Chemical Chaos

August 2, 2011

Sometimes when I read a book I will find myself attracted to other books on the same topic. This time my latest readings have been on chemistry and the periodic table. The one that started it was The Disappearing Spoon, which is a history of chemistry, the hunt for elements and the creation of the periodic table (check out the extras, especially the videos). This romp into chemistry and the personalities involved is accessible to everyone, including students in upper elementary school. Read the rest of this entry »

I Walk the Talk

July 22, 2011


A couple of weeks ago I went in for my annual medical appointment. We went through the whole routine, and I showed my family doctor my very scratched up arm from pruning the porch-eating rose. I asked if I could get the Tdap since I am a gardener. He looked at my chart, saw I got the vaccine in 2005 and said I was good for another four years.


Then I went on a little trip: Read the rest of this entry »

The Anthropology of Anti-Vax

May 25, 2011

At She Thought, Anthropologist Underground kind of nailed it with this piece about how not immunizing becomes a mark of social status in some parenting communities:

Many women who can afford to stay home gave up careers to do so. Larger society undervalues stay-home moms (as well as teachers and other child care workers). So bright, educated women find themselves in clusters, isolated from prestige, and they bring the work ethic and focus that advanced them in careers to parenting. They must seek status and validation from other members of the stay-home community, and this requires separating themselves from the unwashed masses. (My friend calls this “competitive parenting.”)

My read is that challenging the authority of conventional medicine and MDs is one way of artificially ascribing status to oneself.

Thought provoking, and yet completely unsurprising, really.  Living in LA, I’m surrounded by status moms like this.  They were all over my mom support group listserv, to the extent that I finally had to unsubscribe.  I often posted on here and Rational Moms about these moms.  Reading their posts on the listserv was a great way to take the temperature of the anti-vax community in response to news about the Wakefield scandal or the whooping cough epidemic.  (Ultimately, it proved too frustrating for me to encounter their responses daily, so I left the board.)  I think Anthropologist Underground has pegged the way these people think, to a large extent.  And I wouldn’t confine it to moms.  There are plenty of stay-at-home dads who join the status parenting club as well.

I would add (and I did in my comment) that unfortunately, recent events in our country do lend credence to the idea that a web of financial interests can override public interest.  Just watch The Inside Job to have that sneaky suspicion confirmed.  So I don’t think it’s only a group status/power mentality at work here.  I believe anti-vax parents are egged on by a prevailing cultural suspicion of authority that has been intensified by the events of our time.

Responses to this idea?

But it works for me

April 5, 2011

Being a new blogger, I’ve been struggling to develop an approach for handling comments in a consistent and sustainable way. Not that I have had many trolls on this blog or the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, but I find myself wanting to quickly respond to each and every criticism. If this blog gains the readership that I hope it does someday, that is not a sustainable approach. Further, it is not even efficient as most blog criticisms focus around one or two common points, which could be addressed in one place. So my approach is, at least for now, to take such common criticisms and address them as a new blog entry when I think there is enough meat there to do so and the topic is interesting enough as well. This is the first such post.

The most common criticism I saw on my listening therapy post is one that I see on many skeptical blogs: “but it works for me”. Often, when I express skepticism of treatments with family and friends, I get a similar response. So I think this is an important criticism to address, and it highlights a critical difference between how skeptics and believers think.

At the heart of the matter is epistemology, or more simply, the rules for how we decide what we believe. The rules of evidence used by skeptics are a critical difference between skeptics and non-skeptics, if not “the” critical difference. So when someone says to me that “ listening therapy works for me”, I think “how do you know”. Or even better, I should ask “how could you know”. This is not a criticism of their intelligence, but of the data available to them and the ability to draw conclusions from it. Further, I am nothing if not ecumenical. I recognize that if I try something like Airborne® when I have a cold, that I cannot afterwards make any conclusions about whether it has helped me or not. All I can say is that I got better from the cold, not a very astonishing fact in and of itself. This is also why I find such demands that I “try” some treatment before criticizing it to be a pointless endeavor (unless it is just a question about a matter of taste). My single patient non-experiment could not tell me anything. In fact, self experimenting introduces all sorts of additional bias if anything.

So is all hope lost? Am I advocating classical Pyrrhic skepticism reflected in current postmodernism, where all hope of knowledge eludes us. Hardly, but that is often the simple caricature of skeptics used in strawman arguments against their position. No, there is solution to this dilemma, and its name is science. If I were forced to give a one sentence definition of science, it would be that science is the collection of tools to address human biases and investigate the natural world as objectively and systematically as possible. And before the other common criticism of skeptics is posted, I am not arguing for scientism or the position that science can answer all questions. I am simply saying that reason, using the tools of science and logic, are the best we’ve got when it comes to understanding the natural world.

