inFact: Logical Fallacies Part 1

Yay! It took a while, but Brian Dunning got it up today. Help fund part 2 at the inFact website.


Of Cats and Kids and Dry, Hot Gardens

It's hot here. Have I mentioned that lately? H-O-T. It's remaining over a 100 degrees at nine in the evening. What the hell is with that? I like heat, sure, mostly, but come on!

And it's dry and listen to me when I complain that lush gardens can not be reasonably had in this heat and this lack of rain. So, we're cutting the garden back in the front and reducing in the back. We're on water restrictions and twice a week watering isn't sufficient. And it's too hot to safely work out there for very long, so what we mostly have is quickly dying kindling. We're working on it, though.

Drats. Some roses are beginning to bloom again, though.
Always look for the good, right?

That takes care of hot, dry gardens. On to kids. 

Bobby finished his second week at Meals on Wheels. He seems happy and to be enjoying himself. He's washing and drying dishes, which is independent (and solitary) work, which will give him time to acclimate, get comfortable with the staff, and adjust to the demands of a busy kitchen. If this were a dance card, it would be full. Two days with Meals and Wheels, one at the animal shelter, and one at the adaptive rec center. He's really liking this life he's building.

Lily and Rose get more mom-time, and geek camp continues, focusing more on Lily's interest in astronomy and math. Now that she's discovered the Mental Math, she likes math and is proud of herself when she performs triple digit multiplication in her head. She hesitates when doing it in front of her dad and grandparents but doesn't completely lock up, so we're seeing improvement in functioning. Yes, she's faster when it's just her and me, but she's going out into the world. Doesn't count if she can't do it out there, too.

Lil was too busy to be caught on camera...

Kids down. Yup, not taking this in the order of the title, am I? The kitten has made himself at home, gotten to know the other cats, and taken over the place. We adore him. We're still not sure what to call him, so he gets called a lot of things. Bobby still insists on Nosferatu. Little Dude works well as far as I'm concerned. He has a habit of latching onto your leg or foot and biting what he can get. We'll see if that remains charming. 

 Shoe eating: also likely to not remain charming.
 Lucy accepts him, which is HUGE.
And she let him have her normal spot.

Oh, and I'm now the Abilene family examiner.


Skepticism of Stories to Good to be True

Over at Science 2.0, I was asked how facilitated communication supporters explain the tests that show FC doesn't work. On something so easily shown to be false, why does this persist?

Why are major organizations like the Autism Society (and apparently Autism Now) supporters of the thoroughly debunked facilitated communication?

Why can't more people see through feel-good stories where previously locked-away children suddenly start doing college-level work when they get facilitated, or just as bad, rapid prompting?

Part of it's political correctness. You stand up and call hoo-ey on a disabled person managing to communicate elaborate messages while looking in another direction and having his arm forcibly maneuvered to type the message. Yeah, that goes over well. Some of us intentionally turn a blind eye because we don't want to rock the boat.

Part of it is we desperately want to believe that no matter how disabled, how impaired, that the "whole" person is trapped inside and with the right method, he will be unlocked.

And part of it is the reality that if we don't question something, we believe it to be true. We find it hard to imagine that a parent would knowingly co-opt his or her child's communication, that a fraud could be be purposely committed. So feel-good stories must be true. Why would anyone lie? Wouldn't they know they were typing the words rather than the child?

People do all sorts of things, engage in self-justifying. They even convince themselves they have a telepathic link with the child, that the child is communicating mentally with them, and they are the conduit. In fact, the most ardent supporters of FC do believe just that: believe it's paranormal.

We cheer on the feel-good stories. We don't look closely. And by doing so we promote the unfortunate co-option of the disabled. They are trotted out on stage with their facilitator and made to perform (or their responses simply keyed in before and played, no effort to communicate made). And no one vocalizes a skepticism that the communication might not be from the person. No, as I wrote above, how can you? Rocking the boat and sounding the bah-humbug doesn't win you friends.

We owe our children honesty. We owe them the right to be who they are, functionally where they are rather than pretending they are something they are not. When we use a dubious method like rapid prompting or a debunked method like facilitated communication, we are quietly, unobtrusively communicating to our children that who they are isn't good enough for us. FC isn't about the disabled individual. It's about the desperate parent who went down that route, who couldn't live with the reality that the child was as disabled as he or she is.

