Friday, December 02, 2005

The Lyin' in Winter

(With apologies to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine)

After a few months of blogging and running into supporters of the autism-mercury hypothesis, I have begun to notice that there is a fundamental difference between their approach to the issue and mine (OK, so I'm slow on the uptake). I'm not referring to the positions that we have taken - which are essentially polar opposites - but to the methods and attitudes we bring to the discussion.

Reading back over some comments on this and other blogs, I see a pattern emerging. There are nasty language, ad hominem attacks and exasperation coming from both sides of the issue, but autism-mercury advocates are far more likely to resort to accusations of:

[1] Lying
[2] Conspiracy (a form of lying)
[3] Cover-up (another form of lying)
[4] Bias/Conflict of Interest (leading to - you guessed it - lying!)

These accusations are not only leveled at "the government", the pharmaceutical industry ("Big Pharma") and doctors, they are hurled at anyone - blogger, commenter or hapless bystander - who disagrees with them.

On the other hand, I have rarely seen someone on the "opposing side" accuse one of the autism-mercury proponents of lying in any of its myriad forms. Those times that I have, it has been to accuse some of the "alt-med" practitioners and researchers favored by the autism-mercury supporters of deliberately deceiving their clientele. I have yet to see someone accuse an autism-mercury proponent of "lying" about their beliefs. Granted, I have seen people rather rudely accuse autism-mercury proponents of being willfully stupid, but not of deliberate falsehood.

So, why do I focus in on these accusations of lying? It's because they are so clearly false that even the accusers must know - at some level - that they are false. The people making these accusations cannot really believe that so many people are telling the same lie. And yet they continue to accuse people of lying - not just once or twice but several times in quick succession.

Now, a disagreement over interpretation of the data is one thing - even reasonable, intelligent people can disagree on how to interpret data. I happen to know of people who believe that the earth is flat - I disagree with them, but I don't think that they're lying.

So why would the autism-mercury advocates repeatedly accuse others of lying? For some of them, the fact that other people don't agree with them is just too threatening - their need to believe in the autism-mercury connection is too desperate to tolerate any questioning. Rather than acknowledge that there might be an explanation other than their own, they assume that anybody who disagrees with them is lying.

Others are simply incapable of imagining that anyone could come to a conclusion other than their own. Interestingly, this is very similar to the "theory of mind" dysfunction that is often (and perhaps inaccurately) attributed to autistic people. Unable to imagine how reasonable people could disagree with them, the only remaining explanation for them is that everyone who disagrees is lying.

Finally, some of the people accusing their opponents of lying are doing so in order to move the discussion out of the realm of ideas (where they are usually losing) and into the realm of emotion. And the emotion they are trying to evoke is hate.

Hate allows people to ignore the arguments - or even the essential humanity - of their opponent. You can't hate someone that you're having a difference of opinion with. You can hate someone who is trying to oppose you with lies, however. Hate requires a belly full of righteous indignation, a sense of outrage, a sense of being wronged.

The hate-mongers in this debate are trying to frame it in such a way as to inflame people's sense of outrage - to make them feel threatened, wronged or victimised. Here are just a few examples out of my nearly six-month sojourn:

[1] "You're trying to keep me from curing my child!" Not true, since nobody in this debate currently has that sort of power - and those making the accusation know that.

[2] "You're trying to keep the information away from parents who need it!" Also obviously false, since the Internet, books, pamphlets and other media are full of that information. If anything, it is the autism-mercury proponents are trying to suppress information contrary to their point of view.

[3] "You're lying to protect the government/Big Pharma/the doctors!" While this cannot be discounted out of hand, it would imply a conspiracy of such immense scope and scale that it would be impossible to resist - and yet the accusers themselves manage to resist it.

[4] "You're calling me a liar!" Rarely true - more often used after being told that they are wrong, mistaken or that they haven't proven their point. It escalates the situation from a disussion of the facts to a personal affront - leading to hate.

Why do people want to inject hate into the debate? Quite simply, hate and anger are a form of emotional energy that can be used to unite people who might otherwise barely speak to each other. In addition, hate has a way of clouding the issue, of keeping people from asking the important questions - like, "OK, so you say that the other folks are lying - why should I believe you?"

Look back through human history - as far back as the Greek city-states or as recently as yesterday's newspaper - and you will see countless examples of leaders fomenting hatred of some group or another in order to keep their followers' attention off their own shortcomings. And the autism-mercury organization has plenty of shortcomings!

By whipping up the hate of the parents - and throwing stones at anyone who disagrees with them - the leaders of the autism-mercury movement manage to keep their followers from noticing that their own house is made of glass. Here are but a few of the shortcomings that the autism-mercury folks want to keep from their followers:

[1] The data keeps coming in against a mercury-autism connection. You can ignore a couple of studies - or even explain them away as "flawed" or "biased" - but it gets harder with each additional one.

