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“We cannot distinguish the sane from the insane…”

My favorite decade is the 1970’s.  Partially because of the urban cowboy shirts.   But also because it was – by subjective evaluation – the most subversive decade.  This is the decade that gave us the original Bad News Bears, remember, one of the most subversive movies ever made.

Now for some subversive science from the 1970’s.  In 1973, D.L. Rosenhan and eight other “normal” people got themselves admitted – undercover – as patients at psychiatric hospitals.  After admission, they made every effort to act normally and to answer questions truthfully, staying on average over 3 weeks.

The doctors and nurses failed to realize that they were sane.  But the real patients in the hospital saw through the ruse.

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Bill Nye: Without evolution, “your worldview is crazy, untenable.”

Angry old man Bill Nye argues that we have to eradicate creationism, because “we need scientists and engineers.”

Evolution is fascinating to me… and an integral part of how I see the world.  But it is preposterous to propose that one can’t be a scientist or engineer without believing in evolution.  Partial list of people who did not believe in evolution: Galileo, Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Mendel, Gutenberg, Faraday, etc.

Science is a process, not a body of facts to be memorized.

 

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NPR: Ecstasy is “safe” but also entails playing “Russian roulette”

The CDC reports that over 80 thousand people die each other from alcohol-related causes.  And over 20 thousand people die from prescription drug overdoes.

But NPR is fear-mongering about 4 deaths from drugs incorrectly sold as MDMA, a drug that NPR declared to be safe and potentially beneficial last year.

Note that the DEA’s scare tactics are based on the potential that pills sold as ecstasy are not pure MDMA, an extremely infrequent problem that could be eliminated if the government ended its ban.

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Would we be healthier if our doctors lied to us?

At Slate, the famous memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus proposes that implanting false memories could change our behavior for the better:

AG: Could false memories be used for therapeutic purposes—like reducing alcohol consumption?  EL: Absolutely, yes. I’ve had people say to me, do you think you could cure all kinds of problems with the false-memory technique? I hope other people will give it a try.

It’s hard to imagine how this would be implemented:  If somebody signs off on having a false memory implanted, then won’t it be harder for them to accept that memory as factual?

It’s analogous to the problem of how to harness the power of the placebo effect.  Doctors could be instructed to try a placebo before a “real” treatment, in cases where the life of the patient is not at stake and the potential benefits outweigh the costs.  But the patient would have to sign off on this, presumably  reducing the effectiveness.  Maybe  health insurers could offer patients the option of “pre-clearing” the use of placebos (with a lower premium?)

It seems extremely inefficient that our whole system of Western medicine forbids providers from harnessing one of the most powerful natural healing mechanisms.

But allowing providers to practice deception is also fraught with peril!

 

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Surprised by a dying cat

Here’s another classic.  Even better, here’s David Hubel’s Nobel lecture from 1981, in which he explains the happy accident that led to their discovery.

Hubel and his partner had connected a microelectrode to a particular neuron in a cat’s visual cortex.  They were trying to get the neuron to fire reliably in response to visual stimulation (a black dot).  But nothing worked.  And then all of a sudden, it started firing like crazy.  Turns out this particular neuron was “turned on” by the shadow of the glass slide as it was inserted into their projector – a sharp black line moving across a light background.  What’s more, it would only fire when the black line was at certain orientations.  It had no interest in a black dot at all.

This was one of the first papers to show that some neurons in our cortex (our upper brain) are very specifically tuned to a very narrow set of stimuli.  And it spawned a huge course of “single unit” studies in which psychologists test individual neurons throughout the brain to see which environmental conditions will make them fire.  Still a huge part of brain research.

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