Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Is the Truth Expendable?

The autism-mercury movement has taken a pretty terrible beating over the past few years, at least in the scientific world (in our space-time continuum).

A series of epidemiological studies have failed to support the contention that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism (here, here, here, here and here). In addition, the very data used to support an "autism epidemic" has come under fire (here, here, here and here). All in all, things are not looking very good for the autism-mercury movement.

Since the members of the autism-mercury movement are really just interested in finding out what causes autism, the leaders of the movement are planning to announce that they are abandoning the mercury-causes-autism hypothesis and will be putting their efforts behind a search for the true cause(s) of autism. They will disband their groups, shut down their websites and donate the money they've raised to autism research.

Did you believe that last paragraph? If you did, you haven't been paying attention lately.

One of the problems with getting emotionally involved with a scientific hypothesis is that they are notoriously dangerous things to love. Hypotheses don't care how much you love them or depend on them - they live or die by the data. And holding on to a dead hypothesis is as pointless (and creepy) as holding on to a dead cat or dog. Once they die, it's time to bury them and move on.

Now that the autism-mercury hypothesis is on life-support, the leaders of the autism-mercury movement have had to switch tactics. Previously, they had relied - at least in part - on scientific studies to support their claims. Many of these studies were of poor quality (see here, here and here) or of questionable application to autism (here), but they were at least an attempt to argue the merits of their hypothesis. But now the emphasis has shifted.

The summer of 2005 has seen an unprecedented media "push" on the autism-mercury connection, with an unabashedly uncritical article by Robert Kennedy, Jr leading the way. This article served as a media magnet (because of the famous author) for the movement and distracted attention from the moribund state of the science supporting their hypothesis.

An ongoing series of articles by UPI's Dan Olmsted (examples here and here) - which served primarily as a carrier for autism-mercury "talking points" - created less of a splash, but were also of invaluable aid to the propaganda arm of the autism-mercury movement. Olmsted's uncritical (some might say unthinking) acceptance of everything the autism-mercury movement says is matched only by his hostility to and rejection of any data that refutes the autism-mercury hypothesis.

So, despite the overwhelming (and growing) amount of data refuting the autism-mercury hypothesis, the movement continues its media and political efforts, trying to convince the public - and its elected officials - that their hypothesis is true. "Ignore the data", they say, "Doctors and scientists who disagree with us are all corrupt or incompetent - bought and paid for by the government and pharmaceutical companies."

To paraphrase advice once given to a young lawyer, "If the data is on your side, pound the data! If theory is on your side, pound the theory! If neither supports your hypothesis, pound the table!" The autism-mercury movement is pounding the table.

Surely the autism-mercury movement must realize that their hypothesis isn't working out - that the data is not going their way. What can possibly be their motivation to push on in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are wrong?

For most in the autism-mercury movement, it is beyond their ability to fully understand or assimilate the scientific data. This does not reflect poorly on them - they simply lack the education and experience to do it, just as I lack the education and experience to repair my car's transmission (or even understand how it works). However, the autism-mercury movement does have people in it who should know what the data mean.

Some of the people in the autism-mercury movement need to keep the autism-mercury hypothesis alive, no matter what the cost. These people have invested too much of their reputation in the autism-mercury hypothesis and will suffer too much if it is abandoned. Some may lose their jobs, others may lose whole careers - all will lose face. For these people, it has become progressively easier to justify "whatever it takes" to keep the hypothesis alive.

To be sure, it is likely that few or none of the movement leaders are consciously trying to keep alive a hypothesis that they believe is false. This would be too cynical even for me to imagine. No, these people are in denial - the psychological pain of admitting defeat is so great that their subconscious mind will refuse to acknowledge the reality in front of them.

Given the psychological pain these people are trying to avoid, it is not too surprising that they are using strategies that, by their very nature, are meant to promote a certain point of view and obscure the facts - propaganda, lobbying, political pressure. In short, they are trying to hide the truth in favor of a falsehood that they are in love with.

So, now that the autism-mercury hypothesis is on its last legs, the truth has become expendable. "Whatever it takes" has replaced "look at the data". The autism-mercury movement has decided that it is more important for their hypothesis to win - to be enshrined as "revealed truth" by the legislature - than it is to find out what causes autism.

How sad for them.



Anonymous sisysphusian tax said...

Very true.

Boyd Haley just did an op-ed piece, I think, for his local paper in Kentucky. He was pounding the table and calling "conspiracy".

Pretty sad. I only wish a bunch of chemistry professors from other universities would openly challenge him, but that's not what chemistry professors do.

In an article from a couple of weeks ago in that same paper, another professor from his own university politely disagreed with Dr. Hayley and Hayley lashed out with angry language, leaving the whole polite professionalism thing behind in the dirt.

I suppose it will come down to David Kirby or Kennedy or Hayley or maybe Blaxill saying:
"O, yeah? Come here and say that my data isn't good. Tough guy! Let's take this out back! I'll show you who has the better data!"

I bet Julie Gerberding could whup Mark Blaxill with one arm tied behind her back, whatcha think?

Paul Offit against Bobby Kennedy? Tag team wrestling?

10 August, 2005 13:18  
Blogger JP said...

What can possibly be their motivation to push on in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are wrong?

For the trial lawyers and lawsuit plantiffs, money. For the chelation doctors, the realization that their client base will dwindle. And for everyone, the sudden realization that they can't live in a sea of cognitive dissonance anymore.

So they ignore the epidemiology and talk about biological research which is indicative is very little, or, in some cases, distort the impact of studies that seem to support their position. Rather than fight on the science battlefield, they take their case to the public - to radio shows and talk shows, through press releases and public demonstrations. And the government, with their turtle-like speed in responding, looks flat-footed and shifty by comparison.

Others have pointed this out - if the anti-thimerosal lobby can't prove their case scientifically, they'll make their case by legislative fiat or in a court of law.

11 August, 2005 14:35  
Anonymous HCN said...

Just a note that the link to your article on the Geier's data mining is not working.

Thanks for the great articles.

13 August, 2005 11:58  
Blogger Prometheus said...

Thanks for noticing that, HN! I have no idea why the post just disappeared (large government conspiracy, perhaps?) but I have retrieved it and fixed the link.


13 August, 2005 12:20  

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