Neurodiversity’s Waning on Wikipedia: Bias and Single-Sidedness

The following blog is written by Yuval Levental, a reader and contributor to our blog site. At present Yuval, who is on the autism spectrum, is completing a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering. He has previously written an essay at corticalchauvinism.com where he discussed his life, views on neurodiversity, and a couple of autism symptoms (https://corticalchauvinism.com/2015/01/14/visualizing-neurodiversity-breathing-for-treatment/).

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Wikipedia is a free-access, free-content Internet encyclopedia which is ranked among the ten most popular websites on the entire Internet according to Alexa (http://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/wikipedia.org).  Most people that access it can edit most of its articles.  The problem is that this could lead to a bias in the articles.  A 2012 paper in the American Economic Review found that most articles arrive with a slant, and that they change mildly from their initial slant.  The paper claims that Wikipedia’s overall slant diminishes because articles with an opposite slant are added (https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.102.3.343).  I have found this to be the case with several of the articles on Autism and Asperger’s syndrome, where they portray ASDs as either just a positive, or even questionably associate those conditions with scientific and technological genius.  As a result, I made several changes outlined below, all of which were accepted.

Until about half a year after I joined, the article picture for the “Asperger syndrome” showed a boy analyzing a complex molecular structure.  As the main article picture, this implied that people with Asperger syndrome were necessarily talented in science, even though there is no solid evidence to indicate this.  I replaced the picture with a picture of a boy stacking cans, which implied a more generalized form of restricted interest (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Asperger_syndrome&diff=prev&oldid=697149790).

The “Asperger syndrome” article also claimed that Vernon Smith, a Nobel Prize in Economics winner, was autistic, but it didn’t say that he was self-diagnosed (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Asperger_syndrome&type=revision&diff=714299955&oldid=714296521).  Additionally, the article claimed that Hans Asperger called the children that he studied “little professors”, which has no evidence (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Asperger_syndrome&type=revision&diff=715920061&oldid=715536543).  The single-sidedness was that there was an entire section of “Society and culture” focusing on the positive aspects of the neurodiversity movement, but there was no criticism to balance it which I added (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Asperger_syndrome&diff=prev&oldid=697266040).

In addition to repeating the “little professors” claim, the article “Hans Asperger” uses the translated quote by Professor Uta Frith of University College London from Asperger’s original research, “We are convinced, then, that autistic people have their place in the organism of the social community. They fulfill their role well, perhaps better than anyone else could, and we are talking of people who as children had the greatest difficulties and caused untold worries to their care-givers.”  This quote is sometimes used by neurodiversity advocates; however, it only described a small percentage of the amount that Asperger studied.  A different quote I added from the Frith translation was “Unfortunately, in the majority of cases the positive aspects of autism do not outweigh the negative ones.”  The Hans Asperger article also claimed that Asperger was against the Nazis, when he indicated support for them, and that was also amended (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hans_Asperger&type=revision&diff=715470193&oldid=715174031).

The Retrospective diagnosis of autism page was somewhat better.  There was a criticism section to balance it, with additional criticism of Michael Fitzgerald, a professor that has labeled countless historical figures as autistic.  Many of the retrospectively diagnosed figures are considered to be noted pioneers in science and engineering, and therefore may cause someone to assume that “autistic thinking” is the basis for technological innovation and scientific discovery, which is highly disputable.  Darin Hayton, a historian of science at Haverford College, claims it is very difficult to retrospectively diagnose deceased people with a mental condition, as there are many factors in a potential diagnosis even for a living person (http://dhayton.haverford.edu/blog/2015/12/31/isaac-newton-was-autistic-or-not/).  The biggest problem was that the section on Albert Einstein was the longest, and contained no criticism, which I amended.  I added information about Einstein syndrome and Walter Isaacson’s opinion that he was extroverted (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Retrospective_diagnoses_of_autism&type=revision&diff=697093724&oldid=694634349).

