Wednesday, 11 March 2020

What can scientists do in an emergency shutdown?

More and more universities are closing as a precaution against coronavirus.  Scientists who work on educational interventions are seeing whole projects go up in smoke when schools close, preventing gathering of endpoint data: and even if they don't close, school staff may be understandably reluctant to have researchers on the premises. Even where university labs remain open, research with humans is likely to be impacted by participants pulling out in order to keep themselves out of harm's way. I'm aware that a major push for data collection that I had planned over the next 12 months is now at risk.  I'm writing this post in part in the hope that people who have creative solutions for adapting to this situation can add them as comments, so we might find a shared way through this difficult time.

Of course, it is hoped that funders will be sympathetic to shutdowns and may offer extensions of funding, but that won't be much comfort to anyone doing a time-sensitive project, such as an intervention trial or longitudinal study, or for students who have to complete a project before their course ends. In my own case, I had planned a programme of work to take me up to retirement, and so extension of funding would not be a solution.  And if normality resumes only after a vaccine is developed and deployed, this will be a long time off.

So what to do? For some projects, particularly in psychology, online data-gathering may be a solution. Just over the past year, we have been increasingly developing methods for doing this using the Gorilla platform, including various types of language test for adults and children, as well as measures of brain lateralisation. Gorilla has a nice interface that helps new users to develop tasks, and also helps with issues such as compliance with regulations such as GDPR. For regular studies with adults, Gorilla combines nicely with Prolific, a platform for recruitment to online studies. We have had ethics approval for several studies using this approach.

But online testing won't be the solution for everyone, and one proposal I have is that where new data collection is not possible, we need to think hard about getting more value out of existing data. There are several ways we can do this. 
  • First, search for existing datasets that are relevant to your research question. Some big datasets are already well-known. For instance, the CHILDES database for child language samples, ALSPAC for longitudinal data on child development, UK Biobank for genetic and medical data, including brain imaging.  But there are many other sources of data that are relatively underused, but can be found on sites such as the UK Data Archive (social sciences) or Open Science Framework. These are just a few I happen to know about: I'm sure readers will know of many more – and maybe one useful task that underemployed scientists could undertake would be to create directories of existing accessible data on specific topics.
  • Dan Quintana tweeted that this could be a good time to learn about doing meta-analysis, and provided some useful references here.  Meta-analysis is often seen as a rather pedestrian scientific activity, but in my experience it has benefits that go far beyond the generation of a forest plot – it forces you to engage deeply with the literature and become aware of methodological issues that might otherwise be overlooked.
  • Another suggestion is to spend time curating your own existing data from published studies, to make them fully reproducible. A major aspect of the Open Science movement has been to emphasise the importance of being able to reproduce a full analysis, right through from raw data to analyses, tables and figures in a published paper.  A nice introduction by Stodden and colleagues was published in 2016, and there are more references in the slides from her recent webcast from Project Tier.
    I've been trying to adopt this approach in my own lab over the last few years and it's on the one hand much harder than you might think, but on the other hand it is immensely satisfying.  Making code open has a huge advantage beyond making the work reproducible – it also allows others to learn from your scripts, rather than re-invent the wheel when analysing data. But be warned: you will almost certainly find errors in your published work. The main thing is to anticipate that this will happen and to ensure that you correct them and learn from them.

    A major reason why many people don't adopt methods of open, reproducible science is that it takes time. Well, we may be in the weird situation of having time on our hands, and this could be a great way of using it to give a new lease of life to old data.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) in relation to DSM-5

The tl;dr (too long, didn't read) message in this post is that for all intents and purposes, Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), as defined in the CATALISE project, can be regarded as equivalent to DSM-5 Language Disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). This is a question of interest to people working in systems that require a DSM-5 diagnosis for access to services or insurance payments.

Diagnostic flowchart for CATALISE, based on Figure 1 from Bishop et al (2017).

Figure 1 shows how DLD is defined in the CATALISE project (Bishop et al, 2017). In this framework, DLD is a subset of the broader term 'Language Disorder', with the 'Developmental' prefix used to indicate that the language problems are not associated with a known biomedical condition. The list of biomedical conditions includes brain injury, acquired epileptic aphasia in childhood, certain neurodegenerative conditions, cerebral palsy, oral language limitations associated with sensori-neural hearing loss, autism, intellectual disability and genetic conditions such as Down syndrome.

In DSM-5, 'Language Disorder' is used with a meaning that closely corresponds to DLD. DSM-5 Diagnostic criteria for Language Disorder (category 315.32; F80.2) are as follows:

A. Persistent difficulties in the acquisition and use of language across modalities (I.e. spoken, written, sign language, or other) due to deficits in comprehension of production that include the following: 
  • Reduced vocabulary (word knowledge and use) 
  • Limited sentence structure (ability to put word and word endings together to form sentences based on the rules of grammar and morphology 
  • Impairments in discourse (ability to use vocabulary and connect sentences to explain or describe a topic or series of events or have a conversation) 
B. Language abilities are substantially and quantifiably below those expected for age, resulting in functional limitations in effective communication, social participation, academic achievement, or occupational performance, individually or in any combination 
C. Onset of symptoms is in the early developmental period 
D. The difficulties are not attributable to hearing or other sensory impairment, motor dysfunction, or another medical or neurological condition, and are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay. 

The relationship between the CATALISE terminology and DSM-5 are shown in Figure 2. In both CATALISE DLD and DSM-5 Language Disorder, cognitive referencing is not used (i.e. there is no IQ cutoff for inclusion in the category), the language problems are seen in early childhood and are persistent and lead to functional impairment, and children with associated biomedical conditions are excluded. 
Figure 2: Set diagram showing relationship between CATALISE and DSM-5 terminology
The CATALISE criteria are more explicit than DSM-5 in relation to bilingual/multilingual children, making it clear that one would not diagnose DLD unless the child showed poor language competence in their best language, but a similar idea is conveyed in the "Differential diagnosis" section of DSM-5, where it is noted that "Language disorder needs to be distinguished from normal developmental variations... Regional, social, or cultural/ethnic variations of language must be considered when an individual is being assessed for language impairment." Unfortunately, a recent account of DLD by a member of the CATALISE panel stated that bilingual/multilingual children were excluded from the DLD category (Rice, 2020). It is unclear how this misunderstanding arose, but it is clearly discrepant with Figure 1.

One might ask why the CATALISE panel decided against alignment with the DSM-5 terminology, given that there is such overlap between CATALISE DLD and DSM-5 Language Disorder. The answer is that "Language Disorder" as defined in DSM-5 is a problematic label because on the one hand it refers to a specific DSM-5 category 315.32 (F80.2), but on the other hand it is widely used to refer to symptom-level problems in many conditions. "Language disorder" is a hopeless term to use in a literature search because it will turn up a far broader range of conditions than those defined by the diagnostic criteria above, including many types of acquired language disorder associated with both developmental and adult-onset conditions.