So what are my thoughts when someone comes to me and says “treatment X worked for me or some of my patients”? What else were they doing? What would have happened if they did nothing; could this just be coincidental? How did their expectations color their perception? How susceptible was the outcome to personal perception? Did the person giving the treatment have expectations that could affect their analysis?

None of these issues can really be addressed in a single person, uncontrolled, self-experiment. In fact, such a method violates every single principle of a randomized, controlled and double-blinded experiment, the gold standard, which was created to address precisely the questions above.

Being only one person, there is no statistical significance and chance could sufficiently explain it. Of course, it also means there is no control group which gets to the question of what would happen if you simply had let nature run its course? To answer that question, we need a treatment and non-treatment group of statistically significant size. If we want to get at causation and not simply correlation, we also need to randomly assign people to the two groups. This gets at the question of what else were they doing? Perhaps it was another treatment or simple consequence of the treatment (like resting more) that really caused the recovery. And when you experiment on yourself neither the experimenter nor experimentee is blinded. Our perception, especially of pain, is colored by expectations. Similarly, the experimenter’s expectations can subtly affect their analysis or influence the one being experimented upon. In the end, you could hardly create a worse experiment for effectiveness of a treatment than the “just try it yourself” approach.

Does this mean that everything in life needs rigorous scientific experimentation to establish its validity? No. For immediate, dramatic, repeatable and objectively definable results, we can often infer causality quite easily. For example, a few self experiments with a severe food allergy would give pretty concrete conclusions. Unfortunately, it may also kill you. I also don’t need an experiment to establish the fact that cuts and scrapes of the skin cause pain. You usually have a enough data by the time you are a toddler to securely make that conclusion. :-) The problem is that most treatments don’t have such a direct and clear effect as a few shots of whiskey, and so we need more than personal anecdotes to evaluate most interesting questions.

Grow a Gardener, or At Least Influence a Future Eater

March 11, 2011

Believe it or not, spring is just around the corner (at least in the Northern Hemisphere). I visited a flower and garden show a couple of weeks ago, where there were beautiful blooms inside while it snowed outside. I am itching to get out and play in the dirt.

I have been leafing through a nursery catalog (ooh, I think I’ll try a potted peach tree on the deck!), I have some seeds and at the garden show I bought lilies, and seed potatoes (where I’ll be trying the trashcan potatoes again).
Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Awareness Week!

March 2, 2011

Coming up later this month is Brain Awareness Week. Started in 1996 by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives to educate kids and their families about the brain and brain science.

If you are near Washington, DC check out the exhibits and activities at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. If you can’t (like most of us) see what activities there are for kids at the Neuroscience for Kids website.

Also, download this week’s Parenting Within Reason podcast where Colin interviews Dr. Joanne Deak about her book Your Fantastic Elastic Brain.

Diversity and Engineering Week… A Bit of Rambling

February 20, 2011

Last week I decided to visit my daughter’s high school to check out the food options that were being offered on the last day of “Diversity Week.”  The various student groups were selling food to help finance their activities and I wanted to try it out!  I got there at about the time lunch was supposed to start, but it turned out that was delayed due to the assembly, which highlighted the various groups and clubs in the school (I heard some, but did not go in since it was ending).

So I sat in the cafeteria/commons area trying to read a book, but was distracted by the activity around me.  There was the table of PTSA moms of seniors who were going sell tickets for the prom and graduation parties, then there were the pair of kids who were signing (the school has a deaf ed program), plus the various groups setting up for food. Read the rest of this entry »

The Wonderful World of Statistics

January 29, 2011

We as parents stumble along trying to make sense of the world as we make sure our kids grow up healthy and educated. One thing that we often encounter is the mysterious world of statistics. Read the rest of this entry »

New Hurt by Homebirth Blog

January 23, 2011

Amy Tutuer has started a new blog called Hurt by Homebirth in which women detail the deaths or injuries of their infants who could have been saved by hospital births:

Private websites run by homebirth advocates frequently and proudly delete comments unfavorable to homebirth, and there’s nothing more unfavorable than a homebirth story that ends in death.

Enough is enough. Hurt by Homebirth has been created as a safe place where women can tell the stories of the babies who died or who were left brain damaged or otherwise injured by homebirth. And though maternal death is far more rare, it is also a place where families can tell the story of mothers who have died at or in the aftermath of a homebirth.

It is an important site for women who might be considering homebirth, since so often homebirth advocates are not forthcoming about the risks involved.

Unfortunately, women contemplating homebirth don’t know the risks and homebirth advocates aren’t about to tell them. In fact, adding insult to injury, when a bereaved mother attempts to share her baby’s story with other homebirth advocates, the baby is figuratively erased out of existence. Homebirth websites delete homebirth tragedies. They don’t want women to know the truth.

Be warned.  The first story is tragic and very difficult to read.

