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Media Studies

A wide-ranging conversation about media studies, Asperger's and many other topics.

Copyright © 2009, Paul LutusMessage Page

Reliability of Evidence I | Reliability of Evidence II | Reliability of Evidence III | Reliability of Evidence IV | Reliability of Evidence V

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  Reliability of Evidence I
Hello Mr. Lutus, great to see you're are still updating content for inquisitive students. Did you get a chance to sail to Alaska this summer? Sure did: Alaska 2008 I'm writing to ask a question that I personally already have an answer for, but I still could use a little insight. Awhile back I wrote to you asking if it would be possible to apply essentially the same argument you made against Psychology to another obscure social science like Media Theory. You never wrote back, so I imagined the question either annoyed you, or you were just too busy to respond. It's just that I get quite a lot of inquiries on that topic, and I can't answer all of them. I think the answer is obvious, but I'll explain further below. Anyhow, I decided for myself, based on a review of several sociology textbooks, and more recently, my mass media theory textbooks that virtually all social research has such severe experimental limitations and can't be trusted. But I may have overstepped. For some reason, none of the professors agree with me that limited predictability equals limited reliability. Most likely the professors are not scientists and do not understand basic science. They may not care that basic scientific standards cannot be met. They may be arguing that science doesn't matter, or something else. But they cannot argue that an untestable, unfalsifiable theory represents science in anything but name. I made this assertion in class, and it fell short with the other students and the Professor. I tried to argue that these theories are lacking predictability, or as I see it, they cannot convincingly claim that media have more negative than positive effects on society and vice verse. This is not to say that the media doesn't have an effect good or bad, just that the science doesn't hold enough weight either way. As to science, it's not basically a matter of predictability, that is more a symptom than a fundamental issue. A theory that lacks sufficient scientific properties might lack predictability, but that isn't the determining factor that separates scientific theories from other kinds.

The primary property that identifies scientific theories is falsifiability. If a scientific theory is put forth, it must make testable predictions. The tests must be practical, and if they fail, the theory must be discarded. If any element in this sequence is not present or practical, the theory is not part of science.

In media studies, people like to hold political discussions that have a superficial resemblance to scientific debates.

Let's say that a particularly violent TV program is followed by a gruesome murder. Someone says the program caused the murder. How can we establish this in a scientific way?

Well, we can't, for several reasons. One reason is there is just one data point, and one data point is never enough for science (except in the special case of an immediate falsification — the so-called "black swan" case).

To establish a positive correlation between a cause A and an effect B, we need several things that are almost never part of media studies. Among those things are:

  1. A control group.
  2. An unambiguous test case that guards against hidden assumptions.
  3. A prospective, not a retrospective, experimental design.
This is just the barest outline. Real-world media cannot ever be used for serious scientific work because it fails all three criteria.
Much of my thinking on this topic stems from the fact that my great aunt and uncle were murdered by my cousin. His father was killed in a car accident when he was 8, and he never got the necessary help he needed to recover and grow. I knew him as a fun loving ten-year-old, and he was not insane then. But because of some little understood reasons, he became psychotic by age 20. He was given three separate diagnoses by different psychologists. That by itself would have made me psychotic. Oh, sorry, I guess this isn't very funny from your perspective.

You need to realize that psychology is a collection of opinions, not diagnoses. Psychology is closer to astrology than it is to oncology, with the complication that psychologists are sometimes confused with scientists in courts of law, and people sometimes lose their freedom based on psychologists' opinions.
All of which were considered to be personal illnesses that were not dangerous to others. He was diagnosed as manic depressive, then schizophrenic, then schizo-affective — whatever the heck that means. Schizophrenic means you're crazy. Schizo-affective means you feel crazy. Some people feel crazy but aren't, while others ... oh, I'm sure you get it, four possibilities altogether:
  1. Doesn't feel crazy, isn't crazy.
  2. Feels crazy, but isn't crazy.
  3. Doesn't feel crazy, but is crazy.
  4. Feels crazy, is crazy.
And anyone who believes what psychologists say needs to have his head examined.
I might be making a big leap here, but because of the number of contradictory theories in media science, I'm now wondering what good media research is to the general public. Without strict experimental controls, media research ends up being a playground for anyone's pet theory, and nothing is resolved in a reliable, systematic way. This happens to be the present state of the field.

