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What's in an error bar anyways?
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Nick Fahrenkopf
Albany, New York

In 1955 while addressing the National Academy of Sciences Richard Feynman stated "Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty." As usual, Feynman's statement was spot on, and holds true decades later. In his famous "Plenty of Room at the Bottom" lecture Feynman talked about what we now call nanotechnology, and all the different applications. Here I am, half a century later, working "at the bottom" and living in a world of uncertainty. I hope to share some of the exciting discoveries at the nanoscale and explain how they apply to my passion of biotechnology- as well as the everyday world. Learn more about Nicholas Fahrenkopf

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Comment by Nick Fahrenkopf in What's in an error bar anyways?

lkasdjfsaid: The difference is not in the fields of study, but rather in the two different types of work . . .Read More
Nov 27, 2012, 9:34am
Comment by Nick Fahrenkopf in What's in an error bar anyways?

Brian Krueger, PhDsaid: Since you're working on semiconductor sequencing, what do you think of Oxford Na. . .Read More
Nov 27, 2012, 9:28am

Good one . . .Read More
Oct 15, 2012, 12:42am
Comment by lkasdjf in What's in an error bar anyways?

The difference is not in the fields of study, but rather in the two different types of work being done.  In the example, the EE is making an new device,  -- i.e. developing a new type of technolo. . .Read More
Sep 07, 2012, 11:38am
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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Last Friday I was watching 20/20 with my fiancee. Shows like 20/20 or Dateline are usually about some unsolved murder mystery that is just creepy, but TV offerings on Friday evening are slim pickings so we gave this one a shot. This episode by Chris Cuomo (son of former NYS Governor Mario Cuomo and brother of current NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo) dealt with the unexpected consequences of facilitated communication- a technique used to give autistic people a chance to communicate when they're unable to audibly. Of course it is mostly garbage, but we'll get to that.

The idea is that autisic people can't speak- at least not audibly. But give them a keyboard and they can type out ideas- in fact very well put together ideas. Most times they still need help to type, so a facilitator literally holds their hand, or wrist or arm, and helps them guide their finger to the key they're looking for. That's right, someone else "helps" autistic people type what they're trying to say.

It sounds almost miraculous. People who were previously thought to be uncommunicative all of the sudden can create thoughts and sentances never before spoken by them. In the 20/20 story the middle school student suddenly was able to complete grade-level school work. Amazing! What would she have done without her facilitator?

Unfortunately, she needed a new facilitator in 2007. No big deal, she was still able to type out her thoughts. And then a secret came out. She typed out a message accusing her father of sexual assault. The police and district attorney swooped in, arresting the father. Two days later during the investigation the autistic girl informed authorities that her father also forced her brother to abuse her, and that her mother stood by and did nothing. The case went to trial after the father was placed in solitary confinement and the brother interrogated helplessly.

What's the issue? This new facilitator only had one hour of paid training before working with this child. During questioning by investigators the names of the child's grandmother and family dog were answered incorrectly. Experts in the field warned the judge and during trial the facilitator left the courtroom while questions were asked to the child. When the facilitator returned only gibberish was typed. Multiple times. Eventually "I am afrid" was typed suggesting that the child was too scared to answer questions accurately in court.

Sure, that it. Or, facilitated communication is garbage, and the facilitator is in fact typing everything. 

At this point in the 20/20 story I started to get angry. How could ANYONE believe what the child was typing after a controlled experiment? If the child was able to communicate via the facilitator, it shouldn't matter if the facilitator has heard the question. Or, why not replace the facilitator. If the accusations persist, it would carry weight, but if not then the first facilitator was making it up! How does it not seem peculiar that suddenly after the child gets a new facilitator these accusations appear? Oh, and the minor fact that experts in the field have sounded the alarm. For YEARS controlled studies have shown that the facilitators are literaly putting words in the autistic person's mouth. And yet, the prosecution continued their case.

It is that fact that makes me very upset. I don't expect the general public, or a non-scientist to understand the intracacies of my field, or this field. Clearly they need not to be experts on facilitated communication. But I would expect that people in general- and especially people in positions of power- to process basic information and use logic to determine if something is true or not. The fact that the district attorney continued the case in the face of this body of evidence, and even now doesn't admit wrong doing... bothers me.

I don't blame the facilitator. There is clearly a psychological mechanism that creates these ideas and it has been suggested that the facilitators are answering for the autistic person subconciously. I don't blame the folks that support facilitated communication. It has been shown to work in very specific cases. In some cases the facilitator is just holding the autisic person's shoulders, or rubbing their back. Not much influence you can have there. I also don't blame the DA for starting the investigation. Every child abuse case should be looked into. But when there are facts in the way, be smart enough, and honorable enough, to back off and apologize.

If something like this can happen in the 21st century, I seriously worry about the influence of lawyers and politicians on other scientific policy issues.

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