By Phil Plait | October 1, 2008 12:53 pm

As has been pointed out in this blog before, Jenny McCarthy is antiscience and Amanda Peet is a hero. Ms. McCarthy campaigns that vaccines cause autism (which is wrong wrong wrong) and Ms. Peet has been vocal that there is no connection, and vaccinations are important.

Ms. Peet is getting the expected earful of vitriol, ad hominems, and out and out lies from the antivax community.

Now, I am not one for online polls; they are useless for actually getting any information, but sadly they do get picked up by the media on occasion, and so they might have some impact. Having said that, you might want to take a look a poll on Ecorazzi, a site that supports "green" causes. A search on the site makes it seem that they support antivax causes, though they are not virulent about it, and are surprisingly fair to people like Peet.

Still, check out the poll. It’s been Pharyngulated, so we’re OK there now. I am more concerned over the comments under the poll. Read them and see how far we have to go.

Critical thinking is hard, very hard. But it becomes almost impossible when core emotional values are at stake. And nothing strikes to the very heart of our humanity like children who are hurt, sick, or in danger. That means that dealing with antivaxxers will always be extremely difficult, and it’s again why I cheer Amanda Peet. Vaccines don’t cause autism. Vaccines are one of the greatest — if not the greatest — medical breakthroughs of all time. And we need to keep making this point, over and over again.

But that fact — that vaccines work — as simple and clear as it is, won’t be useful if we can’t talk to the people who are hurting so badly over this. And I’m not sure how. This is a basic issue with skepticism and critical thinking, and one I wrestle with often. There is no one simple answer to this problem. More’s the pity.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Piece of mind, Skepticism

Comments (57)

  1. I’ve always had a huge crush on Amanda Peet, and now it’s bigger.

  2. The title of this blog, in this particular time in history, has such an eerie ring to it! And wow, some of those comments…

    My work firewall prevented me from leaving a comment, so I’ll share it with you folks. If any want to copy/paste it over, feel free to:

    Please all, take a moment to read a book called “Demon Haunted World” by Carl Sagan. Anti-science is much too accessible in this day and age, and sadly too many people mistake it for something rational because they just don’t understand basic principles. With a country that is only 28% scientifically literate if you have a college degree, and only 7% without one, you’d think that people who actually knew what they were talking about should decide these issues, not uneducated talking heads…

    And yes, (Homer Simpson) DROOL! for Ms. Peet!

  3. Cheyenne

    The poll is now at 93% in favor of Amanda Peet with almost 8,000 votes. They also added this below-

    [Update: Welcome Scienceblogs readers! Your poll mobbing is indeed impressive.]

    I read one of the comments from an apparent mother of a 3 year old bragging that her kid wasn’t vaccinated. The stupid doesn’t just burn, it can sometimes kill or disable the unprotected.

  4. Now my blood is boiling after watching the McCarthy interview on CNN. She needs to find reality big time!

  5. Brandon

    “They aren’t autistic! They’re AWE-tistic!” — Doreen Virtue

    From BigDumbChimps site.

  6. > But that fact… won’t be useful if we can’t talk to the people
    > who are hurting so badly over this. And I’m not sure how.
    > This is a basic issue with skepticism and critical thinking,
    > and one I wrestle with often.

    Failure to recognize that the people that you’re debating with are humans with feelings is common in the skeptic community (you do a pretty good job of this, I think, Phil… some of your comment threads aside, you’re much, much better at it than PZ is in his fight against religion, for example).

    The problem is that critical thinking and logic skills simply aren’t taught in the U.S. Sure, many educators try to incorporate critical thinking into their lesson plans for various subjects… be we don’t *teach logic*. This is a fundamental problem in the U.S. educational system. Mathematics, philosophy, hard science, soft science, humanities… if you’re going to try and put forth something with more substance than raw opinion, you have to understand the rules of logical systems, and most people don’t. They don’t understand fallacies. They don’t understand how to evaluate evidence. We’ve deliberately avoided teaching our populace that “P implies Q” does not mean that “Q implies P”… while simultaneously attaching the fire hose of information that is the Internet to uncritical minds.

    Of course we’re going to see bad results. You can find something that will corroborate your opinion (no matter how nutty it is) somewhere on the Internet… I’m pretty sure even the Time Cube guy has followers somewhere. If you don’t know how to step away from *your opinion* and analyze it, you’re going to just be constantly reinforcing misthinking.

  7. Cheyenne

    There is a link to that interview on the front page of Yahoo. And she is claiming that her son “recovered” from Autism.

    I wonder if CNN is going to have an expert on after her to speak about why vaccines work and don’t cause disease?

  8. Alan J. Hansen

    With respect to the condition of her son, but that Jenny McCarthy is some piece of work. It must be the silicone; yet it must have fried her brain!

  9. Gary Ansorge

    I note that of over 8000 votes cast, 94% favor Amanda Peet. 6% favor Jenny Mc Carthy.
    I’d say that speaks rather well for the science side of the argument.

    Logic is not the problem. Scientific method(or rather the lack of) IS the problem. Logic gives erroneous results when the assumptions upon which it is based are wrong(not in accord with reality).
    Scientific method allows us to differentiate between erroneous assumptions and right assumptions.
    We don’t teach the scientific method in any kind of rigorous fashion. Usually, somewhere in high school, it’s mentioned as the basis of scientific knowledge, but it is seldom stressed as the ESSENTIAL method of science. That, to my way of thinking, is the real problem with our educational system.

    GAry 7

  10. Quiet Desperation

    I wonder if CNN is going to have an expert on after her to speak about why vaccines work and don’t cause disease?

