Thursday, July 28, 2011

Another study adding to the confusion about human variation in visual acuity: do white folks and autistics have better eyes or bigger eyeballs?

Holey Moley! I'm so confused I can't see straight! I'm still scratching my head over the scientific weirdness of claims and counterclaims that autistic people have the visual acuity of birds of prey, and I'm still trying to find time in my busy family life to read all the papers and published correspondence on that strange matter, and after taking the kids to see a display of living birds of prey from an animal shelter that was at a local shopping centre I'm pretty sure there are some major physical differences between an eagle's visual system and a human one, and now, while idly browsing the internet at the science department of the ABC's popular website, what do I see? I see, with my apparently atypical but most certainly not flawless visual system, a story about claims by an Oxford University researcher that he and a co-author have found that people from higher latitudes have greater visual acuity and have bigger eyeballs that go along usefully with bigger brains to process that visual input. The researcher went on to theorize that it is the parts of the brain that process vision that are beefed-up, rather than the frontal parts of the brain, to compensate for the lower levels of light at light-deprived places like polar regions, which makes it harder to see stuff. (I've got to wonder, if low-light conditions are such a bad thing for seeing, why is it that so many Australians routinely wear dark sunglasses, many wearing them all through the year, even on overcast, wintry days? Why do people wear sunglasses? Fashion? To conceal identity? Light sensitivity from an hangover or headache? To hide red eyes from cannabis use or from crying? To conceal an ugly face? Irrational fear of eye damage from UV rays? This has always been a mystery to me. I can't think of anything that I'd less want to do than put a barrier between my eyes and a world that I want to see.)

The most striking claims about visual acuity of people from polar regions, which have apparently been published in some publication of the Royal Society, triggered in my weirdly-wired mind many lines of thought and many questions. Firstly, the claim that people from polar regions have greater visual acuity seems extraordinary in light of something that I've just read in some of the published correspondence about the 2009 paper about visual acuity and autism by Emma Ashwin, Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen and team. In that published letter questioning the findings of the original 2009 research paper Bach and Dakin wrote "Specifically, Ashwin et al. report mean decimal visual acuities of 2.79 in their group of observers with ASD and 1.44 in an age-matched control group..... If true, Aswin et al.'s finding would be very important for two reasons. First, as far as we are aware, this is the first report of consistently superior VA in any clinical population (neuropsychological or otherwise)." "VA" stands for "visual acuity". This letter was published in 2009, so I guess it is possible that research has been published since then finding superior visual acuity in some human group or groups since then, but nevertheless, the claim that there are evolved regional racial variations in human visual acuity, eyeball size and brain size seems pretty extraordinary, and surely controversial.

Is it really true that some racial groups, specifically human populations that evolved in regions of high latitudes, who would certainly have what we call "white skin", and who apparently are now known to have some genes that originated from Neanderthals, have greater visual acuity and larger brains? This seems to be a claim designed to provoke outrage from left-leaning people who oppose racism and fans of the late archaeologist and pop science writer Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard University professor who wrote the award-winning and often quoted pop science book The Mismeasure of Man, which was published in 1981. In this book Gould apparently debunked some old research that found racial differences in skull sizes. I read this book myself, and was most impressed by the style of the book, but I didn't "buy" the ideas put forward by Gould. As a book it was entertainingly and engagingly written, and for this Gould deserves the credit for making science interesting to a mass readership. As for the facts in the book - I knew that I personally had no means to independently check Gould's basic research reinterpreting Morton's work on skulls, so I had to base my opinions of Gould's research on whether or not I thought his own interpretation was unbiased. How could I judge that? I was unconvinced by Gould's arguments against the concept of quantifying intelligence through IQ testing. I couldn't see why controversy should be a reason for choosing to not measure anything. Psychologists appeared to have no problem with the idea of a measurable general level of intelligence ("g"). Gould was not a psychologist, he was a paleontologist and a biologist. What business did Gould have disputing a basic concept in psychology?

