Through a faulty lens
I once met a woman at a conference who seemed very nice. It was a big conference and comprised many of the leading lights in literacy and education. She told me she provided dyslexia tutoring and also that she was an Irlen practitioner. I expressed surprise that she would be present at an event that was clearly run by and for those who appreciated high standards of evidence.
She became a little exasperated and told me there was plenty of evidence for Irlen Syndrome and so I asked her to send it to me.
A large envelope arrived yesterday from her. It was a letter and 22 pages of ‘evidence’. I’m writing about it because it is a classic example of failure in logic, wishful thinking and cognitive dissonance all rolled into one. My intention is that what I write here will help others debate well with people who promote snake oil.
I will tell the author of the letter about this blog piece and will give her right of reply. I’m not sure I can get her to change her mind about Irlen, in fact I’m anticipating a substantial backfire effect, but there’s always hope.
“When I mentioned [to you] that we were Irlen Screeners you replied ‘I hope you don’t tell too many people that’. The truth of it is…no I don’t…”
Stop right there. “No I don’t”. Why? Because deep down you know it’s shameful. When you meet highly regarded people in the field, you know they don’t support your view for a very good reason. So you don’t mention it.
“…but when I see students sitting in front of me with all the physical symptoms of visual stress…”
This is not an actual thing. Visual stress is not a thing. It is a made up, arbitrary diagnosis.
“…I most certainly tell them Irlen lenses might be a non-invasive solution to their problem.”
That sounds unethical. I have since found out that you perform Irlen “tests” on students without their parents’ permission and in their parents’ absence during dyslexia intervention. This isn’t okay.
Secondly, the use of “non-invasive” is sneaky. It immediately suggests to a naïve person that other interventions are invasive. It’s also a lie. Spending lots of time, money and hope on an unproven intervention is pretty invasive, if you ask me.
“I also tell them to do their own research and let them know I’m here if they decide to do a screening.”
And there it is: the pseudoscientific mantra of the poorly informed and willfully ignorant “do your own research”. It’s a soft-sell phrase designed to give people a false sense of control. Anti vaxxers use it all the time: “I did my own research and now I’m convinced that vaccinations cause autism.”
No. You didn’t do your own research. You didn’t go into a lab. You didn’t do a systematic review of the literature. You didn’t suspend your own bias.
When you position yourself as an expert and you offer hope to those who struggle, they will believe just about anything you say. You’d better be talking about things that help them. Coloured lenses are not that.
“If I could sit you down, with an open mind…”
Thank you for the suggestion that I’m somehow closed-minded. Could it in fact be that I’m just well-informed? This is, after all, a field I’ve worked in for my entire career. It’s a subject I’ve written numerous books about. It’s a discipline I’ve studied for decades. Could it be that in fact I have a very open mind and that I’m constantly searching for things that will benefit my students and have decided to reject these products because I have logical and ethical grounds on which to do so? Where is your open mind? When you walk amongst people who you obviously regard highly, but who condemn this kind of thing, does it not cause you to question your position?
“If I could sit you down, with an open mind, and tell you all the things I’ve seen and how coloured overlays or lenses have helped I’m sure you wouldn’t be so closed to it.”
Please take your anecdotes and burn them. They do not equal data.
Then comes some bewildering self-foot-shooting:
“Here’s the thing I don’t like about Irlen…it’s expensive. It’s a pyramid scheme-type of product and that’s the unfortunate part about it.”
You want me to open my mind to a pyramid scheme. Can you actually hear yourself?
“But set that aside…” she pleads.
No, I don’t think that’s actually a detail worth setting aside.
“…and I don’t care what you call it (Irlens, Scotopic Sensitivity, Visual Stress), colour helps (some…not all).”
I don’t care what you call snake oil either. I care if you make a living selling it though. Then another admission:
“It’s not an immediate fix for learning difficulties. It’s not going to make someone who can’t read able to read. It’s not going to ‘cure’ anyone.”
Correct. It’s not. I’m in the business of fixing the effects of learning difficulties and helping those who can’t read learn to read. I also don’t look for ‘cures’. Why, then, are you bringing this nonsense to me?
“…BUT it will calm the physical system so that one can attend to learning.”
“You have to understand (and here’s what I think many academics don’t get) Irlen is a ‘method’ not a syndrome.”
Okay, so much to unpack here. The implication is that ‘academics’ are somehow removed from the real world and their theories are merely theories. Has it occurred to you that they too have contact with students? Many of them have a teaching background. They reject certain things on a very strong basis. They get it more than most. Do you say this to their face? I’ll take a wild guess and say you probably don’t.
