The Reinforcements that Community Brings: You da Enemy, doncha know?

Most of us seek out like-minded individuals who will reinforce our worldview. As I remind my students, we hold no beliefs we think are incorrect. After all, if we thought we were wrong, we wouldn't believe it. There's a reason that it can be hard for us to agree to disagree or live and let live, too. If I am certain I am right, and you disagree with me, then you must be wrong. 

You can see the problems here, right? I'm not willingly going to go to a place where everyone believes the opposite of me. Neither are you. We wouldn't feel comfortable and we'd feel judged. Now, if we get a buzz out of entering the fray, swaggering into the others' territory to clash, if we cast ourselves as warriors, we'll waltz in day after day, but it isn't like going in as a wolf in sheep's clothing;  nope, it's about going into the situation in full-wolf mode, no trying to fit in or create community.

So we've got a fundamental problem here; if the differences in belief systems are too great, there's no way to ignore those differences, and building community becomes difficult if not impossible because there is no sense that we're part of the same in-group. Indeed, the differences are great enough that we cast the other automatically as the out-group, and often, as the enemy. All the better to create a dynamic that provides ready drama and instant hero-status for the in-group members.

This is abundantly clear in the vaccine wars within the autism community. Friday Ken Reibel and Jamie Bernstein were kicked out of AutismOne (lots of coverage on this; links available at Liz's). All that was necessary for the expulsion was Ken being recognized; he's the enemy, and no enemy is allowed inside the sacred walls. And this event allows both sides to reinforce the in-group cohesion and solidarity; both sides push against each other to define their own boundaries.

I'd like to say that the science-based side is the more reasonable side, and I believe it is (it's my in-group and self-justifying along with confirmation biases means I'm going to see it that way), but I don't think we should be at all surprised they expelled Ken. They did it in 2008, too, after all. I think this played out exactly as everyone expected it would and provided the opportunity for each side to reinforce its own narrative and draw its own members closer. It's what people do.

The real question here is how do we combat effectively the growth of paranoia that the Canary Party (Age of Autism and like-minded individuals' latest venture) promises?

How do we effectively rebut people like Alison MacNeil, whose educational background ought to have been sufficient for her not to fall for the fallacious appeals to popularity and belief so that she can matter-of-factly write, "I went to the Green the Vaccines Rally.  In the cab back to the airport after the Rally I called my husband.  I said 'Honey this really happened. I just stood with 8,000 parents with the same story. We’re not crazy.'” 

I don't think we can; she's found a more compelling, more dramatic narrative than the one that evidence-based individuals can offer her. She perceives any criticism as that of the enemy and is consequently inoculated against it. She has no reason to reevaluate her premises. She's got a ready-made community of folks who are the underdogs, fighting the man, ready to accept her and build her up. All we've got are scientific studies and often-pitying head-shakes for her as she tells her tale. Not hardly compelling enough. We shouldn't be surprised when she chooses people who will validate her beliefs.

Of course, those of us who've been in the vaccine-injury trenches already knew we weren't going to reach those who are already in the bosom of that enclave. To them, regardless of how genuine our offers of support are, or how similar our experiences as parents may be, we are the enemy. So we're not going to reach them and trying is a waste of our time.

What most of us are trying to do, then, are the twin goals of holding up ridiculous beliefs to the ridicule they deserve (for a completely different subject, Harold Camping anyone?) while providing accurate scientifically-backed evidence, even when it means acknowledging what we don't know.

After all, it's important to point out that there's more than a bit of "uh-uh, no she didn't" factor to MacNeil when she writes that "The other side has reverted to discrediting the speaker," only to follow up in the next paragraph with this attempted discrediting: "And it’s not like I embezzled millions of dollars from the CDC or was a heroin addict." That's not really support for her claims, is it? Besides, although MacNeil continued that science-based people were trying to claim Wakefield is a "nut" and Jenny McCarthy is a "slut," I don't know of any evidence-based individuals who have alleged that Wakefield is a nut. Dishonest. Unethical. Fraudulent. Greedy. But not a nut. And we really shouldn't care if McCarthy is a slut (not a phrase I've seen used against her unsubstantiated claims, by the way). If her claims are backed by evidence, whether she gets around or not is irrelevant. I think the argument has been that she's a Playboy bunny who doesn't know what she's talking about (and since she thinks antifreeze is in vaccines, it's fair to say she doesn't), but that's not the same as claiming she's a slut and should be ignored. 

