Interview with Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen’s new book Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World has a lot to say about two topics in which I am especially interested: autism and human diversity. What can the rest of us learn from people with autism? What does the wide range of outcomes among autistic adults tell us about our world? I interviewed Tyler by email about his book.

ROBERTS If I remember correctly, you think a book should be new, true, and something else. What’s the something else?

COWEN The “something else” should cover at least two qualities.

First, if everyone read the book and was persuaded by it, would anything change for the better? An author should aim to write a book which matters.

Second, the book should reflect something the author really cares about. If the author doesn’t care, why should the reader?

ROBERTS What was the tipping point for this book — the event that made you say: I’m going to write a book about THIS?

COWEN To me it’s very important what an author is thinking about in his or her spare time, if the phrase “spare time” even applies to my life, which has an extreme blending of work and leisure time. Ideally that is what an author should be writing about. At some point you realize: “Hey, I am constantly thinking about xxxxx in my spare time!” And then you want to write it up.

I also hit up the idea of this book through pondering the lives of some particular individuals I know — and how much they *live* the thesis of my book — although I am not sure they would wish to be identified publicly.

ROBERTS Have you been to Autreat, the annual conference of Autism Network International, that you mention? If so, did it affect your thinking?

COWEN I haven’t been to Autreat, which for me is located somewhat inconveniently away from major cities (that is on purpose, I believe). I’m also not clear on exactly who is welcome, who needs an invitation, etc. Most conferences have a very high variance in quality across presentations and mostly one goes to meet one or two key people; often you don’t know in advance who they will be. I suspect the same logic applies to Autreat as well.

ROBERTS Do you think there are jobs that persons with autism do better than persons without autism?

COWEN Autistics often exhibit superior skills in attention to detail, pattern recognition, what I call “mental ordering,” and they have areas of strong preferred interests, in which they are very often superb self-educators. So yes, that will make many autistics very good at some jobs but also poorly suited for others. But I don’t want to generalize and say “autistics are better at job X,” that would be misleading. Across autistics there is a wide variety of cognitive skills and also problems. Engineering and computer science are the stereotypical areas where you expect to find higher than average rates of autism. While I suspect this is true in terms of the average, it can be misleading to focus on the stereotype precisely because of the high variance of skills and outcomes among autistics. One of the central issues in understanding autism is grasping the connection between the underlying unity of the phenomenon and the extreme variability of the results. In the short run, positive stereotypes can perform a useful educating function. But the more we present stereotypes, the more we are getting people away from coming to terms with that more fundamental issue, namely an understanding of the variance.

ROBERTS There is a basic biological phenomenon in which animals and plants under stress become more variable. Some say variability in the genotype has been released into the phenotype. Do you think the variance seen in autism has been “released” in some way?

COWEN I am not sure I understand the question…for one thing I am not sure what is the postulated increase in genetic stress…

ROBERTS Yes, it’s a confusing question. Let’s try this: What do you think the high variance of outcome seen in autism is telling us?

COWEN I’ll try to make that more concrete. One view of autism is that autistics have greater access to lower-level perception and such that access is essential for understanding autism. On one hand it gives autistics some special abilities, such as pattern recognition, certain kinds of information processing, and noticing small changes with great skill. (In some cases this also leads to savant-like abilities.) This also may be connected to some of the problems which autistics experience, such as hyper-sensitivities to some kinds of public environments.

It could be that non-autistics have a faculty, or faculties, which “cut off” or automatically organize a lot of this lower level perception. The implication would be that for autistics this faculty is somehow weaker, missing, or “broken.” The underlying unity in autism would be that this faculty is somehow different, relative to non-autistics. The resulting variance is that the difference in this faculty gives rise to abilities and disabilities which very much differ across autistics.

That’s one attempt to come to terms with both the unity of autism and the variance within it. It’s a tough question and we don’t know the right answer yet, in my view. What I outlined is just one hypothesis.

ROBERTS A clear parallel in the increased variance of autistic persons is the increased variance of left-handers. Left-handers have brain organizations that vary much more than the brain organization of right-handers. Right-handers are all one way; left-handers are all over the place. Do you see any similarities between left-handers and persons with autism?

COWEN I recall some claims that autistics are more likely to be left-handed but I’ve never looked into their veracity. There are so many false claims about autism that one must be very careful.

ADHD is another example of something which produces high variance outcomes. I don’t think it is correct to call it a disorder *per se*.

We’re just starting to wrap our heads around the “high variance” idea. Most people have the natural instinct to attach gross labels of good or bad even when a subtler approach is called for.

ROBERTS The term left-hander is confusing because left-handers aren’t the opposite of right-handers. The dichotomy is okay but the two sides are better labeled right-handers and non-right-handers. In other words, one group (right-handers) has something (a certain brain organization); the other group doesn’t have that brain organization. Then the vast difference in variance makes sense. How accurate would it be to say that non-autistics have something than autistics don’t have? (I’m left-handed, by the way.)

COWEN I would say we still don’t have a fully coherent definition of autism. And “have” is a tricky word. I think of autistic brains as different, rather than “normal” brains with “missing parts.” Some researchers postulate differences in the kind of connections autistic brains make. In thirty years I expect we will know much, much more than we do right now.

ROBERTS I hope this isn’t too self-indulgent: What do you make of the correlation between autism and digestive problems?

COWEN I don’t think there are convincing theories about either digestive problems causing autism or autism causing digestive problems. There is *maybe* a correlation through a common genetic cause, but even if that is true it is not very useful as a means of understanding autism. This is another area where there are many strong opinions, often stronger than are justified by the facts.

ROBERTS Another “assorted” question: I loved the study you mentioned where people with perfect pitch were more likely to be eccentric than those without perfect pitch. That’s quite a result. How did you learn about it?

COWEN There is a somewhat scattered literature on music, cognition, and society. It still awaits synthesis, it seems. Someone could write a very good popular book on the topic. (Maybe Gabriel Rossman is the guy to do it.) The more I browsed that literature, the more interesting results I found.

ROBERTS I don’t think I’ve done justice to your extremely original book but here is a last question. You talk about Thomas Schelling’s use of stories. Presumably in contrast to other econ professors. I think of story-telling being something that once upon a time everyone did — it was the usual way to teach. Why do you think Schelling told stories much more than those around him?

COWEN Thanks for the kind words. Schelling has a unique mind, as anyone who has known him will attest. I don’t know any other economist or social scientist who thinks like he does, but we’ve yet to figure out what exactly his unique element consists of. I would say that Schelling views story-telling as a path to social science wisdom. They’re not even anecdotes, they’re stories. Maybe that doesn’t sound convincing to an outsider, but it got him a Nobel Prize.

I am very interested in the topic of “styles of thought in economics.”