There’s been controversy in the UK over an article published in the Guardian that’s regarded as being pro-child abuse.
In particular, the newspaper has taken flak for quoting Tom O’Carroll, a self-confessed paedophile and advocate for the right of people to be one. Amongst other things he’s written a book about Michael Jackson. At least this week, until the next one comes along, he is Britain’s most notorious paedophile.
Now oddly enough, I recently had an encounter with O’Carroll, although I didn’t know who he was at the time. Here’s the tale…
A few weeks ago, I got an out-of-the-blue email from a Neuroskeptic reader (as happens often), from someone saying he’d tried to leave a comment on this post but it was rejected for being too long.
O’Carroll (for it was he) wanted to know whether I agreed with his reservations about some research on “Cerebral white matter deficiencies in pedophilic men“, and specifically on this statement by the paper’s author:
One must consider carefully whether the brain differences we detected [i.e. reduced white matter volume in particular areas] cause pedophilia or whether some aspect of being pedophilic caused the brain differences…
Although it is now known that certain brain structures respond to environmental stimulation, such as the motor cortex, there is no evidence that such stimulation causes any changes in the superior fronto-occipital fasciculus or right arcuate fasciculus (the brain regions in which pedophiles and nonpedophiles differ).
Moreover, the brain regions we identified are extremely large, and no previous research has ever found changes in such large regions of the brain. As an analogy, physical exercise will generally stimulate one’s muscle tissue to grow, but one would not grow an extra arm; neurological changes occur only in a very specific manner.
O’Carroll thought that this is a misleading analogy, because the brain could be plastic in ways we don’t yet understand. I agreed. We just don’t know enough about the brain, yet, to say that the observed white matter changes can’t possibly be responses to experiences.
Several recent studies found that experience and learning can change adult human white matter structure. The changes observed were fairly small, but then these studies were fairly short, so they don’t define the upper limit of what’s possible over time.
These results are not without critics of their own, and I’m on the fence about whether white matter is plastic at all, but my point is, it’s an open question. So comparing the idea of white matter plasticity to ‘growing an extra arm’ is overstatement – and it would be, whether the topic was paedophilia or anything else.
Now, as I said, I hadn’t heard of Tom O’Carroll at the time, and I assumed he had a purely academic interest in the matter, as an piece of oversold neuroscience. But now, thanks to the Guardian drama, I realize that…
Britain’s most notorious paedophile reads Neuroskeptic.
On that macabre note, I’ve often wondered whether James Eagan Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado Batman shooter, ever visited this blog. It’s possible: he was a neuroscience undergraduate and later PhD student over the time Neuroskeptic‘s been going.
There have been 574 visits from Aurora, Colorado, where Holmes was doing his PhD, since 2008. I’ll never know whether he was one of them, but the idea that he might have been is pretty creepy.