Pseudoscience rears its ugly head

2009/05/21

Given the recent and high-profile focus on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) and the fact that there is no conclusive evidence to show what causes it, I suppose it was inevitable that the snake oil salesmen would start crawling out of the woodwork. [1] I find it somewhat suspect, to say the least, that none of the major proponents of this new treatment regimen are certified in specialty treatment of ASDs, and while Eisenstein is a practicing family doctor, neither of the Geiers are (one is a geneticist, and the other has a “degree in biology,” whatever that means). Why any rational person would listen to what these three have to say is beyond me, though I suspect that I have already answered my own question: reason does not appear to be the primary consideration on their victims, er, patients’ minds.

Of course, this naturally begs the question: why should my opinion matter in this case, given that I do not even possess any professional medical knowledge? Well, for starters, I can read; shocking, I know, but this ability makes it easy to access professional information that I do not possess myself. See the links below for official information from the CDC regarding ASDs, vaccine safety, and thimerosol. [2][3][4] Now, of course, I realize that this only makes a difference if one actually accepts that the CDC is a source for reliable information; given that there are people who are willing to completely ignore centuries of medical and scientific knowledge, I suppose this will not constitute a compelling argument for such individuals. And, of course, the fact that the very definition of ASDs is continually evolving makes it much easier for proponents of such pseudoscience to make their sensational claims – and get away with doing so. [5]

Part of the problem here is that Autism, for all the intensive focus on it lately, is a developmental and behavioral disorder – that is, the diagnostic criteria is primarily subjective. As with most such disorders, there are no objective scientific tests (such as a chemical marker, for example) that can conclusively indicate that a child suffers from the condition. According to the CDC, there are also at least three conditions (one of which is non-specific) that fall into the broad category of ASDs; similarly broad categories exist for other behavioral conditions, [6] and such conditions are often of unknown origin, as well. Considering that so little is actually known about these sorts of conditions (and, indeed, about what the basic criteria for diagnosing the disorder are), it seems premature, to say the least, for anyone to claim that they have the “miracle” cure – before the condition is fully understood, no less!

I do not mean to sound insensitive about this (or any other behavioral) condition, but partaking of unproven treatments based not on true scientific merit, but upon claims that merely say exactly what these parents want to hear is a recipe for disaster. That such charlatans prey on the instinct that often renders parents most vulnerable to suggestion (namely, their desire to alleviate the suffering of their children) makes their actions that much more despicable. I truly hope that, should such a place actually exist, there is a special place in Hell for those who make these sorts of claims, particularly if the treatments they espouse prove to be harmful.

Notes:

[1]: Chicago Tribune article, 21 May 2009.

[2]: Overview of Autism Spectrum Disorders here, from the CDC website.

[3]: Overview of Measles, Mumps, & Rubella (MMR) Vaccine and possible connections to Autism here, from the CDC website.

[4]: Overview of Thimerosol use in vaccines here, from the CDC website.

[5]: I suspect that the category of ASDs called Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) makes it that much easier to make believable pseudoscientific claims about the disorder.

[6]: Bipolar Disorder (which I strongly suspect I have) is also considered a “spectrum” disorder, namely that there are many separate (but possibly related) conditions that fall into the broad category; there is also a Not Otherwise Specified (NOS) category, which encompasses conditions present in individuals who do not fit within the standard definition of the other disorders. See here for the American Psychiatric Association descriptions of Mood Disorders (including Bipolar Disorder).

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