Respectful Insolence

Forgive me, dear readers.

I realize that I’ve already subjected you once to the contagious supernova of stupidity that is an Olmsted on Autism blog post. I broke my usual rule about not directly linking to the crank blog Age of Autism unless there is a compelling need. One reason is that I hate to drive traffic there, Even though I do always make sure to use a rel=”nofollow” tag whenever I link to AoA or any other blog whose Google ranking I don’t want to contribute to, increasing AoA’s traffic risks letting its “management” (such as it is) charge higher rates for advertising for the supplement hawkers and compounding pharmacies selling various forms of woo. More importantly, I do fear that the hypernova of stupidity that is the entire AoA blog (of which Olmsted’s supernova of stupidity is but a small part) might actually be contagious and infect this blog. True, I hope to make this blog a vaccine against such contagious stupidity, but no vaccine is 100% effective. Exposing myself to the infectious agent too many times or at too large an inoculum is a bit risky, aside from the neuron-necrosing ignorance routinely served up there.

I’m about to go back to the well more time.

The reason I thought I’d go back to the well again is because there is a post there that demonstrates just what we’re up against when it comes to the antiscience of antivaccinationism. Yesterday displayed an seemingly intelligent man who is a scientific ignoramus plumbing depths of ignorance difficult for those of us who are scientifically trained to comprehend and doing it in as unequivocal a manner as I’ve ever seen. He even went so far as to claim that he knew “plausible” links between parents’ occupations and autism when he saw them, science and epidemiology be damned. If there is a better definition of the arrogance of ignorance, I’m hard-pressed to find it, other than Jenny McCarthy. After all, Olmsted’s been at it for years; Jenny, only a little more than a year.

Yesterday, AoA served up another example of the arrogance of ignorance that was almost on par with one woman’s “gut feelings” led to some ludicrous inferences a couple of weeks ago, and I thought taking a look at it would be instructive. Specifically, what it demonstrates is an all too common attitude that expertise doesn’t matter, that the “inferences” or “discoveries” made on the basis of studying at the University of Google should be taken as seriously as those based on science. In other words, those who don’t know what they are talking about demand that those who do know not only give them a fair hearing (reasonable) but actually act on what they demand. It also demonstrates something that I’ve been saying all along about antivaccinationists, namely that now that mercury has been scientifically exonerated as the cause of autism another ingredient in vaccines would replace it as the all-purpose toxic bogeyman that antivaccinationists fear. Not surprisingly, that ingredient is aluminum, to the point where I hereby declare that aluminum is the new mercury.

The post in question, Stunning New Link Between Vaccines and Autism Rates, is yet another by a mother of a child with “strange reactions” to vaccines and a cousin with an autistic child. Big surprise, she blames vaccines. She also requested to remain anonymous, which is something that I have no problem with at all, but I can’t help but point out the hypocrisy of AoA regarding her request. After all, if I were to find out who this mother is and “out” her the way that AoA “outs” me periodically or has outed one of my readers in the past, you can bet there’d be a firestorm of righteous indignation. I’d never do that, of course, barring knowledge of criminal activity or some imminent threat that might override my respect for anonymity, but I point this issue out as yet another example of the hypocrisy that runs rampant over at AoA. I also realize that my not-so-Respectfully Insolent deconstruction of this mother’s statements about vaccines risks yet another charge that I’m “mean” or even “hate mothers.” I’m not and I don’t, but if you’re going to post such a load of tripe on an antivaccination blog, I’m sorry, but gentle just won’t get the message across. I don’t blame this mother so much. She doesn’t know better and was apparently encouraged through an e-mail exchange with Olmsted. I do, however, reserve my contempt for Dan Olmsted, whose scientific ignorance is such that it breeds (or at least encourages) scientific ignorance in his less sophisticated readers.

A contagious supernova of stupidity, indeed.

I also don’t intend on spending a lot of time doing a line-by-line rebuttal, anyway, because the whole post is such a–shall we say?–”target-rich” environment that my post would end up being even longer than the typical tome that I write. After all, the entire post is one large example of confusing correlation with causation and making a whole lot of really ignorant statements that a bit of education about science might have prevented. Of course, the ever-credulous, ever-antivaccine Dan Olmsted doesn’t see it that way:

This very compelling data is well worth looking at and we welcome thoughts about its significance. Below are excerpts from several e-mails she exchanged with us. The charts and notes (HERE) are dy-noh-MITE! As we’ve said before, smart, concerned and informed citizen-scientist-parents are the CDC’s worst nightmare — and the best hope for getting to the bottom of the epidemic of autism and related disorders. We hope this low-key stay-at-home mom continues to match her very sharp wits against the vaccine apologists.

Dan’s showing his age, and unfortunately I have to show mine by recognizing the “dy-no-MITE!” reference. Back to the 1970s, which was still a more sophisticated time, at least in terms of scientific understanding, than anything you’ll ever find at AoA. In any case, I’m sorry to have to disabuse her and Dan of their mutual admiration. This mother may be a citizen, and she may be a parent, but she’s no scientist. No scientist would fall for this sort of obvious trap:

I used the “Autism Rates by Birth Years” data from TACA Now and compared it to public records about vaccine histories. I found that since the DTP vaccine in 1949 the ONLY time period with NO increase in autism cases is also the only time period with NO vaccines added to the CHILDHOOD schedule. The hep b was licensed during this time but it was not given to children until 1990. Also, the Hib was reformulated for infants in 1987, but due to a shortage, it was not added to the schedule until 1990 (There was a HUGE jump in autism rates in 1990). See for yourself.

Mr. Olmsted’s “scientist” even goes so far as to declare this to be The Correlation that Does Indicate Causation.

It’s not.

Actually, the graph is just plain silly. For example, it divides up the time from 1946 to 2004 into different time periods ranging from a decade to only two years. The decade periods of time are too long to correlate to the introduction of individual vaccines, but that doesn’t stop our intrepid “scientist” from trying. It includes the time period all the way back to even before 1943, which is when Leo Kanner reported his characterization of the first cases of autism. Since then, the diagnostic criteria for autism have changed considerably over the decades, in general broadening. Indeed, many children now labeled as “autistic” or on the autistic spectrum were previously diagnosed as schizophrenic or mentally retarded all the way up into the 1980s and even early 1990s. That’s because in the 1990s, the diagnostic criteria were greatly expanded, which, coupled with increased awareness and funding for the study and care of children with autism, resulted in the huge increase of diagnoses we have today.

