Thursday, March 27, 2008

Their conclusions might be a bit premature (lousy pun intended)


A new study hit all the major presses recently, and hit them pretty hard. As of today Google News lists 447 news articles about it. You can read about it in US News & World Report, the LA Times, Reuters, USA Today, Time, and all the little guys who picked up the story off the wire.

The breaking story has to do with the results of a longitudinal study of Norwegians recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, entitled "Association of Preterm Birth With Long-term Survival, Reproduction, and Next-Generation Preterm Birth." (The folks at JAMA are kind enough to offer free access to the article, so you can read the whole thing if you like. It's pretty intelligible to the uninitiated, actually, for something in a professional journal; maybe that's why so many journalists picked it up.) Swamy and colleagues followed a little over 1.1 million people born between 1967 and 1988 in Norway up until 2002 (for survival rates) and 2004 (for educational achievement and "reproductive outcomes"). As they state clearly right up front, their objective is: "To determine the long-term effects of preterm birth on survival, reproduction, and next-generation preterm birth."

And what about those long-term effects? They conclude that preemies are more likely to die in early childhood, less likely to have their own children, and more likely to have less education. How's that for a trifecta of dread?

Except that it isn't. As I've mentioned before, we've heard alarming predictions from basically the first time we contemplated our son under glass in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and just as we didn't buy the nurse practioner's line then, we're not buying now. Turns out it's almost too easy to poke holes in both the research and the reporting. After just a few minutes of talking, my lovely wife and I noticed:
  • They tracked those born up until 1988, which is to say nearly fifteen years before The Boy's birth. Needless to say, much has changed in pre- and postnatal care, including preemie care. (Props to the researchers and a handful of reporters who noted this.)

  • The above bullet really needs to be kept in mind especially when thinking about the conclusions the authors reached about lower levels of education and reproduction. Those claims depend upon only looking at those born between 1967 and 1976. I hate to say it, but 1976 was a long time ago, medically speaking.

  • The study (and reporting) focused on gestation period and not weight. Born at just under 36 weeks, Q technically qualifies as premature, but she was, relatively speaking, huge. Is she supposed to have the same kind of problems?

  • Most important, the researchers didn't control for basically anything. That is, they only looked at when Norwegians were born and when (or whether) they died or had kids or stopped studying. They didn't, for example, separate out infants born prematurely because of lousy or absent prenatal care or drugs or whatnot and those born prematurely for (presumably) genetic factors. Controlling for such variables is crucial, though, because if, say, you're born extra early to a sixteen-year-old single mother with little family support, my guess is that your shot at a healthy, well-educated life might be diminished just a smidge. So not only are the results at best correlational (this happens and then this happens) and not causal (this happens because this happens), it's not at all clear what's being correlated. Preemies and educational underachievement? Underbaked Norwegians and Scandinavian mating rituals?
For these and other reasons, my wife and I remain unmoved (though unavoidably worried) about The Boy's being born at just over 31 weeks.

These types of studies have to be done, of course; we still know so little about what causes premature birth, let alone what effects being shoved into the world early has at birth, at middle school, and at college (should one go). And some of the differences found between preemies and their full-term coevals are striking (e.g., that only 14% of men born between 22-27 weeks gestation had children, compared with 50% of those born on time). But the journalists who circle medical journals looking for copy should honor the science they report on by not giving birth to their stories prematurely — that is, by preserving the skepticism that sharpens empirical research. Otherwise, they too easily kick general worries of parents like us up a notch into full-on anxiety.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go hold my son.

(Photo above: The Boy, my lovely wife, and myself the day he came home. He was one month old and weighed less than four pounds at the time.)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Boys v. Girls

From something like the beginning we've naturally sorted into mixed doubles for most things (reading, going for bagels, etc.). We're also fairly sensitive about not reinforcing traditional gender roles and their expectations, which is made easier by my not being a True Man's Man and by my wife not being a Girly Girl. This past weekend, though, The Boy and I made a testosterone pack and went to the New York International Auto Show. It was fantastic — it's hard to be raised in the rural Midwest without acquiring a deep fascination with cars — and The Boy enjoyed it tremendously. He took his camera and snapped shots of his own, snagged posters and promo books and bags. And he's big enough that we went without a stroller of any sort (and I'm old enough that I was a little sore the next day). We walked the 3/4 of a mile to the subway, and transferred to the crosstown bus at Times Square after a respectable wait in the cold. We saw nearly everything to be seen at the show, which, according to the web, amounts to over 1000 cars, trucks, and SUVs. He and I smiled through all of it.