[2] The people publishing (or, more often, promoting and not publishing) data supporting the mercury-autism connection have a greater conflict of interest than any they can dream up about the scientists publishing data not supporting the connection.

[3] The number of people who would have to be members of the "conspiracy" to "cover up" the mercury-autism connection is expanding at an exponential rate. It will soon need to encompass nearly everyone on the planet to remain a workable "theory". As a general rule, conspiracy theories tend to collapse under their own weight, and this one is at the point of collapse.

[4] Many of the people promoting the mercury-autism connection are using tactics that are not only unsound, but are morally and ethically repugnant. Harrassment, intimidation, name-calling and "dirty tricks" (ala Richard Nixon) are not the way to convince people. They are exactly what they appear to be - attempts to silence the opposition without having to address the issues they raise.

Funny thing about whipping up hate - it is like a fire; always needing something more to burn. It is a powerful tool but a cruel master - and it usually ends up mastering those who try to use it. Eventually, the hate-mongers end up being eaten by the very thing they created.



Blogger Bartholomew Cubbins said...

But what happens in the future to those who are pro-merc/autism and are so angry and argumentative if their child doesn't respond to chelation or whatever and grows up to be an autistic adult? Do they tow the party line or do they turn from Darth Vader into Anakin and destroy the Emperor? Or do they just disappear? Or do they attribute the modest gains they've seen over the years to method X and continue on as vocal proponents?

What has happened to the proponents of earlier fads (prior to the late 90's)? Did they go away as their children grew up? Was there a lack of hate from the followers of those fads because there didn't exist a direct line of communication with the nonbelievers (the internet as opposed to some snailmail-delivered newspaper)?

I wonder about the history of autism cure fads. It seems to me that the net was responsible for elevating the profile of the current theory since it levels the communication playing field. In other words, would theory Y have been espoused as strongly as Hg if the net was around?

03 December, 2005 06:49  
Blogger EoR said...

The closed mind effect is an aspect of faith. Anti-MMR believers are following a faith. True Believers and alties are following faiths as well. And, as evolutionary biologists know all too well, evidence is antagonistic to the tenets of faith. Faith is stronger than facts, truth and reality. Hence, facts, truth and reality must all be shut out and denied. Otherwise you haven't got faith. This is why logic and reason fail so abysmally with all the True Believers. Sadly.

03 December, 2005 19:42  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BC... about the history of autism cures:

I used to be on a listserv for a speech disability listserv (not autism, but they seemed to take over... so I left after 8 years). Over the years I saw several things being touted, and some are still around (cranialsacral, a kind of homeopathic head massage). If I had the archives on my hard drive, it would be an interesting check to see what has come and gone. But I don't. I mostly just remember other parents with kids younger than mine asking if I had tried a certain oil, vitamin, treatment etc... I usually wrote back that since he had had a seizure disorder I was not going to muck with his biochemistry (I'd already seen what dehydration can do when a "natural baby" book's recommendation of diluted apple juice instead of Pedialyte can do to brain chemistry --- the result was an ambulance ride to the hospital due to Grand Mal seizures!). THEN... I would include that his progress was ONLY due to early intervention, good speech therapy and great educational placement.

AH.. but there are the newsgroup archives on, which include two autism groups. One could browse through there to see what the history of "cures" are. I'm not inclined at this moment to do that.

BUT... what I did do was wander over to and put in the search terms "autism cure" and got a grand total of 31 hits. Not that much.

Anyway, one did go to a full paper (actually a review) for free that gave a summary of some of the "cures":

and there is another interesting review that only the abstract was available:

03 December, 2005 22:03  
Blogger elmindreda said...

have a greater conflict of interest that any they can dream up about the scientists publishing data


Very nicely written entry, though. Thank you.

04 December, 2005 00:21  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In your discussion about why people accuse others of lying, I think you are leaving out a couple of very important reasons. Certainly righteous indignation leading to hate is an important factor in why people lie -- let's face it, righteous indignation FEELS GOOD! But I think that lying itself serves a psychological purpose.

It appears to me that many people cannot tell the difference between "OK, so I gave incorrect information that I sincerely believed to be true" and "OK, you caught me telling a deliberate falsehood" -- i.e. ignorance of the definition of the word lying. I can't count the number of times evidence points obviously to someone's statement being false, and they respond "OK, so I lied". Examples:

1) the intended destination (restaurant, e.g.) is NOT at the location that someone swore it was, so, after we drive around in circles for a while and finally get accurate directions from a local inhabitant, they respond with "OK, so I lied".
2) the weather turns out to require an umbrella even though someone swore earlier in the day that the weather would be sunny, so the weather prognosticator responds "OK, so I lied".
3) someone uses a word incorrectly and steadfastly maintains that they are correct until someone pulls out a dictionary and shows that they should have used another word, and the person says "OK, so I lied".

