When you’re faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem you’ll likely do anything to fix it, especially if it’s for someone you care about. When my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer I read through reams of literature to figure out what was going on and what the best course of action could be for him, making sure that the doctors didn’t miss anything. Thankfully it was caught very early on and surgery, combined with 6 months of chemotherapy, was all that was required to send him into remission. Still the amount of utter bullshit I had to sift through when looking for the best treatments was absolutely phenomenal and all I could do was hope that no one else would fall prey to it. Unfortunately it seems that the bullshit machine never stops turning and PETA is the latest offender,
An article linked on PETA’s website makes the dubious claim that milk is somehow causing children with Autism to experience worse symptoms and, by virtue of simply eliminating it from their diet, their conditions markedly improve. They then link to two different studies, surprisingly from PubMed (I had honestly expected some quack site), that apparently support their arguments. Indeed if you follow those links both of the articles make the assertion that diet has some effect on Autism Spectrum Disorder symptoms with one taking the rather large hypothetical leap of suggesting that diet is linked to all central nervous system conditions. As you can probably tell from my wording I’m not exactly thrilled with these studies especially after reading the numerous other articles that cite them.
For the first study I quickly found 2 systematic reviews of the literature on this subject that included that particular study. The first says outright that there’s insufficient evidence to make the assertion that a gluten has any effect on ASDs but also suggests that there are likely subgroups with gluten allergies that could benefit from it (seems reasonable enough). The second notes that many children with ASD are also on a wide range of complementary and alternative therapies whilst undergoing these trials which makes the results even more unreliable than what their small sample size already does. It then goes on to say that the evidence for efficacy is poor and that large scale, randomized trials (which the first study PETA linked to didn’t do) are required.
The second paper is less cited but even within the few references I could find there was another study that said the data is inadequate for recommending a diet change as a treatment option. It goes on to note that of the studies it included most of them were uncontrolled, with only one of them being blinded in any way. The second study PETA linked doesn’t mention any blinding or control for factors as far as I can see so the data really can’t be used to make strong inferences, especially if you were using this data as a basis for treating others.
The last nail in the coffin is a recent (as in last month) systemic review on the literature on this subject which notes that all the research done on this has been of extremely low quality, lacking the scientific controls to make the data valid. If you want to determine the relationship between autism and dairy, which currently doesn’t exist as far as we can tell, then the study needs to be broad, encompassing hundreds of individuals and with good control measures so you can understand what’s influencing the outcome. Until then any assertions you make are simply hearsay and should most definitely not be used as the basis for treating someone else.
The only thing that makes bullshit like this worse is when large organisations like PETA get behind it, adding a level of credibility to an argument which just doesn’t exist. This is because the vast majority of the world won’t do the the things I did in order to see if they were right and, should they trust PETA as an organisation, take their word at face value and falsely believe it to be true. Whilst I’m sure you, dear reader, aren’t one of them I can’t say the same for the wider world and that’s exactly why malarkey like this needs to be dealt with head on. At the same time though I’d encourage you to do the investigation yourself as it shouldn’t be a savvy Internet blogger convincing you of the truth, let the facts do that instead.
I often find myself deconstructing stories and ideas to find out what the key factors were in their success or failure. It’s the engineer training in me that’s trying to find out what are key elements for something to swing one way or another hoping to apply (or remove) those traits from my own endeavors, hoping to emulate the success stories. It follows then that I spend a fair amount of my time looking introspectively, analyzing my own ideas and experiences to see how future plans line up against my set of criteria for possible future success. One of the patterns I’ve noticed from doing all this analysis is the prevalence of the idea that should you fail at something that automatically you’re the one who did something wrong and it wasn’t the idea that was at fault.
Take for instance Tim Ferriss author of two self help books, The 4 Hour Work Week and The 4 Hour Body, who has undoubtedly helped thousands of people achieve goals that they had never dreamed of attempting in the past. I’ve read both his books and whilst I believe there’s a lot of good stuff in there it’s also 50% horse shit, but that rule applies to any motivator or self help proprietor. One of the underpinnings of his latest book was the slow carb diet, aimed at shedding layers of fat and oodles of weight in extremely short periods of time. I haven’t tried it since it doesn’t line up with my current goals (I.E. gaining weight) but those who have and didn’t experience the results got hit back with this reply from the man himself:
The following will address 99%+ of confusion:
– If you have to ask, don’t eat it.
– If you haven’t had blood tests done, I don’t want to hear that the diet doesn’t work.
– If you aren’t measuring inches or haven’t measured bodyfat % with an accurate tool (BodPod, etc. and NOT bodyfat scales), I don’t want to hear that the diet doesn’t work.
– If you’re a woman and taking measurements within 10 days prior to menstruation (which I advise against in the book), I don’t want to hear about the lack of progress.
Whilst being a classic example of Wally Blocking¹ this also places all blame for failure on the end user, negating any possibility that the diet doesn’t work for everyone (and it really can’t, but that’s another story). However admitting that this diet isn’t for everyone would undermine it’s credibility and those who experienced failure would, sometimes rightly, put the failure on the process rather than themselves.
Motivators aren’t the only ones who outright deny that there’s a failure with their process, it’s also rife with the proponents of Agile development techniques. Whilst I might be coming around to some of the ideas since I found I was already using them its not uncommon to hear about those who’ve experimented Agile and haven’t had a great deal of success with it. The response from Agile experts is usually that you’re doing it wrong and that you’re inability to adhere strictly to the Agile process is what lead to your failure, not that agile might not be appropriate for your particular product or team. Of course this is a logical fallacy, akin to the no true Scotsman idea, and doing the research would show you that Agile isn’t appropriate everywhere with other methods producing great results
In the end it all boils down to the fact that not every process is perfect and can never be appropriate for any situation. Blaming the end user may maintain the illusion that your process is beyond reproach but realistically you will eventually have to face hard evidence that you can’t design a one size fits all solution, especially for anything that will be used by a large number of people. For those of you who have tried a “guaranteed to succeed” process like those I’ve described above and failed it would be worth your effort to see if the fault truly lies within you or the process simply wasn’t appropriate for what you were using it for, even if it was marketed to you as such.
¹I tried to find an online reference to this saying but can’t seem to find it anywhere. In essence Wally Blocking someone stems from the Wally character in Dilbert who actively avoids doing any work possible. One of his tactics is when asked to do some piece of work place an unnecessarily large prerequisite on getting the work done, usually on the person requesting it. This will usually result in either the person doing the work themselves or getting someone else to do it, thus Wally had blocked any potential work from coming his way.