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Very good post.


Jacques has chaired the Quebec Asperger's Society (can't remember the specific title) and I believe he has Asperger's which he said in a post here (a thousand apologies if I have said anything wrong or incorrect). I await his input.

Engineering is another faculty that favours "Autistic" profiles. Good teaching in a lecture hall is just like good preaching: communication, eye contact, enthusiasm for the subject, a little humour, sharing your delight with the audience. I had a prof who had the nickname of "Jet" because he lectured really, really fast, spent half the time talking to the blackboard and threw down his chalk when he was done. He almost lectured in a single sentence. Good lecturers are hit or miss in Engineering. Add to that the burdens of lecturing in your second language with varying degrees of fluency.

My distinguishing feature in my Engineering studies was that I was an excellent communicator both verbally and on paper.

Scott - thank you.

Determinant - that's my recollection, too, and I"m hoping Jacques Rene will join this discussion.

I've always taken great exception to the 'economist-as-autistic' meme; it's just another round of the economics culture wars, in which the literati try to score rhetorical points by likening methodological formalism to what is popularly viewed as a form of mental illness.

No, it's just opposition to utilitarianism run amok, any first-year history or philosophy course will show you Utilitarianism (hello Jeremy Bentham) and how it can so easily lead to dreadful conclusions as utilitarianism is extremely dependent on the parameters used.

I'm an equations guy myself and it all boils down to the parameters and the model; the math will prove anything given the "proper" input. Of course parameters in economics depends greatly on moral norms which is why Austrians and Keynesians don't get along. They would probably use each other's methods without much fuss if the norms and moral value assumptions weren't so different. They are both reifications of classical conservatism/free market liberal politics vs. Old Radical/Socialist/Corporatist Weflare State politics and they each strenuously object to the reification of the other.

Having suffered from Depression and having posted about it here in an attempt to explain how the system actually works (from personal observations) I object to any attempt to use disease as a model for analysis. I did say I have problems with utilitarianism.

Stephen - the "post-autistic economics" group has changed its name to the "real world economics" group, so they're no longer using the economist-as-autistic meme. Would you describe Tyler Cowen as the literati?

I did wonder if I should have said Aspergers instead of autism throughout, because I do share some of those concerns. Can you think of an alternative way of describing the types of behavioural tendencies I'm describing here?

best not to lecture at all. How 19th century the lecture is. Even people who are good at (or think they are) making whizbang entertaining lectures dont help learning.


Hmm. I wonder why they changed their tactic. And why "real world" economics somehow doesn't involve the sort of statistical analysis that would challenge the stuff of textbooks.

I'm pretty sure I can detect non-verbal cues, and I don't break eye contact when I try to explain something to a student. But I would indeed find it awkward if a student started to cry in my office because of a low mark, because s/he is demanding a response that would not be appropriate for the relationship we have. I don't have the same awkwardness when it's a family member or a friend.

I don't know enough about these conditions to judge, but if a tendency for taking people at their word is characteristic of autism, why isn't a tendency for *not* taking people at their word a characteristic of paranoia?

One characteristic of autism is a tendency to repeat the same actions or words and phrases over and over. It thus strikes me that religious services are an autistic form of behaviour. I’m not saying a belief in God is autistic: it’s just the repetition of the same material over and over that is autistic.

You get this repetition of the same words over and over with the politically correct and devout adherents to other movements or ideologies.

Stephen Gordon,

"I wonder why they changed their tactic."

Linking things with which you disagree with (a derogatory view of) mental illnesses isn't a very good rhetorical approach these days, thankfully.

"I don't know enough about these conditions to judge, but if a tendency for taking people at their word is characteristic of autism, why isn't a tendency for *not* taking people at their word a characteristic of paranoia?"

I think that it IS a mark of paranoia. A hypothetical "middle-of-the-spectrum" person would presumably tend towards a mid-point between the two over an increasing number of cases.

What I like are those who take people at their word- but are very ready to believe that these same people are utterly wrong! That seems to me to be very conducive to good academic debate: let's disagree with each other, but also let's be very hesitant to believe that someone else is dishonest.

Ralph Musgrave,

"You get this repetition of the same words over and over with the politically correct and devout adherents to other movements or ideologies."

I think that, in those cases, it's a lack of imagination/critical thinking which makes someone both apt to repetition and extremely devout. If someone is asking "What if things were different?" all the time then they will find it hard to either be fanatical or uncreative.

Stephen: " if a tendency for taking people at their word is characteristic of autism, why isn't a tendency for *not* taking people at their word a characteristic of paranoia?"

