Friday, May 14, 2010

'Science?! We don't need no stinkin' science!'

Apologies to Mel Brooks et al for the title I chose for this post, but today, the respected journal Child Development releases the latest in a series of controversial studies that appear to show that kids who spend a significant portion of their days in daycare don't do as well during their teen years as kids who spent their time at home with Mom and/or Dad. This news, from a team of investigators working under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health, comes as guilt-ridden working moms are still touchy about the last such major study, almost a decade ago, which appeared to show a link between daycare and teenage aggression. NOW, which continues to stump for expanded public funding of daycare, has already promised a response.

A response?

We could focus tightly on the issue itself
daycare's effect on kidsbut I have little time and bigger fish to fry.* NOW's attitude is part of what those of us who favor such things as science, evidence and rationality see as a most unfortunate and pervasive syndrome: We act today as if we think that everything is up for debate, that all of life reduces to opinion, and that all such opinions are equally valid...even if my opinion is based on a substantial body of research and your opinion is based on nothing more than a gut feeling or, perhaps, a sense of the way you think life ought to be. So, for example, if you're Jenny McCarthy and you hold vaccines responsible for your son's autism, you're gonna stick to your guns and write more books and keep screaming your message from the nearest rooftop, doggonit, even as the evidence against you piles up as high as the rooftop itself (and the doctor who first put the bee in your bonnet is shown to have rigged the data). And then, of course, you're going to accuse the people with all that evidence of "having an agenda."

Once again, I must blame SHAMland for contributing in large part to this currency. It would seem that this is very much in alignment with the Culture of Me (i.e. its sponsorship of narcissism/personal empowerment) as well as further fallout from all those designer realities so popular nowadays. The mantra goes like so: "We don't like what your evidence shows, so we simply refuse to accept it." The converse of this curious notion also has far-reaching application, notably in the area of alternative medicine: "We don't believe in scientific evidence, so we don't need any. Just trust what we say." Uh-huh.

* Of course, if you folks have deep feelings on that issue, they're more than welcome here.


RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, I think that perhaps one of the most insidious accomplishments of the SHAM industry is the widely successful effort to change public perception of the proper chronological placement of the phrase "what if."

In the scientific method, the phrase represents a starting point, an hypothesis upon which to structure research in order to establish (or discount) the viability of an idea or process. In SHAM nomenclature, however, "what if" is offered as a means to discount the value of actually determining that viability and encourage customers to purchase something that has no demonstrated evidence of efficacy.

If a prospective customer ("mark" is more accurate, IMO) finds a marketer's claim to be inconsistent with available evidence or even common sense, the marketer's typical rebuttal is something along the lines of "What if it works?"

With such a rebuttal, the marketer attempts - apparently, with an alarming frequency of success - to dissuade the prospective customer from using their brains.

As I've frequently stated, humans are the only creatures in the animal kingdom who can hope to survive to maturity and be stupid. The stupid examples in all other species die off at a relatively early age. We humans are coddled and protected by various societal mechanisms and institutions, and can live well beyond our genetically-provided ability to survive... barring being sold on some expensive, death and common-sense-defying shortcut to "enlightenment."

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: I think that's a stunningly succinct analysis of the problem: the repositioning of the words "what if?" and the concepts they embody.

Rational Thinking said...

Steve, I haven't read the study itself - but the article you linked to suggests the differences are slight, a portion of the data was from questionnaires completed by teenagers rating their own behaviour - which is never going to be objective - and then the author of the study is quoted as saying "you end up with contagion effects".

Criticism of methodology in such studies is perfectly valid - and may in fact be valuable. On reading the article itself, I'd want to take a long, hard look at that study and how it was carried out. Are you not simply assuming that NOW won't challenge it in a valid way?

Steve Salerno said...

RT: I am assuming that NOW would challenge it regardless of circumstances simply because such a study does not fit into NOW's worldview or agenda. Similarly, when was the last time you saw a major teacher's union come out in favor of a study that blamed poor scholastic performance on teachers? Also similarly, it is almost impossible nowadays to gain any media/social traction with a study, no matter how well designed, that appears to highlight differences between the races/genders, especially when those differences bode poorly for blacks and/or women. The science simply is forced to take a back seat to political correctness and/or social agenda. So even if something appears to be true, we can't let it be true.

And my overarching point is this: Even if a study is flawed--and just about every study is flawed; I've done any number of pieces that shredded various research--at least research, honestly done, is research. It's more than just an aggregation of feelings, intuitions and/or strongly held beliefs.

Rational Thinking said...

Steve - if the study is flawed, then what you are left with is simply data, subject to interpretation. BTW, I note that the author of the study is a psychologist, which is not a 'hard' science.

I agree with you that studies can be flawed - but the interpretation of this sort of research in itself is not 'science'.

On a different point - the 'what if' approach seems entirely contrary to a scientific approach. I was taught that first you do the research, then develop a hypothesis, then test the hypothesis. If you form a hypothesis before you collect the data, then confirmation bias is inherent.

