(I wrote this a month back or so. I finished “Autisms’s False Prophets”, which was excellent. Go buy a copy for yourself.)
I’ve been reading “Autism’s False Prophets” by Paul Offit, as I’ve been recently quite interested in the anti-vaccination movement that seems to have infected Amercan culture (and elsewhere, too).
In reading random schlep on the interwebs, I’ve discovered a few new tests for idiocy. As they may be helpful to the rest of the world, I’ll share them here:
1) People who come up with things like Micro$oft, cutesy little phrases that serve no purpose to the argument at hand.
This goes for all sides of an argument – things like “Nobama!” and McSame are some of the more recent ones. While reading an article about how Paul Offit is a greedy something-or-other who is making bazillions of pharmaceutical companies (and is therefore less qualified to explain the medical causes of autism than Jenny McCarthy, with her extensive experience with the Googles), I came upon the following:
See, and there is where all of our ire towards pHARMa-whores like you and (for Pr)Offit comes from; the fact that all of these parents have experienced exactly the same thing makes us all desperate and delusional.
See, now I agree with you! You’ve discovered that the word HARM is in the middle of pharmaceutical, which must mean that they are evil! I get it now! Yays!
I hypothesize a few simple reasons for why the correlation between making up (and perhaps even just using) these inane phrases and idiocy may exist:
- Someone who is emotional enough to come up with meaningless-yet-hateful terms like this generally doesn’t have the presence of mind to understand what is going on.
- People who spend enough time working on cute phrases like this probably have way too much time on their hand or very odd priorities, and probably shouldn’t be listened to. “(for Pr)Offit” seems, well, like it must have taken some serious dedication to douchery in order to come up with. Kudos, I suppose.
- For the people who just use it – picking up on terms like this probably means that, like the first bullet point, you are too emotionally charged to make a clear decision. I’ll give a bit of benefit of the doubt, here, and hope that you spent good time and effort thinking things through, first, and then later descended into anger.
Anyways, anytime you see people write stuff like this, just run away. Also, yell, “I need an adult!” It helps.
2) “My child has autism and your child does not, therefore you don’t have the right to criticize.”
This includes things like, “Dr. Offit has never treated a child with autism, therefore he can’t possibly disprove that these things cause autism.” “You aren’t offering a solution, so you must not care about autistic children.”
I wrote a post awhile back, claiming that anytime people use the phrase “It is a fact that…” or some similar thing where they have to call out the factual nature of something generally means that whatever they are saying has minimal factual quality.
This sounds similar – when it comes to critiquing or understanding scientific study, the fact that you have a child with autism does not make you uniquely qualified to understand immunology or medicine in general. You likely have much more knowledge about what it means to live with your autistic child(ren), but you don’t have the quantity or quality of knowledge and experience to judge what causes autism.
3) A crappy understanding of both correlation and causation
Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
My child was normal when he was younger than 2 years old. At some point, he had vaccinations. Later, he was diagnosed with autism. Therefore, autism is caused by vaccinations.
Want to know the difference between a good scientist and a bad scientist?
After the thimerosal “scare”, people conducted statistical studies to see if autism rates dropped when thimerosal was removed from immunizations. In chapter 6 of the book, Offit gives an accounting of ten or so studies, from 2003 onward, that found that after thimersoal was removed from vaccinations, the incidence of autism “skyrocketed”. The interesting thing, though, is the conclusions of these studies were all along the lines of:
The data does not support a correlation between thimerosal-containing vaccines and incidence of autism.
Notice anything missing there? The conclusions were not, therefore, we have proved that a lack of thimerosal causes autism. That would be retarded – any number of factors could have changed that cause the skyrocketing rates of kids being diagnosed with autistic disorders (Offit gives many explanations throughout the book).
On the other side of the argument, though, there are two errors made.
First, the studies “proving” the links between various things in vaccinations (it tends to change every couple of years, as they are disproved) are few and flawed. All it seems to take is one or a few studies to “prove” that the medical “establishment” is poising our children.
Second, they assume these few studies show causation and not just correlation. I can do it, too – I was vaccinated, and later my balls dropped. Therefore vaccines cause puberty!
