Science

Britain’s New Fundamental Scientist?

Some readers might remember the London School of Economics’ (LSE) controversial evolutionary psychologist, Satoshi Kanazawa, who is perhaps best known for his blog, the Scientific Fundamentalist. With titles ranging from “Why beautiful people have more daughters” onto “Why all women are prostitutes”, Kanazawa managed to become Psychology Today’s most read contributor.  After a post from Kanazawa suggested that black women are less physically attractive than other females, the University of London Union unanimously agreed to campaign for Dr Kanazawa’s dismissal. There were some academic defenders of Kanazawa, who argued that Kanazawa was a “pioneering researcher working in a difficult field”. They also defended his right to free speech as a tenured academic, something even Kanazawa’s harshest critics have agreed with. Nevertheless, Kanazawa was eventually disciplined by the LSE, and banned from publishing in non-peer reviewed outlets for twelve months. 

Kanazawa’s recent retirement from the public eye raises serious questions: who will be Britain’s next controversial psychologist? Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, the Director of Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre, might on the surface appear to be an unlikely candidate. He has contributed substantially towards the identification of autistic traits and the broadening of the autism spectrum. With this, he has attracted both substantial media attention and has been given numerous committee positions, which have allowed him to significantly shape policy concerning autism and other related disabilities.

Yet, studies on autism are perhaps even more controversial than Kanazawa’s version of evolutionary psychology. Andrew Wakefield’s speculative, yet very damaging claims that the MMR vaccine causes autism are probably the most prominent example of this. In a broad sense, the so-called  “autism spectrum” is defined by disadvantages in social interaction, which present to varying degrees, from the non-verbal onto those who are articulate and highly intelligent, yet can still suffer greatly in the context of relationships. This diversity has led to a conflict between those advocating for the more severely affected, which included a lavishly funded campaign that revolved around ransom notes; the response to this was an emergent self-advocacy movement led by Ari Ne’eman, who has Asperger’s Syndrome and now serves as a senate-appointed member of the Obama administration. This new environment has led to a wide-ranging ethical debate, centred upon the issue of whether or not autism should be cured, or simply seen as a different form of the human mind. However, this discussion is now moving fast into social and ethical issues.

Baron-Cohen is perhaps most famous for his pilot study, which he and many other researchers claim demonstrates that autistic children lack a “theory of mind”; he later extended this into an assertion that autistic people intrinsically lack empathy as part of his ‘empathising-systemising’ theory. Though he has no direct evidence of this, he does explain in a piece published in Cognitive Neuropsychiatry that “having spent over 20 years studying this tiny corner of human nature, I feel that this theory has a very good chance of explaining the core aspects of autism”.

The idea that people on the autistic spectrum lack empathy has upset many, especially given that Baron-Cohen now suggests that this removes the onus of responsibility from autistic people (therefore generating fears in relation to rights). Baron-Cohen also makes the extraordinary claim, without any reasonable evidence, that empathy can actually be detected in an MRI scanner. This is far from the only controversy surrounding him, as he also publicly supports the position that innate sex differences lead to the social disparity between men and women; partly this is predicated on another one of his beliefs, that autism represents the “extreme male brain”. Some of Baron-Cohen’s colleagues have extended his theory to argue that the “extreme female brain” is psychosis. Ultimately, what we have here is largely pseudoscience, which is being used by Baron-Cohen and others as a basis for decision-making in relation to disabled people, without their consent.

Perhaps most interesting are the similarities between Baron-Cohen and Kanazawa; both have developed upon previous ideas, and extrapolated them wildly and probably inaccurately to yield issues far outside their research backgrounds. Kanazawa has publicly pushed controversial theories in relation to race without scientific backing and has been rightly vilified for doing so. Meanwhile, Baron-Cohen has done the same relating to disability, but instead of being duly disciplined, he is shaping disability policy and winning plaudits for his work, as well as being seen as an authority in the field.

Reuben Kirkham

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4 Comments on this post.
  • MIchael Mills
    11 December 2011 at 05:55
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    Freedom of speech and political correctness do not mix well — as this post exemplifies. Both Kanazawa and Baron-Cohen are well published in academic research journals. Their research findings, like all findings in science, are tentative. However, they are indeed backed by empirical data. Restricting research is not the answer, nor are ad-homimen attacks. To expect, even demand, that the real word conform to our ideas of what ‘should be’ is called the “moralistic fallacy.” Researchers need not be muzzed by non-scientists. The peer review process, and the self-correcting nature of science itself is sufficient to separate the wheat from the chaff.

  • daniel
    11 December 2011 at 07:22
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    Your arguments are flawed in these respects. Most people are not interested in the truth nor have they got time to explore a topic properly. They are mostly into knee jerk reactions. I have a son with Autism and I can agree with Baron Cohen regarding both of his conclusions. At the same time I am not of the belief that my son would go and hurt somebody. Finally, I sympathize with the problem of neuropsychology in that obtaining evidence is extremely difficult and thus we MUST accept conclusions from people such as Baron Cohen who have seen and studied many children. What do you want him to do? prove a Mathematical theorem? He cannot. These are matters of the complexity of the mind, of the invisible neural network. At least the guy is trying to use MRI and other biomedical imaging to obtain evidence and for this he should be praised. I can see your article is just sensationalist journalism. It also leads me to question your conclusions on Kanazawa. You are trying to villify the freedom of speech that your journalism relies on.

  • Reuben
    11 December 2011 at 12:16
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    I’d like to briefly reply to the comments that have appears so far. I am not making any comment on peer-reviewed material. But I am saying Baron-Cohen’s theories should not be taken as seriously as they are being taken. For the record, I take the view that Baron-Cohen should be dealt with in the public domain by more accurate reporting that actually stresses how little is known, not by disciplinary action. The other point is that Baron-Cohen has been commenting on just about everything outside of his expertise – the ARC website even has a piece discussing terrorism and how like autism it might well be caused by a lack of empathy. Unfortunately, that point didn’t make the edited version of the article. As for Daniel’s comments on proof – computational modelling would be a reasonable approach to use in this area, but isn’t being used because there emphasis is on MRI scans and other expensive studies that are unlikely to yield useful results.

  • Brian Fellow
    12 December 2011 at 00:36
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    This screed should be titled “which area of science that we don’t particularly like, nor understand, should we attack next?”

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