1/31/2011

Bias, Age of Autism, and Trine Tsouderos: Thoughts on Persons and Claims

Saturday morning I peeked., just a small peek, at AoA, and saw this: 
And I was intrigued. You know, that whole "admitting to total bias bit" had me cracking up. See, Age of Autism insists it is a "daily web newspaper" and its pieces (in which obviously no fact checking ever occurs) come up in the google news hits (a travesty, as you well know), and Dan "I used to be a UPI reporter until I got it all wrong about the Amish" Olmsted is completely biased (yes, a wee bit of snark). 


Tsouderos bases her conclusions on the mainstream consensus of scientific evidence regarding vaccines' efficacy in preventing disease and she's totally biased? Yes. In favor of reality. On the other hand Olmsted, who appears to have been a successful journalist ( former assistant national editor at USA Today),  was apparently by 2005, completely biased in favor of the idea that thimerosal was to blame for autism: "Both reporters believed that Olmsted has made up his mind on the question and is reporting the facts that support his conclusions" (Schulman, 2005). This, of course, completely explains why he's the editor of the anti-vaccine rag Age of Autism and the writer of some truly tortured logic in his book of the same name, doesn't it? After all, Schulman, in 2005, managed to get this bit of honest self-examination from Olmsted: "He admits that his findings are not scientific. 'I could be getting a completely wrong impression from what I’m finding, but it’s interesting,' Olmsted told me."  


Olmsted's last piece for UPI, where he was a senior editor, was in July of 2007. In it, he wrote that "United Press International, which has been the hospitable home for this series, is restructuring, and I'm off to adventures as yet unknown -- although I intend to keep my focus on autism and related issues." He admitted that he would continue to focus on autism because "it is the story of a lifetime." He rebuts the reporters in Schulman's piece who argued that Olmsted's mind was made up: "Actually, my mind is made up about only one thing: Both vaccinations and autism are so important that definitive, independent research needs to be done yesterday -- and the fact that it hasn't should be making more journalists suspicious."


It's abundantly clear, though, that Olmsted's biases in favor of thimerosal causing autism and in his embracing of vaccines as being dangerous have only grown over the years. He began his quest in 2004 and he's been dogged ever since. He's more than willing to embrace anything in vaccines, too: "The still-rising autism rate might be related to some other aspect of the immunization schedule as well -- timing, age, total load or other ingredients." 

And yet he seems incapable of fact checking. He condones (since he's editor)  pieces on Age of Autism that are blatantly factually incorrect. As editor he condones comments (that were moderated, meaning one of those three editors had to read and approve) that argue that vaccines are a eugenics program. 


Journalism is supposed to be about reporting on the facts, right? Here's what we know about the story...here's what we can verify. Here's the truth as close as we can get to it. And yet, time after time, we see in the media abysmal attention to the details and a really piss-poor ability to reason. And nowhere is this more on display than the daily newspaper of the autism epidemic (and CBS's Sharyl Attkisson, lest we forget that the ability to completely butcher scientific research findings is not restricted to AoA and Fox News).


Trine Tsouderos's article for the Chicago Tribune is an opinion piece. Perhaps this escaped the esteemed Olmsted's renowned attention to detail? It's not a news article. It's an opinion piece. And it's one that at least rests on accurate facts. Tsouderos has demonstrated what investigative reporting is all about. And it's not because she agrees with me, although it certainly helps when two people can read the scientific literature and consensus reports like the IOM's 2004 report and show comparable reading comprehension skills. Because at one level, that's what this boils down to: reading comprehension skills.


That's harsh, yes? No. It's really not. People who believe fantastical things like governmental and industrial conspiracies that are worldwide? Really? People who believe a case series of 12 kids or 14 monkeys over well-designed studies that looked at autism rates in over 2 million kids?
As I commented at the Tribune in response to someone who thought folks should not read Mnookin or Offit's books but was instead pushing the new book Vaccine Epidemic (which just became available) , who should we trust: 


Evidence-based books, one of which is by a well-respected, credentialed infectious disease expert or a book that features a chapter by someone who really believes that the thimerosal in some vaccines and the aluminum salts in some vaccines mix explosively in the blood? Yeah, no brainer, that one. 
It does, in fact, boil down to reading comprehension skills. Oh, and actually reading the material. Apparently, there are folks in the anti-vaccine community who don't bother to read the evidence. Talk about a bias. They just accept Age of Autism's assertions as being factually correct without bothering to actually read the IOM or other relevant materials. They encourage people to not read the actual science; they instead condemn it as a product of corrupt governmental and industrial conspiracies to cover up the autism-vaccine link . No, instead read Handley's butchering of it at the 14 studies site. Because we all know Handley and facts go hand in hand.


