Saturday 10 June 2017

Is changing your mind like changing your underwear?

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
George Bernard Shaw

It must be over 25 years since I last changed my underwear. No, wait; let me rephrase that: It must be over 25 years since I last changed the brand of underwear I wear. While my family may disagree, my allegiance to Marks and Spencer’s undies was perhaps one of the last vestiges of my Pommie origins to leave me. After all, if it was good enough for the royal family, it was surely good enough for me. And this from a lifelong republican, no less. But I have finally succumbed to the lure of Bonds and I am the happier for it.
It is not flattering to say of someone that they change their minds as often as they change their underwear but why do we tend to view changing one’s mind as a sign of weakness or as a moral failing. If a friend says ‘I’ve changed my mind’, the temptation to respond with “Does it work any better?” is almost irresistible. Keynes probably did not say: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” But he should have. And J K Galbraith did say: “Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof."
To broaden my outlook, I’ve been reading a little bit about Foucault lately. His followers object vociferously to him being described as a Marxist but in fact he was, early on in his career. In his first book, when he was also a member of the (Stalinist) Communist Party in France, he took a Marxist line. But by the time he published a second edition, he not only took out all references to a Marxist perspective but also apparently did his best to ensure that the earlier version was well and truly buried. I find this strange. Why not simply state that you have changed your mind?
Like many a wild child of the late sixties, I too was seduced by the easy answers of radical socialism at university but had changed my mind to such an extent by the time I was in my early 30s that I stood as a parliamentary candidate for the newly formed Social Democratic Party in the ‘Falklands’ general election of 1983; quite a change.
This reluctance to change one’s mind is particularly prevalent in education not least because education is not an evidence-based profession. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the teaching of reading. As the eminent psychologist Keith Stanovich has noted: "that direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates early reading acquisition is one of the most well established conclusions in all of behavioral science.” In spite of some thirty or forty years of scientific research into how reading works and how it is best taught, however, the received wisdom promulgated in most initial teacher training institutions continues to be the whole language view (or balanced literacy as it was subsequently, if not convincingly, re-branded). Why is this the case? What stops people, and especially education academics, from changing their mind?
 As I have admitted before, I have not always been an advocate of phonics instruction. When I first came to Australia in 1990, I held what, in retrospect, may seem like a curious mix of views. While being a strong enthusiast of applied behavior analysis in education, I was, however, not a supporter of direct, explicit phonics instruction, as my writing around this time demonstrates. Having witnessed examples of shocking phonics excesses in schools in the West Midlands, whereby children struggling to learn to read barely ever saw a book, I was deeply suspicious. Under the influence of colleagues such as Coral Kemp at Macquarie University Special Education Centre (MUSEC), however, I rapidly saw the error of my ways. The available scientific evidence in favour of my former views just did not stack up whereas the evidence in favour of phonics instruction was overwhelming. And so I very quickly changed my mind. The rest, as they say, is history. Over twenty five years later, I am still the happier for it.
These days, I sometimes find myself as perplexed by the attitudes of some phonics enthusiasts as I am by their whole language opponents. The latter seem to find no problem in ignoring the scientific evidence in favour of phonics instruction because many educationists deny the validity of empirical research in education, opting for a more ‘philosophical’ approach. Equally alarming to me, however, is the reluctance of some advocates for phonics instruction to take on board more recent research findings and to adjust their models of instruction accordingly. Some seem to hold the view that we now know all that we need to know and resist, with vigour, those within the same camp who deviate from the received wisdom.
The Dalai Lama once said that should science disprove the benefits of meditation, he would be willing to rethink thousands of years of Buddhist tradition. “If science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly,” he said. “We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts.” If the Dalai Lama can be so open-minded, why do so many educationists refuse to reconsider their position in the light of the evidence?
As for those who appear to deny the reality of science per se in favour of the view that even scientific research evidence is socially determined (and we're back with Foucault and his mates here), let’s give the last word on this subject to popular author Alexander McCall Smith. In his 2005 book, ‘44 Scotland Street’, he comments:
“The problem was that some people preached social philosophies that paid no attention to reality. Some French philosophers had a tendency to do this, Big Lou had noted: they did not care in the slightest if their theories could have disastrous consequences – because they considered themselves above such consequences. It was perfectly possible to portray scientific knowledge as socially determined – and therefore not true in any real sense – when one was safe on the ground in Paris; but would you ask the same question in a jet aircraft at thirty-five thousand feet, when that same knowledge underpinned the very engineering that was keeping one up in the air?” (p.151)
So, have you changed your mind? Does it work any better?

