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What is Spirituality, Anyway? Is “Spirituality” so Broadly Defined that Testing for it is Meaningless?

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 12:00am

There has been an explosion of research addressing spirituality over the past two decades. The use of the term “spirituality” is a staple of our everyday vernacular, whereby many have friends who will identify as spiritual, but not religious. The ubiquity of the “spiritual” label is curious given that a definition of spirituality is rarely discussed. Granted, people are often not required to precisely define concepts that they are discussing, so the fact that spirituality means different things to different people is largely irrelevant in everyday conversation. However, this definitional ambiguity is problematic for researchers who seek to explore the relationship between spirituality and other constructs. In other words, while the average citizen can communicate in imprecise ways and get away with it, scientists and researchers do not have that luxury.

The idea of spirituality is so varied that everyone experiences it differently. If this is the case, how can a measurement of spirituality be valid for everyone?

The current paradigm within the spirituality literature is that higher spirituality has a tendency to be associated with better health. Higher spirituality is allegedly linked to numerous health benefits (e.g., satisfaction with life, better general health 1, less depression2, etc.), and there has been an effort within the literature to promote spiritual diversity in the healthcare system.3 There is also academic interest in how spirituality components relate to quality of life assessments4, as well as movements to incorporate spirituality into clinical practice.5 In short, spirituality is experiencing a prolonged interest from both the academy and the public at large. However, these positive findings are somewhat marred by a fundamental issue within the associated literature, namely what spirituality actually is.

Within the academic literature there does not appear to be an agreed-upon definition of spirituality, while there also appear to be radically different conceptualizations of what “being spiritual” means. One review paper with the express intent of clarifying the definition of spirituality summarized its findings by stating, “Spirituality is an inherent component of being human, and is subjective, intangible, and multidimensional.”6 This statement means that all humans are spiritual although they experience this spirituality differently. However, such a statement is not helpful because it could be used to justify any range of definitions. Offering carte blanche to the spirituality definition does nothing to advance the field of research. If everything can be spiritual then logically, any measure purporting to measure spirituality is justified.

Surprisingly, while definitions of spirituality are difficult to come by, measures of spirituality are not. In a recent review of various spirituality measures7, a journal article listed close to three dozen measures of spirituality. These measures were classed according to their purpose (e.g., general spirituality, spiritual well-being, spiritual needs, etc.) and were rated on their quality. The purpose of the review article was to organize existing measures of spirituality into a typology that would allow for a better understanding of the measures’ purposes. Within the article, the authors devoted reasonable space to providing evidence that these measures were reliable (i.e., if a participant takes the survey again their score is close to the first time); but there was very little discussion on whether the measures were valid (i.e., whether the measures were actually measuring spirituality). For the purposes of the review article, the working definition of spirituality was, “a sense of transcendence beyond one’s immediate circumstances… purpose and meaning in life, reliance on inner resources, and a sense of withinperson integration or connectedness.” As with the previously quoted definition of spirituality, this definition is less than helpful as it could mean a host of different things.

“In the future, science will be able to explain everything” (Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale8). Oddly, agreement with this statement would result in lower spirituality scores.

How would one go about defining spirituality in a way that is valid; that is, ensuring that a definition is uniquely and exclusively spiritual? Defining terms scientifically is often difficult even with concepts that everyone agrees exist (e.g., intelligence, happiness, hunger). The spirituality literature appears to sidestep this problem by defining a person’s level of spirituality by what he/she may score on spirituality indices. This approach is common within social science research as it provides a meaningful basis of comparison between studies. For example, intelligence can be discussed in a general way that people can understand, and researchers will use a person’s score on “IQ Test X” for comparing people between studies. However, the working definitions of spirituality are extremely varied, occasionally contradictory, and often include abstractions without obvious meaning. A consequence of this variety of definitions is that spirituality can only be meaningfully discussed by scores on specific measures, rather than in a broad conceptual way. While this approach may allow the literature to move forward (in terms of volume of studies), it does nothing to clarify what spirituality actually is.

This problem is exacerbated by the high variability of the items contained within spirituality measures. Spirituality measures will often inquire about concepts that may not be immediately associated with one’s perception of spirituality. Questions for spirituality address topics such as social interaction, meaning in life, environmental consciousness, etc. Contrasted with these are questions about interconnectedness, oneness with the universe, higher powers, benefits of prayer, etc. Some spirituality measures even have items that ostensibly inquire about the limitations of science: “In the future, science will be able to explain everything” (Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale8). Oddly, agreement with this statement would result in lower spirituality scores. Because spirituality is often being defined by the measure used to assess a person’s spirituality score, it is informative to investigate the specific items that are assessing spirituality.

Often, spirituality measures will have items related to social functioning. For example, the Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale contains the items, “I accept others even when they do things that I think are wrong” or “I feel a selfless caring for others.”9 In a similar vein the Spirituality Assessment Scale10 presents items such as “I have a general sense of belonging” or “I feel a kinship to other people.” In addition, the Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale includes items such as “When I wrong someone, I make an effort to apologize” and “I examine my actions to see if they reflect my values.” These questions appear to be addressing how persons interact with other people, and presumably, the better social skills a person has, the healthier he/she is likely to be. However, the answers to these items are counted towards a global spirituality score. Global spirituality scores, which are in part the product of questions about social functioning, are in turn linked to better health outcomes.11 Yet, it is confusing as to why the word spirituality encompasses these characteristics, especially given that other measures (e.g., social support assessments) explicitly investigate these topics.

A different issue plaguing the spirituality literature is whether spirituality is intrinsically linked to a belief in god(s). Nearly all spirituality measures have at least one item that references god(s), higher powers, Creators, etc. (e.g., Spiritual Perspective Scale12, Spiritual Assessment Scale), and numerous spirituality measures have multiple items associated with a god construct (e.g., the Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/Spirituality13, Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale, Spiritual Health Inventory14). To be fair, these measures will often provide caveats that god(s) is whatever you define him/her/it to be, but this does not change the fact that this question does not apply to everyone. One may argue that deities represent a “power greater than oneself,” but this is a semantic argument. Using a placeholder that is functionally undifferentiated from god(s), but refusing to label it “god(s)” seems to be without benefit to understanding spirituality. Persons who object to “god-related questions” probably do not object to the specific word selection (i.e., “god”), but probably do object to the overarching concept (i.e., “a metaphysical unproven construct”).

The fact that god(s) is a recurring topic within many spirituality measures raises a number of important questions for researchers. Having items on surveys that are only answerable if one assumes the existence of deities seems to be a step away from the idea that spirituality is “an inherent component of being human.” With all other things being equal, persons who do not believe in god(s) (i.e., atheists) will be “penalized” on their spirituality score because of their non-belief. Given the prevalence of questions regarding belief, one could reasonably conclude that spirituality necessarily includes a belief in some form of higher powers. If this is the case, then spirituality is not an inherently human construct, as not all humans can or do believe in deities.

To address this criticism, measures may allow items to be omitted if non-applicable to persons; however, this fix does not address the underlying objection. Either conceptualizations of deities are necessary for an assessment of spirituality (which would exclude atheists), or conceptualizations of deities are not necessary for an assessment of spirituality (which would raise questions about why so many items address deities). In either case, it is clear that spirituality has either substantive definitional issues or substantive measurement issues, or both. Of course, researchers could argue that deities are often a part of many persons’ spirituality, but are not necessary. However, all this demonstrates is that the idea of spirituality is so varied that everyone experiences it differently. If this is the case, how can a measurement of spirituality be valid for everyone?

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 21.4 (2016).
Buy this issue

It is important to note that these aforementioned spirituality measures have been published in peer-reviewed journals. They are reliable, have convergent validity, and they can be used to predict a variety of health outcomes. These facts are not disputed. However, it must also be made clear that if the items assessing spirituality are about social functioning, life purpose, or emotional maturity, then it is curious as to what makes these items “spiritual”. That these items are related to health outcomes is not surprising given that a bounty of literature has already established this in other fields. If the items assessing spirituality are suspect, then the reliability of the measures is ultimately immaterial to proving the benefits of spirituality. It would be as though “not smoking” was included as an indicator of spirituality, and if researchers then marvelled over the benefits of being spiritual. If spirituality measures do not uniquely predict health outcomes (beyond what is established by other constructs), then researchers should either modify how spirituality is being assessed or critically consider whether items within these surveys unambiguously measure spirituality. Ultimately, much of the investigation into spirituality seems less like research and more like recycling.

About the Author

Dr. David Speed completed his master’s and doctorate at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His primary field of interest is religion and health, but will research anything that “catches his eye”. He is a member of the Atheist Research Collaborative, which is a non-partisan group that researches atheism and irreligion. When David is not researching, teaching, or working, he is at home with his wife Betsy and his daughters Aliya and Charley.

References
  1. Dunn, K. S. 2008. “Development and Psychometric Testing of a New Geriatric Spiritual Well-Being Scale.” International Journal of Older People Nursing, 3, pp. 161–169.
  2. Matheis, E. N., Tulsky, D. S., & Matheis, R. J. 2006. “The Relation between Spirituality and Quality of Life Among Individuals with Spinal Cord Injury.” Rehabilitation Psychology, 51, pp. 265–271.
  3. Pesut, B., Fowler, M., Taylor, E., Reimer-Kirkham, S., & Sawatzky, R. 2008. “Conceptualising Spirituality and Religion for Healthcare.” Journal of Clinical Nursing, 17, pp. 2803–2810.
  4. O’Connell, K. A., & Skevington, S. M. 2010. “Spiritual, Religious, and Personal Beliefs are Important and Distinctive to Assessing Quality of Life in Health: A Comparison of Theoretical Models.” British Journal of Health Psychology, 15, pp. 729–748.
  5. Carlson, T., McGeorge, C., & Toomey, R. 2014. “Establishing the Validity of the Spirituality in Clinical Training Scale: Measuring the Level of Integration of Spirituality and Religion in Family Therapy Training.” Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 36, pp. 310–325.
  6. Tanyi, R. A. 2002. “Towards Clarification of the Meaning of Spirituality.” Journal of Advanced Nursing, 39, pp. 500–509.
  7. Monod, S., Brennan, M., Rochat, E., Martin, E., Rochat, S., & Büla, C. 2011. “Instruments Measuring Spirituality in Clinical Research: A Systematic Review.” Journal of General Internal Medicine, 26, pp. 1345–1357. doi: 10.1007/s11606-011-1769-7
  8. Hatch, R. L., Burg, M., Naberhaus, D. S., & Hellmich, L. K. 1998. “The Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale: Development and Testing of a New Instrument.” Journal of Family Practice, 46, pp. 476–486.
  9. Underwood, L. G., & Teresi, J. A. 2002. “The Daily Spiritual Experience and Scale: Development, Theoretical Description, Reliability, Exploratory Factor Analysis, and Preliminary Construct Validity Using Health-Related Data.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24, 22–33.
  10. Howden, J. 1992. Development and Psychometric Characteristics of the Spirituality Assessment Scale. Texas Women’s University.
  11. Matheis, E. N., Tulsky, D. S., & Matheis, R. J. 2006. “The Relation between Spirituality and Quality of Life Among Individuals with Spinal Cord Injury.” Rehabilitation Psychology, 51, pp. 265–271.
  12. Garner, L. F. 2002. “Spirituality among Baccalaureate Nursing Students at a Private Christian University and a Public State University.” Christian Higher Education, 1, pp. 371–384.
  13. Johnstone, B., McCormack, G., Yoon, D., & Smith, M. 2012. “Convergent/Divergent Validity of the Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/ Spirituality: Empirical Support for Emotional Connectedness as a ‘Spiritual’ Construct.” Journal of Religion & Health, 51, pp. 529–541.
  14. Korinek, A. W., & Arredondo Jr., R. 2004. “The Spiritual Health Inventory (SHI): Assessment of an Instrument for Measuring Spiritual Health in a Substance Abusing Population.” Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 22, pp. 55–66.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Half the Matter in the Universe Just Found

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 10/10/2017 - 5:12am

By now most people are familiar with dark matter – that mysterious substance which has gravity but otherwise does not seem to interact with the normal matter with which we are most familiar. About 27% of the stuff (matter and energy) in the known universe is dark matter, 68% is dark energy, and only about 5% is made of known particles (baryons – protons, neutrons; leptons – electron; and more exotic particles).

We currently don’t know what dark matter is. We know it’s there because we can see its gravitational effect, first noticed because galaxies spin faster than they should. Based just on the gravity from stuff we can see, galaxies should be flying apart. They stick together because there is significantly more gravity than we can account for. There must be additional matter we can’t see, or dark matter.

It is perhaps less well-known that we also haven’t found about half of the normal matter that should exist in the universe. Even if we just consider that 5% that is made of standard particles, about half of it is missing. That is – until now, if recent reports are accurate.

This really wasn’t much of a mystery (not like dark matter) – astronomers suspected that the missing matter was present in the form of diffuse gas between galaxies. There is a lot of space out there, and even a wispy vapor could contain a lot of particles, as much as is contained in all the visible galaxies. The problem is, this thin gas is too wispy to see with conventional means.