Media studies is a very highly politicized field, and even if it were much more scientific than it is, because of all the special interests with a stake in the outcome, it would still be a minefield in which to try to conduct serious research.

One side of the most common media issue (portrayals of violence) might say:
  1. Violence in the media harms young, impressionable minds, and even though this can't really be demonstrated scientifically, "everyone knows it's true".
  2. Society has a responsibility to guard the welfare of the young and innocent, thus the state has a mandate to act with respect to this issue. State regulation is both appropriate and necessary.
The other side might say:
  1. People must accept responsibility for personal actions. They should not be allowed to blame others for personal choices and/or crimes, and to try to blame the media is to throw open the door to declaring everyone a victim and absolving people of anything resembling personal responsibility.
  2. To try to control the media is to meddle in very basic constitutional issues, dabble in censorship, and if such a program were to begin, it would only drive certain kinds of media portrayals underground, where they might thrive in a more insidious and dangerous form (as in the example of illegal drugs).
I think you will see that both these positions have merit. Like any public issue worth discussing, this one has at least two legitimate sides.
I chose to study the media partly because I'm generally intrigued and somewhat frightened by what people with political motivations believe As you get older, you will probably mellow with regard to what positions people take on public issues. There's nothing like experience and seasoning to help you see why people say the things they do. (I'm also terrible at Mathematics). Now that is a shame. If I were you, I would do my best to acquire those kinds of skills. Given your present interests, knowing how mathematics works could save you a lot of heartache while trying to sort out the very issues we're discussing. To begin with, you would discover how an experiment can be designed to appear to support a view that it cannot actually support. I'm just starting to work in the broadcast field, but also have a little training in marketing, advertising, and public relations strategies and tactics. The only thing I've figured out is that communicators don't necessarily know why people respond to media tactics but they know how to push emotional buttons, and some media people do so usually for sake of profit or propaganda. I see media theory as a very dangerous "science" as it is currently pursued. In other words, we can push a bunch of buttons, but we don't quite know what will happen. Actually, old hands in the field know what will happen. Propaganda is hardly a scientific undertaking, but there are some broad, general principles that can be relied on to effect public opinion in particular ways.
Reliability of Evidence II
Thanks for your earlier reply. I recently read The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I recently read this book also. He argues, to my understanding, that Fractals are a superior form of mathematics for identifying Black Swans. The problem with Taleb's thesis is that Black Swans are unpredictable by definition. That is what makes them "outliers," to use his term. As he defines them, Black Swans lie outside any model — their appearance in a presumably controlled system like state economic policy only proves they are Black Swans, nothing else. If you create a mathematical model that takes yesterday's Black Swan into account, tomorrow's Black Swan will pop up in a place outside the new model's purview. Otherwise, it isn't really a Black Swan, is it?

Also, fractals are a very fashionable topic right now. I would want to see an example where a fractal approach produced a reliable predictive model of real-world phenomena in a way that sheds more light than heat. At the moment, fractals are more a plaything than a tool, and are more often used to model an existing data set than make a prediction.

There is an essential contradiction in claiming that Black Swans exist, defining them as Taleb does, and then expecting to be able to forecast their appearance. In fairness, he doesn't do this in an overt way, he only hints at it.
He takes a harsh tone against scientists who rely heavily on Gaussian Statistics in developing mainly economic theory. There's plenty of truth in that position. It is well-established that bell curves are often misused, so this is perhaps not quite so original as he makes it seem.

