On time-traveling information and quantum mechanics.

Screenshot from that Facebook-linked article you all saw recently.
Screenshot from that Facebook-linked article you might have seen recently.

K (who is better at reading the internet than I am) asked me, “Have you seen all those reports about future actions dictating the past?”

I promptly rolled my eyes.  Thinking, which ones?  Because there are a lot of “scientific” studies of that ilk.  One of my favorites (“favorite” here meaning “most laughably silly) is the psychology study demonstrating that people remember words better if they will study them after being quizzed as to which they remember.

Which would be a neat trick — a kid could say, “Please, God, let me know the right answers on this test and I promise I’ll study the material as soon as I get home,” and it would work!

It doesn’t.  Of course not.  What Bem demonstrated in his paper, “Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect,” is that our current academic publishing system (wherein researchers are rewarded only for novel results, and particularly counter-intuitive novel results) is suboptimal for the real pursuit of scientific knowledge.  If researchers are allowed to collect lots of data, analyze that data with statistical tests for p-values, and report only what works… then it’s easy to find counter-intuitive results.  Those results will also generally be not true.

The other interesting finding that came from Bem’s work was also related to academic publishing: even if a result is blatantly untrue, it’s difficult to correct the scientific literature.  Several researchers wasted their time attempting to reproduce Bem’s result, and as expected they found that none of the work was correct … but then they could not publish their findings.  Their rejection from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology read, “This journal does not publish replication studies, whether successful or unsuccessful.”

Anyway, that’s the kind of “science” I was expecting when K asked if I’d seen the new study on future events dictating the past.

I was wrong.  She was talking about a pretty standard quantum mechanics experiment, one postulated a few decades ago, conducted with photons in 2007, and conducted with helium atoms recently.

The basic gist of why these are described as “mind blowing”: there are numerous results in quantum mechanics that can seem silly if you think of objects as being either particle or wave and somehow “choosing” which to be at any given time.  Matter has a wave nature, and the behavior we think of as particle-like arises from the state of an object being linked to the state of other objects.  The common phrasing for this is to say that observation causes a shift from wave-like to particle-like behavior, but the underlying explanation is that our observational techniques result in a state-restricting coupling.

Quantum mechanics is difficult to write about using English-language metaphors — translating from the language of mathematics into English seems to have all the problems of translating between two spoken languages, and then some — but here’s a crude way to think about this type of result:

If you’re standing with your back to two narrow hallways (sufficient for only one person to walk through at a time) and a friend walks through and taps you on the shoulder, you won’t know which hallway your friend came through.  Unless your friend tells you.  Let’s just imagine that your friend is as cagey with his or her secrets as the average helium atom tends to be.

Here is a Roguelike diagram of our thought experiment... in case you haven't played many roguelikes (for shame!  You should try Brogue! https://sites.google.com/site/broguegame/]), you are the @, the F is your friend, the B is your buddy, and those octothorpes are single-person-wide hallways.
Here is a Roguelike diagram of our thought experiment… in case you haven’t played many roguelikes (for shame! You should try Brogue!), you are the @, the F is your friend, the B is your buddy, and those octothorpes are single-person-wide hallways.

If your friend then leaves, however, and at the same time a second buddy of yours walks through to tap you on the shoulder and say hello, then your friend’s history becomes coupled to this second buddy’s.  If your friend walked through the northern hallway, your buddy had to be in the southern, and vice versa.  Their positions are coupled because they can’t occupy the same space at the same time. If you never ask who walked where, though, there’s a residual probability that each walked through each hallway — and if you ever query one, because their histories are coupled, the other’s history suddenly snaps into focus. No matter how far away that second person might be.  Learning which route either took tells you immediately about the other.

Not that this information is necessarily useful.  But perhaps you saw reports about faster-than-light-speed information travel between entangled objects.  The above example applies just as well (or as poorly, if you’re a stickler for accuracy or truth or what have you) to those studies as well.

In some ways this reminds me of the scene from Bottle Rocket, wherein a character is told “You’re like paper.  You know, you’re trash,” and then, “You know, you’re like paper falling by, you know… It doesn’t sound that bad in Spanish.”

A lot of results from quantum mechanics sound weird, but they don’t sound that weird in mathematics.

But I’ll admit that the way some of these results are written up in the popular press is bizarre.  Here’s a quote from Jay Kuo’s article (which K alerted me to after it was featured on George Takei’s webpage) about the recent helium atom experiment:

Screen shot from Tim Wogan's article.
Screen shot from Tim Wogan’s article.

“What they found is weirder than anything seen to date: Every time the two grates were in place, the helium atom passed through, on many paths in many forms, just like a wave.  But whenever the second grate was not present, the atom invariably passed through the first grate like a particle.  The fascinating part was, the second grate’s very existence in the path was random.  And what’s more, it hadn’t happened yet.”

From a passage like that, it’d be hard to tell that this is an experiment that was first conducted nearly a decade ago, and a result that was exactly what you’d expect.  Honestly, I had trouble even parsing the above paragraph, and could barely understand the experiment from the description given in the article. And I studied quantum mechanics! I spent my junior and senior years of college doing research in the field! (My research was on the electronic structure of DNA bases, not entanglement specifically, but still.) I don’t know how people without that background were supposed to follow the science here. Or get through it without their eyes glazing over.

So, as to people’s excitement about this result: it’s a little bit weirder to think about the wavelength of big things (“big” here meaning the helium atoms; they’re big compared to photons), but it’s mostly weird in English.  Or any other metaphor-based language.  Our day-to-day perceptions don’t yield the metaphorical fodder we’d need to properly describe these phenomena in words.

Because, yeah, I like to think that I’m sitting still in a chair, typing this.  But I have a wavelength too.  So do you.  You might be anywhere within the boundaries roughly transcribed by your wavelength!  And of course, there aren’t really any boundaries, because the probability of finding you in a place never quite drops to zero. Even if we consider locations far away from your moments-prior center of mass. But your probability peak on a likelihood vs. location graph is very, very steep.  You, my friend, are rather large: your wavelength is very small.


p.s. If you happened across Jay Kuo’s article and were baffled, and would like an explanation that describes the experimental set-up used (I purposefully left out all the experimental details because I thought they’d distract from my two main points, that translating from mathematics to English is hard and inevitably introduces inaccuracies, and that for coupled pairs of objects [the real word for this is “entangled”] information can be transfered instantaneously), you could check out Tim Wogan’s summary on Physics World.  Wogan alludes to the idea that identifying the state of one object out of an entangled pair causes something reminiscent of faster-than-light travel:

“Indeed, the results of both Truscott and Aspect’s experiments [show] that [an object]’s wave or particle nature is most likely undefined until a measurement is made.  The other less likely option would be that of backward causation — that the particle somehow has information from the future — but this involves sending a message faster than light, which is forbidden by the rules of relativity.”

