What Happens When You Bring Up Kids Without Religion? Data Sample of Two

November 23, 2010

Colin’s post got me thinking about my own upbringing.  Every time I speak to my brother, I’m struck by our differences and similarities, and every time I hear parents talk about bringing up kids without religion, I think, “It’s no big deal!  I grew up without religion!”  If you’re wondering if a secular family produces secular kids, the answer, based on a data sample of two kids in my family, is that you have a 50/50 shot.  I adopted my father’s atheism, but my brother married a cute Catholic girl, and he converted.  But there’s really more to this story than just those simple facts, and my brother and I have both become skeptics, really.  In fact, I’d give him some credit for being more skeptical than I am. Read the rest of this entry »

Mark Crislip on Homeopathic Vaccines

November 5, 2010

Mark Crislip takes on Homeopathic Vaccines today on Science Based Medicine:

The first ‘law’ behind vaccines and homeopathy is the same: like cures like. Vaccines are the only medical validation of the first  ‘law’ of homeopathy of which I am aware.  It is the second ‘law’ of homeopathy where medicine, and reality, part company with homeopathy, the ‘law’ of dilutions.  Where vaccines are given with a well characterized concentration of antigen, homeopathic nostrums are often diluted long past the point where anything remains behind.  If a homeopathic nostrum is  20X, then there is no longer even a molecule of the original substance in the mixture.   Which can be a good thing, since homeopaths  use nosodes as their vehicle for imaginary vaccination.

A  nosode “is a homeopathic remedy prepared from a pathological specimen. The specimen is taken from a diseased animal or person and may consist of saliva, pus, urine, blood, or diseased tissue.”

And people complain about the alleged toxins in real vaccines.

If only I could post this for everyone’s information on my fun LA based online mom support group.  But I can’t,  because a thread regarding homeopathic vaccinations was shut down by the moderator after it became too heated.  So I am reluctant to post a link to Mark Crislip’s article and bring more angry emails upon myself.

Actually, there were more grateful emails than angry ones.  Several readers on that board wrote to me to say basically, “Thank you for speaking up.  I am afraid to say anything.”

A few months back, a homeopath posted on our board about the possibility of using homeopathic vaccinations, and she offered them as an alternative to parents frightened of vaccines.  I usually don’t say much on the board about alternative medicine.  I prefer to keep my posts limited to finding free baby stuff, getting rid of unwanted baby stuff, kvetching about lack of sleep, and offering support to new breastfeeding moms.  Why get into a tangle with people who are hawking acupuncture or amber teething necklaces?  I don’t see that it would change anyone’s mind, and I already had a forum (Rational Moms, which has now merged with this blog) where I could get on a soap box.

But I had to say something about homeopathic vaccinations.  What would be on my conscience if I didn’t?  A mom gets fooled into giving her kid one of those and then the kid gets measles encephalitis?  So I spoke up.  And there was a huge response, most people on my side, and some really, really not on my side.  I got a few angry emails, more supportive ones, and then finally, the moderator of the blog said enough already and asked us all not to post anymore.

I kept my tone neutral the whole time, but I think what got people’s nipples in a twist (sorry, but you can use that expression if you’re talking about a breast feeding support group) was that I called into question the entire practice of homeopathy.  I didn’t just say the vaccinations were a bad idea, I said look, homeopathy is nonsense, and here are some links for you to read.  And people didn’t like that at all.  I got one email from a woman who said, “Are you crazy?” And then she went on to use a bunch of logical fallacies, like telling me that a lot of people use homeopathy, so it must be valid, and there are even homeopathic hospitals, so who was I to say it didn’t work?

The moderator, when she shut this thread down, gave some general guidelines for discussing controversial topics, and actually I’ve found them quite useful.  As I’ve gotten a little better, over time, at speaking up about skeptical topics, I’ve tried to implement that moderator’s advice, and I’ve come up with a few rules of my own, which I elaborated upon here.  I’ve gone from unfriending people on Facebook to being able to speak civilly and then walk away from a discussion not angry.  Progress!

I guess for some people, questioning alternative medicine in general is just too much.  What I maybe should have stuck with were links to studies that show that these homeopathic vaccinations are inneffective.  And then maybe a little, watered down statement about how “to the best of my understanding” homeopathy in general is a total waste of time and money.  I don’t know.

