Rainbow Cracking

The other week after my blogging about dyspraxia and such, hubby found an article in wired blogs (“Hacking My Child’s Brain”) and a recent article in the New York Times, “The Disorder Is Sensory; the Diagnosis, Elusive”. Although sensory integration remains a vaguely-defined albeit real disorder, treatments are highly varied and disputed. Some treatment approaches lack rigorous testing for efficacy, creating difficulties for insurance coverage.

One approach mentioned in the former article is from the Sensory Learning Center in Boulder, Colorado (US), and is described as suitable for a long list of issues: autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, acquired brain injury, developmental delays, birth trauma, behaviour problems, ADHD, and for “learning enhancement”. Their Web site is rife with testimonials from clients and practitioners.

Well, testimonials don’t sway me, Read the rest of this entry »

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Cognitive Bias, Patterns & Pseudoscience

(It’s been a long, long day. So here’s an only-slightly-used, gently-recycled essay, but with an Brand New! hyperlink for your enjoyment. Bon appétit!)

“It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.”
~ Bertrand Russell

Here’s our new word for the day: pareidolia. It comes from the Greek, para = almost and eidos = form. The word itself originates in psychology, and refers to that cognitive process that results in people seeing images (often faces) that aren’t really there: the man or rabbit in the moon, canals or face on Mars, faces of holy people in tortillas or stains in plaster … It also sometimes refers to hearing things that aren’t really there in random background noise (Electronic Voice Phenomena: EVP). Pareidolia is what makes Rorschach inkblot tests possible (attribution errors are what make Rorschach tests fairly unreliable).

The human brain is “wired” to see patterns, especially those of faces. Creating and perceiving patterns is what allows all animals to operate more efficiently in their environments. You need to be able to quickly find your food sources, your mates, your offspring, and the predators in the busy matrices of sensory inputs. Camouflage relies upon being able to become part of a pattern, and therefore less recognizable. Aposematic warning coloration, such as black and yellow wasps, does the reverse, by creating a specific kind of pattern that stands out.

Sometimes people subconsciously assign patterns and meanings to things, even though they don’t intend to do so. This is why we have double-blind studies, so the people who are collecting the data don’t unconsciously assign results to the treatment replications by increasing or suppressing or noticing effects in some trial subjects. Prometheus has a lovely blogpost about this: The Seven Most Common Thinking Errors of Highly Amusing Quacks and Pseudoscientists (Part 3). (This series of his just gets better and better!)

Seeing patterns can lead to weird cognitive biases and fallacies, like the clustering illusion, where meanings are falsely assigned to chunks of information. The fact is that clusters or strings or short repeats of things will naturally happen in random spatial or temporal collections of objects or events. A lot of people think that “random” means these won’t happen (which makes assigning correct answers for multiple choice tests an interesting process; students get suspicious if they notice too much of a pattern and then start out-guessing their correct answers to either fit or break the perceived pattern).

Sometimes the reverse can happen, where instead of seeing patterns in data, people put some of the data into patterns. This is known as the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy: a cowboy randomly riddles the side of a barn with bullets, and then draws a target where there is a cluster of bullet holes. People will perceive a pattern of events, and then assume that there is a common causal factor to those, because of the perceived pattern. This is why statistics was invented – to suss out if there is a pattern, and how likely it is. Mathematics takes the cognitive kinks out of the data so the analysis is objective, rather than subjective.

Statistics also gives research rules about how best to proceed in experiments, to avoid various errors. One of those is deciding what kinds of analyses will be used for the type of data set that is produced by the experimental design. Note that this is decided beforehand! The reason for that is because people want to see patterns, and (even unconsciously) researchers want to see results. The purpose of testing for a null hypothesis is to try to disprove the given hypothesis, to avoid these kinds of issues.

It doesn’t matter how noble your intentions are – wrong results are still wrong results, no matter how they are achieved, or to what purpose.

To look at the data and then start picking through it for patterns, (“massaging the data” or “datamining”) is inappropriate for these very reasons. The greatest problem with doing analyses retroactively is that one can end up fitting the data to their pet theory, rather than testing the theory with the data. Mark Chu-Carroll’s post on the Geiers’ crappy and self-serving data “analysis” is an elegant dissection of how this kind of gross error is done. (Note that is MCC’s old blog address; his current blog is here at ScienceBlogs.)

