The Prof put on the spot - a recent interview with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen about his latest book

Kim Wombles has done a long and interesting email interview with the controversial Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor at Cambridge and a Director of the powerful and prestigious Autism Research Centre.  This interview has been published at Science 2.0, which I’d never known about till now, and the interview has provoked many interesting comments.

I’m disappointed that Kim didn’t question the professor about his disgraceful misrepresentation of people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, but I’m glad that some people did raise this point in some interesting comments following the article.  Kim did get to put lots of other good and important questions to Baron-Cohen, including this one:

“The online autism community is very vocal (and fairly well in agreement, considering the wide divides usually tearing it apart) that you are incorrect in your belief that autistic people lack empathy (and theory of mind).  How do you respond to that charge and what evidence do you have that people with ASDs have zero empathy?”

The prof responded with that old chestnut about us lucky autistics who can read and write and use the internet not being representative of really, genuinely, fully autistic, disabled people.  We are supposed to go away and be quiet and feel grateful for what we have and feel ashamed that we dare to call ourselves autistic, despite the fact that we score well within autistic territory in the scoring guides to the many questionnaires that the professor has created that supposedly identify autism.  But wouldn’t real, genuinely disabled autistics be too disabled to read and complete these autism diagnosis questionniares?  Well, why did the prof create them, then?  This is confusing!

Then the professor went on to explain how autistic kiddies fail some supposed tests of “theory of mind” that are used by academics in research studies, as though this has any direct relevance to the popular, non-academic, real life conceptions of what empathy means.

Then, the professor pulled out the Dunning-Kruger Effect as an explanation of why the autistic community has rejected the characterization of autistics as devoid of empathy, without explicitly mentioning the name of this effect.  We are too dumb to know how dumb we are.  This effect is a real phenomenon, but does it apply to autistics and empathy?  Baron-Cohen asserts that people can be a poor judge of their own level of empathy; “When it comes to empathy, self-report is highly unreliable.  For this reason, I would always advise that results from the questionnaires like the EQ (the self-report version) should be corroborated by other independent sources of evidence.” Makes me wonder what the point of the EQ is then.  I’ve been wondering about this for many years, as I’ve done this questionnaire quite a few times over, and my score varies wildly according to what is going on in my social life at the time.  One has to question the academic credibility of any researcher who would offer up such an unreliable instrument for serious consideration by the world of science.  Is the problem a lack of ability to estimate my own quotient of empathy, or is the problem really the idea that empathy is a thing that can be possessed and measured, like measuring a cup-full of sugar?  I’m got a serious suspicion that the Dunning-Kruger Effect, or maybe some good old-fashioned self-delusion is in effect when the prof makes an estimation of his own powers of empathy.

Then, the professor contradicted his own categorization of autistics as “zero empathy” people and admitted that maybe some autistic people have some empathy, and maybe some autistic people have lots of affective/emotional empathy and maybe some autistics can systemize their way to having an above-average standard of morals.  With all this back-pedalling I’m sure the professor’s leg muscles must be aching still.  Did you notice how the professor did not resort to citing research study findings in his many attempts to answer this most important question?  It is the kind of thing that I’d have expected a Cambridge professor to do.

This is an exercise in what I’d call giving the interviewee enough rope with which to hang himself.  This type of public hanging is an ugly, prolonged, tortuous thing to witness, but also strangely compelling.  It is worth a read, as are the most fascinating journal papers that K. Wombles has listed at the end of the interview.  Many thanks, Kim!

An Interview With Simon Baron-Cohen On Zero-Empathy, Autism, And Accountability
By Kim Wombles
Science 2.0
June 4th 2011.

Lili Marlene blogs at Incorrect Pleasures.

The Prof put on the spot appears here by permission.

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

on 06/21/11 in Autism, featured | 7 Comments | Read More

Comments (7)


  1. Catana says:

    Baron-Cohen will eventually (a very long eventually, probably) be discredited. Nothing the autistic community has to say will have any effect on this man’s reputation, unfortunately. It will take someone with solid research credentials to refute him. There’s no point in any of us holding our breath while we’re waiting.

  2. Lili Marlene says:

    I’ve got to disagree with you Catana, when you state that we have no effect. I believe we do.

    A lone activist can have an impact. I’ve found that in various controversies if you are basically right, speaking out even when others don’t can start something.

    You wrote:
    “It will take someone with solid research credentials to refute him.”
    I’ve found that some of the most esteemed academics have feet of clay. Solid research credentials can amount to nothing under close impartial scrutiny. Don’t be intimidated by fancy academic titles. A few years ago I discovered that another well-known “expert” on Asperger syndrome was using an academic title that he had no right to use. Just recently I’ve been astounded to find that a very highly influential and respected professor of psychiatry in Australia has been failing to declare many conflicts of interest in journal papers many times over. Amazing and appalling! Professors aren’t Gods, Catana.

  3. SBC—closet autie. Autiephobic. Working out his own shit, trying to scientologize his existence.

    Bad Autie….bad!bad!

    Am I too simple?

  4. Lili Marlene says:

    I really don’t see that. Sure he does seem to be very credulous with some of the stories that he apparently believes, and has retold in his book, but is that really an autistic trait?

  5. He’s naive, he’s a systemitizer…and, well, look at the guy. His head is the size of a pumpkin. Isn’t macrocephaly sometimes equated with autism?

    I get the feeling in his personal life he is sometimes accused of being rude and having no sense of humor…but maybe that’s just the impression I get in my own little world that I live in…

    Uta Frith says we all are a little autistic, eh?

  6. Lili Marlene says:

    “….we all are a little autistic, eh?”

    With respect, no. I don’t care if Uta Frith says it, it’s still rubbish. Some people are a little bit autistic but certainly not everyone. I think this type of statement confuses occasional social awkwardness or shyness or social phobia with autism. Different things.

  7. To the present vanguard of all things autism, social awkwardness, shyness, and social phobia are all suspect, Uta included.

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