By Dan Olmsted
It was frustrating, but in a weird way fascinating, to sit through the House subcommittee hearing on the federal response to autism this week, and to hear Tom Insel lecture members of Congress – he called it a “teachable moment” – about the scientific method, why duplication is actually replication and must never, ever be second-guessed by laymen, even the ones who sign his paycheck, and how “exciting” – I really got tired of that word – all the advances in the field have become.
He even noted that there were 30 percent more abstracts this year than last at the IMFAR conference, as if this unnecessary proliferation of entities (see Occam’s razor) was a good thing, rather than evidence that the autism industry is in self-perpetuation mode and dipping a finger in every honey pot on offer.
Why, it’s a model for scientific research, Insel said of federal efforts on autism. No one has ever brought more interagency coordination to bear on any medical problem, ever. Stand by for cause and cure! But first, we all must get out of the way and let real scientists do their work.
Partway through I began thinking of another pompous, pointless, profoundly mistaken exercise that nonetheless reeked of authority and expertise. It’s a book Mark Blaxill and I have written about, titled The Modern Treatment of Syphilis, published in 1943 by Hopkins professor Joseph Earle Moore. Here’s what we said about it in our own book, The Age of Autism:
“Up to the very last moment before the arrival of penicillin, syphilis experts claimed extraordinary progress with ever more sophisticated applications of heavy metals (mercury very much included) and fever therapy. At Johns Hopkins, Dr. Joseph Earle Moore’s Modern Treatment of Syphilis included a chapter on the virtues of mercury treatment with numerous unattributed statistics and extravagant claims about the benefits of heavy metals and the dangers of leaving syphilis untreated.”
More about mercury in a minute, but the point here is how gasbags with credentials and completely wrong ideas can hold sway right up to the moment when their whole enterprise collapses.
I think Insel is about there. “The science is moving so quickly,” he said. No it’s not. The Government Accounting Office report he was so dismissive of, with the help of Rep. Gerry Connolly, a real bullelly, nailed his misguided obsession with genes, the genome, genomics (however you pronounce it – clueless subcommittee Chair Mica wasn’t sure), and his fatuous claim to be looking for the environmental triggers now clearly driving the autism epidemic.
Everything is converging on the second trimester of pregnancy, he said, as the moment when something goes wrong. No, it’s not. It’s converging on the first two years of infancy when, as so many parents testify, many children regress in clear response to vaccination.
Even in that narrow prenatal window, Insel said, “what the culprit or culprits are we still don’t know.” Yes, we do – one of them is surely mercury flu shots during pregnancy.
That’s the irony about Joseph Earle Moore and his syphilis book, running on about the wonders of arsenic and mercury treatments the year before penicillin made his work irrelevant. Medical mercury, as we’ve shown, triggered the worst kind of syphilis – general paralysis of the insane, an affliction as awful as it sounds – but medicine never acknowledged it. Once penicillin came along, they just added the wonder drug to their “march of progress” and ignored the centuries of death and destruction caused by their own ”modern treatment.”
Similarly, Insel brushed off the gallant Rep. Posey by asking how long we want to go on “banging on” vaccines and mercury as a potential player in the rise of autism, and citing the new meta-analysis (read: garbage in, garbage out) of a million kids that once again showed no link between vaccines and autism.
Insel did say that a big sibling study of 35,000 families is due in three months. It will look at the autism rate of subsequent unvaccinated siblings in families with a vaccinated autistic child (that is, parents who in the government’s opinion were stupid enough to believe vaccinations made that first child autistic and didn’t vaccinate the rest of their kids). He offered to sit down and go over the results with Posey, who ought to bring a bodyguard, a lie detector, a B.S. deflector, and a Geiger counter to the meeting.
I do feel a bit more sanguine about the hearing than some I’ve talked to, possibly because I don’t have a child who’s affected by this ongoing inanity. From a journalistic perspective, a lot got on the record, including Sallie Bernard’s recent article on the environmental basis of autism from which Posey read a substantial excerpt.
Once again, he mentioned “international scumbag” Poul Thorsen and the hand he had in studies that were just “meta”-reviewed to show no link between vaccines and autism.
Best of all, Insel was shown once again to be the best and the brightest the medical and scientific establishment has to offer on the modern treatment of autism. That is not a compliment, and I don't think the hearing was the teachable moment he was imagining. But it certainly was a learnable one.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.