Friday, August 26, 2005

The Future is Now?

As I mentioned in my previous posting, I ran across an amazing exchange on Kevin Leitch's Left Brain/Right Brain blog. Asked to say what would change his mind, a member of the autism-mercury movement answered with the following [typos in the orginal]:

"I could easily change my mind If:Our US government health agencies were not so evasiveabout answering direct questions. If they mandated the parents of ASD kids be given the details on the vaccines and what exactly was injected into them. The CDC, FDA, IOM and AAP admitted “We Screwed Up Big Time” We gave these kids vaccines/neurotoxins at levels far above our own thresholds."

This is a quote from just one person, but it echoes sentiments I have seen written and posted by several people who are avid supporters of the mercury-causes-autism-hypothesis. While howling that those of us who simply want to see some data that supports their hypothesis are either closed minded or "pharma shills", they maintain the most impenetrable barrier to new information that I can imagine.

This does not come as a surprise to me - it shouldn't surprise any of you, either. My experience has been that people who plead for "open-mindedness" are usually so fixated on their beliefs that they are incapable of even imagining that they might be wrong. What they actually want is for us all to permanently suspend reason and disbelief.

Usually, when I run across this sort of rabid dogmatism, it is in the context of a religion. Occasionally, though, this sort of dogmatic inflexibility is seen in what appears on the surface to be a scientific concept. On closer examination, however, these always turn out to be religion masquerading as science.

For example - Pons and Fleischmann were so convinced that they had discovered cold fusion that they elevated it to a religious dogma. And as often happens when scientists start to worship their hypotheses, they ended up humiliating themselves.

Yet, that dogma has continued, with a group of devoted souls who still - at some level - believe that they are doing science. What they are doing is religion - a fixed belief in concepts that are not or cannot be supported by data.

Like Pons and Fleischmann (and their deluded followers), the autism-mercury movement is clinging to the shreds of "early results" - the most dangerous type of data there is. I can't begin to tell you how many times I (and my colleagues) have been fooled by "early results". The pilot study shows a promising or interesting result that the larger study doesn't bear out.

Sort of like the "early results" in the VSD study that didn't pan out when the study was completed.
But the dogma is so compelling that the autism-mercury movement can't see what is happening to them. They are veering farther and farther off the "beam" of the data, chasing ephemera and ghost data. They are putting more and more distance between themselves and reality.

Eventually, they will be reduced to publishing their own pitiful journal and writing angry letters to "the government" insisting that "someone" investigate ther claims one more time - because all the other studies didn't do it right.

They'll get someone to write a book about the "vast conspiracy" that is covering up the "real data" and some journalist will try to breathe some life back into the "controversy" because they're out of ideas for a story. Finally, they'll set up a bunch of websites to try to keep their "truth" in public view.

Wait - it looks like that future is already here for the autism-mercury movement!
I won't try to "convert" the "true believers", because that is precisely what it would be - conversion. The "true believers" will continue on their path, blinded to any new information by their conviction that they cannot be wrong. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will go on about its merry way, leaving the "true believers" to become ever more angry and resentful at the world's indifference to their "truth".

What I am trying to do is reach those people who have not yet become indoctrinated into the "true faith" - whether that is the mercury-causes-autism-faith or the I-didn't-evolve-from-no-monkey faith or the nature-has-cures-for-all-human-diseases faith.

Oh, and just for the record - to convince me of the validity of the mercury-causes-autism-hypothesis would take:

[1] Discovery of a mechanism by which mercury can cause autism without causing the other neurological sequelae known to occur with mercury poisoning

- or -

[2] A significant epidemiological study that shows a dose-dependent increase in autism prevalence with increasing mercury exposure.

- or -

[3] The discovery of the metabolic/anatomic/developmental cause of autism and clear-cut data showing that mercury can cause it.

So, it's not impossible to convince me. It may be impossible to provide the necessary data, but that would indicate that the hypothesis is not valid, not that I am impossible to convince.

