Troublemaker’s Fringe, tomorrow, after the day job

If you’re in London Town Wednesday evening, don’t forget to come along to the Troublemaker’s Fringe, where we’ll be tackling the problems of science journalism and discussing how misleading, dangerous and inaccurate stories keep making the headlines.

Hilariously, we’ve already been slagged off by Steve Connor of The Independent who deals out some scorching criticism, calls us arrogant, and defends the accuracy of the mainstream media by saying:

The medics met in a pub in London last night to explain why the “mainstream media’s science coverage is broken, misleading, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly”.

Except we’re meeting tomorrow night, and there’s only one medic.

Ugh! Feel the heat!

Link to full details of the Troublemaker’s Fringe.
Link to Steve Connor in The Independent (I recommend the comments).

A neurobiology of the disordered mind

Newsweek has a short but smart essay by neuroscientist Eric Kandel who riffs on some of the latest developments that have pushed forward our understanding of the neurobiology of mental disorder.

Kandel gives a description of one of the big biological discoveries from recent years, namely copy number variations, and explores what they might tell us about the development of psychiatric disorders:

One major advance has been the discovery that there is much more variability in the genome than had been anticipated, and that this takes the form of copy number variation (CNV). These are duplications or deletions of segments of a chromosome, often involving several or tens of genes, that enhance or depress the actions of specific genes. A well-known example of a CNV is the extra copy of chromosome 21 resulting in Down syndrome. It has recently been discovered that this type of variation is extremely common in everyone’s genome.

As he goes on to explain, CNVs have caused a lot of excitement in the world of mental illness research, not least because they’ve been found to occur in ‘out of the blue’ cases of schizophrenia – people without a family history of the disorder – suggesting that the disorder could be partially explained in some people by DNA ‘lesions’.

Some rare CNVs have been found to greatly increase the risk for schizophrenia, but unfortunately they don’t help explain the genetics of schizophrenia in general because there are many people with schizophrenia who don’t have these rare CNVs.

Nevertheless, this rare CNV finding may help us understand the neurobiology of the disorder by giving us clues based on how these unusual copy variations affect brain growth and protein expression.

Interestingly, those CNVs which have been found to increase the risk of schizophrenia also increase the risk for other disorders such as autism and intellectual disability (what the Americans call ‘mental retardation’) – suggesting that our diagnostic divisions between disorders may not be well supported by genetics.

Despite the title of the article, Kandel also highlights recent developments in psychotherapy, which have given us far the biggest advance in effective treatments for mental disorders in recent years.

Newsweek seem to have just released a whole collection of articles on biomedical sciences of which Kandel’s contribution is a part. But don’t miss a good article on ‘how science will enhance your brain’ and another piece on epigenetics.

Look on the right hand side for links to all the articles in the series.

Link to Newsweek on ‘A Biology of Mental Disorder’.
Link to Newsweek on ‘How Science Will Enhance Your Brain’.
Link to Newsweek piece on epigenetics.

DSM-V bun fight in full swing

The arguments over the forthcoming revision of the psychiatrists’ diagnostic manual, the DSM-V, have just been heated up again by an unusually acerbic response from the American Psychiatric Association attacking their main critic.

The article that condemns the new diagnostic manual committee by ex-DSM chairman Allen Francis’ has just been officially published, alongside an interview where he furthers his damning criticism.

The American Psychiatric Association has apparently written a response which seems to have been leaked online, and it contains some robust responses to Francis’ points as well as a surprising ad hominem attack – suggesting he is motivated by losing money after the DSM-IV goes out of print.

The APA makes some good replies to the main criticisms, defending their record of openness, their reliance on the scientific data and their proposed changes to the diagnostic process based on current best practice, but the final paragraph is quite suprising:

Both Dr. Frances and Dr. Spitzer have more than a personal ‘pride of authorship’ interest in preserving the DSM-IV and its related case book and study products. Both continue to receive royalties on DSM-IV associated products. The fact that Dr. Frances was informed at the APA Annual Meeting last month that subsequent editions of his DSM-IV associated products would cease when the new edition is finalized, should be considered when evaluating his critique and its timing.

