Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How a Mental Disorder Can Disappear from the World Overnight

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Over the past few decades, autism and Asperger syndrome have become prominent in the public consciousness, and that prominence has been reflected in popular art and entertainment. Autism, a mental illness characterized by repetitive behaviors and impaired social interactions, was brought to widespread attention by Dustin Hoffman’s famous performance in Rain Man. More recently, characters in contemporary television shows (think Sheldon of The Big Bang Theory and Abed of Community) have made the social quirks of people with Asperger syndrome more relatable. In the popular mind, Asperger’s is often thought of as a milder form of autism.

The American Psychiatric Association thinks of it this way too: In its new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (often called “the Bible of psychiatry”), what was Asperger’s is now a position on a severity scale of the broader “autism spectrum disorder.” Asperger syndrome as a separate category will officially disappear, a change that has generated no small amount of controversy.  

One of the jobs of science is, as Plato put it, to “cut nature at its joints.” But because our view of the anatomy of nature is often hazy, people disagree about where those joints are. For instance, some social and natural scientists debate the scientific status of race as a meaningful category for human beings. Is race merely something humanity made up, or is it part of the nature of reality? If “race” is a valid category, how many races are there? Key to the resolution of this debate will be discovering what we can know about people, with some acceptable level of probability, simply by knowing what race they are.

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