Lies, Damned Lies and Science

7 Apr

Prior to starting a family I was already a skeptic and a subscriber to Skeptical Inquirer. This means I looked twice at the “helpful” information I got from all sides. From whether or not my baby would be a boy or a girl, what might have caused his seizures (like that fact that I drank milk, which was offered as an explanation after the “helpful” person was told he was infant only on breastmilk), the assurances I got that he would talk “when he was ready” or that someone’s cousin four times removed or Einstein did not talk until age three, five, or thirty-five (by the way, the Einstein is a total myth, don’t believe it — and don’t accept your child being compared to Einstein, he really had several flaws! See Private Lives of Albert Einstein, I should mention that sitting in therapy waiting rooms does provide lots of reading opportunities), and most recently I was told to try cranial sacral therapy (like a light head massage is going to “fix” the pathways in the brain that make him different!).

There is a tendency for people to give unsolicited advice to young parents, and that seems to double when it involves a child with a disability. Not only does the amount of advice double, but the relative distance from reality increases exponentially. While a parent of a typically developing child would be told to buy a certain organic baby food or to try some kind of “teach your baby calculus” computer program, the parent of child on a different developmental path would be encouraged to try a myriad of supplements, various odd treatments and to try the “miracle cure” they heard from some famous guy on the news.

How does a parent of a newly diagnosed child wade through the “help”, and determine what is real and what is hype? Well there is help, and it is not a cure all, but a book that shows how to look and science and separate fact from hype: Lies, Damned Lies and Science by Sherry Seethaler, a science writer and education at the University of California in San Diego..

It is not a long book, and is separated into short chunks to help explain the basics of science, why disputes in science is not really a bad thing, how to interpret numbers, and who the stakeholders on an issue are, and why they are important. She includes many real world examples and even comparisons to situations in the Harry Potter book where he excels at potion making by using the notes in the margins of an old book.

In Chapter 7, “Fun Figures”, there is a subsection titled “Ask whether a statistical change reflects reality or the way the data were collected.” Readers of this blog should be very familiar with the example she uses. They will also be familiar with the tactics described in Chapter 9, “All the Tricks in the Trade”, especially the section on pseudo experts.

This is a quick, actually quite a fun book to read. It can be a bit repetitive, but that is in part makes it easier to understand the concepts. I knew much of the information (like statistics), but I still learned a great deal. Check it out of your local library, and even purchase a copy for those friends and relatives who keep giving you all sorts of “advice.”

8 Responses to “Lies, Damned Lies and Science”

  1. codeman38 April 7, 2009 at 13:13 #

    Just a heads-up– the links in this post are broken. You need to use “regular” quotes instead of “smart quotes”.

  2. Maddy April 7, 2009 at 13:44 #

    Indeed, links are always helpful for the technically challenged [probably those you most need to reach:)]

  3. Kev April 7, 2009 at 14:25 #

    Thats my fault, I didn’t check. Bad Kevvy.

  4. Joseph April 7, 2009 at 15:44 #

    There was a recent review of this book at

  5. Chris April 8, 2009 at 00:48 #

    There is also a video review here:

  6. Maddy April 8, 2009 at 02:40 #

    I came back to mention that Penguin usa have named Ms. McCarthy:-

    ‘Today, in honor of National Autism Month, we are featuring Jenny McCarthy’s new book entitled Healing and Preventing Autism, and her other titles that discuss her opinions and experiences of autism, a disorder that has affected her life in a very personal way.’

    [Sorry I can’t do the linky thing]

    It’s impossible to register and make a comment but if someone else is capable of registering and suggesting that this is indeed a most unfortunate choice, I for one, would be very grateful. Afterall, you/we have the perfect choice of an alternative.


  7. Laura April 8, 2009 at 04:22 #

    Thanks for the recommendation! I’m always looking for good books for families that have recently gotten a diagnosis. 🙂

  8. HCN April 8, 2009 at 05:17 #

    Maddy, funny you should mention Penguin — they are the ones that publish “The Complete Idiot Guides”!

    Laura, another good book is “No Time for Jello” by Berneen Bratt. It is not about autism, nor about DAN! … but about they tried the Doman-Delacato patterning stuff with their son with cerebral palsy. She goes down the whole bit about changing their house, being billed by the institute in Philadelphia, the desparate parents that they met there, and the guilt trip by the institute personnel who told them that if their son was not cured it was because they did not do all the required therapy. At the end of this very short book she goes into the science of why the patterning was not a good idea.

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