Thursday, 20 September 2012

On Science, Journalism and Stupidity

So over thirty years, a hundred scientific studies, each one done on a thousand pineapples, have each said that pineapples are green.  A hundred thousand green pineapples over three decades lead us to the reasonable conclusion that pineapples are green.  Fair enough?

One guy comes along and publishes a poorly-designed article about the study of a dozen pineapples, done over a weekend in his flat, which claims pineapples are actually red.  It is possible that this lone maverick is a voice of truth in the wilderness, but chances are that it's a fuck-up.  Chances are that this lone maverick is a nob who just wants five minutes of fame, or some money, or to cause a controversy, or is simply too incompetent to realise s/he is incompetent (and let's all be thankful that s/he does not work in demolitions!)  The Theory of Green Pineapples, established over a hundred thousand pineapples, should ideally need a controlled lab study, leading to a peer-reviewed article, to overturn as bunk.  This standard is not grievously high if you have truth on your side.  This standard is not met, not even close, but the headlines start cranking out.  I'll post the real headline (within the context of this hypothetical example) in bold, and then how the headline should read in italics:




Let's take it further: the basis of the red pineapple story, the case study, was based neither on the scientific study of pineapples, nor even on the emergence of a red pineapple.  The study says, in a bunch of longer words than this, "Dave down the pub says pineapples are red, thus pineapples are red".  For a researcher, this is as close as you can get to lying without actually lying, and even then you can scarcely fit a Rizla between the two.  For a journalist who uses this study as a basis for scaring mothers with tales of evil red pineapples harming children, this is actually lying, and it is perhaps the most reprehensible lie that a journalist can tell.

Ladies, gents, and various points between, I give you the MMR Autism scare, based upon the red pineapples of Andrew Wakefield and his "mate Dave" (or twelve frightened and litigious mothers with no basis in science between them).  Whether the cause is genetic or to do with diseases or toxins your mother was exposed to pre-natally, autism is congenital.  It first shows symptoms at a year old, but you might just as well give your kid a jab at 12 months then blame it because the same kid was born with no ears.

I'm writing this grumble because I stumbled upon somebody today holding up MMR as a reason why science can't get it's story straight.  It pissed me off.  What pissed me off further was that, when I challenged this study, I was told "mothers know their kids.  Think how many babies were sent home from hospital, the mother being told the baby has flu and that she's being hysterical, only for the baby to die of meningitis when it could've been saved if the doctor had listened to the mother.  You can't just dismiss it when a mother knows something's wrong with her child."  Fair enough, there are enough doctors out there with a cavalier attitude to mothers, but this is not the same.  If a mother is in A&E with a sick baby, running a quick blood test to check for anything nasty is not likely to kill anyone; and to brush her off with paternalistic swagger without taking this basic step is taking a risk just for the sake of getting the mother out of your face, which is wrong.  BUT, that is not the same as using the word of twelve frightened mothers as the sole base of evidence for an academic study on the link between MMR and autism.  Even after I said this, I was told "But you're dismissing mothers, just like those doctors in A&E."  WHAT?!  Demanding that a study which will undoubtedly be used to establish causality contain at least some scientific basis for establishing causality is not "cavalierly dismissing the concerns of mothers", it is demanding a standard of evidence which can help prove or disprove the basis of those fears.

I'm on the autistic spectrum, somewhere.  As it's a spectrum, I'm hoping that I'm in the purple bit because I like purple.  I have many of the traits of Asperger's syndrome with a few of the traits of classic autism.  To clarify: I'm of the Inattentive And Ridiculously Inappropriate Bastard Who Flaps When They're Amused form of autism, rather than the Sitting In A Corner Banging Themself In The Head variety.  I say this not because it's particularly relevant to my argument, but for two reasons: 1) to defuse any complaint that I'm "picking on the disabled", 2) because on those occasions where I need to declare - such as when signing on or going through occupational health at a job - I absolutely hate it when the eejit taking the details asks "oh dear, were you vaccinated?"

The world of autism is getting bloody stupid.  We have, on the one side, doctors and mothers of kids with Banging Themself In The Head autism crying "we want a cure"; and on the other side we have young adults with my flavour of autism saying "we don't want a cure, it'd be nice for that lot, but don't force it on us, look to the social model instead".  This is all well and good, but when doctors then talk of detecting and aborting foetuses it gets really touchy.  Some want it, others don't.  Me, I like being alive!  I have a decent quality of life, I'm no strain on my family.  I see the world differently to you, I study and learn differently to you, and this makes me a more difficult student to teach within a system that is set up to teach neurotypical students, but that's about it.  All this makes me want to sit in my room with some music and some cake and just ignore the world.

But I guess we'll see where science takes us.  I'm off on holiday until Monday, so here's hoping Mike gets watered on the right days...

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