The Genetical Book Review: The Psychopath Test

So, welcome back to the Genetical Book Review! This episode? The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronon. Ronson is the author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, which the movie was based on.

Also, his name is what my name would be if I were from Iceland.

The Psychopath Test traces Ronson’s exploration of psychopathy: what a psychopath is, how you identify one, the effect they have on society, and society’s efforts to contain them. The book is written engagingly, and makes for a quick read, even if you’re as slow a reader as I am. Ronson mixes historical and medical information with interviews of both psychopaths and the doctors who have sought to define and/or treat them. Some of the accounts, you can imagine, touch on some fairly gruesome events, but the light manner of the writing should make the material palatable even for those with weaker stomachs for that sort of thing.

One of the most interesting things about the book is the fact that the material is presented chronologically — not in the order that things happened, but in the order that Ronson learned about and understood them (ostensibly, at least). The effect is a really interesting one, which fits well with what seems to be one of the books goals. By the end of the book, Ronson has deconstructed the whole notion of sanity/insanity, as well as the motives of doctors, pharmaceutical companies, police, the entertainment industry, and journalists, including himself.

He achieves the effect by writing in a sort of semi-gonzo, close first person, chronicling his own reactions and beliefs along the journey. First, he learns x, and so he believes X. Then, in the next chapter, he learns y, and starts to doubt his belief in X. And so on throughout the book. The result is a message that is fragmented, but also nuanced and faceted. This mixture of sometimes contradictory conclusions actually seems quite fitting, given the complexity of the phenomenon, and our limited understanding of it.

Even out of that complexity though, there are two big take-home messages that rise above the others.

First is the fact that psychopathy is not really a well-defined, discrete thing. There is a continuum not only of severity, but of type. Two people could both score high on the eponymous psychopath test (constructed by Bob Hare, who features prominently in the book), but actually exhibit quite different suites of behavior.

This, of course, is not news to anyone who has spent time studying psychiatric disorders (or any other sort of complex disease). Labeling is a necessary part of science and of medicine, as it is what allows us to communicate with each other in an efficient way. However, we need to keep reminding ourselves that these labels refer to abstractions, and that the thing we care about is typically a lot more complicated, and a lots less well understood, than a monolithic label implies.

Which is to say, while it might not be news, it is always good to be reminded of it.

Second is the idea that there are a lot of aspects of society that have a vested interest in reducing people to their maddest edges, as Ronson puts it. Reality television and daytime talk shows seek out people who have something going on that is crazy enough to be entertaining, and then edit out all the boring (read “sane”) bits. Journalists do likewise, seeking out the extreme behaviors and personalities that will make for good quotations and compelling stories. Pharmaceutical companies benefit monetarily from the application of clinical labels to any behavior that lies outside the norm.

And so forth.

There are obviously a lot of very ill people out there. But there are also people in the middle, getting overlabeled, becoming nothing more than a big splurge of madness in the minds of the people who benefit from it.

The other thing that struck me was the chapter on the DSM, the big book that defines all mental illnesses. I think I had always assumed that there was some sort of rigorous, evidence-based process by which disorders were included or excluded. It seems that, well, not so much. It seems more like it is a veneer of codification laid on top of a bunch of idiosyncratic opinions, passed through a filter of special interests. Sigh.

Basically, if you work in the field, you may already be familiar with many of the stories, and may already have internalized many of the punchlines. But, for most people, The Psychopath Test provides an entertaining, informative, and often troubling look at medicalization and exploitation of mental health in our society.

Ronson, Jon. The Psychopath Test. New York: Riverhead Books, 2011.

Hare, R. D. (1980). A research scale for the assessment of psychopathy in criminal populations Personality and Individual Differences, 1 (2), 111-120 : 10.1016/0191-8869(80)90028-8

Buy it now!!

What’s that? You say you want to buy this book? And you want to support Lost in Transcription at the same time? Well, for you, sir and/or madam, I present these links.

Buy The Psychopath Test  now through:


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Hauser Plagiarism Case Tabled (for the moment)

So, a couple of days ago, Gilbert Harman, Philosophy Professor at Princeton, wrote four pages arguing that Marc Hauser’s 2006 book, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, plagiarized the work of John Mikhail. I mentioned it and linked to it in my Sunday Linkasaurolophus post.