I don’t really like the use of the word “measurement” above (sure, I changed a few other words in that quotation, but only to improve readability — I didn’t want to change anything that might alter Wogan’s ideas), because to me this sounds excessively human-centric, as though quantum collapse couldn’t happen without us.

Over time, the state of an object can become coupled to the states of others (if two blue billiard balls collide, for instance, then you know that at some point in time they were in the same place) or uncoupled from the states of prior interaction partners (if one of those blue billiard balls then collides with a third red ball, the trajectories of the two blue balls will no longer be coupled).

In this double-slit experiment, the coupling between helium atom and detector (when the detector either chirups or doesn’t, that making-sound-or-not state is coupled to the position of the helium atom) which unveils information about objects entangled with the helium.

sherlock-holmes-462978_640Maybe this seems less confusing if you think about it in terms of progressively revealing clues instead of causing behavior?  But, again, the English descriptions are never going to exactly match the math.

On Alice Goffman’s ‘On the Run’ and extrapolate-able truth.

Screen shot of the New Republic article.

Many people have criticized Alice Goffman’s ethnography On the Run. The first set of criticisms I noticed were from people who claimed that she misrepresented black urban life by studying the particular group of people on whom she centered her book (examples here and here).

Now Goffman is being accused of felony-level crimes and, by virtue of her explanations thereof, of publishing a book that is not “true.” You can read a good summary of these accusations here.

I can’t help but think these accusations are silly. For one thing, I rather liked Goffman’s book. Sure, in my private life I’ve railed against it, but that was because she tucked a detail (if you’ve read it, I’m referring to the story about the wristwatch) into a section titled “Appendix: A Methodological Note” that made me cry. Sitting there snuffling on the couch, I was thinking “Really, Alice? You tricked me!” I didn’t expect to tear up reading “a methodological note.”

Other people apparently feel that she tricked them in a different, worse way.

But I’m not sure how someone could read her book and think that Goffman was implying that all black urban life resembles the lives of the small cohort of people she is studying. Goffman even included brief sections describing her time spent with very different young urban black males, a group of guys who held steady jobs, played video games, ate pizza. If she describes two very different groups that she personally spent time with, it seems strange to read her book as implying that all persons xxxx resemble one of those groups, or even that all people would fit into one of those two. Her book isn’t quantitative. Her book is decidedly not exhaustive. Her book relates anecdotes about a small set of people’s lives, and we should be embarrassed that our country is such that anyone has to live that way.

And, sure, my phrasing for that last clause brings up another complaint people have levied against her book: that the young men she spent time with did not have to live the way they did. For instance, she mentions that some of them did not attend their children’s births because they were afraid of being arrested. Quite possibly it is factually untrue that these men would have been arrested out of the maternity ward. But that doesn’t matter.

In a way, it’s like the premise behind Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan (which, sure, I realize is an ironic work to draw attention to, because Castaneda’s work is untrue on multiple levels, most damningly that the individual whom he claimed to be studying did not exist); the book was an anthropological study of magic. Now, I believe that the type of magic described in that book does not and can not exist. But that doesn’t change my opinion that it is (or would have been, had the study not been fabricated) worthwhile to investigate the worldview of those who believe that type of magic does exist.

9780226275406Similarly, if the young men whom Goffman studied had deeply held beliefs about the police, and those beliefs affected their lives in profound ways, then it’s worth reporting their beliefs as fact within her book. Sure, it would have been an even better book if a footnote mentioned that she could find no evidence that their deeply held belief reflected consensus reality, but within a study like hers the most important thing to do is understand the constraints and beliefs that guide her studied cohort’s actions… and no one has presented any evidence that she failed at that objective.

The claim that Goffman is a criminal is rather more serious. I don’t think it’s any more reasonable, however. A major point of Goffman’s book is that many behaviors qualify as “criminal” within the world she was studying. Young black men can be arrested for standing outside looking “suspicious.” They can be arrested for failing to pay fines or court fees. And, because there is a long history of unethical police behavior, they cannot rely upon the police to protect their property, or their lives, or their loved ones. So I think that even if Goffman had done some things that violated the letter of the law (including “loitering,” or touching marijuana, or driving above the speed limit, or transporting a very angry dude with a gun), she would have been justified.

She has stated that the actions she took were not illegal, though — that there are additional facts that weren’t reported in her book. And that statement has resulted in the accusation that she created a fiction through omission.

Lying by omission is a huge problem in academia. There have been big stories in the news lately about false studies wherein the data is totally fabricated. But the bigger problem, and source of many more untrue findings, is data that is real but reported selectively — if you collect data on thirty or more variables, and then report a finding based on correlation between two of those variables, your result is probably not real.

This practice is extremely common. I’ve been involved with this. Nearly all my friends who’ve done academic research have, too. It’s bad. We shouldn’t have.

If Goffman had collected data that showed that most young black men are never harassed by the police, and then she published a book claiming that most were, that would be roughly equivalent.

That’s not the book she published, though. She lied by omission in that she did not include every single detail she knew. Which is fine, obviously. If completeness is necessary for a work of nonfiction to be true, then only mathematics texts deserve the classification. By the time you toss in enough approximations to study physics, or, worse, chemistry, or, worse, biology, or, worse, psychology, or, worse, sociology, you’ve layered in so many truth-eliding approximations that whatever you write will not be correct. Goffman’s work is no worse in that sense than any other work of cultural anthropology or ethnography that I’ve seen. And the negative reviews of her work that I’ve read seem to be about her work specifically, not complaints about her field.

And, sure, perhaps it is valuable to complain about the field. Researchers introduce biases. Only finite amounts of data can be presented in any summary. And it’s human nature to extrapolate broad conclusions from limited amounts of data; it takes conscious effort to remember that anecdotal studies are relevant only to extremely small groups that closely resemble the studied subjects.

But Goffman’s book is still valuable. People like the men described in her book exist. And, even if the only such people are the small number whom Goffman spent time with (not that this seems to be the case), we should still feel ashamed — as per John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, a society in which anyone lives that way, no matter how few such people there might be, is unjust.

On violence against women (part three): rape, evolution, and the dangers of partial truths.

IMG_0430-0This is third in a series.  Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Were you sired by a jerk?  Don’t worry!  You can still be good!

