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Olmsted on Autism: I Know, Michael, Footnotes are No Fun.

Ibid By Dan Olmsted

I’ve written a couple of times about Michael Specter’s book, “Denialism – How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.” One chapter makes short work of people like us, nutcases who simply refuse to bow to established scientific wisdom that all questions about a link between vaccines and autism have been “asked and answered.” You’ll probably recognize that as a Paul-Offitism, both pithy and profoundly wrong, and one of my points about Specter’s book is that – inadvertently, I’m sure – he copied a large text block straight out of Offit’s attack on the Vaccine Court decision in the Poling Case.
Specter made a few other howlers that suggested a serious lack of familiarity with the issue, a failure besetting so many who wade into these waters; in particular, he said parents were behind the decision to phase out thimerosal from childhood vaccines in 1999. Actually, that was the government’s doing, with no parental pressure whatsoever. Yet Specter takes off in high dudgeon after folks like Jenny McCarthy, whom he deplores for using her growing prominence to “preach her message of scientific illiteracy and fear.” I’m afraid it’s not Jenny from Playboy who’s scientifically illiterate on this topic – it’s Michael from the New Yorker. Strange but true.

I also pointed out that Specter’s book, published October 29, did not contain footnotes. Of course, some books don’t need them, but a work like this that turns solely on who’s right and who's quacky – on the truth and nothing but the truth --  needs ‘em bigtime. No argument from Specter there – on the book’s Web site, he posted a link, “View Footnotes,” at the top of the home page. When I clicked there back when I started badgering him, it said “Footnotes coming soon.” (HERE)
Hey, guess what, it still does! Let me tell you, being in the final stages myself of a book on autism co-written with Mark Blaxill, footnotes are a pain. At the moment, our book has 707 of them, and as we’ve gone over it we’ve see the need for a few more, not less. I had to learn all kinds of stuff I’d rather not know – things like “author, article in quotes, journal title in italics, year;number-issue:page numbers.” And is it an Ibid, an Op Cit or an Et Al? And how many authors before you get to Al? And is the period after the et or the al or the op or the cit? Or all? Ad infinitum.

Many fine minds have been destroyed, and backs and shoulders put into painful positions, by leaning over piles of documents, looking for studies you were certain appeared in the International Journal of Toxicology -- or was it Pediatrics? Just to add to the merriment, my Word for Mac program started putting the footnotes in Roman Numerals. I’ve got to find some button to push somewhere because I can’t decipher dcxxxix.

But footnotes are stubborn things, too. They take time, and they make you revisit material you may have last seen months before. They’re sort of a built-in fact-checking mechanism. I can’t believe how many times I dropped or misplaced a word or two in a long quotation, or didn’t get the affiliation right or even mangled things worse than that. Going back over everything, word by word, fact by fact, is a very useful discipline.

So now my back aches in a new place and I’ve gone mad, but readers will have what they need to judge our arguments based on the same evidence we've used to develop them. This, if I follow the idea correctly, is the foundation of scientific literacy.

Looking forward to those footnotes, Michael.

Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.


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Dan & Mark, thanks so much for taking the time to do footnotes. And I look forward very much to reading your book!!

I didn’t have much time to post comments earlier this week, but I just want to mention that there were so many good articles. Thanks so much Dan, Katie Wright, Martin J Walker, J.B., Anne Dachel, Jake Crosby, John Stone, Laurette Janak, Kim, Teresa Conrick, Chantal Sicile-Kira, and I probably forgot someone!

As for Michael Specter, it’s pathetic that someone who professes to be so science-oriented is so sloppy. The rest of my comment on Michael Specter and Trine Tsouderos is being censored but is something like this: @#$%$&@*(#)%%*##@...

It's not as if Specter couldn't have found a lot of crap references to stuff his book with. One of the reasons that pharma cranks out so many ghost-written junk studies is to provide shills with citation-fodder. Barring that, bad science writers and journalists can always rely on how few people actually read study texts. They can reference studies which don't support their arguments and hardly anyone will be the wiser.