Here are the studies Mark Crislip found:

Are there any studies or case reports  to support the use of nosodes? As best I can discover there are two clinical trials in animals of nosodes: one in calves that did not show benefit and one in mice that did, and both are in journals too obscure for my library to have subscriptions. There are two cases of fatal polio after receiving homeopathic vaccinations. That is it in Pubmed.  Not a convincing literature for effectiveness.

The proof offered by this homeopath on my mom board was (get ready to be shocked) all self published by some dude, probably writing from his basement.  So all I really had to do was point out the questionable nature of that evidence, which of course, I did.  But changing people’s minds about homeopathy in general?  Maybe too much for the board. 

My point in posting an article like this here is never really to break news.  Homeopathic vaccinations don’t work?  Not really news.  It’s more to contemplate for myself about how to talk to other parents without provoking rage, if that is possible.  How do I live as a person who can’t keep her mouth shut but really hates conflict?  I’m just trying to get better at that, somehow.

Best. Costume. Ever.

November 4, 2010

And I think this woman might be my new favorite mom.  This is her adorable son, dressed as Daphne from Scooby Doo.  Man, those boots!  She got some funny reactions from moms at her preschool and writes about it here.  It’s a pretty great blog post that seems to be going viral on Facebook.  Best part:

If a set of purple sparkly tights and a velvety dress is what makes my baby happy one night, then so be it. If he wants to carry a purse, or marry a man, or paint fingernails with his best girlfriend, then ok. My job as his mother is not to stifle that man that he will be, but to help him along his way. Mine is not to dictate what is ‘normal’ and what is not, but to help him become a good person.

How right on is this lady?

My Baby Can Read…Later

November 3, 2010

I’ve often wondered about this product called My Baby Can Read.  Experts weigh in on it here and call it what it looks like on the ads to me:  a memorization parlor trick for babies.

Are those babies really reading?

“No,” said Dr. Nonie Lesaux, a child development expert at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. “They memorize what’s on those cue cards … It’s not reading.”

Founder of the program Robert Titzer agreed to send reporters his research documenting that babies really can read:

But instead of published research on “Your Baby Can Read,” Titzer sent TODAY his own customer satisfaction surveys and general studies about child learning.

Anyone tried this product?  I admit I’ve been curious but extremely skeptical.

I knew it again! There’s no reason to feel guilty for working.

October 29, 2010

This is another link via Skepchick.  A review of 50 years of research has determined that kids whose moms work turn out just fine.  The text of the study from the Psychological Bulletin, a peer-reviewed publication of the American Psychological Association can be found here.

I actually waded into this study a bit, since I’m extremely interested in this subject.  Here are the first few lines:

This meta-analysis of 69 studies (1,483 effect sizes) used random effects models to examine maternal employment during infancy/early childhood in relation to 2 major domains of child functioning:  achievement and behavior problems. Analyses of studies that spanned 5 decades indicated that, with a few exceptions, early employment was not significantly associated with later achievement or internalizing/externalizing behaviors.

This study focused on moms who went back to work before their children were three, and it didn’t find any negative associations between working moms and kids.  In fact, kids of working moms had two positive associations.  They “were later rated as higher-achieving by teachers and had fewer problems with depression and anxiety.”

The one caveat for working moms is for those who go back to work before their children turn one.  Those kids had slightly lower academic scores than the kids of non-working moms.  But children whose moms who went back to work when the child was one or two had higher scores, and over three years, the effects evened out.  So the conclusion here is that perhaps better maternity leave in the US  (yes!) would be beneficial for kids.  (Duh.)

I sincerely believed, when I was pregnant, that I would be one of those moms who just would not be able to go back to work when I had a baby.  And I remember feeling a little judgemental of moms who did enjoy working.  Amazing how we know just about EVERYthing about being parents before we actually become parents.

As it turned out, for me, going back to work was awesome.  And I don’t even like my job that much.  But I quickly realized that staying at home full time would drive me nuts and couldn’t possibly be good for me or my kid.  So now I work part time and I get out early enough to take the kid to the park every day.  And we have fantastic, high quality daycare, for which I’m extremely grateful.