Doing this intentionally is not only bad statistics, it’s bad science as well. The results come from anecdotes or data sets that are incomplete or obtained inaccurately. Correlations that may or may not exist are seen as having a common causality that also may or may not exist. It’s pick-and-choose and drawing erroneous, unsupported conclusions. People want to see patterns, and do. Even worse, they create patterns and results.

The seriously bad thing is that con artists and purveyors of various kinds of pseudoscience do this a lot. The intent is to deceive or mislead in order to sell something (ideas or objects or methods).

The people who then buy into these things then think they are seeing treatment results because they want to see them. Take this secret herbal cold medication, and your cold will be cured in just seven days! (Amazingly, one will get over a cold in a week anyway.) Give your child this treatment and they will be able to learn and develop normally! (Amazingly, children will learn and develop as they get older, for all not everyone follows the same timelines – developmental charts are population averages.)

Meanwhile, the well-intended but scientifically ignorant people who buy into these things are being duped by charlatans, sometimes with loss of life as well as with great monetary expense.

Economists will tell you that the cost of something is also what you did/could not buy, and when time and money is spent on false promises, it deprives everyone involved of the opportunity to pursue truly beneficial treatments.

Then the problem is propagated because those well-intended but scientifically ignorant people become meme agents, earnestly spreading the false gospel …

Is That Ringing Sound … the one in my ears, or cash registers?

Every now and then I will buzz around the Web to see what the latest absurdities come ducking out of the quack pond. There are the inevitable villains that “cause” AD/HD or autism: mercury, food colourings, French fries … I shit thee not! Maybe it’s that theoretical autistic lack of imagination, because I never, never would have associated the consumption of French fries with Asperger’s. <Blogger falls of rocking chair laughing> I won’t give these fools the page hits by linking to them; it’s at autismfries dot com.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Then there are the oddities in my life that make life less-than-thrilling, such as the tinnitus, hyperacussis, tics, and migraines. The personal testimonial story at tinnituscure dot org is probably one of the longest I have yet to read. They have a homeopathic remedy that “heals damaged nerve endings in the inner ear” and another one that will “actively stimulate the hypothalamus”. Gee, if they can restore damaged nerves, maybe my hubby will no longer need his hearing aids, and then I won’t have to listen to the occasional feedback squeal, either.

Apparently an “integrated” facial massage at Integrative Manual Therapy (centerimt dot com) will resolve hyperacussis “The body is always speaking volumes of information that provide incredible diagnostic tools. Integrative Diagnostics focuses on listening to that information. As a simple example each system in the body has its own unique circadian rhythm–a more subtle version of the way in which the vascular system presents a distinct heartbeat for diagnosis. Integrative Manual Therapy practitioners utilize advanced yet gentle palpation techniques to “listen” with their hands to all of these rhythms. In doing so they determine whether each system is in optimum flow or suffers anomalies and impediments.” How sweet. They also have classes available: “Health professionals come to CenterIMT to learn Integrative Manual Therapy from a wide variety of career backgrounds. Physical Therapists. Occupational Therapists. Doctors. Speech Therapists. Massage Therapists. Chiropractors. Athletic Trainers. Naturopaths. Homeopaths. Nurses. Dentists.” Don’t forget the books, and oh, green tea for sale, too.

(Oops, ADHD moment here – how long has this mug of Earl Grey been steeping?)

Moving right along, lessee… how about Tourette’s being caused by a “phlegm mist of the orifices”? (itmonline dot org) Ooh, this is treated with acupuncture and herbal mixtures, including scorpion. Fond as I am of arthropods, I’ll pass on that one. That reminds me, someone out there was researching Botox for tics – I could imagine someone taking that route for something like a cheek tic, but I’m not a neurologist, so I don’t understand the physiology of how it would help say, my shoulder-jerk tics or nose-tapping tics. (Then again, I don’t think that I’m dx’ed as full-fledge TS; the tics aren’t obnoxious enough. They can make singing along in the car more entertaining, though, especially after a long, tiring day at work.)

Speaking of music, apparently listening to a CD will cure migraines, “Like all our binaural beat recordings, simply slip on your stereo headphones and press the “Play” button on your CD player. The binaural beats will automatically begin affecting your brainwaves, and you’ll soon realize the benefit – no more headaches and a clear, fresh mind!” (binaural-beats dot com) Other CDs are available for balancing your chakra points, taking a power siesta, and more: “Brainwave entrainment is used in treatment of depression, low self-esteem, attention deficit disorder, drug and alcohol addiction and autism, to name a few.”

