How Can You Tell Junk Science from Good Science About Autism Causes?

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Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Dennis D. Embry, PhD ~

Serious people are a bit confused when they first meet me. I dress like an artist or musician. I’ve got earplugs, and I bounce around like a hyperactive kindergartner when I give public talks. How could I be a serious scientist?

Well, I’m a long-time member of American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society for Prevention Research, the Evolution Institute, and the Association for Contextual and Behavioral Psychology. Fresh out of grad school, I was appointed as a Commonwealth National Advisory Council Senior Fellow. Most importantly, I have an enormous scientific library on my computer and in my home.

I eat science for breakfast and won my first scientific grant in 8th-grade (1963) to conduct a study to test an idea to protect astronauts (using fruit flies and mice) from cosmic radiation in space. About ten years ago, Scientific American featured my 8th grade hypothesis one of three potential ways to protect human space travel to Mars. Sadly, they didn’t give me credit (smile).

On my bookshelf is a very valuable, signed copy of the first edition, “Tactics of Scientific Research” by Murray Sidman. I have all the other classics, such as Cook and Campbell’s, “Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs for Generalized Causal Inference.” These are not things normal humans read in the bathroom or while lying on a beach, but I do…to my husband’s chagrin and teasing.

I can pretty much spot junk medical and behavioral science from a mile away and so can you with a bit of practice, based on some key ancient principles that date back to Aristotle and more easily tested with the affordances of modern technology. And the converse is true; one can use the same principles to narrow down likely good science—even if it upends our prevailing beliefs. Science is a very mean mistress; she can and does upend our presumed truths. So here are my crib notes for you, dear readers of the Children’s Mental Health Network, to become good every day scientists about a putative cause of the rise of autism prevalence.

If you did these searches as well as read these abstracts, you’d be a lot smarter and better informed than many clinicians treating pediatric psychiatric disorders. We are bombarded by ads and salespeople, after grad or medical school. Instead, you actually read the science or at least the abstracts, and that’s how you can begin to sort good science from junk science.  That is what I do for a living, and it is the most rewarding thing of all: finding ways to prevent disease, disorders, and injuries in the first place.

So give it a fair go. Start reading the real science from the United States National Library of Medicine. It’s free, and it could save somebody you love or yourself.

P.S. If you want the “Cliff Notes” version of all the above, please go to pubmed.gov, and read the article by Parker et al., The role of oxidative stress, inflammation and acetaminophen exposure from birth to early childhood in the induction of autism.”

But if you think Parker et al. is junk science after reading it, please read every citation in that article. And if you still think this is junk science, do the search parameters described earlier in this post—which is what I’ve done even before I read Parker et al.

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embryDennis Embry, President/Senior Scientist at PAXIS Institute – Dennis D. Embry is a prominent prevention scientist in the United States and Canada, trained as clinician and developmental and child psychologist. He is president/senior scientist at PAXIS Institute in Tucson, Arizona. Dennis Embry serves on the scientific advisory board for the Children’s Mental Health Network and the U.S. Center for Mental Health Services Advisory Council.

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