This broader meaning of the term gives ample scope for confusion. Indeed, even within the DSM-5 manual, ambiguity is apparent. Under "Differential diagnosis" mention is made of Neurological disorders, with the statement "Language disorder can be acquired in association with neurological disorders, including epilepsy (e.g. acquired aphasia or Landau-Kleffner syndrome)". A literal reading of this would mean that, contrary to Diagnostic criteria point D, children with acquired aphasia or Landau-Kleffner syndrome can be regarded as having Language Disorder. I don't think that is what the authors intended: rather they imply that one should differentiate acquired language disorder associated with neurological conditions from "Language Disorder" that corresponds to DSM-5 category 315.32 (F80.2).

In short, in proposing the DLD label, the CATALISE panel were capturing a grouping that is conceptually the same as DSM-5 Language Disorder. We felt, however, that 'Language Disorder" was a problematic label that would generate confusion, and so we used the more traditional term "Developmental Language Disorder" specifically to identify a category of language disorder without associated biomedical conditions.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Bishop, D. V. M., Snowling, M. J., Thompson, P. A., Greenhalgh, T., & CATALISE Consortium. (2017). Phase 2 of CATALISE: a multinational and multidisciplinary Delphi consensus study of problems with language development: Terminology. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 58(10), 1068-1080. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12721
Rice, M. (2020). Clinical lessons from studies of children with Specific Language Impairment. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, 5(1), 12-29. doi:

Sunday, 23 February 2020

Changing terminology for children's language disorders: reflections on special issue of Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups

In 2016-7, I joined with expert colleagues to try to tackle the thorny issue of terminology for children who had difficulties speaking or understanding in their native language. This was incredibly challenging: we had a panel of 57 experts, moderated by Maggie Snowling and me, engage in a Delphi process, whereby we iteratively rated and commented on statements to do with identification and diagnosis to converge on a set of recommendations (Bishop et al., 2016; 2017). There was substantial disagreement between experts, who came from a range of disciplines and nationalities, but the one thing we agreed upon was that the current situation – of a plethora of different terms being used with various meanings – was doing a grave disservice to families and their children affected by language problems. There was a lack of recognition of language problems among professionals and the general public, as well as a paucity of research relative to other conditions of similar severity and prevalence. Eventually we converged on a recommendation that the term 'Developmental Language Disorder' (DLD) should be used to describe children with persistent problems with language expression or reception that had no obvious cause, and that impacted on everyday life.

Publication of the 2017 recommendations had considerably greater impact than I had anticipated, thanks to the generally enthusiastic take-up of the new terminology, which has been adopted by professional organisations in the UK, Ireland and Australia. A brief summary of the salient points was written by Susan Ebbels for the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists.

Following the publication of the CATALISE papers, big changes have happened just in a couple of years:
  • The terminology has stimulated development of grassroots advocacy, with campaigns to promote awareness of DLD adopting ingenious and innovative methods to publicise events. See e.g. here.
  • The DLD label has raised awareness that this is a life-long condition*. Adults with DLD have started to talk about their experiences on social media (e.g. here). 
  • Figures on terminology from Web of Science show that DLD is starting to overtake the term 'Specific Language Impairment' in published papers.
  • Figure 1: N publications with full term 'Specific Language Impairment' or 'Developmental Language Disorder' in the Topic field; data from Web of Science

    Nevertheless, despite these positive developments, not everyone has been convinced that adoption of DLD is a good thing. This is not surprising: a couple of years ago, I reflected on some of the reasons why this particular topic is a terminological minefield (Bishop, 2017). It is difficult to balance the pros and cons of new terminology, especially when one is dealing with a condition that is heterogeneous, changes with age, can co-occur with many other problems, and is of relevance to several professions with very different perspectives, in particular speech-language therapists/pathologists, educators and medics.

    Resistance to new terminology appears to be strongest in the USA, with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association being particularly cautious about replacing the term Specific Language Impairment with DLD. This week they published a set of papers by individuals with different viewpoints on the topic, and reading through this I was reminded of many of the debates we had in the course of our Delphi exercises. The special issue includes a  tutorial overview by Karla McGregor and colleagues (McGregor et al., 2020), who summarise the background to the CATALISE project, and subsequent developments. They are supportive of DLD, not least because of the way the new terminology has boosted the profile of children's language problems and stimulated greater efforts towards advocacy. But we need to take seriously the concerns of those who have doubts.

    Two authors in particular, Larry Leonard and Mabel Rice, were concerned that if we adopt DLD as the preferred term, decades of research on SLI would be ignored and ultimately forgotten. Both of them have made major lifetime contributions to the field, and so their concerns are understandable. It is vital that we heed Larry's advice (Leonard, 2020) to ensure that we include the search term SLI as well as DLD when drawing together relevant literature, to ensure valuable work from previous decades is not lost.

    A related issue is that, although they overlap, SLI and DLD are not identical. In general, DLD is a more inclusive term, as it does not require that nonverbal IQ is 85 or over (although it does exclude cases of intellectual disability**), and it is compatible with the presence of other neurodevelopmental disorders, especially developmental co-ordination disorder and attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder. Rice (2020) remains strongly opposed to the use of DLD, mainly because this would entail including children with nonverbal IQs below 85 (who were termed cases of nonspecific language impairment, or NLI, in a big epidemiological study, the Iowa study). Yet this stance is hard to reconcile with her view that nonverbal ability is independent of language. She spends several paragraphs presenting evidence that it is possible to have low nonverbal ability and good language, or high nonverbal ability and poor language, culminating in the statement: 'The common assumption that children with SLI are not very smart is unwarranted, as is the assumption that all children with strong language aptitude are smart.' It is unclear to whom she is referring as making this 'common assumption'. A major reason why the CATALISE group decided to drop 'cognitive referencing' in defining DLD was because the bivariate distribution of nonverbal IQ and language demonstrates rather a weak association – just as she claims - but this makes it clear that any division into those above and below an IQ threshold is arbitrary (see Figure 2). Just to be absolutely clear, in proposing we do away with nonverbal IQ criteria for DLD, the CATALISE consortium were not saying that children with SLI are 'not very smart'. We were saying that they key thing is what your language is like, and that nonverbal ability is largely irrelevant when making that judgement.
Figure 2: Language composite measure plotted against non‐verbal IQ for 603 eight‐year‐old children in the Iowa study. Figure from Reilly et al (2014). Blue points correspond to SLI, and green points to NLI. NB Axes resized to address criticism by Rice (2020), who found the scaling misleading.

    Rice goes on to argue that we need to study children's mastery of specific grammatical markers over time to get a precise measure of children's language in SLI, yet she then goes on to present data showing that children with NLI are also identified by low scores on those markers. Although she claimed a difference in language profiles, this was not evident from the data she presented, and in general, most studies that have looked for qualitative differences between NLI and SLI have failed to find these (see also further evidence from McGregor et al, 2020). Rice maintains that only by sticking with SLI would we find sufficiently clear findings to advance our understanding, and that if we adopt less precise categories, this will lead to muddying of the waters and less replicable results. I regard this as a hypothesis that can be tested, but for which there is currently no good evidence. In fact, it was the failure to find such evidence in my own studies 25 years ago that led me to start to question the construct of SLI (Bishop, 1994).

