I’m looking forward to seeing the video and transcript of Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s keynote speech at this year’s AutismOne/Generation Rescue conference.
This is the annual confab of the anti-vaccine movement, where all the diehards gather to share their latest pseudoscience, quack therapies and conspiracy theories. Last year’s keynote address was given by actress Jenny McCarthy. As Phil Plait writes:
McCarthy is the most famous face of the anti-vax movement. More than perhaps anyone else she has mainstreamed the incredibly dangerous claims of the anti-vaxxers, saying vaccines gave her son autism and that she cured him using what are known to be noneffective treatments.
If you want to learn what inhabitants of this alternate universe talk about amongst themselves, read this Skepchick post, which discusses McCarthy’s talk and some of the panels at last year’s conference.
When it comes to climate change, Grist (like many green advocacy outlets), is quick to pounce on media stories it deems substandard. A recent example is this slapdown from Grist’s executive editor, titled:
How Huffington Post aided a demolition job on climate science
Well, it turns out that Grist has a wrecking ball of its own, in the form of an article headlined:
New Study links autism to high-fructose corn syrup
Yes, you read that right.
The Grist writer, Tom Laskawy, gives this overview:
The study’s argument is complicated but deeply disturbing. It pieces together what’s known about the genetic and metabolic factors involved with autism, including the growing evidence of a link between autism and mercury and organophosphate pesticide exposure.
Essentially, HFCS [high fructose corn syrup] can interfere with the body’s uptake of certain dietary minerals “” namely zinc. And that, when combined with other mineral deficiencies common among Americans, can cause susceptible individuals to develop autism.
It gets better. A little further down, the author admits:
Now, this is just one paper. And a full understanding of it requires far more expertise in biology and genetics than I possess.
Next breath comes this:
But I certainly think it shifts the HFCS debate in an unexpected and troubling way.
If you really want to know how troubled the whacky debate over corn syrup is, here’s the backstory.
As for the current Grist post, some readers pushed back on Laskawy’s obvious bias. Here’s one blistering retort:
This is EXTREMELY irresponsible! First of all, even if the authors of this study made a good case for a correlation between HFCS exposure and autism (which they don’t), they would still have a lot of explaining and research to do before claiming that HFCS consumption played any role in autism.
The entire study was unnecessary in the first place as the previous study the authors mention linking expression of their gene of interest to OP exposure is very robust. They basically come right out and admit that they just have strong personal feelings (and no supporting data) that autism is caused by diet. In addition, their hypothesis relies on their previously developed mercury toxicity model which has already been thoroughly discredited. The whole article absolutely reeks of the foregone conclusion that diet plays a critical role in autism and the author declares that he has a competing interest in that he’s worked with lawsuits related to autism.
By writing an article about this terrible study and giving it such a misleading title you are revealing yourself as either a) too stupid to be trusted with the responsibility of writing about science or b) willing to knowingly mislead the public in the service of your irrational personal hatred of HFCS.
Another reader picked up on something mentioned in the study that Laskawy apparently missed or willfully ignored:
And this is something I’m sure Grist would point out if a paper was funded by Big Corn: “Funding for this research project was provided primarily by donations to the Food Ingredient and Health Research Institute” which is the lead author’s organization.
It’s good that Grist is on the lookout for inferior climate science coverage at other publications. Perhaps it should be more alert to the shoddy and irresponsible science journalism practiced in its own house.
UPDATES: Since putting up my brief post, I’ve become aware of other critiques on Twitter and elsewhere. For example, here is John Timmer of Ars Technica, tweeting here and here. Also, ace science writer Deborah Blum weighed in at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.
In case you missed the big news about the Lancet retraction, Daniel Drezner has the best meta post. He hints at the parallels between the anti-vaccine nuts, GMO opponents and climate change skeptics (strange bedfellows, aye?).
I see it too, but I believe irrationality underlies the anti-vaccine movement while ideology drives the other two. Regardless, Drezner doesn’t see the forces of reason winning out anytime soon, especially with the anti-vaccine crowd. He notes the response to the Lancet retraction in a New York Times article:
the retraction may do little to tarnish Dr. Wakefield’s reputation among parents’ groups in the United States. Despite a wealth of scientific studies that have failed to find any link between vaccines and autism, the parents fervently believe that their children’s mental problems resulted from vaccinations….
Jim Moody, a director of SafeMinds, a parents’ group that advances the notion the vaccines cause autism, said the retraction would strengthen Dr. Wakefield’s credibility with many parents.
“Attacking scientists and attacking doctors is dangerous,” he said. “This is about suppressing research, and it will fuel the controversy by bringing it all up again.”
On this, here’s Drezner, in a brilliant and acerbic observation:
Activists will argue that this is an example of Big Science suppressing counterintuitive research. And in a public battle between the Jenny McCarthy/Oprah media-industrial complex and a bunch of science nerds, I’m putting my money on Mustard Girl.
