Back in November in my column, "The Science of Libertarian Morality," I reported some recent research by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues that showed how libertarian moral thinking differed from that of standard issue liberals and conservatives. One particularly interesting aspect of their research was how libertarians scored on the Empathizer/Systemizer scale:
Some of the more intriguing results reported in this study involve the Empathizer-Systemizer scale. The scale measures the tendency to empathize, defined as "the drive to identify another person's emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion," and to systemize, or "the drive to analyze the variables in a system, and to derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of the system." Libertarians are the only group that scored higher on systemizing than on empathizing—and they scored a lot higher. The authors go on to suggest that systemizing is “characteristic of the male brain, with very extreme scores indicating autism.” They then add, “We might say that liberals have the most ‘feminine’ cognitive style, and libertarians the most ‘masculine.’” They speculate that the “feminizing” of the Democratic Party in the 1970s may thus explain why libertarians moved into the Republican Party in the 1980s.
Based on my anecdotal experience, I have long had a personal opinion that autism correlates with having highly intelligent parents. In my view assortative mating accounts for an increasing rate of autism because after the 1960s more intelligent women got to go to college where they met and married similarly intelligent men. This tendency was especially strong among engineering and science students. Now, I can point to some research that bolsters this long held private opinion.
In a new study, Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD, director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge and his colleagues compared the autism rates in three different regions in the Netherlands, Eindhoven, Haarlem, and Utrecht. Eindhoven is a center of the information technology industry in that country. As Medscape reports:
Haarlem and Utrecht are similar in population and socioeconomic status but have far fewer jobs in IT and technology.
The study showed that the school reported rates of ADHD and dyspraxia were similar for all 3 areas, but the school-reported rates of autism were markedly higher in the Eindhoven region than in the other 2 regions.
In Eindhoven, the prevalence rate of autism was 2.3% (229 kids per 10,000), whereas in Haarlem it was 0.8% (84 per 10,000) and in Utrecht, 0.6% (57 per 10,000).
"These results are in line with the idea that in regions where parents gravitate towards jobs that involve strong 'systemizing,' such as the IT sector, there will be a higher rate of autism among their children, because the genes for autism may be expressed in first degree relatives as a talent in systemizing," Dr. Baron-Cohen said in a statement.
"The results also have implications for explaining how genes for autism may have persisted in the population gene pool, as some of these genes appear linked to adaptive, advantageous traits."
A 2010 study in California found a similar correlation:
Adjusted for other covariates, the majority of areas of autism clustering were characterized by high parental education, e.g. relative risks >4 for college-graduate vs. nonhigh-school graduate parents.
Of course, there could be all kinds of confounders. One caution mentioned by critics and even the researchers themselves is that highly educated parents are more likely to seek services for their children which could boost the apparent autism rate. Still, it's nice to have my confirmation bias, well, confirmed.