    I wouldn’t count on it. I decided to give the news channels another shot with the mortgage crisis last week. Turned on CNN, and one of their mortgage crisis experts was Jesse Jackson. His “expert” opinion was basically “This will hurt black people.” Wow. Thanks, Jesse, for that insight. Not going to hurt anyone else, huh? (rolls eyes)

    Actually, some of the most lucid explanations I heard were on the relatively new Fox Business Network, believe it or not.

  11. Pondering...

    Horrible thing to ponder: Won’t these antivax folks eventually remove their genes from the gene pool by not vaccinating their kids, which will cause them to get all manner of diseases which will probably kill them? Perhaps these folks need a Darwin award.

  12. DennyMo

    “they support antivax causes, though they are not virulent about it”

    Pun intended? :)

  13. brian j. parker

    If you accept that emotions are part of the problem, what we need is for former antivaxxers who have had their child get an awful, preventable disease to be willing to speak up. Perhaps the first step is to turn someone’s ear from “my child got autism,” and “my child died of measles” might be what it takes.

  14. mk

    Damn! DennyMo beat me to it!

    Cracked me up!

  15. amphiox

    Pondering: So long as they remain a minority, they will remain protected by the (sponge off?) herd immunity of the rest of us vaccinators. And some among them may well have natural genetic immunity. So methinks their genes will stay with us for at least a little while.

  16. Mrs.Schaarschmidt

    I spent about an hour reading those comments then wrote what I hope was a concise logical and sympathetic argument. It’s been sitting in moderation for some time, and I am quite frustrated.

  17. Rich

    “Failure to recognize that the people that you’re debating with are humans with feelings is common in the skeptic community…”

    Pat, I gotta disagree. In the real world or on teh int-durrr-nets I find the opposite to be true. Skeptics start out trying to be calm and reasonable and considerate of the individuals they are arguing against, but the typical conversation with any anti-science or credulous individual tends to sour quickly most often due to fairly predictable reactions and provocations on the part of the non-skeptic. Anti-vaxxers are a wonderful example of this:

    Anti-vaxxer (AV): Vaccines cause autism.
    Skeptics (S): Hmmm, that would be alarming if true. Do you have any evidence to support that?
    AV: Well, my mom’s boss’ daughter’s son has autism and he was diagnosed right after getting vaccinated.
    S: Wow, that sucks. I looked up some studies and they show that there is no known causal link between vaccines and autism. Do you have anything that might show otherwise?
    AV: Are you calling my mom a liar?
    S: Uhhhhh…. noooooo. I’m just saying that just because one person you know of got autism around the time he was vaccinated does not mean the vaccine(s) caused the autism. I could understand why you think th…
    AV: What, do you want kids to have autism or something?
    S: No I’m just saying that absent any actual evidence linking vaccines to autism that it might be an over-reaction to not vaccinate children against diseases that are proven killers and disablers of…
    AV: There are lot’s of people that got autism after vaccines… are you saying they are all liars? (Usually followed by some ad hominems.)
    S: No, no, I understand why they might be think that the vaccine could have something to do with autism what with autism usually being diagnose about…
    AV: OH, so now they are all just too stupid to get it right? You must think I’m stupid too, you big jerk!
    S: Wait a second, that’s not what I’m saying it’s just that…
    AV: Or is it that you’ve swallowed the Big Pharma propaganda. (Condescendingly) I understand… you’re brainwashed see, Big Pharma…
    S: Hold on. I’m not brainwashed. You’re simply presenting me with no evidence. On the other hand I’ve found dozens of detailed studies showing to link between vaccines and…
    AV: I don’t care what studies by a bunch of doctors and scientists say. They all work for Big Pharma anyway, or if they don’t they are scared of them.
    S: Well, look most of these reports are actually independent…
    AV: Like funded by the gov’t right? Big Pharma owns them stupid. (Count yourself lucky if it’s taken this long to have your intelligence directly questioned).
    S: Look, the studies can be analyzed independent of the authors’ connections or…
    AV: I don’t care my mom’s boss’ daughter’s son…
    S: Didn’t we already cover that?
    AV: Well, what about all those other people?
    S: OK, that’s known as anecdotal evidence. See, if you…
    AV: What are you some kind of nazi or something? You want kids to be crippled?
    S: Do you even care about what I say or the evidence I present or are you just going to continue calling me names?
    AV: Hey! You called me stupid first you fascist!
    S: No I didn’t, when did I do that?
    AV: Before. I hope all your kids get autism and because you vaccinated them, because you are so stupid and mean.
    S: Uh… wow. So obviously you don’t actually care to educate yourself with facts of anykind, want to hurl insults at me, and wish ill will towards my family. I really don’t want to talk to you anymore.
    AV: There you go calling me stupid and un-educated again! I hope you and your family get what you deserve, fascist. Oh by-the-way, I WIN!!!

    I wish I could say that I have not had this exact kind of conversation, usually even longer in duration and heavier on the one sided attacks, hundreds of times over the years. It gets more frustrating when you shoot down various fallacies and incorrect “facts” over and over and over again. I, for one, try to maintain a thick skin and deal with each individual politely even well after they have demostrated they don’t deserve such consideration… but occasionally a snap will happen. I know there are a lot of people in the skeptical community who have just been worn down and kind of skip the fastidiously polite thing, but I don’t think the vast majority started out that way. Just look at the vitriol that Phil is subjected to on occasions when he has done nothing more than state a simple fact. Again, not saying some skeptics don’t get testy too early or too often in a conversation… But when following or partaking in these discussion I’ve found that the vast preponderance of poor behavior tends to flow from the believers (of whatever stripe).

  18. Ad Hominid

    Anti-vaxxers like to highlight the financial interest and deep pockets of “Big Pharma.”