    Larry Leonard makes the sensible suggestion that if we study DLD we should also provide data on which children would meet the more restrictive definition of SLI:  this would, in fact, allow us to test Rice's hypothesis. The best way to do this, and to build on prior studies with SLI would be to make raw data open (see Meyer, 2018), so that results can be analysed to investigate the extent to which findings depend on levels of nonverbal ability, attention, motor skills and so on. There is already precedent for this with the EpiSLI database from the Iowa study (Tomblin, 2010) – this includes data on children who would meet broader DLD criteria as well as more selective SLI cases. This way we could investigate empirically the impact of the choice of criteria, rather than just asserting that one classification approach is better than the other.

    I turn next to the other commentary that is predominantly negative about a change of criteria to DLD, that by Murza and Ehren (2020). Their perspective is diametrically opposed to that of Rice. They explain that for speech-language pathologists (SLPs) working in the school system, there is a mismatch between what is taught in their university courses (including diagnosis of SLI) and what they experience in the classroom. There were some parallels here with the views of education experts on the CATALISE panel, some of whom felt the whole debate about labels was irrelevant, and would empathise with the view that: 'No matter the label, students should receive the services they need, and no label should drive services'. But, as Murza and Ehren recognise, labels are needed to demonstrate eligibility for services, and in the USA, this is determined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which has its own set of labels: these don't include either SLI or DLD. I felt a sense of despair coming through from this article, as the authors documented the confusing array of possible terms they could use, each of which had an operational definition, but with that definition varying from one state to another. The impression was that SLPs in US education are up against a massive, unbending bureaucracy that they had to negotiate in order to deliver services to a subset of the children that might benefit from them. In principle, yes, it would be nice to have some consistent terminology that mapped on to the population they were serving, but their conclusion was that they lacked the time, money, energy and focus to embark on a campaign to adopt new labels. This was a considerably more sober and downbeat chapter than that of Rhea Paul, who regarded DLD as potentially compatible with IDEA criteria, and a useful focus for advocacy efforts. 

    When discussing relevance of labels for SLP practitioners, another issue concerned insurance eligibility. Karla McGregor reported that she had been told by an insurer: 'If a child just isn't talking or not talking clearly - it is not covered'. The authors also noted a common concern that the term Developmental would be interpreted by insurers, and perhaps others, as implying that the condition would improve of its own accord. But SLPs should not take these kinds of responses lying down: it is grossly inequitable if insurers are willing to pay for a condition such as ADHD or Developmental Co-ordination Disorder, but not for speech-language therapy for a child with DLD. The arguments can and should be made, and it is hoped that the growing awareness of, and advocacy for DLD will empower US SLPs to be more proactive in demanding that children with language disorders are taken seriously and given the support they need.

    * Damian Quinn, a man with DLD, has written an autobiography. The timing in relation to CATALISE is probably co-incidental, but this will help with growing awareness that children with DLD do not disappear when they become adults!

    ** The introductory article for the special issue stated that DLD is used for children 'with or without intellectual disability'. This is wrong. Where the child meets criteria for intellectual disability, the diagnosis would be Language Disorder associated with Intellectual Disability.

    P.S. (24 Feb 2020). All the materials from the CATALISE project, including anonymised ratings and comments from the 57 panel members, are available on Open Science Framework.

     Bishop, D. V. M. (1994). Is specific language impairment a valid diagnostic category? Genetic and psycholinguistic evidence. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, series B, 346, 105-111. 
    Bishop, D. V. M. (2017). Why is it so hard to reach agreement on terminology? The case of developmental language disorder (DLD). International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 52(6), 671-680. doi:10.1111/1460-6984.12335

    Bishop, D. V. M., Snowling, M. J., Thompson, P. A., Greenhalgh, T., & CATALISE Consortium. (2016). CATALISE: a multinational and multidisciplinary Delphi consensus study. Identifying language impairments in children. . PLOS One, 11(7), e0158753. doi:doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0158753

    Bishop, D. V. M., Snowling, M. J., Thompson, P. A., Greenhalgh, T., & CATALISE Consortium. (2017). Phase 2 of CATALISE: a multinational and multidisciplinary Delphi consensus study of problems with language development: Terminology. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 58(10), 1068-1080. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12721

    Leonard, L. B. (2020). A 200-year history of the study of childhood language disorders of unknown origin: changes in terminology. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, 5(1), 6-11. doi:

    McGregor, K. K., Goffman, L., Owen Van Horne, A., Hogan, T. P., & Finestack, L. H. (2020). Developmental Language Disorder: Applications for advocacy, research, and clinical service. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, 5(1), 38-46. doi:

    Meyer, M. N. (2018). Practical tips for ethical data sharing. Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science. doi:

    Murza, K. A., & Ehren, B. J. (2020). Considering the language disorder label debate from a school speech-language pathology lens. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, 5(1), 47-54. doi:

    Paul, R. (2020). Children's language disorders: What's in a name. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, 5(1), 30-37. doi:
    Rice, M. (2020). Clinical lessons from studies of children with Specific Language Impairment. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, 5(1), 12-29. doi:

    Reilly, S., Tomblin, B., Law, J., McKean, C., Mensah, F. K., Morgan, A., . . . Wake, M. (2014). Specific language impairment: a convenient label for whom? International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 49(4), 416-451. doi:10.1111/1460-6984.12102

    Tomblin, J. B. (2010). The EpiSLI database: a publicly available database on speech and language. Lang Speech Hear Serv Sch, 41(1), 108-117.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Why eugenics is wrong

I really didn't think I would need to write a blogpost on this topic, but it seems eugenics is having a resurgence in the UK, so here we go.

The idea of eugenics deceptively simple. Given that some traits are heritable, we should identify those with beneficial heritable traits and encourage them to have more children, while discouraging (or even preventing) those with less desirable traits to breed. This way we will improve the human race.

Those promoting eugenics have decided that high intelligence is a desirable trait, and indeed it does correlate with things like good educational outcomes, earnings and health. It is also heritable. So wouldn't it be great to improve the human race by genetic selection for intelligence?

Much of the debate on this question has focussed on whether it could be done, rather than whether it should be. Many who would blench at enforced sterilisation have warmed to the suggestion that Polygenic Risk Scores can be used to predict educational attainment, and so could be used for embryo selection. However, those promoting this idea have exaggerated the predictive power of polygenic scores (see this preprint by Tim Morris for a recent analysis, and this review of Kevin Mitchell's book Innate for other links). But let us suppose for a moment that in the future we could predict an individual's intelligence from a genetic score: would it be acceptable then to use this information to improve the human race?

