Christopher Hitchens on Facing Death

Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer less than a year ago, and tells us in this CSPAN interview that his disease has unfortunately progressed to stage 4.  How he is facing cancer, and how he is facing death, is a topic he addresses with the same candor, wit, intelligence and realism that has been his trademark style for the better part of three decades. This interview is 53 minutes long, but if you can spare the time I strongly encourage you to watch it.

‘Power Balance’ Hucksters Admit their Product isn’t Based on Scientific Evidence

About 2.5 million people have spent $25 or more on a little rubber bracelet called Power Balance. Perhaps you’veheard of it (or are wearing it). Its makers claim that it “resonates” with the body’s “energy flow” producing extraordinary balance, flexibility and strength in its users.

Well, at least that’s what they used to claim. Now, in a show of candor rare among hucksters (unless they’re being threatened by industry watchdogs, which they are), they’re admitting that the product isn’t backed by an iota of credible scientific evidence. They’ll even send you a refund if you feel you were duped by their advertising.

I suppose that’s not exactly the same as admitting the product doesn’t do what they claim it does. Here’s a quote from Power Balance co-founder Josh Rodermel from The Daily Mail explaining how his product “works”:

Everything in nature has a set frequency. The body has a frequency and things which cause negativity to the human body – like mobile phones and radio waves – break down its natural healing frequency. My brother and I worked out a way of putting good frequencies into our holograms so they balance out the body, making it stronger and more flexible. It works in different ways for different people. Athletes say they can last longer on the field, that they have better balance and that their muscles recover quicker. Non-athletes say it works for them, too, giving them that extra boost off the field, in many areas of life including the office and in the bedroom.

The holograms he’s talking about are identical to those on your credit cards, but evidently you have to use the Power Balance brand of holograms to “balance out the body.” Suffice to say this product is as much a sham as magnet therapy and crystals that align your Chakras. And it once again teaches us a lesson that so few people seem to ever learn: we are more gullible than we’d like to believe, and we’re easier marks than we’d like to admit.

If you were one of the millions duped by Power Balance, don’t feel bad. CNBC named it their “Sports Product of 2010”–an endorsement taken seriously by a whole lot of people. Many of those people also get most of their financial advice from the same source (might want to rethink that, by the way). Celebrities who use and endorse the product include David Beckham, Robert DeNiro, P Diddy, Khloe Kardashian, Shaquille O’Neal, and (gasp) the new princess, Kate Middleton.

But, alas, the pseudoscience song remains the same no matter how many stars or royals get pulled into singing it.

Products that seem to work via mysterious means inaccessible to scientific investigation are more than likely bullpucky and always have been. Their makers have always used sophistry and fuzzy explanations to sell them, and have always relied on the power of suggestion to propel the pucky as far as it’ll go. The game never really changes; the shysters just develop craftier ways to circumnavigate our judgment and appeal to what we really want — an easier way to feel better, look better, and be better.

How Many Red Bulls Would Kill You?

It is a picture of a fridge full of energy dri...

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The folks at Energy Fiend have developed an online calculator called “Death by Caffeine” that tells you roughly how many Red Bulls, Monsters, Rock Stars, etc you’d have to drink to keel over.  The number of drinks you can choose from on the killer-drink drop down menu is staggering, but upon closer inspection it looks like they include regular sodas like Pepsi, Coke and the like along with the amped up drinks (and even energy mints and coffee ice cream).

I’m going to enter my information, choosing Red Bull as my initial poison. Here’s the result:

It would take 204.75 cans of Red Bull to put you down.


Gulp down 474.78 cans of Coca-Cola Classic and you’re history.

You could drink 297.82 cans of Mountain Dew before croaking.

It would take 109.20 cups of Starbucks Tall Caffe Americano to put you down.

If you eat 341.25 Cups of Haagen-Dazs Coffee Ice Cream, you’ll be pushing up daisies.

By the way (and I say this as a die-hard coffee drinker), imbibing caffeine to stay awake is one of the silliest things we humans do.  The reason is this: in the brain, caffeine acts as an antagonist (a blocker) of adenosine–the neurotransmitter that pushes us closer and closer to sleep until we nod off–and it’s very good at accomplishing this. The problem is that with less exposure to adenosine, we become even more sensitive to the neurotransmitter’s effects. If we reduce our intake of caffeine, or simply become more tolerant of it, we actually find ourselves becoming more tired. So then we jack up the caffeine to counteract the withdrawal, but that just increases our tolerance.

Takeaway: you can only fool your brain into not sleeping for so long before succumbing to the inevitable crash.

HT: MindHacks

In Your Brain, Feet and Sex are Old Friends

Strange and perplexing meanders the path of science news in any given day.