Of course, the monotonically increasing curve from the 1940s to present could be correlated with a lot of things, not just vaccines and not just aluminum-containing vaccines. For example, television first became commonly available in the 1940s, but really took off in the 1950s and 1960s. One could just as easily plot the number of televisions in the U.S versus the number of cases of autism, and I bet you’d get a pretty similar correlation. Ditto suburbanization of the United States. I bet autism is caused by suburban living. Or how about computer use? Generation Rescue makes much of the increase in autism diagnoses since 1983. I pointed out that that was the year that the PC was introduced, with the original Macintosh introduced in 1984. Obviously computer use causes autism, although it’s hard to tell if it’s computers or CDs because the CD was introduced in the U.S. in 1983, too. Its use took off. However, analogous to thimerosal, CD usage has been plunging since 2001, the year the iPod was introduced, Everyone seems to get their music as MP3 files rather than as CDs, but autism rates have not fallen. That’s pretty powerful evidence it’s not CDs.

Unless, of course, MP3 players also cause autism.

I’m being facetious, of course, but unfortunately this “mother-scientist” is not. She’s making exactly the same sort of confusion of correlation with causation common to all scientifically naive humans (and all too many scientifically knowledgeable ones, as well). To her, it’s absolutely, positively got to be the vaccines; so she just looks for any information to cherry pick that she can to support her idea. Because she doesn’t have the scientific background to evaluate these snippets of information, she weaves them together into a ludicrous meshwork of pseudoscience and antiscience almost as hilarious as those of Cynthia Janak a couple of weeks ago. So how did she come to these conclusions? First, she says:

Also FYI, according to Wikipedia, mercury thermometers are not even allowed on some airliners because mercury reacts with aluminum. Many childhood vaccines contain(ed) both aluminum and mercury. Sounds dangerous to me.

Here’s what Wikipedia actually says:

Mercury readily combines with aluminium to form a mercury-aluminum amalgam when the two pure metals come into contact. However, when the amalgam is exposed to air, the aluminium oxidizes, leaving behind mercury. The oxide flakes away, exposing more mercury amalgam, which repeats the process. This process continues until the supply of amalgam is exhausted, and since it releases mercury, a small amount of mercury can “eat through” a large amount of aluminium over time, by progressively forming amalgam and relinquishing the aluminium as oxide.

Aluminium in air is ordinarily protected by a molecule-thin layer of its own oxide, which is not porous to oxygen. Mercury coming into contact with this oxide does no harm. However, if any elemental aluminium is exposed (even by a recent scratch), the mercury may combine with it, starting the process described above, and potentially damaging a large part of the aluminium before it finally ends.[48]

For this reason, restrictions are placed on the use and handling of mercury in proximity with aluminium. In particular, mercury is not allowed aboard aircraft under most circumstances because of the risk of it forming amalgam with exposed aluminium parts in the aircraft.

Perhaps this “scientist” is worried about the formation of amalgam in vaccinated babies. In fact, she is and in essence says so in response to the observation that autism rates have not fallen in the nearly seven years since thimerosal was removed from most childhood vaccines:

Here’s my best response to the thimerosal argument: While definitely it’s not good to inject children with mercury, I think that’s only a part of the problem. I think that thimerosal can make the aluminum even more toxic because the two metals are reactive, and if it’s true that thimerosal reduces glutathione (I found this study on TACA), then children’s bodies would be less capable of excreting the aluminum.

I hate to break it to this mother, but there’s a huge difference between two raw metals coming in contact with each other on the surface of aluminum and ethyl mercury (thimerosal) at minute concentrations in the body, rapidly excreted, and tiny amounts of aluminum that are considerably smaller than what a baby receives from breastfeeding and other environmental sources. Unless someone’s putting mercury metal directly on aluminum, not much is going to happen. Certainly, there’s no evidence that aluminum “reacts” with mercury in the body to become more toxic. Here’s a sample of more of this sort of “reasoning”:

I also read the Wikipedia entry on aluminum and found out that you shouldn’t mix it with mercury, and this article also stated that aluminum damages the blood brain barrier. That could explain why adding the live virus measles vaccine to the aluminum-containing DTP vaccine would cause problems. Without the blood-brain barrier there would be no protection against the live measles virus which can cause brain damage.

I don’t really want to keep beating on this poor mother’s scientific ignorance. There are many more examples of it in her post, examples that any chemist (with the possible exception of that promoter of autism quackery, Boyd Haley) would laugh at or just shake his head, complete with worries that because some have claimed to have linked aluminum with Alzheimer’s disease (a dubious link at best) that she’s really worried. She also thinks she’s found the reason why boys are affected with autism (to her produced by vaccines) than girls:

This link also says, “Furthermore, aluminum increases estrogen-related gene expression in human breast cancer cells grown in the laboratory. [39] These salts’ estrogen-like effects have led to their classification as a metalloestrogen.” I don’t really understand what a metalloestrogen is, but the definition on Wikipedia is, a hormonally active agent. Could this help explain why one gender would be affected more frequently? That’s not something I know anything about, but it seems like it’d be worth looking into.

No, it’s really not, and it almost certainly couldn’t. This is the sort of mechanism that’s been invoked to claim a possible link between the use of aluminum-containing antiperspirants and breast cancers in the upper outer quadrant of the breast, close to where antiperspirant is applied. That’s a questionable link, and even if true it would be the result of a daily application of aluminum over the course of many years–not an analogous situation. Context matters. That’s one thing a scientific education teaches.

