Feynman on the Spectrum

April 9, 2007

I wanted to write about something else, but I feel compelled to write about this. A user named PhilCommander2 posted a video on YouTube (http://www youtube.com/watch?v=jRHizP9HwZM – put a dot between the ‘www’ and ‘youtube’ when you use the URL) advocating the use of nutritional supplements and special diets for treating autism.

What irritated me about his presentation was his appropriation of Richard Feynman’s name for his cause. I never knew Feynman except through his works and through talking to people who knew him, but I can be certain that were he alive to see this video, he would have been appalled by it.

Feynman was well known for a lot of things, such as his work on the Manhattan Project and his efforts to unravel quantum electrodynamics (for which he received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1965). What I want to cite here is a speech that he gave to the 1974 graduating class at Caltech, often referred to as “Cargo-Cult Science”. (See Wikipedia:Cargo Cult Science and “Cargo Cult Science” (text).)

In a nutshell, Feynman was expressing his frustration with people who use the trappings of science in order to do their research, but who fail to use anything close to the scientific method in order to do so. To illustrate his point, he offered the example of the cargo cults that arose in New Guinea and the South Pacific after the Second World War.

Briefly put, during the War, the United States Military had established bases on many of the islands of the South Pacific in order to prosecute the war against the Japanese. The people living on these islands were very impressed by the amount of supplies (“cargo”) brought in by ship and plane. When the War ended, so did the cargo.

Quite naturally, they wanted the cargo to keep flowing. Instead of doing something productive so that they would have money to trade for cargo, many of these people went ahead and fashioned airstrips and port facilities out of whatever materials they had on hand. A “control tower” would be built of bamboo and wood, and a man would sit inside with a pair of “headphones” made from a coconut. Others would wear “uniforms” styled after the soldiers and marines they saw consuming the cargo. All the while, they would wait for the airplanes and ships to arrive, filled with wonderful cargo.

Feynman considered many people in the social sciences to be practitioners of “cargo cult science”. He accused them of using sloppy methodologies and forming half-baked theories that would not stand up to rigorous inspection. He held a particular scorn for psychology, considering them to be a bunch of quacks.

It should be noted that in the 1970s, Feynman did pay frequent visits to the Esalen Institute. He did think that some of the things they promoted were a bit silly, but for the most part, they were harmless cranks who were not hurting anyone. He was mostly attracted by the seminars they sponsored, which many bright people from all walks of life attended. The people there had an honest curiosity about his work and he felt comfortable and relaxed around them. The institute in is Big Sur, California and the surroundings are absolutely spectacular. If you ever have an opportunity to visit, by all means do so.

Shortly after he won the Nobel prize, a book editor tried to solicit Feynman’s interest in being included in a book about Jewish Nobelists. Feynman came from a Jewish background, but by this time, he thought of himself an atheist (or at the very least agnostic) and did not consider Judaism as part of his identity. He politely turned her down, explaining that he had stopped subscribing to Jewish religious views when he was thirteen.

The editor persisted in trying to get Feynman to contribute to her book. Feynman finally had to explain to her that even a pro-semetic book like the one she wanted to publish was an exercise in prejudice, since Jews did not have a monopoly on intelligence, virtue or wisdom. (See pages 234-236 of Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman (2005) Basic Books, ed. Michelle Feynman.)

In 1986, NASA asked Feynman to serve on the Rogers Commision, the board looking into the Space Shuttle Challenger accident. The NASA bureaucrats offered plenty of technical gobbledygook, presumably to confuse the commissioners and deflect their investigation away from errors committed by management. Feynman cut straight to the heart of the matter, the O-rings used to seal the rocket motors, and gave a demonstration of how and why they failed. His report can be found here.

After seeing the video and knowing a little about Feynman’s character, I hope you can see why I am so upset about this. Nutritional supplements might not necessarily cause any harm, but there is absolutely no evidence that they will cure autism. None. If someone came and made the claim that nutritional supplements can cure autism, Feynman would have been the first to want to know how this was discovered. Was a randomized, double-blind experiment performed? Were other factors investigated? How were the data collected and analyzed?

