Friday, April 14, 2006

ENRON-Style Accounting by the Autism-Mercury Cult

Once again, the mercury-causes-autism die-hards have demonstrated their ignorance, no their utter disregard of the facts. An ironically-named organization - "Put Children First" (which was "founded by Generation Rescue") put a fact-free full-page ad in USA Today on 6 April, 2006. In this, they made some astounding claims - not the least of which was that there has been a "6,000% increase in autism". Of course, they blame the CDC for this increase.

It's a pity that government agencies can't sue for libel, because this sure meets the criteria - the authors know, or should have known, that what they were writing was false and defamatory. Mind you, this hasn't stopped them before.

"Put Children First", in the context of SafeMinds and Generation Rescue, brings to mind images of innocent children being used as human shields.

Comparing Apples and Orangutans

The "6,000% increase" is nicely demolished by Mike Stanton in his blog, Action for Autism, to which I commend the reader.

What's in a Number?

I would like to take aim at another persistent "mistake" the autism ghouls are pushing - the "1.5 million children with autism" in the US.

According to the US Census Bureau - which I'm sure Generation Rescue sees as just another cog in the giant Conspiracy-to-Hide-the-True-Cause-of-Autism - there were 73,949,950 "children" (defined as persons 17 years of age and younger) as of March, 2006. Even if we take the current worst-case estimate of autism as 1 in 166, that would only yield 445,482 (rounding up) "children" with autism. To get to 1.5 million "children with autism" would require that one child in 50 have autism. Not even the mercury ghouls have tried to push that figure.

So how would they get 1.5 million autistic people in the US?

Again, data from the US Census Bureau reveals that the US population (as of March 2006) was 292,947,437 (I don't know how they get such precision - ask them). An autistic population of 1.5 million would require a prevalence of "only" one in 195 persons - well within the numbers estimated for true autism prevalence.

However, that would also require that the mercury ghouls give up their premise that autism has dramatically risen in recent years. In fact, to keep to their claim that autism "exploded" since the1990's, the bulk of their claimed 1.5 million autistic children would have to be in the age range of 0 to 15 years, which is clearly impossible, as demonstrated above.

Building a Cult on Shifting Paradigms

Thomas Kuhn, a physicist turned philosopher, wrote a great deal on the philosophy of the scientific method. He, you may recall, was the one who coined the ever-popular phrase "paradigm shift". In his writings - which take a rather simplistic view of scientific progress, to be sure - he describes three phases of a scientific "paradigm":

[1] Pre-science, when the theories of the emerging paradigm are in flux and hotly debated.

[2] Normal science, when the theories are taken as a matter-of-fact and most work is on fine-tuning the way the paradigm represents the real world. This is also the time when the "anomalies" of the paradigm - the ways in which it fails to conform to reality - are discovered and accumulate.

[3] Crisis/revolution - where the limitations of the old paradigm result in a relatively small number of scientists in the field adopting a new paradigm, which rapidly becomes the dominant paradigm (after a period of "pre-science" for the new paradigm, while it is being formulated).

According to Kuhn - and the history of science - a steadily decreasing number of scientists will cling to the old paradigm, often using irrational reasoning to support it and/or to refute the new paradigm.

I bring this up because it occurs to me that the mercury-causes-autism groups are entering the crisis/revolution phase of their paradigm. In fact, the mercury-causes-autism paradigm has been a marvelous model for Kuhn's hypotheses - even though there was never much support for the paradigm in the scientific community.

Despite the fact that the mercury-causes-autism hypothesis never made it to "normal science" in the larger scientific community, it still is a useful model of Kuhn's postulates - in much the way that "Sim City" is a model for urban planning. Think of it as an experiment to see if pseudoscience (as modeled by the mercury-causes-autism hypothesis) will follow the same pattern as real science.

In the late 1990's, there was a "pre-scientific" (pre-pseudoscientific?) period in the mercury-causes-autism paradigm, following which a group of largely non-scientists (the few scientists showing little scientific method) published the "normative" article associating the symptoms of mercury poisoning with the almost completely dissimilar symptoms of autism. Of course, since none of the authors had ever seen mercury poisoning, their minds were unencumbered by the data that typically clutters most real scientific thinking.

