On Saturday, The Huffington Post published a story titled Autism Research: Breakthrough Discovery on the Causes of Autism. The piece was about a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled “Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism,” which, according to the HuffPo‘s Mark Hyman, “discovered a profound and serious biological underpinning of autism.”
This is a big deal because if scientists can identify a biological mechanism that causes autism, they’re that much closer to determining a cure. (Indeed, the study received plenty of attention from all sorts of blogs.) It’s also notable because the vaccines-cause-autism crowd has as of late claimed that vaccines damage mitochondria–and therefore cause autism. But Hyman’s claim is not supported by the actual data presented in the paper he wrote about. The research project, which was described in JAMA as “an exploratory study,” concluded that in its study population of twenty children (ten with autism, ten controls), the children with autism were “more likely to have mitochondrial dysfunction, mtDNA overreplication, and mtDNA deletions than typically developing children.” The study’s authors did not “discover” a “profound and serious” cause of autism–they conducted some preliminary research that provided evidence that a possible interconnection between mitochondrial dysfunction and autism deserves more attention.
Anyone who’s been following the autism debates of the past twenty years knows the danger of drawing vast conclusions from studies made up of small samples: Twelve years ago, Andrew Wakefield launched a worldwide MMR panic when he claimed that his research on a dozen children made him suspect that the vaccine caused autism. Wakefield’s study was based on what’s called a “case series,” which are generally the starting points for serious research and not the ending points. This is a topic I write a lot about in The Panic Virus:
To understand why a case series is a tenuous place to hang your hat, take the example of gender. Even though the population as a whole is split almost evenly between boys and girls, there are countless examples of individual families with all boys or all girls, and there are many more examples of families where a series of children born in a row are of the same sex. Now, imagine that an alien is sent to Earth to learn about what types of human offspring are born to parents living in different states. The first couple he meets, Alexander Baldwin and Carolyn Newcomb of New York, has four children: Alec, Daniel, William, and Stephen. Based on that set of data—which is the equivalent of a single case series—the alien would assume that all Earthling children born in New York were boys (and that they all were actors with a penchant for appearing in the tabloids). If the second couple the alien meets was George W. Bush and Laura Bush, he’d assume that all children born in Texas were, just like Barbara and Jenna Bush, twin girls. Those conclusions would, of course, be incorrect—but the only way to realize that would be to collect more data.
If you’re confused as to why The Huffington Post would run Hyman’s piece — well, I have my theories, but suffice it to say that the site arguably features more scientific quackery than any other mainstream media outlet. As for the motivations of Hyman, who describes himself as a “practicing physician” who is “internationally recognized,” it’s worth pointing out that he claims to be the leader of “a revolution in 21st century medicine that provides a new road map for navigating the territory of health and illness.” What is this revolution? It’s something Hyman invented called Functional Medicine, which I’ll let Hyman describe: “You are the CEO of your wellness. You need to take back health from the disease-care system.” In other words: Don’t trust those bastards in the AMA or the CDC trying to control your body and steal your money; instead, visit Dr. Hyman’s online store, where you can buy “therapeutic-grade nutraceutical” vitamins, “detoxifying” supplements, and books and DVDs that will “empower” you to lose weight, beat depression, reduce stress, and eliminate anxiety.
The “alternative health” practitioners and hyperbaric oxygen chamber salesman and supplement peddlers who have worked to enmesh the autism community with the anti-vaccine movement foment similar anti-mainstream medicine sentiments: How else can they convince people to ignore their doctors’ advice and spend their savings on supposed miracle cures? The next time you read a piece by a writer claiming the “mainstream” is ignoring the truth about this or that medical condition, remember to ask yourself: What’s in it for him?