free debate

March 31, 2010

What is Autism?

In the media, the topic of autism has become increasingly prominent over the past few years. Although I do believe that there needs to be more awareness of autism, the hype over autism has put out a tangled mess of myth and misinformation about what autism is, how its caused, and how it can be treated. I'd like to take some time and try to clear up what's true - and what's not - concerning autism. But before I can really do that, I think I need to define what exactly autism is.

Autism is a mental disorder that usually appears in children before the age of three. Autism is characterized by a lack of development in social interaction, language, and behavior. Some of the "warning signs," according to Mayo Clinic, include:
Social skills

  • Fails to respond to his or her name
  • Has poor eye contact
  • Appears not to hear you at times
  • Resists cuddling and holding
  • Appears unaware of others' feelings
  • Seems to prefer playing alone — retreats into his or her "own world"


  • Starts talking later than other children
  • Loses previously acquired ability to say words or sentences
  • Does not make eye contact when making requests
  • Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm — may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech
  • Can't start a conversation or keep one going
  • May repeat words or phrases verbatim, but doesn't understand how to use them


  • Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand-flapping
  • Develops specific routines or rituals
  • Becomes disturbed at the slightest change in routines or rituals
  • Moves constantly
  • May be fascinated by parts of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car
  • May be unusually sensitive to light, sound and touch and yet oblivious to pain
One of the tricky things about autism is that it's not a single, easy-to-define thing; it's actually a whole range, known as the autism spectrum disorders. Some children (and adults) have such a mild case that it is never diagnosed, and they live perfectly normal lives. Many who do get diagnosed also fall in this category, and eventually learn the behaviors accepted in society by rote. Only in moderate to severe cases does autism really start to negatively impact a person's life. Some never learn to speak, and have below-average IQ. Others have high-functioning autism; that is, they have above-average intelligence, but often can't communicate what they know well due to their autism. Savants are often autistic; they are brilliant at mathematics or music, but severely socially and/or behaviorally impaired.

Another important point is that not everyone who displays some of these symptoms is autistic. The autism spectrum is very broad, and contains a lot of symptoms. So, there are certainly instances where other things, such as an auditory processing disorder or clinical shyness, may mimic autism. A person I know, for instance, has an auditory processing disorder, and he took a long time to start talking. He often didn't respond to his name or to questions, particularly when he could not see the person talking to him. He has an unusual speech pattern. In extremely crowded and loud environments, he would even sometimes sit in a corner, cover his ears, and rock back and forth. Finally, he is a very talented musician. But he's not autistic. His parents took him to have his hearing checked, and discovered the auditory processing disorder. He wore filters in his ears for a few years while he learned to manage the sound, and now it's impossible to tell that he has any sort of disorder at all.

This post is getting rather long, so I'll wait until April 2nd, a.k.a World Autism Awareness Day, to go through some of the most commonly heard tidbits about autism. Because there is so much information - and misinformation- surrounding the topic of autism, I want to do full justice to sorting out what's true and what's not, so it deserves a post of its own.

UPDATE: The post tackling autism myths, Untangling the Truth about Autism, is now up.

March 24, 2010

Black Holes Don't Suck in Everything

Wow, it's been a while since I have written a post. Sorry for the long pause. Life is crazy right now and shows little signs of slowing down in the next two months. So for now, let's dive in with a really cool story involving some weird objects.

Black holes and dark matter are two of the least understood things in the universe. Black holes have enormous amounts of gravity focused into a very small space, creating a area where nothing can escape. Dark matter is a mysterious substance that interacts only through gravity. A recent study by scientists at National Autonomous University of Mexico these two things interact in an interesting way.

They started out by seeing what would happen if dark matter was constantly falling into super massive black holes in the center of galaxies. They used models to find that this would quickly make the black holes so massive they would distort the entire galaxy. “Over the billions of years since galaxies formed, such runaway absorption of dark matter in black holes would have altered the population of galaxies away from what we actually observe,” said Dr. Xavier Hernandez, one of the lead authors on the paper. This is really cool because it is going to once again force us to change how we think about dark matter. There must only be a limited about of dark matter in the center of galaxies, or there is another answer that we have not yet
thought of.

