Autism News Beat

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What science writing sounds,
and doesn’t sound like

November 5th, 2007 · 4 Comments · Careless sourcing, Critical thinking

Mark Henderson exposes medical quackery for the Times of London. It’s really not that hard.

Stem cell therapy for multiple sclerosis is a prime example. While stem cells do have great promise for this incurable condition, there is no evidence that they work yet. Improperly supervised injections of foreign tissue also endanger patients: they can cause infection or a dangerous immune response. They are unlicensed in the UK for this reason, and those who travel overseas for them at their own expense are being exploited.

The same is true of chelation therapy for autism, which claims to mop up heavy metals that some people believe, with little evidence, to be responsible for the condition. Again, effectiveness is unproven, and the costs and risks are high: a British boy, Abubakar Tariq Nadama, died in 2005 after travelling to America for such treatment.

Henderson is the science writer for the Times of London, which means he has, you know, studied science.

Now contrast Henderson’s article with this TV news story from WBTV in Charlotte, NC:

Lead is dangerous, but mercury poisoning is worse.

Some doctors say they’re almost always found together.

Yesterday I met a young man who suffers from both.

His parents say he went from saying his ABC’s to not speaking at all because of mercury, which they feel he got not from toys, but from his childhood vaccinations.

How is mercury poisoning worse than lead poisoning? They’re both pretty awful.

Which doctors say lead poisoning and mercury poisoning are nearly always found together? A quick check of PubMed, a freely accessible online resource sponsored by the National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health, turn up zero doctors who say that.

To be fair, the reporter, Barbara Pinson, did call the discredited and implausible vaccine-autism link controversial, but not in a scientific kind of way:

“Tying mercury in vaccines to autism is a highly controversial topic. But the (parents) could care less about the politics of it all. They just want to find a doctor who would believe them and would help.”

The symptoms of mercury poisoning and autism are not the same, and real doctors have considered the matter closed for some time. It’s only in ill-informed media coverage and quack medical conferences that the connection is still brought up. But since this is another “vaccines made my kid autistic” piece, no science is necessary. The story formula, used in newsrooms throughout the land, is more toxic than anything passed on by the FDA.

You start with a scary Health Alert title, cause nothing says credibility like computer graphics. Then interview some grieving parents, add a photogenic kid flopping around on a sofa, and cut to the brave maverick doctor in a white lab coat. In this story it is Dr. Rashid Buttar, who tells us “You will never find a kid with autism who doesn’t have mercury.” That’s actually true. You will also never find a liverwurst sandwich that doesn’t have mercury, since it’s a naturally occurring element that’s in just about everything.

Because this is a story formula that you feel with your heart, it’s important to distract viewer brains. Pinson handles the job like a pro: “What a touching story!” she tells us, in case some people didn’t notice. “In this case, mercury is the main culprit, but Benjamin also has high lead levels, his lead levels are off the chart.” If we only had taller charts. Maybe the FDA can partner with NASA.

Ah, but our two-and-a-half minute Health Alert is almost over, and it’s time to circle back to the main point, which is that mercury and lead are like the peanut butter and jelly of the periodic table – if your kid has one, he probably has the other. Fortunately, the Wise News Anchor and the reporter have it covered:

Barbara Pinson: Again, what doctors are saying, is you usually don’t find one without the other.

Wise News Anchor: So, real hope in this instance, but if you’ve been exposed to lead, you should look for mercury as well?

Barbara Pinson: Absolutely, that’s what a lot of doctors are saying, that’s what you should absolutely do.

I never thought I would see local television news coverage so misinformed, so utterly lacking in value, and it’s with a morbid fascination that I watch this clip, over and over and over. And I don’t understand how any responsible news organization can allow such a toxic brew to spill onto the airwaves.

Can you imagine what the reaction would be if a TV station hired an equally uninformed sports reporter to cover a football game?

Touchdowns are exciting, but touchbacks are where the real points are.

Some coaches say they are always found together.

Yesterday I spoke with a defensive end who has scored both.

His teammates say that with enough first downs, everybody on the team will not only be scoring touchbacks, but kicking their own field goals as well. Did someone say Heismann Trophy?

What a touching story!

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Matt // Nov 5, 2007 at 2:31 pm

    “Tying mercury in vaccines to autism is a highly controversial topic. But the (parents) could care less about the politics of it all.”

    My latin is rusty–but isn’t that what they call in the biz a “non-sequitur”?

    It is a “highly conterversial” medical topic. It is a “highly controversial” science topic. That is what parents should be concentrating on. The problem is, the parents who are asking these questions don’t like the answers. The controversy is between “parents and science” as noted in the omnibus hearings.

    Now, that was being polite. In the end, that minority of parents are why it is political. To say that they could care less about the politics is strange to say the least.

  • 2 Prometheus // Nov 5, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    It appears that “highly controversial” has become the media euphemism for “only believed by a small group of cranks”.

    I also loved the way the reporter dismissed the “controversy” as “political”.

    As far as I can tell, there is nothing “political” about the discredited “hypothesis” that mercury causes autism. No political party has expressed a potition on autism, let alone mercury causing autism.

    Yet, the fact that nearly 100% of the scientific and medical community does not see a connection between mercury and autism is “political”. The fact that study after study has found no connection between autism and mercury is “political”.

    Funny, I didn’t see that on my ballot the last time I voted.

    Prometheus

  • 3 isles // Nov 5, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    It’s only political in that mercury moms are the squeaky wheels who threaten to paint their legislators as anti-child if they don’t spout the Gospel of Thimerosal.

  • 4 Ms. Clark // Nov 7, 2007 at 3:02 am

    I just found a link on Andrea’s buzzing about blog to a pdf that describes what peer review is. It’s from “sense about science.”
    Maybe someone could get the WBTV news guys to read it.

    http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/PDF/ShortPeerReviewGuide.pdf
    Here’s part of it:
    “SUMMARY
    •Science has a system for assessing the quality of research before
    it is published. This system is called peer review.
    •Peer review means that other scientific experts in the field
    check research papers for validity, significance and originality–
    and for clarity.
    •Editors of scientific journals draw on a large pool of suitable
    experts to scrutinise papers before deciding whether to publish
    them.
    •Many of the research claims you read in newspapers and
    magazines, find on the internet, or hear on television and the
    radio are not published in a peer-reviewed journal.
    •Some of this research may turn out to be good but much of it is
    flawed or incomplete. Many reported findings, such as claims
    about “wonder cures” and “new dangers”, never come to anything.
    •Unpublished research is no help to anyone. Scientists can’t repeat
    or use it and as a society we can’t base decisions about our public
    safety – or our family’s health for example – on work that has a
    high chance of being flawed.
    •So, no matter how exciting or compelling new scientific or medical
    research is, you must always ask…
    Is it peer reviewed? If not, why not?
    If it is peer reviewed, you can look for more information on what
    other scientists say about it, the size and approach of the study and
    whether it is part of a body of evidence pointing towards the same
    conclusions. sense about science

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