    It works both ways though.

    If the antivax movement is successful enough, it can create the political, legislative and public relations framework for a massive (and massively lucrative) series of lawsuits against the pharmaceutical industry.

    This is analogous to the relationship between creationism/ID and the school vouchers/homeschooling crowd.

    Follow the money trail indeed.

  19. Rich, were you eavesdropping? I swear, I have had that exact conversation! I too count myself as being a worn down skeptic at this point.

  20. RM

    The biggest and best argument for vaccinations is for the health of the community. If autism IS indeed the cause of 1% of autism cases, it is well worth the cost of hundreds or thousands of lives lost to NOT getting vaccinated.

    And if you don’t get your kid vaccinated, not only are you more susceptible to diseases and illnesses that may be deforming or fatal, but you put everybody around you (infants, elderly, immune-repressed people) at greater risk as well.

    Thank you, choir, see you at the next practice.

  21. Ana George

    I saw McCarthy on CNN this morning going on with her anti- vaccine rhetoric and the sheer amount of BS that they allowed her to talk about astonished me. It would have been better if they had a specialist from the medical field to make rebuttals, considering there are probably mindless parents who take whatever is said on a news network as the gospel.

    She was going on and on about how she actually healed her son of autism using VITAMINS and even said how she would rather the flu or measles than autism… maybe if she had a kid end up with polio or rickets she would change her tune.

    Lets just hope that actual people do not take their advice from an ex softcore porn star.

  22. IAmMarauder

    Rich & Larian: Yup, been there as well. I was cynical a while ago but dealing with anti-sciency types has made me even more cynical.

    With regards to the video on CNN – man I feel sorry for her son. Imagine how he is going to feel in the future when he hears his own Mum saying how he “was perfect, then slowly faded away”. However I guess he can be thankful that thanks to “Mummy’s Special Herbs” he is now all perfect again.

    As for the “Big Pharma” aspect of the article, my god. If it were true then surely one of the “Pharma companies” that doesn’t get anything out of vaccinations could speak out on it… Oh wait – there are all controlled by the Illuminati (which is controlled by the Indigo-type Reticulans from Planet X/Nibiru)…. Dang, that hurts even to type.

  23. The problem is, it’s not just the children of antivaxxers who suffer from their parents’ decision. Their children can pass these horrible diseases on to infants too young to be vaccinated, to adults who have neglected their booster shots, and to the immunocompromised who cannot be vaccinated. When herd immunity declines, innocent people get hurt, and killed.

  24. Rich


    Let’s just say that I’ve had such conversations enough and witnessed them many more times. You kind of get the a sense of how they are going to flow by the second or third exchange, dontcha? Well, sometimes you get a sense of them by the very introduction… but those are ones I try to avoid anymore.

    With the AV crowd it gets even tougher because you get the fun element of, “My kid has autism you uncaring, Big Pharma loving, fascist. So shut up, because I am automatically right because I am suffering!” I consider it part of the victim culture that has arisen in this country. Not in the meaning that everyone is encouraged to be a victim of some sort (although there is a quite a bit of that especially in politics), but that it has become status quo to always respect and never questions “the victims”. Which even sort of makes sense up to a point, right? I mean, no one wants to blame the victim of a crime or question the suffering of a grieving or aggrieved family… most especially when children are involved. But it kind of gets hazy when someone starts making unfounded claims about who harmed them and how, as in the AVers’ case. Though, we are still culturally inclined to think: don’t question the victim. It’s… impolite. Somehow. I think it’s because if you question to placement of blame and the direction of the anger most assume you are questioning the validity of their grief. This is soooo evident with many AVers. They act as if you are questioning that their children are autistic or that they have a right to be sorrowful or hurt over that. Things, of course, no reasonable person would question. They just can’t separate those feelings from their claims about who are what is to blame. And we are just plain rude, at best, for challenging them.

    That’s how you get Jenny McCarthy blathering on and on and not one individual paid to play a journalist on T.V. asking her any tough or probing questions, or asking her to provide actual evidence. In fact, the questions are actually framed from a position of basic agreement with her. We can’t be rude to a victim after all. Wouldn’t look good. We could get calls. Ratings might suffer. Conversely, suffering is good for ratings. So, more. Please.

  25. Rich

    Gotta read my replies more carefully before submitted them. Typos hurt teh braaaaaaains…

  26. @ Rich

    > Pat, I gotta disagree. In the real world or on teh int-durrr-nets
    > I find the opposite to be true.

    Oh, sure. I’ve been involved in a lot of those conversations myself, playing your part – in fact, I’ve been playing that almost exact conversation out in this last week. But I will say that when it comes to public “skeptical bloggers”, the more popular among them skew towards the “skip the fastidiously polite thing” side. Not that I don’t personally find this occasionally very funny, but if you’re trying to have a conversation with someone that has no critical thinking skills, opening up with, “You’re an idiot”, even when correct, isn’t going to earn you a receptive audience.

    My real point is that many people on teh interwebs don’t actually have critical thinking skills, and that guys like us have to remember that they have a lifetime of “training” in illogic… which in turn means that we have to *expect* them to devolve into exactly the sort of diatribe you illustrate in your fictional conversation. Not because they’re ill-mannered, necessarily, but because they think that they *are* being insulted, and they respond accordingly.

    I just spent a week trying to explain to someone that what I wanted him to do was one of three things: show my logic was incorrect, show my evidence was weak (through analysis, as opposed to just using ad hominem attacks on my sources), or come up with an entirely different argument that reached the converse of my conclusion that outweighed the argument that I was actually offering. He literally didn’t understand what I was talking about.