I love these stories because they show how scientists are constantly changing to new information. Science is far from stagnant, and each new paper gives us more insight into the universe. If something doesn't make sense, scientists investigate it. If two things don't make sense, they try to study them together.

More at: Universe Today

March 14, 2010

Happy Pi Day!


The above looks like a totally random string of numbers. However, it is actually the first 17 digits of π (aka "pi", pronounced like "pie"), which is one of the most important numbers in science and mathematics. It is defined as the ratio of the circumference of a circle to it's diameter. π shows up everywhere: any calculations involving circles or waves include it. It also shows up in physics, in equations such as Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle (which states that it is impossible to precisely know the speed and the location of a particle at the same time) and Coulomb's Law (which explains the electric force between two charges). It is everywhere in statistics as well. It is one of those numbers that keeps popping up in nature, even though it is irrational and hard for us humans to conceptualize.

Pie are Squared (πr2)
Equation for the Area of a Circle

Even though we don't fully understand the number π, however, we can still celebrate it's usefulness. So, today, March 14 at 1:59 (3.14 1 59), have a slice of pie in honor of π.

Want more on Pi Day? Check out the official Pi Day website.

March 11, 2010

Eggshell DNA

One of the problems with studying extinct species is that... well, they're extinct. With fossils, especially, it is difficult to learn much about a creature besides what its skeleton tells us. This is why the idea of extracting fossil DNA is so exciting. With strands of fairly intact DNA, scientists could analyze different genes in an extinct creature, giving some clue to things like coloration, evolutionary lineage, etc. If there was enough really well preserved DNA, it could even be possible to bring extinct species back to life.

Elephant Bird Skeleton and Egg
There's a major problem with extracting DNA from fossils, though. DNA is an extremely fragile molecule; it does not take long for it to degrade once a creature dies. Even the best preserved fossil bones have partial DNA at best. While this does prevent a lot of ethical questions, like whether we should bring extinct creatures back if we could, it makes understanding those creatures much more challenging.

A recent article published in the Royal Society journal offers a new possibility in recovering fossil DNA, however. Scientists looked, not to bones, but to eggshell to try and extract DNA. They successfully recovered genetic material from the eggshell of Aepyomis, the elephant bird of Madagascar, for the first time. They were also able to get DNA from New Zealand duck and moa eggshells, and Australian emu and owl eggshells, the oldest of which was 19,000 years old. Because eggshells are pretty resistant to decomposition, it makes sense that they would preserve the DNA better than bone.

This is an exciting step towards perhaps getting a fuller understanding of extinct species. It's still no where near dinosaurs, but it provides a new way to look. It will be interesting to see where this sort of research takes the studies of zoology and paleontology in the future.

Source: Discovery Channel- Fossilized Eggshells Yield DNA

March 10, 2010

Expanding Earth "Theory": Going Against All Science

The proposed growth of the earth
going from bottom to top and showing
both hemispheres.
Image Credit: Michael Netzer
When I first came up with the idea of writing this post, I thought it was going to be a piece of cake.I would find some of the core claims being made by proponents of expanding earth "theory"*, break them apart, and then show the errors in their thought. As I started doing more and more research, I realized this was going to be impossible. Not because there aren't scientific responses to their claims, or even that their claims went beyond my knowledge of the subjects. No, the problem is in the sheer number of claims.

First, some quick background. From my research, expanding earth "theory" was first purposed in the late 1800's to explain the features and characteristics of the various continents (like how Africa and South America fit together). At the time, the idea was not well accepted, but was not considered crazy. This was still a few decades before Alfred Wegener purposed his idea of plate tectonics. Over time, we have gained an increasing understanding of how the earth works, to the point where plate tectonics is more or less a fact. In the last century, all of the new evidence has supported Wegener's theory, but some people are still trying to hang on to this failed idea.

As I mentioned before, if I tried to take their claims apart one by one this would quickly turn from a blog post into a book. Instead, I want to focus on some of the clues that should make you wonder if someone's ideas are based in reality.

