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Sun Feb 8, 2015, 12:40 PM


The “Putin has Asperger’s” story highlights the stupidity of psychological diagnosis from a distance

Pete Etchells http://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2015/feb/07/putin-aspergers-story-stupidity-of-psychological-diagnosis-from-a-distance

Late on Wednesday, USA Today reported that a 2008 study by the Pentagon concluded that Vladimir Putin has Asperger’s syndrome. Brenda Connors, the lead researcher based at the US Naval War College, appears to have come to this conclusion based on ‘movement pattern analysis’ – essentially, watching videos of the Russian president, and making some sort of link between the way that he moves, and his state of mind. I’ve not seen the original study, but the contents reported in the news bear similarities to a 2005 patent from Connors. You can see the patent for yourself here. The swamp-like prose makes for difficult reading, but the basic idea goes like this: first, get a video of the person in question. Next, strip out the audio, and ‘examine’ the video to establish ‘a baseline pattern’ of the speaker’s movements. In case you’re wondering, here’s the definition of baseline:

Baseline style is composed of: The universal— what gets passed down through evolution, and, the individual—the scaffolding of what gets stamped through our families, our culture, and social factors such as gender, class, social convention, region, etc. … It is the hardwired DNA of your communicative expression. It is composed of both “quantity,” the mass of self (the posture, body parts, the subsystems) and “quality,” the glue or dynamic energetic organization of weight and how that integrates it all together in expression.

Good, that’s cleared that up then. So once you’ve established this baseline, you examine the video again – this time with the audio back in – and decode “said person’s emotional, cognitive and performance processes”. Finally, you need to get hold of other videos of the speaker, to see whether the patterns you’ve established crop up repeatedly. This isn’t an analysis method specifically designed to test for Asperger’s syndrome – much the opposite, in fact. It’s so generic as to be meaningless. This all sounds like a bit of a mess, really. Trying to figure out someone’s state of mind based solely on how they move is a hugely subjective endeavour, easily prone to misinterpretation. Now, we know that people are pretty good at figuring out certain basic bits of information from body movements – for instance, we can tell whether someone is happy or sad just by the way they walk. But there’s a huge jump from simplistic judgements about basic emotions, to claiming that you can infer someone’s state of mind – let alone whether they might have a neurodevelopmental disorder.

Therein lies the more serious issue. According to USA Today, the “researchers can’t prove their theory about Putin and Asperger’s… because they were not able to perform a brain scan on the Russian president”. This assertion appears to have come not from the newspaper, but from Connors herself, which is bizarre and frustrating for two reasons. First, because diagnosing autistic spectrum disorder is a complex process and should only be done by people with an appropriate clinical qualification. Second, because very simply you can’t diagnose autistic spectrum disorders with brain scans. For crying out loud...I spoke to Professor Dorothy Bishop, who is a Wellcome Principal Research Fellow and Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology at Oxford University. “When it comes to diagnosing autistic spectrum disorder, you’re supposed to show impairments in three domains. One of them is communication, one is social interaction, and one is repetitive and restricted interest and behaviours,” she says. “In autism there may be a failure to match bodily movements to emotions, but it is only a small part of the picture, and it is also something that can occur for all sorts of reasons other than autism. You wouldn’t base a diagnosis on it.” Putting all of this together, it seems like another frustrating case of psychological diagnosis from a distance, causing all sorts of problems and solving none. We’ve seen this before, for example when psychologists were asked to comment on the mindset of Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza, despite never even having met him. In these sorts of cases, we’re just being given pure conjecture, dressed up as convincing scientific knowledge. This sort of practice doesn’t offer any useful scientific insight into, well, anything, and it misrepresents how science works, and what good quality scientific research looks like.

In the “Putin has Asperger’s case”, there’s an additional problem – it plays into stigmatising myths about the disorder. Prof. Bishop points out “it seems like a clumsy attempt to discredit Putin, so that people don’t take him seriously. But in doing so it manages to upset people who genuinely have got Asperger’s and autism. People in these communities get very upset about this sort of stigma. It’s become almost a term of abuse to say that someone’s got Asperger’s” she adds. In short, I can’t possibly see how anything good could come out of this story. It plays into tiresome and misinformed stereotypes about autistic spectrum disorder, and paints a farcical picture of the way that psychological research is conducted. Thankfully, a Pentagon spokesperson told the Guardian that the reports “have not informed any policy decisions by the Department of Defence.” Great, but why on earth was this nonsense commissioned in the first place?

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Reply The “Putin has Asperger’s” story highlights the stupidity of psychological diagnosis from a distance (Original post)
Demeter Feb 2015 OP
KamaAina Feb 2015 #1
SheilaT Feb 2015 #2
Demeter Feb 2015 #3
SheilaT Feb 2015 #4

Response to Demeter (Original post)

Sun Feb 8, 2015, 01:59 PM

1. Thank goodness!


If the Crimea-invading homophobe actually were an Aspie, I'd want to be NT!!

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Response to Demeter (Original post)

Sun Feb 8, 2015, 05:04 PM

2. As the mother of someone with Asperger's,


It idea that Putin is an Aspie is quite hilarious. No one who knows ANYTHING about it could possibly consider that diagnosis.

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Response to SheilaT (Reply #2)

Sun Feb 8, 2015, 05:44 PM

3. As another mother of AI child, I quite agree


This is all part of the "demonizing Putin" propaganda, which so many Americans buy and swallow whole. Loyalty undeserved by the Propagator.

And it's part of the demonizing of autism, which is unconscionable.

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Response to Demeter (Reply #3)

Mon Feb 9, 2015, 12:55 AM

4. Right.


Asperger's is relatively mild, at least in my experience with it. Were you to meet my son, you'd simply see a tall young man who is somewhat shy. You, as an Aspie mom, would probably recognize what's actually going on with him. Others, not so much.

Severe autism (and I have a friend who as two children who are severely autistic) is another thing entirely.

But what ever the degree of autism, I sincerely doubt anyone who has any form of autism whatsoever winds up behaving as Putin has behaved.

As an aside, several years ago I asked my Aspie son if he'd prefer to be neurotypical, and he gave me a look that said, "Are you out of your fucking mind?" He is the way he is. He's been that way his whole life. Just as I, or you, or anyone else, has been the way we are. He feels no need to be different, and he's absolutely right.

Among the things I love about having two sons, one of whom has Asperge'rs, and one of whom does not, is that I am privy to more than one way of viewing the world.

The non-Aspie son is, by the way, incredibly social. Had he been born first, I would have figured out that number one son was different that went far beyond the fact that all of us are unique individuals. But I'm glad I went so long without knowing that my Aspie son had a diagnosable condition. As a consequence, we did all sorts of normal things. some of which were in reality a form of occupational therapy, but he wasn't labeled as different. I sort of feel sorry for those who get the Asperger's diagnosis early, because the label can be as harmful as it is helpful. However, I realize that those with an early diagnosis may be very happy they had that early diagnosis.

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