    If someone doesn’t understand the underlying concepts of logic, trying to debate with them is foolish on our parts; they’re going to walk away from the experience having totally been trashed *and think that they won*. If we want this to go away, we need to train people how to think logically, not offer them logical arguments that don’t appeal to their own biases and opinions.

  27. Yawn, yawn. O.K. YAAAVP (Yet Another Anti-Anti-Vaccination Post).

    Wouldn’t you rather hear a real story from a real person with real experience concerning autism? Yeah, I thought you might. It’s not all gloom and doom like you might think.


    So we’re working with our 5-year boy Zachary (diagnosed with autism at the age of 47 months, still nonverbal) doing some ABA therapy which stands for Applied Behavior Analysis (still the only autism therapy with any science behind it). Click on my name at the top of the post to see some pictures of us. We got rid of our expensive “professional” therapists about six months ago because they were charging us $30 per hour and not changing the program causing our son to get bored and lose interest (yes, Virginia, autistic kids can get bored too).

    So I’m scratching my head trying to come up with some new ABA programs for my son. The local public school he goes to was talking about having him recognize the numbers 1 to 10 and the letters of his name. So I made up some cards with the Arabic numerals from 1 to 10 and the letters on his name. So we introduce this in his next therapy session (my wife does most of the sessions) and we pick 3 number cards randomly out of 10 and lay them down on the table. We say, Zachary, touch 7, touch 4, touch 8, …, rearrange the cards randomly and say, give me 4, give me 8, give me 7. So of course he did all this correctly the first time without batting an eye – no problemo. The same with the letters of his name. So we figured the school probably already taught him that one.

    So the next session I make up some more number cards up to 20 and all the capital letters A through Z. Zachary, touch 13, touch 17, touch 11 … Again, perfect score – no mistakes. We pick three letters randomly. Zachary, touch Q, touch H, touch W. Zip, zap, zup, he touches each one, no delay at all. Pick three other letters at random. Touch B, touch Z, touch R – Again, right away, no delay, no mistakes. Dang, now my ears are perked up. How the heck does he know this stuff? Surely the school didn’t teach him this since his IEP (Individualized Education Plan) only talks about the numbers 1 to 10 and the letters of his name).

    So I make up a full set of Arabic number cards from 1 to 100 and a full set of letter cards, this time lower case, a to z. Next session: Zachary, touch 35, touch 43, touch 78. Zim, zam, zoom, no hesitation at all. He touched each one correctly with no mistakes even though he’s never been exposed to these numbers before to the best of our knowledge. Same with the lower case letters – he knows them all. So now for the coup de grace – matching. We pick 3 upper case letters, say G, M, S and put them on the table. Then choose the 3 matching lower case letters, g, m, s and hand each one of them to him and say, Match! Sure enough, he puts the g with the G, the m with the M, the s with the S. Dang, dude, you’re blowing my mind. The g doesn’t even look like the G. How do you know they’re the same? No friggin’ way the school taught him this stuff and we know we certainly didn’t. How can he get this stuff right on the first time when he’s never seen it before? I’m not even sure a neurologically normal 5-year-old can do some of this stuff right, let alone an autistic kid.

    O.K. But these are all just symbols, right? There’s no friggin’ way he has a clue what these numbers, 37, 86, etc. mean, right? There just symbols to him, right? So the first thing I did to test this was make up word cards for the numbers 1 to 10. Then we laid out 3 Arabic number cards on the table, say 7, 5, 3 and we gave him 3 word cards to match: seven, five, three. Match … zim, zam, zoom, he matched them perfectly. Dang, he knows that the word goes with the Arabic symbol, that’s for damn sure. He still doesn’t know what it means though.

    O.K. So now I made a test I was 100 PERCENT CERTAIN he would fail at. I made cards each with a different number of dots, . for 1, .. for 2, … for 3, etc. similar to the arrangement of dots on dice. I made a dot card for 1 through 12. There’s no way he’s getting this one. If he does it means he actually gets the concept of quantity and there’s just no way an autistic kid can get that. So we chose 3 dot cards at random, say …., ……, and … Zachary, touch 3, touch 6, touch 4. OH MY FRIGGIN’ GOD – HE GOT THEM RIGHT ON THE FIRST TIME!!! My jaw was dropping. I just couldn’t believe it. We laid out some of the cards with a large number of dots. Zachary, touch 11, touch 9, touch 12. Zim, zam, zoom, it took him about a tenth of second to touch each one. That’s faster than I can do it – I have to count anything with more than 6 dots. We did the matching of dots to number cards, dots to word cards, etc., etc. He got them all right the first time.

    Dang, the little guy apparently knows a helluvalot more than we ever gave him credit for. I still have no explanation how he arrived at this knowledge. We never taught him and I’m pretty sure nobody else did. Was he born with this knowledge? I am reminded of that scene from “Rainman” when they dropped the box of matches and Raymond counted them on the floor. I used to not lend much credence to those stories, after all it’s Hollywood, but I’m not so sure anymore.

    Since we made this amazing discovery, Zachary can identify words for colors, shapes, days of the week, months of the year, common household words. He can match words for colors and shapes to the actual color and shape. He can identify arbitrary nonsense words by their spelling (e.g, dadu, mapi, bamo, etc.) which must mean he is using his own internal phonics system to identify them. Dang, I’m not sure how old I was when I could recognize what a trapezoid was, and identify it. I was probably in Junior high or something like that before I knew what a trapezoid was. My son knows what one is at the age of 5, all without uttering a single intelligible word since the day he was born.