Sometimes people send out mixed messages: the body language says one thing, the words say another. The person with the autistic cognitive profile misses the body language so ends up getting an incomplete message.

The person at the other end of the spectrum will be so distracted by the body language and other framing effects that he or she won't be able to get down to the logical core. I'm sure we can think of lots of derogatory terms for people who are easily deceived by framing effects. Paranoia isn't one that springs to mind, actually.

W. Peden: "Linking things with which you disagree with (a derogatory view of) mental illnesses isn't a very good rhetorical approach these days, thankfully."

I think the reason that the autism metaphor is so powerful and appealing to so many people is that it is a way of understanding who you are, why you see the world differently from other people. It's not a mental illness. It's a form of brain wiring. Illness suggests that there is a cure - cut out all sugar or do this and that and suddenly your autistic child will be just like a typical kid. Yes, there are some things that we can do to rewire our own brains, and a lot that can be done to help autistic children grow and develop, but not a lot of things that we can do that fundamentally change the nature of our brain wiring.

A timely snippet from Alex Usher's HESA blog:

"Two Princeton scientists,publishing on PLoS One, find the following:

"From personality to neuropsychiatric disorders, individual differences in brain function are known to have a strong heritable component. Here we report that between close relatives, a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders covary strongly with intellectual interests. We surveyed an entire class of high-functioning young adults at an elite university for prospective major, familial incidence of neuropsychiatric disorders, and demographic and attitudinal questions. Students aspiring to technical majors (science/mathematics/engineering) were more likely than other students to report a sibling with an autism spectrum disorder (p = 0.037). Conversely, students interested in the humanities were more likely to report a family member with major depressive disorder (p = 8.8×10−4), bipolar disorder (p = 0.027), or substance abuse problems (p = 1.9×10−6). A combined Predisposition for Subject Matter score based on these disorders was strongly predictive of subject matter interests (p = 9.6×10−8). Our results suggest that shared genetic (and perhaps environmental) factors may both predispose for heritable neuropsychiatric disorders and influence the development of intellectual interests.""

He cautions that it is a small sample survey.

Then there's this:


I chaired (and now is v-p) of the Autism Association for the North Shore of the St-Lawrence and I'm member of the Board of the Québec Autism Federation. ( most people ther are parents and "intervenants" i.e medical profesionnals, specialist in labour-market adaptation and so on)
Currently, autism is defined as going through a wide spectrum from the head-banging (the Kenner who bangs their heads literally from sensory overload) to the Aspies through the Not-Otherwhise-Specified. As we say in the trade, Kenner won't have neither carreer nor families, NOS will have a carreer but no family, and Aspies will have a carreer and maybe a family. Showing that interpersonnal relationship are even harder to manage than professional ones...
It is not an illnesss in the same sense as schizophrenia as it doesn't change your perception of reality. But in the criteria for the DSM, it cancause significant suffering. People rarely understand that criteria. It is the suffering you endure, not the condition per se.

I don't like using mental or neurological connotation to qualify sciences or learning models.
At the same time, we must realize that the scientific culture evolved toward an Aspie-like paradigm.
For a hunter-gatherer, the precise sub-species of zebra was rarely that important. It went into the "moving meat" category ( though most of these cultures have very good classification systems).

For an electrical engineer or a quantum physicist, the precise voltage is crucial. It means whether the machine works or not or is even deadly to use. Extreme attention to details that seems pedantic in some circumstances is crucial in others. In airplane or nuclear safety, hire an Aspie...

A few years ago, (I can't recall the exact cite),there was a study about various groups scoring on the Baron-Cohen scale. Women NT (neuro-typical) scored 15, men 17. But some sub-groups were markedly higher. Chemists at 21, physicists at 22, mathematicians 23 ( everybody surprised at such a low score!) and computer programmers at 24. Clinical intervention is needed at 34 as at this point the "advantages " of that mode of thinking are overwhelmed by the social diffculties. (I score 32).
The brain is capable of two things: learnind and rewiring.
You can learn what is natural to NT. It is known as pseudo-socialization. Consciously learning to breathe if you will. Being an Aspie is like being in show-bizz and politics. The important things are honesty and sincerity. If you can fake them , you've got it made...

The brain is plastic. In the same way that victims of cerebro-vascular accidents can use other parts of their brain to substitute for damaged one an autistic brain, given time and depending on the extent of the previous wiring ,can slowly " repair" itself.

