Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Quack Child Psychology: The experts are not fooled by pseudoscience

A recent study polled child mental health experts on the credibility of questionable psychological practices. The experts, mainly child psychologists, rated assessments and treatments on a scale ranging from "not at all discredited" to "certainly discredited" or in lay terms, "not too bad" to "utter b.s." 

Many finely honed psychological instruments such as Enneagrams, biorhythms, handwriting analysis and the Fairy Tale Test did not pass muster with the professionals. The Rorschach, in comparison, received mixed reviews. Treatments that got the skeptical side-eye include but are not limited to past life regression therapy, crystal healing, and withholding food or water. I can only hope, since I’ve yet to read the entire study, that Conversion Therapy got skewered in the hot mess of harmful and hateful cures.

Anti-Pseudoscience SuperHero and Certified Quack-Busting Therapist, Gerald Koocher (photo credit: DePaul University)
No one here is surprised the research team could piece together over 100 questionable mental health protocols. I am slightly surprised however and disappointed the media ignored this story. A quick Google search revealed no mainstream or really much of any media save those content-gobbling curators picked this one up. Not even Natural News.

It is fabulous starting with lead author, Gerald Koocher, dean of the College of Science and Health at DePaul University, past president of the American Psychological Association and author of the not-published-soon-enough book, Psychoquakery. He should step out into the media spotlight more often and not just because he rocks nerd better than Bill Gates or any Brooklyn hipster.

The Huffington Post and others should heed his advice:

There are several signs that a psychological assessment or therapy is “quack,” said Koocher. First, it addresses a challenging or hard-to-treat problem by proposing an overly simple solution. Psychoquackery also is usually in sync with the spirit of the times and is often promoted by a charismatic expert. Science Daily

Be still my heart.

Charismatic expert. Psychoquackery. Spirit of the times.

...paging Dr. All-Natural, Organic, Neuro-Imaging, Lactating, Brain-Training, Endocrine-Disrupting, You’ve Already Messed Up Your Kid So You Must Be Vigilant In The Small Remaining Time You Have Left…

Fortunately Koocher got to the other clues you should forget recovered memories and other psychobabble that give psychologists a bad rep:

“Parents must be able to ask the right questions. ‘What studies have been done to show the effectiveness of this?’ And if someone says to you, ‘Medical science is keeping a lid on this because it’s too powerful and will put them all out of business,’ that’s a strong sign that a treatment is too good to be true,” Koocher said.

It might also be a sign someone is either sociopathic or delusional. No, I'm not a licensed clinical psychologist so I can't accept third party payments or charge you for that totally accurate diagnostic assessment-atizing. I can however keep this on my website because of that disclaimer below.  

Now if you’ll excuse me I need to go delete "Certified on the Fairy Tale Test" from my LinkedIn profile.

UPDATE: My third-grader came home from school and reported he was an Orange. Naturally he took this as confirmation he should play as many sports as possible. Rest assured, the True Color Personality Test is somehow based on the Meyers-Briggs and as I am clearly a Green l will spare you any links to the no doubt highly valid and reliable online proliferations of the test.

Gerald P. Koocher, Madeline R. McMann, Annika O. Stout, John C. Norcross. Discredited Assessment and Treatment Methods Used with Children and Adolescents: A Delphi Poll. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 2014; 1 DOI: 10.1080/15374416.2014.895941

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Early Intervention for Austim: A miracle cure the media cannot resist

A new pilot study suggests intervention as early as 6 months could reduce or eliminate autism symptoms in children at high risk. Published on Tuesday in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, media quickly jumped all over the very small study despite its highly speculative findings:

 Pilot Intervention Eliminates Autism Symptoms In Babies Huffington Post

Autism Therapy in 6-Month-Old Babies Eliminates Symptoms in Limited Study Newsweek

Treating Infants for Autism May Eliminate Symptoms NBC News

Study finds early treatment for infants may remove signs of autism Fox News

Taking Action Early May Protect Against Autism WebMD

Could early intervention erase signs of autism? CNN

Could early intervention reverse autism? CBS News

Earlier Help for Children at Risk for Autism Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal hedged its bets and didn’t say much of anything. Not so for Huff Po and Newsweek who declared this latest children’s health discovery a sure thing. The rest of the lot had the good sense to throw in a question mark or otherwise acknowledge that the early intervention, however successful it might prove in the future, is not yet the second coming. 

Did I mention this study intervention involved a mere 7 children 6-15 months old? I can’t bring myself to call this meager group a sample.

Despite the tentative nature of the study, Huff Po ran with the results delivering no hint of caution in its opening lines:  

A small new pilot study has found that parents can help significantly reduce symptoms of autism in babies who haven't even reached their first birthdays simply by changing how they play and interact with them.

