Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Evolutionary Theory versus Creationism

When I happen upon two third-graders engaged in a heated debate about whose dad is the best, I walk on past. I’m an adult now.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Faint Praise for the Brain

A healthy human brain is essential for the manifestation of human intelligence. But then again, a working ignition system is essential for a drive to the grocery store.

Today’s neuroscientists, cognitive researchers, evolutionary psychologists, etc.—they need re-schooling in the concepts of necessity and sufficiency.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Many Autisms

The research community’s trend du jour is to characterize autism not as a single condition, but instead as a term embodying many distinct conditions, each with separate etiology (albeit unknown). Ami Klin, David Amaral, and Francesca Happé, for instance, have lent their support to such percolations.

Fracturing autism into more pieces might indeed prove useful in expanding the number of grant applications and research chairs, but if we hope to expand our understanding of autistic individuals, attention should be turned in the opposite direction. We already have too many autism diagnoses at our disposal—Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder (and all the informal variations thereupon). What have these distinctions gained for us other than increased confusion?

If instead, autism’s umbrella were put back together and expanded to include similar conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, we might eventually get around to asking some important questions, such as why do certain individuals perceive their world differently than the norm, and what are the consequences?

In retrospect, this fashionable period of the “many autisms” will be seen not as a time when we advanced our understanding of the condition, but as a tacit admission we did not possess the first clue of what we were dealing with.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Fountain of Information

My son has taught me about autism—certainly not the other way around. Why do researchers assume they understand their topic better than the subjects of their investigation?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Distinguished Professor of Philosophy

I could spend the remainder of my days railing against that absurdity known as modern academic philosophy. Let me save us all some time and concentrate instead on one of its more fatuous examples—Professor A. C. Grayling.

I first stumbled upon Professor Grayling while he was still hacking out a career at the expense of a great man:

Once one has sifted his texts and has ceased to be dazzled by the brilliance of metaphor and the poetical quality, one finds much less argument, and very much less definiteness in the crucial conceptions, than is expected in and demanded from philosophical enquiry. This is disappointing.

I hold little hope for the present age, but I trust history will forever enjoy the irony of that assured lecture—Professor A. C. Grayling passing eternal judgment upon Ludwig Wittgenstein.

And from this noble launching pad, Professor Grayling has embarked upon a two-decade quest to define the very attributes of the word philosopher for my generation: university chairs, societal fellowships, a trenchant volume or two each year, a pleasant abode or so in the country, good food and good wine—lots and lots of good food and good wine. Do not get me wrong—it is not that Professor Grayling has been renegade in this particular form of philosophical pursuit. Far from it—there are literally throngs just like him scratching out a similar existence in all the collegial wings. But Professor Grayling has established himself at the forefront of this knowledgeable horde, primarily through means of a considerable marketing talent. For not only has Professor Grayling proven remarkably successful in bringing his message to the masses, he has indeed brought the very essence of himself to the masses, and has thereby convinced a weekend breakfast audience that the trappings of a philosophy professor’s life constitute the good life of modern perspicacity. From editorial boards to off-Broadway theater, Professor Grayling has rubbed a hair-draped shoulder against nearly every intelligentsia-favored artifact from this all too leisurely age, and the Sunday supplement public has eaten it up. Ask anyone in the know: Professor A. C. Grayling has garnered quite the following.

Well, of course he has garnered a following.

And the definiteness in crucial conception propping this mass appeal? The brilliance of metaphor and poetical qualities tugging at the heartstrings of his admiring audience? Let us sift through Professor Grayling’s dazzling arguments on the subject of death:

The fundamental question is how to deal with others’ deaths. We grieve the loss of an element in what made our world meaningful. There is an unavoidable process of healing—of making whole—to be endured, marked in many societies by formal periods of mourning, between one and three years long. But the world is never again entire after bereavement. We do not get over losses; we merely learn to live with them.

But there is a great consolation. Two facts—that the dead once lived; and that one loved them and mourned their loss—are inexpungeably part of the world’s history. So the presence of those who lived can never be removed from time, which is to say that there is a kind of eternity after all.