Two groups of astronomers, however, have found a way to detect it. The two teams,  one at the Institute of Space Astrophysics (IAS) in Orsay, France, and the other from the University of Edinburgh, used data from the Planck satellite. They also both used a phenomenon known as the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect. When the cosmic background radiation passes through hot plasma it tends to brighten a little. Therefore, we can image the temperature of the CBR and use that to map out the hot plasma in the universe.

When the two teams did this they both found that there is hot plasma in the form of filaments that stretch between the visible galaxies. These filaments are 3-6 times denser than the background gas in the universe – which adds enough matter to the visible universe to account for the missing 50% of normal matter.

Astrophysicist Ralph Kraft is quoted as saying:

“This goes a long way toward showing that many of our ideas of how galaxies form and how structures form over the history of the universe are pretty much correct.”

Essentially astronomers pretty much knew this stuff was out there, but these are the first observations to actually demonstrate it. Sometimes new discoveries challenge what we think we know about the universe. And sometime discoveries confirm what we thought we knew. The former tend to get more media and public attention, but it is important to recognize how science progresses in all its facets.

I like to think of this in terms of a jigsaw puzzle analogy. Trying to figure out how the universe works, or any complex scientific question, is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, without any reference picture, and without any edges, or even knowing how many pieces there are. Sometimes when we find a new piece it fits into the picture we are building. But sometimes the piece doesn’t fit – it expands the puzzle and shows us it is bigger and more complex than we previously thought.

This finding puts a piece right in the middle of our puzzle of the universe, and pretty much right where we thought it should go.

That still leaves 95% of the universe as a mystery. Dark energy and dark matter were definitely pieces that fit outside of the known edges of the picture. We suddenly realized the picture was 20 times bigger than we thought.

However, we should resist the temptation to overhype the significance of the mysterious nature of dark matter and dark energy. Often those who wish to cast doubt (either in general or on some specific area of science) will simplistically assume that because there is something we don’t know that automatically casts doubt one something else we think we do know. This is not necessarily correct, however.

It is possible to have confident scientific knowledge in one area, even if other areas remain unknown. Further, it’s even possible to be confident about one level of knowledge in an area even when deeper questions in that same area are unknown.

For example, we could be very confident that DNA is the primary molecule of inheritance before we understood how it worked. We can be confident that humans and other apes share a recent common ancestor, even before we fully flesh out all the complexity of our ancestry.

This is where the jigsaw puzzle analogy breaks down. As the picture emerges we aren’t just adding new crystal clear pieces. Some of the pieces and the resultant images they contain are blurry or low resolution. As science progresses the picture becomes more clear and more detailed. We are zooming into the picture, not just adding pieces. (So we have to invoke a digital jigsaw puzzle with individual pieces that can vary in terms of their resolution and focus.)

So, for example, when looking at a blurry picture of a tree, at some resolution you can be highly confident that it is, in fact, a tree and nothing else, even before you can see in enough detail to know what kind of tree it is. As the picture becomes clearer, perhaps at some point you can conclude it is a deciduous tree, and then with more detail that it is a maple tree. But there are still many species of maple and it may not be clear which one. Not knowing which species of maple the tree is, however, does not call into question whether or not it is a tree at all.

To bring this back to the current topic – the standard model of particle physics is wildly successful, has made many highly accurate predictions, and is a very useful construct to understand normal matter. The existence of dark matter adds a mystery to our understanding of the universe, but it does not invalidate the standard model.

The missing normal matter was an even smaller mystery. We basically knew it was there and where it was, we just needed to develop a technique for seeing it – and we did. A few more puzzle pieces snap into place with a satisfying click.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #592: Alert 747: The Vela Incident

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 10/09/2017 - 5:00pm
In 1979, a mysterious flash occurred over the southern ocean that could have been a nuclear bomb.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 10/09/2017 - 5:19am

This aphorism has been around since about 1600, originating with Voltaire in French. I have found it to be a useful concept – not an iron-clad rule, but an excellent guiding principle. The perfect is the enemy of the good (sometimes “good enough”).

What this means is that we should not be paralyzed into inaction because we cannot achieve a perfect solution to a specific problem. The idealized perfect solution becomes an obstacle to solutions that are adequate, or at least an improvement on what we have now.

In reality this can be a tricky principle to apply, however. Like the informal logical fallacies, or any informal guideline for clear thinking, there are no rigid rules or definitions. Judgement is required, which means that subjectivity and bias are also involved.

There are two specific ways this principle is either applied to not applied that tends to come up with skeptical topics. The first deals with our own activism – when should we apply this principle?

For example, over the years I and some of my medical colleagues have had a disagreement about how best to approach topics like vaccine exemptions. We all agree that non-medical exemptions decrease vaccine compliance and are a threat to public health. We all agree that in a perfect world states would not allow non-medical exemptions (only exemptions for children who medically are unable to be vaccinated).

What we disagree on is what our public position should be. Should we only advocate for the position of no non-medical exemptions (the perfect), or also advocate for lesser positions that are still an improvement on what most states have? For example, states may eliminate philosophical exemptions, but still allow religious exemptions, and they can make it more difficult to obtain religious exemptions (like attending a class on the risk of vaccine-preventable diseases). These lesser measures are also effective, but not as effective as completely eliminating non-medical exemptions.

We have the same dilemma when it comes to chiropractic – should our position be to reform the profession to make it science-based, or to oppose the profession as being inherently unscientific?

The conflict is often between moral and intellectual purism vs pragmatism. The purist position often feels better. We praise “moral clarity” and it’s easy to criticize someone advocating for compromise as being “mealy mouthed” or weak. Often extreme historical cases are invoked in order to justify the purist position, usually slavery. Should we have tried to restrict slavery and lobby for better treatment of slaves, or ban slavery outright as a moral outrage. Of course there is only one answer.

But not all social questions rise to the level of slavery. And further, banning slavery was the end result of a process that did involve half-way measures, such as banning the slave trade, and restricting the proliferation of slavery. Banning slavery itself was just part of a larger process of racial freedom (albeit the most dramatic one). Further, Lincoln himself had to compromise in the process of emancipating the slaves and ending slavery, to criticisms from the abolitionists. So even slavery itself is a complicated historical example in order to make the point for “moral clarity.”

What the example really is, is an attempt at transplanting the moral clarity on slavery that we hold today onto the past. This creates a contrived example that favors moral purity over pragmatism, because it removes all the context that makes pragmatism necessary.

At the same time, the morally pure position needs to exist and someone needs to advocate for it. The abolitionists needed to be there, making their strong moral case against slavery. But they would not have succeeded without the pragmatists (and even then it required a bloody civil war).

In the end it seems that there needs to be a delicate balance between our goal, the perfect morally pure position, and the good enough that we will accept along the way in order to compromise. Further, we need to judge each situation on its own merits. Some questions do require moral purity, others are more nuanced or require compromise among those with equally valid but distinct moral values. You can’t treat every political battle as if it’s slavery.

There is also a second distinct way in which this principle comes up in skeptical contexts. I often see the perfect held up as an obstructionist strategy. These types of arguments often are used to oppose a measure someone does not like because that measure is not a perfect solution.

For example, anti-fluoridationists will argue that fluoride does not completely eliminate tooth decay. They will also argue that people could simply brush their teeth regularly. Essentially what they are saying is that if everyone had perfect oral hygiene, we would’t need to fluoridate the water. So we should be putting our efforts into promoting oral hygiene.

The poor logic here is that public health measures should be judged on a risk vs benefit and secondarily return on investment approach. Does this specific intervention have benefit in excess of risk, and are the benefits worth the cost? It doesn’t really matter that there are more effective measures out there, especially if those perfect solutions are unobtainable.

That is really the strategy – to hold out the unobtainable perfect solution to obstruct lesser but still effective and practical solutions.

Similarly, anti-GMO activists argue that we don’t need nutritionally enhanced foods (like golden rice) or that we don’t need to increase food production. All we need is to completely fix poverty, have optimal food distribution, and eliminate food waste. These, of course, are unobtainable goals (at least in the foreseeable future) but are used to obstruct workable GMO solutions.

I also find this strategy is common in the anti-gun control camp. We don’t need to regulate guns, all we need to do is eliminate violence and suicide. Those are the “real” problems.

Often the answer to these obstructionist arguments is to say – sure, let’s work on those complex social problems. But meanwhile, we can mitigate the damage they do with some sensible regulations.

To reiterate – the notion that the perfect is the enemy of the good, like any logical principle, is not a formula you can simply apply to a question. It is a guiding principle that may help you think a bit more clearly about a problem.

I also think that, while there is certainly a need to recognize and aspire to morally pristine positions, we should not denigrate the pragmatic middle. It is also often said that part of America’s greatness is our genius at compromise. Perhaps this is something we need to value more.

Categories: Skeptic

15 Credibility Street #26: Stand me up at the gates of Hell

The Doubtful News Feed - Sun, 10/08/2017 - 5:16pm
We delve right into a discussion about the latest mass shooting in the U.S. – what we know and what we don’t know and why. Many people have an ideological basis for their points of view. And, sadly, they hold invalid and illogical views perhaps until they are faced with the truth right in front…
Categories: Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #639 - Oct 7 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 10/07/2017 - 9:00am
Interview with Pamela Gay; Forgotten Superheroes of Science: Martin Jim Aitken; News Items: Nobel Prizes in Physiology, Physics and Chemistry; Rocket Travel; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

Unnecessary Medical Interventions

neurologicablog Feed - Fri, 10/06/2017 - 5:17am

A recent JAMA article is an update on a systematic review of overused interventions in medicine. They list the top ten overused tests and treatments, meant to highlight this problem in medicine. They conclude:

The body of empirical work continues to expand related to medical services that are provided for inappropriate or uncertain indications. Engaging patients in conversations aimed at shared decision making and giving practitioners feedback about their performance relative to peers appear to be useful in reducing overuse.

You can read a summary of the ten overused interventions here.  The one you are likely already familiar with is antibiotic overuse. The others are very specific tests or interventions in specific situations, like Computed Tomography Pulmonary Angiography to help diagnose acute pulmonary embolism.

Reviewing each of these interventions in the top ten list would require a deep dive into the literature and detailed discussion, which is not my intent here. If you want that level of detail, read the original article. What I want to discuss is, in general terms, why this is a problem in the first place.

There are two broad reasons. The first is a good one – because medicine endeavors to be science-based. We actually care about optimizing outcomes, that’s why researchers carefully review the evidence to make detailed recommendations about the best clinical management in specific situations. This is all part of the self-corrective process of science. The authors are even careful to point out that the purpose of such reviews is not to criticize or shame anyone, but to provide critical evidence-based feedback to improve practice. Compare that attitude to anything that exists in the alternate reality of CAM.

The second reason is that medicine and clinical decision-making is complex, and it often goes against our basic psychology. This is why, in my opinion, good clinicians need to be critical thinkers, otherwise they (and by extension their patients) will fall victim to cognitive biases and pitfalls.

For example, one of the top ten overused interventions is nutritional support for critically ill patients. I know, right – that sounds crazy. Are the authors seriously proposing that we don’t feed critically ill patients? Well yes, yes they are, at least not routinely. This shows how counter-intuitive the evidence can be.

What this means is putting a tube into a patient’s stomach in order to give them nutrition. After a certain amount of time the tube can erode the nasal cavity, and it becomes necessary to do a procedure to place a feeding tube surgically directly through the abdominal wall into the stomach or first part of the small intestine. It makes sense that people need to be fed, and that nutrition is critical for healing whatever injury or problem has them in intensive care in the first place.

But making sense is not sufficient. In medicine we need to consider risk vs benefit, hard outcomes, and predictive value. The question is – do ICU patients generally do better if we give them tube feedings? The authors argue that they don’t. They do not have a greater survival or shorter hospital stay. You might argue that there are other more subtle outcomes that are important, like nitrogen balance or muscle mass, and those are reasonable points. What about time spent in rehab rebuilding lost muscle? These questions require a detailed analysis and perhaps even further research.

But this intervention shows how complex these questions can get. We can’t just do what feels right or what makes sense. We need solid evidence to make sure the risk we are exposing patients to is worth the benefit. Also, keep in mind the authors are talking about routine tube feeding, meaning giving it to every patient automatically. Perhaps what we need is targeted tube feeding, based on blood work, for example, or underlying condition and length of stay. Maybe most people can coast for a few days without tube feeding. Also, keep in mind patients will routinely get calories in the form of glucose in their IV fluid.

Diagnostic testing can be an even more complex issue. Good clinical decision making requires us to relearn how to think about diagnostic questions. People tend to fall into heuristics (mental short cuts) that are just not adequate to the complexities of medical decision making.

For example, we tend to fall for the representativeness heuristic – we think it is likely that a person belongs to a category if they seem typical of that category. In medicine this means we think it is likely a person has a diagnosis if they have symptoms of that diagnosis. But wait – doesn’t that make sense? Only to a point. The fallacy is in failing to also consider the prevalence of that diagnosis. So, even if someone has typical features of a very rare disease, it is still not likely that have that rare disease – because it is rare. It may be far more likely that they are an atypical presentation of a very common disease.

