Friday, June 08, 2007

Moms against mercury, or moms against autism?

[cross-posted at Begging To Differ]

Apparently, June is the season for gooseberries, the first wave of West African monsoons, and Moms Against Mercury protests at the CDC. Last year, I wrote about their "Scene of the Crime" protest; this year, the theme was "Simpsonwood Remembered." Simpsonwood being, of course, hmmm... well, the Moms Against Mercury website doesn't really explain that on the page about the rally. Apparently, there were "infamous secret ... meetings" there. Wikipedia helps a little with this page, which is basically a summary of Robert F. Kennedy's controversial article claiming to summarize the events. (As I write this post, there are essentially no references given in the Wikipedia article, and there's even a warning that the neutrality might be compromised by "weasel words." I don't know what they are, but I think I like them!)

I'm so torn by events like this. On the one hand, my heart really does hurt for the families who believe that the best way they can help their autistic children is to stand on sidewalks and scream at public health employees as they drive to work. Clearly, this is a group that is passionate about their ideas and feels like they have very few avenues for being heard. I'm a liberal in Georgia. I can relate.

At the same time, though, I'm a public-health scientist myself and I am completely offended by the idea that people think that anyone in public health would intentionally supress good data that showed a link between autism and certain vaccines. People just don't go into public health or biology for the glamour and cash -- they're, as a rule, motivated by an intense desire to, you know, help people. I'm also a little stymied by what they're trying to accomplish by harrassing CDC employees (or those of us just lucky enough to need to drive through their protest site). Are they expecting that some poor statistician will get yelled at, then go to his office and say, "Hmmm, maybe those people have a point. If I used a score test instead of a likelihood ratio test... by Jove! There is a clear link between the flu vaccine and autism after all!"

My main reaction, though, is the same this year as it was last year. It might not be easy, and it might take more than a sheet of posterboard and a willingness to plaster your child's picture all over the street, but the best way for these families to make changes is for them to become part of a constructive solution. Read all of the research, not just the stuff that supports your hypothesis. Educate yourselves on the science and the methods so you can discuss them intelligently and neutrally. Acknowledge that everyone wants the right answer and that no one is just looking for sneaky ways to increase the number of children on the autism spectrum. Expand your boundaries to include the idea that there might be other factors at play, and wrestle with the difficulty of assigning limited resources to different avenues. Understand that science is a human endeavor and is imperfect, but the current system of working with testable hypotheses is the best we have. Suggest alternatives that make sense.

And please, don't yell at me. I'm trying to help.

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