Damned Heretics

Condemned by the established, but very often right

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Qualified outsiders and maverick insiders are often right about the need to replace received wisdom in science and society, as the history of the Nobel prize shows. This blog exists to back the best of them in their uphill assault on the massively entrenched edifice of resistance to and prejudice against reviewing, let alone revising, ruling ideas. In support of such qualified dissenters and courageous heretics we search for scientific paradigms and other established beliefs which may be maintained only by the power and politics of the status quo, comparing them with academic research and the published experimental and investigative record.

We especially defend and support the funding of honest, accomplished, independent minded and often heroic scientists, inventors and other original thinkers and their right to free speech and publication against the censorship, mudslinging, false arguments, ad hominem propaganda, overwhelming crowd prejudice and internal science politics of the paradigm wars of cancer, AIDS, evolution, global warming, cosmology, particle physics, macroeconomics, health and medicine, diet and nutrition.

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Many people would die rather than think – in fact, they do so. – Bertrand Russell.

Skepticism is dangerous. That’s exactly its function, in my view. It is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that’s why there is a great reluctance to teach it in schools. That’s why you don’t find a general fluency in skepticism in the media. On the other hand, how will we negotiate a very perilous future if we don’t have the elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge, especially in a democracy? – Carl Sagan (The Burden of Skepticism, keynote address to CSICOP Annual Conference, Pasadena, April 3/4, 1982).

It is really important to underscore that everything we’re talking about tonight could be utter nonsense. – Brian Greene (NYU panel on Hidden Dimensions June 5 2010, World Science Festival)

I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing ever interfered with my learning was my education. My name as you already perceive without a doubt is George Bernard Shaw, and I certainly approve of this blog, in that its guiding spirit appears to be blasphemous in regard to the High Church doctrines of science, and it flouts the censorship of the powers that be, and as I have famously remarked, all great truths begin as blasphemy, and the first duty of the truthteller is to fight censorship, and while I notice that its seriousness of purpose is often alleviated by a satirical irony which sometimes borders on the facetious, this is all to the good, for as I have also famously remarked, if you wish to be a dissenter, make certain that you frame your ideas in jest, otherwise they will seek to kill you.  My own method was always to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine) One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways. – Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930) ch. 9

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Letters on Autism defend parents’ intuition

Despite the front page meta-story in the Times last Saturday the jury remains out on vaccines and autism, it seems clear. Some letters in the Times yesterday and today include one from Robert Kennedy who suggests that scientific studies which exonerate thimerosal may not have been done well.

Another letter proposes that parental intuition may be a factor strong enough for scientists to take into account.

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The New York Times

July 2, 2005

Studies on Autism

To the Editor:

Re “On Autism’s Cause, It’s Parents vs. Research” (front page, June 25):

The thimerosal debate does not pit parents against science but against public health authorities who rely not on science but on the reputations of their agencies to exonerate thimerosal – a mercury-containing preservative once used routinely in vaccines – despite scientific proof that it causes brain disorders.

The four European studies that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Institute of Medicine principally rely upon (cited in your accompanying graphic) to defend thimerosal were written principally by vaccine industry consultants and employees without revealing the bias of their authors. They are all flawed.

Most glaringly, before banning thimerosal, Denmark registered only autistics who were hospitalized, one-fifth of the afflicted.

After the withdrawal of thimerosal, the Danish government began counting outpatient autistics. The spike in raw numbers made it appear that autism rates increased after the withdrawal of thimerosal.

Clever use of this deceptive data by the study authors allowed the Institute of Medicine to make the case that thimerosal was not linked to autism.

Furthermore, the European studies involved children exposed to a fraction of the thimerosal concentrations used in America.

The institute selectively ignored the hundreds of biological, toxicological and epidemiological studies linking thimerosal to the wide range of neurological disorders, including autism.

This flawed science is the slender reed upon which the entire defense of thimerosal rests.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

White Plains, June 27, 2005

The New York Times

July 1, 2005

Is Autism Research Flawed, or Sound? (5 Letters)

To the Editor:

Re “On Autism’s Cause, It’s Parents vs. Research” (front page, June 25):

Not every parent of an autistic child who believes that the relationship between autism and thimerosal is worth investigating is hysterical and ready to do harm to well-meaning scientists. At least, I don’t think that describes me.

We simply believe that this issue warrants a more open investigation.

If the people cited in your article are so concerned about the virulence of these parents, they could let the steam out of this issue by doing one simple thing: Open the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention database to independent analysis.