Okay, so here are a few pics from our Boys Day Out (don't forget to notice his car shirt and car necklace, by the way):

The girls had some time together, too, and they spent it, sharply dressed entirely in black, at the Children's Museum of Manhattan. Afterwards, my lovely wife tells me that Q quickly worked a large, New York-sized pepperoni slice down to a half moon of crust.

A few pics from their adventure:

Next up for us guys? March Madness, baby!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Happy Easter!

May your eggs color nicely (and not all be in one basket).

Bonus Conversation: Early Easter Sunday morning, we asked The Boy if he wanted to go to church. His response? "What restaurant is that?"

We may be going to Hell, but we'll probably get a good table.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

How wise is the Wise Old Octopus? You figure it out.

Let's talk Rainbow Fish.

This 1992 children's book by Marcus Pfister has spawned the usual family of successful-kid-book accessories, such as Rainbow Fish counting books, book of opposites, hand puppets, and, of course, sequels with exclamation points (such as Rainbow Fish to the Rescue!). There are posters and cards and floor puzzles, television shows (HBO Family) and a Halloween costume (at least in Australia). It even has its own Wikipedia entry, which is something like achieving Interweb immortality. And it has also triggered a whole bunch of controversy.

Here's the, um, plot: In the ocean swims a fish with lots of colorful scales (hence the name) including some very shiny ones, and those around him call him Rainbow Fish (RF). One day, a little, plain fish approaches RF and asks him for one of his shiny scales. RF refuses rather starkly ("Get away from me!"). The little fish, dejected, tells all the other plain fish about RF's scorn, and they collectively shun him. Confused as to why he's been ostracized, he asks a starfish who (presumably because star fish really aren't all that bright) sends him to the Wise Old Octopus. The WOO informs him in true Delphic fashion: "Give a glittering scale to each of the other fish. You will no longer be the most beautiful fish in the sea, but you will discover how to be happy." Okay, so a little confused but primed for personal growth, RF returns to his home waters and passes out his shiny scales until everyone, including himself, has only one. Happy, he now plays with all his (new) friends.

Perhaps the quickest way to become pulled by the extreme opinions on this book is to scroll down its Amazon page to the customer comments. They roughly go from:
1.0 out of 5 stars Celebration of Appeasement and Mediocrity, May 18, 2004
We own this book only because my wife ordered it from a book club. Had we looked at the book, we never would have bought it. My two-year old has not seen it, nor will he. He has enough good books. And this book is bad. The book is so bad, destructive, immoral, and wrong that I have trouble figuring out where to start. Well, let's start with the "moral(s)" of the book, which can be summed up as follows: (1) being special is evil, and worthy of hatred; (2) if you do not give your possessions away to others on their demand and pursuant to their coercion, you will be rightfully hated; (3) you will be happy only if you are mediocre; (4) you need to bribe people to be your friends. And the message here is not about sharing. Notice, the Rainbow Fish does not "share" his scales (sharing would imply that his friends were going to give the scales back when they are done.) No, the Rainbow Fish is compelled (by emotional coercion) to give away that which makes him special. What part of this story is supposed to be edifying? It is garbage.
5.0 out of 5 stars Rainbow Coalition, December 22, 2004
This well-known book is a winner for the toddler set. The Rainbow Fish has brightly colored scales, and some of them shine like silver. In a design coup, the book shows the fish decorated with tiny metallic paper scales. The "oooooo" factor is high. Not only is the rainbow fish an attention getter, but author/illustrator Pfister's ocean backgrounds show an imaginative color range.

Fish's problem is whether beauty or friendship is more important. When the proud fish haughtily, angrily refuses a small blue fish's request for one of his scales, Rainbow gets a bad "rep," and the other fish ignore him. Rainbow Fish advances one level of maturity when he realizes the consequences: "What good were the dazzling, shimmering scales with no one to admire them?" He reaches a somewhat more advanced level when a huge octopus, eyes gleaming in a purple-shadowed cave advises him to "'give a glittering scale to each of the other fish. You will no longer be the most beautiful fish in the sea, but you will discover how to be happy.'" And so it happened: "the more he gave away, the more delighted he became."