Oh my. Get on it parents, right now! Huff Po didn’t bother highlighting the fact this was indeed a tiny study. They didn’t stress the exceptionally few number of youngsters involved or the lack of randomized design and thus difficulty establishing cause and effect. It’s absurd to do significance tests on such a limited pile of data. The only nod to caution in the entire article gets quickly buried from an outside autism professional gushing about the results: 

While the new research is a pilot study and as such is highly preliminary, Gerard Costa, director of the Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health at Montclair State University, called the outcomes for this small group of children and their parents "wonderful" and "very encouraging."…"The findings are clearly saying what we've always felt to be the case, which is that early intervention can make an enormous difference," he said.

Enormous difference. We got the cure for autism right here folks.

Even news sources that did highlight the small number of participants and speculative nature of the results went to lengths to tell why we should be impressed by the results.

NBC News did the classic bait and switch in a mere 2-3 sentences:

“With only seven infants in the treatment group, no conclusions can be drawn,” the [study co-authors] wrote.
However, the effects were striking. Six out of the seven children in the study had normal learning and language skills by the time they were 2 to 3.

(To their credit, the authors did remind everybody that the study is a tiny first and should not be taken as definitive evidence.) 

Finally, CBS News found an expert who wasn’t at all impressed by the results:  

"This study is groundbreaking in certain regards," said [Dr. Lisa Shulman, director of infant and toddler services at the Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine Shulman]. "It pulls together various streams of current research in a meaningful way.

Groundbreaking? The CBS intern tasked with getting a good quote deserved the night off for this one.  

WSJ showed a bit more nuanced than most but just like its fellow media, reported on the great rise in autism cases over the past decade or so:

The number of children identified with autism has risen sharply since 2002, and the latest figures from a 2014 CDC report estimate 1 in 68 U.S. children are affected by autism or a related disorder. That climb could result from a combination of more children affected with the condition, plus greater awareness of it, experts say.

And like everyone else, WSJ failed to mention that other factor, the expanded DSM criteria back in the 1990s. Apparently the experts who attribute the rise of autism in part to the DSM changes didn’t “say” anything this week. 

Nor did the articles bother explaining the results could be due to factors other than the intervention itself. The families in the study were involved with the institute performing the intervention, namely because they had older children diagnosed with autism. Some families agreed to participate in the intervention (essentially  coaching parents how to better interact with their babies). Some families did not. Something different between these two groups could account for the seemingly miraculous results. It's just not clear at this point. I know the results seem encouraging but having done quite a few pilots I know sure results don't always pan out regardless of their potential value.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Is Breakfast for Champs or Chumps?

Gotta love a spate of new breakfast studies in the media just in time for the back-to-school morning rush. Just what busy, school-supply-fetching moms and dads want to know! Should they push food on their kids or send them off to school without a worry or a lame breakfast bar?

Headlines suggest it’s no big deal either way:

Is Breakfast Overated? New York Times

Study Finds Nothing Special about Breakfast NPR

Breakfast Downgraded From "Most Important Meal of the Day" to "Meal": Today the pendulum of science defends breakfast skippers  The Atlantic

So good, it appears from the headlines I can relax tomorrow morning. Yet questions remain:

Does this mean I can stop coaxing my daughter to eat each morning? 
Can I stop debating with my son whether Fruit Loops are as healthy as Honey Nut Cheerios?
Is one cheese stick better than a serving bowl of Cheerios?
Is a chocolate-dipped granola bar better than no breakfast?
Do all the other kids at school really eat muffins, donuts and pop-tarts for breakfast everyday?

I don’t know.

These studies didn’t address these pressing daily questions but it’s not obvious from many of the headlines, including the above ones I pulled from some of the most respected news organizations. Here’s what these lofty journalistic venues failed to specify in their teasers – the recent research only looked at the effects of eating or skipping breakfast on weight loss. The larger of these studies, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found skipping breakfast neither helped nor hindered moderately overweight folks trying to trim down. Yes this was an actual experiment, hurrah for that so participants were randomly assigned to either eat or skip breakie. Further evidence that people will do anything or at least agree hypothetically to do anything a professional sort may recommend. Another much smaller UK study mentioned in some of the articles found similar results in leaner folk.

To be fair, some media did mention weight loss in their headlines:

Snap, Crackle, And Pop Goes the Conventional Wisdom about Breakfast and Weight Loss Forbes

Breakfast Key To Weight Control? Maybe Not WebMD

Skipping breakfast does not impact weight loss: study New York Daily News

The Atlantic, which blew the headline, featured the most nuanced article of the lot and the only one to bother bringing up kids:

If you ever visit the Internet's most-read site for health information, WebMD, you'll see an article presumptuously titled "Why Breakfast Is the Most Important Meal of the Day," which mainly focuses on kids and the lore that they do better academically if they have eaten breakfast, but that's overblown and really not a clear conclusion. As [David] Katz [director of Yale University's Griffin Prevention Research Center] put it, "We have little information about adolescents, little information about the benefits of breakfast in well-nourished kids, and little information about how variation in the composition of breakfast figures into the mix."

