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Why science would be better off if more people were anti-science

In “Scientists and autism: When geeks meet” (Nature, 2 November 2011), Lizzie Buchen looks at Simon Baron-Cohen’s claim, re autism, that it’s in the genes, in the sense that “ scientists and engineers could be more likely to have a child with autism.” In the jazzy popular version, famous geeks are “on the autism spectrum.” There are lots of reasons for wanting to derail this train, right from

The notion has an intuitive plausibility. In the public mind, it meshes with the stereotype of the scientist or computer geek as smart but socially awkward. (Baron-Cohen has speculated that luminaries such as Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton had Asperger’s syndrome.)

In other words, it caters to existing popular prejudices. Always a bad sign. Real autism is a serious, sometimes catastrophic, developmental disorder, not a party game for people who always knew that there was “something wrong with” high achievers.

But critics of Baron-Cohen’s theories aren’t hard to find. Autism researchers say that his work has focused primarily on a subset of people with ‘high-functioning’ autism — such as Asperger’s syndrome — who have good language capabilities and at-least average intelligence. They say that the data are insufficient to support his theories and that many experiments cry out for independent replication.

When researchers get around to trying independent replication, they might also try to impose some discipline on the classifications: The difference between Deep Geek, whose laptop is his life, and the five year old who cannot speak, dress, or toilet himself is qualitative as well as quantitative. One suspects that Deep Geek’s frustrated ex-girlfriends have encouraged the notion that it is all just a spectrum, not a chasm …

Meanwhile, it doesn’t help that

Some critics are also rankled by Baron-Cohen’s history of headline-grabbing theories — particularly one that autism is an ‘extreme male’ brain state.

This sort of theory also has a dishonorable history in “evolutionary” psychology: Supposedly, natural selection conserved the trait because it was useful. Oh, and did you know, atheism is linked to autism?

There. See what we mean? Just now we can’t quite put our hands on the paper that says autism is also linked to smoking and to lack of support for green causes and social justice candidates; someone must have borrowed that file …

Constantino is testing related ideas. He has developed the ‘social responsiveness scale’ — a questionnaire to measure autistic-like traits in the general population. He found hints that parents with more autistic-like traits tend to partner with each other, and that when they do, their children have even more of those traits than their parents Those children, however, are not more likely to be diagnosed with autism What is needed now, Constantino says, is a large study that determines whether having two parents with autistic-like traits is more common among people with autism than in the general population. “Those are the kind of data one needs,” he says, “rather than to infer, from an epidemiological cluster in a place where people tend to be a little nerdier, that that’s why you’ve got more autism there.”

We don’t necessarily know that we do have more autism in those places. We may have more people who can afford diagnostic labels than would be the case in a decaying rust belt town from which the kids’ doc who used to do that stuff relocated years ago.

Meanwhile, meet the big losers:

On the other hand, she says, “a large number of children with autism have significant intellectual disabilities and no speech. For their parents to be surrounded by people spotting all these famous people and saying they have autism, it must be absolutely infuriating.”

This is what goes wrong when the chattering classes suddenly decide they’re “pro science.” While they are busy labelling their current fads n’ mads as “science,” real science – attempting to address profound development delay – gets drowned out.

“You know, Mavis, I really think Steve Jobs was an autist too. I was reading in Brainfuzz the other day that … and it just so reminded me of my ex-nerd, I mean, more and more, science is showing that … ” 

If only they would all just be “anti-science” for a while … ,

Earth to chattering classes: El Geeko’s ex-girlfriends do NOT have the same problem as the single mom who is wondering what to do with her asocial fourteen-year-old who cannot physically care for himself, is now bigger than her, and is subject to inexplicable violent rages. That’s where science (please, not more “science”) must step up to the plate.

Here’s a kid with moderate autism – and a sensible uncle:

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8 Responses to Why science would be better off if more people were anti-science

  1. 1
    englishmaninistanbul

    It leads one to wonder whether cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan after all. :)

  2. 1) Baron-Cohen is putting forward a hypothesis. he himself says:

    “there is a problem that there are too few attempts at replication” of his studies, and says that he remains “open minded about these hypotheses until there are sufficient data to evaluate them”.

    2) The hypotheses are almost nothing to with evolutionary psychology. They are about how autism might be genetic. How those genes got there is by the way – maybe the designer wanted them that.

    How I expect he is partly tax-payer funded – so that’s pretty damning.

  3. At least, in Kazakhstan, with limited clinical services, a diagnosis of autism would, one hopes, focus on indisputable, concrete issues in delay.

    Not: “He doesn’t relate to me” but rather “He still wears diapers at six years old. He spins things all day and erupts in rage if I try to distract him.”