The reason I highlighted this particular post is not to make fun of this mother (although I do make fun of Dan Olmsted and AoA for breathlessly treating it as though it was some sort of brilliant scientific insight that those dreaded “close-minded” scientists missed). There’s a reason why they missed such “insights.” They go against chemistry and physiology; in short, there’s no plausible mechanism. Again, context matters. Indeed, the reason I highlighted it is because the antivaccination movement shows how much expertise has become devalued. By way of Sullivan and Andrew Sullivan, I became aware of an interview with Harry Collins that encapsulated this phenomenon, in which the observations of untrained and ignorant people, who see their observations derived from the University of Wikipedia and Google as brilliant insights and don’t even realize why their observations aren’t considered seriously by scientists, are treated as equivalent to the knowledge and experience of scientific experts. Key quote:

I would say that the danger to democracy that my own discipline–social studies of science–is not doing enough to combat is the collapse of the idea of expertise. Current social studies of science has difficulty with the notion of expertise. The attitude that anyone’s opinion on any topic is equally valuable could spread, and there are some indications, such as widespread vaccine scares, that suggest it is happening. A world in which there is said to be no difference between those who know what they are talking about and those who don’t is not one that anyone who thinks about it wants. Such a society would be like one’s worst nightmare, exhibiting many of the characteristics of the most vile epochs of human history.

Philosopher-king fascism won’t work, but a reaction to it that creates technological populism is just as bad. It is very hard to work out how to find a rationale for a middle position which does not replace one extreme with the other.

This is exactly what is happening in our society, and rabid antivaccine activism is but one symptom of it. There are many other strains of this very phenomenon, including the entire “complementary and alternative” medicine movement and its postmodernist attacks on evidence-based medicine (science is just a “narrative,” you know, one that’s “equally valid” as that of shamans, reiki practitioners, and various practitioners of woo), 9/11 Truthers, “intelligent design” creationists, and a wide variety of other pseudoscientists. They are not merely content to attack science, but they attack the very concept of expertise. Given the how much egalitarianism appeals to the general public, these attacks on expertise are very seductive. Who do those pointy-heads think they are, anyway? Why can’t anyone learn enough to have an opinion as valid as the scientists? For highly technical areas, it may be possible that “anyone” can–if that person wants to go through the years of training it takes to master the disciplines and background knowledge. That’s not to say that a technocracy would be a good thing, either. There needs to be a balance, but unfortunately the balance has shifted too far to the side of the know-nothings. Antivaccinationists are perhaps best example of this phenomenon, not to mention the one most endangering public health.

There are two famous lines from Dirty Harry movies, one of which goes, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” the other of which goes, “Well, opinions are like assholes… everybody has one.” The problem with this false elevation of incompetence and the arrogance of ignorance is that those who don’t know what they’re talking about but confidently contradict those who do don’t know their limitations or that their arguments stink.

And aluminum is the new mercury.

Comments

  1. #1 Laser Potato
    September 17, 2008

    Lest we forget John Best and his wild-ass claims that autism didn’t exist before (insert date here)… http://skeptico.blogs.com/skeptico/2007/10/john-best.html#comment-87188722

  2. #2 Kemist
    September 17, 2008

    “There are many more examples of it in her post, examples that any chemist (with the possible exception of that promoter of autism quackery, Boyd Haley) would laugh at…”

    As a chemist, let me be the first to say:

    Bwahahahahahahahahah… heeheeheeheheee…. hhahahahahahahhhhh…. Mercy…(wipes tears and coffee off my silicon keyboard).

    Ignorant mother says :”I don’t really understand what a metalloestrogen is”

    As a specialist in cancer hormone therapy, let me say :

    That you certainly dont, lady. Have you ever heard of phytoestrogens ? Do you or your kids eat soy ? Or sweet potato ? Then you are exposing yourselves to dangerous compounds with hormonal properties ! Oh, the horror… Somebody think of the chilren ! Ban soy products from teh market !111!11

  3. #3 heh... you said, "Butt"
    September 17, 2008

    “Well, opinions are like assholes… everybody has one.”

    Yes, but AoA and its lemmings are one gigantic, scientifically illiterate butt. And my butt knows that the scientific process harnesses induction followed by deduction and that the skipping of the deductive part just turns the whole conclusion into a butt.

    I would feel sorry for this woman with her ignorance and your beat-down, but the AoA anon screen name hypocrisy has trumped that.

  4. #4 cptchaos
    September 17, 2008

    And yet again I think that “postmodernism” is the biggest enemy of reason in western culture. If we want some kind of second Enlightenmen we have to tackle it as first target.

  5. #5 Kemist
    September 17, 2008

    I also wonder if these people use antacids for their stomach pains… The heavy duty kinds (the ones that really work for more than 15-20 minutes) all contain… aluminum oxide. In gram quantities per dose. Or if they cook in aluminum cookware, which carries a higher risk of absorption because of contact with hot organic material (food).

    All the bad rap of aluminum has its origin in a very specific application : blood dialysis. Before purified water was used in dialysis, long-term users would develop what was called “dialysis dementia”, which was found out to be caused by an accumulation of insoluble aluminum in the brain. The symptoms were somewhat similar to Alzheimer’s which prompted the correlation. But upon histological exam of brain samples, both were found to be quite different.

    The thing is we all accumulate aluminum in our brains over our lifetimes, and the biggest source for it (barring aluminum cookware) is… drinking water. You have to look for what’s called “organic labile aluminum”, which is the most dangerous kind because:

    1- It’s easily absorbed
    2- It’s reactive and will become insoluble upon reaction, thereby accumulating in the body.

    The most at risk water supplies are those which come in contact with humus-rich forest soil.

  6. #6 D. C. Sessions
    September 17, 2008

    I also wonder if these people use antacids for their stomach pains… The heavy duty kinds (the ones that really work for more than 15-20 minutes) all contain… aluminum oxide. In gram quantities per dose. Or if they cook in aluminum cookware, which carries a higher risk of absorption because of contact with hot organic material (food).

    Well, even the uptake of antacids (aren’t they aluminum hydroxide?) is rather greatly enhanced by mixing with organic anions in the GI tract. Since it’s hard to avoid aluminum, maybe those worried about it should avoid those anions instead.

  7. #7 cptchaos
    September 17, 2008

    And yet again I think that “postmodernism” is the biggest enemy of reason in western culture. If we want some kind of second Enlightenment we have to tackle it as first target.

  8. #8 Ranson
    September 17, 2008

    @Kemist

    You know what’s sad? I’ve actually seen people call for that, because those “unnatural” estrogens were sissifying young boys and making them “the gay”.