You'll notice that none of my three options included public confession of guilt or malfeasance by any party. That's because I don't see that conspiracy theories have any place in science unless you have solid data of a conspiracy (more than just quotes taken out of context from a 286-page transcript). I also don't see that placing blame is necessary to support (or refute) this hypothesis.

Blame, guilt, confession and retribution are appropriate in religion - not science.

So, I hope that the autism-mercury movement will understand (I know they won't forgive) if I don't want to join their religion. If they come up with some real data, I would be happy to participate in their science.


Please note...

Due to the ever-increasing use of "comment spam", I have enabled the "word verification" feature of this blog. This means that people wishing to post comments will have to type the word shown in the verification window prior to posting their comment.

As an aside, comment spammers (and spammers in general) should be tied up and force-fed an entire case of Spam (the "processed meat" product) for each offense. Just my opinion.


Thursday, August 25, 2005

"We have met the enemy...and he is us!"

(With apologies to Pogo)

After returning from our family's summer backpacking trip - far from the Internet, cell-phones and voice-mail - I am greeted with the doleful news that a 5-year-old autistic child has died as the result of being "chelated" for mercury (see here).

The death of a child is always a tragedy. What makes this death even worse is the senseless way in which it occurred. I want to say up front that I do not blame the child's parents for his death - they were misled by a doctor who should have known better. Here are just a few of the things that their son's doctor, Dr. Roy Kerry, should have known:

[1] EDTA is not effective for chelating mercury. EDTA has little affinity for mercury - the drug of choice for mercury chelation for nearly thirty years has been DMSA.

[2] Intravenous EDTA is much more dangerous than oral DMSA, even though oral DMSA is hundreds of times more effective at removing mercury.

This doesn't even touch on the question of whether mercury causes autism or if removing mercury cures (or improves) autism.

So, even if you "buy in" to the notion that mercury causes autism (I don't), the use of EDTA is senseless. It is probably medical malpractice.

Why is it that people are willing to put children at such risk? The parents, it appears, are willing to do anything to save their children from the ravages of autism. This much I can understand - as a parent, I am willing to sacrifice anything to protect "my babies". However, the fever pitch of the parents' desperation is not entirely of their own making.

For several years now, groups like DAN! (Defeat Autism Now!), SafeMinds and Generation Rescue have maintained a drumbeat of fear and suspicion, telling parents of autistic children that their children are poisoned by mercury and that they must immediately take steps to remove that mercury or their children will be "condemned to a living hell". Parents, not surprisingly, are alarmed and - faced with this "ginned up" time pressure - rush to judgement.

Faced with the apparent certainty of the autism-mercury movement - with its testimonials from parents and pseudoscientists - the cautious advice of their "mainstream" doctors seems timid and half-hearted. Warned, "Don't miss the window of opportunity!", parents leap from the frying pan into the fire.

Now, I'm sure that most - if not all - of the people advising parents to put their children in harm's way are doing so out of a sincere conviction that they are right. They have the best of intentions. They are Crusaders for the health of autistic children.

I think that the name "Crusader" is particularly apt for this group of people. Like the Crusaders of the eleventh century, they are absolutely convinced that they are right and that their cause is just. And, like the Crusaders of the eleventh century, they feel that whatever they do is justified by the righteousness of their cause - even if innocent people get hurt.

The absoluteness of these twenty-first century Crusaders was brought home to me by a post I found on Kevin Leitch's excellent LeftBrain/Right Brain blog. When asked what it would take to convince him that he was wrong, an autism-mercury supporter replied [typos in original]:

"I could easily change my mind If:Our US government health agencies were not so evasive about answering direct questions. If they mandated the parents of ASD kids be given the details on the vaccines and what exactly was injected into them. The CDC, FDA, IOM and AAP admitted “We Screwed Up Big Time” We gave these kids vaccines/neurotoxins at levels far above our own thresholds."
It appears that he will change his mind only if "the government" admits that he was right in the first place. Since this seems paradoxical, I can only assume that what he means is that nothing will change his mind. He is so convinced that he is right that no amount of data could convince him otherwise - he would just assumed that it was faked, "ginned up" or otherwise fraudulent.

