Seeing the Ceiling

Say I want to settle the question of who’s more moral, atheists or the religious. I’ve got a lab and a grant and some spare time, (A girl can dream, can’t she?) so I set up the experiment that will solve the question once and for all.

Say I bring a bunch of religious people and a bunch of atheists into my lab. I’ve got two research assistants, one of whom plays as if they’re a participant too. So each time someone, religious or atheist comes into the lab, they sit down next to a stranger (my research confederate), and I call them both into the lab together. They sit down, sign lots and lots of consent forms, and do some silly tasks. None of these tasks matter, they’re just there to distract the participants from realizing what I’m actually paying attention to. At the end of doing all the questionnaires, the confederate stands up, and ‘accidentally’ lets and expensive looking watch fall. Without appearing to notice, they leave the room. I see the watch fall and in a distressed voice, ask the real participant if they don’t mind going to the next room and giving the ‘participant’ his watch back, since I’m so busy entering the data.

Now, the real participant could take the watch, walk into the next room, sprint past the fake participant, and leave with a nice new watch. They are, after all, holding onto a watch, I am looking at my computer and entering data, and the ‘participant’ appeared not to notice they’d dropped a watch.

They could.

But most of them don’t. It doesn’t matter if the participant is religious or an atheist, they tend to pick up the dropped watch, walk into the next room, and give it back to our confederate in this experiment.

Case closed, says I! Religious people and nonreligious people are equally moral! After all, they had equal rates of watch-stealing (that is, none at all).

Not so fast, says you. Practically nobody will steal a watch when you’re just sitting there watching* them! You’re there at your computer, the fake participant is in the next room, and you have their name from participant registration and the consent forms! This is a terrible measure of morality–you have to be fantastically immoral to fail this test! In fact, what you’ve done is determine that nonreligious people and atheists have equally low levels of Horribly Immoral and Brazen Watch Thieves.

In fact, says you (why you’ve come into my laboratory to shout at me, I’m unsure), atheists are more moral! If you made this study more complicated–made it easier to steal the watch without suffering consequences, fewer atheists would steal the watch. You’re wrong, says my religious lab assistant! Fewer religious people would steal the watch!

And all the while, I sit there in puzzlement, because I did this study, right? And I was testing for morality, right? Everybody agrees that stealing a watch is Bad and not stealing a watch is Good.** And my research assistants sit there in outrage, because OBVIOUSLY the [religious/atheists] would be more moral if you made the test harder!

This, dear readers, is the ceiling effect. My bar (or ceiling) for Moral Person is far far too low. Everyone returns the watches, but there’s no way to distinguish between the ones who give the watch back and then glare at puppies on the walk home and the ones who return the watch and wander over to the soup kitchen to volunteer.

Take another, real life example. Jacob says men are better at math than women. Elizabeth says this is clearly false. (Both of them are grievously oversimplifying ‘math’, but we’ll let them get away with it.)

Elizabeth points out that This Math Test (TMT, an official exam given to every high school student in our fictional universe) shows that men and women don’t differ significantly. Therefore, men and women are basically about the same in math ability.

Jacob disagrees. He claims that this test is too easy–that men and women do score the same on the TMT, but that doesn’t mean they have the same ablities–the test is too easy. After all, says he, standardized tests hardly examine the highest possible skill level–they cover basic material. He claims that Elizabeth is just demonstrating the ceiling effect–when you give people a really hard test, men outscore women. Jacob is actually right, but this gap is rapidly shrinking, and men also are overrepresented on the other end–with unusually low math performance.*** (Third section after the abstract, here)

And these ceiling debates play out in a number of parts of psychology research. (And in case you didn’t have enough architecture metaphors in your life, we also have the floor effect.) Here’s a more complicated version of the gender-ceiling issue. You can have sparkling methodology, a huge and representative sample base, but if you’re creating a test with a ceiling problem…you might get entirely unhelpful, or worse, misleading, answers.