The flaw in the argument is exposed when you consider the people who are making it. Typically, they are people who do well on intelligence tests. In effect, they are saying "The world needs more people like us". Looking at those advocating eugenic policies, many of us would beg to differ.

The bad state of the world we live in is not caused by unintelligent people. It is caused by intelligent people who have used their abilities to amass disproportionate wealth, manipulate others or elbow them out of the way. Eugenicists should be especially aware that their advantages are due to luck rather than merit, yet they behave as if they deserve them, and fiercely protect them from "people not like us".

If we really wanted to use our knowledge of genetics to make the world a better place, we would select for the traits of kindness and tolerance. Rather than sterilising the unintelligent, we would minimise breeding by those who are characterised by greed and a sense of superiority over other human beings. But there's the catch: it's only those who think they're superior to others who actually want to implement eugenic policies.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Stemming the flood of illegal external examiners

On 21st January, the Times Higher Education published a short piece about Professor Eric Barendt, an academic lawyer at UCL, who had been told that he had to submit his passport to another University in order to be acceptable as an external examiner. He thought this was preposterous, and declined to do so. The reaction on Twitter indicated that passport checks were now widespread in British universities, and many academics were unhappy about it 

My sympathies are with Prof Barendt, and I've decided that I too will not agree to be an external examiner if I am required to provide my passport to prove I am eligible. In fact, a few days after this story broke, I was invited to be an external examiner, and agreed only on condition that I did not have to provide my passport. Alas, it looks like this means I won't be examining the thesis.

This may look like petulance: refusal to comply with what is not an burdensome requirement creates difficulties for a blameless candidate and their supervisor. So let me explain why I think it is important.

External examining is a highly skilled, high-stakes, onerous task for which one is paid not much more than the minimum wage. The going rate varies from institution to institution, but in my recent experience you may get around £180 to £240. You have to read and evaluate a thesis that represents 3 years' worth of work (around 40,000-50,000 words in my discipline), visit the candidate's home institution to conduct an oral examination that lasts around 2-3 hours, ensure that any corrections are done to your satisfaction, and write a report with recommendations. Nobody does this for the money. Rather, like so much in academia, the whole system survives by a quid pro quo: you know that when your own students need examining, you'll want to find external examiners for them. With a strong student, examining can have its own intrinsic rewards, but it can also be highly stressful if there are problems with the thesis. So overall, all of the academics involved in this process know that the external examiner is doing a favour for another institution by agreeing to take on this extra job.

When I first did examining, many years ago, arrangements for selecting examiners were pretty informal. Times change, and everything has got more official and bureaucratic. Many institutions now require external examiners to provide proof of their competence to do the job (a CV and/or list of previous candidates examined), and some have guidelines to avoid too much chumminess between supervisor and external examiner (no co-authorships, for example). I can see that these requirements, have a point in preserving the integrity of the examination system.

But the passport check is really the last straw. It's senseless on two counts. First, it implies that academic institutions classify external examiners as employees, even though they are doing a one-off task for which the pay is trivial. Second, as Prof Barendt noted, it means that they don't trust other academic institutions to do proper checks of right to work. Now, it may be that there are some dodgy places where this is the case, but it seems reasonable to assume that Higher Education Institutions recognised by the Office for Students will be compliant with the law on this point. What is weird is that when I protest about the passport check for external examiners, some colleagues say, "But if the institution didn't do these checks, they'd be liable for enormous fines". Well, given that is the case, then surely it's safe to assume that the institution that actually employs the external examiner will have done the checks. I can understand that institutions might want an option of conducting checks in rare cases where there was reason to doubt this was true. It's the mandatory nature of the checks that are otiose in 99% of cases that is so exasperating.

Some years ago, in a different context, I wrote a piece about expansion of research regulation in academic life. Many of the points I made there apply to this situation. Bureaucracy creeps up on us by a series of stealthy small steps, until we suddenly find ourselves engulfed by it. Yes, showing a passport is a trivial matter, but I think that if we don't resist this kind of thing, it will only get worse.

P.S. Eric Barendt has pointed me to a piece he wrote on this topic for the Oxford Magazine (2020, No. 416, pp 8-10). I don't think this publication is available online, so here is just a short quote from it concerning the legal aspects of passport checks - something that has been discussed on Twitter in response to this blogpost.
An employer breaks the law only if it employs an illegal immigrant, not because it fails to conduct passport checks. If it is confident it is employing a UK national (or other person with a right to work in the UK such as an EEA or Swiss national), then it has nothing to worry about. So an automatic request is unnecessary. It reveals what may be termed a culture of ‘over-compliance’ with government policy. Of course, it is a sensible, indeed a vital, step to take, if a university, or indeed any employer, has doubts about the immigration status of anyone it is contemplating employing, but common sense surely suggests it is quite unwarranted when it engages someone whom it ought to trust.
Another issue tackled by Eric's piece is whether it is reasonable for Universities to treat external examiners as employees:
... it is hard to see why an external examiner, particularly of a doctoral thesis, should be treated as an employee of the host university, when an academic reviewer of a book proposal is not regarded as an employee of the publisher which engaged him (or her) to review it.
It has been suggested on Twitter that if we are to be regarded as employees, we should be paid an appropriate wage, and the post should be advertised!  

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Should I stay or should I go? When debate with opponents should be avoided

Suppose you are invited to speak at a conference where some of the other speakers have views very different from yours. What do you do? My guess is that most academics would say you should accept. After all, we progress by evaluating claims and counterclaims, and robust debate is the lifeblood of scientific research. I'm going to argue here that there are exceptions and explain why I think responsible scientists should avoid a meeting called "Fixing Science: Practical Solutions for the Irreproducibility Crisis".

To understand this reaction, it helps to have read Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Eric Conway and Naomi Oreskes (reviewed here). The synopsis from the book blurb is as follows:
The U.S. scientific community has long led the world in research on such areas as public health, environmental science, and issues affecting quality of life. Our scientists have produced landmark studies on the dangers of DDT, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and global warming. But at the same time, a small yet potent subset of this community leads the world in vehement denial of these dangers.

Merchants of Doubt tells the story of how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. Remarkably, the same individuals surface repeatedly - some of the same figures who have claimed that the science of global warming is "not settled" denied the truth of studies linking smoking to lung cancer, coal smoke to acid rain, and CFCs to the ozone hole. "Doubt is our product," wrote one tobacco executive. These 'experts' supplied it.
Uncertainty about science that threatens big businesses has been promoted by think tanks such as the Heartland Institute and Cato Institute, which receive substantial funding from those vested interests. The Fixing Science meeting has a clear overlap with those players.

The meeting first came to my attention when a mini Twitterstorm erupted after James Heathers tweeted:
Everyone's familiar with the manel, right? The all-male panel? Well, here's a whole new level for you.

I found myself wondering whether the lack of women was deliberate – maybe the organisers think you need a Y chromosome to do science – or whether it just showed they were tone-deaf to current social norms.