The Wendrows couldn't accept that their daughter was significantly intellectually disabled and had language at a one-year-old's level and a trusted psychologist told them about FC. And they bit. And all of a sudden their profoundly disabled daughter was doing grade level work. And they didn't question that. They accepted it. The school, even though its faculty and leadership knew FC didn't work, didn't challenge this jump in performance, didn't test it, didn't question it because the Wendrows were difficult and threatened to sue if they didn't get FC.

Yes, we may be hardwired to prefer fairy tales to be true, to find patterns where none exist, to believe in connections where none are, but when we do, when we do this where it involves our children, we do our children a tremendous disservice.

When we cheer on an obviously facilitated individual we harm that person, too. We say it's okay that their autonomy is disrupted and words put into their mouths. We tell them that who they are isn't acceptable. Play along...go along.

And when someone raises the issue, believers might argue that the individual could be non-compliant and resist being facilitated, so when they don't, it must be communication, it must be legitimate. When a young woman types next to her father, whose hand moves up and down and left and right, there's no reason to think she's not taking cues from him on what to type. And I've seen videos of non-compliant individuals trying to get away while the mom holds on tight to the arm and types; the kid is pulling away, looking in the opposite direction, and yet the mom insists the communication is genuine. I've read teachers argue that verbal kids who they still facilitate actually communicate through the typing, that their speech should be disregarded.

Facilitated communication, in its new softer guise, will continue to find inroads as long as the members of the autism community allow it a foothold. And being skeptical of other things like vaccines and autism doesn't mean you're inoculated against FC. Oh no. It really, really doesn't.

We have to be willing to honor people for who they are, not what they can say and not what they can do. We should work hard to help our children acquire new skills, but we should want to make absolutely certain they are actually acquiring them.

This happens to all of us. Have you ever seen your child test and not perform well? "But, I know he knows his colors; he does them at home all the time!" If a child can't perform the skill when you aren't there and you aren't helping, the child hasn't mastered the skill. It sucks; it hurts, but it really doesn't matter what your child can do at home when no one is watching and you're there to guide him if it doesn't generalize outside the home and away from you (and I'm saying that from personal experience times three--it's a really hard lesson to learn).

We need to learn to back up, to question, and to let our children learn and demonstrate mastery of skills independently. If they have to be helped, if they have to be held onto in order to do it, it isn't their mastery.

We need to be skeptical. We need to be willing to stand up when we see something as horribly wrong as facilitated communication. If we really champion disability rights, then we must do all that we can to safeguard the disabled from being taken advantage of and having their autonomy removed. Facilitated communication robs the individual of the chance to communicate independently. In today's technologically advanced society, there are an abundance of augmentative and alternative communication devices that will allow the nonverbal the opportunity to communicate. There is absolutely no excuse for FC to exist or to be used. If you're holding the device for your kid and are sure he's communicating independently, put the device down on a table or desk and let him use it without you holding it. There's no reason it's in your hands. If the child can't perform the same tasks he was performing when you were holding it, you know that you were subconsciously directing that communication.

Skepticism of stories too good to be true, especially where there's no evidence that the skill is being independently performed, ought to be something we all aim for. It doesn't mean being cynical; it means taking a stance that allows one to be on the look out for people being taken advantage of.


Prayer or Empathy: Which is More Likely?

The role of spirituality and religion in individuals' lives has been studied since the beginning of modern psychology. It's not been a consistent examination, nor always a useful one, but the desire to understand both why people believe in gods and how these religious beliefs can be adaptive and helpful in their lives is a relevant one, since over 70% of Americans profess religious beliefs.

The psychological study of religious beliefs and practices frequently suffers from vagueness (and a failure to operationalize concepts and variables being measured), poor research measures (surveys that have poor validity and reliability), and ill-defined hypotheses. In addition, there may also be a tendency to ask questions of religious practices that fail to consider underlying constructs that might be causing the perceived change, rather than the practice itself creating the change.

