Monday, November 28, 2011

Autism. It's The Uppity Women's Fault.

This is one of the worst pieces of so-called science reporting I have come across for a very long time. Granted, it's in the Daily Male Mail which is all about trying to get women out of the labor force and back into the kitchens, barefoot and pregnant and preferably very, very stupid. But still.

The article is a steaming turd, perhaps fished from the toilet bowl of one Michael Baron-Cohen, well known for his open distaste for the distaff gender. Or perhaps some of it is from the brain of Michael Hanlon, the writer of the piece. It's hard to say.

Let's hold our noses and jump straight into the article:
For some years now Professor Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of the comedian and actor Sacha), a psychologist at Cambridge University, has been developing his theory that something called ‘assortative mating’ may be at least partly to blame for the spectacular rise in autism diagnoses.

The theory states that when people with strongly ‘systemising’ personalities – the sort of people who become engineers, surgeons, computer experts and who shine in some aspects of business – marry each other and produce children, the effects of this kind of ‘male brain’ are genetically magnified, increasing the chances of producing an autistic child – a child with what Prof Baron-Cohen suspects is an ‘extreme male brain’.
Strong ‘systemisers’ are often slightly obsessive, perfectionist and make great scientists and are often extremely talented at music. But they sometimes have difficulties socially interacting with other people – a combination of traits that can blend into the milder end of the autism spectrum.
Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre is now asking members of the public who are graduates and parents to take part in a survey which will investigate any links between educational achievement, what kind of job they have and how their children develop.

Specifically, the new study will attempt to find out whether two ‘strong systemisers’ do indeed have a higher chance of producing autistic children.

A few warnings are due at this point: First, the whole concept of "systematizing" is due to Baron-Cohen. He created this concept and he markets it. As I have written earlier, the questionnaire he used to define "systematizing" behavior is loaded with bad questions which, whether intended or not, will confuse gender roles with "systematizing" behavior. To understand what he really intends by the term, let's just say that he believes men are logical and women are emotional.*:
In his book "The Essential Difference," the Cambridge University neuroscientist [sic] Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of Sacha of “Borat” fame) wrote: “The female brain is predominately hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominately hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”

Second, the concept of "an extreme male brain" as the autistic mind is also his. He assigns emotional brains to the female sex and logical brains to the male sex, never mind that even his biased test cannot get there and never mind that there is no reason why the two characteristics should not be both present at the same time, both high or both low and so on. His book on the gender of brains (The Essential Difference) makes for hilarious reading, by the way.

Third, the planned study appears an odd one. If strong "systematizing" behavior is defined somewhat similarly to mild autism, then it would not be unlikely, given the apparent genetic aspect of autism, that two parents with signs of mild autism would have at least as high a probability of having an autistic child as one parent with signs of mild autism and a higher probability than two parents with no signs of autism.

So what is Baron-Cohen going to actually measure in this study? Only occupations and educational achievement? Or something like my description here? And what is it we would learn from this all? I'm also confused about the reason to only include people who are graduates. Surely his famous systematizing tests could be done on any parents, whatever their education levels are. So why limit the study in this manner?

Note, finally, that the planned study is already endangered. He is asking people to self-select for the study, while openly informing the potential participants what it is that he hopes to find.

Assortative mating, by the way, refers to similar people marrying each other. What Baron-Cohen has in mind is the idea that the drastic increase in the number of diagnosed autism cases might somehow be linked to a drastic change in the proportion of people who marry similar people.

For this to make any sense at all, there must have been a humongous change in the likelihood of assortative mating in the fairly recent past. A humongous one. And I really mean a humongous one.

And this is where I cannot tell if the rest of Michael Hanlon's article is his own theory about what might have caused such a change or if it is still part of Baron-Cohen's theorizing. I wouldn't be surprised, either way, because I'm familiar with Baron-Cohen's misogyny. But in any case, one gentleman or another tells us that this drastic change is due to feminism! In the past clever women didn't get married at all or only late in life, so they didn't have time to give birth to lots of autistic children! And logical gentlemen preferred dumb blondes without an education!

