Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Verbatim: Nancy Minshew's canoe

Nancy Minshew, of the University of Pittsburg School of Medicine, is an influential autism researcher. I find her published work very interesting and informative, even though I would tend to dispute how she and her group sometimes interpret their findings. Likewise, I find her ideas worth a lot of attention, without necessarily agreeing with her.

This is from a 2005 editorial by Nancy Minshew in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, of which she is an associate editor:

A third issue raised by the studies in this issue is the degree to which theories once proposed have been held sacrosanct. The executive function and central coherence theories have held nearly sacred status for at least a decade and a half. This has in some cases meant that papers submitted with data or ideas that did not support these theories were frequently rejected or sternly directed to revisions that conformed. This is not a problem unique to these two theories. This has gone on for as long as there has been autism research. Autism is a field that seems to worship its theories and theories appear to assume a position of far greater value than the data or the search for an answer—the purpose that theories are supposed to serve. Theories are essentially hypotheses or theoretical constructs that formulate what we know into a scientifically reasonable question about what we know and we don’t know but propose to test with the next phase of research. Theories are by definition disposable or under reconstruction and the sooner the better. The goal of the theory is the same as a canoe--to get across or up the stream. Once we learn what we need to know from the trip, we take the canoe apart and use the materials to build the next transport. The near death grip on theories by this field has impeded progress. It has also isolated the field of autism to some extent from mainstream science. Some theories and conceptualizations held within autism are not mainstream science. Somehow autism evolves its own lingo or pragmatics that is idiosyncratic. When this happens, it can repel senior scientists from other fields of expertise highly relevant to autism who find these idiosyncrasies nonsensical and too much of an added burden to deal with. It also confines the field of autism to what it knows rather than stretching outside its traditional behavioral origins to fully embrace neuroscience. Autism needs these scientists and neuroscience. It is important that open mindedness be a goal so that insularity and circular logic is avoided. Autism will not benefit from evolving its own language of science that is different from the mainstream.


Minshew, N. (2005). Ask the editor. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 35, 877-879.