    No matter what knowledgeable people joke about, there’s always some idiot who will take it seriously.

  9. #9 Oldfart
    September 17, 2008

    While I agree with the goals and science here, I get a little tired of the effete intellectual snob making this quote

    who see their observations derived from the University of Wikipedia and Google

    over and over as if it actually meant something. I am not a scientist. I’m just an ordinary human looking for answers. That is why I come here. I use both Google and Wikipedia to look up terms I find here that I do not understand. Google and Wikipedia are tools people use, for good or for bad and I dislike being lumped in with a group of fools who use them for the bad. If you are suggesting that all people who use Google and Wiki and other online research tools are stupid, ignorant woo-enablers, please say so. I won’t bother reading this blog any longer.

  10. #10 I am so wise
    September 17, 2008

    Again with the snipes at postmodernism? Look, while inappropriately used, postmodernism is a very useful set of tools and views that have greatly helped improve historical writing. Check out National Deconstruction by David Campbell, Death of Christian Britain by Callum Brown, or Edward Muir’s Mad Blood Stirring.

  11. #11 Kemist
    September 17, 2008

    “I would say that the danger to democracy that my own discipline–social studies of science–is not doing enough to combat is the collapse of the idea of expertise.”

    I think that this is the key expression :

    “I don’t understand this, but…”

    In my line of work, we frequently step outside our areas of expertise as such. I’m not an expert in physiology, but I often happen to have insights that these experts don’t have, because of my own different point of view. It happens quite often in science. But the key difference is that real scientists (whether professionnl or not) generally will strive to understand what they do not rather than just jump to conclusions. Curiosity and humility are the difference. If you think you know everything, or that knowing something is not important, then you are no scientist, and you should keep your opinions to yourself. You can’t be a scientist without being ready to do your homework.

  12. #12 Liz Ditz
    September 17, 2008

    Thanks for taking one for the team, Orac. I stopped reading after the author reveals her qualifications:

    I’m a stay-at-home mom in NC with a degree in Computer Information Systems. I didn’t know anything about medicine until after my first child was born.

  13. #13 Kemist
    September 17, 2008

    “Well, even the uptake of antacids (aren’t they aluminum hydroxide?) is rather greatly enhanced by mixing with organic anions in the GI tract. Since it’s hard to avoid aluminum, maybe those worried about it should avoid those anions instead.”

    Oops.. my bad. I’m an organic chemist, so… So you say we should avoid organic onions, he ? :P

  14. #14 Natalie
    September 17, 2008

    For example, it divides up the time from 1946 to 2004 into different time periods ranging from a decade to only two years.

    I have taken exactly one statistics course and I know this is not how you make a graph.

    If you are suggesting that all people who use Google and Wiki and other online research tools are stupid, ignorant woo-enablers, please say so.

    Considering that Orac quoted from the Wikipedia articles themselves to illustrate how the woman misunderstood them, that seems unlikely.

  15. #15 D. C. Sessions
    September 17, 2008

    Oldfart, Google and Wikipedia are like any other popular reference: useful but not authoritative. There’s good stuff on Wikipedia, for instance, in my field (semiconductor circuits.) If all you want is to have a key to what people who actually know the field are talking about it’s a great tool. Seriously.

    However, like any encyclopedia it’s superficial — it’s been simplified to make it useful to precisely those people we’re talking about: those who haven’t actually studied the field in detail and never will. That’s not even getting into the whole “accuracy” thing.

    The fundamental [1] problem comes up when a Jenny McCarthy reads a 1000-word Readers Digest piece on a complex topic and then imagines that she’s mastered it as well as someone who has spent years (or decades) of intense study. Biochemistry is just slightly more complex than chess or Rubik’s Cube, so my challenge to anyone who thinks that they’ve mastered biochemistry by reading a Wikipedia article is to show me their mastery of chess or the Cube after reading the Wikipedia article on it.

    [1] Pun not intended but no apologies either.

  16. #16 Kemist
    September 17, 2008

    @ Ranson

    But how can they call them “unnatural” ? The freaking natural plants produce them ! (And what’s even more fascinating is that those compounds are thousands of time less potent than what men produce in their *own bodies*… that’s right, men produce estrogens and women produce androgens… always have. We are way more similar than we might think) Do they even think before saying something ? Oh, never mind…

  17. #17 DVMKurmes
    September 17, 2008

    The Phoenix NBC affiliate had a local pediatrician on last night talking about the “danger” of aluminum in vaccines.
    H sems to be a supporter of “spreading out” or delaying the vaccine schedule. The story gave him quite a platform and did not present any other viewpoints. Quite dissapointing.
    javascript:open_MediaPlayer(“12newshomepage”,”858549968″)

  18. #18 Nana
    September 17, 2008

    Speaking of Google ads, AoA has anti-Amanda Peet ad blitz running.

  19. #19 Interrobang
    September 17, 2008

    I nominate the anonymous mother for the Dunning-Krueger Fellowship, awarded to the scholar who most grossly overestimates their competence in a given academic year…

    Oh, yeah, and what i am so wise said, doubled, with chocolate phytoestrogenic tofu on top.

  20. #20 teej
    September 17, 2008

    There’s a big, big difference between postmodernism in literary analysis and postmodernism in analysing the epistemology of science. The former is a useful tool in understanding the sociocultural pastiche that makes up the process of creating art.

    The trouble with the latter is that it (speaking of inductive logic) sometimes gives that socially constructed pastiche an equivalent value to the empirical knowledge that science is based on. Maybe it’s a confusion between the way we think about the real world and what the real world actually is? Confusing noumena and phenomena could certainly screw up how you talk about the real world.

  21. #21 PaulT
    September 17, 2008

    My wife joined an ivillage message board for new moms and there seems to be a fair number that “aren’t at all anti-vaccination”, but “please don’t pump my little one full of autism causing mercury and aluminium”. It definitely looks like aluminium is becoming the new scapegoat, as the mountain of evidence against any link between mercury in vaccines and autism grows too large to ignore.

    It always gets to me when people complain about how dangerous these elements are, but ignore/forget/plain don’t know that they’re contained in compound form. Chlorine is a poisonous gas used as a weapon in WWI, and sodium is hazardous soft metal that reacts violently with water, yet the same people would rarely have a second thought about consuming food seasoned with salt.

