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Intelligent Discourse on Genetic Studies: Viewpoint Matters

June 13, 2010

I’ve been wandering the interwebz, looking at what folks have to say about the Nature study, and in some places there’s really some great conversations going on. Reading the comments, it becomes readily apparent, though, that those individuals who’ve decided it’s mercury to blame for autism are completely unreachable. They misinterpret the science in ways that amaze me.

For our favorite anti-vaxxers, it’s plain to see they simply won’t deal with any science that gets in their way. Age of Autism, instead of looking at the study, looks at Scherer and conflicts of interest. Note, not at the science. Not at the data. But at the fact that Scherer “holds the ‘GlaxoSmithKline-CIHR Pathfinder Chair in Genetics and Genomics at the Hospital for Sick Children and University of Toronto.”

Pay attention to that again. Age of Autism doesn’t examine the science. It ignores it entirely. It ignores the conclusions completely. The responses from the commentators is priceless and staggering with the ignorance:
“I am embarrased that such a stupid study has come from Canada. So John, is this Nature journal sketch?” How can we not be stupified by the overpreening arrogant ignorance that comes out of AoA?

Of course, it isn’t just restricted to AoA and folks who are certain that it was vaccines. Our favorite grump who misreads almost as badly as some of the AoAers (and is quickly falling into their groupthink) tweeted this: “Major #Autism #Genetic Study Highlights Need for #Environmental Autism Research” Yeah, that was the takeaway. Not. I’m not denying the need to look at the ways in which environmental factors impact the manifestation of symptoms, but that’s not what that study highlights. Dude didn’t get it, not at all.

Thankfully, plenty of good coverage abounds:

Reynolds at EmaxHealth quotes Scherer: “‘We knew genetics were involved through twin studies and family studies, but the majority of studies focused on common variations in probably a few genes,” explained study author Stephen Scherer PhD. “We found dozens, if not hundreds, of genes involved and each autism family may have their own genetic form of autism. The variations are quite rare.'”

Orac at Respectful Insolence covers the study and speculates about how AoAers will handle it. with John Stone’s post as the first salvo by AoA at dismissing the study, we have some idea. However, Orac raises interesting points that will, of course, be completely wasted on the AoAers:

“The problem is that none of this is easy, and none of it is likely to result in effective treatments for ASDs soon. Autism quacks and anti-vaccine zealots, however, can’t accept this. Again, like Blaxill, they demonstrate binary thinking. If a study doesn’t find a single, clear-cut gene causing autism or ASDs, then the study is crap. They also seem completely oblivious to developmental biology. It bothers them that a child with ASD appears normal at birth and then only manifests symptoms between the ages of 2 and 4. Development proceeds, however, according to predictable, sequential steps that are under genetic control, and genetic variations and abnormalities can have a profound impact on development that may not manifest itself until previous parts of the developmental program are complete.”

Left Brain Right Brain’s Kev Leitch interviews Dr. Scherer. Of course, Stone seizes on that in his post, for what little that is worth. It’s important to note, though, that the anti-vaxxers don’t focus on the science. They focus on individuals instead. They ignore data; they ignore statistical analysis, and especially with this study, it’s hard to fault it. It was a global effort, with over 120 scientists, according to Scherer. It had excellent sample sizes, it was exhaustive, and it offers a supplementary pdf over 70 pages long with more information freely available.

PZ Myers of Pharyngula also tackles the study (despite some commentators at Huff, those of the vaccine-injury camp, taking issue–doesn’t it reveal absolutely everything one needs to know about them?): “The bottom line is that there are many different ways to cause the symptoms of autism, and it’s a mistake to try to pin it all on single, simple causes. Any hope for amelioration lies in understanding the general functional processes that are disrupted by mutations in various pathways.”

If we care about trying to determine the various causes of the cluster of syndromes now identified under the large umbrella of pervasive developmental disorders, then we open ourselves up to the very real uncertainties that exist in science. We acknowledge the incredibly complex mystery of the human body, all the way down to the cellular level and smaller, and that we are, for all our desire to understand, standing outside something so unbelievably complex that no matter how well educated we believe ourselves to be within the scientific field, we are humbled by what we do not know, what we do not comprehend.

Obviously, there are those who prefer simple, solid pronouncements and the illusion of certainty. Who do you think is going to ultimately get closer to objective reality?


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