Respectful Insolence

I know I’ve been hard on a lot of legislators, including woo-friendly clods such as Tom Harkin, Ron Paul, and Dan Burton. Occasionally, though, a legislator will show that he “gets it” (or at least hasn’t drunk the Kool Aid). Forwarded to me was a letter sent from Representative John Linder (R-GA) in response to a letter from the Autism Action Network, apparently upset over the IACC’s not being as excited about throwing good money after bad studying the scientifically discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. Here is Mr. Linder’s response, and it’s a good one (for a politician, anyway):

Dear X:

Thank you for contacting me to express your support for increased Federal funding for autism research. I appreciate hearing from you on this issue.

While I understand that many parents of children struggling with autism blame vaccines for the onset of the disease, the science on this issue overwhelmingly suggests that vaccines do not cause autism. In fact, I am sure that you are aware of a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims which specifically rejected arguments that thimerosal in certain vaccines and the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism in children.

While nobody is completely certain about the causes of autism, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has concluded that the most likely cause of autism is genetics. Researchers have identified a number of genes associated with autism, and studies of people with autism have found common irregularities in several regions of the brain. Other studies have shown abnormal levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in children with autism as opposed to children who show no signs of the disease. According to the NIH, the abnormalities suggest that autism could result from the disruption of normal brain development early in fetal development caused by defects in the how the brain regulates growth and neuron communication. In addition, a recent study in Israel has added momentum to the theory that genetics is responsible for autism. The study, which concluded in 2006, showed that the older a man was when fathering a child, the more likely it was that the child would have autism then a child with a young father. Even with this new research in mind, the NIH is still committed to continued autism research in order to better understand the disease. I support this goal.

You should know that I have twice successfully supported doubling Federal research funds for the NIH. I wholeheartedly believe that it is the responsibility of the Federal government to support scientific research to understand the causes of disease and to develop cures for those diseases. As such, I will continue to support NIH funding and research activities.

Thank you again for contacting me. If I may be of any further assistance to you, please do not hesitate to call on me.

Sincerely,

John Linder

It’s rare to see such a reasonable and knowledgeable response on this issue by a legislator. If you happen to live in his district, consider writing him a letter of congratulation. You know the antivaccine movement will be sending him their usual screeds.

Comments

  1. #1 Mu
    March 11, 2009

    Hmm, a southern republican standing up to the nonsense advocated prominently by a New England democrat, and he is right. Excuse me while I check for cats and dogs sleeping together.

  2. #2 Jestak
    March 11, 2009

    I don’t think much of Linder in general–he’s a hardcore righty on most issues–but it’s good to see him taking a rational stance here.

  3. #3 Paul
    March 11, 2009

    Let’s be perfectly honest here, Representative Linder did not write that letter. Government officials don’t write any of the letters they send. A staffer wrote it for him, and he signed it. He may or may not have read it before doing so.

  4. #4 New York Nancy
    March 11, 2009

    Who cares who wrote it, he signed it? At last someone in authority is actually standing up for rationality. It makes me want to stand up and cheer!

  5. #5 Harry Eagar
    March 11, 2009

    He represents Gwinnett County, right next to Dekalb County, home of the Centers for Disease Control.

    Whaddya wanna bet he is married to someone, attends church with someone or somehow has friends who work for CDC?

  6. #6 sophia8
    March 11, 2009

    Whaddya wanna bet he is married to someone, attends church with someone or somehow has friends who work for CDC? And maybe he has a cousin who lives next door to a woman who once dated a guy who who has a friend who spent a summer cleaning the offices of the CDC?

  7. #7 Clay
    March 11, 2009

    The letter mentions “disease” four times. Don’t much care for that. But at least he’s not a vote for the anti-vaxers.

  8. #8 Rick at shrimp and grits
    March 11, 2009

    Of course, this is the same guy who says that people who support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research…

    […] want to succeed in getting a bill signed into law in which the government approves the ending of a human life? Are we seeking here a way to get the government’s imprimatur on ending life that is not useful so that the product of that death can be put to more useful purposes? That is called the Hegelian Principle – that which is not useful can be destroyed for the benefit of useful purposes.

    This has been used by governments before. Hitler believed in it.

    Meh.

  9. #9 Antaeus Feldspar
    March 11, 2009

    In addition, a recent study in Israel has added momentum to the theory that genetics is responsible for autism. The study, which concluded in 2006, showed that the older a man was when fathering a child, the more likely it was that the child would have autism then a child with a young father.

    I may be showing my ignorance here, but how would this study support a genetic hypothesis for autism? Is the hypothesis that the man’s genes actually change as he ages?

