Wooly thinking part two

Does autism correlate with high IQ?

Or is this simply a form of reverse stigma?

I’ve mused about the apparent paradoxes in the diagnoses of autism before but I’ve yet to find anything that’s making me think that most people with autism are bloody geniuses.

There is a study which suggests that many of the genes implicated in autism are also those implicated in high IQ, but, as anyone who knows anything about genetics will tell you, it’s very difficult to identify ‘a gene for X’. Basically, this is the equivalent of searching for The Bachelorette gene.

I particularly enjoyed this article that told me that people with ASD are brainy because compared to the general population,

Nearly half of children (46 percent) who have been diagnosed with ASD have an above average intellectual ability, however, it differs from person-to-person.

That’s right, almost fifty percent of those with ASD fall above the average! Which I guess means that 54% fall below the average. Which tells me nothing except that as a population people with ASD are slightly dumber than those without ASD. It depends, I suppose, on how they define ‘average’ – for me, I take a pretty straight up mean/median approach, (the sample was 10 000) but maybe they decided that the top of the curve was actually a table top.

I see you, kurtosis, and I place a plate and some chips on top of you!

How good is science reporting? I mean, really. This shit is top drawer.


Depression and anxiety; The new racism

It’s been a hell of a few weeks. Clearly I am suffering from stress. It could lead to depression, or perhaps anxiety.

Or perhaps I’m just busy and under pressure. Perhaps I’ll just harden the fuck up for a bit and see if that helps.

First; a warning. This is just some out-loud thinking. Sorry if it doesn’t make any sense. I’m stressed etc.,.

Yesterday I heard Frank Furedi speaking about freedom of speech on Radio National. I’ve not heard of Furedi since I was an undergrad student, about 20 years ago. I liked his work then, but have shifted in other directions since.

Yesterday, I listened to him argue that Western universities are increasingly self-censorious. This is because, under a neo-liberal consumerist model, they’re competing for students. There are prizes for the least confronting course content.

Education has become commodified, of course, but it’s happened in weird ways. University is no longer an adult stage, it is a continuation of a cosseted larval form, where endlessly fretting parents shuffle continuously build a fuzzy little ‘happy bubble’ around their children.

Every year the numbers of university students applying for special consideration on the basis of ‘stress’ or ‘depression and anxiety’ increases, as students pathologise the normal pressures of life in the adult world into an ever-expanding rubric of ‘wellness’.

Furedi often writes about this cultural turn but for me it was refreshing to hear someone validate what I myself have said so many times. In fact, I usually go one step further. I think we are encouraged to focus our attention on ourselves so as to avoid looking at the structural inequities and problems that may affect our ‘wellbeing’. This is one of the key ways that neo-liberalism works – it is the cult of the individual; If you can’t make life work, it’s because you’ve got something wrong with you. You have an illness. I’ve moaned about how this insidious cult of wellness operates before.

Here’s the thing; All capitalist systems require a certain degree of labour market elasticity. This is what the NAIRU (Non Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment) refers to. It is simply the rate of unemployment that can be sustained before inflation rises.

In the old days, the easiest way to secure churn at the bottom of the labour market was simply racism – you brought people in to your country and then stigmatised them so they would remain at the bottom. The decline in Empires (something that really only happened with the recession in the second half of the 1970s) has made flat-out racism more unpalatable and immigration much harder to manage. But the market still needs a bunch of people who will buy things but can’t work all the time.

Depression and anxiety is the new racism.

There’s another dimension to Furedi’s comments about education and feeble-mindedness, however. The commodification of a university education under a neo-liberal model has seen a dramatic increase in university enrolments. I’ve written about this in the Australian context before. My point is, universities are now accepting students who are completely unprepared for a university education.

One of the one hand, it’s predatory lending – inviting students to buy a mediocre education where they barely scrape through a general degree, with the help of multiple concessions to ‘stress’ or ‘depression’, is a bad thing.

But I’ve got mixed feelings about this. I myself left school before School C(ertificate*), and hit university in my early 20s. I was hopelessly outgunned. But, after a year I worked it out and did rather well thankyouverymuch.

So I’m cautious about suggesting that university entry requirements should be tightened as it may exclude those who might genuinely benefit.

I’ll leave that there. Apologies for lack of coherent thought.



*School Certificate and Bursary were the two main qualifications one could earn at school. Bursary (silly name, as it didn’t come with money) was roughly the same as HSC, undertaken at the end of Year 12. Only those planning to go to uni sat Bursary.

School C was the main qualification and you sat it at the end of Year 10. Can you imagine today’s year 10s sitting a series of exams at the end of the year? The stress! You’d be weeping into your chai latte.


Things we don’t talk about….

No, sadly it’s not sex. Everyone talks about sex like it’s running out.