If I remember it correctly, in this book Gould argued that some past scientific research about skull size and race was biased in favour of the white races appearing to have larger brains, and this bias was supposedly due to the unconscious racist biases of Samuel Morton, the researcher, influencing his taking of measurements. Well, I'm amazed that I've been confronted with so many interesting inter-related ideas in science recently, and just a week or so ago I noticed that in New Scientist magazine was published a most interesting article about a PLoS Biology paper in which researchers have overturned Gould's argument by rechecking many of the skulls that Morton studied, and they have concluded that it was Gould who was biased, not Samuel George Morton, the original measurer of skulls. I'm so disappointed that no one can sue over this matter; Gould is dead, and Morton is long-dead. I'm sure that Pearce and Dunbar's research will add to that great eternal bunfight over race and brains and intelligence. I love it! (Did you ever read the book The 10,000 Year Explosion by Cochran and Harpending? Most thought-provoking bunfight-fodder.)

What do I think about the new claims about visual acuity and race? I'm most sceptical, in light of the debacle over the 2009 paper about visual acuity and autism. Researchers from universities such as Oxford or Cambridge no longer have instant credibility in my mind. I'm far from convinced that the researchers are able to make claims about regions of evolution and visual acuity and brain size based on studying skulls, which is apparently one of the things that are the basis of their research. What would Stephen Jay Gould have to say about this research? If he was still alive today, I'm sure his commentary on this research would make very entertaining reading. As a know-it-all housewife, I've got to wonder, couldn't variations in the sizes of orbital volumes simply be a reflection of the proportion of Neanderthal heritage that a racial group has? The Neanderthals appeared to have very large eye sockets compared to Homo sapien skulls. According to respectable scientific sources, white people do have Neanderthal genes more than other racial groups, and the Neanderthals were adapted to cold regions. I guess Pearce and Dunbar could interpret this as supporting their theory.

The idea that large eyes are necessarily eyes with better vision doesn't impress me as realistic. Pearce and Dunbar don't seem to be aware of important barriers between nocturnal and diurnal lifestyles in relation to the eyes. People who live in polar regions are not nocturnal animals, and there are important differences between them and the nocturnal animals which have evolved to have large eyes. Anyone who has gone camping in an Australian national park that has possums in it will be aware that large eyes that have evolved for nocturnal use can be eyes that are vulnerable to serious problems if the animal does not maintain a natural nocturnal lifestyle. National park visitors are often told to not feed possums during the day, as possums who are unnaturally active during the daylight hours because of human interaction apparently eventually go blind. The blind obviously don't have good visual acuity.

Glancing down Pearce and Dunbar's piece, I notice that in Figure 2 there are data points in which some human populations apparently have mean visual acuity between 2.5 and 2.75. That level of visual acuity appears to be pretty close to the level claimed for the autistic group in Aswin, Baron-Cohen and colleagues controversial 2009 paper, if I'm reading things correctly. So who are these extraordinary human populations who have visual acuity of damn-close to that of a bird of prey? I think it would be wise to leave it to vision scientists to recheck the data used by Pearce and Dunbar, but I can say that their data is based on very, very old anthropological research. Remember what Bach and Dakin wrote about the 2009 paper claiming extraordinary visual acuity in autistics? " far as we are aware, this is the first report of consistently superior VA in any clinical population (neuropsychological or otherwise)." Hmmmm. I wonder what Bach and Dakin would have to say about Pearce and Dunbar's research?

I have doubts that Pearce and Dunbar's ideas will stand up to scrutiny, but if they do, I will be wondering about any possible connections between those ideas about race, visual acuity and selective enhancement of visual processing areas of the brain and a theory of autism that I find interesting, the Enhanced Perceptual Functioning Model of Autism from Laurent Mottron's team. My reading of this model is that it is consistent with autistic people having many enhanced perceptual abilities, including visual, but I don't think including visual acuity, and the basis for this being a selective enhancement of the parts of the brain at the rear that are responsible for processing sensory input, but with a relatively less developed frontal area of the brain. Is it possible that this type of brain is an evolutionary adaptation to some particular environment? Some particular geographical region? Low light levels? A semi-nocturnal lifestyle? A solitary, foraging lifestyle? Is the Enhanced Perceptual Functioning Model of Autism compatible with Jared Reser's interesting Solitary Forager Hypothesis of Autism? I think it could be. I believe these exciting theories are where the real future of the scientific study of autism and human variation in visual ability lies.