It may be psychologically less threatening to admit to lying than to admit that one is dead wrong about something. If you admit to lying, you're in control. If you admit to being clueless, you're showing the world how vulnerable you are. Most people will go to any lengths to hide their vulnerability from themselves and the world. Protecting and avenging injured pride has caused a lot of misery over the ages -- killing women who "dishonor" the family, allowing children to die from some quack "remedy" because belief is more important than truth (or you're scared to admit that your child might die and you can't save him), killing outsiders because admitting that that all humans have worth is threatening to the belief that only "we" are worthy while "they" are not.

By extension, accusing others of lying also diverts attention from one's own feelings of vulnerability and helplessness.

I am not defending the actions of quacks and people who use lies (and accusations of lying) to further their causes (and pocketbooks). But I am pointing out that lying has been with humanity for a very long time, and I propose that we all do it to some degree or another, and that it serves a purpose in the human psyche. It's just unfortunate that so many people are disadvantaged (often to the point of death) because of it.

--Judy Wyatt

04 December, 2005 00:36  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was nicely put. Thank you.

My personal argument is that parents of children with autism who are so fixed, inflexible and rigid as far as their pet theory (be it MMR or Thiomersal) is concerned are conclusive proof that autism is indeed inherited.
However, I'm careful not to voice this in public (note have gone all anon).

04 December, 2005 08:49  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

bartholomew cubbins wrote:
"What has happened to the proponents of earlier fads (prior to the late 90's)? Did they go away as their children grew up? Was there a lack of hate from the followers of those fads because there didn't exist a direct line of communication with the nonbelievers (the internet as opposed to some snailmail-delivered newspaper)?"

My memory got jogged again, and I remembered there was often talk about the Doman-Delacato psychomotor patterning stuff. I remember telling people over and over that is was just intensive physical therapy (Robert Doman was a PT)... and that there was no science to prove it worked (It didn't help that all the books I checked out by him were advertisements for his Philadelphia clinic... I checked them out during his push for "Better Baby" movement with flashcards). Anyway... I often encouraged folks to read one parents experience with the Doman clinic in PA: _No Time for Jello_ by Berneen Bratt.

I also found this review of the Doman-Delacato method here:

Plus, this same group has a review of autism treatments that you might find helpful:

Hmmm... I see a reference there from an infamous autism researcher who turned out was ALSO a liar:
Bruno Bettelheim -- who was never trained in psychology, and who created the "refrigerator mom" myth. I did a check of books about him on Amazon, and found a whole host of books from his former "patients"... or in some cases, victims:

04 December, 2005 13:55  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the tune of The Eagles: Lyin' Eyes

"Eyein' Lies"

Altie Docs just seem to find out early
How to offer cures with just a lie
A rich old man
And he won't have to worry
He'll mix some herbs and oils and patients buy

Late at night a full page ad gets lonely
I guess ev'ry form of rescue has its price
And it warms his heart to think the drops are only
Purchased from a man with hourly advice.

So he tells them they must chelate every evening
For a year or two to get the metals down
But he knows what he's doin' as he's cheating
He'll be selling be selling stinking lotion by the pound

You can't hide your buyin' lies
And your site is a thin disguise
I thought by now you'd realize
There ain't no way to cure your child with lies

On the other side of town a boy's sedated
with smiling eyes and dreams no one could steal
She flew him to the states to be chelated
'Cause she read the New York Times and thinks it's real

Needles in his arms,
They're held together
She whispers that it's only for awhile
She swears that soon he'll be comin' back forever
She pulls away and leaves him there to die

You can't hide your buyin' lies
And your site is a thin disguise
I thought by now you'd realize
There ain't no way to cure your child with lies

He gets up and pours himself a strong one
And cries out to his angels in the sky
Another lie, it's gonna be a long one
He thanks the little soldier's sacrifice

He wonders how it ever got this crazy
Can't they see it's all thimerosal!
Did the FDA or CDC get lazy?
He's so far gone he's raging like a bull

My, oh my, you sure know how to believe things
You bought it all, you soaked it in
Ain't it funny how your new lies didn't change things
You just can't get the stuff across the skin

You can't hide you're buyin' lies
And your argument is a thin on style
I thought by now your son would rise
There ain't no way to hide you're public lies
There ain't no way to buy a normal child
Funny, that your dad's a former spy

04 December, 2005 16:43  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absoluteley wonderful song!

Why, oh why to you have to be anonymous!

04 December, 2005 19:35  
Blogger Bartholomew Cubbins said...

HCN interesting links, thanks. I'm interested to see how this will all look in 2, 5, and 25 years from now. You know, I never thought of pubmedding "autism and cure". lol

anon-Judy smashing that nail on the head so hard, you almost broke the hammer - nicely done and cheers

anon-Henley think podcast, you've got talent.

05 December, 2005 06:12  
Blogger Autism Diva said...

Thanks Anonymous!

Amazing song.

05 December, 2005 21:54  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you autism diva. Please feel free to share it elsewhere, as long as you fix the typos :-)

06 December, 2005 06:27  

<< Home