But why would Specter even trouble himself that far? "Denialism" targets the lowest denominator of readers: other bogus journalists, people in the medical profession looking for a propaganda soundbite manual and clueless members of the public who are drawn to bolstering their biases and fears. Clearly the target audience are those who like being flattered that they're part of a "club" of skeptics. That's so popular on the web these days-- people who identify themselves as "skeptics" of this, that and the other. But what kind of club of skeptics can do without... footnotes and references? Funny.

Mr. Specter is simply a certified member of our vaccine opposition. People in his category never have to show scientific proof of what they say. In the Church of the Immaculate Vaccination you simply have to memorize the catechism of the Prophet, Paul Offit. Everyone on the other side is just dead wrong, no matter how many hundreds of footnotes they produce.
Specter wins adoration from his congregation
While we waste hours on mitochondria and methylation.

Its ok friends- You'll leave him behind in the dust soon enough. The tides have to turn sooner or later. Since I have followed autism- 11 years now- Ive watched as time after time the parents of the autistic kids are right on the issues and the health authorities are wrong- Hope someone has the time to write an article on that one day.

Thank you Dan for bringing up the topic of footnotes and references. I am one of those picky people who continually look for the source from which the authors obtain their information. I frequently track down the articles cited in a study, obtain the full text and read these supporting papers to see if they are being correctly interpreted. I have spent about 4 hours a day for more than 10 years now reading published papers on a variety of health related subjects. I found Paul Offit’s book frustrating because it contained so much that was just opinion and unsupported by referenced published literature. In fact I found cases of his opinions being directly opposite of what is in the medical literature. I am sorry that it takes so much of your time to properly reference the material you write about but you should know it is so greatly appreciated by people like myself.

Thank you for taking the time to do it right! I look forward to your upcoming book.

Laurette Janak

Specter is the journalistic equivalent of "Mister Bungle."

Watch for 1:45 into this video and see for yourself:


As you'll see:

1) Specter's a puppet - just moving his lips while someone else is talking.

2) His "hands are dirty" (his facts are incorrect) and "his hair is messy" (he's totally unprepared to deal with the scrutiny he's under due to his myriad incorrect facts)

3) Instead of "getting in line" and citing references and being thorough with footnotes, he just pushes all that aside and busts through with this ridiculous pile of garbage called a book - facts be damned.

4) Like Mr. Bungle, Specter is "so clumsy" with the truth and the facts that he knocks everything over including his own good name.

5) Kids don't want to be like Mr. Bungle. And teachers give kids an "F" when they turn in papers like Mr. Bungle-Specter's too.

Really the only difference between Mr. Specter and Mr. Bungle is that Specter has a twistedly odd and polite way of addressing all his oversights and mistakes in all his writings. Other than that, he is Mr. Bungle.

Hacks don't do footnotes. Mr. Specter is a sad example of the state of American higher education.

Footnotes on the vaccination issue? The last thing established "healthcare" wants right now is the facilitation of independent research on this "greatest modern pharmaceutical advancement," especially now that it is being used without any caution, and without regulation, and never mind that for some reason pharmaceutical use and industry profits are simultaneously at an all-time high. Don't confuse correlation with causation.

Can't wait! When will we be able to pre-order the book from Amazon? Please let us know!

I was very careful about footnotes for papers in college. You'd better believe I'd be careful about them in something as important as a book, that, hopefully lots of people read, and not just one professor.

Where is Specter's pride? Is he not the least bit embarrassed? I sure would be. In fact, I'm afraid I'd still be hiding in my bed from embarrassment, although I know that wouldn't be a healthy approach.

PS - Thanks MB for posting that response from Specter. Very helpful.

Hi Dan. Thanks for reminding us these guys don't do their work! How nice to have a link to a blank page of footnotes. Who pays this guy to not work?

