Saturday November 4, 2006
Wouldn’t it be great if there really was an expensive proprietary cure for dyslexia? Oh hang on, there is: paint tycoon Wynford Dore has developed one, with NASA space technology. It’s only £1700, it has celebrity endorsements, it involves some special exercises, but it has been proven with experts. “A revolutionary drug-free dyslexia remedy has been hailed a wonder cure by experts,” said the Mirror on Monday, in fact. And in the Mail: “Millions of people with dyslexia have been given hope by a set of simple exercises that experts say can cure the disorder.”
This most recent wave of publicity was prompted by a paper on Dore’s miracle cure published in the academic journal Dyslexia. The story of why they should publish such a flawed study is, perhaps, for another day. But what might have made journalists approach this story with a slightly critical eye?
Well, investigative journalism giants “Tonight With Trevor McDonald” and “Richard and Judy” have already had their wrists badly slapped by the ITC for promoting Dore as a treatment for dyslexia, on two separate occasions. Those were based on a previous paper so flawed (even before it was subsequently misrepresented in the media) that it prompted an unprecedented number of critical commentaries – nine – to be published in the journal Dyslexia.
These commentaries pointed out that the subjects were not randomised – the experimenters could choose whether to put each child in the treatment group or the control group, and the two groups were mismatched in a way that could have advantaged the Dore treatment. The control group’s treatment was “nothing”, which was bound to produce an unfavourable result, compared with the attention lavished on children having the Dore treatment. Progress was measured, bizarrely, with screening tools rather than well validated tests, as we shall see later. The statistics were flawed. The details of the treatment were explicitly withheld because it was “commercially sensitive”. The evaluators were not blinded. And so on.
In fact, Dore’s last storm of “miracle cure” publicity was so bizarre that NASA, the US space agency, of all people, were inundated with enquiries and publicly stepped in with a press release to refute claims in the Independent and New Scientist that Dore used special NASA space technology and exercises in the cure (Dore deny involvement in these claims). When you’re so out there that the guys from Star Wars have to shoot you down, then you really know you’re getting somewhere.
But what about this current study? Well, it’s a follow up of those original children. Jenny Hope in the Daily Mail says there were 35 children with dyslexia. In fact only 29 children were followed up in this study, and only 8 of those had a diagnosis of dyslexia or dyspraxia. Some were, in fact, reading very well – up to 22 months ahead of their reading age! – before the treatment started. If she’d read the study carefully she might have flagged up some other flaws in it.
There was no control group this time, all the children had the Dore miracle cure, so there’s no way of knowing if the improvements were due to Dore or some other factors (the passage of time, or the non-specific effects of receiving extra input and attention from the Dore program, and so on).
The childrens’ progress was again measured with the “Dyslexia Screening Tool”, an odd choice: and gains were not made in reading, spelling, and writing, in the DST, but were made in bead threading, balance, and rapid naming. DST is a screening test, not something you’d use for repeated measures of development, and these improvements could reflect, for example, practise at doing the test (this is why we like control groups).
I get nerdier. The study reports benefits in SAT scores and something called NFER scores, but these contradict the DST data, and have other problems: SAT scores, for example, are not formal psychometric developmental measures, they are political audit tools, with vague and ill-defined criteria at each level. and produce “categorical data” which brings its own problems. Congratulations on getting this far. If your attention is starting to flag, then that only goes to show how commercially unattractive a real story, critically appraising real research, would be for a tabloid. In fact, I give up. It’s a miracle cure.
Astronauts and Dyslexia Research
Dateline: March 2, 2001. Due to recent articles in the British press,
namely “The Independent”, that describe a new treatment for dyslexia
that utilizes “Space research, in the form of computerised balance
tests given to returning astronauts and corrective exercises that
reintroduce stability after weightlessness”, we have received numerous
requests for information concerning this research.
In response, the Acting NASA Chief Health and Medical Officer, Richard
S. Williams MD, has issued the following statement:
“In our experience, the prolonged exposure of Astronauts to the
microgravity environment of space flight does not give rise to any
physical symptoms or signs that would suggest dyslexia. To the best of
our knowledge, NASA is not funding or engaging in research concerning
dyslexia. Similarly, we do not have (or are unaware of) evidence that
any of our medical or rehabilitative interventions for the Astronauts
might be effective in treating dyslexia.”