Also, the ‘method not a syndrome’ quote is baffling. It’s called a syndrome by the inventors of it. Are you saying you disagree with the people who made it all up? That’s an even weaker position.
Out trots another cliché:
“You also made the comment that ‘there’s no research’. I wish I had a dollar for every time that’s been repeated. The fact is – there’s plenty of it. But you know as well as I do that in any type of research for every ‘pro’ article you will find an ‘anti’ article to match it.”
Please don’t assume what I know. We are talking about established scientific fact, not papers written by whoever. The overwhelming consensus in the field is that coloured lenses and overlays have no place in the treatment of reading disorders. There is no convincing evidence to say otherwise. When there is, I’m all ears, because believe me, I’ll do whatever it takes to help my students. It just so happens that it’s not this.
Another assumption follows:
“The research says…that one out of five students that sit in front of you and your colleagues will have a sensitivity to light [whatever the hell that means]. Would it be asking too much for you to contact the Irlen Regional Director near you and arrange a sit down? Imagine if you could be convinced.”
Yes. Yes it would be too much. That’s like a Flat Earther asking me if it would be too much to sit down and try and be convinced by the regional director of the Flat Earth Society. It would be a colossal waste of time and energy.
Appeal to authority fallacy is the next step:
“In his seminars, world renown [sic] Asperger’s expert Tony Attwood always mentions the likelihood of ASD and Irlens being comorbid conditions.”
I don’t care what Tony Attwood says. He is capable of being wrong. Also, the term Asperger’s is controversial due to facts revealed about Hans Asperger’s work in a paper last year. You would be more convincing if you came up to date with that. Actually, you wouldn’t. Not to me anyway.
“Oh…one other thought…Irlen screeners, diagnosticians and medical directors must have relevant qualifications in the educational…fields.”
So? It’s not actually that hard to get a degree in education. I know lots of people with degrees in education that don’t know the first thing about learning difficulties. In fact, it’s one of my biggest peeves.
There then follow 22 pages of ‘visual stress/scotopic sensitivity/irlen articles’, in an effort to appear rigorous, thorough, convincing and overwhelming all at once. What it lacks in quality is made up for in quantity. It’s not evidence though.
Let’s have a little look, shall we?
- I see an ‘unpublished Doctor of Philosophy Thesis’ in there. Hmm. That’s not very good.
- What else? Oh, a ‘paper presented to the 6th Irlen International Conference’ in 2000. Nope.
- A Korean pilot study is hardly evidence.
- “Anatomy and physiology of a color system in the primate visual cortex”? Seriously? You think slipping that in makes you look well-read?
- References by plainly wrong, disproven and poorly regarded Ken Goodman and Marie Clay are in there too.
- Ugh! John Stein’s magnocellular hypothesis. No thanks!
Most of the articles in this list have been withdrawn, disproven, successfully disputed or are worthless for a variety of other reasons. Here is a systematic review, published this year.
I asked you to send me evidence. You sent me propaganda and examples of lazy thinking. I know pretty much beyond a doubt you won’t agree with me or change your mind about this. You’re just going to get angry and declare me your enemy. So be it. But if I can use your example to help one family avoid this pitfall, it’s worth it.
If, however, you do somehow wish to lead a professional life that’s aligned with the science of reading and learning, I’m sure you’ll be welcomed into that community with open arms and forgiven for your past stance. We all live and learn.
Finally, since you seem to be impressed by figures of authority in this field, I’ll leave you with a thought from the section Crank Interventions in the excellent book Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders by Caroline Bowen and Pamela Snow (the Pamela Snow you took a selfie with and commented that you were humbled to be in her presence).
Irlen appears on pages 16, 17, 178, 240-242 (it has its own sub-section in the Reading chapter and is described there as “a crafty example of disease mongering”), 288, 313, 314 and 339 of the book, and never in a positive light:
“Crank interventions for children’s developmental disorders range from diets…to spectacles with coloured lenses, coloured overlays…These thrive alongside the motherlode of other pseudoscientific treatments and even ‘cures’ and ‘scientific breakthroughs’ for ADHD, ASD, ankyloglossia, apraxia, and the rest of the dictionary known conditions, as well as remedies for a number of made-up conditions: [e.g.]…Irlen…
Classically, crank interventions are marketed, spruiked and talked up to parents and professionals without a whisker of scientific evidence. Proponents often come with elaborate, authoritative-looking websites, questionnaires and online DIY assessments that hoodwink potential clients into ‘diagnosing’ their own or their children’s ‘problems’.”
Am I ringing any bells for you at this point? Or do Caroline and Pam just not ‘get it’ either?