You know, I have very well developed ‘just stay out of it’ instincts – as a kid, older siblings would fight, people start yelling, and my self-preservation instincts kick in, and I whistle off into the corner and mind my own business.
Those instincts have failed me.
There’s just way way way way WAY too much (understandable) emotion running high in this issue. People are not rational. Even those trying to be rational are usually wrestling a tiger just off-stage. And I have tons of sympathy – If any of my kids were autistic, it would be really, really hard to be objective.
What I’m getting at: my feeble attempts to look at the evidence, look at the methods, and pronounce science or Science! on the web on this issue are so doomed. So, so, doomed. So, with any luck, this will be the last thing I’ve got to say on this topic.
Dr. Stacy Trasancos has responded to Dr. William Briggs’ analysis of Theresa Deisher’s paper on the link between vaccines and autism. I was struck by how little effect Dr. Briggs’ criticisms had on Dr. Trasancos take on the paper. In a very restrained and polite way, Briggs pretty much ran it through the wood chipper: in Aristotle’s famous phrase, her premises are false and her conclusions do not follow. So, he’s calling bad science on the paper. Politely, precisely, as a complete gentleman – but damning it nonetheless.
In my foolish hope to keep things cricket, I tried in the comments section to point this out very gently, as follows:
Thank you for this post, and for turning to Dr. Briggs for analysis. However, it seems to me that you missed a couple significant points in his criticism.
First off, I’m an educated layman – my first love, back in grade school, was science, but I pursued philosophy and a little math in college. So my understanding and analysis tends to be more conceptual than anything specifically related to the domain. I’m the anti-Bones: I’m a philosopher, not a doctor. And I’m a father of 5, so I get the importance of this question.
So: a key point in Dr. Brigg’s analysis is that the paper does not make a critical distinction between *incidents* of autism from *diagnoses* of autism. This is, in itself, a hopeless flaw – do not pass go, do not collect $200. One cannot conclude that the increase in diagnoses is representative (entirely, partly or even a little) of an increase in incidents. May be. May not be. One certainly can’t tell from this.
Yet, you repeat that claim – that incidents of autism are on the rise – here in this post. It may very well be true. But it may not. One would certainly never know based on this paper – no valid conclusions can be drawn from it one way or the other. That’s not good science.
Second, based on this paper alone, it is incorrect to say that Dr. Deisher is doing good science. This paper presents very poor science: good science doesn’t include the methodological problems and poor use of statistics present here, as Briggs explained. She may do very good science elsewhere, but not in this paper, based on Brigg’s analysis. Aside: the very poor quality of medical research in general is not an excuse for this – just because Dr. Deisher’s paper looks good in comparison does not make it good in itself.
This is getting long, sorry. Couple more things:
It’s pretty clear that there are really only two general approaches to answering the question: does vaccine X cause autism? 1: experiment on children (I’m against this); 2: select a large pool of people who are sufficiently homogenous in all ways except that some have taken vaccine X, some have taken some other vaccine, and some have taken no vaccine. Then establish a very specific consistent protocol for diagnosing autism, and have every person in the pool so assessed by a third (blind) party. Then check it out: do those in the group who took vaccine X have a higher incidence of autism, as diagnosed using a single consistent independent method, than those in the other groups? If so, there’s a correlation in the real world between autism and vaccine x. Causality could only be established once we have a tested theory, but the correlation alone would be enough for *me* to decide to not use vaccine X. Such a study would completely outweigh and obviate Dr. Deisher’s paper.
Saying “Wakefield was discredited” is like the British calling WWII “the late unpleasantness”. Understatement doesn’t do it justice. if I weren’t morally obliged to oppose the death penalty, I’d want him hung, drawn and quartered.
With all this in mind, this post still seems to have a bit of the ‘she’s a saint, therefore her science is good’ vibe about it – otherwise, why mention what a wonderful human being Dr. Deisher is? No doubt, she is wonderful – but if we’re going to discuss science, perhaps it would be best to leave such information out?
Thanks, keep up the good work.
Yep, I even threw in a ‘keep up the good work’ – I’m referring to the rest of her blog, the few bits of which I’ve read are, in fact, good work. But that was weaselly, in retrospect. The particular post to which this comment was appended wasn’t good work. It was actually kind of frightening, coming from a scientist.
Then, in the comments, Simcha Fisher rolls out the 75s and lays down withering fire. I think the screen was smoking as I read it. And, in retrospect, she’s, well, right. What Dr. Trascanos is saying is an embarrassment to both science and Catholics: that criticism of the science needs to take into account who is making the claims, and if that person is good and on the right side, we cut them slack for their science.
It doesn’t get any wronger than that. Lysenko standing on his head.
Now, off to whistle in the corner.