My Marriage: In The Eye of the Storm

March 8, 2011

The holidays were not particularly fun for me. My marriage went through some heavy turbulence and was headed for the rocks. Amazingly, I pulled out of the nose dive and things have stabilized to the point that I feel comfortable writing about it.

I encourage anyone who is experiencing marriage conflict to look deep inside themselves and make the necessary steps to internalize permanent change. When I looked at the research, I saw that my marriage had multiple statistical risk factors for divorce. Basically, I was living in the eye of the storm.

On an upcoming episode of Parenting Within Reason, I will interview marriage expert Stephanie Coontz. Her book A Strange Stirring contained a science-based chapter that really reflected the problems I was experiencing. I thought I’d share these warning signs (borrowed straight from Stephanie’s book) as a cautionary tale.

  • Marital quality suffers when wives who do not want to work are forced into employment.
  • Marital quality suffers when either spouse is not satisfied with their job.
  • Couples in which the wife works solely because of financial constraints but would rather stay at home have experienced declining marital satisfaction since the 1980s.
  • When wives hold high standards for equality of housework and their husbands do not meet their expectations, they report worse than average marital satisfaction.
  • Marriages in which one partner earns all the income and the other stays home are now more likely to split up than marriages where each partner works.

It was really depressing to read those risk factors for low marriage satisfaction and to realize that circumstances had put me on the path to danger, but I also saw some hope in the science. It dawned on me that I could recover from my situation if I were willing to commit to lasting change. So, I weathered the storm, put in the effort to find a job (after five years of being an at-home parent), made it my duty to be a better house husband, and uncharacteristically crossed my fingers that my marriage would stay intact.

It speaks a lot to our progress that I’m willing to even write this article. I understand that it’s difficult to make fundamental permanent changes in behavior, and I acknowledge that, despite our apparent progress, my wife and I will need to work on recovery. But for now, I feel like the storm has passed and that sunnier skies are in our future.

Review: Your Fantastic Elastic Brain

January 13, 2011

Anyone who has stayed home with a child will tell you that they feel like their brain is shrinking from disuse. There are only so many times that you can play Chutes and Ladders or so many times you can watch an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba before you wonder if your neurons will ever be intellectually satisfied again.

That’s a weird way to start a review of a children’s book, but I just wanted to point out that I appreciate JoAnn Deak’s central message in Your Fantastic Elastic Brain… the more you use your brain, the more you challenge it, the stronger it will be. I know that I could feel my brain being robbed of nutrients when I first started staying home with baby Sasha, with nothing to do during naps but watch the ladies on the View bicker about which of them is more annoying.

Eventually, I learned that being smart about my choice of blogs and podcasts would enrich my life and stimulate my brain. I started hungering for topics on science and I created this blog to channel that energy, and to further stimulate my brain. And the more I learned, the more skills I was able to apply to my parenting. But as Sasha and her little sister Juliet grew up, I realized that I should concentrate less on my own brain and more on their brains, which is what this book is supposed to be about.

Your Fantastic Elastic Brain reminded me of an interview that I had with Ashley Merryman for the podcast. Ashley told us that there was research that indicated children could improve test scores just by telling them that their brains are muscles. After reading Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, which correctly points out that the brain is an organ but metaphorically behaves like a muscle, I went back to look at the study that Ashley mentioned in the interview.

Carol Dweck conducted research on underprivileged 7th grade students at a middle school in East Harlem. Compared to the control group who were only given basic study skills, the test group were given the same study skills but were also asked to read an essay on how the brain is like a muscle and needs to be challenged and exercised to grow.  In the following months, the teachers saw the grades significantly improve in the group that learned about brain elasticity, while the control group continued to languish. *

According to Ashley Merryman, some of the parents of the students in the test group were so shocked by their children suddenly making better grades that a few of them started inquiring what the heck kind of research was making their kids study all of a sudden. Of course, the researchers weren’t allowed to say, but now the secret is out, and it is embodied in Your Fantastic Elastic Brain.

Can we count this as an educational placebo pill? I don’t think it’s that easy, but the jury is out whether the brain does in fact behave like a muscle. There are scientists who are currently studying this claim by examining fMRI images before and after cognitive challenges, but by most accounts, the preliminary evidence seems to show that intelligence can increase by “exercising” the brain.

