The plaque on the door of my boss’s office says “Research Scientist.” He’s a professor at a major university, a specialist in the intersection of children’s mental health and schools (special education, specifically). He’s also a national expert on a specific type of children’s mental health service system, known as a “system of care.” This is what he did his dissertation on, and he is regularly consulted by governmental and corporate policymakers because of his “expertise” in this area and his access to huge data collections.
Right now his biggest grant (and therefore biggest research project) is with a system of care in our state. They have contracted him to help them improve their practices by making them more “evidence-based” – ie informed by data and statistics. He and his team (including me) are responsible for gathering data about the families in the community in need of mental health services, and then formulating that data into policy recommendations for the system of care. In general, we, the evaluation team, are charged with ensuring that the community and the system of care in particular have the best evidence possible to inform their service design.
About a week ago, a “parents of seriously mentally ill children” support group from the area that this system of care serves sent out a newsletter, their first. The newsletter contained in it two pages of “information” about [childhood] bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, these two pages were riddled with inaccuracies and outright lies of a – frankly – disturbing nature. I have outlined the bulk of those inaccuracies here.
These are a few particularly striking quotes:
Several factors may contribute to bipolar disorder including… abnormal brain structure and brain function.
(from the Bipolar Disorder fact sheet)
Right now, there is no cure for bipolar disorder. Doctors often treat children who have the illness in a similar way they treat adults. Treatment can help control symptoms. Treatment works best when it is ongoing, instead of on and off.
(from the Bipolar Disorder fact sheet)
The day that I received this newsletter, I brought it to my boss’s (remember – Research Scientist) attention. I read him the first section of the info sheet. His response was to groan and say “Yeah… that sounds bad.” I asked him what we were going to do about it.
He paused. He stalled. He mumbled. He said things like “this issue is very close to my heart. You know that.”
And then he said, “Let me talk to my mentors about it. I’ll get back to you on Monday.”
He’s been avoiding me ever since. I mean, just straight not talking to or communicating with me in any way.
So I bided my time. And finally, this morning, he called to catch up on what’s happened this week, gleefully prattling about minor business items. Pretending the whole conversation about that info sheet had never happened. Finally, he said, “Well, that’s all there is on my agenda. Anything else you can think of?”
YES. As a matter of fact there was something else I could think of – the elephant in the room. The childhood bipolar disorder “fact” sheet. The fact that we are supposed to provide good data to the community, and this sheet contains almost nothing but bad data.
This is how our conversation went:
Conversation with a Research Scientist
ALT: So what do you think about the childhood bipolar disorder info sheet?
Research Scientist: The what?
ALT: The childhood bipolar disorder sheet that the parent support group sent around.
Research Scientist: Well, I asked my respected friends and colleagues, I talked to a few of them… and none of them seemed disturbed by it like you were. Archaic, yes. But that’s just the status quo. As one of my friends said, “that’s the company line.”
ALT: What company?
Research Scientist: Oh… [backpedaling]… oh, he meant the US Government, I think, not a company.
ALT: I don’t really care what your colleagues think about it. What do you think about it?
Research Scientist: Nothing.
ALT: (laughing) What?
Research Scientist: I don’t think anything about it.
ALT: That’s impossible. You can’t read it and not think anything about it.
Research Scientist: I don’t think anything about it. [pause] I think I support the work of the parent support group. I support what they do.
ALT: That’s great… but what do you think about what’s written on the sheet about childhood bipolar disorder? Do you think it’s accurate?
Research Scientist: What do you want me to do?
ALT: YOU have to make a decision. I haven’t been in the adult world very long, but that’s part of it, isn’t it? Something comes along, and it’s inaccurate, and it’s your responsibility to address that! Do you think this info sheet is accurate?
Research Scientist: Well, no it’s not accurate. But that’s the status quo.
ALT: So you DO think something about it. You think it’s inaccurate.
Research Scientist: ALT, [laughing] I read things that are inaccurate every day without doing anything about them. In the New York Times, in the Huffington Post.
ALT: That’s different; those are newspapers.
Research Scientist: No – this is a newsletter so it’s basically the same.
ALT: Those papers are read by millions of Americans across the country. This newsletter is distributed by the parent support group to the parents in our area. The area where we were contracted to help them improve their practice by making it more evidence-based. This is bad data. And you know it.
Research Scientist: So what do you want me to do? Tell me what you want me to do.
ALT: I want you to tell me your thoughts about this info sheet, and then I want you to make a decision about what to do.
Research Scientist: Ok. [… long pause…] Well I have decided to ask Sharon [member of parent group that put the newsletter together] about it.
ALT: Do you have any idea what question you might ask Sharon?
Research Scientist: No. I haven’t decided that yet. And I have a few weeks before I see her, so I have time to think about it.
ALT: Ok. Well, I look forward to that conversation.
[… extended silence…]
I hardly need add that my boss, the Research Scientist, will not ask Sharon anything. By delaying action needlessly (why not email or call Sharon today instead of waiting three weeks?) he hopes that I will get the message to drop it and he will be allowed to nothing. And to preserve a semblance of ignorance (to him, that equals “innocence”) on the topic.
Some other things: note how this Research Scientist will do anything to avoid stating his own opinion about the information contained on the sheet. He will quote other’s opinions, but even with all my direct questioning only fails to evade me once. He does not find the accuracy of the information sheet particularly relevant, it seems. Likewise, even though he is the principal investigator (he has ultimate responsibility in this grant), he will do ANYTHING to avoid making a decision. Even if that means asking an inferior, young and inexperienced minion with only a BA in an unrelated field what to do. [I am speaking in terms of the academic hierarchy in place, which is rigid and unforgiving. I am lower than the lowliest pot-smoking grad student here and my opinions count for basically nothing], THIS RESEARCH SCIENTIST CANNOT MAKE DECISIONS FOR HIMSELF. Lost the power to do it years ago. Another result of fine academic training, I expect.
Also, I think his use of the phrase “company line” is incredibly telling.
Folks, this is what the research scientists look like in real life. BEWARE.
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