Sunday, November 11, 2007

Dealing with Criticism

On of the occupational hazards on blogging on science issues, is that some people will disagree, and not just disagree but they will frame the disagreement with some teeth. Bloggers of science issues, tend to deal with this in various ways. Some of us take mom’s advice and “don’t argue with an angry person”. Some people make fun of the dissenters. Some people offer one liners and snappy rebuttals. Others try to sincerely answer the points.

It’s tough to know what the right response is. In the autism realm the issues often concern deeply personal issues like the health of one’s children. Emotions are inevitably going to run a bit high in such circumstances.

I am really not sure I know the best response in such cases. However, it is my choice to attempt to deal with such disagreements by trying to tackle the issue in a serious and calm manner. To do this I have to take the criticisms seriously. I have to acknowledge that perhaps the criticisms contains merit even if couched in ad hominems. I then can scour the criticism for merit and see if any is actually contained.

With this in mind let’s take a look at some feedback I received on another autism blog that contains a different view towards science and evidence. My responses are in gray.

“Such a one trick pony with one line of thinking. Its like all you ND types just can't get past the small stuff. The California incidence rates are going up and to you that means Kirby is wrong and Jenny is wrong and there is no autism epidemic and.. you win somehow [snip].

Well I admit I do tend to worry about the details. It is in the details that we find the difference between physics and metaphysics, between science and pseudo-science, and certainly between good math and bad math. And math is the very basis of epidemiology. No math, no scientific epidemiology.

Kirby did claim the autism CDDS data should be/are dropping in response to the removal of thimerosal. So did the Geiers and several other advocates of the thimerosal etiology of autism theory. If this is what they have claimed I think it would be reasonable to put the claim to the test. In fact I am going to insist upon it. Of course none of this proves that there is no autism epidemic. What this proves is that one of the tests offered by several well known advocates isn’t going in their favor.

“The longer the bullshit stays in people's minds (and the internet is where most people used to get info on autism), the more time that insurance companies can stall on calling autism a medical condition and not a pre-existing genetic condition, like down's syndrome.”

This is called the argument from adverse consequences. The fact that some people disagree about causes or cures, has no ability to make criticisms of these untrue, just because such dissent might slow down insurance companies handing over money. In addition it needs to first be proved what the causes and cures are, via valid science. If you don’t have this, then you are engaging in circular reasoning.

“Just looking at your blog, anyone can see how narrow your thinking is. Here is gow you interpret that data. The autism rates in California are going up and mental retardation rates are also. There is an epidemic of autism and it is environmental (a likely culprit is mercury since it is sill in vaccines given to pregnant women and to babies at birth and is in the air, and pesticides - don't you already know this?). If you cannot see that then your are stupid or evil [snip].”

For use to recognize an epidemic we need to first know the rates of autism before and after an event or period of time. The high prevalence of a disability does not an epidemic make. In this case we would have to measure the same thing in the same way in the same area. Incidentally this has been done on a small scale. Chakrabarti & Fombonne (2005) measured autism in the same way in Staffordshire England in the early and late 90s. They found the same prevalence rate.

Are you proposing that thimerosal which has been removed and was formerly found in several pediatric vaccines, is now not only being equaled in terms of the autism it causes, but actually exceeded, via a single prenatal vaccine? That claim is possible, but seems quite extraordinary.

As to the air, ice cores show that mercury air levels where the highest in the years following the eruption of Mount St. Helens where tons of the mercury laden mineral, cinnabar were vaporized. So, why didn’t we see a spike in 1980-1981? It should have been there if air mercury levels are a statistically notable influence.

And where else might the mercury be hiding… computer screens, lights,
cinnabar… crematoriums, Chinese forest fires? After a while it become a shell game; is it here, is it there, keep your eye on the mercury. I think before science can give you the answer you seek, we would first need to know exactly what we should look for. We need to have a firmly defined independent variable. That’s what the advocates of the thimerosal etiology of autism need to agree on and then research. In the absence of this, we are playing a shell game. I think recognition of this is the difference between keeping an open mind, and not keeping so open a mind that the rain can slip in.

