Friday, December 31, 2010

A Year In Review

Today is the last day of the year 2010. It is something of a tradition on this day to spend some time looking back on the year that has gone by, thinking and reflecting on the events which have occurred.

Normally, I do so privately. This year, I am doing a portion of it publicly -- on this blog.

For me, the year started off with the Zakh Price case. There are some situations that you just can't leave alone; for me, that was one of them. I won't discuss what my role in the whole matter was, but I did play one. I don't know if I, personally, made a difference... but I don't really care. As of the last I heard from the family (which was late summer or early fall), Zakh was doing quite well... and the situation had been resolved in a favorable fashion. In my honest opinion, that's all that really matters.

In other news, Andy Wakefield lost his medical license that month, and I very much enjoyed the 2010 CARD conference (although it was marred by one highly bigoted pseudo-scientist pretending at a neurology presentation). I was actually at the conference (or, more accurately, in my room at the conference hotel) when I found out about Wakefield, and it was all I could do to avoid waking my neighbors with a whoop of joy.

Then I got back and immediately (i.e. the very next day) went in for a much-needed knee surgery. I was on crutches for more than two months.

I discovered that the James Randi Educational Foundation is physically located not that far from my house... down the street from a psychic and across the street from a chiropractor. I've very much enjoyed their periodic open houses... and Randi himself is quite entertaining (and a breath of fresh air).

On the advocacy front, the Geiers moved into my metaphorical backyard and started peddling the "wonders" of chemical castration to the parents of local autistic children, shielded by a number of highly-influential political figures and using a local radiologist as their local patsy. I've been trying to "deal with" them ever since.

I got into a long and protracted series of misunderstandings that I still can't figure out a way to rectify (and that is still bothering me). Actually, that technically started last year... but it continued (and got a great deal worse) this year.

I resumed the MS Counseling program at Nova Southeastern University... and promptly had my first major issue with a postgraduate professor. It says something when it takes a flat-out written statement of intent to discriminate (in the form of deducting points for autistic literalism) for me to consider something a "major issue". I also got my first postgraduate B... in his class. Had it been any lower, I'd have challenged it; as is, I have the written notice available and thoroughly documented to show anyone who questions me about it.

Honestly, what sort of professor does something like that in writing? Seriously!

In a bit of irony, it was actually a bit worse: I received that written statement literally the week before I was scheduled to speak at Autreat. I'll get back to that in a bit, but the sheer hilarity of the timing has lead to a number of jokes since... especially since the professor was aware of both my diagnosis and my presentation.

I also did a brief internship at a small local school for individuals with severe developmental and intellectual disabilities. The kids there were very interesting (and very different from any population I'd previously worked with). Incidentally, for any parent from here on who tells me that I don't know what kids like theirs are like (to insinuate that their child is more severely disabled than any I've worked with)... yes, I do. Working with that population can be a serious mind-fuck, and I do not shy away from the use of that particular vulgarity in this case.

Then my internship ended (with the end of the academic year) and I started working for a behavior services company in Dade County. I've been doing part-time human resources work for them... which does, at least, help pay my expenses.

And, of course, I gave my first conference presentation: a presentation on pseudoscientific medicine in the field of autism. I've done related blog posts here and here, and I posted the PowerPoint slides to the Autreatinfo Yahoo group. I've also uploaded the slides here, if anyone wants to take a look. (Note that I verbally departed from them at several points. I'd be more than happy to explain in more detail if anyone asks in the comments.)

The presentation was two hours long, involved one hundred and fifty-five PowerPoint slides (of which five were references and suggested further reading), and contained thirty reference citations (not counting duplicates). During the preparation, I read far more than this -- my lit review for the thing involved over two hundred peer-reviewed articles and five books... of which, two were med-school textbooks.

Thinking back to that time, I am astounded that I managed to keep my sanity. I was, for a while, not only recovering from knee surgery (on crutches), but doing that internship, preparing that presentation, continuing my advocacy work, and taking a course load and a half of postgraduate classes. Yes, I took 150% of a semester's postgraduate coursework over the summer... on top of everything else. It was not particularly smart of me, and I really haven't quite fully recovered from all of that. The fact that most of my "recovery" time was spent working part time while taking a full course load (not, fortunately, the extra-full course load I took on over the summer) of classes while working part time certainly didn't help. My active participation in various student organizations and continuation of my advocacy work didn't help, either.

Fall, by contrast, was fairly... routine. There were a couple of crises which I can't really talk about, and work has been rather frustrating for reasons that I also can't talk about here, but I tried to use the time to recover. I failed.

I also grew pretty thoroughly sick of the MS Counseling program for a variety of reasons, most of which focus on the high bullshit content of many of the courses. I will be reviewing my "diversity studies" textbook later, but I've already reviewed my so-called "ethics" text. Of the two, the "ethics" book was the better one.

As the year pulls to a close, though, I'm filled with some degree of renewed optimism. For one thing, I've switched programs as of the upcoming semester (and I sincerely hope that the MS General Psychology program will actually involve considerations of evidence!). For another, my new program is a thesis program... which means actual research as part of my graduation requirements!