A quick lit search shows quite a few recent studies, a number just in the past few years on the topic of breakfast and children including adolescents. So I wonder if there has been more solid progress on this front than David Katz seems to have acknowledged. I’ll forgive James Hamblin, author of the The Atlantic piece for not pursuing the question because he delivered this gem:

“One thing I've learned as a health writer is that a wealth of academic research is the product of personal vendettas, some healthier than others.”

Personal health vendettas? A researcher would never!! Not James Betts, senior lecturer and a co-author of one of the breakfast studies who told the New York Times:

“I almost never have breakfast,” Dr. Betts said. “That was part of my motivation for conducting this research, as everybody was always telling me off and saying I should know better.”

Betts doesn’t have any plans to start eating it either. By the way, I had already copied and pasted that beauty before reading Hamblin’s article. Thank goodness I’m not the only person highlighting researcher quotes.

So tomorrow I will try to persuade my children to eat a healthy breakfast. I will continue efforts to persuade them plain yogurt and whole grain flakes are yummy. Oh yes, there’s new evidence people can be “trained” to like nutritious food and dislike bad food and it comes from a totally not biased researcher, Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the USDA who reported "this conditioning happens over time in response to eating -- repeatedly! -- what is out there in the toxic food environment."

Good luck in your highly toxic food environment, I mean kitchen.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

#Blogust, We Did It! Welcome to the first annual Blogust Dunk Tank Challenge

What a whirlwind end to Blogust! I'm thrilled to report people took 71,118 social media actions - commenting, sharing and liking. It's been 30 days of amazing stories of discovery, adversity and often difficult personal journeys, you can read my wrap-up of the last week of Blogust including a small bit about my daughter's own journey. I don't often get teary-eyed or talk about my kids but I hope you'll indulge me this one time over at the Shot@Life blog. Of course I asked my daughter's permission first.

The best part of Blogust? The social media community, yes, that includes you, came together and made it happen, in fact, we surpassed the 60,000 goal. That means Walgreens will donated 60,000 vaccines to children in the developing world and it's all because of people reaching out and speaking up.

It also means the dunk tank sitting in my driveway right now, the one brimming with cold water, will be getting some action.

Much to the surprise of my children (who couldn't get me in the pool or ocean much if at all? this summer) - I will be donning my Shot@Life wet gear and climbing onto the dunk tank tomorrow afternoon. Yesterday morning there were just over 55k actions, this morning, over 71k. Wowza. 

My 8-year old son fortunately remembered how to do the math:

71 - 55 = 16


Now when I announced The Dunk Tank Challenge I was really hoping, wishing fingers crossed we'd meet the 60,000 goal. I thought maybe 4 or 5 dunks. But this is beyond my low expectations. You really came through! Frankly, I don't think the twenty or so kids coming to my house tomorrow will let me sit on the sucker 16 times. I would hate to have to cut in line even for Shot@Life but we will get those 16 dunks and more with the help of my family and friends. Cheers and many thanks to all who lent their voices, hands and time to Shot@Life's #Blogust. 

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Happy Blogust!

It's August which means the kids are slogging through the required summer reading and the last of the s'mores fixings. The back-to-school shopping will soon start, my son (the rule follower) no doubt searching for the recommended no. 2 pencils, my daughters, the accouterments of middle school life that seem to include locker renovations and beautifications. My sixth-grader might not find the perfect locker ladder but I can rest assured, she and her siblings will survive the next school year without locker magnets. So I am free to focus my motherly concern on other children. Perhaps you have this luxury as well.

Every day this month you can make a difference in another child's life, one who isn't searching online for a backpack. Every day this month, during Shot@Life’s Blogust 2014—a month-long blog relay—some of North America’s more popular online writers, photo and video bloggers and Shot@Life Champions are coming together to share stories about their children. Every time you comment on the daily post or share them Walgreens will donate one vaccine (up to 60,000). Blogust is one part an overall commitment of Walgreens donating up to $1 million through its “Get a Shot. Give a Shot.” campaign. The campaign will help provide millions of vaccines for children in need around the world. I have the honor to participate in this campaign as a Social Good Fellow with the United Nations Foundation. I'll be writing a post on August 30th for this great cause and look forward to hearing from y'all. Go get the school supplies, the swimming, the end-of-summer whatevers done so I can find you and ask you to share some more stories.

Sign up here for a daily email so you can quickly and easily comment and share every day during Blogust! 

For more information, visit or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.