June 20, 2007

Democrats and bad science, part 2

What actually got me going this morning was seeing this loony garbage by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the supposed connection between vaccination and autism. There are a number of parents groups who believe that their children's autism resulted from the mercury content in the standard vaccinations administered to children before the age of two. Apparently, there is some pending lawsuit on this matter, so has turned up in the news a bit recently.

The whole situation is pretty unfortunate. Basically, the way autism works is that the child starts out normal and healthy, making progress in a completely ordinary fashion, learning to speak, getting along with siblings and animals and all that. And then somewhere between age 1-2, abruptly slides backwards into wordlessness and anti-social behavior. Prior to the age of 2 also happens to be the time where children recieve a good deal of their vaccinations. As a further potentiality, it is not uncommon for children to respond adversely to vaccines sometimes.

Therefore, looking at it from a statistical perspective, there will be a certain number of cases where everything starts out normally, then the child is vaccinated, gets sick for a while, and then, by the time they've gotten over the vaccine effects, has begun progressing into autism. And given a large enough sample of people, it would almost be unusual if a bunch of parents who are distraught, upset, and irrational in the first place didn't make some kind of connection between these two things. It is only natural. At this point, the nutty, poor-understanding-of-medicine people step in and ride the parental anguish as far as they can by coming up with bizarre connections justifying what they already want to believe. Unfortunately though, there is no connection between vaccination "mercury containing" or otherwise and autism -- and it isn't for lack of looking. No causal link has been demonstrated in any of the epidemiological studies testing for a relation. Denialism blog has a thorough takedown of RFK Jr. of his wretched article.

By coincidence, I had heard a program about this on NPR last week, and I was very impressed by the moderator's decisive portrayal of these bogus claims as bogus. Not the usual "both sides deserve equal representation" approach that is so disasterously wrongheaded when it comes to reporting on global warming and creationism. Instead, they basically went into what causes these folks to hold these unsupported views and reassured jittery parents that it is far more dangerous to not vaccinate a child than to ignore a bunch of know-nothing cranks who feed on the ill-deserved respect of frustrated people.

But these kind of poorly thought out health scares aren't restricted merely to random outliers like RFK Jr. Walk into any Whole Foods, the modern-day fortress of American liberalism, and tell me how many different kinds of echinacea they have in stock. I'm betting it's more than 5. And who knows how many types of bottled water. Do you think those crystal healing types voted for Bush? I don't think so. Again, it isn't like there is some party plank about delivering herbal remedies to all taxpayers, yet to pretend that politicians who support good science are supported only by clear-headed people who actually know what good science is, is pretty naïve. As a group, they are definitely better than the alternative, but I am growing less convinced that it is a systemic phenomenon when it comes to general non-religious quackery.


RFKJr. said...