Saturday, November 27, 2010

Guest Post - "Dr. James McPartland is a Dick (and more)"

I received an email from a friend whose a member of an Autistic Issues student group called SWANSA that made some very valid points about not only autism, but "civilized" society in general, that I felt my readers would very much benefit from taking a gander at. The friends name is Walt Guthrie (he never told me whether or not he was related to Woody and Arlo):

I caught the James McPartland talk at Emory November 8.
Off the bat, three things you need to know about him.
One: he's the Assistant Professor in the Child Study Center.
Two: He's the Associate Director of Developmental Electrophysiology Lab
Three: he's a dick.
He's actually more than that. But we'll get to that.
First, the dick:

In the course of his "research," McPartland makes use of a computer program called "Cyberball," which is a sort of "video game". Now, I have put quote marks around the words "video game" because it is the most primitive-looking thing you can possibly imagine. We are not talking "Gears of War" here. From the brief demonstration, given during the talk, it appeared to be something that might have come out in 1975 just prior to the introduction of "Pong." But what do I know? For all I know it might have just popped out of the MIT Media lab last month. In any case, I cannot emphasize enough how boring this game is.
It is a simulated game of catch between three players. Each player can choose to throw the ball to the person on his left or the person on his right. That's it. That's the game. It doesn't appear that you can miss or that the other person can fail to catch the ball. There is no skill and no chance whatsoever involved. For all intents and purposes, assuming the demonstration of this game was representative of actual "play," the "game" is the equivalent of nothing more than three people with one person calling out the name of one of the two others, and then that person being able to do the same and so on and so on.
Of course no human being would ever willingly choose to waste their time playing such a "game," but McPartland has apparently made countless kids waste irretrievable hours of their childhood at no discernible benefit for themselves "playing" this simulation that simulates nothing.
But this is not what makes McPartland a dick.
This is:
What is the purpose of Cyberball? Well, it turns out it does have a one. According to McPartland, Cyberball is designed to make a player feel excluded and outcast. You see, the other two "players" of Cyberball don't exist. They are just part of the program and what they do is ignore the player and just toss the ball back and forth to each other. Now, McPartland claims that the children he works with are, by the nature of their autism, already shunned and socially mistreated by their peers. So what does he do with them? He experiments on them by making them play games designed to increase their sense of isolation and social ostracism. And these are experiments solely for his benefit since McPartland made no claim during the course of his talk that these sessions would provide any benefit whatsoever for the children playing them.
McPartland tricks ostracized children into performing activities designed solely to further their own sense of ostracism.
Where I come from this sort of person is also technically known as a douchebag.
Oh, and did I mention that he was excited about the prospect of a computer program that might test for empathy.
Let the irony of THAT sink in.

The bulk of his talk is old territory that I've addressed before. More laser-pointer-on-the-head sort of nonsense. This time we learn that autistics take 200 milliseconds or so to process faces. Regular folk take, on average, 180. Noting that that might not seem like a big deal, McPartland admitted as much and then went on to claim that it actually was, without offering the slightest bit of evidence except to note that those 20 milliseconds add up over time (Yeah, he's right Those two percents of a second add up. Work those face recognitions, kids. You only have 86,400,000 milliseconds in a day to work with!) During it all he performed the verbal sleight-of-hand of telling us that some of this was hard science, some was unpublished and some was just speculation. It was almost like a psychic doing a "cold reading" to the room, leaving himself plenty of wiggle room should anyone call him him on any of his claims (The main one being that autistics maybe just aren't properly motivated to have the desire to be social. Or something. As someone who understands the spectrum from living it, listening to McPartland's meandering theory of autism was like listening to my great aunt and her circle describe what goes on in Grand Theft Auto). There was more talk about perceiving upright faces vs inverted faces. If you believe this is relevant to anything on Earth then God love. I won't be dragged into another discussion on it.

