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Shocking ignorance

October 18th, 2008 · 20 Comments · Easy marks, Miseducation

Shock comedian Denis Leary does not learn from other people’s mistakes. It seems he would know better than to insult autistic children after the shellacking that shock jock Michael Savage took for a similar rant just three months ago.

In his new book, Leary writes parents “want an explanation for why their dumb-ass kids can’t compete academically,” so they consult psychologists. “I don’t give a fuck what these crackerjack whack jobs tell you, yer kid is NOT autistic. He’s just stupid.”

Here’s what Savage said in July:

“I’ll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it’s a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out. That’s what autism is.

Savage’s vapid analysis was met with howls of protest from parents and autism advocacy groups, and sponsors fled his insipid Savage Nation radio show. Parents and advocacy groups also piled on Leary, exposing his ignorance and selfishness. Leary quickly held a press conference so he could explain that by “kids” he really meant “adults”, then he plugged his book.

Proving that there’s plenty of ignorance to go around, a Boston Fox News affiliate turned to Mark Blaxill, a biased and ill-informed anti-vaccine activist for a “fair and balanced” view on Leary’s skewed world view. Blaxill is vice president of Safe Minds, a non-profit organization that falsely characterizes autism as “a novel form of mercury poisoning.”

Blaxill believes that we are in the throes of an autism epidemic. In fact, nearly everything he says assumes that is true. “The reality of the autism epidemic is very, very real,” he told the equally credulous reporter. “And to make light of that is really a bad idea.”

But Blaxill has been making light of published science for years, as he tap dances around inconvenient facts and reams of data. Speaking at an AutismOne media roundtable discussion last spring, Blaxill called on his favorite straw man when asked to defend the epidemic – “There is (sic) no data that it’s better diagnosis. That’s just something people say to make themselves feel better,” said Blaxill.

Blaxill is partly right. Changes in diagnostic criteria alone are not enough to explain the rise is autism. But nobody is saying that. D’oC at Autism Street explains:

The classic straw man argument. No one is saying that it’s only better diagnosis – so it’s unlikely that there would be any data presented to that effect – ever. What’s being said is that there is no evidence of any autism “epidemic”, and that better, earlier, and very different diagnoses are taking place than in previous years. Here’s a quick summary of my take on what’s really being said by the scientific community:

1. There is no scientific evidence of an autism “epidemic” – not from CDDS autism caseload data, not from special education data, and not from the descriptive epidemiology.
2. The diagnostic criteria have changed.,
3. Average age of diagnosis is decreasing.
4. Better awareness and recognition are likely (if not certain).
5. Diagnostic substitution has taken place.
6. There are probably numerous other factors influencing the number of autism diagnoses.

Anthropologist and author Richard Grinker makes a more thorough case against the epidemic in his bookUnstrange Minds.

Blaxill’s argument for an autism epidemic comes down to this:

But if you believe that it’s always been with us then, something, a population epidemiologist, or a population statistician once calculated that were, before 1930, there were, uh, a 100 billion born, in the history of the world. Homo Sapiens. You know, rough calculation. If you take 30 per 10,000, 60 per 10,000, 70 per 10,000 that means that before Leo Kanner discovered autism, there would have been 300 million, 600 million, 700 million people born in the history of the world with autism. You don’t miss these children, you don’t miss these people. Where were these people before 1930? They did not exist.

Not very convincing. Most of the people who ever walked the earth lived out their nasty, brutish, short lives before Columbus set sail. It’s hard for us pampered moderns to really understand what life was like before antibiotics, vaccines, public sanitation, refrigeration, and surgery, much less even a rudimentary understanding germs, nutrition and disease processes. The worst infant mortality rate today for children under five is 28%. What chance would a two-year-old with classic autism have in, say, a 12th century peasant family in northern Europe? Or a west African hunter gatherer clan? Furthermore, he conflates classic autism, which comprises one-third of the autism spectrum, with higher functioning forms such as Asperger’s syndrome. Blaxill’s “evidence” is ludicrous, sloppy, and dishonest.

But good enough for Fox News.



