Thursday, June 17, 2010

Watch Out for Biased Science

One of the problems you run into when researching autism on the Internet is skewed and biased reporting of scientific subjects. There are too many sites that present information from their own biased viewpoints and ignore inconvenient facts that get in the way of how they want to look at the world. You always need to consider the source of anything you read (that goes double for what you read here).

One of the worst offenders of late has been Left Brain Right Brain and their obsession to prove all things biomedical wrong. Take for example this recent post Study Finds Supplements Contain Contaminants that starts off with -
A story in the New York Times by Gardiner Harris discusses the results of a Congressional investigation on dietary supplements. Many were found to be contaminated with heavy metals and/or pesticides:
Right off the bat, you get the impression that we are talking about "dietary supplements". When it comes to autism, the phrase "dietary supplements" usually refers to vitamins, minerals, and other products (such a probiotics) that are designed to help support bodily functions.  And the first impression is that a congressional investigation found that these supplements are contaminated with heavy metals or pesticides.

Unfortunately, that impression is wrong and I will get to why in a moment. The post on LBRB continues with some highly selected quotes from the report, and then adds this about the Kirkman recall earlier this year -
Earlier this year, Kirkman Labs (who markets their supplements towards the autism parent community) was found to have a number of supplements contaminated with antimony.
And there you have the tie back to autism - dietary supplements are contaminated, Kirkman had a contamination problem, therefore dietary supplements in general can be dangerous.

But here is the rub - the congressional report did not look at companies like Kirkman that make what amount to specialized vitamin products. Instead, the report dealt with "herbal dietary supplements" - specifically chamomile, echinacea, garlic, ginkgo biloba, and ginseng - and how they are marketed to elderly consumers. The report found that some companies were making illegal claims about what their products would do and that some products had detectable levels of undesirable heavy metals and/or chemicals. If you want the exact details, go and read the report yourself.

If you were paying attention to the list of "supplements" tested, you would have noticed that none of them are common supplements given to children with autism (as far as I know).  You might have also noticed that most of them are grown.  Hmm, where do you think plants would pick up heavy metals or pesticides?  If the report had looked at contamination in raw garlic in the grocery store, what do you think the  results would have been?  And the bonus question, why do many people try to buy organic products for their children with autism?

If you looked a little closer at the report, you would have also noticed that vitamins and mineral "supplements" are strangely absent from the list of products tested. There was not a single vitamin tested nor was there a single product from Kirkman. Yet, the post on LBRB ties the two together and implies that companies like Kirkman have regular contamination problems.

Facts, mean ideology, ideology, ignore facts.

If you want a less biased presentation of this report, I would suggest this post on Julie's Health Club.

In the meantime always consider the source.


  1. As a newbie autism parent (add to that my cynical disposition and denial of conspiracy theories) I followed that blog a lot, but slowly now that my son is growing and we have had more time to think and network with real-life families with autism, I feel sometimes that the only purpose of that blog seems to be to prove some other blogger (usually biomedical related ones) wrong by any means necessary. Sometimes the posts seem really contrived.

    I still dont know enough to judge the right and wrong in a lot of online information related to autism and we are in no way decided or sure about what works and doesn't work for our kid and what caused his autism, but I still think that for such a popular blog with such a huge following why dont they post about practical useful solutions for advocacy, education, inclusion, medical issues and other problems affecting people with autism and their families?

    I suppose the writers who own the blog can choose whatever they want to post, but the mood is usually one of negativity and ridiculing someone or the other on that website.

  2. I had the same problems when my children were first diagnosed. I started looking for information and ran into sites, like LBRB, that skewed the information they presented. That set me back a few years until I learned to start going to the source and forming my own opinions.

    While I still don't know that much about autism and I prefer to write about research into autism, I sometimes can't resist the urge to correct some the obviously bad information on other sites.