Thursday, June 4, 2009

SB's BS redux department

I see that autism media darling and pop psychology icon Simon Baron-Cohen has yet another article in forbes concerning his work The article in part talks about Baron-Cohen's theories about autism being found proportionately more in families where the fathers are engineers and scientists and that assortive mating may be at work to produce autistic children. Baron-Cohen still seems to hold onto the theory that persons who are computer engineers can now meet their wife who works in a likewise profession and this is what may be in part what is causing the increase in autism. This is in spite of the fact that he contradicts himself within the same article stating that a lot of the increase is a result of increased awareness and better detection. He also goes on with the same old completely unscientific assertion that getting rid of autism would rid the genes for mathematics and engineering and that if we cured autism the world would be deprived of engineers and scientists. This is in spite of the research that was done in Israel not long ago suggesting some cases of autism could be caused by de novo mutations in older fathers with defective sperm. Also the research of Jonathan Sebat would seem to prove him wrong as well. Though I am loathe to use him as an example, Laurent Mottron, whom I wrote about in my previous post, has done some research suggesting that de novo mutations of some genes play a role in autism. As far as I know, there is no evidence from a peer reviewed publication which supports the assertion of SBC (as well as Temple Grandin) that genes for autism have stayed in the population due to evolutionary advantage or because they made good engineers or scientists. Not long ago I wrote an essay debunking Baron-Cohen's and Grandin's notion. These two individuals, one of whom is not autistic and the other who is not afflicted as badly as I am seem to think my suffering is necessary to society, a notion I take umbrage to.

Baron-Cohen, who has researched these talents in fathers of autistic children, is now trying to do research on the mothers of the children to try to give some credence to this seemingly wacky theory he has. He wanted to use MIT as a laboratory to test these theories. Fortunately they had the good common sense to turn him down.

There are a few things I have thought of just now that i did not think about before that are pertinent to this issue. I thought I would write about them in this blog post. I have been to a variety of autism gatherings and conferences and have met many parents. It is true that a few of the fathers that I met or fathers of autistic persons that I did meet (including my own father) were either engineers or physicists. Of course these were a minority of the fathers. Others had various occupations including dentist, lawyer, physician, food service industry, fire inspector, UPS delivery man, accountant, etc. So obviously being a physicist and engineer is not a requisite to being a parent of an autistic. I have met numerous mothers as well. Not a single one of them was a physicist or an engineer or worked in a related field. Interestingly enough my own sister who is the mother of two sons is a Ph.D. computer scientist. Her husband is a Ph.D. physicist as are his brother and his father. Neither of my nephews has autism and as far as I know there is no family history of autism in my brother-in-law's family. (I realize this data is anecdotal).

I also wonder why a computer engineer would end up necessarily marrying someone who worked in the same occupation. My father, who was one of the earliest computer engineers met my mother at a party through mutual friends. My mother never worked in the IT field. My father's old boss, met his wife while they were both graduate students. His wife was pursuing a masters degree in romance languages in the humanities. One programmer my father worked with married a woman with a degree in English literature who never worked in an IT profession either.

Though the Forbes article does not go into Baron-Cohen's "geeks get lucky" theories about computer people being socially inept and only being able to meet their wife only after more women went into the profession, I believe my examples disprove this. After all, my father worked with many men who were engineers and programmers during the nascence of computers in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of them were married and apparently they had no trouble finding a spouse.

Also though MIT did not want SBC using their campus as a proving grounds, he could also look at the latest California autism report for some data. I wrote about this in a previous gadfly post He would see in looking at the growth rate of autism in the 21 California regional centers of the state department of developmental services, the San Andreas regional center, which serves the Silicon Valley, a bastion of IT workers, was 9th in growth out of 21, well behind the regional centers in the Los Angeles area with far less engineers per capita.

In my last post, I questioned why Autism speaks would give half a million dollars to someone like Laurent Mottron. Now, in the same vein, I wonder why SBC gets any funding at all. Why anyone would take this man seriously. Yet he seems to get funding for his research, peer review approval for publication in various journal articles and attention of the media. As is the case with Mottron, I guess I will have to be mystified.

Well soapbox mode off now.


SM69 said...

Totally agree on that one Jonathan, see article in AoA on SBC which Bill Welsh wrote (instead of me as I was running out of time, but essentially following our joint discussion).

There is a street near Newcastle in a small village that has 21 cases of children with developmental delay. 14 have ASD, the rest ADHD, childhood schizophrenia and depression. I know of these cases from a visiting teacher with whom I have worked. I know the street and we have conducted surveys of the land use, (survey from lawyer firm that look at historical records, confidential data for future prospect developments). The street is build beside a park which is itself built on 3 successive industrial toxic waste dumping sites, of undisclosed nature. All nearby houses are new, freshly build on the waste land. This is small scale UK Love Canal. Interesting that a request for funding was turned down by the NAS via Research Autism (closely associated to SBC). I am pretty sure that if the street had been populated with Internet Cafes, he would have been very interested to investigate the mating behavior of the parents of these children.

SBC doesn’t want to see, doesn’t want to know, and he has to keep covering up the obvious reality of today’s autism.

farmwifetwo said...

Our first dev ped for my eldest said that 50% of the children in his practice - and he was nearing retirement at that time - had one parent that had an engineering degree - Waves hand - that would be me in this house.

