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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Scientists as poor communicators? Does Aspergers' Syndrome Contribute?

This will be a slightly different post than I usually place here on my website, but it addresses something that has been in my mind for several months and am finally getting around to sharing about it here.

Late last summer a book called Don't Be Such a Scientist was published by Randy Olson. At the time I received it, I only skimmed it briefly as my father had just passed away.

Which means, given the personal circumstances, I did not review it. It received mixed reviews from many science communicators, some saying it is a bit harsh on the scientists. I personally know many great scientists who are fabulous communicators, even able to relay their work to the general public, but I also know many who continually speak above other's heads, so immersed in their topic they forget about the importance of sharing their ideas and findings in a way that the general public will appreciate.

In fact, the fabulous Jonah Lehrer (who is probably the best sport in the world for being filmed with a bevy of Barbies!) and I had a short discussion about science communication recently for Bora Zivkovic's Blog Around The Clock

How is all of this related to Aspergers' Syndrome? I have a child who was considered to be on the autistic spectrum. She is doing well at this point thanks to the early intervention and diligence to get her all the help she needed while she was quite young. The person she is now is compentent and thoughtful. I watch as she consciously analyzes situations (vs. many of us who intuitively interpret facial expressions and "get" idioms) so she can relate to much more supposedly socially adept individuals.

In my research to understand how to best help her get the skills she needed, I went to conferences featuring the biggest names in the Autism and Asperger's world, notably Temple Grandin, Lianne Holliday Willey, Carol Gray and Tony Attwood. Asperger's is characterized by many traits, and these are variable from person to person, but some of the obvious ones include having restrictive interests and difficulties in social situations and communication. You can learn more here

As I listened to Tony Attwood, one of the foremost experts in Asperger's syndrome, I recall a very humorously delivered comment about the prevalence of Asperger's syndrome amongst faculty members at colleges and universities. This is because, historically, faculty members are generally rewarded for a narrow focus and academia tolerates eccentricity in exchange for their intellectual talents. Tony has some documentation that there is a high percentage of scientists and mathematicians having Aspergers vs members of the general population.

Paul Dirac, the great British theoretician in the field of Quantum Mechanics seemed to display many traits of someone on the autistic spectrum, as speculated by Graham Farmelo in his wonderful book about Dirac called The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac. I reviewed it here.

(Here is a list of good and bad jobs for people on the autistic spectrum by Temple Grandin)

Recently, Newsweek magazine ran an article here about scientists being "lousy communicators", citing Olson's work. In it, Olson chastises scientists for not being more charismatic. Some Aspies (as many like to be called) may not be the most charismatic people in the world due to their pedantry and their narrow focus, so maybe asking them to be so could be a challenge. (That being said, Aspies can make marvelous actors as they have a great ability to mimic others)

When I read that article, I immediately recalled Attwood's words,and thought I would contact him for his insight on this issue. I appreciate his generosity with his time to share his thoughts.

Tony Attwood's response to me (April 6, 2010)

Dear Joanne


Thank you for your message and you raise a very interesting topic, namely what I consider is the higher prevalence than expected by chance of people with Asperger’s syndrome at University.  This can include all faculties and is not necessarily restricted to Science and Information Technology.  There are those with Asperger’s syndrome who are unsure of how to understand other people and consider a career in academic Psychology may help them understand others.  They also know those with Asperger’s syndrome who have become renowned historians and exceptional linguists with the ability to speak many foreign languages but without an accent associated with the person’s first language.


One of the characteristics I have identified in Asperger’s syndrome is that the person may have difficulty conveying thoughts and feelings into spoken words.  Thus, the person may have difficulty explaining an academic concept in a lecture but be more easily understood should the information be provided in a book chapter or paper or using a diagram.  To a certain extent, I use the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. 


In days past, people with Asperger’s syndrome would be comfortably based at University and able to conduct their research throughout their academic careers.  However, Universities have changed and are now much more financially orientated and status is based in terms of publications and research grants.  This ability (sic) to convince others of the value of the research can be to the detriment of those with Asperger’s syndrome and the expectation of working in research teams has also been very difficult for those with Asperger’s syndrome.


Do post these comments on your blog as I am sure this will promote quite considerable discussion.


Best Wishes


Professor Tony Attwood

The last paragraph is most telling. Assuming we have brilliant scientists who manifest traits of Asperger's (whether a formal diagnosis has been made or not), they may have a more difficult time acting as the kind of communicator that Randy Olson feels all scientists need to be. I'm definitely not saying they cannot learn, as I have witnessed what my daughter can do thanks to her willingness to be observant of the world around her and choose skills that best serve her needs at any given time.

I know this is not a thoroughly researched scholarly article, and rightly so as it is beyond my field of expertise. It is merely an observation based on my personal journey with a child on the autistic spectrum and my knowledge of the world of scientific academia. I think, however, that I have brought up an idea to be considered before we quickly judge a scientist who has difficulties relating their ideas to the general public.

Kindly, Joanne


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