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Chicago Tribune leads the way on autism coverage

November 23rd, 2009 · 5 Comments · Kudos

America’s shady autism cure industry has been flying under the nation’s media radar for years.  Not any more.

Trine Tsouderos and Patricia Callahan at the Chicago Tribune introduce us to the quacks and charlatans who prey on parents in a Pulitzer-worthy series that you can read here and here.  The stories follow last May’s blockbuster Trib investigation of autism quackery, including Dr. Mark Geier and his son, David, who chemically castrate disabled children.

Two common criticisms of the investigation, coming from radical anti-vaccine groups such as Generation Rescue, are that the paper dismissed hundreds of medical citations that support alternative bio-medical treatments for autism, and that the Trib missed a bigger, more important story.

Kent Heckenlively, a California grade school science teacher and GR acolyte quoted in the story, lists 32 articles that he sent to the Tribune reporters that he says were ignored. Only 11 are actual medical studies; the rest are news articles, blog posts (including one by Heckenlively himself), a chapter from a textbook, a press release, and a letter from a German physician. The studies are either irrelevant, debunked long ago, or published in low-impact journals. Kudos to Ms. Tsouderos and Ms. Callahan for not falling for Heckenlively’s data dump.

The Defeat Autism Now network, which has much to answer for, responded harshly by telling the reporters to look elsewhere for a story. Executive Director Jane Johnson wrote:

“The painful part of this story is that the Tribune had the opportunity to cover one of the greatest tragedies of the last twenty years: there is no approved treatment for the core symptoms of autistic disorder (there are two FDA-approved medications for irritability associated with autism, Risperdal and Abilify; both are known for unpleasant and sometimes serious side effects). How is it possible that so little progress has been made?  Why do medical organizations and government agencies feel no urgency to alleviate the suffering of these children? That’s the real story, and the Tribune has failed to cover it.

Shorter version: There is a dearth of knowledge of how to treat autism, so we will go on pretending like we have the answers.

Which is precisely the point of this well researched and thoughtful series: That the near absence of legitimate treatments for autism has given rise to a cottage industry of unproven and potentially dangerous treatments.

“The Tribune obviously took a lot of time to prepare these articles. They cite the experts in the field,” notes Sullivan at LeftBrainRightBrain, “Let’s face it, the supposed experts in the alternative medical “treatment” of autism are clearly misunderstanding or misrepresenting the research they rely upon. The Tribune did the work, talked to the experts and clearly showed this.”

It’s called journalism, Ms. Johnson. Get used to it. Expect more in the coming months as the news and entertainment media’s narrative switches from “alternative medicine produces miracles” to “science is being highjacked to fool parents”.



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Liz Ditz // Nov 23, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Thanks for making the points so cogently.

    As I often do for stories of this type, I’m keeping a running list or index of pro- and con- blog posts. This one’s on the list.

    The list is here

  • 2 Harold L Doherty // Nov 24, 2009 at 4:44 am

    What do you think of the Tribune comments about a thimerosal autism link being disproved by the increases in autism diagnoses after removal of thimerosal from vaccines?

    Does that mean that:

    (1) the increase in autism diagnoses resulted from REAL increases in autism or:

    (2) that if the increase in autism was NOT real, was attributable entirely to diagnostic change, social awareness etc. then no inference should be drawn with respect to thimerosal based on increased autism diagnoses after its removal from vaccines?

  • 3 Joseph // Nov 24, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    I already tried to explain this to Harold somewhere else. I’ll explain again, but just for the benefit of others, clearly.

    No, the increase is not necessarily a real increase. What that obviously refers to are increases recorded by passive systems, such as CalDDS or the Danish Psychiatric Registry.

    So far, there’s no active surveilance system of autism with perfect case-finding and equivalent criteria year after year.

    Now, let’s consider Harold’s proposition: If the increase is not real, then no inference can be drawn with respect to thimerosal removal…

    This is logically mistaken. If the increase is not real, then the thimerosal hypothesis is a no-go to begin with. It doesn’t even need to be considered.

    The thimerosal hypothesis basically says that at least part of the increase is real, and caused by thimerosal. In order to evaluate the hypothesis, we assume part of the increase is real, and then confirm predictions of the hypothesis.

    It’s a fact that proponents of the hypothesis predicted a drop in adminstrative counts, but let’s leave this aside.

    There’s probably been something like a 7-fold rise in administrative counts in the last couple decades. To be conservative, let’s say thimerosal is responsible for only a 2-fold rise.

    Now, between 1999 and 2002, the thimeorsal dose dropped quickly and well below any levels seen in decades. Therefore, administrative counts should’ve dropped by a factor of 2 between 1999+N and 2002+N, based on our assumption. To offset that drop, there would need to be a 2-fold rise for other reasons between those two years. That would only level it off.

    It would be very noticeable once you compare the trend, say, 1996 to 1999 vs. 1999 to 2002 vs. 2002 to 2005.

    In statistical terms, it’s just wrong to say that no inference can be drawn. It’s simply a multivariate analysis where thimerosal is one variable and the other variable might be nothing more than ‘year’.

  • 4 Prometheus // Nov 26, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    Harold (and many others) conveniently forget that the alleged rise in autism prevalence starting in the 1980′s was and is the only data supporting the thimerosal/vaccines-cause-autism hypothesis. If that disappears, the entire thimerosal/vaccine “connection” is left hanging in mid-air (i.e. unsupported).

    In the end, it doesn’t matter, because either way you call it, the thimerosal-causes-autism hypothesis is dead.

    [1] If the rise in autism prevalence is real, then thimerosal cannot be causing it because thimerosal was removed from vaccines over eight years ago.

    [2] If the rise in autism prevalence isn’t real, then thimerosal cannot be the cause of the rise in autism prevalence because the rise doesn’t exist

    Is that simple enough for you, Harold?


  • 5 FreeSpeaker // Nov 28, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    The important point of the article is the hijacking of GoodScience by the sellers-of-swill. The problem could be remediated if the GoodScientists would not sit silent until asked by a journalist. When hijacked a GoodScientist is duty bound to speak up. Shout loud and long. Do not remain silent.

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