Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Nagging for your country

I mean, I thought our parents were putting pressure on us to achieve; but compared to this...

At the age of eleven the boy got weekly letters at prep school telling him "You are to get a first in History at Cambridge and do all sorts of grand things." An only mildly critical maths report would bring the admonition "I want for my darling to do everything perfectly' because, as he never tired of pointing out, "I long for you to do your best.... that you may turn out the pride and happiness of our life - we have had so much sorrow in the past that now everything seems to centre on you."

and on his twelfth birthday,
"You do not know how precious you are in my eyes my own dearest child - my only little son left now that God has taken my other three to himself - all my hopes and joys are bound up in you - what should I do without you?"

And when he did go to Cambridge and get a first in History an a fellowship of All Souls his father wrote
"I am quite convinced that you are going to be Prime Minister and reunite England with the Holy See."

That was Lord Halifax, prominent appeaser, nearly got to be PM instead of Churchill in 1940; though perhaps that might not have been the best moment to reunite England with the Holy See, all things considered.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Dear Dead Days

The NYT reports that Paramour of Kennedy Is Writing a Book. Now, 'paramour' is an impressive word, and one doesn't get that many opportunities to use it, but that's because it's suited only to the upper end of the liaison scale - your grand horizontals, your Lola Montezes and your Kitty O'Sheas; with Kennedy it's inflating things to go above 'Fuck buddy'.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Star Trek

Saw the new ST; overall, an enormously expensive packaging for about two lines of dialogue explaining that the time travel involved had created an entirely new timeline so that none of the canon had now ever happened (or, rather, would ever happen) and they could start another series with a clean slate and not have to fit it in around canon.

Odd thing, though, was that Eric Bana was wiping out Federation starship fleets with what was apparently only a large mining ship - presumably because it was a mining ship from the future, and thus more advanced. But it was only 25 years more advanced than the starships, and one of the striking things about the Star Trek universe is that there seems to be very little major technological change - at least, the Enterprise in profile looks exactly the same from Kirk to Picard. They did develop the holodeck, I suppose, but that's not a fundamental change. Also shuttles, Klingon ships, and Romulan ships - all static designs.

I suppose a Romulan mining ship would be better armed than your average ore train, but even so it seems excessive.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sturgeon's Law

I've got an article in with Skeptic attacking another Skeptic writer for being gullible about some topic in psychology, and it brings up a point about big-S (no pun intended) Skeptics generally.

The basic principle of human culture is Sturgeon's Law - 90% of everything is crap. I am increasingly coming to see this as something like the Heisenberg principle, not simply an observation but a predictive - almost determinative - rule, or even, yes, law.

90% of articles in normal science (for the sake of a quiet life I'm prepared to exempt theoretical physics and mathematics from that generalisation) are crap. The distinction between 'science' and "'pseudoscience'" (I've added another pair of air quotes there) is therefore at the margin, between realms that are (say) 90% (medicine) and 99.99% (creationism) crap, with immense overlaps.

Skepticism as it is now practiced relies heavily on being told in advance the areas one can safely be skeptical about.

Which is also an argument for adding junkfoodscience to my blog list. She's particularly good at knocking copy on normal science. Even though this does lead her into the GW denier camp.

Monday, May 18, 2009


From the NYT, Jeff Goldberg:
....the prime minister’s preoccupation with the Iranian nuclear program seems sincere and deeply felt. I recently asked one of his advisers to gauge for me the depth of Mr. Netanyahu’s anxiety about Iran. His answer: “Think Amalek.”

Goldberg glosses this as
“Amalek,” in essence, is Hebrew for “existential threat.” Tradition holds that the Amalekites are the undying enemy of the Jews. They appear in Deuteronomy, attacking the rear columns of the Israelites on their escape from Egypt. The rabbis teach that successive generations of Jews have been forced to confront the Amalekites: Nebuchadnezzar, the Crusaders, Torquemada, Hitler and Stalin are all manifestations of Amalek’s malevolent spirit.

If Iran’s nuclear program is, metaphorically, Amalek’s arsenal, then an Israeli prime minister is bound by Jewish history to seek its destruction, regardless of what his allies think.

That suggests that Netanyahu wishes to destroy Iran's nuclear program, or possibly - it's an ambiguous usage - Iran. My recollection of the Amalek bit, though, is that it was rather more sweeping. Ah yes:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey." (1 Sam. 15:2-3).

If Iran is Amalek, that's a commandment to kill every Iranian, on penalty of having the top Israelite (then Saul) attract the Vengeance of JVH and lose their job. Which Netanyahu presumably does not want. At the very least, I don't think that that comparison leads in the direction of minimising civilian casualties.

Uphill all the way

Your chance of dying in the next year:

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Autism Screening

This Saturday's All in the Mind program was on people calling for universal screening at or around birth for autism.

