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My Conversation with Michelle Dawson

Here is the transcript and audio, I am very pleased (and honored) to have been able to do this.  She is an autism researcher, and so most of the discussion concerned autism, here is one excerpt:

COWEN: What would be the best understanding of autism, from your perspective?

DAWSON: The best understanding is seeing autism as atypical brain functioning, resulting in atypical processing of all information. So that’s information across domains — social, nonsocial; across modalities — visual, auditory; whatever its source, whether it’s information from your memory, information coming from the outside world, that is atypical. So that is very domain-general atypicality.

What autistic brains do with information is atypical. How it’s atypical, in my view, involves what I’ve called cognitive versatility and less mandatory hierarchies in how the brain works, such that, for example, an autistic brain will consider more possibilities, will nonstrategically combine information across levels and scales without losing large parts of it, and so on. And that applies to all information.

That is strictly my view. I’m not sure anyone would agree with me.

And:

COWEN: Now often, in popular discourse, you’ll hear autism or Asperger’s associated with a series of personality traits or features of personality psychology — a kind of introversion or people being nerdy in some regard. In your approach, do you see any connection between personality traits and autism at all?

DAWSON: There is a small literature that shows some connection. I think it’s very weak, and I say no, I don’t think autism is about personality. Autism is sort of orthogonal to personality. The two are not related. Whatever relation there is does not . . . arises from some third factor, let’s say. If there is one — and again, the evidence is, I think, very weak connecting autism to personality — so just say that maybe, if there’s something, let’s say that personality in autistics might be more high variance. That would be my totally wild guess, but I don’t think autism itself is about personality.

And here is Michelle again:

We don’t — I hope we don’t look at a blind person who is a successful lawyer and assume that he is only very mildly blind or barely blind at all, and then look at a blind person who has a very bad outcome and assume that they must be very severely blind.

We do make those kinds of judgments in autism, saying, “The more atypical the person is, the worse they must be in some sense.” That kind of bias has not only harmed a lot of autistic people, it really has impeded research.

Here is Michelle on Twitter.  We discuss and link to some of her research in the discussion.

What should I ask Michelle Dawson?

I will be having a Conversation with her, here is part of her Ordre de Montréal citation:

Michelle Dawson is an autism researcher who is passionately engaged in promoting the rights of autistic people. Her research has led to important advances in the understanding of autism and its legal status.

Ms. Dawson is autistic and has never attended university as a student. In the early 2000s, faced with the devastating effects of human rights violation based on her diagnosis, she started learning about autism science, ethics, and law.

Since 2004, she has been affiliated with the Université de Montréal’s autism research group. Despite her lack of formal education and the precariousness of her situation, she has collaborated widely with academics here at home and around the world, and made original contributions to autism research in scientific journals, encyclopedias, scholarly books, and conference presentations. She has also used social media to promote better standards in autism research.

Her work has contributed to the advancement of knowledge in several areas, including perception, cognition, learning, and intelligence in autism. She has documented the poverty of scientific and ethical standards in autism intervention research, and the resulting harm to autistic people. Contrary to long-entrenched views, she believes that autistics deserve the same basic rights as the rest of humanity. She also believes that in research, as elsewhere, autistic and non-autistic people should work together as equals.

She tweets at @autismcrisis, and here is her work at scholar.google.com.  I also have a co-authored paper with her, on Alan Turing.  Many of you also will know Michelle as a long time MR correspondent.

So what should I ask her?

Yet another underreported medical scandal — the overmedicated elderly

“Add Dx of schizophrenia for use of Haldol,” read the doctor’s order, using the medical shorthand for “diagnosis.”

But there was no evidence that Mr. Blakeney actually had schizophrenia.

Antipsychotic drugs — which for decades have faced criticism as “chemical straitjackets” — are dangerous for older people with dementia, nearly doubling their chance of death from heart problems, infections, falls and other ailments. But understaffed nursing homes have often used the sedatives so they don’t have to hire more staff to handle residents…

The share of residents with a schizophrenia diagnosis has soared 70 percent since 2012, according to an analysis of Medicare data. That was the year the federal government, concerned with the overuse of antipsychotic drugs, began publicly disclosing such prescriptions by individual nursing homes.

