In this provocative study of behavioral economics, Cowen (Discover Your Inner Economist) reveals that autistic tendencies toward classification, categorization and specialization can be used as a vehicle for understanding how people use information. Cowen spends a great deal of time dispelling autism's societal stigma, arguing that mainstream society is reaping benefits from mimicking autistic cognitive strengths. As stimulating as is the premise, the book often feels like its own long exercise in categorization, with each chapter an analysis of the human mania for classification (e.g., the obsession with ranking achievements and endeavors). According to Cowen, human brains are constantly absorbing bits of information that get smaller and are delivered faster as technology advances. The more information people receive, the more they crave—this shorter attention span is far from a flaw to the author, but a liberating mechanism that allows humans time to contemplate more ambitious, long-range pursuits. ...
Interestingly, Cowen says the idea for the book came from an email he received from a blog reader, who was convinced, based only on his writing, that Cowen was himself autistic :-)
In skimming the book (which isn't bad), I was surprised not to see any discussion about the prevalence of autistic economists -- specifically when it comes to their perspectives on human nature. (If you don't believe me, ask any non-economist social scientist.) [On further inspection, there is a reference to "economist nerds" in the context of the signaling interpretation of education, and a figure which notes that economists tend to be focus on the most "objective" kinds of human decision making, leaving aside important issues of psychology.] As far as I could tell, Cowen doesn't mention in the book that there is actually a heterodox economics organization called the Post-Autistic Economics Network (paecon), that publishes its own journal, originally known as the Post-Autistic Economic Review. Here's what's in the current issue:
How should the collapse of the world financial system affect economics? Part II
- Mad, bad, and dangerous to know
- A financial crisis on top of the ecological crisis: Ending the monopoly of neoclassical economics
- Toward a new sustainable economy
- After the bust: The outlook for macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy
Thomas I. Palley
- A non-formal look at the non-formal economy
I'm all for cognitive diversity, especially on the geeky end of the spectrum! But to what extent are people like Cowen simply lumping all nerds together with high functioning autistics and people with Asperger's Syndrome?
For more on this topic, I recommend Simon Baron-Cohen's book The Essential Difference: male and female brains and the truth about autism.