An example:
Until relatively recently in our history, being exceptionally bright was not much use to you if you were female. In Victorian Britain, for example, the opportunities for a woman to earn her living through brainpower alone were extremely limited.
According to the 1901 Census, there were fewer than a hundred registered female doctors in the whole of the United Kingdom.
Going to university was difficult and expensive – most did not even allow girls to study. There were certainly few opportunities for careers in engineering or the sciences.
You could become a teacher or a governess, or maybe, of you were exceptionally talented, earn your living writing or in the arts. Most of the professions were closed, as was the world of business.
Brainy women were not even seen as particularly desirable partners. Clever or rich men chose brides on the grounds of looks, ‘breeding’ or both.
Having an IQ in the 140s probably counted against you if anything. The traditional image of a ‘dumb blonde’ hanging off the arm of the successful politician or businessman was a horrible cliché but it had an element of truth.
And in any case, very clever women would have often been mad to get married.

You feel dizzy? I did, after reading that a few times, because Hanlon confused education, an acquired characteristic, with "systematizing" which is supposed to be an innate characteristic, as if a Victorian young maiden couldn't have had a "systematizing" brain because she was not educated!

Hanlon also makes the case that women didn't really have many career opportunities at all which suggests that most of them got married as fast as they could, what with the need to eat and so on. But then he argues that bright women wouldn't have wanted to get married, because of losing those nonexistent and poorly paying career opportunities offered by governessing and such. This is a mess. And I haven't even pointed out that Hanlon's view of the Victorian era has no ordinary working-class women in it at all.

What we are to take home from that silliness is the idea that smart women in the past did not reproduce. Now they do! Possibly with smart men! Voila, an explanation for increased autism!

The big, big problem with this argument is that there is no way of testing it. We cannot go back to Victorian times, armed with the Baron-Cohen test ("Do you like to collect train timetables?"), to see if assortative mating was less common then than now, and we cannot learn what percentage of smart or stupid women reproduced then as opposed to now. So the whole approach appears doomed.

But of course that is not its point, not at all! This piece has to do with the Dangers Of Educated Women and the Dangers Of Working Women. If only women did not go to college! If only women stayed at home! That neither of these probably affects assortative mating is irrelevant. That neither of these would affect "systematizing" if it is an innate characteristic is irrelevant. The important message is out.

And the message is that it is the fault of mothers. Not the fault of fathers, even though it takes two to tango, assuming that this hare-brained theory is taken seriously, but the fault of mothers who should not have gone to college and who certainly should not be logical thinkers.

It takes a lot of work to get those sexist messages out. But then the history of autism research is a stained one. In the 1950s autism was thought to be caused by "refrigerator mothers":
In his 1943 paper that first identified autism, Leo Kanner called attention to what appeared to him as a lack of warmth among the fathers and mothers of autistic children.[3] In a 1949 paper, Kanner suggested autism may be related to a "genuine lack of maternal warmth", noted that fathers rarely stepped down to indulge in children's play, and observed that children were exposed from "the beginning to parental coldness, obsessiveness, and a mechanical type of attention to material needs only.... They were left neatly in refrigerators which did not defrost. Their withdrawal seems to be an act of turning away from such a situation to seek comfort in solitude."[4] In a 1960 interview, Kanner bluntly described parents of autistic children as "just happening to defrost enough to produce a child."[5]
These early researchers couldn't put the blame for autism on uppity career mothers, so they put it on "refrigerator mothers." Which just goes to show that it is always the women's fault.
*It's important to point out that he asserts this but does not prove it in any way, given that a) his tests are biased (examples linked to male gender-roles are overwhelmingly used in the systematizing questions) b) even then any gender differences are slight and c) the division into "systemizers" and "empathizers" does not go by gender terribly well. Only 40% of the women who took the test actually fall into the group which would be characterized by what Baron-Cohen calls "a female brain."

Likewise, there is no currently existing evidence to suggest that women are "predominantly" "hardwired" for empathy. What does it even mean, that "predominantly"? Everyday life requires the ability to think logically, to understand fairly complex sequences (even following a recipe requires that, and you don't get much more gender-linked tasks), and to empathize about something may require systematizing, the ability to arrange complex information in a way which lets one understand what the situation is and why the person deserves empathy or not.

And the term "hardwired" is almost always used in the absence of any actual evidence of how that would be achieved.