    Pretty amazing stuff. So we don’t know what the potential of these kids with autism really is. When we assume they can’t do such and such or they can’t understand such and such, we do so at our own peril. Save your pity also – some of them can do things that are beyond your capability. They inhabit a mindscape completely different from ours. Perhaps they pity us.

    I hope you’ve enjoyed this true and continuing story.

    Tom Marking

  28. Todd W.


    Thanks for sharing that! Sounds pretty amazing. How did you run your matching tests? Sitting in front, behind or to his side? Any graduated guidance (full guidance, partial, light touch, pointing)? Any immediate corrections or repeated prompting? Have you mentioned any of that to his teachers so that they can either incorporate it into or update his IEP?

    My ex is a certified ABA specialist, so I absorbed a fair bit of info about ABA. Cool that you mentioned it in your post and how it is, so far, the only treatment with any science behind it.

  29. HCN

    Tom, there are more stories just like that, including blogs by very smart autistic people here:

    By the way, my son just turned 20 years old. He was also non-verbal when he was around four years old. But he was initially seen by a neurologist when he was three years old in 1991. We were assured over and over and over and over again that he was not autistic. We were told it was oral motor dyspraxia with functional dysarthria and some dysphasia which may or may not be related to a history of seizures (the last seizure was when he was 15 months old and suffering from is now a vaccine preventable disease).

    Then the standards were changed in 1994 (see ). During the his last year in high school the school psychologist opined that he had Asperger’s. Oh, well.

    Since I’ve been dealing with this stuff for over 17 years, and we got our first dial-up connection in 1995 (believe it or not, the ADD forum on Compuserve had a dyspraxia section!)… I have been following what has been happening for a while. (oh, and you might want to look up hyperlexia)

    Oh, he does speak, it just took over ten years of speech therapy, and some very good educaitional placements. He is presently in community college getting disability services.

  30. eddie

    Wow. The one thing I did NOT expect when coming to the comments on this post were such uplifting stories from parents.

    Thanks for sharing those.

  31. “Thanks for sharing that! Sounds pretty amazing. How did you run your matching tests? Sitting in front, behind or to his side?”

    Most commonly we run the tests sitting at a little table maybe 4 feet by 4 feet square in his room. It’s a kid’s table so it’s at his level. He can sit in a chair and the table top is just above his knees. He typically sits to the right of the examiner (which is usually my wife Cathy) but he can also sit across or to the left and still do well.

    “Any graduated guidance (full guidance, partial, light touch, pointing)?”
    He’s been in ABA for about a year and a half so we’ve done full prompting, partial prompting, and so on, especially for physical commands (e.g., stand up, sit down, etc.). The amazing thing about the new programs I told you about is that he got them right during the first session with no prompting at all as if he already knew them, which is truly amazing. He will occasionally get one wrong but then self-correct but we notice that this is usually because he’s not paying attention – he’s looking elsewhere. We’ve found that keeping him interested is the biggest challenge. Keeping the programs fresh so he doesn’t get bored is by far the biggest challenge. As long as he’s focused he can usually get all of the trials correct 100%.

    “Any immediate corrections or repeated prompting?”

    Sometimes he self-corrects himself. Occasionally when he’s just not paying attention you have to repeat the command and he’ll come to his senses and then do it.

    “Have you mentioned any of that to his teachers so that they can either incorporate it into or update his IEP?”

    Yes, when the new school year started we demonstrated some of his abilities to them. They were pretty much amazed since he’s doing skills way beyond his IEP. But the school bureacracry churns slowly. They haven’t revised his IEP yet choosing to focus more on social interaction which is fine with us and something we can’t do at home. So we’ll do most of the academic skills at home and then he can learn peer-to-peer skills at school.

    One other thing. Someone asked us if he could be just guessing. Previously we were doing field of 3, which means the odds of getting the 1st card is 1/3, the odds of getting the 2nd card is 1/2, and the odds of getting the 3rd card is 1 because it’s the only one left. So the probability of getting a row of cards correct is 1/6. To get 10 rows of cards correct which is routine for Zack, the probability is 1.65E-8 so we don’t think he can be guessing. We have recently switched to doing a field of 4 cards, which means that the probability of getting 10 rows correct is 1.6E-14 or 1 in 63 trillion. So there’s no way he could be guessing with that kind of accuracy.

    Thanks so much for your interest in our story.

  32. “By the way, my son just turned 20 years old. He was also non-verbal when he was around four years old. But he was initially seen by a neurologist when he was three years old in 1991. We were assured over and over and over and over again that he was not autistic.”

    Well, during our initial diagnosis in November 2006 I was told that Zachary was autistic and also mentally retarded. The doctor told us point blank that he had an IQ of 20 and was pretty much hopeless. That doesn’t sound a lot like a kid who less than 2 years later knows all the months, days of the week, and knows what the difference is between a trapezoid and a rectangle. IQ of 20 – ROFLMA. Sure. So misdiagnosis is rampant in this area.

  33. HCN

    The point you are missing is that there has been a very big change in diagnostic criteria.

    And you needed a better doctor. We were very fortunate to get a referral to a good child neurologist (who apologized for the IQ tests being so language dependent). We just had to wait four months to get an appointment. Plus the initial diagnosis was from a speech language pathologist at the Children’s Hospital, and he got his initial speech therapy there. (received initial diagnosis at age 2 years 3 months, and saw child neurologist at age 3 years 2 months… earlier than most because of his history of seizures).

    One thing that has happened is as diagnoses for autism have gone up, diagnoses for mental retardation have gone down.

    Some recommended reading for you:
    Unstrange Minds by Roy Richard Grinker
    Not Even Wrong by Paul Collins
    No Time for Jello by Berneen Bratt
    Autism’s False Prophets by Paul Offit (check out the Scienceblogs book discussion)

    Also, please remember to stay away from that website. It is a very silly place. Though I do have a tribute website there because I irritated John Scudamore, the man behind that silly place, lots on Usenet (it has to do with me reminding everyone that he claimed to have burned his bum on satanic black lines!).

