Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Another Example of Bias in Science and the News

I'll also have to admit that neuroscience isn't my area of expertise... or even an area of particular interest for me (beyond the subfield of cognitive neuroscience, which is of interest to me to the extent to which it provides useful evidence for theories in cognitive psychology). This isn't anything against the field -- I just don't personally enjoy reading these studies nearly as much as I do other sorts.

That taken care of, a recent MSNBC piece contains the following quote from an autism researcher whose name they didn't spell (but I very strongly suspect, based on my knowledge of autism researchers, the pronunciation given to the researcher's name, and his stated institutional affiliation to be Dr. Eric Courchesne -- please correct me if I'm mistaken):

We discovered that at birth the brain is near-normal in size, but by about twelve months of age the brain has grown too large, too fast, which suggests that mechanisms that regulate how the brain grows have been derailed in this disorder.

I pulled this specific quote because it's an excellent demonstration of a peculiar form of normocentric bias that pervades much of the autism world. There are a number of other problems with it, but for now I just want to focus on that one. It's worth noting that there are a number of other spectacularly problematic quotes in the piece, however.

I was going to go on a rather long rant about the subject, but then I realized that someone else had already done a pretty spectacular job of highlighting the problem. In essence, he's assuming that there's a single, "good" course of brain development (the one that most children show) and that all deviations from this course must be harmful. This is not the case.

Another case of "abnormal" growth that I can point to is in the hippocampi of London taxi drivers, a direct result (as far as we can tell) of the fact that they have to memorize a simply absurd amount of information regarding the layout of a pretty large and chaotic city... unless they navigate by GPS, and those that do don't show the "abnormal" growth I'm talking about.

Given the known functions of the hippocampus, this shouldn't be too surprising.

So I won't deny that the patterns of growth the doctor is talking about are interesting. I do think, however, that his interpretation is completely inaccurate and highly biased. If anything, I think the reports he's citing are evidence in support of the EPF model of autism... but we'd need further research to get something directly citable (without a lot of interpretation and discussion) as evidence in a primary paper on the subject.

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