I'm not sure what to make of all this, but I think the wisdom of the truism that academics shouldn't delve into areas of research in which they don't have expertise continues to be ignored and later demonstrated. Will they never learn? I also believe I might have uncovered an interesting new law of science. It appears that there could be an inverse relationship between the reliability of a scientific theory endorsed by a writer, and the level of social prestige of the organization that the writer works for. This is a type of academic freedom that I don't think I'd support. You can't believe everything that a writer from the University of Cambridge, or a writer from the University of Oxford, or a writer from Harvard University, or a writer from the Australian Broadcasting Commission writes, just because they are from Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard or the ABC. Crap can fall from high places. Reader beware!

References about research on visual acuity by Pearce and Dunbar

Viegas, Jennifer (2011) Polar people have bigger eyes and brains. ABC Science. 27 July 2011

Pearce, Eiluned and Dunbar, Robin (2011) Latitudinal variation in light levels drives human visual system size. Biology Letters. Published online before print July 27, 2011, doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0570

References about Gould and skull sizes and race

DeGusta, David and Lewis, Jason E. (2011) Gould's skulls: Is bias inevitable in science? New Scientist. Issue 2822 25 July 2011
[Overall, we found no evidence that Morton's bias had affected his results. Gould, in contrast, made a number of clear errors, all connected with his own presumed bias towards there being a lack of differences between populations.]

Lewis JE, DeGusta D, Meyer MR, Monge JM, Mann AE, et al. (2011) The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias. PLoS Biology. 9(6): e1001071. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001071 Published: June 7, 2011

Wikipedia contributors (accessed 2011) The Mismeasure of Man. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

References about the Enhanced Perceptual Functioning Model of Autism

Mottron, Laurent, Dawson, Michelle, Soulieres, Isabelle, Hubert, Benedicte and Burack, Jake (2011) Enhanced Perceptual Functioning in Autism: An Update, and Eight Principles of Autistic Perception. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Vol. 36, No. 1, January 2006 DOI 10.1007/s10803-005-0040-7 Published Online: February 2, 2006
[The overfunctioning of brain regions typically involved in primary perceptual functions may explain the autistic perceptual endophenotype.]

Samson, Fabienne, Mottron, Laurent, Soulieres, Isabelle and Zeffiro, Thomas A. (2011) Enhanced visual functioning in autism: an ALE meta-analysis. Human Brain Mapping. first published online: 4 APR 2011 DOI: 10.1002/hbm.21307
[The stronger engagement of the visual system, whatever the task, represents the first physiological confirmation that enhanced perceptual processing is a core feature of neural organization in this population.]

Reference about the Solitary Forager Hypothesis of Autism

Reser, Jared Edward (2011) Conceptualizing the Autism Spectrum in Terms of Natural Selection and Behavioral Ecology: The Solitary Forager Hypothesis. Evolutionary Psychology. – 2011. 9(2): 207-238

References about or relevant to research by Ashwin, Baron-Cohen and others about visual acuity and autism (in chronological order)

Ashwin E, Ashwin C, Rhydderch D, Howells J, Baron-Cohen S. (2009) Eagle-eyed visual acuity: an experimental investigation of enhanced perception in autism. Biological Psychiatry. 2009 Jan 1;65(1):17-21. Epub 2008 Jul 23.
["Individuals with ASC have significantly better visual acuity (20:7) compared with control subjects (20:13)—acuity so superior that it lies in the region reported for birds of prey."]

Bach, M. Dakin, SC (2009) Regarding "Eagle-eyed visual acuity: an experimental investigation of enhanced perception in autism". Biological Psychiatry. 2009 Nov 15;66(10):e19-20. Epub 2009 Jul 3.
[Correspondence. "Prompted by the highly counterintuitive nature of both these conclusions and the finding that inspired them, we have investigated the procedure employed by the authors of this study....We report that although there are real behavioural differences between ASD and control groups, technical limitations in the procedure used to measure acuity call into question the conclusion that people with ASD have higher visual acuity compared with unaffected individuals without the context of the experiment."]