I’m mostly familiar with two theories addressing the question, “Why do men rape?”  One comes from feminism, like the thesis put forward in Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: violence against women is intended to keep them from overstepping boundaries.  This theory, to me, doesn’t provide a great rationale for why specific individuals would be rapists, but seems compelling when viewed from the perspective of culture, i.e. rape culture flourishes to subjugate women.  The second theory is from evolutionary biology; the main gist is that because human females make larger contributions toward the success of offspring than males, females have the upper hand in choosing mating partners.  Therefore males who are would seem to be poor choices for mating (because they’re unattractive, or unintelligent, or otherwise would make poor genetic sires) have an incentive to rape because it’s the only way they can pass on their genes.

I tend to think this latter theory is hogwash.  But I’m pretty biased against evolutionary psychology in general.

One thing I appreciate about the evolutionary biology theory, though, is that it addresses the individual perpetrator.  Especially the idea that rapists are motivated by sexual desire.  What I think the feminist theory gets right is that rapists are aided and abetted by a culture interested in suppressing women, but I imagine individual rapists to derive pleasure from their violence.

The thing I’m unconvinced by is the idea that there is an evolutionary explanation for rape, that this propagation strategy has been sufficiently “successful” over enough generations to now have a significant genetic driver.

Which is important to think about, for a couple reasons.  Like, more studies are published all the time in support of the evolutionary biology rationale.  The latest is from Langstrom et al., “Sexual offending runs in families: A 37-year nationwide study.”  And the second reason why I think this is an important topic to think about is more pernicious.  Because if the evolutionary biology explanation isn’t correct, but we as a society allow the trappings of science to convince us that it is, then there’s less incentive to rectify all the cultural problems that I feel are the major culprits behind violence against women.  Like, if we believed the problem was simply encoded in some people’s genes, why work hard to fix it?

Honestly, I don’t know of any work, in any species, that’s provided compelling evidence for rape as an evolutionary strategy.  Which isn’t to say that the idea is bad; I’d be pretty surprised if there were no species that had evolved a split set of mating strategies including the options 1) be attractive or 2) rape.  Because there are several species wherein males seem to be genetically programed to follow one out of a possible menu of many mating strategies, and the aforementioned split is just as reasonable as a split between 1) appear masculine, control territory or 2) appear feminine, mate with females in secret while scuttling through another male’s territory.

And, I’d like to think that I shouldn’t have to state this, but the fact that a certain behavior occurs somewhere in nature, perpetrated by some species or other, is obviously not a reason why we shouldn’t consider it loathsome.  Child neglect, bullying, cannibalism, murder, etc., are all perfectly valid evolutionary strategies.  My point in writing this essay is simply this: I saw a new scientific study with that attention-grabbing headline about sexual aggression running in families.  I wanted to put their findings and methodology in context.

Rape as propagation strategy seems to be best studied in orangutans.  If you’ll excuse me a moment of anthropomorphism here, it sounds very crummy to be a female orangutan.  Males exist in two forms: as juveniles their faces are “unflanged,” and after reaching sexual maturity they can either remain unflanged or proceed through a unidirectional transition to become “flanged” males, with hemicircular outcroppings of flesh from their temples to their jowls.  As a flanged male, their faces look somewhat reminiscent of stingrays (apparently female orangutans think this is quite attractive), and they are asserting bad-ass-itude; once flanged, a male will have to fight for its territory.  The transition is only worth making, therefore, once a male orangutan feels that it could successfully fight the other nearby flanged males.

Females voluntarily mate with flanged males; they pick whomever suits their fancy when in estrus, he protects them and mates with them.  But flanged males seem not to care much about the wellbeing of females at other times.  When not in estrus, females are on their own, and while they’re foraging they might be raped by unflanged males.

This is the closest I’ve stumbled across to a clear evolutionary explanation of rape within a species.  Even here, though, there are caveats: as far as I know, any male could transition to the flanged type, and no one has documented sexual violence by the flanged males.  So it seems that any orangutan might grow up to be a rapist, as long as he’s living in a region where all the other males are bigger and burlier than he is.  I don’t think anyone has shown a correlation between genetic factors influencing male build and sexual aggressiveness.

In other words, they’re all bad, but those who are lucky enough to think they can get what they want without violence don’t resort to it.  Or, wait.  No.  Because the flanged males still have to bash each other’s heads in.  So I guess it’s, there’s a developmental switch between using violence against women to propagate, versus using violence against other men to win mates.

See why I thought it was silly to mention the caveat that just because something happens in nature doesn’t mean it’s good?

The only other evidence I stumbled across is from chimpanzees, like in Feldblum et al.’s study “Sexually coercive male chimpanzees sire more offspring.”  What they found wasn’t rape, however.  They found that it takes being a violent jerk full-time for a male to increase his rate of paternity; aggressive behavior only while females were in estrus was not enough.  And, sadly, because this means reproductive success driven simply by a personality trait — a full-time propensity for violence — rather than a particular mating strategy, this is something that’s much easier for evolution to enrich in a population.  Because evolution is a sloppy process; it can only take what’s already present and make more of it.  But if there are genes that confer a predilection toward being a violent jerk, and being a violent jerk helps a chimp have more chimplets, then, yeah, over many generations it’d be easy for those genes to become prevalent.

Of course, that last claim was not addressed in the Feldblum et al.’s study.  And it’s important.  To build an evolutionary argument, it’s not enough to find that a certain trait confers reproductive success; you also need to ascertain whether that trait can be passed on to children.

And that, in particular, is what Langstrom et al.’s study addresses, which is why I thought it was important enough to write about.  If, in humans, the tendency to rape runs in families, perhaps it could have a genetic component.

Not that it does, mind you.  Religious sect also runs in families.  Language use.  Voting record.  Countless aspects of culture.  And it’d be silly to claim that all of those are dictated by genetics instead of going with the more parsimonious explanation that there are genetic contributions toward the use of language in Homo sapiens and that language usage allows us to pass on bits of culture through a parallel but separate evolutionary process (which is the underlying principal behind Richard Dawkins’ coining the term “meme.”  Which he originally applied to long-lived ideas like particular religious precepts, not pictures of kittens with silly captions.  But his word, like all words, evolved).

So, especially with small effects like what Langstrom et al. observed (feel free to glance at this editorial about the research to get a sense of why a “Five Fold Increase!” isn’t as meaningful as it sounds when the absolute numbers are very low), I’d worry that the issue is simply that growing up in a culture conducive toward violence against women might sway someone toward perpetrating further violence.  No genes necessary.  They did attempt to control for this by computing genetic relatedness for sets of children raised together, but I find it hard to imagine that half-siblings, for instance, could be expected to receive near-identical environmental exposure.  Which makes me predisposed to discount their findings.  Somewhat unfair, I know; except with retrospective data analysis, how could anyone test something like this?