You can apply this also to specific symptoms. We naively think about how typical a symptom is of a specific disease, but we really should think about how predictive it is. Fever may be a typical symptom of zika virus infection, but by itself it is not very predictive.

When ordering tests we need to think about the sensitivity and specificity of that test, and how predictive positive and negative outcomes would be. Further, we need to consider what we will actually do with those test results and if they will make a difference to the patient. A good rule of thumb in medicine is not to order a test unless you know exactly what you will do with the results. Don’t do it, “just to see,” or “just to be sure.”

Perhaps the hardest thing for a clinician to do is put aside their gut feelings, their personal experience and what they feel is right and practice according to cold hard facts and logic. It seems incongruous to what a physician should be, but carefully following evidence leads to the best outcomes. But to clarify, this does not mean clinicians don’t consider personal preference and patient feelings. It doesn’t mean we actually are cold – just that we follow a careful evidence-based process, rather than shooting from the hip.

Even for clinicians who are aware of all these factors and are good critical and clinical thinkers, there is still the challenge of having access to the necessary specific information. Each tiny component of managing a patient could be informed by a complex and deep medical literature, one that is changing all the time as new studies are published. All doctors are out-of-date on some of their knowledge, and have gaps in other areas. No one has complete up-to-date knowledge, it’s not possible.

Therefore we need to carefully think about the systems we put in place to maximize practitioners having the information they need at the “point of patient care” – the moment they are making a specific clinical decision. This is traditionally accomplished through training and continue education, which is necessary but insufficient.

There are also practice guidelines where experts review the evidence and quickly summarize them for the busy clinician.

We are just emerging into another era of medicine where we harness the potential of computers, AI, and expert systems to provide that critical information when needed. This is an underutilized tool at this time, in my opinion, but I think will eventually transform the practice of medicine.

Meanwhile, we need to continue to gather the kind of evidence summarized in this recent JAMA article, and make it available to practitioners. We also need to continue to push back against any attempt to water down the evidence-based nature of modern medicine.

Categories: Skeptic

The Gun Debate Revisited

neurologicablog Feed - Thu, 10/05/2017 - 5:14am

After every mass shooting there is a renewed debate and call for better gun control, and pushback from gun owners who say, “Now is not the time to get political,” and “There’s nothing we can do to stop gun violence, it’s the price of freedom.” Then precisely nothing happens until we get distracted by something else and forget about gun violence until the next headline-grabbing shooting.

Clearly whatever we are doing is not working, and it is the oft-cited definition of insanity to do the same thing and expect a different outcome. So what are we doing wrong?

First, we have to acknowledge that there is a problem. There are about 33,000 gun deaths per year in the US. This is more than any other wealthy country – only war-torn banana republics have higher rates of gun deaths. There were 477 mass shootings in the US in 2016.

About two thirds of gun deaths are from suicides. That is a large portion, but that still leaves 11,000 non-suicide gun deaths each year in the US. Gun homicides are a huge problem, not diminished at all because gun suicides are an even bigger problem. About 20% of gun deaths are crime and gang-related homicides, mostly young men killing other young men. Also, about 1,700 women are killed each year from gun-related domestic violence.

I reject the notion that this is the best we can do, that this is the price of freedom. Other Western democracies seem to enjoy freedom without anything close to the same rate of gun violence. So why has this been such a hard problem to solve?

I don’t think there is a simple answer. We can point at individual factors, and certainly I agree that the narrow-minded gun lobby is part of the problem. But I think there is a reason this vocal minority has been able to stave off effective gun policy – because there is a deeper dysfunction in the entire political landscape.

To clarify – family therapists often talk of the “identified patient.” Families come to them often with the narrative that one family member is the problem and they need to be fixed. They are the identified patient – but the therapist recognizes that there is a family dysfunction that needs to be addressed. That one member is not the problem, just a focal point for the deeper dysfunction. They then focus on every member and the family dynamics.

Perhaps we need to do the same thing with the gun debate. To oversimplify for the sake of discussion, there are two broad sides in this debate, those who promote gun freedom and those who promote gun control. In reality, there are many people who simultaneously believe in both, but these are the two sides of the debate. From my perspective it seems that the two sides don’t communicate well and neither side has a great solution.

The dysfunctional relationship goes like this – gun proponents argue that regulation is not effective, gun opponents don’t understand guns and propose simplistic laws, the real problem is mental illness and other social ills, and law-abiding responsible gun owners should not be punished. Gun control advocates argue that the US has a unique gun problem, the gun lobby stands in the way of effective gun control, and no citizen needs to have access to the kinds of guns that were used in the Las Vegas shooting.

Both sides have a point, but both also have a limited view, they mostly talk passed each other, and nothing real happens.

Part of the problem is that the data is incredibly ambiguous. A recent article in the Washington Post by a researcher reviews the complexity in the research. The bottom line is that it is not clear from the data if proposed regulations would be effective. Advocating for ineffective gun regulations makes it easy to oppose gun regulations.

But this is where the gun lobby, in my opinion, gets it profoundly wrong. Instead of helping write knowledgeable, fair, and effective gun control laws, they just criticize efforts to do so. They love pointing out the sometimes trivial and sometimes meaningful errors that gun opponents make in discussing guns.

“Silencers” only exist in the movies. Real guns use “suppressors” which still leave a loud noise and don’t raise the danger of guns. “Assault rifle” is an arbitrary category. It’s a “magazine” not a “clip.” Got it.

OK – so help craft meaningful regulations that would actually reduce the lethality of legal guns without unfairly or unnecessarily inhibiting the freedoms of responsible gun owners. Gun manufacturers should get involved also. Shouldn’t everyone want to reduce those 33,000 gun deaths?

Obviously guns are not the whole problem. We need to address mental illness, suicide prevention, gang violence, and domestic violence. Absolutely. But all of those problems are made worse by the ready availability of guns and inadequate protections.

If the issue (and politics in general) were not so polarizing, both sides should be able to come together and craft regulations that are effective and represent a meaningful compromise. There is some low-hanging fruit, like universal background checks. A majority of Republicans and Democrats favor such regulation.

The gun lobby needs to abandon its ridiculous “slippery slope” argument as an excuse to oppose any and all gun regulations. They also need to stop their opposition to gun violence research. That is just obstructionist.

Gun law proponents also need to recognize that this is a complex problem and simplistic bans on scary-sounding gun features are not likely to be effective.

Working together perhaps we can find a way to make it really hard to convert a semi-automatic weapon into one that is effectively fully automatic, like was used in Vegas. This will probably necessitate changes in gun design to make it essentially impossible to do such conversions.

Gun owners need to be honest about what they want their guns for – hunting, target shooting, pest control, and self-defense. None of these uses require a gun that is optimized for killing the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time. I will leave the details up to the experts, but there should be a way to design civilian guns for civilian uses.

Gun safety regulations are also a no-brainer. And we should be able to keep guns out of the hands of violent and unstable people. Gun owners will have to accept some minor inconveniences to make this happen – that is the nature of compromise.

We’re never going to reduce gun violence to zero, and we do have to accept a certain amount of risk for our freedoms. But we can certainly do better. This should be an issue that can bring both sides together to craft effective evidence-based regulation through meaningful compromise.

I know that’s wishful thinking, but it doesn’t hurt to point it out.

 

 

Categories: Skeptic

CFI Welcomes Jason Lemieux as Director of Government Affairs

Center for Inquiry News - Wed, 10/04/2017 - 2:46pm

The Center for Inquiry is proud to welcome Jason Lemieux as its new Director of Government Affairs as of Monday, October 2. A veteran of both the U.S. military and Capitol Hill, Jason will lead CFI’s efforts in advancing public policy based on reason, science, and humanist values.

Jason comes to CFI with a breadth of experience. As a former U.S. Marine and serving three tours of duty in Iraq, Sgt. Lemieux led an intelligence and infantry team in Ramadi. Coming home, he served as a spokesperson and board member for Iraq Veterans Against the War.

After earning a master’s degree from Columbia University in International Affairs, Jason was a fellow in the congressional offices of Representatives Mike Thompson (D-CA) and Charlie Rangel (D-NY), and most recently served as a legislative correspondent for U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ).

Jason’s written work has appeared in publications such as Time Magazine, New York Daily News, and Huffington Post, and he has been interviewed on outlets such as PBS Newshour, Al Jazeera English, and even Fox and Friends.

“Jason will be advocating for reason and humanist values in policymaking,” said Robyn Blumner, President and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. “To cut through the thicket of science denial, and hostility toward atheists, we need someone sharp, tough, and persuasive. That someone is Jason Lemieux, and we are looking forward to having him at the helm of the Center for Inquiry’s domestic advocacy work.”

“It’s my honor to join CFI as the Director of Government Affairs,” said Lemieux. “We humans are connected to each other and to the cosmos by our relationship to the evidence revealed by a scientific worldview. To be truly representative, governments must be guided by this evidence, and I look forward to advancing CFI’s work at this critical moment in history.”

# # #

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at www.centerforinquiry.net.

 

Categories: , Skeptic

eSkeptic for October 4, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 10/04/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

SCIENTIFIC NATURALISM A Manifesto for Enlightenment Humanism

This week, on our Patreon page, we present a recording of Michael Shermer’s article, “Scientific Naturalism: A Manifesto for Enlightenment Humanism,” originally published in the journal Theology and Science in July 2017, being read by the author, and introduced by David Smalley.

The abstract to the paper serves as a quick summary of it.

Abstract

The success of the Scientific Revolution led to the development of the worldview of scientific naturalism, or the belief that the world is governed by natural laws and forces that can be understood, and that all phenomena are part of nature and can be explained by natural causes, including human cognitive, moral, and social phenomena. The application of scientific naturalism in the human realm led to the widespread adoption of Enlightenment humanism, a cosmopolitan worldview that places supreme value on science and reason, eschews the supernatural entirely, and relies exclusively on nature and nature’s laws—including human nature and the laws and forces that govern us and our societies—for a complete understanding of the cosmos and everything in it, from particles to people.

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. He is the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, The Science of Good and Evil, and The Moral Arc. His next book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality & Utopia. His two TedTalks, viewed nearly 8 million times, were voted in the top 100 of the more than 2000 TedTalks.

Hear the manifesto

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SCIENCE SALON # 15: OCTOBER 15, 2017 UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says

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SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN “SKEPTIC” COLUMN FOR OCTOBER 2017 Sky Gods for Skeptics: Is belief in aliens a religious impulse?

In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Captain James T. Kirk encounters a deity that lures him to its planet in order to abscond with the Enterprise. “What does God need with a starship?” the skeptical commander inquires. I talked to Kirk himself—William Shatner, that is—about the film when I met him at a recent conference. The original plot device for the movie, which he directed, was for the crew to go “in search of God.” Fearful that some religious adherents might be offended that the Almighty could be discoverable by a spaceship, the studio bosses insisted that the deity be a malicious extraterrestrial impersonating God for personal gain.

How could a starship—or any technology designed to detect natural forces and objects—discover a supernatural God, who by definition would be beyond any such sensors? Any detectable entity would have to be a natural being, no matter how advanced, and as I have argued in this column [see “Shermer’s Last Law”; January 2002], “any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence [ETI] is indistinguishable from God.” Thus, Shatner’s plot theme of looking for God could only turn up an ETI sufficiently advanced to appear God-like.

Perhaps herein lies the impulse to search. In his 1982 book Plurality of Worlds (Cambridge University Press), historian of science Steven J. Dick suggested that when Isaac Newton’s mechanical universe replaced the medieval spiritual world, it left a lifeless void that was filled with the modern search for ETI. In his 1995 book Are We Alone? (Basic Books), physicist Paul Davies wondered: “What I am more concerned with is the extent to which the modern search for aliens is, at rock-bottom, part of an ancient religious quest.” Historian George Basalla made a similar observation in his 2006 work Civilized Life in the Universe (Oxford University Press): “The idea of the superiority of celestial beings is neither new nor scientific. It is a widespread and old belief in religious thought.” […]

Read the complete column

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American Goblins—Part 1
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 136

In August of 1955, a farm family in Kentucky found their home under attack by strange goblin-like monsters. In the years since the attack, the case has retained a perplexing endurance. What happened that night in Kentucky? Were aliens to blame? Underworld monsters? Misidentified natural causes? This is part one of our discussion of what has become known as The Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Nobel in Medicine for Circadian Rhythm

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 10/03/2017 - 4:34am

Remember that time Sarah Palin said:

“[tax] dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good — things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.”

OK, she was actually referring to the olive fruit fly, Bactrocera oleae, not the staple of genetics research, Drosophila melanogaster. The comment is still a legitimate target for criticism because it is not clear that Palin understands the difference (or she wouldn’t have said it that way), her statement seems to imply that scientific research into the humble “fruit fly” is a waste, and she is generally anti-science (when it conflicts with her ideology).

At the time of her statement many scientists and reporters delighted in pointing out how central fruit fly research has been to scientific advancements. Well, we can add another example from this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The prize goes to three American scientists, Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young, for their work on the circadian rhythm. 

