Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Mark Blaxill and Looking at the Data

Some people are pretty mad at Do’C and me right now. They are furious, because we wrote a critique and several follow-up critiques of DeSoto & Hitlan (2007). These authors noticed several data entry errors in the Ip et al. paper on mercury levels in the blood and hair. DeSoto & Hitlan point out these errors, but exceed this and use a new statistical analysis and argue for a reinterpretation of what these data mean.

On first glance this issue looks like a healthy textbook example of the corrective nature of science. That Do’C, myself, and others may not be happy about loosing a proof of what we support is irrelevant. Our first obligation is to science, personal feelings don’t play a part, or rather, shouldn’t. However, things aren’t so simple in this case. We noticed some genuine errors in DeSoto & Hitlan’s reinterpretation.

In response, to the problems we noted, we wrote out own critique. This angered DeSoto & Hitlan who posted a FAQ in reply to many of our points. Do’C and I studied the FAQ carefully, acknowledged a few errors we made, but then found even more errors in the DeSoto & Hitlan analysis. The really indisputable error (although maybe not the most important) made by authors was an incorrect reference of another article in their introduction section.

In a nutshell, the authors claim that an 11 month old boy was presumptively diagnosed with autism, until an actual diagnosis of mercury poisoning was made. This is not what those authors say; the reference is in error and we believe that this error deserves formal correction. A simple paragraph in an erratum ought to do the trick and could resolve this singular issue.

But DeSoto & Hitlan’s anger with us, pales compared to some advocates of the mercury etiology of autism theory. They seemed understandably pleased when DeSoto & Hitlan provided a critique of Ip et al., as the latter authors provided data that do not support the thimerosal theory. Imagine their annoyance, when we pointed errors in the “correction” provided by DeSoto & Hitlan. I have received maybe a dozen emails from different folks on this issue. Most were supportive some were critical, but tended to deal with either a novel form of interpretation of statistics or other issues not related to our critique. None were actually rude.

As our critique got time on other blogs, news sources, and forums, we began to pick up some ruder comments. No one has actually offered a rebuttal of our critique or subsequent follow-ups.

Enter Mark Blaxill. This gentleman is a well known advocate of the thimerosal etiology of autism theory. He has himself, written numerous critiques of studies he finds fault in. He and I both deal with matters of autism epidemiology and so, we have already bumped heads once or twice in the past, albeit in a polite, low key way. I had always considered him a gentleman.

But this time, Mr. Blaxill was evidently quite furious that we have a critique. Do’C and I were called “cowards” and “wackos” because we use pseudonyms, even though I use my real name as often as my pseudonym when online. He was so angry that he censored our names and Do’C blog name, when he quoted DeSoto & Hitlan.

I am not sure, why he did this, especially with regard to needing to censor the blog title. Perhaps he was worried about libel, or perhaps he didn’t want people to actually go read our critique; which is probably prudent considering that he calls our critique “trivial and unimportant” yet fails to even attempt to show how it could be seen as such.

I wrote to Mr. Blaxill politely expressing my displeasure at being called a coward and a wacko. This is the reply I received:

Jonathan,I called people who make unfounded attacks and don't use their real names cowards. Since you use your real name here, you shouldn't take the criticism personally. For those of your friends who choose to promote confusion and discord, if the shoe fits, wear it.

I have no interest in debating you or your friends. Your work is simply trivial and unimportant. If you disagree and think you have an important and valid critique of DeSoto's work, feel free to submit it to the journal editor.

More to the point, you have taken personal pleasure in advancing ideas that harm my child. You have described yourself with glee as "an evil ND enforcer." In an open society, you have every right to express those views in open venues of your own or those that will accept you.

But you are not welcome here.

This is the reply I wrote on his blog The Age of Autism, or at least attempted to write. Evidently Mr. Blaxill is not about to let it through.

Since my presence is not welcome here, this will be my last post. However, since you imply things about my character I think it is appropriate that I get to offer a final response; especially since I have always been courteous to both you and the authors in question.

I and others have been sometimes called names. It doesn't happen as often to me when compared to others, but it happens. Autism science is a contentious issue and being called bad names goes with the territory. However, I do find it to be an illogical and desperate strategy. When Kev posted t-shirts which were a parody of the all too common insults we hear mocking those of us with mainstream medical opinions in autism, I found it to be quite funny. I do not actually believe myself to be an "evil ND enforcer" nor do I wear terminator style sunglasses and carry around assault rifles, if I remember correctly what was on the t-shirt.