Personally, I believe genes are a factor, but to use professions instead of actual gene research.... IMO is nothing more than filling in a questionaire and not real science.

I hate on the news when they say they surveyed X number of people and therefore Y is a certain percentage and therefore must be true for the remainder of the population.

But it's valid b/c it's "Peer Reviewed".


Stephanie said...

Hm. My father has had a series of odd jobs. When younger he stayed home with 3 kids and helped mother with work who is a court reporter (he helped edit her work). He is now a truck driver.

My brother earned his BS in psychology; my sister is still unsure but is thinking about being a nurse.

The only science related thing in my family I can think of is my uncle, who has his BS in electrical engineering (or something of the sort) but is definitely not autistic and neither of his 2 children are, either.

Mayfly said...

I work for one of the national laboratories. It is to a stereortype that scientists are not going or are singly focused. The ones I know are outgoing and have a wide range of interests. Large physics and astronomy projects are based on the ability to communicate.

Stephanie said...

I agree with Roger. I also have been diagnosed with learning disabilities and my IQ profile is quite scattered. I could be diagnosed with other similar things but I don't see the point since it's all lumped under the autism unbrella; in a way, these things are expected in people with autism.

ASD itself is a learning disability since IQ profiles are usually scattered. Is there anyone with an ASD that has an IQ profile (according to Standford-Binet or Wechsler tests) that isn't scattered?

These tests have sections that are heavily loaded with social understanding and comprehension, so if there is zero scatter on an IQ test, if your social comprehension is still about average, than I don't understand how a person can have an ASD.

Stephanie said...

I had a social worker once tell me that I couldn't have autism because I didn't want to be a math or science major in college.

(And she didn't pursue further; I wanted to be an art major but you can't have autism unless you major in math and science, apparently).

Vicky said...

Stephanie, I have experienced a similar thing. I was once told by a special needs teacher that I could not possibly be autistic because I am bad at mathematics.

My cognitive profile (measured with the Weschler tests) is very scattered. Overall, my verbal IQ is 155 and my performance IQ is 63. On the different subtests, my highest score was 160 and my lowest was 54. I have a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome and severe dyspraxia.

I disagree with Baron-Cohen's 'extreme male brain' theory, but I think it is worth pointing out that his theories are in fact much more sophisticated than the media suggests. All the newspaper articles and TV reports that I've seen have simplified his ideas to the point where they are no longer comprehensible. He is a reputable professor of medicine at a world-class university (Cambridge). While I don't agree with his theory, I know that his research is more rigorous than the media suggests - they have sensationalised it too much.

Marius Filip said...

I see, time and again, the confusion between autistic traits and autism.

To me, there is a clear difference between the two. A person who likes order, who bites his nails, who likes to rock back and forth may be seen as one with autistic traits.

On the other hand, autism is a condition. It's more than just a sum of the traits. And the traits are present in a much higher concentration.

Now, I see theorized that if a person has some minor autistic traits than he is somewhat autistic, let that be 5%, or 0.5%, or 0.05% or whatever - but autistic in any case.

It is false and dangerous: firstly because minor autistic traits may have completely different causes (anxiety? stress? obsessive-compulsive disorder?) and secondly because we don't know the causes of autism and the workings that make those causes produce autism.

It is an elementary lack of logic. If Jim and John have 0.05% of their behavior in common and Jim is autistic, this doesn't mean that John is 0.05% autistic or his genes or brain have 0.05% common pattern with Jim's.

Similar behavior does not mean similar cause or similar underlying neural realities.

In order for John to be autistic, he has to manifest a common behavior with Jim in a much higher proportion.

If that doesn't happen in any significant manner, drawing any similarity between the two is pure speculation which does not fit with the image of a respectable scientist.

SM69 said...

Good points Marius

I would add to these:

Personalities who prefer to either work/think/create alone or to relate with a limited number of people, either 1 or 2 at most. Personalities who dislike cheap chat and various forms of social mutual grooming. People who would avoid touristy/crowed places preferring deserted settings. People who prefer unconventional situations and people. People who like to do things fully and completely and feel uneasy about not completing to the highest possible level a task/ a role. People who like academia and certain intellectual topics. People who like to think visually, and have different types of intelligences. Who can be very dedicated. Also can prefer to say what they think irrespectively of the consequences this might have on others and themselves. People might walk out in the middle of a performance if they have an idea to pursue elsewhere or something else that is bothering them (like boredom). People who can have tendencies to be distracted even if able to pursue every single of their interest fully. Or can have excessive needs to be active, or have some form of mild compulsion. People who can be challenging and argumentative.

I know many people like these; in fact these are the people I prefer to relate to. I believe I am like that. Yet, they/we would not have difficulties to relate to self and others (when motivated/interested), adjust behavior and be fairly intuitive with other’s psychology. They/we can get organized and function well, hold jobs, fit within a group if need be, talk publicly, organize activities for a group, develop ideas and projects. They/we can care for themselves and be aware of the factors that influence our mode of thinking and well being. They/we can care fully for others. They/we can commit to a cause and stick to it, commit to relationships. And these are the reasons why they/we are not autistic.

But these are also the very reasons why I believe a neurodiverse community is far superior to a conformist boring normalized one, and far more able to achieve and think outside the box. Challenge concepts. These traits constitute major evolutionarily advantages for our species, because they promote evolution.