But again, all this goes to make a more compelling narrative. If you believe that the icons in your group are being attacked by the enemy, it's much more interesting to focus on one's strawman versions of those justified rebuttals of Wakefield and McCarthy while pointing out that on the enemy side, one researcher has been indicted for the theft of 2 million dollars and that one science-based writer is an admitted recovered drug addict. The first is relevant and it's fair to ask what role he played in the studies themselves; the second is an actual attempt at an unjustified discrediting.

How do you reach parents to show support and get there before those with more compelling, dramatic explanations convince parents that there are answers for why their kids have autism and that they can be healed if you just try the right mining chelator or other quack treatment? How do we create a vibrant, supportive community that lets parents feel comfortable in the absence of certainty while having the courage to withstand the temptation of promises of instant cures? How do we make our narrative more compelling than the vaccine-injury's? 

I'm not sure that we can, really. If we're not willing to make stuff up, if we're not willing to engage in hyperbole and flights of paranoia, if we're insistent on being as scrupulously honest about the limitations of what we do know, what we can know, and most importantly, what we can do about the limits of our knowledge, then we are at a disadvantage. 

Others have compared the anti-vaccine or vaccine-injury movement to religion. And it is; their beliefs are held with the fervor and conviction of true believers so invested in the ideology that they will sell their worldly possessions and hand out pamphlets in New York City, looking mystified and forlorn when the appointed time for rapture passes.


Sheldon fuels Lily's love of science...

An aside:
"I cry because others are stupid and it makes me sad."--Sheldon (makes sense to me)

We love The Big Bang Theory here and regularly indulge in TBBT marathons, which we've been doing this weekend (season three this time). 

Lily's passionate about Sheldon and about equations. Many of her drawings are punctuated with E = mc².  Last night, she lit upon the equations in the clip above and is demanding to learn what they mean. She faithfully wrote some of them down on her white board; she still wants white boards as big as Sheldon's and she's still aggravated that in one episode he threw one out the window instead of erasing it. "That was very autistic of him," she said to that. I pointed out that one could say the same of her intense irritation and need to bring it up every time she writes on her own white board , especially given it occurred in an episode she watched months ago. 

Another aside (of a different sort from the first one above), autism isn't something we're steeped in here, but upon occasion the need to understand something about each other and their quirks or about themselves brings up a discussion of autism and how it's defined. It's never an excuse for bad behavior, but it comes in handy for explanation and understanding and increasing empathy (take that, Baron-Cohen!).

So now we have F=ma, ma=mg, and her ever favorite equation on her board. And in comes Frankie, who chose to use her board as if it was his woobie.

In the process of lying on it, he partially erased it. Lily walked into the living room this morning to see her beloved white board covered with the cat and had a bit of a hissy over it, which led to Frank retreating to his basket in a huff and Lil repairing the damage to her board while we talked about the equations and what they mean. She has some serious frustration with c, by the way. It makes no sense to her that c stands for speed of light; sol makes better sense, she says. Hard to argue that.

I have a feeling we'll be having lots more of these discussions this summer and in the coming years, if her love for science continues (and I hope that it does). We're doing geek camp together this summer and will be indulging Lily's passion for equations and trying to tie meaning to them. We're also going to study astronomy, too, as well as biology. And Lil and I are working through Benjamin and Shermer's Secrets of Mental Math.The kids are looking forward to geek camp, although they insist we must have the weekends off. After all, even Sheldon and the gang stop to play games. :)


Summer Heat

The last two days were HOT. 109 degrees yesterday, 107 the day before. It was still 98 degrees at nearly 10 last night! Some  places in town registered higher heats than the ones I've given. These are record heats and it's dry here, too. In order to keep our gardens looking as green and vibrant, we do a lot of watering. I'm on my way out to the garden now to get busy, which is a late start. Here, you better be out as the sun is rising if you're going to get the job done.