  22. #22 notmercury
    September 17, 2008

    Obviously computer use causes autism, although it’s hard to tell if it’s computers or CDs because the CD was introduced in the U.S. in 1983, too.

    And what element gives CDs those shiny reflective coatings? Even those on the Mercury label.

    I wonder why AoA has such a hard time attracting a single person who might qualify as a scientist? They have a venture capitalist, an MBA consultant whatever, a handful of stay at home moms, an fired UPI writer, and a guy who claims to teach science to kindergarten kids. How hard can it be to find an actual scientist to explain this stuff to them?

  23. #23 Elizabeth Reid
    September 17, 2008

    It’s a very interesting problem. The fact is, as many laypeople have observed in their daily lives, that experts are subject to the same kinds of reasoning errors as non-experts and can lead to them being wrong, sometimes wildly so. Like all humans, they fall prey to confirmation bias, availability bias, unwillingness to seem inconsistent, ego investment in particular theories, and so on. Furthermore, nearly everyone has an example in their own lives or has heard a story of the layperson being right when the expert was wrong. You know, stories of people who went to the doctor with headaches and the doctor said they were tension headaches and the patient insisted that wasn’t it and it turned out to be brain cancer. And you know, on days like this when I’m spending my time watching the near-collapse of the global banking system, my own personal respect for experts reaches an all-time low so it’s not even like I don’t get it.

    Given that, it’s really hard to demonstrate to people that overall, expertise is still more valuable than ignorance and people’s anecdotal experience and gut feelings. And the more they tend to trust anecdote and gut feelings, the *harder* it is to even make the case to them, because arguing that experience helps requires looking at the big picture, which is just what people who want to trust their own gut feelings are disinclined to do.

  24. #24 isles
    September 17, 2008

    Thank you, Orac, for wading into the effluent. It’s important for everyone to realize that despite Age of Autism’s self-styling as a news organization, they wouldn’t know journalism if it slapped them in the face, and despite their putative interest in science, they actually care a lot more about fearmongering and PR.

  25. #25 cptchaos
    September 17, 2008

    First, sorry for the double post. The sever reported an an error (timeout).

    Well I’ve quoted postmodernism for a reason. And I don’t think that all is wrong there especially I don’t think that deconstruction is always useless. However at the moment postmodernism seems to be the fertile soil to grow and harvest irrationalism.
    Then anyway, what happens if you deconstruct postmodernism?

  26. #26 StuV
    September 17, 2008

    Just curious: anyone know the etymology for “sodium”, when every sane person would/should call it natrium?

  27. #27 Calli Arcale
    September 17, 2008

    Word, PaulT. Sodium and chloride are my favorite examples of something horribly dangerous in elemental form but pretty benign (and extremely commonplace) when combined into a salt. (A salt so ubiquitous that in common usage, it’s usually just called “salt”. The traditional salt, as it were.)

    How do people escape high school without understanding the difference between an element and a compound? I was taught that in 7th Grade, in a required science class. Among other things, we learned how Mendeleev created the periodic table — which led to such an awesome “ah-ha!” moment when I was in high school and learned about *orbitals*…. But I digress. Clearly, at some level our society is failing to teach basic science to our children. Either the courses suck, or we’re not requiring the right basics, or our culture is deemphasizing science to the point where most kids think it’s just something to suffer through so you can pass out of that grade and move on. Average folks alive today do not even understand basic discoveries made centuries ago! Adults don’t know that objects of different (but still negligible compared to the parent body) mass fall at the same rate! They don’t know that elements, when combined into compounds, have very different physical properties! They think irradiation will produce mutated meat for cryin’ out loud!

    If there is one thing I truly lament about science education in our country, it’s that it’s not sticking.

  28. #28 Scott
    September 17, 2008

    Just curious: anyone know the etymology for “sodium”, when every sane person would/should call it natrium?

    According to dictionary.com, it’s derived from “soda,” because it was first isolated from caustic soda (NaOH).

  29. #29 SimonG
    September 17, 2008

    A lot of the blame must go on statistics. Or rather, most people’s near total ignorance of how to use and interpret them.

    My first exposure to correlation was in a geography lesson when I was 14. My teacher showed us that there was a strong correlation between the birth rate and the number of storks nests in Denmark. Quite enlightening.

  30. #30 SES
    September 17, 2008

    This is exactly what is happening in our society, and rabid antivaccine activism is but one symptom of it. There are many other strains of this very phenomenon, including the entire “complementary and alternative” medicine movement and its postmodernist attacks on evidence-based medicine (science is just a “narrative,” you know, one that’s “equally valid” as that of shamans, reiki practitioners, and various practitioners of woo), 9/11 Truthers, “intelligent design” creationists, and a wide variety of other pseudoscientists.

    Let’s not forget about the antifluoride cranks, who use exactly the same tactics as the anti-vaccinators.

  31. #31 Orac
    September 17, 2008

    I’m just an ordinary human looking for answers. That is why I come here. I use both Google and Wikipedia to look up terms I find here that I do not understand. Google and Wikipedia are tools people use, for good or for bad and I dislike being lumped in with a group of fools who use them for the bad. If you are suggesting that all people who use Google and Wiki and other online research tools are stupid, ignorant woo-enablers, please say so. I won’t bother reading this blog any longer.

    I’m sorry if my saying so will drive you away once and for all, but your comment provoked in me the need to be blunt here. That’s about the biggest straw man I’ve seen in a long time. I was not “lumping” people like you who use Google and Wikipedia as tools to get a preliminary definition of terms or concepts they don’t understand, and I think that was quite clear from the text. (Thus far at least, no one else has interpreted what I wrote the way you did, anyway.) There’s a huge difference between using Google and Wikipedia as tools (which I myself do for topics I’m not that familiar with) and treating them as the basis for an understanding of a topic on par with that of experts. A huge difference.

