By Kent Heckenlively
I recently spent three days engaging my "inner geek" by attending the California Science Teacher's Convention in Sacramento. For most people I'm sure the highlight would have been the closing speech by the hosts of Mythbusters, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. But for me the highlight was the speech by professor Kevin Padian, curator of the University of California Museum of Paleontology.
Professor Padian was one of the chief expert witnesses in the Dover trial in which a local school board was trying to adopt a creationist textbook. Now I should probably confess I've been an evolution freak since the age of three when I fell in love with dinosaurs. My job as a science teacher gives me free rein to talk about such issues and also get paid for my eccentric interests.
I don't have much energy for attacking creationists, being a Catholic, and knowing our own tumultuous history of trying to mix faith with science. Although I went to a Catholic college with a Galileo Science Hall, it would still be several years after I graduated that the Catholic Church finally rescinded his excommunication. After a couple centuries wrestling with the issue I think we've come up with a pretty good formulation that "science without faith is blind, and faith without science is lame." I believe in God (I'm actually a eucharistic minister in my parish) and science, but they live in different zip codes.
What really interested me in professor Padian's talk was the masterful way in which he showed multiple lines of evidence for the turning of a fin into a foot, the development of feathers in theropod dinosaurs, and how whales went from land to water animals. Then he said something about creationist arguments against evolution which I felt went to the heart of why so many of us don't trust the medical authorities when it comes to the vaccine-autism issue.
He said that creationist arguments against evolution are "science stoppers" because they discourage the efforts of the human mind to understand evolution in all its complexity.
With voluminous accounts of parents detailing how the problems of their children began after a vaccination it's nothing less than a crime that the medical authorities stop the science by claiming that the question has been "asked and answered." Nothing could be further from the truth. They have refrained from doing the type of population studies of vaccinated and unvaccinated populations which might yield promising information. How about also doing extensive biological studies of their immune systems to see what is going wrong?
The medical authorities like to portray themselves as "science against parents", but in truth they have failed to do the science. They're like the creationists claiming that autism is beyond the capability of humans to fully understand and that our questions are somehow "heresy" against the existing order. I know my daughter's seizures, her inability to speak, and various motor development problems have a biological basis. If the medical authorities truly cared about autism they would have given our kids every test in the book as well as developing a whole host of new ones to get to the root of the problem. They have not.
Because the question of autism hasn't been fully answered I've been following with great interest the controversy in the chronic fatigue syndrome/ME community over whether the retrovirus XMRV is involved in the condition. I think this is an important question as a retrovirus might explain a number of the immunological conditions involved in chronic fatigue syndrome/ME. Detection of a retrovirus has always been difficult as the history of HIV demonstrates, but this is an extremely interesting development. My interest is also personal as my daughter, my wife, and mother-in-law have all tested positive for this virus. A recent poster presentation at the 1st International XMRV Conference showed in a small study that 82% of children with autism tested positive for this retrovirus. Children with autism and those with chronic fatigue syndrome/ME share many common immune system abnormalities.
Like everything in science this information needs to be chased down and confirmed. It was with some surprise I discovered my two articles on XMRV had become the partial subject of a blog which was critical of my even talking about this subject. You're welcome to read this blog HERE. I thought it would be appropriate to respond as my two articles were the subject of at least part of the post. I was respectful and pointed out three points I felt the author had left out.
1. The XMRV study by the collaboration between the National Cancer Institute, the Cleveland Clinic, and the Whittemore-Peterson Institute had been confirmed in a study by Dr. Harvey Alter, co-discoverer of the hepatitis-C virus and winner of the Lasker Prize for medical research, equivalent to the Nobel Prize in terms of prestige.
2. Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institute of Health, and leader of the Human Genome Project, had opened the recent 1st International Conference of XMRV and stayed for 75% of the session, clearly broadcasting his interest in this issue.
3. The governments of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and most recently Great Britain have banned blood donations from people who have ever had chronic fatigue syndrome/ME. I doubted these countries would have taken these steps without a well-founded concern about the possible connection between XMRV and chronic fatigue syndrome/ME.
I made these points in a cordial fashion and waited for them to show up on the website. They didn't. Apparently it's okay for them to criticize the articles I write, but not okay to let me respond. Instead, my answer came in a comment posted by the editor of the website. I have reproduced it in part below:
"Note to Kent Heckenlively: Everyone is welcome on ERV. Billy Dembski. Casey Luskin. Even Lenny Horowitz. I filter most comments from a certain 'CFS' forum, because the members are clearly mentally unstable, and I dont think its ethical to provide them with a fixation.
But you sir, are not welcome here, you sick f***." (Last word edited for a family audience.)
I'm really not sure how to respond to this and I don't encourage any of you to go over there and post any nasty comments. It really isn't worth your time.
But I worry about "science stoppers" like these web-sites, although I believe their reach is probably extremely limited. I think of the wonderful people I've known in science and how they would never engage in such rude behavior.
Instead I'd like to share a story told to me by one of the senior science teachers in our district. He recalled being present at Lawrence-Livermore Labs when the legendary Dr. Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb was brought to view the National Ignition Facility, where 192 giant lasers would be focused on a BB sized particle of hydrogen fuel in an attempt to generate nuclear fusion.
"What do you think you will learn from this big machine?" the aged scientist asked the director of the facility.
The director gave a long-winded answer to the question.
Dr. Teller listened politely, then addressed the director in his thick, Hungarian accent, and said, "No! You have no idea what you will learn!"
In the face of such suffering in both the autism and chronic fatigue syndrome/ME communities I would urge those who might question our efforts to express a little humility in the face of all those things which remain unknown.
Kent Heckenlively is Contributing Editor to Age of Autism