Monday, July 30, 2007

How Science Works

From reading what many of the vaccines/mercury/”toxins”/whatever-causes-autism promoters have written about the science of autism, it is clear that most of them have only the vaguest idea of what science is and how it works. Here is what I hope will be a clear and concise “debunking” of some of the more pervasive “myths” about how science works.

Vox populi:

One of the most commonly repeated misconceptions is that scientific “facts” (what scientists refer to as “generally accepted theories of reality”) are determined by popular vote. Thus you see many of the so-call autism advocates crowing about how many people “believe” their particular line of nonsense.

Unfortunately for them, reality has shown itself supremely indifferent to majority rule. For thousands of years, the majority of people were convinced that the world was flat, but that had no effect on the spherical nature of the world. For hundreds of years, the majority of people thought that the Sun revolved around the Earth – which had no effect on celestial mechanics.

So, even if seven thousand people think that Andy Wakefield’s thoroughly disproven hypothesis about measles vaccine causing autism is true, that will have no impact on the ability of the vaccine strain of measles to cause autism.

The sad fact is that the purpose of science is to discover the underlying realities of nature, not to confirm our most cherished hypotheses. When people (even people calling themselves “scientists”) set out to prove themselves right, they often overlook the data that show they are wrong. That’s why it’s so important to have independent confirmation of results.

In the end, it not the “voice of the people” that determine whether a hypothesis lives or dies, it is the “voice of the data”.

Authority figures:

As the Autism Omnibus Proceedings have shown, there are experts and there are “experts”. The plaintiffs, so far, have had the latter. It is passing strange that the people who are generally so dismissive of the findings of doctors and scientists are so willing to blindly accept whatever their doctors and their scientists say without question.

The Omnibus Proceedings should have been a golden opportunity for the parents following the advice of these “experts” (the ones who have “…found the truth…” about autism) to see how their knowledge compared to that of “mainstream” scientists (you know, the ones who are too hidebound to see the plain truth of how measles vaccine/mercury/”toxins”/immune disorders/gut problems/etc. clearly causes autism). It should have been, but for the vocal minority, it wasn’t.

Part of the problem with authority figures in autism is that the majority of parents – the grand majority, in all liklihood – have no idea what these experts are talking about. Here’s a little quiz to find out which camp you are in:

[1] If a child has a “damaged” immune system that is unable to “fight off” a viral infection (e.g. the attenuated vaccine strain of measles), what would be the effect of giving that child corticosteroids?

(a) The child will improve.
(b) The viral infection will worsen, making the child more ill or even dead.
(c) No effect

[2] When using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to amplify the genetic material of a measles virus strain, what is the purpose of the reverse transcriptase (RT) step?

(a) It is an optional step, used in “mainstream” science only.
(b) It creates more false negative results.
(c) It copies RNA into DNA

[3] To which of the following does ethylenediamine tetraacetate (EDTA) bind with the least strength?

(a) mercury
(b) calcium
(c) magnesium

(Answers: b, c, a)

I bring this up because a number of parents I have spoken with about the Omnibus Proceedings have no idea why it was so important that the O’Leary lab had failed to do the RT (reverse transcriptase) step when they were testing for measles virus. To them, it was just another piddling technical detail that was essentially meaningless. To me, on the other hand, it was proof positive that the O’Leary results were baloney – nothing more than contamination and poor technique.

You see, the measles virus doesn’t use DNA for its genetic material, it uses RNA (single strand, negative sense) and does not go through a DNA intermediate (unlike the retroviruses). And the PCR process doesn’t amplify RNA, only DNA. So, the only way to amplify measles genetic material is to first copy it into DNA (via reverse transcriptase) and then amplify the DNA copy (cDNA).

In fact, one of the checks routinely done to rule out the possibility of contamination (or poor primer selection) is to do the test without the RT step. If you get a positive result, you know that you have a problem.

The O’Leary lab clearly had a problem.

So, what are parents to do if they lack the specialized knowledge to judge for themselves if the “experts” know what they’re talking about? Unfortunately, relying on your “gut feeling” is probably not the way to go. My experience has been that true experts in a scientific field are often not the most personable, easy to like people in the world. Some, in fact, are not good with people.

