Susan Jenks at Florida Today gives us an informed, thoughtful piece on Florida Tech’s commitment to empirical evidence, including this enlightened passage:
“We want to educate the public about autism and the types of treatments that are known to be the most effective,” said Mary Beth Kunkel, dean of the College of Psychology and Liberal Arts. “One of the hallmarks for our center is we are committed only to treatments with empirical support.”
That means the university does not intend to offer still-controversial biomedical therapies some parents swear by, such as nutrition and vitamin supplementation; chelation therapy to remove mercury and other metals from the blood; and hyperbaric oxygen, to improve circulation to every area of the body, including the brain.
Nor, Kunkel said, will there be any talks about thimerosal, the mercury-based preservative once routinely put in children’s vaccines, but now a rarity, which remains at the heart of a fierce debate over its role in autism’s development.
“Research tells us now mercury is not related to autism, but it is still an issue with some parents,” she conceded. “It’s a major controversy.”
Jenks’s story has drawn the ire of parents who count on unproven treatments to help their autistic children, including a long, rambling note from “Bev” who says autism and other developmental problems are caused by vaccines, pollution, food coloring and preservatives. Any journalist who has used “evidence” and “autism” in the same sentence has heard from the Bevs of the world. These well-intentioned but misguided parents actively seek information from anti-vaccine groups on the internet, and form beliefs which are further reinforced by lax, uninformed reporting in the mainstream press.
For example, a Miami TV station recently brought us the story of a family who took their three-year-old autistic daughter to Costa Rica for stem cell therapy.
Here’s the lead-in:
An autistic girl from South Florida traveled to Costa Rica for what her family is calling a life-altering treatment. Since having adult stem cell therapy she’s talking and interacting like other kids. Seven’s Richard Lemus shows us how this is All For Autism.
These unverified anecdotes, piled one on top of another, reinforce false beliefs that autism is curable, but that evidence-based doctors are too corrupt, lazy, or arrogant to take notice. The scientific illiteracy and wishful thinking is enabled by the internet, and instant communities of like-minded people who share anecdotes, beliefs, and speculation. D-list actress Jenny McCarthy tells adoring fans that the she turned to the internet right after her son Evan was diagnosed with autism. That’s where she “learned” that autism is treatable, and that autistic children can fully recover.
It’s easy for reporters and editors to feel caught up in the anti-vaccine hysteria of some readers. Journalists want to be fair, and unbiased, but too many times they split the baby between science and pseudoscience. What to do?
The safe answer is to rely on real evidence backed by empirical data where it exists. The scientific method emerged 400 years ago in response to the Bevs of the world, except they were called His Holiness or Monsigneur. If you’re going to be accused of bias, at least make it something worth being biased about. It’s better to shill for Galileo than a Costa Rican stem cell therapy clinic.