Earlier, I came across a story over at BBC News about the effect of celebrity endorsements of shoes on women’s brains. A Dutch team of researchers scanned the brains of 24 women as they looked at 40 pictures of celebrities and of non-famous, but sexy, people wearing stylish shoes.

When looking at a celebrity sporting the shoes, women’s brains showed heightened activity in the medial oribitofrontal cortex (a part of the brain linked to “warm” feelings of affection). The same thing didn’t happen when they looked at pictures of sexy shoe-wearing non-celebrities.  So these women seemed to really love the shoes–in a more literal sense than usual–at least when they were modeled by celebrities.  And the impact appears to be long-term, according to the researchers; such is the emotional imprint of famous folks donning inviting footwear.

Which leads me to a related topic (well, at least I’m going to relate it for the purpose of this post)–namely, what’s going on in the brain of a foot fetishist? In the research above, the pivotal variable seems to be less the sex appeal of the shoes, or the feet wearing them, and more the emotionally potent influence of the celebrity rubbing off on the footwear. But in your common, run-of-the-mill foot fetishism, the feet and/or shoes in question might belong to just about anyone.  So clearly there’s a different dynamic at work, but what is it?

This question takes me to an illuminating graphic created by Emily Nagoski, the self proclaimed “Sex Nerd,” who believes she’s uncovered the connection. Actually, she’s illustrated a connection that was made some time ago by neurologist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, who proposed that foot fetishism is caused by the feet and the genitals occupying adjacent areas of the somatosensory cortex, possibly entailing some “neural crosstalk” between the two.

Here’s Emily’s graphic. Note that the genitalia and feet/toes are right next to each other along the somatosensory cortex (illustrated by Emily via a somatosensory homunculus–the instructive “little human” of the brain).

Emily’s explanation of the graphic warrants a direct quote:

Even though your feet are at one end of you actual body and your genitals are in the middle, as far as your brain is concerned, they’re right next to each other.

A phenomenon known in the nerd world as “spreading activation” takes us the rest of the way along this story. The foot sensation part of your brain “lights up” and lights up a little bit of the genital part of your brain along with it, or vice versa, and suddenly there’s a link between sexual arousal and foot sensations.

And so over time the guy (it’s usually a guy – not always, but usually) begins to feel sexual desire around feet, in the same way that he feels sexual desire around the genitals of his partner.

Makes sense.  A little cross-wire activity bridges parts of the brain that are already neighbors, and there you go. Why, however, would this necessarily be a predominantly male phenomenon?

That will have to remain a question for another day. Many thanks to the Sex Nerd for a great little graphic that sheds light on one of the more peculiar twists of the noggin.

How Our Brains Outwit Cruel Gods

God as portrayed by Michelangelo in "Crea...

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Consistent across the big three Western monotheisms is a theme notable only for its inconsistency: God is love, except for when he’s a belligerent tyrant with an unquenchable bloodlust.

Ask most people in the big three if their God condones cruelty, and you’ll get a definitive “no!” But anyone can flip through the sacred texts and find line after line that illustrates exactly the opposite.  Ask believers if theirs is a God of war and you’ll probably get another “no,” though passages aplenty make clear that the God(s) of Western religions are wholly committed to war as a means to get what they want, or what they want their chosen people to have.

What explains this disconnect?  If you ask a Christian if his/her God condones sexual violence, and the response is a likely “no”—you might ask for an explanation of a passage like this one:

When you go out to war against your enemies and the LORD, your God, delivers them into your hand, so that you take captives, if you see a comely woman among the captives and become so enamored of her that you wish to have her as wife, you may take her home to your house.  But before she may live there, she must shave her head and pare her nails and lay aside her captive’s garb.  After she has mourned her father and mother for a full month, you may have relations with her, and you shall be her husband and she shall be your wife.  However, if later on you lose your liking for her, you shall give her her freedom, if she wishes it; but you shall not sell her or enslave her, since she was married to you under compulsion.    (Deuteronomy 21:10-14)

Or you could allude to God’s cavalier attitude toward rape with a passage like this one:

If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father.  Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her.   (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

Or his general attitude toward women as mere spoils of war with a passage like this one:

They must be dividing the spoils they took: there must be a damsel or two for each man. (Judges 5:30)

My point here is less about exegesis of sacred texts, and more about why people choose to focus on that which supports their positions and ignore, or rationalize, that which doesn’t.  We know this tendency by its psychological moniker: confirmation bias. And we also know this bias’ partner in crime that fuels the mental myopia: selective perception.

But I think there’s something else going on here as well.  One of the chief tenets of Western religion is that God made humans in his image.  If you read the sacred texts and take to heart the passages above and the many like them, then you’re left with an uncomfortable conclusion about who you are.