A recent study getting news and blog headlines and a brief article in the current issue of Monitor on Psychology looks at the role of prayer in mitigating anger responses. According to the Monitor article, "Saying a prayer when you feel angry enough to lash out at someone can reduce your feelings of anger as if you hadn’t been provoked at all." This is a rather simplistic sound bite for the series of three experiments that Bremner and his colleagues carried out.

Bremner, Koole, and Bushman (2011) conducted a series of experiments in which participants were provoked to anger and then ultimately asked to pray or think about another individual, either a third party not germane to the provocation or the provocateur and essentially, the participants were then assessed as to whether their anger had decreased or not.  Bremner et al. found that prayer (although prayer was not operationalized) worked better than thinking in decreasing anger.

The problem with this idea that prayer works to reduce anger is that an underlying construct that might better account for the reduction in anger is not considered in Bremner et al. Perhaps it is not prayer that lowers the anger but the deliberate evocation of empathy that reduces anger.

In a recent book, Simon Baron-Cohen addresses the tripartite structure of empathy: the cognitive aspect, the affective or emotional aspect, and the active aspect. Given that Bremner et al.'s participants were not particularly guided on how to think or pray, the central question of whether guided instructions that activate either the cognitive or the affective aspect of empathy would be effective in reducing the anger state is not addressed.

Because each individual will have his or her own interpretation of what prayer is and no instruction appears to have been given on how or what to pray, questions remain about how one might effectively use prayer (or the intentional evocation of empathy, which not-retributive prayer might be said to resemble) in times of provocation in order to calm oneself.

Bremner et al.'s study is interesting, but absolutely not definitive; it certainly shouldn't be touted as the proof that prayer wipes the anger away.

If the study of religion and spirituality from a psychological perspective is going to be of use in understanding the role of religion in individuals' lives, and perhaps more importantly, in promoting adaptive coping in individuals, then the underlying constructs that may be responsible for the effects should be examined in conjunction with the religious practices being examined in order to ensure we know which is responsible for the effect being measured.


Bremner RH, Koole SL, & Bushman BJ (2011). "Pray for those who mistreat you": effects of prayer on anger and aggression. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 37 (6), 830-7 PMID: 21421766


Disappointment Etched: Decipher That

In the lines on the screen.
Disappointment etched.
Rendered mute
And solitary.

In words written carelessly
Disappointment etched.
Patterns swirl
Take shape.

In the hope of a different tomorrow
Disappointment etched.
Cast aside
Rent asunder.

In false idols carefully constructed
Disappointment etched.
Moving on
Letting go.

Cryptic...late night poetry writing. Decipher that, if you will.

The Garden in its (not) Glory

 Please, rain. Soon. And a lot.
 The birds and other critters stripped the grapes bare.
 I mean BARE.
Not much left blooming but persistent mallow.

Because Rick was right; this is lovely.


Holding Educators Accountable For Evidence-Based Practices: FC Isn't One

By James Todd (in italics) and Kim Wombles

In January of this year, Dr. James Todd and I cowrote a piece on facilitated communication and the Wendrow case, "Facilitated Communication: A Price Too High To Pay." The tragic case of the Wendrow family, whose daughter received facilitated communication in the school system at the family's behest and who through facilitation accused her father of raping her, should be a cautionary tale for other families who are desperate for their non-verbal autistic children to communicate. Her parents were placed in jail, the family completely disrupted, with the children removed from their home, the 13-year-old son later interrogated "for two hours without a parent, guardian or lawyer present."  Maybe "interrogated" is not the right word.  The police falsely told the child they had video of him participating in the rape of his own sister. If that were not enough, the mother, a research attorney for the same court that prosecuted her, and the father, a painting contractor, lost their careers. The Wendrows paid an incredibly high price for the false hope of facilitated communication.