Since then, the paper has been taken down from Harman’s website.

Apparently, Harman did not intend for the argument to be made public. It was more like brainstorming, a first step at putting together “the case for the prosecution,” as Harman puts it. It was a draft that he had meant to be presented only to a small circle, as Harman explained here:

For the record, my discussion was intended as a draft of a case for the prosecution and not a final verdict on this topic. I thought I was making it available for only a few people in order to get comments, but apparently it has had a somewhat wider audience than I intended. In the light of various comments I have received, I need to rethink the “case”, something I cannot do immediately, so I have removed that version from my web site.

Interestingly, my earlier post received an anonymous comment from someone claiming to be a student of Hauser’s. The comment stated that Harman’s piece was retracted, and that Hauser could not possibly have had a culture of fear in his lab, since he has trained so many successful scientists, and has won awards for teaching and mentoring.

I mention that just to point out two things. First, based on Harman’s own comment, the piece has not been retracted so much as it has been shelved until Harman has more time. When and if he puts something together that he is willing to stand behind in a public forum, it might be less critical of Hauser, or it might be more critical. We’ll just have to wait and see. In any event, I don’t think that the removal of the piece should necessarily be viewed as a repudiation of the original claims. Certainly, it seems reasonable to assume that the facts that Harman presented wil not change, even if his interpretation of them does.

Second, yes, Hauser has a reputation as a gifted communicator, teacher, and mentor. Yes, Hauser has trained a lot of successful scientists. And, I have no doubt that there are people out there who think very highly of him, at least highly enough to anonymously defend him in blog comment threads.

However, none of that is inconsistent with the portrayal of Hauser’s lab presented by other lab members, which paints Hauser as, at best, dismissive impatient, and, at worst, a bit of a bully.

That being said, my use of the phrase “culture of fear” to describe Hauser’s lab may have been a bit over the top.

I’ll keep my ear to the ground, and will post anything new that comes up on the Harman piece. In the meantime, if you’re interested in the whole Hauser saga, David Dobbs wrote several nice posts on it, four of which you can find (in chronological order) here, herehere, and here.

Allophones: Linguistics Humor from Darwin Eats Cake

So, here are the last two Darwin Eats Cakes. They go together to form a sort of continuing story. It’s like a soap opera, except instead of people killing each other and having weird supernatural experiences, they engage in clunky set-ups for jokes about linguistics. Woo!

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Sunday Linkasaurolophus: September 25, 2011

So, welcome back to Linkasaurolophus.

Remember, it’s like Linkasaurus Rex, but paints me as a knowledgable insider, the kind of person who knows the name of more than one kind of dinosaur. Maybe two. To the other knowledgable insiders, it also implies that these links have a big crest on their head, which they may or may not have been used millions of years ago to play a jaunty tune.

Let’s start with Facebook: TNG

You’ve probably by now experienced the panopticon bar that Facebook introduced this week. The winning commentary on the New Facebook comes from Dan Lyons (NB: not the same Dan Lyons I went to high school with, although he, also, is awesome). Excerpt:

I prepared myself. On Wednesday night I ate a light dinner and went to bed early, in order to get extra sleep for Thursday morning. Nevertheless, 24 hours later, my hands are still shaking. I’m unable to focus. No matter where I am, I am thinking about Facebook and the new, deeper connection that I immediately feel to everyone I know. It’s so deep, so rich and personal and dare I say, intimate, that the effect is almost overwhelming. It’s like Stendhal Syndrome, where you get overwhelmed by looking at a work of art. I am shellshocked. No, even that is too small a word. I sit and gaze upon the Facebook home page and my emotions begin to sweep and swirl. One moment I am elated. Then I’m struck by anxiety and panic, and want to hide under my desk. A minute later I’m sobbing, uncontrollably, at the beauty of what they’ve done. Why, Mark Zuckerberg? Why do you do this to me? To the world? You are not a businessman, not a geek, not an engineer — you are an artist, and your canvas is the human race itself, the collective hive-mind of modernity.

If you’ve not already read it (which you probably have, as it’s been making the rounds) do yourself a favor and read the whole thing here.