On the plus, the pool feels great to the kids who went swimming for the first time this year (could have gone sooner, but schedules and all...Rosie has it in her mind that you don't swim until summer and summer isn't until school is over. Let us hope she does not learn that summer officially begins June 21).


In-Flight Coolness

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Stories of All Kinds, Things We May Not Know, and the Significance of the Insignificant

It's one of those mornings where the dreams linger, their content coloring my mood, the headache not helping, either, and some of the stories of the week making me wonder about truth and about choices and about significance.

Every so often a story wanders our community, and we leap upon it in outrage at the injustice or fear at the what-if-it-had-been-me. Support is rallied, blogs written, facebook pages created. And then, as time passes, we find out more details, or we have questions, and we're forced with choices on what to do with the information. No good way to go, in terms of the personal consequences. People don't like their parades rained on, and they really don't appreciate it when they find out they've been duped or been offered an incomplete version. Maybe the support would have still remained had full disclosure been offered but once that moment has past and one's put forward that incomplete version, the self-justifying begins.

It's disappointing to discover when someone does that, lets people get worked up over an issue when there are key details left out. And nope, I'm not saying what the latest episode of it is as it's just a continuation of an old one, and if you know the details, you already know what I'm talking about. And if you don't you can probably think of a situation that fits this, and you'll nod in agreement, anyway. And if it's not one of those, you'll probably think I'm writing about you cuz you don't like me anyway.


Another thing that's troubling and happens more frequently than I'd like is when people who ought to know better, who are trained to be evidence-based, either buy into the woo or realize they can market themselves to those who do. It's a Ferengi trait, the desire for profit and more markets.


And now for the significance of the insignificant. We're all reminded of this upon occasion, chaos theory at work. We turned left instead of right, we went here instead of there. Two roads diverged sort of thing. If we really thought about it, recognized that lives are irrevocably altered on the most seemingly insignificant of decisions, would we not all be paralyzed with the fear of what the potential possibilities could be?

I think that most people must not see in their minds this immediate, often overwhelming diverging of potential outcomes when they're making a decision. I don't mean I do this on absolutely everything I think of, but a certain level of visual consequence mapping, of decision trees, does occur when I need to make an intentional decision, a projection cast forth that although I know it's only a mental projection, it's one I see, and I think, at times like this, that perhaps I understand some of what Temple Grandin says when she talks about thinking in pictures (it's just that I think she's probably wrong if she thinks there's no language overlaid on those pictures to give them meaning, even if it's unintentional language). And I wonder when my kids are paralyzed when offered choices if they have visual mappings of the potential consequences. And I hope both that they do and that they don't: please let them be spared the Stephen King visual consequence mapping system I seem to be hardwired with.


Frak Yeah! Oh and flowers!

Blogger's working on chrome! hahahaha, Kathleen scared blogger into working on chrome!