This is the best and worst of psychology, for me. That there’s always just a little bit more than the research, always a little bit more to debate and argue and question. Maybe the study is too old, maybe you got a weird subset of the population. Maybe the rats are afraid of the gender you always use for research assistants. Maybe there’s a ceiling. Or a floor.

*sorry, this was unintentional.

**That one girl who stole the watch in order to sell it for medication to save her dying father was dismissed as an outlier. 

***Basically, men have higher variance of performance: they’re some of the best and worst performers. Women have a narrower bell curve of math performance. 

Please Stop Talking About All Those Babies Waiting To Be Adopted

Wikimedia, Creative Commons

This post was inspired and cobbled together from an internet comment that accidentally grew into a novel.  I’ve attempted to include citations where possible, but the majority of this information comes from working in adoption services research at the Fabulous Unspecified Internship last year and is not easily accessible for citation. Add salt as necessary. 

That being said, I’m not an adoption counselor (or any kind of counselor, actually). I’m also not a lawyer, a parent, or a zebra. What I have done is work and research in this field. I am slightly more qualified than your average zebra, but this is not medical, familial, psychological, or lion-avoidance advice.

As a second note, it’s worth saying that I like adoption! I am not discouraging it as an institution or way of having children! I am significantly more likely to adopt than have non-adopted children. There’s a reason the Fabulous Unspecified Internship was amazing, and much of it had to do with working in adoption services. What I am opposed to is telling people to adopt with very bad arguments and misinformation. And one I hear slung about is that of All The Babies Waiting To Be Adopted. (It’s lesser cousin, You’ll Have To Wait A Million Years For A Baby To Adopt is rarer*, and worth it’s own post.)

I’ve heard both arguments–there are hundreds of babies out there waiting to be adopted! and you could be waiting years for a child!  The former seems to be the go-to for guilt-tripping people who want to have their own children, the latter for sighing in disapproval at the people who do decide to adopt. And I would like us to stop guilt-tripping people for having their own children.

While less complicated than say, designing a literal Stork Delivery System, adoption is somewhat more complicated than deciding you want a baby and then walking home with a small human. This has something to do with a confusion of language–we call all sorts of ways of getting legal custody over a child that you didn’t contribute genetic material to ‘adoption’.

1. Uncle Joe and Aunt Jane legally adopt Abusive Niece Sally’s son, not wanting him to end up in the foster system? Adoption.

2. Sarah and Jeremy are infertile. They find out about a daughter of a family friend who’s going to have a baby but wants to put it up for adoption and set up a legally binding agreement through a lawyer to adopt that baby. Also adoption.

3. What about Bethany and Emily, who go to an agency, answer lots of questions about their lives, get put on a waiting list, and adopt Baby Andrew a year later? Adoption.

4. Nicole and Noah foster a number of children. They are able to make a ‘forever home’ with one of them–Jason. You guessed it…that’s also adoption.

[What you are experiencing now is semantic satiation.]

When people encourage adoption, or talk about all the babies out there waiting for homes, they seem to be thinking about the experience of #3, with the numbers of #4, and a poor understanding of all. (For the sake of sanity and manageable sentences, we’re going to call #3 ‘adoption’ and #4 ‘foster-adoption’.) They seem to be expecting that there are lots of children who are up for the take-home-forever adoption, in a way that is experientially equivalent to having your own kids: they won’t look like you, but that’s about the only difference, yeah?

Not….really. I’d even venture to say not…at all, and those differences are what make me extraordinarily wary of pressing people who aren’t already eager to adopt to do so.

Foster adoption (#4) is geared towards getting the child back to relatives. That is, the approach is not to locate a new family, but to place the child in a stable situation while their current family stabilizes, or an extended family member can be located. If, and usually only if this doesn’t work out, they’re placed with a new adoptive family.** So, sure, there’s LOTS of kids, and it would be lovely to see them placed in homes that were stable. But you’re effectively telling parents to attach to children they cannot expect to keep, over and over, in the hopes that they someday, will get to keep a child. That’s not a thing many people can or should be expected to cope with. Not to mention, I only want people who can do what it takes to be a good foster parent emotionally doing it.

