Scientific American and social autism

Scientific American reports on a study which implies that atheism may be a form of virtual Asperger’s Syndrome:

Bethany T. Heywood, a graduate student at Queens University Belfast, asked 27 people with Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild type of autism that involves impaired social cognition, about significant events in their lives. Working with experimental psychologist Jesse M. Bering (author of the Bering in Mind blog and a frequent contributor to Scientific American Mind), she asked them to speculate about why these important events happened—for instance, why they had gone through an illness or why they met a significant other. As compared with 34 neurotypical people, those with Asperger’s syndrome were significantly less likely to invoke a teleological response—for example, saying the event was meant to unfold in a particular way or explaining that God had a hand in it. They were more likely to invoke a natural cause (such as blaming an illness on a virus they thought they were exposed to) or to give a descriptive response, explaining the event again in a different way.

In a second experiment, Heywood and Bering compared 27 people with Asperger’s with 34 neurotypical people who are atheists. The atheists, as expected, often invoked anti-teleological responses such as “there is no reason why; things just happen.” The people with Asperger’s were significantly less likely to offer such anti-teleological explanations than the atheists, indicating they were not engaged in teleological thinking at all. (The atheists, in contrast, revealed themselves to be reasoning teleologically, but then they rejected those thoughts.)

This sounds a more than a little sketchy in the usual social science manner; it’s actually a smaller sample size than was the case in the utterly unscientific comparison of the high AS Quotient average reported by atheist Pharyngula readers to the neurotypical range reported by regular readers here at VP, which involved more than 100 individuals. I think it would be more illuminating to learn whether those diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome or full-blown autism are more or less likely to be atheists, as the reported predilection for non-teleological thinking suggests that those suffering from this form of mental impairment would be tend to be predisposed towards atheism and materialism.

Of course, the existence of neurotypical atheists should not be a surprise since many atheists do not exhibit the impaired social cognition that is the hallmark of the militant New Atheists. This is why it is always important to distinguish between the individual who merely happens to lack belief in gods from the anti-religious socially autistic crusaders who simply cannot understand that your religious beliefs, whatever they might be, are no legitimate concern of theirs.

And while we’re on the subject of impaired social cognition, I found this comment on the article to be as amusing as it is ironic. “Socially speaking, the world is full of all kinds of people, but the atheists I choose to associate with are outspoken because of their innate consideration and compassion in light of another’s plight with respect to primitive irrational superstitions.”

Mailvox: IQ vs genius

MB inquires about my relative dearth of creative accomplishment:

Would you care to expound on the idea that simply possessing a genius IQ in no way presupposes that the owner will produce genius art work or scientific discovery? For example, I perused your novel Summa Elvetica and within the the first few pages could discern that your prose was workman-like and ordinary (as opposed to Shakespeare or my own fiction).

Whereas your discursive prose and arguments are a cut above the general punditry. I would surmise that focus has much to do with it. You have focused little on what makes for profound and beautiful in the creative, I would guess, and more on other things.

So, do you feel disappointed that your creative work is weak while your opinion work is excellent, or simply practice the art for the pleasure and not the result as so many guitarists enjoy strumming a few tunes while incapable of demonstrating the instrument’s potential and scope?

First, I reject the idea of genius-level intelligence. Intelligence is real and IQ is a reasonable measure of it, but it is not synonymous with genius. Intelligence is nothing more than raw intellectual capacity while genius is a proven form of intellectual achievement. There are geniuses who do not have an unusually high level of intelligence while the vast majority high-IQ level individuals are not geniuses. That latter category, I regretfully have to admit at this point, would appear to include me… although should my most recent technological innovation achieve a sufficient level of success, people will eventually reach an entirely different conclusion. Suddenly the dilettante vanishes and is replaced by the Renaissance Man. Such are the vagaries of reputation.

I must also take exception to MB’s description of Summa Elvetica as a weak creative work based on what appears to have been more of a perusal than an actual reading. While its prose is admittedly no more than functional, when viewed from a structural perspective, SE is arguably among the most creative works of fantasy fiction to be published in recent years. I think it would be a travesty to ignore those aspects and simply lump the novel in with all of the stagnant vampire and zombie fluff that has been published of late. Consider, for example that the Black Gate reviewer actually confused the fictional Question of Aelven anima with a real one composed by Thomas Aquinas. I may not be playing the guitar as well as the more notable soloists, but I am indubitably playing it in a different and innovative manner. In any case, I like playing it regardless of the result.

Now, as to the notion of whether my creative works have been hampered by my lack of focus, that is almost surely the case. But not to any great extent. Due to diminishing marginal returns, I don’t think that focusing more on fiction would significantly improve my prose style. Based on my extensive reading, I believe you either have it or you don’t, and I simply don’t. Compared to the writers I admire, I am wholly mediocre when it comes to writing prose and it is only my intelligence that permits me to surmount that on occasion by adding other elements that readers of a more intellectual inclination may find interesting. I don’t think my commentary is actually any better in that regard, it’s just that the bar is set so low by the professional journalists that practically anything looks good by comparison. It’s much harder to come out well in a comparison with Tanith Lee and Guy de Maupassant than with Ann Coulter and Maureen Dowd.

Also, in the case of commentary, those aforementioned other elements are much more important than the prose. No one cares how beautifully you might happen to write about bond yield spreads, but they care a great deal about knowing if you have correctly ascertained the next area of debt contagion.

WND column

The Declining Value of College

For more than 100 years, college has been considered a sound and desirable investment in one’s financial future. But unlike other forms of investment, those contemplating dropping more than $100,000 to obtain a degree from a private university, or $28,000 for one from a public university, seldom stop to consider whether what made sense for a previous generation still makes sense today.

Although most middle-class parents regard the idea of not “investing” in their children’s college degrees about as positively as necrophilia and cannibalism, examining the current value proposition of higher education should not be a controversial concept. The fact that National Lead may have been a great investment in 1910 doesn’t mean that it is in 2010. Apple was a fantastic investment in 1990, but looks significantly less promising now that its $233 billion market cap has exceeded Microsoft’s.