Crap detecting for beginners

[The following is an edited version of a speech I gave at the launch of this book* in May 2017.]

A recent Four Corners program featured the results from a ‘shadow shop’ of 240 pharmacies conducted by Choice. Pharmacists were asked to recommend something for these actors posing as shoppers who claimed that they had been “feeling really stressed lately”. 26% of pharmacists recommended Bach Flower remedies, a product for which there is absolutely no scientific evidence for efficacy. Another 3% recommended homeopathic products.
Non-evidenced based fads like this predilection for so-called ‘natural’ remedies are widespread. Just look at Gwynneth Paltrow’s GOOP website, for example.  I had no idea just what you could do with a jade egg! But it is in educational interventions and therapies for children with developmental disorders that we see some of the loopier manifestations of this generic, worldwide, anti-scientific trend.
And this is not even a recent phenomenon. I have now been working in the field of educational psychology and special education for over 45 years. After graduating in Psychology from the University of Manchester in 1970, I started work immediately as Professor Peter Mittler’s research associate at the ‘Hester Adrian Research Centre for the study of learning processes in the mentally handicapped’, as children with intellectual disabilities were then known. In those days, such children did not attend school, special or otherwise, they attended Junior Training Centres (or JTCs). They were regarded as ineducable and could only be ‘trained’.
It was on one of my first visits to JTCs that I encountered Dolman Delacato Psychomotor Pattterning. I was quite unprepared for what I saw being practised which looked for all the world to me like witchcraft. The little girl with a severe disability lay on a table while two adults moved her limbs in patterns resembling crawling movements, all the while chanting child specific rhymes.
It was seriously weird and extraordinarily time-consuming. (Those interested in this now discredited and largely discarded practice might be interested to read the critique provided by Quackwatch. (https://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/patterning.html .)
This was my first encounter with educational/therapeutic snake oil, at least as an adult, but it was by no means my last. Interestingly, I was advised, at the time, to be cautious about criticising the method because its proponents were notoriously litigious; again this was the first, but not the last, time I was to encounter this tactic for silencing dissenting voices critical of non-evidence based practices and procedures.
In recent years, my esteemed colleagues, Max Coltheart and Linda Siegel, among others, have been threatened with legal action after offering critical commentary on dubious educational and therapeutic practices. Linda received a threatening letter from the lawyers representing the Arrowsmith program but they did not follow through. Legal representatives for the Dore program soon gave up hassling Max when Macquarie University made clear that they were right behind him and challenged Dore to a public debate. It was not long after this that the Dore organisation in Australia, at least, was forced to close down completely. But, as I like to say, when one Dore closes, another one opens! There is always another bogus program lying in wait for the uninformed and desperate.
My academic colleagues and I at Macquarie University Special Education Centre (MUSEC), which I had the honour of directing for over twenty years, shared a passion for evidence-based practice long before it became flavour of the month in educational circles. We were united in our loathing of the plethora of bogus claims for dodgy programs, with which the history of special education was littered, and for which there was no evidence for efficacy. It was my colleague Dr Jennifer Stephenson who, in 2005, urged us as a group to launch the MUSEC Briefings, single page, factual summaries on relevant topics of interest, many of which examined the evidence for popular interventions. Our aim was to highlight programs and practices for which there was good scientific evidence for efficacy and those for which there was not. The MUSEC Briefings became very popular and were, indeed still are, widely distributed. It is sad, then, to report that the future of the Briefings is in doubt, following the recent closure of MUSEC by the University. (But see the following repository: https://figshare.com/articles/MUSEC_Briefings_Archive/5096455 )