In my prior research, I’ve seen this kind of dynamic play out in the debates over genetically modified foods, and we’re still seeing it play out in the debate over climate change. Furthermore, because scientists are not perfect, it’s becoming easier to point out flaws that don’t necessarily compromise the basic science but do tarnish the image of scientists as neutral arbiters of fact.
In a separate vein, Orac thrashes the broadcast media for its coverage of the Lancet retraction. Climate advocates will surely feel his pain. I’d be curious to hear what Science Journalism Tracker and CJR’s The Observatory think of the press coverage of this huge story. So far, neither outlet has weighed in.
UPDATE: Drezner’s post concludes with another trenchant observation and a provocative question that deserves equal attention:
To be fair, it’s true that individual scientists aren’t really completely neutral — especially when it comes to politicized debates. The scientific method, on the other hand, is about as neutral as you can get. But that’s not as sexy a sell to the public.
Question to readers: is there a way to make scientific consensus more acceptable to a public that doesn’t want to hear the results?
That’s really worth mulling over. But the problem is that no amount of sexing up of science will work with subcultures that are religiously, ideologically, or irrationally predisposed to disregard scientific consensus on certain issues of importance to them. That means that creationists, anti-vaccine activists, GMO opponents, and hardcore climate change skeptics, to name just a few groups that have fixed, unalterable views, cannot be persuaded by reason, no matter how it’s packaged.
UPDATE 2: Charlie Petit over at Science Journalism Tracker acknowledges my prod and puts up a real nice round-up of press coverage. Definitely worth checking out. It’s fair to speculate that this story will one day take on very tragic proportions, given how many thousands of parents have not vaccinated their children since that 1998 Lancet study was published.
Now, if Curtis Brainard over at CJR’s The Observatory also takes my prod, he might write a post similar to the excellent one he recently did on the recent IPCC media coverage (or lack thereof) in the U.S. He thus would sniff out all the potential autism/science angles just waiting to be covered, such as this one, from a parent of an autistic child, who commented on the Lancet retraction news at a blog site:
Because of my firm belief in the science of vaccines not causing ASD I am ostracized and treated with pity, like I am just too naive to know the truth.
At the same blog, another commenter writes:
I know what you mean–I went through some of this with my youngest child’s health issues and was completely ostracized by my new-agey community for taking the “pharma” path with my child. Many of the people who post here are scientists and have not faced this in the same way an average mother might.
Damn, I hope this wasn’t Boulder.
We love a good conspiracy as much as the next investigative magazine–especially one that involves Big Pharma, the FDA, and the CDC. But as we’ve extensively reported here, the vaccines = autism meme might just be the most damaging medical myth of the decade. Not only is it based on false “science” that’s tearing apart the families of sick children, it’s unintentionally sickening thousands of others.
On Friday I received a remarkable press release entitled, “Vaccines and Mercury Related to Tobacco, Asbestos, and Lead?” Here’s the first graph:
We are in an epidemic of chronic diseases — including Autism — that were rare decades ago, but today affect tens of millions of adults and fully one-half of our children. 1 Moreover, thousands of adults and children die each year from sudden unexplained causes. 2 Many doctors and scientists say that clear evidence links these health problems to vaccines and mercury.
The release, from a supposed journalism organization called Public Affairs Media, Inc., goes on to suggest that the autism-vaccine link is following a similar historical trajectory as other famous public health storylines, such as the long-disputed link (by cigarette companies) between tobacco and lung cancer. The release promotes a quasi-documentary on autism and vaccines by Public Affairs Media. But if you link to the website and blog, there’s no information on the new non-profit, just a clip of the video, which was made by Richard Milner, a television and film producer.
The PR for the documentary makes this claim:
For some time, substantial evidence has linked vaccines and mercury to death and major chronic diseases, including Autism. Why is this evidence being ignored?
What I find even odder than this utterly false claim is that it was distributed in the form of a “paid” press release via the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), of which I am a member. To be fair, SEJ is a conduit for many paid releases, which members receive in their email. And they all contain the following disclaimer: “The following is a paid press release and does not necessarily reflect views of the Society of Environmental Journalists.”
Still, I have to wonder what the credibility threshold is for SEJ in terms of its press release policy.
Leaving asides questions about Public Media Inc., (are they a real journalism outfit or just a front for some autism advocacy group?), what about the actual substance of the release? Not only is it poorly written, but it also makes bizzare, vaguely conspiratorial assertions. No red flags there?
As to the thrust of its main claim? Here’s the latest fact page from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which states:
Many studies have looked at whether there is a relationship between vaccines and autism. The weight of the evidence indicates that vaccines are not associated with autism.
Additionally, as the Sunday Times from England reported several months ago, it appears that the researcher who triggered the autism-MMR scare back in 1998 with a study in Lancet, actually falsified his data.
It’ll be interesting to see if Milner gets any press coverage for this latest scare-mongering about vaccines. The real story, though, is the continuing threat to public health with increasing numbers of children not getting immunization shots because their parents have succumbed to the well-publicized and thoroughly unsubstantiated fears that vaccines can trigger autism.