I Get Email: fMRI and Autism

I did receive one response to my talk at SkepTech that wasn’t entirely positive.

Good afternoon Stephanie,

I was one of the attendees at skeptech in Minneapolis last weekend, and had asked you a question as to whether MRI’s have contributed to discovering autism in children at a young age (or at all, for that matter). I remember your reply, where you said that MRI’s weren’t advanced enough to make those kinds of detections without the need for physically splitting someone’s head open and investigating.

Curiousity got the best of me, and I decided to look around on the internet. I found the following scientific paper, “State-dependant changes of connectivity patterns and functional brain network topology in Autism Spectrum Disorder” on arxiv.org, a reputable source containing a library of scientific papers available to the public. Within this paper, another paper in 2007 by Alexander et al. discussed that “structural MRI studies have reported abnormal developmental trajectory of brain growth, with evidence of poorly organizated white matter”.

My questions to you are:

  • What is your reaction to this new information?
  • Given that your website shows no credentials of neuroscience or anything related to which you may have degrees in, why would you attend a conference and answer questions so confidently without knowing more about these subjects and the science behind these matters?

Thank you for your time. I hope you have a great week!

All right. Let’s go through my mental processes on this one, shall we? [Read more...]

Where We Are and How We Got Here

Bombs went off in Boston, and moments later, this happened:

A twenty-year-old man who had been watching the Boston Marathon had his body torn into by the force of a bomb. He wasn’t alone; a hundred and seventy-six people were injured and three were killed. But he was the only one who, while in the hospital being treated for his wounds, had his apartment searched in “a startling show of force,” as his fellow-tenants described it to the Boston Herald, with a “phalanx” of officers and agents and two K9 units. He was the one whose belongings were carried out in paper bags as his neighbors watched; whose roommate, also a student, was questioned for five hours (“I was scared”) before coming out to say that he didn’t think his friend was someone who’d plant a bomb—that he was a nice guy who liked sports. “Let me go to school, dude,” the roommate said later in the day, covering his face with his hands and almost crying, as a Fox News producer followed him and asked him, again and again, if he was sure he hadn’t been living with a killer.

He was from Saudi Arabia. He was cleared, quickly, but not before the story was spread around that the bombing suspect was Middle Eastern and “dark-skinned”.

Then came this:
[Read more...]

Saturday Storytime: The Lure of Devouring Light

Sometimes dark fantasy gets quite dark. This story by Michael Griffin is on the dark end. Those of you who don’t want to read about sexual or emotional abuse will want to skip this one.

The door to the cabin stands open. No music, for once. Part of her dares hope he’s gone, though her reason for coming is to bring him back. Lia absently kisses the crescent moon tattoo on her bow-hand index finger, a habitual good luck gesture.

Inside, the cabin’s a wreck, not just the door open but every window, too. A tornado of strewn clothing, empty champagne bottles. An exquisite cello lies before road cases containing Mészáros’s electronics gear. Microphones, PA speakers. A tangle of cables converge on a portable mixer and audio interface attached to a scuffed silver laptop. Beside that, an injection kit. Syringes, rubber tie-offs, glass vials of clear liquid.

“Great,” Lia mutters.

Mészáros arrived in Oregon seemingly clear-headed. His early lectures were brilliant, but those weren’t why the Dean had brought him in. The point of his visit, the capper, is supposed to be tomorrow’s performance of Stockhausen’s twenty-nine-hour opera cycle. The university is billing it as the first complete, continuous performance of Licht in North America.

Since Mészáros started missing commitments this week, the music department’s built into a cacophony of rumor. Then his no-show at this morning’s media sessions sent everyone into full panic. Had Mészáros fled the day before the show?

Finally, Lia told the dean she had some idea where the man might be hiding.

On the kitchen counter rests a drinking glass half-full of what can only be blood. In the sink, a spray of red, as if someone’s been sick. Liquid only, no trace of food. The place smells toxic, a mood of degeneracy looming heavily. Her quiet getaway, now repository for the grim karma of a madman.

At the table Lia reads Mészáros’s notes. Mostly music transcription, including cello parts Lia herself will play, if the show happens. Interspersed are dated, diary-like entries. One outlines Stockhausen’s ritual prescriptions for Goldstaub, not part of Licht, but a notorious bit of the composer’s real-life craziness. Isolation, fasting and sleep deprivation as preparation for a music performance. A kind of “summoning the muse,” a phrase Mészáros repeated and underlined.

The final page addresses meditation, which triggers a memory of Lia’s time here with him. He loved the forest, especially Monk Point overlook, where he meditated in the mornings. She remembered those days, a giddy rush of possibilities. What doors seemed about to open?

So eager, then. So trusting.

Keep reading.

“The Outsider Test for Faith”, John Loftus on Atheists Talk

John Loftus is a former evangelical preacher. He studied under William Lane Craig and earned Master’s degrees in divinity and theology. He is currently an adjunct professor of philosophy, an author, the creator and primary blogger of the popular website, Debunking Christianity, and the founder of the Skeptic Ink blogging network. He is the author of Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity, a co-author of the book God or Godless, and the editor for two books: The Christian Delusion and The End of Christianity.
John Loftus joins Atheists Talk this Sunday to discuss his newest book, The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True. This book seeks to help readers view religion from an outside perspective, to better understand the irrationality of believing in one god (or set of gods) over all others. And it encourages believers to apply the skepticism they have toward other religions to their own.
Related Links

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The Use and Abuse of Psychometrics

I had a very short time slot for my solo talk at SkepTech, so I decided to use it to give a very brief, simplified look at how the process of developing measurement tools in psychology limits what those tools can tell us.