For a period of time - at least within the pseudoscientific and "alternative medicine" communities - the mercury-causes-autism paradigm was "normal pseudoscience" and "researchers" (pseudoresearchers?) sought - rather than trying to test the hypothesis - to find ways to reconcile it with reality (to the extent they were able to perceive reality beyond their preconceptions).

Now, with a growing body of data refuting the hypothesis (which the pseudoscientists steadfastly try to ignore or marginalize) and with a growing number of self-evident contradictions in the hypothesis (see above) which require more and more elaborate "fixes" to resolve, the paradigm is in crisis. All that remains to be seen is if the pseudoscientific community will act anything like the scientific community would. This is the truly fascinating part of the "experiment".

At this time, it is unclear which path the mercury-causes-autism paradigm will take. It could take the scientific path and be rejected infavor of a new pseudoscientific paradigm or it could even - although this is very unlikely - be replaced by a scientific paradigm. Or it could go down the cult path (e.g. Cold Fusion) and morph into a full-blown faith, where ignorance is enshrined and any data aginst the canon is seen as "the work of the Devil".

Clearly, a number of the Generation Rescue types will head down the "cult" path. Many of them are already at the end of that path, waiting for the rest of their group. The few real scientists who have been sucked into this maelstrom will either have to swallow their pride (for some, it will be too much to swallow) or ride out this paradigm in an eerie imitation of Slim Pickens' final scene in "Dr Strangelove".

We now enter the final phase of the "experiment".

It's a pity Thomas Kuhn isn't alive to see it happen. Or perhaps it's a pity that we are.



Blogger Do'C said...

Kuhn would be smiling at the accuracy of his model for certain.

Many of the DAN! doctors seem to be moving towards other pseudo and unproven science (HBOT based on oxidative stress and brain hypoperfusion observations). The most business-minded are likely to leave chelation in the dust, I think.

I does make one wonder what the likes of the Geiers will do.

I'm guessing the next generation of DAN! doctors will find something new and unfalsifiable to focus treatment on.

14 April, 2006 22:14  
Blogger neuralgourmet said...

I'm not sure pseudoscience would follow the same model as real science. That would require pseudoscience advocates to put forth a testable hypothesis -- something that seems anathema to them. Thus there's no way for them to progress from stage to stage.

The thing with the antivax crowd though is that the imagined mercury-autism link is just a symptom of an underlying mental illness for many of them. OK, maybe mental illness is too strong a word, but from my experience many antivaxers are not just advocates of one particular strain of pseudoscience, but are full blown conspiracists. They buy into the antivax hysteria not on the basis of well reasoned arguments but because it fits their often bigoted worldview which perceives a giant global (interstellar for some, transdimensional for others) conspiracy to control their lives at a very intimate and personal level. Thimerosal, mercury amalgam dental filllings, fluoride, chemtrails, neurotoxins in the artificial sweeteners -- it's all the same to them. And nothing is every disproven, nothing is ever discarded. There's only whatever flavor of paranoid koolaid that happens to be popular this month and it's all the same recycled piss.

14 April, 2006 22:25  
Blogger Prometheus said...


The mercury-autism promoters have put forward a hypothesis that is, in fact falsifiable (ala Popper) and is in the process of being falsified.

However, as Popper himself "predicted", some of the adherents to the falsified hypothesis will persist in their beliefs and will attempt to twist any data in oder to prevent their pet hypothesis from dying a natural death. The mercury-causes-autism is currently rotting on life support because the likes of SafeMinds and Generation Rescue cannot let go.

I have no doubt that some of the people involved in this sad travesty find that the paranoid, "us against the government" aspect of the mercury-causes-autism hypothesis is the big draw.

Others, however, are just dismayed parents desperate for some hope that their child can be "cured".

If it were just a matter of paranoid wackos finding a "support group" of like-minded folks to prop up their fragile delusions (ala chemtrails and aspartame), I would have no interest in them. I'm a great believer in the freedom of adults to engage in any manner of foolishness that does not harm others - even if it harms or even kills them (better for the gene pool if that happens before they reproduce).

The problem with this group of deluded pseudoscientific wanna-be heroes is that innocent, non-delusional people (and their children) are being exploited and possibly even harmed or killed.