Well, maybe we can’t.  I mean, honestly, we still don’t even know what  people should eat in order to be healthy.  (Click away.)

Or you might imagine that, even if there is a genetic predisposition toward sexual violence, that it could be explained away by postulating a genetic contribution to impulse control.  Perhaps that is the simplest explanation for Langstrom et al.’s results, since nearly half of their sample set of convicted sex offenders were also convicted of other non-sexual violent crimes.

Still, despite my qualms about this research, I wanted to write about it.  Because, whether correct or not, the publication of results like this can change our world.  If we convince men that they’ve evolved to be sexually aggressive, or that sexual aggression is a biologically reasonable response to cultural constructs in which they are relatively powerless in terms of attracting partners, we make it that much more likely that these bad behaviors will continue.  If we convince women that this is simply how men are, they’re much more likely to tolerate malignancy (consider that amongst victims of assault, a quarter have subsequent sexual relations with their assailants).

And, sure, if you trawl the literature you can find studies that claim the promulgation of these theories won’t make violence against women more common, but there is a big difference between a university student soberly contemplating a fictional scenario and actually behaving badly while drunk and at a party.  To me, it’s still an open question (to which I’m inclined to answer “yes”) whether believing that they’re genetically predisposed toward evil makes people more inclined to do evil.

Which leaves me with a conflict.  As a scientist, I care about truth.  I want people to know about our world.  But then, what should we do if the very act of spreading truth might make the world worse?

The whole truth wouldn’t — the idea that, sure, maybe your genes would have you do this, that, or the other thing, but even then, you still have a choice — but I honestly don’t know what to think about the risk of people learning only dangerous partial truths.

On Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth (until devolving into senseless tangents about cash transfers as medicine, the U.S. criminal justice system, work as exercise, and flawed science).

9780425277973As long as you think feeling angry is fun (does it say awful things about my personality that I do?), Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth is a fun little book.

Unlike Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, Tirado’s main focus isn’t analyzing why people are poor — she states, bluntly and in my opinion correctly, that the issue is simply not enough money.  Wages are low, hours are short (with bonus structural impediments to taking second jobs in order to compensate for short hours), and debt (especially medical debt) is high.

There are a few sections with analysis like what you may have read in Ehrenreich’s work, about the high cost of financial transactions for poor people, for instance, but primarily Tirado’s book is a narrative about her own experiences feeling spiritually and physically oppressed by poverty.  And that’s great.  I’m not sure there’s another book like this written by someone who’s lived in that world (a world shared by ca. 1/3 of the populace of the United States) for as long as she has, which is part of what makes the book so compelling.

I was very appreciative to have a tour guide whom I could trust to have all the little details right.  And, yes, it’s angering.  It’s bleak and off-putting.  But Tirado has a charming sense of humor, which helps her work go down easier… and, honestly, itshouldn’t go down too easy.  I’d like to think that people better off than Tirado should hate themselves a little while reading her book; couldn’t we have done more to fix things, so that her book would’ve never been written?

I know I didn’t do enough.  I spent many years doing biomedical research; my successes might help wealthy people live a little longer.  But, in terms of maximizing well-being, more research findings aren’t what we need.

Like, okay, the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis is something I care a lot about, and my father is an infectious disease doctor who has been researching ways to help for years, and has recently begun another research initiative in Kenya that local doctors and scientists will be participating in… but, still, is it possible that economic initiatives could ameliorate the crisis more readily than biomedical research?  Yes.  Definitely.  AIDS is still a big deal in the United States, for instance, but suffering is decidedly correlated with poverty.  If you’re lucky enough to be related to someone who works in the right clinics, you can hear stories about all sorts of people who’ve come up with a raw deal from life, but the few big news stories I’ve seen lately are set in regions of economic blight (e.g. this one, from my own home state of Indiana).

So, thank you Tirado.  I imagine most people already know what ought to be done to fix the issues she’s writing about — some minimum standard of medical care that people can receive debt free, higher wages, more worker protections (like getting rid of “at-will” employment and requiring schedules to be contracted in advance) — so I think it’s great that she wrote her book the way she did.  Specifically, not focusing on what should be done but rather presenting her own experience — which isn’t even as bad as it gets — in all its horrors.

And then, two minor responses.  I wanted to save these for the end because these sound rather like complaints, to me, but they aren’t meant to be.  Her book was good, and these are just two things I thought about while I was reading it.

She writes that the U.S. doesn’t have debtor’s prison anymore.  Just after that sentence, she does acknowledge that people can be thrown into jail for failure to pay court fees, but… how is that not debtor’s prison? Here’s John Oliver on the subject.

Like, yes, you have to be broke and violate a law before you can be thrown in jail, but it’s not really possible to live in the U.S. without violating any laws.  Which is obviously problematic in and of itself.  It’s insane to have a patchwork of laws on the books that people violate every day and then leave it to police officers’ discretion whether or not people will be charged with crimes.

For instance, when Tirado discusses driving strategies to avoid being stopped by the police, she says she always drives two miles per hour above the speed limit.  Which is illegal.  Driving one mile per hour above the speed limit is illegal.  If you really wanted to avoid breaking any laws, you’d have to drive a couple miles per hour below the speed limit… that way minor deviations wouldn’t result in an illegal speed.

At four miles per hour below the speed limit, though, you’ll get pulled over.  I’ve been stopped numerous times for driving too slowly, even at speeds only one or two miles per hour below posted limits.  And I even drive nice-looking cars!  A dent-free, rain-washed Honda Civic!  Previously a Toyota Avalon that had sufficient internal maladies that I called it “The Torpedo,” but the exterior was fine.  I’ve read that people in decrepit vehicles are pulled over more.

So it’s easy to be stopped by police and charged with something, at which point you’ll have to pay court fees, and if you don’t you’ll go to jail (as is well-documented in The New Jim Crow).  And if you try to avoid going to jail for debt by evading capture (as is depicted in On the Run), you might be executed.

I typically write these essays a few days before they go up.  I’m writing this one on April 9th; yesterday the video was released of another person being murdered without cause by a police officer, this time because he was running away (presumably because he didn’t want to go to jail for unpaid child support, court fees), and… wait, nope.  No “and.”  He was running away, so the police officer shot him, to stop him, then shot him again, and again… then planted a (ineffectual) weapon on the body to justify having murdered the man.  Why, again, would it seem reasonable to trust police officers to use their discretion in choosing which crimes should be punished?