Crewther DP, Sutherland A (2009) The more he looked inside, the more piglet wasn't there: is autism really blessed with visual hyperacuity? Biological Psychiatry. 2009 Nov 15;66(10):e21-2. Epub 2009 Jun 27.
[Correspondence. "Thus, the estimates gained for both ASD and normal individuals were all extrapolations beyond the range of acuity value testable with that viewing distance." "The main conclusion of Ashwin et al., that the foveal cone denisty is higher...also does not bear up in comparison with the hawk eye....Thus, it seems that in nature, greater resulotion is achieved by greater eyeball size,... than by closer packing. It is clear that the eyes of autistic individuals are not twice as large as normal." "It is possible that the large number of trials might have contributed to concentration lapses in the control subjects, widening the gap in this extrapolated estimation of acuity between normal subjects and autistic subjects."]

Ashwin E, Ashwin C, Tavassoli T, Chakrabarti B, Baron-Cohen S. (2009) Eagle-eyed visual acuity in autism. Biological Psychiatry. 2009 Nov 15;66(10) e23-4. Epub 2009 Jul 3.
[Correspondence. "We accept that the technical issues outlined in the commentary need to be resolved."]

Kéïta, Luc, Mottron, Laurent and Bertone, Armando (2010) Far visual acuity is unremarkable in autism: Do we need to focus on crowding? Autism Research. Vol 3 Issue 6 p.333-341 December 2010. Article first published online: 6 OCT 2010DOI: 10.1002/aur.164
["...the expected crowding effect at one gap-size opening distance was evidenced for the control group only.....These results suggest that although far visual acuity is unremarkable in autism, altered local lateral connectivity within early perceptual areas underlying spatial information processing in autism is atypical."]

Bölte S, Schlitt S, Gapp V, Hainz D, Schirman S, Poustka F, Weber B, Freitag C, Ciaramidaro A, Walter H. (2011) A Close Eye on the Eagle-Eyed Visual Acuity Hypothesis of Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2011 Jun 10. [Epub ahead of print]
["This study could not confirm the eagle-eyed acuity hypothesis of ASD, or find evidence for a connection of VA and clinical phenotypes."]

Tavassoli T, Latham K, Bach M, Dakin SC, Baron-Cohen S. (2011) Psychophysical measures of visual acuity in autism spectrum conditions. Vision Research. 2011 Jun 16. [Epub ahead of print]
["Best corrected VA was significantly better than the initial habitual acuity in both groups, but adults with and without ASC did not differ on ETDRS or FrACT binocular VA." ]

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lili's next thought for the day

How strange that everyone assumes that the skeletal lady singer was killed by drugs and a weak character. What is the recommended daily limit of alcohol for a living skeleton? By what rule of thumb should a bulimic judge drug dosages?

I would have thought that those who are capable of starving themselves into a state of eating disorder would have, if nothing else, a strong will.

Lili's thought for the day

The Norwegian nutbar wanted to be famous, and the world's mass media and news services have done all that they can to help make that dream come true.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Lili's offspring's thought for the day

Why can't we ditch him and get air-conditioning?

- Lili's teen child in a discussion about the varied and numerous sources of funding for the teen's high school's chaplain, in a city in which summer temperatures often go above 40 degrees Celsius

Monday, July 18, 2011

Lili's husband's thought for the day

If I looked in the mirror and saw that I'd be extremely worried.

- Lili's other half commenting on the appearance of Lord Monckton

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Young Aussie school children self-segregating by gender - a sign of the times?

I've been visiting Australian government primary schools over a span of many years to drop off and pick up children from school, but this year I have noticed something that I've never noticed before - a class in which the very young students consistently choose to segregate the placement of their school bags out the front of their classroom by sex, with all of the boy's bags on one side, and all of the girl's bags on the other side. I've asked one of the students about this. It is apparently not a policy imposed by the teacher or any adult. It is apparently a reaction by the girls to two boys getting into trouble (with the teacher I presume) for touching or interfering with other students' possessions. I've got to wonder why the girls collectively decided that gender was the relevant feature of the offending behaviour, and why the girls have acted collectively as a gender bloc. It all seems pretty weird to me, and I'm not convinced that adults haven't played a role in this interesting student behaviour.