Once I twigged that this was organised by the National Association of Scholars, then everything fell into place. You can find the background to this organisation in their annual report here.

As several commentators have pointed out, they use the acronym NAS, which just happens to be the same as the highly respectable National Academy of Sciences: to avoid confusion here I will refer to them as NatAsSchols. The impression from their website and publications is that they are aligned with a neoliberal viewpoint and are opposed to attempts to increase diversity of race or gender in Universities.

So why is this organisation, whose mission is focused on issues such as preserving free speech and counteracting left-wing bias in Universities, running a meeting on fixing problems in science?

The NatAsSchols explains their interest in this topic as follows:
In April we published The Irreproducibility Crisis, a report on the modern scientific crisis of reproducibility—the failure of a shocking amount of scientific research to discover true results because of slipshod use of statistics, groupthink, and flawed research techniques. We launched the report at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC; it was introduced by Representative Lamar Smith, the Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. This project signals our increasing commitment to address the academy’s flawed science as well as its abandonment of Western civilization and the liberal arts. We are following up The Irreproducibility Crisis with the investigation of four government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency. We are determined to find out just how badly irreproducible science has distorted government policy.
This makes it clear that the agenda is fundamentally a political one, designed to support the Trump administration's dismantling of environmental protections.

In 2018, Naomi Oreskes, author of Merchants of Doubt, wrote in Nature about a new 'Transparency Rule' proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency:
There is a crisis in US science, but it is not the one claimed by advocates for the rule. The crisis is the attempt to discredit scientific findings that threaten powerful corporate interests. The EPA is following a pattern that I and others have documented in regard to tobacco smoke, pollution, climate, and more. One tactic exploits the idea of scientific uncertainty to imply there is no scientific consensus. Another, seen in the latest efforts, insinuates that relevant research might be flawed. To add insult to injury, those using these tactics claim to be defending science.
February's meeting is in the same mould. The format of the meeting is cleverly constructed. The conference will be introduced and summed up by David J. Theroux (Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Institute and Publisher of The Independent Review) and Peter Wood, (President, NatAsSchols). Neither man has any scientific background. Theroux delighted the Heartland Institute last summer when he promoted the idea, recently publicised by Donald Trump, that wind turbines are responsible for killing numerous birds (to see this lampooned, click here)

Wood was an anthropologist who has been Provost at a small religious school, The King’s College in New York City (2005-2007), before moving to NatAsSchols. He has, as far as I can tell, no peer-reviewed publications, but he has written pieces deriding climate concerns, e.g. "the fantasies of global warming catastrophe are a kind of substitute religion, replete with a salvation doctrine, rituals of expiation, and a collection of demons to be cast out."

Another presenter is David Randall, who is Director of Research at NatAsSchols, policy advisor to the Heartland Institute and first author of the report on "The Irreproducibility of Modern Science". He is an unusual person to be authoring an authoritative report on the state of science. Web of Science turned up seven publications by him, all in politics journals, and none with any citations. His background is in history, library studies and fiction writing.

A rather puzzling choice of speaker is Richard K. Vedder, Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Economics, Ohio University and senior fellow at The Independent Institute, a think-tank founded by David Theroux. I could not find much evidence that he has shown any prior interest in science. He is Founding Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington, D.C and policy advisor to the Heartland Institute.

But there are also some accredited scientists on the programme, who can be divided into two camps. First, we have a set of five speakers who are aligned with NatAsSchols and/or the Heartland Institute and who have unconventional views on subjects such as climate change, pollution and gay relationships:

Elliott D. Bloom is Professor Emeritus at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology in the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC) and a Fellow of the American Physical Society. He has an entry on the Independent Institute website which states: "He was a member of the SLAC team with Jerome I. Friedman, Henry W. Kendall and Richard E. Taylor who received the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physics." I thought this meant he was a Nobel Laureate, but he's not listed as one. Nevertheless, he has a strong publication record in Physics. He has co-authored a presentation on "Global Warming: Fact or Fiction?", which concludes that the sun, rather than CO2 is the principal driver of climate change.

Anastasios Tsonis is Emeritus Distinguished Professor, Department of Mathematical Sciences, Atmospheric Sciences Group, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee; and Adjunct Research Scientist, Hydrologic Research Center, San Diego, California. He has worked on mathematical models of atmospheric processes and has a strong set of publications. He is a member of the academic advisory council of the Global Warming Policy Forum, a think tank founded by Nigel Lawson to combat policies designed to mitigate climate change.

Patrick J. Michaels, Senior Fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute has a Wikipedia entry that states that "he was a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute until Spring 2019. Until 2007 he was research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, where he had worked from 1980." Michaels also has an entry in the Website of the Heartland Institute 

Louis Anthony Cox is Professor, Department of Biostatistics and Informatics, University of Colorado and President of Cox Associates, a Denver-based applied research company specializing in quantitative risk analysis, causal modeling, advanced analytics, and operations research. He has a long list of publications. A Google search turns up an article in the Los Angeles Times which states:
The Trump administration’s reliance on industry-funded environmental specialists is again coming under fire, this time by researchers who say that Louis Anthony 'Tony' Cox Jr., who leads a key Environmental Protection Agency advisory board on air pollution, is a 'fringe' scientist and ideologue pushing policies detrimental to public health.
They refer to this paper in Science, which stated that Cox ignored consensus viewpoints on the effects of smog and particulate pollution. His work has also been criticised for its conflict with corporate interests.

Mark Regnerus, Professor, Sociology Department, University of Texas at Austin has a Wikipedia page which notes the controversy around his research on the adverse impact of a child having a parent who has been involved in a same-sex relationship. The research is funded by the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank. Regnerus also contributed to an amicus brief in opposition to same-sex marriage. A sympathetic account of the controversy was published by the NatAsSchols .

Of the remaining 11 speakers, as far as I can see only one, Barry Smith (University at Buffalo), has any formal links with NatAsSchols. With a few exceptions they are psychologists/philosophers/statisticians with a specific interest in scientific reproducibility. Interest in this topic has been growing exponentially over the past 10 years, and, in general, those engaged in research in this area do so with the aim of improving scientific transparency and practice. However, they run the risk that their agenda can be weaponised to cast doubt on any particular part of scientific research that is politically or commercially inconvenient.

They will serve perfectly as foils to the five speakers whose minority views on climate/pollution/sexuality will not have to face questioning by anyone with deep expertise in those areas. I have no doubt that the reproducibility experts will have lively debate among themselves as to how the irreproducibility crisis should be fixed, in the process achieving the useful (to the organisers) goal of emphasising just what an unreliable and uncertain business science is.

Should they agree to speak at this meeting? As @briandavidearp, remarked on Twitter: "I'm wary of deliberately failing to engage/interact w/ people or organizations on the basis that they have diff moral or political commitments than me. That way balkanization and polarization lies."