    Remember how I emphasized the “arrogance of ignorance”? It gives the entire context to the whole “University of Google or Wikipedia.” Remember my Dirty Harry quote at the end, in particular how “a man’s got to know his limitations”? (I sort of regret including the “asshole” quote now, but it’s too late to take it out.) The whole point of this screed was that the mother who posted her “analysis,” the woman who posted the Gardasil rant that I deconstructed a couple of weeks ago, not to mention the entire crew at AoA don’t know their limitations. I assume you do know yours, but they clearly don’t know theirs. They project the attitude that their Google- and Wikipedia-acquired knowledge trumps that of people who have been studying vaccines for years–or even decades. The post that I discussed is a perfect example of that.

    Worse, they don’t realize that they don’t know After all, if Wikipedia says it is potentially dangerous to combine mercury and aluminum because the mercury eats away the aluminum, then shouldn’t it be dangerous to combine diethyl mercury and aluminum salts in a vaccine? See what I mean? Even after such a statement, which is incorrect on so many levels based on basic chemistry alone, much less biology, they can’t understand why scientists correctly dismiss their misinformed speculation.

    I intend to continue to use the term “University of Google” when I consider it appropriate (even though it irritates blogchild Mark Chu-Carroll, who happens to work for Google–maybe I should use “University of Wikipedia” instead) in this context because it captures a certain personality type and denigration of expertise. It does not “lump you in with a group of fools who use Google and Wikipeida for the bad”; rather it specifically describes a certain type of person who thinks that Google or Wikipedia knowledge provides them sufficient knowledge to speak on anywhere near the level of advanced scientific knowledge and uses Google or Wikipedia to come to “insights” that they can’t understand why those scientists all missed.

    I’ll be sorry if it drives you away from the blog, but it concisely describes a certain antiscience, anti-expertise, anti-elitist personality type that is very common in all pseudoscience.

  32. #32 JC
    September 17, 2008

    A friend of mine was hit over the head with an aluminum baseball bat and was unconscious for several minutes.

    If aluminum can cause damage like that in an innocuous form like a baseball bat, imagine what it can do when you inject it into a child.

  33. #33 Orac
    September 17, 2008

    Again with the snipes at postmodernism? Look, while inappropriately used, postmodernism is a very useful set of tools and views that have greatly helped improve historical writing.

    Historical writing. Not science.

    That’s the key. Postmodernism may be OK in the humanities, where alternate interpretations are far more valid. (I say “may” because I find a lot of PoMo that I encounter in non-science fields to be drivel, too, and am not convinced that it’s all that useful much of the time.) It’s not OK in science.

  34. #34 Dangerous Bacon
    September 17, 2008

    A classic letter to the editor (of the N.Y. Times) from a “citizen-scientist-mommie” followed the Times recent editorial about the latest debunking of the claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism. The key part of the letter:

    “Although clinical research studies have not found a direct link to autism, researchers should explore the possibility that vaccines may be the tipping point in the toxic burden our children have to bear in our increasingly polluted world.

    Our children are expected to receive up to 36 vaccination shots by age 6, with more vaccinations being added regularly. Maybe it is a “mother’s instinct,” but I question the safety of inflicting this barrage on babies and small children.”

    Two highly logical, fact-based conclusions there – one, even though vaccines have not been linked to autism (I guess we should marvel that an antivaxer would even admit that), they should be regarded as the mysterious last straw in a world jam-packed with “toxins” that “tips” the kiddies over the edge. The other is that we should ignore the views of those who’ve spent their careers accumulating knowledge in this field in favor of “a mother’s instinct”.

    Sorry to acknowledge it, but in this instance I did have the fleeting thought that it would be useful if someone could (gently) shake this woman until the stupid falls out.

  35. #35 Danielle
    September 17, 2008

    Thanks for a good overview of some of Age of Autism’s spurious ‘scientific’ arguments. I stumbled upon a website called eHow that tries to show you how to do anything from detecting cellulite (why…) to “treating autism with epsom salts”. This is the first time I had heard of epsom salts being used in this way (!), so I blogged on it here.

    After a reader commented that epsom salts are effective for this purpose (but admittedly not a ‘cure’), I did a quick search and found an alternative medicine review suggesting their benefits. This was based on parental testimonials AND the website that was referenced couldn’t be found.

    I’m not sure how a published paper could get away with this.

    Autism, an extreme challenge to integrative medicine. Part II: medical management Alternative Medicine Review, Dec, 2002 by Parris M. Kidd. Accessed 12 Sept, 2008: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0FDN/is_6_7/ai_96416601/pg_11?tag=artBody;col1

  36. #36 anonimouse
    September 17, 2008

    This part of Olmstead’s treatise irritated me more than usual:

    citizen-scientist-parents

    I hate that phrase. These people aren’t scientists at all, yet they give themselves that moniker without the requisite experience or education. Or if they have, they certainly haven’t learned how to apply their knowledge appropriately.

    Hell, they don’t even act like scientists. Science moves slowly and carefully, looking at all different avenues to explain a phenomenon. These clowns start with a premise (heavy metals in vaccines cause autism) and then work back to that conclusion, ignoring any evidence that doesn’t support their point-of-view.

    This notion about the reaction between aluminum and mercury in the body causing autism – seriously? Like no other real scientist ever thought of that before? Well, the answer is that real scientists did think of that before, and dismissed it as implausible.

    The real issue with the mercury militia is arrogance. They think they know more than scientists, physicians and government officials. Their few hours of googling the topic gives them an insight that folks who do this think for a living don’t? How insulting to those people, and how narcissistic on their part.

  37. #37 DonZilla
    September 17, 2008

    “If you are suggesting that all people who use Google and Wiki and other online research tools are stupid, ignorant woo-enablers, please say so. I won’t bother reading this blog any longer.”

    Oh, please. Haven’t we all used Google or Wiki at one time or another?

    This reminds me of a conversation I had with my friend. I was telling her about how much I disliked Macintosh apples. Unknown to me, it turns out they were one of her favorite childhood foods, so she went into full defensive mode, making me feel like I was personally attacking her, when all I was doing was expressing apple preferences. :)

    People who look for insult and injury everywhere are sure to find it.

    For Dangerous Bacon:

    “The other is that we should ignore the views of those who’ve spent their careers accumulating knowledge in this field in favor of ‘a mother’s instinct’.”

