June 6, 2012
| The Skeptical Outsider | Human beings are born pattern recognizers, part of
the repertoire of survival skills that separates us from the beasts. We are
programmed to spot relationships that we are looking for, sometimes when
they're not even there. This occasionally causes us to leap to questionable conclusions
that can wreak all sorts of havoc.
inability of the general public to distinguish between correlation and
causation—aided and abetted by innumerate journalists employed by
sensationalist media—has resulted in countless misfortunes, particularly when
unfounded “scientific” conclusions are transformed into policy by an unholy
alliance of advocacy groups, regulatory agencies, legislators, and the tort
bar. Add to this the logical impossibility of proving that something does not
exist once public alarm has been sounded—for example “sudden acceleration
syndrome” in the electronic throttle controls of Toyota vehicles—and you have a
recipe for hysteria.
are supposed to be trained to avoid these kinds of mistakes. That’s why a recent
study linking maternal obesity to autism is raising eyebrows across the
in the journal Pediatrics, the study
Metabolic Conditions and Risk for Autism and Other Neurodevelopmental Disorders,”
concludes that, “Maternal metabolic conditions may be broadly associated with
neurodevelopmental problems in children.” While this sounds like a pretty weak
conclusion, with lots of wiggle room to back down should future studies prove
contradictory, the press headlines screamed, “Autism Linked to Obesity!”
could be better for reporters looking to alarm newspaper readers than an
opportunity to talk about two “epidemics” in one story? Loop this alarm back
through advocacy groups, and watch funding agencies roll out the red carpet for
grant-seeking scientists looking to advance their careers by hitching a ride on
the crisis du jour. What are the odds that at least a few convince themselves
that they’ve found the connection they are looking for?
last time this happened the villain was thimerosal, a mercury-based
preservative once used in children’s vaccines that was fingered as the cause of
Autism. Thousands of lawsuits bloomed, driving the vaccine industry to remove
thimerosal from children’s vaccines despite the very real fear that this could
lead to increased bacterial contamination. Over a decade and many scientific
studies later, no causal linkage could be found. But by then, the damage had
been done. Residual misinformation continues to delude some parents into
avoiding vaccinations for their children.
a tantalizing epidemiological observation as worthy as many others that get
bandied about. Since thimerosal was removed from children’s vaccines, autism
diagnoses have increased by a factor of eight! Have you seen any articles
(besides this one, with tongue planted firmly in cheek) that have used this
undeniable fact to advance the theory that thimerosal prevents autism, and that removing it may have been a tragedy?
a closer look at the world of epidemiology-based autism research is like
traveling with Alice through her looking glass. Over the last 20 years Autism
diagnoses have risen from less than one per 1,000 children to over 10 per 1,000.
The media labels this an “epidemic” driving an increasingly frantic search for a
observational studies, like the Pediatrics
study quoted above, coupled with reliance on self-reported medical conditions (another
favorite of epidemiologists when they find it too difficult or expensive to get
their hands on objective data), pollute the scientific literature. Many of
these studies contribute little to our understanding, while they divert funds
from useful research into the fundamental nature of autism that might one day
lead to a cure.
a little known fact I stumbled upon while researching this column. The rapid
increase in Autism diagnoses over the past twenty years has been almost exactly
mirrored by a decrease in the number of diagnoses for Mental Retardation, a catch-all
label that covers a wide range of developmental disorders, some of which have
known etiologies and many of which do not. Could the entire autism “epidemic”
be simply a case of reclassification? You would think this perspective would
generate more sober discussion and analysis, although any public choice
theorist would predict that few grant-seeking scientists will be pushing this hypothesis.
children exhibit a wide range of affects and developmental behaviors that cause
concerned parents to worry. What can be
easier than reaching for a medical diagnosis that demands third party
intervention? A pill would be nice but expensive services will do, especially
if they are paid for using someone else’s money.
the advocacy group hate mail starts pouring in, no one would confuse a severe
case of Autism or Asperger syndrome with overwrought parenting. But when the
definition of a disease becomes an ever-expanding “spectrum disorder,” and an
entire public complex of interventional services becomes accessible to anyone
armed with a diagnosis, who’s to say where genuine illness ends and garden
variety oddness begins? Sometimes raising an unusual or difficult child just
takes patience and the understanding that every kid develops at his or her own
Bill Frezza is a Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a
Boston-based venture capitalist. He can be reached at email@example.com. If you would like to subscribe to his
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