Faced with this sort of absolutist, dogmatic mindset in the autism-mercury movement, is it any wonder that real science can make no headway with them? Anything that threatens their belief that mercury causes autism is dismissed as fraud and anything that reinforces their beliefs is held as Gospel, no matter how ridiculous.

And what about the parents who - searching for information about autism - stumble onto this group? Faced with the absolute certainty of the autism-mercury movement on one hand and the mumbled probabilities and "The data suggests..." from real medicine and science on the other, which way will most confused, frightened and desperate parents jump?

Now the autism-mercry movement has blood on its hands. Like the Crusaders sacking towns and killing innocents, they will probably justify it. They may even find a way to blame it on "mainstream" medicine. No matter how they "spin" it, though, they are at least indirectly responsible for this poor boy's death.

Crusaders. fits.


Thursday, August 18, 2005

There oughta be a study!

Just a quick post today, to keep the 'ol blog from getting stale and musty - then back to the final draft of my annual grant proposals. Which brings us nicely to the topic of today's lesson.

Over the past few weeks, while blogging away against ignorance, injustice and general fuzzy-headed thinking, I noticed quite a few members of the autism-mercury movement (and not a few others, as well) complain that "the government" wasn't heeding their calls to research this treatment or that (hypothetical) cause. That got me thinking - perhaps these people don't understand how science works ("Duh!" as my eldest offspring would say); perhaps they don't know how studies get started.

First off, I think that the complaints about "the government" not doing the "proper" studies are just a bunch of verbal dust bunnies. These are the same people who are still howling about the last bunch of "government sponsored" studies that didn't show a connection between autism and mercury. Given the response from the autism-mercury cabal, I can't imagine that the folks in Washington or Atlanta are in a big hurry to sponsor a bunch of new studies that these people will end demonizing when they don't like the results.

What the folks in the autism-mercury movement mean is that they want "the government" to do some studies that will produce results that they like. Maybe the NIMH could sponsor a study by Rashid Buttar or Jeff Bradstreet. Those guys know how to do a study - they'll get the results everyone in the autism-mercury movement is looking for!

Some of you may have noticed that I keep putting the words "the government" in quotation marks (inverted commas, to my friends across the pond). This is because the government is not a monolithic organization. From the scientist-looking-for-a-grant (like me, currently), "the government" is a maze of different agencies with confusing acronyms, all with different (but often overlapping) responsibilities, agendas, priorities and funding rules.

"The government" also does not have brigades of scientists waiting in laboratories for the "GO!" signal from headquarters - the scientists employed by "the government" already have full-time jobs. In order to get new studies done, "the government" has to either hire new scientists and build them new laboratories or give money to deserving, skilled and hard-working scientists (like me!) in universities, institutions and private research laboratories.

In almost all cases, this sort of "out-sourcing" is done through the grant process. Grants can be very specific - "We want someone to develop an AIDS vaccine." - they can be more general - "Grants are available for research on the treatment of AIDS" - or they can be rather vague - "Grants are available for research on infectious diseases."

People like me look through booklets or websites of available grants and try to find grants for things that we're interested in working on. "The government" does not often come to a researcher and ask them to work on a specific project and they never tell someone "You will work on this project - or else!" (at least, they haven't since the Manhatten Project).

This brings up another problem with the "There oughta be a study!" approach to research. Scientists, despite ample evidence to the contrary, are people. And like other people, not many of them will consciously and willingly do something that will hurt them or their career. I know of researchers in the field of neurodevelopment and neurophysiology who have said flat out that they wouldn't touch autism research with a ten-meter pole. They have seen what happens to the folks who stepped in the middle of this catfight and they don't want any part of it.

And really, why should they? They get plenty of grants to do the things that interest them without having to put up with slander and hate mail. As a result, most of the people - on both "sides" - doing autism research are related to an autistic person. Some are autistic themselves - a possibility rejected by Lenny Schafer and his ilk, who think that autistic people should either be unable to talk or else remain silent out of sheer gratitude.