Students of statistics are cautioned that a straight bell-curve analysis can often be a waste of time and can lead to a false sense of security.
He points to the stock market crash of 1984, as evidence of the Gaussian Curve's shortcoming. He uses many other examples as well, but you've probably read at least one of his books already. Yes, one can always point to a real-world event to show that a conventional statistical analysis failed to predict something. Remember Einstein's remark, "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."

As to the 1987 (not 1984) stock market crash, it's important to understand that the behavior of free markets is not predictable even in principle — a large number of independent conscious entities are trying to maximize their gain, propelled by logic, strategy or emotion. Predicting a free market is identical to trying to analyze our brains while using our brains as the research instrument. This is a classic problem where, due to self-reference, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems place strict limits on what can be predicted.
I'm guessing that you would agree, partly, that Gaussian statistics cannot be used properly in any social science, let alone economic theory. I would not say "any." That goes too far. If we're predicting the outcome of a series of coin tosses or a similar activity, a straight Gaussian approach is quite reliable. There are many real-world problems that can be reduced to a pile of fairly tossed coins, but the stock market isn't one of them. My main questions are: 1.) Are these problems with Gaussian statistics more a result of the people using them and the context in which they are using them? That's the problem — a Gaussian analysis is very easy to apply, so it gets applied to a data set for which it is inappropriate. This problem is emphasized in any worthwhile statistics course. 2.) Do you agree with Taleb that Mandelbrotian fractals are a useful alternative for developing social scientific theory, or at least predicting Black Swans? No. And he didn't give any examples for a reason — it's very difficult to meaningfully correlate a fractal with a real-world data set.

In fairness, the other reason there aren't any examples is that books meant for a popular readership tend not to have any technical detail, and equations are aggressively removed by editors. Supposedly there's a rule in publishing that each additional equation cuts your readership in half. I was going to include a simple equation that shows this relationship, but I don't want to cut my readership in half.

And further, with respect to predicting a free market, if a particular model's existence becomes known, its effectiveness is immediately destroyed. This is the self-reference problem again, and it's why people who try to sell you "winning market strategies" (methods to consistently stay ahead of average market indices) are all frauds — without exception, and whether or not they realize it.
My guess is that the limitations of stringent experimentation supersede the use of either types of calculation, as they apply to social theory building. That's true, and remember the classic pitfall of applying statistical methods to a pre-existing data set. Someone might apply a series of methods until one seemed to fit, without realizing the result is more likely a coincidence than a correlation. 3.) Have I missed the mark entirely? Not at all. I'm probably screwing up Nassim Taleb's actual position, and I'm sure you'll correct me. No, actually, Taleb's book contained a lot of unsupported claims, "hand-waving," and I think it was intended more as an essay on human gullibility and mental laziness than a scientific analysis with solid supporting evidence. I also understand that you likely view me as an idea consumer, and I can't really defend that, but I'll try. I view the ideas I come across as life preservers, giving me at least a chance for independence. We all have areas where we appreciate a little additional buoyancy, and ... any port in a storm.

Also, your inquiry has a very favorable property — skepticism. That's an important starting point for evaluating a new idea. Remember the importance of the "null hypothesis," the idea that a claim should be assumed to be false until evidence supports it.

For most people, an idea is assumed to be true until proven false. For a scientist, it's the reverse — an idea is assumed to be false until and unless evidence supports it.
Reliability of Evidence III
(Many months later ...)
I recently graduated and took a management job with a giant retail corporation. Incidentally, my degree is in Media Management but I live in a rather small media market and could not survive on the small salaries available here. By now you may have realized that media management is a rather obscure specialty and its connection with lucrative employment is slim. This is what happens after you graduate — what made sense when you were in school makes much less sense after you've graduated and begun to experience reality. That's why there are counselors in school to offer sage advice — I mean, when and if that happens. I'm in a bit of a financial pinch and felt this was a necessary evil — entirely my fault. I justified my decision by saying "well, its good experience and will boost my resume." Consequently, I'm now attending a training program and dealing with 4 guys in absolute love with their own authority — 3 former [ ... ] and 1 former [ ... ]. They're all deeply religious and/or unapologetic conservatives. It's important to say these are the kind of people who can't materially improve the world, because to do so, they would first have to be capable of directing their own lives. Unfortunately, their professions reflect a profound and visceral obedience to convention, while the world is in desperate need of new ideas. So these people may be able to teach you some things, but being self-directed isn't one of them. Successful people tend overwhelmingly to be self-directed and original.