I’m not saying it’s an easy thing to juggle working and being a parent.  It’s exhausting, as anyone who does it knows.  But I love working.  And let’s face it, if I didn’t do it, my family would be homeless.  The economy did it’s best to kill us in the last couple years.  I’ve taken a 15% paycut as a teacher.  And my husband stopped working altogether for a long while.  So in our case, mommy working was the only thing that kept off food stamps–barely.

When I went back to work, I thought the first day would be tough.  And I would have shocked my pre-parent self by saying this:  it wasn’t tough at all.  I loved being a working person again and getting to put on my cheap-ass semi-professional clothes.  I loved making copies.  I loved people telling me cheesy jokes in the elevator.  I was so happy to be back in my office.  Work was like a day spa compared to staying at home with a baby.  And lucky me, I don’t have to work all day, so I still got to go home and spend time with the baby.

This topic always brings up a lot of emotions, so sure, let’s just get it out of the way and say that if you stay home all day with your kids and you love it, great!  That is really wonderful for you.  I would become like Jack Nicholson in The Shining if I were home all day.  It just doesn’t work for me.

And there was something in my gut that told me that it was probably going to be just fine, in spite of dire warnings that daycare was negative for kids.  Let’s hope this study will be backed up by future literature on this subject.  I really would love for more moms to be happy about working, if that’s what they want to do.

I knew it! Candy is good for you!

October 29, 2010

Turns out candy has superpowers.  I am vindicated at last!  I knew that candy must be healthy.

People who regularly eat candy live longer than those who don’t. A multi-decade study from the Harvard School of Public Health showed that modest candy consumption (one to three times a month) is associated with the greatest benefit, but even those with a daily habit lived longer than those who never indulged. This benefit could not be explained by other factors such as age, smoking, exercise, alcohol consumption, or weight.

Thanks to Skepchick for the link.

And Happy Halloween!

Dang Amy, Tell Me How You Really Feel!

October 24, 2010

Amy Tuteur has a great post about “Pseudo-knowledge” up on her blog.  She goes to town on vaccine rejectionists, alternative medicine advocates, and home birth advocates for getting their information on the internet but having no actual medical knowledge.

It is certainly true that advocates of alternative health have often done a great deal of reading. And it is true that they have learned lots of new things. But what they fail to understand is that they have acquired pseudo-knowledge. It has the appearance of real knowledge; it uses lots of big words, and it often includes a list of scientific citations. There’s just one teensy problem; it’s not true.

The appearance of real knowledge is what can trip a lot of us up.  It’s what made me consider the alternate vaccine schedule at one point.  Since none of us on this blog are scientists or doctors, it is obviously somewhat ironic to post this next quote from Amy’s article here, but here goes:

The truth about health education is both simple and stark. You cannot be educated about any aspect of health without reading and understanding scientific textbooks and the scientific literature. Period!

Don’t waste your time perusing the internet. Unless you are willing to confirm what you read on the internet by reading the scientific literature, you can’t be sure you’ve learned anything.

So, yeah, it’s sort of funny that Dr. Amy is telling people to stop wasting time reading health advice on the internet…but she’s giving this advice on the internet.

Don’t bother to tell the rest of us that you are “educated” because you’ve demonstrated nothing more than your gullibility. You haven’t acquired knowledge, you’ve acquired pseudo-knowledge, and it marks you as a fool.

While I love this statement, I also don’t quite think that believing these kinds of things marks you as a “fool.”  Gullible, maybe, but it’s easy to be fooled.  It is embarrassing to hear anti-vaccine folks talk and repeat the same misguided statements.  Sadly, I hear this kind of talk too often where I live, and now our pertussis epidemic may be the outcome of this ignorance, which continues to be passed on through the grapevine and on the internet and in the parks in my neighborhood.

But I do remember being fooled and scared by this kind of talk.  The vaccination rates are most down in LA among people just like me–the well educated and slightly suspicious of authority.  We’re the target audience for the anti-vaxers.  The pseudo-knowledge sounds pretty impressive to us, and that is the problem.

Obama on Mythbusters

October 20, 2010

The President will guest star on Mythbusters, discussing “whether Greek scientists set fire to an invading Roman fleet by using mirrors to deflect sun rays.”




