Tuesday, April 25, 2017

It's late at night....

It’s March 2015 and I’m still here at my computer at a ridiculous hour of the night. I’m using YouTube to view a science documentary which was produced several years ago. I’m looking at one of countless recordings of a popular documentary which people have uploaded over the years. The subject of the documentary is a young man presented as a savant displaying many amazing talents, which are attributed to a mysterious brain condition related to epilepsy and autism. I’m sitting here at this late hour because science is one of my interests, but I’m not watching this made-for-television film as a casual viewer. I’m viewing the credits at the end of the documentary because I feel that I need to check something. Close to the end of the documentary there are a few frames showing the man who is the subject of the documentary lying down on what looks like a grey slab designed to go into an MRI machine. After that there are slightly gruesome shots of moving images of a head and brain scan beside images of a man’s face from two odd angles, one an upside-down profile. I notice that the face in the inverted profile appears not to be the face of the man featured in the documentary, with the face’s hooked nose, receding chin and large ears. Holding a mirror to a frozen video frame confirms that it’s not his face. I know that none of the fMRI studies of this man that I’m aware of would have been conducted during the period of the filming of this documentary. This mismatched face is just one of countless details in this story which don’t ring true, but this isn’t the detail that I’m looking out for.

Next in the documentary a likeable doctor/expert with a grandfatherly face says something inspiring, and then there’s a shot of the star of the film sitting in a large and futuristically white and shiny building, with an artsy visual effect accompanying a voice-over of the star saying something inspiring, then it’s back to the expert, Dr Darold Treffert who has written extensively on the subject of autistic savants, saying more inspiring words about the future direction of research, and then there’s the bit that I’m looking for – the closing credits. As they zoom up the screen I struggle to pause the images in time to check the names of some neuroscientists among those in the credits, and I also spot the name of one of the world’s most accomplished competitors in memory sport, Dominic O’Brien. It seems odd that his name should be listed here, because I know what Mr O’Brien looks like and I swear that I never saw him making an appearance in this television documentary, but the appearance of his name in the credits does back up what I’ve read about this documentary – that a critical interview with this memory sport champion was filmed but was left out of the final product. That’s interesting but I’m really interested in what the credits have to say about the associate producers of the film, because I have read that the publicist of the man who is the subject of the film was also an associate producer in the documentary project, which seems like a conflict of interest to me. I had expected more of a science documentary, but perhaps that just shows that I’m a bit naïve. The swiftly ascending names of members of the crew are suddenly squashed beyond recognition, as the screen showing the recording of the Channel 5 broadcast of the documentary is compressed to make space for a TV channel promo for an upcoming TV show about “the woman with the 14 stone tumor”. I can just make out that there were four names under the heading “Associate Producer” but I can only barely perceive the name of the publicist because I already know what to look for as a result of fact checking at the IMDb database. A moment later the credits are readable again, just in time to make the names of the documentary director and producer legible, and then I’m struck by a thought. Is it just a coincidence that that particular potentially controversial part of the credits is illegible? My late-night idea seems like some far-fetched conspiracy theory, but it does fit nicely with a detail that I’ve noticed about the autobiographical book written by the star of the documentary. In the UK edition of his book I cannot find the name of his publicist, but in the later US edition the author Daniel Tammet thanks his publicist by name in the acknowledgements section of his book. The Channel 5 broadcast of this documentary would have been broadcast in the UK and the publicist’s name is illegible in the credits, while the US version of the documentary, released under the title Brainman and broadcast on the Science Channel, has the name of the publicist shown as clear as day in credits ascending the screen at a leisurely pace. It would appear that perhaps there was a lack of motivation to publicise the role of the publicist to British viewers and readers. Was there any intention to hide any conflict of interest? I can’t help wondering. Who would have thought that watching the credits of a dated science documentary in the small hours would be so thought provoking?