The Body Clock

The circadian rhythm (which many outlets are calling the “body clock” to avoid jargon) is an internal biological clock shared by all multi-cellular creatures. We have actually known for a long time that multi-cellular life has such an internal clock. As the Nobel press release points out:

During the 18th century, the astronomer Jean Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan studied mimosa plants, and found that the leaves opened towards the sun during daytime and closed at dusk. He wondered what would happen if the plant was placed in constant darkness. He found that independent of daily sunlight the leaves continued to follow their normal daily oscillation. Plants seemed to have their own biological clock.

The mimosa followed a 24 hour cycle even without the external clues of light and dark. It then took almost three centuries to figure out the mechanism for this internal clock.

In the 1970s Seymour Benzer and Ronald Konopka identified a gene in fruit flies (thank you) they called the period gene. Mutations in this gene disrupted the circadian rhythm in fruit flies.

This brings us to the work of the three Nobel winners – they isolated the period gene and characterized its protein product, which they called PER. The PER protein, they found, increases while we are sleeping at night and then decreases throughout the day. So now we have a gene that is clearly important to the circadian rhythm, and the levels of its protein are tied to the 24 hour cycle. The next question is – how are the levels of this protein regulated?

They discovered that the PER protein inhibits its own synthesis. This means that the protein will build up until it turns off its own synthesis, and then levels will drop as the protein degrades until it is low enough that synthesis is turned back on, and the protein builds up again. This self-inhibitory feedback loop is all that is necessary to create this endless cycle.

But more questions remained. How does the PER protein inhibit its own synthesis? At the very least it would have to gain access to the cell’s nucleus where the DNA lives. Young discovered a gene called the timeless gene which makes a protein called TIM. The TIM protein binds to the PER protein, and together they make Voltron – I mean together they are able to be transported into the nucleus where they inhibit the period gene.

Young then discovered another gene he called doubletime which makes the DBT protein. This protein delays the accumulation of the PER protein, so it can be used to tweak the duration of this cycle.

There’s more – the laureates and other researchers identified other genes which regulate this system, including responding to light levels so that the protein cycle synchronizes with the day.

This day-long clock apparently exists in every cell in every multi-cellular creature. This implies that it is evolutionarily very ancient, and is fundamental to cellular function. Once cells developed a clock, a host of other cellular functions, and by extension physiological functions, could be tied to it. Obviously there is the sleep-wake cycle, but there are also daily variations in blood pressure, cortisol levels, body temperature, and alertness.

This research and these researchers were recognized by the Nobel committee because of how central their work is to understanding biology, and how many potential implications it has. The circadian rhythm of cells is a basic cellular function that potentially drives many other functions.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #591: Ouija Boards

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 10/02/2017 - 5:00pm
Real effects far more interesting than spiritualism claims are behind these famous talking boards.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Rocket Travel

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 10/02/2017 - 5:15am

Elon Musk is an interesting guy. Also, because of the success of SpaceX, when he makes promises about future technology, it is at least worth a listen. At a recent meeting of the International Astronautical Congress Musk stated that he plans on developing SpaceX’s rocket technology for commercial transportation between cities on Earth. He also made a promotional video.

The idea of using rocket travel for long distances (instead of jets) is not new. It has been featured in various science-fiction views of the future or even alternate realities of the present. The obvious advantage to rocket travel is that it is fast. A suborbital trajectory can get you between almost any two cities on Earth in 30 minutes or less.

This is all part of SpaceX’s new project, the BFR (I could not find anywhere exactly what that stands for – just the implication that it’s “Big Fu**ing Rocket”, which is awesome). Musk wants to stop developing his Falcon series of rockets and focus entirely on one rocket system to do everything they need to do – the BFR. The idea is that this will help reduce overall costs.

The BFR is completely reusable, which is key to cost control. Musk plans to use the rocket to put satellites into orbit, resupply the space station, send people to the moon, and even send people to Mars and rocket them between cities on Earth.

I like the idea of perfecting one rocket design and using it for everything. Part of the key to its flexibility is that it can be refueled in space. So you can use up your fuel to get into orbit, then refuel for a boost to the moon or Mars.

Musk is also very intent on making the BFR pay for itself. Using it for passengers is part of that overall plan.

OK – so what are the hurdles to making rocket travel on Earth a reality?

Cost is the obvious big hurdle. Few people can afford to pay tens of thousands of dollars for one trip. You could also charter your own luxury jet for that much. Musk will have to get the costs way down to make the enterprise feasible. He plans to do that, but we’ll see.

Safety is also a huge factor. SpaceX has successfully landed 16 rockets in a row, which is great. But for routine commercial travel they will need a much greater safety record. Musk plans to use the BFR city-to-city transport for cargo for a while (no passengers) which is a great idea. SpaceX could build up years of experience with hundreds or thousands of successful trips before taking passengers. This raises the question of whether or not cargo transport by rocket can pay for itself, which is a factor Musk prioritizes.

Logistics and overall travel time is also a factor. How many point-to-points facilities will they have? What will the security be like? The video shows passengers taking a boat out to the launch pad. Will there also be a boat ride at the other end?

If you happen to live near one of the serviced cities and you need to travel half way around the world, this may be a great option. Otherwise, the advantage in total travel time may not be worth it. If you have to make a connecting flight to get to a rocket-serviced city, that takes time. The actual rocket flight time may be the smallest factor.

These same issues come up with supersonic flight. Will rocket travel be more convenient and cost effective than just really fast jets? Perhaps. One advantage is that the travel time is much shorter.

So, overall I like the idea of the flexible and cost-effective BFR. I like that Musk is willing to think about and attempt to develop future game-changing technology. Almost by definition, many such ventures will fail, but you have to try to succeed. I give commercial rocket travel a low probability overall, mainly for logistical and cost reasons, but it is not implausible. Perhaps the most plausible aspect of the plan is that it uses the same rocket SpaceX will be using for everything else.

I also like Musk’s plan to find commercial uses for the BFR that make money, and then using that to finance more speculative ventures like developing a moon base or going to Mars. I still don’t think we will be sending anyone to Mars anytime soon. Musk plans on 2024, which he admits is aspirational, but there are some logistical deal-breakers at the moment – like radiation and supplies.

I do like that Musk is not just a dreamer, but a planner. He is actually developing technology and searching for ways to innovate and change the world. It is easy to cynically criticize his optimism and lofty plans, but to some extent he is getting it done. Just watch one of SpaceX’s rockets do a vertical landing and I dare you not to be impressed. So I say – you go, Elon.

 

Categories: Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #638 - Sep 30 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 09/30/2017 - 9:00am
What's the Word: Cis-Trans; News Items: Chocolate Fungus, Mood Affects Flu Shot, Waking from Coma, International Moon Mission, Do Jellies Sleep; Who's that Noisy; Your Questions and E-mails: Celsius vs Fahrenheit; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

GM Wheat for the Gluten Sensitive

neurologicablog Feed - Fri, 09/29/2017 - 4:58am

Celiac disease is a serious disorder that affects about 1% of the population worldwide. The disease results from an immune reaction to gliadin, which is part of the gluten protein found in wheat, rye, and barely. Glutens are stretchy proteins that give breads their sponginess and allow breads to rise.

Those with celiac disease make antibodies to gliadin, which causes inflammation of the lining of the small intestine and a number of painful and harmful symptoms. It can now be accurately diagnosed with blood tests for the anti-gliadin antibodies, but the only treatment is a life-long diet free of any gluten.

Gluten has also caught the attention of the clean-eating food fad crowd, who have convinced many people they have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. As I discussed previously, this entity is controversial at best and probably doesn’t exist. However, it is always important to point out that many people who end up falling into an ultimately false diagnosis may have a different real disease. Some people who now get labeled as gluten sensitive may actually have wheat allergies. There are other possible culprits as well, such as FODMAPs (fermentable, oligo-, di-, monosaccharides, and polyols).

Regardless, life for those with celiac disease can be challenging. The diet is rigorous, and even the smallest amount of gluten can trigger a reaction in those truly sensitive. 

Genetic Modification to the Rescue

Researchers are attempting to address this situation by creating a genetically modified wheat that produces gluten without the gliadin component that triggers the immune response. They recently published the results of their initial work. Essentially they identified 45 genes in wheat that are related to gliadin, and they used CRISPR to silence or remove them. They report:

The -gliadin gene family of wheat contains four highly stimulatory peptides, of which the 33-mer is the main immunodominant peptide in celiac patients. We designed two sgRNAs to target a conserved region adjacent to the coding sequence for the 33-mer in the -gliadin genes. Twenty-one mutant lines were generated, all showing strong reduction in -gliadins. Up to 35 different genes were mutated in one of the lines of the 45 different genes identified in the wild type, while immunoreactivity was reduced by 85%.

A “33-mer” is simply a protein component made of 33 amino acids (proteins are basically folded chains of 20 different amino acids). In one of the mutant lines created they were able to silence 35 of the 45 genes used to produce gliadin, with an 85% reduction in the immune response. They plan to continue their work to silence all 45 genes, which will hopefully result in 100% reduction in immune response.

The resulting wheat will not be exactly like regular wheat, but it will still have gluten, just not as spongy as regular gluten. It can apparently be used to make some breads and other wheat products and could be a huge boon to those with celiac disease.

Similar efforts are under way to use genetic modification techniques to make other foods safer for some or all of the population. One target of extensive research is peanuts. Peanut and tree nut allergies are common and can be fatal. Research is under way to identify the genes that code for the allergy-causing proteins, and then CRISPR them away.

This will prove challenging, however, and will likely take longer than rosy predictions. Because nut allergies can be severe, you really have to get all the allergy causing genes. I will then be necessary to either completely segregate the hypoallergenic nuts, or completely replace the regular varieties. Further, it remains to be seen what the resulting nuts will be like in terms of taste and nutrition.

But still, these all seem like solvable problems. The reduction in health-care costs from treating unintended nut allergic reactions is probably worth the cost of research and development.

There are already GMO potato varieties that have reduce acrylamide, which is a compound that can increase the risk of cancer when it is cooked.

These types of genetic changes, it should be pointed out, do not involve inserting new genes into crops but just silencing or removing existing genes. Because of this the risk of unintended consequences is small.

These examples show the potential of genetic modification to make our food safer, and reduce health-care costs. This, of course, adds to the potential harm caused by ideological opposition to genetically modified organisms.

Categories: Skeptic

Health Blogger Gibson Fined

neurologicablog Feed - Thu, 09/28/2017 - 4:46am

Belle Gibson is an Australian wellness blogger who made a lot of money selling her cookbooks and apps for healthy eating. What elevated her profile above the sea of competitors, however, was her claim to have cured herself of brain cancer with her diet. The problem with her story, however, is that she never had brain cancer.

Now an Australian court has fined Gibson $410,000 for  fraud.

Gibson doesn’t really tell a coherent story, and it is full of red flags, but here is what she says. She claims she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer by a German alternative medicine practitioner. She believed the diagnosis, and was just “living her truth.” Therefore, she says, she never lied to her followers, she was lied to herself.

But her story of being a victim does not really hold together. In 2011 she was given a brain scan which found her to be perfectly healthy. So she knew at that time that she never had brain cancer. However, two years later she launched her wellness app in which she claimed her diet cured her of brain cancer. She also claims that she was about to come clean with her readers, but the media got to her first. Right.

Her claim of being a victim also doesn’t explain why the money that was apparently donated to charity via sales of her app never made it to the charity.

Those are a pretty damning set of facts, and her explanations don’t really cover them. I guess the Australian court agreed.

I cases like this, however, I have to point out that to a certain extent it really doesn’t matter if she believed she had brain cancer or not. It does in terms of her guilt, but not in terms of her behavior. When it comes to the public health there is a responsibility for due diligence. It is not enough that you believe what you are doing is correct. You have a responsibility to ensure that what you are doing is the right thing.

Gibson never did any due diligence. She did not have her diagnosis confirmed prior to shouting to the world that she cured brain cancer with diet. She did not seek expert advice or oversight. She apparently never considered the risk she was posing to patients with cancer who might believe her heroic tale, and as a result forgo standard cancer therapy pursuing her diet recommendations.

When confronted about this responsibility, she (like many health gurus) tried to wiggle out, saying, “I was not an expert in anyone else’s health.” That is the nebulous world in which alternative medicine exists. Practitioners are often not doctors or health experts. Gibson was just a “wellness blogger.” They give out what is essentially medical advice, but think they have no responsibility for that information.

This is not incidental – it is core to the alternative medicine movement, which promotes itself by waging war against the standard of care and expertise. They are gurus in every sense of the word – they want to be respected for their insights and knowledge, but be held to no standard of process or competence. When challenged, they typically cite something about freedom. They want their victims to think they are defending their freedom, but in reality they are just promoting their own freedom to sell health care products and services with no oversight or quality control.

Standards exist for a reason, especially when it comes to health. It is not enough that you believe what you are doing is right. And of course, standard require objectivity, which means we need logic and scientific evidence, and that evidence needs to have standards as well.

This, of course, is precisely why the alternative medicine movement is trying to confuse and erode scientific standards.