That's an answer I would have agreed with a few years ago – after all, isn't that what academic life is all about? We should not just sit in our own bubble; rather we should engage respectfully with those who have different views. But this is really not about regular scientific debate. It's about weaponising the reproducibility debate to bolster the message that everything in science is uncertain – which is very convenient for those who wish to promote fringe ideas.

My view is that many of the speakers at this meeting are being played. On the one hand their presence on the programme may encourage other to agree to participate, and give false reassurance to attendees that this is a regular conference. And on the other, they will find that their arguments are scooped up by the Merchants of Doubt and used to argue that science is so uncertain that we should not accept the consensus view. We cannot be sure whether anthropogenic climate change is exaggerated, whether pollution is not really harmful, and whether gay relationships are damaging. Those who are concerned to see such ideas promoted without any debate between experts in those areas may wish to reconsider whether this meeting is really about 'Fixing Science', or whether it is rather about 'Fitting up Scientists'.

15th January 2020
I thank Lee Jussim for engaging in the comments below. I can see that, given his understanding of the situation, it would make sense to take part in the meeting. But his understanding is different from mine, and I want to add this PS to clarify what I'm saying.

It was perhaps a mistake for me to note the neoliberal affiliations of NatAsSchols, as this appears to have given Lee the impression that my objections to the Fixing Science meeting is based on disapproval of talking to those with right-wing beliefs. I am myself on the left politically, but I agree with Brian Earp that, insofar as it is possible to do so in good faith, we should engage with those with differing views. If the meeting consisted solely of experts in philosophy of sciences/methods/metascience, with different political persuasions, I would not be warning people off – quite the contrary.

Indeed, the people I identified as belonging to the second group of speakers would seem to be exactly such a group. As I noted, I doubt that they will come to a consensus about how to 'Fix Science', but a good mix of views and perspectives is represented. No doubt Lee and others will discuss an issue that is of particular interest to me, which is how our social and cognitive biases affect how we evaluate evidence (see Bishop, 2020). Such biases are not specifically associated with left- or right-leaning politics – they affect all of us.

The problem I have with the meeting is not that the organisers are right-wing, but rather that their organisation's goals are linked to issues around higher education, and they have no credentials in science, yet they fervently advocate minority views about such topics as climate change.  Consider how bizarre it would be if, for instance, the Psychonomics Society declared that it planned to hold a meeting on 'Fixing Politics'. The NatAsScholars just doesn't have credibility in the area of scientific pratices. Alas, what they do have instead are links with funders whose vast wealth is used to attack science that threatens their vested interests. In this respect, I think the argument that 'the left-wingers are just as bad' breaks down.

But, I reiterate, the main point is not whether NatAsSchlols is left- or right-wing. It's the weird structuring of the meeting, which juxtaposes a set of experts in the 'reproducibility crisis' with a set of individuals who promote scientific views that are far from mainstream. The fact that the topics are ones that are supported by the Heartland Institute is telling, but the same strategy could in principle be used with any fringe view. Suppose you were a sceptic about evolution or vaccination, or a believer in pre-cognition. You know your arguments would not survive scrutiny by experts familiar with evidence in the area, so you don't invite those (and to be fair, it's unlikely that they'd come anyway, as there are diminishing returns in engaging with those whose minds are fixed). But what you can do is to cast doubt on all scientific evidence by inviting along those who are questioning the solidity and credibility of current scientific practices. That's what is happening here.

The general strategy has been in use for years, as documented by Conway and Oreskes, and applied to diverse topics such as tobacco dangers and acid rain, as well as climate change. The Merchants of Doubt love it when scientists themselves disagree about the nature of evidence, because it gives them a get-out-of-jail-free card.

I'm firmly of the belief we should not shove problems with science under the carpet: we need to understand the nature and extent of such problems in order to fix them. But it is a mistake to engage with those who want to exploit the presence of uncertainty to give credibility to their fringe views.

Bishop, D. V. M. (2020). The psychology of experimental psychologists: Overcoming cognitive constraints to improve research. The 45th Sir Frederic Bartlett Lecture Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 73(1), 1-19. doi:10.1177/1747021819886519

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Research funders need to embrace slow science

Uta Frith courted controversy earlier this year when she published an opinion piece in which she advocated for Slow Science, including the radical suggestion that researchers should be limited in the number of papers they publish each year. This idea has been mooted before, but has never taken root: the famous Chaos in the Brickyard paper by Bernard Forscher dates back to 1963, and David Colquhoun has suggested restricting the number of publications by scientists as a solution more than once on his blog (here and here).

Over the past couple of weeks I've been thinking further about this, because I've been doing some bibliometric searches. This was in part prompted by the need to correct and clarify an analysis I had written up in 2010, about the amount of research on different neurodevelopmental disorders. I had previously noted the remarkable amount of research on autism and ADHD compared to other behaviourally-defined conditions. A check of recent databases shows no slowing in the rate of research. A search for publications with autism or autistic in the title yielded 2251 papers published in 2010; in 2019, this has risen to 6562. We can roughly halve this number if we restrict attention to the Web of Science Core database and search only for articles (not reviews, editorials, conference proceedings etc). This gives 1135 articles published in 2010 and 3075 published in 2019. That's around 8 papers every day for 2019.

We're spending huge amounts to generate these outputs. I looked at NIH Reporter, which provides a simple interface where you can enter search terms to identify grants funded by the National Institutes of Health. For the fiscal year 2018-2019 there were 1709 projects with the keyword 'autism or autistic', with a total spend of $890 million. And of course, NIH is not the only source of research funding.

Within the field of developmental neuropsychology, autism is the most extreme example of research expansion, but if we look at adult disorders, this level of research activity is by no means unique. My searches found that this year there were 6 papers published every day on schizophrenia, 15 per day on depression, and 11 per day on Alzheimer's disease.

These are serious and common conditions and it is right that we fund research into them – if we could improve understanding and reduce their negative impacts, it would make a dramatic difference to many lives. The problem is information overload. Nobody, however nerdy and committed, could possibly keep abreast of the literature. And we're not just getting more information, the information is also more complex. I reckon I could probably understand the majority of papers on autism that were published when I started out in research years ago. That proportion has gone down and down with time, as methods get ever more complex. So we're spending increasing amounts of money to produce more and more research that is less and less comprehensible. Something has to give, and I like the proposal that we should all slow down.

But is it possible? If you want to get your hands on research funding, you need to demonstrate that you're likely to make good use of it. Publication track record provides objective evidence that you can do credible research, so researchers are focused on publishing papers. And they typically have a short time-frame in which to demonstrate productivity.

A key message from Uta's piece is that we need to stop confusing quantity with quality. When this topic has been discussed on social media, I've noted that many ECRs take the view that when you come to apply for grants or jobs, a large number of publications is seen as a good thing, and therefore Slow Science would damage the prospects of ECRs. That is not my experience. It's possible that there are differences in practice between different countries and subject areas, but in the UK the emphasis is much more on quality than quantity of publications, so a strategy of focusing on quality rather than quantity would be advantageous. Indeed, most of our major funders use proposal forms that ask applicants to list their N top publications, rather than a complete CV. This will disadvantage anyone who has sliced their oeuvre into lots of little papers, rather than writing a few substantial pieces. Similarly, in the UK Research Excellence Framework, researchers from an institution are required to submit their outputs, but there is a limited number that can be submitted – a restriction that was introduced many years ago to incentivise a focus on quality rather than quantity.