There was far less information on pro-cure autism advocates compared to anti-cure autism advocates in the Autism Rights Movement template.  The only solidly pro-cure figure that had an article was Susan Rubin  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sue_Rubin), a low-functioning autistic.  Absent figures before I joined were Jonathan Mitchell (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Mitchell), Thomas McKean (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_A._McKean), and criticisms by Manuel Casanova (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manuel_Casanova#Conflicts_with_Neurodiversity).  Jonathan Mitchell is an autistic blogger against neurodiversity and has received controversy over it, Thomas McKean is an autistic speaker that has called the autism debate overly political, and Manuel Casanova is a neurologist that has criticized neurodiversity and even received death threats over it.  I created a “Criticism” section in the “Autism rights movement” template to accommodate those figures  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Template:Autism_rights_movement).

The page on Einstein syndrome was extensively outdated and scheduled for deletion.  Einstein syndrome is a proposed condition by the economist Thomas Sowell similar to autism in that there is a speech delay, but the person eventually functions normally with no assistance needed.  I don’t understand why neurodiversity advocates also don’t study Einstein syndrome, as it is seemingly a far better lead for genius than the Autism spectrum.  Fortunately, I managed to find enough sources to render it suitable for inclusion (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Log&page=Einstein_syndrome).

In conclusion, anyone with an internet connection can edit most of Wikipedia, and the only people checking the quality of Wikipedia articles are other Wikipedians, who can be from any background.  Wikipedia associating Autism/Asperger’s with genius and greatness in several of its articles is very misleading.  Much of the information that I discussed centers on retrospective diagnoses, translated interpretations, or popular assumptions.  Even something as seemingly innocuous as an article picture associating Asperger’s with scientific talent could lead to unrealistic expectations or low self-esteem for an autistic that wants to identify with this picture.  Worst of all, all these problems fail Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view”, “verifiability”, and “no original research” guidelines, which are its Core content policies (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Core_content_policies).

Addendum by MFC on 5/2/2016: In email correspondence with John Donvan he mentioned that, his book (In a Different Key) clarifies that Asperger never used the term “little professors”.  Many people who have read the book may have missed the footnote to that observation. It seems that John Donvan and Caren Zucker discovered the origins of the term  in a very popular autism book written by Chris Gillberg in 1991.  Gillberg confirmed to Donvan and Zucker that he had coined the term. The historian Herwig Czech notes that  Asperger described one child’s manner of speaking as “Professorial” (1939), but the name “Little Professors” does not otherwise appears in his publications. The mistaken attribution is quite common and is perpetuated in Neurotribes by Steve Silberman.

Addendum by YL on 6/22/2016: The Retrospective Diagnoses of Autism page has been deleted.  This was because it violated the “Crystal Ball” policy of Wikipedia which says that a page can’t be formed which is based on past or future speculation.  This is a good thing because it is very hard to diagnose people even in the present with autism, and retrospective diagnoses are much more speculative (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_deletion/Retrospective_diagnoses_of_autism_(2nd_nomination)).

7 responses to “Neurodiversity’s Waning on Wikipedia: Bias and Single-Sidedness

  1. I agree with most of this post. Just one error is the notion that “anyone” can edit wikipedia. That’s not true of the main health pages which are heavily mindered by corporate goons, who block anyone who tries to expose corporate pseudoscience. Of course they do allow a bit of “free discussion” in order to give credibililty, that’s standard propaganda trickery.
    There’s a new excellent article about this at the link below. About halfway down there is much detail about the wikipedia hijacking conspiracy.
    http://bolenreport.com/mike-adams-natural-news-attacks-skeptics-center-point/

    Like

  2. I should add that many people, like myself, have found their attempts at appropriate editing blocked by these charlatans and very soon it escalates to blocking the “anyone” who is trying to make the appropriate edits.

    Like

  3. There is a wonderful Talmudic quotation that says if God had intended man to be circumcised, why didn’t he make him that way in the first place? And the answer, with the wisdom of sages, is that man alone among creatures is created incomplete with the privilege of sharing with his maker in his own design. And that is true. Of all the animals, we are the one least dictated to by genetics or by nature. We have the capacity to shape ourselves for good or for evil. So that while we are endowed with certain “defective” genes, we can create a wonderful race of human beings and eventually overcome our neurological design.

    Like

  4. Engineers, in general, seem to understand the physics, math, etc., of animal, and other control systems, better than neuroscientist. Word symbols are clearly ambiguous compared to math symbols.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Over Generalisations In Autism | Paul Isaacs' Blog·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s