Salesmen, charlatans and confidence men, on the other hand, are marvelous with people. They have to be – it’s their livelihood. Now, this isn’t to say that a reliable expert can’t be personable and easy to trust – that’s not true. But you can’t rely on an person's charm and charisma to inform you about their accuracy.

What it often comes down to is going with the crowd. The more people who are well-informed about the field that agree with the “expert” in question, the more likely that “expert” is to be accurate. Sad to say, but the maverick who turns his back on the majority of his scientific peers is usually wrong. The very few who have turned out to be right tend to overshadow – in the public’s eye – the thousands who were wrong and simply faded into well-deserved obscurity.

One sporting gentleman on the mercury-causes-autism side has said that betting on the maverick is a long-shot with a tremendous payoff. How I wish it were so. In fact, most of the “mavericks” bucking the “mainstream” in the “alternative” autism world have already been shown to be wrong. Andy Wakefield is just one of many in that category. A more accurate analogy would be betting on a horse that has already been taken to the knacker’s and rendered into dog food, glue and baseball covers.

Science by fiat:

Another popular concept is that scientific reality can be legislated. This has been tried a number of times previously and has a dismal history. One of the most famous was the 1633 trial of Galileo Galilei, where he was forced, by threat of death, to recant his heliocentric hypothesis of the Solar system. A more recent one is the attempt by the Dover, Pa. school board to render Intelligent Design a viable hypothesis. It failed, as well.

“Science by decree” appeals to those who are absolutely convinced that there is no possibility that they might be wrong. It was supremely ironic that Andy Wakefield, facing possible censure in the UK, quoted Vaclav Havel’s famous statement: “Seek the company of those who seek the truth and run from those who have found it.” Wakefield is so clearly one of those who have “…found it…” but is unable to see that.

Science is not well suited to legislation because it needs the flexibility to change when confronted with new information. Laws must be repealed – a long and tedious process. Scientific theories and hypotheses are altered or discarded in a moment. If science needed to move at the pace of law, we would still be “texting” on parchment.

A more practical problem is when incorrect science is enshrined in law (and what other kind would need to be legislated?). We all know that the true point of the effort to make a law out of bad science is so that somebody (maybe many somebodies) will get some money. This is not inherently bad – sometimes people need and deserve governmental assistance.

But what happens when it becomes apparent that the legislated “science” is in error? What will the legislators say to those who entreated them to make the law in the first place? How receptive will they be to another group of parents who come to them, saying “Well, it turns out that vaccines weren’t the cause of autism and we need a bunch of money to research the real cause.” Do you think that any law maker is going to want to bring that before their peers?

I think that everybody knows that if the various autism “advocacy” groups had the data, they wouldn’t need to do an “end run” around science (and, curiously, the courts) to the legislature. What they are saying, in essence, is: “We can’t convince scientists, we can’t convince the courts and we can’t even convince a majority of parents with our data, so we’re asking you to force everybody to say that we’re right.”

And that’s what it really comes down to, folks - force. They’ve given up trying to prove their point; they’ve even given up trying to persuade the parents who haven’t already jumped on their bandwagon. Now they’re going to enlist the coercive power of the government to force you to pay them to do what they (the autism "advocates") think is right.

Does that seem right to you?



Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thank you.

30 July, 2007 17:02  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In 1893, the US Supreme Court declared the tomato to be a vegetable, for purposes of taxation. Botanists still consider the edible parts to be berry-fruits. Treating something like a vegetable and passing laws on it doesn't change the fact that tomatoes are really fruits.

So are some people.

30 July, 2007 18:21  
Blogger notmercury said...

Wonderful post. Nailed it.

I very much enjoyed the Science by fiat part.

30 July, 2007 19:30  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Prometheus wrote:`"But you can’t rely on an person's charm and charisma to inform you about their accuracy"

That´s very true, but it misses the strongest reason that parents believe in "their" experts. The main reason is, of course, that their experts offer hope. I must have read a variation on this type of statement thousands of times. It encapsulates why the parents go on believing. "Dr. X is the only person who actually cares about our son. He actually DOES something. Every mainstream expert just tells us there is nothing to do, just behavioral treatment or they want to drug him up. Dr. X is on our side."

31 July, 2007 02:49  
Blogger Suzanne said...

So, you're saying that autism is caused by ingesting baloney(bologna)? ppppfft
As for gov't forcing us to do what's right, that is frightening.