That's why I'm in this fight.


14 April, 2006 22:54  
Anonymous Glenda the Good said...

It's a little petty, but I thought it was really funny when Lenny (antivax/antimercury/conspiracy theorist) Schafer wrote about a new "pardyme".

He was talking about evidence that the top dog at NBC was getting sucked into their paranoid world.

Now that's a little spooky, but Bob Wright is not likely to go the full Slim Pickens psycho route... one hopes not.

The sad thing is that this bunch has penetrated into some solid science circles to an extent that David Ickes kinds of guys (Illuminati--shape shifting aliens) have not.

The real scientists now have mostly caught on and are trying to disentangle themselves to whatever extent they are entangled with the pseudoscientists. At least that is what seems to be going on.

Apples and Orangutans. With I'd thought of that one.

14 April, 2006 23:13  
Blogger Prometheus said...


To get to the "fantasy figure" of 1.5 million children with autism, not only would require 1 in 50 children (that's 2% of all children) have autism, but 1 in 33 boys (3%) would have to be autistic (to maintain a 3:1 male:female ratio). If you assume a 4:1 male:female ratio, then the prevalence rises to 1 in 31 (3.2%).

Welcome to Autism Fantasy Island!


14 April, 2006 23:17  
Blogger Flea said...


Can you point to refs/blogs with the 1.5mil figure?



15 April, 2006 04:22  
Blogger clone3g said...

Hi Flea,
Loved your work with the Chili Peppers :-)

Google the phrase "power of 1.5" and you'll see a few references.

15 April, 2006 08:30  
Blogger Prometheus said...


There will not be reliable references for the "1.5 million" because it is a fabricated number. However, there have been a number of outlets repeating this urban myth, including:

[1] Autism Society of America (

[2] TACA (Talking About Curing Autism)

[3] Autism Education Network

Most of the quotes using the 1.5 million figure have suspiciously similar language, suggesting that they arise from a common ancestor (my phylogenetics background is showing). Note that, while the more "reliable" (a very relative term on the Internet) sources say "1.5 million people" or "1.5 million Americans" have autism, many of the mercury-causes-autism have morphed that into "1.5 million children".

If it is "1.5 million Americans", then the prevalence of autism has remained the same for decades, effectively falsifying both the mercury-causes-autism hypothesis and the MMR-causes-autism hypothesis.

If, on the other hand, they want to claim that it is "1.5 million children", which would leave their hypotheses intact, then they have to demonstrate much higher autism prevalence than anyone has claimed.


15 April, 2006 08:49  
Blogger Bartholomew Cubbins said...

can you just imagine someone sitting down and figuring this out from a business angle? No way to be proven wrong until the brain is fully understood. Little or no liability unless you kill a kid. The clientelle are mostly too busy trying to make ends meet to research the issue enough to get scared of the snake oil sellers. Just invoke religion. Alleviate guilt.

And the wallets get opened.

The real problem is cancer - a malignant tumor in the form of RNA, HBOT, B6, and chelation pushers.

15 April, 2006 12:16  
Blogger clone3g said...

I'm waiting for the real killer app. Something that combines all of the autism quack therapies in one place.

Some sort of organized snake-oil franchise complete with a directory of participating members so parents can quickly locate a source for chelation, high dose vitamins, HBOT, enzymes, iv anti-oxidants, etc. You know, basically anything that's popular and reported to help kids with autism this year.

Of course it would have to have a catchy name with an exclamation point to provide that certain sense of urgency.

15 April, 2006 13:51  
Blogger Do'C said...


In your suggested business model, you'd need to make sure there are minimal barriers to entry (for maximum growth) like say a simple 8-hour initiation course. You may want not to limit the practice to board-certified specialties either.

One last point for your consideration if you want to see such a business model thrive, just like Scientology, get celebrities involved in some way, maybe at an annual conference or something. Everyone knows celebrities bring an air of definitive authority that science just can't.

15 April, 2006 14:30  
Anonymous Glenda the Good said...

You'd want all the guys buying into the franchise to take something like an oath not to attack each other if they happen to kill a kid or become more successful, or whatever. If it turned out one of the "docs" just had a high school diploma, you wouldn't want the rest of the MD docs to out that person, or do anything to rock the boat.