Whether it’s a placebo or not, JoAnn Deak’s Your Fantastic Elastic Brain may just be the very thing that your child needs to motivate her to study a little harder and make the better grade. I especially liked the section that explained how practicing can build new neurons and make a sport or activity easier the more you do it. I don’t want my kids retreating from ice skating or piano lessons because they find them to be too difficult or challenging. I want them to practice harder so their brain and muscles can strengthen as they improve.

In addition to the lessons on sculpting the brain, there are simple anatomical explanations of the functions of the parts of the brain. My 5 year old daughter didn’t show any signs of boredom as I explained the Cerebrum, Hippocampus, Cerebellum, Prefrontal Cortex, and the Amygdala. I admit that brain anatomy can be a challenging topic to share with young kids, but JoAnn Deak did a fantastic job of providing that information without overdoing it.

The illustrations by Sarah Ackerley are very cute and keep the book from seeming too academic. On the border of each page, a little mouse and owl make comedic quips about what they see. It’s a nice little humorous bonus to the other fun images found in the book.

Incidentally, I was also impressed by Little Pickle Press, the environmentally friendly publishing company. The book is printed on TerraSkin paper, which claims to be made out of stone. That’s pretty cool! You should go to Little Pickle Press and check out their site because they are having a contest that includes Science-Based Parenting readers. They’re also offering a 25% discount for our readers to buy Your Fantastic Elastic Brain at their web store. Just put ‘BBTSCI’ in the coupon area, and you will receive your instant discount.

Also, we will use a random number generator to pick one of the comments here to win a FREE copy of Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak. Just leave a comment about any game, toy, activity, or book that you recommend for exercising a child’s brain. We will post the winner NEXT TUESDAY!

*Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention. Child Development

It’s Official: Andrew Wakefield is a “Fraud”!

January 5, 2011

My Dad sent me a text message to say that ABC News was doing another expose on an autism doctor. Right away, I knew it was either a hit piece against Dr. Paul Offit or a fluff piece about the martyrized Andrew Wakefield.

I was right about one thing: the piece was about Andrew Wakefield. But for once, it seems like the media is starting to wake up to the idea that this guy Wakefield is not the most trustworthy tool in the tool shed. He’s just a tool, and not the kind that hangs from Handy Manny’s belt. The British Medical Journal has come right out and called Andrew Wakefield “a fraud” according to ABC News. Wow. The BMJ doesn’t mince words, does it?

Of course, we’ve been saying for years that Wakefield acted improperly. He was paid a heap of money by antivaccine trial lawyers just before he did his “research”, his study was only on 12 children, and his ethical integrity has repeatedly been called into question for other reasons by people such as journalist Brian Deer. There is no reason that anyone should give a hoot about his original published paper, which has been retracted by it’s co-authors and the journal that published it.

So why is this news? I’m not sure. But it’s one sweet victory in a long and tedious battle.

Life Lesson: Be Prepared (Against Creationists)

December 12, 2010

I recently held my first Science Cafe event in Cincinnati. The topic of the night was astronomical pseudosciences, such as the 2012 apocalypse myths, aliens, and the star of Bethlehem. So, I was woefully unprepared to handle the creationist in the audience who spoke up to challenge our guest astronomer on issues of evolution and biology. I mean, who would expect those questions to come up at a presentation on astronomy?

The gentleman, who claimed to be trained in biological sciences, was sitting right next to me. I had my first clue that he was up to no good when he started talking about “entropy” in the first few minutes of our casual conversation. I knew that creationists consider “entropy” to be their best argument against evolution, but I wasn’t familiar enough with the topic to have a solid answer. So, I had to nod my head and listen to him spread the typical creationist propaganda without a proper rebuttal.

Always be prepared for a creationist!

The idea of “entropy” is that things in our universe generally break down from order to disorder over time, rather than become more complex.  Except that the second law of thermodynamics only applies in a closed system. The Earth is not a closed system because of the sun. And, in the words of biologist PZ Myers…

it’s obvious that the second law does not state that nothing can ever increase in order, but only that an decrease in one part must be accompanied by a greater increase in entropy in another. Two gametes, for instance, can fuse and begin a complicated process in development that represents a long-term local decrease in entropy, but at the same time that embryo is pumping heat out into its environment and increasing the entropy of the surrounding bit of the world.

This guy’s arguments would have been nullified if I had previously researched and understood the preceding points. But, I’m not a scientist, and the speaker was an astronomer (not a ‘squishy scientist’ as Phil Plait says), so this creationist was purposefully dropping bombs in a room where they couldn’t adequately be defended. Why?