I look around at Australian society as a whole and I find that sex segregation is an idea that has gone from being regarded as archaic sex discrimination to being regarded as respectable, healthy and pro-social. Some orgnizations have a long history of excluding one sex, others have modernized and no longer exclude, but some newer social organizations have been single-sex from the start. We have the "partner" of the Prime Minister getting publicity as the patron of the "men's sheds movement". It is a mystery to me why anyone would think it a good idea to encourage lonely old widowers to join a social club that excludes potential next wives. We have single-sex organizations such as the CWA being celebrated (one recent example is a TV commerical for Castlemaine ham products) when in the not-distant past they were ridiculed and legally challenged. Some social organizations like the Freemasons continue to exclude one sex, while others like the Scouts have changed with the times and welcome all. We have the Red Hat Society that appears to be for older women only, challenging ageist stereotypes but at the same time giving a free run to gender stereotypes. We have Dads-only playgroups, based on the popular belief that there is something awkward or distasteful about mothers and fathers mixing socially, if they aren't married to each other.

We have Relationships Australia, a counselling organization that is largely funded by government, running workshops about parenting girls for Dads and workshops about parenting boys for Mums, based on the presumption that the psychological difference between the sexes is so enormous that even parents need professional help to understand their own offspring who are at the other side of the gender chasm. Promotional material explains that mothers have a special role in developing nurturing in their sons, and fathers have a special role in developing self-esteem in their daughters, reinforcing the stereotype of the selfless woman and the selfish, self-important man, and the stereotypes of boys who need help with their naturally under-developed sense of empathy, and girls who need help with their naturally under-developed sense of agency, a concept that is sure to amuse many parents of a real teenage daughters.

The idea of services aimed at one sex has thorougly permeated the counselling industry in Australia, from large organizations to the most quacky individual practitioners of pop psychology. Government-funded community health services by and for women only have a long history in Australia, and the long rise in popularity of the idea of gendered psychology has resulted in a range of services open to men only. One example would be the men-only telephone counselling service Mensline Australia. "Men's health" is not just an idea, it is an industry encompassing private counselling, weekend workshops for the troubled, psychiatry, psychotherapy-dressed-up-as-science, services for boys and the authorship of pop psychology books and parenting manuals. "Men's health" services are funded by government and by charities.

Shonks and qualified psychiatrists alike understand that appealing to individuals' gender identity, appealing to gender stereotypes and playing one sex against the other are tricks that grab attention and publicity, and these are ideas that have already captured the imaginations and passions of many people. In Australia in 2011 the stereotypes and the segregation sell the goods (and the services), and anyone who objects to these marketing techniques and sex-based exclusions can be dismissed as an enthusiast of "political correctness". Gender-based marketing in Australia has reached the absurd point at which a product as ordinary and uniform as a dozen eggs is now the subject of feminised packaging in bright pink and girlish graphics with a product name that is also a popular girl's name.

We have Australian churches and high school chaplains organizing single-sex programs and social events for youths and for adults that appear to be, judging by the publicity and some accounts, festivals of gender stereotyping and religious evangelism, making a mockery of the ideas that sexism and religious recruitment have no place in government schools. I've heard of single-sex programs offered by high school chaplains in Australian government schools that go by the names "Bloke" and "Chick" and "Strength" and "Shine". I'm sure you can figure out which are for which gender. Apparently the Strength and Shine programs are the products of the powerful fundamentalist Hillsong church. I don't know a lot about the Bloke and Chick programs, but I've got to suspect that they might be the Hillsong programs renamed to evade the controversy that has become attached to the Hillsong programs. Sex segregation in government public schools and classes has come back into fashion in some Australian states in the last few years, with the advocates citing questionable neuro-psychological research and junk-science pop psychology books to support their cause. I know of one Australian public high school that has organized a class-time single-sex-only activity for its students, and I know of one Australian government primary school in which teachers would routinely use a gender-integrated class seating plan as a form of student punishment.