It would appear that the research behind this theory lacked any sort of rigor. I am backed up in this by a report in the April 2007 issue of Scientific American (The Autism Diet, p. 32). The article states that

Unfortunately, the initial studies of diets that eliminate gluten and casein were badly flawed. Although half a dozen research groups reported improvements in behavior and cognition in autistic children after several months on the elimination diets, nearly all the studies lacked control subjects, individuals who continued to digest the suspect proteins. Because the researchers did not compare the restricted-diet children with a control group, they could not specify whether the behavioral and cognitive gains actually resulted from the diets, from the children’s maturation, or from other therapies conducted at the same time.

There you have it. There are a number of new studies being conducted at the University of California Davis, the University of Rochester and the University of Pittsburgh’s Medical School that will be using a more scientifically rigorous methodology; the results will be available sometime in the Spring of 2008.

I find it a bit upsetting that many parents do not want to enroll their children into these studies, because they fear that their kids will be part of the control group. Robin Hansen at UC Davis wanted to have 60 subjects for her study, but she has to settle for having 30. This will make it harder for her research to survive the scrutiny of the peer-review process, since fewer subjects will make it more likely that an anomoly will skew her statistics.

As far as Feynman himself is concerned, I have no idea if he had autism or asperger syndrome; based on what I know about him, I doubt that he did. He is a hero to me and he is still very much alive in the memories of the people who knew him and loved him. Aside from being brilliant, Feynman was famous for his skepticism and for his honesty. Videos like the one PhilCommander2 made do nothing but dishonor his memory.

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Asperger Syndrome and Me

April 7, 2007

Recently, I have come to the realization that I have Asperger Syndrome. It is something that I have suspected about myself ever since I first heard about it in the late 1990s. In the past few months, I have done some research on the subject and I know now that it describes me.

Of course, a self diagnosis should be taken with a grain of salt, since it is hard to be objective about oneself. Feynman once noted that a person’s biggest blind spot can be about himself. Still, I can recall many things about my childhood and my parents have filled in a few gaps.

  1. When I was a toddler, I had an obsession with stop signs. To my two-year-old self, there was something extremely compelling about these bright red octogonal objects that were everywhere.
  2. From an early age, I was able to focus my thoughts and shut out the rest of the world. I could sit for hours on end playing with Legos or drawing abstract figures on a pad of paper.
  3. I was a “late talker”. I spoke, but very infrequently, until I was about five. When my mother asked me why I was suddenly being very talkative, I told her that I didn’t anything to say.
  4. On the other hand, I was reading at a very early age. I remember reading through a paperback book, Johnathan Livingston Seagull when I was four. At the time, of course, I thought that the book was about these birds that talked to each other and that one of them wanted to fly really really high. Today, I know it’s a pretentious fairy tale for hippies that supposedly offers some deep spiritual lesson.
  5. I did well in school, but I was always more interested in learning stuff on my own rather than from a schoolteacher in a classroom. Homeschooling was not really an option for my family in the 1970s. I remember my third grade teacher complained in my progress report that I was more interested in sitting in a corner reading from an encyclopedia than in paying attention to what she was saying.

These are just a few examples of my behavior. I will be turning 40 this month. I have a lot of the same AS qualities today that I had when I was five. The notion that AS is a “children’s disorder” is a lot of nonsense, and I am living proof.

A lot of people do go out and get a professional diagnosis of AS, but I do not see how such a thing would help me.

  1. I do not plan on applying for benefits from the government. I have never needed them before.
  2. There has been some speculation in the AS community that a positive diagnosis will end up in my “permanent record” and will be entered into some sort of database. I doubt that it will, but why take chances?
  3. I reject the notion that there is some sort of hierarchy in the AS community where some people who are “officially diagnosed” with AS look down on those who are self-diagnosed as mere poseurs. Is there an official laminated card that I can carry around in my wallet that I can use to prove to others that I am an “official aspie”? It is a silly idea that deserves to be mocked.

Some aspies complain that they have been discriminated against by so-called “normals”. I suppose I have been in the past. I do not have a good feeling for people, which has led to misunderstandings. I loathe office politics, which means that I may have missed out on some career opportunities. Because I come across as something of an odd duck to many people, they do not think of me as being “trustworthy”.

On the other hand, my AS has helped me in many ways. I can easily concentrate on something for a long time, which has helped me a lot in my academic work. I have the ability to see small details that others miss and I can absorb new information and integrate it in my mind very quickly, which are important abilities in my chosen profession, computer software design.

