Sunday, July 22, 2012

To find the truth you need to click, click, click and check, check, check

This is the page for Daniel Corney (AKA Daniel Tammet) at the website of the World Memory Championships (WMC):

According to the book Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer, Daniel Corney "won the gold medal in the names-and-faces event" in the World Memory Championships, presumably a reference to winning this event in the competition of year 2000, and I have verified this is true from other sources, but at the above linked to web page there is no mention of this event. Corney's triumph in this part of the competition is a matter of controversy because he has claimed in media interviews and also in at least one of his books that he has a serious disability in recognizing faces, which is a scientifically recognized disability known as prosopagnosia. In one journal paper co-authored by the apparently quite eccentric University of Cambridge professor Simon Baron-Cohen it is revealed that Daniel Tammet (AKA Corney) performed at an "impaired" level in a test of face recognition with was a part of investigations of Tammet. Prof Baron-Cohen has probably done more to popularize the idea that autism and Asperger syndrome is linked to poor face recognition ability than any other autism expert. Baron-Cohen also diagnosed Tammet with Asperger syndrome, so he'd have a thing or two to explain to everyone if Tammet didn't display and claim to have inadequate face recognition ability. Baron-Cohen's idea is far from safe because Foer and I have found an abundance of evidence that Tammet/Corney actually has face recognition ability that works just fine. This is one reason why I'm feeling quite disappointed at the way that the website of the WMC appears to be less than forthcoming with one crucial fact about former competitor Daniel Corney.

Click through from the Daniel Corney page, on the link that leads to the details of his results in the year 2000 competition, and you will find this page:
and what do you know? The controversial event is listed here, in red, apparently because it is an "old" event, and the full name of the event is not used. I'm guessing that this event was left out of Daniel Corney's personal page on the premise that it is an "old" event. I can't see why this is a reason to omit a record of a long-past event. It was a current event in 2000, and surely that is all that matters in a record of this past championship. That event was Corney's highest achievement in the WMC, he won the event in the year 2000, so it seems doubly odd that mention of it is left out of the page that is a record of his participation in the WMC. Corney's fantastic performance in this event wasn't just a "flash in the pan" because he did also well in it in the previous year's competition, coming in at rank number four in 1999, which was the first year that he participated in the WMC. Corney seems to have a natural talent in this event! How very strange, considering his later claims. At the above linked page the event in question is named "Names" and the controversial word "faces" is left out of the whole thing. I think is really quite misleading, because, as I understand it, this event is primarily a task of memorizing names linked to faces. In the book Buzan's Book of Mental World Records by Tony Buzan and Ray Keene this event in the 2003 championships is described on page 45: "Discipline four was Names and Faces in which competitors are presented with sheets of photographs to memorise. This time Andi Bell took first place with Astrid second and the reining American Champion, Scott Hagwood, in third." This is definitely the same event as "old 15 min Names" written in red. It certainly looks like this event is a test of face recognition. For a WMC participant to show a consistent talent in this event and winning ability, but in later years to claim to have a face memory impairment most certainly requires an explanation. Perhaps the event can be won using some other type of memory besides pure face memory. I have only been able to find the scantest descriptions of how this brief event was conducted, and I'm not sure whether or not the memorized names and faces were tested in the same order that they are memorized. If they were, that could possibly allow for this event to be done using a mnemonic strategy rather than face recognition. An explanation is needed. I'm not asking for a public hanging, just an explanation of how Daniel Tammet managed to win this event in 2000. 

To help to conceal the truth about any person who has been incorrectly diagnosed as having Asperger syndrome, prosopagnosia, "savant syndrome", synaesthesia or exceptional natural memory ability is an evil thing to do, because this misleads the grand project of science, including the medical and psychological sciences. In the modern world science is the means by which people and essential human institutions understand the world. To f***-up science is to f***-up human knowledge, upon which human society bases many very important decisions affecting the welfare of citizens. Sure, it is a great laugh that so many scientists have been so severely fooled (or kept deliberately silent) for so long, and it is an education to see the extent that the Tammet story has become a part of scientific knowledge, but it is still wrong, a lie. When anyone makes a fool of science, they award free kicks to the many powerful and dangerous interests and groups in society whose business it is to attack science - the climate-change deniers, the anti-vaccine flake-bars, the alternative medicine shonks. There are real and frightening consequences when people trash the reputation of the scientific enterprise. 

Arguably, the most immoral aspect of this joke is the way that so many people, some of them vulnerable, have apparently been misrepresented. There are plenty of people in the world who actually do have a serious issue with recognizing faces, who do genuinely meet diagnostic criteria for autism or AS, who do display genuine savant skills, or who do experience genuine inborn or acquired synaesthesia. If Tammet is indeed a fake in all these areas, then we can say that for a bunch of different disabilities or psycho-neurological variations the most famous representative in the world is a faker, a grand misrepresentation. I know that if I were a prosopagnosic I'd be totally f***ing fuming if I knew that I was being represented in the public eye by a pretender who wrote the sentence "A familiar face, my friend Rehan, was waiting for me at the airport.” in his autobiography. You can have a severe disability in face recognition and still be able recognize a friend at an ariport? Doesn't sound like too much of a disability, does it? Maybe it is just another bit of nonsense that people make up, like restless legs or ADHD, don't you think? And this Daniel Tammet character is supposed to be autistic, but he's hugely popular and has a successful career and handles media interviews with great skill and grace. Makes one wonder if this autism thing is a bunch of nonsense. Disability? Where is the disability? Don't you think this autism caper is a bunch of rot? Actually, I think a lot of the stuff written about it is rot, but in my opinion, the WMC is just as big a pile of piffle. Its high time that everyone cut the crap and owned up. 


