Thinking Differently: Tyler Cowen interviews Temple Grandin

Tyler Cowen has conducted excellent interviews with Peter Singer and Ralph Nader. Here’s a very short e-book that’s basically a raw transcript of his conversation with Temple Grandin, the slaughterhouse designer and autism researcher who is herself autistic.

Besides the overview on autism what really struck out was how Cowen kept trying to make more general observations about the neurodiverse, and Grandin’s general reluctance to venture into the abstract.

Here are some excerpts:

On what autistic people tend to be good and bad at:

Cowen: In academia, where both of us reside, there are a lot of autistics. And there are other places in our economy where autistics are more likely to flourish than others: library science, the appraisal of paintings, work that requires pattern recognition or fine attention to detail.

Grandin: There are two things that autistics tend to be really bad at. And the [first] thing is, high-level jobs do not require multitasking, having to do two different things at once. The other thing that we’re very bad at is following long strings of verbal instructions. Those seem to be two things that are really quite universal.

Cowen: This notion that the people who do well are the mild cases and the people who don’t do well are the severe cases, I tend not to agree with that.

On autistics and paternalism:

Cowen: Let’s say you want to smoke marijuana – and that affects only you – that’s against the law. I think an autistic person is more likely to be suspicious of paternalism… But is it possible that autistic people are, in some sense, too suspicious of paternalism – that there are examples, maybe, where paternalism would do the world some good, but autistic people, because of their history and, maybe, basic inclination will resist that paternalism because that resistance has become almost ingrained?

Grandin: I have to sell my work and not myself. I can remember early in my career, going to an agricultural engineering meeting and everybody thought I was really, really super weird. And then I whip out a copy of my drawings that I had done, of a cattle-handling facility and they go, “Wow, you drew that?” And as soon as they found that I had drawn that, they started to give me some respect. You know, people respect ability.

Cowen: Maybe ten years ago, I would have thought that over time we’ll tinker with the genes of the human race and this is likely to be a good thing.  But my attitude is changing and I fear if we tinker with genes or use selective abortion, that the result will be we’ll get a lot of kids who are easy to raise or, maybe they’re tall and blonde and captain of the football team, but we’ll lose a lot of diversity.

Cowen: As we go back to the Stone Age and ask, why did autism genes ever survive? That’s an unanswered question… I think one possibility is, during times of urbanization, these autistic people had fewer social contacts and maybe they were less prone to pandemics.

Grandin: Malcolm Gladwell just totally discounts ability. And I do not agree with that. Like, he used the example of Bill Gates, and that the reason why Bill Gates got to where he was, is because he had access to this fancy computer and he also had people to teach him how to use it… In college I had access to that exact same mainframe computer teletype terminal that Bill Gates did… but I just couldn’t do the programming, even though I wanted to do the programming.

Grandin: For me, trying to learn algebra was like totally impossible. The mistake that was made with me was not letting me try other types of math. I’m finding lots and lots of students now who can’t do algebra but they can do trig and geometry.

Are autistics actually social, but a different type of social?

Cowen: But maybe some of the chitchat is partly narcissistic and selfish for people and not truly social. And maybe, in part, you’re frustrated because it doesn’t correspond to what you want sociability to be, which is some other model based on a different style of communicating.

Grandin: One of the reasons I ended up designing slaughterhouses is because this industry has no barriers to entry.

Autism in Battlestar Galactica?

Cowen: Cylons, to me, have some odd parallels with autistics—that, at first, they’re viewed as being quite robotic or lacking in emotions or less than human, but, as the series goes on, you see how rich their internal mental lives are. And that’s been a theme in some of my writings and, of course, some of yours.


That’s it. There should be more “books” like this one, i.e. a raw transcript of someone smart asking questions of someone else who’s very smart.