There was a little riffle of anger against the guy with Great Plains lab who tried to cut the others out of the market, it didn't go over well. It was kind of a trouble in paradise thing.

Blaxill on Shaw, May 2002:
"For Shaw to take a patent dispute public and to try to influence parents directly over the internet, is inappropriate. For him to attempt to restrict services to our children, in whatever way, is worse. For him to market his services in conference settings, in his book and over the internet without disclosing his intellectual property interest is just plain unethical and bad marketing. The only bye I could imagine giving him is if this is a hoax. I'm afraid it appears reasonable."

Sounds like Shaw was just playing the game by the rules...only better.

15 April, 2006 14:48  
Blogger Do'C said...

"If it turned out one of the "docs" just had a high school diploma, you wouldn't want the rest of the MD docs to out that person, or do anything to rock the boat."

As long as we're shooting for maximum profit, let's not necesarilly limit it to MD's. Naturopaths (ND's) and Chiropractors (DC's) should be welcome too.

15 April, 2006 15:49  
Blogger notmercury said...

All excellent ideas. Don't forget, you'll need some sciencey sounding publications in pay-to-play journals to justify all of the tests and supplement sales.

No one is going to shell out $1500 for the McCandless autism panel from Immunosciences if the tests are meaningless, right?

15 April, 2006 16:18  
Blogger Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

I think pre-science is the correct term in this case, for when it was at that phase.

After all, before the facts started to argue, some of them really were engaged in science.

And they've presented more testable hypotheses than, say, creationists do.

Seems to me that something can't be clearly identified as being pesudo or non-pseudo science until it leaves the "pre-science" phase (although presenting pre-science as full-on accepted science is itself pseudoscience, but...).
And when it leaves the phase, it can either go straight to the dustbin of history (if it never had truly fervent advocates), straight to the status of "discredited" as mercury-autism has done and as previously-accepted theories do after the crisis stage, or it can go into the accepted stage, if it's the best-fitting theory so far. (although there's always the alternate theory of "Things just happen. What the hell." that a hypothesis has to outdo.)

16 April, 2006 09:58  
Blogger Flea said...

Thanks Prometheus:

I note that the Autism Society of America home page now reads "As many as 1.5 million Americans - children and adults - are thought to have autism today."

The TACA site is also nuanced, but includes a perfectly astounding factoid:

"AUTISM OCCURRENCE: One in every 166 children born in the US have autism. It is estimated 1.5 million in the US have this disorder.
a. NOTE: This number does NOT include: PDD, Aspergers and other spectrum disorders. These statistics are endorsed by the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, and other federal organizations."

Finally, the Autism Education Network also breaks it down:

"There are 1.5 million people with autism living in the United States today–450,000 of whom are children needing individualized special education programs."

Could it be that pressure from y'all here in the blogosphere prompted a revision of the numbers? I note that the Autism Education Network also says "Ten years ago autism was diagnosed 1 out of 10,000 children and considered a rare disorder", apparently overlooking the obvious contradiction with the 1.5 million number that follows.

Keep up the good work.



16 April, 2006 10:12  
Blogger clone3g said...

We feel, however, that no one has the right to
insist on “validation first” as an ironclad rule.
To employ an extreme example, we feel that if
a person who is terminally ill with cancer or
AIDS wishes to try a form of treatment that he
or she feels may possibly be helpful, does not
want to wait 5 years for the research to be
completed, is aware that the treatment is
experimental, and is willing to spend his or her
own funds for the treatment, no one should
preempt the decision.

16 April, 2006 14:31  
Anonymous anonimouse said...

Hey, I have the perfect name for our business.


Catchy and original, huh?

18 April, 2006 07:12  
Anonymous anonimouse said...

Decimate Autism Never probably works as well without the controversy over using the word "nuts" in the title.

But what do I know? I've got mercury-acquired disease child disease, right?

18 April, 2006 07:14  
Blogger Bronze Dog said...

As long as you can enter your Personal Identification Number number in an Automated Teller Machine machine, I'm fine with that.

18 April, 2006 08:56  

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