Good News in Autism Research

A model of the human brain, highlighting the different lobes. Click for credit.

Autism is a poorly-understood neurological disorder that affects many people throughout the world. Unfortunately, because it is poorly-understood, there is an tendency for people to blame autism on anything they don’t like. For example, there are those who try to claim that vaccines cause autism. When confronted with the overwhelming scientific evidence against such a claim, many of those people simply ignore the data.

For example, not long ago, I did an online debate on whether or not vaccines cause autism. The debate was heavily-publicized by the anti-vaccination group that hosted it, but after the debate, all mention of it was removed from the group’s website. Why? Because I simply presented the data that clearly show there is no way autism could be related to vaccination. The group decided to pull all mention of the debate rather than risk some of their readers learning what the data actually say about vaccines and autism!

Fortunately, most people are more interested in finding the real causes of autism. Thus, they have looked at the data and realize that vaccines simply aren’t a possibility. As a result, they have moved on and are looking at other possible causes. About a year ago, I blogged about a study that tried to pin down the genetic causes of autism. Since autism is a highly heritable disease1, it makes sense that the cause should be genetic. However, rather than implicating just a few genes, the study came to the conclusion that there are a lot of genes involved in autism. That made the results rather disheartening, because it is hard enough to treat a disease that is caused by only one or two genes. How can you possibly treat a disease that is caused by lots and lots of genes?

Well, researchers from UCLA might have found an answer to that question.

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The Sun Is Not Shrinking

Although you can find information on the internet indicating that the sun is shrinking, the most reliable data indicate that it is not
(manipulated NASA image)

A commenter asked a question before I left on vacation. I gave him a brief answer as a reply, but now I want to go into the details of my answer. As the commenter mentioned, he was doing research for a sermon and came upon some information that indicated the sun is shrinking at a rate of about 5 feet per hour. While that’s not a lot for something as big as the sun, it indicates that the sun is rather young. After all, if we extrapolate the sun’s size backward over time using that rate, we would find that the sun would have been touching the earth a “mere” 11 million years ago.

If this were true, it would be a clear indicator that the earth and sun are not billions of years old. After all, the earth would not be a haven for life if it were anywhere near the surface of the sun! So if the sun is (and always has been) shrinking at anywhere near a rate of 5 feet per hour, the earth and sun could not be very old.

The problem is that this argument is based on faulty ideas about where the sun gets its energy and, more importantly, it is based on faulty data.

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Anti-Vaccine Researcher Andrew Wakefield Committed Fraud

Science is self-correcting. Over time, mistakes made by scientists are generally uncovered by other scientists. Sometimes, the mistakes are found quickly. Often, the mistakes take a long time to uncover. But mistakes are simply that: mistakes. Creation is very complex, and as scientists, we can often be fooled by that complexity. What we see as the “obvious” conclusion from a study might not be the correct conclusion at all, because there is often an underlying complexity that was not considered. So while many, many mistakes happen in the course of doing science, it is to be expected. Thus, when a scientist is found to have made a mistake, it doesn’t mean the rest of the scientist’s work is worthless. Even very good scientists make mistakes.

Scientific fraud is another matter altogether. While no scientist should be condemned for making mistakes, all scientists who commit fraud should be strongly and vigorously denounced. There have been two reports of scientific fraud that have come out over the past two days, and I consider it my duty as a scientist to make sure my readers are informed of them. I will discuss the first (and most egregious) in this post.

It involves the nonsensical idea that vaccines cause autism. This idea has been thoroughly tested by various scientific studies, and it is simply wrong. Indeed, I debated a proponent of this idea recently. The debate was hosted, produced, and heavily advertised by an anti-vaccination group. It went so poorly for my opponent that all mention of it has been wiped away from the anti-vaccine site.

Despite the fact that the conclusions of science could not be clearer when it comes to vaccines and autism, there are many people who still believe that vaccines cause autism. Many of them are followers of Andrew Wakefield, the one responsible for the the fraud I wish to discuss in this post.