I have no idea. The lesson I learned is to be prepared. Be ready to face any argument that challenges evolution. Not only did I not have an answer for this gentleman, but neither did the guests, the majority of whom who supported evolution,

The other argument that this guy made was that E. coli bacteria has never undergone speciation, despite years of experimentation.  I knew this was wrong and was able to quickly counter his argument by googling “bacteria citrate” on my phone. That’s because I remembered that the scientist Richard Lenski had conducted long-term experiments with bacteria, and was able to prove that two subsequent generations of E. coli had two completely different biological skills of whether or not they could absorb citrate. Again, I did’t know the details, but I knew enough to throw a name at him and ask him if he was prepared to admit that he might be wrong.

The creationist described E. coli as having no significant biological variation after many experimental generations, despite Dr. Lenski’s proof to the contrary. Rather than admit his error, he denied that the absorption of citrate was significant enough to be considered “speciation”. Whatever. I’m not a biologist, but the sudden ability of a species to absorb a nutrient seems like a VERY big deal, and as I pointed out to this gentleman, his unstated premise is that the alternative option is that God intervened with a miracle… for something as small and insignificant as a bacteria. That doesn’t seem logical, considering the millions of bacteria that have been discovered.

You might think that having a creationist heckler at my first science cafe would be a downer, but I truly enjoy the thrill of being challenged. There was a point when I thought this creationist might completely derail the evening’s topic, and when that was about to happen, I called for everyone to let the speaker bring things back to astronomy. This was very well received by all, and our creationist friend was able to follow up with his questions during Q&A.

I’m not a scientist. I’m a science advocate. But still, it’s important that I be comfortable with standard creationist canards, so that I’m not blindsided again. Let this be a lesson to me… and to you.

We Were Wrong!… and that’s OK

December 7, 2010

One reason I love skepticism is that we rejoice in being wrong. Adam Savage has a saying that he prints on t-shirts worn by the Mythbusters staff… “Failure is ALWAYS an option”.

Yes! Absolutely right! We can’t help but have biased expectations based on our individual experiences, flawed perception, attitudes, or even just what we think we know, but good skeptics must be prepared to admit when the data proves them wrong.

That’s why I loved finding the children’s book “Boy, Were We Wrong About the Solar System” at the local public library.

Boy Were We Wrong About the Solar System” by Kathleen Kudlinski is a great trip through time that takes the reader through all the things people misunderstood about the solar system. It’s beautifully illustrated by John Rocco. I love the idea of using the solar system to explain how facts are provisional… The Sun does not revolve around the Earth, despite what the church’s holy book said; it’s the other way around. Saturn isn’t bumpy; that’s a ring around it. Pluto is not a planet; it’s actually no bigger than other planet like objects that we now call “dwarf planets”.

It’s awesome that this book celebrates the idea that scientific knowledge is constantly updated, and that this is a good thing. It’s not a flaw of science that we were wrong before – it’s an asset. The book ends with the idea that there will be more things that will soon be discovered that we’re currently wrong about. And, I’d love for my kids to know that it’s perfectly fine to be wrong, and that it’s even better to strive to be right.

Spreading the Gospel of Skepticism

November 21, 2010

I gave a “sermon” at my UU church today on skepticism, and it was such a thrill to share my passion with everyone. One thing I wanted to focus on was outreach – how to be a better ambassador for the idea of skepticism.

Lately, there has been a battle for tone in our little skeptical movement. On the one side, are certain atheists (PZ Myers and friends) who are fairly intolerant of people of faith. Their argument is that there is no room for superstition in the skeptical movement, and that religion should not be immune to our critical analysis. They make a strong point, but they don’t make it very nicely.

On the other side, are people, like me, who want to be more welcoming and accepting of people who choose a path of faith. We shouldn’t shove any belief down the throats of potential allies. Skepticism should be about the process, and not the destination. Skepticism is all about giving people the tools to think critically, and sharing our conclusions for claims that are testable (the existence of god is not one of these claims). Too often, skeptics ruin skepticism’s street cred and jeopardize our greater goals by alienating deists with dismissive rhetoric and an unwelcoming vitriolic tone. I think those of us on the “accommodationist” side need to remind ourselves that it’s not our job to change people’s motives or attitudes. If accommodationists want skepticism to be represented by positive core values, all we can do is our own brand of outreach and not villainize new atheists for having a different tactic ; anything further obsessing over the topic just comes across as sanctimonious to the other side, and it allows them to mock our efforts.

