Physics is not interested in your delusions of grandeur

It's impossible to dive in front of a bullet and play the hero. Likewise, you can't really dodge a bullet either (unless you get a big lead on the fact that it's heading towards you). Kyle Hill explains why the stuff that looks fancy and flashy on TV doesn't work in the real world.

Two redheads can have a brunette child

Turns out, whether or not you are a ginger is not determined by the simple genetics of a single gene. In fact, the pigment that causes red hair is likely present in many brunettes. What matters more seems to be how much of the ginger-hiding brunette pigment you have — and the genetics that determine that are a lot more complicated. Which, frankly, makes the brunette-guy-with-red-beard phenomenon make a whole lot more sense.

Read the rest

Great debunked scientific theories of yesteryear

Sheep do not grow on trees. Your dirty laundry cannot give birth to a mouse. Plowing the soil will not ensure plenty of rain. Check out Matt Simon's great list of these and other truthy ideas that once had mainstream traction and vaguely plausible scientific explanations.

Actually, it's good for low-income kids if their mom works

At the PsySociety blog, Melanie Tannenbaum looks at the meta-analysis cited by Erik Erikson of Redstate.com as proof that low-income families fare worse when mom works outside the home — and finds that it says exactly the opposite. This post is notable not only for deconstructing a "common sense" belief, but also for doing a great job of explaining what a meta-analysis is and why it matters. Also provides a full daily serving of Fox News schadenfreude.

Scrub your brain of these "folk neuroscience" misconceptions

There is no such thing as "left brained" or "right brained". You really and truly cannot break down rationality and creativity in that way. And that's not the only thing we all think we know about the brain that turns out to be totally wrong. At the Guardian Vaughan Bell writes about the rise of folk neuroscience, why these misconceptions are actually problematic, and which bits of false information we need to stop repeating to one another.

No cloned Neanderthal baby for Harvard (at least not yet)

For the record, a Harvard scientist is NOT looking for an "adventurous woman" to give birth to a cloned Neanderthal. Ladies, you can stop filling out those application forms. Apparently, geneticist George Church and the German magazine Der Spiegel had a bit of a translation problem.

Commodity market prediction takes the Internet by storm

Good news! There is not an unavoidable bacon shortage looming in our future. Bad news! What was actually being predicted was really an increase in meat prices across the board. Droughts have completely decimated this year's corn crop, and as corn is the stuff we usually feed our meat, it's going to cost more to raise a pig (or a cow, or a chicken) next year. Key takeaways: There will still be meat, it's just going to be more spendy next year, and also don't trust the British when they offer you "bacon" because they actually mean Canadian bacon, which is different (and inferior).

How bad neuroscience can mislead us

If you watch or read much science fiction, you know that all it takes to suspend disbelief about fictional science is an explanation that sounds good on the surface and makes use of terms and ideas that your audience doesn't fully understand but does find emotionally compelling. It's why "radioactive spider" made sense in 1960s.

Apparently (and unfortunately) this effect is true for actual science as well.

This slide comes from a lecture given by Oxford University neuroscientist Dorothy Bishop. Basically, it's showing that an explanation of a psychological phenomenon became more believable if you added in some hand-wavey neuroscience and pictures of brain scans. Suddenly, an explanation of human behavior that's based on circular reasoning and poor logic changes from something lay people won't accept to something we're happy to buy into.

Bishop's entire, hour-long presentation on the science of bad neuroscience is available to watch online for free. If you don't have time, check out this summary of the key points at the Neurobonkers blog.

Via Mind Hacks

Dinosaurs didn't only live in jungles

And they probably didn't drag their massive tails along the ground, either. At The Guardian, Dave Hone debunks some of the most common dinosaur myths. (Via Mark Becker)

Just wash your pants, people

Levi's recommends freezing jeans, instead of washing them, as a way to save water. The idea is that freezing will kill the bacteria that make your pants smell. But Stephen Craig Cary, an expert in low-temperature microbial life, begs to differ.

No, you're not in love with your iPhone

The New York Times has an op-ed out today, which claims that fMRI studies show that, when people are exposed to a pretty, shiny, ringing iPhone, the experience lights up the part of their brains that signifies a deep, compassionate love for something. iPhones trigger the same brain activity that your parents and loved ones trigger, writes branding strategist Martin Lindstrom.

Clearly, this was going to turn out to wildly misleading. You love your iPhone like you love your mother is just not the kind of statement that passes a cursory bullshit inspection. And lots of people have handily debunked it, including a couple of actual nueroimaging specialists, Russ Poldrack and Tal Yarkoni.

So, how wrong was the NYT op-ed? Pretty damn wrong. Turns out, the part of the brain Martin Lindstrom identifies with lovey-dovey emotions is a lot more complicated than that. Here's Russ Poldrack:

Insular cortex may well be associated with feelings of love and compassion, but this hardly proves that we are in love with our iPhones. In Tal Yarkoni's recent paper in Nature Methods, we found that the anterior insula was one of the most highly activated part of the brain, showing activation in nearly 1/3 of all imaging studies! Further, the well-known studies of love by Helen Fisher and colleagues don't even show activation in the insula related to love, but instead in classic reward system areas.

And Tal Yarkoni adds a lot more to this:

... the insula (or at least the anterior part of the insula) plays a very broad role in goal-directed cognition. It really is activated when you’re doing almost anything that involves, say, following instructions an experimenter gave you, or attending to external stimuli, or mulling over something salient in the environment.

So, by definition, there can’t be all that much specificity to what the insula is doing, since it pops up so often. To put it differently, as Russ and others have repeatedly pointed out, the fact that a given region activates when people are in a particular psychological state (e.g., love) doesn’t give you license to conclude that that state is present just because you see activity in the region in question. If language, working memory, physical pain, anger, visual perception, motor sequencing, and memory retrieval all activate the insula, then knowing that the insula is active is of very little diagnostic value.

I'd recommend reading Yarkoni's full post, because it also gets into some really fascinating nuance behind the neuroscience of addiction. Shorter version: We don't have a clear biomarker that signals addiction, or addictive behavior. You couldn't even diagnose an obviously addicted individual using neuroimaging. So you should beware of anybody who tells you that an fMRI study demonstrates that people are addicted to anything.