My cousin is not a Ouija board.

Facilitated communication is supposed to be a process by which a facilitator helps a non-speaking person speak. It’s often used with autistic children. The facilitator holds the person’s hand and helps them move their finger to the keys on the keyboard so that they can type.

Sound familiar? Facilitated communication is essentially using a human being as a Ouija board. The most disturbing thing is not that facilitators give false hope to parents of nonverbal children, or that they make money by writing books that they claim are written by their patients; it’s that they are taking advantage of people with disabilities and putting words in their mouths that are not theirs. What a way to obscure the fact that these people can’t communicate (or at least can’t be understood). If it’s this easy, it can be done with any nonverbal person! Autistic people, coma patients, people who are, uh, asleep…

The longer this is taken seriously, the less people will pay attention to the real concerns, needs, and rights of people whose disabilities prevent them from communicating.

No, they did not laugh at Galileo

It’s like a junk science equivalent of Godwin’s Law. Pseudoscientific theories are defended with “Well, they laughed at Galileo too!”, as if the only reason these ideas were being rejected by scientists was that they were new and different. There are two big problems with this defense. Read the rest of this entry »

Be kind to your claw-handed friends

Scientists in Northern Ireland have concluded that lobsters and crabs feel pain when they’re injured. I loved this quote from the Discovery news feed:

Robert Elwood, the lead author of both papers, explained to Discovery News that pain allows an individual to be “aware of the potential tissue damage” while experiencing “a huge negative emotion or motivation that it learns to avoid that situation in the future.”

Part of me wants to say “well, duh.”

The crabs observed in the experiment not only responded to pain by leaving the situation in which they were being hurt, but also behaved in ways similar to what many other animals do when in pain — grooming, stress-related fidgeting, and protective behaviours such as limping.

Is this an experiment that needed to be done, and will the results change the way people treat invertebrates? Or was it an unnecessarily cruel thing to do to a bunch of hermit crabs for the sake of an obvious result?

Given the number of people who do believe that these animals don’t feel pain, arguably because it’s a “nice” thing to believe when you like to eat a type of critter that is traditionally boiled alive, maybe a scientific result is needed to shake things up a bit and make people question commonly-held beliefs.

The next question might be: are there any members of the animal kingdom who don’t feel pain, who would not benefit from it as a sign of danger because they aren’t capable of evasive or defensive action?


This is just me thinking out loud and having more questions than answers. If anyone has the answers, let me know.

I was listening to a radio documentary (I think it was called “Ocean Mind”) on CBC Radio late last night, about how dolphins and whales perceive their world. Among other things, it talked about how echolocation (or sonar) may provide levels of social intimacy well outside the range of human experience.

One way is that since sound waves can travel through flesh, dolphins can see inside each other’s bodies. Another is that dolphins can intercept each other’s echoes, and effectively “see” what someone else is looking at.

Can unborn dolphins pick up on returning clicks that their mothers send out, and can they “see” the world around them from long before they’re born (or at least as long as they have sufficiently developed organs to detect the sound)? Would it be nonsensical without any other senses for frame of reference?

For that matter, how much learning or brain pathway development can a human fetus do before it’s born, when it can hear things from outside its mother’s body? As far as I know, babies who are born deaf don’t seem to have suffered intellectually from not having been able to hear before they were born.

Warm slippery facts about cold hard Pluto

A teacher wrote a letter to one of my favourite magazines this month, expressing a wish that the International Astronomical Union would make up its mind on Pluto once and for all, because it’s hard to teach kids about the solar system when this stuff keeps changing. Is it a planet or not? Do we tell them there are nine planets, or eight (or even twelve or thirteen, given that a couple of main belt asteroids were called planets when they were first discovered)? The cold hard facts are lukewarm and slippery right now. Read the rest of this entry »

Debunking the intellectual elite

(EDIT 2 July 2009: Man, this is one of the most ponderous pieces of omg!seriousness I have ever written. I’m leaving it up because people have already replied to it. But yikes, my writing embarrasses me sometimes.)

In the dictionary, the word elite is impartial. It means those who are at the top of anything for any reason — the fastest racehorses, the highest-ranking military officers, the most popular kids in school. The word does not imply that elite status is objective or subjective, deserved or undeserved, earned or bestowed, important or meaningless.

Elitism — the practice of treating people at the top differently than others — is therefore sometimes justifiable. Do you promote your hardest-working grease monkey to the position of head mechanic? Sure, because it’s good to have a responsible and knowledgeable person in a position of power, rather than someone who is inexperienced and apathetic about the job. Do the President’s kids deserve a Secret Service escort when they go shopping? It’s necessary if it’s thought that they are more likely than other kids to be targets of crime.

In popular usage, the word elitism is usually only trotted out when we want to talk about unfair or undeserved treatment. People can be rewarded in one context for being perceived as elite in a different and irrelevant context. A military officer from a royal family might be given more comfortable quarters than other officers of the same rank who come from less noble bloodlines. A teacher or professor might be more likely to call on well-dressed students than on shabby-looking students.

People paying attention to American politics and news media will have heard a lot of the term ‘intellectual elite’ in the last little while, because certain political parties have thrown it around as an insult against their opponents. The thought process that they’re taking advantage of, in order to influence the voting public, goes something like this:

  1. Elitism is undeserved special treatment.
  2. The elite are the people who benefit from elitism.
  3. Therefore being elite is a bad thing.
  4. Therefore anything that makes people elite must be a bad thing to be.

Are you following the dangerous leaps of illogic? Here’s the counterargument:

  1. Elitism is not always undeserved; that’s just the most common usage of the word, but not a full definition.
  2. Therefore, not everyone who benefits from elitism is unfairly getting something they don’t deserve.
  3. Therefore, a person who is elite is not made good or bad solely because of that elite status.
  4. The things that people can be that make them elite also do not have inherent moral value; it isn’t universally bad or wrong to be strong, rich, of noble blood, popular — or intellectual.

If you’re still with me, I’d like you to consider two things. First, being intellectual does not make someone a snob. It just means they do a lot of thinking, or like to engage in activities that require thought.  Second, given that dictionary definition of the word, anyone can be an intellectual. You don’t have to have money or nobility or powerful friends or even an education in order to enjoy using your brain to observe and analyse the world around you.

I got into university under my own steam; I got out of university without graduating because I didn’t have unlimited money or indestructible mental health. My lack of a complete formal education hasn’t stopped me from being an intellectual, because a university degree is not a license without which I am not allowed to enjoy thinking.

I am going to use this blog to geek out about all kinds of stuff, mostly astronomy, and to expound upon the virtue of critical thinking and the sheer fun of learning about stuff. If you like the sound of that, feel free to join in and play.