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Debate on Vaccination Vanishes from Anti-Vaccination Website

On Monday, December 13th, I debated Dr. Boyd Haley on the question “Do Vaccines Cause Autism?” I took the scientific position, which is no. It was sponsored by the International Medical Council on Vaccination, which produces all sorts of anti-vaccine misinformation. Prior to December 13th, they publicized the debate heavily, and their website indicated that a recording of the debate would be posted after the debate was finished.

Interestingly enough, the recording was never posted on their website. Now something even more interesting has happened. Currently, there is absolutely no mention of the debate on their website at all. If you Google the word “debate” and restrict the domain to the International Medical Council on Vaccination’s website, you find several addresses where it was once mentioned:

www.vaccinationcouncil.org/2010/12/04/debate-on-vaccination/
www.vaccinationcouncil.org/tag/debate/
www.vaccinationcouncil.org/page/4/
www.vaccinationcouncil.org/page/2/

However, if you go to those addresses now, you get either an error message or a list of other articles. If you search for “debate” using the search box on the International Medical Council on Vaccination’s website, you find nothing related to the debate.

Does this surprise me? Not really. Does it disappoint you? If so, don’t worry. You can watch the debate here. (Thanks to Matt Fig for converting it to Youtube format.) Once you watch it, perhaps you will understand why such a heavily-promoted event has been wiped off the website of the group that hosted it!

NOTE: In addition to uploading the debate to Youtube, Matt Fig found the International Medical Council on Vaccination’s original post publicizing the debate:

https://web.archive.org/web/20101210075650/http://www.vaccinationcouncil.org/2010/12/04/debate-on-vaccination/

You can watch the debate here

On Monday, December 13th, I debated Dr. Boyd Haley, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of Kentucky, on the question “Do Vaccines Cause Autism?” I took the scientific position, which is that they do not. In my previous post on the subject, I noted that if you want to see the shoddy science promoted by those who believe that vaccines cause autism, you should watch the debate.

Well, despite the technical problems associated with the debate, I think it really did show how shoddy the science is on the anti-vaccination side. However, you don’t have to take my word for it. You can watch the debate yourself:

Click Here To Watch The Debate

Thanks to Matt Fig for converting it to Youtube format!

If you are having trouble viewing that file, here is a larger file that is not compressed. You shouldn’t need anything other than Windows Media Player to watch it.

Click here for the larger file

Debate: Do Vaccines Cause Autism?

The International Medical Council on Vaccination disseminates a lot of misinformation regarding vaccines. It claims to offer resources that will aid in “critical thinking for a critical dilemma.” Unfortunately, it does quite the opposite. It uses scaremongering and shoddy science in an effort to get people to stop giving critical medical care to their children.

They will be hosting a live debate on Monday, December 13th at 8 PM Central Time. The title of the debate is “Do Vaccines Cause Autism?” I have been asked to defend the scientific answer, which of course, is no. The debate is free, but you should sign up for it in advance. You can do that here.

If you have been deceived by those who want you to believe that vaccines cause autism, you might want to attend the debate so you can learn the actual science behind vaccination. If you know the science behind vaccines and therefore realize that they don’t cause autism, the debate might still be an interesting thing to attend so that you can see the shoddy science used by the anti-vaccination movement.

Relativity Confirmed Under Normal Laboratory Conditions

Albert Einstein in 1921 (Click image for reference)
Einstein’s theories of relativity have fundamentally changed the way scientists view reality. This bothers some, which is why you can find creationists who desperately try to fight against them. These attacks often strike a chord since most people (even many scientists) know little about these revolutionary theories. Partly, this is because the theories are difficult to understand. In addition, they often deal with things that are not a part of everyday experience, such as extremely high speeds or unusual gravitational fields. Nevertheless, both theories are immensely important to some everyday items. For example, if you use a GPS device for navigation, that device would not work properly if the global positioning system did not use relativity correctly.