This line of criticism is perhaps most surprising for the fact that, as recently reported in USA Today, 68% of the DSM-V committee report financial ties with drug companies.

While the committee rules require that members cannot receive more than $10,000 in drug company payments while at work on the DSM, I can’t help but thinking that they are better off not opening the Pandora’s box of conflict-of-interest criticisms.

Link to Frances article in Psychiatric Times.
Link to Frances interview in Psychiatric Times.
Link to leaked alleged APA response (via Carlat blog).

Honey, I’m shrinking the kids

I’ve just discovered a New York Times article from earlier this year about psychologists who are studying their own kids in the service of top flight scientific research.

Studying one’s own kids has a long and proud tradition in psychology. Perhaps the first person to do so formally was Charles Darwin, who in 1877 published his paper A Biographical Sketch of an Infant which was based on observations of his own children.

Freud, of course, studied and analysed his own children (most famously Anna Freud) but perhaps the most influential was child psychologist Jean Piaget who based many of his ideas on observations of his own three children.

Also notable was one of the first women ever to be awarded a PhD in psychology, Milicent Washburn Shinn, who did her research on her own niece.

The New York Times piece covers many modern cognitive science projects that are based on observations of the researchers’ children to get the sort of in-depth data it would otherwise be impossible to obtain.

The ‘human speechome’ project is probably the most well-known where developmental psychologist Deb Roy is recording virtually every sound made by his young child from birth to “observe and computationally model the longitudinal language development of a single child at an unprecedented scale”.

Roy discusses the project and additional audio and video illustrates the article with more detail on the project.

The article also tackles some of the ethical issues of using your own children as research participants. This is an important topic because currently, there are no widely agreed guidelines on this long-established practice.

This exact topic sparked an article in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this year to mull over the rights and wrongs of the situation.

The article covers a wide range of studies although is quite US-centric. One of the most notable examples this side of the pond resulted in a book by UK psychologist Charles Fernyhough released as A Thousand Days of Wonder in the US and The Baby in the Mirror in the UK which describes the development of his daughter through her first three years of life.

Link to NYT ‘Test Subjects Who Call the Scientist Mom or Dad’.
Link to JAMA article on ‘Parent investigators: a dilemma’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

The effect of the rats on the rat race

Photo by Flickr user B Tal. Click for sourceNot Exactly Rocket Science covers an intriguing study on how people try less hard in a competition as the number of competitors increases.

The researchers started off with a simple observation that US students tended to get better marks when they took their exams in smaller exam rooms.

This could have been for many reasons of course, so they set about running several experiments to see if the effect was genuinely down to competitiveness.

These additional studies found that smaller groups do indeed increase competitiveness, and several also allowed them to attempt to explain why:

…they told 50 students that they would have a week to win $100 by adding as many Facebook friends as possible. They found that the students felt more motivated to compete when facing 10 competitors compared to 10,000, and they were also more likely to compare themselves against the others within the smaller contest. The number of competitors predicted the students’ motivations to compete, but that association disappeared after adjusting for their tendency to compare themselves with others.

This same experiment allowed them to rule out the possibility that the students were more motivated in the smaller group, simply because they thought the task would be easier. They certainly felt that way (albeit wrongly – in both cases, the prizes went to the top 20% and the students understood that) but it didn’t affect their behaviour. Adjusting for this perception of difficulty didn’t strongly affect the link between number of competitors and motivation.

In other words, the effect of the number of competitors on our motivation seems to work through how likely we are to compare ourselves to others.

But contrary to what we might expect, those who compare themselves most to others are more likely to be competitive when there are fewer people.

The authors suggest that this may be because personal comparisons are easier when we can think of our competitors as individuals rather than having a more abstract idea of a nebulous ‘group’.

Anyway, another great piece from Not Exactly Rocket Science, where you can get a more detailed low-down on the study.

Link to NERS on competitors and the motivation to compete.

