- Last November, Dr. Dennis Embry wrote a Morning Zen post highlighting studies that focus on preventing Autism by reducing inflammation, oxidative stress, and acetaminophen exposure. Several readers wrote in and asked an important question - "How does one determine what is solid science and what is junk science?" I posed the question to Dr. Embry and asked him to write a follow-up Zen post addressing the junk science question. Buckle up, Network faithful. Dr. Embry has a homework assignment for you!
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.
Number 1: Learn to use www.pubmed.gov, which is the National Library of Medicine, created by law in 1863. You will need to learn Boolean logic (AND, OR, and NOT) for finding things properly. As a grad student, I learned this in the late 1970s when I did the literature searches for 300 faculty and grad students in three behavioral sciences departments. So, type this in the search engine of PubMed: “autism and vaccination.” That will produce about 400 citations, some with abstracts, full manuscripts or even retractions. You can spend many days reading all this, plus you can follow the bread-crumbs links to related articles or citations that PubMed automatically provides now. In ancient days, I had to follow the scientific bread-crumbs manually in the library stacks or on a ridiculously slow teletype.
Number 2: If you did the above homework, you get gold stars. Yes, it is clear that vaccines are not causing autism—my apologies to the true believers of that particular religion. And, yet there is some weird correlation with vaccines (not replicated universally across cultures or countries which is another clue). That implies third variables associated with vaccines.
Now, the above is a first-class scientific, medical, epidemiological, and cultural puzzle. I love solving these puzzles because then I can create a prevention strategy. And that is what I do for a living as the president and senior scientist of an international prevention science company. I solve prevention puzzles.
Number 3: Look for elegant, underlying consilience, a term coined by a very famous biologist, E.O. Wilson that he borrowed from the ancient Greeks. It means, the convergence of evidence or concordance of evidence. Wikipedia has a wonderful entry on consilience. As you read through the 400 or so articles and abstracts on “autism and vaccines” from your initial search, you may start to notice other words that crop up, if you are a patient sleuth.
For example, “inflammation and autism” will yield about 500 citations in PubMed. If you read those abstracts, that will set off a whole lot of questions. Then, tackle “oxidative stress and autism.” That is another nearly 400 citations. As most doctors know, too much inflammation and oxidative stress are not good for humans, especially very young or old humans. These cause pain and fever, for which humans seek relief.
Number 4: Search (autism AND “acetaminophen or paracetamol”). This yields about 40 articles. You’ll need to read the articles and their citations to get the full vision of what is going on. On the other hand, searching autism AND aspirin yields four (4) dead ends. You should also search and review citations for (autism AND "vitamin D"), which is just under 1,000 references—which will further your understanding of the puzzle. Inadequate vitamin D increases the risk of both bacterial and viral infection, which causes people to seek relief from pain or fever.
Just for fun and extra points, search: (depression OR schizophrenia or bipolar) AND "vitamin D." You will find 7,300 references, and you never heard about these findings being advertised on TV, radio, or in your doctor’s office.
Searching (ibuprofen AND autism) yields 150 citations and no link to the increase in autism among children—despite a large increase in its use with pediatric patients.
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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Dennis 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.