Debased currency

April 5, 2012

The article on "post-autistic economics" in Germany ("Appliance of the dismal science", 29 March) describes the use of the term "autistic" in this context as "controversial", but it is worse than that. Just as the term "spastic" was first used to describe a recognised condition, then appropriated by those who wanted to use it in other contexts in a pejorative manner, so the same thing is happening with "autistic".

The article failed to note that "post-autistic economics" reaches far wider than Germany alone: for example, there is a large Post-Autistic Economics Network in the UK. Its slogan is "sanity, humanity and science", which only serves to make matters worse by implying that these values are somehow in opposition to "autism", at least in an economics context.

One of many ironies here is that if autism did not exist, then science itself would almost certainly have been greatly impoverished. There is growing recognition that many notable scientists in the past displayed traits that would now be associated with autism/Asperger's syndrome or autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Given that many of those with ASD are now known to be attracted to academic-type work, it is quite likely that a number of those associated with the Post-Autistic Economics Network are themselves on the spectrum, albeit probably undiagnosed in many cases.

The network publishes the Real-World Economics Review, originally called the Post-Autistic Economics Review. The name change is welcome, although unexplained. But otherwise, the Post-Autistic Economics Network still presents itself as such to the world. Requests from me to the organisers to consider adopting a different name have gone unanswered and unacknowledged.

All this could be dismissed as the work of ignorant and insensitive individuals on the fringes of academia, but there are a number of colleagues whose work I respect who publish in its Review and have allowed their names to be cited on the network's website. When I explained the background and asked them if they were content with this, some were sympathetic but to date no colleague has said they would disassociate themselves from the network.

This is disappointing and depressing, all the more so because such ignorance is promoted and perpetuated in contexts where it should not be tolerated. If academics do not understand the dangers that can arise from the abuse of words and their power to degrade and humiliate, who will?

Neil Kay, Emeritus professor of business economics, University of Strathclyde

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