In Australian society sex-segregation is not limited to the works of "the helping professions" such as teaching and counselling. I think newsagents have always arranged their magazine racks strictly along gender lines. We have always had women's magazines and we now have a free-to-air TV channel (7Mate) marketed explicitly to men. Some sex segregation in Australia is new and some is just lingering old-school sexism that no one bothered to get rid of. For as long as I can remember we have tolerated low entry standards for professions that are thought to be most suitable for women, presumably because we think women are in some way incapable of leaping high hurdles, while traditionally male professions are typically not degraded in this way. You'll need a higher ATAR score to enter an engineering course at uni than a primary-school teaching course, even though both professions have a high level of responsibility. Would I be wrong in assuming that the professions with the higher entry standards also have the higher rates of pay?

I look around and I wonder, how did we get to this point? How did we ever get to such a stupid, stupid place, and I barely noticed as it happened?

I'm old enough to remember that my generation was one of the first in which high school students did not have their personal choice of school subjects compulsorily limited by gender. Some of my high school teachers had still not discarded sexist ideas about the abilities of students, and girls were cautioned about choosing subjects such as physics and chemistry. I feel so sad that Australian society now appears to be happy to step back in time thirty-odd years and throw away the important progress that was made so many years ago. Perhaps the seemingly-innocent young primary school students sorting their cute, brightly-coloured school bags by gender are just adapting themselves to the Australia of the present and the future, a world in which girls wear pink and boys are expected to act up and do well in maths and physics. We can hardly expect those so young to try to overthrow the social order that they were born into. I guess at least there is one advantage to a more sex segregated Australia - their new home won't feel as strange for new Islamic migrants.

P. S. Months later I have noticed that the group of young school students described at the beginning of this piece and others of the same year have also spontaneously gender-segregated the placement of their bags during a school excursion.

P. P. S. See my main article about sex segregation in Australia here:

Link to radio story with comments about the school chaplain program:

Church and state.
10 April 2011
Background Briefing.
ABC Radio National 810am

Link to a Queensland newspaper story about sex segregation in schools:

Grade divide.
by Mary-Rose MacColl
The (Brisbane) Courier Mail.
Q Weekend, February 26-27th 2011 p.18-23.

American readers - call your senator!

ASAN, The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, are asking supporters in the US to contact their senators about an important matter, which can be read about here:

ACTION ALERT: Tell Congress "No" to Three More Years of the Same On Autism Policy

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

More ethical chippies on the way?

I'm feeling rather pleased at the moment because it looks as though the manufacturer one of my absolute favourite guilty pleasures, potato crisps of the brand Smiths, could be in the process of phasing out the use of palm oil. I'd rather avoid buying products that have palm oil in them because I believe that palm oil plantations in SE Asia are destroying the habitats of the orangutan, an endangered creature that is closely related to humans and is in many ways more like a human than any other creature, chimps included.

There are many reasons why I'd be devastated if the orangutan became extinct. Unlike some other apes they are solitary animals, and as such they are an interesting and biologically important element of our genetic heritage. The orangutan could be the key to understanding autism. Orangutans have been discussed in the journal paper that introduced the The Solitary Forager Hypothesis of autism this year. Orangutans are also just beautiful, intelligent animals. Two different orangs have staged cunning planned escapes from two different Australian zoos. No one was hurt, but some zoo patrons had some experiences that they are unlikely to forget. I myself have had a moment of unexpected closeness with an orangutan.

As I sat beside the large perspex window of one of the orangutan enclosures at an Australian zoo, an adult female sat beside me. It is important to note that we were not facing each other, we would have been shoulder-to-shoulder if it hadn't been for the layer of perspex. These were the same positions in which my husband and I were sitting at a party when we first made acquaintance - not confronting, but close. I thought it best not to make eye contact too much with the orangutan, because orangs don't much like eye contact or facing others. We just sat for a while and I took a photo of my child with the orangutan close by, and then, as is her habit, the female orang started touching her eye. This is a tic that she has when she feels a bit uncomfortable, according to stuff that I read about her after this encounter. Then she wandered off. I didn't feel that there had been an animal on one side of that perspex window with a higher being on the other. Was she a person? Are you a person? Am I a person? The question itself seems absurd.