Perhaps you might be wondering if all of these details about a publicist’s role are of any real consequence. I think they could be, because it is the Channel 5 broadcast of that documentary, with the UK title The Boy with the Incredible Brain, and the UK edition of the autobiography Born on a Blue Day which were cited as sources of information by the authors of one of the most influential published science journal papers about the man in the documentary. This journal paper was published a couple of years after the documentary was first broadcast. Some of the authors of this influential research paper from the University of Cambridge were involved with, and were filmed and shown in the documentary, but they could conceivably have been unaware that the publicist of their study subject was also involved in that documentary. This group of brain sciences researchers certainly appear to have had many deficiencies in their background knowledge of the person they wrote two research papers about. Neither of those published papers noted that the subject, Daniel Tammet, had changed his surname from Corney in the year 2001 and neither of the papers mentioned that Daniel Corney had been a competitor in the World Memory Championships in the years 1999 and 2000. Neither paper mentioned that Tammet had already been one of the subjects in a study of “superior memorizers” which was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience in the new year period of 2002-2003, in which a team of memory researchers found that the superior memorizers were superior due to their training using well-known memory techniques rather than any structural peculiarity of their brains. I’m happy to assume that the Cambridge team didn’t mention these elements of Daniel Tammet’s life history in their journal papers because they were unaware of them, and I’m also happy to assume that had they known about these biographical facts they would not have been so keen to label Mr Tammet as an autistic synaesthete savant.

A team of English researchers led by a professor who is internationally recognized as an expert in the area of autism appear to have made some embarrassing oversights in their studies of one research participant who is famous for having an exceptional memory. This is interesting, but is it anything to lose sleep over? Even the most strident advocates of a scientific world view acknowledge that science isn’t perfect and neither are scientists. Science is supposed to be a process in which errors are made but progress in the wrong direction is corrected in the long run by the criticism and scrutiny of other scientists.

That’s a nice idea, and I wish I could believe in it, but all these years later in 2017 I’m still waiting for that correction to the fanciful story of Daniel Tammet to ring out from the heart of the brain sciences community. Instead, all that I’ve found is largely-ignored corrections from people who are experts but are definitely not scientists, a mountain of breathless coverage of Tammet by mass media sources (including the world’s most prestigious newspapers and top-rating current affairs television shows), and an arc of influence of Tammet and his life story that spans the globe and has lasted over a decade, leaving it’s mark on popular culture and the brain sciences alike. This looks like a story about the conquest of science by showbiz values and commercial interests. This is not the way science is supposed to work. Science has been made to look a fool. Back in 2015 I found this story fascinating for what it revealed about the sociological dimension of contemporary psychology and neuroscience and problems that needed fixing, but from the viewpoint of April 2017 it looks like the opportunity to redeem the image of science is long-gone. Populist movements in the world’s most powerful nations are challenging the authority of science and other social institutions that are described as elites. An anti-intellectual President is doing his best to slash the funding and influence of science in the United States.

From this point we seem to have two choices; we could defend science by saying the same flattering things that we’ve always been saying about science, or we could turn around and have a good, hard look at the many things that are wrong with science. Scientists could own up to stupidly and wastefully running up too many blind alleys of improbable theories in the past. Scientists could acknowledge (with red faces) that some important areas of science are markedly influenced by popular culture and commercial interests. Scientists and journalists alike could put their hands up and own up to publishing crap and later failing to retract crap. I believe you will find nor read no more instructive example of the sciences of the human mind screwing up than the “incredible” story of Daniel Tammet. How did this debacle happen? Read the book.

At 360 pages and over 148,000 words, the 2017 edition is almost double previous editions, with many added chapters focusing on individuals whose personal stories add to our understanding of the Tammet phenomenon: researchers who have studied and published about Tammet, memory champions and record-breakers whose achievements far exceed Tammet's, and individuals who have claimed fame as acquired savants with stories that echo Tammet's incredible story. A big story about science going wrong just got bigger!

Daniel Tammet: the Boy with the Incredible Story

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Lili's thought of the day

An empty Comcar pulled up at Parliament House in Canberra, and when the door was opened, out stepped Malcolm Turnbull.