20 responses so far ↓

  • 1 isles // Oct 18, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    It’s not exactly impressive when somebody like Leary spouts off about a topic on which he is ignorant – even though, for heaven’s sake, this was going into a BOOK and you’d think at least a couple of people had the opportunity to say, “ummm, about this bit…”

    But when Mark Blaxill, whose full-time job appears to be promoting the idea of an autism epidemic, insists on ignoring the consensus of everybody who knows anything about autism, that’s beyond pathetic — it’s invidious.

  • 2 Jeff P // Oct 18, 2008 at 9:53 pm

    Regarding Denis Leary – this is what I had to say to him:

  • 3 Kerry Maxwell // Oct 19, 2008 at 1:05 am

    I don’t remember that part of Bill Hicks’ act? He sure was ahead of his time!

  • 4 Lisa // Oct 19, 2008 at 6:03 am

    ahhh… actually I think Leary learned PLENTY from Michael Savage. And others are learning the same: when you call out autism parents you get NATIONAL coverage for a tiny, unimportant little show/book.

    and when autism parents get riled up, Jenny McCarthy and all the other autism celebs get their 15 minutes of fame, too.

    in fact, I’m just off to blog on that very subject.


  • 5 David N. Andrews M. Ed. (Distinction) // Oct 19, 2008 at 6:59 am

    i think i know why Leary’s stealing Savage’s material… Bill Hicks is dead, so he can’t steal it from him anymore….

  • 6 Steph // Oct 19, 2008 at 7:01 am

    Sigh……I’ve just been looking into the uproar over Denis Leary’s book. As the mother of an autistic child, my initial reaction was, well, not fit to be posted here! :o) However, after a second or two, I realized that this man has no impact on me or my family, probably knows absolutely nothing about autism and therefore, his comments are not worth the paper they are written on.

    I would like to think that it was a thoughtless comment but it’s not as if he writes something and it is published the next day. Surely the book was proofread and edited, etc., etc. So somewhere along the line, someone would have said something to him about the chapter. The fact that he chose to leave it in makes a HUGE statement about his compassion (or lack thereof) for others.

    But, I digress. The bottom line (for me anyway) is that this man has no impact on my life whatsoever. I don’t know him nor is he any part of my life. I won’t be buying his book and I really don’t care what he says about autistic people or anyone else for that matter. I sincerely doubt that this is the first group he has insulted.

    I took the time to post this in the hope that it might make someone else feel better. It is often a knee-jerk reaction to let someone like Leary upset you. All I’m saying is just stop and realize that it doesn’t have to.

    If I have offended anyone, I am truly sorry. I honestly hope that this post might put Mr. Leary’s relevance to the world into perspective.


  • 7 Anonymous // Oct 19, 2008 at 9:22 am

    I am so disappointed with this. I have enjoyed Leary’s comedic work in the past. This, I do not enjoy, I do not appreciate. I’m getting tired of people deliberately and vigorously stirring the shit like this to get publicity.

  • 8 Line Please // Oct 19, 2008 at 9:47 am

    “Proving that there’s plenty of ignorance to go around, a Boston Fox News affiliate turned to Mark Blaxill, a biased and ill-informed anti-vaccine activist for a “fair and balanced” view on Leary’s skewed world view.”

    I just watched the video. As mom begins to explain their observations of apparent regression, she seems to stumble slightly at one point. Dad immediately provides the line, “slip away”, and mom repeats that and continues. It was almost like a well-rehearsed monologue, but that she simply forgot her line and received it from the wings.

  • 9 autblog // Oct 19, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    Line Please, good catch. I thought I heard that one, too. Blaxill and his fellow travelers are masters at playing gullible journalists.

  • 10 Joseph // Oct 24, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    It’s ridiculous for Blaxill to counter Leary’s misinformation with more misinformation. It’s like arguing against a global warming denialist by using the predictions of a psychic.

    It also makes no sense to suggest that the reason Leary is wrong is because there’s an epidemic of autism. Suppose Leary had said the same thing of, say, children with Down Syndrome. Would it be OK then because there’s no epidemic of Down Syndrome?