  34. Bill Thompson

    labeling people so you can throw them away easily is what the Extreme Wacko Right Fringe does. Ever hear of the term “Anti-Mormon”. The Bad Astronomer is no better.

    There is a term when you label and throw away people. It is a logical fallacy. Anyone know what that is called?

  35. Bill Thompson

    Are you a medical doctor now or can speak for one? Sure vacines work and I don’t know if they cause autism. But, could they cause aspergers?! Has there been studies in a wide range of the autism spectrum. If vacines are not to blame, it sure seems that something is causing it.

    It seems the Bad Astronomer likes to jump on a lot of bandwagons. But when it is not really his field of expertise, people will just jump in along with him. And this is a bad thing. Wouldn’t you agree?

    Labeling people so you can throw them away easily is what the Extreme Wacko Right Fringe does. Ever hear of the term “Anti-Mormon”. The Bad Astronomer is no better.

    There is a term when you label and throw away people. It is a logical fallacy. Anyone know what that is called?

    Anyway, I see the Bad Astronomer throw around the term “anti-science” a lot. I do not think this is a good thing.

  36. Pat

    Bill, they don’t. If they did, we’d have had autism epidemics long before now. If it was mercury, every hatter in the country would have had autistic children, and this would have undergone a precipitous decline in 1930. It’s all well and good to speculate, but to cling in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is anti-science.

    Here’s the logical fallacy you should be addressing: correlation does not equal causation. All autistic children also stop using diapers about that age. Is a lack of diapers to blame? They also start on solid food. Is it solid food?

    The fixation on this event is partly because it is beyond the parents’ control, partly because of the human taboo on introducing things into your body in unusual ways, partly because of superstition about how disease works. All three involve ignorance.

    Disease like progressive typical disease isn’t capable of causing autism. It is a fundamental disorganization of the brain. Read that again. It occurs before birth, and extrapolates in the years of rapid growth of the brain during those early years before the skull gets solid. It isn’t noticed because the fundamental disorganization isn’t in eating (sometimes it is) or basic motor movement, or in many of the other areas at which very young children excel. It’s in the social interaction, in the imitative instincts, in the mental flexibility and ability to filter stimuli and respond appropriately.

    How can I say the above? Well, even severely autistic individuals retain the ape distress behavior of tearing up vegetation and throwing it in the air. Many of the instincts and such are there at a base level. It is noticed at a particular stage when some of the later vaccinations are introduced. A child gets early vaccinations: why aren’t these specified as possible causes? Why not the anti-ghonnoreal eye smear they give newborns to prevent blindness?

    It’s comforting to think you’ve found an explanation. But that doesn’t make it right or true.

    Full disclosure: my son and nephew are both autistic. It doesn’t actually matter, but it might serve to head off at least one common reply of “you can’t understand blah blah blah.”

  37. knutty knitter

    I haven’t a clue whether it causes autism or not – not my field but I can say that it can and does cause bad allergic reactions. Me, for instance. Consequently I haven’t innoculated the kids. However, if I thought the threat of a specific disease was worth the risk, I probably would innoculate.

    Scare mongering on either side seems to me a waste of time and misses some of what might well be relevant. It also labels me bad when I’m not.


  38. Jose

    It seems the Bad Astronomer likes to jump on a lot of bandwagons. But when it is not really his field of expertise, people will just jump in along with him. And this is a bad thing. Wouldn’t you agree?

    I hate this sentiment. Just because something is not your field of expertise doesn’t mean you can’t have an objective, informed opinion of it. My field of expertise has nothing to do with the aerospace industry. Does that make me unqualified to be a moon landing hoax debunker?

  39. Chris CII

    I just come back from the poll and the comments and I am thoroughly disgusted by the level of language used.

    Please everybody please remember that you are dealing with very emotional issues, sick children and misguided parents who love their children and need a culprit for their illness.

    Please DO NOT heap abuse on them, lash out with angry sarcasm or behave discourteously, even if they sometimes do.

    Please remember that if you have facts by your side you don’t need aggressive rhetoric.

    You wield a very big stick indeed, so you can afford to speak quietly, and let the shrill barking to the other side.

  40. mk

    McCarthy regarding Barack Obama: “We are trying (to contact him)… We have sent numerous (requests). It’s a very scary thing for a politician.”

    Yes, Jenny. I imagine being stalked by an irrational conspiracy theorist is a tad scary for the man who just may end up in the White House.

  41. mk

    @nutty knitter…

    If I’m not mistaken the conversation here is about people refusing vaccines due to an incorrect notion that they causes autism. It is not about allergic reactions.

    You say you have bad allergic reactions. There are different vaccines out there. To which vaccine, specifically, are you reacting? What kind of reaction? Do your kids have the same reactions?

  42. mk

    @ nutty knitter…
    Thought this might be helpful. Cheers.

  43. Shoeshine Boy

    @nutty knitter

    I agree with mk. My older brother had an allergic reaction to an ingredient in the Polio vaccine (they used the Salk kind in those days), so my younger brother and I got a different mix. Since my Uncle suffered from Polio, there was no way that my Mother would allow us to go unvaccinated.

    These days, however, Polio is so rare that I imagine that a doctor might recommend against the vaccine in a particularly sensitive person. That’s an *informed* medical decision that *can* be made.

    As for Ms McCarthy, here is my “snap” moment. She can discuss vaccines with my family after someone in her family suffers from Polio and she has “walked in our shoes.”

