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Saturday, November 21, 2009

TWOTI: New Series, Jennings Update, and Something Just Plain Interesting

While last week was a pretty slow week for blogging (both in my own work and, seemingly, in the small sphere of the internet that I frequent), this week had numerous interesting articles prompting a return of my "This Week on the Internet" series. This week I will be discussing three posts, with two of the blogs being a repeat of those featured in the first TWOTI installment.

To start the week off, on Monday Neuroskeptic wrote a discussion of Desiree Jennings' case (the same case that Steve Novella gave a first rate summary and discussion of two weeks ago) in the context of her treatment at the hands of Dr. Buttar. If you don't recall, Jennings suffered from a psychogenic illness following her vaccination. Her case was trumpeted by the anti-vaccine people in numerous unsavoury ways, and she was ultimately treated by Buttar's mecury chelation quackery. I thought Neuroskeptic brought up some very interesting points about modern medicine's ability to deal with psychologically based disorders. Essentially, we are at an unfortunate cul-de-sac: we know enough about physiology and medicine to fairly accurately determine when a disorder is psychologically based, but we do not know enough about the fine workings of the brain to determine either what precisely has gone wrong, nor how to fix it.

On Tuesday, Jonah Lehrer at the Frontal Cortex produced an interesting post commenting on a recent statistical analysis of golf revealing that players function measurably worse when Tiger Woods is part of the tournament. Lehrer then discussed both the study's interpretation of the drop in performance (the contestants subconsciously decided it was not worth the effort to perform at their best since they figured they had already lost) and his own (over-analysis of their actions led to a drop in performance - an interesting psychological effect on motor control that Lehrer talks about quite often). While I am inclined to find Lehrer's interpretation more plausible and think it is likely closer to the truth, I think the discussion also helps display the difficulties in interpreting psychological studies. When you find an interesting psychological quirk, it is hard not to want to have a go at explaining why our brains function that way. However, it is very easy to come up with a reasonable-sounding explanation that has absolutely no bearing on the truth (which is why my psychology tag includes the word 'fanciful'), and the interpretation of psychological studies should be firmly treated as idle speculation unless carefully backed up with appropriate evidence (which is one of the reasons I am inclined to go with Lehrer's interpretation - a drop in performance following over-analysis of one's physical actions has been demonstrated with other studies). Of course, speculation or not, it is still fun and fascinating reading.

Finally, on Wednesday Dr. Steve Novella at Neurologica started what looks to be a very promising series on science-based medicine and the incorporation of evidence into medical practices. His opening post discusses the complex experimental relationship between correlation and causation. Future parts of the series promise to include what makes a study well-designed. For anyone interested in the practice of good medicine, concerned about telling the difference between well-supported medical practice and pseudoscience, or unsure of how to tell the difference between fear-mongering quackery and legitimate medical concern, I recommend reading what Dr. Novella has to say.