Category: Television

Temple Grandin’s theories on autism

As you probably know, the Temple Grandin biopic, starring Claire Danes, is showing this Saturday evening.  Here is Temple on the movie.  Grandin has done a great deal to benefit animals, by designing more humane slaughterhouses, stockyards, and encouraging other innovations.  She also has promoted the idea of talented autistics and helped raise that notion to a very high profile.  I have enormous respect for what she has done and I would gladly see her win a Nobel Prize if the appropriate category for such a prize existed.

That said, researchers disagree with Grandin's theories on autism in a number of ways and my own reading leads me to side with the researchers on some issues.  Many non-autistics defer to Grandin on autism because of her life story, her remarkable achievements, and yes because of her autism.  I thought it would be useful to offer a more skeptical view of a few of her claims:

1. Autistic individuals do not in general "think in pictures," though some autistics offer this self-description.  Grandin repeatedly refers to herself in this context.  I don't read her as claiming this tendency is universal or even the general rule, but the disclaimers aren't as evident as I would like them to be. 

2. There is little evidence to support her view that autistics "think like animals."  Here is one published critique of her theory: "We argue that the extraordinary cognitive feats shown by some animal species can be better understood as adaptive specialisations that bear little, if any, relationship to the unusual skills shown by savants."  You'll find a response by Grandin at that same link.  I'm not totally on board with the critique either (how well do we understand savants anyway?), but at the very least Grandin's claim is an unsupported hypothesis.

3. Grandin tends to brusquely classify autistic children into different groups.  She will speak of "the nerds who will do just fine" (see the eBook linked to below) as opposed to the "severely autistic," who require that someone take control of their lives and pound a bit of the autism out of them.  There's a great deal of diversity among autistics, and autistic outcomes, but I don't see that as the most useful way of expressing those differences.   Autism diagnoses are often unstable at young ages, there is not any useful or commonly accepted measure of "autistic severity," her description perpetuates stereotypes, and Grandin herself as a child would have met criteria for "severely autistic" and yet she did fine through parental love and attention, which helped her realize rather than overturn her basic nature.  That's not even a complete list of my worries on this point; for more see my Create Your Own Economy.

4. Grandin supports some varieties of intensive behavioral therapy for autistics.  Many research papers support those same therapies but those papers do not generally conduct an RCT and furthermore many of the said researchers have a commercial stake in what they are studying and promoting.  In my view we don't know "what works" but my (non-RCT-tested) opinion is that giving autistic children a lot of fun things to do — fun by their standards — and a lot of information to study and manipulate, gives the best chance of good outcomes.  (In any case "spontaneous improvement" is considerable, so anecdotally many therapies will appear to work when they do not; nor is there a common control for placebos.)  Many of the behavioral therapies seem quite oppressive to me and if we don't know they work I am worried that they are being overpromoted.  Grandin has in some ways the intellectual temperament of an engineer and I am worried that she has not absorbed the lessons of Hayek's The Counterrevolution of Science.

5. Grandin refers to herself as more interested in tangible results and less interested in emotions.  She is entitled to that self-description, but it is worth noting that most individuals in the "autism community" would not consider this a good presentation of their attitude toward emotions.

There is a recent eBook (selling for only $4.00), consisting of a dialogue between myself and Grandin, mostly on autism and talented autistics but not just.  For instance we also talk about our favorite TV shows, including a discussion of Lost, and there is a segment on science fiction and the future of humanity.  I try to draw her out on autism, cognitive anthromorphizing, and attitudes toward religion, but she is reluctant to offer her opinions on that important topic.  I would describe the eBook as a good introduction to her thought on autism and society, while also giving an idea of how someone else (me) might differ from some of her basic attitudes.

Time Travel with Doctor Who

When I was a young boy of ten or eleven I lived in a small town in England.  I remember eating the black berries on the country lane on my way home from school and I remember my father and I watching Doctor Who.  Each week the Doctor would venture into mystery and danger and as the tension rose I would boil with greater and greater excitement until suddenly the Doctor would confront the Cybermen or even worse the Daleks!  Just then, of course, the episode would end.  Total agony!  I could not wait for the week to pass and I was a devil to tuck into bed those nights as I trembled with speculation and trepidation about whether the Doctor would survive.

