Thursday, March 06, 2008

Bad Newsies

Autism is splashed all over the news today, as a press conference by Hannah Poling's parents accomplished what opportunist David Kirby couldn't accomplish last week: a newsgasm over the government's concession of their vaccine compensation case. The Poling case was one of three test cases in what are referred to as the Omnibus Autism Proceedings in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Two other cases remain contested and serve as representative of about 5,000 other cases that are on hold as the Omnibus Proceedings continue.

Here's what didn't happen: the government didn't concede that there is a link between vaccines and autism. The government didn't concede that Hannah Poling is autistic, despite what an awful lot of sloppy newsies would have you believe. The very solid science underlying the very solid theory that there is no causal connection between vaccines and autism did not change. And no one refuted the fundamental concepts of autism epidemiology.

Here's what did happen: the government conceded that vaccines aggravated Hannah Poling's underlying (and exceedingly rare) mitochondrial disorder, causing autism-like symptoms. That's a long, long way from significant in the context of autism science, and it's also not at all significant in the context of the Omnibus proceedings. If it were, the government would have conceded more than just the Poling case.

CNN, in the person of Larry King, is going to be frottaging this issue tonight, welcoming Dr. and Mrs. Poling as his guests. I can't bear to watch, although I must give Jon Poling due credit; he has been very, very careful in his public statements about this case. He has not stated that there is a causal connection, he has not mischaracterized the government's concession or his daughter's symptoms, and he has very explicitly stated that he is very much in favor of vaccines. He questions the safety of vaccines now extant in a generic sort of way, but that's fair game. The Polings are also to be wildly applauded for lifting the haze of secrecy that surrounded the government's concession; until they spoke out, there was a lot of mystery about this because the government could not violate the Polings' privacy by releasing confidential information about the case and the settlement.

More interesting will be CNN's planned autismgasm on April 2 to mark Autism Awareness Month, or some such thing. I don't know yet whether I think that's good or bad. It's possible that someone at CNN will get a clue and read up on actual science. While it would be irresponsible for me to speculate if anyone were reading this, they're not, and I speculate that it seems likely that CNN will follow its own lead, and the lead of much of the media, in playing the so-called vaccines/autism controversy straight down the middle. Unfortunately, giving the autism conspiracy theorists the undue concession of middle ground is precisely the same thing as treating intelligent design like real science. There's no there there.


bdr said...

Morning Edition had this story this morning:

Sorry, never have learned that chicken-lipped coding thing.

I find it useful to remember that two hundred years from now people are going to look back on our contemporary medicine with the same mixture of horror and amusement as we look back on medicine in 1808.

Useful in a "oh-fuck" kinda way, of course.

Kimmah said...

I have had to nearly gnaw off my tongue to keep from getting into very heated debates with those who insist that vaccines cause autism.

I'm all for awareness, but when it is packaged with misinformation or the sky is falling thinking, I think it does more harm than good.