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.