Saturday, May 19, 2007

A Crisis of Faith or "Bait and Switch"?

Over the past year, I've noticed an odd trend among the supporters of the mercury-causes-autism hypothesis. It began gradually, as trends often do, with a few seemingly random phrases like "...and other toxins...", "...and environmental exposures...", "...other vaccine components...", "...formaldehyde, aluminium and benxyl alcohol..." and "...viruses and bacteria...".

But now, the shift in emphasis is unmistakeable. Kev, Orac and others have blogged about specific attempts at historical revisionism among the chelationistas, but I'd like to assess the "bigger picture" and what it means to the hypothesis-formerly-known-as-mercury-causes-autism.

For those who are not intimately familiar with the daily ins and outs of the chelationistas' arguments (you lucky people!), the Central Dogma of the chelationista faith has been - since the infamous Bernard et al paper, in which a group of people who had never seen mercury poisoning compared it to autism - that mercury causes autism. Period. Full stop. The end.

Apparently, that is no longer true.

In a move reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984, the chelationistas have changed their minds about mercury being the cause of autism, but they are claiming that they haven't actually changed their minds - they're simply "clarifying their position".

That's newspeak for "the data don't support our position, so we're doing our darndest to keep from having to admit we were wrong."

So, what does cause autism, according to the chelationistas?

  • "Heavy metals" (does this include Def Leppard?)
  • Aluminium (not a "heavy metal")
  • Live viruses
  • Bacteria
  • "Maternal toxic load" (perhaps from watching Oprah?)
  • Antibiotics
Note that they haven't given up on their favorite cause: mercury. They have just provided it with some camouflage.

The advantage of this "clarification" (translation: "obfuscation") is to make it impossible (or at least highly impractical) to ever prove them wrong. Let me demonstrate.

In order to show that the mercury-causes-autism hypothesis was wrong, we just needed to show that there was no correlation between mercury exposure (i.e. thimerosal exposure, environmental mercury, etc.) and autism. While correlation does not equal causation, a lack of correlation is essentially equal to a lack of causation.

That was relatively easy to do, although many of the chelationistas are still struggling with that unpleasant lump of reality.

However, in order to definitively squash the new "heavy metals"-aluminium-live viruses-bacteria-etc.-cause-autism hypothesis, you would need to explore all possible combinations of these "exposures". If you don't, it is a sure bet that the next "hypothesis" will be that the one combination you didn't check is the real cause of autism.

Just like mercury was... until it wasn't.

So, how many combinations would that be? It seems simple enough - there are only six items on the list. Except that some of the items are a bit broad.

You could lump all "heavy metals" together (if you can get a ruling from the chelationistas on exactly which metals are included in this group), which would leave you with a manageable number, right?

The "live viruses" could just be the ones in vaccines, or they could be any live virus that the chelationistas care to claim (without having to provide data) are in vaccines. Or they could be any live virus in "the environment". It is a number with a great potential for flexibility.

"Bacteria" is another ambiguous category. Are they referring to the killed bacteria in vaccines, or will they want to expand that into all environmental bacteria (a number in the millions, if not billions)? Or will they want to reserve the right to claim that vaccines - or any other product with a manufacturer they can sue - are contaminated with bacteria that only the DAN! doctors and their faithful laboratories can detect?

Of course, the "maternal toxic load" is another extremely broad (one might even say deliberately vague) category. We'd need to get a ruling from the chelationista high court on which "toxins" they have in mind. And we'd better get that in writing, in case they try to "clarify their position" later. I suspect that this is another "trapdoor" they've left in their new "hypothesis" in order to allow them to escape again.

Simply defining the problem is impossible, given the vague and fuzzy nature of the new "causes of autism". And even if we were to get the problem defined - and get it to stay defined - there is another factor to consider.

If we were to assume (naively) that there were only six variables to examine, how many combinations would that make? If we have n items ("n" is a variable) and we group k ("k" is another variable) of them at a time, the number of possible combinations (where order doesn't matter) is: [see here for a tutorial]

n! / (n - k)! k!

(the "!" stands for "factorial")
So, if we have six possible causes and we examine possible combinations of any two, we have fifteen (15) possible combinations. A large number, but not an impossible task.

