Blog Archives

Snake Oil? Cool infographic on health supplements

One of my favourite blogs is Information Is Beautiful, and here is a lovely example of how a large dataset can be turned into something visual and easily interpreted: The Scientific Evidence for Popular Health Supplements.

What does it represent?

– size of bubbles represents Google search popularity

– height of bubbles represents strength of scientific evidence for its efficacy in the specific health use

By making use of the systematic reviews of double-blind clinical studies, IIB have made sure that we are looking only at reliable, scientifically sound data. You can even see the data here.

I am looking forward to seeing David McCandless’ TED Talk in the upcoming TED Global 2010 at Oxford. Of course, I’ll be watching on the web. Check out more of their infographics here.

Aditi Shankardass: A Second Opinion on Learning Disorders

With an estimated 1 in 6 children suffering from a developmental disorder, Aditi Shankardass asks if we can afford to ignore brain imaging and diagnostic technology when making decisions about brain-related difficulties. Another great short talk from TED, which links to the use of technology in determining brain function.

TOK link: how might the use of brain scanning technology represent a potential paradigm shift in diagnosis? Where we have relied on symptomatic diagnosis in the past, could the use of new neuroscience give a new way of knowing that replaces what we already know?

Michael Specter – The Danger of Science Denialism

Why do otherwise rational, sensible people choose to reject good science in some cases and believe unfounded claims in others?

With apparently eroding trust in government and authority, people are looking to less reliable sources of information – which is particularly dangerous when it comes to health. On the one hand, they believe stories such as ‘Facebook causes cancer‘, or in the unproven alt-meds of homeopathy and vitamin supplements, yet they reject solid scientific evidence with regard to vaccine safety, anti-retroviral drugs or GM crops.

As Michael Specter says in this TED 2010 talk, “We hate BigPharma… and we run from it into the arms of Big Placebo*.”

“The idea that we should not allow science to do its job because we are afraid is really very deadening, and it’s preventing millions of people from prospering.”

From a TOK perspective, how does this talk highlight the clash between emotion and reason in the ways of knowing? (Or as Specter says, “You have the right to your own beliefs- but not your own facts.”)

*The industry in non-proven remedies and vitamin supplements runs to billions of dollars a year.

Wonders of the Solar System

This looks great, and I’m looking on Amazon for a copy right now!

Rock star professor Brian Cox presents this 5-part series from the BBC, with stunning visuals and accessible, but not dumbed-down, explanations of physics and cosmology. I hadn’t heard about it until reading the Guardian’s Science’s Golden Age article, but am looking forward to seeing the whole series.


Official page, from the BBC

List of clips from YouTube

Brian Cox profile page from Manchester University

Brian Cox talks at TED: “What really goes on at the large hadron collider

Wade Davis – “The Plants Talk To Us” (TOK)

[Note: I wrote this in 2010 after seeing Wade Davis speak, and was reminded of it as I wrote Curriculum as a Compass?. I still love these stories – the ayahuasca one blows my mind. Stephen.]


I saw Wade Davis speak at the 2008 IB Regional conference, and he was brilliant. He gave an extended version of this talk from TED, and the focus on disappearing languages and cultures was brilliant. He really ventured into TOK, especially with the different ways of knowing demonstrated by various cultures.wayfinders_cover_1024x1024

There is a great example in the talk below of an amazonian shaman who makes a powerful psychoactive preparation of Ayahuasca, from a vine. Tryptamines are the active component and are similar to tryptophan (our famous amino acid/ end product inhibition exampleanimation). They act as neurotransmitters and include serotonin, which regulates mood. It is broken down by enzymes bound to the plasma membrane of cells in the digestive tract called monoamine oxidase (MAO), so can’t be taken orally. The amazing thing is the shaman uses a preparation from another plant that inhibits this enzyme, so that the potion can be ingested and is effective. This is amazing knowledge, gleaned from a totally alternative scientific method to the one we are used to, and demonstrates an advanced naturalistic intelligence.