The demise of the Briefings is a source of sadness but now we have a new, even more all-encompassing, reference resource which is destined to become a classic, I’m sure, and the first of many editions. Caroline Bowen and Pamela Snow’s witty, informative and, indeed, exhaustive, new text will be our future ‘go to guide’ when we are confronted with an intervention for children with developmental disorders that we have not previously encountered. May I take this opportunity to express my admiration for their painstaking efforts in tracking down so many useless interventions.
Their new text, ‘Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders: A guide for parents and professionals’, is destined to become the field guide for amateur and professional crap detectors everywhere. As I have already mentioned it is remarkably inclusive. As an enthusiastic crap detector myself, I came across coverage of many interventions that I knew little about or had not heard of before at all. Take FODMAPS for example. It was only a month or two ago that I first heard this term, from my haematologist. I did not know then, but I do now, that low FODMAPS diets are being promoted as a treatment for children with autism spectrum disorders (or ASD).
What is or are FODMAPS? FODMAPS are, wait for it, ‘fermentable, oligo-, di-, monosaccharides and polyols’. And some people say the MultiLit acronym is contrived! FODMAPS refers to fermentable, poorly absorbed, short-chain, carbohydrates but I prefer Caroline and Pamela’s no-nonsense description: “FODMAPS are in disreputable farty-foods like beans, onion and broccoli, and also in milk, apples, wheat, high-fructose corn syrup, and more”. They go on to comment, and I quote:
“The casein-free (CF), GF (gluten free), and GFFC (gluten free and casein free) diets have a new competitor for consumer moolah in the ASD food fad field: the low-FODMAP diet. For years, ASD advocacy groups, families and clinicians have fallen for sharp advertising of the GFCF diet, with scientific-sounding phrases: ‘evolving paradigm’, ‘promising research trend’, ‘new understandings’, ‘latest discoveries’ – but soon, the Low FODMAP diet may become the new black, despite no demonstrable link as yet, between FODMAPS and ASD.”
I have quoted this passage at length to give you a flavour of the engaging style in which this book is presented. It is lively and opinionated, in the very best sense, and is clearly written by human beings rather than by academic Daleks, the preferred speech style preferred by so many wannabe authorities. Moreover, as the comedian Eric Morcombe used to say of comedy partner Ernie Wise’s supposed toupée: “you can’t see the join”. Seriously, you can’t tell where one author stops and the other picks up. This continuity of voice is a remarkable achievement.
Coming in at nearly 400 pages including appendices, it is a hefty tome but its coverage is encyclopaedic and never dull. In their epilogue, they provide two extensive lists of programs and procedures. The first (shorter) list is headed ‘Could try harder’ and puts on notice the developers of these interventions that might show some promise but which are in sore need of sufficient quality evidence for efficacy. Here we find, for example: controlled crying, Lindamood Bell, the Orton-Gillingham/Multi-Sensory Structured Language Program, Positive Behaviour Support and Triple-P Positive Parenting, to name but five.
In the second, far longer list, headed bluntly and unequivocally ‘No convincing evidence’, we find, for example, many old friends such as: BrainGym, Fast ForWord, the Arrowsmith Program, behavioural optometry and, last but not least, Reading Recovery.
I could go on. There is so much to delight and intrigue in this book. So much crap to detect and so little time. Let me finish by saying this: “Buy this book.” In fact, buy two copies and give one to a friend. They’ll thank you for it.

*‘Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders: A guide for parents and professionals’ by Caroline Bowen and Pamela Snow, published by J & R Press Ltd.