But, we have to count all possible combinations, including groups from one to six of the possible causes. This gives us a grand total of sixty-three (63) possible combinations.

And that's what we get by considering "heavy metals" and "maternal toxins" as one category. What happens if we expand "heavy metals" to the "big five" of toxic metals (mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, antimony)?
Total combinations = 1023
And if we expand "maternal toxins" to include the five toxic metals?
Total combinations = 16,383
Mind you, we haven't even begun to exhaust all of the potential "maternal toxins", "live viruses" or "bacteria" - the potential number of those could be in the thousands, if not the millions.

So now you see the shrewd cunning of the chelationistas. By making their "position" more vague, they have ensured that they will never again find themselves in the bind they are now. Never again will science be able to say - with any certainty - that the chelationistas' "hypothesis" about the cause(s) of autism is unfounded.

That's because it is practically untestable. It is not absolutely untestable - if we were to commit the entire scientific resources of the world to searching various combinations, it would probably take slightly less than an infinite amount of time to check them all. But it will never happen.

And that's exactly what the chelationistas want.



Anonymous Ms. Clark said...

There's a weird thing, too, where some of the will admit that genes play a part. But that's about as changeable as the weather.

Then there's the idea that whatever the "toxins" are they did not exist before 1930 and they increased rapidly starting in the late 1980's.

Also, whatever the "environmental causes" they MUST be actionable and leave the parents to be painted as absolute victims of a wealthy corporation.

AND, whatever the cause is, it has to have a cure that is expensive itself or expensive to administer and supplied only or mainly by DAN! doctors.

Yesterday, someone posted an article from New Zealand about materanl alcohol consumption being a cause of "autism." Not THE cause of autism. The purpose of the article really was warning moms not to drink during pregnancy and it was saying that they (in New Zealand) needed to get the message out to teen girls, too.

So the list when INSANE over this. Never mind that it was from New Zealand and likely that very few people outside of their list and a few people who are really interested in FAS in the U.S. would read it.

They decided it was part of the conspiracy to muddy the waters over thimerosal being the only cause of autism (yes, they can flip back and forth between "only thimerosal in vaccines"... and oh, yes, also Rhogam, and "only mercury" and "only vaccines", and "only heavy metals, plus aluminum"...).

There were several posts about how so and so's mom drank and smoked during pregnancy and how the kid didn't have autism. They had several anecdotes about how they had a drink during one autistic kid's pregnancy but not during another autistic kid's pregnancy (Kim Stagliano has 3 autistic girls, one is unvaxed, but vaccines caused her girls' autism, I think it was amalgams that got the blame for the unvaxed kid's autism).

They claimed that studies showed that women before the 1980's used to drink more and that they drink more now during pregnancy than they did during the 1980's and 1990's...
something like that.

In other words, during the time of the thimerosal caused explosion of autism women stopped drinking during their pregnancies in the US... not sure what that has to do with an article out of New Zealand...

At any rate, if one listened to the rants one would get the picture that they all were defending drinking during pregnancy because it in no way can ever cause autism.

If autism is not like mercury poisoning at least it IS a developmental problem in the same way FAS is. Not that FAS causes autism in the same way that Smith-Lemli-Opitz or Iso-dicentric 15 q does... but there are similarities in the behavior of FAS kids and autistic kids.

I would guess that here in the US lots of FAS kids are counted as "autistic" in school rolls, probably lots are counted as "conduct disorder" or ADHD, too.

But the mercury parents are perfect, they have never done anything that can leave them "holding the bag." It's the same way that they have only perfect genes, unless it's the MTHFR mutation ... but that allows them to sue the vaccine manufacturers I think.

19 May, 2007 11:56  
Blogger Jane said...

But if they are that unsure of what the cause is, how on earth can they be sure of the cure? Surely if they were to be intellectually honest about this, they would have to say that they don't have any solutions.

19 May, 2007 13:45  
Blogger Bartholomew Cubbins said...

Broadening the message dilutes it too. Generation Rescue and the chelationistas just went from being wrong to being insignificant.

Re: why Al isn't a heavy metal.

Maybe the chelationistas are all astrophysicists.

19 May, 2007 14:22  
Blogger concerned heart said...

The causes of autism are well-known to the certain psychiatrists, researchers, and heads of pharmaceutical companies etc.

