons, levitate or read minds, and “we know that there aren’t new particles or forces out there yet to be discovered that would support them. Not simply because we haven’t found them yet, but because we definitely would have found them if they had the right characteristics to give us the requisite powers.”

What about a supernatural God? Perhaps such an entity exists outside nature and its laws. If so, how would we detect it with our instruments? If a deity used natural forces to, say, cure someone’s cancer by reprogramming the cancerous cells’ DNA, that would make God nothing more than a skilled genetic engineer. If God used unknown supernatural forces, how might they interact with the known natural forces? And if such supernatural forces could somehow stir the particles in our universe, shouldn’t we be able to detect them and thereby incorporate them into our theories about the natural world? Whence the supernatural?

It is at the horizon where the known meets the unknown that we are tempted to inject paranormal and supernatural forces to explain hitherto unsolved mysteries, but we must resist the temptation because such efforts can never succeed, not even in principle.

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The Quack of the Gaps Problem

published August 2016 | comments (18)
Facilitated communication, autism and patients’ rights
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This past April 2, on World Autism Awareness Day, Apple released a heartstrings-tugging commercial depicting an autistic boy typing, in part with the assistance of a facilitator, a message on an iPad that voiced: “So many people can’t understand that I have a mind. All they see is a person who is not in control. But now you can hear me. The iPad helps me to see not only my words, but to hold onto my thoughts.”

The commercial was surprising because this system of “facilitated communication” (FC) was thoroughly discredited in the 1990s. Facilitators had used plastic alphabet keyboards or portable typing devices, and in various videos—for example, the 1993 Frontline episode “Prisoners of Silence”— you see children who are not even looking at the keyboard as facilitators direct their typing or facilitators moving the keyboard under a child’s hand to produce the proper keystrokes. The technique was an academic curiosity until FC-generated messages included graphic descriptions of sexual abuse by families or caretakers of numerous children. Charges and lawsuits were filed, and courts needed scientists to determine who authored the accusations—the children or the facilitators?

Howard Shane, now director of the Autism Language Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Doug Wheeler, then at the O. D. Heck Developmental Center in Schenectady, N.Y., conducted independent controlled experiments in which autistic children and their facilitators were shown pictures of either the same or different objects while blinded to what each other saw. What was typed was always and only what the facilitator saw. (continue reading…)

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Tiger Blood and Goat Milk

published July 2016 | comments (11)
Charlie Sheen’s misadventure with a false cure for HIV/AIDS
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When basketball legend Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he had tested positive for HIV, it was a death sentence, and he promptly retired from the Los Angeles Lakers. Fans mourned his coming demise, but to everyone’s astonishment, Magic’s life continued in relative normalcy. A quarter of a century later he is an active entrepreneur, business leader, philanthropist and advocate for HIV/AIDS prevention.

Magic’s story is emblematic of one of the great medical achievements of our time. Although there is still no cure or vaccine for HIV, teams of medical researchers have developed a highly active antiretroviral therapy (the HAART “cocktail”) that significantly slows the progression of the disease by reducing the viral load to an undetectable level. If treatment is started promptly after early detection in young adults, for example, life expectancy returns close to normal.

Perhaps this is why there was far less media frenzy and social mourning after the November 2015 announcement by actor Charlie Sheen that he was HIVpositive. Most assumed HAART would save Sheen’s life, not his “tiger blood” and “Adonis DNA” that he boasted about during his highly publicized 2011 meltdown following his dismissal from the hit TV series Two and a Half Men. (continue reading…)

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Death Wish

published June 2016 | comments (10)
What would be your final words?
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Between December 7, 1982, and February 16, 2016, the state of Texas executed 534 inmates, 417 of whom issued a last statement. This January in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, psychologists Sarah Hirschmüller and Boris Egloff, both at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany, published the results of their evaluation of most of the statements, which they put through a computerized text-analysis program called the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count. The biggest finding was a statistically significant difference between the average percentage of positive emotion words (9.64) and negative ones (2.65). Is that a lot?

To find out, the psychologists compared this dataset with a broad spectrum of written sources, including scientific articles, novels, blogs and diaries, consisting of more than 168 million words composed by 23,173 people. The mean of 2.74 percent positive emotion words for each entry was statistically significantly lower than that of the prisoners. In fact, these death-row inmates were more positive than students asked to contemplate their own death and write down their thoughts and even more positive than people who attempted or completed suicides and left notes. What does this mean?

Hirschmüller and Egloff contend that their data support terror management theory (TMT), which asserts that the realization of our mortality leads to unconscious terror, and “an increased use of positive emotion words serves as a way to protect and defend against mortality salience of one’s own contemplated death.” But if that were so, then why the difference between the inmates’ statements and those of suicide attempters and completers? Surely those about to kill themselves would be equally terrorized by the prospect of their imminent self-demise.

Context is key here. “Change the context slightly, and one often gets very different results in research on human behavior,” University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Frank J. Sulloway told me by e-mail when I queried him about TMT. “The really tricky thing with theories like this is not what to do with statistical refutations but rather what to do with supposed statistical confirmations. This problem previously arose in connection with psychoanalysis, and [German-born psychologist] Hans Eysenck and others later wrote books showing that those zealous psychoanalytic devotees testing their psychoanalytic claims systematically failed to consider what other theories, besides the one researchers thought they were testing, would also be confirmed by the same evidence.” (continue reading…)

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Malthusian Menace

published May 2016 | comments (22)
Why Malthus makes for bad science policy
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If by fiat I had to identify the most consequential ideas in the history of science, good and bad, in the top 10 would be the 1798 treatise An Essay on the Principle of Population by English political economist Thomas Robert Malthus. On the positive side of the ledger, it inspired Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to work out the mechanics of natural selection based on Malthus’s observation that populations tend to increase geometrically (2, 4, 8, 16…), whereas food reserves grow arithmetically (2, 3, 4, 5…), leading to competition for scarce resources and differential reproductive success, the driver of evolution.

On the negative side of the ledger are the policies derived from the belief in the inevitability of a Malthusian collapse. “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race,” Malthus gloomily predicted. His scenario influenced policy makers to embrace social Darwinism and eugenics, resulting in draconian measures to restrict particular populations’ family size, including forced sterilizations.

In his book The Evolution of Everything (Harper, 2015), evolutionary biologist and journalist Matt Ridley sums up the policy succinctly: “Better to be cruel to be kind.” The belief that “those in power knew best what was good for the vulnerable and weak” led directly to legal actions based on questionable Malthusian science. For example, the English Poor Law implemented by Queen Elizabeth I in 1601 to provide food to the poor was severely curtailed by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, based on Malthusian reasoning that helping the poor only encourages them to have more children and thereby exacerbate poverty. The British government had a similar Malthusian attitude during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, Ridley notes, reasoning that famine, in the words of Assistant Secretary to the Treasury Charles Trevelyan, was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.” A few decades later Francis Galton advocated marriage between the fittest individuals (“What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly man may do providently, quickly and kindly”), followed by a number of prominent socialists such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Havelock Ellis and H. G. Wells, who openly championed eugenics as a tool of social engineering. (continue reading…)

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