The straight dopamine theory could be up in smoke

There is now growing evidence that cannabis use causes a small but reliable increase in the chance of developing psychosis. Traditionally, this was explained by the drug increasing dopamine levels in the brain but a new study shortly to be published in NeuroImage suggests that the active ingredient in cannabis doesn’t effect this important neurotransmitter.

Despite some dissenting voices, disruption to the mesolimbic dopamine pathway is widely thought to be the key problem in the development of delusions, hallucinations and the other psychotic symptoms commonly diagnosed as schizophrenia.

This has led to the assumption that the small increased risk of psychosis reliably associated with cannabis use is due to the drug increasing dopamine levels in a deep brain structure called the striatum.

In itself, this is partly based on another assumption – the virtual mantra of recreational drug research that ‘all drugs of abuse increase dopamine levels in the reward system’ of which the striatum is a part.

This new study, led by neuroscientist Paul Stokes, tested dopamine levels by using a type of PET brain scan where participants are injected with a radioactive tracer that binds to free dopamine receptors. Higher dopamine levels will mean that there are less free dopamine receptors and, therefore, lower tracer levels.

Participants were tested twice, once when given placebo and once when given a dose of pure THC – one of the most important active ingredients in cannabis. The dose was designed to be roughly equivalent to the amount you might absorb from a single joint.

The researchers found no difference in dopamine levels between the THC and the sugar pill, even though the participants clearly reported the effects of the drug.

Although they only tested 13 participants, this is the largest study of its kind so far. These type of neurotransmitter tracer studies are know to produce conflicting results at times, so further experiments will be needed to be sure of the result.

But if it is the case that cannabis does not cause a significant increase in dopamine levels, this will mean our ideas about cannabis and psychosis will need a rethink.

It also shakes up the idea common idea that all recreational drugs are pleasurable because they affect the ‘dopamine reward system’.

Link to PubMed entry for the ‘in press’ study.

In our wildest dreams

Photo by Flickr user NebulaskiN. Click for sourceIn the latest of his excellent columns for Scientific American psychologist Jesse Berring reviews the current theories that try and explain why we’ve evolved to have dreams.

One of the most interesting is the ‘Threat Simulation Theory’ which argues dreams are a form of night-time survival training, based on research that found that dreams often put us in scenarios of personal danger:

In a 2006 study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, Zadra, Desjardins, and Marcotte performed a content analysis on a set of 212 recurrent dreams reported by participants ranging from 18-81 years of age.

Among their findings, escape and pursuit themes were the most frequent type of threat found in their sample (25.9 percent), followed by accidents and misfortunes (19.7 percent), aggression and violence (19.0 percent), physical difficulties (17.0 percent), emotional difficulties (7.5 percent), and disasters (3.4 percent).

Furthermore, in nearly all cases the dreamer him- or herself (rather than a stranger or loved one) was the specific target of the threat and usually the dreamers actively participated in some way to resolve, escape, or combat the threat.

The article covers a whole stack of alternatives and is written in Berrings’ usual engaging style.

Link to ‘Dreaming of Nonsense: The Evolutionary Enigma of Dream Content’.

It’s just a booty call

Photo by Flickr user millylillyrose. Click for sourceI’ve recently discovered the NCBI ROFL blog which collects funny and unusual studies from the PubMed medical research database. The latest post is an academic study on the booty call as an ‘adaptive mating strategy’:

The “Booty Call”: A Compromise Between Men’s and Women’s Ideal Mating Strategies.

J Sex Res. 2009 Feb 27:1-11. [Epub ahead of print]

Jonason PK, Li NP, Cason MJ.

Traditionally, research on romantic and sexual relationships has focused on 1-night stands and monogamous pairs. However, as the result of men and women pursuing their ideal relationship types, various compromise relationships may emerge. One such compromise is explored here: the “booty call.” The results of an act-nomination and frequency study of college students provided an initial definition and exploration of this type of relationship. Booty calls tend to utilize various communication mediums to facilitate sexual contact among friends who, for men, may represent low-investment, attractive sexual partners and, for women, may represent attractive test-mates. The relationship is discussed as a compromise between men’s and women’s ideal mating strategies that allows men greater sexual access and women an ongoing opportunity to evaluate potential long-term mates.