The talk has made my fellow psych people happy, which means I didn’t get anything glaringly wrong. I haven’t yet heard much from people outside psychology, so I have no idea how this plays as an introduction to the topic.

Invitation: A Week Away

Because work hasn’t been busy enough recently, I’m suddenly traveling for a project next week. It’s the kind of thing where I’ll either be seeing the inside of an office or the inside of my eyelids, which doesn’t leave me much time (any time) for blogging.

Normally if I knew I’m going to be this busy, I would schedule some reposts and some quick posts linking to other people’s work or opportunities to make the world a better place–the bits of what I do that involve less writing. As I was falling asleep last night, though, I had a different idea for this time around.

A lot of the people who comment here are bloggers, and even when I link to them, not nearly enough people click through. A lot of the people who comment here are thoughtful people with interesting perspectives who don’t want to deal with maintaining a blog. A lot of the people who comment here are involved in activism on local issues that could use a higher profile.

Are you one of those people? Do you want to use the eyeballs that come with being on a network while I’m up to my eyeballs in work? Use the mail icon in my sidebar and tell me what you’d like to share. It doesn’t have to be original for this. It just has to be something that should see a bigger audience.

Let’s put this “cat’s away” time to good use.

Moving Right Along

My disputed post has stopped being disputed and has been posted for discussion, albeit in two parts. I’m posting both parts here together. That makes relevant links so far:

For the sake of word count, I have removed points of settled agreement from this statement, though I expect we will refer to them throughout the dialog.  [Read more...]

It’s Okay to Look Away

Sometimes it’s even a good thing.

When large-scale tragedy strikes these days, the news is everywhere, and it’s constant. It’s keeps our social networks constantly updating. It keeps 24-hour news channels churning. It takes over the regular channels from our escapist entertainment. Everywhere, people are telling us, “Look! Look at what has happened! Look at the new pictures, new ‘information’, new interviews, new clips of people reacting to tragedy!”

I’m just one little voice, but I’m telling you something else.
[Read more...]

How to Make a Mayor

Tomorrow night is precinct caucus night here in Minneapolis. This year, that means a lot. My friend Naomi, whose political picks I’ve frequently linked here near election time, explains.

So, R.T. Rybak, who has been Mayor of Minneapolis for over a decade, announced a couple of months ago that he’s not going to run again. Minneapolis city elections (with the exception of school board races) do not have primaries: instead, they use Instant Runoff. So you get the full list of everyone running and get to rank at least your top preferences (I think you’re limited to three). Here is FairVote.org’s explanation of How Instant Runoff Voting Works — I’m not going to get into the details here.

Last time around (in 2009) there were 11 candidates. Now, last time, that didn’t really matter. R.T. was going to win; Kolstad was going to come in a distant second; everyone else was going to be a footnote. This time, there will be a selection of quite a few serious contenders, and no primary to winnow them down to the top two. When R.T. won the first time, we went into the primary with four serious contenders. This time, there are already way more than four serious candidates, although sifting out the “considering a run” people from the “actually running” people is still pretty confusing. Betsy Hodges, Don Samuels and Gary Schiff are all running; they’re all current City Council members. Jackie Cherryhomes is running. (Note: at this time, I would like to formally endorse ANYONE ELSE IN THE RACE. I am not a fan of hers.) Mark Andrew (former Hennepin County Commissioner) is running. Hussein Samatar (school board member) is running. Bob Fine and John Erwin (both Park Board) are both maybe running or maybe they’re just considering. Tom Hoch (director of the Hennepin Theater Trust) is maybe running. I am quite sure this is only a partial list.

And I’m only talking here about candidates and potential candidates who have political experience, actual qualifications, a campaign committee, etc. Anyone who files (which they can’t actually do until June) and doesn’t withdraw will be on the ballot. While some cities have some significant hoops that you need to jump through (a large fee, a petition with some non-trivial number of signatures on it, etc.) I’m pretty sure that Minneapolis makes it easy.

My point here is that the ballot is going to be long. Really long.

DFL endorsements are always helpful to Minneapolis candidates, but this year, the DFL endorsement could be absolutely critical, to help the individual who gets it stand out from the (ludicrously) long list. All or nearly all of these people are Democrats. (Any who aren’t, are Greens. Minneapolis Republicans who want to win elections have to pretend to be conservative Democrats. Actually, no, that doesn’t work either. Minneapolis Republicans who want to win elections have to move to the suburbs.) The DFL endorsement could easily swing the election.

What this means is that alert Minneapolis residents have the opportunity to grab some seriously out-sized political influence if they act soon, and provided that they are available on April 16th (for an hour or two in the evening) and June 15th (for the entire day).

Naomi has a lot more about what it means to be a delegate. Unless you’re extremely introverted, socially phobic, or uninterested in politics, it’s really not that bad. If you’re in Minneapolis and care who your mayor is, you should strongly be considering this.

More information from the DFL is here.