The idea that autism is a mystery is a major scam.

19 May, 2007 21:28  
Blogger bigwhitehat said...

I have been removed from many jury pools. It seems that I always get excluded in vior dire. That is mostly because I am not the kind of dolt that one of the sides wants on the jury.

Is it not meaningful then that the main audiences for pushing chelation are in mass media. It is not harped on in JAMA but is on TV. It seems to me that they pick their audiences wisely.

19 May, 2007 22:23  
Blogger Do'C said...

Great post Prometheus. Mathematics has a way of shining a light on the cockroaches, doesnt' it?

I saw a post on a parent forum where an apparent wife of a would-be DAN! doc asked for advice about how to be successful or something along those lines:

"I was wondering if you could share your experience with us so we could learn what works best and what to avoid."

I didn't reply, but my cynical side wanted to suggest these answers.

What works best?

What to avoid?
Hypotheses that are falsifiable

19 May, 2007 23:02  
Blogger David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction) said...

Part of the purpose of scientific method is to clarify issues that it is used to investigated. I'd say that, if they have to obfuscate - sorry - 'clarify' so much , then they know full well that their 'science' isn't working.

For the chelationistas out there, denial is not a river in Egypt. See some help!

20 May, 2007 02:10  
Blogger laurentius rex said...

My mum smoked during pregnancy and I have always held that against her because she was so unrepentant about it. Since she is no longer alive (smoking undoubtedly shortened her life) I will have to sue her estate. Wait a minute, I am her estate, so I guess I got the money anyway.

20 May, 2007 14:15  
Blogger Prometheus said...


If the chelationistas were to suddenly become intellectually honest, I would immediately run out and buy a heavy-duty umbrella, since flying pigs couldn't be far off.

But seriously, there is no impetus among the chelationistas to find the real cause(s) of autism, especially now that they know - at least subconsciously - that their pet hypotheses (mercury-causes-autism) is dead. I suspect that the movement will implode shortly, leaving a few people still ranting about mercury while the rest of them quietly fade into the shadows (or behind the baseboard - eh, DoC?).

Concerned Heart,

Your hypothesis about the cause of autism (advanced paternal age) may have some validity, but it cannot account for all - or even a majority - of autism cases.

I also reject a priori any and all "massive conspiracy" claims unless they are accompanied by verifiable documentary evidence. Actual large-scale conspiracies are not only unusual, they also typically have a very short mean time between failure of secrecy.


Good point! By diluting their "message", the chelationistas have made themselves irrelevant. Now, they're just another group promoting untested "cures" and protesting vague "government inaction".

Without the focus of mercury - specifically thimerosal in vaccines - they lose a target for their (and their followers) rage. Without a target, all that energy will eventually dissipate. Which is probably what some of the leaders of the movement are fervently hoping, since another possible outcome is that parents, feeling misled and betrayed, will focus their rage on the chelationistas.

That would be nice.


20 May, 2007 15:27  
Blogger Prometheus said...

The following message was sent to the Photon in the Darkness e-mail site:


I am relatively new to the bloggersphere & have been trying to add a comment to your post "A Crisis of Faith or "Bait and Switch"?" I see that on your blog you must approve posts before they appear, but when I click on preview or publish, I get no indication that my message has been sent.

I am trying to post the following comment:

I guess I'm one of "them" because, even though I don't really fit any of the descriptions you all have so generously provided of "them" very well, I believe that my son's autism was likely caused by the replacement of a dental amalgam that was done when I was 5 mos. pregnant.

I am apparently somewhat brain damaged myself so please explain why shouldn't I believe that the mercury vapor I inhaled during the procedure (not to mention the metal bits that I was still spitting out of my mouth as I left the dentist's office) was a source of damage to the child in my womb?


The tone from your post as well as your respondents seems to indicate that my belief is irrational & foolish so I am quite interested to learn what information you all possess that I have clearly missed in my efforts to help my son. Thank you for your time and any assistance you might be able to give me!


My Reply:


To begin with, I should ask you what data you have to support your belief that having a dental amalgam replaced while you were pregnant led to your son's autism.

You see, that's the point that I (and many others) have been trying to make - that there is no data to support that claim, even though it may "make sense".