So we've got reading comprehension problems, we've got an unwillingness to read the actual evidence ( you know, like the Fitness Panel on Wakefield; instead let's just believe he's too darn handsome and charismatic to be dishonest, fraudulent and in it for the money), and we've got complete biases to believe pseudoscientific claims and the anecdotal testimonials of parents who know what they know, saw what they saw, even when it can be demonstrated that what they've known has changed over the years. Internet trails are right bitches, is what I'm saying, and the vagaries of memory are impossible to escape; once you know the science on memory formation, memory rewriting, and self-justification, you can't help but hold memories of events with some amount of skepticism. Some of the anti-vaccine advocates even have to resort to rewriting their own blog posts on how they realized their child was autistic, and move from noticing the similarities in the husband and the child in terms of traits to insisting it was a vaccine reaction. And the rest is history.


Don't believe Trine Tsouderos's articles because she agrees with what you've already decided. And don't dismiss her articles because she disagrees. Do the hard work and read the evidence itself. 


We've all got to decide who's the authority we can reasonably rely on to relay accurate information. No one can be an expert on everything, and it's tremendously shattering to realize some of the authorities we put our trust in will be wrong. It's a betrayal, and you know exactly what I mean if you've ever gone to a doctor who's made a mistake in your care or a loved one's care. 


People who rely on reason to make major decisions don't put absolute faith in anyone. They realize that mistakes happen, that people are fallible, and that sometimes people screw up. They don't then throw reason out the window. As an example, let me offer this, in reading Mnookin's book The Panic Virus, I've discovered two errors on two consecutive pages. Now, just because Mnookin got it wrong and wrote that Bettelheim was a medical doctor and confused Freud and Jung as behavioralists doesn't mean everything is wrong in his book. Even the most carefully researched pieces may have errors. Adopting a cautious approach and fact checking before I believe without evaluation is a reasonable approach. That's what footnotes and endnotes are for. I can go examine where the writer got his information and I can check to see if it was relayed accurately. Now, granted this takes a lot of work that most people aren't willing to do. So what do you do? You hold beliefs gingerly, you look at consensus documents, you still hold conclusions gingerly, and you remain willing and open to go where ever the science goes.


You don't rely on Olmsted, Attkisson, Tsouderos, or Mnookin for what you think. You look at their supporting evidence. It isn't the person making the claim: it's the claim itself.

3 comments:

Joeymom said...

Reading comprehension and reasoning skills are a problem, but also an understanding of scientific method. When people scream "You haven't proven vaccines don't cause autism!" I just want to run screaming into the night myself.

A proper hypothesis is always written in the positive: "The hypothesis is that there is a link between autism and vaccines."

Then you gather your data. Then you look at the data and form a conclusion.

"The hypothesis that there is a link between autism and vaccines is not supported by the data."

You can't prove a negative. You disprove the positive, and you only can say it is disproven when the results are replicated, preferably multiple times in properly designed studies and/or experiments.

Gah!

chavisory said...

Agree completely with Joeymom--we do not teach science very well at all. We need to be *starting* with scientific method and scientific reasoning--as it is (or was when I was in school, and that wasn't all that long ago), those things only come in advanced classes after most kids have already quit science in boredom or frustration.

Sheldon said...

Martin Walker said that the parents weren't allowed to testify at the GMC hearing. Brian Deer says it is a lie. Of course it is a lie. but there is no documentary proof.

I've go the transcripts. Mrs. 12 testified on day 28. Foolish me, I thought that closed the issue. No, apparently youtube and what people say in interviews brings the issues into question.