You may have heard the recent news that an expert panel of pediatricians reviewed the literature on gastrointestinal disorders and autism, and found no link between them. A key phrase in their findings was
The existence of a gastrointestinal disturbance specific to persons with ASDs (eg, "autistic enterocolitis") has not been established.
They also found that there was no evidence that special diets help autistic kids. Mind you, this was a panel of 28 experts, scientists who have devoted their careers and lives to investigating autism.
So if you were a reporter at ABC News, who would you turn to to get an opinion on this? If you said Jenny McCarthy, then give yourself a gold star, because that’s just what ABC News did. Go and watch that interview (have some antacid ready). In it, she says that scientists need to take anecdotes seriously, a statement so awful it’s hard to know where to start with it.
First of all, scientists did take the anecdotes seriously. That’s why they investigated any possible links between GI disorders, diets, and autism. What they found was that there is no link.
Second, McCarthy confuses anecdotes with data. As I have said before, anecdotes are where you start an investigation, not where you finish one. That’s the difference between science (aka reality) and nonsense. You can convince yourself of all manners of silliness through personal experience. I decide to whistle before drinking my coffee one morning, and I find a $20 bill in the street. So does that mean if I whistle every morning before my java I will find money? No, of course not. But that’s precisely the type of thinking McCarthy is promoting.
Getting back to ABC News, they also posted a story that tries to throw all sorts of doubt on the results of the report by the pediatric experts. I suppose they’re trying to find balance and all that in this issue, but again, as I have said before, sometimes stories don’t have two sides. There is reality, and there’s fantasy.
Should they post a rebuttal by an astrologer every time we find a new extrasolar planet? How about getting a creationist’s opinion on a new malaria vaccine?
Sadly, Jenny McCarthy is news because she’s the voice of a group of people who listen to her, but that’s at least in part due to the fact that the news organizations treat her seriously. It’s a self-fulfilling news cycle, and ABC News just gave it another nice little boost.
Shame on you, ABC News. Shame.
Happily, not every news outlet is so gullible. USA Today just posted a great article about the dangers of not vaccinating your kids, and they don’t pull any punches. Because people like Jenny McCarthy muddy the waters and add so much noise to the real science, people are turning away from real medicine and embracing "alternative" methods that we know don’t work.
The result it not just that kids who need help aren’t getting it (the so-called "what’s the harm?" fallacy). The result is that kids are getting sick, and some of them are dying. When you reject reality and turn to nonsense, it has real effects. And it’s not just affecting your kids, it affects all kids.
Talk to your physician about vaccines, autism, and diets. Read the real work being done.
Tip o’ the syringe to Gary Schwitzer.