I agree that Rainbow Fish's motivation isn't very altruistic, and that he also could have pointed out the non-shimmery qualities of the other fish. But this is a book for small toddlers, not a platform for budding Rand followers. Slightly older kids could be led into a discussion of defending Fish's solution or proposing alternatives, and the visual highlights might inspire some painting or drawing. Pfister first published the award-winning book in Switzerland ("Der Regenbogenfisch"); the translation is by J. Alison James.
I've even run across someone describing the story as inspiring socialism in the young. Goodness.

Myself, I don't quite see the socialism worry, but neither do I buy that to be concerned about the message of Rainbow Fish is to endorse an Ayn Rand, Strongest Should Crush All, approach to the playground. (Kids will largely adopt that approach on their own, it seems.) And, to be honest, RF is a little rough on the youngster who asks him for a shiny scale, and he does seem a bit uppity early on. It's also hard to deny that the book itself is inviting: the font is sleek, modernist cool, and the illustrations are gorgeous — the way the glittering scales in the story gleam on the page sure makes everyone in our house want to touch them. (And we do touch them. Lots.) The real picture, in other words, is fairly complicated.

But here's my problem with the book: Ostensibly the message is about the emptiness of vanity and the benefits of sharing and friendship. Okay, fair enough, but, first, the scale metaphor doesn't translate neatly. RF may be vain and proud and all that, but instead of the fish equivalents of wealth, he distributes bits of himself. What's the equivalent in the kid case? Hard to say, really.

More importantly, though, I do worry about the import of RF's looking for and finding happiness in the eyes of others, particularly when it comes to Q. It's well documented by now that girls (and even women) tend to ascribe their successes to external causes (luck, e.g.) and their failures to internal ones (mainly personal flaws), whereas boys tend to do the reverse. RF's lesson is poorly loaded, then, because it locates the cause of happiness outside oneself, even suggesting self-effacement as a proper route to it. That bugs me. RF doesn't have to parade around all fancy, but there's an ocean of difference (pardon the expression) between conceit and pride. He is what he is, and others — as well as he himself — should grab hold of that fact at some point. "What good were the dazzling, shimmering scales with no one to admire them?" Something for him to admire and to be proud of.

(That's not to say that everyone is automatically equally special; I don't buy that either, and it's another persistent kid-lit bromide worth talking about some other time.)

We're not giving up the book, though. As I mentioned above, it's beautifully done, and my lovely wife and I light up all desires to read. Keeping it in the rotation likewise allows for a different sort of lesson, a deeper one. As a parent, my instincts push me to protect Q and The Boy from certain truths as well as sharp objects. Ideas can't be kid-proofed pretty much at all, though, so I've come to think that it's better to think out loud with them about how to detect truths on their own, how not to swallow whole the beliefs and opinions of others ("hook, line, and sinker," as they say). So we ask them what they think their books mean, how they would act if they were on the page instead and why. So to twist the cliché a bit: Give a person a Rainbow Fish and she reads for a day; teach a person how to read Rainbow Fish, and she (or he) becomes a fisher of truths.

We ask Q whether she would give her glittering scales away like RF. And, without prompting from either of us, she asserts, "No." That's enough for now. Later she can discover, for herself, why she's right.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy St. Patrick's

Okay, so I promise not to turn this little bit of the Interweb into the equivalent of a forwarded joke list, but since a large chunk of my personality may have been shaped by The Muppet Show (absurdism anyone?), this is within bounds. And besides, Jim Henson, like Chuck Jones, was pure genius.


P.S. Happy St. Patrick's Day.

(Hat tip: Boing Boing.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Quote of the day

From Adam Gopnik's splendid essay on magic and magicians in this week's New Yorker:
All grownup craft depends on sustaining a frozen moment from childhood: scientists, it's said, are forever four years old, wide-eyed and self-centered; writers are forever eight, over-aware and indignant. The magician is a permanent pre-adolescent."
A nice way of thinking of things, I think. If I had to, I'd say that philosophers are forever about eighteen months old, forever delightfully puzzled and struck by the ability to recognize themselves.

And they're always putting things in their mouths.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Pronoun trouble

For fans of Chuck Jones, Jeff Greenfield has a nice post over at on the Bugs Bunny v. Daffy Duck dynamic. Once Chuck Jones got a hold of Daffy, he went from being, well, daffy, to an embittered foil and foe of clever and cool Bugs. Greenfield looks at the presidential race through these two characters, and doing so turns out to be actually entertaining and useful.