Steve Salerno said...

RT: I agree that the strict scientific method would be as you describe it. However, I think we may be dealing (to some degree) with a question of semantics here. From a more practical standpoint, in the applied sciences, we often begin with a "what if?"--"what if there were a way to light a room without using matches and candles?"--and then working from that premise/goal, we end up, eventually, with Edison and his lightbulb. That is a very different matter from just (a) remembering that your child got a vaccine shot, (b) noticing that your child is autistic, and (c) assuming a causal relationship between (a) and (b), then positing it as fact, in spite of all developing evidence.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I was taught that first you do the research, then develop a hypothesis, then test the hypothesis."

RT - In practice, research is preceded by an idea, typically represented by a question to be answered. "What if [[known criteria]] is related to [[other known criteria]]?" The hypothesis represents a projected route to the answer, vis a vis, "What if [[external factor]] has an effect upon [[known criteria]], thereby modifying or causing [[other known criteria]]?" The study is then structured to test that hypothesis, and actual research begins.

Sounds confusing (to me, as well!). Perhaps the best description is provided by a non-scientific source: Lao Tzu, who wrote the well-known (but frequently mistranslated) phrase, "The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath your feet." Before beginning the research (or starting any journey), you first have to determine the starting point... at least, if you have any hope of getting to a specific "end point" or goal.

Anonymous said...

All I see here is two people discrediting other people's persuasive, good sounding (to those people) speculations with your own persuasive, good sounding (to you) speculations. These "stunningly succinct analysis's" are just as much a Sham as anything mentioned in Shamblog. And gloating that one's heart felt suspicions are superior to another's opinions is suppose to pass for impressive thought?

Rational Thinking said...

Thanks Steve and Ron for the clarifications :-)

Clearly the applied sciences are not my forte! I quite understand the need for a starting point - however, the pedant in me suspects that if you look hard enough for a connection, the likelihood is that you'll find one. And it might be a correlation without causation, of course, which would concern me. But I see you've got to start somewhere :-)

Ron - thank you for the correct translation - I prefer it to the one most often heard.

Frances said...

Oh yes, it especially rankles me when SHAM gets its fingers into the health pie. Because when you lack good, or any, health insurance, you will fall for ANYTHING that promises you control of your health and life, against the evil Big Pharma and Big Insurance.

The tragic part is, Big Pharma and Big Insurance actually ARE evil-- but embracing medical woo is the LAST thing that will fix those two problems. It's just the latest variation of "you can't change the world; you can only change yourself; so don't even bother trying to fix the sick SYSTEMS that got us into this mess."

Frances said...

And yes, Steve... I *am* rankled at scientific studies that paint women and minorities in an unfavorable light. Because it's not always the best thing for our progress as human beings, to remain the people that a certain scientific study paints us as.

That has nothing to do with the research, and everything to do with how we respond to what that research has found.

So the research proves we're irrational beings who make decisions emotionally, and discrimination appears hard-wired into our psyches because it's tied so closely to our primal notions of who is safe to be around. So the research proves that if you want to build rapport, similarity between the interactors is essential.

So the research proves that people who are culturally privileged in some way-- white, young, beautiful, wealthy, simple of personality-- are more likely to succeed.
Of course they are, when your society operates from its gut feelings, as Oprah, Dubya Bush, and many others have been passionately encouraging for years. Because while I can't find the link right now, yet another scientific study made the case that the gut feeling itself favors the privileged.

So, all this has been proven right in scientific research. It only makes a stronger case for consciously choosing to operate differently.

Because if we remain the people according to research, our natural tendency is to devolve into a bunch of closed-minded, provincial folks incapable of interacting with those who do not resemble us-- at least not without intense discomfort. And all along, we will feel as happy and comfortable as ever, because studies also say, blinding ourselves to reality is a great way to maintain emotional equilibrium in the face of cognitive and moral dissonance. And thanks to SHAM, we have utterly perfected the art of maintaining "happiness" at the cost of reality.

It seems like a lot of progressive developments have occurred because we chose to buck gut feelings and natural tendencies, not go along with them.

Jenny McCarthy and friends, by choosing to twist and ignore the research itself instead of heeding its disturbing messages about humanity, are missing the boat entirely on how to improve society. And as such, they can't help but be ineffective at enlightening us, or making us a more fair and welcoming society-- their own purported goals.

Tyro said...

Schneier had a good essay on the "What If" epidemic, definitely worth reading:

I think it's good to do the studies and try to uncover how things really work so that we can make informed decisions but let's keep things in perspective. There are many reasons for sending kids to day care and kindergarten instead of staying at home with mom and dad, not the least of which is the need to earn money to pay for the food and clothes the little darlings expect. And some parents even have the notion that their career is important to them and having to follow the schedule of small children might hold them back. I know, I know, parents aren't supposed to think of their own happiness but just imagine if a parent thought their children were sturdy enough to survive a few hours apart so that she could do some things that she enjoyed.

