Thursday, November 22, 2007

I recently stumbled across this interesting essay:

Gernsbacher, Morton Ann (2007)
A conspicuous absence of scientific leadership: the illusory epidemic of autism.

I think I'll add it to the list of references in my old blog article "What autism epidemic?"

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The (autistic) kids always come last in Australia

I wonder whether Jenny Brockie will invite the "parents" of starved Shellay Ward to talk on her TV show Insight about how hard it is to be a parent of an autistic child, and to explain why they killed their child. Jenny Brockie did this in a past episode of Insight, interviewing on her show an Australian mother who killed her autistic child, after giving her a warm welcome. Maybe they did it for the attention.

These "parents" should have been brought to the attention of the law years ago. It should be a punishable offence to give a child a ridiculous name. What the hell kind of name is "Shellay"? Shellaaaay? WTF? The absolute looniest names that I have ever heard of are the names of autistic kids. It seems pretty obvious that a sizeable proportion of the parents of children who receive an autism spectrum diagnosis are mentally ill, of limited intellectual capacity or something even worse. Every pediatric diagnosis of an autism spectrum conditon should be followed up with a full psychiatric screening with IQ testing of both of the child's biological parents (if they have custody of any children). This latest horrific case of another murdered autistic child is, I believe, a compelling argument that this needs to be done.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

You know where you can stick your garishly coloured letters?

I’m browsing through the Australia Post colour catalogue of Christmas gifts, and I spotted a group of educational toys for children, including a thing that is recommended for ages 2 to 5 which has buttons on it for all the letters of the alphabet, and I guess is computerized. For a moment I though it would be a top choice as a Christmas gift for the youngest member of our family, until I noticed that the letters were all coloured in a range of different colours, and the thing as a whole is quite revolting to look at due to the ugly colours used in it and the way the colours just don’t work together. It looks as though it was designed by someone who either doesn’t care what it looks like, is colour-blind or has Aesthetic Deficit Disorder.

There are two reasons why I hate the colours used in this toy. If our toddler has the coloured letters type of synaesthesia, like three other members of our family, then the bright and different colours of the letters on the keys of this toy may conflict with the colours that our child already has in their head. I’d much prefer that the letters were all the same neutral colour (such as black). After all, it is the shapes and sounds of the letters of the alphabet that young children are supposed to be learning, not the (arbitrary) colours of the letters. I don’t have a problem with kids’ books or toys being brightly coloured (I adore the stunningly coloured Meg and Mog kids’ books), but I wish toy designers would resist the urge to colour the actual letters and numbers. I know that some people believe that coloured letter synaesthesia is caused by children’s toys that have differently coloured letters. This simply isn’t true. On the same page of the catalogue there are five other educational toys advertised which appear to have specific colours associated with specific numbers or letters. I won’t be buying any of these toys.

The other reason why I won’t be buying that toy is that it is both garish and ugly due to the colours. It combines an aggressive red with insipid, annoying blue and green and pink, colours that aren’t pale enough to be pretty pastel, but aren’t vibrant enough to compete with the loud red. The toy isn’t neutrally-coloured enough to not catch the eye, and it is so ugly that I wish I couldn’t see it. Sadly this toy is typical of children’s toys. There seems to be an unwritten law that children’s toys must be brightly coloured in a range of different colours. Black, white, grey, brown and beige are shunned. Subtle and mixed colours are not on. Anything except bright primary and (if you must) secondary colours appears to be considered too much of an intellectual challenge for young children to process mentally. Kiddies can’t understand turquoise. Turquoise is developmentally inappropriate, and so are gunmetal grey, ice blue, vermillion and yellow ochre. We live in a world that is designed to be appropriate for the most ordinary masses, and even the colours of kids’ toys are dumbed-down in the most patronizing way.

