Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Having Shed Our Animal Skin, We Misperceive the Source of Our Molting

Buddha, Mohammad, Christ—then the mega congregations and their glad-handed ministers.

Newton, Darwin, Einstein—then the research teams and their assorted assistant Dawkins.

Beethoven, Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky—then the fine arts degrees and their preening workshop wonders.

Socrates, Thoreau, Kierkegaard—then the ivory towers and their assorted assistant Graylings.

The outcast, the misunderstood, the one nearly always standing apart—then the huddling, jostling crowds and their crashers to the front.

Whispers of autism—then humanity’s mass confusion.

Monday, February 16, 2009


The recently rendered verdicts in the Autism Omnibus Hearings—unanimously against the petitioners who had sought to blame vaccines as being the cause of their children’s autism—were noteworthy for being uncompromisingly decisive. It was not just that the Special Masters ruled firmly against the petitioners, it was that in their language describing how they arrived at their conclusion, the Special Masters left no room for doubt that the petitioners’ theories in support of an autism-vaccine connection amounted to little more than junk science. Some widely reported quotations from the decisions include:

  • "This case … is not a close case. The overall weight of the evidence is overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners’ causation theories."
  • "The theories petitioners’ experts advanced lacked support in both logic and research."
  • "To conclude that (the child’s) condition was the result of his MMR vaccine, an objective observer would have to emulate Lewis Carroll’s White Queen and be able to believe six impossible (or, at least, highly improbable) things before breakfast."

The Special Masters deserve congratulations for both the clarity and the accuracy of these statements, but I do have one quibble with their judgment. As cogent, forthright, and indeed inspired as these decisions may have been, they remain deficient in one very important respect. They remain deficient in that they are not being applied nearly broadly enough.

Here is a sampling of recent titles from some highly regarded autism research journals:

Inside these articles—and countless others just like them—you will find attempts to link autism to genetic defects, brain matter abnormalities, synaptic deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, environmental toxins, and hundreds of other factors I do not have the patience to list here. But never mind that a plausible explanation from defect to behavior is never given, never mind that the pathway from deficiency to autistic characteristic is never traveled even one step—backed by the collective might of scientific orthodoxy, these papers’ authors act as though such linkages would present little more in the way of challenge than a beginner student’s exercise. But of course we are not students; we are instead objective observers, and thus we find we must don the White Queen’s garb yet once again. For to consider that all these deficiencies and defects, either individually or collectively, could somehow explain the unique characteristics of any autistic individual within our midst, to say that making such a leap would require us to believe six impossible (or, at least, highly improbable) things before breakfast—well, that would be a judgment almost too kind.

In the current climate, nearly all autism science is junk science. Some of that science may come dressed up in finer laboratory clothes, some of it may be credentialed to the nth degree, some of it may even be persuasive enough while testifying at an Autism Omnibus Hearing; but when it comes to shedding light on this condition we know as autism, when it comes to advancing positively the prospects of autistic individuals, when it comes to being anything except blind to its purpose at hand, the current state of autism research fails to clear even the simplest standard of reason, let alone any standards of science.

The day will come—although I certainly do not expect it anytime soon—the day will come when an entirely different kind of verdict will be rendered. Autism will be adjudged not as a medical disease, not as a gross deficit, not as a burdensome, tragic disorder. Autism will be described as one of the most valuable, the most creative, the most essential aspects of our own humanity—an aspect requiring acceptance, and the occasional accommodation, if humanity is to receive its benefit in full measure. On that day, and on that day alone, will it finally be said that justice has been served, served for the ones who deserve justice the most—the autistic individuals who have been living quietly and productively among us.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Meta-language as a Misuse of the Tool

Since all occurrences of human language are manifested as physically immediate artifacts (visible and tactile gestures, sound vibrations in the air, marks on a page, etc.), language itself, and its use, can be represented by still further recursion of language. Representing language is no different in kind than representing knives and lightning and hair. But this doubling back of language upon itself—alluring like a forbidden fruit—is almost invariably done without sensible purpose.

The normal purpose of language is to make use of a biologically immediate artifact to represent something that is not biologically immediate. But when language represents language, it becomes the use of a biologically immediate artifact to represent something already biologically immediate, and thus confusion easily abounds. Meta-language too often betrays a misuse, and a misunderstanding, of the tool.