Anonymous said...

I think you're reading too much into the WMC website not including the names and faces event on Daniel Corney's page, when you say they are "less than forthcoming" about it. That's just the way the website is set up - it's the same for all the competitors, and there is nothing unusual about Corney/Tammet's page.

Similarly I'm sure "names" was chosen rather than "names and faces" just as an abbreviation. Remember this website is listing the results for hundreds of competitors, and it's unlikely that whoever wrote it knew or cared about Tammet's performance.


Lili Marlene said...

Sure they list details of heaps of competitors, but Tammet is by far the most famous one, wouldn't you agree?

I've got little regard for the WMC people. Tammet and Brainman have been all over the mass media in the UK and all around the world, and many of the people who knew him as a WMC competitor must have recognized him as Daniel Tammet, and then realized that a great chunk of his story was being left out of the story, and no one stepped forward to ask why his past was being misrepresented? Did no-one give a tip or an interview about Tammet to the media or any journalist till Foer came along? Wouldn't an exposure of Tammet's past be a great story to report?

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think most people in the WMC don't pay much attention to him, despite his fame. My guess is that the WMC competitors see it as just a sport, and they don't really want the attention. Maybe some of them tried and the response was negative, so they didn't try again. You're reading too much into it.

Anonymous said...

I think you are being too hard on the WMC people here. What are they supposed to have done? Tell a journalist that Tammet was a WMC competitor in 2000? That's hardly a great news story. It's only by piecing together all the parts of the story - as Foer had done with his careful and lengthly research - that you get something remotely worth reporting.

Indeed, as Moonwalking with Einstein states, Dominic O'Brien, one of the most well known memory champions and in later years one of the organisers of the WMC did give an interview to the makers of the "Brain Man" documentary expressing skepticism about Tammet. Of course, it didn't make the final cut.

"Wouldn't an exposure of Tammet's past be a great story to report?". The answer is probably "No". The story will be perceived by most readers as a journalist having a go at a vulnerable disabled person, with speculation based on limited evidence that goes directly against what proper established experts like Simon Baron Cohen and Darold Treffert think. I think most editors would be reluctant to touch it.

Joshua Foer himself reports that he was reluctant to run with the story, and held off from doing so until he found direct evidence of Tammet contradicting himself from the website articles. Even then, that aspect of the book didn't earn him much praise. For example, the New York Times review's reaction was:

"Foer inexplicably devotes space to attempting to convince the reader that Daniel Tammet, a renowned savant who memorized 22,514 digits of pi, may not actually be doing it naturally, but only by using the same kind of mnemonic aids used by Foer and his fellow competitors (would it matter?)."

This reviewer is a psychologist and should know better, but she just doesn't get it - she doesn't understand why the Tammet case matters and how it is distorting science and the public understanding of science. Most journalists, editors and readers would be even less likely to cotton on. Sometimes good science doesn't make a good story.


Lili Marlene said...

"Sometimes good science doesn't make a good story."

Actually, a lot of the time good science doesn't make a good story. But the very few of us who care about science and the truth, and who also don't have to worry about conflicting personal or academic or professional interests, need to speak up, and Blogger is not a new thing, nor Wordpress, nor whatever blogging services came before them. In all the years that I've been tapping away at my keyboard I've never spent a cent to publish my views and discoveries. Quite often I've had an interest or some original insight into some subject in the general area of neuropsychology, and I'd sit down and write a post about it, and wait just a matter of minutes or hours to see my post come up in the top hits of a Google search on the subject that I wrote about. If I want to have some input into the world of the mainstream media, I could participate in any of the countless forums and website comment pages associated with journalistic TV or radio shows or the press or magazines. Anyone can do it, and the only cost is your time. And believe me, even though it may seem that only a handful of people read your stuff, in time a snowball effect can be seen, and a readership accumulates.

I really need to re-read the chapter about Tammet by Foer. Yes, I recall noting that Dominic O'Brien was in the credits for one of the versions of Brainman. I don't know what he looks like. Was he actually shown in the doco for any length of time?

Perhaps you are right Tomas, and maybe you are much more in touch with the way that journos and average folks think than I am, but you'll never convince me that a crock of unicorns jumping over rainbows is a better news story than the truth.

I wouldn't feel too sorry for Foer. The Amazon page for his book gives the impression that he has many fans who enjoyed and respect his book, which is more than I can say about Baron-Cohen's last monograph. A great part of the fun of exploring the Tammet story is finding out and exposing what a pack of clowns so many book reviewers and psychologists and journal paper authors and scientists are. Sure thing, if you write stuff that shows a greater respect for the truth than for the latest psychofad, you will be up against the opinions of many careerist psychologists and other members of the chattering classes, but it's SO MUCH FUN showing the world what a pack of pretentious geese these people are.

You described Baron-Cohen and Treffert and "proper established experts". I'm sure you know they hardly deserve that status. Baron-Cohen put an absurd and medically impossible anecdote at the VERY beginning of his last book (or two, if you count both versions) and in the associated publicity, and the only people in the world who write about the absurdity of this situation and ask questions are an Australian housewife and a neo-Nazi web forum? WTF? Why is it up to me (and Neo-Nazis) to point out that emperor Baron-Cohen has no clothes? You know that the most powerful evidence against Tammet came from himself and the publicity agency who have been representing him for years, and a lot of the evidence is very old stuff that has been openly available for many years. It has just been a matter of putting the pieces together. Anyone could have done it, but no one did for many years. It is hard to discount the idea that Tammet wants to be exposed, or couldn't care either way. Why did he give an interview to Foer, and why did KBC Media write about him on the website?