The first big red flag is their dismissal of the scientific consensus. Could the scientific consensus be wrong? Sure. Saying that, though, we need to keep in mind that a scientific consensus is not something that is formed by a few guys at a bar. Many researchers, all trying to prove their own ideas over many years, work to see what model the evidence fits. Only after all this, and a repeated hashing of the evidence, is any consensus achieved. This happened very recently with the debate over what killed the dinosaurs. To think that you know better than the hundreds of geologists who study this stuff for a living, is simply arrogant. Neal Adams, maybe the most famous proponent of expanding earth theory, says that if he is right, "Everything, everything in science must change." At some point, as non-scientists, we have to step back as ask what is more plausible; that a loud comic book artist has come up with a revolutionary theory that does change all of science, or that the thousands of expert scientists worldwide understand their disciplines and the evidence for their models.

The other big clue is the use of what I have heard called "techno-babble." True scientists and science educators will often use a large vocabulary to try and explain confusing concepts. They use this vocabulary however, to try and be precise in their meaning. Scientific ideas can be inherently complex, so in explaining them the goal is to make them simpler. Proponents of non-scientific ideas will sometimes do the opposite. They will take a simple idea, and use complex language to explain it to make it sound more scientific. A perfect example of this can be found at Near the bottom of the page there is a "Diagram of Omnidirectional Gravitational Pressure on exact center of any spherical body." This is a really complex way of saying, gravity pushes everything towards the center of mass. If the language is unnecessarily complex, it may be because they are trying to muddle a point instead of explaining it.

I recommend to anyone who wants to get experience looking into claims like this, look at these sites. See if you can find the flawed reasoning behind each argument. What evidence are they leaving out? If you have questions about a specific claim they are making, let us know and we can help you. We shouldn't just dismiss these ideas because they don't sound right or are unfamiliar. If we are going to dismiss them, it needs to be because there is no scientific support. In the end, nonsense dressed up with nice animations and fancy rhetoric, is still simply nonsense.

If you want to understand this issue better, I recommend you read the debate between Neal Adams and Stephen Novella, published at Neurologica.

*I cringe at the thought of calling it a theory in the scientific sense, and so found the quotation marks necessary.

March 8, 2010

Dynamic Earth: An Abundance of Earthquakes?

It's only the beginning of March, but 2010 already seems like a terrible year for earthquakes. First, on January 12, there was the 7.0 earthquake just off the coast of Haiti. Then Japan was hit with a 7.0 earthquake. Last Saturday, Chile was hit with an 8.8 earthquake, the fifth strongest ever recorded. And just today 5.9 earthquake occurred in Turkey. It's causing a lot of people to wonder, "What's going on?"

Despite the amount of news coverage for earthquakes all of a sudden, though, this year isn't really more severe than any other. Earthquakes are quite a common event. According to the USGS, there is a 100% chance of some magnitude of an earthquake occurring somewhere on planet Earth every day. 

The magnitude of the earthquakes occurring this year is not out of the ordinary, either. The annual number of earthquakes, also according to the USGS, is:

MagnitudeAverage Annually
              8 and higher             1 ¹
              7 - 7.9            17 ²
              6 - 6.9           134 ²
              5 - 5.9          1319 ²
              4 - 4.9         13,000
              3 - 3.9        130,000
              2 - 2.9       1,300,000

¹ Based on observations since 1900.
² Based on observations since 1990.
The only thing that makes this year uncommon is how much damage to people earthquakes have done this year. Fortunately for us, most of the severe earthquakes don't hit populated areas. This year, that hasn't been the case. Over 200,000 people were killed in the Haitian earthquake, and thousands to millions more were affected. The Chilean earthquake killed around 200. It also affected the rotation of the entire planet, shortening the length of the day by 1.26 milliseconds. There are 57 confirmed deaths from the earthquake today in Turkey. This year is no worse than normal for earthquakes. It is only the impact of these earthquakes that is more noticeable than usual. The world is not shaking itself to bits; it's just moving, same as it always does.

Source: USGS Earthquakes
More information on earthquakes in general

March 5, 2010

UPDATE: Dinosaur Debate: What Killed the Dinosaurs?

The question of what wiped the dinosaurs out has been around since... well, pretty much since dinosaurs were first identified. I discussed some of the theories previously, here.