The people you describe should have "Status quo ante" tattooed on their foreheads — they represent the small merit of keeping things as they are.
Telling one man my mixed heritage alone caused him to leave the room in wicked silence. All of these idiots have no problem espousing their sanctimonious views at work and what's worse; the ex-[ ... ] is the course trainer. The trainer has no choice but to tolerate me because I perform well in the class. I've had one small confrontation outside the workplace with a guy because I refuse to be passive-aggressively bullied. How would you maintain your dignity in this situation and stick to your personal goals of succeeding with the company, if only a temporary necessity? Well, I remember someone saying this: "The direction of one's life is in one's own hands and to forget this is to act irresponsibly."

Most of life on earth is in the hands of perfect idiots, for logical and compelling reasons given in my article "Evolution". As far as I am concerned, the real training in your training program is to learn how to get along with these salt-of-the-earth types that I suspect constitute at least 90% of everyone.

So there is the training program's published curriculum, and there is the real curriculum, which is to learn how to get along with people who are perpetually in the thrall of fixed ideas. I call these people "fact consumers" — people who have no chance to craft an original idea, ever.

Remember the old saying, "Those who can, do, those who can't, teach." These people are in their present position because they don't have any intellectual gifts that merit higher calling or compensation. As an outlet for their frustration at the hand nature has dealt them, they have the exercise of petty authority. And for the moment, you're the target.

Now look back up this page to the first quote I put in my post. Guess who said it? You did, in your post of July 6th this year. My point is that you already know what to do — all you have to do is trust your instincts.
Reliability of Evidence IV
I recently reread your article Social Narcissism and actually thought about printing it off for the morons I mentioned earlier just for spite. However, I had to remind myself that confronting people like this might have the adverse effect of making me just like them — trying to prove a point just for the sake of my own ego that is. There really is no good reason for me to try and provoke these people.

The dynamic of this situation is very frustrating. Of the four men I mentioned earlier three are actually assistant manager trainees just like me. The youngest man is [ ... ] years old with a wife and [ ... ] small children. He's fresh out of [ ... ] and has very little life experience aside from his time in [ ... ], but it's clear that he's been given a fairly solid Christian education, if you catch my drift. He boasts an IQ of [ ... ], and when I first met him I was immediately impressed by his speaking ability. In fact, this kid started lecturing me in our hotel room and dared to talk down to me as if I were one of God's lost children — confused because I was living a life in denial of the lord's word.
First, there's a reasonable argument against the True Believer — it goes like this: a real religion cannot depend on proselytizing and converting lost sheep, because this suggests that the religion would expire on the passing of its last follower. That in turn implies that the religion exists only in the minds of its followers. A "real" religion, if such a thing existed, by definition couldn't possibly depend on the number of followers.

If religious believers possessed more than a superficial grasp of logic, they would see this point right away: even though religious belief at its best is a sad commentary on the weakness and cowardice of everyday human thinking, proselytizing is a big step downward — it's nothing less that a marketing campaign, and preachers are pitchmen. Proselytizing only exposes the insecurity of religious believers and the low value of religious thought.

Things of real value don't need to be proclaimed on street corners, indeed for something of value the relationship between seller and buyer is reversed, with the buyer actively pursuing the seller. Only drugs, prostitutes and religion are hawked on street corners.