Today, one in nine residents has received a schizophrenia diagnosis. In the general population, the disorder, which has strong genetic roots, afflicts roughly one in 150 people.

Schizophrenia, which often causes delusions, hallucinations and dampened emotions, is almost always diagnosed before the age of 40.

Here is more from the NYT, not unrelated to issues of guardianship of course.  Furthermore, this tale does not exactly fit the usual “not enough medical care for the poor” narratives, and perhaps that is why the issue has not caught on more.  The medical profession even appears to be slightly…suboptimal in its ethical procedures.

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

Facts and uncertainties about ear wax

Our attitude to ear wax is in some ways surprising. A review of impacted ear wax estimates that 2.3 million people a year in the United Kingdom suffer problems with wax needing treatment, with some 4 million ears being syringed annually.2 This makes it possibly the the most common therapeutic procedure carried out on any part of the body. Symptoms of excessive wax or impaction, especially in the elderly, include not only hearing loss but tinnitus, dizziness, infections, social withdrawal, poor work function and mild paranoia. Other problems include general disorientation and loss of an aural sense of direction. With unilateral wax, sounds can appear to be coming from the wrong side, leading to accidents as a driver or especially as a pedestrian. Inappropriate self-treatment (or even treatment by health professionals) can cause perforated eardrums and in very rare cases cochlear damage, leading to nystagmus and sensorineural deafness. In spite of this catalogue of harms, the clinical profile and management of excessive wax are poorly understood. The evidence base is poor and inconsistent, leading to few strong recommendations, even relating to the most commonly used treatments.

Low esteem for ear wax is surprising in other ways too. As a substance, it is unique in the human and mammalian body. This is due to its position in our sole anatomical cul-de-sac. Everywhere else on our body surface, dead and redundant skin cells fall off or are scrubbed away when we wash. In the ear canal – which points forwards and downwards and might otherwise turn into a dermatological garbage dump – ear wax binds these together, along with other assorted detritus that may have entered from the world outside. It is then moved up to the exit by jaw movements and as a result of the skin of the canal slowly moving outwards like an escalator. Wax also prevents multiplication of micro-organisms and infection. It is as essential as sweat and tears, although perhaps not quite as vital as blood. Wax is also fascinating in its own right.

Imagine an ear wax post that is not solely about Q-tips! (Have you ever wondered why they have to be so dangerous?  Can’t you just put them in a little way?  Or is there some indivisibility here?  I have never understood the anguished warnings here.  If you are not using Q-tips at all, you only have to put them in a little way to pull out a lot of earwax, right?  Solve for the equilibrium!)

Here is more by John Launer, about ear wax throughout, via Michelle Dawson.

What are the limits of economies of scope?

Amazon is launching its first high-tech hair salon, as the online retailer makes a surprise move into the beauty sector.

The salon, in Spitalfields, east London, will have an augmented-reality mirror showing clients different colours and styles before treatments.

The venue will also have magazines loaded on to tablets, for browsing.

Traditional services including cuts, blow-dries and colour treatments will also be available.

Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson.

This has been quite a week for science

Vaccine approval in the UK, protein folding advances, isn’t there a SpaceX launch today?, and now this:

Cultured meat, produced in bioreactors without the slaughter of an animal, has been approved for sale by a regulatory authority for the first time. The development has been hailed as a landmark moment across the meat industry.

The “chicken bites”, produced by the US company Eat Just, have passed a safety review by the Singapore Food Agency and the approval could open the door to a future when all meat is produced without the killing of livestock, the company said.

…The product would be significantly more expensive than conventional chicken until production was scaled up, but Eat Just said it would ultimately be cheaper.