“My Doctor,” was primarily the fourth, played by Tom Baker.  His unique signature was a very long scarf–so enthralled was I that I asked my grandmother to knit me a similar scarf which I then wore everywhere I went… even when I returned to Canada and nobody understood the reference.tom-baker-postcard-v1-large

Recently I have been watching Doctor Who again, now with David Tennant playing the tenth doctor–the best since Baker in my view.

david-tennant-in-his-doctor-who-roleOnly now, more than a quarter century past my childhood, I have been watching Doctor Who with my son.  My eldest is a young boy of ten or eleven and he boils with greater and greater excitement as the Doctor ventures deeper into mystery and danger.  He too jumps out of his chair in total agony when an episode ends with a cliffhanger and calming him after such an episode isn’t easy!

In the last episodes of the latest season the Doctor teams up with his old companion, Sarah Jane.  The very same Sarah Jane played by the very same actress as accompanied “my Doctor” some thirty years ago–now aged and older just like me.  As I watch Doctor Who with my son, just as I watched with my father, I reflect on time and age and how a dream of my childhood has been fulfilled–my living room darkened and flickering with light has transformed and become my own TARDIS…my own time machine.

Root for the home team

Controlling for location and time fixed effects, weather factors, the pre-game point spread, and the size of the local viewing audience, we find that upset losses by the home team (losses in games that the home team was predicted to win by more than 3 points) lead to an 8 percent increase in police reports of at-home male-on-female intimate partner violence.

Here is the source paper and that is from David Card and Gordon Dahl.  In contrast, if you go see a violent movie, for that same length of time you are sequestered and thus less likely to be a danger to others.

Why do vampires attract so many readers and viewers?

Here is a WaPo piece which suggests it has to do with the transition from adolescence.  I recall another piece suggesting it had to do with the female fascination with gay men (is there one?).

Vampires are hardly "my thing," but I do like early Anne Rice, The Night Stalker, Herzog's Nosferatu, and I thought Coppola's Dracula movie was better than its reviews.  On the other hand, I couldn't get five pages into Twilight.  (Should I try True Blood?)

I believe vampire books and movies offer a few attractions:

1. You know from the beginning that the plot twists will have to be extreme.  Few movie makers offer up vampires who think pensively, talk inordinately, and live out ambiguous endings, sitting around in coffee shops.  A real vampire story is going to deal with death.

2. We are fascinated with the idea that people may be something other than what they appear to be.  You will notice that discovery and detection of vampires often plays a key role in the plot lines, sometimes commanding an inordinate amount of attention.

3. Vampire stories offer a platform for exploring the theme of pure, limitless, and eternal desire, yet without encountering the absurdities that might result from planting that theme in a realistic, real world setting, such as a man who loves cheese studded with raisins above all else.

4. Vampires play "hard to get" with women and they (for a while) embody Old World ideals of chivalry, in a plausible [sic] fashion.  Yet since they are fundamentally different beings, we can enjoy watching their strategies while simultaneously distancing ourselves from them.

5. Men may like vampire movies for date movies, for uh…priming reasons.  The movies prompt dramatic, emotional reactions in their companions.  Women may feel that such movies "test" how their men respond to highly fraught stories, with a potential for demonstrating protectiveness.  Or vice versa.  

6. Vampires do not seem to mind social disapproval, and in this sense many teens look to them as role models.

7. Some of the popularity is arbitrary with respect to the vampire theme itself.  There is a clustering of production in any successful cultural meme, once that meme gets underway.  You might as well ask why there is so much heavy metal music today.

8. Viewers and readers, who know vampire lore and thus vampire vulnerabilities, feel better informed than the high-status people who, in the drama, are fighting the vampires.

9. There are few successful songs or paintings about vampires, so the story-based aspects of the topic appear to be important in setting their popularity.

Here is an unorthodox answer to the question.

Innumeracy can get you killed

"Statistically, it is very dangerous, but I have lived here a long time and I don't feel like I'm in any danger."

That is Justin Fenton, the Baltimore Sun's crime correspondent.

The quote comes from a longer article by a British reporter who switched places with his Baltimore counterpart because he wanted to see whether The Wire was accurate.  It is

John Stossel is jumping to Fox Business

John Stossel, the ABC anchor known for his libertarian bent, is moving to the Fox
Business Network to host a weekly prime-time program. He will also make
regular appearances on the Fox News Channel.

