As you might have heard, PBS’s Newshour is in the midst of a six-part series on autism. It’s being hosted by Robert MacNeil, who returned to the show for the first time in 16 years to work on a special that he says is the first time in his career that he used his family’s personal stories to inform his reporting.
As I said on Monday, he shouldn’t have come out of retirement. The series has been an embarrassment. (For my take on the series’s first episode, see my post titled “An embarrassing, reckless, and irresponsible coda to Robert MacNeil’s career.” For my thoughts on the ineffective counter-tactics of the AAP, see “[Abstracts] vs. anecdotes: What we have here is a failure to communicate.” And for an example of how the series will be used by anti-vaccine activists to legitimize their efforts, see “The first of many statements yoking Robert MacNeil to the vaccine-autism canard.“)
Tonight’s episode is titled “Autism’s causes: How close are we to solving the puzzle?” After PBS was criticized for giving MacNeil’s daughter free rein to make her claims that the MMR vaccine led to her son’s autism, network officials had assured people in the public health and medical communities that the episode on causality would deal with the science in a sober and responsible way.
Guess what? It didn’t. Here’s how MacNeil introduces the vaccine controversy in tonight’s show:
One issue science considered settled for years won’t go away: the parental belief that vaccines cause autism. Public health officials have steadily maintained there is no valid, scientific evidence of such a connection; all epidemiological studies have proved negative. But now, bowing to public opinion, the body that sets priorities in autism research, The Inter Agency Coordinating Committee, has recommended studies to determine whether small subgroups might be more susceptible to environmental exposures, including vaccines.
Here’s my interpretation:
The media has seized on this story about vaccines and autism because it makes good copy. Emotional anecdotes from caring parents draws in readers, listeners, and viewers; details about reams of data showing vaccines do not cause autism do not. This has created a vicious circle: We report on “parental beliefs,” parents point to our coverage when trying to convince federal agencies that “public opinion” is calling for more investigation, those agencies accede to public and media pressure, we point to those agencies’ actions as justification for still more coverage…and on and on and on.
In order to bolster the contention that even after studies involving millions of children, we still don’t know whether vaccines cause autism, MacNeil looks to Martha Herbert, whom he introduces as “professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.” (Herbert is actually an assistant professor, which means she has not been granted tenure.) Herbert fires off a number terms that all sound impressive — endocrine disruption, neurotransmitters, energy factories in our cells — and then alights on two of Andrew Wakefield’s favorite argument of the past several years: 1. The number of children “vulnerable” to vaccines might be so small that it’s literally impossible to study, and 2. The brain, the immune system, and the GI system operate in unison and when you “disregulate” one, all of the others fall out of whack.
DR. MARTHA HERBERT: I think it’s possible that you could have a genetic subgroup. You also might have an immune subgroup. There are a variety of subgroups. But the problem with the population studies is they don’t they aren’t necessarily designed to have the statistical power to find subgroups like that if the subgroups are small.
DR. MARTHA HERBERT: The brain and the immune system and the gut are intimately related. The cells in those systems have common features. They work together seamlessly, and when you disregulate one, you disregulate all the others. And systems biology is a way of looking at how we work as an integrated whole. I think that’s 21st century biology. Is the brain miswired, or is it misregulated? And I’ve come to think the brain is misregulated. And there are several reasons for that. Short-term, dramatic changes in the functional level of people with autism. One of them is the improvements you see with fever. A child who gets a fever will start to make eye contact, be interactive, will relate. A child who would have been really out of touch will become connected, and then it will go away.
Not surprisingly, outside of his incorrect identification of Herbert’s position at Harvard, MacNeil doesn’t give his viewers any context with which to consider Herbert’s claims…and there’s plenty of context to give. She’s a regular presence at antivaccine conferences.* The last time I saw her was at a conference sponsored by AutismOne, a group whose mission statement reads, “The great majority of children suffering from autism regressed into autism after routine vaccination. … Autism is caused by too many vaccines given too soon.” Here’s my description of that gathering from my book:
Included among the 150 presentations at the 2009 conference was a four-hour long “vaccine education” seminar, a lecture on “autism and vaccines in the US [legal system],” an environmental symposium on “the toxic assault on our children,” and a presentation on “Down syndrome, vaccinations, and genetic susceptibility to injury.” During her talk, Barbara Loe Fisher, the grande dame of the American anti-vaccine movement, explained how vaccines are a “de facto selection of the genetically vulnerable for sacrifice” and said that doctors who administer vaccines are the moral equivalent of “the doctors tried at Nuremberg.” (That parallel, she said, had been pointed out to her by “Andy” Wakefield, in whose honor the 2009 conference was held.) One night, there was the premier of a documentary called Shots In The Dark, which examined “current large-scale vaccination policies” in light of the “onset of side effects such as autism or multiple sclerosis.”
MacNeil also could have told his viewers that Herbert’s theories about autism have been ruled inadmissable by a Massachusetts Superior Court judge, who wrote:
Dr. Herbert’s method is not generally accepted in the scientific community. Dr. Herbert’s theory of environmental triggers of autism may some day prove true. It has not yet. Her proffered testimony does not meet the standard of reliability required by the case law, and cannot be admitted in evidence at trial.
After tonight’s show, there are three more episodes in the Newshour special. Tomorrow night’s is on “autism treatment.” I hope MacNeil doesn’t give airtime to Mark and David Geier, a father-son team that claim that Lupron, an injectable drug used to chemically castrate sex offenders, can cure autism. (The Geiers’ “Lupron protocol” can cost upwards of $80,000 a year. I learned about it at the same AutismOne conference at which Herbert lectured about “environmental impacts.”)
* Herbert seems to be quite sensitive to being linked to alternative autism treatments in the press. In a series on alternative autism treatments in the Chicago Tribune by Trine Tsouderos and Patricia Callahan that ran during the 2009 AutismOne conference, Herbert was quoted writing an email that said she would sue the Tribune if she was portrayed as “an uncritical booster and fan of potentially dangerous unorthodox treatments.” In a separate interview, she said, “I’m not defending chelation. I will sue you if you say that.”