Value Added Testing Pros and Cons (But Mostly Questions)

October 18, 2010

There has been a major upset among Los Angeles teachers over a recent LA Times article which discussed teachers Value Added Test scores.  The biggest flap has been over the Times publication of an online, searchable database that ranked teachers and schools from most to least effective.  The outrage and fear has been palpable among my colleagues.  Yesterday I gave a short talk at the Division of Adult and Career Education conference and one adult teacher there was asking if there was any way adult students’ test scores could be linked back to teachers.  Would we be next?  Would our effectiveness be published in the paper and our livelihoods called into question?

And I guess at this point I have to reveal my conflict of interest in discussing this topic.  I was giving a talk at that conference about how to increase test performance for adult students, and I was giving this talk because that is what I do for a living.  For eight years, I’ve worked outside the classroom, testing and measuring and sending off data in a gigantic database to the district, where it in turn goes off to the state and federal government to help assess our school’s effectiveness–and also to ensure our funding.

While I work for the Adult Division, and the testing we do is different than the tests in the Times article, I still can bear witness to the idea that teacher effectiveness can be measured (in part) by testing.  The tests the Times article discussed are value-added tests.  This means that if a student starts school in the 60th percentile for math or reading, we would reasonably expect the student to end the school year in the 60th percentile.  If the student lands in the 80th percentile, that jump is, according to the value-added model, attributable to some extent to the student’s teacher–the increase is the value that has been added by the instructor.  Of course, there are tons of other variables that could affect student performance (obviously, including how students feel the day of their test), but if you examine this data over many years and see consistent trends, the idea is that you can make evaluations of at least this one aspect of a teacher’s performance.

Do I think standardized tests can be use to evaluate teacher effectiveness?  The answer, based on my years of experience looking at data like this, is absolutely, yes.  Are they the only measure of teacher effectiveness?  No, of course not.  But I am disheartened that standardized tests are often demonized by educators.  The United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) has excoriated the times.  The latest issue of the UTLA Magazine had photos of a variety of teachers on its cover, all holding an identical sign that read, “I am more than a test score.”

I have to heave a deep sigh when I see a reaction like this, because it confuses rational critique with personal criticism.  The authors of the Times article did not claim that the teachers were good people or bad people.  Their dedication wasn’t called into question, just their effectiveness by one measure–one that is not often revealed to the public.  Isn’t examining teacher effectiveness important?  And isn’t using data one way to approach that problem?  The authors made the point that:

Although many parents fixate on picking the right school for their child, it matters far more which teacher the child gets. Teachers had three times as much influence on students’ academic development as the school they attend. Yet parents have no access to objective information about individual instructors, and they often have little say in which teacher their child gets.

I visited UTLA’s website, expecting to encounter a whiny response to this whole issue.  (I admitted already that I’m biased in favor of testing.)  However, I was impressed by the links they offered with what appear to be legitimate criticisms of the value-added testing model.

This video by Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology, makes succinct points about the problems with using test score increases to determine merit pay for teachers.

So I continue to research this issue and I am wondering what others think about it or know about it.  I come from a perspective that has been obviously influenced by what I do every day and the numbers I sort through year after year.  While there are many intervening circumstances that can affect a teacher’s effectiveness, I do believe testing is one measure that should be seriously considered and not dismissed out of hand by unions and teachers.

The Spider Pavilion

October 15, 2010

Z and I have been doing a lot of science trips lately.  Most recently, we checked out the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, which did not disappoint.  I have vivid memories of the Natural History Museum in New York, and nothing has every really topped that experience of seeing giant dinosaur bones as a five-year-old.  But I was pleased to see that the LA museum is a pretty close second.  They’ve got the giant hallways of wildlife dioramas, and that’s enough to get an NYC girl nostalgic.  For Z, who’s two, it was just an awesome place to run around and yell, “Elephant!  Polar bear!”

We also bought tickets to the special exhibit going on now:  the Spider Pavilion.  It’s a small outdoor space where visitors can get up close and personal with spiders.  The spiders are out in the open–no glass between you and them.

When I describe this exhibit to my friends, they immediately know what I somehow managed to hide from myself while preparing for this trip:  room full of spiders plus Julie equals HORRIBLE IDEA.

Z is so fascinated by bugs of all kinds that I have become much less freaked out by them than I used to be.  So I was honestly thinking that seeing giant, Malaysian spiders up close would be super cool.  Here’s what happened instead. Read the rest of this entry »


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