The first time I met Dr. Peter Gerhardt, he was giving a presentation in New York City which was focused on the needs of older students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The workshop encompassed everything from teaching students appropriate bathroom “etiquette” to how and when to discuss sex. I was thoroughly impressed! He managed to tackle a very difficult subject with humor, creativity and honesty, and in a way that was completely respectful to individuals with ASD and their families, and their teachers. If you ever have the opportunity to hear Dr. Gerhardt speak, I suggest you take it!
Since then, I have been honored to get to know Dr. Gerhardt as a colleague and a friend. The most recent version of the IDEA requires that students with disabilities be provided special education and related services which actually have scientific validity as to their effectiveness. Given how many thoroughly unproven and haphazard “treatments” and interventions continue to be employed in our schools, however, I felt that Dr. Gerhardt, as President of the Organization for Autism Research, would be a perfect choice to kick off SpecialEdJustice’s monthly guest post. His article follows.
On Science, Pseudoscience, and the Mega-millions Lottery
by Peter Gerhardt, Ed.D.
First, I need to disclose something… on a weekly basis I buy two or three “Mega-Millions” lottery tickets. I do this despite the fact that I fully realize my chances of winning are, effectively, none, zero, zip, nada, zilch. I understand statistics and probability theory and that the only realistic outcome of my behavior is that I will lose two or three dollars every week. Yet, I still buy tickets. Why? Because, like the ads tell me, “I gotta be in it, to win it.”
While my odds of winning when I buy a ticket are pretty much zero, my odds of winning when I don’t buy a ticket are absolute zero. And this small perception of difference allows me to accept a statistically impossible outcome (my winning mega-millions) to explain away the fact that, on a weekly basis, I donate up to three dollars to the state of Maryland with no possible, realistic expectation of a return.
Now you know the truth. In this case, the testimonials of the winners (pseudoscience) carry more weight for me than my understanding of probability (actual science).
It seems that my behavior, at times, is shaped not by the science I know, but by the outcomes I desire. For families of learners with autism spectrum disorders, the same can often hold true.
A father of a young man with autism I know once explained to me that the reason he had tried so many alternative therapies was the “what if” factor. “Maybe those other therapies didn’t work,” he explained, “But what if this new one does?” What if? For him, the greatest risk was in not trying something that might help his son achieve any number of desirable outcomes. Those desirable outcomes (e.g., language, independence, social competence, friends, absence of challenging behavior, diagnostic reversal, and happiness) are formidable motivators which may shape behavior away from embracing science, with its effortful and often plodding pace, and toward an acceptance of pseudoscience which promises greater results than science with, usually, significantly less effort. As noted by Tavis (2003), “Pseudoscience is particularly attractive because [it], by definition, promises certainty, whereas science gives us probability and doubt. Pseudoscience is popular because it confirms what we believe; science is unpopular because it makes us question what we believe,” (p. xv-xvi).
Pseudoscience, then, in behavioral terms, would appear to offer up some pretty powerful reinforcers for its acceptance.
So if I understand this phenomenon, and even acknowledge its impact on my own behavior, why do I continue to argue in support of the slow pace of science and against the, admittedly attractive, “quick fixes” often offered by pseudoscience? The answer is simple: It is because I do understand the phenomenon and can acknowledge its impact on my own behavior that science and the scientific method, need to be championed. The competing reinforcers are powerful, yes, but to do otherwise, I am sorry to say, is a poor use of valuable, effective and, often, scarce resources.
On a weekly basis I put my three dollars to poor use. True, but the downside is pretty minimal. Diverting our attention from effective interventions however, is a regrettable use of the learner’s time, a good teacher’s abilities, scarce fiscal resources, the talents and training of speech pathologists, behavior analysts, and any number of related support personnel and, of course, the energy and enthusiasm that families will need to meet their children’s needs across, in many cases, a lifetime of challenges and possibilities.
We should not be willing to waste any of these resources. The downside here, it seems, is pretty significant.
This brings us to the research mission of the Organization for Autism Resarch: raise money, fund research, change lives. OAR has raised millions of dollars in applied research to benefit learners with ASD and their families. That is pretty significant by any measure. But now comes a challenge: the application of research to change lives.
If good research is to compete (yes, compete) with the promises and testimonials of pseudoscience, it needs to be able to be translated into practice both easily and effectively.
Yes, there continues to be a need to educate consumers (family members, professionals, etc.) about how to access and assess good research, and best evaluate potential interventions. However, there is also a need for members of the research community to make every effort to ensure that their research is accessible (e.g., readable, practical, relevant, etc.) to those who are the intended beneficiaries. If we fail to meet this challenge, researchers will continue to congratulate each other on their elegant designs and important outcomes, and the reinforcers associated with adopting pseudoscience will remain a powerful force within the autism community. Good research is only part of the goal. Good research that translates into practice and has the potential to improve lives: that is the true goal.
Embracing science in autism treatment is not about accepting less. It is, in fact, about demanding more.
The use of evidenced-based interventions is not about ignoring the complex diversity that is the spectrum. It is, instead, about respecting each individual as worthy of our best efforts, which means the provision of instruction, assessment, intervention, services, and supports that science has shown to be the most effective.
Tavis, C. (2003). The widening scientist-practitioner gap: A view from the bridge. S.O. Lilienfeld, S.J. Lynn, and J.M. Lohr (Eds), Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, (pp ix-xviii). New York: The Guilford Press