Mathematicians know there is an infinity of prime numbers. If every mathematician died, there would still be an infinity of prime numbers. This is because the value and meaning of mathematics doesn't hinge on how many followers it has.

Mathematics has value whether or not you know about it or understand it. Religion doesn't work this way. For religion, you are under an obligation to understand it, and if you refuse, True Believers might take offense and fly an airplane into your building.

Second, it seems I've been having this conversation a lot lately, but to put it bluntly, intelligence is what intelligence does. I.Q. measurements above about 135 are fraught with difficulty and tend to vary widely from sitting to sitting even with the same subject. In fact, many conscientious I.Q. testers don't deliver numerical scores any more because of well-understood systematic errors in the testing process and the potential for meaningless comparisons and one-upmanship.

Third, what's the point of having a genius I.Q. if all one can think to do with one's gifts is harangue people with fixed, medieval, discredited ideas? This raises underachievement to an art form.

In my view, real genius is identified by having and pursuing original and useful ideas, not by being a religious martinet, espousing inflexible notions that could be put forth equally well by a computer.
Of course he didn't say this stuff in so many words, but I knew where the hell he was going and told him to back off in a very firm manner. At the end of our first week of training, I had to get in his face a bit just to get through to him. I now have my own room and can sleep with both eyes closed.

The second man is in his mid [ ... ], also a former [ ... ] and a failed college professor to boot. When I found this out I thought it made perfect sense because he taught biology and openly advocates for creation science.
One cannot do both those things simultaneously, at least, not while paying attention to evidence. Evolution is very well-supported by evidence, it's the central theory of modern biology, and being a biology instructor while advocating for creationism is sort of like being an acrobat who denies the reality of gravity:

Aside from that, I won't make any claims to being an intellectual, and I agree with you that holding a college degree, especially in media studies, means next to nothing. Anyhow, my long time goal has been to have an interview talk show like Charlie Rose's or Bill Moyers' or even Tavis Smiley's. This is the media studies equivalent of wanting to be a rock star — it is very predictable and you need to realize how long the queue is for that door. In any case, most people who succeed do so, not because of academic qualifications, but because of life experiences that make their views and skills particularly valuable.

As to Charlie Rose, the thing that leaps out at you while reading his biography is that he didn't study media, but everything else, and his life experience is what makes him an interesting interviewer, not his professional training.

Paul Harvey (who passed away in February this year) had no professional training at all. He was just good at what he did, for no particular reason, and certainly not because of a nonexistent college education.

Larry King is a terrific interviewer because of his life experience and natural talent, not because of the college he didn't attend.

The list goes on and on. I think you need to accept the fact that the correlation between success in your specified goal, and higher education, is coincidental at best. But this is a poorly kept secret about higher education — for intelligent, original people the correlation between success and education is weak —


(click on "Is a College Degree Important?")

— but for those who intend to fit in and be cogs in a great machine, a degree is well-correlated with employment. It all depends on what your goals are — if you want to be employed, a degree is important. If you want to be Charlie Rose, it isn't.
For that I need to live in a city like Chicago or New York. I currently live in [ ... ]. I simply didn't have the means to move to [ ... ] after graduation; otherwise, I would have been able to get a job with [ ... ] thanks to an internship I did at the [ ... ] studio.

I basically enslaved myself with debt while in college and my mother could really use some financial help too.
There's a debate raging right now — partly because of the recession — about the cost versus payoff of higher education. Some argue that it's possible, not to say easy, to get an education in certain subjects whose cost cannot possibly be repaid in one's subsequent career.

There's even a rather funny story about a recent graduate who is suing her alma mater after a futile 90-day search for employment. She has a 2.7 GPA and a totally unrealistic notion of her value in the job marketplace — as far as she is concerned, the only reason she isn't employed is because the college's placement office didn't try hard enough.