…Mr. Stossel will start work in October, and his weekly program,
named “Stossel,” will begin sometime in the fourth quarter. Fox said
“Stossel” would include news segments and conversations about
“libertarian issues in the United States and abroad,” including
free-market economics and civil liberties.

In a post on his ABC
blog, Mr. Stossel said he wanted to “dig into the meaning of the words
‘liberty’ and ‘limited government’ ” on the program.

“ABC enabled me to do some of that, but Fox offers me more air time and a new challenge,” he added.

The story is here.  I thank Yana for the pointer.

The Power of the Poor: Blog Contest

On October 8, PBS will be showing, The Power of the Poor, a new documentary featuring the great Hernando de Soto and from the team that brought you Free to Choose.  You can see a preview below.  To increase awareness, Free to Choose Media is sponsoring a blog contest on the question:

What institutions can enable the world’s poor to realize their power
and achieve prosperity?

The best blog post–under 500 words–on this theme will receive $250 and a DVD of the show. See the rules for more information. Yours truly will be one of the judges.

Markets in everything: convert the atheist, on Turkish TV

From The Guardian, via Effect Measure:

It sounds like the beginning of a joke: what do you get when you put
a Muslim imam, a Greek Orthodox priest, a rabbi, a Buddhist monk and 10
atheists in the same room?

Viewers of Turkish television will
soon get the punchline when a new game show begins that offers a prize
arguably greater than that offered by Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Contestants
will ponder whether to believe or not to believe when they pit their
godless convictions against the possibilities of a new relationship
with the almighty on Penitents Compete (Tovbekarlar Yarisiyor
in Turkish), to be broadcast by the Kanal T station. Four spiritual
guides from the different religions will seek to convert at least one
of the 10 atheists in each programme to their faith.

Those
persuaded will be rewarded with a pilgrimage to the spiritual home of
their newly chosen creed – Mecca for Muslims, Jerusalem for Christians
and Jews, and Tibet for Buddhists.

The real prize, of course, is the conversion itself.  But if you are faking it just to win the trip, I believe Islam is at a disadvantage.  By the way, they do "verify" that you are an atheist in the first place, using a panel of eight theologians (are they so hard to fool?), plus they monitor your behavior afterwards to see you truly have become a believer.

Markets in everything

Fake TV:

If you are looking effective, affordable way to deter criminals from breaking into your home at night, the FakeTV Burglar Deterrent is the perfect solution. FakeTV is a plug-in unit about the size of a coffee cup that simulates light output equivalent to a typical 27" TV. A built-in light sensor automatically turns the device on at night and/or when lighting in a room turns black (at 0.5 lux). From outside your home, it looks like someone is home watching TV.

I thank Denis Grosz for the pointer.

BloggingFrozenHeads.TV with Robin Hanson

You'll find it here.  Robin is awesome, as usual, and that is why I am grinning throughout.  The topics are (among others):

Agreeing to Disagree


Tyler vs. Robin on the merits of cryonics (12:23)


Does fiction weaken your grasp of reality? (06:52)


Are economists evil? (12:10)


How to estimate the value of a person’s life (06:04)


Will prediction markets ever really take off? (08:06)


Has fame made Tyler boring? (02:27)

Addendum: Robin and his readers comment here.

Why do people assume that Jim Cramer is smart?

This was the first reader request:

Why do people assume that Jim Cramer is smart? More bluntly: why
does possession of a JD from Harvard Law School signal to people that
they should listen to you?

Surely an economist has some insights into this odd quirk of human nature.

Not everyone assumes that Jim Cramer is smart but in fact Jim Cramer is smart (though his advice is no smarter than that of a monkey's).  Watch the early Jim Cramer and you will see (can anyone find a good YouTube link?).  But take the smartest person you know and put him or her on TV for hours a week, for years, and see what happens.  (See my book What Price Fame?.)  Usually only very smart people get to experience such fates.  Lots of screaming is an added bonus.

I'm not sure that the average person thinks so much of the typical Harvard Law graduate.

Megan McArdle had a good post on the Cramer dust-up with Jon Stewart.