Isaac Newton was Autistic or Not
A cottage industry has developed around placing long-dead geniuses at various points on the Asperger’s spectrum. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein are the most frequent victims of this particular form of retrospective diagnosis. Recently and without any apparent reason, the Orange Country Register joined the fun with the article “Six of the world’s great minds may have been autistic, professor says.” Along with Newton and Einstein, the OC Register adds Darwin, Jefferson, Michelangelo, and Warhol (ok, not a “long-dead” genius but dead all the same).
These articles raise various questions in my mind: What do we learn from this? What do we learn about the person? What do we learn about the condition? What do we learn about the past? What do we learn about the present? Why do we bother? But I don’t actually spend much time on those questions because I always get stuck on the previous question: How do we know? Retrodiagnosing any condition or disease or illness is fraught with difficulty, e.g., lack of evidence, misleading information, inconclusive results. The impediments seem even more significant when trying to interpret a mental condition that requires intensive and sustained clinical observation, especially when the evidence is drawn from biographical information. Oliver Sacks worried about this problem, as did Glen Elliott. Unfortunately, the OC Register omitted the qualifications that Sacks, Elliott, and even Simon Baron Cohen (the expert cited in the article) had expressed elsewhere.
I confess: I don’t really understand why people bother retrodiagnosing illnesses of any sort. I suppose if the point is to destigmatize conditions today, that is a worthwhile goal. But I’m not convinced that retrodiagnosing people from centuries back is the most appropriate, defensible, or effective way to accomplish that goal.
Speaking of things I don’t really understand: I don’t understand why the OC Register didn’t cite its sources. Or why the OC Register thought it was ok to borrow so much from various people and not give them credit. And by “borrow” I mean quote or closely paraphrase to the extent that would prompt a discussion about plagiarism if a student here at Haverford did it.
It seems clear that the OC Register article was based on an article in the New Scientist from back in 2003, “Einstein and Newton showed signs of autism,” and a post at Autism Mythbusters, “Famous Autistic People” (which does give URLs for its sources).
I “understand” that we are in a “sharing economy” (or some such expression), but that does not justify plagiarizing (even if accidentally) other people’s work. Even by the loose standards of citation that seem to rule the internet, the OC Register seems to have committed some sort of mistake here.
I say misleading because observations are always made within a particular theoretical framework that a) makes a particular phenomenon worth noting and recording, b) gives meaning to that phenomenon, and c) provides the language and criteria used to record that phenomenon. And rarely are any of those issues stable over time, even and most problematically when they seem to be. ↩
Sacks made this point at the end of his article “Henry Cavendish: An early case of Asperger’s syndrome?” Neurology 57 (2001). He was convinced that there was sufficient biographical information in Cavendish’s case to suggest a link. But was quite skeptical of a claims for Einstein and Newton, whose eccentricities he chalked up to “a devouring or isolating capacity” inherent in genius itself. The original is behind a paywall. ↩
Elliott raised his concerns in the New Scientist version of this article, which the OC Register borrowed freely from but without the careful qualifications. See “Einstein and Newton showed signs of autism.” ↩