Respectful Insolence

Over the last couple of days, I’ve blogged a bit about a study by Paul Shattuck that shows how useless it is to try to use special education classification numbers as a means of proving the existence of an “autism epidemic.” Well, at the risk of driving at least one person away, I’m going to comment one last time on this study. (And the answer to that person’s question is that I’ll blog about this topic when there’s something going on that interests me enough to blog about it. He is perfectly free to ignore my posts on the topic if they annoy him so.)

In any case, Paul Shattuck himself showed up in the comments of this post.

Although I agree with most of what he said and am gratified for the tactical air support indicating that my conclusions about the attacks on him were correct, I do have to take a wee bit of issue with this one statement he made:

With respect to vaccines, I would describe myself as nonpartisan and open minded on the issue. The link has not been demonstrated in a way that I personally find compelling. But I do believe there is enough tantalizing evidence to keep examining the issue. Most notable to me was the mouse model study at Columbia showing the differential response to mercury exposure as a function of genetic manipulation.

In this one point, I’m afraid, I have to disagree with Dr. Shattuck rather strongly. There really is no longer any good evidence, tantalizing or otherwise, supporting a link between vaccines in autism, and the study he mentions is actually not a particularly convincing (or “tantalizing”) study at all. In addition, all the more recent studies (other than very shoddy studies done by advocates such as the Geiers) fail to support a link. Similarly, Wakefield’s work purporting to support a link between MMR and autism has been utterly discredited. The bottom line is that the “science” supposedly supporting a link between vaccines and autism is of uniformly very poor quality. I suppose that it is possible that there are a very small number of children who react differently to mercury with the result being autism (which larger epidemiological studies might miss), but there is no longer a scientifically viable case to be made that mercury is the cause of autism for even a significant minority of autistic children. (Perhaps Dr. Shattuck is aware of halfway decent studies that I am not aware of and would be kind enough to point me in their direction.) Certainly, it is not a “misdiagnosis for mercury poisoning,” as one advocacy group puts it, nor is there any scientific or clinical justification for treating it with chelation therapy.

That quibble aside, one thing that Dr. Shattuck said that rings absolutely true:

Concerns over autism prevalence have driven research funding to record levels at NIH and CDC over the past decade. If I was truly an unscrupulous researcher looking to boost my grant portfolio in any way possible then I would be better off trying to stoke concerns about an epidemic, rather than do the research I’ve undertaken. I’ve actually had colleagues from other universities nervously joke that if concern about autism fades then their research funding might dry up. So, the “unscrupulous researcher bends findings to boost financial self-interest” angle doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Indeed, it doesn’t. And, if he did research that supported the concept of an autism “epidemic,” he could get research money from various advocacy groups as well as the NIH or CDC. I have to tip my hat to him for being willint to take the risk that he is shooting himself in the foot (from a funding perspective) by publishing this data. I also have to admire his willingness to find what the blogosphere is saying about his study and then jump into the fray, and not just here. Dr. Shattuck has also made an appearance in the comments of Kev’s blog as well, where he has defends some aspects of the study that have been questioned. I don’t know of any other researcher who would dive into the trenches as Dr. Shattuck has, and I’m grateful that he’s willing to do that.

If I ever publish anything that causes that much controversy, I’ll have to try to do the same thing.

ADDENDUM: Before I finally move on to other topics at long last (for example, a couple of more posts in my Medicine and Evolution series), having apparently beaten this one to death over the last couple of days, I have to point out Mark CC’s comparison of Dr. Shattuck’s good math compared to the Geiers’ bad math and Skeptico’s comments on the study and how Shattuck is being attacked.

Comments

  1. #1 hollywoodjaded
    April 6, 2006

    “…having apparently beaten this one to death…”

    But, hey, Orac — thanks tremendously for beating it to death each and every time it raises itself up from the undead.

  2. #2 Kristjan Wager
    April 6, 2006

    …having apparently beaten this one to death…

    Oh, I am sure it is going to be much worse… Considered how many times it has been killed already, it seems second only to the Hitler Zombie in returning from the grave.

  3. #3 Ms. Clark
    April 6, 2006

    I agree with hollywoodjaded. People who think that the autism epidemic is boring are lucky, they aren’t seeing the fallout of it and how harmful the belief in it is.

    It will touch everyone if real epidemics take off because of fear of vaccines. Antivax whackos are absolutely part and parcel of this attempt to link vaccines with autism. When they are finally beaten to a pulp in the media, when the media takes Orac’s lead… one hopes that this will be soon… then the antivaxers will link vaccines to something else and wreak more havok with people’s lives.