…The growth medium for the Singapore production line includes foetal bovine serum, which is extracted from foetal blood, but this is largely removed before consumption. A plant-based serum would be used in the next production line, the company said, but was not available when the Singapore approval process began two years ago.

As Eli said on Twitter, what are they planning for Thursday?  Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson.  Just yesterday I was rereading my CWT with her, it is very good.

NPR plays overrated vs. underrated with Banerjee and Duflo

Cardiff Garcia led the charge, along with Stacey Vanek Smith, here is one excerpt:

GARCIA: Overrated or underrated – being married to an economist.

BANERJEE: Underrated.

(LAUGHTER)

BANERJEE: Excellent.

DUFLO: Underrated, of course.

SMITH: (Laughter). What about overrated/underrated – dating an economist?

BANERJEE: I mean, if you’re married to one (laughter) overrated.

SMITH: I mean, did you guys, like, split checks? Or, like, how did that work? Did you run into any economic quandaries early on?

BANERJEE: We were pretty flexible. We’re not really money people, so we didn’t – never spent a minute thinking about it.

Here is the full program.  For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

Researchers speaking on the scientific process

When looking at success indicators, we found that indicators related to openness, transparency, quality, and innovation were perceived as highly important in advancing science, but as relatively overlooked in career advancement. Conversely, indicators which denoted of prestige and competition were generally rated as important to career advancement, but irrelevant or even detrimental in advancing science. Open comments from respondents further revealed that, although indicators which indicate openness, transparency, and quality (e.g., publishing open access, publishing negative findings, sharing data, etc.) should ultimately be valued more in research assessments, the resources and support currently in place were insufficient to allow researchers to endorse such practices. In other words, current research assessments are inadequate and ignore practices which are essential in contributing to the advancement of science. Yet, before we change the way in which researchers are being assessed, supporting infrastructures must be put in place to ensure that researchers are able to commit to the activities that may benefit the advancement of science.

That is from a recent paper by Noémie Aubert Bonn and Wim Pinxten, via Michelle Dawson.

Karl Friston on “immunological dark matter”

We’ve been comparing the UK and Germany to try to explain the comparatively low fatality rates in Germany. The answers are sometimes counterintuitive. For example, it looks as if the low German fatality rate is not due to their superior testing capacity, but rather to the fact that the average German is less likely to get infected and die than the average Brit. Why? There are various possible explanations, but one that looks increasingly likely is that Germany has more immunological “dark matter” – people who are impervious to infection, perhaps because they are geographically isolated or have some kind of natural resistance. This is like dark matter in the universe: we can’t see it, but we know it must be there to account for what we can see. Knowing it exists is useful for our preparations for any second wave, because it suggests that targeted testing of those at high risk of exposure to Covid-19 might be a better approach than non-selective testing of the whole population.

Speculative, and here is the full article, mostly about other matters epidemiological.  Via Michelle Dawson.

The contents of this article may well be wrong, as many on Twitter are suggesting, that link makes two renowned researchers/commentators or here is Kai Kupferschmidt.  I am less impressed by passing potshots at the author and more interested in reading a short blog post.  I say write out 500 words (with links) comparing different methods of accounting for the unexplained residuals and heterogeneities with Covid-19 (not it is not all policy, and how much of it is sheer luck and/or timing?).  Also discuss the circulating notion that previous exposure to (some) other coronaviruses, or perhaps weak doses of Covid-19, might be giving some individuals partial immunity (an idea being batted around but not verified as far as I know.  And what do we know about how much geographic isolation might matter (a concept cited by Friston in contradistinction to the Twitter claims that he is simply talking about ghosts)?  Then tweet the post, you still can start a blog for free and write just a single post, more over time if you wish.  I would very gladly link to it.

Coronavirus markets in everything, Swedish restaurant edition

At Rasmus Persson and Linda Karlsson’s restaurant, you don’t have to order takeout, or wear a mask, or try to stay two metres away from the other patrons — because there are no other patrons.