I have a hypothesis for this whole situation (which is absolutely not fact, just an opinion), which matches up with a lot of what I’ve been reading. Offit says something like this, too, so I guess I’m not alone:
The parents who have bought into this charade are desperate (note, importantly, that not all parents of autistic children buy into this crap, but the ones that don’t seem to be ostracized by the others for “not caring enough” for their kids). Autism is an incredibly difficult condition because it breaks down the ability to communicate and do other social activities (I don’t mean “going to the mall”, I mean behaving in social contexts in a way that makes you a part of society as a whole), and people are understandably angry and hurt and searching for answers. Unfortunately, there aren’t any really good answers (yet), and no amount of wishing or believing in snake oil is going to make these fake answers work.
As a quick aside, I’ve always found the people I’ve known who believe in homeopathy and the like have a fundamental misunderstanding about science. From what I’ve learned from these people, they believe that science doesn’t show that homeopathy works because homeopathy isn’t “scientific”. Same thing goes for really strange treatments generally labeled as “Eastern medicine” (by their hippy, very-much-not-asian practitioners) – it isn’t “science”, but it still works!
What they don’t understand is that the scientific method is, at its heart, inclusive. If putting a drop of bee stinger poison that has been diluted 100 times onto your tongue really cured allergy to bee stings, then you could test that. If you have a hypothesis, that A causes B, then you can perform tests in such a manner to determine if there is a correlation between A and B, and if that correlation is different (in a “significant” way) than B just happening “at random” or under control.
Anyways, back to the rest.
The quacks, who peddle this nonsense, are generally divided into two groups. The first, and entirely forgivable, group, is the group that really does mean well. In Offit’s book, he talks about facilitated communication, and about how it was the rage for a couple of years. Most of the people who participated in this really did believe that they were helping autistic children, giving them voices to speak for the first time. They weren’t trying to mislead anyone, and they really meant well.
These same people were heartbroken when experiments showed that when the facilitator was effectively blinded to whatever the child was supposed to type, it came out wrong. My favorite was a study where they showed a different image to the autistic child (say, a “bat”) than they did to the facilitator (say, a “car”), and the word that was typed was what the facilitator saw 100% of the time.
Unfortunately, though, these people were following the false hope sold to them by the real assholes of these situations – people of (seeming) authority who abuse the trust that has been put in them. People with medical degrees who are “fighting against the man” in order to help the poor children of the world. You can tell the difference between the misguided and the assholes by what happens when they are proven wrong – the misguided (like the facilitators) were heartbroken and felt they had perpetrated a great wrong upon the many families they were trying to help, whereas the true assholes refused to listen to reason, and say things like, “well, it is still under debate, and I stand by my original research.”
Both of these groups, the quacks and the parents, suffer from what I like to think of as the Republican dilemma (with a capital “R”, to denote the political party). This is the dilemma that informs people that all forms of bureaucracy are inherently evil/lazy/inefficient/wasteful/worthless/etc., unless the people in the bureaucracy believe the same things you do. Every time you see the word “establishment” used in a derogatory way, this is what you are witnessing.
You see, the medical establishment is just being paid by pHARMaceutical companies to peddle poison to our children, cause they make eleventy-billion dollars off our poor, diseased kids.
And you know what? I can kinda relate, as I imagine the country can, when you think about “big tobacco”, and whatever is going on now around global warming. These are cases when people in positions of authority (e.g. doctors, scientists, researchers, whatever) allow considerations other than science (usually money) to influence their voice; since we give credibility to people in these discourses, us laypeople tend to listen. So sometimes it is hard to differentiate the voice of reason from simply the voice of authority.
Anyways, it is hard for me to judge these parents…actually, no. I find it much to easy to judge other people, as is painfully obvious from this blog. I really shouldn’t judge these parents so harshly for being all angry and pissy at the rest of the world that doesn’t believe, because they have it shitty and the quacks don’t make it easy for them.
There are two morals to this story, then:
First, if you are in that position of authority, take your role extremely seriously. If you take advantage of people who trust you for personal gain, then you are the worst kind of douche, and deserve to end up in a very special hell.
Second, if you are on the interwebs and you see some of these phrases and other weasel words, do your best to ignore them, as they aren’t really part of the discourse. Make sure you absolutely do not respond to these people, as you will not be able to convince them that they are full of shit. Just accept that some people can’t be a part of the argument. I certainly can’t, but hopefully you can.