The funny thing - and it really is almost hysterically funny - is that the people who are screaming about "the government" not doing more studies should be screaming at the doctors and scientists on "their" side. Buttar, Bradstreet, Haley, Geier & Geier - any of them - could apply for and receive a grant. Heck, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has grants available! That should be right up their alley! Yet they don't apply and they protest that "the government" isn't doing all it can to research autism. Hypocrites!

So, here's a challenge to all the "There oughta be a study!" complainers - either submit a grant proposal or get one of the "leading lights" of the autism-mercury movement to submit one (or several). Unless you're willing to do that, you have no grounds to complain that "the government" isn't doing your bidding.

Oh, and here's a little secret. "The government" is you - those clowns in Washington (or London or Toronto or ...) are just the people you chose to represent you. If you don't like what "the government" is doing, then you are the only person with the power to change it.

Class dismissed - enjoy the sunshine while I go back to my office and polish my proposals.


Saturday, August 13, 2005

Why Don't Botanists use Herbal "Medicines"?

After the weekly Department meeting on Friday afternoon, I corralled the Botanists in the group for a brief informal survey. The question I posed to them was this:

"Do you take herbal 'medicines'? Why or why not?"

The responses I got were interesting, if not surprising. The Chief of the Botany Division was a non-user, which might not come as a surprise to many herbal "medicine" enthusiasts, since he is of a generation that has not been enthusiastic consumers of alternative" medicine. However, the responses of some of the younger members of the division were illuminating.

"No way! Do you know the kind of things plants make? Even the plants we work with all the time make compounds that we don't fully understand."

"Even if I wasn't worried about the safety and efficacy of phytochemicals - most of which have never been adequately tested - there's no way to tell how much of the active ingredient I would be getting. The production varies with climate, season, growing conditions, insect damage...just too many things to control for."

"Yeah, 'natural' medicines - like hemlock, aconite and foxglove. No, I prefer to know what I'm getting when I take medicine."

I'm not sure how the "nature makes everything we need for perfect health" lobby would "spin" these comments, but I know how I interpret them.

One botanist who is from a country whose ancient (and not-so-ancient) vitalistic medical practices are currently much in vogue had this to say:

Where I grew up, people used roots and herbs for medicine because they didn't have access to real medicine - Western medicine. The people who had money or influence could go to the big city and see a doctor trained in real medicine, the rest of the people had to get by with "traditional" medical therapies.

They did that not because the traditional remedies worked, but because they had to do something. They couldn't just stand by and watch their loved ones suffer."

Yet, in the Western world, where advanced medical care is freely available (even if it isn't free), a large number of people are ignorant of something people in the "Third World" are acutely aware of - herbal "medicine" is something you use when you don't have access to real medicine.


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.


Sunday, August 07, 2005

ID-iots on Parade

Not much commentary action on my Intelligent Design posting - I guess that the folks who believe in that sort of baloney don't read this blog. Or don't read.

Anyway, I wanted to add on a few rather random thoughts about the idea of evolution on the day that the History Channel airs a show on the development of the theory of evolution.

[1] "Evolution is just a theory."

A tired old canard frequently used by Creationists and ID-iots. Evolution is a theory - there is no "just" to being a scientific theory. The scientific use of the word "theory" means a model of how the universe works that has been extensively tested and has "passed" the tests. By the time a model is considered a theory, it has been tested enough to be generally considered (there are always a few cranks and crackpots who resist to the end) to be "true".

This is in contrast to a "hypothesis", which is a model that has not been tested enough to be considered accurate. As an analogy, a theory is a seasoned veteran that has survived many battles - a hypothesis is a raw recruit that has not even made it through Basic Training.

The theory of gravity is often used to rebut the "just a theory" canard - one can question the theory of gravity, it is said, but that will not save you if you step out of a fifth-story window. But this trivializes the point.