And, here’s something to keep in mind when you’re griping about the Facebook changes, and your supercilious friend chastises you, reminding you again that you have no right to complain about a service that is provided to you for free:

Hat tip to Chris Smith, who was the secret inspiration for U2s fifth album, The Joshua Tree.

Also, you should get better friends.

In non-Facebook news:

The estimable John S. Wilkins (no recent relation) put up an excellent, and very broadly accessible answer to the question “What is philosophy?” You should read it.

Neuroskeptic posted a discussion of the Nipah virus, which provided the inspiration for the virus in the movie Contagion. (Actually, Nipah provided only part of the inspiration. The rest was provided by the universal desire to watch Gwyneth Paltrow die a horrible, horrible death).

You’ll recall the case of Marc Hauser, erstwhile Harvard Professor, who was accused of scientific misconduct, including possibly falsifying data. Around here, we like to call him “the man who put the a** in a**ertainment bias.” Well, Princeton Philosophy Professor Gilbert Harman makes an interesting case that Hauser’s 2006 book, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, may have plagiarized the work of John Mikhail. Or, as Harman puts it, “When the ideas taken from Mikhail are subtracted from Hauser’s book, it is unclear what of value is left.” You can read about it (about three-and-a-half pages) here.

If I’ve missed anything, perhaps Neutrino Superman can fly around the world, so that I have a chance to retroactively add it.

World’s Best Postdoc! Apply Now!

So, for those of you who are about to finish your PhD, or who have recently finished, or are wrapping up a first (or second) postdoc, here’s an opportunity you shouldn’t pass up.

Applications are now open for Omidyar Fellowships at the Santa Fe Institute. It’s a three-year gig with complete academic freedom. You work on whatever questions you find most interesting, using whatever tools you deem appropriate. And you get to hang out with a bunch of like-minded individuals from all sorts of different fields.

The Santa Fe Institute is highly interdisciplinary. Typically, there are people there doing physics, and biology, and anthropology, and computer science, and linguistics, and on and on. Most of the individual people you would meet there would be actively engaged in more than one of these areas. So, if you’re an interdisciplinary type of person, you should definitely apply.

You should especially apply if you feel that your work is constrained by disciplinary / departmental boundaries in a traditional academic setting, and you want to forge your own path.

The only sort-of constraint is that most of the work that happens there is mathematical / theoretical / computational. There’s no wet-lab space, and math tends to be the lingua franca that allows all of these people with different backgrounds to communicate and work together. That being said, there are people who have successfully managed to do some combination of theoretical and empirical / lab work by spending some of their time at a University or field site.

The major caveat I would raise is that you only want to take one of these positions if you are really ready to function as an independent researcher. You won’t have a traditional advisor, and no one will be looking over your shoulder — although you will have excellent and supportive colleagues and peers.

Here’s a snippet from Galway Kinnel’s The Book of Nightmares, which to me sums up the essence of this fellowship, and the ideals of the Santa Fe Institute:

I long for the mantle
of the great wanderers, who lighted
their steps by the lamp
of pure hunger and pure thirst, 

and whichever way they lurched was the way.

If that resonates with you, submit your application by November 1. Here’s the official flyer. I ran the postdoc program at SFI for about three years, and would by happy to try to answer any questions, but if you want answers that are actually correct, your best best is to contact the program directly.

Samuel L. Ipsum (NSFW)

So, have you grown tired of the standard Lorem Ipsum filler text? Here’s a little thing that will generate filler text for you, Samuel L. Jackson style.

Samuel L. Ipsum can be found here.

Here’s a sample:

Are you ready for the truth?

Now that we know who you are, I know who I am. I’m not a mistake! It all makes sense! In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain’s going to be? He’s the exact opposite of the hero. And most times they’re friends, like you and me! I should’ve known way back when… You know why, David? Because of the kids. They called me Mr Glass.

Hold on to your butts

Normally, both your asses would be dead as fucking fried chicken, but you happen to pull this shit while I’m in a transitional period so I don’t wanna kill you, I wanna help you. But I can’t give you this case, it don’t belong to me. Besides, I’ve already been through too much shit this morning over this case to hand it over to your dumb ass.