The Let's Play Archive

Katawa Shoujo

by Falconier111

Part 126: Disability Corner: Right Temporoparietal Junction Underlies Avoidance of Moral Transgression in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Disability Corner: Right Temporoparietal Junction Underlies Avoidance of Moral Transgression in Autism Spectrum Disorder

I’m working on a disability corner on medical ableism right now, but that’s a massive topic that takes time. It was also getting kinda long, so I decided to split part of it off to look at it independently: it’s been too long since we’ve had one of these, anyway.

I’ve talked in the past about ableism in the sciences and how it twists research, especially back in the euphemism disability corner. I could talk about evolving theories of mentation or bias in the scientific establishment or how the medical establishment shuts out the communities it tries to help. Lots to cover. But I’m staring out my window at a melting snowdrift and I have very specific feelings about this time of year. So instead, let’s take a look at this study, and this article dissecting it (as linked by thread stalwart Dareon). Long story short, two groups of participants (one autistic, one not) were put in a room with brainscanning machinery and an audience and asked a couple questions: would you give money to support an initiative helping children in need, or would you accept money for supporting an initiative that kills random animals? The amounts involved and the size of the audience varied from person to person. Each participant got to choose whether to go for one, both, or neither proposition in front of the audience, then to answer those same questions in private; they were told one set of answers would be selected at random and that money would actually be distributed. The scientists got plenty of data from it, but they focused on the fact that while non-autistic participants often changed their minds about supporting the negative cause in private, autistic participants almost never did. The scientists then ran the data they got by scanning participants’ brains during the process through some cognitive modeling software and found those decisions were probably made in a specific part of the brain, hinting at differences in how that area functions in autistic and non-autistic people. From what I can tell, it’s a fine study – aside from how it frames the entire thing as an exercise in measuring morality (by name) like their analysis is objective.

Yeah, helping kids and hurting animals are pretty clearly good and bad respectively, but they still don’t justify why they used those choices – and “it seems pretty clear” isn’t a good basis for scientific investigation. I scoured that article: the authors never define “moral”. They cite plenty of OTHER papers that measure morality in autistic people, but most of those don’t justify how they define it either. It’s not like people haven’t been debating what is and isn’t moral for thousands of years to the tune of intercontinental warfare, you can’t get by not defining such an inherently controversial term if you plan on using it in your analysis. That goes double for when you’re talking about any oppressed group, since as horrible as it is you’ll find people arguing against any moral behavior towards that group. It goes triple if that term is fundamental to your study – and it IS fundamental: the word “moral” shows up just about every time the paper wants to make a point or describe a key concept. But there’s nothing. The authors are content to imply they’re morally objective.

This probably seems like a relatively small thing to seize on like this. It’s just a word, right? Plus, they call on like half a dozen other peer-reviewed papers talking about morality, which means even if they didn’t directly define what they thought of as moral, their drawing on the work of people who did and got tested by their peers for it. And it’s not like the morality involved is terribly complicated. If the rest of the paper wasn’t morally questionable, that would be believable. The language immediately jumps out, ranging from labeling non-autistic participants “healthy controls” and consistently referring to autistic behavior as “atypical”. Double points for calling every example of autistic moral decision-making that differed from the norm “atypical morality”. That was surface level. I want to go deeper.

Right Temporoparietal Junction Underlies Avoidance of Moral Transgression in Autism Spectrum Disorder posted:

However, it should be noted that evidence also exists, revealing that ASD individuals may preserve some degree of ToM [Theory of Mind] ability to guide their intent-based moral judgments.

Theory of mind, by the way, describes the ability to envision what other people are thinking, basically to conceive of them as separate people. Man, I hope we preserve some theory of mind, otherwise that’s like a quarter of the thread out the window. This paper was published in 2021, by the way, and it kicks off its first sentence by identifying a deficient theory of mind as a core component of autism spectrum disorder. The latest evidence this paper had of anyone directly pushing that narrative was from 2011, based on a hypothesis forwarded in 1985. It has since been disproven. Twice. This is not a slow-moving field! Why are you basing your analysis on something out of date? That’s a recurring problem in this paper: it draws on plenty of research from the last few years, but the theories it uses the frame that research all date before 2013. Possibly coincidentally, that’s when people actually started doing studies that treated autistic people as participants instead of voiceless test subjects. No acknowledgment of that concept here, not in theory of mind or any number of other assumptions. The paper is incredibly disdainful of the people it’s trying to study. It consistently treats its subjects like puppets of moral instincts as much as independent actors, constrained by the bounds of their programming to avoid actions they would otherwise take.