Monday, March 27, 2017

A very pointed observation from a New Scientist interview article

But the idea that emotions are hardwired and universal underlies many things...

Very much so. The example that really gets me is the training of autistic children to recognise the stereotyped expressions stipulated by the classical view. This training is supposed to improve children's social functioning. But nothing changes for these kids because these facial expressions don't generalise outside the lab.

Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett interviewed by Shannon Fischer for New Scientist

March 11th 2017 Issue 3116 p. 40-43

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Lili's question for the day

How much has the world of (academic) science contributed, directly or indirectly, towards the creation or development of memory techniques used by memory sport competitors and memory record holders?

Lili's exasperation of the day

C'mon everybody! Who believes that Mem Fox being detained by immigration officers in the US had nothing to do with having a convicted paedophile for a husband?

Did you see her on The Project the other night, playing the victim? I didn't notice any hard questions from the panel, which generally consists of entertainers, commentators and a token old shock jock, who present the news as a form of light entertainment.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Lili's contrary thought of the day

Rather than slapping Sir David Attenborough on the back and naming things after him, maybe we should be asking the famous Sir David exactly what he knew about the illegal, prolific and unconscionable activities of the famous BBC TV host and serial paedophile Jimmy Savile, whose child molestation apparently peaked in the 1970s, in a time period overlapping Attenborough's term as the BBC's Director of Programmes. Why did Attenborough choose to return to making programmes in 1973, when his career could have gone even further, to the top of the heap of BBC administration? Was there some nasty mess that he didn't want to have to confront, as a senior administrator?

Lili's reminder of the day

If you've been watching this TV doco series:


maybe you should also consider this:


Saturday, February 04, 2017

Lili's recommendation for the day

The Stupidity Paradox : The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work
by Mats Alvesson and André Spicer

It looks at varieties of stupidity that are lifestyle choices or occupational hazards, not inborn disorders

It's alarming

It's funny

It's psychological

It's a business book

It appears to be based on scientific evidence

It's written by professors at universities

So far it's been unremittingly negative on every page

The authors would be sacked from most jobs for being half as negative as this

It's one of those books that busts the brightly-coloured balloons full of hot air

It's the best book I've read all year

Lili's link for the day

GetUp! have created this online tool in response to the robodebt scam from Centrelink:


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Lili's told-you-so moment of the day

So, now I've found out that the bail justice who let free the violent young man who later mowed down and killed people in Victoria with a stolen car was a volunteer bail justice filling in after hours for the regular paid ones. Can you believe that? A job as crucial to public safety and justice as that, being left at times for volunteers to fill! I have no wish to make any sweeping statement vilifying or questioning the capability of volunteers, but any role of importance in our community should be done by a paid and carefully selected and fully qualified and experienced worker or professional practitioner. Apparently these voluntary bail justices can be very young or unqualified. This is madness and it must stop! This news is astounding enough, but I also find myself agreeing without qualms with today's editorial from The Australian newspaper! This does not happen often.

I've been writing and ranting about the exploitation and stupidity of workfare and excessive use of volunteers in this blog for ages, but there has been no better time than today to demand a stop to this epidemic of unfair, dangerous and recession-mongering over-reliance on unpaid labour and services in Australian society. Businesses large and small exploit the young and inexperienced and the unemployed in unpaid internships and prolonged unpaid training or probationary periods. Training given under such arrangements can be redundant, demeaning or non-existent. All levels of government in Australia: local, state and federal, use the services of volunteers or advertise unpaid internships or cadetships. While these positions can be sought after, competed for and subject to written applications, interviews and clearances just the same as hiring for a paid job, the fact that people are willing to fill these roles in government departments, museums, events, legal roles, welfare roles etc, for zip pay does not excuse the fact that it is not legal to fill roles that are in every way like a job while offering no pay. Sure enough, such roles might offer valuable work experience or "a foot in the door", but that still does not make it acceptable or legal to offer the kind of role that would have once been a paid job as an internship or volunteer role today. There was a day when young people could expect a choice of job opportunities that they could walk into and start earning from, while they were also trained and mentored on the job.

