Science/Technology

Thimerosal question back in the news: will special hearing move us closer to understanding causes of autism?

It looks like the Thimerosal debate is about to bubble back up, thanks to a US Court of Federal Claims hearing that’s getting under way in DC. Autism now occurs in more than 1 of every 150 births, and the fact that the son of one of my best friends is high-functioning autistic I suppose brings it a step or two closer to home. (Another friend’s brother has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is also an autistic spectrum disorder.)

The thimerosal controversy represents, as the story linked above indicates, an odd clash between science and concerned citizens. Now, we live in a culture where science is ignored, scorned, denied and misunderstood on a daily basis, but the people raising hell here aren’t part of the Creation Museum crowd – they’re often highly intelligent and are acting on the basis of what looks like empirical experience.

I’m on record as being concerned about the issue (see items here and here, and also read Pulitzer-winner John Hanchette’s analysis here), although I’m far from convinced that there’s an actual link. As my friend Dr. Will Bower (who works at the CDC in Atlanta) notes, there’s a lack of scientific evidence for a link as well as a number of other possible confounds, so we’re a ways from having anything like a definitive answer.

It’s hard to ignore the personal testimonies of so many people who say that their children were fine right up until they were vaccinated. For instance, click here and scroll down to John Cavanaugh’s entry; John is a lot of things, but he’s not remotely hysterical – if a guy as level-headed as him is asking questions about it, I’m in favor of seeking better answers.

Anybody who reads me knows I’m a big fan of our science community, and we’re in trouble when we start voting to ignore solid research. By the same token, I imagine that best data notwithstanding, even some of the scientists testifying before this hearing are bound to have lingering questions of their own. Here’s hoping that reason that carries the day and moves us closer to a better understanding of autism’s causes.

4 replies »

  1. Having studied a lot of history I’m always mindful of the fact that the guys who claimed the balance of the four humors governed bodily health all had doctorates from the best universities of the time.

    In this case ‘no scientific connection’ probably translates to ‘scientists can not imagine or find a biological mechanism by which what you’re saying can be true’…

    which MIGHT be more comforting if they really knew what autism IS and how it occurs.

    strangely.. REAL science starts exactly where the parents are.. observing what ACTUALLY happens and THEN trying to figure out how and I’m always amazed how often the scientific community turns their backs on the obvious because they cant come up with a theory to fit it it.

  2. Scott,

    If you’re familiar with Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions or James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science, you shouldn’t be surprised at all. The scientific community works in circumscribed ways, and its mavericks often turn out to be its geniuses. 

    Let’s hope maybe one of those minds has seen what parents’ concerns and questions are and is sparked to shake the paradigm enough to find some answers – and help us find both cures and ways to prevent this awful disorder….

  3. Autism is not an “awful disorder”. It’s the wave of the future. If properly educated, autistic people will become a new community of critical thinkers.

    There is no cure or prevention; that’s the paradigm that needs to be shaken. Autism is meant to be. The answer is providing a comprehensive system for teaching autistic people to use their mental gift.

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