Brasier and Wisely, who have written a six-part series for the Detroit Free Presswrite, "The ordeal didn't end when it was clear that the girl wasn't communicating, after all. It didn't end when a sexual assault exam found no proof of abuse. And it didn't end when a prosecution witness insisted the abuse never happened." It continues today: both parents remain unemployed; Julian (the father) stating that "he still draws stares and whispers in crowds." Their now 18-year-old daughter, with the false hope of FC removed, has "the receptive language skills of a child 1 year and 11 months of age" just as I testified in court.  It is probably no consolation to the Wendrows that they are slightly better off than John Pinnington in England. Accused of abuse through FC in 2001 but never charged or convicted, Pinnington is not only unemployable, he remains on a sex offender registry due to a UK High Court ruling to accept as evidence unsubstantiated allegations made through a discredited technique.  In other words, like the Michigan court, the UK High Court ignored scientific evidence in order to accept facilitated communication as valid. Pinnington's attorney described his situation as Orwellian.  A designation equally applicable to the Wendrows' experiences--unless one is more fond of Kafka.  Then "Kafkaesque" might do as well.  

Parents of special-needs children are faced with daunting challenges. Not only must they provide constant care and attention for their children, they must navigate medical systems designed to give as little support and information as possible and educational systems that still, despite IDEA, are often bureaucratic nightmares in order to get their children the services needed to give them the best chance at an independent life. On top of all that, they are hit from all sides by a coalition of well-meaning parent-enthusiasts, clever con artists, and credulous toadies offering claims of amazing success for the most unlikely, unsubstantiated, and even dangerous "treatments."  Desperation is a powerful sauce for the hungry. But simply not being prepared to effectively see through the blizzard of claims adds to the challenges.  What does "methylation" mean anyway? Why would a prestigious university like Syracuse tolerate, much less champion, an "Institute" devoted to a pseudoscientific intervention that simply does not work as its proponents claim? He sounds so genuine, this Wakefield fellow! Jenny's a mother, a “mommy warrior.” She would never let anyone harm a child!  It isn't any wonder that parents turn to these smiling and often impressively credentialed charlatans and their offers of hope. Exactly as the Wendrows did, with their severely affected daughter who simply did not seem to respond to anything else:  "Beginning in middle school, they pushed FC, threatening to sue the school district if it didn't hire a full-time aide to facilitate their daughter. They requested that she be placed in mainstream classes. On her own, the girl couldn't match the word 'cat' to a picture of a cat, draw a circle or count to five."
"The Wendrows were introduced to FC in 2004 by Dr. Sandra McClennen, a retired education professor from Eastern Michigan University who had been working with their daughter for three years. She trained the girl to use FC, a highly controversial method through which autistic people are said to communicate using a keyboard, aided by another person."  
Actually, McClennen did not train the Wendrow's daughter as so much as to sit and let FC be done. A report McClennen submitted to the school claimed that the girl wrote in sentences and did mathematics the very first time McClennen did FC with her. No training was necessary. The girl was a "natural." It was another miracle from a miracle worker whose reputation in Michigan was already well established, and whose proficiency in getting from FC exactly what the family is looking for seems almost as miraculous the the FC itself.  Under the heading "Tears of Joy,"The Northern Michigan Express newspaper tells us how McClennen elicited "I love mom" from another family's 23-year-old daughter the very first time facilitation was used, and how the woman's FC-based literacy convinced a court to appoint her as her own guardian.  With Sandra McClennen Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist (MI #6301001694), University Professor as their latter day Anne Sullivan, why should the Wendrows not believe that FC -- despite being widely debunked by educators and researchers -- would unlock hidden literacy in their mute daughter?  

As if being guided to the false hope that their daughter wasn't as severely disabled as she was, the person who acted as facilitator should never have been the girl's aide: "Scarsella, who holds a high school diploma, completed one hour of facilitator training the summer before. She said in a deposition that she had 'no idea' whether what the girl was typing was true and had no interest in trying to verify it. And she said she didn't know anything about autism." One of the many, many ironies of the case was that I (James Todd), the FC critic and witness for the defense, had more formal training in FC than the girl's facilitators.  But central to the unfolding events was the testimony by McClennen that it was not FC that was bad, but the facilitator who was incompetent. What else could McClennen say, a licensed psychologist who had taken the stand on behalf of the prosecution against her own trusting clients? Admit to blatant and now life-shattering malpractice? But, McClennen's argument was the one that the court eventually adopted when it declared FC to be "interpretation."  By accepting McClennen's account, the court could throw out all the science--interpretation in itself is not a challengeable scientific technique--and keep the more than obviously railroaded family on the tracks to preliminary hearing and potentially a trial.    