  • 11 Tanners Dad // Oct 25, 2008 at 7:17 am

    Open Letter to Autism Speaks… Time to unite…Tighten the belt…Time for the real fight….Are you for our children or against them?

    Dear Autism Speaks,
    The parents are fighting for our children. Autism speaks is fighting a good fight of awareness. As we become the squeaky wheel and the focus of everyones attention we must find common ground and unite to complete our mission. I feel we must unite. A divided front accross so many different organizations is only hurting our children. It is time for us to find a middle ground. It is time for us to demand the research that was requested more than a decade a go. It is time to see results. There are researchers who have been working with grant money for more than 20 years on Autism research and have produced nothing. Yet they are now getting grants in the 10, 20 and 30 million dollar range. It is time to ask for performance. It is time to ask the question… What happens in 10 years when all these children become adults?

    It is time to tighten the belt. If the AIG incidents have taught us anything it should be this. Tighten the belts. Never again should planes show up on annual reports. Never again should black ties be required. Every penny spent on luncheons, kick offs, give aways, gift baskets, and even rent. The Parents are going bankrupt. Do you see that? It is time to tighten the belt.

    The Autism society is quickly coming a society of have and have nots. Some parents have the chance at ABA therapy. Some parents do not. Some parents have therapies paid for by inurance. Some do not. Some parents are advocates for a safer vaccine schedule and safer vaccines. Autism Speaks seems to advocate for the government (All vaccines on time no exception). Some groups have black tie affairs. Some groups sit at home and clean up feces.

    Even Bob Wright said in October …

    …The last vaccine Christian had before he regressed was MMR – that’s why my daughter concentrates on that. I don’t know whether his autism is linked: it was certainly coincidental, what we don’t know is if it was causal. Nor do we know whether the thimerosal (the mercury-based preservative used in vaccines) is a factor, although mercury is clearly poisonous. Governments want to run from that issue but they should become more aggressively involved. They have to follow children through to see if there are any effects.

    It is time to choose sides. It is time to choose our children. The Government has more than enough resource to defend their never ending policy of mandating more and more vaccines. Do you speak for Autism or do you speak for the pharmaceutical companies?

    Are you for our children or against them?

  • 12 HCN // Oct 25, 2008 at 10:19 am

    Anyone still advocating the dead and buried vaccine/mercury/aluminum/toxin-du-jour autism link is against all of our children with special needs.

    Advocate for more valid educational and support research.

  • 13 Joseph // Oct 26, 2008 at 8:09 am

    “What happens in 10 years when all these children become adults?”

    @Tanners Dad: Are you saying this is the first generation of autistic children who will become adults?


  • 14 Tanners Dad // Oct 27, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    So do you think this is the first generation left to fend for themselves… I hear from parents daily in dire straits…. My son right now is 15, 001 on a wait list for services. People have to die for him to move up the list. Canada’s Autism society just made a PSA asking people to help fund programs for Autistic Adults.

  • 15 HCN // Oct 28, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    You did not bother to answer Joseph’s question. Why?

    This is not the first generation. Previous generations were institutionalized, or worked on their own (have you heard of Temple Grandin?).

    If you read what I wrote, you will notice that the focus has to be taken away from the vaccine/autism myth and towards the more realistic support in education, and of course, employment.

    My 20 year old son was put on the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation list when he was 15 years old… he is just now getting those services.

  • 16 Tanners Dad // Nov 1, 2008 at 5:47 am

    This is the first generation with out a plan of care and support. I agree with you that there were places to send the “Simple folk” away to. Now there is a lot more and no where but the street to send them.

    You can be a lot smarter than the Temple Grandin comment… You debase your holier than thou scientific arguments by stooping to such tactics.

    I advocate on all fronts. I advocate for more valid educational and support research. As a society we need to hold accountable the corporations that caused the dramatic rise. I only focus on the mainstream medical and big pharma because they have the most dollars and in my mind the most likely link to the 1 in 6 children with cognitive deficits. They should pay. Let’s assume they are not to blame. Why don’t they step up and support the autism community… Pay us off so they can continue making billions of dollars?