  10. #10 RJ
    March 11, 2009

    “but how would this study support a genetic hypothesis for autism? ”

    De novo mutations.

    Along the same lines as Down Syndrome (where one is an additional copy of a chromosome (21 or 22) and the other is pieces of a chromosome(s)).

  11. #11 Prometheus
    March 11, 2009

    Mutations accumulate in the sperm “stem cells” as men age. These germ line mutations lead to children with genetic mutations.

    Prometheus

  12. #12 RJ
    March 11, 2009

    “Is the hypothesis that the man’s genes actually change as he ages?”

    More of our gametes will, over time.

    Along these lines, IF (a very, very big IF) there is a legitimate increase in the incidence of autism over the past decade (in addition to awareness, diagnosis, and reporting), then it would be interesting to see if there is a similar increase in the incidence of schizophrenia in this upcoming decade as that same birth cohort ages into the time when that disorder manifests. This would lend credence to the hypothesis that, as GenXer’s have pushed back marriage and childbirth to later years, that the probability of their children being diagnosed with autism would increase and it might be correlate with those who, through a similar mechanism, experience the effects of copy number variations that manifest as schizophrenia.

    Any thoughts on this speculation?

  13. #13 Dr Benway
    March 11, 2009

    Men with subclinical autism might tend to marry later in life.

  14. #14 dedicated lurker
    March 11, 2009

    Whatever else you may say about Ted Kennedy, he has taken several anti-quackery stands. He opposed the Proximer amendment (which did not make him very popular) and helped start the l-tryphtophan hearings.

  15. #15 badrescher
    March 11, 2009

    He may not know the difference between “then” and “than” (sorry – I am easily annoyed), but that’s the most factual statement I’ve heard/read from a politician in… well… forever. Wow.

    It’s nearly impossible to interpret the correlation between father’s age & autism rates without examining the study itself, especially the other variables that were controlled/accounted for.

  16. #16 LAB
    March 11, 2009

    Dr. Benway makes a good point. Add to that the fact that men and women with subclinical autism (possible “spinsters” and “bachelors” of previous generations) can now meet online, marry, and have children. Thanks to the internet, it’s now much easier for the socially averse to find a like-minded mate. On top of that, more men and women together in the high-tech workplace means more couples with similar minds are getting together. It’s no longer a Fuller Brush man marrying the girl from the dairy farm. These days you get two mechanical engineers marrying, or two computer programmers.

  17. #17 chet
    March 11, 2009

    Faulty regulation of spermatazoa meiosis due to vaccines.

  18. #18 DrBadger
    March 11, 2009

    It’s nice to hear someone in congress getting the science right for once, but it’s sad that these instances are so rare that we get surprised by it.

  19. #19 Robster, FCD
    March 11, 2009

    Chet, evidence?

  20. #20 snerd
    March 12, 2009

    Robster: Just put on your best Meryll Streep psuedo-Australian accent and say VACCINES STOLE MY BAY-ABEES

  21. #21 pft
    March 12, 2009

    Where does the funding for research on vaccines come from.
    Federal government and vaccine manufacturers?

    ” the science on this issue overwhelmingly suggests…”

    Suggests is hardly conclusive.

    The fact that studies show a genetic link is also hardly conclusive that vaccines do not have a role in autism.

    I do not know either way, but I know at one time the government helped deny that lead caused any problems to protect oil companies. While they may not have a profit motive here, it may be that they are making decisions that if vaccines do play a role in autism, then perhaps this is an acceptable risk given the benefits.

    Like with global warming, higher levels of CO2 and warming have occurred at the same time, hence the link. Autism and vaccines have increased over the past 50 years. This may indeed be coincidental, but until the evidence is conclusive either way, and not just suggestive, this link needs more studying.

  22. #22 MartinB
    March 12, 2009

    @pft:
    The evidence *is* about as conclusive as it gets. Read this website to learn all about the evidence, which is completely clear: There is no hint that vaccines cause autism. Studies claiming otherwise are ill-designed at best, faked at worst.

  23. #23 DLC
    March 12, 2009

    A Logical and reasoned response.

    For pft: Sorry, but you’re fishing for cracks.
    Science can never state something with 100% certainty, as a general rule. However, this is more of a philosophical or semantic point than it is a real one. An honest physicist can never say with 100% certainty that Einstein’s theory of relativity is correct. Indeed, in the physics of the very small, relativity breaks down. But the idea that vaccines somehow cause autism has been shown to be false as conclusively as it is ever possible to show such a thing.