The theory of gravity, like the theory of evolution, has been modified slightly over the years, refined by experiments and observation. Both theories have accurately predicted the outcome of every experiment done to test them. If they had not, they would be considered ex-theories and would be taught only as history, the way that Creationism is now. And, one fervently hopes, the way "Intelligent Design" will be soon.

[2] "There are disagreements over the facts of evolution."

Canard number two from the Creationists and ID-iots. One of the biggest evolution controversies among real scientists is whether or not punctuated equilibrium is valid. No matter which side "wins" in this argument, evolution is still intact. This is the equivalent of arguing over whether couch is "taupe" or "beige" (or, perhaps, "bisque") - it is still a couch, regardless of what color it is.

If we take this argument and turn it back on the ID-iots, we find that "Intelligent Design" hasn't any room for disagreement. That's because is doesn't predict anything and, therefore, can't be tested. And a hypothesis that can't be tested isn't a hypothesis - it's dogma.

In short, there are disagreements over the finer points of evolution; there can't be any disagreements over "Intelligent Design" because it isn't really a hypothesis - it is religious dogma masquerading as a hypothesis.

[3] "Do you really believe that your ancestors were apes?"

This is what the whole argument is really about, isn't it? People are uncomfortable with the idea that we are animals, just like cows, dogs and nematodes. Get over it, folks - we're animals. Wishing it were different won't change anything.

The surprising thing - to me - is the number of people who would be "OK" with evolution if it didn't involve humans. This is what really puts the lie to "Intelligent Design" - that people support it only because it allows them to keep humans in a privileged place - above and separate from the animals.

My ancestors were apes - your ancestors were apes. And I swear that some of the people I see on campus arguing for "Intelligent Design" are apes. You'd think they'd be able to see the connection better, but they don't. Go to any children's playground and then argue that we aren't descended from arboreal primates.

[4] "Teaching evolution leads to teen sex, abortion and crime."

I'm surprised they don't include cavities, tatoos and Alzheimer's Disease. But is there any data to support this assertion? Let's see... Darwin's book, "The Origin of Species" was first published in 1859 and the theory of evolution has been taught - at least in universities - since then.

It is certainly true that a number of social ills have arisen since that time: intravenous drug use, AIDS, MTV, Britney Spears, nuclear weapons, cell phones and televion, to name a few (in no particular order). However, teen sex, crime and - yes - abortion were with us before Darwin was even born. So it's a bit of a stretch to blame them on teaching evolution in the schools.


Friday, August 05, 2005

Intelligent Design?

I have been in a prolonged state of denial and disbelief about the pronouncement by our President (George W. Bush, for those who are in even deeper denial than I am) that he supports teaching the so-called "theory" of "intelligent design" in public schools. As quoted in the Washington Post:

"Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about,"
What the debate is about, Mr. Bush, is whether or not we - the People of the United States - should endorse teaching a religious dogma ("intelligent design") to our children disguised as a scientific concept. The debate, Mr. President, is about letting a narrow-minded group of religious zealots hijack public education and use it to forcibly indoctrinate children into a religious world-view that is not necessarily held by their parents. The debate, Mr. President, is about teaching a religious construct as science, despite the fact that "intelligent design" is not supported by a single shred of real data.

Is that clear? Would it be clearer with exclamation points?

As a biologist, I have too many objections to the feeble hypothesis of "intelligent design" to list on this small blog. After all, evolution makes predictions that can be tested - and that have been tested and found to support evolution, not "intelligent design". "Intelligent design" makes no testable predictions since it is all the result of the "intelligent designer" (a thinly disguised cut-out for God).

Do you find intermediate forms in the fossil record? Well the "intelligent designer" put them there. Is the "irreducible complexity" of the human eye challenged by the presence of hundreds of eye forms from a simple photosensitive spot to pinhole eyes, compound eyes and eyes that are better designs than the mammalian (and human) eye? Well, again, it is all the result of the "intelligent designer" - that inscrutable and unlocatable entity who, we are told over and over, is not necessarily equivalent to God.

Yeah, that and $2.50 will get you a latte at the university coffee shop. My treat.