Why do kids’ toys need to be brightly coloured anyway? I had a look at the packaging of a Fischer-Price toy to try to find out. Fischer-Price toys have a rather horrible uniform look about them (bright simplistic colours on white mostly), and they are obviously designed according to some rigid set of corporate rules governing colouration. On the box it said something about the bright colours helping the child’s development. I’m not aware of a shred of scientific evidence that young children need to have garishly coloured toys for the optimal or normal development of their brain or senses. In fact, I think subtle and interesting colours, and interesting combinations of colours might be better for the education of the senses, if such a thing really ever happens. Do you know of any person who is colour-blind due to a lack of access to aggressively-coloured toys in childhood or infancy? Colour-blindness is caused by genes, as far as I know, and so is synaesthesia.
The dark side of theory of mind?

“Our reputation-conscious ancestors would have experienced a pervasive feeling of being watched and judged, he says, which they would readily have attributed to supernatural sources since the cognitive system underlying theory of mind also seeks to attribute intentionality and meaning, even where there is none.”

That is an excerpt from a summary of a theory about religion from Jesse Bering at the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University in Belfast. The quote is from a story by Helen Phillips in New Scientist “Is God good?” in the September 1 2007 issue, number 2619, pages 32-36. Link to story online:

I’m not so sure that I would want to have a mind that contains a “theory of mind” module that seeks to attribute intentionality and meaning even where there is none. I think there’s a word for such a state of mind; isn’t it “delusion”?
If the “cognitive system underlying theory of mind” is also the neurological basis of religious belief or religious sentiment, then I (an atheist) am very glad that I don’t (apparently) have one.

Monday, November 05, 2007

“Hypocrisy in search of social acceptance erodes your self-respect.” - James Watson quoted in New Scientist.

That was a quote that caught my eye. Here are some more quotes that have caught my eye on various occasions:

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Born to Offend: characteristics shared by Nobel Prize winners James Watson and the late William Shockley

(I have written about James Watson at length in this article:

Both co-winners of Nobel Prizes awarded for discoveries that have changed the world that we live in (Watson was a member of the team that discovered the structure of DNA and Shockley was a co-inventor of the transistor)

Both men of science

Both atheists

Both thought to be/have been racists because of comments made about the mental capabilities of black people with African heritage

Both linked in some way with the autism spectrum; Watson apparently has an autist in his family and Shockley has been identified as a “high systemizer” and “low empathizer” by one of the world’s leading experts on autism

Both invited to be sperm donors with the now defunct sperm bank “The Repository for Germinal Choice” popularly known as the “Nobel Prize Sperm Bank” (Shockley publicly acknowledged that he donated)

Both have been described as advocates of eugenics

Both concerned about the issue of stupidity in humans

Both made many enemies when expressing opinions and paid a price for this (Watson was recently suspended from a position at a research laboratory following a controversy, and according to legend Shockley’s effigy was burned in a protest by university students)

Both married with offspring

References and further reading
Aldhous, Peter (2007) DNA’s messengers. New Scientist. October 20th 2007. number 2626. p.55 – 59.

Baron-Cohen, Simon (2003) The essential difference. Penguin Books.

BBC News (2007) Lab suspends DNA pioneer Watson. BBC News. October 19th 2007.

Manier, Jeremy (2007) Peers horrified by famed scientist’s race remarks. October 19th 2007.,0,4157889.story?coll=chi_mezz
[Watson and Shockley both mentioned in story]

Plotz, David (2005) The genius factory: unravelling the mysteries of the Nobel Prize sperm bank. Simon & Schuster UK. 2005.

Randerson, James (2007) Race row professor resigns from laboratory post. Guardian Unlimited. October 26th 2007.

Sternberg, Robert J. (2007) Race and intelligence: not a case of black and white. New Scientist. October 27th 2007, number 2627.
[Watson and Shockley compared in this article]

Wade, Nicholas (2007) DNA pioneer Watson gets own genome map. International Herald Tribune: Americas. June 1st 2007.

copyright Lili Marlene 2007