The fact that today applicants outnumber paid jobs does not justify the existence of this slave economy. The volunteer economy is a false economy, because when people work for nothing, they cannot participate in the economy as consumers and thus the money does not go around, and they are also kept reliant on welfare income, which is paid for by taxes. There are other obvious reasons why the slave economy is a stupid idea. It is demeaning and demoralising to the unpaid workers who have no recognised responsibility or standing in workplaces. It is also stupid to expect this unpaid and unrecognised "ghost labour" to perform to the occupational standards, abilities, reliabilities, initiative, levels of responsibility and accountability of hired and paid workers. Can they be held legally responsible for mishaps on their watch? Who knows?

If every mug in Australia who works for nothing solely to stop their dole being cut off, to create work experiences to write into a resume, to train for a job that they have never been offered or to have a life and identity beyond parenting or retirement or a shit marriage all decided today to ask to be paid for their work, what would happen? Some people might gain secure, dignified, safe, paid jobs, rather than no people gaining secure, dignified, safe, paid jobs. That would be something at least.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Lili's backpeddle of the day

So today it looks like I've judged the Victorian police too harshly over the Bourke Street rampage, as I read in today's paper that the murderer was out on bail at the time, and bail had been opposed by police. I hope the bail justice today feels the leaden weight of guilt for their central role in this tragedy and is now drafting a resignation letter. We all know that much too often the legal system undoes many hours of work done by police, leaving dangerous people at liberty to cause serious harm to more victims. Did the Lindt Café siege and the murder of Jill Meagher leave the legal profession with no lessons learned? To the Victorian Police Force - I apologise for suggesting your organisation did little to prevent the Bourke Street tragedy, but all the same, it would have been nice to see a cop or two at the scene before it was too late to prevent harm.

This isn't the only obvious and urgent question arising out of yesterday's horror. Why was an offender with a long history of offending and psychiatric disorder and drug use not incarcerated securely inside a psychiatric facility that was able to address both the mental disorder and the drug abuse problems? Australia is too poor a country to afford to create and use as needed such institutions? Bullshit! The trouble is that in the crusade to "take the stigma" out of "mental health" and popularise the idea of psychiatric labelling led by chattering attention-seekers such as McGorry and Hickie, the dangerously insane have been lumped together into the same category as harmless public servants who freeze with fear at the thought of public speaking and neglected children with joyless lives who correspondingly feel joyless. We all know there isn't room in any psychiatric ward for all of these people, so we are forced to accept life with the insane amongst us.

We should also ask, with countless mind-altering drugs available for prescription and psychiatry regarded as a science, with countless millions of dollars spent world-wide on research into the workings of the brain and the mind, why can't irrational murderous anger, from drug use or other causes, be diagnosed as a serious psychiatric disorder and treated effectively? As far as I know, only recently has a psychiatric disorder with unfounded anger been formally recognized as a mental disorder, even though it has been recognised as one of many possible symptoms of epilepsy probably as long as epileptics have been identified and shunned. Only days ago the science journal Nature featured a story titled "lasers activate killer instinct in mice". Predation behaviour in mice can reportedly be switched on and off with stimulation to the central amygdala in mice, and there's every reason to believe the same kind of activation of a specific part of the brain could activate aggressive behaviour in humans. So why can't psychiatry switch such behaviour off in humans? Ask your doctor, ask the directors of mental health services and brain research institutions, ask state and federal ministers for health, but don't expect any sensible or substantial answer.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Lili's fury for the day

So at this stage it looks like young men armed with a baseball bat and unarmed pedestrians did more to try to prevent the Bourke Street tragedy from happening than the Victorian police. Useless fucks!

Please, readers, do not be impressed by all the work done by countless police officers to investigate this crime, and the countless hours of work done by countless WA police officers to investigate the Claremont serial killings, because the preventable harm has already been done, and it is too late, way too late. Convictions hardly matter if they are not related to the prevention of crime.