I’ll pass. When I want to sort out my brainwaves, I take a more traditional method: staring off into space and rocking. The tinnitus becomes less noticeable, the tics calm down, and sometimes I can damp the entrenched sort of migraine. Now there’s an approach to relaxation that merits some serious study.

Weeding Out The Astroturf

This seems like an especially apropos subject to blog about; I am after all, a horticulturalist and also work with children who have developmental disabilities, some of whom are autistic/Asperger’s. As a freelance writer with degrees in science, my goal is to provide useful information to the public that is unbiased, based on good research science, and is not created to promote commercial products. In the classes I teach, the articles I write and the conversations I have with others in my community, I am constantly working to correct the misinformation given by the likes of J. Baker, who flog books full of quackery, self-promotional videos and broadcast programming, and present pseudoscience as special, secret knowledge that only they have access to because the “experts” don’t want the public to know. More details deconstructing this kind of bunk are on this page.

I really, really don’t like inauthentic stuff. I like fields with real grass, and floors with real carpeting. Astroturf and indoor-outdoor carpeting rub me the wrong way, even when I have my shoes on. More inauthenticity includes advertising, propaganda and campaigning presented as vox populi. (Sorry, I guess the word “propaganda” in that list is a redundancy.) “Advertorials” and “astroturf” efforts exasperate me.

When used outside of sports arenas, the term “astroturf” refers to faux grass-roots efforts. These activities are meant to seem like they come from the general populace, when in fact they are really self-promotional campaigns sponsored and instigated by businesses. The purpose of astroturfing is to spread a commercial meme, sliding it under people’s advertising radar by presenting it as originating from other ordinary people, rather than from its true source.

Real grass-roots efforts (as organizers everywhere will attest) are nearly always blessed with thin wallets but loads of volunteers. In contrast, astroturf efforts frequently have plenty of funding to support a small but carefully-led group of workers. The whole “autism is vaccine induced / mercury poisoning and we need to cure our stricken children with X, Y and / or Z treatment” crowd is a prime example of small-time astroturfing by the various quacks who are selling purported “cures”. Some of the workers in this whole fiasco are journalists / media people and medical personnel, who end up adding their skills and patina of respectability.

In an effort to “get the word out”, the workers are advised how to get the attention of unwitting television reporters to and create the angst-ridden, “small person vs big bad government / organization” newsbites that will sell airtime for broadcasting companies; are given sample letters to send to the local newspaper editors; and are provided with Web boards that purport to be helpful consumer sites and support groups for concerned families sharing information, but are also fronts for promoting commercial enterprises, e.g. quack “cures” and dubious treatments.

The insidious problem with stealth astroturf is that the people involved don’t realize they’re being duped. Full of earnest, well-intended zeal for spreading the gospel, these followers are very convincing and energetic, in ways that ordinary paid employees wouldn’t be.

Now, those Web sites can contain a lot of useful advice and emotional support between ordinary people posting there. But some of those members will find the boards are also bastions of groupthink, enforced by a booster club of the vociferous few who create an atmosphere that is hostile to disagreement. The zealous may also go beyond the bounds of their own personal expertise and become self-appointment experts simply by dint of experience rather than by professional expertise.

It gets worse. Beyond promoting commercial products and services, astroturfing seeks to champion not just the social but also the legal necessity. This requires selling the whole system of ideas to the mass-market culture as the beneficial and inevitable solution to what is actually an artificial need for a non-solution to a nonexistent problem. Therefore we have “autism epidemics” resulting from “poisoned” children, or those who assert that ABA is a “medically necessary” treatment for “afflicted” children.

The ordinary citizen or government official doesn’t understand the scientific or educational issues, and doesn’t have the time to educate themselves to a level necessary to be able to critically analyse the claims. When faced with the inevitable scientific debunking of either the problem or the solutions being sold to address them, these quacks find that they must fend off potential legal actions by expanding into pre-emptive damage-control: (emphasis mine)

As WKA Communications stated in a brochure distributed at Key West, “We’d Rather Guard the Border Than Fight the War.”
“If you don’t keep an ear to the ground, or ignore what you hear, the results aren’t pretty,” the brochure states. “In terms of time, energy and cost, the difference between early-stage issues management and late-stage crisis management is the difference between guarding a border and fighting a war. It’s easier and less expensive to influence an outcome before the government has written the law or regulation.

In these cases, the question parents, educators, therapists and government officials must ask themselves is, “What is being sold here, and who ultimately benefits?”

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