What's the relevance of repeatedly pointing out that McClennen is a credentialed academic?  A new article by Brian J. Gorman, Catherine J. Wynne, Christopher J. Morse, and James T. Todd, "Psychology and Law in the Classroom: How the use of Clinical Fads in the Classroom may Awaken the Educational Malpractice Claim," raises the issue of educational malpractice claims and uses the thoroughly discredited and debunked facilitated communication to highlight the need for educators to be held accountable for the use of "harmful, scientifically rejected practices in the classroom."  Facilitated communication was one of the things McClennen espoused in her teaching while on the faculty of the Eastern Michigan University Special Education Department, and continued to espouse after her retirement when she occasionally taught a class required for Michigan Special Educators seeking what was then called the "Autism Certification Endorsement."  Should we presume that her course is changed any now that it is being taught at Rutgers University? Does Rutgers care?
Given that Gorman et al. raises the issue of schools and educators being held legally accountable for using non-evidence based practices, one wonders if, in the future, schools will be better able to withstand parental pressure and universities will find it in their interest to avoid offering courses in demonstrably dangerous pseudoscience.  In the Wendrow case, the school did not suggest FC; the Wendrows wanted it.  Eastern Michigan did not ask for FC to be taught.  It was injected into the curriculum. Why did the school bow to the Wendrow's demands that FC be used (and why does having a special needs child convey more power to the parents to demand disproven methods than parents of traditional students?)? Why did Eastern, and now apparently Rutgers, not suggest a more conventional autism course? Academic freedom, as typically conceived, does not extend to knowingly teaching falsehoods.  According to the Detroit Free Press, "Officials also testified in a lawsuit that they were aware FC didn't meet the Michigan Department of Education's standards that require all communication methods used in schools to be scientifically valid. The district declined to use FC with the other 20 nonverbal students in the district, specifically because it did not meet standards, records show. Veronica Burke, the district's classroom coordinator for special services, said in a deposition that she implemented FC for the Wendrows' daughter on the orders of a superintendent who has since left."  If the evidence of the past and present is a guide, the universities haven't even given it a fraction of the thought to FC that the school did in its progression from reluctant acquiescence to full embrace.

Perhaps the acceptance of legal grounds for educational malpractice claims will help schools withstand the pressures of parents desperate to help their disabled children, and help universities prevent their good reputations being attached to bad interventions.  Gorman et al. close their article with these thoughts: "It is also evident that the recognition of the integrity of education tort theory will most likely have a chilling effect on education.  The chill, however, will likely be limited to behavior risking a conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of students." One can even hope that it will get these dubious (at best) treatments out of higher education, as well, where future special education teachers can be (and are) indoctrinated in their use (Syracuse University's Institute on Communication and Inclusion).


Gorman, B.J., Wynne, C.J., Morse, C.J.,&Todd, J.T. (2011). Psychology and law in the classroom: How the use of clinical fads in the classroom may awaken the educational malpractice claim. Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal, 2011(1), 29-50.

**Having been informed in semi-private communication that this article was confusing, I offer the following potentially unnecessary clarification to readers who hung around all the way to the end:

I would grant that the article is complex; intertwining the Wendrow case, the role of the credentialed professional who introduced them to FC which led to their predicament, and the new journal article making a case that educational malpractice cases may be potentially successfully argued under the Frye standard;  and could therefore consequently be misread.

I would suggest that if the article had to be reduced to a simplistic summary that it would be this: Perhaps if schools can be held negligent for USING scientifically-invalidated methods such as FC with special needs (and other students), the bonus to this would be that universities will be less likely to cash in on discredited but lucrative methods and create departments that teach how to use scientifically-invalidated methods like Syracuse University has.

It is my hope that if Dr. Todd and I were in any way too obscure, that this addendum clarifies and unifies the various threads of the piece.

Busy Summer Days and Huge Strides Forward

Haircuts for the girls; Rosie's got a layered 'do.

Lil and the camera, 
troublemaker right there in the making.

Bobby after his first day volunteering in the 
kitchen at Meals on Wheels!

Tuesday during geek camp. :-)
Totally their idea on taking notes.
Kinda wish my students were as big into it...

Nosferatu getting to know Frankie.

Good days, all in all. :-)