I recently ran into a friend who has had gastric surgery to address her obesity. She was happy, very happy. Being obese saddled her with misery and social stigma, the likes of which I can only imagine.

Obesity is framed as ‘your fault’, but obesity – and by that I mean, proper obesity, not just overweight – is almost entirely the fault of something other than the triumph of the will. I’ve ranted about this before, but the idea that we are in the throes of an ‘obesity epidemic’ is often read to mean we’re a nation of irredeemable fatties.

Everyone loves a spot of moralising but we’re moralising in the wrong place.

The real causes of risk of obesity (note, I said risk, not direct cause) are pretty well known. The more fat you’ve got, the more leptin you’ve got. At a certain point you’re brain gets tired of listening to leptin and becomes resistant to its messages.

Yeah, you’re full. BORING. 

And, the more you eat, the bigger your belly gets. The bigger the top of your stomach is, the more ghrelin it produces. Ghrelin tells your brain you’re hungry.

And then there’s insulin.

Fat cells generate hormones. Getting fat is like an accelerator – the fatter you get, the fatter you become.

The answer is clear right? Don’t get fat in the first place. Step away from the chiko roll. Except what we should be saying is; step away from the baby bottle. Because formula fed babies turn into fatties before they even get a chance to puree a big mac and squirt it into a sippee cup. Their brains are set up to become fat before they can roll over. They ingest far more protein than breastfed babies. They’re hardly ever actually hungry, because formula ‘fills you up’. In other words, the amount of protein in formula makes them feel full for longer. This is why formula fed babies sleep through the night. This is why childhood obesity is such a predictor for adult obesity – regardless of what you eat, your body will tell you to eat more because you’re genuinely hungry.

It’s not all about formula. It’s food too.  Generations of babies grow up eating western food – high in protein, fat and sugar. Yeah you think they’re eating well, but actually almost all processed food has added sugar, or is processed in a way that human bodies will recognise as sugar.  Obviously, there are hard ways to address this problem – you can lose weight, a lot of it, and this will change your body chemistry, making it easier to stay thin. But it’s extremely hard. Not just ‘oh I don’t really feel like it hard’ – extremely hard nigh on impossible. 

Why don’t we ever hear about the clear link between formula feeding and obesity? Well who can breastfeed every twenty minutes when they’re at work?

Disclaimer – I was a formula fed and I turned out FINE!

The real reasons cannabis remains illegal?

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There’s been an increase in anxiety surrounding the legalisation of marijuana in New Zealand, lately, mostly due to the impending election. Medical cannabis will eventually be completely legalised, certainly, as it’s just another medicinal drug. However, the debate over medicinal cannabis is frequently conflated with legalising recreational pot-smoking/consumption.

To be clear, smoking pot is widespread and more or less tolerated in New Zealand, unless the police have some other reason to discriminate against you. Keeping marijuana illegal is just another way of giving police the discretion to arrest people they feel might be ‘trouble’.

Forget stigma, this is the main reason it remains both commonplace and illegal. Sure, there’s probably a voting block of boomers who believe that pot is meth’s aperitif, but mainly it remains illegal because it serves a convenient purpose.

The other thing I find interesting is the way this debate is playing out in the mainstream hard-left media. Apparently, the government adds fluoride to water supplies to keep the populace dumbed down and quietly apathetic. Yet the government won’t legalise marijuana?

I grew up completely surrounded by marijuana, and knew many, many MANY people who smoked it all day, every day. If you want a relaxed, apathetic populace, we should add cannabis to the water. Or the next best thing.

To be clear, this does not mean that all people who smoke pot will be apathetic loseroos, of course it doesn’t. Most people use it like they’d use any other kind of drug (like alcohol) – to have a nice time. It’s not a permanent arrangement. If there’s one thing we know, as a recreational drug for ‘sometimes use’ it’s generally well tolerated, safe and nice.

I’m not pro or anti pot – I don’t think it’s particularly dangerous, but it’s not without its risks. Changing your brain (getting high) has all kinds of effects, not matter how you do it. It all comes down to how we judge the effects.

For instance, some people think it’s fun to get a skinful and bash the shit out other people. This is their idea of a ‘good effect’. I think it’s a crap effect. Likewise, some people believe there’s merit to mooching about in your trackies all day – I’m one of them – while others think we should be contributing to the future of humankind by spending ten hours a day mining coal. Each to their own.



500 words; Risk, autism and wooly thinking

None of this makes much sense, it’s really just me mapping out questions rather than answers.

Recently a friend claimed that everyone at MIT (where she studied) was on the spectrum. The assumption that intelligence corresponds with autism is well known – here’s a primer on the idea that certain alleles crossover for both.

Basically, the argument runs that autism is like a concentrator – some bits of the brain get gooderer, while others get badderer. The article I’ve cited talks about this from an evolutionary perspective, including ‘assortative mating’ – like mates like.