Which is why I spoke to my UU congregation about the positive sides of skepticism, and did my best to represent my accommodationist position. I wanted the congregation to know that skeptics are not some fringe cynical lunatics who disbelieve in everything, as some might think on their first impression. We follow the scientific consensus, which more often than not, puts us in the mainstream.

I also wanted to take the advice of Sean Faircloth of the Secular Coalition of America, whom I interviewed recently, to flavor my sermon with arguments that pack a punch emotionally. I reminded them that Christine Maggiore, an HIV denialist, could have lived a much longer life (and her daughter too) if she had listened to the scientific consensus that AIDS was caused by HIV. I also brought up the dowsing bomb detectors that are based on the long-debunked concept of divination. How many innocent people died because those devices were being used? My argument was that skepticism matters, and I hope that this message hit home with my audience.

I also tried to anticipate some objections, like “who cares whether people believe in bigfoot?”. My argument has always been that somebody cares, and that most people should care about the truth. Nobody likes to hear their beliefs belittled, and very few people are willing to walk away from a belief that they have invested in. But most skeptics aren’t interested in taking away the free-will of people to choose their own path. The skeptic movement is about a method of assessing claims, sharing that method with those who will listen, and supporting the scientists and investigators who use the method in their trade. As I put it to my congregation, does the existence of Consumer Reports magazine take away people’s free will to buy expensive poor quality items at the store? No, but it’s there if you need it, and we should be thankful for it.

I’ve been reading “Mistakes Were Made, but Not by Me” by Carol Tavris, which is all about “cognitive dissonance”, the idea that people can’t hold two opposing ideas in their heads, so they tend to justify the idea in which they’re most invested. One paragraph really popped out at me, and it’s when Tavris said that skepticism is a form of “arrogance control”, which seems like a great rejoinder to the complaint that skeptics are arrogant. Who is more arrogant, the person who believes, without a doubt, that he has seen a flying saucer, or the person who recognizes that our minds are evolved to pick out patterns and that the UFO was likely a flare, a balloon, a planet, or any number of other natural explanations? I guess that answer depends on how the message is given, which goes to the points I’ve been making about tone.

I had a number of people come up to me afterward and discuss topics that I mentioned. I really enjoy being challenged. One couple had invested some of their credulity into the possible conspiracy of World Trade Center 7′s collapse and global warming denial. One thing that I admitted to them is that World Trade Center 7 is an unusual anomaly, and that it makes sense to question it’s collapse. But when I was hooked into the 9/11 conspiracy (for a day) I took some time to look at what the skeptics’ arguments were, and I found that the skeptics “had the goods”. As for global warming, I understood their argument that it’s fellow scientists who are pointing to errors in the way the data has been analyzed. I think that’s a great thing because science can be messy, and we should hope that scientists are keeping each other in check. However, as I understand it, the overall consensus among scientists is that AGW is a real man-made threat, and that it’s getting worse every year. Most of all, I tried to empathize with their position and let them know some resources where they could find reliable answers.

One thing I learned while investigating the information for this sermon is that Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were good friends, despite their differences in critical thinking skills. Harry never tried to push the overly-credulous Doyle into skepticism, but instead, he would be very careful about explaining how certain spiritualists could accomplish their supernatural abilities in explainable natural ways. Doyle went to his grave believing in fairies and clairvoyants because he was so heavily invested in his beliefs, but Houdini would never have had a chance to share his skepticism of the spiritualists had he been antagonistic toward Doyle.

I’ll finish with this quote by Carl Sagan, which I borrowed for the sermon from Daniel Loxton:

“And yet, the chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive. It does not get the message across. It condemns the skeptics to permanent minority status; whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted.”

Amen, brother.

IMAX: Hubble

November 12, 2010

I’ve taken the kids to “Hubble” at the IMAX twice now. It’s really a thrilling introduction to the shuttle program, from zero gravity training at NASA’s swimming pools, to the thrust of blasting off into space, to the tense moments as the astronauts try to fix the world’s most delicate instrument in space with stubby-fingered gloves.

I also appreciated Leonardo Dicaprio’s humanist-themed narration. The film focused on our home planet’s uniqueness in the universe, and how the Hubble is helping us put Earth into context with the wonders and immensity of the cosmos, much like Carl Sagan did a few decades ago.

I’ve yet to see “Hubble” in 3D as it was intended. I can only imagine how amazing it would be. But even without the love-em-or-hate-em glasses, the film really takes you on a trip through the blackness of space and into the dust of a nearby nebula. It’s spectacular!