    At this point we can not even agree that there is a dramatic rise. You would think that would be the first step the government would take. The whole situation with angry parents would go away if there were some support programs in place and protection for these children’s future and present… Did you see the Florida Taser story this week?

  • 17 autblog // Nov 1, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    I only focus on the mainstream medical and big pharma because they have the most dollars and in my mind the most likely link to the 1 in 6 children with cognitive deficits.

    Where do you get this 1:6 figure? Are you referring to the distribution of data on a bell curve?

  • 18 HCN // Nov 3, 2008 at 9:10 am

    Maybe Tanner’s Dad want to live where ALL the children are above average!

    My issues are the focus on stupid reporters and blaming boogy men like “big pharma” are taking away funds/research/etc from kids like mine who are not autistic but need special ed. and educational supports. The vaccines are a non-issues, the medical, educational and employment supports are real issues.

  • 19 Tanners Dad // Nov 15, 2008 at 8:12 am

    I just want to live where my son could give me hug and say (write or type ) “I love you”

  • 20 Elhouma // Dec 19, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    ‘ that Laureys’ team was using FC. Are you trying to mantiain the illusion that Laureys is not associated with the method being used in the news video? I think you have a pretty weak case if you are trying that move.First, if you read my email question to him, I clearly state my assumption that the communication method for Houben ( observed in a news video’) was developed by your research group.’ Not only does Laureys not take the opportunity to correct my stated assumption, but he actually states that the method will (future tense) be dealt with via the scientific press’. Pretty hard to question my inference on the basis of that, isn’t it?Second, you neglected to mention Laureys’ endorsement of the method being used in the article you just cited above. Now, as we can all see in your posts, you’ve set the bar of civility and politeness pretty high, Jeffrey, with your example of respectful, collegial, and well thought-through conclusions and graciously worded responses, so I will avoid the temptation to accuse you of being dishonest for failing to mention some additional relevant information in the article you just linked to above. It was probably just an oversight, since you are such a busy man, but if I can direct the audience’s attention to just a bit further down in the article, it states, The spectacle is so incredible that even Steven Laureys, the neurologist who discovered Mr Houben’s potential, had doubts about its authenticity. He decided to put it to the test. I showed him objects when I was alone with him in the room and then, later, with his aide, he was able to give the right answers, Professor Laureys said. It is true. ‘ So given this statement by Laureys, I cannot understand why you would still want to live in denial that Laureys’ team is not endorsing what we see in the video.Caplan made his hasty statement after watching a video, the article states, and then went on to say that such mode of communication has been descredited time and again when people look at it.’ The trouble is, what is going on in the video was tested and it was not falsified. Caplan made this statement on the basis of a few seconds of video footage while failing to do his homework on Laureys and Houben. Thus Caplan, professor of bioethics, has done something that is unethical. If one is going to publicly mock another person, accusing them of ouija board stuff’, then ethics demands that such a person do some very careful research on the case before lumping it in with quackery. In Houben’s case, Laureys did test the method which is based upon small muscle movements. That is what science does. Wouters’ claim (that Houben’s small muscle movements in his finger, and his ability to pull back when a mistake was made, enabled her to accurately translate those muscle movements into keystrokes) was set up for possible falsification by Laureys’ test. Whole prosthetics are designed to work on the basis of small muscle movements. If you will take the time to look at the FC article you linked to, you will see that this does not fall into the category of examples that fail when tested. This was verified when tested. In science, you can test claims and that was done by Laureys in this case. I would imagine that the next step for Houben is to have a prosthetic device built that can translate Houben’s small muscle movements into larger, more controled movements that can include, among other things, at least self-directed, one-finger typing without any human assistance at all. I also fully expect that there will be a paper forthcoming on this method, on the basis of Laureys’ email to me.So it seems to me, Jeffrey, that you have to concede:a) that Laureys tested the method by setting it up for possible falsification (described in the most recent article you linked to above), and the method was verified and,b) as a result, Laureys publicly endorses the method, as mentioned in the same article.

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