Here’s my question – everything I’ve read about the ‘stratospheric rise’ in autism suggests that it has something to do with rapid changes in the environment (in an evolutionary sense), especially pre and immediately post-natally. In other words, the food we eat and behaviours we engage in, especially stressful ones, positively correlate with a diagnosis of autism.

I don’t know if I believe in a ‘rise’ in autism – seems like the diagnostic criteria is tremendously malleable, you can see this in the discrepancies across social categories too.

I guess I’m musing on an apparent paradox;

The rise in autism is supposedly caused by poor environment – high maternal sugar intake, high post natal stress/cortisol etc.,. and yet autism would seem to correspond with high ‘innate’ IQ – that is, ability to think about difficult topics logically (expressing this is a different story).

Does this lead to the conclusion that the rise in Lifestyles of the Poor and Ignominious have resulted in higher levels of IQ – albeit alongside autism?

Doesn’t stack up for me.

I’m wary of labelling everyone smart with being ‘on the spectrum’. As a child I was diagnosed as 100% NutBar – with many troubling behavioural and learning issues (I’m NOT labelling being on the spectrum with being a nutbar – I am claiming my own experience not speaking for anyone else’s here).

My life was very stressful but we lived in an affluent area where social problems are far more likely to be pathologised as medical ones.  Then at 13 I moved schools and started living in a hostel. Suddenly (almost) every problem I’d ever had with learning and behaviour magically evaporated. I’m not suggesting that I am completely ‘not nutbar’ – I am a bit odd, and that’s good. I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with being on the spectrum – as long as the consequences are good rather than negative (stigma etc.,.) but that’s another set of issues. But, I am suggesting we should be realistic about the range of human variability, and realistic about what that means. Diagnosing epidemics of this and that makes me uncomfortable.

I’m not suggesting autism doesn’t exist, or making claims about causality or anything else, I’m just very interested in what appears to be a paradox described above.

I guess another way of saying this would be – if we define IQ as the type of stuff people with autism are good at (the type of thinking defined in the article I cited above) then is there now more of it? And is this due to shitty western lifestyles?



Top drawer stupid

Here’s today’s quote of the day, from the typically hawkish Nature journal, regarding the European Court of Justice’s decision to sanction a case that argued a man’s MS was caused by the Hep B vaccine;

 “Scientists’ concerns are exaggerated and do not show full awareness of how courts and the legal system as a whole operate,” he adds. “If courts were to use scientific methods of proof in all cases in which they must determine disputed facts, they would hardly be able to make decisions and to deliver timely justice to people.”

“Justice is generally best served when courts are free to admit whatever relevant evidence they wish and judge it on its own merits along with the rest,” says Stein.

This is top drawer – lawyers decide what science they want to use, then make their decision based on that. I mean, seems sensible, right?

Fuck off with your ankle bracelet

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One week ago, without even having to inconvenience myself by robbing a petrol station or raping someone with a broom handle, I was issued with an ankle bracelet.

Yep, my workplace was participating in a corporate ‘wellbeing challenge’. Staff were organised into teams and pedometers were handed out.

All you have to do is measure how many steps you take in a day!

Apparently, this is because our employer is dedicated to staff wellbeing;

‘For those of you lucky enough to have your zero hours contracts renewed for another six months, we really care about your personal wellbeing! Look! There’s even a video! And hell – o! It’s funky!’

In the olden days, by which I mean the period immediately preceding the age characterised by endless moaning about how millennials are too lazy and entitled to commit suicide already, working for a living defined you as a lifter, rather than a leaner. Lifters were masters of their own destiny, less scrutinised than those languishing in the nationalised cost of labour market elasticity.

Where was I? Ah yes, work makes free. It’s got a lovely ring to it, don’t you think?

Male, white collar workers could drink till it came out their ears, drive badly and eat Big Macs off the arses off as many Brazilian models as they liked (I fondly imagine this is what they were up to anyway), with little oversight. Women, of course, could work as much as they liked but were still subject to open scrutiny. Who is paying the price for your selfish obsession with paying the bills, bitch? (At least some things never change).

However, by and large, working for a living placed you under less scrutiny than being on welfare. Or at least that what’s my ankle bracelet told me to say. Because I’m not being ‘scrutinised’. I’m simply being trained in methods so I can scrutinise myself.

To be sure, the pedometer is not forcing my behaviour, it’s not making me walk around the suburb in my slippers in the dark, counting each step as I go. No, that’s not how this shit works. Social control must be subtle. It must appear sensible and self evident. It must legitimise itself. You must want to do it.

My ankle bracelet encourages me to think about my body, my self, in a particular way. For instance, it enables me to think of all the walking I do as discrete parcels of exercise. this fits in nicely with the idea of the compartmentalised self, where activities such as ‘walking’ are realised as both a noun and a verb.