Gibson is really no different than any health or wellness guru. She just got caught red-handed. The entire industry, however, shares her guilt. This is what happens when standards and science are dismissed as a conspiracy, in favor of sincere charlatans who are just, “living their truth.”

Categories: Skeptic

Conjuring Up a Lost Civilization: An Analysis of the Claims Made by Graham Hancock in Magicians of the Gods

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 09/27/2017 - 12:00am

Graham Hancock’s 2015 book Magicians of the Gods: The Forgotten Wisdom of Earth’s Lost Civilization1 is something of a sequel and update to his 1995 international bestseller Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilization,2 which was translated into 27 languages and sold more than three million copies.3 In Fingerprints, Hancock uses creation myths in ancient texts and wild geological scenarios to suggest that 12,450 years ago major crustal shifts moved Antarctica to its present location. Portions of a supposedly highly advanced unknown lost civilization (none other than Atlantis) living on Antarctica at the time were able to survive the destructive cataclysms and go on to convey their knowledge to the builders of the megalithic structures of Egypt, Maya, Babylon, and other known great civilizations. He also claims that the Mayan calendar portended world cataclysms in 2012. In Magicians, Hancock now says he got it all wrong—there was no crustal shift; instead he thinks this advanced civilization was destroyed by a comet.

Magicians appears to be on its way to becoming another bestseller for the British writer. Although Hancock has few scientific credentials (an undergraduate degree in sociology from Durham University),4 his early career as a journalist5 helped him navigate through a wide range of scientific research, but without benefit of specialized training in astronomy, geology, history, archaeology, or comparative religion and mythology. Hancock is obviously bright, articulate, and a good writer and storyteller who comes across as eminently reasonable, which makes it all the more difficult to tease apart fact from fiction in the many claims made in his books, documentary films, and lectures.

Göbekli Tepe

Figure 1: Excavators uncover one of many circular enclosures at Göbekli Tepe. Two large T-shaped pillars over 5m (16 feet) high typically stand in the middle of the ring with smaller pillars facing them. Some of these stones are decorated with reliefs of animals that once lived in the area. This area known as Enclosure D features birds, while others emphasize animals such as snakes, foxes, boars, or wildcats.

The centerpiece of Hancock’s Magicians is a remarkable archaeological site called Göbekli Tepe in Turkey dated to 11,600 years ago. He contends Göbekli Tepe is too advanced to have been built by hunter-gatherers alone, and must therefore have been constructed with the help of people from a more advanced civilization. Unfortunately for Hancock these people left behind no hard evidence for their existence, so he is forced to allude to what he thinks is sophisticated architecture, along with a few carved figures that he asserts represent astronomical constellations. From these speculations Hancock concludes: “At the very least it [Göbekli Tepe] would mean that some as yet unknown and unidentified people somewhere in the world had already mastered all the arts and attributes of a high civilization more than twelve thousand years ago in the depths of the last Ice Age and sent out emissaries around the world to spread the benefits of their knowledge.”

It’s a romantic notion, but not the conclusion that the late great German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt came to after excavating Göbekli Tepe for more than two decades beginning in 1994. The site, he says, was used from 11,600 to about 10,000 years before the present. Lower sections were backfilled giving way to new structures on top. The fill is refuse containing sediment, hundreds of thousands of broken animal bones, flint tools for carving the structures within the site and for hunting game, and the remains of cereals and other plant material, and even a few human bones. There is no evidence that the site was ever used as a residence, and the megaliths found there (Schmidt called them “monumental religious architecture”) along with carvings and totems, imply ritual and feasting.

Figure 2: A T-shaped megalith with animal carvings at Göbekli Tepe.

The main features of Göbekli Tepe are the T-shaped 7– to 10-ton monolithic pillars cut and hauled from crystalline limestone quarries on the tepe (hill) and erected within 10– to 20-meter ring structures made of rocks annealed by clay mortar that encircle the pillars. The stone statues are clearly anthropomorphic— arms and hands can be seen on the sides of the pillars reaching around to the front. A variety of animals, mostly representing the wild animals found within the refuse, have been carved on the pillars.6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Göbekli Tepe and other archaeological sites being studied nearby have forced archaeologists to rethink the way the prehistoric lifestyle of hunting, gathering, and foraging gave way to a more domesticated lifestyle in northern Mesopotamia. Oliver Dietrich, a colleague of Klaus Schmidt at the German Archaeological Institute, poignantly expressed the impact of these discoveries: “These people must have had a highly complicated mythology, including a capacity for abstraction. Following these ideas, we now have more evidence that…social systems changed before, not as a result of, the shift to farming.”11 It also shows that hunter-gatherers were capable of more than we previously thought, and that the origins of religion may have to be pushed back by millennia.

But this is a far cry from Hancock’s proposal that the site is a link to his lost civilization. In fact, archaeologists consider Göbekli Tepe to be a pre-pottery Neolithic site. Not only is clay pottery absent, the site contans no evidence of any metal or metal workings. The obvious reason for this is that clay pottery and metals are typical of more advanced cultures. Although Hancock writes that “our ancestors are being initiated into the secrets of metals, and how to make swords and knives,” no such thing is found at any of the archaeological sites he touts as being influenced by his highly advanced lost civilization, not at Göbekli Tepe, nor in the non-Roman areas of Baalbek, Easter Island, nor at any of the ancient Mayan sites he discusses.

During an exchange with Michael Shermer on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Hancock suggested that “perhaps,” “maybe,” and “possibly” this lost civilization did not have metal tools, writing, and other features of societies traditionally labeled as “advanced,” and that we need to reconfigure the mainstream scientific timeline of what it means to be an advanced culture. Perhaps, he hinted, they communicated entirely through the oral tradition, skipping writing. When Shermer pressed him to explain what he means by “advanced” Hancock replied: “I am saying that a group of people settled amongst the hunter-gatherers and transferred some skills for them.” When I came into the debate later and pushed him on this same issue of how an allegedly advanced civilization could lack all the features of other such societies, such as metallurgy, he demurred: “I do not make that claim. I am reporting that this claim is made in the Book of Enoch.” It is true that in his book Hancock discusses the secrets of metals in the context of discussing the Book of Enoch, but the entire chapter is in support of evidence that a lost civilization had superior knowledge that included the secrets of metal working. Such details are important because it gives us a glimpse into how Hancock infers one thing when it is convenient in making his point, but then shifts to claiming he is only reporting what other people say when the implications stretch our credulity. For example, Hancock calls these ancient peoples the “Watchers” (aka the “Magicians”) in a section titled “Mystery of the Nephilim”:

The Watchers begin their development project in quite small ways, teaching “charms and enchantments, and the cutting of roots” to humans, and making them “acquainted with plants.” This sounds fairly harmless; apart from a bit of “enchantment,” it’s not really above and beyond the basic hunter-gatherer level of skills. But pretty soon, as we saw earlier, our ancestors are being initiated into the secrets of metals and how to make swords and knives, and how to study the heavens.

Hancock may call this reporting, but Shermer was not satisfied by such chicanery when he questioned Hancock on why the hunter-gatherers at Göbekli Tepe were not taught the “secrets of metal workings.” Hancock had no explanation as to why the hunter-gatherers at Göbekli Tepe knew nothing about metals, or even pottery, nor did he reply to Shermer’s numerous requests for a definition of an “advanced civilization” that lacked writing, metallurgy, or ceramics.

Schmidt and his colleagues have arduously documented the use of flint tools for the construction of Göbekli Tepe, and none of the hundreds of thousands of animal bones and cereals found in the backfill from the lowest levels show any signs of domestication— they are all wild species. In fact, the large abundance of bones from wild animals found at the site allows Schmidt to underscore the ability of the hunter-gatherers in the region to support the hundreds of workers and stone cutters presumed necessary to create the megaliths and other structures. Schmidt makes a salient point almost as if he anticipated Hancock’s book: “Fabulous or mythical creatures, such as centaurs or the sphinx, winged bulls or horses, do not yet occur in the iconography and therefore in the mythology of the prehistoric times. They must be recognized as creations of the high cultures which arose later.”12 I would only add that unlike the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations where inscriptions made by literate societies have been well documented, not a single inscription has been found at Göbekli Tepe.

Patterns in the Stars

Next consider Hancock’s assertion that the stone carvings on the sides of the T-shaped pillars at Göbekli Tepe represent constellations. Figure 49 on page 319 of his book (Figure 3 below) emphasizes how virtually any figure could be matched to star asterisms (clusters). In fact, Schmidt concluded that the figures on the pillars mostly represent the wild animals whose bones were found in the backfill from the site.

Figure 3: Hancock claims that the “teapot” asterism of the constellation Sagittarius fits the vulture from Göbekli Tepe better than the archer (page 319).

Figure 4: Two interpretations of the “teapot” asterism by the author: Uncle Sam and a commando insignia. It is easy to find matching patterns if you are motivated to do so.

Recently Hancock’s thesis seemed to find support from two professors at the University of Edinburgh, Martin Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis, whose paper reported that the “vulture stone,” a pillar at Göbekli Tepe, is “a date stamp for 10950 BCE ± 250 yrs.”13 I wrote Sweatman about the article prior to our debate with Hancock on the Rogan show, and he directed me to his website where he states:

Graham Hancock attempted to decode GT in his book Magicians of the Gods using the ideas of Paul Burley and the YD [Younger Dryas] context provided by [Andrew] Collins, but in our view his logic takes a wrong turn early on, leading him to make some erroneous conclusions. Especially we oppose Graham’s contention that the Vulture Stone predicts an impact 12,000 years into their future—around 2030 AD—this is, ocurse [sic] impossible.

That Sweatman distances himself from Hancock’s theory is telling, but in my decades of reading scientific papers I have never come across an article more speculative than this one. The entire paper rests on the supposition that the authors can match “low relief carvings” on a pillar of Göbekli Tepe to star asterisms in 10,950 BCE in the western sky at 4 seconds after 1:01 PM on September 11 (Figure 5, below). Specifically, Sweatman and Tsikritsis use the carvings on pillar 43. But why that one? There are many pillars both unearthed (44) and still buried at Göbekli Tepe, so it is not clear why pillar 43 has the significance they attribute to it—drawings of animals decorate most of the pillars. In any case, they start by assuming that the scorpion at the bottom of pillar 43 is the same as the modern-day constellation Scorpius. The assumption that we can attribute 12,950 year-old patterns on rocks to star asterisms is highly suspect. Here in the U.S., for example, we call a set of stars in the constellation Ursa Major the Big Dipper because to our eyes it looks like a dipper. In the UK, however, they call the same asterism the Plough. In Mayan culture it is described as a parrot. In ancient Egypt it is the leg of a bull. No doubt naming asterisms helped ancient peoples remember star patterns, but the names were not always chosen on the basis of a matching appearance with the asterism. Such naming could be and often was symbolic. There are many carved images of animals at Göbekli Tepe, and attributing even one to a star pattern is more like astrology than science.

Figure 5: The star pattern is from the day sky in 10,950 BCE (using the astronomical computer program Stellarium) with the images from pillar 43 at Göbekli Tepe matched with the constellation as proposed by Sweatman and Tsikritsis. I argue that the correlations are purely speculative.

Here is the rub. Sweatman and Tsikritsis casually assume that because in the past a star asterism was attributed to a scorpion (in this case Scorpius), it makes perfect sense that ancient hunter-gatherers living 13,000 years ago saw the same pattern as a scorpion. Look carefully at Figure 6 (below) and compare the scorpions to the star pattern we call Scorpius. I think most would contend that almost any elongated figure could be associated with the star asterism and that matching of a scorpion to the pattern takes a fertile imagination. Finally, the scorpion on pillar 43 looks nothing like the star pattern.

Figure 6: The Scorpius star asterism (above left) associated with the scorpion is compared to the carving of the scorpion found at Göbekli Tepe (above right). We know constellations are symbols not necessarily based on matching patterns, as can be seen from the lack of correlation between either scorpion and the asterism. This shows the tenuous foundation of the Sweatman and Tsikritsis argument. (Image on the left above is from the Stellarium astronomical computer program.)

The pattern correlation problem does not keep Sweatman and Tsikritsis from matching figures on pillar 43 in a roughly clockwise fashion to the asterisms surrounding Scorpius in the day sky of 10,950 BCE. I show the day sky with the location of the sun and images of the various animals below with arrows pointing to the constellations they supposedly match (Figure 5).

Besides the obvious fact that the images have no good correlation to the star patterns in the known constellations displayed (e.g., look at the bird figure that has been matched with Libra), there are many constellations that have been ignored, such as Norma, Ara, Telescopium, Corona Australis, Scutum, and Serpens. In addition, there is one bird-like feature that does not match to any star asterism and in another case, for an unexplained reason, a crane-like image is combined with a fish-like image to match with Ophiuchus. Not only do Sweatman and Tsikritsist claim their mapping of the images in the sky documents a date of 10950 BCE ± 250 years, but they go on to conclude that the hunter-gatherers of Göbekli Tepe must have been certifying the date of “the” comet strike. (Even though that strike supposedly occurred in North America). They try to bring their point home by suggesting that a “belt buckle” with a “nested U” has “an excellent likeness of the very specific bow shock wave of a hypersonic spherical object.” Seriously? Without high speed photography how does one see the bow shock wave of an object traveling faster than the speed of sound?

