Who’s the Scientist Here?

My friend Ariane has written a post about her reaction to being attacked by someone who didn’t agree with her writing. If you know Ariane or have benefited from reading her blog, please go there and place a supporting comment. I did. I think we all know how traumatizing it is to be criticized in a hateful manner.

As the mother of an autistic girl, Ariane has tried very hard to discover what is helpful to her daughter Emma and what is not. Her blog has documented some of her struggles; her mistakes as well as her triumphs. She is very forthright and honest about her efforts, and I have learned much from her.

From my perspective, where she has been successful, it has been because she has tried with all her might to understand how Emma sees the world. This is rare, in my experience. Many so-called “experts” on autism tell us that autistic people lack a “theory of mind” or the ability to understand how another person might view the world. This is, for the most part, wrong, in my opinion. It seems to me it is more likely to be true that a neurotypical person is unable to understand how the autistic minds works. Ariane is one of the exceptions.

I have recently read a wonderful book that was published this year by Random House called simply Subliminal. In this book, the author Leonard Mlodinow (a theoretical physicist by training) takes us on a journey through the unconscious mind. In his final chapter entitled “Self” he explores some topics that are relevant here. The basic theme of the chapter is that we all have an inflated view of our own abilities, and that’s usually a good thing, because it keeps us going through times of adversity.

Overestimating our own capabilities and understanding can also have a downside, if we take ourselves too seriously, as it sounds like Ariane’s attacker did. Mlodinow provides a nice metaphor here. [As an aside, I find it amusing that the name of Jonathan Haidt appears here, since I recently wrote a piece that included a not entirely favorable reference to him — see for yourself!]

As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt put it, there are two ways to get at the truth: the way of the scientist and the way of the lawyer. Scientists gather evidence, look for regularities, form theories explaining their observations, and test them. Attorneys begin with a conclusion they want to convince others of and then seek evidence that supports it, while also attempting to discredit evidence that doesn’t.

As it turns out, the brain is a decent scientist but an absolutely outstanding lawyer.

The name given to the part of the brain that acts like a lawyer is “motivated reasoning” and this occurs when we have a stake in the outcome. Different regions of the brain come into play when we act as the scientist, carrying out cold, objective analysis of data in which we have no personal interest. A few years ago, I was a subject in a brain study, using fMRI, at MIT, which involved a bunch of value-laden questions (like, how do you feel about your mother? or one of those ethical dilemmas we all learn about in Philosophy 101). I’m assuming they were using my autistic brain to see if the same regions lit up as would do so in a neurotypical brain. My guess is the answer is affirmative, but I really need to follow up and see if they published anything based on that study.

One of the amusing studies that Mlodinow cites to illustrate how we believe what we want to believe is a survey in Britain that found that “half the population believes in heaven, but only about a quarter believes in hell.” This also comes up in politics, of course, or in discussing issues such as climate change. Says Mlodinow:

… through motivated reasoning each side finds ways to justify its favored conclusion and discredit the other, while maintaining a belief in its own objectivity.”

Beware the lawyers in scientific lab coats. Be aware, too, that we are all guilty of the same errors. We can’t help it. Our unconscious minds (of which, by definition, we are unaware) make us do it. A good dollup of humility is an essential ingredient to any productive discussion about a disagreement.

That is one of the aspects of Ariane’s post that makes it so poignant. She is being respectful, and is willing to admit to some self-doubt. Evidently, her opponent is not. Says Ariane:

One of the things I have learned over the years is that when someone attacks, my knee jerk response is to attack back, but this never actually does anything to further the conversation, encourage discussion or an exchange of ideas.  Nothing changes when two people angrily engage in self-righteous, self-justified shouting matches.

Amen to that, Ariane. Thank you for your balance, your courtesy, and your constant good cheer.

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