    This, to me is terrorism, as much as any other kind. It’s a sort of indirect biological weapon encouraging people to ignore public health needs and endangering everyone.

    I am taking a course on the History of Epidemics, people don’t realize that germs have a life course and how effective they are in spreading themselves around, and how deadly some of them are.

    It’s not a joke to be antivaccine. It’s seriously dangerous for everyone.

    (and now the harpies will swoop down on us and tell us that we don’t need vaccines and that they aren’t really antivaccine but there is this conspiracy…. and a conspiracy to hide that conspiracy… and another conspiracy … and we’ll all be well forever if only we destroy big pharma now…)

  4. #4 Kev
    April 7, 2006

    It was indeed, very good of Paul Shattuck to comment so thoroughly. I also take issue with his stance on the Hornig study but like you, I realise this doesn’t invalidate his other work. Sadly, not everyone gets that.

  5. #5 TheProbe
    April 7, 2006

    Very interesting…Ms. Clark and I are clearly on the same wavelength regarding the long term ‘side effects’ of this misinformation campaign of the anti-vaxers, who I like to call MercuryMobsters since their goal is to steal children’s health and lives.

  6. #6 TheProbe
    April 7, 2006

    To Kev:

    I think Dr. Shattuck was rather surprised about the nastiness of the response to his study, and, was attempting to play to both sides. Unfortunately, he has yet to realize that the anti-vaxers do not take prisoners.

  7. #7 Jeanmarie
    April 7, 2006

    I have been touched very personally by Autism.
    I am not a Doctor or a scientist. My daughter was tested (by a great lab, using a challege test) to show her excretion of mercury to be 260 micrograms when 3 micrograms was the reference range. I was tested to have 7mcg. The only known source of mercury was her vaccines. We don’t eat Tuna. She eats what I eat. After removing much of the poison (known neurotoxin=fact) she now is very high functioning and her teachers do not consider her to have autism. Now, lets talk ducks….
    Jeanmarie

  8. #8 anonimouse
    April 7, 2006

    Thanks for the story, Jeanmarie – but again, that’s one anecdote against a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

    If you could, direct me to the published scientific studies who show that autistic children have a higher mercury burden and that chelation reverses any deficits they may have. Heck, show me ANY study which illustrates chelation therapy of any kind reversing neurological deficits.

  9. #9 Kev
    April 7, 2006

    My daughter’s autistic too Jeanmarie. Was the name of the lab you used ‘Doctors Data’ by any chance?

    You’re right that mercury is a known neurotoxin but thats not good enough. You need to demonstrate how mercury causes the very specific set of symptoms that autistic people display.

  10. #10 Ebonmuse
    April 7, 2006

    The only known source of mercury was her vaccines.

    This seems like jumping to conclusions for me. Is it possible that, for example, your daughter was near a broken thermometer and absorbed some mercury through her skin?

  11. #11 Ms Clark
    April 8, 2006

    Jeanmarie,

    If a “doctor” suggested a challenge urine test, which means he or she prescribed a chelator to use before the test, he’s a quack and you’ve been had.

    If you hear quacking it’s the quacks you’ve been listening to. Your child’s vaccines did not put enough mercury into her so that they would raise her blood level so high months or years later. This is ridiculous thinking you’ve been sold.

    I hope you figure it all out.

    Oh, I have an autistic child, too.

    It’s genetic.

    But the quacks won’t tell you that because there’s no money in selling a genetic cure (except if you are what’s-her-name with the rip-off RNA drops).

    Dr. Shattuck regrets saying that he thought that the Columbia study was intriguing, he didn’t know what it really was about when he said that.

    I keep hoping he will sue NAA for defamation.

  12. #12 Orac
    April 8, 2006

    The only known source of mercury was her vaccines. We don’t eat Tuna. She eats what I eat.

    There’s mercury in many other foods than just seafood, and it’s in the environment as well. If you breastfed, your daughter was exposed to mercury. It is incorrect to say that the only source of exposure is vaccines.

  13. #13 Fore Sam
    April 9, 2006

    Orac;
    Perhaps you can explain why there was no autism epidemic when the whole country was heated by coal producing a liitle bit more mercury than a few coal burning power plants if mercury in the air is truly a reason for the increase.
    Jean Marie;
    These people try the same responses on everyone who tells them their kid improved by removing the mercury. I think they are slow learners, be patient with them since most still have mercury in their brains.

  14. #14 Max Ballstein
    June 16, 2006

    You can’t be 10851 serious?!?

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