Respectful Insolence

Kev asks: Why aren’t you scared to death?

Regarding Dan Olmsted’s latest foray into autism pseudoscience at Rescue Post, Kev asks, “Why aren’t you scared to death?

Olmsted’s latest happened to appear while I was on vacation a couple of weeks ago, and there’s so much other interesting stuff out there to blog about since I got back that I never got around to addressing yet another of his attempts to blame autism on mercury. This time, though, just like J.B. Handley and others who have been steadily backing away from the “mercury in vaccines causes autism” hypothesis (mainly because each new epidemiological study that comes out fails to find even a hint of a connection), he’s doing a David Kirby and starting to blame not just mercury in vaccines but mercury in pollution emissions from China–all based on no evidence, of course.

Kev makes a couple of good observations, in particular mocking Olmsted’s cluelessness about what an r2= 0.9954 means:

An appeal to “common sense” is a sure sign that what follows is probably not data that supports his hypothesis. Is common sense really the best way to arrive at correct answers about any subject for anyone, regardless of their background? What do statements like, “An ‘R-squared value of .9954′ is way beyond my non-scientific expertise”, tell us about the context to which Mr. Olmsted’s “common sense” might be reliably applied? Is autism epidemiology likely to be anywhere near Olmsted’s knowledge and expertise?

Sometimes common sense seems like a good way to operate, but the reality is that many things in science have quite complex answers. It’s also the case that science does not have all the answers (nor does it claim to). None of this will apparently stop Mr. Olmsted from forging ahead with assertion and anecdote in the rest of his post of course.

Referring to Olmsted’s apparent argument that we can’t be certain that an “autism epidemic” is not happening with his question (“How can anyone be certain that one-tenth of that 40-fold increase isn’t actually real? And if they can’t be certain, why aren’t they scared to death?”), Kev retorts masterfully:

I can’t be absolutely 100% certain that an alien abduction has never occurred, but this lack of certainty does not translate to “therefore alien abductions are real”. I can’t be absolutely 100% certain that bigfoot doesn’t exist either, but again, that lack of certainty does not translate to “bigfoot is real”. I don’t live in fear of being abducted by aliens or encountering a hairy giant biped while on a hike with the kids, despite an abundance of “stories” about these things. I’m also not “scared to death” that there could indeed be an increase in the actual prevalence of autism. It is a possibility, but I have seen no evidence of its truth.

Read the whole thing. I’m glad Kev took this stupid article apart, so that I didn’t have to.

Comments

  1. #1 Lepht
    September 14, 2007

    is he serious? he can’t even use Google to find out what an r-squared is for and he thinks he’s qualified to judge complex issues? jesus fuck.

    L

  2. #2 Kev
    September 15, 2007

    In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that this was in fact D’oC’s blog post, not mine :o)

  3. #3 Joe
    September 15, 2007

    Someone I know likes to say “If you can’t understand; maybe it’s you: http://www.apa.org/journals/features/psp7761121.pdf
    The article is titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”

  4. #4 wfjag
    September 15, 2007

    Dr. Orac — or whoever can answer the question:

    What credentials does Mr. Olmsted have? Being a UPI (or former UPI) reporter doesn’t seem like much in the way of qualifications (especially if he doesn’t understand that a r squared value that’s approaching 1 is pretty amazing).

    I ask the question since whenever I’m researching a subject, I start with the idea of first, consider the source.

    Thank you.

  5. #5 HCN
    September 16, 2007

    wfrag, Olmsted is now an unemployed journalist who could not be bothered to call to call these guys:
    http://clinicforspecialchildren.org/Research.html

    Yes, “consider the source” is good advice when it comes to Olmsted.

  6. #6 wfjag
    September 17, 2007

    Thank you HCN, and thank very much for the site.

    I’m the father of an autistic son. My ex and her family are firmly among the alties (my ex-brother-in-law is a Logan trained DC), and believe in the mercury causes or vaccines cause autism camp. My wife and I are now his guardians, but have to sometimes beat back attempts by them to have him receive “treatments” or “therapies” they have read about. Just about the time I think that the many-headed monster of the “menace of mercury” or “menace of MMR” is killed, it comes back to life.

    While most judges don’t understand science, they understand credentials (or lack of them), which is why I start there whenever a “new authority” appears.

    I also meet with parents of newly diagnosed ASD children. Invariably they have done a web-search for miracle cures. I have to disabuse them of what they have found claimed in some websites, and then convince them that what their children need is early, intensive, educational intervention, with appropriate supporting therapies and medication(s) that they need to review with qualified providers. So far, the most effective question I’ve found is to ask “Would you take your car to a plumber?”, and when they say “No”, then ask “Then why would you take your child to a back-cracker for autism?”

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