  44. Justin

    You know what needs to happen? Insurance companies should take on the stance that if people don’t vaccinate their kids, then they won’t pay for the treatment necessary to fight the desease. This can easily be enforced, the doctor who is treating the patient only needs to ask for their vaccination record, and if the kid wasn’t vaccinated, then the parents have to pay full price for any treatment the child needs. This will show the parents that not vaccinating their kids might cost them their kid’s life. And once the media gets this information out, and until I don’t know, 10 kids die of measles (sp?), antivaxxers just will not shut up.

    Hard times call for hard measures.

  45. Mena

    These people are right up there with the 9/11 conspiracy and moon hoax nuts, aren’t they? “Big Pharma” wants to sell vaccinations because selling drugs to treat the diseases isn’t profitable? Huh?

  46. Strange Quark

    @ Shoeshine Boy: I can understand why not getting a vaccine would be ok – I had a really bad allergic reaction to the pertussis portion of the DPT vaccine and had to be hospitalized, so I only got boostered for the diptheria and tetanus later on.

    I thought that public school systems required vaccinations before a child starts school. And if they don’t, then shouldn’t they? I mean, that should be plenty of reason for parents to vaccinate, since homeschooling isn’t for the weak of heart and private schools (if the don’t require complete vaccine records) aren’t exactly cheap. I don’t have children, so I don’t know the technicalities, but I do remember my step mother having a fit because she couldn’t find my younger brother’s vaccination record when he started kindergarten. Apparently he couldn’t start school without it.

  47. Jose

    @Chris CII
    I just come back from the poll and the comments and I am thoroughly disgusted by the level of language used.

    Disgusted? Really? I’m not seeing that. The dialog looks pretty restrained to me.

    Please everybody please remember that you are dealing with very emotional issues, sick children and misguided parents who love their children and need a culprit for their illness.

    I think most people are attacking an irresponsible, out of control celebrity and the con artist who are leading this movement.

    Please DO NOT heap abuse on them, lash out with angry sarcasm or behave discourteously, even if they sometimes do.

    They’re not just behaving discourteously; they’re threatening the livelihood of someone who’s only guilty of speaking the truth in an effort to save lives.

    Please remember that if you have facts by your side you don’t need aggressive rhetoric.

    If the truth was all that was needed, the anti-vaccine movement wouldn’t exist.

  48. Steve Cooperman

    What I wonder about in all this is whether there is an “epigenetic effect” from something we’re just not aware of yet.

    Not being a “bio” person, I didn’t realize anything about this until I saw the NOVA show “Ghost in your genes”, at:

    It is now becoming clear that environmental effects from a couple generations ago can actually turn on or turn off genes that will affect offspring generations later. The program brings up the case of a famine that affected males and females differently; a grandfather affected by a famine during puberty had grandsons who lived much longer lives than average. On the other hand, a grandmother affected by a famine while she was still in the womb had granddaughters who lived much shorter lifetimes.

    I’m assuming that vaccines are safe today, but what if there was a problem with vaccines (or some other as-yet-unidentified environmental factor) years ago? It might be difficult to sort out the genetic effect now.

  49. Todd W.

    @Strange Quark

    “I thought that public school systems required vaccinations before a child starts school. And if they don’t, then shouldn’t they?”

    Every state has some form of exemption law allowing parents to refuse vaccination. The reasons allowed can range from medical issues involved with getting vaccinated to philosophical reasons to religious taboos.

  50. “Please everybody please remember that you are dealing with very emotional issues, sick children and misguided parents who love their children and need a culprit for their illness.”

    Of course this just begs the question: Why are the parents misguided and why are they attracted to pseudoscience in their quest to help their children? I think I can speak to that question from personal experience.

    IMHO it is primarily the result of the shoddy way in which the medical community handles the diagnosis. In the first place, your front-line pediatrician who is likely to be the first one you consult when you suspect there might be a problem with your child, knows relatively little about autism, what symptoms to look for, etc. I was told my boy was a late talker and he would grow out of it by my pediatrician. This went on for about two years until Zack was almost 4 years old and still not talking.

    Next, they will attempt to shuffle you off to an “expert” usually a developmental pediatrician or a neurologist. The experience you have with this second line of doctors varies tremendously from doctor to doctor. There is really no standard diagnostic technique. Assuming they give you a diagnosis of autism the prognosis is usually bleak – there really isn’t much you can do about it, there’s not much of a future for your child, etc., etc. I was told all of these things. Of course, these are the same clowns who were routinely institutionalizing autistic kids only a generation ago.

    So it’s no surprise to me that many, perhaps a majority of parents react to this depressing news by seeking something, anything that allows them to feel in control and like they are doing something. This might involve audio therapy, music therapy, gluten-free cassein-free diets, chelation, hyperbaric treatment, weighted vests, horseback riding, etc., etc. There is no shortage of crooks who are willing to provide any of these therapies to your child for a not-so-small fee. There are conferences and seminars set up for each of these therapies. This leads many parents to conclude the therapy must be scientific, right? After all, ASA (Autism Society of America) is recommending it and there are several folks with letters after their name who are providing it.

    So the parents feel they are at least doing something to address the situation and it fulfills an emotional void which the scientific/medical/educational establishment isn’t filling. And we all know, nature abhors a vacuum. If science/medicine/education isn’t willing to provide therapies that actually work then by golly we’re going to make our own, whether they work or not.

    So it’s important for the pro-science side to look themselves in the mirror and repeat after me:


  51. HCN

    Tom said “IMHO it is primarily the result of the shoddy way in which the medical community handles the diagnosis. ”

    You are generalizing. Because, as I have said we had very good and early diagnosis of the actual condition. There was, of course, the underlying seizure condition that was a reason to keep an eye out for any problems (note that Ms. McCarthy’s son also has a seizure condition, this is not the same as autism, but can cause issues like damage to certain parts of the brain).