    Never mind whether the boy can grow up to be Einstein II. The question is, can he ever live independently?

    Yes, “doesn’t relate to me” is important, but it is readily confounded with all sorts of existing “doesn’t relate to me” issues between women and men, then swamped by popular noise, resulting in possibly irrelevant science investigations.

    Put another way: If he is still in diapers as an adult, the least likely of his problems would be embittered ex-girlfriends.

    We need real science for real problems. No one begrudges popular culture its “science” about “what’s wrong with a lot of guys,” but the two should be clearly separate.

  4. markf, Evolutionary psychologists have hopped on it. Follow the link. They add to the social noise.

    Baron-Cohen is suitably cautious; too many are not.

    It’s easy to see why this happened: Embittered ex-girlfriends want to pin a label on their ex-geeks, and parents of moderately autistic children want to comfort themselves with the thought that their offspring are unheralded baby Einsteins.

    Real science, especially when addressing the more profound cases, must somehow get past all this to identify true causes and treatments for clinical level problems. The Nature article is one to keep on file, as a good overview.

  5. Whatever the cause, ‘autistic’ (if that is even proper) savants are simply fascinating people to learn about, and to learn from. For instance this case:

    A Case of Acquired Savant Syndrome and Synesthesia Following a Brutal Assault:
    Excerpt: “Everything that exists has geometry”, says JP, who acquired amazing mathematical abilities after a mugging incident in 2002. He was hit hard on the head, and he now experiences reality as mathematical fractals describable by equations. Light bouncing off a shiny car explodes into a fractal overlaying reality, the outer boundaries of objects are tangents, tiny pieces that change angles relative to one another and turn into picture frames of fractals during motion, and the boundaries of clouds and liquids are spiraling lines.
    Before the incident JP was no whiz at math. He copied most of the answers on his geometry exam in high school and never had much interest in the subject matter. He went to college but never finished. He worked in sales for a few years and then moved onto a furniture store that sells furniture manufactured by his father.
    The mugger’s stroke ostensibly changed the architecture of JP’s brain. After an introspective period lasting three years, he started drawing what he saw right in front of his
    eyes. The results were amazing, a series of hand-drawn approximations of mathematical fractals, the first of their kind. Mathematicians and physicists were taken aback: Some of JP’s drawings depict equations in math that hitherto were only presentable in graph form. Others depict actual electron interference patterns.
    http://docs.google.com/viewer?.....#038;hl=en

    Music and verse:

    Chris Tomlin – Holy Is The Lord God Almighty -
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EduKNYVBKH8

    Romans 11:33
    Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!

  6. further excerpt from preceding article:

    Excerpt: Despite his lack of prior training, JP is the only person in the world to have ever handdrawn meticulously accurate approximations of mathematical fractals using only straight lines. He can predict the vectors for prime numbers in his drawings, and his drawing of hf = mc^2, which contains all the style elements of his earliest drawings, is remarkably similar to an actual picture of electron interference patterns, which he found years after first drawing the pattern (see Fig 7, 8).

    Now JP’s acquired ability to now ‘see math’ in everything simply must drive materialists nuts trying to explain it! :) ,,, Sort of reminds me of this humorous video John Cleese made poking fun at materialists:

    John Cleese – The Scientists – humorous video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-M-vnmejwXo

  7. video of Jason: Attack results in Savant Syndrome, Jason Padgett, Beautiful Mind, Fractals
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCvYKiNW4vQ

  8. Is this Baron Cohen gut autistic?
    If not by his reasoning his ideas might not be that good.

    I think the clue is the male demographic in these things and all savant data.

    I think the boys are just more motivated and this triggers an inbalance in memory ability.
    Its always about memory.
    Drawing, reciting, math are mere memory things once trivial foundations are understood.

    Autism possibly is more prevelent therefore in the upper miffle class and the population generally as every one gets smarter or rather more on the make.

    The video was great. the kid was very excited however and these types don’t pay attention to what doesn’t interest them and the opposite.
    boys are more like this then girls forever.

    I think its all about interference with memory development just like in retardation.
    Nothing to do with the brain or intelligence.
    The uncle was too excitable. Perhaps the father.
    Healing might just be careful attention to influences in learning and remembering we are connected by nerves to our thoughts.
    Getting nervous stirs us up.

    Entry level attention disorder leading to memory interruption that sticks to the nervous system.

    Our brains are only tools for our thinking. Not the origin of it.
    Our souls are in the image of a thinking being and so our thinking likewise is not from the natural world.
    Ours nerves and memory however are the natural world.
    We are all autistic. Just different degrees.
    Naturally males more then females.

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