07 October, 2007

Now that we're all abnormal...

One of the more interesting things coming out of psychology & related sciences is what a potential disaster I am. I always knew I was abnormal, and now science is giving me all kinds of great words to make my problems sound exotic.

For instance, I was listening to American Public Media's program Speaking of Faith a week ago, and they were talking about autism, and..., uhm, what?

Why, yes, as a matter of fact. I did find it curious that a program whose identity is supposed to be,

public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.... prob[ing] the myriad ways in which religious impulses inform every aspect of life and culture, nationally and globally,
should be talking about autism. In the 15-20 minutes I listened to it, there was nary a word spoken about faith. But, hey! this is public radio, and by now I'm used to how public radio shows that have a particular "theme" bend over backwards to fit the producers' pet topics into that theme. Clergy do the same thing in their sermons; I did it at least once as a seminarian, and the pastor of the parish blasted me for it. It's a comfort to know that the geniuses at public radio are no better than I. Case in point: Marketplace, which has made an art form of finding links between "the marketplace" and pretty much any topic they dern well please. I listen anyway, because the stories are usually so well-done that they can't hear their own bias, although to me it's like a lighthouse on a cloudy night. It makes for great humor, and the stories are usually informative.

Anyway, during the 15-20 minutes I was listening, the guests explained to the host that autism appears to be linked to genes that help humans focus exclusively on one particular problem for a long period of time, filtering out pretty much anything not related to that problem. The male guest, who was married to the female guest, explained that the behavior of their son, who is autistic, reminds him of himself. When he concentrates on something deeply enough, he doesn't notice that his wife wants something that he considers less important.

Shock and indignation would follow at the man's insensitivity, but I do this all the time myself. This is why my wife will get to heaven long before I do.

The point sounded something like this: in autistic children these genes have a little too much sway, so the children focus on whatever interests them to the exclusion of everything else.

According to the guests, someone surveyed different families and discovered that autism is more common in families that produce a lot of mathematicians and engineers than in families that produce a lot of, say, English majors or businessmen. English majors and businessmen shouldn't breathe too heavy a sigh of relief, however, since their families tend to be prone to manic depression.

Now that we're all diagnosed with at least mild abnormalities, is there room left for what we used to call personality? or is that merely an illusion provoked by the interaction of different people's abnormalities, like so many balls on a billiard table? When do these tendencies excuse me from culpability, because they are beyond my ability to regulate, and when do they not? I suppose that's the line that defines a disorder. If you tell me that I am helpless in the face of my genetics, am I actually helpless? Obviously some people are even when you don't tell them, but what of the rest of us?

If my decision to pursue mathematics like a moth dancing around a flame was not really a decision, but a family affair (my father was an engineer, and he also tends to depart this world when thinking about something) then does that say anything about reforming education?

For example. If I remember a recent conversation with my parents properly, one of my first teachers thought I had a mental impediment. Why? because I was "too quiet". The fact that I could already read was immaterial; she assigned me to the lowest reading level. If a young child's reticence to express himself were interpreted as a sign of talent, rather than an omen of mental retardation, would the result be more mathematicians and scientists in America? or would we still have a glut of business majors buying and selling bad loans while simultaneously complaining that they can't find enough mathematicians to hire?

As I said, I only heard 15-20 minutes of it, and that was last week, and my memory is like, well, "a steel sieve", to borrow someone else's phrase, and you can see how frazzled, disorganized, and just plain silly my thoughts on the matter are. You can download the podcast from their website to confirm or correct everything I've said.

I'd do it myself, but I've been a little busy with circles, lines, determinants, and Gröbner bases. (It's a miracle that my wife can get me home from the office at all.)

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