I suspect this study was completed just to allow the world’s most awesome chat-up line to come into existence: “Hi, my name’s Dr Jonason and I’m researching booty calls. Would you be interested in taking part in my study?”

Actually, where’s that grant application form…

Link to NCBI ROFL blog.
Link to PubMed entry for booty call study.

I know where you are secretly attending!

A remarkable study has just been published in the cognitive science journal Vision Research which may be the first genuine demonstration of brain scan ‘mind reading’.

The study focuses on visual attention and particularly what is called ‘covert visual attention’ – the ability to mentally focus on something without moving your eyes.

For example, take the phrase ‘cat x dog’. I want you to fix your eyes on the ‘x’ and keep them there, but then alter your concentration so you mentally focus on ‘cat’ and then ‘dog’ and back again.

Your eyes aren’t moving but you can concentrate on different things in the scene you’re looking at just by shifting your attention. This is called ‘covert’ visual attention because there is no obvious (‘overt’) bodily movement associated with it, it’s a hidden (‘covert’) mental process.

Since the time of William James, attention has been thought of like a spotlight in that you just ‘shine’ it on an area to make it mentally clearer.

The authors of this new study wondered whether attention was really this selective and decided to use a nifty brain imaging method to test this out.

They relied on the fact that every point in your retina is literally mapped in the brain. Each point in the visual scene has a corresponding area of the visual cortex which is laid out in the same way – in something called a retinotopic map

We know that visual attention selectively boosts activity in the visual cortex, so when you switch between ‘cat’ and ‘dog’ in our example above, the brain increases activity in the visual areas that corresponds to each word.

In other words, it’s possible to measure the effect of visual attention by looking at where changes in visual cortex activity occur.

After doing some tests to make sure they’d verified the exact layout of each of the participant’s retinotopic map, the researchers asked participants in the scanner to systematically focus on specific parts of a circular area cut into segments, with inner, middle and outer rings – all while keeping their eyes fixed in the centre.

They then mapped activity from the visual cortex back into the visual scene to create a ‘heat map’ of where attention was spread.

You can see an example in the image on the right. The ‘x’ never appeared in the actual experiment, I just added those to make the diagram clearer, but they illustrate where the participants were instructed to concentrate.

Overall, the results showed that attention was not tightly focussed like a spotlight. In fact, when we direct our concentration to the outer ring of vision, large areas of the visual scene are flooded with activity.

This happened to a lesser extent with the very inner ring of vision, with visual scene enhancement typically extending outwards as well.

But with the middle ring of vision, the enhancement was pretty tight, being restricted to just that area.

This is an amazing finding in itself, but the ‘mind reading’ part is quite a finale.

The researchers also had a section of their study where they asked the participants to randomly focus on parts of the circle. Remember, they weren’t moving their eyes (and this was checked with a monitor), just changing their internal focus of concentration.

By solely looking at the patterns of brain activation, the researchers worked out where the participants were concentrating with 87% accuracy.

In many previous ‘mind reading’ experiments, researchers have shown people different sorts of pictures and then worked out which ones they were looking at by analysing brain activity.

It’s a largely passive process and relies on distinguishing different physiological reactions. If you measured blood flow to the penis you could probably distinguish whether men were looking at pictures of furniture or people having sex – but you probably wouldn’t call this ‘mind reading’. These previous studies just measured the brain to do something similar.

While such studies are often over-hyped, this new experiment does take the process a step further.

It’s still a very limited task but the participants are voluntarily engaging in a purely internal mental process and the brain scans tell us where their focus of concentration is.

The researchers had no knowledge of where this was beforehand and the same thing couldn’t have been worked out through watching participants’ behaviour.

Link to study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

2009-06-26 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

The Wall Street Journal vaguely thinks about the benefits of daydreaming and a wandering mind for creativity.

