Saturday, November 08, 2008

OF RED HERRINGS AND STRAW MEN

I always wince a little whenever I see phrases like “red herring” and “straw man” bandied about in our little internet discussions. I always get the impression that the person using such a phrase is more interested in scoring debate points than he/she is in actually listening to the other side. So it is with great irony that I find myself writing these words.

Our old pal, Dr. Paul “I’m not really interested in the millions I’ve made; only in your children” Offit recently published his latest manifesto, entitled Autism’s False Prophets. As I mentioned in my last post, I don’t intend to review the book, as that would involve actually purchasing it. But I am fascinated by the recent media coverage surrounding the release of the book.

The press seems content to accept at face value Doc O’s pronouncements that there have been all those epidemiological studies that refute any connection between the increases in the vaccine schedule and the rise in diagnosed autism spectrum disorders. After all (insert sarcastic tone here), it’s far too difficult for the average reporter to actually look at the studies and see what was actually being measured, or even to find the various published critiques of those studies. And surely kindly Dr. Paul wouldn’t mislead anyone by asserting that there is absolutely no scientific evidence to suggest the possibility of a connection. (For the umpteenth time, let me emphasize here that I do not believe the connection has been established beyond doubt, but I do believe that there is enough clinical and biological evidence to warrant a lot more study).

No, the press isn’t interested in taking a critical look into the science. They aren’t asking why a pediatrician who has never been active in the treatment of autism should be considered an expert in causation of autism. And they sure aren’t troubled by the vested interest Paul Offit has in absolving vaccines of any guilt in being one of the possible triggers of the ASD epidemic. But what they are interested in is lurid details that have nothing whatsoever to do with Dr. Offit’s thesis ⎯ that’s right, a red herring.

Reportedly in his book, and certainly in his interviews, Dr. Offit has alleged getting hate mail, assaults, and even death threats. He specifically has spoken of getting an anonymous phone call, mentioning the name of one of his children and the name of the school the child attended. Now before I go any farther, let me emphasize that nothing could possibly condone that kind of conduct. If Dr. Offit did indeed receive such threats, I would certainly hope that the authorities aggressively investigated the incidents. No matter who is the recipient of such threats, I would hope that the perpetrators are found, prosecuted and appropriately penalized.

It’s terrible that I have to show any skepticism as to Dr. Offit’s veracity, but let’s face it, we only have his word for it and he’s not someone that I find very credible. But assuming arguendo that there is at least some shred of truth in what he’s reporting, the question arises: what does that have to do with whether overvaccination and/or vaccine components may be a potential trigger of ASD.

Yes, I get it. This is an emotional subject for many of us, and part of Dr. Offit’s argument is that we are so blinded by our rage that we are willing to listen to the “false prophets” instead of the “real doctors” like him. Bullshit! That does nothing to prove that Paul Offit is right; it is merely a red herring that he threw out as bait for a ravenous press, and they bit down hard.

As at least one story by ABC reports, there has been an ugliness to the debate that goes beyond the bounds of decency. The ugliness extends to both sides. One TACA representative recounted being labeled a “baby killer.” I can relate to that. I’ve been called a child abuser because my wife and I choose to attempt curing our son of the disabling aspects of his ASD, and I’ve even been called an accomplice to murder because I dare to talk about biomedical interventions in public. I’ve never received anything that I would consider to be a credible threat to my safety or to the safety of my family ⎯ but it would only take a minor bit of exaggeration to imply the existence of threats.

Is Paul Offit exaggerating when he describes the threats to his and his family’s safety? I hope so; I really don’t want to believe that anyone’s safety has been placed in jeopardy because of participation in our little debate. And as I have said, if threats have actually been made, I truly hope enough of a trail was left so that the authorities can take appropriate action. But again, real threats would not make Dr. Offit right.

For some reason, the issues of cure (and I always feel the need to clarify that I view that concept as a process rather than a result) and the potential connection between vaccinations and the triggering of ASD wind up creating a passionate debate in which there is no middle ground. All too often the words that are used can easily be termed “hate speech,” and gas is thus poured onto the fire.

To be sure, that gas has been thrown by both sides. On “our side,” there was a blogger named John (he probably still has a blog, but his irrelevance has finally caught up to him) who regularly engaged in the worst imaginable hate speech. Some on the “other side” called upon me, on multiple occasions, to disassociate myself from John. And on multiple occasions I made clear that I saw no need to disassociate myself from someone with whom I did not associate in the first place. I went so far as to warn one of the prominent voices from the “other side” that he and his friends were spending too much energy directing hatred at that blogger, and they were making John a much more important figure than he otherwise would be.

Ironically, those people who railed at John were the same ones who forever scream at the logical fallacies they believe they can spot in others arguments. And here they created the ultimate straw man to try and knock down. I’m still not certain that the creation of that straw man was not intentional, so that there would be an easy target to direct hate at. Likewise, I’m not at all sure that the focus on the alleged threats against Paul Offit ⎯ which threats may or may not be genuine ⎯ is not intentional. Threats are a sexier issue than sufficiency of science, and there is no bait the press enjoys more than fresh red herring. As long as the press is biting down on that bait, they’re too busy to ask real questions.

1 Comments:

Blogger EdR77203 said...

Wade,

In his False Proffits book, he throws out the straw man that there is no epidemic. It is just the diagnostics. It is taken as a fact by the pro-vaxers. Of course. There is a change in the autism rate from 1/2500 to 1/160. It comes in geography and time with the vaccine programs. But it cannot be vaccines and nothing else fits the geography and the timing of the increase. Answer: There is no epidemic. It is an article of faith among the pro-vaxers. No observations or logic can bend them from it.

You are correct that we do not know whether there is a connection. The statistical test for a connection is to compare the autism rate among the vaccinated to the autism rate among the unvaccinated. Two percent of the people in the US refuse to have their children vaccinated. The unvaccinated population exists to do the comparison. The pro-vax answer to any such proposal is to mock it.

The medical community rails against anything from any source outside their perview. They are correct in that there is a lot of autism "treatments" out there that add no value except to the people doing the treatment. But they blow off any idea that such treatments exist because the medical community has nothing to offer besides the psychiatric management drugs whose side effects are enough to scare the patients back to their psychoses.

ABA, OT, ST and other non-medical behavioral therapies have been a godsend in that they have made the lives of our autistic children better. But they can only take our children so far. The next breakthrough has to come from the medical community. But the medical community is so wrapped up in the vaccine controversy that I have no hope for anything from them. There are medical differences between autistics and the rest of the population and medicine cannot find any test methodology to diagnose autism. Newsweek published an attempt to use the size of children's heads as a distinguishing characteristic. If this is worth publishing in a national magazine what does that say about the state of autism research? Is it any wonder that parents look elsewhere for autism treatments?

12/20/08, 6:22 PM  

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