Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Scientists En Masse

In Janet Stemwedel's latest infomercial for scientific orthodoxy, she makes a pregnant observation:

"… the grade-schooler’s ambition to be a scientist someday is significantly more attainable than the ambition to be a Grammy-winning recording artist, a pro-athlete, an astronaut, or the President of the United States."

No question about it. In fact, if anything Ms. Stemwedel is understating the current situation, for it seems to me that with scientific methodology so freely available and so effectively recruited for, we're practically standing on the doorstep of that promised land—the glorious day when everyone is a scientist. Just as Kierkegaard once remarked upon the warm, fuzzy convenience of being a nineteenth-century Dane, when everyone became a Christian merely by being born within the country's borders, today we can celebrate a further two centuries of warm, fuzzy progress by noting that everyone is becoming a scientist simply by being born at all. Ah, the sweet, communal utopia! All of us as warm, fuzzy members in the norm-of-universalism club.

Well, not quite all of us: I know of at least one individual who insists on opting out.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Catching Up on My Reading

I just got back from a week's vacation during which I had limited Internet access (a surprisingly refreshing experience, by the way). Catching up on my reading, I came upon two informative and contrasting views of autism.

The first is from Noah Egler, thirteen years old and diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome:

“Two signs that you have Asperger's. You can't find your planner and when you do, it has Boolean logic written on it.”

I've seen many attempts to capture the essence of autism, but I'm not sure any can top that.

But for an entirely different perspective, we can turn to David Amaral's Report on Progress within the scientific community to understand autism as a disorder. Here are a couple summarizing sentences:

“The bottom line from the current genetics of autism is that it is very complex.”

“… the neuropathology underlying the disorder is subtle.”

Not quite as delightful as Noah Egler's observation, and certainly not as accurate. “Complex” and “subtle” are what are known in the rhetorical world as weasel words. They are a not-so-honest way of not quite admitting that after spending hundreds of millions of dollars and decades worth of research into assessing autism as a disorder, scientists today still don't have the first clue as to what is going on. But then again, why would they? Not when nearly the entirety of their effort is going into discovering what is wrong with Noah Egler.

And that pretty much sums up the current state of autism knowledge. One thirteen-year-old autistic boy understands his condition far better than the entire autism research community. I wouldn't expect those circumstances to change very soon. I wouldn't expect them to change until the research community begins listening to Noah Egler, instead of trying to fix him.

By the way, I came across both these articles—as I do many others—by perusing Michelle Dawson's Twitter feed. If you don't follow it, I encourage you to do so. Ms. Dawson has a keen eye.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cheap Fabric

Scientific method serves the purpose (not to be undervalued) of spreading science to the masses; it fosters the dissemination of science, and thus it is perfectly understandable we emphasize the methodology's social aspects. But make no mistake about it—this is not the science of Newton, Darwin, Einstein. This is the science of S. Baron-Cohen, G. Dawson, A. Klin, and millions of others just like them. Rub your finger across the results and you'll quickly feel the difference.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The One Versus the Many

Scientific methodology serves as the veneer-like copy of science—functional, perhaps more immediately satisfying, suitable for the masses—but not inspired enough to create lasting effect. Science can't be reduced to methodology any more than religion can, and science must remain the province of the individual, the individual acting ruthlessly alone.

Monday, August 15, 2011

An Empty Glass

Sally Ozonoff, discussing her recent study in Pediatrics that demonstrates the chances of developing autism are about 1 in 5 for the younger siblings of those already diagnosed with autism, makes it all too clear where she and her fellow researchers stand on the relative value of autistic individuals:

"These findings are much higher than any of us anticipated, but the flip side is that over 80% of these children did not develop autism," says Ozonoff. "That is really important for these families to hang on to. The glass is still more than half full."

Sally Ozonoff has spent nearly the entirety of her adult life demonstrating that the one subject she does not understand is autism, and yet she feels qualified enough to opine to the entire world that autistic individuals are worth less than their non-autistic peers. Arrogance is too weak a word to describe what is going on here.

Autism research is by and large a good thing. Autism researchers, however, are mostly evil.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Problem with Animal Intelligence

In nearly all instances, we're observing behavior which is based upon human context or human support—in which case it isn't animal. Or we're observing behavior that is completely biological and natural—in which case it isn't intelligence.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Another Casualty of Neuroscience

The Flynn effect is right in front of everyone's eyes, not behind everyone's eyes.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Neanderthal Genes

More evidence has recently appeared stating that many modern Homo sapiens carry a small percentage of Neanderthal-derived genes, possibly as the result of interbreeding that occurred around the time of man's great leap forward. Although these results are still subject to further investigation, the data does provide some confirmation of earlier findings, suggesting that a consistent picture is beginning to emerge.

Near the end of my essay Reflections on the Work of Richard Klein, I engage in some speculation that these Neanderthal-derived genes could be the material source of autism everyone is looking for. The idea is that beyond a certain threshold, a large enough presence of Neanderthal-derived genes would make it difficult for an individual to recognize and attach to the other members of Homo sapiens around him, and this lack of species recognition and species-focused perception would in turn engender the broad array of autistic behaviors so frequently observed.

If this speculation is going to have any legs, what we might expect to see next—probably within the next couple years or so—is the emergence of studies highlighting a significant correlation between a larger presence of Neanderthal-derived genes and the occurrence of such conditions as schizophrenia, bipolar, and autism. If such studies do begin to appear and if they turn out to be accurate, this would have the effect of raising my idea from one of mere speculation to intriguing possibility.

Nonetheless, I'm not exactly married to the idea—the material cause of autism could easily end up being found elsewhere. What I do want to point out, however, is that right or wrong this idea does demonstrate that there are legitimate means of examining genetic difference besides just assuming genetic defect. The current fervor within the autism research community to presuppose that every barely significant genetic difference must result inevitably in synaptic damage or connectivity dysfunction (or whatever happens to be the neurological affliction flavor of the day)—well, let's just say that this approach has betrayed both a bankruptcy in results and a bankruptcy in vision. Autism researchers have been demonstrating that they understand almost nothing about the mechanics of genetics, and have been demonstrating very little else.

One more thing. Even if it turns out that the presence of Neanderthal-derived genes are correlated with the presence of autism, this does not mean that Neanderthals possessed autistic-like characteristics and that these characteristics are somehow being expressed through the genes. This is another poor way of looking at the mechanics of genetics, and even worse, it is a poor way of looking at anthropological history. We have only limited archaeological information regarding Neanderthals, but what little information we do have suggests a very primitive, quite animal-like existence, not dissimilar from that of early Homo sapiens. It is an overly romantic and all-too-common fallacy to ascribe modern human behaviors to our ancient ancestors, not recognizing that almost the entire panoply of modern human behavior was developed only quite recently, and this would hold true for most autistic behaviors as well. Ancient humans—that is, humans prior to man's great leap forward—are not described best as either autistic or non-autistic. They are described best as animal-like. And to recognize the massive scale of the intervening transformation is to recognize why all these questions and speculations are so terribly important.