Science (journal) reviews The Trauma Myth by Susan Clancy

First, a digression (and I haven’t even gotten to the official topic sentence for the post that pertains to the title!): I am currently reading The Numbers Game by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot. The book is something in the mode of what I’d want to write about: it’s a guide for helping non-mathematicians, non-economists, and non-scientists (and perhaps those very people) in dealing with numbers. I’ve written in this blog (and commented a number of times on Dave Berri’s Wages of Wins blog) on how sports fans and  journalists misunderstand and misinterpret sports productivity measures. The greater theme is that I think there is a lack of perspective in how laymen apply scientific information into their own worldviews. The book I’d write would deal with this topic, and this is the one that Blastland and Dilnot  wrote.

A lot of the book presents numbers within a context. Actually, Blastland and Dilnot exhorts readers to develop and build the proper context around numbers in order to make them more manageable. This is especially salient in the opening chapters about large and small numbers. In some sense, a number like 800,000,000 might not be so large, if it represents the amount overspent by Britain’s National Health Service – assuming the budget for this agency numbers in the $80 billion range. As another example, the well-memed “Six degrees of separation” might imply that members of a peer group may actually be about 5  intermediaries away, but that number may as well be infinite if you are linked to the President of the United States by your knowing a neighbor who knows a councilman who knows the mayor who knows a state rep who knows the senator who knows the President. The impact of your linkage to the President, at a personal level, is clearly small.

At any rate, there is another chapter on “chance.” The example that Blastland and Dilnot use is one of cancer clusters. Most humans have some innate sense of how “random” ought to look. If one throws rice up in the air and letting it land on flat ground, one might imagine that some parts of the ground contain more rice than others. This is a value neutral, and no one disagrees with the appearance of random clusters. Or rather, we do not think anything sinister behind the appearance of clusters. But replace rice with “cancer incidence”, the interpretation changes. No more do humans accept that a cluster might just mean the chance meeting of many events that result in a higher number of cancer patients. There must be some environmental cause that led to the cancer cases. Never mind that number of cases may not take into account length of habitation (what if all the cancer cases were from people who moved recently into the town? The case for environmental factors for cancer incidence falls apart), the types of cancers, or the genetic background of the patients.

The specific example happens to involve a cell phone mast that was built in Wishaw, England. Citizens in the area were outraged and angry enough to knock down the power, when they found out they were in a “cancer cluster”. OBviously, the citizens keyed in on the mast as the cause for the cancer. Of course, the personal involvement of the townspeople tends to skew their perception, and a dispassionate observer might be needed to ask simply, “If the cell phone mast was responsible for cancer in this town, shouldn’t all cell phone masts be at the center of cancer clusters?”

The reaction of the townspeople to the Wishaw cancer cases is illustrative of the same symptoms shown, in a less significant way, by sports fans and journalists who base their conclusions about athletic productivity on so-called observational “evidence” and not on controlled, rigorous  studies. The dispassionate observer who asks if all cell phone towers should be at the center of clusters would try to overlay the distribution of towers to a map of cancer cases. He might slice the cancer cases further, trying to isolate cancers that have a higher likelihood of being cause by electromagenetic fields.  He tries to address the hypothesis that cell phone towers cause cancer. The Wishaw denizens, in contrast, didn’t bother to look past the idea that the towers caused their cancer. This highlights the difference between the so called statistical approach and eyeball approach to evaluating athletic performance. The first method is valid for an entire population of athletes, while the second may or may not be valid for even the few athletes used to make the observation. A huge part of science is to make sure that the metrics being used are actual, useful indicators of the observed system.

This brings me to the Science review of The Trauma Myth. A key component for why humans go wacky over cancer clusters and not rice clusters is that cancers are more personal. It becomes more difficult for humans to let go. Case in point: some of the criticisms leveled at investigators of the Wishaw cancer cluster is that they took away hope. I suppose what the critics meant was that the certainty of cause-and-effect  was lost. The Trauma Myth sounds like an interesting book. It takes a view contrary to “conventional wisdom”. Clancy provides some evidence to suggest that young victims, at the time of their abuse by pedophiles, might not look upon the episode as traumatic as they did not have enough experience to classify it as such. Of course the children were discomforted and hurt, but they did not quite understand what exactly was wrong. The problem wasn’t in how the children felt; the problem would be if how they felt interfered with them coming forward to report the crime.

Clancy’s book then aims to address how best to guide these abused children to come forward to report the crime and receive the help they need.  Apparently, conventional wisdom suggests there is a single reaction after sexual abuse: trauma. Clancy might have oversold how much this affected the number of children who came forward, but the reviewer notes that it is entirely unfair to portray Clancy as somehow being sympathetic to pedophiles.

And yet that is what Clancy is accused of. The fact that laymen cannot seem to countenance any criticism as constructive and useful is problematic, but not limited  to laymen. Even her colleagues have thought the worst about her work.

It is cynical, but I am glad my research is not in such an emotionally charged field. Of course, I have seen strong personalities argue over arcane points, and rather vehemently, but in no case could any researcher be accused of abetting pedophiles and murderers.

The obvious lesson here is that science gives voice to even the wildest of ideas. The objectivity that science enjoys is based exclusively on the gathering of evidence. That’s it. The framing of the question, which methods to use, and how one draws conclusions is all subject to biases and politics. However, all scientists expect that once a method is selected, the data were in fact obtained exactly as stated and in the most complete and rigorous way possible. This is what allows one scientist to look on another’s work and criticize it. The reviewer of The Trauma Myth noted Clancy did not dwell on this idea, which is a shame. Intellectual honesty can often be at odds with political expediency or comfort. It seems that  laymen and Clancy’s colleagues would do well to focus on those subjects, however many or few of them, who had not reported these sexual assaults, regardless of whether Clancy is correct or not.

The reviewer noted that the main point in The Trauma Myth is that sex crimes are underreported, and possibly due to children being confused by the fact that they had not felt traumatized (and thus somehow thought that they were not victims). I hope for their sakes that Clancy, her colleagues, and her current opponents can work to ensure that all victims of child abuse can come forward and obtain justice against the perpetrators.

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