And contrary to what one might think at first, an autist is not more able when teaching another one, apart from knowing what the student is going through. I have a few ones in my classes, One of them is often in my office. Not only because he needs explanations but his score is 44 and I am his "beacon of hope", a sign that you can have a meaningful life despite the difficulties to overcome. But 44 is a tough slog.

Jim Sentance: I first trained as a physicist before switching to economics. Among my five brothers, there are two physicists and one theoretical endocrinologist. Two of the three exhibit strong tendancies though not enough for a diagnosis. And there are a few cases amoong my relatives ( uncles and nephews, sons of said scientists)

Frances Woolley,

I agree that "illness" isn't the right word for it. Still, the rhetorical force of the term "post-autistic economics" was precisely why it had to be abandoned and replaced with the more blandly rhetorical "real world economics", which is about as pretentious as "True Money Supply".

Jim, interesting quote, but I'm not even going to go there.

Brian, great link, I particularly enjoy this part: "You can be highly perceptive with regard to social interaction, as a child or adolescent, and still be a spectacular social failure. This is particularly true if you’re bad at sports or nervous or weird-looking."

Jacques Rene, thanks for those observations. I'm slightly surprised by this remark: "an autist is not more able when teaching another one, apart from knowing what the student is going through." You don't think that perhaps, if your Baron-Cohen score was 17, you'd teach in a different way, one that is more readily accessible to neuro-typical students, and especially to the group who I call in my mind the "otherwise bright" students who seem highly intelligent and do well in all of their other subjects but *just don't get* economics?

Jacques Rene - since we're sharing, I'm a 25, but since it's pretty easy to figure out how the various questions are supposed to be coded, it's hard to know whether that's a true score, or what I want to be today.

What I meant about teaching autists is, from professionnal experience, I don't seem to make those students perform better than my NT colleagues, at least from results (pass-fail). Though, as the only economics teacher in the department (we have one of the smallest cegep in the province), it is difficult to make the comparison. Do I have a significant " beacon of hope" effect? It remains to be seen.

I like the explanation that the autism spectrum tends to be characterized by a weak "theory of mind." This is theoretically an innate human capability, to "read" other people's minds based on a variety of cues.

It's kind of ironic, given that the purpose of economics is to determine what drives human behavior -- how humans (individually and in aggregate) respond to incentives and restraints -- that it's come to be populated by those with lesser skills in perceiving those things (at least perceiving them in individuals).

This may explain why so much of economics *begins* by asserting armchair-adduced behavioral assumptions, rather than trying to determine them empirically.

It also highlights the irony of Kahneman (and Tversky) getting the Nobel, and being largely ignored thereafter by the mainstream.

Steve: "It's kind of ironic, given that the purpose of economics is to determine what drives human behavior -- how humans (individually and in aggregate) respond to incentives and restraints -- that it's come to be populated by those with lesser skills in perceiving those things (at least perceiving them in individuals)."

A typical person, when asked about the factors that determine the choice of a bottle of wine, will talk about things like the label, the country of origin, all sorts of things that are basically framing effects.

On the margin, all of these things are important - which is why corporations devote lots of resources to marketing and branding and working out what things to put on labels.

But that concern with things like labels and fashion etc etc can prevent the typical person from seeing underlying structures: prices matter. When fabric is expensive or scarce, for example, skirts and pants get skinny (think World War II, e.g.)

Yes, framing matters. A lot. But it's also valuable to strip it away and see the underlying structures. To focus on fundamental, elemental forces.

Is it possible to be aware of behavioural insights and also keep the good things from the mainstream? That I don't know.

Skirts and pants get skinny?
But in prosperous times, skirts get shorter while during recession helms falls. Maybe because prosperity is joyous and a good party needs conscience-altering substances and skimpy clothed girls ( "cigarettes , whisky and wild wild women") while despair is taken with the mood-altering stuff alone...

I took the quiz last night. Scored a 37, which is pretty far along the spectrum. The thing is, I don't think most people would see me as exhibiting much in the way of autistic tendencies. Sure, I would often rather spend time alone doing my own thing, can be obsessive and pattern seeking and go on about an issue that is on my mind, but am also fairly social, and can interact with people in a normal way. My wife, who is a doctor who has been exposed to some of this stuff, and she wouldn't have thought I would have scored so high. And, almost all of my answers were "slightly". Weird.

whitfit, I've spoken to a couple of friends about this post over the last day or so who also scored in the high 30s/low 40s range - much higher than Jacques Rene, say. It says as much about the test as it does about you.

whitfit: Those online tests are not real diagnostic tools. But they are within the range.
I don't know your age but given time, pseudo-socialization can work a lot. Moreover, what were formerly weirdos can now have productive life and be thrown into social situations where they learn to behave. And meet people.
In last week-end Montreal Gazette, a tourism writer told how she took two norwegians friends ( both mechanical engineers) to the Bombardier museum. They were fascinated by the sprocket mechanism (the real breakthrough in Ski-Doo design apparently). Two centuries ago, these two would have been isolated at the edge of the village. Now, they are a happy technical middle-class couple with children. Lots of us now walk free. The title of my presentation to psych and children education classes is "A real autist out of his cage."...