[Note: Tirado has since informed me that the line about the U.S. not having debtor’s prison was meant to be a joke. Which was already pretty clear from her work, i.e. the immediate juxtaposition of that claim with the fact that they’ll lock you up for not paying court fees. But even though it was clear Tirado knows the score, I wrote the preceding paragraphs… how else was I going to work in the horrific idea that dudes are apparently now subject to debtor’s execution?]

The other thing I wanted to mention was, Tirado writes about how poor people generally don’t have time for / feel too exhausted for exercise.  But she also walks a lot, and her work is often physically arduous, much more so than any job I’ve ever held (which, right — I worked in laboratories for a decade, and since then I’ve been writing.  I’ve never had to endure anything worse than a little wrist pain while I was typing a lot and learning to lift a baby many times per day)… so I wanted to toss in a link to Crum and Langer’s study wherein hotel cleaning staff who were told that their day to day work is exercise became healthier.

ModelC5_1912Oops.  Okay, so, minor admission to make on my part.  I’d never read that paper until today — I simply remembered the coverage of it from the popular press — and there might be some, uh, minor problems.  My opinion is that you’d definitely want to conduct a study longer than 30 days to test something like this, especially because there are many wacky treatments that can result in short term weight loss and apparent health gains.  Indeed, another research group attempted to replicate their findings, and also continued the study for a slightly longer period of time — still not long enough if they were reporting a positive result, in my opinion, but they weren’t.  They reported seeing no change in health outcome.  Although they did see a change.  Measured blood pressure went down in their treatment group.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this in a previous post, but reading scientific papers can be frustrating.  Normally, I don’t do it.  In general, the way I’ve been trained to engage with scientific papers is to look at the pictures and read the figure legends, then read the abstract, then jot down my own impression next to the abstract.

But I was trained to do that for a small range of fields — nothing much harder than quantum mechanics (“hard” here doesn’t mean “difficult,” btw; my preferred synonym is “intransigent”), nothing much squishier than cellular biology.  Whereas my recent research has covered a wider swath, which means I have to actually read papers, especially a review or two before I look at research results.

And it’s maddening sometimes, looking at a figure and thinking, “Oh, they’ve found this,” but then reading the text and seeing that they’ve stated “We found that.”  I’ve definitely posted a link to this previously, but Emily Willingham has written a very fun guided tour through this type of doublethink.  Or, if you’d prefer your meander through the vagaries of data interpretation be mega-bleak (i.e. about child abuse) instead of rather bleak (i.e. about sexism in academia), one of my own previous posts touches upon this idea as well.

Anyway, my apologies for the digression.  Definitely didn’t mean to go so far off topic!  It’s just that Tirado wrote about walking a lot and also said she doesn’t exercise.  Which reminded me of that study.  But how could I have expected that a high-profile psychology study might have flaws??


p.s. This essay was a bit of a downer, so I scrolled through the archives for an old “Dave vs. Dave” about economic injustice.  Here ya go!


On the PubPeer lawsuit, scientific fraud, and anonymity.

CaptureThere are some problems with academic bioscience.

That much seems to be well agreed on.  There are a lot of contributing factors — the pyramid-scheme-like training & employment setup, the recent propagation of soft money positions (universities hiring without setting aside money for salaries, expecting salary money to come out of research grants instead), a reduction in real money available for research at the same time as more people are applying for funding, and then the myriad issues arising from journal policies.  Things like an emphasis on unexpected results, disinterest in publishing reproductions, allowing material to be published with scanty experimental details and, worse, heavily-processed data in the form of graphs and charts as opposed to raw data itself.

Which, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, probably the best place to start would be last year’s paper from Alberts et al., “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws.”  The authors provide a thorough, accessible introduction to many of these problems.

Today, I’m just going to focus on one issue: the difficulty of identifying scientific misconduct.  As in, principal investigators publishing work that they know should not be published, at least not in the way they’re presenting it.

Which, sure, you could use the word “fraud” for this, but that’s a very harsh word that I don’t think is entirely appropriate to encompass the range of issues we ought to consider.  Like work that’s presented misleadingly to make it seem more exciting than it really is.  Or work that’s found out to be inaccurate (or partially inaccurate) after it’s sent for publication, but is never retracted.  Classifying those types of cases with the same word used to describe fabricated data seems overly harsh, even though none of that is okay.

For starters: yes, this issue has been in the news a lot more lately than it used to be.  Part of the problem is directly related to issues addressed in the Alberts article.  Biomedical research seems more competitive now than it used to be, and the people involved are objectively more replaceable; the number of available persons with the necessary training per professorship has increased, largely because each professor needs a team of people to conduct experiments, and the way those teams are currently assembled is primarily from the ranks of trainees.

The other main driver for an increase in apparent fraud is that it can pass by undetected more easily now.  Modern experiments are hard — the techniques require a lot of training to even understand the underlying physical principles, let alone to be able to correctly interpret data.  Even researchers who’ve come to very different conclusions than myself about what ought to be done acknowledge that experimental difficulty is a huge issue for the reproducibility of modern work; you could read Mina Bissell’s article “The risks of the replication drive,” for instance, where she writes:

“So why am I concerned?  Isn’t reproducibility the bedrock of the scientific process?  Yes, up to a point.  But it is sometimes much easier not to replicate than to replicate studies, because the techniques and reagents are sophisticated, time-consuming and difficult to master.  In the past ten years, every paper published on which I have been senior author has taken between four and six years to complete, and at times much longer.  People in my lab often need months–if not a year–to replicate some of the experiments we have done on the roles of the microenvironment and extracellular matrix in cancer, and that includes consulting with other lab members, as well as the original authors.”

So, let’s start with that.  Experiments are sufficiently involved that they might be difficult to reproduce even if the results were correct.  And let’s set aside the issue of whether or not results are robust; in her article, Bissell points out that tiny variations in cell line can have dramatic impacts on their response to assays.  So it might be fair to wonder in those cases whether observed results matter, but not whether they’re correct.

But there’s a confounding factor, because some results presumably are not correct.  Both John Ioannidis’s article “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” and Chabris et al.’s article “Most Reported Genetic Associations with General Intelligence Are Probably False Positives” consider the math behind p-testing, the typical ways that researchers collect and process data, and journal publishing policies to show that our current system is likely to yield many inaccurate results. Indeed, there seem to be enough incorrect results published that many drug companies no longer trust academic results, as described in Begley and Ellis’s article “Raise standards for preclinical cancer research”  (although it’s worth noting here that Begley and Ellis are basing their conclusions on numerous instances in which famous results could not be reproduced.  Bissell’s objections, as mentioned above, could still apply).