  24. #24 chet
    March 12, 2009

    Robster…bad joke.

    I only meant to highlight the fact that the vaccine-autism “link” to the “epidemic” will sadly never go away. If male gamete formation is proven to add risk for developing an ASD there will many wingnut theories.

    Maybe how this leads to defective mitochondria (even though they all come from the mom, “maybe” the mom’s mitochondria are “influenced” by the poison sperm);or maybe how genes encoding methlyation enzymes are “probably” the “most likely” sites for cross-over mistakes during meiosis and this “could” cause a “hightend sensitivity” to one/many/all of the “toxins” in any one/many/all possible combinations of vaccines and one/many/all dosing schedules.

    But what I really “believe” is vaccine injury occurs many years later. In the testes, like a tiny thimerosal grenade “molecular MMR” explodes causing all sorts of medical-like issues including causing autism in the offspring. This is why autism rates have not yet declined; just listen late at night to your or your loved ones vaccinated you know whats…tick, tock. Buy my ointment and reduce your risk, I have many testimonials.

    All these possibilities should be tested to protect the children (vaccinated vs. non-vaccinated population of course). I mean, really, what are you hiding?

    And unless you don’t care about the children and only believe in big pharma, please let’s waste or time and loose our focus in a heated discussion. All of these theories will require a thorough “debate” at all levels from blogs to congress then finally in the ultimate court of science and public health…Oprah. Let the public decide, after all, it’s their kids. Just don’t make it too complicated. I mean it’s only biology, medicine, epidemiology and statistics. Just talk English, I’ll understand.

    Making all the shit up is kind of fun, cathartic (pun intended), makes you feel important, you know…solving autism and stuff. But that’s only until you realize it’s done “seriously” and dangerously by so many.

  25. #25 Matt M
    March 12, 2009

    Chet, you need to include the chlorine and florine added to our drinking water. As long as you are making stuff up.

  26. #26 Cynical Pediatrician
    March 12, 2009

    Hold the syrup, because there’s no waffle in Linder’s letter.

    This is quite unusual–and refreshing–coming from a politician. Most of the time they take great pains to appear non-committal on any issue with a hint of grey, lest they offend a potential voter. Glad to see the Representative take a stand for science despite the (manufactured, pseudo-)controversy.

  27. #27 ebohlman
    March 12, 2009

    To amplify on what DLC said, “overwhelmingly suggests” is a very strong statement when it comes from a scientist or a scientific organization. A big part of a scientific education is learning to express one’s conclusions in understated, tentative terms, for the simple reason that scientific knowledge is always incomplete; new evidence can always surface. Lay people misinterpret this as indicating that the conclusions are weak, but the fact is that scientific knowledge can never be associated with the kind of emotional certainty that you get in religion or metaphysics or simple personal belief. Scientists (try to) learn not to get emotional attached to their hypotheses, because scientific hypotheses make bad lovers; they can break up with you at any moment.

    One can never invalidate a scientific conclusion based merely on a cui bono analysis. Such an analysis can suggest that the methodology and data behind the conclusion need to be scrutinized particularly carefully (you particularly have to watch out for cases where parties with a particular axe to grind come to different conclusions than everybody else about the same phenomena; in this respect the studies that suggest a vaccine-autism connection are similar to the studies that suggested that smoking was harmless). But the conclusion has to stand or fall based on the quality of the methodology and the data, not on the consequences of reaching a particular conclusion.

  28. #28 tleeh
    March 12, 2009

    RJ: There actually is data showing that advanced paternal age is associated with increased risk of schizophrenia. Genetics is still #1, of course.

    I’ve never seen a comparison of autism & schizophrenia (not to say that it doesn’t exist). Schizophrenia is a later onset neurological disease with significant issues in information processing, social interactions and cognition. The positive symptoms (psychosis) is actually not the most significant difficulty…

  29. #29 AnnR
    March 12, 2009

    That is a reasonable letter.

    I imagine that a Republican representing a district with a lot of CDC employees, who like most Federal gov’t employees went Democratic, knows that he needs to be watching his nuttiness on such matters. Plus more studies on this very dead issue is money the gov’t shouldn’t be wasting — he can fight back against special interest earmarks!

    I haven’t heard anything back from Senator Mukulski in reference to my letter about her attendance during Harkin’s idiotic rant.

    Hopefully she’ll have a reasonable answer to my concern that she not be drinking the kool-aid.

  30. #30 Linda Rosa
    March 14, 2009

    Another politico that appears to be on the side of science-based medicine is Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean. Does anyone know of any evidence that he isn’t? Thanks.

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