    Of course we are! This is America! Who needs a career accumulating knowledge when there’s not only common sense and instincts, but “guts.” Anyone who’s not a mom, even the President, can have “gut instincts.” But only mothers can have mom instincts, gut instincts, women’s intuition AND common sense! Those alone make them experts on everything.

  38. #38 notmercury
    September 17, 2008

    Most science fiction of the day predicted a future that was more civilized and more intelligent. But as time went on, things seemed to be heading in the opposite direction. A dumbing down. How did this happen? Evolution does not necessarily reward intelligence. With no natural predators to thin the herd, it began to simply reward those who reproduced the most, and left the intelligent to become an endangered species. –
    Idiocracy (2006)

    http://www.ucs.louisiana.edu/~jxo1721/index.html/612syl.pdf

    COURSE TITLE: CODI612-1SP08
    This course is about the causes of autism spectrum disorders and their diagnosis. The main requirements consist of readings, seminar type class discussions, and a research paper/progress report. Please read the assigned material before each class meeting and come prepared to talk about it in class.

    TEXTS: Jepson, B., & Johnson, J. (2007). Changing the course of autism: A scientific
    approach for parents and physicians. Boulder, CO: Sentient Publications.
    McCarthy, J. (2007). Louder than words: A mother’s journey in healing autism. New York:
    Dutton.

  39. #39 Oldfart
    September 17, 2008

    Unfortunately, this is not about liking McIntosh apples or not liking them. If it was, then your straw man argument might have some validity. It is about associating a group of people who do like McIntosh apples with a group of people who do like McIntosh apples AND are deniers of some kind. And, by implication, suggesting that all those people who like McIntosh apples are also deniers. What is it y’all say? Correlation does not imply causation?

    In many ways I am a student at the University of Wikipedia (but never a graduate) and I felt insulted AND excluded… Sorry about that.

  40. #40 D. C. Sessions
    September 17, 2008

    Regarding Idiocracy, you may find that the concept isn’t new, even in science fiction. The classic The Marching Morons by C. M. Kornbluth is more than a half-century ahead of Idiocracy.

    Kornbluth actually anticipated another effect which has since become well-established in evolutionary biology (at the time it was at best controversial): that reproductive isolation is the key to speciation. The “eventually you have to, like, talk to them” effect combines with the fact that someone has to mind the store ends up with two human subspecies headed for full speciation.

  41. #41 Kemist
    September 17, 2008

    @ Oldfart:

    You shouldn’t. There’s a big difference between somebody who uses public resources like wikipedia (or before the interwebs, they could have used their public library) to have “insights” and jump to conclusion without doing their homework and somebody who is there to learn something. The “insightful mom” is of the former type : “I don’t know what that is, but I don’t like it and I’m sure it causes autism. And damn the expert’s opinion.”

    A career scientist is no more immune than “insightful mom” to this kind of tripe. The first name that comes to my mind is Pauling, whose ego was so fat that he couldn’t bring himself to listen to people who have actually done clinical studies. Anyone can have insights, but their value cannot be expected to exceed the amount of comprehension one has of a subject.

    I like to think being a scientist is a state of mind: the same state of mind that is needed when you are small to learn to walk, to interact with other humans, to discover the world around you. It means that you will be found wrong several times, and that you have to be humble enough to accept it and curious enough to really want to search every possible way in which you can be wrong. Including listening to the advice of people who know vastly more than you do on a given subject. People often forget that those who proved other scientists wrong about something have had first to learn at least as much as the leading experts… They had to become experts themselves.

  42. #42 Calli Arcale
    September 17, 2008

    Oldfart, the way the term “University of Google/Wikipedia” is used here is specifically to refer to those who feel that searching Google gives them some kind of ultimate authority on a subject. It does not refer to those who use Google or Wikipedia more appropriately. You or I would never think that searching Wikipedia gave us authority on a subject. We’d use it to support our cases, or as a handy reference, but never equate it with a university level education in a given subject.

    That’s the difference between you and, say, Jenny McCarthy. You look stuff up on Google, but you don’t consider it equivalent to a degree in the topic. McCarthy acts as if her Wikipedia reading gives her an expertise comparable to someone who did their masters thesis on autism and their doctoral thesis on vaccines, and who is presently a research scientist exploring questions related to one or both of those.

    Bottom line, since I’m long-winded: “University of Wikipedia” doesn’t mean everybody who searches Wikipedia, nor was it meant to. It refers to those who feel it is comparable to a real university.

  43. #43 Orac
    September 17, 2008

    What Kemist and Calli Arcale said.

    Personally, I’m very puzzled at the level of offense taken by Oldfart. I really am.

    I thought it was crystal clear from the context of my post that “University of Google” or “University of Wikipedia” was not intended to refer to people like him. My readers seem to agree. At least, I haven’t seen anyone take similar offense at my use of the term.

  44. #44 Joseph
    September 17, 2008

    I’ve said it before. It’s very easy to naively correlate autism trends with trends of nearly anything about the modern world. Show me a statistically significant detrended cross-correlation and we’ll talk.

    It’s not the first time this has occurred. See, for example, the graph Mark Blaxill presented to the IOM in 2001. At first glance, it seems to indicate something. But then you consider that prevalence by birth year needs to left-censored (children born in recent years are too young to be diagnosed). Suddenly, the coincidence on the right-hand side of the graph disappears, and you realize that Blaxill simply had to wait for the right year to produce the graph (a form of cherry-picking).

  45. #45 DLC
    September 17, 2008

    A couple notes here about “university of wikipedia.”
    A few years ago I was taking a course at the local community college. There was a requirement for a research paper. The instructor handed out a requirements sheet, including a list of acceptable topics, and methods. On the list of unacceptable resources she included Wikipedia. The reason for this should be obvious — anyone can edit wikipedia articles.
    I’d say people should read wikipedia for a starting point, but check the references given carefully, and follow-up on things that seem suspicious.

    On the woman who wrote the piece Orac rightly blasts:
    Perhaps someone could refer her to the now-famous chart showing the diminution of pirates in correlation with the increase in global warming.