But the real genius is Jones himself. Here's an idea of what Greenfield is talking about, and it's one of my favorite cartoons ever. (I've even tried to think of ways to work it into a few academic talks I've given, so far without success.) I encourage you to put all the politics aside for about six minutes and just enjoy "Rabbit Seasoning."

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Do babies see different colors than adults? Who knows?

World of Color
Originally uploaded by n!ck.
Note: Let me say right up front that this post got a little out of hand. I think there's good stuff below, but read on duly warned.

Okay. Here goes.

I came across an interesting article today on the differences between color perception in babies and in adults. I first saw a discussion of the findings on Wired's Science Blog, with the provocative title, "Babies See Pure Color, but Adults Peer Through Prism of Language." The Wired author, Brandon Keim, writes:
When infant eyes absorb a world of virgin visions, colors are processed purely, in a pre-linguistic parts of the brain. As adults, colors are processed in the brain's language centers, refracted by the concepts we have for them.
And then a little later:
Over the course of our lives, it appears that an unfiltered perception of color gives way to one mediated by the constructs of language.
Well that's an interesting claim. Wonder if there's anything to it. Before too many thoughts fired off, though, I saw that Keim undoes his own title right at the end:
Does this mean that adults and infants see the same colors differently?

"We don't know," said study co-author Paul Kay.
So babies don't see pure colors (whatever those are)? That's too bad.

Write ups of scientific journal articles often play up some minor implication of the research, which makes sense since most journalists don't have a serious scientific background and they're writing for general audiences. So when I have anything like a passing familiarity with the issue, I look up the original article. (Luckily, they tend to be short.) The one Keim discusses is a 2008 piece in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) by Franklin et al. with the markedly less sexy title, "Categorical Perception of Color Is Lateralized to the Right Hemisphere in Infants, but to the Left Hemisphere in Adults." The upshot is that adults categorize colors faster when they're presented only to their right visual fields. (Your right visual field basically contains only what comes in through your right eye.) Infants (4- to 6-month-olds for this study), reacted faster when the colors were presented only in their left visual fields. There you go.

Sounds possibly cool, but so what? Well, stuff seen the right visual field gets fed to the left hemisphere of the brain, and the left visual field stuff goes to the right hemisphere. (The brain and body are wired contralaterally, as they say in the biz.) The left hemisphere is also happens to be where language processing occurs. So, it seems that adults rely on language to categorize colors whereas infants don't. Or to put it in fancy science talk:
However, the absence of a category effect in the [left hemisphere] for infants, but the presence of a greater [left hemisphere] than [right hemisphere] category effect for adults, suggests that language-driven [categorical perception] in adults may not build on prelinguistic [categorial perception] but that language instead imposes its categories on a [left hemisphere] that is not categorically prepartitioned.
That means that adults see colors differently than infants. Right?

This is why we actually need philosophers to sort out what people mean when they say things. Basically the authors are claiming that learning color words creates color categories that aren't innate. But why think that the categorizations are different? Do the infants sort colors themselves differently (some red as blue, say) and not simply use a different part of the brain to track the same color properties out in the world? Language mainly lets us talk about things when they're not around and in more detail; why conclude that language always changes what is already there? As I mentioned a while back, some believe that language doesn't "get in between" (add something new to) an experience and its expression, but instead replaces the expression.

More importantly, why think that differences in where information gets processed in the brain translate into different conscious experiences — that is, that babies see pure colors while adults' color experiences are "refracted" through language simply because language happens on the left side of our heads. And how would you tell if babies (consciously) saw colors As They Really Are? After all, humans are trichromats and have eyes sensitive to only certain wavelengths of light unlike, say, some birds that are tetrachromats. Which means it's pretty tough, if not in principle impossible, to know what a pure color — meaning, presumably, a color apart from any perceiver — would be. Add to that all sorts of research showing that humans can track all sorts of things nonconsciously, which means that evidence about tracking bias reveals little about the nature of conscious tracking experience — or what it's like for one to see colors. (The phenomenon called "blindsight" is an incontrovertibly cool example of nonconscious tracking.)

Whew. Okay. So all I really wanted to point out was that both the Wired guy and the PNAS folks don't really have a clear idea what they're talking about because they haven't cleanly drawn their own categories — conscious v. nonconscious seeing, seeing v. not seeing v. experiencing, color properties v. color experience, and so on.

And but so what colors do babies see? Who knows? These guys don't.