My favorite objection, and one that the ID-ers are not well equipped to argue against, is that the designs aren't all that intelligent.

After all, how intelligent is it to put the blood vessels in front of the retina? That's where they are in the mammalian (and human - the pinnacle of "design") eye, casting their shadow on the retina. The octopus, a mollusk (and not "beloved of God" - excuse me, the "intelligent designer"), got it right and put the vessels behind the retina.

Why would an "intelligent designer" use the spinal architecture from a quadruped for a biped? It clearly isn't working, as any orthopedic surgeon or neurosurgeon can tell you. And while we're on the central nervous system, redundant sensory systems for pain make no sense - unless, of course, a second one evolved that provided more precise localization of painful stimuli than the original system.

You see, one of the big issues that "intelligent design" can't explain is why the designs aren't that intelligent. There are redundant systems, vestigial parts (the human tail, for instance), systems re-used in situations where they don't really work optimally (e.g. the human spine) and several different varieties of perfectly functional systems that are vastly different between species.

"Intelligent design" only has one explanation for all these question: "All is as the Intelligent Designer wrought - who are we to question his (and it has to be a he, don't you just bet?) wisdom?"

Evolution, on the other hand, explains all of these oddities in a way that is logical and predicted by the theory. We have a vestigial tail and a quadruped spine because our ancestors - millions of years ago - were tailed quadrupeds. (Evolution is like my uncle, it never throwns anything out, 'cuz it might come in handy some day.)

Folks, we are talking about a real fight for the hearts and minds (at least the minds) of our children and I am not about to sit this one out. Just to be safe, I drill both my kids in evolutionary "talking points" while I'm serving them their cornflakes (corn evolved from grasses, don't you know). Let them go head-to-head with the ID bullies out on the playground. And God (excuse me, "the intelligent designer") help the first teacher who brings up "intelligent design" in their classroom. My lawyer can have what's left of them after my kids and I chew them up.

To arms!


Thursday, August 04, 2005

Autism is not equal to Cancer

As has been pointed out to me by Michelle Dawson, there are a lot of people in the world who think that autism - and autistic people - is a cancer that needs to be "cured". In my post, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow - The Search for an Autism Cure", I used the lunacy of "a cure for all cancer" to highlight, by analogy, the ridiculous practitioners who propose that they have a "cure for all autism". I did not then - and do not now - want to imply any similarity between autism and cancer, other than the fact that both are plagued by an inordinate number of quacks, cranks and crackpots who claim to have found a cause, a cure or a prevention.

After hearing from Ms. Dawson - at length - I realize that even putting the words "autism" and "cancer" in the same paragraph can be painful to people who feel that their very right to existence is challenged on a daily basis by the aforementioned quacks, cranks and crackpots. It was insensitive of me to do this, although I must plead the extenuating circumstance of ignorance. Ignorance is not a good defense, but it is the only one I have.

This brings us to the issue of how to deal with a "condition" that some people (including a lot of legitimate and well-meaning scientists and physicians) consider a disorder and other people consider to be their somewhat unique way of viewing and interacting with the world. I am reminded (with the gentle help of Ms. Dawson) that homosexuality was - in my lifetime - considered a mental disorder, as well. It should come as no surprise, then, that many autistic people are angry at the implication that they need to be "fixed" or "cured" of what they feel is a legitimate alternative way of thinking.

Fortunately, the debate is still theoretical, since there is currently no way such a "cure" can be effected. This does not, however, mean that the issue is resolved - it is just moot for the present. In the event that a "cure" or treatment for autism is discovered (however unlikely that may appear at present), what would be the ethical ramifications?

Would it be ethical to "cure" young children (still in their minority)? Would it be ethical to "cure" adults who are unable to communicate and thus cannot give consent (or withhold it)? Would it be ethical for guardians of adults who have been adjudged incompetent - due to their inability to care for themselves to our standards - to consent to this "cure" for their charges?