It’s just you, seated alone at a table in a picturesque meadow in the Swedish countryside as you’re served a homemade meal that arrives in a basket using a rope and pulley.

It’s called Bord För En, which translates to “table for one,” and it opened on May 10 in Ransäter, a rural town some 350 kilometres west of Stockholm.

“We wanted to create a space that’s 100 per cent corona-free, as much as we could at least,” Persson told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson, and no you don’t have to worry about them having too many beautiful women…

And here is their Facebook page with further details and images.  By the way, most of the customers are men.  Then there is this:

When you book your reservation at Bord För En, you include a list of names of your close friends, and the restaurateurs then solicit one of them to write you a personal message.

It operates on a “pay what you wish” basis, and so far they have been heavily booked.

Are humans constantly but subconsciously smelling themselves?

Here is the opening of a lengthy abstract of a new paper by Ofer Perl, et.al., and it may help explain why it is so hard to avoid touching your face:

All primates, including humans, engage in self-face-touching at very high frequency. The functional purpose or antecedents of this behaviour remain unclear. In this hybrid review, we put forth the hypothesis that self-face-touching subserves self-smelling. We first review data implying that humans touch their faces at very high frequency. We then detail evidence from the one study that implicated an olfactory origin for this behaviour: This evidence consists of significantly increased nasal inhalation concurrent with self-face-touching, and predictable increases or decreases in self-face-touching as a function of subliminal odourant tainting. Although we speculate that self-smelling through self-face-touching is largely an unconscious act, we note that in addition, humans also consciously smell themselves at high frequency.

File under Questions that are Rarely Asked, via Michelle Dawson.

Vancouver vending machine markets in everything

Health advocates say a safe supply of opioids is critical to help prevent people from overdosing on tainted street drugs.

Now, a pilot project in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside provides some high-risk users with access to an automated machine that dispenses opioids prescribed by a doctor…

The machine, called MySafe, is stocked with hydromorphone tablets that are released on a pre-determined schedule to high-risk opioid users. A user must scan their palm on the machine to identify themselves. The machine recognizes each individual by verifying the vein pattern in their hand and then dispenses their prescription.

Made of steel and bolted to the floor, MySafe resembles an ATM or vending machine. It logs every package that is released and sends that information to a web feed that only program administrators can access.

Here is the full article, please solve for the equilibrium.  Via Michelle Dawson.

Which researchers really work long hours?

No, not work smart but put in what would appear to be lots of extra hours.  Why not measure who submits papers to journals in the off-work hours?:

Main outcome measures Manuscript and peer review submissions on weekends, on national holidays, and by hour of day (to determine early mornings and late nights). Logistic regression was used to estimate the probability of manuscript and peer review submissions on weekends or holidays.

Results The analyses included more than 49 000 manuscript submissions and 76 000 peer reviews. Little change over time was seen in the average probability of manuscript or peer review submissions occurring on weekends or holidays. The levels of out of hours work were high, with average probabilities of 0.14 to 0.18 for work on the weekends and 0.08 to 0.13 for work on holidays compared with days in the same week. Clear and consistent differences were seen between countries. Chinese researchers most often worked at weekends and at midnight, whereas researchers in Scandinavian countries were among the most likely to submit during the week and the middle of the day.

Emphasis added.  Get this, you lazy bastards:

The average probability of a manuscript being submitted at the weekend for both journals was 0.14, and for a peer review it was 0.18. Peer review submissions during holidays had average probabilities of 0.13 (The BMJ) and 0.12 (BMJ Open), which were higher than the probabilities for manuscripts of 0.08 (The BMJ) and 0.10 (BMJ Open).

For weekend paper submission, China appears to be at about 0.22, India at about 0.09, see Figure 1.  France, Italy, Spain, and Brazil all submit quite late in the afternoon, often a bit after 6 p.m.

That is from a new paper by Adrian Barnett, Inger Mewburn, and Sara Schroter.  They do not tell us when they submitted it, but I wrote this blog post a wee bit after 8 p.m.

Via Michelle Dawson.