On the other hand, there is a large - and growing - body of data that shows no connection between mercury exposure and autism.

And before you (or somebody else) throw out the time-worn straw man of "Do you think it's a good idea to expose people to a neurotoxin?", let me say that, even though my answer would be "no", the question is irrelevant.

Whether or not I think that exposure to mercury is a good or a bad thing, it hasn't been shown to cause autism and exposure to mercury hasn't been associated with autism. Lots of other bad thing, but not autism.

One of the many unfair things about life is that what we think makes sense in the world isn't necessarily how things actually happen.

Mercury is a known neurotoxin - in the right dose - and autism is a neurological disorder. It "makes sense" that mercury could possibly cause autism - it just hasn't worked out that way.

This happens in science all the time - a hypothesis that looks promising just doesn't pan out. The sensible thing is to drop it and move on - after all, the goal is to find the truth, not to be right.

Isn't it?


21 May, 2007 12:32  
Blogger Matt said...

I think you are wildly optimistic to believe that Mercury will implode.

What I hear more and more is "you can't exlude the possibility that some fraction of children are particularly susceptible." This is followed by something else that you recently blogged, "We have to do something!"

I have seen a number of people post "we have been GFCF for X months. Since we don't see any progress, can we stop?" This is always followed by "you need more time", "you need to also get rid of soy", "have you also tried XX supplement". Often these are followed by some anectdote of someone who tried this that and the other thing, but only when they added the last thing did they see something.

The combinatorial system works very well for keeping people "in". Adding potential treatments for aluminum and bacteria...well, you could be trying forever to find the magic combination.

"What if I was just one small change from getting my child recovered. I can't stop now. What if in 10 years they find out that GFCFSF plus DMSA plus B12 shots weren't enough. What if I needed to add TMG and DMG in a 60:40 ratio?"


23 May, 2007 07:44  
Blogger Prometheus said...


I'd love to be able to say that you're wrong - but I can't. I suspect that you are 100% correct that the parents and the people who feed on them (for money, glory, attention, praise...) will continue to spin their hypotheses indefinitely.

One of the truly alarming possibilities is that the combinatorial explosion I've outlined above will provide near-infinite hiding spots for the therapists, practitioners and well-meaning parents who have done so much to keep the mercury-causes-autism hypothesis alive this long.

With any luck, the diffusion of their "message" will lead to the implosion of the more strident of the organizations, but the movement (the ignore-the-science-except-where-it-confirms-our-beliefs autism movement) will likely continue.

Sad, but true.


23 May, 2007 14:19  
Blogger mumkeepingsane said...

Wait a second....I hate to grasp on to only one small part of this conversation but....concerned heart really thinks that there are no autistic children with fathers and/or grandfathers under the age of 32? I'll have to tell my husband then that our son can't possibly be autistic then, since we had him at the age of 25, and both our fathers were in their early 20's when we were conceived as well.

Back to the subject at hand. I think a big problem is the NEED for some people to have a simple cut and dried cause and cure. It's like they'll just go crazy if the answer is 'we just don't know'.

28 May, 2007 16:18  
Blogger Prometheus said...


You have certainly nailed the main problem with the "older father" hypothesis as a cause for autism - many autistic children (and adults) were born to (at the time) younger fathers.

As for the need to have an answer, I think you've nailed that one as well. The need to have something (or someone) to blame for their child's disability is a powerful drive for many parents - even those of children without autism.

Unfortunately, blaming only delays the inevitable need to face the reality of the situation. Parents of disabled children need to get past the "why" and onto the "what" - as in "What do we do now?". And the answer to that question isn't "Sue somebody."

Blaming, constant aimless searches for "the cure", and angry attacks on people who won't reinforce their denial are all part and parcel of a failure to come to grips with "what is"...with reality.

I won't stand in someone's way as they try to find "the cure" - and I'd applaud them if they found it. I think that every parent needs to go through that process - I know that I did.

What I try to do is provide a beacon for those parents who have run the course and need to find their way back to reality. It's not a very big beacon (just a photon in the darkness), but it's how I do my part.


29 May, 2007 10:09  
Blogger mumkeepingsane said...

I think you do it very well. I point many parents in the direction of your blog hoping they'll read it and gain some insight or understanding.

29 May, 2007 14:06  

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