Science, however, being the ever-changing field that it is, has now given us a solid consensus on this issue. Just yesterday, an international panel of paleontologists announced that it was, indeed, an asteroid impact that lead to the K-T boundary extinction. 41 top researchers from around the globe reviewed 20 years worth of evidence pointing to the cause of this mass extinction. Their conclusion? Approximately 65.5 million years ago, a meteor 9.32 miles (15 km) across slammed into the Gulf of Mexico just off of Chicxulub, in Mexico. This lead the a general global catastrophe. There were huge forest fires; tremendous earthquakes, which dwarf the recent ones in Haiti and Chile; continental landslides; massive tsunamis; and so much material was shot into the atmosphere that the planet was plunged into a global winter.

So, why an asteroid? What about the volcanic activity at the Deccan traps? The paleontolgists had several lines of evidence for this decision.
Shocked quartz, from Chicxulub
  1. Shocked quartz: This is a rare form of quartz, that exists only at nuclear explosions and meteor impact. It is found world-wide through the layer of ash that marks the K-T boundary. This is a huge failing for the volcanic idea. There is simply no way any amount of eruption would create shocked quartz.
  2. Iridium layer: In that same layer of ash that the shocked quartz is found in, there is a huge spike in the iridium content. Iridium is a very rare element on the earth's surface, but shows up in asteroids fairly commonly. Some is also found in the earth's mantle, but not enough for volcanism to cause such a large spike.
  3. Speed of the extinction: In geologic time, the K-T boundary is an eyeblink. Dinosaurs and their compatriots, which had survived for 160 million years, were just gone. Poof. No more. Extreme volcanic activity would have significant short-term effects on climate, but it would have taken longer. The researchers found little evidence that many Mesozoic species were on the decline before the asteroid struck.
All this leads up to one conclusion: the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction was caused by an asteroid. The evidence is overwhelming, especially upon reevaluation. One question, answered. Only infinitely many more to go.

Source: Science Daily- Asteroid Killed Off the Dinosaurs, Says International Scientific Panel


As you can see, we've been doing some renovations to the Scientifica webpage lately. We've got a whole new template, and several new pages, such as our "What is Science?" page and our "Participate in Science" page. We may be making a few more tweaks and changes over the next few days. Please let us know if you find any bugs or glitches, if you want the old layout back, etc. You can contact us via email, using the links to the left, or using the comments section below.

Also, we plan to begin posting on a more regular schedule here shortly.


March 1, 2010

New "What is Science?" Page

We just created a new page for the "What is Science?" link at the top of the page. This is still a bit of a test, but hopefully we will be coming out with more permanent pages soon. Let us know what you think, all feedback is greatly appreciated.

When I've Changed My Mind

It is almost redundant to say that, as humans, we like to be comfortable. Part of being comfortable is often being comfortable in our beliefs. Each one of us has a way we think the world works. We will sometimes even incorporate parts of our beliefs into our concept of ourselves. This can make it extremely difficult for us to be open to changing our minds. Unfortunately, we are better at justifying our beliefs than at changing them. This is sometimes referred to as cognitive dissonance, which is a topic for another post. Here I want to talk about something more personal.

I enjoy challenging people's ideas. I am not afraid of confrontation, and I think this opens up dialogue that would otherwise never come up. I make a point of telling people that I will change my mind with the evidence, but it's not easy. So I wanted to show an example of when I changed my mind.

I used to be a huge supporter of herbal medicine. I would defend supplements like Airborne and Cold Snap for treating minor illness. I was never to the point where I would decline science-based medicine, but I thought the less processed it was, the better. Alternative medicine is really popular within my family, and I picked it up from them. I didn't really see a difference between alternative medicine and science-based medicine.

For me, the major change came when I learned how science-based medicine modalities are evaluated. The idea that different forms of treatment should be tested to see if they are effective and safe just made sense to me. I then learned that there is no research to support the claims of alternative medicine and they are not properly regulated.

I wanted to write this article for two reasons. First is to show that I don't expect anymore than I am willing to do. If we truly want to find truth in the world, we need to be able to admit when we are wrong. I always challenge people to prove me wrong, and I will follow through if anyone can find the evidence. The second is something I direct more at skeptics. I did not change my mind because someone just came up to me with research papers proving me wrong. I changed my mind because I understood how to evaluate the evidence. I think we need to spend more time teaching the skills of critical thinking, and maybe less time preaching our conclusions.