I admit freely to my bias: I do not belong to the Sunday Times intelligentsia, I am not one of those who are in the know, and I am not a member of Professor Grayling’s admiring crowd. For me this excerpt, along with all the rest, is pabulum I could forgive only coming from a pre-pubescent child; how am I to tolerate it off the pen of a man trumpeting his abilities to think for himself? Elsewhere in his remarks upon Wittgenstein, Professor Grayling holds forth that Wittgenstein has the distinction of being the last of a breed—history’s final example of a non-academically trained philosopher. I cannot say for certain whether this assertion of Professor Grayling’s might indeed be true, but if it is, I would note it also marks the end of an entire era—the end of all that has been creative, useful and eye-opening in the realm of philosophical thought. For there has never been, and there never will be, a true philosopher of the academic kind. When I consider the example of Wittgenstein, and the others much like him—such as Thoreau, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche—I realize a truism is at work here that would be a danger to overlook: a philosopher for the ages cannot possibly be the philosopher of his day. And, of course, vice versa.

Listen. I am just a simple man from Indiana. I cannot distinguish the good life from a good swig of beer. I have not the slightest idea what it takes to be a philosopher. But I do know exactly what it takes not to be a philosopher, and if I could just get Professor A. C. Grayling’s fat ass up on a pedestal, I could put it on display for everyone to see.

Oh, wait—he has already done it for me.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Two Sides of an Expressive Coin

Which came first for humans: 1) language, or 2) temporal, spatial, and other conceptual patterns?

Try imagining one without the other.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Fractions Are Hard

I see that the autism research community has vigorously taken up my challenge to publish an article in which the list of authors exceeds the length of the article’s content. The latest attempt, although not quite adequate, is nonetheless impressive: Autism symptoms in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Familial trait which Correlates with Conduct, Oppositional Defiant, Language and Motor Disorders (A. Mulligan, R. J. L. Anney, M. O’Regan, W. Chen, L. Butler, M. Fitzgerald, J. Buitelaar, H. Steinhausen, A. Rothenberger, R. Minderaa, J. Nijmeijer, P. J. Hoekstra, R. D. Oades, H. Roeyers, C. Buschgens, H. Christiansen, B. Franke, I. Gabriels, C. Hartman, J. Kuntsi, R. Marco, S. Meidad, U. Mueller, L. Psychogiou, N. Rommelse, M. Thompson, H. Uebel, T. Banaschewski, R. Ebstein, J. Eisenberg, I. Manor, A. Miranda, F. Mulas, J. Sergeant, E. Sonuga-Barke, P. Asherson, S. V. Faraone, M. Gill, 2008).

However, as an outsider, I am perplexed about one particular aspect of this practice. In the reckoning of publishing credit—the kind that can be cashed in for tenure, grants, editorial board appointments, offices with a nice view and so forth (the crucial matters in the field of autism research)—does an author get one full credit for having his or her name attached to such a lengthy list, or does the publishing credit get divided throughout the list’s members? Because if the latter, I am having a hard time understanding how 1/38th of a publishing credit can go very far. Speaking for myself, if I had to participate in thirty-eight such enterprises to earn one full credit, I might find it easier just to do some original work and write it up on my own.

Or am I being too naïve?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Autism and Disability

The statement that autism is a disability can stir controversy, all the more so because the grammar of the word disability is itself imprecise. That imprecision notwithstanding, let me offer two observations I think shed some light on the subject:

  • There are many autistic individuals who are not, have not been, and will not ever be disabled.
  • There are many autistic individuals who are currently, have been in the past, and/or will be in the future disabled.

Those two assertions suggest that discussing the concept of autism alongside the concept of disability makes perfectly good sense, but that predicating the concept of autism with the concept of disability is far less precise—if not downright fallacious. We do not know what produces disability in certain autistic individuals—attributing that outcome to autism itself is only an assumption, and in my eyes, not a very good one.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Bicycle Built for Three

Autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (manic depression) are listed separately in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but a discerning eye will recognize the commonality among these three conditions:

  • Each is classified as a mental illness without any evidence of sickness.
  • Each is diagnosed through peripheral characteristics instead of direct etiology.
  • Each manifests as a cognitive perception distinct from the species-driven norm.

These three conditions are eerily similar, and for a misunderstanding humanity, they ride past as triplets in crime.