When he asked how they knew this and were able to combine these two extracts from the thousands available, they answered “The plants talk to us.”


Discussion and questions:

1. In what ways can this specific example link the elements of the IB Biology course together?

Think about cells, membranes, amino acids, neurotransmitters, innate vs learned behaviour, reward pathways, evolution, enzymes and inhibition, genetics and the universality of the genetic code, ecology and conservation.

2. Think about the statement “other people, with their differences, can also be right” (from the IBO’s mission statement). To what extent is the ancient knowledge of indigenous cultures an example of this? What further questions does this inspire?

3. To what extent are these ways of knowing demonstrated in the contrast between modern scientific understanding of the effects of the active ingredients and the ancient wisdom of the shaman: sense perception, reason and emotion.

4. Discuss the impacts of disappearing cultures on scientific knowledge and understanding. How could modern science & technology be used to help preserve cultures and wisdom?

If you liked this, find out more about becoming an ethnobotanist!


LifeSaver Bottle: Michael Pritchard at TED

TED2010 is on right now in California, so it’s a good opportunity to look at some of their best talks of the past year. This one is short and inspirational – how to meet the UN’s Millenium Development Goal to Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without access to safe drinking water and sanitation – for just $8bn!

Michael Pritchard’s LifeSaver bottle is a solution to clean water needs. For just $150, it can filter even the dirtiest water, in remote areas, or following disasters such as the Haiti quakes. Spurred on by the problems following the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, see Pritchard demonstrate the technology at TED 2009:

There’s a nice little link there to cell theory and magnification, also.

This year, who is going to be worth watching? Check out the list of presenters here.

XDRTB: Extremely Drug-Resistant TB

This came via TED Blogs, and is pretty harrowing. Don’t play the video if you are sensitive to images of human suffering.

The photographer, James Nachtway, has taken these photos on TB wards around the world, and his site highlights the problem: is an extraordinary effort to tell the story of extremely
drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) and TB through powerful photographs
taken by James Nachtwey
.  XDR-TB, or extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis,
is a new and deadly mutation of tuberculosis. Similar in creation to
multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) but more extreme in its manifestation,
it arises when common tuberculosis goes untreated or standard TB drugs are
misused. James’ photographs represent these varying strains. Learn more about TB, MDR-TB and XDR-TB, and learn how you can take action to stop this deadly disease.

There is a great talk on TED from James Nachtway here, as he receives his TED Prize:

His movie, War Photographer, is great – and even has a section in Indonesia!

Einstein the Parrot: Talking and Squawking

This is five minutes of entertainment from TED Talks:

Einstein the Parrot is an African Grey, a species known for their intelligence and ability to build a large vocabulary. As research into animal intelligence develops, it raises questions on how we measure intelligence – are we really that much more ‘intelligent’ than our philosophising cousins?

How do we discern the difference between a well-trained animal putting on a show and one which is making considered decisions on its behaviour?

For an interesting overview of animal cognition, check out this wikipedia article and do some further reading around the sources listed in the references section.

TED – 50 million views young (and the best graphs EVER)

TED (Technology, Education, Design) has racked up 50 million views since 2006 and is proof that people can use the internet for more than just celebrity gossip and the dodgy sites. They now have a highlight reel of their top ten talks, including the $40 SMART Board, some oceany greatness and lessons learned while having a stroke. Ken Robinson’s talk is up there (are schools killing creativity?), and one of the coolest bits of statistics you’ll ever see from Hans Rosling:

After watching that, you should absolutely must head straight on over to and be dazzled.

You can even access the gapminder graph and manipulate both axes. Awesome.

The $50 SMARTBoard

This is just unbelievable, for two reasons:

1. If it works, you get thousands of dollars of functionality for near nowt.

2. You get an excuse to bring a Wii to school.

Here’s Johnny Lee and his Wii hacks (thanks to Henri Bemelmans for letting me know):

And while you’re at it…

Go and spend some time on the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) website – there are some really top-class talks.

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