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Limits of “The scientific method” in nearly normal brains: The case of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder

Fred L. Bookstein

Professor of Statistics, University of Washington, formerly Professor of Anthropology, University of Vienna

In fond memory of John Dittami, who always preferred a
good scientific story

Awareness of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD, the condition originally called "fetal alcohol syndrome") is barely forty years old. The original seven American cases were diagnosed at birth in 1973 by a combination of facial features, small size, "failure to thrive," and, of course, maternal alcoholism; but it was soon realized that the greatest damage was to the fetal brain and the consequent neurological and behavioral patterns.  Over the course of my thirty years of active research in this field, partly neuropsychological and partly neuro-anatomical, I have arrived at a two part summary that is fairly pessimistic: FASD is at root an extreme normal variant of human consciousness, but today's (and also tomorrow's) biomedical research community is unlikely ever to fathom the essence of this condition. Ironically, the impact of our research tradition is much greater in the social sector into which some current behavioral science is propagated: child welfare, special education, and (my own focus) jurisprudence, especially in American murder trials.
FASD thus serves as the best example I know of the limits of "the scientific method" in studies of the embodied human mind. The appropriate rhetoric for investigations of this and other common extremes of normal variation may well be the method of narrative, not quantification. Case studies or legal arguments usually dominate statistical summaries, which typically serve merely as weak confirmations of insights long since arrived at by the older humanistic methods. The medical research literature -- nearly 5000 articles to date on FASD -- thus ends up testifying to the dominance of hermeneutic methods over "objective, scientific" methods in this particular aspect of the study of lives.

With contributions from

Prof. Dr. Ulrich Ansorge (Department of Psychology, University of Vienna)

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Bernard Wallner (Department of Anthropology, University of Vienna)

Moderated by

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Henriette Löffler-Stastka (Clinic for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, Medical University of Vienna)

Vienna Conference on Consciousness
Department für Verhaltensbiologie
Universität Wien

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