I suspect that several of my regular readers will find my thesis of interest... and yes, I do already know exactly what I'm going to be doing for my thesis. I will comment more on it after I've actually started doing it... but I suspect that one reader of this blog will find it very interesting: it falls under the category of behavioral sciences meta-research and was actually inspired by some of her comments.

The change won't delay my graduation too much... but my new classes are ones which I can hopefully actually enjoy. I am very much looking forward to them.

Hopefully I'll be able to catch up on my accumulated e-mails sometime next year. I'm something like three thousand behind...

So, in conclusion... for everyone reading this, happy new year!

Edit: Corrected a really embarrassing typo.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Demon-Haunted Inevitability

A very long time ago, I read a very good book entitled The Demon-Haunted World. As part of my efforts to help me put words to some of my thoughts, I started rereading it... and found it even better than I half-remembered. It is a touching, inspiring, and truly excellent tribute to the power, importance, and sheer beauty of science.

I am not, however, writing this blog entry in order to praise the glories of Sagan. I am discussing the book in order to explain where this blog entry is coming from. Specifically, it's coming from one quote (which is on p. 26 of the paperback edition I'm reading):

We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements -- transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting -- profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

Moreover, it isn't just science and technology that this dilemma applies to. A similar (and highly interconnected) mixture exists within medicine -- just as the populace depends on science and yet remains profoundly ignorant of it, the populace depends on medicine and yet remains equally clueless about it. Where this volatile mixture intersects with desperation, the consequences are entirely predictable.

This is especially true to anyone who's truly studied the history of medicine. Unlike the popular perception, the history of medicine is not one of straightforward progress, the history of medicine is one of delusion, stonewalling, and delay; of rampant bias and harmful treatments; and of quackery and pseudoscience. The history of medicine is a graveyard of harmful treatments which doctors once thought helpful. It is a history of failure upon failure... and of the occasional (and rare) gem hidden amongst the countless clods of fecal matter. It is a history of countless "diseases" that turned out to be benign... and countless "benign" phenomena which turned out to be diseases.

For instance, haemorrhoids, nosebleeds, and women's periods were once viewed by the medical establishment as benign forms of natural prophylaxis... and, moreover, the absence of these was viewed as dangerous and needing treatment. (1)

An absence of periods from a woman of child-bearing age was viewed as especially serious, and even dangerous (unless, of course, that woman was pregnant). While I won't deny that amenorrhea can be a sign of a number of problematic underlying issues, I do think that most of us would agree that "treating" it by placing leaches on the cervix is a bad idea... and I emphatically will deny that amenorrhea causes insanity or epilepsy (depression, however, may actually arise, especially if the woman in question is actively trying to have children). Heck -- in recent years, at least two people have actually suggested that deliberately suppressing menstration -- inducing amenorrhoea -- would be a good idea for many women (2).

Then there's our attitude towards "chemicals", the way we constantly fail to understand the meaning of the medical axiom that "the dose makes the poison", the way that the media is constantly trying to divide our foodstuffs into things which cause cancer and things that help prevent it... and even the way that many Americans' critical thinking skills are so incredibly atrophied that they are actually impressed by this lady (3) or by the "coverage" of medical issues provided by the Huffington Post.

We live in a culture of misinformation, where information is often passed on without regards to its veracity. Myths often take on the status of fact; people freely panic over things that later turn out to be false alarms. People believe in all sorts of "New Age" nonsense, and all sorts of woo -- from psychics and astrologers to countless books on the nonexistent continent of Lemuria -- are available freely at many major bookstores. The "Raw Food" movement is picking up steam, major pharmacies are selling homeopathic products, and there are even people who take this guy seriously as an information source (4).

There's very little new about this. Aristotle wrote about logical fallacies in the Organon -- and that was well over two thousand years ago. History reveals countless examples of mass hysterias, moral panics, scaremongering, health fraud, sensationalism, superstitions, and other problems of this nature. The basic thrust towards these tendencies is a consequence of countless aspects of human nature. It should be unsurprising that they show up in the world of autism.

Parents of autistic children aren't that different from anyone else (or, more accurately, any other parents) before they notice signs that their child is autistic... or they get the diagnosis -- whichever comes first. They are not particularly educated, not particularly rich, and very much not particularly skeptical. What they are, especially at first, is particularly desperate.

The fact that the metaphorical vultures are able to exploit this should hardly be surprising. Many, many parallels can be found elsewhere. The consequences may be tragic, but the problems themselves are hardly unexpected.

I just wish I could figure out a better way to deal with them.

(1) No, I'm not joking. They really believed this. It wasn't until relatively recently that this attitude changed. If you want an account of how and why, there are a number of possible sources... but I reccommend Wootton's Bad Medicine.

Incidentally -- doctors' treatments for the "problem" of an adult man's butt not bleeding? Well, since he weren't getting rid of that excess blood the "natural" way, a doctor had to resort to artificial means... or, in other words, bloodletting.

(2) I don't find their arguments particularly convincing, but that's just me.

(3) Yes, she really did say what you think she said.

(4) Yes, I munged that URL. I'm emphatically not raising his Google rank any more than I have to.