So yeah, I absolutely agree that we need to deal with the facts but surely there are arguments for supporting day care that extend past merely whether there is an immediate benefit for the child. Won't someone please think of the parents! (*clutches at pearls*) I think public service debates can still happen.

But when your whole argument relies on rejecting evidence (like McCarthy) then we have a problem. How can you reach an informed, practical conclusion if you are working against reality? Maybe you've improved things in your delusional mind but people will be hurt here, in this reality, and I'm old fashioned enough to believe that this is where it counts.

RevRon's Rants said...

She (our beloved anonymous LGAT'er) just can't stay away, can she? :-)

I don't actually doubt that "All [you] see here is two people discrediting other people's persuasive, good sounding (to those people) speculations with your own persuasive, good sounding (to you) speculations."

I for one would greatly appreciate you giving us the benefit of your allegedly superior methodology for evaluating whether a program, process, or product offers benefit to consumers. I think that your "analysis's" (sic) should prove quite interesting (or at the very least, entertaining)!

I'll wait... :-)

LizaJane said...

Always uplifting to return to this blog, and its highly literate commentators. Renews my faith in grammar, if not humanity.

A few comments on the comments:

Steve, I get your point. It's not that the autism/vaccination link has been disproved in several reputable, large-scale, retrospective studies. Rather, you're positing that the ARGUMENT for or against something, just because it "feels right" or "fits a particular agenda" is, in itself, a SHAM (and ultimately dangerous) approach. True.

As for psychological studies being less reliable, that's debatable. The findings of all research, even the most "hard-science" stuff (cells in a petri dish, mice in a cage, people taking a drug) is open to interpretation. There is always the question of causality. That's why, in any peer-reviewed scientific paper, there is a "methodology" section (where the authors spell out what they did and how), and there is a "discussion" section (where the authors posit their best, educated INTERPRETATION of what their results mean). Often, other scientists will chime in and say, "I think you've come to the wrong conclusion." This happens a LOT... in ALL the sciences, not just the soft ones! Even in what other researchers would call a "well-designed" study, there is always room for interpretation.

We may get to a point where something has been shown to be true so many times, under so many different circumstances, that it passes from "theory" to "law." Even then, however, it is always open to reinterpretation and the possibility, however slight, that it can be disproved... or simply replaced, by a better, more comprehensive explanation (which becomes the new "theory"). This is why Evolution and Intelligent Design are not "debatable" on the same platform. They are different in kind. One can be replaced/disproved. The other, being a matter of faith, can never, ever be. You "simply believe." Fine for church. Not so good for conducting scientific research.

The same standards are used to review the research of sociologists and psychologists as to review the research of oncologists and physicists.

That's why it's called "science" and not "arts and crafts." As you all clearly understand (with differing levels of expertise), when it comes to scientific research, there are rules. That doesn't mean there are always clear answers about causality. Some things are "known" to be true -- have been demonstrated again and again and are excepted as "the way it is" -- and the causality and/or mechanisms remain mysterious.

Such was the case with aspirin for generations. It's still the case with any number of drugs and procedures. They work, but no one knows precisely how or why.

Seeing the results of research and concluding that something works -- despite not understanding HOW it works -- is very different, however, from assuming a connection where such a connection has been shown, over and over, to be non-existent.

LizaJane said...

Tyro, I think a good, and obvious "argument for supporting day care that extends past merely whether there is an immediate benefit for the child" is that some parents have no other options, and we don't let children starve, go naked, or stay home alone just because we don't agree with the parents' choices (to have a child when they can't afford to support one, for example).

If there's only one wage earner, and no "free" childcare available (not every grandparent relishes the role. not everyone has family or friends who can help), then what to do with the kid while you earn the rent and groceries?

Of course, there are societies, some of which have not sunk into the sea or gone up in flames, where people are paid by the govt. not to cover their childcare costs while they work, but to just stay home and raise the child for a few years. Instead of paying (in the form of subsidized daycare) to let someone else raise their kids, so they go out and do a "more important" or "more fulfilling" job -- or one that doesn't bore them or make them feel "like they're going crazy if they don't get out of the house" -- they are paid to stay home and do the job they chose to do when they had the child in the first place.

And yes, before you rant at me, I'm biased. I readily admit it. Why bother having kids if you don't want to actually HAVE the kids? Are they accessories? Pets? I've never understood why you'd want someone else to raise them.

I also don't understand the moms (or dads) who say they'd "go crazy" staying home with their kids. Do they live out in the bush, with no access to adult conversation or social interaction? Come on. It's silly. Just because you have kids and stay home with them does not mean they are the only thing you can think or talk about. But yeah, I digress.

Steve Salerno said...

LZJ: Great to have you back--and with food for thought, as always. I'd comment more extensively but I'm crazy-on-deadline.