A New Theory on Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen

Simon Baron-Cohen is best known for his research into autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and his theories on the origins of ASDs, from a failure of theory of mind, to fetal testosterone levels, to the latest formulation of a low empathizing/high systemizing theory. In his newest work, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and The Origins of Cruelty, Baron-Cohen moves beyond his decades long work in autism to look at empathy in general and what a deficit of empathy in people can lead to. The result is a slim volume aspiring to greater things.
This is, unfortunately, a book that requires mental gymnastics on the part of the reader for several reasons, the first of which is reconciling the title of the text to what the book is actually about. A careful reading of the book leads me to the conclusion that the American title is extremely unfortunate given the diversions he takes in the text. It is only when reading it under its British title Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty that Baron-Cohen’s thesis hangs together more cohesively. The British title is a much more accurate title and results in less cognitive dissonance while reading the text.
In an interview in New Scientist with Liz Else, Baron-Cohen responds to the American publisher’s choice of a title that he thinks “once they open the cover of the book, they will see that I’m arguing it’s time to drop that word [evil]. There might be some value in challenging them.” The American publishers may have decided to name the book The Science of Evil, but the thrust of his book really isn’t about the science of evil at all. It’s actually a loose connecting of several different ideas.
The second set of mental gymnastics occurs for the reader in trying to reconcile the typical perception regarding empathy and how Baron-Cohen is operationalizes it. Baron-Cohen’s main point is that he believes evil is better explained as the absence of empathy (not the popular definition, but his specific definition of empathy). Baron-Cohen’s definition of empathy is fairly complex and one that is not widely accepted in the masses; most people think of empathy as being able to understand another person’s emotional state. Before defining empathy, Baron-Cohen focuses on explaining what empathy erosion looks like.
Childhood stories of Nazi cruelties started Baron-Cohen on a lifetime quest of trying to understand how people could treat others like objects; explanations of evil were inadequate and circular. Instead, he posits that empathy erosion is a better explanation for why people behave cruelly, noting that society can reinforce empathy erosion.
His definition of empathy is more robust than most people’s and involves more parts: he delineates a cognitive aspect (“recognition”), an emotional aspect , and then, perhaps most importantly, an action component “response”). It’s not enough to recognize another person’s emotional state, one must care, and then one must respond overtly in order to qualify as empathy. This constant need for the reader to juggle his or her own definition of empathy and Baron-Cohen’s complex definition makes the ideas and information in the book harder to digest. It will become all too easy for people to dismiss Baron-Cohen’s work because of this difference in how empathy is used.
In order to explain how evil is “empathy erosion,” Baron-Cohen details disorders he hypothesizes involve zero-empathy, making the case that psychopathy, narcissism, and borderline personality disorders are not so much personality disorders as they are disorders of zero empathy.
And if this is where Baron-Cohen had stopped, it would have made sense within the context of the book’s American title and its opening chapter. But he didn’t; he then spent a substantial portion of the text to go over what he has theorized are zero-empathy positive disorders:  Asperger Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder.
It is here that Baron-Cohen will lose some American readers; what place do individuals on the spectrum have in a book on the science of evil? In addition, Baron-Cohen doesn’t offer convincing evidence that all individuals with autism have zero empathy. Readers familiar with how it’s defined in the DSM will recognize that it is not a disorder diagnosed on a lack of empathy.
Also, some research shows evidence that autistics are not impaired in emotional or affective empathy, and may in fact get overloaded because of it (Krahn  & Fenton, 2009; Smith, 2009). Plus, autism is a social/communication disorder; it’s reasonable to assume that this might impair the ability to always react empathically in socially constructed acceptable ways. Even Baron-Cohen notes that we all have periods where are empathy levels are turned down or off.
To be fair, Baron-Cohen doesn’t contend that ASDs are just zero empathy disorders. In tandem with Baron-Cohen’s empathy quotient is his systemizing quotient, which he contends autistics are high in, thus compensating for low empathy and making the ASDs a zero-positive condition rather than a zero-negative. Here he has a compelling argument that explains the pattern recognition, the need for order, and the difficulty with change that are part of autism. The problem, again, becomes that it fits poorly with a book on the science of evil. The American name of the book continues, time after time, to get in the way of the ideas that Baron-Cohen is trying to convey.
What should not be overlooked is that Baron-Cohen has as positive an outlook towards individuals on the spectrum as he does a negative one for those with a zero-empathy negative disorder. His enormous respect for autistic individuals’ ability to recognize patterns that others miss does not go unnoticed, nor does his belief that those with ASDs have a lot to offer a society that can successfully accommodate them.
The book contains a table for “Distinct Profiles of Empathy Disorders,” in which Baron-Cohen contends that classic autism has morality negative while Asperger Syndrome has morality positive but with insufficient accompanying evidence or explanation for the categorization of one ASD as moral and another as not moral. The table doesn’t appear to be fully fleshed out; systemizing is only noted on the ASDs; morality negative is checked for only psychopaths and classic autism. It appears to be a table of conjectures rather than of certainties, but that may be because Baron-Cohen’s explanations for the various categorizations are scattered throughout the text.
