Of lawyers and scientists

MIT must balance its science and advocacy more carefully

There are two methods by which mankind searches for the truth.

The first, which is dominant at this Institute, is the scientific method. Researchers pose questions, hypothesize answers to those questions, gather empirical evidence on the validity (or invalidity) of a hypothesis, and then revise their hypotheses to achieve as great a consistency as possible with the collected evidence.

The second method, which is dominant outside the confines of a university or laboratory, is the adversarial method. A pair of advocates stands before an audience and pleads the merits of two contradictory possibilities. The case that the audience finds the most compelling is taken as fact, and its rival is discarded.

It is tempting, as scientists, to dismiss the second method entirely. “Leave the debates to lawyers and politicians,” one might say, “and let MIT concern itself only with the science.”

The problem with an MIT that absolves itself of any advocative role is that human beings do not naturally reason with the scientific method. Almost everywhere in our lives we apply the adversarial method, picking and choosing between explanations purely based on their immediate plausibility. If MIT does not speak with a clear voice on scientific facts, it risks not being heard at all.

Much as it is with news organizations, a great deal of the value added by a scientific institution is not in its generation of information, but in the interpretation of that information for lay audiences and policy makers. It’s not enough to analyze core samples from the arctic ice shelf — what do those samples suggest for the intensity of global warming? Somewhere along the line, the results of the scientific method need to venture out into the adversarial arena and take a stand; someone needs to fight for science’s agenda.

For some extreme cases, there is little conflict between advancing a conclusion to the general public and performing unbiased research. Case in point: from July 20 to July 22, the MIT Media Lab is hosting a convention on Facilitated Communication (FC). FC is the idea that severely autistic people are capable of communicating with the outside world, and need only a facilitator to support their hands while they type at a keyboard. The concept has been long-discredited, with numerous studies showing that any positive results have been the result of either outright fraud or unconscious direction by the facilitators. FC is the equivalent of believing that Ouija boards allow us to communicate with ghosts.

Proponents of FC hope to use MIT’s good reputation to lend credit to their pseudoscience, and MIT shouldn’t let them. From the naive perspective of the scientific method, it shouldn’t matter whether or not FC proponents have a conference — if there is no scientific validity to the idea of FC, then it doesn’t matter how many conferences are held; the hypothesis will still be discarded. But realistically, giving FC practitioners a forum with which to spread their malarkey comes at a great cost. By failing to clearly denounce pseudoscience, MIT is inviting millions of dollars to be wasted in needless research and treatment attempts, and it is harming autistic patients, who could otherwise receive useful treatment.

Of course, an MIT that embraces advocacy is not without its headaches. After throwing out the homeopaths and astrologists, what is MIT to do in the gray areas? How is MIT to come down on a professor such as Richard Lindzen, an excellent and thorough scientist, but whose research succors those who believe climate change to be a wholesale fabrication by a shadowy conspiracy of academics? Overly zealous advocacy invites the same tragedy that befell the University of East Anglia, which, while not committing fraud, lost its reputation as an honest broker of scientific information, when computer servers containing thousands of research documents and emails were released in 2009. Worse, advocacy can mean advocacy of the wrong conclusion — if MIT draws a conclusion too early, it could stifle dissent and undermine the quality of its research.

Striking a balance between the focused message needed by the adversarial method and the open mind that is needed by the scientific method is a difficult and nuanced task. But as the upcoming facilitated communication convention demonstrates, MIT can do better. The decentralized, ad hoc way in which MIT crafts its message to the public has watered down the Institute’s influence and prevented it from coherently advocating in the policy arena. At a minimum, we should not be allowing pseudoscientists to use the Institute as a backdrop for their propaganda.

Dr. Henry Schlinger over 6 years ago

Hooray for Keith Yost. I'd love to see the Media Lab's reply. Perhaps Mr. Yost should dig a little deeper to discover why MIT would allow such an event to occur on its hallowed scientific grounds in the first place.

Chris Borthwick over 6 years ago

The problem with having Science speak from on high on such issues is that there isn't Science, there's just us. There are experiments that failed to find working communication through facilitation, and there are experiments that found such communication (the largest study, for example - Investigation of authorship in facilitated communication. Cardinal, Donald N.; Hanson, Darlene; Wakeham,

John. Mental Retardation, Vol 34(4), Aug 1996, 231-242 - was positive), and somebody has to choose between them: Science isn't going to come down from the heavens to adjudicate. Global warming, yes; that's the product of simple and reproducible chemistry. No field of study involving human beings, who vary in ways that carbon dioxide molecules do not, can offer such unarguable knock-down certainty; practically nothing in the remit of psychology can offer even plausibility. If we did leave the gatekeeping functions of Science to psychologists, after all (and it is mainly psychologists who have attacked facilitated communication) we would over the last few decades been forced to rally behind first Freudianism and later Behaviourism, neither of them unproblematic worldviews. I don't think I have space here to make a full defence of facilitated communication - I'll save that for the conference - and I rather suspect you wouldn't listen with full attention if I did, but I do get irritated at appeals to the goddess Scientia to come down and fix things with her magic wand.

Dr. Henry Schlinger over 6 years ago

Sorry, but there is no logical or scientific defense of FC. And, it is misleading to say that there are "experiments that found such communication." There are sound experiments and then there are flawed experiments. Any scientist knows it's possible to tell easily between the two; that's what our years of training involves. Good experiments must have adequate controls; the very few studies that purport to show successful communication fail in that. People also thought Clever Hans could do what his owner claimed until someone actually carried out a well-controlled set of experiments. This has already happened with FC. There really is no debate anymore; that ended more than 20 years ago. Now it's just defending a technique that many are heavily invested in both personally and financially. That's why they regularly trash real science.

Dr. Bill Ahearn over 6 years ago

Dr. Schlinger is correct, there is no longer debate on the lack of evidence that individuals who are facilitated are not controlling the communications, it is the facilitators. Not only is there this (often intended) deception to the family and other care providers such as school personnel but there is also the threat of unfounded accusations by facilitators (while facilitating) of abuse by family members. A recent example of this can be found:


Arthur Golden over 6 years ago

As I wrote over 5 days by private email to which I have not receivd any reply, there is no factual basis for MIT graduate student Keith Yost to have included the 4 words "either outright fraud or" so please retract these words from the paragraph beginning with the words "For some extreme cases..."

Arthur Golden over 6 years ago

The Editor-in Chief of The Tech has not yet responded to the "High Priority" email I sent on July 29, 2011:

To: the Editor In Chief, The Tech

From: Arthur Golden, J.D. 1971, Harvard Law School

Please retract 4 words "either outright fraud or" from July 6, 2011 opinion article of Keith Yost (see email I sent you one week ago [not copied in this comment]).

Since you have not responded nor has Keith Yost, please be informed that Professor Robert Carroll of the Skeptical Dictionary picked up the article of Keith Yost but when I pointed out that there was no factual basis for the inclusion of the 4 words "either outright fraud or," he quickly deleted those words and put in three periods, showing a deletion from a quote. Following is our email correspondence (in typical reverse email order) [not copied in this comment], which should satisfy you to retract these 4 words if you sincerely care about science but first is the most relevant quote:

"You are right. In fairness, the expression "outright fraud" should be deleted or at least questioned. The studies are quite varied. I haven't seen any that could be justly characterized as fraud.

Bob Carroll

The Skeptic's Dictionary"