Try, for example, to imagine yourself as someone who would applaud this sort of unequivocal declaration of horrific violence against children (and more sexual violence as well):

Anyone who is captured will be run through with a sword.  Their little children will be dashed to death right before their eyes.  Their homes will be sacked and their wives raped by the attacking hordes. For I will stir up the Medes against Babylon, and no amount of silver or gold will buy them off.  The attacking armies will shoot down the young people with arrows.  They will have no mercy on helpless babies and will show no compassion for the children. (Isaiah 13:15-18)

Hard to do, isn’t it?  And yet, if we’re created in God’s image, then are we not manifestations of this same cruel nature–of the “For I will” nature underlined above?

So to undermine that conclusion, we have to mentally shelve those illustrations—the ones that make any reasonable person cringe—and focus on those that don’t short circuit our brain’s need for comfort and stability. We don’t believe in God and participate in the social support network of any given church or temple because we want to become even more stressed and confused than we are in our day-to-day lives. Much the opposite. We’re there to reign in the blood cortisol levels that drive us to the brink at work, in traffic and all too often at home.

If all we did in church was talk about God’s penchant for violence, that wouldn’t make for a very psychologically reassuring atmosphere. If we are going to talk about it, then we need to clarify that all of that rage and sexual cruelty is directed against God’s enemies.  That feels much better, because if we’re believers, then God’s enemies are also our enemies. Babies, whatever—they had it coming.

This balancing act, I’d argue, is what allows sane, intelligent people (note that I am not talking about unbalanced militants here) to focus on that which edifies and push from immediate view that which alarms.  Around that which edifies, we build a public-facing persona of tolerance and love. We can then build into that persona all of the attributes we deeply value. The rest—those dark, awful corridors of our belief—we avoid, or venture into only when we need to show our enemies what the dark side of our God looks like, or remind ourselves what could happen to us if we wander.

Another way of saying this is that to fully embrace the notion that God created us in his image is actually a very frightening thing to do.  But our brains are exceptionally clever and know how to work around discomfort to preserve stability. Gods of war and conquest, no matter how explicitly cruel, are simply no match for our powers of cognitive navigation.

'PepsiGate' Rocks the Science Blogging World

Other current Pepsi logo (2003-2010). Pepsi Wi...

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The latest buzz in science blog circles–and quickly spilling out into more mainstream venues–is that SEED magazine, owner of the well-regarded ScienceBlogs network, has stepped in a steaming pile of marketing dung.

If you’re not familiar with ScienceBlogs, it’s a network of several pros from all walks of the science world who enjoy communicating the ins and outs of their disciplines with an audience that includes a hefty percentage of lay readers.  I have many friends in their ranks and think they are a fine group of writers with a genuine interest in communicating the ongoings of credible science to the public.  These folks earn a pittance for their work, derived mainly from advertising dollars.  Clearly, they don’t do it for the money.

SEED recently decided to allow Pepsi to have its own blog on the network, called “Food Frontiers”–which, of course, they would pay for, not unlike a block of continuous advertising space. Many bloggers at ScienceBlogs are not happy about this.  The standard for any credible science journalism network is that writers earn their space on merit, not because they have products to pitch. The ‘partnership’ SEED entered into with Pepsi stomps all over the merit-based model, and is frankly pissing a lot of people off. 

Among those people are Rebecca Skloot, the bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, who announced yesterday that she is closing down shop at ScienceBlogs and moving on.  This is the rough equivalent of the Lakers losing Kobe Bryant.  Another well-known writer at ScienceBlogs, PZ Myers, summed up the issues in this post, as did top-notch science journalist David Dobbs, here, who has also resigned his post at ScienceBlogs.

Aside from great writers leaving its network, SEED is taking serious heat from media critics as illustrated in this scathing slamfest in the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.  Quoting from that piece:

For magazines to be trusted by consumers and to endure as brands, readers must be assured of their editorial integrity.

Editorial-looking sections or pages that are not produced by a magazines editors are not editorial content. They should be labeled Advertisement, Special Advertising Section or Promotion at the top of every page in type as prominent as the magazines normal body type.

Advertisers should not pay to place their products in editorial pages nor should they demand placement in return for advertising.

The bottom line is that if you’re going to mix marketing with science journalism (or, really, any journalism worth its salt), then you’d better be damn sure to clarify that the commercial content is just that: PAID FOR CONTENT. Print magazines learned this lesson a long time ago and as a result “advertorials” are clearly identified as such. How was this lesson lost on the owner of one of the best known science blogging networks out there? 

As I write this, I just received an update that it seems SEED has heard the message and is changing direction. According to this post by SEED Media founder and CEO Adam Bly, it appears that Food Frontiers has been cancelled.

PepsiGate may be over, but the questions it has raised about the commingling of marketing and journalistic content are just beginning to swarm in the blogosphere. And, clearly, much damage to the credibility of SEED and ScienceBlogs has already been done.