Okay.  That’s probably a lot to take in, especially since this is all just preamble to the point I wanted to make today.  Let me give a quick summary: experiments are hard.  That makes testing reproducibility hard.  But some of what’s out there is in fact not true (almost assuredly, based on the numbers, although this can only be proven on a case by case basis).

So, how do we separate the cases of things being not true because, yes, science is hard, and it’s easy to reach incorrect conclusions, and it’s a journey, a journey in which no one expects to unravel all of nature’s mysteries right away… cases where a published result is innocently not true for those reasons, and cases of fraud?

A nice shot from PhD comics.

Because there is fraud in our current system.  Papers knowingly not retracted.  Inaccurate data published.  Data work-ups that obscure questionable aspects of a group’s results.  And it’s very difficult to draw attention to: when people do find out about it, they tend to be powerless underlings.  An ethical stance against fraud can easily result in a destroyed career: consider Peter Whoriskey’s article about a Johns Hopkins researcher who drew attention to some problems with research he was working on and was summarily fired, then harassed.  Or you could consider Yudhijit Bhattacharjee’s article about Diederik Stapel, a sociology professor who simply made up all his experimental results for decades.  Because of his past successes, his students were extremely reticent to confront him about suspected fraud, allowing the scam to persist far longer than you might imagine it should’ve.  And, and this is an excellent point that Bhattacharjee made, “Fraud like Stapel’s — brazen and careless in hindsight — might represent a lesser threat to the integrity of science than the massaging of data and selective reporting of experiments.”

And, right, the reason why I’m writing about this today?  There is an anonymous platform for commenting on scientific papers called “PubPeer.”  And, look, I know that anonymous bullying is a problem, that there are lots of horrible issues with systems like Yik Yak allowing people to write vituperative comments online with no accountability.  But PubPeer seemed like an important service simply because it can be so difficult for outsiders to know when there are flaws in scientific research, and because the insiders who do know, and who might have an incentive to report the truth, could suffer grave consequences for doing so.

And yet… PubPeer was ruled against recently.  A judge said that PubPeer should be forced to turn over identifying information for an online commenter who supposedly cost Fazlul Sarkar a job at the University of Mississippi.  To me, this is bad, because any suspicion of fraud not validated by a university investigative committee could be considered defamation — but university investigative committees are often slow to act and do not necessarily protect the careers of informants.  It seems bad to take away an anonymous venue for potentially spreading scientific truth, especially since this is an arena where the anonymity really is important for the accuser, and should not be important for the accused: the accused has objective science to defend themselves with if they are in the right.  If Sarkar had separate pieces of data for all his published experiments, he could have shown that data to whomever at the University of Mississippi to quell their concerns.  Whereas a commenting graduate student or post-doc or whomever has no guarantee that levying an accusation won’t render him or her permanently unemployed in the field.

On the creepy parallel between gene duplication and oppression – as inspired by a passage from Karen Armstrong’s “Fields of Blood.”


“If, as has been shown for ethnographically documented hunter-gatherers, women in the most meat-dependent foraging societies spend less time procuring food and more time engaged in the production of technology and performing nonsubsistence tasks, then Clovis women likely spent the majority of their time not gathering plants.  In this sense, equating women solely with plant gathering is reducing their role in prehistoric societies to activities for which they may have spent little time and effort.  The ‘shrinking’ phenomenon may not be entirely the effect of preservational bias but the inherent bias of archaeologists limiting female labor to the plant realm.”

     ~ From Nicole Waguespack’s article “The Organization of Male and Female Labor in Foraging Societies.”

There’s a term in there – “perservational bias” – that I hadn’t seen.  I guess that shows how little archaeology I’ve studied.  The idea: if a task uses tools that will decompose – anything with wooden baskets, or even a free-standing windmill – then it might fade away and disappear from the archaeological record.  People digging through the strata later will find only durable tools – a stone arrowhead, for instance – and get a skewed impression of how people spent their time.

Anyway, I thought this was interesting – modern archaeologists, given the biases present in their own societies, ascribed limited roles to prehistoric women.  Waguespack wanted to address that bias, arguing that if women’s contribution to diet wasn’t needed, they probably still did *something* as opposed to sitting around twiddling their thumbs all day.  Seems like a reasonable assumption, right?

And I came across this article because I was trying to learn what percentage of people’s time was spent on food production through prehistory.

This article does have a chart of numbers for the time spent on foraging for modern hunter-gatherer societies – often four to six hours per day – although, really, the numbers I should’ve been looking for were for early agricultural societies.  Because hunter-gatherer societies are often regarded as highly egalitarian, and I’d just come across this passage in Karen Armstrong’s “Fields of Blood:”

“By the end of the fifteenth century CE, agrarian civilizations would be established in the Middle East, South and East Asia, North Africa, and Europe, and in every one–whether in India, Russia, Turkey, Mongolia, the Levant, China, Greece, or Scandinavia–aristocrats would exploit their peasants as the Sumerians did.  Without the coercion of the ruling class, it would have been impossible to force peasants to produce an economic surplus, because population growth would have kept pace with advances in productivity.  Unpalatable as this may seem, by forcing the masses to live at subsistence level, the aristocracy kept population growth in check and made human progress feasible.  Had their surplus not been taken from the peasants, there would have been no economic resource to support the technicians, scientists, inventors, artists, and philosophers who eventually brought our modern civilization into being.  As the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton pointed out, all of us who have benefited from this systemic violence are implicated in the suffering inflicted for over five thousand years on the vast majority of men and women.  Or as the philosopher Walter Benjamin put it: ‘There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.'”

That passage gave me a lot to think about.  Many people participating in the modern economy of the United States feel a residual squeamishness because the distribution of capital in this country is deeply rooted in the history of slavery and genocide – if you buy a house, well, no one *made* the land it’s sitting on, so if you delve far enough back through time murder or the threat of violence was necessary for that piece of land to be claimed by someone, who then sold it to someone else, onward through time until it ended up with you.  But I hadn’t previously considered the idea that *all* the trappings of modern culture – so much of it brought to us by discoveries rooted in the scientific method – is rooted in oppression. Early scientists were aristocrats: no one else had as much free time to pursue experiments.