Check out this video on how they transformed 2D Hubble images into the third dimension…

Science-Based Gift Giving Guide 2010

November 2, 2010

If you’re looking for the best gifts to give your science-loving family this holiday season, we have the perfect guide for you. Listed below, are all of the authors, artists, and products that have been featured on Parenting Within Reason (and Podcast Beyond Belief), including some book recommendations by Dale McGowan and Jim Randolph from our soon-to-be-released latest episode. Plus, you’ll find some brain boosting games recommended by Nurture Shock author, Ashley Merryman in our interview with her.

If there’s a product that you think our readers would enjoy, please list it in the comments section. And if there are some products on here that you really enjoyed, let us know, and be sure to click the link and review it on amazon too.

Books for Parents

Books for Kids




*Recommended by Dale McGowan

**Recommended by Jim Randolph

***Recommended by Ashley Merryman

PWR Podcast Ep. 33: Ben Radford

October 29, 2010

On the latest episode of Parenting Within Reason, we interviewed paranormal investigator and Skeptical Inquirer editor Ben Radford. If you’re a fan of mystery shows you may have seen him featured once or twice. Here are a few clips…

Ben spoke to us about the myth of razor blades in apples, and the statistical unlikelihood of sex offenders molesting little children on Halloween night.

For some reason, we’ve decided that Halloween is particularly dangerous when it’s actually relatively safe. The crossing guard at my daughter’s school encouraged me to come to the school-sponsored “Trunk or Treat”, which she described as a “safe” Halloween experience. I do think it’s well-intentioned and nice for our school to offer this service, but please don’t do it in the name of “safety”. Aren’t there more accurate reasons, like building community or having fun?

Also during the podcast, we were joined by our guest co-host, Blake Smith, co-host of Monster Talk, to discuss his paranormal experiences and monster expertise.  Blake mentioned a time when he was deployed overseas and experienced what he believed, at the time, to be a haunting. The most chilling event that occurred during this haunting was waking up to the sensation of someone sitting upon his chest only to turn on the light and discover that nobody was there. Many years later, Blake realized that he was actually experiencing hypnagogic “sleep paralysis”, which is a natural phenomenon that combines the hallucination of lucid dreaming with the paralysis of REM sleep. It feels very real and very intense. Here’s a little video about it…

I’ve actually experienced hypnagogic sleep paralysis on a few occasions. I usually wake up with a feeling of absolute helplessness because I can’t move my body, and then I imagine an intruder entering my room to murder me and my wife. On the few occasions that this has happened, I’ve been woken up by my wife who is annoyed that I’m mumbling like a jackass. Little did she know that a murderer was about to kill her and that I was powerless to stop it, or at least that’s what I believed during the hypnagogic episode. It’s very unpleasant.

I’ve also had an instance in college where I woke up with the sensation of floating above my own body. At the time, I attributed the experience as a metaphysical out-of-body-experience. The truth is that my semisomnambulant mind was acting according to natural neurological stimuli. Nothing supernatural at all, but try telling that to the hippie college version of me.

In the spirit of being honest about our “true believer” pasts, I’m wondering if any of you ever experienced mysterious phenomena that you couldn’t explain at the time. Please, do tell. Very interested to hear your stories.

Kissed by a Fairy – Ringworm

October 28, 2010

No, my five-year old daughter does not have a lipstick kiss on her face. She has ringworm, which despite it’s unpleasant sounding name, has nothing to do with worms of any kind.

Ringworm is a fungal infection that looks like a circular rash.  I’m calling it a “fairy kiss” because it’s reminiscent of the natural fungus rings that sometimes form in the grass (aka “fairy circles”). We were suspicious of ringworm on Sunday of last week and scheduled an after-school  doctor’s appointment for Sasha, but a teacher  spotted her fairy kiss and promptly sent her to the school nurse who applied some anti-fungal cream and a bandage.

Later, the doctor said that schools are a bit irrationally fearful of infections like ringworm and pink eye, and that these infections are not nearly as contagious as people think. In an any case, ringworm infections usually disappear within a week or two if it’s  treated with the appropriate medication (my doctor recommended Lamacil).

The incubation period for ringworm is about ten days. We’ve yet to see Sasha’s ringworm flare up in anyone else in the house and it’s been about 10 days. I think the doctor might have been right to dismiss this as a trivial inconvenience with minimal risk; certainly not worth the worry that schools and parents have upon seeing the infection on a child’s face.

What do you think? Ever had to deal with ringworm?