The same people who are outraged at reducing the number of publications often rail against the stress of working in the current system – and rightly so. After all, at some point in the research cycle, at least one person has to devote serious thought to the design, analysis and write-up. Each of these stages inevitably takes far longer than we anticipate – and then there is time needed to respond to reviewers. The quality and impact of research can be enhanced by pre-registration and making scripts and data open, but extra time needs to be budgeted for this. Indeed, lack of time is a common reason cited for not doing open science. Researchers who feel that to succeed they have to write numerous papers every year are bound to cut corners, and then burn out from stress. It makes far more sense to work slowly and carefully to produce a realistic number of strong papers that have been carefully planned, implemented and written up.

It's clear that science and scientists would benefit if we take things more slowly, but the major barrier is a lack of researcher confidence. Those who allocate funds to research have a vested interest in ensuring they get the best return from their investment – not a tsunami of papers that overwhelm us, but a smaller number of reports of high-quality, replicable and credible findings. If things are to change we need funders to do more to communicate to researchers that they will be evaluated on quality rather than quantity of outputs.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Harry Potter and the Beast of Brexit

The People's Vote march yesterday was a good opportunity to catch up on family news with my brother, Owen, as we shuffled along from Hyde Park to Parliament Square. We were joined by my colleague Amy Orben, appropriately kitted out in blue and yellow.

Amy and Owen, People's March, Oct 19 2019
As with previous anti-Brexit marches, the atmosphere was friendly, many of the placards were jokey, and the event was enlivened by the presence of unexpected groups who reinforced our view that the UK is a friendly, inclusive, if somewhat eccentric place. I saw no signs of aggression, except right at the end, when a group of thuggish young men stood outside a pub by Trafalgar Square, shouting insults at the marchers.
Morris not Boris dancers
But the underlying mood was sombre. There was a sense of inevitability that Brexit was going to be pushed through, regardless of the damage done to individuals and to the country. Propaganda has won. The 'Will of the People' is used to justify us accepting a bad deal. The phrase is seldom challenged by journalists, who allow interviewees to trot it out, alongside the mantra, 'Respect the Referendum'.

But it's nonsense, of course. The deal that Johnson has achieved respects nothing and nobody. It bears no relation to what the 52% voted for. Many people now realise they were conned by the pre-referendum propaganda, which promised a Brexit that would fix all kinds of problems – underfinancing of the NHS, immigration, housing, jobs, even climate change. As Sadiq Khan memorably said, nobody voted to be poorer. And few people would think the break-up of the United Kingdom is a reasonable price to pay for Brexit. It would take just 5% of Leavers to change their vote to Remain to change the outcome to favour Remain.

Even so, I'm not confident that another Referendum would lead to success for Remain. The problem is that Johnson and his cronies use dishonesty as a weapon. I feel like a character in a Harry Potter novel, where the good people are put at a disadvantage because they take ethical issues seriously.  That's why it's so important to hold our politicians to high standards: we have the Nolan principles of public life, but they lack teeth because they are just ignored. Meanwhile, those who want to preserve the country that we were proud to be part of – the one that came together so magnificently for the London Olympics in 2012 – aren't good at propaganda. Imagine if we had someone with the talent of Dominic Cummings fighting on our side: a propagandist who, instead of promoting fear and hatred, could manipulate people's opinions to make them feel pride and pleasure in being part of an inclusive, intelligent, peace-loving nation. Instead, those opposed to Brexit are divided, and show no signs of understanding how to campaign effectively – always put on the back foot. When we discuss the contents of Operation Yellowhammer, we are told this is Project Fear: an official government report is dismissed as Remain propaganda. Rather than making a pro-active case for remaining in the EU, we are manipulated into defending ourselves against preposterous accusations.

Despite the jokes and banter, the people marching yesterday were angry. We are angry to see our country wrecked for no good reason. I could put up with taking a personal hit to my standard of living if I could see that it benefited others – indeed I regularly vote for parties that propose higher taxation for people like me. The thing that is hard to stomach is the absence of coherent answers when you ask a Leaver about the benefits that will ensue after Brexit. I'm a rational person, and Brexit seems totally irrational – harming so many sectors of society while benefitting only the vulture capitalists. Meanwhile, on the international stage, our competitors and enemies must be enjoying the spectacle of seeing the EU being weakened, as we engage in this act of self-harm.

In the right-hand column below, are potential benefits of Brexit that have been put forward by the few people who actually engage when asked why they want to leave. In the left-hand column, I list risks of Brexit that are, as far as I am aware, adequately documented by people with expertise in these areas. Some of these, such as supply problems, are more relevant to no-Deal Brexit; others apply more broadly. There are dependencies between some of these: damage to farming, social care, NHS, science and Higher Education is a consequence of loss of EU workers: both from reluctance to live in a xenophobic country, and from legal restrictions on their employment here.  Disclaimer: I'm not an expert in politics and economics and I'd be glad to modify or add to the table if people can come up with well-evidenced arguments for doing so*.
My analysis of risks and benefits of Brexit
*Owen has commented on this (see below)
J.K. Rowling was prescient in her novels, which vividly described the triumph of propaganda over reason, of violence over peace, of the bully over the meek. With the Beast of Brexit, exemplified by Boris Johnson and his cronies, we see all these themes being played out in real life.

It is particularly galling when politicians argue that we have to have Brexit because otherwise there will be riots. In effect, this is saying that those who marched yesterday are to be ignored because they aren't violent. Of course, there are exceptions: I gather that it was not only Remain politicians who had to run the gauntlet of an angry crowd yesterday. Jacob Rees-Mogg was also verbally abused by a group of Remainers. I'm glad to say I have seen nobody defending such behaviour by either side. But politicians should not underestimate the genuine anger that is felt by Remainers, when people like Rees-Mogg claim in the Spectator that 'Everyone is saying “Just get on with it.” Moderate Remainers and Leavers alike are saying: “For goodness sake, please just finish it off.”’ One would hope that the thousands of moderate, peaceful marchers yesterday might disabuse him of that idea, yet I'm sure he'll continue to make these specious claims. Meanwhile, we are excluded from 'the People', are told we are undemocratic because we want a vote, and that we'd only be taken seriously if we started rioting.