Afterwards, in the reception following McPartland's talk, I asked him directly whether or not autism was empirically or definitionally a "disorder." He responded that it was definitional and that ALL people on the autistic spectrum are, by definition, "disordered." Then, having admitted this, he jumped to the it's-only-a-word defense. If I found the word "offensive" (a word I never employed in the course of the discussion) then that was on me. Because who could find any objection to being labeled "disordered?"
I told him what the word "disordered" actually means.
It means "nigger."
It means "faggot." It means "kike."
It performs the same societal function and is derived in PRECISELY the same manner. It is a derogatory classification whose purpose is to dehumanize one arbitrarily grouped and categorized set of humanity. And like the white racist, who feels that he can designate, by his own criteria, any one that he chooses to include into or exclude from the inferior class of "nigger," James McPartland and his intellectually low-functioning behaviorist brood think they are entitled to arbitrarily classify an entire subset of humanity as definitionally "disordered" and then have full power to say who is and who is not in that set. Neither James McPartland nor the typical hardcore white racist feel any need to empirically justify their respective words. Why should he? Just as the word "nigger" empowered and elevated the white power structure, the word 'disorder' gives the behaviorists their power, income, and justification for their very existence.
James Mcpartland is a grinning clown, the moral equivalent of a racist, who experiments on vulnerable socially outcast children to make them feel worse about themselves, all so he can grind out a steady stream of lazy speculation disguised as science.
Fuck him.


nothingprofound said...

When you begin with the assumption that a certain behavior is "abnormal" or "sinful" or "disordered," you then proceed to develop theories and practices intended to correct or eliminate that behavior without any regard as to whether your assumption is true. The psychiatric community has a long history of making such assumptions and violating the rights and dignity of those it thus labels as suffering with these disorders.

Jeremy Janson said...

@NP: Indeed, which is why you need to be darn careful 1) when deciding something is such and 2) holding yourself to strict ethical limits on what you can and can't do to "fix" the situation, and who you are willing to trust to do such things. This is why I love Calvin so much, and the state of Rhode Island. Calvin and the Rhode Island branch of the Puritans were the only Christians to truly accept that not all sin could be fixed, and sometimes you just have to accept people for the vessels of destruction that they are, or as you put it once NP, "if you don't love what is broken, you don't love at all." It may not survive, it may not last, but it's here now, and that's what's important.

In any case, I've emailed Walt. I really hope he can get back to you.

Janene Murphy said...

I have kids 'on the spectrum' and the thought of someone making them playing Cyberball sickens me. How is this therapeutic? If anything, we need to find ways to make them feel more included in society, not the opposite.

With that being said, I can't villify the man for using the word 'disorder,' though I'd rather see a different term used. People on the spectrum have brains which do work differently than normal, so I guess you could say there is a 'disturbance in normal functioning.' These disturbances to prove problematic for my kids when it comes to functioning in society. However, their alternative ways of thinking also allow them to offer a different kind of skill set to the world that I feel makes them unique and valuable to society. Imagine what the world would be like if people like Albert Einstein and Bill Gates thought and acted 'normally?'

Regardless, I agree. The guy is a douchebag. I wouldn't let him near my kids with a fifty foot pole.

Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont said...

Powerful and impassioned.

Jeremy Janson said...

@JM: Thanks for stopping by, and it does get better. Even the "functioning in society" improves as they grow in wisdom. Like Walt I strongly suspect (and I know my friend whose a psychology doctoral student here shares this opinion) that this McPartland guy is in fact exploiting these kids for his own benefit.

@Ana: I know, I'm thinking about maybe recruiting this guy for the blog. I'll talk to him about it when I get the chance. In the meantime, I hope he finally stops by.

But just by chance, what do you think of what this says about society, especially his commentary about racial slurs and the offensiveness of words? Also his commentary about this elusive concept of empathy that others always seem to think is more prevalent then it clearly is?

Anonymous said...

So who is to say how it would make the kids feel? Each individual is unique, and may treat the matter differently. Why assume they will all feel bad about themselves? It could also be that they will analyze their situation better and form new perspectives
Just a point of view..

Jeremy Janson said...

Thanks for the perspective ASD. I really wish Walt was here to read that. Still, what do you think about what he said about the usage of language like racial slurs?