AS did not prevent me from getting into and graduating from MIT with a degree in physics. The physics program there is one of the most rigorous ones offered, so having AS is actually a big help. A lot of my classmates and professors probably had it, but this was back before AS was widely known. Back then, we simply considered ourselves to be eccentric and we were very proud of being so.

There has been a lot of loose talk about finding a “cure” for AS. Some researchers are developing a genetic test that parents can use to decide whether they want to abort a fetus that may have a disposition for AS. These developments would be extremely tragic.

The world needs people with AS. Aspies are the ones who developed the Internet and designed the rockets that sent men to the moon. If it were up to the so-called “neurotypical” (commonly referred to as NTs) people to invent the technologies that run our society, they would be having meetings all the time and putting together feasibility studies and we all would still be riding around on horses and communicating via smoke signals. (Read Ayn Rand’s book Anthem to see what I mean.)

But the world also needs NTs as well. After all, someone needs to be around to sell us insurance and do stand-up comedy. I could never do either of those things; gladhanding people and making small talk in order to sell someone something would take up too much psychic energy. So I am glad that there are people who can do it.

I have AS, and I am happy with who I am. I do not want to be “cured”. It is part of who I am and I cannot imagine being anything else.

Transliteration, Part I

March 20, 2007

This morning, I was going through the discussion thread concerning the film 300 on Reddit. A contributer wanted to correct someone on the spelling of the word “Thermopilae”, insisting that it should be spelled “Thermopylae”. My response to him was that it was a trivial argument, since the word was originally rendered in the Greek alphabet, as Θερμοπύλαι. The “πύ” sound could be read as either “pi” or “py”, depending on one’s mood.

This got me thinking. Is there a best way to transliterate words expressed in different languages and writing systems into English and the Latin alphabet? Or, if one wished to use an English word in another language, how could it be done in a way that is both understandable and faithful to the original English pronunciation?

Consider Russian. The author of War and Peace is called Лев Толсто́й in his native language. Transliterating this into the Latin alphabet would yield “Lev Tolstoi”. Lovers of literature in the English-speaking world know him as “Leo Tolstoy”. The capital of Russia is called Москва (Moskva) but English-speakers call the city “Moscow”. Why did this happen?

Sometimes, a word will have a sound that does not exist in English. For example, both Hebrew and Yiddish have a consonant that is may be described as a sort of cough. In English, we represent it with a “ch” or an “h”, but this does not do a good job of conveying this sound. Words like “Channukah” or “Chutzpah” serve as shibboleths (another word that comes to us from the Hebrew), letting the listener know how well the speaker understands Yiddish or Hebrew.

Another Semitic language, Arabic, poses problems. I have seen the last name of the leader of Libya expressed as “Gaddafi”, “Khaddafy”, “Qaddafi” and even “Qadhdhafi”. The U.S. State Department uses “Qadhafi”, while the Associated Press and CNN use “Gadhafi”. I was hoping for some guidance from the Libyan government, but alas, they are as inconsistent as we Westerners can be. The Leader responded to a letter from a class of Minnesota schoolchildren in 1986, signing his letter with a “el-Gadhafi”. He entered the Internet age by setting up a website at www.algathafi.org. Altogether, there are nearly 40 different variations of his name in English.

Osama bin Laden seems to be having an easier time of it. He only has to deal with one alternative spelling of his first name. The FBI most-wanted list has him named as “Usama bin Laden”. It is unlikely, however, that he would be able to dodge a warrant for his arrest by claiming that they spelled his name wrong.

Part II will explore English words that have been brought over to other languages.

Why call this blog the Republican Gadfly?

March 19, 2007

Back in 2005, I was attending a party at my old college. In the course of conversation with one of my fellow alums, he described me as being the house “Republican Gadfly” back in the day.

You must understand that I was living in Senior House, the so-called “hippie dorm” at MIT. (Bexley Hall also claims this distinction.) At the time, I wasn’t simply right-wing, I was flaming right-wing. A lot of my fellow residents were fairly mystified as to why I was living there; they may have thought that Baker House or one of the fraternities would have been a better fit for me. Even so, I actually liked living there. I found it to be very stimulating.

So thank you Aaron, for giving me a good name for this blog.