This interweaving of hypothesizing without already existing evidence next to theories that have panned out can get a bit confusing, but those familiar with Baron-Cohen’s other works will recognize this tendency and perhaps find it comforting. Baron-Cohen is interested in ideas, big ideas, and in constantly working to flesh out those ideas with scientific research. Over the last several decades, Baron-Cohen has constantly refined his theories, moving for the most part where the science takes him. Many of Baron-Cohen’s ideas are just that: ideas, explanations; they aren’t meant for practical implementation, for immediate change.
Most parents and educators won’t see an immediate advantage in treatment strategies from some of his loftier ideas, although they may find his theories helpful in understanding why an autistic child is fascinated with patterns, with details, and why they fixate on narrow interests. It would be remiss of me, though, to not to point out where his ideas have had real world treatment applications: theory of mind tasks can be taught, as can recognizing facial expressions representing different emotions. HisMindreading CD was very helpful to my three kids on the spectrum and one of the best purchases I ever made regarding helping them navigate social situations. I have dog-eared his books over the years, and print-outs of his voluminous journal articles are piled on the bookcase next to his books. His website is bookmarked and the fact that the journal articles are provided for free there much appreciated. His AQ (autism spectrum quotient), EQ (empathizing quotient), and SQ (systemizing quotient) tests are recommended activities for my psychology students and for friends. The importance of his work in relation to autism spectrum disorders is significant, and in the context of the British title, his time spent on what he posits are zero-empathy positive disorders makes perfect sense.
After a brief foray into the ASDs and the zero-empathy positive theory, Baron-Cohen moves to the science. Here, he combines a chatty, informal style of writing with a detailed look at the science regarding what he calls the brain’s empathy circuits. This is perhaps the least controversial aspect of the book and where he is on the most solid ground. Baron-Cohen details the neuroscience regarding the empathy circuits and the evidence for these various subsets of zero empathy having impairments or damage in the areas of the brain involved in empathy.
In a book that covers empathy erosion, looks at tests for measuring empathy, it seems odd to see Baron-Cohen argue towards the end of his book that psychology has ignored empathy over its history: “Psychology as a science virtually ignored it for a century” (183). There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that this is not true; database searches relating to psychology produce over 23,000 journal articles on empathy. Daniel Goleman has spent two decades promoting social and emotional intelligences, which both involve empathy. It seems fair to say that empathy has been looked at in great detail over the decades, although perhaps not in the way that Baron-Cohen thinks most applicable or helpful.
Baron-Cohen spends some time towards the end of the book examining the appropriate way to handle people with zero empathy disorders who commit crimes. Should they be held criminally responsible for their actions and imprisoned? If their crimes are a result of a neurological deficit, then the assumption here is that they couldn’t refrain from those acts and didn’t know better. There is little doubt that people with the zero empathy negative disorders are competent to understand when their actions violate a law (the reality appears to be that they don’t care and don’t see why those laws should apply to them).
But what does one do with the brilliant Aspie who hacks into classified governmental systems? Is jail appropriate? This is a complex topic with so many potential pitfalls and the chance for warring ideologies to get in the way of scientific knowledge. Perhaps a reminder that jail is usually about society and the victims and not about appropriate placement or consideration of the offender is in order. The issue is raised, at least, in the book, and Baron-Cohen puts forth the hope that compassion and appropriate placements for individuals will occur.
Baron-Cohen then concludes his book by examining how intentionally evoking empathy towards those one is ideologically in opposition to can resolve what seem like insurmountable problems. Having begun his book with remembrances of the stories he was told as a child about the Nazis, Baron-Cohen looks at the Jewish-Palestinian struggle and two fathers, one from each side, who work together to bring attention to the need to see the other side’s perspective: empathy bridgemaking.
Baron-Cohen’s work is ultimately an optimistic work (and potentially somewhat Pollyannish): the idea that empathy erosions and deficits can be turned around, that people can be taught to be empathic. He points out the need to seek treatments that will teach empathy to those who lack it, which he believes should reduce cruel behavior in the world. Baron-Cohen’s overarching topic is a serious one: why people are cruel to others, but his ultimate perspective is a hopeful one: that empathy can be learned, that the empathy muscle, so to speak, can be exercised. Baron-Cohen puts forth big ideas in a too-small space. There is the sense that these ideas were swirling around, nebulous, almost there, almost in grasp and that the writing of the work was an attempt to force these big ideas to coagulate into a recognizable whole to align the idea with the known world: it is nothing less than Baron-Cohen’s own personal theory of everything. It will be interesting to see where his big ideas are, where the science takes him, five years from now. What results and what ideas, built upon the framework of this book, will coalesce in his next work?
Krahn, T., & Fenton, A. (2009). Autism, empathy and questions of moral agency. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 39(2), 145-166. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5914.2009.00402.x
Smith, A. (2009). The empathy imbalance hypothesis of autism: A theoretical approach to cognitive and emotional empathy in autistic development. The Psychological Record, 59(3), 489-510. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.


