A Touch of Alyricism

Dedicated to the equally fascinating topics of autistic advocacy and the 'sisterly sophistries' of radical gender feminism. Other topics may occasionally crop up. Contactable at alyric@gmail.com


Polemicist since Grade 8

Monday, July 18, 2005

Objectively Speaking

Au courant in Humanities departments is the idée fixe that all knowledge is socially constructed, including scientifically generated knowledge. Objectivity, the foundation stone of science and the scientific method cannot really exist either, because that would imply that there was some kind of external truth out there that really is independent of the observer. So, since the very concept of objectivity is threatening to the careers and prestige of thousands in the social sciences, it is vital that the definition of the term be co-opted to mean something quite different. Rather than a concerted effort to exclude factors that ought not to influence the analysis of data, the gold standard being the double blind trial, two luminaries in the critique of sciences field have come up with alternate epistemologies.

The first to attempt this was Sandra Harding with her concept of ‘strong objectivity’, a tenet of feminist standpoint theory, which argues that since Science, from its inception, has been the province of dead white males, it is hopelessly corrupted by patriarchal notions. Hence, the only way to cleanse this house of knowledge production is to take the standpoint in all scientific questions of those who have heretofore been excluded from the enterprise. Thus, the wholesale introduction into scientific research of people of colour, of non-Western background and women would lend a truly ‘objective’ basis to not only the questions Science would ask but the way it would go about answering those questions. Gross and Levitt in their aptly named ‘Higher Superstition’ do a very thorough job of debunking such thinking ( page 130 – 134). Suffice it to say that when asked what feminist standpoint theory had contributed to Science, Harding replied that we now know that PMS is not a disease.

Dr Jennifer Keelan of the University of Toronto, boarding the bandwagon of the current furor over the link between autism and mercury preservatives in vaccines, has come up with her own version of objectivity with an article titled Democratic Objectivity: Citizen’s Science and the Immunization-Autism Imaginary. Keelan rests her thesis on the assumption that here are two warring factions with merely different but equally valid perspectives. She writes

Democratic Objectivity share many of the normative values that separate science from pseudo-science, such as peer review, independent testing, laboratory modelling, controlled trials and meta-analysis of data.

Presumably the reader confronting this issue for the first time will have a better grasp, a more objective view of the subject, if they examine both perspectives and that would be true if these perspectives were equally valid and paid equally serious attention to the scientific principles of peer review, independent testing, laboratory modelling, controlled trials and meta analysis of data. This is demonstrably not the case and something that Keelan is quite well aware of considering the lengths she goes to give the ‘Citizen’s Science’ a facsimile of credibility. Taking these criteria in order we find the following.

Peer review:

It is the mechanism of peer review that underpins much of the objectivity of Science. If your peers can find the flaw in your argument, data or methodology and you cannot further justify your case, then one can conclude that Science has advanced and you have not. Therein lies the difference. In Science as distinct from this ‘democratic’ model, it matters not a whit who the researchers are, apart from their credentials (which indeed may not contribute at all), it matters what the data say. For some reason it appears that in much that passes for research in the soft sciences, peer review is seen as the hallelujah chorus. Thou shalt toe the party line. And the Citizen’s Brigade proves to be a good example of that, even if some of their advocates are real scientists. Consider Professor Boyd Haley of the University of Kentucky. In his response to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) critique of the Citizen’s Brigade, one would expect the scientific sort of peer review process; an appeal to the data. Professor Haley’s argument, which basically says that the IOM dismissed all the research without justification stands in beautiful contrast to the IOM critique of just that research. The report reads:

However, the studies by Geier and Geier cited above have serious methodological flaws and their analytic methods were nontransparent, making their results uninterpretable, and therefore noncontributory with respect to causality

What could be clearer than that? And this is just the bare bones of the Executive Summary. For the real meat, the reader is directed to the full report, which is free and available to any member of the public who wants to read it.

Apart from implying that it must be especially galling for members of the American Association of Pediatricians to have been pipped at the post by parents in discovering the autism epidemic (what epidemic?), he then uses the specious argument that since the Madsen study showed a protective association between thimerosal and autism that there must be some sinister reason why those countries have not re-instated thimerosal as the preservative of choice.

Independent Testing,

It would be reasonable to say that the problems faced by the Citizen’s Brigade begin and end with a lack of independent testing, judging by the testing organisations cited by the Evidence of Harm list on yahoo and by the rather incredible vested commercial interests of the major proponents. It is a commonplace for the Citizen’s Brigade to cite their offspring’s elevated mercury levels in hair, yet this is quintessential quackery. The Geiers make their living out of being ‘expert’ witnesses in vaccine damage cases, though neither is actually qualified to do so. Dr Boyd Haley is the one-third owner and founder of Altcorp, which tests for heavy metal toxicity and provides testing material for heavy metal testing.