If you are reading this paragraph in the hope that I will present an answer to these dilemmas, you are about to be disappointed. This issue is far from clear and equally far from resolution. The whole issue, in fact, is being ridiculed by many of the people who claim to speak for autistic people. I direct you to Ms. Dawson's excellent website, "No Autistics Allowed" for the appalling details.

The fact is that there are many people who claim to speak for "autistic people", but few of them are autistic themselves. This would be acceptable if autism were like being in a coma or a "locked in" condition, where it is impossible to have the condition and still be competent. But autism isn't like that. Many autistic people - far more than Lenny Schafer, David Kirby, Dan Olmsted or JB Handley would lead you to believe - are living independently and are (gasp!) able to communicate clearly and eloquently. And even if they aren't so eloquent, they are still able to compose the shortest complete sentence in the English language - "No!".

So, it might be time for all of us to start thinking about a few things. I'll give you a few "starter questions" to help you compose your thoughts:

[1] Why are autistic people being shut out of organizations that supposedly exist solely to help people with autism?

[2] What are the implications for autistic people of calling autism a "holocaust", a "blight on society" and a "catastrophe"?

[3] Is it acceptable or ethical to "cure" people of a different way of thinking?

[4] Is it acceptable or ethical to refuse to "cure" or treat a condition that is a profound disability in some people because other people find it is a different way of thinking? (This assumes - without data to support the assumption - that the two conditions are, in fact, the same. They may not be.)

These and many other stimulating and engaging questions will need prompt answers if a "cure" or treatment for autism is ever discovered.

Until then.


Monday, August 01, 2005

This just in: PETA Accused of Bias

by Argent Selene
Chicago Moon Times

Speaking from his private room in Forest Park's Riveredge Hospital, Dr. Ken Phillips announced today that he was forming an animal rights group to address what he claims is "pernicious species bias" in the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). According to Phillips, PETA has shown a "consistent and blatant disregard for species that do not meet their 'cute and cuddly' standards".

While PETA has been aggressive in seeking protection for mammals and even a few birds, it has shown "no interest in preserving species that are at the very heart of our ecosystem". Dr. Phillips is referring to the microorganisms - bacteria, fungi and viruses. "Don't forget the Archaea!", Phillips interjects as he receives his afternoon sedative injection.

In order to correct what he sees as "nothing less than species-ism", Phillips has formed "People for the Ethical Treatment of Every Microscopic And Larger Lifeform" (PET-EM-ALL). He was driven to do this, he says, when he learned that the US and Russia were planning to destroy the last stocks of smallpox virus. "Do you realize," he said, "that smallpox has been completely eradicated in the wild? That the only remaining specimens are in laboratories?"

He paused to wipe spittle from his lips with the shoulder of his straitjacket. "People are marching in the streets to save a fish that nobody ever heard of but not a single leaflet was printed to protest the extinction of a virus that shaped the human world for centuries!"

"How long will it be before other viruses are wiped out or reduced to the point where they only exist as isolated specimens in a laboratory freezer?", he asked. "They've done that with smallpox and now there is a concerted multinational effort to wipe out polio and measles! What sort of sick minds in PETA let them stand by in silence while this massacre is carried out?"

As the medication began to work, Dr. Phillips' face become less purple and his voice returned to a more normal tone and intensity. "You know," he said in a conspiratorial whisper, "The PETA folks have antimicrobial soap in their lavatories - you know what that's for, don't you? They are wiping out bacteria and viruses in their own headquarters!"

Our interview was cut short when Dr. Phillips was escorted to his pottery session by a brace of burly aides. Before he left, Dr. Phillips had this to say:

"If the PETA people were really serious about preventing cruelty, they'd be looking at the millions and trillions of helpless bacteria and viruses that are killed every day by soaps, bleach and disinfectants! The slaughterhouses and chicken farms are nothing compared to the mass-murder that happens every day in the average American bathroom!"

When reached for comment, a PETA spokeperson, who wished to remain anonymous, said "He's nuts! And so are you if you listened to him!" PETA declined to confirm or deny their use of antimicrobial soap.