  46. #46 SLP
    September 17, 2008

    Speaking of which, you could probably draw a fantastic graph showing a correlation between rising CO2 levels and rising autism rates…

  47. #47 IBY
    September 17, 2008

    Yay! You used hypernova. ^_^ Hey! I also attend university of google. ;)Anyways, equaling correlation and causation is the number one mistake scientifically illiterate people seems to make. It is so annoying when journalists do that.

  48. #48 Dr. T
    September 17, 2008

    The dangers from aluminum have been vastly understated! Did you know that almost every airliner crash fatality was due to riding in an aluminum jet?

    On a more serious note, I was a pathology resident at the University of Rochester in the 1980s when the neurologists and neuropathologists were investigating Alzheimer’s. Naturally, since the plaques contained aluminum, the issue of aluminum toxicity arose. However, it was quickly shot down when studies showed aluminum just liked binding to plaques and was not involved in the damage process. Alzheimer’s patients with very high aluminum levels from dialysis did no worse than ones with near-zero aluminum levels.

    We’ve been using aluminum for centuries. It’s one of the least toxic metals because of its low reactivity. (That’s why it doesn’t corrode easily.) But, logic or science never stopped quacks and dimwits from making claims of toxicity (or claims of healing). I find it interesting that copper, promoted for its healing purposes, is many times more toxic than aluminum.

  49. #49 Ms. Clark
    September 17, 2008

    A few years ago JB Handley made one of his famous grandiose statements, this one to the effect that he has scientists at his beck and call ready to answer his questions or maybe it was that they were ready to produce whatever science he wanted always producing the “right” answer.

    Then he bragged that he was going to arrange for and fund some kind of marvelous study that would be so fine it would be publishable in first tier medical journals…. instead what he produced was that weird little telephone survey that found that vaccine use isn’t correlated with autism, after all.

    He’s got enough money to take the oh-so-insightful North Carolina “scientist mom’s” homework and have it checked by a real scientist (or maybe he lost a chunk in the stock market recently and can’t afford scientists any more). Maybe they tried that. Maybe they sent her comedic attempt at understanding stuff way over her head to several professors and they all said she was ridiculously off course… which of course only would prove that they were all part of the ULTRA SNEAKY VAST INTERNATIONAL CONSPIRACY TO THIMEROSAL MANUFACTURERS SHIELD (USVICTMS).

    I’m glad that AoA editors are making such colossal clowns of themselves. Just in time for their Jenny McYeasty’s book to come out. No one’s going to buy her “expertise.”

  50. #50 D. C. Sessions
    September 17, 2008

    We’ve been using aluminum for centuries. It’s one of the least toxic metals because of its low reactivity.

    Actually, aluminum has only been widely used for less than a century. The reason is that it’s incredibly reactive. Aluminum oxidation is the most exothermic (kjoules/mole) chemical reaction there is. However, it’s so freaking reactive that it self-passivates with alumina, which is (thanks to that energy state) very difficult to take apart — alumina is, in fact, extremely nonreactive.

    Go figure.

  51. #51 HCN
    September 18, 2008

    Illegitimi non Corundum … :p

    Aluminum is also a big component in rubies and sapphires!

  52. #52 Christophe Thill
    September 18, 2008

    “According to dictionary.com, it’s derived from “soda,” because it was first isolated from caustic soda (NaOH).”

    Soda is caustic! We should stop drinking it!

  53. #53 DT
    September 18, 2008

    How about armchair Google-chemist Mom’s offerings on the toxic dose of aluminium in antacids?
    http://vaccines-rvb.blogspot.com/2008/09/difference-between-ingested-and_11.html

    “if you’re wondering how much aluminum is in aluminum hydroxide, here’s my best guess: Al(OH)3 would imply that this substance is 1/4 aluminum “

    Laugh….? I nearly died!

  54. #54 Kemist
    September 18, 2008

    Dr T. :”We’ve been using aluminum for centuries. It’s one of the least toxic metals because of its low reactivity. (That’s why it doesn’t corrode easily.) But, logic or science never stopped quacks and dimwits from making claims of toxicity (or claims of healing). I find it interesting that copper, promoted for its healing purposes, is many times more toxic than aluminum.”

    What D.C. Session said. I’d like to add that generally speaking, you can guess how toxic a heavy metal is by checking if it’s in the same period (same column in a periodic table) as a mineral needed for your own health (Fe, Cu, Zn, P, Ca, Mg, Se, ect.). That’s because they tend to share the same chemical reactivities, and therefore to take the place of these metals and interfere in your metabolism. Also, these minerals themselves, when taken in large quantities (or accumulated due to a genetic defect, see Wilson’s disease or hematochromatosis) can be very toxic.

    However, some metals species are toxic by a different mechanism, that is reactivity/strong binding to DNA, protein or even sugars (ex.: platinum, which is used in chemotherapy because forms complexes with DNA; boron which is toxic to plants because it forms stable complexes with sugars). Those metal species are generally adducts with organic compounds, and will have very different chemical properties from the metal itself.

  55. #55 RJ
    September 18, 2008

    Ahhhhhhhhhh! My brainis buring! It burns! The stupid burns!

    I think I’m going to poke my eyes out with a stick so I won’t have to go through that again!

    I stopped by AoA (for my daily laugh) and read the comments about the Gaurdasil mandate for immigrants. Oh, the calamity. Preventing the spread of STDs that can be brought in by an immigrant population…does history have any references to such bold moves made by our public health services? Imagine, in this day and age.

    Anyway, you’ve got to see some of the comments. I like the one that uses U.S. death statistics to PROVE that cervical cancers are not [one of the] the leading cause of cancer deaths in the world. Good stuff.

  56. #56 Estherar
    September 18, 2008

    DT:”How about armchair Google-chemist Mom’s offerings on the toxic dose of aluminium in antacids?”

    Laughable, but she does bring up a semi-valid point: only 0.1-1% of aluminum ingested PO is absorbed via the gut, so the claim that the amounts of aluminum in vaccines are small compared to what we get in food tends to sound like a “gotcha!” to your average anti-vaxer mommy with her dog-eared copy of Dr Sears (who is calling himself “vaccine-friendly” these days. Bleah). Of course, IM-injected aluminum isn’t the same as IV-injected Al solution either, and the amount of Al administered IM that reaches the brain is minute. I’ve attempted to calculate this on my own blog.