Thursday, May 31, 2007


I will make a bold assertion that scientists of human behavior have an obligation to study punishment. I am willing to make this assertion because:

1. Punishment is a natural part of the human experience

2. Behavior scientists have a duty to attempt to understand the different parts of the human experience.

3. It has been suggested that natural punishment contingencies make up a significant portion of our learning experiences, maybe more so than reinforcement.

The problem is research in punishment often has low social validity and can even spark rejoinders from concerned parents (Shea & Shea, 1976). Social validity is important in behavior analysis (Wolf, 1978) and other science. Also, various codes such as the Nuremburg Codes and the APA code make it clear that ethics must be taken seriously in research with human participants.

A particular point of concern is punishing research conducted with non-consenting or ill informed participants. A review of even recent history shows this to be a legitimate concern.
The Milgram experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, the US government studies giving radioactive calcium to mentally retarded boys, the Willowbrook vaccine study, and the Tuskegee experiment, all horrifically demonstrate what can happen even in recent years when informed consent or lack of concern for the wellbeing of participants is not given.

Beyond the codes and laws now in place to protect ethics. I would propose an number of additional steps that could be taken to help protect those in the experiment.

1. While in some experiments some deception is permitted provided that the risk of the harm of doing so is especially low, no experiment involving punishment shall any deception be used.

2. Those participating in punishment based research be full, legal adults, given full disclosure of methods and intent, and be of judged capable of making their own decisions. No consent by proxy shall be permitted.

3. The individual will be informed and reminded at least once early in the first session of the experiment of their right to withdraw, without fear of loss, or retribution.

4. If the participant(s) are also the investigators, all the same rules still apply.

That's my idea at least. Ideas, criticisms, concerns, hate mail, etc. welcome in the comments section.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

New Study

Soden et al. (2007) just came out. The authors compared both children diagnosed with autism and without autism. The study included a baseline 24-hour urine collection, and a DMSA-provoked urine collection.

The results showed “In the absence a proven novel mode of heavy metal toxicity, the proportion of autistic participants in this study whose DMSA provoked excretion results demonstrate an excess chelatable body burden of As, Cd, Pb, or Hg is zero”.

I will offer a guess that the advocates of complementary and alternative practices in autism, will not respond to this article well. I will predict that the authors will be called shills within the next 2 weeks. I will post a link or citation if this occurs.


Soden, S, E., Lowry, J, A., Garrison, C, B., Wasserman GS. (2007). 24-hour provoked urine excretion test for heavy metals in children with autism and typically developing controls, a pilot study. Clinical Toxicology, 45(5), 476-481.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Trying to Define Skepticism

Skepticism is one of those words like “diversity” or “autism” that can be tricky to define. If you were to go on the street an ask people what it skepticism means you would probably get some real variety in terms of answers.

The publication Skeptic has an editorial that attempts to define skepticism. It is a crisp, interesting article with a brief reference to ancient Greek skepticism and a conclusion with a rephrasing of Descartes’ famous metaphysical equation.

However, the article really caught my attention because, it defines skepticism as a methodology. The editorial states “Skepticism is a method leading to provisional assent”. And that is a fine definition; unfortunately it isn’t true.

Skepticism is not a methodology, at the very least not in the singular sense of the word. People using skepticism do not address uniform problems. The method one would take to assess the statement “Some cows are black and white” look very different from assessing “I remember a past life as a ship captain”, which in turn looks different from trying to determine whether a Chi-square analysis was adequate, or a matched-pairs design was sufficiently well controlled.

It is not simply the complexity, that makes these examples different, it is the nature of the hoops we have to jump through, and the level of certainty we can have after investigation. If anything, it would have to be many smaller methodologies specific to each type of problem.

I would argue that even that, is not enough, you need to have logic is your assessment. I would define logic as:

The valid rationalizations by which we could potentially withhold provisional assent.

And methods as:

The controls one places in a trial in an attempt to see if we can withhold provisional assent.

Now maybe some of you are wondering why my language was worded so strangely. I didn’t say “give provisional assent” or “prove”. That is because in research (or in group based statistical research) we don’t try to prove an effect; arguably we can’t prove an effect. So, instead we try to see if there is no relationship, we call this the null hypothesis. We are attempting to show that there is not a relationship, and to do this we have to make our ideas potentially falsifiable. And that is why; we do not prove the hypothesis, but reject the null hypothesis.

Again, I want to stress why logic and methods must go hand in hand. I will provide examples below:

1) I hypothesize that 1 + 1 equals 2. Logically I know that I should be able to add 2 objects together to test this hypothesis. I choose to do this using water. I add 1 drop, then a second, but I end up with only 1 larger water drop. My logic was impeccable, but my methods, were not well suited to the task.

2) I hypothesize that the ability to sling webs out of one’s hands comes from watching television. I compare the number of reported cases of people with web slinging abilities in New York to the average amount of television viewed by New Yorkers. My logic does not allow me to determine a relationship here, even if my statistical methods were appropriate and rigorous.

3) I opine that a particular Polar Bear is white. I observe the bear in the sunlight and I notice that it is white; I later observe it by accident in the shade and notice that it was distinctly brown. In this case both the methods and the logic need some work.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Please go see......

Doc's takedown of the Adam's tooth study. It is particulalry excellent
and letter to the editor worthy.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

United Methodist Women’s Division

Please take a moment to review Kathleen’s correspondence with the Women’s Division, of the Methodist Church.

It seems that one reverend, managed to sucessfully campaign within this group to have them take a position agaisnt and even host an anti-thimerosal event. Unfotunately this same reverend, is a litigant in a case involving thimerosal and autism.

It seems the Women’s Division dismissed this conflict of interest, because “her personal judicial advocacy extends from a desire to seek justice for children suffering from mercury poisoning”. In other words an ethics problem is not an ethics problem, because they feel the reverend has good intentions.