So what of not-foster adoption?

Well, there just aren’t bunches of babies waiting around to be adopted, as evidence by standard wait times. (In the link, time is measure post-portfolio creation, meaning that you’ve interviewed with the agency, gone to training, gotten references, been approved and processed, and created a portfolio,  all before the clock was started.)

Adopted healthy-at-birth children, just like nonadopted healthy-at-birth children, can go on to develop mental or physical issues not known at birth. However, parents of nonadopted children might know of the issues in advance–inherited conditions and the like, or because Aunt Jane and Cousin Sally didn’t walk until much later, so no worries when Child Sarah’s motor skills lag a little. Whether or not the parents should be concerned, whether or not Cousin Sally’s delay in walking has anything to do with Child Sarah’s delay, there’s a reference point, and probably an expectation that we, Healthy Parents, were fine, so our child will be!

In fact, I’m willing to bet that this mechanism is partially why adopted children are twice as likely to have contact with a mental health professional. Uncertainty and what if we missed something, and what if this is indicative of problems later and a dash of hyperawareness, combined with on-average higher incomes/class status, and you have greater chances that James’s minor issue will merit getting things checked with your local psychiatrist/psychologist/occupational therapist/etc. But also, referring to that same study–plain English writeup here–adopted children are more likely to end up with a set of disorders called ‘externalizing‘ and are extraordinarily overrepresented in psychiatric care. Friends who have worked in the field confirmed that this was common knowledge.

This is something agencies prepare parents for, of course, but saying to parents “you should adopt a child, who’s at higher risk for issues you aren’t prepared for, and haven’t necessarily seen play out in your own family, and you should do this instead of having a child because there are children who can be adopted” seems incredibly dangerous–those children are suddenly at risk of abuse from overwhelmed parents. (Yes, we should definitely better prepare parents and people at large to interact with people with disabilities. I am 100 percent on board with this! However, given the condition of people’s attitudes and behavior towards disabilities as well as a general wariness at using children as pawns and teaching tools, adopt children! seems like a Very Bad Solution to ableism.)

A note on international adoption: Adoption of children from outside the US is really limited, actually. If you want a closely regulated adoption through the Hague (you want this, this means less chance of false/missing information about the child), there are few countries, and they’re generally closed to you if you’re not young, married, straight, and have no health problems.

Advocate for adoptees! Advocate for less ableism! Create better and more effective treatments for infertility! Improve the foster system! But please stop being inaccurate and guilt-tripping parents who prefer to have children the ‘traditional’ way.


*It’s likely that it’s just rarer in my social circle. In fact, since I started writing this post, it’s become more common.
**Somewhat oversimplified, because bureaucracy.

Other notes:
(1)As a general reference, studies of children adopted after 1990 are more representative than those of children adopted earlier than 1990. Open adoption became the standard practice unevenly, but so far as I can tell, by 1990, everybody figured out that not keeping big secrets and doing a dramatic reveal that radically changes your child’s sense of belonging is usually a better plan. 

No, You Probably Don’t Want ‘Peer Reviewed Evidence for God’

I have a story to tell you about Daryl Bem.

Daryl Bem is known for a variety of things–in part for, along with Sandra Lipsitz Bem, raising his children in as gender-neutral a household as possible. He’s a professor at Cornell, and has authored papers on, among other things, group decision making and psi.

You know, psi. Also known as predicting the future. Precognition ESP. That sort of thing.

A long while ago, two scientists undertook a review of the literature surrounding precognition, and their names were Bem and Honorton. As this story was originally told to me, Honorton entered the review believing ESP existed, and brought Bem on board as a more impartial investigator. Somewhat less long ago, in the year of my birth, Honorton died. Again, as the story goes, Bem decided to continue the project in honor of his collaborator, eventually publishing a review that favored precognition.

