Friday, March 31, 2006

How to Seek and Not Find

Dan Olmsted, UPI's Senior Editor for autism-mercury conspiracy, has gone on record (twice) saying that autism is only seen in vaccinated Amish children. He even performed an "exhaustive" search of the Lancaster County Amish communities looking for autistic children. His failure to find any (other than children who had been vaccinated) is further evidence - he claims - that vaccination and, more to the point, the thimerosal in vaccines is responsible for causing autism.

This rather simplistic view of sociology, neurodevelopment and genetics has been heralded, nay, brayed to the world as "proof" that mercury causes autism. Now we are presented with another possible explanation of Mr. Olmsted's amazing findings.

In the 30 March 2006 edition of The New England Journal of Medicine (not up the "standards" of Medical Hypotheses, to be sure, but a solid journal nonetheless), a group of researchers from the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, Pennsylvania (which provides services to a large number of Amish and Mennonite children) report a genetic mutation which causes:

"...seizures that progress to autism and retardation" (see here for a nice review of the article)

This mutation is seen in much more often in Amish and Mennonite children, primarily because of their very small gene pool (see here and here for a review). This is not the only genetic disorder seen more frequently in these populations. And this is not to say that this is the same sort of autism generally seen in the general population (it's not).

However, it seems passing strange that Mr. Olmsted, in his extensive canvassing of the Lancaster County Amish communities, did not run across a few of these children. They are, after all, autistic, even if they weren't vaccinated.

Three possibilities leap to mind (there may be others):

[a] Mr. Olmsted didnt look all that carefully for autistic children, having already concluded that there wouldn't be any.

[b] Mr. Olmsted found these autistic children, but didn't count them - either because he (as a trained neurologist and developmental pediatrician) didn't feel that they had real autism or because it conflicted with his forgone conclusion.

[c] The Amish families - being somewhat suspicious of "outsiders" (not without good reason) - didn't confide the details of their family medical issues with Mr. Olmsted.

My money is on [a], with a bit of [c] thrown in for good measure.

One thing my thesis advisor told me early in my education:

"If you don't look for contradictory data, you won't find it. But your critics will."


Prometheus

17 Comments:

Blogger Bartholomew Cubbins said...

"brayed"
hehe, nuk nuk nuk - Curly

re: recent JAMA article

countdown until someone claims that JAMA is owned by pharma and evil academic scientists who desire to poison babies... 3...2...1...

31 March, 2006 20:35  
Blogger Kev said...

Nice one P :o)

Bart - Kevin Champagne claimed that very thing over at my place not too long ago.

31 March, 2006 21:59  
Blogger Do'C said...

Hi Prometheus.
Thank you for detailing the relevance to Dan Olmsted's thimerosal-autism stance. His satements were before I started blogging, but some of my readers are sure to be interested.

01 April, 2006 07:14  
Anonymous HCN said...

Now I am positive that Olmsted not only did not go visit the Clinic for Special Children to talk to the medical professionals who are experts on the Amish... but he never even bothered to look at their website!

01 April, 2006 10:54  
Blogger notmercury said...

Will the Amish go for the Gold salt treatment?

01 April, 2006 15:26  
Blogger Kathleen Seidel said...

One of Olmsted's main informants was a traveling water purifier salesman who claimed to have met "tens of thousands of Amish," but none who were autistic. Needless to say, he doesn't discuss his diagnostic criteria in the article, except to say, "I knows 'em when I sees 'em."

01 April, 2006 15:43  
Blogger Kevin C. said...

I think Kevin Leitch might be referring to my blog post Why would the medical establishment want to suppress anything? What do they have to gain? This was originally in response to someone's question on Kevin's blog.

01 April, 2006 19:28  
Blogger Kevin C. said...

Dr. Shuldiner’s clinic, located on the ground floor of Dr. Morton’s Clinic For Special Children".

Dr. Shuldiner, a 47-year-old Harvard-educated endocrinologist has received millions of dollars of funding for his studies, including a $10.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Where did the other millions come from?

Considering the legislation being drafted this week and the big Mercury March, I really question the timing of the release of this Seizure Disorder in Amish Children Points to Autism study.

WASHINGTON, March 30 (UPI) -- A U.S. congresswoman said Thursday she is drafting legislation to force the federal government to study the autism rate in never-vaccinated children -- a direct result, she said, of United Press International's reporting on the issue.

"Shouldn't someone in the medical community take a more scientific
look at this?" Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said at a briefing at the
National Press Club. "Don't we deserve at least that much?"

Maloney cited reporting by UPI's Dan Olmsted in his Age of Autism column that found relatively few never-vaccinated children with autism. Olmsted looked for autistic children among unvaccinated Amish; in a subset of homeschooled children who are not vaccinated for religious reasons; and in a pediatric practice in Chicago with several thousand never-vaccinated children.