Walking can be slotted into a rubric of self-care and public health. It helps me to work on my body, where my body is a commodity that I produce myself, with the help of other products of course. The pedometer strings together a strategy of the body, a way of thinking about my output as compartmentalised. It also gets me used to the idea of complete monitoring.

The pedometer is accompanied by helpful tidbits of information;

‘Did you know that you actually do exercise in your ordinary life, just by walking around?’

Here it connects the very act of moving from the bed to the bathroom, for instance, with a regime of order that is intrinsically connected to the larger structures in your life – a seamlessly integrated alliance of work and public health,

‘Woah. You mean just by walking around I’m getting exercise? Every step I take actually counts? I’m totally going to start snorting coke off the downstairs toilet cistern from now on!’ (FYI – this type of response elicits the ‘you are not a team player’ derisory sigh in the tea room, and a suggestion that perhaps I am not a Model Employee).

Right up until the moment it went into the ocean, the little plastic pedometer was educating me in the right way to think about my body, how to regulate myself. This is what Foucault would call governmentality – the conduct of conduct.

“Governmentalities are both mentalities and technologies, both ways of thinking and tools for intervening, and it is important to keep in view the irreducibility of one to the other” (Miller and Rose 2008:20)

I like this because it makes me think about Actor Network Theory. I like the conceptual slipperiness of ANT, the idea that there are connections between things, networks, ideas and what Papuans might call Kastom. I like that it’s a way of finding traces of power, but it’s not absolute. Power is in flux, constantly, and the objects things and networks all shift in relation to one another, sometimes becoming one another. Foucault is often presented as more fixed, when in fact I think his work is more like ANT. The panoptican, for instance, is presented as a metaphor – here is a building that represents a way that people can think about themselves in relation to the control of the state. Well, no, the panopticon is more than a representation or a metaphor. Foucault’s genealogies work more like fashions of thought, for me anyway.

The pedometer, for instance, makes me think of myself as a knowable, homogenised commodity. All the walking you do is rendered the same, whether it’s getting up to a baby in the middle of the night or snorting coke off the downstairs loo. Walking is an essential human activity (for most people). It’s essentiality is a wonderful thing to give you a sense of control over. The pedometer co-opts walking into a regime of order and homogeneity. It’s the McDonaldisation of your steps! Excuse me, Kate Tempest, I believe I’m being noisy now….is this thing on…?

OK, McDonaldisation might be a bit clunky.

But perhaps we can think of walking as connected to exercise. Everything is now exercise. And what is ‘exercise’? It’s moral, self-management in the pursuit of a commodity-body, where the emphasis is on the through-put of the images of self, rather than the self itself.

The idea that walking at work can be exercise is something interesting too – it joins the world of the personal and labour….Hey, you’re actually performing a first world leisure activity (exercise) while you’re working! WIN! You should be thinking of your job as a vocation, because that’s how winners think about work. Yeah, think of yourself as both producer and product, where work is something that produces you. The real you. The one that feels gipped when you have to ‘give up’ work to look after kids.

Exercise is also connected to risk. We’re all familiar with this message – if you don’t exercise you’re volunteering yourself for a cascade of neo-liberal reversals. You’ve brought this on yourself. Fatty.

Risk is an aggregation of destinies, in this way I am connected to everyone else. This gives me both more control (I must get off my arse immediately so I don’t end up with diabetes) and less control (this aggregation of information, called risk, knows more about me and my life chances than I do myself). What it does do is homogenise me, and make me more controllable. I’m a standardised metric. The only purchase I have on risk is through the chirpy, pastellised infographics on the train station walls (as long as the message is expressed in two moronic words or less).

Get Active! Just Quit! Fuck off!

So, risk does two things –

One: it encourages me to think about myself as part of a polity, as connected to everyone else. Moreover, it makes me think I have a particular responsibility to mobilise and care for my body in a morally acceptable way.

Two: There is something called ‘risk’ which knows more about my life chances than I can know, but is ‘good for me’. It also exists within the realm of professionals – biostatisticians, psychologists, public health experts. I should trust their judgement and wisdom.

I must learn to be comfortable with acquiescing my sense of personal control. The pedometer can help with that. It gives me a sense of ‘self-care’ and primes me for being controlled.

If I feel uncomfortable with this then it’s because I’m not sufficiently fluent in these techniques of the self. This is when Foucault is most visible – when everyone else in the tea room thinks the ‘steps project’ is a ‘bit of fun’ and ‘enters into the spirit of the thing’ and I feel like I’m on page 67 of 1984. Sure, there are ways of getting around this – loudly but casually referring to it as the ‘Pedo Challenge’ certainly makes for good tea room banter – but generally I think there’s no way out.

I’ve snorted way less coke off the downstairs loo since I got rid of the pedometer though.