The end result? Here’s how they end their significance statement:

Right Temporoparietal Junction Underlies Avoidance of Moral Transgression in Autism Spectrum Disorder posted:

Here, we show that ASD individuals are more inflexible when following a moral rule although an immoral action can benefit themselves, and experience an increased concern about their ill-gotten gains and the moral cost. Moreover, a selectively reduced rTPJ representation of information concerning moral rules was observed in ASD participants. These findings deepen our understanding of the neurobiological roots that underlie atypical moral behaviors in ASD individuals.

Did you catch how it describes “inflexible when following a moral rule” as “atypical moral behavior”? That’s not a statement you can just leave hanging, guys, it’s a hornet’s nest of implications you need to take into account. Is this paper really trying to imply that autistic people are inherently morally superior to the general population? That’s the kind of value judgment I thought science was trying to get out of the business of making (and it isn’t one I agree with), but that’s what the data here says. This is the kind of study people use out of context to fight the culture wars with, but its authors completely missed that because they were too busy pathologizing autism. It exclusively framed the decisions of its autistic participants as negative without accounting for what those negative decisions actually mean, stopping the moment it dubbed that behavior atypical. Once it was deemed atypical, that behavior was directly assigned to dysfunction in the part of the brain where the decisions were made. And so, the paper implies not only that moral integrity is due to brain dysfunction, but recommends investigation into that part of the brain in order to suppress it.

See, I mentioned in a previous disability corner that ableism can turn scientific research into a spectacle, and this is what I mean: by not checking their biases and just following them to their natural conclusion, these scientists managed to recommend making their patients worse people. That’s an Onion headline, not sober scientific analysis. Hell, this is a Big Pharma conspiracy theorist’s holy grail, isn’t it? It identifies moral behavior, portrays it negatively, and recommends research into “correcting” it. If you wanted prove medical science was out to control people, it would make natural ammunition. Like, I don’t want to overstate what this paper recommends: it says “this is where in the brain these decisions happen, we should consider more research” and stops. Nobody’s promoting lobotomies here. They aren’t even recommending treatment, really, they’re just pointing out a difference in brain function between a group of neurodivergents and neurotypicals. The issue, and the spectacle, comes in how they portray that conclusion.

By not defining the concept in anything but the broadest of terms, the people who ran this study must have thought they were staying as objective as possible when it came to something both as fuzzy and as important as morality. That’s fair. They also picked causes that they felt wouldn’t be to up for debate; maybe you could argue the foundation helping kids was corrupt, maybe you could argue the foundation killing animals was performing a tragic but necessary service somehow, but you can bet on those objections being too rare to interfere with what you’re actually after. They didn’t realize the real moral issues they were about to tangle with lay somewhere else entirely.

I don’t know if they all missed all those publications or were too lazy to double check or were just searingly ableist, but nobody running this thing understood their biases. No consideration of evolving understandings around autism and empathy. No engagement with the literature that disputed the very basis of their analysis – I’m not talking them dismissing it, I mean they literally did not mention disagreement on the topic existed in their article. No attempt to run this by anyone who could tell how screamingly bizarre parts of their analysis were. There are two comments on the paper in the journal’s website: the first is from an autistic person a month before it was published that lays out everything I said here, and one from the editors saying “concerns had been raised” and promising revisions before release. I found a Twitter thread reacting to an early version and had to go down 30 replies before I found something that wasn’t “this paper is saying being good is bad if you’re autistic, isn’t it?” It was still published in its current form less than a year ago, and since then it’s been cited in five other papers. There’s no pushback, there’s no acknowledgment that anything is wrong. The disconnect is complete.