There’s more video of Philip Zimbardo discussing the psychology of time over at

The Independent reveals that some people use drugs to enhance the mind because they’ve never been used in this way, ever, in history and we are being challenged with a dilemma so new it can barely be conceived by the human mind.

Is it acceptable for people to take methylphenidate to enhance performance? asks the British Medical Journal. A two part debate.

The Boston Globe has an interesting piece on how American college students choice of major is influenced by what their friends have chosen.

Sleeping on a complex decision may be a bad choice, reports New Scientist covering new research aiming to rehabilitate conscious decision-making.

Cognitive Daily covers a rare instance where single language speakers perform better than bilinguals – in spatial negative priming experiments. A chat-up line for a million Italian exchange students is born.

Metafilter collects a bunch of evidence on domestic violence by women suggesting that it happens at an equal rate to domestic violence by men,

Unconscious science stereotype associations predict size of science gender gap across 34 countries, according to a study covered by Not Exactly Rocket Science.

The Atlantic has an article on technology and the brain which doesn’t suck. It’s not great – it just assumes that we suffer from information overload without any evidence and doesn’t mention a single study in the area – but it doesn’t pretend to be anything different.

People are more likely to comply with requests into the right ear, suggests a study in a night club covered by Wired Science. Sadly, the researchers were just asking for cigarettes.

New Scientist reports on a study of business communication that found email exchange patterns can predict impending doom.

Who do senior psychiatrists go to for psychological help? asks The New York Times. To Boston, it seems, where apparently they’re all still psychoanalysts.

Is it me, or did this study find that breast implants cure depression? Should make for an interesting randomized controlled trial. I’m trying to imagine the placebo condition.

Somatosphere has a thought-provoking post about why psychiatry researchers are reluctant to reveal their own use of medication.

Language may be key to developing the ability to understand other people’s minds, says research on deaf signers covered by New Scientist. There’s actually much previous research on this. A great 1999 study on this is available as a pdf.

Bad Astronomy has a fully <a href="Optical illusion”>awesome visual illusion!

ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live has a <a href="
“>discussion on mind enhancing drugs in universities. Has a funny informal style and a question that starts “If you were trying to become a big swinging dick at Harvard…”

New Scientist discusses a study on how celebrities stay famous regardless of talent. Illustrated with a picture of Paris Hilton, which is more ironic than they realise.

Innovative social psychologist John Bargh is interviewed over at Edge.

Talking of which, Bargh fires the first salvo in a Psychology Today debate on free will. Uber social psychologist Roy Baumesiter takes up the challenge.

Rock Stars of Science PR stunt pairs up biomedical scientists with rock legends for awkward photo shoots. Get me Porn Stars of Science and I might raise an eyebrow.

To the bunkers! Domestic robots built to have a taste for flesh according to New Scientist.

The Smithsonian Magazine discusses whether the cross-species von Economo neurons are specially tuned for social interaction.

US seniors are ‘smarter’ than their UK counterparts, finds new study reported by New Scientist. Ours make better tea though, and I know what I prefer.

Scientific American has an article on the science of economic bubbles and busts.

Mind Hacks’ Tom has a excellent looking article in this month’s Prospect Magazine on the links between improvisation and post-brain injury confabulation that been jailed behind a pay wall. Anyone seen a copy in the wild?

Ex psychiatric bible chief slams new secret committee

Photo by Flickr user mrtwism. Click for sourceThe forthcoming revision of the psychiatrists’ diagnostic manual, the DSM-V, is controversially being written behind closed doors and has already sparked criticisms for its lack of openness to outside scrutiny. So far, critics have managed to raise little more than smoke signals but the tinderbox may well have just been ignited by an article of scorching criticism penned by the head of the last DSM committee.

The article, by psychiatrist Allen Frances, is apparently due to be published in Psychiatric Times but a pre-publication version seems to have found its way online as a pdf and is already being widely circulated.

Frances slams the new chairman, the process, and the ethos of secrecy behind the new manual saying that “The work on DSM-5 has, so far, displayed an unhappy combination of soaring ambition and remarkably weak methodology.”