Far more reprehensible is Keelan’s blithe rendering of pure unadulterated snake oil as merely direct marketing of credible alternatives. Thus the chelation regimes touted by the Citizen’s Brigade including the likes of Rashid Buttar’s chelation cream are given by Keelan a legitimacy they patently do not deserve. In Buttar’s case it amounts to outright fraud, since it is doubtful that the active ingredient in the cream can be absorbed. Dr James Laidler, was at one time a proponent of the autism=mercury poisoning theory until he looked at the chelation regimes and realised that they were unworkable. His critique of the whole can be read here.

Gross and Levitt argue convincingly that critics of science should know something of the subject they critique, if they wish to be credible. Keelan’s rather obvious ignorance of what constitutes Science and what is outright quackery demonstrates that her whole enterprise lacks legitimacy.

Laboratory Modelling

Here, the Citizens Brigade have for the first time strayed into legitimate science with Mady Hornig’s laboratory modelling of the effects of thimerosal on genetic strains of mice. But Hornig herself admits that this does not prove a link between thimerosal in routine vaccinations and the development of autism and even more damningly she writes:

We have limited ability to explain the interplay of such factors in humans; consider the example of the disparate cognitive outcomes reported in children in the Faroe Islands and the Seychelles after similar prenatal methylmercury exposures. The reasons for this divergence remain unclear.

As the IOM pointed out:

Although this model uses thimerosal and is possibly more relevant to the discussion at hand, it assumes that autism is caused by an autoimmune reaction. A previous section discussed the lack of evidence of autoimmune-mediated CNS damage in the brains of patients with autism.

In other words, it’s an intriguing study, but is it germane to the argument that thimerosal can cause autism?

Controlled Trials

One wonders just what Keelan’s background in Science is that she is unaware that there are no controlled studies in support of the Citizen’s Brigade. The IOM report is comprehensive:

Epidemiological studies examining TCVs and autism, including three controlled observational studies (Hviid et al., 2003; Miller, 2004; Verstraeten et al., 2003) and two uncontrolled observational studies (Madsen et al., 2003; Stehr-Green et al., 2003), consistently provided evidence of no association between TCVs and autism, despite the fact that these studies utilized different methods and examined different populations (in Sweden, Denmark, the United States, and the United Kingdom). Other studies reported findings of an association. These include two ecological studies4 (Geier and Geier, 2003a, 2004a), three studies using passive reporting data (Geier and Geier, 2003a,b,d) one unpublished study using Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) data (Geier and Geier, 2004b,c), and one unpublished uncontrolled study (Blaxill, 2001).

Meta Analysis

We already know what Science thinks of the Geier’s meta analyses. The courts have expressed similar sentiments. However, no discussion of this topic could be complete without some description of the meta analysis conducted by Robert F Kennedy Jr. Quoting from Kennedy’s article Deadly Immunity:

According to transcripts obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, many at the meeting [Simpsonwood} were concerned about how the damaging revelations about thimerosal would affect the vaccine industry's bottom line.

There follows a list of the most appallingly out of context, and misleading quotations in the annals of meta analysis. The truly awful extent of it has been catalogued by Skeptico here.

Keelan is uncritical of the meta analyses that underlie the conclusion of the Citizen’s Brigade that the ‘autism epidemic’ is caused by thimerosal containing vaccines. That there is an epidemic is treated by her as a given, a faux pas that would be completely unacceptable in scientific circles. Dr Morton Ann Gernschbacher et. al, have written the definitve rebuttal to the notion of an epidemic of autism - Three Reasons not to Believe in an Autism Epidemic.

There are multiple flaws in Keelan’s article, most stemming from the a priori hypothesis that scientific knowledge can be ‘democratic’ in the sense that two opposing camps have equally meritorious arguments. Distortions are inevitable in the course of making the data fit the hypothesis, some quite serious as the following shows.

While the CDC and the FDA acknowledged that the broad spectrum of symptoms described after mercury poisoning was analogous to autism,

This statement is unreferenced, perhaps not surprisingly so, as it is totally false. Never would a reputable organisation lend its name to such arrant nonsense.

Far from being a sterling example of democratic objectivity, Keelan’s thesis more closely resembles the social stampede model in pursuit of El Dorado - there’s gold in them thar ‘ills.