    If you kid was diagnosed as “late-talking” at age four, then you are dealing with incompetent people. Especially these days.

    While my son was young, we did get lots of “wait and see, he will talk when he is ready”, but these were from friends, relatives and generally the clueless “helpful” people you meet at the playground. One thing the helped immensely was getting the book “Childhood Speech, Language and Listening Disorder” by Patricia McAleer Hamaguchi. She explained all of the sorts of communication disorders, and even better: where to get good help!

    As for your list of “therapies”, You are right about all the crooks and cranks… RUN, do not walk to your nearest library and get the book “The Science and Fiction of Autism” by Laura Schreibman … and Berneen Bratt’s book “No Time for Jello”

    You end with “So it’s important for the pro-science side to look themselves in the mirror and repeat after me:


    I disagree… it is those of you who are ignoring the science and letting yourselves get swayed with useless anecdotes, sales pitches and the conspiracy theories (hey, you are the one who posted a link to the site!). You need to learn more about the neurology, the history and the other stuff. Read the books I suggested, add some others like those written by Oliver Sacks. Definitely read all three of Paul Offit’s books, and real factual books by people who know what they are writing about!

  52. “it is those of you who are ignoring the science”

    Science? What science are you talking about? When my son was diagnosed with autism at the Meyer Center at Texas Children’s Hospital (which incidentally is considered the best children’s hospital in the state) I wasn’t even told about ABA, the only therapy for autism that has any scientific evidence supporting it. I had to find out about ABA by doing my own research. No doctor ever told me about it. And I know lots and lots of parents who had the same experience.

    Parents can only ignore the science if they are made aware of it. You think the pro-science side has done an adequate job in this area? You’re wrong. ABA, the only scientifically based therapy for autism isn’t even covered by most medical insurance (including mine – my insurer laughed me out of the room when I filed a claim for ABA therapy) and is NOT provided by most special education programs across the country (again, including mine). I’ve never received one dime from any entity, public or private, to provide ABA therapy for my son even though it is the only thing that has made a difference in his behavior. Now, why is that? I suppose it’s the fault of the anti-vaxers, right?

    Offit can write all the books he wants pointing fingers at Wakefield (and incidentally enriching his own bank account the same way Wakefield is doing), but that will do nothing to provide scientifically based therapies for children who need it.

  53. knutty knitter

    When the doctors refuse to vaccinate, you know you have a problem. We’ve already had half a dozen trips to the emergency room with allergic reactions to heavans knows what!

    They got the odd illness unvaccinated and are fine – no emergency there. A week or maybe two off school with proper care is all thats required for most illnesses. Here’s a radical thought – what say we look after kids properly when they get ill along with good nutrition etc. All the bad outcomes I’ve seen are due to poor general health and improper care during sickness. Then we might only need to immunize the kids who really are at risk. All that spare money could then be used for something else.


  54. Todd W.

    @knutty knitter

    A strong vaccination program is needed, not to keep kids from missing a week or two of school, but to prevent diseases that, depending on the individual’s immune system, can be devastating, even with proper medical care. It also helps to protect those who, for medical reasons, cannot receive vaccinations, such as the immune compromised.

    Keep in mind, that by not vaccinating your kids, you don’t just put them at risk for getting a preventable disease. You also put everyone they come in contact with: friends, family, neighbors, strangers on the bus, at the store, at the doctor’s office.

  55. Anchor

    There is plenty of evidence for neuro-developmental causes for autism and asperger’s (and, for that matter, what we’re pleased to regard as a “normal” outcome). There is no firm evidence anywhere that vaccinations are responsible for causing autism. Ok. Well and good.

    So, while we allow ourselves to get distracted from this red herring, consider the 800-pound gorilla lurking in the closet: mercury and compounds containing mercury in whatever form have absolutely no business being in the human body. Mercury is a known potent neurotoxin and has no known natural or positive biological function within the human body. It doesn’t belong there, and whenever the human body is exposed to mercury, it suffers some damage.

    So when will research come up with a decent and equally-effective alternative to mercury in vaccinations and in dental-filling amalgims? (In the case of the latter, we’re talking about a “medical practice” nearly a century old now). And if that research is deemed unnecessary by sober and well-meaning researchers BECAUSE they have conducted plenty of tests that demonstrate to their satisfaction that compounds containing mercury in vaccinations or dental fillings don’t cause autism or other discernable neurological problems, I’ll rip the rest of my hair out.

    Get rid of the friggin’ mercury, and my guess is that this particular controversy will have the wind knocked out of it.

  56. Todd W.


    Mercury has not been used in the majority of U.S. vaccines for quite a number of years now (since 2001, I think). There are still a couple of vaccines that use thimerosal, the flu vaccine being one. The total amount of mercury exposure for the regular battery of vaccinations is currently in the range of trace amounts. Any mercury that a child is exposed to through vaccines is negligible and will be expelled by the body over a relatively short period of time.

    The preservative is still used in multidose vials of vaccines outside the U.S. to prevent the growth of fungi and other contaminants. These contaminants pose a far greater health risk than any mercury that may be in the vaccines.

    This is not to say that mercury is 100% safe or that thimerosal is the best possible method of vaccine preservation, but I just wanted to provide you with a little more context. You may also want to look up the difference between ethyl mercury (the type in thimerosal, and for which the EPA does not have exposure guidelines) and methyl mercury (the type most common in environmental exposures for which the EPA has exposure guidelines).


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