“There are stories on ABC on Biomed for f@$%’s sake now, a company that is practically swimming in Pharma money. Can't you see it is over for your little team. Why argue with ---- ----? He is the least of your worries. Better clean up you blogs and remove the insults to parents helping their kids and the denial of an autism epidemic or you will be erasing hate mail 24 hours a day from the flood of new autism parents [snip].” [edited for language and anonymity]

Yes, there was a biomed advocate on Oprah. This talk show host has also had psychics and assorted non scientific practitioners of alternate medicine on her show. That’s because Oprah interviews people who interest herself, or her audience. Time on Oprah, is simply that. It is no proof of the scientific validity of a theory. Also at roughly the same time Jenny was on Oprah, a major correlational study, Thompsen et al. (2007) came out. The authors showed no association between thimerosal dosage and adverse cognitive effects.

Why is it do you think, that the advocates spend more time talking about a fellow advocate on a talk show than the what a large study indicates? What are values are reflected here do you think”

As to my blog, I don’t believe I have any insults that I have written to anyone, parent or otherwise. If you find an insult that I have written on this blog, please notify me and I will apologize and then remove it promptly.

As the theory of the autism epidemic, you first need to prove there is one, something neither yourself nor anyone has done yet. If you would like to offer irrefutable proof or even a minor proof, you are welcome to post it.

I have never yet received hate mail or even hate comments at Interverbal. I tend to advocate polite even if heated conversation. As an alternative to hate mail you may wish to try that instead. I suppose that if I really did receive hate mail I would consider it as more of a statement about the author, then about myself.

Thank you for your time.


Blogger Joseph said...

Where did you find him? Is he going to show up here for live discussion about his views?

The California incidence rates are going up

There is no good evidence that they are going up. However, it's clear the number of young children accepted to CDDS under a category of "autism" is going up. This might indicate the number of diagnoses are going up. Completely different things.

Critical examination of existing data reveals we cannot conclude an actual incidence rise is occurring.

4:09 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Hi Joseph,

This was on the blog H.A. I doubt s/he is going to show up. I wanted to give a flavor for some of the disagreements that happen in autism science blog discussion.

4:20 PM  
Blogger isles said...

You have so much more patience than I ever could! I appreciate your levelheadedness.

5:03 PM  
Blogger Club 166 said...

I love your use of patient, reasoned discourse to explain things.

Unfortunately, reasoned discourse has a hard time competing with irrational, emotional slogans and promises of instant cures in the public marketplace.

I think we need some catchy scientific slogans.


12:20 PM  
Blogger Fore Sam said...

"...needs to first be proved what the causes and cures are, via valid science. If you don’t have this, then you are engaging in circular reasoning."
The proof is all over the place. Refusing to accept it is the lie.

9:50 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Fore Sam,

Others and I are looking for real proof. We want peer reviewed, controlled studies. We want well designed epidemiological research.

If you don't have it, then you don't have it. And if you insist that post hoc, ergo propter hoc logic is valid and that so many people belive, ergo it must be true, then this isn't the blog for you.

Good luck to you.

10:01 PM  
Blogger KeithABA said...

club166: "I think we need some catchy scientific slogans."

HAHA, awesome. I am officially putting you in charge of coming up with them (although I know not where this authority comes from).

what do we appreciate
an independent variable
that we can manipulate

GOOOOOOOOOO Scientific Method!

How's that?

11:03 AM  
Blogger Schwartz said...


You are one of the only ones I know that actually reacts to posts like that this way.

Most, if not all of the others inevitably reply with anger, and thus taint their own arguments with insults, ad hom, or other flawed arguments.

Unfortunately, I have also witnessed many intelligent writers get into bad habits like that themselves, so when a good argument actually comes along, their initial response is pretty poor. It's only human... I can be guilty of the same, but your approach is much more disciplined, and thus you are less likely to get into the bad habits and get caught.

Even if I don't agree with all of your choices, I still respect your attitude.

12:07 AM  

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