So, right, I rooted around to find some numbers (in the United States, for instance, we went from 90% of the populace being employed in food production some 200 years ago to less than 2% today – so presumably the percentage of people working in food production was 90% or higher through most of history), and spent a while thinking about this.  And figured I could write an essay, because I’d recently written one that mentioned gene duplication events as a driver for evolution.  Not sure what article I posted for this fact previously – I have many in mind for this topic – so here’s a nice recent review by Katju & Bergthorsson, again stressing that gene duplication events give you room to maneuver:Gene-duplication

“[G]iven that most mutations are degenerative, a duplicated gene is much more likely to end up as a pseudogene than to acquire a function that is distinct from the ancestral gene and actively maintained by natural selection. Loss of one copy, either due to deletion or mutational inactivation is the fate of the overwhelming majority of duplicated genes.”

Which, right – most of the time accumulated mutations after a gene duplication event turn your new sequence into symbolic dreck – but, think, without the prior duplication, you would’ve even have the chance to try out that dreck.  Mutations that reduce the function of a necessary gene, if there were only a single copy, would be selected against.

And I wanted to write an essay about the metaphorical link between gene duplication events and the oppressive taxation that Armstrong wrote about.  Perhaps I should include one last background quote – from Richard Dawkins’ introduction of the concept of “meme,” an evolving bit of culture, presented in his work “The Selfish Gene.”

“We do not have to look for conventional biological survival values of traits like religion, music, and ritual dancing, though these may also be present.  Once the genes have provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid imitation, the memes will automatically take over.  We do not even have to posit a genetic advantage in imitation, though that would certainly help.  All that is necessary is that the brain should be capable of imitation: memes will then evolve that exploit the capability to the full.”

The idea is that culture will also evolve, in a way similar to the evolution of genetic sequences.  As long as a bit of culture is good at propagating itself – either a story that’s fun to hear, or fun to tell, or a piece of knowledge that helps its carrying people survive – it’ll pass through the ages.  You might think of biblical proscriptions against certain foods.  If those foods caused people to get sick, there’s a survival benefit to the meme’s carriers by propagating them, and they’re encased in the bible, which people enjoy reading from.  Their very souls depend on it.

But any scientific or technological discovery “evolves” similarly.  The principles of mathematics, the scientific method, knowledge about electricity.  As our knowledge is refined, in ways that make what we have to say more useful, it’s spread more widely … to the point that now 80% of the world’s population has access to electricity.

(Also: only eighty percent?  We are not doing a great job.)

But for that process to start, electricity has to be discovered in the first place.  And that is what I see as the link between stratified oppression and gene duplication events.  Once humans were living in agricultural societies, where there was a big benefit to ownership of capital (which, right – this claim can be contested.  The whole idea that farming heralded the beginning of stratification and oppression.  Heather Pringle wrote a nice article on the effect of staked claims in pre-agricultural societies – think, “This is my fishing rock… go sit somewhere else!”  Or, “This is where I hunt for berries… in this here berry patch… go forage over there, in that rocky field!”  But there isn’t any evidence that any pre-agricultural peoples attempted to build the type of long-ranging empire made possible by farming), by using violence or the threat thereof to claim ownership of land and tax the people working it, you create leisure time.  Like a duplicated gene, the person who no longer needs to work for food is free to do something else.

And I think the analogy goes farther.  Most duplicated genes degenerate and produce nothing of value.  And I personally imagine that most aristocrats through history were more the Caligula type – only drinking some wine, sleeping with some slaves, causing trouble – than the Ben Franklin type (who, uh, did other stuff too).  But, because useful information spreads so rapidly, it took only a miniscule fraction of good ones to create our modern culture.

This perspective – the idea that stratification was important to give the lucky few a chance to pursue cultural advances – also gives me a new vantage for some passages from the Ramayana.  Many of the hardest passages for me are those involving caste.  The idea that a kingdom would be thrown out of balance if someone who’s supposed to be oppressed instead pursues enlightenment is pretty horrible to me. Here’s a passage from M.N. Dutt’s translation of the Ramayana:

“On the banks of that pond one ascetic was performing the most austere penances with his legs upwards and head downwards.  There upon approaching him, Rama Said–O you of good vows, blessed are you; I do ask you, now, O you highly effulgent and grown old in asceticism, in what Varna you are born.  I put this question out of curiosity.  I am the son of king Dasaratha and my name is Rama.

“For what are you going through such hard austerities?  Is it heaven, or anything else that you pray for?  O ascetic, I wish to hear, of the purpose for which you are performing such hard penances.  Art you a Brahmana, or an irrepressible Ksatriya or the third caste Vaisyas or a Sudra?  Do you speak the truth and you shall be crowned with auspiciousness.

“Hearing the words of Rama, the ascetic, whose face was downwards, gave out his degraded birth and communicated to him for what he was performing ascetic observances.

“Hearing the words of Rama of unwearied actions, the ascetic, with his face downwards, said.

“O highly illustrious Rama, I am born in the race of Sudras; and with a view to reach the region of the celestials with my body I am going through these austere penances.

“O Kakutstha, I shall never utter a falsehood since I am willing to conquer the region of gods.  I am a Sudra and my name is Sambuka.

“The Sudra ascetic having said this, Rama took out of scabbard a beautiful sharp sword and chopped off his head therewith.”


Right?  Very crumby.  Dude is just trying to be good!  But the king’s job was to ensure that oppressed people stay oppressed.  And now I, sitting here typing on a laptop computer, surrounded by all the comforts of the modern world, am the disconcerted beneficiary.

On child abuse and drawing conclusions from data.

If you’re looking for a good strategy for having a bad weekend, I’ve got one: you could go to your local library and borrow Ross Cheit’s book The Witch-Hunt Narrative.

Cheit ruined my weekend.  And his work is out there, ready to ruin yours too!

Not that his book isn’t good.  It is.  I’d write that I’m glad he wrote it, except that I wish he hadn’t needed to.  But he did.  And, sadly, because I am working on a project that involves many sad occurrences, I needed to read it.

So, his book?  He (and a huge team of helper monkeys) went to considerable trouble to investigate several large child abuse trials that were described as “witch hunts” in the media.  He makes a personal statement revealing his bias going into the work right from the beginning, and then presents the evidence he found as clearly and exhaustively as possible.  I found his reasoning to be extremely cogent, his writing lucid, and his conclusions persuasive.  I think he makes a compelling case that many children were failed by our criminal justice system – the children who were deemed dishonest, the children who were denied compensation for harm wrought upon them, and those who were later harmed by perpetrators who perhaps could have been stopped in a less hostile legal environment.