So, considering how much I love Smiths crisps, and how much I love orangutans, and the central role that crisp-munching while staring vacantly into the middle distance plays in maintaining my sanity in the midst of a busy life, I'd be very, very happy if Smiths would stop using palm oil in their crisps. This week I found a packet that lists as its second ingredient vegetable oil, but it is specified which vegetable oils (sunflower and/or canola) are used. Unspecified vegetable oil is listed way down the list of ingredients, no doubt an ingredient of an ingredient. It looks as though there must be only a small amount of palm oil in this product, if any, and the nutritional content listing seems consistent with this. It says there is less saturated fat in this product than in a comparable slightly older packet of Smiths crisps that has unspecified vegetable oil as a second ingredient. Palm oil is apparently a saturated fat, and this is a clue to finding out if a product has palm oil as an ingredient. Because Australian politicians are useless gasbagging space-wasters they have failed to pass a law that would require food manufacturers to give specific ingredient listings on their products, so Australian consumers have to play Sherlock friggin' Holmes to figure out what is actually in our processed foods. But the best solution for everyone would be for food companies to stop using palm oil, and give the Asian rainforests and our coronary arteries a chance. So please, Smiths crisp people, please do the right thing!

Ranga-related links

Australian Orangutan Project

Palm oil action shopping guide

Borneo Orangutan Survival

Orangutan in zoo escape bid.
BBC News
May 2009

Orangutan escapes enclosure at Australian zoo.
July 2009

Humans More Related To Orangutans Than Chimps, Study Suggests

June 18, 2009

Conceptualizing the Autism Spectrum in Terms of Natural Selection and Behavioral Ecology: The Solitary Forager Hypothesis.
Jared Edward Reser
Evolutionary Psychology. – 2011. 9(2): 207-238

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

RMET meta analysis published at earlier post

I hope one fine day I'll find the time to write a lengthy discussion of all the stuff I've discovered about this test, and the moon might well catch fire next week as well.

Yes, there does appear to be something odd about the German version of the RMET, but it is also true that a normal score on the 36 item Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test is lower than 30.

A normal score on this test is ..................(drum roll).......... 26.03061

So, really, what is a normal score on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Just thought I should mention this before I head off to bed

A science magazine article about the artificial computerized reading of emotions in which the controversial Prof. Baron-Cohen is interviewed can be read in full at the website of New Scientist.

A quote from the article:

"When Picard and el Kaliouby were calibrating their prototype, they were surprised to find that the average person only managed to interpret, correctly, 54 per cent of Baron-Cohen's expressions on real, non-acted faces. This suggested to them that most people - not just those with autism - could use some help sensing the mood of people they are talking to. "People are just not that good at it," says Picard. The software, by contrast, correctly identifies 64 per cent of the expressions."

Wow, 64 % of expressions. Make me wonder what is the point of expressing the other 36% of expressions if they are so impossible to interpret correctly.

Specs that see right through you.
by Sally Adee
New Scientist.
5th July 2011
Issue 2819.
in print:
Your seventh sense.
July 2nd 2011 p. 32-36.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Lili's giggle for the day

Lili's thought for the day

Many intellectuals have argued that it is a capacity for cooperative behaviour that sets humans apart as special. British police and British politicians cooperate with News Corp journalists. Psychiatry researchers all around the world maintain lovely relationships with pharmaceutical companies. Isn't mutual reciprocity a wonderful thing?

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Lili's next thought for the day

All high school debating teams are required to include at least one Tristan, one Fiona or at least one child of East Asian descent.

P. S. .....even if it is an exclusive private Jewish high school.

Lili's thought for the day

By law every research institute must have at least one major investigator with an outrageous German accent.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

To all those Mums and Dads of late-talking toddlers - now they are telling you to NOT worry

Late talkers grow out of problems: study.
Belinda Tasker, National Medical Correspondent
July 5, 2011.
Sydney Morning Herald.

"Prof Whitehouse said parents should not be overly worried if their two-year-olds did not have a good vocabulary. "They are not programmed for a life of misery," he said."

While it appears that a minority of these kids might go on later to be not normal, it will surely be reassuring to parents of late talking toddlers that the odds are that their child will simply grow out of their delay in development and any of the behavioural or emotional issues that might be caused by the communication difficulties.