How interesting to examine Specter's deja vu "errors"-

From your past post - Specter's email to you:


" My fault, egregiously, but plagiarism? I started out quoting him extensively, and then stopped quoting him to insert some of my own stuff. Picked back up on those sentences AND SHOULD HAVE put them back in quotes, writing ..... Offit continued. etc. I didn’t. I was purely a mistake (stupid) and I will get it fixed as soon as we reprint (they do it on a rolling basis. could be very soon.)
......I don't think you can read this chapter, or the acknowledgements, or the notes, and come to the conclusion that was my intention. (Had it been, maybe I would have been smart enough not to point the reader to the very NEJM story I was supposedly plagiarizing in that very passage.) Also, might have been kind of dumb to steal outright from the best known writer on this subject, and a person I have interviewed at length."

and from MB's post - Specter's August 7, 2007 rebuttal:

"The short answer is I screwed
up; a longer one would, I hope, make it clear to you that there was
no plagiarism in the mistake or the story. Spamhaus was of
course a major source for the information in that part of my story and at some point during the two months I worked on the piece I pasted their description of spam “supermarkets” into the text, giving them proper credit. Later I moved the sentences around, and in doing so I
separated that material from the attribution – which, while absolutely
improper, was not intentional. I suspect I didn’t notice my
error because I had learned the information from several other sources as well. I hope it is obvious to you that if I had wanted to pass off a sentence from somebody else’s work as my own I would have never
pointed readers toward Spamhaus at all, let alone in that same paragraph."

Specter can't even come up with new material regarding himself. He plagiarizes plagiarism.

I just do not understand how Spector, the no-count d-bag, is such a visible presence in mainstream media (Jon Stewart seemed besotted with him!!??). His topics are asinine, trite, and impulsively written. What does he do? Nothing of value, just BLOVIATING!

Thank you Dan and Mark for the hard work you put into questioning these insignificant nothings, who confuse my by their very presence.

I can’t wait to read your upcoming book. Remember, footnotes and proper citations are a turn on!

The thing about Michael Specter, it that this is nothing new for him:


Michael Specter says:
August 7, 2007 at 2:04 pm
Dear Ms. Seebach:

I saw your blog entry on my Spam piece in last week’s New Yorker and
wanted to let you know what happened. The short answer is I screwed
up; a longer one would, I hope, make it clear to you that there was
no plagiarism in the mistake or the story. Spamhaus was of
course a major source for the information in that part of my story and at some point during the two months I worked on the piece I pasted their description of spam “supermarkets” into the text, giving them proper credit. Later I moved the sentences around, and in doing so I
separated that material from the attribution – which, while absolutely
improper, was not intentional. I suspect I didn’t notice my
error because I had learned the information from several other sources as well. I hope it is obvious to you that if I had wanted to pass off a sentence from somebody else’s work as my own I would have never
pointed readers toward Spamhaus at all, let alone in that same paragraph.

Spamhaus hands this information out freely with the hope that it will be publicized. Nonetheless, I am not in the habit of reprinting white papers, press releases or anything else without letting readers know where the information came from. I should have put that sentence in quotes, or quoted one of the other people who told me the same thing or otherwise made it clear how I found out what I knew. It was sloppy, I regret the mistake and appreciate the fact that you noticed.

Michael Specter
Staff Writer
The New Yorker

This is to support Dan Olmsted in his comments especially in response to all the blase nonsense that autism - vaccine links have been raised and answered. They very definitely have not been answered in any practical sense. In the UK it is virtually impossible to find an unvaccinated autistic individual in three millions who have had no childhood vaccines. I believe that in addition to the Amish and Homefirst etc., that Nevada County California will have a very low prevalence of autism because of low take-up of vaccines. Similarly there are other countries where low rates of autism are found.

Would it not be a worthwhile project to establish autism rates in various jurisdictions and compare to take-up figures of vaccines as a whole. All this stuff about MMR, DPT, Hib etc., is simply providing a smoke screen to the gung ho vaccine promoters. PS I am not anti vaccines but I believe in fully informed parental decisions about major medical interventions that carry risk.

Tony Bateson, Oxford, UK

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