Enter those skeptics (ruining everything, amirite?) who claimed to have found flaws in the review. Now, somewhat committed, Bem returned with not one, but nine experiments designed to illustrate, with minimal human interference, whether or not psi existed, once and for all. I’m told they were intentionally set up to enable ease of replication and clear observation. And, lo and behold, they came in favor of the existence of psi. This would be a less interesting story of scientific arguing if the paper hadn’t been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a very well known, peer-reviewed journal–possibly the highest regarded in social psychology.

This left psychologists in a bit of a pickle.

Jounals shouldn’t publish stuff in favor of ESP!
But it was approved and peer-reviewed!
But it makes us look silly!
But we can’t turn things down just because we don’t like the idea! That’s not science!
But ESP isn’t science!
But peer review!

And it’s enough of a controversy that every social psychology class I’ve taken has included an aside about ‘that silly psi study’. There remain a number of psychologists who think that JPSP should have declined to publish. And again, I want to point out that the Bem study passed every requirement for publication…it’s just that the topic was psi.

There are three things you can take from this:

You can decide that psi exists. After all, there’s peer reviewed evidence for it.

You can decide that JPSP shouldn’t have published Bem’s research or other research that might make the field look like we believe in psychics.

Or you can decide that we could use more rigorous methods for everyone, and that peer-reviewed publications are a step on the way to endorsing a belief, but not the end. (Guess where I fall?)

And in the meantime, atheists, please let’s stop demanding “peer reviewed evidence for god” when talking with the religious. You just might get what you wished for, and then what?

Speaking at Illinois-Wesleyan, 4/12 [UPDATED]

I spent much of my spring break in Boston and ran into a few people who live in the area, but hadn’t met in person. And I heard, more than once, “You’re Kate! From the internet!” Which….is true.

However! I am planning to exist in my corporeal form in two weeks, when I’ll be speaking at Illinois-Wesleyan University for their Secular Student Alliance group.

Details and description below:

Topic: Women & Pseudoscience

Time & Date: 3pm, Saturday, April 12th

Location: State Farm Hall  – 1402 Park St

Much of alternative medicine and pseudoscience is marketed at a demographic: women, and especially mothers. What does this look like? How should we speak about skepticism and change skeptical activism in order to address this? I’ll be pulling from recent research (see here and here for interesting background) and personal experience.


Adoption: Legality and Journalistic Hype

So, there’s this article in The New Republic. Meet the New Anti-Adoption MovementThe surprising next frontier in reproductive justice. And I, being the sort who dutifully reads any instance of Someone Wrong On The Internet that crosses my field of vision, clicked.

It’s not bad. The title, fortunately, seems to be butchering the aims of the actual movement, which might be better represented as The Ethical Adoption Movement That’s Not Actually All That New. They’ve got some goals I strongly admire–preventing manipulation of distressed and pregnant parents, encouraging expectant parents to consider that adoption is a life-long process for everyone involved, promoting open adoption, and preventing agencies from lying to pregnant parents about abortion. Admirable, yeah?

Reported with a dangerously dramatic brush? Also yeah. For instance, take this:

They want, among other things, a ban on adoption agencies offering monetary support to pregnant women. They want to see laws put in place guaranteeing that “open” adoptions (where birthparents have some level of contact with their children) stay open. They want women to have more time after birth to decide whether to terminate their parental rights.

A ban on monetary support? It sounds like it would prevent bribing parents. It probably would! However, it would also prevent (as The New Republic’s wording stands) adoption agencies from providing expectant parents with maternity care, prenatal vitamins, assisting them in maintaining housing, etc. Do you know how to dramatically increase the health and functioning of a fetus–particularly one in poverty? Maternity care and vitamins. It is true that unethical agencies do some seriously sleazy behavior in pursuit of convincing expectant parents to choose adoption, and TNR’s article does cite that. (Paying for college in return for a child? No good, very bad.) But a ban is excessively absolutist.  Create ethical guidelines that protect parents; don’t prevent agencies from serving children and families.

But what about the idea of a mandatory wait before terminating parental rights?

I’m in favor!

….for a nuanced and careful definition of ‘more’.