Do you know of any stats on autism and gut problems?
Since that is not a part of the dx, I wonder how common it is, compared with similar digestive problems in NT (kids).
Many "curebies" use gut problems as rationale for their reasoning (my child is in pain, he needs a cure).
just wondering

31 July, 2007 08:12  
Blogger Prometheus said...


Actually, when I said that the effect of some of the proposed autism legislation was to "...force you to pay them to do what they think is right.", I may not have been clear in who "they" are. I meant it to be the people proposing the legislation.

However, it's just as frightening to comtemplate "government" forcing us to do what the "government" thinks is right - which happens each and every day, as you know.

One of the greatest powers that government has is the power to tax. Through that power, it can effectively force you to support - financially, if not morally - whatever actions those in control deem worthy.

I attended a conference on autism where Dr. Buie and other gastroenterologists spoke on the issue of gut problems. Their feeling - supported by a modest amount of data - was that autistic children have a slightly higher prevalence of GI problems like esophageal reflux, irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis than the general pediatric population - and not dissimilar from the population of children with other mental or physical disabilities.

However, they went on to say that the diagnosis of these disorders is often very delayed for two reasons:

[1] Communication difficulty - autistic children often do not respond in the "typical" way to GI distress (e.g. holding their belly, curling up into a ball) and so their distress is often mislocalized by doctors and parents.

[2] Physician mindset - a number of physicians (a shrinking number, I hope) still attribute ALL unusual or disruptive behaviors of autistic children to the autism. This includes vomiting, diarrhea, and demonstrations of pain and discomfort.

The "take home message" from that conference was that autistic children have the same sort of gut-related problems as their neurotypical peers and that "mysterious" behavioral problems may be a manifestation of GI distress. I found it very illuminating, as I could easily imagine how esophageal reflux (which I have had a time or two after spicy Indian food) could easily explain the "mysterious" outbursts of autistic children I have known.

In that sense, I agree with the "curbies" - the child needs a "cure", but they need a cure for their gut problems.


31 July, 2007 10:12  
Blogger Prometheus said...


You are absolutely right when you point out that the "experts" claiming special knowledge about autism are accepted because they offer hope. The sad part is that they are - so far as science can determine - offering false hope.

I know that some people feel that it is a mercy to offer hope, even when it is false. However, I am firm in my belief that, ultimately, offering false hope is more destructive than offering the truth - that there is nothing that is known to help.

I think that it is perfectly reasonable for physicians to tell parents that there are some "treatments" that other parents have tried and that they report some success, but I think that it is imperative that they be absolutely clear that none of these treatments has been shown to work.

Much of the problem is that the "practitioners" who advocate these "therapies" are so divorced from critical thinking that they fail evaluate their own results. I have heard them rationalize their failures into successes - they clearly have no idea what they are doing. They are, as the old saw goes, "Often in error but never in doubt."

On the other hand, we need to come up with a better way to approach parents with the diagnosis. It's the same problem that people with cancer face - the diagnosis is stunning and catastrophic and, in those first days and weeks of dealing with it, they are extremely vulnerable to anyone who offers them a way out of their predicament - even if it something that their rational mind would normally reject out of hand.

I wish I had some idea how to correct that situation.

31 July, 2007 10:26  
Blogger J said...

Were I a staunch mercury-causation believer, Prometheus, I would have read this article and right now be reconsidering my position. Your aruments are compelling and accurate.
Or, more likely, if I were a staunch mercury-causation believer, I would be damning you for your vicious lies and running off to my A-Champ buddies to complain about how you are such a ruthless yet effective shill for Big Pharma.
It's unfortunate that people become so deeply rooted in their system of beliefs that it eliminates their ability to consider that they may actually be wrong.

31 July, 2007 11:36  
Blogger John Best said...

A majority of scientists were convinced that mercury caused the autism epidemic in 1999. That's why they started to take it out of the vaccines.
It's only a few alleged scientists who try to deny this fact to make Eli Lilly look innocent. The handful of alleged, anonymous scientists who infest neurodiverse blogs are an extremely small minority. The fact that most of you are anonymous speaks volumes about your credibility.

31 July, 2007 15:12  
Blogger Suzanne said...

Thanks for the clarification, and information.

