Blue Cell Dyslexia

Mark Seidenberg:

An article about dyslexia appeared last week in the prestigious Proceedings of the Royal Society B (“The [British] Royal Society’s flagship biological research journal, dedicated to the fast publication and worldwide dissemination of high-quality research”). A week is a long time in blog-years, I know, but impact of the article is rippling far and wide. The authors claim to have identified a visual basis for dyslexia: an anomaly involving the distribution of a type of receptor in a part of the retina. This anomaly may provide “the biological and anatomical basis of reading and spelling disabilities”, with “important implications in both fundamental and biomedical sciences.” They also seemed to demonstrate that the anomaly could be easily eliminated by changing lighting conditions.

As might be expected, the media picked this up as scientists maybe having at long last found the cause of dyslexia.

Dyslexics, their families and teachers, reading researchers and treatment specialists, and the organizations that represent them are asking: did someone just discover the cause and cure for dyslexia? (I know this: I get email.) As someone who has conducted research in the area, my question is different: how did this terrible article get published and how can its harmful impact be counteracted?

Nothing whatever can be concluded about the causes of dyslexia from this study, as it is described in the article. Basic information about the methods and results are not provided; the procedures used in collecting the data raise numerous concerns; the link between the purported anomaly and dyslexia is conjectural; and the impairment does not explain other, better established facts about reading impairment. The study is based on some of the hoariest stereotypes about dyslexia—that it results from reading letters backwards and/or pathological persistence of visual images, that can be corrected by manipulations that affect color perception.

At first I was hesitant to evaluate the study because I’m not a vision scientist, but then I realized that hadn’t prevented the authors from publishing it. Albert Le Floch and Guy Ropars are affiliated with the Université de Rennes, France. Their primary area of expertise appears to be laser physics. The study does deal with some obscure aspects of the visual system that are well outside my expertise so caveat emptor, but the problems with the study are far more basic.

Here’s what they report, in brief.

Much more on Mark Seidenberg, here.

Madison has long tolerated disastrous reading results, despite spending more than most, now nearly $20,000 per student, annually.