My Fascination With the Duggars and Quiverfull

January 22, 2011

On episode 42 of our Parenting Within Reason podcast, we interview Vyckie Garrison, who is the editor and a contributing writer of  the blog No Longer Quivering.  Vyckie left the Quiverfull movement and writes about her experiences within it.  Quiverfull followers believe in letting God plan their families, and they often have ten or more children.  (Vyckie had seven.)  They also homeschool and instill the idea of submission among wives and daughters, who are brought up as domestic servants and “helpmeets” for their husbands.  Vyckie really gave us a wonderful interview.  She was very open about her life and her journey away from the Quiverfull movement.  Her blog is a fascinating read, especially because the women who write for it break up their posts into continuing episodes that draw the reader in.  The stories have completely hooked me.

The Duggars belong to this form of fundamentalist Christianity, and I have not been able to get enough of their show since I learned this.  I love watching 19 Kids and Counting, as much as it sort of freaks me out and scares me.  I find the kids and the parents totally charming, even when they’re talking about how the earth is 6000 years old.  While doing a little procrastinating from another writing project, I came across the video above.

The Quiverfull movement has become a topic of peculiar fascination for me.   I first heard about the Christian Patriarchy on Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog.  He posted several excerpts from Katherine Joyce’s book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement.  Geek that I am, I asked for the book as a present, ironically enough, for Mother’s Day.

One of the aspects of Quiverfull that I find the most alarming is that some parents within it adhere to a strict philosophy of child rearing espoused by a couple named Michael and Debbie Pearl, who have published the book, To Train Up a Child.  Excerpts can be found here, and this is the passage that is most emblematic of the training method advised by this book:

There is much satisfaction in training up a child. It is easy and challenging. When my children were able to crawl (in the case of one, roll) around the room, I set up training sessions.

Try it yourself. Place an appealing object where they can reach it, maybe in a “No-no” corner or on an apple juice table (That’s where the coffee table once sat). When they spy it and make a dive for it, in a calm voice say, “No, don’t touch it.” They will already be familiar with the “No,” so they will pause, look at you in wonder and then turn around and grab it. Switch their hand once and simultaneously say, “No.” Remember, you are not disciplining, you are training. One spat with a little switch is enough. They will again pull back their hand and consider the relationship between the object, their desire, the command and the little reinforcing pain. It may take several times, but if you are consistent, they will learn to consistently obey, even in your absence.

That’s right.  Use a switch on the child when he or she reaches for a toy.  Specifically, the Pearls recommend a quarter inch plumbing supply line.

The idea here is that by teaching your child to obey you rather than follow his own natural inclinations, you will instill enough obedience for the child to forego his sinful nature.  Obedience is the most important trait according to this thought process.  If you can’t obey your parents, you won’t obey God, and you’ll end up in Hell.

Vyckie says she did not practice this particular form of discipline with her kids, but she did emphasize obedience as the highest virtue, and she tells us in the interview how it drained the spirit right out of her children.  Once liberated from this dogma, the kids began to flourish and grow as individuals.

Vyckie’s blog has a heartrending series of apologies from parents who feel now that the stress upon obedience wrought psychological damage upon their children.  In an especially moving post, one writer speaks of the intense love she felt for her baby and the gratitude she felt upon finding guidance to protect her child:

If I could sum up the message that this book spoke to a young mother who deeply loved her baby, it was this:

“Momma, your baby is a sinner. He/she will try to manipulate you. Things like a child not liking a diaper change and squirming to be free are an example of a sinful will attempting to dominate you. You may think this is a little thing, but it’s huge. Why? Because if you let the child dominate you, the child will win. If the child wins, the child will learn that rebellion pays. The child will then grow up to probably reject God and go to Hell, because a rebellious heart will not want to follow God. So, Momma, never ever let your child win. Your child’s exertion of will [which includes anything you deem unacceptable---grumpiness, for example] is an act of war, and parenting is about the parent winning any and all battles of wills.”

I loved my baby. How grateful, absolutely grateful I felt, that someone was there to show me the way.

The mother then expresses her regret:


I am so very very sorry. Everything I did, I did out of love. But that doesn’t excuse any of it, nor does it take it away. And I am sorry.

I suppose I find this so emotional, because I can relate so well to the ferocity of love that a new mother feels, along with the weight of responsibility for not only keeping this new being alive but somehow instilling virtue and life skills.  So many of us feel clueless and turn to books.  Who knows?  Maybe swaddling will turn out to be totally wrong and I’ll have to regret that one.  It’s easy to get misguided as a parent, and we all do the best we can.  Sleep training?  I’m still torn.  I’m sure I got that one wrong, if only because I never quite decided to do it one way or the other.  We’re all looking for answers, and the secular parents among us might find the wrong answers, too.

I hope you’ll give episode 42 a listen.  It’s a great interview.