The C.D.C. has refused to do so, citing privacy issues. The privacy of these records is indeed critical but could be protected and is certainly no more pressing than addressing the roots of a condition that affects more than 500,000 children in the United States alone.

Martin Bounds

Charlotte, N.C., June 26, 2005

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To the Editor:

As the mother of two children who received an autism diagnosis at 2, I have seen fads, cures and theories about causation come and go.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, parents were blamed for causing autism. The backlash has created a climate in which many parents trust only their own convictions. They are encouraged by unscrupulous promoters of various fad treatments, litigators and politicians who want to “protect the little guy.”

As a founder of the Association for Science in Autism Treatment, a parent-professional collaboration, I urge my fellow parents to seek the science behind any purported treatment for autism and, most important, to educate ourselves on the distinction between science and pseudoscience.

Catherine Maurice

East Hampton, N.Y., June 25, 2005

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To the Editor:

The American Academy of Pediatrics concurs with the conclusions of the Institute of Medicine and others that there is no link between exposure to thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.

Vaccines are one of the greatest health innovations; we worry that as more parents hear negative stories about vaccines and refuse to immunize, vulnerable children will suffer to an even greater degree.

The member doctors of the academy deal with children and families with autism every day. We’re working hard to help our members detect autism early and to treat it in the most responsible, effective manner.

We are concerned that the attention being paid to unsubstantiated adverse effects of thimerosal will result in distraction from legitimate efforts to identify the cause of autism and will lead to ineffective and unsafe attempts at therapy.

Carol D. Berkowitz, M.D.

President

American Academy of Pediatrics

Elk Grove Village, Ill.

June 29, 2005

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To the Editor:

What concerns me most is not whether or not thimerosal causes autism. It is that the “experts” feel they have the authority to label parents of autistic children as lacking credibility just because there is no scientific evidence, they say, of the harmfulness of thimerosal in vaccines.

These children are the evidence, and their parents are the experts. Pretending that a problem doesn’t exist because it hasn’t reached some statistically significant number is disturbing.

How about asking the scientific community for evidence of the complete safety and efficacy of these and all drugs? Without such evidence, most parents will just have to rely on gut feelings. We can’t wait for the science to catch up.

Belinda Aggarwal

Hartsdale, N.Y., June 25, 2005

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To the Editor:

Your dismissive tone toward parents and alternative therapies is disappointing.

Some years ago, we tried sauna and vitamin therapy for our autistic son. The improvement was dramatic, and I am grateful to his doctors. The alternatives – special schooling, poor quality of life and Ritalin – were far more expensive.

All parents care about is that their child gets well. Our son got well.

Rebecca Madsen

New York, June 25, 2005

As the last letter suggests, parental intuition may yet be valid in some way not yet understood by science. The longer we live the more we realize that establishment science has to be careful in dismissing possibilities which have not yet been reduced to cut and dried studies.

Of course, we realize that tolerance may simply be the influence of aging which notoriously weakens the resistance of the scientifically minded to the possibility of the supernatural in the inexplicable. Certainly it seems that many scientists, even great ones, grow more sympathetic to religion as they grow older.

And we have to admit that the segment last night broadcast on ABC’s 20/20 concerning the two year old boy who seemed to have acquired the aviation expertise of a dead pilot from the Second World War had us baffled, even though the grand old man of skepticism, Paul Kurtz, seemed to think that it was all easily explained by the child listening to his parents and TV.

Whatever the explanation of autism’s boom in the US turns out to be, for the moment the absolute conviction of parents that we have met that the vaccinations preceded very closely the onset of the symptoms in their child is as impressive to us as the massive studies that deny it.

And as long as the cause of autism is unknown, it seems to us that the anecdotal evidence must be taken into account.

Meanwhile, it is impossible to assess the state of play on this issue without a copy of Evidence of Harm, which is a remarkable achievement in its own right. Even handed and temperate in tone, readable yet thoroughly researched, its searching account notes every claim and counter-claim, every charge and counter-charge, and the ins and outs of every study in this still unsolved question.

What it makes clear is why the situation remains unclear. Kirby shows just how many reasons there are for questioning studies, and how they are defended. He shows the way in which the solution to what seems a simple problem—does autism correlate significantly with the use of thimerosal in vaccines or not?—can get thoroughly lost in the professional bureaucracy and politics of modern research, and why there is distrust of its practitioners when their results conflict with personal experience.

Tutored in these complexities, and shown how much lies beneath the surface of modern science, readers are unlikely to be as sure again of the kind of clear cut conclusion they are handed in newspaper reports, even those as well done as last Saturday’s autism piece in the Times.

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