But I'm not giving Associate Professor Andrew Whitehouse or child development experts in general a big slap on the back for giving parents this good news, because I know that there is a whole industry and bureaucracy in Australia whose job it is to alarm the parents of babies and toddlers and young children about whether or not their kids are developing at the rate and template of what is deemed by these "experts" as normal and healthy. These are the people who give formal speech development assessments to babies under a year old. These are the people who recommend that very young children be urgently seen by speech pathologists and sundry other allied health professionals in order to start "early intervention" as early as possible, using unproven therapies on young ones for theoretical problems that could well never develop, and things that possibly aren't really a problem, and things that possibly aren't really fixable, at a cost of time, money and stress for vulnerable and already often very over-stretched parents. And in reply to parents who dared to question the necessity of all this drama, the professionals would invariably claim that there is a body of evidence showing that the need and the impact of the intervention are both real. They lied.

I've got to wonder if the findings of this study, which was one of those Western Australian studies done by Telethon Institute for Child Health Research which has had a long association with Prof. Fiona Stanley, has led Associate Prof. Whitehouse to be less committed to the fashionable battle to blast any deviation from "normal" in young children with an urgent dose of early intervention.

"In a separate study published earlier this year, Prof Whitehouse and his team identified a genetic link to delayed language development. They are now looking for biological markers to help identify which children are at risk of language problems so they can be targeted for early intervention programs."

I predict that the early intervention obsession will be a hard habit for the early intervention industry to break, but I'm sure there must be some effective intervention for obsessional behaviour. Cognitive behavioural therapy?....or maybe some anti-depressant medication might be effective?

Most late-talking toddlers turn out ok.
press release
4th July, 2011
Telethon Institute for Child Health Research

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Still working on RMET piece

I had gotten pretty close to finishing my report on my meta-analysis type thing investigating studies that have used the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test with a normal control group, with the aim of establishing what a normal score in that test actually is, but then I noticed a problem with one lot of data, and other things came up.....

Last time I checked the normal score on the RMET looked like being around 26 out of 36, pretty much the same score that the supposedly autistic male mathematician got in that book by Prof. Baron-Cohen.

As a side interest, I have also been collecting studies of autistic people and the RMET. I've been surprised at the small number of studies I've been able to find, using pretty much the same search strategies that I used to find over thirty published studies in which the RMET was used on control groups and people who have various other conditions and diseases. I suspect that there simply haven't been enough high quality studies done of autistic people and the RMET to establish what a genuinely typical autistic score on this test is. I haven't tried to compare male and female scores on this test, but I get the impression that sex differences are real but very small. One thing is for sure - a number of things influence scores on this test in ways that appear to have little to do with telling the difference between autistic and non-autistic or the difference between male and female.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Some of my least favourite things converge on the radio

There was an uncritical discussion of empathy and mirror neuron "science" today on Radio National (gag, cough). It was taken from the "Happiness and Its Causes Conference". It featured not only one of those terribly romantic Italian mirror neuron researchers (retch, gag), he was also discussing stuff with the Dalai lama (groan, guffaw). To add an Australian flavour of questionable science to the mix, Professor Patrick McGorry (sneer)had a seat at these discussions. McGorry has been the subject of some critical recent posts at this blog and also at my other blog Blond Ambition, and who has the habit of forgetting to declare many commerical conflicting interests. I've got to give the Dalai lama the credit for pointing out a stark fact that can't be reconciled with the popular simple theories about empathy and mirror neurons - the existence of schadenfreude. I should also point out that it is worth listening to this program just to hear the Dalai lama laughing like Ernie in Sesame Steet.

I feel so sorry for the poor sucker at Radio National whose job it is to write out a transcript of whatever it is that the Dalai Lama was rambling on about. Will his words make any more sense in print? One can only hope.

Oh, and next week apparently this radio show, All in the Mind, will be featuring a particular focus on discussion between the Dalai lama and Prof. Patrick McGorry. I'll be sure to have my spew bucket and my No-Doz tablets on hand. "Mental illness is reportedly on the rise in young people. Why?" Because Eli Lilly says so, stupid.

Dialogue with the Dalai Lama - Part 2 - Mirror neurons, our intersubjective minds & the limits of compassion.
All in the Mind.
ABC Radio National 810am
broadcast July 2nd 2011

Dialogue with the Dalai Lama - Part 3 - Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry.
All in the Mind.
ABC Radio National 810am
broadcast July 9th 2011