What she fails to realize is that (1) she has no chance to prevail in a court of law, and (2) her having publicly and conspicuously sued her alma mater will mark her for life as a legal risk and troublemaker, which will further reduce her prospects for gainful employment. To put it simply, she's a social parasite who doesn't have the sense to hide this fact from prospective employers.
I took the job with this company because they offered me [ ... ] and a [ ... ]% bonus to start. Hey, wait a minute. How is it a "bonus" if you know in advance what the amount will be? Aren't there some strings attached that make it a "bonus" (e.g. not a sure thing)? Calling this a "bonus" is like calling a mandatory tip a "gratuity". Try not tipping a New York cabdriver and you'll see my point — it's not a tip because a tip is a gratuity, and to a New York cabdriver, it's not gratuitous, it's mandatory. I'm saying if it's called a "bonus," you shouldn't count on it.

Do you see what just happened? Based on life experience, I noticed right away that "bonus" doesn't mean what you appear to think it does. My life experience doesn't include college, it leads to few romantic distortions, and my scientific skepticism has its roots in a more pervasive kind of skepticism acquired at a lower level.

Whatever "life experience" means in this context, it isn't something taught in college, which explains the high percentage of outright Marxists one meets on college campuses (a clear indicator of social naiveté). I've spent a lot of time in various professional positions on college campuses (but never as a student) and I got a chance to sample the views and values of those who graduated and were promptly hired within the academic system. These people are often very interesting, sometimes world-class creative, but they tend to lack common sense about important aspects of reality. This means students typically graduate without certain kinds of essential training that can only be gotten outside academia.
When I get some bills paid off, I'll have access to a rent-frozen apartment in the heart of [ ... ] courtesy of my father. Once there, I plan on enrolling in the Arts and Entertainment Media Management Masters program. This will be my opportunity to break into the media industry. I suspect that the end of the recession will have a more important effect on these issues than any particular choices you make, not to say those choices aren't important.

Best of luck!
Reliability of Evidence V
I've been reading Dread, by Phillip Alcabes. It’s a great book about the use of disease epidemics to influence societies. I haven't finished it yet, but I skimmed ahead and read his discussion about the false epidemic of Autism. His treatment of the subject isn’t as extensive as yours, likely because it’s not his main topic, but he makes the same precise arguments. He touches on the pressures placed on parents to seek an Asperger’s diagnosis when they fear their children may struggle in school only to become stigmatized by society as educationally deficient – if I’m saying it correctly. Well, that's one parental motivation. Another is an insecure parent who wants the diagnosis because it absolves the parent of any responsibility (because like any illness, mental illness is no one's fault). I've had conversations with parents in which they unselfconsciously revealed this exact motive.

People like a little drama in their lives, and evolution requires that children turn out different than their parents. One solution to these two factors is to label the children with the name of an illness that simultaneously frees the parents from any personal responsibility and creates a bit of drama in otherwise boring lives. To put it simply, if Asperger's didn't exist, parents would invent it.

In the 1950s, the bogus danger (the source of drama) was that kids would become juvenile delinquents (perfectly pictured by Marlon Brando in "The Wild One"). In the 1960s the danger was that they would become war protesters or hippies (or hippie war protesters). In the 1970s, God forbid, they might become disco dancers and lose both their hearing and any sense of fashion. In the 1980s they might become Republicans and supply-siders. And so on.

I find Asperger's especially annoying as a focus of parental dissatisfaction because Aspies have every reason to expect that they will become successful, as long as their self-esteem isn't destroyed by the stigma of the original diagnosis.

The irony of the Asperger's "epidemic" is that it's reasonable to assume (Occam's Razor) that the Asperger's rate has actually been constant over the decades and there's no epidemic requiring an explanation. I suspect that, once this issue is sorted out, Asperger's will turn out to be a genetic condition that has been around for hundreds of years, but that hasn't been identified until recently, only because of improvements in medical technology.