If you wanted to convey the existence of a comet strike to future generations, would it not be prudent and obvious to carve the actual positions of the stars along with the comet on a rock? Sweatman and Tsikritsis, along with Hancock, attribute evolved astronomical knowledge to these huntergatherers. So why don’t these ancients show off their knowledge with star maps rather than with figures that may or may not represent constellations? I think the answer is obvious—the carvings likely have nothing to do with asterisms.

Hancock has attempted to make the case that the megalithic structures at Göbekli Tepe are so complex that they had to involve assistance from his lost advanced civilization when the hunter-gatherers built them. But Schmidt found that the backfill that covered these structures had no signs of any advanced technologies including domesticated animals or crops. Shermer’s point about lack of technology becomes even more salient when you carefully examine Hancock’s proposal—the Magicians supposedly taught hunter-gatherers the secrets of asterisms (and even how to predict the destruction of our planet some 12,000 years in the future) but did not pass on simpler technologies like domestication of plants and crops or the use of metals and pottery? Not likely.

The Great Sphinx of Giza

Hancock’s formula used at Göbekli Tepe for inferring a lost advanced civilization—speculation absent of supporting data—is extended to other archaeological sites. Arguably, the most egregious example of “fitting” ancient structures into a lost civilization fantasy occurs at the Great Sphinx of Giza and the Sphinx and Valley temples.

The major evidence Hancock brings to the table comes by way of the Sphinx water erosion hypothesis proposed by Boston University professor Robert Schoch. The hypothesis has never been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, but that has not stopped Schoch from becoming the darling of subscribers to the ancient lost civilization myth. The argument posits that there is erosion on the Great Sphinx that must have been caused by “thousands of years of heavy rain” as Hancock puts it. He continues: “this means it [the Great Sphinx] has to be much older than 2500 BCE (the orthodox date, when Egypt received no more rain than it does today) and must originally have been carved around the end of the Ice Age when the Nile valley was subjected to a long period of intense precipitation.”

Recent dating that contradicts Hancock’s assertion was published in 2015. University of the Aegean physicist Ioannis Liritzis and his collaborator Asimina Vafiadou published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Cultural Heritage surface luminescence dates of the Valley and Sphinx temples that match perfectly with the time period that archaeologists have long accepted based on other dating techniques—the Great Sphinx of Giza and associated temples were built during the reign of Pharaoh Khafre (c. 2558–2532 BCE).14 Nevertheless, with a stiff upper lip Hancock spends several pages in Magicians attempting to argue that the dates come from what we are told “Schoch already regarded as restoration work.” I wrote Dr. Liritzis and asked him to comment on the assertions made by Hancock and Schoch. He told me he was aware of Hancock’s “ideolipseis” and assured me that the samples Hancock claims were from a coating placed over the blocks to shield them from weathering “were not shielded coatings…but derived from the whole block in between a firm contact!” In other words, the Sphinx and Temple Complex are evidence of an ancient civilization that existed in the third millennium BCE, not thousands of years earlier.

During our debate, Hancock was keen to emphasize that the dates are from the temples and not the Sphinx. But a careful reading of both Fingerprints and Magicians shows that he argues that the Sphinx and associated temples were built in the same period, which explains why he spends several pages in Magicians attempting to undermine or explain away the dates from the temples as noted above. And with good reason, as the work of renowned Egyptologist Mark Lehner shows. Lehner received his Ph.D. from Yale and is currently the director of Ancient Egypt Research Associates. He wrote his dissertation on the Sphinx and has spent the last 30 years working on the approximately two-square miles of the Giza plateau, making some remarkable discoveries. First, the Sphinx is carved directly from an in situ limestone mass. Lehner, together with geologist Tom Aigner, demonstrated that the limestone used to construct the temples has precisely the same fossil assemblage as the limestone in the Great Sphinx, and therefore must have come from the same source. Moreover, they found that the walls of the Sphinx temple were excavated from a trench surrounding the Sphinx. Lehner and Aigner emphasized that the most likely scenario was that the Sphinx temple was built while they were carving the Great Sphinx.15

Hancock makes no mention of these aspects of Lehner’s work, but he does tell us that “By virtue of the distinctive weathering patterns on that monument’s [the Sphinx] flanks and on sections of the trench that surrounds it—highlighted in the analysis of geology professor Robert Schoch of Boston University— a proto Sphinx does appear to have existed when heavy rains fell across Egypt at the end of the Ice Age.” Attentive readers will notice that Hancock links the weathering on the Sphinx with the weathering in the trench from which the walls of the Sphinx and Valley temples were extracted. In other words, the weathering must have occurred after the walls were excavated from the trench and placed in the Sphinx temple—the very walls that have been dated to approximately 2500 BCE by Liritzis and Vafiadou.

Further, in 1853 French Archaeologist Auguste Mariette discovered a life-size statue made of “black volcanic rock” of the Pharoah Khafre within the Valley temple. He also unearthed a paved processional causeway between the Valley temple and a mortuary temple adjacent to Khafre’s pyramid. Is it any surprise that professional archaeologists have concluded that Khafre constructed the Sphinx, the Valley and Sphinx temples, as well as his great pyramid? Egyptian archaeologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs of Egypt, Zahi Hawass, wrote in 2006: “Most scholars believe, as I do, that the Sphinx represents Khafre and forms an integral part of the pyramid complex.”16

Indeed, Lehner located the site where as many as 2,000 laborers lived while constructing the Giza complex near the Old Kingdom cemetery that Hawass had uncovered nine years earlier. The cemetery was the burial site of some of the directors of the construction of Giza based on tomb inscriptions. Lehner showed that the laborers were not slaves, but the kingdoms hired hands—bone artifacts indicate that their diet was mainly young cattle (prime beef!). The makeup of the laborer community is important because it appears they walked off the job before the Giza complex was finished. As far back as 1978, Hawass and Lehner discovered that stone blocks were left abandoned as the Sphinx temple was being built.17 Why?

That’s where German climatologists Rudolph Kuper and Stefan Kröpelin come into the picture. They published a study of climate changes in the eastern Sahara in Science in 2006, based on copious amounts of archaeological dating (more than 500 dates from over 150 excavations). Their conclusions are telling: (1) A vast region including Egypt and Sudan and parts of Libya and Chad were bone dry from the last glacial maximum at 20,000 years ago until about 8,500 years ago—not the advantageous environment Hancock envisions for hunter-gatherers when they supposedly met up with his “magicians” in 10,000 BCE to build the Great Sphinx. (2) Monsoon rains beginning in 8,500 BCE transformed the desert into a habitable environment for huntergatherers who began settling in the region about 7000 BCE—no evidence of hunter-gatherers in the lower Nile exists prior to this time, contrary to Hancock’s assertions. (3) By 1,500 BCE desiccation was complete, leading Kuper and Kröpelin to conclude: “The final desiccation of the Egyptian Sahara also had an essential impact on the contemporaneous origin of the pharaonic civilization in the Nile valley.”18

Lehner attributes the evidence of erosion on the Sphinx and along the trenches from which the Valley and Sphinx temple walls were excavated to the monsoon rains that periodically fell in the region as it became desiccated. Not only are there erosional remnants on the Sphinx from rains during this period, but Lehner found evidence of erosion within the laborers’ camp. He postulates that by the later years of the Old Kingdom, laborers refused to work in the suffocating dry conditions and stopped the construction of the Giza complex when food became in short supply.19

It is also worth noting that Lehner has tied the Giza complex together—including the Sphinx and pyramids—through his careful mapping and research of the structures. As Hancock has pointed out, the Sphinx runs east-west, but not because the Egyptians had help from magicians in aligning it with asterisms. Swiss archaeologist Herbert Ricke noted in the 1960s that the Sphinx temple walls encompass a courtyard with 24 pillars—each pillar representing an hour of the day as the sun crosses the sky from east to west. Lehner recognized that at the equinoxes “the shadow of the Sphinx and the shadow of the pyramid, both symbols of the king, become merged silhouettes. The Sphinx itself, it seems, symbolized the pharaoh presenting offerings to the sun god in the court of the temple.” Hawass agrees, reminding us that Khafre as the royal falcon god “is giving offerings with his two paws to his father, Khufu, incarnated as the sun god, Ra, who rises and sets in that temple.”20

The Younger Dryas and the Comet Strike

Next we will consider Hancock’s explanation for why there is no direct evidence for his lost civilization— it was completely wiped out by a comet impact. Here’s the back story which involves a mainstream scientific controversy that Hancock has stepped into for his own unique reasons.

Figure 7: Temperature variations from Greenland ice cores over the last 23,000 years (Source: climateshifts.org)

About 23,000 years ago Earth began to come out of the last glacial deep freeze, marked by receding glaciers at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum (see Figure 7, above). But rather dramatically, about 12,900 years ago temperatures plummeted and then did an about face, warming again about 11,500 years ago—a period of 1,400 years geologists call the Younger Dryas (YD). The cause of the event has been a matter of considerable scientific debate for decades, but consensus in the early 1990s centered on a paper by Wally Broecker and his colleagues that proposed the disruption of a large-scale ocean phenomenon called the Thermohaline Circulation in the north Atlantic, driven in part by the interaction of surface heat and freshwater fluxes.21 Melt water from the massive Laurentide Ice Sheet covering large swaths of northern North America drained into ancient Lake Agassiz, itself formed by the retreat of the more than mile thick glacier. Water then flowed south through the Mississippi embayment to the ocean. Oxygen isotope analyses along with 14C dating of planktonic shells from the Gulf of Mexico reveals a decrease in the flux of fresh water from about 11,100 until 10,000 years ago. The Broecker group postulated that the compositional change in seawater related to a change in the drainage through flooding from Lake Agassiz toward the North Atlantic. The idea was that an influx of freshwater into the North Atlantic diminished density-driven circulation of oceanic currents— the conveyor belt that brings warmth to the northern climes—initiating worldwide cooling.

However, neither geomorphic evidence of flooding from Lake Agassiz into either the Arctic or Atlantic oceans, nor a drop in the water level in Lake Agassiz could ever be found, causing even Broecker to abandon the Lake Agassiz flooding hypothesis.22 That left the door open for another scenario, a comet strike termed the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis (YDIH). The proponents of YDIH claim that the impact not only caused the dramatic climate change, but also triggered the demise of the Pleistocene megafauna (the extinction of dozens of large North American mammals more commonly attributed to either overhunting by humans, gradual climate change, or both) and the collapse of the Clovis culture in North America. The debate over what happened during the YD can only be described as a scientific “dogfight” that may go on for decades. But the reason the YDIH extraordinary claim has yet to find consensus is that extraordinary evidence has yet to emerge to support it. To be clear, the debate is not over lost civilizations.

The firestorm began in 2007 when Richard Firestone and numerous colleagues proposed that it was a comet strike of “multiple ET [extraterrestrial] airbursts along with surface impacts” that occurred at 12,900 years ago that initiated the YD.”23 The paper was full of impressive evidence gathered from 10 sites where a carbon-rich layer (referred to as the “black mat”) marked what they claimed was the end of the Clovis culture in North America: “The in situ bones of extinct Pleistocene megafaunas, along with Clovis tool assemblages, occur below this black layer but not within or above it.” They reported that sediments directly below the black mat were enriched in magnetic grains, iridium, magnetic microspherules, charcoal, soot, carbon spherules, glass-like carbon containing nanodiamonds and fullerenes containing extraterrestrial helium. They explained that the soot, charcoal, spherules, etc. were the result of extensive and intense forest fires initiated by the airbursts. Melting of the Laurentide Ice Sheet would have dumped copious quantities of melt water into the Atlantic, thereby disrupting the density currents and bringing on the cooling.

Over the years, however, support for the YDIH has been undermined. Nearly every aspect of the original evidence has been challenged by a host of scientists in various fields. Only one of the indicators, iridium, has been commonly used as an impact marker, and the iridium data have not always been reproducible. The iridium concentrations can also be explained by terrestrial origins.24, 25 Nor do nanodiamonds require extraterrestrial events. The absence of any impact craters at the beginning of the YD worldwide is the most disconcerting evidence against YDIH, as is the lack of control for the age of sediments/black mat at or near the YD boundary. Figure 8 (below) shows the range of 14C dates from the YD boundary at various Clovis sites. The gray region represents the YD, and the dates emphasize the difficulties in precisely defining the YD boundary at 12,900 years ago.