31 July, 2007 15:26  
Blogger Jennifer said...


I think the proper and scientifically validated way to offer hope to parents is to point out that the diagnosis of autism has changed, and that it does not mean what it used to. Parents need to know that the outcomes for children diagnosed today as ASD are likely to be much more favorable than they were in the past for the DSM-III autism diagnosis. Moreover, even for children who meet the DSM-III criteria (i.e. more severely disabled children), there are well established indications of progress and development throughout life.

Finally, parents need to know that their child can have a happy life, and can be accepted by society. That, and not a cure, is what true autism advocacy should be driving towards.

02 August, 2007 04:28  
Blogger Prometheus said...

Fore Sam,

Welcome back! I've missed your unique brand of perseverative wrong-headedness!

You are - as you often are - only partly correct in your statement about mercury in vaccines.

In 1999, a majority of scientists in the CDC were concerned enough about the possibility that mercury might be causing autism that they removed it from vaccines (and thank you for admitting that it has been removed!). However, the data that have come in since that time have not supported the hypothesis that mercury causes autism.

So, scientists and bureaucrats at the CDC reacted to the possibility of harm (rather than any evidence of harm) and removed a substance that, on further evaluation, does not appear to be causing the problem in question. Of course, I don't expect anyone to go about trying to put the mercury back into children's vaccines - I think that we're better off without it, even if it isn't causing any significant amount of autism.

I think I've already addressed the effect of popularity on reality, but I think you ought to redo your headcount of "scientists" who believe the mercury-causes-autism hypothesis. Even if you count doctors (who, sad to say, are usually not scientists), the majority seems to believe that the data is correct - that there is no reason to believe that mercury causes autism.

As for anonymity, I think that after the harrassment and abuse that people like yourself have heaped on people whose only offense is to disagree with you, anonymity seems a prudent precaution. I don't hear of Andy Wakefield receiving death threats, but everyone who has spoken in opposition to him or the vaccines-(or vaccine components)-cause-autism hypothesis has received them.


Absolutely correct! Another way to put it is that autism, even under the narrower DSM-III criteria, has an extremely wide range of severity and no consistent or predictable prognosis. The current diagnosis of autism is so broad as to be meaningless. I know of at least one pediatrician who advises parents that children with autism may never speak or may end up as owners of multi-billion dollar software companies. Or anything between those two extremes.

And considering the published efficacy of autism "cures" (nil), it seems wiser to love the child you have rather than chase after the child you wish you had.


02 August, 2007 09:30  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for an excellent piece. As a semi-ignorant layman I finally understand the thrust of Bustin's criticism of O'Leary's findings, if not the detail.

03 August, 2007 12:53  
Blogger Prometheus said...


You're welcome! As I've said on numerous occasions, everybody is ignorant about something (most of us are ignorant about a number of things).

The problem is not that parents or "laypeople" are stupid or gullible - it's just that most of them are out of their field when dealing with things like PCR and reverse transcriptase (and, apparently, so are Drs. Wakefield and O'Leary). This is not a poor reflection on the character or abilities of the parents - they simply have different competencies, different skill sets.

If anyone should be embarrassed about their lack of knowledge, it should be the doctors and scientists (e.g. Drs. Wakefield and O'Leary) who so confidently say things that they can't support with data and/or are complete rubbish. It is painfully apparent that many of the "scientists" and practitioners involved in "alternative" autism causation and therapy are talking about things they themselves only dimly understand.

Frankly, when I read the "expert" testimony from the Omnibus Proceedings, I felt embarrassed for the "experts". How humiliating to be shown that you are wrong in front of an audience. And yet, I wonder if any of them realize how stupid they sounded as they pontificated on matters they understood so poorly.

This was just for those areas in which I have some expertise. I imagine that some of the other expert witnesses for the plaintiffs were equally unqualified.


03 August, 2007 14:41  
Blogger Unknown said...

"In that sense, I agree with the "cur[e]bies" - the child needs a "cure", but they need a cure for their gut problems."

Exactly. That is the message that we should be giving both clinicians and parents.

(BTW, I think a "curbie" might be an aficionado of junkyard dogs; a "curebie", on the other hand, is probably what you meant in the passage above :-).)

16 August, 2007 21:06  

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