My statement does not mock children, nor parents who simply seek answers (whether or not they happen agree with me).

My statement does reflect my exasperation with personal insults that are rude, illogical, and ultimately... cowardly.

Thank you for your time.


Anonymous Ms. Clark said...

Whoa, well said. That's just amazing that he wouldn't let your response pass by their censorship of comments.... amazing.

And if Blaxill thinks that I'm hiding behind a pseudonym (he referred to my blogging pseudonym in his whining blog post) that's pretty funny since all of the mercury whack jobs know my real name and some of them have my home address and phone number... yeah, and I know they do because I've been harassed by them in my home, making me wish I had been more careful in keeping my real identity a secret.

I sincerely doubt Blaxill has dealt with ANY harassment from ANY "evil ND enforcers" (for one thing, they don't exist..."

1:30 AM  
Blogger Kathleen Seidel said...

I couldn't believe Blaxill's response to you. I can't think of anyone who regularly participates in online discussions about autism who is more consistently courteous when engaged in substantive debate than you.

His dismissive remark that "your work is simply trivial and unimportant" is simply wishful thinking on his part.

4:14 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...


I think that you and Do'C should write to the journal editor. Your concerns are not trivial, and the corrections to DeSoto and Hitlan are at least as important as the correction offered by D&H in the first place.

5:47 AM  
Blogger Alyric said...

This is beginning to look like the start of Interverbal's harem, or fan club if you will. Let me say that your response, which naturally Mr Blaxill does not want broadcast on the blogosphere, was exactly to the point with the coward compass pointed in the right direction. I really dislike censorship.

The desperation index among the militant militia seems to be rising looking at Olmsted's latest against Minshew. Is he seriously asking us, the audience, whether or not he is crazy? Well, not to put too much of a ding in the guy's self esteem , yes, it would appear so. It really was an oddly written piece.

5:50 AM  
Blogger Alyric said...

Agree with Jennifer - write to the editor. Seriously, there is so much junk in the literature that just stays there and gets cited over and over that should be removed and would be if there was an editor, a real one, actually doing his or her job.

5:53 AM  
Blogger Autism Reality NB said...

"This angered DeSoto & Hitlan"

Really? I didn't reading anything in the FAQ which suggested anger by DeSoto & Hitlan.

Perhaps I missed it. Could you point out the "anger" in their comments? I thought you two & DeSoto & Hitlan were having one of those internet autism rarities - a polite discussion of the issues and evidence in support?

8:13 AM  
Anonymous mayfly said...

Too many times ad hominem attacks occur on in blogs. This is often not by the posters of the main articles, but by the responders. In the responses DeSoto and Hitlan were accused of venality. It is very easy to conflate the responses with the main articles and thus have the blog owner take on the sins of the blog participants. Blaxill has done that.

There are certainly reasons to remain anonymous. People and their children have been subjected to the most vile attacks. However in remaining anonymous means no one can vet your credentials. When I want to know about the creation of the universe, I talk to a cosmologist. When I want to know how to live my life I talk to a preacher.

Of course vetting of a person is not as important as vetting their arguments. Blogs can be excellent places for this as long as the community is not averse to counterpoints. Communities often become self-riteous cults. Counter arguments are not welcome. Again this is not necessarily by the blog owners, and also does not pertain to this blog. Again I believe Blaxill was conflating what he has seen on different blogs and not necessarily about the DeSoto/ Hitlan paper.

How many arguments were advanced in the support of DeSoto/Hitlan in the responses. There were some that called for a stop of the character assassination of DeSoto (which was thankfully scarce overall, and restricted to a few posters). DeSoto herself posted saying that the Holmes paper controversy was not material. The setup and the methods were so flawed that the paper should only be used to instruct on how not to conduct research. DeSoto was saying, okay, suppose we throw that reference away, now judge my paper. I side with Desoto on that one.

There was also much talk about whether mercury is excreted via the hair. DeSoto never opined. I assume she thought it another red herring. She has a point here, but one that in the end nullifies her paper. If hair were the primary means by which mercury exited the body, then lower than expected levels would be significant. As it is, they tell us nothing about what happened to the "missing" mercury. Ditto for blood levlels. So any paper based on them tell us nothing as well.