Figure 8: Carbon 14 ranges from samples taken from “the Younger Dryas boundary” at various Clovis sites (one standard deviation above and below the mean is shown as a vertical line). The gray region marks the YD. From Holliday et al.26 (Click image to enlarge)

In addition to these arguments against the YDIH, it is difficult to imagine how an airburst/impact could annihilate the North American mammal megafauna and Clovis culture and initiate huge wild fires, without leaving any evidence in the way of massive flooding or impact features. Vance Holliday and his colleagues argue that “no physical mechanism is known to produce an airburst that would affect the entire continent.”27 They also point out that any comet strike large enough to affect an entire continent would leave a detectable crater even if it struck the ice sheet. To get around this glaring problem, the Firestone group proposed that the comet broke up upon entry into earth’s atmosphere. But according to physicist Mark Boslough and his colleagues,28 that would produce “more than a million Meteor craters” (the size of the crater in central Arizona) based on the comet size postulated by Firestone and his cohorts.29, 30

While the Firestone group claims that the comet strike was responsible for the disappearance of the 37 mammal megafauna genera specifically in North America, extinctions occurred on other continents, most notably South America, where at least 52 mammal genera disappeared. And not all those genera disappeared synchronously at the YD boundary! Instead, megafauna extinctions on continents and islands seem to correlate with the arrival of humans. The thinking goes that these huge megafauna would have had no reason to fear humans, and were probably easy pickings for the newly arriving hunter-gatherers. Scientists have also been a bit incredulous that a comet strike could wipe out all the megafauna as far south as Patagonia, while leaving mammoths alive and well on St. Paul Island, Alaska until 3,700 years ago.31

Figure 9: A typical Clovis projectile point. (Image courtesy of the Virginia Dept. of Historic Resources, via Wikimedia Commons

There is, in fact, no need to hypothesize a catastrophic event to explain the disappearance of the megafauna and associated Clovis culture. The Clovis culture in North America is known foremost for the large fluted lanceolate projectile points found primarily around 13,500 years ago. There are spectacular mammoth kill sites associated with Clovis artifacts with butchery marks on the mammoth bones. At the Manis site in Washington, Dr. Carl Gustafson and his team excavated a mastodon skeleton in the 1970s with a long projectile point embedded in one of the bones. Under the “overkill” scenario, the disappearance of Clovis projectile points and other artifacts does not require a catastrophic event. It probably means that the human toolkit, originally developed to kill the megafauna, was gradually replaced as the megafauna were killed off.32 There is no evidence that humans disappeared in North and South America after the YD. How would a comet kill the megafauna but leave humans virtually untouched?

In addition, contrary to what Hancock would have us believe, there is no evidence of catastrophic flooding. Recall that Broecker had to back off his Lake Agassiz hypothesis because no evidence for catastrophic flooding could be found. The glacial moraines formed by the Laurentide Ice Sheet have been precisely mapped and they show a consistent retreat until about 9,800 years ago.33 They would most assuredly have been disrupted by the postulated massive floods.

Hancock claims that the “comet and asteroid impacts not only cause floods but can also impose huge stresses on the crust of the earth resulting in increased earthquake and volcanic activity.” As a volcanologist, I would strongly argue that a strike would not lead to volcanic activity, and beyond the initial impact, it may not lead to earthquakes. Regardless, Hancock can’t have it both ways—huge stresses cannot happen to the earth’s crust without leaving identifiable scars on the land. Notably, Broecker and his colleagues have most recently concluded that “there is no need to call upon a one-time catastrophic event to explain the YD. More likely, the YD was a necessary part of the last termination…cold reversals equivalent to the YD seem to be integral parts of global switches from glacial to interglacial climate.”34

I want to emphasize that although the YDIH has lost acceptance within the scientific community over the last decade, the debate proceeds in the proper scientific manner (i.e., by publishing results in peer-reviewed scientific journals). As Malcolm LeCompte, one of the comet researchers, pointed out in our debate on Joe Rogan’s show (he was Hancock’s expert guest; I was Shermer’s), there are four indicators at the YD boundary that may be due to an extraterrestrial origin: nanodiamonds, magnetic sphericals, melt glass, and the platinum group metals (reduced from the 10 or more originally proposed by the Firestone group). But all of these can be explained through terrestrial processes also, which he acknowledged on the show.

A recently published paper has some intriguing data. Moore et al.35 found platinum concentrations above background levels within what they believe is representative of the YD boundary. The problem, of course, is that Pt concentrations are traditionally low in ice-rich comets. LeCompte suggested that the Pt concentrations could be indicative of an asteroid. The story continues to evolve, and I am loathe to comment further until the comet/asteroid group can decide what the correct scenario is. While Pt concentrations do increase within the YD boundary, dating the event is difficult (see Figure 8). The debate may take many years to be resolved. While I would not rule out an extraterrestrial event at this point there is virtually no evidence that an asteroid/comet devastated the megafauna, caused massive flooding, and destroyed the Clovis culture.

In any case, Hancock’s reliance on the YDIH is problematic for a number of reasons. First, Hancock’s white whale is what geologists call uniformitarianism— the idea that the earth has been affected by continuous, gradual, uniform processes. He claims that scientists are so blindly wedded to this dogma to the point that they cannot see the catastrophism before their eyes. This is disingenuous. As a practicing geologist, I can assert in the strongest terms that although uniformitarianism is a tool in geological research, the importance of catastrophes has been recognized since the early to middle 20th century, thanks to work by Daniel Barringer and later Gene Shoemaker on Meteor crater, J Harlen Bretz and J. T. Pardee on the Scabland floods, and the documentation of massive volcanic eruptions, past tsunami events, glaciation, plate tectonics, and many more examples. Far from being dogmatically closed minded, our openness toward catastrophic events is precisely what allowed Walter and Luis Alvarez to overcome an initially doubting geologic community to accept the idea that the dinosaurs had been wiped out by a meteor impact. Hancock implies conspiracy whenever he runs into normal scientific skepticism (he actually has sections of his book entitled “Conspiracy Corner” and “Taking on the dogmatic uniformitarians”). This allows him to deflect scientific criticism from his unlikely ideas by painting himself as just one of many that have run up against the supposed scientific juggernaut of uniformitarianism.

Hancock portrays himself as the modern-day J Harlen Bretz, continually comparing the difficulties Bretz had getting a skeptical scientific community to accept the Scabland flooding hypothesis with his own helter-skelter conjecturing. Hancock insists that Bretz’s first claim that there was one major flood through the Scablands is correct. Bretz later changed his mind in favor of multiple periodic floods. Science has moved on, not only eventually accepting Bretz’s original evidence for flooding (Bretz would receive the coveted Penrose Medal for his work on the Scablands), but carefully documenting the dates of specific floods through the Scablands. We now know with some confidence that ice dams that formed ancient Lake Missoula broke periodically, pouring erosive water through a massive area of eastern Washington and northern Oregon (see Figures 10 and 11 below).36

Figure 10: The distribution of Lake Missoula and the flooded areas. (From Waitt)
[Click image to enlarge]

Figure 11: The range in dates of the timing of the periodic flooding from Lake Missoula. (From Waitt) [Click image to enlarge]

At least 17 floods in the Scablands have been documented by careful dating. But the most important thing required to support Hancock’s theories is missing—no larger flood occurred in the Scablands at the YD boundary. All the floods were clearly limited in area and are consistent with the breaking of ice dams formed by the Cordilleran Ice Sheet, which released water from ancient Lake Missoula. Hancock admits that the periodic flooding occurred, but insists that geologists have missed the evidence for an apocalyptic flood at the YD boundary brought on by a comet strike. This, in turn, is used as evidence for a worldwide flood that wiped out his lost advanced civilization. A flood of this scope is quite a contrast to the limited area covered by the Scabland floods. So what is his evidence for worldwide flooding? Once again, he relies on flood mythologies, including the Noachian flood, stating: “So although the floods at the end of the Ice Age could never have carried Noah and his Ark thousands of feet above present sea level to the slopes of Mount Ararat, they were indeed global in their extent and would have had devastating consequences for humans living at the time.”

I asked Isaac Larsen at the University of Massachusetts, one of the world’s experts on the Scabland flooding, if there was any chance that the deluges could be related to the YDIH, and if he had any thoughts on the claims made by Hancock about a conspiracy to hide evidence. (Larsen along with his colleague Michael Lamb have just published a paper in Nature on “outburst flooding in the Scablands.”37) He did not mince words in his response: “The scientific consensus is that there was not one single catastrophic flood, but multiple floods, and the occurrence of multiple floods is hence not consistent with the comet impact proposal…. Regarding conspiracies, I would say that the scientific community is very open to new ideas, and those ideas supported by data gain credence, whereas ideas that lack compelling empirical or theoretical basis fail to gain traction. Scientists are quite individualistic, and getting thousands of them to subscribe to a conspiracy isn’t something I can imagine happening.” Neither can I.

The Lost Civilization Sends a Message

Magicians is admittedly a compelling read, and its thesis a titillating one, invoking an advanced lost civilization that reinforces the myth of a “Golden Age” of humanity, but it is convoluted and twisted in its substance. Hancock is often vague, which makes it difficult to ferret out what he is trying to say. His book is full of excerpts from mythology that he insists bear hidden truths. Not once are we told why the magicians had to send their messages using obtuse metaphors. But Hancock’s message is clear: a technologically advanced civilization—no less than the most famous lost civilization in all fiction, Atlantis—was destroyed by the YD comet strike, and it could happen to us!

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 22.3
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Hancock informs us that emissaries from Atlantis survived the destruction and carried their advanced science and technology to Göbekli Tepe, the Maya, Egypt, Baalbek—even Easter Island. Further, these Magicians, these Seven Sages who Hancock says were imbued “with mysterious ‘powers’” (so mysterious that we are never told what these powers are)—set about “wandering.” They also had a message for us—a powerful message as deduced by Hancock. From the inferred astrological signs and proposed alignments of the megaliths, Hancock makes the following wild leap: “The last time this grand celestial line-up of earth, December-solstice sun and the galactic center occurred was a full precessional cycle of 25,920 years ago and the next time it will happen is a full precessional cycle of 25,920 years in the future. We live, in other words, in a very special, indeed rather unique, moment in terms of cosmic astronomical symbolism.” Spoiler alert! Hancock avers:

However improbable it may seem, therefore, we are obliged to consider the possibility that in 9600 BC the builders of Göbekli Tepe were already so advanced in their knowledge of the recondite phenomenon of precession that they were able to calculate its effects for thousands of years backward and forward in time in order to produce an accurate symbolic picture of the Sagittarius/winter solstice conjunction… Bearing in mind that half a precessional cycle is 12,960 years… if I understand the message correctly, we’re in the danger zone now and will be until 2040.

In other words, Hancock is seriously proposing that we are being told by the Magicians that the comet clusters that supposedly struck earth some 12,900 years ago and led to the destruction of Atlantis, the North American megafauna, the Clovis people, etc., will rain death and destruction upon us sometime over the next few decades. The extreme mental gymnastics Hancock goes through to warn us of eminent doom fails in the light of logic. (1) Hancock insists that the Mayans could predict the future from celestial mechanics; (2) He claims the Mayan calendar is based on a precession that began with the “conjunction of the winter solstice Sun and the center of the Milky Way galaxy” some 26,000 years ago. (3) The hunter-gatherers with their magician watchers at Göbekli Tepe recognized, according to Hancock, that the destruction of the lost civilization was precisely at a midway point between the precession 12,900 years ago when a supposed comet struck; and (4) The Göbekli Tepe inhabitants generated symbols indicating that this 26,000 year precession cycle spells doom for our planet in the coming decades. Remember, a 26,000 year precession cycle can be started at any time—there is nothing physically unique about conjecturing that a cycle started when we were aligned “with the dark rift and nuclear bulge of the Milky Way” as Hancock suggests. Nor is the alignment itself unusual. It happens every December.

Figure 12: The wobble of the earth’s axis during a 26,000 year precession cycle is shown by the circle above the Earth. (By NASA, Mysid [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Ignoring such mental gymnastics, the obvious flaw in Hancock’s scenario is the association of a precessional cycle with comet strikes. Precession relates to the “wobble” of the earth on its axis over 26,000 year cycles (see Figure 12). Hancock has surmised that the source of the comet that struck the earth 12,900 years ago came from the Taurid meteor shower. The belt or ring does indeed look like it was formed from the breakup of a large comet (which does not imply that a comet struck the earth 12,900 years ago). The earth passes through the Taurid belt in late October or early November and in June and July of each year, which creates meteor showers. But what does this have to do with the earth’s precession?

The earth wobbling on its axis over 26,000 years does not affect the earth’s orbit, so why would we expect large comet strikes every 12,900 years from the precession of the earth? I asked Hancock this question during our debate and he seemed dumbfounded by its implications. He never answered my question, probably because there is no answer. All I am left with is that Hancock has a wild imagination and romantic longing for a past best described by myth, not science.