He also cites the openness of previous revisions as key to their acceptance and validity, and criticises the supposedly impending diagnostic creep that would make mild disturbances diagnosable mental illnesses.

Such heavyweight criticism in one of American psychiatry’s main news publications signals that the shit has really hit the fan for what was already a controversial project.

The article was posted online by psychiatrist Doug Brenner who also described being kicked off the authors list for an academic paper and denounced to members of a DSM sub-committee for criticising conflicts of interest in the committee in an earlier blog post.

This spurred well-known psychiatrist and blogger Daniel Carlat to recount his own experience of being denounced to the DSM committee for nothing more than a critical comment on his site, left by a reader.

If these reports are to be believed, it seems the committee members are already becoming hot under the collar and the apparently forthcoming Psychiatric Times piece can only turn up the heat.

pdf of Allen Frances article for Psychiatric Times.

neuro images

neuro images is a regularly updated website of beautiful neuroscience images run by Neurophilosophy blogger Mo Costandi.

It’s a Tumblr blog, so is a pretty no frills affair, but it’s the perfect platform just to let the pictures shine.

There are already some stunning images on there, from ancient illustrations to cutting edge scans, so keep an eye on it for more neural eye candy.

Link to neuro images.
Link to Neurophilosophy.

Race bias and the menstrual cycle

I’ve just found this surprising study in Psychological Science that found a link between the point in the menstrual cycle of 77 white women and various measures of race bias.

Race Bias Tracks Conception Risk Across the Menstrual Cycle.

Psychol Sci. 2009 May 4. [Epub ahead of print]

Navarrete CD, Fessler DM, Fleischman DS, Geyer J.

Although a considerable body of research explores alterations in women’s mating-relevant preferences across the menstrual cycle, investigators have yet to examine the potential for the menstrual cycle to influence intergroup attitudes. We examined the effects of changes in conception risk across the menstrual cycle on intergroup bias and found that increased conception risk was positively associated with several measures of race bias. This association was particularly strong when perceived vulnerability to sexual coercion was high. Our findings highlight the potential for hypotheses informed by an evolutionary perspective to generate new knowledge about current social problems-an avenue that may lead to new predictions in the study of intergroup relations.

The research paper is online as a pdf if you want the full details.

The authors explain the findings as suggesting that women show a preference to their ‘in group’, those who more closely match their own background and lifestyle, when most fertile.

Menstrual cycle has been found to influence numerous preferences in women in earlier studies, including dressing attractively, preference for the type of fanciable person, including a preference for more ‘masculine’ features.

Indeed, cycles in oestrogen are known to alter dopamine function in the striatum, a deep brain structure.

pdf of menstrual cycle and race bias study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Pressed for time perception

Photo by Flickr user ToniVC. Click for sourceEdge has an interesting article by neuroscientist David Eagleman on the perception of time that describes how we can experience temporal illusions just like we experience visual illusions.

I have to say, the piece is a little wordy, so it needs a bit of concentration, but it is well worth the effort.

This section has an interesting way of fooling ourselves into perceiving an event before you seem to have triggered it:

It has been shown that the brain constantly recalibrates its expectations about arrival times. And it does so by starting with a single, simple assumption: if it sends out a motor act (such as a clap of the hands), all the feedback should be assumed to be simultaneous and any delays should be adjusted until simultaneity is perceived.

In other words, the best way to predict the expected relative timing of incoming signals is to interact with the world: each time you kick or touch or knock on something, your brain makes the assumption that the sound, sight, and touch are simultaneous.

While this is a normally adaptive mechanism, we have discovered a strange consequence of it: Imagine that every time you press a key, you cause a brief flash of light. Now imagine we sneakily inject a tiny delay (say, two hundred milliseconds) between your key-press and the subsequent flash. You may not even be aware of the small, extra delay.

However, if we suddenly remove the delay, you will now believe that the flash occurred before your key-press, an illusory reversal of action and sensation. Your brain tells you this, of course, because it has adjusted to the timing of the delay.