Early screening for autism is crazy for so many reasons....

a) The instability of diagnosis:
As Michelle Dawson points out on the Autism Crisis blog,
"Turner and Stone (2007) were looking at the stability of autism diagnosis at around age two years (mean age of 29 months). They carefully used various combinations within what is considered the gold-standard diagnosis: ADOS, ADI-R, and clinical judgment. And they found that early diagnosis, in their sample of 48 originally autistic children, was very unstable.

By age four (mean age of 53 months), only 53% of children originally given the specific diagnosis of autism retained this specific diagnosis, while only 68% were still on the autistic spectrum. The rest were not. That is a 32% rate of "recovery." Only 40% of children originally diagnosed with PDD-NOS at age two still had an autistic spectrum diagnosis by age four. That would be a 60% rate of "recovery."

The children whose age two diagnoses were unstable were largely still regarded as having difficulties, a finding that echoes Dr Fein's work, but they no longer could be diagnosed as autistic.

Turner and Stone (2007) attempted to associate instability of diagnosis (what is being called "recovery") with interventions received, but no association was found. They report:

All children in the sample received speech therapy, and the majority received additional interventions. There were no significant differences between the Stable and Change groups for the amount of speech therapy, t(46) = .30, p = .77, behavioral therapy, t(46) = .78, p = .44, occupational therapy, t(46) = 1.90, p = .06, special education, t(46) = 1.96, p = .06, or regular preschool, t(46) = .13, p = .90. Of the 6 children who received an average of 20 or more hours of intervention per week, 5 were in the Stable group and 1 was in the Change group.

In other words, few of the 48 originally autistic children in this study received what would be considered "intensive" intervention, and the majority of those who did kept their autism diagnosis.

In contrast, Turner and Stone (2007) found that diagnostic instability was related to earliness of diagnosis: the earlier the diagnosis, the more unstable it was.

The authors go on to discuss what may underlie the diagnostic instability they found while using the best available diagnostic standards. In fact there are many possible explanations. One point they do underline, however, is that given their findings,

...extreme caution must be taken when interpreting intervention findings that suggest ‘cures.’

And of course that would include intervention findings that suggest "recovery." This may be all the more so when diagnosis, and therefore intervention, is very early."

To be sure, there was a suggestion in the program that the universal screening wouldn't use the old-fashioned and exploded testing that had been refuted by evidence, but instead some new and untested undefined combination of different viewpoints that there was no test data on at all, but I'm not sure that that helps.

b) The stigmatising effect
It's also true that much autism is diagnosed only after regression around the age of three, and it wouldn't seem that even an improved observational system would help there. And if the genetic testing did pick up this group, that too has its downside; as it is, parents have a chance to bond with their kids before the autism kicks in, whereas if there was a genetic test they'd be on notice that their child was defective from birth - which would have to affect the natural bonding process.

On the other hand, pushing for universal screening would be rational for certain interest groups, for several other reasons;
i) if you wanted to prove that there was an epidemic of autism (given that greatly increasing the numbers screened would, given the false positive rate, greatly increase the number diagnosed with autism)
2) if you wanted to prove that early intervention worked (in that half of the children diagnosed would emerge from the diagnosis whatever treatment was given, putting a solid floor under your results)

I suspect, too, that 'early intervention' is simply code for ABA. Which would certainly be one reason for pushing screening; if you could get all diagnosed children receiving early intervention treatment, and that treatment was ABA, that's about one child in a hundred at a cost of $40,000 per year each.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Crim Con

Following on the discussion over at Hannoush's blog on whether this
"Flashing your lights to warn oncoming drivers of a police check, speed camera and so on (seems to be international)"
is a civil practice or a criminal conspiracy, here's another data point; Time, March 10 1958, Miscellany:
PICKET In Ardmore, Okla., State trooper Paul Clark was waved down by a man at the side of the road who got himself arrested when he stuck his head in the window, warned "Hey, the highway cops are working a radar trap over the hill."

The practice was obviously at that time viewed as both rare and reprehensible.

Mind you, different times, different mores; also in that Miscellany

Man's Woman In Springfield, Ohio, Marjorie June Flax drew many admiring male glances in a packed coartroom when she dropped assault-and-battery charges against her husband, said: "It was my fault; if I'd kept my big mouth shut, it wouldn't have happened."

It was probably reading that that pushed Betty Friedan over the top.

Monday, May 04, 2009


This is what I think when I see, for example, that sexually perverted crumpet spruiking crumpet use on TV at the moment.

Star Trek prequel

Looking at my latest copy of Time (24/2/1958; the local second-hand shop had a run, now, sadly, almost over) I note that Time's review of The Brothers Karamazov mentions that "Yul Brynner is much too mannered and wooden to be Dmitri. Richard Basehart seems uncetain of what Ivan is all about. William Shatner plays Alyosha as a sort of Sunday Schoolboy."
See, Shatner did have experience in the classics, sort of (I also remember him as the priest in The Outrage, the western remake of Rashomon that didn't turn out nearly as well as the western remake of Seven Samurai) before taking on the role. Just as qualified as Picard.

Anyway, off to the reboot shortly.

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