The article fails to note that these EXIST. See: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. That’s only the states that require forms terminating mothers’ rights to be filled out at least 48 hours after birth–many of the rest require at least 24 hours. Only two states, Alabama and Hawaii, allow the rights of the person who gave birth to be terminated before the child is born.

Map of 72+ and 48 hour wait post-birth for termination of birth parent rights, minus CA, which I forgot, and will fix ASAP. (Many of the blank states have <48 hour waiting periods)
Map via

That being said, saying “there should be a mandatory wait after birth before signing final papers” is COMPLICATED (and already exists in places, which the article entirely fails to address)

For instance, in Illinois, like many of the states listed, the wait is 72 hours, or three whole days. This sounds like a good idea in practice: the person who’s given birth is less likely to be under the influence of drugs, slightly less tired or emotionally exhausted from labor, and has met the child they just birthed.

Except, that it’s also true that 72 hours is longer than the time a parent with an uncomplicated birth would stay in the hospital. (Average stay for regular vaginal birth, 48 hours) Which means:

Option One: Birth parent has to go home with the child. Can you say huuuuuge stress on them if they want to continue with adoption and later have to give the child to the adoptive family? Also, sending an unwanted child who cries at all hours of the day, needs constant care, and will die of neglect or bad care is a risk. Babies are entirely dependent on their caregivers. This is especially there are compounding issues like postpartum depression or substance abuse. In theory, Child Protective Services should step in or catch those cases, and place the child elsewhere. In practice…

Along with this, working class birth parents (general PSA that most people over-estimate the number of parents who put children up for adoption who are teens, impoverished, or in their first pregnancy. I was one of them. Please don’t assume you’re the exception.) need to work or find alternate care for their children. That’s expensive. (Particularly, say, if a total ban on financial support from adoption agencies is enacted)

Option Two: The prospective adoptive family goes home with the child and with some legal decision-making capability over child’s care, (in IL, my understanding is that the agency in question holds Power of Attorney) but papers that terminate the rights of the legally-defined birth mother aren’t signed.

This is a massive legal and emotional risk, and some families just won’t do it. Sometimes families do it, and then the birth mother decides not to sign the papers–upon reflection, they decide to parent. (20-30% of expectant parents who select adoptive parents for their child go on to parent themselves instead.) In cases like that, the adoption agency has to call the family and request that they bring the child back, as it’s not theirs. NOT pleasant for anyone.

Not Really A Standard Option, But Let’s Talk About It: Placing the child in a nursery or some other form of care until papers are signed. There’s one agency in the entire U.S with an in-house nursery, and even then, many birth parents don’t want to put their ,  child in the care of strangers in a location that may be tough to access while they make their final decision. 


Waiting periods: a good plan, in theory. I support them! Parents should sign stuff when not under the emotional strain of birth. However, really long ones are emotionally overwhelming and complicated, and just blanket advocating for more time is a dangerously simplistic position.

In the comments, please follow these guidelines for increased accuracy:

1) if someone is pregnant and considering adoption, they are expectant parents (because not all expectant parents give choose to give birth)
2) If someone has given birth, presto! Birthparent.
3) Strong preference for gender-neutral terms when referring to the person who has given birth. Trans men and nonbinary folk give birth, adopt, and otherwise parent kids.

[#FtBCon] Mental Illness & Society

I live in a large house with eleven people and occasionally questionable wifi. So, on the morning of Sunday’s FtBCon, I walked to campus to find a quiet room to do my panel.

Option 1: temporarily under reorganization, which seemed to involve moving desks around and dropping them for maximum noise.

Option 2: Mysteriously full. It was Sunday morning, fellow students! This is when you nurse that post-Saturday hangover, not take over campus in the wee hours of the morning.

Option 3: All of the electrical outlets, save one (under a water fountain, of all places) were non-functional. Occasional hordes of singing? shouting? who knows? students.

But! It was 11:02 at this point, and so we began! I was a bit frazzled to start, and occasionally impaired by students doing whatever the hell they were trying to do, but I enjoyed the conversation.

[preface: uptalking. kill it with fire. I’m working on tackling it, but hearing the rising intonation in my own voice still drives me insane.]