The removing of the outliers, the switch in the number of "tails" were also brought up. I think first by Prometheus. The discovery of a reference to poor mercury excreters due to their failure to code glutathione-S-tansferase correctly, and their higher than normal blood levels strengthen the argument that low levels indicate the mercury excretion process is working well.

The above lends strength to the critique which to this layman was nicely done. Why not call Blaxill's bluff and submit it?.

I want to make clear I have absolutely no training in this area. Okay I took a course in biochemistry, and a couple in statistics,but that was decades ago.

10:36 AM  
Blogger daedalus2u said...

kathleen, "His dismissive remark that "your work is simply trivial and unimportant" is simply wishful thinking on his part."

I believe the correct term is "projection".


11:30 AM  
Blogger Joseph said...

Mark Blaxill is a total disappointment. At first I thought the guy had a real talent for coining catchy phrases. He came up with the infamous "hidden horde" and the "geeks who got lucky." He was misguided on both counts in retrospect, but coming up with those phrases seemed like a clever thing to me. If anyone would end up setting the mercury militia straight after the predictions of the thimerosal hypothesis failed to materizale, it would be Mark Blaxill I thought. Now, it would seem Lenny Schafer of all people might be closer to that.

Now he's been reduced to name-calling bloggers and behavior of that nature. It's unfortunate to see it.

As far as anonymity goes, a long while back I learned it's smarter to do *everything* online anonymously or psudonymously, for various reasons. I've been using the internet for about 16 years; that's before the web existed in practical terms. (And yes, initially I used my full name for everything.)

In the autism debates, it's definitely better to do everything anonymously, for well known reasons.

I wonder what Mark Blaxill thinks of anonymous peer review. I think there are very good reasons for it.

Removing blog messages, or not approving them without stating why, that's what I'd call reprehensible blogging behavior.

Finally, I'd tell Mark that he's hurting *my* child.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Joseph said...

Really? I didn't reading anything in the FAQ which suggested anger by DeSoto & Hitlan.

Really Harold? You missed, say, the all-caps paragraph?

BTW, I would assume a rebuttal should be forthcoming, considering that:

"The Autism Street "critique" has been quoted all over (today I saw it on a regular news website). People who read it will certainly be misled, and I care. Furthermore, I did not want my silence to be taken as any sort of concession that what is being said about our article is rational or correct."

12:35 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Hi Harold,

"Perhaps I missed it. Could you point out the "anger" in their comments?"

Certainly, it is in their use of all caps in certain sections of their FAQ. And in Dr. DeSoto's
use of sarcasm in her reply on the Autism Street blog.

"I thought you two & DeSoto & Hitlan were having one of those internet autism rarities - a polite discussion of the issues and evidence in support?"

Please note, I never said the coversation turned impolite. Being angry and being rude are not the the same thing. Also, a certain amount of mild sarcasm or irony is
usually allowed, even in the academic journals.

Hope that helps.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

The analysis of the DeSoto/Hitlan paper is certainly worthy of a submission to the editor. It was done in a very respectful tone and it raises real questions about their analysis.

I am quite disapointed that they have not responded to it. A comment that an erratum is in preparation would be appropriate. At the least, an update on their FAQ is in order.

As to Mr. Blaxill, it is unfortunate that the situation is left as it is. With luck, perhaps a more polite exchange can resume again.

10:53 PM  
Blogger Schwartz said...

I think the sarcasm of the DeSoto response matched the sarcasm of the original article. Neither was offensive, but either could easily lead to an angry response as sarcasm can do.

I don't understand why Mark wrote the article, and I had to read it twice to ensure that he was actually referring to the AS article and not another site.

However, several of the commentaries were quite offensive (and consisted of very personal attacks on the Authors), and as someone noted above, could be mixed up with the article itself.

As for Blaxill's response and the topic of anonyminity I find myself agreeing with Joseph again. I also have used the internet for about that length of time, and used my full name for a long time.

7:40 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Hi Schwartz,

"I think the sarcasm of the DeSoto response matched the sarcasm of the original article. Neither was offensive, but either could easily lead to an angry response as sarcasm can do."

Agreed, I am not knocking them for their comments. I only noted that they sounded angry. Being angry (within reason) is okay; so is some honest sarcasm.

Just to clarify my last statement....

8:25 PM  
Blogger Jorge Campo said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:38 AM  
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