Monday, October 1, 2012

Review: The Einstein Syndrome by Thomas Sowell

I couldn't come up with a better photo idea for this post than my very own late talker.
 Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2002

It's about:  Economist Thomas Sowell coined the term "Einstein Syndrome" to describe children who start speaking later than their peers, despite their being unusually analytically intelligent.  In this, his second book on the subject, he lays out the characteristics of such children and their families using research performed by himself and Stephen Camarata of Vanderbilt University.  (You can read a quick description of said characteristics on wikipedia if you're curious)

Mr. Sowell also describes multiple late-talking yet bright children and adults as case studies before giving a fair amount of advice to parents who believe their children may fit the Einstein Syndrome description.  He cautions against putting too much faith in the "dogma" of speech therapists and school professionals who will be quick to label most late talkers as autistic or developmentally delayed. 

I thought: My father-in-law gave this book to me because my own son, Jude, is a fairly late talker- at two and a half he is just beginning to communicate.  Naturally, his grandfather was interested in the idea that Jude might turn out to be highly gifted in math, science, and/or music like so many of the children and adults described in The Einstein Syndrome.  I, too, wanted to explore the possibility and so I was eager to read the book.

Now that I've learned all about Thomas Sowell's theories, I don't think Jude fits the Einstein Syndrome mold.  But still, it's a fascinating concept.  My favorite part was the chapter hypothesizing why these children talk late:  their unusual brains funnel resources to the sections of the brain devoted to analytical thought, causing those math/science/music abilities to appear earlier and language later.  The tendency appears to be hereditary- nearly all of the Einstein Syndrome children have close relatives who work in analytical fields and/or play musical instruments and/or were themselves late talkers.

But there were a few things that really bothered me about this book.  First of all, Mr. Sowell writes about the research as if it were vast, but the sample of Einstein Syndrome children he and his colleague have contacted is less than 300.  Almost all of these children seem to come from upper-middle class homes;  Among the markers for Einstein Syndrome, Sowell lists "highly educated" (Bachelor's degree +) parents, and relatives with analytical careers (scientists, pilots, physicians).  I think these are markers for an extremely skewed sample.  I kept getting the sense that Sowell came up with the idea for the Einstein Syndrome using his own son as an example, and then all his research revolved around finding other children to suit his ideas.  That's just not even real research.  It is gross confirmation bias masquerading as research.

It's easy for me to think these disapproving thoughts about Mr. Sowell's work because I just didn't like him.  He has an opinionated and forceful manner that comes through quite strongly in his writing.  He seems to think that ADD and ADHD actually do not exist.  He brushes Asperger Syndrome under the rug, too, despite the fact that several of the case studies in The Einstein Syndrome sound like they could be copy/pasted into a book about Asperger.  He writes glowingly about the situation in public schools in the 1960's and earlier, back in the good old days when children with learning disabilities didn't exist and students were just expected to pass or fail with no help from anyone.  I'd bet money that Thomas Sowell LOVES Ayn Rand.  He's an insufferable elitist who mocks virtually all public school teachers, speech therapists, and school psychologists, calling almost everyone without a Ph.D. or M.D. a self-interested and unethical "semi-professional" or "mediocrity."

And, given the fact that The Einstein Syndrome was published in 2002, Thomas Sowell's ideas are also based on outdated ideas about the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders and the highly typical language delay seen in children raised in multilingual homes (a phenomenon Sowell doesn't believe exists).  I'd be curious about an updated edition, and I'd like to hear how the Einstein Syndrome children in his sample are doing ten years years later.  I'd love to read the results of some real, rigorous research about the Einstein Syndrome.  But I'm not sure I could suffer through another book written by Thomas Sowell;  our personalities just do not mesh well.       

Verdict: I'll very grudgingly put it In-Between, since some parents who are concerned about a late-talking child might find useful and/or comforting info here.  But it has WAY too much unhelpful filler opinion material for my taste.   

Reading Recommendations: Keep your cynicism about you as you read.  No need to take Thomas Sowell's word as gospel.

Warnings: none.

What I'm reading nextThe Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard edited by Tom Léger and Riley Macleod