About the Author

Dr. Marc J. Defant is a Professor of Geology at the University of South Florida. He specializes in the study of volcanoes—more specifically, the geochemistry of volcanic rocks, the associated processes within the mantle, and the origin of the continental crust. He has been funded by the National Science Foundation, National Geographic, the American Chemical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences, and has published in many internationally renowned scientific journals including Nature. He has written a book entitled Voyage of Discovery: From the Big Bang to the Ice Age and published several articles for general readership magazines such as Popular Science. He has presented a Tedx talk on “Why We are Alone in the Galaxy” and has written many essays on his blog at www.marcdefant.com

References
  1. Hancock, G., 2015. Magicians of the Gods: The Forgotten Wisdom of Earth’s Lost Civilization. St. Martin’s Press.
  2. Hancock, G., 1995. Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilization. Three Rivers Press.
  3. “Fingerprints of the Gods,” Wikipedia, http://bit.ly/2b1aSMC
  4. I have no objection to Hancock’s lack of scientific qualifications per se, but his entire book continually refutes evidence from experts in a plethora of fields. Generalists with no qualifications run the risk of ruined reputations by challenging experts who have dedicated their careers to specific fields.
  5. Graham Hancock, Wikipedia, http://bit.ly/2jZbp5P
  6. Schmidt, K., 2010. “Göbekli Tepe: The stone age sanctuaries. New results of ongoing excavations with a special focus on sculptures and high reliefs.” Documenta Praehistorica, v. 37, 239–256.
  7. Schmidt, K., 2003. “The 2003 Campaign at Göbekli Tepe (Southeastern Turkey).” Neo Lithics, 2/03, 3–8.
  8. Curry, A., 2008. “Göbekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple?” Smithsonian, Nov.
  9. Lang, C. et al., 2013. “Gazelle behaviour and Human Presence at Early Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, South-eastern Anatolia.” World Archaeology, v. 43, 410–429.
  10. Peters, J. and Schmidt,K.,2004.“Animals in the Symbolic World of Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, South-eastern Turkey: a Preliminary Assessment.” Anthropozoologica, v. 39, 179–218.
  11. Dietrich, O., et al., 2012. “The Role of Cult Feasting In the Emergence of Neolithic Communities. New Evidence from Göbekli Tepe, South-eastern Turkey.” Antiquity, v. 86, 674–695.
  12. Schmidt, K., 2008. “When Humanity Began to Settle Down.” German Res. v. 30, 10–13.
  13. Sweatman, M. B. and Tsikritsis, D., 2017. “Decoding Göbekli Tepe with Archaeoastronomy: What Does the Fox Say?” Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry v. 17, 233–250.
  14. Liritzis, I. and Vafiadou, A., 2015. “Sur face Luminescence Dating of Some Egyptian Monuments” J. Cultural Heritage, v. 16, 134–150.
  15. Hadingham, E., 2010. “Uncovering Secrets of the Sphinx.” Smithsonian: http://bit.ly/2joGZWL
  16. Hawass, Z., 2006, Mountain of the Pharaohs. Doubleday, 224.
  17. Hadingham, E., 2010, op cit.
  18. Kuper, R. and Kröpelin, S., 2006. “Climate- Controlled Holocene Occupation in the Sahara: Motor of Africa’s Evolution.” Science, v. 313, 803–807.
  19. Hadingham, E., 2010, op cit.
  20. Hadingham, E., 2010, op cit.
  21. Broecker, W., et al. 1989. “Routing of Meltwater from the Laurentide Ice Sheet During the Younger Dryas Cold Episode.” Nature, v. 341, 318–321.
  22. Broecker, W., et al., 2010. “Putting the Younger Dryas Cold Event Into Context.” Quaternary Sci. Rev., v. 29, 1078–1081.
  23. Firestone, R. B., et al., 2007. “Evidence for an Extraterrestrial Impact 12,900 Years Ago that Contributed to the Megafaunal Extinctions and the Younger Dryas Cooling.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., v. 104, 16016–16021.
  24. Paquay, F. S., et al. 2009. “Absence of Geochemical Evidence for an Impact Event at the Bølling–Allerød/ Younger Dryas Transition.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., v. 51, 21505–21510.
  25. van Hoesel, A., et al., 2014. “The Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis: a Critical Review.” Quaternary Sci. Rev., v. 83, 95–114.
  26. Holliday, V. T., et la., 2014. “The Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis: a Cosmic Catastrophe.” J. Quaternary Sci., v. 29, 515–530.
  27. Holliday, V. T., et al., 2014. op cit.
  28. Boslough, M., et al., 2012. “Arguments and Evidence Against a Younger Dryas Impact Event. Climates, Landscapes, and Civilizations. Geophysical Monograph Series 198.” American Geophysical Union, 13–26.
  29. Firestone, R. B., 2009. “The Case for the Younger Dryas Extraterrestrial Impact Event: Mammoth, Megafauna, and Clovis Extinction, 12,900 Years Ago.” J. Cosmology, v. 2, 256–285.
  30. Firestone, R. B., et al., 2007. op cit.
  31. Holliday, V. T., et al., 2014. op cit.
  32. Hancock refers to the Clovis culture as having a “sophisticated weapons technology” which is simply not true.
  33. Holliday, V. T., et al., 2014. op cit.
  34. Broecker, W., et al., 2010. op cit.
  35. Moore, C. R., et al., 2017. “Widespread Platinum Anomaly Documented at the Younger Dryas Onset in North American Sedimentary Sequences.” Nature, http://go.nature.com/2rmbCCs
  36. Waitt, R. B., 2016. “Megafloods and Clovis Cache at Wenatchee.” Quaternary Res., v. 85, 430–444.
  37. Larsen, I. J. and Lamb, M. P., 2016. “Progressive Incision of the Channeled Scablands by Outburst Floods.” Nature, v. 538, 229–232.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for September 27, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 09/27/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

ABOVE: From the cover of Skeptic magazine 22.3: Lost Civilizations (2017)

In this week’s eSkeptic, Professor of Geology at the University of South Florida, Dr. Marc J. Defant, provides an analysis of the claims made by Graham Hancock in his book Magicians of the Gods: The Forgotten Wisdom of Earth’s Lost Civilization.

Conjuring Up a Lost Civilization
An Analysis of the Claims Made by Graham Hancock in Magicians of the Gods

by Marc J. Defant

Graham Hancock’s 2015 book Magicians of the Gods: The Forgotten Wisdom of Earth’s Lost Civilization1 is something of a sequel and update to his 1995 international bestseller Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilization,2 which was translated into 27 languages and sold more than three million copies.3 In Fingerprints, Hancock uses creation myths in ancient texts and wild geological scenarios to suggest that 12,450 years ago major crustal shifts moved Antarctica to its present location. Portions of a supposedly highly advanced unknown lost civilization (none other than Atlantis) living on Antarctica at the time were able to survive the destructive cataclysms and go on to convey their knowledge to the builders of the megalithic structures of Egypt, Maya, Babylon, and other known great civilizations. He also claims that the Mayan calendar portended world cataclysms in 2012. In Magicians, Hancock now says he got it all wrong—there was no crustal shift; instead he thinks this advanced civilization was destroyed by a comet.

Magicians appears to be on its way to becoming another bestseller for the British writer. Although Hancock has few scientific credentials (an undergraduate degree in sociology from Durham University),4 his early career as a journalist5 helped him navigate through a wide range of scientific research, but without benefit of specialized training in astronomy, geology, history, archaeology, or comparative religion and mythology. Hancock is obviously bright, articulate, and a good writer and storyteller who comes across as eminently reasonable, which makes it all the more difficult to tease apart fact from fiction in the many claims made in his books, documentary films, and lectures.

Göbekli Tepe

Figure 1: Excavators uncover one of many circular enclosures at Göbekli Tepe. Two large T-shaped pillars over 5m (16 feet) high typically stand in the middle of the ring with smaller pillars facing them. Some of these stones are decorated with reliefs of animals that once lived in the area. This area known as Enclosure D features birds, while others emphasize animals such as snakes, foxes, boars, or wildcats.

The centerpiece of Hancock’s Magicians is a remarkable archaeological site called Göbekli Tepe in Turkey dated to 11,600 years ago. He contends Göbekli Tepe is too advanced to have been built by hunter-gatherers alone, and must therefore have been constructed with the help of people from a more advanced civilization. Unfortunately for Hancock these people left behind no hard evidence for their existence, so he is forced to allude to what he thinks is sophisticated architecture, along with a few carved figures that he asserts represent astronomical constellations. From these speculations Hancock concludes: “At the very least it [Göbekli Tepe] would mean that some as yet unknown and unidentified people somewhere in the world had already mastered all the arts and attributes of a high civilization more than twelve thousand years ago in the depths of the last Ice Age and sent out emissaries around the world to spread the benefits of their knowledge.”

It’s a romantic notion, but not the conclusion that the late great German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt came to after excavating Göbekli Tepe for more than two decades beginning in 1994. The site, he says, was used from 11,600 to about 10,000 years before the present. Lower sections were backfilled giving way to new structures on top. The fill is refuse containing sediment, hundreds of thousands of broken animal bones, flint tools for carving the structures within the site and for hunting game, and the remains of cereals and other plant material, and even a few human bones. There is no evidence that the site was ever used as a residence, and the megaliths found there (Schmidt called them “monumental religious architecture”) along with carvings and totems, imply ritual and feasting. […]

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Brain Stimulation in Coma

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 09/26/2017 - 4:55am

The link to the article from the BBC Science News page reads, “Therapy “Wakes” Vegetative-State Patient.” The headline of the article was a bit more conservative, “Vegetative-state patient responds to therapy.” Annoying click-bait aside, what is actually going on here?

Like every such case so far, the improvement in neurological function in this patient with severe coma is extremely limited. This is mostly a proof of concept study, and the results are interesting, but the term “wakes,” even is quotations, is not even close to being justified.

Here is the case report: Restoring consciousness with vagus nerve stimulation. Even that title is a bit misleading – they aren’t saying they actually restored consciousness, just that vagus nerve stimulation might be a viable approach to develop. For background, a vegetative state is one in which basic neurological functions, like breathing, having a sleep-wake cycle, and some automatic movements, are retained. However, the conscious part of the cortex does not appear to be working. By definition there is no reaction to the environment.

By contrast a minimally conscious state has, as the name implies, minimal response to the environment. Patients in this state might blink to threat, or turn to a voice, but cannot communicate or participate in their daily activities. There is a continuum of neurological function from this minimal state to fully conscious.

As I have discussed before, researchers are trying to improve out ability to tell how impaired individual people are who clinically appear to be vegetative or minimally conscious. The challenge is that the neurological exam is limited. If the patient cannot follow commands, we have a limited ability to directly test which circuits in the brain are functioning. The patient may be more conscious than they appear to be because they are paralyzed or deaf, for example. Using functional MRI scanning and EEGs have enhanced our ability to assess brain function in these cases.

There are also researchers trying to find ways to improve the neurological function in these deeply injured patients, with some limited success.

One finding that has come out of this research is that, if a patient appears to be vegetative and they suffered a diffuse anoxic injury (injury to their entire brain due to lack of oxygen), then they probably really are vegetative and their prognosis is essentially zero. If, however, they got to their state from trauma, some of those patients have more brain activity than is apparent by the exam. Some of them may appear vegetative, but with enhanced evaluation are actually minimally conscious.

Further, these minimally conscious patients due to trauma may have hidden neurological function that can be potentially brought out. The best case scenario would be that they still have significant cortical function, but their cortex is asleep because it is not being properly stimulated by the deep structures in the brain. Normally the brainstem and thalamus send stimulating signals to the cortex, producing wakeful consciousness. Without these signals, even an intact cortex would not be able to maintain wakefulness, and the patient would appear comatose.

That brings us to the current case.  This patient was clinically in a vegetative state for 15 years following a car accident – so they were in that state due to trauma, not diffuse injury. What the researchers did was stimulate their vagus nerve, and through that the thalamus. After a month of this stimulation the patient had a small improvement in clinical function, and an improvement in their EEG activity. They went from a persistent vegetative to a minimally conscious state.

According to the report the patient was able to respond more to the environment, but only minimally. Their eyes would widen when a face approached, for example. They were still not able to communicate or participate in their care.

This one case is a very small step, but it is an important proof of concept. It is consistent with prior research, suggesting that some brain trauma patients may have more neurological function than the exam can demonstrate. Some of these patients, in turn, may be suffering from lack of stimulation to the cortex, and this stimulation can be supplemented artificially.

This is not the first study to do so. Last year researchers reported a similar case, where the thalamus was stimulated by ultrasound waves. Other researchers have implanted stimulating chips into the brain to take over for the thalamus.

One question raised by this recent study is this – how much of the patient’s small improvement was due to direct stimulation and how much was due to actual improvement in brain function through plasticity? In this study it appears the benefits were only present during stimulation, but did seem to improve over time suggesting some plasticity.

These are clearly baby steps. It does, however, suggest that we might be able to get more neurological function out of some brain-injured patients, depending on the exact nature of their injury. While these changes may seem mild, in some patients even a small incremental increase in neurological activity may be significant, if it enables them to interact in any way with their family or participate in their daily activities.

For the future we may be able to optimize this approach with more sophisticated brain-machine interfaces. However, I suspect the benefit will be very limited – wresting a bit of activity out of a damaged brain. Techniques to actually heal some of the brain damage, or functionally replace circuits in the brain, will be needed to get more profound improvement.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #590: Skepticism vs Cynicism

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 09/25/2017 - 5:00pm
The line between skepticism and cynicism is a bit too blurry for many people. Today we bring it into focus.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

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