01 April, 2006 19:32  
Blogger Bartholomew Cubbins said...

KC - you've got to be kidding me.

"Where did the other millions come from?"

This is paranoia.

"Considering the legislation being drafted this week and the big Mercury March, I really question the timing of the release of this Seizure Disorder in Amish Children Points to Autism study."

I can't tell know whether you're really serious. But I'll give you this: there is a correlation. But the correlation is that hot topics in science garner attention, effort, and dollars. Want to see an example - check out microRNA. Search for references before '99. Search now. Everyone wants in.

The way you pull up stats on mercury and vaccines is impressive, but this paranoia thing is shark-jumping material at best. (heh, I said best) btw, it would have been much cooler if he did it slalom.

01 April, 2006 22:14  
Blogger Bronze Dog said...

I really find paranoia funny, sometimes. The very fact that something exists that proves them wrong is proof that they're right, and it's being covered up, and there's no possible alternate explanation, such as being wrong.

02 April, 2006 08:06  
Blogger Prometheus said...

I was reading a book on the toxicology of heavy metals last night (OK, so I have strange tastes in bedtime reading) and I ran across the symptoms of mercury poisoning (again). Two things keep coming up as "classic" symptoms of mercury poisoning - tremor ("the shakes") and paranoia.

Now, one thing that nobody on the autism-mercury bandwagon has shown is that these allegedly mercury-poisoned children have tremors. However, many of their self-appointed "spokespersons" seem to be suffering from paranoia.

Curious.


Prometheus

02 April, 2006 11:04  
Blogger Prometheus said...

Oh, and just FYI, KC - literally months go by between the time an article is accepted for publication in a scientific or medical journal and the time it is actually published. In order for this article to have been "timed" for release, the authors and editors would have needed to see the future.

Or is that what you're claiming - that they can see into the future?


Prometheus

02 April, 2006 11:53  
Blogger Julia said...

Prometheus - your bedtime reading sounds fine. I've been making do with books on the influenza pandemic of 1918 for bedtime reading. (Actually, I'm only on my second one, but I'm finding it really interesting, and when my book budget recovers from the hit it took at the science fiction convention last weekend, I'll see about getting a third one.)

02 April, 2006 21:36  
Blogger Theo said...

Well spotted Prometheus. Not much riles me up more than Advocacy Research. Hope you don't mind that I cross-posted the essence of your post (with due linkage) here.

03 April, 2006 04:50  
Blogger Heraldblog said...

This is what Jeff Bradstreet recently said about autism, the Amish, and "bad genes":

Autism, in any community, isolated or not, is a "bad" gene but, thankfully, it is not a dominant gene. It is "bad" because, practically speaking, having autism makes it far less likely that one will ever date, let alone reproduce. Any trait that hinders the propogation of a species is, genetically speaking, "bad." Autism is not a dominant gene because it it were, there would be far more cases of autism, even more than we are currently seeing.

Geneticists have equations that allow them to very precisely calculate the number of generations it would take for a particular "bad" gene to disappear. It typically does not take very long in the context of human existence. In the case of autism, the fact that aut is not only not disappearing but, some argue, increasing, would be an indication that it is being caused by something other than or in addition to genetics. If one accepts this concept that "bad" genes will naturally become extinct in a relatively short period of time (an accepted concept in the world of genetics and high school biology), one also has to at least consider the possibility that autism is less about genetics and more about some other variable. If one cannot accept that possibility, the only other theory that explains the signficant rate of autism currently is that several generations in the past, the majority of the population had autism and through this principle of extinction of "bad" genes, we are now "down" to the current rate of 1 in 166. Which seems more likely - that half the population 100 years ago had autism or that what we are currently identifying as autism has something other than a genetic component to it?

27 July, 2006 17:15  
Blogger Prometheus said...

I can refute that interpretation of genetics with the following list:

Sickle cell disease
Cystic Fibrosis
Tay Sachs disease

You see, even diseases that are classically (meaning, before modern medicine) fatal in childhood can persist in a population. With sickle cell disease, the reason for its persistence is that having one gene for sickle hemoglobin confers protection against malaria - having two, however, gives a terrible disease.

Cystic fibrosis is thought to have provided resistance to cholera to people with one gene. In Tay Sachs disease, it is not yet clear what advantagee - if any - having a single gene confers.

Fact of the matter is that genes that are deleterious when you have two copies and advantageous - or even neutral - with a single copy are not selected against very strongly. They can - and do - persist even in large populations.

So, I'm sorry, but genetics does not provide a way to "prove" that autism is due to an environmental factor.



Pometheus.

28 July, 2006 09:25  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I explained back in 1982 that genes for autism are also genes for high IQ and for genius (not the same thing). But of course other people are so much cleverer than me so can ignore what I write even when it gets through the antipublication system into a peer-reviewed journal.

See http://cogprints.org/5207

Robin P Clarke
Birmingham uk

25 December, 2006 06:26  

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