If you’re wanting more on time perception, TED have just released an interesting lecture by Philip Zimbardo on how we reason about time.

And rather coincidentally, Eagleman is interviewed on ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind this week, about his synaesthesia research and fiction writing.

Link to Edge article on time perception.
Link to TED on reasoning about time (thanks Patricio!).
Link to AITM interview with David Eagleman.

A Troublemaker’s fringe

Photo by Flickr user e-magic. Click for sourceNext week the World Conference of Science Journalists will be coming to London. A few of us felt they might not adequately address some of the key problems in their profession, which has deteriorated to the point where they present a serious danger to public health, fail to keep geeks well nourished, and actively undermine the publics’ understanding of what it means for there to be evidence for a claim.

More importantly we fancied some troublemaking and a night in the pub.

As a result, you have the opportunity to come and see three angry nerds explain how and why mainstream media’s science coverage is broken, misleading, dangerous, lazy, venal, and silly. Join our angry rabble, and tell the world of science journalists exactly what you think about their work. All are welcome, admission is free. They may not come.

After the presentations (with powerpoint and everything, in a pub) we will attempt to collaboratively and drunkenly derive some best practise guidelines for health and science journalists, with your kind assistance.

Ben Goldacre has written the Guardian’s Bad Science column for 6 years, where he exposes misleading science journalism, health scare hoaxes, pill-pushing quacks and the crimes of the evil multinational pharmaceutical industry. He will talk about how the media promote the publics’ misunderstanding of evidence, focusing on health scares, journalists’ hoaxes, and their consequences, as well as cases where scientists have had their work misrepresented and failed to get satisfaction from newspapers.

Vaughan Bell is a neuropsychology researcher and clinician in the NHS, where he deals with disorders of the mind and brain, and is a writer for, where he deals with disorders of the media. His talk will be called “Don’t touch that dial! Technology scares and the media” and will discuss how the media loves to tell us that new technology will give us brain damage and mental illness but is strangely adverse to discussing the research even when the science says there’s not a lot to be worried about.

Petra Boynton is a Social Psychologist and Lecturer in International Health Services Research. She specialises in researching sex and relationships health. For the past 7 years Petra has worked as as an Agony Aunt in print, online and broadcast media. She actively campaigns for free and accurate sexual health advice within the media both in the UK and Internationally. Petra will talk about the consequences of PR companies misusing surveys and formulas as a form of cheap advertising, the problem of unethical or untrained people posing as ‘media experts’, and what happens when journalists fail to fact check science and health stories.

Of note, attending the WCSJ will cost you £200 a day. You are welcome to come to our event entirely for free, beer/shrapnel in a bucket gratefully received. Journalists, corporate event organisers: welcome to the shits and giggles economy. Special thanks to Sid the Skeptic from Viz for booking the room at short notice.


World Conference of Science Journalists 2009 – Troublemakers Fringe


Penderel’s Oak Pub, 286-288 High Holborn, London WC1V 7HJ, Holborn Tube.

Google Maps here


1st July 7pm for 8pm – Midnight

Advance of the seven veils

Photo by Flickr user ff137. Click for sourceI’ve discovered there is a small scientific literature on the cognitive science of belly dancing. Yes, I know I should be doing something else with my time, but it’s too late now and it’s too good not to share.

A group of movement researchers studied which fundamental action abilities were the best predictors of belly dancing skills in 1st-4th grade students and, in another study, in 5th and 6th grade students. Rhythmic coordination seems to be a key skill across most age groups.

Belly dancer’s myclonus is a condition where damage to the parts of the nervous system that control muscle coordination cause an involuntary stomach rippling effect that belly dancers strive to achieve. It is thought to be a problem with neural systems called ‘central pattern generators’ (CPGs) that create rhythmic pulses.

Jimmy Or is a robotics researcher who used what we know about the neuroscience of central pattern generators to create a belly dancing humanoid robot with a flexible spine. You can see it in action on his website.