Math PhD here, and pretty all of my profs, both undergraduate and graduate, did the "back the class, face to the board" technique, only occassionally turning around to ask questions (I don't recall what my high school or grade school teachers did). It never bothered me. It wasn't until I started teaching that I discovered anyone would consider that inappropriate. I've tried to correct it, but I find it damn near impossible to talk about math without writing stuff on the board, and impossible to write on the board without looking at it.

I also have difficulty looking at people in the eye. I once asked someone which part of the face they look at when they talk to someone, because I wasn't sure where I was supposed to be looking when having a conversation. I don't remember their response, but after that, he asked me what part of the face I look at, to which responded "the elbows".

*pretty much all my profs

Randy E - thanks for sharing your experience - like the "elbows" comment!

One reason I prefer teaching less technical courses is that I can't do math and talk at the same time - and as you say, there's also the can't write on the board and face the audience at the same time problem too.

There are some high tech solutions, though - these kind of electronic note pad and other type things that allow you to write on your device while facing the class, and then your notes are projected onto the screen using powerpoint. Might be worth looking into....

One trick for faking eye contact while teaching is to find a spot on the wall at the back of the classroom and look at that.

Frances and Jacques - interesting to know how the test would correlate to clinical diagnoses.

Jacques - interesting point about socialization. I have definitely become more social/interactive throughout my life. My wife even believes I am now much better socially than I was 12 years ago when she met me (and I missed all of her flirtation cues! - she still complains she had to ask me out;). My wife is, by the way, a 7 on the test, and the difference does reflect our personalities well.

I do wonder if the various characteristics of the spectrum manifest on different dimensions such that shared traits would be considered in the spectrum for people with more of the dimensions emphasized that are easy to read outwardly (discomfort with looking in eyes, body language etc...) vs. some of the other traits, such as failure to easily deal with distractions, obsession, patter recognition etc...

whitfit: I am the same as I was 50 years ago. But I now behave differently. For me , its the same difference as between french and english, my native languages compared to spanish and italian, the most used of my foreign languages ( I no longer practice german and innu). The first two are like breathing, totally unconscious. The two others require deliberate efforts.

Something I remember ( the book is in some crate at home) : "Under the right circumstances, Aspergers can have normal affective life. But they are more likely to be seduced than being the seducer."

Baron-Cohen's hypothesis is that Aspie's brain are extremely male, possibly due to an extra dose of testosterone in utero.(That dose might be due to genetic or environmental factors) In the words of one of his female colleague: " An autist is a solitary and silent male who doesn't express emotions and has weird hobbies. Much like a husband."
Aspie are very often the strong silent type and are usually very protective. While some women wants an "express your emotions " type, the strong ,silent protector can be quite powerfully attractive.

Frances: I more and more use a computer while facing the class. The documents are projected in front of the class behind me but I don't lose as much eye contact as before. Still a struggle to face the students rather than the screen but if I keep on working after my retirement next year, I'll have it made in a few years.

I recall sitting in classrooms with professors in other academic fields, notably sociology, who exhibited similar behaviors. Back then, of course, nobody knew the term "Asperger's"; they were just referred to as "absent-minded".

Lets get something clear here, when people refer to mainstream economists as "autistic" we refer to their simplistic models they use over and over again to describe any phenomenon in the real world. In other words, its impaired with the real world, as they are in their own world. This describes Scott sumner and a great deal of other neoclassical economists to a great extent.

Deus-DJ "when people refer to mainstream economists as "autistic" we refer to their simplistic models they use over and over again to describe any phenomenon in the real world. "

Yes, that's the point that the PAEN and other groups have made.

The point of this post is somewhat different: some economists score in the high/very high/Asperger's range on the Baron-Cohen scale. This has implications for how we view interact with students/colleagues/etc.

When Sen said "economic man is a social moron" he was, like the PAEN folks, referring to the theoretical, abstract concept used in economic analysis.

But anyone who has spent time hanging around economics departments know that it's a pretty good description of many economists as well.

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