I was reading Lawrence M. Krauss’s Fear of Physics during my last migraine (as you do), and I realized modern autism nonsense has a relativity problem. It goes like this:
1.) Claim: “Autistic people lack theory of mind. This is why they are bad at humanities-related things, like relationships and literature.”
2.) Claim: “Autistic people are unusually good at science-related things, like physics.”
Claim 1, when it is based on anything at all, is usually based on things like Baron-Cohen et al’s results in administering the Sally-Anne test to autistic children (handy infographic, minimal science at the link). I don’t know what folk nonsense Claim 2 is based on.
Baron-Cohen et al’s Sally-Anne results, and their interpretation in cognitive theories of literature and in popular conversation to things like Claim 1, serves as a particularly good illustration of what I’m calling the “autism rhetoric relativity problem.” The Sally-Anne test of “theory of mind” is a test that is less about reading other people’s “thoughts” or emotional states correctly as it is about correctly interpreting the viewpoints of various observers. Getting the final question correct depends on being able to predict what Sally did or did not physically view relative to Anne, the marble, the box, and the basket. In fact, to get the correct answer at all, one must abstract out information considered by the test to be irrelevant, such as any previous understandings between Anne and Sally regarding the marble.
The practice of physics tends to demand that physicists get good at (among others) two things: (1) grasping concepts like “what changes when we observe this physical phenomenon from some other point?” and (2) abstracting out irrelevant information. In fact, one might argue – and as a humanities scholar I am going to argue – that these skills are even more important for physics than they are for the humanities. Ergo, if the Sally-Anne test “proves” Claim 1 is true, it also “proves” that Claim 2 is false. A test that “proves” autistic people suck at relative positioning and ignoring irrelevances also “proves” that autistic people suck at physics, because relative positioning and ignoring irrelevancies are exactly the things that make physics work.
The Spherical Cow in the Room
The reason Claim 1 and Claim 2 can so happily coexist in the popular imagination, of course, is that the popular imagination doesn’t see that the “theory of mind” the Sally-Anne test-takers are thought not to possess is neither the ability to consider relative physical position (important in physics) nor the ability to predict other people’s thought-feelings (important in the humanities). It’s actually a hybrid.
The hybrid is summed up pretty well in my mention above of “abstracting out irrelevancies” in order to arrive at the “right” answer: that Sally is going to assume the marble hasn’t moved from the box while she’s been out. The skill, “abstract out irrelevancies,” is crucial to solving any basic problem in physics. The answer it demands in this context, however, is essentially a humanities matter – because the “irrelevancies” in question are human differences. They’re questions of agreements, social contracts, relationships, communication, and assumptions; they all have to do with what Sally knows about Anne (“she steals a marble every chance she gets”), what Sally thinks she knows about Anne (“she’ll leave my marble where she found it”), what Sally thinks Anne knows about Sally (“she thinks I won’t mind if she takes my marble”), and so on.
My hypothesis is that autistic test-takers get tripped up at this point not because we are unusually bad at abstracting out irrelevancies. Rather, we struggle with it when we do not default to the assumption that human differences are irrelevant – an especially difficult default when all our lives we have been constantly reminded that our human differences are deeply and problematically relevant, that other people think our differences are relevant, that we are expected to account for the fact that other people think our differences are relevant (“eye contact is important because it makes other people feel more comfortable”), etc.
I assert that these “irrelevancies” – ironically, the very same irrelevancies that social contact demands we consider relevant – are what make the Sally-Anne question fundamentally unanswerable. Not all the facts required are in evidence.
The ability to array the human differences in a question, sort them, and target the “relevant but missing” pieces is what has made me a good lawyer, and it has been invaluable to my study of literature. I can’t say what it might have done for me in a career in physics. I can say that, insofar as we think the Sally-Anne test teaches us anything at all about any autistic person’s potential career path, we’re on the wrong path.