Thursday, December 16, 2010

Autism Cause Identified! (no not really, just a bad headline). How to spot a nutbag...

Autism Research: Breakthrough Discovery on the Causes of Autism

This skewereing will explain how to spot a nutbag.

Step 1: Look for  for the word "CAUSE" where it does not belong.

Quackery, chicanery, or sell more booksism? Mark Hyman, a praciticing physician and therefore expert on autism (note not a neuroscientist, epidemiologist or peer-reviewed researcher) tells us that a recently published study in JAMA identifies the cause of autism as a mitochondrial disorder. And, what causes the mitochondrial disorder?...Mercury (queue the anti-vaccine wackadoos).   Help me please.

He used the word "CAUSES" in the headline. No one knows what casues autism. A potential mechanism for the disorder has been proposed. But this nutbag seems to KNOW the cause because he identified it in the anecdotal evidence of a little boy named Jackson.  Causality is notoriously difficult to prove. Is so difficult in fact that most people either prove a contradiction or disprove the opposite of something (Remember rejecting the null hypothesis?).
Step 2: Look for poignant anecdotes.
The story of Jackson is personal and interesting but it is an anecdote. This is a little boy saved by fish oil according to Dr.Hyman.  Maybe, who knows. Maybe the fish oil helped, maybe he was randomly "cured" at the same time he started taking fish oil. WHO KNOWS? The Huffington Post doesn't.

So, why is anecdotal evidence so powerful?  Actually, it goes to some psychology. There have been some tests done in behavioral economics that talk about why human beings are better equipped to help an individual (and are more moved to help an individual) than a group.  Dan Airley uses the example of the American Cancer Society using a network of cancer survivors to appeal to our sense of helping an individual. That is, one person who we know.  Look at Save the Children. They don't have you look at the staggering, heartbreaking numbers of starving children, they use one child.  Sadly, the quacks do this too. So do the anti-vaccine groups.

So what should we do? We MUST recognize that we are susceptible to the power and emotional pull of anecdotal evidence and return from "emotion mind" to "reason mind." If that fails you, look up pictures of individual children with polio or measles. That'll send you to the doctor for a vaccine, STAT.

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