To understand what I mean, you first need to know that Einstein proposed two separate theories of relativity. Special relativity deals with systems that move relative to one another with a constant velocity. General relativity deals with systems that move relative to one another with a variable velocity. In each theory, Einstein’s only concern is that the laws of physics must work the same in both systems, regardless of the fact that they are moving relative to one another. While this seems like a common-sense idea, it leads to conclusions that make little sense.

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Another Confirmation of Quantum Mechanics

Some Christians don’t like quantum mechanics. More than 20 years ago, one Christian writer called it “the greatest contemporary threat to Christianity.”1 Eleven years ago, R. C. Sproul wrote a book entitled Not a Chance: The Myth of Chance in Modern Science and Cosmology. In that book, he attacked quantum mechanics. A Christian group called “Common Sense Science” champions an absurd model of elementary particles in order to get away from quantum mechanics.

Why all this Christian angst directed against quantum mechanics? Well, some Christians think that quantum mechanics is inconsistent with their view of God. For example, one of the fundamental conclusions of quantum mechanics is that the behavior of elementary particles and atoms is statistical, not mechanistic. This means that even if you knew everything there is to know about an atom, you could not predict exactly what that atom would do. You could make statistical statements like, “There is a 12% chance that it will do this and a 45% chance that it will do that.” However, there is no way to pin down exactly what an atom will do, regardless of how well you know the atom and everything that is affecting it.

This, of course, bothers many Christians, especially those of the Calvinist persuasion. Indeed, in the book I mentioned above, Sproul really seemed to think that quantum mechanics was somehow a threat to God’s sovereignty. If nature really is statistical at some level, then even God would not know exactly what His creation will do, and that just doesn’t work for a Calvinist!

Others don’t like quantum mechanics because, inherently, it doesn’t make sense. There is a lot in quantum mechanics that goes against common sense (as you will see in a moment), and since some people are under the mistaken view that science has to be rooted in common sense (as demonstrated by the website linked above), they think that there must be something wrong with quantum mechanics.

The problem is that when quantum mechanics is tested against the data, it passes with flying colors. Thus, even if you don’t like quantum mechanics, you must appreciate its scientific value. The experiment I will discuss below the fold is another clear example of this.

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The Legacy of Anti-Vaccination Misinformation

It is sad that parents are misinformed by those who are against vaccination. It is sadder still that children are not as healthy as a result. The saddest thing of all, however, is how innocent children suffer because of anti-vaccination misinformation. This year, we are witnessing the fruits of this misinformation: the suffering and death of innocent children.

According to the California Department of Public Health, there have been 4,461 cases of whooping cough (pertussis) reported throughout the state so far this year. The majority of those are confirmed cases, but 19% are considered probable cases, while 18% are merely suspected cases. This is the largest number of reported cases since 1955. At least 217 of these cases resulted in hospitalization, and 9 resulted in death!

What is causing this sudden surge of whooping cough? Well, there are actually two effects. First, like most contagious diseases, whooping cough goes through cycles of years when it is not very prevalent and years when it is very prevalent. This year is in the “very prevalent” part of the cycle. Second, over the past few years, there has been a significant reduction in the vaccination rate, due to misinformation promulgated by those who are against vaccinations.

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A Really Stupid Quote

This quote seems to be making the rounds on facebook right now:

Saying that your vaccinated child is at risk of disease because of my un-vaccinated child is like saying I have to take birth control pills so YOU won’t get pregnant.

Of course, this is nonsense on two levels. First, it is a bad analogy, because pregnancy isn’t contagious. You can’t “catch” pregnancy from a person who is pregnant, but you most certainly can catch vaccine-preventable diseases from those who have them.

Second, unvaccinated children most certainly can spread disease to vaccinated children. For example, in 2005 an unvaccinated teen went to Romania on a missions trip and brought measles back to her church. 34 people in the church were infected, 2 of which were vaccinated. One of the 34 required six days of ventilator support in order to survive.

If you have been fooled by those who use misinformation to try to keep you from vaccinating, please learn the scientific data behind the safety and efficacy of vaccines.