Parden This Interruption: Unicorns, Cats, and Monkey Gnomes

Blogger continues to glitch on google chrome but work sluggishly on IE; I've moved my content over to Countering at wordpress. Please update your bookmark or your google reader subscription if you follow the site that way. If you get to the blog from my tweets, facebook links, or the directory, you don't have to worry about it. :-)

 If you're using a different platform and it's not glitching for you, would you mind leaving a comment? It'd be nice to know the scope of the problem. I'm also exploring paying for hosting. If that works out, I'll let you know.

In the meantime, I bring you the artistic renderings of my girls (I have no idea which girl drew which; they are eerily twinlike in their drawing style):


Indulge Me This One Last Look

The words of comfort and support here, on facebook, and in email have meant a lot to me. It seems, on one level, silly, an indulgence, to grieve over the loss of an animal. And yet, we live within the cognitive dissonance of eating some animals and loving others, and we do it every day.

My mom used to feed her parrots chicken and turkey. We thought that was pretty funny and pretty cannibalistic, too.

Each day, we do things and believe things that are contradictory. And most of the time we don't even give these things a second thought.

Joseph Campbell wrote that life was predicated on eating life, that mythology arises out of this need to make sense of such a horror. It is what it is, a mess of a thing.

Many of us are easy going, half-assed kinds of folks. Good enough is good enough and we waste no time or thought in a lack of perfection or order. We don't mind winging it. Order doesn't drive us, and so we exist within the contradictions as if they weren't even there. Plot holes? No biggie. Inconsistencies in story lines? Who cares?

But a large portion of us are not like that; some of us crave patterns and order and consistency. We need it like the air we breathe and we are bereft when there is no pattern.

I can wing it, within the order, within the patterns. I have my limitations, and change, especially sudden change throws me, leaves me reeling, trying to grasp the whole there/not there thing.

Today my little corner of the world changed forever and his name was Ibit, short for Little Bit. We brought him home, the only intentional cat, from the vet back in May of 2001, a few months before Lily was born. It took us a couple names to get it right. Ibit was exactly right. He grew to be fat and he was a perfect companion for Bobby, in a way that a dog just wasn't. He was the boy's shadow for a decade.

Two years ago, Ibit was diagnosed with diabetes, this cat of my boy's, and I began injecting Ib with insulin. He became thin and with a constantly wet chin from never-ending thirst. I did my best to help Ibit, to keep it under control and I began regular talks with Bobby about the day we'd have to let Ibit go. Those discussions ramped up in December last year, but we managed to push it further away until a couple weeks ago when I warned Bobby we were going to have to make this decision soon. And we did. We made that decision yesterday and we carried it out today.

And the boy and I have wept off and on all day. Rick took Ibit to the vet and brought his body home to us, and Bobby and I buried Ib after Rick widened the hole enough to hold the box Ib was in. And the boy hugged me tight after we had finished, and then, in true Bobby fashion, said he was sorry for the boogers that were all over my shirt.

We came back in to a house that seems emptier without Ibit, without Bobby's shadow.

The girls came home today and asked if Ib was gone now, and I said yes and that was that. They moved on about their afternoon. And that's okay. It's okay however they process this loss. It's okay if it registers later. It's okay if it somehow passes on with no more rain clouds; they cried yesterday; they held him and loved on him yesterday. They said goodbye yesterday.

We are all different in how we process loss. And that's okay. It's been a hard start to the summer, to lose two beloved animals, for my niece to lose her maternal grandfather last week, too, a loss that we feel only tangentially, but it registers nonetheless. And we can hope that the rest of the summer will be easier, but the reality is that loss is our shadow. It follows us wherever we go. We just have to remember to enjoy our times in the sun.

In years past:

Today, letting go.

Goodbye, Ibit.