For me, reading this book, one of the main things I took away was that the same individuals were often serving as expert witnesses for the defense, testifying against the children’s claims.  And in his research, Cheit identified some highly suspicious potential motives for these people – several seem to have believed sexual contact between adults and children to be reasonable.  But one of the major adversaries discussed in the book is Dr. Maggie Bruck, whom Chiet at one point accuses with the statement: “Bruck’s position in these cases is not based on science alone.”

That sounded like the kind of statement I could write an essay about.  For one thing, my own project concerns academic science, the difference between how objective it is and how objective the population at large often believes it to be.  And I was interested in why Bruck would make the claims quoted in the book.  For instance, there is this compelling passage from Chiet:

“The remarkable blind spot in Bruck’s position is how it failed to apply her vast knowledge and concern about coercion to the most likely and powerful source in the case: the man who used a baseball bat to make his points.  In Bruck’s view, the interview of July 14, 1994, was completely tainted because in the preceding months David had had contact only with adults who believed Ardolino was guilty.  Bruck never explains why this is so objectionable, while an interview conducted immediately after years under the control of the defendant doesn’t rate any similar concern–even when the allegation, backed up with medical evidence, is that the defendant slowly beat his brother to death.  Apparently, even a witness to such horror is suspect in Bruck’s view if he does not disclose the abuse immediately, on the first interview, and all in one piece.

“There is, of course, a hidden value choice in the position–one that deems the coercive effects of the police interview as a far greater concern than the coercive effects of living with Robert Ardolino for years.  In that respect, Bruck’s position is de facto pro-defense.  This is the only explanation that makes this position consistent with the Rouse case, where Bruck readily accepted recantations that occurred only after the children moved back into a residence where the adults did not believe the original claims–the mirror image of the reason she used to reject David Ardolino’s testimony.  So Bruck does not see the Rouse adults as tainting the recantation in that case, yet she sees David’s foster mother as tainting his testimony, which was, in effect, a recantation of his earlier denials.  These positions are logically incompatible, except to the extent that they both favor defendants.  This “pro-defense orientation” is precisely how Ceci described the design of his research studies when testifying in the Foeller case in Michigan.  Why so many psychologists have aligned themselves with the defense, to the point of demonstrating and even admitting bias in that direction, is a puzzle for another time.  What matters for this book is that these politics exist and work to diminish the credibility, and ultimately the safety, of children.”

Yeah, there are a lot of names in that passage.  I didn’t fill in the background for them – Cheit explains them all clearly in his book, and, honestly, I’m not sure they matter so much to understand the point he’s making here.  There is a clear bias against children, and clearly illogical, inconsistent reasoning going on.  So how does that square with the claim that these people, such as Dr. Bruck, are scientists?

I have only read one paper authored by Bruck – I chose the most recent publication listed on her faculty page at Johns Hopkins, a review of the way children disclose abuse.  She cites a number of other studies and presents some of their data to argue that although children clearly do wait long periods of time before disclosing abuse, she feels that other behaviors described as comprising “childhood sexual abuse accommodation syndrome,” such as possible waffling in a story about what happened once a disclosure is made, do not occur.  And the impression I got from Cheit’s book is that she has testified as such on the behalf of the defense in several cases – testified that children who behave that way are probably not real victims and might be imagining or fabricating their stories of abuse.

I could go through her article bit by bit and explain why I think her interpretations are unreasonable, but that would belie my main point – just because something is “science,” and just because there are numbers attached to it, does not mean there is only a single conclusion that can be drawn.  In my opinion, the closer one gets to mathematics, the more agreement there will be that a certain result implies a certain underlying truth.  But by the time you’re dealing with physics, or chemistry, or biology, or psychology, or economics (which I see as being roughly scalar jumps from one to the next, in terms of what objects are under study), a single experimental result can be interpreted in various ways.  Because most experimental set-ups use model systems.  You always have to accept that there will be some underlying assumptions made about what features of your system will and will not affect your interpretation.

Let’s say you’re replicating some biological process in a test tube.  You have to assume that the tube itself won’t matter – and for some experiments, this is known to be false, and researchers doing those studies might take a few aliquots of purified protein and incubate them in their test tube before even starting the experiment, hoping to block off potential sites along the wall of a tube where the protein might stick.  And then, if that researcher, someone who’d realized the tube was a problem and was doing those pre-incubations, later read a study that involved their model system from someone who did not pre-incubate protein in the test tubes, obviously the latter results would seem suspect.  But it’s possible that no one else would realize that there would be problems with the data.

For a study in psychology, this problem seems even bigger.  Some researchers have argued that the specific wording for questions on psychology surveys can result in different results (and, sure, you might worry about results that are so exquisitely sensitive to seemingly-extraneous details.  I do) – so there are possibly many, many nearly-imperceptible details of a model system that might affect a study’s results, and that you might therefore consider relevant when analyzing someone else’s work.

So, instead of going through Bruck’s paper bit by bit, I’ll point out only what I see as the largest difference between the studies she cites and the real-world situations she has tried to extrapolate those findings to: timing of interviews to identify abuse.  If a case involving many children is going to be prosecuted, the trial happens all at once, and so data collection has to happen all at once – there isn’t time to wait 4 years for one child to be ready to say what happened, 5 months for another, 7 years for another.  Every interview might be conducted within that first year.  And her review cited a study reporting that only 43% of “young” girls (oft older than those involved in the trials described in Cheit’s book) disclosed abuse after STD evidence known to the girls and the interviewer was found that demonstrated that they had been abused.  So, given that many children won’t report abuse right away even when there is already proof known to the person they’re talking to, trying to extrapolate to the way disclosures are made by children who are younger, who do not have proof, and who are reporting what happened perhaps long before they are psychologically ready to do so… to me, seems foolish.

Not that her analysis doesn’t qualify as “science.”  Bruck has made some assumptions, and she has looked over some data, and she’s made some conclusions.  Her methodology is consistent with the practice of science.  Her conclusions may be wrong, but that’s most likely a problem with her underlying assumptions.

Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that.  I had originally thought I’d work in some clever references to other anti-child science (here is one of the more horrifying examples I was considering – which is even salient because you could argue that the children’s susceptibility to suggestion goes along with Bruck’s pro-defense stance), or work in a passage comparing the ways in which children’s testimony was discounted to the way that women’s testimony was (and often still is) discounted in violative assault cases, or a passage contrasting all the attacks on child reliability with people’s acceptance of adult witness testimony, even though there have been many studies showing that adults aren’t very good witnesses and some showing that children might not be much worse.  But, you know, putting all that in would make this much longer and sadder, and it’s pretty long already.