I also think that identifying it has had an overall negative effect so far, because it's being described without being explained. Until there is an explanation, certain people will exploit the unknowns to their advantage — psychologists, neurologists, and of course, parents.
I’ll bet he would also agree with your thoughts about institutional education. You both probably agree that a diploma or degree is used to define social status today now more than ever in American History? Yes, in fact it seems to be the American replacement for a class-stratified society such as was true in England 100 years ago. It seems we've taken a strong position in this country against a class-conscious society, only to see a new one spring into existence from the ashes of the old. When I relate these ideas to my personal experience with school, I can’t help but think back to my elementary school years when I started to get bored in the classroom and began to fail every class. My teachers would warn me that in order to succeed in life, I needed a college degree or else I’d end up working at McDonald’s my whole life.

[ a lengthy personal history is deleted here because it could be used to identify my correspondent ]

My point is that clearly the fear won me over. I never had a shot at the better paying jobs because I didn’t have that piece of paper called a credential. I wasn’t disciplined enough to self-study and become one of those great American success stories like you, Paul Harvey, Larry King etc. Conversely, I fully understand how true intelligence speaks for itself….”smart is as smart does.” I know that if I were as focused and disciplined and original as say you for example, I could earn a spot on a NASA engineering project, write a pioneering word processing program and sell my ideas to executives at a burgeoning computer firm. My specific downfall is that I allowed a sort of self-imposed failure to take hold and I simply bought-in to the fear mindset conventionally sold to idea consumers. I’m not trying to be hard on myself so much as I’m trying to be brutally honest.
At this point I want to warn you against creating a false dichotomy in which you revere examples of successful people and contrast yourself negatively. This is a bad idea — it pretends there are magic people, people whose success is beyond comprehension, but this kind of thinking can become a trap. It can prevent you from doing your best with your skills.

All the successful people you listed, myself included, are just people. Some worked very hard and focused on particular objectives, and some were just lucky. On average, successful people can and will credit their success to a mixture of dedication and luck. But we're not a race apart.
You’re a cool guy Mr. Lutus. You are the most honest and direct person I’ve never met. I think your posted dialogues are just as educational and insightful as your articles. No other Author I’m aware of has had that ability to make material as personally relevant for the reader as you. If I hadn’t stumbled upon your website and articles some time ago, I wouldn’t be nearly as capable of finding my way out of the forest as I am now. Thanks, but I must tell you people like me produce at least as many negative reactions as positive ones. My article "Asperger's by Proxy" describes a woman who tried to turn me into a narcissistic enabler, but once she saw this wasn't going to happen, she set out to destroy me (and this way of saying it isn't even slightly exaggerated). Eventually it came to me that she recognized only two categories of people — acolytes and victims. I discovered it wasn't possible to be neutral, and I should have left much sooner than I did. I stayed too long mostly out of compassion for another of her victims (her son).

All I am saying is that distinctive people (people who stand out in a crowd) tend to be targeted by the world's reformers, the shallow kind of person for whom there is precisely one acceptable set of values — theirs. They try to reform you, then they try to destroy you. Some of them are religious, some political, but all of them are incredibly annoying.

I remember a conversation from twenty years ago, one that made me aware I wasn't ever going to be a cog in a great machine. At a university where I served as a technical consultant, I had a talk with a rather conventional man who had just gotten married. He said, "Are you ever going to get married?" I expressed doubt. He reacted in a way I'll never forget — he said, "When are you going to start living up to your responsibilities?"

Sometimes a person expresses his unadorned world view, unfiltered by self-consciousness or personal reserve, and I was privileged to be present for it. I realized I was speaking to a true proletarian, someone for whom the reproductive function was the central issue of his life, and against which there were no competing priorities. I might add, based on many such conversations since then, that it's a surprisingly common state of mind.

Don't get the wrong idea here — these people are the salt of the earth, the majority, utterly reliable and predictable. They have everything but ideas, which means there's a place for someone like me. My responsibility is to have ideas rather than children. I may succeed, I may fail, but what I can't do is claim that my offspring have Asperger's.

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