I was particularly depressed to hear that some politicians had said they would support Boris Johnson's deal because they had received death threats from constituents. Have we really come to this? Are politicians saying to the people who marched yesterday that we'll only be listened to if we threaten to kill our opponents? Once we get to that point, we have lost all that is great about Britain. It is feeling perilously close.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

The sinister side of French psychoanalysis revealed

Peak pseudoprofound bullshit* from Jacques Lacan; a proof that Woman does not exist
Sophie Robert, who created controversy in 2011 with her film 'Le Mur', has now produced a sequel, 'Le Phallus et le Neant'**, which extends her case against the dominance of psychoanalysis in French culture. In brief, the film makes the following points:
  1. Psychoanalysts enjoy a celebrity status in France as public intellectuals. 
  2. Their views are based heavily on writings of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan and Fran├žoise Dolto, and are not intellectually or scientifically coherent. 
  3. They promote ideas that are misogynistic and homophobic, and view small children as having erotic interest in their parents. Some of their statements appear to justify paedophilia and incest. 
  4. They do not see their role as helping cure psychiatric disorders. 
  5. They have a financial interest in maintaining their status quo. 
  6. Some of them work with vulnerable populations of children in institutions, which is especially troubling given point 3.
Le Mur focused on psychoanalytic treatment for autism (transcript available here); the new film has some overlap but is more structured around developing points 1-6, and raises further questions about the popularity of psychoanalysis for treatment of adult mental health problems in France. Although Robert notes at the outset that there are good practitioners who can help those who consult them, the overall message is that there are many analysts who do active harm to their clients, while charging them large sums of money. There appears to be no regulatory oversight of their activities.

Le Phallus et le Neant is a 2 hour-long film, and I recommend watching it in full; I started by finding the analysts merely irritating and pretentious, but as the film developed, it became increasingly disturbing. The last quarter included interviews with women who had suffered sexual abuse as children, and who were told they should not see themselves as victims.

Here are just a few clips to illustrate the content of the interviews with analysts.

Much of the first part of the film focuses on the negative views of Woman proposed by Freud and Lacan. Penis envy is taken extremely seriously.
Relationships between parents and their children are seen as complicated and problematic:

A cheerful and positive attitude to sex seems unattainable:

Regarding homosexuality, the film notes the influence of the late Andre Green, who according to Wikipedia was 'one of the most important psychoanalytic thinkers of our times'. Green regarded homosexuality as a psychosis. Confronted with evidence of well-balanced and contented gay men, he claimed they were psychotics-in-denial, apparently healthy but likely to fall prey to insanity at any time. Sophie probed her interviewees about this, and they looked cagey, particularly when asked if there were any gay psychoanalysts. The idea of gay couples as parents has been highly contentious in France: if we believed the psychoanalysts, this would be a disaster. In fact, as shown by the work of Susan Golombok and colleagues, it isn't anything of the kind.

If you argue against the views of the analysts, by saying you never wanted a penis, you had a loving but unerotic relationship with your parents, and you find adult sex fun, then this is treated as evidence of the depth of your repression, rather than evidence for the invalidity of the theory.

The late Fran├žoise Dolto had a major influence on psychoanalytic thought in France. Her claims  that children have desire towards adults, and trap them because of this, were reflected at several points in the interviews.
And given these provocative children, it seems that a father who commits incest with his child is really only doing what comes naturally:

A final point is the mismatch between the expectations of clients and what the psychoanalyst offers. One assumes that most people go into analysis with the expectation that it will help them: after all, they invest a great deal of time and money in the process. But that does not seem to be the view of the analysts. Their attitude seems to be that the human situation is pretty hopeless, because what people want (sex with a parent) is not possible, and the best they can do is to help us come to realise that:

* This term is taken from Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J. A., Barr, N., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2015). On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision Making, 10, 549-563.

**A version of the film with English subtitles is publicly available on Vimeo at a cost of €4 . Conflict of interest statement: I contributed to the funding of the film, but I will donate any royalties to charity.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Attempting to communicate with the BBC: it's not just politicians who refuse to answer questions

A couple of weeks ago there was an outburst of public indignation after it emerged that the BBC had censured their presenter Naga Munchetty. As reported by the Independent, in July BBC Breakfast reported on comments made by President Trump to four US congresswomen, none of whom was white, whom he told to "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came." Naga commented "Every time I've been told as a woman of colour to 'go home', to 'go back to where I've come from', that was embedded in racism."

Most of the commentary at the time focused on whether or not Naga had behaved unprofessionally in making the comment, or whether she was justified in describing Trump's comment as racist. The public outcry has been heard: the Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall, has since overturned the decision to censure her.

There is, however, another concern about the BBC's action, which is why did they choose to act on this matter in the first place. All accounts of the story talk of 'a complaint'. The BBC complaints website explains that they can get as many as 200,000 complaints every year, which averages out at 547 a day. Now, I would have thought that they might have some guidelines in place about which complaints to act upon. In particular, they would be expected to take most seriously issues about which there were a large number of complaints. So it seems curious, to say the least, if they had decided to act on a single complaint, and I started wondering whether it had been made by someone with political clout.

The complaints website allows you to submit a complaint or to make a comment, but not to ask a question, but I submitted some questions anyhow through the complaints portal, and this morning I received a response, which I append in full below. Here are my questions and the answers:

Q1. Was there really just ONE complaint?
BBC: Ignored

Q2: If yes, how often does the BBC complaints department act on a SINGLE complaint?
BBC: Ignored

Q3: Who made the complaint?
BBC: We appreciate you would like specific information about the audience member who complained about Naga's comments but we can't disclose details of the complainant, but any viewer or listener can make a complaint and pursue it through the BBC's Complaints framework.

Q4: If you cannot disclose identity of the complainant, can you confirm whether it was anyone in public life?
BBC: Ignored

Q5: Can you reassure me that any action against Munchetty was not made because of any political pressure on the BBC?
BBC: Ignored

I guess the BBC are so used to politicians not answering questions that they feel it is acceptable behaviour. I don't, and I treat evasion as evidence of hiding something they don't want us to hear. I was interested to see that Ofcom is on the case, but have been fobbed off just as I was. Let's keep digging. I smell a large and ugly rat.

Here is the full text of the response:

Dear Prof Bishop
Reference CAS-5652646-TNKKXL
Thank you for contacting the BBC.
I understand you have concerns about the BBC Complaints process specifically with regard to a complaint made regarding Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty and comments about US President Trump. 
Naturally we regret when any member of our audience is unhappy with any aspect of what we do. We treat all complaints seriously, but what matters is whether the complaint is justified and the BBC acted wrongly. If so we apologise. If we don’t agree that our standards or public service obligations were breached, we try to explain why. We appreciate you would like specific information about the audience member who complained about Naga's comments but we can't disclose details of the complainant, but any viewer or listener can make a complaint and pursue it through the BBC's Complaints framework.
Nonetheless, I understand this is something you feel strongly about and I’ve included your points on our audience feedback report that is sent to senior management each morning and ensures that your complaint has been seen by the right people quickly. 
We appreciate you taking the time to register your views on this matter as it is greatly helpful in informing future decisions at the BBC.
Thanks again for getting in touch.
Kind regards
John Hamill
BBC Complaints Team