Pawan Sinha: How the Brain Learns to See (TED 2010)
Perfect timing for our Neurobiology unit, and a real showcase for the interdisciplinary nature of science and humanitarian work – here is Pawan Sinha talking about how the brain learns to see, and how we can help the children who are born blind in India. Find out more about Sinha’s work and Project Prakash at his university website (MIT).
The Memory of Water: Science or Pseudoscience?
“Can you tell the difference between science and pseudoscience”
“What separates effective medicine from alternative medicine?”
This is an activity from the ToK and Biology section.
As you grow through Biology and ToK, you should develop your critical thinking skills and become more of a skeptic. Being able to answer these two questions is a skill that you can carry through life, helping you to make sensible decisions when faced with a range of seemingly convincing alternatives.
Medicine is a system of rigourous testing, evidence collection, statistical analysis and controls to ensure that a treatment is effective when recommended to patients. If it works and it is strongly corroborated, we call it medicine – it is available to professionally-trained medical doctors to use or prescribe for their patients.
Alternative medicine is simply that – alternative to medicine. It is not rigorously tested, double-blind controlled or statistically analysed. It is built on belief without true empirical evidence. One might believe it’s efficacy based only on anecdotal or circumstantial evidence, but this is not enough.
This activity links with unit 3.1 – Chemical Elements and Water.
Richard Dawkins’ recent series Enemies of Reason tackles these issues brilliantly, as does Dr Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog. Start with this short clip of Dawkins explaining the idea behind homeopathy, a bastion of alternative medicine:
- So why is it that people buy into homeopathy and alt med?
- Have you heard of the placebo effect or the powers of suggestion and how they affect feeling?
- Watch the whole episode (below) and think of reasons why a patient might feel better after visiting a homeopath than after a consultation with the doctor.
- What is the difference between complementary and alternative medicine? Which might a doctor recommend as part of a treatment? Why?
To find out more about homeopathy and it central ideas:
Homeopathy from the Skeptics Dictionary
The End of Homeopathy? From BadScience
And lots of great information from Evidence Based Medicine First
Watch the full series of Enemies of Reason on GoogleVideo:
Part 1: Slaves to Superstition
Part 2: The Irrational Health Service (includes the homeopaths)
And it’s not only homeopathy that abuses our sacred water. The oxygen-water companies are it too.
More than Water? From BadScience (download reading activity here)
Unless you have gills, it’s an expensive burp! from Chem1.com
So, when you read the magazines, watch TV or wonder about a miracle cure, anti-ageing cream, magical treatment or anything else related to unusual claims and you health, think: “Where’s the evidence?”
Now here’s a funny sketch from Webb and Mitchell:
Foldit – help science by playing a game
Foldit is ridiculously addictive.
It is a protein-folding game/simulation, designed and produced collaboratively between the University of Washington’s Computer Science and Engineering and Biochemistry departments. There is a great introduction to the roles of proteins in metabolism and disease, as well as protein folding, on their about page.
Apart from the great software and in-game tutorials in protein structures, players at the highest level may be contributing to medicine! The University and associated labs are setting problems of protein folding for players to solve – each one an important molecule in its own right and some even the key to curing some diseases.
There is a great article about the game on RichardDawkins.net: ‘Computer game’s high score could earn the Nobel prize in medicine.’ There’s even a classic quote from co-developer Prof. David Baker:
“I imagine that there’s a 12-year-old in Indonesia who can see all this in their head.”
Too right. Let’s represent for Indonesia!
Here’s a quick clip of the game in action at a high level:
Download the game here and get playing!
Ben Goldacre: Bad Science Interview
Dr. Ben Goldacre is the author of the excellent Bad Science blog and column in the Guardian newspaper. His new book, BadScience, is out now and in it he explains how (with many, many examples), Science is misrepresented in the media and how some ‘quack’ disciplines present unscientific data as fact.
NewScientist has a review of his book here, and there is a short interview with Ben on their channel:
He has helped produce some teaching materials for schools, which are available here.
Top posts for IB Bio students to read:
2. The Media’s MMR Hoax (Wakefield trial, autism and vaccines non-link)
3. The Man Behind the Mop of Death (false-positive MRSA results from a garden-shed phony)
4. The Huff (statistics)
5. Anything to do with dodgy fish-oil trials, quack homeopaths (especially evil AIDS-denialists), BrainGym and nutritionists.
It’s all good.
The Ig Nobel Prizes 2008
The Ig Nobel Prizes are a celebration of weird, pointless and entertaining scientific research that, as the Improbable Research organisation puts it, “first makes you laugh, then makes you think.”
Some of the winners from this year include:
– Nutrition: making crisps crunch louder than they should
– Biology: “fleas that live on a dog jump higher than fleas that live on a cat”
– Chemistry: conflicting teams arguing over whether coca-cola is an effective spermicide
– Physics: mathematical proof that heaps of string will inevitably tangle up in knots
All geniuses, no doubt.
Here is the acceptance speech of last year’s prizewinners for Medicine: Sword Swallowing!